Robots May Be a Threat After They Learn How to Open a Door

(p. A1) Robots may enslave us all someday. In the meantime, if one of them goes berserk, here’s a useful tactic: Shut the door behind you.
One after another, robots in a government-sponsored contest were stumped by an unlocked door that blocked their path at an outdoor obstacle course. One bipedal machine managed to wrap a claw around the door handle and open it but was flummoxed by a breeze that kept blowing the door shut before it could pass through.
Robots excel at many tasks, as long as they don’t involve too much hand-eye coordination or common sense. Like some gifted children, they can perform impressive feats of mental arithmetic but are profoundly klutzy on the playground.
The machines stumble over tasks requiring even toddler-level balance, like kicking a ball, getting out of a car or (p. A9) climbing stairs. Grasping objects of varying size and weight is also perplexing.

For the full story, see:
Daniela Hernandez. “If the Robot Apocalypse Comes, Try Closing the Door.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 11, 2017): A1 & A9.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 10, 2017, and has the title “How to Survive a Robot Apocalypse: Just Close the Door.”)

For Jane Jacobs, “Self-Certainty” Was Better than a Doctorate

(p. 17) Like the critic Pauline Kael and the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, Jane Jacobs arrived to churn the fertile soil of American cultural ideology in the 1960s, brandishing a disciplined populist intellect and a comfort with courting enmity. All three were middle-aged mothers by the time they would shake things up. That Jacobs, nee Butzner in 1916, would force a reconsideration of the nature and purpose of cities was an outcome her young adulthood would have hardly suggested. An unexceptional student at Central High in Scranton, Pa., she later studied at Columbia before failing to gain formal admission to Barnard and abandoning the pursuit of a degree entirely. These experiences, Robert Kanigel maintains in his biography “Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs,” left her with a distaste for the academy that she carried throughout her career.
Where others had doctorates, Jacobs had a self-certainty that was manifest early on. In a chronicling of her childhood so thorough it includes the number of times she was late for homeroom during her first semester of high school (seven), Kanigel recounts an incident in which Jane was expelled from third grade for urging her classmates to dismiss the entreaties of a hygiene instructor, who asked them to pledge to brush their teeth twice a day for the rest of their lives. In Jane’s view, the promise would be impossible to keep, making the request absurd.

For the full review, see:
GINIA BELLAFANTE. “Fighting the Power Broker.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, OCT. 9, 2016): 17.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date OCT. 7, 2016, and has the title “Two New Books About Jane Jacobs, Urban Visionary.”)

The book under review, is:
Kanigel, Robert. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016.

Yale President Defends Free Speech

(p. A23) In 1963, the Yale Political Union, one of the oldest collegiate debate societies in the United States, invited the defiant segregationist governor of Alabama, George Wallace, to Yale. Just a few weeks before his scheduled visit, Klansmen bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four African-American schoolgirls and wounding 22 others.
Wallace — the personification of Southern hostility to integration — had famously stood on the portico of the Alabama State Capitol and declared in his inaugural speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” Many blamed Wallace for inciting the violence.
The provost and acting president of Yale, Kingman Brewster Jr., advised the students to withdraw their invitation. Mayor Richard C. Lee said Wallace was “officially unwelcome” in New Haven.
Not everyone agreed. Pauli Murray, a lawyer and civil rights activist pursuing her doctorate of jurisprudence at the law school, wrote to Brewster, urging him to send a clear message that Wallace should be allowed to express his views at Yale.
. . .
In linking the fate of the civil rights movement to Wallace’s speech, she reminds us that the Constitution makes for strange bedfellows. It applies to segregationists and integrationists, civil rights activists and self-proclaimed racists. All Americans can lay claim to its protections, but those, like Murray, who seek to change society and extend freedoms to the most marginalized may need it most.

For the full commentary, see:
Peter Salovey. “Free Speech, Personified.” The New York Times (Mon., NOV. 27, 2017): A23.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 26, 2017. The wording of the online version differs substantially from that in the print version. The passages quoted above, are from the online version.)

Union Blocks Firing of Teachers Who Do Not Teach

(p. A1) Francis Blake has not held a permanent position in a New York City public school in at least five years. At his last job, in a Bronx elementary school, records show he was disciplined for incompetence, insubordination and neglect of duties — he had been caught sleeping in a classroom when he was supposed to be helping with dismissal.
Felicia Alterescu, a special-education teacher, has been without a permanent post since 2010, despite high demand for special education teachers. According to records, in addition to getting a string of unsatisfactory ratings, she was disciplined for calling in sick when she actually went to a family reunion. She also did not tell the Education Department that she had been arrested on harassment charges.
This month, Mr. Blake, Ms. Alterescu and hundreds of other teachers who are part of a pool known as the Absent Teacher Reserve could be permanently back in classrooms, as the city’s Education Department places them in jobs at city schools.
The reserve is essentially a parking lot for staff members who have lost their positions, some because of school closings and budget cuts, others because of disciplinary problems, but cannot be fired. It grew significantly as a result of a 2005 deal between the Bloomberg administration, which wanted to give principals control over hiring, and the teachers’ un-(p. A17)ion. Since then, the union has fiercely protected the jobs of teachers in the reserve, resisting attempts to put a time limit on how long a teacher can remain there.

