Maybe it makes sense to talk to plants after all

    Although I’ve alluded to talking to plants in the title for this post, the interesting thing here is that research shows they can sense vibrations made by insects like caterpillars. This allows the plants to prepare for an attack by producing defensive chemicals.

    Some research suggests that plants can even detect the sound of water, which could have implications for sewer systems. The findings open up possibilities for using sound-based interventions in agriculture, such as drones equipped with speakers to warn crops of impending pest attacks.

    Plants have been evolving alongside the insects that pollinate them and eat them for hundreds of millions of years. With that in mind, Heidi Appel, a botanist now at the University of Houston, and Reginald Cocroft, an entomologist at the University of Missouri, wondered if plants might be sensitive to the sounds made by the animals with which they most often interact. The researchers recorded the vibrations made by certain species of caterpillar as they chewed on leaves. These vibrations are not powerful enough to produce sound waves in the air. But they are able to travel across leaves and branches, and even to neighbouring plants if their foliage touches.

    The researchers then exposed Thale cress—the plant biologist’s version of the laboratory mouse—to the recorded vibrations while no caterpillars were actually present. Later, they put real caterpillars on the plants to see if exposure had led them to prepare for an insect attack. The results were striking. Leaves that had been exposed had significantly higher levels of defensive chemicals like glucosinolates and anthocyanins, making them much harder for the caterpillars to eat. Leaves on control plants that had not been exposed to vibrations showed no such response. Other sorts of vibration—caused by the wind, for instance, or other insects that do not eat leaves—had no effect.


    The research may have practical consequences, too. “Drones armed with speakers and the right audio files could warn crops to act when pests are detected but not yet widespread,” says Dr Cocroft. Unlike chemical pesticides, sound waves leave no toxic residue. With the help of weather forecasts, the system could even be used to prepare crops for cold snaps.


    Farmers monitor the health of their crops by eye. (Mosaic virus, for instance, is so named because of the mottled pattern produced on the leaves of suffering plants.) That can be hard to do properly over an entire field. But if plants are broadcasting auditory indicators of distress, then wiring a field with microphones might help farmers keep an ear out for trouble.

    Source: Plants don’t have ears. But they can still detect sound | The Economist

    No more low-speed fart sounds for Teslas

    Here in the UK, I’ve only ever heard electric vehicles make that high-pitched robotic hum at low speeds. However, it seems there was a proposal in the US for car owners to be able to set their own noise.

    That turned out not to be a great idea for those who are blind or partially-sighted. It would also lead to a cacophony of noise for regularly-sighted people, to be honest…

    Back in 2019, NHTSA introduced a proposed rule-making that would have allowed drivers to “select the sound they prefer from the set of sounds installed in the vehicle.” The idea was an amendment to a previous rule requiring EVs to make fake sounds at low speeds to prevent injuring pedestrians, especially people who are blind or visually impaired. But after soliciting feedback from the industry and consumer groups, the agency says it is scrapping the proposed rule.

    “The great majority of the comments on the [notice of proposed rule-making], including those submitted by advocacy organizations for the blind and by people who are blind or who have low vision, did not favor the proposal to allow hybrid and electric vehicles to have an unlimited number of different pedestrian alert sounds,” a spokesperson for NHTSA said. “Most of those comments favored more uniformity, rather than less, in the number and types of alert sounds allowed.”


    Currently, most EVs emit the same robotic hum when operating at low speeds. And NHTSA says that’s fine, just so long as it doesn’t add a bunch of additional sounds that owners can select. Basically, the agency says it wants to prevent a situation where you have tens of thousands of EVs on the road making all sorts of musical sounds or bird noises — or fart sounds, for that matter. (Tesla, I’m looking at you.)

    Source: EV owners won’t be able to pick their own low-speed noise after NHTSA scraps proposal - The Verge

    Friday fashionings

    When sitting down to put together this week's round-up, which is coming to you slightly later than usual because of <gestures indeterminately> all this, I decided that I'd only focus on things that are positive; things that might either raise a smile or make you think "oh, interesting!"

    Let me know if I've succeeded in the comments below, via Twitter, Mastodon, or via email!

    Digital Efficiency: the appeal of the minimalist home screen

    The real advantage of going with a launcher like this instead of a more traditional one is simple: distraction reduction and productivity increases. Everything done while using this kind of setup is deliberate. There is no scrolling through pages upon pages of apps. There is no scrolling through Google Discover with story after story that you will probably never read. Instead between 3–7 app shortcuts are present, quick links to clock and calendar, and not much else. This setup requires you as the user to do an inventory of what apps you use the most. It really requires the user to rethink how they use their phone and what apps are the priority.

