Monday, October 31, 2016

Boo? No, boo-hoo. A very sad Halloween for the Rogers family.

I’ve always loved Halloween. As a kid, you were out after dark, on your own marauding around the neighborhood with a bunch of your friends, collecting candy. What’s not to like?

As a grownup, I’ve continued to get a kick out of it, and it was much my husband’s favorite holiday.

While Halloween on Beacon Hill is quite a fun gallivant, once my sister Trish moved to Salem – the Halloween Capital of the World – we often spent the night there. For many years, Trish lived on a street just off of Salem Common, and would get several hundred trick-or-treaters over the course of the evening. Last year, she moved to a quieter neighborhood, but I was still looking forward to giving out candy, and just chillin’ with my sister and my dog nephew, Jack, the nicest and sweetest dog I’ve ever known.

As his regular dog sitter when his family was away, I got to know Jack very well. (My husband used to joke that we’d moved from being baby sitters to being dog sitters.) And I completely adored him. He was just incredibly affectionate and completely adorable, with a truly goofball personality.

Everybody who met Jack loved him. The best dog ever.

Jack had a special bond with my husband. (Diggy had an absolutely magic way with both kids and animals.) They were just wild about each other.

When Jack came into our home for the first time after Jim died, he searched upstairs and down for him, came back into 20160517_161800the living room where we were all sitting around, let out a couple of moans, and lay down, head on paws, facing away from us.

Anyway, he was really a very lovable dog. My sister would say that he wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree – not much IQ. But our sweet boy did have exceptional doggy EQ. Which he just demonstrated, yet again.

Jack was acting peculiarly, so Trish took him to the vet on Monday. They set up some tests, and on Thursday Trish got the awful news that Jack had brain cancer, and did not have long to live. They were hoping that with treatment, he could have a while with good quality of life, but it was not to be. On Friday, the much loved Jack died while napping, saddening the entire family – as my sister Kath said, Jack is an important part of our family – most especially my sister Trish and niece Molly. But in dying so quickly, Jack spared my sister the agony of having to make the decision to put him down, or to watch this sweet little puppy suffer.

This picture doesn’t do Jack justice, but it’s the last one I took of him. This was in late August, when I dog sat for his nibs while Trish got Molly back to school. We had our usual fun time, walking to Mack Park, hanging out in the yard, sniffing at stuff (Jack, not me).

I will miss him tremendously. As dogs do, he brought us all immense joy and pleasure.

Right about now, I’m hoping that there IS an afterlife, that Jack has found Diggy, and they’re whooping it up together.

I’ll be in Salem tonight, observing Halloween. Despite seeing the little trick-or-treaters all decked out, despite having unlimited access to Butterfingers, this will be a sad Halloween, indeed. But I know how these things work. It won’t be long before, every time we talk about Jack, we’ll be smiling.

Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of doggy angels bark thee to thy rest.

 

 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Two Gentlewomen in Verona

Our plan all along was to take some sort of excursion out of Venice during our week there. And when we arrived in Venice, we knew the ‘where’ would be Verona. We just weren’t sure of the ‘how.’

Verona was not our first choice for a side trip. Dubrovnik was.

Dubrovnik. Sitting right there across the Adriatic…

Trouble was, getting from here to there was going to be a bit too complicated, given that we were only in Venice for the week. So we settled on Verona, which came highly recommended.

Neither my sister Trish nor I is exactly the tour type, so our first impulse was to take the train from Venice to Verona, and just show ourselves around. Then we read that the train station was not exactly in the city center, and that became a turn off for starters. Fortunately, Trish remembered that our world-traveling cousin MB had recommended an outfit called Viator for guided side-tours.

And there it was, Romeo and Juliet’s Verona Day Trip from Venice.

Not cheap, but they would take care of everything.

Tour day was our only crappy day, weather-wise. Cold, overcast, raining off and on. We were quite happy to have brought our gloves with us.

There were about a dozen people on the tour, and they split us into two groups and schlepped us via mini-van down the Autostrada to Verona – which, with a stop, took about 2 hours. This was not part of the tour-tour, just the transpo. Our driver spoke pretty much no English, although we were able to communicate to him that this was not the sort of weather to have the AC blasting, and got him to put the heat on instead. The most interesting aspect of the van ride was the stop we made for coffee and bio-break. The store sold the usual highway stuff: snacks, drinks, and souvenirs. But it also sold books, including the Italian version of Fifty Shades of Grey. And toys. And small electronics. And, for some odd reason, shower heads. The assortment of goods for sale really made it look like a “fell off the truck” stop.

Soon enough, we were in Verona, meeting up with our guide, Luca, who turned out to be a tour guide par excellence, knowledgeable and witty.

We hit all the tourist high points, of course: the outdoor amphitheater, the cathedral, a couple of other churches, Verona’s version of the Coliseum, a castle, and, of course, Juliet’s balcony. Terribly hokey, that last one. And a bit of a fraud. Although there may have been a real-life Juliet. Sort of. And a Capuleti family. Anyway, if you want to buy something heart shaped with your name on it, the surrounds of Juliet’s balcony is the place for you.

We also saw Romeo’s balcony. Not half as touristed, nor half as exciting: someone had propped a mop in it.

Throughout, our guide was excellent, and I’ll trust that all the informative stuff he told us was true.

One thing that was especially interesting about Verona was seeing the different influences over the years. Roman, of course: bridges, amphitheater, Coliseum. But also Venetian, with many of the buildings having Moorish arches over their windows. And German, as seen in the battlements of the castle and in several other historic buildings. I hadn’t thought about how close Verona is to Germanic lands – maybe 150 miles to the Austrian border. Achtung, baby.

The tour took a two-hour lunch break and while the other tour-ists headed off in one direction, Trish and I went to Osteria Giulietta e Romeo. We did so at the recommendation of an Italian friend whose cousin lives in Verona, who said that this spot had excellent Veronese cuisine. Now, my first thought was that a restaurant named after Romeo and Juliet would be fairly tourist-trappy, but this place was great. One of the best meals on the trip. We did not, however, sample the local specialties: horse and donkey. Last year, while in Scotland, I was brave enough to try haggis. But the thought of pasta with asino sauce? No thanks…

We came back to Venice on the train, Luca having walked us all to the train station and handed us our tickets. It was a far piece from the city center, but we stopped to see interesting sites along our guided way.

If we’d self-toured, Trish and I probably would have hit one church, Juliet’s balcony, maybe the Coliseum – and called it a day. But we wouldn’t have learned about the differences between the French and the Italian approaches to religious paintings (which, of course, I’ve already gotten, but I think it had something to do with the French being more hierarchical and royalist than the Italians). We wouldn’t have picked up on the architectural nuances. And realistically, given how crappy the weather was, if we hadn’t committed to a pricey tour (i.e., already paid), we probably would have taken one look out the window and rolled back into bed. Glad we ended up getting to play gentlewomen in Verona.

That’s it for the big trip to Italy.

Arrivederci, Venice…

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Merchants of Venice

Unlike nations where the warriors get to be on top, the elites in Italy were members of the merchant class. Which would not surprise anyone who spends anytime in Venice, where there are more stores than you can shake a stick at.

I’m sure that fashionistas don’t make Venice a destination – not when they’ve got Rome and Milan – but there seemed to be a goodly number of high end shops (Ermenegildo Zegna, Prada, Gucci, Pierre Cardin – which seems like such a throw-back brand), which we didn’t even bother to window shop at. Then there were the lovely but pricey boutiques that weren’t necessarily name brand, but were quite nice. Even though neither of us was in the market for a $600 sweater, $400 scarf, or $1,000 pocket book, these we window shopped. As we did the upholstery fabric (pillow?) stores. Mostly not the style for either or us, but some gorgeous fabrics to ogle nonetheless.

Inevitably, there were the see-‘em-everywhere stores: Disney, Footlocker – which we just groaned about as we passed.

We did, of course, do some real shopping.

Venice has a number of very nice paper and print shops. Trish was thus able to get herself a very nice print of the Lion of Venice, and I cheaped out and got a card of a corny canal/gondola scene which I’ll have framed and add to my gallery of places I’ve been. Venice

Then there were the ubiquitous – and I do not use that word lightly – pocketbook stores, curiously manned by Chinese folks, even though all the wares were stamped “made in Italy.” All of these stores appeared to carry the exact same line: Zagara, with all bags stamped Made in Italy. Which would be easy enough for a factory in China to stamp on, I suppose. But the Italians are pretty careful about lying about something being fatto in Italia, so I’m going with Made in Italy. The bags for sale were definitely not high end, but they were stylish, came in fun colors, seemed to be decently-enough made, and smelled like real leather. I bought a small, teal bag for about $15, and Trish also got a few things for herself and my niece Molly. Definitely tourist trade, but fun.

