Saturday, September 24, 2016

HUBweek 2015 Retrospective

HUBweek 2015 Day 1: Faneuil Forum (October 4, 2015)

Here is a quick recap of last year’s HUBweek, now that HUBweek 2016 is about to get underway. After attending De-Stress Boston at MGH, and surviving our stressful driving and parking experiences, we made our way back downtown to attend the Fenway Forum, which had been moved inside to Faneuil Hall, due to weather concerns. By the time we parked and made our way there, we found a line snaking around the building. It turned out that the hall was filled to capacity, but there was a place for overflow viewing at the Millennium Hotel across the street, and we all stampeded over there like a disorganized herd of goats, only to find that the overflow room was packed, and so the overflow from the overflow room were sent to an alcove that had a TV monitor set up, and so that’s where we watched with the huddled masses.

“It’s like Woodstock,” Betsy whispered.

It’s amazing that a philosophy discussion could generate so much interest and draw such a large crowd, but it speaks to both the cerebral nature of the Boston citizenry and the almost-celebrity status of Harvard’s Professor Michael Sandel. The topics moved from the ethics of parking and Uber surge-pricing and privacy issues to big data, genetic engineering, the dance between chance and choice, and smart machines. This last question, whether college test essays should be graded by a machine instead of a human, evoked the most interesting discussion. It brought up the inherent flaws and biases of human grading, such as attention fatigue, as the first essay probably gets more of the professor’s attention than the 50th essay. Yo-Yo Ma reacted most strongly to this statement, believing they should all be given equal attention, asking whether we would think the same of a doctor on the 50th patient.

The reality is that statistically speaking, medical errors do increase as you go through the week, with the lowest on Mondays, higher Wednesday through Friday, and then by the weekend, just forget about it, between skeleton staffing and the fatigue factor. Ditto for radiologist errors in reading MRIs, and being more likely to miss things later in the week. You wouldn’t want a car built on a Friday and for the same reason you might not want a medical procedure on a Friday.

So, one can be shocked, horrified, or even indignant at the thought that everyone does not get equal care or attention, whether it be at the doctor’s office, or getting your essay graded, but the reality is that doctors and teachers are human and it happens. But, even with those flaws, is a human component still better than leaving it all to machines? Maybe there could be a hybrid approach, some combination of smart computing analysis of answers and human analysis.

The biggest problem I saw with automated grading is that it denies the possibility of an original thought, something that has never been thought or said before. Or, as Yo-Yo Ma said, “The idea of the human spirit goes beyond the finite, and we want to look for that in every student.” Yo-Yo Ma described how every musician can play a note the same; but the distance between two notes is unique for every musician. Fascinating!

The last topic had to do with picking the perfect mate. In a taped interview with Conan O’Brien, he cites “accident, fate, and God. Things often go wrong to go right.”

Professor Sandel summed things up this way, postulating that perhaps “accident and happenstance and imperfection” are integral to humanity and the human experience, and that “these debates are not about technology in the end, but about us and how we should negotiate our relationship with the world and each other. We aspire to mastery and control, yet these moments of dominion and control come up short. Does the desire for mastery eclipse our capacity for wonder, to behold the world versus to mold the world?” 

Quite fittingly, the panel discussion ended with a musical performance by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble of The Catalonian Song of Freedom, a tribute to the freedom of thought.

At the end of the day, it was good, all good, but a little light, and avoided the truly weighty issues of the day – the refugee crisis, the national conversation on immigrants, or climate change. The topics seemed to speak to the problems of the privileged, those who have cars and can afford parking and Uber, versus those who perhaps rely on the MBTA for transportation. Speaking of which, after a couple of stress-inducing drives in and out of the city, I decided to take the T the rest of the week.

HUBweek 2015 Day 2: STEM Speed Networking (October 5, 2015)

After navigating my way via the T (bus to Harvard Square, Red Line to MGH), I arrived at the Russell Museum at Mass General for this STEM event, bringing together attendees from both industry and the various organizations that offer STEM activities to the K-12 students. The two most interesting things I learned:

1. Every corporate representative expressed precisely the same purpose in attending this event and promoting STEM education: They need a steady stream of STEM-ready employees. They are facing a workforce skills gap in the talent stream, plus the average age in the workforce currently is 49. The numbers are staggering. As Marcy Reed of National Grid pointed out, “Technology is everywhere now. Even a lineman needs to be computer savvy. Computers are everywhere.” While there has been a lot of discussion about getting women and minorities into STEM, as U.S. Representative Katherine Clark said in her opening remarks: “We can’t afford to leave anyone out of this,” and “we need to attract students from across all demographics.” One person in the audience commented, that “even not having access to technology is a disability in a way.” This brought to mind John Henry’s statements about opportunity inequalities (see “Business & Baseball” blog post, August 10, 2015).

