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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Fill that news cycle with paranoia

Mar 17 2011 Published by under Journalism

Wring your hands, America.

At first, the disaster coverage was somber, straightforward. The major news outlets broadcast raw video, fly-over footage of the humbling scale of the swell of seawater over communities and farmland, over cars, houses and fleeing citizens. Narrators were truly affected. You could hear it in their voice. There was this terrified awe in the scant words that could be found to describe one of the few events that can reduce all our industrial might to insignificance in a matter of hours.

Then, a few days later, the scurrying begins.

Inevitably. the media is trying to diversify the coverage of the disaster in Japan to fill the 24 hour news cycle. This is where it starts to get really bad.

Journalists begin the search for new ways to describe the situation. They start applying inane metaphors. The very real, very frightening struggle is put into fantastic terms. Japanese engineers are battling fire-breathing dragons and vicious sea monsters, the implication being that these figments are somehow aptly descriptive of a deadly encounter beyond the norm. More descriptive, perhaps, than the horror of the situation itself: the decimation of large coastal communities by earthquake and tsunami and now the potential of a meltdown caused by the latter, the fallout from which could be spread across thousands of kilometers. These workers have signed their lives away to attempt to avert this tertiary catastrophe and sacrifice their own health to preserve that of others, and somehow, this real act of heroic dedication becomes an appurtenance to a trite metaphor.

Largely, the focus has shifted from the aftermath in Japan to how it affects us, in this country. We're in a panic about the radiation invading the US with any potency. Anti-nuclear politicians take the cue to dust off the old soapbox and pump their fists in anger. The sanctioned paranoia drives us to care, to question our own safety. While watching Henry Waxman blather on insincerely about nuclear safety I imagined every nuclear engineer in the country scrambling to book a two week vacation while the politicians pitch a new tent in the ongoing self-serving moralistic circus of opportunity.

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