Wednesday, August 16, 2017

I hear Guam is lovely this time of year

Much as I loathe, despise, and – when it comes right down to it – out and out abhor Donald Trump, I will acknowledge that he does seem to possess some sort of talent for branding, for marketing, for giving his audience what they want.

Still, I’m scratching my head over is words of support for the president of Guam, spoken in the aftermath of Kim Jong Un’s disturbing threats to the safety and security of the island:

Mr. Trump said: “I have to tell you, you have become extremely famous all over the world. They are talking about Guam; and they’re talking about you.” And when it comes to tourism, he added, “I can say this: You’re going to go up, like, tenfold with the expenditure of no money.” (Source: NY Times)

Admittedly, Trump is past master of getting maximum bang for his buck. Just look at the bankruptcies, the flim-flam, and the vendor-screwing. Not to mention the ability to con the media into a kabillion dollars worth of free advertising during the election-cycle-that-dares-not-mention-its-name. And let’s not into the emoluments clause. (Do all those Secret Service golf cart rental feels fall under that?)

And he’s great with the memorable, colorful branding phrase.

But surely he can’t be right in his prediction that Guam will be experiencing a tenfold increase in tourism? Without spending any money?

First off, there’s that tenfold increase.

Last year, Guam hosted 1.5 million visitors (more than half a million from Korea, by the way). Tenfold would be 15 million.

I think you can support a tenfold increase if you’re starting with a pretty low base. Say, 1,000. Or even 10,000.

But going from 1.5 million to 15 million – over whatever reasonable period of time (and, perhaps cagily, Trump didn’t predict when this tenfolding would occur) – is pretty much unfathomable. And 15 million visitors to a country the size of Guam – population 160K. Well…

This type of growth would be plenty difficult to achieve under normal circumstances. Let alone abnormal circumstances. I.e., a proven madman threatening to drop bombs off your coast, while another likely madman is threatening to end the world as we know it, including setting off a war that will domino-effect end in the obliteration of the source of so much of Guam’s tourist traffic (i.e., from South Korea and Japan).

Sure, Guam has become “extremely famous all over the world.” But not for its waving palms, sunny days, and pristine beaches. Which I assume is what Guam has on offer. Most of what I know about Guam is that tit was the site of a major battle during WWII, that it’s an important military location for the US, and that, even if they can’t vote, Guam sends folks to our political conventions. They wear funny hats and, when they cast their votes, they always give a shout out to being the place where it’s tomorrow before anyplace else in the States.

But really and truly, is anyone actually looking up from their TV, turning to their spouse and saying, “Honey, how about Guam this year?”

Maybe Donald, Melania, and Barron can upstakes from Bedminster, NJ, and spend the last few days of their vacation in Guam, just as a show of faith and good will. Putting his – or, rather, the taxpayers’ – money where his tenfold mouth is. Or perhaps Ivanka and Jared can spin over with the kids, when Jared gets back from his upcoming deployment to the Mideast – once he delivers regional peace, that is.

I mean, wouldn’t the saber-rattling (make that nuke-rattling) on both sides give you some pause? If you want aquamarine waters and umbrella drinks, wouldn’t you be better off going to someplace in the Caribbean that’s not in Kim Jong Un’s gun sights?

That’s for new tourists, of course. The ones who’ll make up part of the tenfold increase.

Apparently, those who’re already committed to a trip to Guam are hanging in there. Or at least the tourist bureau folks are wishing and hoping that this will be the case.

The Guam Visitors Bureau has heard reports of cancellations, but [the Bureau’s Antonio] Muna said it doesn't yet have any concrete figures on how many took place. Officials are still expecting a strong August, Muna said…"Japan and Korea make over 90 percent of our arrivals. And they're much closer to North Korea than Guam is," Muna said. (Source: OregonLive)

Way to spin things, Mr. Muna: “Hey, Korean and Japanese tourists, come to Guam. Because, when you think about it, your countries are more likely to get nuked out of existence than we are. So come on over.”

Why that’s actually a spin worthy of one Donald J. Trump. Maybe marketing genius is actually contagious.

I’ll have to keep my eye on Guam’s tourism stats, but I’m not holding my breath about that 10x happening anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Think I’ll do me some back to school shopping

As a decidedly nerdly child, I always looked forward to heading back to school in September.

There was always the possibility of a new nun being transferred in. There was the fun of covering your books with brown paper bags or cool “college” covers. (At one point, I had a four pack that included Penn State, Villanova, and Kentucky, I think. Quite a random assortment. I bought it because it had a Holy Cross purple and white cover in it.) And by the end of summer, I was actually getting a bit bored with lolling around playing Monopoly and making gimp lanyards at Bennett Field.

For all the anticipation there was not much actual preparation for going back to school, not all that much back-to-school shopping to be done. Other than a new pair of Stride-Rites (grammar school) or Weejuns (high school), there wasn’t much by way of clothing purchase. Throughout grammar school and high school, I wore a green jumper and white shirt.

In grammar school, these were handed down from my sister Kath. In high school, you got your jumper and shirts freshman year, and that’s pretty much what you wore for the next four years.

You also carried your school bag until it fell apart, so that wasn’t an annual buy. For part of grammar school, I carried a hideous bright green fake suede-ish bag with the school name and logo in bright yellow. Then I graduated to what was called a Harvard book bag: a dark green rubber lined canvas bag that you slung over your shoulder.

Until seventh grade, I went home for lunch so – oh, boo-hoo – I never had the pleasure of a lunch box. What I wouldn’t have given for a red plaid lunch box with Thermos. Or a Cinderella one. Or any sort of lunch box, since that was what all the kids on TV carried. Maybe it was a suburb thing, but why didn’t any of those TV kids come home for lunch? It’s not as if their mothers did anything but hang around in crisp housedresses, heels, and pearls. Surely, they had time to heat up some Campbell’s Vegetable Beef and slap a piece of baloney on white bread.

From seventh grade on, I ate lunch at school. In seventh and eighth grade, the nuns wanted us to have something of a junior high experience, so we “ate in”, sitting at our desks, which we covered with sheets of clear plastic. There was a lunch room in our school, and not that many kids in the younger grades ate at school. So there was certainly room for us to eat there. But for some reason, we weren’t allowed to eat at the cool fold down tables in the lunch room. Maybe it would have been too much effort to pull down the tablews for us.

In high school, Catholic school became more normal, and we ate at school. In the caf. In any case, school was too far away to go home. I don’t even remember the Whelan girls, whose house was practically on the school property, going home for lunch. Anyway, from seventh through high school. I carried my lunch in a brown paper lunch bag. No back to school shopping required.

But in grammar school, there was always the new pencil case to look forward to. And a couple of black and white marble notebooks. In the later grades, a loose-leaf binder and paper was a requirement.

All this was available at Woolworth’s.

So, as exciting as going back to school was, back to school shopping was not a big deal in my world.

These days, of course, it is a big deal – lots of advertising, back to school sales, etc. And Walmart, of course, understandably wants to take advantage of the seasonal splurge.

But in one store, Guns at Walmartthey combined back to school with something of a Guns of August theme, with a sign reading “own the school year like a hero” hung over a display case full of guns.

I don’t know what – if anything - the person who hung this sign was thinking.But what comes to my mind is Columbine and Newtown.

Guns and back to school shopping don’t seem to go hand in hand. Not even at Walmart.

The sign appears to be part of an ongoing superhero-themed marketing campaign that is not related to guns. (Source: Boston Globe)

Walmart investigated the unfortunate sign, and now says that the entire matter is a prank. Not clear whether the store was pranked by an employee, a shopper, or a Photoshopper. But whatever the circumstances, Walmart is saying ‘not us.’

It’s not, of course, much of a surprise that folks jumped to a conclusion that it was something of a serious promo on the part of Walmart. After all, just last month there was the incident in which a third-party seller offering their wares on described a wig’s color as “n***** brown. And there are those who believe teachers should be armed. So why not the school kids, too?

How do the PR folks at Walmart keep up with all this? Especially when they have to be doing all that back to school shopping that didn’t even exist back in days of yore.

Me, while I don’t use a pencil box, I do enjoy shopping for office supplies. I think I need some pens. Maybe I can take advantage of the back to school sales at Staples.

Monday, August 14, 2017

All concerted out

Amazingly – to me at least – I’ve been to three concerts in the last couple of weeks.

First up was Mary Black, pretty much my favorite Irish singer. Mary is a folk singer – and then some. I’ve been a fan for years, had seen her a few times in concert, and have about a dozen of her CD’s. A couple of years ago, she did what was billed as her final tour. Unfortunately, I missed the Boston stop. Fortunately, that final tour turned out to be a semi-final, and on her recent swing through the States, she made a stop in Beverly, Mass. So off I went.

When Mary came out, her voice was a bit – well, off is not the right word; she’s never off – let’s just say a bit “under” her norm. She mentioned that she was warming up, and that her voice would be fully back as the night went on. I figured that, at age 62, her incredibly powerful voice had lost some of its power. But damned if her voice didn’t come back.

