Look here

(by jeremy) Apr 06 2012

I'll probably be posting over here again more often. Not much science to chat about lately.

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Know Your Biomes IX: Chaparral

(by jeremy) Sep 06 2011

Fynbos in the Western Cape, South Africa*

As much as any biome or global ecoregion is a challenge to group, differentiate or otherwise generalize, the chaparral or Mediterranean woodlands (scrubland/heathland/grassland) biome may be the best example such classification difficulties. There’s perhaps more general agreement regarding the features of this biome, even if the name tends to change from author to author. Many texts will not even include this biome in their list of major regions, instead making a small reference to it in the section regarding deserts. However, these areas, considering their combined territory, contain about 20 percent of the world’s species of plants, many of them endemic gems found nowhere else. On the flipside, due to the often environmentally heterogeneous nature of this biome, organisms that are prominent, integral members of other biome classifications are found in the chaparral as well. For the sake of consistency in this post, I’ll continue to refer to this biome as chaparral, as incomplete a descriptive designation as that may be.

Specifically, chaparral biomes exist in five major regions: South Africa, South/Southwest Australia, Southwestern California/Mexico, Central Chile and in patches wrapped around the Mediterranean Sea, including Southern Europe and Northern Africa. These regions are unified by their hot, dry summers and mild winters, referred to as an archetypal Mediterranean climate at 40 degrees north and south approximately.

The vast majority of rainfall usually comes with the cold fronts of winter. Annually, chaparral can experience anywhere from 250 mm of rain all the way up to 3000 mm in isolated subregions like the west portion of Fynbos in South Africa.

Plants in chaparral areas tend to be sclerophyllous (Greek: “hard-leaved”), meaning the leaves are evergreen, tough and waxy. This adaptation allows plants to conserve water in an area where rainfall is discontinuous, but probably evolved to compensate for the low levels of phosphorous in ancient weathered soils, particularly in Australia where there have been relatively few volcanic events to reestablish nutrients over millions of years. Obviously, these plants also happen to do very well during the xeric summers of the chaparral where drought is always a threat.

Because of the aridity and heat, the chaparral plant communities are adapted to and often strategically dependent on fire. Evolutionary succession scenarios constructed by scientists typically point to fire as one of the major factors that created much of chaparral areas in Australia and South Africa from Gondwanaland rainforest. (Fire ecology really deserves at least a post of its own, which I’d like to discuss given the time in the future.)

Some of the regions in the chaparral are exceptional. In South Africa, the area known as the Fynbos constitutes its own floristic region (phytochorion) among phytogeographers, the Cape Floristic Region. While it is the smallest of these floral kingdoms, it contains some 8500 species of vascular plants, 70 percent of which are endemic. The March rose (Oromthamnus zeyheri) is one of the standout specimens of the group as well as the national flower of South Africa, the King protea (Protea cynaroides). P. cynaroides is a “resprouter” in its fire-prone habitat, growing from embedded buds in a subterranean, burl-like structure. Another endemic species, the Cape sugarbird, is shown feeding on a King protea below**.

There is one unique threat to the chaparral: anthropogenic fire. In the past, if nature had not provided a fire to burn back the accumulated brush in these areas, often the native peoples would do so, and generally speaking, the fires seemed to be controlled and effective. But increased frequency of fires due to negligence or downed power lines can potentially cause catastrophic, unrecoverable fire. Only so much tolerance to such a destructive force can be built by evolutionary processes.

*Image by Chris Eason
**Image by Derek Keats

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The new Encyclopedia of Life: Collections

(by jeremy) Sep 05 2011

I have to admit, I didn't use the Encyclopedia of Life very frequently in its first incarnation. I perused for media every now and then, or doubled checked the taxonomy for a species, but it was not a touchstone for research. The relaunch, however, gives users new functionality to make the experience more organized for personal and community use.

Like any good application, the startup/front page gives you just about everything you need. The mission statement is obvious, the search field is huge and the row of images tells you exactly what your searches will bring. The main site elements are listed below along with FAQ links, newsfeed tells you this is a busy place full of lots of other people. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr; Impression made. It's all familiar, accessible.

The main piece that I've grown to love is the collections. After you've created your account and start searching around for cute pictures of red pandas, you'll notice an Add to Collection button in the top right-hand corner of the page. Clicking the button displays a popup. Follow the prompts to create a new collection.

Collections allow you to create groups of organisms in EOL. Collections can be as subjective or scientific as you wish. Red panda could be included in a collection of the "Cutest Animals Ever" or a more natural category, maybe "Mammals of China." Once it's created, you can search for and add as many inhabitants of EOL as you wish by clicking the Add to Collection button and selecting one (or more) of your collections in the list. For the Cutest Animals Ever collection, you might want to add the echidna or the wolf spider. For the Mammals of China, you might want to add that other panda, whatever its name is.

