Friday, September 22, 2017

Fire next time…

I don’t know about you, but if I had 20,000 €500 bills, I wouldn’t be cutting them into tiny little strips and flushing them down the toilet.

But someone who’s most decidedly not me, and most decidedly not you, did just that in Switzerland, turning what used to be a metaphor for wasting one’s money, and turning it into an literal thing.

The €500 is something of the bad dude of currency. Since its such a high-denomination bill, it’s a natural for money laundering and other criminal activities. Carrying a wad of fivers takes up a lot less room – one fifth the size and weight, in fact – as carrying a bunch of one hundreds that add up to the same amount. In fact, it’s so commonly up to no good that some wise-guys have nicknamed it the “Bin Laden.” Because it’s used for so many nefarious purposes, the €500 is being taken out of circulation. (Despite our ups and downs, and despite what the bitcoiners have to say, the US dollar still does tend to be the currency of good, bad, and indifferent choice worldwide. It’s just that the highest denomination US bill in general circulation is the $100. And, bang for the cash and carry buck, the Benjamin has some problems competing with the Bin Laden. I’m sure that those who want to MAGA will want to take a look into this matter.)

Anyway, the money in question was found inside of clogged toilets, and in trash cans outside of unclogged toilets, in a Geneva branch bank – not surprisingly UBS – and in a couple of nearby restaurants.

The public prosecutor’s office in Geneva said that the money appeared to have been disposed of by two Spanish citizens, whom it declined to identify, and that unless there was evidence that the cash had been obtained illegally or was destined for criminal activity, no charges could be brought. “The fact that you put the money into toilets is weird, but not criminal,” said Vincent Derouand, a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office. (Source: NY Times)

“Weird, but not criminal” sure describes plenty of goings on. But just as there’s criminal (jay-walking) and then there’s criminal (murder in the first degree), there’s weird (my mother’s whistling “La Vie en Rose” under her breath, which you wouldn’t think was a heritable trait but which apparently is) and then there’s weird (as in flushing $120K worth of Euros down the toilet).

Finding wads of cash in toilets is not a common occurrence, however, and the story drew attention in the national news media.

Not to mention the international news media, which is where I saw it.

UBS, whose Rue de la Corraterie branch is a short walk away, on the edge of a quiet area known as the “Quartier des Banques,” or neighborhood of banks, declined to comment. The Geneva police said the investigation was focused on damage to the toilets of the restaurants where the money had been found. The prosecutor’s office said a lawyer for the two Spanish suspects had paid for damage to the restaurants’ plumbing, but added it could not provide further information because it was a private arrangement.

So, what does this sound like to you? Some guys who didn’t want to be caught holding the bag containing beaucoup d’ill gotten gain? Counterfeiters who got cold feet?

Fun to mull, and very Inspector Clouseau-esque, no?

In any case, I enjoyed this one because it reminded me of my late and much lamented father.

As part of his time-served as a charter member of the Greatest Generation, U.S. Navy Division, my father spent a couple of years during WWII stationed at Navy Pier in Chicago. He was a Chief Petty Officer, and his job was paperwork. Anyway, after the war ended, he and his boss, some 90-day-wonder lieutenant, were told that they would be discharged once all their paperwork was cleared up.

So they crated up all that they could and sent it off to St. Louis. As a kid, I thought that this was something of a metaphor for sending things off to nowhere – I had visions of a giant safe just showing up at the train depot, where it would remain unclaimed forever – but St. Louis was, as I later learned, the repository for military personnel records.

Anyway, after they got finished packing up and shipping off everything that they possibly could, my father and his boss decided to flush whatever was left down the toilet. Or so he told us. I doubt that he would have flushed anything important. I doubt that there’s some geezer veteran tottering around, insisting that he was stationed in Chicago during the war, even if they can find no record of his service. But, knowing my father, and knowing his tolerance for Mickey Mouse rules and regulations, and for bureaucracy, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he decided that some of the forms he needed to clear up were completely flushable.

No way, however, would Al have ever flushed a $5 bill down the head – as it was called in the U.S. Navy – let alone a €500.