Roisin O opened for Mary, and Roisin O, as it turns out, is Mary Black’s daughter. My guess is that Mary unfinaled her final tour to introduce her daughter to Amerikay. Fair play to her. Roisin was wonderful – a very engaging performer. But my heart and ears belong to Mary.

She couldn’t possibly have covered all of my favorite songs of hers – there are just too many. But she hit plenty of my high points – “Dream of Columbus,” “Carolina Rua,” “No Frontier” – and it was a fine night.

I’d been to the venue – The Cabot Theater – before, and it’s a great old rehabbed theater. It was a vaudeville theater in the 1920’s, and its funk and charm has been brought back. That said, they could do something about the AC. We were there on a cool (for late July) evening. If it had been really hot, the theater would have been pretty unbearable. Other than that, a very fine evening.

Last Thursday, I heard another Irish performer – Emmet Cahill – that’s CAH-hill, not CAY-hill, as they say around these parts. Emmet has a tremendous voice, as pure an Irish tenor as you can imagine. He’s often compared to to “The Great John MacCormack.” Of course, there can’t be three people under the age of 100 who would get a comparison to “The Great John MacCormack.” But I’m here to tell you that Emmet’s voice is a little more current than the voice of his predecessor, which to modern ears sounds just a bit orotund. (If you’re curious, here’s Count MacCormack singing “Maggie,” one of my grandmother’s favorites.)

And not to be a look-sist, but young Mr. Cahill has it all over John Mac when it comes to the looks department. He is absolutely adorable, and comes across as very charming and sweet. (Seems for real. Hope he’s not an axe murderer in real life…)

I had seen Emmet perform in Worcester this past winter, and that concert was fine, even though some of the songs he covered were a bit on the schmaltz end of the spectrum. “Danny Boy.” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen.”

And “Machushla, Machushla”???? Not quite as bad as “Mother Machree”, but, oy vey. Speaking of “Mother Machree” - in my book “The Horse with No Name” of Irish music - at the Worcester concert, someone in back of me requested it during the open request session. I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I let out an involuntary, yet audible, gasp. Fortunately, Emmet either didn’t hear the request, or he figured I might create a scene if he honored it, but there was no “Mother Machree.” He was more partial to my request, “Galway Girl,” a fun Steve Earl song.

Last week’s Emmet Cahill concert was in a lovely old Catholic Church in a Boston ‘burb. This was an odd setting for a concert, but it worked. (They had de-churched things a bit by taking the hosts out of the tabernacle, but it did feel a bit churchy. I almost reflectively genuflected. Talk about muscle memory!)

Emmet was in fine voice, and, while he did hit most of the Irish chestnuts, he through in a few more show/pop tunes than he did in Worcester. And he really does have a lovely voice and is a thoroughly charming performer. Once again, I was able to get in my request for “Galway Girl” there – quite fittingly, as I was there with my niece Molly, recently returned from a uni semester in Galway.

Molly wasn’t the youngest person there, but when I ran the numbers in my head, I came up with a median age older than my own. I may be flattering myself here, but there were a lot of older folks in the crowd. I do hope that Emmet breaks through before his audience dies off. (He also performs with the cute-young-Irish-guy group, Celtic Thunder, so he has another audience – admittedly with some overlap – out there.)

And then, last Friday, on a perfect summer’s night, I saw James Taylor and Bonnie Raitt at Fenway Park.

I saw him there last year (Jackson Browne in tow –  with JT, not with me), and last Friday night was even better.

Bonnie Raitt – bless her – hasn’t changed her look in 40+ years – but the girl can still rock it. Lots of fun. James Taylor, well, he’s 69, and his look has changed over the years. For one thing, he’s bald (and looks exactly like his father, who I used to see around the neighborhood). But his voice is still warm, mellow and sure. And he can be very, very funny.

I’ve always loved James Taylor. How can I not like a guy who wrote a song with my birthday mentioned in it? That doesn’t happen to most folks. Sure, there’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” (A real, live nephew of my Uncle Sam, born on the Fourth of July.) And a few others where the date is noted. I may not get a mention in any song – there’s no “I’ll Take You Home Again, Maureen” out there – but for a great lyric, it’s hard to beat The first of December was covered with snow, so was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston. Thank you, Sweet Baby, James for a wonderful night at the old ball park.

The only downside was that, 200 miles away, the Yankees were beating the Red Sox…

Anyway, three in two weeks is a lot of live music, and I’m all concerted out for a while. But all three were great in their own very different ways.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Happy Working Wanderers (Valderi, valdera!)

I’ve been to Germany several times, but most of my time has been spent in cities, not tootling around the countryside. So I can’t say that I’ve ever come across any “Wandegesellen.” And I’m quite sure I wandergesellenwould remember if I’d seen any guys dressed as bell-bottomed chimney sweeps.

The Wandergesellen (translation: journeymen) are:

…young men, and these days women, too, who have finished their required training in any number of trades and are traveling to gather experience. Most are from German-speaking countries. In the past, journeymen traveled under the auspices of a trade association, and today many still do. But many also take up the practice freely, though still adhering to the strict, often arcane, rules handed down largely through word of mouth to preserve the tradition. (Source: NY Times)

Journeymen are 30 and under, unmarried, and not in debt. To compete their training – as carpenters,bakers, gardeners – journeymen take off for two to three years:

— plus a day, and to live by their wits, their trade and the generosity of strangers.

While they’re on the road (primarily in German-speaking countries, but sometimes far afield) the journeymen rely on other journeymen, and – oh, so sweetly - on the kindness of strangers.

While on the road, journeymen are not supposed to pay for food or accommodations, and instead live by exchanging work for room and board. In warm weather, they sleep in parks and other public spaces. They generally carry only their tools, several changes of underwear, socks and a few shirts wrapped into small bundles that can be tied to their walking sticks — and that can also double as pillows. Most journeymen will work in the jobs for which they are trained. But they also take other work, either to expand their skill set or out of a need for food or a change of pace.

The Wandegesellen have been around since Medieval times – with hiatuses for during the two world wars. After WWII, the tradition died out until the 1980’s. Which may explain why, during the time I spent in the German countryside in the early 1970’s, I didn’t spot any of them In Germany, people recognize who they are because of their distinctive garb. And they can translate the jacket colors into the trade. The fellows in the picture above are wearing black. That makes them carpenters or roofers.

Others are not so in the know.

“Outside of Germany, we are often taken for cowboys,” said Arnold Böhm, 25, a carpenter from Görlitz who spent time working in Cape Verde, Namibia and South Africa.

Maybe not cowboys, but definitely independent and traveling light.

Traditionally, a journeyman was not allowed to travel or seek work within a 60- kilometer radius of his hometown — a guideline intended to encourage an exchange of ideas among those practicing any given trade. Today, it remains a way to ensure that the journeyman develops independence.

I think this is a great tradition and wonderful ideas.College is fine. For a lot of kids, it gets them away from home. But it doesn’t necessarily foster independence, especially if they’re subsidized by the Bank of Mom and Dad.

Getting drafted – and I do remember the day when EVERYONE male went into the service – pulled kids out of their home town and their comfort zone. It was a good leveler, good for democracy. But who wants to see their kid get shot at in Afghanistan, let alone North Korea.

My niece Molly spent a recent semester abroad. Like most kids who spend a semester somewhere in Europe, she and her new friends did plenty of weekend and school break traveling. (Thank you, Ryanair and AirBnB.) But Molly wanted to take at least one trip on her own, in a country where she knew no one and didn’t speak the language. So she took off on a trip to Italy, where she made her way through Verona, Venice, Pisa, and Florence.

We were all so proud of our very own Wandegesellen, even if she didn’t have to work while she was out exploring.

But most young folks don’t even do something like Molly did, let alone what the Wandegesellen take on.

Wandering around, singing (or gardening, or tiling, or roofing) for your supper. What a great idea.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Food spies

No doubt about it, food poisoning is pretty miserable. For Mitchell Weinberg, it was a bad bowl of ice cream that did it.

Bad bowl of ice cream! A lot of people suffer from PFPSD (Post Food Poisoning Stress Disorder), and can never, ever, ever again eat whatever it was that made them sick. Or whatever it was they were eating before they got sick, even if it had nothing to do with making them sick. For my sister Trish, a bad childhood experience with – make that after -  ham and green bean soup – a wonderful and yummy family staple – prevents her, to this day, from enjoying it. (Note to self: I still have the Easter hambone in my freezer. First cool day in September, I’ll dig it out and make a batch for myself.)

Me? I’ll never eat oysters on the half-shell in Ireland again, I can tell you that for sure.

Anyway, Mitchell Weinberg was pretty sure certain that it was ice cream, in Shanghai, that did him in.

It also inspired the then-trade consultant to set up Inscatech — a global network of food spies. (Source: Bloomberg)

What does this company do?

