Only Natural

Nature, science, language, values, feral beliefs...

Entries for May 2023

                is not a forest
Street scene with a hint of "urban forest"?
May 29, 2023

  Can Machines Exhibit Artificial Anthropocentrism?

I've been thinking about politically useful euphemisms like "reforestation", and wondering how LLM based text generators might interact with this common distortion of language. And what about anthropocentrism? Since LLM text generators are trained on huge samples of human generated text, will their output also exhibit anthropocentrism? How might that work? Perhaps, like human anthropocentrism, to humanity's long-term detriment. As with social media, it seems likely that LLM text generators will get used by some actors to spread and amplify all sorts of socio-political biases, with varying levels of subtlety.

Flooding social discussion space with automatically produced biases would easily drown out attempts at rational analysis. The increase in "disinformation" (lies, falsehoods) spread by social media is clear evidence that enough holes in the boat make bailing unworkable; it has become too easy to overwhelm the time and energy needed for rational response. The extreme right has called this "flooding the zone" - rapidly creating so many lies that there cannot be enough time to carefully refute them all. This is in addition to all the other distractions like "who didn't wear something somewhere". Who with any decision-making power is asking whether social media has been positive or negative for society? And what should be done about it?

Maybe that seems like an insurmountable problem. We haven't even asked the forest industry to stop calling clearcuts "harvests". So-called "harvests" that are supposed to happen every 80-100 years - multiple human generations - in the future. Our choice of language matters far more than most people realize. Words like "efficiency", "productivity", "innovation", "creativity" and "deregulation" are routinely used in misleading ways to help further some agenda. This is sometimes called "spin", which is another euphemism when it really means witting or unwitting deception. It can be unwitting self-deception when people uncritically base their thoughts on misleading language, which is far too common.

Since "forest managers" have plans to convert a significant proportion of forests to plantations, when will they be called "plantation managers"? LLM text generators are unlikely to come up with such a suggestion - unless prodded by targeted prompts. As critics have pointed out, the programmed capacity to output acceptable combinations of words from a massive database is not intelligence, no matter how convincing that output may seem. It's unfortunate that machines have been programmed to mimic language in this way, because humans are already having a difficult time keeping track of what their use of language may be doing to themselves. And this may even mislead some people to think that humans, like these machines, have also just been programmed to output combinations of words selected from a massive database. Or maybe that misunderstanding is one cause of what we're now facing.

Real human intelligence might help save endangered species and old growth forests, or prevent wars and pandemics, or lessen the impact of extreme weather and global heating from climate change. LLM text generators won't do that. While they might make a relative few people a lot of money in the near future, they could easily make many global problems worse.

This is
                  not a forest
What future climate awaits all these seedlings?
May 22, 2023

Anthropocentrism Again

The photo above shows a lot of tree seedlings in a tree nursery. These seedlings are a major element in what is called "reforestation", where seedlings are planted in recently logged areas. Other elements might include seed gathering operations, transportation, plantation crews, and so on. Of course true forests include many other plant and animal species besides trees. That is just one reason why you cannot plant a forest. It seems like much more than a misnomer to call these activities "reforestation". The result of all the planting will be a plantation. In its relative uniformity a plantation will lack most of the qualities of a natural forest. It would take many human lifetimes for an un-managed plantation to gradually turn back into an actual forest with complex natural ecosystems. Of course, forest "managers" are not planning to let that happen.

The misleading term "reforestation" may seem more palatable than something crass like "timber cropping" or "fiber plantation", and could help put curious minds to sleep. "Reforestation" makes it sound like a forest is going to be replaced, right? Why bother to wonder whether an evenly-spaced, single-species block will be equivalent to a natural forest? It may even be suggested that it will be a better forest, with genetically improved seed stock promising faster growing, taller, disease resistant trees. More wood to cut. Maybe, assuming the climate stays the same...