There are any number of candy, gelato, and pastry shops, the best of which was Nino & Friends, a sweet shop that I cannot begin to describe, other than to say that they can do far more than you can imagine with lemon. We grabbed a few things to nosh on when we first tripped upon it, and vowed to get back before we left. Alas, on our last day, we were in the area, but didn’t have the address. Neither of us was able to get connected to look it up, and our wanderings didn’t take us past it again. (Venice is exceedingly confusing to find your way around in…) So we came home without a box of lemon covered almonds and chocolate-covered lemon jellies, which we had sampled on our one and only visit. The shop is part of a small chain, and had only been open in Venice a couple of months, so they were especially generous with pressing us with samples. One especially charming clerk urged us to try a hard candy, holding the tray out to us and saying “boom boom.” I’ll say: think frozen lemon drop full of booze. Boom boom! I eagerly await the opening of a Nino’s in Boston. (Hurry, please.)

Venice is known, of course, for its glass, and for every ubiquitous pocketbook store there were three or four ubiquitous stores selling the same “authentic” Murano glass jewelry and other glassware. We held out for a trip to Murano and got to shop for what every store in Murano claims to be authentic, vs. the fraudulent merchandise to be had in Venice proper.

Our trip to Murano – a group of small islands connected by bridges in the Venice lagoon, about a mile out of town - was by water taxi, and included a tour of a glass factory. The one we went on was in a factory that specialized in ornate and absolutely hideous (to my eye) chandeliers, which may not be so hideous if you’re a Russian oligarch or Donald Trump, I guess.

Anyway, it was fascinating to watch the glass makers at work – including the fellow who was smoking. As if glassmaking weren’t hazardous enough…

The shops in Murano – no surprise here – pretty much just sell glassware. Everything from mirrors and art glass that fetch thousands of Euros, down to the sorts of Murano glass jewelry that looks like what comes to the mind of anyone who’s heard of Murano glass when Murano glass is mentioned.  Which would be this:Murano glass

We ended up finding a wonderful shop that suited our sensibilities and made a few purchases for ourselves and for gifts. So we will be wearing Murano glass jewelry that doesn’t look like Murano glass jewelry but is.

We had originally planned on a trip to Burano, which specializes in lacemaking. Even if we have swanked our way into Lace Curtain Irish-dom, neither Trish nor I is really all that into lace, so we took a pass on that jaunt. (No doubt disappointing our sister Kath, who had so wanted us to get her a lace mantilla…)

Venice was thronged with tourists when we were there. The true high season must be a real horror show. But most of the shops we went into didn’t seem to be doing any type of especially brisk business. We did our small part to boost the economy. But all those merchants of Venice. How do they survive?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Sure, there’s a sinking feeling, but Venice really is great

Not that it’s going to turn into Atlantis tomorrow, but Venice (where I vacationed last week with my sister Trish) is heading in that direction. A number of the grand buildings on the Grand Canal are abandoned – at least on the lower floors – and in Piazza di San Marco (St. Marks Plaza) and its surrounds, they put out portable walkways (passerelle) on scaffolding so that you can keep your feet dry when the water’s on the rise. And that’s not just when it’s been raining. We were in the Piazza on a perfectly sunny day, but it was high tide, and water was burbling up through the drains. So we had to walk around on those narrow walkways. (Crowded narrow walkways. Even though we were not there in ultra-high season, St. Mark’s was jammed each time we walked through. It must be a complete nightmare in the spring and summer.)

When we were in St. Mark’s Cathedral, the brilliant mosaic tile floors seemed a bit, if not squishy, then undulating.

Throughout the city, buildings have steel barriers across their front doors to keep the flood waters out when “acqua alta” (or high water) occurs, which is typically a few times a year, generally during the winter.

Acqua alta is pretty much unavoidable, given the peculiar geography of Venice: it’s on a lagoon in the Adriatic, and the town is criss-crossed by all sorts of canals. But these days, it’s occurring more frequently than it used to, thanks in part to global warming, as well as industrialization in the surrounds. The town is sinking – more rapidly than it has in the past – and it’s also listing, meaning that Italy may end up with more leaning towers than the one in Pisa.

Because of the sinking and listing, as well as the desire of people to live in a more modern, more easily-accessibly and lest costly community, the population of the central, historic district has sunk in half since 1980. Folks are also being driven out by the tens of millions of tourists who stream through the narrow pathways of the city each year. Tourism-related jobs have driven out “normal” jobs – and they don’t pay all that well. Some doomers are predicting that there’ll be no one actually living in old Venice in a couple of decades. Workers will come in to staff the hotels, restaurants, shops and tourist sites, but there won’t actually be any residents.In this sense, I’ve seen it likened to Disneyland.

Anyway, with or without a town full of real Venetians, it’s just a matter of time before Venice goes way down, below the ocean…

Glad we got there in time.

Because it really is unique, and probably the most fascinating place I’ve ever visited.

As tourists, we did the usual tourist things.

No, we didn’t take a gondola ride. Not exactly romantic, if you’re with your sister. Plus those tiny canals are pretty filthy. We didn’t need to see that tee-shirt that said “Venice by Night” on it – right above a picture of a rat – to tell us that Venice is rat-ridden. Fortunately, no rats crossed our paths. But we did notice that a number of the residents in the area around our hotel put their garbage out by hanging it on a line out there window so that it didn’t hit ground level where rats could get at it.

While there were no handsome gondoliers along our way, we did truck around Saint Mark’s, poke around the Museo Correr, and tour the Doge’s Palace, crossing the Bridge of Sighs to check out the prison. (Believe me, you did not want to get on the doge’s bad side.) Thanks to a tip from brother-in-law Rick, we also hit Il Frari, another church full of art, and colossally interesting.

But neither Trish nor I are all that big on Renaissance Madonnas, so we were delighted to take a look-see at the Peggy Guggenheim modern art collection.

Guggenheim – yes, she was one of those Guggenheims – went through an exceedingly successful period in the 1930’s-1940’s when she scooped up works by just about every modern artist you can think of. It probably helped that she was married to Max Ernst for a while in there, but wow, just wow. The collection is housed in Guggenheim’s home, where she (and her dogs) are buried in the courtyard, and where you can just see the speedboats pulling up to her place, dropping off her spectacular friends, for some sort of spectacular gathering ca’ Peggy. Peggy Guggenheim is someone I want to read some more about.

Speaking of Peggy Guggenheim, in one of the other museums we tromped through, a young guard waved us over. He spoke pretty good English, and he wanted to practice on us – and ask us about the US election. (He was a Bernie fan, by the way.) He also asked us about other museums we’d gone to. When we mentioned the Guggenheim, he said “Ah, the Jewess.”

When he saw the looks on our faces, he told us he had nothing against Jews. It’s just that Peggy Guggenheim was, after all, a Jewess.

We walked away from this encounter scratching our heads.

Jewess?

Wasn’t that a word last used in 1938?

Just plain weird.

Anyway, when we weren’t seeing the tourist sites, we just did what we love to do: walked around and looked at stuff. Eat wonderful food. (Those tiny little clams in the spaghetti with clam sauce. Yummy, yum, yum.) Stop for a gelato break.

And if you like walking around and looking at stuff,eating wonderful food and indulging in a daily gelato, Venice will be your kind of town.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Venice, anyone? Arriving in style. Sort of.

I spent last week in Venice with my sister Trish, a bucket list trip for us both. I’ve been to Italy several times – a few trips to Rome, most recently in 2012. To Florence in the way back. Trish has also been to Italy. But Venice was something altogether different.

Hard to know where to begin….

We arrived mid-morning on a Saturday, after one of those exhausting all-nighters, and a somewhat chaotic lay-over in Paris that allowed just barely enough time to clear passport control and make our way to the right terminal. But made it we did, and landed an hour-and-a-half later into the mayhem that is, apparently, Aeroporto Venezia on a weekend.

Marco.

Polo.

We had pre-arranged for a water taxi to take us directly to our hotel, which was on the Grand Canal. It took a while, but we found the taxi company desk, where we were relieved to see our name in print, even if that print read Mr. and Mrs. Rogers.

There was an elderly couple ahead of us, both in wheelchairs powered by helpful airport employees, the wife tethered to an oxygen tank, and the pair trailed by a porter pushing a luggage cart with at least eight suitcases piled onto it. This was in addition to the large roller-bags the couple had by their ironsides.

The husband and wife team was told that the water taxi would not be able to get them to the door of their hotel, but would let them off nearby, from whence they could find there way to their hotel. The taxi person suggested that, once the water taxi dropped them off, they might want to call their hotel and have someone come fetch them and their bags. The reason that the taxi couldn’t make it to their door? High tide. The couple was told that they did have the option of waiting for the tide to go down, but it might be two hours, it might be six.

Our hearts dropped. We had done enough reading up to realize that, when in Venice, you really do want to be let off at the door of your hotel, not sort of nearby.

