Thursday, November 30, 2017

No place like home for the holidays. Just ask the AA flyboys.

That glittery gift that American Airlines pilots found in the toe of their stocking? Turns out it was a potential lump of coal for passengers.

What happened was a problem with their pilot scheduling system that allowed too many pilots to sign up for time off during December. Home for the holidays, avoiding some potentially crappy weather, not flying during a stressful time of year when so many travelers are hyped and/or crazed and/or freaked? What’s not to like?

Anyway, American is now trying to figure out what to do with the estimated 15,000 flights that may not have enough crew to fly over the holidays, when there’s no place like home, and everyone in the country who’s not home is trying to get there.

“We are working diligently to address the issue and expect to avoid cancellations this holiday season,” [American spokesman Matt] Miller said. The number of flights involved will decline each day as the carrier reassigns them, he said. (Source: Bloomberg)

The airline is hoping not to have to do any wholesale cancellations, and is offering pilots 1.5x their regular hourly rate. But they may have to up the ante. Kind of like when they try to bribe people to give up their seats on an overbooked plane. Always best to wait until at least the second offer. But, as we’ve learned, you can’t wait too long or you risk getting dragged off the plane. In this case, would AA have to dragoon pilots and drag them on the plane?

American also plans to tap their roster of “reserve” pilots. This would make me a tad bit nervous if I were flying. Just who are these “reserve” pilots? Old guys who may have lost their edge? Young pilots who haven’t yet found theirs?

The computer-system problem will force American to rebuild its staffing schedule, similar to what airlines must do after major weather disruptions, said John Cox, chief executive officer of consultant Safety Operating Systems and a former commercial airline pilot. Revenue will take a hit if American has to scrub many flights. At a minimum, the carrier is likely to face higher labor costs just as investors are stepping up scrutiny of airline expenses.

Personally, I won’t be losing any sleep over American taking a revenue hit. They’ve definitely been more on the naughty side this year than on the nice side. (C.f., passenger dragged off plane. I will note that it was United, however, who invoked some obscure dress code rule for employees’ families traveling standby to keep some kids off of a too-crowded plane.)

The pilots union, the Allied Pilots Association, doesn’t like the solutions that have been proposed so far. They’ve filed a grievance, claiming that the offer “violates its labor pact.” They want to find a solution that’s a bit richer than 1.5x pay.

Flights that are scheduled without a captain, first officer or both originate from Dallas-Fort Worth International, American’s largest hub, and airports in Boston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, according to a company memo to the union, which was seen by Bloomberg News.

I’d be okay flying without a flight attendant or two, but – even though the planes are highly automated – I really wouldn’t want to be captain-less. Or in a situation where God was my co-pilot.

Glad I’m just a little old stay-at-home…

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Turtles all the way down

About half of all people in the US reject the theory of evolution. After all, who wants to be either a monkey’s uncle or a monkey’s nephew?

The percentage seem to bounce around depending on the poll/lunar cycle/how the question is asked, but roughly one-third of all Americans believe Barack Obama was born in Kenya. After all, he is half-black and has a really funny name.

A poll taken last summer showed that half of all Republicans believe that Trump won the popular vote. After all, you really do have to discount all those illegals bussed in from Puerto Rico to pull the D lever on their way to free pizza with pedophiles.

So it really should come as no surprise that there are still folks out there – perhaps even a subset of any and all of the above categories – who believe that the earth is flat.

The movement’s true scope remains something of a mystery — though some flat-earth-related videos have generated millions of online views — but the intent is clear: They are waging war on accepted science — on an understanding of the planet that dates back millennia.

If the Earth is round, they want to know, then why aren’t buildings tilted? Look at the oceans: How does water stick to a ball? And how, if the Earth is spinning at a rate of 1,000 miles an hour, are we even able to function?

To them, images of earth from space are just that — images. The video footage from the moon? Filmed on a movie set. And while they might disagree a bit on the details, they go by what they see. And what they see seems inarguably flat.

“What we observe and what we experience doesn’t seem to match up,” explained Josh Bolieiro of Nashua, during a recent meeting of Flat Earth New England at Revere Beach. (Source: Boston Globe)

I’m no STEM girl, but even I have some rudimentary understanding of why the water doesn’t fall off and why, given that 1,000 mph spin, we don’t all go whirling off into space. Ummmm, there’s gravity. And escape velocity. And, ummmm, wouldn’t you think that, if the earth were flat, someone would have found the edge by now and maybe even have made a leap into the void. Wouldn’t you think that The Edge might have become a tourist destination for those who had already checked off climbing Everest, peered into a volcano, and communed with penguins on the South Pole? Of course, if the earth were flat, there wouldn’t be a South Pole, would there now? But forget tourists. Surely, if the earth were flat, bungee jumping off the edge would be an Xtreme sport by now.

Despite the science on the side of the earth being round, people across the country are taking up the flat earth banner, and flat earth groups are sprouting up all over the place. Thus, Flat Earth New England.

Flat Earth New England…In the home of the august Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’d say I’m shocked, but, these days, I’ve become pretty shock-proof.

Flat earthers, I’m guessing, are just into alternative facts. Which is pretty damned depressing. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Bill Nye, the mild-mannered TV scientist, has called the flat-earth movement “heartbreaking.” The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went a step further, suggesting that flat-earthers should be rocketed into space and allowed to return to Earth only after admitting they’re wrong.

Gotta love that Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Researchers (you know, like science guys) have done studies on conspiracy theories – like the “theory’ that pictures taken from outer space that show our fair planet as round are photoshopped  – tend to crop up when it’s VUCA-time, and the world is just chocked to the gills with volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. 

“What we found,” says Alin Coman, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, “is that it really goes to this notion of a search for meaning.”

Oh dear…

I’m all in favor of the search for meaning. I mean, if searching for meaning is your thing. (Me? I’m with folksinger Iris DeMent: Let the Mystery Be.) But I’m mostly in favor of taking a “just the facts, ma’am” approach to what’s going on in the observable (provable) world.

But I would like to know just what the flat earthers think is holding that Planet Pancake up. Turtles all the way down???

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Chock Full o’ Nuts is that heavenly COFFEE

I don’t imagine there are many Boomers – at least those who grew up in any area where you could buy cans of Chock Full o’Nuts Coffee at the grocery store – who don’t have this jingle imprinted in their brain:

Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee
Heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee
Chock Full o’Nuts is that heavenly coffee
Better coffee a millionaire’s money can’t buy

(For providing you with today’s earworm, you’re most welcome.)

The original wording in that final line referred to “a Rockefeller’s money”. But Governor Nelson Rockefeller didn’t like it. Not, apparently, for the dig at his family. No, old Nelly had some financial interests in South American coffee that had nothing to do with Chock Full o’Nuts. So, see you in court

That’s when “millionaire” got plugged in.

Then, somewhere after the turn of the current century, they had to update the lyrics once again. It’s now “a billionaire’s money.”

Anyway, other than an occasional iced Dunk’s, I don’t drink coffee. So I don’t buy Chock Full o’Nuts, or any other brand for that matter. I do keep some coffee on hand so that I can offer it to guests. By which I mean I take the bag out of the freezer, point to the coffee maker, and tell them to have at it.

Nonetheless, if only for that earworm of a jingle from my childhood, I have a warm spot in my heart (if not my coffee mug, which is reserved for tea) for Chock Full o’Nuts.

But I haven’t given much thought to exactly why a coffee brand would be called Chock Full o’Nuts. Wouldn’t Chock Full o’Beans be better?

There is, of course, a backstory:

That name was chosen by the company’s original owner, William Black, when he rented a tiny space under a staircase in the basement of a building at Broadway and 43rd Street. The challenge was what he could sell. His lease said he could not sell anything sold by the drugstore upstairs. Nuts, he said. There was a cut-rate theater ticket operation opposite his stand. He was counting on its parade of customers to buy his nuts. They did. The coffee came along in 1930. With the Depression, nut sales dwindled. “He had to reassess his business, as it was collapsing,” [Senior Marketing Manager Dennis] Crawford said, “and he had an asset that was underutilized. He had a roasting machine, an oven, and he thought, ‘What is it that I can do, how can I use this roaster to do something to save the business? I can go down to the docks and buy green coffee as it comes in and start selling date-nut sandwiches made from the nuts and coffee to drink with it.’” (Source: NY Times)

Somewhere along the line, Chock Full decided to start selling their coffee through grocery stores, and not just at the lunch counters that made up the NYC chain. (Pretty much all gone by now, but I remember them from early trips to New York.)

