Saturday, December 07, 2013

Let's Elect More Women Like Kirsten Gillibrand!

Remember when Robert Redford said we need to elect more women to Congress because they are the only ones with any courage?  They are the ones who understand how to work with others to get things done.  They've done it for years in organizations like the PTO, church groups, philanthropic endeavors, and even in their own families.  They can bring those skills to bear in solving this country's most intractable problems and we'd best hope they do, because it's pretty clear by now that the guys aren't going to do it.

WASHINGTON — If there were a chutzpah caucus in the United States Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York would be its natural leader.

Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times December 7, 2013

Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York has elevated issues like sexual assault in the military.

On a fund-raising swing through Chicago this fall, she told donors to pressure their hometown senator — Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat who is one of the most powerful men in the Senate — because he had yet to sign on to her bill to address sexual assault in the military. Mr. Durbin fumed when he heard about the move, an unusual breach in the protocol-conscious Senate.

She defies her party in smaller ways: After a bipartisan farm bill was cobbled together with great effort by her colleague Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Ms. Gillibrand tried to block cuts to food stamps that other Democrats said were needed to retain Republican support and brought in high-profile foodies from New York, including the celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, to fight it.

Her other tactics include cornering colleagues on the Senate floor and refusing to stop talking, and popping out a news release picking apart a senator’s competing legislation as it is being announced.
If her colleagues grumble about her ambition in a body where freshman members are applauded for keeping their heads down, so be it. “I’m trying to fight for men and women who shouldn’t be raped in the military,” she said of her work on the sexual assault legislation. If her approach “makes a colleague uncomfortable,” she said, “that’s a price worth paying.”

But Ms. Gillibrand’s savvy has quickly brought her national prominence in a chamber in which she has served less than five years and has elevated the issues she has championed, like the sexual assault bill and gays in the military. Her relentlessness is combined with a personal warmth and charm — she steps an inch toward anyone who approaches her, not away, locking eyes as they speak — and she deftly uses outside advocacy groups and the news media to push her agenda.

“She just approaches colleagues differently than other Republicans and Democrats from New York,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa. What distinguishes her, he said, is “her determination and knowledge and willingness to sit down one on one with senators and explain what she is up to.”

An outside player in her caucus, the New York Democrat is nonetheless admired for her ample fund-raising, especially by women; she has raised nearly $30 million since beingappointed in 2009, a tally that has scared away potential challengers from both parties and turned her into a mentor for female candidates around the country.

Ms. Gillibrand, who is 46, was the youngest senator when she was sworn in, and she seems a distinctly modern figure in a sometimes cobwebbed institution. She can swear like the litigator she once was, and runs one of the most informal offices in the Senate; her staff members are welcome in jeans and even in something resembling pajamas, and they call her Kirsten, rather than Senator, largely unheard-of on Capitol Hill.

She appeared in an elegant dress in Vogue magazine, and is co-captain of the congressional softball team. Seemingly always working — she has a book out next September — Ms. Gillibrand nonetheless leaves the office promptly at 5 every night to pick up her children from school. If there is a vote at that hour, she has developed a system to signal her aye or nay from a doorway off the Senate floor — where children are not permitted — so she can hold onto her 5-year-old’s hand. “She is ubiquitous,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, “and I mean that as a compliment. I don’t know how she does it.”

Some of Ms. Gillibrand’s Democratic colleagues are less enamored, likening her zeal to that of the Tea Party Republicans who hew to a belief and won’t let it go, ignoring some of the structural protocols of seniority.

“She is unwilling to knuckle under to demands for deference,” said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “It is very rare that you see a relatively junior member of the Senate staking out a position and sticking by it.”

Ms. Gillibrand’s taste for a fight was presaged in her decision to run for the House in 2006, when she took on Representative John E. Sweeney in a Republican-rich district in upstate New York.
When she approached Howard Wolfson, a Democratic strategist, for help, he told her she could not win. “She told me she was going to run, was going to win, and I would either be the winning consultant or someone else would be,” he said. “I took the race.”

The campaign was one of the nastiest of the cycle, with a spate of negative ads that depicted Ms. Gillibrand as alternately dippy and a war profiteer for investing in war bonds, and ended with the release of a police report that detailed a domestic violence call made from Mr. Sweeney’s home. Ms. Gillibrand won over 50 percent of the vote. “She never wavered, never faltered,” Mr. Wolfson recalled.

