Matthew Bettelheim

Matthew Bettelheim is a wildlife biologist, science writer, and natural historian in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Game Review: Evolution

evolution_box_rt_2nd_edition_1024x1024Evolution (2nd Edition), by North Star Games (http://www.northstargames.com), 2015 [ages 12+, 30-minute play time, 2-6 players] $54.99.

In the game of life, survival is key. And that’s not so different in the board game Evolution, the breakthrough Kickstarter success story in its second edition by North Star Games whose very DNA mimics our dog-eat-dog world.

As the game begins, each player takes charge of a new “species.” During each player’s turn, the species in their hand can be enhanced by playing or trading trait cards. Trading in a card to level up a species’ body size or population size makes them harder to be attacked or driven to extinction, but doing so comes with the added burden of needing additional food to sustain them. Playing a trait card confers that species with unique abilities that help them collect extra food (e.g. “scavenger,” “long neck,” and “fat tissue”), fend off attacks (e.g. “climbing,” “hard shell,” and “warning call”),  or attack other species (e.g. “ambush,” “pack hunting,” or “carnivore”). Each species is limited to three unique traits, but these cards can be swapped throughout the game to “evolve” in response to the competition as new species come and go.

In lieu of leveling-up the prehensile proto-llama or feathered faux-ferret you’ve created, each player also has the option of instead adding a new species to their hand to create various amalgams. And with every new species spawned (and their numbers grow), the food begins to dwindle as the watering hole gets that much more crowded. Because Evolution‘s game mechanics allow enough plasticity to repeatedly reboot or rebrand any number of species combos, the game play continues to change as different species thrive or fade to extinction. With a swap of one trait card you can transmorgify your seed-gathering arboreal pocket mouse into a blood-thirsty carnivorous arboreal pocket mouse who, because strength lies in numbers, may be the downfall of an opponent’s saber-toothed salamander.

Especially for those with a science background, it’s hard not to try and imagine real life examples of the pseudo-species you’ve created in the petri dish that is your “hand” of species. Whatever hand you’re dealt, you had better hope it has teeth because when the food runs out, no one is safe.  As players fight to evolve or eliminate the competition, they may have to cannibalize their own creations to become the last pygmy manatee standing in a playing field truly red in tooth and claw (or, if you play your cards right, hoof and trunk).

Evolution’s game play is so carefully crafted and expertly executed, it appears to have been lifted straight from the pages of Biology 101. Inhabiting a unique niche among board games as both tool and toy, Evolution has no equal. Imagine a lesson plan so addictive and so illustrative, the act of learning – a journey of enlightenment about species interactions, competition, and survival – unfolds unconsciously. One can only imagine the trajectory scientific progress might have taken if the Beagle’s own Charles Darwin and Captain FitzRoy had sat down to tinker with this board game in the captain’s parlor during their long voyage at sea instead of frolicking after a few fickle finches.

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#mcd (Must Come Down) – A Citizen Science Project

mcd_ballonHelium balloons pose a unique threat to wildlife and the environment. When released outdoors, the balloons eventually shatter and/or fall to earth, where the latex fragments are often mistaken by wildlife as food, or individuals become entangled in the strings or latex, leading to stress, injury, malnutrition, and sometimes death. What differentiates balloons from other garbage and debris, however, is that the very nature of their being – that they are filled with a gas lighter than air – not only allows them to stay airborne and disperse farther distances from their point of origin than might otherwise occur with a discarded straw or plastic bag, but also disperse to higher altitudes where latex balloons undergo an explosive “brittle fracture” that results in both large and micro material that fall to earth, making it difficult to track their fate.

As one who spends time outdoors, the number of spent balloons I’ve found littering my favorite open spaces has left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. If you throw a plastic grocery bag on the ground, there are few among us who would dispute that the very act constitutes littering. So what makes balloons any different?

2-iphone-rightTo better understand – and to help educate the public – about the fate of air- or helium-filled latex and mylar (foil) balloons released outdoors, and the inevitable fact that when balloons are released, singly or en masse, they must eventually fall to earth, I have started #mcd (Must Come Down; https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com), a citizen science project whose purpose is to collect geotagged data on balloon trash through the app Litterati. Here’s how it works:

Once you’ve downloaded the Litterati app (visit: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/litterati/id982782776), you can start logging your observations in three easy steps:

(1) Track it down!

