Monday, March 31, 2014

There’s a robot with an eye on your job. (Yes, I mean you, knowledge worker.)

Forget Putin. Forget March Madness. Forget earthquakes and mudslides.

Robots seem to be making an awful lot of headlines lately.

I mean, a robot is even the cover boy – cover thing? – on The Economist this week.  I haven’t had a chance to really delve into that one, but I did see a bit of it. And I’ll have to think about whether it’s a net gain for humanity that there are Japanese robots that look like baby seals and seem to help soothe old folks with dementia. (Sure, there’s probably no harm done to the granny stroking the robotic seal, but what does it do for the rest of us, and our conception of humanity?)

Anyway, Bloomberg got in on the act a couple of weeks back with a fear-factor article that, while not focused exclusively on robots, did suggest that half the jobs in the U.S. are at risk of takeover by some form of automation, whether behind the scenes software or by actual robots who that, with their whirring arms, vaguely resemble humans. Or, if they’re covered with fur, vaguely resemble baby seals.

It’s been a while since the more mundane legal tasks, like sorting through a million documents looking for the written-word equivalent of the smoking gun, were taking off the desks of entry level lawyers and outsourced to bright young things in India. These days, the voyage of discovery is as often as not being navigated by software.

So, okay, this isn’t news to any recent grads of the B- and C-tier law schools who bounced out with $200K in debt to find no one willing to hire them.

Still, it’s an indicator that a lot of what we used to think of as sacrosanct “knowledge work” isn’t staying put, or being off-shored, but is being done by thinking machines. (Hey, Thinking Machines, wouldn’t that be a great name for a computer company. Oh, wait, wasn’t there one in these parts a while back???)

Artificial intelligence has arrived in the American workplace, spawning tools that replicate human judgments that were too complicated and subtle to distill into instructions for a computer. Algorithms that “learn” from past examples relieve engineers of the need to write out every command. (Source: Bloomberg.)

I have to say, this is giving me déjà vu all over again.

At some point in the mid 1980’s, several of my friends and colleagues were recruited to join a really smart-folks start up that was developing AI software that was going to take the guesswork out of investment decisions.

Instead of making decisions on the back of a napkin, or based on tedious, complicated spreadsheets, this company – which I will call Big Brain Smart People, Inc. – was going to package it all up and put it into a machine. It may even have been a Thinking Machine that it was going into.

All the business people who were going to pay millions for this black box decision maker would need to do would be to pump in some numbers, and the machine would tell them what to do.

Personally, I had my doubts about this.

All the number crunching in the world can’t really tell you whether an investment is going to pay off. (Just ask all the number-crunching investors out there.)

There are all sorts of intangibles: all the back-story knowledge about the market crammed in your head, gut instinct, experience, your sense of the horses (i.e., the humans) you’re backing, etc.

Anyway, since so many of the big brain smart people I knew were getting jobs at Big Brain Smart People, I, of course, wanted in, too.

So I managed to get interviewed by a whole bunch of the big brain smart people who worked there. Which made me even more eager to get me a job offer. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a bunch of big brain smart people confirm that you, too, are a big brain smart person?

I apparently booted my opportunity when, during my interview with one of the biggest of the big brain smart people, I asked exactly why someone would invest millions of dollars for a system that would replace what goes on on the back of a napkin. For free. (Just askin’.)

This question clearly marked me as someone with a brain not quite big enough to wrap itself around the Big Brain Smart People vision.

Despite the doubts I had, I was devastated when I didn’t get an offer.

Weighed and found wanting…

Always hard to take.

Of course, I am not above having felt a frisson of joy when Big Brain Smart People imploded a couple of years later. (Vindication, whether served hot or cold, is fun!)

But I guess that Big Brain Smart People was just plain ahead of its time.

The advances [in computing], coupled with mobile robots wired with this intelligence, make it likely that occupations employing almost half of today’s U.S. workers, ranging from loan officers to cab drivers and real estate agents, become possible to automate in the next decade or two, according to a study done at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

Are there any “safe havens”, job-wise?

It could remain cheaper for some time to employ low-wage workers than invest in expensive robots. Consumers may prefer interacting with people than with self-service kiosks, while government regulators could choose to require human supervision of high-stakes decisions.


And computers can’t (at least for now) improvise when they’re faced with something new. And they can’t (at least for now) innovate.

“There will always be work for people who can synthesize information, think critically, and be flexible in how they act in different situations,” said [Stanford’s Andrew] Ng, also co-founder of online education provider Coursera Inc. Still, he said, “the jobs of yesterday won’t the same as the jobs of tomorrow.”

What about Pink Slip? Is it just a matter of time before this labor of love is replaced by a robotic, AI blogger?

Friday, March 28, 2014

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night, and he was wearing a football helmet

Given that colleges and universities pretty much operate as the minor league for professional football and basketball. Given that big time sports programs are big time money earners for the schools that run them. Given that a lot of those “student-athletes” are as likely as not to be athletes rather than students. And given that the great majority of college players will never make it to the pros but will, in fact, be exploited as the supporting cast for those who do become professionals, I actually think that college football and basketball players should be paid. Especially since so many of them really don’t get much by way of an education. (C.f., University of North Carolina.)

Personally, I also think they should get a bona fide education while they’re at it, but that’s a blog post for another day.

It should at minimum be one or the other.

Anyway, given all of the above, I think that students who are, at minimum, semi-pros, should have a little walkin’ around money in their pockets.

Thus I was very interested in this week’s National Labor Relations Board ruling that, at least at Northwestern, athletes, at least football players on scholarship, are, in fact, employees of the university and can unionize.

This must have the NCAA quaking in its football cleats.

The "employee" distinction is a landmark one because it contradicts the NCAA's longtime stance that athletes are students and amateur athletes, and should not be compensated beyond their scholarships. The NCAA could not immediately be reached for comment. (Source: WSJ Online.)

Northwestern’s none too happy, either.

Northwestern plans to appeal the decision to the NLRB's national office in Washington by the April 9 deadline, school officials said.

In a statement, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said: "We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid."

I suspect that the NFL and the NBA aren’t exactly delighted, either. After all, if their football and basketball programs become less lucrative, and it dons on them that they’re subsidizing the professional leagues, well then, it would be natural for those football and basketball programs to turn to the professional leagues for $upport. (Baseball and hockey pay for their own minor leagues, thank you.)

It’s actually kind of funny that this is coming from a school like Northwestern, which is not exactly a football factory. Sure, they off and on have decent teams, but the school is primarily a school, and a good one. (Disclosure: my sister Trish is an NU grad.)

I suspect that most of the student-athletes at Northwestern are primarily students rather than faux student athletes.

In fact, in the last stats published, the Wildcat football program had the highest graduation rate (97%) of all the bowl-eligible (i.e., big-time football) schools.

As the NCAA takes pains to point out in its advertising, most of those who play college sports go pro in something other than a sport.

This is so very true.

But someone who rowed crew, or played tennis, or swam, at State U probably did get an education while there. For many of the football and basketball players, that’s not the case.

They’re no more ready to go pro in something other than their sport than I am to play a sport professionally (or amateurly, for that matter). Many are barely literate. They “take” puff, no-show courses that neither prepare them for the workplace, nor to take their place among the ranks of liberally-educated thinkers. They’re ready for nothing, other than going back home and licking their wounds, uneducated, degree-less, and not making the big bucks or basking in the bling glory, that they had hoped for.

Many of the major football programs are a complete and utter disgrace.

So I really wish that the unionizing effort had come from one of the football factories, rather than from a place where the football players major in econ and end up getting their MBA – and getting on with their lives.

But, of course, the kids at Northwestern are likely a lot brighter than the average collegiate football player. So they went for it.

Good for them.

I hope that their union stands. I hope they negotiate a good deal for themselves. And I hope that the movement spreads to the schools where the athletes could really use it.

Solidarność‎! Workers of the world, unite. Go, Wobblies!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Stupidity on the Bounty. *Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.)

I am not now, never have been, and never will be a mom.

But if I had been a mom, it would have been back in the Dark Ages, when kids were not allowed – let alone encouraged – to blow bubbles in their milk.

This is on my mind because of what is – to my mind, at least – an extremely daffy, perhaps even warped, ad for Bounty paper towels.

I’m having a hard time getting the YouTube embed to work, but if you go to this URL, or – failing that – Google “Bounty TV commercial, chocolate milk” and you’ll see what I’m talking ‘bout.

Here’s the plot:

Mom stands in the kitchen, beaming fondly at her sons, the older of whom is loudly blowing bubbles into his chocolate – of course, it’s chocolate! – milk. While big brother does his reverse straw thing, his toddler little bro chortles, “Again, again.”

We then cut to chocolate milk cascading over the side of the kitchen table, while beaming, benevolent, mom’s voice over asks,

“When we’re having this much fun, why quit?”

Come on.

I understand that I’m an old fogey, and that none of my old fogey friends who happen to be moms would have ever – not in a million years – condoned, let alone encouraged, this sort of behavior. Believe me, it would have been nipped in the bud well before that chocolate milk began Niagara Fallsing onto the kitchen floor, that’s for sure.

