Friday, June 15, 2018

To the nth degree

The other day, I saw an article on Bloomberg on what I took to be a pretty unusual business degree: an MBA in Wine. It’s offered by Sonoma State University (which makes plenty of vineyard-y sense). Across the pond, there are a couple of business in/of wine degrees offered, including one from the Burgundy School of Business.

For those looking to own or run a winery, the degree from Sonoma State makes sense, as it’s very focused on networking with wine biz execs.

John Stayton, executive director of SSU’s graduate and executive business programs, points out that many of their graduates are now in executive roles, or are even winery owners.

In other words, the courses are a good way to skip the traditional ladder-climbing in learning to run a winery, which usually starts with pouring wine in a tasting room or working in the office. For owners, they offer a quick way to gain essential knowledge, whether their wineries are tiny startups or entail lavish investments. (Source: Bloomberg)

MBA’s didn’t used to offer such pinpoint concentrations, at least not when I was in business school. Not that I actually have an MBA. When I was at Sloan/MIT, ahh, nearly 40 years ago, they didn’t offer an MBA degree. You got a Master of Science in Management, which no one in the hiring world understood unless they’d also gone to Sloan. My class was a big advocate for normalizing the program, and shortly after, Sloan started conferring MBA degrees.

My concentrations were completely geeky: Applied Economics and Applied Marketing, which set me up perfectly for my first post-MBA MSM job developing forecasting models for the corporate world. Talk about geeky. (Talk about nonsense…)

Anyway, the article on the wine MBA got me wondering just what other out-of-the-ordinary degrees there are out there.

The Google brought me to a piece on Fastweb on “weird-but-cool” college majors. As someone with a decidedly non-weird/non-cool undergraduate degree in Sociology (with a Political Science minor), I was naturally intrigued.

To get a degree in Adventure Education, I wouldn’t have to go that far. Just up to New Hampshire to Plymouth State, where I could take courses in fundamentals of rock climbing and canoe paddling.

There are a couple of schools where you can get a degree in Astrobiology, which is an “exploration of life outside of Earth.” Since we’re currently on the glide path to wrecking this Earth, I’m delighted that there are students studying planetary habitability.

There’s a community college that offers a degree in Auctioneering. Among other things, you learn the “auctioneer’s chant”. Forget economics. This is something that my husband could have easily taught. No, he never actually worked as an auctioneer, But he went to plenty of tobacco auctions when he worked on his uncle’s tobacco farm in Western “Massachusetts. (Yes, there are tobacco farms hereabouts. They grow shade tobacco used for cigar wrappers.) And Jim had a fast mouth. One of his parlor tricks was doing a tobacco auction spiel. “Gimme twenty-dollar bid…”

Carnegie Mellon offers a degree in Bagpiping, which qualifies you to work as a bagpiper or teach bagpiping. As long as there are Irish-American cops and firefighters in particular, and Irish-Americans (and Scots-Americans) in general, I suppose there’ll be a demand. Last Saturday I did a walk for ALS run by one of those Irish-Americans, and we had a piper (kilt and all) piping for us at the halfway mark.

Bakery Science is offered at Kansas State, where you can take a course in flour and dough testing. Which seems a lot more practical than getting a degree in Beatles, Popular Music and Society. It’s gear! It’s fab! It’s offered at – where else? - Liverpool (UK) Hope University. And it sets you up to become a Beatles historian. (This is a career path?)

Hipsters aside, I’ve read that bowling is on its way out as an activity. So it might not make all that much sense to study Bowling Industry Management and Technology and take courses like pinsetter maintenance. Job prospects would be, I imagine, pretty grim. A stat I found in USA Today from a few years back says that:

From 1998-2013, the number of bowling alleys in the U.S. fell to 3,976 from 5,400, or by about 26%.

There will, I suspect, always be a demand for a Citrus degree, however.  So Florida Southern College will likely keep offering courses like citrus grove management.

At Duke, you can get a degree in Canadian Studies. They have a program that “seeks to provide the student with an understanding of Canada.” Talk about something I’d like to understand. We look an awful lot alike. So how’d they get to be them while we got to be us? The degree qualifies you to teach or work in a museum. I propose that they add a course in why Canada gets Justin Trudeau and we get Donald Trump, and another course in applying for immigration. Eh?

