Friday, July 29, 2016

Leche de cucharacha? Pass me the Oreos.

I am fortunate that I have not actually seen a cockroach in years. An occasional silverfish, yes. But no cockroaches.

This was not always the case. I had my first apartment when I was in college. Although my roommate and I gave it a thorough scrub down we moved in, I turned on the light in the kitchen to find a herd of roaches scuttling around under the toaster. Our apartment was not a colossal dump – it was clean (we saw to that), freshly painted, and we even had a new kitchen floor: a piece of jaunty blue and green linoleum that my roommate’s boyfriend (now her husband: thanks, Tom) installed for us -  but it was pretty rundown and in a building occupied by students, older people who didn’t have a lot of money, and recent immigrants. One of the features was a trash chute that emptied – could this possibly be the case? – directly into the building’s furnace. Some of the residents didn’t quite get the plot. There was a family on our floor from out of town. Make that out of continent. They would leave open brown paper bags, spilling over with all sorts of chicken-boney garbage in the tiny little room that contained the trash chute. It’s a wonder we didn’t have worse than roaches. But we did have roaches.

I’m sure I encountered them at other places along the early way. But it’s been 40+ years since I had a roach problem.

And I want to keep it that way. I don’t have a lot of bug-phobia, but I find them disgusting. Bring on the Raid. Kill them dead before they spread. Open up a roach motel and let ‘em check in but not check out.

So cockroach milk? No thanks.

Cockroach milk, you may well be asking?

Most roaches – including the kind I’m familiar with – lay eggs and, thus, don’t give milk.

Not the Pacific beetle cockroach. It gives birth to live young, sort of like humans if we kept babies by the dozen in fleshy organs called brood sacs. Also like humans, mother Pacific beetle cockroaches produce food for their offspring. The embryos dine on a liquid substance packed with fats, sugars and protein. You can think of this like cockroach milk. (Source: Washington Post)

Personally, I don’t like to think of anything like cockroach milk. But now that they mention it, there’s plenty of food  - or beverage – for thought.

After all,

Experiments suggest that cockroach milk is among the most nutritious and highly caloric substances on the planet, according to researc published recently in the journal for the International Union of Crystallography, IUCRJ. Pound-for-pound, cockroach milk crystals contain three times more energy than buffalo milk…the previous top contender for producing a protein with the most calories.

And it’s just in the nick of time, apparently. Environmentalists look down on cow’s milk because cows give off methane, which contributes to greenhouse gases. Nut-based milks aren’t so great, either, from an environmental standpoint, as nut cultivation is too water-intensive. Roach milk, I guess, is more eco-friendly. Plus it will put roaches to good use.

The taste may not be that great, but one scientist exploring the wonderful world of cockroach milk foresees that they might work in protein drinks.

I can see the ads now:

Got cockroach milk? With a picture of some celeb with a cockroach milk mustache.

But what I can’t see is pouring a glass of the white stuff and sitting there with my stack of Oreos enjoying the moment.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Locker room hissy fit

Few industries are as brilliant at marketing as professional sports. Walk around any American city – especially if that city is Boston or Chicago – and half the folks you see are wearing some sports team gear. One would think that the appetite for team gear would be finite. I mean, once you have a tee-shirt, a fleece, four or five caps, and a set of coasters, what more does a fan girl need?

Well, we all know that sometimes marketing is about manufacturing a “need” that’s really more of an “I want it” than and “I need it.” And sometimes marketing is about encouraging people to get the whole set.

Major League Baseball is pretty effective at both creating bogus needs, and doing so in part by creating collectibles. One of the areas they focus their marketing genius on is getting people to fork over their hard earned cash for throwback uniform jerseys. One of the ways they get people to fork over their hard earned cash for throwback uniform jerseys is to get the current team to wear them for a game or two.

That’s what the Chicago White Sox were trying to do when they had some 1976 jerseys lined up for the team to wear last weekend.

Now anyone who knows anything about the Chicago White Sox knows that, when it comes to uniforms, they’ve come up with some doozies, including at least one that I remember where the players wore knee-length shorts.My sister Trish and I were at a Red Sox – White Sox game at Fenway decades ago when they were wearing a particularly awful edition: black clam diggers and some sort of baggy over-shirt blouse. Just hideous. As inevitably happens when we’re at Fenway, Trish and I were sitting near a loudmouth. At this game, the loudmouth was screeching to the White Sox players, “Put on your John Wayne trick-or-treat suits.” Whatever that meant. But the guy was on to something, in his own weird way. Those unis were weird. (At another game, this one against the Cleveland Indians, we sat near a guy who was screaming at one of the Indians, ‘'Go back to the Windy City.” Someone eventually informed him that Chicago is the Windy City, not Cleveland. As I said, wherever our seats are, we tend to find ourselves in shouting distance of a real loudmouth. Maybe Fenway is just riddled with them, and there’s no escape.)

Anyway, the reason why teams bring out re-runs of their past uniforms is to get fans to pay big bucks for them, thus enabling the team to – at least theoretically – field a better team. Or at least one that can help the team afford to pay their players such astronomical salaries.

Now, by the standards of MLB, White Sox pitcher Chris Sale’s salary is not truly astronomical, especially for one having a very good year. Sale’s salary is a mere $9.15. But that paltry $9.15 tab is picked up in part by the White Sox ability to sell merchandise.

Anyway, last Saturday, when he was scheduled to pitch, Chris Sale didn’t want to wear any hideous old throwback. But it wasn’t the hideous he objected to. His gripe was that they were getting in the way of his ability to win. white sox retro

The 1976-style jerseys were navy and sported unusual collars on a hot and humid night. Sale called the uniforms "uncomfortable and unorthodox."

"When I saw that there was something in the way of that 100 percent winning mentality, I had an issue," Sale said in the interview with "I tried to bring it up and say, 'Hey listen, these are my thoughts and concerns,' and they got pushed away because of the business deal that was set in place. I'll never understand why we need to do something on the business side on the field that might impede us winning a game." (Source: ABC News Chicago)

It’s hard for me to understand how someone with the focus and discipline to become a $9.15 million a year pitcher for a professional baseball team is going to be bothered by having to wear a different shirt, even one with an unorthodox collar. It’s not as if he were being asked to play while wearing a fur coat or Kevlar vest or something.

But Sale was clearly bothered.

If the players don't feel comfortable 100 percent about what we are doing to win the game, and we have an easy fix - it was as easy as hanging up another jersey and everyone was fine. For them to put business first over winning, that's when I lost it."

And when the White Sox powers that be ignored his concerns, he became a man of action. Or, in his own words, he “lost it.”

So he did the one thing that would keep the players from having to take the field in the objectionable jerseys: he took a scissors to them and cut them up.

That cost him a 5-game suspension, but since he’s a pitcher that doesn’t translate into many/any missed games. He did lose a quarter of a million dollars in lost salary (chump change), and had to reimburse the White Sox for the cost of the jerseys he destroyed.

I know that athletes can be high strung, and find things hinky that the rest of us wouldn’t. But I really do think that Sale was acting like a big baby here. While we do tend to sometimes ignore the fact, the teams we root for are businesses. Big businesses. Selling hideous retro game jerseys helps those big businesses pay big salaries. This is not the little guy getting screwed by excess executive pay. It’s a high paid athlete asked to don some apparel he disapproves of to help the big business pay him big bucks.

All this said, I would have minded being a fly on the wall when Chris Sale had his hissy fit, and started rampaging around the locker room with a pair of scissors in hand.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Not to be outdone…the COWAROBOT R1.

Well, yesterday I wrote about the Modobag, which vehicular-izes the carryon bag.It left me wondering just what other ideas there might be floating out there on Indiegogo, looking for crowd funding. I got no further than another luggage start up.

Its product isn’t aimed at those who want to do drive-bys while perched on their suitcases, but rather for those too burdened by having to pull their roller bag behind them. I give you the COWAROBOT R1.

And I give them something, too. Props for an excellent tagline: Make Travel Less of a Drag.

Other than that.

There are a lot of things about traveling that really are a drag. The TSA lines. The cramped seats. And, soon enough, having to dodge lazy-arse travelers careening around on Modobags. But seriously, folks, just how much of a drag is it to have to drag your bag behind you. Non-wheelie bags, now there was a traveling drag. Wheeled bags? Not so much.

But I guess now that all the manufacturing jobs are about to be roboticized out of existence – and ditto for household tasks – the industry has to start on those areas that may not seem quite so pressing.

So there you have it:

COWAROBOT R1 is a fully autonomous smart suitcase, that follows its users while avoiding any obstacles in its path. We have merged upcoming technology with the suitcase in hopes that our new invention can allow people to travel more conveniently. We also hope it can solve common travel problems such as not having hands free, losing their luggage, devices running low on battery, and laptops being hard to take out during security​ checkpoints. (Source: Indiegogo)

Hands free? Admittedly, that can be a problem when you’re trying to get your passport and boarding pass out, but generally by the time you have to get your passport and boarding pass out, you’re standing stock still in a security line or at the gate desk.