And somewhere along another line, Chock Full o’Nuts wanted to start placing their product on grocery store shelves in states west of the Mississippi where, apparently, folks so far away from the Manhattan origin story didn’t get why something could be called Chock Full o’Nuts and not be, well, chock full of nuts. And what with nut allergies and epi-pens, who wants to risk anaphylactic shock when there are plenty of coffee brands out there that don’t claim to be full of nuts.

Which has brought us to the point whereChock full o' nuts the company has added a NO Nuts disclaimer to its can.

I get that they want to avoid market confusion, and that folks seeing the brand for the first time might not understand what the message is – kind of when you look at the word ORANGE written in bright blue. A mixed message, no? (Which leads me to yet another earworm: the song “Your lips tell me ‘no,no’ but there’s ‘yes,yes’ in your eyes.” Once again, you’re welcome.)

And yet, as far as the new disclaimer, I say nuts to that. Read the ingredients, for crying out loud. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so. Who has time to read ingredients? We must know at first glance that this coffee can is not chocked full of nuts.

As it happens, the focus groups that Chock Full o’Nuts worked with didn’t express any concern with nut allergies.

Mr. Crawford said that issue never really came up in focus groups. “It was always something like, ‘Is there an added ingredient in the coffee?’” he said. “They were looking for pure coffee, which is what it is and always has been.” Analysts who follow the coffee industry said the “no nuts” notice catered to current consumer preferences. “Consumers are going for natural, authentic and transparent beverages,” said James Watson, the senior beverage analyst for Rabobank.

If folks were looking for “pure coffee”, why wouldn’t you just say “pure coffee”? Doesn’t saying “no nuts” set off a different set of questions?

And that blather about consumers “going for natural, authentic and transparent beverages,” I guess that would explain bottled water – check, check, check. But what about milk? Unless it’s the blue-ish, watered down dreck they used to sell at Elmer Wolfe’s “store” (an adjunct to Elmer’s bar, where he sold bread and milk), the closest place to buy anything near my grandmother’s summer lake house in Illinois, milk is not transparent. Are milk sales down, too?

Coffee, however, is not something I think of as natural, authentic, and transparent. I think of it as adult. Invigorating. Bracing. Lingering. Something you take a break with.

Ah, marketing.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Water, water everywhere

When I was a kid, my parents nicknamed me “Radar Ears” because of my ability to pick up on a conversation anywhere in the house. Of course, it helped that my bedroom when we lived in my grandmother’s decker opened right onto the kitchen, which was the hub of our universe. When we moved to a tiny, standalone house of our own, my bedroom was next to the living room which, since the kitchen was so small, became the hub of our universe (until they built an addition, known as “The Porch” because that’s how it started out before it was winterized into our family room cum dining room). Anyway, my hearing is nowhere near as acute as it used to be in the days of yore when I could hear my name (or the name of a sib, or a relation, or a neighbor) mentioned in the living room while I was half-asleep.In fact, I would have said that my hearing is actually starting to go a bit. That is, I would have said that my hearing was actually starting to go a bit until 3:33 a.m. on Saturday, when I woke from a sound sleep to the sound of dripping water in the stairway.

I am no stranger to water damage, and sometimes I even think of my condo as my own private Water World.

A year of so after we moved in, the long-gone woman upstairs had her 9 year old son for a custodial weekend. While she was sleeping it off, sonny boy deliberatively ran the bathtub to overflowing, and it overflowed on our heads, cascading down through the light fixtures in our foyer.

Ah, my favorite combo: electricity and water!

Of course, nothing compares to the Great Flood of Ought-Five, when a burst pipe in the penthouse unit opened the floodgates. We have a beautiful, ancient, elaborate plaster medallion ceiling in our living room, which we almost lost. But 4 weeks of drying time, with the heat jacked to 85 and rent-a-blowers on blast – blasting hot air into the 17 basket-ball sized holes that  had been carved out of the space in the middle of the medallions – saved the day. All together, we were out of our unit for 6 weeks while order (to the tune of $45K or so – yay, insurance!) was restored.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting in my home office, minding my own business (probably playing Tai Pei), when water started pouring from the ceiling light. (What is it with water and light fixtures?)

Turns out they were trying to figure out where a leak in the roof was by flooding it. Don’t know if they found the leak in the roof, but they sure found a way for water to wend it’s way onto my head.

Then last winter, I was sitting in the den watching Rachel Maddow when those Radar Ears clicked in. I opened the den closet door and, what to my wondering eyes did appear but water coursing through the hole in the ceiling where the Xfinity cable comes in, and sploshing all over the place.

It actually took over a month of multiple plumbers making multiple visits to diagnose the problem – a crack in an internal drainpipe that we share with the building next door – a drain pipe that no one even knew existed. In the middle of winter. In the middle of a winter with a couple of off and on blizzards with melts in between. Which made it hard to diagnose, because when there was a freeze on, I had no water coming in. For a month, whenever we had a thaw, I was bailing over 10 gallons of water, each day, out of the massive catch container my friend Joe set up for me in the closet.

In each of these water crises, I’ve done what I always do when there’s a water crisis: called Joe who owns a unit in this building but doesn’t live here. An engineer by trade, Joe grew up in a large family that owned a good deal of rental property. Joe’s father made sure all of his kids – both boys and girls – learned carpentry, plumbing, painting, and electrical work. He can, and does, fix everything and does a great job – far better than our useless management company that can fix nothing and does a terrible job.

So when I heard that first drip on Saturday morning, my thoucatching waterghts turned to Joe – especially when I saw that the drip was coming through a light fixture.  

I waiting until 8 a.m.to text him, which gave me time to set out the catch-container, lay down the old towels, and blue tape trash bags to the stairwell walls so that they didn’t get all splashy. The water was a nasty reddish color - looked like washed out blood – but that was due to the corroded copper pipe. The water, mercifully, was clean: in-flow to the toilets along the stack, not outflow.

That corroded pipe is in the ceiling between my unit and the one above. And here’s the hole that Joe cut in my stairway ceiling. There’s a companion hole in the bathroom wall of the unit above mine. 20171125_174552While Joe was working, he took a couple of breaks to call a couple of plumbers he knows. (Why didn’t I call? We knew from experience that it was best for Joe to leave messages for these fellows. Not that we had any degree of confidence that we would get a plumber over here during the weekend – especially given that the Pats had a Sunday game. As if… But the hope was that Joe would make a temporary fix, and the plumbers will show up at some point this week to do a permanent job.)

By 8 p.m., Joe had made the temporary fix, a length of plastic piping snaked from the unit above me into mine, with connectors on either end connecting it to “real” piping.

Never live in an old building. Never live in an old building that, when it was reno’d in the 1980’s, used shoddy contractors who did shoddy work. (When I reno’d my unit two years ago, my GC found trash, including a coffee cup, in the walls of one of the bathrooms when he opened it up.)

Did I mention that, in late August, the two-family building next door had a fire? Very little fire damage, but those firefighters don’t spare the water, so my neighbors are out of hearth and home for a year while their hearth and home undergoes a gut reno.

The fire damage was minimal because the firefighters were able to get to their building through ours. They told Joe, who was here at the time doing reno work on this unit, that, if they hadn’t been able to get to the fire through us, we might have also had a fire and sustained similar water damage.

Fortunately, I missed this bit of excitement, but did learn of it from midnight texts (with photos) from Joe and my friend Nancy.

While Joe was working away, and running out for supplies, I did cleanup. Fortunately, I had some contractor bags, but boy do those suckers get heavy when even partially filled with bloated sheetrock and sodden two-by-fours. I also kept the dryer busy, trying to keep my plentiful supply of ratty towels dry. Because even though that plastic container caught most of the direct water, there was a ton of splashing onto the stairs.

All this cleaning up of debris, and hand-wringing soggy towels so that they would drive in less than 3 hours, pretty much made my hands sand-paper dry. And somewhere, in the course of rubbing hand cream (lemon verbena! my favorite) into my sand-paper hands, I managed to mislay my wedding ring.

Well, that would have been the topper of the day.

I had visions of dumping out the contractor bag and rummaging through all those pieces of bloated sheetrock and sodden two-by-fours.

Fortunately, I found the ring. The high point of one crappy (and wet) day.

But the fix was in. I slept for the first few hours Saturday night with one of my Radar Ears cocked for the sound of dripping. Fortunately – and thanks to Joe – it was water, water, nowhere. Just the way I like it.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Remind me to sign up for Lyft

Over the last couple of years, I’ve become a pretty regular Uber user. Oh, I like to support cabbies, as I know they make better money than Uber. But you can’t beat the convenience of Uber. Call a cab, and there’s the crapshoot waiting. Will they show up, won’t they show up. And when will they show up. No way of ascertaining any of this without calls back to the dispatchers.

