Friday, September 22, 2017

Fire next time…

I don’t know about you, but if I had 20,000 €500 bills, I wouldn’t be cutting them into tiny little strips and flushing them down the toilet.

But someone who’s most decidedly not me, and most decidedly not you, did just that in Switzerland, turning what used to be a metaphor for wasting one’s money, and turning it into an literal thing.

The €500 is something of the bad dude of currency. Since its such a high-denomination bill, it’s a natural for money laundering and other criminal activities. Carrying a wad of fivers takes up a lot less room – one fifth the size and weight, in fact – as carrying a bunch of one hundreds that add up to the same amount. In fact, it’s so commonly up to no good that some wise-guys have nicknamed it the “Bin Laden.” Because it’s used for so many nefarious purposes, the €500 is being taken out of circulation. (Despite our ups and downs, and despite what the bitcoiners have to say, the US dollar still does tend to be the currency of good, bad, and indifferent choice worldwide. It’s just that the highest denomination US bill in general circulation is the $100. And, bang for the cash and carry buck, the Benjamin has some problems competing with the Bin Laden. I’m sure that those who want to MAGA will want to take a look into this matter.)

Anyway, the money in question was found inside of clogged toilets, and in trash cans outside of unclogged toilets, in a Geneva branch bank – not surprisingly UBS – and in a couple of nearby restaurants.

The public prosecutor’s office in Geneva said that the money appeared to have been disposed of by two Spanish citizens, whom it declined to identify, and that unless there was evidence that the cash had been obtained illegally or was destined for criminal activity, no charges could be brought. “The fact that you put the money into toilets is weird, but not criminal,” said Vincent Derouand, a spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office. (Source: NY Times)

“Weird, but not criminal” sure describes plenty of goings on. But just as there’s criminal (jay-walking) and then there’s criminal (murder in the first degree), there’s weird (my mother’s whistling “La Vie en Rose” under her breath, which you wouldn’t think was a heritable trait but which apparently is) and then there’s weird (as in flushing $120K worth of Euros down the toilet).

Finding wads of cash in toilets is not a common occurrence, however, and the story drew attention in the national news media.

Not to mention the international news media, which is where I saw it.

UBS, whose Rue de la Corraterie branch is a short walk away, on the edge of a quiet area known as the “Quartier des Banques,” or neighborhood of banks, declined to comment. The Geneva police said the investigation was focused on damage to the toilets of the restaurants where the money had been found. The prosecutor’s office said a lawyer for the two Spanish suspects had paid for damage to the restaurants’ plumbing, but added it could not provide further information because it was a private arrangement.

So, what does this sound like to you? Some guys who didn’t want to be caught holding the bag containing beaucoup d’ill gotten gain? Counterfeiters who got cold feet?

Fun to mull, and very Inspector Clouseau-esque, no?

In any case, I enjoyed this one because it reminded me of my late and much lamented father.

As part of his time-served as a charter member of the Greatest Generation, U.S. Navy Division, my father spent a couple of years during WWII stationed at Navy Pier in Chicago. He was a Chief Petty Officer, and his job was paperwork. Anyway, after the war ended, he and his boss, some 90-day-wonder lieutenant, were told that they would be discharged once all their paperwork was cleared up.

So they crated up all that they could and sent it off to St. Louis. As a kid, I thought that this was something of a metaphor for sending things off to nowhere – I had visions of a giant safe just showing up at the train depot, where it would remain unclaimed forever – but St. Louis was, as I later learned, the repository for military personnel records.

Anyway, after they got finished packing up and shipping off everything that they possibly could, my father and his boss decided to flush whatever was left down the toilet. Or so he told us. I doubt that he would have flushed anything important. I doubt that there’s some geezer veteran tottering around, insisting that he was stationed in Chicago during the war, even if they can find no record of his service. But, knowing my father, and knowing his tolerance for Mickey Mouse rules and regulations, and for bureaucracy, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he decided that some of the forms he needed to clear up were completely flushable.

No way, however, would Al have ever flushed a $5 bill down the head – as it was called in the U.S. Navy – let alone a €500.

But those Spaniards in Geneva? With all those €500’s to burn, errrrr, flush.

Wouldn’t it have been easier and safer to just burn them? (Thanks to my husband’s stint in the CIA, I actually know how to burn paper so that you don’t leave a trace.)

So many mysteries, so little time.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Talk about off the rack…

When it comes to shopping for clothing, I’m pretty much a half-and-halfer. I order a lot of stuff online – Tribal pants are Tribal pants, Yala shirts are Yala shirts – but I also do some in-store buying. Hey, I’m walking by Lord & Taylor and I realize I need new undies.

But the truth about clothing is that I’m nowhere near the shopper I used to be.

There were periods in my life, when I worked full time and actually needed more clothing, when I shopped regularly. At times, I “grazed the B” (i.e., poked around Filene’s Basement) two to three times a week. Sometimes I came home empty-handed, but you never knew what you might find.

But now, when it comes to clothing, the thrill is gone. I wear the same things all the time, replacing them when they wear out or I just get sick of them. I still like to poke around the women’s clothing stores – the ones aimed at reasonably well-off women of a certain age – that sell the kind of things that pass for cool and stylish for reasonably well-off women of a certain age. I do go on an occasional buying jag, typically at the change of seasons. And I do like having something new to wear. Just not as much as I used to. These days, when I think about clothing shopping, I’m mostly ‘meh.’

And yet I do not welcome the thought of clothing stores disappearing from the face of the earth, a long-predicted day that appears to be creeping closer. And Nordstrom, it seems, is getting in on the act of facilitating this eventuality. (Guess I should save my breath wishing that a “real” Nordstrom’s, rather than just a Rack, would open up in downtown Boston. How is it that, with all the high-end condos sprouting up all over the place, the only new stores in downtown Boston seem to be Old Navy and Primark? Guess the rich folk who live in them just order in. Which, now that I think of it, is probably the case. The other day, I was walking by the delivery entrance to the new – and ultra-posh – Millennium Tower, which stands on the site of the old Filene’s. And there was a Stop & Shop PeaPod delivery truck backing in. Given that there’s a full Roche Brothers grocery store in the basement of the building – the site of the old Filene’s Basement, in fact – where the Millennium Tower stands, and that the Millennium Tower dwellers can access Roche Bros. without having to step outside, I was kind of surprised that someone would still be ordering their food from PeaPod.)

Anyway,

The slow destruction of in-person retail has generated a new tactic by struggling American stores. Looking to cut costs while keeping consumers interested, they’ve taken a page from the e-commerce playbook. Nordstrom Local is the latest iteration of this concept: clothing retailers with little or no merchandise. Come in, pick out a dress, and place your order—then go home empty-handed.

At first, the inexorable march of the online economy was stalled by the apparel industry—you can’t try on clothes you’re ordering online. The new store-without-stock strategy tries to exploit this obstacle. By having merchandise shipped to your home from warehouses, these stores don’t have to flip inventory every season or mark down piles of sweaters that aren’t selling. Most important, supply chains don’t have to route trucks from warehouses to stores. That’s a lot of slashed overhead.(Source: Bloomberg)

Well, talk about sucking all the joy out of an impulse buy. Of course, recognizing that instant gratification is the name of the shopping game, some of these stockless-stores will offer a few bibelots so you have something to stow in your tote bag. Plus, they’ll offer same day delivery if you bop in early enough in the day. Still, there’s something missing from this sort of dry, good-less shopping experience.

And it’s not just Nordstrom Inc.—Wal-Mart is betting there’s a future in these sort-of stores, too. “A store with no inventory becomes very, very efficient,” said Michael Brown, a partner at the retail division of consulting firm A.T. Kearney. “You can get very streamlined.”

I can imagine that a store with no inventory does indeed become “very, very efficient.” The good ol’ ‘suppose they gave a war and nobody came’ strategy. We’re already working our way towards libraries with no books. What’s next? Restaurants with no food? Hospitals with no beds?

Ptui! Don’t know quite where it’ll be, but I’m going shopping…

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mamma Mia! ABBA’s touring as holograms….

God knows, the members of ABBA aren’t getting any younger. Three of them (yes, I had to look it up) are in their 70’sABBA, and the “kid” of the lot is 67. So I can understand why they might not want to go on a tour, especially when you think about having to climb into those costumes. I don’t know about ABBA, but I sure have a few more lbs on me than I had in 1975.

What’s with ABBA, given that their peer geezer rock stars are still getting out there – The Boss, The Stones, Aerosmith, Jimmy Buffett, Warren Buffett ? But, hey, ABBA broke up in 1982. And they just might not want to get back together, other than virtually. They’re probably living pretty comfy up there in Sweden, raking in the residuals every time some community theater stages Mamma Mia.

And so, their next tour will not exactly be in person.