But those Spaniards in Geneva? With all those €500’s to burn, errrrr, flush.

Wouldn’t it have been easier and safer to just burn them? (Thanks to my husband’s stint in the CIA, I actually know how to burn paper so that you don’t leave a trace.)

So many mysteries, so little time.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Talk about off the rack…

When it comes to shopping for clothing, I’m pretty much a half-and-halfer. I order a lot of stuff online – Tribal pants are Tribal pants, Yala shirts are Yala shirts – but I also do some in-store buying. Hey, I’m walking by Lord & Taylor and I realize I need new undies.

But the truth about clothing is that I’m nowhere near the shopper I used to be.

There were periods in my life, when I worked full time and actually needed more clothing, when I shopped regularly. At times, I “grazed the B” (i.e., poked around Filene’s Basement) two to three times a week. Sometimes I came home empty-handed, but you never knew what you might find.

But now, when it comes to clothing, the thrill is gone. I wear the same things all the time, replacing them when they wear out or I just get sick of them. I still like to poke around the women’s clothing stores – the ones aimed at reasonably well-off women of a certain age – that sell the kind of things that pass for cool and stylish for reasonably well-off women of a certain age. I do go on an occasional buying jag, typically at the change of seasons. And I do like having something new to wear. Just not as much as I used to. These days, when I think about clothing shopping, I’m mostly ‘meh.’

And yet I do not welcome the thought of clothing stores disappearing from the face of the earth, a long-predicted day that appears to be creeping closer. And Nordstrom, it seems, is getting in on the act of facilitating this eventuality. (Guess I should save my breath wishing that a “real” Nordstrom’s, rather than just a Rack, would open up in downtown Boston. How is it that, with all the high-end condos sprouting up all over the place, the only new stores in downtown Boston seem to be Old Navy and Primark? Guess the rich folk who live in them just order in. Which, now that I think of it, is probably the case. The other day, I was walking by the delivery entrance to the new – and ultra-posh – Millennium Tower, which stands on the site of the old Filene’s. And there was a Stop & Shop PeaPod delivery truck backing in. Given that there’s a full Roche Brothers grocery store in the basement of the building – the site of the old Filene’s Basement, in fact – where the Millennium Tower stands, and that the Millennium Tower dwellers can access Roche Bros. without having to step outside, I was kind of surprised that someone would still be ordering their food from PeaPod.)

Anyway,

The slow destruction of in-person retail has generated a new tactic by struggling American stores. Looking to cut costs while keeping consumers interested, they’ve taken a page from the e-commerce playbook. Nordstrom Local is the latest iteration of this concept: clothing retailers with little or no merchandise. Come in, pick out a dress, and place your order—then go home empty-handed.

At first, the inexorable march of the online economy was stalled by the apparel industry—you can’t try on clothes you’re ordering online. The new store-without-stock strategy tries to exploit this obstacle. By having merchandise shipped to your home from warehouses, these stores don’t have to flip inventory every season or mark down piles of sweaters that aren’t selling. Most important, supply chains don’t have to route trucks from warehouses to stores. That’s a lot of slashed overhead.(Source: Bloomberg)

Well, talk about sucking all the joy out of an impulse buy. Of course, recognizing that instant gratification is the name of the shopping game, some of these stockless-stores will offer a few bibelots so you have something to stow in your tote bag. Plus, they’ll offer same day delivery if you bop in early enough in the day. Still, there’s something missing from this sort of dry, good-less shopping experience.

And it’s not just Nordstrom Inc.—Wal-Mart is betting there’s a future in these sort-of stores, too. “A store with no inventory becomes very, very efficient,” said Michael Brown, a partner at the retail division of consulting firm A.T. Kearney. “You can get very streamlined.”

I can imagine that a store with no inventory does indeed become “very, very efficient.” The good ol’ ‘suppose they gave a war and nobody came’ strategy. We’re already working our way towards libraries with no books. What’s next? Restaurants with no food? Hospitals with no beds?

Ptui! Don’t know quite where it’ll be, but I’m going shopping…

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mamma Mia! ABBA’s touring as holograms….

