A day late and a dollar short: Starbucks finally honors its pledge to install WiFi blocking mechanisms in its stores.

In the age of social media shaming, it’s a wonder that some companies think they can get away with failing to keep their promises.

A case in point is Starbucks Coffee. For a number of years now, there have been concerns raised by Starbucks customers and other consumers about the easy ability to access pornography websites via the free public WiFi at the company’s store locations.

You may have witnessed it – people viewing such material in full view of other customers, without regard to whether there are minors present or any other ameliorating factors.

In such matters there’s such a thing as propriety. It isn’t illegal to view (most) pornography, but there’s a time a place for everything.

What it most certainly isn’t is copulating on the beach, or viewing hardcore pornography in a public space like a shopping mall, a coffee shop an airplane.

You’d think all of this would be obvious to a company like Starbucks — seeing as how “socially aware” the company purports to be. But it took protests from 75+ groups beginning in 2014 to convince the company to block access to porn sites for people using the public WiFi at its stores.

It took two years, but in 2016 Starbucks bowed to pressure and announced publicly that it would be rolling out porn blocking mechanisms across all of its stores.

But then … it didn’t happen.

What was Starbucks thinking? In its wisdom, did it think that by simply making the announcement the controversy would blow over?  That’s either naïve or willfully arrogant.

In any case, after waiting several more years for action to occur, a new online petition in November from a group called CitizenGo quickly gained more than 26,000 signatures — inside of a week, in fact.

Commenting on the effectiveness of the new effort, Donna Hughes, who heads up Enough is Enough, the Internet safety umbrella organization representing the 75+ groups concerned about Starbucks’ lack of action, explained why the petition resonated with so many people:

“By breaking its [earlier] commitment, Starbucks is keeping the doors wide open for convicted sex offenders and others to fly under the radar from law enforcement and use free, public WiFi services to access illegal child porn and hardcore pornography. Having unfiltered hotspots also allows children and teens to easily bypass filters and other parental control tools set up by their parents on their smartphones, tablets and laptops.”

Considering the speed in which the November petition reached critical mass, social media has only grown in its reach since 2016. What took two years to obtain a (broken) promise from Starbucks to implement blocking mechanisms for its store’s public WiFi took just one week this time around.

Starbucks has now confirmed to several news outlets that it is recommitting to install blocking software for its store locations in 2019.

We’ll see how good the company is in honoring its pledge this time around. My guess is that they won’t play with fire a second time around.

How disruptive will artificial intelligence be to the jobs we know?

With artificial intelligence seemingly affecting everything it touches, one might wonder what AI’s impact will be on the employment picture in the years ahead.

It’s something that AI expert and author Kai-Fu Lee has thought about in depth. Lee is the former president of Google China and the author of the best-selling book AI Superpowers:  China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order.

Recently, Lee published a column in which he described ten job categories that he feels are “safe” for human workers – regardless of how the AI world may develop around us.

His list is predicated on several fundamental weaknesses Lee sees with AI in handling certain aspects of job performance. Those weaknesses include:

  • An inability to create, conceptualize or manage complex strategic thinking
  • Difficulty handling complex work that requires precise hand-eye coordination
  • An inability to deal with unknown or unstructured spaces
  • The inability to feel empathy and compassion … and to react accordingly
Kai-Fu Lee

In short, Lee discerns a particular weakness in AI’s ability to perform “humanistic” tasks – ones that are personal, creative and compassionate.  Hence, the type of jobs that rely on such qualities will be safer from disruption, he believes.

As for career categories that Lee singles out as generally safe from AI disruption, he cites these ten in particular:

Computer Science – Lee predicts that a substantial portion of computer engineers, IT administrators and technology consultants will continue operate in job functions that aren’t automated by technology.

Criminal Law – The legal profession won’t be adversely affected, considering the persuasive powers that are needed to sway juries with legal arguments.  However, some paralegal tasks such as document review will likely migrate to AI applications.

Management – Simply put, there are too many “moving parts” to management – and aspects that require human interaction, values and decision-making – to make it a field that’s amenable to AI.  Of course, if a manager is more along the lines of a bureaucrat carrying out set orders, that type of job may be more susceptible to AI disruption.

