They Didn't Stand a Chance

My apologies for such a dismal post topic, but modernity made me do it. I’ve borne witness to a number of the following tragedies first-hand. When exposed to similar atrocities in your own life, I recommend repeating the mantra that appears at the end of every point below. I think it helps in fighting human supremacism, validating other life and recognizing the pain we inflict—often unwittingly as we animate the maw of modernity. Evolution did not prepare the plants and animals of this planet for a sudden and dramatic up-ending of the world they were customized to inhabit. That’s on us.

Twenty Terrible Tales

A massive tree that took hundreds of years to attain tremendous height and bulk was no match for an hour of chainsaw action. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A gangly moose was minding its own business in the willow thicket along the stream edge, when—BAM—its head was taken to grace the lodge wall. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Domesticated bees were bred to produce more honey and be less aggressive. Weakened against parasites and disease, their colonies crashed. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A deer, finding itself on a strange, hard, flat ribbon stood transfixed as two unearthly lights sped closer, seemingly set to pass on either side. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Orangutans who lived for countless generations in the dense and biodiverse rainforest found their home destroyed and replaced by oil palms. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance. [Warning: only watch the link if you are ready to be haunted for life by seeing the skinny, muddy “bean” at the end of all things.  It grieves me to my core.]

A butterfly created a caterpillar who had the misfortune to eat pesticide-coated leaves, undergoing metamorphosis into a dead lump. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The noble forebears of our dumb-bred domesticated (captive) animals had no evolutionary answer to ropes and tall fences. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The chattering swallows returned in spring to raise a new set of chicks. But the local mosquitos had been exterminated, leaving the parents and chicks to starve. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

An 80-year-old tortoise followed the familiar route through the forest, across a road that wasn’t there in its youth, just as a truck came along. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The wasps weren’t bothering anybody when they went about their business raising young in a nest under the eaves, only to be shot by a 3 meter jet of poison. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Native grasses and flowers tried to restore health to a corn field, only to be coated in herbicide dropped by an airplane. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Crabs, lobsters, clams, and oysters found that they were no longer able to make protective shells in more acidic water, ultimately perishing from this earth. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A rough-skinned newt, in bursts of slowness, made its way across a wet road at dusk, only to have its innards abruptly and rudely squashed out through its mouth. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The exquisite ruffed grouse cruised into a clearing, aiming for trees that turned out to be a reflection in a house window. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Salmon had fed the forest for millions of years, but demand for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and chat-bots put a dam in their way. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A large prairie dog colony had lived on this patch of land as long as anyone could remember. The commercial developer orchestrated their final solution. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The polar bear cubs got exhausted from swimming in a futile effort to find ice and seals. Their inevitable end was cold, wet, hungry, and oh-so skinny. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

The foxes in the Mojave desert required large unobstructed habitat, which vast new solar farms fenced, shaded, and uprooted. They did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

A sea turtle had no notion of the word “bycatch,” yet found itself dying in a crowded net all the same, only to be discarded as waste upon discovery. It did nothing wrong, but didn’t stand a chance.

Pursuers of modernity forgot themselves, thinking they owned and controlled the world, no longer subject to limits or part of a larger ecology. The world taught them a cruel lesson on the definition of unsustainability. They, for a change, might have known better, but as it was didn’t stand a chance.

End Note

The common thread is forcing plants and animals out of their evolutionary context, as we have done to ourselves as well via modernity.

I kept coming up with more examples, and eventually decided to stop because I felt I was beating a dead horse. It’s surprising how many more examples I could have used, and I suspect you could come up with a number not covered here yourself. It is telling that we are not running short on grim accounts of biodiversity loss.

Hits: 2316

Can't Spell Fail Without AI

Abstinence is a word that frequently applies to me. Alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, drugs, Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, Bitcoin, stocks, email on smart phone, and lots more: not for me, thanks. I also semi-abstain from various energy/resource-heavy activities. Part of this tendency may have been shaped by the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie, where characters Indiana Jones and Marion are tied to a post in the rear of a crowd waiting to see the marvels inside the Ark of the Covenant. Indy had the instinct to shut his eyes, and advised Marion to do the same, which spared them and only them. Just because everybody else is doing it is not reason enough.

