Questions about
Dwindle: a Tapir’s Tale

Read Dwindle: a Tapir’s Tale
(reading time: about 20 minutes)

SPOILER WARNING — FAQ answers may contain information that is best read after you’ve read the story.

World Tapir Day logo
Is there really a World Tapir Day?

Of course there is!

World Tapir Day exists to raise awareness about tapirs. (It’s got nothing at all to do with Beholder, and I’m not part of World Tapir Day).

The story of Dwindle is all about a tapir, and specifically that woolly mountain tapirs are facing extinction. It’s impossible to do any research about tapirs for a project like this without finding out about World Tapir Day — so it was inevitable that I discovered World Tapir Day early on, and that Dwindle: A Tapir’s Tale should be released on 27th April (2017). I’m happy to generate as much attention for their cause as possible with Dwindle.

On Twitter, the World Tapir Day team tweet tapir news throughout the year, including births in captivity around the world, reports from researchers in the field, and anything tapir-related that’s going on (including, for example, this Dwindle project).

Why should I care about tapirs?

As the World Tapir Day website puts it:

All tapirs are endangered species.
Saving tapirs helps to save the rainforest.
Saving rainforests helps to save the planet and prevent climate change.

The fact is that tapirs are not like those rare newts that only live in three ponds in the whole world, or ludicrous pandas that don’t want to have sex. Tapirs are big mammals — in fact, the biggest indigenous animals in South America. They have been minding their own peaceful business on this planet for a very long time. They’re not a threat to humans (they may be friendly in captivity, but they’re shy and timid in the wild), they don’t prey on other animals (because they are herbivores), and they don’t have any obscure symbiotic dependency on any other species. They simply get on with being tapirs, and in so doing are part of the ecosystem (primarily as large seed distributors).

Until industrialised human society comes along. Then it all starts going wrong.

Therefore the state of the tapir population is, quite simply, a clear indication of the health of the rainforests they live in. As the forests are affected by human activity — deforestation for plantations, encroachment for human habitation, or even bifurcation by roads — the tapir population, ahem, dwindles.

So really you don’t have to care about tapirs per se: but you do need to care about the planet you’re living on, and what’s happening to it. And the world’s tapir population is a good indication of how that’s working out for everyone, including you.

Furthermore, loads of people don’t even know what a tapir is. Those who think they do often don’t realise how big they are, and even fewer appreciate how perilous their situation is (especially that of the woolly mountain tapir). The more everyone knows about the natural world, the more likely people are to care about it.

Where can I find out more about tapirs?

The IUCN/SSC-affiliated Tapir Specialist Group is a global group of biologists, zoo professionals, researchers and advocates dedicated to conserving tapirs and their habitat.

Of course, the World Tapir Day website is a good jumping-off place too.

The Wildlife Conservation Network recently posted a short article on woolly mountain tapirs, but if you prefer your data more tabulated, see the IUCN Red List’s data on the mountain tapir.

If you just want to be persuaded emotionally, try following @babytapirs on Twitter.

“Woolly mountain tapirs”? Or just “mountain tapirs”?

The common name for Tapirus pinchaque is “mountain tapir”. But it’s also the one tapir species with shaggy fur, so it’s sometimes called the “woolly tapir”.

The “mountain” part is important because it distinguishes it from the other tapirs, but the “woolly” aspect is part of its charm. So I always say woolly mountain tapir because it covers both bases, and I think it sounds funny and cute. These are animals that need all the support they can get and if that means giving them the best name, that’s what I’ll do.

Also, “woolly” is the British English spelling; American English prefers “wooly”. I stick with woolly and honestly with the fate of the species hanging by a thread I don’t think anyone needs to get too bogged down arguing about the spelling.

What’s going on with the pictures doing that thing?

SPOILER WARNING — best to read this after the story.

The plan with Dwindle was always to tell it in this fashion: the pictures get smaller as it goes on. Perhaps originally you were expecting to look at the illustrations and click on them to get the speech bubbles. After a while that becomes impractical... but it turns out that’s OK because actually all the pictures are of the same thing. All of them. I know, because I had to draw them all.

(The addition of the “autoplay” feature is a kindness to the user that was added later in the development of the project; it makes the clicking or tapping less tedious, but it does spoil this aspect a little by excusing the reader from interacting with the illustration so much).

