Monday, August 31, 2015

The B is back (sort of)

Even if they didn’t shop there, pretty much everyone who grew up in the Boston area knew about Filene’s Automatic Bargain Basement.

Well before there you could get the max for the minimum at T.J. Maxx and Marshalls. Well before there were outlet malls full of Off Fifth and Hanes. Well before there was a Nordstrom Rack around the corner, there was Filene’s Basement.

When I was in high school, I probably got half of my non-mom-made clothing at the scaled-down Worcester version. Since I wore a uniform to school, and had no money, that didn’t amount to all that much clothing, but I can still remember the thrill of finding a Villager sweater (with IRREGULAR stamped through the label) for a few bucks. Some basement items are extremely vivid in my mind: the navy blue raincoat that was the very same version everyone else wore (and that I lost at a mixer at St. John’s High); the white Lady Bug Bermuda shorts with the lady bug pattern; the blue and purple madras shirt.

When I was in college, I still wore a uniform – jeans and baggy sweaters – and I still had no money, but what little shopping I did I could now do at the REAL Filene’s Basement in downtown Boston. Those fabulous tweed culottes, that cool unbaggy cream colored sweater I wore with them. (That hideous Dentyne pink dress…)

When I started working downtown, I cruised the B a couple of times a week, just to see what was up, just to see how marked down it was. (Each item – which was already marked down - was date-stamped. After twelve days on the floor, you got another 25% off. After six days, the cut was 50%. Six days later, it was down to 75% off. But you couldn’t game it forever. Anything on the floor for 30 days was given to charity.)

The big events were publicized in advance: the Bonwit’s Sale – I got a very cute white cotton jersey dress with blue flowers on it, the Barney’s Sale – that black, grey, white and red sweater that I still have; the cute purple and black checked suit from Brooks Brothers. (I swear: it really was cute.) On these special sales day, you would just zoom in, grab as much as you could off the racks – or off the splintery wooden tables that held merchandise – toss your finds in a pile, then paw through them looking for the keepers. Women would call back and forth, “You interested in that?” “Nope. It’s yours.” These were mini-versions of what Filene’s Basement later became famous for: The Running of the Brides, when the off-price bridal gowns came to town.

In addition to that Barney’s sweater, I still have a half dozen or so scarves I got in the old B. (Once it moved from its actual basement location and opened in a non-basement location in the Back Bay it was never the same.)

The Basement closed four years ago. A sad day for Bostonians!

And now the B:

“…is making a comeback under new ownership as a low-price e-tailer...The site will go live in late September with discounts of up to 70 percent on brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors and Calvin Klein, according to Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion industry publication that was first to report the reopening.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Digital just won’t be the same as cruising the B, fighting for bargains on special sales days, trying things on in the wide open spaces (no dressing rooms for women: only for men).

Meanwhile, retail life goes on. The site of the original Filene’s Basement is now a Roche Brothers, where I do my grocery shopping. The walls next to the escalators show old timey pictures of folks lining up for sales outside of the basement.

I’ll give the online version of Filene’s a look-see when it goes live late next month. But it just won’t be the same.

Friday, August 28, 2015


I bank at a couple of boring banks. The same boring banks that pretty much everyone banks at. Household word banks.

I don’t care about them one way or the other. They – and their ATM machines – are there when I need them.

But my heart doesn’t go pitter-pat when I think about them. In fact, my brain doesn’t go pitter-pat, either. Because unless there’s a problem or I need Euros, I don’t think about them one way or the other.

But maybe if I had a bank with a fun name, both heart and brain would, at least on occasion, go, if not pitter-pat, at least pitter.

As in, if I lived in southern Pennsylvania, I’d be really inclined to bank with Bank of Bird-in-Hand.

Seriously, if there’s a better name for a bank than that, please let me know.


To me, it says be prudent, be a saver, don’t get greedy – all things that, over time, seem to work for the better, finance-wise.

The bank is actually named for the town of Bird-in-Hand, but I’m sure they could have picked another name from the ‘hood. There would have been good reason to avoid naming it for neighboring Intercourse. But they could have situated it a stone’s throw away and called their bank the Bank of East Lampeter. Or the Bank of Upper Leacock.

What’s most interesting about the Bank of Bird-in-Hand – other than its name, and the fact that it’s the first bank to open in the wake of the financial crisis – is its clientele:

…the local Amish community, a religious group sceptical of modern technology and, it turns out, a rather good credit. Since opening in 2013, Bank of Bird-in-Hand has never had to write off a loan. (Source: The Economist)

How serious are they about their clientele?

Well, here’s the image on their web site:Bank of Bird-in-Hand

And, oh yeah, “the bank’s drive-through window [is] large enough for a horse and carriage.”

Anyway, the Amish are good bets because they generally borrow money only when they want to buy land, and land makes for better collateral than, say, a used car. They’re also savers, so they can make big down payments. And they have a strong community behind them.

I don’t want to wax too sentimentally about the wonders of Amish life. Maybe it’s okay if you grow up in it, but it’s no place I’d want to get plunked down in. Little value placed on education and intellectual exploration. No literature. Shunning members who fall away. (Imagine if Catholics tried to shun ex-Catholics…) A pretty strict patriarchy. Living a 19th century rural life. No TV, no tacos, no tampons.  I’m feeling oppressed just thinking about it.

But it’s interesting to see that some non-Amish bankers figured out that they can build a solid and profitable, albeit modest, business catering to the plain people.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Power to the dog turd! (Or from the dog turd.)

For the next couple of nights, I’ll be babysitting my dog nephew Jack while his folks tote my niece off to college.

Jack is the apotheosis of doggy goodness, a credit to his species, and the reason why there’s no arguing with this statement:

In a perfect world, every dog would have a home, and every home would have a dog.

As far as I can tell, the only doggy downsides are having to get out of bed at the crack of dawn on a sleety morning to get or let him out, and having to pick up after he relieves himself.

Dogs are tremendous producers of affection and joy, but they also excrete “more than twice the waste of the average person, or around 275 pounds a year.” (I know what you’re thinking, and that’s ‘thanks for sharing.’)

Around 60% of the stuff gets scooped and trucked to landfills, where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas. The rest delivers surprises to pedestrians and can contaminate waterways, as carnivorous diets create pathogen-rich waste. (Source: The Economist)

As a city dweller, I can attest to the fact that, at least in this neighborhood, the surprise attacks on the shoes of non-observant pedestrians are mostly a thing of the past. Where once you had to walk these mean streets as if your feet had eyes, today it is rare to spot an unclaimed turd on the sidewalk. Usually, the worst thing you’ll see is some jackass who has bagged his dog’s deposit up, twirled the bag closed, and left it at the curb (or, unbelievably) on someone’s doorstep (including, on one occasion, mine).

I don’t know whether folks are contaminating the Atlantic Ocean or the Charles River (love that dirty water!) with dog waste, but when Jack visits I dispose of his waste in trash cans, where it wends its way into greenhouse gas.

I knew that flatulent cows produce methane, and that pig slurry encroaching on river catchments wasn’t a good thing, but I’m sorry to hear that pups aren’t carbon neutral. We can all become vegetarians, but the thought of giving up dogs...

Well, I don’t want to live in that world.

Anyway, in NYC, Ron Gonen, a business school professor/environmental guru is hoping to do something about the dog mess.
The idea is to fit parks with small anaerobic digesters in order to:

…transform dog waste into clean energy in the city’s dog parks.

Dog owners would place their mongrels’ mounds into the machine, which then converts poo to gas for powering lamps and other park equipment. A year-long pilot would introduce digesters in three parks at a cost of around $100,000. The parks department is pondering the proposal.

That earlier attempts – including one in Arizona based on a device dubbed the Transformation Using Reactive Digestion (E-TURD) – haven’t succeeded isn’t enough to deter Gonen, who’s the co-founder and CEO of the Closed Loop Fund. The Fund is dedicated to recycling projects, and its aim is to:

Ensure that all consumer products and packaging is recycled and returned for use in manufacturing new products and packaging and that all food waste is used for beneficial purposes such as donation to food banks or converted to compost or clean energy from anaerobic digestion.

Until they head north, I guess I’ll just have to pick up after Jack and let the remains of his day convert to greenhouse gas. On the positive side, we’re walking to the park where Jack relieves himself, not burning up fossil fuel to get there.

I’d like to see Gonen’s project succeed and expand. Don’t want any do-gooders attacking our furry doo-doers because of their impact on the environment. Life without dogs would be such a no-fun zone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

In case you’re wondering why more folks are being fatally gored during bull-running

Hey, I could be whiling away the hours checking my IRA to see how much it’s down (or – hah! – up) in the latest rollercoaster ride. Or I could do an immense public service and report why so many more folks are dying in the interest of checking off one more item on their bucket list.

