by Flynn Washburne, August 16, 2017
The human brain is an amazing organ, and capable of some genuinely astonishing things. I'm not even talking about Einstein-y super-genius level insight, which is of course amazing but not exactly evenly distributed among the populace. Saying that Homo sapiens can think like that is like saying he can play basketball like Michael Jordan —technically true but not likely to occur very often. No, I'm talking about the average everyday lightning-fast calculations, computations, decisions, detanglements, evaluations, measurements, and deductions that the brain engages in all day long all on its own. Most of our actual conscious thought-effort goes into deciding what flavor of Hot Pocket to have for lunch or whether I can make this yellow light; meanwhile, the brain is always beavering away in the background, keeping us from walking into traffic and processing all the mega-amounts of sensory data that assail us every waking moment. Even a substandard model like mine that has been marinating in alcohol, amphetamines, and THC for thirty-odd years is capable of surprising me now and then. It misfires occasionally and has a few disengaged gears spinning freely up there, but she mostly chugs dependably along.
The most fundamental baseline precept of computer programming is GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if you feed it bad data, you get bad results, unlike the human brain, which takes in tons of garbage and manages to filter, clean, and render it usable. This is how Donald Trump is able to make himself understood. Where most people can unravel his garbled syntax and nonsensical construction, if you asked a computer to interpret raw, unfiltered Trump speech, it would repeatedly intone the words "DOES NOT COMPUTE!" in an increasingly panicky metallic voice as tape spun off its reels, punch cards filled the air, lights flashed wildly and smoke poured form the top, culminating in an explosion and dying wheeze. There's only so much you can ask from a computer.
The process is not perfect, of course. My own circuits are notoriously glitchy and will at times misinterpret incoming data and then tie itself in knots trying to make sense of it.
For instance. The other day I was rapidly leafing through a once-popular newsmagazine whose refusal to simply lay down and die like its brethren baffles and amuses the publishing world, looking for some bright and colorful image to capture my attention, when a headline lodged in my consciousness and caused me to halt my page-flipping. "Meddling Russian hamsters influence Trump election," it read, and in the time it took me to stop, reverse, and go back a page to further investigate such a provocative and intriguing story — maybe a second and a half — here's what went through my mind. What? Was it really the hamsters doing the meddling or just meddlesome Russians using them to further their own agenda? It's hard to believe that hamsters could be politically motivated. Although if they were, it makes sense they'd be communists. I've seen the way they all bundle together in a big furry ball. I wonder how they used them? Maybe as part of some sort of live-action prediction algorithm. Oh, wait. Never mind it says 'Russia's election meddling hampers Trump transition.' No rodents of any kind were involved, more's the pity.
That's what our brains do, though, blindly follow the directive to make sense of everything before higher-reasoning elements step in with their quality control and fine-tuning.
This recent incident reminded me of another case of the brain jumping ahead and attempting to solve a problem without consulting the higher-ups, one that very nearly cost me my life.
It was not my own thinking but that of my faithful factotum, Will Hawk, whose combined actionoriented persona, lightning-fast reflexes, and blind obedience to the wishes of the capo (me) came perilously close to putting an end to my story.
Will and I were sitting around getting high and talking nonsense in the time-honored tradition of tweakers everywhere when I came up with one of my patented earth-shakers, most of which are forgotten as soon as my attention is diverted. This one, though, had real potential and I felt the need to flesh it out verbally. "Will! Shut up. Listen at me. Did you ever see the movie 'Baseketball'?"
"Hell yeah, dog. Hilarious movie. Brilliant concept. I laughed, I cried, it was better than 'Cats'."
"Right. Fantastic idea, combining two sports. But I've got a much better one. Okay, so they combined baseball and basketball to get 'baseketball,' right? Basically they added an 'e' to basketball. Now, what happens if you slide that 'e' over one letter?"
"You lost me, dog. Just tell me."
