Friday, August 17, 2018

Don’t bogart that market opportunity

Massachusetts has more or less legalized pot. I say more or less because, in 2016 – perhaps suspecting that the rest of the country might not share our overwhelming support for Hillary Clinton, and anticipating that we might need a little help getting through the next four years – the good citizens of The Commonwealth voted to legalize marijuana.

Reefer madness has not yet ensued. In fact, the recreational (vs. medical) dispensaries have not yet opened. I’m not sure why that is. Following the progress of Massachusetts splendor with the grass has not been all that high (ho-ho) on my watch list. Nonetheless, at some point after the doors do open, I’m sure I’ll do a small buy and try. For old time’s sake. (Until then, I won’t be holding my breath: it took nearly 8 years after we voted to okay medical marijuana to see the first dispensaries open.)

But medical MJ is legal, and 420 Suites is all set up to accommodate those in need of an ounce or two for health reasons. And, of course, they’ll be more than ready to assist their guests once the non-medical dispensaries – will they be called Head Shops, or something else? – open.

What is 420 Suites? It’s a short-term rental business that has about 200 pot-themed furnished flats in Boston and surrounds.

Chocolate on your pillow? That’s so pre-legalization — try a lozenge infused with the cannabis compound CBD instead. Tiny bottles of shampoo? More like tiny bottles of hemp-infused shampoo. A book of coupons to local restaurants on the desk? Replace “local restaurants” with “local dispensary” and you’re starting to get the idea…

In addition to a basket of cannabis-themed gifts, the company will offer chauffeured transportation to and from its rental units — in the Back Bay, Fenway, downtown, Longwood, and East Boston — and the Revolutionary Clinics medical marijuana dispensary in Somerville. Guests get discounts, help registering as a medical marijuana patient, and educational materials about various cannabis products.

There are even plans to offer in-suite massages with infused lotions. (Source: Boston Globe)

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), despite 420 Suites’ motto – Stay Lit - you can’t actually light up a joint in most of its apartments. And even with recreational pot-smoking legalized in Massachusetts, it remains illegal to smoke in public. (I will note that this prohibition doesn’t seem to actually prevent anyone in the city of Boston from doing so. I’ve gotten contact highs just walking down the street.) So the focus will be on edibles and items like those infused lotions. That and facilitating the medical marijuana process for medical tourists.

And, of course, being well prepared for those recreational facilities to open. After all, only a few states have generalized pot legality, so let the tourism begin! Sure, two of the other New England states – Vermont (did you have any doubt?) and Maine – have also legalized pot. But that is it for East of the Rockies. Nothing between us and Colorado. Then wide open spaces until you get to Nevada and the West Coast states.

420 Suites, by the way, is named after Weed Day, which is April 20th. The provenance of how 4/20 became associated with marijuana is unclear, which is somehow fitting. Unfortunately, the date is shared with Hitler’s birthday. So 4/20 resonates with hippies, hipsters, and the alt-right. Swell!

In any case, the company is “positioning itself to dominate the coming recreational market, the advent of which should make it far easier to connect visitors with pot.”

Until then, 420 Suites will have to content themselves with the medical crowd.

…we are the first Vacation Rental company to form partnerships with local dispensaries that allow Medical Marijuana Card holders a safe, curated experience in an effective and educational format. (Source: 420 Suites)

Love that word “curated”. How is it that these words that are never used in regular old normal person conversation all of a sudden pop up everywhere? Sort of like how, all of a sudden, Caesar salad achieved menu ubiquity a couple of decades ago.

I can imagine that the folks at 420 Suites are eagerly looking forward to the recreational market taking off. More fun, less social service. I’m aware that there are plenty of people with not much by way of “need” who manage to get a hold of a Medical Marijuana Card. But medical MJ is also used by folks with some pretty dreadful conditions.Catering to people who are ill is good and noble, but it’s not exactly in the fun zone. (Imagine living in one of those prudie states – and there are 20 of them – that don’t allow someone with MS, or enduring some ghastly chemo protocol to look for a little bit of relief?)

