Friday, April 29, 2016

Uber’s tortured logic

The first time I used Uber, I sat in the back seat, googling to see whether you were supposed to tip your Uber driver. What I came away from the google with was that, while there was no formal mechanism for tipping – and, in fact, Uber makes it clear that tipping isn’t necessary – everything out there written by Uber drivers said that tips are most welcome.

Since that first trip last fall, I’ve used Uber maybe 10 or 12 times. It’s been generally reliable, in some cases easier to get than a cab. (But not always. For some reason, cab drivers, with their primitive old-timey know-how, know how to find my address, which is on a major thoroughfare, downtown in a large city, and in the same block as a famous tourist spot, the Cheers block. Those relying on GPS or some sort of online map function, often find themselves in other parts of the city. I had one crazy back and forth with Uber. I could see on the app, that all the cars that were actually close to me were being waved off, while someone tootling around Jamaica Plain, which is maybe five miles away, was listed as one minute away and the one coming to get me.)

And, not that at least some cab drivers aren’t, but Uber drivers have been fun to talk with. Oh, yes, and they’ve all been quite appreciative of the tips I’ve given them. Ain’t nobody getting rich as an Uber driver. The tips help.

As a result of a class action suit against it, Uber has “agreed to clarify that tips are not included in its fares — an important concession that drivers hope will prompt more passengers to add a gratuity.” (The way the info on tipping is framed on the Uber app, one might be lead to believe that everything’s all inclusive. Which it is. It’s just that there’s not any concept of a tip factored into the prices that Uber charges.)

What Uber drivers would like the company to do is to add a tip function, so that their often cash-free clientele can add a bit extra.

For some reason, Uber doesn’t want to do this. Maybe they think it will at least psychologically translate into a fare increase, which will undermine their low, low price image. Maybe they figure ‘why bother?’ given that all the human drivers will go away once Uber gets their hands on the self-driving cars they’re so keen on.

But Uber is framing their reasons in grandiose, academic, moral high-horse terms:

Tipping is inherently unfair because of customers’ unconscious racial biases.

The transportation network company’s stance is based in part on an academic study that found white restaurant servers earned larger tips, on average, than black servers who provided equally good service...

The Uber spokesman, who declined to make a company official available for an interview, said introducing widespread tipping would make drivers’ overall compensation dependent on those same racial biases…(Source: Boston Globe)

Okay. So drivers can’t be provided with a better, easier way to get their tips – and the only way to get a tip from one of the rising generation for whom carrying cash is the ‘what’s in your wallet?’ equivalent of wearing a bustle, driving a flivver, and using a rotary phone – because a study of the restaurant biz showed that blacks get lower tips? Sounds like BS to me.

But while I may call BS, there is a counterpoint of sorts offered:

Michael Sturman, a coauthor of the 2008 Cornell study, acknowledged drivers’ frustrations. But he said multiple studies have found tips are more strongly correlated with gender, race, and attractiveness than performance.

“Companies often use tips as a way of passing compensation costs on to the consumer,” he said. “The problem is that you don’t have any control over whether violations of [antidiscrimination laws] are occurring. So there’s a lot of discomfort for companies to say they’re going to use a pay system that we know depends on race and gender, which is illegal.”

Which sounds as if he believes that any service that involves tipping should do away with tipping, as it may be allowing their customers to explicitly or implicitly discriminate. Once again, I call BS. Uber’s grabbing on to this as part of their reasoning seems like tortured logic at best.

I’d be fine with doing away with tipping if everyone just upped their prices by 20% and FULLY PASSED THE EXTRA 20% ON TO THE SERVER. Having been a waitress, I would say that just raising the hourly pay to the minimum wage wouldn’t have made me happy. I was fine getting the sub-minimum pittance, as long as I could make tips. Some days were good days, some were awful. But mostly it balanced out on the side of making more than minimum wage. I expect my experience was not unique, regardless of the color of the server. I don’t know many folks who would opt for the guaranteed minimum wage if they could make more with tips.

I haven’t been a cab driver. Do they even get paid hourly? Uber drivers sure don’t. But I imagine that most of them – Uberista or cabbie -  like getting tips.

Sure, it’s not great to hear that black servers may get worse tips than white servers. But that’s a problem that’s pretty deeply rooted in our society, and it won’t be uprooted by getting rid of tipping.

Anyway, I will continue to tip Uber drivers, just as I do cabbies, and I’d say that my tipping habits are pretty colorblind. But just to make sure, I’ll try to make note of what my impulse tip is for white drivers vs. black drivers. What I do suspect I’ll find is that I’d tip a woman Uber driver more than a man Uber driver, therefore being guilty of gender discrimination.

Since they won’t allow a tip function on their app, for Uber drivers, those tips will be in cash, since I am fuddy-duddy and bustle-wearing enough to still carry.

But I may not be using Uber for much longer.

Lyft has a tip function.

Think I’ll download their app next time I’m out and about.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Churner by marriage

There are many, many things that I miss about my husband. But coming home and finding yet another filled in credit card application, ready for me to sign, is not one of them.

Was my husband someone who racked up credit card debt, and needed to get new cards going so he could rob – or borrow – from Peter to pay off Paul?


I don’t think Jim ever borrowed a dime in his life, and he fully paid off every bill that came in the door the minute it came in the door.

But what Jim was was a frequent flyer miles junky who used points accumulated via credit cards to make sure he never paid for a flight anywhere.

There’s a name for what Jim did, I have learned, and it’s credit card churning.

How it works is pretty simple: You get an offer for a new credit card, promising 50,000 miles if you sign up – as long as you spend, say, $1K a month on the card for three months. Once you hold up your end of the bargain by spending that $1K a month, and you take possession of the miles, you cut the card up. And apply for the next one that comes along.

Compared to the folks who are serious churners, Jim was something of an amateur. While Jim might have a half dozen or so active cards at any given time, the real churners may be juggling dozens of them. One couple profiled in a recent Bloomberg article had “43 cards, not counting more than 20 they’ve opened and closed in the past few years.”

Juggling so many credit cards and rewards programs can be a huge undertaking. You need to meet each card’s spending requirements, track changes to the fine print of all your programs, make sure you’ve got the money to cover bills with due dates spread across each month, and keep up with new card offers. Leppar and Miller both say they spend an hour or more a day on their hobby. [Shawn] Coomer, 34 and now a full-time travel blogger, keeps all his cards—about 25, for now—in a binder and uses a complex spreadsheet to track their due dates, spending requirements, and annual fees. He logs in to each card issuer’s website regularly and constantly looks for fresh offers, opening an average of 15 cards a year. (Source: Bloomberg)

Jim didn’t keep binders or complex spreadsheets, and, as frequently as I felt he was asking me to sign up for yet another card I didn’t want I don’t think we averaged any 15 cards per year. But Jim was a detail-oriented guy, and he kept good records, including info on the dates when he could apply for a new card from a bank that he’d already dumped. And we did accumulate a ton of miles.

Jim also liked Capital One points – I do, too; Capital One is one of the few credit cards I hold – and one of his final points coups happened a couple of months before he died, when we charged a new $15K HVAC system and got showered with points. (I think there was a two-for-one promo on or something. I’ll say this for Jim, he didn’t let a brain tumor stop his brain from churning.)

The trick, of course, is to not get in over your head, and not to incur all sorts of debt that you can’t afford to pay off – all so that you can make oodles of reward miles or points.

A recent study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston showed that when borrowing limits go up, consumers generally can’t help themselves from using every last cent of their extra credit. As churners try to put everything they possibly can on their credit cards, down to rent and utilities if possible, they can also be tempted to buy things they don’t need.

For the record, we did need that new HVAC system.

Alas – for churners, anyway – there are rumors in churner-ville that the big banks are going be cracking down and cutting off the credit card flow to anyone who’s “applied for five other cards in the past 24 months.” That would be my husband. And, under his wing, me when I came home and found one of those filled in applications waiting my signature, or later, awaiting my email confirmation.

As I said, there are plenty of things I miss about my husband, but being a churner-by-marriage isn’t one of them.

Nonetheless, sigh…

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Non-cash and carry

For years now, I’ve been making silent fun whenever I see one of the young folk paying for something that cost, say, $1.49 with a debit or credit card. I really just don’t understand why someone would not just use cash for small purchases. I’m all for prepaid Dunkin cards and my T pass. I’m all for credit cards. I’m all for the ATM. I’m all for ordering online. I’m all for paying for my groceries with my debit card. So it’s not as if I don’t go in for electronic transactions. And I’m not advocating for a return of the gold standard. It’s just that I can’t stand the idea of trusting all things financial to the miracles of technology and science. It’s good to have some cash around. (Isn’t it?)

Oh, I know, I know, if the entire digital infrastructure crashed and burned, it probably wouldn’t help to have four twenty-dollar bills and a change bucket full of pennies. I suspect that, if all systems were no-go, chaos would reign and it wouldn’t matter it you had a roll of quarters on you or not. Someone would soon be breaking down my door for a couple of cans of soup and a jar of peanut butter.

Yet it remains unsettling to see one more part of the realm become ever more incrementally taken over by the non-cash world.

