Museum myopia

The Museums Australasia conference, MA 16, is happening right now in Auckland, and I’m not there, although three of my colleagues are. It’s a typical large museum/gallery conference, with inspiring keynote speakers and parallel streams, and participants from museums large and small in both Australia and New Zealand.

IMG_1908What’s odd is that a major part of the museum sector in both countries has been excluded. In today’s session I counted 54 speakers. Every single talk was on cultural history, art, indigenous culture: the humanities. There were no presentations at all by scientists or about natural history.

That’s surprising, because natural history collections and research are a major part of museums in New Zealand and Australia. These institutions hold millions of specimens and dozens of curators, collection managers, and researchers. Many of them were founded as natural history or geology collections, by directors who were scientists and believed that understanding the natural world was part of a museum’s core mission. Today, with climate change and an ongoing biodiversity crisis, the research they do and the collections they hold are more important than ever.

Why were there no scientists presenting at MA 16 today? Anyone would think museums didn’t do natural history.

No doubt there are plenty of reasons the organisers could offer. Scientists don’t go to these sorts of conferences. Humanities people like to hear from other humanities people. Scientists only want to talk about science. Scientists don’t put themselves forward to speak or run plenaries (perhaps they’re shy). Scientists aren’t interdisciplinary enough; they should act more like humanities people. If these sound familiar, they’re the same excuses rolled out to explain why there aren’t women speaking at a conference.

IMG_2665

Some of this is obliviousness and insularity. Some of it, though, is the asymmetry identified by C. P. Snow in The Two Cultures. It’s the idea that a grounding in the humanities is required for a well-rounded “cultured” person, but that understanding science is an esoteric unnecessary specialisation. This manifests in New Zealand as someone curating a museum exhibit on, say, “bugs” [sic] despite having no background in entomology or even science. But hey, how hard could it be? Natural history exhibits are for children, aren’t they?

Slide03Slide04Imagine if someone with a geology degree, perhaps an MSc in the stratigraphy of Devonian trilobites from Canada, was hired to curate a show on Victorian wedding ceremonies or Aboriginal artworks. There’d be an uproar; and rightly so. Not having any background in such a nuanced and complex field means the exhibition could end up wildly oversimplified, or even full of awful mistakes. But the reverse happens all the time: museum professionals with Arts degrees are curating galleries (or managing collections of) snails, birds, and butterflies. This seems to be perfectly acceptable.

It looks like one of the five concurrent sessions on Wednesday has a couple of science speakers, but that’s about it. It’s really not good enough. The conversations at MA 16 today were about the battle between colonial and indigenous presentations of stories, about which group of people should have their worldview acknowledged. And yet this scope is so shortsighted, and so humanocentric, encompassing just a few thousand years. The story of the universe is physics, geology, life; people are such a very small part of that, yet we seem to think the conversation is all about us.

A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

I’ve been working at a smallish provincial museum for two years now, one of a dozen staff. People outside the museum profession (or hoping to enter it) sometimes wonder what a curator’s job entails, so here’s an account of a typical day.


06:00 Up, thanks to my ruthless internal clock. Check Twitter, news, and emails while still in my dressing gown. Sometimes I reply, but people who are obviously clearing their In tray at 07:30 are depressing.

08:20 Bike to work, only five minutes away. The joys of living in a small city.

08:30 More battling against the tide of emails. Once I adhered to the doctrine of Inbox Zero. No longer.

IMG_7656We’re sending out some mounted birds and moa bones as a short-term display elsewhere, responding to a loan request. I’ve made a shortlist of the specimens we could use, most of which need to be properly registered, photographed, and condition-reported. Two of them are huia, which are extinct and quite valuable. One of us will have to accompany the loan and install them in secure museum cases so there’s never a moment when they’re unsupervised. Then I check the cases everything’s supposed to go in and discover there’s no way the birds and bones I’ve sorted out will fit. Back to the drawing board.

10:30 Phone call: someone has turned up at the front desk with a mysterious insect. Now that it’s summer, I’m getting identifications of this sort about once a day, usually garden bugs, spiders, fossils, or things discovered on the beach. The visitor presents me with a small brightly-coloured insect wrapped in plastic, and he wants to know if it eats kiwifruit vines. I promise to get back to him. I remember seeing something like this in a Facebook group devoted to bug identification, find it, and double check in Andrew Crowe’s book to confirm. It’s a lichen bag moth, an Australian import. The larvae spend their lives in a bag they make themselves, eating lichen (not kiwifruit), and eventually hatch out as adults that live just a few hours – long enough to mate. The females are flightless and look a bit like brightly-coloured beetles. While calling the visitor back, I reflexively clean up the moth’s Wikipedia page and add a reference. Then I pin it for the collection, and log the “visitor interaction” in a Filemaker database for our stats.

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

12:00 Just before lunch I meet up with the organiser of the Whanganui Science Forum. There’s a talk at the museum next week by a visiting Massey professor, on poisons in the environment, and I need to publicise it via Twitter and Facebook; I maintain the Museum’s Twitter account, help with the Facebook page, and sporadically feed Instagram with odd museum-related objects.

During lunchtime I have to take my new bike round for a checkup, as the pedals keep falling apart. While they switch out new pedals I try lunch at the Indian place round the corner, and find out why you don’t order the Indian Pizza lunch special.