I can even imagine what the real life voice over would have been:

“Knock it off.”

“I told you to knock it off.”

“Okay, that’s it. I’ve had it. No more chocolate milk. No more straw. You’re done.”

It’s easy for me to imagine this scenario because, even though I am not now, never have been, and never will be a mom, I have been around kids in many different capacities: older sister, cousin, aunt, babysitter, friend-of-the-mom, friend-of-the-dad. And in one of those capacities, I actually had direct, up close and personal experience with the annoyance that is bubble blowing – an experience I remember quite well, even though it occurred about 40 years ago.

My roommate and I were taking care of her nieces – who were then maybe four and two – for the weekend.

Now, these were darling little girls: cute, sweet, funny, easy to take care for.

But this was Sunday afternoon, and Becca and Sam were getting a bit antsy to see their folks.

Anyway, we had given the girls plain old boring white milk with their lunch, but cool auntie and roommate that we were, we also gave them straws.

Well, Samantha – the four year old – started blowing bubbles in her milk. Quite aggressively, I might ad.

Maybe it was the heat. Maybe it was the humidity. Maybe it was the exhaustion of having spent the last 48 hours with kids who, while darling, were also completely and mind-numbingly exhausting. Or maybe it’s just that there are few sounds more grating to the adult ear, few actions that look more like a minor accident waiting to minorly happen, than that of a kid quite aggressively blowing bubbles into their milk.

Anyway, I asked Sam – very reasonably and calmly – to knock it off.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

Still reasonably, but a bit less calmly, I resubmitted my request.

Same response on her side:

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

I then said something along the lines of, you know, Sam, there’s nothing inherently wrong with blowing bubbles in your milk, but it’s really getting on my nerves, and if you don’t cease and desist, I’M GOING TO HAVE TO TAKE STRAW AND MILK AWAY FROM YOU.

At this point, Samantha gave me a withering look and said, “I want my mommy.”

I well remember my answer. Verbatim.

“You know, Sam, that right about now, there’s no one who wants your mommy more than I do.”

As I stated above, and as I do believe, there is really nothing inherently wrong with blowing bubbles in your milk. In fact, it is inherently fun. But it’s also – at least when folks are tired, and nerves are frayed, which I do believe are typical conditions found in the mothers of small children – really, really annoying.

The annoyance factor, of course, makes blowing bubbles more entertaining and fun for the kiddos. As well I know.

In fact, one of the few times that I – goody two shoes – got in trouble in grammar school, was when I got the goat of Sister Aloysius St. James by blowing bubbles into the little half pint of milk that we enjoyed at recess. (I suspect I was not the only second-grader blowing bubbles in my milk, but I was one of the kids she yelled at. (Meanie!)

In any case, I really doubt that there is a mom – even a thoroughly modern mom – on the face of the earth who would actually encourage her kids to blow bubbles in chocolate milk, especially when it got to the point of spillover.

The Bounty ad ends with creativity-encouraging, “self-esteem” promoting, buddy-buddy  mom sitting there with her toddler, urging him to blow bubbles in his chocolate milk, while mom cheers him on, “Again.”

I don’t care if Bounty is two times more absorbent than the other leading brand. I don’t care if it’s the quicker picker-upper.

I cannot imagine any mother in her right mind urging her kids to blow up a big  froth of bubble-icious chocolate milk.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

One more reason to love (ahem) the NFL

Let me get this straight.

The NFL has no problem employing murderers, rapists, dog torturers, drunk drivers, women assaulters, druggies, and all sorts of other various and sundry miscreants, as long as they can throw a ball, catch a ball, run with a ball, or put out of commission those who can throw a ball, catch a ball, or run with a ball.

The NFL has no problem with running an outfit where cretinous bullying, homophobic slurs, use of the N-word, and misogynist prattling are standard locker room operating procedure.

The NFL has no problem with having scantily clad cheerleaders shaking their pompoms, boobs, and booties on the the sidelines to urge on the home team, and give their male fans something to cheer about, not matter how the game’s going..

The NFL has no problem taking a look-the-other-way posture towards the brain damage caused by the sport, until the evidence (and the outcry) becomes so overwhelming that they can’t not acknowledge it. And then, although the league has more money than Carlos Slim, putting together a fund that will yield the average over-concussed, brain damaged players – most of whom never made all that much money while playing – an exceedingly paltry payout.

But it is shocked, yes, shocked that a rap singer gave the finger and mouthed the words “I don’t give a shit” while appearing as a glorified extra for Madonna’s show during the Super Bowl XLVI halftime extravaganza. So shocked, that it has:

…added more than $15 million to its arbitration claim against singer-rapper M.I.A., demanding a total of $16.6 million for "restitution," according to The Hollywood Reporter. (Source: Rolling Stone.)

In truth, I’ve never heard of M.I.A. although – given that the Patriots were in it – I probably watched at least some part of this Super Bowl.

Now that I’ve gone to the google, I now know that she’s a British “recording artist”, of Sri Lankan background, who’s no kid – she’s 38 – who, of course, should probably have known better than to give the finger and mouth the words “I don’t give a shit” during the holiest of holy events on the American cultural calendar.

But, gee, given that the guys on the field are bashing each others brains out, and given that it’s not to hard to see at least one player mouthing the F-word during a game, how did some unknown entertainer’s trespass cause the NFL $16.6 million worth of harm?

Last September, news came out that the NFL was seeking $1.5 million for breach of contract and "flagrant disregard for the values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl." The additional $15 million is reportedly the value, in advertising dollars, of her two minutes of screen time.

“The values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand and the Super Bowl.”

Values like the one promoted by the salacious ads that GoDaddy apparently pays $15 million to sponsor.

Oh, puh-leeze!

M.I.A.'s response to the new claim describes the NFL as bullies looking to "make an example" of her for "daring to challenge the NFL." "The claim for restitution lacks any basis in law, fact, or logic," her paperwork said.

Furthermore, M.I.A.'s response condemned the "profane, bawdy, lascivious, demeaning and/or unacceptable behavior by its players, team owners, coaching and management personnel and by performers chosen and endorsed by NFL to perform in its halftime shows."

I’m with M.I.A. – who also cited Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl crotch grab in her response – on this one. Her response further points out that the NFL and NBC who broadcast this debacle spectacle that is Super Bowl, should have been able to catch M.I.A. in the act and censor it using their supposed delay mechanism.

Truly, if I needed yet another reason to sneer at the NFL, this would be a good one.

The “values that form the cornerstone of the NFL brand.”

I know I’ve already said it, but, oh, puh-leeze.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Youth–and their nonsense apps–must be served. (At least until the infrastructure collapses.)

A few Sundays back, there was an interesting cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine by a young techie.

Hard not to be a bit insanely jealous of Yiren Lu, who’s a grad student in computer science at Columbia. Not only is she a smarty-smart nerd girl – when I was at Harvard, my internship at Uber – but she’s also a smarty-smart pianist, a smarty-smart writer, and cute to boot. Plus she’s young, and has her entire adult life ahead of her – an adult life that certainly seems on the SUCCESS trajectory. (Can I have a do-over, please. On second thought, forget about it. I’d probably still come back as a slothful underachiever.)

Anyway, in her smarty-smart Times article, Ms. Lu explores the frictions between old guard techies with their plodding, boring, “build it right” ways, and the rising generation of brainiac kids coding 24/7 on cool, mostly ephemeral, apps in hopes that the one they’re coding their brainiac brains out on might be the next ka-billion dollar IP winner.

Not that anyone gets to experience those frictions up close and personal. Old farts work for clunky old companies like Cisco, companies that build tangible, necessary, and bo-ring “stuff”, while the young turks gravitate towards start-ups developing intangible, generally unnecessary, and cool “apps.”

The valley has always been a hard-charging, ever-optimistic place, full of people who are passionate about ideas that require some suspension of disbelief. But in the last 10 years in particular, there has been an exacerbation of the qualities for which it’s been both feted and mocked: Valuations are absurdly high for companies with no revenue. The founders are younger; the pace is faster… There is a sense among them of manifest destiny, of “This is our time.” On Quora, the popular question-and-answer site that has become something of a weather vane for the technorati, one member asks, “What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they hit 35 and are officially over the hill?”

Despite its breathtaking arrogance, the question resonates; it articulates concerns about tech being, if not ageist, then at least increasingly youth-fetishizing….According to the company PayScale, the median age of employees at Hewlett-Packard is 39, at Facebook 26. (Source: NY Times Magazine .)

There is, of course, plenty that’s unsettling about this youth – and coolness, and apps – fetishizing.

One is that so much of what’s being developed is “trivial” and “frivolous” – Ms. Lu’s words – rather than something that will do some good for mankind. I mean, posting selfies on Instagram is all well and good, but:

Why do these smart, quantitatively trained engineers, who could help cure cancer or fix, want to work for a sexting app?

Obviously, because it’s cool, and it’s where the smart kids hang, and because – we’ve seen it before – a completely trivial and frivolous app can turn into the “It Girl” of the day, and turn all those smart kids who used to be just smart, but who are now smart and cool, into ultra wealthy 35 years old who can spend the rest of their lives as angel investors.

