Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Intentional Blindness

Last Friday I wrote about inattentional blindness. Today it suddenly hit me that there is also such a thing as intentional blindness. When I walk from my Thai neighborhood I walk down a street that is frequented by beggars. I am now sure that I will myself not to see them. It's a no win situation, because they are regulars on that street and as such I have to walk past them almost every day. If I give something, I think, I am going to find it harder to pass them next time (which is every single day).

I have become so experienced at it that it is a task I perform subliminally i.e. without conscieous thought. Except today. It was late in the afternoon before I walked out of my apartment just to get out. I had been on the computer the entire day. I was a little frustrated with work. I marched off down the broken sidewalk, and they were there already, finding the deepening shadows to lurk in. It wasn't until I walked past the second one with my practiced aversion, that I suddenly realized what I was doing. I had been thinking lately about inattentional blindness so I guess I was letting my mind out of it's boundaries a bit. But it only took a moment to realize that whast I had been doing wasn't inattentional. Far from it, I was paying close attention, I, intentionally, never stole the sightest glance and I chose a path that took me somewhat away from them as I passed. And I never, ever uttered a sound.
There is such a thing as intentioanal blindness. That may be one to watch as well. I suspect it is utterly human, but clearly on the debit side.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Inattentional Blindness

There has been a lot of attention lately about keeping the mind fit through various exercises. The explosive interest in sudoku is perhaps one of the better examples of how mind exercise has becoming increasingly popular. Of course, an aging population of baby boomers, who have longer life spans, is a driving factor here. No one wants to spend their golden years in a vegetative state.

Out of all this attention to fit minds there is one area that really interests me most. It is called "inattentional blindness"

To borrow from an abstract of a Harvard published paper: "With each eye fixation, we experience a richly detailed visual world. Yet recent work on visual integration and change direction reveals that we are surprisingly unaware of the details of our environment from one view to the next: we often do not detect large changes to objects and scenes (`change blindness'). Furthermore, without attention, we may not even perceive objects (`inattentional blindness'). Taken together, these findings suggest that we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention."

When you give this phenomena some thought you begin to understand the impact on your ability as an observer and your reactions. But perhaps it is best to experience this. Go to this link to really feel, first hand, what "inattentional blindness" is. After you visit the site, come back.(I've heard back that some cannot view the video at the link above. Here is a link to download the video file - it plays using RealPlayer)http://download.yousendit.com/64C36C9C7CA25F29

If you visted and experienced the little video test at the link, you may surmise that this is a non-trivial phenomena. To quote from another article I read: “This research is showing us something that we didn't think was the case—that we can fail to perceive very major things going on right in front of our eyes,” remarks cognitive psychologist Brian Scholl, PhD, of Yale University. “In contrast with a lot of research on visual perception, these studies are truly surprising for both scientists and lay people because they're so at odds with how we assumed vision worked.”

How much do we miss, each and every day? It's hard to say. I suspect it may be quite lot, but I also suspect much of it is trivial. However, imagine if we are talking about driving on a highway for a long period of time, and suddenly the car slams into a cow. Assuming you survived the crash, and could still talk, you would swear to anyone listening that the cow appeared out of no where, or that you were compeltely unaware of the animal before you felt the impact. Listeners may be skeptical. After all, they might say, it was daylight, the area beside that spot on the highway was void of anything that might have masked the approach of the animal, even if it was running at high speed, which it most likely was not, since cows tend to be normally stolid in their movement. Lets take this example a step further. What if the cow is an airplane on the runway, and you are a captain of an airliner landing on the same runway?

People's inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren't paying attention, raises other questions: How much visual input can the mind encode, consciously and unconsciously? What brings some visual objects to conscious awareness, while others remain unnoticed? What is the fate of information that is perceived only unconsciously? And what might we do to overcome this trait and increase our capacity for observation and response?

If you want to read more on this topic check out a copy of an article posted on a motorcycle enthusiast's blog here and the obvious lesson in all this for the every day driver.

