Monday, April 30, 2018

America’s Ginsengland stresses out

I can honestly say that, in my many, many years of life, I have given zero conscious thought to ginseng. If we were playing word-association, it would be 1) tea; 2) China; 3) health food stores. If over the course of those many, many years of life, I’ve ingested ginseng I’m guessing it was in Chinese food. Or maybe I’m getting it confused with ginger. (Perhaps I should be taking ginseng for confusion and memory lapses.)

But it I’d grown up in Marathon County, Wisconsin – which, blessedly, I did not – I’d know plenty about ginseng.

Wisconsin, you ask? As in America’s Dairyland?

Yes, that Wisconsin, where it’s not all contented cows, Sargento cheese, and Green Bay Packers fans (a.k.a., Cheeseheads) sporting wedge o’ cheese hats. At least not in Marathon County.

This rural area built an important local industry as a purveyor of a premium product for China’s rising middle class, where its ginseng is sold in boxes bearing the American flag and the line, “Something Special from Wisconsin.”

…Ginseng exports are a $30 million industry in Marathon County, and local economists estimate that each new job in ginseng creates as many as four additional jobs. (Source: Washington Post)

Oh, ginseng isn’t all that Marathon County has going for it. The county’s largest city is Wausau, known for insurance (its eponymous insurance company is now part of Liberty Mutual) and for manufacturing. And there is nearly one dairy cow for each of the county’s 135k two-legged residents. But ginseng is an important product – especially for the 180 local farmers who grow it in America’s Ginsengland:

This rural area built an important local industry as a purveyor of a premium product for China’s rising middle class, where its ginseng is sold in boxes bearing the American flag and the line, “Something Special from Wisconsin.”

…Historically, middle- and upper-class Chinese consumers have given the pricey root as gifts, or used it to brew teas and broths believed to confer health benefits. As the Chinese middle class has grown, however, so has the demand for Wisconsin ginseng — from bitter candies to K-cups.

Bitter candies and ginseng K-cups? Include me out, please. (Side note: this reminds me of the absolutely worst piece of candy I ever ate. It was on a childhood trip to Sturbridge Village – an old timey fake early 1800’s era town – and we were either given a sample or my father bought a bag. Anyway, I remember spitting the terrible candy out immediately, and feeling nauseated for hours after. What a bitter, nasty candy that was. But what do you expect from horehound, which is used, among other things, as a vermifuge. And, yes, I had to look it up to find out it means something that expels intestinal parasites. If that was the big treat available in the 19th century, I’d rather have grow up in Marathon County in the 1950’s than Sturbridge Village in the 1850’s. And that’s even if we spotted Sturbridge Village some indoor plumbing.)

Anyway, Wisconsin ginseng is pricier than more plentiful variants grown in Korea and China, but even with that, making a living off of ginseng is a tough go. And the going’s likely going to get tougher when the 15 percent tariff that China recently leveled on ginseng (among other agricultural products) clicks in. Locals are anticipating – and fearing - a decline in sales.

Growers fear the tariff is likely to reduce demand in China, leading dried roots to pile up stateside and cutting wholesale prices.

China placed tariffs on U.S. chicken parts in 2009 as part of a trade dispute with the Obama administration. That market never recovered: China turned to Brazil instead.

Wisconsin ginseng growers aren’t afraid of Brazil. It’s Canada that exports a lot of ginseng and could pick up the Wisconsin piece of the action if the tariff prices Marathon County out.

It’s almost gratuitous to say that Marathon County voted overwhelmingly for Trump, perhaps buying into the ‘trade wars are good and easy to win’ philosophy. Sigh.

Be careful what you wish for sounds like something straight out of a fortune cookie, doesn’t it?

Globalization absolutely has winners and losers. And even if it pretty much always aggregates into an overall win, that’s cold comfort to those who lose out on the micro level. Time for a stress-reducing cup of ginseng tea.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Box Dinner

I have a friend – quite a good cook, by the way – who a year or so ago signed up for Blue Apron. He and his husband used it for a while. But it was pricey. And sometimes it turned out that they weren’t in the mood for what sounded like a good idea a few days earlier when they picked it off the menu. They liked not having to invest in some obscure spice that they were never going to use again. And they liked the portion control. Sort of. They didn’t like going through the PITA of cooking – however simple Blue Apron made it – and not having any leftovers.

So they subscribed for a while. And then they went back to doing what they’d always done: planning their meals, shopping, chopping, cooking and, occasionally, deciding to hell with it and ordering a pizza.

