Wednesday, April 30, 2014

And the Academy Award Goes to Pixels Based on the Visage of Matthew McConaughey

There was an very interesting article in the April 28th edition of The New Yorker* on Paul Debevec, a computer scientist at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

ICT gets involved in all sorts of creepy-cool simulated human digital tech:

The Virtual Patient Lab is creating dynamic virtual characters for interaction training using state-of-the-art graphics and motion capture technology

SimCoaches are web-based virtual humans designed to assist service members, veterans and their family members in accessing mental health support.

Ada and Grace, ICT's responsive virtual human museum guides help educate young visitors at the Boston Museum of Science.

I haven’t been over to the Museum of Science in years. Guess I’ll have to put that on my to-do list, just to check Ada and Grace out.

Anyway, ICT has teams with names like the Virtual Human Embodiment group, the Computational Emotions group, and:

…New Dimensions in Testimony, ICT collaboration with the USC Shoah Foundation and Conscience Display that is creating interactive 3-D projections of Holocaust survivors that can answer questions from students or museum visitors.

I don’t know how keen I am on all this computational emotions stuff. Will there come a point when we won’t be able to empathize or grapple with understanding the past if all we have access to is the written word, or old b&w films? That we’ll need holograms that we can ask questions of? I’m pretty sure my gut instinct is “ugh.”

With all the improvements in robotics, we’ve seen a lot of ways in which our Robby the Robot friends are going to be replacing humans.

But personally, I’m not all that wigged out by robots on the assembly line, robots dismantling bombs, robots fighting fires. After all, these robots are taking care of something that’s tedious and/or dangers. And these robots are robotic, not humanoid. Ditto iRobot’s Roomba which, clearly, no one will mistake for, say, their mother vacuuming the scatter rug next to their bed because, say, it’s 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the person in that bed is a good-for-nothing teenager who should be up vacuuming, rather than lolling about in bed at 10 a.m. on a Saturday morning. (Not that I have any direct experience with this…)

But widespread deployment of digital virtual humans, of the kind we’ve seen in video games – or would see in video games, if we actually saw video games – or the obviously cartoonish “folks’” on some airlines videos that show us how to put on our oxygen masks, is starting to enter the completely creepy realm, especially since the technology is getting to the point where the digital will actually be able to pass for the human.

Some of those digital virtual humans – and this is a lot of what Debevec works on – are no longer the “dead-eyed and stiff” digital characters that have populated some films.

His scanning technology made it possible for Brad Pitt to age persuasively in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” and has allowed spookily realistic stunt doubles to appear in scenes that are too dangerous for human beings.

How’s this going to work out?

When Hollywood goes fully virtual, will the Brad Pitts and Angelina Jolies still be able to sign huge contracts for the use of their visage and persona? And just provide the voice over? Or will the voice overs get digitized as well?

Or will filmmakers just start from scratch, assembling the perfectly beautiful (and perfectly character-actor looking) human being?

Why pay George Clooney or Cate Blanchett the big bucks when you can roll your own actor, create a virtual persona around them – tweets, Instagrams, interviews – and be done with it? No more diva outbursts, no more prima donna demands, no more actors showing up drunk and disorderly…No artistic temperament to deal with.

But, of course, given our thirst for learning all about the lifestyles and off-screen theatrics of actors, the virtual persona will have to go through sordid virtual divorces, crash their virtual Mercedes, enter virtual rehab, attack virtual paparazzi, have cute virtual babies, and do regular day to day things so that they can appear to be “just like us.”

Where would People Magazine be without actors?

And just think of holographic images walking the red carpet at the Academy Awards, in their virtual Versace gowns and Harry Winston jewels. Then giving their virtual acceptance speech, thanking their creator – which will take on a new meaning – and the virtual family and friends.

Some are arguing that the emergence of digital actors will be a good thing, that it will fully democratize filmmaking.

Maybe the Oscars will start going to Best Computational Emotions and Best Supporting Virtual Human Embodiment.

What – and who – is next?


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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ronald McDonald gets a makeover. (But not enough of one.)

I understand, given their philanthropic investment in Ronald McDonald, that Mickey D’s is more or less stuck with a clown for a mascot.

So in that sense, I feel bad for the current crop of marketers and brandingistas who are stuck with a 50 year old character.

I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to balance the creepiest-of-creepy mascots with the hundreds of Ronald McDonald Houses that have been helping families with critically ill kids since the 1970’s.

Ronald McDonald House is a great brand.

Ronald McDonald himself (itself?)? Maybe not so much.

Much of my neagativity towards Ronald McD stems from my general antipathy, a lifelong fear and loathing of clowns. And some of it’s directed directly at Ronald McDonald, who, even by clown standards, is pretty darned loathsome.

But personal antipathy towards clowns aside, there’s no makeover -  short of removing the wig, the giant red shoes, and the macabre kabuki makeup – that’s going to help de-creep Ronald McDonald.

Yet there’s McDonald’s, proudly announcing that Ronald McDonald, “who represents the magic and happiness of the McDonald’s brand” has gotten the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the What Not To Wear treatment.

Ronald McDonald will be sporting a new wardrobe, which includes yellow cargo pants and a vest, accompanied by a red-and-white striped rugby shirt. His iconic big red shoes will remain the same. Reserved for special occasions, Ronald has a whimsical new red Ronald McDonaldblazer with the Golden Arches on the front pocket and his well-recognized signature on the back, and a special bowtie to complete the look.(Source: McDonald’s presser.)

Cargo pants and vest. Wow! Talk about hip and happenin’. And a rugby shirt. Kind of a non-trending trendoid look, but I suppose they didn’t want to pick a more ephemeral style, like camo or a hipster fedora.

Still, is there anyone out there who finds the new look much of an improvement overOld McDonald Old McDonald? At least Old McDonald was clearly an outlier. In real life, no kid would come across an actual person dressed like this. On the other hand, kids may actually know and love people who wear cargo pants, zippered vests, and rugby shirts. So they could mistake a genuinely dangerous creep for someone as benevolent – albeit creepy, if not dangerously so – as Ronald McDonald.

While McDonald’s apparently believes that clothes make the clown, they’re also trying to get with the scene:

For the first time, Ronald McDonald will take an active role on McDonald’s social media channels around the world and engage consumers using the #RonaldMcDonaldhashtag. 

I think I’ll stick with #IncludeMeOut.

But Ron-bo’s not going to be limiting his social media communications to 140 characters. It’s a visual world out there, and sometimes the burden of actually having to read 140 characters is just too darned much. So we’ll get to be seeing more of the new Big Mac:

Ronald McDonald can’t wait to connect with people through social media. “Selfies …here I come! It’s a big world and now, wherever I go and whatever I do...I’m ready to show how fun can make great things happen,” said Ronald McDonald.

Maybe if you’re a family with a kid in the hospital, and you’re staying in a Ronald McDonald House, having the eponymous clown take a selfie with you would actually put a smile on your face.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone with a sick kid grabbing whatever scintilla of joy that they can. And maybe it’s because of the existence – and success, and good work – of all those Ronald McDonald Houses that McDonald’s has to double down on the brand, rather than jettison Ronald McDonald in favor of something that’s less horrifically creepy.

As Ronald begins his journey, he seeks to deliver on the mission: “Fun makes great things happen” - the idea that moments of fun and enjoyment bring out the simple pleasures in life and can lead to acts of goodness.

And I thought I’d written some lame-ass press releases over the years.

Maybe I’m just jaded because the simple pleasures in my life include never having to have any exposure to clowns in particular, and Ronald McDonald in general.

So, forget about “fun makes great things happen.” I feel really bad that McDonald’s wasn’t able to just retire the creepiest of creepy mascots. After all, they’ve got all those Ronald McDonald Houses out there… But does the face of Ronald McDonald House have to be a clown? Couldn’t it be a puppy, or a kitty cat, or an elephant, or a parrot?

Well, I guess a fast food joint wouldn’t want an animal – especially a dog – as part of their brand image.

So how about making Ronald McDonald a magician? Or an acrobat? Or a juggler?

God help me, I’m actually going to say I’d like him better if he looked like a traditional French mime, and that’s really going some.

McDonald’s SVP Dean Barreett assures us that “Ronald will continue to evolve to be modern and relevant.”

Modern? Relevant? I’ve got it: turn Ronald McDonald into a robot.

Monday, April 28, 2014

More sad news at Pink Slip

This has not been a very happy year hereabouts, that’s for sure.

In terms of rottenness, it would have been quite enough if the “only” thing that happened was my husband’s death. But last week, my very old and very dear friend Marie died.

Several years ago, Marie was diagnosed with lymphoma, likely brought on by all of the decades worth of drugs she’d taken for her lupus.

Last fall, right about the time we were learning that Jim was nearing the end of his road, we learned that Marie’s lymphoma had recurred.

The good news on that front was that, for most people, a stem cell transplant and its accompanying dire chemo did the trick and obliterated the cancer.

But Marie was not most people, and she never recovered from the treatment.

I was fortunate to have a number of good visits with Marie over the last several months, although all were tinged with sadness. I came home from each trip to Providence hoping against hope that there would be some sort of miracle turnaround. Sadly, this was not the case.

So on Saturday, I found myself giving the eulogy at her funeral mass, some of which is excerpted here:

I don’t remember exactly how and when I met Marie. When we started high school, we weren’t allowed to talk between classes, so it must have been at lunch.

Maybe our first conversation was about how boring Silas Marner was. Or the craziness that was Sister Josephine. Maybe it was about JFK or the Beatles. I do know that it was freshman year at Notre Dame Academy. And I know I liked her because she was smart, she was funny, she was generous, and she was kind – all of which has held true over the past 50 years – and so we were friends.

