The new Encyclopedia of Life: Collections

Sep 05 2011 Published by under Animals, Endangered Species, Environment, Internet, Red Panda

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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To dearest CFI and 'the secular movement'

Jul 05 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

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."

6 responses so far

Format, prescriptivism and Plato's chair

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Journalism, Writing

Even during blogging droughts I try to keep up on the continuing discussions among science bloggers. I came across a couple of posts in my catch-up reading that I really enjoyed reading, and wanted to share a few thoughts on format, language, standards and how they apply directly to what I've experienced.

Melody has a post up at Child’s Play discussing a piece from the New York Times about literacy and grammar, the general “decline” of English:

…to pull the strings together: I agree that part of what’s driving linguistic variation may be, as Greene argues, a lack of strong “top-down” constraints on variation. Basic literacy has exploded, but not well-normed literacy, and that probably has a lot to do with the massive educational disparities that exist in this country. On a societal scale, our education system is clearly failing to get everyone ‘up to standards’ [3].

She goes on to say that there is an inherent moralistic imposition in the standardization of English taught that doesn’t account for its colloquial value among communities.

I can see the reasoning, but I think that’s based on a incomplete idea of how the English language is accepted/presented among even the most pedantic English teachers and grammar Nazis. As Melody says, it constitutes an enormous body of words, phrases and mechanics, a mish-mash of bastardizations and misinterpretations that become a new standard; part of the beauty of English is its affinity for new words, new turns of phrase, its capacity for the incorporation of novelty. I grew up calling Capicola ham cabigal, and Ricotta cheese rigot – other Italian Americans knew what we meant, but the gourmet shop clerk did not. But I think underlying even the most nuanced dialect of English is the same basic structure that makes it, well, English, and that the standard isn't necessarily in conflict. It was made clear during my education that grammar constituted ground rules, and knowing exactly how to break the rules is what has produced our greatest writers and speakers. That was always emphasized.

Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is a great example of this. Faulkner writes from the differing perspectives of a group of Southerners – family and friends – that surround the death of a friend and mother. Each chapter is written from one character’s perspective in their own dialect. Faulkner’s range is astounding. Darl is traditionally articulate and perhaps, the vessel of the author. Vardaman is young and brash, his language is crude on the surface, but Faulkner writes with such skill that he evokes beauty from “poor” grammar and non-standard English. Faulkner was breaking the rules in all the right ways over 80 years ago, appreciating the way people truly spoke the English language, because he knew how to.

In other words, fiction hasn’t been following the rules for a long time. Authors recognize the value of colloquialisms. No one has written like Herman Melville since Herman Melville. We've always loved slang, always welcomed it warmly into general use; then we abuse it until it's annoying and drives us all crazy. You're on notice, lolspeak.

I think it’s more productive to consider language in an applied, categorical sense. The proper use of language depends on the standards of the medium or the institution governing the medium. In gaming, social media and blogging, anything goes because it’s unmediated. We write without filters. Our online communication is usually intended to be an exchange rather than a presentation. We want feedback. I usually don’t bother with punctuation when I’m getting rolled by pro nerds online. In the interest of brevity, why type “you’re” when you can get the same result with “ur”?

But when I go to work, I have an industry standard to uphold. I need to communicate technical information in the most clear, direct fashion that I possibly can so that there is no confusion for the end user. I need to take industry slang and translate it. My terminology needs to be precise and consistent. It needs to conform to the style guide. The terms Window, Screen, Dialog have specific meanings that need to describe the same components in every instance.

Similarly, journalistic writing is formulaic, as Hannah is fast realizing (congrats on the internship!). Using the inverted pyramid feels awkward at first, but like technical writing, it’s purposefully restrictive. News story writing is bread and butter; content needs to be concise and churned out quickly. The formula streamlines the process, helps the writer to focus the delivery of information. Not every piece is a story, and usually only experienced journalists are given feature pieces. But even the expansive features in newspapers and magazines are formulaic. In fact, the vast majority of blog posts you’ll find on – including my own – are predictably constructed. The structure exists because it’s useful.

The inverted pyramid isn’t the frame, the marketing scheme of “Science Is Cool” or “Science Is Friendly” is. Scientific research in the context of a journalistic interpretation is often treated like Plato’s chair – we judge its value based on some theoretical purest form, a subjective, ineffable idea of the research. The truth is, however, that it’s the skill of the writer working within the format that determines the piece’s informative value to us. It is not a story until it’s given a narrative; the quality of the narrative is dependent on the skill of the writer.

When you’re forced to work within a restrictive format, along certain standards, it teaches you precision that can be applied to more creative formats. Let’s not pretend that there aren’t levels of communicative ability; some have a better mastery of language than others, but I think all lovers of the English language hope that this appreciation extends to its outer reaches, its innovations, its novelty and its interpretation.

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True stories

Nov 29 2010 Published by under [Humanities&Social Science]

I recently had a discussion with an acquaintance of mine, another writer – a very successful one, I might add – that I think pertains to this split of disciplines I've become exposed to and interested in. It started with a post regarding the medical benefits of prayer. I was surprised when he linked a paper claiming scientific support for the linked article without referencing the many studies that have been published that have negative or inconclusive results.

When I went ahead and referenced some of these papers (which I'm too lazy to link, I'm sorry), for the sake of those reading who may have taken his word at face value, I received a lambasting of science in reply, a 500 word essay describing every little annoyance he felt with science, its practitioners and proponents.

I'll try to condense it, because I don't want this to turn into a post that tackles an issue so much as gives a brief overview. His main problem, I think, is with the idea that science can solve everything, that science can divine anything, but it was a little convoluted. He made some claims of personal religious experiences (which is eye-rolling, but fine) and criticized the lack of “wise” descriptive power (love, understanding of emotion, relationships, etc.). He sneered at the idea that the human animal was just that, and tossed away the dismal fatalism of a materialistic view of the world. Again, this is all fine. There are many that share his opinion.

