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.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

When He, She, or It Just Doesn't Work

English needs a neutral animate pronoun, for the variable case ("he or she"),  the unknown constant case (androgynous names such as Chris), and the gender-fluid case. "He" is no longer assumed to include both men and women. "It", the only gender-free pronoun, is used for nonliving nouns, or nonhuman cases where the gender is unknown or irrelevant to the speaker ("The dog dropped its bone.") and is insulting used for people. So what can we use when we need a pronoun for a person of unknown or fluid gender?

"They" and "their" are being appropriated for the variable case: "Each applicant should bring their paperwork to the interview". This makes a lot of logical grammarians unhappy, but it solves a real problem now that "he" is no longer assumed to include "or she".

It doesn't work so well for the unknown case. Telling someone about the cool clerk at the record store is challenging when I don't know if the clerk is a he or a she. "The clerk was great. They found exactly what I was looking for." That is seriously awkward, but avoiding the pronoun every time feels unnatural. "The clerk was great and found exactly what I was looking for" works well enough in writing, but in speech, it is hard to think far enough ahead to see the upcoming pronoun problems. It was a relief to ask the clerk's name and hear "Sarah" in response; that is a traditionally female name and I could feel comfortable using "she" to refer to her.

And the issue gets more challenging from there, because he/she is a binary concept and human beings are rarely binary. Picking one pronoun or the other is easy for anyone who has a settled gender identity (which is most of us, even homosexuals and many transsexuals), but there are some people who have fluid gender identities. What pronoun refers to them? "It" certainly doesn't work.

English being what it is, lots of people are working to find a way to solve the problem, just as Ms. was invented to replace Mrs. and Miss when a woman's marital status was unknown or irrelevant; now it is a natural part of our system for addressing people. Wiktionary serves up xe as one example of a neutral pronoun:
  1. (nonstandard, chiefly Internet) they (singular). Gender-neutral third-person singular subject pronoun, coordinate with gendered pronouns he and she.


These nonstandard pronouns sound clunky now, but chances are very good that one of them will take hold and become common in a generation. Like gender identities, pronouns are currently in social flux and it will be interesting to see what the solution turns out to be.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Saying What You Mean

The Gallatin County Sheriff's Office and the Bozeman Police Department have very similar jobs. The Sheriff has some extra tasks like coroner, search and rescue, and running the jail, but at base, both agencies are here to enforce the laws and keep us safe. So why are their mission statements so different?

As proud members of this Office, we are dedicated to protect and serve Gallatin County.
The Bozeman Police Department, in partnership with the citizens of Bozeman, is committed to improving the quality of life by identifying and resolving public safety concerns.
The Sheriff's Office statement makes perfect sense to me; it sounds like what cops do for their community: protect it. Pride and dedication are good, too. But the Police statement sounds more like a sanitarian's office. It's nice and warm, with popular words like "committed" and "partnership" and "quality of life", but it  doesn't tell me anything specific about this department, anything that distinguishes it from the department of health or public services. It sounds like it was written by a committee.

Personally, I don't care if law enforcement officers identify and resolve. I want them to serve and protect.

Saturday, February 9, 2013


What people are losing in their reliance on GPS is their wayfinding ability. Wayfinding is one of those terms that morphs to fit different situation, but it always includes helping people develop a sense of place and their relationship to it.

Originally, wayfinding referred to ocean navigation without compass, sextant, or satellites. The Polynesians used the sun and stars, the ocean swells and the color of the water, the presence of birds and animals, and the weather to travel clear across the Pacific Ocean from one island chain to another. They even built maps of sticks and shells to pass on this information to others.

In 1960, urban designer Kevin Lynch used the term to refer to environmental legibility, "the elements of the built environment that allow us to navigate successfully through complex spaces like cities and towns." From there, wayfinding became the art of helping people move through their environment, especially cities.
Wayfinding means knowing where you are, knowing your destination, following the best route, recognizing your destination, and finding your way back.  When people cannot do these things, outside or inside, we say they are disoriented. 
Signs and maps are part of this, but good wayfinding cues go far beyond that.
Sidewalks tell pedestrians where they’re welcome. Public art draws people down a boulevard. Street lighting indicates where it’s safe to bike at night. Street banners tie together an entire community – and inform passing cars when they’ve left it. Many of these little nudges speak to us on an almost subconscious level.
Subway maps make it clear how to get from one stop to another. Mountains, lakes, and rivers make it easy to orient in a place, an effect that can be (partly) replicated with plazas, unusual buildings, and large public art. Chinese dragons on lamp posts tell you that you are in Chinatown. There is a surprisingly detailed list of things to think about when you are setting up wayfinding cues.

By analogy, wayfinding in video games helps players know where they are in the virtual world. In website design, it helps visitors to a site know where they are in relationship to the entire site, something that is especially helpful if they come to the site from a search engine without any of the usual visual clues that would tell them how the site is laid out - much like using GPS to find a restaurant without paying any attention to where you are in the city.