Losing your luggage? Obviously, the old fashioned luggage tag doesn’t help you find your lost bag. It just lets someone who finds it figure out that its yours. (On the plus side, if you get fluorescent luggage tags, and throw a couple on your bag, it’s a lot easier to distinguish your black bag from everyone else’s.) But I don’t think you need to have an autonomous driving bag to have a GPS chip embedded in your bag.

Devices running low on battery? This seems to be an emerging need. (Like the location technology, it’s also part of Mondobag.) And I get it. I’ve been at the airport jockeying for an outlet. That can be an authentic drag. But there are charging devices coming on the market that don’t necessarily have to be part of an overall robotic trick-out. In fact, a few weeks ago, I had to get a dressy clutch to clutch at a dressy wedding. I found one for cheap at TJ Maxx, and it came with a skinny little battery pack that could be used to charge an iPhone. (Supposedly, it could also charge an Android, but I couldn’t figure out how.)

Laptops being hard to take out? Annoying, indeed. But jeez louise. Being able to more convenient access your laptop: one small feature, but not exactly a great leap forward.

There’s also an override if you want to go old school and drag the suitcase behind you the old fashioned way.

I really don’t get the point, and am certainly not looking forward to someone riding on a Modobag crashes into an autonomous bag, trailing some guy who needs hand free so he can play Pokemon Go and sip on a latte.

Anyway, the COWAROBOT starts shipping in October, and if you want to get 40% off the MSRP -  yep, just like their second cousins once removed, the car, autonomous luggage also has an MSRP – you can sign up on Indiegogo and one can be yours for the low, low price of $429. They come in black, silver, pink, and blue. Have at it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Modobag? Motorized luggage? Please, God, no…

It used to be that the biggest hazard you faced in the airport was being mowed down by one of those golf-cart like vehicles that zip around the terminals to get the elderly, the disabled, and, sometimes, as far as I can tell, the just plain lazy to their gates. I do get the need for them. What I don’t get is why they have to go so darned fast, blasting their horns so that us sluggard pedestrians can get the hell out of the way – and drag our bags-on-wheels with us.

Wheeled luggage. Now there was an invention. No more knees buckling under the weight of a way too heavy bag. No more having to fight for a luggage cart. No more having to bring along your own personal luggage carrier (and worrying about whether it was safely stowed in the overhead compartment: those suckers could do some damage if they crashed on to someone’s noggin.)

But now, apparently, what people really need is to get through the airport avec vitesse, as the French would say – three times faster than those of us on our own two feet. Forget OJ Simpson tearing through a terminal at running back speed. Come January 2017, we’ll have to be on the lookout for speed demons riding Modobags.

What’s a Modobag?

It’s a motorized suitcase, and the brain child of one Kevin O’Donnell, a Chicago entrepreneur whose other brain children include a break dance troupe, a pub, and a snow plowing business.

O’Donnell went looking for $50K on Indiegogo to help get Modobag off the ground, but he’s already raised over $150K from those who want one. (And if you head on over to Indiegogo, you can see just how much fun cowboying up with your Modobag looks like.)

The suitcase is described as “the world’s only motorized, smart, and connected carry-on.” Riders control the suitcase with a throttle and a hand brake. It can take you a distance of about 6 miles on a single charge. It can also charge your phone as you whiz by those poor souls who are stuck pulling their suitcases. Pulling a suitcase is so 2015. As long as you weigh less than 260 pounds, you can ride a Modobag. (Source: Boston Globe)

As far as I can see, the only good point is that at least we won’t get plowed over by someone who weighs more than 260 pounds.

Other than that, what I can foresee is that, if these devices take off, there will be a new form of airport terrorism: getting whacked by louts on Modobags.

These buggies zip at 8 mph. That’s pretty darned fast.

Will drivers need to be licensed? Will they need to be insured? Will they have special lanes, or will Modobaggers be able to buzz through wherever they want? Will there be traffic cops making sure Modobaggers observe the rules of the road?

If the bags only went as fast as the average walker – 3 mph – I’d be fine with it. But, at 8 mph, they’re going a lot faster. And fast enough to do plenty of damage if they run into you or over your foot (even if the ‘bagger doesn’t weigh 260 pounds).

Supporters on Indiegogo clearly differ from my view here.

But I think that, if these ever go into real use, we’re just one old lady with a broken hip, one toddler with a fractured skull, from major product liability.

Seriously, if you need to get to your gate three times faster than you can by walking, just get to the damned airport a few minutes earlier.

On their Indiegogo page, Modobag boasts that “Travel Will Never Be the Same!”

Yeah. Especially for those of us who will have to be on the alert so that we won’t fall victim to a Modobag.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Don’t forget the Motor City. (Zak Pashak doesn’t.)

It’s pretty obvious to anyone who took Econ 101, and/or American Post-War History, that the mass-employment manufacturing jobs that flourished in the US in the 1950’s and 1960’s aren’t coming back again. Ever. Despite what He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak keeps saying, and despite the attempts of the daughter of He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak to bring back some of the manufacture of her eponymous clothing line from China and Vietnam.

There’s globalization. There’s automation. There’s a lot of things.

And they’re getting in the way of the three-shifts-a-day, millions of decently paying semi-skilled jobs that were available for the asking for those with little education and few career ambitions beyond holding onto a job that would help them support their family.

Our job as a society, of course, is to figure out just what all those displaced workers and their kids and grandkids are going to do. But that’s a discussion for another day, and one that involves a more rational approach than the one we’re hearing from He Whose Name We Dare Not Speak.

While those lunch pail, factory whistle jobs – and I grew up in  a place where we could actually hear factory whistles blow off at noon – aren’t going to be “reshored” in any great number, I am always heartened to hear about manufacturing success, on however small a scale, occurring in old Rust Belt cities. Like Detroit.

In this spirit, I give you the Detroit Bikes factory, which is producing wheeled vehicles of the two-wheel variety, where the pistons doing the pumping are your legs.

When founder Zak Pashak got into the bike biz, he envisioned that his outfit would one day have tractor trailers backing up to pick up and deliver the goods.

“This was my dream when we got the factory—watching semis drive away at the end of the day,” Pashak says. (Source: Bloomberg)

The bikes he was watching being driven off were heading to Brooklyn, where they’ll become part of the city’s Citi Bike fleet. Citi Bike is one of the many urban bike-sharing systems springing up. In Boston, it’s Hubway, and, if I were so inclined, I could pick one up across the street from my house.

When his factory opened in 2013, bicycle manufacturing in the U.S. had all but disappeared. The long, downward spiral began in the 1980s, when industry-giant Schwinn shifted work to Asia, a cost-saving move that other manufacturers such as Huffy soon copied. In 2015 only 2.5 percent of the estimated 12.6 million bikes sold in the U.S. (not including those for children) were made here, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. “A lot of people thought it was really goofy when I first started this,” says the bearded Pashak, who describes Detroit as “a good spot for urban revitalization to take hold” and is prone to similarly grandiose talk about changing the world. If his technology weren’t 200 years old, he could pass for a startup founder.

Well, actually he is a startup founder. Except his startup doesn’t appear to be looking for a ton of VC $, or to become one of the vaunted, billionaires-based-on-nothing unicorns. Pashak is actually producing something tangible. Easily understandable. Definitely useful. Climate friendly. And a lot of other good things. Of course, it helps if you’re gong to start up a manufacturing startup to come from a well-to-do background.

Pashak, whose former stepfather was an oilman and co-owner of the Calgary Flames, had millions to spend on risky endeavors when he relocated to Detroit from Calgary five years ago.

Hey, at least Pashak is doing something with it, rather than posing on Rich Kids of Instagram.

Pashak’s is not the only bike company setting up shop in Detroit. Shinola also does bikes (among other goods). But Detroit Bikes is a serious bike-manufacturing endeavor, and is looking to produce 10,000 bikes this year, based largely on his deal with Motivate, “the company that runs bike-sharing programs in 12 metro areas.” One of the programs Motivate runs is Hubway. So I’m probably seeing some of Detroit Bikes’ wares just outside of my front door. (Not just across the street. Sometimes Hubway users are tootling along on the sidewalks at the foot of my steps. When they should be tooling along on the street. It’s only a few of them. But still… In any case, it’s better than having a Segway tootling along on my sidewalk.)

Why Detroit? For one thing, he was drawn to the city because some of his action heroes – Magnum PI, RoboCop, Beverly Hills Cop – had ties to the Motor City. Plus,

“It’s got a history of manufacturing; there are a lot of people who’ve got skills who haven’t been able to use them in a long, long time,” he says.