We didn’t do much that was exciting. We went to mixers at St. John’s where no one would dance with us. We slathered ourselves with baby oil and got terrible sunburns at Hampton Beach. We went to Fenway Park to watch the Sox lose. We drove around Worcester in our dad-mobiles, invariably ending up at Friendly’s and/or our friend Kathy’s house. Mostly we talked.

Mostly, we were friends.

As everyone here today knows, Marie’s genius, her gift, was for relationships, for connections, for friendship.

Marie was truly, deeply, and genuinely interested in people, in the lives of others.

As a friend, she was like a great novelist. No character, no detail, no event, no feeling, was too trivial, too small for her to ask about, think about, talk about, remember.

If you were her friend, she wanted to know all about you, your life, your story, and, by extension, the lives and stories of those you cared about, whether she’d ever met them or not.

Marie was also truly, deeply and genuinely interested in sharing the lives and stories of her family and friends with you.

Oh, sure, Marie and I also talked politics (violent agreement), sports (violent agreement), books (violent agreement – mostly; I liked The Marriage Plot a lot more than she did). But mostly we talked about the stuff of our lives: our friends, our families, our histories, our hopes, ourselves. (And by the way, I want to point out that, with Marie, talking about people was never gossipy or mean-spirited. Sure, she liked a good juicy story – who doesn’t?

And her wit was often sardonic and occasionally caustic, and she was no one’s glad-sufferer of fools. But it was people’s lives, with all the simple, complex, snarled up, glorious, joyful, and sorrowful stuff that life is made up of that Marie loved. Getting to really know people. That’s what all the talk was after.

What Marie spoke precious little about was her health.

Although for decades she had ample reason to, she never complained, whined, pitied herself, or moaned about the lousy health hand she’d been dealt. Nor was she ever a martyr.

Marie’s motto was “suck it up.” Which, time and again, she did. And if she could suck it up, she damned well expected you to suck it up, too.

Having Marie’s friendship and love is one of the things I have cherished most in my life. And that life has been made immeasurably richer for having known her. I will be bereft without her. Looking around, I suspect this is true for most everyone here today.

Who will care in quite the same way to hear about the glorious, joyful, and sorrowful stuff of our lives? Who will care in quite the same way about us?

When I first knew Marie, she was called Marie Alanna by her family. This was to distinguish her from her Aunt Marie, who was known as Marieshea – as if it were one word. Early on, the nuns at NDA called her Marie Alanna, as well. I think that the name Marie was a bit too French for them. Alanna Irish-ized things nicely.

I had never known what Alanna meant. I suppose I thought it was the female version of Alan. But I looked it up the other day, and it means “darling child.” Now “darling” is not a word that Marie would have used for herself. She would have said she was too tall, too smart, too old, too tough to be a “darling”. But she was a darling person, beloved of all of us here.

Her middle name could just as easily been Cara, the Irish word for friend. For being a friend was Marie’s genius, her gift to us all. Kind, thoughtful, generous, warm, funny, wise, and almost ridiculously focused on others. Some people have the word “friend” written all over them. Marie was one of them.

Farewell, Marie Alanna, dear cara. We are all going to miss you, so very, very much.

What’s taken out of this eulogy are the stories, stories that would mean something to her husband, their kids, her sister, and her many, many friends.

But I will tell one story that didn’t make it into the eulogy, but which says a lot about my friend Marie.

The Saturday before she died, I was able to visit with Marie, who was by then in hospice, semi-with-it, semi-out-of-it. But telling us all that she wasn’t afraid, she wasn’t in pain, that she was ready, and that now she was just waiting.

Shortly after I left, Kim, another one of our high school friends, stopped by. Marie wanted to know whether Kim thought that she, Marie, would get well enough to come with me on the trip to bring some of Jim’s ashes to Ireland.

To me, at least, it’s pretty telling that, in one of the last conversations of her life – the next morning, they started palliative sedation, and she was fully under – Marie was, on however unconscious a level, worried about helping out a friend.

Some say that bad things come in threes.

Then there’s Shakespeare: When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.

No thanks. Two sorrows in short order is battalion enough.

Somewhere along the line I came across a Polish saying: misery comes in pairs.

That’ll do.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Make mine a peg leg, please.

Because so many of the Boston Marathon Bombing victims lost their lower limbs, there’s been a lot in the news over the past year about prosthetic devices that are straight out of Steve Austin’s Six Million Dollar Man or Jaime Summer’s Bionic Woman. 

And, of course, there are all the stories we’ve been seeing over the past decade talking about the Iraq vets who lost a leg and have been kitted out with bionic limbs.

I’ve seen a few people walking around on the  Oscar Pistorius-style blades – this was pre-Marathon Bombing, so Iraq vets, perhaps.

It is incredibly impressive to see how smoothly these folks can get around. A lot of this can be chalked up to the hard work that so many amputees do in physical therapy. It’s not like they strap on their new leg and get moving. It’s not like buying a new pair of shoes, good to go. But a lot of the credit has to go to the companies that are making these bionic limbs.

One of these companies, BiOM, is local.

They’re the ones that made the bionic limb for bombing survivor, and, not incidentally, professional dancer, Adrianne Haslet-Davis.

…who lost a foot in the Boston Marathon bombing last year, [and who] performed  for the first time since the terrorist attack as part of the 2014 TED conference last month. (Source: BetaBoston)

BiOM is all about what it calls “personal bionics”, using “bionic propulsion technology to replace lost muscles and tendons” and to make movement more comfortable, more natural, and far less taxing than the movement you get with old-style prosthetics. Here’s how BiOM founder and MIT prof Hugh Herr, himself a double amputee, having lost both legs in a mountaineering accident while still in his teens, explains what they do.

“Bionic integration and how electro-mechanics attach to the body and [are] implanted inside the body are beginning to bridge the gap between disability and ability, between human limitation and human potential.”

Bridging that gap is, of course, expensive. Many of BiOM’s customers are wounded vets, so the government picks up the tab for their personal bionics.

Civilians are on their – or their insurance company’s – own.

I have no idea whether Haslet-Davis’ insurance paid for her device, or whether she was able to pay for her prosthetic through the money she was allotted by the One Boston Fund or by using her own personal resources and fund-raising efforts. Personally, I’d be just delighted to learn that she didn’t have to go one dime out of pocket to get back on her feet and dancing. She’s young and certainly deserves to get back in her dancing shoes without having to figure out how to pay for the foot that goes in one of them.

But, as the BetaBoston article pointed out, if Haslet-Davis had been on Medicare, she wouldn’t have been reimbursed:

To win coverage under Medicare, BiOM must demonstrate the cost advantage of its prosthetics, something McCarthy says the worker’s compensation industry already recognizes. The BiOM device, for example, allows employees to return to work more quickly and reduces the need for treatment over the long term. Additionally, patients experience less pain and stress on their joints than with normal prosthetic limbs, [BiOM CEO Tim McCarthy] explained.

Even though I’ll be a Medicare-ier sooner rather than later, I’m actually okay with Medicare holding off until they figure out the cost-benefit analysis here.

Let’s face it, most of the folks on Medicare don’t work, so there’s no benefit to them being able to return to work more quickly. Yes, the reduction in treatment costs over the long term should be considered, but until that can be demonstrated…

It’s one thing for insurance to cover the costs for a young, fit, otherwise healthy person like Haslet-Davis. Quite another to pay for a 75 year old suffering from vascular disease – the reason for 2/3’s of all leg/foot amputations – who isn’t working, may not have the will and the way to go through the therapy required, and may end up riding around in his motorized chair even with his spiffy new personal bionic. Yes, there are plenty of active, fit, long life ahead of them 75 year olds. I hope to be one of them. But this can be decided on a case by case basis, no?

Ah, the horror.

Bad enough death panels, now we have leg and foot panels.

Sound harsh?


But we can’t keep on paying endless amounts of money on all the latest treatments for the village elders, who won’t have a somewhat limited shelf life, if it means we’ll be depriving younger folks of those resources. I’d like to think that if the choice was using tax money to provide a personal bionic to an 18 year old kid rather than an 81 year old geezer, we’d go with the kid. And I’d like to think that the 81 year old geezer would agree that this was the right thing to do.

Maybe Medicare could cover some of the costs – maybe the same amount they would for a traditional prosthetic – and let the rest come out of supplemental insurance or out of pocket. Sorry if that means that some people won’t be able to afford the latest, but that’s life. And it’s not exactly as if the alternative prosthetic is a wooden peg leg.

Unfortunately, this approach will not necessarily work:

BiOM is not the first company to confront Medicare with an expensive technology that radically re-thinks current standards of care for the disabled. The iBOT, a stair-climbing, gyroscope-based wheelchair invented by Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research & Development Corp. in Manchester, N.H., was shelved due to a lack of reimbursement money.

Developed with Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Independence Technology LLC, the iBOT carried a price tag in excess of $25,000, and was shut down after CMS made it eligible for only about $6,000 in reimbursement.

So why not encourage companies like BiOM, who stand to gain plenty if Medicare approves reimbursement for their products, subsidize those who can’t afford it. As they produce more, their costs will go down, etc. Maybe it would be worth it to them.

Maybe if the shoe were on the other foot, and I needed a personal bionic, and I was on Medicare – which I will be, this time next year – I’d be pounding on Medicare’s door to let BiOM in.

I may be kidding myself, but I’d like to think I’d ask whether it made financial sense to kit me out with the Cadillac of prosthetics.

I hope I never have to find out.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Meet Me at the Fair

When I was a child, one of the many things deprivations I had to endure was never having attended a World’s Fair.

