Friday, January 30, 2015

Plowa? Wowz! Finally, an app that does something worthwhile

It seems as if, whenever I despair of running out of blog topics, I read about some worthless, silly must-have app that launches me into a near-Luddite swoon. Not to mention a breast-beating lament about why the Millennials are spending all their time and talent on frivolity, rather than focusing on the cure for cancer, the common cold, income inequality. Rather than putzing around with yet another ridonculous time-wasting, relationship-destroying, brain-numbing little app. (I have seen the best minds of your generation…)

So I was completely heartened to come across Plowz and its companion piece, Mowz, which meet a real, honest-to-goodness need.

Plowz and Mowz are the Uber of the snowplowing and lawn-mowing world, seemingly without all the baggage that Uber drags along like a bunch of tin cans tied to its bumper. (You know, stuff like encouraging folks to take out bad loans to buy cars, stuff like uninsured drivers, etc.)

This week – for obvious reasons – Plowz, which provides on-demand snow plowing in a growing number of locales (including, just recently, Boston  - good timing!) is the side of the business that’s of interest. Here’s what they say about themselves:

A wintertime chore made easy

PLOWZ is a snow plowing service that lets you order a Plow anytime, anywhere.

  • Ease of use: Schedule a plow with the touch of a button
  • Flexible: Select the day you want your driveway cleared
  • Fast payments: Pay right through the app
  • Peace of mind: Receive photo confirmation of plowed driveway
  • No hidden fees: You’ll know exactly how much you will pay

And not just any jamoke with a plow bolted on to the front of his F-150 can become a Plowzman (or Plowwoman, but let’s face it…). You need to have professional grade equipment and a minimum of $1 million in liability coverage.

Plowz launched in Boston last fall:

Co-founder William Mahoney said that this bout of weather has been their biggest effort yet, as expects to service over 2,500 customers over the course of the storm.

“We knew very quickly that there was going to be a huge amount of orders,” he said this afternoon from Syracuse, where they only saw five inches of snow. “This Boston storm will be a record for our company.” (Source:

Plowz was not born of anyone’s being a lazy-arse who wanted someone to deliver quarters so he could do his laundry.

The idea for Plowz and Mowz came to Mahoney after his mother called him in the midst of a snowstorm, frantic that she couldn’t shovel her car out of her driveway. Mahoney said that as he called around looking for a private service that would help his mom out, he watched as dozens of plows pass his house.

So Mahoney’s mother was actually the mother of invention. Sweet!

“I thought it was a missed opportunity,” he said. He and co-founder Andrew Englander, who are both Syracuse University grads, decided to create an app that would let users book private plow drivers.

Snowmageddon, or the Blizzard of 2015 known as Juno, turned out to be a boon for the Boston-biz:

…Plowz and Mowz spent about $10,000 on a localized social media campaign starting Monday morning. And it paid off: Mahoney said the company had “orders coming in nonstop” and at some times during the day were booking every 15 seconds.

I don’t have a driveway, and will never, ever, ever have one to worry about. (Nor will I ever have a yard to mow.) But I love these guys.  (Maybe they should extend their service to plain old shoveling. If they do storm drains, I’m in…)

I also love the Syracuse connection. SU has become quite a hot spot for entrepreneurship. (My friend Sean is involved through the Newhouse (communications school) as Director, Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship.)

Anyway, with all the complaining I do about nonsense apps, I was delighted to come across one that really meets a need.

Way to go!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

One more reason to take the train (or just stay home)

Security lines are too long.

Leg room is too short.

Meal service – when you get it – is ghastly.

Airports are too far out.

Air quality is poor.

Overhead bins are over-stuffed.

Toilets are fetid.

We fly in fear that the person in front of us will throw his seat all the way back.

And now it looks like we may not even have the pleasure of leafing through the SkyMall catalog. While the company hopes that there’s a buyer out there for its catalog and its brand, SkyMall has filed for bankruptcy.


Oh, weird products will still be available. Consumer-wise, we’re living in the Age of Infinite Cornucopia. No app is too ridiculous, no product so useless and far-fetched that it won’t find its audience. But, unless the crackpot product is fortunate enough to go viral,  or it’s got some marketing heft behind it and shows up on a shopping network, you more or less have to go into your product search with some vague inkling of what you’re after.

What the SkyMall provided was The Great Aggregation: all those bizarre, ridiculous products under one roof – or at least in one catalog.

Business Week rounded up a few of the more outré offerings: the mounted squirrel head, the yard zombie, the hoodie pillow case. (Check it out: some very nice pictures of these obscure objects of our desire.)

In case you were wondering about Sky Mall, it started out in 1990:shoe wine holder

It touted itself as a purveyor of  “unique merchandise” and never had to defend that claim against vigorous dispute. Around 650 million people a year viewed the catalog, according to the company’s website.

And speaking of websites, theirs is certainly worth a gander.

What man wouldn’t want a hot dog scented tee-shirt? (For women, it’s piña coladawinky bag.) And who among us doesn’t know at least one combo shoe and wine buff who could use that combo shoe and wine holder? Not to mention someone who would like nothing better than to sport a “winky bag”? (If so, you’re at least temporarily out of luck, as this item is not currently available. And if SkyMall truly folds, well, I shudder to think…)

Alan Lobock, a co-founder of SkyMall, said he never expected the catalog to develop its reputation as a source of zany gifts, though he's pleased with the brand's legacy now. The original intention was to get customers to order within 20 minutes of landing and have the goods waiting for them on arrival. SkyMall would later switch to home delivery.

Huh? Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but I have no memory of being able to place a SkyMall order while on a plane  - unless us passenger shoppers were expected to use that $12 a minute, cream-colored plastic air phone embedded in the seat back of the middle seat to make sure that the inflatable nativity scene was there waiting for us when we arrived. The only catalog shopping I’ve ever seen onboard is duty free merchandise on overseas flights, or stuff like plastic models of Aer Lingus planes.

"We tried to pick items that were likely to appeal to a traveler, whether that'd be gifts to their children or things they could use on vacation," said Lobock. "It was never intended for shock value."

Oh, I would say shock. But I would definitely say awe.

Whether for the shock or the awe or the just plain ludicrous junk (admittedly tempered by some practical stuff), I will miss SkyMall.

Not that I ever got on a flight without ample reading. (I have had delayed flights where I’ve had to do a bit of panic buying. Vanity Fair is pretty good for a long-ish flight.) But it was always comforting to know I could take a break with my trusty SkyMall catalog.)

Next thing you know, they’ll be getting rid of the in-flight magazines, so we won’t be able to read about the ten best steakhouses in Paducah and see how we do on those Mensa puzzles. And then they’ll take away the safety instruction card. They’ll expect us to read all about it on our Google Glasses or our other personal electronic devices.

I did note last October that Brookstone – which used to be so stuffy and serious – was starting to give SkyMall a run for their money.

Nonetheless, I do hope someone picks up SkyMall, and that they keep on printing – and not just setting up virtually.

Here’s an earlier Sky Mall post. What am I going to do without them?

Guess I’ll be okay as long as folks like my sister Trish keep plying me with ideas. Thanks for sending this one my way.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Snowmageddon! Snowpocalypse! Snowlapolooza!

Well, I don’t know about you, but I do enjoy me a snow day every once in a while, and yesterday was one of them.

The lead up to it was, of course, over the top.

Since NYC was expected to get clobbered, the storm – which even got named: Juno – was the focus on all news attention on the 24/7 networks (CNN, MSNBC, and, I suppose Fox, although I don’t get that particular network) starting on Monday.

While Juno may have been the storm’s “official” name, those of us in “the impact areas” could not help but thinking of it in more extravagant terms: Snowmageddon! Snowpocalypse! Snowlapolooza!

Up to three feet predicted! Yikes ! Yay!

After all, when you come right down to it, there’s not all that much difference between 24” and 36”, and 36”, why that’s historic. And if you’re in the news biz, well, historic is plenty of reason to go histrionic. And histrionic, well, that’s sure good for the ratings.

For NYC, Juno became the one that got away.

Anticipating a Sandy-level disaster, the Mayor pretty much shut the city down – no subways, even – so when the snow totaled to a meager, less than a foot amount, it was all pretty deflating. (And, for those who don’t believe that we’re experiencing climate change, plenty of ammo: see, if they can’t predict a snow storm,, how can they predict that the polar ice cap’s melting.)

I had actually planned on being in New York yesterday, hoping to celebrate my husband’s birthday having a glass of ale in his honor at McSorley’s Ale House (Jim’s favorite watering McSorley'shole of all time), and – quite possibly - by leaving a few grains of his ashes in the pot-belly stove there.

But last week, the forecast was that it would be in the low-twenties, with the possibility of light snow, so I changed my plans. McSorley’s in the spring, when it will be more fun to be in New York.

As a substitute for commemorating Jim’s birthday doing something he would like (the ale drinking, not the ash-scattering – although if Jim could have figured out how to scatter his own ashes, he would have been totally down with it), I decided to do something that he would have hated: I scheduled an appliance and kitchen showroom  excursion with my just-retired friend, Peter.

By Sunday, we realized that the storm was going to put a kibosh on that jaunt.

So I spent my snow day doing what people do on snow days when they don’t have to shovel out (which, blessedly, I no longer have to do, as our condo association has finally come up with a system that seems to be working; I do end up doing a  marginal bit of shoveling, and have assumed solo responsibility for the storm drain on the corner, now that my 80+ year old neighbor Dick, with whom  I used to share this good citizen task, has hung up his shovel and ice pick).

