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Eye phone: How a TED Fellow’s new app could help restore sight to millions

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Around 39 million people in the world are affected by blindness — 80% of which could be avoided if people had timely access to diagnosis and proper treatment. The problem is that in many developing countries, most eye care providers are in cities, while the majority of patients live in hard-to-reach rural areas. To bridge this gap, London-based opthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous created Peek — an app and adapter that turn a smartphone into a comprehensive, easy-to-use, accurate eye-exam tool. Peek makes eye tests affordable and easy to administer, bypassing the need for expensive, fragile equipment. (Watch his TED Talk, “Get your next eye exam on a smartphone.”)

Bastawrous developed and extensively road-tested Peek during a research expedition in Kenya, and has now launched an Indiegogo campaign to set up manufacturing process for the Peek Retina adapter, which allows health workers to peer into the eye and capture images for diagnosis. If successful, Peek will soon be rolled out worldwide with the help of eye NGOs. Here, he tells the TED Blog how his own childhood experiences with poverty, inequality and impaired vision led him to devote his life to restoring sight to the world.

How long has Peek been in development?

I’ve been working on it for around three years, and the team came together about two years ago. We’re now at the point where we’ve got a proven, tested prototype, and we want to make it available. We’ve had so much demand — over 4,000 eye organizations in 180 countries are asking to use it, and we want to make it available and keep the cost low. We evaluated options, and recently won the TED Mazda Rebels award. We’ve used the majority of that to fund set-up of the manufacturing pipeline to develop the adapter, and that takes us to about the halfway point.

You grew up in England. What made you want to practice in developing countries?

I was born in York, but my parents are both from Egypt, and I grew up between cultures. We spent most of our holidays in Egypt, and I always felt a little like I didn’t know where home was. When I visited Egypt, I witnessed things I didn’t see in the UK. My father’s a doctor, and he’d always visit the village where he grew up whenever we went back. He would be inundated with requests for medical attention.

It really inspired me, the way he never said no to anyone. Once a woman complained to him that she couldn’t have a child. My father, who is actually a bone doctor, did some general blood tests, and said, “Look, as far as I can see, everything’s okay.” When we went back the following year, she had a child with her — and everyone else in the region who couldn’t have babies started coming to see my dad to get it sorted out.

So I think seeing such things left me with a very deep sense of inequality. I also realized I’d had a very privileged upbringing. Within Egypt, my relatives are quite well off. But my grandma lived on the first floor, and the family that lived on the basement floor were effectively working for the apartment block. There was a kid there the same age as me, and every year we’d diverge more in terms of our opportunities. When we first met, we both just wanted to play football, but by the time we were 18, he’d had a kid, and his opportunities were very limited. Meanwhile, I had so many fantastic options for my university, career. It just seemed deeply unfair.

Peek healthcare worker examines patient in her own home. Photo: Peek

But why eye care?

I grew up very short-sighted. I was at the bottom of my class until I was about 12, when my mum dragged me kicking and screaming to the optician’s and insisted I get some glasses. Suddenly I could suddenly see everything perfectly — and I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten that moment. So I’ve always been struck with the power of being able to have sight returned, the impact it can have. After that, I started to do well at school, and was better at sport. I looked a bit more geeky, but I was doing better in a lot of other ways.

So it had always been in my mind at medical school to go into ophthalmology. I spent my summer holidays traveling, visiting people who were doing eye care in resource-poor settings, and just really fell in love with the possibilities. There are so many people who are unnecessarily blind. Had they been living in the UK, they would have never have gotten to the point where their vision problems were anything more than a nuisance. I knew this would be how I’d spend my life.

Untreated eye disease must be a problem in many developing countries. Why did you choose to focus on Kenya?

I’d worked in various countries short term, from Uganda, Sierra Leone and Madagascar to Peru and Belize. I then got the opportunity to work at the International Center for Eye Health on a PhD program. We were to do a large trial in Kenya, for which we’d be required to take lots of expensive equipment to 100 different locations to try and work out why people were going blind. I was excited because I knew this research would result in change, as opposed to only lead to papers and publications.

The most common causes of blindness are the same everywhere in the world — with cataract the top cause. In developing countries, blindness is an issue of access to healthcare, not usually a result of weird and wonderful tropical diseases, although there are certain infectious diseases that are more prevalent in Africa.

Refractive error — simply the need for spectacles — is a major problem. We don’t even think about this in England, but had I been been born elsewhere, I’d have been classified as visually impaired. The World Health Organization classification of blindness is when you’re half the usual distance to the chart and you still can’t even see the top letter with your best eye. At that level, most people can’t function beyond basic navigation. I wear contact lenses now, and I can see perfectly. But without basic eye care, I wouldn’t have finished my education. I wouldn’t be working.

Other common conditions include diabetic retinopathy, where diabetes causes leaking of blood and fat inside the eye, and glaucoma, a disease where you slowly lose your peripheral vision. The leading cause of blindness by infectious disease is trachoma, which is on the way out. I think we’ll see that disease eradicated in the next few years.

Cataract testing outside patients home. Photo: Peek

What did you find in Kenya? Did you have your “aha” moment about Peek there?

