Monday, September 27, 2010

The Thinking Dot

What is the small black dot, lower left, thinking?

One of the most interesting and unlikely things that human beings can do is drive a car in traffic.

Certainly, there are a lot of terrible drivers out there -- the distracted, inattentive, emotionally unstable, impaired, stupid, inexperienced, homicidal and irredeemably klutzy. They make driving -- and walking, and sitting in your living room near a curve in the road -- a far more engaging activity than it necessarily needs to be.

But really, consider the miracle that most adults can competently pilot a two-ton chunk of metal at speeds that far exceed what evolution should have suited our brains to process (overengineering?), and relatively rarely bump, much less slaughter, another person.

Cars don't have eyebrows, mouths, shoulders, back muscles, hands. Nor do they possess hackles, tails, ears and whiskers. They cannot convey intentions or opinions with subtle body language. They have some simple visual and auditory signals, but their drivers do not always choose to deploy them accurately, or at all.

Yet, provided we are alert and paying attention, most of us can predict the movements of other vehicles most of the time.

We recognize the car that is going to drift out of its lane, the one about to execute an unsignaled left turn, the one whose driver is a chronic dickhead who is working out his Mommy-never-loved-me issues on the asphalt, and we respond to prevent a collision. I can almost unerringly pick out which car is driven by some nimrod who will have a cell phone held up to her ear when I pass her. The incompetence is different from that of the inexperienced teen, drunken maniac, or half-blind Floridian.

One of the most extraordinary acts of civic anything I've ever witnessed was four drivers' spontaneous response to another car's tire blowout on a particularly hairy expressway known for its high-speed bumper-to-bumper mayhem and murderous vehicular attitude.

The car was in the far left lane, directly in front of me, in a place where there was essentially no left shoulder, just Jersey barriers. The left rear tire blew out, and as shards of rubber hit my windshield, I braked and hit my hazards. But stopping was out of the question.

The driver to my right immediately braked in a controlled way, hit his hazards, and stayed in position, gradually slowing down, as the terrified woman driving on her rim eased over one lane.

Then the driver in the next lane did the same.

And the next.

And the next.

As she cleared each lane, the driver remained in lockstep with the other cars, preventing anyone from inadvertently or boorishly passing and creating an additional hazard.

Thus protected, the afflicted driver was able to safely ease over to a wide right berm and pull off; the car in the far right lane then pulled off in front of her, and the last thing I saw in my rear-view was that driver getting out to go back and assist. Or, you know, chop the stranded driver up and ferment some cannibal kimchi in his trunk.

Tell me that we are not hard-wired to spontaneously cooperate non-verbally. Paleolithic hunters did not have a captain shouting orders into a radio when the mammoth did not get with the morning's breakfast plan -- much less a general somewhere playing with pins on a map. But none of these drivers could make eye contact, see one another's body postures, or the bodies of the drivers behind them. It was all inflexible, inexpressive, logically inscrutable steel. And they got it right, exactly right, and may have saved innumerable lives with wit and reflex.

At yesterday's sheepdog finals, we watched handlers demand that their dogs abandon the evidence of their senses, their deepest instincts, and most of their considerable training, for a faith-based exercise: Leave your corporeal sheep, which you have, trust me and the ovine gods that they will not escape despite the fact that you can see them getting away, go to a place you have never been, and fetch my imaginary sheep that you cannot see, and which were not there a minute ago when you could have seen them.

Since profanity at the post is not allowed at sheepdog trials*, we were sometimes treated to impressive displays of truncated verbal oaths when the sheepdogs chose hard-nosed empiricism rather than accept their handlers' unlikely tales of reverse-raptured woolies in that far-right corner. Also, I now believe it is possible to swear in whistle form. I would like to learn this.

Most of the dogs did, after skeptical resistance, take their go back commands, and were rewarded for their faith (or willingness to humor the madman holding the car keys) with the sheepdog's favorite treat, more sheep.

I was sitting in the bleachers with the regular spectators when one little bitch worked through this crisis.

She'd left her ten sheep after the fetch panel, endured the torture of having them trot off towards the exhaust, reversed her course on her handler's whistles, and then become overcome by doubt or confusion or both.

She stopped, looking in the direction the whistles promised sheep. I think she actually sat down, but would not swear to it.

She could not see sheep; the topography was against her. (We human spectators could see the sheep and the set-out crew in the distance, but the dogs could not.)

The women sitting around me -- ordinary spectators, dog owners for sure, but no more sheepdog experts than I am -- all agreed.

She's thinking.

The dog whose thinking we could feel in our bones on the bleacher was over half a kilometer away, and presented as a small black period (Century Schoolbook) against a dun page of dead grass. I'd left my binoculars in the car.

Still thinking.

The period elongated a tiny smidge upward, into a comma.

She's got it!

And she had; in an instant she was sailing on her handler's whistles, away, away, on a lovely outrun for sheep she now believed in.

Stripped by distance of her ears, tail, quivering flanks, knitted brow and worried eyes, the black dog dot was just her essentials -- her overwhelming conflict, confusion, and then intention. All somehow visible to a cluster of non-experts who do not know this dog from Eve.

No more than we know and understand the subtle thoughts and rich internal life of that head-case in the Audi who saw our turn signal and goddammit I knew it, he sped up to keep me from merging, the little prick!

Long before we had need to read a sheepdog's decision at 400 meters, or perceive that the driver of that Ryder truck in front of us was nodding off, our ancestors were heavily selected; the monkey-beast who could distinguish a full leopard from an empty one a quarter mile away stood a better chance of engendering descendants. The noise of detail sometimes just gets in the way.


* Number one reason I should never, and will never, run in a sheepdog trial.


  1. Tacit cooperation. It extends more broadly in life than most people appreciate. Can I assume you'll reread "Road to Serfdom" with new appreciation?

    PS. Delighted you are blogging. Plz keep mentioning new posts on fb.

  2. RE: tire blowout
    Here's a rundown of what would have gone through my head if I had been driving a car: The vehicle on my left, which I expect to be going faster than my vehicle, just slowed down. (Pattern changes are attention-getters!) So I take my foot of the gas (I drive a standard so this would start slowing down the car safely) and see if I can spot the reason. See vehicle with blownout tire and either a: do the same as car to my left or do something else to safely get out of the driver's way --depending on traffic around me. I would guess that this is what happened in all the lanes of traffic. But I'm not a qualified professional social psychologist nor have I run any studies to verify. :-)

  3. I know of no better example of cooperation among groups than the ONB dogs' feeding habits. By design or accident, they all learned to share by minimizing possibilities for jealousy (the all but universal tendency to avoid eating in the presence of others). The survivors, in the main, had extraordinary dog manners.

    Even in hell, nonviolent cooperation has its advantages.

  4. Especially in Hell.

    I'm reminded of Conan the Barbarian, who explained that barbarians were the most polite men, because if you insulted a barbarian, he'd cut your head off right there. Only "civilized" men could afford to be rude and boorish.

    It is interesting, though, how the abilities that are selected for by bare survival mandates may be the same ones that permit the most exalted achievements, the song and poetry of body and mind.

    Scheherazade told a mighty fine story.

  5. Your description of the sheepdog finals is perfect! You can indeed swear in whistle and the cut off sentences, mid oath, is so true. My husband was one of those finalists with a couple of his dogs(I failed in an earlier round) and I tease him that on the trial field I often hear him speaking in tongues.


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