I looked out the window and plunked on the couch with the channel cruiser and swung from one station to the next keeping up with the storm news, vaguely monitoring the count on how many houses in Scituate, Marshfield, and Duxbury (on Boston’s South Shore) had been condemned, and noting that Plum Island (on Boston’s North Shore) – which generally leads the pack on houses swept away in big storms- had been somehow spared.

Oh, I got up to do things like make a cup of tea and answer a couple of e-mails. And I made a few half-hearted stabs at reading a book (hah!) or doing some work (hah-hah-hah!). Inexorably, I was drawn back to the news, rooting with the local weather-folks that we could salvage something out of this storm.

If not the biggest on record, at least let us make it into the Top Five. Or at least the Top Five for the month of January.

As of this writing (mid-afternoon), it does look like we’ll easily make it into the Top Five for January – maybe even the all-time January storm. The cold is your friend here: it makes the snow light and fluffy, so the amounts are bigger. Plus it’s easier to shovel. The downside of having a blockbuster in January is that it doesn’t melt away as easily as February storms do. Instead, it ices up and hangs around for a while, with those pristine snow banks turning into crusty, boogery mounds covered with car exhaust and dog pee.

But for now it sure looks pretty.

Here’s the view from the kitchen, mid-afternoon, during a bit of a lull:

Out the Kitchen

I like the artistic inclusion of the ice cream cone to the left.

This was from one of those fake stained glass window kits that my husband bought for my niece Molly a good dozen years ago. Since it’s been baking in the afternoon sun for those good dozen years, it’s pretty much soldered on there and I think I’d have to replace the window to get rid of it. But who wants to get rid of it? Looking at it reminds me of how much fun Molly and Diggy (my husband’s nom de famille) used to have.

All’s quiet on the southern front (outside the front door), too.

Front Door

That’s Beacon Street, which is generally pretty well-trafficked.

Not today!

My grandmother Rogers always used to tell us that she was going to send a sign when she died, letting us know whether God, indeed, existed.

Well, the day she died started out as a perfectly pleasant day in April, but while I was on the phone with my sister Kath, who had called to tell me that Nanny was gone, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, the skies turned black, and it began to rain sideways.

What we never figured out whether Nanny meant the sign to say “yes” or “no”, leaving each of her descendants to decide for themselves.

And here we are on Diggy’s birthday, getting clobbered by a couple of feet of snow….


(If that’s an afterlife “yes”, I miss you, Diggy….)


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Is the handwriting about handwriting on the wall?

On January 23rd, National Handwriting Day was observed.

Not surprisingly, National Handwriting Day is sponsored by those who will stand to benefit from a national focus on handwriting. Here it’s the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association.

Writing Instrument!

What a charming notion, what a quaint name. None of this boring “Pen and Pencil Manufacturers Association” stuff.  And it’s no surprise that these folks have an association: pens, pencils, and markers – errrr, writing instruments – is a $4.5 billion industry.

The purpose of National Handwriting Day is to alert the public to the importance of handwriting. According to WIMA, National Handwriting Day is a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting.(Source: WIMA)

I don’t know about the purity and power of handwriting, but I love to open the mailbox and find something that’s actually addressed to me by an honest to goodness human being. Like everyone else, I live by the e-mail and the text, but there’s something about a card or a note with a stamp and your handwritten name on it. And I believe that it’s as blessed to give as to receive. I send an awful lot of cards over the course of a year, and most of them include at least a bit of a note. And while I didn’t explicitly celebrate National Handwriting Day, I did send a friend a sympathy card (with long note) on Friday, and a hand-addressed birthday card (with brief note) to my aunt.

WIMA sponsors National Handwriting Day every January 23 in conjunction with John Hancock’s birthday. Hancock was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence and is famous for his large, bold signature.

Well, I may not have a particularly large or especially bold and Hancock-ian signature, but it’s not bad. (Thank you, I suppose, to a long line of penmanship torture nuns, starting with Sister Aloysius St. James.)

According to WIMA:

The lost art of handwriting is one of the few ways we can uniquely express ourselves. There’s something poetic about grasping a writing instrument and feeling it hit the paper as your thoughts flow through your fingers and pour into words….Handwriting allows us to be artists and individuals during a time when we often use computers, faxes and e-mail to communicate. Fonts are the same no matter what computer you use or how you use it. Fonts lack a personal touch. Handwriting can add intimacy to a letter and reveal details about the writer’s personality. Throughout history, handwritten documents have sparked love affairs, started wars, established peace, freed slaves, created movements and declared independence.

I’m sorry to say that grasping a writing instrument hasn’t made me feel like a poet or an artist, but I do agree that fonts lack a personal touch, even if you do choose one of the more off-beat ones, like Broadway or Boopee. (Personally, I’m a Calibri kind of gal.)

It does seem a shame that so much of the above good stuff like love affairs and movements  now happens via Facetime or texting. LOL…

By the way, there’s more to know about writing instruments than you might have imagined, including:

An unpainted pencil inserted into the soil of a potted plant can eliminate mealy bugs on plants.

Seeing a pencil in your dream indicates that you are making a temporary impact in a situation. It may also suggest that a relationship may not last long.

Not everything that there is to know about writing instruments is good:

Comedian, actor and educator, Bill Cosby is the most famous pen enthusiast in the world.

Time to update the website, WIMA.

And time to start lobbying schools about teaching handwriting – if you’re not already doing it.

I really do believe that kids should learn how to read and write cursive. After all, someday there may be a letter they want to read or write. Someday there may be notes they want to take. And someday there may not be an electronic device to capture the moment.

Sadly, I suspect that cursive will go the way of Beowulf-era English.

I’ve written about penmanship in the past:

This Is a Specimen of My Best Palmer Handwriting…and The Lost Art of Penmanship: Cursive, Foiled Again, in which post I wrote:

When I see anything that was written by either of my parents, by my Aunt Margaret, by my grandmother, I am moved and feel connected in a way that I would never be if whatever it is - it doesn't even have to be a personal message  - had been typed up. (Nothing like picking up a recipe card in my mother's hand to get me going...)

The list of handwriting that gets to me is growing.

A couple of months ago, I got a birthday card from a friend. I had never noticed before how closely her handwriting resembled that of my dear and wonderful friend Marie, who died in April. When I saw my name there, in Marie’s handwriting, I let out a little gasp.

Today would have been my husband’s birthday. Nearly a year after Jim’s death, whenever I pick up anything with his writing on it (always in red ink, often in printing rather than cursive) my heart stops.

There really is something about the handwritten word. I hope that we won’t be seeing the handwriting on the wall about it anytime soon.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Balls! (Or will Ball-Ghazi ever end?)

Last fall, I decided that, although I love watching sports, I would be removing football from my playlist.

There were a number of reasons: concussions, wife-battering, child abuse, rape, football’s conflation with Americanism (well, yes: violent, exceptional, exceptionally violent), a hyped-up (one might even say overinflated)  sense of self-importance , etc.

As I’ve maintained for years, watching football is like eating veal. If you thought about it for a moment, you wouldn’t do it.

But, just as I went ahead and ordered the scrumptious orecchiette vitello at Tuscano’s, there I was as the season wound down taking an occasional (quarterback) sneak peek at a Patriots game.

No, I was nowhere near my all time high NFL watching level, achieved in the last couple of years of my husband’s life when we often found ourselves sitting through a couple of games on Sunday, then Monday night, then Thursday night, then all the playoffs and then, even Super Bowl – something we’d really done unless the Pat were playing in it.

Still, with Super Bowl now in “our” sights, I was back to watching the NFL. And I was delighted to take in the Pats-Ravens playoff game in the company of my sister and her family, and the Pats-Colts AFC playoff at my cousin’s.

While I would not have been crushed if the Pats had lost that game – I’m just not that big a fan – I left MB and Dan’s after a Pats victory a wee bit excited about the prospect of their making it to the Big Game.  And more than a wee bit dreading what the next two weeks of wall-to-wall, all Super Bowl, all the time, coverage was going to be like.

No, no, a thousand times no to every newscast leading off with what size pom-pom was on the hat Tom Brady wore to practice, what Devon McCourty ate for breakfast, and whether or not Rob Gronkowski had read the soft-core ebook that he inspired (A Gronking to Remember: Book One in the Rob Gronkowski Erotica Series).

In a sports-crazed city such as the one I live in, coverage is non-stop, obsessive, and down right silly at times. And any period leading up to a Super Bowl in which the Patriots are playing is one of those times.

But then we wake up to DeflateGate, the deep dark night of the football soul crisis that has completely consumed not just local but national coverage since it was found that the Pats had played the first half of their playoff against the Colts with footballs that were marginally deflated in terms of pressure per square inch.

DeflateGate – personally, I prefer Ball-Ghazi – got blown way out of proportion for a number of reasons.

Mostly it’s the fathomless maw of the 24/7 “news” cycle that needs to be filled. That and the blog-erati. But I suspect that if the situation involved the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Carolina Panthers all it would have gotten is 15 minutes of fame and that would be that. Three and out; one and done.

