More a tadpole than a fish?

Sperm whale battling squid

I had an excellent summer for reading. No internet, few disturbances and quite a bit of rain. Thanks to these fortunate circumstances I finally read a few books I have been postponing, including “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea” (fun but not very memorable) and “Moby Dick” (excellent!).

Reading these novels next to each other I amused myself by comparing their descriptions of whales, especially cachalots (sperm whales). Moby Dick is naturally full of descriptions of whales but I was particularly interested in the following section:

“First: The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish. In his System of Nature, A.D. 1776, Linnæus declares, “I hereby separate the whales from the fish.” But of my own knowledge, I know that down to the year 1850, sharks and shad, alewives and herring, against Linnæus’s express edict, were still found dividing the possession of the same seas with the Leviathan.

The grounds upon which Linnæus would fain have banished the whales from the waters, he states as follows: “On account of their warm bilocular heart, their lungs, their movable eyelids, their hollow ears, penem intrantem feminam mammis lactantem,” and finally, “ex lege naturæ jure meritoque.” I submitted all this to my friends Simeon Macey and Charley Coffin, of Nantucket, both messmates of mine in a certain voyage, and they united in the opinion that the reasons set forth were altogether insufficient. Charley profanely hinted they were humbug.”

Having thus dismissed Linnæus arguments the narrator continues by defining a whale as “a spouting fish with a horizontal tail”. The truth of this statement is of course dependent on your definition of fish but I would side with Linnæus here and argue that a whale is not a fish.

In contrast we have the following description of cachalots from captain Nemo in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, amusingly just after he declared the hunting of Baleen whales (unless fresh meat for the crew was needed) a “murderous pastimes.

“Those are sperm whales, dreadful animals that I’ve sometimes encountered in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive beasts, and they deserve to be exterminated. […] We’ll take no pity on these ferocious cetaceans. They’re merely mouth and teeth!”

The main character in “Twenty thousand leagues under the sea”, Professor Aronnax, agrees with this assessment and adds: “The sperm whale is an awkward animal, more tadpole than fish, as Professor Frédol* has noted.” which I find a glourious insult to the world’s largest toothed whale. I already argued that a whale is no fish, the intriguing question now is whether it is also true that a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish?

To answer that question I used science and internet, more specifically the site timetree.org which gives the time of divergence of two species, that is the time when their evolutionary ancestors separated. To test whether a cachelot is more a tadpole than a fish I searched for the divergence time of the following species:

  • Physeter macrocephalus or cachelot (sperm whale)
  • Rana temporaria or common frog as a representative of tadpoles.
  • Gadus morhua or cod as a representative of fishes.

Fittingly all three species got their scientific names from Linnæus in his Systema Naturae (1758).

From timetree.org I learnt that the evolutionary branches of cachelot and common frog got separated around 352 million years ago, in the Early Carboniferous. Cachelot and cod on the other hand got separated already 435 million years ago, during the Silurian, and are therefore less closely related. It would thus be at least partly fair to call a cachelot more tadpole than fish”

The more difficult question of whether a tadpole is more a cachelot than a fish I leave as an open question for the comment field.

Cachalots (sperm whales)

*Le monde de la mer by Alfred Frédol. I can’t read French but based on a Google translation of Frédol’s text I believe he only described the general appearance of the cachalot when he likened it to a tadpole. Still an insult but a bit more reasonable.

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Reading challenge – 6 months progress report

bumble-bee

I decided to participate in the 30-20-20-10 reading challenge this year. That is, to read books from 30 countries, by 20 men and 20 women and from 10 different decades. The goal is to finish it this year but if not I will continue on the same challenge until I’ve finished it.

As I expected the easiest was the 10 decades goal. I usually mix old and more modern literature and had finished this goal already in late January. Currently I’ve listed books from 14 decades, with 2000-09 being the decade I’ve read the most books from (9), followed by 1920-29 and 2010-17 (5 each).

Reading books by both men and women is also going well. Currently I’ve read books by 19 women and 14 men so I expect to finish this goal too in 2017.

As I feared the countries have provided much more of a challenge. I’ve only read books from 12 different countries so far. UK dominates my list (18 books) followed by the US (8), Sweden (4), Finland (3), Russia, Belgium and Norway at 2 each and Denmark, Canada, Lebanon, Colombia and China with one each. Hopefully I will have read books from at least 20 different countries before the end of the year.

I like this reading challenge as it pushes me to read outside of my comfort zone but it may be a bit too ambitious for me. When I have finished it, whether it is this year or the next, I will probably chose a simpler reading goal with the same aim.

Best this year so far (only including first-time reads)

Books, e-books and “license to read”

text

I love paper books. I love having bookshelves full of everything from well-bound hard-cover editions tattered second-hand pocket books. I watch them on the shelves, take them out and and leaf through them, remembering good reads.

I also love e-books. I love having an entire library in my pocket when I travel, the convenience of the front-lit pages and the adjustable character sizes.

What I hate are the things that look like e-books, cost like e-books, but really are nothing but a “license to read”. I don’t mind it much when they are honest about it, I know that I don’t own the e-books I’ve loaned from the library and that’s OK, I didn’t pay for them either. I may also pay for a “license to read”-book if it is a lot cheaper (or if I’m desperate). However, the DRM-protected books are per definition inferior to real e-books. I don’t own them. I can’t move them freely between my devises (only to the extent the publisher decides) or be sure that I can still read them if the publisher goes bankrupt or the reader hardware changes. An e-book in an open format can probably be updated to a more modern format whereas there is a real risk that a DRM-protected book will be lost. I’m happy to pay for e-books. However, if I pay for them I want to own them and I don’t like seeing inferior products promoted as the real thing. Paying full price for a DRM-protected book is a lot like paying full price for a hard-cover edition only to find out that the pages get loose and the paper inside turned brown and fragile after only a few years.

So in general I do my best to avoid “license to read”-books. In practice that usually means that I either stick to paper books or select books that are out of copyright. Project Gutenberg has a large collection of DRM-free out-of-copyright books in a variety of formats and so does MobileRead . For SF and Fantasy DRM-free books can be also bought from Baen books. As a Swedish reader things are even better, both Dito and Adlibris have most of their Swedish e-books protected by watermarks instead of a more intrusive DRM. I’d like to hear about other, legal, sources if anyone has any suggestions?

The closing of a used bookstore

Book haul

A used bookstore near my home is sadly closing down, something more and more of them have been doing during the last ten years. Sad as the occasion was this did mean a generous sale which I was happy to take advantage of. I especially enjoyed the “pay per bag” system used for the sale which encouraged me to pick up some interesting curiosities. I am now proud owner of an essay collection by Karen Blixen, an illustrated Norwegian short story by Jonas Lie and a religious text by Esaias Tegnér, printed in 1897, which I chose solely because it was beautiful.

Nattvardsbarnen av Esaias tegnerThe bookstore in question specializes in non-fiction so the fiction collection was limited. Nevertheless I did find a few crime novels (Josephine Tey, Agatha Christie) and Jenny Diski’s novel “Skating to Antarctica” which I look forward to read.

Those of you who could not take advantage of the sale can still read some of Jonas Lie’s tales. His short-story collection “Weird Tales from the Northern Seas” is available from project Gutenberg. I’ve only read one of the stories so far but it looks promising.

The beginning

So here it is. The unremarkable beginning of a blog. I think it is a book blog but it is only a few hours old, it could grow into anything. If you somehow found your way here already, welcome! Later you might find ramblings about books here, possibly also proper reviews. I hope to make this my bookish corner of the internet.