With Uber? You watch the little cartoon car make it’s way down the street to the pick up location. Three minutes away… Two minutes away… Arriving…

Plus Uber is a lot cheaper than taking a cab.

So I always give the Uber driver a good tip (in cash).

And, unless they’re all liars, most of the drivers I’ve had – and I do talk to all of them – don’t mind driving for Uber.

But I do know, of course, that Uber is a crappy company.

They don’t treat their non-employees all that well. And they don’t treat their employee-employees all that well, either. The work environment is reputedly toxic, especially for women. Last summer, Travis Kalanick was forced out, mostly for being a tyrant and an all-round shit.

And now this…

Hackers stole the personal data of 57 million customers and drivers from Uber Technologies Inc., a massive breach that the company concealed for more than a year. This week, the ride-hailing firm ousted its chief security officer and one of his deputies for their roles in keeping the hack under wraps, which included a $100,000 payment to the attackers. (Source: Bloomberg)

What did the hackers get? Oh, just the names, email addresses, and phone numbers of 50 million Uber users, including I suppose mine. According to Uber – oh, so trustworthy – no credit card info or trip location deets were snagged.

As for driver info, personal information was hacked on 7 million drivers, among it, the driver’s license numbers for 600K of the drivers in the U.S. According to Uber – oh, so trustworthy – no Social Security numbers were snagged.

Uber should have reported the hack to regulators and to the drivers whose info was compromised. And I don’t know what the legalities are here, but shouldn’t I and the other 49,999,999 million Uber users have been told that some of our personal info was lifted, even if it wasn’t our credit card numbers? Perhaps Equifax can guide them here…

Uber acknowledges that they shoulda done a better job, but:

said it believes the information was never used but declined to disclose the identities of the attackers.

Because we should trust the goodness and integrity of hackers?

Okay, these must have been low-end, amateur hour hackers to settle for a $100K payoff. Weren’t they aware of how much Uber is worth, at least on paper?

Uber assures us that all is well:

“At the time of the incident, we took immediate steps to secure the data and shut down further unauthorized access by the individuals,” [Kalanick replacement CEO Dara] Khosrowshahi said. “We also implemented security measures to restrict access to and strengthen controls on our cloud-based storage accounts.”

Why am I not assured?

On the to do list: download the Lyft app.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving 2017 (my broken holiday record)

I’ve always enjoyed Thanksgiving, every bit of it from the Macy’s Day Parade to the overeating to the next-day turkey sandwich.

When I was a kid, the day started with a trip to Parson’s Cider Mill.

Although I grew up in a city, the neighborhood was pretty weird. It was full of three-deckers, grocery stores and pharmacies, hairdressers and barbers, gas stations and used car lots, schools (public and parochial), churches (Catholic, Congo, and one weird evangelical other), a couple of mangy parks, and other urban trappings. It also had plenty of country: in or just off myParsons cider street alone there were deep woods, a pond, and a working farm of sorts that even had a couple of cows, until one harsh winter when they froze to death, standing in place, and the Worcester Public Health Department had to come up and bulldoze them over and out. We had fields to play in. An abandoned reservoir. And we had Parson’s Cider Mill, open between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and where we would get two gallons of cider for each of those holidays, as in those days, no one served wine. Grownups had a highball or two (or a sherry for most of the women), then everyone drank cider. I still have an empty jug. (Not quite my Rosebud, but definitely an icon of my childhood.) After Christmas, our empties were stored in the basement and brought back to Parson’s for a refill the next Thanksgiving, when my father would take us kids (and our Radio Flyer wagon, used to haul the cider back home) around the corner to Parson’s. (It sounds almost Little House in the Prairie, doesn’t it?)

This year, I’ll be celebrating at my sister Kath’s, and much looking forward to it. There will be cider, I’m quite sure, but – alas – Parson’s is no more. (Not that we’d be going out to Worcester to fetch cider, mind you.)

Thanksgiving…

This year I’m thankful for the things I’m always thankful for: family and friends, my work, good health (other than a few mechanical difficulties: who knows what yesterday’s MRI of my ankle will reveal), a lovely home, wonderful memories, and the fact that, nearly one year in, the republic, while teetering, still stands.

Here’s last year’s post, if you want to see the full bill of thanks fare for the day.

This year, I want to do a special shout out to St. Francis House, a day shelter (and more) doing amazing work to help Boston’s poor, especially those who are experiencing homelessness.

While I’ve been involved with St. Francis House for many years, this year, I decided to spend some quality time by regularly volunteering in the kitchen and in clothing distribution.

Each day, SFH serves more than 700 meals (breakfast and lunch), and chefs Seth and Laurel do a spectacular job turning out nutritious and pretty damned good meals – and a spectacular job making things fun for the volunteers who help prepare and serve meals. (When I do a 9-1 shift, I eat lunch there before we serve. Everything I’ve had has been very tasty. And there’s been laughter at every shift I’ve worked there, too.)

Each month, SFH distributes 750 changes of clothing: new undies and socks, and mostly donated (some new, some used) shirts, pants, and sweaters. Working in Fresh Threads (our clothing distribution center) is quite interesting. In the kitchen, we just see the guests as they go through the food line. At Fresh Threads, volunteers work one on one with guests, talking to them about their clothing druthers and then going “shopping” for them. Although I don’t have a regular shift that I work, I’ve had the same people a couple of times, and have gotten to know them a bit. So I know that M doesn’t want any clothing with “plastic” (i.e., polyester) in it. And that D doesn’t like white tee-shirts because they remind him of prison.

We’re usually pretty well stocked with shirts and, to lesser extent, pants, and can generally get someone the long sleeved, collared shirt they want, but maybe not always a pair of jeans.

What we tend to run low on are shoes/boots and coats. When a warm parka comes in, it’s probably back out the door in 10 minutes. But there’s never enough, and it’s tough telling someone to try again next week for a warm jacket when it’s 30 degrees out. Ditto a pair of sturdy boots or shoes. Guests can get a fresh set of duds – undies, shirts, pants – once a week. But they can only get shoes and outerwear once every three months. More than once I’ve tried to convince someone not to take that pair of shoes that don’t really fit, not to take that lightweight jacket that will be useless tomorrow. But when you’re desperate…

When I think of the clothing choices I have in my closet. The food choices I have in my larder. And the fact that there’s never a day where I have to worry about where I’ll be laying my head down that night.

To see these folks who have so little, yet are – get this – pretty much just like us. Maybe a few more bad choices, always a lot more bad luck.

If you’re feeling inclined to make an “I’m thankful” donation today, you could do worse than make it to St. Francis House.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Falmouth, Maine, freegans better look that gift turkey in the whatever

One of the prized memories of my childhood was finding an unopened bag of M&Ms in a snowbank. Free candy! I was so in…

But, other than wild blueberry picking as a kid, my life has largely been foraging-free.  My mushrooms come from the produce department, I wouldn’t eat roadkill if my life depended on it, and while I like the idea of fiddlehead ferns, I don’t think they taste all that great.

Sure, I love doggie bags and leftovers, but I tend to know where they came from. Ditto with my groceries.

But I know that there are urban foragers out there, picking dandelions out of sidewalk cracks or whatever it is that they do. And that there are freegans and/or poor folks who go dumpster diving behind grocery stores and restaurants, looking for whatever’s been thrown out that’s still edible.

A fellow up in Falmouth, Maine, took it one step further, coming upon what he must have thought was his lucky-day dumpster dive and making off with a truckload of free turkeys.

In a post on Facebook on Monday, police in Falmouth, Maine, cautioned that a man in a pickup truck plucked a large amount of foul fowl from the trash behind the Hannaford supermarket in town, after the birds went bad when a refrigerator unit at the store suffered from an apparent mechanical failure. He then allegedly gave some of the turkeys away, police said.

“Turkey Warning: (yes for real),” police wrote on Facebook. “Someone has actually removed these turkeys from the dumpster and thought it would be a great idea to redistribute them. It’s not a good idea, it’s a very bad idea. These turkeys were discarded because they were a hazard to consume. If anyone had acquired a bird from some non-conventional manner from someone you don’t know, discard and replace it.” (Source: Boston Globe)

Wonder if this guy stopped to ask himself why, a few days before Thanksgiving, Hannaford would be tossing out 75-80 turkeys if they were okay.

I know you can ignore plenty of those “best if used by” dates. That Progresso soup? You could probably crack open a can of C-rations from WWII and they’d still be edible. (That is, if you happen to like Spam.) And yogurts are good for another 10 days or so.

But we’re not talking something stamped with a meaningless expiration date here. We’re talking poultry. Which under the best of conditions is one big germ factory. Which is why we have special cutting boards devoted to chicken. And why we boil our hands after cutting raw meat.

