Would You Like to Hear “You’re Dying” from a Robot?

Telemedicine is a wonderful thing, extending the care available at top flight hospitals to people too far away to access that care in person. The applications of telemedicine are many: my UW health system offers a video chat with a physician if I’m not able to get in the car and drive to a neighborhood clinic or urgent care.

But is it a suitable way to tell an old man that he is dying?

Granddaughter Annalisia Wilharm, 33, was alone with Quintana when a nurse popped in to say a doctor would be making his rounds. A robot rolled in and a doctor appeared on the video screen. Wilharm figured the visit was routine. She was astonished by what the doctor started saying.

“This guy cannot breathe, and he’s got this robot trying to talk to him,” she said. “Meanwhile, this guy is telling him, ‘So we’ve got your results back, and there’s no lung left. There’s no lung to work with.”’

Wilharm said she had to repeat what the doctor said to her grandfather, because he was hard of hearing in his left ear and the machine couldn’t get to the other side of the bed.

“So he’s saying that maybe your next step is going to hospice at home,” Wilharm is heard saying in a video she recorded of the visit. “Right?”

“You know, I don’t know if he’s going to get home,” the doctor says.”


Well, that feels terse.

Apparently the elderly man, who subsequently died, did receive his initial diagnosis from a live physician in the room with him. But this news, that nothing more could be done, came from a robot.

I think it’s tacky, and dehumanizing. You?

The People Who Worked in Retail

I’ve had a couple of posts and comments in recent days about changing retail habits — regular reader and Amy’s Aunt Joyce, like me, prefers to go into the store to see what’s on offer — so this article in the London Guardian caught my eye. Rather than being about empty/changing retail spaces, it’s about the impact on retail workers when their jobs are lost. We hear a lot about the decline of manufacturing jobs, but less about what happens to people who worked in places like Woolworth’s and were part of the walk-in shopping community in many small towns. Their stories are worth reading.


Oddly enough the stories made me think not of a chain store, but of The Sampler in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Before Ocean Grove became trendy and expensive, it was — still is — a Methodist camp community where the genteel threadbare could find inexpensive lodging and cheap, homestyle food at a cafeteria a few blocks from the beach. The Sampler was literally a cafeteria, a place where you pushed your tray along while you looked at the vast array of steam table food and asked for what you wanted. The servers who plated your requests had worked there forever. The food was nothing fancy — ham with raisin sauce, turkey with stuffing and gravy, mashed potatoes — but it was inexpensive and for steam table food, good. People ate at long tables, and of course there were regulars. My family rented a $35 a week bungalow in Bradley Beach, just over the town line, so we went to The Sampler on the rare occasions when we ate out. My sister Linda like the stewed tomatoes. I mean, who eats stewed tomatoes any more? The place was packed at 5pm, because the genteel elderly ate early.  But at The Sampler, they ate at a long table with others, and they didn’t eat alone.


The Sampler’s owners declared bankruptcy in 2006, and the place was torn down in 2009. I remember going one last time, probably in the early 1980’s. My mother, who died in 2007, loved the place. Ahead of me was an elderly lady who had a bowl of soup, a glass of iced tea, and a slice of white bread with two pats of butter. The butter, as I recall, was 5 cents a pat. When her food was rung up, the lady was ten cents short, and she went to put the butter back. I asked if I could give her the dime — I still carried coins at that point — and she nodded without speaking, eyes averted. She took her tray and went off to her favorite seat by the big front windows.

I doubt people like her can afford to live in Ocean Grove today. There are lots of trendy restaurants where people sit at their own tables and order interesting, made to order food. Even taking into account inflation, absolutely nothing can be had for the current equivalent of a dime.

Do You Use Cash?

Do you carry any amount of cash on a daily basis? Do you use cash routinely for a particular kind of purchase?

The UK is struggling with the decline in people using ATM’s to withdraw cash, or going to bank branches for the same purpose. And although many of us are comfortable paying for most things with a credit or debit card, there is still a segment of the population — in the UK but here too — without access to those cards. The UK cash system, according to the London Guardian, is on the verge of collapse. The cost of filling ATM’s with cash has to be covered, and then some, by people using those machines. If not, they will cease to be found in any but a few popular locations. Ditto for bank branch locations where you can walk in and cash a paycheck without the large fees charged by payday lending firms.


