Big Retail and Malls Are In Trouble—and It’s My Fault!

If I shopped at a mall, this is the mall I’d shop at.

Forbes Magazine reports that so far this year there have been more big retail store closings (5,944) than there were for all of 2018 (5,864).

As online shopping becomes more popular, brick and mortar stores suffer declining sales. And the giants of the retail industry are feeling the pinch. Payless has closed all 2100 of their stores. Sears has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is closing numbers of stores as they try to recover. Payless and Henri Bendel have gone out of business completely and other familiar names like Victoria’s Secret, J. C. Penney, Gap, and Abercrombie and Fitch are downsizing in the face of poor bottom lines.

When a mall loses its anchor store, it often finds it difficult to replace it, and so some of the mid size malls have simply closed and been torn down.

And if we are to believe Jeff Bezos, soon malls will be history.

Now I don’t particularly like malls, but it somehow doesn’t seem right that Jeff Bezos should control all of retailing!

I’m feeling guilty about all this because I buy everything online, mostly from Amazon. Truth be told, I am an Amazon junkie!

I mean how can you not love Amazon? You want (need) something? Just search, click, and lo! It appears on your doorstep, sometimes the next day. And shipping is free if you are a prime member, which I most certainly am. 

I really shouldn’t be aiding and abetting the further growth of this behemoth, should I?

Still, I didn’t like it that that know-nothing loud mouthed congressperson prevented Amazon from locating in New York.

You see my problem. When a person’s beliefs contradict their behavior they are said to be sufferiing from cognitive dissonance. Apparently I’ve got it bad.

Psychologists tell us that in such cases, one thinks up excuses to ease the discomfort.

I don’t drive, so I can’t get to the mall. Even if I took the bus, I couldn’t carry the large packages home from the bus stop and Uber costs too much. Besides, I am a child of the Great Depression and can’t be expected to pay a high price, if a cheaper price is available. (And Amazon almost always has cheaper prices.)

There now, I feel much better.

Architecture · Culture · Technology

The Great Green Dinosaur Followed Us to Fleetwood

Giant cement pouring machine.

The moment we decided that we wanted to leave Manhattan came in a cab ride to the dentist, whose office is in midtown. I made the mistake of scheduling the appointment on Columbus Day. Any New Yorker can tell you what is wrong with that idea. The annual Columbus Day parade makes its way up Fifth Avenue, which means that traffic, which is always slow, comes to a virtual standstill in midtown as normal Fifth Avenue traffic is diverted to nearby streets. 

So there we were sitting in a cab on Park Avenue in the middle of the day as pedestrians passed us by. I tried to divert my attention from the running meter by gazing out the window. And up—up—up—in the air so far up I had to scrunch down in my seat to see it— there was the great green dinosaur on top of a building then under construction.  Okay, maybe this one wasn’t green, but it certainly looked ridiculous perched that high in the sky.

And then it occurred to us we didn’t want to live where the buildings are now no longer scraping the sky but piercing it. A boom in what are called “supertall towers” is underway in New York. In my opinion, these buildings are inhuman. They’re not awe inspiring; they’re frightening. And as Paul Goldberger, architecture critic, observes, they are changing the character of Manhattan as we have known it. Midtown, he notes, is no longer for New Yorkers. It is instead a place for tourists and globe-trotting billionaires.

A supertall building in New York is nothing new, of course. The Empire State Building is 1250 feet high; the Freedom Tower 1776 feet.  (The Twin Towers were slightly over 1300 feet.) 

432 Park Avenue (1396 feet, 95 stories) possibly the ugliest building in New York City. The architect says it was inspired by a trash can.

What is different about the new supertalls is that they are super skinny residential buildings built with global billionaire investors in mind, and they are popping up all over, particularly in midtown, where their height gives them spectacular views of Central Park.  In 2016, a Saudi retail magnate bought a penthouse at 432 Park (1396 feet high, 95 stories) for 87.7 million. Some sources say 95 million, but I guess it doesn’t much matter when money is literally no object. Not all of the apartments in this building are that expensive, of course. You can pick up an apartment on a lower floor for 15 to 20 million.

And Now Outside My Window

There’s the dinosaur, this one most certainly green, pouring concrete for a new apartment building. It will be a modest 16 stories tall, still too tall for the disgruntled citizens of Fleetwood, where the many apartment buildings here seldom rise above eight stories.

