Thursday, April 02, 2020

Play ball...

I wasn't as looking as forward to baseball season as I normally would have been.

I love baseball, but the Olde Towne Team has been on my shitlist.

Last season, they were god-awful. I went to a handful of lackluster games that gave fans precious little to cheer about. Sure, I had been expecting a droop after their big, winner-take-all season in 2018, but 2019 was droopier than droop. It may not have been as bad as 2011 season, when they collapsed in September, blowing what seemed like an almost insurmountable lead in their division and failing to make the playoffs. That was the year of the fried chicken and beer scandal, when it turned out that during their month of epic collapse, players who weren't on the field were gorging on Popeye's chicken and beer while playing video games in the clubhouse. Yay team!
Although last season was pretty much a suck fest, I still bought tickets for a few 2020 games, including what is always my favorite game of the year, the Patriots Day morning game (11:05a.m. start time) played on Boston Marathon Day - with the exception of 2013, the best day of the year in this city.

And today, I would have been sitting there at 2:05 p.m., parked in front of my TV, watching the home opener vs. the White Sox.

Yes, I would have been watching, even though I'm mad the Red Sox let Mookie Betts go. Even though I'm mad they paid Chris Sale a fortune to not play. (He had Tommy John surgery the other day, so will miss whatever ends up remaining of this season.) Even though I'm mad about whatever they were doing with stolen signals - but I'm mad only if it turns out to be true. In that case, I will remain mad at former manager Alex Cora, the supposed ringleader of the cheating scandal, whom I like well enough, even though I think he helped blow the 2019 season big time.

I like baseball. I like the game. I understand and appreciate the game pretty well for someone who never played it. (But who grew up with a baseball player father - high school, semi-pro, Navy League during the War - and a ballplayer brother  - high level high school and Babe Ruth League - who both loved baseball, were extremely knowledgeable about the game, and were excellent athletes.) I actually like the slow pace, the boringness of baseball. I can appreciate a pitchers' duel, but I really love a slugfest, especially a one-sided one. (Our side, of course.)

I like the history of baseball, the lore. I like that, as a kid, I listened to the games on the radio with my father back in the day when most weekday games weren't televised. I like my memories of our annual pilgrimage to Fenway Park to sit in the bleachers to see the Sox play. I like that I got to see Ted Williams hit a home run in my first game, which was during Ted's final season. I like that I got to see Mantle and Maris hit back to back dingers during the year they battled it out for the home run crown, which Maris won with 61 HR's.

I've seen some truly awful games at Fenway, and some gems, but I have never not enjoyed being at Fenway Park. Aside - maybe -  from the game in which they blew a 10-run lead in the 9th, and that Yankees game that we left during a rain delay (a cold, windy, early May rain delay).

I've watched some truly awful games on TV, some games that were great and broke my heart, and some pure gems. Although I'm such a chicken, I refused to watch much of any of the comeback games against the Yankees in 2004 when, down in the ALCS 3-0, the Red Sox came battling back to become the AL champs and go on to win their first World Series in 86 years. I did see the tale-endings of those games against the Yankees, as my husband would come and drag me out of bed (where I was hiding under the covers) when it looked like something exciting might happen. Which in three battle-back games, it did. And I fully watched the seventh game in that series, knowing that, at that point, there was no way that the Red Sox were going to lose to those damn Yankees. No way, no how.

But today's game, and the foreseeable season, are called on account of coronavirus, so today at 2:05 p.m. I won't be sitting in front of my TV. As it turns out, heavy rain is predicted for this afternoon, so the game would probably have been called anyway. Still...

I'll be missing baseball.

During the season, I watch at least part of pretty much every game. I take in a few in person. I read the baseball news. I even watch post-season games when the Red Sox aren't in the play-offs. When baseball ends in late October (and sometimes even in early November), I miss it. I always look forward to the season starting up again, to the home opener.

When the world is in such a terrible place at the moment, it seems sort of wimpish to fret about baseball. But I'll be missing it, and, in honor of the season that isn't (and may never be), I'll be sheltering in place wearing a Red Sox fleece. And looking foward to hearing that eternal cry, the sound of summer, the sound of spring: "Play ball!"

