What are they thinking?

Who uses transverse Mercator projection coordinates? I thought when I asked the botanists for the GPS readings of coordinates and elevation from the sites I would actually receive the latitude and longitude. Silly me. I was given the Mercator ‘eastings’ and ‘northings’, which are in meters, yet they gave me elevation in feet. Is it too much to expect for peers working on the same project to work with the same units of measure?

I didn’t realize how difficult it is to convert Mercator coordinates to latitude and longitude. My search revealed many places that would convert the data the other way around, but there is no direct algorithm to go from UTM to lat/long. One must sit at a map and work out the eastings and northings. There are places to order software where people have very meticulously figured out the conversion by hand for certain regions of the world. Fortunately, after much searching I did find a site that did exactly that for the U.S. It only recently became available online. Lengthy conversations and rants about this exact problem revealed just how fortunate I was that it so recently made its debut online.

The point of all this nonsense? Specimen data labels. Labels that have to be crafted in the most arcane way imaginable. Each specimen will receive three to four miniature labels, the first, the one on top, the ‘A’ label contains 4-5 lines of location data, including latitude and longitude coordinates.

These labels, which need to be produced with a certain sized fixed pitch font is only reproducible, it seems, using a macro in DOS based word perfect of ancient release. There is only one older machine (and printer) in the entire department with this highly complex macro designed by one of those neurotic old museum men. There is also much information coded into the macro that pulls certain bits out for other purposes that complicates the matter, it’s not just a question of reproducing the look and pitch of the font. It’s the matter of making it compatible with the vast stores, connections and queries in the databases.

Surely there must be a better way? A way to simplify this process? When you work in a place like a museum, with neurotic old men, where everything has to follow certain protocols, where the solution may seem so simple yet exceedingly difficult to bring to fruition due to the enormous amount of persnickety and stubborn behavior, you learn to just accept and deal with it. Trying to motivate or initiate change is the toughest part about working there.

Lately, the word ‘barcodes’ has been flitting about the department’s minds. Miniature barcodes. It is actually something of a standard in a number of institutions and it has been around for some time now. The ramifications of such a transition would be huge. The amount of work to replace the old system of unique numbering would be staggering. But it would mean our collection database would be compatible with this industry standard. A number of institutions have put their collective compatible data online, one giant biodiversity inventory database, quite a beautiful thing actually.

The day that would happen here is a day where many the neurotic old museum men would lose all of their teeth.