July 2010

Tainted snake food recalled


Salmonella infections can be a concern for reptile keepers, but I don’t think many of us would have considered the frozen mice and rats we keep as snake food as a potential disease vector. That’s apparently the case, according to an article in today’s New York Times. Mail-order reptile food supplier MiceDirect has issued a voluntary recall of frozen mice, rats and chicks due to potential Salmonella contamination. According to the Times, some 400 people in the U.K. have come down with Salmonella associated with MiceDirect shipments since 2008, as well as some 30 cases scattered across the U.S. Apparently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control only began an inquiry this spring, and the MiceDirect facilities and product were only inspected this month. MiceDirect has announced that they are now shipping irradiated feeders to address the Salmonella; the strain involved, they say, is no hazard to reptiles.

This is not the usual way to get Salmonella from reptiles. From what I understand, people normally contract Salmonella, which is present in the lower GI tract of reptiles and birds, through fecal-oral contact. Most of us don’t go around licking reptile cloacas, but transmission can occur when, for example, handling reptile feces and not washing up properly afterwards: fingers to snake poop, then (later) fingers to mouth. The problem is exacerbated with aquatic turtles, because turtles contaminate their aquarium water: you don’t have to handle turtle feces to get contaminated, just the wet turtle. Wash your hands, people.

I have to say it was interesting to see an article about reptile keeping in the Times, particularly one illustrated with a baby red-sided garter snake eating a pinky mouse. There was this passage that I think is worth elaborating on, about thawing frozen mice: “Mr. Gilfillan and many other snake owners thaw mice to serving temperature in warm water. Dr. Barton Behravesh said people should not use a microwave oven, because the bacteria could spread to other food.” Reptile keepers tend not to use microwave ovens anyway, because frozen mice have an annoying tendency to, well, explode in them. Seriously.

Triceratops, Torosaurus and dinosaur biodiversity

Triceratops vs. Torosaurus

Remember my post from last November about dinosaurs and metaplastic bone — about the revelation that because dinosaurs’ bones constantly reshaped themselves over their lives, dinosaurs that we thought were different species were, in fact, the same? New Scientist has an article on that subject this week, focusing on the revelation that the solid-frilled Triceratops and the open-frilled Torosaurus were the same animal. In fact, Torosaurus was the mature form of Triceratops: “As the animal aged, its horns changed shape and orientation and its frill became longer, thinner and less jagged. Finally it became fenestrated, producing the classic torosaurus form.”

The article notes two implications from this conclusion. First, this argues against a ceratopsian dinosaur using its frill for defense (this is nothing new: my understanding was that it existed to anchor jaw muscles). And second, this, combined with three other species being reassigned (two boneheads to Pachycephalosaurus, Nanotyrannus to T. rex), means that dinosaur diversity 65 million years ago, just before the mass extinction event, was even worse than we thought — and there weren’t that many known species from that period to begin with.

Via Robert J. Sawyer. Image credit: Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls from a diagram in Dinosaurs by W. D. Matthew (1915); public domain.

Books read: July 2010

Books read: July 2010

Footprints in the Dust: The Epic Voyages of Apollo, 1969-1975, edited by Colin Burgess. The People’s History of Spaceflight series gets more disappointing with each volume. For the period from Apollo 11 to Apollo-Soyuz, this volume assembles chapters from different contributors, with mixed results — the Apollo-Soyuz chapter reads more as the author’s memoir of watching the launch than as a history of the mission. Particularly patchy about the period’s Soyuz missions and Skylab, and reveals very little about Apollo 11 through 17 that is not already covered in A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin (still the book on Apollo: Amazon.ca, Amazon.com).

Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk. A novella in which all the characters William Shatner has ever played are sucked into our universe with the mission to destroy William Shatner. The Guardian’s Damien Walter calls it “a comparatively mild example” of the bizarro fiction genre, an underground genre focused on the weird — “literature’s equivalent,” says Bizarro Central, “of the cult section of the video store.” Concerning Shatnerquake: truth be told, the concept is a lot more awesome than the execution; the writing was weak and there were a lot of missed opportunities to do something more with the material. Bizarro fiction intrigues me, but I’m now wary of the quality.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Piano by Marty and Jennifer Flinn. Yes, I already have a piano — a digital Roland I bought more than two years ago — but this book was still worth reading. While I don’t regret what I purchased, and where I purchased it, even after reading this guide, boy do I wish I had it back then: it’s really useful intelligence for potential piano buyers who would otherwise go unarmed against marketing bullshit, and it sets out the differences between pianos, what to look for, and what not to worry about. Bought remaindered.

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Truth be told, I’ve always been a junkie for inside baseball of the political kind, and this book, which when it came out was the talk of Washington, provides me with that hit. With the revelations about the inner workings of the campaigns — the disaster that was the Clinton campaign, Edwards’ self-destruction, and McCain’s failure to properly vet Palin — it’s abundantly clear that the best-run campaign won. I wonder if that’s a truism. E-book bought through Apple’s iBooks.