A low-profile House member who was appointed to the Senate with the backing of Senator Charles E. Schumer in 2009, despite the interest of better-known figures like Caroline Kennedy, Ms. Gillibrand ran in a special election for the seat in 2010 and won with 63 percent of the vote. In 2012, she was re-elected with 72 percent of the vote.

She has skillfully aligned herself with causes with visible, moving human characters who have helped amplified her policy goals. Early to the fight for ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, she set up a website that featured videos of gay veterans telling their stories.

She was equally canny pushing through health care legislation for the first responders who worked on the cleanup after the Sept. 11 attacks, helping them appear before the cameras, which helped lead to a coveted spot on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” to press what at the time seemed doomed.

Ms. Gillibrand has also made victims of sexual assault in the military more visible to her Senate colleagues, handing out copies of a documentary about their tribulations, which helped sway Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, to support her legislation.

“I’ve always seen myself as a voice for the voiceless,” Ms. Gillibrand said about her choice of issues. “When I hear these stories, they outrage me.”

The sexual assault fight exposed some of the tensions surrounding Ms. Gillibrand’s methods, and divided some in the party, as a fellow Democrat, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri, offered competing and less aggressive sexual assault legislation.

Last month, in a private meeting, female senators tried unsuccessfully to bridge the gap between the measures. Ms. McCaskill, a former prosecutor, was outraged when an ally of Ms. Gillibrand’s, the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, took out an ad in Ms. McCaskill’s hometown paper that suggested she did not care about sexual assault.

Fellow lawmakers saw this as another stop on Ms. Gillibrand’s for-me-or-against-me campaign to get votes. Ms. Gillibrand told one member on the Senate floor that he needed to “stand with women,” even after he made it clear he supported Ms. McCaskill’s legislation, which angered him.

“When I talk to my colleagues, I want them to know all the facts,” Ms. Gillibrand said in an interview at a Starbucks near Capitol Hill. She dismisses any talk of tension, saying that she gets along with her Democratic colleagues. “I don’t have any adversaries.”

Ms. Gillibrand cuts an unusual personal swath in the Capitol. Her sons, Theo, 10, and Henry, 5, go to school near the Capitol Hill home she shares with her husband, Jonathan, who commutes to New York during the week.

After fetching her boys from school, she brings them back to work if needed, where they hang around Mr. Reid’s office. A sitter takes over at 6:30 p.m. if she has an evening event to attend. The children are fixtures around the Senate, and can be seen horsing around with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, or Mr. Schumer. “She is a very good mother, and she gets things done,” said Mr. Schumer, Ms. Gillibrand’s mentor and, according to other senators, sometimes her friendly competitor. “She’s a formidable figure.”

In the interview, Ms. Gillibrand began to lay out her agenda for the coming year: pushing her sexual assault amendment, even if it fails, raising the minimum wage, trying to restore cuts in food stamps, even as she fights, once again, with her own party. “All of these issues are about speaking truth to power,” she said, as her aide nudged her. It was time to pick up the kids.

Merry Christmas, Little Saver!

Every year I struggle with what to give my grandchildren for Christmas.  It's not like it was when I was a kid.  We used to get gifts twice a year - at Christmas and on our birthdays.  Now, kids get something almost every time they go to the grocery store, and then get absolutely showered with presents at Easter, their birthday, Christmas, even Halloween.  So, how can I find something that won't be played with for a few days and then discarded?  When I saw this story, I thought, "now there's an idea."  No one else will get them this gift!  We'll see if it works.

Susan Beacham, chief executive of Money Savvy Generation, created four-chambered banks shaped like pigs, soccer balls and footballs to help children think about using money to spend, save, donate and invest.
By Published: December 6, 2013

THIS is the time of year when many grandparents struggle to figure out what to get their grandchildren for the holidays — and many parents, stuck in the middle, worry that those presents will be too indulgent. Instead, a group of financial educators is advocating that grandparents, with their children’s support, give their grandchildren the gift of financial awareness.

“Grandparents are looking for opportunities to interact with their grandchildren, so why not add financial literacy to their repertoire?” said Susan J. Bruno, a certified public accountant and co-founder of, which aims to educate college-age women about financial matters. “They want to be taught. It just has to be relevant in the moment.”

