The Casual Blog

Tag: great migration

Wildebeests in various states, querying MAGA, doubting Artemis, and getting curious about animal communication

Wildebeests in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Working through the big pile of my pictures from Tanzania has been absorbing, but also exhausting.  I’ve been trying to remember how things looked, and figuring out how to interpret the images.  In the process, I’ve been learning new things about my processing software – Lightroom, Photoshop, and Topaz AI products.

One of our prime objectives in Tanzania was to see some of the large herds of wildebeests that annually cross the Mara River.  It’s challenging to convey the power and raw beauty of these crossings, but I tried.  I also am sharing some photos of large predators.  Warning: there is a picture of lions on a recently killed zebra that might not be suitable for all readers. 

Artificial intelligence is once again a buzzword, but let me just say first, the new versions of Topaz DeNoise AI and Sharpen AI are amazing.  There are clearly important advances going on in AI, which could soon surpass our ability to understand them, if they haven’t already.  It’s far from impossible that our intelligent software could go from helpful to dangerous, if it hasn’t already. 

It’s surprising that tech journalists ordinarily focus on the question of if AI can equal human intelligence.  It has already equaled or surpassed what humans can do in some domains (playing complex games, using correct grammar) and is rapidly moving into areas we’ve thought of as artistic (composing music, making paintings, writing fiction).  But people continue to believe there is some unique and valuable quality in human thinking that can never be equaled.   However that may be, we have no shortage of evidence that human thinking has some systematic glitches.

A prime example:  MAGA Republicans, who have decided to believe and/or promote a wild and enormous lie – that Trump was not defeated in the last election, but was rather the victim of a vast fraudulent conspiracy.  There are, of course, Republicans who understand that this is nonsense and continue to support American democracy.  But most of those traditional Republicans have become very quiet, and acquiesced in the takeover of the GOP by the Trump faction.

So what is wrong with MAGA folks?  Of course, there are many individual stories, but the big drivers seem to be fear of the Others (those with different skin tones, religions, languages, genders, etc.), loss of traditional status (relative to the Others and to the wealthy), bewilderment and frustration at changing social norms, and economic anxiety.  Whatever the causes, there are clearly strong feelings causing MAGA folks to detach themselves from ordinary reality and swear allegiance to a comical-but-dangerous charlatan.

Leopard in Serengeti

One thing that struck me recently which I’m trying to keep in mind:  almost no one thinks they are a bad person, or doing things for an evil reason.  Almost everyone thinks they are a good person, or at least, no worse than average.  MAGA believers are no exception.  They view their principles as well aligned with all that is right and good.  

In this sense, MAGA people mean well.  As individuals, they may have many good qualities, and like all sentient beings, they are entitled to affection and respect.  But as aggregated political actors, they have gone off the deep end, and threaten us with disaster.        

Cheetah in Serengeti

For quite a while after the election, I expected the MAGA fever to break and our normal far-from-perfect politics to resume.  But recently it’s gotten worse.  Republican leaders and candidates vie to stake out the most extreme positions favored by the MAGA element, and some are promoting violence against political enemies and even civil war.  This is definitely not American politics as usual.  

As President Biden recently pointed out, most Americans do not share this mindset, and it’s still possible we can avoid joining the league of repressive authoritarian nations.  The question is not whether MAGA Republicans will change:  they are, at least for now, fully committed to the end of fair elections, equal rights, and other key features of our democracy.  The question is whether those who thought they could safely be ignored will wake up and passionately oppose them in the coming elections.

Lion in Serengeti

As if that weren’t enough to worry about!  But, with apologies, I’m going to give one more timely example of what looks to me like a mass delusion.  My excuse is that since it recently became a big news story, I haven’t noticed anyone else raising the issue of its essential craziness.  I’m referring to the Artemis Project, which, we’re told, is a vital effort to put people back on the moon.  As of this writing, two much-hyped launch attempts have been canceled for technical reasons.

I’m a longtime fan of science and technology, including the amazing new Webb space telescope, and was as excited as anyone at the first moon landing in 1969.  But I felt no great sorrow after we discontinued the Apollo program in 1972.  We’d been there and done that.  Even then, it wasn’t clear whether anything of lasting value had been accomplished.

As the years passed without more moon missions, I thought perhaps the lesson had quietly sunk in that the billions of dollars spent on going to the moon (around $25B) could have been used better – perhaps on climate change mitigation, preventing species’ extinction,  improving health care, education etc. (the list of underfunded serious projects is long).  Then, out of the blue (at least to me), came Artemis – which has already cost $41 billion, and is expected to eventually cost $93 billion.

This is a lot of money, even by U.S. government budget standards.  You might suppose that it involves cutting edge technology employed for some vital purpose.  But no, not really.  The rocket technology is decades old, and not even close to state of the art.  And as best I can tell, no one is even trying to argue that it is likely to achieve important scientific advances.

The accounts I’ve heard refer vaguely to the possibility that Artemis is a step towards setting up colonies on the moon, which would be a step towards colonies on Mars.  Perhaps there’s hope that a few corporations can make good money extracting valuable minerals, and a  worry that Earth will become uninhabitable.  Thanks to Artemis, a few ultrawealthy folks might try to mount rockets and flee the planet, as in the underappreciated dark comedy Don’t Look Up.  

Anyhow, the whole idea is ridiculous.  No matter how badly we spoil the Earth, it’s unlikely to ever get more desolate than the moon, or Mars.  