Well, there’s that. And a mighty good “that” it is at that. He’s got 50 workers. Not exactly River Rouge, but that’s okay.

After walking through the factory, Pashak looks for a quiet moment away from the banging of metal and lingering smell of welded steel. Outside, the street is calm and empty. “Having a factory that impacts the community directly is very cool,” he says. Some of his workers even walk to work: “As an urbanist, idealist kind of guy, that’s the coolest thing.”

Gotta love this guy.Wheel on, Detroit Bikes, wheel on!

Friday, July 22, 2016

Please leave a message. On second thought, don’t.

I’m old enough to remember when there was no voice mail at work. If you weren’t at your desk, the receptionist or an admin might come find you, or page you. If you were out to lunch, on vacation, or otherwise unavailable, you would have let the receptionist or admin know you were gone. And they’d take a message on a little “While You Were Out” pink slip. message padWhen you got back from wherever you were, you’d find those pink slips in your message box, or on your desk.

Apparently there are some places where, quite quaintly, messages are still taken this way. I know this because Staples – the source of this image – still sells them.

One of my favorite pink slip messages was one that I inherited when I became the manager for the delivery of a “custom-off-the-shelf” financial reporting system for Pitney Bowes. This project, which turned out to be completely and utterly ghastly (to the tune where, at one meeting, the fellow we were working with at Pitney Bowes ripped the yellow pad on which someone on my team was taking notes out of her hand, tore off the top sheet, crumpled it up, and threw it at her), was a truly hellish situation. And this truly hellish situation was the culmination of what had been the world’s longest sell cycle. When I came into this dud of a client, the file folder included a message slip, dated 6 years earlier, that registered the initial call we’d had with Pitney Bowes. And they had called us. It took us 6 years to close the deal and, for me, a number of miserable trips down to Connecticut to meet with them.

But I digress…

At some point, voice mail came in and “While You Were Out” pads became obsolete, at least at the places I worked and/or at least for folks at my level.

Now, when you came back to your office, you spotted a message because the message light was lit on your phone.

It was pretty much considered an obligation and/or common courtesy to return pretty much every phone message, but this, inevitably, led to long games of phone tag. If you really didn’t want to talk to someone, you gamed the system. Someone on the West Coast? Return their call at 8 a.m. the next day. Sorry you’re not in at 5 a.m. your time.

If you spotted someone you didn’t want to talk to outside of their office – and they didn’t spot you – it was a great time to speed off to your phone and call them back. Sorry I missed you. Guess we’re playing phone tag. Tee-hee. (Fake-rueful chuckle, followed by scratching “call X” off of your to-do list.)

Fast forward a couple of decades and:

Businesspeople are using texts, e-mail, Twitter messages, the communications app Skype, and collaborative software like Slack to get people’s attention, fast. (Source: Boston Globe)

I have clients where employees don’t have desk phones. They use a mobile – their own or company issued (more likely their own, BYOD, i.e., Bring Your Own Device, being all the rage). And at one client, employees don’t automatically give out their phone numbers. If you really need to txt them, they’ll let you have it; if not, everything can be pretty much handled by email. Works for me.

And, in truth, I’d just as soon get a text (or an email) as a voice mail.

At home, I hang onto my landline, but 99% of the calls I get on it are people asking for donations or scams (“This is your final notification regarding repairing your credit under The Stimulus.”). So I seldom pick it up, and I rarely listen to voice messages, even though I do occasionally get one from an actual human being whom I know and like and actually want to speak with.

My mobile is different. Even though I’m now getting some solicitations and scams on it, it’s where most of my conversations take place. And I do check my voice mails. Except that they’re coming in at a lesser frequency, as most of my client communications are, in fact, via email, and a lot of communication with friends and family is text based. It’s quick and easy, and if the exchanges start getting long, one of us will just pick up the phone and dial. (Metaphorically dial, of course, since there’s nothing to dial anymore.)

“I refuse to listen to voice mails or answer them,” Zoe Barry told me in early June. “Please, just text me.” Barry, 31, is chief executive of ZappRx, a Boston-based startup focused on making the medical prescription process more digital.

She said she didn’t think the aversion to voice mail was a generational phenomenon. “I think it’s something you see among tech-enabled workaholics, who are very mobile,” she said. “They’re giving it up, regardless of age. The people on my board are in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. I don’t see any of them using voice mail.”

Well, I’m glad to see that, at least in this one respect, the Boomers are managing to stay current.

Anyway, one more yesteryear way of doing business that once used what was then cutting-edge technology has bitten the dust.

Wonder how many of those “While You Were Out” message pads Staples is selling these days. And who the heck is buying them?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fogo Island Inn. Now this sounds bucket list worthy.

I don’t actually have a bucket list. Not really. I figure that, once I spot the grim reaper out of the corner of my eye, swinging his scythe in my direction, I’ll want to spend my time with family and friends, and won’t actually give a hoot about whether or not I’ve seen Machu Pichu. (Which, by the way, if I did have a bucket list, wouldn’t be on it.)

But if I did have a bucket list of places to visit, and the willingness to cough up a ton of dough to get to someplace on the list, I might be tempted to put the Fogo Island Inn on it. fogo

Oh, Canada!

I’ll say…

I’d never heard of Fogo Island, let alone the Inn, until I came across an article on it on Bloomberg.

Fogo Island is off Newfoundland, in itself a pretty remote outpost.

To get to Fogo Island, you need to fly into Gander International Airport, which got its start as a refueling stop for early transatlantic flights. (You may recall that a number of international flights were diverted there on 9/11, and the folks on the planes were stranded in the town of Gander for a few days. Fortunately, Canadians being Canadians, the travelers were well taken care of. You may not recall a more local story. When Kevin White was mayor, he was once on a flight that was weather-stopped at Gander. One of his aides, on hearing the location “Gander” – rendered, of course, in Boston-ese as Gahndah – asked what hizzoner was doing in Uganda.)

From Gander, there’s “an hour-long drive to the ferry, and a 45-minute commute across icy water to reach the island.” And once you get there, if you don’t mind crappy weather on the outside, life is good, as writer Sarah Hapola found:

When I get to my room, one of 29 suites tastefully decorated with locally built furniture, I’m immediately drawn to a floor-to-ceiling window that looks out onto the Atlantic. The ocean crashes on the rocks as I kick up my feet on a leather ottoman and dig into the welcome basket left for me: warm, handmade bread served with butter and molasses. I’ve never heard of the combination before, but as the slow, sweet syrup drips down my fingers, all I can wonder is what took me so long to try it. (Source: Bloomberg)

The Fogo Island Inn is the baby of ZIta Cobb, who grew up on Fogo, went to the mainland to make her fortune (and succeeded), and returned to set up an enterprise (the Inn is owned by Cobb’s foundation, which plows profits back into the community). It’s both a dream for her, and a source of employment for her home town (which was mostly a poor, fished-out fishing village, lacking paved roads and electricity). When Cobb was a child:

she used to help dig a grave before winter came. “You knew someone was going to die,” she says, and if the ground was frozen, the body would have no place to go. “As a kid, you would think: That could be anybody. That could be me.”

Kids deployed as gravediggers? I know that a lot of Irish immigrants came ashore in the Maritimes. This sounds right up the Irish alley, that’s for sure. The nuns I had in grammar school would have adored this practice. “Line up now, children. Today, we will be spending the morning digging graves at St. John’s Cemetery. Ashes to ashes, children. Dust to dust.”

Anyway, as for the Inn itself, the furniture is based on local designs, and uses local materials. The Inn’s menu is locavore.

In addition to running the Inn, Cobb’s foundation funds an artist-in-residence program, where “painters, filmmakers, writers, and others” (bloggers?) can apply for grants for stays of up to six months. (I’m in. Now I’ll just have to figure out how to position myself as an artist.)

If you don’t get a grant, you can pay your way. And the Fogo Island Inn don’t come cheap. It’s over $1,000 a night (meals included).

But, oh, Canada!

It does sound lovely. And beautiful. And wild.

Not to mention the food sounds pretty darned good, too.

Even a review on Trip Advisor that mentioned rubbing elbows with fellow-guest Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t put me off longing for a trip to Fogo.

“I intend to die broke,” she [Cobb, not Paltrow, who, I suspect, has no intention of dying] says. “I started with zero. I’ll go back to zero. What am I going to need it for?”

Hmmm. Cobb’s got a point. What am I waiting for? Time to start a bucket list with one item on it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Map maker, map maker, make me a map

I have absolutely no sense of direction. If there’s a 50-50 chance that the right turn is the right one, I’ll take the left turn, thank you, 100% of the time. When, at age 16, I got my license, I was smart enough to take a weekend dry run to my high school before I cadged the car on a school day. This was at the end of junior year, so I’d been to Notre Dame Academy every day for three school years. Nonetheless, I got bollixed up somewhere near the residence of the bishop of Worcester. (I guess I could have turned around in his drive way…) I once got lost walking around Charlestown with my niece Caroline. We were heading to a restaurant where I’d been easily a dozen time. Just couldn’t find the darned thing.

