Animal Tails: Scotland to Prague

There have been some animals with fascinating stories that I encountered.  Many tend to be fall roughly into some combination of good, sad or ugly. 


Greyfriars Bobby is a Scottish legend in Edinburgh.  He is the little dog whose policeman master, John Gray, passed away. They had been inseparable, with Bobby, as a small dog, on duty walking the beat much like a big German Shepard would have.  Bobby attended the funeral… and then never left.  He sat by the grave for the rest of his life, which was over ten years..  The people in Edinburgh noticed this of course and they made sure to take good care of him at during his vigil.  There are still flowers to this day.

Greyfriars Bobby

Greyfriars Bobby

Bobby has a statue, grave and seemingly a host of drinking establishments named after him.  He is understandably a very touching example of loyalty.


Gaston was a sea lion in the Prague zoo.  The city suffered extensive flooding in 2002 and the zoo was hit.   The water-friendly animals were the lowest priority, as could be expected, and their enclosure became part of the river.  They stayed put until carnage and upheaval scared and drove them to uncharted water.  Three of the four were found nearby and rescued but Gaston was on a mission.  He was spotted some three hundred kilometers up the river near Dresden, Germany.  The rescue attempts were ongoing but he was determined to make it up the Vltava river.  Eventually, after many days, Gaston was captured.  He died of infection and exhaustion soon after on the ride home.  Apparently there is now a Czech children’s book called Swim, Gaston, Swim! that has made it into the curriculum.    Gaston was a an explorer who persevered and it’s sad that he didn’t make it.

Gaston the Sea LionGaston’s statue.  Photo credit:

Finally, perhaps a tale less befitting of a Disney movie.  He is a rogue boar who terrorized Prague. He did little damage and hopefully was released back into the wild when he agreed to be netted.

Now, my crude categorization of good, sad and ugly would see this fall in as the ugly.Yet, I’ve seen this guy’s cousin up close and personal at the Museum of Natural History in London.  He’s more ruggedly handsome than ugly.

The boar of doom

There was a guest post in the Globe and Mail a week ago about animal suffering that hopefully will get some traction due to having a celebrity author.  Making headway in the treatment of animals in the food chain is, I think, inevitable.  The progression in human-to-human violence is amazing and so apparent as I spend time in Europe.  This is course is well illustrated in Steven Pinker’s talk the surprising decline in violence that I’ll chat about shortly.  It’s a slow progression but sentient beings of course must, not should, be afforded a decent and comfortable life.

The economics of this are the issue I think.  Unrelated is that Prague has some narrow streets – perhaps they could start an event like the running of the boards for charity.  It’s a big draw in Pamplona despite a larger number of gorings this year.

Unrelated, and certainly random, is the universality of how humanity celebrates what we perceive as virtue in animals.  What’s interesting is that animals have the same pressures for survival that we do.  They need all the basics, per Maslow’s Hierarchy, and many higher-level needs too, whether we acknowledge this or not.



 I think that showing great benevolence and virtue when needs are not met will be a challenge for all people/animals.   Resources are limited and we’re evolved to compete.   So an animal forsaking a more basic need (shelter) for a higher order one (loyalty) is sure impressive.  Impressive, but perhaps the understandable exception to the rule.  What may change these rules?  More resources.


It’s interesting and facetious.  Neil deGrasse Tyson  He makes the good observation that conflict is about resources.  Plainly, this is going to be a while before we transcend this.  But, click the link and Business Insider will great you with the lurid headline of “NEIL DEGRASSE TYSON: Of Course Humans Will Kill Each Other In Space.”

Neil degruasse Tyson

Yet, I must attach the screenshot.  I think Neil is a passionate and eloquent advocate for science, but I really love his background choice.  Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.  I’ve been hitting a lot of museums but it seemed that Amsterdam’s Van Gogh museum was a must.  I’d had university book store copies of this piece on my wall for the better part of a decade. To my surprise… it was not part of the otherwise excellent 4-story facility.  Starry Night lives at the The Museum of Modern Art in NYC — one that had been on my list but lost out to Seinfeld and Wall Street.


Vindication lived in Amsterdam.  One of my favorites was Viccnet’s take on some boots that he wore out on purpose.  I have no idea how this seemed like a good idea for business casual, but I was fond of a similar pair in the first year of the MBA program.  Well, more precisely, I fond of ditching them in class to go socks-only. 


VVG's boots

This pattern stayed true in Brussels.  I was trudging back to a fairly warm hostel.  I had found an English-language Economist and a beer at a great corner store.  I walked and walked through a park before really wondering why it was I was going back to the hostel at all.  It made for a great afternoon.  As in Belgian parks, as in Finance classes — no shoes won the day.


01 shoes


Anyway, back to discussing matter at hand: progress and resources.  Food for thought is if/when we have progressed to have enough resources to go around.  Energy is the lynchpin and there is interesting developments on the horizon.  This isn’t the best video of Ray Kurzwil, but he invokes arguments similar to his take surrounding exponential progress.


With progress being exponential we may be inside of a generation to seeing some awfully intelligent artificial intelligence.  Kurveil makes the interesting point that the exponential nature of progress can account for amazing things.  Wiki has linked some of his charts

My upcoming time in Austria, tomorrow, is limited.  This unfortunately precludes practicing my Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator voice.  It takes a knack — Rahul does a heck of a job with it.  Basic concepts embedded in Terminator notions tend to be the concern with about intelligent machines.  Sci-fi writer Issac Asminov has his famous three laws of robotics.  Generalizing that nasty robots ought not to exterminate us is a basic summary.


I don’t think progress will meet this grim end.  Guidelines for AI will be specific.  Very specific — with overarching principles.  Details are tough to avoid: The Economist notes that the US Tax Code is a horrid 72,000+ pages long


Looping back to the start, I was thinking that admirable traits that we see in animals could influence future artificial intelligence.  Loyalty beyond the call of duty.  Perserverence no matter the cost.  Letting a boar-wresting Czech cop off easy.  Humanity unanimously such virtues.  It is uncommon, as can be expected – we all are hardwired to compete for resources.  This generally runs contrary to the virtues that we would otherwise be show.  


Yet, with artificial intelligence perhaps the opportunity exists to undo millions of years of Darwinian survival and add a ethical counterpart to humanity. 


Progress will not occur in a vacuum.  Current developments, such as smart robot vacuum cleaners, are great.  Yet, in the future I’d rather have a robot vacuum that can also tackle a pickpocket, rescue dogs trapped in hot cars and generally try and make cruelty a concept that is generally obsolete.

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