God knows, the members of ABBA aren’t getting any younger. Three of them (yes, I had to look it up) are in their 70’sABBA, and the “kid” of the lot is 67. So I can understand why they might not want to go on a tour, especially when you think about having to climb into those costumes. I don’t know about ABBA, but I sure have a few more lbs on me than I had in 1975.

What’s with ABBA, given that their peer geezer rock stars are still getting out there – The Boss, The Stones, Aerosmith, Jimmy Buffett, Warren Buffett ? But, hey, ABBA broke up in 1982. And they just might not want to get back together, other than virtually. They’re probably living pretty comfy up there in Sweden, raking in the residuals every time some community theater stages Mamma Mia.

And so, their next tour will not exactly be in person.

Instead, they'll be recreated into "digital avatars" for a virtual reality tour in 2019, something which was hinted on their Facebook page last October.This, despite all members of ABBA being very much alive.

"It's perfect. We can be on stage while I’m home walking the dogs," ABBA's Benny Andersson, told the Herald Sun.

"I don't have to leave my house. If this really works there’ll be a lot of artists wanting to do the same thing, even artists who are still young and still touring. It’s a very interesting project." (Source: Mashable)

Can’t argue with the desire for the performers not wanting to leave the house. There are plenty of days when I don’t want to open the door and get out in the elements, either. It’s just that the damn Fitbit is there on my wrist, staring at me, goading me to get 10,000 steps in that just can’t be achieved by circling the dining room table.

But you can argue whether or not the hologram scenario is all that perfect. After all, one of the beauties of seeing Springsteen in concert is admiring the fact that, in his late 60’s, he can still pump out a non-stop 3 hour+ performance without flagging. And there’s something to be said for the wonderment of hearing James Taylor, still in sweet voice, singing “Sweet Baby James” at age 69.

It might be interesting to see a hologram concert, but I certainly wouldn’t pay for it the same way I’d pay to see the real thing. That said, pretty much the only way I’d go to see ABBA in concert would be because of the gimmickry of the technology.

There will still be some live aspects to the concert: 

According to the Herald Sun, the band members of ABBA have had their measurements taken over the past year, and the hologram's end result will resemble the band at their peak in the late-1970s.

Okay. Now that’s funny. Wouldn’t we all like to see a projected image of ourselves at our peak, or whatever you want to call that idyllic period (or so it seems now) when you’re in your twenties.

The quartet will be projected in front of a live band, with the vocals stripped from the records and audio from their 1977 Australian tour.

"It’ll be like you're in 1977, with a live band, live backing vocals, a great set design with lights and sound, everything will be like a live concert," Andersson added.

Well, except for one critical difference.

Other than for a losing candidate in last year’s French presidential election, most of the performances that have used holograms have been of dead artists. Tupac “appeared” at Coachella in 2012, and Michael Jackson put in a posthumous appearance at the Billboard Awards in 2015.

But ABBA’s alive and well. What’s their excuse, other than wanting to stay home with the dogs? (Admittedly a reasonable one.) Didn’t they used to be super troupers? Now, alas, it’s all money, money, money – without having to stir their booted stumps for.

I’ll be interested to see what they’ll be charging for this weirdly tech nostalgia act. Just what will people be willing to pay see that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Hologram?

 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Kink Room? Oh, Grow the F Up

It seems as if not a week goes by without some new story about sexism in the tech industry – startups, around-for-a-whilers, VC’s – you name it, women are coming forth to expose the harassment, the crude behavior. As someone who has worked in tech-ville for nearly 40 years, I can report that a lot of what’s being brought out is nothing new.

Models doing demos? Yawn…

I remember working one trade show, in NYC, that focused on technology for Wall Street.

Now, if you want to get the double whammy thing going, well, tech and Wall Street is something of a perfect, lurid storm. Boys will be boys, meet boys will be boys.

Anyway, at this one show, I remember a bunch of models working the floor wearing French maid outfits (baby doll length), complete with black sheer stockings and towering high heels. I believe they were working on behalf of British Telecom, and I believe that they were giving out boxes of Twinings English Breakfast tea. Right.