I have a few things on my bucket list – see Venice, see Pittsburgh (seriously) – but running the bulls in Pamplona, or in any of the other 16,000 or so Spanish festivals that will include bull-running, is not among them.

I have no desire to appear anywhere in white pants. I haven’t worn a red bandana since the days when I mostly wore a blue bandana. Espadrilles are bad for the feet. And I don’t want to have something on my bullet list be the death of me before I have a chance to check it off.

I suppose that I could fall out of gondola and drown in Venice. After all, see Venice and die!

Although I will likely see Venice, and I will definitely die at some point, I don’t imagine that the two will be closely connected. They could be, but that’s not the plan.

I suppose I could get conked on the head by a home run ball while strolling outside PNC Park, where the Pirates play. But I can also do my Pittsburgh run in the off season.

The running of the bulls – or doing anything else in emulation of Hemingway -  however, is pretty much asking for it. So far this “season” alone, 10 young men have died by being trampled and/or gored.

Some are speculating that the increase in deaths is due to drinking. But I’m guessing that, even back in the day of Ernesto Hemingway, a lot of the human participants had had a wee – or not so wee – drop of the creature before hitting the cobblestones.

Maybe it’s that there are a lot more festivals that include bull-running than ever before. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and with the Spanish economy still in desperado mode, the number of towns deciding to host a bull run increased by 2,000 in just the past year.

It could be that, with bull fighting on the wane, the toros on the runs are more fierce than they might have been in the past, when the really macho bulls went into the ring to go up against a matador. Now they’re coursing through the narrow streets of small towns wondering where all these idiots in white pants and red bandanas came from all of a sudden.

But, no.

As it turns out, the most likely culprit is the bull-runners taking selfies – still or video – while trying to stay an inch or two ahead of a sharply pointed horn and set of thundering hooves.

I know, I know. Nothing really happens unless you’ve taken a picture of yourself doing it. But have people lost all sense of the difference between virtual reality and the actual reality of a heavy, angry and rip-snorting bull bearing down on you? There’s dumb, I guess. And then there’s dumber.

Here’s an idea: If you really do need to have your run with the bulls recorded, why not get yourself a couple of GoPros. Attach one to the back of your head to film all those rampaging bulls (and rampaging a-holes). Tape a stick to your head and attach another backward-facing GoPro to the stick, so that it can record the look on your face as you do your run.

Do I have to think of everything?

Sorry, not on my bucket list.

Sources: The Economist,

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Certify me, I’m Irish

Somewhere along the way, my parents acquired a bit of gimcrackery that, for years, hung on the wall of the TV room, which was converted to the boys’ bedroom when the TV-housing addition was slapped on to the side of the family manse.

That bit of gimcrackery was the coat of armsrogers-coat-of-arms-family-crest of the illustrious Rogers Family. There we are, stags rampant, the knight’s visor suggesting that “we” were crusaders or jousters or whatever. It’s hard to believe that a family with firm roots in the Roscommon peasantry would have any need for a family crest.

And yet you can find all sorts of gifts – mugs, key chains, etc. – bearing this crest in souvenir stores throughout Ireland. I’m always a bit disappointed when I twirl the rack and find nothing between Roche and Ronan.

My other Irish family names have similarly preposterous coats of arms. Here’s the Trainor crest, with not one, but two, knights in shining armor. (If you look quickly, those knight-headsTrainor crest sort of resemble a hybrid of the top hat and button top shoe icons from Monopoly.) I suspect that the only authentic anything on this bit o’ hoo-hah is the X, which is likely how most of my way-back antecedents signed their names.

And if I’d changed my name with marriage, here’sdiggins-coat-of-arms-diggins-family-crest-1 the coat of arms I would have been entitled to. Is that a devil’s head in the middle there? Kind of makes sense. Other than the fact that the true Diggins’ family crest should probably have included a shovel. I don’t imagine they called them the Diggins for nothing…

What is it with the Irish, English, and Scots that they’d come up with all this bogus heraldry? Why, my mother’s German side doesn’t doesn’t seem to go in for this sort of folderol.
wolf crest
Or so I thought, until I googled Wolf coat of arms and came up with plenty to choose from.

I’ll go with this one, since it seems to combine the Wolf wolf and the Rogers stag.

So the question becomes what is it about us diasporans that has us hungering not just to reclaim our heritage – which, hey, some of us have never actually lost – but to gussy it up with all sorts of misty mystic myth?

Anyway, while there are still plenty of opportunities to order up some heraldry, the Irish government has just yesterday shut down it’s Heritage Certificate Center, where, for five lovely years, you could purchase – suitable for framing or pre-framed -a certificate attesting to yer Irish antecedents:

The Certificate is [ – make that was – ] an official Irish Government initiative which represents the enduring emotional ties and sense of identity bestowed by Irish ancestry, recognising the continuing emotional attachment of the descendants who left our shores long ago...

The certificate is an official Irish Government confirmation of your Irish Roots which will take pride of place in your home or office. This heirloom truly is a gift from the heart that your family will cherish forever to remember and honour your Irish ancestors.

All yez had to do was fill in a couple of blanks and, whether you actually had any “real” Irish roots or not, sure the Government of Ireland was willing to provide you with a handy-dandy certificate saying that you did indeed.

As Diarmaid Ferriter pointed out in a recent column on the demise of this somewhat embarrassing scheme:

The certificate initiative was adopted by a State that has paid nearly €1 billion to private operators to run direct provision centres for asylum seekers over the past 15 years, centres in which so many people feel humiliated and are residing in dire circumstances.

It is therefore deeply ironic that one of the “beautiful backgrounds” that is used on the “finest quality vellum” of the heritage certificates is that of Irish Famine ships, “that evoke the waves of emigration from these shores”.

These hideous vessels carried Irish Famine victims fleeing desperate circumstances to build a new life in America, a traumatic experience shamelessly exploited by those seeking to commodify and dumb down Irish heritage. (Source: Diarmaid Ferriter in The Irish Times)

Interesting the Ferriter talks about the “dire circumstances” in the Irish refugee centers. From this side of the pond, it always seems as if the Irish are the first on the ground in any humanitarian crisis, and certainly seem to punch above their weight in this category. But helping feed those starving on their own turf is difficult than welcoming newcomers to your own. And Ireland, like all European nations, has what I think of as the assimilation problem in that there’s not really a way from people from “somewhere else” to become Irish or French or German or Swedish, other than after multi-generations and (likely) intermarrying. Do those Nigerian school kids I’ve seen on the streets of Galway ever become Irish? Or does it matter? (Not to mention, I don’t believe that Europe could physically support the emigration of everyone who wants to leave the Africa or the Mideast, any more than the US could assimilate all of Central and South America if they decided to empty themselves out.)

Anyway, the genius of the US is that we are largely a nation of immigrants, and that once you step off the gangplank of the coffin ship, or off the plane, you can start becoming an American. And your kids, whether you like it or not – and of course you like it: why else would you come? – are 100% Americans.

And yet many of us – self certainly included here – identify with our Old World heritage. Thus, we are so readily conned by the cheesy coats of arms and bogus certificates “attesting” to something or other. While at the same time, too many of us, in these perilous times, are crapping all over those struggling to get here now. Witness a certain candidate shamelessly stirring up nativist fears about “them”.

Although I never knew they were in this silly business, I’m happy to the see the Irish Government out of their Irish-by-certification scheme.

Yet it’s fun to fast forward a century or so and imagine the governments of Mexico and Honduras and Guatemala issuing heritage documents on “the finest quality vellulm.” Even if they goofily depict the Rio Grande or the back of a truck.

Can I get an “olé”?

Monday, August 24, 2015

Clowning? Seriously?

Now I realize that 99.999% of the people on the face of the world would rather see someone coming their way with a cheerful smiley face on, rather than deal with a perpetually frowning downer.

Still, I always roll my eyes when I think of the lyrics:

Be a clown, be a clown. All the world loves a clown.

Cause, let’s face it, this just ain’t true.

Sure, there may be plenty of folks who love a clown.I just don’t happen to know any of them.

At best, my family and friends are clown indifferent. More than likely, they’re clown fearers. Or clown loathers. Or clown fearers and loathers.

I come down on the side of clown loather, and this has been true since I outgrew my peanut-gallery appreciation of the side-splitting antics of Howdy Doody’s Clarabelle, spritzing the unsuspecting with his seltzer bottle.

By the time Bozo the Clown began airing on Boston TV when I was nine or ten, I had joined the other camp, singing along my friends in what we thought was an uproariously funny parody of Bozo’s theme song:

Bozo, Bozo, never laughs, always frowns. Bozo, Bozo, very unfunny clown.

And when I saw clown-clowns like Emmett Kelly on TV, I never laughed. They just depressed me. I felt sorry for them.

Send in the clowns? Not me! Send those suckers out.

Who’d want to be a clown?

Well, Robert Markowitz, for one.

