Categorical Emotion

Am currently reading Brave New World. I arrived at Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel first by thinking about the promotional spins we get so often from Web promoters. That led to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Newspeak. When you think about Orwell you tend to think about Huxley. I’m only a few chapters in, but the novel addresses a question I have had for a long time concerning our emotional response to categorizing.

Why do some people hate categories? After all, we categorize all the time. We filter every sight we see through categories. Walk down a street and you categorizeobjects as houses, trees, people. It’s an unconscious act that allows us to navigate our daily lives. This is a road; I can walk on it.  This is a door; it is a subcategory of houseand I can open it. Almost every minute of our day is spent with categories, whether conscious or not. We even dream in categories. Yet the terms class, category and hierarchy are often expressed as pejoratives. Why is such a natural act as classifying so often vilified? I believe it is because these terms also express power relationships that control human beings.

Life in Huxley’s new world features the extreme categorization of humans. All babies are essentially cloned. At their mechanical conception, each group of clones is designated as a class, Alphas on top and Epsilon-Minus Semi Morons on the bottom. Embryos of lower classes receive less oxygen. How are you feeling about the word class right now? We don’t like to classify human beings.

Other classifications simply organize concepts. Animal taxonomy expresses one way of arranging biological characteristics into precise definitions. Canines have no power over dogs. Dogs are simply a type of canine, along with wolves and coyotes. One canine is no more important than the other. They share certain biological characteristics so we place them near each other in a class. We name their class canine and call the whole thing a hierarchy.

In an org chart, a CEO does have power over a manager and we use the same word to express that power. Hierarchy has two meanings, one for placement based on characteristics and one for power. Like Huxley’s new world, we first experience a power hierarchy in infancy. Consider the org chart of a family. Hierarchy can be benign or ominous, but ominous always lurks in the background, even though when we open a door we are glad to know it is part of the hierarchy of a house. It tells us where we are going.

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Jun 2008

Working with Parameters

Like most organizational geniuses, I am a perfectionist.  This is great for building taxonomies, but a challenge for blogging.  All changes are announced to subscribers, so public editing is a parameter of the blog medium.  When I discovered a strengthening detail for the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table, my edit changed the date of the “Species” post from 12/21/05 to 1/1/06, generating feed messages to subscribers and causing other mayhem.  That post is a lot of fun and I had promoted it by date in my Holiday cards.

Taxonomy construction often has exterior parameters.  The selection of Bloglines for my blog service is one.  Bloglines is plain vanilla but it has a crucial feature that surpasses all others.  It is the only service I know that publishes spreadsheets. My spreadsheets display my taxonomies.  So the selection of Bloglines was an easy decision.

As I indicated in my “Strategy” posting (1/1/06), the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table is the product of many such exterior parameters, primary being the width of the blog.  The spreadsheet has to fit within a defined space.  It also has to be a fairly basic structure to transfer over to Bloglines.

These two parameters resulted in an early strategic decision.  I wanted to include the Latin and the English names for Snoopy’s imagined animals.  Both names on the same line would make the columns too wide for the Bloglines space.  So I put the Latin and English on two separate lines within the same cell.  This made the table longer, but still allowed the five columns.  The two-line cells, however, added a need to differentiate between rows.  Bloglines will not display a table’s borders, so I placed a blank row between species, adding more length, but definitely improving readability.

These parameters greatly impact the appearance and therefore the usability of the structure.  At many points in developing “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata,” I needed to resolve an exterior parameter.  When the change was made, I evaluated the resulting structure from the viewpoint of the reader.  Is this easy to understand and if not, what can I do, given this parameter, to improve user experience?  If it is easy to understand, is there another detail that will make the improvement even greater?  Working with parameters is essentially problem solving.  It’s recognizing the rules and then adjusting the variables for the best fit.

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Jan 2006

Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: The Strategy

Zoologic taxonomy, originally conceived by Linnaeus, is now the product of a 271 year biology team. Their lengthy expertise has built perhaps our most elegant organizational structure, one that expands as biologic knowledge grows. This expansion sometimes requires new categories. We are a highly diverse planet and the taxonomic structure for one group of animals may not fit the biologic details of another group. There are even competing theories on the organizational structure for life on earth. We’ll look at those in future postings.

In the meantime, I want to explicate the structural strategy for “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata.” That table displays taxonomic categories for 24 animals in the imagination of my former client Snoopy. None are classified into all 15 available categories, which causes a display discrepancy right there in the first two Classes. The only Class in this collection with a Superclass parent is the ray-finned fish. The next Class is birds. Displaying the Classes in alphabetic hierarchy turns a bird into a bony fish.

Superclass Osteichthyes (bony fish)

Class Actinopterygii (ray-finned fish)

Class Aves (bird)

Zoology Websites resolve this by listing all of an animal’s categories in a drilldown. At the Species level, only the hierarchy for that animal is fully displayed. My goal, however, is to chart the taxonomy of Snoopy’s imagination on one page. A list of every category for each species takes 255 lines.