Venice is not an easy town to navigate. There are no cars, and it’s not exactly designed with pedestrian ease in mind. The main island, where we stayed, is a warren of little “streets” and passageways, some only an arm’s breadth wide. There’s not much of a grid structure, at least as far as we could tell. Wend your way around, take a couple of lefts, take a couple of rights, cross a couple of bridges that span the many little canals that run through town, and you’ll end up in a “campo”, a square with a no-longer-in-use, capped well, a church (generally) and a bit of commerce (a couple of stores, a restaurant, a gelato vendor…).

Not all of the streets aren’t marked, by the way, and some of your navigation is of the follow your nose, and the occasional sign reading “Per Rialto” or “Per San Marco”,  and you’ll eventually find your way somewhere. Try to follow the same path you took the day before, try to retrace your steps. Good luck to you!

Given what we knew about the confusion of the city’s layout, and with a warning from Rick Steve’s about not wanting to lug your roller bags up and over those little arched bridges, we were not looking forward to being dropped any place other than at the door of our hotel.

Meanwhile, Mary and her husband  (the old folks) – we never caught his name – decided to take their chances and head into the wild Venetian yonder. Mary negotiated twenty Euro off of the fee, which didn’t seem quite fair off a door to door fare of 130 Euro.

We had visions of running into Mary and the Mister, sitting amidst their many bags, in the middle of a square somewhere, but, as it turns out, there are porters with dollies at many of the drop off points. So I’m sure the vecchios were able to get to their hotel, which, Mary explained to us, they’d chosen because they actually wanted to experience more of the “real” Venice by not being on the Grand Canal, even though, when it’s high tide, the bridges are too low for the water taxis to get under.

Then it was our turn to secure our water taxi.

Fortunately, if you’re on the Grand Canal, high tide isn’t a problem.

Bravo!

A van transported us to the taxi dock – all of a couple of hundred yards from the terminal, but part of the service we’d paid big enough bucks for.

There, we were helped onto a speed boat, bobbing in the choppy water. The fellows manning the dock and the boat made sure our bags got in, then reached out and helped us on. Mind the gap, all right. I had visions of falling into the drink, shattering my shin on the way down and watching in pain as my passport floated away. Arrivaderci, passport.

Fortunately, Trish and I took the leap of faith, and made it on in one piece, but, of course, I proceeded to bonk my head on the cabin.

The ride into Venice was fun, although a bit choppy at points. I think our taxi driver was showing off a couple of times, revving his jets to give the American touristas a thrill.

It is really amazing to approach Venice, and see it rise up out of the water. But the thrill of the ride was tempered by worrying about how difficult it was going to be to disembark once we got to the hotel. Visions of falling in the drink, shattered shin bone, etc. etc.

Blessedly, between the boatman and the hotel bellman, we made it onto dry land – if there is any such thing in Venice.

Bienvenuto.

We’d made it, and, after a brief nap, began our exploration.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Baby you can drive my car, autonomously. But who pays the insurance?

Of all the necessary evils we have to go out of pocket for, is there one that’s more universally despised than car insurance?

But, baby, if you want to drive your car, you don’t really have much choice.

So we take the big deductible because, hey, we never have accidents. And then we right the big check because, hey, even with the big deductible, it still costs a ton. And maybe you have to make a claim someday, in which case it feels like a good thing to have insurance. Or maybe you never make a claim, in which case it feels like they – State Farm, Liberty, Allstate – should be writing you a big check. But of course that’s not the way insurance works. It’s just that, if you’re lucky, you won’t have anything to show for your insurance. And if you’re unlucky, then even if you get the big payoff, you’ll still have gone through a pain-in-the-butt (perhaps literally as well as figuratively) experience. (As my husband use to say about life insurance, ‘What a racket. They’re betting you’re going to live and you’re betting you’re going to die.’)

Anyway, one of the byproducts of self-driving cars will likely be the disruption of the auto insurance industry, which last year raked in nearly $200B in premiums in the US.

The big promise of self-driving cars is two-fold. One is that you’ll be able to kick back while on the road and put your makeup on, update your Instagram, and watch a video. Which is what many drivers are doing anyway, only in a self-driving car, you’ll be safe doing it. Which takes us to the next benefit of the self-driving car, which is that they’ll get in fewer accidents, most of which are caused by humans making mistakes, including but not limited to putting on makeup, updating Instagram or watching a video while driving.

With fewer accidents, insurers will have to charge less for their coverage, and premiums could fall by more than 40 percent, dragging down company profits, according to recent estimates. (Source: Boston Globe)

The reduction in accidents will reduce the payouts, so the profit drag down won’t be total. But people will, quite reasonably, expect to pay a lot less if the risk of having an accident decreases. And decrease they will. They’re already finding that automatic braking and front collision warning systems are reducing crashes by 40 and 23 percent respectively.

Fully self-driving cars won’t be barreling around the highways and byways tomorrow, but it will probably happen a lot faster than most of us expect.

For insurers, it’s going to be a big disrupter, and there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered.

You won’t be driving, so why will it be you’re responsibility if your car gets in an accident? Won’t it be the car’s fault? So why shouldn’t the car maker, or the hardware company that makes the embedded sensors that make self-driving possible, or the software companies that code up the self-driving devices, pay for the insurance?

It will take a while to get used to self-driving cars. A lot of people will still want to see the USA in a Chevrolet that they’re driving. So what happens if someone gets the urge to grab the wheel and just go? And won’t there have to be overrides for when the autonomous technology fails. Which it will. What if the “driver” was napping in the backseat and something happens? What about terrible drivers? Are they now off the hook – as long as they don’t do any actual driving?

What if you don’t keep up with the updates? What it your car is an old beater, bought second hand at one of those crummy used car lots with the plastic pennants?

The insurance companies are all over it, of course. Let’s face it, if anyone’s going to be good at risk analysis it’ll be an insurance company.

Liberty Mutual is studying autonomous vehicles and driver behavior with MIT’s Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium and at its own lab in Hopkinton. The company has already started offering drivers discounts if cars have certain semiautonomous safety features that slow down the vehicle to avoid tailgating, trigger alarms if the driver swerves into another lane, and warn about potential blind spots.

Boston is going to be a testing ground for self-driving cars, possibly starting later this year. I know I’ll be weirded out when I see one zipping by. And I know I’ll be even more weirded out when I’m in one zipping around. Still, I’d like to see it happen in my lifetime. I won’t be an early adopter.But I do like to get in a car and go driving somewhere.

I also like to ride, so once the early adopters prove it out, I’m sure I’ll get someth8ing of a kick – in a weirded out kind of way – of being chauffered around by a car driving on its own.

As for paying insurance premiums, I haven’t owned a car in years.  When I need a car, I drive Zipcars (insurance included) and Avis rentals (I usually take an insurance option). Never say never, but I have neither the intention nor the desire to own a care ever again. Thus I may not ever have to have car insurance, ever again. But if I do, I’ll be delighted if the premiums are less than I was paying back in my car-owning days. In the meantime, I won’t be losing much sleep over whether the insurance industry is being disrupted.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Not my cup of IoT

The iKettle bills itself as “the world’s first Wi-Fi kettle,” which lets you “boil your kettle with your smart phone, anywhere in your home.” (Okay: you’re really not boiling your kettle with your smart phone, unless it’s one of the Samsung exploding Galaxies. You’re setting the kettle to boil, thank you.)

A Wi-Fi tea kettle. Because, you know, it’s just such a strain to have to walk into the kitchen and either put the kettle on the burner or turn on your electric tea kettle. After I burnt out the aluminum bottom of my whistling stovetop tea kettle, covering the burner with big drips of molten aluminum, I started using the electric tea kettle. And it’s great.

But an electronic tea-kettle? Really?

I’m not jumping up and down in anticipation of the Internet of Things (IoT). Sure, controlling your HVAC or security system: righteous applications! But do we really need a fridge that sends us a smartphone alert when there’s only a gulp of milk left in the bottom of the bottle? Do we really need a tea kettle with embedded sensors that we can control from afar? Maybe everything that can be embedded will be embedded. Maybe everything that can be connected will be connected. Strike those maybes. Everything that can be embedded and connected will be. In fact, a new term for the IoT is starting to come into use. In some circles, it’s now the Internet of Everything.

But when it gets down to the tea kettle level, it sure sounds like technology in search of an use, not the other way around.

Meanwhile, British techie Mark Rittman decided to buy a Wi-Fi tea kettle. And then proceeded to try out his Wi-Fi tea kettle.  

It sounded simple enough, but — as Rittman had to integrate the iKettle into his already very well-connected home — it didn't quite go according to plan. (Source: Mashable)

So he live-tweeted throughout the 11 hours it took him to make himself a cuppa. (It’s definitely worth giving the Mashable article a glance. Perhaps while your watched pot is coming to a boil.)

IoT devices will get easier to use over time. But unless and until IoT-ing becomes as easy as using a phone, all these nifty, why-not IoT devices won’t reach anywhere near mass adoption. No one other than a die-hard techie would have the fortitude to devote 11 hours to setting up a tea kettle. But for the time being, this is what you may encounter if you really don’t want to get up from the couch and make yourself a cup of tea.