The “aha” moment actually came before I moved to Kenya. While I was planning the research, I realized that it’s the kind of work that would be hard enough in England, where we have good roads and phone numbers and addresses. Where we were headed, we didn’t know where people lived, we didn’t know their names, we didn’t have road access or electricity. Yet we still had to get our team out there to find 5,000 specific people and provide them the kind assessment they’d get in a UK hospital, while hauling £100,000 worth of equipment. I thought, “This is crazy. There’s got to be a better way of doing this.”

That’s when I got the idea to harness the power of my smartphone. What if I could condense the diagnostic and mapping tools I needed into something portable and easy to use? I started to work out what was possible from what already existed, and realized I could make it work. An amazing team got together and we started building the software and hardware.

We still did have all that equipment in Kenya, so we took the opportunity to test Peek against it. We’d examine patients in their homes using Peek, and then again in the clinic. So we’re able to really compare David versus Goliath, one against the other. Doing that proved to us we had a device that really worked.

The Peek Retina adapter attaches to the lens of a smartphone, allowing examination of the lens, retina, and optic nerve. Image: Peek

What does Peek give access to?

Peek does several things. First, the phone is charged by a solar battery to make sure that there’s always a power source. The health care worker uses Peek to record the patient’s personal details, their GPS coordinates and contact details for the local village guide, who then becomes the follow-up person if we need to arrange treatment.

Once all that’s recorded, the healthcare worker uses Peek to perform all the usual eye diagnostic tests using the app. We’ve developed it so that the health worker can test in any language — you don’t need to be able to read English. If the patient’s vision is low, we can then go on to a series of other tests, including using our Peek Retina adapter, the low-cost hardware that sits over the phone and allows us to take pictures inside the eye. We use Peek Retina to examine the lens for cataract, and the back of the eye for nerve disease and retinal disease.

You said in your talk that our retinas can tell us a lot about our health. What can we learn about our well-being from looking at our eyes?

A huge amount. The nerves — the yellow circle that you see as a prominent feature on the back of the eye — is a direct extension of the brain. Certain brain diseases can be picked up by looking at patterns on the nerve. You can see glaucoma by the way the nerve changes shape. And all sorts of diseases show up within the retina, from certain cancers of the intestines, to diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV and malaria. If you go through a medical textbook for pretty much any disease, it will have some kind of eye manifestation.

Sometimes, Peek allows untrained health care personnel to find unexpected things. Once one of our health care workers, who doesn’t have a medical background, detected a retinal detachment. Typically this can only be detected by an ophthalmologist, but he picked up that something that wasn’t right. That’s the great thing with Peek — you can share that information immediately, so that a remote expert can analyze any anomalies. Part of what we’re doing is making decisions in the field. Does this person need treatment, and is it treatment that requires them to travel?

Retinal imaging on the gold standard camera against which Peek is compared. Photo: Peek

Once you’ve diagnosed someone, how do you get people from where they are to a clinic for further treatment?

In Kenya, many hospitals receive generous funding to treat people, and so they send their vehicle to a village to pick up patients. The problem is that only a small number of people requiring treatment will have been detected. Now, with Peek, hospitals will more efficiently locate patients that need treatment, saving on petrol and time.

Tell us about the financial model of this campaign. On Indiegogo, you’re asking people to buy one and donate it to health care organizations. Could I buy one for myself if I wanted to?

There are two models. You can either buy one for yourself because you’re a general practitioner or an optician and you would find it useful. Or you just want to help us, in which case you can buy one to be donated to a partner health care organization.

How will you decide who to roll out to first?

Right now, we’re partnered with the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, the umbrella organization for all eye NGOs worldwide. One of the things we need to make sure of is that if the organizations we’re giving Peek to start detecting a lot more patients requiring care, they’ll be able to provide treatment. At this stage, those are the kind of groups we want to support. And really, phones are never going to cure blindness. But if we can support the people who do, that’s how we’ll make a big impact.

Peek with solar charging rucksack. Photo: Peek

Will these organizations also train the workers who go out into villages and administer the tests?

Yes. It’s been designed so that training is absolutely minimal. Normally, looking inside the eye is something that can take people weeks or months to master. But with this, everyone we’ve given it to has been able to image inside the eye on their first attempt.

Do you think Peek will be in demand outside of developing countries as well?

There is demand for it within the UK. The potential benefit is that a GP will be able to perform a more comprehensive eye assessment than they would have previously, and will better equipped to make decisions about whether to send patients on for secondary treatment.

What’s your favorite story about using Peek in the field?

There was a lady who was known as Mama Patrick who had been blind for over 20 years. She lived in a very small traditional mud hut, and her son Patrick lived in the next one across so that she could shout to him when she needed help. One of our health care workers went and examined her using Peek, and identified her being blind from cataract. We saw her in our mobile clinic the next day, which was part of the study, and we verified the diagnosis. We arranged for her to have sight restored to one eye. When people are blind in both eyes, and there are limited resources, we treat one eye first. It’s better to give sight to 10 eyes of 10 people than to 10 eyes of five people.

Using the GPS location from the Peek exam, a bus came from St. Mary’s Hospital a couple of weeks later to pick her up. When she got to the hospital, she became very agitated. It can be quite scary if you’ve been blind for a long time and you know one environment, and suddenly you’re in an alien place with different voices. They decided to give her a bit of sedation to do the operation, which took only five minutes, and she fell asleep for most of the evening. The next morning, when we came back and her patch had been removed, it was a completely different scene. She was sitting up, animated and talking to some of her old friends.