Is there any other possible justification for this bizarre project?  It could well be driven by corporate welfare for big military contractors and the legalized corruption of our political funding process.  And of course, there is always the combination of nationalism and chauvinism that wants to be or at least seem superior to other peoples and nations. 

Anyhow, Artemis looks to be yet another example of how our minds’ reasoning powers can fail on a mass basis – thinking we’re creating something to be proud of when we’re actually wasting precious resources, money, and time.  At this point, despite the huge costs and repeated failures to launch, junking the project is not on the table for political discussion.  

Still, this fiasco could do one positive thing: make us feel a little more conscious and humble about the flaws in our reasoning powers.  Even our smartest rocket scientists, physicists, and philosophers can lose their bearings.  As our teachers used to say, we need to double check our work.

On a more cheerful tech note, the NY Times’s Emily Anthes reports that scientists are using deep learning and other technologies to start decoding the communications of various non-human animals.    Various programs are looking at creatures like rodents, lemurs, and whales, and discovering that social groups even have different dialects.  

Some of us have long suspected that there’s a lot of communication going on among non-human animals, and wondered why more humans haven’t been more curious about those interchanges.  The received wisdom has been that only humans have language, which was one of the questionable ideas used to justify  domination and cruel exploitation of all other animals.  Maybe the latest AI will help us understand animals differently.

Impala family In Tarangire National Park

Our safari in Tanzania

Cheetah

We returned last week from a 10-day safari in Tanzania, where we visited Tarangire National Park and Serengeti National Park.  It was a long hard trip there and back, but completely worth it.  We met some interesting people, but the highlights were the non-human animals living their lives on the savannah.  

We saw many elephants, gazelles, giraffes, buffalo, zebras, baboons, monkeys, ostriches, hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and many, many wildebeests, as well as a few jackals, hyenas, lions, leopards, and cheetahs.  There were also many colorful birds, small mammals, unusual speedy antelopes, and reptiles.  

Some of the oldest known human fossils come from east Africa, and our species spent a lot of its pathbreaking years there.  It’s a big but underappreciated part of our story.  Looking out over vast grasslands, I found myself thinking of the tall grass differently:  vital food for many creatures, and hiding places and ambush spots for some. 

The Serengeti was the setting for the Lion King, which I thought was a sweet and touching movie, though I had assumed it had a large dose of romantic fantasy in depicting the animals and landscape.  It seemed unlikely that different species of animals would live close together cooperatively and mostly peacefully.  

Wildebeests crossing the Mara River

But in fact, we saw a lot of different species sharing territories, some warily but others relaxed.  In most if not all herds, there were animals of different ages, including young ones.  The young animals played while their mothers kept a watchful eye.

We saw large groups of animals organize themselves quite efficiently for travel, rest, and eating, though how they do it is still largely unknown.  One of the most amazing spectacles was the wildebeests crossing the Mara River as part of their annual migration.  We saw nine or ten of these crossings in which thousands of the creatures plunged down steep embankment, swam the river, and climbed the bank on the other side near us.  Most were successful, though we saw crocodiles get a few. 

A leopard in the Serengeti near sunset

According to Seni, our guide, who knew a lot about animal biology and behavior, wildebeests aren’t particularly smart or athletic by Serengeti standards, and some people consider them ugly.  Apart from their dramatic migration, their lives seem to be mostly about eating grass, avoiding predators, and reproducing.  We know little about how they communicate and organize to get things done.  But their huge numbers show that they do so, and their strategy appears to be successful.

The animals of Tanzania have some of the same problems we do, like rising temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires caused by global warming.  They get diseases or get caught by powerful predators, not to mention human poachers.  But I was struck and moved by how well so many of these creatures do when we just leave them alone.  In Tanzania’s huge national parks, they have territories and healthy habitats, and seem to be living mostly peacefully and doing as they like.  

When I was a schoolboy, we were taught that animals operate mostly on raw instinct, and don’t have anything similar to our mental processes for memory and planning, or even feeling.  There’s more and more evidence that this is far from true, and that many animals have strong memories, the ability to plan ahead, and emotions.  

The Washington Post had a fascinating piece this week by Lars Chittka on the consciousness of bees.  Chittka’s researchers found that individual bees could remember human faces, count, and use tools, and that they experienced positive and negative emotions.  It makes one wonder, how much more is there yet to learn about animals’ abilities and consciousness?    

We’ve been thoroughly socialized to avoid thinking about animals as agents having coherent lives worthy of respect.  Most of our education on animals just ignores the complexity and successes of their social systems (their families, herds, alliances), political systems (territories, cooperatives, group decision making, conflict resolution), and creative achievements (communication, nourishment, transportation, sports, shelter).  

We’ve long assumed that humans and their systems are separate from and superior to all non-humans and their systems.  This is, of course, self-serving, and also less and less persuasive in light of modern research.  The massive destruction wrought by humans on the rest of the earth over the last few centuries calls such thinking into question:  our species has been the main driver of our grave crises.  Yet even in the face of the human onslaught, many animals carry on with their cultures.  We can learn from them, and should.       

Lion mom and cub

For the trip, I brought along my new Nikon mirrorless camera and three lenses, one of which (the long one, 150-600 mm) malfunctioned on the first day.  Still, I took a lot of pictures, and I’m still not finished with the first pass through them.  But I wanted to go ahead and share a few that I thought reflected some of the beauty of Tanzanian animals’ lives.  I’m hoping to write more next week on the experience and share more images.