Monday, July 21, 2008

The Encyclopedia of Life

My interests are pretty wide-ranging, and they include the natural world in general, and the interactions between geology and biology in particular. In fact, I was once enrolled in a graduate program to acquire credentials to teach earth and life sciences to middle schoolers. Anyway, by an odd progression of chances while I was checking out web sources on conceptual typography (!), I ended up reading the Chronicle of Higher Education's article about The Encyclopedia of Life. This ambitious project to catalogue all of earth's species (disappearing at an alarming rate as we speak), is described on the home page as "an ecosystem of websites that makes all key information about all life on Earth accessible to anyone, anywhere in the world." Right up my little collectivist alley.

I was drawn to the article in the first place by the fact that it was illustrated in the print edition of the Chronicle (I subscribe on the web, but often read the print copy in the library) by one of Ernst Haeckel's drawings--the very same Haeckel I'd blogged about a couple of weeks ago. This image, of Aulacantha scolymantha, from his 1862 monograph on radiolaria, was obtained by the Encyclopedia from a truly wonderful web page called Micro*scope: yet another discovery to make a frustrated bio-geologist's day. This site represents another collaborative effort and provides information and images on all manner of microbial life; it's also collaborative, and partnered with the EoL. If you register, you can get access to terrific (I think, anyway) screensavers, and a massive number of images like this one of a colonial radiolarian (say that three times quickly), by Dave Caron of the University of Southern California:

Now, I'm no marine biologist, but I love this stuff! I can't help but think that studying the incredible variety of forms available in nature would be useful and instructive to artists and designers everywhere.

The Encyclopedia of Life and its partners promise to bring together a Wunderkammer of information and images about the species on this planet. And if you want an idea of how bloody lucky we are to be here in the first place, take a gander at the National Geographic Channel's series, Earth: The Biography. Host Iain Stewart (terrific Scots accent), with the help of magnificent NatGeo footage, not only shows us where we come from, but how many chancy factors are involved. If more people understood these things, and knew more about what's at risk if we screw it all up now, perhaps our grandchildren would have a chance to enjoy it, too.

Addendum, 22 July: It occurs to me that I neglected to mention one important point. The perpetrator of the Encyclopedia of Life project is none other than E. O. Wilson, biologist extraordinaire and my favorite ant guy. He invented the field of sociobiology, out of which came one of my favorite books: Biophilia. He's gone a bit cranky in his old age, hankering as he is now for the Enlightenment, but his newer book, Consilience, is still a good read--especially for those of us somewhat sympathetic to his views. More summer reading, for the biodiversity-inclined.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Joss Whedon's At It Again

This just in (and only available until Sunday night): Joss Whedon's latest effort. Those of us who worship at the feet of the master are having enormous fun with this little curiosity, so do take the opportunity to check it out. Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog is an online musical miniseries starring Nathan (Mal Reynolds) Fillion and Neil Patrick (Doogie Howser) Harris, along with Felicia Day as the love interest. Nicely produced by Mutant Enemy (you know, the "Grrr. Argh" guys who brought us Firefly) and just plain fun, it's well worth several minutes of your time. And it's why I'm not posting any more today, because I need to get the whole thing watched.

It'll be back (see the Master Plan), but this is apparently it for now.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Angles of Repose

One thing always seems to lead to another, and its this serendipity factor that I enjoy most about living in the rarefied aether of the blogosphere.

Today, for example, I had no intention of posting here in the Cabinet. But I wanted to touch base with some of the blogs I frequent (I don't have automatic feeds to any of them, because there's already too much stuff to attend to in the various e-mail accounts), and went first to Serenity Now, another web Wunderkammer that originates not all that far north of me. Christie has been talking about fireflies and what to do with roosters, and after I'd posted comments I did what I often do: glanced at other commenter's blogs.

There I discovered Sweet Repose, where "lives" a retired Iowa antiques dealer who had recently posted on chamber pots. After leaving a small reminiscence there, I started musing on the blog's title, and this old gal's mind wandered to--Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, which I read last summer, not long after having re-read the late Ellen Meloy's The Anthropology of Turquoise. Meloy was a long-time Stegner fan, and all three of us share California connections--although mine involves a different side of the Sierras than either of theirs do. Meloy died young, but not before writing several really evocative books about western wilderness. Stegner, during his stint as the director of Stanford's creative writing program, influenced the likes of Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. For more of my take on related topics, see my Owl's Farm post from last year, "Writing the Desert."

I should mention that I'm not reading much fiction these days (except for good hard science fiction), but I became so absorbed in Stegner's book that I ended up doing a bit of research on the inspiration for the novel: the life and work of Mary Hallock Foote. There's a nice profile of Stegner on the California Association of Teachers of English site, and it succinctly describes the controversy that arose over Stegner's use (with the permission of her granddaughter) of Foote's letters as the basis for his novel. Although fiction, the accounts of Susan Burlington Ward's experiences as a turn-of-the-century eastern Quaker in the American west (grounded as they are in Foote's actual life) resonate with what my grandmother described about living in California's Owens River Valley in the early twentieth century. At any rate, what emerges from the confluence of the novel and what I learned about Foote is further confirmation that other people's lives overlap in unexpected ways to enrich our own when we're paying attention.

Were my grandmother and my father still alive, the books I list below would have been taken home during my then-annual pilgrimages back to the valley and offered up enthusiastically on the family literary altar for reading and later conversation.