Just the other day, I got to see for myself how much I’m going to like it. Or not.

I was in Boston’s Back Bay, walking past a CVS, when I remembered that I was out of milk. Of course, I could have gone to a grocery store, but most of them were out of my way. And the one that wasn’t so much out of my way – a small shop just around the corner, a 20 second walk from my home – is one that, for a variety of reasons, I just plain don’t like. I will occasionally make a desperation purchase there. And it is easier to lug an 8-pack of Diet Coke from 20 seconds away, rather than from 10 minutes away. But mostly I avoid this store like the plague. Come to think of it, one of the reasons I avoid it is fear of catching the plague…

Anyway, there I was needing milk. And there CVS was, with, I was pretty sure, milk for sale.

So I went in and grabbed a pint, and headed to one of the self-check out kiosks to self-check out.

The first clutch of kiosks all had signs that said “Debit/Credit  Purchases Only.” So I went to the next pod. Same deal.

A helpful CVS employee came over to tell me that, if I wanted to pay cash, I had to go through a register manned by a human being.

I’m all for human beings (mostly). But there was a line. And I really didn’t fell like waiting in line to purchase a pint of milk for $1.49. In fact, I liked the idea of waiting in line to pay in cash even less than I liked the idea of not waiting in line, but having to pay with a credit or debit card. Thus I found myself at the self-checkout register, self-checking myself out, paying with a credit card. (Although I do have enough in my bank account to cover a $1.49 purchase, for some reason – possibly the idea of using my pin – I just didn’t want to pay with my bank card.)

There’s plenty that we’re going to have to answer to the millennial generation for-  college debt, the environment, decaying infrastructure, not to mention developing the foundation for all the glorious technology they’re so smitten with – so maybe this ‘just say no’ to cash annoyance is their little way of getting back at us.

Me? This is one aspect of our changing world that I’ve got a feeling I’m not going to like.




Tuesday, April 26, 2016

On the Waterfront

One of my all-time favorite movies is On the Waterfront. Marlon Brando – and I’m not a huge fan – at his mumbly, heart-breaking best as Terry Malloy, the boxer turned longshoreman. You know, the guy who could have been a contender, but instead is just a bum. Then there’s Karl Malden – at this righteous, soul-stirring best as the priest who helps the longshoremen stand up to the vicious, mobbed up waterfront boss. And Lee J. Cobb as that vicious, mobbed up waterfront boss. Et al.

The acting is terrific. The setting authentic – the movie was filled on the Jersey waterfront, not in a Hollywood back lot. (This was a time when most films weren’t made on location.) The plot tough and gritty. The black and white cinematography just perfect.

I haven’t seen On the Waterfront in a good ten or so years. Maybe I’d find it overblown. But my memories of watching it are vivid, strong and positive.

Longshoreman is one of those jobs that’s been going buggy-whip since the advent of container shipping. And it’s about to get worse.

At one end of a dock at America’s busiest port, tractor-trailers haul containers through dense, stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes they collide. Sometimes the drivers must wait, diesel engines idling, as piles are unstacked to find the specific container they need.

A few hundred yards away, advanced algorithms select the most efficient pathway for autonomous carriers to move containers across the wharf. The four-story-high orange machines cradle their cargo, passing quietly within inches of each other, at speeds as fast as 18 miles an hour, but never touching. Self-driving cranes on tracks stack the containers and then deliver them to waiting trucks and trains with minimal human intervention.

TraPac LLC’s Los Angeles marine-cargo facility demonstrates how autonomous technology could revolutionize freight transport as much as or more than personal travel. TraPac’s equipment doubles the speed of loading and unloading ships, saving money and boosting profits. Their impact is rivaling that of containerization, which eliminated most manual sorting and warehousing on docks after World War II. (Source: Bloomberg)

This will be good news for the environment, as there’ll be less idling time for trucks to do their diesel-spewing as they wait for the containers to get loaded. It will, of course, be a boon for the companies that produce the equipment. Not to mention to the port facilities that will no longer have to deal with as many human beings. (Who wants and needs them?)

In truth, automation on the waterfront has been going on for a quite a while. And, to some degree, the longshoremen have been able to resist some of the efforts to do away with the human element. But, surely, the handwriting’s on the wall. More automation = fewer people needed. And that is not, of course, limited to longshoremen.

All this automation is, of course, cool.

Any day now, we’ll have autonomous cars and trucks and trains and boats and planes. Which not only means that we can sit back and enjoy our commute by texting without guilt, it also means that the world will need fewer truck drivers and fewer engineers and fewer captains and fewer pilots. It also means fewer Uber drivers: Uber has an order in for the first half-million self-driving cars that roll off the (automated) assembly line. Thanks for playing, Uber drivers, thanks for playing.

We did not, as an economy, do an especially good job at planning for what should have been the obvious outcome of so much manufacturing moving overseas: people who worked in factories lost decent-paying jobs. Yes, indeed, many communities – and I live in one – can congratulate themselves for having replaced those odious, low-end manufacturing jobs with jobs of the future in technology, healthcare and financial services. And weren’t we the lucky ones that so much of our crappy manufacturing (think shoes and clothing) went South long ago enough to have made an adjustment before globalization began? But there are plenty of communities that got just plain hollowed-out, and for them the replacement jobs have been lousier and less well paid than what left when the washing machine and air conditioning plants upped-stakes and moved to China. For these places, the brave new world opportunities are working as a prison guard, or at the landfill, or in Wal-Mart.

I saw some of this up close and personal this past weekend, when I spent a few days in upstate NY, “out west”, which is really where the Rust Belt begins.

So what are we going to do about all the jobs – more blue collar jobs like longshoremen, and plenty of white collar jobs thanks to AI – that are going to disappear over the next few decades? Make that what are we going to do about all those people in all those jobs. Let the market take care of it? We’ve seen how well that’s worked for the folks who used to work in factories but now run meth labs our of a shack in their back yard. (And, no, taking care of old ladies in nursing homes will not be for everyone.)

We’ve got lots of crumbling infrastructure to rebuild, for starters.

I’m guessing that longshoremen displaced by automation could help out there.

What’s the plan, Stan, for when automation fully takes over on the waterfront?

Monday, April 25, 2016


I just got back from a long getaway weekend. The getaway was with my sister, and we got away to upstate NY to visit her daughter, who is in college there. We stayed in a comfy old house that used to be a B&B until they decided not to offer the second B. Fine by us. Any town with a lot of colIege kids is going to have a number of places where you can get a pretty good breakfast.

I will probably have some sort of “real” getaway vacation this year, but this is it for now.

Or so I was thinking until I got home and saw an article on Bloomberg on Getaway, a young Boston-based company that has a novel vacation concept, one that is based on one of my favorite things: the tiny house.

Somewhere, in rural locations outside of Boston, there are three 160-square foot houses just a couple of hours away. (In June, there’ll be Getaway cabins for NYC as well.) For $99 a night, you get a tiny house getaway.

Hook Number One is that there’s nothing to do once you get to your tiny house except commune with yourself, nature, and whatever companion you’ve brought along (included a 4-legged one for an extra $15). There’s no wifi or TV, and only spotty  cell phone service. For emergencies there’s a landline. Needless to say, there’s no room service, but the tiny houses are stocked with provisions (like pasta and pasta sauce, beef jerky, s’mores mix) that you can buy on the honor system.

The toilets run out of space after 15 flushes, so if you’re there with a full house – some cabins sleep up to 4 – you probably don’t want to spend more than a night there, enjoying life in the woods. Unless you’re happy with enjoying life in the woods the old-fashioned slit-trench and poison ivy way.

Hook Number Two: you don’t learn the secret location until 24-48 hours before your reservation time. All you know is that public transportation and a small town won’t be that far away, and that you’re in for a “stripped-down adventure.”

Which, as it turns out, a lot of people are interested in being in for. The Boston houses are fully booked through July, and Saturday nights are booked up until December.

“I like to call it the anti-vacation,” said Chief Executive Officer Jon Staff, who launched Getaway with his friend Pete Davis, a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

For the past half-century, the American vacation model was to spend a small fortune to fly to a faraway place to which the vacationers would likely never go back, said Staff, 28, who is completing an MBA at Harvard Business School. “You’re probably only going to go there once, so you feel incredible pressure to do lots of things." Now that Americans work longer hours and spend their nights and weekends chained to handheld devices, there’s less call for capital-V "Vacations" and more for basic respite, he said.(Source: Bloomberg)

“Basic respite” aside, Getaway is also used by those who want to see just what tiny house living is like before deciding to go minimalist, forsaking his and her sinks, walk-in closets, and things like privacy, to own a tiny home of their own. Which is why I’d be tempted to try one out.

Not that I’m ever going to have a tiny house. I’m too much of a city girl for that. Where would you plunk a tiny house in downtown Boston?

But, in truth, much as I’d like to a Getaway anti-vacation, I’m also too much of a city girl to be comfortable out in the sticks where I couldn’t see any other human habitation. I don’t care if I’m just a jog away from public transportation and small town whatever. Being in a cabin in the woods would creep me out, unless I took the full house option (plus dog), so that there would be enough of us to have at least two night watchmen/women on duty.