Chemical Hygiene and Safety seems like a safe career bet, as there will always be science labs to run. At least I think so. Science still exists, no? At least it must in Canada.

Plenty more interesting degrees where these came from. Pink Slip will be back with a few more of them on Monday.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Recycling direct to landfill…

I’m pretty religious about recycling. Oh, every once in a while I’ll sneak a pair of worn out shoes into my trash bag, knowing full well and guiltily that those worn out shoes will gradually – very gradually – rot away in a landfill somewhere in Upstate NY. Sure, there’s the best case scenario that those worn out shoes will be incinerated in some incinerator with the temperature of the inner circle of hell. But that leather isn’t getting repurposed, that’s for sure.

The odd shoe aside, I’m mostly an avid recycler.

Most recently – i.e., Tuesday afternoon – I went to H&M on Newbury Street to recycle two bags full of clothes that weren’t good enough to bring over to St. Francis House. I had finally done a more-ruthless-than-usual culling of my stores of clothing (including plumbing the depths of an ironing basket that had last been empty in ought-four), and was searching for a place to dump them (other than the dump). Online, I found that H&M has a recycling program which has these three components:

  • Rewear – clothing that can be worn again will be sold as second hand clothes.
  • Reuse – old clothes and textiles will be turned into other products, such as cleaning cloths.
  • Recycle – everything else is turned into textile fibres, and used for things like insulation. (Source: H&M)

Plus, for each bag your surrender, you get 15% off your next purchase. Now I just need to find someone who shops at H&M…

Anyway, clothing from now on will go to H&M. Just as magazines, junk mail, catalogs, pasta boxes, tuna cans, jam jars and just about everything that can and should be recycled goes out back, Monday or Friday, in a clear plastic recycling bag.

And I assume that, from out back, it all decamps to some recycling center, from whence it will find its glorious way back to me at a later date in some transmogrified new form.

But I may be living in a recycling fools paradise.

In recent months, in fact, thousands of tons of material left curbside for recycling in dozens of American cities and towns…have gone to landfills.

In the past, the municipalities would have shipped much of their used paper, plastics and other scrap materials to China for processing. But as part of a broad antipollution campaign, China announced last summer that it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage.” Since Jan. 1 it has banned imports of various types of plastic and paper,and tightened standards for materials it does accept…

“All of a sudden, material being collected on the street doesn’t have a place to go,” said Pete Keller, vice president of recycling and sustainability at Republic Services, one of the largest waste managers in the country.  (Source: NY Times)

Unfortunately, some of it’s finding a place to go: landfill.

Another outcome of the China policy change is that some of the items that had previously been allowable recycling matter, like egg cartons, are no longer recyclable. (They must mean those god-awful plastic egg cartons, not the old-school cardboard ones. Surely, those are still good to go.) I’m guessing Boston hasn’t been especially impacted by the Chinese change of recycling heart – most of the areas caught up in it are in the West. In any case, the city hasn’t sent out info on changes. In fact, the last communication I recall is the one letting us know that pizza boxes are okay if you pick the goop out of them.

In reading the article in The Times, I also learned a new term: aspirational recycling, which means putting stuff in the recycling bin (or, in the case of Boston, those clear recycling bags) that you’re hoping is recyclable. Some of those aspirational items were pretty wild.

Mr. [Brent] Bell, the Waste Management executive, said he had seen everything from Christmas lights to animal carcasses to artillery shells come through the company’s recycling facilities. “Most of our facilities get a bowling ball every day or two,” he said.

I do believe that, had I one or the other in my possession, I would have been able to figure out that artillery shells and bowling balls don’t belong in the recycle bag. But I must confess that I have probably been guilty on occasion of some aspirational recycling, slipping in the odd frayed power cord, assuming that, surely, this can be reused somehow. Guess I’ll have to figure out something else to do with the yards and yards of bright orange Ethernet cabling occupying cabinet space in my office.

While the Chinese situation is mostly hitting the West, we haven’t been exempt locally.

Ben Harvey, the president of E.L. Harvey & Sons, a recycling company based in Westborough, Mass., said that he had around 6,000 tons of paper and cardboard piling up, when he would normally have a couple hundred tons stockpiled. The bales are filling almost half of his 80,000-square-foot facility.

