Friday, February 28, 2014

Going for the Gold

A few weeks ago, as we watched the opening ceremony of the Olympics, I noted an odd couple representing Dominica. Odd because they were not Dominicans. And odd that Dominica – which is an island in the Caribbean – would have a cross-country ski team.

Granted, Jamaica has bob sledders, and sometimes athletes with only tangential relationships to a country do end up on that country’s Olympic team, since the competition is less stiff for the slots than it is in big-deal Olympic countries… But I still found it a bit odd.

[Gary] Di Silvestri and [Angelica] Morrone, you may recall, traveled to Sochi bearing the flag of Dominica, an island in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean. This may seem odd, since Gary's a native of Staten Island, Angelica's an Italian national, and they live in a mountain palace in Montana. But then, Dominica is the sort of country that tries to sell you "economic citizenship" on its website. Any married couple from anywhere can become Dominicans by depositing $175,000 "into the appropriate account at the National Commercial Bank of Dominica," and paying the Ministry of Finance another $3,530 in tariffs and fees. Di Silvestri and Morrone just went one better by finagling their way onto the nation's previously nonexistent winter Olympics team. (Source: Deadspin)

According to his LinkedIn profile -

A successful asset manager and investment banking executive, Gary di Silvestri transitioned from his role as the chief investment officer of Deutsche Suisse Asset Management to pursue a career as a professional athlete.

Well, good on him. Sort of. But most folks don’t start pursuing careers as professional athletes in their late 40’s. As for professional cross country skiing, I suppose if you’ve already made your nut, you don’t have to worry about making your living as a pro. But just how many people actually make a living as professional cross-country skiers, which seems like such a nice Sunday afternoon, mom-dad-and-the-kids-at-the-country-club kind of sport?

Not to mention that, just because you say you’re pursuing a career as a professional athlete, doesn’t mean you’re actually doing it.

Anyway, it appears that the di Silvestris were more about the publicity and Olympic-sized ego trip, rather than the grueling effort that true Olympic athletes put into it.

Neither was expected to ski onto a podium in Sochi, but their showing makes a great case for closing the eligibility loopholes that allow moneyed pranksters to dress up as Olympians. Morrone—listed at 48 years old, which would have made her the oldest Olympic cross-country skier of all time by seven years—didn't even show up for the 10K women's classic on Feb. 13, claiming injury. (She was the only one of the race's 76 entrants who didn't start.) A day later, in the 15K men's classic, di Silvestri, 47, made it out of the starting gate but gave up just a few hundred meters later, claiming illness. He was reportedly the only starter who failed to make even the first checkpoint.

There is certainly plenty about the Olympics that’s bogus and farcical.

It did help eliminate some of the bullshit when they finally started allowing professional athletes to compete, given that some countries (e.g., those that were part of The Evil Empire) were putting professional athletes out there for years.

Having amateurs out there was the ideal. That’s what made it so exhilarating when “our boys” – the college kids – beat the Russkies in the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980. But commercialism being commercialism, television being television,  and etc. being etc., it’s no wonder that the Olympics went fully pro.

Something’s, no doubt, been lost. As in you probably won’t have a colleague who tries out for the Olympic biathlon team, or a colleague who was on the team in pairs ice skating.

It was fun working with Bob and John and actually knowing someone who was or who might be an Olympian.

But that was then, and this is the almighty-dollar now.

Anyway, I’m not all caught up on the purity of the hallowed Olympics.

That’s entertainment; that’s big business.

Still, it seems a bit shoddy that faux athletes could buy their way in just for purposes of self-aggrandizement.

Don’t people have any shame anymore?

There’s certainly no disgrace to being the Olympic athlete who places last. But to have bought your way in when you have no business whatsoever being there?

What an insult to the real athletes – amateur or professional – who busted their asses for years preparing to compete.

Tawdry, tawdry, tawdry.

What a couple of posers.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Oot-Fray Oops-Lay.

I can’t remember the last time I had Froot Loops.

Fifty years ago, maybe?

Anyway, it was back in the good old days when Toucan Sam’s breakfast of choice came only in red-orange-yellow. Since then, it has picked up the other end of the spectrum, with green-blue-purple loops, as well.

Ah, Froot Loops. From the get go, a pretty yucky cereal.

It’s not that I didn’t like sweet cereals.

As a kid, I preferred Sugar Pops to Corn Pops, Frosted Flakes to Corn Flakes, and Sugar Crisp to Puffed Wheat.

But I never did go for the trickier cereals: Alpha-Bits, Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, which, come to think of it, may have been introduced when my cereal-consuming days were on the wane.

These days, my cereals are strictly in the non-sugar coated camp – Kashi whatever, and the Whole Foods versions of Cheerios and Shredded Wheat.

But back to Froot Loops, if someone had asked, I suspect that I would have assumed that they were fruit-flavored. That red was cherry, yellow was lemon, and orange was orange. Not that these flavors would have borne any resemblance to actual froots fruits. Just that the taste of the cereal would have been vaguely reminiscent of the fake flavors we have come to associate with anything that’s cherry-lemon-orange flavored. (Seriously, does a cherry Life Saver or Popsicle taste anything like  a real cherry?)

So I was a bit surprised to see the small flurry of late January activity that took over a corner of the really-doesn’t-matter-but-is-mildly-interesting-o-sphere, revealing that Froot Loops come in colors, not flavors.

This was not new news.

The Straight Dope reported it nearly 15 years ago. (Note to self: check out Straight Dope every once in a while. While it has been “Fighting Ignorance Since 1973” – obviously not on the Internet all that time – I was not familiar with it. It looks like a trove of goodies…)

But someone decided to revive the story, and there  you have it.

Colored froot-flavored cereals like Froot Loops come in a rainbow of colors, and those colors align with different flavors of “froot,” don’t they? Well…no. They do not. All of the different colors in the box are only that: colors. (Source: The Consumerist.)

Same goes for Trix and Fruity Pebbles. (Who would actually eat a cereal called Pebbles? Care to fracture a molar, anyone?)

Just how good and fruity Froot Loops actually are is not something that Kellogg’s was lying about. Not exactly. But they may have been letting us consumers be assumers here.

When Kellogg’s talks about Froot Loops, here’s what they have to say:

Kellogg’s Froot Loops™ is packed with delicious fruity taste, fruity aroma, and bright colors. Made with whole grains and lightly sweetened, Froot Loops is a fun part of a complete breakfast, and is a good source of fiber.

Delicious fruity taste? Oh, really? frootloops

Fruity aroma? Guess that depends on what you mean by “fruity”.

As for bright colors, well, I find Froot Loops pale in comparison to the vibrant colors found in, say, an eight-pack of Crayolas.

And speaking of colors, didn’t Toucan Sam used to be black?

My mother used to send away for free-anything, and there was a stuffed Toucan Sam floating around our house at some point. And that puppy was black. Just saying.

The bottom line is, I guess, that if you want real fruit taste, real fruit aroma, and bright colors, chop up your own real fruit and add it to your cereal.

And what a joy it is to have something this trivial to worry about.


Wondering about Oot-fray Oop-lays? Early ads for Froot Loops were in Pig Latin. Do kids still speak Pig Latin, or is that a lost language?

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Clothing I’d like to blame for something or other

One of the better – or worse, depending on your perspective – stories to come out of the Olympics was the speed-skating wardrobe malfunction.

Of course, it really wasn’t so much a wardrobe malfunction as it was a blame-it-on-the-Under Armour speed-skating suits malfunction in judgment on the part of some of the athletes.

The team chose to disrobe from the new-fangled suits with the vents that were supposedly slowing them down, and donned they now their older apparel, which was a proven winner.

Turns out it wasn’t the suit – the older suits were made by Under Armour as well – but the skaters, who got out-skated by those Dutch sharpies.  (One of the most fun thingnorwegian pantss in the Olympics is watching small countries like The Netherlands and Norway do so well. But if anyone were going to blame their costume on their defeat, I’d say that the Norwegian curlers, with their wow-just-wow pants might have a claim. )

Anyway, the clothing brouhaha has gotten me thinking about some personal wardrobe lowlights.

I’m not quite sure just what I can blame on them, but surely the fact that for 11 years I wore a hunter green jumper and white blouse must be responsible for some failure or another in my life. (In case you’re wondering, it was “only” 11 years because in first grade we did not wear uniforms. In case you’re wondering why I wore the same outfit for so many years, it’s because I went to the only parochial high school in Worcester that didn’t trade in those fuddy old jumpers for the “cooler” look of a blazer and plaid skirt. My high school uniform looked more like what my mother had worn at Alvernia High School during the Depression than it looked like anything that Catholic girls wore during the 1960’s.)

