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Monday, February 1, 2016
The Trump in the Coal Mine

The multi-billion-dollar circus that is the American Presidential election rolls ever on. We stand amazed that a billionaire real estate developer and reality TV star, spewing a sneering mix of lies and vitriol, dominates the Republican side of the contest. He is less a Presidential candidate than a walking Twitter account, with a gift for finding words and attitudes that speak powerfully to a segment of the American people.

Who is this segment? Who does The Donald speak for? Nate Cohen, writing in The New York Times, shared an analysis conducted by Civis Analytics in an article well worth reading. They are more likely to be white, male and 50 years old or older than the rest of the US population. They are more likely to have a tendency toward racism, which is why Trump’s most revolting views do not send them running. They are also short on higher education; his strongest support is in Census tracts where 20% or less of the population has, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.

What does that add up to? To me, it is a description of people on the losing end of the broadband economy. The growth of the knowledge-based, innovation-focused economy, which so ruthlessly purges uncompetitive industries and companies, has stunted their job prospects and shrunk their hopes. They feel betrayed and angry. So an angry man – despite his riches, reputation and liberal leanings – is the only one who speaks what is in their hearts.

My friends and colleagues around the world may shake their heads at this American phenomenon. But that would be to miss the point. The same anger at being left behind is rising in Europe, fueled by endless recession and now massive migration. It is among the many forces tearing the Middle East apart and roiling Latin America as the commodities boom ends. There is literally no chance that Donald Trump will enter the White House, except perhaps on a visitor’s pass, because he has too few supporters and they are not likely voters. But like the canary in the coal mine, Trump is a sign of trouble that must be addressed. For all of its benefits, the broadband economy is bad news for part of our people and we ignore their needs at our peril.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016
Looking Forward: Getting Us Closer?

When we look at the adoption of new technologies, there often seem to be two simultaneous divergent trends. The innovators and early adopters push the technology forward, making significant progress every year. The laggards still find many reasons not to use the technology.

The current state of videoconferencing provides a very strong example of this divergence.

While videoconferencing has been steadily increasing in the corporate world, it hasn’t really taken off. Each year, we see new predictions that this next year videoconferencing will be unavoidable.

The obstacles to widespread adoption of videoconferencing in the past included:

  • Cost – which has decreased dramatically over the last few years
  • Quality — the need for high broadband, low latency on both sides of the conversation, which gets better as bandwidth has generally increased
  • Sunk costs that make people wary of investing more money — one estimate is that more than half of businesses have outdated hardware
  • And, as always, human resistance or impediments to change of any kind.

In recent years, consumers have tended to adopt new technologies faster than big corporations do. But reliable data about usage of consumer video, like Skype Video or Apple FaceTime, is not readily available.

Nevertheless, the technology is moving forward with some interesting results.

Two weeks ago, Skype celebrated ten years of video calls by offering group mobile video conferencing.

Using through-the-screen-camera and a holographic illusion, DVETelepresence has worked to make videoconferences appear more natural to participants. This picture is one of my favorites. You’ll notice that to enhance the illusion they even embed the office plant on both sides of the screen, as if it really is to the side of the people who are remote.

Last week, 4Dpresence, a spinoff of DVETelepresence, announced the availability of their “holographic town hall” for political candidates and issues. Taking a page from India’s Prime Minister, who used videoconferences to appear all over that country during their last election, this company is offering to host candidates who can appear as if they are live holograms and interact with audiences. The company claims:

“In live venues, the patented holographic augmented reality podium is so bright the candidates appear more compelling than actually being there in person. The candidates and citizens engage each other naturally as if they are together in person.”

You can see a video on their website.

Personify offers what they call “Video Conversation, With a Hint of Teleportation”. The idea is to eliminate the background that an Intel RealSense 3D camera or a Primesense Carmine 3D cameravideo camera is picking up so that you and the people you’re talking to all seem to share the same virtual space.