Cities don’t scare me, but the little house in the big woods sure does.

Many years ago – in a time before mobile phones – my sisters and I rented a house on a lake outside Worcester, and we rotated in and out with friends and family, so that at any given time, there were at least two of us there overnight.

Other than the fact that the walls to the bathroom didn’t extend all the way up, making it a bit difficult to achieve any privacy, the place was quite nice.

That was the good news.

The bad news was that there was no one around, and, come nightfall, the surrounds were pitch black and scary. No landline, either. To make a call, you had to walk a couple of miles down a pitch black, winding, narrow, rutted dirt road, to the spot outside an auto body shop where there was a pay phone.

Oh, there was a house next door, but the owners were on vacation. They’d left their two dogs, Doberman pinschers named Rocky and Erica, behind. Someone came over to feed them during the day, but Rocky and Erica had the run of the place, thanks to a dog door that this duo made frequent use of throughout the night. The clatter made by their entrances and exits made it all but impossible for me to listen to what I really wanted to keep my ear out for, which was the arrival of an ax murderer with my name on his blade.

I guess in case of an emergency, one of us could have risked the wrath of Rocky and Erica and slithered in through the dog door to use the neighbors landline.

For me, this was an almost entirely sleepless vacation, other than the day time napping.

So much as I’d like to experience tiny house living and make my way to a getaway, I guess I’m just too much of a chicken. Not to mention that I’m just too much of a non-hipster, and thus am not the demo being targeted here.

Nonetheless, I think the idea is a fun one, and I wish the founders well. Maybe I’ll wait until next year, and book one for late June. I can check in at 3 p.m., enjoy tiny house living until 7:45 p.m., and make my way back to safety before dark.

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Gig Economy? Yes and no.

There was an article in The Boston Globe the other day on the gig economy. I really wasn’t going to read it. What would it have to say that I didn’t already know up close and personal, after more than a decade of loadin’ my 16 tons on a freelance basis?

I was not surprised that there were no surprises, although I found the profession of the gigster that was first mentioned as an exemplar of free-lancery an odd one. I mean, can a professional stunt performer in Boston work on anything other than an occasional basis? Oh, sure, there are some films made here, but we’re not exactly Hooray for Hollywood territory.

I’m pretty sure there are more gig economy workers doing tech work, writing brochures, or driving for Uber than there are stunt men.

According to a 2014 study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million Americans are independent workers, about 34 percent of the total workforce. A study from Intuit predicts that by 2020, 40 percent of US workers will fall into this category. (Source: Boston Globe)

For some of us, the growth of the gig economy has been a boon.

When I jumped corporate ship I was dee-lighted to be out of the commuting, managing, and politicking fray. And thrilled that I was able to immediately find work through my network, without having to do any self-promoting, me-branding or glad-handing. I’m fortunate in that my work has just pretty much shown up when I needed it.

And most of the folks I know who are freelancers are just as happy with it as not. Which is apparently in keeping with others:

According to the Freelancers Union, a 300,000-plus member nonprofit, nearly nine in 10 of its members surveyed said they would not return to a traditional job if given the chance.

Nonetheless, the freelancers lot is not necessarily a happy one. You’re on your own for benefits – health insurance, vacation, the company holiday party – and when you’re goldbrickin’, you’re goldbrickin’ on your own dime.

Most likely, unless you’re on a long term contract, your income is not going to be even from one month to the next. And you’re subject to the bureaucratic accounts payable whims of your clients. On that front, I’ve been spectacularly fortunate. Several of my clients pay net 15. Another’s somewhere between 45 and 60, which is predictable enough.

I did have one client that announced with great flourish that they were going onto a new payment system “for the convenience of our vendors.” Now, how a payment system that went from paying in 30 days to paying in 70-90 days can be positioned as for the payee’s convenience rather than that of the payer is beyond me.

But to me the real downside of the gig economy is that it’s more difficult to build relationships with folks if you’re not actually working with them, day in, day out. Some of my closest friendships were forged at work. I’m sure that’s true for many people. Yes, I have made a couple of reasonably strong friendships with my clients, but most of the relationships are just not the same.

Full-time work is where I also built the network that has always been the source of my freelance projects. I didn’t build this network consciously. The folks I’ve found my work through were the people I liked; some of them are true friends-for-life.

Plus, full-time work is where I developed the skills that enabled me to make a living as a free-lancer. I’m not talking about being able to write. That I could do before I entered the workforce. But the ability to write about technology, to develop messaging, to understand markets, to “get” the B2B enterprise world, etc. That’s all stuff that I learned on the job. And that’s where I’ve made my living once I decided to jump out of corporate and into gig world.

I might have been able to cobble together a living as a writer without knowing anything about technology – but it wouldn’t have been in technology companies. So would not, quite frankly, have been as rewarding monetarily as scrambling about looking for any-old-writing project would have been.

And I wouldn’t have had that wonderful network of mine. I’d have to have built “my brand”, be perpetually on the lookout for opportunities, and other things I didn’t have to do, thanks to all those years in the full-time world.

I feel bad for “the kids” who won’t have the chance to ever experience a full-time job. Who won’t be able to make those friends, develop those skills, and, frankly, drive your self nuts by getting emotionally invested and all swept up in the meshugas of the workplace.

I do have supreme confidence that they’ll figure something out. But good luck to them. I think they’re going to need it.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Home Ec meets 3D printing

My mother was a pretty fair seamstress, and she made a lot of clothing for me and my sisters.

Of course, just as I always craved “store-bought” cake, which we had in our house once or twice a year (my father had a tremendous sweet tooth, and my mother did scratch baking several times a week), I always craved “store-bought” clothing. As great as everything looked in the pattern book, a home made outfit wasn’t quite couture. Not that something bought off the rack was, either. Still, at least it had the potential of looking like what everyone else was wearing. I say potential because it was just as likely that what my mother bought for us when we did get something she hadn’t made was some sort of off brand. Like that Anderson Little suit that sort of looked like a John Meyer of Norwich. But not quite.

Unlike my mother, and both of my sisters (who still whip up curtains on occasion), I never really learned to sew. The one item I made, a sort of hang-around the house muumuu, had a crooked yoke.

Learning to sew, however, was pretty much a staple requirement for girls during my youth. All of my friends could sew a bit. For starters, we could all sew on buttons, make minor repairs, and hem a skirt. And most of us at least learned the rudiments of cutting out a pattern and working a Singer sewing machine.

I took sewing lessons at the Girls’ Club.

And I was aware that there was something out there called “Home Economics” that public school girls took at some point during high school, while the boys went off and learned how to build a bird house in “Shop.” Catholic schools, in my universe, didn’t go in for Home Ec. Maybe we were too close, generation-wise, to having been maids, seamstresses, cooks, and cleaning ladies. Let those swanky Protestant girls whose grandmothers hadn’t scrubbed floors in the New Country learn how to clean in high school. We would take Latin instead.

I’m guessing that at this point in time, the arrival of boatloads of cheap clothing items has done away with the need to learn to sew. Why toil for valuable hours that could be spent on Snapchat to make a dress you could get at H&M for $20, wear twice, and toss out?

And now, on the horizon, is 3D printing of clothing.

So far, it’s used for the hautest of haute couture, destined for display at the Met’s Costume Institute, clothing that cannot actually be worn by anyone, even if they could afford it to begin with.

But it’s heading our way.

When that happens, “it can be as revolutionary as the sewing machine,” said Andrew Bolton, Manus x Machina’s [Met exhibit] curator. “It means you can 3D print your dress to your exact measurements at home.”

Couture clothes, in the traditional fashion industry definition, are “items made for you, that fit your body,” Bolton explained. Usually that means the garments are expensive, rare, and difficult to obtain. But with 3D printing, this extravagance will move into any home that has a printer. “Because it has the ability to mould exactly to your measurements, it’s environmentally friendly, too” Bolton said. “There’s no waste, whereas there’s always waste with textiles.” (Source: Bloomberg)

So far, most of what’s getting 3D printed is not exactly wearable, unless you’re interested in wearing something highly structured and inflexible. Forget that comfy jersey dress, or even an uncomfortable Lyrca club mini. Forget that flowing, drapey crepe number. The chiffon bridesmaid dress. Body armor is more like it.

But the “early adopters” are working on hard goods: jewelry, footwear, eyewear, pocket books.

Just think, by the time all those self-driving cars are out there, ready to take us shopping, there’ll be no need to actually go shopping. Admittedly, a lot of our shopping is online. But most of us still have occasion to go into a brick and mortar and buy physical goods. We want to see what’s out there. We want to see what’s on sale. We want to do some impulse buying. We want it now.

Before we know it, now will actually be now. Push a button and watch your 3D printer whip you up a little black dress, a new pair of jeans.

Who needs home ec?

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What to name the baby

If it had been up to me, I would never have named myself Maureen.

It’s not the ethnic-ness that bothers me. If I’d had children, I might well have gone the ethnic-naming route (only mine would have been more au-tentic). It’s probably the “een-i-ness” of the name. Who wants a name that’s a perpetual diminutive, Maureen being Irish for “little Mary”? Not to mention that, while Maureen as a name has gone the way of Bertha and Ethel, it was very popular in my time and place. I was one of 6 or 8 Maureen’s in my high school class. Everyone else was pretty much named Kathleen (which is my sister’s name; my other sister avoided the direct “een” hit – her middle name, however, is Eileen).