Wonder if some of my old Economists and LL Bean catalogs are biding their time out in Westborough. Hope not.

I hate to see my faith in recycling undermined, my hopes dashed.

But I should know better.

I once worked at a company that equipped each office with a regular wastebasket and a bright blue recycling container. One day, when I was working late, I watched as the cleaning person rolled her trash barrel down the aisle, stopping at each office to grab both the wastebaskets and recycling containers and dump them in to her barrel. Single stream trash vs. single stream recycling?

I have observed our guys often enough to know that the trash guys pick up the black plastic bags and the recycle guys take the clear plastic bags. So I’ll keep on recycling, managing my waste the best that I can.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Sorry I missed this chance to get me a flamethrower…

I’ve seen a lot of war movies, so I know what flamethrowers are used for, which is mostly to flush out the enemy from their caves, tunnels, and bunkers. I’ve watched a lot of news, so I know what flamethrowers are used for in non-military settings, and that’s to quell a wildfire. As in fight fire with fire.

And I suppose farmers could use flamethrowers to clear their fields of weeds.

When I was little, there was a field in back of my grandmother’s house (where we lived until I was six-and-a-half). Nanny’s next door neighbors were an ancient German immigrant couple – as far as I can tell, the only other Germans in Worcester other than my mother. Anyway, the Ladners had been in farmers back in the old country, and each spring, Grandpa Ladner – well into his nineties – would set the field on fire. It wasn’t his field, and it wasn’t planted with any crops, but Grandpa L was having some sort of flashback to his prior life and, so, set what he thought was his field on fire to clear it for his crop growth. Thankfully, Grandpa L didn’t have a flamethrower.

But I hadn’t really thought that any civilian (non-soldier or first responder), other than a farmer, would have any use for a flamethrower.

Elon Musk, however, apparently has 1,000 friends who dropped what they were doing and made their way to one of his outfits,The Boring Company HQ in California, to pay $500 for a Boring Company flamethrower.

Sure, we’ve all worked for boring companies at one point or another in our careers, but if you’re not familiar with The Boring Company:

To solve the problem of soul-destroying traffic, roads must go 3D, which means either flying cars or tunnels. Unlike flying cars, tunnels are weatherproof, out of sight and won't fall on your head. A large network of tunnels many levels deep would fix congestion in any city, no matter how large it grew (just keep adding levels). The key to making this work is increasing tunneling speed and dropping costs by a factor of 10 or more – this is the goal of The Boring Company. Fast to dig, low cost tunnels would also make Hyperloop adoption viable and enable rapid transit across densely populated regions, enabling travel from New York to Washington DC in less than 30 minutes.

Well, if The Boring Company can get someone from NY to DC in less than 30 minutes, that pretty much means they can get someone from Boston to NY in less than 30 minutes. So, let’s go, The Boring Company!

One of the ways that Musk engages his fans and helps fund The Boring Company is selling them stuff.

In this case, the first 1,000 who signed up for the latest sale paid $500 for a flamethrower. If my arithmetic is correct, that would amount to $500K, minus the cost of the flamethrowers. Boring had previously sold 50,000 ball caps for $20, which rolls up to $1M. And they’ve also sold another 20,000 flamethrowers. That’s a cool $10M.

So, the grand (gross – pre cost of goods sold) total seems to be $11.5M. Factor in the additional cost of the free churros that Musk fed to the 1,000 flamethrower buyers, this doesn’t seem like a lot of money to go towards funding a company that’s going to cut the time to get from NYC to DC to 30 minutes by boring – get it, boring – a tunnel. But I suspect that these sales are more about publicity than about raising money. And there’s always Kickstarter…

Anyway, Musk-ovites came from near and far to claim their flamethrowers.

“Imagine if you had the opportunity to get a kite and a key from Benjamin Franklin,” said [Dennis] Dohrman, 45, an environmental scientist who drove 39 hours from Hampstead, North Carolina, referencing the Revolutionary War-era inventor and statesman. (Source: Bloomberg)

I don’t know if this analogy quite holds up. I don’t believe that The Boring Company will be using flamethrowers to bore their tunnels. And I don’t know if Ben Franklin funded his experiment by selling souvenir kites and keys. But the mention of BF has, of course, set me off in a direction that my brain didn’t need to go in.