But the most powerful bit was when we took her home. She almost didn’t recognize where she lived, although it was completely unchanged in the years that she’d been blind. And there’s was a man standing outside her house, just staring at her, looking really quite concerned. It took a while, but then suddenly she said, “Is that Patrick?” “Yeah, mom, it’s me.” At that point both of them broke down crying — and then she commented on how old he now looked. Everyone else started coming out to see what the commotion was, and everyone could see that she was walking. Suddenly this lady who had been completely hidden away was now walking around and commenting on how old everyone was. And everyone started celebrating. It was really lovely.

Above, watch an introduction to Peek and its work.

 

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2014 in African American News

 

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12-Steps to Self-Editing – your stress-free guide to preparing a manuscript

When we talk about rewriting in Writers Write, delegates often go a bit pale. They seem to think that you need to rewrite a story or novel from scratch. While certain drafts do need to start their journey again from a blank page, if you have a reasonable first draft, you can follow these 12 chronological steps to make self-editing more manageable.

  1. Read through. Print out your manuscript, make yourself a coffee and grab a pencil. Read it from beginning to end as a dispassionate reader. Make the odd comment in the margin if something glaring pops up, but hold back from making detailed notes. The idea is just to get an idea of the global story, the flow, and the feel of it.
  2. Plot line. Now it’s time to interrogate the plot and determine if there’s enough conflict in the story. Look at each scene and sequel to see if you’ve unpacked the major story question posed by the inciting incident. As Sol Stein suggests, compare your strongest scene with your weakest scene. Decide if the weaker one can be recycled or rewritten.
  3. Hero in the spotlight. Here we pick apart the main character. A good idea is to create a character sheet that you can create from the character wheel – write a paragraph under the headings of his psychological, physical and socio-economic make-up. Make sure that every decision or behaviour he displays in the story is consistent with these traits.
  4. Rattle the cage for the antagonist. The next step is to do the same for the antagonist. Make sure that he is positioned to bring out the most conflict from your main character. Nothing destroys a story like unfair odds between the hero and his nemesis. Make sure he is equally strong, if not a bit more wily than your main character. If you need to plug more into your plot, go back to step two.
  5. Dust off your supporting cast. To a lesser degree, you will do the same for the other characters in the story. While they may not need the same magnifying glass, you should make sure they’re fulfilling their roles in a vivid, lively and engaging way. A tip is to spend just 10-20 minutes on each, freewriting or brainstorming ideas to make them pop. Feed these into the story.
  6. Infuse your palette. Now it’s time to look at setting. Try to put in setting detail where it’s lacking or unclear and to cull places where you’ve been overly descriptive. Make sure you’ve used as many senses as possible to bring these to life. Take time out to do research on places you’re unfamiliar with so that these parts of your book hum with authenticity.
  7. Talk it out. If step six asks you to look at the manuscript with a fresh eye, this one demands you bring a keen ear. Read your dialogue aloud or record it and play it back to yourself. Does it sound realistic? It should give us information about the characters – it must tease out their individuality, their background and, at the same time, move the story forward. Read plays or movie scripts for inspiration.
  8.  It’s a sprint, not a marathon. Now you should look at pacing. Does your manuscript have enough white space? Try to keep sentences and paragraphs as short as possible – just keep in mind that some genres allow for a more leisurely pace than, say, a thriller. If you’re getting bored reading a page, be sure your reader will be too. Be merciless. A tip is to cut every second or third word and see if the story can survive these cuts.
  9. Beginnings, middles and ends. Look at your first and last page side by side. If you can, try to bring in symbols, images or moods that echo or contrast each other. Find a way to create bookends that will resonate with the reader in a subliminal way.  Now go to the middle of the book – the hinge – and see if this section of the book is a powerful enough mid-point to drive the story towards its climax. It should be a false high point or false low point for the main character and reaffirm his commitment to the story goal.
  10. Become a continuity editor. Put the manuscript away for at least eight weeks, longer if you can manage it. Print out a fresh copy and look for consistency and clarity on every page, every line, in every word. Look for gremlins – a character’s eye-colour changing from one chapter to the next or someone encountering a tiger in Africa. A good way to do this is to imagine each chapter is a stage play – have you signposted your stage directions in a clear, but unobtrusive way.
  11. Polish it till it shines. Now – and only now, we might add – do you do a linear edit of the manuscript. You check spelling, you check grammar, you check that your formatting is consistent. It’s like dressing your book up for a red-carpet event – it needs to be flawless. A sloppy manuscript – no matter how promising – is often passed over for a mediocre story well-presented when it crosses an editor’s desk.
  12. Find another eye. If you have an objective friend, freelance editors or an online community of beta readers, give them the manuscript to read over and encourage constructive feedback. This is the time to put your ego on the backburner and be open-minded. Listen to what they say, take notes and see if their points are valid.

After this, it’s time to make final checks and changes and prepare your manuscript for its final journey – to an agent, editor or print if you’re self-publishing.

