Monday, July 15, 2019

Chill! (Or don’t.)

It’s summer. It’s hot out. And humid. And in my condo, in the background, pretty much 24/7, my A/C is humming along.

If you live in a city that gets hot – and humid – in the summer, and you’re not in a standalone house on a hill surrounded by trees, you really can’t live without it. Literally.

My mother grew up in Chicago, and she told us more than once that, during a heat wave, the newspapers would publish lists of those who had died.

My mother’s family was fortunate. They lived in a bungalow in the leafy reaches of the North Side, Not in a dense, tenement.  Even in that bungalow, leaves and all, I can guarantee you that it was broiling when, sweaty and grasping for air, you tried to get to sleep on that bungalow’s second floor during July.

Lucky for us, on our every-other-year vacations to Chicago, we only spent a few days (and nights) in the city before heading out to my grandmother’s vacation house (called “The Country”) on the appropriately named Sand Lake, up toward the Wisconsin border. Where it was a lot cooler.

We didn’t grow up with air conditioning in Worcester, either.

But our house was freestanding. On a hill. With lots of trees.

Even there and then, there were plenty of toss and turn nights. When we were kids, we often slept on The Porch, an addition that had been bolted on to our compact ranch house after the arrival of my surprise-baby sister. The Porch began life as, well, a porch: three sides of screens in the summer and glassed in (but unheated in the winter). That mode didn’t last long, and The Porch became what would now be called a Great Room or Family Room: a combo dining and TV watching and general hanging out locus. The Porch was furnished with two fold-down (not pullout) couches that converted to double beds. A boys bed and a girls bed, when we were little. It worked. It was breezy and sleep-able. As we got older, we migrated back to our stuffy, hot box bedrooms. But, because we weren’t in a tenement in the heart of the city, and were on a hill, in the shade, there weren’t that many really dreadful nights. And we always had the option of The Porch.

Eventually, my mother did get herself an A/C for her bedroom. Sleeping in the heat doesn’t age well. As we saw a few years ago when a heat wave in France – where air conditioning is rare – killed thousands of elderly folks. I understand it’s not a terrible way to die. Something to keep in mind…

That said, I’m not quite ready to turn the A/C down and drift off into Big Sleep.

So, the A/C stays on. And on. And on.

But the other day, Penelope Green, writing in The New York Times, asked a provocative question: Do Americans Need Air-Conditioning?

Although my answer is, yes, in fact we do, Green makes some good points.

Offices can definitely be overcooled. No need to have them cooled so that it’s only comfortable if you have a suitcoat on.

She doesn’t mention restaurants or movie theaters, but I never go out in summer without some sort of schmatta to throw over my shoulders in case the temp is set to 62 degrees.

So far, by the way, the cooling battles, the thermostat settings, have been won by men, who on balance like temperatures cooler than women do.

Turning the thermostat up a bit is one thing, but there’s other things we could be doing.

I’m quite sure that buildings could be made more efficient on both the heating and cooling fronts. They oughta be, given the impact heating and cooling have on the environment.

But sometimes the building thing can go too far.

A few years ago, an architectural firm in Philadelphia reno’d a new space for themselves and got rid of AC.

Passive and active features provided the cooling, like mechanical and natural ventilation (fans and windows that opened); automated shades; insulation, including a concrete slab floor; and dehumidifiers. The design thinking behind these contemporary refinements has worked for millenniums — imagine an adobe house, or a Roman villa, sealed and shaded against the day’s heat, and opened up at night.

Unfortunately, the employees hated it.

More fans and pushing folks to get to work earlier and dress more casually didn’t quite do the trick. So the firm had to add some traditional A/C to be deployed as needed. Still, the building “is a model of energy efficiency.”

There are things that can be done beyond concrete slab floors and automated shades.

So I’m delighted that MIT’s Neri Oxman “and her colleagues are developing self-cooling building facades and clothing.”

At M.I.T., Dr. Oxman’s team is experimenting with polymers and bacteria in the hopes they might “grow” building facades, and “wearables” — clothing, for example — complete with arteries to hold cooled liquids or gas. They can already 3-D-print glass structures with “spatial pockets” designed to be filled with cooling liquid, as well as “biocompatible synthetic skins” for bodies and buildings, Dr. Oxman said, which would “act as thermodynamic, environmentally sensitive filters and barriers” to respond to temperature changes in the environment and self-regulate.