The animals in this group are all vertebrates. So I save 72 lines by moving the top three categories to the structure’s title, “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: Phylum Chordata of the Animal Kingdom.” Class is the highest differentiating category that includes the entire group. Similar animals are placed together by organizing the structure in alphabetic order by Class, indicated by all caps. The list is now 183 lines.

Because it does not repeat classifications, an indented hierarchy shortens the list to 113 lines, but then we are back to the problem of birds and bony fish. One solution builds a vertical hierarchy displaying each of an animal’s categories in a set of columns. Here’s a portion of a horizontal hierarchy for the shark in a beagle’s imagination. It can only be the porbeagle shark.

Subclass Elasmobranchii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Superorder Euselachii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Order Lamniformes
(great white & mackerel shark)
Family Lamnidae
(mackerel & porbeagle shark)


This gives 24 rows instead of 113, but it also has 12 columns, which is too wide for Bloglines.

The names of categories in this table are based on the original Linnaean categories of Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Snoopy’s animals are all classified into each of these. The auxiliary categories vary by animal but each is associated with one of the big five. In the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table, Superclass and Superorder are parent categories of Class and Order. Children are Subclass, Infraclass, Suborder, Infraorder, and Subfamily. There are five columns for the major categories, with auxiliary categories entered into associated columns. Excepting Genus and Species, which do not have auxiliary categories in this structure, including the category name with the animal’s name clarifies the hierarchic relationship. The first three categories for placental mammals and the first mammalian Order in Snoopy’s group are displayed in this vertical and horizontal hierarchy.

Class MAMMALIA (mammal)
Subclass Theria (live-birth mammal)
Infraclass Eutheria (placental mammal) Order Artiodactyla (cloven-hoofed ungulate)


Listing every category for each animal, from Superclass to Species, builds a table with 82 rows and lots of repetition. Of the 24 species, 14 are placental mammals. Hierarchic indentation removes repetition and shortens the table to 46 rows. The resulting structure is at once vertical, horizontal and indented. Each row is a horizontal hierarchy. Columns contain both equal classifications and a vertical hierarchy. Here’s a portion of the Aves structure.

Class AVES (bird) Order Ciconiiformes (eagle, heron, stork) Family Accipitridae (eagle, hawk)
Family Ciconiidae (American vulture)
Family Pelecanidae (pelican)
Family Spheniscidae (penguin)
Order Strigiformes (owl) Family Strigidae (typical owl)
Subfamily Striginae (typical owl)


Eagles, vultures, pelicans, and penguins are all children of Ciconiiformes at the Family level, but Striginae is Subfamily only to Strigidae. Multiple children of a parent category are presented as vertical and indented hierarchies. Aves are a vertical parent of Ciconiiformes and an indented parent to Strigiformes. For clarity, I put a space between the two Orders in this sample. The full table has a space between each species. The resulting structure offers a logical glimpse into Snoopy’s imagination, where bony fish swim and birds fly, except for penguins.

Superclass Osteichthyes (bony fish)
Class ACTINOPTERYGII (ray-finned fish)
Subclass Neopterygii (neopterygian fish)
Infraclass Teleostei (teleost fish) Superorder Ostariophysi (catfish, minnow, piranha)
Order Characiformes (leporin, piranha)
Class AVES (bird) Order Ciconiiformes (eagle, heron, stork)

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Jan 2006

Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata: The Species

(This is the 12/21 post. Editing the table required a reposting.)

Snoopy frequently transforms himself into other animals. This structure, “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” shows the taxonomic categories of many of the vertebrate species in Snoopy’s imagination. (1, 2)

The previous posting contained a table with homogenous categories, such as all dog breeds in the immediate parent category of the AKC hound group. The new structure is more heterogeneous. Snoopy has imagined himself to be fish, birds, mammals and reptiles. They are all contained in each category column.

The new table will be used in multiple postings to demonstrate several techniques. First, however, we will start with a tour of Snoopy’s imagination. Each animal is categorized to the species level, but Snoopy himself does not always think in terms of species. His characters appear at all levels of the vertebrate taxonomy.

When Snoopy imagines himself to be a shark, he does not specify what kind. The shark subclass Elasmobranchii contains only one superorder, Euselachii, which has four orders of guitarfish, rays and skates with ten orders of sharks. It is clear to me, however, that when Snoopy imagines himself a shark, he can only be a porbeagle shark. Porbeagles, which grow to 12 feet, are in the same family as the great white shark.

Because Snoopy is a beagle, he would be the ace species in any classification. His vulture would be the largest bird in North America, the California condor. His anteater could only be the giant anteater. Snoopy would also be the emperor penguin, the royal python, and Macropus giganteus or the eastern grey kangaroo.

I once lived near Snoopy. Charles Schulz and I were both in the Sonoma County Wine Country, so I know the animals in the neighborhood. When Snoopy imagines himself a pelican, he must be thinking of the brown pelican that inhabits the San Francisco Bay shoreline. As an owl, he would be a spotted owl, the cause of major environmental controversy in the Redwood Empire. The South Bay is part of the greater Bay Area, so the Easter Beagle is obviously a San Jose brush rabbit. Of course, Snoopy would be a western rattlesnake, the rattler of Northern California, a snake I have encountered on several occasions.

