Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Back to the blue suit for IBM? (In any case, no more PJs.)

Back in the day, IBM (a.k.a., Big Blue) was known for its uniform of sorts: navy blue suit and white shirt. And wingtips: no loafers need apply. I had a couple of friends who worked there back in the seventies, and that really was about it. When you’d see a couple of guys walking down the street in a business district – or at an airport – in this uniform, you’d invariably think “IBM.”

IBM has, of course, gotten looser with its dress code over the years. At some point, it was okay to wear a blue shirt. Then a striped shirt wouldn’t earn you a reprimand.

They may never have gone into full “anything goes” mode, which became the norm in many tech and tech-ish companies, but they, along with everyone else, got into casual Fridays, which became casual every day.

And somewhere along the way, it didn’t matter what you were wearing. Because IBM, at least for the white collar professionals. Whether they were wearing a white collar, blue collar,or no collar by that point, an awful lot of them were working from home. Productively! Environmental friendliness! Corporate cost savings on boring old offices! And so long, blue suit, hello sweats, yoga pants, and PJs.

That worked pretty well this far into the 21st century. That is, until a few weeks ago.

The technology giant has been a leader in terms of letting employees work from home, and has bragged about the savings and increased productivity that's resulted. About 40% of its nearly 400,000 employees worldwide did not have a traditional oce, the company said in 2007, which the last time it released such data. But now the company is changing its policy, and many of its employees will have to reacquaint themselves with office life. "In many fields, such as software development and digital marketing, the nature of work is changing, which requires new ways of working," said a statement from the company. "We are bringing small, self-directed agile teams in these fields together.” (Source: Money/CNN)

I come down somewhere in between on this debate. I’m a big believer in the collegiality that builds around the coffee machine, and in face to face meetings – planned and impromptu. And management by walking around is a lot easier to do when you can actually walk around. I also completely get the benefits of working from home, which I did one day a week during my last full time job. And on that job, I made two great friendships with guys who worked in other offices. We saw each other a few times a year, but spent a lot of time on the phone and IM-ing.

So, I vote for a hybrid model, and feel bad for those at IBM who are now being dragooned back into the office. Especially for those who have put themselves at some physical remove. After all, when you’re working from home, you can be anywhere with an viable high speed Internet connection.

Bloomberg had an interesting take on IBM’s new ollie-ollie-in-free policy, and makes an equal jab at Apple, which is sinking $5B into its new Silicon Valley campus:

The tech giant will regret forcing employees back to the office, as Apple will regret its massive new headquarters…Tech companies are supposed to be the leaders. So it's surprising that two of the largest, IBM and Apple, are moving backward, preparing for office life in the decades ahead to look a lot like 2005. They are likely to be wrong. (Source: Bloomberg)

Bloomberg’s Conor Sen sees the issue as being what to do when the millennials start forming families. At that point, they’re going to want a bit more living space than can be affordably had in places like Silicon Valley, or in the urban centers where the “cool” companies are (re)locating. It’s one thing to live in 200 square feet when you’re a 24 year old hipster; quite another when you’ve got a kid or two. And millennials will want the flexibility of working from home. Sometimes a kid or two gets sick. Not to mention that the millennials are so accustomed to living life online and connected, this cohort really doesn’t have any problems collaborating, whether they’re separated by 3 feet or 3 thousand miles.

Just as happy that this ain’t my deal to deal with…

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Up, up and away in my beautiful feral hog hunting balloon

There are things that, when you live in Massachusetts, you just do not have to worry about.

Sure, we have to do a skin check for deer ticks everytime we go out for a walk in any place that has scrub brush, ferns, or anything that you can brush up againsts your ankle. Because who wants Lyme Disease. (Answer: no one!)

In the winter we have to worry about blizzards and blackice and other treacherous weather situations.

But we don't have to spend all that much time looking over our shoulders for wildlife.

Oh, there's an occasional suburban black bear or moose on the loose. The other day, when out for a walk, I spotted a wild turkey in a tree (something that my sister and brother-in-law in Brookline have to content with regularly). We have too many aggressive squirrels, too many pigeons, and too many seagulls. And if you live in the city of Boston, in a downtown area built on landfill, there are occasional rat sightings or hearings (e.g., rustling in garbage bags). But the biggest wild life problem we have to contend with is the growing annual infestation of Canada geese, who leave their nasty poop everywhere they waddle through. Which is pretty much everywhere there's a square foot of greenery with water nearby.

But we don't have crocodiles, rattlers, grizzlies, javelinas, or feral hogs rampaging around.

Deep in the heart of Texas, this is decidedly not the case.

They're on the receiving end of a population explosion of feral hogs. They've got about 2 million of them and, even though Texas is a mighty big ol' state, that's still a lot of feral hogs. And they do a ton of damage to crops. (An estimated $50M each year. That's only $25 a snout, but still...)

So the solons up in Austin managed to tear themselves away from matters of prime importance like gerrymandering and anti-trans laws, and have just passed a measure that makes it legal to hunt for feral hogs - and coyotes - from hot air balloons.

And you thought hot air balloons were all about a nice meandering slow-mo sail in the basket of a multi-colored balloon. Not when someone's hanging out of it with an automatic rifle, firing away, baby.
The state already allows the shooting of feral hogs from helicopters, but that is expensive and has not been very successful because the aircraft often scare the animals away. Hot air balloons are quieter and offer a more stable shooting platform. (Source: AP, via WaPo)
While I have no desire to hunt myself, I'm not anti-hunting. And it does sound like Texas farmers have a beef (pork?) with feral hogs, and are certainly entitled to do something about them. Still, this sounds kind of silly. And way too frily. Don't real hunters want to sit around in blinds, cold, wet, uncomfortable and smelly? Or get out there in their orange vests and hats doing some critter-stalking, with the extra added thrill that someone might (despite the neon orange gear) mistake them for a critter and blast away?

While silly and frilly, hot air balloon hunting also sounds - a bit conversely - a bit dangerous. As my friend Valerie - who pointed this story my way - asked, "What could possibly go wrong?"

Couldn't an ill wind jerk that stable platform around? And couldn't someone's gun go off and shoot a hole in the hot air balloon? I'm pretty sure that these aren't like birthday party balloons, and that one little hole doesn't make them deflate. But a whole bunch of bullet holes? I'm wondering.

I'm also wondering whether the hot air balloon approach will be any more effective than the helicopter assaults were. I.e., not very.

I suspect that they're more likely aimed at the tourism business, appealing to those who want a touristy sort of hunting experience that doesn't involve cold, wet, and smelly.

Me? I'd like to keep hot air ballooning a more tranquil pursuit.

So, Texas Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to the hot air balloonin' feral hog hunters. Ya'll got that?

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And a Pink Slip shout out to Valerie, topic hunter par excellence.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017. (Broken record and then some.)

Because Pink Slip has been around so long - 10+ years -  I know that I can tend to get broken record-ish, especially around holidays. But when I look back at what I had to say about Memorial Day in 2007, well, it pretty much holds.

There are, of course, a few updates.

Those graves I go to "decorate" now contain a tiny bit of my husband's ashes. And, unlike on that first Memorial Day that Pink Slip celebrated, when I was planning on my cemetery run for the day after, Barbara and I have already paid our visit. Naturally, the day we chose turned out to be monsoon-miserable (and cold, to boot). I got soaked but stayed relatively clean. By the time we were done, Babs looked as if she'd just dug a tunnel under Boston Harbor. Or as if she'd been mud wrestling.

We usually do geraniums, but the ones at Home Depot were completely bedraggled. And last year, we'd discovered that SunPatiens (impatiens that "work" in the sun) actually hold up better. So SunPatiens it was.

As I dug deep, I noted that the vets neglected to stick a flag on my father's grave. As there was a nearby grave that had two, I helped myself. Four years in the US Navy in WWII. He earned it.

But the big noticeable on my parents' gravestone was the yuck on it. On the front, there was lichen and blackmold. On the back, there was quite a bit more lichen, plus some sort of creepy blood-red mold. I shudder to think...