"Ba-skeet-ball. We combine basketball and skeet shooting! It's like regular basketball only each team has a guy with a shotgun posted up on the sidelines by the opponent's goal and he tries to blow the ball out of the air before it scores. What do you think?"
Will gazed at me in open-mouthed admiration. “See, dog? That's why you're the smart one. Awesome! Let's do it. I'll go steal ten or twelve basketballs tomorrow and we'll put together a couple of teams. What do you think, double-ought? Slugs?"
"Probably birdshot, maybe minimize the actual deaths. No question some loose pellets are gonna penetrate but there's no reason the game has to stop. It won't be much worse than a BB gun, right?"
"Right. The gunner just shoots the ball, right? Like he's not aiming at the players?"
"Of course not. That would be crazy."
I sat down with pen and paper to delineate some rules and work out the details. Flush with the excitement of a new idea, I excavated a container of Tic-Tacs from a pocket for a small bit of refreshment and thinking aid. Shaking it, I heard not the familiar maracas but the forlorn rattle of a single Tic Tac-bouncing around, a bittersweet signal as it portends an immediate future sans TicTacs but gives one the opportunity to pull a great prank, which goes as follows.
First, make a great show of your neck being stiff and sore. Rub it, grimace, make appropriate noises, and wobble your head around. Next, secrete an empty Tic-Tac box in one hand and move that hand to the back of your head. Put your other hand on your chin. Your hands should be positioned in such a way that it's obvious you're about to give your neck a twist to crack it and relieve the soreness. Wrench it dramatically and at the same time, smush the Tic-Tac box against the back of your head and enjoy the shocked faces of the people who believe you've just become a paraplegic.
This gag actually works best on your mom but I've spun it out successfully in many different scenarios. I never got the reaction I did from Will, though.
I made sure his attention was on me, gyrating painfully and saying, "Damn, I don't know what the hell I did to my neck, but..." and then going for the big crack. He did look shocked, for about one millisecond, then leapt across the room at me, arms outstretched and hands in strangle position. I dove to the side and Will sailed past me, crashing into the wall and crumpling to the floor.
"Dude! What the hell?" I said.
"Oh, man! You're okay?" Will said, getting to his feet.
"I'm fucking fine! It was a joke! Look!" I showed him the splintered Tic-Tac box. "What in the hell were you doing?"
"I was gonna put you out of your misery, dog. Remember how you told me once that you'd rather be dead than paralyzed?"
"Okay, hold on one second. So, you thought I'd broken my neck and your immediate, visceral reaction was to kill me?"
"I don't know that word but yeah. I acted on instinct! No way was I gonna let my dog be in a wheelchair. I just.... I don't know, man. It happened that fast, without thinking. I did what I was supposed to do."
My God! What had I created here? Clearly I was going to have to watch what I said around this guy. What if I’d said something like — and believe me, I say shit like this all the time — “I would literally rather die than watch an episode of 'CSI’,” and Will and I just happened to be occupying the same space during one of the many, many hours of the week when that show is broadcast, and I was mercifully put down?
"Will, listen to me. This is very important. In the future, if you should find yourself in any situation where I need to be euthanized, please observe the following protocols. Number one: ascertain first that I have definitely suffered whatever injury necessitates this drastic action. Two: obtain verbal confirmation from me. This is crucial. I may have changed my mind. Finally, I would really prefer not to be strangled. How about we just keep a quantity of heroin on hand to send me blissfully on to the next world, that way you don't get a murder beef."
"I got you, dog. Hey-that was a good one, by the way. I'm gonna have to try that sometime."
"Yeah, you do that. You don't get to be gunner in the baskeetball game, though. Sorry."
"Aw, man. … Dog…"
"Am I a dog or a man, Will? Make up your mind. Get me a beer."
"Yes, sir." Hanging his head contritely, Will left the room.
I figured I'd let him suffer for a little while and then surprise him. Of course he'd be the gunner.