Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The first time in forever

Natalie has been singing along to the soundtrack of Frozen around Graham's bedtime, but Graham says it doesn't disturb his sleep, so I guess it's OK.   Mostly, I think it's sweet.  And to think that by the time I was in 9th grade I was dead set on demonstrating how cool I was by being into whatever punk and new wave I could lay my hands on.  8th grade, after all, had been the year of the Buzzcocks, Human Sexual Response, and the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

But I wasn't too cool to go to Purdy's and dance to Michael Jackson, Kurtis Blow, and Xmas Rapping.  At least, not yet.

But in any case, I think it's good that Natalie is not yet a culture snob.

Social skills and intellect

I went running with a friend yesterday, a guy who has had a fascinating and successful career across a range of roles and industries -- not that he's super-rich, although he's comfortable, but that he leaps from interesting thing to interesting thing and his aura keeps getting better.

We ended up talking about kids, as guys often do, no matter what women think, and he said that his son had recently had some testing come back and that he had tested just below gifted, which he thought was perfect.  I had to think on that.  So much of my own sense of self-worth derives from having been smart, from having dominated people intellectually. I know that this isn't necessarily good, and hasn't always served me well.

And Mary and I definitely exult when our kids test well, and we praise them for it.

But my friend talked about his experience in life and how he had found over time that having good social skills was more important than being smart, about how he had figured that out working at an investment bank right out of college.

And one point he made about his test scores was that, in a high-powered school system like Chapel Hill's being placed on a gifted track put you in a more competitive pool of kids, and that social skills seemed to suffer there.  Which is very pretty good thinking.  I know that, looking back on high school from a 30-year remove, one of the things I did to myself by being in so many AP and Honors courses was to assure myself of being in a segregated classroom.  So now I know plenty of black guys from my class because I really strove to play basketball, but very few black women.  I know a lot of geeks, and am happy to know them because they are great people, but I have fairly narrow social circles.

I was also reminded of this article by Sal Khan of Khan Academy.  Encouraging academic and intellectual accomplishment can be, it seems, a double-edged sword.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Japanese Stiltgrass as metaphor

Japanese stiltgrass is a very invasive plant, and it is all over our neighborhood, and in other areas around here.  I had never noticed it until Mary told me about it, and now I see it all the time as I run, walk, drive, etc.  All of this is incontrovertibly true.

And I let it bother me too much, although it is really well outside my control.  Yes, we can try to contain it in our yard, and we do, but beyond that my sphere of influence with regard to it is extraordinarily limited.  I could try to promulgate awareness of it in our neighborhood using the listserv, that is true, but beyond that my hands are tied.

In this regard, it is like so much else in life.  If I let it get to me, I have lost the battle already.  I have to pick my battles, or I will lose.  Continually.  And I this does not make me happier.  Quite the contrary.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thoughts on Russia

I don't know what it was, but something spurred in me the memory of a decade or so back, when I was doing a project out in St Louis.  As was often the case, there was a Russian programmer at the client site, and I struck up a conversation with him in Russian, in the never-ending quest to keep my Russian skills from disappearing forever off into the mists of forgetting (as they will one day, for sure, but I will forestall it as long as possible).

Sergei, I think his name was, was typically delighted and amazed to meet an American who spoke some Russian, and invited me out to his home to meet his wife in the evening after work.  When I got to their house, a perfectly respectable if nondescript ranch somewhere in some subdivision, there was one small problem:  their dog.  Not that he was a nasty dog, quite the contrary, he was a lovely dog, the friendliest ever, perhaps.  An Irish Setter, I thinnk. You would have thought I was his long-lost chum from kindergarten.  No sooner than I had come in the house, then he lept all over me and wanted to kiss and lick and cuddle.  He was absolutely irrepressible.

I can't recall if I had told Sergei I didn't drink before I went over there, at any case, at some point in time it became clear that the best activity for the two of us was to play ping pong. So we played some ping pong, and spoke some Russian, and then to leave I had to pass through the kitchen again, where they had tried to isolate their hyperpup.  More jumping and kissing.  Though I could have done without some of the puppy love, this was a reminder of the extreme hospitality one often finds amongst the Russians.

These days almost everything we read about Russia is negative.  Putin taking back Crimea, waging a proxy war in Ukraine.  Russians attacking gays and lesbians.  Parliament passing crazily restrictive laws on media. Zhirinovsky threatening use of tactical nuclear weapons in Poland or the "dwarf states" of the Baltic.

