Ten Million Aliens – More musings on BI-ology

Introduction

Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes

This article relates to the book Ten Million Aliens – A Journey Through the Entire Animal Kingdom by British journalist and author Simon Barnes, but is not specifically a book review. My actual review of this entertaining and informative work appears on Amazon and is as follows:

Having enjoyed Simon’s sport journalism (particularly his insightful and amusing commentary on Test Match cricket) for many years, I was interested to learn about this new book via his web-site. As an avid consumer of pop-science literature and already being aware of Simon’s considerable abilities as a writer, I was keen to read Ten Million Aliens. To be brief, I would recommend the book to anyone with an enquiring mind, an interest in the natural world and its endless variety, or just an affection for good science writing. My only sadness was that the number of phyla eventually had to come to an end. I laughed in places, I was better informed than before reading a chapter in others and the autobiographical anecdotes and other general commentary on the state of our stewardship of the planet added further dimensions. I look forward to Simon’s next book.

Instead this piece contains some general musings which came to mind while reading Ten Million Aliens and – as is customary – applies some of these to my own fields of professional endeavour.
 
 
Some Background

David Ivon Gower

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my affection for Cricket[1] and also my interest in Science[2]. Simon Barnes’s work spans both of these passions. I became familiar with Simon’s journalism when he was Chief Sports Writer for The Times[3] an organ he wrote for over 32 years. Given my own sporting interests, I first read his articles specifically about Cricket and sometimes Rugby Union, but began to appreciate his writing in general and to consume his thoughts on many other sports.

There is something about Simon’s writing which I (and no doubt many others) find very engaging. He manages to be both insightful and amusing and displays both elegance of phrase and erudition without ever seeming to show off, or to descend into the overly-florid prose of which I can sometimes (OK often) be guilty. It also helps that we seem to share a favourite cricketer in the shape of David Gower, who appears above and was the most graceful bastman to have played for England in the last forty years. However, it is not Simon’s peerless sports writing that I am going to focus on here. For several years he also penned a wildlife column for The Times and is a patron of a number of wildlife charities. He has written books on, amongst other topics, birds, horses, his safari experiences and conservation in general.

Green Finch, Great Tit, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Tawny Owl, Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Jay, Jackdaw

My own interest in science merges into an appreciation of the natural world, perhaps partly also related to the amount of time I have spent in remote and wild places rock-climbing and bouldering. As I started to write this piece, some welcome November Cambridge sun threw shadows of the Green Finches and Great Tits on our feeders across the monitor. Earlier in the day, my wife and I managed to catch a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, helping itself to our peanuts. Last night we stood on our balcony listening to two Tawny Owls serenading each other. Our favourite Corvidae family are also very common around here and we have had each of the birds appearing in the bottom row of the above image on our balcony at some point. My affection for living dinosaurs also extends to their cousins, the herpetiles, but that is perhaps a topic for another day.

Ten Million Aliens has the modest objectives, revealed by its sub-title, of saying something interesting about about each of the (at the last count) thirty-five phyla of the Animal Kingdom[4] and of providing some insights in to a few of the thousands of familes and species that make these up. Simon’s boundless enthusiasm for the life he sees around him (and indeed the life that is often hidden from all bar the most intrepid of researchers), his ability to bring even what might be viewed as ostensibly dull subject matter[5] to life and a seemingly limitless trove of pertinent personal anecdotes, all combine to ensure not only that he achieves these objectives, but that he does so with some élan.
 
 
Classifications and Hierarchies

Biological- Classification

Well having said that this article wasn’t going to be a book review, I guess it has borne a striking resemblance to one so far. Now to take a different tack; one which relates to three of the words that I referenced and provided links to in the last paragraph of the previous section: phylum, family and species. These are all levels in the general classification of life. At least one version of where these three levels fit into the overall scheme of things appears in the image above[6]. Some readers may even be able to recall a related mnemonic from years gone by: Kings Play Chess on Fine Green Sand[7].