13:00 Finished checking a case full of bones from the Makirikiri moa excavation of the 1930s, when the Museum recovered thousands of moa bones from a farm swamp a few miles upriver. Part of my job is to register, photograph, and display the entire collection in visible storage in its own dedicated gallery. I discovered that some suspicious-looking bones I was about to register were in fact from a horse, which must have fallen or been dumped in the swamp some time after the moa met their demise. To be sure, I checked them against Google image search, which is an excellent anatomy manual, and the mounted horse skeleton we happen to have on display at the moment.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

15:00 A meeting at the Department of Conservation offices for Friends of Gordon Park, a community conservation group looking after a local forest remnant. I want to do a collaborative research project with an Auckland researcher on the occurrence of Mecodema beetles in the remaining fragments of forest around Whanganui. Chatting with DOC about collecting permits on reserves gives bad news; the permit-processing backlog is currently four months, so I doubt I’ll be doing any collecting before next spring. Ah well. Perhaps I can find some forest on private land that won’t need a permit.

Tweets over the course of the day: celebrating Hector Day, a discussion with the Cawthron Institute on whether river restoration is so great if it’s just for nasty introduced trout, the awful comments posted on the newly-available TVNZ documentary Ghosts of Gondwana, a possible title for the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Interminable Festschrift), the flag referendum, and the unbearable sogginess of Indian Pizza.

16:15 Flip through some other projects: another loan request, valuing the moa collection for insurance purposes, drafts of new Collection and Documentation policies for the natural history collection, and more emails.

17:30 Biked home in the rain, checking at the PO box to see if Monday’s Film Society movie had arrived yet (no; so much for overnight delivery). I’m on the committee of the Film Society, and handle the projection; movies screen IMG_2110at the Museum’s lecture theatre, downstairs from my office, which makes setup convenient.

19:30 After dinner, I bake granola, and correspond with Nicola Toki about this week’s Critter of the Week segment on the radio. Nicola picks a different endangered and uncharismatic species to talk about each week, and I make sure the Wikipedia page is spruced up and informative. Sometimes this involves writing a new article from scratch, but this week’s critter is the longfin eel, which is great, because the Wikipedia page for longfins is pretty good and only needs a little tidying up. I suggested Izatha caustopa, Chevron skink, and Pimelea actea as future Critters for Nicola. I add a news-story reference to the Hutton’s Shearwater page, and some nice photos supplied by DOC to the Powelliphanta article.

21:00 It’s Hector Day – Sir James Hector’s birthday – which reminds me I was supposed to write a review of Simon Nathan’s new Hector biography months ago. Refresh my memory by going through the Te Ara bio. Took the book off the shelf, flick through, make a couple of edits to his Wikipedia page instead.

21:45 Remember, at the last minute, that tomorrow I’m rostered on to supply the staff Thursday afternoon tea, so hurriedly whip up a tray of fly cemetaries. While they’re baking, Twitter and more emails. And so, eventually, to bed.


That’s my day: a mixture of curation, collection management, outreach, identification, exhibition, volunteer work, with research, reading the literature, and collecting mostly happening in my spare time. Pretty typical for a small museum with a limited budget. But if you’re ever in Whanganui, be sure to come and say hi. My office is right in the moa gallery, so you can tap on the window and I’ll wave back, in much the same way museum specimens don’t.

Earthquake Lesson #2: Biking

It’s more important for a bike to have a basket than gears.

Look, I said to the soldier. Those civil defense guys, with their hard hats and axes? That’s my apartment they’re about to go into. He relented and escorted me to my own door, in time for me to greet the team searching my home for bodies. I apologised for not being able to make them a cup of tea; there was no water or power.

This was February 24, 2011, two days after 185 people had died in the Christchurch earthquake.

Getting a car through the central city at that point was a nightmare (and was for many months to come). Roads were buckled and potholed, the biggest hummocks and cracks marked with spray paint and maybe a road cone. Immediately after the quake, recycling wheelie bins with bright yellow lids served as impromptu hazard markers. It was impossible, from my apartment, to drive north without going south and west.

P1020241I lived in Cashel Street, near the Arts Centre, just inside a Red Zone cordon staffed by police and soldiers. You had to pick your moment. The police were older guys, usually serious and not open to negotiation. The army were younger, more relaxed, and multinational – many countries had sent Search and Rescue teams to help clear buildings, leaving cryptic sigils in fluorescent paint on the front of each. The Army’s transport was light armoured vehicles (LAVs) draped with camouflage netting. In the months to come, I had a couple of particularly eerie experiences when these rumbled past at night on darkened streets.

I’d been camped at a friend’s for a couple of days, and this morning thought I would try my luck at getting back into my flat. It was a solid Art Deco block, probably built after the Napier earthquake. There were some minor cracks in the walls, but Civil Defense had just green-stickered it, so I felt safe being in there. I carefully emptied fridge and freezer, and propped them open with towels, assuming I wouldn’t be back in my home for a couple of months. What could go on my bike? In the end, I packed a backpack of clothes, filled the basket and carrier with food including a frozen rabbit, slung one of my ukuleles and carried the other. Gumboots were the fashion footwear of #eqnz, so I wore mine. And so, biking one-handed, I wobbled carefully back through the cordon towards St Albans. The sentry was trying to suppress a smirk, I think.

The rabbit was from Waimate, bought from a farmer at the tiny French Market in central Christchurch, in a brick lane that’s almost certainly now a levelled empty lot, filled with parked cars.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

The rabbit went onto the freezer-emptying earthquake barbecue the next day.

