March 30, 2010

Lorelol: Character specificity and the building blocks of interaction

Last post I think I could have been more clear with my terminology. In the title I claimed that WoW was societal escapism and not fantasy escapism, which is exactly what I mean, but the paragraph after the quote kind of gives the impression that I’m acknowledging the opposite by using the term “escapist fantasy”, which I also mean, but could be confusing. So, for the sake of clarity, fantasy escapism is escapism through a fantasy narrative while escapist fantasy is a general term for the medium through which a person could escape. I won’t be using the latter again in this series to avoid confusion.

Now that I’ve thoroughly stickied my fingers with semantics, more on WoW as societal fantasy.

This pretty accurately sums up the first post in the series:

People don’t play WoW to escape into a story, they play WoW to escape into another society that celebrates social awkwardness and in general, provides you with an immersive place to interact. If they wanted to escape into story, there are plenty of great console and PC games with no online, social components. Really, WoW is just a more complicated Gaia Online, or a multi-tiered chatroom with PvP combat. It’s a place for gamers to congregate or for new gamers to get a taste, like Bainbridge did. I don’t see it as any different from any other online community; people gravitate toward others that have the same interests, form tribal bonds and identify allies and opponents.

I will agree with Bainbridge that WoW poses alternatives to reality, but it’s not through the NPCs and the environments of the simulated world of Azeroth; that’s just window dressing, a necessary point of reference for the establishment of an integrative, alternative society of players.

March 26, 2010

Lorelol: World of Warcraft as societal escapism, not fantasy escapism

On CultureLab, one of the New Scientist blogs, there's an interview with William Sims Bainbridge, who has spent 2,300 hours studying World of Warcraft in game to write an upcoming book about his studies: The Warcraft Civilization: Social science in a virtual world (links to sample chapter).

He was asked:
You've spent 2300 hours in World of Warcraft (WoW). Is it more than a game?

Like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, WoW isn't just escapist fantasy. It's posing alternatives to the world we actually have today. It raises questions about environmentalism and colonialism; it asks how people are going to be respectful of each other in a world in which there aren't enough resources.

Tolkien believed that all good people could come together on the same side. This is one of the biggest questions that humanity faces: can we have a world consensus by which we're all partners in finding a solution? Or, like the Hoarde [sic] vs Alliance situation in WoW, are we doomed to be in separate factions competing ultimately to the death? It touches on very serious issues but in a playful way.
With all due respect to Dr. Bainbridge, he's wrong about WoW; it is indeed just an escapist fantasy, just as Lord of the Rings was, just as Tolkien intended it to be. Of LotR, Tolkien has written: "It is neither allegorical nor topical... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

March 22, 2010

Reconstructing full-glacial Europe

When Charles Lyell first used the term Pleistocene in 1839 to replace the "long and awkward" use of Newer Pliocene (preceded by, of course, the Older Pliocene), it was done in the interest of streamlining the terminology, but the split of Newer and Older Pliocene was based on the fossil evidence of the time. Lyell designated the split of the Pliocene by recognizing a higher percentage of extant snails and other mollusks found in strata from this Newer Pliocene or, now, Pleistocene period. About 70 percent of the mollusks from this period were extant animals, compared with 50 - 70 percent from the Older Pliocene.

Today, snails are still used as an important index for reconstructing paleoenvironments. Michal Horsák and researchers from the Czech Republic, Russia, Poland and Slovakia published a study a couple of weeks back in the Journal of Biogeography that attempts to determine the ecology of full-glacial Europe using index species like snails and trees to identify possible refugia - modern environmental/ecological analogs of the coldest periods in Europe tens of thousands of years ago based on fossil evidence and modern assemblages.

Recently, evidence has pointed to the Russian Altai and Sayan Mountains as modern analogs. The climate matches, cool and relatively dry. Surface pollen spectra in these areas are very similar to samples from full-glacial central Europe. The ranges are also home to similar and in some cases, identical biota. Mammal assemblages are largely comparable. So-called sibling species of trees from full-glacial Europe have been found in the area, including the Siberian pine, Siberian larch and Round-leaved dwarf birch(related to or subspecies of the Swiss pine, European larch and arctic dwarf birch respectively).

Photo by Ondřej Žváček

The most important biotic reference is the snails found in the Altai Mountains for several reasons, as the authors note:

First, snail shells can be easily identified to species, whereas plant pollen is often identifiable only to genus or family. Second, each shell represents one individual, which enables an accurate estimation of population density. Third, unlike pollen or vertebrate remains, snail fossils are usually deposited in places where they lived, thus enabling a fine spatial resolution of the resulting palaeoenvironmental reconstruction. Fourth, snail fossils are well preserved in conditions that are usually poor in other fossils, especially in dry and calcium-rich sediments.

Samples were taken at 118 sites in a 300 km transect in southern Siberia, 10 x 10 m2 plots and the sites were all characterized according to environmental conditions. The researchers used 13 designations, and instead of reinterpreting or just glossing them over, I'd rather just quote in detail since they were able succinctly describe each environment. These categories are not only important in interpreting the results, they give a good impression of what the environment is like in this portion of the Altai Mountains (n signifies the number of sampled sites).

Taiga (n = 11): mesic to wet coniferous forest with a species-poor herb layer and a well developed moss layer, usually dominated by Abies sibirica, Larix sibirica, Picea obovata or Pinus sibirica.

Hemiboreal forest (n = 22): dry to mesic coniferous or deciduous forest with a species-rich herb layer and a sparse moss layer, usually dominated by Betula pendula, Larix sibirica or Pinus sylvestris.