Anyway, 420 Suites is going to be ready, set, go when those recreational pot shops are open for business. This is one market opportunity they’re not going to let anyone else bogart.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

As if I needed another reason to stay out of Dubai

I am not exactly a stay-at-home, but I’m not the world’s most adventurous traveler, either.

I’m happy to have seen most of these United States, and before I kick the old bucket, I would like to fill in the missing pieces: North Dakota, Alaska, Kentucky and Tennessee. (I might be able to claim Kentucky, as I did have a business trip to Cincinnati, and their airport is in Kentucky. Now, I don’t count time in airport as a visit to a state. Thus, having a layover in Memphis doesn’t allow me to check off Tennessee. But to get from Cincinnati Airport to the city of Cincinnati, one is on the ground and outside the terminal in Kentucky. So KY is a maybe.)

I’d like to see more of Canada than the little I’ve seen. The Maritimes are on my list of “must see”. And I wouldn’t mind taking in Quebec City.

I’m a Europhile, so virtually all of my overseas travel has been thataway. I’ve been most places I care to go, but I wouldn’t mind seeing Portugal, Iceland, and Finland at some point. Maybe the Baltics. But I’ve been through most of Western/Middle Europe – and, yes, that includes Liechtenstein – and enough of Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Yugoslavia when it was still Yugoslavia) to call it a day. Plus I’ve been to Turkey, and have no desire to return.

And speaking of no desire, although I wouldn’t mind seeing Vietnam, I have mostly no desire to go to any place hot. Which leaves out a good swath of the globe.

I have no desire to go any place dangerous. And no desire to go any place where women are treated like crap. These sorts of places mostly intersect with “hot”, so I’m good to do without. Not very adventurous, but good with my decision.

Anyway, part of my No Go Zone is obviously the Mideast, a trifecta of hot, dangerous, and women treated like crap. Thus, Dubai, for all its glories – like indoor skiing when it’s 120 degrees out, the tallest (over half a mile!) building in the world, fancy-arse malls – is not a place I was ever going to want to go. (That said, I do have a couple of cousins who’ve been and who enjoyed it. Just not for me.)

But after a read about the woman who was arrested (and, with her four year old daughter, detained) after imbibing a complimentary glass of wine on Air Emirates, my decision to keep Dubai off the bucket list was reinforced.

On July 13, Ms. [Ellie] Holman, a Swedish citizen living in Britain with her family, flew from London with her daughter for a five-day holiday in the Gulf. But when she got off the plane in Dubai, an immigration officer questioned her visa and demanded to know if she had consumed alcohol.

Holman admitted she had been served a complimentary glass of wine aboard the Emirates flight. Holman said she did not know that it was considered an offense to film the encounter, nor did she understand that it was illegal to have consumed alcohol in Dubai (the wine on the plane.) She was reportedly subjected to a blood alcohol test, and had a reading of 0.04 (half the 0.08 BAC where one is considered ‘impaired’ for driving in the US). She and her daughter were immediately taken into custody and had their passports and phones confiscated. (Source: Forbes)

The story may have been more complicated that wine breath. The woman – a Swedish dentist who lives in England – supposedly had an expired passport. (Who in god’s name leaves the country with an expired passport????) But she was able to whip out another passport that was still good… There was some back and forth and Holman found herself detained.

She said guards tried to rip out her hair extensions.

Anything but that!

Her partner, the girl’s father, could not locate them for more than a day. When he did, he immediately flew to the UAE and brought their daughter home.

Holman was released from her cell but required to stay in the United Arab Emirates for almost a month to face charges which could have put her in jail for a year. She spent more than $40,000, her family’s savings, on legal help to fight the charges. After questions from journalists and a firestorm of publicity from British and Australian news outlets, the government chose to release her. She was finally able to fly home last weekend.