Think of your book as your 18-year old kid going off to college or varsity. You’ve done the best you can, given them warm clothes and a stern lecture – maybe even a flurry of good luck kisses. Now it’s up to your book to stand on its own.

by Anthony Ehlers

(If you enjoyed this post, you will love Mirror, Mirror – the role of supporting characters)
Anthony has facilitated courses for Writers Write since 2007. Published both locally and internationally, he was twice a runner-up in the Mills&Boon Voice of Africa short story competition. In 2013, his crime short story was included in Bloody Satisfied, an anthology sponsored by the National Arts Festival SA. As a scriptwriter, he has written three television features. In 2014, his short films were short-listed for the Jameson First Shot competition, as well as the European Independent Film Festival. Follow Anthony on Twitter and Facebook.
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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. If you want to learn how to write a book, write for social media, and improve your business writing, send an email to news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.
 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in African American News

 

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The Vanishing Male Worker: How America Fell Behind

SLIDE SHOW|10 Photos

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Frank Walsh still pays dues to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, but more than four years have passed since his name was called at the union hall where the few available jobs are distributed. Mr. Walsh, his wife and two children live on her part-time income and a small inheritance from his mother, which is running out.

Sitting in the food court at a mall near his Maryland home, he sees that some of the restaurants are hiring. He says he can’t wait much longer to find a job. But he’s not ready yet.

“I’d work for them, but they’re only willing to pay $10 an hour,” he said, pointing at a Chick-fil-A that probably pays most of its workers less than that. “I’m 49 with two kids — $10 just isn’t going to cut it.”

Working, in America, is in decline. The share of prime-age men — those 25 to 54 years old — who are not working has more than tripled since the late 1960s, to 16 percent. More recently, since the turn of the century, the share of women without paying jobs has been rising, too. The United States, which had one of the highest employment rates among developed nations as recently as 2000, has fallen toward the bottom of the list.

As the economy slowly recovers from the Great Recession, many of those men and women are eager to find work and willing to make large sacrifices to do so. Many others, however, are choosing not to work, according to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll that provides a detailed look at the lives of the 30 million Americans 25 to 54 who are without jobs.

Many men, in particular, have decided that low-wage work will not improve their lives, in part because deep changes in American society have made it easier for them to live without working. These changes include the availability of federal disability benefits; the decline of marriage, which means fewer men provide for children; and the rise of the Internet, which has reduced the isolation of unemployment.

At the same time, it has become harder for men to find higher-paying jobs. Foreign competition and technological advances have eliminated many of the jobs in which high school graduates like Mr. Walsh once could earn $40 an hour, or more. The poll found that 85 percent of prime-age men without jobs do not have bachelor’s degrees. And 34 percent said they had criminal records, making it hard to find any work.

The resulting absence of millions of potential workers has serious consequences not just for the men and their families but for the nation as a whole. A smaller work force is likely to lead to a slower-growing economy, and will leave a smaller share of the population to cover the cost of government, even as a larger share seeks help.

“They’re not working, because it’s not paying them enough to work,” said Alan B. Krueger, a leading labor economist and a professor at Princeton. “And that means the economy is going to be smaller than it otherwise would be.”

High Costs

The trend was pushed to new heights by the last recession, with 20 percent of prime-age men not working in 2009 before partly receding. But the recovery is unlikely to be complete. Like turtles flipped onto their backs, many people who stop working struggle to get back on their feet. Some people take years to return to the work force, and others never do. And a growing body of research finds that their children, in turn, are less likely to prosper.

“The long-run effects of this are very high,” said Lawrence F. Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard. “We could be losing the next generation of kids.”

For most unemployed men, life without work is not easy. In follow-up interviews, about two dozen men described days spent mostly at home, chewing through dwindling resources, relying on friends, strangers and the federal government. The poll found that 30 percent had used food stamps, while 33 percent said they had taken food from a nonprofit or religious group.

They are unhappy to be out of work and eager to find new jobs. They are struggling both with the loss of income and a loss of dignity. Their mental and physical health is suffering.

Yet 44 percent of men in the survey said there were jobs in their area they could get but were not willing to take.

José Flores, 45, who lives in St. Paul, said that after losing a job as a translator for the University of Minnesota’s public health department in 2011, he struck a deal with his landlord to pay $200 a month instead of $580, in exchange for doing odd jobs. He has a cellphone that costs $34 a month and an old car he tries not to drive, and “if I really need clothes or shoes, I go to the thrift store.” He picks up occasional work translating at hospitals, but he has not looked for a regular job since August.

“If for some reason I cannot live in the apartment where I live anymore, then that will be basically a wake-up call for me to wake up and say for sure I need a full-time job,” Mr. Flores said. He added, “If I start working full time the rent will increase” — because he would no longer be available for odd jobs.

A Changing Society

Men today may feel less pressure to find jobs because they are less likely than previous generations to be providing for others. Only 28 percent of men without jobs — compared with 58 percent of women — said a child under 18 lived with them.

A study published in October by scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Family Studies estimated that 37 percent of the decline in male employment since 1979 could be explained by this retreat from marriage and fatherhood.

“When the legal, entry-level economy isn’t providing a wage that allows someone a convincing and realistic option to become an adult — to go out and get married and form a household — it demoralizes them and shunts them into illegal economies,” said Philippe Bourgois, an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the lives of young men in urban areas. “It’s not a choice that has made them happy. They would much rather be adults in a respectful job that pays them and promises them benefits.”

There is also evidence that working has become more expensive. A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that prices since 1990 had climbed most quickly for labor-intensive services like child care, health care and education, increasing what might be described as the cost of working: getting a degree, staying healthy, hiring someone to watch the children. Meanwhile, the price of food, clothing, computers and other goods has climbed more slowly.

And technology has made unemployment less lonely. Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, argues that the Internet allows men to entertain themselves and find friends and sexual partners at a much lower cost than did previous generations.