Yay, scientists! Yay, MIT!

Let’s get moving on those “biocompatible synthetic skins.” I could have used one the other day working in the kitchen at St. Francis House. If you can’t stand the heat, you don’t want to be doling out chicken corn chowder when it’s 90 degrees out.

And speaking of 90, I found it interesting that “nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning,” the highest proportion of any country other than Japan. A lot of these, I’m sure, are folks in the leafy-shady burbs or cool and comfy country who only need A/C a few times a year, when things are truly unbearable. Still, that’s a pretty stunning figure. As the planet heats up, places that have done without – like Europe – will likely be clamoring for more A/C, not to mention places like India where more people are being more affluent and urban, and the country is heating up beyond what folks have become acclimated to over the centuries.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my A/C on, thank you.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dream Island

I will admit, I have fantasized about having my very own private island.

But who am I kidding?

I’m a city girl who tends to freak out if she’s away from sidewalks, out of sight of tall buildings, deprived of at least a bit of the madding crowd, for more than a few days. Isle of Manhattan? Yes! Isle of my own? Not so much.

So it’s just as well I can’t afford one.

But Dr. Albert Sutton can. And he owns two of them, which he paid $1.45 million for.

But Dr. Sutton’s islands are not in the Caribbean or the Pacific… His islands are a five-minute boat ride across Long Island Sound from New Rochelle, N.Y.less than an hour north of Manhattan. (Source: NY Times)

When Dr. Sutton bought Columbia, the first of his islands,14 years ago, his thought was:

I would have great thoughts out here,” he said, standing on his doorstep on Columbia Island, the smaller of the two.

What he thinks about these days is the $8 million he’s forked over to make his islands habitable.

Last year, I took a tour of Boston Harbor.

One of the points of interest was a tiny little island that was home to a lighthouse.

Little more than a pile of rock on which the lighthouse sits, someone bought it and was trying to turn it into a vacay spot for his family.

To get to the lighthouse, you had to climb up a ladder, accessible from a swaying pier, so that would be a non-starter for me to begin with. Part of the set up was an even smaller pile of rocks about 10 yards away. To get to the shack (guest quarters?) on this island-een, you had to take a zipline from the lighthouse.

The entire thing was a hard pass on my part.

Dr. Sutton’s islands are a lot dreamier.

On his main event, Columbia Island, he’s invested big time, necessity being the mother of investment. And he’s built a lovely home for himself. But a costly one.

He said he put money into necessities, like a decommissioned Navy vessel to get to his island and a barge that can carry about one tractor-trailer load of material from the mainland.

There was a building on the island, but it wasn’t fit for habitation: it had been built in the 1940s as the base of a radio transmitter.

He had to rip out the ordinary wallboard he first installed, replacing it with concrete-backed board that is resistant to water seeping through walls. To keep the basement dry, his contractors installed a three-pump system that can handle a storm surge; it can drive out 60,000 gallons of water an hour.

…And while WCBS  [the radio station that had owned the retired transmitter] must have had an electric cable from the mainland, it was long gone when he arrived. He opted for solar panels on the roof, with a backup system for cloudy days — two 50-kilowatt generators.

And landscaping was a challenge. He first planted honey locusts and shrubs that would do well on the mainland. They died in the salty air. Now he has mulberry and kwanzan cherry trees.

Fortunately, Dr. Sutton had been a real-estate investor for decades, and a successful one, so he could afford those kwanzan cherry trees.  Not to mention buying the island next door to protect himself from having a lousy neighbor.

If the kitchen – the only room pictured in the article – is any indication, the place is drop-dead gorgeous. Although a tad bit sterile and unlived-in looking.

That’s because no one has actually ever lived there.

Dr. Sutton has spent one night in his dream island. And now he wants out. Columbia and Pea Islands are on sale for $13M.

Not that he had ever actually intended to live there.

“It never really occurred to me that, gee, I should spend more time there or get more pleasure out of it,’’ he said. “I was here to make it beautiful and let it realize itself.”

