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Watch more TV
February 7, 2010 - 6:49pm

OK, I admit it. For me, watching pretty much any TV is watching "more".

But from time to time, there comes along a show -- in this case, a made-for-TV movie -- that truly justifies the existence of the idiot box. "Temple Grandin" is a tour de force. In the movie, which premiered on HBO this past Saturday but will doubtless be re-aired, Claire Danes turns in an Oscar-worthy performance if ever I've seen one. And director Mick Jackson both recreates the America of the 1960's (which has been done before) and creates an impression of how it must be to see the world entirely differently (which, to my knowledge, really hasn't).

Grandin, a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State, is autistic. Her renown comes both from overcoming this challenge and from becoming the world's leading designer of livestock containment and handling systems. The film traces her life from her high school years (with flashbacks to early childhood) through her early breakthroughs and acceptance into the doctoral program at Illinois. More importantly, it shows (not just tells) the viewer how her different way of perceiving the world led to her ability to solve problems other trained professionals didn't even notice existed.

And this is the lesson for all of us. The fact that things have been done a certain way for hundreds of years -- the fact that all the professionals just know that the traditional way is the best way, indeed the only way -- the fact that no one involved perceives any significant downside in the way things are done -- none of these means that significant improvements aren't possible, aren't economically efficient, aren't at some level easy and obvious. People have been handling animals for thousands of years, and one autistic woman showed us how to do it an order of magnitude better. Perhaps, just perhaps, some things we've been doing for far less time can also be improved markedly, if we just ask the right questions.


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