Mr. Katz, the Harvard economist, said, however, that some men might choose to describe themselves as unwilling to take low-wage jobs when in fact they cannot find any jobs. There are about 10 million prime-age men who are not working, but there are only 4.8 million job openings for men and women of all ages, according to the most recent federal data.

Millions of men are trying to find work. And among the 45 percent of men who said they had looked in the last year, large majorities said that to get a job they would be willing to work nights and weekends, start over in a new field, return to school or move to a new city.

Adewole Badmus, 29, moved to Houston in August to look for work in the oil industry and, in the evenings, to study for a master’s degree in subsea engineering at the University of Houston. He left his wife in Indianapolis, where she works as a FedEx security officer, until he finds work.

“I hope it will not take much longer,” he said. “I cannot move forward. I cannot move backward. So I just have to keep pushing.”

As an improving economy drives up hiring and wages, some of those on the sidelines also are likely to return to the labor market. Almost half of those who did not seek work in the last year said they wanted to work.

Yet many who have lost jobs will find it difficult to return.

David Muszynski, 51, crushed two nerves in his right leg in 2003 while breaking up a fight at a Black Sabbath concert outside Buffalo, ending his career as a concert technician. He worked eight more years as the manager of a sports bar in Tonawanda, N.Y., until that also became too much of a physical strain. In November, he went on federal disability benefits, replacing 60 percent of his income. Mr. Muszynski lives in a duplex he inherited from his mother, renting out the other unit.

He said he planned to take a night course to learn how to use a computer in the hope of finding a job that will place fewer demands on his body.

“I would rather be working,” he said. “Then I wouldn’t be so bored.”

But few people who qualify for disability return to the work force. Even if they can find work, they are afraid of losing their benefits and then losing their new job.

The decline of work is divisible into three related trends.

Young men are spending more years in school, delaying their entry into the work force but potentially improving their eventual economic prospects.

Michael Cervone, 25, took shelter in school during the bleakest years of the post-recession recovery. He signed up for a triple major at Youngstown State University in Ohio, in early-childhood education, special education and psychology, “just to better my chances of getting a job because I knew how competitive it was.”

But with the job market improving, Mr. Cervone decided to hurry up and graduate this weekend with a degree in early-childhood education.

“It feels like there’s a lot more jobs opening up, at least in my field,” he said. “I felt like it was the right time for me to start on the path that I chose.”

At the other end of the 25-to-54 spectrum, many older men who lost jobs have fallen back on disability benefits or started to draw on retirement savings. For some of those men who worked in manufacturing or construction, and now can find only service work, the obstacle is not just the difference in pay; it is also the humiliation of being on public display.

William Scott Jordan, 54, retired from the Army National Guard last December after a decade of full-time duty. He gets a partial disability benefit of $230 a month and a pension when he turns 60. He would like a job until then, but he doesn’t feel able to return to construction work.

Mr. Jordan, who lives in Sumter, S.C., checks for new job listings every day and has filled out “15 to 20” applications over the last year — at places as varied as paint stores and private detective agencies — but has been invited to only a single interview. He helps take care of his grandchildren. He cleans the house. He tried taking classes.

Mr. Jordan and his wife, who works with the families of deployed soldiers, are now living on $25,000 a year rather than $75,000, and he figures they can get by for another year before they start drawing on savings, “or I guess I go find me a job washing dishes.”

After a moment, Mr. Jordan adds, “I haven’t gotten that low yet.”

Trading Down

In the third group are men like Mr. Walsh, too young to retire but often ill-equipped to find new work. Like many sharing his plight, Mr. Walsh did not move directly from employment to the sidelines. He lost a job, and then another, and one more.

After waiting two years for work as an electrician, Mr. Walsh took a job in April 2012 at a Home Depot. He was fired a few months later, he said, after he failed to greet a “secret shopper” paid by the company to evaluate employees.

He drew unemployment benefits for another year before finding a warehouse job loading groceries for the Peapod delivery service. This time he was fired on Dec. 13 — like many who have lost jobs, he remembers the date immediately and precisely — after he asked for a vacation day, he said, to care for his dying mother.

Along the way, Mr. Walsh said he had drained the $15,000 in his union retirement account and run up about $20,000 in credit card debt. “We were constantly fighting because it’s fear,” he said of the toll on his marriage. “You don’t have the $50 you need for the lights and you don’t have the $300 you need for something else, and it gets kind of personal.”

He keeps paying union dues to preserve his shot at a pension, but that also means he can’t get nonunion work as an electrician. He says he would like a desk job instead. He used email for the first time last month, and he plans to return to community college in the spring to learn computer skills.

He says he is determined that his own children will attend college so their prospects will be better than his own.

“I lost my sense of worth, you know what I mean?” Mr. Walsh said. “Somebody asks you ‘What do you do?’ and I would say, ‘I’m an electrician.’”

“But now I say nothing. I’m not an electrician anymore.”

Correction: December 11, 2014
An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated the age of David Muszynski. He is 51, not 52.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2014 in African American News

 

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Holiday tipping: Who to include and how much to give

Did you get a holiday card from your newspaper delivery guy? Did your building manager send out a staff list of all the people you “might want to thank” this year? Yep, it’s holiday tipping season in New York City.