Wayfinding is an old part of the human mind, early used gathering plants every year or moving goats to better pasture. As our cities have gotten larger and more complex, people have found ways to augment our ability to find our way. Wayfinding has even become important in the virtual world. It will be interesting to see what affect GPS has on our ability to comprehend and navigate our world.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Unnamable relationships

You would think that there are plenty of names for the varieties of family relationships: mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, the inclusive "sibling", husband, wife, all the in-laws, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousins and first cousins and second cousins and first cousins once removed and double first cousins (and kissing cousins for the ones you can't remember the family tree for). But it turns out that there are vastly more relationships than we have names for.

What do you call the person you live with in a long-term relationship if you aren't married? Husband or wife implies marriage. Partner is common, but ambiguous due to its use in a lot of other fields. Lover and boyfriend carry connotations that may not be appropriate. Significant other is awkward. People in this situation are experimenting with lots of words, but none has risen to common usage yet.

What do I call my ex-husband's new wife, whom I like, when I am looking for a short-hand description of her position in my family? "My kids' stepmother" is  slightly better than "my ex-husband's wife", but not much. "Sister wife" was suggested; I like the implication of familial affection but not the hint of polygamy. I'm stumped on this one, and I know I'm not alone in having the relationship, if not the desire to name it without invective.

Ok, fine, cohabitation and divorce/remarriage are relatively recent phenomena, at least at the scale that calls for new words. But even traditional extended families are given short-shrift in names for relationships. In The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature, Stephen Pinker points out that there is no collective gender-neutral noun (like sibling) for the offspring of one's siblings (nieces and nephews, collectively), nor for the parents of the spouse of one's children. 

I guess the easiest solution is simple to call them all "kin", but that isn't very satisfying. With luck, the ever-inventive English language will find some new words soon.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Never Getting Lost Again: No Thanks

In an interview in The Atlantic, Michael Jones talks about some of the new ways digital maps affect our lives.
We think there will be a new literature from the mapping dictionary that’s now being built. There’s an Android app we’ve released called Field Trip. You download it, and it says, “I don’t want to bother you, so how often should I talk to you?” You tell it “all the time” or “rarely” or whatever, and then you turn off your phone and put it in your pocket and don’t think about it again.

Then when you’re walking around, say in Washington, D.C., the phone will buzz and say, “You are 25 feet from an accurate map of 2,700 solar objects. If you go over there to the Einstein Memorial, you can see them.” Or you might be walking down the street and it will beep and say, “The rowhouse one block to the left is the No. 1–rated Greek restaurant within 500 miles,” or maybe: “Around the corner behind you is where a scene from your favorite movie was filmed.” It is using your location to search in a database of “interesting things,” and it learns what kinds of things you care about. It means having your life enlightened by travel knowledge, everywhere, or getting to walk around with local experts who know your tastes, wherever in the world you go.
We’ve already seen this transition in mobile maps. All those fears and anxieties in travel—what happens if I get lost someplace where I don’t speak the language? If you have a mobile phone with Google Maps, you can go anywhere on the planet and have confidence that we can give you directions to get to where you want to go safely and easily. No human ever has to feel lost again.
Okay, fine--the best Greek restaurant in town is around the corner, but what about the little hole in the wall that serves some little-known, strictly local specialty that you run into when you make a wrong (or random) turn on your way back to your hotel? Half the fun of finding a neat restaurant is the sense of having discovered it for yourself, even if tons of other people have found first - and once in a while, you find it first, the day after it opens. Sometimes being lost is how you learn new things about an unfamiliar place, the things that make it your own. Local knowledge is great, but with an app like this, soon all you know is exactly what everyone else knows.

Admittedly, there are times when being lost is scary - ask those people who get lost in Death Valley because they listen to their GPS units. But an important part of competently navigating the world is knowing where you are, using experience and maps (of all sorts) to teach yourself about the places around you. When people consistently outsource that knowledge to their GPS units, they lose the ability to do it themselves. They lose the ability to stay on the main roads through Death Valley and end up stuck in the sand on a animal track. According to Daniel Gulati's blog on HBR,
Research shows that we're increasingly outsourcing our personal memory banks to Google and other search engines, effectively wiping our own brains of easily accessible information. But as the growth of apps per device skyrockets and user interfaces simplify, we're relying on more cognitive crutches than ever. Can't recall the name of your coworker? Don't worry; their LinkedIn profile is just a few taps away. Forgotten the name of that Japanese restaurant down the street? Yelp it up! Look for our memory gaps to grow as we train our brains to recall where information is located, rather than remembering the information itself.
Relying on electronic maps, GPS, and apps like Field Trip means being satisfied with data bites of what everyone else knows, rather than really knowing a place in our own head. It means never discovering a place for yourself, never using your skills to figure out how to get somewhere, never making connections between the known and the unknown. If we are never lost, we are never delighted to find our way again.