Maybe it’s the jumper’s fault that I lack supreme fashion confidence, and tend to fall back on the familiar and the safe, heavy on the L.L. Bean and Talbot’s.

There was so much green on my back in those days…

I had a loden-green loden coat during high school.

Naturally, it was not the popular brand – whatever that was – but was the Anderson-Little knock-off version. Less sturdily made, so that half the toggle buttons tore off, and my mother replace them with standard round buttons. Bad enough to have a faux loden coat, but to not even have the leather toggle buttons…

For a couple of years there, my Sunday coat was a dark green herringbone Chesterfield, followed by a Kelly green wool boucle.

Neither one of them fit.

I have long arms, and I was very self-conscious about my wrist bones sticking out. So I always chose the coat two-sizes too large, but with long enough sleeves. I was a dumb kid, but did it not occur to my mother that the sleeves on the coat that fit could be let down? 

The Chesterfield was a particularly appalling fit. It had a zip-out lining, and when the lining was zipped out, I could have fit another kid in there with me.

Any wonder I have a warped self body image?

Not to mention fear and loathing of the color green. These days, I rarely if ever choose an article of clothing of the green persuasion.

Fast forward a few years…

What was I thinking when I bought those blue and white striped ticking pants with the roll-up cuffs?  That I would look thin, young, and cute like the model in the Land’s End catalog? Or, failing that, that I’d look crisp, Nantucket-y and Waspy/preppy?

Whatever I was thinking, it was gone with the wind once my 70 year old mother (sorry, it seemed ancient at the time) and my 80 year old aunt were falling all over each other to compliment me on those damned pants. They were “smart,” they were “kippy”, they were “darling.” Where did I get them? The girls wanted in. Sorry Liz. Sorry, Peg. Those smart-y pants were in the Goodwill pile five minutes after I got home.

Oh, no. Oh, no. Now that I’ve opened the Pandora’s closet, my wardrobe mistakes are flying out so rapidly and in such number, I can barely focus on them.

That drippy pink cashmere sweater that could have come straight out of Queen Elizabeth’s closet at Balmoral. That camel jersey dress that sapped all the life out me.  That pale aqua suit. The taupe Eisenhower jacket. The striped sweater with the batwing sleeves.

Surely, there are any number of items in my lifelong wardrobe that are responsible for something or other.

If only I could figure out just what.

Much easier if you’re a competitive athlete with a uniform to pin the blame on.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Placed for everything

I remember the first time a company I was working for put in an electronic key system and issued everyone the new-fangled badges needed to work the system.

This was 1998, and we had yet to fully cede all sense of privacy by  letting CVS know our every-purchase history in exchange for coupons we’ll never use. Before we all started explicitly (FB, Twitter, blogging…) or implicitly (Amazon makes life so easy!) tell-alling in cyberspace.

So when they gave us those badges, we were all pretty annoyed.

Badges, what badges, we don’t need no stinkin’ badges!

Does this mean they’ll be able to monitor every time we step out into the hall to use the bathroom? Are we getting sucked in to using a punch clock, like wage slaves?


Of course, we could get around all this by just going in and out of the front entrance, which was open and unmonitored during the day.

But we did so like to complain.

And, of course, after our initial complain spate, we started using the badges to get in and out, as it was so much more convenient to get to the restroom through those electronic back doors than it was to schlepp out through the reception area.

But that, of course, was then.

And this, of course, is now.

Which brings us to Placed, a location analytics company

Placed has persuaded 125,000 people across the country to download an app on their mobile phones that tracks everywhere they go. Over time, they collect $5 or $10 gift cards and are entered into drawings for prizes, such as AppleiPads. (Source: Business Week.)

Amazing, ain’t it, that there are so many folks out are willing to sacrifice whatever shred of privacy they have (or fantasize that they have) for a $5 give card?

Placed may call their business “location analytics,” but I like to think of it is mess of potage services.

Here’s what Placed offers:

Moms in the Grocery Aisle! Insights into the real world shopping behavior of mothers, including top retailers and smartphone activities.

Moms in the Grocery Aisle! Love that bit of retro. After all, what would a dad be doing in the Grocery Aisle?

The Ratings Service that quantifies the physical world by mapping the relationship between people and places

I don’t know about you, but am I the only one whose head hurts just thinking about quantifying the physical world? I’ve got all I can do to just qualify it…

Move Past the Geo-Fence with Placed Targeting

Personally, I don’t want anything moving past my Geo-Fence. In fact, I’m thinking of fortifying my Geo-Fence, building it higher and wider, and topping it with coils of barbed wire. Think of it as the Great Wall of Maureen.

Among the fascinating insights that Placed has gleaned from and about those Moms in the Grocery Aisle:

…Asian American mothers shop at Trader Joe’s more often than white moms, who tend to frequent big grocery chains, says company founder David Shim.

And choosy mothers choose Jiff.

Oh, and McDonald’s is “the most visited restaurant in the country.”

(Didn’t we kinda-sorta know that already?)

“Your location is valuable,” Shim says, holding up his mobile phone (while being interviewed here). “It’s a persistent cookie that people carry with them 24/7.”

Think I’ll start wrapping my smartphone in tin foil, just in case.

Placed asks users for permission and scrubs personally identifying information before companies see the data, Shim says: “There isn’t this creepiness factor. These people have opted in to being measured.”

Sorry, David Shim, just because someone has “opted in the being measured” doesn’t delete the creepiness factor…

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sad news at Pink Slip

Last Monday evening, my husband, Jim Diggins, died, 45 minutes after being admitted to hospice. As I have told people, he was ready, and I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

Characteristically, on the afternoon of his death, he woke up from a nap – during which I observed both the death rattle and apnea – to tell the nurse we had that day that she was an excellent nurse and wonderful communicator, and that he really appreciated her care.

I say characteristically because, throughout his long illness, Jim made it a point to not whine, moan, complain, or rage – even when he felt pretty awful. His philosophy was that, just because he was seriously ill and, after a point, seriously dying, there was no need to drag everyone down around him. He was by no means a nicey-nice Pollyanna, strewing rose petals wherever he went. What he did was stay himself. And to push himself to stay engaged, even though I could see what his efforts cost him. (A 50 minute phone call with an old friend was followed up by a 5 hour nap.)

It is no wonder that the doctors and nurses we worked with were always happy to see him coming, which – I can assure you – made dealing with his illness and the hospital bureaucracy as easy as possible.

When we got to hospice, Jim thanked the EMT’s who’d taken us there, and made a joke about how he wouldn’t be able to tell them “See you later.”

The hospice nurse, seeing Jim’s level of awareness and engagement, told me that she thought he still had a few days left.

Based on what I had observed over the past few weeks, and what Jim himself had been telling me, I figured he would die during the night.

Within the hour, he did just that.

I’m sure that, over the coming months, as I start processing things, I will be writing more about things hospital, hospice, death, dying, widowhood, and Diggy.

But for now, I’ll leave you with Jim’s obituary:

On February 17th, Jim Diggins died at Kaplan Family Hospice House in Danvers, Massachusetts, after a long battle with esophageal cancer. He was (a young) 70 years old. He leaves his wife, Maureen Rogers, his brother Joe (and his wife Shirley) of East Hartford, CT, his sister Alice Wands (and her husband Bob) of Flower Mound, TX, his cousin Steve Arnold (and his wife Linda) of Southwick, MA, and his nieces and nephews. DIggy headshot

Jim was born in Bellows Falls, Vermont, the son of Grace (Griffith) and James Diggins. After graduating from Bellows Falls (“Ever Glorious”) High School, he enrolled in Rutgers University. At Rutgers, Jim founded the “No Study Club,” and spent as much time as he could in New York City. Nonetheless, he managed to graduate in three years. During summers in college, he worked on the Southwick, Massachusetts tobacco farm of his Aunt Carrie and Uncle Bill Arnold, but he wasn’t cut out to be a tobacco farmer. A chemistry major, he worked after graduation for a number of Federal government agencies. While at the CIA, he began taking night school classes in economics. Having decided to return to school full time, he spent a year at NYU before moving on to Harvard, where he received his PhD in Economics in 1977. While in grad school, he was a TA for the undergraduate macroeconomics course, Ec1010B, and also consulted to the Economics Department of the First National Bank of Boston.

After completing his doctorate, Jim switched his area of interest from monetary policy to healthcare, with a specialty in analyzing and forecasting the components of healthcare inflation. He consulted to hospitals and hospital associations throughout the country.

A lifelong learner, with interests in economics, physics, mathematics, statistics, and the history and philosophy of science, Jim was taking advantage of MIT’s online courses until shortly before his death. Since boyhood, he had been an avid Celtics’ fan, and he was an especial admirer of the Bill Russell era teams, and of Bill Russell himself, the player and the man.