But this is the Patriots, so we’re talking about:

Widespread dislike hatred, fomented in part because the Pats win a lot, in part because they’re fairly arrogant about it, in part because they play in New England – a region that’s so despised for reasons that would take up a post in its entirety, so I’ll save it for a rainy day.

The Pats also operate under a cloud of suspicion because the team and its famously grumpy and taciturn head coach, Bill Belichick, were punished and fined a while back for illegally taping their opponents. The frothing commenters, who have been moth-to-flame drawn out of their troll-caves by DeflateGate are acting as if what the Pats did was completely despicable, totally heinous, and indicative of the Cheatin’ Heart beating at the core of Patriots Nation. Commenters act as if the Pats taped and no one else did. The facts have shown that many/most teams taped, and that what the Pats had violated was a new rule that said you can tape from vantage point A, but you can no longer tape from vantage point B.

Undoubtedly, the Pats and Belichick (in the eyes of many, henceforth Belicheat) were cocking a snook at the NFL over what they thought was a stupid rule. (Having spent so many years in parochial school, I consider myself something of a connoisseur when it comes to stupid rules myself, so I can see the Patriots’ point on this one.)

SpyGate, as this earlier hoo-hah was branded, became the rallying cry for those who hated the Pats to begin with.

Since then, every win that the Pats have had is tainted, every record they break should be asterisked.

The competitive edges that other teams come up with – like encouraging their fans to drown out the audibles of the opposing team – are good clean fun. Anything the Pats do – such as run an unorthodox (but perfectly legal) formation - is indicative of their evil ways.

And the deftlaters are now going about and beyond DeflateGate and SpyGate, and throwing up new claims that is is statistically unlikely that the Pats have as few fumbles as they do, etc.

That the game is rigged so that the teams that the NFL wants in the Super Bowl end up there – in the Pats case, because of the friendship between FNL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pats’ owner Bob Kraft (a.k.a., Krafty).

And just how is it that a 6th round draft pick like Tom Brady ends up being a superstar and gets the girl, who’s so rich that he can take a salary discount for the good of the team? Plus he’s handsome to boot. So while we may think of him as Tom Terrific, or our Tom, the rest of the world calls for the downfall of Shady Brady.

Maybe the Pats did somehow engineer a tremendous feat of cheat. Maybe there’s a scientific explanation of the case of the shrinking balls. Maybe the league has always tolerated a bit of under-and-over on ball inflation measurements, and some teams have taken advantage of it. (The Pats aren’t alone. The Green Bay Packer’s St. Aaron of Rodgers, perhaps second only to Tom Brady in the sanctity of his image, has said something along the lines that he likes a ball that’s slightly overinflated, and he’ll use them until the league catches him at it.)

I certainly hope the Pats didn’t cheat. (This sort of cheating is, by the way, considered a fairly minor infraction. That said, there doesn’t appear to be any great consistency with respect to how rules are interpreted and enforced in the NFL.)

But let’s get on with the show…

No, I don’t have to watch or read the news. I don’t have to watch or read about the Super Bowl.

But I will.

So let’s dropkick DeflateGate to the sidelines of history where it belongs.

As our Tom said in his press conference, ‘this isn’t ISIS.’

So let’s get down to the real news of the day – like whether or not Gronk liked the book.

Friday, January 23, 2015


It’s the dead of winter and, this being New England, that means it’s pretty darned dead.

And what with the deadening effects of winter in general and this winter in particular, I was casting about for the blogging idea that would be the equivalent of an amuse-bouche to end the week on. You know, a little something that would tickle the funny bone of the reader’s mind, not the mention the funny bone of the writer’s.

(If I’m not making any sense here, it’s because it is the dead of winter, and I have sadly found the answer to the question ‘would I be willing to take a long walk – or even a medium-sized walk - every day, even if it’s 15 degrees out?’ And that answer is a resounding ‘No!’ So I’m no doubt suffering from a bit of cabin fever.)

Anyway, just as I was despairing of ever finding my blog idea version of an amuse-bouche du jour, I heard a news bit on TV on the runpee app.

Surely a blog-worthy topic, given that there is no end to my amazement at the sheer volume of seemingly useless apps that are out there. And here was an app that identified the sections of a movie where theatergoers could take a pee break without missing out on the plot. Is this really something that the world has been holding its breath – and its bladder – for?

But as I sat down to do my post, I had something of a Groundhog Day (boring bit: maybe when they’re on the highway?) moment.

‘Hey,’ I asked myself, ‘Didn’t I blog about this app, like, a million useless apps ago?’

And indeed I did, way back in June of ought-nine, in a post entitled RunPee…because. (A title that is something of an in-joke for women of a certain age, as it takes off on the Modess…because ads of our girlhood. Back then, the sanitary napkin was a product that dared not mention its name. We’ve come along way, baby, what with all sorts of “feminine” products – including birth control and douches – saying it loud and saying it proud. Not to be outdone, of course, the guys have all the ED ads warning about those pesky erections that last more than four hours. Okay. This is neither here nor there w.r.t. runpee, but I just wanted to do a shout out to my fellow dames d’un certain age, especially given that, as we age, so do our bladders and we’re always on the lookout for clean bathrooms and we’re always devising workarounds, like don’t drink a cup of tea before climbing into the car. Don’t know what’s with all the French today, either. It’s not like I speak he language. Maybe it’s a dead of winter thing. Or the image of John Kerry and James Taylor giving France a hug, or whatever it is they were doing last week.)

Anyway, I’m sticking to my original read on runpee, which is a reasonable entertaining post, made a bit more entertaining by the fact that the founder of runpee stopped by to make a comment.

But I do want to say a couple of things.

First, it’s amazing that these guys are still around after all these years, isn’t it?

Second, it’s amazing that these guys are still capable of generating fresh publicity – like mentions on national news – after all these years, isn’t it?

Maybe it’s time for me to dream up a useless app of my own, which I may well be inspired to do once I drop my Blackberry into the recycle bin of life and step into the world of app-o-rama, of app-a-palooza.

One thought: why not an app reminding movie goers to pee before they get seated for the movie. With an add-on telling them to order the small-sized soda. Now that would be useful for those who haven’t yet figured this out on their own. Given the longevity of runpee, there must be plenty of them.

Meanwhile, since I’ve already done my rant on runpee, I need to look for a fresh app to make fun of.

I swear that the other day I saw something about an app that you use in conjunction with teeth-whiteners. Something that you shine on your teeth to accelerate the whitening process?


What was I thinking when I didn’t seize the time and click through on it.

And now I can’t find it.*

Which means maybe I dreamed it up. Which means that, once I get a smarter smartphone, maybe I can even invent it. Especially with all the time I have on my hands, given that it’s too damned cold to go out and take a long – or even medium-sized – walk.

Watch this space…


*Nope. I didn’t dream it up. Someone else did. As was inevitable, after I wrote this post, I stumbled upon it. There is, indeed an app called White Tooth that promises to accelerate the whitening process.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Business booming for private eyes

For those of us who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the two dominant TV show themes were westerns and private detectives.

Westerns occupied most of the terrain on the small screen, but there were plenty of PI’s, too.

Seventy-seven Sunset Strip. Surfside Six. Hawaiian Eye. Peter Gunn. And our appetites continued to be fed during the 1970’s and 1980’s with Rockford Files and Magnum PI.

Our introduction to PI’s came, of course, from HoFadoozlewdy Doody, where we first learned about the profession through Inspector Fadoozle, “America’s Number One Private Eye” (pictured here with Flub-a-dub. And lest you think that John J. Fadoozle was anything other than an important figure in American culture, in 2002 his marionette fetched $40K at auction.)

But although PI’s have lived on in detective fiction – think Mickey Bolitar and Stephanie Plum – they’re not quite as present on TV as they once were. (I know that there’s a show that’s kind of about Sherlock Holmes, but most of TV detectives these days work for a PD or for NCIS. So they’re public, not private.)

In real life, however, the PI business is booming.

Investigators across the nation say business has boomed in recent years from clients who want their sweethearts investigated for potentially deal-breaking habits and secrets.

“It’s worth it to them to spend a little in advance to figure out whether they’re hooked up with a loser or a longtime candidate,” said Jerry Bussard, who owns Cincinnati-based AAA Detective Agency Inc., of his clients.

The trend is partly driven, investigators say, by the legions of examples of online daters embellishing their profiles, and of scammers using dating sites to lure people into false romances with the intent of stealing from them. But investigators also say the uptick reflects a world in which a person can divine the outline of another’s life by a simple Google search. The Internet, they say, is like a gateway drug to professional snooping.

“What they are getting is just enough information to make them curious,” said Mr. Bussard. (Source: WSJ Online)

While digging up dirt for personal reasons is a big driver, employee background checks are also on the increase – something that was just not done in the good old days. (A friend recently told me that someone on her team was caught out because he had claimed a degree he had not technically been awarded. What was in the way of getting that degree was an unpaid activities fee from senior year. The employee – who hadn’t thought of it in years; he’d earned the degree, he just hadn’t been given his diploma - was allowed to pay up, so the case was closed. Point being, employees are under increasing scrutiny these days.)

Anyway, annual revenues for detective services have doubled over the past decade and, as of 2012, it was a $5.2 billion business in the U.S.

A lot of the business is conducted via computer which is a bit less exciting than surveillance (at least the parts of surveillance when there’s actually something to see), car chases and fist fights.