Another problem is that a lot of what’s out there is not what we used to call back in my musty, fusty tech days, “robust.”

Recently, an engineer at a funded-to-the-gills start-up in San Francisco texted me to grumble about his company’s software architecture. Its code base was bug-ridden and disorganized — yet the business was enjoying tremendous revenue and momentum. “Never before has the idea itself been powerful enough that one can get away with a lacking implementation,” he wrote. His remark underscores a change wrought by the new guard that the old guard will have to adapt to. Tech is no longer primarily technology driven; it is idea driven.

But the idea driven needs all that boring old fundamental  technology to run on.

In pursuing the latest and the coolest, young engineers ignore opportunities in less-sexy areas of tech like semiconductors, data storage and networking, the products that form the foundation on which all of Web 2.0 rests. Without a good router to provide reliable Wi-Fi, your Dropbox file-sharing application is not going to sync; without Nvidia’s graphics processing unit, your BuzzFeed GIF is not going to make anyone laugh. The talent — and there’s a ton of it — flowing into Silicon Valley cares little about improving these infrastructural elements. What they care about is coming up with more web apps.

So what’s going to happen when the dads in their short-sleeved shirts and pocket protectors, the drones who work on the underlying hardware and software, decide to pack it in?

As the bard of my generation once wrote, the pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles.

Of course, this won’t be the case of the vandals taking the handles. It will be a case of the handles falling off.

How can you possibly play Candy Crush and Flappy App if the chip in your smartphone keeps short circuiting?

I can see it all now, all the old guard – now dubbed The Greatest Generation, Part II -  being called back into the  workforce, and all the anxious young guard hovering around begging the geezers to just make it work.

I can dream, can’t I?


Thanks to my sister Kath for sending this article my way.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Better gun safe than gun sorry

I don’t know a lot of people who keep guns – at least not that I know of. Sure, I do know a few gun owners, but gun ownership is not exactly prevalent in the company I tend to keep. (No, we’re the NPR-listening, wine-sipping, lily-livered snobs you read about.)

While I am personally not a gun nut aficionado, and wish that there were fewer of them out there, I’m not an anti-gun crusader, either.

Sure, I don’t exactly think it’s fair play to go deer hunting with an Uzi. I certainly don’t think that it’s necessary to shoot someone dead in a movie theater because he was annoying you with his texting. And I certainly cringe when I read yet another story about some mentally imbalanced individual with a storehouse of weapons who decides to go hunting humans. Or when I read about a five-year-old playing with loaded gun who manages to blow his three-year-old sister’s head off.

Plus I would be entirely creeped out to live in an open carry state, like Arizona.

But I don’t hold extreme views on banning guns, and I respect the rights of hunters – I eat meat – and the rights of those who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to keep a gun in the drawer of their nightstand.

But I do indeed believe that we have entirely too many guns floating around out there. For the U.S.,

…the Small Arms Survey, a Swiss research project, puts the number at 89 per 100 people, placing the country comfortably ahead of second-place Yemen, with 55. (Source: The Economist)

Wow! 89 per 100 people. Just wow. (Somebody out there has my 0.89 of a gun…) How proud it makes me to learn that we’re ahead of Yemen on the list!

Anyway, you can keep your guns. I just wish that people would be more careful with their weapons of non-mass destruction.

And apparently there are a lot of folks who are being careful out there, trying to keep their guns from being destroyed in a house fire, and from falling into the wrong, trigger-happy hands. All those responsible gun owners are boosting a business that I wouldn’t have supposed existed: gun safes.

The only home I’ve ever been in where I was acutely aware of the presence of guns was that of my husband’s aunt and uncle. Uncle Bill was a hunter, and a minor gun collector. He had a glass-fronted, flimsily locked gun cabinet in the living room that housed his collection of old fire arms, some of which dated – I believe – to Colonial times. He also kept a shotgun – which I believe may have been loaded – in the downstairs bathroom, next to the toilet. It was kept there so that Bill could poke it out the window and shoot at any critters that tried to get in Aunt Carrie’s bird feeders.

I never saw him use it, but I was always a bit scared to go into that bathroom, and was especially scared when Bill and Carrie’s granddaughters, who lived next door, popped in for a visit. (“Oh, honey, why don’t you use the upstairs bathroom…”) But the girls were used to being around guns – this was out in the country – and no one seemed to find it peculiar that there was a shotgun propped up against the wall, just under the cartoon of Manneken-Pis.

Bill and Carrie didn’t have a gun safe, at least not that I know of. But they were sort of an early indicator of the “shift in gun ownership,” in which “the proportion of American households that own guns has declined from about 50% in the early 1980s to about 35% now.”

I.e., while there are lot more guns around, there are a lot fewer gun owners. I.e., those gun nuts have gotten gun nuttier.  (Many live in fear that the gubmint will eventually outlaw the sale of guns, so they’re stockpiling.)

Which is good for the gun safe makers.

For some gun owners the safes themselves have become the thing to show off, their bulk and decoration hinting at the firepower contained within. “Because they are so pretty people are putting them in their front safe-national-img-s3rooms,” says Brandon Payne of Liberty Safe, a safemaker.

Well, pretty’s sure in the eye of the beholder.

Then again, they’re not trying to appeal to me.

Even without my patronage, Liberty manages to sell 500 safes each day:

… most of them big ones and mostly to people with lots of guns: its Fatboy model can hold 64 long guns and a clutch of pistols.

Liberty is, of course, not alone in the biz. Just google “gun safes.”

And these suckers aren’t cheap, either: they can run well into the thousands of dollars.

But better to be safe than sorry. Low end gun safes aren’t exactly impregnable.

Anyway, a lot of the gun safes out there – like the Fatboy (hmmm, wasn’t that the name of the A-bomb dropped on Nagasaki?) -  are made in the good old US of A.

As are a lot of guns. (As, of course, was the fatboy atomic bomb.)

Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and gun safes.

Yea, us!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Welcome, sweet springtime, tis thee we adore

I don’t think it matters where you hang your hat. The weather this winter has been pretty darned awful.

Through much of this foul season, we’ve been assuring ourselves that this has been nothing more than a ‘traditional” winter, with the sorts of snow and cold we enjoyed endured as children.

But even those dire winters of my youth featured things like a January thaw, a spate of nice days in February, and a gradual but noticeable (and exceedingly well appreciated) warm up during March.

You know, those days when you can actually smell spring…

Yes, I do have one brave crocus pushing its head up. And I have seen a robin.

But, yikes, it was 16 degrees when I went to put the trash out last Monday – 16 degrees on St. Patrick’s Day! That’s just wrong.

Thanks to my sister Kath and her husband, Rick, I did get to take a most welcome break, a they invited me to join them on their more-or-less annual trek to Arizona.

So I got to spend a week lolling about in a heated pool, trying to figure out just how many types of cactus there are (answer: lots), wishing I Desert Flowerlived in a place where bougainvillea blooms, and slathering on SPF 70 sunscreen. (Sunscreen. Imagine that.)

While I don’t think I could take a steady diet of Arizona: too hot in summer, a terrain that’s a bit too moonscape for my liking  - not enough green, not enough water, and a tad bit too right-wing – it sure was nice to be in a sun-baked environment for a change. And to take hikes where I got to see things likeJavelina desert poppies and javelinas.

I was actually disappointed that the only javelinas I saw were in an enclosure in the quite wonderful desert museum. In past visits, Kath and Rick have seen troops of javelinas marauding through their neighborhood on trash day. Alas, we didn’t get to experience the Parade of the Hungry Javelinas this time around.

It is, of course, no surprise that the javelinas make themselves at home in the developments around Tucson and Phoenix. Until a few years ago, this was their home. And they were home alone. Then all of a sudden, their habitat was our habitat. Poor babies!

When I arrived back in Boston from Arizona, it was 20 degrees or so. Brrrrrr.

And, although we did have a day or two that were relatively balmy in the last week, it’s been mostly chill.

Next week promises to bring more of the same.

But spring has officially sprung, so can a bit of warmth be all that far behind?

I am so looking forward to shedding my fleece, my down parka, my knee socks, my wool scarves.

I am by no means a sun-worshipper, but, boy, could I do with a bit of warm. (OMG, Rod McKuen and Listen to the Warm just popped into my brain. Next thing you know, I’ll be looking for my copy of The Prophet. I’m going to blame this on the cold, which is clearly impacting my ability to think clearly.)

It’s March 21st. Bring spring on!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ah, Blimps!

When I was a kid, one of the most thrilling things I experienced was seeing a blimp wafting over the skies of Worcester. Admittedly, my childhood was not exactly thrill-packed, but still, the occasional sighting of a blimp – which appeared so mysteriously, and so silently – was right up there.

I have no idea what a blimp might have been doing in the Heart of the Commonwealth. We didn’t have much going by way of the mass events that seem to attract blimp-vertising. Maybe they’d just blown off course.

Anyway, blimps, dirigibles, zeppelins (oh, the humanity!), have always fascinated me. What’s not to like about a flying machine that moves about as rapidly as a rowboat? And they’re so adorably chubby…

Because of my historic interest in things dirigible, I was happy to see a recent article on the Goodyear Blimp.