Anyway, the lichen I could clean off with a glove, but that mold is another story. Before I whistle in a professional gravestone cleaner, I'm going to try to clean it off on my own. A mere google tells me that there are multiple products out there designed expressly to clean grave markers. So at some point over the summer I'll be up and tackle this mess, and do a bit of sprucing up to the little marble stone that marks the gravesite of my sister Margaret. After that, I'll hire someone to pull out the half-dead yews that flank my parents' stone, and replace them with hosta. I won't mind if they yank the voracious fir tree next door. One of two flanking the neighboring grave, which have pretty much done a full, obliterating surround on the stone, the adjacent fir appears heading our way. There's no sign that anyone cares for this grave next door. Surely, if anyone were keeping an eye on it, surely they would have trimmed back those creeping firs. So if "my guy" - whoever that ends up being - accidentally cuts down one of those firs, so be it. We'll see.

After we did our raking, planting, and quick cemetery tour - a nod to Ned Mc, buried nearby, dead this year: the last of my father's first cousins - we had a drowned rat lunch at a diner owned by a second cousin. (The son of one of Ned Mc's sisters, whose grave we also buzzed by.) Unfortunately, we were late in their day, and they were out the chowder we were hoping to warm us up. Oh, well.

After lunch, we blew out to Barre, Mass, where our Rogers' great-grandparents are buried. As is my grandfather. My grandmother, 55 years a widow by the time she died, had no interest in being buried in the godforsaken town of Barre. She wanted to be with her parents, her sons and daughter, and a good crowd of her sibs, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Thus she shares the turf with my parents, leaving my grandfather to await the resurrection of the body with his folks and sibs.

Barre usually means ice cream at what was Jack's when I was a kid. (I have no idea what it's called now, but it's in the same place.) Not this year: too damned cold.

Before we left the cemetery in Barre we checked to make sure that the wrought iron Joyce Memorial Gates which, in my childhood, had guarded the cemetery driveway, were still tossed off to the side, rusting. (If I win the lottery, I will reclaim and restore them. The gates, I believe, were a gift from my great uncle(s), who were the brother(s) of my great-grandmother Margaret Joyce. Whatever the familial connection is, there was one, and my father was always quick (and proud) to point out those gates when we made our annual pilgrimage to Barre.)

Anyway, we were happy to have done our decorating prior to Decoration Day, a feat we so seldom accomplish.

Back in Boston, the flags are up on the Common, commemorating all of those from Massachusetts who died in the service of our country, from the Revolutionary War on. A stirring sight, for sure. But I like this shot because it shows the carousel. Life goes on!



 If it's not raining today, I may head on over to my final cemetery stop - Mount Auburn. It's one of those 19th century garden cemeteries, quite beautiful and full of near-famous people like Curt Gowdy and MacGeorge Bundy. And some famous folks, too: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Mary Baker Eddy. Not to mention non-famous individuals, like my husband, whose remains are in an ash plot there. Not all of them. Some (in tiny portions) have been scattered/snuck into other spots, and a bit are in a little Connemara marble jar on my mantle. So I don't feel compelled to visit Jim the way I do to pay a couple of visits a year to my parents. He's with me.

But back to Memorial Day: it's really about our veterans, especially those who lost their lives in one of our good-bad-indifferent wars. Here's to you.








Thursday, May 25, 2017

Technical Difficulties

Pink Slip is experiencing technical difficulties.

I can either focus on trying to figure out why my blog writing tool - OpenLiveWriter - stopped working. Or why I can download the exe but not run it.

Or I can use the clumsy Blogger app.

Or I can watch Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O'Donnell report on more critical matters. Like the Guardian reporter who was roughed up by Greg Gianforte, who's running - the election's today - for Montana's one and only seat in Congress.

Hmmmm. A blog post or the future of our country?

No contest.

Anyway, we're taking Friday off, too.

Back on Monday.

Looks like it's time to convert to Wordpress. Which I really don't like as much as LiveWriter with Blogger...

Alas. Alack. Woe r' us.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Slaughterhouse

I have many, many vivid memories of my childhood – perhaps even an absurd number of vivid memories. And among the most vivid was the day Johnny LaChappelle showed the neighborhood kids a cow’s eyeball that he had somehow gotten his hands on. It was floating in some type of clear liquid, in a screw-topped jar. And it was fascinating.

I can’t recall precisely where he’d gotten it, but I think it was something about a visit to a slaughterhouse he’d made with his father. (Maybe it was some sort of male bonding thing. Johnny was the youngest of five kids, and the other four were girls – two of them (“the twins”) were our sometime babysitters.)

Frankly, a floating eyeball wouldn’t have been considered all that creepy and weird to kids who were raised on the gory iconography of Catholicism. Just about the time we were seeing the eyeball, we’d seen the mummified arm of St. Francis Xavier, which toured the world in a glass case, and which all the little angels at Our Lady of the Angels had to kiss. Mummified arm under glass! Yum! Lip smacking good!

So none of the kids in the ‘hood would have been particularly grossed out by a cow eyeball. Maybe if Johnny had unbottled it and hurled it. But he was way too nice a kid.

Anyway, I’m guessing that, in the 1950’s, there was at least one slaughterhouse in Worcester, Massachusetts. As far as I can tell – thank you, Google – there are now none, the nearest one being in Athol, way out there in remote Worcester County.

And it’s not just Worcester that no longer has places where they can, say, get a cow eyeball for their kid.

In 1967 there were 9,627 livestock (cattle, cal, hog and sheep) slaughtering establishments in the U.S. That same year, Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act, requiring producers to use a USDA-inspected facility if they sell meat across state lines. A mass consolidation of the meat industry followed. Today, commodity meat is dominated by large companies. Just four companies sell about 85% of America's beef and the pork and chicken markets are similarly controlled by huge corporations. By 2016, there were only about 1,100 federally inspected meat and poultry slaughterhouses in the country….Of those approximately 1,100 facilities, 215 large slaughter establishments (defined as 500 or more employees) produce about 75 percent to 90 percent of the country's volume.(Emphasis mine. Source: Bloomberg)

From what I’ve read about meat processing plants, that Wholesome Meat Act has a lot of wiggle room in it. Not to mention that they’re dangerous and unwholesome places for humans to work. Conditions may not be quite as terrible as they were when Upton Sinclair exposed those conditions in The Jungle. But the Wholesome Meat Act did its number on slaughterhouses. Other than any reservations you have (and if you think about it, you’ll have plenty) about the food industrial complex, I don’t imagine there are too many tears being shed about the decline in the number of slaughterhouses.

But on the high-end of the meat biz, the restaurants that do the farm-to-table thing, there aren’t enough slaughterhouses to bonk the noggins of all those grass-fed beef, or wring the necks of all those free range chickens.

The whole thing is turning into something of a foodie crisis.

Imagine the folks at New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, which raises its own meat for their restaurant.

How foodily serious are they about meat?

At one point during a recent meal, a diner's candle was extinguished and poured over plates as a sauce, because—surprise: The candle was made of beef tallow.

Needless to say, folks like this want to take some care when it comes to how their meat gets from farm to table.

Despite ever-increasing customer demand for noncommodity meat, there aren't enough slaughterhouses to keep up. It's a major hitch in the supply chain—keeping supplies down, prices up, and making the already grueling job of farming even harder.

Stone Barns considers itself fortunate in that they only have to drive an hour and 15 minutes to get to a slaughterhouse. Many other places have to drive up to four hours one-way to get their farm animals “processed.”

The smaller local slaughterhouse complain that they’re over-regulated, and have to deal with the same level and kind of regs that are more appropriate to the large factory-style slaughterhouse. So they’d like the USDA to back off. I suspect they have a point, and that – especially the ones that work with the beef-tallow-candle style foodies – the smaller outfits already take greater care with their slaughtering.

Perhaps when the current administration is finished brining back coal mining, they can bring back the slaughterhouse.

Think of all the swell jobs!

Think of all the kids they can make happy with eyeballs under glass…

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Romper Room.

Yesterday, Pink Slip’s topic was the Rowing Blazer, a fairly ridiculous piece of garb, especially when worn by someone who hasn’t earned it by putting the throw-up inducing effort required to become an elite oarsman or oarswoman. Seriously, it might be kind of fun – in a snotty, preppy kind of way – to wear a silly blazer if you’re part of the club. But on any one else? Poseur!

But the rowing blazer is not the craziest fashion for men out there. That would be the RompHim.

From the brief article I saw in it in USA Today, my initial impression was that it was beachwear, which I was going to compare and contrast to my father’s beachwear: plaid boxer short bathing suit and white tee-shirt (skivvy shirt), worn with wing tips and black socks. Well, that look, to me, is the height of fashion and masculinity when Romper himcompared to the RompHim.