Wooded fen (n = 2): wet woodland with accumulation of base-rich organic sediment, dominated by Picea obovata.

Treeless fen (n = 4): open base-rich fen with sedges and mosses.

Acidic mire (n = 7): bogs and mineral-poor fens.

Alluvial scrub (n = 3): riverine woody vegetation with willows (Salix spp.).

Tall-forb vegetation (n = 5): tall herbaceous vegetation in wet places, usually along mountain streams.

Alpine grassland (n = 3): short herbaceous vegetation above the timberline.

Shrubby tundra (n = 8): low-shrub vegetation above the timberline, dominated mainly by Betula rotundifolia (= B. nana s.l.), in places also by Dryas oxyodonta.

Steppe (n = 36): both short-grass steppe and tall-grass (meadow) steppe, in places with low shrubs such as Caragana or Spiraea.

Saline grassland (n = 4): grassland on soils with elevated salt concentration, usually in shallow depressions in steppe landscapes.

Meadow (n = 8): mesic grassland used for regular or occasional hay-making.

Scree (n = 5): treeless talus slopes.

As you can see, steppe and Hemiboreal forest tend to dominate the landscape, dry, cold areas very similar to what is thought to have been the conditions of central Europe during Pleistocene glacial periods. The strange thing, generally speaking, is that snails are poikilothermic animals, meaning that their body temperature is susceptible to changes in ambient temperature, placing them under risk during sudden cold snaps. The authors suspect that these relict snails have not colonized warmer areas because of increased predatory pressures, which seems to line up with a particular ecological circumstance: homeothermic predators have higher metabolic requirements and might not be able to live in certain areas where these poikilotherms thrive.

Most of the index species of snails in this study were found in wooded or shrubby areas, wet microclimates protected by tree canopy or shrub cover. These wooded areas tended to be dominated by Larix sibirica and Picea obovata, the sibling species of the European L. decidua and P. abies, evidence that the vast steppes of full-glacial Europe may not have been as devoid of trees as previously thought.

So the reconstruction proceeds, trying to refine the conditions of ancient ecosystems and biomes under particular climatic or geologic pressures. It's a fascinating process, assembling such seemingly disparate evidences and mechanisms reaching across an interdisciplinary expanse to make relatively small but essential contributions like this one.

ResearchBlogging.orgHorsák, M., Chytrý, M., Pokryszko, B., Danihelka, J., Ermakov, N., Hájek, M., Hájková, P., Kintrová, K., Kočí, M., Kubešová, S., Lustyk, P., Otýpková, Z., Pelánková, B., & Valachovič, M. (2010). Habitats of relict terrestrial snails in southern Siberia: lessons for the reconstruction of palaeoenvironments of full-glacial Europe Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2010.02280.x

Laporte, L F. (1990). Establishment of a geologic framework for paleoanthropology. Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.

March 21, 2010

Ten Books

A political blog I read every day just posted a link to Tyler Cowen's blog listing the books that have influenced him most. I thought it would be fun to think back on the books that influenced my thoughts on ecology, water resources, and the like. It would be a snap to list novels that influenced me early in my life (I'll have to include A Wrinkle in Time as a book that greatly influenced me as a child), but I had to think a bit more about non-fiction. Here are ten books about science or the environment (in no particular order) that really influenced me.

1. Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner. This book was actually one that had the biggest impact on my views of water resources. I didn't know anything about the western water wars before I read this book. The detailed history of how the west was settled and how water become much more than a natural resource really changed the way I view many things about water and the west.

2. Bottomfeeder by Taras Grescoe: This book taught me a great deal about ocean ecology and overfishing. It significantly influenced my eating habits and my interest in ocean life.

3. Collapse by Jared Diamond: I have an interest in ancient cultures and read this book to learn why some of the most well known and developed societies collapsed. Even though some of the theories outlined in this book may not be totally accurate, it really got me thinking about how our own interactions with the environment can influence society.

4. Winter World by Bernd Heinrich. When I first became interested in biology and ecology one of the questions I most wanted to answer was "what happens to all of the animals in the dead of winter?" This book answers that question and gave me a great deal of insight into how animals deal with extreme weather conditions.

5. The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett: This book basically scared the crap out of me. But it sure taught me all about microbiology and emerging diseases, as well as piqued my interest in learning about the link between environment and disease.

6. House of Rain by Craig Childs: This book is really more a history of the Anasazi (sprinkled with the author's personal experiences), but is now one of my very favorite books. Environmental issues are tightly woven into the history of the Anasazi and the book increased my understanding of the harsh environmental conditions people dealt with in the Americas thousands of years ago. I'm visiting Chaco Canyon this fall because of this book.

7. The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson. Such a great description of our connection to the natural world. Anything by E. O. Wilson is really on my top ten.

8. The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson. Most people know about Carson's book Silent Spring, but I was more influenced by her elegant descriptions of the sea.

9. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. I found the whole concept of this book really intriguing. The book asks the question "what would happen if every single human on earth simply disappeared?"then goes to to answer that question. It's really fascinating and made me wonder about things that had never occurred to me.

10. Evolution by Carl Zimmer. I read this book several years ago when I first learned about the whole evolution vs. creation debate. This book is so readable and interesting that it really helped me figure out how to better explain evolution to other people.

If you love to read, create a list of your own! Recommend your favorite books, too. I'm always on the lookout for fabulous books I haven't read.