As he wrote in The NY Times last week, he got sick and tired of being Robert Markowitz, Attorney-at-Law, and decided to become Bobo the clown.

Going from lawyer to clown wasn’t that clean a transition, and Markowitz wnet through a bit of trial and error, which included a couple of years as a beach bum in Mexico, followed by a few more lawyering years (this time as a civil attorney, rather than handling criminal cases).

It was while volunteering on weekends, working with kids at a Sunday school, that Markowitz had a partial epiphany, and admitted that he was done with the law.

Still not sure what he was going to do, he found himself – age 37 – living back home with a mother you told him:

“You know…you’re ruining your life.”

That was one way of looking at it, but not his.

Studying want ads one evening, the one that got my blood moving promised to train me as a party clown, and send me out at $25 per show.

The good news here is that Robert Markowitz did not stay a costumed clown.

After his first clown gig, when the birthday boy at a Yonkers Ground Round where he was entertaining said, “Bobo, I love you,” Markowitz had a fuller epiphany:

In the car later, I rested my head on the steering wheel. An unexpected feeling surfaced: happiness. It turned out that I thrived in a sphere of creativity and spontaneity. The clown gig was short­lived: I donated the costume to Goodwill, picked up my old Martin guitar, and played the fool with music, writing songs like “Bossanova Boo­boo.”

Two decades into it, Markowitz is happily making a living as a musician for kids shows.

No longer do I flash power-­of-­attorney to withdraw my $10,000 retainer from a jailed client’s bank account. I wear jeans, and don’t frequent Nordstrom. But most of the time, I like waking up in the morning.

Friends, I will admit that I was completely relieved to find that Robert Markowitz had not stayed a clown, that it was just one floppy-shoed step away from a job that he loathed and feared was killing him.

But, of course, whether it’s to become a clown or a whatever, it’s none of my business what someone chooses to do. It’s not sticking with a job you can’t stand is what’s key here.

Good for you, Bobo!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Your cheatin’ heart: The Ashley Madison Affair

Part of me wants to say that, if ever there’s a site that deserves to be hacked, it’s Ashley Madison, the for married folks looking for some side action.

On the other hand, I suspect that not much actually happens on Ashley Madison, beyond a bunch of bored, curious, seven-year-itchy husbands signing and checking off their list of fantasies and druthers. After all, how many actual hookups are going to come about if the demographics are 86% male and 14% female? With odds like that, you’re really not likely to find someone who’s both compatible and convenient. Sounds like one big fantasy-land to me. Online entrapment for folks for whom the SI swimsuit addition and the Playboy Bunny of the Month (if there is such a thing) don’t quite do it for any more.

Well, now they’ve been stung, and big time. Apparently, there are places you can go to grab the info of the 37 million members of the club.

The information available for each user was extensive.

"It's everything from their name, age, interests, whether they smoke or drink, down to very detailed sexual fantasies, what they enjoy having done to them and what they want to do to others," said Adam McNeil, a malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes Labs, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based computer security firm who has inspected the database. (Source: USA Today)

Some intermediaries are already combing through and publishing lists of everyone with, e.g., a .gov email address. (Seriously, what were people thinking when they signed up with their work email? Talk about the little head doing the thinking for the big head.)

But by now there are supposed 37 million members worrying about whether they’re going to get found out by their spouse, or outed by some vigilante troublemakers. Not to mention that they’ll be the target of people who are as equally noxious – if not worse – than the original hackers:

The release of the data is going to unleash a flood of phishing attacks on unsuspecting users, security experts warn. Anyone who wants can now go and download millions of email addresses and use them to send out "phishing" messages that contain malicious software that the unwary or the worried might open, said Ken Westin, senior security analyst at Tripwire, a Portland, Ore.-based security company.(Source: USA Today)

Meanwhile, it’s not clear what the hackers wanted. Are they blackmailers? The morality police? Thrill seekers?

The hackers appeared to target AshleyMadison and EstablishedMen over the questionable morals they condoned and encouraged, but they also took issue with what they considered ALM’s fraudulent business practices. Despite promising customers to delete their user data from the site for a $19 fee, the company actually retained the data on ALM’s servers, the hackers claimed. “Too bad for those men, they’re cheating dirtbags and deserve no such discretion,” the hackers wrote. “Too bad for ALM [Ashley Madison parent Avid Life Media], you promised secrecy but didn’t deliver.” (Source: Wired)

So far, the only “cheating dirtbag” that I’ve seen outed is the hypocritical Josh Duggar, the scion of the smarmy Duggar Family of reality TV renown. Last spring, it was revealed that, as a teenager, he had molested his younger sisters, which put the kibosh on the family’s reality TV show, as well as on his career as a lobbyist for the Family Research Council. And now he has admitted that, although he is the married father of four (including a newborn), he was doing some pay for play on Ashley Madison,

While there is always some satisfaction when a latter-day Elmer Gantry gets his comeuppance, I have to say that I hope that the hackers are identified and prosecuted,

As for Ashley Madison, I hope that they have good insurance. I understand why they didn’t want to pay off a blackmailer, but their security was clearly lacking.

What a world we live in!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Proprietary fabrics! Scientific and intentional! Technical luxury™!

Well, yesterday I was all about the Airstream. Then I remembered that, last week, I’d actually seen a commercial Airstream, not the shiny aluminum one, but one tricked out in copper. It was parked on Charles Street. What was it, I asked myself? It was labeled The Copper Studio, and Kit and Ace, and so I was able to find that The Copper Studio is the touring manifestation of Kit and Ace, and that Kit and KitandAceAce are actually the wife and son of Chip Wilson, who brought us lululemon. Only their names aren’t really Kit and Ace, but that’s beside the point:

During their time spent traveling and living internationally, JJ and Shannon recognized a void in the luxury apparel industry. Afer spending years dressed head to toe in stretchy performance wear, they wee looking for clothing that offered the same functionality but that met their desire for sophistication, style and luxury. Since they couldn’t find what they were looking for, they created it. (Source:Kit and Ace)

And they’re doing it with Technical Luxury™, “proprietary fabrics that are scientific and intentional.” First up: Technical Cashmere™.

If there’s anything I can’t abide, it’s a non-intentional fabric. I do not want it anywhere near my body. (Note to self: check and see if Gwyneth Paltrow is on their board.)

Even once I knew who they were, I still wondered what they were doing in my ‘hood.

Why? We want to meet you. Before we set up shop in your cities we want to get a feel for your neighbourhoods, your architecture, your tastemakers. And we want you to kjnow us. We keep saying how soft Technical Cashmere™ is – but feeling is believing.

When I spotted the Copper Studio, it was pretty early in the morning – 6:45 a.m. – and I was on my way to a mammogram, So perhaps that’s why they didn’t spot me as a tastemaker.

And then I remembered that they’re the spawn of lululemon, and would probably regard me as out of their range, size-wise. Thus, something of a bad tastemaker.

We are not committed to standard industry sizing, but we are committed to size integrity.

And size integrity says that a woman’s size 10 is a large, and they just don’t do extra large. Sizing, like fabric, can be intentional.

Alas, this relegates those of us who are lululemon-challenged to Hawaiian print muumuus, when, in truth, we should really be robing ourselves in the nice neutral, pay-no-attention-to-the-fat-lady blacks and greys that they specialize in. So when I realized that they’d opened a pop-up shop on Charles Street, I just gave it a glance as I walked by. Why bother to go in for some “feeling is believing” if there’s no Technical Cashmere™ integrity-sized for us?

I’m not that far off their L, but even if I do squeeze by on their other axes of size (hip and bust), I don’t tend to have a defined waist even under the most svelte of times.

Oh, well. Even if I do manage to waste away, would I really want to patronize an outfit that’s so precious, so intentional?

Nah. Guess I’ll stick with my non-technical LL Bean tees. Plenty intentional enough for me.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I scream, you scream, we all scream for Airstream

As those who know me are well aware, I am enamored of tiny houses. Since childhood, when I used to lie in the bathtub designing a little home of my own in that very tiny yellow and black bathroom, which couldn’t have been much larger than 45 or 50 square feet, I’ve thought about going small.

Our condo is – by Boston condo standards – of middling size: 1240 square feet. But when he was alive, my husband’s main room was the living room, in all its 400 square foot-ish glory. My home within the home was a mini-office, close in size to that childhood bathroom.

And then there’s my bucket list. It’s not a very developed one, but if there’s one item on it, that would be an overnight stay at one of Brownie’s Cabins, located on Cape Cod’s Route 6. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to stay at Brownie’s? Oh, it may seem a bit daffy, given that my sister has a beautiful, large, modern home just around the corner. I was going to say that Kath’s is the best B&B in Wellfleet, but it’s actually a Bed & Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner operation. Free to friends and family! Still, my plan is to someday spend a week or so at Brownie’s.