Dubai officials make no mention of any problem with the free/not free glass of wine Holman had. But their statement:

…noted that after a ”legal claim was issued against Ms. Holman with charges of profanity and photographing a government official at the border crossing.”

A charge of profanity?

I might be able to pass up the free glass of wine. My goal on long flights is to minimize trips to the toilet, so I always think twice before having a drink-drink or a cup of tea when on a plane. But being detained for a month in part because of use of profanity???

I’m staying the f out of Dubai, thank you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

That’s it. I’m staying indoors, reading.

In the late 1990’s, the company I had long worked for upped-stakes and moved from Cambridge to the ‘burbs. This was bad enough in and of itself. The ‘burbs? Public transpo – as if!- meant subway-bus-and-hike. Lunch options? Say good-bye to Charlie Cheddar’s superb Greek salads. Say hello (and gag) to the Rainforest Cafe.

We were also moving from an all-private-office environment to an all-cubicle layout.

But the least-welcomed aspect of the move was the fact that the security system was now electronic. Sure, we still had Lena, our adored mother-to-all receptionist, but if you wanted to take the shortcut back from a trip to the restroom, you could swipe your ID at the nearest door. At first, most of us were so appalled by this incredible invasion of privacy that we continued to march around and exit and enter via the reception area. But after a while… If they wanted to record our jaunts to the loo, well, let ‘em.

After that, well, every place I worked had electronic security badges. That was just the way work worked.

And then there was the CVS card that I suppose entitles you to swell deals and super coupons, if you ever use them, but it’s mostly to spy on what type of toothpaste you buy. Sometimes to thwart them I refuse to use my card. And – worse – use cash. Double whammy on them!

Slowly, inexorably, privacy diminished.

Google and Bing hang onto every site we’ve ever visited, every search we’ve ever searched, however idly. Somewhere, out there in the cloud, something’s keeping track of my visits to the O’Connor Brothers Funeral Parlor obituary page, which I check on periodically to see who in the old ‘hood died. Something knows when I toss in the name of the sexiest boy in eighth grade to see where he’s at. (Okay. He had been held back a couple of times, so he was 16 to everyone else’s 13 or 14. So he was the only sexy boy in eighth grade. And, yes, I did find an article from a decade or so back. He’s an ex-con managing an SRO building.)

Then there are all those purchases, leaving us susceptible to all those further purchase suggestions.

And GPS keeping an eye on wherever we are. To add insult to that invasion injury, the other day I glanced at a headline that said that, even if you turn location off, “it” can still find you.

Not to mention Fitbit noting every step you take.

Slowly, inexorably, privacy diminishes.

Every time a crime’s committed, the immediate impulse is to ask whether there are security cameras that captured the moment.

Even when it’s for our own good, the vaunted security we all worry about – MS-13: coming for YOU! – nothing is private anymore.

That glance I made at the headline on location tracking? Turns out at some point, my laptop (traitor!) will no doubt be detecting that flicker of the old eyeball. It may not be here quite yet, but it’s coming:

When you’re browsing a website and the mouse cursor disappears, it might be a computer glitch — or it might be a deliberate test to find out who you are.

The way you press, scroll and type on a phone screen or keyboard can be as unique as your fingerprints or facial features. To fight fraud, a growing number of banks and merchants are tracking visitors’ physical movements as they use websites and apps.

Some use the technology only to weed out automated attacks and suspicious transactions, but others are going significantly further, amassing tens of millions of profiles that can identify customers by how they touch, hold and tap their devices. (Source: NY Times)

This is all well and good if it prevents some no goodnik from syphoning out my 401K or ordering two pairs of the same sneaker from Zappo. (Wait. That was me.) But:

Privacy advocates view the biometric tools as potentially troubling, partly because few companies disclose to users when and how their taps and swipes are being tracked.

Potentially troubling, I’d say.

