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Monday, February 10, 2020

Song of the Curve-Billed Thrasher

(Photo from last spring)
Often, as the Artist and I are riding along in the car, a question arises that neither of us can immediately answer. The question may concern the geology of the passing scene, some plant or animal species, a question of history, or a writer or actor’s name temporarily just beyond our combined memories’ reach, to mention only a handful of examples out of the infinite number of inquiries that arise between us in conversation on the road. Either of us could, of course, “look it up” instantly (whatever “it” is) on one of our phones, and once in a while we do that — but more often we simply continue our conversation, speculating, critiquing each other’s speculations, and continuing to question each other and, when pertinent, our surroundings. Many would find these conversations of ours pointless and annoying. Well, that’s why we are with each other and neither of us with anyone else.

There are times when we are laughably wrong and only discover our error much, much later. I’m going to confess a truly idiotic belief we came to hold — and held for far too long — because it’s quite funny in retrospect. It has to do with the Kansas Settlement Gin Company, south of our winter home highway on the historically-and-oh-so-evocatively named Kansas Settlement Road.

During the early explorations of our first Cochise County winter, we were surprised to see the gin company there in the middle of the Sulphur Springs Valley. There didn’t seem to be much activity around it then, so we weren’t sure it was still in operation, but the question of operation was secondary. Gin? A company here in southeast Arizona distilling gin? When a visiting Michigan friend inquired, as we three were on our way down to Bisbee that day, we shrugged and told him, well, there are juniper trees in nearby mountains. Which is true….

Was it only this past December that we saw at last how wrong we’d been, or did light dawn in our addled brains the year before? Cotton is grown on land along the Kansas Settlement Road! The company is not distilling alcohol but ginning cotton! I think it was the name that led us astray: Kansas Settlement Cotton Gin would have been clearer. Please note, however, that we finally figured out the right answer all by our previously ignorant selves, chagrined over our earlier leap to a false conclusion but very satisfied to have landed, finally, on what is obviously the real story. And yes, we could have had the solution instantly, back in 2015 … but then we wouldn’t have had to think at all … and we certainly wouldn’t have had the satisfaction of solving the mystery ourselves … and I wouldn’t have any kind of story to tell you, either.

Here’s another example: Just the other day, in an interchange with a Mexican woman in a parking lot, my very rudimentary Spanish fled in the first moment of the encounter, leaving me blank and tongue-tied. The woman and a partner were selling tamales, and I wanted to ask how much they cost, but, as so often happens to me, the first language other than English that came to mind was French, and I grabbed at it desperately, trying to pronounce Combien with a Mexican accent. To me, it sounded good and made sense. But a blank, astonished look came over the woman’s face, and I knew I’d put my foot in my mouth. A language app on my phone would have eliminated any hesitation, but, except for weather and identifying plants, I don’t do apps. Then it came to me: Cuanto! I tried it, and it worked. All right! Embarrassing as my first attempt had been, I felt good about hitting on the right word on my second try. I think embarrassment can be part of a learning experience and does not have to be an occasion of shame. Next time I’m sure I will remember the right word immediately, prompted by my memory of the occasion of not remembering.

The first example, the gin company, is one of two people beginning in ignorance and thinking something through over time. The second has to do with my own memory. (I have a lot more Spanish words and phrases in memory than I can instantly recall, recognition being a much easier task than recall.) What the two  examples have in common is exercising brains instead of looking to a device for an instant answer. Many people prefer the instant answers. I prefer mental exercise.

Then there is the song of the curved-bill thrasher. Winter after winter we have been hearing a beautiful avian songster outside the cabin and trying to spot the bird to identify it. I kept wanting to say it must be a mockingbird. What else could sing so melodiously, produce that lovely, liquid song? And yet, complicated as the song was, it didn’t have the repetitions of a mockingbird. Finally, sitting out behind the cabin and watching birds in a scruffy little netleaf hackberry tree where I’ve hung a couple of suet feeders, I recognized once again the beautiful, mysterious song and could see the singer clearly. It was not the house finch and certainly not the ladderback woodpecker. It was the curved-bill thrasher! There he was, and the song was coming from him! 

Again, a birdsong app would have given me an instant answer, but, even with as long as it took me to connect bird and song, I have no regrets over lost time. What I gained, I feel, is the personal experience that will lock the identification much more solidly in my memory than the instant answer would have done. And time spent sitting and watching birds, like time spent sketching trees, is never “lost time.” It is all about being there, being taken out of myself and merging for a timeless while with bird or tree. And as I say, I do think I will remember the curved-bill thrasher’s song better and longer because I was sitting still, mountains off in peripheral vision, and seeing and hearing together so that everything around me formed a seamless and unitary context. 

