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  • The Noah Game

    You may have heard about the Encyclopedia of Life that’s being started up, in which (mad) scientists are going to attempt to catalogue the entirety of species on our planet in an accessible online venue. Obviously, a number of scientists saw how Wikipedia grew like crazy and said “we gotta get in on that sweet action.” So I’m pretty excited about the idea of having a definitive place to go for such info, and am preparing myself for just how many beetles there are in the world. And it’s got me starting to play my little Noah game again.

    Or The God Game, I never settled on a name for it. And it’s not really a game, because you can’t win. It’s a mental exercise I started doing about twelve years ago to help myself remember species, because I sucked at being able to do things I thought I should be better at, like identifying trees on a hike. Here’s the premise. Suddenly every form of life vanishes from the Earth, and you’re just standing there in the barren nothingland. But you have the ability to bring back any form of life from your time period you want as long as you can name it (Trust me, once you get into the whole thing, you will not want to be bringing back dinosaurs like you think). Common names, not Latin. And you have no obligation to bring back everything that existed, so this is your big chance to say “F YOU, cockroaches, fleas and mosquitos!” And if you can’t remember any variations of say, a maple tree- like a Japanese Maple or a Sugar Maple, whatever- you can say “Maples” and get them all. But then you can’t exclude any you might not like. It helps to keep writing these down so you don’t forget what you’ve brought back, because you have to try to keep visualizing the world as you have it so far.

    The first thing the exercise gave me was more appreciation for the food chain, because my world quickly got top-heavy with predators who had not much to eat. Immediately I have to remember an easy-to-climb tree to get away from all these tigers, grizzly bears and komodo dragons so I can buy some time to think of things below them.

    For the same reason I can’t jump in the water, which is 90 percent sharks. Plankton! Krill! Tiger Barbs! Yes, my mind immediately goes to aquarium fish- funny how I mainly know tiny pretty fish and large destructive ones, and few mid-sized ones. Thanks to that one chapter of Moby Dick I can switch it up with whales for a few minutes. Then I venture back onto land which I finally thought to at least put some Kentucky Bluegrass on. The kids will miss playing with dandelions but hey, enjoy oblivion, Weeds.

    The predators have been eating each other at least, but now there’s poo everywhere because I didn’t think to bring back microbes. Flies alone won’t take care of it, and I’m holding off on bringing them back as long as possible. With a blanket statement I could simply bring back all microbes, but then I’ll have to bring back all the deadly ones too! Which microbes break down waste? All I can remember is yeast, which I better bring back or there’s no good bread or beer. Moss is useful, right? Screw you, Poison Oak and Ivy. Somewhere around this part I remember how important worms are to the whole system. There’s one I can say without hesitation: All Worms Come Back. Wait- leeches are worms, aren’t they? I briefly remember they’re annelids, but that doesn’t help me avoid the leeches. What eats leeches? Crap, all these birds are going to peck me to death if I don’t come up with some bugs, STAT.

    After you fill up a few pages, you get surprised when you look at them later and see some obvious creatures you haven’t added yet. How could I forget cows? But the whole thing serves it’s purpose really well. The next time you come across an animal or plant, you absorb its name like a sponge (and yes, I forgot sponges). There’s no time limit on it the way I play it, it just keeps going and going, which is good because there are 1.8 million that are going to be entered into that massive database. This time as I crank up the exercise I think I’ll try to stay just on plantlife for as long as possible, even though I’ll obviously need to get some animals in there crapping it up to keep that going. And I’ll probably break my pages into Kingdoms.

    This all reminds me that I wanted to blog-ponder that dilemma with the disappearing bees. Next week for sure.


    Comment from RAB
    Time: May 11, 2007, 2:30 pm

    Re the EOL: I have the feeling the organizers are probably thinking “we’ll be so much better than Wikipedia, because we’ll have real scientists and experts contributing instead of just common folk, and we’ll rigorously scrutinize everything that goes in to make sure it’s all up to academic standards!” In which case they’ll be in for a rude awakening…as those qualities of Wikipedia are its strength, not its weakness. The “Wikipedia by experts” model hasn’t quite worked so far for a lot of reasons: researchers don’t always have the time necessary to be posting their discoveries to wikis, and they’ll hold back stuff they intend to publish, and there isn’t a huge incentive to share stuff anonymously, and the kind of peer review that’s necessary to verify something as valid data rather than wild speculation is a bottleneck that slows down the flow of information. It’s all well and good to be utopian and show a hypothetical researcher capturing a shot of a newly discovered species on cellphone and instantly uploading it to the EOL…but in real life this stuff is messy and slapdash and full of mistakes, or else it gets held up in review and weeks or months go by.

    I always liked Gregory Benford’s proposal to get samples of endangered species in the rainforest: just send an army of people in with plastic bags, have them scoop up dirt and plants and bugs, fill the bag and freeze it. Don’t make any attempt to categorize it, don’t be selective at all; those things would just slow you down, and in the time you were trying to decide if this was something worth preserving more species would have vanished…

    Comment from Parker
    Time: May 11, 2007, 2:42 pm

    Good points. I’m assuming they hope standardizing the format will take care of a lot, and I’m almost certain that people are planning to throw lots of grad students at this, it’ll become a new requirement. I also assume ( I do this a lot) that many academians already spend lots of time correcting stuff on Wikipedia and are hoping this will give them a place that’s less like fighting the tide.

    Comment from Chuck Harrell
    Time: May 30, 2007, 12:27 pm

    You know, I’ve always admired this quality in you, Jeffrey, the desire for knowledge. I, on the other hand, just wait for some of it to splash off folks like you or my wife and then maybe, MAYBE I’ll actually have some. It’s purely random with me.

    Where I can enlighten you, is there are only four beatles, the idea that a “fifth” beatle ever existed is merely the ego or egos of those who wish to glom onto the fab four in some way or another. And despite Pete Best not being dead (heh, heh) even he isn’t the “5th” beatle. There are four. John, Paul, George and Richard (aka “Ringo). So while knowledge is not my strength nor my passion, this, I can pass along to you. Share it with your loved ones, won’t you?

    Jesus, I’,m sorry, I just couldn’t come up with anything better than that and I’m so attention starved. Hey, Cheap trick plays Petaluma June 22. Then I fly to the land of Wings and Eagles (Beachwear). I’ll tell Myrtle you said “Hay.”