Instead, they'll be recreated into "digital avatars" for a virtual reality tour in 2019, something which was hinted on their Facebook page last October.This, despite all members of ABBA being very much alive.

"It's perfect. We can be on stage while I’m home walking the dogs," ABBA's Benny Andersson, told the Herald Sun.

"I don't have to leave my house. If this really works there’ll be a lot of artists wanting to do the same thing, even artists who are still young and still touring. It’s a very interesting project." (Source: Mashable)

Can’t argue with the desire for the performers not wanting to leave the house. There are plenty of days when I don’t want to open the door and get out in the elements, either. It’s just that the damn Fitbit is there on my wrist, staring at me, goading me to get 10,000 steps in that just can’t be achieved by circling the dining room table.

But you can argue whether or not the hologram scenario is all that perfect. After all, one of the beauties of seeing Springsteen in concert is admiring the fact that, in his late 60’s, he can still pump out a non-stop 3 hour+ performance without flagging. And there’s something to be said for the wonderment of hearing James Taylor, still in sweet voice, singing “Sweet Baby James” at age 69.

It might be interesting to see a hologram concert, but I certainly wouldn’t pay for it the same way I’d pay to see the real thing. That said, pretty much the only way I’d go to see ABBA in concert would be because of the gimmickry of the technology.

There will still be some live aspects to the concert: 

According to the Herald Sun, the band members of ABBA have had their measurements taken over the past year, and the hologram's end result will resemble the band at their peak in the late-1970s.

Okay. Now that’s funny. Wouldn’t we all like to see a projected image of ourselves at our peak, or whatever you want to call that idyllic period (or so it seems now) when you’re in your twenties.

The quartet will be projected in front of a live band, with the vocals stripped from the records and audio from their 1977 Australian tour.

"It’ll be like you're in 1977, with a live band, live backing vocals, a great set design with lights and sound, everything will be like a live concert," Andersson added.

Well, except for one critical difference.

Other than for a losing candidate in last year’s French presidential election, most of the performances that have used holograms have been of dead artists. Tupac “appeared” at Coachella in 2012, and Michael Jackson put in a posthumous appearance at the Billboard Awards in 2015.

But ABBA’s alive and well. What’s their excuse, other than wanting to stay home with the dogs? (Admittedly a reasonable one.) Didn’t they used to be super troupers? Now, alas, it’s all money, money, money – without having to stir their booted stumps for.

I’ll be interested to see what they’ll be charging for this weirdly tech nostalgia act. Just what will people be willing to pay see that girl, watch that scene, digging the Dancing Hologram?

 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Kink Room? Oh, Grow the F Up

It seems as if not a week goes by without some new story about sexism in the tech industry – startups, around-for-a-whilers, VC’s – you name it, women are coming forth to expose the harassment, the crude behavior. As someone who has worked in tech-ville for nearly 40 years, I can report that a lot of what’s being brought out is nothing new.

Models doing demos? Yawn…

I remember working one trade show, in NYC, that focused on technology for Wall Street.

Now, if you want to get the double whammy thing going, well, tech and Wall Street is something of a perfect, lurid storm. Boys will be boys, meet boys will be boys.

Anyway, at this one show, I remember a bunch of models working the floor wearing French maid outfits (baby doll length), complete with black sheer stockings and towering high heels. I believe they were working on behalf of British Telecom, and I believe that they were giving out boxes of Twinings English Breakfast tea. Right.

At another show – ultra techie, but not financial services related – I wanted to get a demo from a company we were going to partner with. I went to the booth, which was staffed by gorgeous young women in black cocktail dresses. I asked a couple of them about seeing a product demo, and was met with blank stares. Then I spied a woman who, while wearing a black dress, was wearing a frumpy black dress. No makeup. And sensible shoes. Bingo! She was the one person “manning” the booth when I dropped by who actually worked for the company and knew something about what they did.

So the demo dolllies are nothing new.

Neither are crude jokes and crude remarks. We used to just roll our eyes at this crap, or tell the guys to knock it off. There was one guy I worked with who was famous for staring at the breasts of any woman he was speaking with. We had a running joke with him, “These are our eyes”, we would tell him, pointing to our eyes, “these are our boobs. When you talk to someone, you look them in the eyes, not the boobs.” But women today – good for them – aren’t going to put up with the sort of behavior that we used to brush off.

Hard to imagine any women these days willing to work on a product – sold to Wall Street-ers, natch – that was called AutoBJ. I would begin every presentation with a declaration that I had heard everything there was to be heard about this unfortunate brand name. The same company had run an ad with an image shot from looking between the legs of a young hottie in a miniskirt. At yet another place I worked, where I was the only woman on the strategy team charged with figuring out how we were going to – ho-ho! – penetrate the financial services industry, I sat through a meeting at which one senior blowhard declared that the market was a prone woman, legs spread, awaiting our arrival. Bonus points because – ho-ho! – the company was name Wang.

Early on in my career, there were plenty of sexually charged situations at work. Sure, there was an occasional randy exec roaming around – at a holiday party, the president, while on the dance floor,asked a young and attractive colleague to go home with him. In his words, “You’d come home with me if I weren’t the president.” Her good riddance response was “If you weren’t the president, I wouldn’t be dancing with you.”

But most of the snap, crackle and pop in the air was because there were a ton of young single people at work, meeting other young single people. Without expending a scintilla of energy, I can come up with a good half-dozen couples who met their spouse at work in the first place I worked out of grad school.

But I have to say that I never came across anything like Upload, a Silicon Valley virtual reality (VR) startup that has been a VC darling, and recently settled with a female ex-employee who sued after being fired. Upload was a party-hearty environment. Models doing demos, liquor flowing.

The freewheeling atmosphere was not restricted to the evening hours. There was a “rampant sexual behavior and focus” in the Upload office that created “an unbearable environment,” a former employee, Elizabeth Scott, said in a lawsuit filed in May.

Ms. Scott said in her suit that the Upload office had a room with a bed “to encourage sexual intercourse at the workplace.” It was referred to as the kink room. Men who worked for the company were described in the suit as frequently talking about being so sexually aroused by female colleagues that it was impossible to concentrate.

When Ms. Scott, Upload’s digital media manager, complained about the hostile atmosphere and other issues in March with her supervisor, she was fired, the suit said. In a statement after the suit was filed, Upload said that “our employees are our greatest asset” and that “these allegations are entirely without merit.” (Source: NY Times)

Ah, but then they settled and apologized. Guess it was true that, as Ms. Scott alleged, she was once kicked out of her room in a house that Upload had rented for a conference so that the chief exec could use it for sex. And it wasn’t just hanky panky that was going on.

She said in the suit that she had other work, too: The women at Upload were required to do what were called “womanly tasks,” including cleaning up. They were also told to act like “mommies” to the men and help them with whatever they needed. The suit presented a portrait of a deeply entitled male culture, one that clashed with the fresh start VR seemed to offer the tech industry. But Ms. Scott’s suit was the second in the virtual reality industry in just a few months to present such an unwelcoming picture.

Well, no one had to tell us to act like mommies, but there was plenty of that back in the day. How many notes did we leave in the kitchen, in the conference rooms, that said “You mother doesn’t work here. Please pick up after yourself.”

But, of course, we’d end up throwing the coffee cups out and mopping off the tables.

And don’t get me going on who always ended up cleaning out the communal fridge…

Girls will be girls, I guess.

Maybe things were this bad way back when, and I just missed it because by the time I got into tech I was older (30-ish), wiser, and no one’s idea of a good-time girl. But I think that one of the reasons that it’s likely worse now is that so many of the young guys have been too busy with gaming, “social” media, online porn, and tech devices that they actually don’t know how to act around women. However nerdly and awkward the guys of my era were, once you got them to look you in the eyes and not the boobs, they were mostly fine.

At Upload, the kink room is now occupied by Anne Ahola Ward, a late thirties, married, no-nonsense looking woman who is Upload’s new COO. It’s

…now Ms. Ward’s office. There is no bed there. She has instituted mandatory anti-harassment training: a two-hour session led by an outside consultant. There is now a human resources department. People have formal job descriptions. And as a joke — but not quite — people in the office gave Ms. Ward a sheriff’s badge.

Am I ever happy to be out of the fray…

Monday, September 18, 2017

Hempfest by any other name

As I write this, it is 8 p.m. on Sunday. Peace is upon the land. Hempfest has ended. The vendor stalls have been dismantled, the lousy bands are no longer blaring their lousy music, speakers are no longer ranting their Carrie Nation rants about the perils of gin (or whatever: when I walked through the other evening, that did seem to be the rant – but I’d had a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, so maybe I was just being paranoid), and the contact-high miasma of pot is beginning to dissipate.

Ah, Hempfest.