Admittedly, I understand that I’m not the demographic that this look is supposed to appeal to. But in what way, shape, or form can someone sporting this be deemed attractive to a member of the opposite sex. Or the same sex, for that matter. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest exit if one of these dudes approaches.

The only one who looks cute in a romper is Prince George. And even he’s outgrown the look. These days – unless he’s wearing a page boy costume for his Aunt Pippa’s wedding – George wears big boy shorts Prince Georgeand sweaters.

Really, if there’s a question of who wore the baby blue romper better, my vote goes to Price George.

Anyway, a group of students at the Kellogg School at Northwestern were looking to come up with:

….a menswear option that wasn’t “too corporate,” “fratty,” “runway” or “basic.” Thus, a romper for men.

I’ll give them points for creating an option that wasn’t “too corporate”, but I’m not quite sure that their romper is the antithesis of “fratty.” Hard to imagine anyone who isn’t a frat bro slipping into a romper.

Nonetheless, the inventors have raised $365K on Kickstarter to fund their idea,which they believe will “turn heads and break hearts.”

Turn heads? Maybe. But there’s a big element of turn stomachs in there. I’m all for a youthful look, but I’m not a fan of the infantilization of men (or women, for that matter: I really don’t like seeing women my age wearing Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts). Years ago – i.e., when I was in my twenties – it was considered rather endearing when boyish men wore black buckled galoshes like the ones they wore in grammar school. Yet galoshes were functional. And, at one point of time, grown men had worn them, as they were pretty much the only winter footgear available. A romper is another story all together.

As for breaking hearts, I can imagine something breaking. And that would be breaking out into outright prolonged laughter if I happened upon some guy in a romper.

I hope that this is a joke. I hope that the designers end up admitting so, and giving the $365K back to their funders. Failing that, I really hope I don’t ever see anyone walking around wearing one of these. Anyone older than Prince George, that is. Back when Prince George was under the age of two.

Monday, May 22, 2017

What ho, rowing blazers!

Well, today would have been my father’s birthday. Since if he were still alive he’d be turning 105, he’d likely be dead by now. Still… Birthdays are birthdays, and even though my father has been dead for nearly 50 years (gulp), my thoughts today are turning to him.

My father was both a natty dresser (other than his beachwear, a topic that will be addressed tomorrow) and an athlete. So today’s subject – the preppy blazer for those who crew -  is fitting.

No, Al wasn’t exactly a preppy, a category that didn’t exist, at least in our world, while he was alive. And rowing wasn’t one of the sports he excelled at, as rowing was a category of sport that didn’t exactly exist in our world, either. Nonetheless…

Jack Carlson, on the other hand, is a prepster rower, and he’s put his prepster rowing background (and, I guess, his PhD in archeology from Oxford) to use by becoming a clothing designer, focusing the work of his eponymous company, Rowing Blazers, on rowing blazers.

 “We’re bringing the blazer back to its origins,” Carlson says, in pitch mode. “The original blazer was kind of like the hoodie of its day,” he continues, explaining that the garment, which originated as casual warmup gear, made a shift from pure function to nonchalant fashion in the 1800s.

The sport coats at Rowing Blazers are inspired by the traditional jackets worn by the members of venerable boat clubs. Although these jackets are the antecedents of the navy blue blazer in your closet, they’re vastly more expressive. Think of big crests on breast pockets and bold stripes of team colors. Imagine endless fathoms of grosgrain trim. (Source: Bloomberg)

Here’s Doctor Jack wearing a rowing blazer, flanked by none other than the Winkelvoss twins, similarly garbed. And let’s face it, one never gets tired of Preppry blazersseeing the Winkelvoss twins. What a brand those bros have got going. Even though nerdy Mark Zuckerberg got to be the Facebook ka-billionaire, I’m quite sure that he never rowed for fair Harvard. So, while he might be able to afford one of these rowing blazers, he is really not entitled to wear one.

If you’re wondering what Doctor Jack is holding, it’s his book Rowing Blazers. (Hey, when you’ve got a good thing going, keep going.) While it’s hard for me to imagine that there’s a book’s worth of reading to be had about rowing blazers, I’m admittedly not an elite oarsman such as the Winkelvi, nor an elite oarswoman for that matter.

From a business perspective, Preppy blazer twoit’s equally hard for me to imagine that there are enough elite oarsmen and oarswomen, plus wannabes, to grow and sustain the Rowing Blazer business. These blazers are not the understated, collar up, prepped out boringness that Ralph Lauren has been flogging for decades. Never in style, never out of style. Bland. Blend in sorts of clothing.

But rowing blazers?

I’m not a big fan of the word, but these blazers, to my eye anyway, seem ultra-douchey, even if they were (and I’ll take Dr. Jack’s word for it) the hoodie of their day.

That said, I can understand the allure for those who have rowed. You really can’t live in Boston, a 2 minute walk from the Charles River, and not develop some appreciation for those whose sport is crew. Rowers, from what I can see, work really hard. They’re jock-y, they’re clubby, and if they want to wear something that screams “white privilege”, well, they’ve earned it.

But is there a business here?

Okay, now that I’ve said that, maybe there is. After all, more than one fellow showed up at Pippa Middleton’s wedding in tartan pants. 95887120Tell me these blokes wouldn’t be happy in a loud blazer with piping and a big old crest on the breast?

Anyway, Dr. Jack does get that the rowing blazer biz is somewhat tongue-in-cheeky. He uses a bee motif on his labels and brass buttons.

It’s a symbol of industriousness that Carlson connects with two fictional social organizations he admires: P.G. Wodehouse’s Drones Club and Wes Anderson’s Rushmore Beekeepers.

I don’t know much about Wes Anderson, but, ah, yes, the industrious Bertie Wooster and his Drones Club, home of all those feckless, upper-crust, between the wars Brits. I can just see Jeeves holding a rowing blazer out to Bertie, and brushing off his master’s shoulders with a tiny whisk broom.

The rowing blazers don’t come cheap – $550 to $1100. But they’re made in the USA. The line also sells button-down shirts for $175 that appear to be pre-frayed. And $150 ties.

Some folks may be thinking w.t.f. But I’ll borrow a line from Bertie Wooster: What ho!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Sky King?

Even by the dismal standards of 1950’s TV, Sky King was pretty lame. 330px-Sky_King_castFor those unfamiliar with this show of shows, Schuyler “Sky” King was a rancher (his ranch: The Flying Crown). But he was no ordinary rancher. He flew around in is plane – The Songbird – and solved crimes. Sometimes he was assisted by his niece Penny and nephew Clipper. That’s Clipper to the right, with Sky and Penny. I’m sure you can immediately grasp just why I had a major crush on Clipper. Unfortunately, Clipper wasn’t on as many episodes as Penny, and I was always disappointed when it was just Penny, who while always getting into fake girly trouble, was pretty boring. I recall that she once pissed off Uncle Sky by attempting to dry her hair with the whirling propellers of The Songbird. (Kids, don’t try this at home.)

The very thought of the hours I spent watching Sky King embarrasses me. (In my defense, when I was watching this and other wretched shows, I was generally reading a book at the same time.) Anyway, Sky King made other lame-o shows like Fury and My Friend Flicka look like high art.

Anyway, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about Sky King, or pining for Clipper. But the show came to mind when I read the other day that the Dutch King, Willem-Alexander, is actually a sky king. He’s at least temporarily giving his wings a rest, but for a good long while there, a couple of times a month, he had been a fly boy:

King Willem-Alexander told national newspaper De Telegraaf in an interview published Wednesday that he has ended his role as a regular "guest pilot" after 21 years on KLM's fleet of Fokker 70 planes and before that on Dutch carrier Martinair. He will now retrain to fly Boeing 737s as the Fokkers are being phased out of service. (Source: AP via Bloomberg)

Given the low-key monarchy in the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander generally went unrecognized, but there he had been all those years, making announcements and sitting there as the co-pilot, ready to take over if something happened to the pilot-pilot.