“What we have seen across the board with technology is that the more data that’s collected by companies, the more they will try to find uses for that data,” said Jennifer Lynch, a senior lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s a very small leap from using this to detect fraud to using this to learn very private information about you.”

What sort of data are they capturing? How hard we press keys; which fingers we use to tap: the rhythm of our keystrokes; how we maneuver the mouse; how we type numbers in; etc.

Yes, indeed, please do keep fraudsters out of my bank account. Alert my doctor if my mouse maneuvering looks like I’m stroking out. But puh-leeze keep the big data marketing folks out of my body, myself. I don’t know quite what they’d do with information on the rhythm of my typing, but I’m sure all those big data big brains are trying to figure it out. Maybe they’ll figure out that if I type a bit faster, I’ll order more stuff I don’t need. So they’ll manipulate my keyboard to go faster, faster, faster.

Talk about the invasion of the body snatchers.

I’m just glad I’ll be dead and gone before they crack the code on mindreading.  

At least I hope so.

Anyway, until further notice, I’ll be staying indoors, reading. And, oh yeah, wearing a tinfoil hat.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Fill ‘er up?

I am happily car free.

These days, I’m mostly Ubering, but when I have to drive (Zipcar or something-renta), I find that the biggest PITA is returning the car with a full tank. For Zipcar, you’re supposed to fill ‘er up if it gets to a quarter tank or lower. I have generally found that on those trips where I’m driving a total of fewer than 5 miles, I inherit a Zip that someone left with a teaspoon of gasoline over a quarter tank. Grrrrrr. So there I am, hunting around for a gas station, which is not an easy thing to do in downtown Boston. When I was a car owner, there were three gas stations a minute or so from where I live. They’re all gone, the real estate too valuable to be wasted on a lowly filling station. The nearest gas stations are now a couple of miles away, near Fenway Park. It’s not the end of the world to get there, but it’s a bit out of the way. And if there’s a game, it’s a no go. Off to Charlestown, which means sitting in traffic and crossing an always-clogged bridge.

Same sitch for the rare times I rent a car. I’ll be dipped if I’m going to pay Hertz $50 a gallon, or whatever the current outrage is. Off to the Fens!

When I was a regular driver, I didn’t so much mind getting gas. There were those three gas stations just down the street, after all. And for most of my car-driving years, there were still attendants to fill the tank, check the oil, and smear dirty water across your windshield for you. But as my driving days were going out, self-pump had taken hold. And I started to resent having to stand there in sleet, waiting for the damned tank to fill. And ending up with gasoline smell on my hands.

So, yeah, I get that having to stop for gas can be a drag.

(And I can only imagine that, if you live in a crowded city where you can’t just plug your car into an outlet on the side of your house, having an EV might be an even bigger pain in the butt-ski.)

At least with rental and Zipcars, you’re not responsible for washing them, which can be a colossal drag during a New England winter, when your car gets completely encrusted with salt and other road dreck. And where the minute your car is all bright and shiny, there’s another blizzard. I like the experience of going through the carwash, but I was always nervous about getting that left front tire aligned on the way in. So mixed emotions about trips to the car wash. But not something I miss.

Help is on the way for those who don’t want to be up close and personal when their tanks are guzzling gas, or spend their Saturdays at the carwash putting quarters in the vac machine. And that’s thanks to Yoshi and other mobile gas stations.

Yoshi brings complete car care directly to you! We anticipate your needs, provide services on your schedule, and deliver everything right to your vehicle. We’ll wash your car, change your oil, swap your wiper blades - and more! And of course, Yoshi will refuel your vehicle - just tell us where your car is parked and we’ll come to you. Yoshi handles the details, so you can keep moving.

You have to join Yoshi ($20/month), on top of which you of course pay for all the services you opt for. (One of the brands of gas they deliver is Mobil. So you can get mobile Mobil.)

One of Yoshi’s 17 locations is Boston.