Oh, now they’re calling it the Freedom Rally, but Hempfest by any other name has been going on for nearly 30 years now.

I recall walking through Boston Common during one of the early editions, buoyed by the thought that the young folks were becoming politically engaged. It was about the environment, I was quite sure. And then I took in a lungful of pure Boston Common air, started reading some of the signs, and caught on. Oh.

Not that there’s anything wrong with MJ.

I, in fact, was one of the majority of voters who, last November, voted to legalize it here in the Commonwealth.

The promised pot shops haven’t opened yet, but I think they’ll be coming next year. When they do, maybe I’ll make some marijuana brownies for old time sake. Or take a toke down memory lane.

Not that I was ever much of a pot head, but I well remember how proud I was when I graduated from twirling the tobacco out of a cigarette and stuffing it with weed – a complete amateur act – to perfecting rolling it on my own in a ZigZag. I remember how fun (and scary) it was - you could get kicked off campus for having a beer in your room, for God’s sake – to light up in the dorm, and activity that involved wetting a towel and shoving it in the crack of the door; fully opening the window in the dead of winter; and sitting with a couple of friends on the window ledge with our heads out the window. And I recall nearly breaking a tooth on a pan of frozen Sara Lee Brownies –when you have munchies, there’s no time to wait for these suckers to thaw.

No, I wasn’t a regular user – more an occasional, social indulger.

Still, unlike Bill Clinton, I did inhale. (What was the point of not inhaling?)

So I’m not going to go all prude-y tsk tsk about Hempfest.

But as an aging curmudgeon who lives in the hood – within ear shot of the bad blasting music – I’m happy it’s over. And I really don’t think that this needs to consume three days of our public space and time. Didn’t this used to be a one-day event?

Anyway, coming back from an early dinner on Saturday evening, I decided to forge my way through the Hempfest crowd rather than skirt the Common.

So I got to meander my way through the completely stoned crowds, take in all the food vendors – most of which seemed to be roast meat or vegan delights: have the munchies demands changed over the decades, and take note of the assorted tawdry on display.

Those tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirts sure haven’t changed much over the last 50 years, that I’ll say. Bandanas are still in style. And, apparently, mean people still do suck. (Good to see that some things stay the same…)

What has seemed to have changed is the bong technology and design. Am I imaging things, or were there actually bongs with attached gas masks on offer at Hempfest? I can’t be entirely sure, as I wasn’t stopping, just letting myself be carried along with the crowd, letting myself take an occasional whiff-een, and wondering whether I still have The Harder They Come CD around somewhere. (Answer: YES! Make that JA! I had to look around a bit, as it was misfiled. Jimmy Cliff should have been between Johnny Cash and Nat King Cole, not after Nat King Cole. But, as the song says, “you can get it if you really want.” Great album, by the way.)

I was one of the few over-30’s in the crowd. A couple of geezer hippies were there reliving their tie-dyed youth. Or maybe they were still living it, as it didn’t look like they’d ever left. And then there were Mom and Pop tourist, saucer-eyed, trying to figure out just what craziness they’d wandered in on. This wasn’t the Minnesota State Fair, for sure.

I made it home safely, of course, put my left-over chicken in the fridge and popped open a can of Polar raspberry lime seltzer. Who says getting older isn’t exciting?

There is, of course, more news to be had on the weed front.

As I read in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Weedmaps:

…one of the country’s larger and more established marijuana firms, is going all-in on Massachusetts and its new recreational pot market.

The California company, which sells software to licensed cannabis operators and publishes a popular online directory of dispensaries for consumers, is finalizing a lease for a downtown Boston office to accommodate its sales and lobbying team. (Source: Boston Globe)

With all the commotion about whether Boston is going to break its neck trying to get Amazon to build big here, here’s Weedmaps sneaking in the back door and even joining the Chamber of Commerce. (And who wouldn’t want to see that crowd one toke over the line, sweet Mary.)

Even more than raising an eyebrow about their joining the C of C, after all my years in the software biz, it never would have occurred to me that there’s specialized software for the cannabis industry. Far out, man! Or is it groovy? Of just plain oh wow?

Its initial presence in Boston will be modest: about 10 people. Eventually, Weedmaps may recruit some of the Boston area’s copious programming and analytical talent to help advance an ambitious big-data project that seeks to match different cannabis strains with various subjective effects felt by users.

Big data? Different strains? Ah, when I was a girl, we just had sensimilla or not…

 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Not that I was going to stay at a Motel 6 anyway…

You’re a Hispanic family. You’re traveling to Phoenix – maybe for a wedding, or a quinceaƱera. You don’t have a ton of money, but Motel 6’s are clean enough, and comfortable enough. So you, Mr. and Mrs. Garcia and your two kids, check in.

And so what it’s not the Ritz. The kids have never been in a motel, so they rush in and get all excited about the little bars of soap, the plastic glasses wrapped in plastic film, the strip of paper across the toilet. They bounce on the beds. They start begging their parents to let them use the pool.

I know just what this feels like.

I remember heading to Chicago for family vacations, and staying one night along the way at a Holiday Inn or Howard Johnson or the like. What an adventure! That pool! Those little Ivory soaps! Even sharing a bed with your sister was okay. This was vacation! This was a motel!

And then, who comes a knocking but ICE. Which of course wouldn’t happen to a nice white family like the Rogers. But just might for the nice not-so-white family like the Garcias.

All because the Stasi wannabes clerking at Motel Six had a cozy little relationship with Immigration & Customs Enforcement. After all, who doesn’t want to keep the “homeland” secure. (And where did that “homeland” thing-y come from? Is there actually anyone who refers to our country as their homeland? But I digress…)

So why not dime the nice little Garcia family. You never know. They may be undocumented. Those little kids may be – hiss, boo – anchor babies. Or illegal imports who are going to grow up to be Dreamers. Sheesh. Can’t have that. And just think about how proud it would make Sheriff Joe Arpaio!

It’s not just in Arizona:

Immigration lawyers representing people who were detained while they were staying at Motel 6 locations and were later deported from the United States said that they had collected evidence showing that the practice was widespread, and not limited to one state. Juan Rocha, an immigration lawyer in Arizona, said that an employee at a Motel 6 in Washington state told him of the same practice there.

“We’re looking at a situation where people with Hispanic surnames check into Motel 6, get their names reported to ICE, and a few hours later there are immigration agents knocking on the door to take them away,” Rocha said. “This is racial profiling that is tearing families apart.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Headquarters – the parent company, G6 Hospitality, is located in Texas – is doing the “I know nothing” routine, claiming that the decision to play footsie with ICE was local, not corporate. Which is probably true. Doesn’t sound like the kind of program that would get disseminated from HQ and not get leaked.

It really does seem like a poor business strategy. Whether the nice little Garcia family was documented or un, surely the word/palabra would seep out about that knock on the door, the roust in the night. (I really don’t like Holocaust analogies, but this sure sounds like “Juden raus,” doesn’t it?) Bet there are plenty of people giving the Motel6.

ICE isn’t saying much, other than noting that “the agency does not pay any bounty or reward for such information.”

So there’s that at least.

Motel 6? How about Motel 86. Or Motel Do-tell.

I can see calling ICE if say, a bunch of guys wearing ski masks check in with cartons full of pressure cookers and a textbook entitled “How to Make a Bomb Out of a Pressure Cooker.” Or if someone driving a van signs in, leaving the van in the broiling parking lot, and you happen to hear moaning coming from the van when you walk by.

But the people who got raided at a Motel 6 were people who were doing nothing other than going about their business and their pleasure. What skin off of anyone’s nose is it to just let it go? I’m guessing there are plenty of illegal things that these gung ho law and order types let slide by. But when those suspicious folks are brown-skinned, well…

Not that I was ever going to stay at a Motel 6. Talk about the last resort…

Yet I do have fleeting fantasy of taking an aluminum scoop-full of ice cubes and tossing them down the back of the shirt of these nasty tattletales. You want ICE? I’ll give you ice…

 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Two ex-Googlers walked into a bar…

Us Baby Boomers get plenty of opprobrium heaped upon our graying heads. The generation most-likely-to-be-vilified gets credit for nothing, but blamed for not doing anything about global warming, not saving enough for retirement, selfishly staying on the job, running up housing prices so that no one else can buy (although somehow we do get to sell and fritter away the profits), cashing in on the last of the pensions, ushering in the ‘anything goes’ mentality, raising a generation of slackers, and, lest anyone forget, electing Donald J. Trump. Wrack, meet ruin.

I’m not here to defend my generation. But I am here to predict that, at some point, someone’s going to come to the stark realization that no cohort was, is, or ever will be worse than the millennial sub-generation of techno-hipster-entrepreneurs out to disrupt the failing, boring, useless old way of doing things, no matter who or what gets in their way. Who cares, when you’re on a way to making more bucks than your parents would have thought imaginable. Make that bitcoins, I guess. Bucks are so yesterday.