There’s something quite appealing about “royalty” in countries like Holland and Denmark. Compared to the Brits, they seem low on pomp and circumstances, low on bowing and scraping, and I think you mostly get to see them as royals when they show up in their cutaways (kings) and fascinators (queens) at the wedding of some distant cousin in the British Royal family. Mostly, they’re quasi-normal folks, who do quasi-normal things like flying planes. Which is more normal than someone flying around as a civilian crime-stopper, which was Sky King’s preposterous role. (I was going to write that these types of royals are quasi-normal, except when they get to be moral exemplars, like Denmark’s King Christian’s wearing a yellow star in sympathy with his nation’s Jews during WWII. Alas, although Denmark had a pretty exemplary record during the Holocaust, according to Snopes, the yellow star thing never happened.)

Anyway, I did get a kick out of reading about Willem-Alexander’s gig as a commercial co-pilot. A lot more calming than reading about what our head-guy’s up to…

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Never too old to learn, Ireland edition

Because I’ve been to Ireland so many times – somewhere in the 12-15 range, I think – I wasn’t anticipating a lot of revelations to come out of my trip to Ireland. But live and learn.

And what I learned is that barmbrack, or brack, is actually a cake that I love and that was known in my family as Daddy’s Favorite.

Here’s how this was revealed.

While my sister and niece cleaned out Molly’s student digs, my friend Shelly and I wandered around Claddagh and stumbled across a little art center and odd-bit shop (jewelry, scarves, lawn statuary, antique fireplace tiles – of which I came away with one to use as a trivet) in an old, thatched roof cottage. It was a gorgeous day, and we decided to have a cup of tea out in the garden. Would we like a slice of brack with that? Well, yes, we would.

I knew vaguely what brack was – something sort of fruit cake-y – but, in all my trips to Ireland  (12? 15?), which included many, many, many cups of tea, I had never had a slice of brack.

Sitting in the garden of Kate’s Claddagh Cottage, I took a bite of brack and said, “Hey, this is Daddy’s Favorite.”

Oh, this recipe used Guinness. Our family recipe had walnuts. But, damn, Daddy’s Favorite was, indeed, brack.

Who knew?

This should not be a surprise. My father was an Irish-American, and the recipe was probably my grandmother’s by way of her County Louth mother or County Mayo mother-in-law. Still, I had never thought of Daddy’s Favorite as something Irish. I do know that I’ve made it at least once in the last decade or so. I just went and dug out that recipe, written in my mother’s hand, and I’ll be making it soon. And having it with my afternoon cup of tea.

When I first started going to Ireland, there were plenty of aha moments like this: the way people looked, their speech patterns, the way they gestured, the way they pronounced certain words (like the name MAUR-een).  It was all very familiar. After all, I’d grown up in a largely Irish-American neighborhood, where most of the “grown ups” were the children or grandchildren of Irish immigrants. 

Still, the brack was a pleasant surprise.

As was the discovery of something called a Baby Guinness. Which has nothing to do with Guinness but which does look quite a bit like a pint. A Baby Guinness is a shot glass about 90% full of Kahlua, with a layer of Bailey’s on top. That’s Baby Guinness, standinBaby Guinnessg next to a pint. Having had a few pints during my week+ in Ireland, I will say that the head looks too white. The tannish-head on the Baby Guinness looks a lot more like the real thing.

In any case, the Baby Guinness was yummy. And while it’s tough to find a good pint of Guinness in the States – I do understand that the Burren in Davis Square in Somerville pours a decent pint – I suspect that it’s easy enough to find a Baby Guinness. Not that I’ll be out looking for one. But as a one-shot, it was a fun and tasty little drink to try.

Brack and Baby Guinness. Two pretty good take-aways for an old Ireland hand…

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Daddy’s Favorite

Pour 2 cups of boiling water over 1 pound of raisins. Cool. Add two teaspoons baking soda to raisins and water.

Mix 2 cups sugar, 2 tablespoons shortening (not specified, but I bet Liz used Crisco), 2 eggs

Add raisins and water. Mix well. (Liz instruction aside: “I usually add first the water, and hold the raisins until I have added the flour.”)

Add 3 cups flour. Mix well.

Add 1/2 cup walnuts.

Bake for approximately 1 hour. (Either 350 or 375, “depending on your oven.”)

Use 13” x 9” greased and floured pan.

It wasn’t specified on the recipe card, but you can dust the cooled cake with some powdered sugar.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

For peat’s sake

You could see if from the plane. Ireland didn’t look to me as green as it should.

And, sure enough, as we soon learned, Ireland has been in something of a drought, with little or no rain from April on into May. Which turned out to be good for us. From Monday, when we arrived, through Thursday, we enjoyed sunny and balmy (upper 60’s/low 70’s) days. Just gorgeous.

On Tuesday evening, as we headed out to dinner, there was smoke in the air and the distinct smell of peat. Turns out that there are fires raging throughout the country. Gorse fires. Heather fires. Hill grass. Sedge fires. Forests. And some of those fires – like the Connemara fire that was smoking up Galway – are burning on the peat bogs. Thus the smell of peat.

Which I actually like. In moderation. Years ago, I stuck my head in a poor farmer cottage  - this was at a replica ye olde Irish village – where the turf fire was authentically burning in the authentic low-ceilinged, windowless main room. One breath and I felt I had contracted black lung. As my grandmother used to say, “If Ireland were so great, we wouldn’t have all had to come over here.” And there you had it. A daily diet of praties while breathing intense peat smoke no doubt drove many an Irishman and woman to Amerikay.

Yet a bit of the aroma of peat is quite pleasant. I keep meaning to buy one of those ceramic thatched cottages that you can burn a pellet of peat in so that, come next winter, I can have a bit of peat in the background when I drink me Barry’s tea.

For Ireland, peat isn’t just a pleasant smell wafting from a tiny ceramic cottage. It’s:

…a cheap source of energy; at its simplest it involves no more than digging by hand. Ireland, which has bogs full of the stuff, uses it for 6% of its energy. (Source: The Economist)

“No more than digging by hand.” Hah!

We took an excellent tour of Connemara on Wednesday, and our driver (a native) pulled off at a peat bog and Digging peattalked about what a grand time they’d had as kids helping their father foot the turf. We were, of course, incredulous that something as backbreaking as digging up and footing turves might be fun. Does this look like fun to you? An Irish friend later confirmed that it was part of the no fun zone of her childhood when she and her sibs went to their grandparents’ farm during the summer, and they were required to participate in peat gathering. It sounds to me like apple-picking: the first few apples are fun, but pretty soon that bushel basket starts to look like the Grand Canyon. How are we ever going to fill that? The good news is that much of the peat gathering is now mechanized. (That said, you still do see folks out there working by hand.)

Anyway, our driver told us that none of his kids had ever had to cut turf, and that he himself now bought his turf rather than gather his own. (At least some of the country’s peat bogs are commons: you just go in and take what you want.)

So peat, while not exactly a renewable resource, is cheap (if you don’t count labor costs) and smells good (if you have a home with some ventilation):

But peat is also one of the dirtiest fuels available, emitting 23% more carbon dioxide than coal. Ireland is unusual among developed countries in burning it for energy on an industrial scale. A geological precursor to coal, it has been used on the island for at least 1,000 years. But it may at last be on its way out as Ireland turns to another energy source of which it has unlimited quantities: wind.

Ah, the wind! Which today accounts for 25% of Irish energy consumption. Nice going on making your energy renewable, while we fantasize about bringing back coal mining!

Anyway, we experienced the wind first hand on Saturday of our trip, when the weather had turned and we got caught out in a crosswise monsoon that soaked us all, and had the completely inefficient dryer in our rented house running fulltime for two+ hours to bring our clothing down to an acceptably damp level.

And, on our jaunt through Connemara, we saw some of the wind turbines that, once they’re all up and running will be generating 3% of Ireland’s energy needs. That’s the plan, anyway. The Galway fires – in the Cloosh Valley Forest – were threatening some of the turbines.

I don’t know how that resolved – couldn’t find it in the news – but Ireland will keep moving towards wind power, looking to be able to meet 100% of domestic demand by 2030, and already in the export business. They have cable connections for exporting to Britain, and are planning for a cable to the continent.

That will leave the peatlands to those who don’t heat with electric or something else. Which means that, by man or machine, there will still be those out hunter-gathering to keep their turf fires burning. Perhaps not having much fun, decidedly causing more pollution, but, in small quantities, enjoying the wonderful smell of peat.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Get off my lawn

The other day, while entering the Boston Public Garden, I passed a young woman carrying a bunch of flowers, looking a bit sheepish. They weren’t the tulips that are planted throughout the Garden this time of year – you’d really have to be a bold and brazen stump to start picking from the flower beds -  but as I crossed the Garden and saw the flowering trees, I realized that she had likely helped herself to some branches.