Hannaford discarded these turkeys after they had “thawed and bloated” because of a fridge gone bad.

“Thawed and bloated.” Boy, does that ever sound appetizing.

The fellow who found the turkey trove was pretty proud of his find. He didn’t try to sell them. He just put a picture up on Facebook and invited his friends to come and get them. He’s not being charged with any crime – dumpster diving is not against the law – but Hannaford wants folks to know that these turkeys may not be safe to eat, even if you cook it in a 325 degree oven for 15 minutes per thawed and bloated pound.

Hannaford, by the way, like any other head’s up company, learned about the turkey giveaway via social media. They then called the police and asked for their help getting the word out. Which Falmouth PD, sworn to protect and serve (just not bad turkey), did.

So folks in the Falmouth, Maine, area are warned: if you got your bird from a guy in a pickup truck who found them out back of the Hannaford’s, it’s not to late to dump it and get yourself a Butterball with the weird little popup eye.

Meanwhile, this story reminded me of a famous family Thanksgiving when my Aunt Margaret served raw turkey.

My aunt didn’t cook turkey in her oven. She had a special turkey roaster – I think my mother had one as well – that was straight out of the 1940’s. Appliances from back in the day were still in good form 30+ years later, which is I think the approximate timing of the Great Raw Turkey Incident. Anyway, Margaret’s turkey roaster was on the fritz, and it was not cooked all the way through. My cousin Barbara’s boys were still young enough at the time to not do what the rest of us were doing, which was hide any bad slices of turkey under a pile of mashed turnip. Just young enough at the time for one of them to say in a quite loud voice, “Grammy, this turkey is raw!”

At which point, my cousin Barbara reached out with her famous claw of death, grabbed whichever kid had just pointed out that the turkey was raw, and hissed in his ear, “You’ll eat it!”

Death before hurting someone’s feelings!

Good luck to the Falmouth, Maine, freegans. I’m hoping that most of the bad turkeys were found. But I’m guessing that at at least one Thanksgiving table, some kid will be saying, “Grammy, this turkey smells funny!”

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

No bedbugs? No shit!

On one of our last trips to NYC, where we had gone many, many, times, my husband and I each came home with what looked quite a bit like a bedbug bite. We examined our clothing, flashlight inspected the corners of our roller bags, and pretty much decided that we hadn’t taken any of those critters home with us.

When I say pretty much decided, I mean that Jim pretty much decided. I spent the next couple of months after our return on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I felt bedbugs everywhere. I kept tossing the mattress over, looking for the telltale signs of bedbuggism. I tore my bureau drawers apart to see if I could find any bedbugs lurking in a crevice. I sent away for bedbug repellent, and doused the legs of bed and bureaus. I got some sort of bedbug detection kit that I never really used, but felt comforted just having it around. (It was shipped in a plane brown package, like porn used to – or so I’m told.) I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep until, after a couple of months, I decided one Sunday to get out to Bed Bath & Beyond to buy special anti-bedbug mattress and pillow covers. At last: a good night’s sleep. Big sigh of relief. Jim, he’d been sleeping just fine all along.

During this entire period, I never actually saw a bedbug. Just those initial telltale, three-point bite-marks Jim and I each had on the back of one of our legs. I really do think we were bitten. And I think we were likely bitten at this really old-fashioned French restaurant that we used to go to – now closed – where we were always the youngest customers by about 20 years. If it were nice out, we always ate in their small outdoor seating area – nothing much: just a couple of tables on the sidewalk on Second Avenue - but on that bedbug trip  we dined inside of the La Mediterranee. Sacre bleu! It always smelled a bit mildewy. No wonder they closed.

While our problem (actually, my psychological problem) was resolved by installing anti-bedbug bedding, since then I’ve been careful to leave my suitcase on the luggage stand in a hotel room. Supposedly, bedbugs can’t climb up the metal legs.

Anyway, that’s the sum total of my experience with bed bugs.

So I never encountered the problem in the workplace.

Workplace infestations are apparently quite rare, but they do happen.

One place that suffered a recent infestation occurred at SimpliSafe, a home security outfit with offices in downtown Boston. SimpliSafe brought in exterminators, and had managers meet with their groups, but their employees – at least some of them – don’t think that the company has done enough about it.

In recent days, three employees have protested outside the company’s Downtown Crossing headquarters. “No bedbugs, no [expletive]!” they chanted one morning, passing out fliers that read “Support United SimpliSafe workers.”

The three employees, who work in the company’s call center, said they launched the same chant inside the office last week and were suspended with pay. One employee, Abraham Zamcheck, was arrested on disorderly conduct charges after he stood on his desk to lead the chants, he said. (Source: Boston Globe)

What triggered Zamcheck to jump on his desk for a bit of rabble-rousing was a text from colleague Ryan Costello, one of a trio of employees (Zamcheck and Lauren Galloway were the others) who had circulated a petition that:

…demanded an apology from management and a pledge for more open conversation going forward...“It has come to our attention that there is a bedbug infestation in the office and that management and HR have known about this for some time,” the petition read.

Costello texted Zamcheck after he was called into a senior manager’s office, telling his buddy that he was about to be fired.

After seeing the message,Zamcheck stood on his desk and began to chant: “No bedbugs, no [expletive], and “Hell no, we won’t go.” About 10 others joined in, employees said.

Managers called the police, who arrested him.

Costello wasn’t fired. Along with Zamcheck and Galloway, he was suspended. The three are now protesting outside of SimpliSafe’s offices, and maintain that the bedbug problem, and SimpliSafe’s way of handling it, “was a symptom of deeper problems in its workplace culture”

It certainly wouldn’t surprise me to find that a call center full of young, underpaid staffers who had to sit on the phone listening to people complain all day had some pretty deep workplace culture problems. And that employees would be disgruntled.

“I was aware that it was a possibility we’d get fired, but we hoped by standing up together we’d be able to stop [mistreatment] in a meaningful sense,” Costello said. “We are now suspended and are trying to get our jobs back, and continue this struggle for change here.”

The article I read didn’t get into any details on the non-bedbug grievances, but it’s not hard to imagine what they might be: call center, rotten pay, carping customers, ghastly hours. And management at SimpliSafe may be truly dreadful in terms of using up and spitting out employees. It’s been known to happen.

Still, standing on your desk Norma Rae-ing about bedbugs, and then standing outside the building protesting, might not be the way to get their message across. Sure, they got an article in the Boston Globe, but just what are Boston Globe readers who don’t subscribe to SimpliSafe’s services going to do to support the SimpliSafe Three?

In a way, I kind of like the way they’re going about it. It’s sweetly old school. But in this day and age, might it not have been more effective to go on Glassdoor.com, anonymously complain about the company, and then make sure that someone in management looks at Glassdoor?

The protestors say that they only got 35 folks to sign their petition because people were scared about losing their jobs. That certainly could be the case. It can be scary to standup to senior management (wrote the person who was once fired for trying to organize a waitress union and, decades later, as a full-blown professional, was fired for pretty much challenging the company president to a thrown-down in front of the company’s employees to see whether they believed his interpretation of what was happening in the company or mine). But, in an economy where there’s near full employment, and where call center jobs seem to be plentiful, it might just be that people are content working at SimpliSafe.

Maybe it’s time that someone started trying to organize call center workers – what a horrendous job – but standing on your desk screaming about bedbugs might not be the best way to go about it.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Gaillimh Abú? Oh, boo hoo

What better thing to do on a cold and blustery November Sunday than head out to Fenway Park for the afternoon to watch a couple of exhibition matches of a sport you know nearly nothing about?

In this case, the sport is hurling, an Irish game that’s somewhat like lacrosse and somewhat like field hockey. Only faster – I do believe it’s the fastest field game, and I must say there is not a slack, boring moment to be had in it.

Sunday’s matches were part of something called the Players Champions Cup. I don’t know if this Cup is just a made-up Boston one-off, or something that the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) operates when it brings an Irish native game to the States (in addition to hurling, there’s Gaelic football and camogie). But there was a pretty good crowd. Whatever the case, there was a pretty good crowd – I saw an estimate of 28,000, made up what looked like a combination of Irish n-generation Americans and Irish immigrants, many sporting the colors of their County. (In most American cities with significant Irish immigrant presence, there are also plenty of folks who play GAA games. In Boston, they’re actually quite popular.)

In the first preliminary match, Galway (Gaillimh if you want to go native) whipped Dublin. In the second, tighter match, Clare beat Tipperary.