Yes, a lot of what the whiz kids are inventing is going to come in handy when us boomer-geezers slip on a banana peel and need assistive technology. And I’m sure betting on them to come up with something that will part the seas so that they don’t flood the East Coast as far inland as Worcester. Yet they do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time being smug and obnoxious.

The latest news on that front comes from Fast Company (by way of my sister Trish), and is about Bodega, a start up created by a couple of ex-Googlers who “want to make bodegas and mom-and-pop corner stores obsolete.”

Here’s their big disruptive idea: “unmanned pantry boxes in apartments, offices, dorms, and gyms.” These unmanned pantry boxes will stock whatever the top 100 items that machine learning figures out is in demand in your particular apartment building, office, dorm, or gym. Women’s dorm: lip gloss and tampons. Men’s dorm: Red Bull and jerky. Gym: power bars and fancy-arse water.

An app will allow you to unlock the box and cameras powered with computer vision will register what you’ve picked up, automatically charging your credit card. The entire process happens without a person actually manning the “store.”… “The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,”[co-founder Paul] McDonald says. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 feet away from you.” (Source: Fast Company)

Tough noogies, I guess, if you want a Butterfinger and every one else in your apartment building prefers Milky Ways. But, hey, your corner store doesn’t carry everything, either. And so far, non-perishables only. So no running out for bread and milk. (You’ll have to order that from Amazon and have a drone drop it on your window sill.)

There are already 30 proof-of-concepts in the Bay Area. And here’s what they look like:

bodega

I’ll say one thing for it, it strips out the mind-numbing number of choices on offer at the average CVS that has you spending 20 minutes trying to figure out what toothpaste to buy. And I will admit that there have been plenty of evenings when I would have been happy to be able to walk into the foyer of my condo building and have a vision system record that I’m taking a bag of Tate’s chocolate chip cookies – there on the top shelf, four in from the left - off the box’s hands. (They really do taste like homemade…) And points for stocking DiCecco pasta.

But just what are these darned kids doing – other than trying to come up with unicorn disrupters – that’s so all-fired important that they don’t have time to walk to the corner store and buy something there?

If you live in a big city, you’re probably not much more than 100 feet from a store already.

Needless to say, Bodega is venture-backed, and they hope to have more than a thousand of their shops across the country by the end of next year.

The major downside to this concept–should it take off–is that it would put a lot of mom-and-pop stores out of business. In fact, replacing that beloved institution seems explicit in the very name of McDonald’s venture, a Spanish term synonymous with the tiny stores that dot urban landscapes and are commonly run by people originally from Latin America or Asia. Some might bristle at the idea of a Silicon Valley executive appropriating the term “bodega” for a project that could well put lots of immigrants out of work. (One of my coworkers even referred to it as “Bro-dega” to illustrate the disconnect.)

Bro-dega. I like that. Because, in truth, the thing I find most smug and obnoxious about this concept is the use of the word “bodega.”

Bodega did surveys in the Latin American community and supposedly no one was bothered by the name, but I have some doubts here. 

I really don’t give two hoots about cultural appropriation. I think most of those arguments are utter nonsense. Still, bodega to me says bustling little shop in a busy neighborhood, likely run by someone from the Latinx world. In Manhattan, a lot of the corner mom-and-pops aren’t bodegas, they’re “Koreans” because they’re owned and operated Koreans. In my area in Boston, we have small food stores, but they’re not for the most part mom-and-pop convenience stores. But I do occasionally stop in a mom-and-popper on my walks, and they seem to be run by a variety of ethnic groups. And there’s always some old tad buying a copy of The Herald and a couple of scratch tickets, an hanging around talking to the clerk.

Growing up, the mom-and-pop stores were called, for some reason that I believe is particular to New England, “spas.”

We lived right off Main Street in Worcester, and our closest store was a real (albeit old fashioned) grocery store. But there were “spas” in the neighborhood. The one I spent the most time and coin at was Carrerra’s, which sold penny candy. It was in the basement of a three-decker near The Oval on Sylvan Street.

(The Oval in itself was something of a peculiarity: a large, sun-baked crab-grass covered oval at the confluence of a bunch of streets. Kids played ball there, and big boys hung out, but it wasn’t really a park in any true sense of the word. Just The Oval.)

Perry’s. Carrerra’s. The one on the corner of Main and Ludlow. (Did it even have a name?) Spas – our bodegas – were real places, owned and run by real people. Mr. Carrerra could be a crab, but mostly he and Mrs. Carrerra were infinitely patient with the kids coming in with their nickels to buy penny candy. They were immigrants – the name sounds Italian, but I believe they were Portuguese. (We didn’t have either in the neighborhood, so what did I know?) Sometimes their son Butchy worked the store. Mostly I remember him looking sullen, plopped on a folding chair. (His parents never sat.)

I don’t imagine that machine learning will ever learn that the people in a building want an assortment of Squirrel Nuts, Mary Janes, buttons, wax lips, candy cigarettes, Mint Juleps (two for a penny – excellent for sharing), licorice whips, wax buck teeth…

Nor will the Bodega boxes give out candy bars on Halloween. So what if what Carrerra’s gave out was the execrable 3 cent Lunch Bar? (Was there even any chocolate in it?) Carrerra’s was on everyone’s trick-or-treat go-to list.

Anyway, when Bodega tries to expand to New York City, Frank Barcia will be waiting for them. Garcia chairs the

“…New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, [and] represents thousands of bodega owners. Garcia’s grandfather was the head of the Latin Grocery Association in the 1960s and was part of the original community of immigrants who helped settle on the term “bodega” for the corner store. “To me, it is offensive for people who are not Hispanic to use the name ‘bodega,’ to make a quick buck,'”Garcia says. “It’s disrespecting all the mom-and-pop bodega owners that started these businesses in the ’60s and ’70s.”

In fact, Garcia would consider making it harder for McDonald to set up the pantry boxes within his community. “I would ask my members  not to allow these machines in any of their properties in New York State,” Garcia says. “And we would ask our Hispanic community not to use the service because they are not really bodegas. Real bodegas are all about human relationships within a community, having someone you know greet you and make the sandwich you like.”

Bodega’s not exactly quaking in their boots. In fact, they envision a world in which mini-Bodegas are everywhere.

Over time, McDonald hopes to be able to create partnerships with other retailers to bring mini-versions of their stores to where they are needed. Home Depot might set up little Bodegas at construction sites with the 100 most-requested items there, Staples might set one up inside an office, or GNC might have mini-stores in gyms.

Because, God forbid, you actually have to wait a couple of hours to get your Super Wheybolic Powder delivered from GNC, or have to walk to a Staples to buy a stack of yellow pads. And actually have to interact with someone, other than a machine that’s learning all about you.

I’ll say one thing about the Boomers. We knew how to have relationships with something other than a device full of 100 items.

(And I thought Mr. Carrerra was an old crab…)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Equif#*(@*#&-ers!

I spent this past weekend fretting at a distance about friends and family who live or have homes or have family in Florida; obsessively watching the weather news (and crushing on Chris Hayes); and figuring out what to do about my sacred and profane personal information.

I’m not 100% certain what the message I got back from Equifax meant. But I’m leaning toward the likelihood that, after I coughed up my name, address, DOB and last six Social on the Equifax “find out if you were hacked” site, I was kinda/sorta informed that I was one of the 143 million lucky Americans (60% of the adult population, more or less) whose information had been grabbed by hackers. Swell.

I’m just thrilled at the prospect of some Russian mafioso buying his girlfriend a mink coat on my dime. Can’t wait to find that someone’s tapping my Medicare account so that they can cruise their 40 year old lazy-arse around in a Hoveround. Love the idea of some North Korean hacker syphoning my 401K drive so that Kim Jong Un can import unlimited fountains worth of Jim Beam.

Among my gripes:

  • I don’t believe I ever asked to have a relationship with Equifax to begin with. But I guess if you have a credit card, Equifax owns a chunk of you.
  • Sure, info thieves are incredibly persistent and clever, but what kind of half-assed organization are they running, that they had 143 million records hacked?
  • That fabulous offer Equifax made to monitor everyone’s credit for free for a whole entire year, during which time they’ll be marketing to you and, once the free year ends, putting the big press on for you to buy.
  • Oh, and by accepting the fabulous free offer, you’re apparently surrendering the right to join the class action suit against Equifax.

And then there’s the crowning glory aspect of all this:

A few days after the breach was discovered in late July, three senior executives unloaded nearly $2 million in Equifax stock. The three are Chief Financial Officer John W. Gamble; Joseph M. Loughran III, the president of U.S. information solutions; and Rodolfo O. Ploder, the president of workforce solutions. (The day after the breach was announced, Equifax shares fell 14%.)