At that moment, I was not an official Friend of the Public Garden. But I am now. And, while I don’t have proof positive that the young woman 20170502_182830I saw with the cherry blossoms had clipped them from one of the park’s trees, next time I actually catch someone in the act of desecration, I will feel empowered to tell them to stop messing with my front lawn.

Not that I didn’t feel at least quasi-empowered in the past. A few weeks back, when I saw someone encouraging her granddaughter – who was about 12 years old – to bounce on a branch of fragile, rare tree while granny took pictures, I went into passive aggressive mode and commented while walking by. (Something along the lines of: that kid shouldn’t be sitting on that tree, or that’s how these beautiful trees get destroyed.)

But I didn’t say anything to the couple who had stretched their hammock between two fragile, rare trees and were canoodling. Is this allowed ? Is this okay? I mean, the Public Garden is quite literally my front yard. And it’s just gorgeous.

Boston’s Public Garden is the groomed and formal younger cousin to the more casual and boisterous 20170502_182635Boston Common. The first public botanical garden in America, its form, plantings, and statuary evoke its Victorian heritage. This green and flowering oasis in the heart of a great metropolis has become a Boston icon. No visit would be complete without a stroll in the Garden and a voyage on one of its Swan Boats.

Anyway, now that I’ve become a Friend, I’m feeling sort of deputized. But before I start making any citizen’s arrests, I’ll stop by their HQ (which is two doors down from where I live) and find out the rules of what is or isn’t okay. And ask them how to approach people in a kindly, gently, refined-ly, Beacon Hill-y manner and tut-tut offenders.

Oh, I’ll be careful. If someone looks like a serial killer, or is muttering under their breath, carrying a machete, or using a blowtorch to unseat (unweb foot?) one of the statues of the Make Way for Ducklings ducklings, I will make note but not speak up.

And I won’t be correcting people I overhear giving wrong information. Like the guy who told his kids that baby geese are “gooslings”. (Nope: they’re goslings, but I didn’t want to show dad up.) Nor did I butt in when I heard a Scout troop leader mangling the Make Way for Ducklings story, conflating Robert McCloskey’s charming tale with the ducks who hang out at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

No, even though I am a know-it-all crank, I don’t want to publicly expose myself as one.

But I will, I believe, become a tut-tutter, and, when I see people messing with my lawn (flowering trees, tulip beds, etc.), I will let them know that they need to get off of it.

I have plenty of reason to appreciate the Public Garden. Not only do I walk through it at some point most days, but sometimes I just go over there and sit on a bench and soak it all up. It’s really hard to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it just how beautiful and tranquil it is.

trimble

Quite unlike the front yard of my early childhood, which featured a Sunoco Station and Trimble Motors Used Cars, which is what’s shown here.

Okay, this wasn’t our real front yard. Our real front yard really didn’t exist. Our quasi front yard was a steep bank (which ended at a retaining wall) covered with some sort of hayish grass, which my father cut with a scythe. We had a side lawn, where the bridal wreathe, irises, peonies, and lilacs lived and where, in the summer, on hot days, we cavorted around in our bathing suits while my father sprayed us with the house. Our back yard at Nanny’s was pretty gloomy: dark, cool, mossy, shaded. The only thing to do there was trail your hand through the birdbath, or toss a rubber ball against the back of our house, which had not windows. That white house to the left in the picture above is where I lived until I was 6 1/2 and we moved to the next street over, about 100 yards away. The house then was brown, but that was my grandmother’s house, the house my father grew up in, and the house that, in my psyche, will always be home.

When we moved we had a very nice front yard, with velvety grass that was my father’s pride and joy. It was our version of the Boston Public Garden, without the rare trees, statuary, fountains, and swan boats. But our grass was actually better than the grass in the Public Garden. My father almost groomed it with manicure scissors. And we didn’t play on it either. That’s what the “more casual and boisterous” back yard was for.

So, fair warning to anyone thinking about doing some harm to the Boston Public Garden: GET OFF OF MY LAWN!

Monday, May 15, 2017

I’d say this is a pretty targeted audience

If you’re looking for a 14-karat gold example of “a house is not a home,” look no further than Opus Beverly Hills. It’s on sale for $100 million, has 7 bed, 11 bath (yawn) and comes with the requisite infinity pool. (Okay, I’m Opus infinity poolseriously jealous on that front.) And, although I don’t know if I could live with it full-time, it does have a seriously cool modern aesthetic that I like. (I always admire houses like this. My friends Joyce and Tom live in a smaller version – without the gold and some of the amenities, but quite beautiful all the same. But when I try to actually envision myself living in a super modern place, I can’t quite picture curling up with a good book, or taking a nap, or making a snack for myself. I find myself asking where I’d put important stuff like my grandmother’s cookie jar or the steer horns that hung in Rogers’ Brothers Saloon. And I find myself asking whether I could actually living in one permanently. Even at Joyce and Tom’s, a house that I love and which actually is a home.)

Nah, Opus is just too much of a good thing.

Seriously, could you see yourself and your friends and fam hanging out and having a good time in this living room?

Opus living room

Will the words ‘while you’re up, could you get more of the veggie dip’ ever be uttered in this room? Or even, ‘bring in the rest of that bottle of prosecco.’ I think not.

Among the other Opus amenities is a beauty salon. Because why not. Opus beauty parlorAnd a lot of other stuff. It’s actually a quite peculiar aesthetic. Tasteful modern (I.e., lots of grey) and a ton of Trumpian gold. Including a wine cellar stocked with bottles Cristal swathed in gold. And two gold cars, a Lamborghini and a Rolls. Plus there’s a big gold O outside the house. Just so you know you’re home. Or house.

Furniture, art work, and, hey, two-years worth of concierge, all rolled into the price.

See all about it – there’s nothing to read – here.

And make sure you check out the video. Because to sell this $100M baby, the owners made what seems to be a movie trailer for some outrĂ© soft-core porn film, featuring the golden girls. Here’s a sneak preview:Goldfinger

So, who’s the audience for this sort of place. Auric Goldfinger was a fictional character. And even if he were for real, and hadn’t been killed in the movie (wasn’t he?), he’d likely be dead by now.

So I’d venture that there’s a pretty limited audience for Opus Beverly Hills: Russian oligarch, rock star of the bling-y variety, professional athlete. And not just because they have the money. It’s that it’s there kind of place.

But I may need to widen my target market definition. I saw in people that Nile Niami, who developed O and also auteured the pornish video – he used to make movies -  once designed house/houses/home/homes for the Winkelvoss twins. Remember the WInkelvi? They were the prepped out Harvard whiners who went complaining to then-Harvard President Larry Summers that Mark Zuckerberg stole their idea and turned it into Facebook.

I don’t know, I don’t O. But this just doesn’t seem like a Harvard kind of place.

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Thanks to my discerning sister Trish for pointing the story of O my way.

Friday, May 12, 2017

“You’re fired”

One of the great things about traveling in the old days was the light touch you could keep with the news back home by picking up a copy of the International Herald Tribune. This was a skinny little broadsheet that gave you pretty much everything you needed to know: headline news and baseball scores, plus a bit of ex-pat color. It took ten minutes to read, and you felt connected. Reading the International Herald Trib was how I kept up with the Watergate hearings in 1973.

Even though I was pretty much an obsessional news reader (and watcher) since the age of six, back then, enough news was enough.

And then came Sky News. So if you had any access to TV, you could follow the news more closely. Admittedly, they never gave enough play to what was happening in the USA – come on, who cares what’s happening in Burundi and Liechtenstein – but you got more than you did from the paper, and it was more up to date, and you didn’t have to wait until the next morning when you went to pick your Trib up at the tabac to be able to follow the plots.

These days, the good news – well, sort of good news – is that wi-fi is everywhere. So you can noodle around 24/7 for the latest.

Thus, the other evening, while we were sitting in the living room of our digs in Galway, my sister Trish announced that Katy Tur (MSNBC correspondent) had just tweeted that James Comey had been fired.

For obvious reasons, I’m no big fan of James Comey. But I did have a small bit of faith that he and the FBI would help get to the bottom of the Russian heap at some point. And there is certainly a cloud of suspicion over the timing and faux rationale of his sudden departure. But one of the most troubling aspects of his being fired is, to me, the way in which it went down – and what it said about the person doing the firing.

