Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it's been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the "political correctness" debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn't ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?


It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 


It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let's be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?


IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the "Freedom to offend" meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A most important event

The Artdog Quote of the Week


Engaging kids with the natural world is serious business--but don't tell them that! Kids interact with nature in the way they do everything: with imagination and curiosity. Also, I'd like to hope, with spontaneous joy.

Getting kids out into the natural world is a matter of enormous importance--they won't save what they don't value--but we must couch it in children's native language, which is that of play.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the Natural Healthcare Store, for this image, which shares a page with some other great kids-and-nature quotes in the source.

Friday, May 19, 2017

4 Powerful benefits from a simple nature walk

The Artdog Image of Interest



Some folks will look at this photo and see nothing but weeds, potential sunburn, probable bug bites, an annoying tick-check later, and dirty feet in the making. Grab the sunscreen and the bug repellent! They've let the kids loose in the the woods again!

Others will realize that these kids are receiving many more benefits than they are facing potential hazards. What are the benefits of taking a walk in nature? Let me count out a few for you!

1. Walking in nature improves emotional well-being. Children today suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety than past generations--yet walking in nature has been shown to counter "morbid rumination" (brooding on anxious or negative thoughts).

2. Walking anywhere promotes better fitness, but walking in nature is intrinsically satisfying. This makes it a more attractive activity than, say, walking on a treadmill or a track. The variations in terrain also can help foster greater agility.

3. The endless variety and movement in nature provokes a child's natural curiosity. Some experts suggest it may help foster greater focus and improve kids' attention span, while other folks have pointed out it can help improve listening and other cognitive skills. It's also true that things a child personally experiences in nature can make academic studies of topics such as biology, ecology and other sciences more relevant and understandable.

4. Exposure to nature can also improve the body's ability to function. While overexposure to the sun is a hazard, sunlight is essential to the production of Vitamin D in the body--a vital component for robust immune health. And speaking of the immune system, did you actually know that a little dirt is actually a good thing? A too-sanitized environment for children can actually backfire if the child's body has no chance to build up natural immunities. It's the same principle that applies to the immune-system benefits of household pets. Finally, being in nature can even improve kids' eyesight, if they spend sufficient time outdoors!

Nature walks provide so many powerful benefits, it's hard to overstate their value. So what are you waiting for? Grab the kids and get out there!

IMAGE: Many thanks to the writer/blogger Angela Amman for permission to use her photo "Walking in the Woods," posted on her Playing With Words blog.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

To automate, or not to automate? Working with kids

A Glimpse of the Future?
In recent weeks many of my mid-week posts have focused on the contemporary trend among all kinds of industries to increasingly use robotics or other types of automation, rather than hiring extra workers.

It's a phenomenon that impacts all kinds of workers--in ALL socio-economic brackets, except maybe for that seemingly-impervious top 1%--and across widely-varied industries. Today, in the last of this series, I intend to address the topic that originally inspired me to look into it in the first place.

I am a retired teacher. Indeed, from its inception in 2009 through mid-2013, the title of this blog was Artdog Educator, and it focused pretty exclusively on education topics. Although both I and the blog have shifted our focus since then, I have been and always will be professionally interested in how people learn.

Thus, I was dumbfounded to read in Education Week recently that there actually are people in New York who think it's a good idea to save money by replacing substitute teachers with e-learning. What is e-learning? In case you couldn't figure it out, it's training conducted via the Internet.

Now . . . educators have anything but a stellar history in the use of digital media for teaching. For a variety of understandable but lamentable reasons, it has taken heroic efforts to get educators anywhere close to up-to-speed in this area. I examined that dynamic in some detail, in a 2011 series that kicked off with the post Teaching Like it's 1980.

Slowly and painfully, however, educators at all levels have finally--somewhat--in spite of all countervailing forces--embraced digital media. Given that, and the global movement to automate all possible jobs (whether it's a good idea or not), some brilliant genius, sooner or later, was going to come up with this.

As with the periodic call to "run education like a business," I can guarantee you that no one who has ever actually BEEN a substitute teacher came up with this plan. I, on the other hand, have racked up ten years' cumulative, hard-won substitute-teaching experience. 

A little boy and his teacher observe as a Nao robot (by Aldebaran Robotics) writes an equation.

First, let's backtrack a bit. In my research for this series I've run onto the idea that robots or automation could take over several different aspects of childcare or education, from babysitting through early learning, distance learning, and substitute teaching.