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Just April Fools

While I have what I'm pretty sure is an excellent sense of humor, I've never been especially fond of practical jokes. I'm sure that in grammar school I must have done some April Fools jokes of the "you've got mustard on your lip" variety. But practical joking is just not my thing.

Admittedly, on occasion something mildly amusing occurs on April Fools Day. There was a time when some wags (Harvard Lampoon-ies?) came up with a fake front page of the New York Times and slipped it over the real version of the newspaper that was sitting on the Cambridge doorstep of every Harvard professor. I can't remember the full story line, but I remember at the time thinking it was pretty funny.

Google does something every year - or so I've read - with wonky techie pranks - but I can't recall any of them. And they're not doing any joking around this year. (Prank called on account of COVID-19.)

Mostly, for me, April Fools Day is now and has always been a non-starter.  

In honor of the day, though, I thought I'd look up its origins on Wikipedia. But the origins are a messy mass of whatever. Did April Fools have something to do with The Canterbury Tales? Or a 16th century Dutch military victory over Spain? Or - wait! what? - does it come from Noah sending a dove out of the ark on April 1st to see if the waters were abating? (Did they even have months at the time of the flood?)

While something April Foolish seems to go on in most Western countries, the only place that seems to take April Fools really seriously is Odessa in the Ukraine.

Since 1973, they've celebrated it as a holiday called Humorina, with a festival, a parade, street fairs, and concerts. But, thanks to the coronavirus, Ukraine is pretty much shut down, so I'm guessing that Humorina is shut down, too. 

Nothing these days seems to be much of a laughing matter... 

Yet there are still some things out there that provide joy, things worth celebrating - even if it's not a dud of a non-only-in-Odessa holiday like April Fools. And here are a couple of them, shots I took on my walk yesterday.

I was getting sick of my usual Boston-side-Esplanade-up-and-down-Charles-Street-twirling-around-the-Public Garden strolls, so I cut over the Salt & Pepper Bridge and walked on the Cambridge/Memorial Drive side of the Charles. Not that this is a particularly riveting shot of part of the not particularly glorious Boston skyline is all that hot. But the sky was so blue. The water was so blue. (Shot was taken from the Mass Ave Bridge, at about the 86 Smoot mark.)

Back on the Boston end of things, I passed these trees in way-early but still most welcome blossom.

We are in a no-fun zone for sure, but as long as I can get outside for a while each day, some of the doom, some of the gloom, starts to lift.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

What's going to happen to the Macy's Day Parade?

Of all the crummy jobs I had along the way, working retail was my absolute least favorite.

When it was busy it was okay. You could chat with customers and keep on the alert for shoplifters and change scam artists. Once in a while, something exciting happened. When I worked at Filene's, Jackie Onassis came in one day. She was, of course, spotted, and had a string of shoppers chasing after her hollering "Jackie, Jackie." When I saw her, she was making a beeline past by stationery counter, determinedly heading for the nearest exit. (In case you're wondering, she was way, way, way overdressed for Filene's - in a gorgeou$ long camel coat and matching pants. And she was far more beautiful in person than she ever was - to me anyway - in pictures.)

But a lot of the time, working as a store clerk was excruciatingly dull. And let me tell you, when no one's buying, there's only so many times you can straighten up the merchandise.

Since you couldn't sit down on the job, you had to stand there like a glom. I'd always have a piece of paper and a pen on hand - it was the stationery counter, if worse came to do little made-up word puzzles (how many four letter words can you make out of Maureen Elizabeth Rogers), name the presidents (I always got out of order in the mid 1800's, after Jackson and before Lincoln), or extract the square root of my Social Security Number.)

I did holiday season stints in both Filene's and Jordans, both times in stationery, and I completely despised the work. 

But a job's a job, and for the 100,000 Macy's store employees (and for tens of thousands of home-office workers, as well) who are being furloughed now that so many of the stores are closed, losing yours - however boring - is going to be hard, especially since there aren't many employees hiring. Most brick and mortar retailers are shutting off the lights for the duration, and for some of the stores, the shutdown may be permanent.
Macy’s was already on shaky ground before the coronavirus outbreak. In February, it announced it would close 125 stores — about a fifth of its total — and lay off about 2,000 workers after a disappointing holiday season.
“Companies like Macy’s that didn’t have a lot of momentum in the first place are at the most risk,” [Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School] said. “Macy’s, which was not on the brink but was heading there, is now standing at the edge of the abyss, and these types of furloughs are only going to become even more widespread.” (Source: Washington Post)
Edge of the abyss, eh? That doesn't sound too good, does it?