I do carry a modest amount of cash. I used to use it for payments at places like the drug store that were under $10, feeling it hardly worthwhile to pull out a credit card for a $4.79 payment. But I don’t really like getting coins in change — because I wind up never using them. So now I use credit cards for small purchases too.

I also use cash with my grandkids, at places like the farmer’s market when they can offer a $20 bill for a couple of cartons of berries and get change. I want them to understand how money works. But, I suppose that’s a pipe dream. By the time they are paying for things themselves, they’ll likely go right to credit/debit cards — no weekly allowance handed over in cash.

I do use cash in Panama — even for our initial grocery shopping, which often runs to between $400 and $500 — because hacking of credit/debit card numbers is a huge problem. I only use my cards at an ATM in an actual bank, where the security is better, or at the hotel complex, where global Marriott security standards are in place.

But I now use cards for most of my daily transactions. All of us who do are sending a clear signal to the banking industry re where to put their focus in terms of future profitability.

Panama in the News

Panama is in the news, and not in such a good way. Panama, along with Miami, Spain, and Nicaragua, has long provided corrupt foreigners with an easy way to launder money.

“On Avenida Balboa, Panama City’s premier seafront avenue, the 50 story tower blocks form a near continuous wall of glass to the Pacific Ocean. At night, however, most of the luxury apartments remain in darkness and the basement casinos are eerily deserted.

Panamanian real estate was a favourite investment of the boliburgues,Venezuelans who grew rich on the back of their political connections to the late president Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro.

But in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal it has become increasingly hard to launder money through the country, cutting off a potential exit route for those looking to cut loose from Maduro’s embattled regime.”

The Panama Papers, in case you forget or were not up on the scandal, involved the leaking of millions of documents from a tony Panama law firm that revealed how dodgy lawyers help offshore entities hide their wealth and evade taxes in their home countries.


Oddly enough, the influx of Venezuelan money touched our recent trip to Panama. Pippa’s bar, on the beach at nearby Farallon, used to be a sleepy little place which offered cold beer or rum and Coke and simple food. Now the place is owned by a Venezuelan, and is expanding exponentially. You can get Thai shrimp, and a full bar menu. You have to pay $5 for parking. I don’t know that the new owner qualifies as a millionaire evading taxes, but he’s clearly a Venezuelan expat with a lot of money to spend.


Tax Time and Shrinking Refunds

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress missed something important with tax reform, which benefited wealthy people a lot and gave ordinary people a small amount more in their weekly or bi-weekly paychecks. People don’t notice $20 bucks or so per paycheck. The amount doesn’t even register. Not much grounds for excitement or appreciation there.

More to the point, people hate it when their refund checks are diminished. That’s what’s happening as a result of the same tax reform bill, because of changes in the law regarding deductions, or because the IRS changed withholding. All of that was supposed to be a big boost for ordinary taxpayers. Instead, they are furious at what is supposed to be the signature Republican legislative achievement. If you think the IRS ate your refund check, you’re mad, not jubilant.

Actually, no one should want a big refund — it merely means you’ve let the government use your money tax free for the year in question. If your withholding is set correctly, your tax obligation should just about match the amount withheld — neither over or under. But people like refunds. They think, albeit mistakenly, that they are getting a deal.

So people hate tax reform that the Republicans passed — not exactly for the right reason. But any pushback on Republican efforts to help the few at the expense of the many is just fine with me, especially as people have to decide how to vote in 2020.


Nuns with a Gambling Problem

During my years as a consultant, and especially after my first book How Much is Enough? came out, I often got work in church settings — usually on the stewardship side, sometimes working with the lay governing body on leadership. Rarely did the clergy think they needed any help with their own leadership or financial skills. I often brought up the issue of religious bodies having adequate financial controls, because after all, people are people. I got a lot of pushback, under the premise of “but it’s the CHURCH! No one would steal from the church.”


