Robots That Can Grip Donuts Cannot Grip Asparagus

Distinguished MIT labor economist David Autor, who I reference in my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, was a co-chair of the MIT Work of the Future Task Force that wrote the report discussed in the article quoted below.

(p. B3) L. Rafael Reif, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, delivered an intellectual call to arms to the university’s faculty in November 2017: Help generate insights into how advancing technology has changed and will change the work force, and what policies would create opportunity for more Americans in the digital economy.

That issue, he wrote, is the “defining challenge of our time.”

Three years later, the task force assembled to address it is publishing its wide-ranging conclusions. The 92-page report, “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines,” was released on Tuesday [November 17, 2020].

. . .

Technology has always replaced some jobs, created new ones and changed others. The question is whether things will be different this time as robots and artificial intelligence quickly take over for humans on factory floors and in offices.

The M.I.T. researchers concluded that the change would be more evolutionary than revolutionary. In fact, they wrote, “we anticipate that in the next two decades, industrialized countries will have more job openings than workers to fill them.”

That judgment is informed by field research in several industries and sectors including insurance, health care, driverless vehicles, logistics and warehouses, advanced manufacturing, and small and medium-size manufacturers.

. . .

Despite advances, robots simply don’t have the flexibility and dexterity of human workers. Today’s robots learn from data and repetition. They can be remarkably adept at a certain task, but only that one. The report cited a fine-tuned gripping robot that could pluck a glazed doughnut and carefully place it in a box, with its shiny glaze undisturbed.

“But that gripper only works on doughnuts,” the report said. “It can’t pick up a clump of asparagus or a car tire.”

The cost and operational expertise required will also slow the widespread adoption of robots.

For the full story, see:

Steve Lohr. “Don’t Fear the Robots, Says Jobs Study Group.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 18, 2020): B3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 17, 2020, and has the title “Don’t Fear the Robots, and Other Lessons From a Study of the Digital Economy.”)

The MIT report discussed above is:

MIT Work of the Future Task Force. “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines.” Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2020.

My book mentioned above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

Dolly Parton Sings and Donates with “Effective Sympathy”

The above is an “embed” from a YouTube video posted by singer (and English Professor) Ryan Cordell. The lyrics were written by Gretchen McCulloch and the tune is from Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The YouTube URL is:

In my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism, I write about “effective sympathy” which I describe as “actions taken by sympathetic observers that actually save or improve the lives of those who are suffering” (p. 110). I admire Dolly Parton for donating copies of The Little Engine That Could to poor children. I also admire Dolly Parton for donating a million dollars to help start research on the Moderna vaccine for Covid-19. Dolly Parton knows how to practice effective sympathy.

(p. 12) She wrote “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” on the same day and built a theme park around herself. She has given memorable onscreen performances as a wisecracking hairstylist and harassed secretary. She even helped bring about the creation of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Now, Dolly Parton’s fans are crediting her with saving the world from the coronavirus. It’s an exaggerated, tongue-in-cheek claim, to be sure. But for legions of admirers, Ms. Parton’s donation this spring to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which worked with the drugmaker Moderna to develop a coronavirus vaccine, was another example of how her generosity and philanthropy have made her one of the world’s most beloved artists.

. . .

“Her money helped us develop the test that we used to first show that the Moderna vaccine was giving people a good immune response that might protect them,” Dr. Denison said on Tuesday.

Ms. Parton told the BBC on Tuesday [November 17, 2020] that she was excited to hear her contribution provided a “little seed money that will hopefully grow into something great and help to heal this world.”

. . .

On Monday [November 16, 2020], after Moderna announced that early trials of the vaccine showed a 94.5 percent effectiveness rate, fans reacted rapturously.

. . .

Ryan Cordell, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, filmed himself singing a song about the vaccine to the tune of “Jolene.”

For the full story, see:

Maria Cramer. “Dolly: A Star of Country, a Songwriter, a Virus Hero.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, November 22, 2020): 12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 17, 2020, and has the title “Dolly Parton: Singer, Songwriter, Pandemic Savior?” The online version says that the title of the New York print version was “Dolly: Country Music Legend, Songwriter, Pandemic Hero” and its page number was 8. The title of my National print version was “Dolly: A Star of Country, a Songwriter, a Virus Hero” and its page number was 12.)

