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a blog from Eli the Bearded
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Ancient life

We were multiorganismal before we were multicellular.
— Angela Douglas

Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms (which is subtitled "The Story of the Animals and Plants That Time Has Left Behind") by Richard Fortey is a book I read earlier this year and found very interesting. The author is very careful to not call the things he discusses "living fossils" because he would like you to know that there is every likelihood these life forms have been and continue to evolve, but just that they have stayed in the same niche and kept the same appearance.

One of the more interesting, to me, life forms discussed in the book are stromatolites. These are not animals and not plants. Nor are they fungi. They are entirely (or largely) cyanobacteria. And as prokaryotes (no cell nucleus) they are very distant cousins from us animals and plants.

Stromatolites fit the quote above quite well. Huge structures created by billions of single cell organisms working together for thousands of years. Biofilms of cyanobacteria slowly grow these rock-like formations that can be found in multi-billion year old fossils and in a few remote places of modern Earth.

Hamelin Pool at wikipedia

"Some [of the living] structures are pillars up to 1.5 metres (5 ft) high and have taken thousands of years to grow. In the Marble Bar area of Western Australia there are fossil stromatolites approximately 50 metres high and 30 metres diameter. These are estimated to be over 3 billion years old. Typical growth is about 0.5 mm per year."

50 meters at half a millimeter a year is 100,000 years. Those are the engines of oxygen production of Archean Era.

Many of the other life forms in the book are quite interesting too.

By comparison the velvet worms, dating back to the Cambrian, are positive newcomers on the scene. These creatures are very primitive segmented animals. Once you've got the genes to make a thing, increasing your body size by making more of a that thing is relatively simple. So it is with velvet worms, which have body structure that can be mentally imagined by crossing an earthworm with a centipede. They have between a dozen and four dozen segments, move very slowly and quietly, to ambush prey on anything they can find that's the right size to eat. Originally they did this underwater, but are now only known on land, albeit only in humid environments.

Horseshoe crabs are an often cited "living fossil" and need little introduction. Ginkgos, ferns, hagfish are some of the other organisms discussed in the book. The author limits himself to things he can visit in nature, so sea life is not well represented. Hagfish, which lacking a jaw are not true fish, are readily caught and thus observable. (Not that hagfish are intended target of fishermen, they are instead an undesirably by-catch that seemingly finds large trawl nets full of fish an enticing feeding opportunity.)

Books of this ilk are exactly what I look for.

Bechdel Test

[responding to complaints that "The Bechdel Test" isn't useful for finding "interesting" or "enjoyable" movies, made by a retired Navy guy]

The test isn't made for you. It was a criteria a lesbian (in a comic strip) was using to decide if she would be willing to watch the movie. If watching men do manly stuff is a bucket of cold water, this can warn you away.

It's not a good metric for determining if a movie is feminist or not. The Bling Ring passes both Bechdel and reverse Bechdel, and is very much a film about the females. But the female characters in it are all exceedingly shallow and bad role models.

Where Bechdel is most useful, I think, is talking about a set of movies. Only one of the eight Harry Potter movies meets it (or so I've seen claimed, I haven't tried to figure out which one). Is that unexpected given the general outline of "Boy grows up to fight the man who killed his parents?" No. Just that outline says it is likely to be a very male centric film.

Quoting from a 2010 piece by a movie reviewer that I like (Mick LaSalle): You could say that the Bechdel test points up that women's movies are ghettoized, in that they are generally depictions of internal life, about romance, about sex, about relationships. The Bechdel test shows how few films there are that fit into the external life category. It doesn't necessarily follow that films in which women sit around talking about business, politics or crime would be any better as women's films. It is however a curious and telling thing that these films don't seem to exist.

Ultimately, of course, the only way to really gauge the presence of women in film is to take a year at random and go through every single film released. For example, in 2001, there were only 19 films out of 400 American movies made that had a woman as the main character. 19 out of 400, and some of those movies were dumb teen comedies, and one was GLITTER with Mariah Carey. Just for comparison, France released 200 films that year. 75 had a woman as the main character, and I'm not even counting silly movies like PEOPLE IN SWIMSUITS ARE NOT NECESSARILY SHALLOW, with Isabelle Gelinas and Agnes Soral. — Mick LaSalle

Final thought: comic that started the test here

Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World

My eight year old took out some "survival" books from the library (all are choose-your-own-adventure style books from the You Choose: Survival series[1]). It prompted me to pull out Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World by Jennifer Armstrong. I tried to get him interested in it, but he resisted. I ended up reading it myself.

Shipwreck is a juvenile book, but it is not written for the elementary school set. The difficulty is on-par with a typical magazine feature. The length and the detail are far below a more scholarly work. Length is a lot longer than a typical magazine feature.

The shipwreck is Shackleton's Endurance, used for his failed attempt to be the first to cross Antartica in 1914. That was the second Antartic expedition he lead, after his first (1907-9 Nimrod expedition) failed attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole. (Amundsen was first to the pole in 1911, Scott was second and died before returning.)

The story of the Endurance is remarkable, moreso by Shackleton bringing back all of his crew alive more than a year after becoming stuck in the pack ice, and more than six months after the pack ice had crushed and sunk the Endurance. Plus he returned with loads of photos, many of which were beautifully detailed glass plates, but some smaller and less detailed.[2]

For an adult, a brief read, but always interesting. Three of four rescue attempts for the crew stranded on Elephant Island.[3]

[1] I found this list of books in the series: at Barnes and Nobel

[2] A few of the photos: wikimedia page

[3] For some reason, Google offers to provide "directions" to and from Elephant Island, but can't seem to make good on that offer. Google maps page

Bovril ad with Shackleton

Carnival of Souls

Low budget simple, eerie, and out of copyright.

Carnival of Souls at IMDB

Carnival of Souls at Internet Archive

A car accident has a single survivor, but life is not the same for her afterwards. The woman is a organist and the in-story playing provides some of soundtrack in-story in a very natural way. An abandoned carnival site is used as an abandoned carnival site that has an eerie appeal to our heroine. And nothing is quite normal outside of the carnival.

Four hot baths out of six.

Final thought: think of it as a twightlight zone story