I started a collection of monotypic taxa from the red panda, the sole species in the genus Ailurus. I searched for other monotypic taxa off the top of my head: the moose, the African civet cat, the Gingko. Then I started getting some responses from the community via the collection newsfeed. Katja said, "Don't forget the Aardvark!" Cyndy said the Western Osprey was a good candidate for the collection. Bob suggested that I add a description so that people visiting my collection knew exactly what "monotypic taxa" are. So I did:

This is how communities can grow out of collections of organisms, communities based on shared interests of one sort or another. In fact, there's functionality there to support those communities, just click the Create Community button next to your collection, add a description, invite some interested parties and start sharing.

EOL gets me thinking. It started with one of my favorite animals and quickly became a taxonomic scavenger hunt. I started researching: Just how many monotypic taxa are there? Why are they important? What does the classification say about these animals and their evolutionary history? As a writer, the answers become the building blocks for an essay. Usually there's nothing manipulable about those ideas; they spawn from reading papers, from the ideas of others. EOL provides a level of control that allows systems to be constructed that plead for further explanation.

Collection building can create new ideas, but it can also be useful for supplementing existing material. I've written about biomes and ecosystems frequently in the past, and it can be difficult to give readers a good idea of the extent or uniqueness of life in a particular region. I'm thinking about using collections in EOL when I can to create lists of organisms that constitute the ecosystem I describe so that readers can browse through the many unique organisms that live there. Excessive listing and description in prose structurally tedious; often its a choice between prose lists and long strings of bullets, which are ugly and usually scary for a casual reader.

EOL suddenly becomes a very interesting resource for science enthusiasts, educators and writers. I have some thoughts about how it could be used in more creative/artistic ways, but I'll hold off for a future post.

Go sign up and play around. It's Labor Day. The grill isn't ready just yet. EOL is a lot of fun.

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[Un]remarkable space

(by jeremy) Aug 31 2011

Another move finished. That's seven-ish in the past four years. I swear I'm not going anywhere this time.

I said that in February of this year. "We're not going anywhere this time. I swear." That's the hindsight bastardization, anyway.

There's something comforting about our apartment this time. Instead living among the bloodless ranks of plastic-sided townhomes filled with [blank] professionals - empty rooms, empty homes - we moved to an old neighborhood close to the metro. The homes are all brick here; worn, cracked, discolored. You know what it will smell like when you roam inside. The outlets are in weird places. The furnace is ancient, painted white to cover the rust patches, patched with sheet metal to cover the holes made by the rust.

Normal people get up and go to their normal jobs. The men wear normal uniforms and carry shiny toolboxes to white vans. There's a bunch of normal kids who beat the shit out of each other and chase the stray cats in the alleys. The kid upstairs pounds our ceiling running (Imagine: all that force through the little pressure points). I imagine his mother and I groaning in unison. Go back to sleep, kid. She clicks down the stairs in a rush every morning and Oscar growls and barks as she passes our door. Oscar hates when people are in a rush.

Some of my neighbors ride a bike to work, but I doubt they think of themselves as Cyclists. A Cyclist is a person that uses a bicycle for their primary mode of transportation even though he or she has more than enough money to use a car. The idea is that Cycling is better for your health and the planet's health than using your car, which is true, but because most normal people roll their eyes at Cyclists (Note: it doesn't help that Cyclists wear silly clothes that cost more than most bike-riders' bikes) and continue to use their cars, Cyclists usually just end up getting in the way and pissing off the normal people, which in turn makes them seek each other out and create support groups and the like. Cyclists often whine on the internet about how they're treated on the road. After they're done whining, they drive their SUV to Whole Foods to fill out the menu for their All Organic Dinner Party. You can't use your bike to pick up organic appetizers for 15 people.

Just this morning, as I loaded Heather up for school, waving to the gasman (he looked sleepy), I noticed that the vine that winds through the hedges in front of the building next door was peppered with morning glory blossoms. There's other vines too, that wind up the brick to our roof. I often stop to think about the aerial roots of young vines, how they find those comfortable little crags in stone or bark, how they nestle in and fit snug. Are they soft nodes as they squeeze their way in? Do they harden in maturity?

Part of the concrete frame around our window crumbled in last week's earthquake. I took a picture of it during the hurricane:

Earthquake damage

 After the hurricane, the maintenance guys framed and fixed it. Oscar was a little disturbed by the floating men with drills outside our window. I had to bring him into the bedroom for a co-nap the other day to calm him down. Overall, he seems happy with their work. It's their methodology he questions.

Twitter is back up. Link is up there, next to the aerial plankton. I'm working on revising and submitting some short stories. I'm thinking about which of the four novels I've started in the past couple of years I should focus on. The library around the corner has a lovely science section I want to delve into. I've been thinking about all the ecology basics posts I started years ago and wondering if I should continue work on them. I've read many papers that I never bothered to detail on here. I have some theories as to why and might even share with the world why I consistently shy away from sharing. Maybe.