Me?I can see the appeal of Blue Apron, and the other biggie on the scene, HelloFresh. Subscribing would certainly make my cooking more varied and interesting. I probably really cook something like once or twice a week. And that includes throwing a chicken breast on my George Foreman Grill, whipping up some pasta aglio et olio (with some walnuts tossed in for good measure), or making myself an omelet (or, if I’m feeling really lazy, scrambled eggs – a decison sometimes made mid-omelet).

Most nights, I make myself a salad. Or have whatever’s left over from the night I cooked. If I’ve gone out to eat, I may well have a doggy bag in there. Sometimes I pick up a MRE at the grocery store. (Roche Bros. has a very tasty shepherd’s pie that lasts for two meals.) I’ve been known to sup on a PBJ or toasted cheese.

I can rise to the occasion and prepare an edible meal, but I’m not someone who enjoys cooking. Maybe if it all came in a box, I’d like it better. But, if I’m being honest here, probably not. Not enough to make a commitment to a subscription service, however short term that commitment would have to be.

Whether I’m the audience or not, the box dinner providers aren’t doing all that well.

Blue Apron in America and Germany’s HelloFresh, deliver boxes of pre-portioned ingredients and easy-to-follow recipes to doorsteps worldwide for a fee of around $60 a week.

Blue Apron is also serving up a belly full of woe to investors. Less than a year after it went public in June with a $1.9bn valuation, its share price has fallen by 80%. Although the shares of HelloFresh, which debuted on Frankfurt’s stock exchange in November, have risen by 24%, analysts are concerned that both services may fall prey to competition not from rival startups, but from big grocers. (Source: The Economist)

Supermarkets are a natural. Most of them already have all sorts of MREs and other take-out options. You’re already in there for something or other. They’ve got all sorts of fresh ingredients on hand. Nothing needs to get shipped to your doorstep, so you don’t have to worry about thieves making off with your meal kit or raccoons getting into it. And from a consumer perspective, you don’t need to subscribe to anything. You can go in and commit in your moment of hunger and need and just throw what strikes your fancy into your cart and proceed to checkout.

On the grocery store front, Albertsons acquired Plated, a meal-kit provider, last fall. They’ll be rolling it out to some of their stores this year. There are no Albertsons named Albertsons around here, but they do own Stop & Shop and Shaws, so we may be seeing meal kits on nearby shelves any day now. So I might give it a try. (Walmart is also getting into the act, but there’s no Walmart in my ‘hood and, even if there were, I probably wouldn’t be shopping there.)

Not having to rely on the subscription model will be a real boon to the supermarkets, given that they get around the big challenge that every subscription-based brand needs to overcome: acquiring customers and retaining them.

HelloFresh doubled its customers to 890,000 last year, as well as the number of delivered meals to 20m. But, one year after joining, 89% of its American clients had stopped using the service on a monthly basis, says Second Measure, an analytics firm.

Blue Apron also has attrition problems.

At its peak it boasted 1m subscribers. Its client list shrank by 15% in 2017.

My friend was among them.

Blue Apron has plans to get into the retail channel, but it may be too little too late.

Now that Big Grocery has figured things out, I’m guessing that all the meal-kit providers will get out of it is a) being acquired or b) thanks for the product idea.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Five stars! Love, love, love!

I do a fair amount of online shopping, and I do pay some attention to reviews. If something gets Amazon 1’s across the board, well, I’m probably not going to order it. And I like to see an occasional warning about an otherwise great product. Thus, I would have liked to have gotten a head’s up that the arms on that otherwise great Helly Hansen rain jacket were designed for someone with ape arms.

I do tend to give some credence to reviews. But I’ll judge for myself whether I think that lone 1 rating (and accompanying ranting) is just someone getting stuck with a lemon, is someone who either just likes to spew or someone who is such a domain expert on the product that they can’t deal with anything short of perfection. So if someone who actually cares about woofers and tweeters, and writes a detailed and elaborate review of the boombox that I – as the last person in America who still listens to CDs – am about to buy, and goes nuts about some nuance I can’t begin to understand, I tend to roll my eyes and move on over to checkout.

Anyway, although I’m happy enough (in a casual way) to read what the masses have to say, especially when it’s a product/brand I’m not familiar with, I seldom write reviews myself. I’ve occasionally done a hotel or restaurant review, I don’t know if I’ve actually ever reviewed a product-product.

Turns out that a lot of those reviews, whether I pay attention to them or not, are bogus – and pay for play. And there’s demand for the bogus comments because they can have an impact on sales. While most (estimate: 99%+) of reviews are legit:

…a Washington Post examination found that for some popular product categories, such as bluetooth headphones and speakers, the vast majority of reviews appear to violate Amazon’s prohibition on paid reviews. They have certain characteristics, such as repetitive wording that people likely cut and paste in.

