Names, True and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about names. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given that I’m either doing science, which is rife with complicated names and nomenclature, or writing stories where names are just part of the process of building a world.

I think the thing that got me started on this tangent was discovering this app, Seek, that tries to identify plants and animals from your pictures. It’s something I’ve kind of wanted to exist for years, and while it’s not perfect, it does a pretty good job, especially with plants with flowers and things that hold still long enough to get a good picture. As a person who mostly knows a molecular world, it’s been fun to learn the names of things around me I didn’t know about – names like Farewell-to-Spring, Love-in-a-mist, Redclaws, and Heart’s Ease. Red Hot Poker and Pride of Madeira and Hound’s Tongue. Brass Buttons and Blue-eyed Grass.

The names are wonderful. They provide insight into the nature of a thing, what it looks like, what it’s good for, where it came from. But beyond the fanciful descriptions and hints at stories behind the names lies more than simply strings of words. I’m now hooked on identifying random plants in my neighborhood because they make me stop and make sense of seemingly small things around me. They ground me in place. A name suggests a thing’s significance and thus knowing a name gives access into an overlooked world full of importance outside of one’s self and species. A good name is like a signpost in the mental map of the world, saying here is a thing that matters, here is thing to remember.

And you know, everything really matters, and humans name absolutely everything, given the chance.

It really all reminds me, while scrolling through the list of flowers, algae, fish, and fungi I have observed through this app, of how prevalent the idea of true names is in fantasy. The idea generally shows up in the magic system of a story world, where a character must know the true name of a thing in order to have power over it. I can think of half a dozen examples of this trope without working at it, but my favorite is of course in the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin (favorite series by favorite author), where there is great emphasis on restraint and balance in how you use the knowledge and power you gain.

What interests me then, is that there’s this whole understanding of the power of names and yet, despite this, we have serious societal amnesia when it comes to knowing something about the world around us, especially the natural world. Plant blindness. We don’t know the names of the organisms that co-inhabit our cities let alone those that live wild and unseen. I don’t mean to say this in a kids-these-days kind of way, or imply that it’s a failing of individuals exactly. The world is changing, and fast-paced life with high demands on time and limited opportunity to interact with nature doesn’t exactly facilitate environmental education. And there’s so much information to process, that of course we get overloaded and processing plants of all things on top of it all is a bit too much. Add into this an unequal access to green spaces, and it feels like something vital is cut off from a wide swath of the population.

I want to say there’s something about nature and imagination and having variety and other living things that is good for a person, and it’s not that one can’t be imaginative and healthy and full of a sense of place where nature as generally understood is not, but it feels like there is something inherently displacing about urban spaces when they lack space for life, green or otherwise. I love my biology/geology education for giving me a sense of place – it’s difficult to feel lost or ungrounded or adrift when you can look around and see the long geologic history of the earth beneath your feet and identify the organisms that are living their lives around you. But this tapestry of interaction is only appreciable when you can see it – I may be enjoy a coastal meadow, a tidepool, a deep forest, but what does this knowledge mean to somebody who lacks access to even manicured and fairly sterile city park? What good is an app to identify wildlife if the only habitat available to them in your neighborhood is one of concrete and glass?

A name can reveal a history of injustices and misunderstandings. In that way the real world will never work out as neatly as it does in stories (there are no True Names), but it does reveal hidden narratives that can be brought to light and reexamined. There’s that difference between the scientific name and the common name – the scientific name has purpose in the cataloguing of things, but it doesn’t capture everything, and doesn’t always pay homage to the names that came before. Neither do common names. What we see is, like much of history, a story written by those in power, with all too often the names given to plants and animals by the people native to a land overwritten by those of the people who drove them out. I think of endangered languages, so many names and so many stories lost, so much of humanity.

It’s all thorny territory. I look again through my list of plants, and see so many that are invasive. What does it mean that my vegetal landmarks, contributors to landscapes I love to live in and admire, have strangled a landscape I never had the chance to see? My baseline for this place is already one of destruction. How can we rebuild an environment when we don’t really understand it’s history? When the names and the knowledge has been lost?

I don’t know how to fix things, but I do believe that it’s here, in the names and narratives, in the language we use, that the roots lie. Understanding the stories we tell about places, why a thing is called by X name instead of Y, who came before us and how they spoke of the place, is a powerful thing.

Saturday Morning Science

I know, I know I’m doing horribly on this whole write stuff once a week thing. I haven’t written anything in how many weeks now? Alas I have all these drafts and no time to do anything with them. How do people manage to accomplish so much in one day? I get to the evening and am so exhausted I don’t want to work on anything. Anyway, I digress, here are a few things I’ve enjoyed recently:

Obligatory Tree Post

So I’m having a Week, and all I really want right now is to flee the lab and run away to the forest. But I can’t so, I’m looking at pictures I took a couple months ago and plotting art projects, and so here’s an assortment of trees:

My favorite time to wander in the forest is after the rain. When the ground is still soggy and everything is vividly green and alive, the sun is bright but not yet returned everything to the stasis of summer and drought. When all you can hear is the sound of ephemeral streams trickling down hillsides and the last drops of rain falling on leaves.