OK, cynicism aside, the truth is we’re happy to show the people whose services we use how grateful we are — it’s just figuring out the proper etiquette that can be grating on our sensibility at a time of year when we’re already stressed. “People always worry about doing the wrong thing,” said Lizzie Post, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette 18th edition and great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post. “They get nervous that someone will think of them as the cheapskate or the thoughtless person.”

But the truth is, holiday tipping (or gift giving) is more about your personal budget and showing appreciation in whichever way you feel comfortable. In fact, in tough economic times, even just a heartfelt thank you note will do the trick, Post said. (Yes, even in one of the most expensive cities in the world — we asked.) To make things easier, we’ve compiled a list of suggestions from the Emily Post Institute on who gets a tip and how much. And here’s a bonus: Post said to take caution when giving gift cards. “Cash or a gift is a better way to go,” she said.

Dog walker

The peace of mind you get from knowing

The peace of mind you get from knowing your pooch isn’t cooped up all day is priceless. But as far as a tip, go for up to one week’s pay if giving cash, or a gift.(Credit: Flickr / yourdon)

Babysitter / Day-care provider

For a babysitter, consider giving up to one

For a babysitter, consider giving up to one night’s pay as a tip. If you bring your child to day care, give a gift or $25 to $70 for each staff member who works with your child. A small gift from your child is also a nice touch.(Credit: iStock)

Live-in nanny or au pair

You likely know this person well, so this

You likely know this person well, so this might be the occasion to choose a gift over cash. But a tip of up to one week’s pay and a gift from your child is also appropriate.(Credit: iStock)

Garage attendants

Cash or a gift are both appropriate options

Cash or a gift are both appropriate options here. You should tip between $10 and $30 for each person.(Credit: Flickr / vyelevich)

Doorman or superintendent

You probably see your doormen more than you

You probably see your doormen more than you see your mother, and they’ve always got a smile on their face when they greet you. The range here is a large one, so you’ll have to use your discretion. Give a cash tip of anywhere from $15 to $80 per person, according to the Post institute. A gift for each person would also be appropriate.

Superintendent: If your building has a superintendent, the range is between $20 and $80, or a gift.(Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt)

Pet groomer

If the same person grooms your pet all

If the same person grooms your pet all year, give a gift or cash up to the value of one session.(Credit: Flickr / wendygig)

Teacher

You shouldn't ever give your child's teacher cash,

You shouldn’t ever give your child’s teacher cash, which could be seen as a bribe. Instead, opt for a small gift — a book, school supplies or something chosen by your child will go a long way.(Credit: iStock)

Hair salon staff

Because they talk you down from your crazy

 Cleaning person

Because they talk you down from your crazy ideas and work magic with a blow dryer, show your hairdresser how you appreciate him or her with a cash tip or a gift. A tip should be up to the cost of one salon visit divided for each staff member who works on you. And not having an appointment near the holidays is no excuse — make sure to drop in or mail the tip in a card. Same goes for a barber.(Credit: iStock)

At the end of a long day in

At the end of a long day in the smelly city, there’s nothing better than walking into your apartment to the scent of Lysol. Your cleaning person was here. For the holidays, thank them with a tip equal to one week’s pay and/or a small gift.(Credit: iStock)

Newspaper delivery

They brave the elements and they get up

They brave the elements and they get up really early. Show your appreciation with a tip of $10 to $30. If you tip regularly throughout the year, consider throwing in a few extra bucks with your regular tip near the holidays.(Credit: iStock)

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in African American News

 

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What to Do When Your Boss Doesn’t Like You

 

by Liane Davey

DEC14_4_174920343

Your relationship with your boss is a significant predictor of your experience at work. Good relationships increase the likelihood that you’ll get interesting assignments, meaningful feedback, and recognition for your contributions. Bad relationships mean, well, just the opposite. If your relationship with your manager is prickly, icy, distant, or strained, your work — and your career — will no doubt suffer. The good news is that there are steps you can take to change things for the better.

First, consider the source of your manager’s feelings. To do this well, try to ignore the emotional sting of feeling disliked and instead focus on understanding dispassionately what’s going on. Before you even conclude that your boss doesn’t like you, explore the possibility that you’re falsely attributing what is just harried, stressed-out behavior as disdain for you personally. Confide in a teammate or two to see if they validate your concerns, or if they might reassure you that everything is fine.

If you find evidence that there is something awkward in your relationship, look for the root cause. Listen to the words your boss chooses when she talks to you, and watch her body language; both will give you clues to what’s going on. Here are a few common causes, and the best ways to deal with them:

1. Your boss thinks you’re incompetent. Anxiety about your ability to do the job is likely to show up as frustration and nervous micro-managing behavior. Your boss’s body language will give away her concern as she hovers over you and fidgets restlessly. You may also notice that the important or high-risk tasks are always assigned to someone else.

YOU AND YOUR TEAM

  • Managing Up
    Best practices for interacting with your boss.

The long-term solution here is to deliver results and build a track record of high quality work. In the short-term, be aware of any cues you may be sending that say you aren’t capable. For example, use questions sparingly. Peppering your boss with questions could suggest that you don’t know what you’re doing. Once you have a sense of the right path, state your understanding of the situation and the approach you’re going to take. Be clear and assertive. Supplement a more confident mindset with enhanced skills: Seek out opportunities to get training and coaching and share what you’ve learned. If that doesn’t work, you can always directly ask your boss: “What would give you greater confidence that I can be successful here?”