I've worked for companies that were on the edge of the abyss. And some that fell into the abyss. But there were never 125,000 employees about to become unemployees.

I'm no big fan of Macy's. New Yorkers may have a fondness for it, but for those of us who saw it replace and debrand the stores we grew up with (in the case of Boston, that would be Jordan Marsh, the premises now occupied by Macy's), it's just become a big old symbol of the homogenization of American life. 

Still, they do cute windows at Christmas. And what would Thanksgiving be without the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. 

With luck, we'll be back in action by next fall, but will Macy's still sponsor the parade? Will the Rockettes still do their kick line in front of the store's main entrance? Will there be enough Macy's employees to man the balloons?

If Macy's in Boston closes permanently, it wouldn't be much of a personal loss for me. I shop there occasionally, mostly for underwear and housewares and stuff like sheets and towels. But I can order my undies from Jockey - which I just did - and I can get housewares and stuff like sheets and towels at Home Goods or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Still, it would put a big hole in Boston's Downtown Crossing, which already has enough big holes. (Barnes & Noble closed their downtown Boston store in 2006, and I don't think anything's gone in there yet. At any rate, pre COVID-19, I walked by there several times a week and I can't picture what went in there if anything did.) 

But all those job losses - not just at Macy's but throughout the retail sector. More and more were gone with the wind of online shopping and self-service automation, anyway, with more of both to come. Coronavirus is just the sour cherry perched on the spoiled whipcream topping the shit sundae. 
"I don’t suspect many people are in the market for spring fashion right now,” said Cohen of Columbia Business School. “There is no telling when this is going to end."
When it comes to my shopping, Cohen is 100% right about not caring about spring fashion. Or spring anything, since I really don't do fashion. But this time of year, I'm usually buying tee-shirts, a couple of sweaters, a new pair of pants.  Maybe a new pair of sandals. Not this year. A) I don't need anything (other than those undies), and B) I don't want anything.  Except for the pandemic to end (and Trump to be gone).

And, with or without the pandemic, Cohen is 100% right about there being no telling about when this is going to end.

The Fed is now predicting that the unemployment rate could hit 32%. Gulp.

So, if and when the economy revives, what, exactly, is it that people at the lower end of the skillset continuum - and what are high school and college kids who need crummy jobs - going to do? We've proven time and again that, as a country, we excel at avoidance, but the question of where the work is may be one we can't dance around for much longer...

Monday, March 30, 2020

Zooming into lay-offs

Having had a long career in high tech, I've been through my share of layoffs. Sometimes I was the layoffer. A couple of times I was the layoffee. Most often, I was just an innocent bystander, the one who comforted friends, helped carry boxes to cars, met now-former colleagues for a drink after work where we all cursed "them." (You know, the a-holes responsible for the whole thing.)

I've come to the concluion that, unless someone is getting laid off voluntarily - and I've been that person: begging for the pink slip  - there is no really good way to get laid off. And there are plenty of bad ways.

Sometimes, it's just plain silly. I know I've written about this before, but years ago my colleagues (and, after all these years, friends) Sean and John, along with me, were laid off via phone call. To say we were expecting it is an understatement. 

There'd been a pitched battle in our company between The Tall Guys and The Short Guys, and the Short Guys had won. Our boss was one of The Tall Guys, and Sean, John and I were visibly aligned with him and the other Tall Guys. We were way too senior to duck and cover, and we knew when The Short Guys started winning we were doomed. Among the others signs that we were doomed: we had a peer (acquired during a merger) that our Tall Guy manager couldn't stand. Among other things, this fellow had thrown in with The Short Guys. Anyway, this particular company had sporadic, onesy-twosie layoffs, and our manager had laid our peer off. But he refused to leave. Instead, he kept walking around, smirking at us and our Tall Guy manager. 

Well, that handwriting was on the wall in perfect penmanship.

Lay-off day was Friday. My work from home day. My colleagues Sean and John both worked in other locations.