Protecting our waters, sustainable wolf populations and fragile bats

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March 19, 2010

Ridiculous titles, baby leopards @NationalZoo and the polar bear trade

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Periodic Table of Science Bloggers

This is a fun Friday project. David Bradley of Sciencebase is putting together a Periodic Table of Science Bloggers over on his blog (found out via Twitter this morning). It's based on the Wikipedia version, complete with hyperlinks for each element. Seems like most people are using the symbols as abbreviations for their blog or name, so I pitched in for V, vanadium, though I suppose sodium or potassium could have been more scientifically appropriate.

There's still quite a few openings, but they're going fast. Contact David via Twitter or comment on his blog if you want to be included.

March 18, 2010

Will bluefin tuna disappear?

I never really liked tuna until I was in college and discovered tuna steaks. When grilled to perfection, they tasted like juicy little pieces of heaven. This was in the late 1980s, well before I knew anything about the ecology, overfishing, or had turned into a vegetarian. But I still remember the smell of those grilled tuna steaks and I will admit the memory makes my mouth water. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten bluefin tuna since I never acquired a fondness for tuna sashimi, and now I’m happy about that. Due to the skyrocketing popularity of bluefin tuna in high-end restaurants, and the resulting collapse of bluefin in the wild, my generation will most likely be the last to eat Atlantic bluefin tuna.

I've been following the story of this fish for a couple of years, and the story just keeps getting worse. Today in my new feed I read a story that pits ecology and biology against commerce and greed.

First, let’s explore a little background. Tuna are not like the cute little cartoons on the tuna cans at the grocery store. They are beautiful, enormous deep sea predators that prey on schooling fish, squid, crustaceans, and eels. Unlike most fish, bluefin are actually warm blooded, and can even raise their core body temperatures to 75-95°F, even in water as cold as 43 °F. They can swim up to 100 miles a day at speeds up to 43 miles per hour in search of prey. They are voracious predators, scouring the ocean for their favorite foods. Tuna are also one of the most hydrodynamic species in the ocean, able to retract their dorsal and pectoral fins to reduce drag while swimming. In addition, they’re migratory and one of the most well traveled ocean species. Some have been tracked swimming across the Atlantic several times in one year.

Bluefin have been a staple of human diets for millennia. They used to be so numerous in the Mediterranean that stories tell of how they fed the Roman legions 2,000 years ago. Tuna also played important roles in most other European histories when bluefin over 15 feet in length and weighing up to 500 pounds were common in the east Atlantic (the largest bluefin ever caught weighed a whopped 1,500 pounds!). Today, bluefin are very rare in the east Atlantic because of overfishing. Not only are they rare, many scientists and conservation organizations think that they will become extinct in our lifetimes.

Now let's get to the part related to biology and ecology vs. commerce and greed. According to the WWF:

There are 2 populations of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The smaller western stock has declined by nearly 90% since the 1970s and is classified as Critically Endangered. The larger eastern stock, which spawns in the Mediterranean Sea, is currently classified as Endangered but in fact is in danger of complete commercial and biological extinction. Both populations are classified as overfished, but overfishing continues.

Today, bluefins are the most valuable fish in the sea because their flesh is turned into what is evidently delicious melt-in-your sashimi. They're so valuable, in fact, that much of the tuna now caught is caught illegally. To highlight just how valuable bluefin are, in 2001, one 440 pound Pacific bluefin tuna sold for $220,000. That’s just one fish! This year, another huge fish sold for $177,000 (two Japanese sushi restaurants bought it). All just because people like eating bluefin sashimi. A twist in this tale of tuna is that Mitsubishi (yes, the Japanese car company) is now buying up huge quantities of bluefin and putting them in deepfreeze. Why? Many speculate that once bluefin becomes commercially extinct, the corporation that is currently buying 40% of bluefin and is based in the country buying up 80% of the bluefin, can rake in huge profits selling a fish that no longer swims in the oceans.

Scientists and fisheries experts have recognized for years that the bluefin are severely overfished and have tried to try to do something to create a more sustainable harvest. However, the organization that is supposed to monitor the bluefin trade and set sustainable catch limits (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) went against the advice of its own scientists and allowed a 2009 catch of 22,000 tons instead of the recommended maximum of 15,000 tons. And that’s just the legal catch. Some reports say that the real annual catch is really more like three times the level recommended to ensure sustainability.

Even though ICCAT’s own scientists now say that current bluefin spawning is less than 15% of historic levels and that the species should be listed as endangered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and its trade more tightly regulated, many nations oppose listing the species and don't want CITES to play a role in regulating tuna (perhaps because it’s lucrative commercially?). If you’re not familiar with CITES, its mission is to ensure that international trade does not threaten the survival of wild plants and animals. Seems like CITES should play a role in the bluefin trade if CITES means anything at all.

Recently, conservation organizations have pushed not only for reduced catch limits, but for a complete ban in the trade in bluefin to allow the species to recover. Today, members of a UN wildlife organization discussed this proposal, then voted against banning the trade of bluefin.

One of the most common arguments against cutting back the annual catch limits or an outright ban is that such tactics will economically hurt small countries that depend on the tuna trade. Well, what will the economic impact be when bluefin are gone? Many of the countries opposed to smaller catch limits or outright bans say that claims of imminent extinction are overblown. Based on everything I’ve read, I think estimates of impending collapse of the bluefin are probably correct. But it's unlikely that even a total ban of bluefin fishing would actually save the species. Even if the ban had been approved, Japan would ignore it.