In demand by multinational retailers and food producers, Inscatech and its agents scour supply chains around the world hunting for evidence of food industry fraud and malpractice. In the eight years since he founded the New York-based firm, Weinberg, 52, says China continues to be a key growth area for fraudsters as well as those developing technologies trying to counter them.

“Statistically we’re uncovering fraud about 70 percent of the time, but in China it’s very close to 100 percent,” he said. “It’s pervasive, it’s across food groups, and it’s anything you can possibly imagine.”

100 percent. That’s certainly impressive.

I’m not aware that I buy any food from China. Surely I would remember if I’d found myself cooking up “rat-meat dressed as lamb.” Surely, it would have looked, felt, and smelled a bit off, even when slathered with mint jelly.

But I don’t tend to look at where my food comes from, other than when native whatever is in the market. For canned goods? I know my Teddie’s Peanut Butter comes from Massachusetts. As do the Polar sodas. Most of my pasta comes from Italy. My butter comes from Ireland. But I’ll have to look at those tuna cans, that Progresso soup.

Inscatech is very techie. It’s:

…developing molecular markers and genetic fingerprints to help authenticate natural products and sort genuine foodstuffs from the fakes. Another approach companies are pursuing uses digital technology to track and record the provenance of food from farm to plate.

Sort of reminds me of ‘how a bill becomes a law.’ Or how a rat becomes a lamb. Or not.

I believe I’ve read about this genetic tracing before. Something about horse meat in the beef supply in Ireland. Something else about renaming fish as scallops.

Interestingly enough – at least to me – is that one of the technologies being used to track food as it makes it way up and down the food chain is the same technology – blockchain – that’s used for crypto-currencies (think bitcoin).

Blockchain technology is “essentially a shared, cryptographically secure ledger of transactions.” I.e., it makes things traceable. And it’s helping to radically cut the time it takes to track an item through the food chain. For one company – that would be Wal-Mart – the time it took to track their meat supply chain went from more than a day to a couple of seconds. I’m all for it. I’d sure rather find out that the funny smelling lamb was rat before I took a bite. In fact, I’d sure rather not ever find it out. Period. Let Wal-Mart nip it in the bud.

In real life, while I do like rat lamb, I don’t ever buy it (at Wal-Mart or anywhere else). I do, however, buy chicken, so I’m delighted that the blockchain technology will be tracking Chinese chickens from coop on through the factory and on into the meat case. Not that I eat Chinese chicken. I’m a Bell & Evans kind of gal, and those babies come from Pennsylvania.

Joke as I may about food safety, it is a pretty serious issue. Remember back in 2008 when, in China, melamine milk killed six babies?

It’s not just the Chinese, of course. Food fraudsters are everywhere.

Technology is all well and good. But, blockchain blockchain-ing throughout the entire food supply chain is still a while away from ubiquity and perfection. And as Weinberg points out:

"The problem is the data is only as reliable as the person providing the data.”


So Inscatech still relies on boots on the ground, informants who “sniff out where in the production process food-fraud is taking place.”

These folks, will, of course, find their jobs automated away at some point.

But if there’s money to be made selling fake shrimp, adulterated foods, and rat for lamb, criminals will be there selling fake shrimp, adulterated foods, and rat for lamb.

I’m delighted there’s a company like Inscatech out there, but I’m also plenty happy that I can afford to shop in places like Whole Wallet and Roche Brothers, where I mostly don’t have to worry about getting poisoned.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Fun-gineer? You call THAT a vocation?

When I was growing up, vocation meant one thing and one thing only. It meant religious vocation to become a nun, a priest, or a brother. We were supposed to pray for a vocation, but after a certain age – let’s say, about 9 or 10 – most of my friends were praying to not have a vocation.

Vocation? Ugh!

Once you got over your romantic Bells of St. Mary’s notion about how swell it would be to be a gorgeous nun like Sister Benedict (Ingrid Bergman) and have a swell, fun, crooning priest like Father Chuck O’Malley (Bing Crosby) fall head over heels for you in a chaste, nunny-priesty kind of way, vocation was, well, ugh. Just ugh.

Who wanted to go away, shave your head, wear funny clothing, pray all the time, and have no TV, Friendly’s Awful Awfuls, transistor radios, contact with your families, or boy friends (which, as long as you weren’t in the convent, were at least a possibility?

I won’t say no one.

Two girls in my high school class entered the convent. One of them didn’t stay in all that long, but the other is still at it, doing wonderful, life- (and, I guess, vocation-) affirming work with refugees. She entered in a changing era, and I don’t think she ever had to shave her head.

Anyway, that’s what vocation meant if you were a Catholic kid growing up in the fifties or sixties.

For most of us, it was something to be feared.

It was especially creepy when the nuns used to smile knowingly at girls they thought might be susceptible to their wily ways, and say “it’s the ones you least suspect…” More creepily, I spent a week during my senior year in high school at what was nominally a gathering of student council officers from high schools run by “our” order of nuns. II realized later that a purpose (or at least a sub-purpose) was to expose us to the joys and wonders of the novitiate, where gathering was held, and where we got to do things like play volleyball and eat ice cream with the postulants who were about to become novices. And ask the hovering professed nuns any questions we had about what it was like to “go in.”

So vocation is not a word I’d ever use with respect to career.

But The New York Times has no such qualms, and they have a regular column entitled Vocations. The other day, the vocation was happiness engineer, which sounds just about as far away as nun or priest as it can be.

The happiness engineer profiled is Tyler Williams, who is the head of experiential marketing at Zappo’s. Even after all these decades in marketing, I have scant idea what experiential marketing means. But, in the world of Zappos, Tyler is called a fun-gineer. In Tyler’s words:

My job is to bring joy and smiles to Zappos’s 1,500 employees. (Without the hyphen, by the way, I’d be a technician of fungi.) For example, I built an instant dance party in the company lobby. It works like this: When you push a button with a sign under it that says, “Don’t ever push this button,” lights go on and music blares. (Source: NY Times)

I can honestly say that I never worked at a company where it was anyone’s job to bring joy and smiles to its employees. Further, I’ll hazard a guess that my sister Kath, who sent me the link to this article, never worked anyplace that had such a position either. I suspect that the closest either of us came to “an instant dance party in the company lobby” was a fire drill. Of course, Kath worked in jobs – grammar school teacher, then operations manager in financial services – where none of this nonsense was going to happen. But even my career in hip and happen’ high tech, where morale attempts included stuff like:

  • Video games in the kitchen
  • Friday beer parties
  • Having the execs come around pushing ice cream carts
  • Having the execs dish out bad turkey dinners while wearing Santa caps

No one really gave much of a hoot about bringing joy and smiles to the employees.

But Zappos is a different sort of animal to begin with, and companies that are stacked with millennials (such as Zappos) tend to do more to entertain their workforce. For Tyler, that means a position that:

…comes within our brand aura department, which is similar to other companies’ brand marketing departments.

Brand marketing, I get. Or think I get. Or used to get. That retreat for the student council officers? Brand marketing for an order of nuns! (One thing I know, if there’d been a “don’t ever push this button”, I’d have been sorely tempted to push it.) But brand aura? Saints have auras, no? Isn’t it something like a halo? But brands?

Anyway, Tyler started out in customer service, which is at the heart of the Zappos brand aura. (And, yes, I’m a Zappos devotee.) Pretty much everyone, including Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, works the lines at one point or another.

Customer service is actually an excellent way to understand what your customers go through. I worked for one small software company where we had to take turns manning the customer support line. It was eye-opening. (While I was in college, I also worked in the complaint department at Sears, but that’s another story entirely…)

From customer service, Tyler got his big break. An A/V club kind of guy, he got the chance to set up the video show for a speech Hsieh was giving. Based on his performance, the head of HR asked Tyler to write his own job description.

Which turned out to be fun-gineer.

Still doesn’t sound much like a vocation to me, but that’s probably a reflection of my warped childhood.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna

When I was in Ireland this past spring, we went through the town of Lisdoonvarna, County Clare.

I was familiar with the town, which is well known throughout Ireland for its matchmaking festival. (There’s also a dreadful earworm of a song by Christy Moore that celebrates the town. Since I don’t want to spread an earworm, I’ll spare you a link to it.) But, even though I am a single gal, I don’t give much thought to Lisdoonvarna.

Other, apparently, do, making Lisdoonvarna – population 739 – a major tourist destination each fall when the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival takes place.

The Festival doubles as a country music festival, country music being wildly popular in Ireland. And let’s put to rest any thought that this is just about bachelor farmers chipping the cow dung off their shoes and heading down from the hills to find love. This year’s festival – which, according to different places on their web site – will attract 40,000 or 60,000 visitors – will include:

The Outing’ LGBT festival – the world’s only LGBT music and matchmaking festival – featuring pop-up clubs, drag acts, comedy and live music.

