September 2010

On hibernating and transporting snakes

Phyllis Friederich writes with two questions about her four pet garter snakes, but they’re applicable to pet snakes in general.

Her first question: “Do we use the same process for hibernation for the babies as we do for the adults?”

To be honest, I’ve hardly ever hibernated — or to be fussy and use the correct term, brumated — baby snakes. Generally speaking, I only do so under certain circumstances:

  1. They’ve stopped eating for the season and would lose an unhealthy amount of weight if they were kept warm during the winter.
  2. I’m planning on breeding them in the spring and hibernating them would increase the chances of success.

Continue reading this entry »

A horned dinosaur with 15 horns

Kosmoceratops richardsoni

Two new horned dinosaurs were described in a new research article published today: Kosmoceratops richardsoni and Utahceratops gettyi. The article discusses them in the context of the dinosaur provincialism hypothesis — were dinosaurs in Cretaceous western North America part of a single biome, or were they fragmented into distinct habitats? — but never mind that shit: look at all the bloody horns on that Kosmoceratops! Ten on the frill and five on the face — and I bet you thought Styracosaurus was something. Via io9.

(Image of Kosmoceratops skull from the article: Sampson SD, Loewen MA, Farke AA, Roberts EM, Forster CA, et al. (2010) New Horned Dinosaurs from Utah Provide Evidence for Intracontinental Dinosaur Endemism. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12292. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0012292. Creative Commons licence.)

Tiny tyrannosaurs

Tyrannosaurus was one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs, but for most of their history, tyrannosaurs and their ancestors were rather small, according to a phylogenetic review in a recent issue of Science. The best-known tyrannosaurs are late Cretaceous members of the tyrannosaurid family, such as Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tyrannosaurus itself, which were varying degrees of ginormous. But based on new fossil discoveries, the tyrannosauroid superfamily originated in the middle Jurassic and stayed small — human-sized — for 80 million years. (Also, they didn’t all have those little two-fingered arms.) It was only when the existing large carnivores — carnosaurs like Allosaurus, for example — got out of the way that tyrannosaurs were able grow larger and take over the large-predator niche.

(Remember, tyrannosaurs are coelurosaurs, not carnosaurs: they’re more closely related to ostrich dinosaurs, birds and, well, velociraptors than they are to other big meat-eaters like Allosaurus and Megalosaurus.)

More entries below »

Felix Salmon’s unified theory of New York biking

Felix Salmon’s unified theory of New York biking could just as easily apply to biking in Ottawa or anywhere else. His key point is that while pedestrians and motorists know how to behave as pedestrians and motorists, cyclists behave — and in some ways are expected to behave — as pedestrians, with predictably bad results. Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading in full.

Bikes can and should behave much more like cars than pedestrians. They should ride on the road, not the sidewalk. They should stop at lights, and pedestrians should be able to trust them to do so. They should use lights at night. And — of course, duh — they should ride in the right direction on one-way streets. None of this is a question of being polite; it’s the law. But in stark contrast to motorists, nearly all of whom follow nearly all the rules, most cyclists seem to treat the rules of the road as strictly optional. They’re still in the human-powered mindset of pedestrians, who feel pretty much completely unconstrained by rules.
The result is decidedly suboptimal for all concerned, but mostly for the bicyclists themselves. New York needs to make a collective quantum leap, from treating bicyclists like pedestrians to treating bicyclists like motorists. And unless and until it does, bike relations will continue to be marked by hostility and mistrust.

An interesting subspecies of cyclist that I wasn’t aware of is the bike salmon — a cyclist who travels in the bike lane against the flow of traffic. Yow. Via Kottke and Sullivan.

What’s my problem with lists of best websites?

Last week I received a link submission for The Map Room: a list of 50 best blogs for geography geeks. The Map Room was ranked 15th. There wasn’t anything wrong with the list so far as I could tell — I’m modest enough about what I do that I don’t care what my own rank is — but it didn’t quite smell right, simply because a site named Online Engineering Degree was an odd source for such a list. It wasn’t the first time I saw that kind of disconnect; usually I saw it as a way to gain incoming traffic to boost a site’s ranking — in other words, search engine optimization, which for me is a dirty, dirty term. So I ignored it. I can’t post everything, and I’ve let far better links get past me.