Most grandparents, she said, have an advantage over parents: They can talk more freely with their grandchildren and, in return, their grandchildren tend to open up to them.

The fear, of course, is that grandparents are going to meddle and make life more difficult for their adult children. This can certainly happen — just as easily as grandparents can give their grandchildren all the big-ticket items that their parents say the grandchildren themselves should be saving money for. But many busy parents need someone to help them.

“Parents are overwhelmed by all their responsibilities when it comes to raising a child and doing it right,” said Susan Beacham, chief executive of Money Savvy Generation. “Why not take this help?
“Some parents fear they are handing their children over to their grandparents and they’ll never get them back,” but that is nonsense, she said. “What I tell adult parents is at the end of the day, the most impactful teacher in a child’s life is you,” she said. “Don’t worry if your parents get involved and go astray, because you’ll have the final word.”

This sounds wonderful. But how should it be done? Here is a little nonshopping holiday guide for grandparents looking for ways to connect with grandchildren about financial matters.

Of course, it all starts with a conversation, but the form that talk takes matters. The Rev. Davis Fisher, an Episcopalian minister, a former private banker and the grandfather of eight, said he was always fascinated with how people lived with money — not how they made, invested and spent it — from his time as a local minister on up through his career in business. When he became a grandfather, he felt it was important to talk to his grandchildren about this and to have deeper conversations with them than how their day at school was.

With their parents’ consent, he started giving his grandchildren “money savvy pigs,” which Ms. Beacham created to show children the four uses of money: save, spend, donate and invest. (She now has a cow, as well as a football and a soccer ball for older children.) He asked them to divide their allowances into the four categories, and they would talk about those decisions at their regular breakfasts.

With his granddaughter Morgan, he said, they discussed the different words on the pig, and that led to broader discussions about what she was overhearing from her parents and friends about money. A memorable conversation was about why her friend got $10 a week when she got only $8. (Maybe she had more things to pay for, he told her.)

“Kids pick up on all the money stuff, but they don’t have any context for it,” he said. “They just know there is a lot of emotion around it.”

He didn’t push the subject, but instead waited for it to come up. “We were talking about money topics and it would be very focused,” he said. “But we were talking about other things, too. It was, ‘Let’s go out and spend a little time talking.’ ”

When she was 8, he said, he brought up the idea of giving away some of the money in the donate part of her bank. She had $30, and he threw in $100 for the “Morgan/Papa Philanthropy Fund.” He then gave her a copy of the Episcopal Relief and Development catalog, which lets people pay for specific things to help people in developing countries, like a flock of chickens, mosquito nets or vocational training.

At their next breakfast, she told him she wanted to donate a latrine. “I was dumbfounded,” Mr. Fisher said. “I thought she’d want to buy a cute little goose.”

Instead, she explained that she had learned in school that clean water was important. The only problem was that the latrine cost almost twice what she had. That gave him the idea of suggesting that she write to family members who might want to donate to her cause. He then called them all to make sure they gave small amounts.

She ended up raising more than she needed, and she received a thank-you letter from the relief agency in return. “Now she’s 14, and it’s in her bloodstream,” he said. “You don’t get carried away, but you give.”

A less formal, more situational approach could be just asking grandchildren questions throughout a normal day out. “Have you ever asked your grandchild how money comes out of an A.T.M.?” said Peg Eddy, president of Creative Capital Management. “Explain if you take the grandchild out to lunch why you’re leaving money on the table as a tip.”

This, she said, is a good way to model behavior. And more situational discussions might also open up an opportunity for that crucial childhood conversation between a need and a want, she said.

Ms. Bruno said field trips worked for grandchildren of all ages, even if they were to visit a financial adviser or an accountant. To make the trip special, she said, grandparents could suggest skipping school for a day or taking a train trip into the city. The central point, though, is “to explain that everyone needs a financial team,” she said.

She also encouraged grandparents to create a financial memory bank with their grandchildren. Where did they struggle or fail? What did their first car or house cost? Why did they decide to go back to school while working with a young family?

Susan Beacham, chief executive of Money Savvy Generation, created four-chambered banks shaped like pigs, soccer balls and footballs to help children think about using money to spend, save, donate and invest.

“I’ve seen it be life-changing for the family dynamics,” she said.