Let me know when there’s an app that will fill the kettle with fresh water, turn it on, pour it over a tea bag in the mug I want to use now – maybe the Moody’s Diner one, for a change - let it steep, add milk and sugar, and bring it to me. Oh, and how about getting me a biscotti to wash down while you’re at it.

That does it. I’m now in search of a cup of Irish Breakfast and a cookie. But I’m doing it the old fashioned way – electric, not electronic.

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And I raise my cup to my brother-in-law, Rick, for sending this article my way.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Duck, duck, duck, goose

Two of the places where I walk most frequently, the Boston Public Garden and the Esplanade (along the Charles River) are overrun with Canada geese. Now I have nothing against Canada geese in the abstract. They look nice on Christmas cards with a wreathe around their necks and all that. But up-close and personal,canadagoose_tcm9-18252 these are some nasty little ol’ critters.

They saunter around like they own the place, right in my path. And while I don’t exactly own the place, I am a taxpayer. So I more or less help pay for the place. Which Canada geese most decidedly do not.

We didn’t use to have these POS-creators. Then all of a sudden, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, they were everywhere.

And the problem is, they are scat artists par excellence, leaving their greenish white cigar shaped turds wherever the decide to saunter. Which is always right in my path.

We used to just have mallards on the Esplanade and in the Public Garden. Think Make Way for Ducklings, which is set in both of these spots. The ducks are still there, and one of my late-spring highlights is seeing one of the mallard moms paddling around the Public Garden lagoon or in the Charles River, trailed by a flotilla of ducklings.

I don’t know where mallards crap, but it’s not on the walkways of the Public Garden or the Esplanade.(Are there tiny little mallard toilets that I’ve missed seeing over the years?) Unlike their goosey, less fastidious cousins, who seem to crap willy-nilly.

And it’s not just the parks that I frequent. These SOG’s are everywhere.

A week or so back, I read that Boston’s City Council has held a hearing to try to figure out what the city can do about it. According to experts, there are a number of options:

Border collies can drive geese from certain public areas. Special fencing can cordon off geese to a limited range. Goose eggs can be addled to hinder gosling births. Residents can stop feeding them. (Source: Boston Globe)

I’ve got another one: My cousin MB, who lives on a pond on Cape Cod, is sometimes plagued by Canada geese. When they were having company, her late husband used to go out in the backyard and crack a bull whip. He didn’t go after the geese. Just making the whip-cracking noise was enough to keep them at bay for a bit.

Alas, 

…individually, each method might not be enough to combat the waterfowl’s perceived influx to the city.

Perceived influx into the city? Where has this writer been? Clearly not walking in our fair city’s parks.

“We need a massive amount of resources to get to every nook and cranny” where geese are, said Boston City Councilor Mark Ciommo. “This is a public health concern ... a quality-of-life issue.”

I’m with Mark Ciommo. It’s definitely a quality-of-life-issue. And it’s costing a lot of the parks’ budget to clean up after these no-good-niks.

The City Council also explored fining people who feed the geese. Bring it on. (Maybe go after the pigeon feeders while we’re at it. I haven’t seen the feral-cat feeding ladies, who used to leave tins of cat food in doorways all over the Hill, in years, but they’d be on the fine list, too. I will confess that I have been known to break bread for the mallards.) And bring on the border collies, the special fencing, the egg addling.

What’s addling, you may ask? (I did.)

Addling is somehow getting the egg away from the goose, doing something to destroy the embryo, and somehow getting the egg back under the unsuspecting goose, so they think that they’ve got something going. So that they don’t lay another, more viable egg. One way to addle is to coat the egg with corn oil. But not just anyone can do that.

For starters, you need an egg addling permit from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

And you can only addle eggs on your own property. And, as the FAQ on egg addling permits notes:

It's important to understand that the presence of Canada geese is not a sufficient reason to acquire a permit to addle eggs; there must be a reasonable basis for addling eggs, such as property damage.

State and municipal entities must also get permits, and they’re only allowed to addle on state and municipal property. They can’t go addling on private properties.

So I guess I can only get a permit if one of those Canada geese makes it into the fenced off frontage of our building, which is unlikely. And I’d have to demonstrate property damage. Is a shoe sole covered with goose crap enough?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

This is the dawning of the Age of Ophiuchus?

I don’t spend much time thinking about my zodiac sign.

Sure, when the astrology column is right in front of my face, I’ll give it a glance. But other than knowing that I’m a Sagittarius, I really never gave any thought to what it all means. Is your zodiac sign supposed to be in some way determinant? Was I supposed to marry an Aquarius, or was that bad juju?

Although I don’t spend much time thinking about, I was a bit taken aback to learn that NASA has added a new sign into the mix – something called Ophiuchus – to better align things, astronomy-wise.

For most folks, having a new sign shoe-horned in there is likely to have pushed them into a new sign. Thus, my Aquarian husband would now be a Capricorn. (Or is it the other way around?) That’s disconcerting enough, I suppose. But to have your perfectly good sign replaced by a heretofore unknown clunker, well, that takes you well beyond disconcerting.

As it turns out, I’m one of the true victims of the New Zodiac World Order. I’m now an Ophiuchus.

The source of my new knowledge was some of my (male, surprisingly – who knew that men followed the zodiac news?) gym buddies, who brought it up in conversation the other day. When I said that I was December 1, they told me that the new sign for my birthday was “something that began with an O.”

Oh?

Ophiuchus.

Not that I know how to pronounce, but it sure sounds ugly. Like a . medical condition. Nothing too serious. Fungal toenails. Projectile vomit. Something like that.

And the symbol is pretty creepy.

Sagittarius was odd enough: a centaur with a bow and arrow.

But Ophiuchus? Ophi-yuck-us!

13th-sign

A guy who looks like Father Time (or a less-fun Mister Natural) handling a snake that’s threaded through his legs. (Did the illustrator back in the day really have to go there?)

And I feel about snakes about the same way I feel about rats. And clowns. Creepy. Nasty. Must-avoid.

So little comfort derived from learning that the alternative name for Ophiuchus is Serpentarius.

Snake Bearer vs. my old friend, Sagittarius the Archer.

People born under the sign are thought to be seekers of knowledge and also have a flamboyant style of dress. (Source: Inverse)

Well, I’ve always been a seeker of knowledge (or info, or maybe just interesting stuff). But as I sit here in my jeans, fleece, and LL Bean moccasin slippers, I think I’m failing that flamboyant style of dress thing. I do have a number of fairly interesting sweaters, but I wouldn’t exactly characterize them as flamboyant.

Here’s the real kicker: Ophiuchus doesn’t have an opposite sign, meaning you can no longer justify your dating life with “opposites attract.”

Well, I don’t exactly have a dating life to justify, but, if I do take up geriatric dating, or astrology, at least I won’t have to bother worrying about whether I’ve got an opposite number out there, under my new found stars.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Going Aéropostale. (Chalk one up for the teen set.)

Having been a kid myself once, I understand just what it feels like to want to have the same clothing that all the other kids have. For the most part, my daily sartorial decisions were pretty much made for me. In both grammar school and high school, day in, day out, I wore a hunter-green jumper and white blouse. U-shaped neck in grammar school; v-neck in high school. Short-sleeved blouse with rick-racked Peter Pan collar in grammar school; long-sleeved, men’s wear-look shirt in high school

Of course, there was after school and weekends, and, certainly by junior high, I wanted what the other girls had.

In eighth grade, all of my friends had an identical red windbreaker. I wore mine with a sweater under it on plenty of days when I should have been wearing my winter coat. My pals and I would stand their shivering in the schoolyard in our flimsy little windbreakers, like a little flock of cardinals.

In high school, I still wanted what the other girls had. So when I was in civvies, I wore wheat jeans and denim cut-offs, madras shirts and madras skirts (not together, of course), poor-boy sweaters, and black stirrup pants, etc. When I had the money – which didn’t happen that often – I went brand-name, and shopped Filene’s Basement for Villager, John Meyer of Norwich, and Lady Bug. And, of course, I wore Bass Weejun penny loafers.

Back in those days, there were no outward signs of what brand you were wearing. Other than if someone used the Lady Bug tiny little stick pin with the ladybug on it, you just had to know what the brand was. None of this logo-wear stuff that became prevalent later on, when I was well past caring about what anyone else thought.

When did the logos get so important? With Ralph Lauren and his man on the polo horse? The LaCoste alligator shirts? (My friend Marie’s son Chris, when in kindergarten, really wanted one of those. Marie was going to be dipped if she paid for a LaCoste shirt for a five-year-old, but she felt bad for her little guy. So she took a razor blade and scraped the alligator off of one of her husband’s rag-bag shirts and sewer in on a no-brand shirt for Chris. That was over 30 years ago, so it’s been a while.)

One of the big teen brands over the past decade has been Aérpostale.

