Squirrel Poop and the Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition

Squirrel Poop and the Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition

This weekend I was raking leaves. Mundane tasks like this generally present me with a relatively blank mental canvas. Sometimes, I fill that canvas with meaningful spiritual or philosophical ideation. Most of the time though, unchaperoned thoughts are scribbled across that canvas like the finger-painted art of a ferret on meth. I am never not thinking. I would like to give my brain a rest. I have even been to relaxation clinics where a New Age guide has had me close my eyes and listen to the sound of a stream flowing over stones in a Tibetan creek, with wind chimes, whale songs and American Indian pan pipes, while softly telling me to clear my mind of all thoughts and focus on my breathing. In the process of trying to take a wet sponge to my mental whiteboard though, I end up thinking “How is it I’m hearing whale songs while I’m standing next to a bubbling creek in Tibet? Do American Indians actually play pan pipes, or is it just that one guy with long braids from the dream-catcher booth at every street festival I’ve ever been to?” I can’t do it. I can’t clear my mind. I have learned how to think about one thing for longer periods of time as I’ve grown older, though. I think this is commonly referred to as concentration – a tool I have only recently acquired and have very limited experience wielding.

Getting back to the yard work. I was standing under a sweet gum tree, and like the fabled “Newton’s Apple”, I got hit in the head. Sweet Gum trees produce a particularly obnoxious fruit, colloquially called “gum balls” (be not deceived – they bear no semblance whatsoever to their confectionery namesake – imagine a golf-ball sized naval mine, or the business end of a medieval ball mace). I got hit by one of these. My natural inclination, of course was to look upwards from whence it came. On the branch above me, about 30 feet up, was a tittering squirrel. I think the squirrel threw it at me. While I was looking at the tree rat, one of those uninvited thoughts entered my head: what if it poops on me? I instinctively stepped aside, still looking up at the squirrel. Immediately on the heels of that thought was another, which came in the form of a realization: I have no idea what squirrel poop looks like. I have been pooped on by birds and baby humans. I have stepped in goose poop and dog poop. I have scooped cat poop out of a litter box. But I couldn’t pick squirrel scat out of a lineup. This bothered me – and truthfully it bothers me that this bothered me, because I have no need for this knowledge!  I’m never going to have to identify squirrel poop. Ever. Unfortunately, like a flat rock thrown across the surface of a shallow pond, my brain decided to skip to the next iteration in my squirrel-poop distraction: Google.

Like most people, I carry enough computing power in my back pocket to run the International Space Station. Without much exaggeration, it is safe to say that in seconds, I can answer almost any question with an extremely high probability of finding the correct information in a single search. I pulled out my phone (a Samsung Galaxy Note III), opened up my Chrome browser app, closed the tab on eosinophilia (a condition afflicting one of my children, which I found much more adequately explained online than by any information I’ve gotten from her physician), and I typed in “squirrel poop”. I didn’t have to hit “search” or “go” or “find” or anything else. I didn’t even have to finish typing the words. I just touched the screen when the phrase was predictively completed for me.  As of this posting, the very first entry in a Google search for squirrel poop is “Photographs of Squirrel Poop“.  I don’t know that I should have expected anything different.  Of course, I clicked on it.  True to the description, there were pictures of squirrel turds.  Unfortunately, I now know that squirrel poop looks like a box of Mike & Ike’s that’s been spilled on a movie theater floor.

Another skip of the rock and I began to wonder exactly how much knowledge I could actually stuff in my brain pan before other, more important stuff started leaking out. This reminded me of a short story I read once about a TV reporter who began to read the news from a teleprompter, and froze with his mouth hanging open, as his brain reached capacity.  I wanted to quote the story and credit the author, so I went back to Google while I was writing this blog entry.  No combination of words that I could come up with would yield either the name of the short story or its author.  But now I do know that if I google “story about human memory getting full”, I get plenty of stories about Brian Williams.

I am old enough to not be jaded by the ease with which knowledge can be acquired in the 21st century.  I was in high school and college when the only way to do research was in a library, using reference books, micro fiche and a card catalog. There are aspects of my job that I couldn’t do without Microsoft’s TechNet library and Google.  I don’t miss the old days, either.  I just wonder if access to knowledge is making the human race smarter.  I know what squirrel poop looks like now, but I can’t find the name of a story I read 30 years ago.  Someday, perhaps the way we filter the 100,000,000+ gigabytes of indexed data on Google will be even more intuitive, and I’ll be able to find the name and author of a short story I can only reference by general keywords I remember from the plot.  I’m not complaining.  I just hope I’m around for the next evolutionary leap in knowledge acquisition.  In the meantime, I guess I’ll just get back to raking.

2 Replies to “Squirrel Poop and the Evolution of Knowledge Acquisition”

  1. …but have you ever seen a hummingbird poo? I assume the noun version looks pretty much like any other bird (just a smaller portion), but its the verb: /pū/ that I’m talking about. I had no idea until we put up the hummingbird feeder a couple of summers ago. I was watching, watching, then… “What the heck was that?” Imagine a really really really small cork gun with an untethered whitish cork… Not sure even the library reference section, with the large books with the big red Rs taped to their spines, could have prepared me for projectile poop.

  2. Fortunately, it is late, and I am too tired to take the “you should Google hummingbird poop” bait…

    But tomorrow is another day, and I am weak.

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