With grandchildren who have summer jobs, Ms. Eddy said, grandparents could propose some sort of match for the dollars earned, perhaps by putting an equal amount into a Roth I.R.A. for the grandchild or contributing to a savings account, perhaps toward a car.

While grandparents may go overboard with gifts, they can just as easily make mistakes with advice.
“I think of the grandmother who finds out the kid is saving for a bike and writes a check and says, ‘There, you’re done,’ ” Ms. Beacham said. “Or there’s the grandparent who forgets that this is not their primary responsibility or who doesn’t understand that by partnering with their adult children, they’ll have success.”

Yet there are subtler mistakes — like the grandfather bent on teaching his grandchildren about investing above all else when the grandchild couldn’t care less about it.

“We know that doesn’t work,” said Joline Godfrey, chief executive of Independent Means and author of “Raising Financially Fit Kids.” “If we don’t engage them first by developing context around money, we’re not going to get them to a stage where we can talk about skills.”

She said she encouraged grandparents to reframe the conversation around what was valuable to their grandchildren and not try to teach them a specific skill like stock picking.

The same goes for gifts meant to encourage investing.

“If it’s, ‘Here’s this piece of stock,’ and it doesn’t go any further, it’s a missed opportunity,” Ms. Godfrey said. “The grandparent needs to understand that unlike a gift that is a toy, this isn’t a single gift but a process.”

Where the money to buy that stock came from and what could happen to the stock’s value over time can expand a grandchild’s understanding of money.

Ultimately, it’s up to the parents to be involved in teaching their children about money. “But what grandparents can do,” Ms. Beacham said, “is strengthen your money message.”

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Art and Political Statement

Last December we visited our friends who live in Alexandria, VA, and had the opportunity to see Ai Weiwei's exhibit at the Hirshhorn Museum.  I became fascinated with his work and am anxious to see this upcoming exhibit.  Fortunately, I have friends who live in the Bay Area, so I will visit them and see it.  There are photos from the Hirshhorn exhibit on my Flickr site

The operating room of the prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Ai Weiwei’s artworks will be in the prison and an adjacent laundry building.

The Chinese artist and political dissident Ai Weiwei was one of the most famous prisoners in recent history. Now he’s taking on one of the most infamous prisons of all time, using Alcatraz as the inspiration and site for a series of new artworks to debut next September.

It’s an unusual chapter for Alcatraz, the first time the former penitentiary is opening its extra-strength, tool-proof steel doors for a major contemporary artist, according to the National Park Service. It also promises to be a high-profile project for Mr. Ai, who said by phone from Beijing that he has never visited Alcatraz but is interested in exploring conditions in which individuals are stripped of basic human rights: “The idea of loss of freedom as a punishment raises philosophical questions.”

“I have too many friends today who are still in jail,” he added. “The fact that people who are fighting for freedom have lost their freedom being incarcerated is more than ironic.”

Mr. Ai himself was detained for 81 days in 2011 on tax evasion charges, following his lengthy investigation into the Chinese government for shoddy construction that contributed to the deaths of thousands of schoolchildren in their classrooms during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. Supporters of Mr. Ai said the tax inquiry was a pretext to silence one of the most outspoken critics of China’s government. The 56-year-old artist remains subject to travel restrictions. (Do not, for example, expect him at the grand opening of the PĂ©rez Art Museum Miami this week, where his retrospective is the big inaugural show.) “My passport has been in the hands of police for almost three years now,” he said. “I’ve lost my ability to travel.”

For the Alcatraz project, he is working closely with Cheryl Haines, a San Francisco gallery owner who founded the nonprofit foundation For-Site to help realize site-specific public-art projects in the Bay Area.

Besides noting the art’s use of sculpture and sound, Ms. Haines said it was too early to provide specifics on the works. But she did describe some themes that are likely to emerge. “I think it’s a really rich site that allows him to address the most basic human rights, like freedom of expression and its importance in building a culture,” she said. “We’re also hoping to address parallels between forms of imprisonment and governments that use restrictions in communications to control people.”

Mr. Ai said that he is “not thinking about work that will directly connect to my own detention,” as he was recently for a set of six dioramas shown in a church in Venice. (Those sculptural tableaus recreated painfully cramped scenes from his own detainment, like his being interrogated or showering, all under the watch of two guards.)