Who among us hasn’t been tempted to sign up for one of those criminal background check services to get the dirt on someone we’re curious about? Sure, we think about it but, in the end, if we really want or need to know something, we cede it to the pros.

Sometimes the background investigations reveal something really good, i.e., bad. Other times, there’s nothing new learned. And other times, the whole thing just blows up. As when a Chicago woman called the police about a car that had been suspiciously parked in front of her home. Turns out her boyfriend had hired a PI to investigate her. I suspect that this ended with a ‘not tonight, honey, I’ve got a headache’ of the permanent sort.

In any case, I thought it was interesting to see that business for PI’s is booming.

Wonder what this would have made of Inspector Fadoozle’s claim that he was “America’s Number One Private Eye.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Thank you, Elon Musk

Well, Elon Musk has been in the news quite a bit lately.

There was the crash and burn of the Space X Falcon rocket ship, which made a spectacularly unsuccessful landing – talk about rockets’ red glare – on its return from a Pea Pod run to launch a payload of supplies to the International Space Station. (Space X is Musk’s civilian space exploration enterprise.)

Then came the news that Musk plans to be the Al Gore of an Internet designed for outer space.

Not to mention his donation of $10 million to the Future of Life Institute to help protect the world from artificial intelligence (AI):

In the past, Musk has warned that AI could be "potentially more dangerous than nukes." Recently, he and a long list of researchers signed an open letter asking for "robust and beneficial" AI research that would be mindful of future consequences to humans. (Source: NBC News)

And now he has put his money – or a teeny-tiny fraction of it – where his mouth is.

The $10 million will be given out as research grants. "You could certainly construct scenarios where the human race does not recover," Musk said. "When the risk is that severe, it seems like you should be proactive and not reactive."

Although it’s local – headed up by an MIT professor – I wasn’t familiar with the Future of Life Institute. But I’m all in favor of any group “working to mitigate existential risks facing humanity.”

Personally, I would have picked climate change, rogue viruses, mad scientists creating half-human/half musk ox hybrids,  or our increasing general reliance on technology to “run” everything (such that only survivalists will know where water comes from, how to stay warm, and how to navigate by reading a map) as my existential risks. Maybe this latter fear of mine intersects with what the Future of Life Institute is on to. After all, they have very big brains, and understand that AI is more than Amazon suggesting what books you might like. So if they want to focus on the risky business of “human-level artificial intelligence”, well, have at it.

Musk isn't the only famous scientific mind worried about killer machines. In December, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking told the BBC that the "development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."

Well, that settles things. Any fear of Stephen Hawking is a fear of mine.

All this reminds me of a second-order encounter with AI that I had a few decades back. (I was going to write that it was 20 years ago, but I think it was more like 30. Time flies, even if  you’re not in a rocket ship.)

Anyway, a number of my colleagues – one of them remains one of my closest friends – were bailing out to join an upstart AI company.

What this company was doing was creating a Robby the Robot that would combine a LISP machine with a finance textbook (written by a Sloan School professor) and spit out optimal capital investment recommendations. At least that’s what I recall that the company of geniuses was going to do. It’s been a while. (I did a quick google and found that there is a Harvard Business School case study on this company, which I’m going to try to get my hands on.)

I was eventually invited to interview with this outfit. At least that’s what I recall. I may be being ego-shielding here. I may well have been pounding on their doors begging them to take me. After all, they were only hiring people with big and mighty brains, and what was more crave-worthy than joining that sort of brigade?

Anyway, I went through a number of interviews with everyone from the founders to my would-be manager (who was, in fact, an old-be manager of mine) to my likely peers. 

Along the way, I asked a few questions, mostly around whether there was actually going to be an audience that would pay a million bucks for a black-box that would “make” a decision for them that was currently made via a combination of spreadsheet, back of the napkin, and gut sense for free.  I also poked around a bit about my suspicion that business people were likely to look at the output of that costly black-box and yay or nay the advice based on back of the napkin and gut check.

I thought that, during the interview process, I was amply demonstrating that I had a big and mighty brain – big and mighty enough to make it there.

Apparently, most of what I was demonstrating was that I just didn’t get it.

I was let down gently.

I would not be getting an offer because it was felt that I “was not yet ready to leave my present company.”

Naturally, I was crushed.

And, just as naturally, I was gleeful and felt supremely vindicated when this company – which I kept tabs on through my friend – spent a couple of years going through all sorts of contortions before imploding. (Note to self: you really must get your hands on that HBS case.)

So, having been personally saved from AI, I laud Elon Musk and the Future of Life Institute for recognizing that it can pose an existential threat.

Oh, that Elon Musk. He is really something.

PayPal. Tesla. All that space stuff. Saving us from AI. Not to mention a name straight out of James Bond or Batman. It is good to be Elon Musk. And it is probably good to have Elon Musk as well.


P.S. Special thanks to my friend Valerie, who has a very big and mighty (non-artificial) intelligence for pointing this article out to me. Seriously, it takes a village to keep track of everything that Elon Musk is up to.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Heart of the Commonwealth reborn? (If the New York Times says so…)

When you grow up in a city that’s about a 10 on the ‘meh’ scale of everyone else in the world (at least the proportion that’s actually heard of your less-than-illustrious city), you end up grasping for whatever straws there are out there that have anything to do with your less-than-illustrious city.


We were the birthplace of Dr. Robert Goddard, Robert Benchley, S.N. Behrman (not to be confused with S.J. Perlman), Elizabeth Bishop, Rich Gedman.

So what if you haven’t heard of any of all of these.

They were ours, all ours.

And while Esther Forbes may have (disappointingly) not been born in Worcester, but a few miles down Route 9, she damn well died in Worcester. (Who’s Esther Forbes? Come now: she wrote Johnny Tremain. Don’t you know anything?)

The smiley face?

Invented here!

Only place where Sigmund Freud spoke when he came to the U.S.?


And, by the way, we’re one of a handful of cities which has been named an All-American City five times.

So. There.

We might not be the Hub of the Universe, the Hog Butcher of the World, or the City of Lights.

But we were the Heart of the Commonwealth.

And, boy, was I excited when I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and saw that Worcester was practically a character:

"One wet afternoon the following November, a Greyhound bus deposited Perry [Smith – one of the killers] in Worcester, a Massachusetts factory town of steep up-and-down streets that even in the best of weathers seem cheerless and hostile." (Original source of quote is In Cold Blood, but I found it on Sean Dacey’s no longer active blog, Unfashionable Sentiments.)

[As an aside, my senior year in high school I entered an essay contest on Worcester, sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, and led off with this quote. I was so naïve about the ways of the world, let alone the Chamber of Commerce, that I was actually surprised when I didn’t win.]

Anyway, Worcester-ites, whether current or past, like it when we get a shout-out.

One of our more recent brushes with fame was when a funeral parlor in Worcester was the only one in the state willing to take the body of Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev and see that it got a proper burial.

And, most recently, just a couple of weeks ago, there was The New York Times talking about Worcester as a college town.

Oh, The Times tells us, it took Worcester nearly two-hundred years to get that it was a college town. But, day-am, with 35,000 college students – more than 1/6 of its population – it sure is. Holy Cross. Clark. Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Worcester State. Et al. Colleges ‘r Us. And, what’s more, the city is moving beyond college town-ery and is flourishing in general.

From one end of the city’s 245-acre central core to the other, Worcester is attending to the 35,000 college students who study and live here, and its primary boulevards are steadily filling up with the civic amenities that attract new residents. They include a busy public transit hub, comfortable and affordable housing, new restaurants and watering holes, computer stores and coffee shops, a performing arts theater, biotech research facilities, incubators and office space for start-up companies, and renovated parks — including one alongside City Hall with an ice rink larger than the one in Rockefeller Center. (Source: New York Times.)

Although I grew up skating on Henderson Pond (a.k.a., Hendy’s), I am especially delighted about that City Hall outdoor rink. To me, there are few more wonderful urban sights than folks skating on a winter’s day – or night. I try to walk by the Boston Common  rink at least once a day. In the summer, it’s a splash pond, which is fun to see in action as well.

What else up in Worcester?

A mix-used (including apartments) development right near City Hall (which takes the place of the heinous and failed Galleria Mall.) The ongoing fabulous rehab of the fabulous train station. The Hanover Theater – which used to be a dumpy movie theater, the Loew’s Poli and is now a beautiful performance space. (I’ve been to two events there in the past month: it’s gorgeous.) A new Marriott’s going up.

And as often as not, it’s the colleges that are helping Worcester revitalize. (I’m sure in self-defense: they’re competing for students who want to be in cool places like Boston and Providence.)

Worcester Tech’s partnering to turn “an 11-acre parcel on the edge of its 6,000-student campus into a life sciences teaching, research, laboratory and office complex called Gateway Park.”

The Mass College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences built a new campus in beautiful downtown Worcester a few years back.

When Quinsigamond Community College expanded into downtown, it decided not to build-in its own coffee shop and café. It wanted its students to patronize what was already around.

As a result of all this do-goodery:

According to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Worcester’s steady redevelopment, fostered by well over $1.3 billion in public and private investment, is producing results that are at the top of urban demographic and economic performance in New England. The city’s population has climbed to more than 182,000 residents, up 13 percent from its modern low of under 162,000 in 1990. Worcester is now the second-largest city in New England.

The jobless rate in October, 5.6 percent, was lower than the state’s unemployment rate of 6 percent. The city added 6,900 new jobs from October 2013 to October 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and average wages during that period increased nearly 5 percent.