At another show – ultra techie, but not financial services related – I wanted to get a demo from a company we were going to partner with. I went to the booth, which was staffed by gorgeous young women in black cocktail dresses. I asked a couple of them about seeing a product demo, and was met with blank stares. Then I spied a woman who, while wearing a black dress, was wearing a frumpy black dress. No makeup. And sensible shoes. Bingo! She was the one person “manning” the booth when I dropped by who actually worked for the company and knew something about what they did.

So the demo dolllies are nothing new.

Neither are crude jokes and crude remarks. We used to just roll our eyes at this crap, or tell the guys to knock it off. There was one guy I worked with who was famous for staring at the breasts of any woman he was speaking with. We had a running joke with him, “These are our eyes”, we would tell him, pointing to our eyes, “these are our boobs. When you talk to someone, you look them in the eyes, not the boobs.” But women today – good for them – aren’t going to put up with the sort of behavior that we used to brush off.

Hard to imagine any women these days willing to work on a product – sold to Wall Street-ers, natch – that was called AutoBJ. I would begin every presentation with a declaration that I had heard everything there was to be heard about this unfortunate brand name. The same company had run an ad with an image shot from looking between the legs of a young hottie in a miniskirt. At yet another place I worked, where I was the only woman on the strategy team charged with figuring out how we were going to – ho-ho! – penetrate the financial services industry, I sat through a meeting at which one senior blowhard declared that the market was a prone woman, legs spread, awaiting our arrival. Bonus points because – ho-ho! – the company was name Wang.

Early on in my career, there were plenty of sexually charged situations at work. Sure, there was an occasional randy exec roaming around – at a holiday party, the president, while on the dance floor,asked a young and attractive colleague to go home with him. In his words, “You’d come home with me if I weren’t the president.” Her good riddance response was “If you weren’t the president, I wouldn’t be dancing with you.”

But most of the snap, crackle and pop in the air was because there were a ton of young single people at work, meeting other young single people. Without expending a scintilla of energy, I can come up with a good half-dozen couples who met their spouse at work in the first place I worked out of grad school.

But I have to say that I never came across anything like Upload, a Silicon Valley virtual reality (VR) startup that has been a VC darling, and recently settled with a female ex-employee who sued after being fired. Upload was a party-hearty environment. Models doing demos, liquor flowing.

The freewheeling atmosphere was not restricted to the evening hours. There was a “rampant sexual behavior and focus” in the Upload office that created “an unbearable environment,” a former employee, Elizabeth Scott, said in a lawsuit filed in May.

Ms. Scott said in her suit that the Upload office had a room with a bed “to encourage sexual intercourse at the workplace.” It was referred to as the kink room. Men who worked for the company were described in the suit as frequently talking about being so sexually aroused by female colleagues that it was impossible to concentrate.

When Ms. Scott, Upload’s digital media manager, complained about the hostile atmosphere and other issues in March with her supervisor, she was fired, the suit said. In a statement after the suit was filed, Upload said that “our employees are our greatest asset” and that “these allegations are entirely without merit.” (Source: NY Times)

Ah, but then they settled and apologized. Guess it was true that, as Ms. Scott alleged, she was once kicked out of her room in a house that Upload had rented for a conference so that the chief exec could use it for sex. And it wasn’t just hanky panky that was going on.

She said in the suit that she had other work, too: The women at Upload were required to do what were called “womanly tasks,” including cleaning up. They were also told to act like “mommies” to the men and help them with whatever they needed. The suit presented a portrait of a deeply entitled male culture, one that clashed with the fresh start VR seemed to offer the tech industry. But Ms. Scott’s suit was the second in the virtual reality industry in just a few months to present such an unwelcoming picture.

Well, no one had to tell us to act like mommies, but there was plenty of that back in the day. How many notes did we leave in the kitchen, in the conference rooms, that said “You mother doesn’t work here. Please pick up after yourself.”

But, of course, we’d end up throwing the coffee cups out and mopping off the tables.

And don’t get me going on who always ended up cleaning out the communal fridge…

Girls will be girls, I guess.

