Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Fitbit to be tied

My sister Trish gave me a Fitbit for my birthday. That was nearly two months ago, and, on Saturday, I finally got around to setting it up.

But by the time I got around to setting it up, it was nearly 6 p.m. And dark. And cold. So I was pretty much going to put it away and worry about stepping out on Sunday. Yet there it sat, gracing my wrist, staring at me, daring me to get up and take a few more steps than the three-step venture to the bathroom.

I did “need” a new set of guest towels, as I realized a few weeks back when I pulled out some towels that were nearly 35 years old. Nothing wrong with that, mind you. Still…

Anyway, with a destination in mind, I set out to see if I could get my 10,000 steps in.

First a note on the 10,000 steps. Forget what you hear about 10,000 steps being the default. I’m here to tell you that if you’re of a certain age, the recommend that you start out with a more meager quotient o 8,000. Not me! I’m not pussy-footing around here! I upped for the full “normal person” 10,000.

By the time I was out the front door, the first little light of mine was shining. (When all 5 light up, you’ve reached your goal.) Since I’d only taken a couple of dozen steps at that point, I figured that first light must be the trophy for showing up. When I got to Mass Ave – which I knew was a bit over a mile – I was up to 2 lights. That, I felt, I’d earned. I thought that I’d hit 3 about the same time that I hit the store, but no dice. Still languishing on 2 lights.

At Bed Bath & Beyond, I did my towel shopping and picked up a few more items because, let’s face it, it’s virtually impossible to escape from BB&B without picking up a few more items.

Although I like to walk, I will acknowledge that pre-Fitbit me might have taken the T home – what with the heavy, awkward bag and all. And the T stop is just outside the BB&B door. No more than 40-50 steps, I’ll estimate.

But I was damned if I was going to settle for the lousy 3 lights I might have achieved if I’d taken the T and walked home from the Arlington T stop.

So I continued on home, shank’s mare. To make things more interesting, I usually walk out on the residential streets, but, if it’s night, I walk down Newbury or Boylston, which are busy: shops, bars, and restaurants. But it’s one thing to walk Newbury or Boylston - on a going-out night, when the sidewalks are thronged with people doing stuff together with other people -  with both arms swinging. Why, I could be on my way to meet friends. Or on my way to meet that special someone who, alas (or not) does not (yet) exist. But someone with a beret pulled down over her ears, shod with sneakers (however bright and funky those hot pink laces and soles look against the dark blue vamp), and carrying a large bag from BB&B that, from the shape of it, can only be holding towels, is clearly announcing to the world: old lady on some weird mission from God to head out on a Saturday night to buy towels. Little would the world know that I was actually on a mission from Fitbit to get those 10,000 steps in.

So, once I got passed the glare and hubbub of Kenmore Square, where I wasn’t even tempted to get on the T, I kept to the unpeopled residential Comm Ave. It could have been 2 a.m. for all the people I passed. And, as I become increasingly more Fitbitter, it may well be 2 a.m. when I find myself out and about trying to fit my steps in.

On my walk back, it didn’t take me long to start griping to myself (internally – I’m not yet an old lady walking-mutterer) about how I should be earning more steps, given that I was now carrying a heavy and awkward bag. In truth, the bag was not all that heavy. I weighed it when I got home: 7lbs. and change. But it was awkward, and, halfway home, when I checked the Fitbit – I was now up to 4 glowing lights – my back was starting to ache.

As I dragged the last few blocks home, I was talking myself (again: interior monologue) into dumping the bag full of towels, and heading back out to Whole Food for a dozen eggs, dried pineapple, and – perhaps – some Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia Fro-Yo. Then, just as I’d dropped the towel bag on the foyer floor, the Fitbit started to vibrate.

Congratulations! I’d hit my goal of 10,000 steps.

Now 10,000 steps is supposed to roughly translate into 5 miles. But in my case, I would have been kidding myself if I accepted that figure. The walk from my house to Bed Bath & Beyond and back is a little over 4 miles. To get my 5 miles in, I would have had to go to Whole – a half-mile walk or so each way.

But I decided to content myself with having reached the magic 10,000 step number.

I can see where this can get to be addictive. I’m already worried about how I’m going to hit my goal on a crappy weather day…

Monday, January 30, 2017

For this Ponzi scheme, it was all about the Hamiltons

Perhaps because I haven never been caught up in one, I always sort of enjoy reading about Ponzi schemes. (Extra points, I suspect, because the eponymous ur Ponzi scheme was launched in Boston.)

The latest Ponzi to get its name in lights – where no self-protecting Ponzi wants to find itself; schemers really don’t want attention, sunlight being the best disinfectant and all that – is one that revolves around buying and reselling tickets to hard-to-get-tickets-for events. Like Hamilton.

The Feds have charged Joseph Meli and Matthew Harriton with conning dozens of investors out of $81 million, of which $51 million went to keep the scheme afloat (and, of course, to make themselves rich. After all, why bother to run a Ponzi scheme if you don’t at least have a reasonable chance of making yourself Madoff-rich.)

The men allegedly promised investors in writing that they would receive their principal back, plus a 10 percent annualized return, within less than a year. Investors also were promised 50 percent of any leftover profits from the ticket resales. (Source: Boston Globe)

Wouldn’t we all like a 10% annualized return on our investments? Plus “50 percent of any leftover profits.” Whatever that means. Seriously, what might “leftover profits” be from a Ponzi scheme in which the principals are fleecing the investors?

One of the tricks for their trade was telling at least one investor that they:

…had an agreement with the producer of Hamilton to purchase 35,000 tickets, and that the investor’s money would be used to pay part of the cost of obtaining the tickets, the SEC alleged.

Surprisingly, there was no such agreement. Nor was there any agreement to get Adele concert tickets, which was where another investor thought their money was going.

Hello? It’s me????

Tickets are on my mind lately, especially given that Saturday was Red Sox single-game-ticket-palooza. And I had to get my games in. Fortunately, even though the Sox weren’t half-bad last year, it wasn’t all that hard to pick up a few games – including a pair for my favorite game of the year: Patriots Day, when the Sox start play at 11:05 a.m., and where the Marathon runners stream nearby. Sure, it’s a PITA to get to Fenway and back, given the kabillion runners and spectators, but it’s such the supremely echt Boston day…

So I’m good for the season.

I’ve also gotten tickets for a couple of upcoming Irish music shows, but these weren’t so wildly popular that there’ll be secondary markets. Seriously, what will demand be to see young Emmet Cahill, a sweet-voiced young Irish tenor, who’s performing at the Irish Cultural Center in Worcester? While Irish Cultural Center sounds high-falutin enough, I believe it’s just a function room off of an Irish pubby restaurant, in a fairly dreary and rundown part of Worcester – hard to imagine there is such a thing, eh? – just opposition St. John’s, the original R.C. church in the Heart of the Commonwealth.

And then there were tickets for the second round of the Mary Black farewell tour, during which she’ll appear in Beverly, Massachusetts. I am a Mary Black fan from way-back, have seen her in concert a couple of times, and listen to her CDs (I’m old school; not vinyl old school, but old school enough) regularly. But I doubt that tickets to her July concert will get bid up to Adele prices.

Not that I don’t occasionally get tickets for a Really Big Show.

Last year, my extravaganzas were Bruce at the Boston Garden, and one of Big Papi David Ortiz’ last games at Fenway. Both of those, I believe, could have been sold for a profit. And, thus, could conceivably have made there way into the ticket Ponzi scheme, along with Hamilton and Adele.

Anyway, getting back to the Ponzi, as tends to happen in such a scheme, a lot of the money from the second wave investors went to make the original investors happy. As for the “leftover profits”?

Well, Harriton cashed out $1.2 million, and:

Meli and Harriton have spent almost $2 million to buy jewelry, to pay private school and camp tuitions, and to make payments to casinos, according to the complaint.

Well, while jewelry can vary, of course, from bibelots from Claire’s to Melania Trump for QVC to the real deal from Harry Winston. But private school and camp tuitions don’t come cheap. And, of course, anyone who’s willing to gamble their reputation and freedom by setting up a Ponzi scheme is going to want to lay out the Hamiltons, or, more likely, the Benjamins, at the casinos.

What’s wrong with the a-holes who set up Ponzi schemes? If I got the right person on LinkedIn, one of these guys has an MBA from Duke. Shouldn’t he be able to make an honest buck?

As for those who get sucked in…In truth, a guaranteed 10% return is good, it’s not as insane as the usual “double or nothing” Ponzi scheme promise. So the folks who got chumped weren’t crazy greedy. Still, the125 investors poured in $81M, of about $65K each – probably because of the allure of a marquee name like Hamilton – were willing to get involved in ticket scalping. And that’s never a sure winner.

Me, I’ll settle for the safer bet that I’m going to enjoy Mary Black.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Hell, no! We won’t be disrupted!

