Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 2 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight


… Okay, it never happened.

I did stand under the streetlight on that lonely highway, right enough. After hours of waiting, I began to study the darkness around me, projecting my fears into it, and as I began to think more and more of things that might lurk out there, I gradually froze into spooked immobility. Though I never saw or heard the merest evidence that anything was out there, I stood locked in place, imagining everything from my rocketing, deadly Face Eater to a pack of rabid wolves, from the eighteen foot tall mutant killer bear I’d see in a movie to a horde of screaming, red-eyed baboons, escaped from some cheap carnival and out for blood.

Locked into the recursive reverberation of my own imaginings, I scared myself at nothing. I allowed florid, fictional images to fill my mind and echo back and forth, growing until I could no longer even think.

Betting Against the Grizzly

Thanks to movie-makers, hunting magazines, and purveyors of other kinds of pop entertainment, whenever we hear talk comparing Man the Animal with other creatures, poor Man usually comes out a weak and fragile nebbish, stuck out in the dangerous wilds, scared and alone. He sits down at Nature’s card game with his measly pair of Jacks (his intelligence), and a host of massive, befanged predators snicker at him over paws full of aces: claws, razor teeth, rocketing speed, eagle eyes, merciless instincts wired to unpredictable rage and a hunger for flesh.

The lurid cover story in a hunting magazine stacks the defenseless little Man against a grizzly. The friendly, harmless human – it might be your own uncle, out for a walk – is introduced in folksy language. Soon the deadly griz enters the tale, big as a Sherman tank and mean as a biker on angel dust. Weights are compared. Strength is described. The number and size of teeth come into the story, and the length of claws.

The fear builds. The hapless human is just out for a little harmless recreation, but the deadly dangerous, unbeatable monster of a grizzly has every murderous intention of stalking, horribly killing, and slowly, over a number of days, consuming the bloody carcass of the poor little Man.

And there’s no doubt it has happened. Wild animals don’t keep records, but humans certainly do. Wikipedia’s entry on bear attacks lists close to 60 fatal attacks by brown bears in the U.S. since the 1870s, with an additional 53 by black bears and seven more by polar bears. (Scarily personal, the list includes someone I actually knew: Tim Treadwell.)

A comparison of griz and man certainly is eyebrow-raising. Though continental grizzlies come in at an already-impressive 900 pounds or so, the tabloid-fodder Alaskan brown bear, Ursus arctos middendorffi, might tip the scales at 1500 pounds and be nine feet long. It  can run at 30 or more miles an hour, propelled across the ground on paws equipped with six inch claws. Its hungry mouth is equipped with fangs inches long.

Compare this to an adult male human, who’d weigh in around 200 pounds. Feeble little fingernails. Flat nubbins of teeth. And not a hope in hell of outrunning this souped-up freight train with fur.

We live today in a pretty safe world. Back in the era of the literally-naked savage, not only did we have nothing in the way of machine-era technology – no weapons that didn’t depend on our own muscle power – but the predators were bigger. Imagine living in North America with the sabertoothed cat and the short-faced bear (think of a grizzly on steroids with some thoroughbred racehorse genes thrown in for speed), or the great variety of predators elsewhere in the world – creatures fiercer, more varied, more numerous, and probably much less afraid of us than anything alive today.

It seems a stroke of wild, improbable luck that we survived to the modern day. What, really, could account for it? Do we have any advantages at all, compared to wild animals? Can we tease out any single trait, other than blind luck, that kept us alive this long?


Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

Grizzly’s Gamble — Part 1 of 8 (Repost)

Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight


This is The Lie:

Back in my hitchhiking adventure days, I stood one night under a streetlight on a deserted highway outside a city in West Texas, waiting for a car to stop and give me a ride. Waiting, actually, even for a car to come along. Eventually there in the dark, I hadn’t seen one for more than an hour.

An overcast sky and the dirty air of civilization killed even the stars overhead. Surrounded by an ocean of blackness, I stood in a tiny lifeboat of luminance. A tepid breeze wafted over the dried landscape, rattling papery leaves and litter across the road in front of me. As I stood in the weak, orange puddle of light, something about the dead-feeling air created an ominous absence of sound in the surrounding dark.

After a while, I stood riveted there in the lengthening night, listening with the first beginnings of dread to that threatening silence. My backpack lay leaning against the base of the streetlight, a bright friendly yellow which should have been comforting somehow, but which I knew it contained no weapon, no shield from what I was coming to imagine waited out there.

Whether it was a noise or a smell too subtle to consciously notice, suddenly, somehow, I knew that there was something there, lurking just beyond the sharp circle of light. I caught odd musky whiffs on the breeze – maybe I was smelling its predator’s breath, or the rank odor of its fur as it circled around me and passed momentarily upwind. Masked by the chitter-chatter of leaves on the pavement, I fancied I could hear its claws clicking on rocks as it circled and stalked in the dead zone just out of my sight.