I got the call from my Tall Guy manager at about 9 a.m. While he was laying me off, I got an IM off to Sean and John. "Be prepared for incoming." Sure enough, just after I was fired, Sean IM'd me that our Tall Guy manager was on the phone. And he kept going west. Next up was John in Houston. 

The three of us had long entertained ourselves during company all-hands meetings by IM-ing each other. And we kept it up while we were being pink slipped.

(It almost goes without saying that, a couple of weeks later, our Tall Guy manager - and the other Tall Guys - were pretty much all out on their rears.)

Anyway, Sean, John and I all stayed friends, and, separately, each of them sent me a note last week about layoffs conducted via Zoom.
On Tuesday morning, around 100 TripActions customer support and customer success team members dialed into a Zoom call. Many joined the call happily smiling, expecting another team meeting or bonding activity amid the new work from home culture. Instead, according to people on the call Protocol spoke with, their boss launched into a spiel about the economy and coronavirus.
Then she announced that everyone on the call was being laid off.
"People were crying and people were panicking," said one employee who was abruptly let go on the videoconference. "It was like 100 different videos of just chaos." (Source: Protocol)
These 100 were just one cohort getting the axe. Overall, Trip Actions canned 300 workers, roughly 1/4 of their headcount. All fired, en masse, on Zoom.

It's not surprising that a company focusing on travel would want to respond pretty quickly to the travel industry's nosedive. And it's not the company's fault that COVID-19 had turned their workforce into work-at-homers. Still, there's something really disturbing about a mass action done via conferencing software where everyone's face is up there on display. 

Yes, they did follow up with each employee individually.  And the package, while not great, was something: pay through March, then 3 weeks severance, and healthcare/COBRA coverage through June. But how very painful and awful:
Employees who joined the calls late were confused about what was happening and whether they'd just lost their jobs. In the customer support chat, administrators had muted all employee videos, silencing any cries or expressions of anger at the layoffs. Workers surreally watched as everyone realized what was happening and began processing in their separate Zoom squares, some soundlessly crying.
(A former colleague was part of a group layoff in the pre-online conferencing days. Everyone in the (small software) company was asked to come into a meeting room and at the door, each employee was handed a colored card.  White cards got to keep their jobs, blue cards were goners. )

Really, it would have been more humane for TripAction to have sent everyone an email and let them know they were being let go, and that their manager (or whoever) would be calling them shortly with the details. 

I can't imagine the horror of looking at the anguished or totally pissed faces of all those folks, with the system on mute to stifle their voices. 

Other companies are doing layoffs in a similar way. A fellow St. Francis House volunteer - whose former company was mentioned in the Protocol article - was also informed via Zoom, but not as a live event. It was a pre-recorded pink slip announcement. 

There is really no good way to conduct a layoff. However much everyone is anticipating a layoff, people will feel blindsided, pissed off, scared. The experience is just plain terrible. Make that Terrible with a Capital T. Especially now. Other than in the most dire of economies, the feeling in tech has pretty much always been "you'll land somewhere". Mostly, in my experience, somewhere better. But in this economy? Who's hiring - other than Amazon looking for warehouse workers and deliverers, and grocery stores and CVS looking to replace workers who'll be dropping like flies. There aren't going to be a lot of fun, "knowledge worker" tech jobs out there for a while. 

Thanks to Sean and John for both shooting this story my way. There's not much I miss about working full time in corporate - except for working with folks like them.

And good luck to those losing their jobs at this time. I feel badly for all of them: restaurant workers, retail clerks, et al. whose jobs are vanishing overnight. But I have a special place in my heart for those who work in technology companies. They may get better packages and have a bit more of a cushion than the bartenders and cleaning people who have lost their work, and they're not gig workers or tip-dependent, so they'll be able to collect decent unemployment. But I know what if feels like. And it's just awful. And getting laid off via Zoom doesn't make it any better.

Friday, March 27, 2020

There's a war on. At least if you're in Guilford, Maine.

There's only so much gloom, so much doom, one human can take. With millions signing up for unemployment - you know, all those goldbrickers that Lindsey Graham is afraid will never go back to work once they realize how cushy being on the dole is - it's good to know that there are some businesses that are faring pretty well.