Another version of teleportation for videoconferencing was featured a few months ago in a Wall St. Journal article titled “The Future of Remote Work Feels Like Teleportation: Virtual-reality headsets, 3-D cameras help make videoconferencing immersive”. As its author wrote:

“I have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like teleportation. Whether I was in a conference room studded with monitors, on a video-chat system that leverages 3-D cameras, or strapped into a virtual-reality headset inhabiting the body of a robot, I kept having the same feeling over and over again: I was there — where collaboration needed to happen.”  

The article focused especially on the use of virtual reality gear to achieve this effect. There is DORA from the University of Pennsylvania, in which a person uses the VR headset to see through the eyes of a mobile robot.

This month’s MIT Technology Review also highlighted the use of Microsoft’s Room Alive in an article titled “Can Augmented Reality Make Remote Communication Feel More Intimate? A Microsoft Research study uses augmented reality to project a life-size person into a room with you, perching them in an empty seat.”

Eventually, as the technology gets ever more interesting and intimate, some fraction of the laggards may finally adopt the new technology. Although as Max Planck noted about scientific progress, the adoption pattern may just be generational: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

So it’s interesting that “47% of US teens use video chat including Skype, Oovoo, Facetime and Omegle.

In the meantime, the early adopters are getting all the economic and intellectual benefits that can only occur with the full communication that videoconferencing provides and texting/emails don’t. These people are literally seeing the real potential of global Internet communications and will likely reap the economic gains from realizing that potential.

Friday, January 15, 2016
Looking Forward: Talk to Anyone in Any Language?

It’s been clear for some time that the Internet can connect everyone around the globe – in theory. This opens up tremendous potential for collaboration, mutual economic growth, education and a variety of other benefits. We’ve seen many of those benefits, but we still haven’t touched the surface.

Among other reasons the true potential of a globally connected world hasn’t yet been realized is that many people still can’t communicate when they communicate – they don’t speak the same language.

So it has been interesting to me to see the recent improvements in real time translation on the Internet. I’m not talking about the translation of text that has been around for a couple of years through, for example, Google Translate of websites or even the very useful app, WordLens, which I have used in my travels when I had to read foreign signs.

No, the new improvements are in speech – taking speech from one language and ultimately, quickly converting it correctly into another language. Although text translation is not easy, speech introduces much greater challenges.

These new real-time voice translation services and devices aren’t perfect, but they’ve improved enough that they are usable. And that usability will begin to make all the difference.

Last year, Google took its Translate app into speech. You can see a quick video example here. Google claims it can handle 90 of the world’s languages.

Then, more recently, Skype made its Translator generally available, although it’s clearly still in a sort of test mode. For English, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Mandarin, Skype describes its capabilities quite simply:

“You can call almost anyone who has Skype. It will translate your conversation into another language in near real-time. What someone else says is translated back in your language. An on-screen transcript of your call is displayed.”

They have a charming video of school children in the US and Mexico talking to each other somewhat awkwardly.

There’s another video, titled “Speak Chinese Like A Local” with an American photojournalist in China arranging a tour for himself.

This translation work hasn’t only be done in the US. The Japanese have also been busy at this task, in their own way.

While not using the Internet, a Panasonic translator – in the form of a smart megaphone – will be tested at Narita Airport to translate between Japanese, Chinese, Korean and English.

Then there’s the “ili”, a portable device (also not connected to the Internet) which translates between Japanese, Chinese and English. The company describes it as “the world’s first wearable translator for travelers”. They’ve posted a video athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6ngM0LHxuU. The video is a strange combination of cute and creepy, but it gets the point across.

These developments have led some stories to proclaim the arrival of the universal translator of Star Trek. But as Trekkie experts say, unlike the one in Star Trek, this doesn’t read brains, which may have been a necessity to communicate with non-human species.  

On the other hand, if you only want to talk with other people, the new language translators are pretty good substitutes ;-) With more use, they can only get better, faster, all the while helping to improve understanding between people around the world.