Resurge, dear Heart of the Commonwealth, resurge.

“We haven’t rushed to rebuild the city,” said Frederick H. Eppinger, the president and chief executive of Hanover Insurance Group [a big part of all the development, including the Hanover Theater].

“Haven’t rushed in?” I’ll say.

Better late than never, and you might as well get it right.

God knows there are plenty of places in Worcester, including the neighborhoods skirting much of downtown, that are bleak and nasty.

But I’m delighted that Worcester’s on the rise.

After all, with the sea levels on the rise, I may end up flooded out here and end up doing a re-lo to Worcester.

God West, old lady, go West.


A tip of the Worcester Tornados (a defunct minor league baseball team) cap to my friend Cathy, who sent me this link.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Poodle skirts: so 50’s, not 60’s

In the last couple of months, I’ve seen two – count ‘em – two ads that showed 1960’s teenage girls wearing poodle skirts.

I don’t even remember what those ads were for – insurance? vitamins? ED drugs? – but in one of them the 1960’s teenage girl wearing the poodle skirt was doing the Mashed Potato.

No, no, a thousand times no.

A 1960’s teenager doing the Mashed Potato, the UT, the Twist, the Frug, the Pony, the Popeye might have been wearing a shirt-waist dress, a madras skirt, wheat jeans, black ski pants, a cable knit sweater and matching skirt (plaid). But there’s no way, unless they were at a costume party, that a teenage girl doing the Mashed Potato would have been wearing a poodle skirt.

That poodle skirt-wearing teenager would have been dong whatever the 1950’s version of swing dancing was called. And they would have been doing it to Bill Haley and the Comet’s “Rock Around the Clock,” not to “Dee Dee Sharpe’s Mashed Potato Time.”

Maybe whoever put together those ads would argue that it was a creative anachronism, but I found it just weird.

If you’re going to do decade related stuff, you really need to know that flappers = 1920’s, bobby-soxers = 1940’s, and poodle skirts = 1950’s. I don’t know what teenagers in the 1930’s were associated with. There was a Depression on. In pictures of my mother, who was a teenager in the 1930’s, she’s wearing dresses that looked exactly like what her mother was wearing. Andy Hardy’s girlfriend, Polly Benedict, probably wore a dress that looked exactly like what her mother was wearing, too.

This probably wouldn’t have bothered me that much if I hadn’t seen two separate ads associating the poodle-shirt with the 1960’s.

Not that decades don’t overlap. It’s not like the calendar turns and you empty out your closets and start anew.

Bobby sox are associated with the 1940’s, but teenagers wore them in the 1950’s. So did teen-age wannabes. I remember a swell pair of bobby sox that I had, which, for some reason had shoe laces (red and white candy-striped) threaded through them. As with so much of my clothing, I believe these were hand-me-downs from my sister. (Not that we did hand-me-downs with socks and underwear. We did have our standards. Maybe I just craved those socks so much that my sister just gave up and gave them to me.)

And when I started going to mixers in the 1960’s, there were a few senior couples who, at some point in the evening, would take over a corner of the floor and do the Stroll, a dance that was popular in the late 1950’s.

The rest of us would stop doing the Hully Gully long enough to gape at them.

Once the Stroll was over, we could all get back to the work of the evening, which – if you couldn’t get a boy to dance with you – was trying to figure out the words to “Louie Louie.”

And I can assure you that no one trying to figure out the words to “Louie Louie” was wearing a poodle skirt.

There’s really no other decade that I’d feel so confident in making such fashion assertions.

This is probably a bit surprising, given that for the first 7.5 years of that decade I was mostly wearing a green jumper and a white blouse. But I do have a very keen sense of what people – make that teenage people – were wearing. Which was not a poodle skirt.

As for other decades, well, I’m not so sure.

The more I got into not caring about fashion, the less I was aware of what was happening around me.

The 1970’s. Was that the era of body suits – the stretchy long-sleeved shirts that snapped under the crotch? And Huckapoo shirts – you remember them, the crazy-print nylon numbers that made everyone look like Donny Osmond. Maxi-coats. And the Diane Von Furstenberg wrap dress.

The 1980’s were leg warmers and big hair. That is, it was for people other than me. For me, it was menswear skirt suits, worn with either the femme silk shirt with a bow or the butch menswear shirt with a bow tie. (Oh, what the first mass wave of women in the formerly male workplaces went through so that today’s young women could wear form-fitting suits, low cut shirts, and f-me pumps…)

I don’t have a clue what was on in the 1990’s, and pretty much the only thing I associate with 2000 and beyond would be Uggs.

But the 1960’s.

I’m there, baby.

Girls started out the decade dressing like Mary Stone, the ideal teen (as opposed to teen idol) played by Shelly Fabares on the Donna Reed Show. Shiny hair pulled back with a stretchy headband. Modest shirt-waist dress. Later in the decade, that modest shirt-waist dress had been supplanted by the Mary Quant mini-skirt that Dr. and Mrs. Stone would most certainly not have approved if Mary had tried to leave the house wearing one. By the end of the decade, there was the Mary Mother of God look worn by hippie girls, and the jeans and work boots worn by the politicos.

Not that I pay all that much attention to what goes on in the world of fashion, but I do seem to notice that the 1960’s are making a comeback: boucle coats, Pucci print dresses…

The 1960’s. Bring it on.

Just keep in mind that, in the 1960’s, there were no poodle skirts.

Trust me on this one.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Famous last tweets?

There was a famous film from the 1970’s – Little Big Man – in which the ancient character, Jack Crabb (played by Dustin Hoffman), croaks out:

My name is Jack Crabb, and I am the sole white survivor of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Well, my name is Maureen Rogers, and I am apparently the sole person still using a Blackberry.

Seriously, sometimes when I take it out in front of others, I feel like I’m sporting a World War II era walkie-talkie.

Oooh….Aaah…Look…A Blackberry…Oooh…Aaah…

Do you carry it in your reticule?

The Blackberry is on my list to replace – it is, after all, over three years old – ancient history, electronics-wise. But it’s still chugging along. As is my similarly aged laptop. I do think the laptop will collapse first, but once I’m out electronics shopping I might as well do full sweep/fell swoop. I’ve pretty much settled on a Surface Pro for my computer, but I’m still at loose ends on a phone. Can you text on a World War II era walkie-talkie?

I do know that I’m on my last Blackberry.

They’ve been fine, but enough is enough.

And even the Blackberry folks are apparently ditching their Blackberrys in favor of other devices. Included in this group is whoever tweets out on the Blackberry official twitter account.

Here’s what happened:

Last year, there was a bit of a flurry when Blackberryit emerged that Alicia Keyes, who was the company’s “celebrity creative director” was sailing off tweets from an iPhone. (She blamed it on hackers, but who knows…)

In the latest episode, however, the official Blackberry Twitter account – which communicates to those few, those happy few, that band of brothers and sisters who remain Blackberry-loyal and Blackberry-proud – used an iPhone to get its word out.

If you can’t read the fine print there, it reads “via Twitter for iPhone”.)

Here’s what The Verge had to say:

You'd think the BlackBerry Classic would be a perfect device for thumbing out 140-character missives and sending them to the world; that keyboard is undeniably fantastic.

But nope. Whoever wrote this fired it off from an iPhone. You wouldn't see it anywhere in the regular Twitter app, but companies still seem to forget this stuff is plainly visible in Tweetbot, Tweetdeck, and other clients. Let's learn the lesson already, everyone. Why was this message so urgent that it needed to be tweeted from a phone?  From an iPhone, at that? We'll never know. And in case you were wondering, yes, a Twitter app for BlackBerry most definitely does exist. (Source: The Verge)

Using an iPhone when you’re working for Blackberry? Maybe not your smartest move, but ‘meh.’

Using an iPhone when you’re the outsourced provider of their social media work? Maybe not the smartest move, but ‘meh.’

Using an iPhone to carry out that social media work when you’re doing it on behalf of Blackberry? Whether you’re an insider or an outsider, I’d say this bit of stupidity and stunning lack of judgment might well be a firing offense.


Thanks to my brother-in-law John for spotting this article.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Let the annual winter parking spot games begin!

Almost a month into it, we’ve had next to no snow this winter. Plenty of cold, but only an inch or two of total snow accumulation.

Which is fine by me.

Not that I don’t enjoy snow.

I do.

I especially enjoy being inside during a storm, standing there with my cup of tea, looking out at it. I like how pretty it looks in the immediate aftermath of a storm, especially in the Boston Public Garden, which is right across the street. How quiet it is.

And then…

The footing gets treacherous (especially when scofflaws neglect to shovel their sidewalks). Some folks decide that they no longer have to pick up after their pooch (and even if they do, there’s still the yellow snow to contend with). The gutters fill with slush (and there’s really no experience quite comparable to stepping into a slush puddle that crests the top of your boot).

So while it’s really not good to have a no snow winter – no snow = fires in the spring, etc. – if we have an almost no snow winter, I’ll be fine with it.

But if we do have lots of snow, one thing I won’t have to worry about is shoveling out my car, only to have someone else grab my space while I’m out. This is definitely one of the top benefits of not having a car in the city.

If everyone shoveled out their car, this would not be the problem it always ends up being. But since you’re unlikely to get your shoveled-out spot back, a lot of people do only the minimum they need to get their car out. The rutted mounds left behind turn into ice, which only someone with an all terrain vehicle could get back into, removing a potential parking place from play.