I’m always amazed when other people demonstrate an unerring sense of direction. My niece Molly is one of these people. It’s really pretty incredible. She’s just got the direction mojo totally absent in her aunt. Another directionally-gifted person is my friend Kathleen. She didn’t have any problem finding our high school in her car. Sure, she lived closer to school than I did. Still…

What I can do, however, is read a map. Which sometimes doesn’t work around here, given that there are so many streets that lack signage.

Anyway, once we get into the realm of autonomous (self-driving) cars, those cars are going to need a really good sense of direction. And they’re going to need really good maps.

Civil Maps, a California start-up, just announced that Ford is one of five investors pumping $6.6 into its fuel tank so that they can develop 3-D maps for all those autonomous cars that will be zooming our way any decade now.

The startup uses artificial-intelligence software to aggregate raw 3-D data from sensors on self-driving cars to create highly detailed maps used to direct autonomous vehicles. Civil Maps said its format uses less data, reducing the cost of transmission over cellular networks. That lets the technology provide more real-time road data gathered through crowd-sourcing traffic information from other cars. (Source: Bloomberg)

I am, of course, trying to wrap my head around how a self-driving car is going to know where it’s going to begin with, before it can start generating the “highly detailed maps” that will tell it where to go.

And Civil Maps description of what they do wasn’t a big directional help, either:

Civil Maps provides self-learning cognitive perception systems that replicate human context to enable machines to perceive, orient and respond to the physical world. By combining localization technology and artificial intelligence, we are creating a new generation of maps that enable fully autonomous vehicles to traverse any road safely and comfortably without any human intervention. Civil Maps is working with leading automotive customers and partners across the world to rapidly bring fully autonomous vehicles to market at continental scale. (Source: Civil Maps)

Need to know basis only, I guess.

I do like that “continental scale” bit in there, however. Is this replacing plain old vanilla “scale”, a jazzier version with no meaning? Something that just sounds classier and more hype-y than “large”? Like when we used to write about “state of the art”, “world-class,” and “tier one.” Continental scale. Gotta love marketing.

Or maybe, in a nod to car world, they mean Lincoln Continental scale. I’ll have to ask Matthew McConaughey next time I see him. (Alright, alright, alright.)

Anyway, what I think is going on is that there’ll be a baseline map out there – kind of like a Google map – but that it will be static. It won’t necessarily know that one lane is closed for construction. So data will be crowd-sourced in real-time from all the autonomous cars on the road. Maybe human-operated cars will contribute to the knowledge base as well. (Humans like crowd-sourcing, too. Everyone likes to feel wanted. Everyone wants to be asked.)

Me? I’m not especially looking forward to self-driving cars. I don’t drive that often, but when I do, I actually like to drive drive.

Still, it will be a relief to get in a car and not worry about how I’m going to get to where I want to go. Even though I do have reasonably high confidence that I could, in fact, find my way to high school.



Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Invisible Ink

I know how to make invisible ink. It’s simple. You take milk. Or lemon juice – probably from a bottle of ReaLemon because, let’s face it, when I was making invisible ink, back in the 1950’s, nobody had real lemons in their fridge. But everybody had ReaLemon.

Okay, so you’ve got your milk or lemon juice – cadged from the fridge when your mother wasn’t looking (she had to go to the bathroom some time) – and a pad of paper, and a skinny little paint brush, maybe the kind that comes with a paint-by-numbers set. Better yet, you’ve got a wooden stylus from a magic slate. And you’ll always have a stray wooden stylus from a magic slate kicking around because, let’s face it, within a couple of days after you got your magic slate, someone in your house had so brutalized it that the waxy-coated pad underneath the sheath of grey plastic film was so gouged up that the magic was all but gone from the slate. magic slate

Of course, the magic slate was for disappearing something you’d written. Once it was gone, it wasn’t coming back, other than for the remnants of whatever someone else in your house had gouged onto the waxy-coated pad.

But invisible ink was something different. Invisible ink disguised a secret message. So you wrote your secret message, using milk or lemon juice, your stylus, and a piece of paper, being extra careful because it dried quick and it was hard to see what you’d written.

Then all you had to do to retrieve that message – generally about hidden treasure, but sometimes an age-old truism like BOYS STINK, or a bit of gossip like Bernadette likes Billy -  was to know the secret. And the secret was pretty darned simple: hold a match under the piece of paper until the message appeared.

Since this was the 1950’s, matches were actually readily available to kids, if not exactly as a plaything, then as something that was around and that they could use as long as they knew enough not to light a pile of dried leaves or something. Once you were old enough to cross the street by yourself, you were certainly old enough to light a match so that you could read the secret message that you’d just written in invisible ink. So what if you were the one who’d written the message, so it wasn’t all that secret. The point was using invisible ink, and it was cool.

Plus, because the invisible ink turned brown when you held a match under it, and the edges of the paper sort of got toasted, the secret message started to look really ancient. So you could wave it around and say, hey, we just found a map to secret treasure. And someone in your house young enough to wreck your magic slate was probably gullible enough to believe they were seeing a secret treasure map. Knock yourselves out, kids. Don’t come back without a fist full of gold doubloons and jewels!

Well, that was invisible ink then, and invisible ink now is something altogether different.

Rather than being used by kids to create fakery, like secret treasure maps, it’s being used to spot fakery.

Counterfeiting, after all, is a big business, and it’s estimated that “fake and pirated products accounted for almost a half-trillion dollars in 2013.”

To combat all this fakery, Kodak – yes, Kodak: still in business – is coming up with invisible. ink.

 Kodak, supplying hundreds of patents, research and history, is behind a startup working to combat counterfeiting with a technology that places an invisible, digitally traceable marker on products to ensure they are authentic.

The new company, eApeiron, whose name comes from the Greek word for everlasting, launched last month and is targeting e-commerce. (Source: Bloomberg)

Among those investing in eAperion is Alibaba, the Amazon of China, known as a source for cheap designer replicas.

Counterfeiting is not, of course, just about knock-off Louis Vuitton bags. Fake Louis’s might be a headache to revenuers and to the Vuitton brand police, but having one is not going to kill someone. Not so for “potentially dangerous faked goods such as drugs, toys and spare parts.” (Among other industries, counterfeiting is quite prevalent in the automotive supply chain, where legitimately defective parts are bad enough, let alone worrying about fakeries.)

There are other companies developing anti-counterfeiting and traceability technologies, but I like knowing that an old-timer like Kodak is one of them.

In support of their endeavors, eApeiron can have my formula for invisible ink for free. And a bit of naming advice. That’s free, too. Apeiron is a perfectly fine Greek word – opa! – but to this English speaker, it sure looks like Ape-Iron. Just sayin’.

Now I must away to compose a secret message in invisible ink. And – hah! – I can use real lemon juice, not the fake stuff.

Monday, July 18, 2016

What next? Apparently robotic furniture…

Although at my advanced age, I won’t be opting for a home in which I have to climb a ladder steep-angled at 90 degrees before I can crawl into bed, I am a huge fan of the tiny house movement, and enjoy watching the chronicles of tiny-house hunters (not to be confused with tiny house-hunters) on HGTV. My favorites are the shows where someone who’s declared they want to live in 100 or 200 square feet starts to bitch about where they’re going to store their off-season clothing, or starts asking how they’re going to entertain all their friends.

I also enjoy the ones where couples and even families decide to radically downsize. After a couple of nights in a tiny house, I’m certain my husband and I would have killed each other. But there are couples, and couples with kids, who are really gung ho. There was one family with 5 kids that wanted a home of 400 or 500 square feet. Yet they kept stressing the need for their teenage daughter to have a room with privacy. Having grown up in a family with 5 kids, living in a 1,600 square foot house, I’m going to go out on a tiny little limb here and say that the only way their teenage daughter is going to get any privacy in a 500 square foot home is if they ship the 4 younger kids off to boarding school.

All this said, I do find myself fantasizing about living in a cute lil’ tiny house. Only mine would have to be all on one floor. And I’d be living there all by my lonesome.

It’s not just the tiny houses. Although I currently enjoy an embarrassment of square-footage riches – 1,240, baby! – I also like keeping my eye on the microunit apartment trend.

Having lived in a studio apartment for a number of years back in the day, I know I can do it again if I have to. (Maybe.)

So I was interested to read about Ori:

…the first company out of MIT Media Lab’s CityHome research project, is creating furniture for urban spaces -- not just smaller pieces, but smarter ones, equipped with robotics that move on demand.

The Ori unit will be marketed as a single system that can be customized to offer a bed, desk, and closet. It can also be shifted around the room to tuck all of that away and slide to one side to make space for a living room. (Source: Boston Globe)

You can take a look for yourself on the Orisystems’ site, but it really is exceptionally cool, starting with the name, which comes from “origami.”