Two years ago, Aérpostale Chief Executive Officer Julian Geiger shared his view of the adolescent shopper. “The teenager today wants to fit in,” he told analysts. “They want to fit in by wearing things that make them feel safe. If there’s a brand promise for Aéropostale, it’s that the teenager can wear our clothes, go to school, and not be teased or made fun of the way they look.”

It turned out he was wrong. After decades of battling rivals  Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle, brands that sought to reposition themselves after realizing normal didn’t sell anymore, Aéropostale doubled down and ended up the ultimate loser in the teen fashion wars. More broadly, the bankruptcy of this giant of the American mall is a cautionary tale for other retailers, like Gap Inc. and its Banana Republic unit: Not only are teenagers happy to stand out these days—so are their parents. (Source: Bloomberg)

Looks like the kids decided that they didn’t want to do any free advertising for companies when they were already overpaying for that logo-wear, and started looking for places where they can get clothing that’s more interesting, has more personality, and is not as cookie-cutter as Aérpostale.

The bad news for Aérpostale was that once they took the logo off, there was nothing to distinguish their clothing.

Over five years, they lost 40 percent of their sales. In May, the company filed for Chapter 11 protection and had to shutter 150 stores. When the kids stopped liking the logo look – which apparently started in the early 2010s – they had less cushion to fall back on than higher-end brands like Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister, as Aérpostale prices were lower as were their margins.

I’m actually delighted that the kids have been fleeing the logos. I always thought it was kind of silly to wear some product name emblazoned across your chest, unless it was given to you for free. (When I wear my Red Sox gear, the logos are ultra-subtle.) But somehow I don’t think kids have changed all that much that most of them don’t want to look like everyone else, whether it’s blaring a logo or not. My guess is that all this personality-filled, non-cookie cutter clothing looks pretty much all the same. And that’s probably just what kids that age want and need.

I got a lot of pleasure out of that red windbreaker, those Weejun penny loafers. Kids haven’t changed that much.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Speaking of vacation…

Yesterday, I posted about unlimited vacation. As it turns out, I have a limited vacation of my own coming up. So I spent a rainy last weekend pulling things together for my trip. The first thing I started to pull together was my electronics gear, starting with pulling together my adapter plugs.

Even though I keep my adapters in the same place, it seems that every time I go overseas, I can’t remember what that same place is. So I end up going out and buying a new plug. This year, vacation prepper that I’ve become, I found my cache of adapters. There was one old-school plastic kit that contained a different plug for pretty much every place on earth. Oddly, the one for non-UK, non-Ireland Europe seemed to be missing. Which was too bad because the place I’m going to is Italy, smack dab in the middle of non-UK, non-Ireland Europa.

Fortunately, I had three – count ‘em three – of those one-for-all-all-for-one adapter plugs that works sort of like a transformer or a Rubik’s Cube. You do a little swiveling around action, a flick of the wrists, you find the country of choice. Plug and play!

Unfortunately, my recall is that one of these – which one, who knows – was with me on my last trip to Italy in 2013. And it didn’t work.

Anyway, just to make sure, I’ll be packing all three, and leave the one that doesn’t work behind at the hotel.

I piled the adapter plugs onto my staging chair, and tossed in the itty-bitty-booklight that I’d come across on my way to finding all those adapter plugs.

Not that I’ll be needing that itty-bitty-booklight, since I’m planning on packing my Kindle, rather than a bunch of books. And that Kindle works without needing a light.

So I went in search of the Kindle, which I haven’t used in a few months, maybe longer. It was near-death, so I thought I’d juice up the battery. I’ve used my old Blackberry power adapter for that in the past, haven’t I? I sure thought so, but it did zip when I plugged it in.

This sent me on a hunt for the Kindle power adapter. I looked in all the places I thought it might be. And then looked again. It was nowhere to be found.

The good news was that, in my travels, I found two hairbrushes that had gone missing. I am so happy to have found them, as, over the past two weeks, I’ve stopped into three different CVS stores looking for replacements. Curiously, none of those CVS stores had any hairbrushes. Just empty shelves where the hairbrushes should have been. I googled ‘hairbrush shortage’ and it came up empty. Wonder what was up with that. Thankfully, I didn’t invest in new hairbrushes, now that I’ve found those that had somehow gone MIA. (Did I really toss two hairbrushes into my bed stand? Why?)

But I now have my hairbrush in my cosmetics bag, which is sitting with the adapter plugs and the itty-bitty-booklight on the staging chair.

Meanwhile, where was that errant Kindle power adapter?

Somehow, it miraculously appeared. I have no recall of where it was, but I was just about to mutter the St. Anthony’s Prayer when it did. Dear St. Anthony, please look around, something’s lost and can’t be found.  No atheists in foxholes, and no non-believers when you’re looking for that crucial Kindle adapter.

But somehow, even without prayer, it miraculously appeared. Perhaps I muttered the magic word and it just dropped down, like Julius the Duck on the old Groucho Marx show, You Bet Your Life.

So I plugged my Kindle in and brought it back to life. And ordered a few books to take with me to Venice.

Two novels – Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney – and two memoirs – Negroland by Margo Jefferson and Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance.

As my Kindle ace in the hole, I have a copy of Bleak House (Dickens) on there. It was free, and I’m a bit embarrassed that I never finished it when it was assigned in high school. (I remember it as being 1,020 pages long, but I don’t think that’s possible. Maybe it just read that way. Each page the written equivalent of a dog year.) So if I breeze through the four downloads, I’ll always have Bleak House. That should keep the reading pace down a bit.

On travel day, I’ll add my laptop (remember the plug!) and my phone (remember the power supply!) and I’ll be, electronically speaking, all set to jet.

Next up: what to wear, what to wear.

Correction.

I know what to wear. Black pants, black shoes, and a sweater.

The question is not what to wear. It’s what to pack.

I’ve already given up on the idea of just taking a carry on bag. Too much room taken up by all those electronics.

But it’s only a week, and I don’t mind wearing the same shirt a couple of days running. And I pretty much know where all my clothing is. No prayers to St. Anthony’s to turn up those black shoes for me. I know just where they are. Packing my clothing should be easy-peasy.

Note to self: remember to pack the Italian phrasebook. Ciao, bella!

Friday, October 14, 2016

“Dept. of WTF Bob Dylan Nobel Laureate”

Please allow me to introduce myself…

Oh, my bad. That’s the Stones. Maybe next year, fellows.

But please, do allow me to introduce myself as someone who has certainly been a Bob Dylan fan in my time. That time is mostly in the past. Other than the (predictably) awful Christmas album – which I posted about way back in 2009, in 'When you're lost in the rain in Juarez, and it's Christmastime, too' (Bob Dylan's got "Christmas in the Heart.") – the last Dylan album I bought was Nashville Skyline in 1969. Whenever CD’s started replacing vinyl, I bought replacement CD’s for those albums, and I do occasionally play them. But I was a fan from the 1960’s up through the early 1970’s. Then I pretty much lost track of him, other than to be aware that he does a lot of corporate gigs, and that sometimes his songs show up in ads.

Still, Bob and I do go back a way.

When normal kids were mooning over Paul McCartney, I was playing my sister Kath’s Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and fantasizing that I was the long-haired girl on Bobby’s arm, strolling through a slushy street in the Village. Bob_Dylan_-_The_Freewheelin'_Bob_DylanMy first Bob Dylan records were Kath’s. Then I started buying my own. At one point, I had the Peter Max Bob Dylan poster up on my wall. One of my sweetest college memories was walking across campus on a lovely spring morning and hearing “Lay Lady Lay” blasting out a dorm window. I’m pretty sure I could put any one of those early albums on and sing along without missing a word. When I want a good cry, I play Joan Baez covering “Forever Young”.

But while I have liked and admired his work over the year, I was stunned to read the news yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. The first lyric that came to mind was “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this.”

My second thought was: WTF? I must call Kath.

So I picked up the phone to call my sister, when I saw that she’d beat me to the WTF punch, Kath having sent me this ‘nuf said text:

Dept. of WTF Bob Dylan Nobel Laureate

I just plain do not get it.

I’m not always familiar with, and have sometimes not even heard of the Nobel winners for literature. (I’m looking at you, Jean-Marie Gustave LeClézio).Sometimes I know the winners, but am not a big fan of their work (Orhan Pamuk). Sometimes I discover a writer and fall in love with their work, based on their having won the prize (Heinrich Böll). And sometimes I already know and love their work (Alice Munro).

But Bob Dylan. Sure, poetic, for a song writer. But he’s no Seamus Heaney (a past poet winner I was delighted to see get the award).

Any number of deserving writers come to my mind, starting with Edna O’Brien, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, serious writers who have contributed critical works of literature over many decades. Bob Dylan?