So here is the basic conflict between ecology and biology, commerce and greed. Is it better to reduce or stop the harvest an animal in hopes of saving it from extinction, which in turn will preserve the species for future generations? Should we want to save not only a species, but its role in the ecosystem? Or is it better to catch all we can right now, make as much money as possible, and pig out on sashimi while we wait for an entire species to disappear? At the moment, it appears that commerce and greed are winning out.

Much of the information in this post came from the excellent documentary "End of the Line."

Journalism has always been communal

I caught Bora’s post about the changing definition of journalism the other day and followed the subsequent bits of conversation from Twitter between Bora, Ed and David. It’s semantics, mostly, but it does raise an interesting question about the line between professional and amateur, something which I think is worth hashing out, and eventually will tie in with this insecure business of self-analysis and self-definition.

Back in January of 2008, I said, in a post called Defining Bloggers by Medium:

Bloggers have the unfortunate tendency to define themselves solely by their medium, as if considering themselves "writers" would take away their net cred or even worse, in the case of science bloggers, place them in a category with science journalists.

Blogging can be a journalistic augment if it’s purposed to be, a more personal element in a larger sphere of information exchange. But I think we need to consider that the movement from formulaic, “dry” news stories to feature writing is not a new thing; blogging, in a sense, is another step in the push to integrate stylistic perspective and subjectivity into journalism that really took off in the twentieth century. The voice of the author has become more prominent in general for better or worse, but that has been going on for decades.

I don’t think place has been emphasized enough in this discussion as a defining characteristic of journalism (at least from the links I’ve followed, perhaps I’m wrong). The sense that the journalist is “reporting from” somewhere and with someone is, I believe, an integral, imperative element to any feature piece. It’s important to the story to talk to people close to the subject, studying the effects, people that know where to go so the writer can see with her own eyes exactly what she's supposed to be writing.

People aren’t just a source. They aren’t middle-men. They’re characters in the story of the topic. They’re participants; they’re tangible and accessible for the reader. You can’t sit down with data and glean perspective. People are the story. A skilled journalist can use these voices to tell the narrative, in the absence of her own, opening a window into someone else's world. This doesn’t mean that access to raw data isn’t important; it means that the idea that people are an extra step or analogous to books or other repositories of information is skewed at best.

It sounds nice to say that due to these technological advances, we can all be artists/writers/musicians, but it’s misleading. I can spend the next ten years painting every day, but if what I paint is demonstrably poor quality in reference to the accepted standard, I’m not an artist, I’m dabbling. There’s an affirmation that is necessary from the established community, through an "in" critical evaluation or a paycheck, usually, that gives you ground to now call yourself a professional. It’s an important distinction. Let’s not pretend there’s no gradient of low to high quality reporting and expect to be able to strip out the essential elements of a professional venture and still call it by the same name. Are there writers blogging out there that should be compensated for the work they put into their blogs? Of course. But I can understand professional journalists bristling a bit when there’s an obvious lack of leg work and writing skill in blog posts purported to be equitably journalistic.

I empathize with the impulse to gatecrash, to criticize the establishment, to question the foundations of an industry, but the editorial process in professional writing is still important. The succession of editorial filters tailors and hones the content through a layered process before it’s released. We birth blog posts without an editor. It’s a part of the flavor, unadulterated you, but there’s a profound psychological value in pre-release criticism that you don’t get in blogging; a few markups and wise words from an editor can nurture the piece, opening new linguistic, philosophical or rhetorical doors you hadn’t considered before. It’s not just about catching errors before publishing; it's about using all available resources to produce a complete, well-researched, true to life narrative, a story. Journalism, and all professional writing for that matter, has always been a communal effort in this sense. Writers don’t thrive in a vacuum and never have.

The internet is a blank space. We fill it with ourselves. Blogs are HTML notebooks, they have no inherent purpose. Some of the writing done on blogs can be considered journalistic. Most isn’t, and there are few examples of true excellence. There’s established criteria for judging writing of different sorts. No one has to respect the criteria, but that certainly doesn’t make it go away.

The recent pluralistic acceptance of "blurry lines" is fine as long as they don't get too blurry. Training, work, quality and adherence to standards (not always in letter) has always been a pretty clear line between amateurs and professionals in any field.

March 16, 2010

TweetVG 3/15/10: Shrinking birds, the dying West and Dubya's conversion


On the edge of a precipice, can I ask you a question, softly,
phrased just so to evoke no more than a break of your lips?
I practiced, I fretted for three months now specifically, and more generally
for the past year. Practice culminates in the crafted performance
of a simple inquiry, defying the risk on deep cracks in the ledge;
I sundered the two between us with my weight alone.

Yes is a hand. The valley below is dim
but familiar; I’ve grown not to fear
the fall nor the landing.

March 15, 2010

The value of use

Since the driers in our community laundry room are terrible and take all day to dry one pair of jeans, we (by we I mean Heather) usually end up taking the clothes and towels to a Laundromat, which they quaintly call a Coin Laundry. Yesterday we (meaning me, Heather and Oscar) headed over to get the laundry done at a favorite coin laundry down the road a ways. It’s not the closest, but it’s the best; it’s a block from a great BBQ joint and three blocks from a dog park, where Oscar likes to incite canine rioting with his social awkwardness.

The dog park was closed, and I’m trying to stay away from BBQ for a couple months, so we ended up driving a bit further to another, less dog-friendly park. From the road I tweeted: “So much wasted space in Smyrna. Dead strip malls, out of business and for lease signs everywhere. Screams for community greening project.”

