Archive for November, 2019

Holiday creep is observable in at least two aspects: (1) those who can (i.e., those with enviable employment benefits) use additional time off on adjacent workdays to create 4-, 5-, or 6-day holiday spans, and (2) businesses that sell to the public mount incessant sales campaigns that demand everyone’s attention and participation as good American consumers. Since I’m a Bah! Humbug! sorta fellow, these expansive regions of the calendar take on the characteristics of a black hole, sucking everything into their gravity wells and crushing the life out of any honest sentiment left to cynics and curmudgeons like me. We’re in the midst of one such holiday span, and my inclination (beyond appreciating the time off from work) is to hide away from bustle and obligation. Nonetheless, I show up and participate in some small measure.

Here in Chicago, trains and buses going to the Loop (the downtown business district) are less heavily trafficked at rush hours for several days before the actual holiday. However, I suspect the Blue Line to O’Hare and the Orange Line to Midway are both quite busy with travelers on the move. This is traditionally the holiday when people visit family for feasting and afternoon naps (or football games, I’m told). I’ve braved air travel at this time only a couple times, which is more miserable than usual due to congestion and weather-related delays. My workplace was a ghost town not only on the eve of the holiday for days in advance. Is it only my memory is that the eves of Christmas and New Year’s Day used to be the only ones that were celebrated? Now many expect to be released early from work prior to any observed holiday. Again, this is a benefit not evenly shared across the population and one I do not take for granted.

Feeding and shopping frenzies associated with holidays are well established traditions. However, subtle shifts to the shopping side are occurring that signal either welcome change or dying tradition, depending on one’s perspective. For instance, in the past few years, it’s been customary to learn of shoppers cued outside various superstores who stampede, trample, and fight like barbarians once doors are flung open. That ugly prospect is apparently disappearing, at least according to this report, as shoppers move away from brick-and-mortar venues to online shopping. Still, one acquaintance of mine relished the chance to among those multitudes and joked about trampling others to score a great deal on a comforter.

Similarly, some recognize the ecological impact of overconsumption (related to overpopulation) and have called for a ban to Black Friday sales, and presumably, other perverse incentives. This second development fits my thinking as I’ve blogged repeatedly how we’re awash in refuse and debris from our own past consumption. Still, my e-mail inbox has been positively pummeled by those few retailers in possession of my address who preview their Black Friday sales for weeks beforehand then offer forgiveness and second chances afterwards. The stink of desperation is on them, as business news organs report that holiday sales account for an impressively large percentage of annual sales but are threatened by fewer shopping days between the two anchor holidays this year (Thanksgiving falls late in the month). While that may have its effect, I daresay the larger problem is income inequality and the absence of positive bank balances among an ever-growing segment of the population. Debit balances on credit cards have already fueled about as much overconsumption as most can stomach.

Does it truly feel like the “most wonderful time of the year” on reflection and honest assessment? There is still enjoyment to be had, certainly. But unless one is an innocent child protected from the harshness of reality or otherwise living under a rock, every holiday decoration is tinged with knowledge of excess and suspicion that this year may finally be the last one we enjoy fully before things spin out of control. For a couple others of my holiday-themed blog entries (less dour perhaps than this one), see this and this.

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

A complex of interrelated findings about how consciousness handles the focus of perception has been making the rounds. Folks are recognizing the limited time each of us has to deal with everything pressing upon us for attention and are adopting the notion of the bandwidth of consciousness: the limited amount of perception / memory / thought one can access or hold at the forefront of attention compared to the much larger amount occurring continuously outside of awareness (or figuratively, under the hood). Similarly, the myriad ways attention is diverted by advertisers and social media (to name just two examples) to channel consumer behaviors or increase time-on-device metrics have become commonplace topics of discussion. I’ve used the terms information environment, media ecology, and attention economy is past posts on this broad topic.

Among the most important observations is how the modern infosphere has become saturated with content, much of it entirely pointless (when not actively disorienting or destructive), and how many of us willingly tune into it without interruption via handheld screens and earbuds. It’s a steady flow of stimulation (overstimulation, frankly) that is the new normal for those born and/or bred to the screen (media addicts). Its absence or interruption is discomfiting (like a toddler’s separation anxiety). However, mental processing of information overflow is tantamount to drinking from a fire hose: only a modest fraction of the volume rushing nonstop can be swallowed. Promoters of meditation and presensing, whether implied or manifest, also recognize that human cognition requires time and repose to process and consolidate experience, transforming it into useful knowledge and long-term memory. More and more stimulation added on top is simply overflow, like a faucet filling the bathtub faster than drain can let water out, spilling overflow onto the floor like digital exhaust. Too bad that the sales point of these promoters is typically getting more done, because dontcha know, more is better even when recommending less.

Quanta Magazine has a pair of articles (first and second) by the same author (Jordana Cepelewicz) describing how the spotlight metaphor for attention is only partly how cognition works. Many presume that the mind normally directs awareness or attention to whatever the self prioritizes — a top-down executive function. However, as any loud noise, erratic movement, or sharp pain demonstrates, some stimuli are promoted to awareness by virtue of their individual character — a bottom-up reflex. The fuller explanation is that neuroscientists are busy researching brain circuits and structures that prune, filter, or gate the bulk of incoming stimuli so that attention can be focused on the most important bits. For instance, the article mentions how visual perception circuits process categories of small and large differently, partly to separate figure from ground. Indeed, for cognition to work at all, a plethora of inhibitory functions enable focus on a relatively narrow subset of stimuli selected from the larger set of available stimuli.

These discussions about cognition (including philosophical arguments about (1) human agency vs. no free will or (2) whether humans exist within reality or are merely simulations running inside some computer or inscrutable artificial intelligence) so often get lost in the weeds. They read like distinctions without differences. No doubt these are interesting subjects to contemplate, but at the same time, they’re sorta banal — fodder for scientists and eggheads that most average folks dismiss out of hand. In fact, selective and inhibitory mechanisms are found elsewhere in human physiology, such as pairs of muscles to move to and fro or appetite stimulants / depressants (alternatively, activators and deactivators) operating in tandem. Moreover, interactions are often not binary (on or off) but continuously variable. For my earlier post on this subject, see this.