Keeping with the small and retro theme, I am also completely enamored of the Airstream Trailer. While I wouldn’t want to have to tow one anywhere, I’d be more than happy to spend time in one of these honeys. Small would be beautiful! Does a 15-Sport16_740_thumb[9]living (or traveling) space come any more adorable than this?

Well, as it turns out – at least according to Bloomberg – the Airstream is on trend. One place it’s been trending is the business world:

In recent years, hotels, offices, and restaurants have cropped up in stationary Airstreams on both coasts. Five have become a motel in Santa Barbara, Calif. Another five sell ice cream and juice in Seaside, Fla. A concert venue in Austin uses one for its green room. The B-52s singer Kate Pierson—the redhead—has a handful of rentable Airstreams outside Joshua Tree National Park. And Chief Executive Officer Tony Hsieh has been living in one for nine months. He recently bought 20 more to create his own Airstream trailer park for the aspiring tech bros he’s importing to redevelop downtown Las Vegas. “It’s by far my favorite place to live,” Hsieh says. “It has more amenities than the average hotel room.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, if ever I’m in Santa Barbara, I’ll try to line one up!

Meanwhile, whether its trailers are being used for business, residence, or pleasure, Airstream’s doing well. This year, “it’s selling five times as many [new trailers] as it did in 2009.”

It’s a great Made in the USA story. The company’s located in a pokey town in Ohio, its headquarters what was, during World War II, a bazooka factory. Airstream employs 560 people, and everything that goes into an Airstream is made by hand. (It’s not just Airstream: the overall RV industry is doing very well.)

The Airstream boom dovetails with a few other lifestyle trends: First, many Americans have become obsessed with decluttering, moving into so-called tiny homes and reading best-selling books like Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Decluttering. Tiny homes. Never have I been so on-trend, at least in terms of wishful thinking. (That’s for tiny homes and Airstreams. I’m actually in fierce decluttering mode. This week’s toll included a pair of Indian dolls (Indian-Indian) that my father had sent home to my aunt when he was stationed in Trinidad during the war. Sorry to part with them, but they were falling apart to the touch. Also tossed: a Donald Duck plastic bank (large) that my late friend Marie gave me when we were in high school. I was going for the save, but when I tried washing it off, the paint started coming off.)

As for Airstream, I’m delighted with their success. I’m far more likely to stay in Brownie’s Cabins than I am to boogey around in an Airstream. But I can dream, can’t I? And add something else to my bucket list.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Steering clear of a “bruising” workplace

The big news over the weekend was The New York Times  hatchet-piece* take down of Amazon’s “bruising” workplace.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”

This sounds like pretty standard fare for a lot of companies where you give up your life in exchange for an opportunity to hit the big corporate piñata and have millions of dollars rain down on your head. Yes, expecting an email to be answered at midnight is ridiculous – people really are entitled to have a do-not-disturb period - but that’s the way it is in a lot of places. If you don’t want to answer those “mission critical” (hah!) texts, go work someplace where giving and receiving them is not part of the culture.

And even before the advent of email and texting, there were plenty of high stress/high reward workplaces – investment banking and management consulting come to mind. After business school (Stanford MBA), a friend of mine worked at Morgan Stanley. He was visiting us over a long weekend when he remembered that he’d left an important paper out on his desk. He called a colleague he knew would be there and asked her to put the document in a drawer. She (Wharton MBA) refused, telling him if he wanted it in a drawer, he could put it there himself. My friend ended up heading back to NYC on the next train. This was 35 years ago. Plus ça change

The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

I don’t care what the potential rewards might be, I wouldn’t want to work in a place that, Stasi-like, encourages secret feedback. An extension, I suppose, of some of the crappier aspects of social media. I’m all for 360 degree reviews, but I’m not enamored of anonymity. A couple of times during my career, I worked with others to separate people who were truly destructive in their positions, from those positions. In both cases, we tried to go directly to the folks we couldn’t stand working under to get them to improve. In one situation, when that failed, we tried to get one of the fellow’s peers to approach him. In both cases, we ended up going to HR to make our case why the person needed to go.

So I get why there are times when, for the greater good, you need to rat someone else. It’s just that there’s something unsettling about anonymous corporate fragging.

I understand that there are times when, and environments where, conditions are so awful that employees would be at risk if they raised their hand. Thus, there is a need for some whistle-blower protections. But, as a rule, open is better than closed.

Another knock against Amazon is that Amazonians are so beaten up that seeing people weeping at their desks is the norm. No doubt because they’re exhausted from answering all those midnight emails. Again, I’m feeling kind of ‘if you can’t stand the heat’ about this.

Me, I wouldn’t want to work at a place that was a perpetual ‘bring-grown-men-to-tears-athon.” So I didn’t.

I did have a couple of crying jags at work over the years –  when I was completely frazzled and exhausted – but it was never the norm.

There were certainly a few anecdotes that made Amazon sound truly dreadful. Here’s one:

Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

Certainly, that manager was a colossally callous a-hole. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the corporate standard.

And Amazon takes the decimation approach: rank all employees and get rid of the bottom dwellers each year.

This is a management technique that I really despise, given that it can be administered so arbitrarily. All groups may be asked to eliminate their bottom 10 percent. The problem is, one group may, in fact, have all pretty good performers, while another may be riddled with laggards. Does it make any sense to treat them all the same. (I don’t know how Amazon does it, but I did work for a company that tried this once. We refused to give them individual group lists, insisting that, if they were going to do this sort of head-hunting, they needed to do so at a more macro level.)

Not surprisingly, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos counter-punched.

The truth, no doubt, is in the middle: Amazon is a high-energy, high-stress, high-achievement, high-reward workplace that’s not for everybody. It wouldn’t have been for me.

Sure, they should do something about the managers who have no understanding of how to treat a woman who just miscarried, or a man who just came back from cancer treatment. No one wants to own that work environment. 

But there are a lot of people who thrive in the hard-driven places, or who want it on their résumé that they were intelligent enough to get hired to work among the best and the brightest. Amazon, like Google and a few other places, has a real cachet.

Not for me, but let those who want it have at it.
*Perhaps the writers used an Estwing E24A Sportsman’s Hatchet, $34.97 through Amazon.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Stelarc, Stelarc, lend me your ear

As I’ve said before, I like performance, and I like art, but I’m no fan of performance art. (Here’s my rant from a few years back. The opinion has certainly stood the test of time. The only change I would make is switching out Rockefeller Center for Radio City Music Hall, to be more specific about where the Rockettes perform. I suppose I could amend the reference to Karen Finley to say yam rather than cucumber, but reader KatRog took care of that in her comment.)

No, I find most performance art to be lame, weird, off putting and narcissistic. I also don’t like the fact that it’s ephemeral, as well. Don’t know why this bothers me. Given my view of performance art, you’d think I’d be happy that it doesn’t last.

Anyway, whether it lasts or not is not the argument when it comes to Australian performance artist Stelarc.

It may not last through the ages. Three hundred years from now, I doubt that anyone will stand before it in a museum ooh-ing and aah-ing. But, unless he has it surgically removed, Stelarc’s art work will be with us. Or, at any rate, with him.

For the last nine years, the artist known only as Stelarc has been growing a third ear on his left arm, all in the name of art. (Source: Huffington Post)

Here’s the man himself, out VanGogh-ing VanGogh. And is it me, or does he kind of resemble James Taylor? Rockabye Sweet Baby James…

StelarcStelarc may look like James Taylor, but he’s obviously channeling his inner George Bernard Shaw. As in “some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

And, that, I guess brings me full circle back to Part A, with me looking at things that are and asking why. Or, more accurately, WTF.

"As a performance artist I am particularly interested in that idea of the post-human, that idea of the cyborg," he said, according to CNN. "What it means to be human will not be determined any longer merely by your biological structure but perhaps also determined largely by all of the technology that's plugged or inserted into you."

Oh. Post-human. Now I get it.

Stelarc originally dreamed of this particular thing that never was nearly 20 years back, but it was only in 2006 that he was able to convince a surgeon to give him another cheerful earful. Dr. Frankenstein, I presume.

Now that the ear’s up and running, Stelarc plans to Internet enable it.

"This ear is not for me, I've got two good ears to hear with. This ear is a remote listening device for people in other places," he told the network. "They'll be able to follow a conversation or hear the sounds of a concert, wherever I am, wherever you are. People will be able to track, through a GPS as well, where the ear is."

Can’t wait to be able to listen in on Stelcarc’s conversations, not to mention his snoring, belching and toilet flushing.

Back in the days of b&w TV, there was a show called the Naked City, a police drama set in New York City. If famously ended each episode with the narrator intoning, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

I’ve seen estimates that, this year, there will be 50 billion objects connected to the Internet – all those Fitbits, all those Nest thermostats. All kinds of stuff we really don’t need, most of which I suspect will provide of marginal utility. Not that everything has to have utility. I’m not that much of a philistine. (I like performance. I like art.) And yet, even by performance art standards, Stelarc’s earpiece is really out there.