Admittedly, I’m off my pace, which is 1-2 books per week, but I have always been and always will be a reader. Of late, I’m spending more time reading news (WaPo, NYT), and less time curled up with a good book. Still, I’m doing some reading, and can enthusiastically recommend The House By The Lake (Thomas Harding), which takes you through the history of 20th century Germany through the “biography” of a house by a Berlin lake. Lenore Myka is a friend, but even if she weren’t, her King of the Gypsies, a short story collection, is fabulous. I’m just getting into T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts, and I think I’m going to like it just fine. And while I have put it aside – present times are too harrowing to read something harrowing – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is brilliant. My bedroom is stocked with books. Next up, Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

One of my biggest fears in life is not having a book to read.

Which is why I have somewhat gotten into Kindle, which is fabulous for travel,. Being able to download books anytime, anywhere means you’ll never have to be pounding the pavement in a “foreign” city looking for a bookstore that carries books in English.

But at the end of the day, I’m still a physical book person in a way that I am no longer a physical newspaper reader.

I like my books tangible. I like using bookmarks. I like nodding off for a nap with a book in my hand. I like book covers. I like books. Book books.

And, apparently, so do other readers, as I learned the other day from reading (online) “Books Stubbornly Refused to Be Disrupted, and It Worked” an article by Leonid Bershidsky that appeared on Bloomberg.

If the media industry needed proof that it moved too quickly to devalue its print products on the way to chasing digital audiences, the book industry has been making a convincing case in the last few years.

The rise of print book sales and decline in ebooks in 2015 was no accident. Last year, the trend continued, and self-publishing in electronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in previous years. In 2016, the unit sales of printed books in the U.S. increased by 3.3 percent. That's not unusual, except this year, the publishing industry didn't produce any runaway bestsellers like 2015's "The Girl on the Train" by Erin Cressida Wilson, and only a handful of books, mostly from previous years, sold more than 1 million copies. (Source: Bloomberg)

We read so much these days about industry disruption. Industry disruptors. Industry disruptees. (And, baby, you do not want to be a disruptee. Buggy whips, anyone?)

I’m so happy to see that ebooking hasn’t managed to disrupt the print book industry that I don’t even mind that a good part of what’s keeping the print book industry going is nonfiction. Okay, I will never make the claim that most fiction out there is any good. I’m picky. And snobby. A lot of fiction readers just plain aren’t. (Harlequin Romance? Fifty Shades of Grey?) But most nonfiction isn’t a high caliber read like The House by the Lake or Grunts. It’s self-help books. It’s celeb insta-bios. It’s trash. And I may be wrong but I think there’s more bad nonfiction than there is bad fiction. (Please note: I’m not claiming an alternative fact here, and I’m not about sticking with a belief when that belief is contrary to all the evidence. My position is based purely on bookstore browsing over the years and gut feel.  In any case, if there’s more bad nonfiction, it may just be because proportionately, there’s more nonfiction in general. And, thus, in absolute terms, there will be a tendency to more bad nonfiction. Are you following this? I’m not sure I am…Bottom line: thank you, nonfiction for saving the book publishing industry from becoming a disruptee.)

If traditional book publishers accepted that the digital revolution meant a total overhaul of their business -- the way the music and media industries have largely done -- they would be locked in the same race to the bottom that those two industries have faced. The ease of digital self-publishing and readers' sense that digital books should be cheaper than paper ones have resulted in growing unit sales but falling revenues -- much like the audiences of major news media have snowballed since the turn of the century without a concurrent growth in revenue. On the digital side of book publishing, this "death spiral" is not only evident in the U.S. but also in more traditional markets, such as Germany.

According to some 2016 Pew Research cited in the article, in the US, 65% of the population had read a paper book in the prior year. Only 28% had read an ebook.

This may be mostly economics at play. You don’t need any special equipment to read a paper book. You need a device of some sort to read an ebook.

Still, I find it encouraging that people are reading book books.

Reading a paper book -- or listening to vinyl records, whose remarkable comeback continued last year -- is a statement, a human being's answer to being increasingly surrounded, and now even threatened, by machines.

It looks like many of us have an inner Luddite that needs to come up for air every once in a while. I may not have known it all along, but I sure did hope for it!

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mary Richards, working girl. Make that working woman.

In the TV world of my youth, women were boring, pearl-wearing, shirt-waisted moms (June Cleaver, Margaret Anderson, Donna Stone).The only non-stodgy, pearl-and-shirtwaist mom was Laura Petrie. Unlike June, Margaret, and Donna, Laura Petrie wore capri pants, boat necked jerseys, and Capezios. And, even if she lived in a suburb, it was a named suburb (New Rochelle) outside a named city (New York). Plus she lived in a cool, mid-century modern house. Laura Petrie was played by Mary Tyler Moore, who died yesterday.

The above list was the “normal” wife/moms on TV. None of them worked.

If you weren’t a boring, non-working wife, you were a ditzy wife (Lucy Ricardo, Joan on I Married Joan). Ditzy wives only worked at occasional odd-ball jobs. (Lucy in the bakery, Lucy in the chocolate factory.)

Then there were the ditzy daughters (My Little Margie).

There were a few TV women with jobs: Our Miss Brooks was a wise-cracking old-maid school teacher. There was a private secretary named Susie. The ditzy daughter on My Little Margie grew up to be Oh, Susannah, the social director on a crew ship. Her gal pal was an actress with the fabulous name of ZaSu Pitts, who played a manicurist. Or women worked as maids (Beulah). Other than being a maid, a working woman was known as a “career gal”, a somewhat pitying term, as it pretty much meant a woman who had to work because she couldn’t get a man. Being a career girl may have looked fun and glam, but we all knew if was second best, pathetic, sad. 

It really wasn’t until Mary Richards (played by Mary Tyler Moore) moved to Minneapolis to take a job at WJM, the city’s most pathetic TV station, that we had a women on the tube who was pursuing a career that more of less resembled the sorts of careers that women were starting to pursue. Sure, it was in a TV station, but the day-to-day reality was a lot like what the rest of us experienced on the job.

Oh, there had been That Girl in the 1960s. But That Girl  – although played by the whip-smart Marlo Thomas – was a nasally whiner, always bleating to her boyfriend Donald to help get her out of some predicament.. (Oh, Don-ald.) That Girl locks herself out of her apartment: Donald to the rescue. That Girl writes a check she doesn’t have the funds to cover: Donald to the rescue. Mostly, her job was looking cute. (I think her career was model.)

I have no idea if these were real plots, but that’s the sort of stuff I remember. And if it wasn’t Donald to the rescue, it was her father steaming in to NYC from Westchester to bail her out. (Oh, Dad-ee.)

Then there was Mary Richards. Our Mary.

As preposterous as the show was on some levels, Mary actually dealt with the same sorts of on-the-job issues that those of us in the first wave of ‘making it in the men’s world’ went through. She got passed over for promotions. We got passed over for promotions. She got a promotion, but it came without a raise. We got a promotion, but it came without a raise. She asked for a raise, but got turned down, or less than she deserved. We asked for a raise, but got turned down or got less that we deserved. She screwed up on the job. We screwed up on the job. She made hiring mistakes. We made hiring mistakes. (In Mary’s famous first hire, she brought on a female sports announcer who’d had a wonderful audition but, as it turned out, only knew about swimming and diving. And absolutely nothing about the sports that Minnesotans love. Like football and hockey. I could write a book about my hiring mistakes.)

And Mary seldom had a boyfriend, so she didn’t have a Donald to bail her out. Not that she needed a bail out. (And not that she needed a boyfriend.) Mary Richards wasn’t a ditz. Okay, she may have been bit too nicey-nice and sweet, but she was a serious professional woman. And, while she would have liked to have found someone, it didn’t dominate her life. She didn’t sit around lamenting her single state, or act is if she were less of a woman because she was single. She got on with her career. She got on with her life.

Work was where Mary did a lot her living. She loved her job, and hung out and made life friends with her colleagues. She made other friends, too, and liked to sit around her cool apartment with her funny, zaftig, altogether sexier friend Rhoda, shooting the breeze – mostly about Rhoda’s love life and career challenges. (Rhoda was a window dresser.)

I was still in college when the Mary Tyler Moore show first started, and my career didn’t begin in earnest until the late seventies, by which time the show was in re-runs. But it was one of the few shows on TV that I looked forward to watching and completely enjoyed. And it was one of the few shows that had anything to do with the lives of anyone I knew.

MTM - m

One of the decorator elements of Mary’s cool apartment was a big gold letter M that she hung on her wall. When I got my first solo apartment in Boston, my mother found one in a craft shop and painted it gold. For years, it hung on my wall, or was propped on a book case. At some point, it fell and split in two. I glued it together, but eventually tossed it out.

So long, Mary. Thanks for representin’. As it turned out, most of us did make it after all.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Oh, oh, the Wells Fargo scandals keep a-comin’

If you thought that last fall’s revelation on their abysmal fake account practices  - a topic Pink Slip very much enjoyed - was all that Wells Fargo had in store for us, scandal-wise, in the trunks of their stagecoaches, you’d be mistaken. Apparently, they’ve got three other something specials out there for us to enjoy.