Medical Care – Lee envisions a symbiotic relationship between humans and AI — the latter of which can help with the analytical and administrative aspects of healthcare but cannot handle most other healthcare responsibilities.

Physical Therapy – Dexterity is a challenge for AI, which makes it unlikely for AI to replace jobs in this field (also including massage therapy).

Psychiatry – Positions in this category, which encompass social work and marriage counseling in addition to strict psychiatry, require keen emotional intelligence which is the domain of humans.

R&D (particularly in AI-related field) – While some entry-level R&D positions will become automated, increased demand for R&D talent will likely outnumber the jobs replaced by AI.

Science – According to Lee, while AI will be of tremendous benefit to scientists in terms of testing hypotheses, it will be an amplification of the discipline rather than taking the place of human creativity in the sciences.

Teaching – While AI will be a valuable tool for teachers and schools, instruction will still be oriented around helping students figure out their interests and providing mentorship – qualities that AI lacks.

Writing – Specifically fiction and other creative writing, because “storytelling” is an aspect of writing that AI has difficulty emulating.

So, there you have it – Kai-Fu-Lee’s fearless predictions about the job categories that will remain safe in an increasingly AI world. Can you think of some other categories?  Please share your thoughts and perspectives with other readers.

Rough commutes are taking a toll on employees.

I wonder how many people chafe at the long commutes they face to-and-from work each day?

In my case, the work commute is a little lengthy, but at least I’m in the car, moving.  Other people I know deal with traffic gridlock, which is as frustrating as it can be soul-crushing.

Several others brave the elements with public transportation — transferring across several bus routes in hour-long commutes that could otherwise be completed in one-third the time.

As it turns out, there’s a good deal of restiveness when it comes to work commutes. Employment and staffing firm Robert Half Associates found this out when it surveyed ~2,800 working adults earlier this year across 28 U.S. urban markets.

Robert Half discovered that nearly one in four of the workers surveyed have quit at least one job during the course of their careers because of inordinately long or difficult commuting times. And among the 28 urban markets studied, the highest incidence of changing jobs because of a problem commute were for workers residing in the Chicago, Miami, New York and San Francisco metro areas.

Interestingly, it’s younger workers (those between the ages of 18 and 35) who are the most likely to have left jobs because of a bad commute. Is it because of raising young families, or simply wanting more unfettered free time?

As for commuting trends in these urban markets, about one in five of the respondents surveyed report that their commute has become worse in the past five years. On the positive side, twice that percentage report that their commute has actually improved, while the balance report little or no change in their commuting conditions.

San Francisco and Austin residents report worsening work commutes, whereas workers in Miami, Los Angeles, New York and Charlotte are most likely to report that their commutes have improved over the past five years.

The Robert Half survey results underscore the view that rough commutes can have a major negative impact on morale – and ultimately, on employees’ decisions to stay with or leave their place of employment.

No wonder a growing number of companies are offering nontraditional employment programs — where showing up at the office daily is no longer the only way to be on the payroll.  We’ll probably see more of these arrangements in the years ahead.

When companies and brands take a stand on “issues,” here’s a quick way to weigh the potential implications.

In recent years, companies and brands have found it increasingly difficult to navigate the PR waters in a politically polarized environment.

On the one hand, companies want to be seen as progressive and inclusive organizations.  On the other, there is concern about coming off as too controversial.

The environment is about as toxic as it’s ever been. In the “good old days,” companies were able to merrily avoid controversy by supporting universally agreed-upon “benign” causes.  But whereas in the 1970s or 1980s, celebrating Christmas or financially supporting the city’s symphony orchestra or fine art gallery was never faulted, today the situation is different.

Acknowledging a religious holiday risks criticism about offending non-believers or shortchanging people of other spiritual faiths. And dishing out dollars in support of “high culture” invites barbs about the need to divert those resources to more “socially woke” initiatives and away from “high culture” pursuits that speak to only a small slice of the general public.

The recent controversy with Nike and its Colin Kaepernick-inspired “Just Do It” campaign is another case in point. It may be a bit of a coin toss, but the conventional view is that Nike’s campaign was, on balance, a modest victory for the company in that more of the public was favorably disposed to it than put off by it.  And after a momentary dip in Nike’s share price, the stock recovered and ended up higher.