The plan is to install some artworks in the building that served as a maximum-security penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Other works are intended for an adjacent laundry building, where inmates like Al Capone were once put to work.

Ms. Haines said she has long been interested in the multilayered history of Alcatraz — as federal prison, a military prison before that, and later as a site of American Indian protests. She said she first mentioned the place to Mr. Ai during a visit two years ago to his studio on the outskirts of Beijing.
“He was talking about how interested he was in reaching a broad audience, beyond the art world,” she said by telephone. “It was just four months after his release from incarceration, and this thought popped into my mind: ‘What if I brought you a prison?’ ”

After the artist expressed interest, Ms. Haines worked to gain support from the National Park Service, which oversees the island, and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which provides funding and programming for it.

Frank Dean, a National Park Service superintendent for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, said there was serious interest in Mr. Ai’s work from the start but also practical issues his group had to review before issuing approval. The island, which measures only 22 acres, receives 1.5 million visitors annually — up to 5,000 daily during peak season.

“We couldn’t do something like this lightly, because the island is so popular — and small,” Mr. Dean said. “There are also logistical challenges: The island is not connected to the electrical grid, and we have to bring water out on the barge.”

He described a careful selection process for determining the particular sites for artwork, with an eye to not disturbing the architecture, the natural seabird habitat or the standard flow of visitors.

Then there were political concerns. Given the artist’s embattled history with the Chinese government, Mr. Dean said his group didn’t want to give its go-ahead until it heard from the State Department.
“If this were a standard educational exhibition,” he said, “we wouldn’t need Department of State clearance, but considering the situation — that the artist remains under a sort of house arrest — let’s just say we wanted to make sure that nobody was surprised in Washington.”

Mr. Dean said that clearance came from the State Department in the form of an email from a public diplomacy coordinator the day before Thanksgiving.

The government is not providing any financial support for the project. Rather, For-Site is in the process of raising funds through private donors and foundations and possibly corporations, as it has in the past for works in San Francisco by the artist Andy Goldsworthy and a suite of projects relating to the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The foundation declined to disclose its budget for “Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz,” as the show is to be called. It has confirmed, however, that the artist is not receiving any commission and that access to the exhibition will be free to anyone who purchases a regular Alcatraz tour ticket (now $30, including ferry rides).

Alcatraz tickets generally go on sale three months in advance. It is not yet clear whether the tickets for the time period of Mr. Ai’s show, Sept. 27, 2014, through April 26, 2015, would be made available any earlier than usual.

In the meantime, Ms. Haines is busy sending Mr. Ai resources on Alcatraz Island, the history and the myth. In October, she took him a stack of books and DVDs, including such classics as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Escape From Alcatraz.”

Mr. Ai may not be able to escape from China to visit the prison — at least not before the show opens.“I would love to regain my rights to travel before that,” he said, “but I have no idea if it’s possible.”

No, Mom, There Is No Manual

I know way too many of these people.  My friend is probably unemployable because she says she's "no good at the computer."  She can't text, but she did learn how to answer her cell phone.  Another friend would be an excellent blogger, if she could figure out how to do it.  My own husband just lets me do everything, from paying bills to buying airline tickets rather than learn to do it himself.   He still refuses to carry a cell phone.  So, even though this article is written with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, it's totally believable.