My book mentioned above is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

The use of The Little Engine That Could to encourage entrepreneurial perseverance is analyzed in:

Yandle, Bruce. “I Think I Can! Does the Little Engine That Could Matter?” Journal of Private Enterprise 26, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 127-42.

“Robinson Insisted That Creativity Can Be Taught”

(p. B12) Ken Robinson, a dynamic, influential proponent of stimulating the creativity of students that has too often been squelched by schools in the service of conformity, died on Aug. 21 [2020] at his home in London.

. . .

Mr. Robinson consulted with governments and schools around the world, conducted workshops and wrote books, including “Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative” (2001) and “You, Your Child and School: Navigate Your Way to the Best Education” (2018), with Lou Aronica.

He preached that schools needed not only to broaden their curriculums but also to support teachers as creative professionals and to personalize learning by breaking large classrooms — artificial environments that invite boredom, he said — into small groups.

“Kids will take a chance,” he said in the TED Talk. “If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong.” But, he added, “By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity.”

Mr. Robinson insisted that creativity can be taught — not through direct instruction, but by giving students opportunities, inspiration, encouragement and mentoring.

The educator Salman Khan said that his popular online website Khan Academy draws on Mr. Robinson’s teachings in part by personalizing curriculums to meet individual students’ needs.

“He opened our eyes to an educational system that isn’t fair to a lot of kids and holds back their potential,” Mr. Khan said in a phone interview. “He helped a lot of educators, including myself, say, ‘Hey, look, this is a time to change.’ ”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Ken Robinson, Who Encouraged Schools to Nurture Creativity, Is Dead at 70.” The New York Times (Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 11, 2020, and has the title “Ken Robinson, Who Preached Creativity in Teaching, Dies at 70.”)

The updated third edition of Ken Robinson’s first book mentioned above is:

Robinson, Ken. Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative. New York: Wiley, 2017.

Science Is a Process, Not a Fixed Body of Truths

(p. 14) Both writers exemplify the humanity of science: Seager and Johnson laugh, grieve, hope, fail, try, fail and try again. “We started from almost nothing,” Johnson writes about Mars, though she could be talking about pretty much every human endeavor. “We’ve gone careening down blind alleys and taken countless wrong turns, yet somehow, miraculously, the passion, ingenuity and persistence we have brought to the enterprise have moved us toward a truer understanding of another world.”

Why keep searching for life elsewhere when we sometimes seem to have a hard time appreciating it in our own backyard? What does it say about us?

“It says we’re curious,” Seager writes. “It says we’re hopeful. It says we’re capable of wonder and wonderful things.”

For the full review, see:

Anthony Doerr. “Galaxies Far, Far Away.” The New York Times Book Review (Saturday, September 6, 2020): 14.

(Note: ellipses added. In both the print and online versions, “WSJ” and “Mr. Mackey” are bolded, as are the questions asked by Jaewon Kang. The bolding is not visible in the theme used for this blog.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. [sic] 18, 2020, and has the title “These Books Transport You to a Galaxy Far, Far Away.”)

The two books under review are:

Johnson, Sarah Stewart. The Sirens of Mars: Searching for Life on Another World. New York: Crown, 2020.

Seager, Sara. The Smallest Lights in the Universe: A Memoir. New York: Crown, 2020.

Amazon’s Culture “Asks a Lot of Questions”

(p. B2) John Mackey helped popularize organic food when he co-founded Whole Foods Market four decades ago. Over the past several months, his chain of more than 500 stores has scrambled to adapt to another major shift in how Americans buy groceries.

. . .

The pandemic has accelerated an online-grocery movement that Whole Foods was already seeking to capitalize on as part of Inc. Mr. Mackey sold Whole Foods to the online-retail juggernaut for $13.4 billion in 2017, one of the decisions he recounts in his new book out this month, “Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business.”

. . .

WSJ: What merger challenges have you’ve learned from?

Mr. Mackey: Amazon has a culture that asks a lot of questions. We took a little longer to get used to that, but that’s no big deal. That’s how you learn things. They’re trying to understand our business. They want to know everything. And I think that’s healthy.

WSJ: What’s the biggest leadership lesson you’ve adopted from Jeff Bezos?

Mr. Mackey: Amazon wants you to write up a document explaining your ideas, defending them, and then you can have discussions. That’s a practice Whole Foods has adopted. Amazon’s also very data-driven. As opposed to acting from the gut, Amazon says, “Show us the data.” That’s been a good discipline for us. We do it ourselves, even when we’re not talking to Amazon.