Even if you do want to fully shovel out your call, there’s the problem of what to do with the snow.

You’re not allowed to toss it back in the street, and you can’t toss it onto the sidewalk that someone may (or may not) have just cleared. On many streets, there are no front yards to speak of. The options of where to put the snow you’re so assiduously trying to shovel out from around your car often come down to piling it up between cars, or schlepping it twenty yards to to the corner, where you pile it on top of the mega-mound that the city plows have left, knowing that the city will come around a some point and remove the mega-mound.

It’s really no wonder that so many – in my neighborhood, I’d estimate that it’s easily 2/3’s of all parkers – don’t bother to do more than the most cursory job shoveling out their cars.

Where I live there is, at least, an alternative, albeit an expensive one, in that there are plenty of parking garages around.

In neighborhoods where there are fewer alternatives, a quaint custom has grown up over the years. The person who shovels out a spot stakes a claim to it, leaving trash barrels, old kitchen chairs, traffic cones, empty Pampers boxes, broken Big Wheels… Someone who elects to remove the trash barrel, old kitchen chair, traffic cone, empty Pampers box, or broken Big Wheels and take the parking space, does so at considerable risk of keyed door or worse.

The space saver first became popularized in South Boston, which adopted the practice as a neighborhood tradition and enforced violations to the unwritten rules in its own way — often through vehicle vandalism; occasionally through violence.

The city, for its part, stayed mostly out of it, treating space savers as an issue for neighbors to work out between themselves. But a little over a decade ago, Mayor Thomas M. Menino became fed up with people who abused the privilege and kept their savers out for far too long and instated a rule that space savers had to be removed 48 hours after the end of a snow emergency.

By declaring when they must be gone, Menino pseudo-sanctioned the fact that they could be there at all.

That system has remained tenuously in place — through slashed tires and assaults —into the administration of Martin J. Walsh, who has kept Menino’s 48-hour policy. “We prefer to call it a ‘guideline,’ ” said his spokeswoman, Kate Norton. Walsh has said publicly, on numerous occasions, that he believes in the principle of “you shovel it, you earn it.” (Source: Boston Globe)

This custom actually worked pretty well when neighborhoods were more or less cohesive, and neighbors were more or less known to each other.

If you’d just watched your buddy Charlie shovel out a space, you certainly weren’t going to take it.

But two things happened over time: interlopers interloped, and more and more people got cars. A triple-decker in Dorchester that at one point was home to three cars might now be home to nine cars.

More cars chasing fewer parking places, and fewer people who knew who good old Charley was.

And while I sympathize with the “you shovel it, you earn it” sentiment, it’s not especially practical. And it can be downright scary: would anyone in their right mind take someone’s “space saved” parking place in Southie or Charlestown? Not if they valued their Volvo or their dental work.

Whether for 48 hours or for the duration, one neighborhood in Boston has decided to formally ban the practice of saving a space, and that’s the South End.

Now South Enders who see a space saver are encouraged to remove it. If they are afraid to do so, they can call the city to come do it. And the city’s trash contractors will collect all space savers they see on their twice-weekly rounds, with no grace period after a snow emergency.

I don’t know how calling the city to remove the Pampers box is going to save you from getting your door keyed, but whatever…

In any case, unlike South Boston and Charlestown, the South End doesn’t have as much of an entrenched working class townie vs. interloping yuppie parvenu vibe. Although the South End contains some projects around its periphery, and butts up against a fairly poor area, most of the working class “natives” were gentrified out of the prime spots long ago. In South Boston and Charlestown, as well as in some other neighborhoods, there remain strong ethnic enclaves. So what may well work in the South End, where there were probably fewer slashed tire/smash mouth incidents to begin with.

I don’t recall ever seeing a space saver on Beacon Hill which is, in general, a pretty posh area – with plenty of nearby parking garages.  I was going to write that we are a more mannerly area, as well, but that just ain’t true. People don’t resort to space savers here because most of them don’t bother to shovel out a space to begin with.

I do have a good winter parking story to end with.

Many years ago, when I was still daft enough to own a car in the city, I had shoveled out my car and left to head out to the burbs for a client meeting.

When I returned, I moseyed around looking for a space.

I wouldn’t have minded if I’d have to check in to a paid garage for an overnight, but I wasn’t going to need my car for at least a week, and a week’s worth of $$$ parking I just wasn’t up for.

Miraculously, a man walking down the street gestured to me that he was leaving, and that I could have his space.

When I got to the spot, sure enough, it was the one I’d perfectly shoveled out a few hours earlier.

Sometimes you actually do get to pay it forward to yourself!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The bespoke library: available right here, right now

I have something of a book problem.

Nothing I have to solve immediately, but in theIMG-20150109-00390 long run, I really need to figure out something to do with my husband’s books. There are hundreds of them, and I suppose I could hang on to them for old time’s sake. Which I’ll probably do with some of them. But I’m pretty ruthless with my own books, periodically culling them and finding homes for the ones that deserve homes, and tossing others – like the 60 cent paperbacks from high-school and the many useless business books I’ve somehow accumulated – into recycle.

So why hang on – other than for sentimental reasons – to more than 300 books that I would never read in a million years?

My husband read statistics books. He read economics books. Books about finance. Physics texts. Philosophy of science. History of science. Philosophy of philosophy.Mathematics.

I have been able to find good homes for some of Jim’s books – his cousin the amateur philosopher, his cousin’s son-in-law the professional mathematician, a couple of friends – but as for the rest…

Our virtual nephew Sam, who was exceedingly close to Jim, has expressed an interest in the full library. But Sam lives at present in a small flat in Brooklyn.

I will certainly not toss anything out before I give Sam the opportunity to stake – and remove – his claim. And his parents do have plenty of space in which to store these tomes. But I’m not going to live here forever, and I’m not going to hold on to these books forever, even I were to live here forever.

Not that I’m not sentimental. Eleven months after the fact, I still can’t bring myself to toss out Jim’s toothbrush, and sometimes when I pick up something that was last held by him, I lose it. (This is the first time I’ve fully appreciated the concept of a relic.)

But I really don’t want to hang on to all these books, which have about as close to a zero overlap with anything I’m interested in reading as is possible without being absolute zero.

Sam aside, it would be nice if I could have donated these to a high school or college library. Unfortunately, my husband annotated all of his books with red ballpoint, underlining sections he liked and putting his comments in the margin. He also didn’t believe in dust jackets, which he immediately tossed when he got a book home. Further, he did believe in ripping sections he wasn’t interested in out of a book.


Nonetheless, at a distance, Jim’s library looks pretty good, and on closer inspection of the spines, plenty brainy.

And there are, apparently, plenty of people out there who only care what the books look like – and say about you – from the outside.

They’re purchasing books in bulk to decorate their homes and, increasingly, they’re wanting their books in bulk to meet a particular content theme. (As opposed to ‘I only want books that match the rug.)

Or so I saw in a recent article in The Economist, which wrote about how London bookseller Heywood Hill – facing stiff competition from Amazon – is remaking itself as “a leading purveyor of bespoke libraries.”

The first major commission, in 2013, was a collection of books on 20th-century Modernist art and design for a chalet in Switzerland. The 3,000-volume library took four months to put together and three days to install at a cost of just under £500,000 ($788,000). (Source: The Economist)

Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else with 3,000 books worth of interest in modernist art and design would already have something of a collection amassed on his or her own over the years?

My husband’s library certainly speaks to his interests, as does mine (Irish literature, short stories, the Holocaust).

I suppose the purchaser could be someone with a ton of money who is authentically interested in modernist art and design, and wants this bespoke library so that if he or she gets a book jones in the middle of the night he or she can browse his or her own personal stacks for something of interest. But why do I suspect that it’s some rich poser who wants to look like he is a modernist art and design maven?

A Saudi businesswoman wanted her London boardroom lined with books about the West’s engagement with Islam and the Arab world. The thousand-or-so books—a reader’s selection rather than a true collector’s library—cost £80,000. In early December a hundred boxes of books on the art of the American west coast and on the great American novel were packed up for a client in southern California. Next, Nicky Dunne, who runs Heywood Hill, is squeezing books on current affairs into brown suede attaché cases for a suite of 30 private jets.

Well, this latter thing kind of makes sense. Those private jet setters are so darned busy, they don’t have time to actually buy books on their own – plus they’re not spending time in terminals with the hoi-polloi where they could pick up something worth reading in Hudson News.

But shouldn’t acquiring a library come with some of the pleasures of acquiring a library the old fashioned way? Poking around a bookstore – or clicking around the Internet – until you find something, read a few pages, and decide it’s worth a full read? Getting the book home and curling up with it? Even writing with red pen in the margins, if you so desire.

Maybe not.

The rich, after all, are different from you and me. And it’s not just because they have more money.

Anyway, if Sam decides not to take Jim’s books, I may end up putting it up for sale as a bespoke library for someone who wants to look like a economics, math, stat, and science loving goofball. If they never open the books, the red ballpoint musings won’t matter.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Stand and deliver

I know all about the fact that sitting on your butt all day is not especially good for you. It can turn you into a depressed flab-master, and all sorts of other bad things.

When I did work full time, I always had plenty of walking around to do, plenty of meetings to attend, plenty of ups and downs during the day – places to go, people to see.