They’ve been going after whistleblowers: You know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together, and blow. Well, at Wells Fargo some of the folks who channeled their inner Lauren Bacall and reported bad behavior on the company ethics hotline have been fired. We know this because the new CEO, Tim Sloan, revealed last week that there’s been some retaliation. He admitted that:

The bank had hired a third party to investigate instances over the last five years where an employee was fired within 12 months of calling the hotline. Often, lateness or some other trivial reason would be concocted to justify terminating a worker, according to a report in CNNMoney. The bank is now expanding the investigation, looking at the penalties some employees faced for whistleblowing that fell short of termination. (Source: Fortune)

This sort of retaliation is illegal. At least up to know. It may become mandatory in the brave new world. Keep in mind that the statement “off with their whistle-blowing lips” contains fewer than 140 characters.

They were warning branches when watchdogs were due in: Looks like the phony account scandal was able – make that enabled – to last as long as it did because:

…management and employees at the bank’s branches across the country had at least 24 hours warning about when internal watchdogs were scheduled to come and perform inspections checking the validity and integrity of account handling, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This head’s upping meant that employees had time to get rid of evidence of wrongdoing and make sure that their forged signatures were in order. That sure took some of the bark over the old watchdogs. Almost as good as tossing them a poisoned bone.

They screwed with customers so they could charge them bogus late fees: Some employees have claimed that the bank used stalling tactics on customers who were trying to extend their promised interest rates. By requiring customers to fill in nonsense paperwork and provide the bank with nonsense documents, the bank was able to make sure that they didn’t meet their deadlines. Penalty time!

The scam typically cost customers $1,000 to $1,500, depending on how big the loan was.

A grand there, a grand there, and pretty soon it all adds up. This particular scam seems to have been limited to the LA region. Still, the whistleblower who blew the whistle on it believes that this may have turned into millions of dollars that customers were screwed out of.

Just in case you believe there’s no justice in the world, the world is punishing Wells Fargo, big time:

The number of new checking accounts opened at the bank dropped  40% from a year earlier, with applications for credit cards falling 43%, leading to a 14% drop in profits.

Unfortunately, we know that this will trickle down to the little guys, including the employees of the 400 branches that will be closing across the country.

Meanwhile, the Bank has “formed a new ethics office.”

Sounds like they could use one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Yet another industry trying to keep the lid on production costs

Perhaps intuiting that things, election-wise, were going to pot, and that we might need a spliff or two on hand to get us through the next four years, Massachusetts voters decided to legalize marijuana, as did voters in California, Nevada, and Maine.

In truth, I haven’t been following the story all that closely. (I don’t even remember how I voted on that referendum. I think ‘yes’, but I’m not 100% certain.) I don’t know what the status of the law’s implementation is, what the rules are, or when there’ll be a head shop on every corner, a la Dunkin’ Donuts. I don’t imagine I’ll ever be adding a dime bag to my shopping list. (Paper towels, cherry tomatoes, pistachios, half dozen of whatever the marijuana equivalent of a loosie is…)

But apparently one of the outcomes of the declining fear of reefer madness is yet another demonstration of how the old laws of supply and demand work:

The increasing supply of legal marijuana is turning into a major buzz kill for growers as prices plunge -- and an opportunity for companies that can help cut production costs.

Prices are tumbling as formerly illicit cultivators emerge from the shadows to invest millions of dollars in massive pot factories. In Colorado, the average price sought by wholesalers has fallen 48 percent to about $1,300 a pound since legal sales to all adults started in January 2014, according to Cannabase, operator of the state’s largest market. Supply is surging as growers expand and install the latest agricultural technology.

“Anybody that is investing in this sector or starting a business in this sector needs to be doing so with the understanding that the price of cannabis is going to drop precipitously,” said Troy Dayton, chief executive officer of Oakland, California-based Arcview Group, a marijuana investor consortium. “The agricultural technology space is already booming, and now they get to lay their hands on the cannabis industry.” (Source: Bloomberg)

The wholesale price of a pound has fallen 48% to $1,300. An ounce of something good in Colorado goes for $200. Didn’t a dime bag of weed, like, man, used to cost, like, $10?  Or something. Oh, wow. Maybe back in the day that dime bag was a baggie full of seeds and twigs. Maybe sensimilla cost more. But the times sure have changed over the decades. (Of course, when I was a girl, a Hershey Bar cost a nickel. And a phone call cost a dime.) However high those prices seem to me, as tends to happen when there’s more supply than demand, and prices drop, the focus will be on cost cutting.

Pot growing can’t be that big biz that the suits can just sit there and decide to cut heads. Across the boards cuts – 10% of marketing gone. 10% of finance. 10% of HR. But they can become more efficient by using technology from outfits like Urban-Gro, which:

…sells machinery originally developed for tomato greenhouses, such as automated feeding and watering systems from Israel’s Netafim Ltd. and France’s Dosatron International.

And if you thought Miracle-Gro was just for little old ladies planting petunias and peonies, think again. Scotts, which owns Miracle-Gro:

…has been on a buying frenzy over the past two years, gobbling up leading companies that provide specialty fertilizers, lighting and other supplies for hydroponics, the indoor method of growing crops favored by U.S. cannabis cultivators.

Price pressures and all, the market for regulated pot is forecast to grow to grow to more than $20B over the next 5 years, up from a bit under $7B last year. That is, unless, new AG Jeff Sessions decides that he doesn’t want to focus exclusively on supporting state voter-suppression initiatives and promoting open carry laws (that’s open gun carry, partner, not open carry of a can of Bud Light), and decides to take on the states (all blue, I do believe – payback can be such a bee-yotch) where marijuana is legal.

One of the areas where efficiencies will be gained is in moving grass growing from basements hung with grow-lights to greenhouse production, which is a lot cheaper. (You don’t need grow-lights like you do in a dank dark basement…)

And, of course, automation will be coming into play as well. One grower is expanding operations without proportionately expanding headcount.

A machine mixes soil ingredients, pours the dirt into containers and then digs holes for young plants. A conveyor belt carries the container to an employee who does the delicate job of planting. Rather than relying on people to trim away leaves and stems from harvested pot, he’s trying out machines that automate the job.

Automation. Technology. Efficiencies. It’s all kind of business 101, isn’t it? No more knowing the guy who knows the guy who knows the guy from Mexico. No more a couple of plants interspersed with the tomatoes in the backyard garden. No more pot in a pot on the windowsill.

Nah. It’s just another big business, trying to keep the lid on production costs.

Monday, January 23, 2017

What’s in store for us oldsters? Looks like robots. (Or, exactly what are people going to do for work?)

Later this week, I’m having lunch with an older friend – older enough of a friend to be my mother.  N is in her late eighties, and has slowed down quite a bit in the last couple of years. That would not be so surprising – people do tend to slow down in their late eighties - if her parents, who both lived well into their nineties, had ever slowed down. But, until the very final stages of life neither did. N’s father worked as an engineer into his nineties, and her mother worked as a noodge well into hers. But N’s husband (who was working as a computer scientist up until his last days on earth) died a few years back, and, since then, N has perceptibly and measurably slowed down. She’s no longer all that steady on her feet. She’s frail. And she now has a caregiver pretty much full time. (N’s children are attentive and supportive, but they don’t live nearby, and N has chosen to stay in the home where she’s been for nearly 60 ears.)

By the time I need a home aide, my companion may well be a robot.  OhmniLabs is at the forefront of what’s next.

This year, OhmniLabs robots will be offered by a consumer health firm, Home Care Assistance, to retirement communities and people aging in place. The yearly cost is about 20 percent of the cost, on average, of hiring full­time caregivers, according to Lily Sarafan, chief executive of Home Care Assistance. “In five to seven years, caregiving will shift,” Ms. Sarafan said. “And a lot of home automation will become more mainstream.” (Source: NY Times)

Hey, a lot of this is pretty exciting. Assistive devices are going to help people, like my friend N and the future me, stay in our homes longer than we might otherwise be able. Hell, I wouldn’t mind having a robot to put up my Christmas tree – and put away my Christmas decorations, which requires my crawling into a narrow dark crawl space, getting dusty, and clonking myself on the head at least twice. And a light bulb-changing robot for the lights I have to get up on a ladder to reach – the ones you need to go hands on with, not the ones you can use the pole with the “fingers” to get at. Bring it on!

But whether robots will be a boon or a curse, let us face it: anything that will run at 20 percent of the cost of a human will replace the human every time.

Just two little problems.

One, the problem of what people are going to do in the brave new world. This is finally starting to creep in to the national conversation, but mostly at the hair-pulling-out level. Of course, we should have been having this conversation when manufacturing jobs started exiting for places where workers (including small children) were “happy” to make three cents and hour, and where there were no health, safety, or environmental regulations to worry about. But, of course, some of the places that lost those manufacturing jobs ended up with higher-paid and safer jobs for a lot of people. And for the others, oh, well, there was always the fallback of jobs like Walmart greeter and caregiver.

Well, not if an electronic replacement will cost 20% of what a human would.