During my career, I have been involved in a few firings, not because the people being fired were evil doers, but because they did something supremely ill-considered and outright wrong (not evil). But, jeez Louise, you fire someone to their face. Or on the phone. And it happens in real time. The person being fired, other than the HR folks and managers who need to be involved, is the first to know. And unless you’re on The Apprentice or something, the firing happens in private. Everybody may know two seconds later what happened, but the person being fired gets at least a nano-second to put their game face on before they have to do the walk of shame.

Comey finding out he was being fired when it came on the scrolling news chyron while he was speaking to FBI employees in LA…Huh?

Shouldn’t the president have manned up and called Comey? Or made sure the letter firing Comey was delivered to him personally? Apparently, nobody bothered to find out where Comey was actually going to be when all this went down. The need to get the deed done trumped all else. Function over form. I get it. Once you decide on something, you want it done. Still..

I’m over here in Ireland playing word association, and what I come up with is: tin pot, incompetent, impulse control, unstable, erratic, dishonest (fired because o the Hillary ‘stuff’: does anyone other than Eric Trump believe that?), and scared shitless about what a real investigation into matters-Russky will bring about.

Okay. There’s nothing new here. I would have made the same word associations the day before Comey was fired. Nonetheless, ain’t nothing about this that says good judgment, sound reasoning.

James Comey is a big boy. He will survive all this quite nicely, I’m sure. And I’m equally sure that when he thinks about how he got the axe, he’s just shaking his head and saying to himself, ‘consider the source.’

Yet wouldn’t we all like to see a bit more any thoughtfulness, a bit more any decency coming out of the Oval Office?

Over the years, I saw quite a bit of bad managerial behavior when it came to handling employees. I saw executives throw subordinates under the bus in public forums. I saw conversations best held in private “performed” – because it did always seem like a performance, like when parents scream at their kids in the grocery store, then try to catch your eye and get your approval – in front of those who had no business being privy to the conversation. I saw layoffs conducted in the most callous of manner.

And Trump’s firing of Comey just takes the cake.

God knows I didn’t need another reason to despise Donald Trump. This just adds to the fear factor about what he’s going to do next.

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And while I’m at it, what about Sarah Huckabee Sanders characterizing what Comey had done as “basic atrocities.” Exaggerate much? The problem with the basics seems to be the White House’s: basic competence, basic language skills…

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Well, Facebook is hiring

Well, if yesterday the story was that warehouse robotics would be creating a lot more displaced workers, today’s story is that Facebook is hiring. They’re looking to hire 3,000 people, worldwide, and, while I haven’t seen the job requirements, it doesn’t sound on the face of it as if you need elite, FB-level coding skills to grab one of these jobs. What Facebook wants to bring on board are folks:

…to monitor videos and posts for violent or criminal acts, and potentially prevent tragedies from occurring.

The social-media site has faced calls to do more, and respond faster, after a murder and a suicide were recently shown live. The new employees, who will be added over the next year, will join 4,500 people already on Facebook’s content moderation force.(Source: Bloomberg)

Content moderation sounds relatively passive, but Mark Zuckerberg wants to prevent suicides and murders-in-the-making. And he wants to halt (alt?) the spread of misinformation as well. (Hey, Mark, where were you when we needed you on that front? Better late than never, I guess.)

“If we’re going to build a safe community, we need to respond quickly,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re working to make these videos easier to report so we can take the right action sooner -- whether that’s responding quickly when someone needs help or taking a post down.”

I wondered about what the life of a content moderator entailed, and when I went to the Google, up popped a 2014 article from Wired with this how-could-you-not-click headline, “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed,” which got right into just what content moderation’s all about.

It is as unglamorous, and even gackier, than I would have thought.

…Michael Baybayan, an enthusiastic 21-year-old with a jaunty pouf of reddish-brown hair. If the space [where he works] does not resemble a typical startup’s office, the image on Baybayan’s screen does not resemble typical startup work: It appears to show a super-close-up photo of a two-pronged dildo wedged in a vagina. I say appears because I can barely begin to make sense of the image, a baseball-card-sized abstraction of flesh and translucent pink plastic, before he disappears it with a casual flick of his mouse. (Source: Wired)

Can a job get much worse?

Anyway, as of 2014, it was estimated that there were 100,000 content moderators out there, many of them Filipinos, working for companies like Facebook, at wages far lower than what a cafeteria worker at FB headquarters would haul down: $300-$500 per month. Content moderators were “hunting for:pornography, gore, minors, sexual solicitation, sexual body parts/images, racism.” Translation: “dick pics, thong shots, exotic objects inserted into bodies, hateful taunts, and requests for oral sex.”

All the content moderation jobs aren’t outsourced overseas.

Many companies employ a two-tiered moderation system, where the most basic moderation is outsourced abroad while more complex screening, which requires greater cultural familiarity, is done domestically. US-based moderators are much better compensated than their overseas counterparts: A brand-new American moderator for a large tech company in the US can make more in an hour than a veteran Filipino moderator makes in a day.But then a career in the outsourcing industry is something many young Filipinos aspire to, whereas American moderators often fall into the job as a last resort, and burnout is common.

No surprise there. How’d you like to spend your day looking through: “brutal street fights, animal torture, suicide bombings, decapitations, and horrific traffic accidents.” It’s no wonder that there are concerns about the psychological impact on workers. Think PTSD.

And now there are going to be another 3,000 of them.

And, of course, with Facebook Live, there’s the urgency overlay, as the people doing all those hideous things are now streaming them in real-time. It’s no longer enough to get rid of some snuff video that was filmed god knows when. Now, those moderators are seeing what’s going down as it happens, and the pressure is on to go into immediate “see something/say something” mode in hopes of stopping the suicidal young woman from live-streaming her death, or the homicidal maniac from killing (as happened recently in Ohio) some random guy coming home from Easter dinner with his grandkids.

The good news is, Facebook’s hiring. The bad news is the jobs themselves. Which, by the way, won’t be around for all that long. Those elite coders? They’re looking for ways to automate content moderation. So those jobs will be going the way of dodo bird work like warehouse pick and pack. And coal mining. What exactly is it that people are going to do when rotten jobs like content moderation disappear?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

More DPs on the horizon. (The good news? Massachusetts is the hub of the robotics industry.)

When I was a kid, we went every other year to Chicago, where my mother was from. My mother’s family were Germans, from  the corner of the German diaspora that was once the Austo-Hungarian Empire and that became, after World War One, Rumania. (That’s where my mother was born. She came over, with her parents – through Ellis Island – when she was 3 or 4.) While many of her relatives, on both her father’s and her mother’s side, had emigrated before World War Two to the States or Canada, many others stayed behind. And a lot of them became displaced persons (DPs) after that war.

My grandmother helped plenty of these DPs – her nieces and nephews, her cousins – come over, and, on our biennial treks to Chicagoland, we often met some of these folks (volks?) – or, as we began calling them as we got older and wise-assier, “no sprechs”. One, I remember, had married a Frenchwoman named Madeleine, and they had a couple of no-sprech, non-parle daughters who sat around the living room, on my grandmother’s plastic-covered couch, in their fancy pale blue nylon dresses (complete with petticoats). We were wearing shorts and sneakers.

These days, although plenty of them (Syrians, et al) are heading there, DPs aren’t from Mitteleuropa.

But there’s another type of DP, and they were brought up in an article I saw the other day on the warehouse robotics industry in Massachusetts, which will be wholesale replacing warehouse workers at some point in the not so distant future. Today, there are around a quarter of a million of them in the US, picking items off shelves for us. Tomorrow? Let’s just say I wouldn’t bet my employment future on working in a warehouse.

A few years back, Amazon bought Kiva, a Massachusetts warehouse robotics company, which they renamed as Amazon Robotics. And that might have been that, if Amazon had been “generous” enough to let the company they acquired keep selling robots to the competition – retailers like Walgreens, Staples, and The Gap. But they went ‘hell, no.’

And that:

…,move gave birth to a new generation of robot makers scrambling to fill the vacuum.