50 billion objects in the Internet of Things. This has been one of them. 50 billion is an awful lot of things, but I’m guessing Stelarc’s ear makes the top five in terms of weirdness. (Name another.)

I said earlier that we won’t be looking at any performance art in museums 300 years out. But if Stelarc goes fully cyborg, who knows? Maybe he gets to live forever. If that ear had two-way communication, I’d ask him if that’s the plan.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Oh, my aching back. (And that crick in my neck…)

The aching back I attribute to the fact that, the last few days, I’ve been neglecting my workouts. With my renovation project looming, I’ve been racing around picking out and ordering my appliances, the kitchen floor, the kitchen cabinets, the all important backsplash, bathroom flooring, bathroom tiles, vanities, “plumbing stuff” (who even knew there was something called a mix valve?), finishing touches (hey, that wash cloth hook is kind of cute and it’s only $12.95: take two, they’re small)…

And the pressure has been on. The project is sledge-hammering off in just a few weeks, and we have tax-free weekend coming up, so there are a few deals out there I wanted to take advantage of. Of course, not everything I’m ordering qualifies, and one of the vendors I’m working with doesn’t “do” tax-free weekend because their finance department is only open M-F.

From a marketing perspective, this seem pretty ridiculous. Wouldn’t it be worth while paying someone a bit of OT to process orders on Saturday so your customers can save a few bucks? But, oh, I forgot. I’m not a customer. I’m a “guest” and, while quite a few “guests” have asked for the tax-free break, the company just doesn’t go for it. (They also don’t give you any break if you pay by check. So, they’d rather pay Visa 2% than let me have it? Despite my pique here, I just don’t have the energy to shop around. I really like the sales person, but jeez louise…)

So, that’s why I have an ache in my back. The crick in my neck is from hunching over Houzz to get ideas for finishing touches (like those darling wash cloth hooks…)

But, if I lived in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, SF East Bay, Silicon Valley (from Burlingame to San Jose area), Miami, San Diego, Phoenix/Scottsdale or Austin, I’d be able to rid myself of ache, crick and pique by ordering up an in-home massage from Soothe.

I watch enough TV to know that there’s nothing novel about an in-home massage. What Soothe has going is an on-demand model, in which licensed massage therapists can offer their wares through a communal site, rather than on their own.

Customers can book a massage through the website or smartphone app, and it can be for as soon as within the hour, or for another date and time of their choosing. (Source: Fortune)

But not yet, alas, the place of their choosing, unless it’s one of the places on their list. Since founder Merlin Kauffman – a great name or what – is a graduate of Harvard Business School, I’m sure he’s coming here soon. Surely, he knows just how tensed up us Bostonians can get. (He was, in fact, inspired to found Soothe while he was a student at HBS when he couldn’t easily get the knots out of his case-study challenged body.)

Anyway, Soothe has some expansion money in their mitts, thanks to $10.6M in new funding, and I suspect they’ll spend of it coming East any day now.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably wondering just how safe it is to invite a stranger into your house, and put yourself in a position where there’s nothing between you and your soother other than a towel.

Kauffman also assured us that Soothe’s vetting process includes a background check and getting a massage from the therapist to assess their skills. Soothe also only works with licensed therapists, which Kauffman says often requires hundreds hours of training and other stringent requirements.

I guess that speaks to quality and not security, but I don’t suppose there are a lot of licensed massage therapists who moonlight as criminals.

Not that I have anything against letting strangers into your house, given that I’m about to be overrun by carpenters, plumbers, tilers, electricians, and painters.

Anyway, good luck to Merlin and his massage clearinghouse.

Let me know when you set up shop in Boston. I could do with a good soothe.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Theater of the future? I’m staying home!

Back in the day – that would be way back in the day – I was quite a moviegoer, and probably went to a movie once a week.

I wasn’t an especially discriminating film fan. Rocky one week, something Truffaut-ish the next. If I wanted a laugh, I went to Woody Allen. (Honestly, he used to be funny.) If I wanted to metaphorically slash my wrists, there was always Bergman.

I seldom walked out on a movie, but I will have to confess that my husband and I left about 20 minutes into Star Wars. (Still haven’t seen it or any of the follow ons.) And, in one of the few acts of God I’ve ever experienced up close and personal, someone called a bomb scare into the old Exeter Street Theater about half way through Lena Wertmuller’s execrable Swept Away.

But mostly I used to love going to the movies.

And then there were VCR’s. And then there was cable. So I no longer felt I was missing out on anything by not getting to a theater to see whatever it was. I could find it a couple of months later at the video store, or a couple of weeks later on Pay per View.

Over time, movie-going became less and less urgent.

If I saw it now, fine. If I saw it later, fine. If I went years without seeing it, fine. I’d catch it eventually. Maybe. Yawn.

I generally enjoy myself when I do get to a theater, but there never seems to be any real reason to go. Most of what I know about the movies these days is the reviews I read in The New Yorker.

There are two films on the horizon that I would like to see sooner rather than later.

I adore Meryl Streep, so, despite the reviews, I want to get to Ricki and the Flash.

And Black Mass was filmed around here – including some scenes right up the block – plus it’s about one of our most iconic (in an icon-as-rotter sense) figures, Whitey Bulger.

Right now, I’m saying that I’ll get to the theater for both of these. (The biggest cinema in Boston is about a 5 minute walk from where I live, so there’s really no excuse.) But, never say never definitely.

But I can tell you one thing that won’t get me back: 4-D:

…a seating system that bombards moviegoers’ senses with vibrations and motions, gusts of wind, sprays of water, and even smells. (Source: BetaBoston/Boston Globe)

Years ago, I was sitting in a theater with my sister Trish and our friend Peter. The popcorn tub was in my hand, when all of a sudden I had some sort of weird spasm and that tub o’ hot buttered popcorn went flying out of my hands and into the aisle. By the light of the silver – okay technicolor – screen, I can still remember the stunned looks on the faces of Trish and Peter. (Sorry, guys, but that popcorn was pretty crappy, so no great loss.)

Based on that experience, I really don’t need vibrations and motions.

As for gusts of wind and sprays of water. Huh? Can you imagine the germy barrels of water that spray would be coming out of? Yuck-o-rama.

And smells? Maybe odor technology has improved over the years, but generally when something’s labeled “linen crisp,” or “sea breeze” or “citrus fresh”, the smells bear no resemblance to the real thing. (As in what’s the relationship between pine and Pine-Sol?)

But during a recent screening [of Jurassic World] at the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Revere, it’s unlikely anybody remembered to laugh. Not when their seats were lurching and rumbling beneath them at each monstrous footstep, and the stench of the burning chopper filled the theater.

Just what a want to experience when I’m at the theater. The “stench of the burning chopper.” Especially if I have to pay an additional $8 over the cost of a standard theater ticket for the pleasure of doing so. Not only would I be kicking myself for wasting that much money, I’d be worried about the carcinogens present in all that stench.

Dan Jamele, the CTO of MediaMation, which creates 4-D systems wants to transform couch potatoes into movie goers:

The 4-D experience could be the answer, said Jamele. “It’s a little stick of dynamite to get you out of your seat.”

Nothing like a ‘little stick of dynamite’ to make me want to grab a seat at the old cineplex.

I guess I’m just an old timer. One of the great pleasures of reading is to imagine what a character looks like, what being in the place being described feels like in real life, what that rose by any other name smells like. To large extent, that’s one of the pleasures of movie going as well. Do I need to have a gust of fan-generated wind blowing in my face to imagine what the desert wind was like that was blowing in Lawrence of Arabia’s face? Do I need a bit of fake North Atlantic spritzing me to feel like I’m on the bridge of the Titanic? Do I need a smell generator to accompany Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now when he says “I love the smell of napalm in the morning…Smelled like victory.”

I’d rather curl up with a good pay-per-view and leave the smells and whistles to my imagination.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Throwing some shade balls

Just when you think there will be no interesting business news to blog about, along comes an article on a California company that’s doing its bit to help with the drought that’s been parching that state for the last few years.

XavierC is producing something called shade (or conservation) balls, and selling them to the LA Department of Water and Power. Shade balls (absolutely a more fun name than conservation balls) are hermetically-sealed polyethylene balls used to cover the surface of a reservoir. Full of water (potable, in case they leak) to keep them from getting blown out of the water, they reduce evaporation, helping conserve what precious little water California has left.

To date, the LA DWP has deployed 96 million shade balls into its reservoirs. (Shade balls are also used to cover “tailing ponds” where contaminated mining effluent is stored to keep the birds away from the toxic yuck, and in wastewater facilities to keep the odors at bay.)

XavierC is not the only company producing shade balls, but they may be the most interesting one.