2. Your boss doesn’t like your style. It’s possible that you’re a high performer, but that your boss dislikes you because your style doesn’t mesh with his. In this case, you’ll notice that the boss’s corrections and coaching aren’t as much about what you’re doing as they are about how you’re doing it. He might appear to disagree with you in meetings, but actually just restates the same idea in different words. If your styles clash, you’ll know because even the most innocuous interactions will feel tense.

The secret to addressing a style clash is to find two or three small things you can change that will make a big difference. If your team has used a personality-assessment tool (e.g., Myers-Briggs or The Birkman Method), dig out your notes and see what you can glean. If not, pay attention and see if you can find the rub. One of the most common friction points is how directly you confront issues. Try adjusting your communication style (either to be a little more direct or a little less) and see if the boss responds. Paying attention to your teammates who are the boss’s favorites might give you clues. Another common source of friction is how structured your thinking is. If your boss is very structured, try to meet her needs with lot of detail and precision. Or, if structure ruins her mojo, dial back the detail and keep your interactions at a more conceptual level.

3. Your boss doesn’t relate to you. Much has been written on the five generationscurrently in the workplace and their different values and expectations. Sure, some clashes between managers and employees can be chalked up to generational differences, but some simply correspond to being at different ages and stages in your careers. Maybe your boss is significantly older than you and can’t fathom that you can work while listening to music. Or you’re a Gen-Xer reporting to a twenty-something boss who doesn’t understand the family responsibilities that require you to leave the building at 5pm. The disconnect could also be due to gender differences or just different interests. The telltale signs that your boss doesn’t relate to you include: use of examples and metaphors that mean nothing to you; sarcasm and one-liners that are more personal in nature; and a lack of informal connection in the hallways or after hours.

If you feel that your boss can’t connect with you personally, start forming even the smallest links to bring you together. Open up a dialogue with questions like: “How would you look at this situation?” “What experiences have you had that shape your thinking here?” “What am I not thinking about?” Listen to and learn from your boss and reflect back what you’re hearing. It’s also valuable to share your perspective to give your boss a window into how you think. “That’s really interesting because I’ve had different experiences. My experiences have been…” Eventually, you’ll both come to appreciate each other’s perspectives better. When you feel rapport starting to build, try introducing some questions about activities and interests outside of work. At some point you’ll find something in common to help you connect.

4. Your boss is insecure. The hardest situation is when your boss dislikes you because you are successful, smart, and confident and he is insecure and feels threatened. One of the tell-tale signs of an insecure boss is erratic behavior. When all is well and the boss is feeling confident, you might have a perfectly friendly relationship; but the minute something you do or say hits a raw nerve, you see anger, hostility, and defensiveness. For example, a seemingly productive conversation about a new project might go south if you inadvertently make your boss feel that you know something that she doesn’t. That could result in defensiveness (“I knew that!”) or resistance to your idea (“I don’t think that’s the way we should go.”)

There are very few satisfying remedies for building a relationship with these types of bosses. Acting less capable isn’t a viable path. Pretending to be less smart might work with your boss, but could damage your reputation in the organization. The most successful tactic is often to give your manager a share of your success and your confidence. Find opportunities to ask him how he would approach a given problem and then give credit for his contribution. “It looks like that solution is going to work. Thanks for your insights; they helped me get clear on the issue.” The moment you see defensive behavior creeping in, ease up. Switch to more deferential questions such as “help me understand…” and “how should I be thinking about this?” Mostly, be prepared to get barked at periodically and remember that it’s not about you.

It’s demoralizing to think that your boss doesn’t like you. Stop thinking about it as a universal dislike and instead think “it’s not that she doesn’t like me, it’s that she just isn’t confident in me yet.” And no matter what the situation or the cause of the issue, get stuff done, share the credit, and ask how else you can help—those are tried-and-true strategies for building a solid relationship with your boss.

 
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Posted by on December 9, 2014 in African American News

 

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We Can’t Trust Uber

CreditMatt Chase

UBER, the popular car-service app that allows you to hail a cab from your smartphone, shows your assigned car as a moving dot on a map as it makes its way toward you. It’s reassuring, especially as you wait on a rainy street corner.

Less reassuring, though, was the apparent threat from a senior vice president of Uber to spend “a million dollars” looking into the personal lives of journalists who wrote critically about Uber. The problem wasn’t just that a representative of a powerful corporation was contemplating opposition research on reporters; the problem was that Uber already had sensitive data on journalists who used it for rides.

Buzzfeed reported that one of Uber’s executives had already looked up without permission rides taken by one of its own journalists. And according to The Washington Post, the company was so lax about such sensitive data that it even allowed a job applicant to view people’s rides, including those of a family member of a prominent politician. (The app is popular with members of Congress, among others.)

After the Uber executive’s statements, many took note of a 2012 post on the company’s blog that boasted of how Uber had tracked the rides of users who went somewhere other than home on Friday or Saturday nights, and left from the same address the next morning. It identified these “rides of glory” as potential one-night stands. (The blog post was later removed.)

Uber had just told all its users that if they were having an affair, it knew about it. Rides to Planned Parenthood? Regular rides to a cancer hospital? Interviews at a rival company? Uber knows about them, too.

Uber isn’t alone. Numerous companies, from social media sites like Facebook to dating sites like OKCupid, make it their business to track what we do, whom we know and what our typical behaviors and preferences are. OKCupid unashamedly announced that it experimented on its users, sometimes matching them with incompatible dates, just to see what happened.