Janis (not her real name) came into my office, looking upset and sniffling. She refused the tissues I offered. “I have no idea what to do,” she said.
“Here,” I said, shutting the door. “Let me see it.”
“She keeps yelling at me, the woman,” Janis sobbed. “I tell her, GO AWAY, but she doesn’t understand.”
She handed me the smartphone.
“Yes,” I said, nodding sympathetically. “That’s not yelling. That’s a feature. It’s called Siri.”
I rubbed her back and soothed her as I tapped the screen three times and solved everything that had been wrong.
“My kids won’t help me any more,” Janis said. “They say I’m hopeless. Am I hopeless?”
“No,” I said. But deep down, I thought: possibly?
Janis is 60 years old.
Janis struggled a little with Incompetence growing up, but not like this. And it only worsened when her children moved out of the house, forcing her to telephone them long distance from a land line to ask which button would turn on her cell phone. She has practically been begging at least one of them to move back into the basement for years now, unsubtly forwarding them all the trend pieces on Millennial Insecuritiesand The Six Reasons Bushwick Is More Dangerous Than You Initially Suspected Because Those Hipsters Are Fighting A Hipster Turf War that she can find. (Admittedly this is not very many, because she only reads articles online that have been forwarded to her by her ninety-year-old mother or that she has already found in print, then Googled on a desktop computer.)
I suggested taking a computer class, but Janis seemed hopeful that the kids would “come around” and teach her what to do to make the microwave oven “less angry.”
And her case is becoming the norm for boomers. As they age, they enter what someone probably likes to call a “premature obsolescence.” And it rankles. They have to face challenges that my generation does not — having comparatively high employment at places where they do not understand the technology they are required to use. Being handed strange devices by people at work whom they insist on referring to as “mavens” and “gurus.” Having all their work periodically “eaten” by “the machine.” Occasionally reading articles that make them corner their family members at dinner and say embarrassing things like, “I don’t understand. Can’t you do this in the Cloud?” Still referring to the Internet as “The World Wide Web.” Thinking it’s okay to use a tablet to take pictures.
Probably it was years of being raised by parents whose idea of technology was an icebox and a washing machine. Possibly it is pride. It can’t be narcissism because you are not allowed to have narcissism if you’re over 30. (It throws the writers of trend pieces off.) I would not dare to characterize an entire population with a single adjective. That prerogative is reserved to people who write about millennials.
People often complain that what is wrong with boomers is that they are loading millennials with the burden of all kinds of debt and their nostalgic 1950s Christmas, with all the music that implies. That may be true, but before we saddle them with those labels, we should realize that this is not their fault. It is just how they were brought up: before the Internet.
My friends all report similar experiences with the boomers in their lives. “My parents used to call me at college to ask me how to turn on the TV,” my friend Queen Zygmar Of The Winds (not her real name) said.
“I came home one Christmas and found out my parents had had a DVR for like two years without realizing it,” another friend, Julio Unpleasantness (not her real name), told me.
boomers, of course, resist this characterization. “We can handle this change too,” they say. “We handled All The Important Cultural Changes That Came Before, Changes That Were So Important That We Have To Dedicate Weeks of Anniversary Coverage To All Of Them.” They all sneer at this idea of boomers as technologically incompetent. “I had a Blackberry before anyone,” Dave says to the group, when they get together at brunch. (Dave still has a Blackberry.)
Maybe boomers are refusing to admit their age, as many 60-year-olds do. And maybe they will outgrow their technological incompetence very slowly, step by step, over a period of decades, the same way they check their “webmail.” We don’t have the data on what boomers will be like when they’re 130, although I have a good guess. But the fact remains: by picking up the phone every time they call to ask how the WiFi works, we are enabling them in a life of dependency.
Meanwhile, Janis is still figuring out how to turn her cell phone on and off. But she gets through the day with a combination of frantic calls to her children about “the screen doing it again and I don’t know how to make it stop” and the kindness of strangers. Janis is still alarmed when The Lady In The Phone starts screaming — but she’s a little less frightened of it now.
(Of course this piece is ridiculous. Of course it’s a series of Boldface Anecdotal Evidence strung together into a contempt-dripping thesis. Of course The Technological Incompetence of the Middle-Aged is such painfully low-hanging fruit that people at the bottom of the Grand Canyon trip over it. Of course all this is true. But that’s never stopped anyone before.)

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Hey, Drone, Bring Me a Beer!

Yesterday's post was about Amazon's plan to develop a delivery system using commercial drones.  Sounds like science fiction, but if Jeff Bezos says it can be done, then it probably will be done.  On the heels of the "60 Minutes" segment last Sunday is this article that appeared in the Washington Post today.  Enjoy - and start thinking about applications!  This is going to be big.

While obviously there are a lot of technological, legal and regulatory hurdles to overcome before we ever see a fleet of Amazon Prime Air octocopters taking off from distribution centers across America and making door-to-door deliveries, the momentum behind the commercial drone revolution continues to build. There are now over 25,000 DIY drone enthusiasts in America, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) prototypes already exist for a number of commercial applications. By some estimates, commercial drones could boost the U.S. economy by $13.6 billion and create 70,000 new jobs within just a few years. Once the FAA finally rules on potential applications for commercial drones (expected in late 2015), it will be time for the training wheels to come off the domestic drone bandwagon.