It's intuitive, right? I mean, kids seem inextricably attached to their digital devices, and, after all, parents have been parking their kids in front of the "electronic babysitter" (AKA television/videos) for years.

Great idea! The Trix Cereal Rabbit as your babysitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure. And if you think "Nao" or the TV could actually be a good babysitter in the total absence of parents or other supervising adults, just try it. See how quickly you come up on child endangerment charges!

A robot, at the current level of development, couldn't control the situation. The kid knows that thing isn't a real person, and has no authority. S/he would play with it for a while, get bored, and go wandering off unsupervised to face the myriad dangers of whatever the world threw at him/her.

Digital media present the same problem in the substitute-teaching scenario. Used in conjunction with a good lesson plan and alert (adult, human, in-charge) substitute teacher, they've gotten many a class through many a lesson with some actual learning and student engagement taking place.

E-learning can't replace an engaging, knowledgeable human teacher who's firmly in charge of things.

Absent the alert, adult, human, in-charge substitute teacher, you've got guaranteed chaos. No matter what the grade penalties, 99% of any class will do anything BUT the busywork on the computer. Any class I ever stepped into as a substitute was extremely reluctant to conduct "business as usual." They generally required a very firm hand and a lot of creative engagement to successfully establish a genuine learning environment. 

The intrinsic fascination with learning via the Internet has long since faded for digital natives; to them, it's old hat. They need to believe it's worth their time--AND more interesting than all the other things they could be doing--for any plan to "replace substitute teachers with e-learning" to actually work.

Digital natives are doing their own thing, when they're totally wrapped up in their digital media. Doesn't mean they'll do lessons unsupervised.

Substitute teaching, done well, is hard work (kinda like nursing! Or developing and writing news stories! Or . . . you get the idea, I hope). It requires a dedicated professional who knows the discipline s/he is to teach, if it's not to be a wasted "babysitting day"--and we haven't been able to afford those, for a long time.

If the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York (or any other bright-eyed bean-counters in a similar position) think otherwise, they should try it for themselves. I dare them.

Meanwhile, if they can't get enough qualified substitute teachers, maybe they should try offering them "combat pay."

IMAGES: Thanks yet again to Before it's News, for the "vision of the future" graphic. The e-learning photo is courtesy of UNITAR/UN ESCAP E-Learning. Many thanks to International Business Times, for the photo of the NAO robot in a south Australian classroom (note adult human teacher also in the picture), and to Frenzy Advertisement for the photo of the kids watching a Trix commercial on TV. Many thanks to TheSHRINKRap's post "Engaging teachers means engaged students," for the photo of the teacher with an engaged group of students, and to CathNews USA for the photo of the student with an iPad.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

How to tell it's been a good day

The Artdog Quote of the Week


Do you remember feeling this way as a kid? Please make sure the children in your life get to have this same kind of wonderful feeling! They won't save what they don't value, and the stakes get higher every year.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the Children and Nature Network's Facebook page, for this image.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Let the children play

The Artdog Image of Interest 


There's a special magic that happens when kids play outdoors in an unstructured way. Last week's Image of Interest discussed NPAs, or Natural Play Areas in parks, and their value. But lower-case natural play areas don't just have to be in parks.

Lucky are the children with access to a farm or a big back yard that consists of something other than manicured grass and a plastic swing set--although kids tend to make do with whatever they've got. More varied terrain does tend to help get the creative imagination going.

Creative adults, especially those who grew up with access to interesting natural play areas, almost invariably get a smile on their faces when they think about kids playing outdoors--but in fact that's getting harder for children to do as years pass.

There's a record number of kids in developed nations--kids who seemingly have all possible advantages going for them--who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. As Peter Gray has written in Psychology Today, "Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today."

Gray and many others point to the decreasing amount of play time children are allowed, these days--especially unstructured play time--as a source of the trouble. Running wind sprints or practicing your pitching skills on a flat field--while possibly enjoyable and valuable--are WAY different from unstructured play in a natural play area.

But all too often we see parents or other caregivers worry more over the potential dangers of outdoor play--from overexposure to the sun to air pollution--than about the ill effects of too little outdoor play. "Supervise your child carefully," parents are warned. Supervise, certainly--and not all areas are equally safe for all ages. A little common sense, especially where toddlers are concerned, is well-advised.

But when they grow out of the toddler stage, don't forget that appropriate developmental needs change. And, believe it or not, there actually are physical and psychological benefits to doing things such as sledding, walking barefoot in the woods, or rolling down a hill. Even simply getting dirty can be good for the immune system. Of course, kids have known this for eons.

We adults should relax a bit, and let them do it.