The good news is that just last week, Goodyear, for the first time in 45 years, introduced a new version of its famous airship.

…The world’s biggest floating billboard is now longer, faster, and more maneuverable. It’s the Usain Bolt of blimps. (Source: Business Week.)

The better news:

…it’s still … well … fat and slow.

Over the years, Goodyear has built approximately 300 blimps.

I don’t know how effective they’ve been as an advertising gimmick –  personally, I’ve often thought of it as the Goodrich Blimp.

Goodrich. Goodyear.

Kind of raises the philosophical question: would you rather have a good year, or be good and rich?

Forget I asked. If you can be both good and rich, what’s not to like?

Anyway, they’re both tire brands, aren’t they?

But it’s Goodyear that does the blimp thing.

The company typically keeps three blimps around the country and has one in China. Goodyear deploys them during a lot of major events including college football games, the Kentucky Derby, and parades.

The new model is bigger than the prior version, and can carry 12 passengers (vs. 7). It’s computerized. And it’s relatively speedy: it can push the envelope at 73 m.p.h. up from 54 m.p.h. (In either case, that’s a lot faster than I would have thought. But most of the time when we’re seeing the blimp over a stadium they’re more or less in idle or slow-speed cruise mode.)

You may ask what a blimp – which “isn’t even made of rubber” – has to do with Goodrich Goodyear, and the answer is nothing, really. It’s just part of their advertising strategy, building “name recognition and goodwill.”

Well, they’ve been doing it for so long, it must be working.


Of course, “name recognition and goodwill” are those two wonderful marketing things that just defy measurement, especially “goodwill”. But you do have to question just how much “name recognition and goodwill” you get if the average blimp spotter manages to confuse Goodyear with Goodrich.

Oh, well, no one’s asking me.

Meanwhile, when I think of blimps, I also think about another thrill of my childhood, which was eating Sunshine Toy Cookies.

Okay, even in my non-thrill-packed childhood, Sunshine cookies – which were kind of bland – weren’t exactly a thrill. They couldn’t hold a candle to a home-made Toll House cookie. Sunshine cookie - from flickrOr even to a Fig Newton. But what made them fun was that they came in shapes, the best of which was – ta-da – the blimp.

That cookie blimp was nowhere near as sleek as the new Goodyear Blimp. It was more the classic stubby blimp. (That’s it, in the lower right-hand corner, next to the clock, under the drum.)

Sunshine is now part of Keebler, and the Toy Cookies are, alas, no longer made. (Sunshine also produced the ghastly Hyrdox Cookies, the fake Oreos that my mother bought. Yuck!) But Sunshine lives on in a box of Cheez-its.

Ah, well.

It’s almost baseball season, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing the Goodyear Blimp floating over Fenway at some big-game point.

But as I wait for that to 220px-Hood_Blimphappen, I’ll have to be satisfied and cheered by the regular appearance of our home town honey, the Hood Milk Blimp, which flies regularly over Red Sox games.

Nothing like looking out the window on game day and seeing the Hood Blimp hovering outside of Kenmore Square.

Ah, blimps!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Fees, Fi, Fo, Fum

Last week, I flew back from vacationing in Arizona, using some of the frequent flyer miles my husband had so assiduously collected over the years. (Thanks, hon!) The flight itself was free, but then, well, let the nickel and diming begin.

To begin with, there was some sort of tack-on fee for using frequent flyer miles.

Then I paid extra – I think it was $25 each way – for an aisle seat. Well worth it.

And I wasn’t on Southwest Airlines, so bags didn’t fly free. Mine cost $25 going, and $25 coming. But I had a big bag – no way that sucker could have been crammed into the overhead or underfoot. And not rolling on a suitcase stuffed to the gills let me make my entrance with my relatively modest pocketbook and tote and take my seat with an aura of moral superiority when compared with those fellow travelers rolling their carry on while lugging a handbag the size of a l steamer trunk, and hunched over from the weight of the backpack (stuffed with enough stuff to sustain the Shackleton Expedition) they consider a  “small personal item”.

But I digress…

I hadn’t read the small print, so until I was seated for the six-hour flight, I hadn’t realized that this was a food-free trip. Unless you were willing to pay $8.49 for a chicken wrap. Which of course I was.

The ka-ching continued on the flight home, when I forked over $21 for the privilege of flying through the security express lane, and – best of all – not having to take my shoes off. Since I was wearing a pair of intricately laced combat hiking boots, this was no small thing. But it got me thinking that maybe the next shoe-bomber would be similarly willing to spend $21 so that he didn’t have to put his sneakers in the grey plastic bucket and float them through the screening machine. Hmmmmm…..

Anyway, given my recent trip, I was interested in a recent article on the Wall Street Journal on the perpetually creeping airline fees.

Last spring, many airlines raised the fee for changing a flight to $200 from $150.

And American’s now selling something:

…called Choice Essential—for $68 round trip on domestic tickets—that spare the traveler from paying a reservation-change fee and provide a free checked bag and priority boarding. (Source: WSJOnline.)

Free checked bag and priority boarding for just $68? If they threw in the ability to avoid the shedding of the shoe, that would be a bargain compared to what I ended up paying on US Air when all was said and done.

Many airlines are now offering annual subscriptions that let folks check their bags for free. The fees are pretty hefty, but if you travel a lot with mega-bags, it might be worth it.

I also learned that many airlines charge extra for letting an unaccompanied minor board early. Other things that were once pretty much freebies:

  • Carry-on bag: $40 on Spirit
  • In-flight TV: Up to $7.99 on United
  • Extra legroom in coach: $8 to $159 on American
  • Early boarding: $10 on Delta
  • Wi-Fi access: $8 on Southwest
  • Blanket/pillow: Up to $5.99 on Jet Blue
  • Headset: $2 on Delta
  • Carry-on pet: $125 on United

I can understand that people wouldn’t want to fly their pets in a cage in the bowels of a plane. I can’t imagine anything worse to inflict on a pet. Truly, if I had to send a too-big-to-carry-on pet cross country, I think I’d hire someone to drive them. Still, carrying a pet on can be distracting.

In one memorable business flight I was on years ago, one of the toilets was occupied for the entire flight (Cleveland to Boston) by a woman trying to calm down her howling howler monkey.

Anyway, the fees are big business. For some reason, airlines don’t feel they can raise the fares themselves to reflect costs, so need to make it up elsewhere.

On one hand, why should people have to implicitly pay for stuff they don’t use – e.g., the plastic meals? And why shouldn’t those consuming extraneous services – carry-on pets – ante up for them, even when the actual cost to the airline is zero. Who doesn’t like free money?

But much of this seems like a purely psychological exercise to keep from raising actual ticket prices.

Psychological or not, we’re talking big bucks here. Ancillary revenue is now $8.49 per passenger – the exact cost of my chicken wrap. But I paid so much extra-extra, I brought the average for my recent flight up.

Anyway, extra fees rake in about $6 billion in revenue for U.S. airlines, and this is expected to double by 2020.

Still, “carriers that have fewer fees tend to be more popular in traveler surveys.”

Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the add-ons for my upcoming trip to Ireland, on Aer Lingus. So far, I’ve sprung for some sort of seat upgrade. Can a charge for the stale, cold breakfast bun be far behind?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

And you thought the only thing the Irish invented was the shillelagh…

Well, it’s no longer St. Patrick’s Day, but nothing wrong with continuing to keep on with the virtual wearing o’ the virtual green.

So today we’ll focus on the many and varied contributions that the Irish have made over the years to science and industry, drawing on a recent article on Gaelic Tech that Jason Perlow had on ZDNet.

Who knew that we have an Irishman – John Joly – to thank for color photography? It may have been 1973 when Paul Simon reminded the world that “everything looks worse in black and bright,” but it was in 1894 that Joly “found a successful way of producing color photographs from a single plate,” revolutionizing photography.

Joly was also a pioneer in the use of radiation for the treatment of cancer, to which we can all give thanks.

One of the earliest long distance telecomm inventors was William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who helped lay a transatlantic cable – and methods for transmitting data -  his connecting Cork to Newfoundland. He also figured out the temperature of absolute zero and, yes, came up with the Kelvin Scale.

John Philip Holland – no relation to John Philip Sousa - designed the first successfully-launched submarine, the Fenian Ram. The U.S. Navy’s first subs were based on his design. And, unlike most of the Irish inventors, who were Anglo-Irish, Holland was a native Irish speaker. (Erin Go Bragh!)

Another one for the Cathlicks: Louis Brennan “came up with the design for the first guided missile system for coastal defense (essentially a steerable torpedo), the first functional helicopter, monorail trains and also the ejector seat.”

Well, I thought that Leonardo DaVinci came up with the helicopter. (Maybe not a functional one.) But how great that an Irishman invented the ejector seat?

Ernest Walton co-developed an early particle accelerator, and won a Nobel Prize for artificially splitting the atom, making him the only Irishman to win a Nobel in science. (They’ve fared better in Literature.)

Robert Mallet invented instrumental seismology.