The morning glories out front remind me of what I saw on a Walk the other day. A Walk is what I do sometimes to try to reduce the life-endangering fat around my midsection. I'm not really going anywhere in particular. Some people walk to move themselves from one place to another and end up getting exercise in the process. I used to be one of those people when I lived in Atlanta.

Anyway, there was a woman in her sixties bent over in her garden showing her grandson how to weed. It was a good day to weed, as my mother says, because the ground was wet. Normally, there's nothing spectacular about an older woman in the garden with her grandson. Thomas Kinkade probably thinks about that a lot as he watches his employees paint his ideas. The spectacular thing was that she, her garden and her grandson were reflected in the wide panes of a sliding glass door of her basement apartment. On this tiny plot, crammed between a busy sidewalk and an adequate living space, she did her own landscaping. There were no contracted professionals in red shirts blowing pine straw around soft asphalt, just a grandmom with her grandson in her unremarkable garden dug into a remarkable space.

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Writing arm

(by jeremy) Aug 30 2011

There's something sad about the fact that, after 10 uninterrupted minutes of writing with a pen in a paper notebook, my hand muscles ache and the tendons in my arm feel like they've been pulled from their dockings.

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Harry Potter is a survivor, maybe, but no hero

(by jeremy) Jul 14 2011

Like most of the country, sometime in the next week I’ll shuffle up to a ticket booth, shovel out 40-ish dollars and see the second half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I want to see if the movie adaptation can save that train wreck of a narrative in the last book.

I’m not really sure at what point during the evolution of the series that this essay started to come together. Maybe the bumbling luck in the Goblet of Fire. Maybe the null result of Dumbledore’s Army. Perhaps it was the trip with Dumbledore to the seacave and the ensuing helplessness in the event of his death. As I read more about Harry Potter, the less I thought of him as a hero. He is rarely cognizant of his circumstances, and even when he’s presented with ample clues, he (she?) relies on the heavy-handed power of deus ex machina to force a conclusion. It gets to the point where you wonder who is more inept: Harry Potter or J.K Rowling.

Harry Potter is like a modern-day Candide, a hapless victim, a thrall of inherited circumstance, an unwilling, unwilled window to Rowling’s world. The biggest difference, of course, was Candide was Voltaire’s rhetorical pawn and I’m not really sure what – if any – point Rowling is trying to make. I think she’s trying to tell us a story for its own sake. I think she started writing it for the kids. It’s since developed into an unintended mirror of culture and identity.

Antonia Susan Duffy wrote a piece in the NY Times in 2003 discussing the strange world of HP:

The important thing about this particular secondary world is that it is symbiotic with the real modern world. Magic, in myth and fairy tales, is about contacts with the inhuman -- trees and creatures, unseen forces. Most fairy story writers hate and fear machines. Ms. Rowling's wizards shun them and use magic instead, but their world is a caricature of the real world and has trains, hospitals, newspapers and competitive sport. Much of the real evil in the later books is caused by newspaper gossip columnists who make Harry into a dubious celebrity, which is the modern word for the chosen hero. Most of the rest of the evil (apart from Voldemort) is caused by bureaucratic interference in educational affairs.

Ms. Rowling's magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, ''only personal.'' Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family.

Now, I don’t completely agree with her assessment of Rowling’s fans – that’s habitual among the scornful – but the idea of Rowling’s secondary world as trivial and shallow resonates with my impressions of the series.
Like most modern fantasy, the wizarding world of HP is a place of trite, amalgamated whimsy. No doubt, for centuries stories and myths morphed over time, massaged by their tellers, shaped by conquering cultures and wanderers. But until recently, the extent of the myth salad we now endure was not nearly as confused. By the time stories of vampires, dragons, knights, wizards and goblins were being incorporated into video games, the motifs were becoming woefully overused. Rowlings world is a mashup of a mashup of a mashup with no binding principle, no underlying metaphysical unity. Voldemort strikes fear into the hearts of the most powerful wizards, but he can only kill one person at a time. He and his black broom band scare a few people in London. The most horrible spells are nothing more than a knife in the dark, a beating in a small alley. But if the world is truly “only personal”, Armageddon comes with a flick of the wrist.

Should we expect anything else in this age? I don’t think so. It fits the times. Harry is the perfect man-child: ineffectual, entitled, spineless, lost, confused and utterly reliant on a decisive father figure and the life-filling drama from his friends. Even in the end he cannot rise above his circumstance – Rowling won’t let him. He must be nannied beyond the grave to rise up – truly undead now – and actualize the “we had it all along” narrative deception. In the wake of his resurrection, the victory of the good guys is like all the stories we spoon-feed to our kids in America: loud, inconsistent, sugary and indulgent. As I read it, I could only think of Heather’s eight-year-old nephew going on in detail to me about how he’d like to buy a pool so he could fill it with sharks and blow up the sharks with a rocket launcher.