Founder Sydney Chase had two thoughts in mind when she started XavierC. One was a desire to “help keep reservoirs intact and clean.”

The second reason is built into the company’s name. The “Xavier” is Xavier Castillo, who worked for 18 years in information technology at the Pomona-based Casa Colina physical rehabilitation center. Castillo, 47, survived a car accident at 27 that left him a quadriplegic. He and Chase met by chance four years ago, and he came on board when he learned she wanted to hire disabled veterans who’d been having trouble finding work elsewhere. Factory work itself would be difficult for many of them, so Chase envisioned a company at which vets could perform administrative, marketing, and other tasks on a computer. Castillo controls his own computer using his neck and shoulder muscles, Chase says. (Source: Bloomberg)

Note to self: take at least a month off from complaining about standard geezer-ette aches and pains.

The facility employs 100 full time staff operating 3 shifts up to 7 days a week to accommodate your production needs and schedules. (Source:

Does something about the environment. Hires disabled vets. Manufactures products in the USA.

Is there anyone who wouldn’t want Sydney Chase to succeed?

(There was a similar (sort of) concept used around here over the winter, when the groundskeeper at Fenway Park covered the grass with black sand to hurry along the snow melt needed to get rid of 10 feet of the white stuff in time for opening day. Not necessarily enviro-friendly, but “grass-friendly” and easy on the back. One second thought, given the year the boys are having, it might have been better if they’d just let the snow take its natural course. With luck, the snow wouldn’t have fully melted until July, sparing us at least half of what’s been a truly dreadful and dreadfully long season.)

Anyway, there’s something about the XavierC story that I find really interesting, lovable almost.

When it comes to the ingenious, to small ideas that do big good, I have absolutely no imagination whatsoever. But sometimes I know it when I see it.

Let’s throw some more shade balls, why don’t we?


Tuesday, August 11, 2015

“I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”

The comic strip Peanuts was extremely popular when I was in high school, and I was definitely a fan. Linus was the one I most identified with, and yesterday I had reason to recall what is probably young Mr. Van Pelt’s most famous line:

I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.

Yesterday was trash day, and good citizen that I am, I brought my trash out at 7 a.m., as I always do on the morning of trash pickup. I believe that, technically, it’s okay to put it out anytime after 5 p.m. the night before. It’s just not the wise thing to do if you live in an area where there are both bag-slashing trash pickers AND tons o’rats. Come to think of it, wise is the wrong word. After all, if you’re the sort who doesn’t give a rat’s or bag-slasher’s ass whether there’s garbage all over the street, there’s nothing unwise about it. 

It is, however, entirely wrong to do so, especially after the nice little old widow-lady who goes out and cleans up the garbage-strewn sidewalk and re-bags all the trash that’s spilling out of slashed bags has left so many polite ‘we’re all in this together’ notes up in the building asking people to bring their trash out in the morning. Especially garbage. Inert stuff in recycle bins and clear recycle bags is kind of okay night before, as the rats ignore it and, for the most part, trash pickers can see through the clear recycle bags and tell without slashing that there aren’t any money-back cans in there.

Anyway, at 6:30 a.m. I was not thrilled to be picking up garbage on behalf of the perfectly able-bodied folks who inhabit this building.

Where there is injury, insult it sure to follow, and yesterday’s second condo injury was finding that someone who owns a condo in this building – but does not live here – had taken it upon himself to paint our front door battleship grey.

My building is one of a block-long row of handsome light-grey granite buildings dating from 1860 or thereabouts. Almost all of these buildings sport battleship grey doors.

There’s no rule requiring this, although there is an approved list of colors and the poo-bahs may, in fact, prefer that we all suit up in battleship grey. But I don’t think there is an actual rule making this the color of obligation. And we’ve long had a dark red door, which distinguishes our building and makes it IMHO more welcoming.

But, if the other 5 owners – none of whom, I should add, actually live in this building – had voted to go grey, I would have been fine with it. But this was a unilateral move on one owner’s part (in collusion, I suspect, with another owner). And I can say with as near to 100% confidence that I can say anything, that, if there had been a vote, these two would have been voted down 4-2 if I’d ask for the other 3 votes.

(That this is an exceedingly odd building, with an exceedingly odd condo association, is a tale for another day.)

When the painter was by late last week, and I asked him about the paint color, he weaseled a bit and said it was “probably” the primer. But it’s not. I did give unilateral mover a call, and he was a bit weasel-y as well about how the grey door had come about.

I have sent off an all-owner email, expressing my annoyance about this. (No response as of this writing.)

And I then went out and did what any self-respecting mankind loving people hater would do: mani-pedi, with a color toe-nail polish that I wouldn’t ordinarily select.

AMUREEN - WIN_20150810_201358 (2)

This picture does neither my feet – they’re not bright orange – nor the color of the polish – a very nice turquoise – any justice. But it’s not my ordinary dark-ish pink or dark-ish red. And it sure ain’t battleship grey, either.

Did I mention that I love mankind? It’s just people – other than my wonderful friends and family and the folks at the nail place – I can’t stand.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Home sweet not-so-smart home

For those not in the technical thick, today’s techno-talk is all about the Internet of Things.

The definition is fairly elastic, but fundamentally it’s all about all the smart stuff connecting up. Think about your smart fridge reading your smart milk carton and finding it’s expired and alerting you on your smart watch to pick some up on the way home. Before you get home, your smart watch will have alerted your smart outdoor lights to turn on and your smart thermostat to start warming the place up for you.

Meet George Jetson!

I actually have a smart thermostat, but I haven’t gotten around to setting it up so that I can remote in and adjust the heat/AC. I did wi-fi enable it, and it sends me (unwanted) email alerts when I adjust a setting, but I haven’t automated anything beyond that.

With a home reno project nearing, I will probably want to figure out how to do this so that the construction guys don’t leave the AC on overnight and weekends.

Mostly, though, I prefer what’s in my home to be not-so-smart.

So no smart new fridge ordering more yogurt and grapes. No smart new range surprising me with a pot of soup. No smart new dishwasher reporting a chipped plate. No smart new lighting that detects when I’m trying to figure out if those socks are black or navy. No smart window shades modestly closing when a neighbor gets nosy. No smart new home entertainment, detecting my mood and deciding whether I want to listen to The Boss or watch “My 600 Pound Life.” No smart security system keying off my eyeballs and thumbprint. (What’s wrong with the chain lock?)

Me, I’m just as happy with not-so-smart.

Smarty-pants everything sounds too dangerous, too invasive, too error prone. I’m the one who wants the manual override. (I’d be just as happy if cars came with an option that lets you hand crank a power window if the electronics fail.)

I have visions of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice – minus Mickey Mouse grinning goofily. Just an endless parade of brooms and water buckets ordered up by a smart floor that’s decided it could do with a swab…

So I was somewhat relieved to find that, even some of the pioneers who’ve invested heavily in “smart homes”:

At his home in New York, hotelier and real-estate developer Ian Schrager has a “smart-home” system that allows him to remotely control the lighting, window shades, entertainment and even the temperature of the swimming pool. It drives him nuts.

The system breaks so often—about five times a year, he estimates—that he has installed a second system, with a hard-wired electrical switch to override it.

Mr. Schrager decided not to include a smart-home package at his company’s new luxury-condo development in the Bowery district of Manhattan, and hasn’t included one in any of his previous projects.

“It can be a lot of bells and whistles that people don’t like,” says Mr. Schrager, who recently returned from a hotel in Italy where the minibar lights automatically went on when he walked past it to the bathroom in the middle of the night, waking up his wife. (Source: WSJ Online)

No bells, no whistles.Count me in.

The only bell I want is the doorbell, and the only whistle, the teakettle.

It’s easier on the sanity, and cheaper that way. The folks cited in the article had spent tens-of-thousands of dollars on making their home smart. (As opposed to those of us spending that kind of moola just making their homes comfortable and up to date.)

One couple uses their smart video system to spy on monitor their contractors to make sure that they’re actually working.

I’ll just be doing that the old fashioned way.

I’m going to be out of home for 6-8 weeks, staying with my sister. But I’ll be buzzing by to pick up my mail (or to make my way through the plastic coverings to pick up something I forgot to take) every couple of days.

I’m not not going to make a pest of myself, but I will be doing a look-see often enough to keep the boys on their toes. And unless they have something rigged up that I’m not aware of, they won’t even see me coming.

Friday, August 07, 2015

GoFundMe, why don’t you?

I must confess to a new addiction: grazing around on GoFundMe to see what folks are looking for.