“Amazon has created an arms race,” said Rick Faulk, chief executive of Locus Robotics, a Wilmington company founded by Quiet Logistics Inc. an eight-year-old warehouse operator in Devens that was left high and dry by the Kiva deal. And many of the key arms merchants are located in the Boston area. (Source: Boston Globe)

And then there’s Vecna Technologies, Six River Systems, and RightHand Robotics, which has carved out a real niche for itself. It’s:

…tackled perhaps the toughest challenge in the industry: building a robotic hand that can reach into a bin that is full of merchandise and pick individual items out for shipment.

Robots have been used in warehouses for a while, but the technology is getting more and more sophisticated – more powerful sensors, better vision systems, more accurate mapping tech. Which makes those robots more human-like. Which makes them better equipped – I was going to say evolved, and I guess that’s true, too – to displace persons.

Warehouse robotics is just part of the story. Massachusetts has been been at robotics for a while. Today:

The industry has well more than 120 companies, about 4,700 employees, and revenues of $1.6 billion, according to an October 2016 report by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

For now, the robots work in collaboration with humans. But once those right hands figure out what the left hand’s doing, well, lookout.

As it turns out, because the “pick-and-pack” jobs are so boring and high-pressure, it’s actually difficult for warehouses to fill all the jobs they have. 

Indeed, Chris Elliott, a senior consultant for Blue Horseshoe, a warehousing consultancy in Westerville, Ohio, said many warehouses are built in rural areas or small towns where land is cheap, but people are scarce. And warehouse work is so tedious that worker turnover is high.

I’m no Luddite. Any job that can be automated will be automated, and there’s no wage that’s so low that it can withstand the automation tsunami. So “there’s going to be a lot of people who’ll be displaced,” said Elliott. “It’s going to be a disruption.” But we can let it just happen, or get out in front of things and figure out exactly what it is that folks on the lower-end of the skill continuum are going to do for a living. We’ve seen what can happen when economic DPs don’t think anyone’s paying attention to them. And it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

Years ago – long enough in the way back that I was commuting to a full time job – I heard Kenneth Cole (the shoe guy) interviewed on NPR. He was talking about off-shore manufacture of his shoes, and said that, even if the manufacturing jobs went away, there would be plenty of work around for shoe designers. It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that the ratio between designers and factory workers isn’t exactly 1:1. Nor will the ratio between robotics engineers and warehouse workers.

More DPs, coming right (hand) up!

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Flushing Meadows

When my husband was in the final stages of his life, we talked about where he would like his ashes scattered. Most of them are buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, but there’s a thimble-full in a few places (with a few other places to go), and some of his ashes – a special last minute request from his nibs – were sent into space. Sounds morbid, but we were both raised Catholic and grew up getting a regular dose of ‘remember man that dust thou art and unto dust thou shall return.’ And thinking where you want a bit-een of yourself to end up is an interesting process.

One place I’d like a smidge of my ashes – and I do mean nothing more than a couple of grains – is Fenway Park.

So I fully understand any fan who has an in memoriam wish to get taken out to the ball game.

But one NY Mets fan is being sprinkled around in a slightly less orthodox manner than I have in mind for my Fenway Park ash-drop.

Roy Riegel died nine years ago (on the day of the Mets home opener, no less), and his boyhood friend and fellow baseball fan, Tom McDonald, decided to honor his pal:

…by disposing of Mr. Riegel’s ashes in ballparks across the country. Even more unusual was his chosen method: flushing them down public restroom toilets in the ballparks between innings. (Source: NY Times)

It may sound a tad crude, but it’s fitting. Riegel, after all, was a plumber. So far, a bit of Roy Riegel has been piped out through the plumbing of 16 stadiums.

McDonald has also spread some ash-based cheer on “a marker designating Shea Stadium’s original home plate location” (a few years ago, Shea - where the Mets historically played - was replaced by Citi Field), and in the schoolyard at PS 70 in Astoria Queens, where Riegel and McDonald played as kids.

“It’s funny — not in a joke way — but funny that it was exactly like Roy would have wanted it,’’ Mr. McDonald said.

Death and dying ain’t what they used to be. I don’t imagine that there are too many open casket wakes and six-feet under ceremonies at St. Something’s Cemetery in my future. That generation is dying out – literally – and, contemporary die-ees are more likely to go the accelerated ashes-to-ashes root – none of this moldering around in an almost air-tight coffin for a few years until, inevitably, the worms crawl in and the worms crawl out. Folks these days are more apt to take the express lane to infinity and be cremated.

I believe that, if you’re a Catholic, the Church wants your ashes to stay together and be buried in one place. The better, I guess, to be prepared for the resurrection of the body. I actually don’t see why the cremains’ location matters all that much. If your ashes are going to be transmogrified back into your body, well, that’s pretty much a miracle in my book. And if miracles can happen, surely those ashes can be brought back together for the final roll up, wherever they ended up – even if that was swept out with a flush of the toilet in Flushing Meadows. The more apt question, of course, may be the one my Grandmother Rogers would ask: at just what age would your body come back at? Nanny lived to be 97, and she had zero desire to spend eternity with sparse hair, missing teeth, batwing arms and crepe-y skin that felt like talcum powder. Nanny wanted to come back as a handsome girl, not an old crone.

Anyway, as the Boomers start to check out in greater numbers, it’s easy to envision more and more of us coming up with our ash bucket lists. And that means more ashes in ball parks.

Today, they wand you and search your bags for booze. In the not too distant future, they may be looking for baggies with a bit of crumby grey-ish white matter in them. My sisters will have to be careful, but I’m sure they’ll find a way.

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A tip of the old ball cap to my sister Kath for pointing this article my way. Kath isn’t much of a sports fan, but I wouldn’t mind her accompanying Trish when they go to sprinkle a final bit of the final me onto the warning track in center field. If they ever replace Fenway Park, I’ll have to come up with another plan.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Let’s Go, Ireland

Well, unless last night’s Aer Lingus flight lands in the drink between Boston and Shannon, I’m in Ireland for the umpteenth time. And why not? I want to get back to Paris. And Berlin. I want to rent that villa in Tuscany. Portugal’s on my bucket list. And Cuba. But Ireland, well, it’s not all that complicated.

It’s close. It’s familiar. It’s home-but-not-home.

My first time in Ireland was in early May, 1973, forty-four years ago.

My friend Joyce and I got off the night boat from Wales in a lashing rain storm. We’d spent the prior week or so in England, with a day in Wales. In England, people had politely queued at bus stops. In Dun Laoghaire, outside of Dublin, where the boat docked, people at the bus stop were jostling for position. An old lady was prodding people in the butt with her umbrella. This was more like it. This felt like home. Plus the people looked like everyone we’d grown up with. They gestured like the people we knew. The spoke with a brogue, but it didn’t sound all that odd to ears used to Massachusetts English.

We made our way onto that bus – we followed the old lady with the umbrella – into Dublin, where we didn’t know where we were going to stay or what we were going to do. As we were struggling to negotiate with the payphone, a young man (maybe thirty-ish; he was older than we were), asked us if we needed help. Tom invited us out to tea and explained that, if his wife hadn’t just had a baby, we could have stayed with the. He called a single friend of his, Geraldine Murtagh, and asked her to put us up. Which she did, sight unseen, for a week, in a very modern and lovely flat in an old Georgian building in Fitzwilliam Square. This at a time when Dublin wasn’t exactly awash in modern and lovely flats (with central heating, no less).

Thus started our Irish adventure.

In Dublin, we did the standard tourist stuff: Book of Kells, Kilmainham Jail, Stephen’s Green, the Brazen Head Pub. And we decided that the best food in the world was to be had in whatever country you landed in after you left England. English food has improved markedly since the seventies. So has Irish food. It was no great shakes on that first trip, but we were traveling on the cheap, and at least in Ireland there were a couple of veggies that weren’t big mushy peas. Plus, in Ireland, I had mushrooms in butter on crusty bread for the first time, a yummy meal that I treat myself to at least once each winter.

While in Dublin, Joyce and I joined the Irish youth hostel, An Oige, and ended up hosteling around the rest of Ireland, and, after that, a large swath of Europe (where we mixed hosteling with camping).

In Ireland, after Dublin, we hitched to Cork. Kissed the Blarney Stone. Went around the Ring of Kerry in a delivery van. Saw touristy Killarney. Stayed at the Doorus House hostel in Kinvara, where William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory (who co-founded the Abbey Theater with Yeats) had spent some time. We were only about 20 miles from Galway, but never got there for some reason. The only other thing I remember on that trip was some tandoori chicken in Athlone. Or was that in 1985, when I was there with my husband?