Many of these fraudulent reviews originate on Facebook, where sellers seek shoppers on dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation. The practice artificially inflates the ranking of thousands of products, experts say, misleading consumers.(Source: Boston Globe)

Facebook, huh? They seem to be quite the source of fakery, don’t they? Not satisfied to half-wreck the world, it’s now hell-bent on ruining our lives as consumers? Come on, Marky-mark Z.

Paid reviews were allowed up until a year and a half ago.

But the ban, say sellers and experts, merely pushed an activity that used to take place openly into dispersed and harder-to-track online communities.

Some of the opportunities pay pretty well - direct payment via PayPal plus tips like gift cards. All  this unlevels the selling field:

‘‘These days it is very hard to sell anything on Amazon if you play fairly,’’ said Tommy Noonan, who operates ReviewMeta, a website that helps consumers spot suspicious Amazon reviews. ‘‘If you want your product to be competitive, you have to somehow manufacture reviews.’’

This seems a bit of an exaggeration. I trust the good reviews for Asics sneakers because a) Asics is a known brand; b) they’re not cheap, so I expect them to have a somewhat decent level of quality; and c) they dovetail with my own experience. And why did I buy Asics to begin with? Because a) Asics is a known brand; and b) they’re not cheap, so I expect them to have a somewhat decent level of quality; and c) they come in the all important narrow width.

But I’m not trying to sell anything on line, so what do I know?

Sellers say the flood of inauthentic reviews makes it harder for them to compete legitimately and can crush profits. ‘‘It’s devastating, devastating,’’ said Mark Caldeira, owner of the baby products company Mayapple Baby. He said his product rankings have plummeted in the last year and a half, which he attributes to competitors using paid reviews. ‘‘We just can’t keep up.’’

I did check out a couple of the FB sites that solicit reviewers. The ones I looked at offer steep discounts in return for a review. How great to get all kinds of crap – the sites I looked at were higher on promoting callus removers, lemon reamers, and Snuggies than on high end (or even low end) electronics – and, human nature being human nature, I’m sure that those on the receiving end of discount reamers are grateful for them. And their gratitude inclines them to make their masters happy with nicey-nice reviews.

Wasn’t life a lot easier when you could just out and out ask someone you knew for a recommendation? Or – get this – just go to a store and examine an item before you bought it? And if it turns out, the product sucks, you could bring it back for a refund and/or write a customer complaint letter and get a refund?

Anyway, I don’t need any more crap, thank you. And I really don’t want to make my living writing fake reviews for that crap.

Meh all round!


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Standing room only?

Fortunately – or unfortunately – I don’t fly all that often.

Unfortunate, in that not flying means I’m not going very many places. Sure, there was Ireland last May and Ireland last month, and Dallas coming up in a few weeks. (Dallas R/T covered by my late husband’s frequent flyer miles. Thanks, hon.) But I’m largely a stay at home.

Which is a good thing, because flying is not a tremendous amount of fun.

On the recent Aer Lingus flight, my sister claimed that the meal on the way over was the worst she’d ever had on a plane. It was pretty ghastly, I’ll give her that, but I’d have to rank a piece of beef on an Al Italia flight to Rome about 20 years ago a bit higher/lower on the worst ever scale. Having broken our plastic forks on the tough little food stuff, my husband and I concluded that the meal was actually half hockey puck.

Not picking on Aer Lingus – I actually kind of like them as an airline – but that recent flight to Ireland was only about half full. So why did they pack all those noisy college kids from Nebraska around us? I think they were good enough kids. (Weirdly, they were on some sort of Christian proselytizing mission to Northern Ireland.) But some of them had never been on a plane before, so they were all revved up. And they were doing what college kids do when two or more are gathered together, and that’s make noise and generally behave like jackasses. Which was the case with these kids until my sister gave them her best mother-of-a-college kid (a college kid who, in fact, knows how to travel without acting up and out) stink eye and stink voice, so the kids calmed down.

On the return flight, the food was actually edible. But the young Irish guy next to me sneezed in my direction throughout the entire flight. So I ended up bringing back a sweater for myself, a baby gift, and a two-week head cold.

So, no, flying – unless you’re in a bed on Emirates – is not a lot of fun. (Not that I would know this up close and personal, but I have seen the ads.)

Maybe flying never was, at least for those of us who missed out on the Golden Age of Air Travel, where everyone dressed up, everyone got a seat the size of a Barcalounger, and the food (presumably edible) was served on china plates. But I don’t remember it being quite so unpleasant in my days of business trips and regular vacations.

The airlines, of course, seem to continuously conspire to make flying even more awful, especially for those of us relegated to steerage. (Note to self: check out how many miles it would take to upgrade that Dallas flight to business.)