Okey-dokey.

The CFO, head of US information solutions, and president of workforce solutions were not among those immediately informed of the breach?

Alrighty.

The company has claimed that these fellows knew nothing.

A company spokeswoman, Ines Gutzmer, said in an email Thursday night: “The three executives who sold a small percentage of their Equifax shares on Tuesday, August 1, and Wednesday, August 2, had no knowledge that an intrusion had occurred at the time they sold their shares.” (Source: Washington Post)

How poorly run is Equifax that these dudes weren’t on the first call list? What kind of controls, what kind of compliance processes does this place have? I guess if they were any good they wouldn’t have been hacked to begin with, but still…

Of course, a corporate defense attorney jumped in to provide what will no doubt be a pillar of the Equifax Three defense:

“It would be incredible if these sophisticated insiders would sell their shares based upon news. They are sophisticated executives and they know full well that their selling the shares triggers public disclosures. It just doesn’t make sense that the CFO would sell a small lot of shares before a news event,” [Stuart] Slotnick said.

Of course, the other way to look at this is that “sophisticated insiders” would know that a big sell-off would raise SEC eyebrows, so they just went for a bit of walking around money. Gamble et al. may have felt it was worth the gamble.

From what I gather, these sorts of transactions are generally pre-scheduled. These particular ones weren’t.

Fun with circumstantial evidence!

There’s other news that points to insiders taking advantage of not-yet-public information. In a typical month, there are 260 Equifax option contracts purchased. On a single day in August – pre-breach announcement, but post-breach known internally – 2,600 September puts entitling some lucky person (maybe even a sophisticated insider, or someone who knows a sophisticated insider) to unload 260,000 shares of Equifax for $135 in September. Not a bad bet, given that when last I checked (Friday close) was $123.(Source of option info: CNBC)

And as if I need another reason to be displeased about the Equif#*(@*#&-ers at Equifax, for some reason the very name Equifax has wormed the Aqualung earworm into my ear. So now I don’t just have to worry about someone buying beachfront property in Costa Rica, and filing a bogus tax return on me, I’ve got Jethro Tull on my brain.

Aqualung!

At least Irma didn’t turn out to be quite as ghastly as it could have been. No friends and family ended up needing aqualungs…

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Threshing wheat at Yale. (Boola boola.)

I will yield to no one in my claim that my college had the absolute worst food in the world. Breakfast and lunch were somewhat edible, but dinner. Blechhhh…. On a tiny campus where no one was more than a one minute walk from the caf, they had to start posting menus in the dorms because the caf phone would just ring off the hook starting at 5 p.m., as students looked for info before making the decision about whether it was worthwhile to take that one minute walk to find out what was on offer.

  • Charles River Scum (a.k.a. broiled fish)? Maybe a bagel from the campus snack bar.
  • Puck (a.k.a. beef of some type)? Better off opening a can of Campbell’s vegetarian vegetable.
  • Abortion (a.k.a. lasagna)? Sounds like a night when a pint of ice cream (with jimmies) from Dirty Drug will meet your dietary needs.

Sophomore or junior year, yielding to student demands that were easier to accommodate than parietals in the dorms or the elimination of the theology requirement, they put in a salad bar. So what if the lettuce was iceberg and the tomatoes those wan, pinky, pulpy squooshes. Having a salad bar meant that there would be something at least vaguely palatable for dinner.

But students these days are at the intersection(ality) of political correctness, fussy eater, food snobbery, personalized diet, and student as consumer (which has, somewhere along the line, replaced student as learner).

Thus, a few semesters back, we had the spectacle of Oberlin students bitching up a storm because the Bahn Mi that their food service food-served was inauthentic and culturally appropriating. Oberlin is just one of many schools getting into the food act.

College students across the U.S. are making some precise demands of school chefs and dining halls. For a generation animated by a desire to make a difference and raised to believe personal wellness is paramount, a meaningful academic experience begins with minding what you eat. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

The University of Houston grows hydroponic cilantro for the culinary enjoyment of its students. At UCLA, it’s aeroponic thyme. UMass, which I suspect served swill when my brothers were there in the 1970’s, is becoming a foodie haven of sorts:

“A strong dining program can attract top students,” said Garett Distefano, UMass Amherst’s director of residential dining and sustainability.

He pointed to a survey from 2016 that showed 70% of more than 1,200 UMass Amherst students said the quality of the school’s food was an important factor in their decision to attend. The school increased spending on local and sustainably grown foods to $4.9 million in the year through June, from $2.7 million three years ago.

Well, who isn’t for sustainability, but there’s really a UMass dean with the title “director of residential dining and sustainability”?

And while UMass students may have said that food was an important factor in their decision making, I’m betting if you asked their parents, it was cost compared to private college tuition, room, and board.

These days, food-minded students are everywhere:

“For me to see myself going to a school, I also had to see myself being able to eat there,” said Ally Roberts, an aspiring neuroscientist who started her freshman year last week at the University of Colorado Boulder. “I see a huge correlation between what I eat and how I think.”

A carrot-growing William & Mary student gushed that, the first time she pulled a bunch of carrots out of the ground – carrots that she’d grown herself – it “was just, like, a very fulfilling moment.” I mean, like, was it actually, like a very fulfilling moment or was it actually, like, a very fulfilling moment. At $57K a year, I’m sure glad this student had at least one fulfilling moment during her four years.

At Virginia Tech, students can munch at a “churrascaria, a gelateria and a sushi bar.” I bet you anything that the churrascaria doesn’t serve puck.

And apparently students at the University of Texas are so concerned about gluten that the food service FAQ now has answers a Q with an A that assures students that, no, there is no gluten in water.

But for sheer food preciousness, I’d say that Yale takes the cake – as long as the cake is made without eggs, butter, or flour, and uses only organic, thoughtfully sourced chocolate that’s empowering of those working in cacao communities. (And yes, there is a chocolate that uses a variant of this messaging.)

Since 2003, Yalies have worked in campus gardens so that they can “learn more about what they were eating.” And it really goes beyond just learning about what you’re eating. I mean, I learned that in kindergarten when we shook milk into butter. Yale being Yale there’s more:

Today the 1-acre garden is a hybrid farm and living-history laboratory, where students thresh wheat to lend context to readings of Anna Karenina.

I’ve now read that sentence three times, and each time I’ve laughed out loud. Do they use hand scythes, I wonder? Do they work hard enough to break into a sweat? But I guess if you’re going to lend context to Anna Karenina, threshing wheat is a bit easier to explain to the ‘rents than their kids really getting into the old context and throwing themselves under a train.

That wheat doesn’t just lend context, of course. The students also:

…grind grain into a flatbread dough made from a recipe in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Am I the only one who wants to really rev up the context and seize the pistol from Count Vronsky’s hand and shoot it through the pages of a rare book in the Beinecke Library?

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Thanks to my sister Kath for sending this delicious article my way. Yum!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Blink of an eye

When I was a kid, watching black & white WWII movies on late afternoon Boston Movie Time, the war seemed like ancient history, impossibly distanced from my time. And yet when I was sitting there in 1961 watching, say, Purple Heart or Bataan, the war was only 16 years in the past. But when you’re a kid, 16 years is more than a lifetime. When you’re on the other end of the life spectrum, 16 years ago is the blink of an eye.

And, so – blink,blink – how can it be that it’s been 16 years since those planes plowed into the Twin Towers, into the Pentagon, into that field in Pennsylvania.

I was in Orlando on business, at a Gartner Group event, when the attacks occurred.

I remember shaking my head in disbelief as I watched the Towers topple.

I remember making phone calls and checking emails, one eye on the hotel room TV, another on some online news site, and then comparing notes, information, misinformation, with everyone else who was gleaning things from TV and the Internet, and from brief exchanges with friends and family who were gleaning their things from TV and the Internet.

It was all so unfathomable.

All that any of us wanted was to leave that Gartner conference – who cared about technology in the Internet Age, or whatever the macro-topic was? – and get home. Fortunately, I was able to get a train north from Orlando the next day and wend my way up the East coast.

The most sobering and stunning thing I’ve ever seen in my life was the black cloud, extending the length of Manhattan, that we could see from the train windows as we exited Newark and headed into The City.

Like most everyone else, I had trouble sleeping for a while, sitting up in bed and – quite literally – shaking my head to get the picture of the plane hitting one of the WTC Towers out of it.

Like most everyone else, I read those brief life stories of the victims that The New York TImes ran, tearing up as I read about thousands of people I had never met but whom, 250 words later, I somehow knew. (And were those 343 NYFD firefighters as uniformly good-looking as I remember them?)