We were rooting for Galway in the first match. Although I have no Galway roots, it’s my favorite place in Ireland, and my niece Molly spent a semester there. So we were all in. I don’t own anything in Galway’s colors, which are maroon and white, but I did find a challis scarf with a lot of reddish purple in it. And I knew better than to wear my blue parka, given that blue and black are Dublin’s colors.

Another everyone-loves-a-winner reason to root for Galway: in September, Galway won the All-Ireland Hurling Championship, which is a really big deal. Each County in Ireland fields teams (at junior and senior levels) in each of the GAA sports and they play matches throughout the year. Then, I think, the ladders run through the four provinces, and it all culminates in a big final match played at Croke Park in Dublin, home of the GAA (and the locale for a killing spree during the Irish Civil War, when 13 fans and 1 Tipperary footballer were gunned down in reprisal for the earlier killing of a number of British soldiers, among others, by the IRA).

September is one of my favorite times to be in Ireland, as the weather is usually quite nice then. Many of the trips my husband and I took were when the All Ireland football final was on, and you could always tell which Counties were in the finals by all the colors flying in the towns we went through. We never went to a game, but we’d always find a pub where we could watch the football final. Always fun when we found ourselves in a County that was playing.

Somehow, we were never there for the hurling final, so I’ve never seen any hurling played. 

For the first half of the Galway-Dublin match, we tried to figure out the rules by just watching. My brother Rick, who played pretty much every American sport growing up, was able to pick up on some of the rules as we went along, figuring out the difference bHurlingetween a 1 point play, a 3 point play, and a 5 point score, and picking up on the fact that there seemed to be some sort of rule similar to dribbling with respect to how long you could hold the sliotar (the ball) in your hand.  But at half time we gave up and went to the Google. It was just too much of a struggle to try to guess what would be called a foul. Apparently, whacking someone in the head with a hurley is perfectly okay.

And we did get to see something that approached a bench clearing brawl. Great craic!

Then there was the side words on the score board: Sin Bin. At first I thought they were some sort of Irish thing. Sin Bin? Sinn Fein? Then – duh – I got that they were referring to the penalty box. My friend Michele, sitting next to me, was about to ask me whether, in my decades ago attempt to teach myself Irish, I’d learned the words “sin bin” when it dawned on her, too.

Happy to see a Galway win, as did the crowd around us, which seemed to have more Galway girls and boys than it did Dubs.

The second match featured Tipperary and Clare. We were rooting for Clare, mostly because Michele has some connections in that County. So why not. (You really can’t go to a sporting event and not pick someone to cheer for. What’s the fun of that?) It was a pretty exciting game, made the more exciting for us less-than-knowledgeable fans, because the County colors for both Tipp and Clare are yellow and blue. Closer match than Dublin-Galway, and Clare won.

By the time that match ended, it was getting chillier and chillier, and ain’t none of us willing to spring $9.25 for a cup of hot chocolate. So we shivered on. Despite the cold, we decided to soldier on through the final. It helped that these were shorter matches than would normally be played – a bit over 40 minutes each, with a six minute break between the halves. (Is it just me, or does the word “halves” look funny? What’s wrong with “halfs”?)

The first half was all Clare, but Galway came booming back in the second. But not booming back hard enough.

No Gaillimh Abú for us, I’m afraid. So boo hoo.

But all in all, a fun day.

And I’m now something of a hurling expert, having seen three – count ‘em three – matches  Perhaps the word “expert” is too strong. But at least I’m now someone who can more intelligently watch the game and appreciate it. Especially now that I now that Sin Bin isn’t an Irish term. I haven’t felt this same degree of sports authority since the last time I watched the winter Olympics with my late husband, and we found ourselves second-guessing the judges on sports we’d never heard of, let alone seen.

Nice walk home from Fenway, but we were more than happy to get inside, where we warmed up with mulled cider that costs a lot less than $9.25 a cup!

Friday, November 17, 2017

You better W.A.T.C.H. out, I’m telling you why

You blog long enough – in my case, 11 years and counting – you have certain evergreens that you revisit again and again. For instance, I observe most holidays with a holiday-related post. And by the time the first Christmas tree has gone up outside Macy’s, I’ll have started doing a number of gift and/or toy-related posts. Thus, yesterday, I had a piece about this year’s inductees to the Toy Hall of Fame. Probably next week, I’ll be doing a piece on this year’s Neiman Marcus crazy-arse wishbook. And I typically watch out for the annual W.A.T.C.H. List, which each year calls out the most dangerous toys out there.

Like pretty much (but not quite) everyone in the world, I don’t want to hear about any kids getting killed by some spectacularly unsafe toy. A choking hazard. A mismarked age range.

Yet I always feel a bit nanny-state about some of the toys that end up on the annual list, especially when I compare and contrast them to the toys of my childhood. The toddler iron that plugged in and heated up. The stuffed poodle with the easily removable eye that corkscrewed in and out of the stuffed poodle’s eye socket. As for bicycle helmets. Huh?

I’m happy that I grew up in the era of free-range childhood. Folks (such as parents) didn’t spend a ton of time worrying themselves to death about whether their kids were playing themselves (and other kids) to death. Caveat, children, more of less.

I suspect that it’s thanks to organizations like W.A.T.C.H.  (World Against Toys Causing Harm) that those stuffed poodles no longer come equipped with beady little eyes attached to sharp-edge corkscrews. And that’s good…

But the net result is that it looks to me that dangerous toys ain’t what they used to be. Still, on general principles, it would be best to avoid these suckers (info taken from the W.A.T.C.H. list):

HALLMARK “ITTY BITTYS” BABY STACKING TOY:The knock on this toy is that it doesn’t come with any age warnings.Itty Bitty Of course, anyone who’s ever known a baby would know by taking just one look at this that it’s for a baby. Plus, it’s called a Baby Stacking Toy, so there’s that cue. But those little hats and bows can come loose, and, thus, become a choking hazard. So it’s really not the age warning so much as those chokables. That’s what caused the Consumer Product Safety Commission to recall this product as of August 31, 2017. It’s a pretty cute toy. Everyone loves Disney. They need to figure out a way to secure Donald’s cap, and maybe embroider a bow on Daisy.

PULL ALONG PONY has a pull cord that measures 19 inches. That happens “despite the industry’s standard requiring strings on playpen and crib toys to be less than 12 inches in length.” There’s apparently a loophole that let’s a pull toy have a longer cord, which presents a strangulation hazard. I know that there are occasional stories about little ones being strangled by the cord of blinds, but a pull toy? Could that really happen with a 19 inch piece of string? Me? i wouldn’t want to chance it. Cut the cord to a shorter length to keep on the safe side. How long a pull cord does a one-year-old need?

WONDER WOMAN BATTLE-ACTION SWORD Sure, we had cowgirls like Annie Oakley and Dale Evans, but when it came to the toy weaponry of my childhood, it was all boy. So the girls final get a weapon of their own – a light sword – and, don’t you know, it gets put on the no-no list because it can cause blunt force injury. “The rigid plastic sword blade has the potential to cause facial or other impact injuries.” Would this not be true of any battle-action sword? You don’t have to be Braveheart to understand that when you wield a sword, you’re using a weapon. If Wonder Woman uses a sword – and I don’t know: does she? – why shouldn’t a little wannabe Wonder Woman get to use one? As for impact injuries, anything in the hand of an excited kid – say, a Barbie doll – can do the same.

HAND FIDGETZ SPINNERS The warning on this fidget spinner is that it’s “a novelty gift item. It is not intended to be used as a toys.” But some spinners come with “potential small parts hazards”", which can choke you up. But I wouldn’t worry that much about them. Sure, keep them out of the hands of anyone too young to need a fidget spinner to work out their anxiety and/or boredom, but wait until next year. Fidget spinners will likely have gone the way of the Pet Rock.

SPIDER-MAN SPIDER-DRONE OFFICIAL MOVIE EDITION This pricey toy is for kids over the age of 12, and comes with  a number of warnings: “Drone has rotating blades that move at high speed, posing danger of… injury…Keep spinning rotors away from fingers, hair, eyes, and other body parts”… and other cautions/warnings on package/package insert.” From my point of view, drones in general should be kept out of the hands of pretty much everyone not qualified to use one, let alone kids (even if they are over the age of 12).

NERF ZOMBIE STRIKE DEADBOLT CROSSBOW This is marketed for kids as young as 8. Who are “encouraged to load ‘arrows’ into Crossbowthe ‘deadbolt’ crossbow, pull back the ‘primary pressurized lever’ and fire the projectiles in order to ‘strike back’ at ‘zombies.’ The force of the arrow launch presents the potential for eye and facial injuries.” Who in their right mind would give an 8 year old a crossbow, even if it’s firing Nerf projectiles?