I guess we’ll not be having Saudi billionaire neighbors any time soon.

Education · Technology

Why Robots Scare Me

Erica, the robot created by Hiroshi Ishiguro, which was scheduled to take over the position of news caster on Japanese television this year.

It’s not that I fear they will take over so many jobs that we will end up with a permanent class of unemployable unskilled workers. Some think so, but in this regard I’m feeling optimistic today  (no doubt because of a good night’s sleep). I think that what will happen is that our entire educational system will be reorganized to accommodate new needs and opportunities that will arise from the brave new world that is now developing. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but there are already hints here and there that it is happening.

Here’s what concerns me about automation in general

It is distancing us from one another. There are fewer and fewer casual contacts that used to be necessary to carry on our daily business. Bank tellers, waitresses, order takers, receptionists, are disappearing right and left—drivers for hire to follow. In countless factories where workers used to take breaks and tell jokes, or exchange their troubled stories, the work is done primarily by robots who neither laugh nor cry. In Tokyo there is actually a hotel where guests never see another human being from check in to check out.

And speaking of Japan!

Here is where you’ll find the forerunners in the development of lifelike androids—robots that look like real people. As yet they are not “bipedal,”—they can’t walk around—but they’re working on it.  The professed aim of these inventors is to create robots that are “self conscious and aware” in the words  of Erica’s creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro.

What’s behind the Japanese push to excel at robotics.

There is a practical problem that the Japanese hope to solve with the introduction of robots. For over three decades, they have been experiencing negative population growth; the population is aging and the number of workers decreasing, making it increasingly difficult to fill job openings. They hope that robots can replace these lost workers.

For instance, it is impossible to find enough people willing to be attendants in nursing homes. I suppose if the robot that delivers medication and dinner looks like a person, it will be more acceptable as a caregiver. But what the elderly in nursing homes need most of all—what we all need— is a smile from a fellow human being, a compassionate touch, and love.

Human beings were created in the image of God and thus have the capacity to love one another. No matter how expertly the robot is crafted, no matter how convincingly it blinks or appears to breathe, or how well its warm body responds to our commands, it cannot love.

When we give our robot vacuum cleaner a name and assign it a gender, it’s a joke. We think it’s funny. But when a robotics inventor creates a lifelike robot with the intention of, in his own words, “changing the definition of a human,” in my book, it’s no joke; it is a sacrilege.


We Have a New Cleaning Lady!

THEN: Sprinkle the carpet with damp tea leaves, which always should be saved for that purpose, by putting them into a jar, as soon as the teapot is emptied. The tea leaves absorb the dust, and cause the carpet to look cleaner and brighter. Then go over the carpet briskly and lightly with a corn broom. Miss Leslie’s Lady’s House-book: a Manual of Domestic Economy, 1850.

NOW: Ecovacs Basic Features: Includes our unique 3-stage cleaning system, anti-drop & anti-collision sensors – 120 minute battery life, auto-return charging, automatic software update, durable protective bumpers, air filtration, a large easy-to-empty dustbin, large wheels for climbing thresholds, etc. Amazon detail page for the Ecovacs Deebot NT95 Robot Vacuum Cleaner.


She doesn’t do windows or laundry. Actually all she will do is vacuum the floors,  but she does a really good job! We call her Wanda because she wandas all over the carpet. (sorry). To those who are offended by my gender assignment of our robot, get over it.

Surely there is nothing morally objectionable about a machine that eliminates the drudgery of wrestling with the Hoover and is easy to use, Yet as I ponder the question of robotics taking over the work of humans, I find that there is an aspect of robotic progress that gives me some concern.

* * * * * * * * * *

That’s as far as I got with this post yesterday. And then, today in my morning meandering of the internet, I was led to the Amnesty International website where I learn that even as I type this, a meeting is taking place in Geneva where A Group of Governmental Experts is meeting to come up with a solution to the risks pose by lethal autonomous weapons.

For most of us, serious robotics occur behind the scenes for instance in the field of manufacturing, where robots are doing many tasks formerly performed by humans or in medicine where they assist doctors in performing  operations they could not do without their help. But the military? That never crossed my mind . . . until this morning. What I learned is indeed terrifying and seems to me it should be getting more attention in the media than the latest complaint about Trump.