Maybe things were this bad way back when, and I just missed it because by the time I got into tech I was older (30-ish), wiser, and no one’s idea of a good-time girl. But I think that one of the reasons that it’s likely worse now is that so many of the young guys have been too busy with gaming, “social” media, online porn, and tech devices that they actually don’t know how to act around women. However nerdly and awkward the guys of my era were, once you got them to look you in the eyes and not the boobs, they were mostly fine.

At Upload, the kink room is now occupied by Anne Ahola Ward, a late thirties, married, no-nonsense looking woman who is Upload’s new COO. It’s

…now Ms. Ward’s office. There is no bed there. She has instituted mandatory anti-harassment training: a two-hour session led by an outside consultant. There is now a human resources department. People have formal job descriptions. And as a joke — but not quite — people in the office gave Ms. Ward a sheriff’s badge.

Am I ever happy to be out of the fray…

Monday, September 18, 2017

Hempfest by any other name

As I write this, it is 8 p.m. on Sunday. Peace is upon the land. Hempfest has ended. The vendor stalls have been dismantled, the lousy bands are no longer blaring their lousy music, speakers are no longer ranting their Carrie Nation rants about the perils of gin (or whatever: when I walked through the other evening, that did seem to be the rant – but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, so maybe I was just being paranoid), and the contact-high miasma of pot is beginning to dissipate.

Ah, Hempfest.

Oh, now they’re calling it the Freedom Rally, but Hempfest by any other name has been going on for nearly 30 years now.

I recall walking through Boston Common during one of the early editions, buoyed by the thought that the young folks were becoming politically engaged. It was about the environment, I was quite sure. And then I took in a lungful of pure Boston Common air, started reading some of the signs, and caught on. Oh.

Not that there’s anything wrong with MJ.

I, in fact, was one of the majority of voters who, last November, voted to legalize it here in the Commonwealth.

The promised pot shops haven’t opened yet, but I think they’ll be coming next year. When they do, maybe I’ll make some marijuana brownies for old time sake. Or take a toke down memory lane.

Not that I was ever much of a pot head, but I well remember how proud I was when I graduated from twirling the tobacco out of a cigarette and stuffing it with weed – a complete amateur act – to perfecting rolling it on my own in a ZigZag. I remember how fun (and scary) it was - you could get kicked off campus for having a beer in your room, for God’s sake – to light up in the dorm, and activity that involved wetting a towel and shoving it in the crack of the door; fully opening the window in the dead of winter; and sitting with a couple of friends on the window ledge with our heads out the window. And I recall nearly breaking a tooth on a pan of frozen Sara Lee Brownies –when you have munchies, there’s no time to wait for these suckers to thaw.

No, I wasn’t a regular user – more an occasional, social indulger.

Still, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale. (What was the point of not inhaling?)

So I’m not going to go all prude-y tsk tsk about Hempfest.

But as an aging curmudgeon who lives in the hood – within ear shot of the bad blasting music – I’m happy it’s over. And I really don’t think that this needs to consume three days of our public space and time. Didn’t this used to be a one-day event?

Anyway, coming back from an early dinner on Saturday evening, I decided to forge my way through the Hempfest crowd rather than skirt the Common.

So I got to meander my way through the completely stoned crowds, take in all the food vendors – most of which seemed to be roast meat or vegan delights: have the munchies demands changed over the decades, and take note of the assorted tawdry on display.

Those tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts sure haven’t changed much over the last 50 years, that I’ll say. Bandanas are still in style. And, apparently, mean people still do suck. (Good to see that some things stay the same…)

What has seemed to have changed is the bong technology and design. Am I imaging things, or were there actually bongs with attached gas masks on offer at Hempfest? I can’t be entirely sure, as I wasn’t stopping, just letting myself be carried along with the crowd, letting myself take an occasional whiff-een, and wondering whether I still have The Harder They Come CD around somewhere. (Answer: YES! Make that JA! I had to look around a bit, as it was misfiled. Jimmy Cliff should have been between Johnny Cash and Nat King Cole, not after Nat King Cole. But, as the song says, “you can get it if you really want.” Great album, by the way.)