Legroom gets stingier. Food – appalling as it is – is sometimes not even given out. And now this:

SRO flight

I get annoyed when I have to straphang on a 20 minute T-ride from Brookline to Boston, always putting on a combo aggrieved/resigned expression and positioning myself in front of someone young, prominently flashing my senior T-pass. Imagine flying on the red-eye in one of these.

Meet the Skyrider 2.0. The name, right down to the 2.0, makes it sound like a cool device out of “Star Wars.” Who wouldn’t want to climb upon something called the Skyrider and zoom through the air? I’ll tell you who: Anyone in their right mind.

The Skyrider 2.0, engineered by Italian aerospace interior design company AvioInteriors Group and introduced at Hamburg’s Airplane Interiors Expo this month, puts passengers in a near-standing position, with their backsides positioned on sharply tilted polyester saddle/bike seat. It’s like a petite perch that puts you in a near-standing position for the duration of the flight. (Source: Boston Globe)

Installing these puppies will let an airline add 20 percent more passengers. Plus it will save on fuel.

“Skyrider 2.0 is the new frontier of low-cost tickets,” Aviointeriors declares on its website. It continues on an altruistic note, saying that these seats will allow those who couldn’t afford to fly in the past an opportunity to finally do so.

I’m guessing that these seats are aimed at short haul budget flights, like Ryanair, and not on trans-ocean flights. Still, I don’t think I’d want to spend even an hour strapped onto a bicycle seat.

I do see a few advantages. You don’t have the kid in the seat behind you kicking the back of your seat throughout the flight, or have the knucklehead in front of you jolt back his seat so that his head is reclining in your lap. You’d never have to listen to an announcement asking you to put your seat in an upright position – you’ll be there already! Plus it looks like it would be impossible to feed the masses, so there’s no worry about rotten food. And it doesn’t look like there’d be room for the person next to you to whip out a smelly tuna sub – which they should not allow to be sold in airports, by the way – a few minutes into the flight.

On the other hand, it would do absolutely nothing to prevent the person next to you from sneezing your way for six hours.

Let me know when each of these comes equipped with some sort of gumbometer – maybe one with mild laughing gas piped in; you know, the good stuff they give you when you have your colonoscopy – that protects you from the germs, squirms, and moans of your fellow straphangers.

Better yet, if air travel goes SRO, maybe I’ll just stay home.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

What’s in a name?

I decided to take a break from reading about Trump’s mendacity, his venality, his dangerous lack of impulse control, his fecklessness, his recklessness, his ignorance, his paranoia, etc. etc.  And, lo and WaPo behold, there was a nicely distracting article on Trump’s merchandising deals, most of which – you will be shocked to learn – are no longer.

When The Apprentice was first on, I watched an occasional episode. In one, two teams were pitted against each other in a contest to see who could sell the most Trump bottled water.

I’ve never seen it anywhere in real life - Boston wouldn’t be the natural watering hole for anything with the Trump label on it – but apparently it’s what they put on the credenza for you if you stay at a Trump hotel.

Not clear whether there’s anyplace you can buy Trump wine around here, either. Not that you’d want to. I’ve seen the red described as “Welch’s grape juice with alcohol.” But it can be ordered online, and it’s on the menu at Trump hotels.

You can also buy Trump hats, polo shirts, glassware, teddy bears and other stuff at the Trump Store, if one were so inclined. And there is, of course, the MAGA-based store, where you can get merch like a MAGA cap (fetchingly modeled by an African American, but not the same guy who Trump pointed out at one of his rallies as “my African American over there”; must be the other one) and a cap labeled American Dreamer. Ahem.

But back in the day, there used to be a whole lot of Trump products that, while they bore the Trump name, were designed and marketed by outside parties. These entities paid Trump hefty licensing fees in hopes that this would confer luxury on their wares and pump up sales. Trump made a lot of money over the years, something that’s absolutely unfathomable to me, of course. But there is no accounting for taste.

Anyway, Trump products included:

Trump deodorant. Trump ties. Trump steaks. Trump underwear. Trump furniture. At one time, there was even a Trump-branded urine test.

Now, almost all of them are gone.

In recent weeks, only two said they are still selling Trump-branded goods. One is a Panamanian company selling Trump bed linens and home goods. The other is a Turkish company selling Trump furniture. (Source: Washington Post)

There was also Trump vodka, coffee, and pillows. (I’d have to have quaffed plenty of that vodka to lay me down to sleep on Trump linens on a Trump pillow, that’s for sure.)

Oh, some of the stuff is still out there on discount web sites. Trump deodorant – “EMPIRE’s confident stride begins with crisp notes of peppermint, rich chai accord and a hint of juicy apple. It’s addictive aroma continues to unfold into the heart of the fragrance with a masculine blend of orange flower and jasmine that mingles with exotic tonka bean. Veiled beneath the elegance and structure, is an all-enveloping warmth and charm accentuated by elements of rich amber and seductive musk” – can be had at $2.99, marked down from $14.