It should go without saying that we cannot "improve" a forest. All our definitions for "good" are based necessarily on human experience and desires. Even at that, we very often misjudge what is "good" for ourselves in a human context. A "better" forest could only mean better for humans - more useful. It might be important to recognise this. So we're back to anthropocentrism.

Is anthropocentrism inevitable and unavoidable for humans? Maybe we could say that there is an innate component and a learned component. It is certainly possible to recognize when we are being particularly anthropocentric in our evaluation of and interaction with other species. If humans "use" other species wantonly, that could be considered more anthropocentric than "using" them conservatively, or even attempting to "preserve" them. Significantly different interactions - and thought processes - are possible regardless of whether or not anthropocentrism is "unavoidable". There is a vast difference between any self-oriented survival behaviours in humans and in other species. Yes, all species need to eat, but that's a little different than wanting to exploit natural resources to "put bread (and another flat screen TV) on the table".

How does anthropocentrism influence our thoughts and perceptions? If we don't know, we will have no idea whether it is any "good" for humans. Maybe we could start thinking about that by looking more closely at some of the euphemisms like "reforestation" that infest our discussions of "natural resources".

This is not a forest
Just another forest fragment
May 15, 2023

Not Seeing the Forest for the Ecosystem Services

I've returned to that forest fragment along the surging creek, wondering if I can use my language skills to not see the forest for the "ecosystem services" it supposedly provides. This time I'm moving around and not sitting on an uncomfortable rock. Maybe that will give me a different perspective.

I do appreciate the benefits of so-called "ecosystem services" - I'm just uncomfortable using those words thoughtlessly. I appreciate the clear water cascading down from the melting snow high up in the watershed. The cool air under the trees is certainly pleasant, in contrast to the hot sunshine on the road leading to this forest fragment. Berries and mushrooms for picking will appear in due course. Ah, but "for picking"? Or water "for drinking"? Is it really nature's purpose to lay on a services buffet for us? Is that why we should value nature - for what it could do for us?

One problem with carving up a whole natural area with words and attaching quasi-monetary values to the various bits is that our minds get used to seeing things in certain ways. We're used to trading bits and pieces too. The reason it's a forest fragment that I'm in, is because bits and pieces of the watershed have already been traded for profits by many independent individuals - without much thought for cumulative effects on the interconnections between all the "parts". The water and cool air are essential for the existence of many life forms beyond the humans that make use of those qualities of the forest.

In the real world, people are probably not going to stop thinking in terms of "natural resources". If you conceptualise "success" for a species just in terms of reproduction, humans are probably right up there with ants. Given the much-vaunted sophistication of the human mind, it is curious how we are prone to limiting our thoughts with misnomers. Looking around here in the trees, I now notice quite a few ants moving to and fro.

                is not a forest
Information n'est pas une forĂȘt
May 8, 2023

Information Might Not Be Knowledge

I'm sitting in a forest fragment along the banks of a creek surging with spring runoff. Somewhere nearby the long song of a Pacific Wren is clearly audible even over the din of the cascading water. If I didn't know how small the wren is, just judging by the volume of the song I'd be looking all around for a much larger bird. The song is intricate and pleasant, and free, but is not likely to be classified as an "ecosystem service".

The water surging down the creek has often been called an ecosystem service. And so have the trees that have been cut from the broader watershed and the tourist attractions of the lakes within that watershed. Here, perched on an angled boulder, I note that there are no really comfortable places to sit in sight. So, would that be a lack of ecosystem services there?

We are so immersed in our anthropocentric viewpoints that it is little wonder we have trouble thinking deeply about forests and trees - and all the rest of nature. Some people even insist that we cannot escape anthropocentrism. Setting aside the language of "ecosystem services", and even non-utilitarian anthropocentrisms, what can I see from my vantage point? Lots of trees and water, obviously. Lots of trees...or is it really "a lot"? How does the value judgement implicit in that little phrase, "a lot", channel our thought processes? Of course trees don't count, timber does. How about "a lot" of humans? What kind of an ecosystem service are those? And "a lot" of water might seem less than enough to a lot of humans wanting to use it.

