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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Don’t look out the window, you might learn something

It was an early morning flight to Washington DC. The redhead was reading her book, while the codger gazed down at the great basin in wonderment.

“What a sight!” Long morning shadows painted the basin and range country in sharp relief.

“Look at this, cutey! You don’t have to be a geologist to appreciate this scenery. We’ve got to drive across Nevada again. We still haven’t seen the Ruby Mountains.”

The redhead didn’t want to crane her stiff neck.

Then the PA system. The flight attendant asked us to be courteous and pull down our shades.

It’s a thoughtful gesture to pull that shade down. To deny yourself a space odyssey so your fellow passengers can watch crappy movies, TV reruns, and vacuous interviews with vacuous celebrities.

I don’t care how cute the flight attendant is: I don’t feel cooperative.

My fellow passengers may not give a damn, but this land is my land . . . and I want to feast my eyes on her heaving curves and the tattoos on her flat belly.

I pulled my shade halfway down. 

Is it any surprise that Americans are geographic dummies? Remember Sam Cooke’s song about being young, dumb, and in love? (“Don’t know much about geography . . . “.

It seems to me that there is an educational opportunity here for a venture capitalist with educational leanings.

My airplane fantasy is a real-time electronic toy with the memory of an Ipod, the tracking abilities of a GPS, and the zooming and scanning ability of Google Earth. The Hungry Eye.

Have your Bloody Mary mix and cruise like a condor. Zoom in on that mountain range and query the landscape with menus.

You could start with geological history, hydrology, natural resources, and flora and fauna. Can you dig it?

What? That kind of stuff puts you to sleep?

Okay, how about human topics? Native peoples, westward expansion, changing land use?

That’s boring too, huh?

Then let's navigate to the nearest town or city, and wade through the urban menu – population, local heroes, industry, recreation, sightseeing, shopping, restaurants, nightclubs, etc.

Well, maybe, you say?

Why hasn’t someone in Silicon valley thought of this?

Is it the cost, or the problems for Homeland Security?

Or are we like the guy in Sam Cooke's song -- we don’t know much about geography and we’re not embarrassed to say so.


Rose Ragai said...

hmm..feel sad to see that scenery through your plane window but i am happy to see there is still forest left from my aerial view in my country but soon it will become like one of those and it scares me enough...:(

mdmnm said...

Sort of a John McPhee book electronic, pointable, and expanded, yes?

I'd buy it!

randomtruth said...

Hey, hey - a topic that's square in my wheelhouse! As a geek that lives in silly valley and works for the companies of which you speak, maybe I can answer your questions and even pass on your ideas.

The vision for Google Earth is to be what you're describing. But you're able to imagine much more than its current capabilities, I think. It's mission is to be an open geography-based platform for annotation. That means any data/media that Google can find/crawl/buy/borrow/steal that has a location parameter (ideally GPS, but names can work too), can be overlayed for users to discover. It's putting it all together into an intuitive, usable, discoverable form that's really hard. It's getting better though, and some of the overlay info isn't bad. They've got earthquake data, wikipedia descriptions, historical maps... It's a start. There's even a full 3D representation of ancient Rome as an overlay. Lots of scientists are using it now too. I saw an overlay of bird migration data that was fascinating.

You know what I wanna see? A time slider. Imagine looking at Google Earth, and below it is a bar that starts at 250mya on the far left and goes to 2008 on the far right. Interesting dates are marked along the bar. Slide it all the way to the left and the continents reshuffle into Pangaea. Slide it to 1942 and check out the different borders in Europe and overlays of WWII activities. Slide it to 5mya and see what the Grand Canyon looked like when young. Or, slide it slow to look at that bird migration data over time...

BTW - I too don't close the shade, and have some great pics to prove it. As Sam Cooke knew, it truly is a Wonderful World.

Owlman said...

Excellent and man did you touch a nerve with me. I always try to get a window seat to gaze down upon the amazing landscape which has a great story to tell all who will listen.

Mr. Smiley said...