Father Nicholas Callan – who hailed from Dundalk, from whence cameth my Trainor ancestors – invented induction coils, which enabled “all modern forms of electrical consumption as well as electricity used in many types of consumer applications.”

And I guess it wouldn’t be St. Patrick’s Day – or the morning after the night before – without a shout out to Aeneas Coffey, who invented something called the columnar distillation process that enabled the mass production of distilled alcoholic beverages.


A tip of the scally cap to my friend Valerie O’ for suggesting this for a blog post.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick’s Day, 2014

And so it is St. Patrick’s Day, month’s mind for my husband…

And so I remain very, very sad.

And so I’ll share with you a Celtic song.

The Parting Glass

Of all the money that e'er I spent
I spent it in good company
And all the harm I've ever done
Alas it was to none but me
And all I've done for want of wit
To mem'ry now I can't recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all

Of all the comrades that e'er I had
They're sorry for my going away
And all the sweethearts that e'er I had
They'd wish me one more day to stay
But since it fell unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not
I gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be to you all

This June, I’ll be taking our nieces – and a pinch of Jim’s ashes (he had told me that he wanted some of his ashes to find their way to Galway) – to Ireland. The day after he died, I found a note he’d made with some ideas about where we might go. Jim loved planning our trips, and there he was, knowing he would soon be dead, sketching out his thoughts on what would make for an enjoyable trip for me and the girls.

Slán leat, Seamus.


The links to earlier St. Patrick’s Day posts can be found here, in last year’s edition.

And here’s a a wonderful version of The Parting Glass– sung by a very young Liam Clancy:

Sentimental, but…

Friday, March 14, 2014

Swag baggery. (Hooray for Hollywood.)

While I seldom watch more than a few minutes of The Oscars, every couple of years, I am always interested in what’s in the annual swag bag that the begowned and betuxed attendees are given.

After all, who among us doesn’t like a swag bag?

It doesn’t even have to have all that much swag in it.

I’m happy to get a nylon mesh bag of Jordan almonds, or a chance on winning the floral centerpiece. A pen and a notepad. A teeny-tiny bottle of bubbles.

Despite my modest swag bag requirements, I was more than happy to gain a glimpse into this year’s Oscar goodie bag when the news came out a few weeks back. Especially once I learned that the bag was worth $80K – quite a lift over the $55K bag of 2013. (This is either an indicator of an uptick in the economy, or yet another marker of the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. You pick.)

I must say that some of the gifts are not exactly universally useful.

I mean, even among the vain and vainglorious Hollywood set, how many actually need or want a $16K robotic hair transplant system? Especially one that you have to pay taxes on. I suppose you could turn around and sell it on the secondary market. Or donate it to a charity that provided succor to the bald.

If the robotic hair system had less than universal appeal, that can probably not be said of the $1,571 worth of electrolyte pet therapy “in the form of supplements and sprays, to help improve their quality of life.” I know it’s Washington, DC, they’re talking about when they say, “In this town, if you want a friend, get a dog.” But I’m guessing the same is true in Los Angeles, as well.

So far, we’ve got man (bald men, at least), and man’s best friend covered.

Well, the swag bag stuffers seemed to have heeded their inner Abigail Adams and remembered the ladies, too, with something called an O-Shot. Valued at $2.7K, the O-Shot’s promise is “enhancing [female] sexual response and increasing libido.”

No more Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally.

O, my.

If our movie star friends needs a get away after these exhausting hair transplants and o-shots, they can enjoy $27.5K worth of vacation:

How does a 5-night stay in a two-bedroom villa in Kauai sound? Or a 2,500 square-foot suite in Mexico? A two-day ride on an overnight Rocky Mountaineer train through Western Canada, or a $15,000 walking tour of Japan?

Okay. Kaui and Japan are probably pretty safe places. And there’s no crime in Canada, correct?

But Mexico can be pretty scary, eve140218160817-oscar-gifts-mace-brand-340xan with ‘El Chapo’ Guzman under arrest. So the his and hers mace set, while only worth $120, may well be worth a lot more if you get caught up in some cartel crossfire. And you gotta love the tertiary sex characteristics here: the camo mace gun for him, the Barbie-pink for her.

And forget Brita. The bag includes a $2.7K Krystal Klear Water Filtration System. (This may be the only time in marketing/product history that a luxury item used the low-brow k-instead-of-c konvention convention.)

Rounding out the swag bag contents are a $230 leather iPhone case; a $10K pet food donation to the star’s animal shelter of choice; a $2.5K home spa system; and – at the very low end – $39 worth of Hydroxycut gummies.

Hooray for Hollywood!

Source: Money/CNN.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dancing on the radio

My mother always used to laugh about Edgar Bergen, who was a ventriloquist on the radio.

Of course, he was a comedian, who used his dummies (Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) as his foils. Or they used Edgar Bergen as their foil. Or whatever.

Anyway, the idea of a ventriloquist on the radio was pretty darned funny. After all, you couldn’t see whether or not the ventriloquist’s lips were moving, could you?

It’s no wonder that when we saw Edgar Bergen on TV shows on Ed Sullivan, his mouth was pretty obviously moving. How skilled a ventriloquist do you have to be on the radio?

(This is, at least, how I remember Edgar Bergen. Maybe I’m confusing him with Rickie Layne and Velvel.)

I guess dancing on the radio would have been even worse.

At least a ventriloquist could conceivably have been funny and entertaining…

Anyway, stuff-that-just-doesn’t-work-on-the-radio came to the fore when I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal on golf on the radio.

Unbeknownst to me, XM Satellite Radio has been broadcasting PGA tournaments since 2005.

Now, I do understand that sports on the radio can work.

Personally, I love listening to baseball.

Maybe it’s because it reminds me of listening to games with my father when I was a kid, but I really enjoy a game this way.

But golf?

If there’s a televised sport that’s more boring than a hush-hush golf match, I don’t know what it could be. So wouldn’t radio just make it worse?

Seriously, 0r is it siriusly, I’d rather watch Candlepins for Cash. Cricket. Badminton.

But at least if you’re watching golf, you get to check out just how many colors and styles that the classic golf shirt comes in. Wonder what’s going on in the caddie’s head, or better let, the guy walking around carrying the leader board. And scan the crowds for a non-white face. (Now that’s entertainment.)

Golf on the radio?


This is really not the sort of description-action sport that lends itself to radio announcement, I would have thought. Don’t you have to see the swing, and the way the ball curves toward to cup?

I just can’t imagine listening to it.

I guess I’m not alone in asking the “why” question about radio golf. 

Golf on the radio may seem like a dumb idea, but remember: People thought the same about golf on television 60 years ago. BBC radio first broadcast golf at the British Amateur Championship in 1927, and it has been at it in a limited way ever since. This year BBC radio will cover the four majors and three other events. Starting in the late 1990s, the PGA Tour tried syndicating play-by-play radio coverage of its events, but it never achieved true national coverage until it teamed with XM in 2005.

Yet radio brings an added dimension to following the game. Television discovered that watching the little ball sail through the air for several long seconds, to land who-knows-where, was inherently suspenseful. Radio announcers, many of them former Tour pros, have figured out how to milk the tension, too. They describe worried expressions and tetchy preshot routines, and make home-run-worthy calls when long putts fall. If you must be in your car, it's an appealing alternative to watching on a screen.(Source: WSJ Online)


I still don’t see it. Or hear it. Or see it and hear it.

But this is, perhaps, because I’m not exactly a golf aficionado.

I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that this was not always the case.

When I was in high school and college I even went to a few PGA Tournaments when they were held at Pleasant Valley CC outside of Worcester. Back in the day, I saw Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Sam Snead…


Actually, it was kind of fund charging around the course, even if I didn’t really care what I was charging around for.

Anyway, there are only so many PGA Tournaments to broadcast in any given year, so golf radio offers a lot of game improvement shows, too.

This is yet another thing I would have thought worked better in a more visual medium.

The instruction shows have been getting "crazy numbers," Scott Greenstein [SiriusXM's president and chief content officer] says. Hank Haney on a recent show offered a fearless critique of the swing of his former student, Tiger Woods ("He's not practicing enough"), then answered listener questions about increasing club-head speed and overcoming social distractions on the course.

Golf on the radio.

Who knew?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wicked Smaht

Every once in a while, I look at the personal ads in Harvard Magazine, and last weekend was one of those whiles.

Some of them seem to be authentic – “petite Harvard grad, accomplished cellist seeks Ivy-educated, financial secure…. “ This strikes me as authentic enough. After all, there is only a certain population for whom cello accomplishment is a come-on.

Others seem more like pros looking for a Harvard sugar daddy: “slender, satin-skinned beauty, appreciative of the finer things in life, looking for long-term relationship with successful gentleman.” (Hey, big spender. Spend a little time with me.)

And sometimes they’re just plain fun. (Or desperately seeking to appear to be just plain fun.”) As in “Harvard grad seeks woman for life…Publishes things people never read…With looks but inescapably may resemble a turtle in 40 years…”

But one should be able to make the assumption that the ones who identify themselves as Ivy-types and/or who actually are Ivy types would be somewhat savvy in the ways of world, no?