As wacky and futuristic as Amazon’s vision for Prime Air may sound, it’s actually an idea that dates back to at least 2009. FedEx, for example, has even tentatively explored plans for a giant fleet of commercial unmanned drones to deliver packages. That’s right — the entire FedEx fleet would be comprised of robotic drones. These unmanned delivery vehicles would be more along the lines of massive 777 cargo freighter drones than Amazon octocopters, but you get the idea: the logistics business is looking for a faster, cheaper delivery model and drones are going to be involved somehow. There’s even been talk of drone fleets flying in bird-like formations over cities and then disassembling as they go about their final delivery routes.

In order to think about drones the way Jeff Bezos thinks about drones, just imagine any delivery service being reinvented as a drone delivery service, where robots replace humans.  In densely populated urban areas, takeout orders are one example of how consumer drones could revolutionize different business models. In early 2012, for example, there was much speculation about “TacoCopters” eventually being able to deliver tacos to young tech workers in the San Francisco Bay Area using a fleet of quadricopters. But think about it — any urban area full of bike messengers and pizza delivery guys could benefit from the 30 minutes or less approach of a Jeff Bezos. At some point, it’s possible to imagine going out to a baseball game or music festival on a warm summer day, pressing a button on your smartphone, and having a drone deliver a nice cold beer to your seat within minutes. In South Africa, for example, they already have beer drones.

So what other business models might profit from consumer drones? Imagine personal security drones buzzing around your home, keeping it safe while you’re away on vacation and capable of interacting with police and fire department first-responders. There’s also been talk of how drones could lead to massive new efficiencies in the agricultural sector by giving farmers and ranchers the ability to monitor vast areas. Oil and gas exploration teams could deploy drones to survey remote areas. Real estate agents could use them to create videos of new properties on the market. And, of course, Hollywood film directors could create new types of action shots using drones capable of recording video from unique angles.

And you wouldn’t even have to be a Hollywood director to take advantage of this last capability. What if, for example, you were to combine the GoPro video revolution(recently featured by Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” in November) with the technological capabilities of a drone, such that you had a personal GoPro video drone following you around and doing your bidding when it wasn’t otherwise filming your every move? That might sound insane, but that’s the vision from former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who recently landed $30 million in VC financing for his drones company, 3D Robotics, and has been at the forefront of advancing something he’s calling an “autonomous personal robot.” As Anderson recently outlined in a cover story for Wired, the “autonomous personal robot” is essentially a “pet bird” that follows you around wherever you are.

And that’s not all. Commercial drone technology is an exponential technology, meaning that we’ll continue to see massive improvements in what they’re capable of. They’ll shrink in size and become more powerful with every passing year. Once the FAA rules on commercial drones in 2015, we’ll likely see an explosion of commercial drone concepts, as those 25,000 DIY drone hobbyists in America are able to unlock their innovation in pursuit of new business ideas. Drones will no longer be an underground hobbyist activity.

In the end, that might just be the future that Jeff Bezos envisions — he may not really plan to fly all those Amazon octocopters, but he’s laying the groundwork for innovation so that Amazon can benefit from all the size and scale advantages once operating a commercial drone fleet becomes economically feasible and legally possible. One thing is certain, though — Jeff Bezos just raised the bar for what to expect at next year’s TED conference. 

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City. Prior to working for Bond Strategy, he was the editor of Fortune’s Business Innovation Insider and a founding member of, one of the Web's first blog media companies. He also shares his thoughts on innovation on the Big Think Endless Innovation blog and is working on a new book on innovation called "Endless Innovation, Most Beautiful and Most Wonderful."

Monday, December 02, 2013

I Want It! I Got It!.

I saw the segment on "60 Minutes" that the author refers to.  Truly amazing stuff.  See? This is where private industry has a real advantage over government research.  If you haven't seen the video, you can watch it here.  Merry Christmas, Jeff Bezos!

Washington Post, December 1, 2013

Jeffrey P. Bezos has never been known for thinking small. And in an interview aired Sunday on CBS's "60 Minutes," he outlined his latest plan for revolutionizing the retail industry: using drones to deliver packages in as little as 30 minutes. Declaring himself an "optimist," the founder and chief executive predicted the technology could be brought to market in as little as five years.