Guilford, Maine - population 1,500 and small change -  is in the middle of nowhere. I.e., in the middle of Maine. It's a far piece form Portland. A far piece from Augusta. It's even a far-ish piece from Bangor. So, middle of nowhere.

And out there, in the middle of nowhere, Puritan Medical Products Company: one of two companies that make essentially all of the swabs used for coronavirus testing. (The other, Copan Diagnostics Inc., is in Italy, an epicenter of the deadly virus.) If swabs are necessary for testing, and if testing is crucial to slowing the virus’s spread, then it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the world’s future depends, at least in part, on Puritan. (Source: Bloomberg)
(Their swabs are also used in home DNA kits, so if you've ever asked to let you know whether your German ancestors are actually from Belgium, you've probably used a Puritan swab. They also make tongue depressors.)

Business is booming. 
“We are ramping up to produce and wrap a million swabs a week that we need to put into the supply chain across the U.S.,” [sales EVP Timothy] Templet says.
The company is starting to run 6 days a week, 20 hours a day. And is hiring.
...The company has 535 employees total. It’s continually looking for more machine operators and mechanics and is hoping it can get some extra hands from college-age workers returning home early and recently laid-off workers from nearby employers. The medical side will also borrow from the Hardwood side to the extent possible, Templet says.
“The whole labor shortage [exacerbated by clampdowns on immigration] has created difficulties to have enough machines and build equipment,” he says. “I could use 60 people tomorrow.” 
If only there were more people in Guilford. Or even near Guilford.

I'm sure it's not all that exciting (or well-paid) to sit or stand there making swabs all day, but a job's a job. 

As for the Hardwood side of the biz, Hardwood is Puritan's sister company. They make popsicle sticks, but there's a war on, and right now, we're more in need of nasal swabs than we are of popsicles. Not that popsicles aren't good for morale, but still...
So, a shoutout to the swab makers at Puritan. And to the popsicle stick makers across the street. Rosie the Riveter's got nothing on you folks. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Is toilet paper measured using some sort of new math???

A week or so ago - which, if measured in COVID-19 years, is about 97 years back - MSNBC's Brian Williams and NY Times editor Mara Gay caught some flack for seriously taking a tweet in which the tweeter claimed that Mike Bloomberg could have taken the $500M he spent on ads during his non-starter run for the Democratic nomination, given everyone in the U.S. a million bucks, and still have money left over. Problem is that no one fact-checked the tweet. Or did a simple bit of mental arithmetic and figured out that, if you divvy up that  $500M by 327 million - the population of the U.S. - you don't get anywhere near a million for each of us. All those zeros in the numerator get canceled out by all those zeros in the denominator. Thus, if Bloomberg had chosen to give us all a share of what he was out of pocket on, we'd have all gotten $1.53 a piece.

Not that $1.53 is anything to sneeze into your elbow at. You can buy a Dunkin' donut, and have plenty of change left over. Or you can take a pass on the donut and if you can scrape up another 6 cents, you can get yourself a small coffee.

Still, it's nowhere near a million bucks.

There is, of course, plenty of innumeracy going around. How many people do you see in restaurants busting out their phones to calculate the tip? That is, how many people did you used to see in restaurants, back in the day.

My own encounter with math weirdness occurred the other day when I found a multi-pack of toilet paper at CVS and couldn't resist the urge to buy it. After all, one never knows when one is going to come across toilet paper, and even thought this isn't the kind of t.p. I normally purchase - I'm a Scott classic kind of gal - I figured it would be good to have in reserve. And even though it was an 18-pack, it was compact enough to fit into my tote bag.

What struck me, of course, were those odd little equations. I get that two of these smaller, ribbed rolls of Scott could conceivably be equivalent to one roll of Scott classic. But how does this turn 18 rolls into 36. Is it like the hygiene version of the loaves and fish?

And then I "ran the numbers". One roll of Scott classic has 1,000 sheets of t.p. One roll of Scott "Comfort Plus" contains 231 sheets. Hmmm. Rounding up (231 > 250) for ease of rule-of-thumbing, I found that four rolls of "Comfort Plus" are approximately equal in sheet count one roll of Scott 1,000.

This is, admittedly, an unfair comparison, as my regular Scott t.p. - I was going to say "plain vanilla", but who wants to think of t.p. as plain vanilla? - is single ply, far thinner than "Comfort Plus".  So presumably you use a lot less per trip to the loo.

