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The World is Going to the D...I Mean Robots!

Marty At Work

After two delightful weeks in Hong Kong and Taiwan to start the New Year, I can't bear to kick off 2019 with how I'm feeling about the perilous state of the union or the future of our planet. So to bring you up to date on the theme of The Piketty Problem, and with minimal snark, here's a light-hearted bulletin on the latest in robotics.


Meet Marty! No, you're not seeing things. Marty is your friendly grocery store robot who along with 500 of his cloned friends, may well be coming to your local Giant or Stop & Shop in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, or West Virginia in the next few months. This high-tech floorwalker is designed to roam the aisles to detect issues such as out-of-stock, product spills, and incorrect shelving. That seems like a great deal of investment for such mundane tasks. My bet is with those big eyes and high-resolution 3D cameras he'll be on the lookout for shoplifters as well. I wonder if he was named after Ernest Borgnine's character in that great movie, "Marty."


Who says Jeff Bezos isn't paying attention to his business? His latest innovation is giving "Amazon Scout" a trial run in Snohomish County, Washington. A fleet of these robots that look like bright-blue coolers on wheels, will be rolling along the sidewalks at a walking pace to deliver Amazon packages right to the customer's door. Drones anyone?


Then there are the Lovots, furry, robotic plush-toys, about eighteen inches high, that are designed to do nothing except be loved. This Japanese lovie recognizes sounds and identifies individual humans. It has wheels to motor around, flippers to show surprise or affection, and a smaller version of Marty's eyes to interact with users while it makes wordless chirping noises. It also laughs when tickled, and will fall asleep if you cradle it in your lap. Unfortunately, its "minimal motor function" means it can't fetch you a beer. Sorry, Judge.


The ways things are going, that may be it for light-hearted this year. Sorry, readers.

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Happy New Year to All! — Climate Change News from the Dead Zone

Credit: Johnny Milano for The New York Times

No, the Dead Zone is not Earth, not yet anyway. It's not even Florida after a hurricane, although that's closer to the truth, as you can see in the picture.


Holiday time, particularly the days between Christmas and New Year's, is a journalistic Dead Zone. Any news media reports from that period are sure to receive far less attention than normal. A favorite tactic of sleazy politicos is to try to slip one by during that period to avoid criticism or outrage by concerned citizens. Case in point is the release on December 28 of yet another Trump administration proposal to defang an environmental protection rule. This one would allow greater emissions of poisonous mercury into the air, and ups the Trump Termite's scorecard of weakened or repealed environmental restrictions to nearly a dozen.


Almost as troubling, and far less understandable, was the mystifying decision by the New York Times to release a special twelve-page report on December 26 about the consequences of Trump's environmental retreat on the health and safety of Americans, while on the same day, headlining the editorial, "Trump Imperils the Planet." These issues demand greater exposure and publicity than they can ever receive in the media Dead Zone.


The report goes into considerable detail about the personal stories of ordinary citizens who have been affected by the loosening of regulations, like the farm worker in California disabled by Chlorpyrifos, a nerve agent and broad spectrum pesticide, and the North Dakotans who are afraid to breathe the air, and the West Virginians who are afraid to drink the water. It's a long read, and a heart-wrenching one. At least skim it if you can.


Another shorter, must-read lost in the Dead Zone, is David Leonhardt's New York Times' column of December 30, where he makes the argument that the best hope for raising awareness and concern about climate change is the weather. Pundits and scientists always warn us not to confuse extreme weather events with a changing climate, but Leonhardt makes the obvious point that weather is what people can see, feel, hear, and touch, and thus it's going to have a far greater impact than all the academic studies or governments reports put together. I have particular sympathy for this argument, because the novel that I'm currently trying to sell into the Dead Zone of the lit biz, The Eleventh Grieve, is all about how the recognition that "weird weather" is really climate change can win over even the most bullheaded denier.


Leonhardt says he "wanted to write my last column of 2018 about the climate as a kind of plea: Amid everything else going on, don't lose sight of the most important story of the year." That's all well and good, but as we used to say in my former profession, the ad biz, "It's not what you say, it's what they hear." So wise up, Dave! There aren't that many people listening on December 30!


As a postscript, check out today's New York Times' article, post–Dead Zone, on a childhood cancer cluster in Indiana that can be traced to contamination of groundwater by trichloroethylene, or TCE, a colorless fluid with a subtle, sweet odor used by as many as four-fifths of the nation's 65,000 dry cleaners, as well as about 2,200 factories and other facilities. At the urging of industry groups, the Trump administration has indefinitely postponed an Obama-era regulation to restrict its use.


I've lost count but I think this could make it an even dozen for Trump's Termites. As I said, Happy New Year to all.

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In Case You Missed It, Part Two

Thousands of environmental experts are now gathered in Poland for the United Nations’ 24th annual climate change conference. The goal is to establish rules for carrying out the Paris accord to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2 degrees Centigrade, or 3.6 Fahrenheit. Just prior to the conference, Poland, which has the highest domestic coal production in Europe, and is home to 33 of the 50 most polluted cities in EU, announced that it planned to invest in more new coal capacity in the coming year.