Jim loved to travel, no more so than when he was able to use the frequent flyer miles he so devotedly collected. His favorite destinations were NYC, Ireland, and Paris, although he did say that his best trip ever was the one that he and Maureen took over New Year’s 1989-1990, when they went to Berlin to witness the falling of The Wall,

Jim was a character: unfettered, unfiltered, spontaneous, exasperating, imaginative and funny. He loved being around kids (and dogs), and kids (and dogs) loved being around Diggy. He will be missed.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, March 22nd at 3 p.m. at First Church in Boston, which is located on the corner of Marlborough and Berkley. Donations in Jim’s memory can be made to St. Francis House, which provides shelter and rehabilitative programs for the poor and homeless of Boston. St. Francis House is located at 39 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116.

I have a few blog posts stockpiled – that’s what took care of last week – so we should be good to go for a bit as I work my back to the new normal.

Oh, Diggy.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Question: Would you get on a plane flown by a pilot making $21K

It looks like some of the regional airlines are having to shut down some of their lesser routes – you know the ones, Air Egregious flights from Podunk to Schlumpville – because there’s a pilot shortage.

In theoretical life, labor shortages usually mean an increase in wages.

As so often happens with theory, the real world tells a different story.

Race to the bottom pricing – as low cost regional carriers compete to get that vaunted Podunk-Schlumpville route – does eventually reach the point of no return on your investment. Eventually, if you can’t charge enough to cover your costs, you will go out of business. As I have seen happen in my very own real life. But I understand that airlines are somehow exempt from this law of gravity, and can survive for decades running billions in the red.

The latest problem is that those meanies in Congress – who says that they don’t do anything? – have mandated that even the pilots on crumb-bum airlines have to have a certain level of training before they can be certified to carry passengers.

This training can cost $100K – all on the pilot. After which you’re going to be happy to graduate into a job where, as a first officer/co-pilot you can pull down a cool $21K? That’s not all that much more per hour than my 17 year old niece makes at The Gap.

Needless to say, Air Egregious et al. are having a hard time wooing pilots. 

While some – those who believe it’s reasonable to entrust a plane full of passengers to someone willing to work for $21K a year -  pooh-pooh the notion of a shortage. But…

“There may be a shortage of qualified pilots who are willing to fly for U.S. airlines because of the industry’s recent history of instability, poor pay, and benefits,” ALPA President Lee Moak said last week in a statement that aimed to refute the “myth” of such a shortage. The union says that Emirates Airlines pays new first officers $82,000, “plus a housing allowance and other extraordinary benefits,” and that thousands of U.S. pilots on furlough and working abroad are “eager to return to U.S. airline cockpits—under the right conditions.” (Source: BusinessWeek.)

Top, that, Air Egregious – especially when you’re appealing to folks who don’t want to take the bus, but aren’t willing to pay more than bus fare for a flight.

It’s not just the Podunk to Schlumpville routes that are being impacted:

Flight cuts caused by the pilot shortage have rippled from the tiniest of airlines to major hubs. Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines ended service to a half-dozen small towns on Feb. 1 after seeing its pilot ranks slashed from more than 300 to fewer than 100. United, meanwhile, explained the recent plan to dismantle its Cleveland hub in part by pointing to the inability of regional carriers to staff all of its flights there.

Industry analysts, having take Econ 101, do predict that the laws of supply and demand will eventually kick in, and pilot wages will eventually start climbing – although perhaps not to the lofty Air Emirate heights.

Meanwhile, would you get on a plane flown by someone making $21K a year?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Looks like we may have won the war, after all

There are few American men in my age cohort – which I’ll somewhat arbitrarily define as those born between 1944 and 1954 - whose young lives were not effected by Viet Nam. Whether they volunteered (yes, it actually did happen), were drafted, went to Canada, went to jail, got a note from their doctor, were fortunate enough to have asthma, joined the reserves, or somehow managed through sheer luck or their wits to avoid going into the service entirely, the “boys” I grew up with had the prospect of The War looming over them.

Viet Nam loomed for us “girls,” too, since all the “boys” we knew were impacted.

It factored into conversations, debates, life plans.

Whichever way out attitudes leaned, there was a song for it:

On the left, there was War (War, huh, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.). On the opposite end of the spectrum, I give you Sergeant Barry Sadler’s Ballad of the Green Berets. (Fighting soldiers, from the sky; fearless men, who jump and die.)

We read about it in the papers, we saw it in the movies, we watched it on TV. We fought about it with our fathers. We sat on uncomfortable school buses all the way to Washington, DC to protest against it.

So, yes, although I really don’t imagine I’ll ever get there, Viet Nam is in my consciousness and on my small-b bucket list as a place I’d like to visit.

Sure, it’s too far, too hot, too buggy. Still, I would kinda-sorta like to get there some day.

And if I do ever make it to Saigon Ho Chi Minh City, I would definitely consider stopping at the McDonald’s that just opened there.

I’m actually not sure that having a McDonald’s in your country is a good thing, but there is a weird way in which having American fast food announces to the world that, in a perverse kind of way, you’ve arrived. By the way, Viet Nam is the 120th country that the golden arches have arrived at.

The launch in Ho Chi Minh City marked the fast food giant's 10,000th location in Asia and entry into its 120th country.

"Clearly I think there's pent up demand for McDonald's in Vietnam," CEO Don Thompson told Fortune in a telephone interview from Sochi. "It's been on the company's radar screen for a while." (Source: Fortune/CNN blog)

I don’t imagine that, once you get on McDonald’s radar screen, it’s all that easy for you to fall off of, especially since McDonald’s relies on the Rest of the World for 2/3’s of its revenue. (Up from 50% US – 50% ROW since s000.)

I must confess that I do like to see a McDonald’s when on my travels, and will further confess to having stopped in – for fries, at a minimum – to McD’s in Paris, Dublin, Galway, Berlin, and Cracow.

But McDonald’s certainly isn’t our most illustrious or helpful export, even when the menu’s adapted to the local cuisine. As it is for the Ho Chi Mingh store, which features:

…McPork, a new item tailored to the local market that is made with a pork sausage patty on a sesame bun. "We wanted to introduce a pork product because that is the most commonly consumed protein here," says franchisee Henry Nguyen.

Henry Nguyen is not just any old franchisee. He came to the U.S. as a child, when his parents emigrated, and worked at McDonald’s during high school. About a decade ago, re-patted his way back to Vietnam:

…where he's managing general partner of private equity firm IDG Ventures Vietnam and the son-in-law of Vietnam's prime minister.

Nguyen’s c.v. aside, I was wondering what culinary delights McPork might displace if McDonald’s takes hold. In my quest to figure this out, I came across an interesting article on the local cuisine.

You don't have to spend much time in Vietnam before you notice something unusual. You hear no birds singing, see no squirrels scrambling up trees or rats scurrying among the garbage. No dogs out for a walk.

In fact, you see almost no wild or domesticated animals at all. Where'd they all go? You might be surprised to know: Most have been eaten.

…In Da Nang in January, I saw a street-side merchant with bowls full of dead rats for sale -- their fur removed but otherwise intact -- ready to cook.

Last spring, Conservation International reported that several varieties of Vietnamese gibbon, part of the ape family, "are perilously close to extinction" -- all but a few of them already eaten. (Source: Joel Brinkley, in the Chicago Tribune.)

Well, I wouldn’t mind if the Vietnamese turned to McDonald’s instead of dog, or gibbon, but – let’s face it – fewer rats is a good thing, in my book.  As long as I don’t have to eat any of it.

But what if more of the local favorites make their way onto the Ho Chi Minh City McDonald’s?

McDog? McGibbon? Rat McNuggets?

Maybe I’ll just stay home, after all.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

‘Distressed babies”, I’ll show you one baby who ought to be distressed

If you’ve asking yourself, whatever happened to the AOL-hole CEO who fired an employee, in real-time, while said CEO was conducting an audio-based all hands meeting? The answer is: he’s back.

And it seems that there’s room in his mouth for both of his feet.

A week or so ago, Tim Armstrong made the news with a big old whine about Obamacare, and how he was going to have to trim contributions to employee 401K’s to compensate for it. (And, side benefit, I suppose, to punish the AOL workers who voted for Obama.) Obamacare was the talking point when Armstrong went on CNBC to discuss the 401K cut backs, which I do have to point out was about contribution timing, so most of the impact would have been felt y employees who left within the year (which, given what a jerk Armstrong appears to be, may be quite a few; plus it screws folks who get laid off). Anyway, there was so much blowback from employees over the decision to lump sum 401K payments at the end of the year that Armstrong reversed the policy.