The story really isn’t about Harry at all. The protagonist is Dumbledore as far as I can gather; he’s the only one that really knows what’s going on at any time. So why make the mistake of an amateur novelist? Passive characters can be excellent narrators of a story and still play a big part or turn out to be the most important piece. It’s hardly fulfilling to follow someone so empty.

Heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of something bigger. In a place where the end of you is the end of the world, is it possible to be a hero? Perhaps it’s better to call Harry Potter a survivor rather than a hero, and the frame of that story is a very different shape than the one Rowling forced this story into.

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I'm reading some fiction this Sunday in Baltimore

(by jeremy) Jul 07 2011

So if you're in the area and want to swing by, it should be a good time.

I've been working on a series of short stories, and I'll be reading a couple of the smaller, more complete pieces in the series at the event on Sunday. Fernando Quijano III will also be reading, and the evening will end with open mic. More details on the gallery website.

The event is made possible by PoetryInBaltimore.com, and hosted by my good friend Angela Horner. She's written a great post on her site introducing the event and discussing the relationship between knowing a writer's work and knowing them in person.

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To dearest CFI and 'the secular movement'

(by jeremy) Jul 05 2011

It's hard to take any of you seriously as intellectual activists when you indulge in high school bullshit. You should lobby the Science Channel for a reality show. For realsies.

Links via John and ERV. Very, very entertaining, particularly the post that starts: "Dear Rebecca, Fuck you."

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Selected posts

(by jeremy) Jul 01 2011

Finally got around to adding a tab for a list of the better posts I've written under the VG banner over the years. Navigating tags is a pain, this seemed like a much better way to gather up the more substantial work I've done over the years. Brought back a lot of memories in the process.

 

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I don't write about science anymore

(by jeremy) Jun 20 2011

...but I want to.

For the past four years, we've been bouncing around the eastern seaboard, and toward the end there, I just wanted to be home. Heather and I have had a recent tragedy that brought us back, and this time, we're staying. I love my home, I love DC, love Maryland. Hopefully we're here to stay.

It's been tough to keep working beyond my dayjob at times. This impermanence, I think, has fostered some interesting ideas for fiction, for telling stories about people, but hasn't given me the stability I had in college for studying, for absorbing more technical ideas and writing. It's something I've grown to miss.

There's a wonderful groundedness that comes from taking new research, pulling from old and spinning it into a clean essay. It's a sharp contrast to the tepid apathy of this age, where ideas have become a kind of currency, assigned a material weight, proposed for acceptance as something that can be measured and held. We want to pin them to our lapel with a flourish, a great red feather, this idea of self, identity defined by this concept or our perception of it. It is with the utmost importance that this idea - the defining idea - is handled with care; only apt fingers - knowing hands - can draw from it the will to stand in a courtroom and demand respect.

But a demand for respect is always inherently a request. The affirmation is sought from an established entity, which adds a fascinating undercurrent to these interactions: if we were truly defined by an idea, would we seek such an approval? A demand is not a request; we demand things by actions, not words. Demands are not things that are sanctioned by others, they are done. Art demands attention and acceptance by its existence. The greatest artists do not request approval to create, they do so with courage to cut deep into themselves and smear the inner beauty, love, anger, hatred, disgust, selfishness, despair over their canvas. The demand to see, to hear, is made by the boldness or subtlety of the piece itself, the skill of the artist to manipulate our senses. It's an argument that seeks no response.

To see ideas treated without such regard is puzzling. We continue to spiral deeper into splintered subculture, siphoning down into tiny minorities seemingly only compelled by the shared acknowledgement of contrast, a shade of a hue. By starting with a wide cultural category, one can trickle down into outlying areas where the subcategory defies its super-category and crosses over into another camp entirely. What a grand star chart you could create with the categorization of identity-defining ideas.

Willingly, we walk fields of post-modernist apathy in These Uncertain Times. I marvel at the depth of despair in some, the depth of ignorance in others and those tiny, peripheral flickers of hope. Blink and they're gone. We're headed somewhere, but I don't think anyone knows where it is. The internet is rife with accusations of intellectual dishonesty and calls for reason, rationality, but the reality is that even most fervently demonstrative of these virtuous human beings is as deeply hypocritical as those they demonize. There are some things in life that are only worth a smile and a shrug. The point is, you have to keep walking.

To find stability again, enough stability to delve into something tangible will be a relief from the ether of creativity. I never said it was a heavy ether, mind you, but enough to compel me to continue writing about people, about ideas, about feelings and irrationality and hands and slips of memory, of sense. To write creatively is a compulsion; to write about nature, about reality - that is work. My saving work.

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