IMAGE: Many thanks to CafeMom for this image. It's taken from the excellent article by Jacqueline Burt Cote, 6 Reasons Your Kid Should Play Outside, According to Science.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Authors, reading

I attended DemiCon 28 last weekend. It's a science fiction convention in the DesMoines, IA area (technically, Urbandale), where they had an art show, masquerade, panel discussions, parties--the full gamut of things I have learned to anticipate at sf conventions in my decades-long career of attending them.

Mark Van Name does a reading from his novel
No Going Back at Balticon in 2012.
And they had author readings.

In my experience, author readings at large conventions by "big name" authors can be standing-room-only events. Author readings by mid-list or relatively unknown authors tend to be the orphan stepchildren of convention programming. If anyone shows up for one, that counts as "wildly successful."

Some promoting, arm-twisting, and recruitment of friends and family to fill the audience may be required, for newbie writers. We may have loved listening to people read us stories in grade school, or be passionately attached to our audio books and podcasts as adults, but somehow getting people to attend readings at sf conventions continues to be kind of a heavy lift.

As some of my more persistent blog-readers may have noticed, I'm a writer who's poised on the brink of having a novel to release into the wild. It's gone through multiple drafts, been professionally edited, and I've done all I can to make it the best novel it can be. The time has come to start making people aware it's coming.



I asked for a reading at DemiCon. Better yet, I got one--although I wasn't scheduled for many other programming events where I could promote it. I made fliers (with advice from my son about copy writing), and invited everyone I could.

P. C. Haring read several interesting excerpts
from his novel Slipspace: Harbinger
I also was able to connect with a couple of other authors, who also had readings. One of them was P.C. Haring, who'd been scheduled for a reading that morning at 9:00 a.m.

Now, in the normal world, 9:00 a.m., even on a Saturday, is a fairly reasonable hour. At a science fiction convention--especially one with as many lively room parties as DemiCon 28 has, a 9:00 a.m. panel on Saturday might count as cruel and unusual punishment.

I'd noticed this scheduling earlier, and commiserated with him. Then, on an impulse, I offered him the second half of my scheduled hour from 4-5:00 p.m. This was not entirely altruistic on my part: my voice tends to give out after half an hour or so of reading. In any case, he accepted the opportunity. We had a nice attendance--the room was about half-full. I read my first chapter, then he read excerpts from his book. Before we knew it, the hour was over and we'd all had a pleasant listen.

Then we gathered up as many of the audience up as possible, and trooped across the hall to listen to Lettie Prell read from two of her short works. The first, "Emergency Protocol," is a flash fiction (very short) piece that will be published by Analog Science Fiction and Fact at a future date. It is wonderful: watch for it.

Prell then read excerpts from The Three Lives of Sonata James, a thought-provoking story that's been reprinted in Some of the Best from Tor.com: 2016, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Two, edited by Neil Clarke. Good stuff.

Did I gain anything by encouraging my audience to also listen to P.C. and Lettie?

Could/should I have filled my entire hour, all by myself? Well, certainly I had enough material to read (assuming my voice held up). And from comments I got later, the audience would have been game for listening to me. So maybe I made the wrong call. If you look at it from the point of view that all authors are in competition with each other, then I definitely did. Nice guys finish last, and all that.

But I don't see the world as a zero-sum game, and I especially don't look at writing that way.  I cannot possibly write fast enough to be the only author someone reads (unless they read ver-r-r-r-r-ry slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly, indeed!). Even much more prolific authors ultimately can't. Everyone's readers are also going to read other authors' work.

Therefore, I'd rather be a resource, a connector, a person who introduces people to others they may also like, in any given network. I fundamentally do not believe that any given group of writers (or artists) are competing, so much as conducting parallel enterprises. If we conduct our careers in friendly, cooperative ways, as far as I'm concerned, we all gain, and actually might expand our own networks a bit in the process.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the Balticon Podcast, for the photo of author Mark Van Name giving a reading from his novel No Going Back. There aren't very many photos of that particular activity (author readings at sf cons), so I was relieved to find a good one! The promo card for my novel, Going to the XK9s, is a combination of my copywriting and design, much improved by comments from my son Tyrell Gephardt, and an illustration I commissioned for promotional purposes, by Jeff Porter. The cover art for P. C. Haring's novel Slipstream: Harbinger is from his website. The illustration for The Three Lives of Sonata James is by Kevin Hong. It is posted here courtesy of Goodreads. Many thanks to all!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Laying sound groundwork

The Artdog Quote of the week 


Last month's Quotes of the Week centered on climate change and the denial thereof. This month's Quotes turn to the related topic of teaching children (and their parents) the important things that the natural world can tell us. As today's quote points out, we won't save what we don't value. Summer beckons. Let us make the most of it!