SLACKERS SLACKLINE CLASSIC SERIES KIT “The manufacturer warns of the potential for ‘severe injury’, including ‘a strangulation hazard, especially with children.’” Strangulation? Not to mention fall-related injuries. Fun for all ages, alrighty.

OVAL XYLOPHONE I love the idea of a baby plonking away on a xylophone. But the drumstick used for plonking away “has the potential to be mouthed and occlude a child’s airway.” Guess this one could use a warning that this one requires adult supervision.

JETTS HEEL WHEELS This toy comes with these warnings: “USING HEEL WHEELS CAN BE A DANGEROUS ACTIVITY AND MAY RESULT IN INJURY OR DEATH. … USE AT YOUR OWN RISK….” Can you imagine picking up a toy for your kid, reading “may result in death” and casually tossing it in your shopping cart? And yet there are so many toys that can result in death. Maybe all of them. That’s a kind of a problem inherent in toys: they can be stupid and dangerous. And inherent in kids: they do stupid and dangerous things, with or without toys. Still, best not to encourage them. Especially when those Heel Wheels have the special feature that they throw off sparks. And “sparks can burn.”

BRIANNA BABYDOLL The final item on the non-shopping list for responsible toy buyers is this baby doll, that comes with removable ponytail holders, creating a choking hazard. Seriously? A manufacturer can’t figure out how to sew threads on to doll hair. Come on. Even I could figure that one out.

Anyway, this is the W.A.T.C.H. List for this year. With so many toys out there, why would you spend on ones that are known to be hazardous? Even if there probably isn’t any such thing as a non-hazardous toy, especially if they get into the wrong little hands.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Clue, Paper Airplane. And - ta-da– The Wiffle Ball

Each year, just about this time, the Strong Museum, which hosts the National Toy Hall of Fame, announces the toys that are being inducted.

This years winners are paper airplanes, the Wiffle Ball, and Clue. Not quite as excellent as the swing, which was inducted last year, but these are all excellent choices, at least in the humble opinion of this former child.

The paper airplane: I’m good with numbers. I’m good with words. But I have absolutely zero spatial reasoning. When I had my first office job – the summer after I graduated from high school – I was asked to type up some letters and put them in envelopes. I couldn’t figure out how to fold a standard 8 1/2” x 11” piece of letterhead so that it fit in a standard Number 10 business envelope. I folded the paper in half, then in quarters, and awkwardly wedged in into the envelope. Then someone showed me. Fold the paper in thirds. Eureka!

In a more recent incident, my cousin Ellen and I, in the midst of a summer downpour, got ourselves soaked while trying to figure out how to fit an exercise bike that a friend of my Aunt Mary’s was giving her into the back of Ellen’s SUV. Maybe it was the rain, but we couldn’t figure it out until Ellen came up with a brilliant solution: call her sister Laura and have Laura’s husband come over in his truck to pick it up. (Those of us without spatial reason develop compensating skills.)

So it took me quite a while to get even passably good at folding paper airplanes. Nevertheless, I persisted, and, while I wasn’t exactly the Orville Wright of paper airplanes, I could get one to do a bit of a swoop.paper airplane

A great plaything. All you need is a piece of paper, and you’ve got endless entertainment. Plus you get to fine tune your fine motor skills and your spatial reasoning. Not to mention rudimentary understanding of aerodynamics: a blunt-nosed paper airplane ain’t going nowhere but down. Anyway,Yay, Paper Airplane! Congratulations on your induction.

Wiffle Ball: What would summer be without Wiffle Ball? Sure, a Wiffle Ball is almost impossible to pitch and, even with a regulation Wiffle Bat, almost impossible to hit so that it soared off the bat – at least in my experience. Very easy to whiff. And getting hit on, say, your calf, with a Wiffle Ball – whipped by some big kid who had mastered the art of pitching a Wiffle Ball – really, really hurt. Every bit at much as getting hit by a hardball or a softball. A Wiffle Ball could really sting! And don’t get me going on getting clobbered with a Wiffle Bat. wiffle ball

It would have taken a really psychopathic kid to go after another kid with a Louisville Slugger. But was there ever a kid shown a Wiffle Bat who didn’t try to weaponize it? No, another kid couldn’t go full Al Capone on you and beat your brains out with one, but getting whacked with a Wiffle Bat hurt – a stingy hurt, just like the Wiffle Ball.

But you could play baseball with Wiffle Ball. Yay, Wiffle Ball! Congratulations on your induction.

Clue: I grew up in the Great Age of Board Games. Monopoly (or our cheese-ball version, Easy Money). Scrabble (or our cheese-ball version, Key Word). Sorry. Go To The Head of the Class. Professor PlumYou name it, I played it in someone’s backyard, on an old WWII Army or Navy blanket, on a summer’s afternoon, under a tree. And one of our favorites was Clue. Interesting characters. A fancy house – who had a Conservatory? Cool little weapons. The use of deductive reasoning. Taking some risk when you declared “Professor Plum did it in the Conservatory with the candlestick.” Yay, Clue! Congratulations on your induction.

Runners-up: What toys were nominated but didn’t make the cut: the Magic 8 Ball, Matchbox Cars, My Little Pony, PEZ Candy Dispenser, play food, Risk, sand, Transformers, and Uno.

Personally, I can’t stand My Little Pony. But these are all reasonably good choices. Even though, I will observe that, if you have sand, you can make mud pies, and if you have Play-Doh you can make anything, so you really don’t need play food. (And if you lived in an area where there were many trees and bushes around, you had acorns and pignuts, and poisonous red and green berries, and leaves and twigs, all of which made pretty fine play food.) Further, I think if you nominate sand, you really need to nominate the sandbox. Just sayin’

Here’s the full list of toys/playthings in the Hall of Fame. And here’s Pink Slip’s take on last year’s picks, Swing!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Now this gets my goat

According to the Chinese way of doing calendar business, 2015 was the Year of the Goat.

But I’m here to tell Xi Jinping that, in real life, 2017 has been quite the year, goat-wise.

Pink Slip, ever with the eye toward what’s trendy, picked up on this earlier this year, when I noted that there were goats galore. One of the sub-goatish topics of my post was goat yoga, which combines two things I know absolutely nothing about. Well, ignorance has never stopped me from developing an insta-opinion, and holding it for however long it takes me to concoct a piece. Here’s what I had to say about goat yoga in April:

The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of mixing goats and yoga.To me, yoga – despite pose names like Downward Dog - always seems kind of humorless. Having a bunch of goats scampering around might lighten things up quite a bit. (Source: Pink Slip)

But the District of Columbia apparently frowns on the combination of goats and yoga:

the Department of Health (DOH) is aiming to end this menacing mixture of fitness and farm animals. D.C. Brau, a Washington microbrewery, had to cancel two sold-out goat yoga classes—which were to be followed by beer tastings—after the DOH warned that the events would violate a ban on spectators touching animals at public events. (Source: Reason)

A ‘ban on spectators touching animals at public events’? Say wha? I mean, there’s bad touchy. I know that. But there’s also good touchy. Does this mean that, if I attend a public event in Washington – say a march to protest the pardoning of Donald Trump, père ou fils – and someone marches by with a really sweet Lab, I can’t pet the Lab?

DC DOH has shut down goat yoga before.

In June, the department also forbade the Congressional Cemetery from hosting a goat yoga fundraiser.

Organizers were told that they needed to “get a wildlife handling permit for exotic animals.”

Who even knew that goats are exotic?

Maybe in DC, where the plain old animals run more to snakes, rats, and weasels.

Exceptions can be made to the goat fatwa if the event is educational – which the Cemetery folks argued theirs was - but the city “could see no educational merit…Officials even expressed concern that participants might lose their balance and fall on the goats.” They also stressed the same “no touch” policy that ended the goat-yoga-beer tasting event.

But the National Zoo has a petting zoo, and Christian Britschgi, whose post on Reason is the source for this post, looked into Goat-gate:

It’s possible that the "no touch" policy makes some sort of exemption for these petting zoos, but I could find no text of the actual policy to verify this, let alone justify it.

Christian also looked into the city’s rules and came up with nothing that could justify banning goat yoga.

Chalk it up to arbitrary and capricious, I guess.

Now I am not anti-regulation. I thank having a relatively strong regulatory system for the fact that I’m sitting here without having to wear a gas mask, that the water that flows from my tap is potable, and for having been spared being a child laborer (anywhere other than in the home I grew up in). But for every excellent regulation, there’s likely a really stupid one. And sometimes that regulation doesn’t even appear to be written down anywhere. It’s just made up and enforced on an ad hoc basis. Like this one. Which really gets my goat.