In their memory, my Summer Reading Recommendations, for anyone interested in topics like desert ecology and life, the history of mining in the West, the history of California, Victorian women in the west, and some damned good writing, are as follows:

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose.
Ellen Meloy, The Anthropology of Turquoise
Rodman W. Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (Huntington Library, 2003)

Online resources:

Mary Hallock Foote
Ellen Meloy
Wallace Stegner and the text of his Wilderness Letter

I hope you've got a good hammock in your back yard, and a large supply of cold-brewed iced tea.

Photo: A Hammock, by Dennis Mojado. Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Medieval Garden Enclosed

I remarked to a colleague during a meeting this week that the only people who read blogs are those who write them--or who are related to the bloggers. But occasionally I come across a blog that needs to be shared because it has worth beyond the blogosphere, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new effort, The Medieval Garden Enclosed is one of these.

The Cloisters Museum and Gardens at the Met are among its most popular exhibits, in part because medievalism enjoys frequent revivals in popular culture, but mostly because of the Unicorn Tapestries and the gardens. The exhibit itself is an exercise in virtual reality, with its reconstructed Romanesque enclosures, and the variety of works that transport us back to the Middle Ages. I've spent a good deal of my adult life studying the effects of medievalism on the development of modern art, and the Cloisters is always my first stop whenever I get to New York. Since I don't get there much any more, this blog will provide a nice touchstone.

The most recent posts are on lavender, an herb that grows beautifully here in Texas (even though I don't have much success with it), and is the best sleep-inducer of all time.

I look forward to reading the blog regularly, not only for its inside view of the Cloisters exhibit itself, but for the practical advice on medieval herbs and plants--a topic many of us just can't get enough of.

Photo: the Cuxa Cloister Garth Garden, nicked from the blog.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Old Timey Information Technologies

Even before I learned the word "steampunk" I was fascinated by older technologies that feature interesting designs or gizmos that make them cool-looking, even today. The early typewriters are a good example: those big clunky Underwood models with the keyboards whose style of letters have become ubiquitous among the scrap-booking crowd (you can buy alphabets that look like the keys at any hobby shop), and the various manifestations of the letter forms themselves. My favorite among these is P22's version, "Typewriter," which I use on some of my web pages. It's got a slightly worn aspect that reminds me of what typed letters looked like when I was a kid.

But the particular technologies I've been thinking of lately are the immediate ancestors of the web itself--what we used before we could simply Google something, or browse a library's catalogue online. I was reminded of microfilm and microfiche when I finally picked up the second volume of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, The Subtle Knife. In it, Will (one of the kid heroes) goes into a library and looks up news reports of his father on microfilm. Today, many libraries will have digital copies of these stories, but during most of my graduate career, microfilm was where we had to go, and microfiche was how we got there.

The immediate predecessor of microfiche catalogues was, of course, the handy dandy card catalogue (a term which librarians I know still use without thinking sometimes--"Go look it up on the card catalogue"). At UC Riverside, where I started out, the catalogue was several drawers high and gazillions of drawers long--on two sides of an aisle. When I got to Penn, there were several, one in each specialty library, but I don't remember if there was one grand central catalogue--although surely there must have been one. I still possess a six-drawer unit salvaged from the basement of Bennett Hall, where I worked, and where the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences was located at the time. The box had been painted an abysmal pink, which, when removed, revealed the same quarter-sawn oak I now have underfoot in my house.

My Bennett Hall office (I administered fellowships and scholarships for the Grad school) also housed a couple of IBM Selectric typewriters--cutting-edge technology in the early seventies. When one was stolen, however, the replacement was bolted onto a rolling typewriter stand made to hold an old non-electric model. The stand, which I also still have, features a side shelf that sits up about two inches from the bottom of where the typewriter would rest, to make it easier to copy handwritten text.

My all-time favorite typewriter, however, is a little portable Olivetti Lettera 22. It was given me by my mother's Italian boyfriend, an Olivetti salesman, when I left Taiwan, and I have it still. Its script type was extremely difficult to read, but it was what I had (before I discovered typing labs in college), so I actually wrote my first college papers on it. This practice came to an end rather abruptly when an archaeology professor--even though he thought the paper was so good he glued five round paper hole-reinforcers (do they still make these?) on it and colored them yellow with a highlighter because he "didn't have any gold stars"--told me that my typewriter "could drive a man to drink." Despite the A+ on my assessment of the Linear B decipherment controversy, I never used that machine for a paper again.

Nowadays, of course, few of us give even a passing thought to these old, obsolete or at least obsolescent ways of locating information and transcribing it. The computer does it all. Nonetheless, our technologies have a way of affecting what we write and how we write it, so it seems prudent to remember where we've been in order to assess where we're ending up.

The first computer in our family was a Commodore 64, with an eight-page file memory in the first version of Word Perfect I ever owned. So I wrote papers that were multiples of eight pages, and became adept at producing 32-page graduate essays that I printed out on a dot-matrix printer (which some professors were reluctant to accept). Our family trudged into the digital age with a succession of IBM clones (one a Clone brand), and at one point I even served as the token humanities teaching assistant in the microcomputer lab at UT Dallas. In recent years, even though I think of myself as a slow-adopter, I've entered the twenty-first century at full tilt, with a hot-shot laptop computer and an iPhone. But I still miss the old clunky typewriters that required strong wrists and clear minds--because there was no "undo" function.

Too bad I'd never be able to find ribbons for that old Olivetti, or I'd dust it off and type something to my Uncle Art--who's probably the only person around who might get a kick out of it.

Photo credits: Typist, image from an old French postcard, contributed by Knyf; Olivetti Lettera 22 (first model) typewriter by LjL; The obsolete card catalog files at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University, by Ragesoss. All from Wikimedia Commons.