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​​​​​​​​   James Smart's Philadelphia


​​January 1, 2020

by James Smart

​​​​​Will robots strike out as umpires?
While normal people are still preoccupied with the carryings-on of football practitioners, some people who devote their energies to baseball have been making some probably inevitable proposals that will change the American way of life.
          Baseball is proposing to use robot umpires.
          The Major League Baseball Umpires Association, as part of a five-year labor contract, will be testing automatic computer-driven equipment to detect balls and strikes.
          The non-human system was tested last season in the minor Atlantic League, The annual awards of the SportTechnie magazine nominated the league's use of the Automated Ball-Strike System for “Outstanding Innovation.”
          The Atlantic League is an eight-team league that has teams in such cities as Lancaster and York, Pa. The league champion in 2019 was a Texas team called the Sugar Land Skeeters, for heaven’s sake.
          Maybe automated umpiring would be a good thing for the Sugar Land Skeeters, but I would like to express my doubts, as a fan of the Phillies team, which was founded in Philadelphia in 1883.
          My grandfather was 21 years old then. He was an early fan. (They were called the Quakers at first; he was one of the fans who advocated Phillies as a better name.)
          Some fifty years later, when radio broadcasts of games began and he listened to announcers’ accounts of games, he complained bitterly to me, a little boy, that he didn’t approve of modern baseball.
When he was a boy, he said, batters, which were called strikers then, could call for whether they wanted the pitch high or low.
          After a third strike, the batter ran to first base and the catcher had to throw to the first baseman to put him out. A striker took first base after seven balls, not four. The short stop could play on either side of second base.
          I can’t imagine what he would think of baseball today. Or of television. And he would never have dreamed of the day when a machine would call balls and strikes.
          At the Atlantic League all-star game last July, something called a Track-Man computer system used Doppler radar to watch the ball come over home plate and vicinity, and sent its ruling to a cell phone in the umpire’s pocket. He just repeated the call he got in an ear phone.
          It’s scary.
          Okay. So if these baseball bigshots want to bring modern technology to baseball, why not go all the way and have robot players?
These days, the engineers our universities are turning out could probably creat humanoid baseball players who would perform just like an actual person.
          It’s reported that the Phillies contract with Bryce Harper calls for him getting $330 million over 13 years. Technology millionaires such as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg could probably put together teams of robots programmed to play ball, while robot umpires keep an electronic eye on them.
          The scientists could build robot spectators, too, and everybody human could just stay home where it’s comfortable and watch on television, while the robot announcer describes the game.
          We could have robot marathon runners built, too, so people wouldn’t have to do it.
          And there will be robot umpires and robot referees and whatnot in other sports than baseball.
          And why stop there? Robot judges in courtrooms would be programmed to make fair decisions. So could robot jurors.
          No, I prefer that decisions requiring random skill and judgement be done by human beings, even if they make mistakes sometime

