The invisible tchotchke

September 14th, 2016

There's a yard I see periodically that is both well-landscaped and also absolutely filled with stuff: Tchotchkes, baubles, and knick-knacks but also random other items of interesting appearance such as bird cages, dolls, or colorful tiles. While it could look terrible, the owner has arranged them and worked them all in with the plants and the overall effect is quite pleasing, although I'm sure there's at least one angry neighbor.

What I found surprising on my first encounter was that the objects seemed to have some sort of mystical power to avoid individual visual inspection. When describing this yard to someone a few days ago, I found myself unable to recall any one of the objects in particular, and had to fall back on the generic "tchotchkes". The next time I went past, instead of allowing my eyes to drift over the whole collection, I tried to focus on any one object, and found that I could not! It was rather disconcerting.

I had originally chalked this up to the distracting nature of the entire yard, but I think there's more to it than that. The third time, I introspected while attempting to examine a single object, and found that when my eyes wandered, it was in service of discovering the context of the object. This makes sense! We understand our visual world contextually, and I believe Hofstadter & co. are correct in their top-down + bottom-up Fluid Concepts model—there is an interplay between forming expectations based on observations and fitting observations to expectations. We understand an object (faster) by what is around it: A fork on the kitchen counter amid some dirty dishes is easier to recognize at a glance than, say, a fork in the road. But the objects in this yard are not only completely removed from their original context, they are placed into a distracting one, and even worse, a field of other contextless objects! And so my eyes wander out to the next object over, and the next, and then distraction takes hold.

As I was writing this, I think I have found one other situation where this effect takes place: A very messy room or desk, full of odds and ends. I find that when I set myself to the task of cleaning a mess like that, I freeze up. I had thought that perhaps it was due to the energy required to make a hundred small decisions (that had already been deferred for their non-triviality—there's a selection effect at play here) but now I wonder if perhaps I am also having difficulty focusing on any object long enough to tackle it. Certainly this would interfere with my ability to "pick the low-hanging fruit". If true, I might be able to develop some strategies for cleaning my desk, such as picking an object randomly and considering it outside of the desk's context.

I'm curious to hear if others have experienced this phenomenon as well. I'm also curious whether it correlates to any degree with attentional issues (e.g. I have ADHD) or visual processing issues. Or perhaps this is just an idiosyncratic trait, but if there's anything I've learned about the internet, it's that there's usually a "me too!" out there somewhere.

Germ Theory and the Five-Second Rule

October 16th, 2007

The five-second rule surely owes its existence to the popularization of germ theory. People who abide by the rule must believe (at some level) that pathogenic microbes are tiny little beasties crawling about on the ground, with nothing better to do than to clamber onto dropped potato chips.

Read full entry »

Brain dropping: Kinetic energy is a type of potential energy

October 10th, 2007

In Chemistry class today we talked about forms of energy. I've always been a little irked by the notion that there are two main forms of energy, kinetic and potential, but it's never been annoying enough to grab my focus. Today, however, I formed a definition of kinetic energy that puts it squarely within the realm of potential energy.

Read full entry »

Of LED art, suspicion, and a girl named Star

September 24th, 2007

Star Simpson, the 19-year-old arrested at Logan airport for having a "hoax device", is just another living, breathing, hoping, dreaming human, like you. Essentially, she was arrested for being an idealist, for not understanding that the people with the guns and the power see "different" as "dangerous".

The following was written by a friend of mine, who wishes to remain anonymous, but gave permission to share it.

Read full entry »

“Two Generals’ Problem” doesn’t make sense

July 31st, 2007

Two armies are preparing to attack a city from opposite sides. The General of army A is orchestrating the attack, and has decided that they must attack simultaneously at noon on March 3rd to succeed. He sends a sealed, encrypted letter by messenger across the valley to the General of army B, informing him of the plan, but worries that the messenger might be intercepted, so General B may not be informed. (If the attack is not simultaneous, both attacking armies will be destroyed by the defenders.)

As it so happens, General B does receive the message, but knows that General A cannot be sure of this. He sends back a receipt of the attack plan. Then he wonders... will it go through? What if General A does not receive it and decides not to attack, being unsure of B's knowledge? And even if General A sends over an acknowledgment of the plan's receipt, there is no guarantee it will arrive.

Given this faulty communication channel, how will the generals coordinate their plan?

Read full entry »