Of course, in real life the fragrance would be part Big Mac, part bile.

Anyway, even though I don’t think a penny of that $2.99 would accrue to Trump – I’m sure he made his on this years ago – and I do think that something like this would make an excellent Yankee Swap gift, I’ll take a pass. (I already have my 2018 Yankee Swap, by the way…)

Trump steaks are long gone – Sharper Image 86’d them in 2007 because they weren’t selling. Too much fat? Whiff of BS?

As for the Trump urine test... The test – based on junk science, as it not surprisingly turns out – was used to determine which Trump nutritional supplements/vitamins you needed. These were available through a multi-level marketing scheme that went bust in 2012, after a whole bunch of folks – perhaps grads of Trump University? – had lost money buying their sales kits.

All I can say is that, if the Steele Dossier pans out, the urine test could sure make a comeback.

Of the few products that licensed the Trump name that are still on the market, the furniture doesn’t actually promote the Trump name anymore.Trump_About_6 I took a look at it, and most of it was not to my liking. This chair looks like something that Superman’s father, Jor-El might have had in his living room on Krypton.

And it’s not gold, so how would the purchaser know it had anything to do with Trump?

Not that slapping your name on stuff didn’t make a lot of sense, and bring in a lot of revenue at one point in time

During the high times of The Apprentice, a Trump men’s clothing line – even one that featured sack suits and overlong ties – sold at Macy’s would certainly have held appeal to some folks.


In 2009, Trump reported that his licensing partners had sold $215 million worth of Trump-licensed goods worldwide.

Admittedly, “Trump reported” is no guarantee that this number is anything close to reality. But even if it’s off by an order of magnitude, that’s a lot of money coming in for doing nothing other than letting someone else use your name.

But the licensing revenue seems to have dwindled to $370K.

No need to shed any tears. While the licensing business may have dried up, being president comes with an upside.

…it has allowed his Mar-a-Lago Club and his D.C. hotel to mon­etize his political alliances, raking in money from evangelical Christian groups and GOP campaigns.

While Trump is highly unlikely to be the mega-billionaire he claims to be – and fear of this being confirmed is, I suspect, what’s motivating some of his paranoia about what all the investigations might reveal – he certainly has a certain feral genius for making money without doing much heavy lifting.

It helps, of course that he has a distinctive name. While it holds no cachet for me – way too Atlantic City, even if its bearer weren’t a POTUS I abhor – it’s strong, punchy, and memorable. All good things when it comes to marketing. But conferring “luxury”? I really don’t see it at all, at all. And I’m not alone.

“A caricature of what wealth is — as opposed to what real wealth is,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a consultant to luxury brands. Trump sold to those, he said, “who didn’t know the difference,” he said.

Well, that’s pretty condescending, Milton, but you did read my mind here.

Pedraza also pointed out that one of the problems with Trump’s approach was that he:

…...began to undermine his own success by “label-slapping” — sticking his name on anything he could, even the farfetched and ridiculous. Emeril Lagasse sold pots. Greg Norman sold golf shirts. Trump sold. . . everything.

“There was no strategy,” Pedraza said.

“No strategy” is starting to sound like a rather familiar refrain, isn’t it?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Forget ‘where’s the beef?’ It’s going to be ‘where’s the heme?’

I read somewhere that the food missed the most by former carnivores who’d converted to vegetarianism is bacon. I can see that. But I’m guessing that a good old burger would run a close second. It would for me, anyway.

Don’t get me wrong. I like meat. I like steak. And duck. Baby lamb chops. Veal piccata. Pork chops. Chicken. I really like chicken.

I like stuff made with meat: beef stew, chicken noodle soup, shepherd’s pie, chili, spaghetti Carbonara.  BLT’s. Gus sandwiches. (A Gus was invented by me and my brother Tom when we were kids: bacon, lettuce, cheese, dill pickle and mayo. Yum!)

But I could become a vegetarian. I’m already about a 90% in-house vegetarian.

What I could never be is a vegan. No dairy? No eggs? No honey? Fuggedaboutit.

But vegetarian? Yeah.

There are plenty of good reasons to become a vegetarian. Health, for  one. Then there’s the yuck factor about where most of our meat comes from. Sure, I look for the free range chicken and grass-fed beef. But those meat factories? The slaughterhouses? Just thinking about the yuck factor…

What I don’t tend to think about is the environmental implications of eating meat. All that meat consumption – and as wealth increases worldwide, there’s a lot more of it – ain’t all that good for Mother Earth. Greenhouse gases, water pollution. We should be eating less meat, not more.