But, hey, my parents’ kids were theirs to name.

I do think that figuring out what to name the baby must be one of the most fun things that expectant parents do. Oh, I’m sure that the task has its ups and downs, not to mention all the arm chair quarterbacks with their own suggestions. Still, it must be a great pleasure to name that little tune of yours.

But apparently for some parents, it’s a lot more difficult than googling baby names and trying on names that go with your last name. Not to mention making sure the initials aren’t an obscenity, etc. These folks turn to professionals for help.

They can consult the work of Albert Mehrabian, a UCLA professor emeritus of psychology who’s come up with a method for scoring names along a number of dimensions, based on how people would rate someone when only their name and gender were known.

  • Ethical-Caring (e.g., trustworthy, loyal, sincere, kind, generous, respectful, warm, patient, responsible)
  • Popular-Fun (e.g., playful, humorous, cheerful, outgoing, good-looking, adventurous, athletic, healthy)
  • Successful (e.g., ambitious, intelligent, independent, confident, assertive, creative)
  • Masculine-Feminine
  • Overall Attractiveness (a statistical combination of the first three dimensions)   


I don’t know how Maureen would fare here. And in fact I don’t want to know. But I will note that, according to this scheme, a John would be deemed more successful – 9 times more successful, in fact – than a Knut. (Whaaaa? Did they leave Knute Rockne out?) And will further note that the names that achieved a perfect score were Elizabeth, James, and Steven. Perhaps that is why I would always have preferred to be named Elizabeth, which is my middle name, rather than Maureen. (I did choose my husband well, good name-wise. He was a James.)

If you don’t want to trust your own instincts, or to futz with books and survey results, you can hire a professional naming service to help you out for a fee.

Last year, Marc Hauser, who runs the Switzerland-based naming agency Erfolgswelle, went from solely serving brands to also branding children. His firm charges over $29,000 for every baby it names, devoting two to three weeks and around 100 hours of work to the process. (Source: Bloomberg)

First off, I don’t know if I’d be entrusting someone with a company called “Erfolgswelle” to name – errrr, brand – my child. Yes, it does translate from the German into ‘wave of success.’ Still…

Though Hauser thinks that approaches rating baby names strictly by data (and not emotion) are “overrated,” his firm does check to ensure that a baby name has not already been trademarked. “If it’s a little close to an existing brand name, it will not survive,” he said.

Trademarked? Trademarked? Huh? Let me three-peat myself here: Trademarked?

Who trademarks their kids’ names, I must ask.

And then the answer came to me: Jay-Z and Beyoncé, of course.

I don’t know if that means you can’t name your little darling Blue Ivy without paying Mr. and Mrs. -Z a fee, or whether it just means you can’t come out with a line of cute-kid clothing called Blue Ivy. Need to know basis only, I suppose.

Historians also vet the name to ensure it goes not have “an aggravating past.”

Hey, maybe I could be a historic name checker. Just say no to Caligula and Adolph. (Sorry, Adolph Menjou.) And Typhoid Mary’s been taken.

You don’t have to spend $29K, of course. Sherri Suzanne – a name I would rate high on Feminine and Popular with the boys – will help you out for a few hundred bucks.

“While some criteria, like name popularity, can be measured and ranked objectively, I find that other qualities, like morality of a name or likelihood for success, are very subjective and vary from person to person, community to community and particularly generation to generation,” said Suzanne. She often works with cultural experts to ensure that a proposed name suits the family’s background.

What, pray tell, is the morality of a name. I would think that most folks would realize that Liar, Bestiality and Skanky-Ho are not good choices.

Professor Mehrabian is a big believer that it’s worth paying someone to help you out. “Believe me, you don’t want to name a child with an unattractive name and have them go through life and suffer the consequences.” But something tells me that the folks who give their kids rotten names – remember those clowns who named their kids after Nazis? The ones who later lost custody for being abusive? – aren’t going to pay for someone to tell them different.

Anyway, back to the “wave of success” folks.

It turns out they’re all about originality (a la Blue Ivy).

Would you like to find a unique name for your unborn child? A wonderful first name that sounds so good that it just had to be invented? A brand-new name with an exciting derivation and unmistakable history?

We will create one for you - and for your child. (Source: Erfolgswelle)

They make sure it sounds good. That it looks good, and has a good font associated with it. (Does that mean a special font designed just for you?) That it’s in harmony with your last name. That it passes the bad word check in multiple languages. They’ll even test it out by putting a few different selections before a “large test audience.”

And – my favorite part -

We develop a credible new history and mythology around the new name.

And my other favorite part:

You receive a scientific certificate from the naming center of the University of Leipzig

While Bloomberg pegs the fee at $29K, the website states $31K. Maybe that’s with the “scientific certificate.”

So far, it doesn’t appear that they’ve actually done any pricey naming. Sure, they’ve “received many inquiries.” But, “up to now, all families want to keep the new name secret as long as possible, which we understand.”

Hmmm. Are these weasel words for ‘we haven’t actually gotten beyond an inquiry, but if you bite and let us advertise it, it’s free.”

They’re looking for an American. (I think lots of European countries have laws about what to name the baby.) And the baby has to arrive by June 10, 2016.

Forget all you single ladies, how about you all pregnant ladies.

If you like it, then you gotta put a birth certificate on it. Or it on a birth certificate.

Meanwhile, I’m thinking of renaming myself.

I don’t want to start from scratch.

How about Mauritzila, which was what my Uncle Charlie dubbed me. (Was he channeling his inner Yiddishe goy or what?)

Sure, it sounds a little like Bridezillla, but I’m going for mythology here. Mauritzila, like Rapunzel, lived in a castle. She had long blond hair. Along came a handsome prince, with the perfect name of James. And he told her that, according to his survey – which he didn’t charge $29K or $31K for – Mauritzila got a perfect score on ethical-caring, popular-fun, successful, feminine, and overall attractiveness.

Now I just need to find the right font…

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Coffee time?

As anyone who’s been in my home for a meal knows quite well, I’m not much when it comes to coffee.

Other than an occasional cup o’ joe when I’m out, or, more usually, a cappuccino, I don’t drink coffee. Hot coffee, that is. I like nothing better than popping into Dunk’s on a hot summer day and getting a big old ice coffee for myself.

I don’t know why I never developed a coffee habit, as I like the flavor (and love the aroma) just fine. But somewhere along the way I became a tea drinker.

My parents did drink coffee, but they were just as apt to drink tea. My first cups of tea, however, were at my grandmother’s house, as that was the beverage of choice at Nanny’s, served even to children – milky and sweet, the Irish way.

I went to a Catholic women’s college, where the ethnic makeup was largely Irish Catholic. We were told by the food service provider that we were the only college with a cafeteria system run by them where the students drank more tea than coffee.

When I go to Ireland, one of the great pleasures is going into a pub and ordering a cup of tea and not being looked at like you have two heads. (Of course, it’s also a great pleasure to order a Guinness or a Bailey’s on ice.)

I do have a coffee maker (courtesy of my sister Kath), and a coffee press (courtesy of my sister Trish), but they are used pretty much only when Kath or Trish is around to do the honors. Coffee is whatever’s in the freezer.

My husband was a coffee drinker of sorts, but he was content with a spoonful of instant added to a cup of microwaved water.

Occasionally, I consider getting myself a Keurig, which would at least let me offer guests a decent cup of coffee, with their flavor and caffeination-level of choice. What’s held me back is largely inertia. But it’s partially the thought of all those little plastic cups making their way into landfill, or – worse – into one of those big garbage sludge islands floating around an ocean.

Last year, more than 9 billion of those K-Cups made their way into the trash-o-system. None of them lent themselves to being recycled.

This inconvenient fact has provoked a decade of hand-wringing within the company [Green Mountain, which acquired Keurig in 2006] and discontent among consumers. Placed end to end, the pods sold in a year would circle the globe roughly 10 times. Concerns among environmentalists are mounting, and sales growth is slowing. (Source: Boston Globe)

But they’re doing something about it, and will soon be selling K-Cups “made of material that is easily recycled.”

Unfortunately, those new cups are not compostable. Nor are they reusable. And those are, apparently, the environmental gold standard (to the silver or bronze of mere recyclable). Bottom line, those K-Cups will still be plastic. (Wasn’t it just yesterday – or maybe 50 years ago – when the cocktail party guy was advising young Benjamin in The Graduate to consider a career in plastics?)

And though Keurig’s new K-Cups might not mollify all of its critics, the company says it is trying its best. “When you look at the trends toward single-serve generally, you can either villainize it, or you can fix it,” said Monique Oxender, Keurig’s chief sustainability officer. “We’re trying to fix it.”

I’m with Ms. Oxender. Better to fix than to “villainize”.

I’ll be on the lookout for the release of the new, recyclable K-Cups. This may be enough to get me off the dime on a Keurig.