Cod by Mark Kurlansky. Short but expansive history of the Atlantic cod, which went from insanely plentiful on the Grand Banks to commercially extinct in five centuries. I skipped over the recipes and wanted more history (the Basques, Massachusetts, the slave trade, the Icelandic cod wars, the collapse of the Newfoundland fishery); it could easily have been three times as long and still too brief.

Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris. Short biography of my favourite composer; looks like a good starting point before tackling longer, more serious biographies; light on the works themselves but provides good context. E-book bought through Apple’s iBooks.

Footprints in the Dust ed. by Colin Burgess
Shatnerquake by Jeff Burk
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Buying a Piano by Marty and Jennifer Flinn
Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin
Cod by Mark Kurlansky
Beethoven: The Universal Composer by Edmund Morris

More entries below »

On anonymous commenters

Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (Penny Arcade)

The problem with getting your news online is that there’s a real danger you might be exposed to the comments section. Now, I’ve been online a long time, and I’ve mixed things up on Usenet, mailing lists, hobbyist discussion boards, and blog comments, and I have never seen anything as ugly, as unintelligent, or as bigoted as the comments I’ve seen on places like The Globe and Mail’s and CBC News’s websites. Comments on news sites, as someone said in reply to one of my tweets, are “mostly whitenoise and claptrap from politicos and other nutjobs.” It’s almost enough to make me stop reading the articles themselves.

The problem seems to be the usual one: what happens when you let people sound off anonymously (see the classic and pertinent Penny Arcade comic above). It’s bad enough that some news sites are reconsidering allowing anonymous comments; in more than one case, they’ve been forced to disclose the identity of a commenter so that they could be sued for defamation.

But who are these nutjobs — these people who seem to spend their entire lives spouting invective online — anyway? The Boston Globe’s Neil Swidey explored the issue by interviewing a number of their website’s “heavy users.” Problematically, none of the outright trolls wanted to be interviewed: “But here are the people I didn’t hear back from: the screamers, troublemakers, and trolls (Internet slang for people behind inflammatory posts). Not a single one. The loudest, most aggressive voices grew mum when asked to explain themselves, to engage in an actual discussion. The trolls appear to prize their anonymity more than anyone else.” Because they’d turn to stone if they did, that’s why.

A new novella from Ted Chiang

Book cover: The Lifecycle of Software Objects One of my favourite writers, Ted Chiang, has a new book out this month: The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a novella published in book form by Subterranean Press (Amazon.ca, Amazon.com). Rest assured I will be tracking down a copy of that just as soon as I can.

Chiang is not a prolific author. In the past 20 years he has published a total of 12 stories including this new one, all shorter works up to novella length. He has yet to publish a full novel. Even so, the 11 stories he has published up until this point have won four Nebulas, three Hugos, two Locus Awards, a Sidewise Award, and a Sturgeon Memorial Award. That’s a preposterous number of knick-knacks for such a small body of work, and speaks to the quality of that work.

The Seattle-area magazine City Arts has a profile of Chiang in its July 2010 issue. It’s only in the print version, but there’s an online extra that I think is revealing: it details the issues Chiang had with Tor Books during the publication of his first collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (see previous entry). Chiang was deeply unhappy with the choice of artwork and the deadline he was given to produce a story especially for that collection, which led him to work with small presses after that; Stories of Your Life and Others will be reprinted by Small Beer Press in October. Not every writer would care as much about artwork or deadlines, if at all; not every writer would dare, much less consider, honking off New York publishers as a class. (Okay, who said “Harlan Ellison”?) It’s one more way that Chiang, who works so slowly and exactingly, seems indifferent to the commercial imperatives that drive much of SF publishing.

On adult picky eaters

The Wall Street Journal looks at adult picky eaters — adults who won’t eat anything but a very small list of foods.

Unlike people with anorexia or bulimia, picky eaters don’t seem to make food choices based on calorie content. They aren’t necessarily skinny or obsessed with looking a certain way. Researchers don’t know yet what drives the behavior, but they say textures and smell can account for a picky eater’s limited diet. Some will only eat foods with one consistent texture or one taste, leading some medical experts to speculate that picky eaters have some obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Doctors worry that over the long term such eating habits could lead to nutritional deficiencies linked to health concerns, including bone and heart problems.
Picky eaters tend to gravitate to certain foods, including blander products that are often white or pale colored, like plain pasta or cheese pizza. For reasons that aren’t clear, almost all adult picky eaters like French fries and often chicken fingers, health experts say.

Continue reading this entry »

Too hot for snakes

Aesculapian Snake soaking

This week has been hot and oppressive, and today’s heavy rain is a welcome respite. Not just for us, but for our snakes. For the past week, we’ve been keeping an eye on the thermometers and the snakes’ behaviour to ensure that they aren’t overheating. We don’t have air conditioning, so it’s gotten as warm as 34°C in our house. At that point the snakes start taking to their water dishes, hoping to cool off. Every so often we mist the cages down with refrigerated water. If it had gotten any warmer, I would have started dropping ice cubes in their water dishes — whether or not they were still soaking in them — because at that point I’d be worried about having some of them die on me.