So what exactly ARE people going to do if even the cruddy, low-wage, backbreaking jobs go away? Maybe we’ll have that UBI – universal basic income – and everyone will spend their leisure time in interesting, meaningful, and creative ways. Or maybe they’ll sit around using drugs and drinking and getting into shoot-‘em-up trouble. Or maybe they’ll just stare out the window, being depressed. Or maybe we won’t have UBI. Given that we’re now veering towards dismantling Social Security and Medicare, what makes us believe that we’ll want to support young, able-bodied folks when we’re not even willing to take care of the old geezers.

The thing is, people really do have to do something with their lives.

From a terrifically privileged position, it’s something I’m grappling with now. I’m by no means rich, but I could retire from my part-time freelance work tomorrow. And I’m working my way into retirement by revving up the volunteering and joining a couple of writing workshops. People have to do something with their time. What’s that something going to be when there are so few jobs for humans? Are we going to reopen the coal mines and let the grandsons of miners grab a pick-axe and start swinging, just for the hell of it.

And it’s not just the low-end, low-skill jobs that will be done away with. If a task can be automated, it will be. Legal discovery, once the province of recent law school grads, is largely automated. And my sister Kath’s recent surgery was done robotically. Sure, there was a surgeon at the other end of the robot, pulling its strings, but it’s just a matter of time when we’ll need fewer surgeons, OR nurses, ICU nurses, etc.

So, exactly what folks are going to do for work is one problem. There can be only so many inventors, “disrupters”, and robot-repairers. Especially when the robots become self-healing. (Robot, heal thyself.)

But back to caregivers working with seniors being replaced by Roombas.

Thuc Vu, who is the cofounder of Ohmni Labs, notes that:

There’s a huge senior population, but isolation and loneliness is still common,” he said. “And we’re also running out of caregivers, since most of them are getting older.”

I’m going to mostly ignore that latter point there. Seriously, are we really “running out of caregivers”? Maybe caregivers willing to work for $7.50 an hour, but “running out of caregivers”? Isn’t that we’re all the people being displaced have been going? The folks who used to be toll-takers, who worked in parking garages, clerked in stores, served fast food. Aren’t they available and able (if not willing) to work as caregivers?

But I’ll take on the former point: the problem of isolation and loneliness.

Yes, technology can certainly help with those issues.

People can Facetime with distant friends and relations. They can take courses online. They can take care of a doctor’s visit. And even do a bit of armchair traveling via virtual reality:

Virtual reality rejuvenated life for Abdus Shakur, 67, who lives in a Brookdale residence in Quincy, Mass. A classically trained chef, Mr. Shakur opted to take a virtual trip to a Creole restaurant in Berlin, where he once worked.

By wearing the V.R. headset, he could check out the current menu and look at the restaurant’s colorful redesign. Mr. Shakur also took virtual trips to beaches in the Caribbean, where he felt the sand under his feet and saw schools of fish under water. “I felt like I was right there,” said Mr. Shakur, who has a bad heart and doesn’t travel as much as he used to. “It gives you so much hope. I can sit in my living room and go all over the world.”

Maybe I’d feel different about this if my only option was sitting in my living room, if I was no longer physically able to travel. But I’m not all that enthusiastic about and eager to see actual interactions with actual human beings replaced by the virtual and the robotic.

Is it just me? I think I’ll always want to have a conversation with someone sentient, who’s lived, who has memories and experiences to draw on. Or, geez, at least be able to have a conversation with a dog. I’m really not looking forward to having most of my social life happen virtually, and most of my encounters occurring with robots.

If I can’t get out, I’m sure I’ll be thrilled to be able to Facetime with friends and family I can’t see up close and personal.

But if I can no longer get to a Red Sox game, I want to at least be able to share my memories with someone who has been to one. If I’m no longer able to get out and meet new people, I’d a least like to be able to learn about what’s going on in my caregiver’s life. Something beyond, “I was born in a factory in 2024, coming off the automated production line (or out of the 3D printer) on May 1st, and was customized by my parent, a coding robot, to interact with Baby Boomer women from Worcester, Massachusetts.”

Sure, my friend N would be happier if her husband was still around, if her kids and grandkids were closer, if her best friend hadn’t died the same year her husband did. But she’s sure happier with a human caregiver than she would be with a robot.

Hope there are still a few humans left to take care of us creaky elders when my turn comes. But if the robots are going to replace humans across the boards, there better be a lot of them. If there are no jobs anymore, the isolation and loneliness problems are going to get a whole lot worse.

Friday, January 20, 2017

A Fish Story

When I was growing up, Friday was fish day: pan fried haddock, creamed tuna, fish sticks, swordfish, halibut, corned chowder. (What I wouldn’t do for some of that corned chowder or creamed tuna just about now…)

Anyway, because Friday’s a fish day, I thought a fish story would be a good one for Pink Slip to tell.

So here goes.

Yesterday, Bloomberg featured an article that focused on Ross Baird, a Sand Hill Road VC who doesn’t follow the VC herd by investing in the tech and bio-tech centers of California, Massachusetts, and New York. He’s not looking what’s called the “ten-baggers” that earn a return of 10x, let alone for the unicorns that get valued at $1B, often on (hot) air alone.

No, Baird, looks for three-baggers. And he’s looking for them in fly-over states.

“If Donald Trump wants to deliver on his promise to create rural jobs, he doesn’t need to create anything out of thin air,” he says. The talent is there, but the capital isn’t. It occurred to him that the problem was similar to one he encountered in India, where he studied microfinance for his master’s degree from Oxford. Grameen Bank and others demonstrated how small loans to poor entrepreneurs could jump-start poverty-stricken places. Baird, an Atlanta native, came home convinced the approach would work in parts of the U.S. that were starting to resemble a Third World economy because of persistent joblessness, poor health, and shrinking life spans. (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, bravo, Ross Baird. Sounds a lot more promising than wishful thinking nonsense about bringing back coal mining.

One of Baird’s bets is something called Fin Gourmet Foods of Paducah, Kentucky. Fin Gourmet:

…buys invasive Asian carp from local fishermen and turns it into boneless filets for gourmet restaurants and fish paste for Asian supermarkets. Asian carp is best known as the biggest threat to the ecosystem of the Great Lakes; the federal government just earmarked $42 million to combat the species. The youngest fish eat their body weight daily, outcompeting bass for plankton, leaving sport fishermen in fear of economic ruin. Asian carp grow into 70-pounders known to jump as high as 10 feet…And because the fish are full of bones that make them hard to eat without meticulous processing, they fetch a third the wholesale price of catfish.

They’re still pretty tiny. The forecast for this year is $1.5M. But that’s a five-bagger over their 2016 revenues, which were roughly $300K. and you gotta love a company, that hires:

…“people who need second chances from incarceration, drug courts, domestic violence”

And whose “family” runs the gamut from Duck Dynasty lookalikes to the PhD founders (Lua Luu, a nutritionist- and refugee from Vietnam, and John Crilly, a “former psychiatry professor at Tulane in New Orleans, [who] has researched mental health and suicide in rural populations.” Take a look. That’s some mighty find workplace diversity.

Baird discovered Fin in 2014 when Village Capital (as in “takes a village?) “organized a three-month training program for agriculture startups in Louisville.” Fin Gourmet participated and made their pitch. Baird put in $50K. Very Grameen Bank, that’s for sure. Very non-unicorn…(But to put that investment in perspective, Luu and Crilly have sunk $1.5M of their own money in.)

The story is not all hope and joy. There are a few fish-bone-in-the-throat twists and turns. But mostly it’s a good story about do-gooders doing good where it’s most needed.

Here’s hoping that there are more fish stories out there. We sure could use them…

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Moola, moola! Moola, moola!

At some point last week, the college football season ended. At least I think I did. There may be some stray north-south, east-west games to be played. But I’ll stick to my tradition of not watching any college football during the year. Even if you don’t watch, of course, if you follow sports at all – and ESPN is on half the time at the gym – you do know a little about what’s happening. So I know that Alabama battled it out with Clemson. Clemson won. And while it’s not exactly s if I’m a Clemson fan, but, surely, beating Alabama is a good thing.

I actually used to enjoy college football – at least I enjoyed it more than I did pro football, which has always seemed so right-wing-y to me. Not that college football doesn’t share many of the same characteristics: violent, militaristic, way too in love with itself. It’s just that college football has always seemed less so – at least on the margins.

But the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets, what with the way it treats the majority of its athletes. I.e., those who won’t be going on to a brain-bashing career in the NFL. Especially the way that the mega-programs treat their poor and minority athletes. It’s ugly and it’s exploitative. Which is why I more or less gave up on college football, other than to go see non-big-time games every few years. The kind of games where the Crimson plays the Quakers, or the Jumbos play the Ephs. Where the kids playing are more or less normal size, and more or less normal students. Where 90,000 people aren’t going crazy in the stands. And where the fight songs have words like “fiercely” and “boola boola” in them.

Unlike the big time, NFL farm league, black-spoiltation teams, where the war cry is “moola moola.”