You’ll notice that while yes, these trees are mostly redwoods, they’re not the giants you see in some parks. This area was clear cut relatively recently in tree years, so these trees are all babies. Redwoods grow up first, and then out, so they are mostly spindly things, but still too tall to really convey in pictures.

Sometimes they creak and sway in the wind, which is mildly alarming when you are underneath them. Another favorite thing: the difference of the sound of the wind in different sorts of trees, and the way you can track the wind’s course by listening to it move through different patches of forest.

I also like poking around in the undergrowth and looking for interesting little plants tucked around the trees. Lots of poison oak, but also lots of tiny flowers and interesting ferns.

Book Pairings: Into the Weird

One of my favorite species of weird fiction is travel journals about improbable places. Stories about leaving home with a purpose, only to lose yourself in the strangeness of your destination. Finding yourself in a landscape that reflects the state of things (if you can believe in it at all). Places that feel like somewhere you could have been or should have been or might have dreamt you’ve been.

Book #1: Amatka, Karin Tidbeck

A place where everything must be named to keep it from disintegrating (I’m so jealous of this, it’s an idea I was using myself, but she pulled it off and gave some political weight in her story). Our protagonist is sent by the government to do research. Dystopian and strange.

Book #2: The Taiga Syndrome, Cristina Rivera Garza

I just finished this book! It’s a very small detective novel of sorts. At least, there is a missing woman and a detective. And a translator and a dark, dark forest. Noir-ish and woven with fairytales and the kind of language that gets under the skin. I’m left with more questions than I started with, which is exactly how you should feel after entering the woods.

Book #3: Tainaron, Leena Krohn 

A woman comes to a city of insects and there she stays, writing letters. The details of this city are delightful, as is trying to understand it. Not a plot-driven novel by any means, but a puzzle to ponder over and tiny world to wonder at.

Pair with the playlist at the end of The Taiga Syndrome, and a work of beautiful and disturbing interactive fiction

Saturday Morning Science

It’s a bright beautiful day, and I’m taking a break from work for poetry, picnics and working through the plethora of saved articles, papers, and books I’ve accumulated. A few interesting things:

  • Dickinsonia! Weirdest oldest animal we know, identified by its steroids. There’s a kind of hilarious quote that pretty much sums up the scientific process in the article too: “[My supervisor] Jochen [Brocks] said we could try it, but he was always sure that it was a stupid idea,” Bobrovskiy says. “Even I thought it would fail. But it didn’t.”
  • How does epigenetics help organisms adapt? A fascinating article about how changes in the expression of genes helps species respond quickly to environmental changes. Also remember learning about Lamarckian vs Darwinian evolution? I remember my high school biology class kind of laughing off Lamarck and his idea of acquired characteristics (“so if I just flap my arms I’ll eventually grow wings?”), but reality is much more subtle and complicated than that. On an epigenetics level, some traits are acquired through experience and passed on to the next generation…
  • A lovely essay: “We Should Never Have Called It Earth”
  • An actually good article about our preparedness for the next pandemic. There are a lot of factors we need to consider – leadership, hospital staffing and supplying, research, responsiveness (and technological capacity) of industry to produce vaccines and medications, education, funding of all of the above, etc. And as a side note since it caught my eye, I don’t think we can ever hope for a system to produce new vaccines in weeks.
  • A big challenge with producing good vaccines is that for some viruses, exposure to the virus (or a vaccine) results in an even more severe illness the second time you’re exposed. Dengue is one of those viruses, and so understanding the challenges of producing an effective vaccine and the potential risks is important.
  • Vision in the deep sea – fish eyes optimized to better see the faint lights of bioluminescence
  • The deformation of continents. It’s a wild thing to wrap your mind around, the fluidity of the earth, the large-scale malleability of stone.

Thoughts on Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies

One thing I did too much of over the weekend was play Sunless Skies, and having seen a lot of people disliking the game for what it isn’t, I kind of want to write about what it’s really good at. I’m really interested in exploring what it takes to make effective interactive fiction, and I think Failbetter Games does an awesome job with this, telling interesting stories that unfold organically and leave plenty of room for the reader/player to breathe. So a few things I really like about Sunless Skies (and honestly, their other games too).

Freedom of choice in character design

First off, I appreciate that there is a clear effort to make the games inclusive. You get to choose your pronouns/title, and what you choose has no impact on what you get to pick when designing your character. It’s a little detail, but makes the game feel more welcoming from the moment you begin.