Some of the stories are heart-breaking: sick babies whose parents need to give up their jobs to move themselves to a place where those kiddos can get treatment; loving dads killed by drunk drivers; the poor community that wants to get instruments for their band kids; adorable pooches who need surgery; scholarship and loan money that doesn’t cover the entire nut for the student who’s the first in the family to have a shot at college; a touching, do-good memorial set up to honor someone who just died. I saw a sweet one recently where some “kids” set up a page as a tribute for their mother’s 90th birthday, asking folks to contribute to her favorite charity.
Really, I love the idea of a 21st century rent-party, an online “time” (as they call it around here), in which the hat can get passed a lot further than it could when you could count on only those nearest and/or dearest to you to help out. And the hat gets passed further still if, in your misfortune, you’re fortunate enough to make it into the national news.

I’m always a bit amazed when some of the “good causes” take off (with or without the national exposure), while some that seem equally worthy (to me at least) seem to die on the vine.

In any case, when it comes to the “good causes,” I’m trying no to be too judgmental about the ones that seem to have been entirely avoidable if someone had exercised a scintilla of common sense or restraint. Hey, we all do boneheaded things on occasion, and a good many of us could do with a bail out now and again.

But what really amazes me is not the “good causes” – well funded or not - but what can only be called, more or less, the “greed causes” and the “moi causes.”

Having buried my husband just last year, I know that last rites don’t come cheap. Even if you don’t have to spring for a casket and plot, it can add up. The average cost of a funeral in the US is between $7K and $10K, and I get that a lot of people don’t have that in their cookie jar. So when people try to raise money to defray funeral expenses, I’m good with it. But when they’re looking to raise $20K or $25K for a really big send off, I have to ask myself, really? Yes, it might be nice to get mom a $5,000 casket, but if you can only afford the Boot Hill pine box for $250, well, dead is dead. And dad might have loved a really fancy party after the funeral, but if you can’t afford the sit down in the nice restaurant, what’s wrong with coffee and donuts in the church hall?

Looking for a ton of money to put on a funeral strikes me as a bit greedy.

Maybe the ones who’re after $20 or $25K have a lot of out of town relatives they want to fly in.

Honestly, I don’t know why this bugs me – especially given that the folks looking to float the expensive funerals seldom make anywhere near their goal. (Not always the case, but most of the ones I’ve seen come up short.)

But those looking to cover funeral costs do have grief in their defense, and a lot of the pages seem to be set up by someone who sincerely wants to “do something” to help out friends or family members in a real time of crisis and need.

It’s the pure “moi causes” that truly astound me.

Yes, I see that you can only afford to invite 80 guests to your wedding, so you’re trying to shake the trees for enough to add another 20 or 40 friends. Well, I wouldn’t want to see you charge your guests, but – see above – there’s always coffee and donuts in the church hall. Or you can ask everyone to bring a tray of lasagna or a batch of brownies.

Then there’s the woman who wants help so that, on her wedding day, she can be treated like a princess for once in her life.

Well, wouldn’t we all. But sometimes we have to settle for the plastic tiara, rather than start rattling the tin cup for $10K.

How can anyone expect strangers to help them pay for their dream weddings?

Maybe the “moi” folks are really just looking for money from friends and family, and GoFundMe is convenient. (It’s also public, so we can whether grammy put a $5 or a $50 in the envelope…)

My favorites are the ones I’ve seen where college students want help to fund a semester abroad. Or their “dream” summer trip. Sorry, with luck, London will still be there in a few years after you save up.

At least I haven’t seen anyone yet ballsy enough to ask for help with their kitchen reno. (Hmmmmm.)

Okay, now that I’ve vented my spleen a bit, I will have to further confess that, while I have rarely opened my wallet to anything or anyone on GoFundMe, I do fantasize about being able to top off the requests of the “good causes” that manage to tug at my heart. So the bullied boy can go to choir school. So the cutie-pie lab can get a leg prosthesis. So the woman who works with the poor can replace the car a tree just crashed down on…

Now that would be fun.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Doomsday preppers, Boston style. (My kind of worry warts)

I haven’t watched it in a while – it may not even be on any longer – but there used to be a show on National Geographic called Doomsday Preppers. My husband, who had an extraordinarily good track record when it came to identifying junky television shows that I would get immediately hooked on, stumbled on this one, and we became avid watchers.

The folks profiled were survivalists who did things like build their own hand-cranked bullet making machines so they’d be ready if a volcano erupted in Missouri. Most preppers lived in the middle of nowhere, or in a suburb close by to the middle of nowhere, but occasionally there were urban preppers. There was one young woman who lived in view of the Utah State House, and she was, as I recall, stocking up on toilet paper, lentils, and guns for the day when martial law was declared in Utah and they came to take her guns away. Another was a guy who lived in Manhattan, who had an excellent plan to get his family out of the city and into their safe house on Long Island in case of disaster. Unfortunately, the plan involved driving. I’m not sure how this fellow thought he was going to gather up the wife and kids, grab the survival packs, and head for Montauk before everyone else in the city figured something was up and hopped in their cars, but I’m guessing if Godzilla or the body snatchers invaded Manhattan, the only way to get out would be to walk from roof to roof of cars (including Yellow Cabs and Ubers) as they were gridlocked. (Worst case scenario: Godzilla attacks on Friday afternoon in the summer.)

Jim and I were doomsday preppers of another sort. If something so cataclysmic happened that only serious preppers were going to survive, then we wanted to figure out how to be at ground zero for the cataclysm.

Anyway, we watched the show for a while, and then we let it go, sidetracked, I suspect, by our own personal doomsday challenges with Jim’s cancer, about which all the lentils, water supplies, and bullet-making machines in the world weren’t going make any survival difference whatsoever.


These days, the only doomsday I’m prepping for is the day the boys arrive with their sledge hammers to demolish my kitchen and bathrooms. Which is not to say that I don’t spend a few minutes here and there worry-warting about what’s to come, existentially speaking.

Some of this is purely selfish: will the rising ocean levels turn the flat of Beacon Hill, where I live, back to the seas from whence it came before I sell my condo, making me look like a chump for waiting. Not to mention rendering my upcoming reno project valueless.

But some of my worrying is general-purpose worrying about calving glaciers, and rising temps, and worsening storms, and militarized police forces, and gun nuts in general, and fundamentalists of all stripes, and how average folks are going to make a living when technologists figure out how to get technology to do whatever is us average folks do now.

Since misery – or dire existential musings – loves company, I was delighted to find that our area has plenty of thinkers who are actually trying to parse through all the Big Questions.

Nicolas Miailhe can’t stop thinking about the robot that’s going to take your job. And it’s not just robots that concern him, it’s also the contractor working for the latest Uber-like disruptor that plans to take over your industry. He’s also contemplating what will happen to our genetic sequences when we hand them over to doctors who promise personalized medicine, and how that data could fuel a new age of eugenics if it lands in the wrong hands. But he, of course, realizes that all of this worry will be for naught if climate change makes Earth unlivable.

Miailhe isn’t some crazy on the fringe of society. He is a student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and he belongs to just one of the serious groups around Boston that are devoting their brainpower to preparing for the technological crises of the future. (Source: Boston Globe/betaboston).

Miailhe’s group, which he cofounded last fall, is named the Future Society. They’re aim is to get Harvard to address more of the techn-crises questions in their research and classrooms. Fight fiercely, Nicolas Mialihe! (Mialihe, by the way, is no tin-foil-hat wearer. Here’s his Linked In resume.)

Then there’s the Future of Life Institute “
which is channeling its energy to the risks posed by artificial intelligence.”

Richard Mallah, an FLI core member and an artificial intelligence, or AI, researcher, says we should expect to see computers with the intelligence of a “well-rounded” human within this century.

Mallah is no slouch, either. Fortunately for us, he’s got his non-slouchiness focused on the issues of the day:

If intelligent machines don’t understand human priorities and ethics, they could make decisions that are disastrous for society. Misguided computers could harm us even without driving our cars or operating our weapons — though they’ll be doing those things, too.

FLI isn’t a bunch of nerds sitting around fretting on days when it’s too hot or cold to go out for Ultimate Frisbee. They have some serious money – most from Elon Musk, who cares deeply about this stuff.

…the FLI awarded about $7 million this month to groups researching AI safety…The winners’ research topics will include building AI systems that can learn about human values, explain their decisions to us, and police themselves.

Then there’s the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, which is at BU. Their focus is on environmental issues, like land use, and on the future of cities.

Pardee Director Anthony Janetos, who “doesn’t let doomsday threats bother him” has this to say:

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to fail. It doesn’t mean that there’s no point in trying,” he says. “I have more important things to do than sit around worrying.”

I’m taking my cue from Janetos. No more sitting around worrying. Instead, I’m going to clean out the cabinets in my office. Anyone need any floppy disks?

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Let the home renovation begin! (No going back now.)

In mid September, the wrecking ball – metaphorically – gets brought on, and Operation Reno begins. When it’s over, I’ll have a new kitchen, two new bathrooms, and a lot of little things that needed to be fixed fixed. (Yes, beloved guests, come November, you’ll actually be able to use a doorknob to close the upstairs bathroom door, and a handrail to hang on to as you make it down the narrow staircase with the tricky corners. This means I’ll be able to throw out the “special hat”, a pair of dusty Mouseketeer ears that my niece Molly would put on when she used the stairs. “I am careful, Diggy,” she would tell my husband. “I wear my special hat for the tricky corners.”)