Armstrong also had to apologize for going into more explicit detail when, in talking to AOL employees directly about the 401K changes, he inserted his second foot in his mouth:

In a meeting with employees, Armstrong said the health-care expenses of two workers in 2012 played a role in his decision on which benefits to cut, Capital New York reported last week. The two employees had “distressed babies that were born,” costing AOL $1 million each, he said, indicating that he’d rather give priority to health care over retirement among the company’s benefits. (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, taking care of “distressed babies,” and others who require long term and expensive health care, is precisely what insurance is for. And while it sounds like AOL self-insures, well, having Million Dollar Babies (and heart transplants, and stage 4 cancer) pop up and suck big bucks out of the care pool are the risks that self-insurers bear. They’ve gambled that with their young, healthy employee population they can take care of health insurance more cheaply on their own than they would if their premiums were clumped in with the sorts of companies – insurance, banks – that have a lot of older, health-care sucking geezers on their payrolls.

Anyway, while I know it’s gauche to point this out, Armstrong could have played the hero by renouncing some portion of his $12M (2012) salary…

Meanwhile, Armstrong may not have counted on the mother of one of those distressed babies being a writer – Deanna Fei - who eloquently took to the pages at Slate to talk about her experience, and her reaction to Armstrong’s using her family as Exhibit A:

I take issue with how he reduced my daughter to a “distressed baby” who cost the company too much money. How he blamed the saving of her life for his decision to scale back employee benefits. How he exposed the most searing experience of our lives, one that my husband and I still struggle to discuss with anyone but each other, for no other purpose than an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting. (Source: Slate)

Fei goes on to recount the story of the premature birth of their daughter, and the tremendous struggle to keep the baby alive. (She spent 3 months in the NICU.)

All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.

…For me and my husband—who have been genuinely grateful for AOL’s benefits, which are actually quite generous—the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Yes, we had a preemie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. While he’s at it, why not call out the women who got cancer? The parents of kids with asthma? These rank among the nation’s most expensive medical conditions. Would anyone dare to single out these people for simply availing themselves of their health benefits?

Needless to say, Armstrong has apologized for detailing specific cases in his remarks. Insensitive for starters, these “distressed baby” situations were certainly recognized by colleagues of those who had the misfortune to have given birth to one of them. So there’s a bit of a privacy violation in play here, too.

I have a couple of questions here:

How does Tim Armstrong, who appears to be a colossal lunkhead, keep getting away with tricks like this? I guess I can answer that one: AOL just announced a profitable quarter.

And doesn’t anyone in HR and/or corporate communications prep this guy? I thought the folks in these departments were supposed to make sure that the talking points aren’t clumsy, insensitive, controversial. Or maybe they have tin ears every bit as tin as Tim’s.

I, of course, don’t know Tim Armstrong. But it’s pretty easy to imagine him being annoyed right about now. Ticked that he’s getting it in the neck (or the press or the social media) for being the kind of guy who tells it like it is, who gets into the weeds on just how and why something came about, who’s the buck-stops-here guy in charge.

I bet he’s feeling plenty self-pitying distressed right now.

Big baby.



Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Now that’s what I call a real woody

For those of us who came of age in a kinder, gentler time, the word “woody” has no vulgar or off-color connotations (I guess as long as you leave Woody Allen out of the mix).

To us, “woody” can only mean Woody Woodpecker (“Ho-ho-ho-ho-ho, ho-ho-ho-ho-ho. That’s the Woody Woodpecker song.”) Or - as we got a bit older and the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean convinced us that you really weren’t a normal, Gidget-y, red-blooded WoodyAmerican teenager unless you lived in California -  a wood-paneled station wagon, when driven by a surfer dude. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with four popular early-sixties songs the mentioned woodies in them:

  • Surf City (“I’ve got a ‘34 wagon and we call it a woody – Surf City, here we come – You know it’s not very cherry, it’s an oldie but a goodie – Surf City, here we come.”)
  • Surfer Joe (“Down in Doheny, where the surfers all go, there’s a big bleach-blondie name of Surfer Joe. He’s got a green surfboard, and a woody to match, and when he's riding the waves, man, is he hard to catch.”)
  • New York’s a Lonely Town, When You’re the Only Surfer Boy Around (“My woody’s outside, covered with snow – nowhere to go…”)
  • Surfin’ Safari (“We’re loading up our woody with our boards inside”)

While the woodies of song and surfin’ had wooden panels, plenty of early car models were built with wooden frames, and sometimes even the cab/passenger section. Over time, steel won out, and wood was, for the most part, relegated to those Country Squire wooden panels, and the dashboards of de lux cars.

Sure, the Pinewood Derby continues to use wood, but you can’t actually sit in, let alone drive, a Pinewood Derby car anywhere.

But wooden cars are making a comeback.

At an upcoming car show,

Finnish papermaker UPM-Kymmene will showcase an eco-friendly wooden car whose frame is built from tree pulp and plywood; the vehicle also runs on fuel made from papermaking byproducts. (Source: Business Week.)

A papermaker, eh? Does this mean that if I get a 3D printer I can print a car on demand? Farewell Zipcar, adios Uber…

The Helsinki-based timber company sees wood as a viable option to replace heavy steel components in cars. “Everyone is striving for lightness now,” says John Heitmann, a professor of history at the University of Dayton and president of the Society of Automotive Historians. “The only real constraint is forming body panels that are rigid enough to meet safety requirements.”

Which, having passed European crash tests, UPM’sunder wraps car does.

I wanted to check out just what a new age woody would look like, but I guess they’re keeping it under wraps until the big show. Reportedly, it looks like a “normal” car, not a sloppily carved up wood-block Pinewood Derby entrant.

Wooden construction in cars is eco-friendly, aimed at reducing a car’s weight and thus its fuel consumption.  It also uses less energy to manufacture.

“The more expensive energy becomes, the more likely this type of trend will continue,” says Joe Harmon, the designer of the wood-based Splinter, a concept car made in 2008 to demonstrate wood’s potential. “Wood uses very little energy in manufacturing, especially when compared with aluminum, steel, and carbon fiber.”

Other car companies are turning to aluminum and carbon-fiber to keep the weight down, and Renault is planning to use hemp to replace some plastics. (Hemp replacing plastics. Am I the only one channeling The Graduate here?)

UPM, by the by, is diversifying into wooden car components, and other wood-based products, because of the decline in demand for newsprint, which was its mainstay product for well over a hundred years.

It’s not clear that UPM will be able to convince car manufacturers to drop steel in favor of wood pulp.

Carmakers have equipped factories with costly stamping machines, and their engineers and designers are experts in metal engineering and production. The extra investment in equipment and know-how to introduce plant-based materials might be more than they’re willing to take on right now.

But the day will no doubt come when we see a new generation of woodies hit the road.

Surf’s up!

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Presidents’ Day Pink Slip Recycle

Metaphorically speaking, Pink Slip’s going green.

In honor of Presidents’ Day, I’m going to recycle last year’s holiday post which, in turn, links to even earlier posts commemorating the day.

Good, bad, or indifferent, Hail to the Chiefs!

Friday, February 14, 2014

My Funny Valentine

Today is Valentine’s Day.

Frankly, it’s not a holiday I’ve especially observed – at least not since I was giving out a valentine to each of my grammar school classmates.

But this year, it’s taking on a special meaning.

While I have alluded to it a few times, I haven’t posted much about what my husband and I have been going through the last few months.

Mostly it’s what Jim has been going through, which is dying of cancer.

In early December, he began home hospice care.

When pressed, our oncologist told us that, based on her observation and experience, Jim had a month or two to live.

A few weeks later, she backed off that estimate a bit, telling us it that cancer is such a crap shoot that you never know.

So I was hoping that we would get the full “hospice six” – people go into hospice care when they’re likely to live no more than six months – and that, now that he was off chemo and radiation, Jim would feel reasonably good. We hoped that the recovery from the effects of chemo and radiation would be fast, and the growth of his cancer would be slow.

We knew that one was racing against the other, and we knew that the cancer would win.

Still, we hoped: for a few more months, for one more trip.

Things chugged along during December.

Jim felt pretty good, we got out and about on occasion – not very far, but a nice lunch out is a nice lunch out. It didn’t look that far-fetched that we’d get to sneak in a trip to New York City.

Then, right after Christmas, Jim had to have an infected wisdom tooth removed.

As if things weren’t crappy enough!

So we thought, maybe not a week in NYC, but a couple of nights in Cambridge.

Then he developed a lung infection.

Which he recovered from quite nicely, thank you.