I was one of the few over-30’s in the crowd. A couple of geezer hippies were there reliving their tie-dyed youth. Or maybe they were still living it, as it didn’t look like they’d ever left. And then there were Mom and Pop tourist, saucer-eyed, trying to figure out just what craziness they’d wandered in on. This wasn’t the Minnesota State Fair, for sure.

I made it home safely, of course, put my left-over chicken in the fridge and popped open a can of Polar raspberry lime seltzer. Who says getting older isn’t exciting?

There is, of course, more news to be had on the weed front.

As I read in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Weedmaps:

…one of the country’s larger and more established marijuana firms, is going all-in on Massachusetts and its new recreational pot market.

The California company, which sells software to licensed cannabis operators and publishes a popular online directory of dispensaries for consumers, is finalizing a lease for a downtown Boston office to accommodate its sales and lobbying team. (Source: Boston Globe)

With all the commotion about whether Boston is going to break its neck trying to get Amazon to build big here, here’s Weedmaps sneaking in the back door and even joining the Chamber of Commerce. (And who wouldn’t want to see that crowd one toke over the line, sweet Mary.)

Even more than raising an eyebrow about their joining the C of C, after all my years in the software biz, it never would have occurred to me that there’s specialized software for the cannabis industry. Far out, man! Or is it groovy? Of just plain oh wow?

Its initial presence in Boston will be modest: about 10 people. Eventually, Weedmaps may recruit some of the Boston area’s copious programming and analytical talent to help advance an ambitious big-data project that seeks to match different cannabis strains with various subjective effects felt by users.

Big data? Different strains? Ah, when I was a girl, we just had sensimilla or not…

 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Not that I was going to stay at a Motel 6 anyway…

You’re a Hispanic family. You’re traveling to Phoenix – maybe for a wedding, or a quinceaƱera. You don’t have a ton of money, but Motel 6’s are clean enough, and comfortable enough. So you, Mr. and Mrs. Garcia and your two kids, check in.

And so what it’s not the Ritz. The kids have never been in a motel, so they rush in and get all excited about the little bars of soap, the plastic glasses wrapped in plastic film, the strip of paper across the toilet. They bounce on the beds. They start begging their parents to let them use the pool.

I know just what this feels like.

I remember heading to Chicago for family vacations, and staying one night along the way at a Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson or the like. What an adventure! That pool! Those little Ivory soaps! Even sharing a bed with your sister was okay. This was vacation! This was a motel!

And then, who comes a knocking but ICE. Which of course wouldn’t happen to a nice white family like the Rogers. But just might for the nice not-so-white family like the Garcias.

All because the Stasi wannabes clerking at Motel Six had a cozy little relationship with Immigration & Customs Enforcement. After all, who doesn’t want to keep the “homeland” secure. (And where did that “homeland” thing-y come from? Is there actually anyone who refers to our country as their homeland? But I digress…)

So why not dime the nice little Garcia family. You never know. They may be undocumented. Those little kids may be – hiss, boo – anchor babies. Or illegal imports who are going to grow up to be Dreamers. Sheesh. Can’t have that. And just think about how proud it would make Sheriff Joe Arpaio!

It’s not just in Arizona:

Immigration lawyers representing people who were detained while they were staying at Motel 6 locations and were later deported from the United States said that they had collected evidence showing that the practice was widespread, and not limited to one state. Juan Rocha, an immigration lawyer in Arizona, said that an employee at a Motel 6 in Washington state told him of the same practice there.

“We’re looking at a situation where people with Hispanic surnames check into Motel 6, get their names reported to ICE, and a few hours later there are immigration agents knocking on the door to take them away,” Rocha said. “This is racial profiling that is tearing families apart.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Headquarters – the parent company, G6 Hospitality, is located in Texas – is doing the “I know nothing” routine, claiming that the decision to play footsie with ICE was local, not corporate. Which is probably true. Doesn’t sound like the kind of program that would get disseminated from HQ and not get leaked.

It really does seem like a poor business strategy. Whether the nice little Garcia family was documented or un, surely the word/palabra would seep out about that knock on the door, the roust in the night. (I really don’t like Holocaust analogies, but this sure sounds like “Juden raus,” doesn’t it?) Bet there are plenty of people giving the Motel6.