I come from the Baltimore area originally. I’m no stranger to urban wastelands. But this is different. Smyrna feels empty, even though I know it isn’t. I know there are a lot of people that live in the area, tucked away in little developments. But here we are, driving past enormous empty lots, warehouse-sized grocery stores and outlets, all empty. Nestled in between these spaces were garages and banks and some small restaurants that were miraculously, still open.

There were little leaguers practicing on the baseball fields at the rec park, which itself was in the shadow of another giant strip mall, half empty itself. We took Oscar for a walk around the park and extended our walk to circumnavigate a strange “Academy” that was situated in a large portion of the strip between an active grocery store and a completely dead and rotting wing of the school. The parking lot was ridiculous: It stretched out in front of the strip mall in a great valley, sweeping around and behind for loading purposes. Keep in mind this is only one of about five strips this size in a matter of five square miles or so.

The extent of that parking lot was appalling, so much wasted land, so much wasted potential. Here’s this cute little park behind a monstrosity of economic failure in a long swath of economic failures along the highway, and let’s be clear, these are not family businesses. These are corporate extensions, so there’s not even the respectful sadness that comes with the end of a small business.

It would be amazing to turn such a large portion of paved land into large tracts of grassland or managed forest buffering those baseball and soccer fields. It doesn’t have to be wild; indeed, there would be issues with crime if those areas were managed as refuges with thick cover. But the Chattahoochee River is less than 10 miles away, and if the tiny patch of forest behind our townhouse is large enough to accommodate daily visits from barred owls, red tailed hawks and literally dozens of species of songbirds, any amount of forest is better than these hideous boneyards strewn haphazardly around the Atlanta metro area.

Heather and I have talked about this at length, starting back in the days where we would take long drives in her old Beetle along the shore in Bay Ridge, Annapolis, after work, saddened by the giant cookie cutter mansions supplanting the old white cottages from the 1930’s, originally built and owned by crabbers, shrimpers and fishermen in a very different town. Wouldn’t it have been incredible to have the money to buy this entire peninsula when it was for sale, tear down the few temples of vanity that had cropped up and let nature take it back? Donate it to the city or the county, or some agency that could make use of it as an educational facility, and in the process, stop the unchecked, obnoxious spill of runoff into this portion of the river and subsequently, the Chesapeake.

I feel the same about this area in Smyrna. Something very special could be built in the remains of these soulless buildings, something beautiful and uplifting, but most importantly, something that people could use. The parks in North Georgia are wonderfully utilitarian, intended simultaneously as displays of the natural beauty of Southern Appalachia as well as well-maintained trails and recreational areas for boating, basking and biking.

So I’m curious if there are any NGOs working in suburban areas like these, combating this plague of empty buildings and parking lots. I wonder if anyone else has noticed these places, and how disturbing they are. I feel like they are a true detriment to the psyche, not just an offense to aesthetic sensibilities, especially in tough economic times like these. To be able to physically change these places would be an exhibition of control in a time where many have little.

March 12, 2010

Placing transitions

Been a busy couple of weeks for work, so I haven't been able to read much less write any research reviews lately, even though the weather has been perfect for a good book. The thunderstorms this week have completely flooded many of the decent hiking routes in the area, so we'll be sticking to pavement for walks until at least next weekend. But with the temperature hovering close to sixty degrees, even the sidewalk smells like Spring when its wet.

I made a commitment before I started this back up again: My focus would be personal this time around, which means that 95 percent of my work isn't online and if I had to choose between blog and fiction, fiction would always win out. So it did. I was working between chapters back and forth to create some level of symmetry between. It can be disruptive if you take time to patch the divide when the bulk of the story hasn't been written except in your head. So I decided to take the time I wasted editing before the entire piece was complete (an occasional sin) and at least generate a blog post from it, hopefully the first of a series on writing elements.

Segmenting work into digestible bits, deciding where a particular section ends and another begins, can be confounding; it's not that I dwell too long on actually doing, making the call, but it's interesting to think about where these sections of words break, especially if the narrative is unified. On a smaller scale of this notion, take a paragraph break as an example.

In my opinion, breaking the paragraph here from the previous sentence is a poor decision since both ideas are so closely tied. But others might argue it denotes a hanging partitioning of ideas, marking a transition from generality to specificity. On my table, by my process, the paragraph should stay unified or split before the transitional sentence, setting up the new idea and keeping things tightly packaged.

For chapters or scenes, it can be much more important to the entire narrative. A chapter ends with a description of the main character watching a bomb fall into a nearby village, flinging superheated timber sky-high, seeing people crawl away from the blast, limbless, screaming in a terrible panic; how would these few paragraphs change the reading if they were at the beginning of a chapter? At the end, the character is cut off from action, left to reflect in the reader's mind as a bound observer. Surely the character could act as soon as the next chapter began, but it's not a certainty, there is nothing to require further investigation of the incident. At the beginning of the chapter there is an implication of action, however. The chapter must continue in some fashion, even if the action taken by the character is to walk away. So it depends on what the author wishes to accomplish. It's a free, wordless reflection for the character (which can be a prickly business for the author) if such a scene is presented at the end of the chapter or an initial spark for action at the beginning of the chapter.

What I tend to forget is that, in the end, none of it will be pure, so it's not worth dwelling on these kinds of elements until the very end. Any impression the reader has of a natural flow is most likely going to be a patchwork of edits and replacements. That's where it really counts.