But, unless a World’s Fair were actually held in Worcester, driving someplace other than Chicago or the Cape and traipsing around a futurama was not the sort of vacation our family went in for.

No, our vacations had to be:

  1. Visiting Family: Going to Chicago to see my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  2. Relaxing for my father: That meant renting the Bass River cottage of my parents’ friends Mae and Nemo for a couple of weeks.
  3. Quick and cheap: Day trips to places like Nantasket Beach or Bennington, Vermont. We’d take a couple of these during my father’s two weeks off, and the rest of the time he’d relax on the chaise longue in the backyard.

The closest I came to the World’s Fair was when friends came over with slides that their son in the Air Force had taken at the Brussels’ World Fair in 1958. Did the excitement never end?

Why couldn’t we have lived in St. Louis in 1904? We could have lived next door to Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, and met them at the Fair. (Don’t tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.)

It’s not as if I would have expected to go to the Brussels’ World Fair. (As if…) Or that I believed that there was a way-back machine that could produce a meet up in 1904 St. Louis. But I was a bit miffed that we couldn’t even make our way 180 miles to Queens, New York for the 1964 edition.

Practically everyone else I knew got to go. (Wah, wah, wah.)

Over fifty million folks attended the New York World’s Fair. Sureunispherely we could have been among them, catching a glimpse of the future and what would have been my first glimpse of New York City.

I’ve had to settle for seeing the Unisphere coming and going from the airport.

What did we miss?

At the Bell System pavilion, engineers touted a "picturephone" that allowed callers to see who they were talking to, a concept that lives on in modern-day apps such as Skype and FaceTime. (Source: CBS News)

Picturephone? I would have been thrilled with a sleekly modern Princess Phone. I suppose I should have been happy that, in addition to the old time black phone in my parents’ bedroom, we had a hip yellow wall phone in the kitchen.

The fair also gave wide exposure to the power of computers, which at the time were seen as huge cabinets of blinking lights and electrodes operated by big corporations. At the IBM pavilion, visitors saw a computer system in which a machine took in a card with a date written on it and gave back another card with a news story from that date. At the NCR pavilion, a computer would answer scientific questions or give out recipes from a cookbook.

Hey, we’ve got that.

One exhibit I’m happy to have missed was the Disney “It’s a Small World” attraction. And The Talking Mr. Lincoln? I saw both of these a decade later at Disneyland, and wasn’t impressed with either. Robots have come a long way, baby. But:

"This is the first time that millions of people had the opportunity to see something that could be described as robotic. The special effects you could see in the World's Fair blew away what you could see in the movies," said Joseph Tirella, author of a book about the fair.

Jet packs were demo’d. We still don’t have those, but we do have drones.

And General Motors foresaw a future that would include:

…colonies on the moon as well as in Antarctica, huge underwater dwellings and a machine that used a laser to cut through rainforests, leaving behind paved roads.

Maybe another fifty years or so.

Regardless of whether such notions survived, observers say the fair offered a vision of the world's potential that made it seem like anything was possible.

"It really seems like 50 years ago, we had more exciting visions for 50 years in the future than we do now," [filmmaker Ryan] Ritchey said.

Oh, I don’t know about that. We may have some bleak predictions, but there are also those drones that will be delivering goods to our door from Amazon. I.e., the goods that we won’t be able to print in our own homes on our 3-D printers. Goods we’ll pay for telepathically from the comfort of those homes, which we’ll never have to leave. Because our doctor robots will be able to perform surgery remotely and so microscopically that we won’t skip an Amazon-ordering or 3-D printing beat.

Futurama, come on down.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

And how about a Nobel Prize for the Ooho guys…

I haven’t done any sort of real analysis here, but my gut instinct – and the fact that I do pick up trash when I’m out and about – is that discarded water bottles (and around here, that’s mostly Poland Springs) are in the Top Four when it comes to sidewalk trash. (Starbucks paper cups, Dunkin styro, and McDonald’s wrappers account for the rest. If there’s a fifth, it’s probably parking tickets.)

Since I do pick up a fair amount of trash, I find myself completely irked by people who have no problem carrying a bottle or cup when it’s got something in it, but who –once a vessel’s empty – can’t bear to hang on to it for a couple of minutes until they find a trash can. Or, heaven forbid, just tuck the empty into their pocket or pocketbook and take it home with them.

So I am completely in love with the fellows at Skipping Rocks Lab who’ve come up with Ooho.

Ooho is a green, homemade alternative to the tens of billions of disposable water bottles produced annually. The flexible, watertight container has the texture of a gel and, although tasteless, is easy to bite into. (Source: Business Week.)Ooho

We have Rodrigo Garcia, Pierre Paslier, and Guillaume Couche – all 30 years old or under – for this idea, which has won the Lexus Design Award for 2014.

Of course, this isn’t the first example of the fully edible foodstuff, in which the packaging can be consumed. Think ice cream cone.

But in general we have a mania for over-packaging everything. Remember the olden days when we used to survive and manage to hydrate without plastic water bottles? We were able to do so because there were bubblers everywhere. (Aside to non-New Englanders: bubbler = water fountain.) Well, those bubblers have gone the way of the payphone. Whenever I see one – there’s still one in the Boston Public Garden and, quaintly, it has a bit of mossy slime in its stone bowl – I take a swig (fingers crossed that no germy kid has just stuck his mouth all over it: probably not; I think today’s moms are way too germ-averse).

Here, in the designers’ own words (apparently translated by someone with English-as-a-second-language) is how Ooho works:

"Ooho!" replicates this behavior, encircle the water in a eatable membrane of algae. It is new way of packaging that propose an alternative to the plastic bottle. Using the culinary technique of sphereification, the water is encapsulated in a double gelatinous membrane. The technique consist into apply sodium alginate (E-401) from the brown algae and calcium chloride (E-509) in a concrete proportions in order to generate a gelification on the exterior of the liquid. The final package is simple, cheap (2ct/unit), resistant, hygienic, biodegradable and even eatable.

…After experimenting the spherification technique with different ingredients, proportions and dimensions, a “recipe” was found to create “Ooho!” with a double gelatinous membrane and in different sizes. The double membrane protects hygienically the inside and allows to locate between the two layers identification labels with out any adhesive. …The main idea of “Ooho!” is that everyone could make them at their kitchen, modifying and innovating the “recipe”. From DIY to CIY (Cook It Yourself).(Source: Design Boom.)

I may never be one of the folks using the open source recipe to brew my own Ooho, let alone improve on it. But what a great idea!

The number of plastic bottles that are thrown away each year by Americans is 35 billion. Of the plastic produced in the United States only about 25 percent is recycled. (Source: Ask)

Even if it can save us from a mere one percent of these tossed- away bottles, Ooho will make a phenomenal contribution to the world we live in.

Bless you, boys. I hope you win the Nobel Prize in something or other. Chemistry, Economics, Peace. Something or other should apply.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I dreamed I was 10 pounds–not just 38 bucks - lighter in my Maidenform undies

I am a member of the last generation that wore something called a girdle.

No matter how slender, by their early teen years, girls of my era – at least good Catholic girls, and what other kind are there? – wore panty girdles when they “dressed up” for church, a school function, a date. (Not that I had many of those…) To not wear a girdle was immodest, a near occasion of sin, and was to invite leering, pinching, and worse from the wolves just hanging around street corners waiting to leer, pinch, and worse at girdle-less girls sauntering by.

While our mothers kept on wearing them – when my mother, in her later years, went on European bus jaunts, she packed a girdle and bra for every day of the trip – most of us peeled off the girdle somewhere around the end of high school/beginning of college.

Many of us then went on to enjoy a few girdle-less (and sometimes braless) years before we realized that our tops, if not our bottoms, could use a bit of control. And thus we pulled on “control top panty hose.”

Somewhere along the line, cellulite reared its ugly head, and all us girls in our twenties started examining our thighs looking for those nasty little lumps of fat.

The cure at one point was scrubbing the offensive cellulite away with a loofah, with or without a special cream.

Any concerns I had about cellulite faded before I managed to loofah it away. I haven’t checked lately. I assume it’s still there. (The cellulite, not the loofah.)

Meanwhile, on the rare occasions when I’m wearing a skirt or a dress, I’m sticking with control top panty hose, thank you.

But there’s a new generation of young women out there for whom control top panty hose aren’t the answer, perhaps because women under the age of 40 don’t wear panty hose. So they’re making the founder of Spanx a ka-billionaire, and, looking for the cure, are also buying up:

…undergarments infused with capsules of caffeine and vitamins. (Source: Boston Globe)

Alas, these undergarments allegedly:

…failed to live up to claims that they would melt away fat.

Which has prompted two local women to sue the bastards:

Annique Bellot of Newton and Tara Stefani of Hingham filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in US District Court in Boston this week against Maidenform Brands LLC and Wacoal America Inc., joining other women who have recently brought cases against the companies for allegedly misrepresenting the garments’ powers.

The Massachusetts suit states that the slimming shapewear, constructed with microcapsules containing caffeine, Vitamin E, fatty acids, and other ingredients that are absorbed by the skin, is marketed as a way to “permanently change women’s body shape and skin tone.” The products cost 50 to 60 percent more than identical garments that do not have the microcapsules, according to the suit.

Maidenform’s contribution to hope for womankind is the $38 Flexee Instant Slimmer, while Wacoal has brought out the $60 iPant.

The iPant – stunningly ridiculous name, no? – is advertised as “anti-cellulite”, and promises to produce “lasting results” if you’re willing to keep it on eight hours a day, seven days a week for four weeks.

