Arizona education Arizona Tech Communiy Mobile technology

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace the Human Touch?

I attended the sixth annual Phoenix Mobility Conference in September at Arizona State University. This is the second year in a row that a university hosted the event; last year’s conference was at Grand Canyon University.

Interestingly, artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR)—not mobile technology—were the focuses for much of this year’s conference. At times, it seemed mobile tech was almost incidental outside of presentations on headset technologies for gaming which, one might presume, has research potential as well.

Can Artificial Intelligence Replace Human Interaction? Should It?

At the risk of using a non sequitur, ASU is a natural fit for discussions about the roles AI and AR can play. The campus is about as connected as one can get, a point emphasized by the keynote speaker Sethuraman Panchanathan (“Panch” to his students and colleagues), who is the face and force behind knowledge enterprise at ASU.

Touching, from human and artificial intelligence
The human touch is superior to one from artificial intelligence.

“Imagine AI giving keynote talks like this,” Dr. Panchanathan said during his keynote. AI’s ability to collect and assess a huge range of data would make keynotes more informative and accurate. Using sophisticated user interface and deep intelligence capabilities, a keynote would anticipate and answer all the questions an audience would have. It would be so much better!

Would it?

I kept wondering if Dr. Panch underestimates the power of human communication skills, including his own. I was drawn in by his enthusiasm and I’m not even a techie or ASU alum. It was interesting to hear how ASU has taken the lead in the knowledge industry, even though at times the keynote sounded like an extended advertisement for the school.

But would I have preferred a presentation from Commander Data? Probably not–and let’s not forget, that character longed to make the ultimate transition into a human.

It’s seeing a well-prepared, live lecture that captures the attention of “other” people we need to persuade to embrace technology, another point Panchanathan made. Let’s leave the presentations to the people involved in the work. Make the artificial intelligence and smart devices available for follow-up when human experts aren’t available.

Will Writers Be Replaced by Deep Learning Artificial Intelligence?

Deep learning was another hot topic at the conference. For those who aren’t familiar with it, deep learning is a part of AI that studies and learns from data to continuously adapt. It’s sort of the opposite of task-oriented machine learning that’s displaced factory jobs once held by real people. Here’s a history of it from MIT Technology Review.

There was some talk of AI being used to create written content, as for websites, blogs, even film scripts. As a writer, I find this alarming.

I also think it’s counterproductive. I don’t know how much AI can or should learn, at least about the human condition. From what I’ve read, AI-produced scripts are pretty bad. Can they get better? Honestly, I hope not. AI should primarily, if not exclusively, be used as a tool.

Let’s put it underground to detect movements–natural and otherwise–that can trigger earthquakes and give people advance warning. Let’s continue to put it in technologies like self-driving automobiles to make traffic flow better and eliminate human errors that range from distracted driving to wrong-way driving (a particularly weird and dangerous problem in the Phoenix area).

If AI’s champions see a role in influencing the human condition, use it to build upon it rather than replace it. Use AI to help people with disabilities successfully navigate new territories, whether it’s practicing to overcome severe anxiety or learning to use an artificial limb to its fullest. How about an AI device to teach new languages more naturally than repeating phrases? Or replace a nervous parent trying to teach an equally nervous teenager to drive?

We need to be smart about how we plan to use AI and keep our expectations to utility, not replacing functions best done by people. Aside from Elon Musk’s warnings about AI driving the next world war, AI is a tricky tool that requires careful planning, security, and above all, control.

Arizona business Lifestyle Marketing

When a Coupon Isn’t a Reward

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post on LinkedIn about making customer rewards like coupons worthwhile to customers.

I relayed a story from a friend about a spelling-challenged bakery that had mangled the spelling of her son’s name on his birthday cake. In exchange for their trouble, she got a complimentary mini-quiche and access to an email service that provided free items at local shops. Trouble was, the shops weren’t local to her, and most required her to purchase something before getting the freebie.

Around the same time, my local grocery store began handing out slips labeled “not a coupon” that gave fairly detailed instructions about how to get future coupons. My post questioned the wisdom of making it difficult for customers to use the rewards shops and brands bestow upon them.