I wish I’d biked to work the day of the quake. Trying to get home in the confusion, I got stuck in the interminable snarl and had to ditch the car; a bike proved to be the transportation mode best suited to a broken city, able to navigate kerbs, slip through fence gaps, and weave around cracks in the road. Mine was a used Japanese mamachari with no gears but a sensible chain guard, basket, and pannier.

When my grandmother was little, her family escaped the WWI German invasion of the Netherlands by bicycle. As I wobbled away from my apartment, with two ukuleles and a defrosting rabbit, I imagine them all neatly dressed, ties and overcoats, on sensible black Dutch bicycles. As Marx said, history repeats – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

February Reading

Books Acquired

  • What If? | Randall Munroe

Books Read

  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • Latin for Birdwatchers | Roger Lederer and Carol Burr

I stumbled across Latin for Birdwatchers in the New Books section of the library, and it seemed like the perfect nerdstorm; I enjoyed it so much I wrote a whole page for the local paper about birds’ Latin names. The Whanganui Central Library is really pretty good for a town of 40,000: they have a reasonable acquisitions budget, good taste, and seem to take notice of patrons’ suggestions for purchase. 

The other good read this month was George Saunders’ latest collection. I’d really enjoyed Pastoralia, Persuasion Nation, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. He’s a postmodern writer uncannily like David Foster Wallace in tone and use of language, except without the footnotes. The style is fizzing and inventive, and good at slowly revealing a horrid truth bubbling away under the bland conversations of his characters. There are bleak character studies of damaged people put in impossible situations, in a disturbing America, sliding into dystopia or already there. The only thing I didn’t enjoy were the brief bits of science fiction seemingly written, just like DFW’s, by someone who thinks SF is a joke and an excuse to make up silly futuristic brand names. But most of this collection is haunting and memorable.

I started H is for Hawk, and finally opened Michael King’s Penguin History of New Zealand, which had been sitting on my shelves for many years. The Penguin History of New Zealand is rather like Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, an account of the long history of Aotearoa told from the perspective of penguins. Since I hate penguins, this may be a challenging read, and I’m not expecting too much to happen for the first few million years.

Dead Language, Living Names

latinbird.png Latin for Birdwatchers
Roger Lederer and Carol Burr
Allen & Unwin, 2014
9781760110642

Recently I helped fill a display case at the Museum with native birds of the Whanganui area, and we were preparing labels, which is not as easy as you’d think. For example, which of several English names should you use (Waxeye, Silvereye, or White-eye)? Māori names also vary from place to place – Bellbirds are both korimako and makomako. But when I mentioned including the Latin name on each label, I could sense the resistance from the non-scientists on the team, and stopped to ponder where that came from.

Why use names in an obscure language like Latin? Centuries ago, Latin was the universal language of scholarship, spoken by natural historians and philosophers across Europe no matter what their mother tongue was. Animals and plants would be referred to by a short description in Latin, but you would never know if you and someone from a distant country were both talking about exactly the same bird or tree. In 1735 the Swede Carl von Linné – known in Latin as Carolus Linnaeus – invented a system of binomial naming, in which everything got a precise name with just two parts, a genus and a species (like Homo sapiens). By sticking to those Latin binomials, everybody could be sure they were talking about the same thing.

Harrier Hawk

The Harrier Hawk is in the genus Circus, which refers to a Roman circus or racecourse (not one with clowns), and describes the way these birds circle endlessly looking for prey. | GaryNZ / Flickr

Nearly 300 years later, Latin names are still useful. Ninox novaeseelandiae got its scientific name back in 1788; in New Zealand it’s called a Morepork or ruru, but in Australia the same species is a Boobook Owl. A White Heron or kōtuku in Aotearoa is an Eastern Great Egret in Australia, but Ardea modesta in both places. A widespread bird or fish can have a dozen different common names but only one Latin name.

Scientific names are always written in italics, by the way, and the genus – the first part – always starts with a capital letter, while the species never does. The Wanganui Chronicle is one of the few newspapers that gets this right, but even so I’ve blogged a fairly-exhaustive Latin names style guide for journalists.

This book by Roger Lederer and Carol Burr, which I’ve been dipping into for the last few weeks, sounds like the most boring in the world: Latin for Birdwatchers. But it’s actually fascinating for someone who loves birds but might not have taken Latin in school to unpack familiar names and see how they make sense. The Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) is a little bird (todus) with a big bill (Greek ramphos). There are seven different species all called Bellbirds, but the New Zealand one, Anthornis melanura, has its habits and distinctive features captured in its name: a flower-bird (anthus ornis) with a black (melas) tail (ours). Fantails belong to the genus Rhipidura: literally, fan (Greek rhipis) tail (oura). The New Zealand species is Rhipidura fuliginosa, or “sooty fantail” from the Latin fuligo or soot, because a small percentage of New Zealand fantails (especially in the South Island) are coal black.