“It’s very unfortunate that there are companies out there that are preying on people’s insecurities with claims that may not be supportable by science,” said Newton lawyer Mathew Pawa, who is representing the plaintiffs.

Well, yes, it is “unfortunate that there are companies out there that are preying on people’s insecurities”. And it is equally, perhaps even more, unfortunate that there are people gullible enough to fall for crazy anti-fat, anti-aging, anti-sagging, anti-whatever claims, and underwear seems to be the least of the worries here.

Nutrient-infused textiles are a $600 million annual business, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit. The plaintiffs are seeking refunds and punitive damages, as well as an injunction that would keep the companies from selling the apparel.

Nutrient-infused textiles? Hmmmm.  One would think that piranha-infused textiles might do a better job.

Personally, I don’t see why the two plaintiffs didn’t just go to Macy’s and get their money back, write a complaint letter to Wacoal and/or Maidenform, and then get on social media and trash the products. Isn’t this what social media’s for?

But all that gets you is your refund, not “punitive damages”. And gee, having worn the nutrient-infused girdles for 28 days straight, the duo may feel that they are deserving of “punitive damages.”

Pawa’s co-counsel on the case, Tim Howard, a Tallahassee lawyer and president of Cambridge Graduate University , filed a similar suit against Maidenform and Wacoal in Florida in December.

Telling women you can lose weight “by putting coffee and whatever else you put in the fabric of underwear” is “absurd and extraordinarily crass,” [co-counsel for the suit Tim] Howard said. There are probably tens of thousands of women who have purchased this type of shapewear, he said.

Come on!  If every claim that’s absurd and/or extraordinarily crass leads to court, we’ll have backlogs that will stretch to infinity and beyond.

But some people just want their (pay) day in court.*

Do I have to ask whatever happened to a) caveat emptor; b) if something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Want to slim that tummy, those thighs? Not that I’m taking my own advice here, but I do believe eating less and exercising more should work.


*Tara Stefani does seem to be one of them.

She’s not only a plaintiff in this suit, she’s signed on for another class action. In the other one, Ms. Stefani is going after a company called 23andMe that makes a DNA saliva kit and analysis service that the suit claims is based on specious science.(Source: Universal Hub.)

Apparently, she’s a sucker for bad science. Either that, or she’s doing us all a great service by uncovering all these shady products.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Why Patriots’ Day Rules

Well, it’s Patriots Day, a holiday which I have always very much enjoyed.

You want to know why?

  1. Patriots’ Day is ours and ours alone. Yes, it’s a public holiday in Maine – and, weirdly, Wisconsin has some school-based observance around it – but it’s 99.9999% ours. (Maine, in the the way back, used to be part of Massachusetts, so there.) Ours, gloriously, ours - which as the world, let alone the country becomes more boringly homogenized, is all to the good. You might even say it’s wicked pissah!
  2. It means spring. As only people who dwell in northern climes can appreciate, spring getting sprung is a big deal. (Given the longitude of Wisconsin, this may be the reason they’ve decided to give this day a go.) Sure, it can be in the 40’s and sleeting, but as often as not, the weather is spring-like: magnolias in bloom, daffodils abounding, and forsythia starting to blossom.
  3. The Swanboats are back. The Boston Public Garden is my front yard. Bonus points that it’s one of the most beautiful public parks in the United States, and, come swanboatspring, the swanboats are there. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, swanboats are pedal-powered and glide around the lagoon throughout the spring and summer. I haven’t actually been on a swanboat in maybe ten years, but I like the idea of them just being there. Maybe now that spring is sprung, I’ll take a ride. One of these days.
  4. The boys are back, too. Given that this is Boston, this can only mean one thing: the Red Sox are back in town. They have to be back. After all,  it’s Patriots’ Day, which means home game. And the game starts at the odd little hour of 11 a.m. The Marathon used to be timed so that the game ended just about the same time that the lead runners were pumping through Kenmore Square, just outside of Fenway Park. Alas, somewhere along the line it was decided that 35,000 fans hitting the streets the same time the runners do wasn’t a good idea. It worked before the Boston Marathon became the biggy-big deal it’s become, but no more. Sigh! It’s still fun to get watch the Patriots’ Day game at Fenway. Even when – as is the early-going case this year – the boys aren’t exactly covering themselves with glory.
  5. The Boston Marathon is being run. And it’s also being watched. (Safe bet: lots more watchers than runners.) As you can imagine, the race has taken on a new meaning this year, what with the first anniversary of the Marathon Bombings having just passed. With luck, over the years, the Marathon will return to something that more closely resembles what it has always been: a race that brings a lot of elite runners to Boston, but a race that’s also run by people you know (friends, colleagues, neighbors, folks from the gym… ) What’s fun about the Boston Marathon is that everybody knows someone who’s running. And everybody knows someone who’s watching along the way. And everybody knows someone standing near the finish line. Which is one reason why last year’s events shook this city to core. This was personal.
  6. It’s the start of school vacation. This may be a mixed blessing for parents, but as a former vacationing school kid, this was the very best vacation week of the whole, wide school year. Christmas week was Christmas week, but there was way too much going on. Including church, as both Christmas and New Year’s Day were holy days of obligation, which meant Mass. Christmas Mass at least had carols going for it. New Year’s Day*: bor-ing. February vacation week was fine, but there was a pretty good bet that there’d be at least one day during the week when you were stuck inside because of a blizzard. Plus, most of the time it was smack dab in the middle of Lent, so there was always pressure to sacrifice something fun like desert, or get up out of bed to go to completely optional daily Mass. But April vacation week. Bliss!
  7. Patriots’ Day brings with it no obligations whatsoever.  Let’s face it, most holidays haul an awful lot of baggage along with them. Even if you don’t have any of the church-y things hanging over you, there are presents to buy, food to cook, decorations to put up, places to go, stuff to do. Not Patriots’ Day. Nada. Zip. Zilch by way of obligatory. You can watch the ballgame. Or not. Watch the Marathon. Or not. Watch the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Or not. Bliss!
  8. This was the day when the shot heard round the world was fired. And we – i.e., New Englanders – were there. Okay, in real life this was on April 19th, which is when Patriots’ Day used to be celebrated. But then a light bulb went off and somebody up there realized that a three-day weekend occasionally trumps historic accuracy. Anyway, speaking of the shot heard round the world, I defy anyone to go out to Concord Bridge and not be moved to think about where those embattled farmers standing there firing that shot. (Well, mostly you get to think about it because Emerson’s poem, Concord Hymn is carved in granite and standing, unembattled, staring you right in the face.
  9. If you don’t particularly care about baseball or marathoning, there’s a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington going on.  Just down the road from Concord Bridge is Lexington Green where, every year, the Battle of Lexington Green is reenacted. I’ve been to this a couple of times and, other than the fact that you have to get up at the crack of dawn to see it, it’s great fun. The best year for it was, of course, 1975, the battle’s bicentennial. That year, my cousin Barbara had what had to be one of the largest pajama parties ever: every inch of her house in Lexington was covered with someone in a sleeping bag. The evening before, we all ate genuine colonial fare: spaghetti and meatballs. Which fortified us all to get up at 5 a.m. and leg it over to Lexington Green. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the gunpowder coming out of a blunderbuss.

I suppose I should come up with a tenth reason here, which seems to be the magic list number. But the beauty of Patriots’ Day, and why it rules, is that there really aren’t any rules.

Patriots’ Day: What’s not to like?


*Somehow I remembered this as the Feast of the Incarnation, but I looked it up and found that January 1st celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Oh, woe is lapsed me.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Notell Hotel goes Airbnb

I guess this was inevitable, but it seems that Airbnb is suffering from the “from our house to whorehouse” syndrome.

This we learned earlier in the week when that bastion of journalistic integrity and intelligence – and yet an occasional source of excellent scoop - The New York Post, reported that, just as civilians can save on steep hotel bills with Airbnb, so, too can hookers. No more sleezoid Notell Hotel. No more paying through the nose for someplace upscale. Nope, now it’s all the comforts of home – and more – at Manhattan apartments.

One person who found herself an unwitting madam-for-the-day is Jessica Penzari.

“She [the renter] told me that she was in the Army and needed a place to hang out before she got shipped out,” Penzari said of her Airbnb “guest.”

“She said she was being deployed that week. She was asking for places to go out with her friends.” (Source: NY Post)

Ah, yes, another version of “thank you for your service.”

But when a hooker got slashed by a client in the West 43rd Street apartment over the price of his “massage,” Penzari got a call from cops.

When she returned, Penzari was shocked to find telltale remnants including baby wipes and “at least 10 condoms.”

No word on whether the condoms had been, ahem, unfurled and fulfilled. (Double, triple, quadruple EWW.)

Penzari said Airbnb put her up in the swanky InterContinental hotel in Times Square for two nights — with room-service meals — and also paid to change her door locks, clean her apartment and replace her pillows and other belongings.

Which does not exactly make up for the full double, triple, quadruple EWW factor, I’m guessing.

I suspect there’s a new apartment in Jessica’s future.

And Jessica is not, of course, the only one whose digs are being compromised. One working girl told The Post that her escort service rents Airbnb flats for days at a time.

“It’s more discreet and much cheaper than The Waldorf,” said the sex worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Hotels have doormen and cameras. They ask questions. Apartments are usually buzz-in.”

Smart business move, no?

And speaking of working girls and not-so-smart business moves. Many years ago, my husband and I were in the lobby bar at the NY Hilton on 6th Avenue. Sitting at the table next to us were what we assumed were, based on our eavesdropping, a prostitute and a prospective john.