But I think transitions are incredibly important because of how fluid they are. They can determine the tone of the whole story. One well-placed transition can mark the climax or spur it on, linking disparate story elements or plot lines. They support the network, the matrix of ideas for a work of multiple paragraphs or multiple parts. A bad transition can be worse than a bad introduction ("Over the years, humans have always looked into their past for inspiration" or some such). You bungle the intro, people can read past it and recognize that you were hoping they would, because you were shooting creative blanks that morning, but if your transitions are poor, the connections are weak and at best, the reader is left with the wrong impression. At worst, the whole thing falls apart.

Writing Elements is the tag. I'll try to write more about the most important elements to my writing in the future.

March 8, 2010

The Mysteries of Cave Ecology

I’d been crawling through water for five minutes. My gloves were full of grit, my boots grating across the cobblestones in the streambed. My kneepads were not doing their job and I could feel tiny rocks digging into my knees and my shins. I stopped to readjust the padding. I moved to the side of the stream, sat down in the mud, and tossed my backpack onto the wet and glistening cobblestones. My hardhat glanced across the ceiling of the cave passage I was exploring, making a funny grating sound as the acrylic met limestone. My headlight nicely illuminated this rather short (only three feet tall!), but wide cave passage deep underneath the Cumberland Plateau in north Alabama. The passage looked like a symmetrical tube. The ceiling was nice and flat. Beads of condensation clung to the limestone, glittering like glass. Flowing down the center of the passage was a shallow stream, less than a foot deep. When I sat still, I could hear the water flowing across countless thousands of small rocks; I was sure I could hear voices calling to me, but it was only the sound of flowing water.

After moving my kneepads around a bit and cursing their ineffectiveness, I got ready to continue down the water crawl. As my headlight glanced to the mud slope, a glistening black pebble caught my eye. I looked closer. It wasn’t a pebble, it was a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus).

The next person moving down the water crawl sloshed by, and I pointed to the salamander. We both stopped to marvel at the tiny creature, living in total darkness in an environment almost totally devoid of life.

I’ve been exploring caves almost my entire life and I’ve never stopped being amazed at the delicate ecology found deep under the earth’s surface. Many creatures live in this extremely harsh environment; many not only live, they thrive. Slimy salamanders are one of the animals I frequently see underground. According to the Animal Diversity Web:

The slimy salamander is commonly found beneath stones and decaying logs in wooded areas and alongside streams, as well as in the crevices of shale banks and along the sides of gullies and ravines (Davidson 1956; Grobman 1944). It generally moves about underground using animal and insect burrows (Cowley 1999). Mean home-range area is 3.01 +/- .613 sq. meters for adults and 3.46 +/- 1.851 sq. meters for juveniles (Marvin 1998).

I’ve often wondered if the salamanders I see in caves live near a small crack or crevice that allows them easy access to the surface. Usually I see them very far back into a cave, not just around the entrance as most literature states (the salamander I saw on Saturday was at least 1,000 feet into the cave). From what I’ve read, slimy salamanders feed mainly on ants, which are never found inside caves, but they also prey on beetles and sowbugs. Cave adapted beetles do live in caves, as well as cave-adapted insects and crustaceans, so perhaps slimy salamanders can find plenty of food inside caves. Or, maybe they can easily move between the world of light and the world of dark when food or temperature conditions warrant a change.

I’ve been trying to uncover more information about the natural history of animals living far inside caves, but it’s pretty hard! I get the impression that many researchers choose to study more easily accessible animals (maybe crawling through streams, mud, and rappelling down deep pits isn't appealing to most biologists). One journal, the Southeastern Naturalist, published an article discussing the lack of information about cave-dwelling salamanders.

Recent publications have addressed the need for information regarding the natural history and monitoring of plethodontid salamanders using caves and the rock-face habitats adjacent to cave openings (Dodd et al. 2001, Himes et al, 2004, Jensen and Whiles 2000, Jensen et al, 2002, Salvidio 2001). Due to the threat of local and worldwide amphibian declines, there is a need for accurate natural history data and knowledge of population dynamics. Cave habitats are complex and present sampling challenges when attempting to detect and quantify cave inhabitants.

The lack of substantial natural history information affects not only our understanding of cave-dwelling amphibians, but other animals like bats that play key roles in not only cave ecosystems, but overall ecosystems (you'll hear lots about bats from me as I get back into the blogging groove!).

I’ll continue to look for information about the cave life I find interesting. If you have any hot tips, let me know! In the meantime, here’s a great video showing one of my favorite cave dwellers.

March 3, 2010

How do taxonomic preferences shape conservation and science?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgI’m surprised there aren’t grooves worn into our concrete slab of a back porch by now. Nightly I pace while I chat with my mom and/or dad about the day’s events. They both stay informed in retirement and it’s refreshing to file the things we learned between one another, with a healthy dose of cynicism and humor.

Global warming and conservation is a frequent topic. The other night, dad asked me, with all sincerity, no rhetoric implied: inherently, isn’t there a problem with conservation? Species become extinct, that’s history, fact, that’s process. Can we sensibly prioritize and protect with any assurance that this is a useful, productive endeavor?

Whenever I sit down to review a new paper discussing conservation issues, this is a question in my mind, as I’m sure it is for every conservation biologist and restoration ecologist. We are setting out to protect life from our influence by exercising our influence. It’s a difficult concept to justify. I don’t have a succinct answer. I’m not sure anyone does.

There’s a hope that we’re removing the damaging effects of pollution and habitat infringement by studying these organisms and creating measures to reinstate historical prevalence and distribution without furthering the problem. We hope that the science that supports these measures is more or less correct, and trust the intentions and skills of conservation managers to assess and implement strategies.