And as I saw on Bloomberg earlier this month, it really is true that the more you learn about college football, the worse it gets. Bloomberg’s finding: College Football’s Top Teams Are Built on Crippling Debt. This article was part of a multi-part story on the financials behind major programs. It is, for the most part, a tale of the haves and the have nots, with the major conferences – SEC, Big Ten – mostly doing okay, thanks to TV revenue; and the lesser conferences foundering.

But even being part of one of the “good” conferences doesn’t necessarily make for solvency.

Last year, Cal Berkeley’s athletic department (Cal is part of the Pac-12) ran a deficit of $22M, thanks in part to “the most expensive college football stadium overhaul ever.” (Price tag: nearly half a billion.)  Cal is not alone:

Football critics nationwide often point to multimillion-dollar coaches as emblems of excess. They should be more worried about debt, which costs more and lasts longer. A high-priced coach might earn $4 million to $5 million a year. Meanwhile, according to public records, athletic departments at least 13 schools in the country have long-term debt obligations of more than $150 million as of 2014—money usually borrowed to build ever-nicer facilities for the football team.

Alabama – The Crimson Tide, not to be confused with The Crimson – is among the schools that have rolled up big debt: they owe “$225 million over the next 28 years.” Talk about Roll, Tide. Sure, they’re a powerhouse, but what happens if the rich TV deals that are supporting them disappear over the next 28 years – either because people just plain grow away from football, or the media picture just upends in ways we can’t imagine. How does the debt get financed then?

“Leaders need to be very careful that long-term expenses and commitments cannot, and should not, be balanced on the assumption that these traditional media rights deals will hold up,” said Karen Weaver, a sports-management professor at Drexel University and specialist in college media rights.

Many in college sports are more optimistic. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, for example, has said he expects that his schools will make more money from media as rights get carved up among traditional broadcasters and digital streaming platforms. All of the biggest conferences signed rich, multiyear television contracts recently, and most athletic directors believe the money will continue to flow into the next round of negotiations as well.

We’ll see how all this plays out. No doubt, the big ol’ semi-pro teams/schools will survive all this debt. And maybe the lesser lights will drift down to fielding lesser teams, more along the lines of the Quakers and the Ephs. Or maybe, over time, football – college and pro – just kind of quietly goes the way of boxing. Boxing’s still around, but it’s not quite the same as it was when the Friday Night Fights were broadcast, and most sports fans followed the sport enough to know the difference between Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano. Maybe there’ll come a point where no one knows the difference between Tom Brady and Matt Ryan.

Here’s hoping.

Until that day, I will somewhat hypocritically keep on following the NFL in general and the Patriots in particular. Still, if it all went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t exactly be heartbroken. Baseball, on the other hand…

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Bites the Sawdust

When I was a kid, the Mickey Mouse Club (a daily TV show) had a different theme for each day of the week. There was Anything Can Happen Day. And Talent Rodeo Day. (Giddyap, ponies, here we go…) And Circus Day, which, as I recall, was Thursday. The intro song for Circus Day began, “Here comes the circus, everyone loves the circus. And that includes the Merry Mouseketeers.”

Well, it may have included the Merry Mouseketeers, but it didn’t include anyone that I knew. “Everyone loves the circus” was as phoney-baloney a line as “all the world loves a clown.” As Jackie Gleason used to say, har-har-hardy-har-har.

I hated clowns. And I never went to the circus. No one I knew had ever gone to the circus. If the circus ever came to Worcester, that was news to me. Maybe it came to Boston, but if we were going to trek into Boston, it was to go see that Red Sox play.

Circuses were something you read about in old-timey books. Kids went to the circus in 1890. Or the circus was something that goody-two-shoes kids on TV went to. You know the type. They lived in nice houses, their mothers wore pearls, their fathers never hollered, and their sibs never hit them. Plus their teachers weren’t psychotic. Talk about phoney-baloney. Sure, we all sort of envied them the grandeur, peace, and quiet of their existences. But we also knew that those TV kids, so polite and well mannered, were total weenies. Seriously, was the sneaky, wise-guy Eddie Haskell the worst they had to contend with? Sit-com children of the 1950’s and 1960’s made the kids I grew up with look like the Dead End Kids. The Dead End Kids wouldn’t have been caught dead at the circus, and neither would we.

The only circus we saw was on the lame-o International Showtime, in which Don Ameche would travel to world looking for dancing bears and fire eaters. We recognized that the USSR wasn’t as good as the US of A based solely on our observation that we had Elvis while they had dancing bears. Anyway, we loved watching International Showtime, because my father liked to make fun of it. What was better than sitting around with Dad eating popcorn and laughing at Bulgarian plate-spinners, listening to Dad wonder out loud exactly how someone figured out that their talent was plate spinning?

I did get to the circus once, my senior year in high school. My friend Kathy and I went to NYC during our spring vacation week, and stayed with her “single gal” Aunt Mary who worked for Pan-Am and lived in Long Island City in Queens. Aunt Mary took us to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey at the old Madison Square Garden. All I remember was feeling depressed by the bearded fat lady and the giant, and the major fear factor that occurred when one of the clowns started roaming around the crowd and got really close to where I was sitting.

Fast forward several decades, and did go a couple of times to see the Big Apple Circus – a one-ring circus that didn’t come with a lot of glam and glitz, and treated animals more kindly and gently than mega circuses did. And once I did take my nieces to a three-ring, Ringling Brothers extravaganza. Big mistake. It was way to overwhelming and noisy, both for me and one of my nieces. The only bit we enjoyed was when a clown snuck up on my husband and dusted his bald head with a feather duster. But mostly it was the dreadful combo of completely boring while at the same time way too much.

So, no, I will not miss the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus when they bite the sawdust and take down the big top for the final time this May. The business has fallen on hard times. Revenues too low, costs too high, and today’s jaded, sophisticated kids – with so many slick entertainment alternatives – apparently like the circus even less than us Main South anti-circus kids from back in the day when the entertainment alternatives were black & white TV, playing Clue, and Little Lulu comic books. Plus, once the circus – under intense pressure – gave up having elephants, The Greatest Show on Earth lost much of its allure. (At least to humans. The elephants were probably pretty darned happy.)

While I won’t miss Ringling Bros., I do feel a bit badly. Sure, I’m cool with sending out the clowns. But what’s to become of the tiger trainers, the camel riders, the aerialists, the human cannonball? And what, pray tell, does a ringmaster do for his next gig?

I will note that, before its last show, the circus will be in Worcester.

Too little, too late…

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Just what IS a fake Mermaid tail blanket?

A few weeks ago, a family featured on House Hunters International had decided to relocate from Idaho (or Montana or one of the Dakotas) to New Zealand. I can’t remember what the husband’s job was – something to do with machine repair? – but the wife’s big dream was to work as a professional mermaid.

I wasn’t aware of that job, but apparently it entails putting on a mermaid tail and swimming around in an aquarium, smiling at kids. And I do believe she found her dream job. She’s even got a website to prove it.

Most of us, of course, do not aspire to be professional mermaids. For one thing, professionally speaking, there’s just not that much demand for it. Last time I looked, the New England Aquarium had seals and penguins but, alas, no mermaids. So even if you’re really good at holding your breath, don’t hold your breath for a lot of job openings to appear.

But you can get your mermaid on with a mermaid blanket, thanks to Hattie Paze who:

…built a multimillion-dollar business hawking mermaid blankets. Yes, mermaid blankets. Launched in the fall of 2015, her company—Blankie Tails—sold about 136,000 of them in the run-up to its first Christmas. It was a fairy tail success story. (Source: Bloomberg)

Apparently, I need to get out more. Less watching professional mermaids move to New Zealand, more looking at consumer trends. I missed this one entirely.

Not that I would have Blankie Tailswanted one. It actually seems super uncomfortable to me to hang around in a sack that you can’t kick your feet out of. And no way would have spent that much for a Yankee Swap gift. We have our limits to observe!

But I just plain missed this one.

Although I missed it, Allstar Marketing Group – the outfit behind the Snuggie – recognized a good thing when they saw it, and came out with Snuggie Tails, “the fun blanket that brings imagination to life.” Whatever that means. (Silly me, I thought that imagination brought imagination to life. Where’ve I been all these years?) Snuggie Tails, as befitting the Snuggie brand, is cheesier and cheaper than Blankie Tails.

Anyway, with Snuggie out there, not to mention all those crafty copycats on Etsy, Blankie Tails:

has also been forced to wage intellectual-property battles against larger rivals like Allstar.

Silly me. I thought that intellectual property had something to do with intellectual property. Where’ve I been all these years?

“You can work your butt off and have a great idea,” Peze said, “but I don’t care how hard you work: Life isn’t always fair.”

So true…

And now Peze is having to work her butt off on multiple fronts, going after Allstar, which counterclaims that Snuggie is the operative part of their brand, not Tails. And going after Magic Tails, yet another tail vendor. And going after Amazon and Alibaba, for “products believed to be counterfeit.”

Then, although she estimates that her company was losing about $90K a day during prime wacky gift shopping season, Blankie Tails decided to drop their suit against Allstar. (There was a settlement, but both are still selling tails.)