Okay, I’ve known plenty of pretty dunder-headed Ivy-league types. Still, you’d think they’d be a bit with it, especially the ones who tout (as most do) their financial independence and professional success.

Thus, I was just a tad bit surprised to find a quarter page notice, smack dab in the middle of the personals, reminding Harvard Magazine’s dear readers to be careful out there. As a public service, they present “some good tips to keep in mind when responding to a classified or personal ad.”

Their tips?

Never share financial information with people you don’t know.

Well, duh-a-duh.

Seriously, folks, there’s someone who would give out their bank information and Social Security number to a potential companion, or – if we’re talking classified rather than personal – someone selling a “79-piece set of commemorative Harvard Wedgewood china from the 1920’s/30’s” or “11 blue Harvard dinner plates and 12 red Radcliffe dessert plates.” (Wonder what happened to that 12th Harvard dinner plate? Did the owner of the Radcliffe dessert plates Frisbee it at her husband’s head one night?)

Maybe people have been scammed by the vacation rentals that are advertised. Maybe. But we had luck the one time we rented – a great apartment in Paris – and I can’t imagine that Harvard Magazine, however poorly it vets its advertisers,would allow a repeat ad to appear if they’d had any complaints.

So the flim-flam is likely to be aimed at those putting in the personal ads, which may well be being answered by ne’er do wells – perhaps even non-Ivy ne’er do wells – who aren’t really looking for a slender cello player, Radcliffe ‘62.

Don’t reveal personal information on first contact.

Here they suggest that you get yourself a Gmail or Yahoo address that doesn’t reveal much of anything about you.  Forget JoeBlowWhoLivesInCambridge@gmail. Better off as slendercellist@yahoo.

Readers are cautioned to:

Be especially alert if any of the following things happen:

  • you notice many spelling/grammatical errors in correspondence
  • you are asked to receive/forward packages
  • it sounds too good to be true.

Sounds like sound advice for those who’ve apparentlynever been exposed to a Nigerian e-mail scam. (Is there anyone left out there who fits this bill?)

“If someone has asked you for personal or financial information, please notify Harvard Magazine’s Classified Department immediately.”

Looks like even wicked smaht folks can be as wicked dumb as the rest of us.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Just out walking the dog…

Every once it a while, there’s a just plain feel-good story, and my current candidate is the one about the California couple who were out walking their dog when they:

…stumbled across a modern-day bonanza: $10 million in rare, mint-condition gold coins buried in the shadow of an old tree. (Source: AP via

Now I’ve found some cash along the way.

When I was four, I found a $10 bill at Crane’s beach, which was a big deal because a) I was four, and b) $10 was worth a lot more back then. I have no idea whether this find was deposited in my little passbook account, or whether it paid for the day for the family. (Ice cream cones on Moe!)

A few years ago, I found $20 on the sidewalk on Charles Street.

And, while I wouldn’t stoop to pick up a penny, I have found the odd quarter or dime on the street.

My husband once found $40 in the gutter while he was stepping out of a cab in Cambridge. It was an opportune find, as he was in Cambridge to buy the $40 karate outfit we were getting as a birthday present for our young friend Sam.

But I don’t imagine there’s $10 million dollars worth of findings to be had on the streets or sidewalks of Boston, in our condo building’s 75 square foot front garden, or the cemented over “backyard.” I suspect that, if the backyard were torn up, the best that would be unearthed would be some 1860’s-era bottles, our building having been erected in that era.

But nothing anywhere near in value to the California mother lode:

Nearly all of the 1,427 coins, dating from 1847 to 1894, are in uncirculated, mint condition, said David Hall, co-founder of Professional Coin Grading Service of Santa Ana, which recently authenticated them. Although the face value of the gold pieces only adds up to more than $28,000, some of them are so rare that coin experts say they could fetch nearly $1 million apiece.

Understandably, the dog walkers have chosen to remain anonymous.

After all, they don’t want to set off a latter-day Gold Rush in which hordes of ‘14-ers show up on their remote, rural property with their hobby shop metal detectors and start pickaxing around to see if they can find another rusted can full of rare coins.

In addition to not wanting to have to start warding off intruders, the couple likes the way they already live just fine, thank you, wanting only to keep calm and carry on, pay off some bills, and make some charitable donations:

‘‘Their concern was this would change the way everyone else would look at them, and they’re pretty happy with the lifestyle they have today,’’ [veteran numismatist Don Kagin, who is representing the finders] said.

I suspect that they won’t be able to maintain their anonymity forever. Someone in their community will recognize the situation and blab.

And I’ll bet whoever sold them the property a few years back is kicking themselves in the head and backside for not having been as eagle-eyed and observant as these folks. Although even if the previous owners had been eagle-eyed and observant, they might not have found the find:

The coins had been buried by a path the couple had walked for years. On the day they found them last spring, the woman had bent over to examine an old rusty can that erosion had caused to pop slightly out of the ground.

Anyway, I just loved this story.

Unfortunately, the trash I pick up in the local gutters is usually of the empty cigarette pack, crumpled up Starbucks cup, and ripped up parking ticket variety.

Guess I’ll just have to go for the gold the old-fashioned way, and get a couple of lottery tickets.

Monday, March 10, 2014

An outside chance

One of the saddest things I’ve read of late was a brief article in The Economist that talked about the decline of street play.

The article was prompted by a town in Long Island that recently banned street basketball – you can’t even use a roll-away hoop – and, further, requires special permission for folks who want to put up a hoop in their own driveway.

I can understand putting a curfew on b-ball. Who wants to listen to thunk-thunk-thunk dribbling, and the reverberating metal sprong when Spalding hits backboard at 3 a.m.?

And, certainly, every town has main streets where it would be a clear and present danger to have kids slam dunking.

But on a pokey side street? Couldn’t they just ask folks to drive more slowly and carefully to accommodate kids playing in the street? Or are we just so auto über alles that there’s no room for kids to play games the require a road surface?

Forget hoops, a gated community in Florida banned street play altogether:

This seems slightly at odds with the town’s motto, “Live. Work. Play”, but no matter. People must be protected from the dreadful dangers of dribbling and dunking.

And a couple of years ago, a nosy neighbor sicced the police on a mom in Texas who was watching her kids play on scooters in her cul de sac. Tammy Cooper spent the night in lock up, charged with child endangerment. Maybe these were motorized scooters, which certainly can be annoying.


There was a lot that was boring, repressive, and just plain miserable about the 1950’s and 1960’s, but they were, on balance, a pretty darned good time to be a kid.

Unlike our parents, we weren’t Depression babies, stuffing cardboard in hole-y shoes and hoping for a comic book or a handkerchief for their birthday.

We had stuff. Maybe not much compared to today’s kids, but certainly plenty compared to what our folks had (a baseball glove, a violin case). We had all sorts of TV shows aimed squarely at us. Sure, most of them were god-awful, but they were ours.

And we got to run around free range, without any supervision beyond the vigilant (and, let’s face it, occasionally vigilante) mom watching out the window.

Sure, we had backyards to play in, woods next door, a pond down the street. But plenty of our play took place in the street.

For starters, the people next door put up a basketball hoop on the telephone pole opposite their house, so the boys – yes, sigh, it was mostly boys – got to play basketball. It was nothing fancy. If there had been a net to begin with, it didn’t last long, and the hoop itself was bent and rusted out. But it stood there for years.And got used.

We jumped rope in the street. Played D-O-N-K-E-Y, Red Rover, Dodge Ball, and Simon Says. Rode our bikes and pedaled our trikes. Roller skated. Wheeled our dolls around in baby buggies. Chalked in our hopscotch grids and hopped away.

The pavement ended in front of our house, and the rest of the street was a dirt road where we played baseball. Or just walked around. Or ran around. Or watched boys get into fights.

Other street activities included following the sewer cleaners around from sewer to sewer, hoping that while they were clawing up buckets full of soaked dead leaves, empty Lucky Strike packs, and god knows what else, might find a lost bed rubber ball and toss it our way. So what if it smelled a bit. Woo-hoo, a free ball!

There were, of course, fewer cars back then. Most families in my world had one car, which the dad took to work.

You didn’t need a car to run errands. We were a five minute walk away from a grocery store, pharmacy, dry cleaners, barber shop, beauty salon, and repair shop that also sold light bulbs. If you needed to make a more substantial purchase, those same five minutes would take you to a used car lot and a place that sold cemetery headstones. Obviously, these weren’t errands that kids got to run. (Here’s a dollar. Go out and see if you can get me a Studebaker. Don’t forget to bring the change homes.) But you could get things without getting in your car.

Five minutes in the other direction brought you to Friendly’s.

We were a 10-15 minute walk to a low-rent shopping center that had a Zayre’s, a Woolworth’s, a Western Auto, and a gift shop.

What did stay-at-home moms need with a second car when they had kids who could run over to Morris Market for a head of iceberg or down to Woolworth’s for a spool of thread?

So, fewer cars meant it was safer to play on the streets.

But it’s not just the streets. Kids just don’t get to play outdoors as much as they used to.

Back in the day, we did virtually nothing that was organized. Boys played Little League and pee-wee hockey. Girls took piano, tap, or baton twirl. Other than that, we were on our own.