A couple of observations.

First off, I have to say that I’m more of a color than a monochrome person, so if I were living in a microunit kitted out with Ori, the first thing I’d do was get on Wayfair and Pottery Barn and order up some color. And pattern. Having just installed two new pillows – a navy and white geometric and an orange and blue mandala-ish print -  in my living room, which already had four pillows, I am living witness to the power of a bit more color to perk up an already colorful and perked up room.

Also I will note that the inhabitants of these units seem to be both living in and working from home. This may be the wave of the employment future, and I’ve done it myself for years. But just like when you’re working in an office, you sometimes have to get up and stroll around. And there’s not much room to stretch you legs in a micro-unit. Nor, if you need to press a button to slide your bedroom into place, do you get the work-from-home advantage of being able to duck out of your office and into your bedroom for a bit of a rainy mid-afternoon snooze.

Finally, most of the tiny houses and microunits I see cater to the young. And one thing most young people haven’t accumulated is as much stuff as use oldsters.

Having completed a ‘pretend-I’m-moving-and-get-rid-of-stuff’ renovation last year, I know that some of us accumulate way too much, even if we live in 1,240 square feet with precious little storage space. But there’s stuff you don’t mind jettisoning, and there’s stuff you want to hang on to.

By the time you’re my age, you’ve got stuff from the sentimental journey that is life. I have one grandmother’s cookie jar, the other’s sampler (embroidered when she was 12). I have the steer horns that hung in my Grandfather Rogers’ saloon. I have my father’s childhood dresser, and the claw foot table, a mirror, a couple of lamps, and a desk and chair from my Grandmother Rogers’ house. I have a chair that was my mother’s. Another that was my Aunt Margaret’s. Not to mention a bunch of my mother’s bric-a-brac (and a bit that came from Margaret), and my mother’s Dutch oven, which I’ve hung onto even though it doesn’t work on my induction cooktop. I have a couple of hundred Christmas ornaments, some of which hung on the trees of my childhood.

And then there’s the stuff that I’ve accumulated on my own.

Much as I fantasize about it, moving into an apartment that was much smaller than my condo would require some serious picking and choosing. Let alone if I went into an Ori-equipped microunit.

Still, it’s fun to see what the young folks are up to, living-wise. And to take an occasional peek at the Jetson home of the future.

I’m sure I’ll be downsizing at some point in time. Maybe I can robotocize some of my accumulation. Or maybe I’ll just have to settle for holographic renditions that I can summon up when I want to take a tiny virtual stroll down memory lane.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Robots replacing mall cops? Maybe not quite yet.

A few weeks back it was the guy killed while sort of not driving in an autopiloted Tesla. (The driver – who may or may not have been watching a Harry Potter video while not driving – rammed into the side of a tractor-trailer that had turned in front of him. Tesla autopilot cameras couldn’t pick up on the fact that the white trailer was, in fact, a white trailer and not the sky. So the automatic braking system failed to engage. Where was Expecto Patronum! when the Tesla driver needed it?)

I’m sure there will be many more kinks to be worked out before full autonomous vehicles are the norm. And, let’s face it, they may never eliminate all auto accidents. But they will eliminate a lot of jobs, including the one of the truck driver whose truck was hit.

But it’s not just malfunctioning auto-autos that we have to worry about, as a California mother learned when her toddler was run over by a security robot in a mall. The vic was Harwin Cheng, at 16 months, a little guy. No match for a 5-foot-tall robot that weighs in at 300 pounds.

“The robot hit my son’s head and he fell down — facing down on the floor — and the robot did not stop and it kept moving forward,” Harwin’s mom, Tiffany Teng, told ABC 7.

Teng said that the robot would have run over her son’s other foot had her husband not pulled the boy away. (Source: Huffington Post)

Fortunately, no broken bones. Just bruises and scrapes. And, I’m sure, recurring nightmares for the parents.

So much for Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Here’s what the brave new shopper’s world has in store for us:

Mall Robot

Anyway, the security robots – produced by a Silicon Valley outfit called Knightscope – don’t apprehend criminals. Yet. They do alert human security personnel, who chug on over to slap on the cuffs, or pick the little kids off the floor. It seems there might be a lag between the robot sensing something untoward going on, and the physical, flesh and blood Paul Blart showing up to do something about it. But I’m sure that will all be taken are of eventually. (I.e., the robots will “learn” how to bag the bad guys.)

Hmmmm. Seems like a matter of time before the bad guys start deploying robots to do things like shoplift and mug. Let the battle of the white hat vs. black hat robots be joined.

But seriously, folks, it’s not just on the manufacturing floor where humans are being replaced. Autonomous trucks and cars will translate into no more truck drivers, and no more taxi drivers. Uber? I believe that they have a standing order for the first 500,000 fully autonomous cars that Tesla produces. There are over 3.5 million truck drivers in the US. Throw in another quarter of a million cab drivers – not to mention all those Uber and Lyft drivers – and that’s a lot of jobs that will disappear. What’s going to replace them?

And while we’re adding those folks to the unemployment lines, let’s throw in the 1 million-plus security guards that will be replaced by robots.

This isn’t going to happen tomorrow. Especially not as long as autopiloted cars keep running into things, and those robots are knocking over little kids. But it’s coming.

Not enough discussion about a lot of serious things these days, but the loss of blue-collar jobs to automation should be high on the list.

Just what is it that people are going to do for a living?


Thursday, July 14, 2016

Pokémon Go: No Go!

Yesterday morning, when I walked to the gym, I was on the lookout. And I think I spotted a few of them. It was too sunny to actually see their smartphone screens without sneaking up behind them, pushing them into a shady spot, and sticking my head on their shoulders, but they just didn’t look like walk-and-texters. Especially those two in the Boston Common: The nerdy looking young fellow nearly tripping over his own feet as he spurted across the grass, off the beaten path, smartphone in raised hand, near the Frog Pond. And while she may not have been as obvious, I do believe that the preppy looking young woman – the one with the whitish panty hose (ugh!) and prissy flats – was, in fact, caught up in some sort of quest. There was just something about her.

Then there was a clutch of youngsters hell bent for something or other careening around Downtown Crossing.

Hell bent for Pikachu, I’m guessing.

For those who’ve been so absorbed in real life (or what passes for it these days) that they’ve failed to notice the madness sweeping the nation: Pokémon Go has arrived. And it’s big. And it’s getting bigger.

I am certainly not opposed to time-wasting. I like crossword puzzles. And sudoku. I’m capable of idling away the minutes playing Tai Pei. Or checking out the latest outrage on But video games have never interested me. I can certainly distinguish among Pac Man, Super Mario Bros, and Pikachu. That’s about it.pikachu

But I take it that, at the simplest level, the goal in Pokémon Go is to travel around as a “trainer” and capture a shit-ton of Pokémon monsters. Of which Pikachu is perhaps the most well-known.’' What’s new and exciting is that, in Pokémon Go , the monsters exist in the “real world,” augmented reality division. Rather than just hunt and gather on game-issued backgrounds, you can use your GPS and smartphone camera to impose the monsters on whatever background you like. (Or something along these lines.)

Needless to say, hunters and gatherers are showing up in some somewhat inappropriate places. Like Arlington National Cemetery, where whatever game players are doing is apparently more important than playing Taps for some member of the Greatest Generation who lost two toes to frostbite in the Battle of the Bulge. (Ah, those were the days when reality did not need to be augmented.)

Gamers have also appeared at the Holocaust Museum, the 9/11 Museum, and other places where the purpose is seriousness of purpose, not monster mashing. There may be ways to make your location a no-play zone, but it’s not clear. I was thinking that churches might want to do so. I haven’t been to church in decades, but I’m guessing there are plenty of folks thumbing their smartphones playing Candy Crush during a sermon. And one would think that such behavior wouldn’t be smiled upon. (Church distraction is, of course, nothing new. One time, during my high school church-going days, I sat at Mass behind a woman who had the instructions to Lady Clairol folded into her missal, and spent the service figuring out how to hate that gray, wash it away.) But at least at some New England churches, they’re getting their Pokémon Go on as a way to attract young folks into their pews.

“If yours is like most mainline Protestant churches in Southern New England, you’ve spent a lot of time and energy wondering how you can get those 20- and 30-somethings to come to your church,” Tiffany Vail, associate conference Minister for communications for the Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island conferences of the United Church of Christ, wrote in a blog post this week.

“What if I told you they are quite literally at your doorstep? Right now,” she said.

In Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game played on smartphones, churches are often designated “gyms,” where so-called trainers can pit their virtual critters against opponents, or “Poké Stops,” a place to pick up supplies.