Imagine if you had the opportunity to get a phonograph needle from Thomas Edison? Imagine if you had the opportunity to get a slug of type from Gutenberg? An air sickness bag from the Wright Brothers?

The other direction my mind has been set off in is making a brain beeline to a ditty we sang in grammar school that included the words:

Benjamin Franklin, inventor was he.
Out in a storm with a kite and a key.
Found how electric that lightning could be…

Ah, but we’re hear to talk about flamethrowers, not Benjamin Franklin. And 1,000 folks lined up find how flaming a flamethrower can be:

At the front of the line, customers wielding demonstration flamethrowers roasted marshmallows as staff showed them how to power the flames…

While a few in line said they planned to resell thFlamethrower - fe limited-edition $500 flamethrowers online, where they already fetch a premium, most said they plan to keep them.

I guess if you’re looking for something just slightly overkill-y to toast your marshmallows, The Boring Company flamethrower’s your man. As for other ideas:

Musk offered suggestions for those wondering how to use their new flamethrowers, such as lighting fireplaces and barbecues. "No more need to use a dainty ‘match’ to ignite!" he wrote on Twitter.

Forget three on a match. It’ll be three on a flamethrower. You could lose your eyebrows that way.

This all seems slightly dangerous to me, especially living as I do in a densely occupied urban environment where there are no fields to de-weed. A cap would always come in handy, but I missed the window of opportunity there. As for the flamethrower, I’m a bit sorry I missed TBC capthis chance to get me one.

I’ll have to keep my eye on the next merchandise offering their planning for this winter: an ice blaster. Now there’s something that a downtown Bostonian can absolutely use. Wonder how it will work on bricks.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Here’s a job I’d be willing to take on–on one condition

The other day, I heard that when the FBI takes into their possession your paper files, they include the contents of your shredder in their grab. And they have a process for reconstructing those documents. If you’re envisioning straight-arrow guys in suits sitting their piecing together shreds of paper, you’re likely imagining a scenario that’s so yesterday. Having googled ‘how to recover shredded paper files’, I learned that there’s software that can help with the job. You scan in all those pieces and, thanks to AI, you may be able to get them into some semblance of readability

Anyway, I’m guessing that the FBI has access to this software.

Not so the White House, it appears.

When it comes to putting together documents that are in bits and pieces, they have it done the old fashioned way: by hand.

They’re not, however, dealing with files that were shredded in an actual shredding machine. No, they’re piecing together documents that were shredded into bits and pieces the old fashioned way: by hand. And these documents were shredded into bits and pieces by the tiny HUGE hands of the man who currently occupies the Oval Office.

Seems that there’s been more to the president’s day-to-day than just tweeting and “Executive Time.” He’s spending some of his valuable time tearing up “documents he is legally required to preserve has concerned White House aides.”

Two of the fellows charged with reconstructing - records management analysts making over $60K a piece – were Solomon Lartey and Reginald Young. They used to do more high-level archiving work. But once Trump blew into town, Lartey and Young, along with a number of colleagues, were tasked with taping the president’s papers back together again. That is, until they were laid off this spring – no notice, just frog marched out the door with no explanation, other than that they “serve at the president’s pleasure.” And his nibs was no longer pleased. Or maybe they just needed to make room for some lower-end members of the kakistocracy and found all these career record managers in their way.

Or maybe it’s that the records management group decided to purchase the AI software and no longer needed actual record management analysts who are good a figuring out puzzles.

It’s not because Lartey and Young were leaking, by the way. Their story came out after the fact of their dismissals, and came about when they were being interviewed about what they felt to be their wrongful pink slips. When they were asked what their jobs entailed, they noted that their work had been somewhat downgraded from what it had been under previous administrations.

Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.

It was a painstaking process that was the result of a clash between legal requirements to preserve White House records and President Donald Trump’s odd and enduring habit of ripping up papers when he’s done with them — what some people described as his unofficial “filing system.”

Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

But White House aides realized early on that they were unable to stop Trump from ripping up paper after he was done with it and throwing it in the trash or on the floor, according to people familiar with the practice. Instead, they chose to clean it up for him, in order to make sure that the president wasn’t violating the law. (Source: Politico)

Well, all thanks and praise to those White House aides who wanted “to make sure that the president wasn’t violating the law” in this case, but where are they when we really need them?

All this said – plus it being said that I would not want to touch anything that DJT had touched - I would probably be pretty good at the task of piecing together ripped up documents. As would my sisters.

We come by our logical minds and puzzle solving abilities naturally, as our mother was a big one for complex jigsaw puzzles and any sort of word puzzle – from regular old crossword puzzles to the tricky diagramless. My sisters and I are all crossworders, with Kath taking the cake for being able to do those British punning puzzles that I’m clueless with. My allegiance has mostly switched to Sudoku, but I still do an occasional crossword puzzle.

We also do jigsaw puzzles when we’re at Kath’s on the Cape. Here I believe Trish gets the “mother’s daughter” award. She’s both good and persistent.

So all three of us could be called upon, in case of a national emergency, to piece together the Trump confetti letters. But I think I speak for all three when I say that we’d only be willing to do so if the document in question were a confession or a resignation letter.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Suicide is painless? Not really…

Before reading about her last week, I didn’t know all that much about Kate Spade. I knew, of course, about the pocketbooks – my niece Molly is among the brand’s fans – and her other design work. For myself, I’m the possessor of a Kate Spade phone case. (White with big black polka dots.) I knew that she was David Spade’s sister-in-law. And I knew that she’d built a pretty good business for herself. Other than that, I don’t know much and can’t recall ever having seen a picture of her.

Reading about Kate Spade after her death, I learned that she grew up in an Irish-Catholic family in Kansas City, and that her maiden name was Kate Brosnahan – a fact that I suspect really struck my cousin Ellen, as this is the maiden name of her daughter. I learned that Kate Spade went to parochial grammar school and a Catholic girls high school. And she looked like pretty much everyone I went to parochial grammar school and Catholic girls high school with. After going to an average, nothing-special university, she landed an entry-level job at Mademoiselle. And the rest is history: design a signature bag, build (with her husband) a major brand/business, sell the business for $$$ to spend time with her only child, a daughter, now 13 years old. Kate Spade was only 55, a couple of years younger than my younger sister. She could have been the kid sister of anyone I went to parochial grammar school or Catholic girls high school with.

Reading about her background, I found myself oddly proud of her and what she had achieved, and so very sorry about her death, with special sorrow reserved for her family, especially her daughter.

I was going to post about her, but what did I have to say?

On Friday morning, I went through my usual a.m. routine, which always starts with my looking through my Twitter feed, There I read the shocking news that Anthony Bourdain had killed himself.

I “knew” Anthony Bourdain a lot better than I “knew” Kate Spade.

Years ago, I had enjoyed his original essay on the restaurant world in The New Yorker, and his follow-on book Kitchen Confidential, which I round hilarious and hilariously snarky. As a veteran of the restaurant biz, there was so much in there that I could completely appreciate.

I pretty regularly watched his show No Reservations, and occasionally watched his later show, Parts Unknown.

I mostly thoroughly enjoyed watching him eat (and drink) his way around the world, his exuberance, his wit, his seeming zest for living, his raunchiness – and the fact that the shows always included a side of culture, history, politics. There was room on the plate in those shows for an awful lot besides food and bev.

I say I “mostly” enjoyed the shows, it’s because of all those times I turned away, my stomach churning even though I was thousands of miles away and months of production time removed from the supper at which something truly ghastly was consumed. One in particular I remember was an egg that contained a nearly–hatched chick, feathers and all. Talk about having control over his gag reflex: I give you Anthony Bourdain. (Fortunately, I missed the show in which he ate warthog rectum, “flavored” with sand and fecal residue.)

My favorite shows included the one in which he ate noodles and drank beer, in a hole-in-the-wall spot in Hanoi, with Barack ObaTony-Barackma. who on Friday morning tweeted this tribute:

“Low plastic stool, cheap but delicious noodles, cold Hanoi beer.” This is how I’ll remember Tony. He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him.