I remember feeling terrible for the girl – who seemed very young, maybe 20-21 – who told the fellow that she was a model. When he asked who she modeled for, her answer was “Mostly for myself.”

She then agreed to accept a check, which didn’t seem like the shrewdest move on her part. On the other hand, if he used a legit check and tried to cancel payment, the girl would have a way to track him down. Wonder whatever happened with that transaction. Personally, I would have held out for cash.

There have been plenty of unseemly incidents involving Airbnb renters: an orgy that was promoted online; a flat that ended up used as a nude massage parlor; apartments pillaged; souvenir crack pipes left behind.

Although I do know some people who have done so – not as prostitutes, druggies, orgy-participants, or crack smokers; just as ordinary travelers - I’ve never used Airbnb. I have, however, used vacation-rental-by-owner services (including Vacation Rental By Owner), which are a bit more structured: references, contracts, security deposits required.

Airbnb maintains that all the unseemly incidents are nothing particular to their business model:

“The entire hospitality industry deals with issues like this, and we have zero tolerance for this activity,” it said.

Zero tolerance, sure, but also zero security measures – guards, cameras, front desks – that even the slimiest of Notell Motels would have.

Not that I was considering it to begin with, but I sure won’t be renting out my digs anytime soon.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

There’s even a popularity contest for spokescharacters

Someone over at Forbes had nothing better to do with their time than to get E-Poll Market Research to figure out which “spokescharacters” are the most popular. (Hey, it takes a time waster to know a time waster.)

Anyway, E-Poll is best known – that is, it would be best known, if they were known at all – for its celebrity rating service, which I guess is there so that marketers won’t sign up a celebrity spokesperson, only to realize that people detest him. (I mean, who wants to get stuck with Justin Bieber representin’ for them, when they really should have gone with Justin Timberlake?)

As Justin B., Lindsay Lohan, and untold others have amply demonstrated over the years, having a celebrity front for you – unless it’s someone 100% guaranteed for sweetness and light, like Jennifer Garner – can really backfire.

Which is why spokescharacters are so much the safer choice. Tony the Tiger is not going to get wasted and drag race and/or urinate on his neighbor’s front lawn. As the man says:

“Spokescharacters can be a very safe and memorable way to represent a brand as they won’t end up in jail or the tabloids and they won’t Tweet something inappropriate,” ” says Gerry Philpott, president of E-Poll Market Research.” The fact that they never age allows them to appeal to many different age groups and provides the marketing nirvana of ‘cradle to grave’ branding.” (Source: Forbes)

I don’t know how much we can trust E-Poll. I’m a tad bit suspicious, given that one of the little fast facts on their home page claims that “one-quarter of 16-34 year olds plan to purchase a Toyota or a Honda in the next year.” Even if I were a marketer at Toyota or Honda – make that especially if I were a marketer at Toyota or Honda – I wouldn’t be all that excited about this, as it sounds so obviously BS-y. Maybe one-quarter of 16-34 year olds who a) participated in our unscientific poll, and b) say they’re going to be a car next year, for whatever reason said they’d be buying a Toyota or a Honda.

But. I. Digress.

It’s all about the ranking of the spokescharacters.

First place is occupied by the Budweiser Clydesdales, and I have to agree with this one. I am a complete and utter sucker for an ad using a Clydesdale. Not that this translates into my actually purchasing a Budweiser. Still, those Clydesdale ads: the soppier and more sentimental, the better. Throw in a Clydesdale baby and/or a dog, and I’m there.

Met Life’s Snoopy is in the second spot, which is a nice nod to tradition. And it’s interesting that the first two spots are occupied by silent spokescharacters. (Does this make them non-spokescharacters?)

Insurance grabs the next two spots: Allstate’s Mayhem – one of two spokescharacters on the list that’s actually a human – is in third. Well, E-Poll never asked me, because I heartily dislike this campaign. (I was going to say “despise”, but it really does seem excessive to “despise” an ad campaign, doesn’t it?) But this is just me, apparently:

Allstate was ranked by Facebook to be in its top five brands globally, and the Mayhem page has 1.8 million fans.

Geico’s Humpday Camel comes in fourth. Not wild about this ad, but, in general, I find much about Geico irritating, including the Geico gecko and the Geico pig. Perhaps they would be less irritating if, like Snoopy and the Clydesdales, they didn’t give voice to their spokescharacter-ness.

Believe it or not, a real oldie but goodie places fifth: Smokey the Bear. I wasn’t even aware that this icon of my childhood – Only YOU can prevent forest fires – was still in play.

Shamu, who fronts for Seaworld, is next, followed by the Coca Cola Polar Bear. Awwww, those coca-bears are awful cute, but I pretty much resent the fact that Coke went after Worcester’s own Polar Beverage, which – as the name implies – has had a polar bear as its spokescharacter since time immemorial. And, by the way, Polar sodas are way-far better than anything that Coke has to offer. I highly recommend the Orange Dry and the Cape Cod Cranberry Dry.

The talking M&M’s placed eighth. Is it just me, or is there something vaguely obscene about these guys?

The E-Trade Baby – who I just love – comes in ninth, but he’s being replaced, I’m afraid.

And speaking about vaguely obscene, there’s the Pillsbury Doughboy rounding out the Top Ten.

All this got me thinking about the spokescharacters Reddy_Kilowatt_with_wall_outlet_poseof yesteryear: Speedy Alka-Seltzer, all those cereal spokescharacters, Chiquita Banana (is “she” still around), and my personal favorite, Reddy Kilowatt.

Mayhem? Humpday Camel? They sure don’t make spokescharacters like they used to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nice to know that some things haven’t changed. (Harrumph…)

My first job out of business school was for a company that sold software and data to Wall Street.

The confluence of technology and finance? Well, let’s just say it was a perfect storm of sexism.

Shortly before I’d joined the company, they had run an ad that was notorious, even for the times. (This would have been the late 1970’s.) I can’t remember all the salacious details, but it featured a mini-skirted chick, legs spread, shot from behind while walking towards a bunch of leering men. I have fortunately blocked the caption completely out of my mind.

At one point while working for this company, I was the product manager for a forecasting tool called AutoBJ, which I occasionally had to demo to the Wall Street crowd. Let the hilarity begin.

I will say that the techies were not quite as bad as the traders, perhaps because half the techies had a touch of Asperger’s, and were overtly more goofy than puerile-y sexist. But in general, the tenor of the place was often hostile to women. There were few – if any – women in policy positions, and some of the senior executives were complete and utter skirt chasers.

Fast forward to a new company, where I was still in the technology for Wall Street game, and where I was the only woman on a team charged with plotting the company’s financial services strategy. At one meeting, one of the charmers on the team said, “Think of financial services as a prone woman, legs spread, waiting for us to penetrate her.” It goes without saying that our strategy failed abysmally – as did that company.

Somewhere along the line  - yet another tech company, but one not focused (thankfully) on The Street - I made my way into the management ranks, where I quickly learned that a woman’s voice was like a dog whistle: only certain ears were attuned to hear it.

Truly, I would say something at a management meeting and it would be totally ignored. Until a couple of minutes later, one of the men made the same point. I soon learned that the best thing to do was to say something like, “Thanks, Joe, for supporting me on this.”

Truly a grrrrrr situation.

Meanwhile, one of my fellow “execs” – we were such a small company, it seemed ludicrous to think of us as executives, but, indeed, that’s what we were – was famous for doodling breast-like doodles throughout our meetings. This same fellow, at one point, thanked me for helping him prepare for a major presentation by saying “Thanks for being my wet nurse.” (I don’t think he was being sexist. I did mention Asperger’s, did I not? Still, it will give you some sense of the climate for women back in the dark ages of the late 20th century.)

Given all this, I was not surprised at a recent article in The New York Times chronicling the troubles that women continue to have in tech – especially women who are themselves techies. The article leads off talking about Elissa Shevinsky, who realized she’d had it with the tech sector over the positive (hee-haw) reception that an app called Titstare which enables “you to take photos of yourself staring at tits.”

Ms. Shevinsky felt pushed to the edge. Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens — a slight or a major offense — and they suddenly feel like outsiders. The question for newcomers to a field has always been when to play along and when to push back.

Today, even as so many barriers have fallen — whether at elite universities, where women outnumber men, or in running for the presidency, where polls show that fewer people think gender makes a difference — computer engineering, the most innovative sector of the economy, remains behind. Many women who want to be engineers encounter a field where they not only are significantly underrepresented but also feel pushed away.

Tech executives often fault schools, parents or society in general for failing to encourage girls to pursue computer science. But something else is at play in the industry: Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men,according to research from the Harvard Business School.

A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even endangered. (Source: NY Times)

I find this colossally disheartening, especially since I am a major proponent of young women pursuing a STEM education and career.

Alas, the number of women in the computing field is actually going down:

In 2012, just 18 percent of computer-science college graduates were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Which is really too bad, especially because this is where a lot of the good jobs are going to be.

It’s not just the jerk quotient that keeps women out of tech. It’s a complex combination of factors that Pink Slip is certainly not going to come up with a solution for.

And I will say that I very much enjoyed working with most of the techies I met over the years, and that some of my best friends are engineers.

Still, I’m bummed that 30-plus years after I started in technology, it remains a tough go for women.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A stroll down a not so pleasant memory lane…

Last April 15th, I/we were still guardedly optimistic about the treatment for my husband’s recurrent cancer.

Yes, we got that it was “treatable, no curable” But we hoped that “treatable” would translate into some sort of long and glorious remission, or something like “cancer as a chronic disease” in which, as long as you could tolerate the chemo, and the cancer kept at bay, “it” was just a condition you lived with.Like arthritis or hay fever.

