October 25, 2010 – The trip was awesome—a dream exotic vacation to Bali. It was not about eat, pray, love, but a rather unbalanced midpoint to meet my Oz-dwelling daughter. I enjoyed dashes of ecotourism and agritourism, but even in full vacation mode I couldn’t fully suppress my perspective as a taxonomist.
The place is idyllic, verdant, vibrant, unique, and quirky, with wondrous surprises at every turn. A few features were especially surprising, like getting candy instead of small change in a sales transaction (rupiah come in millions, like Italian lire before the euro), and motorbike fuel is sold in any container handy from vegetable oil jugs to Jack Daniels bottles. The lack of guard rails on twisty mountain roads, wildly variable heights of steps in a staircase and the wobbly concrete panels of sidewalk paving with gaping 2×3 foot holes in them, hopscotched on a dark night in the rain, would set a lawyer’s heart a-flutter.
And then there’s the spelling, a wonderfully creative adventure. The spelling of words on signs, menus, brochures and more never failed to surprise and entertain. Though the word “internet” was consistent, even in remote villages, other words were expressed with endless variety. Initially, I viewed the spelling as a phonology test in linguistics until I realized there was no rule, no rhyme, no reason to it. Seeing an English translation after the Indonesian text did not guarantee I could easily make sense of what I read, nor could I expect the same spelling the next time.
Though much of what I encountered was oriented to tourists, the unexpected—sidewalks, steps, spelling, and more—was well outside the range of my expectations and made navigating a challenge.
Travel is an adventure, venturing beyond the daily norm to get away from the routine and expected. We seek excitement and variety from travel, not efficiency. Yet efficiency has its place. Predictability and standardization make it easy to recognize where we are and how to move around. With familiar landmarks and a sense of what to expect, it is simply easier to find your way. Creatively gesturing to circumvent a language barrier can be fun in travel but ineffective to accurately convey an idea or important direction.
What is true for finding your way around a new place is also true for navigating a taxonomy. What’s around and what comes next should make sense. It’s easier to find information when your approach to knowledge organization and expression is similar to that reflected in the unfamiliar taxonomy. Ideally, the approaches are based on accepted and shared standards, which facilitate a searcher’s navigating a taxonomy. Those standard also support interoperability between vocabularies, their capacity to meld concepts and organizational structures in a reasonably smooth fashion. For taxonomies, that means following the ANSI/NISO Z39.19 standard, Guidelines for the Construction and Management of Monolingual Controlled Vocabularies, the British Standard BS 8723 Structured Vocabularies for Information Retrieval, or the comparable international standards ISO 2788 for monolingual thesauri and ISO 5964 for multilingual thesauri.
My short visit to Bali reminded me that travel and adventure present wonderful opportunities to explore. It is great to break out of everyday routines and enjoy what’s novel and unexpected. Surprises are usually welcome and often the highlight of a trip. But quirky doesn’t cut it when the goal is efficiency and productivity. Especially for taxonomy work, standards are good.
Chief Taxonomist, Senior Editor