Kath and I aren’t the only ones who are WTF-ing-ly perplexed. (“I would not be so all alone…”)

The Guardian listed a bunch of reactions, and my favorite was a tweet from Guardian editor Alex Needham, who wrote:

Hello, it’s Alex Needham taking over this blog from New York. Earlier, I “reached out” (as we say in these parts) to Jonathan Franzen for his reaction to Dylan’s Nobel win. The eminent novelist replied:

It’s a bitter disappointment to those of us who hoped that Morrissey would win this year. But it gives us hope for next year.

Magnificent.

I am a non-fan of Jonathan Franzen. (Give me Stewart O’Nan any old day.) And I would not be delighted to see him win the Nobel. But this is a gem.

Why Bob Dylan?

“The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

What will that zany Nobel prize committee think of next?

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Unlimited vacation days? Bet that’s not an unalloyed good.

A couple of weeks back, there was an article in The Boston Globe on local companies that offer unlimited vacation days to their employees.

Writer Scott Kirsner asked around and:

…found a number of tech companies — startups and more mature employers — that offer an unlimited or “open” vacation policy. They include home goods retailer Wayfair; marketing software provider HubSpot; the security and content delivery firm Akamai; Acquia, which makes software for running websites; and Kronos, which provides workforce management software. (Source: Boston Globe)

Back in the day, there was no such thing as unlimited vacation days. Most places I worked for offered three weeks for starters, increasing to four weeks after five or ten years. I never quite made it to ten years at anyplace I worked, but I did grab the four week goodie a couple of times. Although I never used it all up, four weeks was great. Psychologically, it meant that you could take here-and-there days off without worrying about it eating into your “real” vacation. And back in the day, I often took two weeks off for that “real” vacation. The theory at the time was that, in order to really wind down and get the benefit of a vacation, you needed to get away for two weeks. Doing so meant that, during the first week, you could relax just knowing that ‘a week from today I’ll still be on vacation’. As opposed to sitting there fretting that ‘a week from today I’ll be back at work.’ Three weeks pretty much worked the same way.

(This was, of course, back when you weren’t connected 24/7, which was just coming into vogue as my full-time career ended and I became a free-lancer. Now, I guess I get unlimited vacation – an upside of working for yourself. On the other hand, if you’re not working, you’re not making any money – a downside of working for yourself.)

But when I was at Wang, you started with a measly two weeks, which was just terrible. I guarded those days so closely, I was barely willing to take any time off. Forget those stray here-and-there days. They were impossible. But Wang (to me, anyway) was such a miserable place to work, you absolutely needed time off. (It was the only place where I worked that I ever felt entitled/compelled to actually take a mental health day.)

Unlimited? Unfathomable for us oldsters.

But these days,

“It’s definitely a trend,” says Marcus Tgettis, vice president of global talent at digital services provider Endurance International Group of Burlington, which has an unlimited vacation policy…In part, Tgettis says, it’s a way to “encourage employees who are generally working more hours — they’re plugged in all the time — to take time off, break away, and decompress. We see it as important to productivity.”

Theoretically, anyway.

For as Kirsner found – as I surmised he would, knowing what I know about present day tech culture, even if I only see it at the remove of being a contractor – unlimited vacation days are not an unalloyed or universally popular good.

At companies that moved away from fixed vacation day policies, some folks didn’t like it because they could no longer bank days and save them for a big payout day when they decided to quit. Meh, who cares about the quitters? Some long-term employees, who’d earned their four- or five-week vacations by staying put were pissed that all of a sudden newbies had the same benefits that they’d earned.

But the real downside is that a company might offer it, but not really. What they’re making is a real fake offer. The company’s culture is such that no one would think of taking advantage of unlimited vacation. In fact, some folks found that, with unlimited, because of cultural/peer pressure, they ended up taking less vacation time than when they had a fixed amount.

Brendan Caffrey of the Cambridge e-mail delivery startup Litmus Software said his company “explicitly chose not to offer unlimited, because anecdotally, we heard bad things,” like that it can create “a culture of discouraging/shaming those who take time off.”

Many years ago, when I was still a full-time working girl, I had a long planned vacation that involved a movable feast of friends and family, renting a house on a charming cove in Maine. Long after these plans were made, a new CMO swung into town, and he had plans of his own. BIG PLANS. We were going to have a product launch to end all product launches, one that would introduce an entirely new product category. I was anointed the launch captain for this launch to end all launches, which pretty much made me the overall project manager for all the elaborate bits and pieces for what was a very elaborate and exceedingly expensive product campaign for our company.

A few weeks before my vacation – which was scheduled for a few weeks before the mega launch – Mr. CMO announced at a meeting of his direct reports that he wanted all of us to cancel our vacation plans.

A couple of suck-ups went right into will-do mode, but I told him that, in my case, I had no intention of changing my plans. After all, it wouldn’t be necessary. I was planning on leaving the project in good shape, and I trusted the person who would oversee things while I was gone. Mr. CMO didn’t like it, but, what the hell.

As I said at the time, twenty years from now, I was going to be a lot happier that I went on vacation with my friends and family than I would be if I’d stayed put to work on the dumb-arse product launch on which the company spent more than $1M (which was an extraordinary amount to spend on a B2B – i.e., non-consumer – product). Which didn’t result in any new category creation. (Hah! I’d told Mr. CMO that it wasn’t a new category.) And, most amazing, we didn’t sell ANY of the exact product that we launched. We only produced revenues by deciding to attribute everything that we sold that was anything like the fizzled out product (which was actually a set of services, not a physical product) to the fizzled out product itself,

So happy to be out of the fray where I have to worry about someone vacation-shaming me…

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The grass is always greener when you live in a place with water

The other day, along with my sister and niece, I did a drive-by of the house I grew up in. There have been times in the past when it looked pretty ratty – for a while there was a pentagram spray-painted on its side – but lately it’s been in good shape. The lawn was a victim of this year’s drought, but it was basically okay.

Basically okay was not how our front lawn looked during my childhood. When my father was alive, the front lawn was beautiful. From spring through fall, our frontyard was like an emerald green velveteen carpet. Our backyard, which looked like most folks’ front yards, was our playground. Tag, hide and seek, Simon Says, catch, badminton, sledding. It’s where we had the sandbox and the swing set, and where we hung out under the big oak tree playing board games. And it’s where my mother hung the washing out.

But the frontyard was sacred territory. At school, we’d been told that it was a mortal sin to walk on the “holy grass” that bordered the church. It was pretty much the same at home. When you walked on the front lawn, you used the flagstone path. No cutting diagonally if it was the fastest route. You kept to the flagstones, unless there was some special dispensation and we were allowed to go barefooting for a bit.

The care and feeding of the front lawn was meticulously attended to. My father had special flat sprinklers that he used for watering. (The backyard just had whirly-bird sprinklers, and on a hot day we could put on our bathing suits and run through them.) To mow the front lawn, he used a hand mower. For the backyard, a power mower did the trick. And all of the Rogers kid learned early the best way to remove an all-offensive dandelion: with a screwdriver, making sure to pull up all the roots.

This year’s drought played some havoc with the local lawns, but the ability to water your lawn is generally something you don’t normally have to think twice about in New England. Water’s one resource we can usually draw on.

Not so in Southern California, which is not as naturally green, grassy, and watery as most of New England is to begin with, and which has been experiencing a multi-year drought. Which makes it tough for Californians to have the sort of emerald velveteen lawn my father specialized in.

In response, many Californians have installed “drought-tolerant landscaping.”

When I think about “drought-tolerant landscaping” I think desert garden, and they can be beautiful. Not green-velveteen beautiful. But beautiful, nonetheless. Not so for some who chose to redo their landscaping with an outfit called Turf Terminators. What they got was gravel and a bunch of dead and dying plants.

“We thought we were doing the right thing to save water,” Staci Terrace Goldfarb, a Southern California homeowner, said late last winter. “I hate looking at it.”…Fourteen months after the initial job, [her] shrubs looked uniformly stubby. Some were withering. Weeds poked up through the rocks. This month, Goldfarb wrote in an e-mail, “My yard just looks worse than ever. So sad, the plants may be drought tolerant, but certainly not heat tolerant. Soon I could end up with all rocks.” (Source: Bloomberg)

Most people don’t have Beverly Hills money to invest in drop-dead gorgeous landscaping, putting in “eco-havens of olive trees, white-flowered chamise shrubs, and California golden violets with, perhaps, paths of decomposed granite wending through them.”

For those can’t afford white-flowered chamise shrubs, Turf Terminators looked like a great alternative. And their business, the brainchild of millennial entrepreneurs with fancy-pants Columbia University educations, really took off.

In less than two years, the company removed 16 million square feet of grass from 12,000 lawns. During that time, Turf Terminators was the veritable face of water-saving landscaping in and around Los Angeles, praised by government officials and some customers for providing a fast, affordable way to get rid of grass. But it also left behind a trail of complaints like Goldfarb’s.

Turf Terminators took an interesting business approach, taking advantage of a rebate programs set up by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the LA Department of Water and Power. Between the two programs,residents of LA could get $3.75 per square foot for getting their thirsty turf terminated. The deal was, customers would sign over their rebate and their lawn would be replaced at no cost. Over time, Turf Terminators managed to rake in $44 million in rebate dollars.

