Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Why I throw books across the room.

I would never burn a book, but I will throw one across the room.

Having spent the first two decades of adulthood reading vast numbers of scientific papers and manuscripts, I have a huge fiction deficit.  During those years I scarcely read fiction at all.  Who had time for that?

But somewhere in my congested head I always knew that you should read fiction, plenty of it.  I understood this while bustling back and forth between the Ramsay Wright Zoological Laboratories and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.  A few times I saw Robertson Davies standing outside Massey College at the corner of Hoskins Ave and Devonshire Place waiting for a cab and I would think, He looks like an interesting old kook.  I should probably read his books.  On the third floor of Ramsay Wright there was a small lab room, really just a prep room between two real lab rooms, with a nameplate on the door, “Prof.  C.E. Atwood.”  C.E. Atwood was a professor emeritus, and I was pretty sure he was the father of Margaret Atwood.  I never met or saw him, but I thought that putting his name on a prep room door instead of a real lab door was kind of disrespectful, and that I should probably read his daughter’s books, or at least skim one.

I have a hard time reading.  I have strabismus, still, after three corrective surgeries (ages 8, 10, 20).  I’m not the wall-eyed confusion you might have met during earlier pre- and inter-op spans, but there’s enough L-R disparity that my eyesight buggers up my ability to look through binoculars or follow a line of text across a page.  In high school, small-print Hardy and Dickens were hell, and I should have been awarded high marks for even finishing those books.  My wife was an English major and at some point I greedily hoarded all her old books when she was about to discard them before a move because it’s so costly to move books.  I shouldn’t have bothered. I doubt I will ever read them.  They contain too many words without enough spaces in between.  But here they are at arm’s length, foxing away.

I no longer need regularly read grim multi-authored papers on the phylogeography of skinks or the evolution and function of the vomeronasal organ.  As much as possible I read single-authored fiction, and am always looking for a writer who suits my needs and limitations.

My main requirement:  Keep it moving.

Please don’t show what a fabulous writer you are by describing something commonplace in excruciatingly clever detail. 

Last night I was reading a novel in which the author spent the equivalent of four pretty pages describing the people at a party—their clothes, their mannerisms, snippets of conversation—meant to illustrate that they were hip, shallow people.  I got it after about four lines, and had to start skimming, searching for something my eyeballs and interest could glom onto.

Perhaps being boring was his way of illustrating how boring the party was, in which case, Success!
I would have thrown the book across the room except that I had downloaded it onto my iPad.

Even if I could afford to throw my iPad across the room, the inconvenience in replacing its data would have been much worse than what Elvis went through when he shot TVs.

I learned book throwing from my mother, who would read several novels a week.  Her trigger for throwing a book across the room was when an author described a character having a dream.

Thank god for trade paperbacks.  You can throw them blindly. Hardcovers can mar the drywall or crack a fish tank, so don’t throw them.   Thump them broadside down on the carpet in disgust, then carefully kick them at the baseboard.

But here’s the thing.  I always feel ashamed for losing my temper at a book. I know not everyone wants to write in strabismus-friendly snippets.  Inevitably I pick up the thrown book and repair any damage I have caused to it and put it back on the shelf lying sideways across the other books.  If I have read at least a third of the way through prior to the throwing, I will at a later date, somewhat embarrassed, pick it up, finish reading it, and wedge it in upright among the others with its title and author clearly visible.

I was recently given a Kindle Paperwhite, which is nicer to read from than an iPad but you can’t throw it either, a flaw second only to the fact that it’s too easy to mistake for a coaster.

I don’t like e-readers and will never download an unknown author again. Unless I know I can tolerate an author’s style, I want a book I can throw across the room.

I love fiction.  Please keep it moving.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Iona's yellowheads.

This week I took a group to Iona Beach Regional Park to see the Yellow-headed Blackbirds.  Usually they are easier to hear than see, only occasionally popping up from the dense vegetation of the marsh,

like this.


But this time they were right at the parking lot, waiting to greet with their spectacular calls.  There were males and females, and I wasn't able to make sense of exactly what they were doing--although it was, broadly speaking courtship, territoriality and other vernal exuberance-- because I was also herding humans, and there were non-associated naturalist types on site trying to take pictures--and one has to maintain a certain amount of mutual distance or be seen as an oaf.  Birding isn't as simple as many would think.

I followed the flight of a little drab bird to where it landed at the top of a distant tree. I haven't figured out what it was. Almost instantly it was photobombed, then scared away by a pair of yellowheads.   (In the above photo, mystery bird is below the female YH).

The whole point of going there was to see the yellowheads, and having them there right at the beginning of the walk meant that the bar was set pretty high for the rest of the day.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Late season honkfest: Snow Geese in Richmond.

They're still here.  It's nearing the end of Snow Goose season; some hang around into May, but most should be Siberia-bound soon. There was a large flock Friday across the south arm of the Fraser from Vancouver International Airport.  It started with about a hundred.

And then another hundred, and another, and then more, much like planes arriving at regular, noisy intervals.