Dad and I talked about the species concept, and how that was inextricably tied to our perceptions of life, by the very fact that our brain travels along the dimension we call time and we have a hell of a time finding any useful applications of a “longview” of biological differentiation. In case you have no clue what I’m talking about, it’s the idea that species differences are temporal and created by our own perceptual prejudices, based on arbitrary or apparent genotypical or phenotypical differences. It’s a game of where you draw the line. How many or what types of differences justify a separate species? Is subspecies a useful designation? Species is an important concept in conservation, often the deciding factor in the extension of legislation to protect certain populations.

So when I came across this paper from Conservation Biology, I immediately thought back to the conversation with my father, specifically regarding perceptual preferences and how they shape science and conservation. The paper is an analysis of the frequency and depth of research based on the mammal, reptile, amphibian and bird species in southern Africa. The study questions scientific priorities, highlighting the massive inequality of attention received by differing groups of organisms.

Determining conservation priorities has been a much talked about issue in the past decade, with some groups like EDGE trying to promote a more scientific approach. It’s a question of impact and access. Is it important to protect currently endangered species if they’re doomed to extinction? Perhaps the attention should be given to species on the cusp or perhaps keystone species that are threatened. Maybe the focus should be holistic, focusing on the ecosystem and environment; instead of figuring out ways to preserve one species, a push could be made to address larger issues of disruption. Others think that all species should be treated with an equal priority.

One thing is clear: according to the study, there’s no standard at the moment.

Using the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List database, the authors compiled “records” – the number of studies associated – for 1909 species in southern Africa.

The study of large mammals dominated. The mean of associated records exceeded amphibians, small mammals, birds and reptiles by 500, 216, 15 and 2.6 times, respectively. Threatened large mammals were only slightly more likely to be studied than Lower Risk mammals.

For birds and reptiles, Threatened species seemed to be studied more frequently than Lower Risk, but the leaders of these categories are mobile (sea turtles like the leatherback and hawkbill) and in some cases, cosmopolitan species with extensive distributions. For amphibians, Lower Risk species were studied more than Threatened.

Even within groups there is a further narrowing of attention. Among large mammals, 70 percent of research was focused on ~30 percent of the total species. For reptiles, 98 percent of research was focused on only 22 percent of species.

The reasons “why” there are such large discrepancies are varied. The authors suggest that ease of access and proximity can be large factors in determining what species are studied. What’s at my figurative doorstep, which species are immediately apparent? The top three amphibians studied are frequently kept as pets. Funding can be an issue. The farther you are from home and the harsher the environment, the greater the cost of transportation and supplies.

The reasons can also be practical, studying species that affect our living conditions or resources:

Several of the most studied small mammals draw focus because they are pests (Natal multimammate mouse and African grass rat, Keesing 2000; Egyptian fruit bat, Skinner & Chimimba 2005) or because of their interesting social systems (meerkat and African mole rat, Skinner & Chimimba 2005). Additionally, the large number of records returned by the African clawed frog likely reflects the use of the species as a model laboratory organism and its status as an invasive species (IUCN 2008)…

It shouldn’t be surprising that large mammals have received so much attention. The authors found 1,855 records for the chimpanzee, by far the most for any species, because of what the apes can tell us about ourselves. Large mammals are studied because of their charisma, because people can identify with them, both the scientists and the public. We watch them eat and sleep and nurture their young like we do. They’re symbolic, icons for NGOs and even entire countries.

Take a look at the focus of the source, the IUCN database:

Among vertebrates, the IUCN has evaluated all described mammal and bird species and 99% of amphibians, but only 16% of reptiles and 11% of fishes. On the other hand, just 4% of described plants, 0.5% of invertebrates, and 0.04% of fungi and algae have been evaluated by IUCN (Vie et al. 2009).

Those numbers are abysmal. Don’t point the finger squarely at the IUCN, however; they’re just compiling. There is a significant lack of research on organisms that form the cornerstone, the trophic foundations of ecosystems. As the authors note, the results are definitely not in the spirit of ecological preservation; they seem, at best, guided by factors that are not entirely focused in origin.

It depends on the priority. Does China want to save the panda as a species or save the entire ecosystem in and into which it has evolved? Different measures are required for different scopes, but it’s important, as the danger increases, to determine some sort of standard (which doesn’t have to be single-minded in approach).

It’s clear we can’t study everything and we can’t save every species. Also, let me make clear that there’s no specific blame to be placed except on our inclinations. But now that the disparity is recognized, perhaps the approach can refined.

So, like I told my father, if the damage done is the result of our ambitions, our prejudices, then it’s our responsibility to do our very best to mitigate the damage using our very best applied knowledge. It’s all we can do.

Rob also covered this paper a couple days ago.

TRIMBLE, M., & VAN AARDE, R. (2010). Species Inequality in Scientific Study Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01453.x

March 1, 2010

Another ecology blogger joins the ranks at TVG

I'm happy to announce that Jennifer from The Infinite Sphere will now be blogging with us here at The Voltage Gate. Her posts on caving and cave ecology are always a treat and we're thrilled to have her along for the ride.

Jennifer's first blog was what initially inspired me to start blogging (forgive me Jen, I forget what it was called offhand), detailing her experiences as a non-traditional biology student. At the time, I was finishing up my biology degree at 27 and there was much to identify with.

So a big welcome to Jennifer and here's to a broader perspective at TVG.