Perhaps that’s because Peze didn’t come up with the original idea to being with. She saw a handmade one on FB and, when she couldn’t find one to buy, decided to get some made and bring them to market. Or, as it turns out, even if you think you may be losing $90K a day, it still costs a boatload to sue.

Looking to understand its chances of winning a jury trial, in-house lawyers for Blankie Tails sought the advice of intellectual-property law firms, which put its probability of winning outright at less than 40 percent, said a person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to publicly discuss it. Not bad odds, but not great either. Soon after, settlement talks began, the person said.M

Meanwhile, Allstar is going after Amazon for allowing “fake” mermaid tails to be sold online.

What, pray tell, is a fake mermaid tail?

Even if there is one working at an aquarium in New Zealand, aren’t mermaids kinda sorta like unicorns?

Monday, January 16, 2017

MLK Day, yet again

One good thing about having been a blogger for so long – ten years+, now  –  is that I have a vast store of “content” to draw on. And as every good marketer knows, repurposing “content’ is where it’s at.

And so, out of nearly sheer laziness – not to mention pre-inaugural Trump fatigue – I’m repurposing last year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day post, which you can find here.

Not much different from what I would write today, anyway. Mostly about growing up in a lily white world with next to zero interaction with African Americans. And about how racial issues continue to plague our country. Sigh…

Besides being somewhat observed as a no-school, no-mail day, MLK Day is somewhat observed as a national day of service, in which people take on some volunteer task or another. This is in response to Dr. King’s words that “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'“

I don’t know if I necessarily agree with the good doctor here. To me, the most persistent (if not exactly urgent) questions are: What’s the point of all this? Is there anything afterwards? And (increasingly) WTF???

But I guess as a reframing of my first question, “What are you doing for others?” ain’t bad.

In truth, I won’t be doing much of anything for others.

The HVAC folks are coming for the semi-annual checkup. Once they leave, I’ll head out for a physical therapy session for my no-big-deal tendonitis. I have something due to a client. That’s about it.

On Thursday, I am doing some volunteering at St. Francis House, which this year I’ve vowed to get better at. (So far, I’ve put in a couple of shifts in the kitchen; on Thursday, I’m learning the ropes in the clothing room.) But it has nothing to do with MLK Day.

And yet, since something will have to do with MLK Day, I’ll make it this:

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously  - certainly more famously than the “What are you doing for others?”, which I’d never heard until I started googling about volunteering on MLK day - said:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

These words are hopeful, and they’re trenchant. Certainly more trenchant than the words of Theodore Parker, Unitarian abolitionist – words that King so concisely summed up. In a mid-19th century sermon, “Of Justice and The Conscience”, Parker wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right.* I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.**

Well, I can’t calculate the curve, either. But I like the point that “things refused to be mismanaged long.” For those at whose expense they’re being mismanaged, I’m sure it’s plenty long enough. But I like to think that it can’t go on forever. With slavery, Jefferson had plenty to tremble about. And, as Parker predicted, the Civil War was soon going to be making the country tremble big time.

I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at in the here and now, but we’re sure not in a good spot.

So I’m going to hang on to the thought of the arc of justice bending toward justice. And that “things refuse to be mismanaged long.”

Both pithy sayings, by the way. Ones that can easily fit into a 140 character tweet. Would that we had someone in a high place twittering with grace, intellect, heart, decency, and good will.


*No, not that right. Right as in “right thing to do,” not right as in alt right.

**Thanks to the Quote Investigator for this one.

Friday, January 13, 2017

"The high priest of fraud..."

It’s Friday the 13th, and that should be unlucky, no?

But, as it turns out, anyone who’s a fan of old Westerns has a treat in store for them. Not to mention anyone who likes weird little eerie foreshadowings. Not to to mention anyone who likes making fun of a certain president elect. ("What are you selling, mister, snakeoil?")

I don't trust that this embed is going to work, so here's the direct link:


Whether you direct link or cut and paste, this is well worth it. (And Snopes has checked it out and it seems as if it's legit.)

Where's Robert Culp when we need him?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Home away from home office

One of the downsides of working from home is that you’re alone in there: no colleagues to grab lunch with, no buddies to chat with over the water cooler. No water cooler, in fact. But, of course, being alone is also one of the upsides of working from home. And having done it for well over a decade now, I pretty much get the upsides and the downsides.

As a loner you likes to socialize – or is it a social animal who, like Greta Garbo, just vants to be alone – I recognize the necessity of having some social interaction. When my husband was alive, that social interaction was built in. But these days, I have to make sure that I never go more than a day without speaking with someone. For me, the gym takes care of three days, and I’m not exactly a friend- and family-less hermit. I go out a fair amount. And even on no-speak days, I always have plenty of email exchanges (work and social) and texting sprees (social). But no-speak days are, frankly, weird to me, and I mostly make sure I get out to run an errand so that at least I have a hiya-howaya exchange with a clerk.  Or I just pick up the phone and grace a sib, cousin, or friend with the mellifluous sound of my voice. (I refuse – or at least I hope I refuse – to become one of those garrulous old bags that everyone dreads seeing coming. Duck and cover, she’s here!)

Long-winded way – I am admittedly garrulous in writing – of saying that I understand the loneliness of the long distance worker.

Still, I’m not wild about the Hoffice movement, which I read about recently on BBC. (I’ll have to go by the BBC article, as Kaspersky kept blocking the link to the Hoffice site, and I didn’t want to press my luck.) Hoffice:

…invites workers — freelancers, entrepreneurs, or full-time employees who can do their jobs remotely — to work at each other’s homes to boost productivity and tackle social isolation.

Those attending pop-up Hoffice events advertised on Facebook are typically asked to work silently in 45 minute blocks, before being encouraged to take short breaks together to exercise, meditate or simply chat over a coffee.

Maybe this works better in Sweden, where the movement was founded in 2014, but I can’t exactly see welcoming a stranger into my home, unvetted. One thing to get in a strange car with an Uber driver. Quite another to show that fellow home worker the bathroom and kitchen, only to find out he’s Ted Bundy or someone who’s got her eyes on your salt-and-pepper shaker collection.

Hoffice is free, but in some other countries, services similar to Airbnb are popping up. In London, it’s Spacehop; in France, it’s OfficeRiders.

Both companies give homeowners an insurance policy that covers theft and damage and gives users the chance to rate their temporary workspaces.

Well, that takes care of the salt-and-pepper shaker problem, but doesn’t do much for the Ted Bundys of the world. And one of them just has to show up with his laptop once to make this a bad idea.

Of course, while I’ve done the vacation-rental-by-owner thing many times, I’ve yet to use Airbnb. I’ve rented through services that more or less vet the apartments, and for the most part it’s worked out. In the early days, my husband and I rented a dud or two – nothing unsafe, just lacking - but that was pre- the take off of social media, and the places we rented in NYC, Paris, and Galway have been great. In May, I’m going back to the same place in Galway for the third time, in fact.

But I would absolutely NOT rent space in a place where I’d be sharing occupancy with some stranger. Nor would I rent my own home out like that. Yuck, yuck, a thousand times yuck. 

While there’s a difference between overnight space rental, and eyes wide open work hours sharing, I really don’t like the Hoffice idea at all. Maybe if I were 25 and Swedish, it would be all well and good. But it’s just not for ancient, non-Swedish me. I’d be worried about security. And also worried that perfectly safe but completely weirdo weirdos would show up. I’d fret that the oddball guy who walked around staring into people’s offices would be on my doorstep, ready to office share. Or the mean-girl colleague I had who was always trying to stir up enmity where there was none. Or the cleanliness-challenged techie…

Guess I’ll just stick with my me-myself-and-I home office – and make sure that I get out at least once a day for a tube of toothpaste or a cupcake.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Survivor: team building as a near-death experience

Second only to the company holiday party, there’s nothing I more dreaded during my days in corporate than the off-site team building exercise. Why, Pink Slip was ranting on the team building topic just a couple of months back. Sure, some of these exercsies were moderately enjoyable. But, other than the time I fell over backwards and conked my head playing volleyball, I can’t recall a single one that was a near-death experience, unless you consider boredom, embarrassment, and annoyance near death.

In any case, I was pretty appalled to read about a team building exercise involving almost drowning in a simulated plane crash.

This sort of training, of course, makes sense if you’re in a line of work where you might need to know something about aquatic survival. Which is how Survival Systems Inc. started out.

The company has instructed employees of the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation, the National Guard, the New York Police Department, the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Army, among others. (Source: NY Times)

All folks I’d want to know not just how to survive, aquatically speaking, but how to help us choking, gasping, flailing, panicking civilians survive as well.

Anyway, somewhere along the way, Survival Systems noticed that among the training side effects were better morale and self esteem. So they thought, what the hell, why not offer survival training as a team building exercise for the corporate world. They’re still in beta mode, trying it out on volunteers who don’t have to pay for the training. But it will soon be available for $950/person for those who want their employees to get more than achieve mere jollier morale and buffed up self esteem – the kinds of things you’re supposed to get automatically when you’re set with the task of building an helicopter with Tinker Toys. (This happened at one of the many team-building exercises I participated in. I wonder whether the folks at Sikorsky ever got to do this one. Or were they too busy learning how to survive the crash of the real-life helicopters they built themselves?)