The water is moving rapidly and the forest is changing slowly, so different time scales overlap here. I can't "see" the long progression of changes that brought the forest here after the retreat of the glaciers 10.000 years ago, but I can imagine some bits of it. The ground and vegetation nearby is quite moist at this time of year. Tough perennial bracket fungi that are attached to some of the dying tree trunks and scattered woody debris are slowly digesting decaying wood. I don't see any mushrooms, but I know that beneath the visible surface of the ground mycorrhizal fungi are interconnected with all the tree roots. I can't see the soil bacteria in their vast, uncountable numbers, but I know they are there as well. For that matter, I can't see the trees transpiring. I have gathered "information" that indicates all these things, but additional effort is necessary before I can say that I "know" about them.

What I can "see" depends on what I have learned and verified - what I "know". Without that knowledge I wouldn't know where and how to look. Contrary to "machine learning" tech industry assumptions, information is only one element in the process of acquiring knowledge. Information has to be evaluated and compared to other, prior knowledge and experience. Meaning isn't inherent in information alone, any more than it is inherent in individual words. Human interpretation provides meaning, depending on a complex mixture of knowledge, belief, and psychological and political factors. LLM text generators don't understand the words they have been programmed to generate, and the humans reading it would be the sole source of any meaning that the text might be said to have. Meaning can't mean anything to machines designed to select and output highly probable combinations of words in response to a prompt - regardless of how convincing those selections appear to some uninformed people. Meaning is dynamically negotiated during ongoing interactions among humans.

Are we starting to miss the forest for the trees here? Hopefully not. However much you may or may not know about forests, try sitting quietly in one for a while and notice as much as you can of your surroundings and your sensations. Imagine a machine perched awkwardly on an angled boulder near a surging creek. The machine couldn't even feel uncomfortable.

                  is not a forest
Ceci n'est pas une forĂȘt
May 1, 2023

A Bit of Bushwacking

Although the above image of leaves in a forest might mean many things, it should be obvious that viewing it is fundamentally different from actually being in a forest. What can be "known" about a forest from an image?

It should be obvious that, unlike machines, humans and other animals come with complex, living, organic bodies. The presence of microscopic flora and fauna means we can even say that humans embody ecosystems - and these ecosystems become part of human minds. The most complicated mobile robots humans have devised are not truly comparable. "Artificial Intelligence" and "Artificial Life" sure seem like curious oxymorons, and yet those terms are commonly uttered even by people who should or could know better.

A walk in a forest will vary with the season and weather conditions and the chosen path - it might even involve bushwacking. Sights and smells may mean something to each of us, may impress us in different ways - certainly not in exactly the same way. People with differing knowledge will notice different things. Some people might walk in a forest and not be impressed at all. They might be annoyed, even. They might think it seems boring or "untidy". That's life.

Even if a person doesn't know much about forest ecology, they can certainly enjoy the effects of the forest on their senses. They might find it calming, or mysterious, or refreshing in some way. Maybe the textures are aesthetically pleasing. The enjoyment is a response in addition to the sensory effects. That's knowledge they could not get from an image or text. That's also life.

To state the overlooked obvious, living humans change continuously over time, and so do trees and forests. Unless we notice new spring growth, or falling leaves, or a recently fallen tree, we might not notice the slow - by our standards - changes that forests experience. Continuous change is only one aspect of forests that an image or written description cannot really represent.

If you are fortunate enough to walk in a forest and hear the song of a Pacific Wren, it might bring a smile to your face. This wren is an unspectacular tiny brown bird with an amazing ability to project a surprisingly loud song that is out of all proportion to its size. The birds are often hard to spot, because their song seems to come from all directions. Not unlike your perceptions of the forest itself, if you stop long enough to contemplate it.