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December 24, 2019
Santa Claus ponders his role in 2019
          “Things are not the way they used to be,” Santa Claus said with a sigh.
          “We have to keep up with the times,” said Uptodate, his number one elf, a subordinate Claus.
          “Ah,” said Santa, “but sometimes I long for the good old Christmas eves, when we delivered toys that were designed to make children wiggle and giggle and laugh a lot.”
            “Children now are in the space age, the computer age,” said Upty. “It’s the age of STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
          “Whatever happened to EWTY, which stands for enjoy while they’re young?” Santa asked.
            He studied a toy catalog. “Look here,” he said. “Here’s a starter kit for iPad, for ages five to ten, introducing early physics. And here’s a toy coding robot that it says promotes problem-solving skills.
          “One company is making walky-talkies for little children, with 22 channels! And some kids are asking for this new 190-piece robot-building kit with a solar-powered motor.”
          “The toy makers are just creating task-oriented closed-ended activities that have an end result or a specific objective,” said Uptodate.
          “We used to do that with blocks,” said Santa.
          “Well, here’s a set of geometric stackers for toddlers, with 25 colorful wooden rings, octagons and rectangles,” said Uptodate.
          “Sounds like blocks,” said Santa.
          He looked through a pile of letters from children, telling him what they want for Christmas.
           “They’re making lap top computers designed for children age five to eight,” he muttered. “Little girls used to ask for dollies with evening gowns, and boys wanted cowboy outfits. Now they both want space suits.
          “Their grandfathers, when they were young, asked for pearl-handled pistols like the Lone Ranger’s on the radio, or maybe a ray gun from the Buck Rogers comic strip. Now kids want models of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
          “There are still requests for doll houses, or forts for toy soldiers. But now there are also kids who want space stations. There’s a model kit to build a planetary orbiter with a Mars rover.”
          “Cheer up, Santa,” Uptodate said. “Lots of  kids out there still ask for a sled or a bike or a ball or a jumping rope or a hula hoop or skates or a top, bless them. And there are books.”
          “Of course, books,” Santa smiled. “There are still the good old books for pre-school kids, like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ or ‘The Little Engine That Could’ or ‘Good Night Moon’.”
           “Out-of-date,” said the elf. “Today there’s ‘All About Matter,’ a book that tells little kids that there are solids, liquids and gasses. And ‘Newton and Me,’ that explains force and motion in rhymes, with cute illustrations.
           “There are also books about the solar system. “But there are a half dozen planetariums to teach children about the solar system and the stars. So, who needs a book?”
          Santa groaned. “That’s exactly why I long for the old Christmas eves,” he said, “when I delivered toys that were designed to make little children wiggle and giggle and laugh a lot.”
           Uptodate cleared his throat.
         “This may not be the best moment to bring it up, Santa,” he said, “but the other elves and I have been discussing a better way of traveling. Reindeer teams are rather out-of-date, even the flying type. Shouldn’t you look into using a helicopter.”
          “Oh, give me a break,” Santa shook his head and grumbled. “But merry Christmas anyway.”

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December 18, 2019

The week’s usual dose of odd information
The news magazine called The Week is regularly full of things that I didn’t know I needed to know. But last week’s edition really piled on the peculiar information.
          For instance, it reports that more than two billion packages will be delivered in the 26 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
          Actually, it left out the word “be” from that sentence, which was a surprise. That’s the first time in several years of subscribing that I ever caught the editors missing something.
          However, I’ve been known to miss a typographical glitch like that myself occasionally, so I sympathize.
          Amazon’s delivery workload alone, says the article, is expected to double from Christmastime a year ago, to 275 million parcels. The population of the United States, as of last Wednesday, according to something called Worldometers on the web that claims to know, is 329,927,730.
          I don’t know how many parcels, or fraction thereof, that number comes to per person, and any attempt to do the math to find out scares me. If you figure it out, let me know.
          The magazine also claims that working in a store is now more dangerous than working in a factory. It says that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 3.5 of every 100 retail workers suffered from illness or injury in the past year, compared with 3.4 workers in industry.
          It reports that the most dangerous retail establishments to work in are pet shops. It doesn’t delve into what the dangers are there. Lots of dog bites? Gerbil attacks?
          Another item says that Americans cut down 15,094,678 Christmas trees in 2017. It apologizes that 2017 is the latest year for which tree-chopping data are available.
          Well, no wonder. That’s more than 40 thousand evergreens a day. I wonder how many chopped-down Christmas tree counters are employed by whoever wants to have them counted?  Or do the choppers have to keep the count as they chop?
          That number of removed trees, the report goes on, would require about 19.7 square miles of land to grow. That’s about six times the amount of land in Fairmount Park.
           t doesn’t say how much room your average Christmas tree takes up in the woods, but I guess the Christmas tree experts know and figure it out.
           In another article in the magazine, the New York Times is credited with the news that there are 173,656 fewer farms in the United States now than there were 20 years ago.
           I’m surprised that the Times was worried about that. You might expect that statistic to come from the Des Moines Register or the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
          But New Yorkers apparently are concerned about all sorts of things. Another report quotes the Wall Street Journal revealing that chewing gum sales have dropped 23 percent from 2010 to 2018.
          It tells us that the maker of Trident and Dentine is responding to the crisis by creating gum that can boost energy, alleviate headaches, and “stimulate weight loss.” I thought that “stimulate” meant to encourage or increase something, and I’m not sure that anyone can stimulate loss, but maybe.
          The article says that there is even talk in the chewing gun industry of producing gum that contains cannabidiol. That would be marijuana, folks.
           Remember when that stuff was evil? It seems that suddenly in recent months someone has proposed to put marijuana in everything ingestable but communion wafers.
          But I look forward to next week’s The Week, and articles about more stuff I didn’t know.

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