I was up at Columbia University for a memorial service in honor of one of my professors, Robert Belknap, this Friday.  At the reception afterwards, I was talking to other faculty from Columbia, Princeton, and elsewhere, and they were basically arguing that -- despite Putin's huge approval numbers -- things weren't as bad in Russia in general as they are made out to be.  That life is better, that people are not as nasty as our mass media make them out to be, that the real solution is for Putin to be gotten rid of, somehow.  And that Putin's control is not as absolute as it is made out to be.

It's hard for me to know.  I haven't been back to Russia since '98.  But it is hard for me to believe that they are all fascists.  They have suffered, yes.  There is homophobia, and racism, yes, but we've got that too.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Graham moving further forward

After talking about it for 2 years, I got Graham to swim all the way out to the float at the lake today.  Afterwards, we were sitting on the bench onshore, and he noted that it seemed closer than it had before.  I explained that he was bigger and stronger.

Teamwork and leadership

Mary was out of town this weekend, up in New York with her grad school home girls celebrating an opening for one of them and Mary's (dare I say it) 50th birthday. And maybe Tanya's too.

So this morning it fell to me to make the pancakes, as we do every Sunday, pretty much.  I had thought ahead and taken some pumpkin out of the freezer, because we all love pumpkin pancakes, and fall is after all on its way.  I looked in the cookbook Mary uses for making the pancakes, opened it to the recipe she uses, and proceeded from there, following the recipe as best I could.

Unfortunately, they didn't come out as good as they are when she makes them.  They were too dense, perhaps because we had only one egg, perhaps because I used more whole wheat flour than Mary actually does (despite what was written on the page).  Or maybe I left out some ingredient like baking powder because I am such a space cadet.  Anyway, they were perfectly fine with some maple syrup on them.

A little later, Graham and I were sitting on the couch talking about DC superheros and the villains they struggle with and on good days vanquish.  We were talking about favorites, and Graham focused a little bit on the villain Brainiac, who is said to be smarter than all of the denizens of earth put together.

I noted that, in fact, just adding up the intelligence does not adequately reflect the capacities of different types of people working together, and we see that in the comic books, where time after time, a foe who seems insurmountable at the outset is brought low at the end by the concerted efforts of some super teammates.

But I also made the point that the concept of intelligence is inherently not additive, that you can in no way just add up the IQs or any other quantitative measure of how smart folx are and have that in any way reflect their capacity to work together.

For example, I noted, why did my pancakes kinda suck?  I was following mom's recipe.  We've been married over 17 years. It's a simple task we do all the time. Mary had written down slight modifications to the recipe based on our own experience.  And yet they were too chewy and dense.

The transmission of knowledge and talents between teammates is inherently tough, but good leaders figure out how to make it happen.  Bad leaders don't.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Do you want to be a salesman?

People keep asking me that.  And the answer is... kinda, but not entirely.

I enjoy much of the sales cycle.  The being out in the world, looking around, talking to people about their issues, searching for solutions, etc. I do not, however, enjoy the nudging and the asking and the closing, not so much. Mostly, I'm less concerned about maximizing my income and more want to be in a position to help people. Though I do need to get some income flowing, that's for sure.

Everybody always says that it takes time to develop a business and that one needs to be patient.  On the other hand, there's pressure to bring revenue in the door.

It is not always fun, or calming.

And the problem is, I am competing with people who are intensely money driven and want to win win win.  Where I have always been focused on playing well, in the belief that right will out.

Oh, the ethics of Rainbow Soccer.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

In a vain attempt to try to nudge Graham's reading taste forward, really to expand the set of books available to him -- because he has so picked over the offerings of the local public library that I marvel that he finds anything at all when I take him on our (greatly beloved) weekly pilgrimage there -- I checked out what I had heard was Agatha Christie's masterpiece, the 1926 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.*  He turned up his nose at it.

I was about to return it to the library, when I thought I'd better Google it.  And lo and behold, I find it was voted sometime recently by like the mystery writers of the world to be the greatest mystery ever written.  Them's some big words.  Having never actually read a Christie novel, I thought I owed it a look.

So I didn't return it, and began reading it instead.  And, thus far, I'm not feeling it.  100 pages in, yes, it's mysterious.  And there, already in this early stage, we have Poirot, twirling his moustache.  But still.

Then again, it's only 200 pages long, and I'm 100 in, so I'll keep rolling with it.