You may be surprised to learn that hot weather isn’t always good for cold-blooded animals. It is actually possible for a reptile to get too warm. In fact, it’s far easier to kill a reptile with heat than it is with cold. A cold reptile stops eating or simply hibernates; it would take freezing temperatures to be fatal. But it’s embarrassingly easy to kill a captive reptile with heat: a glass cage in direct sunlight is all it takes.

Continue reading this entry »

On standalone autoguiders

It’s a good thing I haven’t gotten around to buying an autoguider yet, because there have been a number of recent developments in that area that might influence what I end up buying.

I’ve mentioned autoguiders before, but I suppose I should back up and explain to some of you just what an autoguider is.

The short version is it’s a small digital camera that compensates for tracking errors made by a telescope mount that would lead to blurry or trailed star images in long-exposure astrophotography.

If that’s still a lot to swallow, here’s the long version, which may make you go all glassy-eyed. (This is very nerdy.)

Continue reading this entry »

Well done, activists

Truth be told, activists irritate me. For some time I’ve felt that, taken as a group, they’re not much more than outrage junkies looking for a fix: angry people going out of their way to find some injustice to protest, something to focus their pre-existing rage. Protesting for the sake of protesting, without a clear agenda or a specific outcome. My pre-existing biases are confirmed by Andrew Potter’s Maclean’s piece on the G20 protesters:

What sort of policies were they opposed to? Which ones did they support? It’s surprisingly hard to say. I’ve been trolling through the stories in the aftermath of the summit, and it would appear that most of the protesters had no real clue either.
When a firm agenda was expressed, it tended to be absurdly general: “People not profits.” “Stop the G20”. “Justice Now.” “Animal Rights are Human Rights.” “Free Palestine.” You get the picture. Even the supporters and organizers of the protests seemed less than pleased with the discordant messaging. At one point, in a rally and march held the day after all of the major arrests (on June 28), the Globe’s Anna Mehler Paperny tweeted “The telling moment when Rebick shouts ‘what do we want?’ and everyone shouts something different. (They settle on ‘justice’)”.

Meanwhile, Potter points out that the Harper government was doing something actually worth protesting about: they protected several fossil fuel incentive programs in the face of G20 pledges to phase such programs out. In other words, the Canadian government protected tax breaks for the oil sands. That, says Potter, “is completely evil on Canada’s part — not just doing the wrong thing, but doing the opposite of the right thing. And it was out there, on the national newswire, while the summit was still going on, and the day before Judy Rebick led the crowd in a game of ‘let’s play “what do we want”’.”

Had that policy been the focus of the protests, it could have been a profoundly uncomfortable and embarrassing moment for the government, which would have been neatly caught between G20 commitments and precise popular pressure. Talk about a missed opportunity. Well done, activists.

Canada Day in Shawville

Shawville Canada Day Parade 2010

As I’ve said before, Canada Day is a big deal in ultra-federalist Shawville; events take place all day and are well attended. Jennifer and I took photos of the parade, which started at 3 PM: here are mine; here are hers (her blog entry). We shot photos as a team: I used a wide-angle zoom on my digital SLR and she used a medium zoom on hers, so we got different views of the same parade. Which is good, because the parade was awfully similar to the parade we attended four years ago: fire trucks, horse-drawn wagons, antique cars, tractors, ATVs, bagpipes, and community groups — though the groups were not in attendance as much as they were before, perhaps due to actuarial reasons. They even had the same guy doing the same music as before. Maybe that’s seen as a feature.

We were thinking about doing the fireworks too, but once more ran out of steam.

It’s not the teeth you have to worry about — no, really

Sabretooths like Smilodon fatalis had some pretty intimidating teeth, but it turns out that those teeth were, because of their shape, more prone to fracture than modern cats’ canines and could break more easily if hit from the side. But sabretooths had another weapon in their arsenal, according to a new study: incredibly powerful forelimbs, disproportionately stronger than those of modern cats, that were used to pin their prey down before administering the fatal nom. Press release. Via io9.

The Pontiac’s language problem

Graph showing language ability in the MRC Pontiac

This graph, based on 2006 census data, illustrates the problem the Pontiac has with language — namely, that a large portion of the population can’t understand French: in Shawville, Clarendon, Thorne and Portage-du-Fort, more than seven out of ten people cannot understand French; in Bristol and L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, it’s more than five out of ten.

On the other hand, looking at the mother-tongue stats, which I have not included above, most francophones are able to speak English. The more French-speaking municipalities are essentially bilingual: in Fort-Coulonge, Grand-Calumet and Mansfield more than three-quarters of the population self-identifies as bilingual; in each case, fewer than one in six cannot speak English.

Continue reading this entry »