Arr, You Vitamin-C-Deficient Scallywag!

Friday, May 15, 2009
Growing up, my mother always exhorted us to eat our fruits and vegetables, or else we'd get Scurvy. Being an elementary-schooler, I didn't know that Scurvy was, in fact, a dietary deficiency in Vitamin C. Actually, the sum total of my understanding of the word was as part of the timeless (cartoon) pirate lingo: "You scurvy scallywag!" I think at one point I was convinced that not eating your vegetables would result in me becoming a pirate.

The disease was, apparently, quite common among sailors and pirates in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but the symptoms are quite a bit less pleasant than a charming West Country accent: spotted skin, spongy, bleeding gums, eventually leading to wholesale tooth loss, open pus-filled sores, immobility and death. Being a simple dietary deficiency, the disease could be cured by daily consumption of fruits or vegetables, especially citrus fruits (which were unfortunately, unavailable on long sea voyages).

One of the most common solutions to shipboard scurvy came as part of the solution to another unpleasant facet of life on board a ship: filthy, stagnant drinking water. As seawater was undrinkable, sailors and pirates needed to haul all of their fresh water with them, in wooden casks. Unfortunately, this stagnant water quickly grew algae and became filthy and unpalatable. Grog, a mixture of the stagnant water and rum, made the water more palatable (and avoided the predictable consequences of handing out straight rum to bored sailors and pirates). Eventually, the British Navy also added citrus juice (usually lime) to the mix, and unexpectedly, the problems with scurvy almost disappeared. This also led to the infamous derogatory epithet aimed at British sailors: "limey!"

Vitamin C deficiency is almost unknown in the animal kingdom: virtually all mammals can synthesize Vitamin C, and don't need to find it in the environment. Along with other primates, guinea pigs are virtually the only other mammal that does not synthesize their own L-ascorbic acid. Well, fruit bats, too. But I don't consider bats to be mammals. Instead I tend to think of them as horrible unearthly hellspawn that have no business existing at all. (So not an exact taxonomy as such.)

Serious cases of scurvy are all but unknown in the modern world, but apparently, a peculiar diet can lead to inadvertent self-imposed scurvy. So eat your fruits and vegetables. Yarr!

Sea-Monkeys: a Bowlful of Happiness

Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Ah, the joyous miracle of life. I'm referring, of course, to the miracle of Sea Monkey life. For millions of children, the first experience with playing god began with an advertisement in the back of a comic book, and ended with a slurry of dead Sea Monkeys dried into a hard paste on the front of a dresser. Or was that just me?

The original mail-order pets, Sea Monkeys are a fascinating biological anomaly: a variant species of brine shrimp that evolved in salt lakes and areas that saw alternating periods of moisture and evaporation. Their unusual heritage meant that they could be easily induced to enter cryptobiosis, a state of suspended animation that allowed the shrimp to be dried and packaged along with a packet of food and salt, which when combined with water, would re-animate the dormant creatures.

(Another creature capable of cryptobiosis, the Tardigrade, or 'Water Bear,' a microscopic eight-legged organism, is perhaps the hardiest organism on earth, a polyextremophile that has been shown to survive temperatures close to absolute zero, minutes in boiling water, decades without water, exposure to 1000 times the radiation that would kill a human, and even the vaccuum of outer space.)

Sea Monkeys were notable for their outlandish advertisements which illustrated anthropomorphic Sea Monkey creatures which bore no resemblance to actual brine shrimp. Nowadays, the Sea Monkey franchise isn't just limited to aquariums: runaway merchandising means you can now get Sea Monkey habitats in wristwatch form, or even on a necklace.

Behind all the hype and biological wizardry was Harold von Braunhut, one of the pioneers of the garish advertisements that filled the back pages of early comic books. He was also the inventor of the X-Ray Specs novelty, and many other novelties like 'crazy crabs,' and 'invisible goldfish.' Unfortunately, von Braunhut was also a white supremacist and ardent neo-Nazi supporter.

Pseudonym: Weaselsnake does not condone a policy of supporting white supremacy and devotion to the neo-Nazi cause. Weaselsnake is not for everyone. Please consult with a doctor if you have an irrational fear of non-whites for more than 4 days. Side effects may include wasting time at work, a sudden desire for pancakes, a love of old macintoshes and in some rare cases death (of sea monkeys).

Harlan Ellison's Voice: Way Over the Edge

Monday, May 11, 2009
Harlan Ellison likes to hear himself talk. Now that's hardly an earthshattering conclusion: Ellison's abrasive, vociferous and frequently litigious nature have been fairly well-documented online. But it was only recently that I actually heard Ellison's smug, self-satisfied attention to his own work.

The Voice From the Edge: Volume 1 is the first of two audiobook collections of Harlan Ellison's short stories, read by the author. Now, I've always like Ellison's stories, and his personality was never a terribly important factor: who cares if the author is a jerk if the stories are good?

Here's the relevant quote from the back of the box: "...only aficionados of Ellison's singular work have been aware of another of his passions ... he is a great oral interpreter of his stories."

Well, I certainly wouldn't call his interpretation great, but there's no arguing that Ellison is a passionate interpreter of his own work. So passionate, in fact, that virtually every word is screamed, shouted or howled. His delivery is most akin to a continuously rising crescendo of shrieking: a pompous, overblown, overacted cacophony of undirected passion.

The bombastic, over-the-top delivery is a bizarre contrast to Ellison's actual storytelling. I always imagined Ellison's authorial voice as dry, understated: sardonic, certainly, but letting the fantastic nature of story speak for itself. Read out loud by Ellison, however, every description and every event is given the subtly of a sledgehammer blow to the forehead. By the end of any given story in this collection, the madcap delivery has reduced the essence of the tale to clownish buffoonery.

I'm generally a fan of audio books: they don't work well for every genre or author, but when done well, and interpreted well, they can be a fantastic experience. This collection is not a fantastic experience. It is an embarrassing performance, much like an actor, so praised for his performance in one venue, who decides to release an album (I'm looking at you, Nimoy).

Ellison may be a fantastic author, but he's a poor narrator. I guess the best you could say is that Harlan Ellison likes to hear himself talk.

Pseudonym: I'm immune to bad narration. I'm a frequenter of, a community of random individuals who take it upon themselves to read and mangle the world's greatest literature. Not necessarily a problem when listening to A Child's History of England, but when you get into, say, The Three Musketeers, you will find that the mispronounciations, the awkward cadance and the monotonotic delivery will cause you to laugh and then weep.

I'm not sure what it is that makes some people oblivious to their various obvious deficiencies, but they're in full force on librivox. Some are excellent - you could almost imagine them as professional readers, where some are just awful, and you wonder why they've been the ones to read 50% of the books on the site.