So, feeling guardedly optimistic, last April 15th, we spent the morning at MGH for Jim’s chemo session, and had our traditional post-chemo lunch at Scampo’s at the Liberty Hotel. After which I had my traditional post-chemo, post-Scampo’s nap while Jim watched TV. He gave me a shout when the news came on about the Marathon bombings in Copley Square, which is maybe a mile from where we live.

My quick response at the time “What was up until 2:50 p.m. at glorious day” has a title that somewhat exaggerates the case. How glorious is any day on which your husband is being treated for a recurrence of the cancer that’s inevitably going to kill him? Still and all, Patriots Day has always been a glorious little holiday, mostly because it’s quirky and pretty much all ours.

My longer response, “That was the week that was,” pretty well sums up how I felt at the time – and pretty much still do.

Over the summer, some wildly misplaced romanticism about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got me a bit irked. (“Free Jahar?” Give me a break.” More recently, I blogged about B Strong, the Red Sox-ized version of the ubiquitous Boston Strong rallying cry that took over the town last April.

And now, here we are, a year later.

It almost goes without saying that Boston’s media has been consumed with the anniversary of the bombing because that’s what the media does. And because it’s Patriots Day, which is our personal and particular thing, and because it’s The Marathon, which is another of our personal and particular things, that just happens to take place on Patriots Day, which this year falls on Monday, April 21st. So the consumption with the anniversary will take place in two parts, the actual anniversary (today) and next Monday, when The Marathon is run.

I’m sure that over the next week or so I’ll walk over to The Marathon finish line, and take a look at whatever’s going in Copley Square. I’m sure on Marathon Monday, I’ll turn on WBZ midday and watch stuff. And take a bit of a walk about to see the runners walking about wrapped in their baked potato jackets (the silver Mylar blankets the finishers are given).

But mostly I’m sure I’ll be thinking that, last April 15th, we/I were still guardedly optimistic about what the next year was going to bring.


Monday, April 14, 2014

In (department of) defense of the shoe industry

Although my “real” career has been in high tech marketing, I did make an early professional foray into the shoe industry.

Professional may be too grand a word to describe my minimum wage job at H.H. Brown. There I worked near the end of the assembly line as a finisher, responsible for putting shoe polish on the exposed seams of combat boots (black for the Army, brown for the Air Force – or was it the other way around?), and for using acetone to remove glue and other gunk that got onto the boots while they made their journey from piece of hide to shoe box. While I was busy as a finisher, my friend Kim – now a partner in a major Boston law firm – was working a few tables behind me as a “heel podder”, gluing thin strips of leather on the inside heel position of a boot.

My biggest nightmare as a shoe factory hand was the day they took me off finishing and set me to the task of removing boots as they came down the vertical conveyor belt from the second floor, and pulling out any nails that were protruding from the innards of the boots.

It took me about two minutes to figure out why the other folks who performed this task had their fingers swathed in adhesive tape. But I had no adhesive tape, so I had to feel around in those boots very gingerly.

Since I was so slow, I did not in the least keep up with the boots raining down on me from the second floor. I just let them go back from whence they came, while I slowly did my voyage of nail discovery, and yanked any nails I found out with a pair of pliers.

It was only when the former came raging over to me to tell me I was useless, and sent me back to finishing (where I bled all over those exposed boot seams for the remainder of my shift), that I found that if I didn’t remove a pair of boots from the conveyor belt, it dropped off somewhere in the bowels of the factory.

Live and learn that I really had no future in shoe biz.

Not that many folks in America did, especially in New England, where, by the time I was working at H.H. Brown, most of the shoe factories had gone south. Since then, they’ve mostly migrated to China and Vietnam.

But, apparently, the combat boot business stayed in the U.S., thank to a World War II era law:

Under a provision of 1941 legislation known as the Berry Amendment, the Defense Department must buy boots, uniforms and certain other items that are 100% U.S.-made. (Source: WSJ Online)

There are Berry Amendment get-arounds:

It can make exceptions if U.S. manufacturers don't have the capacity to make what it needs, and has done so for athletic shoes needed for boot camp.

The Army, Navy and Air Force "allow members to select and wear the type and size of athletic shoe that provides the greatest comfort and reduces the potential for injury," regardless of where they are made, a Defense Department official said.

Well, the shoe industry – particularly in the M-states: Massachusetts, Maine, and Michigan, where sneaks are made – are pushing lawmakers to get rid of the sneaker exemption.

Shoemakers have to demonstrate that they’re capable of producing the sneakers that the armed forces need. If they do so, the Department of Defense may rule that G.I. soft footwear be born in the USA.

Local shoe darling, New Balance, is one of the companies lobbying for home-grown athletic footwear. New Balance:

…is the only U.S. maker of athletic shoes with large-scale production in the U.S. Its five U.S. plants in Massachusetts and Maine make about 25% of its shoes sold in the U.S.; the rest are imported.

New Balance spokesman Matt LeBretton said the company has spent more than $1 million on equipment and training to produce the midsole, which is normally imported. Orders from the military could create 200 jobs at New Balance, which employs about 2,900 in the U.S., and more at suppliers, he said.

Reebok and Converse are also from around here. Don’t know that much about what Reebok’s up to, but if the military’s worried about safety, it’s hard to believe that Converse’s Jack Purcell’s or canvas high-top Chucks would fit the bill. (In case you’re wondering, Jack Purcell was a badminton player. Chuck Taylor was a salesman/shoe evangelist.)

The armed forces give recruits stipends of about $65 to $70 to spend on athletic shoes, though sometimes it makes them buy a particular brand. Mr. LeBretton said New Balance could supply shoes in that range. "This might actually save them a few bucks," he said.

Sixty-five to seventy bucks, huh? I guess that rules of Nike Lebrons…

While New Balance is already making shoes domestically, Wolverine – which has Keds as one of its brands – could make sneakers in Michigan, if they had a market for U.S. made sneaks.

The military still has to be persuaded that U.S. shoe companies can ensure all recruits get the right fit and style. Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, cited the stresses soldiers undergo during long runs at boot camp.

Worried about fit, style, and stress? Whatever happened to, This Is The Army, Mr. Jones?

Anyway, I’d just as soon have the sneakers that our service men and women wear made in the USA.

Forget that old saying about the Army moving on its stomach. The Army runs on its athletic shoes.

Let them all be made in an M-state.


Thanks to my sister Kath – who also put in time at H.H. Brown, I believe as a shoe boxer - for pointing this article out.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Forget what font it’s in: just get it in writing.

When it comes to fonts, you only need to take a look at Pink Slip to appreciate that I probably don’t spend a lot of time worrying about things like look and feel. (For the record, this is Georgia, which looks a lot like Times New Roman to me. I.e., it’s a bit less type-writer-y than Courier. Pink Slip aside, I tend toward Calibri, Verdana, and Tahoma. They just look  cleaner. However, I have been told that serif fonts are, however, easier to read than sans serif.)

Oh, well.

Anyway, while I don’t dwell on fonts, I do like them. And while I’m mostly a content person, I enjoy design as much as the next guys. I just don’t typically practice it.

And, in terms of the written/typed word, I think the world was getting along just fine when, it seemed, that there were only two choices, Times and Helvetica (which was pretty much the Arial of yesteryear).

But I like the idea of designers creating new fonts, making minute and subtle changes that most of us don’t notice one way or another: how thick is the outside of the capital O, how high does the i get dotted, where do you cross your t’s?

And I don’t like the idea of designers squabbling over their business after one gets screwed out of said business by the other.

Tsk, tsk.

But this has happened with what was once the partnership of of Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones, of the company Hoefler & Frere-Jones, which over the course of many years developed some mighty important fonts, the most prominent and famous of which is Gotham, a font as sleek and modern as Gotham, a.k.a., Manhattan.

Gotham has appeared on Netflix envelopes, Coca-Cola cans, and in the Saturday Night Live logo. It was on display at the Museum of Modern Art from 2011 to 2012 and continues to be part of the museum’s permanent collection. It also helped elect a president: In 2008, Barack Obama’s team chose Gotham as the official typeface of the campaign and used it to spell out the word HOPE on its iconic posters. (Source: Business Week.)

To others in the business, the team of Hoefler & Frere-Jones was considered a sure-fired pairing: peanut butter and jelly, green eggs and ham, Barnum and Bailey. Or, in the hallowed words of Debbie Millman, the head of the trade association for designers: “They were like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.”

The couple – Jonathan and Tobias, not Brangelina -  got along together for 15 years:

Last year, the duo won the AIGA Medal, the profession’s highest award. It seemed to be one of those rare situations whereby two successful soloists had combined to make an even better supergroup. Hoefler was asked if there were any troubles in their working relationship for a video produced for the AIGA in 2013. “We do have a longstanding disagreement over the height of the lower case t,” he said. “That is the only point of contention.”

…Within the industry, Hoefler is widely seen as the driver of that end of the company, with Frere-Jones credited for being the creative force.

And from Frere-Jones perspective, they were in a true partnership: both names on the door, even steven, one for all and all for one, etc… Then, after all those years of verbal agreements and an implicit understanding that they were, indeed, in it together, Frere-Jones started pressing to get it in writing. Then, and only then, did he find out that, whatever words had been passed between them, however many times their relationship was – for marketing purposes – referred to as a partnership, whatever the outside world thought they were about, they were just another unequal pairing of boss and minion.

Frere-Jones decided to sue, but Hoefler (surprise, surprise) believes the $20 M suit is sans merit.

According to the company statement, Frere-Jones was not Hoefler’s partner but a “longtime employee.”