The list was then reprinted in full and verbatim on Mapperz, a map blog I rather like. It’s important to say that I like it, because Mapperz is a little annoyed with me right now, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. It’s also important to say that it was well within Mapperz’s rights to post it. There are more than 100 blogs in my map blog directory, and it would be stupid if we all agreed on what was and wasn’t post-worthy. The Mapperz link made the rounds, on Twitter and elsewhere, and ended up on MetaFilter (where links make the big time).

Continue reading this entry »

Their thoughts on getting a doctorate

I spent a good chunk of last week peeing on their dreams, so the least I can do is direct you to Mare’s post and Teresa’s post, in which they each respond to my two entries on why it may not be a good idea to go back and get a doctorate (More on not getting that doctorate; Don’t get that doctorate).

As you might have guessed, they are two of the people whose plans inspired me to write those entries. Which is not to say that their specific plans and goals were what I was responding to, because at the time I didn’t know the details — only that they were thinking about it. For better or for worse, my own experiences filled in the rest.

More on not getting that doctorate

I’ve already gotten some feedback about my previous entry urging people not to do a doctorate. Not here — nobody ever comments here — but on Facebook and on my cousin’s blog (she’s one of the three people I was thinking of). To my great surprise, none of them wants to kill me (so far as I know; they all seem pretty devious to me, and could get me when I’m not looking).

I wrote that post quickly and not necessarily coherently, and I left some ideas out; the feedback has helped me think more clearly about my point. Let me try to restate it more cogently.

Getting a doctorate is something that involves an awful lot of effort, but not necessarily a lot of reward — especially if you can’t get a tenure-track position, or a job requiring a Ph.D. and paying accordingly. You don’t get a Ph.D. unless you are compelled to do so — you’re wired so that you have no other choice. From my perspective, if you already have a career, you’re lucky: in a way, you’ve dodged a bullet. What mystified me was the notion that someone who already had a career, one that paid well relative to a starting professor’s salary, would want to spend several years in poverty chasing a degree that wouldn’t necessarily improve their material circumstances or change their career path.

Continue reading this entry »

Books read: August 2010

Book covers for books read in August 2010 Centauri Dreams: Imagining and Planning Interstellar Exploration by Paul Gilster summarizes the current research and thinking about interstellar travel — the challenge, in a nutshell, is how to send a probe to Alpha Centauri and have it arrive during the lifetime of a single researcher. It’s mostly about propulsion, but also about materials, communications, AI and nanotechnology. Useful stuff for a science fiction writer hoping to bone up on the subject (ahem). Indeed, the book is a lot more SF-friendly than I expected, with references to authors and Analog articles; I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Gilster’s website.

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Volume I, 1907-1948: Learning Curve by William H. Patterson, Jr. First half of the massive bio of science fiction giant Heinlein, who died in 1988. Despite the fact that Heinlein was extremely private — and, we learn, had a lot to be private about — this authorized biography (by his widow, who died in 2003) reveals much that was previously hidden, but is hampered by the fragmentary evidence that survives from the period (Heinlein burned a lot of material relating to his second marriage, for example). Patterson does well as a historian, and the book is gripping and a must-read, but hero-worship is a factor here. See a series of blog posts on about Heinlein and this biography.

Centauri Dreams by Paul Gilster
Robert A. Heinlein by William H. Patterson, Jr.

Don’t get that doctorate!

Three people I know have expressed an interest in going back to school to get a doctorate in their respective fields. My private reaction in each case was: “Are you crazy?” These are people with good jobs, possibly even tenure and pensions — and they want to go back to eating macaroni and cheese?

From a strictly financial perspective, getting a doctorate isn’t a good idea. It takes you out of the workforce for at least five years; most people I know have taken eight (because they’re trying to earn a living while they work on their dissertation, which stretches things out even more).

That’s a long time not to be at full salary (for people making a teacher’s or bureaucrat’s salary, the best-case scenario — tuition waivers and full scholarships — would still involve a 60 percent pay cut) or not to be contributing to an RRSP. And I don’t believe that the first two years of a Ph.D. — the coursework and comprehensive exams — can be done part-time.

Continue reading this entry »