ICE isn’t saying much, other than noting that “the agency does not pay any bounty or reward for such information.”

So there’s that at least.

Motel 6? How about Motel 86. Or Motel Do-tell.

I can see calling ICE if say, a bunch of guys wearing ski masks check in with cartons full of pressure cookers and a textbook entitled “How to Make a Bomb Out of a Pressure Cooker.” Or if someone driving a van signs in, leaving the van in the broiling parking lot, and you happen to hear moaning coming from the van when you walk by.

But the people who got raided at a Motel 6 were people who were doing nothing other than going about their business and their pleasure. What skin off of anyone’s nose is it to just let it go? I’m guessing there are plenty of illegal things that these gung ho law and order types let slide by. But when those suspicious folks are brown-skinned, well…

Not that I was ever going to stay at a Motel 6. Talk about the last resort…

Yet I do have fleeting fantasy of taking an aluminum scoop-full of ice cubes and tossing them down the back of the shirt of these nasty tattletales. You want ICE? I’ll give you ice…

 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Two ex-Googlers walked into a bar…

Us Baby Boomers get plenty of opprobrium heaped upon our graying heads. The generation most-likely-to-be-vilified gets credit for nothing, but blamed for not doing anything about global warming, not saving enough for retirement, selfishly staying on the job, running up housing prices so that no one else can buy (although somehow we do get to sell and fritter away the profits), cashing in on the last of the pensions, ushering in the ‘anything goes’ mentality, raising a generation of slackers, and, lest anyone forget, electing Donald J. Trump. Wrack, meet ruin.

I’m not here to defend my generation. But I am here to predict that, at some point, someone’s going to come to the stark realization that no cohort was, is, or ever will be worse than the millennial sub-generation of techno-hipster-entrepreneurs out to disrupt the failing, boring, useless old way of doing things, no matter who or what gets in their way. Who cares, when you’re on a way to making more bucks than your parents would have thought imaginable. Make that bitcoins, I guess. Bucks are so yesterday.

Yes, a lot of what the whiz kids are inventing is going to come in handy when us boomer-geezers slip on a banana peel and need assistive technology. And I’m sure betting on them to come up with something that will part the seas so that they don’t flood the East Coast as far inland as Worcester. Yet they do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time being smug and obnoxious.

The latest news on that front comes from Fast Company (by way of my sister Trish), and is about Bodega, a start up created by a couple of ex-Googlers who “want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete.”

Here’s their big disruptive idea: “unmanned pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms.” These unmanned pantry boxes will stock whatever the top 100 items that machine learning figures out is in demand in your particular apartment building, office, dorm, or gym. Women’s dorm: lip gloss and tampons. Men’s dorm: Red Bull and jerky. Gym: power bars and fancy-arse water.

An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”… “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,”[co-founder Paul] McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.” (Source: Fast Company)

Tough noogies, I guess, if you want a Butterfinger and every one else in your apartment building prefers Milky Ways. But, hey, your corner store doesn’t carry everything, either. And so far, non-perishables only. So no running out for bread and milk. (You’ll have to order that from Amazon and have a drone drop it on your window sill.)

There are already 30 proof-of-concepts in the Bay Area. And here’s what they look like:

bodega

I’ll say one thing for it, it strips out the mind-numbing number of choices on offer at the average CVS that has you spending 20 minutes trying to figure out what toothpaste to buy. And I will admit that there have been plenty of evenings when I would have been happy to be able to walk into the foyer of my condo building and have a vision system record that I’m taking a bag of Tate’s chocolate chip cookies – there on the top shelf, four in from the left - off the box’s hands. (They really do taste like homemade…) And points for stocking DiCecco pasta.

But just what are these darned kids doing – other than trying to come up with unicorn disrupters – that’s so all-fired important that they don’t have time to walk to the corner store and buy something there?

If you live in a big city, you’re probably not much more than 100 feet from a store already.

Needless to say, Bodega is venture-backed, and they hope to have more than a thousand of their shops across the country by the end of next year.