“What that means is that people playing the game are going to stop outside your church with their phone and download some goodies. If your church is a gym, they may hang around for quite some time playing there,” Vail wrote. “So, whether you want it or not, you’ve got a lot of young people showing up.”

Vail has recommended churches embrace the sudden influx of “kids and teens ... But also a LOT of millennials” by setting up charging stations for people whose smartphones are running low on battery life; sharing WiFi connections freely; hosting Pokémon-specific events on church property; and changing signs outside to alert players that they’re near a “Poké Stop.” (Source: Boston Globe)

I’d say that, if this is the only way that the mainline Protestant churches of Southern New England can make themselves relevant, it’s pretty much game-over.

But it does remind me of a couple of toys I saw years ago. One was a stuff Torah, complete with eyes and smile. The other was a Nativity scene with teddy bears taking on the roles of the principles. (Aww…)

Anyway, it’s no surprise that, as Pokémon Go takes off – on the trajectory to pass the number of Twitter users! more numerous (already) than Tinder subscribers (which has got to be a good thing)! sucking up more minutes in the average users day than Snapchat! – I will be left behind, fussing around with my pencils and erasers, solving my sudoku, one 9x9 matrix at a time.

I’m afraid I’m just an old crank, with no desire to augment my personal reality. Life, I’m afraid, is plenty real enough as it is, without stumbling around Boston, peering through my smartphone’s lens, trying to bag another Pikachu.


Non-play-ahs can learn more about Pokémon Go here, on Vox.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

This is your night, Willie Tasby.

I saw my first Red Sox game in July 1960. (Sox beat Cleveland 6-4, and Ted Williams hit a homer.) One of the things I remember most vividly from that game was someone sitting near us in the bleachers unfurling a banner (poster paint on a sheet) that read “This Is Your Night, Willie Tasby.” I don’t know if there was actually a “night” for Willie Tasby, or whether the fan was just hoping that this was the night that Willie Tasby’s career would take off.

When they had “nights” or “days” for athletes, back in the day, it was generally a low key affair that, at its most upscale, gifted the athlete being feted with a car from a prominent local dealer. I think these “nights” were mostly for a home town player who was retiring. So that evening in July 1960 was probably not a celebration of Willie Tasby, who was in the early stages of what was his one and only season with the Red Sox. (He joined the Red Sox in June of that year on a trade from the Orioles, so it was a partial season at that.) And when the athlete got a car, it was pretty big deal, as athletes back in the day didn’t make all that much money.

Fast forward – and those decades did forward fast  – and when athletes get free stuff showered on them, it’s generally when a super athlete is retiring. When they make their swan appearance in every city in their league – and this is especially true in baseball, which has really patented this sort of a deal – they’re recognized, and come away with some loot. The athletes could, of course, avoid having to hire a U-Haul to haul away the gifts raining down on them, by announcing their decision to call it quits after the season ends, rather than at the beginning. But their egos must want the recognition. And maybe they get a kick out of the gifts. Certainly, in the case of baseball, the league encourages it. It builds fan interest, and it plays to what baseball does best: sentimental journeys.

Anyway, the gifts generally come in two categories: a donation to the athlete’s foundation (and they all have foundations), and some super-kitschy type of souvenir that will end up in the athlete’s man cave until it gathers a bit of dust, after which it’s sold off for big memorabilia bucks. Within this latter category, sometimes there’s actually something that can actually be used.

Of course, it can be argued that super-stars are also super-rich, so why not just kitsch it up and give the guy one more thing to store in his man cave. After all, the super-star probably lives in a 10,000 square foot home, and his man cave is probably the size of my condo. And they don’t need a car, that’s for sure. They probably have plenty in there 10-car garages.

I generally don’t give to-an-athlete-retiring-not-so-young gifts much thought, but this year, David Ortiz, our very own Big Papi, is the most prominent baseball player who’s announced that he’s hanging up his spikes once the season ends.

I love Ortiz. I’ve been to a couple of games this year, and hope to get a couple more in before he goes. I will miss him, and will be forever thankful to him for bringing a World Series Championship to Boston in 2004. The follow-on championships – 2007, and 2013 – were gravy, although one of the high points of 2013 for me (a year that had plenty of low points, as my husband was at the end of his life) was watching a bit of the celebration parade. I was only there for a few minutes, but the float that Papi was on stopped directly opposite from where I was standing, and Papi led the crowd in a chorus of “Sweet Caroline.”

Papi has been clutch. And Papi has been fun.

Since Ortiz has announced his retirement, he’s on the loot-collecting circuit this season.

Someone writing in the Boston Globe is a bit miffed because he doesn’t think that the teams that have done their bit haven’t been all that generous. The gifts to date, he feels, have been “fairly modest.”

Sure, the Minnesota Twins donated $10K to charity – but it wasn’t Papi’s charity. The donation was made in Ortiz’s name to a scholarship fund named for late Twins star Kirby Puckett.

The Houston Astros gave him a Stetson cowboy hat; Ortiz got a handmade humidor and 50 Davidoff cigars from the White Sox; The Royals ponied up a framed portrait of Papi at the 2012 All-Star Game in Kansas City and an assortment of BBQ sauces; Giants Hall of Famer Willie McCovey presented Ortiz with a bell from a San Francisco cable car; and the Texas Rangers gave the slugger a pair of custom cowboy boots with “Big” on one boot and “Papi” on the other. (Source: Boston Globe)

And the Atlanta Braves – admittedly, they’re in the National League, and Papi is an American Leaguer – could only come up with a video tribute.

The teams that know Papi the best – those in the Eastern Division – haven’t yet seen the last of Papi, so the ante might be upped.

But while the gifts already given may be “fairly modest” by super-star standards – and the video tribute is downright chintzy – it seems pretty consistent with the junk that teams usually fork over on these final tours. And at least the cigars and BBQ sauces, not to mention the peanut butter, are useful.

This all said, I will be keeping my eye on what the Orioles, Rays, Jays, and especially the Yankees – “our” division rivals – throw David Ortiz’s way. At minimum, I’ll be expecting high-kitsch and plenty of sentimentality.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On Target

When they were little, I used to buy a good bit of clothing for my nieces Molly and Caroline. By the time they were six or seven, I thought I might ask for their opinion before I placed an order. I pointed out a couple of darling (to me, anyway) little shorts-and-tops sets. The girls looked at me as if I were asking them if they’d like a dress that Laura Ingalls would have worn on wash day, or something from the Never In Style, Never Out of Style Amish Kids Catalog. “Oh, no, Moe,” they said. Within a second, they found the page that had the pink and purple sparkly unicorn shirts on it. Now we’re talking!

That was a while back now, and kids have apparently gotten even more fashion forward. And Target is using kids to figure out what clothing should go into their Cat & Jack line of clothing for children and babies.

I can guarantee that, when I was a kid, no retailer (or parent, for that matter) gave a pink and purple sparkly unicorn’s arse what a child thought about the clothing that was going on their back. You wore what they put in front of you. So there. But times have changed, and children are consumers, with preferences and desires every bit as potent (if not more so) as those of the grownups.

This ‘kids rule” practice is not, of course, universal.

I’m sure Prince George would rather be wearing a Batman tee-shirt than the stuffed shirts he sports for his public outings. And it won’t be long, I’m sure, before Princess Charlotte asks why she can’t wear the pink and purple sparkly unicorn shirt to Granny’s 100th birthday, rather than the prissy (yet completely darling) little smocked dress that looks like it’s been in the royal family since the good queen was a child in the 1920’s. Despite any preferences they may have in private, the little royals are generally photographed in British frumpery. Perhaps in private they get to jazz things up with bold stripes, neons, ankle boots, and graphic tees. (“My parents went to Buckingham Palace and all they got me was this lousy tee-shirt.”) But when they’re on display, the royal mites are fashion backward. So Target will not be trusting them to take part in a focus group they pulled together to opine on what Target should be putting on their shelves if they want the kids to put it on their backs.

And why not?

Anybody who’s been around young families knows that parents solicit their kids’ opinions about all kinds of once-adult decisions: where to go for dinner, what kind of car to buy, even what to wear. In keeping with the times, Target’s designers have been listening to kids, too, about 1,000 of them from the ages of 4 to 12—in their homes, online, at daylong fairs, and in focus groups—to create what could become one of the company’s biggest brands and maybe one of the country’s biggest kids’ brands. (Source: Bloomberg)

Out with the everyday ordinariness of the old, dependable children’s lines from Target. In with the “groovier cuts and colors.” All in an attempt to rev up demand and margins for clothing.

Once reimagined, these areas are expected to generate sales that will grow two to three times faster than the store’s other staples.

Until recently, there wasn’t a Target nearby, so I wasn’t all that familiar with the store. But I did get that their reputation was affordable chic of reasonable quality, which differentiated it from competitors like Walmart and K-Mart, which were known for affordable (style and quality be more or less damned).Then came The Recession.