Something to be said for having grown up in a time when the powers that were weren’t running around passing laws saying we couldn’t play D-O-N-K-E-Y in the street.

Friday, March 07, 2014

What’s new in the funeral biz

When I got home the other day after one of an endless string of things to do, I found a package on my doorstep.

Inside I found a cream-colored, nice quality, woven throw that looked an awful lot like this one:

funeral throw

Except, of course, that the one I received had my husband’s name and dates on it.

My initial reaction – after the obligatory WTF exclamation – was to call my sister and shriek.

As anyone who was raised in the world of Irish Catholicism, there is always plenty to laugh about in the wake of the death of someone you love. (As long, I suspect, as that someone is not a child…)

When my Aunt Margaret died, the thing to laugh about was the glow-in-the-dark souvenir whistles that were heaped into baskets on the back of the toilets in the ladies’ room. Believe me, they lost money on us, as Margaret’s daughter, granddaughters, and nieces scooped them up. I believe one of her granddaughters – or was it my cousin MB? – who blew one when, after her funeral, the motorcade left her church in West Newton for the long trip up the Mass Pike to the cemetery outside Worcester where our exceedingly beloved Peg would be buried.

When my grandmother Wolf died, my mother and her sisters laughed over whether to bury “Ma” in her corset, since she never went out without it in real life.

When my cousin MB’s brother died, it was the flowers I sent her home that arrived dead – and in a vase that looked just like a cremation urn. (You couldn’t tell online what the vase looked like, as the live flowers depicted were so abundantly cascading over it.)

So the arrival of this funeral throw will be one of things we will laugh about when we talk about this time.

Before they decided to market to me, I sure wish the funeral home I used to arrange Jim’s cremation and post his obituary had asked me whether I’d like the memorial throw or a donation made in Jim’s name somewhere. Or whether I’d like the memorial throw embroidered with Jim’s name or not, as if it were blank I could have donated it. (It’s machine embroidery, so it’s too difficult to pick out.)

As it stands, it’s just not the sort of thing I’d use.

I guess when it comes to things funerary, I’m just way out of date, but these days it’s all about the marketing.

From the (to me) over the top template that Jim’s obituary was presented in – sail boats, weeping willows, pine cones, candles – to the memorial throw, I wasn’t particularly familiar with the new wave.

But if you Google “funeral afghan” or “memorial throw” there are plenty of options out there.

And it’s not just blankies…

Try “memorial gift” and all sorts of things come up: picture frames, music boxes, angel statues, snow globes.

On the year’s anniversary of my sister-in-law’s death, her husband received a Christmas ornament with her name and birth-death dates on it. His reaction: what am I supposed to do with this? Have our 11 year old hang it on the tree?

Who knew?

When my mother died in 2001, there was nothing like this around. At least nothing like this coming out of O’Connor Brothers in Worcester.

Obviously some people take immense comfort from this sort of merchandise, and I don’t want to poke fun at those who are happy to get this type of gift. If they find it helps them with their grieving, to quote Pope Francis, “What am I to judge?” Whatever gets you through the night.

But all this new requirement didn’t spring up from nowhere, and it looks like memorial gifting is pretty big business. I’m sure there are funeral home conventions where merchandisers display their wares and promote these things as savvy marketing.

The merchandisers also promote them as an alternative to sending flowers. (No thanks.)

It’s just so not for me, and I wish “our” funeral home had an opt out clause on the gift.

Oh, well, just as I’m an oddball in life, I’m apparently an oddball in death, as well.


Meanwhile, another laughable incident. The funeral home having screwed up the birthdate on Jim’s death certificate, I had to bring them Jim’s passport as backup for the affidavit they need to file with the state to get this taken care of. As my sister waited in her car in the driveway, I walked out with the owner. “See you in a couple days,” he said to me. He had not been involved in or arrangements – his sons had – so I explained that we weren’t holding a wake. With a big smile on his face, he hollered “See you in twenty years then.” Kath rolled the window down and hollered back “Make that thirty.”

Now, there are some folks who might have been offended by this seeming lack of judgment on Mr. Funeral’s part.

But Kath and I thought it was pretty funny.

The memorial throw as definitely “off.” But in making a joke, Mr. Funeral had correctly gauged who I am and who Jim was.

Another story we’ll be telling for years…

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Wall Street’s no longer all atwitter over GSElevator

In a spin on the notion of roman à clef – roman written without the author exactly being a key holder – a fellow named John Lefevre has spent the last three years pretending to be a Goldman Sachs insider – although probably not pretending to be Lloyd Blankfein, whose headshot he used as his avatar -  and tweeting out scoop supposedly overheard while humming around on the GS Elevator.

Some of what was exposed may well have been for-real GS gossip – Lefevre solicited goodies from his followers, who were invited to submit their tidbits via e-mail. But plenty of it was fake. (Real fake, but fake nonetheless.)


Anyway, as Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote over his NY Times Deal Book column (from whence cometh the above picture):

The Twitter account, @GSElevator, reports overheard remarks like, “I never give money to homeless people. I can’t reward failure in good conscience,” and “Groupon…Food stamps for the middle class.”

The Twitter account, which has an audience of more than 600,000 followers, has been the subject of an internal inquiry at Goldman to find the rogue employee. The tweets, often laced with insider references to deals in the news, appeal to both Wall Street bankers and outsiders who mock the industry. Late last month, the writer sold a book about Wall Street culture based on the tweets for a six-figure sum.

While Lefevre didn’t work at GS – and never actually claimed to, whatever his followers chose to infer – he had worked at Citigroup and had one received an offer from Goldman. (Close enough for government investment banking work, I suppose.)

Hey, I like making fun of Goldman Sachs as much as the next guy. (I like making fun of Tom Perkins, too.)

But it is kind of snaky to put stuff out there – as amusing, telling and dead-on as it may be – as something actually heard at GS when some of it may or may not have been, and some of it was just plain made up.

Of course, if the twitter account had been set up with some sort of bland “Heard on The Street” handle, it would have been nowhere near as provocative and titillating. Nor would it likely have garnered for a book on Wall Street culture.

I don’t know that I necessarily need to buy the book. Do I really want to read about arrogant, cigar-puffing a-holes bragging about their dwarf-tossing exploits when I can just go see the movie?

Then there are the troubling concerns around what’s the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, too good to be true, and if it’s not true, it should be:

The ability of people like Mr. Lefevre to create anonymous Twitter accounts underscores concerns about the veracity of what is published and the identity of authors. It also raises questions about whether publishers are blurring the line between real life and the made-up kind.

Me, when I read fiction – and I do plenty of that – I don’t care if it never happened in real life as long as it’s believable and authentic. (Dystopic fiction, however, just has to be believable to us paranoid types.)

But when I read something that’s presented as factual, I want it to be, well, factual.

So, if you want to say “this happened at Goldman”, I want it to really have happened at Goldman. And if it never actually happened, then I’d just as soon have it presented as fiction. As in, “this is the sort of stuff that cigar-puffing, dwarf-tossing a-holes say when they’re around their pals.”

Lefevre defends himself thus:

“This was never about me as a person,” he said. “It wasn’t about a firm. The stories aren’t Goldman Sachs in particular. It was about the culture in general.”

But, but, but…GSElevator? And bring-me-the-head-shot-of-Lloyd-Blankfein?

Well, good luck with the book, John. Much as I savor a good trash-talking, Wall Street bashing outing, I think I’ll take a pass.

Meanwhile, in a hilarious upshot, Goldman released a facetious statement:

A Goldman spokesman, after being told that @GSElevator had been unmasked, said in a statement, “We are pleased to report that the official ban on talking in elevators will be lifted effective immediately.”

Which some actually believed meant that Goldman had put a policy in place in which talking on the elevator was strictly verboten.

Whatever else you want to say about The Street, you have to admit “it” can have a wonderful sense of humor.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Communicator of the Year? Well, in a way…

Blog aside, I’m not an especially devoted user of social media.

I occasionally look at Facebook. I’ll check out Twitter when there’s something I want to track in real-time (like last April’s Marathon Bombing). And I do look up folks and make connections on LinkedIn (even if I’m kind of a slouch on keeping my info particularly up to date. (Note to self…)

I will almost always accept a LinkedIn request from someone I have worked with,or someone I know personally.

But occasionally I get requests that come out of the clear blue.

Who are you? I find myself asking. And why would I want to connect with you. Now, if these folks actually sent a note letting me know just why they wanted to link with me – maybe they like Pink Slip, or saw my articles in Pragmatic Marketing -  I would certainly consider the request. But just doing that vanilla “ask” when I have no idea who you are. Forget about it.

So I might harbor a scintilla of sympathy for Kelly Blazek, who in the harshest, and most mean-spirited way possible, rejected a LinkedIn request from someone she didn’t know. But mostly her response was over the top, nasty, and – live by social media, die by social media – now pretty widely socialized. Making her look like a colossal bee-yotch.

Here’s the story.

Diana Mekota, a recent college grad, is looking for a job in marketing in the Cleveland area.

Kelly Blazek runs a job board focusing on marketing jobs there.