The UN conference comes on the heels of several other recent disheartening developments presented mostly without comment…

…After several weeks of protests, Paris is virtually on lockdown as the “Yellow Vests” express their rage about taxes and salaries. The spark that ignited the riots was a planned increase in France’s fuel tax, designed to help the country meet its carbon reduction pledge.

…Le Grand Orange responded on Twitter "I am glad that my friend Emmanuel Macron Read More 

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In Case You Missed It...

If you were still shaking off the effects of a tryptophan coma induced by the Thanksgiving turkey, or out hustling for bargains at your local zombie mall, you might have missed last Friday’s big news from the White House—a stark warning about the devastating impact of global climate change on America’s economy and our way of life.

Wait a second. The White House? Isn’t Trump still president?

Unfortunately, yes. See the date of the release, the slowest news day of the year.

But our president had no choice. The findings about climate change come from the National Climate Assessment, a major scientific report mandated by Congress that the federal government is required to produce and release every four years. Thirteen federal agencies contributed to the alarming findings Read More 

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The Lit Biz Eats Its Best and Brightest

The American novelist, Barbara Kingsolver, writes stories that encourage readers to think while they’re being entertained. Her novels are concerned with the great social issues of our time, such as global climate change and political turmoil.

Publishers have a variety of names for this genre, as though the lit biz can’t quite get a grip on it—social novel, social justice novel, social protest novel, political novel, the literature of social engagement. Whatever these kind of novels are called, they’re generally viewed with suspicion by critics and editors, who see little or no place for social commentary in “literature” or in sales. Happily, that attitude hasn’t stopped Kingsolver’s books from becoming best sellers, and being shortlisted for such prestigious honors as the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Kingsolver’s eighth novel, Unsheltered, was published in October. It’s more overtly political than her previous novels, as well is should be in this Time of Trump. It’s also one of the most entertaining and thought-provoking novels I’ve read in quite some time.

The plot revolves around an educated middle-class couple,  Read More 

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Post-Election Morning: An Open Letter to My Children

Two years ago, on the morning after the election, I wrote to you acknowledging our disappointment, even despair, but cautioning against a rush to judgment about our new President. My hope was he might step up to the responsibilities and gravity of the office. Those hopes were quickly dashed.

But I also reminded you that our democratic system is stronger than any one man or woman, and if Trump proved incapable, we would exercise our Constitutional rights and find a new leader

I know you are disappointed once again, but don't be. I believe that Constitutional process began yesterday. In fact, I'm willing to go on the record with a prediction: other than a possible Supreme Court vacancy, yesterday was Trump's last political hurrah.

The political rock stars on whom so many Democrats were pinning their hopes—Gillum in Florida, O'Rourke in Texas, Abrams in Georgia— went down to a narrow defeat. Trump gets the credit for energizing the worst instincts  Read More 

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"Shut him up! Shut him up!"



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First Sharks, Now Beer

"If you love me, you'll help save the planet!"
It seems like years, not weeks, since the nation was transfixed by the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. So many other horrible news cycles have come and gone since then, with the only constant our President’s deep desire to divide the nation even more deeply to further the election of members of his adopted Republican party, and to solidify his base for the 2020 race, Mueller permitting.

But an article in today’s New York Times about the Homecoming football game at Georgetown Prep, headlined “Kavanaugh is Hailed as a Hero,” made me want to unilaterally declare an end to any cooling off period and examine our new Justice’s positions on a critical issue that America is facing today, Read More 
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A Bad Week for Climate Change Deniers

Here's lookin' at you, Mr. President!
For anyone who remains unconvinced about climate change after seeing the horrific destruction in the Florida panhandle levied by Michael, the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the US mainland, or the ominous new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describing a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires as soon as 2040, there’s always the threat of our old friend, “Jaws.”

A few weeks ago, a 26-year-old boogie boarder was killed by a shark in the first fatal attack in Cape Cod in 80 years (Spielberg took some liberties with the truth in “Jaws” the movie, released in 1975) and  Read More 
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Meet the Man Behind the Curtain: Don McGahn

“There’s nobody with a squeaky clean past like Brett Kavanaugh,” Mr. Trump told reporters Saturday night in Topeka, Kansas, as he dismissed allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by his new Supreme Court justice.

Ironically, Trump’s customary mangling of the English language led him into accidentally uttering a rare truth. Based on the reports in the media these past few weeks, there is no one indeed, with a squeaky clean past who would even think about behaving anything like what the country heard about Justice Kavanaugh’s behavior back at Georgetown Prep and Yale.

Whether or not Kavanaugh was actually guilty of sexually assaulting Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, there was more than enough reliable testimony from people who knew him at the time to indicate that he was often in an inebriated state  Read More 
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