The building’s crown jewel is a Modular Egress Training Simulator, a plastic and metal craft that can be arranged to resemble the cockpit of almost any helicopter or small plane on the market. A purpose­ built crane lifts it up and lowers it into the pool. Other equipment in the cavernous space can replicate the downwash from rescue helicopters, and generate rain, darkness, 120­ mile­ per­ hour winds, smoke and fire.

And I thought writing and performing a company cheer was a hellscape!

Only it gets worse.

The simulation starts with AC/DC “Thunderstruck” blasting, and a disco ball spinning. Think hellscape squared!

They don’t start folks out with the near death. They warmed up by jumping into a cold pool and, to the strains of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (that’s a lot better than AC/DC…), figuring out how to:

…stay warm while floating. It turned out to be: Assume a  carpet formation, arms linked, legs under the arms of the two people across from you.

For the board the life raft task, they played “Singin’ in the Rain.” Which would have improved my mood, except for the fact that you don’t get to wear a yellow slicker and dance around with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in a kind and gentle rain shower.  In this situation, as you try to get on the life raft, the conditions are set to “squall.

The next piece – the near-death experience – was definitely a near-death experience. And probably would have been a death-death experience if I’d had to go through it:

Finally, each person was strapped into the simulator, submerged and flipped. In this exercise there are three rounds. First: You reach for the window frame, undo your seatbelt, pull yourself out and swim to the surface. Second: Add a closed window to the puzzle. (You’d do the same in a submerged car, only you might need to break the window.) Third: Pretend your window is stuck and, by holding onto the seats and the console, cross to the adjacent window. An instructor is poised behind the participants the entire time, ready to whisk them to the surface if anything goes wrong.

No one has drowned – yet.

There’s no mention of heart attack or stroke death, however.


All I can say is, include me out.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Garage, Sweet Garage. (Coming soon to HGTV.)

A few weeks ago, I saw an article in the NY Times on “The Final Frontier in Home Renovation.” That final frontier is, of course, the garage. After all, with empathic cars on the horizon, folks will want to start treating their cars like one in the family. And if they’re spending $120K for a new Tesla, they’re not going to squawk about $22K to spiff up their garage, which is what the lead-off, Exhibit A in the article did. With a growing number of folks redoing their garages, there are, of course, a growing number of design/construction firms specializing in garage renovation.

Not that carless me will ever be in the market for a garage reno, but it’s still an interesting idea. And it’s just a matter of time before there’s a new show on HGTV devoted to garage do-overs. Garage, Sweet Garage. I can see it now.

As the show starts, we’re introduced to a couple who are gung-ho about a garage reno. They both agree on open concept. After all, we’re talking about a garage. But she wants Craftsman Style or Victorian, and he’s looking for Mid-Century Modern. He wins the argument by pointing out that there weren’t any cars in the Victorian era, and damned few during the height of the Craftsman movement. He underscores his point by noting that Mid-Century was really all about the American love affair with the automobile. She concedes, but only when he agrees to put in an island, because they plan on doing a lot of entertaining.

The Property Brothers show up, and twin brother Drew stands around in his suit looking cute while twin brother Jonathan, also looking cute but in jeans and a flannel shirt, lets the couple know that he can get the reno of their dreams done in six weeks, for a budget of $87,500.

Jonathan’s design, which he worked on with Hillary, quite naturally features granite counter tops, dual vanities, and dark hardwoods throughout. (No laminates for these cars!) At the last minute, the husband decides that he wants crown molding, plus they need to get rid of the popcorn ceiling, and, of course, they want a combo home-office/mudroom - so there goes the contingency budget.

At this point, the wife notices that the walls in the garage are grey, and tells the Property Brothers and Hillary that this could be a deal-breaker. Drew then pops in to demonstrate his value by telling the wife that the color the walls is purely cosmetic, and that a can of paint will do the trick. He then takes off with David to scour the neighborhood looking for the perfect garage, just in case the couple decides to list it rather than love it.

Chip and Joanna are now on the scene, Chip announcing that it’s Demo Day. He starts swinging his sledge hammer, while Joanna declares the couple and the garage “sweet.” Chip knocks a hole in the popcorn ceiling and discovers that – wonder of wonders – what’s underneath the popcorn is shiplap. Joanna notes they can use the shiplap for the feature wall. Sweet!

The reno begins in earnest, until Jonathan discovers, halfway through laying the floor, that the subflooring won’t support two cars. They’re going to have to excavate, put in rebar, pour a new concrete subfloor.,,Meanwhile, everyone at home watching is thinking, ‘Holey, moley. This is going to cost – what – $10K? $20K?’ Then Hillary’s general contractor – it’s Eddy this time – shows up and announces that the new floor will cost $1,200. And Hillary says that, since the contingency fund already went for the crown molding and the can of paint to replace the cement-gray with a pop of color, they’ll have to give up on the island.

The $1,200 for the excavation, etc. of the floor gives us a clue that we must be in Waco, where Chip – because The Wall has not yet gone up – can find Mexican laborers who will do the work for $.75 an hour.

But even though that $1,200 overage sounds like chump change to those of us who thought this fix would cost $20K, and even though – what the hell – $1,200 over on an all-in budget of $87.5K isn’t that big a deal, the wife has a fit. The island must stay!

She has, at it turns out, gone behind Jonathan’s back and found the perfect island – it used to be a drugstore soda fountain - which she’s shoved in the back of her mini-van and delivered to the work site. Jonathan is annoyed. Is this perfect island – which costs 5x more than the one he was going to custom build – coming out of his budget? But the wife is cute, and she’s kinda-sorta been flirting with Jonathan, and she manages to convince him not to rat her out to her husband about spending all that much on the perfect island. Our little secret. Tee-hee.

All the while, Hillary is stalking around muttering garage, garage, garage, under her breath, with her clipped Brit accent. So it comes out GAR – as in Garanimal – ahge.

Minus the combo mudroom/home office – something had to give -  the reno is complete, and Christina and Tariq swing by to help with the staging. They may not be a couple any longer, but they did find some comparables in the neighborhood, and they’re pretty sure they can improve the value of the property by staging the garage with a Bentley and a Tesla. Joanna joins them, as she has a lot to contribute to the staging. She’s baked cookies, but she’s had her kiddoes pick out some really sweet vintage prints of flivvers, which will look perfect up against the shiplap.

Anyway, when husband and wife see their reno’d garage, they’re beyond delighted. The husband, in fact, is in tears, and doesn’t even mind when Jonathan and the wife – tee-hee – reveal that she went overboard on the perfect island. After all, that drug store soda fountain was authentic Mid-Century Modern, so the husband is actually thrilled.

While they love it – you can tell, because they both said, “Oh, my gosh!” -  they’ve also seen a pretty darned nice garage – which, like theirs, has a house attached – just around the corner.

Now they have to decide whether to stay or go. Or, in HGTV parlance, whether to love it or list it.

But before they decide, David has one more thing to show them: the post-reno value of their home, now that the garage is swanked up.

They show the arithmetic on the screen. The pre-reno value of their home was $600K. They spend $88.7K on the reno, and their home is now worth $690K. While those of us at home are sitting there going, okay, swell, their house is now worth $2.3K more when you net out the costs of the improvement, the announcer is announcing that the post-reno value of their home is now $690K – and increase of $90K – and David tells the couple they now have $90K more than they thought they had to put towards the purchase of an entirely new house and garage. We are, thus, encouraged to ignore the obvious fact that they really now have $2.3K more, not $90K (and that’s only if we ignore that the wife blew the budget on a more expensive perfect island).

Anyway, the garage avec house around the corner costs $700K and it’s just perfect – it includes the mudroom/home office – and, what with the old home now worth a mythic $90K more – they really can afford to move to new digs.

It’s a tough decision, but the couple decides to love it – if Tariq and Christina throw in the cars that were used for the staging. Chip and Joanna invite Christina and Tariq to their church for marriage counseling. David, Hillary, and the Property Brothers go out for a drink. Property Brother Drew pays for the round. After all, he hasn’t done a darned thing but stand around pointing out the paint color is just a small cosmetic change.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Now, to go with the empathic gas pump, the empathic car

A couple of months ago, it was BP’s new interactive gas pump, Miles – get it? Miles? – that was going to buddy up with you. Because, heaven forbid, you should have a moment to yourself when you’ve got your finger on the gas pumping trigger, a moment when you can entertain both high-falutin (what’s the meaning of life) and low brow (wonder what Gigi Hadid is really like?) thoughts, a moment when you can just stop and smell the gas fumes.

But, now, having an empathic gas pump is not quite enough. At least not for the folks at Toyota who, at last week’s CES tech gizmo show in Las Vegas, previewed an empathic car.

You’ve had a frustrating day at work; it plays soft music and lowers the temperature. You’re lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood; it offers to take over the driving. You start to nod off at the wheel; it taps you on the shoulder and starts up a conversation.