The other character bit I enjoy is that there’s no set story about you, the player. You can create a story around your own character (and the game, I think works best when you do). Sunless Skies makes this even easier than Sunless Seas (which I also adore) by letting you pick Facets for your character as you level up – which each are bits of story about your past where what you choose to have done impacts who you are in the present. It’s just nice having tools to the freedom to tell your own story in the game, while still having some support.

Stories unfold at different paces by different mechanisms

One of the biggest mechanism details I appreciate is that stories unfold in different ways through all Failbetter’s games, which keeps things interesting and enhances the texture of the game. Some events are random, some are timed or by location, some events lead you across the world, some are local and short. It feels more realistic than a linear narrative and gives you choices and unpredictability.

Your actions also effect change on the world around you. This is especially nice in Sunless Skies, where the factions you associate with have an impact on their political standing and who is likely to leave you alone or do you harm. I’ve frequently had moments where I faced an quandary over whether I should stop to help an ally in a fight, or run for cover in a risky area.

No infodumping means you learn the way you would in the real world, which may be somewhat infuriating at times. There’s so much to know and so many puzzles to work through on your own. The longer you play and the deeper you dive into the world’s secrets the more things begin to make sense. There are moments of horror when you realize just what you have been part of all along.

Value on both the little and big

On the one hand, actions really do have consequences. One thing I think Sunless Seas is even better at than Sunless Skies is that it’s so much easier to die. Frustrating, but when every detail counts, it creates a lot of tension. And after working through so much story, those losses mean something – you have a fleshed out character to mourn.

On the other hand, it’s not all derring-do and grave decisions. I like a lot of the little details and opportunities that give you space between action. The beauty of open space and stars around you as you travel. The little remarks your officers make about your location. The opportunities to just explore ports and see what’s there without major plot consequences. Narratives really benefit from these moments to breathe or focus on the people. Perhaps you have a nightmare and decide to raid the pantry with your crew for a comforting midnight snack. Perhaps you find your aunt baking cookies for your crew. Perhaps you stop for a cup of tea (with a nice terror decreasing bonus) or wander around a port enjoying the sights just because.

The language!

These are narrative games, and the quality of the writing is fantastic. Plus you get wonderful wordplay and wonderful names.

If you’re going to name your vehicle the Efficiency is Our Watchword, you can’t be too surprised to find yourself wrecked in the middle of nowhere.
Another favorite wreck name: the All Shall Be Well
The Aunt is…quite a character.

Women in STEM vs the Lone Genius

I guess this is kind of a late reaction to the black hole picture, and the fallout around Katie Bouman, and several articles I’ve been reading, and general frustration with perceptions of science/female scientists.

So: black hole picture announced, a picture surfaced of Katie Bouman excitedly watching her work unfold on screen, followed by a brief burst of praise for women in STEM, followed by backlash against her and the very idea that she had made an important contribution at all.

It’s the typical rise-and-fall these days for women in STEM fields, it seems. It absolutely has to do with the fact that women are still not consistently perceived as competitive in these fields. But intertwined into the never-ending, exhausting narrative of misogyny (exhausting that women still have to work so much harder to exist), is a fatal flaw of sorts in how science is understood by the public. For some reason, we are still attached to the idea of science being done by solo, lone-wolf-type geniuses. After all, when was the last time you saw a scientist portrayed in popular culture who was part of a big team of equally-talented people?

It’s a major problem, because if scientific advancements are accomplished by one individual alone, then those who are being perceived as less capable are even more easily written out of the narrative. It limits the scope of what a scientist could be to a model that honestly doesn’t exist (and if it does, it probably looks like an established white male researcher whose fame overshadows those that assist his work). And if you don’t see yourself as the brash, brave explorer revolutionizing the world with their discoveries, then it is just that much harder to make that decision to go into a field that’s not quite yet comfortable with embracing people of all backgrounds.

So what, you say? Why do we need to see ourselves to become a thing? Can’t we all just follow our dreams? That only works if you perceive your dream as even being a possibility. If becoming a physicist seems just as wild as say, adopting a unicorn, you’re probably not going to pursue it. And we could talk about all the intersectional barriers that prevent kids from being exposed to and prepared for careers of all kinds, but that’s a vast world of discussion that deserves more than a sentence or two here.

The reality is that science is incredibly collaborative. Yes, you’ve got somebody responsible for the lab, but they’re usually not the ones doing the experiments. That work is usually done by students, and sometimes those students have students too. And then you’ve sometimes got lab techs and lab managers, and people running specialized facilities and generally keeping things moving and getting people trained in new skills. There are collaborators – some you’ve met in person, some you haven’t – potentially all around the world. Conferences where you meet other people and learn about what they’re doing. The lab next door where you go when you need to borrow something or ask advice. All people with very specialized skills in some areas, and other areas where they are still learning, and everyone is essential for things to progress.

