(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘taxonomy

“It was orderly, like the universe. It had logic. It was dependable. Using it allowed a kind of moral uplift, as one’s own chaos was also brought under control.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked before at the history of the filing cabinet, rooted in the work of Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson). He has deepened his research and published a new book, The Filing Cabinet: A Vertical History of Information. An Xiao Mina offers an appreciation– and a consideration of one of the central questions it raises: can emergent knowledge coexist with an internet that privileges the kind “certainty” that’s implicit in the filing paradigm that was born with the filing cabinet and that informs our “knowledge systems” today…

… The 20th century saw an emergent information paradigm shaped by corporate capitalism, which emphasized maximizing profit and minimizing the time workers spent on tasks. Offices once kept their information in books—think Ebenezer Scrooge with his quill pen, updating his thick ledger on Christmas. The filing cabinet changed all that, encouraging what Robertson calls “granular certainty,” or “the drive to break more and more of life and its everyday routines into discrete, observable, and manageable parts.” This represented an important conceptualization: Information became a practical unit of knowledge that could be standardized, classified, and effortlessly stored and retrieved.

Take medical records, which require multiple layers of organization to support routine hospital business. “At the Bryn Mawr Hospital,” Robertson writes, “six different card files provided access to patient information: an alphabetical file of admission cards for discharged patients, an alphabetical file for the accident ward, a file to record all operations, a disease file, a diagnostic file, and a doctors’ file that recorded the number of patients each physician referred to the hospital.” The underlying logic of this system was that the storage of medical records didn’t just keep them safe; it made sure that those records could be accessed easily.

Robertson’s deep focus on the filing cabinet grounds the book in history and not historical analogy. He touches very little on Big Data and indexing and instead dives into the materiality of the filing cabinet and the principles of information management that guided its evolution. But students of technology and information studies will immediately see this history shaping our world today…

[And] if the filing cabinet, as a tool of business and capital, guides how we access digital information today, its legacy of certainty overshadows the messiness intrinsic to acquiring knowledge—the sort that requires reflection, contextualization, and good-faith debate. Ask the internet difficult questions with complex answers—questions of philosophy, political science, aesthetics, perception—and you’ll get responses using the same neat little index cards with summaries of findings. What makes for an ethical way of life? What is the best English-language translation of the poetry of Borges? What are the long-term effects of social inequalities, and how do we resolve them? Is it Yanny or Laurel?

Information collection and distribution today tends to follow the rigidity of cabinet logic to its natural extreme, but that bias leaves unattended more complex puzzles. The human condition inherently demands a degree of comfort with uncertainty and ambiguity, as we carefully balance incomplete and conflicting data points, competing value systems, and intricate frameworks to arrive at some form of knowing. In that sense, the filing cabinet, despite its deep roots in our contemporary information architecture, is just one step in our epistemological journey, not its end…

A captivating new history helps us see a humble appliance’s sweeping influence on modern life: “The Logic of the Filing Cabinet Is Everywhere.”

* Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

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As we store and retrieve, we might recall that it was on this date in 19955 that the term “artificial intelligence” was coined in a proposal for a “2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence” submitted by John McCarthy (Dartmouth College), Marvin Minsky (Harvard University), Nathaniel Rochester (IBM), and Claude Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories). The workshop, which took place at Dartmouth a year later, in July and August 1956, is generally recognized as the official birth date of the new field. 

Dartmouth Conference attendees: Marvin Minsky, Claude Shannon, Ray Solomonoff and other scientists at the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence (Photo: Margaret Minsky)

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“What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?”*…

Crab-like body plans have evolved independently at least five times. As Jason P. Dihn explains, biologists are still trying to figure out exactly why…

In 1989, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed a thought experiment: What would the world look like if we turned back time and replayed the evolutionary tape? “I doubt that anything like Homo sapiens would ever evolve again,” he concluded. Maybe not. But crabs might.

Evolution just can’t stop creating crabs. Believe it or not, the flat-and-wide body plan has evolved at least five different times. The process is called carcinization, and it’s inspired comics, memes and entire subreddits.