Less successful was Target’s move to direct its employees to forego wishing customers “Merry Christmas,” and instead use the more generic “Happy Holidays” greeting. Target decided to be “out front” with this issue compared to competitors like Wal-Mart.  But after several years of gamely attempting to enforce this guideline in the wake of negative customer reaction and a barrage of bad press on the talk shows, Target finally relented, quietly reverting to the traditional Xmas greeting.

Simply put, in the current cultural environment there are more risk-and-reward issues for brands than ever — and what actually happens as a result is often unpredictable.

And yet … surveys show that many consumers want brands to take overt stands on hot-button issues of the day.  Sometimes brands are just as criticized for not taking a stand on those very same hot-button issues — such as whether to adopt gun-free zones in office and retail spaces or deciding what kind of gun-related merchandise will be prohibited from being sold in their stores.

To deal with this increasingly gnarly challenge, recently the marketing technology company 4C Insights developed a “decision tree” exercise that’s elegantly simple. It’s a great “back of the napkin” way for a company to weigh the potential upside and downside factors of taking a stand on a socio-political issue that could potentially impact product sales, corporate reputation, or the company’s share price.

Here’s the 4C Insights cheat-sheet:

To my mind, the 4C Insights decision tree can be applied equally well to weighing a potentially controversial social or cultural issue in addition to a political one.

Indeed, it should be a ready-reference for any PR and marketing professional to pull out whenever issues of this kind come up for discussion.

In this environment, my guess is that it would be referenced quite frequently.

China-bashing is taking its toll.

Over the past year, Americans have been fed a fairly steady stream of news about the People’s Republic of China – and most of it hasn’t been particularly positive.

While Russia may get the more fevered news headlines because of the various political investigations happening in Washington, the current U.S. presidential administration hasn’t shied away from criticizing China on a range woes – trade policy in particular most recently, but also diverse other issues like alleged unfair technology transfer policies, plus the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea thereby bringing Chinese military power closer to other countries in the Pacific Rim.

The drumbeat of criticism could be expected to affect popular opinion about China – and that appears to be the case based on a just-published report from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew report is based on a survey of 1,500 American adults age 18 and over, conducted during the spring of 2018.  It’s a survey that’s been conducted annually since 2012 using the same set of questions (and going back annually to 2005 for a smaller group of the questions).

The newest study shows that the opinions Americans have about China have become somewhat less positive over the past year, after having nudged higher in 2017.

The topline finding is this: today, ~38% of Americans have a favorable opinion of China, which is a drop of six percentage points from Pew’s 2017 finding of ~44%.  We are now flirting with the same favorability levels that Pew was finding during the 2013-2016 period [see the chart above].

Drilling down further, the most significant concerns pertain to China’s economic competition, not its military strength. In addition to trade and tariff concerns, another area of growing concern is about the threat of cyber-attacks from China.

There are also the perennial concerns about the amount of U.S. debt held by China, as well as job losses to China; this has been a leading issue in the Pew surveys dating back to 2012. But even though debt levels remain a top concern, its raw score has fallen pretty dramatically over the past six years.

On the other hand, a substantial and growing percentage of Americans expresses worries about the impact of China’s growth on the quality of the global environment.

Interestingly, the proportion of Americans who consider China’s military prowess to be a bigger threat compared to an economic threat has dropped by a statistically significant seven percentage points over the past year – from 36% to 29%. Perhaps unsurprisingly, younger Americans age 18-29 are far less prone to have concerns over China’s purported saber-rattling – differing significantly from how senior-age respondents feel on this topic.

Taken as a group, eight issues presented by Pew Research in its survey revealed the following ranking of factors, based on whether respondents consider them to be “a serious problem for the United States”:

  • Large U.S. debt held by China: ~62% of respondents consider a “serious problem”
  • Cyber-attacks launched from China: ~57%
  • Loss of jobs to China: ~52%
  • China’s impact on the global environment: ~49%
  • Human rights issues:  ~49%
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China: ~46%
  • Chinese territorial disputes with neighboring countries: ~32%
  • Tensions between China and Taiwan: ~21%

Notice that the U.S. trade deficit isn’t near the top of the list … but Pew does find that it is rising as a concern.