Latin names aren’t just handy labels: they’re classifications, and designed to tell a story about the ancestry and relatedness of species. The common Blackbird (Turdus melura) is in the same genus as – and thus a close cousin of – the Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos), but also the American Robin (Turdus migratorius). American Robins are named after the European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) but are actually a type of thrush, as you can see from the name.

kereru300

The kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) is especially well-named: a hemiphage is a “half-eater”, a description of the way this bird can swallow fruit as large as karaka berries, which then pass through its body half-digested and are deposited somewhere else to germinate and grow. | digitaltrails / Flickr

New Zealand Robins or toutouwai aren’t robins either, but close cousins of Tomtits or miromiro: both are in the genus Petroica. Our robin, Petroica longipes, is named for its habit of perching on the forest floor (petra, rock, and oikos, home) and its big feet (longus, long, and pes, foot).

Latin names aren’t perfect, of course. You can find at least five different renderings of “New Zealand” in Latin: novaezelandiae, novaezealandiae, novaeseelandiae, novae-zealandiae, and novae-zelandiae. Because names are classifications as well as labels, they can change as we get a better understanding of a group’s evolutionary history. Recently the many species of the popular native shrub Hebe were reclassified into the genus Veronica, and nurseries had to rewrite all their catalogues. And sometimes Latin names just don’t make any sense: the Vermiculated Fishing Owl is in the genus Scotopelia, which means “pigeon of darkness” (what?). But for all their flaws, Latin names are full of stories, charmingly brought out by this book’s many sidebars and anecdotes; these, plus the abundant 19th century illustrations, would make it a great gift for a bird lover.

(A version of this appeared in the Wanganui Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015)

January Reading

Books Acquired

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • Tenth of December | George Saunders
  • A Handbook of Biological Illustration | Frances Zweifel
  • Father and Son | Edmund Gosse
  • A Heart So White | Javier Marías

Books Read

  • The Crack-Up | F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Society of the Crossed Keys | Stefan Zweig
  • What’s Become of Waring | Anthony Powell

The Crack-Up, a collection of memoir and short fiction, was one of those books recommended on Twitter in a flurry of knowing tweets, possibly calculated to make you feel like a philistine if Gatsby was the only Fitzgerald you’ve read. It’s a short collection and certainly worthwhile: the title essay is particularly good, an exploration of Fitzgerald’s alcoholic breakdown with some pithy introspection. Of the short stories, I thought “Pat Hobby Himself” and “Financing Finnegan” were a pair of little gems, perfectly-formed satires of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The corresponding European Golden Age is captured by an elegant sample of Stefan Zweig’s cultural history, autobiography, and fiction. Zweig was a journalist and biographer, and his moving evocation of pre-WWI Vienna, and what it was to be a cosmopolitan young writer amidst it all, is taken from his memoir The World of Yesterday. I first came across Zweig in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, an alphabetical examination of art and politics for which Zweig and his 1942 suicide provides the capstone; James praised his portrait of Vienna—a city I spent two summers in and adore—so I decided I’d read it “one day”. Which would probably not have happened but for this sampler, compiled by Wes Anderson to accompany The Grand Budapest Hotel—hence the twee pink hand-lettered cover and the twee title (a reference to a fictional society of concierges in the film, nothing to do with the author himself). But if the movie tie-in acts as a gateway to reading more Zweig, I can forgive it.

Anthony Powell to me is a wodge of tasteful bricks that make up A Dance to the Music of Time on other people’s bookshelves, one of those forbidding series of novels we always mean to read when we have a good long span to concentrate in, perhaps whilst in exile on St Helena. But younger Powell was a comic writer, and a couple of his short early amusements sounded worth a read. What’s Become of Waring is an entertaining jaunt, with a cunning structure that looks even more cunning in retrospect; Evelyn Waugh without the manic flashes of silliness or the blackest cynicism.

I Hate You. I Hate You. I Hate You.

“Sheila taught me a survival technique for getting through seemingly intolerable situations – boring lunches, stern lectures on attitude or time management, those necessary breakup conversations and the like: maintaining eye contact, keep your face inscrutable and masklike, with the faintest hint of a Giaconda smile. Keep this up as long as you possibly can, and just as you feel you are about to crack and take a letter opener and plunge it into someone’s neck, fold your hands in your lap, one nestled inside the other, like those of a supplicant in a priory. Now, with the index finger of your inner hand, write on the palm of the other, very discreetly and undetectably, “I hate you. I hate you. I hate you…” over and over again as you pretend to listen. You will find this brings a spontaneous look of interest and pleased engagement to your countenance. Continue and repeat as necessary.”

— David Rackoff, Fraud

Reading List for 2015

In 2012, making a to-read list had the interesting effect of dramatically increasing the amount of miscellaneous reading I did, even though I only polished off half of it. So I’m trying it again. Some of these are professional (Simon, Berentson, Campbell-Hunts), some the books-of-today (Macdonald, Hager, Gibson, Link), and some classics I’ve always meant to try (Powell, Bulgakov, Gosse). A mix of fiction and non-, but only 7 female authors out of 26. They’re collected from the year’s best-of lists, some recommendations of well-read friends, and the enthusiasms of strangers on Twitter.