What a good time those two guys seemed to have had…

My other favorite was the one in which he dined at a maple sugar shack in Quebec where everything on the menu features maple syrup/maple sugar and, if I recall correctly, some form of pork. It was so ridiculous, so joyous, I just laughed out loud as a I watched.

Anthony Bourdain’s exuberance, his generosity of spirit, his curiosity, his acceptance of the other, his larger-than-big, bigger-than-large personality, his humor and intelligence. He will be so missed, even by those of us who are complete strangers.

And for all his loud-mouthed, bad-boy-ness, there was always a kindness and compassion about Anthony Bourdain. Here’s a link to a Buzzfeed article recounting his standing up for an 88-year-old North Dakota restaurant reviewer whose review of The Olive Garden was being wildly mocked across the Internet. (Bourdain ended up helping publish a collection of Marilyn Hagerty’s reviews. I just ordered it and am much looking forward to reading it.)

Six degrees of separation, by the way, is alive and well. My friend Pat’s sister is married to Anthony Bourdain’s brother, and Pat knew Tony – his name among family and friends – pretty well. I wrote to her on Friday and she wrote back that “it is devastating on so many levels and complicated by the public glare.”

Devastating on so many levels, especially for his daughter – only eleven years old, even younger than Kate Spade’s.

Most people of a certain age recognize the theme song to M*A*S*H. But you may not recall the lyrics, which include in its refrain the words “suicide is painless.”

No it’s not.

Until it’s over, I suspect that suicide and the thoughts and feelings that lead up to it are plenty painful for the person who takes his or her own life. And it’s plenty painful for those left behind, too.

In the case of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, the pain is, as my friend Pat says, so “complicated by the public glare.”

Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. All those thousands of folks unknown in parts unknown who are grappling with depression. So very, very sad.

Here’s hoping that the deaths of two celebrities will bring about some good.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Ancient Chinese secret

Back in the day, there was a TV ad for Calgon water softener that was set in a Chinese laundry. The customer asks the proprietor what his secret is to getting her shirts – or, this being the early 1970’s, her husband’s shirts – so clean. “Ancient Chinese secret,” he tells her. At which point his wife comes out of the backroom waving a Calgon box and announcing that they’re out of Calgon.

Calgon may not be one of them, but I have come to appreciate that there are ancient Chinese secrets, and one of them is acupuncture.

I’ve had a frozen shoulder for over a year now.

It’s not as a bad as the frozen shoulder I had a few years prior.

That one was truly awful. At one point, I could barely turn a key in a lock without intense pain.

But PT got me through it.

PT’s taking a lot longer this time.

I go three times a week, suffer through a painful stretch once a week, and do stretching exercises several times each day. I also use arnica gel on it. (I say arnica, but I think I’m going to start using the term wolf bane instead.)

It’s not that I can’t use my arm – no problems turning a key in a lock – but certain motions (like putting dishes in an upper cabinet) are difficult.

So after consulting with my friend Timo from the Gymo, a fellow PT patient who’s become a buddy – it was Timo who introduced me to arnica wolfbane – I decided to go to his acupuncturist. My first appointment was yesterday.

The acupuncturist, who is also a nurse, works out of her house in Cambridge. I was treated in what I believe was at one point her dining room

If the setup is eccentric, LP – the acupuncturist – is anything but. Smart, funny, thorough. Knowledgeable about the ways of Western medicine – she’s a nurse – and of the wonders of acupuncture. Pretty amazing.

In addition to attending to my frozen shoulder, LP took a look at my wonky ankle.

The wonky ankle is no big deal. I had an MRI and “all” it is is some tiny tears in the ligaments and tendons. It doesn’t keep me from getting in my 4-5 Fitbit miles every day, but it’s sometimes sore. I do PT to strengthen the muscles around the problem area, and use an NSAID ointment on it to relieve the nighttime pain. Not to mention that the only shoe that’s comfortable is a sneaker with a ton of support – one of the pricey ones (ASICs or Brooks are my favored brands), and I’ve even taken to wearing sneakers as slippers. So while the ankle isn’t a showstopper, it’s a PITA, metaphorically speaking.