This is more than a theoretical idea. Bezos showed CBS's Charlie Rose a working prototype of an eight-rotor helicopter drone called an "octocopter." Emblazoned with "Amazon Prime Air," the flying robot has a claw at the bottom that allows it to scoop up packages at Amazon fulfillment centers and carry them to customers' front lawns:

Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who has written extensively about drones, said that this is precisely the kind of application Congress had in mind in 2012 when it ordered the Federal Aviation Administration to open the sky to commercial drones. There are strict limits on the use of drones for commercial purposes, but that is scheduled to change soon.

"By 2015, the FAA has to come up with a set of rules that integrates just the kind of thing that Amazon is talking about" into the national airspace, Calo said.

Amazon will have to convince federal regulators that the technology is safe and that it wouldn't lead to excessive congestion. "If what Amazon proposes doesn't feel safe, the FAA could get worried about the prospect of these things falling out of the sky," Calo said. In his "60 Minutes" interview, Bezos said that the prototype octocopter has redundant motors so it can stay in the air even if one fails.

Calo said the FAA may be skittish about allowing fully automated drones in the sky. At least initially, the agency might require that a human guide the drones remotely during deliveries. That might initially drive up the cost of the service, limiting its use to customers willing to pay a premium.
Technological issues also could limit the technology's value in the next few years. According to Calo, the current generation of autonomous flying machines can carry only a few pounds and stay in the air for about 15 minutes. That means that it probably wouldn't be possible to serve an entire metropolitan area from a single fulfillment center.

But Amazon may be able to overcome both obstacles in the long run. That means that someday, unmanned flights that could allow 30-minute deliveries to become as common and affordable as two-day delivery are today.

Disclosure: Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Send a Message to Barbie

About two weeks ago, I posted an article I titled “Enough With the Princesses,” that you may recall.  The idea of encouraging girls to think STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) is really taking off this year, with Claire Miller making suggestions for Christmas presents for girls that are not in the pink and purple aisle.  I know I am definitely doing this.  I’m intrigued by the Lego Woman Scientist character and by the GoldieBlox (shown in the video on my blog).  My only problem with this graphic is that neither girls nor boys have to wear glasses anymore, and prolong this stereotype that all scientists or mathematicians or engineers have poor eyesight.  What is that about?  Lasik surgery is widely available.

Shopping for a Girl? Consider Science and Engineering Toys
Sofia the First, a new Disney princess decked out in a lavender gown, is high on most retailers’ list of the hottest toys this holiday season. But if you’re shopping for a girl, why not skip the doll aisle for toys that encourage science and engineering?

That’s the Black Friday message from a small group of toy makers who say they are frustrated that there are separate lists for girls’ toys and boys’ toys in the first place. They have been led by GoldieBlox, the company whose“Girls” ad went viral this month (and got the company into some trouble with the Beastie Boys, whose song it rewrote).

But others are also sending that message. The American Association of University Women, for example, created a list of 16 gifts for girls of every age.

“Dolls and other toys for young children are especially important because they are still developing their own gender identity and are especially susceptible to gender stereotyping,” said Catherine Hill, director of the association’s research department.

The group’s list includes a “future scientist” onesie, computer engineer Barbie, Wikki Stix, an alternative-energy science kit, and “The Princess Knight,” a book about a princess who rescues herself (no prince required).

Robot Girl Lottie is inspired by women robotics experts and her story line and accessories are based on a science fair. Its creators stress that unlike other dolls, Lottie has a childlike body and does not wear makeup or high heels.

Roominate, a start-up founded by two women engineers with degrees from Stanford, M.I.T. and Caltech, sells kits for girls to build things as if they were design, electrical or structural engineers.
And over at the Motherlode blog, my colleague KJ Dell’Antonia made her own list, including kits for circuit board experiments, soldering and robots.

Mainstream brands like Mattel and Lego are catching on. Lego sells a woman scientist character and a pink and purple Lego set (though it doesn’t exactly break gender stereotypes — it includes a dining table, dishes and a croissant).

Meanwhile, some retail analysts say toys have been displaced by electronics and gadgets, like Xboxes and iPads, as the popularholiday gift for children. Maybe parents have been listening to Sheryl Sandberg, who says parents should let their daughters play video games if they want them to consider computer science careers.