  • Nina Simon | The Participatory Museum
  • Meg Wolitzer | The Interestings
  • Javier Marías | The Infatuations
  • Simon Rich | Spoiled Brats
  • Anthony Powell | What’s Become of Waring
  • Anthony Powell | The Afternoon Men
  • Joe Sacco | Bumf
  • Helen Macdonald | H is for Hawk
  • Mikhail Bulgakov | The Master and Margarita
  • Nicky Hager | Dirty Politics
  • Quinn Berentson | Moa
  • Ryan Reynolds et al. (eds.) | Once in a Lifetime
  • Mark Miodownik | Stuff Matters
  • William Gibson | The Peripheral
  • Marilynne Robinson | Gilead
  • Stefan Zweig | The Society of the Crossed Keys
  • Charles Stross | Accelerando
  • Edmund Gosse | Father and Son
  • Mary Renault | The Last of the Wine
  • George Saunders | Tenth of December
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald | The Crack-Up
  • Svante Pääbo | Neanderthal Man
  • Randall Munroe | What If?
  • Diane Campbell-Hunt & Colin Campbell-Hunt | Ecosanctuaries
  • Andrew Mack | Searching for Pekpek
  • Kelly Link | Get in Trouble

Latin Names 101 for Journalists

Newspapers always get Latin names wrong. Over the years, I’ve submitted lots of correctly-formatted copy to editors and watched it get mangled. No more. Here are the rules (rules! not guidelines!) for using scientific names; share them with a journalist you care about.

Genus and Species

Latin names are in two parts, the genus and the species; sometimes there’s a subspecies or variety tacked on the end. “Species” is both a singular and plural noun, by the way.

The New Zealand dolphin, Cephalorhynchus hectori, has a North Island subspecies, C. hectori maui.

Capitals

The genus always starts with a capital letter; the species never does, even if it’s named after a person’s proper name (like Cephalorhynchus hectori).

This is the first solid evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbours.

Italics

Scientific names are always (always) written in italics. Higher-level groups (which have names like family, class, and order) are never italicised.

Nikau (Rhopalostylis sapida) is the only New Zealand member of the Arecaceae or palm family.

When you’re talking about a whole genus of plants or animals, like Brassica, it’s also italicised. (Once a newspaper told me it’s “not AP style” to use italics and stripped them out, but set my byline in italics.)

Abbreviations

The first time the name’s used, genus and species are spelled in full. Subsequently you can abbreviate the genus.

Homo sapiens and H. neanderthalensis share 99.7 percent of their DNA.

If you don’t know exactly what species is referred to, or you want to talk about more than one, you can use sp. or spp. (plural) after the genus. Note: no italics.

Campylobacter spp. commonly contaminate food, and five species cause gastroenteritis in humans.
On New Year’s Day, Heaphy noted in his journal that he had shot and skinned some kind of kiwi (Apteryx sp.).

Articles

Journalists often wrongly refer to species with a definite article. It’s better to think of a Latin name as a name, like Dave Smith or Sauron.

The Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [WRONG]
Anomalocaris was a large shrimp-like animal that lived 540 million years ago. [RIGHT]

Special Cases

  • The fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, beloved of geneticists, is just referred to as Drosophila. It’s become the vernacular name, so doesn’t need italics.
  • The gut bacterium Escherichia coli is almost always referred to by its abbreviation, E. coli, for obvious reasons. Note: italics.
  • T. rex is the dinosaur, T Rex is the band.
  • Economists sometimes talk about the supposedly “rational human” homo economicus, which is really just a Latin phrase, not a proper biological name, so doesn’t need a capital.

Test

How many things are wrong with this quote?

“[The forestry worker] discovered a large native spider from the stanwellia species.”
(NZ Herald, August 14, 2014)

(Answer: four. “from”, missing italics, genus and species confused, and not capitalised)

Corrected version:

The forestry worker discovered a large native spider belonging to the genus Stanwellia.

or, better,

The forestry worker discovered a large native trapdoor spider (Stanwellia sp.).

Another Test

How many mistakes?

“A 24-cm-long giant amphipod, the alicella gigantean, has been found in the Kermadec Trench.”
(modified from Stuff.co.nz, 23 Oct 2013)

(Answer: four. It should be Alicella gigantea, so missing italics, no capitalisation, needless definite article, and a species name which should look dubious even if your Latin is a bit rusty.)


Does it matter that newspapers get all this wrong? Yes. Geranium and Geranium aren’t interchangeable. The rules are set up so it’s as clear as possible exactly what plant, animal, or bacterial infection you’re referring to. Mess up the Latin name, and you end up talking about something else entirely, and cause confusion or even harm. Journalists pride themselves on getting things right; Latin names are easy to get right.


What the Heck, While I’m Here

CO2: No.
Co2: Nope, that’s two atoms of Cobalt.
CO2: Ugh, seriously no.
CO2: Correct! But almost never seen in a newspaper.

See also: H2O, O2, and so on.

And At No Extra Cost

Phosphorus (n.): the element.
Phosphorous (adj.): Full of phosphorus; compare with sulphurous.

Further Reading

Making a Better Conference

Next week I’m going to a two-day professional meeting, a chance for all my peers to get together and compare notes, discuss burning questions in our field, network and arrange collaborations for the coming year, and so forth.

At least in theory. whale1 In practice, it’s:

  1. Two solid days of PowerPoint presentations, most just ten minutes long
  2. Forty-five minutes for lunch, two 15-minute tea breaks, and a generous 10-minute “stretch break/discussion time” each day, rather like primary school kids get to stop them fidgeting
  3. No informal get-togethers, poster session, dinner, or excursions at all
  4. A few “panel discussions” but with only one participant listed

I’m getting a bit weary of this model of conference organisation: packing as many unrelated one-way infodumps into the day as possible so everybody can get credit from their institution for presenting. In most cases they’re not sharing any actual new research or findings, it’s just a status update. Despite most of the presenters being curators of visual arts, I predict there will be lots of bullet-pointed text.

