The Casual Blog

Tag: Tanzania

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

Processing Tanzania animals and travel

Baboons in Tarangire National Park, Tanzania

I’m still working my way through my photos from Tanzania, and processing impressions from the trip.  We saw a lot of animals!  In some situations, I took dozens of pictures, and it’s tough to decide which is my final favorite.  

Anyhow, here are a few current favorites.  What I was looking for was more than just the beauty and strangeness of the animals.  The trip helped me appreciate better that their lives are part of complex relationships with their fellow creatures and their environments.  

But the much bigger point is Tanzania is a fascinating place.  Getting there from the U.S. is hard on a body, at least if you’re not in an ultra high-end airline seat/bed.  It took us about 36 hours from airport to airport each way.  We flew on Qatar Airways, which treated us better than our recent U.S. carriers.  It had planes with seats that didn’t seem specially engineered to torture you and flight attendants who seemed to view their job as helping passengers.    

An impala — a delicate, speedy creature that loves grass

On long flights, I’m usually not able to sleep much, but I look forward to having extra time for reading.   There comes a point, though, even for a big reader like me, when the eyes and mind get too tired for reading.  Instead, recently, on planes equipped with individual screens, I watch movies.  I try to pick ones that Sally probably wouldn’t be interested in, and ones that haven’t made my must-see list.  The point is to achieve a state of mild engagement/distraction – enough so as not think about how many more hours before I can get off the plane.  

Cape buffalo — a stolid creature that also loves grass

Part of the point of Qatar Airways seems to be to raise the profile of that little country and get international travelers into its hub airport at Doha.  We had long layovers there going and coming, and it was impressive, in a post-modern way.  Even in the middle of the night, shops, restaurants, and bars were open, and the assemblage of luxury goods stores (handbags, watches, jewelry, clothing, luggage) reminded me of Fifth Avenue, or Zermott.  We were a bit confused about the value of the local currency, and so managed to set a new high-end record for an airport meal in their Italian restaurant.

We also had a long layover in London’s Heathrow airport on the way home.  There had recently been reports about Heathrow’s poor operations in handling passengers and baggage, but we had no special problems, other than a very slow line at a coffee shop.   

One thing I confirmed coming back was that it’s definitely worthwhile on long trips to wear compression socks.  I’d worn a pair on the way over, but mine were among the items lost when our tent at Serian Serengeti North was blown away.  Regular socks just didn’t cut it.  When I got back to Raleigh, my ankles had swollen dramatically, and were very sore.  For my next trip, I got a replacement set from an outfit called Vim and Vigr.  

Leopard in Serengeti National Park

As to that storm:  we were out late in the day on the savannah close to the Kenya border watching a pair of lions, which seemed to be considering whether to take another nap or go for a hunt.  We had great close views, but the cats weren’t doing much.  As the sun started to set, huge dark clouds rolled in, and we started the long drive back to camp.

Lions waking up

A few minutes later came the first drops of a deluge.  Our guides unfolded the canvas top and plastic windows of the 4Runner and put up the windshield.  Visibility quickly dropped to near zero, while the winds picked up.  Then we began to have lightning flashes and thunder close by every few seconds.  Our driver asked if I thought it was OK to stop, and I said I saw no other choice.  It looked entirely possible that we would not be able to make it back to camp that night.

Not long after, visibility improved enough to move forward, and our driver managed to get us through some creeks that had gotten a lot deeper since the earlier crossing.  We came across a vehicle that was stuck in the mud, and tried unsuccessfully to push them out of their rut.  Finally we got back to the camp.  We were happy to be there, but everyone else was in a state of high anxiety, trying to figure out how much of the camp had been destroyed.  

Alex Walker and his dedicated team managed to feed us a satisfying hot meal in one of the two remaining dining tents, and worked through the night assessing damage and starting repairs.  Our tent had been flooded and blown away, but most of our possessions were eventually found.  The staff worked hard cleaning and drying things while we were out on our last game drive the following day.

Of course, it’s always good to get home.  We’ve been watching some documentaries this week, and I wanted to particularly recommend one:  Eating Our Way to Extinction.  It’s a powerful summary of the problems with our animal agriculture system, and especially the part it plays in climate change.  The presentation is upbeat, with narration by Kate Winslett and cameos by several celebrities.  It emphasizes that it is not too late to change the system, and we as individuals can help.  