IMAGE: Many thanks to Dona Matthews and her wonderful blog post essay about the value of taking kids outdoors to learn.

Friday, May 5, 2017

A place for kids "gleefully doing their worst"

The Artdog Image of Interest

Welcome to Imagination Grove in McLean, IL, a place where more unsupervised play is allowed.

What if kids were allowed to pick flowers, build forts, break off branches, and carry away rocks from public parks? To make extra trails through the undergrowth, to dig holes? What's the worst that could happen?

If you're like a lot of grownups, you're probably envisioning hard-compacted soil, hillsides denuded of flowers, and desolation. In some settings, particularly the more fragile, endangered areas, you'd be right.

But a lot of the current kid-generation's parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have memories of being at large and creatively free in wild or semi-wild places, where they did all of those things and came back from largely-undamaged natural places with a new and deeper appreciation for the natural world we live in.

Matthew Browning, a former Park Ranger, sought out an area in Sweden where he cold study natural play zones where kids were bound by very few rules. And no, these places did not escape unmarked. But Browning found that "after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas. The damage wrought by kids was comparable to that from hiking or camping."

Grownups being grownups, they've now created an acronym for areas reserved in public parks for such use: NPAs, or Natural Play Areas. But it's a positive movement all the same. As Katherine Martinko of Treehugger writes, "It’s time we let the children play, let them cultivate relationships on their own terms with the beautiful forests around us."

We won't save what we don't value. A few beaten paths and play-forts are surely worth the fate of the planet, wouldn't you say?

IMAGE: Many thanks to Slate's article Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods, by Emma Marris, for the photo from Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean, Illinois
Part of Janet's rock collection
Personal P.S.: The background image of rocks that I use for this blog is a photo of my late mother's rock collection. Wherever she went, even long after she became an adult, she'd bring back a pretty or interesting rock to add to her collection (much as kids of all ages are prohibited from doing in many parks today). They're such an expression of her creative personality that I've kept and enjoyed them ever since her death in 2006.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

To automate, or not to automate? Writers, attorneys, and financial advisors on the line

A Glimpse of the Future?
My recent mid-week posts have focused on the phenomenon of automation in the contemporary workplace--that is, "machines taking over our jobs," and looking at trends for the future.

Last week, I tackled robotics and automation in the health care industry. Today I'm focused on the symbolic logic crowd, that is, people who mostly traffic in numbers and letters. Thus, I'm looking at writers, attorneys, and financial advisors.

They're all white-collar jobs, and aspects of each require judgement, creativity, and empathy--but other aspects "turn out to be routine and process-based." That's just the kind of thing computers do best.

But writing? Law? Higher-level financial analysis? Well, yeah. With caveats.

Writing 
This one kinda hurts, but certain types of data-heavy information can pretty readily be transformed into prose using a process Klint Finley of Wired describes as "a more complex version of Mad Libs meets mail merge." Two companies, Automated Insights and Narrative Science are the main contenders in the field at the moment.


The primary uses for this software so far have been in the areas of financial news, sportswriting, and industrial communications. Organizations such as the Associated Press and Fox News have discovered it is (big surprise, here) "considerably less expensive for us to go this route than for us to try to have our own beat reporters at each one of these games," (That's Michael Calderon, Big Ten's director of new media, speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek).

But of course it's expanding. As a science fiction novelist, I'm under no illusions. Some genres are more friendly toward "formulaic" plots than others (I'll leave you to judge which ones those might be), but I'm sure the day is coming soon when you'll be able to plug in certain character and plot elements and the software will crank out a complete "novel" or "short story."

On the other hand, we're still very far from a computer that can go into a war zone and make sense of the chaos, write a meaningful human-interest article, or build an exposé, piece by exacting piece. And so far we're still unable to distill that special "something" that transforms a novel into a mega-bestseller that strikes a chord in millions (if we could, they all would be). We still need human hearts and minds (and a lot of luck!) for that.

Legal Practice
Turns out there's a lot of mundane drudgery in the practice of law, and untold numbers of documents to review. Firms used to have no choice but to hire a fleet of lawyers and paralegals to review them, but now there's software to cover that angle. As attorney Bill Herr pointed out to the New York Times, "People get bored, people get headaches. Computers don’t."