Unfortunately, the Turf Terminators modus operandi shoddy.

It’s the cheapest in-and-out thing that they can possibly do,” said Melanie Winter, director of the River Project, an L.A. nonprofit that aims to restore and preserve original waterways…“If you’re going to transform a landscape, you should do it in a way that adds the most value,” Winter said. That means not only using less water but also reclaiming as much of it as possible, as well as providing cooling shade to reduce evaporation and overall warming. Gravel radiates more heat than lawns, dead or thriving, helping to create, along with AstroTurf and paving, what environmentalists consider an urban heat island.

So replacing your lawn with Turf Terminators took things from bad to worse. Needless to say, the Terminators feel differently. And some of their customers, if not exactly thrilled, feel that the approach was a “quick fix” that would at least get them started on the road to a more environmentally friendly front yard. 

Anyway, there’s now a movement afoot to stop the “gravelscaping” of LA.

Their cri de coeur: “Even ‘shallow’ L.A. can become known for beauty that is more than skin deep.” Gray water systems would be a more efficient investment than turf removal. Soil retains water, and planting deep-rooted flora encourages pollinators and would help cool the parched city.

Meanwhile, Turf Terminators has pretty much terminated their business.

And meanwhile/meanwhile, even in places where there is generally plenty of water, there’s mounting opposition to green lawns, which do suck up a lot of water and stay green and grassy thanks to some pretty nasty chemicals used to fertilize and weed-whack. Every weed is not taken out the Al Rogers way, with a screw driver.

When the fatwa on lawns occurs here, I hope we’ll learn something from Turf Terminators’ gravelization approach.

Until lawns are outlawed – at which point, only outlaws will have lawns – the grass will always be greener if you live in a place with water, even if it doesn’t measure up to the one my father maintained, all those many years ago. (I can still feel that front yard grass beneath my feet. Thanks for that memory, Dad.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Creepy clowns? They’re back.

The Cold War gave us all sorts metaphorical red-scare science fiction movies, in which we were invaded by the body snatchers and worried about the day the earth stood still. The Blob. The Fly. They were all out there, ready to spring on a complacent, Ozzie and Harriet America. The incredible shrinking man? That was the USA, weak and puny, in no position to stand up to the Red Menace.

We seem to be responding to our most recent threat du jour with a rash of creepy clown incidents.

I know what you’re thinking. Why bother to modify the word “clown” with “creepy?” After all, there’s really no other sort, is there?

But whether those throes are creepy clown or just plain clown, we’re in the throes of a full-blown creepy clown epidemic.

Just the other day, NPR wrote about America’s “scary clown problem,” which had as its Ground Zero, Greenville, SC, “where there were reports that ‘suspicious clowns were attempting to lure children into the woods.’” Since then there have been any number of incidents. across the US.

The reports were unsettling even for those who don't suffer coulrophobia, or the fear of clowns. And in the weeks since, the clown situation — there's no way around it — has gotten worse.

NPR sorts the incidents (which in some cases are imaginary, and in many other have no evidence to back them) into three buckets:

Creepy clowns. A woman in California reported that “a man in a clown suit attempted to snatch her 1-year-old child out of her arms at a bus stop in broad daylight.” A Texas man claimed that a couple of assault-rifle toting clowns confronted him when he was out walking his dog. It may not have been all that threatening, as “the tense situation was resolved when the victim ‘retreated into his residence to get a bigger dog,’ and the clowns drove away.” Let’s face it, a really creepy clown – especially one packing an AR - might not have let the guy go back into his house to get that big dog.

In some cases, clowns have been arrested for doing things like chasing people with sticks, and, in one incident in Illinois, for wearing a clown mask while cutting brush with a chain saw. (Is that really against the law anywhere?)  Another clown was pinched for “terrorizing people with a horn.” (Is that really against the law anywhere?)

The epidemic has even spread to Canada. O Canada! No, not Canada! God help us.

The second group is threats against schools.

Across the country, dozens of schools have had to cope with threats posted on social media accounts promising violence — with pictures of terrifying clowns attached.

In some jurisdictions, the threats are being investigated. In others, a child or teenager has been arrested and charged with posting the noncredible threat. Several police spokesmen describe these as copycat incidents, with students inspired by hearing of other clown-related threats.

There’ve been plenty of arrests and, in a number of cases, the threaten-ers have been charged with felonies. Even if you find clowns funny, that’s no laughing matter. With a felony conviction, someone charged with phoning in a clown threat could end up not being allowed to vote. On the other hand, maybe someone who calls in a clown threat shouldn’t be allowed to vote, especially in the event of a creepy clown finding his or her way onto the ballot, as has been known to happen.

The third category is what NPR calls “unfounded hysteria.”

Creepy clowns are creepy. But the panic over creepy clowns can easily be greater than any actual threat from bemasked individuals.

In more than a dozen cases, reports of creepy clowns have led to arrests — not of scary entertainers, but of the people police say lied about their sightings.

All this has had a terrible impact on actual clowns, some of whom, I will admit, are probably nice enough, at least when they’re not in clown their full blown clown regalia and greasepaint.

Clown troupes are rejecting invitations to parades. Moms are canceling clown bookings to children’s parties. Clowns are staying away from sick children at the hospital, and some have faced arrest for trying to do their jobs of making people laugh. They fear going out in the attire of their chosen career. (Source: WSJ

As of the WSJ article, there’ve been clown incidents in 38 states.

Even the White House has weighed in, warning law enforcement officials to take them “quite seriously.” And the Fargo PD – certainly no strangers to weird phenomena – have tweeted out:

Can we all agree that dressing as a creepy clown, now, or for Halloween is probably not the best idea?! #TooSoon#YoureSuspicious

Given the nature of our country, vigilante groups have formed in some states to go after creepy clowns. And we’re not talking the UConn beer’d up clown posse armed with hockey sticks.

A retired clown – sitting in mufti in a hospital caf in Columbus, Ohio – overheard (or thinks he overheard, c.f., unfounded hysteria) a bunch of guys “talking about hunting down and killing clowns.”

A police department in Utah has gotten some inquiries about whether it’s okay to shoot someone dressed as a clown. Apparently, you don’t even need to be standing your own ground to put a bullet in someone you no like. Yikes!

I don’t like clowns to begin with, so it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be caught – dead or alive – in a clown suit. But, given all the clown hysteria, I wouldn’t want to be walking around in those outsized, flapping Bozo shoes that clowns wear. Not until the hysteria dies down. (Which may or not happen after November 8th. Stay tuned!)

Monday, October 10, 2016

Immigrants Day, 2016

On holidays great and small, I tend to do a post associated with a holiday. And Columbus Day is no exception.

In the past, I’ve written that it’s a nifty little holiday. And that it is. Unless you’re in the path of Hurricane Matthew, the weather is generally pretty nice in New England. Baseball is still being played – somewhere, anyway. (As I write this, the Red Sox are facing elimination, so by Monday may be out of the mix.) While some of my clients are open for business, I pretty much take a New Englander pass and take the day more or less off. And:
I like that there are no obligations associated with Columbus Day: no special foods, no must-attend events, no present buying. It’s pretty much a free ride.
Sometimes, however, when Columbus Day rolls around, my head hurts. In 2008, when it made my head hurt, politics and the economy played a big role on my head-hurtin’ list. Here were a few of the items I had on there:
  • All mention of the Wall Street roller coaster
  • The clang of the closing bell
  • Shots of crazed traders on the floor
  • The idea that some unworthy jerks will make out from the various bailouts
  • Sarah Palin makes my head hurt; I want her to have a starring role in Fargo II, not in Washington (you betcha!).
I guess it goes without saying that, in 2016, there’s a little political someone who’s hurting my head big time. (And I thought Sarah Palin was ignorant and foul…)

In 2013, I took the day off, blogging-wise. My head didn’t hurt; my heart did. My husband was in MGH recovering from brain surgery, and we were heading into the end of his life. ‘Nuf said.

And last year, I wrote about immigrants, and in this the year of immigrant-bashing, it still seems particularly apt.

I am the daughter (on one side) and the great-grand-daughter (on the other) of immigrants. My mother, who was only 4 or so at the time, remembered being at Ellis Island, so immigration is not a faraway, back in the day notion to me. It’s for real. On a bookcase shelf, I have framed the family passport that my mother and her folks came over on. Their immigration path on my father's side was earlier (1870's) , but it's still real enough. One of my sisters has the trunk that my great-grandmother Bridget Trainor used when she came over. (Bridget packed less than I’ll be packing for my upcoming week-long trip to Venice.)
There’s been some movement over the last few years to repurpose Columbus Day to honor native Americans. We owe them something, and Columbus himself was a jerk. As I wrote:
I’m all for setting aside a day to honor Indigenous People. God knows they deserve something more than crummy reservations and the rights to casino gambling.
But if we need to rename Columbus Day – and we probably do – I’d like to see it become Immigrants Day.
Amazingly, there is no national day set aside to celebrate our immigrant past and present. (Massachusetts apparently has an Immigrants Day, but it’s not much of an anything. I’d never heard of it until I found it googling.)

