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a blog from Eli the Bearded
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Swiss Family Robinson


My opinion on The Swiss Family Robinson (the book) is that it is a load of crap.

SFR is based on pedagogical stories written by a pastor for his kids. The few characters who are not part of the family are one- dimensional villians. And except for the initial ship wreck, the family has no end of good luck. No other shipmates survive, but animals, guns, gunpowder, many tools, and other stores etc, are easily recovered from the wreck. Need to climb? Find some shark skin to make climbing gear. Need salt? Find a salt cave. Need meat? Find large mammals.

Anything following Swiss Family Robinson too closely is likely to be a lousy book.

Final thought: has no memory of watching any of the SFR movies

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.

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

Returning to fabliaux


Several years later I've gotten around to reading Liaisons Dangereuses, and like the fabliaux mentioned elsewhere in this thread, it doesn't meet modern definitions of "erotic" but it was not a waste of time. It seems a lot of the erotic reputation it has comes from the illustrations that were in many versions. There's a collection of them on Wikimedia's Commons, six of eight from a 1796 edition of the book:

Les Liaisons Dangereuses at wikimedia

A typical description of a night's intrigues is summarized as "And then she yielded everything to me." One of the subplots in Liaisons reminds me strongly of the fabliaux format.

Since my post three years ago, I've read some more fabliaux, and come up with a list of non-fabliaux titles for further reading:

  • Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles (1462 or earlier)
    An English translation at Gutenberg that I've looked at, but not read fully:
    One Hundred Merrie And Delightsome Stories, an 1899 English translation: at Gutenberg
    Like fabliaux, and like the inspiration for the original request, it seems to have stories of monks, etc, behaving badly.
  • Heptam√©ron (published 1558, ~20ish years after author's death)
  • Satyricon (Latin novel)
    A link, for which I have not read anything: at Gutenberg
  • The Golden Ass (Latin novel)
  • The Country Wife by Wycherley (1675 play)
  • Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (aka Fanny Hill, 1748)

(I found Satyricon today looking for Norman Lindsay books.)