Years ago on a return trip from Europe over the north pole, the pilot announced we were flying over Mt McKinley and I opened the shade to see a truly great sight with the snow-covered peak and the other great mountains around it only to be shouted down by passengers who were irate that their movie was being interrupted by me and others who were more interested in the landscape than a silly movie. They eventually won but I couldn't believe it. They could see their movie any old time but Mt McKinley!!!

Anonymous said...

I was once flying over the Great Basin. I was in the middle seat and there was a woman sitting at the window. She and I were both looking out the window at the cold desert. After a while, she turned to me and said, "Look at this expanse of nothing, and people say we're overcrowded without space to build more."

The only thing I could say was, "I don't think space is the limiting factor in the Great basin."

Brian at Wind River Ranch

Camera Trap Codger said...

Good feedback, you rascals, and glad to see I am not the only window gazer on cross country flights. One time a pilot asked the passengers if they wanted to do a lap around Mt Rainier. Everyone was up for up, and what a sight it was. And occasionally pilots do point out landmarks like the Grand Canyon.

Neat stuff, RT, and do pass on the half-baked idea, for what it's worth. I'm a regular user of Google Earth. A geologist friend showed me a tectonics website with a time slider. Fun! But I'm sure you would take it a few steps further.

Karen B said...

I don't consider myself a geology nerd, but I too would love to have a devise that would do the things that you mentioned. I got my love of geography from my Dad who was a career air force pilot and had flown all over the world. He was also an amateur naturalist having grown up on a farm in a very rural area of Indiana.

I've always gazed down on the scenery from plane windows and wondered were exactly we were. I guess that comes from all those years of traveling across country from base to base by car. My Dad would give each of us a turn with the map and have us "navigate". As we drove, he would point out interesting trees, animals, even cloud formations. He would quiz us on our knowledge of the states we would be traveling through. I learned more geograpy from my Dad than I ever did in school and it passed the hours in the car. Five kids crammed in a car for hours and days at a time can be trying to the nerves.
I feel blessed to have had that.

Jack said...

Looks like this post touched a verve with a lot of people. I can see why, too.

Like Randomtruth, I see Google Earth eventually becoming the tool you're describing. They've just released an iPhone/iPod Touch version, which means you can immerse yourself in it through a touchscreen and without needing to sit at a computer. Thanks to their use of geotagging, Flickr is also getting better and better as a means of seeing what the world looks like, and often learning a thing or two as well.

Sadly, many people seem to lose their curiosity at an early age. I'd wager that all the regular readers of your blog have kept theirs.

Anonymous said...

OK, geography wizard, Check this out... bet you end up with a bunch of 'Stans.

Here's a new game for you. Click and drag the names of the countries to their correct location.



Anonymous said...

When I fly cross country, as you did, I am forever fascinated by the unfolding landscape below. I spend hours looking out the window, and in my mind I am on terra firma below hiking every nook and cranny of the terrain.
Well, that's my dream, anyway.
Hope you all have a great Thanksgiving.


Camera Trap Codger said...

Well here's a coincidence: Tom Mangan of "Two-heel Drive"


just posted a relevant and informative piece on GPSing for hikers, that brings together a lot of good information on mapping your own hiking trails, and integrating photos with your maps.

Which makes me wonder -- has anyone used their GPS on a plane and lived to tell about it?

And thanks for the feedback and stories.

Jayla said...

Check out http://www.panoramio.com/. You can zoom in and see photos of anywhere you want. It's pretty neat.

randomtruth said...

I don't think you need to use your GPS on the plane. The plane itself has one. I just saw a Google Earth overlay that shows all the planes in the air over the US - maybe you could find your flight and zoom into the details of the terrain beneath you from there.

Did you guys see those fancy new "magic walls" they used during the elections to show the results? They're gigantic touch screens with zoom and move and drawing tools. Wouldn't it be amazing if every school had one of those with the world viewer we're talking about?

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks RT, that's good to know. Agreed. The schools need to get on board with the magic walls. They'll need grants to do it, though. Well, then again, maybe they'll have the funding this time around. No, I think they'll need grants.

Sebastian said...

I too love looking out the window in airplanes. It is purely fascinating and the imagination about the places you are seeing can go wild. A device like you mention would be amazing!

One of the coolest flyovers is over Greenland when all you see is ice as far as the eye can see.