Ireland has, indeed, come a long way, baby. (They also passed, through direct vote, the legalization of gay marriage.) Nonetheless, the traditional elements are the Festival still hold. According to Willie Daly, the last of the Irish matchmakers – he’s been at it since he was a teenager, and estimates that he’s been instrumental in 3,000 marriages over the years:

“Rural Ireland can be a lonely place. There’s a lot of lonely men, farmers left behind, while a lot women are based in the cities, so the festival is a great place for them to meet up”

The Festival has been going on for more than 150 years. And if rural Ireland is lonely now, I can only imagine how lonely and bleak it was 150 years ago. There was definitely a reason my great-grandparents – John Rogers, Margaret Joyce, Matthew Trainor, and Bridget Trainor (yep, they were some sort of cousin, but they married in the States, not in Ireland) – all packed their bags, kissed their mothers goodbye, and lit out for Amerikay on some crummy ship.

Anyway, perhaps because she thought it would be a good Pink Slip topic, my cousin Ellen sent me a link to an article that just appeared in The Chicago Tribune. Or perhaps because she thought I might want to head back across the pond and find me one of those bachelor farmers. (She did advise that I should check the teeth of any prospective husband). Willie Daley (who comes from a long line of matchmakers) was, naturally, featured in the article:

“Matchmaking is all magic, that’s what I believe,” said Daly, who’s in his 70s. “A lot of my pairings are by instinct, once I know what a person wants. It may be physical attraction or a roof over their heads.” (Source: Chicago Trib)

Willie uses a method similar to that of, only he does it in his head and on paper, hanging out in one of the town’s hotels to meet with those longing to make it to the altar. Where’s the magic?

Daly brings the family heirloom to the festival: a shabby, dog-eared book that contains the personal details of couples matched over the past century. The tome has magical qualities, according to Daly. He says anyone who touches the cover of his lucky book will be partnered within six months.

What grand craic it would be to take a look through that book and see those personal details.

Anyway, Willie Daly’s fees are modest, running around $100 a match. But he’s been known to do some selective pricing, charging the well-heeled (Mercedes driver) more than those with less in their pockets (bicycle riders).

Festival attendees will come from near (Ireland) and far (South Africa, Poland, and, of course, the US). Alas, I will not be one of them. Although it would be tempting to see what Willie Daly had on offer for me. (The Mercedes driver? The bicycle guy?) I suspect he’d tell me that I’m out of my feckin’ mind.

So, thanks, Ellen for the hint, but I’ll be staying home this September. If Mr. Right is out there, I won’t be finding him in Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoon, Lisdoonvarna.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Acapulco Gold Rush Town?

As headlines go, it’s hard to top “Cannabis Grower Buys California Town to Build Pot-Friendly Outpost.”

Nipton, California – population 20 – sounds to me like something of a hell hole. It’s a mining/ranching town in the Mojave Desert – with summer temps over 100 degrees - and it’s been on the market for over a year now. Among its other charms, Nipton is the home of the Mojave Death Race. (250 mile run/bike relay. Include me out, thank you.) Anyway, if you’re like me, you’re wondering just what it means to buy a town.

“It’s sort of like buying a business, said Tony Castrignano, owner/broker of Sky Mesa Realty, who represents the owners and is also their neighbor.

“There’s two aspects to it. The land, which is worth X amount of dollars per acre. Then you have the businesses, and they generate income, so when we evaluated the sale price, we took that into consideration. Believe it or not, this town generates a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year in profit.”

The price includes abundant water, a photovoltaic solar array, a general store, hotel, recreational vehicle park, campgrounds, schoolhouse and two small houses.

“There are many profit centers generating income,” Castrignano said. “I’ve been doing this 35 years, never had an opportunity to sell an entire town. It’s exciting.” (Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

Well, I would think that water might come in handy in the Mojave Desert. And I’ve always thought it would be fun to live in a converted schoolhouse. But I don’t like the heat, so I’m not disappointed that someone else scooped Nipton up.

That someone is American Green Inc., which makes cannabis products. It’s spending $5 million, and investing another $2.5 million, “to create a pot-friendly tourist destination.”

The move shows how far marijuana has moved out of the shadows despite an uncertain federal policy outlook. With pot now legalized for recreational and medical use in California, Nevada and six other states, one in five American adults can consume the formerly taboo plant as they please. That’s created an opportunity for companies to try to make cannabis a more mainstream product. (Source: Bloomberg)

Traveling to a “pot-friendly tourist destination” is considered affinity travel. Sort of like touring wine country. Or trucking up to Prince Edward Island to see where Anne of Green Gables “lived.” Guess I just don’t have a niche I’m interested in to make a vacation out of it. But if I did, I can’t imagine it would be splendor in the grass.

Seriously, roaming around a town looking for the world’s best bong store, or the tastiest marijuana brownies. In the company of a bunch of fellow oh-wowers. I think not. But maybe I’ve got it all wrong.

The project reflects a shift toward making marijuana more appealing to a broader audience. This includes reaching beyond the stereotypical stoner aesthetic and making products with milder doses per serving size. American Green has also sought to expand sales by building a vending machine that uses biometric scanners to ensure customers are of age.

In addition to its commitment to push us “beyond the stereotypical stoner aesthetic”, American Green is also focused on sustainability – a double green-rush, as it were.

Unfortunately, looming on the horizon is that little killjoy, Jeff Sessions, who apparently didn’t have any fun in the 1960’s and has a real thing about pot. No friend of the Zig-Zag man, Mr. Sessions even wants to go after medical marijuana use. Guess he won’t be heading off to Nipton anytime soon.

I guess that’s one thing I have in common with the AG.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Damn, wish I’d remembered to be a genius entrepreneur

If you do any spending on the Internet – and that would be pretty much everyone – you’ve no doubt used Stripe. Unlike the flashy consumer-facing companies – think Uber – Stripe operates behind the scenes.

Stripe is the brainchild of brothers Patrick and John Collison who were barely out of their teens when they decided to do something about the clumsy, old and creaky ways in which the Internet’s financial infrastructure operated, building:

software that businesses could plug into websites and apps to instantly connect with credit card and banking systems and receive payments…

The company now handles tens of billions of dollars in internet transactions annually, making money by charging a small fee on each one. Half of Americans who bought something online in the past year did so, probably unknowingly, via Stripe. (Source: Bloomberg)

The company’s valuation is $9.2 billion, making the Collison brothers billionaires.

There are questions about how realistic this valuation is, but – when it comes to Internet companies – that’s not exactly news. And few are betting against them.

What’s interesting about these fellows to me isn’t so much that they’re boy billionaires. It’s their back story.

They grew up in a pokey Irish village with the brilliant name of Dromineer, where their father (switching careers from electrical engineering) ran a small hotel on Lough Derg. When I saw this, I got all jazzed, as Lough Derg is a famous pilgrimage site, where penitents walk around barefoot on a rocky island in the wet and col, and have nothing to sustain them over the course of their pilgrimage beyond dry bread and tea. Alas, there are two Lough Dergs in Ireland, and the Collison Lough Derg is touristy, not pilgrimage-y. (Mom also had an interesting career track, moving from microbiology to running a corporate training company.)

Anyway, the brothers Collison were bred to be entrepreneurs.

But mostly they were bred to be geniuses.

While in school, teachers let Patrick read books in class when he was bored. He did some study-at-home, and managed to take the standardized Irish leaving cert tests, usually taken over a two-year stretch, in less than three weeks. Naturally, he aced all 30 exams. (And, to celebrate, ran a marathon.) Meanwhile, he’d been named Ireland’s Young Scientist of the Year “for developing a programming language and artificial intelligence system.”

Based on the scores of SATs he took when he was 13, Patrick crossed the pond to study at MIT.

John was no stupe, either. He went to Harvard.

When the brothers weren’t being students, they created iPhone apps,

One of their first hits was an $8 version of Wikipedia that people could search offline—the brothers stripped out superfluous coding so the whole thing could fit in a downloadable file. They also helped create a way to manage EBay auctions and sold that company, Auctomatic Inc., for $5 million in 2008. 

Like fellow genius entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the boyos dropped out of college. Like Zuck, they moved to California and built Stripe.

A PayPal investor, Mike Moritz, who saw them in action had this to say:

“They have the advantage of coming to California without being tainted and polluted by what’s in the water supply and air of Silicon Valley,” says Moritz, a partner at Sequoia Capital and a Stripe board member. “They’re more humble and well-rounded. There’s such an improbability to their story—that these brothers from a little village would come to build what could well be one of the most important companies on the internet.”

Speaking of PayPal, Stripe has plenty of competitors, and transaction processing is a highly competitive, low margin, cutthroat business. Stripe has cut out a nitch with Internet startups, and is also cutting deals with Amazon and some direct merchants. Stripe now has over 700 employees. And the Collison brothers are spending their time trying to expand their footprint in Internet infrastructure.

The wallpaper on his [Patrick’s] computer displays a countdown clock for his life: He has 52 years and a few days left. “This is a very coarse estimate, but it’s a reminder that you get old quickly,” he says, a touch of gray now in his red hair. “When you talk to people who are old, some wish they had enjoyed themselves more, but not many wish they had wasted more time.”