16 years. Passed in the blink of an eye.(67 years passed in the blink of an eye as well.) On September 11, 2001, my niece Molly was a few months from her fifth birthday. When she asked my sister why she was crying, Trish told her that something bad had happened to her town. (Trish had lived in NYC for a number of years.) Molly asked, “Is it my town, too?” Answer: Yes.

In November, Molly will turn 21. Blink of an eye…

It was nine months after 9/11 before I got back to NYC, a town I have always loved. (My town, too.) We walked around lower Manhattan, where the lost-loved-one signs were still much in evidence, pinned to fences, glued to walls.

A few months before my husband died, we visited the 9/11 memorial site. The museum was not yet open, but the reflecting pool was. Even though we had tickets for an assigned time, there was a long wait. It was September. Sunny. Hot. My husband had just finished up a chemo cycle. Jim had no patience with waiting in line when he was healthy, let alone when he was so sick. We made our way out, and a ticket-taker asked why were leaving. I explained our situation, and she brought us in through the secret passage. So we got to make our visit and pay our respects. New York City was definitely Jim’s town, too. He wanted to retire there. That was four year years ago. In a few short months, in February 2014, Jim died. Blink of an eye.

September 11th is just one of those days when you’ll always remember where and when. And what it did (or didn’t) mean to you.

I can watch the films now - the planes running into the sides of the buildings, the buildings collapsing – without shaking my head in disbelief.

Not that there aren’t plenty of times when I find myself shking my head in disbelief when I think about September 11th. But the disbelief is around just how fast these last 16 years have gone by.

Blink of an eye.

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Here’s a prior episode of Pink Slip 9/11.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Steal this book? Damn beatniks!

In the early 1970’s, radical activist, member of the Chicago Seven, founder of the Youth International Party (the Yippies), and Worcester’s own Abbie Hoffman wrote Steal This Book. Despite the fact that (largely because of its title) many bookstores refused to carry it, Steal became a best seller. A quarter of million copies were sold; no word on how many were stolen.

Even when a book is just sitting there, begging to be stolen, the idea of book stealing rankles me a lot more than, say, swiping a can of tuna or a scarf does. (Not that I’m advocating for tuna- or scarf-stealing…) The notion that someone would steal a book especially rankles me when the bookstore where the book is being stolen is the quite wonderful Porter Square Books in Cambridge.

Porter Square is not my bookstore. That would be the equally wonderful Trident Booksellers & Cafe, just a bit over a mile away from my home. But I’ve been to the Porter Square Bookstore many times for readings, and it’s great place.

Alas, PSB has been the target of thieves – and hipster thieves, at that:

At one point, volumes by such writers as Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac disappeared so often at the Cambridge shop, owner Dina Mardell and her staff tried to flip the script and set up a display of the “Most Frequently Stolen Books.”

“It was in a prominent place so that we could see it, but also so other customers could see it,” she said. “And believe it or not, books were stolen from that.” (Source: Boston Globe)

It’s been almost fifty years since I last read Kerouac (another native son, only from Lowell, not Worcester). But I do remember that I much enjoyed On The Road at the time. And I believe I also read and probably liked The Dharma Bums, for the title if for no other reason.

But only a bum would steal from a bookstore. And we’re not talking dharma bum here. We’re talking bum bums.

And speaking of bums, that is a word that comes to mind when I play word association with the name Charles Bukowski, the poet/fiction writer associated with dirty realism and transgressive fiction. (Not that I know what those terms mean – I got them from wikipedia – but I don’t like the sound of either.) I think I tried reading him a few times but got nowhere. Anything I know about him comes from the movie Barfly, which is based on his life. And from the Bukowski Tavern, a mini-chain (Boston and Cambridge) dive bar that my husband and I occasionally dropped in on when on a walk. We’d put up with the hipsters because Jim liked the hot dogs.

Porter Square Books has tried to do something about the theft of books written by true beats (like Kerouac) and wannabeats (Bukowski):

Six months ago, Mardell resorted to more drastic measures. She removed the most likely candidates for theft from the shelves altogether, tucking them behind John Wayne keeps an eye on things at Porter Square Bookstore, which has contended with thieves making off with books.the check-out counter beneath a cut-out of John Wayne for safekeeping and replacing their spots on the sales floor with small signs explaining their whereabouts.

Which may be one of the few instances of The Duke being associated with the literary world.

Apparently it’s not just Porter Square that’s being plagued by the theft of books by the likes of Kerouac and Bukowski. In big cities throughout the country – including my Trident where “beatnik authors still get stolen”, and the Harvard Book Store in Harvard Square (another excellent shop):

Bookshops are forced to keep a watchful eye on certain novels, namely those by the so-called “Beat” writers, a generation of stream of consciousness authors who bucked literary norms…It could also be that as new generations of youngsters discover these authors, so too do they channel them, disregarding the mainstream and giving “the man” the metaphorical middle finger.

Ripping off an indie bookstore that is never more than a few sales from out-of-business is sure giving “the man” the finger, all right.

How about going to Brooks Brothers and stealing a rep tie? Or taking a five-finger discount on a Callaway putter. Rip off some Tide Pods or a grill at Walmart.

Come on, hipsters, attack d-baggery and capitalism, not indie booksellers.

As far back as 1997, the New York Times reported on ‘“paperbacks by a handful of writers, all of them male, 20th-century, and counter-cultural” being stolen with more frequency than others.’ Their list included – surprise, surprise – William S. Burroughs. And:

“Anything by Charles Bukowski has to be nailed down,” the Times said of the apparent trend.

It seems that the thievery is more associated with locations with a lot of students (and/or hipsters): Boston, Cambridge. The indie bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts reported that there was nothing particular about the sorts of books they had stolen. And for Wellesley Books, the author you have to ask the clerk for is Danielle Steel, of all things.

Wellesley is a very well-to-do and well-educated Boston suburb. It’s also the home of Wellesley College. Guess the bluestockings don’t want it to go on any sort of record that they actually read Danielle Steel.

Anyway, I’m now playing the desert island game. If I were marooned on a desert island, would I rather have the collected works of Danielle Steel or Charles Bukowski? Guess I’d have to go with Danielle Steel, based simply on volume and variety.

But I wouldn’t be caught dead stealing books by either of them. If I were that desperate that I needed to steal to read, I’d have to give the nod to Kerouac.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Pleather or not

I’m not a vegan.

Although I mostly wear sneakers, I do wear leather shoes and boots. Although I do have plenty of non-leather bags, I do carry leather pocketbooks and wallets.

And, in the way, way, way back, I spent one summer working in a shoe factory. I was at the finishing (less skilled) end of the production line, but on occasion I got to walk through the upper floor on which the cutters worked. These were the men – and, yes, it was all men – who were highly skilled and, by shoe factory standards, highly paid to cut the hides into pieces that went in to making the shoes and boots “we” produced. The cowhides were big and, to my way of thinking, unwieldy. The goal for the cutters was the leave the least amount of waste. With my spatial reasoning, it’s hard to imagine a job for which I would have been more ill-suited. I was bad enough at finishing, let alone starting the production process.

Other than that experience, I haven’t given much thought to leather or leathermaking over the years. That is, until I saw a recent article in The Economist about a new way of producing leather that won’t involve the death of a cow, and is a lot closer to the real thing (because it kinda/sorta is the real thing) than pleather and other artificial leathers.

The new leather will be factory grown, and involves genetically engineered yeast, bovine collagen, amino acids, and triple-helices that get turned into fibers, which are layered and, voila, become raw leather. On with the tanning, the dyeing, the finishing, the combat-boot making…

The most advanced practitioner of the still-experimental art of growing leather is Modern Meadow, an American firm. This month it moved from Brooklyn, New York, where its 60 staff have been quietly developing the new material, to a laboratory in Nutley, New Jersey, where they will begin production trials. Modern Meadow, which has raised more than $50m from investors and is collaborating with a number of as-yet-unnamed other firms in the clothing, shoe, furniture and automotive industries, hopes to bring the new material to market within two years.

Factory-grown leather promises several advantages over skins taken from animals. One is that it can be made in convenient sheets with straight edges, rather than being constrained by the irregular shapes that animals come in. Another is that it is more consistent than the natural stuff. It is devoid of the scars, marks and other defects to which real skin is inevitably prone. Nor does it vary from animal to animal in the way that natural leather does. All these facts reduce waste and improve quality. They will also, presumably, please those who feel that animals should not have to die in order that people can have nice shoes and plush seat covers. (Source: The Economist)

Not that I do anything about it, frankly, other not thinking about what goes into the nice shoes that I do have. And my nice comfy reclining chair. But while it’s good to know that cows will no longer have to be dying to satisfy our greed for leather goods, I’m pretty sure that most leather is a by-product of animals slaughtered for meat. Not that this necessarily makes the story any better. Waste not, want not. (Just saying.)

Of course, the bio-engineers are also working on making artificial meat, which actually sounds more nauseating a process than the production of natural meat involving animal slaughter.