Yoshi is banking on the idea that there are millions of people like [California Yoshi subscriber Whitney] Block all over the country: urban professionals whose demanding schedules and disposable income make them ideal candidates for outsourcing a chore that has been a feature of car ownership since the inception of the automobile. (Source: Wapo)

Here’s what Block has to say, and I don’t imagine there are many folks who’ll disagree with her sentiments:

“The more demanding my career has become, the more I’ve realized I don’t want my free time to be consumed by mundane tasks that I don’t want to be doing — and that includes going to the gas station to fill up,” she said.

“It’s not fun, it’s not stimulating and it’s not enjoyable,” she added. “If I can pay somebody to get it done for me, I will totally do that.”

When I starting reading this article on fuel delivery, the first thought that came to mind was a bit of a fear-factor that guys would be driving around town with tanks of gasoline in their cargo bed. Guess I’m not alone:

“Some of the [companies] are using 1,000-gallon tanks,” Greg Andersen, a division chief in the California state fire marshal’s office, told the Guardian newspaper. “If they’re going into the basement parking lot of a high-rise, that actually is a large concern.”

Yoshi field technicians deliver gas to parking garages and high-rise buildings when necessary. The company says its field techs are hazmat-certified and have not had a single spill in three years of operation.

I don’t care what Yoshi says about their field techs. What we now have is a plot device for an updated version of The Towering Inferno.

And there’s the old fashioned gas station, already in decline – it’s not just downtown Boston: the number of gas stations in the US has declined by about 25% over the past two decades – just sitting there, waiting to be disrupted…

Still, I think $240 a year is a lot to pay for someone gassing your car up. Personally, I’d rather tack on $5 a filler-up trip. But that’s just me. We’ll see where Yoshi and the other mobile gas stations end up.

I have yet to see a Yoshi truck making a delivery. But I’ll be on the lookout now. If only so I can keep my distance.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The gig economy hits the robots

I don’t usually watch general-purpose news. Too busy Trump-obsessing over on MSNBC. But I did see something a couple of weeks ago on an interesting company in Tennessee that is looking to be the Kelly Girl – errrrr, Kelly Services – of the wonderful world of robotics. For as little as $15 an hour, Hirebotics will put a robot on your shop floor. And they’re so much better than humans:

Our robots love to work! They want to work as many hours a day as you need them…One of the great benefits is there is no overtime, EVER! Work them as many hours a week as you want and you will always pay the same hourly rate regardless of how long the days get. Also, unlike traditional workers which tend to slow down the longer they work…the robots never slow down, no matter how long they work. They also don’t need breaks to go to the bathroom.

Perhaps it’s not intentional, but take a look at the language here.

Human qualities are attributed to the robots. They love to work. They want to work. They don’t take bathroom breaks. They don’t make overtime.

“Traditional workers,” on the other hand, have to pee occasionally. They only love OT when they get paid OT. They grouse. They piss. They moan. And those lousy trad workers  – a.k.a., humans – “which tend to slow down”, get tired. Note the “which”. Humans aren’t even given the courtesy of a “who”. They’re more objectified than the robots which, last time I looked, are still the objects here. Just not at Hirebotics.

There’s still a bit of John Henry (not the Red Sox owner; John Henry, the steel driving man) out there. But not for long.

In the very short term, a human can often beat us for speed, but they generally cannot sustain that rate all day like we can.

I guess we do need to acknowledge that, while John Henry did beat the steam-powered drill, he dropped dead shortly thereafter.

But w.r.t. the anthropomorphism, here we go again. A human is something presented as abstract. While we, the royal robot we, can work at breakneck speed all day. Although, of course, “we” have no necks to break. Another plus!

Anyway, as a business proposition, this sounds like a perfect, low-risk way to do an automation proof of concept and bring on temporary robots when you need them. And automation is coming whether the Luddites, or the folks concerned about what low-skill human workers are going to do for work in the future, like it or not.