For Patrick Brown, beef is the biggest culprit.

Animal agriculture eats up an astonishing 30 percent of the earth’s land. Brown says he’s tackling the problem with a burger that uses 95 percent less land and 75 percent less water than ground beef.(Source: Bloomberg).

And his company, Impossible Foods, is trying to do something about it. He’s come up with a “magic ingredient” that makes a veggie burger taste like a real burger.

The ingredient, made from soybean roots and genetically engineered yeast, goes into vegetarian Impossible Burgers, which are available in a growing number of restaurants -- even fast-food stalwart White Castle. It contains heme (pronounced HEEM), a key part of red meat and a source of iron, which humans can’t live without. Think of Brown’s discovery as plant-based blood. Brown, 63, says it makes the Impossible Burger sizzle, smell and taste like real red meat…

“The way to solve this big global problem is not by ordering people to change their diets, it’s realizing that we’re using the wrong technology,” Brown said. “You can’t make meat that satisfies the craving that meat-lovers have without heme. It’s the magic ingredient.’

Ah, heme. (Is there anyone else out there of a certain age who’s thinking about Hemo the Magnificent, an animated film all about blood that educated us kiddos in the late 1950’s. I don’t believe that Hemo the Magnificent had anything to say about why we like those drippy, juicy, medium-rare burgers. I’m pretty sure it focused on the blood coursing through our veins. Guess by the time you get to a certain age, pretty much anything and everything can dredge up a reference to something from childhood. All I an say is, expect more of the same.)

The idea of a vegetarian burger that closely resembles a meaty-burger almost gets me to see if there’s a White Castle in Boston where I can get one. Almost, but not quite.

Anyway, I’m all for meatless-meat, and Impossible Burger’s impossible burger sounds more appetizing than that meat grown in a petri dish.

Couple of problems.

Impossible is looking for FDA approval, and the FDA says that plant-based heme is too new for them to sign off on it. Then there’s this:

The heme molecule is also involved in another controversy. Studies have shown that steak lovers are at risk of colon cancer while chicken breast junkies aren’t. Heme makes red meat red, so some researchers think it could be a culprit, said Robert Turesky, a professor at the University of Minnesota.

Oh, no. Will vegetarians have to turn to fake chicken McNuggets?

Brown disputes this, dismissing reports on the possibility that heme is a carcinogen as “garbage science.”

Meanwhile, there’s plenty of smart money backing Impossible Foods, including Bill Gates and Google Ventures.

Fake meat will be one of the year’s hottest food trends. An increasing number of flexitarians -- people not looking to eat meat at every meal -- are helping to drive interest, according to Rabobank. Sales of alternative proteins are dwarfed by the $49 billion red meat and chicken market, but they’re expected to grow about 17 percent a year to $863 million in 2021, according to a CoBank estimate.

Ah, flexitarian. Guess that’s what I am. Always nice to have another modifier…

Meanwhile, go Impossible Foods. Forget ‘where’s the beef?’ Looks like we’ll be asking ‘where’s the heme?’

Friday, April 20, 2018

This price ain’t right

My doctor recently advised me to get a shot for pneumonia. I’m over 65. I volunteer in a homeless shelter. And I’ve had two pretty formidable head colds this year.

She didn’t have the drug in her office, but told me I could get the shot at CVS.

When, prescription in hand, I got to CVS, I found that Prevnar wasn’t covered under my drug plan. The shot would cost me $230. We did a bit of back and forth with my doctor and the insurance provider, but I decided to go ahead and get the shot. Amortized across five years, $230 is not much if it prevents me from getting pneumonia.

The bottom line was my bottom line: I can afford it. (And, miraculously, I had just won $230 by winning the NCAA March Madness bracket at the gym. So I even had the cash in my pocket.)

Lucky me.

But for a lot of folks, $230 is a big deal, especially if they’re elderly and on a fixed income.

When my husband was undergoing cancer treatment, we didn’t bother to keep track of all the drug-related costs – prescriptions, chemo – or any costs for that matter. When we’d get the periodic reports from Medicare and Blue Cross, thick files that no one could possibly understand or interpret, we’d just go to the bottom line and find that – hip, hip, hooray! – we owed nothing.

Over two years of fairly intense treatment, I don’t think that Jim’s accumulated out-of-pocket expenses came anywhere near the $230 I paid for the Prevnar shot.

Lucky us. (Sort of. Jim wasn’t all that lucky…)

But for a lot of folks, even those covered by Medicare and/or other insurance, those thick reports include a notice of how much you owe. And for many of those folks, what they owe can be plenty.