For the full story, see:
KATE TAYLOR. “Caught Sleeping or Worse, Idled Teachers Head Back to Class.” The New York Times (Sat., OCT. 23, 2017): A1 & A17.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 22, 2017, and has the title “Caught Sleeping or Worse, Troubled Teachers Will Return to New York Classrooms.”)

High Demand for STEM Workers Is Mainly High for Workers in Info Tech

(p. 10) A working grasp of the principles of science and math should be essential knowledge for all Americans, said Michael S. Teitelbaum, an expert on science education and policy. But he believes that STEM advocates, often executives and lobbyists for technology companies, do a disservice when they raise the alarm that America is facing a worrying shortfall of STEM workers, based on shortages in a relative handful of fast-growing fields like data analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and computer security.
“When it gets generalized to all of STEM, it’s misleading,” said Mr. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate in the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School. “We’re misleading a lot of young people.”
Unemployment rates for STEM majors may be low, but not all of those with undergraduate degrees end up in their field of study — only 13 percent in life sciences and 17 percent in physical sciences, according to a 2013 National Science Foundation survey. Computer science is the only STEM field where more than half of graduates are employed in their field.

For the full story, see:
STEVE LOHR. “Where the STEM Jobs Are/Aren’t.” The New York Times, Education Life Section (Sun., NOV. 5, 2017): 10.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 1, 2017, and has the title “Where the STEM Jobs Are (and Where They Aren’t).”)

Sapolsky Wrong to Dismiss Hunter-Gatherer Violence

(p. 15) Sapolsky proposes 10 strategies for reducing violence, all reasonable but none that justify the notion that science is the basis for societal advances toward less violence and higher morality.
. . .
In this section Sapolsky becomes a partisan critic, including presenting a skeptical view about the supposed long-term decline of human violence claimed by Steven Pinker in “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.” Sapolsky asserts that Pinker’s calculations include elementary errors, and that low rates of violence among contemporary hunter-gatherers mean that warfare did not predate agriculture. His arguments here are unbalanced. He fails to note that data on hunter-gatherer violence is relevant only where they are neighbored by other hunter-gatherers, rather than by militarily superior farmers.

For the full review, see:
RICHARD WRANGHAM. “Brain Teasers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, JULY 9, 2017): 15.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JULY 5, 2017, and has the title “Insights Into the Brain, in a Book You’ll Wish You Had in College.”)

The book under review, is:
Sapolsky, Robert M. Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. New York: Penguin Press 2017.

“Please Do Not Forget the Poor”

(p. A1) Last week, Peter Mattaliano, 66, an acting coach and screenwriter, put up Christmas decorations in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment and laid out presents for the children: Mary and Alfred.
These are not Mr. Mattaliano’s children, and they are no longer living. But a century ago they lived in what is now Mr. Mattaliano’s home.
He has honored Mary and Alfred every December for the past 15 years, ever since he learned of their existence when he renovated his fireplace. It had been sealed with brick for more than 60 years.
“My brother does construction, and I had him open up the fireplace,” he said. “We were joking that we might find Al Capone’s money. Then my brother yelled to me and said, ‘You’re not going to believe this.’ ”
In the rubble and dust, Mr. Mattaliano’s brother found a delicate piece of paper with faint children’s scrawl bearing a request to Santa from a century earlier.
“I want a drum and a hook and ladder,” read the letter, adding that the fire truck should be one with an “extentionisting” ladder. (p. A22) It was dated 1905 and signed “Alfred McGann,” who included the building’s address.
There was another item in the rubble: a small envelope addressed to Santa in “Raindeerland.” Inside was a second letter, this one dated 1907 and written by Alfred’s older sister, Mary, who had drawn a reindeer stamp as postage.
“The letters were written in this room, and for 100 years, they were just sitting there, waiting,” said Mr. Mattaliano.
He learned through online genealogical research that the siblings were the children of Patrick and Esther McGann, Irish immigrants who married in 1896. Mary was born in 1897 and Alfred in 1900.
. . .
Patrick McGann died in 1904, so by the time the children wrote the letters left in the chimney, they were being raised by Ms. McGann, a dressmaker.
Mary’s letter is as poignant as Alfred’s is endearing.
“Dear Santa Claus: I am very glad that you are coming around tonight,” it reads, the paper partly charred. “My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best. Please bring me something nice what you think best.”
She signed it Mary McGann and added, “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.”
Mr. Mattaliano, who has read the letter countless times, still shakes his head at the implied poverty, the stoicism and the selflessness of the last line, all from a girl who requests a wagon for her brother first and nothing specific for herself.
“This is a family that couldn’t afford a wagon, and she’s writing, ‘Don’t forget the poor,’ ” he said. “That just shot an arrow through me. What did she think poor was?”

For the full story, see:
COREY KILGANNON. “Poignant Notes to Santa, Lost for a Century.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 22, 2015): A1 & A22.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the article has the date DEC. 21, 2015, and has the title “A Chimney’s Poignant Surprise: Letters Santa Missed, Long Ago.”)