Now that is my idea of wealth: being able to afford to make something beautiful and letting “it realize itself.” But I guess what he means by realizing itself is realizing a return. Which is where the $13M comes in.

“You know, I started in my 70s. Now I’m 85. I’m less adventurous,” Dr. Sutton said. “It’s not about me or my wishes or dreams any more. I can dream in a chair.”

Well, that’s where I do my island dreaming. And my great thought thinking. It’s simple, it’s convenient, and the price is right. Still, much as I’m a city girl, I think if I’d done this reno, I’d have spent more than one night there.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Yet another awful, future-destroying app

“Deepfake” has been in the news of late, what with concern on the part of some that there will be wholesale manipulation of videos, audios and images during the upcoming (make that already upon us) election cycle. The technology has gotten so good at creating real-looking but entirely bogus clips that it will make the social media fakery and Russian bot activity we suffered from (make that continue to suffer from) during 2016 look like amateur hour.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this will play out. A low-information, easily gulled electorate will be doused with vids of Barack Obama trash talking the Democratic nominee. Etc. (As for fakery on the other side, well, what would the content be exactly? Trump trash talking a Gold Star family? Making fun of a handicapped journalist? Claiming that a woman who accused him of rape isn’t “his type”? Cozying up to tyrants? This time around at least, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doctor anything up. And while I’m not big on bothsiderism these days, I don’t suppose that anyone would have to use technology to make zany Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson look like a wack job.)

In any case, fact checkers will be working overtime next/this time around.

Of course, artificial intelligence won’t just be drafted into use to put words in the mouths of politicians.

Though much has been made of the technology’s threat to national security, it has also been harnessed to make a torrent of fake porn, including widely circulated videos of celebrities such as Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson. Although sites including Reddit, Twitter and Pornhub have tried to ban pornographic deepfakes, they have had limited success. The technology is cheap and easily accessible, and the opportunities for use are limitless. (Source: WaPo)

Not that I don’t have some sympathy for Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson here. This is pretty awful stuff. But, at least they have Reddit and Pornhub on their side. (Pornhub? WTF?) Frankly, I’m more concerned with a fake video of one of the Democratic woman revealing her secret plan to castrate all white men. Or something.

Anyway:

An app developer who created an algorithm that can digitally undress women in photos has pulled the plug on the software after high traffic and a viral backlash convinced him that the world is not ready for it.

DeepNude used artificial intelligence to create the “deepfake” images, presenting realistic approximations of what a woman — it was not designed to work on men — might look like without her clothes.

I don’t think I have to worry that anyone will want to use this app on me. Still, the potential for this to be used on “civilians”, i.e., women whose images aren’t more of less in the public domain, makes it pretty awfuller stuff than the porning of movie stars.

The coder, Alberto, who came up with DeepNude – an app with a freeware version that incorporated a watermark so that people would know it was fake, and premium $50 version that had an easily crop-out-able stamp in the corner that says the image is “FAKE” – says that he is:

“not a voyeur,” merely a technology enthusiast who was driven to create the app out of “fun and enthusiasm.”

Well, “fun and enthusiasm” and also looking for “an economic return from this algorithm”.

Alberto based his app on UCal Berkeley open-source code.

DeepNude’s creator said he mulled the ethics of his software but ultimately decided the same results could be accomplished through any number of photo-editing programs.

“If someone has bad intentions, having DeepNude doesn’t change much. . . . If I don’t do it, someone else will do it in a year,” Alberto said.

“Bad intentions”? Come on, Alberto. What good intentions would there be out there?

Sure, on Twitter – where after a few days, @deepnude had 21.9K followers – the thought was that the app would be used for “user’s entertainment.” But at quite a cost, my friend.

As for “someone else will do it in a year,” in this, Alberto is 100% correct-o-mundo.

But at least Alberto did the right thing and closed up shop. Not, of course, before his app was written about on Motherboard and Vice. Which accounts, I guess for all those followers. Download attempts eventually crashed the server it was on, but DeepNude got out there before Alberto had his crisis of conscience. And since it’s “out there,” anyone who wants it can have at it.

“We don’t want to make money this way,” the tweet read. “Surely some copies of DeepNude will be shared on the web, but we don’t want to be the ones who sell it.”

