Pointless business travel

by MooshiMooshi

Long before the pandemic, I was of the opinion that most business travel is pointless, an exercise in showing how “incredibly busy our company/our employees are” without accomplishing much. It is the most extreme form of butt-in-seatism. I saw the costs in terms of money and people’s time, but had not thought as much about the impact on climate change. This opinion piece makes the case far better than I can, that we should not return to mindless business travel ever again. Do you think companies will return to their bad old practices, or will business travel never pick up again?

Do You Really Need to Fly?
Videoconferencing is good enough to replace a lot of pointless business travel.

by Farhad Manjoo

March 10 2021
I once flew round-trip from San Francisco to London to participate in an hourlong discussion about a book. Another time it was San Francisco-Hong Kong, Hong Kong-Singapore and back again for two lunch meetings, each more lunch than meeting. I went to Atlanta once to interview an official who flaked out at the last minute. And there was that time in Miami: three days, 5,000 miles, hotel, rental car — and on the way back a sinking realization that the person I’d gone to profile was too dull for a profile.

I confess to this partial history of gratuitous business travel knowing that I’ll be screenshot and virally mocked: Check out the New York Times columnist whining about all the fabulous trips he’s had to endure!

But I’ll accept the flagellation, for I see now how I’ve sinned. We are a year into a pandemic that has kept much of the world grounded. Yet in many sectors that once relied on in-person sessions, big deals are still getting done, sales are still being closed and networkers can’t quit networking.

Face-to-face interactions were said to justify the $1.4 trillion spent globally on business travel in 2019. In 2020, business travel was slashed in half, our faces were stuck in screens, and yet many of the companies used to spending boatloads on travel are doing just fine.

Hence my regret for past ramblings. After a year of videoconferencing and suffering little for it, I look back on the profligacy of my prepandemic air travel with embarrassment. I think about my lost productivity and personal time, my boss’s money and the pollution spewing from my plane as it jetted to that very important event in Key West.

OK, I don’t really think about my boss’s money. Still: Mexico City, Austin, Hyderabad, D.C. How many of those trips would have been unnecessary if I’d only Zoomed?

My estimate runs somewhere between most and all. Aviation is a modern miracle; it is also expensive, annoying and environmentally costly. Now that videoconferencing has been shown to be an acceptable way to get work done, there’s no reason to quit it when the virus is gone. We can all afford to be much more judicious about traveling for work, even if Zoom isn’t perfect.

I say “we” because the airports and hotels on my less-than-necessary trips weren’t empty. Americans took more than 400 million trips for work in 2019. A lot of my fellow travelers were likely wondering, as I was, whether the benefits of each particular jaunt justified the expense and inconvenience.

I spoke to several erstwhile road warriors — mainly salespeople — who told me they were often of two minds about their nomadic ways. On the one hand, flying was terrible. A round-trip cross-country flight takes up most of two days just getting there. Then there’s the unhealthy eating, the poor sleep, the drinking.

But what choice was there? For years, it has been a truism that face-to-face meetings are far better than videoconferencing, for obvious reasons. They foster deeper relationships and perhaps better group decision-making.

“I grew up in a sales culture that said, ‘You want to close a deal, you go get in front of the client,’” said Darren Marble, an entrepreneur based in Los Angeles who used to travel to New York every other week. When the pandemic hit, he didn’t know how he’d do business. “Working at home was antagonistic to everything I’d learned over my career,” he said.

But in the Zoom era, everything worked out. In fact, Marble told me, 2020 was a “breakout year”; his firm, Crush Capital, recently raised more than $3 million from over 30 investors, all through Zoom. “Rapport is overrated,” Marble said.

That sounded glib, but several other former frequent fliers said something similar. Jack Duhamel, a software salesman who moved to a Connecticut fishing town during the lockdown, told me about a sale he’d made to a company based in Eastern Europe. The deal started cold; Duhamel had no prior relationship with the company. But over a series of more than a dozen Zoom meetings over four months, a big sale came together.