    Omar Zahran (UX Collective)

    A year ago, I wrote a post entitled Change your launcher, change your life about minimalist Android launchers. I'm now using the Before Launcher, because of the way you can easily and without any fuss customise notifications. Thanks to Ian O'Byrne for the heads-up in the We Are Open Slack channel.

    It's Time for Shoulder Stretches

    Cow face pose is the yoga name for that stretch where one hand reaches down your back, and the other hand reaches up. (There’s a corresponding thing you do with your legs, but forget it for now—we’re focusing on shoulders today.) If you can’t reach your hands together, it feels like a challenging or maybe impossible pose.

    Lifehacker UK

    I was pretty shocked that I couldn't barely do this with my right hand at the top and my left at the bottom. I was very shocked that I got nowhere near the other way around. It just goes to show that those people who work at home really need to work on back muscles and flexibility.

    Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks Rapped Over Dr. Dre’s Beats

    As someone who a) thinks Dr. Dre was an amazing producer, and b) read Dr. Seuss’s Fox in Socks to his children roughly 1 million times (enough to be able to, eventually, get through the entire book at a comically high rate of speed w/o any tongue twisting slip-ups), I thought Wes Tank’s video of himself rapping Fox in Socks over Dre’s beats was really fun and surprisingly well done.

    Jason Kottke

    One of the highlights of my kids being a bit younger than they are now was to read Dr. Suess to them. Fox in Socks was my absolute tongue-twisting favourite! So this blew me away, and then when I went through to YouTube, the algorithm recommended Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) rapping Blackalicious' Alphabet Aerobics. Whoah.

    Swimming pool with a view

    Google launches free version of Stadia with a two-month Pro trial

    Google is launching the free version of its Stadia game streaming service today. Anyone with a Gmail address can sign up, and Google is even providing a free two-month trial of Stadia Pro as part of the launch. It comes just two months after Google promised a free tier was imminent, and it will mean anyone can get access to nine titles, including GRID, Destiny 2: The Collection, and Thumper, free of charge.

    Tom Warren (The Verge)

    This is exactly the news I've been waiting for! Excellent.

    Now is a great time to make some mediocre art

    Practicing simple creative acts on a regular basis can give you a psychological boost, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology. A 2010 review of more than 100 studies of art’s impact on health revealed that pursuits like music, writing, dance, painting, pottery, drawing, and photography improved medical outcomes, mental health, social networks, and positive identity. It was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

    Gwen Moran (Fast Company)

    I love all of the artists on Twitter and Instagram giving people daily challenges. My family have been following along with some of them!

    What do we hear when we dream?

    [R]esearchers at Norway's Vestre Viken Hospital Trust and the University of Bergen conducted a small study to quantify the auditory experience of dreamers. Why? Because they wanted to "assess the relevance of dreaming as a model for psychosis." Throughout history, they write, psychologists have considered dreamstates to be a model for psychosis, yet people experiencing psychosis usually suffer from auditory hallucinations far more than visual ones. Basically, what the researchers determined is that the reason so little is known about auditory sensations while dreaming is because, well, nobody asks what people's dreams sound like.

    David Pescovitz (Boing boing)

    This makes sense, if you think about it. The advice for doing online video is always that you get the audio right first. It would seem that it's the same for dreaming: that we pay attention more to what we 'hear' than what we 'see'.

    How boredom can inspire adventure

    Humans can’t stand being bored. Studies show we’ll do just about anything to avoid it, from compulsive smartphone scrolling right up to giving ourselves electric shocks. And as emotions go, boredom is incredibly good at parting us from our money – we’ll even try to buy our way out of the feeling with distractions like impulse shopping.

    Erin Craig (BBC Travel)

    The story in this article about a prisoner of war who dreamed up a daring escape is incredible, but does make the point that dreaming big when you're locked down is a grat idea.

    But what could you learn instead?

    “What did you learn today,” is a fine question to ask. Particularly right this minute, when we have more time and less peace of mind than is usually the norm.

    It’s way easier to get someone to watch–a YouTube comic, a Netflix show, a movie–than it is to encourage them to do something. But it’s the doing that allows us to become our best selves, and it’s the doing that creates our future.

    It turns out that learning isn’t in nearly as much demand as it could be. Our culture and our systems don’t push us to learn. They push us to conform and to consume instead.

    The good news is that each of us, without permission from anyone else, can change that.

    Seth Godin

    A timely, inspirational post from the always readable (and listen-worthy) Seth Godin.

    The Three Equations for a Happy Life, Even During a Pandemic

    This column has been in the works for some time, but my hope is that launching it during the pandemic will help you leverage a contemplative mindset while you have the time to think about what matters most to you. I hope this column will enrich your life, and equip you to enrich the lives of the people you love and lead.

    Arthur C. Brooks (The atlantic)

    A really handy way of looking at things, and I'm hoping that further articles in the series are just as good.