As consumers traded down during the recession, Target did too. It focused on lower-priced, lower-quality goods rather than the high-concept clothes, teapots, and garlic presses it was known for. That decision brought it more directly in competition with Walmart, dollar stores, and Trying to out-cheap them in a low-margin business proved a losing proposition.

So target found themselves in a hole, and it didn’t help them much when they had to stop digging themselves out of it to focus on the big Christmas Credit Card Hack of 2013, followed by a few lesser known fiascos.

And now they’re hoping to get their groove back with Cat & Jack.

Cat & Jack will still offer sparkles and glitter, pink and purple, frills and ruffles, and, at least at some point, kid-size butterfly wings and a long tulle skirt with glow-in-the-dark stars. The prints on Cat & Jack dresses won’t be wildly different from what’s been in stores, but they’ll be more sophisticated, the color combinations less typical. The polka dots will be bigger, the stripes neon. There will be a short-sleeve dress with boldly drawn flowers and leaves on a black background; another dress will have a pale pink sweatshirt on top and an orange tulle skirt. Boys will still get dinosaurs and astronauts on their T-shirts and slouchy pants with drawstring waists.

Cat & Jack is geared for a generation of kids that’s more collaborative than competitive. “They’re not about positivity that makes themselves feel good but someone else feel bad,” says Mandy Daneman, who conducts research for Target. She and her team interviewed hundreds of kids, dug into academic studies, and talked with companies such as Walt Disney and Nickelodeon. “The kids told us: I don’t want shirts that say, ‘I Win, You Lose.’ I want shirts that say, ‘We Got This,’ or, ‘Game On.’ ” The team changed a shirt from “Play to Win” to “Play for Fun.”

That’s good. I guess. In my day, we did without shirts that said anything. We just yelled stuff like “I Win, You Lose” at other kids.

Anyway, parents also get their say, and they nixed a shirt the kids like that said “OMG.”

It goes without saying that Target will be marketing to kids. And that some of the marketing will be “done” by kids themselves (ad copy, social media).

If you thought kid as consumer was tough to swallow, you’re really going to love kid as marketer.

I’m not buying any kids clothing these days, but I’m sure that, if it had come in pink and purple, my nieces would have glommed onto a “Dream Like a Unicorn” tee-shirt.


Monday, July 11, 2016

Destination Unknown: just Pack Up+Go

The premise is simple: you provide them with a budget and a bit about your preferences, and they come up with a surprise 3 day mini-vacation for you.

I have to admit that when I first started reading about Pack UP & Go, I had an immediate arthritic kneejerk reaction: who’d want to do that?

But my second, less geezerly thought was: this sounds like fun. After all, I’m a confirmed urbanist and they specialize in cities  - mid-sized, mostly. You know, the ones you’re always going to get around to getting to but never do. They figure you’ll get yourself to New York City. But maybe not to Burlington, Vermont. Okay. Probably a bad choice of an example, as I’ve been to Burlington. And Portland, Maine, another city on their round-up list. But they’ve also got Pittsburgh on there. And I’ve had Pittsburgh on my go-to list for years. I just haven’t gotten around to it. (What’s a bucket list for, anyway?)

Pittsburgh happens to be where Pack Up + Go is (virtually) located. Pittsburgh is also co-located in my head for some reason. Although I haven’t had one in a while, I have had a number of different dreams that took place on bridges at the confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. So I’ve always kind of wanted to go there, if only to see if there really is a confluence of the Monongahela, Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. Or whether I just dreamed it up. Alas, my husband was not that interested in Pittsburgh. We almost made it to Philadelphia once, but mostly if we were doing a US city it was NYC. Unless it was a quickie to Portland Maine or Burlington Vermont.

Alas, Jim is no longer with us, but I’m thinking that he might have been okay for a destination unknown trip. I say might because Jim, of course, liked to plan things well in advance. Nine months before we were scheduled to leave, he’d hand me the lunch menu of a restaurant and Paris and tell me, “I thought we’d have lunch here on Tuesday. I think I’ll have the salade Niçoise.” But if I’d caught him in a spontaneous kind of mood, he might have been good with this. Of course, he’d have been pissing and moaning the entire way there – wherever “there” happened to be – but we would have had fun, I’m sure.

Anyway, since Lillian Rafson launched Pack Up + Go in January, she’s planned about 250 trips. She thought she’d be doing 50-100 a year, so she’d clearly on to something. (Rafson, by the way is in her early twenties. And here I am still trying to figure out if if’s too late to try to figure out what to do with my life.)

Part of that something that Rafson is on to is that it’s really quite wonderful to have someone else do all the detail work for a trip. While the nine-month-in-advance menu research used to drive me crazy, it was great to have Jim take care of every last transportation and hotel detail, planning which I find more or less an utter drag.

Then there’s the getting pushed to explore a place that you might not have gotten to on your own. At my age, of course, I’ve been to most of the places I’ve wanted to see. There’s still Pittsburgh. And Nashville. Savannah. Maybe a few others. But it would still be kind of fun to see what someone else came up with, based on how I answered my questionnaire druthers. And what I was willing to spend. (You also indicate whether you plan on driving, or need a flight. The short duration of the trip precludes cross-country jaunts, by the way.)

A bit before the big day:

Travelers get a packet of information in the mail, telling them what time to go to the airport and a little information to help with packing. A sealed envelope reveals the destination. Most people wait until they get to the airport to open it and find out where they’re going (though some sneak a peek early). (Source: Forbes)

The packet also includes suggestions on what to do when you get there.

I’ve got a trip to Venice in the planning stages for this fall. (Note to self: get going. Jim is not coming back from the Great Beyond to make the reservations for you.) And in the spring, I’ll be heading to Galway.

But I might be able to sneak in a little Pack Up + Go in there somewhere.

I was thinking of looking into Road Scholar (which used to be known as Elderhostel; guess us Boomers don’t like to be reminded that we are now officially the elders). A friend of mine went to Cuba this spring with them and said it was great. But first I think I’ll roll the dice with Pack Up + Go.

Friday, July 08, 2016


Hey, it’s summertime. So even if you’re working, you may be looking for a little something that’s a bit of a time-waster. But that isn’t as aggravating a bit of a time-waster as looking at Donald Trump’s latest tweets. Which, by the way, aren’t really worth looking at, even as a time-waster. There’s only so many “crooked Hillarys”, “rigged systems” and “dishonest medias” you can look at before you realize that Trump is actually pretty boring. Guess I’ll just wait for “crooked Hillary” and “dishonest media” to pick up on one of his outrages. Until then, yawn-o-meter. (Okay, the one about no outrage over Disney using a six-sided star on a Frozen book was shockingly entertaining. You’d think that a more sensible, presidential tweet might have been “Sorry about using content from Nazi-sympathizing group. Understand how people misconstrued it. Won’t happen again.” But then that wouldn’t have been Donald now, would it?)

So as a small summer, time-waster of a gift, I give you what3words, which has more than 140 characters, more than three words, to say for itself:

The world is poorly addressed. This is frustrating and costly in developed nations; and in developing nations this is life-threatening and growth limiting.

what3words is a unique combination of just 3 words that identifies a 3mx3m square, anywhere on the planet.

It’s far more accurate than a postal address and it’s much easier to remember, use and share than a set of coordinates.

Better addressing improves customer experience, delivers business efficiencies, drives growth and helps the social & economic development of countries.

There are 57 trillion of these squares that make up the planet, and as someone who lives in an ambiguous address, with multiple instances of the same street name throughout different sections of the city – half the time Uber is looking in another part of the city for me, and don’t get me going on when we were trying to get drugs delivered here when my husband was in hospice care – I like the idea that swift.penny.saves is all mine. (Although I would have preferred the neighboring designation of couple.sleep.error.)

Why not use longitude and latitude, you may well be asking yourself:

Using words means non-technical people can accurately find any location and communicate it more quickly, more easily and with less ambiguity than any other system like street addresses, postcodes, latitude & longitude or mobile short-links.

I spent the first 6.5 years of my life at voted.zest.react. My family then moved to snow.chins.fried. My mother moved to voted.zest.react – where my father grew up – from suffice.wing.crush.

There’s no end to the time wasting you can do once you download what3words to your smartphone (iPhone or Android). Every place you ever lived. Every place you ever worked. Every place everyone you know has ever lived or worked.

I don’t want to give any exact addresses away, so I’ll just do two-out-of three words, and let you figure out the third word (out of 40,000 possibilities). My sister Kath’s address includes the words bolts and yards. Trish’s address has the words couch and decide in it. My brother Rich’s location has worth and animal in it; Tom’s home address includes spines and tolerance.

Why stop with my sibs, when there’s all those cousins to look up?

Babs is redefining.treatment. MB’s is a bit scarier. Hers includes manipulated and disappeared. Ellen, on the other hand, has the benign deck and lunch in her address.

