Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Squirrels - Animals or Set Decorations?

I drive a white car and there is a tree that overhangs my driveway. Because of these two facts I know which branch of the tree the birds like best and I know immediately when purple berry season comes in the Spring. The birds eat at our bird feeder, nest in my wife's birdhouses and drink from our fish pond. [That last bit is somewhat risky for them -- bullfrogs can and do catch and eat small birds.] Birds leave ample evidence of their activities. They are not just Disneyesque set decorations. I'm not so sure about the squirrels.

The squirrels also eat from the bird feeder. They eat tiny parts of pinecones and strew the rest all over the yard. When I let the dog out before I go to work in the morning there is usually a chubby squirrel on the picnic table chomping away on kibbles filched from the dog's bowl. Squirrels seem to spend all of their time eating (when they are not chasing other squirrels or jumping from tree to tree.) Chomp, chomp, chomp. Nibble, nibble, nibble. That's what squirrels do. They are eating machines.

Which leads me to my theory that thay are animatronic -- with all that eating you'd thing that people with white cars would know which branches the squirrels liked...

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


There is a spot along the Freeway north of Los Angeles where the road climbs into the hills on its way out of the San Fernando Valley. The spot is well up the hill, right before the road curves and the view of the valley is lost. If you pause there at just the right time of day at exactly the right time of year -- after the sun has set on an autumn evening but before full dark -- the view of the Freeway stretching away behind you is enthralling.

That time of day on weekdays the Freeway is jammed with thousands and thousands of cars -- people heading out of the city, done with work and heading for their homes in the hills. Later, when it is darker, the headlights will seem glaring, but at our exact moment of twilight they glow. The Freeway is a ribbon of light that winds across the softly fading landscape, merging in the distance with another road that leads off in a different direction.

From our vantage point you can't see the individual vehicles; they are just points of light. This distant view makes it easier to see the the traffic on the freeway as a whole -- as a single giant machine that snakes its way across the valley: thousands of tons of steel, rubber and glass; ten thousand engines producing fifteen million horsepower; ten thousand steering wheels in the hands of tired, distracted, fallable people; forty thousand brakes, not-so-recently serviced by guys with names embroidered on their blue shirts; tons of exhaust gasses dumped into the still air of the valley. It is dizzyingly insane, if you think about it. Thousands of people put themselves into this dystopian monster at least twice a day. Given all the things that can go wrong, it's a miracle that any of them get home alive.

And that's the thing, isn't it? People talk about the freeway, pointing out problems and demand that this or that be done. They collect statistics and are often quite angry about what they find. I'm sure they are right. Changes can and should be made, but still, they miss the most striking aspect of the freeway -- the ongoing miracle that it works at all.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Savant Idiots

Among those with the congitive disorder called Autism is an interesting subset called Autistic Savants. They are autistic people, often very low functioning, who have one random, very particular skill -- something they do as well as, if not better than, anyone else. In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman plays an autistic savant with a talent for mathematics. Hoffman's portrayal was fairly accurate, if a bit high-functioning -- childlike simplicity works better, cinematically, than staring and drooling.

Some real life autistic savants solve math problems, like the Rain Man, others can play a musical composition from memory after only one hearing; others do photo-realistic drawings from memory. Others have savant skills that are less impressive. They might be able to wad up a piece of paper and throw it in the trash can from across the room and never miss. Still others may have skills that we, in the outside world, just can't appreciate --there might be some special genius in the way they stare that we just don't get. That's the thing about autistic people: they have as many neurons as anyone else. Something's going on in there. Sometimes we can tell what it is -- sometimes not.

The term "Autistic Savant" is the currently "acceptable" replacement for the previous, and still more widely used term "Idiot Savant" from which I derive the title of this posting. If you are more familiar with the old form, please continue to use it and leave "Autistic Savant" to mental health professionals and the politically correct. As soon as a term becomes common usage -- as soon as the general public figures out what it means -- the process of looking for another term begins. Common usage pursues correctness through the lexicon, nipping at its heels. I think correctness needs a rest right now. So, I'll use "Idiot Savant" for the rest of this posting.

Which brings me --finally-- to my real topic: Savant Idiots. Savant Idiots are the people you see on TV, or read in magazines or newspapers, or hear on the radio, or at concerts -- people of real and varied accomplishments, polymaths who are effortlessly good at many things -- who manage to be the most appalling idiots at one particular thing: Politics.

About this time every four years I heave a great sigh of relief that I can once again turn on the TV or go to a film without having everyone I see exhibit their symptoms. Its not that I think public figures don't have a right to political opinions [although, the idea is not without appeal, come to think of it ] but just that political advice is not why I seek them out. I mean, I'm all for health care and I applaud people who keep themselves in good repair, but this doesn't mean that I want my tax accountant to pull up his shirt and show me his scar. That's not why I go to him and it would add nothing helpful to my opinion of him as a tax accountant.

For a more concrete example, consider Garrison Keillor. I like his radio show, The Prairie Home Companion, and I enjoy his sense of humor and his facility with words. He has a good singing voice, given the right song, and the good sense to know what he can sing and which songs should be left to someone else. He is a fine storyteller -- the stories he tells are sometimes funny and other times interesting, and even when they are neither funny nor interesting they are still worth listening to, if only for the soothing sound of his voice. I am a fan. But, for a couple of months every four years I tend to forget why.

In his book The Anticapitalist Mentality Ludwig Von Mises offers some thoughts about why so many creative people are political naiifs. His theory, as well as I can recall, was that artists -- even successful artists -- are insecure about their popularity, and thus their livelihood. Fame is capricious, sometimes withheld when it is deserved, sometimes granted for no apparent sensible reason. Von Mises speculated that people who live by popularity are attracted to centralized authority in hopes that it will provide objective standards. (Celebrities are usually vain enough to think that they would measure up if they only knew what the standards were.)

This is a plausible sounding theory but I prefer my theory that celebrities have something wrong with their brains. I think that there is some part of the brain that controls clue acquisition and that, for some people, it just doesn't work. This disability leaves the sufferer incurably clueless but the brain compensates with additional activity in other areas, particularly those associated with creative activities. Because of these compensations many celebs go on to leave apparently full and seemingly constructive lives as long as they are not put in situations requiring actual cognition.

A proposal: I think that the problem posed by savant idiots can be improved (if not completely eliminated) by a few simple social rules and regulations. In much the same way we provide ramps for the handicapped (or physically challenged, or differently enabled, or whatever we're supposed to call them) we should try to create an environment for the savant idiot celebrities where they will not be put in situations where their disability will manifest itself. I think, for instance, there should be regulations that prevent people from telling television or movie actors the name of candidates for political office, or letting them find out when elections are being held. The only political yard signs or buttons allowed within the city limits of Hollywood and Manhattan should promote Jed Bartlet for President and the McCain-Feingold law should be strengthened to get all political adds on television and radio because the guys in the newsroom might be exposed to them and become agitated.

Just a few simple changes, but what a difference they would make in the lives of the savant idiots among us.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Test Posting.

Test. Test. One... Two... Three... *thump* *thump* Is this thing on? Can you hear me in the back?