Just realized that the story in the Times today about the DNA-based exoneration of two brothers in NC prison for murders 31 years ago is the work of my old next-door neighbor Gerda and her colleagues at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation.  Beautiful.

*Blech, what a sentence.  If this were anything but a blog, I would really go back and edit it.  But a blog it is, and so it will stand.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Graham moving forward

For a very long time, Graham refused to even discuss showering.  It made him a little teary, even.  I forget exactly what his objection was, the sensation of the water hitting his skin, it getting in his eyes, what have you.

But we had guided him and told him that in middle school kids took showers every day, and so one day in Larchmont we were telling him he needed to take a bath and he pulled out a shocker and said he would be taking a shower.

Similarly, some years before he had been grossed out by mayonnaise.  So, when we stop at Subways when we're on the road, Graham typically gets just a plain turkey sub.  But the other day I was giving him some chicken breast, and I suggested mayo, and he rolled with it.  And liked it. Indeed, what's not to like?  Oil, egg, all whipped up and creamy.  It's all good.

It's good to see these kinds of steps forward.  All told, our life just gets easier.


Monday, September 01, 2014

Money as a verb

I was reading in the Arts and Leisure section of the Times from a couple of weeks back about a female artist named Swoon,* who has grown from doing guerrilla installations to having big museum shows, and who seems very very cool and has her money where her mouth, heart, feet, and all other various internal organs are.  She talked about hiring armies of friends to assemble installations (and running over budget) and thereby bringing people together and creating mini-economies, and of "money as a verb."  She lives in the same apartment she first rented in her early 20s.

And that took me back to a scene from my youth, about which it turns out I have already blogged, here.  For those of you disinclined to go back and read the full post, Mike Watt, of the Minutemen, tells a guy making a documentary about them that "we look at money like this. It's like air, you need it to breath, but what are you gonna do, keep a bunch of oxygen tanks in your garage? So what's our plan? Are we going to accumulate a lot of these vouchers? No, we're going to return them to the market in exchange for goods and services."  This is a compelling way to look at money, for the young, it shows a certain trust in the world and in the concept of flow, which is the flip side of the idea of planning. 

That said, it is worth noting that within a month of my being backstage with the Mike and the Minutemen, guitarist D Boon died in an accident when he was lying on the back seat of the band's van, sick.  He was not wearing his seatbelt at the time.  Which was a tragic end to truly a brilliant band and a really good guy.

In any case.... with some minimal sanity in place (seatbelts, flossing), there is some poetic beauty in trusting the world.

Until you have children.  And then the game changes.  Because it is no longer about you and having fun and making some broad rhetorical/philosophical point about your values and those of others.  You have young lives you're responsible for, in some sense, and you need to instill in them the right values, or at least the sense of a healthy process for groping towards those values.

Not that it is simple.  How should I guide my children towards balancing pragmatism and wonderment?  I, on the one hand, went way off in one direction in getting a PhD in Russian, which dented my early life earnings in a big way.  Which is maybe not all that big a deal, given other advantages I've been blessed with.

So right now Natalie's starting high school.  She loves art and theater, but is very good at math and generally does well and shows a strong proclivity at the dining room table towards a legal career (i.e. splits hairs, parses the fine points of everything we say, etc.).  We definitely want to encourage her to do the things she loves.  At the same time, I know that she should for sure learn statistics and, honestly, it wouldn't hurt her to learn to program a little.

And for me -- and Mary, by extension -- the broader question is to what extent we should be conservative now financially to be able to provide our kids with the wherewithal to be impractical, and to what extent we should be seeking to instill in them a sense of joy and wonder.  As opposed to a fear of the world which pushes them towards hyper-practical paths which may or may not be fulfilling.

The answer, as always, is to stop blogging and move on with my day, because the truth is somewhere in the middle.

*Full hipster disclosure:  I had never heard of her before, and may very well never hear of her again.  Though she seems very cool.

Saturday, August 30, 2014


Between ice-bucket challenges and BeLoud!Sophie and my brother-in-law Walter's raising more than $11k riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge for breast cancer research and Jack Pringle's solo efforts in Rowing to Gainesville for Tyler's Hope to raise money for and consciousness around Dystonia, I've seen a lot of noble and valiant efforts going into fund-raising for various medical causes.  Which is all very tremendous.

But it is also rather lossy and tends to direct funding to the squeakiest wheel.  Research $ tends to get attention to the extent that it impacts people with time, energy, and wherewithal to mount campaigns.