Monday, January 11, 2016
Light a Candle, America, for the Common Core

On December 10, President Obama signed a reform of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which had been passed by Congress the day before.  It preserves standardized testing but eliminates any consequences to states and school districts that perform poorly.  It also bars the Federal government from imposing academic requirements like the Common Core, America’s first serious attempt at a national curriculum for elementary and secondary school students.

Parents, weary of test preparation, celebrated.  Teachers rejoiced.  School boards and state education departments cheered. Republican Presidential candidates applauded the brave blow struck against government encroachment on our sacred liberties.

In this season of rejoicing, I make a humble request.  Let us light a candle of mourning for the NCLB and the Common Core. 

The NCLB Act was a bold and bracing vision wrapped in a truly terrible package, like a Ferrari engine shoehorned into one of those Ford Pintos with the exploding gas tanks. It introduced the idea – revolutionary in America – that states and school districts should not be the final judges of what is taught in schools.  There are good reasons for this.  In the best-performing state in 2015, Massachusetts, about 50% of 8th grade students rated proficient or better in math and reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  In the worst-performing state, Alabama, only 17% of 8th graders were proficient or better in math and 31% in reading.  The last time I checked, the residents of both state qualified as American citizens.  In my book, that should entitle children in both states to a decent education at public expense.

The Common Core introduced the idea – another American revolution – that a child in Massachusetts and Alabama should be learning more or less the same thing at each grade level.  That’s not a bad idea in a country where, according to Pew Research, 12% of people change residences every year and 38% say that the place they consider home is not where they are living right now.  If I move my family from the state of New York to the state of California, how much better would it be if my children entered schools teaching essentially what they were teaching in their last school? 

Unfortunately, these goods ideas went up in flames.  NCLB demanded that every student in every school improve every year.  The mathematical impossibility of such a thing boggles the mind, yet ratings of school and teacher performance depended on it.  Testing based on the Common Core was introduced in some states before a curriculum or teacher training was in place.  That’s like building the foundation after you put up the house.

The only way to achieve a poorer outcome would have been to put America’s most bloodthirsty enemies of education reform in charge of implementation.  Conspiracy theorists, check your email.

Why do I want to light a candle to mourn the demise of such a misbegotten creation?  Because in the 2012 international comparison of educational achievement by 15 year olds, called the Performance for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 36th.  The top five spots were held by China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea.  Also ahead of us were such rich-world peers as the UK, France, Germany, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. And let’s not forget such world leaders as Vietnam, Slovenia and Russia, which also bested the USA. 

In most of these nations, the funding of education, design of the curriculum and assessment testing is centralized at national level.  Even in the Netherlands, where more than 70% of educational decisions are made at the local level, the Ministry of Education produces a national curriculum, funds both public and private schools, and administers national assessment testing.  School districts are in charge of how the goals are achieved but nobody gets to play fast and loose with the standards without paying a price. 

A price is paid in every community where weak education fails to prepare the next generation for the global economy.  In the broadband era, that economy is at our doors whether we like it or not.  The “Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015,” which the President called “a Christmas miracle,” turns America back in a direction where Some Students Succeed – if they grow up in a wealthy place where parents demand the best and know how to make their demands count.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Disrupting the Affordable Housing Model in Smart and Intelligent Communities


Every Smart City and Intelligent Community aims to create a high quality of life for its citizens. Healthy and happy citizens create a more vibrant and productive economy. According to a recent Economist Magazine article on housing in Britain, the correlation between housing availability and affordability are directly related to productivity. The choice was to either live in increasingly more crowded and more expensive housing accommodation in order to participate in a more productive community or to move out to work and live in a less productive area. But this is not unique to Britain. Many people who cannot find or afford housing in San Francisco and Silicon Valley eventually are forced to move elsewhere, even though they might have a job prospect in the Valley and wind up being less content in the new community they have been forced to move into.