If the ankle went truly bad, there is a ghastly surgery that was described to me by the orthopedist I saw. He wasn’t recommending it at all. Not at my wonky ankle stage. But I did half listen, and the operation seems to involve relocating your ankle, after which it puts you on your back with you foot elevated for 10 weeks. What a treat for my sisters! Coin toss for the first 5 weeks vs. the last?

Things haven’t gotten to that stage, but the ankle has been irksome.

So I got acupunctured, high and low, which involved little to no pain and included lying around a heated bed under heated blankets, which isn’t a bad way to spend an hour or so.

No, I’m not cured. But that frozen shoulder has thawed out a bit more than it does during my average PT session. And the ankle feels a bit less wonky. I’ll be interested to hear what my PT guy says when I see him today.

Whatever Jake has to say – and I’m a big believer in the power and glory of Jake – I have a return appointment to see LP next week for another acupuncture session.

For now, ancient Chinese secrets ‘r us. What else have you got for me?

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Robots, robots who need people….

I’ve been fretting for a good long while about what it is that people are going to do once artificial intelligence and robots replace almost all the jobs out there. As an occupational hazard – and, yeah, there still is demand for people who can understand and cogently write about tech stuff (at least for now) – I read a lot about tech stuff. And a lot of the tech stuff I’ve been reading and writing about is related to AI and robots. The bottom line is that they’re good and getting better.

So, truck drivers and Uber drivers, beware. Objects in mirror – those autonomous, self-driving vehicles – are closer than they appear. And don’t get too complacent, you coders. Machine learning’s got its eye on programmers.

What is it, I ask myself all the time, that people are going to do for work?

Sure, we’ve had these fears before. Remember the Luddites out there smashing all those looms?

What has always ended up happening is that when one profession ebbed (buggy whip maker) another one flowed (Ford production line worker). On so on. Sometimes the jobs aren’t an even exchange financially. Those more recently-displaced Ford production line workers made more than home health aides do. Sometimes the pay and working conditions are an upgrade. Programmers make more than Ford production line workers.

This time around, things seem different.

But are they?

Scientists and academics meeting this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab to discuss the future of artificial intelligence seemed sure of one thing: there will be plenty for humans to do—especially tasks that require the kind of intuition and emotional empathy that computers are nowhere near able to match. (Source: Boston Globe)

Reading about intuition and emotional empathy reminds me of the “conversations” we used to have, decades ago, with ELIZA, an early AI/natural language processing system that ran on mainframes. You’d sit there and type a question, and ELIZA, playing therapist, would come back with some sort of superficial response, generally a follow-on question, keying off words in your query and putting something out there that would get you to type in something more. It was stupid, but fun and entertaining, in a superficial kind of way. And was a nice after-work time waster. But none of us were worried about ELIZA replacing us any time soon.

Since then, AI has come a mighty long way. But as our friends at MIT (who were the ones who brought us ELIZA to begin with) point out, it’s still not high on intuition and emotional empathy.

MIT roboticist David Mindell, speaking at the MIT EmTech Next conference, said that in studying decades of human interactions with robots, he’s learned one inescapable truth—the machines always need help. “When robots succeed,” said Mindell, “they’re never alone.”

Will those be the jobs of the future, then? We’ll be the companions to the robots, rather than the future that most of us have been anticipating, in which the robots are the companions to us. Turnaround is fair play, and I’m nearly teary-eyed with gratitude that humans will still be needed.

Hey, all you robots out there: you’ll never walk alone.

The assurance from MIT that robots will need people is all well and good. But just how many humans are robots going to need? 

Of course, what they’re really talking about is human endeavor complementing the work of robots. Robots/AI will still be taking a lot of jobs, just not all of them. They give the example of attorneys. AI is increasingly doing much of the discovery work that newly-minted associates used to take care of. But you still need humans to write briefs and argue in court.

Surprisingly, the MIT conference wasn’t promoting STEM careers.

“I think we need to teach people how to deal less with computers and more with people,” said Iyad Rahwan, associate professor of media arts & sciences at the MIT Media Lab. With computers getting smart enough to program themselves, Rahwan said there will be less need for software engineers in coming years.

Some overall advice: focus on building “softer”, human-centered skills and take those humanities courses.

Great news for all those sociology-English-religious studies majors out there. So far, you’re irreplaceable.