If you would like to guage your own susceptability to inattentional blindness check this page out. You will need Apple's quicktime player in order to play the videos there. You can download it here if you need it. You will need the Java plug-in for so,me of the demos which you can get here. Both are worth having on your computer if you enjoy fully featured web browsing. What are examples of your own experience with inattentional blindness, or are you even aware of any? I hope you will post some comments.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Taxi Philosopher & The Blame Game

The other day I left our home to go to the airport and eventually to our apartment in Bangkok where I am now bivouacked for several weeks to tend to business here. We called a car service that we use regularly for the transport to the airport. The usual driver is a hearty pleasant fellow and we have referred him to friends and colleagues looking for a similar door to door service to and from the airport. I suspect we aren't the only ones to have referred clients and his business has grown to the point that he is not always the one who picks me up anymore. Occasionally his older brother is the designated driver and the day I left it was he that appeared at our driveway. Now this fellow is not quite as cheerful on the exterior as his younger brother but he is talkative and inevitably the talk turns to what is wrong in the world today. He likes to complain about the imported labor in Malaysia. You see, Malaysia, for whatever reason, cannot supply enough skilled or semi skilled labor to the factories here. So through various schemes, the labor pool is supplemented by thousands and thousands of Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Burmese, Cambodian, and Philippine people. These are countries where wages are extremely low and job availability lower still. People from these Third (and a half) world countries are quite literally forced by their circumstances to seek jobs elsewhere in hopes of supporting family back home. It is a subject that I am learning more about, as some of the larger manufacturers in my industry use this imported labor on a large scale. They have to. There are not enough local people that are willing (or able) to do the work. Some of the work I am doing presently is designed to spread the adoption of a corporate code of conduct that would lead to policies that protect the rights and fair treatment of all workers here, (as well as enhance the corporate's citizenship record). Some of the things we are learning about how these imported laborers are treated by recruiters in their country, by the labor companies here,and even by their own embassies, is scandalous but it isn't my purpose to write about that here. What I do want to mention is the vehemence of my driver and wannabe philosopher when talking about these imported workers.
From his view they are the source of most of the ills in Malaysia, including crime, littering, and a threat to the "Malay" way of life. He was especially emphatic to note that one reason we see a lot of trash in the streets of K.L. was due to the bahavior of these laborers from other places. "They act like pigs" he said, a strong statement from a Muslim man, whereby pigs are a pariah. Recognizing that particularly dangerous form of ignorance that is spiced with stubborn anger, I quieted down and let the conversation fizzle out. I chose not to tell him about the Malaysian woman sitting in the back seat of a $200K Mercedes parked at a highway rest stop that I happened to see. She was apparently changing the diaper of a child and opened the window of the big gleaming car to drop the used diaper out on to the parking lot. The fact is, you can walk all around Kuala Lumpur without seeing a single public rubbish bin. In my own upper middle class neighborhood people dump their trash at the side of the main entrance road. They do so late at night. How about all those new cars on the new highways here? I could not keep count of the times I have seen occupants toss trash out their windows. The fact is that there is little enforcement of existing littering laws here, and there is little inculcation of citizenship, or appeals to the citizenry to clean up.
Getting back to his remarks, what a common and repeated theme, I thought. Blame the outsiders for every social ill you can imagine, and in so focusing, avoid the responsibility of curing your own trangressions.
Seems that everybody these days wants somebody to blame. I suspect that if you were to root into the causes of each hot spot on this map you would discover a similar type of thinking.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Follow on to Burma disaster

CNN is now reporting that up to 100,000 people have died from the cyclone that hit Burma. The scale of this disaster is hard to even imagine, and relief is urgently needed. In the wake of a massive cyclone, the scale of death is hard to imagine. More than 40,000 are missing. A million are homeless.

But what's happening in Burma is not just a natural disaster—it's also a catastrophe of bad leadership.

Burma's brutal and corrupt military junta failed to warn the people, failed to evacuate any areas, and suppressed freedom of communication so that Burmese people didn't know the storm was coming when the rest of the world did. Now the government is failing to respond to the disaster and obstructing international aid organizations.

