Ralph Hitchcock: A Luddite mourns a tree
To make you aware of a bias I may have — before you read this piece — I must confess that I am a Luddite who does not blindly accept the results of what emerges from modern computer technology.
This could be because the formative years of my professional career were before computers. I designed bridges using my own brain and actually had to write down the calculations with a pencil on paper.
My Luddite tendencies emerged again recently concerning a special tree. It was a magnificent blue Alta cedar at the top of Broad Street in downtown Nevada City. It was about 150 years old and very different than any other tree in the entire region.
Instead of growing a single trunk to a great height like most other conifers, about 6 feet up the 60-inch diameter trunk, several very large branches split off horizontally before turning upward. It was a spectacular tree.
The tree was special enough that an expert arborist was hired to evaluate it before the PG&E tree cutters were to cut it down. The arborist concluded that the tree had a “significant defect in the lower stem — very significant” and that this large tree had a chance of falling within a year.
Given the arborist’s findings, I accepted that the tree had to come down. However, after driving by a few days after it was removed, I could see no apparent defect or rot in the stump. Because an expert had done the evaluation, I presumed that the problem he had found must have been in the large branches which had been hauled away.
The following is what brought out my latent Luddite tendencies. After inspection of the felled and cut-up tree no serious defect was found, so it would not have fallen within a year. The arborist had used modern technology — sonic waves, which were then processed and interpreted by a computer program.
This expert could not say what went wrong with this sophisticated program to provide such a false result. He stated that “he is still investigating what caused the discrepancy, which could have come from anything that affects electronic devices or the transfer of sound through material.” Had this sophisticated technology given a true result, it is possible that ways could have been found to save the tree.
This magnificent tree, which had lived there for 150 years, was destroyed because modern technology was completely relied on, followed by the unquestioning acceptance of the output provided by that modern technology. We Luddites are very aware of the fallibility of AI and computer programs.
Ralph Hitchcock lives in Nevada City.
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