I’ll be talking about our moa project for ten minutes, just enough time to mention the 3D-scanning Kickstarter we’ll be doing but not enough time to answer more than one question about it. I’m at the end of a block of ten-minute talks which will inevitably go over time, so will have to choose between dropping the questions or stealing people’s tea break. (Telling people to keep to time in these things is useless; it requires the MC to actually cut people off before they’ve finished, which never happens, does it?)

Please, can we just toss this entire mode of professional interaction in the bin and set it on fire? whale2 2 I know it’s easy to come up with suggestions, and good ideas tend to fall apart when subjected to the brutal realities of conference planning. Nevertheless, here are some possibilities:

  • Six-minutes-forty-seconds pechakucha talks would be one way to keep people to time. And you actually have to rehearse for a pechakucha, which would be a nice change. Yes, it’s a bit more stressful, but (horrible statement coming up) people who don’t feel confident enough to give a pechakucha shouldn’t be giving public talks, or rather should be sharing their ideas in some other way.
  • An unconference with no scheduled talks and spontaneously-assembled sessions would be a better alternative for this small group. Everyone says what they want to share, the schedule is put together with Post-It notes or on a Google-doc spreadsheet, and people gravitate to what interests them. Everybody participates.
  • Having a particular goal: in my area, it might be thrashing out a joint statement on the trade in moa bones, collectively developed from discussions as a Google document, with everybody signing their names at the end. For others, it might be developing the initial concept for an app, or brainstorming an object list for a collaborative exhibition, or adding to a tips/trick list for Vernon, our database software. The idea is to produce something tangible at the end.
  • Panel discussions that are actual discussions, where people argue with each other, rather than deliver mini-lectures in parallel. The chairperson should be actively stopping people, inviting contributions from the audience (comments, votes, thrown objects), intervening with questions of their own, and grilling panel members. Even the conventions of a formal debate would be an improvement: yes/no to a stated proposition, time allocated for rebuttal.
  • Half the conference time—no less—devoted to networking, with empty rooms and projectors available for meetings and spontaneous workshops.
  • Adventurous use of Twitter: questions taken from the projected twitterstream, sessions formed in response to questions using the hashtag, Twitter handles first and largest on conference badges.
  • No conference pack stuffed with junky fliers and jellybeans, no comb-bound conference book. The programme should be a dynamic website, viewable on a mobile device (and loaner tablets should be available for people without sufficiently-smart phones).
  • Sketchnoting for every session, by volunteers or even a professional, collected together as a PDF and sent to all the attendees as a memento.
My sketchnotes from Hans-Martin Hinz's talk at ICOM in Auckland.

My sketchnotes from Hans-Matin Hinz’s talk at ICOM in Auckland.

These ideas wouldn’t solve all the problems of the traditional conference format, but in a small meeting, where collaboration is more important than formal presentations, they’d make for a more valuable use of everybody’s time.

Getting the Bones Right

Canterbury Museum, perhaps to fight the stuffy, musty-dusty stereotypes of museums, has been enthusiastically supporting street art both inside and outside the galleries with their RISE show. RISE The museum commissioned Belgian street artist ROA, famous for his giant black-and-white animal murals, to paint bird skeletons on the side of the building and the ceiling of the Bird Hall. Moa-penguin When I saw them, though, they just seemed wrong. I’m a zoologist—an avian osteologist, really—and spent years looking at and measuring bird bones, so I have a reasonable feel for what a bird’s skeleton looks like. moa-moa To make a long swan-like neck on the moa here, ROA has added some extra (overly-large) vertebrae. Compared to the neck on the Canterbury Museum’s own moa, it seems clunky and overdone. (I’m not too keen on those kiwi’s wings, either, but let that pass.) By the way, the hairy, almost fluffy pelt is part of ROA’s style—all his animals seem to have it, and it doesn’t bother me a bit. penguin-penguin The (hairy) penguin has a more subtle problem. In a bird, each arm of the wishbone attaches at the base of the wing, where the humerus meets the coracoid (the coracoids are those two strut-like bones supporting the breastbone—look for them next time you eat a chicken). But ROA has painted the wishbone upside down, joined to the sternum, the wrong end of the coracoid. To an ornithologist, it’s like painting someone with their arms on backwards.

So is this just pedantry, or does it actually matter? It bugs the hell out of me, because I know what skeletons actually look like, and most people don’t. Imagine if ROA had painted the ChristChurch Cathedral but gotten the rose window wrong, or the Mona Lisa but put her eyes just a bit too close together, or New Zealand but left off Stewart Island. That’s how it feels.

What about artistic license? Picasso painted people with both eyes on the same side of their head! Do you have a problem with that too?

But ROA doesn’t seem to be painting in a stylised, or abstract way—he’s always realistic if surreal, less Bill Hammond than Barry Cleavin (and Barry Cleavin always gets his skeletons right, by the way.) hammond-cleavin What’s more likely:

1. ROA, like Picasso, is making an artistic statement about how we depict reality by painting a representational, realistic skeleton—except for a few of the bones, which are deliberately false? (It’s a pretty subtle statement, too, given almost nobody will notice the backwards wishbone without having it pointed out.)