What really struck me was his profound distaste coupled with an equally profound lack of understanding of what science is, how it's done and why it's not “wise” and shouldn't be criticized for it. Don't get this wrong: This post is not a defense of science. There are enough of those out there. This is an expression of irritation from a writer that hopes to find some level of truth through art, not craft contorted expressions of religious fantasy to support and perpetuate an indulgence. Potential truths are very important here; I think that's all we really have to work with.

Tim O'Brien wrote a wonderful book back in the 90's called The Things They Carried. It dealt with creative and personal truths, the process of taking what is true and converting it into what sounds true:

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, "Is it true?" and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.

For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen - and maybe it did, anything's possible even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, "The fuck you do that for?" and the jumper says, "Story of my life, man," and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead.

That's a true story that never happened.

O'Brien does this in the book. He rewrites several parts of the book with himself in and out of the circumstances and making different choices. It's a play on the discretion of the author, holding him or herself to lingering, potential truths about the characters – about themselves – and finding ways to explore some of them.

Every writer is different and every artist has the ultimate say in their work. If they say it happens, it does. Period. But we come back around and ask, what choices lead up to this moment? Could this have been handled better, differently?

We know how the earth and how life has evolved over billions of years of this planet's history. There is mountains of evidence to support these ideas and string them together into a relatively coherent narrative of existence and development. If we know this, as a society, even if it is not effectively communicated to the masses, I feel a responsibility as a writer to contend and wrestle with this knowledge. It's a tragic potential truth about human beings. It sounds true, even if it isn't entirely, if the smaller details are bound to change, to become woven into the larger story, fractionally nudging the hue instead of spinning the color wheel.

So how do we write in reference to this knowledge? I don't think it changes the craft of fiction at all, actually, but it can give books like Sinclair's Babbit much more significance, the distracted, integrated, domesticated person of (self) importance that is nibbled by daydreams of a more carnal nature. This doesn't mean evolutionary theory is a valid mode of literary criticism (God help us). All I'm saying is that the potential truth of materialism, the potential truth that we human beings are “just” animals rings true from a literary perspective. The confusion and broken perspectives, the constant writhing under the thumb of propriety, the rebellion of lovers, the unbearable draw from one relationship to another, the celebration of coincidence as providence, even the escapist's creation of a world of hope, of good and evil, light and dark sides and the simplicity of choice evoked in these worlds – all of these aspects of fiction sound like a species coming to grips with thousands of years of cultural indulgence – our own creation in denial – to hide our more base, “animalistic” inclinations.

To flat out deny a materialistic worldview particularly for reasons as superfluous as “it's dismal” seems a disingenuous and misled, even for someone who's job it is to make the imaginary come to life.

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Environmental framing again, a clarification

Aug 20 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

Matt Nisbet has a post up at Big Think referencing a brief interview with Peter Groffman regarding the recent open-access science communication issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Both are worth a read. I was linked in the article (this post, a brief review of some of the content), and while I appreciate it, I do want to clarify and perhaps expand the gist of my post.

Nisbet’s post stated that I feared the “dumbing down” (his words, not mine, despite the quotation marks) of the science for public consumption. I think that certainly represents one of the concerns of framing critics, especially those in the scientific community. Personally, that’s not high on my list. I’m sure the ESA and associated scientists will be able to represent the science behind the problems and potential solutions plainly and efficiently.

The post I wrote was an attempt at expressing a general aversion for comprehensive marketing schemes and questioning, when it comes to the “humanities” portion of the plan, whether or not honesty – in worldview, philosophy or fiction – was important enough to preserve in its entirety. Some of the papers in the publication sounded like every business case, proposal and requirements doc I’ve ever read or written, which is fine, by the way; it’s typical. I’m sneering because documents like those are mostly industry fluff and setup language for the real meat, which can be boiled out rather easily and comprises a very small portion of the actual verbiage. We toss charts and graphs into technical documents to fill them out and give a visual for the sake of color or flow (or because it’s a standard) instead of representing an accurate depiction of process.

I’m being stubborn. Ultimately I think it’s sad and reflects poorly on us that people in positions of influence believe these kinds of campaigns are the key to reaching "the public," that only through demographical media saturation can we ever hope to teach science and instill environmental stewardship. Advertisers have to petition tribally to encourage us to buy; McDonald’s runs unique, culturally stereotypical commercials for WLITE 101.3, WURBAN 105.7 and WROCK 99.1 and it’s permissible to assume that the listeners to those stations are okay with being pigeonholed. I’m usually told something along the lines of “What do you expect?” or “You think this is new?” or “It’s just personal preference. I actually like that commercial,” and probably rightly so. It just doesn’t sit well with me.

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Communicating environmental realities: framing and fiction

Aug 03 2010 Published by under [Biology&Environment], [Science in Society]

ResearchBlogging.orgI finally found the time yesterday evening to read through a few of the papers from the latest Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which is focused on science/environmental communication this time around. The majority of the articles are driven by Nisbet's ideas about framing in general, but I don't really want to dive back into that mire of rhetoric, at least on a broadside.

I'll start out by saying that I do agree to some extent that the idea of stewardship is a good one in that it has been adopted by folks with very different worldviews. I think overall Wilson's The Creation took a good step of putting aside some of the more tedious ideological blockers between materialism and spiritualism in regard to feeling a connection to nature in any affectionate sense compelling enough to engender stewardship. Since it was published (and I'm sure before then) much work has been done to piece together a much more diverse, welcoming environmental movement.

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