If the current trajectory of tit-for-tat tariff impositions continues to occur, I suspect we’ll see the trade issue being viewed by the public as a more significant problem when Pew administers its next annual survey one year from now.

Furthermore, now that the United States has just concluded negotiations with Canada and Mexico on a “new NAFTA” agreement, coupled with recent trade agreements made with South Korea and the EU countries, it makes the administration’s target on China as “the last domino” just that much more significant.

More detailed findings from the Pew Research survey can be viewed here.

Airline fees go through the roof … but are we actually surprised?

For airline consumers, the news has been unremittingly bleak in the past few years, what with ancillary fees rising and in-flight comfort going the way of the dodo bird.

But when you think about it, this is something that was bound to happen.

According to the Associated Press, the average roundtrip fare for domestic flights in the United States today is approximately $500.

Let’s compare this to when I was a student in college 40+ years ago. Back then, coach airfare between Minneapolis-St. Paul and Nashville, TN typically ran approximately $250 — so roughly half of what today’s figure would be.

But when we calculate the inflation factor, that $250 fare translates to nearly $1,200.

The equivalent of $1,200 a pop explains why it was financially necessary for me to stay in Nashville over various holidays such as Thanksgiving break instead of flying home for only a few days or a week.

On the plus side, flying back then was a breeze compared to today. Not just the stress and irritation of the terminal security lines, but also far fewer travelers, with planes often only one-third or half-full.

Deregulation followed by vastly cheaper airfares have led to flying being within nearly everyone’s budget, which is all very egalitarian but also making the air travel experience high on the “frustration factor.”

How about the airlines? They’ve had to deal with all sorts of regulatory developments along with sharply higher operating costs — jet fuel just for starters.

And while the airlines have benefited from serving more travelers, that hasn’t made up for the decline in fare prices.  So it isn’t surprising that the airlines started cutting in other ways.

First it was in-flight meals, moving away from delicious hot platters to sandwiches … then to peanuts or pretzels … and now to nothing sometimes.

Next, it was the removal of pillows and blankets.

Accessing in-flight entertainment costs extra, too — as well as gaining access to cyber-communications.

And has anyone noticed the “squeeze play” going on in the coach section? That isn’t your imagination.  Today’s typical coach seat is 17 inches wide, which is nearly a 10% decrease from the 18.5 inches from about a decade ago.  (That corresponds with an average 8% heavier traveler over the same period, by the way.)

Space constraints spill over into the ever-smaller footprint of airplane lavatories. If you find that you can’t turn around in them, that’s because they’re literally smaller than a phone booth.  I know I try to avoid using them as much as possible.

In any case, all this nibbling around the edges hasn’t been able to make up for airline revenue losses elsewhere. So now we have fees being levied for checked luggage — in the range of $25 to $40 per item.  For a while the charges were levied on extra pieces of luggage, but now Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines are charging for the first checked item, too.  Among the major carriers, only Southwest remains a holdout — but one wonders for how much longer.

And reservation change fees? They’re increasing for everyone — even people who have traditionally been willing to pay more for an air ticket if they’d have the opportunity alter their travel plans without a being charged whopping change fee.  Those fees can sometimes go as high as $200 — nearly the cost of purchasing an entirely new one-way ticket.

According to transportation and hospitality marketing firm IdeaWorks, in 2017 the top 10 airlines brought in nearly $30 billion in ancillary revenues — a figure that’s sure to be significantly larger in 2018. It’s almost as if the ancillary revenues are as important as the base fare.  As Aditi Shrikant, a journalist for Vox puts it, “Buying a plane ticket has been stripped down to mean that you are paying for your mere right to get on the plane.  Anything else is extra.”

In their own lumbering way, the U.S. Congress is now making noises about cracking town on what it characterizes as unreasonable airline fees.  I’m not sure that any such legislative moves would have the desired effect.  Already, Doug Parker, American Airlines’ CEO, predicts that of Congress moves in that direction, the industry would respond by making airline tickets nonrefundable:  “We — like the baseball team, like the opera — would say, ‘We’re sorry, it was nonrefundable.'”

What are your thoughts about the unbundling of services and fees in the airline industry? While that business model gives passengers the choice of flying for less without access to the amenities, it turns the process of purchasing an airline ticket into something that seems akin to a fleecing.