And thus, we have another example of the withering of the state, as Republicans would have it.  Allocating dollars for medical research is very much a public interest thing, and while bottom-up strategies and frameworks definitely have a place in determining how cash flows, there is also a need for top-down views that can take into account asymmetric risks.  Like, say, developing vaccines and treatment protocols for something like an Ebola virus.  It's good that some pharma and biotech companies are out there trying to look at that kind of stuff and other "orphan" diseases (which are within the pharma world are regarded as profitable niches), but a strong central strategic vision for medical research is important.

Net net, I think this is an important government function that should be funded.  And yet, the budgets of the NIH and other allied government organs are under considerable attack.  Which is no surprise within the Republicans' highly orchestrated War on Government.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Being in the Park

So now I am working in Research Triangle Park.  This is not something I was ever particularly excited about, it was, frankly, not my dream.  In fact, I don't think it's anybody's dream. What it is is convenient to people commuting from multiple directions. It's practical.

It is also, for me at this stage in the game, a little dangerous around lunchtime.  I'm poking around there trying to figure out how the roads connect to one another, what with all the buildings looking exactly the same and everything, and if I'm not 100% committed to a lane well, some other jackass in khakis and an Accord right behind me sure is.  I have nearly gotten myself in trouble a couple of times now.

Ah well.

But I tend to believe that there's a little bit of just about any kind of lunch food hiding out here or there, I've just got to find it.  Certainly there is Jamaica Jamaica, my personal fave.  And then there's that Vietnamese place.  And the Chinese-owned soul food place.

Anyhoo, in due time I will liberate myself from all of this.  Just gotta get there.  Certainly, it gives me strong motivation to set up meetings of various sorts with people.  Just to get the hell out of the building.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bee Pollen rules!

So on the drive back from New Jersey today, Graham needed to stop one more time to pee, so we got off at a truck stop, I think it was at exit 215 on I-85, not too far into North Carolina.  As I said, it was totally a truck stop, so I went in with him.  Plus, I can alway pee.

Off to the left of the door we went in was another, none-too-prepossessing one.  Above it was a sign that said "Showers."  We didn't need that.

So we went in, past a couple of dry-looking burgers in saran wrap and a single, forlorn corn dog under a heat lamp.  Through a diner section with kinda retro booths and a steam table full of southern favorites (but not mine).

Into the men's room.  And there, on the wall above the urinal, was a sign for something like BeePollen.com (though a visit to this URL is less entertaining than the ad on the wall).  Naturally, it extolled the many virtues of bee pollen, including longevity, virility, etc.  There was, honestly, too much to read for anyone but Austin Powers.  But there were some notes that stood out.

Who takes bee pollen?

  • The Olympic team of the USSR (Ummmmm, no longer exists)
  • The people in the Caucasian mountains of Russia who live to be 150 years old (Errrrr, no such people)
  • The US Olympic gold medalist in 1976 Olympics (this is, as close as possible, to the actual wording.  I believe that, in fact, we may have one more than one gold medal in '76)
It was pretty classic.  I was rueing that fact that I didn't bring my phone in to take a picture.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Grand Central Terminal, 9:10 pm

I was trying to make the 9:07 Stamford local.  I knew it was gonna be close.  There was a 4 minute wait for the 2/3 at 14th St, so I had to soldier on on the local, past 18th, 23rd, 28th, 34th, to 42nd, and then the S.  I found myself sprinting through the main hall of Grand Central, only to discover that, according to Metro North, it was 9:08.

And so, there I was.  Sweaty and unshaven after a day of standing in line for ferries to and from Governor's Island, and then of drinking in its legitimate charms with the family.  The highlight was chilling in the breezy shade with an iced coffee while Graham had a lemonade while Mary, Natalie, Sadie and Beth rode around on some 4-person bike contraption.

But, as I said, there I was.  Half an hour to wait, standing in one of the coolest rooms in all of North America, the main hall of Grand Central.  Well air-conditioned it was.  Not so hustly and bustly as it usually is when I go through there.

At one point in time a group of 3 girls and a couple of guys came out of Track 21 or 22, meeting a couple more guys.  Fist bumps, hugs, complicated handshakes all around.  A couple of black guys, a couple of Hispanic or maybe Italian-American guys, and girls of similar provenance, all in their early 20s.  Kids from the boroughs.  Bridge and tunnel, you might say, if you were an asshole.  Who knows where they were headed.  Maybe some club I would never have even heard of when I was in grad school, or maybe a TGI Fridays, who knows.  It was cool, though.  Kids getting together on a Saturday.  With chaos raging in Ferguson, it was good to see America working the way it's supposed to here in New York.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


And here I am, back in the Larchmont Public Library, my traditional August haunt, working away.  Glorious weather here in the Northeast.  This morning I could hardly get out of bed, despite two blankets, because it was so chilly.  Not typical for this time of year, but I'll take it.