As in the case of doctors, however, you needn't look for robots to start donning barristers' wigs or delivering closing arguments in court for a while to come, though I fear the pioneering efforts on that front may come in the form of legal-aid robots for the defense of low-income criminal defendants. Would that be found to be constitutional? (And what would the originalists think of it?)

But behind the scenes, computers are already hard at work. For now, they're probably cutting down the entry level jobs for lawyers, but their best potential is to save the efforts of the humans for the things that matter most.

Financial Industry Professionals 
Stock trading has forever been transformed by computer-based algorithmic trading, in which high volumes of stocks are traded "using automated pre-programmed trading instructions accounting for variables such as time, price, and volume." 

However, as you've probably extrapolated from the section above that discussed financial writing and business communications, automation has gone much farther since the first automated trading systems went online in the 1970s and '80s. With all the things they can plug into algorithms these days, have humans become superfluous?


Well, maybe not yet.

Assuming one is fortunate enough to need guidance for investment strategies, we're still short of a technological singularity, which would place a computer in possession of all the critical thinking, synthesis, and empathy needed to serve human laypersons who have other things to do with their time besides manage their stock portfolios.

Till then, I'd still advise checking with a well-trained, credentialed human.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before It's News for the "future vision" graphic, to ResearchPedia.Info, for the "difference between stock market and stock exchange" photo montage, and to Sports Management Degrees for the graphic of the football with data behind it. I am grateful to the Criminal Lawyers and Attorneys organization for the courtroom photo, and to The Balance for the photo of the financial advisor with her clients.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Return on investment?

The Artdog Quote of the Week:
Two contrasting thoughts on investing in our future, while it's still April:


Might note that 2014 went on to be the third-hottest year on record (so far), after The Donald tweeted this pearl of perspicacity.



IMAGES: Many thanks to The Triple Pundit via Pinterest, for Dr. Shiva's economic reality-check, and to the iamcorrect blog for the tweet from the regrettable orange person who currently resides in the White House. I also am grateful to Climate Central for their telling graphic.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Into the storm

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change's onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today's image focuses on storms.

First, a little "storm porn," because dramatic, high-contrast clouds plus lightning and panoramic skies make for jaw-dropping storm photos. Here's a mini-portfolio from American storm-chaser Mike Mezeul II:

Thunderstorm outside Cheyenne, WY by Mike Mezeul II
Thunderstorm over Big Spring TX - Mike Mezeul II
Thunderstorm with internal lightning over Graham, TX, by Mike Mazeul II

I could look at these all day, but a little reminder may be in order that gorgeous clouds can contain devastating downpours, tornadoes, and/or hurricanes that can do millions of dollars' worth of damages in just a short time. Havoc such as that shown in these photos:

This is what we denizens of Tornado Alley call "a real toad-strangler." This storm hit the San Fernando Valley in February 2017.
The website didn't give a location or date for this photo, but I hope that truck had water wings!
Stormy surf at Porthcawl Harbor, South Wales, in 2014. (photo: PA/Mirror)
A man in Northern Ireland excavates his sheep from a snowdrift in 2014. 
Dramatic flooding resulted in 2015 from Tropical Storm Etau in Japan.
2016 flooding and mudslides in Victory, WI made for some arduous cleanup afterwards.
As the EPA is still so far able to say on its website, "Extreme weather is typically rare. But climate change is increasing the odds of more extreme weather events taking place." 

One thing's clear: we'd better batten down the hatches--and make sure we have an emergency plan. Unfortunately, we never know when we'll be caught up in the next disaster.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Mike Mezeul II and The Daily Mail for the gorgeous "storm porn" series at the top. I also am grateful to Climate 101 with Jason, for the San Fernando Valley storm photo by David McNew/Getty Images, to Insurance Advocate for the hurricane-swamping-the-road photo with the pickup truck, to the Mirror for the stormy surf South Welsh photo from 2014, and to the BBC for the photo of the Northern Irishman excavating his sheep from a snowdrift the same year. Many thanks to Young Independent for the Tropical Storm Etau image, and to WXOW Channel 19 of LaCrosse, WI for the mudslide photo.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

To automate, or not to automate? Robo-health-care?

A Glimpse of the Future?
Several recent mid-week posts have addressed aspects of the contemporary and projected issue of automation in the workplace--especially in the area of "machines taking over our jobs." 

A growing number of people think that artificially intelligent robots might take over jobs in white-collar professions, moving far beyond the traditional roles of "the three D's: dangerous, dirty, and dull," as robotics expert Ryan Calo calls them. Today I want to talk about health care.