2. ROA stuffed up: through sloppiness, or unfamiliarity with bird skeletons, or because he just doesn’t much care about anatomy?

katowice-ROAI’m going with the latter. Which is a shame, because it wasn’t long ago that artists took pride in knowing some anatomy, and museums supplied skeletons for them to practise drawing. ROA was working from articulated skeletons supplied by the museum, and there was plenty of expertise on tap. Would it seriously have compromised his artistic vision to just get the bones right rather than wrong? As you can see, he’s gotten it right in the past, without noticeable ill-effects—check out that wishbone. Wait, what’s up with those wings? All the joints are going the wrong way. Scratch that.

But this is street art, Dr Museum Curator! Your dusty old standards don’t apply!

There’s an interesting implication that the standards for street art are lower, or that street artists aren’t “real” artists, except this isn’t street art any more. The museum commissioned it, co-opted it, for one of its most formal spaces—a place you feel uncomfortable even raising your voice. They probably wanted to capture some of the underground, anonymous frisson of street art, but framed by its new environment it’s pretty thoroughly institutionalised. And now the museum is stuck with it, for years and years.

But visitors love it!

Well of course they do, since it’s an improvement over a blank wall. Any reason why they wouldn’t love an accurate version just as much? The difference would be the museum would know it was accurate, and if museums stop caring about accuracy and truth and honouring their collections, who will?

The Canterbury Museum actually has an ornithologist on staff, one of the world’s foremost experts on moa bones, who could have pointed out these problems in fifteen seconds. My museum is actually planning to do a mural, which will probably involve a moa skeleton, and if I weren’t at least consulted I’d be furious. If the mural ended up something like ROA’s, I know how I’d feel, having to see it every day, having to show visiting ornithologists round the building and hear their chuckles and wisecracks, and knowing that my institution thought my expertise—and the mana of its collections—counted for less than the creative impulses of a visiting Belgian street artist.

Ten Reasons Not to Use QR Codes

ihr_qr_code_ohne_logoPixellated tattoos defacing advertising everywhere, QR codes are so fashionable. Oddly, the only people that actually want them seem to be marketing consultants, and I bet even they never actually use the things. The theory behind QR codes is great: a quick way of getting a long complicated chunk of text, like a URL, into your smartphone. In practice, though, I think they’re lame, and here are ten reasons why.

  1. They’re ugly. Far more obtrusive than barcodes, the last-minute addition of a QR code can ruin a subtle ad or poster design, and there’s no way of minimising them—if you make them too small or reduce the contrast, they no longer work.
  2. They’re an enigma. “What am I supposed to do with this?” The QR code contains no affordances, no clue about how to read it. The user has to know in advance.
  3. They’re not integrated. One day there might be a little “read QR code” button in the toolbar of a smartphone browser or contacts app, but not yet. And so…
  4. The user has to install additional software. To be precise, he or she has to 1) already know what a QR code is, 2) go to the app store on their phone and know to search for “QR code reader”, 3) choose between the many, many competing readers, and 4) wait while one downloads and installs (which will often be an experience they’re paying to have). Maybe they’re standing in the hot sun doing this over a flaky 3G connection. Good luck.
  5. They’re not standardised. For example, STQRY.com uses its own special QRs, which you need to download its app to read; scanning an ordinary QR code from within STQRY doesn’t send you off to a web browser, it just gives you an error message. Let’s hope users can tell just by looking what kind of QR code they’re dealing with.
  6. There are no clues. A barcode always writes out the numbers it encodes, but QR codes contain no indication what’s going to happen when you scan them or where you’ll be sent.
  7. They’re often pointless. Right beside the QR code you’ll often find the home page (“Of course,” says the boss! “You can’t leave the URL off!”) and by definition the URL’s short and easy to type (“We spent $100,000 getting a short URL!”) and people have a browser right there on their smartphone, and know how to type, and know what a web address is. So how do you think they feel when the QR code sends them to the home page?
  8. Especially if the home page turns out be smartphone-unfriendly.
  9. They’re insecure. Because there’s no preview, every QR code is like clicking on a phishing link you can’t check. Because they’re physical objects, an enterprising criminal could easily replace ones on a billboard or poster with their own stickers. That we don’t hear about this happening is more evidence almost nobody’s using QR codes.
  10. They’re not future-proof. Some are generated by bit.ly or other proprietary services, which won’t last forever. When a URL breaks, at least you can tell what it was meant to be, and perhaps search for its new location; in 30 years, to find hardware and software that can read old QR codes you’ll have to go to a museum.

Greening the Rubble

urbanChchCabbageTreeChristchurch has become a wasteland. Half the buildings in the central city have been demolished and replaced by windswept fields of dusty grey gravel. Recovery will be years away; continued aftershocks and sluggish insurance companies have delayed things, and when a brand-new $4 million building can be seized and demolished there’s no incentive to be the first to rebuild.

In the meantime, that’s lots of empty space. Carparks proliferate. Rotary tries to brighten things up with naff little painted tyres filled with petunias. Volunteer organisation Greening the Rubble has been active building planter boxes, benches, and miniature parks, but doesn’t seem to progress much beyond places to eat lunch. And who wants to eat lunch in a wasteland?

Rotary tyre It seems a waste for an empty lot to sit in limbo, gradually filling up with invasive weeds. People want to plant something. Community gardens, allotments, and urban farms are tremendously appealing, but they can quickly (literally) go to seed after the first flush of enthusiasm has receded. No organiser wants to be saddled with an eyesore and be left with the responsibility for clean-up when the landowner wants to reclaim the property. So high-maintenance projects are out.