Anyway, with the recent nothing-to-do-with-cancer Prevnar episode and Jim’s treatment not all that far in the rearview mirror, I read an article on one cancer drug in the Washington Post with great interest.

There’s a blood cancer drug, Imbruvica, that costs $148K a year. Some physicians looked into whether they could lower costs by lowering the dosage. Turns out, it looked like they could. Patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia seemed to do just as well taking fewer pills once they’d gone through an initial higher-dosage round. Which would mean a big money saver for those with high deductibles, and for insurance providers. Looked like a win-win. But not a win-win-win.

While the researchers were thinking about celebrating that win-win:

…they learned of a new pricing strategy by Janssen and Pharmacyclics, the companies that sell Imbruvica through a partnership. Within the next three months, the companies will stop making the original 140-milligram capsule, a spokeswoman confirmed. They will instead offer tablets in four strengths — each of which has the same flat price of about $400, or triple the original cost of the pill.

Just as scientific momentum was building to test the effectiveness of lower doses, the new pricing scheme ensures dose reductions won't save patients money or erode companies' revenue from selling the drug. In fact, patients who had been doing well on a low dose of the drug would now pay more for their treatment. Those who stay on the dose equivalent to three pills a day won't see a change in price. (Source: Washington Post)

The pharmas are, of course, defending this move as innovative and convenient. While – mirabile dictu – keeping their profits.

I’m all in favor of pharmaceutical companies being able to recoup their research costs. But this sounds pretty darned nastily rapacious and f’d up.

Because high out-of-pocket costs are a big barrier to folks staying on their drugs. Someone who had been paying $5K under the prior regimen would now being paying nearly twice that. The average Social Security payment is a bit over $1.1K. And there it could go in one fell swoop. Or worse:

…Despite efforts to connect patients with resources to help them afford co-pays, some will request a drug that is cheaper but maybe less effective — or even push to discontinue the medicine.

I don’t know what the answer is to the high cost of drugs in particular and healthcare in general. And I’m not arguing that it should all be free. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if there were Medicare copays for those who can afford them. And there comes a point where, I believe, someone who elects extraordinary measures should expect to pay for them. (E.g., organ transplants for 80 year olds.)

As gouges go, this move by Janssen and Pharmacyclics, while not quite rising to the Martin Shkreli level, seems a bit much. The new price just ain’t right.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Got the blues? Got the reds? Got the Yinmins?

My favorite color is now and always has been blue. Maybe it’s because I was the blue-eyed tow-head who – when the clothing wasn’t hand-me-down, which more often than not it was – was automatically assigned something blue. I was bummed that both my grammar and high school uniforms were forest green, not navy blue. I craved a blue-frosted birthday cake, but my mother didn’t approve of blue as a food color (other than blueberries and Easter eggs). One of the highlights of my childhood was attending a birthday party where not only did the cake have blue icing, but the ginger-ale was died blue, too.

And things haven’t changed all that much. I still gravitate towards blue clothing. My bedroom, foyer, hall, kitchen, and upstairs bathroom all are painted some shade of blue. Two chairs in the living room are blue. (What would my mother say? She didn’t like blue as a decorating color, either.)

I’m enough of a blue person that I’m relieved that, when they assigned a color to indicate the political leaning of a state, left-ish states got blue. (Phew!)

Although in many respects, I’m an oddball, my affection for blue is hardly unique:

It’s overwhelmingly America’s favorite color, according to Pressman of the Pantone Color Institute. “Blue is that concept of hope, promise, dependability, stability, calm, and cool,” she says. “We think of it as a color of constancy and truth. It’s one of the most approachable colors, the color that’s the most comfortable.” Blue is central to the brand imaging of Ikea, Ford, Walmart, and Facebook. It’s on our refrigerator shelves, our walls, our clothes. Two-thirds of Major League Baseball teams feature blue on their uniforms. Blue is everywhere. (Source: Bloomberg)

When it comes to blue, there’s an awful lot of choices out there. Having gone through not one but two Benjamin Moore fan decks when I picked the colors for my 2015 reno, I can vouch for that.

Despite my interest in things blue, I haven’t given a lot of thought to how we get all those color choices. Sure, I was in marketing so I know all about CYMK and Pantone PMS. All those formulae out there…But what’s really behind colors? Hmmmm.

As it turns out, there’s an awful lot, going way back in time, back to before there were MLB teams with some blue in their uniforms.

Blue is one of nature’s most abundant tones, but it’s proved hard for human hands to create. When the ancient Egyptians tried to replicate the deep, oceanic tone of ultramarine to adorn tombs, papyrus, and art, they wound up with something more like turquoise. During the Renaissance, ultramarine could be costlier than gold, because the lapis lazuli from which it derives was mined in remote Afghanistan. (Michelangelo nevertheless scored some for the Sistine Chapel ceiling.) The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue, or ferric ferrocyanide, wasn’t discovered until the early 18th century, by a German chemist trying to make red. Since then, many common blues (cerulean, midnight, aquamarine, smalt) have contained traces of cobalt, a suspected carcinogen.