Are Coupons Always the Answer to Encourage Brand Loyalty?

Branding is a very important part of marketing. It sets products apart from competitors.

Coupons have long been important marketing strategies for brands. As a consumer, though, I have to question if they are always the answer to promote brand loyalty.

I recently got another “not a coupon” that apparently wants me to carefully track certain purchases in order to qualify for a future register discount. In this case, the point is to encourage General Mills products.

Problem is, I don’t really care which conglomerate manufactures the cereal or granola bars I buy. Like a growing number of consumers, my #1 focus are the ingredients, one in particular: high-fructose corn syrup. I do not buy any products that contain it.

And if a “coupon” like this one restricts me to certain “participating” brands-within-a-brand, I really am not interested in it at all.

I first saw these "not coupons" like this one in 2013.
Coupon confusion isn’t new.

To make it even more confusing, the fine print lists several participating General Mills brands “and many more.” How would I know what ones are participating? I suppose I can rely on the store to tag the participating brands. But is all this planning worth my time and the store’s?

I mean, I do plan my shopping and make a list. I think most people do. And I note on my list certain brands to buy when (1) I have a coupon and (2) I have already vetted the ingredients.

One of this store’s competitors has made it super-easy to use coupons through an app that downloads coupons to my store card. Now that’s convenient.

I call up the app while I’m shopping to make sure I’m buying the right quantity, size, etc. I’m actually more loyal to the store than to any brand other than those I habitually buy because they meet my “standards.”

Not All Brands Issue Coupons

There are a couple of brands that have won my loyalty outside the supermarket. Neither of them issues coupons, at least not as far as I know.

One is Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and slacks. I’m not very comfortable wearing most other brands. But Gloria’s have never let me down.

I’ve worn her clothing for approximately 16 years, which coincides with my son’s birth. Before that, I wore other brands as well. I was despondent until I tried GV. God bless you, Gloria.

I have never received a GV coupon but I do get general discount coupons from the store itself.  Ironically, the same store also supplies the only jeans brand my son wears. However, I have never been alerted to sales for either of these brands. This is interesting. Obviously, I don’t have to buy jeans as often as, say, eggs or orange juice, but you’d think stores would track branded buys, wouldn’t you?

Make Coupons and Customer Rewards Easier to Use

I’ll reiterate an earlier plea for stores and brands to make coupons and other rewards easier to use.

The store where I buy GV sends out general discount coupons pretty often. It also rewards purchases with small dollar-amount coupons that expire within a couple of weeks.

Maybe I’m not a typical shopper. I think I used these two-week coupons just once. I wish the store would extend their coupons’ shelf lives like the grocery stores and grocery brands do.

Here are a few other ideas I’ve heard, some of them from readers:

  • If you’re participating in a “shop local” rewards program, provide a map that shows where each participating store is located. It’s easier for customers and boosts your program by showing how many stores are part of the program.
  • Don’t penalize long-term customers by always refusing to share special offers for new customers with them. Some crafty customers will cancel a magazine subscription, for example, if the renewal is expensive and wait out the time for new customer deals.
  • Give customers more time to use coupons or rewards.
  • If you’re an e-commerce company, offer free shipping as often as possible and not just for first-time customers.

Remember, customer loyalty can’t be taken as a given. Unless your product is truly unique (as GV is for me), your competitors will figure out how to attract your customers.

I’m curious to know what you would like to tell your favorite shop or brand to do to make you even more loyal? Will you share it below?


Arizona business Marketing

Make Your Website ADA Compliant

I was surprised to read that an important part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) still hasn’t been finalized. Final rules were supposed to be issued last year about making websites ADA compliant, but have been delayed to next year.

However, this hardly means that businesses required to meet ADA requirements for physical access—schools, public buildings, and “places of public accommodation”—should remain ignorant where their websites are concerned. There are proposed rules to follow for now and it’s a safe bet that they are very close to what the final rule will look like.

Honestly, there really is no reason for their websites to not have basic accessibility tools in place by now.

