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.

3 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.

2 responses so far

A wild Meetup group appears!

Mar 06 2011 Published by under Intelligent Design, Religion

The Meetup group notifications that pop up in my email every now and then are always fun. I almost want to go to this one to see if it's a sales pitch for his book or just looking for a big cathartic mess of a discussion:

Do you know that cloning, synthetic biology, entropy, and the Ice Ages can be traced to The Bible? Can the discovery of the Higgs Boson, or God particle, by scientists in CERN or FERMILAB help us perceive the spirit realm? Do you like science? Do you believe in God? Do you know that The Bible is full of exciting, scientific information?

If any of these questions apply to you, then each month you are invited to join author Donnell Duncan and his private network of friends at The Faith Science Experience. Even if you don't know anything about science but are interested, you are welcome to join us.

These meetings are open to the community and provide an open forum for discussion, discovery, and debates arising from the inevitable collision between modern scientific developments and timeless biblical truth!. It's so much fun. You won't regret it.

If you plan on attending, it's probably best for the organizer that you don't know anything at all about science.

3 responses so far

Obvious troll is obvious

Dec 02 2010 Published by under [Et Al], [Information&Communication]

I don't think Julie Zhuo knows exactly what trolling is. She wrote an op-ed for the New York Times supposedly about trolling, but it ended up being more about anonymity, "unethical" behavior and how Facebook is a bastion of hope in this world of mean, mean trolls. She defines trolling in the article as "the act of posting inflammatory, derogatory or provocative messages in public forums." If that were true, then three-quarters of the content posted on the internet could qualify as trolling.

She comes close with the word "provocative" but it's insufficient. Trolling is better defined this way:

That's the important part. Intention. It's not just Joe Tea Party shooting off his mouth about Obamacare or bank bailouts with enough expletives and epithets to smother you, it can be as simple as this, which is one of my favorites:

Troll: why do they call it an xbox 360?
Chatter1: inc troll
Chatter2: cuz they want to
Chatter3: idk, why?
Troll: because when you see it you want to turn 360 degrees and walk away
Chatter3: but if you turn 360 degrees, you're still facing the xbox

Chatter3 has fallen into the trap, despite the obviousness of it. Chatter3 has been trolled, and will continue to be as long as they take the time to respond and correct and eventually argue. It's much more satisfying for the troll if Chatter3 becomes angry in the process; the win comes in misspelled, incoherent all-caps responses.

I like good trolling. There's an art to it. It reminds people that get it that the internet - and everything else - isn't as serious of business as it seems sometimes. Obviously this is taken to the extreme by abusive people, harassing the parents of suicide victims (which has happened on several occasions, not just the one Zhou brings up) or making light of very disturbing, horrible circumstances, but those are outliers. With anonymity comes less inhibition for most perhaps, but most people would not stoop to that level of moral depravity. It's similar to my favorite criticism of atheism: without God, you're free to set your moral compass to Licentious Murderer and have at it. That comment always makes me wonder what's really holding the finger-pointer back, if anything.

Removing anonymity, as Zhou suggests, will not fix it. There are plenty of trolls on Facebook who do a damn good job of making the uninitiated angry and pulling them in to loops of intentional fallacies. Just because their real name or an approximation is next to their comment doesn't stop the giant White House threads from blowing up. People will get Real Mad and Comment no matter if their name is attached to it, or they'll just not put their real name in their profile at all. That's always a possibility.

I don't think there's a problem here. If families are being harassed, there are ways for the police to handle it. If you fell for the Xbox 360 joke or took the time to correct someone's spelling of Richard Dawkins' name (Dwakins) and then posted epic defenses of atheism, you may have just wasted time defending atheism to an atheist who happens to like making you mad.

The only thing that will stop trolls from trolling is when people stop feeding them, when people stop falling for the baits, stop taking everything so damn seriously. There's no application or software solution that will fix gullibility. Now, the sticky thing for me to figure out is if Zhou was actually trolling, and this post in response, clarifying her supposed error, is me falling for it, stepping right into the trap. I do so willingly.

6 responses so far