Mekota had good reason to tap into the career-making tool to reach Kelly: Blazek was named "2013Communicator of the Year" by the Cleveland Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators. "Blazek is not just a headhunter or a recruiter, but a senior communications executive who enjoys helping others in the profession," the IABC said in a statement at the time.  (Source, here and below: AOL)

Mekota didn’t get a gentle put down. She got a rage that would have done Joan Crawford’s wooden hanger rant proud:

We have never met. We have never worked together. You are quite young and green on how business connections work with senior professionals. Apparently you have heard that I produce a Job Bank, and decided it would be stunningly helpful for your career prospects if I shared my 960+ LinkedIn connections with you -- a total stranger who has nothing to offer me.

Your invite to connect is inappropriate, beneficial only to you and tacky. Wow, I cannot wait to let every 26 year old mine my top-tier marketing connections to help them land a job.

Where to begin.

First off, it’s hard to believe that all of those 960+ LinkedIn connections are “top-tier marketing connections.” It sounds more like the list encompasses an awful lot of the marketing professionals in Cleveland. So what Diana Mekota has to offer is a new and eager marketing pro in the making join a list on which someday, in the not so distant future, she might be in a position to help someone else on the list.

I love the sense of entitlement in your generation. And therefore I enjoy Denying your invite and giving you the dreaded "I don't know Diana," because it's the truth.
Oh, and about your request to actually receive my Job Bank along with the 7,300 other subscribers to my service?

That's denied, too.

Now, we don’t see Mekota’s initial request. Did it come off as entitled? Or did she merely make a request – with(good idea!) or without (not so good idea!) explaining why she wanted to connect.

I suggest you join the other Job Bank in town.
Oh wait - there isn't one.

You're welcome to your humility lesson for the year. Don't ever reach out to senior practitioners again and assume their carefully curated list of connections is available to you, just because you want to build your network.
Don't ever write me again.

I’ll repeat myself here a bit: how “carefully curated” is a list of connection with nearly one thousand names on it? Maybe I just don’t have curator chops, but I could probably vouch for somewhere between 100 and 200 marketing pros at best.

And Mekota did try to write Blazek again, to explain herself and her credentials, and got no response.

Mekota then demonstrated her superior use of social media – probably the Numero Uno skill that people are looking for in a young marketer – and started socializing Blazek’s response.

Blazek has apologized, but she’s not sitting so pretty these days. She looks nasty, old school, spiteful toward “the young.”

For Mekota, I suspect the results of this will be more mixed. Sure, she knows how to wield the power of social media. So she’ll probably get a job. Still, I’m sure that some folks will hesitate for at least a Cleveland minute before inviting  this woman scorned into their midst.

I’m plenty happy that I am neither Diana Mekota or Kelly Blazek.

As I said, live by social media, die by social media.

When will people learn?


Thanks to my brother-in-law John for the tip on this story.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

B Strong. (See you in court, maybe.)

As we approach the first anniversary of the Marathon Bombings, we’re all gearing up for what will no doubt be 24/7 look backs saturating the media.

One of the things that came out of this horrific event was the widespread use – mostly for purposes of Boston Strongfund-raising for the victims – of the phrase Boston Strong. And the adoption of the Red Sox – again for fund raising - of a variant that used their distinctive,  instantly recognizable – at least to anyone who lives in New England and/or is a baseball fan -  logo.

You can’t walk the streets of Boston these days without running across a few folks wearing caps sporting these logos.

But deep in the heart of Texas, there’s a group called the Braden Aboud Memorial Foundation that has been using B Strong for a number of years.

Gary Aboud of the Braden Aboud Memorial Foundation trademarked the B STRONG logo almost seven years ago after Braden died in 2007. He told the El Paso Times that he’s been in legal discussions with the team for several months about their use of the logo. The Red Sox started using the B Strong logo after last year's Boston Marathon.

"We're atbraden aboud an impasse and I'm afraid soon we will be going to court over it," Gary said. "It's a David versus Goliath battle."

The foundation has issued cease-and-desist letters to other organizations in the past about using B Strong.

"They are not willing to give it up because they feel there is no marketing confusion," Gary Aboud said. "There is value to it because they don't want to give it up and they are not willing to cease and desist. They have sold that on merchandise and made money over it. They give the money to charities, but we're not included on that list." (Source: UPI)

With all sympathies to Mr. Aboud, who set the foundation up to honor his son, who died  at the far too young age of 14, there are a couple of key points in the above.

“They are not willing to give it up because they feel there is no marketing confusion.”

No surprise that they feel there is no marketing confusion. I suspect about 99.99% of anybody looking at these two logos would experience any marketing confusion, either.


“They give the money to charities, but we're not included on that list."

Bingo! It’s always about the Benjamins, isn’t it?

It would be nice of the Red Sox, who are rolling in the dough, to make a donation to Aboud’s foundation.

But people who donate to the Red Sox B Strong want the money to go to charities tied to the Boston Marathon bombings (or to Boston charities), not to some foundation that does its good works in El Paso.

Aboud said it’s possible the foundation will sue the Red Sox and Major League Baseball.

MLB! Hey, more deep pockets!

I understand why Mr. Aboud would want to bring more money into his foundation, and I guess if he had been canny enough to trademark B Strong, he has a claim on something or other. But this seems like a reverse on the idiocies we see when, say, Disney goes after parents who used Winnie-the-Pooh’s image on their child’s gravestone. It seems gratuitous, a waste of court time, and nothing but a shakedown.

The Red Sox issued a statement about the situation on Thursday:

"Until today's press report, the Red Sox had been unaware that the amicable discussions that were being had with the Braden Aboud Foundation were not progressing to resolve the matter," the statement said. "The Red Sox look forward to further such discussions and to a positive resolution -- one that would, among other things, allow our distinct charitable interests mutually and successfully to co-exist."

Of course, we’ve now heard of the Braden Foundation, which I suspect was not that widely known beyond the local community. Which may have been the whole point. Maybe Mr. Aboud is ctwitterounting on those who are sick and tired of Boston period to pony up for his group.

Meanwhile, maybe Mr. Aboud should B a bit concerned about the resemblance of his logo to another that is slightly more well known.

Tweet you in court!

Monday, March 03, 2014

“Bread and Milk”

Weather-wise (among other wises), this has been a terrible, horrible, very bad winter. Not so much the snow – in that respect, this has been more reminiscent than most recent winters of the those of my childhood, when there was snow cover from December until March. But the cold.

Brrrrrrr. (Grrrrr.)

It’s been below normal, and we’ve had precious few of those mild-for-winter type days when you can almost smell spring.

Me, I just want to see a crocus or two out front, and the forsythia in bloom in the Boston Public Garden, which is just outside my front door.

The snow doesn’t bother me as much as the cold does. What I hate about the snow is when people don’t shovel and the snow turns to hip-breaking ice, and – in second place – when the snow gets crusty, dirty, and stained with dog pee. And I don’t like to drive in it. But mostly I don’t mind snow.

Still, I’d be just as happy if someone up there would issue a cease and desist order for the white stuff.

As of this writing – Friday, February 28th – Monday, March 3rd is supposed to be a snow day. No biggy. Maybe six inches, maybe less.

But snow none the less.

So I thought I’d share this hilarious video that my niece Caroline showed us last week:

Channeling the Blizzard of ‘78

Ah, snow panic.

Since the Blizzard of ‘78, even us hardy New England locals respond to every report of an impending storm by heading to the supermarket to load up on bread, milk, Cheezits, fruit roll-ups, Oreos, cans of Italian wedding soup, and whatever else strikes us will keep us from the Donner Party fate if we get snowed in.

Even folks who weren’t alive for the Blizzard of ‘78 behave as if they’re on Supermarket Sweeps, loading up their carts with anything within grabbing distance. Just in case…

Those of us who actually lived through (and survived) the Blizzard of ‘78 will recall that there actually was a shortage of bread and milk, as stores didn’t get deliveries for a week of so after the storm. Jim and I, along with my sister and her husband, managed to survive on what we had in the cupboard and the freezer. I remember a hot dog meal – perhaps the last time I actually had hot dogs in the freezer – and Kath recalls something we did with canned salmon. (Salmon loaf?)

But even when the bread and milk ran out, we survived.

When the stores were finally restocked, our local had a sign up asking folks to only take what they needed, and to limit their bread purchase to one or two loaves.

The woman in front of me approached the register with a cart filled with bread. She must have had a dozen loaves. I remember that it crossed my mind that that bread would grow moldy before she got to use most of it. (And I, naturally, hoped that this would be the case.)

Mostly people behaved themselves, and I don’t recall any food panic before, during, and after the dramatic and hundred-year event that was the Blizzard of ‘78. (A few years later, I joined a company where a number of data center employees had been stranded. They lived off the vending machines, which they had to break into, and kept the company’s mainframe up and running.)

I have bread, English muffins, and plenty of crackers on which to slather peanut butter. I will pick up some milk pre-storm, so that I can have it in my tea. I can pretty much guarantee that I will not be starving to death any time soon.

But these days we can count on a storm forecast to bring out the inner hoarder, the inner panic buyer in all of us.

“I gotta get the bread and milk. They said snow!”