That’s for damn sure, at least in my case. There’s no doubt, when I’m about to start death rattling, I’ll look back on those hours whiled away watching “Tiny House” and playing Tai-Pei, and think, damn…I know what I was doing, but what was I thinking?  

The Collisons don’t waste time consume pop culture or watch TV. Patrick admits:

If I had infinite time, I would watch it. This might be the entirely wrong optimization.”

Instead, the brothers spend their time studying topics that interest them – e.g., law (John) and physics (Patrick). They’re pilots, and runners.

During company runs, Patrick lags behind to hang with the slowest person. Sometimes, John hands out pancake bundles at the end of early-morning jogs.

Well, how endearing is that?

There’s more of course. The Bloomberg article has a lot more on the brothers, and the payment biz. All pretty interesting.

Anyway, I loved reading about these guys. Mostly, I suppose, because they come from the back arse of nowhere in Ireland. And because they’re such colossal nerd boys.

Makes me wish that I’d remembered to be a genius entrepreneur.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

How does your garden grow?

For nearly 10 years, I worked for a company with offices in the Alewife section of Cambridge. There wasn’t a ton out there. The most notable and largest structure was the Alewife T-station, the terminus of one of Boston’s rapid transit lines. If you wanted to go out to lunch, there were a couple of places in walking distance. For the life of me, I don’t recall whether there was even a caf in the building – there must have been… I’m pretty sure there was one in the building across the street, which was sort of a sister building where we sometimes held meetings.

Anyway, being on a T-line and having parking lots were pretty much it for amenities. I guess back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, those who owned office buildings weren’t all that concerned with making things great for their tenants.

I’ve been out to Alewife plenty of times over the nearly twenty years since I worked there – it’s a convenient place to meet suburban friends for lunch or dinner, and there are a couple more restaurant options than there were back in the day. But it hadn’t really sunk in how built up the area is. There are all kinds of apartment buildings up and going up. New office buildings (some replacing the really crappy old buildings that were on the street when I worked there). I “discovered” this yesterday, when I went out there to meet with a new client which has its offices across the street from my old haunt. (The sister building.)

I have enough local clients to realize that office layouts and style – more open, standup desks, nifty collab spaces - are a lot different than they were back in my day – a lot more attention being paid to look and feel. Sure, we had a couple of video games in the kitchen, but my new client has a lot going on, including Waffle Wednesday (I was offered but declined) and very artful photos taken by employees gracing the walls. And a lot of other things that hollered hip and happening. (There were pillows in the waiting area that had the company logo on them. Sounds stupid, but it looks kind of cool.)

There was no caf in my client’s building, but it does host a different pop-up restaurant each day, so I was able to get a nice Vietnamese bowl for lunch. And there are food trucks outside if the bowl wasn’t to my liking.

I saw a sign for the bi-weekly cocktail party that the buildings’ owner hosts.

And lots of other goodies.

But as far as I could tell, there weren’t any gardens where employees can till the earth, which is the latest on-trend corporate thing.Netscout is one company that’s letting its workforce get their hands dirty.

The garden for Netscout employees is part of a growing trend in employee wellness. In many instances, community garden groups provide the knowledge, infrastructure, and oversight, and companies provide enthusiastic workers. The produce that is grown is often donated to local food banks, sent home with employees, or prepared and served in corporate cafeterias. “There’s something really, really special about it — when people come together and do something as tangible and real as growing food, ” said Christine Berthold, president of Fresh Start Food Gardens, a company that installs and manages corporate gardens, including at Netscout. “You want employees who are happy, who are fulfilled, who are connected, who feel a part of something, and you want to keep them healthy, ” Berthold said. “The garden does all of those things.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Ah, I remember back in the day when people came together to do something as tangible and real as application software. Admittedly, it wasn’t as tangible and real as, say, building a car. But in olden days, what you did at work was, well, work.

While I have seen articles where an instance of one is dubbed a trend, but, in this case, Netscout is not alone. Boston Medical Center has a rooftop “farm” the produces food used a their food pantry, and for their patient food service. They’re aiming at producing 15,000 pounds of food this year.

I’m not so certain that, if I’d had an opportunity to plow, seed, weed, or pick on the job, I would have availed myself of it. Nonetheless, I like the idea of it. Not enough to want to go back to work full time, of course.But being able to head to the company garden and pick a nice ripe tomato. That might be nice.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Work-Life Imbalance

I saw an interesting article on Ladders on a new trend in the job application process: prospective employers sussing out whether their prospective employees are willing to give up any thought of work-life balance to get the job.

Given all we hear about companies trying to promote work-life balance by enforcing vacations, requiring smartphone free weekends, and doing all kinds of other employee friendly things, this may come as something of a shock. We’re told that work-life balance is what the millennials are demanding. That’s it the only way to attract and retain valuable employees (a.k.a. in the argot of the day “assets”).

At the same time, we’re also continuing to hear about all the 24/7 tech companies where the assets live on Red Bull and Doritos, sleep on futons, and only take time off when it’s to do something like pogo-stick up Mount Kilimanjaro or build a schooner out of bamboo shoots.

So which is it?

Do the stodgy old old-school companies offer work-life balance, while the blazingly hot startups offer a near-death experience in return for the remote possibility that you’ll get a big payday when the blazingly hot startup goes unicorn?

Anyway, it seems that some companies are slipping tests into the interview process. Take Barstool Sports chief exec

… Erika Nardini, who reportedly texts job applicants interviewing with the company on weekends. Nardini said she does this “just to see how fast you’ll respond,” in an interview with The New York Times. She expects to be contacted back “within three hours,” she elaborated. “It’s not that I’m going to bug you all weekend if you work for me, but I want you to be responsive. I think about work all the time,” Nardini said. “Other people don’t have to be working all the time, but I want people who are also always thinking.” (Source: The Ladder)

I will observe that anyone looking to work at Barstool Sports – a blogging site the covers sports and “guy stuff” – can reasonably expect that their job will require them to pay attention to the stuff – guy and otherwise – that happens on nights and weekends. Stuff like football games. And I’m guessing that the folks attracted to working there are going to be youngish folks who live on their smartphones and will quite naturally respond to any weekend text from Nardini within 3 seconds, let alone 3 hours.

For Barstool, that sneaky little cat is now out of the bad, and you’d have to be a really bad interviewee not to be on the lookout for a text from Nardini. I suspect that it’s more likely that canny prospects will be texting Nardini or tweeting #barstoolsports when they come across something of interest, like an NFL star with a DUI. Or an event of equally vital importance.

Another CEO:

asks candidates if they’d “leave [their] family at Disneyland to do something that was really important for the company?” He expects them to say yes.

Although there are certainly another company might expect a ‘no’ or some sort of pushback.

I’m all for work-life balance. I put in plenty of years as a weekend warrior and late-nighter. Mostly this was just a trap that I willingly fell into. I never worked anyplace where there was an expectation that you’d work crazy hours. Even when I worked like a lunatic, with a couple of call-into-a-meeting exceptions, vacations were vacations. No one expected you to work during them. This was, of course, pre-smartphone and rampant “always on”.

These days, there are enough ways to figure out whether an outfit is committed to work-life balance, or hits the teeter-totter on the work-life imbalance side. Sure, people can end up in a place where there’s a bad fit. And, certainly, companies can bullshit you on their real intentions during the interview process. But, hey, if the CEO is honest enough to send you a weekend text to see how quick you jump, I say good for them. Do with it what you will.

A Pink Slip work-life balance shout-out to John Whiteside, a friend (and former colleague) who posted a link to this article on FB.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Quiz kids

Somehow, in the last week or so, I’ve found myself taking three online quizzes (on that claim that, after I’ve answered a series of questions, they can figure something out about me.

The first one wasn’t too promising.

It was supposed to identify what state I’m from.

After clicking through all those questions – favorite season: fall, favorite sport: baseball – the answer came back Hawaii.

Well, not exactly.

So I took the quiz again, and, apparently, gave a few different answers.

This time, the answer was Iowa.

Which is, I guess, getting closer.

It was easy to see how they could zero out some states. There were several questions that were related to religion. I’m guessing if you say you’d rather read the Bible than mysteries, if you prefer religious movies to westerns, and if your idea of a great first date going to church, you’re probably going to be told you live somewhere in the South. Yet there are people who live in staunchly irreligious states like Massachusetts and still be church-y. And I’m pretty sure that even Alabama has Unitarians living there.

Some of the questions I’m really none of the above on, but you have to answer something. Among these possible nicknames – Big Red, Slick, Sleepy, Queenie – none seem to apply. So I went with Queenie, even though that was the name of a nasty neighborhood dog when I was growing up – a mean and snappish yellow mutt with a face (complete with whiskers) like a carp.

And how do you pick among four exercises that you never do? I don’t lift weights, run, swim, or do yard work. I walk. Is walking closer to running or doing yard work? Inquiring quiz takers want to know.

Anyway, if I had to pick Iowa vs. Hawaii, I don’t know which I’d choose. Hawaii is lovely, of course, but I think I’d get sick of paradise. Iowa’s closer to home, at least weather-wise. Plus, I’m half Midwest to begin with. Plus, Iowa’s driving distance to Chicago, a place I can actually imagine living.