Yesterday was fabulous in the city.  Got time in with 4 people, several of whom I hadn't seen in years, one I hadn't seen since maybe '95.  Got some excellent eating in as well, including a nice seafood salad in Tribeca and a killer pork banh mi in the East Village.

Honestly, didn't really see anything of particular note on the streets. Just people going about the business of being New Yorkers and/or tourists.  I pretended to be the former, but I don't know if I fooled anyone, save for the fact that I can still navigate Gotham right good.

OK.  Time to head home.  Natalie and Sadie wanted to play some board game which requires at least 3 players, and Graham was not excited about it.  Really, I should exercise before dinner.  We'll see about that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Limbering up

As is so often the case, I was reading something someone else had written, in this case a Haven Kimmel book, and I realized that I hadn't written anything for a while.

Let me just say that this weekend's Be Loud! Sophie concerts were wildly successful, it was an honor to play a part in them, however modest.  To wit, I MC'd portions of the shows.

Now, I am not a big self horn tooter.  I generally don't like that stuff.  In this case, however, I am proud of what I did, so I will tell you.  After the 65 Roses shows organized by John Plymale a few years back to benefit Cystic Fibrosis research, I had a vision of a punk rock kind of fundraising technique:  go up on stage, tell the crowd there's a box of some sort where donations are being collected in the back of the room, and then hand cash to somebody in the front row, and direct them to hand it back through the crowd.  Then exhort the crowd to do the same.  Take money out and hand it to the person behind them,  so that all the money goes to the bucket.

This weekend, I did it.  Before the Pressure Boys, the headline act came on.  Both nights.  And it raised good money.  At least a couple of grand, maybe three.  Cool when something like that works.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Be Loud!

Having a slight hiatus in posting due to this weekends Be Loud! Sophie event at Cat's Cradle.  If you're not there, you're wrong.

Thursday, August 07, 2014


I snapped up this serialized Iranian graphic novel, which was made into a movie in 2007 and nominated for an Oscar.  It's well worth reading, offered considerable insight into "normal" people living through the Iranian revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and afterwards.

I bracket "normal" because of course we like our first-person narrator and her parents, they are just like us, or rather, like self-respecting intelligentsia of a European capital.  Smart, left-leaning, decent, hard-working folks.  They are the people we are supposed to like. The heroine goes through some ups and downs, away from her parents in Vienna for a few years, does some drugs, scandalized her Catholic school, lives on the streets for a few months.  She doesn't have an easy time of it.

But she can go home to her parents and her feisty grandma and find some comfort in the repressive landscape of fundamentalist Iran, but they're always running away from the revolutionary guard in one way or another, and eventually her parents and grandmother put her on a plane again back to the West.  She is a grown young woman.  The End.

And so, the West and our values win, of course they do.

My question is this, why is it that nobody tries to make the movie or write the book from the perspective of Islam or some other traditionalist culture, under threat from the cosmopolitan West?  Probably there are more than I know of, they just don't bubble up through the Western culture industry because nobody would want to read or watch them.  Or is the form of the first-person or single-character focused third-person novel or novelistic film somehow inherently western and aligned with individualism per se.  Without going back and reading Ian Watt's Rise of the Novel and some of the other stuff that grows out of it (Raymond Williams, etc.), I think this logic is embedded there.  The novel is the very form of the individual.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

The White Ribbon

I finished up this Michael Haneke movie last night.  It's the kind of film I haven't been watching much of lately.  Will Farrell did not make an appearance.  Black and white, starkly beautiful, the story of a small German town in the lead-up to WWI and the elemental violence simmering constantly just below the surface, breaking out with surprising frequency.

Makes a nice contrast with Downton Abbey, the early seasons of which chronicle much the same era. Downton is still a favorite, to be sure, but it's a lot of wish-fulfillment about how we would like to believe things were back in the day.  Yes, there's some violence there, a pretty nasty rape, a little murder, perhaps, but not so much.  Mostly lush greens, nice diction, and human kindness.