In this light, I am practically ashamed to admit to using AI for image creation. It’s not like me. On the text-generation side (chat-bots), while I think it’s a pretty neat stunt they’ve pulled off, I am deeply unimpressed by the milquetoast blather that comes out of ChatGPT and its ilk when asked hard questions. When students tried to use AI to submit answers to questions, I could spot the style from across the room (based on simple formatting). It is not too surprising that nothing remarkable comes out, since the chat-bots are designed to construct sentences very much in the style of what it’s parsed in all its input data. They aren’t producing original thoughts, but function more as an averaging content generator.

But images: I’m more impressed—in that it’s more mysterious to me how it works. The parameter space is much larger than for regimented language. Even so, I think it’s actually somewhat similar to language in that images also have structure, and certain things tend to be close to certain other things, as is true for words as well.

When selecting a copyright-free header image for a Do the Math post, I usually have an idea for what I want it to show, and first look for pre-made content. If I can’t find something via a few channels, I now turn to AI, using the Bing interface to Dall-E. Admittedly, I’m no expert at speaking AI, but I still marvel at how inept it can be in forming an image that a 4-year-old would have little trouble picturing if using the same prompt language.

I was planning to do a post illustrating my failures over time, but was dismayed to learn that my past creations have disappeared on the Bing platform (not unique to me). What’s worse, I no longer have prompt language for the ones I kept. The EXIF information in the JPEG files lack any such prompt text. Why is it that the world is still being designed by unpaid interns?

So, this post isn’t all that I hoped it would be, given that loss. But, as with many things in life, I’ll work with what I have.

Continue reading

Hits: 1911

The Game of Life

Step 400 of the acorn methuselah.  Gliders exit at 12:30 and 5:00.

Despite a lifetime of overlap, and many opportunities to cross paths, I am only now learning of the Game of Life, introduced by John Conway in 1970—the same year that I was introduced to the world. After a few exploratory hours, I knew I’d have to share the insights I gained from it relating to how we react to the present predicament.

What is it that I mean by The Game of Life? Aren’t we all caught up in it? I refer, here, to a zero-player “game” taking place on a two-dimensional grid of square cells (pixels) that can either be alive (on; black) or dead (off; white). Only two simple rules govern whether a cell will live or die in the next time step of the game:

  1. Only “live” squares having two or three adjacent live neighbors (out of 8 possible) survive to the next step.
  2. An empty (“dead”) square having exactly three live neighbors will be “born” into living status on the next step.

The first rule captures a sense of balanced population density: too sparse and survival is hard; too dense and overshoot kills. The second rule is a sexy three-way approach to procreation. Settle down, people.

A surprising degree of complexity emerges from these simple rules, whose deterministic prescription nonetheless leads to essentially unpredictable outcomes. The lessons and parallels to real life—and even breakdowns in the comparison—are highly instructive, I find.

Continue reading

Hits: 2178

Let's Make a Deal!

Several posts of mine have sought to put the value of Earth’s biodiversity in context. The first of these leveraged the cute coincidence that all the animals on the planet are about the same weight as all the gold within 5 km of the land’s surface to make the case that animals are worth more than their weight in gold.

The next installment made a similar case for insects (arthropods, more generally), placing a premium economic value of at least $10,000 per kilogram of bug mass.

In this post, I ask: what would you be willing to trade for all animal life on this planet? It may seem like a forced and false choice, as nobody is proposing to eliminate all animal life on the planet. Despite this, we’re doing a dazzlingly good job of marching toward that very goal, whether explicitly intending to or not. Typical decline rates among vertebrates and insects are in the 1–2% per year ballpark; average decline in vertebrate populations is 70% since 1970; and a sixth mass extinction appears to have kicked off with extinction rates about 1,000 times the background rate. So, the prospect of losing Earth’s biodiversity is not purely hypothetical, thus deserving serious attention. I’ll have more to say about the validity of this approach at the end.

Meanwhile, are you ready to play the game?

Continue reading

Hits: 2243