Exactly what do people mean, when they talk about robots "taking over" the jobs of doctors, nurses, or other health care workers? I'm not sure all mean the same things. One thing they almost certainly do not mean is Emergency Medical Holgram Mark I (as portrayed by actor Robert Picardo on TV's Star Trek: Voyager from 1995-2001).

Don't expect to meet any Emergency Medical Holograms in your neighborhood hospital anytime soon!

But it's a question worth asking, all the same. Richard and Daniel Susskind noted in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article that "There are more monthly visits to the WebMD network, a collection of health websites, than to all the doctors in the United States." 

Okay. But is that a salient observation? A quick Internet check to research a question for free takes a whole lot less time, hassle and expense than a trip to see your doctor. I'm not sure this compares apples to apples, guys.

Also, I don't know any health care professionals who greet with joy (or any expectation of an accurate analysis) the news that their patient looked up his problem on WebMD and has already diagnosed it, "so doctor, you just have to prescribe this kind of pill for me . . ."

Yeah, right. WebMD is a research resource, not a doctor, any more than FindLaw.Com is a lawyer. 

Do medical websites such as WebMD actually erode trust between doctors and patients? A 2015 post on LiveClinic Healthcare Blog makes a point that in some cases they might.

However, the Susskinds' research involved a comprehensive survey of the literature about changes in industry, automation technology, and society, as well as more than 100 interviews with experts in cutting-edge development from a variety of disciplines, so their analysis shouldn't be discounted or ignored. 

When they looked at all the various things doctors and other professionals do, they found that "when professional work is broken down into component parts, many of the tasks involved turn out to be routine and process-based. They do not in fact call for judgment, creativity, or empathy." In other words, although we don't have terribly creative or empathic robots currently, there are elements to a professional's job which don't require those traits. It's not hard to make the leap to the idea of the doctor delegating those things to a machine.

It's true that surgical robots can do many procedures a human surgeon simply could not. Very few of them currently involve autonomous robotics--a doctor still has his/her hands on the controls. But that could change as these machines grow more sophisticated. FW: Thinking has a really informative video on this topic that I hope you'll find as interesting as I did (relax: no blood) :



There also are other uses for robots that may not exactly eliminate the human doctor's role so much as extend it. Some retail pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Rite Aid, have been piloting in-store health kiosks. Robert Thompson of Rite Aid says his stores' interface "pairs licensed healthcare providers with state-of-the-art technology to deliver a truly unique solution to consumers looking for convenient and quality healthcare." 

Telemedicine has enjoyed a worldwide advent, out of necessity. "Doctors are examining patients continents away with interactive robots and hi-tech visuals. These robots are fully mobile, with computer screens for heads and real-time video cameras for eyes and ears. Doctors operate them by using a joystick and wireless technology." 

The Doctor will see you now . . . via telemedicine. There's still a human doctor in this equation, so it's not exactly a replacement. You might note there's also a real live human healthcare practitioner at the patient's bedside as well. Robots have seen particularly robust adoption in Japanese hospitals.

Extending the role of doctors may become an absolute necessity in the near future. We've heard about a looming worldwide shortage of doctors for years, and in April 2016 the Association of American Medical Colleges pointed to strong indicators of coming shortages in the U.S., in several broad categories. We may end up coping with this in a variety of ways, including more care given by physicians' assistants or nurse practitioners--or the use of telemedicine or other automated functions.

There's a shortage of nurses, too, which is leading some observers to predict automation will move into that job category, too. In 2015 a headline on the Horizon Healthcare Staffing website rather chillingly proclaimed, "Robots will replace nurses sooner rather than later," which I think would worry me if I worked for Horizon Healthcare Staffing. As with doctors, however, when you look at the details I think replace may be a stretch, at least in the near term. More like "assist" or "augment."


Introducing Actroid-F, a robotic nurse created by Kokoro Co. Ltd. This robot is designed to provide bedside empathy to patients, but I fear she would seriously weird me out--she's most definitely from Uncanny Valley territory, in my view! The Japanese, however, reportedly have a more comfortable cultural relationship with robots. I sure hope so.

The HHS article describes the entry of robots into the Japanese health care setting in glowing terms: "Robots already play a key role in Japanese hospitals and healthcare facilities. They are able to look after senior citizens, sing with them, and engage with them in other activities." Maybe seniors like to sing with them; who knows? After all, the Japanese were the ones who invented karaoke.