I do find it mildly amusing, however, to think that while tons of human workers have been forced to participate in the gig economy, robots are getting gigged, too.

Meanwhile, I did check and there are other rent-a-robot outfits out there. But the first couple I looked at seem more focused on renting humanoid robots for entertainment and events.

Robo4Hire is UK company, with robots that are “show-stopping entertainers specifically designed to delight, amuse and amaze humans.”

As with the Hirebotics worker-bee robots, Robo4Hire’s robots are better than humans, what with humans and their human frailties.  Wy, they’re “refreshingly reliable after dinner speakers”:

Our robots are a spectacular alternative to the traditional after-dinner speaker.

For award ceremonies, corporate evenings or any other event that requires an entertaining speaker while the brandy is being passed, our robots bring an extra something that people will never forget.

I don’t spend a lot of time a dinners with speakers that aren’t for fundraising purposes. But there are big work event dinners in my past. The only speaker from any of these business dinners who I recall as worth his entertainment salt was the comedian Don Novello. He was hired to appear a corporate dinner as Father Guido Sarducci, a then-popular character from Saturday Night Live. What made this one fun was that the head of sales for the company did a mean Father Guido Sarducci imitation, and was in the process of doing it when the real Father Guido Sarducci walked in.

But, of course, not all business speakers are as entertaining and professional as Don Novello was. So there’s Robo4Hire:

Perhaps most importantly, our robots make sure your event is unforgettable in the best possible way: they won’t slur their words, stray into inappropriate territory or drift off into an awkward silence.

Our robots are refreshingly funny and reliably sober.  Exuberant, cheeky and bold, they will get your guests laughing for all the right reasons.

Well, this at least sounds like fun.

But, geez Louise, after-dinner speakers? Who – or is it which – workers aren’t going to be replaced?

So far, no robot bloggers, but it’s just a matter of time.

Looks like I’ll be needing a new gig sooner rather than later.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, baby

The walls of my home are covered with art. I have works by artists like my sister-in-law Betsey, the ex-wife of my friend George, outsider artists from St. Francis House. I also have prints from my travels. A couple of charming water colors, done by a friend of my mother as an engagement present. I novelty dishtowel I embroidered when I was seven. A print of the Miss Worcester (my home town) diner; a companion print of the Miss Bellows Fall (my husband’s home town) diner. A late 19th century poster. And other pieces that, over the years, I found interesting and struck my fancy.

What I don’t have on my walls are any stolen works of art by 20th century masters that are worth over a million bucks.

I did once have a piece of stolen – well, art isn’t the right word exactly – craft: an oddball haute relief of a sailing ship that either I or my roommate removed from the wall of a Boston tourist-trap restaurant when we waitressed there nearly 50 years ago. I can’t remember what prompted us to take it. Last night on the job? Rotten tips? Sick of battling rats? (Letting out a yelp if you spotted a rat when there were any customers in the house was a firing offense.)

In any case, we clipped that “art”, but it’s not on my walls. It hangs instead in my sister Kath’s dining room. A family conversation piece.

Oh, I suppose we should return it. Just drop it off with a note. Or bring it in. But maybe if we dropped it off, they’d offer us a free meal. It’s been nearly 50 years since I worked there (and last ate there – choosing what I ate very carefully), and I don’t imagine it’s the rat hole it was then. (At night, when we were cleaning up, the manager would on occasion whip out a handgun and shoot at the rat holes to keep the rats at bay. If rats scurried out while we were cleaning up, we could leave things and pick it up again in the morning. One time there was a sink clog in the kitchen. The dish boy reached in and plucked out a drowned rat.) Still…

Anyway, maybe this will all get cleared up posthumously. Kath and Rick have so much wonderful art, maybe no one will want the cornball carved sailing ship. Maybe someone will recognize it as the sort of “art” that covers the walls of ye olde Boston restaurant and feel compelled to return it.

