Dumb smart clocks

Alexander Aciman writes about his experiences with Alexa, a “smart alarm clock” that’s “dumb otherwise.” All of these services are, in one respect or another. It’s in iterating the product that there’s potential for breakthrough growth, and in that respect I have faith in Apple or Google developing their products:

Sometimes Alexa forgets to wake me up in the morning; other times, if the volume hasn’t been turned up all the way, I’ll wake up half an hour late to an alarm that is only one tenth as loud as I want it. But if she loses connection to my WiFi at 3 am, she’ll definitely let me know right away. If someone shouts my name—Alex—across the apartment, it will activate Alexa, although sometimes Alexa will also be activated by arbitrary syllables in ordinary conversation. And if she starts doing something annoying, you’ll have to shout “Alexa, Stop,” six or seven times. Sometimes she’ll play Rod Stewart covers of Ella Fitzgerald songs instead of the Ella Fitzgerald versions, which defies both the alphabet and common sense. She struggles to understand phrases like “rewind” or “maximum volume.”

If I’m feeling sentimental like Rick Blaine, I can ask her what the weather is in Paris, but it takes two separate commands and questions to find out if it will rain or snow in New York. As I read this paragraph aloud to myself, her blue ring has already lit up several times and is blinking in panicked anticipation of hearing an extremely basic request that she won’t be able to fulfill. This is not what artificial intelligence looks like. But what I will concede is that at $49.99, Alexa is one of the best toys for adults, and the world’s best clock radio.

A thing I thought of recently that I’d love from Siri: the ability to snooze an alarm (or turn off the alarm) with voice. As it stands, my morning alarm goes off in the other room and I have to stumble over and stab at the glass of the screen to hit a very small “Stop” or “Snooze” command. How great would it be if I could simply say, “Snooze for 10 minutes” without going near the device in the first place. These simple developments are the future, I hope.

In one commercial for Google Home a father asks his device how big a blue whale is and is told that it weighs 300,000 pounds. When I asked Alexa the same question, she informed me that there is no real way to estimate the size of a blue whale because whales are so big that they usually need to be cut up into blocks and weighed piece by piece.

Big fan of this.

Winter life

It was snowing in Philadelphia earlier this week. This was the first true snow I’ve seen this season. It didn’t last.

This month is my least favorite in terms of the “feel” of the month, but it’s one of my most favorite in terms of getting things done. There’s power in accelerating at times when others are slowing down, and I think this month more than any other is a time when slowness seeps into life.

Anyway, I’ve got a number of personal and professional things that I’m looking forward to completing this month. It’s going to be fun. See you at the finish.

SS United States and incrementalism

A year ago I wrote about the news that the SS United States was apparently bound for New York. The historic but decomposing South Philadelphia landmark seemed about to have a future for the first time in decades as a Manhattan-anchored attraction. Unfortunately, what was announced with fanfare last year wasn’t anything more than news of a Crystal Cruises having taken an option on the ship in advance of a feasibility study. Evidently that feasibility study produced the same conclusions that have doomed every previous plan for the ship: expenses too massive to be financed privately, and (rightly) no appetite for public financing:

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The dying ship remains in the Delaware River. After reading Mark Dent’s retrospective on the ship’s redevelopment failures, I think it’s time for the SS United States Conservancy to scrap her. She has a romantic history:


In a very 1950s way, far from Philadelphia, the SS United States used to be amazing. The luxury passenger liner set a trans-Atlantic speed record that still stands, and it completed the feat in frigid, choppy waters. Among its passengers were Marilyn Monroe and JFK (maybe at the same time?), Judy Garland, Salvador Dalí, Grace Kelly and a young Bill Clinton, who took the SS United States when he crossed the Atlantic for his Rhodes Scholarship in 1968.

Even in this rock bottom situation there must be some way to rehabilitate the ship. But the scale of the thing, both in terms of size and dollars, is staggering compared to Philadelphia’s largest works:

SS United States developers would be gambling on 48 years of rot in an object whose heyday is remembered by few. The size of the ship is huge, 650,000 square feet. In comparison, the Piazza has 100,000 square feet of commercial space and an 80,000 square-foot courtyard. According to real estate research firm JLL, the combined square footage of all new office space brought on line into Philadelphia’s central business district in 2016 — the areas around Market Street, University City and the Navy Yard — was 891,000.

“I don’t have a clue what the best use is for it,” [developer Bart] Blatstein said.

Said [Eric] Blumenfeld: “There has to be a financial path that at the end of the day you end up with something that the cost of acquisition, keeping it on the water and the cost of putting into it something that makes sense all comes together.” Blumenfeld said, “And I don’t think that that exists.”

If developers were interested in the project, they likely couldn’t just grab a few investors and cobble together $500 million or even $200 million. Developers have enough trouble getting together $50 million, as Blumenfeld first did with the $44 million Divine Lorraine. Barzilay said projects of the magnitude of the SS United States often require partnering with banks, a sector usually unwilling to take risky gambles. Or government. Publicly-funded Lincoln Financial Field, for instance, cost $512 million.

What I don’t understand is why the ship couldn’t be rehabilitated in stages? It’s too daunting to redevelop at once, fine. Why not start with the first quarter of the ship? Anchor it permanently somewhere in the Delaware. The Port Authority (or whomever has the power) grants a permanent tax-free birth for the ship to eliminate the monthly fees. Construct high rise mixed-use towers around it to generate density along Columbus Boulevard. The deck and everything above gets a facelift and restaurants, bars, park space, etc. Then sometime later you go below deck to continue the process. I’d be curious to learn what the problems with this would be.

Or scrap her.