Festival of the Trees #45: Voice

fott intro.jpg

"...proud and hopeful by the side of the road, unaware of the strange shape it will take when branches interfere with wires…"
-Jennifer Schlick of A Passion for Nature, "Branches"

"The air smells sweet – sharp clean snow marked with the fragrance of cold pine, fir, hemlock oils, and morning chimney smoke. Trees hold fluffy handfuls of snow. On the days of deepest snow drifts, the youngest trees are bent completely to the ground and hidden under heavy white blankets which reach up the trunks of larger trees and fold the whole winter world in around you."
-Jade Blackwater of Aboreality, "In Praise of Winter: Snowy Evergreen Sunrises Introduction" (Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

"The bird's nest, ferns and various orchid species are the most common of the epiphytes seen in the city of singapore."
-Arati of Trees, Plants and More, "Epiphytes"

"It was a wet spring: record-setting wet. The place had been abandoned for several months, and the resulting wall of trees and vines and weeds that surrounded the house made the leaves a real in-your-face presence. Leathery oak leaves. Sandpapery elms. Frilly chinaberry. Cedar elms with foliage that reminds me of cornflakes. All different, and all keys to identifying the tree."
Joy K. of The Little House in the Not-So-Big Woods, "When the Leaves Are Gone"

"[Sweetgum pods] remind me of mysterious southern nuts and seedpods encountered while out walking the dog in Texas. In a stiff wind, heavy pods showered down around us like hail, while others scuttled after us along the sidewalk like misshapen bugs."
Melissa of Out walking the dog, "Seed Pods and Eyeballs"

"Sometimes there is a theme underneath the broader canopy of trees, but mostly, anything tree like is accepted."
-Jasmine of Natures Whispers, "Bluebell Woods"

"The Fig tree has enormous aboveground roots. It must be due to its age & I have never seen roots so high. The height of the roots gives me a strange, but wonderful feeling of entering the tree when I walk up close. It is like being embraced."
-Saving Our Trees, "St Stephen’s Fig"

"Pawpaw is the common name for plants in the genus Asimina, with several species native to eastern North America. A. triloba has the most northern range by far of the genus, reaching into New York, and even southern Ontario, and west to Nebraska. This wide range is attributed to cultivation and distribution by Native American people, including the Cherokee and Iroquois."
-Xris of Flatbush Gardener, "Asimina triloba, PawPaw"

"Maple sugaring is simple. You wait until winter is beginning to slope off like a guest who stayed a bit overtime."
-Diane Tucker of Hill-Stead's Nature Blog, "You Can’t Always Get What You Want"

If you were living just across and if I were a tree
In that yard,
I’d delight you with fruit,
I’ll be watered with your glimpse,
just look at me in ardor,
I’d bear the sweetest fruit for you.
-Tatjana Debeljački, "A HOUSE MADE OF GLASS"

"A cluster of parchment fungi survive on a fallen tree trunk."
-JSK of Anybody Seen My Focus?, "Campground – Dam Loop: Revisited" (Fort Yargo State Park)

"I am kind of at a loss to explain how this happened… or why it took me so many years to notice it. I don’t know how many more years we’ll have canopy-height beeches in the hollow — not too far north of here, all the big beeches are dead — so I figure I’d better start paying more attention to them now."
-Dave Bonta of Via Negativa, "Beech Grotesquerie"

"I can’t imagine what it must be like to be tree-bereft, or tree-oblivious. I’m sure I’ve not been as open-hearted as I could be with trees, but I’m learning, and they are great teachers."
-Beth Patterson of Virtual Tea House, "tree love: out of the closet"

"If only it were true. But the day will come, my t-shirt will read, when all the trees around us are computers."
-Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG, "Three Trees"

"I thought that if the bomb shelter fell through, a tree house would look reasonable in exchange. And how groovy to have a tree house for sleep overs. There was one small problem with the backyard tree house. No tree."
-Rambling Woods, "All children Should be able to visit a special place in the woods..."

"Snow on a rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) branch."
-Ash of Treeblog, "Finding a way"

"Large mammals like the giant panda are particularly sensitive to fragmentation due to their need for space within a preferred habitat, the dense forest. It’s not just territorial; it has a lot to do with biodiversity. The size of these patches determines the diversity of the forest, which creates these smaller habitats like core or dense forest."
-The Voltage Gate, "Forest fragmentation and the isolation of the giant panda (a goodbye to Tai Shan and Mei Lan)

"Lying beneath a large eastern white pine is sheer bliss. Because it sheds half its needles every fall, they provide a soft covering over the hard ground. It is there I listen to the wind soughing in the pines and am perfectly content."
-Marcia Bonta, "The Tree of Great Peace"

old man and the sequoia
Since I came to the United States in 1903, I saw, faced, and heard many struggles among our Japanese Issei. The sudden burst of Pearl Harbor was as if the mother earth on which we stood was swept by the terrific force of a big wave of resentment of the American people. Our dignity and our hopes were crushed. In such times I heard the gentle but strong whisper of the the Sequoia gigantea: "Hear me you poor man. I've stood here for more than three thousand and seven hundred years in rain, snow, storm, and even mountain fire still keeping my thankful attitude strongly with nature - do not cry, do not spend your time and energy worrying. You have children following. Keep up your unity; come with me." So, in the past, all such troubles moved like a cool fog.
Chiura Obata, Topaz Moon

Festival of the Trees #46 will be at Vanessa's Trees and Shrubs Blog
Deadline: March 29
Email: [at]
Optional theme: Humorous trees (in honor of April Fools)