Still, biologists don’t know why crabs keep evolving. Figuring it out would satisfy the online masses, sure, but it would also be a step toward solving other important scientific mysteries. For instance, why some species share evolutionary paths while others forge unique ones (looking at you, platypus)…

Convergent evolution: “Evolution Only Thinks About One Thing, and It’s Crabs,” from @JasonPDinh in @DiscoverMag.

Will crabs need to (re-)evolve a sixth time? “Alaska’s snow crabs have disappeared. Where they went is a mystery.”

(Image above: source)

* Gregory Bateson

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As we fiddle with phylogeny, we might spare a thought for Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild; he died on this date in 1937. A British banker, politician and soldier, he is best remembered for his pursuit of his passion— zoology and his collection of species. At its largest, Rothschild’s collection included 300,000 bird skins, 200,000 birds’ eggs, 2,250,000 butterflies and 30,000 beetles, as well as thousands of specimens of mammals, reptiles, and fishes. They formed the largest zoological collection ever amassed by a private individual (and are now part of the Natural History Museum). He named dozens of animal taxa, published Novitates Zoologicae, and authored or co-authored scores of scientific papers.

Related: “How Bird Collecting Evolved Into Bird-Watching.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 27, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams”*…

Loading bees for transport

And moving those bees…

About 75% of crops and one-third of the global food supply rely on pollinators such as honeybees, according to Our World in Data. But farmers have to rely on commercially managed honeybees trucked in from other states to help pollinate certain crops, such as almonds, because there aren’t enough wild bees to do the job. And trucking bees hundreds or thousands of miles is not simple…

Honeybees are disappearing due to shrinking habitats and the growing use of pesticides. When there aren’t enough bees to pollinate fields of crops, companies pay beekeepers to transport their colonies of bees for pollination season. 

“The great pollination migration” happens every year in February when the almonds bloom in California.

Pollinating the seemingly endless fields of almond trees in California requires 85% to 90% of all honeybees available to pollinate in the U.S… Bees are trucked into California from across the country…

Earl and Merle Warren are brothers, truck drivers and co-owners of Star’s Ferry Transport, based in Burley, Idaho. They started hauling bees for a local beekeeper in 1990 and moved about 50 loads of approximately 22 million bees each last year for companies such as Browning’s Honey Co.

“This is not like a load of steel or lumber. These are live creatures. This is those beekeepers’ livelihoods, so we do everything possible to keep them alive,” Earl Warren said.

Some beekeepers estimate that every time you move a truck of bees, up to 5% of the queens die… Minimizing stress for bees is critical, so beekeepers rely on experienced truck drivers to navigate difficult situations such as warm weather, few opportunities to stop during the day and inspections…

A fascinating link in the modern food chain: “A day in the life of a honeybee trucker,” from Alyssa Sporrer (@SporrerAlyssa).

* Henry David Thoreau

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As we ponder pollination, we might spare a thought for a scientist whose very field of study was (and is) made possible by bees, Anders (Andreas) Dahl; he died on this date in 1789.  A botanist and student of Carl Linnaeus, he is the inspiration for, the namesake of, the dahlia flower.

220px-Double_dahlia
Dahlia, the flower named after Anders Dahl [source]

“Nothing from nothing ever yet was born”*…

Lacy M. Johnson argues that there is no hierarchy in the web of life…

… Humans have been lumbering around the planet for only a half million years, the only species young and arrogant enough to name ourselves sapiens in genus Homo. We share a common ancestor with gorillas and whales and sea squirts, marine invertebrates that swim freely in their larval phase before attaching to rocks or shells and later eating their own brain. The kingdom Animalia, in which we reside, is an offshoot of the domain Eukarya, which includes every life-form on Earth with a nucleus—humans and sea squirts, fungi, plants, and slime molds that are ancient by comparison with us—and all these relations occupy the slenderest tendril of a vast and astonishing web that pulsates all around us and beyond our comprehension.