The morning I began drafting this post, non-news came from the Iowa caucus: A reporting app had had issues, and the results that (some) people stayed up late to hear (glad we did not) were still not in the next morning. “We wanna know right away,” said one commentator, adding that the very desire for immediate results often drives failure or error. “We’d rather wait and have accurate results,” he said. 

Let me shift the scene here—

A mobility invention designed as an alternative, for some, to a wheelchair has been taken up by fully able-bodied persons using it for recreation. One stands on a platform and leans this way and that to propel oneself forward on a flat surface without having to walk. Why people who can walk want to avoid walking baffles me. They do not rejoice in their bodies’ movement? Don’t want to exercise physical independence and prolong it as long as possible? I don’t understand. But — sigh! — once again, “I am not the target audience.” 

There is a book on artificial intelligence (so-called) that I need to read. Human Compatible, by Stuart Russell (co-author of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach), argues that AI and how (if?) we control it in the future may be the most important question facing the human race. The author is concerned that AI would give governments unlimited surveillance and control capability. (What about corporations? I ask, but maybe that’s in the book, too.) If AI can come to match or surpass human intelligence, what will become of human freedom? 

But now— now I want to take all the ideas above and put them together, adding into the mix young people (not all, but too many) who exercise no muscles other than their thumbs (to text and post on social media). Will our body parts atrophy if we no longer need to use them? That’s one question, but I want to stretch to a further question: Will our very brains atrophy if we stop exercising them to think for ourselves, to sharpen and rely on memory? 

Recently I was trying to find (via online search) something about the split-second delay between any sensory impression and the brain’s receiving that impression, a margin that aids us in decision (or so I vaguely remember reading years ago), actually making choice and decision possible at all. I welcome anyone who can refer me to a helpful citation on the subject, but what alarmed me in my search was that, using the phrase “reaction time,” all I got were results calling fast reaction time good, slow reaction time bad, with lots of suggestions for improving, i.e., speeding up, reaction times. 

Of course, there are plenty of occasions where fast reaction time is crucial. Avoiding a road accident is an obvious example, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking gives many other examples. But quick reaction time plus lack of experience can lead to bad results, even in this simple case: To avoid a deer in the road, a driver quickly swerves and hits another vehicle, a tree, or turns over in a ditch. 

Take another example: A stranger knocks on a door, and the person opening the door and seeing a stranger, perhaps someone from a different ethnic group than his own, feels threatened and draws a weapon, killing the stranger — who, let’s say, only wanted directions. Fast reaction time leaves no time to think, to reflect, to question, or to examine a broader context. Experience helps, but what kinds of experience? Experience driving in different conditions is one thing; a human being living in a confusing, complex, and ever-changing world needs a much broader array of experiences to keep trigger-fast reactions from causing tragedy. 

What does reaction time have to do with thinking for ourselves, with working through problems and situations, with exercising memory? You tell me. Think about it. Or not. No one can force you.


BB-Idaho said...

The visual image collection and processing is interesting..and confusing. We can identify visual reception in a few milliseconds, somewhat longer than the few microseconds of a gunshot. But that is
under controlled lab conditions. But the process of reacting (thought, muscles..time
to say Yikes! is more complicated. Our memory banks may need searching, significant memories identified and applied. Even that can be very fast. But given different situations, and even persons,
that time is hard to quantify (probably why our sources prefer 'very fast'? AI simulations of the human brain contend with our biologically unique parallel processing power, sort of dozens of computers working both independently and interlinking. We do that routinely, without even thinking about all our thinking. heh
A lot of us older people worry about self-driving cars. In particular
identifying when to stop, swerve and turn. If I see a five foot tumble weed blowing at me on the road, I ignore it and it bounces off. Would the car computer swerve into the ditch having never seen a tumbleweed? It is interesting to ponder..and keep in mind that there are 1000 microseconds in a millisecond. Nanoseoconds I will leave to the theoretical physics department. Thanks for the photo of
the curved bill Thrasher. I've never seen one, but will store it in,
oh, one of my memory banks. It may take a second!

P. J. Grath said...

Hello there, BB — good to “see” you (ha!). The link you sent having to do with identifying images was quite fascinating. I did appreciate the study author saying that maybe one reason for the subjects’ better performance in this study may be that they were able to practice fast detection as the images were presented progressively faster, even though each image was unfamiliar. In other words, 13 milliseconds might not be enough time to identify an image if someone hadn’t been trying and practicing at slower speeds first in a controlled setting.

The second link you sent, the one highlighted as “processing,” gets to what I was searching for last week and not finding, where we read that “ takes almost a half second for what your eyes see to be processed to a form that is usable by the cognitive regions of the brain. To a first approximation, we are experiencing the world over a half second after it occurs.” A half-second is even slower than what I remembered. Interesting.

As “an older person,” I’m not nuts about the idea of self-driving cars. But then, I am a dinosaur in many other ways, too, as this post attests.

Thanks for your informative and thoughtful comment.