Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Did you ever notice that when you blow in a dog's face, he gets mad at you, but when you take him on a car ride, he sticks his head out the window?

In a spasm of synchronicity, I received one of those emails chock-full with pithy bon mots that contained the above truism whilst I'm reading Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, which pries open the attic door on a lot of animal behavior.

I had expected to skim-read this thing to find parts that interested me and be done with it in a couple hours, but I got sucked in by all the amazing information, and its unique perspective since Temple Grandin is autistic.

Outside of the meat packing industry, Grandin became well-known through Oliver Sacks' fantastic An Anthropologist On Mars. She invented a cow-hugging device that calms cows for injections and as they're led to slaughter. (Which I can't decide whether it's kinda sweet, since the cows get a big hug before they're dispatched into the void, or whether it's kinda cruel because there's this tender claming moment and then WHAM they're shot between the eyes).

Temple Grandin gradually discovered that through her autism she had a lot in common with animals and the way they think. She's often hired to examine meatpacking plants when the animals are continually balking at the gate and such, because she can spot the things that are disturbing the animals with complete accuracy. She sees it how the cows see it, in other words.

I was dubious that this book would have many insights due to her condition, and thought it would just be more interesting as a study in her personality. Well, I was completely wrong. Animals in Translation is as insightful and fun as Oliver Sacks' stuff. I've been bowled over by the sheer amount of great info I'm picking up.

For instance, a few things I've learned so far:
- Autistics think in pictures only, no words; the author posits that animals think exclusively in pictures, too
- Birds see in four basic colors: Red, blue, green (like us), and ultraviolet; animals like dogs and cows see two: blue and green
- Pigs are sexual freaks, though I wasn't all too surprised by this
- The more aroused a female pig is during impregnation, the larger her litter and the piglets themselves are bigger
- Dogs behave the way they do because they're essentially emotionally stunted in the puppy stage through selective breeding, and thus never hit an "adult" state as wolves (their ancestors) do (the estimate is they're equivalent in maturity to a one-month old wolf pup)
- Like dogs, cows don't like wind blowing in their faces and they will put their butts into the wind
- All later generation albino animals are messed up genetic freaks who are prone to disease, are high-strung, and often brain damaged enough where their behavior is detrimental to themselves and their fellow animals (for the record, white/Caucasian people are not albinos, and all ethnic groups occasionally have albino offspring - and we don't force them to produce offspring together as we do with albino animals, so we don't see the same result in humans)

So, now I have all these fun facts that I can now bore folks to death with at parties.

One section particularly caught my interest. Rather than introduce it, why don't I just let you get to it. ("[...]" indicates that I've snipped some text to get to the point. I have not altered the context of the meaning, though. Any bold text is emphasis I've added that was not in the original text.)

The problem with normal [non-autistic] people is that they're too cerebral. I call it being abstractified.

I have to fight abstractification constantly when I'm working with the government and the meatpacking industry. [...] It's harder today because today government regulatory agencies are all run by people who've been to college, but who in some cases have never even been inside a meatpacking plant, let alone worked in one. [...]

Things were different in the 1960s when I was visiting my aunt's ranch in Arizona. [...] At that time livestock were being attacked by screwworms all over the West, Southwest, and Mexico. Screwworms are the larvae of a fly that lays its eggs in open wounds. [...] When the eggs hatch the maggots come out and eat the animal alive. [...]

Up until the USDA got involved, by aunt had been digging the maggots out of wounds on her horses by hand. [...] If you didn't do this, the horse would die. A screwworm infestation was a hideous, horrible thing.

The USDA fieldworkers figured out how to get rid of the screwworms by taking advantage of a quirk in their reproductive system. [...] The USDA bred a bunch of screwworms and irradiated the males when they reached the pupa stage, making them sterile. Then they put the pupae in little paper boxes, like a Chinese takeout box, and dropped the boxes out of airplanes. The flies would come out of the boxes and mate with lots of females, and the females they'd mated laid eggs that wouldn't hatch.

The program was a huge success. [...] Today there are no screwworms anywhere in the United States or Mexico. I remember those years well. You'd find the little boxes all over the ranch, seven or eight of them each summer. The box would say "USDA" and there would be a little story printed on the side explaining what it was and that it wasn't going to hurt you.

This was the original biotechnology and it worked. The government saved thousands and thousands of animals, maybe millions. They just did it; they didn't get everyone's permission.

Today the government could never get a program like that off the ground. Some environmental activist would say, "We have to protect these flies," and you'd have people who'd never seen a screwworm in their lives advocating to save them from extinction. The whole thing would be about ideology, not reality. [...]

Even worse, the government might not even get to the point of having advocates to block their efforts. To put this type of project together you need a really good field staff that is in charge of things. But today the abstract thinkers are in charge, and abstract thinkers get locked into abstract debates and arguments that aren't based in reality. I think this is one of the reasons there is so much partisan fighting inside the government. In my experience, people become more radical when they're thinking abstractly. They bog down in permanent bickering where they've lost touch with what's actually happening in the real world. [...]