The next quiz was supposed to tell me what country best fits my personality. My ideal home-away-from-home is apparently England. Which sort of makes sense, in a close-but-no-cigar way. I do have to ask why it didn’t come back with Ireland, given that, in answer to the question “which of these places would you like to spend a month in”, I picked my heart’s home, which is Ireland.

Then I went back and took a variation-on-a-theme quiz  - “Which country should you REALLY live in?” – which had an entirely different set of questions. The answer – perhaps because I indicated that I wouldn’t mind living in a country where people drink – was Ireland. So, right on, this time.

The final quiz I took was aimed at identifying my favorite president.

This is one I passed with flying colors.

Actually, I have three: Lincoln, FDR, and Obama. So perhaps the quiz revealed my one true presidential love, as it figured me for a Franklin Delano Roosevelt kind of gal.

I’m perfectly capable of getting sucked into taking any of these little personality quizzes. That is, other than the ones that will determine the Game of Thrones character I’m most like.

Although these quizzes are dumb, they’re a fun little time waster. Not that I need any more fun little time wasters than I already have. Like blogging.

Anyway, I’ve been taking these little online quizzes for years. I don’t always remember who I am, but I do recall quite clearly that, of the 2007 Red Sox, I’m Jason Varitek. And if I were a Peanuts character, I’d be Linus.

Monday, July 31, 2017

NASCAR/Nascar spins out

A couple of weeks ago, I had a nice Sunday morning visit with a friend who came into town with her two little ones – a two-year-old and a soon (this week!) to be one-r. They were having a daddy-less weekend because my friends husband was off in Loudon, NH with his buds at a NASCAR race.

During the Olympics, I’ll watch sports I’ve never heard of – and become an insta-judge, second guessing the scores, and an insta-ref, second guessing calls. But there are a few sports I just can’t get into.

And watching a bunch of cars racing around in circles – is it even a sport? – is one of them. (There is another: professional golf. While golf is more or less clearly a sport, and I will acknowledge that it does seem to require mental toughness, eye-hand coordination, and other sporty attributes, those who play it appear to be singularly boring and color-less bunch.)

Although I’m not interested in NASCAR, I completely acknowledge the live-and-let-live rule of chacun à son goût. In most instances that is: ‘yes’ to chacun when it comes to Game of Thrones. ‘No’ to chacun when, say, it comes to electing a president. Some election cycles, there really ought to be a law…

Anyway, my understanding was that NASCAR is really big. I mean big enough that, while NASCAR uses the all caps acronym, in press stories, NASCAR has morphed into a proper noun: Nascar. I thought that the number of fans it has surpasses all major American sports, with the exception of the mighty NFL.

Turns out, while I wasn’t paying attention, NASCAR peaked.

A Bloomberg writer attended a recent race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When he took his eye off the race and looked into the stands, he saw that:

They were strikingly, shockingly empty. Eventually I observed some crowds clustered in the parts of the stands with shade, but according to the Indianaplis Business Journal, only about 35,000 people were there, in a facility with seating for 235,000. Five years ago, the crowd for the same race was four times bigger.
This is not just an Indianapolis problem, it turns out. Nascar stopped reporting race attendance a few years ago
, but the publicly traded companies that own most of its tracks do report admission revenue, and it's way down from a decade ago. (Source: Bloomberg)

First off, even if I do have some geriatric change of heart and become a NASCAR/Nascar fan, remind me never, ever, ever to attend an event in a stadium that seats nearly a quarter of million people.

It’s not just live events that are showing declines in interest. People aren’t watching NASCAR/Nascar on TV either. Viewership, it turns out, peaked in 2005, and is now down by about half.

Racing is not alone, of course. There’s so much else for the young-uns to do – like play massively multiplayer online games, or take selfies – that other spectator sports are losing spectators, including football. 

Justin Fox, who wrote the Bloomberg article I saw, posited a number of reasons (those are his reasons in bold) why NASCAR/Nascar is off:

1. It's maybe not the best-run organization in the world. NASCAR/Nascar is family-run, and its structure is “complicated” and “secretive.” The lack of transparency makes it harder for the owners who put cars on the track, and the drivers who drive them, to figure out what’s going on. All they know is that it’s getting harder for them to find sponsors (you know, the folks whose logos are emblazoned on cars, helmets, and the space-suits that race car drivers wear) and pay their bills. Maybe this is all part of the general decline of the sport. Or maybe it’s because of NASCAR/Nascar’s piss-poor management. Having worked for a number of outfits with piss-poor management, I will observe that even the piss-poorest run business can somehow manage to hang on well beyond its close-by date. Yet the real world does have a way of catching up with them eventually. Send in the turnaround guys!

2. It's the economy's fault. NASCAR/Nascar itself pins the tail of its woes on the economy donkey. And the ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ argument ties in with the point that the white working class audience that supports the sport has been ailing, and, thus, can’t afford to travel to races in places like Indianapolis.

But that doesn't explain why TV ratings have plummeted, too, unless you believe that all the former Nascar watchers are now addicted to cable-news political coverage instead.

No, that would be me addicted to cable-news political coverage…

3. Nascar got boring. I might have said that NASCAR/Nascar was boring to begin with. But Fox argues that the drivers of yesteryear, and their cars, were just plain more interesting, and the sport:

…full of quirky regional character, with good-old-boy , bootleggers' sons speeding around rural Southern tracks at 175 miles per hour in souped-up versions of the cars in everybody's driveways.

The sounds like The Dukes of Hazard to me, but what do I know. Anyway, today’s cars are all engineered to look the same, and today’s drivers are bland.

A charismatic, colorful champion or two could probably fix some of this problem, but in general the corporatization and deregionalization of the sport over the past quarter-century seems to have inevitably robbed it of some of its appeal.

So, we wuz robbed? Not me, since there was no appeal to begin with. But I do get that blandly corporate athletes – and pro sports are full of them – are just plain not as much fun as the goofballs of yore.

4. Fewer people love cars. Fox asks a pertinent question, and that’s whether:

…the great love affair with cars that consumed the U.S. and other affluent countries in the post-World War II decades has given way to a different sort of relationship in which most people simply rely on their (increasingly reliable) vehicles without thinking about them, and only a tiny minority do the sort of tinkering and driving for pleasure that was once common.

Ah, the pleasure of driving for pleasure. I grew up with a pleasure-driving father. Most Sundays, and occasionally on a weeknight, he took the family out for a spin, poking around Worcester County and stopping somewhere for an ice cream cone if the weather were fine. He was a pleasure driver, and we were pleasure riders.

Do people go out for rides anymore? Probably not. No time, too much else to do, too expensive (gas guzzling), too environment-battering (gas guzzling).

Of all the reasons for NASCAR/Nascar to be failing, this is the saddest.

Imagine how bad things are going to be when cars are all autonomous, and no one bothers to learn how to drive?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Roomba: hoovering up your personal info

God knows, I’m no futurist, but many years ago I was on a panel at a tech conference and a question posed to the panelists was what we thought was a coming big issue of the future. My answer: privacy.

God knows, I had no business being on that panel to begin with. A colleague had made a last minute request for me to speak for him at the conference. Since I knew very little about the topic – beyond what was in his canned preso – I should have said ‘no, no, a thousand times no.’ But he was desperate and, with a guarantee that I’d have a tech resource in the standing by to whom I could lob any question I couldn’t answer, I said ‘yes.’ Well, the presentation went fine, as did the morning’s first panel. The questions were high level enough, and I knew just enough about the topic, that I could hold my own. And I could hold my own so well, in fact, that the stand-by techie decided to leave. Unfortunately, the afternoon questions became techier, and my answers to the audience turned into “this isn’t really my area of expertise” – as if the audience hadn’t gleaned that bit – or, if another panelist had answered before me, a variant of ‘what he said…’

The final question was the crystal ball one and, in talking about privacy, I think I acquitted myself quite well.

With all the data grabbing going on, I often think about privacy. Or lack thereof.

I use my debit card at the grocery store, so Roche Brothers and Whole Food know entirely too much about me, including that I’ll pay $2.99 for cherries, but won’t pay $4.99 for cherries if they were $2.99 the day before. Roche Brothers knows I like pumpernickel. Both stores know I like Tate’s chocolate chip cookies.

At CVS, despite the fact that I never take advantage of the so-called benefits of using it, I was generally scanning my CVS whatever card. Then I said to hell with it. Why should they know what toothpaste I like? So I no longer swipe the whatever card, and try to pay cash. (Which, at CVS, is becoming more difficult by the day. I anticipate that there will soon be a surcharge for paying with cash, since it’s more costly to handle (supposedly) than electronic payments, and, more to the point, because it deprives CVS of my information.)

Anyway, I thought about the privacy issue when I saw an article in the NYTimes on Roomba. Roomba, it seems, may be doing more than vacuuming under the sofa. It may be spying on you.