The safety of the nearest trees was easily 30 yards away, in the dark, and the streetlight pole was smooth and featureless, impossible to climb. I huddled against the pole, circled it, peering out into the night, wishing for a rock to throw, or even a flashlight to blind whatever might be out there.

Yet the instant I turned my back on the blackness that lined the road, I heard a pebble click a dozen yards away, then another closer by a third, and another closer still, so rapid they were almost a single sound: tickticktick. Gripped by sheer terror, I crouched and whirled in place to see whatever scary thing might be coming at me out of the night – yet I still had time for only the first gasping intake of breath before the creature drove its razored talons clear into my lungs and heart, and its needle-lined jaws bit my face completely off.


Parts:  OneTwoThreeFourFiveSixSevenEight

The Dark Side of the Sun

I belong to a couple of Facebook groups on Transhumanism and the Singularity, and I avidly read the articles and posts. But I don’t buy into every one of them. Yes, I want fantastic things to happen. Hell, I fully EXPECT fantastic things to happen. But … a lot of the articles are more about possibilities than realities.  For instance, I think we’ve been predicting safe, abundant fusion energy — any time now — for the past 50 years. I’ve kinda begun to wonder “What if it just isn’t possible?”

As to the idea of uploading human consciousness to computers, even I can think of some serious challenges to the idea: Considering that most of us isn’t exactly conscious, I have my doubts you could get a real person, warts and all, shifted over into an electronic domain.

The truth is, in the midst of my hopeful positivism, there’s a healthy helping of the negative. Because there’s some bad stuff coming too. A surprising amount of it is already happening.

If you take a fragmented view of the world, as so many of us do (most of us are so caught up in the noise of our own private lives we don’t even bother to pay attention to larger matters), you see a lot of little individual things going on. But if you look for patterns … oh, boy they’re there. And some of them are scary.

Here’s a couple of things, Little Scary instead of Big Scary, but also part of a pattern that, to me at least, appears related to human numbers. And what if, once you click together all the Little Scaries — like Dark Legos — you find you’ve built a Big Scary?

Little scary: Where Have All the Orange Roughy Gone?

As the following graphic shows, the orange roughy arrived with a bang and is now leaving with a long, drawn-out aquatic whimper.  The first sizeable catches were recorded in 1979.  A decade later the world catch peaked at a massive 91,000 tons.  And then, just as quickly, catches plummeted and now they linger around 13,000 tons a year.

The problem is that the orange roughy is a deep-sea species that cannot sustain the level of exploitation that our technology and policies have made possible.  It simply reproduces too slowly.  Orange roughy typically don’t start breeding until they’re 30 years old and can live up to 150 years. So catching orange roughy is much more like mining than fishing.  In effect, it’s more like a non-renewable resource!

Little scary: How the global banana industry is killing the world’s favorite fruit

During harvest last year, banana farmers in Jordan and Mozambique made a chilling discovery. Their plants were no longer bearing the soft, creamy fruits they’d been growing for decades. When they cut open the roots of their banana plants, they saw something that looked like this: [picture]

Scientists first discovered the fungus that is turning banana plants into this rotting, fibrous mass in Southeast Asia in the 1990s. Since then the pathogen, known as the Tropical Race 4 strain of Panama disease, has slowly but steadily ravaged export crops throughout Asia. The fact that this vicious soil-borne fungus has now made the leap to Mozambique and Jordan is frightening. One reason is that it’s getting closer to Latin America, where at least 70% of the world’s $8.9-billion-a-year worth of exported bananas is grown.

[ … ]

And we don’t need to imagine what that would mean for banana exports—the exact scenario has already happened. Starting in 1903, Race 1, an earlier variant of today’s pathogen, ravaged the export plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Within 50 years, Race 1 drove the world’s only export banana species, the Gros Michel, to virtual extinction. That’s why 99% of the bananas eaten in the developed world today are a cultivar called the Cavendish, the only export-suitable banana that could take on Race 1 and live to tell.

One of the strong possibilities of human transcendence has to do with human population. Yes, I’ve heard all the cool assertions about what educated, empowered women do: they have fewer children. And I’ve read that human population is even now leveling off. I sure do hope it’s true.

But what if, as I suspect, we’re already well over the carrying capacity of the Earth? What if we’re at 7 billion and still headed skyward (to 11 billion!), when the sustainable population is more like 5 billion? Three billion? Less?

What if we TRANSCEND our own homeworld’s welcome?


Prairie Dogs are Calling You Fat

I don’t think I ever got to meet this guy when I lived in Flagstaff and edited an arts and entertainment magazine for 3 years, but I wish I had. He’s doing some amazing work.

Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, Ph.D., assisted by students at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, has managed to decode some of the content of prairie dog language. As it turns out, they’re pretty expressive.