The father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus, founded his original biological classification – not unreasonably – on the shared characteristics of organisms; things that look similar are probably related. Relations mean that like things can be collected together into groups and that the groups can be further consolidated into super-groups. This approach served science well for a long time. However when researchers began to find more and more examples of convergent evolution[8], Linnaeus’s rule of thumb was seen to not always apply and complementary approaches also began to be adopted.

Cladogram

One of these approaches, called Cladistics, focuses on common ancestors rather than shared physical characteristics. Breakthroughs in understanding the genetic code provided impetus to this technique. The above diagram, referred to as a cladogram, represents one school of thought about the relationship between avian dinosaurs, non-avian dinosaurs and various other reptiles that I mentioned above.

It is at this point that the Business Intelligence professional may begin to detect something somewhat familiar[9]. I am of course talking about both dimensions and organising these into hierarchies. Dimensions are the atoms of Business Intelligence and Data Warehousing[10]. In Biological Classification: H. sapiens is part of Homo , which is part of Hominidae, which is part of Primates, which is part of Mammalia, which is part of Chordata, which then gets us back up to Animalia[11]. In Business Intelligence: Individuals make up Teams, which make up Offices, which make up Countries and Regions.

Above I references different approaches to Biological Classification, one based on shared attributes, the other on homology of DNA. This also reminds me of the multiple ways to roll-up dimensions. To pick the most obvious, Day rolls up to Month, Quarter, Half-Year and Year; but also in a different manner to Week and then Year. Given that the aforementioned DNA evidence has caused a reappraisal of the connections between many groups of animals, the structures of Biological Classification are not rigid and instead can change over time[12]. Different approaches to grouping living organisms can provide a range of perspectives, each with its own benefits. In a similar way, good BI/DW design practices should account for both dimensions changing and the fact that different insights may well be provided by parallel dimension hierarchies.

In summary, I suppose what I am saying is that BI/DW practitioners, as well as studying the works of Inmon and Kimball, might want to consider expanding their horizons to include Barnes; to say nothing of Linnaeus[13]. They might find something instructive in these other taxonomical works.
 


 
Notes

 
[1]
 
Articles from this blog in which I intertwine Cricket and aspects of business, technology and change include (in chronological order):

 
[2]
 
Articles on this site which reference either Science or Mathematics are far too numerous to list in full. A short selection of the ones I enjoyed writing most would include (again in chronological order):

 
[3]
 
Or perhaps The London Times for non-British readers, despite the fact that it was the first newspaper to bear that name.
 
[4]
 
Here “Aninal Kingdom” is used in the taxonomical sense and refers to Animalia.
 
[5]
 
For an example of the transformation of initially unpromising material, perhaps check out the chapter of Ten Million Aliens devoted to Entoprocta.
 
[6]
 
With acknowledgment to The Font.
 
[7]
 
Though this elides both Domains and Johny-come-latelies like super-families, sub-genuses and hyper-orders [I may have made that last one up of course].
 
[8]
 
For example the wings of Pterosaurs, Birds and Bats.
 
[9]
 
No pun intended.
 
[10]
 
This metaphor becomes rather cumbersome when one tries to extend it to cover measures. It’s tempting to perhaps align these with fundamental forces, and thus bosons as opposed to combinations of fermions, but the analogy breaks down pretty quickly, so let’s conveniently forget that multidimensional data structures have fact tables at their hearts for now.
 
[11]
 
Here I am going to strive manfully to avoid getting embroiled in discussions about domains, superregnums, superkingdoms, empires, or regios and instead leave the interested reader to explore these areas themselves if they so desire. Ten Million Aliens itself could be one good starting point, as could the following link.
 
[12]
 
Science is yet to determine whether these slowly changing dimensions are of Type 1, 2, 3 or 4 (it has however been definitively established that they are not Type 6 / Hybrid).
 
[13]
 
Interesting fact of the day: Linnaeus’s seminal work included an entry for The Kraken, under Cephalopoda

 

 

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