I looked through a few of the Twitter comments, and they were split between “this is a sexist outrage” and “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” Oy.

DeepNude itself had this final word:

“The world is not yet ready for DeepNude,” it said.

But California is getting ready for it. They’re looking at legislation that would outlaw deepfake porn.

Between the return of old-style fascism throughout the world, and the techno shit shows that are coming on harder and faster, this is really not the future I want to live in.

Maybe Marianne Williamson is onto something when she talks about “harnessing love.”

Sigh…


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Looks like it’s the insurance companies that are going to save us

Whatever your thoughts on the impact that human activity has on climate change, there really can’t be all that many folks out there who think that energy generated by coal-fired plants is a good thing.

As The Wall was falling in 1989, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in Berlin. This was winter, so the heat was on.

And heat in East Berlin was generated by coal. Really dirty coal. And if you think that The Berlin Wall kept filthy air from wafting over into West Berlin, where we were staying a few minutes walk from Checkpoint Charlie, you think wrong.

The air was brown, gritty almost. And it smelled awful. We first noticed it when we got to our hotel room, and I thought my husband was having a gas attack. Talk about rotten eggs.

Not that air quality in the U.S. was always so great.

Boston used to have a lot more smoggy days than it does now.

But when coal-generated electricity is replaced by something better (i.e., cleaner), the air gets cleaner.

As for clean coal. No. Such. Thing.

I’m also old enough to remember when home heating with coal was a thing. Until I was 7, my family lived in my grandmother’s three-flat, and, although oil eventually replaced coal, when I was little, each flat had its own furnace and coal cellar. I can still hear the rattle of the coal as it was sent down the chute.

But coal?Ugh!

Basically, coal is good for making a snowman’s face.

That and making steel.

Despite the efforts of coal companies, and the current rage for rolling back anti-coal regulations by the entity that used to be known as the Environmental Protection Agency, coal for power generation has been the way out in the U.S. for decades.

And this trend will be accelerating, thanks to American insurance companies.

Other insurers are expected to follow suit, but first up is Chubb, which is banning coverage for coal companies.

Chubb, facing increasing pressure from environmental action groups, said Monday it will no longer sell insurance to new coal-fired power plants or sell new policies to companies that derive more than 30% of their revenues from thermal coal mining…

“Chubb recognises the reality of climate change and the substantial impact of human activity on our planet,” said Evan Greenberg, Chubb’s chief executive.

The company, which is officially based in Switzerland but does much of its business in the U.S., will also stop making new investments in companies that have a big exposure to thermal coal mining or coal-based energy production.(Source: LA Times)

This decision is, of course, an economic one.

And it won’t end with coal-fired plants.

When it comes to climate change, insurance companies are already living in the future. There are a lot more natural catastrophe claims being made than there used to be, and while they’re not all climate-change related, plenty of them (think California wildfires) are.

So insurance companies are facing the money-making challenge of charging organizations and homeowners premiums that put insurance out of reach. If no one can afford to buy insurance, well, that’s not good for the insurers or the insurees. But insurance companies can’t stay in business if they can’t charge enough to make payouts. They’ll back right away from losing business.

Their risk models are telling them that something’s got to give. And for Chubb, that means giving up on coal.

Not everyone believes that environmental salvation is going to be up to the insurance companies:

In an interview with the Financial Times in April, Warren Buffett said decisions around how to deal with the declining use of coal “overwhelmingly ... has to be a government activity.”

But the insurance companies are doing their bit:

Last week, Zurich extended its policy, saying that it would not underwrite or invest in companies that generate more than 30% of their revenues from oil sands or oil shale. It also said it would avoid companies that operated infrastructure such as pipelines and railways for oil sands projects.

At the time, Mario Greco, Zurich chief executive, said that the policy was “simply the right thing to do.”

“We see first-hand the devastation natural disasters inflict on people and communities,” he added.

I’m with Warren Buffett that we can and do need government to step  on the side of the environment. The stakes (and not just the temperatures) are too high.

But Chubb and Zurich are sure showing where a little capitalism can lead us.


Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Where the Wild Things Are

Polar bears are breaking into Siberian apartment buildings looking for food. Cougars out West are mauling runners who’re encroaching on their turf. Week in, week out, there are local news reports about moose and black bears marauding around cities. And coyotes in the ‘hood are barely worth noticing anymore.