The data collection gets more extensive at every turn. Facebook is updating its terms of service as of Jan. 1. They state in clearer terms that Facebook will be tracking your location (unless you disable it), vacuuming up data that other people provide about you and even contacts from your phone’s address book (if you sync it to your account) — important provisions many of Facebook’s 1.35 billion users may not even notice when they click “accept.”

We use these apps and websites because of their benefits. We discover new music, restaurants and movies; we meet new friends and reconnect with old ones; we trade goods and services. The paradox of this situation is that while we gain from digital connectivity, the accompanying invasion into our private lives makes our personal data ripe for abuse — revealing things we thought we had not even disclosed.

The retailer Target, for example, started sending coupons for baby gear to customers who, sales data told them, were likely to be pregnant.Researchers in Cambridge, England, found that merely knowing a Facebook user’s likes was enough to predict attributes such as gender, race, sexual orientation, political party, potential drug use and personality traits — even if the user had shared none of that information.

Facebook says that it conducts not one but “over a thousand experiments each day,” and a former Facebook data scientist recently revealed that “experiments are run on every user at some point.” A 2012 study in Nature showed that a single tweak modifying an “I voted” button on Facebook increased turnout in the 2010 congressional elections by about 340,000 votes. That is enormous power.

What’s rare is not the kind of analysis Uber can do with sensitive data, but that it was publicly disclosed. Because of the user backlash, companies are moving toward secrecy. That would be detrimental to the public interest.

Uber argues that it’s doing only what other technology companies regularly do. That may be true but it only underlines why we need oversight mechanisms that cover all of them. Reputational penalties have not been sufficient incentives to encourage more responsible use of data and algorithms, especially because almost all the big players engage in similar behavior — and Uber has just been rewarded by its investors to the tune of $1.2 billion.

Codes of conduct developed by companies are a start, but we needinformation fiduciaries: independent, external bodies that oversee how data is used, backed by laws that ensure that individuals can see, correct and opt out of data collection. The European Union has established strict controls on personal data that include provisions of privacy, limited and legitimate use and user access to their own data. That shows that accountability is possible.

We already regulate sensitive data, ranging from health records to financial information. We must update oversight for 21st-century data as well. When we’re picked up on a rainy street corner, it’s not enough to know where the car is going. We need to know where our data is going, and how it’s used.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in African American News

 

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New York City libraries soon will let patrons ‘check out the Internet’

New York City is expanding a program that allows local residents with a library card to take home broadband Internet hotspots — sometimes for up to a year.

The hotspots allow users to connect up to 10 mobile devices like laptops, tablets, mobile phones, and gaming devices to zippy 4G LTE broadband. The devices, powered by Sprint, usually cost $49 with a two-year service agreement and a $110 a month fee for 30 GB of data.

But New York libraries will loan hundreds of them to residents. The catch? They’re free with unlimited data as long as the borrower is enrolled in a library program, from citizenship classes to adult literacy. (Each of the three New York City library branches — New York City, Brooklyn, and Queens — will have slightly different rules for the program.)

The program, called “Check Out The Internet,” is part of an ambitious plan to get more New Yorkers online and close the digital divide. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced a plan to turn city pay phones into WiFi hotspots and he has worked to push Verizon to expand its FiOS service.

Libraries across the country are already popular destinations for people with Internet access at home. They have stepped in where other institutions, whether they’re government or telecom providers, have not yet managed to spread broadband access.

In 2011, nearly 30 percent of households in New York City were not subscribed to broadband at home, according to 2011 Center for Technology in Government at the University of Albany-SUNY. And a survey by the New York Public Library found that more than half of those who use the computers and Internet at their branches don’t have broadband Internet access at their homes.

“Too many Brooklyn residents are on the wrong side of the digital divide,” said Linda E. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of Brooklyn Public Library said in a statement. “Free Wi-Fi at local BPL branches is a vital resource, but it can’t make up for the lack of internet access in the home — access that helps children succeed in school, and provides parents with critical information on health, employment, education, and more.”

The hotspots, made by Netgear, are (cover your ears, librarians) about the size of a dime-store romance novel. That raises the possibility that they could let lost in a stack of books. But if users don’t return them, they get turned off — something that NYPL president and chief executive officer Tony Marx recently pointed out, you can’t do with paper books. If they fail to return the devices, there could be a $100 fine.

Asked about theft of the devices, Marx says now, “The library lends books, and we get them back. We lend out laptops worth well over a thousand dollars for use in the branches in the poorest neighborhoods in New York. There’s no security guard at the door, and we have almost no loss rate.”

Marx added that the the hotspot itself is “essentially worthless once it comes out of the package. The value is in the subscription.”

The program, which includes 10,000 devices and will cost $2.5 million, is being helped by a $1 million grant from Google and $500,000 from the Knight News Challenge. As part of the program, Google is also donating 500 WiFi enabled Chromebook laptops for teens and children in library after-school programs.

The New York City Public Library isn’t stopping at the bounds of the five boroughs. It is also testing its model with state library systems in Kansas and Maine.

Says Marx, “Our primary responsibility is to the citizens of New York. But we understood from our friends in Washington” — that is, the Federal Communications Commission and the White House, says Marx — “that if we were going to demonstrate that we can produce a national solution to the digital divide, we needed to show that this approach could work outside urban New York City.”

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2014 in African American News

 

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