Whether you are in an urban or open space (the woods, the beach, the desert, the city, or your backyard), keep an eye out for latex and mylar balloons.

(2) Tag it up!

Take a photo of any balloon you encounter with the Litterati app and tag it with #mcd, as well as #latexballoon or #mylarballoon.

(3) Pack it out!

Properly dispose of any garbage you collect.

As you collect and record balloon trash, you will be contributing to a growing open source database that will help future policy makers begin a meaningful dialogue about the consequences of balloon releases based on hard facts.

img_7737Although the balloon industry maintains that latex balloons are made out of natural latex and are, thus, biodegradable, it can still take 8-10 weeks when exposed to air and more than 5 months when submerged in water before a latex balloon degrades and breaks down. That leaves plenty of time for wildlife to ingest them.

Why do wildlife mistake balloons for food? On land and in water, balloon remains can resemble common prey or food types, like flower petals, fruit, or jellyfish. If biomimicry is the intentional design and production of materials and systems modeled on the natural environment, when inadvertent this process could be thought of as “apatobiomimicry”:

a·pa·to·bi·o·mim·ic·ry

/əˈpatōˈbīōˈmiməkrē/

noun

The inadvertent and deceptive resemblance of anthropomorphic materials, structures, and systems to biological entities and processes.

{from the Greek words apatē (ἀπάτη)/apatēlos (ἀπατηλός) meaning “deception”/”deceptive”, βίος (bios), life, and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation, from μιμεῖσθαι (mīmeisthai), to imitate, from μῖμος (mimos), actor.}

When balloons enter the natural environment, they become apatobiomimics: anthropomorphic materials that inadvertently and deceptively resemble biological entities or process. Among the species that are vulnerable to this bait and switch are marine birds and mammals, big horn sheep, and sea turtles and desert tortoises, many of which are threatened or endangered species. It’s true that what goes up, must come down – but when balloons fall to earth, the consequences can be fatal.

If you are interested in learning more about the #mcd project or how balloons impact the environment and wildlife, visit: https://balloonsmcd.wordpress.com/.

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Vintage Views: California

Bay-Bridge-1934-Standard-Oil-Bulletin_FINALSometimes majesty is found in the architecture of an environment, like the bridges that span the San Francisco Bay. Perhaps the most emblematic of those bridges are the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. Both of these architectural feats were constructed in the 1930’s and, although the eastern span of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge has since been replaced after sections were damaged during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Golden Gate still stands intact today. The Golden Gate Bridge, between the City of San Francisco and Marin County, was begun on January 5, 1933 and opened on May 27, 1937. The San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge (known locally as the Bay Bridge), between the City of San Francisco and Oakland and anchored in the middle by Yerba Buena Island, was begun in 1933 and opened on November 12, 1936. Before the bridges were built, residents crossed the bay via an Air Ferry (of Air Ferries, Ltd.), amphibious air crafts that bridged the San Francisco Bay between terminals in San Francisco and Oakland. Coming in under 7 minutes from shore to shore, such flights were considered to be the most frequent and shortest air service in the world. The air ferries would eventually become obsolete with the construction of the Bay Bridge in 1936.

To celebrate these sister bridges, I have added several additional vintage images of California accumulated in association with the Vintage Views: Mount Diablo project I’ve undertaken with my wife (see Sarah Anne Photography). One by one, I have been carefully digitizing these assorted California ephemera to immortalize them on a more permanent medium.

Now, through the (bio)accumulation Etsy storefront, you can own your own Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge, and Yerba Buena Island cover art, as well as other vintage views of California, as 12X18 inch wall art mounted on either Styrene suitable for matting and framing or infused directly into a sheet of aluminum metal to capture a sense of modern minimalism.