Really good elevator music

Check out Yowei Shaw‘s Really Good Elevator Music project. The Atlantic a while back did a profile of Shaw and the project’s purpose, which tries to answer the question, “What if we could make elevator music that manipulates human behavior for a pro-social cause, audio that promotes community?” Context:

In the 1930s and 1940s, the executives behind Muzak — the bland background noise piped into hotel lobbies, malls, and elevators — adopted a slogan touting their social engineering capabilities: “Muzak While You Work for Increased Efficiency.” A carefully calibrated playlist with increasing tempo promised to make factory workers more productive, while slower, easy-listening tunes claimed to encourage shoppers to take their time.

“I found all that kind of sinister,” jokes Yowei Shaw. A freelance public radio reporter and producer by training, Shaw has been grappling with questions of engaging listeners in public spaces as part of her residency with the Philadelphia-based Asian Arts Initiative’s Social Practice Lab.

I’ve listened to all the tracks and have been smiling through many of them. It’d be great if whole neighborhoods and specific buildings initiated similar projects and partnered with buildings to pipe them in at no cost. This is a good example of a subtle (but meaningful) way that art can enhance daily life.



March for Life 2017

The 44th March for Life took place in Washington this morning. I stayed at the Mayflower Hotel last night, picked up my board packets for tomorrow from FedEx Office at 16th and K Street, and then Ubered to the Washington Monument where the stage was set for the Vice President Mike Pence’s noon appearance. It’s the first time in its history that anyone this high-ranking in government is attending the march.

We’re approaching the half century mark for an America where we encourage men and women to abort unexpected children rather than equip those parents with the resources they need to care for their children. In any nation, but especially the wealthiest in the world, this is social failure. There’s simply no ethical, medical, or scientific escaping what takes place in an abortion, whether at 3 weeks, 30 weeks, or the heinous and only semi-recently outlawed “partial birth” (read: birth) abortions that were banned barely a decade ago.

After Mother Teresa’s National Prayer Breakfast address in the early 1990s (which I’ve written about previously), her lawyers filed a petition that included this:

“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe vs. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father’s role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion and an inconvenience. It has nominally accorded mothers unfettered dominion over the dependent lives of their physically dependent sons and daughters. And, in granting this unconscionable power, it has exposed many women to unjust and selfish demands from their husbands or other sexual partners.

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government,” she said. “They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity. The right to life does not depend, and must not be contingent, on the pleasure of anyone else, not even a parent or sovereign. The Constitutional Court of the Federal Republic of Germany recently ruled: ‘The unborn child is entitled to its right to life independently of its acceptance by its mother; this is an elementary and inalienable right which emanates from the dignity of the human being.’

“Americans may feel justly proud that Germany in 1993 was able to recognize the sanctity of human life. You must weep that your own government, at present, seems blind to this truth.”

The first step is recognizing what abortion is. Once we achieve unity in acknowledging the reality of the thing, we can talk shop on the social policies we need to ensure no one is burdened with raising child they aren’t equipped to raise, and that every mother who wants to keep her child is supported with whatever she needs: housing, tuition assistance, anti-discrimination protections, and whatever else.

It’s as much chance as anything else that I’m here to say these things, which is why I feel an obligation to speak and get people uncomfortable when necessary to stir conversation to a point where we can reach that political unity to really empower mothers with a true spectrum of choice, rather than just giving them one choice.


Scattered thoughts

Theresa May is visiting with President Trump and congressional leaders in Philadelphia this morning, apparently planning to renew the US/UK special relationship and hoping for a Brexit-related preliminary promise of a bilateral trade agreement.

I’m writing from Amtrak on my way to Washington for the March for Life tomorrow and meetings over the next few days. The Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network board convenes for its first quarter meeting where we’ll set the annual budget and talk through significant strategic and operational items. It should be a good and productive few days.

A political take from Addison Del Mastro, who writes:

This election’s other great issue, free trade, plays out in much the same way, as it pits very specific economic and cultural losses against broad societal benefits. As with boosters of mass immigration and diversity, free trade’s advocates have long resisted coming clean about the costs. National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson has dismissed the fading culture of Middle America as nothing more than “sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns” and “cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap.”

Williamson is not wrong, in a sense; the midcentury industrial economy was destined to be supplanted, and with it the way of life that rested upon it. The loss is inevitable, but nonetheless real. Some recognition that it is taking place would go a long way toward ameliorating the pain. It is one thing to be frank that society is not cast in stone, that things change, and that we are often the better for it in the long run. It is quite another thing to claim that nothing is being lost at all, and that if you believe otherwise, you are a racist, a bigot, or “deplorable.”

Langley Park will never again be a Southern Levittown, nor will most of the towns in America like it. Those economic and social arrangements have, largely by structural forces beyond the control of politics, been made obsolete. And they may well, in the grand economic and social picture, be destined to fade away. But they also deserve an elegy.

The strange thing about building the future? It’s got a good bit of the past wrapped up in it, refreshing it for the next generation. Throwing too much out too quickly is often arrogance.


Winter office view

I snapped this from my office window last night, which looks out onto Logan Circle and in the distance to University City on the left and the Philadelphia Art Museum and Fairmount Park on the right. It’s a beautiful view, especially at twilight when the darkness masks the accumulated wintertime filth on the windows.

It’s already nearly the end of January, and New Years feels like it was a long time ago. I’ve been feeling great this month and have been executing against a lot of my priorities for this year. I hope this year has been great so far for you, and if it hasn’t I hope you figure out how to shape your time to make it great.

Especially with President Trump taking office today, there are lots of people feeling discouraged and too many people choosing to be depressive. Choose to get past all of that and start acting on what will make your life better for you, your family, and your work. You’re in control of your life.