And behind the curtain, the company that was doing business as Hoefler & Frere-Jones was actually a legal entity called Hoefler Type Foundry. Not to mention that Frere-Jones had, in 2004, somewhat dopily – especially in hindsight – “signed an employment agreement describing him as an employee of the firm.” And which includes a non-compete.

Frere-Jones doesn’t contest this, but claims that he only agreed because Hoefler was “always promising to formalize the partnership soon.”

Oh, my dear, sweet, naïve, trusting Tobias Frere Jones. (You really thought he’d respect you in the morning?)

Anyway, after 15 years, Frere-Jones decided he wanted to make the relationship officially official. Hoefler’s response wasL ain’t gonna happen. And, in anticipation that he may have ticked his partner, oops, employee, off enough to get him to leave, Hoefler registered a bunch of URL’s that someone named Tobias Frere-Jones might want for himself:

…,, and Anyone who types these URLs into a Web browser is now redirected to, the homepage of Hoefler&Co. When asked about the domain names, Hoefler writes in an e-mail: “The company maintains dozens of domains that are variations of its registered trademarks, in keeping with best practices.”

To me, the broken partnership promise makes Hoefler look like a snake; grabbing the URL’s that Tobias Frere-Jones might want to claim, and directing them to his homepage, makes Hoefler look like a Grade A bastard.

Several designers I spoke with said they were under the impression that Hoefler was almost exclusively focused on managing the business in recent years, leaving design to Frere-Jones. This makes it easy to cast Hoefler in the role of the villain exploiting the work of a naïve genius. But Hoefler and Frere-Jones’s relationship was more complicated than that, says Mike Essl, who teaches design at Cooper Union. Hoefler had all of Frere-Jones’s design chops, but also had the ability to propel Frere-Jones to prominence in a way he couldn’t have done on his own. Business partnerships rarely last forever, says Essl, and when they end, it’s often ugly. “Van Halen isn’t going to be Van Halen forever,” he says. “Someone is going to leave.”

Maybe Hoefler’s business savvy did propel Tobias Frere-Jones to the point where Business Week is writing about him (and Pink Slip is blogging about him: talk about prominence!). And maybe Hoefler will have the law on his side.

But I suspect that in the court of public opinion, Tobias Frere-Jones is winning. Too bad that’s not worth anywhere near the $20M Frere-Jones wants from Hoefler.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What’s in a Word

I read recently that Pawtucket Rhode Island’s own Hasbro -  maker of such classics as Lincoln Logs and Mr. Potato Head, toys-come-lately like Furbies, as well as gamesters who bring us half the board games you can think of  - is reaching out via social media to update some of their games.

For one thing, they’re asking for play-ahs to suggest rule changes to Monopoly. Soliciting suggestions for new rules shouldn’t be all that hard, as there can’t be three people on the face of the earth who ever played Monopoly who didn’t make up their own rules at some point. Most of those rules were ad hoc, of course, and situation-dependent. Do you want to speed up the game because there’s no end in sight? Keep the game going by keeping players from folding? Help your pals (or the little kids) out with under the table, no interest loans?

Let’s face it, nothing could spoil a game of Monopoly faster than someone invoking the real rules.

It will be interesting to see what vox populi comes up with here.

I was certainly not impressed by the popularity contest decision to jettison the flat iron game piece in favor of a cat. I am personally opposed to replacing an iconic, historic, token-of-my-childhood with anything, let alone with a cat, of all things. But I suspect that cat fanciers have been lobbying for a cat piece since the Scottie dog debuted in the 1950’s. But replacing the flat iron….Have you no sense of decency, you Facebook Monopoly voters?

It’s not just Monopoly that Hasbro is looking to crowdsource. They’re also asking for words to add to the approved Scrabble lexicon.

For a word person, I was always pretty indifferent to the charms of Scrabble. Maybe it’s because I came of game-playing age in the house of weird, in which we had a low-end version of Scrabble called Keyword. (Of course, the fact that we also had the low-rent version of Monopoly, a game called Easy Money, didn’t stop me from adapting to Monopoly, which our family eventually owned.)

Anyway, I played some Scrabble over the years, but never as a blood sport. There were rarely any fights over whether a word would count, and those that did occur were settled by someone grabbing Merriam Webster. Who knew or cared what Scrabble officialdom had to say?

From my vantage point, for word games, give me Boggle, any old day.

But I do acknowledge that there are legions of serious Scrabble players, for whom a word must be blessed in order to count.

So, recognizing that languages grow and mutate over time, the makers of Scrabble are reaching out to its fans to figure out what to add to the lexicon.

Here’s a look at the words that have made the Sweet Sixteen.


Well, this certainly tells me that I am a completely out of touch old fogey.


Wazzup with me that I was not familiar with this one. Which, by the way, I think is an extraordinarily grand word. This generation’s version of what we used to call a lucky duck, with the era-appropriate monetary overlay.

Booyah is was familiar with, and, while I have used it, I don’t quite get it, as booing anything doesn’t sound like it’s all that good.

Next bracket down, I had never heard the word phablet (big-arse phone that looks like it’s a tablet), but it’s a good one. What I’m unclear of if this is kind of a cool thing – like those big-arse baseball caps that I despise – or whether it’s an uncool thing, almost as embarrassing as having a non-smartphone. (And speaking of embarrassing, there’s also a sexual meaning – thanks Urban Dictionary for your help with all these words – which I’m sure that the gray-haired ladies and gents playing Scrabble will ignore.) 

And I hadn’t heard the word emotypo, either. Rather than a word for a mistyped emotion – like putting the smiley ) in a frownie ( direction – I’d rather see a word for the texting howlers that appear if you don’t check what you’re texting. (For whatever reason, when I type the word “what” it “autocorrects” to ebay. (Huh?))

Moving right along, how can zen not be in the dictionary already? Or is what’s at play here is zen moving down the word chain from a Proper Noun to an uncapped everyday word?

Woot apparently comes from Dungeons and Dragons. And/or hackers. ‘Nuf said. Other than to say it means “woohoo.”

I finish out the left hand brackets in good shape, thanks to having two bestie, adorbs teenage nieces.

Moving right along, I have never heard the word hangry, but I have, at times in my life, experienced something approaching it. Maybe not angry-angry about being hungry, but being annoyed because, say, we hadn’t yet made the dining out decision for the evening.

Nowish I can see my self using. When? Nowish.

I don’t retweet, but I know all about it.

As for ew, I much prefer the eww spelling. (Take that, Scrabble-istas.)

Bitcoin hurts my head; and geocache would, too, I suppose. But probably not as much as bitcoin. (Geocache is something to do with using GPS to orienteer, which seems kind of cheater-pantsy to me.)

Cosplay stands for costume play, which is what sci-fi and anime fans do. (I was actually hoping it was co-splay, as when two folks simultaneously, say, splay their fingers. But what do I know. Nothing about anime, that’s for sure.)

We could all use a few lifehacks, i.e., “tools or techniques that make some aspect of one's life easier or more efficient.”

One of mine is turning off the Red Sox when they’re behind by more than six ones. Definitely makes life easier.

Anyway, Scrabblers will be weighing in on their choices.

I vote (metaphorically) for luckbox, lifehack, bestie, and ew/eww.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A-look me in the eye…

Let’s face it, in the grand scheme of things, it’s far more important that we groom the younger generations to fulfill their roles as citizen-consumers than it is to try to ensure that they become citizen-voters, citizen-do-gooders, citizen-citizens. I mean, seriously, the wallet is mightier than the ballot.

So get ‘em while they’re young, I always say.

I certainly regret that my marketing career has been in boring old grownup business-to-business and techie-to-techie stuff, rather than in the much more mission critical arena of consumer-goods-to-child-consumer marketing.

How much more rewarding it would have been to convince a kid that he had to have a high-fructose low-value cereal than to woo an IT director to pay a lot of money for an automated testing “solution.”

But, alas, I missed that chance.

Fortunately, there are plenty of bright and eager marketers out there who have taken up the cause. And some of them are doing the Lord of Consumption’s work on behalf of cereal makers.

In a study of 65 cereals at 10 grocery stores, researchers at Cornell University found that cereals marketed to kids are often placed at a lower shelf height—and characters on the cereal boxes are typically drawn to make eye contact with children. The report even has a suitably creepy title: “Eyes in the Aisles: Why is Cap’n Crunch Looking Down at My Child?” (Source: Business Week)

I suppose I wouldn’t find this quite so objectionable if, say, Kippy the Kangaroo was making eye contact with the little ones so that they would beg mommy and daddy to buy them Kale Flakes – They’re green! They’re crunchy! They’re air-dried! They’re healthful! But Cap’n Crunch?

“Eye contact with cereal spokes-characters increased feelings of trust and connection to the brand, as well as choice of the brand over competitors,” the report states. Consumers are 16 percent more likely to trust a brand of cereal when the characters on the boxes on the supermarket shelves look them straight in the eye. That conclusion’s based on a lab study of 63 university students who were more likely to pick Trix over Fruity Pebbles when the rabbit’s eyes were digitally manipulated to look out at them.

Not that marketing to kids was anywhere near as aggressive during my kid-hood as it is now, but in any case I would have missed out on Tony the Tiger, the Snap-Crackle-and-Pop boys, or the Sugar Crisp Sugar Bear looking me in my eyes, as we never went grocery shopping as kids.

Oh, I logged plenty of time in the grocery store running errands when we ran out of something or other, but my mother was a pre-Pea Pod pea-podder.

