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.”)

Steel Mills Repurposed as Online Warehouses

(p. A1) BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Ellen Gaugler remembers driving her father to the Bethlehem Steel mill, where he spent his working years hauling beams off the assembly line and onto rail cars.
When the Pennsylvania plant shut down about two decades ago, Ms. Gaugler thought it was the last time she or anyone in Bethlehem would come to its gates to find a job that paid a decent wage for a physical day of work.
But she saw an ad in the paper last year for a position at a local warehouse that changed her mind. She’d never heard of Zulily, the online retailer doing the hiring, but she knew the address: It was on the old mill site, steps from where her father worked.
“When I came for the interviews I looked up and said, ‘Oh, my God, I feel like I am at home,'” Ms. Gaugler said. She got the job.
As shopping has shifted from conventional stores to online marketplaces, many retail workers have been left in the cold, but Ms. Gaugler is coming out ahead. Sellers like Zulily, Amazon and Walmart are competing to get goods to the buyer’s doorstep as quickly as possible, giving rise to a constellation of vast warehouses that have fueled a boom for workers without college degrees and breathed new life into pockets of the country that had fallen economically behind.

For the full story, see:
NATALIE KITROEFF. ” Idle Steel Mills Rumble to Life As Online Sellers’ Warehouses.” The New York Times (Mon., OCT. 23, 2017): A1 & A13.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 22, 2017, and has the title “Where Internet Orders Mean Real Jobs, and New Life for Communities.”)

Global Warming Could Be Reduced by Sequestering Carbon in Soil

(p. 7) . . . scientists are documenting how sequestering carbon in soil can produce a double dividend: It reduces climate change by extracting carbon from the atmosphere, and it restores the health of degraded soil and increases agricultural yields.
. . .
Among the advocates of so-called regenerative agriculture is the climate scientist and activist James Hansen, lead author of a paper published in July that calls for the adoption of “steps to improve soil fertility and increase its carbon content” to ward off “deleterious climate impacts.”
Rattan Lal, the director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State, estimates that soil has the potential to sequester carbon at a rate of between 0.9 and 2.6 gigatons per year. That’s a small part of the 10 gigatons a year of current carbon emissions, but it’s still significant. Somewhat reassuringly, some scientists believe the estimate is low.
“Putting the carbon back in soil is not only mitigating climate change, but also improving human health, productivity, food security, nutrition security, water quality, air quality — everything,” Mr. Lal told me over the phone. “It’s a win-win-win option.”

For the full commentary, see:
JACQUES LESLIE. “OPINION; Soil Power! The Dirty Way to a Green Planet.” The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., DEC. 3, 2017): 7.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date DEC. 2, 2017, and has the title “Wind and Solar Power Advance, but Carbon Refuses to Retreat.”)

The Hansen paper, mentioned above, is:
Hansen, James, Makiko Sato, Pushker Kharecha, Karina von Schuckmann, David J. Beerling, Junji Cao, Shaun Marcott, Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Michael J. Prather, Eelco J. Rohling, Jeremy Shakun, Pete Smith, Andrew Lacis, Gary Russell, and Reto Ruedy. “Young People’s Burden: Requirement of Negative Co2 Emissions.” Earth System Dynamics 8 (2017): 577-616.

The System Is “Rigged” by the “Unelected Permanent Governing Class”

(p. 10) With its broad historical scope, Eisinger’s book lacks the juicy, infuriating details of “Chain of Title,” David Dayen’s chronicle of foreclosure fraud — another instance of white-collar crime that went largely unpunished. With its emphasis on institutions and incentives, it doesn’t serve up the red meat of Matt Taibbi’s “The Divide,” a stinging indictment of the justice system’s unequal treatment of corporate executives and street-level drug offenders. But for someone familiar with the political landscape of the contemporary United States, Eisinger’s account has the ring of truth.
After decades in which Wall Street masters of the universe were lionized in the media and popular culture, star investment bankers — rich, usually white men in nice suits — just don’t match the popular image of criminals. Democrats as well as Republicans cozied up to big business, outsourcing the Treasury Department to Wall Street and the Justice Department to corporate law firms. Even after the financial system collapsed, the Obama administration’s priority was to bail out the megabanks — to “foam the runway,” in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s words. The Justice Department became increasingly staffed by intelligent, status-seeking, conformist graduates of the nation’s top law schools — all of whom had friends on Wall Street and in the defense bar. In that environment, the easy choice was to play along, strike a deal with an impressive-sounding fine (to be absorbed by shareholders) that held no one responsible, and avoid risking an acquittal or a hung jury. (The book’s title comes from then-U.S. Attorney James Comey’s name for prosecutors who had never lost a trial.) Corruption can take many forms — not just bags of cash under the table, but a creeping rot that saps our collective motivation to pursue the cause of justice. As Upton Sinclair might have written were he alive today: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his résumé depends upon his not understanding it.
There’s just one problem. While the “unelected permanent governing class” may have been willing to look the other way when highly paid bankers wrecked the economy, many of the workers who lost their jobs and families who lost their homes were not. Outside the Beltway, the fact that the Wall Street titans who blew up the financial system suffered little more than slight reductions in their bonuses only reinforced the perception that the “system” is “rigged” — with the consequences we know only too well. Many people simply want to live in a world that is fair. As Eisinger shows, this one isn’t.

For the full review, see:
JAMES KWAK. “Getting Away With It.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, JULY 9, 2017): 10.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JULY 5, 2017, and has the title “America’s Top Prosecutors Used to Go After Top Executives. What Changed?”)

The book under review, is:
Eisinger, Jesse. The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017.

“Renewables Are Not the Answer”

(p.B1) . . . : Global carbon-dioxide emissions have stopped rising. Coal use in China may have peaked. The price of wind turbines and solar panels is plummeting, putting renewable energy within the reach of meager budgets in the developing world.
And yet as climate diplomats gather this week in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd Conference of the Parties under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, I would like to point their attention to a different, perhaps gloomier statistic: the world’s carbon intensity of energy.
(p. B2) The term refers to a measure of the amount of CO2 spewed into the air for each unit of energy consumed. It offers some bad news: It has not budged since that chilly autumn day in Kyoto 20 years ago. Even among the highly industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the carbon intensity of energy has declined by a paltry 4 percent since then, according to the International Energy Agency.
This statistic, alone, puts a big question mark over the strategies deployed around the world to replace fossil energy. In a nutshell:
. . .
The most worrisome aspect about the all-out push for a future powered by renewables has to do with cost: The price of turbines and solar panels may be falling, but the cost of integrating these intermittent sources of energy — on when the wind blows and the sun shines; off when they don’t — is not. This alone will sharply curtail the climate benefits of renewable power.
Integrating renewable sources requires vast investments in electricity transmission — to move power from intermittently windy and sunny places to places where power is consumed. It requires maintaining a backstop of idle plants that burn fossil fuel, for the times when there is no wind or sun to be had. It requires investing in power-storage systems at a large scale.

For the full commentary, see:
EDUARDO PORTER. “Why Slashing Nuclear Power May Backfire.” The New York Times (Weds., NOV. 8, 2017): B1-B2.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 7, 2017, and has the title “Wind and Solar Power Advance, but Carbon Refuses to Retreat.”)