Time will tell, and I’m not likely to be around for the telling.

But I’m not losing any sleep over it. I still feel guilty about writing a “you stink” note to my friend Susan and signing it Ginny W. That was when I was seven. But the purloined art? Meh… (The closest thing I found to it on eBay – and it was pretty damned close – goes for $28.)

I do have to wonder whether Jerry and Rita Alter lost any sleep over the purloined art that hung in their bedroom for many years.

Theirs wasn’t a $28 wood carved 3D picture of a sailing ship. It was a Willem de Kooning painting, “Woman-Ochre”, worth a cool $160M. ochr lady

More than 30 years ago, that same painting disappeared the day after Thanksgiving from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson.

And Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that a family photo had surfaced, showing that the day before the painting vanished, the couple was, in fact, in Tucson.

The next morning, a man and a woman would walk into the museum and then leave 15 minutes later. A security guard had unlocked the museum’s front door to let a staff member into the lobby…The couple followed. Since the museum was about to open for the day, the guard let them in.

The man walked up to the museum’s second floor while the woman struck up a conversation with the guard. A few minutes later, he came back downstairs, and the two abruptly left…

Sensing that something wasn’t right, the guard walked upstairs.  There, he saw an empty frame where de Kooning’s “Woman-Ochre” had hung.(Source: Washington Post)

There were no security cameras back in that day, but there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that points to Jerry and Rita, a couple of quiet, unassuming retired educators. Among the “points to” evidence is a story by Jerry from a self-published collection that tells the tale of a stolen emerald that only two pairs of eyes can gaze on. Hmmmm. (The de Kooning hung in such a way that it could only be seen by someone in the Alters’ bedroom when the door was closed. Hmmmm.)

Rita Alter outlived her husband by a few years, but when she died in 2017 and antiques dealer “spotted ‘a great, cool midcentury painting.’ They bought it, along with the rest of the Alters’ estate, for $2,000.”

‘A great, cool midcentury painting,’ I’d say.

It does remind me of a work of art owned by a friend.

Years ago, when visiting his cottage on the Cape, I was struck by a piece. It was not great, but there was something about it, and I kept coming back to it. I made a comment to my friend about how arresting the piece was. He laughed. He’d gotten it at a garage sale for a couple of bucks, and found out later that Edward Hopper had lived and worked there. It was no “Nighthawks”, no light house, no NY street scene. Still, there was something about it. (Haven’t thought of it in years. I’ll have to ask my friend if he ever got it evaluated. If not, he should find out when Antiques Roadshow is coming to town.)

Anyway, the Tucson antiques dealer put it up in his shop. It wasn’t there long:

…before the first person “came in and walked up to it and looked at it and said, ‘I think this is a real de Kooning,’…Then another customer said the same thing. And another.

At which point, the dealer awayed to the google and figured out he might well have the missing de Kooning on his hands and on his walls.

He called the museum, which came and collected it, and had it authenticated. Talk about jumping for joy.

The FBI is tracking things down, but, as I said, there’s plenty of evidence that suggests the Alters may have been responsible for the heist.

Everyone who knew them remembered them as “nice people.”

I guess I’m proof positive that “nice people” can pull off art thefts. But I’m wondering what Jerry and Rita Alter were thinking, what they were saying to each other, as they sat there in bed, looking at their $1.6M de Kooning.

Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Hmmmm. Do you think Cindy LaPorta’s career as an accountant has come to an end?

I haven’t been following the Paul Manafort trial all that closely.

Sure, I know all about the ostrich jacket and the $12K suits. All those houses. All that landscaping. All those wire transfers. His being flat broke until he saw an opportunity to make a few large ones and volunteered to work for free for the Trump campaign. (So much for hiring “the best people.” Or does it not count as a hire if they work for free?)

I know that the judge wants to move things along. And that the Manafort defense strategy appears to be blaming everything on Manafort’s underling, Rick Gates.

But I haven’t been hanging on every word uttered in court.

