Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Sex Lives of Pine Trees

The Ponderosa tree in my back yard is clearly bearing two different kinds of pines this year (presumably it does every year, but I haven’t noticed it before). It turns out that they are male and female cones.

The female cone is the familiar pine cone; they are clustered on the lower part of the tree so that the pollen from the male cones will drift down and fertilize them. (Well, in theory. The cones on our tree are scattered throughout the tree but more on top than bottom.) Female pine cones generally start out green, soft, and sticky; after fertilization, they turn hard and brown to protect the seeds. Female cones grow for a few years while the seeds mature, then open up so the seeds can distribute on the wind.

In most pines, male pine cones are noticeably smaller than female pine cones, but that isn’t true on this tree – they are just as visible, but fluffy instead of spikey. They are mostly on the bottom half of the tree, but not completely.

I learn something new every day!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Personalized Maps

Google is at it again, trying to narrow our lives down to the things we already know. Because of course human beings never want to see anything truly new... This time they are personalizing maps beyond just your location, according to an interesting article in Slate.
In the near future ... the maps we see will be dynamically generated and highly personalized, giving preferential treatment to the places frequented by our social networking friends, the places we mention in our emails, the sites we look up on the search engine. Conversely, the places that we haven't encountered—or, at least, haven't yet expressed any interest in encountering—will be harder to find.
This might seem liberating and empowering—that, at any rate, is how Google wants us to see this new development. “In the past,” reads the company's announcement, “a map was just a map, and you got the same one for New York City, whether you were searching for the Empire State Building or the coffee shop down the street. What if, instead, you had a map that’s unique to you, always adapting to the task you want to perform right this minute?”
For some tasks, this might be convenient - if Google can accurately figure out exactly what you want right this minute. But what if your task at hand is to find out what is in a new area, to see what other people think are important? What if you want to find something you don't already know about?
The problem with Google's vision is that it doesn't acknowledge the vital role that disorder, chaos, and novelty play in shaping the urban experience.
...Google's urbanism, on the other hand, is that of someone who is trying to get to a shopping mall in their self-driving car. It's profoundly utilitarian, even selfish in character, with little to no concern for how public space is experienced.
Truly personalized maps could easily lead to individuals who are even more disconnected to their environment, less aware of public spaces, and less able to communicate with other people about where they live. In the name of convenience, people will live in ever-narrower worlds, blinkered to the wonderous variety of life around them.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Creating a Mental Map

The Atlantic Cities has an interesting article on how our brains create mental maps. Scientists have known for a while that some neurons specialize in places, but they haven't known how we create our mental maps.
Until now, scientists believed our cognitive maps were primarily built using two kinds of cues: external visual landmarks (the 7-Eleven across the street, the mountains on the horizon), and our internal sense of motion (how fast we move, generating an awareness of distance). But of course other kinds of sensory stimuli can also connect us to place (or confuse us about where we are).
Thanks to experiments on rats, scientists are starting to show that we have more than one useful sense when it comes to finding our way through our environment (which only comes as a surprise to human beings, who tend to overvalue visual cues).
Your brain actually goes from living in the present to anticipating the future (try that, Google Maps!). "We believe this amazingly complex set of things – environmental landmarks, our self-motion, brain rhythms, smells and textures – all of that is coming together to tell us what we should do next in space," Mehta says.
The article connects the research to urban planning, but the research also has interesting things to say about how using a GPS to navigate everywhere impoverishes your mental maps.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Your brain on cities

Cities are exciting, crowded, busy - and have measurable effects on the brains of the people who live in them. City dwellers have higher rates of mental health problems and over-active lizard brains, according to recent research published in Nature. This doesn't seem too surprising given the level of stimulation and decreased personal space in a city.

