Chasing the Aurora Borealis

Excerpt from this article in the New Yorker:

They’d been in Inari for four nights, and had seen a faint glow one evening, after being roused by the hotel’s Aurora Alert. It hadn’t impressed them. “Definitely not worth being woken up for,” they said. They talked about the disparity between photographs of the aurora borealis and what you can actually see, making some technical point that I didn’t take in at the time, and grumbled, “They ought to tell you about this.”

We discussed why the aurora often looks so much better in photographs. He explained that a camera on a tripod, set for a five-second exposure, takes in far more light than the human eye does when it looks at something, and consequently it produces a more vivid image. A camera can turn even relatively weak displays into dramatic pictures—and these images can then be subjected to digital enhancements. Posted online, the pictures are automatically sharpened by the high-contrast settings of most social-media platforms, and further boosted by the backlit screens of our devices. Cumulatively, these improvements have encouraged unrealistic expectations. “It’s a shame,” Skogli said. “You have a responsibility to show the truth.” He has tried to open a discussion on the subject within the tourism industry, without success. In a rare departure from diplomatic geniality, he dismissed most Instagram photos of the lights as junk—“digitally colorized files to produce likes.”

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Under the Influence of a ‘Super Bloom’

Excerpt from this article:

“At the beginning of the year, if you told me this is what we were going to be dealing with, I would have called you crazy,” said Steve Manos, the mayor of Lake Elsinore, a small town in Southern California. He was taking a brief reprieve from dealing with the biggest crisis of his short term in office yet: an explosion of picture-perfect California poppies in the Temescal Mountains, just northwest of the center of town.

“The poppy bloom in Lake Elsinore is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 32 years living in Lake Elsinore,” he said. “The flowers are especially vibrant in color, they are numerous and they’re covering the entire mountain.”

The problem for the mayor isn’t the flame-orange poppies themselves, which blossom in the springtime after heavy winter rains follow an extended drought. It’s their adoring, smartphone-equipped fans, who have shown up in droves over the past three weeks, bringing with them horrible traffic and occasionally horrible etiquette when they wander off the trail to pose with, trample or even pick the poppies.

Birding Like It’s 1899: Inside a Blockbuster American West Video Game

Excerpt from this article:

The gigantic RDR2 playable map is brimming with life. Hawks perch on exposed branches and ducks flush from riverbanks. Wolves chase deer through the woods, and vultures descend to feed on the carcasses. There are alligators, turtles, snakes, frogs, toads, bats, and dozens of species of fish. In all there are about 200 distinct, interactive species of animals in RDR2, and more than 40 different plant species.

I spent most of my time finding birds, and was impressed with the breadth and relative accuracy of the species represented. Birds change with habitat: Roseate Spoonbills and Great Egrets feed in the bayous of Saint Denis. Laughing Gulls and Red-footed Boobies roost along the coast, while eagles and condors soar over mountain peaks. Each of these are crafted with accurate field marks and habits. There are dozens of species I couldn’t even find, including Carolina Parakeets, Ferruginous Hawks, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Like real life birding, you’re never guaranteed to see anything.

The Deadly Waterfall in the Instagram Age

Excerpt from this article:

The soaring popularity of this oasis in the Catskill Mountains, lifted by internet fame, has accelerated the problem.

In response, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has been implementing new safety features over the past four years.

Forest rangers have struggled to keep the growing crowds safe. They estimate the falls see 100,000 visitors a year, a tenfold increase from a quarter century ago.

Mr. Dawson said he believed social media was responsible. “Just talking to people who come up here, they say, ‘Yeah, we saw this on the internet — we’re trying to find it,’” Mr. Dawson said. “The unfortunate thing is, with those pictures, there’s nothing informing people that you could get seriously hurt here, too.”

When You Give a Tree an Email Address

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/img/mt/2015/07/new_trees/lead_960_540.jpg?1522839206

Excerpt from this article:

Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas. “The email interactions reveal the love Melburnians have for our trees,” Wood said.

These sorts of initiatives encourage civic engagement and perhaps help with city maintenance, but they also enable people’s relationship with their city to play out at the micro level. Why have a favorite park when you can have a favorite park bench?

It’s a dynamic that is playing out more broadly, too, in concert with a profound shift toward the ubiquity of interactive, cloud-connected technologies. Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too. The experience of chatting with a robot or emailing a tree may be delightful, but it’s not really unusual.

The move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually things but acquaintances. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: The urge to talk back to devices and appliances dates at least to the broadcast era. (As television ownership became common in the 20th century, newspaper columnists marveled at the new national pastime of shouting back at the television set.)