These days, when I could actually plunk in front of the computer for extended periods, I make sure I get up and out. It’s a rare day – and the weather has to be truly atrocious – for me not to get out at least for a bit, even if it’s just a walk to the drug store to pick up some Chapstick or over to Whole Food because I ran out of grapes. And if I don’t go out out, I at least move around enough to get myself a cup of tea every few hours or so.

I also know that some people have adopted standing desks, and that this works for them.

I’ve thought about adopting the stand and deliver approach to use to vary things up a bit, but haven’t gotten around to it quite yet. (It’s rather far down on the to-do list, I’m afraid.)

Position is everything in life, and all that. (Whatever that means…)

Inevitably, it’s not enough to let those who want to sit at work sit, and those who want to stand at work stand and those who just want to roam around to roam.

No, there has to be someone who designs an office where it’s not possible to sit (unless you take a bathroom break – maybe: the fatwa on sitting may extend to toilet seats and these offices of the future designed with those squat on your footholds toilets found in places like France and Turkey).

The ban on sitting is:

…an idea that inspired a recent art installation in Holland called “The End of Sitting.” Rietveld Architecture-Art-Affordances (RAAAF), a self-described “experimental studio,” and visual artist Barbara Visser were the creative minds behind the show. They collaborated to make an entire office where conventional sitting postures are impossible. Instead, the office design resembles a rocky landscape containing nooks and crannies that only afford workers a variety of standing, leaning and even lying-down postures. (Source: Huffington Post)


Maybe it’s fun if you’re a 20-something who looks good in a black leotard, but this looks pretty darned un-user friendly to me.

And I know that conversation and collaboration and brainstorming and fortuitous encounters are actually part of work, I have my doubts about whether those 20-somethings in the leotards are actually doing anything productive. Other than looking good in assuming a variety of positions.

Office of the future

The artists took their concept beyond an exhibit, and actually had workers spend a few days using the installation. Those workers, once they found a position that worked, supposedly “reported higher well-being” and being “more energetic.”

Let’s see how they feel after a couple of months, years, decades on the no-sit-down job.

I’ve had plenty of jobs where you were on your feet for a full eight hours.

I worked retail. I worked in a factory. I was a waitress.

And I don’t care how sturdy and arch-supporting my shoes were, I was pretty darned tired at the end of the day, looking forward to nothing so much as getting home and soaking my feet in hot water. I had these stand and deliver (platters of prime rib) jobs when I was in my teens and twenties. I can’t imagine having a job where I couldn’t sit down when I was in my fifties or sixties. There’s only so much leaning and lying down I was ever going to want to do on the job.

“[This experiment shows that] the chair and desk are no longer unquestionable starting points,” Rietveld said, noting that a second version of "The End of Sitting" may be on its way. "'The End of Sitting' marks the beginning of an experimental trial phase, exploring the possibilities of radical change for the working environment."

There’s no doubt that the working environment could use plenty of radical change: better management, greater meaning, more interesting work, some modicum of security.

The desk and the chair are the least of it.


I stand and salute my sister Trish, for pointing this article my way, and letting me know that she hopes to retire before “The End of Sitting” happens to her.

Monday, January 12, 2015

There’s No-lympics like Olympics

I was watching the national news the other night, when the banner running across the bottom of the screen caught my eye.

Oh, no.

Oh, yes.

Boston has been chosen as America’s candidate to host the 2024 Olympics.

We had debated this on Christmas Eve – loudly, of course – and, not surprisingly, the closer the debater actually lived to downtown Boston, the more likely they were to – loudly, of course – be opposed.

I was – loudly, course – among the loyal opposition.

After all, although I had read precious little about the details regarding where this was all supposed to take place – the Boston proposal was submitted by a private group, which kept everything that inquiring minds might want to know very hush-hush -  I did hear the word “walkable” bandied about, which – quite scarily – suggests to me that some of what the sponsors have in mind is going to be taking place right outside my door.

How many people descend on a city for the Olympics? Hundreds of thousands? Millions?

How much taxpayer money gets spent on what, from everything I’ve read is never a financially winning proposition? Hundreds of millions? Billions?

The private group that put together the Boston 2024 bid claims that this will cost nary a taxpayer dime, other than already planned infrastructure costs. That it will rely on using local colleges and universities, public transportation, and existing facilities, like Harvard Stadium for soccer. (Bet fans who pay big bucks will be delighted to sit on those tiers of backless concrete seats.)

And where do the opening and closing ceremonies take place?

We don’t have a mega stadium.

Fenway Park seats fewer than 40,000. Harvard Stadium about 30,000. BC – our only big time college football team, which nobody local gives a hoot about, unless they’re BC grads – has a football stadium that can fit about 45,000.

But our big kahuna – the Patriots Gillette Stadium – holds about 70,000 fans. But it’s 30 miles away.

Sure, it’s theoretically on public transportation – another claim of the sponsors is that the Boston Olympics will be both walkable and on public transpo – but if you don’t take the train to Foxboro, you need to be prepared to spend about 2 hours getting out of the parking lot and another hour getting onto the highway. 

I was thinking maybe that, if the opening and closing ceremonies weren’t at Gillette, they could just be held on the Esplanade, next to the Charles River.

After all, half-a-million people show up for the Pops concert every 4th of July. Why not just let the Olympic spectators sit on blankets on grass and watch the program on big screen TV’s?

We could have low-key ceremonies. Patriotic sing-along. Couple of choruses of “Sweet Caroline.” Reenactment of the Boston Massacre?

Maybe it wouldn’t be as exciting as James Bond andBut  the Queen parachuting into London, but why not?

Then I read that the planners were planning to put up an Olympic Stadium in South Boston. (Congratulations, Southie!)

But what would it be used for once the Olympics waved bye-bye?

Then I heard that the plan was to erect a temporary structure and dismantle it after the fact.

Which sounds like a colossal waste of time and money.

Maybe they can figure out how to make an inflatable stadium, kind of like the bouncy castles, and just truck it off afterward to the next venue.

We’ll see how this all plays out over the next couple of years.

Of course, the likelihood of Boston getting the nod from the Olympic Committee is next to nil.

I don’t see Boston 2024 offering up the usual bribes and, unless there’s a political reason to choose the USA – i.e., the august Committee decides that they can’t keep dissing the power that be forever – I’m sure that we’ll be found not worthy. (Plus I suspect we’ll have a lot more prominent and vocal an opposition than, say Istanbul.)

Anyway, while I have done plenty of pissing and moaning about the Olympics, the thought of it is a little exciting.

Sure, it’ll be a cluster in a lot of respects.

We’re a city with downtown streets designed by wandering cows, not engineers with grid paper.

Our narrow sidewalks are already thronged with summer-time tourists. Do we really need any more?

Traffic will be a nightmare, and I suspect that everyone else in this building with join airbnb and rent out their digs to large parties of drunken yahoos. (Thanks, guys.)

Whether “it” happens or not, it’s a long way off, and a lot can happen in 9.5 years. For all I know, I’ll have upped stakes and decamped to play out my elder years in beautiful downtown Worcester. Or my ashes will be pushing up daisies – or azaleas – in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

But if I am still here, my cousin Ellen and her husband Mike are most assuredly invited to stay here at Ground Zero, walking and public transporting themselves to venues, including the inflatable stadium in South Boston.

I’ll be the crazy old lady, hunkered down with a blanket over my head, peeping out only to watch an occasional bit of the opening and closing ceremonies and muttering “walkable, sustainable, no cost to taxpayers – hah!” to myself.

Friday, January 09, 2015


Condo living, as some of us have been schnookered into believing, brings all of the benefits of home ownership – built up home equity! paint the walls whatever color you like! – without the downsides  - shovel the walks; fix the roof.

Somewhere, there may be a condo paradise where everything works like a charm, but I don’t happen to live in one of those. No, I live in the house of meshugas, a building so lunatic that  one of the other owners has dubbed it Fawlty Towers.

Now, some of what has happened in the past couple of months could have happened anywhere. Toilets leak, drains back up. But, of course, when something happens here – however routine – there is typically some aspect that is particular to us.

Anyway, I thought I’d highlight just a few of the recent occurrences that make living where I do such an adventure.

It’s 11 p.m., and I headed into the bathroom to brush my teeth before getting into bed with a good Kindle. Observant old geezer that I am, I immediately noticed that there is no water in the toilet bowl, and sewage backup in the bathtub. Neither is something you want to see anytime, day or night, but I assure you it is most decidedly not anything you want to espy just before going beddy-bye.

I went and shot off an e-mail to our property management company, noting that the last time this had occurred there’d been a main line backup caused by someone flushing non-flushables – Handi-wipes, Swiffer cloths, paper towels – down our ancient plumbing.

When the plumber came, he asked whether he could have access to the next unit. “Sure, I said, it’s an elderly gentleman who has a 24/7 home health aide…”

As soon as I got the words “home health aide” out of my mouth, the plumber told me “someone’s been flushing baby wipes down the toilet.” Sure enough.

Anyway, the plumber was able to roto the route out and all was well. Well, all was well after we got through to the home health aide that she could no longer flush those wipes down the drain. An after I had used about two gallons of bleach to sterilize my bathtub.

A week or so later, there was a more innocuous and routine event.

Around midnight, I head water dripping and, on exploration, I discovered that it was dripping through the light fixture in the stairway.