One of the more interesting, and gut-wrenching (wretching?) parts of The Economist article was a brief history of leathermaking.

In 18th-century London the soaking of putrefying hides in urine and lime, to loosen any remaining flesh and hair, and the subsequent pounding of dog faeces into those skins to soften and preserve them, caused such a stench that the business was outlawed from the City proper and forced downwind and across the river into Bermondsey. In countries such as India and Japan, the trade tainted people as well as places and was (and often still remains) the preserve of social outcasts such as Dalits and Burakumin.

Well, lime sounds okay, although I suspect they aren’t talking about lemon-lime. But urine and dog crap. Oh. My.

And people talk about the good old days…

Anyway, it’s not just cowhides that will be produced the new way. Come on down, ostrich and alligator.

What will the market say to all this? Will the rich folks glom onto the new bio-tech leather? Probably not. I’m guessing that fancy leather goods will, at least for a while (i.e., my lifetime) be made the old-fashioned way, with real, honest to goodness, formerly living cows, ostriches, and alligators. But for us mass-produced proles who consume mass-produced goods, I’m guessing we’ll get the pleather. Or whatever they’re going to call it.

Modern Meadow – quite a name in itself – is not just “reimaging leather”. They’re going to be doing some majorly major branding their product.

The chosen name will be revealed on October 1st at a fashion show in the Museum of Modern Art, in New York.

Pretty much what one might expect from a company based in Brooklyn. (Although why not BAM???)

Modern Meadow talks about their work being done in an atelier. (No doubt artisanally.) Beats the abattoir – or the cutting room at H.H. Brown – I guess.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?

Like most everyone else with a pulse and wi-fi, I followed the Hurricane Harvey news pretty closely. I had two things in particular I was looking out for: 1) what was happening with my friend John, whose neighborhood, The Heights, was largely spared; and 2) what was happening with my friend Michele and her family, who were on a Mexico/Belize/Costa Rica cruise out of Galveston.

John never lost power, and is a regular and quite informative FB poster. So I knew he was okay.

But I was concerned about what was happening with Shelly et al.

I sent a what-up e-mail, which, after a couple of days, Michele was able to answer. (Wi-fi and phone were being rationed on her ship.)

Yes, they’d been impacted. As a result, they’d spent an extra day in Cozumel, and had opted to get dropped off in New Orleans and fly home from there rather than stay onboard for an extended cruise until they could land back in Galveston. They flew home two days later than they’d planned, not to mention that they ended up with a very late night/early morning arrival. But they made it home safe and sound, far more fortunate than the folks who sat next to them at dinner. They lived (or used to) in Rockport, Texas, and had lost their home.

Michele gave high marks to the way the Carnival handled things, in terms of their keeping people informed about what was happening and being very organized about getting people squared away.

Despite the props, it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll ever find myself on a cruise, Carnival or otherwise.

I do entertain thoughts of a European river cruise, where I can see both riverine sides and never find myself more than an hour or two from a city I’d like to see. And an Alaskan cruise might be fun.

My sister Trish has been on a number of cruises, including two cross-Atlantic sailings on the Queen Mary 2, and she very much enjoys going on a cruise. As does my cousin Mary Beth and her SO Dan, who I think have circumnavigated the globe twice in the last few years. My friend, Michele, is also a cruise fan.

But despite having friends and family who like cruising, for the most part, it just doesn’t appeal.

Mostly when I think cruise, I think ‘meh.’

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed a current exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem - Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed, and Style. Very interesting. (And there until October 9th, if you’re up Salem way. PEM, by the way, is one of the best small museums in the country. Quite wonderful. Plus an excellent shop…)

And that said, I certainly don’t wish any ill on the cruise industry. No norovirus. No ill winds. No more Harveys.

And yet, thar’ she blows: Hurricane Irma, at present a Category 5, on a path to rampage through the Caribbean and onto Florida. And likely to cause tremendous damage wherever and whenever it makes landfall. Not to mention, screwing with the cruise industry.

The Caribbean accounts for 35 percent of the cruise industry’s global, ocean-going capacity, and all three of the largest carriers are headquartered in Miami. Among the countries potentially hit by the storm is Cuba, a new and fast-growing market for U.S. cruises. (Source: Bloomberg)

As a result of Irma on the horizon, cancelled and rerouted cruises, fears about port infrastructure damage, and the cruise cancellations that followed Harvey, those three largest carriers all took a market dive yesterday, with Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian losing ground.

Carnival shares fell 3.1 percent to $66.99 in New York, the worst performance this year. Royal Caribbean was down 4.2 percent at the close, and Norwegian slid 3.2 percent..

It could get worse, as the “operators could cancel most if not all of this week’s Caribbean cruises.”

Hurricane season is always problematic for the cruise industry. Who wants to end up in the Poseidon Adventure? With my luck (not to mention age and weight), I’d end up on the lost-at-sea list with the zaftig Shelley Winters, and not as one of the handful of survivors, like the character played by the cute, young, perky, blonde Carol Lynley. You might think “There’s Got to Be a Morning After,” but it ain’t necessarily so.

Anyway, my “small s” sympathies lie with those whose vacation plans are being turned upside down by Irma. Obviously not as bad as losing your home (let alone your life). But a “small d” disaster, nonetheless.

My “Big S” Sympathies are, of course, with those who will be “Big V” Victims of Irma, which sounds truly dreadful.

The cruise stocks will no doubt pop back up a bit – at least for a while. In the long run, however, with weather churning more ferociously and hurricanes increasing in force, shorting those cruise stocks might be the money play. (Share price overboard!)

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Where the Wild Things Are

Last week, when I was visiting my sister and her husband in Wellfleet, I was awoken at about 2:30 in the morning by something terrible and violent taking place less than 20 feet from where I lay me down to sleep.

Kath and Rick were awoken, too. It would have been hard to miss.

I couldn’t see what was going on – just some rustling in the bushes – but the noise was pretty fierce. Furious yipping, lots of growling.

Rick’s theory is that an owl made a late dinner out of a bunny rabbit. I was thinking fox, but what do I know about nature?

Anyway, when the kill was finalized, something weird happened in that, all around the surrounding wilderness, other animals were chiming in with their own yelps, including coyotes. It was as if they were passing the word that one of their fellow creatures was no more.

A separation of 20 feet – and a solid wall and windows – are about as close as I want to get to where the wild things are.

In town, I do see an occasional critter: a bunny rabbit, a hawk, a wild turkey. But most of what I experience are pigeons and the odd rat I see scurrying around after dusk.

That is until the other night. Hell night. A night that will live in infamy.

There was something in my bedroom wall. And that something didn’t sound like a mouse, either.

Mice in the walls I’ve had. Earlier this year, in fact. They scurry, they scratch, you plug one of those weird sound makers into an outlet and they take off. Of late, most of the folks in my building have had mice in their apartments on occasion. Not me. In the 26 years I’ve lived here, we’ve had one – count ‘em – one mouse. We caught him in a glue trap and I had to put him out of his misery. So now, when someone in the building sees a mouse, I put out snap-traps: much kinder and gentler. But I haven’t caught any mice. And they seem to go away.

But last Thursday night. That was something else.

It began with whooshing noises, maybe a half hour apart. Odd and infrequent enough at first that I was able to convince myself that it was just someone whooshing by, out in the hall.

Then it got more frequent, and the whooshing was accompanied by thumping, as if “it” were hurling itself upwards looking for a way out. Which may well have been what “it” was doing. And the frequency increased.

I pounded on the wall with my fist, I whacked the wall with a yardstick, hoping it would take off. I yelled, I swore. Get the f out of here!

But it didn’t.

Sometimes it scratched a bit. But mostly it was the whooshing/thrashing and the jumping/thumping.

A complete and utter hellscape.

I plugged in a couple of those little sound-emitting devices, but no dice. Whatever was in there was impervious to it.

Whoosh, thrash, jump, thump.

Pound with fist, whack with yardstick. Curse.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Since I wasn’t sleeping, I googled and found that rodents are put off by ammonia. If you drill a small hole in your wall, and syringe some ammonia in, it just might vamoose.

Now, I wasn’t going to get my drill out at 3 a.m., but, behind the bookcase, there was an old phone jack with something that looked like a hole in it. I do have a syringe around here somewhere – one that’s actually smaller than my turkey baster – but I wasn’t quite sure where. But I did have an eye dropper. And ammonia. It was lemon scented, but ammonia just the same.

So there I was, at 3 a.m., squirting lemon-scented ammonia into a phone jack, and then squirting some more along the baseboard for good measure.

Well, maybe it was the lemon scent, or maybe it was the fact that the phone jack wasn’t exactly a hole, but the wild thing wasn’t any more bothered by ammonia than it was by the sound-emitting device.