The whole point is that Dwindle is in that enclosure. It is the inevitable consequence of being in captivity. Although it would be a better story, he’s not getting out. He’s not going to be doing anything. Except the one thing that’s going to happen, and that, with reader-hindsight, is perhaps made clear from the outset.

So Dwindle is another foray into the place Beholder went with the previous online storytelling project, La Séptima Bala. That is, I’m interested in using the interface to engender, albeit in a tiny way, a feeling relating to the story. In Bala, there is “user training” which is subverted to create a single, hopefully startling, sensation in the reader. In Dwindle the inevitable situation at the end is an anticipated but nonetheless challenging blank screen. You’ve even had a numeric countdown on the way. But still I believe most people make one or two tentative clicks on that dead space.

Those little, futile clicks (you know they’re not going to do anything) are part of the storytelling. That is how this ends: inevitable, predictable, and disappointing. (Of course there’s a secondary risk, to me, that deliberately creating a project that engenders disappointment in readers is not the way to greatness; but I’d already come to terms with that when I took on this project. I’m confident some people will appreciate what’s going on here though).

I have some contrition over misleading with the term “tale” in the subtitle for this project too, because (due to the aforementioned problem of captivity), it’s more of a dialogue or a journal than a story. But that expectation and realisation is part of the point that’s being made here. Extinction is not really very adventurous; like death, it is terribly mundane.

So: it’s deliberately subtle (it’s OK if some readers just observe that the pictures are getting smaller, or if it really fails to work for them), but I’m using the interface as part of the way I’m effecting the sensation in the reader. You can’t do this so readily on paper, which is the point of the Beholder online storytelling projects.

What does extinction feel like? What big thing happens at the end? There is no crescendo; there’s just a void and something that was there isn’t. That really is all.

Can crows really talk to tapirs?

SPOILER WARNING — best to read this after the story.

Maybe they can, maybe they can’t. But if tapirs and crows can’t really talk to each other, that would suggest the conversations are just going on in the tapir’s head and the crow(s) are just doing what crows normally do, flying around and poking at stuff.

But if that were the case I doubt I would have bothered to draw crows in the illustrations, right?

(Also: 6-year old Mim told me it’s silly for a tapir to ask the crow to read his sign, because crows can’t read either... “except crow writing”).

Some history: Dwindle is 26 years old

SPOILER WARNING — best to read this after the story.

Dwindle: a Tapir’s Tale was released online on World Tapir Day 2017.

I first pitched a story about Dwindle, the last woolly mountain tapir, to New Scientist magazine sometime in 1991. The magazine was inviting pitches for a regular cartoon to follow David Austin’s Albert the Experimental Rat, which was ending that year after having run over 170 strips.

Obviously, my pitch was rejected.

These are a couple of early character sketches that were submitted as part of that pitch:

So over 25 years later, in 2017, I’ve brought Dwindle into the world digitally. The story and the character has changed somewhat since those early sketches were made.

In the original story, Dwindle builds the compressor, and goes on expeditions to collect increasingly obscure types of knowledge. It was the Particle of Knowledge Experiment (P.O.K.E.) and the knowledge in the compressor manifests sentience, and appears on the compressor’s screen in the form of a wireframe pig. The pig then tells Dwindle about what kinds of knowledge are still missing from that which has been gathered, and sends him out on further expeditions accordingly. In that version of the story, Dwindle succeeds in isolating the knowledge atom, and that is the start of his problems. Generals want to put it in their smart bombs; Big Pharma wants to include it in detergents for intelligent laundry.

In fact I even have a Java applet somewhere, which Pete wrote for me, that spins a green wireframe pig round on the P.O.K.E. screen. Never went live, obviously. (It also explains why, for over 20 years on that page, Pete has been claiming that “Can I have the pig rotating clockwise rather than anti-clockwise?” is the kind of nonsense he had to put up with from me).

Such is the nature of creative projects; things change. Commissions and funding make a big difference to what gets done.