I haven't conducted a field experiment yet, but I seriously doubt that one roll of "Comfort Plus" is going to last me as long as two rolls of my Scott. If this is, in fact, what 18 = 36 is supposed to mean.

And I'm totally thrown off by the picture of the big roll = two of the little rolls. If you map it to the 18 = 36 equation, you come away with one big roll is the equivalent of two "Comfort Plus" rolls. So which is it?

I should have plenty of time over tthe next couple of months spent sheltering in place to conduct an experiment here. And/or cogitating on the meaning of the arithmetic. Maybe I'll write to Scott and ask for an explanation. But what I'm most likely to do is put the 18 pack of "Comfort Plus" in the closet and forget about it entirely. Until I start running low on the real deal. Or in case I need it to barter for a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia Fro-yo.

And where's that million bucks Mike Bloomberg owes me???

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

"Doctor's" orders. Or, calling in "sick".

South Carolina may not be an epicenter for COVID-19. (Or an epicenter for much of anything, for that matter.) But it's making a run for becoming the epicenter of those trying to weasel out of work with bogus coronavirus claims.

Jeffrey Travis Long was employed by Sitel, a call center. Not clear if he's someone who was manning the phones or had some other job there, but I'm sure the working in a call center is pretty darned dreadful. Whatever he was doing there, Long, who's 31 and should have a long work life ahead of him, decided to create a fake doctor's note from a VA hospital claiming that he had tested positive for COVID-19. (At least he got the number right.)

He figured that this would entitle him to a couple of weeks vacay. And now he's on a permanent vacation from Sitel, the company having fired him. It wasn't just that he was faking it - people take mental health days all the time - but that his fakery included a forged note. And was for two weeks, not the stray "I want to sleep in" day off. Not to mention that Sitel closed down the site where Long worked for five days while they sanitized the place. Oh, and, taking advantage of his ample free time during his 'sick' out, he dropped in to visit his kids at school, sending the school into a panic. And into costly disinfection mode.

Well, didn't he find himself arrested, charged with breach of the peace and forgery.

It wasn't actually the lying at work that brought Long down. Sitel apparently accepted his doctor's note as the real deal. But his kids' school contacted state authorities after they learned that Long "had" (ahem) coronavirus. Once the state started poking around, they found that the letter was a faker-ino. Not only did it lack the appropriate stamp on it, but it turns out the VA hospital where the letter supposedly came from wasn't even doing COVID-19 tests at the time. 

Not clear whether Long will do any jail time - jail would be a pretty awful place to be sheltering in place if COVID-19 breaks out there, and I wouldn't wish jail time on anyone, even a boneheaded liar-pants like Long  - but I'm guessing that a lot of potential employers will be giving him a pass when he goes looking for his next gig. 

What an a-hole...

Meanwhile, elsewhere in South Carolina, earlier in the week, one Robert William Cullum told his managers and factory workmates that his son had tested positive and, so, he was exposed.

And, of course, now he has been exposed as a fraudster, as his son isn't infected. Cullum has also been arrested, charged with breach of peace. (No doctor's letter with this incident.) When confronted, he confessed. 

I guess it's easy enough for those of us who can work from home to dismiss how much scarier this must all be for those who have to go into work in person. Many of those who can't work from home are also those without paid time off, sick leave, cash reserves. The other day, I was in CVS and had to use a human checkout person rather than self-checkout, as the isopropyl alcohol was behind the counter  and I had to ask for it. (I was able to get a quart bottle, so now I can make myself a batch of spray sanitizer). I chatted with the clerk for a bit about her work. She's in a tough spot -  in her early sixties, living with her parents in their eighties - and wonders how much longer she can come into work, knowing that she may be putting her parents at risk by doing so. How tempting it must be to try to lie your way into a bit of time off. 

Still, there's really no excuse to go to lying extremes. Cullum used his BS excuse to get out of trouble for having skipped work. Long went out of his cagy old way to create a fake doctor's note. 

There'll be plenty more of this to come, and I'm sure that there's been plenty of it happening in other places. Just kind of interesting that the first two that popped up on my screen were from South Carolina. Guess that's what I get for an occasional glance at the Daily Mail.