“In years past, we would have had to fly there and make a whole thing of it,” he said.

I’ve felt something similar with video calls. They’re obviously not as intimate as face-to-face meetings, but they’re not that much worse. And the virtual era has its own advantages. It’s faster, it’s cheaper and you’re not stuck in a middle seat for five hours.

Then there’s climate change, an inescapable cost of flying. Aviation accounts for just about 2.5 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, but for complex reasons airplane emissions actually contribute more to warming the planet than their carbon output would suggest. Another problem is the per-use cost of flying; just one long round-trip flight can produce more carbon, per passenger, than the average person in many countries produces in a year. One round-trip trans-Atlantic flight is almost enough to wipe out the gains you might get from living car-free for a year, according to one estimate.

Suzanne Neufang, the C.E.O. of the Global Business Travel Association, said airlines are working on ways to make their flights carbon neutral. Her group predicts business travel will return to 2019 levels by 2025, but when it does, she says, it may have much less environmental impact. “It doesn’t have to necessarily come back in the same way,” she told me.

But I’m skeptical. It will likely be decades before the aviation industry becomes carbon neutral, if it ever does. In the meantime, we’ve found a perfectly reasonable alternative to meeting up in person. Log in, and fly less.

Breakthrough technologies

by MooshiMooshi

MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2021! Fun for all!

The article is not behind a paywall – I could open it without a subscription

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2021

The synopsis
MessengerRNA vaccines (of course)
GPT-3 (new natural language processing model)
TikTok recommendation algorithm
lithium metal batteries
data trusts
green hydrogen
digital contact tracing (another pandemic technology)
hyper accurate positioning (I was not aware of this. Besides its advantages, it also has even scarier implications for data collected from our phones)
remote everything (yep,more pandemic tech)
multi-skilled AI

Are you guys familiar with any of these technologies? What do you think, hype or promise?

The death of undergraduate teaching degrees

by MooshiMooshi

Enrollment is way down in undergraduate education programs, and some schools are closing their programs now. Most likely, many of us see this as a good thing. I myself have long advocated that teachers, especially at the high school level, should major in an academic subject and then take some teaching courses and then enter a teaching apprenticeship program.

But the reality is that undergraduate education degrees are being replaced by “alternative certification pathways” that may be far worse than the undergraduate programs they are replacing. I first realized this a few years ago when a friend of mine, who had an undergrad general business degree and who had worked as an office manager for 10 years, was able to get certified as an advanced mathematics teacher at the HS level after only 6 months of online classes! I happen to know she barely made it through business calculus back in college.

‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’
Teacher education programs were facing major problems even before the pandemic, but are they dying of natural causes or being killed off? Either way, what’s lost when they go away for good?

This article details what is going on. Here is a quote on the alternative certification programs
“The first programs focused on getting “content-proficient” adults with backgrounds in science, math and other fields into secondary classrooms without making them earn another degree. But alternative paths to teaching have since proliferated. The national council, in its 2014 study of 85 alternative programs, gave the majority D or F grades. In general, they all ask the teacher candidate to serve simultaneously as the “teacher of record” and an “intern” prior to obtaining certification. Learning happens first and foremost on the job.

Failing grades mean the programs have no required grade point average for applicants, or a minimum GPA of 2.5. There is generally no standardized test or teaching audition required. Required fieldwork prior to teaching amounts to a week or less, and there is no clinical practice. Teachers within these program are observed infrequently.”

I suspect most Totebaggers would prefer that our kids have teachers who have passed a test, have a good GPA, and have spent more than a week learning how to teach. I know that I would not want my friend the former office manager teaching pre-calc to my kids. These alternative certification programs sound more like a way of getting warm bodies in front of classes, preferably at low pay, than a way of attracting good candidates with STEM backgrounds. While I think that a serious reform of teacher education programs is long overdue, I do not think this is the right way.

OK, opinions?