But I’d like to see one. You heard it here.

Friday, October 07, 2016

A natural subscriber who just doesn’t see the point

I’m a subscriber.

Since I could first read, I’ve had magazine subscriptions. This has taken me through Jack and Jill and Calling All Girls, to Ramparts, MS, and The Village Voice, to my current list, which includes (but is not limited to) The New Yorker, The Economist, and The Atlantic.

Many years ago, I had book club subscriptions. And for a couple of years, I got a quarterly bundle of books from Kenny’s Bookstore in Ireland, hand selected for me based on the writers I liked and things about Ireland I was interested in. (Can’t remember why I stopped this service – book backlog developing, no doubt – but I may re-up. I’ll be in Galway, where Kenny’s is located, next spring, but, alas, Kenny’s has long since moved their retail operation to the outskirts of the city. It used to be right there, front and center, on High Street. Now I take it they’re largely online.)

Over the years, I’ve given people magazine subscriptions, and, when my mother was still alive, I considered the idea of fruit or the month or flowers of the month. These seemed like the types of items that someone might quite reasonably want to see every month, and take some quite reasonable pleasure and get some quite reasonable utility from.

So you might even say that I’m a natural subscriber kind of gal. But am I really?

Today, of course, you can subscribe to pretty much anything: undies, meals (complete or a box of ingredients and instructions), athletic wear, razors, makeup, snacks – because it’s way too hard to figure out how to take care of your own snacks…

There are a ton of these subscription services out there. But no one knows for sure just how many there are and what they’re worth:

Because these companies are largely privately held, it’s hard to gauge how big the market really is, but Cratejoy, a subscription marketplace, estimates subscription commerce generated $5 billion in revenue in 2014.

But these days, a record number of boxes are looking for a slice of the same pie, as more consumers seeking monthly joy log onto Amazon.com for their regular box of stuff (the e-commerce site offers recurring delivery, in which you customize your cart and pay as the items ship). It’s unclear exactly how many box services there are–box review site My Subscription Addiction lists more than 2,000 in its database. And more, like Robb Vices, continue to appear, despite the industry being plagued with layoffs, slow growth, and a capricious public. Monthly visits to various websites of online subscription companies did total more than 21 million in January, up 3,000 percent from three years earlier, according to a study by Hitwise. (Source: Bloomberg)

Ah, Robb Vices, brought to us by our friends at the 1 percenter – more likely 1 percenter wannabes – Robb Report, which, when I glanced their way, had one article on the things you need to consider when you’re going to invest in your own personal aircraft, and another on how “Glenfiddich Dresses the Modern Whisky Drinker.”

What would I have in common with someone who wants to learn how Glenfiddich dresses its drinkers?

The answer, not surprisingly, is nada.

Anyway,  Robb Vices is a monthly subscription service that sends you a goody box each month. For a monthly fee that ranges from $60 to $75, you get a “unique set of items” that they have “curated” for you. (Curate is rapidly replacing “passion” on my list of least-liked corporate buzzwords.)

Although Robb has a magazine, Robb Vices takes something of a post-verbal approach to conveying info. To see what’s in the goody box this month, they show an un-narrated video of a cutesy urban wall- and rock-climbing couple going about their wall- and rock-climbing day. It’s pretty clear that the box contains a small bottle of sake and a jar of something that looks like granola. But there may be a power bar of some kind in there, too, as the couple takes a wall- and rock-climbing break to power up. Then they keep showing a camera. For $75 a month, that camera is probably not included. But is the clip they use to attach the camera to scaffolding (him) and belt (her) part of the deal? If I were a curator of quirky Robb Vices items, I would use my words. But we’re in the world of the infographic, the pictogram, the video. Who has time these days to read even an acronym, let alone a sentence or two about a product.

Good luck to Robb Vices.

I don’t think the wind is exactly to their backs if all you get for $75 a month is a bottle of sake and a titanium clip, however carefully it’s curated.

For a couple of years there, subscription boxes were the next great thing, the potential unicorn, the disrupter. And VC’s curated $1.6B into investment boxes.

Alas for those with a light bulb going off over their heads – hmmmm, subscription light bulbs? - suggesting a new killer subscription box:

“I have worries that we’re coming to a peak,” said Josh Goldman, a general partner at Norwest Venture Partners…He has looked into investing in many subscription box services in recent years but never pulled the trigger. Boxes have spread into categories that aren’t appropriate, he said—throwaway novelties that shoppers don't stick with. The model can work only for certain kinds of goods–essentially things that shoppers need replenished (household products), or items they are willing to buy frequently anyway (clothes, makeup).

Nope. Doesn’t bode well for Robb Vices. How often do you buy sake or wooden sunglasses (an item from an earlier box)?

Subscription boxers – the folks who run these outfits, not boxer shorts that come in a subscription box (although I’m sure this service is available) – don’t, however, see their business as a played-out fad.

“It is the natural evolution of e-commerce in a marketplace that is increasingly fragmented and confusing for the consumer,” [Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp] wrote [in  recent piece on Medium]. She did concede, however, that not every subscription box will survive.

I’ll tell you what’s confusing to me as a consumer. The idea of all these subscription boxes.

Magazines and books are one thing. Fruit and flowers are another. But clips and granola are in a category all by their lonesome. I’m no market forecaster, that’s for sure. Nonetheless, I would NOT be investing in a subscription box service, no matter how well-curated it was going to be.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

A tisket, a tasket, a Rolls-Royce picnic basket

As I near the first anniversary of my condo reno, it occurs to me that it has also been quite a while since wrote a large check or made a major ‘not exactly necessary, but why not’ purchase (c.f., SubZero fridge). So I thought I’d graze around and see what was on offer, just in case the urge to splurge came over me. It’s not likely to happen, but I do like to be prepared, especially if things turn out all right, election wise, and I don’t feel the need to cash out and sneak over the Canadian border in the dead of night.

It didn’t take long for an object of my affection to come into my line of sight. Maybe we’re heading out of picnic season in these here parts, but who wouldn’t want a Rolls-Royce picnic basket? Even if it does cost $46K.

The picture doesn’t do it much justice, but what actually could do a $46K picnic basket justice, other than someone who looked like Liam RR basket 2Neeson in his prime taking you on a picnic with it.

But it’s plenty luxurious, and plenty snappy, and just the thing that I can imagine Lord Peter Wimsey pulling out of his car’s boot to impress Harriet Vane with. Or put to use by Jeeves, man-servanting for Bertie Wooster.

But why, tell me, do pictures of picnic baskets always portray cheese, grapes, and apples? (They usually feature a baguette, as well, though none is shown here.) Not that there’s anything wrong with cheese, grapes, and apples. Some of my best foods are cheese, grapes, and apples – all of which are currently sitting,at my beck and call, in that SubZero fridge of mine. Most of the picnics I’ve gone on in my life featured food stuffs like ham sandwiches and State Line potato chips, washed down with some lemonade from the plaid thermos jug. Then again, minus the SubZero, I roll in more modest circumstances than Lord Peter Wimsey or Bertie Wooster.

Anyway, the Rolls-Royce of picnic baskets – literally and figuratively – is quite a bit more luxe and pricey than the high end numbers you can get at Fortnum & Mason or Williams-Sonoma. The Fortnum & Mason fancy-pants version is only $700, and Williams-Sonoma has one for $350. Both look plenty luxurious to me, but, of course, I grew up with one that looked more of less like this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We were a large enough family that we had two, which were used on our annual trip to the beach, and the odd, occasional Labor Day picnic. If I weren’t so lazy, I’d include a picture of the actual one that I inherited, but it’s up on a shelf, full of papers. But this is the look, more or less. Today, something like this could run you $70 or so. I suspect my parents paid less than $5 for theirs.

Alas, even if I really wanted the R-R picnic basket, there’s a catch.

You can’t just buy one online. It’s an add-on, an upgrade for that Rolls-Royce you’re thinking of buying.

In honor of the last 50 Phantom coupes that the brand will ever make, it is also making 50 high-end picnic hampers that fit perfectly in the back. (The trunk of a Phantom, as you may know, opens downward, transforming into the perfect padded platform for a posh tailgate.) If you buy one, the marque will supply custom-made leather straps to keep it locked firmly in place. (Source: Bloomberg)

When you’re fork, knife, and spooning over $400K a car, what’s another $46K for a picnic basket? Especially given that the walnut is hand-carved, and the place settings have “real platinum accents, and the crystal glassware and liquor decanters are hand-etched.”

Maybe Zipcar, which does have some high-end cars for hire, and provides my wheels when I need them, will invest in a Phantom coupe. Don’t forget the picnic basket!