Do you have particular criticisms about the current state of affairs? What would you prefer to be different about the scenario?  Please share your comments below.

America’s healthiest cities are … where?

The American College of Sports Medicine changes its annual evaluation to comparatively evaluate cites rather than metropolitan areas.

For the past decade, the American College of Sports Medicine has issued its annual American Fitness Index® report that identifies America’s healthiest urban areas.

Until this year, the index included America’s 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), but the decision was made in 2018 to switch to incorporated cities. The new Index covers the 100 largest such entities.

Why was the change made? According to the ACSM, the older approach “provided important and valuable general messages, but limited the ability to provide targeted assistance to city and community leaders that need specific data at the local level.”

In addition to allowing more localized data to be studied, the new approach enables cities in states that weren’t represented at all in previous years to be included.

As for the various health measures comparatively studied, they remain the same – 33 indicators available from up-to-date, publicly accessible sources.

To build the ranking, the 33 indicators were combined to create sub-scores for “personal health” and “community and environment categories. Individual indicators were weighted relative to their impact on community fitness, and then combined to create the ultimate ranking.

The personal health indicators consisted of behaviors like eating habits, exercise and smoking as well as outcomes like health conductions (incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, etc.)

Community/environment indicators covered factors like the built environment (parkland as a percent of city geographic size, walking/bicycle trails, etc.), recreational facilities (playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts, etc.), and policy and funding factors.

Putting it all together, America’s healthiest city achieves a 77.7 overall score (out of a possible 100.0 points). Shown below is the Top Ten ranking among America’s 100 largest cities for the ASCM’s American Fitness Index:

#1. Arlington, VA

#2. Minneapolis, MN

#3. Washington, DC

#4. Madison, WI

#5. Portland, OR

#6. Seattle, WA

#7. Denver, CO

#8. St. Paul, MN

#9. San Jose, CA

#10. Boise, ID

Notice the propensity of cities located in the northern reaches of the United States. Several of these I know first-hand, having lived and worked in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.  I completely understand that the ACSM’s report means when it cites the following factors for #2-rank Minneapolis:

“Building culture of physical activity isn’t done overnight. Minneapolis, MN reaps the rewards of early planning to set aside important parklands and establish a semiautonomous parks board to maintain and protect the lands, featuring over 6,800 acres in the park system and 102 miles of biking and walking paths.” 

A Minneapolis lake — two miles from downtown.

[It doesn’t hurt that Minneapolis has seven good-sized natural lakes plus a 20-mile meandering creek within the city limits; what else would one do but put parks, green spaces and trails around them?  That would be a no-brainer decision even a century ago, when “fitness” wasn’t quite the same universally accepted aspirational goal.]

Commenting on Arlington as being the #1-ranked city, the ACSM’s report noted:

“Arlington, VA is home to the Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery, Civil War battlefields, great local parks, as well as many people living healthy lifestyles.”

Arlington, VA: Hugging the Potomac River just south of Washington, DC.

When we dip into the next group of 10 cities on the listing, we do see the appearance of several located in the southern portions of the country:

#11. Oakland, CA

#12. Plano, TX

#13. Irvine, CA

#14. San Francisco, CA

#15. Boston, MA

#16. San Diego, CA

#17. Lincoln, NE

#18. Raleigh, NC

#19. Fremont, CA

#20. Atlanta, GA

Who’s at the bottom of the heap? Some of the cities might not surprise you, but a few seem curious to me.  How can it be that the two largest cities in Oklahoma end up at or near the bottom?  And what’s up with Indianapolis and Louisville?

#91. Tulsa, OK

#92. North Las Vegas, NV

#93. Gilbert, AZ

#94. Fresno, CA

#95. Wichita, KS

#96. Toledo, OH

#97. Detroit, MI

#98. Louisville, KY

#99. Indianapolis, IN

#100. Oklahoma City, OK

Oklahoma City: “Hey, let’s hit the streets for a jog!”

If any readers have insights they can share about these “bottom of the barrel” cities, we’re all ears.

To find out how each of the 100 largest cities ranked in the 2018 ASCM evaluation — along with seeing details on the 33 indicators studied to build the American Fitness Index, click here.