However, a motivating factor for the increasing use of robots in Japan is the fear that as the Japanese population ages, there won't be enough health care workers to take care of them if they don't create robots to do so. I think if they insist on using exclusively Japanese health care workers they're right, but that's a whole 'nother topic.

This is Panasonic's Hospi Type R, essentially a self-driving medicine chest on wheels, "designed to move fragile or bulky medicine and equipment around a hospital." Wi-fi, cameras, and preprogrammed maps help it navigate; it's locked by a system that uses an ID security card for access. It was nicknamed "the pink Dalek"--clearly by someone who doesn't have a clue about the Daleks' favorite one-word catchphrase!

In the Asian healthcare scene, "More and more, hospitals all over the world are realizing that robots are efficient messengers who transport materials like food, x-rays, and linens throughout the hospital, saving wear and tear on the feet of over-worked nurses and aides." Or medicines--pharmacy robots on wheels!--as does the Hospi Type R, shown above.

To my mind a good argument for using robots in a nursing situation would be for tasks "that are physically very demanding and stressful for humans"  (All at once we're back to Ryan Calo's "three Ds"). 

This is Robear, a prototype robot designed in an effort not to scare the living crap out of fragile elderly patients while it helps to transport them safely. Why a bear? It's supposed to look "like a friendly polar bear." Okay. Well, no uncanny valley problems here, anyway!

Not sure how Robear would work in real life? here's a very short video:



Horizon Healthcare Staffing might not be able to get their hands on this nifty new tech fast enough, but I'll be interested to see how well the public accepts Robear, the "pink Dalek," Actroid-F, and their robotic kin.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it's News, for the "vision of the future" graphic, and to Bonnie Hutchinson's "Star Trek Voyager" Pinterest Board for the photo of Robert Picardo as EMH Mark I. 
I appreciated not only the photo of a doctor and patient talking to each other on LiveClinic's interesting article "Do Computers erode Doctor and Patient Trust?" but also the article itself, which provides an interesting counterpoint to the Susskinds' observation about WebMD. 
Many thanks to the Re-Tails Blog's post about health care robotics in retail pharmacies, for the photo of the telemedicine delivery robot with the hospital patient. 
My gratitude also goes out to WeirdAsiaNews for the photos of the robotic nurse Actroid-F, to The Verge for the photo of the Panasonic Hospi Type R, to NationalFutur, for the still photo of the Robear, and to WXYZ-TV Detroit and YouTube for the video of Robear in action. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Moral and historical responsibilites

The Artdog Quotes of the Week:

Today I present a study in contrasts.


UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon speaks for the global community on this one. United States leadership still persists in questioning the science to a greater extent than any other major nation. Including, unfortunately, this guy:


IMAGES: Many thanks to the World Economic Forum for the Ban Ki-moon quote (check the linked page for more good ones), and to Business Insider, CNN and Bill Nye for the quote graphic from the regrettable orange person. Unfortunately, Bill's solution failed to be implemented effectively.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Water stress

The Artdog Images of Interest

Three major signals of climate change's onset are increased rates and ferocity of fires, deepening drought, and increasingly violent storms. Today's image focuses on drought.

A woman in India still can get a little water from her well, but she's one of 300 million affected in the country during 2016. 
As my Images of Interest series in February emphasized, the United Nations has identified access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water as a basic human right. Yet as drought gets entrenched in regions, this basic human need is not being met. India is one of those areas, but as the map below shows, it is far from alone in its plight.


A serious issue in India is the continued heavy water use by multinational corporations (MNCs) such as Pepsico, without recharging the water tables (as required by law). This is despite the "worst drought in living memory" and dramatic drops in local water tables near their bottling facilities.

The 2015 level of California's Lake Oroville at the height of the recent drought was pretty impressive-looking, but as we know, once the drought broke the lake refilled to overflowing. More troublesome and long-lasting was the hit the aquifers took

Plunging levels of surface water or snowpack during times of drought are often dramatic (see California's Lake Oroville, above). Longer-lasting damage is done, however, when aquifers are depleted and not recharged. What has been happening in India is not an isolated case of industrial short-sightedness. Aquifer depletion is a problem in California, the US Great Plains, Australia, China, Africa, and all over the world. Few people are paying much attention to it yet, but it's a ticking time bomb we all should be working NOW to defuse.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Global Research for the photo of the Indian woman by her well, to the World Resources Institute for the Water Stress map, and to PBS NewsHour for the 2015 photo of Lake Oroville. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Future of Classical Music is . . . Band?

A guest post by my sister,
Gigi Sherrell Norwood

If you love classical music, you’ve probably asked yourself what a modern symphony orchestra should be: a music museum, or an incubator for a thriving art form?  