Killer robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. From artificially intelligent drones to automated guns that can choose their own targets, technological advances in weaponry are far outpacing international law. We are sliding towards a future where humans could be erased from decision-making around the use of force.

—Rasha Abdul Ramin, Researcher/Advisor on Artificial Intelligence and Human Rights at Amnesty International.

This isn’t the first time this group has met. In April of this year, they discussed developing new international law on lethal autonomous weapons systems. Amnesty International is calling for a total ban on the production and use of these weapons. But states which are already developing such systems: France, Israel, South Korea, the USA and the UK,  oppose legally binding prohibitions.

Killer Robots are weapons which once activated, can select, attack, and kill human targets without a person in control.  Experience should have taught us that when it comes to technology, if it can be done, it will be done.  It is naive to believe that production of these weapon systems will not proceed until they are a reality.

The meeting will be over on Friday, Aug 31. Let me know if you hear anything on the news about it. It should be a matter of concern that prompts the Sunday shows to impanel experts to discuss the risks and the possibility of a doomsday scenario. Is that likely? No.

I’ll save my original reservation about robots until next time.


No, I Don’t Want to Install Now!

I don’t want to install this evening, I don’t want to be reminded tomorrow. I want you to quit bothering me with these incessant upgrades.

Time was when technological innovation moved slowly, incrementally improving our lives at a slow but steady pace.

It took 44 years to go from a rotary telephone dial to touch tone dialing. We drove our cars, happily shifting gears for 32 years, from the invention of the Model T until 1940 when Oldsmobile gave us hydramatic or automatic shift. Black and white television satisfied us for about six years before we were introduced to the wonders of color.

A rotary dial with a finger wheel was introduced in 1904 when the instrument itself was known as a candlestick phone. There were many design changes of the phone before touch tone dialing was introduced in 1963.

My grandparents’ home in the forties was an example of a small-town house inching toward modernity.

The house had been equipped with the two essentials for modern living: electricity and indoor plumbing. Gradually an electric stove, electric iron, an electric wringer washer, and a console radio had made their appearance.

But reluctant, I suppose, to suddenly erase what they were accustomed to and to ease the transition psychologically, my grandparents kept the chamber pots, the outhouse, the woodshed, the kerosene lamps, the washboard, and the woodstove hanging around, the latter banished to the enclosed back porch.

 The house had not yet made it all the way to the modern age.

In the kitchen a pump still attached to the kitchen sink brought water from the cistern outside, although the faucets brought city water into the house. Two Mamas still had to pump a foot treadle to power her sewing machine. After my grandfather’s health failed, she had to make frequent trips to the cellar to feed the furnace shovels full of coal. And she had to crank the phone on the wall to alert the operator to put her through

The technological advances that took place during her lifetime never gave her a moment’s grief. She was not a bit sorry she didn’t have to make a trip to the outhouse or scrub the sheets by hand or heat her flat irons on the wood stove. And none of the new technology called for learning anything complicated.

But progress is different now. Innovations are hurtling towards us at warp speed.

We barely have time to get accustomed to one operating system before another takes its place. And even the latest household appliances seem to require a technical competence that sometimes taxes us.

Often the advances impact our humanity in a negative way.

As we bank online, shop online, do our research at home, we are relieved of the countless face-to-face opportunities to elicit cooperation, ask for help, be courteous, grateful, or apologize to a fellow human being.

Language sets us apart from the beasts and yet we are not communicating more effectively through language but minimizing linguistic communication or sometimes eliminating it altogether, letting emojis stand in for our thoughts and feelings.

The first technological advance I recall anyone resisting was the answering machine.  Many people felt that requiring them to talk to a machine was an insult, and they simply wouldn’t do it.

Now we not only talk to machines but the machines reply! And do our bidding! Little children have to be taught that Alexa is different from a person, and you can’t boss your friends and family around as if they were machines.

With iPhone and iPad at the ready, we don’t allow ourselves or our children to be bored. And that’s a pity, for that’s when we do some of our best thinking.

Neil Postman sounded the alarm 33 years ago in his book Âmusing Ourselves to Death. And he was only worried about television! He agreed with Aldous Huxley who had predicted that “people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”

We may have arrived at that point. 😞