A Google search will identify articles, tools, and experts to help you understand steps you can take to make your site more accessible. And guess what: people with disabilities and their families are potential customers. They buy stuff, go out to eat, and enjoy the same entertainment as the rest of us. Why lose an opportunity for more sales?

Modern Websites Can Offer ADA Compliant Tools

I recently worked a short contract for A Very Large Company that falls under ADA accessibility rules. It’s got wide, powered doors for wheelchair users, Braille elevator controls, and accessible restrooms. I spotted one blind employee. But the “AVLC” website isn’t ADA-compliant, at least as far as current guidelines suggest it should be for an organization its size.

People inside AVLC are aware and understand that the old web technology they use is a problem. Although one tool is a Microsoft product, the latest IE update impacted its functionality. Some of its functions actually work better on Chrome.

Let everyone see your website.
Don’t you want your site to be visible to all?

If Microsoft can’t be bothered to update an old tool, why continue using it?

The AVLC people I worked with expect to have new and presumably compliant web software in place in 2019. I’d bet the barn that ADA still won’t be finalized by then and they’re probably counting on it. Still, this keeps them from communicating with all their customers.

I’m a small business and do not run a place of public accommodation, so I don’t have to concern myself about ADA rules. But that doesn’t mean I can’t take a few steps to make my website a friendlier place for a person with limited vision to visit and think, hmm, I wonder if she’s available for blogging? (Yes! I am!)

I’ve added a few tools that help low-vision visitors get around my site a little easier. The most obvious one is a little toggle menu off to the left that provides larger fonts and greater contrast. It came from a free WordPress plugin I’m testing and I’ll happily make a donation to its designer if all goes well.

WordPress has a number of plugins that provide everything from testing your site to identify ADA gaps to providing general and very specific fixes. You can search the WordPress theme repository for ADA-compliant themes. (Be sure to refresh if you use this link.) WordPress’s own accessibility team posts updates, news, and recommended tools.

The ADA Changed America for the Better

The ADA, of course, literally opened American doors to persons with disabilities. And that’s a good thing.

  • Curb cuts and wider doors let people who use wheelchairs (and later, scooters) get around more easily.
  • Braille readouts on ATMs, elevators, and directories allow people with low or no vision to more fully participate in commerce.
  • Use of close-captioning tools brings more deaf people into worksites, cinemas, and theaters.

Curb cuts are helpful to parents pushing strollers and kids learning how to ride a bike. And many of us have used the larger accessible restroom stall not only for its purpose but to also to keep a little one close by and change clothes and/or diapers.

ADA also made us work more intelligently.

Think about innovations like IM, texting, and other person-to-person communications that helped office communications and cut down on chatter that makes it hard to write. They also reduced the instances of the embarrassing or annoying “reply to all” on email.

I remember reading about a deaf colleague in New Orleans who was stranded during Hurricane Katrina. She worried about using up her cell phone battery trying to contact a sister out of state via the TTY tool. Mobile communications were jammed and calls couldn’t get through—but her text used minimal power and eventually got through as she walked (yes, walked) to the airport to catch a flight out. Guess who came for dinner?

I’m not sure why websites are seen as a greater challenge when it comes to defining ADA compliance and making it happen. But’s it’s theoretically possible to make your site compliant, as attorney Angela Gibson writes in the Cincinnati Business Courier. Lawsuits against businesses with inaccessible websites have “spiked” since early 2015, Gibson says, and companies need to take precautionary measures. The tools are there, and let’s start using them.


Arizona education Arizona issues

Substitute Lessons

teacher photo
Substitute teaching sometimes means figuring out vague lesson plans.

I’ve been taking assignments as a substitute teacher in the Scottsdale school district the past couple of months.

While it’s relatively easy to qualify—deliver college transcripts, pass a background check, pay processing fees—it’s not quite as easy to figure out how to actually substitute teach. Many thanks go to teachers who leave good lesson plans behind!

Substitute teaching is probably the least-respected job in education, an area that’s always been terribly under-appreciated. Here in Arizona, where teacher pay is about the lowest in the nation, the pay for subs is at least over minimum wage but barely over the minimum wage hike proposed in Arizona Proposition 206.

There are no benefits attached to the job. Subbing is generally derided as babysitting or worse. Disrespecting subs is part of popular culture.