 

Metal Print
Metal prints are presented as a stand-alone image infused (printed) directly into a sheet of aluminum, providing a luminescent quality. The finished metal print includes a float-mount hanger affixed to the back of the image, floating the print ½ inch off the wall.
Price: $100

Styrene Mount Print
Styrene prints are mounted on white 2mm warp-resistant Styrene known for durability and strength. Styrene prints are ready to be matted and framed, or can be displayed on an easel.
Price: $45

To see all of the vintage wall art available to date, visit: https://www.etsy.com/shop/bioaccumulation

 

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Vintage Views: Marvelous Mount Diablo Sticker

Sticker_proof

The Marvelous Mount Diablo vintage 1930s woodcut engraving of the San Francisco Bay Area’s iconic Mount Diablo is unquestionably one of the more timeless images I’ve accumulated in association with the Vintage Views: Mount Diablo project my wife and I have undertaken these past few years. The simplicity of the image paired with its bold presentation – the mountain itself dwarfing the cloud-lit sky and bucolic roadway – has encouraged me to explore other ways to share this striking vision of the mountain.

At last I’m excited to share that this image is now available as an affordable vinyl sticker suitable to adhere to your bumper or car window, reusable water bottle, snowboard, skateboard, or bicycle… At $5 per sticker, your options are limitless!

https://www.etsy.com/listing/398756093/marvelous-mount-diablo-california

These 3.25″ x 5″ stickers are printed on premium vinyl with a permanent adhesive and are coated with a protective laminate that makes them durable and resistant to fading, scratching, tearing, and water. They are designed for outdoor use, and can withstand exposure to wind, rain, and sunlight, and can be run safely through a dishwasher.

And if you like this image enough, remember that it is also available as wall art as either a Styrene mount print or a metal print (see Etsy listings).

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App Review: Condor Country

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When I first saw the advertisement announcing the upcoming release of Condor Country – a game packaged as an app for public consumption about wildlife conservation – I was understandably hooked. As a wildlife biologist by day, why wouldn’t I want to play a game featuring myself struggling to help the infamous California condor recover from extinction? Yes, please, take my money.

But there was no need – the app was a free download – so download it I did and rolled up my sleeves in preparation for the hard work ahead saving the world. Secretly, as I waited for the game to launch, I hoped against all hopes that it wouldn’t be *too* much like real life. I mean, who wants to play a game where you sit behind a desk and file paperwork and write reports as penance for those few exceptional field days (and some more mediocre ones) each year; let’s be honest, not every day in the life of a wildlife biologist is Planet Earth-worthy. (That doesn’t keep us from dreaming, though.) Little did I know…

As the game kicked off, I found myself with four condors that had reached adulthood and were ready to be released. The walk-thru fasttracked you through tagging ($200) and releasing each bird into the wilds of the Grand Canyon. But four birds do not a healthy population make. So my next stop was the captive flight pen, where I paired and mated ($200+) two captive adults in the hopes of an egg to hatch out. Like any captive breeding program, these things cost money. Radar units, captive pens, incubators, food, and – if there’s any money left – wages for the poor biologists doing all that dirty work (that, let’s be honest, would doubtless be donating their time anyway if the funding didn’t come through). Never fear, the public loves a spectacle – I could fundraise by turning on my radar unit to track the whereabouts of each tagged bird I had just released. For every bird I clicked on during the 15 seconds my radar unit worked (a little too close to home?), I raised $200 from eager funders. And I would need that cash since, by the end of the walk-thru, I was as good as broke.

It was at this point, too, that the game devolved from a learning tool carefully packaged as a game into a marathon of suffering through in-app ads to reset the 15-minute recharge on the radar unit, which is the ATM machine that greases the palms of this entire game. The more birds there were to track, the more money I could earn. But to raise more birds, I’d need to keep those incubators purring. And there’s a cost behind every egg I incubate ($200+) and tag ($200). And so to earn that cash, I’d have to keep tracking birds. See the vicious cycle? Knowing that the fate of a species rests in my capable hands meant I’d be watching plenty of ads to keep the radar unit’s batteries charged.

Extinction?!? Not on my watch, I reasoned as I settled in to watch an ad or too. But I soon realized that the only thing shorter than my patience during the 15 minutes it took to recharge the radar unit was the 15 seconds of radar run-time the “telemetry mini-game” allowed me to clumsily drag-scroll through the wilderness looking for – and then clicking on – constantly moving birds. Keeping the radar churning 24-7 to activate the 15-second mini-game and keep the funds rolling in meant binge-watching ads like back-to-back episodes of Battlestar Galactica. Except one of those experiences is fun.

In too many unfortunate ways, the game mechanics are not unlike real life – beggering yourself to keep your study going and keep enough public interest that the checks roll in. Except my guess is that the original intent of the game was to highlight the titillating conservation aspect of wildlife biology (“Track a bird!” “Hatch a baby condor!”), not the drudgery of fundraising and administrative work that goes on behind the scenes.