2. The organizations promoting STEM to the K-12 students are all completely independent of the public school systems. When I asked other attendees about where the school representatives were, I just about got laughed at. As one attendee put it, waiting for the public school system to foster programs to promote STEM careers is the slow boat. Making change within the educational system is exceedingly slow. Furthermore, it’s imperative to capture the hearts and minds of students, parents and teachers early on. As one panelist said, “By middle school, that ship has already sailed.” The biggest deterrents are often at home and at school, both parents and teachers. Kids need to see STEM as a viable option and it helps for them to see role models. After the panel discussion, we then spent time moving from table to table, allowing corporate representatives and STEM organizations a chance to meet and look for opportunities to work together.

This session made me think about the way the world of work has evolved over the years. Is our economy actually generating jobs that are stimulating, challenging, and attractive to our youth? Ever since the first dawn of the industrial revolution, we’ve been asking this question. How fulfilling were the jobs at the textile mills or on the first car assembly lines in Detroit? At least they saw a tactile, tangible finished product. With each decade, the role of the worker has continued to evolve from craftsperson to automaton. I remember reading the book, Rivethead, in the 1980s, and having these thoughts. Factory work is hard. I remember my Mom’s stories from working in a factory, plus worked factory jobs myself a couple of summers while in college. The lesson engrained in these experiences is that if you want to avoid mind-numbing, grueling factory work, go to college. Of course, now, even those jobs have moved overseas, with corporations lured by lower wages and various tax breaks.

The new economy has spawned a new jobs industry, primarily in the service sector (roughly 80%), but, are they fun? Fulfilling? Recalling Professor Sandel’s talk, are we creating jobs that feed our humanity?

Ironically, even with so much emphasis on STEM, at the end of the day, most jobs still involve working with other people. There was a short article in The Boston Globe back in November 2015, titled “Jobs Abound for Workers with Technology, Math, People Skills,” by Megan Woolhouse, reporting on some research done by Bentley University and Burning Glass Technologies, finding that “positions that require workers to think analytically, and use interpersonal skills as well as use technology paid between $70,000 and $120,000 a year. A person with a liberal arts background and a fluency in database languages fetched earnings of more than $120,000 a year.”

It’s not a question of either/or STEM and humanities, but rather an integration of both. Gloria Larson was quoted in the article, saying “2016 looks to be the year of the hybrid job – and the hybrid employee… The more schools can think about integrating across disciplines and getting students to dive deeper in cross-disciplinary ways is really helpful to breeding this kind of thinking, to developing analytical skills.”

So, employers want it all, both technical and interpersonal skills. Unicorns.

HUBweek 2015 Day 3: Paul Revere (October 6, 2015)

Before making my way over to the Paul Revere House for the talk, I stopped for lunch at a North End eatery, Galleria Umberto, that is open only for lunch. While the pizza was very good, I totally delighted in the potato-shaped pods of mashed potato, with a deep-fried crusty brown exterior, and melty cheese in the middle. This is where the locals eat.  

After lunch, by the time I arrived at the Paul Revere House, I needed use of a comfort station, which I thought they would have there, but, no, I was told by the staff, I would need to go back and use the restroom in the basement of the North Church, three blocks away. Ironic, I grumbled to myself, that the subject of the talk was “Revolutionary Makers: Paul Revere Meets 3D Printing,” when we can’t even solve the seemingly simple problem of public restrooms.

We were treated to a tour of the house, plus a talk that described how Paul Revere was an innovator in his day, a risk-taker in industry. He may not have had the answer in hand, but he had the confidence to say he would figure out a way. We were also introduced to a local firm exploring applications for 3D printing. I had hoped to see the gizmo in operation, but all we got to do was pass around some widgets that had been fabricated by the printer. My mind started wandering back to my mashed potato thing at Galleria Umberto.