More surprising is that living in the city changes the way people pay attention. Because city dwellers have so much more to pay attention to, their focus becomes diffused and it is harder for them to focus on one thing unless it is unusually engaging. Rural folk are better at focusing on a task, unless their brains are overloaded in ways that mimic city life; then they show the same diffused focus. As Eric Jaffe concludes in an article in The Atlantic Cities,
So a quick summary, for those readers on the verge of losing focus: the brains of people in remote places seem ready to focus on the task at hand, while the brains of their urban counterparts seem prepared to explore the ever-changing conditions of city life. Certainly explains why some country folk find the city overwhelming, and some city folk find the country a little dull. Nothing personal — strictly neural.
No wonder it is so disorienting going from Bozeman to Chicago, or vice-versa; it takes a bit for the brain to adjust.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Mental Maps

Maybe young adults are content to use GPS to tell them where to go, rather than building a mental map of their community, because many of them were driven to school as children. A study reported on in the Atlantic concluded,
Children who had a “windshield perspective” from being driven everywhere weren’t able to accurately draw how the streets in their community connected, whereas children who walked or biked to get around produced detailed and highly accurate maps of their neighborhood street network.

So maybe these young adults have never had a solid mental map of the surroundings. Taking mass transit, while it is great in lots of respects, doesn't require much of a mental map either, once you figure out which stop is closest to where you want to go. This would make following GPS directions seem very natural.

It will be interesting to see what the consequences of this are in the next 30-50 years. Lack of a mental map would seem to result in less concern for the community, simply because it is harder to care about what you don't know. Or it could result in a larger sense of the community to be cared about because more of it is within your perceived environment. Mass transit could be more comfortable if you aren't thinking about a quicker way to drive, and driving would be less inviting if you can't easily plot a new route. (I wonder if there is a link between this and decreased car ownership rates among younger people.)

I can't imagine not having a mental map of my surroundings but, like writing letters, this may be something that fades with new generations.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Odd Temperature Scales

The things you learn reading Russian novels. In The Brothers Karamozov, I ran across a mention of temperature in a scale I didn't know: "eleven Reaumur". What? I looked it up and discovered that there are a lot of temperature scales other than Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin; there are also Rankine, Romer, Newton, Delisle, and Reaumur. Like Celsius, the zero in the Reaumer scale is set at the freezing point of water, but the boiling point of water is 80°, not 100°.

The scale was first proposed by Rene Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur in 1730. It was popular in Europe in the 16th century, especially France, Germany, and Russia, and showed up in novels by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nabokov. Instead of saying "minus 12" or "12 below zero", the phrase was "twelve degrees of frost" (at least in The Brothers Karamozov), which is much cooler and more evocative of winter.

The Reaumur scale is used in one of my favorite infographics ever, this one showing Napoleon's march into - and back out of - Russia in 1812-1813. The temperatures along the bottom are in Reaumur degrees. The width of the line shows the number of men in the army; the thin black line shows the troops that returned to France. It was a cold winter: -30° R is -36° F.


In the 1790s, France officially went with the Celsius scale during the French Revolution, and it eventually spread with the metric system throughout Europe. It is still used in some dairies to measure the temperature of milk, and possibly in some parts of France

Russia also used the Delisle thermometer, which originally started at boiling water as zero and ran down 2400 degrees, accommodating those cold Russian winters. The Newton scale was invented by Isaac Newton around 1700; "he defined the 'zeroth degree of heat' as melting snow and '33 degrees of heat' as boiling water." The Rankine scale starts at absolute zero, like the Kelvin scale, but uses Fahrenheit degrees instead of Celsius; it is still occasionally used in a few engineering fields.

Friday, March 1, 2013


It is interesting how the very things that make us safer can sometimes make life more difficult for someone trying to rescue us in an emergency. The trend toward school lock-downs to protect kids makes it more difficult for law enforcement officers to safely find a gunman hiding in the building. The design decisions that make cars safer, like the Nader pin that keeps doors from swinging open in a crash, also make them harder to get into in order to remove someone from a smashed vehicle.

So often the trade-offs are between opposing benefits, like cost vs longevity or efficiency vs safety: the air-tight nature of energy-efficient new home construction increases smoke damage in a fire, and material-efficient engineered joists increase the danger of a floor collapsing during a fire. It isn't so often than the trade-offs are both held within one benefit, safety vs safety.