Beyond painting and can’t-live-without-it repairs, I’m new to home reno, but those or you who’ve taken  the sledge hammer to a wall or two will recognize that, when it comes to picking stuff out, there’s too damned much choice

Shouldn’t a shower head be a shower head? Is not a toilet a toilet? And, seriously, folks, don’t all tiles tend to look the same after you’ve looked through five thousand samples?

Wasn’t life simpler when you could just go to the floor store and look through three choices of linoleum and pick the one you liked? But, alas, it’s not like I can follow in my grandmother’s footsteps and tack down a linoleum rug remnant here and there. (Nanny’s idea of a home reno was pretty much patching whatever piece of the kitchen floor had worn through. Thus her kitchen was a crazy quilt of mis-matched, multi-colored linoleum pieces, tacked over each other, all different heights and lengths. Walking through that kitchen could be quite precarious, sort of like walking on the deck of a mid-19th century coffin ship, in the middle of the Atlantic, in the middle of a squall. Whee…)

Too many cabinet styles to look at. Too many faucets. Too many paint colors. Too many appliances.

I did my preliminary appliance shopping with my friend Peter, who’s also redoing his kitchen. We were browsing the fridge section when I turned the corner before he did. “Come here,” I hollered. “Get a load of this.” “This” was a Sub-Zero fridge the size of my kitchen. It would have been just the thing to load up with a deer haunch or two.

The tile store was another revelation. Wouldn’t all white subway tile be created equal? But, no. The white subway tile that costs $3.95 a square foot has only one chair rail choice, and it’s boring. The white subway tile that costs $8.95 a box has all sorts of trim choices. Naturally, my eye fell on the one trim choice that costs the most – $8.95 for a measly 6” piece.

What the hell. It’s only money…

I rationalize: I’m still working. (I told my contractor that, because of this project, I’ll have to work five years longer and/or die five years sooner.) I tell myself that I’ll get it back when I sell. I own up to the fact that we didn’t do anything in 25 years here except sitting there pinching ourselves that we lived in a swank address with an over-the-top fabulous LR (intricate plaster medallion ceiling, gorgeous wood paneling, an extraordinary fireplace) of the kind they just don’t make any more.

Ah, we’d tell each other, not bad for a couple of kids who started life in a tilo-covered house on the wrong side of the tracks in Bellows Falls, VT (Jim), and a flat in my grandmother’s three decker overlooking a used car lot and a Sunoco station (Maureen).

In the next few weeks, I’ll be finalizing my choices for pretty much everything, with a bit of breathing room before I have to choose paint colors.

Too much choice, too much choice, too much choice. (And don’t get me going on Houzz and Pinterest.)

Fortunately, there were things that I never even bothered to consider, mostly because I didn’t know of their existence.

Okay, I was aware of Gaggenau ranges, but there was no danger that someone who doesn’t cook was going to pay $8K for a Gaggenau steam oven (whatever that is) or a Wood Stone hearth pizza oven that costs $17K. (Both Peter and I are going with induction cooktops, which will work out, because he’s a good cook and is going to teach me how to use the darned thing so I can at least boil water and scramble eggs. The drag about the induction cook top is that you have to have pans with magnetic bottoms. I don’t. So now there are pots and pans to buy…)

Anyhow, I read about the pricey items above in an article in
Forbes on Pirch, a high-end kitchen-bath place. The nearest one to me is in Paramus, NJ, so there was no chance I was going to drop by and depress myself by drooling over the fabulous stuff they sell. Forget the appliances. Hey, that’s my look! That’s my feel. If only. (Not willing to work ten more years and/or die ten years sooner. Sorry. Five’s my limit.)

Not that I have anyplace to put a $25K bathtub, even if I wanted or could afford one. I’d have to give up my bedroom to fit it in. Leaving prospective purchasers of my condo asking, “I see the master bathroom, and it’s quite lovely. But where’s the master bedroom.” And the realtor would have to explain the drop-down Murphy bed that covers the $25K bathtub.

This week, I’ll be ordering the appliances, the tiles, the flooring, the bathroom fixtures, the new window shades - treatments I believe they’re called - for the LR. (Sorry, the windows in the bedroom and den will be getting whatever’s on sale at Home Depot.)

There’ll be no going back!

What am I getting myself in for????

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Vox Populi Sucks (Talk about a sucky business model…)

A week or so ago, Hiawatha Bray (over on the Boston Globe’s Beta Boston) had a column on a business called Vox Populi Registry, which has taken advantage of the opening up of all sorts of new Internet web extension, and is trying to make a business out of selling .sucks domain names.

The .sucks domain is for websites that want to launch snarky, savage attacks on a target — stupid politicians, corrupt corporations, or a certain East Coast city. Typing into your Web browser takes you to the website of [John] Berard’s company, Vox Populi Registry, where you can buy a .sucks address aimed at the victim of your choice. (Source: BetaBoston)

Yep, and if you type in, guess what? You end up on Berard’s virtual doorstep as well.

It’s a clever, creepy scheme that’s got corporations and celebrities scrambling to buy up .sucks addresses to fend off online assaults on their reputations. Some critics have labeled it a form of extortion. Berard, however, sees himself as a public benefactor, promoting the free exchange of ideas.

“Companies have been confronted often with unfounded and unfair criticism, made worse by the advent of the Internet, with all its dark corners,” said Berard.

“There ought to be a place where criticism can be seen in the full light of day,” said Berard, “a clean, well-lighted place.”

All that sounds so very, very high-minded, doesn’t at? Kind of at odds with the ho-ho-ho and come ons. I really don’t think the world needs yet another place where crude, numbnuts Bostonians and crude, numbnuts New Yorkers can catcall and response each other.

Reserving your sucks domain won’t come cheap. Us nobodies can get in for only $249 a year, which is a lot more than you’d pay for most domain names on GoDaddy. doesn’t appear to be available, but is only $27.99, and would set me back a mere $12.99. Curiously, would cost $2,495. Which, curiously, is just about what celebs and corporations are charged to contain for a year.

Apparently when new domains are introduced, “copyright holders get first crack at buying up addresses, to protect their good names.” Bray mentions Taylor Swift and Microsoft as two that took advantage of this opportunity. When you type you get address not found; when you type, you get the general Bing search page for the company. (I want to go on the record here as saying that I am a fan of Swift, and that I’m writing this on a Surface Pro 3, using Microsoft’s free and glorious app LiveWriter.)

It’s estimated that 6,000 .sucks have been purchased, which I guess isn’t a bad annuity stream ($1.5M) for doing nothing but be a nasty, terrible company. Or, in the words of ICANN, the nonprofit that wrangles domain names, Vox Populi Registry is a company with practices which are “predatory, exploitive, and coercive.” (And I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with anything that Congressman Darrell Issa says, but Bray quotes him as calling this scheme “legalized extortion.”)

In addition to the celebrity and company names:

Berard is looking to command a premium for 500 particularly repellent addresses: is available at $50.000.

Personally, I don’t see why any celebrity or company would pay $2.5K, let alone $50K to protect themselves from getting sucked. I guess $2.5K looks like chump change, so why not avoid this little bit of unpleasantness. But whether you’ve grabbed the domain or not, if someone wants to claim  that Taylor Swift, Microsoft, or Christianity sucks, there’s just nothing to stop them from ranting and raving online to their little hearts’ delight.

Anyway, I don’t see this as being much of a growth business, unless they start marketing to bullies and mean kids, in which case parents would start shelling out the $249 to keep their kids from being brutalized even more than they are already are by bullies and mean kids. After all, as Taylor Swift has told us, “Hates gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”

Meanwhile, I did take a side trip over to Berard’s sucks registry. Let the hifalutin, BS positioning begin:

By building an easy-to-locate, “central town square” available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, dotSucks is designed to help consumers find their voices and allow companies to find the value in criticism. Each dotSucks domain has the potential to become an essential part of every organization’s customer relationship management program.

As a marketer, just own it!

Then there are the taglines:

“Customer led advocacy…Freedom of speech…Focal point for customer service…Foster debate, share opinions…”

Yep. Nothing says “foster debate” and “freedom of speech” like

And then there’s the video, replete with Martin Luther King voice over, and a guest appearance by Ralph Nader, who says: 

The word ‘sucks’ is now a protest word. And it’s up to people to give it more meaning.

Wonder what Mr. Nader got in return? Perpetual rights to (Too bad that one wasn’t available in 2000, eh, Al Gore?)

Seriously, how does this guy look himself in the mirror? (Hmmmm. I don’t know whether I’m talking about Ralph Nader or John Berard here. You decide.)