But then, it seemed, every day, he was getting a bit weaker, eating a bit less, sleeping a bit more.

And now we’re nearing the end.

Solid food stopped being of interest a couple of weeks ago, and since then it’s been Ensure, yogurt, apple sauce and ginger ale.

In the last couple of days, it’s been apple sauce, ginger ale, and popsicles – this was a suggestion in the end-of-life booklet our hospice nurse gave us the other day.

Jim’s going through about five popsicles a day, so he hasn’t completely shut down. But each day, he’s weaker than he was the day before. The other day, he told me that he won’t be going downstairs again.

When he’s not sleeping, he’s using what energy he has to remind of things – send in his 2013 IRA contribution so I can get the deduction; remember that this one credit union account limits the number of checks you can write on it each month; make sure the back hall heater is turned on if the temperature plummets to single digits.

The other day, he spent a while doing some preliminary planning for a trip he wants me to make to Ireland with our nieces.

He plans, I cry. (In the shower, when I head out to run an errand, when I talk to anyone on the phone, when I watch him sleep….Sometimes in front of Jim. He keeps telling me that the only bad thing about dying is knowing how sad I’ll be.

I tell people that he’s ready, and I’m as ready as I’m every going to be. (Which I don’t imagine will turn out to be all that ready.)

I’m writing this on Saturday, February 8th, looking up every couple of minutes to watch my husband sleeping.

The Olympics are on in the background. Ice dancing.

Every once in a while, I check to make sure he’s still breathing.

He has been through so much…

But, but, but….

It’s not like it’s all doom, gloom, and last-minute-details (although Jim has always been a detail man).

Throughout what has been a long and challenging illness, Jim has pretty much remained himself. He’s funny, he’s curious, he’s irreverent, he’s straightforward (is blunt a truer word?), he’s curmudgeonly. We’re still laughing about things – just now chuckling about the China Bowl restaurant. (Inside joke.)

Both Jim and I are fans of what is now called The Great American Songbook, and one of our favorites has always been My Funny Valentine.

Seems like the right day for it…

My funny valentine,
Sweet comic valentine,
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable,
Yet you’re my favorite work of art

Is your figure less than Greek?
Is your mouth a little weak?
When you open it to speak,
Are you smart?

But don’t change a hair for me,
Not if you care for me.
Stay, little valentine, stay.
Each day is valentines day.

Happy Valentine’s Day, hon.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Back to the old salt mines

A forty-pound bag of rock salt sits in our building’s foyer, where there are also two eight-pound shaker jugs. There’s a forty-pound bag of calcium chloride in the back hall. And two back up, just in case, eight pound shaker jugs in our unit.

Many years ago, I misjudged some black ice on our front steps.


I ended up with six-months worth of sciatica.

Never again!

I’m not completely sure what the difference is between rock salt and calcium chloride, but, come winter, I use salt liberally.

No one’s going to break a hip on our front steps, sidewalk, or back entrance. Especially not me.

As us hardy New Englanders are well aware, just as – come summer (please, come summer!) it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity – it’s not the snow, it’s the ice that’ll kill you.

And it’s not, of course, just the sidewalks and steps that get the salt treatment. Most of the salt that gets shaken out each winter is used on the roads, where we use plenty of it – 10 to 20 million tons each year in the U.S. just to keep us from skidding our way into fifty-car pileups.

It’s generally true that someone’s downside is someone else’s upside.

Downside is crappy weather for us civilians.

But snowy winter upsiders include snow plow drivers, hardware stores, and paid shovelers. (An aside: each year, before the first big storm, all the local news stations head to the nearest Home Depot and talk to people buying shovels. Now, Halite and Ice Melt are definitely items that need to be replenished regularly, but one you own a couple of shovels, how often do you have to replace them? They’re pretty big, so kind of hard to lose, no? And yet, there are always people scurrying into Home Depot to grab a last minute shovel. Are there all that many Floridians and Arizonans migrating to New England each year? Other than reverse snow-birds, who doesn’t have a shovel? Our building has five or six stowed in various spots, and I personally own an ice chopper. Trust me, it’s come in mighty handy at times.)

Anyway, while those who handle snow, and those who handle snow supplies, are clear beneficiaries of winter’s largesse, so, too are salt miners:

American companies like Morton Salt and Cargill get their rock salt from mines as well as evaporated salt plants and solar salt operations…With salt reserves running low, companies are now struggling to keep up with orders. “We are working overtime in our mines to try and keep up with demand,” said Cargill spokesman Mark Klein in an e-mail. (Source: Business Week)

So, upside for the salt miners, and for Morton and Cargill, who get to sell more for more.

But then there’s yet another downside, as runoff from all those salty roads gets into the water supply.

So states are looking for new and innovative approaches:

New York launched a pilot program to de-ice roads using beet juice, which helps stop the runoff of salt; waste from beer making would apparently do the same thing…New Jersey, meanwhile, is experimenting with pickle brine, and Milwaukee in December began pouring cheese brine on its streets. “You want to use provolone or mozzarella,” Jeffrey A. Tews, a fleet operations manager for the public works department, told the New York Times. “Those have the best salt content. You have to do practically nothing to it.”

Got it.

If we ever run out of salt in our building, I can always go out and shred some mozzarella on the front steps, or break open a jar of kosher dills.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Have Tesla, will Uber. (How’s this for a second career?)

Of course, it’s not really John Pepper’s second career. He’s going to have bigger fish to fry, or burritos to roll, or whatever.

But it’s certainly an interesting little story.

Pepper is the co-founder – and until October was the CEO – or Boloco. For those not fortunate enough to live within walking distance of a Boloco, it’s a small, primarily New England, chain that makes “globally inspired burritos.”  I highly recommend the Bangkok Thai - Thai-style peanut sauce, Asian slaw, cucumbers, brown rice – which I augment with a plop of white-meat chicken. Definitely yum.

Anyway, a few months back, Pepper and his board had a parting of the ways. Rather than do the standard serial entrepreneur thing – start something else immediately, write a book, invest in the startup ideas of others, become a Bloomberg pundit:

Pepper decided to become a part-time Uber driver. (Uber is a transportation service that lets you summon a range of vehicles, from taxis to SUVs, using a smartphone app. The drivers are all freelancers.) He's done almost 50 rides so far, in his Jeep Wrangler and his Tesla Model S electric sedan. Often, he picks up Uber passengers after he has dropped his kids off at a Cambridge private school. Yesterday, he said he drove seven hours non-stop, until his wife called and asked him to "stop Uber-ing." (Source:

While I am an ardent Zip Car member – wheels when you want them  - I haven’t yet tapped into Uber.

In the last couple of months, Uber has, however, been twice recommended to me.

Once, when I was picking up my Zip Car, a woman who was returning hers told me I should complement Zipping by Uberizing myself. Then my husband’s podiatrist told us that it’s a much better way to nab an ad hoc ride than hailing a cab, and hoping that the Brookline cab will stop and pick you up in the sleet, even though he’s not supposed to.

While I may get to Uber eventually – I suspect I’ll need to upgrade my legacy smartphone, and surrender my status as the last Blackberry user in the world – I do have a tiny bit o’ reservation about the Uber model. (This is the same reservation – perhaps generational – that, while I comfortably, indeed blithely, do short term rentals via VRBO and similar outfits, keeps me off the pullout couch in the living room at Airbnb.)

I know that  the bad drivers/amateur hoteliers will get quickly found out and exposed. Vox populi, and all that. But it would be just my luck to get some Travis Bickle gone bad who’d decide to take me and his 1992 Honda Civic on a suicide plunge into the Charles. 

Maybe I’m just too nanny-stater, but I do like at least a soup├žon of regulation.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by Pepper’s decision to put his pedal to the metal as an Uber driver.

He is not, of course, doing this to make his living – no one who drops his kids off at a private school in Cambridge in a Tesla is going to make it on Uber pay:

I was out yesterday, and I missed the peaks [when Uber charges a higher rate]. I made $190 working 7 hours, minus Uber's 20 percent. That's about $21 an hour. I went on at 8:30 AM and was done at 3:30 PM. Maybe it was a big day, because it was the day after a snowstorm.

Twenty-one bucks and hour certainly isn’t shabby for a part time, low-skill, flexible flyer job, but Teslas start out at about $70K, and private schools – like Shady Hill and BBN -  in Cambridge don’t come cheap, either.

But Pepper’s in it for the learning experience, not the walkin’ around money.

He was a Uber user, and on the day he and Boloco parted company, an Uber driver mentioned that he could get $250 if he referred a new driver. Pepper was in!

He went through a training session, hit the road, and is studying – first hand – the Uber model to see how it can apply to other businesses.