In a U.S. study by the Knight Foundation called the “Soul of the City”, the authors concluded that the best way to attract and retain talent, a key element to Intelligent Communities, was to provide three things: affordable housing, accessible and affordable transit and “things to do”. These are also important elements to a high quality of life for all citizens. Shelter is a basic human need and should be deemed a human right. Movement is essential for trade and communications and a key to productivity and prosperity. Entertainment, heritage and culture, celebration, nature, the richness of urban and rural experiences and places, family, choice and variety - are all aspects of the “things we like to do” and be a part of. Why is it so difficult to provide these in every community, especially safe, clean and affordable housing for all our citizens?

Many Intelligent Communities try to address this issue from a holistic perspective. The challenge of securing and maintaining a healthy supply of affordable housing clearly impacts more than just the person and their family – it impacts the entire social and economic ecosystem of the community and region at large. Accordingly, if productivity and the economy of our cities are linked to affordable housing, it must be at the center of government policy. For instance, Germany, Austria and Singapore consider affordable housing as a “right” whereas American and British public housing programs tend to treat affordability as a commodity and privilege. Three main factors account for Germany’s stable housing: responsive housing supply; secure rental tenancy; and regulated mortgage credit availability. The German constitution enables housing supply in response to demand through ‘right-to-build’ legislation, providing confidence in the market. As German communities receive grants based on the number of its inhabitants, local governments encourage development. In comparison, UK cities are much less liberal and accommodating, surrounded by strict greenbelts, significantly restricting the availability of land for development which usually also push up housing prices. The dominant housing choice among Germans is regulated rental accommodations which prevent steep increases in accommodation prices. The political system is also highly sensitive to tenants’ rights, ensuring that renters enjoy security of tenure. Accordingly, Germans have little incentive to rush into owner occupation, avoiding ‘panic buying’ and speculation. Similarly, public housing programs in Austria, such as in Vienna, have also succeeded in meeting critical housing shortages. Their approach is to create public housing policies that avoid temporary stopgap measures for the most vulnerable in times of crisis, leading instead to managing affordable housing prices, attracting talent and encouraging greater social cohesion. This disruptive approach provides housing for all by subsidizing all elements of society, not just the lower spectrum of the economic spectrum. By contrast, New York City’s public housing tends to be limited to lower income tenant household incomes that wind up competing for an inadequate supply of housing options, most of which are also aging and need of rehabilitation, and the waiting list continues to grow. Some authors have termed these public housing developments as “islands of poverty in a sea of private-market housing”. In contrast, the majority of Vienna’s residents live in subsidized apartments which are provided by both government and a limited number of for-profit housing associations. This approach reflects that housing is a basic human right and that society as a whole should be responsible for accommodating affordable and accessible housing as it impacts all levels of the socio-economic ecosystem. Where housing is concerned, completely free market mechanisms seem to become the obstacle to ensuring safe and clean accommodation for all. Just as roads and sidewalks are deemed a human right of access for all, perhaps housing should be deemed as a similar right for society as a whole. In Austria, 80% of all new housing is subsidized by public funds, whether privately or publicly owned, thereby reducing the social stigma attached to public housing. Furthermore, the architectural quality of Vienna’s public housing stock is indistinguishable from private accommodation.

In Singapore, 82% of their residents live in government built accommodations. However, the government encourages public housing residents to eventually purchase their apartments when they are able to. Today, 90% of Singapore’s government assisted housing is actually owner occupied. The remaining stock is left for those who have no other options. Austria’s approach is to use housing subsidies as instruments of redistribution, whereas Singapore’s approach attempts to promote economic growth in general through the use of innovative financing tools, such as rental geared to income which allows similar units in a neighbourhood to be made available to all no matter what their income levels, reducing the stresses in a society that result from inequality. Thus Singapore’s disruptive model looked at their housing crisis as an economic development opportunity for “nation-building”. These examples of disruptive approaches to housing accommodation are not perfect but help to redefine what social housing means. In the USA, it tends to mean dealing with crisis management: offering short sighted and temporary solutions to households who need government assistance to find a roof of any kind over their heads, while Germany, Austria and Singapore appear to take a longer view to benefit society and its economy in tandem.

This article first appeared in MyLiveableCity

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