We got around by hitchhiking. And Irish doctor who picked us up diagnosed an eye infection and prescribed some ointment for me. A middle-aged couple from California stopped for us, and we got to listen to them go on and on about the colors of Ireland and how they looked like tweed. (Her name, I recall was Trudy. Can’t remember his. Was it George?) We got another American lift with a single guy – black pants and a crewneck sweater. We figured he was a priest, the black pants a giveaway. He was all excited about the prospects of the Knicks in the upcoming NBA playoffs. A country fellow picked us up and said hop in. Those were the last words we heard from himself. He pulled in at a crossroads pub in the middle of nowhere. Popped in for a jar (no ladies invited), came back out, and drove us another few miles.

On that first long ago trip to Europe, I told myself that there were three places I’d return: Paris, Yugoslavia (as it then was), and Ireland.

I’ve been to Paris four or five times since 1973. Maybe I’ll get back to Dubrovnik at some point. But Ireland, while not exactly home away from home, has been something of heart’s home for me.

In Ireland, Galway ended up being my/our favorite place, and it’s where I’m now hunkered down for the week with my sister Trish, our friend Michele, and my niece Molly, who’s been studying this semester at the National University of Ireland, Galway. We’ll do some day trips to the Connemara, maybe to Westport. And at some point – maybe this week, maybe next – the postmark for Pink Slip will become Ireland for a bit.

Slan for now”.

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*A nod to the classic student travel guide of my era, Let’s Go Europe,

Friday, May 05, 2017

Does she or doesn’t she?

The last time I did any home hair coloring – which was the one and only time I did any home hair coloring – I was 18 years old.

Having pierced my own ears using the ice cube and thick needle method, I figured, what the hell. I can put a streak in my hair. Of course, I wasn’t going to spend any of my hard-earned Big Boy tips on a box of Lady Clairol dye. Not when there was already a perfectly good jar of peroxide (used to clean kid wounds) in the bathroom cabinet.

So, I sponged some peroxide directly onto the front hank of my hair, and ended up with a streak that, over time went from jolly olly orange to lemon yellow to shock of white.

After that, I let nature take its course. My dirty blond hair got darker. It lightened up when I was out in the sun. And darkened up when I didn’t.

At some point in my late forties, I started doing highlights. A slippery slope, if ever. I’m not sure when highlights turned into dye job, or when the greys really started setting in – probably a simultaneous equation - but at some point both those things started happening. Since then, I’ve left it all in the hands of a professional. (Rita: a color genius.) And my hair, I must say, looks pretty darned good. I maintain that this is because what’s one my head is a color that was, at one point (my late twenties), the real color of my post-peroxide streak hair: lightish-mediumish brown with blondish highlights when head hit sunshine.

But, having had that formative experience with a bottle of peroxide, I would no more try dying my own hair than I would take out my own appendix. Actually, I’d probably trust myself to do less harm removing that vestigial organ with an Exacto knife than I would dying my own hair.

Fortunately for Amy Errett, there are plenty of do-it-yourselfers out there. She left a career as a VC to found Madison Reed, an online (of course) business that sells home hair coloring kits. A former entrepreneur, she was looking around for an idea when she found one in her own home:

…she grew concerned about the harsh hair­ coloring chemicals her wife, Clare, was handling during twice ­monthly touch­ups. At dinner parties in their home, she began asking her guests the awkward question, “Hey, do you dye your hair?” (Source: NY Times)

Although my friends and I do on occasion talk dye job - and those conversations often include a nod to the lucky ones with beautiful silvery white hair – it’s generally girl talk: not for mixed company, as we used to say. I’d like to have seen some of the reactions to those awkward questions Asmy Errett asked her guests. Anyway, Errett proved a dogged researcher, and she went beyond asking dinner party questions, moving on to:

…observing 53 friends and acquaintances apply their own hair dye. She said she witnessed “all the mistakes and all the emotion” involved in the process, and she concluded that the industry was stagnant in terms of the products, distribution channels and the technology used.

She then did an assessment of her idea and concluded that she had a business.

About 56 million Americans dye their hair at home, and many opt for touch­ups or full dye jobs every two to six weeks. Like razors, home hair color is what Ms. Errett calls a repetitive usage product. “It’s embedded in the business model for a person to come back,” she said.

That’s for sure. No hair dyer that I know wants to see what’s actually under there. And if we don’t want to see it, we don’t want anyone else to see it either. (A number of years ago, I headed out on a day when the temperature was in the low single digits. My husband asked me where I was going, and I said ‘the hairdresser.’ He then asked why I didn’t just change the appointment. All I could think was: are you nuts?)

Anyway, so far so good for Errett. She’s raised $45.1 in funding. And Madison Reed is online and looking just great. Maybe if I had to touch up my roots every couple of weeks, I’d give it a whirl. But one of the benefits of lighter-ish hair is that the grey actually doesn’t show that much. Guess I’ll just stick with the every-eight-weeks-full-foil-whatever. And if I’m ever at a dinner party where the does-she-or-doesn’t-she question – which Clairol famously asked in its ads way back in the day - comes up, the answer is “yes.” But only my hairdresser knows for sure just what’s in that plastic squeeze bottle.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

One potato, two potato, three potato four, five potato, six potato, seven golf balls, more!

When we were in college, one of my friends dated a fellow who’d grown up in Aroostook County, Maine. Potato country. I can’t remember if he was a “city slicker” (make that town slicker: Presque Isle has about 10,000 people in it) or a farm boy, but his high school closed down for three weeks during potato harvest season to that the kids could work in the fields bringing the crop in. They still do this Down East, even though much of the harvesting work is now automated, and fewer kids take part. Each year it’s debated, but so far the tradition holds.

Maybe next fall, the farmers will be relying more on high schoolers and less on machines, as even the dullest high school student can probably figure out the difference between a potato and, say, a golf ball. Because who wants to find pieces of golf balls in their hash browns.

No one.

But a couple of folks did. And that’s why McCain potato growers (and stores like Wegmans) issued a recall.

The Food & Drug Administration said in its recall notice that customers found hard plastic and rubber pieces that appeared to have been “inadvertently harvested with potatoes.” Reached by phone Thursday, a Wegmans consumer associate said the potatoes McCain used were harvested by machines that did not know the difference between a golf ball and a potato. (Source: Boston Globe)

As I said, even the dullest Presque Isle High student is likely to be able to discern that a golf ball and a potato are two very different things. Even a non golfer, even a non cook.

It’s pretty simple: a golf ball is round and dimpled and white. A potato is roundish and not-dimpled and brown. And a golf ball is a lot harder than a potato. You could break your tooth, biting into a golf ball. If you could even bite into it. And as someone who sliced open her share of golf balls as a kid, I know that there’s nothing edible on the inside.

I’m sure that golf ball technology has changed over the years, but I’m sure that they remain inedible.

When I was a kid – and my father gave us golf balls with a hack slice in them – there was a tiny little ball at the center of a golf ball. And when you bounced that tiny little ball, it went off like a rocket. So, realistically, you only got to bounce it once, because it went so high and so fast, and was so tiny – maybe a quarter the size of the little red balls we used to play jacks – you could never find it once you got it. But getting to that tiny little ball was still worth the arduous effort o slicing and peeling the dimpled white “hide” of the golf ball, then slicing and unwinding the rubber thread that surrounded the tiny little center ball. If you sliced that thread the wrong way, it could really snap at you.

I never labored in the potato fields. Worcester didn’t have them. But I do know what concentrated hard work is when it comes to working on a golf ball.

So I know golf balls. And as an eater, I know potatoes.

So I know taht sometimes potatoes have eyes. And sometimes they have green spots. And sometimes they have black gooey rot. But they really don’t resemble a golf ball in the least.

McCain said there have been no reported injuries.

“We continue to investigate the nature of this event so we can assess the necessary actions required,” McCain said in a statement. “We are working cooperatively with the Food & Drug Administration and Wegmans to ensure the affected product is removed from the marketplace.”

Coal mining jobs may not be coming back. Uber drivers may be replaced by self-driving cars. All store checkouts may be automated.

But until they can find a machine that can figure out that a golf ball and a potato are two separate things, come fall harvest, the kids of Aroostook County will always have work.