I get to see the other side of a consumer technology business that I really like — I'm motivated and inspired by it.

And I suspect that he won’t be much longer at it, either.

So, alas, it is doubtful that, if and when I decide to Uber, I’ll get picked up by the guy with the Tesla.

Meanwhile, my appetite is so whetted for a Bangkok Thai burrito. Wish my local Bolocos delivered…

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dedicated follower of fashion

You will no doubt be delighted to learn that, in 2013, the fashionably inventive applied for well over 30,000 design patents.

There have long been design breakthroughs that have had an impact on the fashion world – zippers, anyone? – but apparel is going more high tech these days, and Business Week recently rounded up some of the breakthroughs we’re going to be seeing on and off the rack.

While the appearance of Velcro on the footwear scene has meant that parents have been able to defer the moment when they had to teach their kids to tie their own shoelaces, shoelace-tying may well become a thing of the past. It will join parallel parking, dialing a telephone, reading a map, and changing the needle on a “phonograph” as one of those little life skills that are no longer necessary.

Nike, it seems, has patented self-lacing shoes. The company:

…has finally secured a patent for the kicks, which will feature a spring coil, a bunch of lights, and a dock to charge the shoes like a pair of giant rubber smartphones. Nike’s patent attorneys pointed out that the design could work in a wide range of footwear, including ice skates, ski boots, and cycling shoes. Will shoe chargers proves to be a game changer?

How well I remember taking off my mittens to lace up those ice skates. And, worse, taking off those mittens to unlace those skates after the laces had become frozen. But blowing on those fingers to restore circulation and ward off frostbite was all part of the pond skating experience. One more life can be real, nature can be harsh moment will be lost.

And it’s been decades since I’ve hit the slopes, but don’t ski boots have buckles that just sort of snap into place?

Do we really need self-tying shoes?

Okay, ask me in another twenty years when I’m in my dotage, and it’s too darned blood-rushing-to-the-head dangerous to bend over and tie my New Balance geezer walkers. Or even press the Velcro into place.

“Smart purses” are also on the horizon.

Last year Everpurse started selling handbags that charge smartphones with no plug required. Now the company is working on ways to have accessories alert people about lost keys or forgotten ID cards. Ultimately, it’s hoping to license the technology to a range of big-name apparel makers. “Co-branding is a big deal for us,” Everpurse founder Liz Salcedo said this morning. “We’d really like to have the ‘Intel-inside’ model.”

Oh, phooey.

A really smart purse would be one that informed you that you already have three periwinkle blue cashmere sweaters, and that the reason that teal shirt is calling to you is that you already own one exactly like it.

Anyone who’s ever run into the “if the waist fits, the thighs bag” problem with jeans, or who is the owner of not one, but two odd-ball feet, will certainly welcome the advent of the bespoke body-scan.

Accustom Apparel, a New York startup, performs body scans that collect more than 200,000 data points.

And those data points will translate into the perfect fit, without having to pay and arm and a leg to have the bespoke item hand-crafted for you. (Think of how great it will be when this combines with a 3D home clothing printer. Forget nothing to wear…)

The final trend that Business Week has spotted is that technology driven apparel will be on the QT. No more “geek chic” aesthetic a la Google Glass. The technology will be hidden away, humming in background.

It may be hard to disguise that you’re sporting automated shoelaces, but for those with the shirt that unbuttons the top two buttons when someone cute walks by, the dress that self-shortens when you move from audience with the pope to nightclub, and the hat that changes color to better match your coat, the technology will be embedded.

Meanwhile, I suspect that most of us will stay old-school, the zipper and miracle work-out fabrics will be the highest tech we go.

Fine by me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Meet the Beatles! (Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…)

Yesterday…well, I suppose I could say “all my troubles seemed so far away”, but that wouldn’t be exactly true.

But yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles appearance on Ed Sullivan.

Back in the day, I was, of course, watching.

Folkie snob that I was, I had not been particularly swept up in Beatlemania. I was too busy listening to Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and Judy Collins. (Not to mention the more commercial folk singers: the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Limelighters, the New Christie Minstrels, the Kingston Trio…) Forget Ed Sullivan, I lived for Hootenanny.

So I was initially a resister, looking down my nose as, one after another, my classmates succumbed to the lure of the Beatles.

Yet even I experienced a little frisson of excitement when, a few weeks before the Ed Sullivan appearance, a sophomore brought a Meet the Beatlesjust-released copy of Meet the Beatles to school. On the bus that transported us from “down city” to Notre Dame Academy, the album was passed girl to girl as reverently as if we were handling a consecrated host.

I wouldn’t have missed The Ed Sullivan Show that Sunday for anything. Not that we wouldn’t have been watching it, anyway. It was regular Sunday night fare Chez Rogers – every Topo Gigio, Bolshoi Ballet, Jackie Mason, Leslie Uggams, Perry Como moment of it.

There were only three networks then, and I have no idea what ran opposite Ed Sullivan, but we weren’t buying any of it.

The Monday after we met the Beatles, in all their black and white glory, the nuns were fully armed with talking points about lack of talent, immoral dancing, tight suits and girlie hair dos. Sister Mary St. Rose, better known as Grundy, told her homeroom that Ringo Starr was retarded.

This was all very reminiscent of the nuns’ reaction to Elvis Presley’s appearance on Ed Sullivan nearly a decade earlier.

In school the day after Elvis’ debut, Sister Aloysius St. James asked for a show of hands to gauge how many of her second grade students had seen the show. Nearly fifty hands shot up. Who didn’t watch Ed Sullivan? It was such a convenient way to soak in high and low culture. Plus Ed Sullivan – an Irish Catholic – was one of us!

Having caught us in her trap, Stah’ posed question number two.

How many families had turned the TV off when Elvis came on?

Only two or three hands were raised. (One was that of Francis George; I can’t remember who the others were.)

We were then told that the only good Catholic families were the Georges and those precious few others who had the decency to shut the immorality down.

The rest of us, bah, we were all going to be swivel hipping our way into hell.

Fast forward to the sixties, and, well, what better evidence of the decline of the west than the Fab Four?

Of course, the nuns’ anti-Beatles tirades did nothing so much as promote even more interest in them.

If Grundy hated them, what was there not to like?

And so I became a Beatles fan.

(Similarly, Sister Josephine of the Sacred Heart set off a wave of interest in The Catcher in the Rye when she announced that it was far too provocative, too jaded, and let’s face it, just too evil, for the tender sensibilities of high school freshmen. Catcher was a book that dared not even say it’s name. T-C-O-T-R – Josephine couldn’t even get the acronym right – was R-O-T-T-E-N. I went right home and borrowed my sister’s copy, and became a Salinger fan.)

I was never a screaming Beatles fan, and I spent a lot more time during high school thinking deep thoughts to Simon and Garfunkel, but, yeah, once I’d met them, I liked the Beatles.

I eagerly awaited the release of their movies: A Hard Day’s Night (later in that British Invasion year) and, in 1965, Help!

I bought John Lennon’s books In His Own Write and Spanner in the Works – it almost goes without saying that I was drawn to the “smart Beatle.” (I was also the only 13 year old in the world who preferred brainy Adam Cartwright to cutie-pie Little Joe.)

And I pretty much knew ever word to every song.

And every once in a while, I still put on one of my many Beatles CD’s and sing along.

Back to my high school days, the Beatles popped up in a number of ways.

For our annual Spirit Day variety show, four girls in my class – Mary G. (Paul), Suzanne L. (John), Susan F. (George), and Donna f. (Ringo) – dressed up like “the boys” and lip-synched to She Loves You. (Weirdly, these girls each had a real resemblance to the Beatle they were imitating.)

Senior year, we had a class assignment to write a poem, and Suzanne L. – channeling her inner John - submitted And Your Bird Can Sing. Sister Kathleen William liked it, and gave Suzanne an A.

I was of two minds.

On the one hand, pulling something over on a nun was always a good thing (even if if did involve cheating, which, goody two shoes that I was, I completely disapproved of).

On the other, Sister Kathleen William was an incredibly wonderful teacher, and it seemed kind of mean to pull a fast one on her.

My poem – which also earned an A – was a free verse number about an anti-war demonstration I’d seen on my first trip to New York City. (One line I remember: “chanting their shibboleths anti-war”, which is perhaps the only time the word “shibboleths” has been used in a poem. There was also some stuff about the daffodils that the protesters carried.)

If I had been going to plagiarize a Beatle’s song, it probably would have been In My Life

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Ain’t misbehavin’, but sometimes the Internet of Things is

We don’t have one of those elegant Nest thermometers, but when we – most fortuitously, as it turns out – had our new HVAC system installed last fall, it did come with a smart thermostat of sorts.