Still, I could not help but notice the truly pathetic testimony of one Cindy LaPorta, a CPA with the firm of Kositzka, Wicks and Company who helped Manafort cook his books so that he could get loans to sustain his ostrich jacket, $12K suit lifestyle. This was after Manafort’s bookkeeper wouldn’t go along with the con. Not so LaPorta (who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony).

Cindy Laporta, said she went along with falsifying his tax records because she feared confronting her longtime client. (Source: Washington Post)

She knew better.

As the afternoon waned, prosecutor Uzo Asonye began pressing Manafort’s former accountant Cindy Laporta to detail financial arrangements that prosecutors allege Manafort and his business partner, Rick Gates, used to evade paying taxes, including classifying income from foreign companies as “loans” to themselves.

Laporta testified that she was suspicious of the loans, many of which were thinly documented.

“Did you have concerns about representation you received about these foreign loans?” Asonye asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Did you believe the representations about these foreign loans?”

“No,” she said.

She knew better.

“I could have refused to file the tax return,” which she said could lead to litigation with Manafort’s firm.

“I could have called Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates liars, but Mr. Manafort was a long-time client of the firm and I did not want to do that either,” she said.

Sometimes you just have to call a liar a liar. But I’m sure the pressure was on. There are a couple of questions swirling around in my head. Did she run the situation by any of her partners/colleagues? Maybe she did. Maybe they encouraged her to get along/go along. I’m also wondering just how much her firm knew about Manafort’s reputation. It could well be that people are just coming out of the woodwork now, but I do keep hearing that everyone in Washington “knew” that Manfort was dirty. What did her firm know and when did they know it? Lie down with dogs…

Asked if she regretted her actions, she agreed; “I very much regret it.” She said she was taking responsibility now.

I’ll bet she does regret it. Even if she dodges the criminal bullet, I can’t imagine she’s all that employable as a CPA any more. And I suspect her firm may not weather this storm, either. Didn’t their work for Enron topple the august accounting firm of Arthur Andersen?

LaPorta actually was kind of fingers-crossed that someone else – at the bank Manafort was trying to con – would notice that something wasn’t right, taking her off the hook:

Laporta said she forwarded the paperwork to Citizens Bank despite her apprehensions because she “honestly believed the bank would have to vet the document themselves” and that this meant she was legally “protected” from criminal liability.(Source: Daily Beast)

I don’t think that culpability-wise that it works that way. But what do I know? I was involved in plenty of gross stupidity over the course of my career, but nothing that involved the words “criminal liability.”

Cindy LaPorta…

I’m guessing she had a nice, well-paid job that she liked. A respected position in her community. (She was on a non-profit board.)

She’s now expunged from the Kositzka, Wicks website, but you can still get a few glimpses out there in google-world.

Get to Know Cindy at Work. Q. What do you love about your job? I love our team approach and collaboration in our commitment to entrepreneurs.

Where was that “team approach” when LaPorta most needed it? Or were those other team members in cahoots when it cam to turning a blind eye? And were Manafort and Co. considered entrepreneurs? They were certainly, ahem, enterprising.

Cindy Outside the Office. Q. Who has been most influential in your life? My parents, for their hard work and devotion to family.

Ouchie.

I actually feel a tiny bit sorry for Cindy LaPorta.

Sure, she was weak. And she did something that has to be against the ethics of her profession. But layered on her bad behavior is the fact that she had the ill-fortune to land smack-dab in the middle of a colossal scandal, a star witness in a trial that if it weren’t for the prominence of the defendant, would not be anything that we’d have heard word-one about.

Cindy LaPorta isn’t exactly an innocent bystander, but she sure is getting payback for a couple of rancid decisions in a very big, very public way. And I’m guessing that her career as a CPA has come to a screeching, very big, very public halt.

Bet she regrets the day that Paul Manafort darkened her door in one of his $12K Bijan suits.