You might not think it to look at them, but prairie dogs and humans actually share an important commonality — and it’s not just their complex social structures, or their habit of standing up on two feet (aww, like people). As it turns out, prairie dogs actually have one of the most sophisticated forms of vocal communication in the natural world, really not so unlike our own.

After more than 25 years of studying the calls of prairie dog in the field, one researcher managed to decode just what these animals are saying. And the results show that praire dogs aren’t only extremely effective communicators, they also pay close attention to detail.

Working with Gunnison’s prairie dogs, Dr. Slobodchikoff studied their alarm calls, recording and analyzing the calls, but also noting the conditions during which the calls originated. What he discovered is that prairie dogs can not only tell the difference between a coyote and a similar-appearing domestic dog such as a German shepherd, they can express that difference clearly in distinct warning calls.

Turns out they can make similar distinctions between humans wandering into their territory, even going so far as to describe the human’s size, shape and clothing color!

Watch the video (or read more about the critters at Wikipedia).


Beta Culture: Never Doubt the Power of Religion

The basic rationale for establishing Beta Culture is to provide a balancing force against three “social entities” that are the only current avenues into any sort of future.

As I say it: “There’s the future we might WANT, and the future we’re going to GET.”

The future we’re going to get is the one government, business and religion will get us to. You and I might want a cure for Alzheimer’s in ten years, but if government won’t help fund the research, if universities, hospitals, pharma companies and such won’t DO the research, and if religion blocks the research, there will be no cure for Alzheimer’s. Not ever, unless something changes.

Beta Culture would be a fourth social entity  force that would either act directly or act to exert force on the other three, to get us to a livable, likeable future. Think of these entities as boats on an ocean of possibilities. If the only boats we have are THEIR three boats, we will either not get where we want to go, or will arrive on their schedule instead of ours.  But if we had a fourth boat, our own boat, we’d have more of a guarantee of getting to the livable future WE dream of.

Even considering it’s me saying it, I always flinch just a bit when mentioning religion in the same sentence as government and business. Governments and worldwide corporations are the massive, powerful forces that run the world, aren’t they? By contrast, we generally see churches and religion as relatively powerless. We atheists are comfortable laughing at poor, weak, doddering religion, expecting it will die off any day now and leave us free of it.

And yet, here religion is, flexing its muscle, influencing the minds of the public and members of Congress to ignore climate change. From Raw Story:

Belief in biblical end-times stifling climate change action in U.S.

The United States has failed to take action to mitigate climate change thanks in part to the large number of religious Americans who believe the world has a set expiration date.

Research by David C. Barker of the University of Pittsburgh and David H. Bearce of the University of Colorado uncovered that belief in the biblical end-times was a motivating factor behind resistance to curbing climate change.

“[T]he fact that such an overwhelming percentage of Republican citizens profess a belief in the Second Coming (76 percent in 2006, according to our sample) suggests that governmental attempts to curb greenhouse emissions would encounter stiff resistance even if every Democrat in the country wanted to curb them,” Barker and Bearce wrote in their study, which will be published in the June issue of Political Science Quarterly.

David Pakman talks about it.

(Apology in advance: I don’t know how to set this so you’ll only see the first segment, which is the one on global warming. You’ll have to shut the video player down manually at the end, or it will go on to the “bulletproof whiteboard” story and five others.)

We pretty much have to build this fourth boat.

Bracing For Superstorm Sandy

Storm preparations:  Guns, knives, ammo … check, check, check. Mormon neighbor with year’s supply of food … check.

Storm Survival Tips #413: Lhasa Apsos are nicely marbled, but mini-dachshunds have more actual meat.


When Hurricane Irene made landfall in August of 2011, I lived in a nice, safe farmhouse well above floodline. We even had a fireplace, so if the power had gone out, we’d be warm and might have even finagled a way to cook. Continue reading “Bracing For Superstorm Sandy”

Blue Collar Atheist: Non Sequitur

Red-winged Blackbird (not the bird in this piece)

This is a little nothing, just a bit of me that bubbled up in my head this morning. Maybe it’s a birthday wish for myself.

There’s this bird.

Well, I should tell you about where and when I saw it, first, so you’ll know why it matters to me.

I lived, as some of you know, in the mountains in central California, the High Sierra. I was on the east slope, not far from where California and Nevada butt together, and about midway up the range, not far south of Yosemite National Park. Continue reading “Blue Collar Atheist: Non Sequitur”

When Coyotes Danced

It was hot, the day the coyotes danced.

It was about 1990, and I was ranch-sitting at a friend’s ranch in Bishop, California. The owner was up in the mountains all summer, but there were cattle at the ranch, and somebody needed to be there to look after them.

In this particular case, ranch-sitting was a minimalist job. The cattle were out in a pasture with plenty of water and grass, and cattle don’t need much more than that. Really, all I had to do was walk the pastures once a day and make sure nobody was sick or injured or dead. Continue reading “When Coyotes Danced”