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A tip of the Pink Slip straw hat, with a bite of the brim nibbled out by a goat, to my brother-in-law Rick for sending this one my way.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The City of Cambridge takes flex pricing to a new level

I have a couple of gym buddies who live in Cambridge, and they were all abuzz yesterday about an article on liquor licenses and how they’ve been so patchily issued in their town over the last couple of years. How patchy? Well, the price for a license – depending on whether you were canny enough to find the right lawyer or knew the right question (or person) to ask – was anywhere from free to $450,000.

That’s quite a swing, especially for a low margin business like a restaurant.

Even after reading the article twice, I couldn’t quite follow the thread on how this all worked. (I was going to say that I couldn’t quite follow the “logic”, but that would be absolutely the wrong word to use with respect to how liquor licensing goes down in Cambridge.) Here’s how I think things work:

To get a liquor license, you either need to buy one from an existing owner for whatever the market could bear, or get one from the city for free.

Sometimes, the free licenses depended on what section of the city Cambridge wanted new restaurants to spring up in. Thus, for a while the licensing commission – a paid lead commissioner and the chiefs of the police and fire departments – were more open to new free licenses for up and coming, techie-ville Kendall Square than they were for old, beaten up Central Square. Guess the Cantab Lounge – a dive bar –  and a few other spots where you could get liquored up, or just have a drink with dinner, were good enough for Central.

But this preference for Kendall over Central didn’t work for everyone. Sumaio Chen wanted to open a place in Kendall and ended up paying $200K for one -  a license that other restaurants in Kendall were getting as a freebie

Chen would have loved the same deal, but it was as though she didn’t know the secret handshake. Nothing on the Cambridge License Commission’s website or at its offices explained how to get a free license, and Chen’s advisers told her she had to try to buy one from another restaurant first. (Source: Boston Globe)

That bit about having to “try to buy one from another restaurant first”? Apparently, the decision on whether or not you were trying hard enough was completely arbitrary. Or looked that way.

In all, 95 restaurants, bars, hotels, and clubs in Cambridge operate with free licenses, or 38 percent of the total, city records show. Another 157 hold licenses they bought from other owners, and now worry they overpaid, as free licenses become more available.

This is Massachusetts, and this is Cambridge, from whence Cambridge Favorite Son Tip O’Neil so famously said, “All politics is local”. So, needless to say, there were lawyers – home boyos – with connections who knew the ropes and could show folks around. Sometimes these intermediaries worked for the sellers. Sometimes for the buyers. Sometimes for both. (Oh,  boy…)

No one knew this patchwork of inequity better than the lawyers who made a living navigating the murky system. With so little guidance from the city, many restaurant owners turned to a small cadre of well-connected attorneys who often preached the advantages of buying a license. Other times, they schooled license applicants in how to convince commissioners that they had tried in vain to buy a license, and deserved a free one.

As for those who worry that the liquor license that they paid so dearly for may be worth nothing, given that a license can be had for free. I have just two words to say: taxi medallion.

The relatively new chairman of the commissioner, who was brought in in January 2016 to help clean up the licensing mess, doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for those who got stuck paying big bucks for a license.

[Nicole] Murati Ferrer made no apologies for past policies on issuing licenses, or the negative consequences for owners caught in the middle. She said the commission had no duty at hearings to inform owners of their options, and that people needed to seek information from the city earlier in the process.

Others think differently:

…some City Council members are sympathetic. In a statement in June, they said the city had been giving bad advice to restaurant owners about liquor licenses. They have even weighed possible reparations

Reparations! Wow! Sounds crazy, but I will note that one of the investigative reporters who worked on this story is Sacha Pfeiffer, who was one of the Spotlight Team members who exposed the Boston Archdiocese sex abuse scandal – a story that got made into the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight. So I suspect there’s more to come on this story.

Again, Murati Ferrer isn’t shedding any tears, crocodile or otherwise, over the issue.

Commission chair Murati Ferrer, however, said the city bears no blame for failing to disclose all license options to restaurant owners. She suggested attorneys were at fault if their clients didn’t understand: “I think it’s shame on the lawyer.”

Caveat restaurateur and all that, but I think there’s plenty of blame to go around on this one. And I wouldn’t bet against more shoes dropping. (C.f., Sacha Pfeiffer)

Me? Why doesn’t Cambridge – or anyplace else: pick a city, any city – just rent the licenses? The cost of a lease might be flex-y, depending on what type of operation we’re talking about – white table-cloth foodie vs. watering hole. Moving forward, that would put everyone on pretty even footing. Except, of course, for those looking for reparations for the $450K they spent on a license when the joint next door got theirs for free.

Sounds like it’s time to lawyer up!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Tune out, turn on, drop in to a psychedelic retreat center

I was reading an article on WeLive, WeWork’s communal living business, and came across the name of one Tricia Eastman, whose profession was described as psychedelic retreat coordinator. Holy Timothy Leary! That’s a job?

Apparently.

When you google “psychedelic retreat coordinator,” you get 377,000 hits.

Ow wow, man.

It’s a thing.

There are all sorts of psychedelic retreat centers out there, each featuring a different variety of hallucinogenic. You can go on a mushroom retreat in Jamaica, which kind of blows my mind. Wouldn’t a retreat in Jamaica be a ganja retreat?

And if you’re interested in finding out what it’s like to achieve the Yaqui Way of Knowledge you read about 50 years ago in Carlos Castaneda’s book, there’s a peyote retreat in Arizona.

In the Netherlands, there’s a retreat center in a Dutch farmhouse where you can partake of:

…river toad, bufo alvarius [which] belongs to a species of toad containing the potent hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT in its skin. The ‘venom’ is extracted by gently stroking the frog, then smoked, producing a brief but intense altered state of consciousness lasting around 15 minutes, followed by recurrent waves for several hours.)

Eye of newt, skin of toad? That’s the farm house of weird.

I am not a candidate for any of these retreats, as I lived through the psychedelic 1960’s without ever dropping acid.

I did have friends who did LSD, and had one memorable adventure when a friend who was coming down needed someone Don Orione shrinewith her for the duration. “A” had a car, and we drove – she drove, actually; what can I say? I was young and dumb, and I didn’t hesitate for moment to get in a car with someone who was tripping – and rev out to Revere, a ratty working class beach town north of Boston. There we walked on the freezing cold beach for a couple of hours. We then buzzed over to East Boston and visited the Don Orione Shrine to check out the giant statue of the Madonna Queen.

This was a trippy enough experience to be had while completely straight and sober. I can only imagine what it was like for “A.”

Seeing the statue was the second highest point of the day. The highest was tootling around with “A” in her car. Very few “girls” had cars on campus when I was in school. Most of us didn’t have any money and, even if we had,car ownership just wasn’t done. But “A” somehow had permission to keep a car on campus, and what a car it was: a 10 year old navy blue Jaguar convertible.

My other LSD-related experience – quite a bit removed from an actual LSD-related experience – occurred in high school, when Dr. Werner Koella, a scientist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, spoke at my school. His topic: LSD. I have no recall what he said – way too science-y – but I do remember that he had a thickish German accent, and that he droned on and on. It was a Friday afternoon, last period, and he spoke at our monthly school assembly. As president of the student council, I got to introduce Dr. Koella and sit on stage with Sister Superior while he spoke. It was late in the day, the buses had already pulled up and were idling their engines just outside the auditorium. The students were getting restless. The speaker was boring, the day was getting late, the buses had arrived.

Every time Dr. Koella would pause, we assumed he had completed his talk. Sister Superior and I would stand, the student audience following suit, to give the standard Notre Dame Academy standing ovation. But Dr. Koella would start up again. We would all retake our seats. This happened a couple of times before he finally stopped, much to our collective relief. At that point, his standing ovation was more enthusiastic than it would normally have been for a boring Bob Dylanspeaker.

And for a while in college, I did have this Dylan poster on my wall for a while. The one that came free in the “Greatest Hits” album.

Other than that, I was not a psychedelic kind of gal.

Nonetheless, I am intrigued by the notion of the psychedelic retreat, and the profession of psychedelic retreat coordinator.

Here’s what Tricia Eastman’s LinkedIn profile, for her business Love Juju says:

Love Juju is a platform for alchemy, infusing ancient traditions with gamification along with modern psychology through retreats, workshops, discussions, & one-on-one coaching.

Love Juju is a meta-hacked program that mirrors the creative process, for inspired, passionate people are ready for breakthroughs in their path to self-mastery.