For the full interview, see:

Jaewon Kang, interviewer. “BOSS TALK; Rugged Individualism in the Grocery Aisle.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 12, 2020): B2.

(Note: ellipses added. In both the print and online versions, “WSJ” and “Mr. Mackey” are bolded, as are the questions asked by Jaewon Kang. The bolding is not visible in the theme used for this blog.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Sep. 11, 2020, and has the title “BOSS TALK; Whole Foods CEO John Mackey Says Many People Are Done With Grocery Stores.”)

The book co-authored by Mackey and mentioned above is:

Mackey, John, Steve Mcintosh, and Carter Phipps. Conscious Capitalism: Elevating Humanity Through Business. New York: Portfolio, 2020.

Boeotia Was “an Early Model of Democratic Federalism”

(p. C12) Mr. Cartledge, a professor emeritus at Cambridge and author of popular history books such as “The Spartans,” “Thermopylae,” “Alexander the Great” and “Democracy: A Life,” has picked an opportune time to look afresh at Thebes and Boeotia. The modern city of Thebes, an uninspiring market town, would not normally attract tourists, but is home to a glittering new museum, among the most up-to-date in Greece, featuring exhibits of archaeological finds (many unique in type) and historical objects from prehistory to the present. (One exhibit is titled, provocatively, “The Intellectual Radiance of Boeotia.”) There is a book forthcoming, from scholar James Romm, about Thebes’s “Sacred Band,” its elite unit of soldiers, made up of pairs of devoted homosexual lovers. Thebes is in the spotlight.

. . .

The biography of the Theban leader Epaminondas (418 B.C.-362 B.C.) written by Plutarch is, unfortunately, lost. Even so, his reputation shines. Admired by figures from Cicero and Montaigne to Sir Walter Raleigh (who called him “the worthiest man that ever was bred by the nation of Greece”), Epaminondas seems to have had a philosophical bent as well as a brilliant military mind.

. . .

Perhaps his greatest act, . . ., even if it might have been intended more to inconvenience the Spartans than as a benevolent deed, was freeing the helots of Messenia, a people that had been enslaved by the Spartans for 300 years. He helped found a new capital city for the Arcadian federation (Megalopolis), and also for the ex-helots (Messene). Maybe Epaminondas was not only the Nelson of his age, but the Lincoln as well. He died in battle and was buried alongside his male beloved, Caphisodorus, with an epitaph that listed his children (daughters, being female) as the cities Messene and Megalopolis; it ended “Greece is free.”

Mr. Cartledge’s command of the historical material is effortless and exhaustive, and his appreciation of Thebes is persuasive. Between the radical but self-destructive democracy of Athens and Sparta’s totalitarian oligarchy (both imperialist), Thebes and Boeotia stand in the middle as an early model of democratic federalism—the “united states” of Boeotia, for instance, shared a currency. It was Thebes that dealt a critical blow to Spartan domination, and a Theban leader who freed a long-enslaved people. Alexander the Great himself adopted military tactics from Epaminondas. If Thebes’s period of hegemony was brief—barely a decade—it also changed the course of the ancient world.

For the full review, see:

A.E. Stallings. “Greece’s Mythic Heartland.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 12, 2020): C12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 11, 2020, and has the title “‘Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece’ Review: Mythic Roots.”)

The book under review is:

Cartledge, Paul. Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. New York: Abrams Press, 2020.

Art Diamond Interviewed on Robustly Redundant Labor Markets

I was interviewed early on Mon., October 26, 2020 on Jim Blasingame’s Small Business Advocate radio program on my concept paper “Ending Persistent Poverty by Enabling Robustly Redundant Labor Markets.” The concept paper earned the second place award in a Charles Koch Institute competition on how to end persistent poverty. The concept of a robustly redundant labor market was briefly discussed in my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

Diamond’s book, mentioned above, is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

A Forgotten Language Will Be Easier to Re-Learn

(p. 12) What makes sociolinguistics a subject worth engaging with are the surprises, and Kinzler’s book is full of them. She reveals the extent to which language imprints our brains and how we are neurologically programmed to be sensitive to it. Even if we lose a language after early childhood and no longer speak it in adulthood, learning it will be easier because of deep-seated neural settings permanently etched by that first language.

For the full review, see:

John McWhorter. “Fuggedaboutit!” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, August 2, 2020): 12.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 21 [sic], 2020, and has the title “The Biases We Hold Against the Way People Speak.”)