My mother didn’t drive until I was well into high school, so every Friday morning she called in her rather extensive weekly grocery order to Morris Market and, come Friday afternoon, cartons full of groceries were delivered by either Paul Bornstein – son-in-law of the eponymous Morris – or by Joey Hurley, a high schooler who lived across the street from my grandmother and whose family dog, Blackie, bit me (completely unprovoked) when I was in fourth grade.

Grocery deliveries were augmented by those occasional errands run by me or my sister Kath, but those were purposeful errands, meant to fulfill very specific requests: loaf of Roman Meal Bread, jar of Dailey’s Kosher Dill Pickles, can of Campbell’s Chicken Gumbo Soup. No roaming around the aisles making eye contact with Tony the Tiger. (And none of this “keep the change” nonsense, either. Most of the time my mother gave us the exact amount that the item was going to cost.)

It’s not just the kids who are the target of the seeing-eye marketers:

Adults, don’t think you’re not on marketers’ radars. The researchers also found that the cereal-selling personalities on the boxes aimed at grownups tend to make eye contact, too.

Gives new meaning to a favored expression in our family: Don’t Make Eye Contact.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Golf goes to the dogs. (As do plenty of other unwitting consumers…)

Perhaps because dogs are people, too, I find the idea of eating dog completely appalling. In a way that I don’t find the idea of eating chicken, beef, and pork.

I guess that once dog lips touch yours, and you don’t go all Lucy Van Pelt over the experience, you’re a dog person. And while dog lips might touch yours, dog anything will never pass them. (Seriously. Eating dog? I don’t care if it tastes like chicken.)

So I get completely skeeved out by the thought of dog on the menu, as is pretty common in parts of Asia. But:

Not just the dog meat is prized. Factories use leather from dog skin for use in everything from drums to guitars, says John Dalley, co-founder and vice-president of the Soi Dog Foundation, a nongovernmental organization in Thailand devoted to canine welfare. Manufacturers of golf gloves also prize dog leather, Dalley adds, especially from the skin of the testicles of male dogs  “because that skin is particularly soft.” (Source: Business Week)

Okay. There’s dog skin, and then there’s dog skin.But whatever the source of that dog skin, I really don’t want to be wearing it.

(, the business-to-business website owned by Chinese e-commerce powerhouse Alibaba, has lots of listings for gloves made from dogs.)

Couldn’t resist. I just clicked through. And while I did not see any mention of the t-word, I’m going to have to try and figure out whether my good pair of leather gloves are dog. Fortunately, most of my trusty winter go-to’s are made out of Polarfleece or the like.

The dog trade is illegal. And the trade is down, thanks to folks like Dalley putting pressure on Asian governments to crackdown on smugglers. Still, where there’s money to be made…

But these are pets, for crying out loud.

Thailand has a large population of stray dogs wandering the streets of major towns and cities, but most of those captured for meat or pelts are stolen from pet owners or temples. “Stray dogs are extremely difficult to catch,” explains Dalley. “It’s far easier to catch pet dogs or unwanted service dogs.” The illegal trade is based on “extreme cruelty from start to finish,” he adds. “We see over 100 dogs stuffed into cages in the back of pickup trucks. Lots of dogs are skinned alive. It’s a horrendous industry with absolutely no regulation.”

As for golf gloves made out of dog, don’t expect to see Poodle or Chihuahua gloves sponsoring the Masters anytime soon.

Sure, it’s one thing for Alibaba to talk dog. In China, they eat it so why not wear it?

But once they get to the pro shop, all those Phil Mickelson wannabes aren’t going to be trying dog on for size – or at least they won’t know that’s what they’re doing. Whatever its provenance, the leather will probably say “cabretta”, which is sheep skin. Which seems perfectly acceptable. After all, how many people accept sheep kisses? Isn’t that how anthrax is spread?

Of course, I wouldn’t put much of anything past golfers. If there’s something out there that will improve their game, most golfers I know – even those who are pretty much duffers – will go after it. I’m quite sure that if some golf guru claimed that using a mashie niblick would help trim a few strokes off their norm, there’d be a run on mashie niblicks (only this time around they’d be made with titanium).

I know, I know. It’s easy to accuse golfers of going to the dogs.

But there’s apparently quite a trade in canine (and feline) hides being passed off as a fur that gets a less visceral reaction – like fox or raccoon or any other animal that you’re not likely to have curling up beside you when you take a nap.

Skins from these animal go into making full-length and short coats and jackets. Fur-trimmed garments. Hats. Gloves. Decorative accessories. Even toy stuffed animals. All made with the fur of dogs and cats. (Source: Case4, a vegan on eBay – I take my information where I can get it. Some of Case 4’s comes from InFurMation)

German Shepherds are apparently considered especially desirable.  (Say it isn’t so. The thought of old family retainer Grimbald being shanghaied and turned into a stuffed animal!)

One shipment from a Chinese company to the Czech Republic, reportedly for the Czech army, contained 5,329 kilograms (11,924 pounds) of "house cat skin jackets + plates", representing the slaughter of 40,000 to 55,000 cats.  Chinese fur factory told investigators that it had 100,000 cat skins stored in its factory.

Just as, on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, half the time information sources are undated, so it’s not clear whether there’s still as much dog and cat fur flying around out there. From what I can tell, domestic pet fur is now prohibited in the EU and the U.S. Which is not to say that it’s no longer used, Likely, it’s just passed off as something else. China doesn’t appear to have any regulations against using it – or lying about it.

I don’t want to be too much of hypocrite here. I don’t eat a ton of meat, but I’m by no means a vegetarian. (Vegetarian is at least within the realm of possibility; vegan: never.) I wear leather shoes, and wool sweaters. But I pretty much draw the line at fur. And I don’t want any animals to suffer cruelty in the service of mankind, however mediated my consumption of animal products is by Whole Foods or Zappo. And I find the idea of dogs and cats being kidnapped from their owners and sold off so that someone can have a faux-fox trimmed hood on their parka, or nice and soft golf gloves, completely appalling.

Completely. Appalling.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Rathole mining

I will admit that, if it had not been for the catchy come-on – rathole mining? what, from a Pink Slip perspective, is there not to like with respect to that as an occupation? – I might well have given an article on coal mining in Poland a pass. But given my long standing antipathy towards rats, and my long standing interest in awful jobs, here you go.

Plus I’ve been to Eastern Europe, so I understand the importance (and prevalence) of coal: the pervasive brown miasma, the sulfur odor that a lot of that Eastern Euro coal gives off. (Or used to at least. I actually haven’t been in an Eastern European winter since the fall of the Berlin Wall, which is now almost 25 years ago, so I’m not entirely current.)

But I haven’t given a single ton – let alone 16 tons – of thought to the Polish coal mining industry. Nor had I ever heard of the dirty old town of Walbrzych.

I can now consider myself enlightened.

Poland is a big coal country, and big coal-mining country.

Poland is Europe’s largest producer of hard coal, and both black and brown coal mines flourish in other parts of the country, from abundant mines in Upper Silesia to the north, to the giant open pit mine in Belchatow, in the east. (Source: NY Times)

Belchatow?  You mean a town with a giant open pit mine that also happens to produce 20% of Poland’s energy via a coal-fueled plant is called Belchatow. How great is that?

Anyway, it’s not Belchatow, it’s Walbrzych where the rathole mining occurs.

The practice of digging coal illegally is often called “rathole mining.” It is better known in places like India, or in South Africa, where illegal mining accidents recently killed five men. But it’s also common in Lower Silesia, near the Czech border.

Rathole mining took off when the legit coal mines that operated up until the collapse of communism were shut down. The mines that were shuttered weren’t making money, they weren’t efficient, and they were dangerous. None of which mattered all that much under the old regime.

Anyway, the market did its thing, and, overall, Poland became the poster economy for the old Soviet Bloc. Which worked out pretty well for the country as a whole. Just not for the coal miners of Walbrzych.

So just like all those East Germans who found themselves out of a job when Germany was reunited, and there was no longer a need for factories that produced a shoddy, left-shoes-only product, the coal miners of Walbrzych found they had a nothing to do in the brave new world.

So, like good free marketers – kinda/sorta: they don’t actually own the coal fields – the rathole miners became entrepreneurs, mining coal on their own and selling it on the black market at a discount of 30 to 40 percent.

Rathole mining is illegal, and those who are caught pick or burlap bag of coal in hand have to pay a stiff fine. But in a town where there are few employment alternatives, there are few employment alternatives.

The plight of the rathole miners has spawned a couple of activists – themselves former ratholers  - who have begun advocating for rathole mining to be decriminalized. And they want to have technology put in place that will make it all less dangerous. Given Poland’s insatiable hunger for coal, all this may be feasible. (Forget that this insatiable hunger for coal might not be the most environmentally friendly thing going on in the world.)

But the re-opening of the Walbrzych coal mines won’t be happening if the city’s mayor has anything to say. Roman Szelemej – who isn’t just the mayor; he’s also a cardiologist – wants nothing to do with coal mines.

He wants to bring Toyota to town, and thinks the rathole miners need an attitude adjustment. Being a rathole miner, while not exactly a fun-fun thing to do, is to him the easy way out:

“It’s much easier than to go to the Toyota factory and work from 7:30 up to 5:30 or 6:30, regularly, day after day,” he said. Mining was hard work, he said, but also easier in a way than staying with a steady job.

Nice to see that sneering at the poor and the displaced is a universal trait, isn’t it?

Why don’t we get that Toyota plant in there and see how many folks would rather work on a dangerous slag heap than make cars.

I’m sure that some rathole miners might stay on the heap, but I’m betting that most of them would rather be working where it’s clean and warm, where it’s safe, and where payday doesn’t involve finding a middle man to take a sack of dirty coal off your hands.

Just sayin’.