The most recent taxonomies—those based on genetic evidence that evolution is not a single lineage, but multiple lineages, not a branch that culminates in a species at its distant tip, but a network of convergences—have moved away from their histories as trees and chains and ladders. Instead, they now look more like sprawling, networked webs that trace the many points of relation back to ever more ancient origins, beyond our knowledge or capacity for knowing, in pursuit of the “universal ancestors,” life-forms that came before metabolism, before self-replication—the several-billion-year-old plasmodial blobs from which all life on Earth evolved. We haven’t found evidence for them yet, but we know what we’re looking for: they would be simple, small, and strange.

Slime molds can enter stasis at any stage in their life cycle—as an amoeba, as a plasmodium, as a spore— whenever their environment or the climate does not suit their preferences or needs. The only other species who have this ability are the so-called “living fossils” such as tardigrades and Notostraca (commonly known as water bears and tadpole shrimp, respectively). The ability to become dormant until conditions are more favorable for life might be one of the reasons slime mold has survived as long as it has, through dozens of geologic periods, countless ice ages, and the extinction events that have repeatedly wiped out nearly all life on Earth.

Slime mold might not have evolved much in the past two billion years, but it has learned a few things during that time. In laboratory environments, researchers have cut Physarum polycephalum into pieces and found that it can fuse back together within two minutes. Or, each piece can go off and live separate lives, learn new things, and return later to fuse together, and in the fusing, each individual can teach the other what it knows, and can learn from it in return.

Though, in truth, “individual” is not the right word to use here, because “individuality”—a concept so central to so many humans’ identities—doesn’t apply to the slime mold worldview. A single cell might look to us like a coherent whole, but that cell can divide itself into countless spores, creating countless possible cycles of amoeba to plasmodium to aethalia, which in turn will divide and repeat the cycle again. It can choose to “fruit” or not, to reproduce sexually or asexually or not at all, challenging every traditional concept of “species,” the most basic and fundamental unit of our flawed and imprecise understanding of the biological world. As a consequence, we have no way of knowing whether slime molds, as a broad class of beings, are stable or whether climate change threatens their survival, as it does our own. Without a way to count their population as a species, we can’t measure whether they are endangered or thriving. Should individuals that produce similar fruiting bodies be considered a species? What if two separate slime molds do not mate but share genetic material? The very idea of separateness seems antithetical to slime mold existence. It has so much to teach us…

More at: “What Slime Knows,” from @lacymjohnson in @Orion_Magazine.

See also, “Slime Molds Remember — but Do They Learn?” (from whence the image above) and “Now, in addition to penicillin, we can credit mold with elegant design.”

* Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

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As we contemplate kinship, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Johann Hedwig; he was born on this date in 1730. A botanist noted for his study of mosses, he is considered “the father of bryology” (the study of mosses… cousins of mold).

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 8, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is at all comprehensible”*…

There is an order to the ordered search for ordered understanding…

Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.

Modern science is typically divided into three major branches that consist of the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and Earth science), which study nature in the broadest sense; the social sciences (e.g. psychology, sociology, economics, history) which study people and societies; and the formal sciences (e.g. mathematics, logic, theoretical computer science), which study abstract concepts. There is disagreement, however, on the formal sciences being a science [as they use an a priori, as opposed to empirical, methodology]. Disciplines that use science, such as engineering and medicine, are described as applied sciences

And there is a dazzling array of “branches” of the scientific endeavor:

Acanthochronology – study of cactus spines grown in time ordered sequence

Acarology – study of mites and ticks

Aceology – science of remedies, or of therapeutics; iamatology

Acology – study of medical remedies

Acoustics – science of sound

Actinobiology – synonymous with radiobiologyAdenology – study of glands…

Browse dozens and dozens at “Index of branches of science,” from Wikipedia… whose contributors may be erring on the generous side, as the list includes such entries as “Hamartiology” (the study of sin) and “Taxidermy” (the art of curing and stuffing animals).

* Albert Einstein

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As we tackle taxonomy, we might recall that it was on this date in 2013 that Google experienced a five-minute outage affecting all of it’s services, including Google Search, YouTube, and Google Drive. During that brief period global internet traffic dropped 40%.

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