Thompson’s gazelle — also a speedy grass lover

One last thing:  I read a good book on the trip:  The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck.  In my teens and twenties I made a point of reading quite a few officially recognized “classics,” which may or may not have been the best use of my time.  In any case, Grapes is one that I never got to, and I came to it without a lot of assumptions.

The book tells the story of a poor farm family forced from their farm in Oklahoma and hoping for a new life in California.  Their story is both specific (each character is an individual) and general (there are many thousands in their predicament).  I was pulled along by the classic story telling, but also got a better understanding of the economic and social forces that created their desperate poverty along with dramatic wealth for a few.

Cheetahs in Serengeti

I was surprised at how timely the book seemed, as climate change and political upheaval unleashes enormous migration around the globe.  Steinbeck helps us process these kinds of forces, and encourages us to show compassion and work on solutions. 

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.    

Missing Africa, and pulling for the protesters in Portland

We’d planned to be on safari in Tanzania this week, but with the pandemic, obviously that didn’t work out.  So I spent some time looking at pictures, including ones I took when we visited Kruger National Park in South Africa in 2015.  I just loved those animals and Africa!  We’re hoping we can get to Tanzania in 2021.

But I’m less confident than usual that I’ll still be here in three weeks.  Although I seem healthy enough, the pandemic and other risks have affected my outlook.  Things seem much more unstable and prone to failure.  At the same time, it seems like a historic moment, with things about to change dramatically, for better or worse.

The situation in Portland has gotten dramatic.  Trump has decided that the Black Lives Matter protests need to be put down, and has sent in federal storm troopers to do so.  The protests have been mostly peaceful, though as in every crowd there are some idiots, like the ones who broke windows, set off recreational fireworks, and marked walls with graffiti.

Contrary to the President’s rhetoric, the protesters are not violent thugs bent on destroying the city.   This lie disguises what for him is the real problem:  the protesters’ messages.  Their central message is that police violence and racial discrimination need to stop.  For Trump and his supporters, this threat to the status quo is intolerable.

Part of the political dynamic is Trump’s declining popularity.  In response, he’s rebranded his usual fear mongering as “law and order,” which seems to resonate with the Fox News demographic.  The right wing media continues to play along, presenting the federal storm troopers in Portland as defenders of our traditional values.  

I have to admit, for all Trump’s incompetence and stupidity, he’s got a kind of genius for pressing people’s emotional buttons so they can’t think straight.  A lot of white Americans are fearful of black people, and suppressing them has been one of our traditions.  Video showing storm troopers attacking protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets can be made to look like forces of order defending civilization against anarchy.  

It may be that Portland is a test run for federal attacks in other cities, as Trump suggested this week.  This raises the possibility of escalating storm trooper violence, new and more vicious attacks on the free press, expansion of mass incarceration for dissidents, and the suspension of free elections.  The President has claimed to have unlimited powers, and it now seems possible that he’ll put that to the test.    

I hope I’m wrong on all that, but seriously, I’m worried.  The outcome in Portland may have far reaching consequences.  So far the Portland protesters have stood firm, and their numbers are growing.  It may be that they’ll succeed in shining light on the lawlessness and lies behind Trump’s storm trooper attacks, and save our democracy. 

I’m hopeful that most people will see through Trump’s fraudulent “law and order” ploy, but I’m not certain.  With clouds of tear gas obscuring the view, people can get confused.

Trump’s interview with Chris Wallace last week provided a rare bit of comedy in these difficult times.  Wallace was surprisingly direct in calling out some of Trump’s recent shocking lies regarding the pandemic, and Trump was visibly sweating.  When Trump bragged that he aced a mental competence test, Wallace noted dryly that the test was not that difficult.

When Wallace noted that the test required counting backward from 100 by 7s, I realized, it’s quite unlikely that Trump actually aced the test.  In any case, his claim that the test showed his intelligence is an especially entertaining type of Trump lie:  a self-refuting one.  Thinking that a mental competence test is the same as an intelligence test demonstrates a clear mental deficit.

In the interview, Trump foolishly challenged Biden to a test competition, which I thought would be an excellent way to resolve our political crisis.  We wouldn’t need anything as challenging as the SAT, or even a high school equivalency test.  Any questioning at the fifth grade level would suffice.  

It would save us a lot of money and anxiety, and provide some laughs, to have these two as single combat warriors on Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader.  The winner would be declared our new president.  I would bet the house that Trump would fail hilariously.