Within 20 minutes there were a few thousand.

And still they came.

I don't know how many there were. Lots.  

Today I took all our empty cans and bottles to the recycling depot.  There is a woman who works there who can scan a flat of randomly placed cans and count them in about 2 seconds.  She would probably be good at Snow Geese.

Snow Geese: 4,657 (or so).  Cackling Geese: 1.  I've never seen other geese mingle with Snowies before.

Look at those wings.  Darn near perfection.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Miss Smith, the obsessed, possessed GPS.

We named our GPS Miss Smith because it has a no-nonsense female voice.   She is usually pretty reliable in guiding us to where we want to go.  Sometimes she gets annoyed because she likes taking the shortest route to a destination, which means if there’s a diagonal street such as Kingsway, which runs through East Vancouver and Burnaby, she’s all for it.  But the diagonals often have weird junctions with the otherwise orthogonal grid, so we tend to pick a route that includes an easy crossing.  Miss Smith will doggedly and seemingly with increasing exasperation keep “RECALCULATING” for as long as there is the tiniest possible diagonal stretch remaining along the route. 

Other than this largely philosophical difference our relationship with Miss Smith is generally agreeable.

If I have a basic knowledge of where we’re going I don’t program a destination and just use Miss Smith’s screen as a map.  It’s a lot tidier than a multi-fold paper map or one of those spiral-bound map books.  In such a situation Miss Smith has no clue or interest in where we’re going and she says nothing.

Except for when we go up Mount Seymour, which we do a few times each winter to experience the deep snow.  To get there, we have to go a few miles along a major east-west road called Mount Seymour Parkway until we turn left at Mount Seymour Road, which features a long series of switchbacks that take you to the top.  It’s during this stretch of drive that something strange happens, every time.

Shortly after we get onto the parkway, Miss Smith perks up and tells us to take a left, and head uphill into a subdivision.  We ignore her and after “RECALCULATING” she tells us to take the next left and so on for all the subsequent cross-streets.  On the screen a series of lengthening loops are being drawn, all reaching back to the initial missed turn.  Miss Smith wants us to reverse course and go uphill into that subdivision to a particular address on a particular residential side street.  It’s an address that means nothing to us and—I have checked—is programmed nowhere into Miss Smith as a destination, waypoint, or anything.  Weirder still, she is giving us instructions when she is not in navigation mode—when we’re using her as a map.  She shouldn’t be saying anything!  I eventually reach to change the settings and switch her voice to “mute,” which seems unfair and extreme, but otherwise she’ll be frantically RECALCULATING all the way up the mountain.

I’ve made note of the address she so desperately wants us to visit and have visited virtually using Google Street View.   It belongs to a 1970s two-story house in a neighbourhood of similar houses, almost at the end of a curving road that noses up into the forest.

Why does she want us to go there?  What would happen if we did, and rang the doorbell? 

“Here we are,” we would say.

And the people who answered the door would say, “What took you so long?”


Thursday, February 13, 2014

BC Black Alligators revisited.

In one of the more peculiar side-tracks of my Interpreter Stories Series, I wrote a story called the Black Alligator of British Columbia.  It entailed a search for a legendary gigantic salamander, historically misnamed an alligator.  If the alleged beast truly existed, it would have looked something like this.

Now don't you want to paddle up the Pitt River and find one?

Me too.

P.S.  In case you didn't already know, 2014 is the Year of the Salamander.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My favourite bit of Darwiniana:

Since it's the great man's birthday (February 12, 1809).

I once had reprints of most of his books, including  1881. The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms. London: John Murray. 

I never got tired of picturing this experiment:

"Worms do not possess any sense of hearing. They took not the least notice of the shrill notes from a metal whistle, which was repeatedly sounded near them; nor did they of the deepest and loudest tones of a bassoon. They were indifferent to shouts, if care was taken that the breath did not strike them. When placed on a table close to the keys of a piano, which was played as loudly as possible, they remained perfectly quiet."

You know who else was born on February 12, 1809, of course.

Abraham Lincoln.

Quite the auspicious day.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


I knew Tyrone Hayes for a couple of years.  I was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley when he was a PhD candidate.  I had the pleasure of hanging out with him from time to time, going for pizza and beer, the odd party. He is genial and funny and in my opinion humblingly gifted. His talks were always well-attended and well-received, whether at Berkeley--not an easy audience even if they liked you--or at international conferences. I've had the occasional reminder over the years since leaving Berkeley, via television documentaries and other media reports, that he had been studying herbicides used on corn crops whose side effects alter sexual determination in amphibians and may have potentially dire effects not only on their tenuous populations, but also on humans.

That is not small potatoes.  That is Holy Crap!

The point of all this: 

Tyrone Hayes is an ethical, rigorous scientist who has been persecuted for performing research whose results have revealed dangerously toxic side-effects of profit-driven corporate practices.

Please read Rachel Aviv's account in the New Yorker

Hugh Griffith, PhD.