But as the economy here continues to slouch, I’m willing to put up an hour’s pay (nothing more) that better-qualified substitutes will pop up, particularly among the unemployed/under-employed over-50 crowd.

School Districts Should Provide Substitute Lessons

One thing my own experience points to is a need for some kind of training for substitute teachers.

The orientation I attended was for all new school district employee. Substitute training amount to learning to access listings for substitute requests. There was virtually no discussion on how to be a substitute teacher.

Substitute education can be done. A brief online course that provides information on classroom management, special education, and normal school functions for each district would be very helpful. For example:

  • A tutorial for the Smartboard software, which I figured out with some help from 5th graders and now love to use. Maybe even give us account access to Smartboards?
  • The breakfast routine
  • Behavior rules like the “clip-up/clip-down” system and the “attention clap”
  • Should doors be locked and lights out when we leave the classroom?
  • Should the last teacher to use a computer lab shut everything down?
  • What kinds of special education require kids to leave the classroom? At what age do they go on their own or are pulled out of class?

And so on. If you think these questions have obvious answers, consider trying to figure all this out with 30 kids jumping around and pelting you with questions!

I wasn’t completely in the dark. My son has attended public schools since first grade. Now in high school, he told me I was crazy to consider substitute teaching. I’m glad to report he’s wrong. Because for the most part, the kids really are all right.

Schools Don’t Need Nicholson Baker Substitutes

Substitute teaching is the topic of a new book from the fiction writer Nicholson Baker. Baker did a month of “undercover” work as a substitute teacher in Maine.

I hope to pick up his book from the library when it becomes available. In the meantime, I’ve read two reviews, one in the New York Times and one in The Atlantic. The Times’ review focuses on Baker’s sympathy with “backpack-laden” students and his recommendations to improve their lot, such as later start times and whether kindergartners are physically ready to write.

Both the Times and Atlantic, which gives Baker’s book a downright scathing review, highlight his misplaced critiques of public education.

I don’t care how smart you are, or how many books you’ve published. Being a sub is no substitute for understanding and performing the real work in education.

A substitute teacher’s priority is to follow a teacher’s lesson plan and other instructions. The last thing a substitute should do is undermine the teacher, the school, and yes, the education system itself. The classroom is not the place for this particular battle. Which is what Baker did throughout his month-long “research” into education.

According to Atlantic‘s Sara Mosle, a veteran teacher from New York and Newark, NJ schools, Baker committed some pretty grave errors. I think some may tread into illegal behavior:

  • He urged a 12-year old boy to reduce “whatever medication” he takes. Mosle wonders how he knows the kid doesn’t need it if he’s only seen him on medication.
  • He told students they don’t need to sign out to use the bathroom. This is actually a security measure taken in the event of a school lockdown so that all students’ whereabouts are known.
  • He told one student she’d be better off with homeschooling.
  • He goes wildly off-topic on assignments.

I guess that last one isn’t so bad, but the point of learning about philosophers like Rosseau is to understand the concept of citizenship. If I were the teacher responsible for meeting the curriculum, I’d be more than a little frustrated by this dismissal of an important thinker and writer.

Small wonder most teachers leave behind “busy work” like worksheets.

The Schools are Mostly All Right

I honestly think the schools where I’ve taught are doing the right thing most of the time.

Baker complains about teachers who yell. I’m not a yeller myself. But he only objects when it’s from a female teacher.

A male teacher who “raised his voice” is lauded as an example of real-world experience. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

He also objects to a (female) teacher who insists the kids sit up straight with eyes front. It’s too militaristic, he says.

But kids need to be reminded to focus. What’s wrong with that? A friend of mine recently remarked that her smart and charming five-year-old she loves to pieces “has the attention span of a flea.” Clearly her kindergarten teacher understands this because this girl loves school.

I admit, it’s a little startling to return to an elementary-school setting. I once wondered about teacher aides (also female) instructing first-graders to march from morning and lunch recess to their classrooms. However, the kids seemed to like it. Why else were they smiling?