Two nuns in California, the principal and vice principal of St. James Catholic School, are accused of stealing half a million bucks, give or take, from the school budget over a decade. Turns out Sisters Mary Margaret Kreuper and Lana Chang had a gambling problem.  The light fingered ladies, vowed members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, are 77 and 67, respectively. The Order will reimburse the school. The L.A. diocese initially didn’t want to press charges –that old Catholic thing about not causing scandal for the church — but changed their minds when the amount of missing funds came to light. No one knows exactly where the Sisters are now; the Order has them “under supervision” someplace.

Why do people steal from churches? For much the same reason that Willie Sutton said he robbed banks: that’s where the money is. Churches take in Sunday collections, tuition payments for the parish school, large donations to the Bishop’s Annual Fund and the like. And, church accounts are much easier to raid than banks were for Sutton to rob, because churches assume no one will steal from them. Eventually, though, even in the most trusting of settings, somebody notices something.

Honestly, Sisters, did you really think you’d never be caught and have to pay the piper?


Robotics: Making the World a Giant Roomba

Trump is raging against the desperate migrants at the U.S. southern border, but he seems oblivious to the ways that robotics is already changing our work force.

WalMart is deploying 360 AI powered robotic cleaners as a test in various of its stores. The robotic Roombas will replace humans pushing brooms and mops. The store claims this will free up associates to offer more customer service, but I have my doubts. I last entered a WalMart in Rochester many years ago, but my overwhelming impression was that it’s next to impossible to find anyone to ask anything. I suspect WalMart is simply eliminating those cleaning jobs — most of which probably happen overnight anyway, while the store is closed.

Quartz, reporting tongue in cheek on the trend, says we’ve seen the future and it’s a Giant Roomba. CNBC describes how the robotic floor scrubbers work:

Brain Corp. makes the robot floor scrubbers, called the Auto-C, powered by the company’s BrainOS technology platform, which includes autonomous navigation that uses multiple sensors to scan the robots’ surroundings for obstacles, like people. (That means the autonomous robots could even be used when customers are in the store.)”


I have no plans to return to WalMart, and I’m not enticed by the image of a large moving object sharing my aisle but designed specifically to navigate around me. And if I were a member of WalMart’s low wage cleaning staff, I’d be really worried.

Conscious Aging: Wild Stock Market Swings

Those of us who live on the income from our assets — invested in the stock market — are rarely happy with wild swings such as we’ve seen in the last few days: 500 points up when investors thought Trump had a deal with China, 800 points down when the “deal” began to appear more like the usual Trump smoke and mirrors.

The point here is simple, was visible before Trump was elected, and should be evident to all by now: the man lies as easily and readily as water flows out of a faucet. When not outright lying he’s exaggerating, or making things up out of whole cloth. No one can rely on anything he says, unless corroborated by real time transcripts. Certainly the sycophants who attend meetings with him, people like Pompeo and Bolton, can’t be relied up for corroboration. They are too busy trying to backtrack to account for Trump’s wild stories.

Investors and money managers need to stop taking action based on what Trump says. The word of the President of the United States is useless as a barometer of anything.


High Fashion

High fashion used to mean Rose Kennedy going to Paris every year in the spring and fall to buy from the new season’s collection. High fashion used to mean her daughter-in-law, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, being dressed by Oleg Cassini, who created the distinctive “Jackie look” that millions of ordinary American women tried to emulate. First Lady Michelle Obama changed the story somewhat. She wore designer clothing, but also dresses by J. Crew bought off the rack — and she looked stunning and distinctive no matter what she wore.

Now, according to Quartz, high fashion for millennials means $900 sneakers and $1500 jogging pants.

I’ve never cared enough about what I wore to pay that kind of money for a garment, much less for athletic wear. And I keep things forever, as long as they still fit and haven’t faded out and bear a passing nod to what’s in style. Even when I do buy new stuff, I tend to put on the things that are familiar and comfortable — making me look much the same most times I go out.

High fashion, or even medium fashion, is just not my thing. I buy good quality, but not a lot of it. Suffice to say that a large bedroom closet is not high on my list of “must have’s”.

I think about Minga’s daughter Ana, and our recent trip to the mall. Ana is a skilled seamstress, and she could have made any of the dresses we looked at with a higher degree of skill and better fabric, but there was something alluring about buying from a store with racks and racks of glittering options. In the end she opted to be practical and buy nice jeans and a denim jacket, which we bought for nothing remotely resembling millennial high fashion prices.