One thing I've noticed about animal welfare regulators who have never worked in the industry is the way they always go for some kind of zero-tolerance approach. If the plant violates one or two agency rules, it has to be shut down.

If you don't know anything about the meatpacking business, that sounds like a good idea. Make sure no animal ever gets hurt, under any circumstances.

But in real life that's never the way it works out. In real life what happens is that a plant makes one or two mistakes, so the agency shuts it down. Well, shutting down a plant creates a huge uproar, because you've closed a whole big huge company that employs a lot of people. Management immediately protests the decision, and lots of pressure gets put on the inspector who reported the violations to clean up his report so the plant can go back to work.

And that's what happens. The plant goes back to work and doesn't get inspected so closely anymore. The violations keep piling up.

It doesn't have to be that way. I constantly argue that what we really need to do to protect animals is set high standards. People can live up to high standards, but they can't live up to perfection. When you give a plant a good standard -- like 95 percent of all cattle have to be stunned (killed) correctly on the first shot every single day -- they always do better than they do under zero-tolerance regulation. A lot of times they beat the standard, too.

But regulators today are too abstract in their thinking to see that. They're focused on their thoughts about the animals, not on the real animals in the real plants, so more animals end up suffering. It's not right.

I read that thinking HELL YEAH! I see that kind of thing - abstractification as she calls it - causing problems everywhere:
- Politics, like she points out.
- Almost all discussions in the public forum about religion - especially religion vs. science - anymore. Hell, this book says that religion is dangerous, when actual evidence leans towards religion being a mostly positive thing.
- Anything/anyone that takes postmodernism seriously is a study this very mistake - being in thrall to the thoughts about a thing rather than a reasoned examination of the actual thing itself.
- I've experienced this first hand at where I work now. I've seen requests from some for others to do things that would be a ridiculous amount of effort for very little actual result, only because the requestor is convinced that simply having the thing outweighs the massive efforts to produce it. They are in love with idea, their thoughts about the thing, rather than evaluating the actual need or goal. I've not encountered this kind of denial and self-delusion in such copious amounts before, so it's been a chore to combat it. I often feel like Alice in Wonderland talking to creatures who openly admit they are mad.

I'm sure any of you could think of examples where you've encountered this.

Since I was raised in the Midwest, I'm very pragmatic about things. I don't know why pragmatism comes with the territory out here, but it does. So when I encounter overeducated people who have left solid ground to build castles in the air, I get snarky pretty quickly.

That's why most zero-tolerance policies, three strikes and yer out laws, and the drug war drive me crazy as most of the advocates of those movements are classic abstractificators, to borrow and coin a term all at the same time. They almost never weigh the actual outcomes and results, because if they did, they would redirect their efforts immediately.

Btw, here are some of the other pearls of wisdom in the email from which I borrowed the title:

- I used to eat a lot of natural foods until I learned that most people die of natural causes.
- There are two kinds of pedestrians: the quick and the dead.
- Life is sexually transmitted.
- The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.
- Some people are like Slinkies. Not really good for anything, but you still can't help but smile when you see one tumble down the stairs.
- Health nuts are going to feel stupid someday, lying in hospitals dying of nothing.
- Have you noticed since everyone has a camcorder these days no one talks about seeing UFOs like they used to?
- How is it one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?
- Do illiterate people get the full effect of Alphabet Soup?

And finally, here's one that illustrates the point above:
- In the 60's, people took acid to make the world weird. Now the world is weird and people take Prozac to make it normal.


Anonymous said...

Abstractification. Good word. Here's an example of abstractification in real life:

I work for the Navy, managing construction projects on a base. One project on my desk right now involves tearing down an old building and constructing a new, bigger building for a department that has grown through a recent reorganization.

But there's one problem: The building that we want to tear down is over fifty years old and is thus a "cultural resource." Never mind that the building in question is an ugly brick rectangle, built to military standards (meaning total disregard for architectural aesthetics). Fifty is a magic number, and this project will be delayed for at least a year while historians and archaeologists (I kid you not) review the situation.

Yahmdallah said...

Then you would either enjoy or be driven completely nuts by a fun little film called "The Pentagon Wars" in which someone is asked to make up specifications for sheep before he can use them to test the armor in the Bradley fighting vehicle.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

My dad worked at Los Alamos for many years, and unfortunately can't tell some of the best tales of abstractification he has, but here are two of his favorite non-classified ones:

1. The guy who was endlessly working on a project involving a mortar delivery system for a nuclear weapon. For which he got his funding renewed regularly. Dad figured he might be able to get similar funding for a nuclear hand grenade.

2. The problem of computer equipment needing repairs which the scientists with clearance weren't trained to do. The equipment couldn't be taken out of the areas once they were in, and the guys who could repair it didn't have clearance. So perfectly good, expensive equipment would get tossed into drums, sealed up, labeled "low level nuclear waste" ('cause anything that had been in the facility & was being thrown away was, by law, low level nuclear waste), and buried somewhere.