Monthly Archives: May 2016

Fight, Flight, or Loll

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We were out early at Drake’s Beach in West Marin, California, under changeable skies. It was low tide, and we were the only bipeds around – the parking lot completely empty, no stray campers or hikers, we had the place to ourselves, at least when it came to other humans.

Drake's Beach, California. Photos: PKR

Drake’s Beach, California.
Photos: PKR

And while there were fewer shorebirds than I would have expected, there were a multitude of large crabs. Mostly intact, mostly dead.

And then we started noticing more remnants of life – traces that reflected the retreating tide in broken shells. IMG_2470

Something I haven’t seen before, countless sand dollars, most of them still alive, scattered at the ebb line. Those small, flat sea urchins with the lovely star patterns that we usually see bleached white – these were still pink and moving.

Some clearly were trying to find their way back to the water, leaving elegant script of their flight. (These two were still very alive, and we put them back in the water.)IMG_2474

Other creatures weren’t ready to give up even an inch of territory, no matter the cost. This palm-sized crab was as fierce as they come.IMG_2519

And then there were those who were neither in fight nor flight mode: They were lolling.

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.  Photo: Oliver Brüning

The white spots offshore are the whale and her calf.
Photo: Oliver Brüning

It’s not terribly clear from this image (the better camera had given up by the time we got to the bottom of the lighthouse steps), but this small cove below the Point Reyes Lighthouse had a number of seals, all sizes, doing lazy loops while a mother humpback took her calf through its paces, back and forth.

There wasn’t much to do after that then head back to Inverness for a good dinner. Not before having a seat in the empty lighthouse keeper’s chair, though – someone needs to sit there now and again, since the lighthouse was automated forty years ago.

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Photo: Oliver Brüning

Rendering Unseen Stories

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I was recently alerted to this lovely collection of maps on Canva – a collection that isn’t meant to provide physical directions but to provide inspiration for design. Map-making has almost always been a way of telling stories at least as much as it has been a way to find places.

 

'Berlin rangé,' a tidied-up map of Berlin. Source: Armelle Caron

‘Berlin rangé,’ a tidied-up map of Berlin’s cartographical elements.
Source: Armelle Caron

This particular collection, which could hardly be more diverse, made me think of a cartographical story in progress. Namely, that we are seeing a democratization of cartography that is practically revolutionary.

I contacted my old friend Peter Skillman, who has a deep knowledge of cartography, and we talked about maps. When you ask a master about one of his favorite topics, you might just end up following an elusive tail down a deep rabbit hole.

Peter has more to say about the evolution of cartography than I have space for here, but what we talked a lot about was the use of maps to communicate the unseen – from political borders to financial interests (especially these days, with the listing of business locations and data so important to map users and providers) to how the same map can look different depending on where you’re viewing it from (the exact location disputed territorial borders viewed from India or Pakistan, for example).

Berlin divided, 1961. Source: Berlin Wall Online

Berlin divided, 1961.
Source: Berlin Wall Online

And then there’s the fallibility of maps, whether intentional or accidental, that can disappear towns or put roads where they aren’t. Once almost purely due to political agendas, now often due to glitchy data.

What I liked, though, was our talk about metro maps. We’ve all gotten accustomed to the abstract lines of color that represent transit lines, the dots that represent stops, but consider the leap in understanding required to read a map so completely non-topographical. This “intentional distortion” is often the only representation of billions of dollars in infrastructure investment a city can offer its citizens for a system that can only be seen in small bits.

Genuine maps of unseen, or only partially seen, realities.

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world. Source: DesignBoom

Berlin subway system, as visualized by Jug Cerovic, who has created standardized subway maps for cities around the world.
Source: DesignBoom

It used to be that if you wanted to give someone a map to your home, or your favorite swimming hole, or that terrific back road BBQ rib place, you had to sketch it out and somehow get it to them. Even those sketches were a way of talking about how we thought of getting from one place to another, our individual travel perspective.

It used to be that we mostly learned to navigate our way through paper maps because we had no other choice if we wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

Berlin. Source: Vianina

Berlin.
Source: Vianina

Now we click and point and create our maps from readily available online maps, which are, in turn, often created/improved/optimized by user-generated input – much of it collected anonymously via GPS. And our maps tell us what to do, where to go, and warn us when we’ve gone astray.

No more serendipitous sauntering to points unknown. Except that with every map telling its creator’s story, you can still get lost, even if you think you know where you’re going.

 

Fast Learners

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I shouldn’t have been all that surprised this week when the news came out that Physarum polycephalum, also known as slime mold, has now been shown to be capable of learning.

Physarum polycephalum Image: Norbert Hülsmann/CC

Physarum polycephalum
Image: Norbert Hülsmann/CC

At least, it has been proven that P. polycephalum is able to habituate – i.e. when an animal, after a period of exposure to a stimulus, stops responding to that stimulus. 

After all, P. polycephalum has shown itself able to solve mazes and create efficient nutrition networks that resemble urban transportation systems.

Slime mould placed in an environment in which food is placed in the same layout as the Tokyo metropolitan area builds a network similar to the actual Tokyo transport system. Image: Science/AAAS

Slime mold placed in an environment in which food is placed in the same layout as the Tokyo metropolitan area builds a network similar to the actual Tokyo transport system.
Image: Science/AAAS

Over a nine day period, scientists at the Research Centre on Animal Cognition (CRCA) in Toulouse, France, showed that slime mold could learn to ignore bitter (but harmless) substances such as quinine and caffeine that were placed between the mold and a food source.

Initially, the slime mold was reluctant to pass through the bitter substances as if they were dangerous. After a few days, the mold learned to ignore the substances as if they weren’t there. Further, slime mold exposed to one bitter substance was able to transfer that learning to another bitter substance and treat it as a benign obstacle.

What this research shows is that the roots of learning go way back to single-celled organisms. Around 500 million years before humans enter the scene.

As Iain Couzin says in a short video that shows slime mold solving a maze, “Intelligence emerges from the interaction among much simpler components.”

P. polycephalum finding the shortest path to a food source. Image: Via Forgetomori

P. polycephalum finding the shortest path to a food source.
Image: Via Forgetomori

So it’s no shock that this smart set of single-celled protists can learn.

What’s surprising is that P. polycephalum does all this without a nervous system or a brain. Surely this should win old P. polycephalum a bit of respect and teach us a bit of humility. Slime mold doesn’t have much, if anything, to learn from us. It appears we have quite a bit to learn from and about slime mold.

Not to over-anthropomorphize, but: On one level, this makes me wonder why we humans, collectively, can be such slow learners when it comes to our overall well-being. We have big brains! Among the biggest! And what we do most efficiently is get ourselves into trouble.

On another level, it gives me hope that if we can get past what we see as all our differences, we can aspire to be as efficient, cooperative and smart as the brainless but intelligent P. polycephalum, the lowly slime mold.

Physarum polycephalum in the wild. Photo: Nature ID

Physarum polycephalum in the wild.
Photo: Nature ID