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.