Let the coffee mugging begin!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Patriots’ Day, 2016

No doubt about it. Patriots’ Day is one of my favorite holidays, mostly because it’s almost gloriously and exclusively ours. By that I mean, it almost gloriously and exclusively belongs to Massachusetts. Almost, but not quite. I knew that it was observed in Maine as well. Which sort of makes sense, given that Maine used to be part of Massachusetts. But, from google, we learn that it’s also observed in Wisconsin and “encouraged” in Florida, whatever that means. (Perhaps my cousin Ellen, still biding her winter-time in the Sunshine State, can fill me in.)

Anyway, it’s a holiday I’ve always enjoyed. So I’m partially taking it off this year with links to a couple of prior posts on the subject.

Here’s my first Patriots’ Day outing, way back in 2008. The sentiments still hold, although I will note that, in a season after the Red Sox finished last, it’s easier to get tickets for the day’s game than it is in a season after they win the World Series. Thus, I will be at today’s game with my sister Trish. The game starts at 11:05 a.m., which means it will let out after the elite runners have long sped by. But the timing should allow us to see plenty of good runners as we stream with the rest of the fans into Kenmore Square. Based on game timing and his timing, my friend Jake informs me that I may be able to give him a wave as he runs by.

(Meanwhile, I have gone to a number of Patriots’ Day games, but I can’t for the life of me remember how they let pedestrians through the race route. I think that they did used to let us thread our way through the runners. But given the unpleasantness of 2013, the security has to be a lot tighter. We may have to head over towards Huntington Ave to walk home. That of back-trail to the starting point in Hopkinton. We’ll figure it out.)

Anyway, last year, Patriots’ Day coincided with the ghastly anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which I mulled over here.

2014 was a lousy year, Patriots’ Day wise. It was one year since the Boston bombing attack and two months since tswan boatshe death of my husband. Here’s my post from that year, which incorporates links to my reflections on the bombing and the bombers. And since I guess the whammies of life often come in threes, I must note that, on Patriots’ Day 2014, we were a week away from the death of my oldest and dearest of friends, Marie. As I said, 2014 was a lousy year.

But this year is better.

It’s beautiful out there. The flowering trees are starting to flower.I’ve got Sox tickets. The swan boats are back.

Happy Patriots’ Day. Observance encouraged!

Friday, April 15, 2016

Tax Day. Jackie Robinson Day. Earworm Day?

Today should be Tax Day. But, thanks to Emancipation Day, it’s not.

I wasn’t familiar with Emancipation Day because it’s only celebrated in Washington, DC. The actual day is April 16, but when that day falls on a Saturday, the observance is on Friday, making today a holiday in DC. And putting off Tax Day until Monday. Unless you’re fortunate enough to live in Massachusetts, where, on Monday, we’re celebrating Patriots Day. Thus, our taxes aren’t due until April 19th. Except for estimated taxes, which, because they’re sent to an IRS facility outside of Massachusetts are, in fact, due Monday. That’s Federal estimates. State ones, of course, aren’t due until Tuesday, since Monday, after all is a real holiday here. Got that? (That old bureaucratic magic…)

Up until this year, I had no reason to concern myself with the filing date, as I always got my taxes done in plenty of time. But this year, having mislaid a key paper file in the course of my renovation shuffling about, I have been putting taxes off. I’m organized. I’ve started. And I will be done today. But it’s nice to know that I actually don’t have to be done-done until Tuesday. Except for my Q1 estimate.Which is due Monday.

Anyway, Happy Tax Day.

It’s also Jackie Robinson Day, when baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson, who broke major league baseball’s color line on this day in 1947. Interesting that, on that same day 85 years earlier, Lincoln signed into law the Emancipation Compensation Act, freeing the slaves but offering compensation to slave “owners.”

Shamefully, the Boston Red Sox were the last team to have an African-American on their roster – Elijah “Pumpsie” Green. Their second African was Willie Tasby who was with the Red Sox when I saw my first game at Fenway in 1960. Someone in the bleachers had a sheet sign, which he unfurled halfway through the game, that read “This is your night, Willie Tasby.” It apparently was: Tasby went 3 for 4. (Ted Williams hit a homerun; Jimmy Piersall, a local fellow then playing for the Indians, hit two.)

Anyone interested in baseball, American history, the Civil Right movement, etc. would do well to watch the most recent Ken Burns PBS documentary on the life of Jackie Robinson. What a fascinating and complex man he was!

Meanwhile, today, in honor of Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier, all MLB players will wear the number 42.

So, Happy Jackie Robinson Day.

I’m also declaring it Earworm Day as, for the past week, I’ve been plagued by not one, but TWO – count ‘em, TWO – earworms.

Earworm number one: Burl Ives’ “Jolly Holly Christmas.”

Now I can see if it were mid-December, and “Jolly Holly” was playing in every store I walked into. But old Burl – who has always creeped me out, by the way - has been off the airwaves for a good 3+ months now. Off the airwaves, but embedded in my earwaves. Thus, I found myself going out to the building’s vestibule to pick up my mail, only to realize that I had spontaneously broken out into “Oh, by golly, have a jolly, holly Christmas, this year.”

Oh, ho, the mistletoe? How about OH, NO, THE MISTLETOE.

Of course, once I was able to shake free of Burl Ives ratcheting around my brain, something even worse replaced it.

Not in a million years could I come up with the how or the why of the theme song to Daniel Boone come a-calling.

Unless I had Me.TV on for a second there at some point.

However it got there, I was suddenly possessed by the Daniel Boone ditty:

Daniel Boone was a man,
Yes, a big man!
With an eye like an eagle
And as tall as a mountain was he!

What a Boone, what a do-er,
What a dream come-er true-er was he!

Nothing like a nightmare-come-er true-er like this one to have me praying to the earworm gods for the return of Burl Ives and “Jolly Holly Christmas.”

So, Happy Earworm Day.

I will spend the remainder of it completing my taxes, and wondering what song to my wondrous ears will appear to replace “Daniel Boone.”

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Pinball wizard

My sister Trish lives in Salem, Massachusetts.

Salem is, of course, famous for witches. And for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. And for the Peabody-Essex Museum.

But the real gem of Salem may well be the Willows, a lovely ocean-side park – with plenty of shade trees, which doesn’t always happen in an ocean-side park; on the other hand, for an ocean-side park, it doesn’t have much beach. There is nothing fancy about the Willows. It’s just a nice place to stroll around on a nice summer evening, especially if you stop at Hobbs – home, I have learned of the first ice cream cone in New England (bless ‘em) – for an ice cream cone. (On the Willows web site, I also learned that “’Blind Pat’ Kenneally introduced Spanish ‘double-jointed’ peanuts to America from his cart” there.)

The Willows also has a couple of kiddie rides – nothing overwhelming or too pricey, and a merry-go-round where you risk breaking your neck getting on and off of one of the horses. There’s also a machine where you can buy a balloon, only the machine was made elsewhere, and has the words “Fanky Malloon” written on it, which we have translated as “Fancy Balloon”. Perhaps we are wrong, and there is something called a fanky malloon out there in a parallel universe.

While it’s hard to top the fanky malloon dispenser, the best thing about the Willlows is the arcade, which has plenty of skee ball, an automated gypsy fortune teller, a moth eaten mechanical monkey band, whack-a-mole, and plenty of old timey attractions. Sure, it has electronic games. But it also has pinball machines.

I never saw a pinball machine growing up. Not that I would have hung out any place that had one – Friendly’s certainly didn’t  – but did Worcester even have any pinball machines?

Nonetheless, when I’m on occasion at a beach arcade, I do tend to gravitate towards the pinball machines.

I just like the idea of them.

Thus, a headline on Bloomberg the other day caught my eye: Japan Pinball Maker Tied to IPhone Hack Set for Terror Fight.

Say what?

First off, I was surprised that there’s still a pinball manufacturer out there. Turns out, if there is one, it isn’t Sun Corp., which actually makes digital pachinko machines, pachinko being a Japanese form of pinball. But, to me, digital kind of disqualifies it from being a pinball maker. Pinball just has to be mechanical. Accept no substitutes.

My second question-to-self was ‘what’s pinball got to do with iPhone hacks, let alone terror?’

As it turns out, Sun Corp. has a forensics unit, Israel-based Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization, Ltd., which has been in the news because of the recent set-to between Apple and the US government over getting at the data on the San Bernardino shooter’s phone. Cellebrite was the company that was going to do the hacking.

The thought came to Sun’s CEO that the ability to pick the lock on an iPhone could end up being big business.

Chief Executive Officer Masanori Yamaguchi says his company wants to expand its work countering tech-savvy terrorists. Yamaguchi says he’s willing to spend as much as 20 billion yen ($185 million) to acquire or merge with companies to expand its sought-after data extraction business.

"Demand will never go away," Yamaguchi, 67, said from the company’s headquarters in Aichi prefecture southwest of Tokyo. "Extracting mobile phone data is the fastest way to solve crimes nowadays." (Source: Bloomberg)

Cellebrite has an impressive client list – FBI, CIA, Interpol – and, since Sun acquired it in 2007, its headcount has increased by more than an order of magnitude. The company anticipates that revenue growth will be as much as 20 percent annually.