-Use Regenerative Productivity to catapult your energy and success levels
-Unlock new levels of abundance and creativity through Energetic Responsibility
-Access your full capacity for emotional intelligence
-Infuse new levels of self awareness into your life while discovering your sense of play and innocence (Source: LinkedIn)

I must confess that I’m way too unenlightened to actually understand much of this. A platform for alchemy infused with gamification? A meta-hacked program? Regenerative Productivity? Energetic Responsibility. I didn’t get much of anything until I hit the point about emotional intelligence.

Maybe I need to expand my mind. Maybe I need to tune in and turn one. Maybe I need to head to the Netherlands and smoke me some bufo alvarius.

 

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Billionaire Boys Club just lost a member

There was a joke during the inflationary years of the Carter Administration that went something like this:

A fellow with $10,000 to his name falls into some type of Rip Van Winkle sleep. When he awakes 20 years later, he learns that his $10,000 has turned into a cool million. He finds a pay phone and goes to call a friend to tell him the good news. He deposits his dime, and the operator comes on and tells him that it’ll be $35,000 to complete his call.

This joke is quaint for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is the existence of a pay phone that you could drop a dime into, and the voice of an operator who comes on to tell you what you owe. Do pay phones even exist anymore? Do operators?

The other, of course, is that, in modern memory, there was a time when having a million dollars made you rich.

That was then and this is now, and a million bucks just ain’t what it used to be. Even multi-millions – multi-hundreds-of-millions – is, in some circles, sneered at.

And even being a uni-billionaire isn’t enough to get you onto the Forbes list of the wealthiest 400 Americans. To make it onto that list, you have to have at least $2 billion. Last year, the cut off was $1.7 billion.

One of those who fell off the list was Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, Jr.

Actually,Ross didn’t so much fall off the list as get kicked off of it.

It seems that, for years, he has been BS-ing about his wealth, letting slide an initial error that attributed the money invested in funds he managed to personal assets. And, once on the billionaire glide based on that error, Ross just kept upping the ante and, each year, claimed to have mo’ better money than he had the year before.

Then Ross had something of a senior moment and decided to join the Trump Cabinet. Which meant disclosing his financials. Which revealed that he had less than $700 million.

Now most of us would be happy with $700 million. Or $70 million. Or even a relatively paltry $7 million.

But not, apparently, if you’re a wannabe play-ah.

Anyway, when Forbes let Ross know that he was falling off the list, he pushed back:

…citing trusts for his family that he said he did not have to disclose in federal filings. "You're apparently not counting those, which are more than $2 billion," he said. When asked for documentation, the 79-year-old demurred, citing "privacy issues." Told that Forbes nonetheless planned to remove him from the list for the first time in 13 years, he responded: "As long as you explain that the reason is that assets were put into trust, I'm fine with that." And when did he make the transfer that allowed him to not disclose over $2 billion? "Between the election and the nomination." (Source: Forbes)

Now, if Ross wants to gift his offspring and their offspring with $2 billion worth of largesse, that’s his business. But you do need to question how this would make sense, given that such a transfer would be taxable at that point in time, but untaxable in the longer run if Congress decides to do away with the inheritance tax. It seems dumb for any old anybody to fork over $800 million in taxes that might be going away, let alone the purported financial genius/fiscal shrewdy who heads up the Department of Commerce.

Despite the seeming stupidity of Ross taking this moment to play Big Daddy Bigbucks, nevertheless, he persisted in pushing back on Forbes.

So began the mystery of Wilbur Ross' missing $2 billion. And after one month of digging, Forbes is confident it has found the answer: That money never existed. It seems clear that Ross lied to us, the latest in an apparent sequence of fibs, exaggerations, omissions, fabrications and whoppers that have been going on with Forbes since 2004. In addition to just padding his ego, Ross' machinations helped bolster his standing in a way that translated into business opportunities. And based on our interviews with ten former employees at Ross' private equity firm, WL Ross & Co., who all confirmed parts of the same story line, his penchant for misleading extended to colleagues and investors, resulting in millions of dollars in fines, tens of millions refunded to backers and numerous lawsuits. Additionally, according to six U.S. senators, Ross failed to initially mention 19 suits in response to a questionnaire during his confirmation process.

Wilbur, Wilbur, Wilbur. Tsk, tsk, tsk.

And this from a graduate of my friend Sean’s alma mater, Xavier High School in Manhattan, a Jesuit high school heretofore best known for having the late Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia among its illustrious alumni ranks.

Not, apparently, a surprise to those who knew him best:

"Wilbur doesn't have an issue with bending the truth," says David Wax, who worked alongside Ross for 25 years and served as the No. 3 person in his firm. Another former colleague, who requested anonymity, was less circumspect: "He's lied to a lot of people."

It may be his that his undisclosed dealings with Putin cronies is what topples him from his post at Commerce, but the fall from the grace of a slot on the Forbes 400 list may prove the greater embarrassment. In addition to being an ego blow, there may be the matter of his third wife, who apparently set her cap for Ross because she wanted to be married to someone on the Forbes 400. (Ha, I say, ha ha.) Wouldn’t you like to be in on that pillow talk?

Meanwhile:

The Department of Commerce issued a statement saying the $2 billion gift never happened. "Contrary to the report in Forbes, there was no major asset transfer to a trust in the period between the election and Secretary Ross's confirmation."

All well and good but, as Forbes pointed out, they didn’t pull that “$2 billion gift” canard out of thin air. They heard it directly from Ross himself.

I sometimes debate with myself over just how bad schadenfreude is for the soul. But it sure is fun. And it would be even shadenfreud-ier if, come next year, another certain New York someone – his financials now fully disclosed – were also to fall, ignominiously, off the Forbes list.

Come on down!

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Privatized prisons? Bring on the public policy debatae!

I always have to laugh whenever someone touts how much better it would be if the private sector ran everything. Services would be cheaper (to the providers running them to provide, of course, not to the consumers who consume them or the taxpayers who pay for them), operate more efficiently (just look at the bang-up job Keolis does with the Boston metro train system), and altogether offer an undeniable, every day proof statement underscoring the private sector’s superiority to the public sector. (A corollary to this, of course, is that we should have businessmen hold high public office. Ahem.)

Maybe I’m just jaded because so much of my private sector career was spent in companies where the products and services always cost more than those of those offered by the competition, where we were not particularly efficient, and as for effective... Let’s just say most of the places I worked are no longer standing.

Ah, but you might well be thinking, these companies were drummed out of existence – as they should have been – by the ruthless efficiencies of The Market. And that is absolutely true.

But we were never providing necessary citizen services. And when it comes to necessary citizen services, there are plenty of then that should be run by the government, not by profiteers.

The most notable example of this is the prison system, which is increasingly owned and operated by private companies.

Their incentive is, of course, to increase the demand for prisons. Which means increasing the supply of prisoners. So it’s in their interest to collude with the prison guard unions, anti-immigrant groups, and communities where there’s no other viable employment opportunities, to promote “law and order”, three strikes you’re in for good, kick the brown folks out, and schemes to throw people in jail for a $50 unpaid traffic fine that over the course of time manages to balloon into 30 days or $3K.

Not to mention that, in keeping costs down, they feed prisoners even worse swill than they used to get, and have fewer opportunities for anything that might keep them out of trouble in the stir or prepare them for life outside of the stir.

Anyway, the last thing I read about private prisons was a story on a class action suit behalf of ICE detainees – 60,000 of them – who were held in Geo Group, Inc. facilities where they were allegedly forced to chose one of two options: work for free or get thrown into solitary confinement. The plaintiffs claim that Geo was violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Their lawsuit argues that Geo violated the law’s prohibition on using threats to obtain labor.

“It would be forced labor for someone to say, ‘We’ll arrest you for not working for me,’ ” says David Seligman, who represents the plaintiffs. “It’s similarly forced labor to say, ‘We’re going to remove you from all contact with other people.’ ” The lawsuit also argues that Geo, through an optional work program that pays $1 a day, violated common law against “unjust enrichment,” since extensive use of low-paid detainee labor has saved the company money; it employs only one janitor in Aurora who isn’t in custody, the plaintiffs say. (Source: Bloomberg)

Geo is, of course, pushing back, maintaining that this is “really a public-policy dispute.”

And, yep, there’s some truth to that assertion.

They also claim that, if the suit goes in the plaintiffs’ favor, they’re ability to operate viable and profitably will be jeopardized.

And, yep, there may be some truth to that one, too. To which I say too bad.

I’m a big believer that those in prison should have the opportunity to work, to build their skills, and make a little money. And that money doesn’t have to be what they’d make on the outside. But their pay shouldn’t be anything that approaches zero or looks in any way, shape, or form like slave wages. And they sure shouldn’t be forced into an either-or decision between being a slave or being held in solitary confinement.

Privatized prisons?

Whether the plaintiffs win their case or not, I say bring on the public policy debate!