Baker calls such teachers “paid bullies,” perhaps because they threatened the kids with losing recess. But I’ve never seen misbehaving kids lose more than a few minutes of recess.

Are Scottsdale schools perfect? Hell no. I pulled my kid out of a public school kindergarten because of problems we both had with his teacher. But he returned to another public school for first grade and has since remained in the public school system. Now he’s getting college credits for Spanish 201—as a tenth grader.

Schools do a lot of good with ever-diminshing resources. They live with constant threats that these resources will be taken away through tax cuts and schemes like Proposition 123 to reduce the amount of money the state owes to schools.

Here are a few examples of what I’ve seen:

  • A visually impaired boy working well in a mainstream classroom with some special ed tools and support.
  • Examples of kindness, like a boy who carries a chair so an unusually small classmate can reach a fountain.
  • Special ed aides who help substitute teachers with class management while overseeing their own students in the classroom.

I’ve seen kids run to hug principals, and happily greet teachers returning from  offsite training. And I’ve been thanked by a few students for teaching their class.

Expect the Best From Students and You Just Might Get It

I find that respecting students and expecting good behavior resonates with most of them. I’ve had my share of poor behavior but it’s been the exception rather than the rule. I’ve only asked kids from two classes to leave the room. Once they left, the classes went back to a semblance of normal.

I once was given a combined special ed/ESL class for kids in grades 6 to 8 while their teachers attended an off-campus training.

One kid called me a “gringa.” I challenged him right then and there. I told him I can’t have disrespect in my class. I told him he wasn’t nice, and was surprised to see the hurt on his face. Apparently no one had ever told him this.

I instructed him to go to the class next door, where the teacher told me to send misbehaving kids. Once he and an equally obnoxious buddy left—two more boys loyally followed them—the class went on quite nicely.

But you know what? These special ed and ESL students wanted to learn. They were interested in the subject they were reading about.

Then, one of the kids who left asked to return to class. I made him promise not to disrupt his classmates. He agreed and held up his end of the bargain.

Later, I told him I was glad he came back and asked him why. To avoid expulsion, he said: he’d already been suspended once this year (it was still September).

I complimented him on the work he turned in and advised him not to follow his friend. “He really isn’t a nice guy. Nice people are kinder to strangers. You can do better.”

I think he agreed. I hope he acts on this.



Arizona business Arizona issues Arizona social issues

Laboring on Labor Day

Be honest. What did you do on Labor Day?

Like many Americans, I worked that day. Of course, since I’m self-employed, I didn’t have to work but no work means no pay for freelancers.

Labor Day used to celebrate the American worker and labor unions. But “union” become a bad word back in 1981 when President Reagan fired unionized air traffic controllers who had gone on strike for better wages and working conditions.

Labor Day is No Longer a Workers’ Holiday

Labor Day isn’t a day off for many workers. According to USA Today, about a third of Americans are working today. Most work in retail, which pays on the lower end of the scale.

Many stores are open, and as far as I can remember, have been open on the Labor Day “holiday.” The holiday is a draw for those who want or need bigger-ticket items like a late-model car. Or as the Scribe from New Jersey sings, to buy a new used car.

But in the old days, workers had to be enticed to work on Labor Day. Even part-time workers were asked, nicely, to work the holiday, with promises of time-and-a-half pay. Today, I’m not so sure that’s the case. A Bloomberg BNA survey says one-third or workers are required to work on major holidays like Thanksgiving. Most will get some monetary award for working on that particular holiday.


Retail Work Isn’t Very Nice to Employees

Most retail establishments don’t recognize any holidays at all. Even grocery stores stay open well into the July 4 and Christmas Eve holidays. Some will close early “to give our employees time to enjoy” the holidays.

I worked a retail job a few years ago, when I signed up for holiday work at my local Target. I understood there would be odd hours during holidays.

I didn’t really mind the work itself. The customer service training was interesting. I liked the discounts they gave employees, and my coworkers were nice. But management rules eventually ended my “career” there. I just didn’t have the physical stamina for one part of the job.

shoe display at retail store
As a Target worker, I feared nothing, not even the shoe department!