We don’t do all that much with it, as we seldom – make that maybe never – have the need to futz with it remotely, but I did set it up so that, whenever we change the temperature setting, I get an e-mail. I didn’t ask for this feature – it pretty much came with setting the device up. (Thanks for letting me know that the temperature was changed, by the way. Good to know!)

However little we utilize it, that thermostat is the only smarty pants device in the house. (We have long specialized in smarty pants humans.)

Yes, our computers are wirelessly wired, but, nope, our refrigerator is not connected to our TV. Our electric toothbrushes aren’t attached to our microwave. Our toaster oven doesn’t talk to our toilets.

Most of our connections are of the knee bone connected to the shin bone variety.

So I don’t have to worry about all sorts of high IQ devices breaking bad.

Not that the devices themselves are innately evil, and decide on their own to go over to the dark side. It’s that they’re susceptible to being taken over by hackers, evil doers who’ll take over your not so smart fridge. The hackers probably won’t turn the fridge off so your milk goes sour and all those lasagnas in the freezer turn to mush – although let’s not put it pass them. But these “look at me, I’ve got a computer on board” fridges, thermostats, home spy cams, etc. are being hacked.

On January 16th a computer-security company called Proofpoint said it had seen exactly that happening. It reported the existence of a group of compromised computers which was at least partly comprised of smart devices, including home routers, burglar alarms, webcams and a refrigerator. The devices were being used to send spam and “phishing” e-mails, which contain malware that tries to steal useful information such as passwords. (Source: The Economist)

Oh, swell.

It’s not enough that we get spam from Nigerian scam artists and Viagra hucksters on real computers, now we’ll be getting them courtesy of the ice cube dispenser on someone’s new stainless side-by-side fridge or their Kindle. Swell, just swell.

With these home devices:

Security is often lax, or non-existent. Many of the computers identified by Proofpoint seem to have been hacked by trying the factory-set usernames and passwords that buyers are supposed to change. (Most never bother.)

Well, it’s not just Mom and Pop Smart Fridge who aren’t making these changes. A number of years ago, I was doing some market research for a client and I came across a money management firm that was using “admin” as the login to their server, and “password” as their password. Not so smart…

Smart devices are full-fledged computers. That means there is no reason why they could not do everything a compromised desktop can be persuaded to do—host child pornography, say, or hold websites hostage by flooding them with useless data. And it is possible to dream up even more serious security threats. “What happens if someone writes some malware that takes over air conditioners, and then turns them on and off remotely?” says Dr [Ross] Anderson [computer-security researcher at Cambridge University]. “You could bring down a power grid if you wanted to.”

Wouldn’t you just love to find out that your toaster oven’s hosting kiddie porn? Or that your thermostat’s responsible for bringing down the power grid?

A brave new world, that has such people – and smart devices – in’t.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

More bad news for the Winkelvoss twins

I will be the first to admit that, were it not for their wonderful name, I would not have one iota of interest in anything to do with the Winkelvoss Twins. If they were called something pedestrian, like the Smith Brothers, or the Jones Boys, their snippy contention that Mark Zuckerberg ripped off their idea for Facebook would be of far less interest. And I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed their portrayal by Armie Hammer in The Social Network quite as much. The scene in which Tyler and Cameron Winkelvoss make their appeal - based on their conception of old school tie, playing-fields-of-Eton, Fight Fiercely Harvard proprieties – to then-Harvard president Larry Summers is priceless.

Speaking of priceless, if we play a bit of word association, priceless is not all that many degrees of separation from Bitcoin, yet another one of those virtual-digital-the-Internet-changes-everything thangs that hurt my head and make me want to move to an unplumbed, unheated cabin where I grow marigolds and chop wood.

Anyway, a recent bit of Bitcoin news is only a degree of separation or two  from – ta-da! – the Winkelvoss twins.

That degree of separation is in the person of Charlie Shrem, whose Bitcoin exchange, BitInstant, had received financial backing from the Winkelvossen.

Alas, Charlie Shrem has found himself:

…arrested and accused of conspiring to provide $1m-worth of the virtual currency to shoppers on Silk Road, an online marketplace for illegal drugs. Silk Road was shut down last year. Its alleged founder, Ross Ulbricht, has since been indicted. Now crimebusters are turning their attention to the exchanges that allowed customers at such black-market bazaars to trade traceable old-economy currencies for near-anonymous virtual ones. (Source: The Economist.)

What is bitcoin, you may well be asking. (Personally, I ask myself that question every time I hear it mentioned.) So here’s what Bitcoin has to say for itself.

Bitcoin is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money. It is the first decentralized peer-to-peer payment network that is powered by its users with no central authority or middlemen. From a user perspective, Bitcoin is pretty much like cash for the Internet. Bitcoin can also be seen as the most prominent triple entry bookkeeping system in existence. (Source: Bitcoin.)

Got that? Sure you do…

Anyway, one of the fears about Bitcoin is that it can be exploited for nefarious purposes and criminal transactions. Bitcoin pooh-poohs this. After all, real money can be used for nefarious purposes and criminal transactions, too. Think of all the cash that the Sopranos kept around their house?

According to the complaint, however, Mr Shrem personally processed orders for Robert Faiella, who faces similar charges, despite knowing the Bitcoins would be resold to Silk Road users (at a 10% markup); he concealed the orders from his business partner when the partner grew suspicious; and he advised Mr Faiella (whose online alias was BTCKing) on how to circumvent transaction limits imposed by BitInstant’s anti-money-laundering policy, even though it was Mr Shrem’s job to enforce these as compliance officer. If convicted, the two men face up to 30 years in prison.

As Shrem is only 24, thirty years in the slammer could really put a crimp in his productive lifeline. But that’s the risk you take when you substitute dollar signs for “Go Slow” or “Stop” signs.

If Shrem ends up in the stir, and this puts a crimp in BitInstant’s viability, then the Winkelvoss twins will be out a few bucks. And, since they’re no Mark Zuckerbergs, every little chunk of change (virtual or cold, hard) counts.

Those poor Winkelvoss twins.

Remember the quaint old days when we used to ask “Who wants to be a millionaire”? Now it’s “Who wants to be a billionaire?” (Answer: the Winkelvoss Twins – and Charlie Shrem – among others.)

Anything other than billionaire-hood is, well, just chump change. Or chump bitcoins.

Those poor Winkelvoss twins! They just can’t seem to win. Maybe they should have gone to law school instead…

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How would YOU like to be Queen for a Day? (Hint: figure out how to be one of the peons on “Undercover Boss.”)

I hadn’t watched it in a while, but the other day I caught an episode of Undercover Boss. If you haven’t seen it, UB is a “reality series” in which a senior executive of some big company with a large number of low wage workers in their employ puts on a cheesy disguise and spends a brief amount of time  - a day -  in a series of generally dreadful entry level jobs.

There’s some bogus pretext for why there are camera crews following the new kid in town around: training film or – more cutthroat but more cutting edge – a potential hire in competition for a job with another (mythical) poor bastard. (Has the economy and/or the culture gotten so terrible that we assume it’s okay to pit people against each other for the glory of snagging a job cleaning out porta-potties or laundering restaurant uniforms or fishing kid poop out of resort swimming pools ? Maybe Hunger Games isn’t so far-fetched after all.)

What Mr. (or occasionally Ms.) Big – disguised with a bad wig, cheap glasses, a “fat belt”, and the company’s polyester uniform – learns at each stop is that the little people in the company are, for the most part, earnest, hard-working, loyal to the core, take pride in their work, and are grateful for whatever crumbs are cast their way.

Oh, occasionally – in my watching experience, albeit a limited one, this is rare -  there’s a “bad apple” who makes snarky comments, grouses about the company, does a half-assed job and is probably more representative of the overall company workforce than the goody-two-shoes who come in an hour early to polish their garbage truck. But mostly we see the good employees, who are unfailingly pleasant whatever crap befalls them in the course of their workday, and who take on the task of training the fake new employee with miraculous zeal and attention to the nuance and detail of whatever mundane, boring, and crappy job they have.  (Which is actually quite touching. Who doesn’t want to take pride in their work?)

On second thought, though, maybe these goody-two-shoes – lucky/plucky to have those jobs – are the new standard. Yes, master, I am not even worthy of this job, but I kiss the feet of those managing this company who allow me to have it, despite my non-worthiness.

Anyway, each of the nicey-nice employees has such a sad-sack back story that you begin to feel that they’re hand-picked by HR. They’ve taking a sick daughter and her kids into their one bedroom apartment; they need an operation they can’t afford; their house burnt down and they’re living in a minivan.