In Brookline, Massachusetts, wild turkeys are stalking residents. (I’ve had several close encounters at the Beaconsfield T stop. Walk purposively and whatever you do, don’t make eye contact.) And cats, well, cats are always plotting a way to kill their owners, aren’t they? If only they were a bit larger than they are. Rats!

Anyway, if you’re wondering where the wild things are, they’re everywhere.

The latest incursion of the wild kingdom onto “our” turf occurred in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, which is “being terrorised by hordes of feral chickens.”

Residents have been making complaints about the birds, which have also become a traffic hazard. Two small culls have been carried out, but they continue to cause chaos, the Environment Minister has admitted.

It is believed the chickens were once pets which were abandoned, before rapidly breeding. They now roam the British island in 100-strong groups. (Source: iNews)

Chickens in gangs 100-strong? Yowza. And these are feral chickens, which makes them sound pretty darned scary.  These are not natural-born feral chickens. They’re domesticated chickens which were once pets but which have been abandoned. Pretty nasty to abandon an animal that had been a pet, even if I don’t get chickens as pets.

I’ve never actually known anyone who’s kept a chicken for anything other than eggs or cutlets, but I know they’re out there.

My friend Marie had some neighbors who kept chickens as pets for their kids. (Marie kept dogs for hers.) The chicken-keepers were pretty eccentric to begin with. Although the neighbors/ kids were roughly the same ages as Marie’s, as pre-schoolers they were not allowed to play together because the parents were afraid that if their kiddos were exposed to other kiddos, hers would get sick.

Marie tried to explain that kids need to get exposed to others – and even to get sick – so that their resistance would build up before they started school.

This couple didn’t buy it. They kept their kids to themselves and got them the chickens as a consolation prize for not having any friends.

Don’t know what happened to those kids – or those chickens. Presumably, the odd couple didn’t tire of them and let them go free-ranging around the mean streets of Providence, Rhode Island.

But a lot of chicken owners in Jersey were apparently more than willing to let theirs go.

And when they’re let go, they make their way to other chickens, forming gangs that have gained a reputation for “waking up locals, damaging gardens and even chasing joggers.” Oh, and also becoming a traffic hazard.

One problem in Jersey is that there are no foxes there. So the chickens have no natural predator.

The government has been lightly culling the herds, but the gangs keep on keeping on. A rapid reproduction cycle doesn’t help. (Guess you don’t neuter chickens as pets.)

“We are in a situation where we have got animal lovers on the one hand and where we have got those who are experiencing a nuisance on the other. I can’t pretend to sit here and say I have got an answer to that.”

I’m an animal lover, but I’m all for chicken-culling. Wish they’d cull the Canada geese which have infested our locale for the past decade or so, fowls befouling our walkways. And I do mean befouling.

For a couple of years, dogs were brought in to chase them away, but that initiative fell through. Then there was a group that went around oiling goose eggs so they wouldn’t hatch. This seemed like a good idea, but some pro-life chicken lovers squawked.

On Jersey, in addition to the modest culls – only 35 have been culled out of hundreds of gang members – the powers that be are encouraging folks “not to feed them.

Civilians are permitted to get rid of nuisance chickens, as “feral chickens are not protected under the animal welfare law because they do not belong to anybody.”

Well, that’s good.

Encountering a small troop of wild turkeys is bad enough, but coming across a feral chicken gang that’s 100 strong? No, no, a thousand times no.

Somedays, I’m afraid to open the door.

Monday, July 08, 2019

$56M for the lawyers, $2M for the laid-off Toys ‘r Us employees. This seems about right.

I saw the other day that a few Toys R Us stores are going to be re-opening. Actually, it’s not even a few. It’s two. And they’re going to be smaller than the stores that closed. And more “experiential.” As if shopping at a Toys R Us wasn’t experiential enough. (At least it was if you went to the one in Times Square with the indoor rollercoaster.)

Something’s better than nothing, I guess. 2 > 0 and all that.

And speaking of something being better than nothing, the Toys R’ Us bankruptcy judge threw a few bucks the employees’ way. Which for the 33,000 Toys R Us employees that got laid off when the chain’s outlets were shuttered translates into about $60 each.