It wasn’t lifting boxes, cleaning up the shoe department, or stocking shelves that got to me. I didn’t mind those at all, and let me tell you, it was hard for management to find anyone who’d work in the shoe department.

I was defeated by working at the register, a task required for all non-management employees.

A thinly-veiled anti-union training video we watched during our training extolled how much fun it is to work in different areas. It didn’t discuss that standing on a hard floor in one place for more than an hour can be hard on the body.

I changed footwear and wore supportive sneakers and inserts, even those fancy Dr. Scholls gels, purchased with my 10% employee discount. When there were no lines, I’d walk away to straighten out the gum and other stuff stocked near the register.

I still ended register shifts with hip pain bad enough to make me walk with a lurch, like I’d been injured.

I asked if I could buy a padded kitchen mat sold in the store to use at my register. I already had one at home in my kitchen, and it was great. Nope, not allowed. No reason given.

Then there was the water issue. My register trainer told me we could keep bottled water at the registers as long as we only drank when no customers were around. Then a manager cited me for doing just this. I explained what my trainer had told me and mentioned I also take medication that dries me out. I pointed out that we do, after all, live in a dry climate here in Arizona and most people need to frequently hydrate.

I was told to get a doctor’s note. My disbelieving doctor took the time to write out a note, which I duly presented.

In the meantime, another coworker, a guy about my age, fainted on the job. It was probably from dehydration. He quit after that.

Later, we met up to talk business (he’s a photographer) and he told me how embarrassing the whole ordeal was for him. The store insisted on calling paramedics. Everyone saw him get carried out on a stretcher.

I ended up quitting because my hips continued to ache. Nowadays, I notice that Target employees are permitted both a padded support mat to stand on and water at the register. And that manager is gone, too. I have to wonder if it was her decision or Target’s to deny these modest supports to employees. Too bad there wasn’t a union rep I could ask.

When I gave my reason for resigning, no one offered any suggestions to alleviate my discomfort.

Right to Work? Really?

Since Arizona is a “right to work” state, it’s nearly impossible to get union protections here.

“Right to work” means that anything a union negotiates for members benefits all workers, regardless of whether they belong to the union. The argument behind “right to work” laws is that no one is forced to join a union.

Once upon a time, it was normal to be unionized if you worked an hourly job and or a job deemed particularly dangerous or sensitive like air traffic control. Unions protected employees from outright abuses like forcing them to work off the clock to meet quotas. They guaranteed breaks and ensured overtime pay. Unions also made sure employees had benefits and decent pay—enough to actually live on in the area in which a job is located.

In their early days, unions ended the practice of 12-hour shifts, six days a week. They ended child labor and got safety regulations put in to make workplaces less dangerous for everyone.

There are now laws that provide some of the protections unions used to give. But no one is watching out for the labor force. Businesses, whether retail, service-oriented, or in another category, have a much stronger hand in negotiating salaries and benefits against a lone hire.

In fact, today’s employees don’t have a right to work, at least not full-time. In our right-to-work state, employees can get laid off or otherwise dismissed from a job without any notice at all. Yet most employers require employees to agree to provide notice before they leave: they actually make them sign contracts to guarantee this. And businesses here don’t even have to pay for unused leave when workers are laid off.

The Irony of Labor Day

We still celebrate Labor Day, sort of.

Most of us use the time to catch up on work. Students inevitably have assignments due right after Labor Day (we start school in August in Arizona). People spend at least some of the time working on or cleaning their homes. Fewer people are going out of town or really taking time off.

People say unions got greedy and corrupt. Some did. So did some businesses. Today’s executives earn about 300 times more than their typical employees, even when they’re “forced” to shrink their workforce or require employees to take furloughs, which are forced, unpaid time off. Locally, Honeywell has become infamous for this practice.

Many businesses seem to have abandoned the concept of being a great place to work. They accept high turnover as a norm.

The worst ones don’t even care about worker safety and no one calls them on it until their coal mines implode. Remember the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, and BP/Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico? Workers are killed, and local environments become disaster areas. This is what happens when we don’t have unions and we’re busy shrinking government oversight staff.

No one is looking out for most of us, a sad irony when a day meant to honor labor is in reality just another workday.