"There are very few companies like us, and I think this is our strength," Yamaguchi said. "As for the next step, we’re open to the idea of teaming up with companies that possess unique technology in forensics. We will continue to search for an appropriate partner."

“Very few companies like us”? I’ll say.

Of course, Sun being in the electronic spy biz is not as farfetched as it might sound at first. Sun isn’t just a pachinko gamer, it’s been a PC and video game developers, and a maker of mahjong apps for the iPhone. How much of a leap is it to go from a mahjong app to security?

"We’ve been cutting weight of pachinko-related business while becoming increasingly reliant on Cellebrite," said Yamaguchi. "We want to keep improving our technology to provide better services and skills to make the world safe and peaceful."

Admittedly, pinball machines don’t make the world safer. And although they have, historically, kept young guys occupied who might have been up to no good, the pinball machine is probably not an instrument of much peace. But they have put smiles on many a face, including mine.

Next time I’m up in Salem, I may bop over to the Willows for a bit of pinball and a cone from Hobbs. ‘Blind Pat’ Kenneally, I suspect, is long gone, but I will also be on the lookout for double-jointed peanuts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The “grey-quake”? Once again, Boomers are the in thing.

Occasionally, when I’m bored, I’ll answer my landline – the phone that no one who actually knows me uses. The callers typically fall into one of three categories:

  • Trying to scam (sub-categories: “your credit card”, congratulations-you-won-a-vacation, in trouble with the IRS, sent by Microsoft by way of India);
  • Looking for money (sub-categories: charities I’ve given to; charities I’ve never given to; politicians – nice talk to you last night, Russ Feingold dialing-for-dollars guy);
  • Polling for my opinion (generally political, occasionally commercial product).

It’s when the pollers come a callin’ that it gets reinforced that I’m in the not-so-desirable “over 65” cohort.

Oh, I suppose we’re desirable enough to the politicians: we actually vote.

But, except for “no one can tell” adult diapers, nutritional supplements, and retirement communities, ain’t no one trying to sell us old geezers anything.

And this is not just my perception.

The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) calculates that less than 15% of firms have developed a business strategy focused on the elderly. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a sister organisation to The Economist, found that only 31% of firms it polled did take into account increased longevity when making plans for sales and marketing. (Source: The Economist)

And Germaine Greer – and who would know better than Germaine Greer (b. 1939, and thus a pre-Boomer)  – has quite aptly said: “just because I’m over 60 nobody wants to sell to me.”

But the times, they might just be a changin’.

Those over 60 constitute the fastest-growing group in the populations of rich countries, with their number set to increase by more than a third by 2030, from 164m to 222m. Older consumers are also the richest thanks to house-price inflation and generous pensions. The over-60s currently spend some $4 trillion a year and that number will only grow.

Why, just yesterday (i.e., 50 years back), us Boomers were the “youth-quake.” Now, well, welcome to the “grey-quake.”

First, a bit of a digression. I know, I know. The Economist is a Brit publication. But I do think they’re off the mark with that “generous pension” bit. My career was in high tech, where there’s very little by way of pension, generous or paltry. So maybe I’m biased here. But most of the folks I know who actually have pensions taught school or were otherwise part of a unionized workforce. Those of us who labored in the tech vineyards got options (generally worthless) and have been pretty much left on our own with defined-contribution plans, where our employers as often as not defined their contribution as something as close to zero as possible. Which is not to say that we’re all hurting. Some of us just plain aren’t. Still, I know plenty Boomers who are plenty worried about retirement, even the ones who’ve been max funding their 401Ks all these years.

Of course, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, all Baby Boomers can’t be lumped into one big same-same demographic.

They loved Bob Dylan or the Beach Boys. (Sometimes and/or.) Boomers went to college or Vietnam. (Sometimes and/or.) The toked up or run a meth lab in the shed out back. (Sometimes and/or.) They worked in white collar jobs or broke their backs on construction sites. (Rarely and/or.) They retired – or plan to retire- in relative comfort. Or they’ll be working as Walmart greeters until they drop dead.

This lumping everyone together is not, of course, limited to the Baby Boomers. When people talk about Millennials they’re probably thinking more about kids in pricey colleges, sipping their lattes, being ironic, and requesting trigger warnings when a micro-aggression is coming on. Not a high school grad in upstate working as a prison guard so he can stay in his home town.

But when you start breaking down the Boomer demographic, and ignore the ones that will not have any money other than their Social Security, the marketers will be coming after the ones sitting pretty.

Some industries such as health care and automobiles have been thinking about the grey market for a while. Others such as retailing and consumer goods started paying attention more recently. Now comes the silver rush. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute points out that older consumers are one of the few engines of growth in an otherwise sluggish global economy…The old are becoming the new new thing.

The trick for marketers is figuring out how to pick our pockets without constantly and explicitly pointing out that we’re on the back 9, heading for the eternal 19th hole. Which – forever young until we’re forever dead – we just don’t want to hear:

Retailers are surreptitiously lowering shelves and putting in carpets to make it harder to slip. Package-goods firms are printing larger typefaces and using more white space. Kimberley-Clark has overhauled its Depend brand of adult nappies to make them more like regular underwear. Sabi, a design company, now sells walking canes in bright colours. Car firms don’t make a song and dance about the fact that old people with stiff necks and fading vision will benefit disproportionately from self-parking cars.

Well, hand me down that bright colored walking cane. And, please, do start marketing to me. Let’s see if I can figure out when it’s happening. I’ll be expecting a survey call any evening now. Love being part of the new new thing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Codista? What’s YOUR time worth?

Not that I’m in search of one, but I’m ever on the lookout for interesting jobs. This has been a Pink Slip standby since way back in the day, when I believe my first one was about professional nit-picking, a job that has taken off since lice were reintroduced to the school systems a while back.

The one that I came across the other day was, alas, not in the US but, rather, in Italy. And the position of interest is “codista”, or queuer. As the name implies – queuer, not codista – a codista is someone who runs those errands that involve standing in line, like buying stamps, I guess which, other than TSA, is probably the line we’re most apt to find ourselves in. That an the line at the coffee shop. The closest thing we may have stateside to a codista is the guy that your car insurance company has run to the registry to get your plates.

Anyway, while the position is just invented, there is, apparently, quite the need for it in Italy:

According to Codacons, a consumer group, Italians spend on average 400 hours a year queuing. The annual time wasted is worth €40 billion ($44 billion), it estimates. (Source: The Economist)

400 hours a year? That would be roughly 8 hours a week?

I know that the Italians aren’t famous for their efficiency, but I’m calling cazzate on this one.

One workday per week devoted to standing in a line to get a paper stamped or a bill paid? Is this really possible? It sounds more like Soviet era life, when someone could spend a day in line hoping to get a roll of toilet paper made out of sandpaper.

Or course, while this just seems astounding to me, I really don’t know my Italy. I’ve only been there as a tourist, and the lines I’ve stood in have been at the Sistine Chapel (until I figured out you could pay a bit extra ahead of time to avoid it) and St. Peter’s (where my triumph on my last trip was body-blocking an aggressive young Spanish priest who was trying to push through the line. Sorry, padre.).

But Italy is known for its rather convoluted bureaucracy, and:

…it is not just Italy’s complex bureaucracy that keeps people waiting. Italian idiosyncrasies, which reflect a certain fiscal timidity, also play a role. Italy has one of the lowest rates of non-cash transactions in Europe. “Paying in cash is very widespread and people are generally reluctant to use either credit cards or direct debit,” says Mr Cafaro. This is consistent with the fact that Italy has one of the largest shadow economies in the rich world.

Anyway, the idea is the brainchild of Giovanni Cafaro. Cafaro, from what I can make of his Linkedin bio, is a marketing communications guy. Having lost his job, it came to him while he was waiting in line to pay a bill that he could offer his services to others who didn’t want to blow 8 hours a week waiting to pay their electric bills.

This is a real profession Cafaro has invented here, not just a one-off for himself.

Mr Cafaro has given the occupation a legal footing, with its own standardised contract, minimum pay (€10 an hour before deductions) and access to state-run industrial accident insurance (“in case, say, a codista trips on the stairs of a government office,” he explains). Mr Cafaro offers a five-hour course, which he gives over Skype. This includes learning the tedious requirements of central and local government departments for documents, signatures and charges.

I went over to the website of the capo di tutti codisti, but something was lost in translation.

They have left and are having considerable success my courses for Codisti with Skype.

Which I’ll translate as: unlike grads of Trump University, Codisti Skypers have found work in their chosen field.

I am receiving requests for Codisti from companies, professionals, caf and private, to be able to select Codisti trained and certified by me, I receive requests from North to South.

Can’t seem to find what “caf” means. The Italian is “caf,” and I’m too lazy to ping my paisano Peter to see if he knows what it means.

The Codista once trained and certified by me may practice codista-both as an employee or as a freelancer in Italy.

A codista may actually be hired by a company to run errands for employees so that they don’t spend all that time out of the office paying their cable bills. Or, like me, they can stay independent.

The bottom line is that it sounds like Cafaro is onto something here. The only downside is the paper work involved with hiring a codista requires standing in line. Or using a codista.