    Images by Kevin Burg and Jamie Beck (they're all over Giphy so I just went to the original source and used the hi-res versions)

    Friday fertilisations

    I've read so much stuff over the past couple of months that it's been a real job whittling down these links. In the end I gave up and shared a few more than usual!

    • You Shouldn’t Have to Be Good at Your Job (GEN) — "This is how the 1% justifies itself. They are not simply the best in terms of income, but in terms of humanity itself. They’re the people who get invited into the escape pods when the mega-asteroid is about to hit. They don’t want a fucking thing to do with the rest of the population and, in fact, they have exploited global economic models to suss out who deserves to be among them and who deserves to be obsolete. And, thanks to lax governments far and wide, they’re free to practice their own mass experiments in forced Darwinism. You currently have the privilege of witnessing a worm’s-eye view of this great culling. Fun, isn’t it?"
    • We've spent the decade letting our tech define us. It's out of control (The Guardian) — "There is a way out, but it will mean abandoning our fear and contempt for those we have become convinced are our enemies. No one is in charge of this, and no amount of social science or monetary policy can correct for what is ultimately a spiritual deficit. We have surrendered to digital platforms that look at human individuality and variance as “noise” to be corrected, rather than signal to be cherished. Our leading technologists increasingly see human beings as a problem, and technology as the solution – and they use our behavior on their platforms as evidence of our essentially flawed nature."
    • How headphones are changing the sound of music (Quartz) — "Another way headphones are changing music is in the production of bass-heavy music. Harding explains that on small speakers, like headphones or those in a laptop, low frequencies are harder to hear than when blasted from the big speakers you might encounter at a concert venue or club. If you ever wondered why the bass feels so powerful when you are out dancing, that’s why. In order for the bass to be heard well on headphones, music producers have to boost bass frequencies in the higher range, the part of the sound spectrum that small speakers handle well."
    • The False Promise of Morning Routines (The Atlantic) — "Goat milk or no goat milk, the move toward ritualized morning self-care can seem like merely a palliative attempt to improve work-life balance.It makes sense to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual because you want to fit in some yoga, an activity that you enjoy. But something sinister seems to be going on if you feel that you have to wake up 30 minutes earlier than usual to improve your well-being, so that you can also work 60 hours a week, cook dinner, run errands, and spend time with your family."
    • Giant surveillance balloons are lurking at the edge of space (Ars Technica) — "The idea of a constellation of stratospheric balloons isn’t new—the US military floated the idea back in the ’90s—but technology has finally matured to the point that they’re actually possible. World View’s December launch marks the first time the company has had more than one balloon in the air at a time, if only for a few days. By the time you’re reading this, its other stratollite will have returned to the surface under a steerable parachute after nearly seven weeks in the stratosphere."
    • The Unexpected Philosophy Icelanders Live By (BBC Travel) — "Maybe it makes sense, then, that in a place where people were – and still are – so often at the mercy of the weather, the land and the island’s unique geological forces, they’ve learned to give up control, leave things to fate and hope for the best. For these stoic and even-tempered Icelanders, þetta reddast is less a starry-eyed refusal to deal with problems and more an admission that sometimes you must make the best of the hand you’ve been dealt."
    • What Happens When Your Career Becomes Your Whole Identity (HBR) — "While identifying closely with your career isn’t necessarily bad, it makes you vulnerable to a painful identity crisis if you burn out, get laid off, or retire. Individuals in these situations frequently suffer anxiety, depression, and despair. By claiming back some time for yourself and diversifying your activities and relationships, you can build a more balanced and robust identity in line with your values."
    • Having fun is a virtue, not a guilty pleasure (Quartz) — "There are also, though, many high-status workers who can easily afford to take a break, but opt instead to toil relentlessly. Such widespread workaholism in part reflects the misguided notion that having fun is somehow an indulgence, an act of absconding from proper respectable behavior, rather than embracement of life. "
    • It’s Time to Get Personal (Laura Kalbag) — "As designers and developers, it’s easy to accept the status quo. The big tech platforms already exist and are easy to use. There are so many decisions to be made as part of our work, we tend to just go with what’s popular and convenient. But those little decisions can have a big impact, especially on the people using what we build."
    • The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade (Hack Education) — "Oh yes, I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for “the future of education.” Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)"
    • Why so many Japanese children refuse to go to school (BBC News) — "Many schools in Japan control every aspect of their pupils' appearance, forcing pupils to dye their brown hair black, or not allowing pupils to wear tights or coats, even in cold weather. In some cases they even decide on the colour of pupils' underwear. "
    • The real scam of ‘influencer’ (Seth Godin) — "And a bigger part is that the things you need to do to be popular (the only metric the platforms share) aren’t the things you’d be doing if you were trying to be effective, or grounded, or proud of the work you’re doing."

    Image via