These back stories are all revealed in the one day that Mr. Big spends with each chosen employee, and are revealed with astonishing rapidity and candor. (Hmmmm. Maybe they are handpicked by HR and coached by the TV crew.)

But the reveal of personal detail isn’t the only reveal, of course.

Once Mr. Big has seen enough, he’s back to corporate HQ sans bad wig, cheap glasses, fat belt and polyester, and it is revealed to the nicey-nice employee that the Joe Schmoe they spilled their guts to is actually – in the case of the most recent episode I watched – Joe DiDomizio, President and CEO of the Hudson Group, which runs the newsstand/bookstores in airports.

Mr. Big has a heartfelt chat with the employee, does something nice – pays off the student loans, pays the rent for a year, pays for the carpal tunnel operation, buys them a car. He may also give them a promotion, or creates a new BS position – “you’ll be our ambassador of goodness”, and bestow a decent sized check on them. (In the episode I just watched, those checks ranged from $20K to $40K.)

Back in the day, the winners on Queen for a Day got something like a new washing machine and a half-dozen Ship ‘n Shore blouses. While the swag has improved, the subtext remains pretty much the same: a gift and a few bucks, problem solved!

Yes, for the employees who get an Undercover Boss promotion, some of their problems – trying to support a family on near-minimum wage – may be somewhat alleviated.

But when I see an employee in tears because Mr. Big is going to pay for her carpal tunnel surgery, and let her take the time off to recover, I’m thinking that this sort of benefit should be available to all employees, no?

Oh, once in a blue moon Mr. Big implements a sweeping change that will impact all employees. Hudson Group is going to update their technology! Wow! But I have seen precious little reflection on these shows about the overall economic plight of their low-skill, low-paid workforces who are one blown transmission or one broken leg aware from complete disaster.

For the $100K they gift to the chosen few who appear on the show, a company could get put in place some computer-based training to improve skills for a whole lot of employees – skills that might help these employees get up from under their low-paid jobs.

Not that I have the answer – and we’ll take the topic on again in slightly different form later this week, if I finally get around to a Tom Perkins/Kristallnacht post – but this seems to me to be a conversation that we need to have.

Yes, people are better off working at low-paid jobs than not working at all.

But how do we take care of the working poor (a.k.a., the deserving poor) when they can’t patch things together? Should companies pay them more, and pass the increases on to the consumer (and it’s generally a pretty small change increase, by the way)? Or should the taxpayers pick up the difference, whether they shop at Hudson Books or not? (I’m actually a big fan of Hudson, as their presence generally means you can get a decent book in the airport. They only make the post because their CEO was the star of the episode of UB I just saw.)

I’m sure that all the CEO’s that appear on Undercover Boss get a real feel-good experience. All those Lord Bountiful checks distributed; all those tear-filled hugs; all those problems solved.

But do any of them actually sit down with their management team and ask about what’s going on with the thousands of other employees they have who didn’t get picked to be on Queen for a Day?

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Almost in time for Groundhog Day

With the winter we’ve been having, it’s no surprise that on Sunday Punxsutawney Phil – that rat bastard! – saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter.

Anyway, not that I’m confusing groundhogs with gophers, but it was onPicking up the mail gopher Groundhog Day that I saw an article on Huff Po on a museum in Torrington, Alberta (Canada) that rivals the local alt-cult museums that I blogged about just last week.  The Gopher Hole Museum contains 47 “disturbingly lifelike little dioramas” containing  taxidermed gophers in tableaux mordants of humble, everyday Olympic gophersevents like picking up the mail, to special occasions, like the Olympics.

I don’t necessarily agree that these little dioramas are “lifelike,” but I’m completely down with them being disturbing.

I do understand some of the impulses here.

Who among us has gone through life without anthropomorphizing our furry friends a time or two. And let’s face it, what with evolution and everything, all that anthropomorphizing may not be such wishful thinking.

And while many of us may have been able to stay our impulse to put a tutu on the dog or a sombrero on the cat, this has not likely stayed our impulse to ooh and aah over puppies in Halloween costumes or to purchase that perfect birthday card with the sombrero-wearing cat on it. Not I, said the fly. (If the fly could actually speak for himself, rather than just buzz annoyingly around.)

Still, I can’t imagine stuffing and dressing up dead animals, and posing them in dioramas.

I leave my diorama imagining to my hopes that one day my sisters will join me in an activity that ranks quite high on my bucket list: to create a Peeps diorama and enter it in the Washington Post’s annual contest.

But to each his or her very own…

The Gopher Hole Museum does not appear to have an official website, but some locals have set one up. It contains pictures of all the dioramas, and everything you need to know about getting to the museum, which is open June through September, and costs only $2. Definitely a bargain, even by daffy museum standards.

But perhaps not enough to take me off the beaten path an make my way to Torrington, Alberta.

Meanwhile, in another parallel to a recent Pink Slip post, one of the dioramas seems to be paying tribute to the Rockabilly sensibility – right down to the poodle skirt. Sure, this would have been more authentic if she were also wearing Rockabilly gophersbobby sox (with loafers or saddle shoes or white sneakers). And let’s face it. A gal wearing a poodle skirt would not accompany it with a shrug and pearls, which looks like something June Cleaver would have worn on date night with Ward. No, Linda or Nancy or Debby would have on an orlon sweater, maybe even a cardigan buttoned up the back, and a brightly colored silk scarf knotted at her neck. I am perhaps being too harsh here. Perhaps Canadian Rockabillies do things differently, eh.

I’ll end with one of my favorite of the gopher-amas:


I admire this one for the attention to detail – the crockery on the table – and the harmonious use of blue and white. But mostly I like what the plain-spoken man of the house has to say. “Boy am I ever stuffed.” Truer words never put in a word balloon over someone or something’s head.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Why the Puppy Bowl is infinitely superior to the Super Bowl.

Last year, we saw the Puppy Bowl for the first time, and yesterday we had the pleasure of watching Puppy Bowl X.

There is much to commend the Puppy Bowl, that’s for sure. So I thought I’d list the ways in which, to me, the Puppy Bowl is infinitely superior to Super Bowl.

  • When comparing the PB athletes to the NFL jocks…well, there’s really no comparison. Mandy the dachshund vs. Wes Welker? No contest.
  • None of the PB players get carted off the field, and none of them are going to suffer from long term, devastating brain injuries.
  • No tax money went into building the stadium or to pay for revved up security. (Yes, I understand that Met Life Stadium, site of this year’s SB, was paid for entirely out of private funds. But for the most part, NFL teams are especially adept at suckering cities and states into subsidizing them. And I believe that taxpayers are on the hook for a good chunk of the residual costs for the old stadium that Met Life replaced.)
  • While this year’s PB did pay brief tribute to first responder dogs, there’s a whole lot less militarism and pumped up (largely faux) patriotism associated with it. The Star Spangled Banner was a recording, a traditional instrumental version, and the puppies appeared to be paying rapt attention to it. (Admittedly, I’m writing this – in Puppy Bowl X real-time -  before the actual Super Bowl takes place. And I’m sure that Renee Fleming will do a beautiful job with the national anthem. But PB’s more humble rendition reminds viewers and participants alike that it’s about the anthem, not the performer.)
  • Maybe the men in the audience will disagree, but in my view, the Puppy Bowl’s penguin cheerleaders have it all over the overly made up, plastic fantastic, big fake smile, scantily clad, booty and boob shaking “professional” cheerleaders.
  • The announcers don’t hurt your head with pompous, sententious observations. No one pretends that what you’re watching is anything more than fun entertainment. No attempts whatsoever to extract greater meaning.
  • There are no suck-up celebrity (or ‘what a great job they’ve done with this franchise’) spottings.
  • There’s no contention or audience puzzlement over referee calls.
  • We don’t have to hear anything about the weather.
  • Chris Christie isn’t there.
  • None of athletes engage in over-the-top, testosterone/adrenaline fueled celebrations when they make a big play.
  • Females compete on an equal footing (pawing?) with males.
  • You can make a bathroom run during the ads without living in fear that you’ll actually miss the one ad that might have been worth seeing. (As an animal softy, my Super Bowl fav – when I bother to watch – is generally the Budweiser Clydesdale ad.)
  • It’s all for a good cause: finding “forever homes” for the contestants.
  • Toe to tail, the entire event takes a lot less time than Super Bowl.
  • Miss Piggy (along with Kermit, Gonzo and few other Muppets) were special guests.

The one point I’ll concede to Super Bowl is that Bruno Mars will, no doubt, put on a more entertaining half-time performance than did Keyboard Cat. (But the parody of the halftime hoopla that Puppy bowl put on was pretty darned funny.)

Give me the Puppy Bowl, any old day.