High-end models of Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum, collect data as they clean, identifying the locations of your walls and furniture. This helps them avoid crashing into your couch, but it also creates a map of your home that iRobot is considering selling to Amazon, Apple or Google. Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, told Reuters that a deal could come in the next two years, though iRobot said in a statement on Tuesday: “We have not formed any plans to sell data.” (Source: NY Times)

Well, that’s clear.

Of course, as a non-Roomba owner, what Roomba does or doesn’t do is not my worry.

I do have a vacuum cleaner, but it’s a 20 year old Oreck. Plug it in, hang on, and away you go. It’s dumb as a rock. Which is exactly the way I prefer my appliances.

Fitbit knows how many steps I take a day. And, as mentioned, Whole and Roche know my grocery-buying habits. But that’s about it. (Other than, of course, that Google knows every website I’ve ever crashed into accidentally, on purpose, or accidentally on purpose.)

In the hands of a company like Amazon, Apple or Google, that data could fuel new “smart” home products.

That’s nice. More junk to worry about spying on us, potentially being hacked, and likely breaking down at some point.

Not to mention that:

…the data, if sold, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly.

Which is all much creepier than having the ads pop up based on your recent purchases. (You know, just because I purchased a pair of Asics online last week, doesn’t mean that I need another pair again this soon…)

“Just remember that the Roomba knows what room your child is in,” Rhett Jones wrote in Gizmodo. “It’s the one where it bumps into all the toys on the floor.” In its written response, iRobot said that it was “committed to the absolute privacy of our customer-related data.” Consumers can use a Roomba without connecting it to the internet, or “opt out of sending map data to the cloud through a switch in the mobile app.” “No data is sold to third parties,” the statement added. “No data will be shared with third parties without the informed consent of our customers.”

Key phrases here are “opt out” and “informed consent.”

How about “opt in”? And consent that’s not implied, or stems from permission granted by not reading some convoluted fine print policy.

We used to have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our own homes. That’s going out the window – the window no doubt sitting behind a fixture that’s recording every time you raise or lower your smart blinds.



Can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Chip in the old block

I remember the first place where I had to punch in using a time card: H.H. Brown Shoe Company, where I worked one summer on the shop floor helping make paratroop boots for the South Vietnamese Air Force (tiny feet) and chartreuse work boots with red top stitching for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. (The thought was that no one would walk out accidentally wearing footwear of such a zany color. This was just as psychedelic Yellow Submarine clothing was coming into style, after which point chartreuse work boots with red top stitching no longer seemed quite so zany.) As I recall, you’d get docked 15 minutes if you were late by 1 minute. On Friday afternoons, the factory workers would gather by the time clock a few minutes before punch-out time at 4 p.m. Once the magic moment occurred, we’d all punch out as rapidly as we could – old tmers at the front of the line.Unless overtime had been declared, there was absolutely no reason to have a few extra minutes on the clock.

I remember the first place I worked where we were issued electronic badges. To use the rest room, you had to leave our space – and, unless you were willing to walk around to the reception desk and get back in that way, you needed your badge to get back to your office. There was copious grousing about lack of privacy, and about whether “they” were going to start monitor our bio breaks. That was 20 years ago. I’m guessing that, these days, there are very few companies that don’t use some sort of electronic badging system and, at least theoretically, have the ability to check all sorts of goings and comings among their workforce.

There are flaws to electronic badging – who hasn’t borrowed a colleague’s badge at some point – and, for extra security, some companies added biometrics to the fray, with retinal scans or fingerprints.

At least one place is taking things one step further, with pet-style chips for their employees.

On Aug. 1, employees at Three Square Market, a technology company in Wisconsin, can choose to have a chip the size of a grain of rice injected between their thumb and index finger. Once that is done, any task involving RFID technology — swiping into the office building, paying for food in the cafeteria — can be accomplished with a wave of the hand. The program is not mandatory, but as of Monday, more than 50 out of 80 employees at Three Square’s headquarters in River Falls, Wis., had volunteered. (Source: NY Times)

Not all employees are sanguine about the new technology. Some are leery about getting something embedded under their skin, so are opting for a ring with a chip in it instead. (This is fun tech: I used to have a decoder ring that I used as my pass for public transportation. It didn’t work for seniors, so I gave it up when I hit 65 and was eligible for the quite splendid half-price T-pass. Worth sacrificing the fun of sporting that decoder ring.)

There’s no doubt in my mind that implanted microchips are the wave of the badging future. And – more creepily – the payment method of the future, as well. We’re already moving toward cash-free – there are some CVSs where none of the self-checkout stations accept cash – so why bother with a plastic card or your phone when you can have the everything you need not at your fingertips, but in your fingertips.

There’s an entire tick-list of concerns around this type of technology. Privacy, of course: the inevitable concerns about monitoring bathroom breaks, and where it goes from opening a door or operating the copier. Then there’s security: how hackable is the chip, and could it be hijacked for nefarious purposes. (Okay, at present, it’s not all that smart. Still…)

Health concerns are more difficult to assess. Implantable radio-frequency transponder systems, the technical name for the chips, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2004 for medical uses. But in rare cases, according to the F.D.A., the implantation site may become infected, or the chip may migrate elsewhere in the body.

Migrate elsewhere in the body? Shades of Fantastic Voyage, a truly terrible movie from the 1960’s in which a miniaturized Stephen Boyd and Raquel Welch traveled around a scientists body to perform some very delicate brain surgery. Or something.

If I live long enough, I’m sure I’ll be implanted with some medical monitoring chip at some point or another. Until then, I’m just as happy I’m not working for an outfit that wants me to punch in and out by waving my thumb in their direction.

I’m no one’s chip off the old block, and I don’t want a chip in the old block, either.

Meanwhile, people in some quarters are freaking out, giving Three Square 1-star ratings in Google reviews, ranting about end times and the mark of the beast.

And away we go…

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Geriactives? Nyppies? Talking ‘bout my generation.

Born in December 1949, I’m an early wave Baby Boomer, part of the vast cohort born between 1946 (when my parents had their first child) and 1964 (when the last sib in  our family turned 5).

Part of me gets that I’m now old. But the other part of me…

I’m still taken aback when I hear someone on the news referring to a person my age as elderly. Elderly? Who you calling elderly? That’s a fightin’ word, youngster.

The Economist had a recent special section “The new old.” The first illustration was a photo of The Stones. First off, these dudes aren’t Boomers. Both Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were born in1943. The Mick, in fact, turns 74 today. I also have to say that both of these bad boys look pre-cadaverous. Too many drugs in their sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll mix, I’m afraid. Yet it’s still admirable that they’re still rockin’, lunch pail performers still looking for a payday.

And while their paydays are larger than those of most of us seniors still working, there are plenty of golden agers still out there. Some plugging away by choice, some by necessity. Good thing, given that the longer we work, the more we contribute to the economy and the less of a drag we are on the young folks. What you want to do is keep a nice healthy ratio between geezers and workers – tougher to do, given that lifespans have increased so dramatically.

As the world greys, growth, tax revenues and workforces will decline while spending on pensions and health care will increase. So, at least, goes the orthodoxy.

Doom-mongers tend to miss a bigger point, however. Those extra years of life are predominantly healthy ones. Five of the additional six years that a British boy born in 2015 can expect to live, compared with one born in 1990, will be healthy, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, at the University of Washington. Too many governments and firms fail to recognise this fact, instead lumping all the extra years in the damning category of 65 and over. This binary way of thinking, seeing retirement as a cliff edge over which workers and consumers suddenly tumble, bears little relation to the real world. It also encourages unimaginative policy, whereby the retirement age is occasionally moved as lifespans lengthen. (Source: The Economist)

The Economist makes an argument that, to remedy this, we need to stop lumping everyone over 65 in the one-step-from-the-grave category, and carve out a new brand-name for those of us over 65 but under real old age. (Whatever real old age is. Look to the Boomers to keep pushing that up. I suspect that by the time I’m 80, old age will start at 90. Or 100.)

Branding an age category might sound like a frivolous exercise. But life stages are primarily social constructs, and history shows that their emergence can trigger deep changes in attitudes. Such change is needed if the questions that swirl around rising longevity are to get a fitting answer.

So, they’ve come up with a few suggestions for what to name the baby(boomer). Geriactives is mentioned but discarded: sounds too shuffle-boardy and senior village. (“Welcome to Paradise Hills, where we put the ‘active’ in ‘geriactive.”) Then there’s nightcappers, which The Economist thinks sounds patronizing, but which I think sounds boozy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

Perhaps “Nyppies” (Not Yet Past It) or “Owls” (Older, Working Less, Still earning) ring truer.

By their description, I’m an owl. But I rather like the sound of nyppie, even though Nippy was the name of a neighborhood dog (beagle, owned by the FitzGibbons, and, yes, the dog was nippy) of my childhood. (The FitzGibbons had a way with dog naming. They later had a shepherd called Rasputin.)

So, nyppie. We used to be yuppies. Nyppies seems to suit.