Electrical and water – my favorite combination.

I heard the guys upstairs still rattling around, so went up and asked them not to use the bathroom that was the source of the water coming in through my light fixture.


Easily fixed the next day.

Score one for the property management company: a nice example of how things should work, and only mentioned because, the day after Christmas, I again heard water coursing through the ceiling, this time coming through the light fixture in my office, narrowly missing my laptop, soaking the rug, and destroying a pile of papers. (One pile less to sort through and shred. Hope there was nothing important in there…)

I put a bucket under the leak, called the property management emergency line and waited for the guy to come by, completely perplexed by the location of the leak, an area where I knew that there were no pipes in the ceiling.

And because the water had stopped after a couple of gallons, I knew it wasn’t a burst pipe, which would have gone on ad infinitum.

The repair guy was as perplexed as I.

No pipes. A clear and sunny day, so no gutter action.

While we were speaking, I decided to call J, a fellow who owns a unit in the building but doesn’t live here. He’s an engineer who owns a lot of property, who knows the building very well, and who – whether we want him to or not – takes on some of the building’s repair work.

I described the problem, and asked J whether he had any ideas of what might be happening.

J asked what time the water had come in.

When he told him, he said, “Oh, that would coincide with the flood test we did on the roof.”

Well, as it turned out, J, trying to find the source of a persistent leak in one of the unit’s ceilings – not his unit, by the way – had decided to run a self-authorized flood test, and had run six inches of water onto the front section of the roof.

How it wended its way to the ground floor, back section, I haven’t a clue. But water will go where water will go, and, this time, it decided to go through the light fixture in my office.

At least J had the decency to come back and repair my light fixture for me.

And then the back gate – mostly used to take trash out of the building, and to drop things off/pick things up – got stuck. It’s also used by the residents of the unit that comes with a parking space,  since their spot is right next to the back gate. But it’s by no means necessary. Having it stuck is a minor inconvenience – a few more steps to haul the garbage and recycle out, having to walk about 15 seconds out of your way to get in the building if you’re parking out back.

Theoretically, it’s a safety issue not to have this as a secondary form of egress if the building turned into a towering inferno and collapsed into our little cement back yard. But not of any immediate concern. Fix whenever.

But, no.

Someone just couldn’t stand to have that back gate stuck.

So they yanked/cudgeled/forced it open, so that they could get in and out. In doing so, they destroyed both lock and latch, leaving what amounted to a half-way swinging door.

Which might not be so bad if it weren’t for the 50 mile an hour gusty winds, banging the door open and shut. Conveniently, less than two yards from the head of my bed.

The Case of the Thumping Back Gate was discovered by me the other night at 9:30 or so, after I had returned from an evening with friends.

Now the last thing I wanted to do at 9:30 p.m. when it’s about 5 degrees out and the winds are howling is figuring out how to keep the back gate from thumping all night.

But there I was, with my scissors and roll of 3” duct tape, securing the gate every which way but loose.

I used to tell my husband that he was past-master of the ugly home repair that works. I have now assumed the mantle.

Meanwhile, someone had reported the broken back gate to the property management company, and there was a flurry of e-mails that I had missed while I was out for dinner.

I added my two-cents/three inches of duct tape, and hunkered down for the evening.

At 10:30 p.m., I got a call from J – remember the guy who’d flooded the roof? He was here to fix the back gate. At 10:30 p.m. In the teeth of a howling wind. In hypothermia and frostbite weather.

Have at it, I told him. I just don’t want to hear it banging all night.

After briefly inspecting my handiwork, he decided to leave my duct tape in place for the night.

Yesterday, I was gone for the day, and didn’t check my e-mails until I returned.

When I got home, I saw that there’d been some back and forth between the property management company and the owners, with the property managers saying they were going to do the fix, and one of the other owners claiming that our friend J was going to see to it.

I have no idea who took care of it, but the gate appears to be fixed.

Ah, condo living!

In my next life, I’m coming back as Eloise and living in a hotel.


Here are a couple of related earlier posts:

This one’s on the joys of building self-management. The second is a continuation on that theme, plus some thoughts on a Las Vegas condo scam. 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Wet Seal employees left high and dry

Nearly a decade ago, I remember being shocked by Radio Shack’s decision to use e-mail to let a bunch or workers know that they were being let go.  (And what if it went into your spam folder?)

These days, with the full frontal embrace of impersonal, at a distance, modes of communication, this wouldn’t seem so shocking, and it’s pretty easy to imagine folks getting laid off via IM or even tweet. (#pinkslipped)

It was so much more personal in the old days, when you were told face to face or via phone.

Not that lay offs always happened smoothly and professionally. I’ve seen some real horror shows, and heard about plenty of others second hand.

Still, it is always somewhat surprising that with all the experience that’s out there – dumpers and dumpees – that a handful of methods haven’t emerged that can be declared best practice, and that minimize the pain factor for those losing their jobs. (Nice if it could minimize the pain factor for those doing the lay offs, too. Figuring out who you’re going to lay off, and then telling them, has to be one of the most difficult things I ever had to do as a manager. Some people claim not to be bothered by this. I even worked with one a-hole who bragged about loving it. His favorite lay off was the one where he decided to let a fellow go while that fellow was sitting in the NICU with his wife waiting to learn whether their newborn was going to live. When D got off the phone, he remarked to a colleague, “I really enjoyed that.” D aside, it would be a good thing to extend some pain reduction to the managers who had to do the deed. But most of my sympathy is reserved for those being let go. Sometimes it really is more blessed to give than to receive.)

Anyway, teen-girl outfitter Wet Seal has not gotten the word on how best to let folks know that their jobs are doing a disappearing act. At least not as evidenced by their current lay-offs.

On Jan. 2, employees at the Wet Seal store in Gulfport, Miss., received a large package in the mail. “It was wrapped in green bubble wrap, and it said ‘Store Project’ on it,” says Sonya, 38, the store’s assistant manager, who’s been with the company for a year and a half. When employees opened the package, they found instructions to pack their iPods, registers, music player, and credit card scanners into the box by the following Wednesday, Jan. 7. (Source Business Week)

Sonya wanted to know how the store was going to operate without those credit card scanners, so she called her boss, and also sent an e-mail to corporate HQ to see if she could find out what was up.

Finally she got a call from a store in nearby Hattiesburg. “That’s when we were told we’re closing down.”

The plans have been afoot for a while, and investors were informed in December that approximately 60 stores (a bit more than 10% of Wet Seal’s outlets) were going to be shuttered by the end of January. But they never told employees, most of who probably don’t read the Wall Street Journal or subscribe to Bloomberg.

Rather than telling store managers and clerks that they were being closed, Wet Seal blew smoke up the employee mini-skirt, informing them that their stores were going to be renovated.

Employees claimed they were assured that they shouldn’t be looking for new jobs, only to find themselves laid  off with no notice – and no payout of accrued sick and vacation time.

“It’s one thing to not tell us something, but they told us specifically not to look for jobs, that everything was fine, and that we had low inventory because they were just going to remodel the store,” says Victoria, 20, who until this week was an assistant manager at a Wet Seal in Dayton… “Oh, and they haven’t answered our e-mails in two weeks.”

This is, of course, pure chicken-shittedness on the part of management.

Oh, I’m sure that they were afraid that their “associates” would create their own severance packages by making off with shopping bags full of shirts and leggings. Or that they would destroy those credit card swipers. But I think it’s pretty hideous to let people know that they’re losing their jobs in such a non-professional way, even if half of those losing their jobs are probably high school kids working at Wet Seal for the clothing discount. Which, of course, means the other half were people actually trying to make a living working retail. Lordy, lordy.

It may, of course, be that Wet Seal is just in such drain-circling disarray that they can’t think straight. As it happens, it isn’t 50 stores that just closed, but more than 300. So maybe it’s more a case of chickens running around with their heads cut off than it is of chicken-shittedness.

Whatever the case, there are now nearly 4,000 out of work who, as of last week, thought they had a job.

I passed the local Wet Seal just yesterday on my way home from the gym.

It didn’t look like it was going out of business but, then again, I wasn’t really looking in their window. It’s not a me store to begin with, plus, with a wind-chill factor below zero, I just wanted to get into CVS and buy a supply of Kleenex.

But I will have to notice tomorrow, when I walk by again, whether “our” Wet Seal was one of the dust-biters.

I do have a small vested interest.

I support a charity that provides Christmas gifts to homeless and poor kids, and I always take a few names. Generally, I’ll ask for teenagers, as their names are less in demand. Three of the teenage girls I got this year asked for nail decorating kits.

Well, nail decorating kits were apparently the Tickle Me Elmo of 2014.

The only ones I could find were Disney themed, which was way too young for teenagers.

After not finding any kits, I figured that I could make my own kits up. Alas, I discovered that half the components I wanted were back-ordered until mid-January.

So it was on to the second choice gift, which was a gift card.

Someone suggested that Wet Seal was the place.

Anyway, I hope the kids went shopping the day after Christmas.

Bad enough that Wet Seal bagged all these stores and employees so coldly. I’d be really ticked if the gift cards I got turned out to be worthless.

Next year I’ll check the financial pages before I buy any gift cards for a teen clothing store. Or maybe I’ll get lucky and be able to get some nail decorating kits. Of maybe I’ll take teenage boys, instead. They’re easy enough: MP3 players or something sporty.