So, how could anyone lend a hand in such a fouled system without worrying that anything you might offer will end up in the bastard's pockets (ala the U.N.'s food-for-oil program). It's remarkable in it's testement to the determination of people driven by their own sense of good will but there is a way. The link below will take you to a page in which you can make a small donation that will be funneled into the disaster relief effort. Humanitarian relief is urgently needed, but Burma's government could easily delay, divert or misuse any aid. Today the International Burmese Monks Organization, including many leaders of the democracy protests last fall, launched a new effort to provide relief through Burma's powerful grass roots network of monasteries—the most trusted institutions in the country and currently the only source of housing and support in many devastated communities. Click below to help the Burmese people with a donation and see a video appeal to Avaaz from a leader of the monks:


Like never before the world's eyes are on Burma and the sheer evil of the country's criminal leaders. This could be an opportunity for democratic minded governments and organizations. However, much more importantly, the need is real and people with a conscience have a way to offer some help. Donations of any size are accepted and easy to make. Please consider that the tally of donaters could send a powerful message of hope to the people and an equally strong message to their corrupt leaders that they are not isolated no matter how much they smother their own people.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Economic Stimulus Update

A week ago I blogged some thoughts about the Big Economic Stimulus Give Away noting that it seemed senseless and that we shouldn't expect it to stimulate much of anything. That didn't stop the big Wall Street bank, Goldman, from issuing a list of stocks that would benefit from the "stimulus". Frankly, I wondered at the time if Goldman wasn't simply listing stocks it held that it wanted to liquidate, but decided to "stimulate" first. With the exception of WalMart (which is a no brainer because the company accounts for about 8% of retail sales in America) the list wasn't especially exciting. I suspected that they threw in Walmart as a credibility shill - it has been a good one to own. In any case, the Goldman story is just one vignette in the multi ring circus comprised by Wall Street, their buddies in Washington, and banks around the world. The following is a copy of a post on a stock analysis service I use. Thought it was a telling anecdote.

"Speaking of 'living at the expense of others' in yesterdays Digest, I received my 'rebate' check yesterday in the mail. Our kind, helpful, government was so thoughtful to present me with a little chart, which explained that I was entitled to receive $1,200 because I was married, and then an additional $600 for the two children I have. They added it up for me and proudly displayed the $1,800 rebate amount that I deserved to receive. Of course, they then proceeded to reduce my rebate because, even though my wife doesn't work and takes care of our children full time, apparently I make too much money for my family of four. MY $1,800 entitlement was reduced to $38.41. Should I put it towards my mortgage? Or perhaps put 10 gallons into my car? You make the call. I gotta get back to work, so my neighbor can go to the mall."

And the poor get poorer

I had full intentions, when I first began this blog, that I would try to keep these posts light, but I am not sure how any thinking person could idle away the news coming out of Burma (Myanmar). Even as the scars of the Boxer Day tidal wave in 2004 are still discernible in places, Myanmar was hit by a devastating typhoon and a sea surge that has taken 22,500 lives with another 40,000 plus unaccounted for. By comparison the Andaman earthquake and resulting Boxer Day big wave took over 300,000 lives. Little comfort in those statistics.
I'm struck by how miserable life must be in Myanmar under a brutal, ugly regime. Perhaps we've become jaded, because we have witnessed so many of these oppressive governments in our lifetimes. But I kind of feel a little more twinge then normal for the Burmese. I think one reason for that is the contrast that the regime's sheer despotic ugliness places on the bravery of Aung San Suu Kyi. She is a true hero, the genuine article. On Tuesday, President Bush signed legislation that awarded her the Congressional Gold Medal. On Monday Canada made her an honorary citizen. Of course, she is the 1991 Nobel prize for Peace recipient. She is under house arrest since 2003, after winning a landslide election that the bullies simply took away from her. Unfortunately her house is in Yangon. The city is in the grip of blackouts, water shortages, soaring food and fuel prices and despair.
I think another reason I sense more sympathy for the Burmese is because we occasionally meet young Burmese men and women here in K.L. They come here to work in the local coffee shops as servers. You can always spot them for they are distinctly different from the Indonesians and locals. For one thing they are neater in appearance and much more polite. In addition the usually speak better English. This latter fact attest to their status as having been educated. You see, these young people are from families that are better off in Burma then the average citizen, the ones that can find a way to send their young men overseas...to a job serving coffee in Malaysia. Can you imagine for moment what that means? That serving coffee in Malaysia is preferable to wasting away in Burma?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