Monday, April 11, 2016

Starting a new job? Oh, just show up and roll with it.

In rummaging around for post topics, I cam across a fairly innocuous piece on Forbes on how to start out in a new job. The list provided anodyne, and I have nothing anodynasty to add to it. Yet it did get me thinking about my first days on the many jobs I held over the years. Oddly, despite the fact that I have a pretty good memory, I don’t recall all that much about my first days, other than that, in most cases, no one and nothing was really prepared for my arrival.

My first post-B-school job, at Dynamics Associates, a small Cambridge tech-ish consulting firm (among other things, we developed econometric and financial models for unsuspecting clients), I showed up at 8 a.m. No one had bothered to tell me what starting time was, and I hadn’t thought to ask. 8 a.m. seemed reasonable. Only it wasn’t. So I sat on the floor outside the glass doors until the receptionist showed up 9-ish and let me in.

I remember little about the intake, other than I was shown to my (shared) office, and told that I’d need to fill in time sheets. Until I started working on projects, I would have to list my hours as “GNA”. I had no idea what “GNA” stood for, but for the first couple of works or so, until I got billable, I wrote my hours and “GNA” on my time sheets. No one told me that what I should have been writing was “G and A” for “General and Administrative.” I finally figured it out for myself. (This was pre-Internet. You couldn’t just google it.)

While on my way to billability, I was asked to pitch in on a project for Libbey Owens Ford. We had done some modeling work for them, and were now delivering a bunch of report templates that they would be running off every month. The reports were all variations on a theme and, although I had no training in the mainframe report writer (which was a programming language, nothing wysiwyg or object oriented or intuitive or anything like that), I was able to make good headway through the pile of reports I’d been asked to create. At the end of the day, Charlie – they guy I was on loan to – swung by the spot in the “terminal room” (where we worked on dumb terminals connected to the mainframe), admired how much work I’d gotten through, and asked me what my naming convention was for the reports.

Naming convention? Huh? I’d called them all LOF, meaning that, each time I’d saved a report template, I’d written over the previous one. I have no idea what I assumed. That they were all append to one another? That the mainframe would recognize that each report was unique, based on the contents?

Bottom line: at the end of the day, I had one report completed


The next interesting thing happened when I asked where Allen B was.

After all, Allen B was a fellow Sloan grad, and someone I had interviewed with.

“Allen?” one of my new colleagues responded, “They fired him so they could hire you.”

Hmmm. So that’s what my boss meant when he called to tell me that they’d found money in the budget to hire me.

I guess it worked out okay. I stayed there five years before decamping to Wang Labs.

What I remember most about Day One – other than being assigned my employee number: 53614, making me Wang’s 53614th employee -  was that, if my PC had worked – we were now out of the mainframe world and into the mini and PC era – I would have typed up a resignation letter on the spot.

On the way home from Day One, I stopped in Lechmere Sales to buy a Walkman so that I wouldn’t have to listen to the paging system with the speaker just over my head, eternally paging Dr. Wang to his office, or some foreman on the shop floor.

Since my PC didn’t work, I ended up staying, but there wasn’t much to do those first couple of weeks. My boss was away on a trip to Russia (?), and had left me little by way of instruction on what he wanted me to accomplish. I got to know my techies and my products and, since a big part of my job was going to be acting as liaison to an entity in NYC that Wang had acquired, I thought I’d go to NYC and start liaising. That’s when I found out that even a senior product manager couldn’t go on a day trip without getting the signatures of her boss, his boss, the VP over him, and the signature of Horace T, who reported to Dr. Wang.

After a couple of years at Wang, I found my way to Softbridge – which was going to be “the next billion dollar software company,” at a time when a billion dollars meant something.

When I got there, I had an office, a phone with no cord, and no PC. Not to mention nothing to work on, as they’d decided not to adventure into the product area where I was going to be the lead product person.

I brought in a phone cord, so I could make a call, and commandeered the PC from the office of a sales VP who’d just been fired.

I scrounged around for something to do and surfaced demand for writing and researching. Eventually, I ended up the VP of Marketing. But it took a while. An unpredictable while, based on my “on boarding” experience.

Where did I go from there?

To Genuity, where, it seemed, no on was expecting me. Until they were able to find an appropriately large director-level office, I camped out in what was supposed to be a communal phone office shared by those who worked in cubicles. Sorry. Mine. At least it had a phone. And, after a couple of days, a laptop. So I could get work done. I can’t remember exactly what work I was supposed to get done, but I was told to ‘build a team’, which I did.

Even by the crazy standards I had, Genuity was crazy place to work but, as with all of my other jobs, I enjoyed myself, met wonderful people, and learned plenty.

But on Day One, you’d never have known that anything was going to work out.

If only I’d had some anodyne advice…




Friday, April 08, 2016

Snap, Crackle and Pop as a snack? I don’t know…

First off, I want to declare my life-long affection for and commitment to breakfast cereals.

Yes, my tastes have matured a bit from when I started so many mornings out with a big Melmac bowl full of milk-drenched Sugar Pops, Frosted Flakes, or Sugar Crisps. Today, my cereals of choice are of the non-sugared variety: Shredded Wheat, Cheerios, and something Kashi or other.

I still take my cereal milk drenched, and with fruit, preferably blueberries, second choice peaches, third runner up – but often pressed in for service when the first and second choices aren’t available to fill out their term – are bananas.

I regularly have cereal for breakfast, and have been known to have it for lunch or dinner as well. (Dinner cereal, however, is more likely to be oatmeal tarted up with apples, raisins and walnuts.)

But I don’t see cereal as a snack, mostly because, if it doesn’t have milk and fruit on it, what you’ve got is dry and boring (unless you’re a toddler, most of whom seem to find Cheerios a delightful in-car snack). As a snack, it just can’t compete with most healthy – apple a day – unhealthy – couple of Oreos, bag of M&Ms – or somewhat in between – single handful of cashews, followed by a second handful of cashews – sort of snack.

But Kellogg is not targeting me when they’re aiming to get folks to start snacking with Tony the Tiger or Snack, Crackle and Pop. (Quick: which was which?) They’re after the big prize, millennials: “the nation’s largest demographic: people born from early 1980s to about 2000.”

The nation’s largest demographic? Move over Baby Boomers – or, as is more likely, pass on, Baby Boomers -  and welcome, welcome, welcome. In another ten years we can stop blaming the Boomers for everything bad that’s going on and shift it onto this cohort. Yes!

While total U.S. cereal sales have fallen 8.8 percent since 2012, the share eaten in the afternoon and evening has risen steadily in recent years, hitting about 35 percent in 2015, according to the Battle Creek, Michigan-based company. That’s partly because millennials have embraced Froot Loops and Smorz as indulgent snacks, says Craig Bahner, president of Kellogg’s U.S. Morning Foods division. To ride the trend, Kellogg is repackaging products including Frosted Flakes and Special K in grab-and-go containers and emphasizing the nostalgic pull of cereal as a late-night treat.

“It’s an alternative to a salty or savory snack in the evening when you’re looking for a little TV time,” said Bahner, describing one of the strategies Kellogg hopes will boost revenue. (Source: Bloomberg)

And, by the way, those millennials are apparently quite enamored of the sweet stuff, those sweetie-pies:

Sweet cereals are popular with millennials, despite their perceived emphasis on healthy eating. Kellogg brought Smorz back recently after a long hiatus because customers kept requesting it, and sales of General Mills’ Cinnamon Toast Crunch jumped 8.7 percent in 2015, one of the biggest gains among top cereal brands, according to Euromonitor.

One of the reasons that Kellogg is gung ho on expanding their snack business is that breakfast serial business is off.
The collapse has come partly because the longtime breakfast staple has found itself on the wrong side of recent preferences: It’s too sugary, too processed and inconvenient.
Too sugary, maybe. (Yes, well, Frosted Flakes, but even Shredded Wheat?) Too processed, I’ll buy. (No arguing that.) But too inconvenient? Isn’t convenience what processing gets you? If I want Shredded Wheat, I can get it quite conveniently. In a box. From a shelf. In a store. Without having to thresh and mill my own grains, and then figure out how to bale them into little Brillo-like chunks suitable for drenching in milk. But one generation’s convenience is, apparently, another generation’s grievance:
A recent report from Mintel Group Ltd., a market-research company, found that 56 percent of millennials think cereal should be more portable, while 39 percent said cleaning the dishes after eating is a hassle.

Okay. Young whipper-consumers want something that’s healthy and non-processed. But it also has to be sugar laden, like Smorz. (I’ve never heard of Smorz, but is there really a cereal composed of graham cracker, marshmallow, and chocolate? Makes Lucky Charms seem like a cup of quinoa.)  And it can’t be a hassle.

Oh you poor, dear things.

If rinsing out a bowl and a spoon is too much of a hassle, I really do fear what you’re going to make of the hassle we call life…

Meanwhile, snack away!

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Thanks, but I’d just as soon stay home. Forever.

I am not a cruise person to begin with, so it’s not the type of vacation I’d be drawn to. The only cruises that appeal to me in the least are the European river tours. That I could get into, given that there’s always some scenery available, other than the wake of your ocean liner. And you get to make a stop every day. Plus those stops would be in places I’d want to see. I.e., they’re in Europe.