The major downside to this concept–should it take off–is that it would put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business. In fact, replacing that beloved institution seems explicit in the very name of McDonald’s venture, a Spanish term synonymous with the tiny stores that dot urban landscapes and are commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia. Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term “bodega” for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work. (One of my coworkers even referred to it as “Bro-dega” to illustrate the disconnect.)

Bro-dega. I like that. Because, in truth, the thing I find most smug and obnoxious about this concept is the use of the word “bodega.”

Bodega did surveys in the Latin American community and supposedly no one was bothered by the name, but I have some doubts here. 

I really don’t give two hoots about cultural appropriation. I think most of those arguments are utter nonsense. Still, bodega to me says bustling little shop in a busy neighborhood, likely run by someone from the Latinx world. In Manhattan, a lot of the corner mom-and-pops aren’t bodegas, they’re “Koreans” because they’re owned and operated Koreans. In my area in Boston, we have small food stores, but they’re not for the most part mom-and-pop convenience stores. But I do occasionally stop in a mom-and-popper on my walks, and they seem to be run by a variety of ethnic groups. And there’s always some old tad buying a copy of The Herald and a couple of scratch tickets, an hanging around talking to the clerk.

Growing up, the mom-and-pop stores were called, for some reason that I believe is particular to New England, “spas.”

We lived right off Main Street in Worcester, and our closest store was a real (albeit old fashioned) grocery store. But there were “spas” in the neighborhood. The one I spent the most time and coin at was Carrerra’s, which sold penny candy. It was in the basement of a three-decker near The Oval on Sylvan Street.

(The Oval in itself was something of a peculiarity: a large, sun-baked crab-grass covered oval at the confluence of a bunch of streets. Kids played ball there, and big boys hung out, but it wasn’t really a park in any true sense of the word. Just The Oval.)

Perry’s. Carrerra’s. The one on the corner of Main and Ludlow. (Did it even have a name?) Spas – our bodegas – were real places, owned and run by real people. Mr. Carrerra could be a crab, but mostly he and Mrs. Carrerra were infinitely patient with the kids coming in with their nickels to buy penny candy. They were immigrants – the name sounds Italian, but I believe they were Portuguese. (We didn’t have either in the neighborhood, so what did I know?) Sometimes their son Butchy worked the store. Mostly I remember him looking sullen, plopped on a folding chair. (His parents never sat.)

I don’t imagine that machine learning will ever learn that the people in a building want an assortment of Squirrel Nuts, Mary Janes, buttons, wax lips, candy cigarettes, Mint Juleps (two for a penny – excellent for sharing), licorice whips, wax buck teeth…

Nor will the Bodega boxes give out candy bars on Halloween. So what if what Carrerra’s gave out was the execrable 3 cent Lunch Bar? (Was there even any chocolate in it?) Carrerra’s was on everyone’s trick-or-treat go-to list.

Anyway, when Bodega tries to expand to New York City, Frank Barcia will be waiting for them. Garcia chairs the

“…New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, [and] represents thousands of bodega owners. Garcia’s grandfather was the head of the Latin Grocery Association in the 1960s and was part of the original community of immigrants who helped settle on the term “bodega” for the corner store. “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,'”Garcia says. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”

In fact, Garcia would consider making it harder for McDonald to set up the pantry boxes within his community. “I would ask my members  not to allow these machines in any of their properties in New York State,” Garcia says. “And we would ask our Hispanic community not to use the service because they are not really bodegas. Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like.”

Bodega’s not exactly quaking in their boots. In fact, they envision a world in which mini-Bodegas are everywhere.

Over time, McDonald hopes to be able to create partnerships with other retailers to bring mini-versions of their stores to where they are needed. Home Depot might set up little Bodegas at construction sites with the 100 most-requested items there, Staples might set one up inside an office, or GNC might have mini-stores in gyms.

Because, God forbid, you actually have to wait a couple of hours to get your Super Wheybolic Powder delivered from GNC, or have to walk to a Staples to buy a stack of yellow pads. And actually have to interact with someone, other than a machine that’s learning all about you.

I’ll say one thing about the Boomers. We knew how to have relationships with something other than a device full of 100 items.

(And I thought Mr. Carrerra was an old crab…)