Which would give those former employees enough to head on over to Amazon and buy a Barbie Chicken Farmer Doll & Playset AND a Lego Avengers set. Plus have a few bucks left over for a couple of Happy Meals.

Which ought to hold ‘em.

While the workers fund was was given $2M to make up for the severance they were promised but stiffed on, the law firm that represented Toys R Us during their bankruptcy proceedings was granted $56M in fees.

Sounds fair to me.

After all, Kirkland & Ellis is a highly esteemed firm. And they could use that $56M to help make a contribution to sustaining their revenues – which last year were $3.76B. And to help ensure that the partners take of the profits are at least as hefty as they were in 2018: $5M per partner.

I am, of course, not arguing that Toys R Us clerks should make as much as attorneys at Kirkland & Ellis. Brain surgeons should make more than garbage men. Coders should make more than burger flippers. Etc.

Pay should be at least somewhat commensurate with education, skill, value contributed… Of course, with lawyers, the value contributed is subject to argument.

I know, I know. When a company files Chapter 11, severance payouts move to the bottom of the priority heap. Given that, the employees were lucky to get that $60. And I also read somewhere that the former owners of Toys R’ Us did make a $20M contribution to a fund for laid off workers.

But jeeza Louisa.

I’d like to see exactly what Kirkland & Ellis did to earn that $56M.

Maybe they should have switched the awards. After all, $56M is a relatively paltry sum, given Kirkland & Ellis’ multi-billion earnings. It would fund a mere fraction of partner profits. But if equally split, those 33,000 Toys R’ Us workers would have pocketed about $1,700 a piece. Not bad if you’re making next to nothing to begin with.

And you know what? Even if they require minimal skills, retail jobs are tough. No, all 33,000 of those employees weren’t manning the cash registers or stocking the shelves. They were in finance, buying, marketing, logistics, HR, and – yes! – legal…. But for the ill-paid workers on the floor, the work is grinding. You’re on your feet. Customers are often hard to deal with. And it can be boring. Very boring.

And those boring, grinding jobs are going away. Not just because of the usual suspect, i.e., Amazon. But because they’re being automated away.

CVS has done away with many of its clerks. They push you towards self-check out and then, when that doesn’t work – which is about 50% of the time, as far as I can tell, mostly around bagging your merch – you cool your heels and wait for a helper to come over and swipe a magic card for you.

Uber drivers will be dodo birded by self-driving cars. Teamsters by self-driving trucks. Amazon stockers by robots.

So the bigger problem is not Toys R’ Us. Or the greed-heads at Kirkland & Ellis. It’s the fact that all these grinding, boring, low pay jobs are disappearing. And everyone just seems to be keeping their fingers crossed that something will appear to replace them.

Maybe we’ll just have to take Andrew Yang (one of the multitude Democratic presidential candidates) up on his offer of $1K a month guaranteed income. (Yang for President!)

Anyway, let Kirkland & Ellis enjoy the bounty while it lasts. No reason to believe that AI ain’t coming for them next…

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Sources: for general info on the bankruptcy awards CBS News, for Kirkland & Ellis data: Chicago Business

Friday, July 05, 2019

Time off for good behavior

I was going to do a post riffing on my father’s day-after-the-Fourth bon mot that the summer’s all down hill from here.

Frankly, other than the fact that there’s a bit less sun each day, I don’t really agree with him. And I don’t think he actually agreed with himself, either. I think he was just being funny and a bit of a provocateur, as he really wasn’t a dour, pessimistic guy at all.

There’s a lot left to the summer.

Today, I’m on the Cape, at my sister Kath’s in Wellfleet, and I’m hoping to get down to somewhere on the Cape another time or two. (I’m really not inviting myself. Or am I?)

I’ve got tickets for two more Red Sox games. Sure, they’re not particularly good this year, but baseball is baseball.

I’m going to a Zac Brown concert at Fenway, so at least I’ll see one great performance there this summer.

At some point, I’ll head over to “Boston’s” new gaming resort, The Encore, and make fun of it.

The Chinese dogwood in front of my house is beautiful.

And, oh yeah, I’m going to write a novel.

See you on Monday.