There’s no one person doing everything. That’s not to say individuals can’t do amazing things, or don’t deserve credit for their accomplishments. It’s just that nobody works in a vacuum. What seems to have happened this time is that a single individual (who totally deserves recognition of her work and is definitely a role model for women in STEM) was presented somewhat inaccurately as the lone face of a project, which exposed her to people waiting to strike against anyone who failed to match what that face is “supposed” to look like.

I guess I think it might be easier to address the horrible bias against women and others in STEM once we’ve changed how we think science is done. It’s sort of awful, in a way that our accomplishments might not be seen until they are watered down with acknowledgement of collaborators, but it does open a door to conversation. More positively, reframing the narrative as one of collaboration welcomes everyone, because there is room for everyone to contribute what they are able. I’m not quite sure how to accomplish this, especially from a non-influential position. All I know is that we humans are storytellers and the more of us tell stories that celebrate each other’s achievements and thank those who work with us, the farther that new narrative will spread.

Pretty Minerals!

In honor of going rock-shopping at the annual gem and mineral show, I figure I ought to show off some of the pretty things in my collection. I don’t have anything particularly valuable or unusual, but I do have some pretty things, and there’s lots of interesting things to know about them.


  • CaCO3
  • Makes up shells of marine animals, constituent of limestone
  • Single crystals can show birefringence where you see double looking through them (you can sort of see it in the picture of the flat crystal)
  • This particular piece is interesting because it shows twinning. This is a structural feature where multiple crystals grow along the same planes/through each other so you get these beautiful symmetrical patterns. Both sides are totally identical.


  • As the name suggests, has vanadium
  • Also comes in a more brilliant red!


  • Aluminum oxide, aka ruby or sapphire depending on color
  • Second hardest mineral after diamond
  • Comes in lots of colors and can make nice hexagonal crystals
  • Sometimes has these cool triangular etching-like marks? You can sort of see them in the picture, it looks like something made by humans, but it’s not

Lepidolite (and bonus tourmaline):

  • Lepidolite is a mica containing lithium
  • Lepidolite can make for fantastically purple sparkly rocks!
  • The tourmaline here is the pink stuff. It comes in many colors (technically “tourmaline” includes more than one mineral)
  • My favorite tourmaline is “watermelon” tourmaline, that’s green and pink like a watermelon

Wulfenite (and bonus hemimorphite):

  • Wulfenite (PbMoO4) is the tiny yellowish crystals and the reddish squares.
  • Hemimorphite gets its name (“half-shape”) because each end of the crystal can be a different shape. This is kind of unusual.


  • Copper mineral
  • Often found with azurite, a very very blue mineral


  • Neptunite’s the shiny black stuff.
  • Honestly, I just like the name. It apparently gets its name because it’s often associated with aegirine, and somebody decided to make rocks-named-after-gods-of-the-sea a thing
  • The white stuff around it is probably natrolite, which is a zeolite (a group of porous minerals with lots of uses)
  • I really wanted one with benitoite, but somebody else got the best one when I wasn’t looking 😦 Benitoite has pretty blue triangular crystals and is fairly rare. Next time…


  • So green! Also can be brown, orange, grey or white
  • Lead chlorophosphate.
  • Belongs to the apatite group. Apatite comes from “apate,” meaning deceit. These minerals come in all kinds of colors and are easy to confuse for many other things.

So there’s some fun rocks for you! I also have a bunch of fossils and a ton of cool mystery rocks given to me as gifts. I will have to get them out and take nice pictures of them in the future…

Saturday Morning Science

The Great Return to Bookbinding

So…I recently got a new book press and have been trying to reteach myself how to bind books. It’s been years since I last made any, so this proved a bit challenging. But I do like the pretty paper I got for my first book, so might as well show off the step-by-step progress.

Step 1: spend way too much on paper
Step 2: fold some paper into signatures, regret not buying anything fancier than normal printer paper.
Step 3: sew those signatures together, realize you failed to punch the holes in the right spots halfway through.
Step 4: trim the book block edges, glue everything together and press for a bit so it’s nice and flat and bookish.
Step 5: take a tea and cupcake break after struggling to cut book board for the covers.
Step 6: attach the cover very very carefully
Step 6: decorate, press until glue dries, and admire the pretty book while ignoring the crooked spine.

It didn’t turn out quite as good as I might have hoped, but hey, that means I get to keep it for myself.

I am scheming a few science-themed books for future creations. Something virus-themed for sure, and I’d really like to decide on a creative way to put a stratigraphic column on a book.