This unconventional interplay between the driver and automobile is central to concept cars that Honda and Toyota unveiled at the annual CES technology conference in Las Vegas this week. In the not-so-distant future, vehicles will not only be safer or more efficient. They will be our companion, watching our every move.

These cars, which only exist today as partially functional concepts, will use powerful artificial intelligence systems to memorize and store information about every passengers’ likes and dislikes, how they speak, and the places they frequent, all to make decisions the car feels are in the riders’ interest. (Source: Washington Post)

A car making decisions that it “feels are in the riders’ interest”?

First off, I really don’t feel that a car is, well, going to feel anything. But that may just be human-ist me having a robot-phobe semantic quibble with our not-quite-yet-human-but-any-day-now brethren. I mean, come on, just because their intelligence may be artificial, it doesn’t mean that they are.

And as for the “riders’ best interest”, would that be the riders’ best interest in terms of what the riders may want or think they want at the moment, or the riders’ absolute best interest in terms of health, wealth, and the pursuit of true happiness.

Just think.

You’re tootling down the pike, and your car detects that you’re hungry. Does it pull over at the next stop, even though what’s there is Arby’s and Cinnabon? (If you’ve ever driven the NY State Thruway, you know what I’m talkin’ about here…) Does it wait to stop at a place where something that’s at least modestly edible will be on order – like a Fresh City on the Mass Pike? Or does it make a decision in the best interest of the riders’ health and refuse to pull over until car, driver, and riders arrive home and can access a boneless, skinless chicken breast and a cuke?

The auto industry is, apparently, in hot-foot pursuit of making the time you spend in your car “a hyper-personal experience.”

They’re trying to figure it out because things are changing fast.

With more options out there – Zipcar, Uber – people are opting out of car ownership all together. So, if they can get the hearts and minds of car owners, and get car owners to befriend, and maybe even – gulp! – fall a bit head over wheels with their vehicles, the auto industry will be all for it.

Toyota’s Concept-i car is part of the brave new automotive world.

Drivers who approach Toyota’s Concept-i car will see “hello” projected on the car door, a greeting from Yui, an artificial intelligence bot that designers call “the person who rides shotgun with you.” Inside, the car will collect a trove of real-time data, such as pupil dilation, perspiration rate and vocal tone, to assess the driver’s emotional state and alter the car to better fit one’s mood. Once Yui learns preferences for music, temperature, seat position and other features, it will automatically adjust settings before the driver even climbs in.

Yui will also scroll through social media channels to create “serendipitous” moments, such as recognizing that friends have checked into a local restaurant and suggesting a stop there to grab a bite as well.

Hey, I like serendipitous moment as much as the next guy. Why just yesterday at the hardware store, I ran into some old friends that I haven’t had more than a run-into-on-the-street conversation with for quite a while. Since, once they’d purchased their sponges and I’d picked up my boot mat, we realized that none of us had anything better to do, they ended up coming over and hanging out for a while. And it all came without the help of smartphone, social media, or empathic car. How about that?

Honda has something similar to the Concept-i up their sleeve. It’s the NeuV.

“The whole philosophy behind it is to create a much more emotional, human connection,” said Nick Renner, the NeuV project leader.

I actually enjoy making emotional, human connections with humans. And with animals, too.

But I don’t really care to make an emotional, human connection with a car. This has never been my idea of the ideal. I mean, I liked my VW Beetle and all that, but it wasn’t exactly a Herbie the Love Bug sort of “relationship.” And don’t get me going on My Mother the Car.

Blessedly, the truly empathic concept cars won’t be available for another decade or so.

By that point, I’ll no doubt be equipped with sensors that can call in a drone when I need transporting from one spot to the next. I’ll take the option that doesn’t require me to make small talk and share back- stories with the drone… And I sure won’t want the empathic one who that can read my mind.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Now they tell us

Well, there’s no dearth of things to worry about, that’s for sure. (Icebergs to the left of me. Titanics to the right of me.)

One evergreen worry-warter is, of course, having enough money to retire, a worry that’s taking on more urgency as certain Ayn Rand-y elements in Congress want to drastically redefine Commie plot programs like Social Security and Medicare. Which naturally makes me want to learn about just how juicy their retirement plans are. I don’t know the deets, but I suspect that when presented with what our esteemed solons benefit from vs. what the rest of us get when we pass on to our penultimate reward, I’m pretty sure that most of us would say, “I’ll have what they’re having.”

For most of us, the traditional defined benefit plan, i.e., a pension, just doesn’t exist. Only 13% of those working in the private sector have one. That’s quite a decline from the 38% covered by one in 1979. Today, we’re not pensioners, we’re 401(k)-ers.

Interestingly, as a recent WSJ article reported, some of those who were so high on the 401(k) when they first came into widespread play in the early 1980’s are having some afterthoughts about their enthusiasm. Herbert Whitehouse, a former HR exec at Johnson & Johnson, was one of the gung-hoers.

What Mr. Whitehouse and other proponents didn’t anticipate was that the tax-deferred savings tool would largely replace pensions as big employers looked for ways to cut expenses“We weren’t social visionaries,” Mr. Whitehouse says.

Many early backers of the 401(k) now say they have regrets about how their creation turned out despite its emergence as the dominant way most Americans save. Some say it wasn’t designed to be a primary retirement tool and acknowledge they used forecasts that were too optimistic to sell the plan in its early days. (Source: WSJ)

What the 401(k) let companies do is segue from having to fund (or co-fund) and manage pensions, to putting most of the onus on employees. When defined benefit was replaced with defined contribution, most of that contribution was coming from the employee. Sure, many companies do some form of matching as a benefit, but that matching tends to be year-to-year discretionary, and generally caps out well below what employees can put in.

And that’s for companies that offer a 401(k). Many don’t, and their employees are on their own. As are those who are self-employed – a cadre that represents an increasing proportion of the working population. 

It sure was a lot easier in the old days, when people retired at 65, took their pension and Social Security, and dropped dead in a few months. Even better to plan in the old-old days, when you just worked until you collapsed on the job. Yep, that sure made planning for retirement a breeze.

Now we live longer, can’t count on a pension, want to maintain a higher standard of living than retirees of yore did, and watch as our 401(k)s regularly do a Mexican jumping bean on us. Yesterday’s comfortable retiree is often today’s chump.

We used to be able to say ‘there’s always Social Security.’ But at least some of the powers that be want to pull that comfy rug out from under us.

At one point, the retirement mantra was plan on a three-legged stool: your pension, your savings, and Social Security. Then the three-legged stool lost the pension leg, becoming a bit more precarious. And for those who don’t have a pension and/or 401(k), well, they’re sitting on a stick (point end up).

Incredibly, almost half of all U.S. households don’t have ANY retirement savings. And those that do have some have a whopping $50K socked away.

I know that it’s difficult to save, but what are people thinking who have no savings?

There will, of course, be more of them as more and more jobs become hire/fire-at-will temp jobs. Not to mention as more and more jobs are replaced by automation. (And, no, everyone replaced can’t become a robot technician.)

401(k)s have their defenders.

“There’s no question it worked” for those who committed to saving, says Robert Reynolds, who was involved in Fidelity Investments’ first sales of 401(k) products several decades ago.

He considers himself among the success stories. At 64, he could retire comfortably today after saving for three decades. “It’s a very simple formula,” he says. “If you save at 10% plus a year and participate in your plan, you will have more than 100% of your annual income for retirement.”

Well, Bob, I’ma gonna call bullshit on that one. When I worked fulltime, I contributed the max to my 401(k), and most of the companies I worked for did some relatively decent level of matching. And when I went freelance, I put the max into my IRA. I was a pretty hedged investor between fixed and equity, between growth and steady-eddy, so, while I never saw sky-high returns, I didn’t take any colossally big hits, either. But, especially with today’s level of return, there’s no way I’d be counting on having 100% of my annual income if it all came down to my own personal 401(k). And I’m sitting plenty pretty compared to most.

I’m not the problem, of course. The problem is the folks with NO retirement savings.

This could really get ugly when the Baby Boomers hit the exits en masse.

For the younger folks, there are a number of proposed fixes, mostly around mandated savings. Some states – Massachusetts is one – are planning to set up programs for small businesses and for those who aren’t covered anywhere.

Opponents have said such plans crowd out competition from the private sector, and Congress blocked the Obama administration’s attempts to create similar plans at the federal level.

Another way to look at this, of course, is that if the private sector were doing such a bang-up job, we wouldn’t be in the straits we’re in.

I think that one of the big problems is that most people don’t have a very high level of financial literacy. I know, I know. It’s crushingly boring and painful. But maybe schools and workplaces need to start providing a bit of education around what is a fundamental and critical matter. Unfortunately, we’ve become so dumbed-down across the boards… Still, seems like it might we worth a try to get to people before they hit 65 or 70 and realize that they aren’t going to be able to kickback. And when those Walmart greeter and Uber jobs dry up, they won’t be able to kick forward, either.

Like I said, icebergs to the left of us; Titanics to the right.