All in all, The White Ribbon is a strong film, well worth watching.  Haneke has the courage to hold fast to the mysteries, to not cave in to the temptation to wrap everything up nicely at the end with, well, a white ribbon.  There's lots of violence going on, none of it onscreen. (anti-spoiler alert) None of the films major mysteries is resolved.  WWI comes, and it is all washed away. Haneke could not dispense with the comfort of a moral center.  Our narrator, the village teacher, marries his rosy-cheeked sweetheart at the end, they move away and live happily ever after.  Which is fine.  I'm glad they moved away.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Conversation in a small town

Mom and I were up in her hometown a couple of days ago talking to a guy we'll call Jimmy, who's a local contractor, about maybe selling him some land of ours that abuts his.  Good guy.

He told us a long story about how his nonagenarian father had starved himself to death, somewhere in the middle of his mother's 7-year descent into Alzheimer's.  She passed away somewhere north of 100.  Starving yourself to death sounds bad, but when he went back and told the story it became clear that it was in fact the tale of a guy who had been around for a long time, saw that there was nothing stretching forth on the road before him, and decided to determine his own fate.  At some point in time the staff of the rest home where the dad and his wife resided informed Jimmy that they were going to put in an IV drip because his dad was getting dehydrated, and he informed them that if they did that he would go up there and give them a proper asswhuppin, because his dad had made his call, and they needed to respect it.

Somewhere later in the conversation, we started talking about Jimmy's brother who lived in one of the more urban parts of the state.  He told us that his brother had, after raising several kids with his wife, gotten a divorce, come out, and had a succession of live-in boyfriends.  And he sounded at peace with this.

And this from a small-town guy who, a few years back, had clearly signaled his distaste for the Obama administration.  So, it seems, that even as a court decision has begun to drive a nail into the heart of NC's noxious Amendment One to allow gay couples to marry, the more important war is being slowly one on the most important battlefield, the hearts and minds of people.  Because, as we know all too well, the South in particular has ways of subverting the Rule of Law when it doesn't like it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

More on Caro

I'm making my way through volume 3 of Caro's bio of LBJ.  With about 1600 pages of this opus under my belt, I can tell you that I'm getting a little tired of LBJ, and I'll be damned if I don't think Caro is too.  He really gets to swinging when he is writing about Johnson's allies and antagonists.  The section of Coke Stephenson -- Governor of Texas, Mr. Texas -- was brilliant, and the 40 page introduction to Richard Russell, the Senator from Georgia, was also great.  Same with the portrait of Sam Rayburn.  The same thing, honestly, was true of the book on Robert Moses.  You could feel Caro growing tired of his protagonist, a little, while getting excited about the other guys:  Fiorello LaGuardia, even FDR got interesting treatment.

Or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting.  Certainly one can learn a lot about US history in general by reading Caro, even if you have to put up with a lot of detail on the sociopaths that make it chug.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Zipless travel

A piece in the Wall Street Journal today informs us that Hilton has developed apps to let travelers perform many key travel functions on their smartphones:  check-in, check-out, open door, etc.  Sounds pretty cool, and you know it will hold appeal to the jeunesse doree of the corporate world, ever-focused on expediting processes on the road.  I know, I used to be one of them, and sometimes still am.  Automation and process streamlining has done wonders for things like checking in at airports and picking up and dropping off rental cars, etc.

But doing the same thing at hotels would just remove another piece of human contact when traveling to a region, and cut jobs from one of the few sectors that has been experiencing job growth in the post-Great Recession world.  Which could be good or bad.

The canonical argument is that automating lower-value-adding functions frees up productive capacity to things that add more value.  In principle, in down with that.  I believe that anybody who is working in less remunerative positions has the potential within themselves to grow into someone who can do something better and more valuable.

At the same time, we as a society haven't shown a dedication to putting the pieces in place to facilitate that growth.  It's not just public schools.  For-profit companies are not incented to develop talent broadly when labor is treated as an entirely fungible commodity, when labor is plentiful, not scarce.

On the other hand, there is the specific possibility that Hilton will take the money it saves and focus on providing better and more differentiated services.  Hampton Inns usually have halfway decent cookies available at check-in, and the ones at DoubleTree are even better. The guidance we got from the Mexican-American concierge at the DoubleTree in San Antonio was superb. He directed us to the best and cheapest breakfast taco place nearby.  Yum!

We will see if markets help us reallocate the savings gleaned from this level of automation to everyone's ultimate benefit.  In 2014 America, I'm not holding my breath.