There’s a strong incentive for each landowner to turn their empty lot into a car park (although if the CBD becomes nothing but car parking, there’ll be no reason to drive there). How to discourage this? The City Council could reinstate one-hour-free parking, or remove CBD parking charges altogether, at least while there’s bugger-all in the central city. We may need to provide a structure that makes it economic for landowners to allow cultivation: perhaps sponsorship that could pay landowners a percentage of what they might make out of a car park.

There are other possible impediments. Urban lots may be contaminated by lead or heavy metals, so would need soil testing from a friendly lab that would appreciate some repeat business, perhaps with the help of sponsorship. If they’re over 100 years old, the Historic Places Trust might not approve of extensive cultivation. What would be really useful would be a database of every empty lot in Christchurch, with owner’s name, contact details, plans for rebuilding and time frame, and soil type. (The City Council should be taking the lead in compiling this database, and making the information available to anyone—Gap Filler, Life in Vacant Spaces, or any community group—who has a good idea for an empty space.)

Here are some ideas for greening central Christchurch: low-maintenance, low-input, and able to be reversed at a moment’s notice with little hassle.

Sunflower Garden

Sunflowers If you don’t like sunflowers, it might be because you’ve seen one or two scrawny specimens looking sad and lonely, buffeted by the wind. Sunflowers want to grow in an entire field, where they can support each other. A lot fenced on three sides with plenty of sun could be planted wall to wall with sunflowers, with dwarf varieties along any exposed edge to create a windbreak. Sunflowers are sowed in place from September to February, and in good conditions large varieties can grow 2–3 m tall. In autumn, the seed heads can be harvested by hippie granola-makers, or left as a bounty for goldfinches and other seed-eaters. The stalks can be stacked and dried to make a pleasant midwinter bonfire, and the rest of the lot planted in mustard or lupin cover crops to be cut and mulched come Spring.

Swan Plants

swanplant These can be planted a little earlier in the season, and grow well from left-over seed pods as well as commercial seed. There’s more opportunity for kids and parents to be involved, starting seedlings in trays or pots early Spring and bringing them all to the site. The problem with swan plants and monarchs—the perennial problem, that leads to crying kids and desperate trips to the garden centre to buy one or two pathetic little seedlings, out of season, while the nursery-owner cackles in glee—is too many caterpillars and not enough vegetation. If an entire lot is planted in swan plants, at a reasonably high density, and early enough, there is enough vegetation to allow a surprisingly number of caterpillars to pupate. The resulting flood of butterflies will be seen all over the central city. Very metaphorical.

Nettle Beds

nettles Monarchs are introduced butterflies, but we have two native butterflies (Red and Yellow Admirals) that are becoming increasingly rare. The caterpillars of both feed on nettles, both the giant and vicious native stinging nettle, ongaonga (Urtica ferox) and the introduced garden nettle. Nettles are pretty thin on the ground in the CBD. Although their seeds aren’t available from nurseries, one could source large numbers from back gardens by enlisting schoolkids: teachers arrange a field trip to the Nettle Butterfly Reserve, admission price one or more healthy nettle plants in a grocery bag; parents would have no objections to kids removing nettles from the garden. At the site is a volunteer entomologist, who can show the kids the butterfly life cycle, give them woolly caterpillars to handle, and enlist them in planting their donated nettles in rows. Nettles are perennials, grow like weeds, and would eventually fill the lot, providing a source for butterflies to spill out and spread to suburban gardens.

Urban Beefields

Clover One of the most appealing features of C1 Cafe’s new premises is its rooftop beehive. There are enough weeds springing up in empty lots to keep a few hives happy, but Christchurch could support fields of bee-friendly flowers, growing of course without any danger of pesticide drift. Honey bees and even some species of tiny native bees love weedy yellow-flowered compositae; sales of “urban honey” would be both good publicity and a fundraiser. Empty lots could also be planted in clover, both as urban pasture and as feed for bumblebees (which were introduced a century ago specifically to pollinate red clover). Bumblebees in the wild make hives in abandoned rabbit burrows; urban bumblebees could live in hand-made bee houses made of scrap timber.

Urban Pasture

goatIt seems almost criminal to see empty fields of gravel that could be producing clover or ryegrass. There’s a pretty well-developed industry in New Zealand devoted to converting flatland to pasture—Federated Farmers contributed a volunteer army to help shovel liquefaction, so I’m sure they’d be willing to lend a hand. Dairying has an image problem in Canterbury at the moment: perhaps Fonterra would like to sponsor a dryland pasture project to show they’re thinking about the future of Canterbury farming. Urban pasture naturally suggest urban grazing, a flock of sheep or herd of goats, with an urban goatherd moving them from pasture to pasture. Perhaps there would be enough pasture to support an urban horse-trekking business, the most leisurely way to take a tour around the Red Zone.

Other ideas

Native groundcovers—DoC’s Motukarara nursery could showcase different ways to cover bare ground, or create a green roof • A huge pumpkin patch or cornfield • Wheat, oats, and barley to make urban bread • Guerilla gardening in spare corners, or using “seed bombs” to get wildflowers rather than weeds growing in abandoned spaces.

Let’s take the idea of greening the rubble seriously. Every empty space should be growing something. Put that empty land to work, and make the transitional city less of a depressing eyesore.