Snoopy’s imaginings sometimes do reach the species level: bald eagle, moose, giraffe, polar bear, cougar, lion, and tiger. Certain other selections are only logical. Surely Snoopy was thinking of a domesticated cow and goat. He’s an American dog, so he must also be an American beaver (Castor canadensis) and an American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis).

The others I selected for my own reasons. Gunnison’s prairie dog is native to my new home in Arizona. The Indian rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) is just too fun to pass up. The black spot piranha was chosen because there aren’t many species of piranha and I like black better than red. Snoopy is a grey wolf because that’s who howls in my own imagination.

Here’s the structure, followed by footnotes, and a comment on comments.

Phylum Chordata of the Animal Kingdom
Superclass Osteichthyes
(bony fish)
(ray-finned fish)
Subclass Neopterygii
(neopterygian fish)
Infraclass Teleostei
(teleost fish)
Superorder Ostariophysi
(catfish, minnow, piranha)
Order Characiformes
(leporin, piranha)
Family Characidae
(characin, piranha, tetra)
Pygocentrus cariba
(black spot piranha)
Class AVES
Order Ciconiiformes
(eagle, heron, stork)
Family Accipitridae
(eagle, hawk)
(fish eagle)
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
(bald eagle)
Family Ciconiidae
(American vulture)
Gymnogyps californianus
(California condor)
Family Pelecanidae
Pelecanus occidentalis
(brown pelican)
Family Spheniscidae
(emperor & king penguin)
Aptenodytes forsteri
(emperor penguin)
Order Strigiformes
Family Strigidae
(typical owl)
Subfamily Striginae
(typical owl)
(earless owl)
Strix occidentalis
(spotted owl)
(cartilaginous fish)
Subclass Elasmobranchii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Superorder Euselachii
(guitarfish, ray, shark)
Order Lamniformes
(great white & mackerel shark)
Family Lamnidae
(mackerel & porbeagle shark)
(porbeagle & salmon shark)
Lamna nasus
(porbeagle shark)
Subclass Theria
(live-birth mammal)
Infraclass Eutheria
(placental mammal)
Order Artiodactyla
(cloven-hoofed ungulate)
Family Bovidae
Subfamily Bovinae
(bison, cattle)
(ox, true cattle)
Bos taurus
(domestic cattle)
Subfamily Caprinae
(goat, sheep)
Capra hircus
(domestic goat)
Family Cervidae
Subfamily Capreolinae
(caribou, moose)
Alces alces
Family Giraffidae
(giraffe, okapi)
Giraffa camelopardalis
Order Carnivora
Suborder Caniformia
(dog-like carnivore)
Fam ilyhCanidae
(dog, jackal, wolf)
Canis lupus
(gray wolf)
Family Ursidae
(bear-like mammal)
Subfamily Ursinae
Ursus maritimus
(polar bear)
Suborder Feliformia
(cat-like carnivore)
Family Felidae
Subfamily Felinae
(small cat)
(mountain lion)
Puma concolor
Subfamily Pantherinae
(leopard, lion, tiger)
(roaring cat)
Panthera leo
Panthera tigris
Order Lagomorpha
(hare, pika, rabbit)
Family Leporidae
(hare, rabbit)
(cottontail rabbit)
Sylvilagus mansuetus
(San Jose brush rabbit)
Order Perissodactyla
(odd-toed ungulate)
Family Rhinocerotidae
(one-horned rhinoceros)
Rhinoceros unicornis
(Indian rhinoceros)
Order Rodentia
Suborder Sciuromorpha
(beaver, mouse, squirrel)
Family Castoridae
Castor canadensis
(American beaver)
Family Sciuridae
(chipmunk, marmot, squirrel)
Subfamily Sciurinae
(chipmunk, marmot, squirrel)
(prairie dog)
Cynomys gunnisoni
(Gunnison’s prairie dog)
Order Xenarthra
Family Myrmecophagidae
(American anteater)
(giant anteater)
Myrmecophaga tridactyla
(giant anteater)
Infraclass Metatheria
Superorder Marsupialia
Order Diprotodontia
(kangaroo, possum)
Family Macropodidae
(kangaroo-like marsupial)
(kangaroo, wallaby)
Macropus giganteus
(eastern gray kangaroo)
Order Crocodilia
(crocodile-like reptile)
(alligator, caiman)
Alligator mississippiensis
(American alligator)
Order Squamata
(lizard, snake)
Suborder Serpentes
Infraorder Alethinophidia
(common python)
Python regius
(royal python)
Family Viperidae
Subfamily Crotalinae
(pit viper)
Crotalus viridis
(western rattlesnake)


(1) Snoopy: The Little Dog with the Big Imagination. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2005, from This page has an extensive list of Snoopy’s imaginary characters.


(2) For this structure, I followed the categories of the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS) as displayed in the Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility at While building the structure, I also researched the Animal Diversity Web of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology at Both were retrieved December 20, 2005.

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Jan 2006