Anyway, I do think it makes sense to come up with some sort of catchy name for us. Forget golden ager, senior citizen, old fogey. I may be kidding myself, but none of those seem to apply. I’m all for something a bit less geezerish. (And for the older set, maybe something a bit less judgmental than senior citizen and old fogey. Revered elder might work.)

Marking out youthful old age as a distinct phase of life might have a similar effect [similar to the creation of the idea of “teen-ager,” which occurred in the 1940’s], prodding employers and policymakers to think differently about how to keep the young old active. As life becomes longer, the word “retirement”, which literally means withdrawal to a place of seclusion, has become misleading. At 65 you are not clapped out, but pre-tired. So, as they embark on the next stage, here’s to all those pre-tirees.

Pre-tirees, huh?

Seems like only yesterday my friends and I were heading to the movies to watch the howlingly ridiculous late 1960’s flick, Wild in the Streets. I don’t remember the full plot, but one of the themes was getting the vote into the hands of kids. The battle cry was ‘Fourteen or Fight.” And I think that everyone over 30 was farmed out to some blissed out geezer-farm where they could spend all their time tripping on acid. Or something like that. After all, we were the folks muttering ‘don’t trust anyone over 30.’ Best to keep them out of their gourds, no?

Hope the millennials don’t decide to remake Wild in the Streets. I’d hate to see what they’d have in store for us.

Meanwhile, I’m down with The Economist’s idea to just give us a brand new brand name.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Open Book (I can dream, can’t I?)

I know a lot of writers. And plenty more readers. This past weekend was spent in the company of a number of my most beloved among them, and I came back with a tote-bag full of books. (What I’m reading now is Priestdaddy, a memoir by Patricia Lockwood. Lockwood is a poet whose father was a Lutheran minister who switched to Catholicism and could, thus, be that oddity: married Catholic priest with kids. So far, so good.)

Anyway, what the writers and readers among us share, besides trading books and authors, is that, at one point or another, most of us have fantasized about running a bookstore.

Even now, when I’m at age when I know plenty better, when I’m walking down Charles Street with my friend Marin and we spot an empty store front, we’ll stop for a couple of minutes, peer in, and discuss where we’re going to put the armchairs when we open up shop. We know, of course, that running a bookshop would more than likely be a losing proposition – a fool’s errand to end all fool’s errand. And, mostly, we admit to ourselves that in our bookstore, the doors would mostly be locked, and we’d just sit around in our armchairs, drinking tea, eating scones, and reading. Fortunately, in our bookstore-running fantasy, we don’t need to make any money. In fact, we can lose money. (Good thing. What’s a fantasy for if it can’t be perfect anyway?)

There’ve been bookstores on Charles Street in the past – a nice indie one, a really lame-o Lauriat’s... But it’s been a couple of decades since we’ve had one around. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how a neighborhood of highly educated and presumably literate people can support two shops that appear to sell nothing but doorknobs and not one freaking bookstore. Sigh. At least we have the excellent Trident Booksellers & Cafe just a mile and change away…

Anyway, my writer/reader friend Sophia had a recent post on FB that linked to an article (from last year) on a bookstore in the charmingly-named Scottish town of Wigtown that has a studio upstairs that they rent out on Airbnb:  

The first ever bookshop holiday / residency experience, Scotland's National Book Town welcomes you to play-bookshop for a week or two. We'll give you your very own apartment and bookshop below, supported by a team of friendly volunteers to make your trip as lovely as possible. Set up by The Wigtown Festival Company, The Open Book's aim is to celebrate books, independent bookshops and welcome people around the world to Scotland's National Book Town. The fee for your stay is low because we are a non-profit. It covers the running costs of the holiday but that is all. A laptop and WiFi are provided, plus bicycles for those who like to explore the bucolic countryside on two wheels


I’m not quite sure how it works, but it sounds like trying your hand at running the shop is optional:

We offer you the bookshop, apartment and orientation. All the rest for your bookshop holiday is up to you. Please note that this is not a volunteer opportunity, nor are we paying you to work. This is a holiday that you are paying for, classified under cultural tourism and you can enjoy the bookshop as you wish.


But most of those who’ve Airbnb’d there seem to have become shopkeepers for the duration of their stay. Here’s Jared, the most recent reviewer. (And, by the way, all 44 reviews are five-star.)

I know what some of you are thinking - how can I take a week off from work, fly all the way to Scotland, and drive through the countryside just to spend a week volunteering in a bookstore. Well its more than just that. This is the most unique traveling experience I've ever had. I don't know if I have run into a community more giving, kind, and willing to open up their doors and lives to strangers. Go to Wigtown, be a shopkeeper, hike the trails, cliffs, and woods that surround the town, have a pint at the pub, explore, and talk to people. Book the trip (if you can!), trust me you won't regret it.

Jared ain’t kidding about book it if you can. I looked out a year and couldn’t find much of anything.

The pictures, of course, look heavenly. My first reaction was that there are only a couple of days a year when things are so picture-perfect Brigadoon/Finian’s Rainbow-ish in Scotland. The country is beautiful, but not exactly known for its lovely weather. But I looked it up, and this neck of the Scottish woods has weather that’s milder and sunnier than other parts of the country. Which is not to say that it’s like San Diego. Even so, I like just thinking about sitting there – even in the dark and gloomy – sipping a cup of tea and eating a scone, selling or not selling a book.

I can dream, can’t I?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Haters gotta hate (by state, state, state)

There really is an app for everything and everyone.

And for singles who want to connect with people who share the same antipathies they do, there’s Hater. (The URL, by the way, is Or as they put it:

Meet someone who hates the same stuff.
The first dating app that matches people on the things they hate.

The app was “inspired” by an academic study “that found that when people share a negative attitude about a third party, it becomes a pretty effective bonding tool.”

I tend to think of things you like as being a bonding tool, but it does seem logical that the converse would also hold. These days, I’m certainly seeing plenty of bonding among those I know who fear and loathe Donald Trump. (And that includes friends who lean conservative – and I actually do have a few of them!)

The app prompts users to select (via swiping, of course) whether they love, hate, like, or dislike a famous person, activity or concept. A rep from Hater told HuffPost that the app offers its users over 3,000 topics to swipe on. Once a user has logged a number of likes, dislikes, loves and hates, the app uses an algorithm to find compatible matches based on the info provided.

According to the company, they have been keeping tabs on what their “few hundred thousand users” in the United States despise since the app launched in February. And it turns out, people in different states hate very different things. (Source: Huffington Post)

With all this nifty data, Hater gave us a real treat by creating a nifty map of the 50 states, showing what the Hater members in those states hate the most.

It’s hard for me to believe that the people in Massachusetts hate NY Giants quarterback Eli Manning more than they hate Roger Goodell. I mean, Eli Manning hating is so yesterday.As is Eli Manning. NFL Goodell shirtRoger Goodell, now, there’s a football-related name well worth the hate, as Deflategate – a crisis that resulted in our Tom Brady being suspended for four games last season – still hasn’t gone away, even though the Pats (and our Tom) won a thrilling Super Bowl this year. The hatred may dissipate after Goodell shows up at Gillette Stadium for the home opener this season, but it will still be there. Tee-shirts like the one shown here are really worn in these parts. (That’s Goodell with the clown nose.) Anti-Eli Manning shirts? Can’t remember if I’ve ever seen one.

What people hate

I can understand why people in Texas hate sleeping with the window open. It’s hot there, and they need their AC. Nevadans hate feminism; folks from Utah hate porn. Both positions seem to make sense. I’m not surprised that Iowans don’t like long hair on guys. Arizonans hate sand, probably because they have way too much of it.

No state can be faulted for hating polo shirts (New Mexico), gluten-free (Wyoming), and waiting in line (Vermont). And who isn’t with the good citizens of Arkansas who admit to hating to clean? (That said, I don’t think I’ll be looking to check into a hotel there any time soon.)Tennessee hates foraged food. Must be a lot of roadkill possum stew going on down there.

But what’s up with Oklahoma that their citizens don’t want to hear the latest gossip? How prissy and self-righteous is that? Or maybe they’re liars. Unlike the Louisianan truth-tellers who hate being the designated driver.

And what to we make of the fact that North Dakotans hate tapas. Are there really enough tapas joints in North Dakota to hate?

Why does Delaware hate Casey Affleck? And, for God’s sake, why does New Hampshire hate God? And who would have imagined that poor little Rhode Island harbors antipathy towards Middle America? That seems like so much more of a Massachusetts attitude to cop.

The cynics from Washington, DC, hate the idea that everyone has a soulmate. But apparently they’re still willing to give yet another dating site a whirl, even if they don’t believe that a shared hatred is the basis for soulmate-hood.

Some of the hatreds are just plain weird. What up, Illinois, that you hate biting into string cheese? Does it really come up that often?

My friend Gwen grew up in Michigan. I will not be breaking it to her that her native state hates Pride and Prejudice. Not after she named her daughter after Jane Austen.

As for Indiana, which hates bloggers. I never did like your state to begin with.