When the going gets tough, the tough start...to think

We live in a time when we have never been so incessantly confronted by doomsday scenarios. It seems that each and every day brings us more stories of appalling acts of violence, or a new and particularly virulent disease, or yet another "hot zone". There is set against a continuous cry of how we are killing our planet, and unalterably changing the climate to the extent that the world will all too soon become uninhabitable. As these topics are ubiquitously reported and debated in the public, it is easy to conclude that, rather then living in an age of reason, we live in a time of excuses, blame, hatred, and worst of all, apathy. We cannot deny that there is increasing angst encroaching on our lives every day.

Yet there are reasons to be more optimistic. For example, we already have technologies that will reduce the dependence of the globe on fossil fuels. The only decisions that remains are ones of economic and political sway and our willingness to sacrifice. In another example: while we see a rising tide of debate about health care in the United States, we are also seeing a period of unprecedented breakthroughs in treatments of many diseases that have been our adversaries for millenia. Sadly though, politics and economics again interfere with our implementation of these breakthroughs on an widely accessible basis. Still, we might take heart in that totalitarianism, in spite of repeated efforts by those that would wield it, is dwindling world-wide. Communication and access to information is becoming more and more democratized through incredible new technologies, such as self published blogs like this one, the pooling of knowledge resources for access by all (i.e. wikipedia), instant messaging, email, and social websites like Facebook. This compares to a personal network capability that just 60 years ago was primarily limited to the sphere of family, neighborhoods, co-workers, families, churches, local schools, etc. (Some say this was better.) So vast is the capability to communicate amongst ourselves that groundbreaking network theories such as "six degrees of separation" are entering our common language. Not to trivialize all the science involved here, but it doesn't seem to me to be all that difficult to argue either a pessimistic view or an optimistic view of man's survival.

However a study undertaken by the Genographic Project (funded by the National Geographic Society) and published in the The American Journal of Human Genetics is decidedly bullish in its hictorical lesson and suggests that we should consider carefully the incredible will in us to survive the most overwhelming forces. According to the scientists, climate changes led the human population to an estimated low of just 2000, at the very edge of extinction, some 150,000 years ago. This is actually a long standing theory that is bolstered by the reasearch recently reported. However, what is newly revealed by the work is that after an initial and devestating drought, the remaining frail population of humans divided into small bands, and wandered on diverse paths within Africa. The research fills a gap in our understanding of what was happening in there before humans first left the continent.
Even more stunning, rather then these bands reverting to more atavisitic forms of existence, in the midst of the imperative to survive, there was an acceleration in the use of more advanced tools for hunting and gathering. Incredibly this is also when art and evidence of abstract thinking first appeared, far ahead of the creation of beautiful wall art found in the Lascaux Caves in France, and which is dated to about 30,000 years ago. It was previouosly thought to represent that breakthrough in thinking known as the "creative explosion" and was supportive of a euro-centric view of enlightenment.
The study's findings correlate with other recent discoveries, such as the one shown above from Blombos Caves, on the southern tip of Africa, first discovered in 2002. It is thought to be the earliest evidence of abstract thought ever found and dates to about 70-80,000 years ago.
One cannot help but feel awestruck by the sheer immensity of the calamity our earliest ancestors faced, and feel inspired by this story of survival. A story that is made even more incredible in contemplating the human condition today. How close we came. How far we've come. My surmise is that it is far too early to sell short our tenacity as a species, though I sure hope we don't wait until we are down to the last 2,000.