Ironically, when I was at the STEM event, I was asked about whether I had any really cool 3D geology models to share with students. I had to explain that while we have models for depicting site geology and structures on our computers, we don’t currently have a program that talks to the 3D printers yet. And so, the coprolite fossil specimen remains the most popular item in our geology talks to students.

Next, I meandered over to the Russell Museum at MGH for the next talk.

HUBweek 2015 Day 3: Driving Ourselves Happy (October 6, 2015)

Dr. Nancy Etcoff, member of both the Harvard Medical School and MGH Department of Psychiatry, gave a talk summing up the history of thought on happiness. Certainly far more research has been done on depression, and rightly so, to alleviate suffering, but it is a relatively recent revelation that the lack of depression does not necessarily equate to happiness. Dr. Etcoff explored a variety of ways we can move the needle, to bump up our happiness level a little bit, ranging from social interaction to self-actualization, flowers, self-kindness, self-compassion, and living in the present.

“We can be in the driver’s seat when it comes to our own happiness.”

This talk was probably the pick of the litter, of all the HUBweek events I attended. I would give it Best In Show. But, why take my word for it? You can (and should) watch the entire talk yourself here on YouTube:

Parting statements by Dr. Etcoff:

-       Be the person you always wanted to have in your life.

-       Give away what you want to have in your life.


HUBweek 2015 Day 4: Coping With Climate Change: How Will Boston Adapt? (October 7, 2015)

This event was held at Sanders Theater, in Harvard’s Memorial Hall, a Gothic structure resembling something straight out of a Harry Potter book. There are human heads along the façade.

The panel discussion moved across the topics of infrastructure investment, societal choices, and recovery and resilience. Some of the memorable quotes from this panel discussion follow:

“Evacuating may not be feasible.” (Getting out of town on a Friday afternoon, even on a sunny day, can be difficult when everyone leaves at the same time, I thought to myself.)

 “The trick is to put long-term planning into short-term actions. Otherwise, things happen one permit at a time. We need to translate knowledge into building codes.”

“We fail repeatedly to take the opportunity to rebuild differently after a storm.”

“We tend to underestimate our exposure. No one will have the will to execute it until after we get a taste of just how bad it could be.”

At the end of the day, the message seemed to be that if we can’t afford to flood-proof our coasts, then our energy should be spent on building resilience into the post-storm response, such as moving electrical panels upstairs, and keeping a lifeboat and axe in the attic.

Research by Daniel Aldrich, PhD, supports this strategy. Drawing on his own experience surviving Katrina, his subsequent research into post-disaster response has shown how critical resiliency, self-reliance, and social connectedness are to survival and recovery.

Or, to put it another way, as said by Skipper (from the movie, The Penguins of Madagascar):

“If anyone’s going to save us, it’s us.”

HUBweek 2015 Day 4: Your Brain on Art (October 7, 2015)

I walked a few blocks over to catch this next event, contrasting how an artist and a brain scientist look at art. I was just starting to get a headache at the start of the talk, and it was pounding by the time it ended, and I took the T home.

HUBweek 2015 Day 7: Illuminus (October 10, 2015)

This event, with all it’s clanging and banging, sounded migraine-inducing, compounded by the logistics of heading into town again, and so I stayed home.

Post Script
HUBweek 2016 is slated to run from Sep. 25 – Oct. 1, 2016.
My picks for the week are:
Sun Sep 25 De-Stress Boston (again)
Mon Sep 26 Faneuil Forum
Tue Sep 27 FDA and the Drug Approval Process: Is it Really Broken?
Wed Sep 28 Medical Storytelling

Check it all out at:

English, Bella. 2015. Providing Insights into Overcoming Disaster. The Boston Globe, 31 August 2015.

Hamper, Ben. 1986. Rivethead: Tales From the Assembly Line. New York: Warner Books.

Woolhouse, Megan. 2015. Jobs Abound for Workers with Technology, Math, People Skills. The Boston Globe, 20 November 2015, p. C2.

© 2016 Rosemary A. Schmidt
Rose Schmidt is the author of “Go Forward, Support! The Rugby of Life” (Gainline Press 2004). Use of individual quotes with proper citation and attribution, within the limits of fair use, is permitted. If you would like to request permission to use or reprint any of the content on the site, please contact me.

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