L-R: Johann Sebastian Bach, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (more notes about this image below)


The music museum folks want to preserve what they believe is the highest musical expression in human history. What could be more sublime than the music of Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven? They scorn pretty much anything that was written after World War II, and secretly long for the Edwardian era of tuxedoes and evening gowns.

Just-post-Edwardian-era Ballroom in a Hyde Park hotel, 1912

It’s artistic elitism at its worst, and often includes a dismissive attitude toward bands. Bands were, after all, spawned by the common folk, whereas orchestras were born in the royal court. Practically every high school in America has a marching band, whereas only the top schools have orchestra programs. Bands use only woodwinds, brass, and percussion. They have no strings, and everyone knows strings are better. Just ask a string player.

"Practically every high school . . . has a marching band." case in point is the 2010 Marching Lancer Band (Shawnee Mission East High School--my kids' alma mater). See and hear them in action

Symphony people complain that bands only play transcriptions of the great works, re-orchestrated to suit band instrumentation. Never mind the inconvenient fact that Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was originally a solo piano piece, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue was written for a jazz band. The familiar orchestra versions of both are transcriptions.

But a strict diet of the Great Works in their original form can make the symphony the classical equivalent of a Beatles tribute band: fun for an evening out, but not a venue for artistic growth and experimentation.  And if an art form isn’t growing, it’s dying.

Beatles tribute band Abbey Road: a special niche--but not expanding the repertoire.

The most obvious way to keep classical music alive is to welcome new music.  But back in the 1960s, when Pierre Boulez programmed tons of avant garde music at the New York Philharmonic, audiences hated it, and fled. Caught between critics, who argued that any composer as accessible as John Williams was beneath contempt, and audiences who walked out when the orchestra played Bartók, symphonies stuck with what they knew best, and became hostile territory for young composers.  

John Mackey, an outstanding contemporary composer, outlined his struggle to break into the symphony scene in his blog post, Even Tanglewood Has a Band.

And that’s where the whole “band only plays transcriptions” argument falls apart. Because bands LOVE new music. At a recent concert by the University of Texas Wind Ensemble, nothing on the program was more than 40 years old.  Three of the five works were world premieres.  Band conductors learn reams of new music every season, with few of the comfortable old classics to fall back on.  In contrast, orchestra conductors may learn Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4* when they are in college, and conduct it again and again throughout their careers. 

Here's the University of Texas Wind Ensemble in concert, led by Jerry Junkin.

Young composers have discovered they can build a career writing for band.  And, if enough bands love their music, they transcribe it for ensembles with strings, making the leap into the world of symphony orchestras as an already beloved composer.

Want to ensure classical music continues to grow?  Throw open the doors and welcome talented young composers.  That happens every day in high school band halls, college wind ensembles, and professional concert bands.  That’s why I say, if you want to hear the future of classical music, listen to a good band.

*Might note the link for Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony takes you to an article that includes an audio file of the symphony . . . ironically, the performance is of a transcription for wind band. 


Gigi Sherrell Norwood
ABOUT GIGI: In addition to being my much-admired sister, Gigi Sherrell Norwood is the Director of Education and Concert Operations for the Dallas Winds (formerly the Dallas Wind Symphony), so, although she might be somewhat biased in favor of the importance of wind bands, she also is in a privileged position to observe the dynamic about which she writes in this post. In my experience, if Gigi takes note of something, it tends to be notable! Widow of the science fiction writer Warren C. Norwoodwith whom she sometimes collaborated on projects under his byline, Gigi also is a talented writer herself. She is currently working on several urban fantasy stories set in the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, TX. 

IMAGES: Many thanks to Netivist for the Bach-Beethoven-Mozart composite by "G_marius" (sorry, couldn't find a link!), based on Jorge Franganillo's image and other images of public domain. I'm indebted to the Vintage Everyday website for the 1912 hotel dance photo; they have a whole page of cool old photos from that era at that link. I'm grateful to SchoolTube for the glimpse of the Marching Lancers. A tip of the hat to the Long Beach Press-Telegram, for the photo of Beatles Tribute band Abbey Road. Many thanks to the University of Texas at Austin for the photo of their Wind Ensemble. Gigi provided the photo of herself. It is used with her permission. 

PLEASE ALSO NOTE: Gigi offers these links for young composers to watch: John Mackey, Austin Wintory, Adam Schoenberg, Andrew Boss, Steven Bryant, Eric Whitacre, and Joel Puckett.