Rats! Or was it squirrels?

It wasn’t making noise, so that pretty much ruled out cat or bird, no?

During one of my Googles, the subject of paranormality came up.

I suppose that a building that’s well over 100 years old could be haunted. However…

Now a sensible person, by 8 a.m., after a sleepless night, would have called Billy the Exterminator. But pretty much all Billy the Exterminator does is put out traps for whatever. So I thought I’d check in with my fellow condo owner and jack-of-all-things-around-the-house-trades, Joe. I texted. He texted back. Yes, he would come by after work

I was out for much of the day, and then came home around 2:30 p.m. to peace and quiet and a cat nap.

At dusk, shortly before Joe came by, I heard a couple of whooshes. That bastard was back. (It, not Joe.)

Anyway, Joe and I listened to the recordings I had made the night before (Wall Noise 1 through Wall Noise 4) and it definitely sounded like the whoosh was wings flapping. His conclusion was that it was possibly a bat, but more likely a bird that had likely come in when someone left the back door open and had somehow made its way into my wall.

He took out the phone jack housing (turns out, the ammonia I squirted landed in the housing), and a socket plate, and looked around, with flashlight, for droppings or whatever. And found nothing.

No sign. No noise.

It did occur to me that someone might have been gaslighting me. But who might that be?

Joe left, and I decamped to the living room couch for a good night’s sleep, leaving the radio on (WGBH – public radio, of course) in the bedroom.

I was hoping that, in the morning, I’d have a Norwegian Wood moment:

And, when I awoke, I was alone. This bird had flown.

But, no…

I could hear it, noising around in there.

I decided to decamp even further, to my sister Trish’s in Salem for a couple of really good nights sleep.

Before I left, Joe came by with some sort of scope device – the kind you use to check for cracks in pipes – to see what he could see. (This, alas, required cutting a couple of holes in the wall. Sigh.) He could see nothing. Fast forward a couple of hours, and, just before I was leaving for Trish’s I heard some scratching. Fortunately, Joe was still around and I hailed him. This time, the magic scope found a mouse, of all things.

Joe told me he’d take care of it, and I decamped. Then over the weekend, Joe – bless him – put the little critter down with some nitrous oxide, and, come Monday, came by and fished the corpse out. I got to supervise, offering gloves, a hanger, and a bag for the nasty little thing. Late, but not lamented

I set a couple of traps around. And so far, noises off.

Was this some sort of crazy circus mouse making all those noises?  Was there a bird/bat in there for a while before finally making its way out? Was the mouse just a coincidence?

I wanted to embed the audio of the noise, but it was a no go. So I you’ll have to take my word for just how alarming the noise was. We’re not talking modest mouse scratching here.

Guess we’ll just have to let the mystery be.

 

 

 

Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day, 2017

It’s Labor Day.

So just where did summer go? It was actually in the fifties this past Friday.

It’s Labor Day.

And unlike two-thirds of my fellow geezer-boomers, I’m still laboring. I suppose I could pack it totally in, but I (mostly) enjoy my work. It’s defined me for so long, I don’t know quite what I’d have to say if I put my pencil and pen down permanently. If nothing else, it let’s me say “I’m a writer.” Okay, it’s not exactly fabulous creative writing that I’m doing – no short stories in The New Yorker, no novel in the making – but it’s writing. I’m good at it. And I get paid to do it. So, yep, I’m a writer. A laboring writer. A laboring writer who’s partially taking Labor Day off. The part I’m taking off is the part that pertains to Pink Slip: this is pretty much it for the post for today.

But in the last month, while in the midst of seriously considering calling it quits, I picked up a new client. And a new prospect. So, worker me is worker bee, and I have a couple of deliverables that need to be delivered tomorrow.

Anyway, when it comes to Labor Day, I’m something of a broken record. If you want to see what I had to say last year, here you go. (Oh, what a POTUS…)

Happy Labor Day to all, and to all a good day.

Friday, September 01, 2017

September Song (or, “Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name”)

There are any number of really terrible songs out there. You know, the ones that, when they come on the car radio (even if you think you’re managing “content” with Sirius), make you want to Thelma & Louise and sail right over a cliff.

For me, the top of my Billboard Bad Songs chart has long been America’s“Horse with No Name.” Siriusly Seriously, if a cop ever finds me with the nose of my Zipcar in a grassy mound on the highway median, they’ll be able to rule out DUI. And it probably won’t be because I sneezed or was swatting a bee or (I hope) had experienced a medical incident. Nope, it will be because I reached across the dashboard and was fumbling with the radio to find a song other than “Horse with No Name.”

When I was a kid, there was a TV quiz show called Name that Tune, in which contestants tried to name a popular tune in as few notes as possible. I’m pretty sure that for “Horse,” I’d have it at one.

Anyway, I’ve yet to hear anyone defend “Horse with No Name.” How in God’s name did it get to be #1 on the charts in 1972?

But a number of other songs have been offered up by friends and family as being equally bad, if not worse.

At a recent family gathering, my brother-in-law suggested The Turtles “Happy Together.” No one else understood how this quite magnificent shower song could make the worst list. Other than my b-in-law. How can you not love a song that includes the lyric, “If I should call you up, invest a dime.”

My cousin Rob’s chart topper was Oliver singing “Good Morning, Starshine,” the ultimate hippy-dippy, happy-dappy sound of the 1960’s. Since Rob was only a year old when the song came out in 1969, all I can say is that it must have really made an impression on him at an impressionable age. This song never really bothered me, until Rob pointed out the choral lyrics:

Gliddy glub gloopy, nibby nabby noopy la, la, la, lo, lo
Sabba sibby sabba, nooby abba nabba, le, le, lo, lo
Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba naba
Early morning singing song…

I can see his point.

There were a couple more suggestions, but then we let it go, until my sister Trish picked it up last week, and texted a couple of nominees to me and my sister Kath. Thanks to the miracle and ridiculousness of modern technology, we participated in a group text fest with Kath and I sitting next to each other on her porch in Wellfleet, and Trish 100 miles away.

Trish’s submissions “for your review to add to the ‘worst song ever Hall of Fame” were “White Room” by Cream, and “The Year 2525”  by one-hit-wonders Zager & Evans.

Here’s our text exchange on “White Room.”

M: White Room is bad, but I’ll give them a pass because, believe it or not, I had a Cream album.

T: Yeah I give them some room bc Eric Clapton but it’s a pretty bad song.

K: I give Cream a pass, too. They were the pscyhedelic gateway. Where is the hippie head scarf emoji when u need it.

Well, believe it or not, there is one. Ecce hippie head scarf emoji:

Hippie head scarf Better late than never, man. Groovy…

So, because of Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and album ownership, “White Room” doesn’t quite make our cut.

But “The Year 2525”. Yes, yes, 2525 times yes.

M: In the year 2525, if man is still alive, there may never be a worse song.

This was a first: a nomination for worst song ever that I was able to entertain as a possible replacement for “Horse with No Name.”

T: 2525 really takes the cake. Which reminds me of MacArthur Park by Richard Harris which should also be on the list.

This, quite naturally, led to an exchange in which we texted the lyrics to “MacArthur Park” back and forth. (“Someone left the cake out in the rain…All the sweet green icing melting down…I don’t think that I can take it cuz it took so long to bake it…And I’ll never have that recipe again.”)

Yep, definitely a dog, but not in the same league as “2525.”

Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”, however, quite possibly is.

As Trish texted, “Chicago had a lot of clunkers.”

Meanwhile, Kath was busy reading up on Zager & Evans, and found what appears to be an even worse song than “2525.” Something called “Mr. Turnkey.” We all went to our respective googles to find this on wikipedia:

"Mr. Turnkey" (a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the jail wall as punishment for his crime) went largely unnoticed by the public.

Well, I say thank the lords of LP for that. We all took a pass on listening to in on YouTube. There are some earworms you just don’t want to invite into your brain, and I’m pretty sure that “Mr. Turnkey” is one of them.

A few days later, T and I were in her car, heading to Worcester for a funeral, and listening to 60’s music. Most of what we heard was pleasantly nostalgic, with a couple of exceptions:

  • “Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love” by Bob Lind
  • “Reach Out into the Darkness” (Friend & Lover).

Ah, the sixties, when people were singing along to “I think it’s so groovy now, that people are finally getting together.”

While, “Reach Out” is awful, it didn’t make my top/bottom three for worst song ever. But “Bright Elusive Butterfly”. They really don’t make them much worth.

So I give you my Top/Bottom Three:

  1. “Horse with No Name”
  2. “Bright Elusive Butterfly of Love”
  3. “The Year 2525”

“Horse” may just be there out of sheer orneriness on my part. I never thought I’d live to see the day, but someone could easily talk me into replacing “Horse” with “Butterfly.”