So, no, despite the fact that it’s in Europe, cruise trumps location, so I wouldn’t be interested in the 2016 Freedom Cruise to begin with.

Nor am I a gun person.

I’m not a rabid anti-gunner. If people want to own guns – and keep those guns out of the hands of, say, toddlers who might accidentally shoot mom in the back, as happened in Florida last month – let ‘em.

I’m not a rabid anti-hunter, either. If people want to gun down Bambi’s mother, well, I eat meat and wear leather, so I don’t have a deer haunch to stand on. I’m not wild about the “big game hunters” who use machine guns to kill penned in endangered species. But let the hunters hunt. (Don’t forget the day-glo vest.)

Although I’m not a rabid anti-hunter, I’m just as happy to live in a non-open carry state. (I just looked it up and, from what I understand – which may not be correct – there’s no law explicitly against open carry here, but your local law enforcement can lift your license if you indulge.) When I’ve seen people in open carry states packing heat, it doesn’t make me feel safer. If makes me feel in danger.

Anyway, between the cruise and the guns, I will have to say that nothing says “vacation from hell” like the upcoming cruise along the Danube for NRA donors who pony up at least $1K a year to be part of the organization’s Ring of Freedom.

The cruise doesn’t come cheap: a bit under $5K per person double occupancy, and a bit under $9K for the loners.

The real enticement of the cruise, however, is not just sporting down the Blue Danube among your fellow gun and cruise aficionados. There’s the ultimate come-on:

Aboard for policy discussions and private receptions will be the NRA’s top official, Wayne LaPierre; Oliver North of Iran-Contra notoriety; former Republican House Speaker and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista; Reagan administration Attorney General Edwin Meese III; and Dr. Ben Carson, who until recently was seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. (Source: Bloomberg)

Admittedly, I wouldn’t be sneering down my gun-site if the cast were Katrina vanden Heuvel of Nation, Daniel Ellsburg, Martin O’Malley, George Clooney, and Ben and/or Jerry. I still wouldn’t want to be there, but I wouldn’t be shuddering at the thought.

But “relaxing on cigar and bourbon nights” with Wayne LaPierre? Getting my hair trimmed while Callista Gingrich is getting her pelt bleached and lacquered? Dozing off while listening to Gentle Ben Carson drone one? Being anywhere within spitting distance of Oliver North? I really never thought I’d live to see that day when I’d say that I wouldn’t mind being in the buffet line with Ed Meese.

But mostly, just shoot me. Or, since I wouldn’t want to put that offer on the table, maybe just wake me when this particular nightmare is over. (Second prize, two trips on the Freedom Cruise.) One thing it does have going for it:

Strict European gun laws would, under almost all circumstances, prevent guests from carrying firearms.

Good thing. Make that very good thing. You never know when cigar and bourbon night can get out of hand.

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

This may well be a stupid idea, but I kind of like it

Yesterday was a mixed bag, in terms of my overall review of the day.

Starting with the downside, my troubling shoulder continues to be troubling. Yes, my PT genius assures me – as I sat there, shoulder swaddled in tan stretchy bandages holding an ice bag in place while the stim was thumping away, looking like a pitcher who’d just had Tommy John surgery - that great improvement is just around the corner, but yesterday I was feeling a bit discouraged. The troubling trouble is not exactly pain-pain, it’s achy. But my head’s not exploding and, over the month of trouble I’ve taken all of 8 Tylenols. Still, it’s an ache, it’s a pain, and I really would like it to go away.

My gimpy shoulder made me a bit more cautious when I set out yesterday, especially given that everyone in the ‘hood didn’t shovel their sidewalk – and, yes, I’m talking you Red Wagon and Harvard Garden – hoping against hope that April would be warm enough to melt Monday’s snow accumulation a way. NOT! So there I was, gingerly making my way over a couple of ice floes, hoping I wouldn’t fall and render my troubling shoulder even more troublesome.

On the plus – make that super-plus – side, the Red Sox opened their season with an impressive win by their new ace, David Price, and an impressive dinger from their old standby, David Ortiz, who is embarking on his swan season.

And, although it was freaking cold – in the twenties – it was sunny out.

But what really made my day was reading that Staples is going to start offering shared workspace (via a partnership with Workbar) in some of their suburban locations.

Not that I’m going to hop into my zipcar to take advantage of shared workspace in Norwood or Danvers. Or even in Brighton, which is not a suburb but a section of Boston. Still, I was cheered to read:

Just past the highlighters and to the left of the shredders, the companies plan to build walled-off enclaves with all the trappings of a typical startup: colorful conference rooms, shared kitchens, private call booths, and flexible desk space. (Source: Boston Globe)

I know absolutely nothing about Workbar, but I’m a big proponent of shared workspace. Hanging around Starbuck’s nursing a latte and cadging wifi doesn’t quite do it for me.

I don’t actually need shared workspace, but I like the idea that shared workspace exists.

And I am colossally in love with Staples.

Few things make me happier than popping into a Staples and picking up a bunch of yellow pads (small and large), some new pens, multi-colored Post-its. I’ve just always loved office supplies, and shopping for office supplies. Ordering online doesn’t do it for me. I want to roam the eyes and pick up anything that catches my eye.

Sure, this means that I end up with way too many manila folders and gel pens.

But, as vices go, it’s a modest one.

So, if I were in need of shared workspace, and I could also go office supply shopping while I was at work…Well, talk about a little bit of heaven.

From a business point of view, I have no idea whether Staples’ getting into the workspace biz is a good idea or a bad idea. But that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Going once, going twice. Whitey Bulger’s possessions up for grabs.

My mother grew up in Chicago and remembers the news when Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger, was shot by G-Men outside the Biograph Theater. As Dillinger lay there bleeding, non-public enemies were dipping their handkerchiefs – and their popcorn – in his blood.

What possesses people? What primal, atavistic urge would get someone to do this? And what did they do with the newly prized possession when they got home with it?

The Depression was on. Did someone’s mother slap him up the side of his head for sullying a perfectly good hankie? Did she immediately throw it into a basin and try to bleach it out? Fast forward a couple of decades. Did someone find a square of fabric with dried blood on it, pressed into Aunt Millie’s scrap book, with “John Dillinger’s Blood,” written next to it in perfect Palmer Penmanship?

Today, of course, the goods – including, no doubt, the blood-drenched popcorn, would immediately show up on eBay.

I repeat myself: what possesses people?

We’ll find out this summer, when some of the belongings of Boston’s contribution to the Most Wanted list – Whitey Bulger – and his gal pal Catherine Greig will be auctioned off, with the proceeds – along with the cash found in his hide-out walls, the cash contents of his safe deposit boxes, and his Social Security benefits – going to the families of his many, many victims.

It will be interested to see who shows up – and how many of them there are – at the Boston Convention Center on June 24th.

A few years back, it was the kitchen mugs and swimming pool noodles of Bernie Madoff that were being sold off to reimburse victims, and I was asking myself what possesses people. But nasty as Bernie was, he wasn’t a stone cold murderer, just a garden-variety, his hand in your pocket, American psycho sociopath.

There hasn’t as yet been a list published of what’s on offer at the Bulger auction – at least not that I can find – but here’s a sampling:

The items include a replica Stanley Cup ring, a gold and diamond claddagh ring, Bulger’s collection of hats and hoodies, a boxing mannequin, and a rat-shaped cup he used as a pencil holder, the Globe has reported.(Source: Boston Globe)

There was also a brief flash on the TV news showing a bunch of small porcelain boxes – presumably the collection of Greig – that were up for grabs. They looked pretty cheesy – the sort of stuff that shows up in the local St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. Pretty old lady fare, given that Greig was only in her sixties when she and her beau were run to the ground in Santa Monica.

But the directly Whitey stuff?

Was he wearing that Claddagh ring when he ordered a hit? When he strangled Debbie Davis, girlfriend of one of his henchmen, to death? Did he practice his beat-downs on that boxing mannequin? Did he grab a pencil from that rat-shaped cup to jot down an appointment with John “Zip” Connolly, the disgraced FBI agent he consorted with as an informant (in exchange for getting tipped off on when the trail got closer)?

It is truly disturbing that someone would want any of Bulger’s trash. What do you do with it? What can it possibly mean to someone?

God knows I have plenty of “stuff” around, but most of it I’ve got a personal connection with. My father got that anchor bookend when he was in the Navy. My grandmother embroidered that sampler when she was 12. That plaster of Paris dental mold? My husband’s. And that was my other grandmother’s cookie jar, my mother’s vase, my aunt’s paperweight. I’m always happy to mention the “provenance” of my tchotchkes.

Pointing out Catherine Greig’s flowered porcelain box? No thanks.

But there is, apparently, quite a market for macabre souvenirs. Shopping online, you can get the program from Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school graduation. A clown portrait done by John Wayne Gacy. A demitasse that once belonged to Hermann G√∂ring.

The good news – I guess – is that Bulger’s gun collection is not part of the auction.

Those who want a remembrance of Whitey will have to settle for the rat cup or the Claddagh ring.

What possesses people?