My friend Peter, who is a BC grad, and is, thus, an Eagle, has the word eagles in his address. But what am I to make of Shelly’s location, which includes tanks and dust?

The Donald, by the way, lives at But he’s hoping to move into engine.doors.cubs. With luck, by November he’ll have had the meltdown that even his greatest supporter will recognize as disqualifying, and the Trumpeteers will be singing “The party’s over.” Back to to you, Mr. T.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental…

Attention all you single ladies (all you single ladies): Sotheby’s failed to unload the 1,109-carat Lesidi La Rona diamond at last week’s auction. Alas, no bidder came up with the $70M reserve price. So if there’s someone in your life who shoulda put a ring on it, he may still be able to get his hands on it. After all, nothing says “somebody out there wants me” more than an engagement ring on your hand with a stone as big as a tennis ball.

To put it mildly, I am not a bling kind of girl. And although I was married, I was never exactly engaged. So there’s no sparkler on my ring finger. And if I’d wanted an engagement ring, it wouldn’t have been a diamond. Just not a me kind of thing. And the days when someone could sing with a straight face that “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” are well in the rear view mirror. At least I hope so.

I do have plenty of friends and relations who do have engagement rings, but I will note that, for most of those my age, these were a rather modest affair. They weren’t obsessed with size, shape, and spend. They were engaged, but were practical. Those who sport more dazzling rings got them as a way-later-on anniversary gift.

But somewhere along the way (post the era when most of my peers were getting married), the diamond industry began encouraging more spending on the all important engagement ring.

So with very little googling, you can find all sorts of sites that contain guidance on how to find your magic number. Twenty percent of gross salary. Thirty percent of net. The same amount that you spend on a car. I even found a site with an elaborate calculator that factors in education level (both parties), rent-own-live-with-parents (both parties), looks (both parties), hotness (her alone), and frequency of sex. When I read these things I have to ask myself: is this why I subscribed to Ms. Magazine and (metaphorically) burned my bra?

Anyway, the diamond industry – which, I believe, invented the idea of the engagement ring – has troubles beyond not being able to find a buyer for the Lesedi La Rona. A lot of people have decided that diamonds are not only not a girl’s best friend, they’re considered down right evil. After all, they are often used to finance brutal and bloody conflicts in Africa:

That reek of notoriety has clung to the industry in recent years, especially among the millennial generation that came of age as evidence of “blood diamonds” emerged from the war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s.” (Source: The Economist)

Add to the “blood diamond” problem has been the decline in demand from China.

That has dragged prices of top-quality cut diamonds down from about $12,000 per carat to $7,400 in five years.

But the biggest threat may be the emergence of the cultivated diamond industry, which produces synthetic diamonds in a lab environment, rather than 100 miles below ground. And those lab diamonds don’t take 1 billion years to form. (Or a Superman to crush a lump of coal into a diamond, as occurred in one of my favorite Superman episodes.) Lab-grown diamonds are now “almost indistinguishable from those dug up from the ground.” They’re only a bit cheaper than “natural” diamonds, but they don’t come with any of the ethical sourcing baggage.

To counter the threat from synthetic diamonds, the Diamond Producers’ Association, has begun using the slogan “Real is rare.”

While they’re called synthetic diamonds, I don’t see how something created from carbon using an accelerated, technology-base process is any less real than something that’s been sitting there being heated and crushed for a billion years. One just took longer. It’s not like a synthetic diamond is a cubic zirconium. Just like their “rare real” counterparts, whether “square-cut or pear shaped, these rocks don’t lose their shape,” either.

I will not be losing any sleep over the (mis)fortunes of the diamond industry. Any sympathies I have will go to the brutalized miners, and the victims of brutal warfare in Africa.

And I will most certainly not shed any tears that Sotheby’s couldn’t find a buyer for the Lesedi La Rona. (Ha! I say ha, ha!)

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Horseshoe capital of the United States

When I was growing up, I always envied folks whose hometowns were known for something. Everyone knew that Detroit made cars. That LA made movies. That Washington DC made laws. That Akron made tires. That Hartford was “the insurance capital of the world.” Less well known were New England towns of Danbury for hats and Waltham for watches. Then there’s Westfield, Massachusetts: Whip City.

It may not have been all that glamorous, but our Chicago cousins – in addition to being from a BIG city that people had actually heard of – could (although blessedly they didn’t) brag about their hometwon being “hog butcher for the world.”

And don’t get me going on those US map puzzles. Oil derrick: Oklahoma. Cotton boll: Mississippi. Ear of corn: Kansas. Massachusetts? Even with half the New England states getting merged into one puzzle piece, Massachusetts was still too small to have any iconic image plunked into it. And what would it have been, anyway? Maine hogged the lobster…

It’s not as if Worcester didn’t make stuff. Like any good post-war industrial city, we made lots of stuff. I’ve been through the lineup before, but here goes yet again.Just off top of head, Worcester had factories that produced guns, shoes and boots, pocketbooks, plastic toys. Those come top of head because, during high school or college, my friends and I had summer jobs in these places. Other than the pocketbook factory. I didn’t know anyone who worked there, but I shopped there. A grammar school classmate’s mother worked as a stitcher at Ricky Bra. This stays in my mind because, after my classmate was nabbed smoking in the vestibule of the church, a parish priest told her that he was going to call her mother. Ann told him that he couldn’t, because her mother worked. Where does she work? he asked. “She’s a stitcher at Ricky Bra.” Saying “bra” to a priest’s face was apparently enough to get your face slapped…

Worcester made Appian Way pizza mix and Table Talk pies.

Worcester also made industrial stuff: abrasives, parts for aircraft engines, fine wire for what we’d now call the automotive supply chain. And astronaut suits. Worcester made astronaut suits.

And as I learned from the Boston Globe the other day, Worcester also made – and still does – pitching horseshoes, at the St. Pierre Manufacturing Corporation.

According to Peter St. Pierre, the family-owned company remains as the last-standing mass manufacturer of pitching horseshoes in the United States.

The company has been in business for 90 years, and started out making tire chains before adding horseshoes to their product line. (Tire chains? I was going to say talk about a latter-day buggy whip, but the company still makes them. Civilians like my father, however, no longer use them. Pre-snow tires, they were a necessity of life in Worcester, which is not only built on steep hills, but gets the worst winter weather this side of Mt. Everest.)

A smattering of boutique shoe makers also exist in the United States and cater almost exclusively to upper-end tournament pitchers, including professional players. St. Pierre, though, stands alone in that it produces hundreds of thousands of shoes per year, the bulk of the business pegged around recreational players who throw in backyards, at company outings, family picnics, and, rumor has it, behind the odd barroom and firehouse.

While St. Pierre (the company) has no American competitor, they do face competition from China. Says St. Pierre (the human):

“We like to think our shoe is better. We use forged steel. Chinese companies use a casting method that is less expensive, has air pockets, and is not nearly as strong. Our horseshoes don’t break.’’

Inferior production? Less expensive? Fall apart and replace?

You will be shocked, I’m telling you shocked, to learn that Walmart, which used to carry St. Pierre horseshoes, these days carries product made only in China.

I don’t know about you, but I would think that you’d want to have a quality horseshoe set. I mean, bad enough having to be on the lookout for an errant toss. Who wants to worry about a piece of air-pockety Chinese horseshoe hitting the stake, falling apart, and ricocheting towards your head.

So here’s a warning to horseshoeing America: accept no substitutes. If you want to set up the game in your backyard this summer, look for the St. Pierre label. Dick’s sells St. Pierre, so if you’re in the market…

While horseshoe pitching is not growing in popularity – it had it’s last spurt when George H. W. Bush was president and had a pit put in at Camp David – it hasn’t died out yet, either. Even in New England, there are places you can play year round, like the Valley Springs Sportsman’s Club in Thompson, Conn. – which is not far from Worcester – where horseshoe aficionado Ray Bedard goes when he feels the urge:

“Do you play golf?’’ Bedard asked a recent visitor to Thompson, where he and friends meet nearly every Thursday night to play inside Valley Springs’ cozy red barn for a couple of hours. “Horseshoes is the same kind of game . . . you know, self-abuse.’’

Self-abuse, eh? Must have a somewhat different meaning in the horseshoe world. Or maybe not. Those who pitch horseshoes do find it pleasurable. And it’s something you can definitely play by yourself. So…

Just keep in mind that if you decide that horseshoes sounds like fun, make sure that you’re getting the real deal from a Worcester company. Massachusetts hasn’t gotten any larger, relative to the other united (or not so united) states, so there’s still not room to put a horseshoe on our fair state in those map puzzles. But you heard it hear: Worcester, Massachusetts is the horseshoe capital of the United States.

All hail, Heart of the Commonwealth!


Crave more info on the St. Pierre company. Here you go. (Ringer!)