As you may have seen, the story that finally gets told about Dwindle the woolly mountain tapir is considerably less fantastic. Extinction for his species is closer than ever (there were some estimates, back when those sketches were done, that mountain tapirs would already be extinct in the wild by 2014). So he doesn’t build a compressor. He doesn’t leave his enclosure. And he does not even use an office chair, because that would be ludicrous.

Life expectancy for tapirs in captivity is around 25–30 years. So if Dwindle the story were really a tapir, by the time I finally released him, he would be dying.

How did the website remember how far I got last time?

If you don’t get all the way though Dwindle, and then come back, the site will try to offer you a “jump” back to the start of the last chapter you were on. This isn’t using a cookie: instead it uses HTML5’s localStorage.

Unlike a cookie, localStorage is local to your machine; it never leaves your browser. The Beholder server logs activity but doesn’t track specific visitors to Dwindle.

About the translations

Dwindle went live on World Tapir Day 2017 in English. Thanks to the kindness of some tapir-loving translators, in 2018 we were able to add versions of the story in other languages too:

Dwindle: un cuento del danta
Spanish translation by René Carbonell
(extra eyes: J.R.Cordoba-Pachon and Octopus In Vitro).

Dwindle, un conte de tapir
French translation by Benoît Ducray
(extra eyes: Sylvain Boucher)

Dwindle, a tapír története
Hungarian translation by Zita Eördögh

Another translation coming very soon! (Just checking some final details.)

If your native language isn’t represented here and you fancy providing a translation (and I mention this because very kindly some people do offer!), please do not start anything until you’ve made contact with me about it. This is because: Translating Dwindle is a big job; furthermore it’s genuinely possible that a translation in your language may already be underway; experience has shown there are some underlying aspects to the story that need some discussion/clarification; there are some behind-the-scenes files that the translator needs to do this properly (because there’s a build process behind these pages); and translations will usually be run past another native-speaker and may be changed at that stage... Finally, the current translations have been generously provided by pro-tapir volunteers, which means I didn’t pay for them. All that should discourage you unless you’re really, really determined to volunteer to work with me on getting a good translation.

How did you make this? (colophon & credits)

Thanks to the lovely people at World Tapir Day for some fact-checking and being enthusiastic about the project.

Many errors (repetition, typos, bad grammar, repetition, or simply writing like a chump) — especially in the optional “tapir notes” — were cauterised before anyone got to see them by Abi’s laserbeam proofreading skills.

The translations of Dwindle exist because of the kindness of volunteers: see the section about translations above.

Dwindle uses the same tech as previous Beholder project La Séptima Bala, which is jQuery and GreenSock (GSAP) for animation (this time manipulating SVG graphics including, crucially, crow-shaped clip-paths).

The illustrations are drawn on paper and scanned; the colour is watercolour on heavy paper, but applied digitally. I use the cheapest of Wacom tablets. I spent a lot more time on digital compositing than I had anticipated, considering all the artwork started on paper.

I used an old version of Sketchup to mock up, very coarsely, Dwindle’s enclosure at the beginning of the project, and printed the wireframes out. This was an experiment for me. Normally I wouldn’t do this (I did do technical drawing — you know, with pencils and set-squares and everything — at school, all those years ago), but unusually for Dwindle I was drawing the same environment from several different but similar angles, so wanted to be confident I was going to be consistent enough not to distract the reader.

I still use a very old version of Photoshop (in which I use the shortcut keys a lot to switch tools/set opacity/bounce in and out of quick-mask). I use OmniGraffle and its oddly frustrating interface for SVGs, but give a shout-out — because it’s free and handy — to SVG-edit, which was good enough for making all the icons.

The percentage is displayed using Hubspot’s odometer, which is made available under MIT License.

The Beholder site uses Zurb’s Foundation (although quite an old one, I know). Dwindle explicitly uses Foundation’s modal dialogue boxes for the help and settings.

The whole thing gets run through Beholder’s old and cranky custom Perl build script (which amongst other things strips out JavaScript comments and debugging functions, and saves literally bytes of information by burning off digits beyond the second decimal place inside SVG coordinates).

Beholder continues to run on a non-commercial Linux server (without advertising) since 1995, thanks to sysadmin Mark (and JBB’s fat pipe). Just prior to launch they coped with moving the domain a tiny bit, adding HTTPS throughout, and having the UPS catch fire.