Although the press release offers that “Players are also able to earn special golden feathers to speed up game play by opting to learn more about condor conservation,” the only way I could find to earn such golden feathers was to watch more commercials about diabetes or online casino sims (“Few Feathers” [=10] per ad watched) or to purchase these gilded quills in the game’s “shop” at standard in-app purchase prices (=highway robbery). Granted, the press release also assures that proceeds from the optional in-game purchases will be used to support the Santa Barbara Zoo’s ongoing conservation and education programs, but I’d rather support the zoo by paying for the app outright than getting nickel-and-dimed on gold coins or, as the case may be, horse feathers.

Unfortunately, my suffering didn’t end there. It was only a matter of time before my funding had run dry and I couldn’t respawn an ad to recharge the radar if my life (or a condor’s) depended on it – a connection error or something, the not-so-helpful biologist explained. Now I had to sit out the 15 minute clock until my radar unit recharged. Without something better to do, I admit it was only a matter of seconds before I quit out of the game to try a new app I had also just downloaded that allowed me to trade in my biologist’s boots to become instead Ookujira, a sperm whale-like cetacean spy-hopping from rooftop-to-rooftop crushing alien ships on a “giant whale rampage” and having decidedly more fun while my batteries recharged.

In time, the connection error righted itself and the alien attack had been thwarted, so I left the radioactive waters of Ookujira-ravished Japan to rush through another bender of ads about Fantasy Football, credit scores, more Las Vegas slots, and Vaseline. As the funds rolled in once again, I nursed my captive breeding program along, fledging chicks one ad binge-fest at a time. But another glitch soon arose. For whatever reason, I had one hatchling that I couldn’t fledge no matter where I tapped plus two eggs in my incubator ready to hatch, but – according to the prompt that popped up every time I clicked on the well-done eggs – there were no open nest boxes (I had to unlock one or wait until one was finished) even though my captive pen – the one I had just expanded at the cost of several thousand ad-earned dollars (or golden feathers – by this point, who was keeping track – I had whored myself to earn either one) – appeared to have two move-in ready nest boxes, one apiece. 

I had just been flock-blocked.

And just like that, I had the scary realization how fragile such recovery programs really are and how precarious the plight of the California condor might be if the funding ever dried up, and not just in the game I was playing. Except I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the sobering message the designers had hoped to instill when they sat down at the drawing board.

Looking back now over what I’ve just panned penned, I can hear my mother reminding me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Well, if that was the case, no one would bother writing reviews. But there are good things about Condor Country that give me hope. True, the coding may still be buggy (the text in the “Learn More About Condors” section is a jumbled mess, and the swipe controls are all janky between the captive flight pen [swipe right, move right] and outdoors [swipe right, move left]), but the graphics and soundtrack are top-notch. The game’s blend of realism and cartoony art make the gameplay easy on the eyes and appealing to children and adults, and the condors themselves are animated with enough life-like gestures to make them pop off the screen as they flap, preen, and primp.

Is there a way around the down time and in-app purchases? I certainly think so. Imagine that instead of watching advertisements, players could take an active role in driving home the conservation theme by patrolling the landscape as a ranger (while the various timers counted down in the background) in search of outdoor recreationists. If, say, a hunter appeared in the woods, by clicking on them the player would initiate one of several canned-but-not-too-preachy dialogue boxes where the ranger educated the hunter about the secondary consequences lead bullets have on wildlife (lead poisoning). For every ten hunters you talk to, one of them becomes a benefactor and donates $1,000 to the cause. Likewise, if you encountered a camper or backcountry hiker tossing trash on the ground, clicking on the garbage and then on the litterbug would prompt the the warden to talk to them about keeping our open spaces clean. For every five recreationalists you talk to, one of them donates $300 to the cause. It’s not sexy, but nor are ads about diabetes.

From what I’ve read, I would eventually have unlocked other mini games if only I had stuck it out, like being able to collect microtrash to keep the preserve clean. But I didn’t. I quit, extinction be damned. I had reached my ad tolerance threshold. After being violated by Madison Avenue one too many times,  I had a sudden need for some Vaseline – and, once again, Japan needed saving. 

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