The book under review is:

Kinzler, Katherine D. How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do―and What It Says About You. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

”There Was a Great Marxist Called Lenin”

(p. C11) Robert Conquest (1917-2015) was what used to be called a Renaissance man. He was so good at everything he did—soldier, diplomat, historian and poet—that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he also left behind a few sonatas and paintings in oil. His histories of the Soviet Union’s failures and atrocities include “The Great Terror” (1968) and “The Harvest of Sorrow” (1986), meticulously researched and humane investigations of a criminal state, surely among the major historical achievements of the 20th century. His television documentary series, “Red Empire” (1990), distills this work and makes grimly compelling viewing.

But Conquest first came to readers’ attention as a poet of sophistication and grace, . . .

. . .

”There was a great Marxist called Lenin,
Who did two or three million men in;
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in
That grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.”

For the full review, see:

David Mason. “The Impervious Dream.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020): C11.

(Note: ellipses added; the limerick in quotation marks is by Robert Conquest.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 21, 2020, and has the title “‘Robert Conquest: Collected Poems’ Review: The Impervious Dream.”)

The book under review is:

Conquest, Robert. Collected Poems. New York: The Waywiser Press, 2020.

“Biology’s Many Unanswered Questions”

Unanswered questions in science provide grounds for thinking that future scientific advances may provide grist for the innovation mill. Some argue innovation has slowed because we have picked all the low-hanging fruit. I doubt it. But if so, the fruit can grow back.

(p. C9) The irresistible enthusiasm of “Great Adaptations” couldn’t come at a better time—science is under assault not merely by know-nothing deniers but in how it is taught and presented to the general public. It’s dispensed as a collection of facts, recitations of what past research has uncovered, findings to be understood, which all too often means just “memorized.” By contrast, as Mr. Catania clearly understands, and demonstrates beautifully in his book, science offers adventures in trying to decode the mysteries of the natural world.

This open-minded, openhearted attitude toward biology’s many unanswered questions is the organizing principle of “Great Adaptations”: how to recognize those mysteries, how to go about solving them, and most important, how to appreciate them. In science, working out the solutions to a puzzle inevitably raises new questions in a process not unlike nuclear fission, in which splitting one nucleus generates the energy to split more—except in this case, the energy released isn’t dangerous but illuminating.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “Biology’s Unanswered Questions.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, September 5, 2020): C9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sep. 4, 2020, and has the title “‘Great Adaptations’ Review: Survival of the Weirdest.”)

The book under review is:

Catania, Kenneth. Great Adaptations: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels, and Other Tales of Evolution’s Mysteries Solved. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020.

At Netflix “Adequate Performance Gets a Generous Severance Package”

Note that Netflix practices what Clayton Christensen called “emergent” strategic planning. Experimental responding to opportunities; no five year plans.

(p. B5) As a founder and co-chief executive of Netflix Inc., Reed Hastings has reshaped both the way people watch television and how the entertainment industry operates.

. . .

In his new book “No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” Mr. Hastings likens being employed at the streaming giant to being part of a sports team: Getting cut is disappointing but carries no shame. “Unlike many companies, we practice: Adequate performance gets a generous severance package,” reads one of Netflix’s mottos.

. . .

WSJ: In the book you say, “It’s impossible to know where a business like ours will be in five years.” What kind of prognosticating do you do?

Mr. Hastings: We keep trying experiments. The business model will be pretty similar in five years. Can we figure out animation? Can we catch Disney in family animation?

WSJ: You’ve said you want Netflix to be able to pounce on unanticipated opportunities. What’s an example of one you didn’t see coming?

Mr. Hastings: Nonfiction programming is a pretty good one. We started as superpremium TV, and the expansion into nonfiction has been a huge success. The whole sharing of content around the world has been a huge success. Prior to that, people thought Americans won’t watch content that’s produced outside the U.S.

For the full interview, see:

Joe Flint, interviewer. “BOSS TALK; Netflix’s Hastings Isn’t Fan of Remote Work.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, September 8, 2020): B5.

(Note: ellipses added. “WSJ” and “MR. HASTINGS” were bolded in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date Sep. 7, 2020, and has the title “BOSS TALK; Netflix’s Reed Hastings Deems Remote Work ‘a Pure Negative’.”)

Hastings, Reed, and Erin Meyer. No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.