So there are scientists who focus on developing new pigments. A pigment is “a substance capable of imparting color onto another material.” In other words, you need pigments to make colors. One such scientist is Mas Subramanian, who discovered/invented YInMn blue “the first blue pigment discovered in more than 200 years”. And a pigment that seems to be better, less dangerous, than the blues that are out there.

Pigments get patented, and can turn into big business. The pigment “responsible for the crisp whiteness of traffic lines, toothpaste, and powdered doughnuts” is worth a cool $13.2B per annum. The overall market for pigments is $30B. (Pretty good market share for that powdered doughnut pigment…)

YInMn is wending it’s way through the approval process – it has been approved for industrial coatings and plastics. And Crayola has recently introduced Bluetiful, its first new color in years, which is “inspired” by YInMn.

What might get in YInMn’s way of mass commercialization is that, because of the scarcity of one of its chemical components, it’s pretty pricey.

Anyway, price aside, blue seems to be on a good path. Not so red, which has always been something of a color problem child. Remember when they had to take red M&M’s out of the bag? And I learned from the article, the Red Coats who the embattled farmers took on at Lexington and Concord wore red coats “infused with crushed cochineal beetles.” Well, yuck.

More than 200 natural and synthetic red pigments exist today, but each has issues with safety, stability, chromaticity, and/or opacity. Red 254, aka Ferrari red, for example, is safe and popular, but it’s also carbon-based, leaving it susceptible to fading in the rain or the heat…The world lacks a great all-around red. Always has.

Pigment scientists are working on it, but, as a non-red person – other than red Chuckles and jelly beans - I’m not all that concerned.

Red’s problem is just one more reason I’m happy to be blue.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

On the 18th of April in ‘75…

I had something else lined up for today’s post, but then presidential historian Michael Beschloss tweeted out this image – Grant Wood’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. This, quite naturally, put me in mind of Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” the first two stanzas of which we had to memorize in grammar school.

Paul Revere's Ride

And, so, every April 18th, these words pop into my head, unbidden:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five:
Hardly a man is now alive 
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal-light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country-folk to be up and to arm.
I grew up, of course, in what was likely the last era when schoolchildren were required to memorize stuff. Lots of poetry – much of it doggerel. The times-tables up to 12. And, if you went to parochial school, lots of catechism answers (many of which made no sense whatsoever). 
And this stuff sticks with you. I’ve got those two first stanzas of “Paul Revere’s Ride” down cold. Not to mention the entirety of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Concord Hymn,” which commemorates the dead of the Battle of Concord. (Those dead being the “country-folk” who got “up and to arm” thanks to Paul Revere’s midnight ride.) The Battle of Concord occurred on the 19th of April in ‘75. And these words will pop into my head, unbidden, tomorrow. 
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Concord Bridge is a really lovely spot. If we ever get a lovely spring day, I just might zip out there and pay it a visit. (And recite this poem, silently, to myself.)

What else do I know, thanks to the nuns?

Other first Longfellow stanzas – “Hiawatha” and “Evangeline.” For some reason, bits of Robert W. Service (“The Spell of the Yukon.”), bits of Alfred Noyes (“The Highwayman,” “The Moon Is Up.”), bits of John Greenleaf Whittier (“Snow-Bound”). Henry Holcomb Bennett (“The Flag Goes By”) And, yes, I had to look up the poet’s name for this one. I would have sworn it was Helen Hunt Jackson. But, no, she was “October’s Bright Blue Weather.”

Occasionally, we memorized a poem in its entirety:

William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils.” Emily Dickinson’s “I Never Saw a Moor” – an easy-peasy one: 8 lines. Robert Frost “Stopping by the Woods.” Carl Sandburg’s “Fog” – even better than “I Never Saw a Moor” in terms of easy-peasy: 6 lines.

Most memorable was “O Captain! My Captain” by Walt Whitman, which we recited, all together, in ultra-dramatic tones, and with a beat that presaged rap (until Sister Saint Wilhelmina stopped us). I remember my fifth grade class – nearly 50 strong – pounding our hearts as we moaned, “But O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red, Where on the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.” Who were we to make fun of Walt Whitman? A bunch of smart-alecky 10 years old at Our Lady of the Angels in Worcester.

I don’t know what all this memorization was worth, but nearly 60 years on, I can still dredge up plenty of it.

And today I’ll be dredging up “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Maybe I’ll even walk down to the North End, to Old North Church, to Paul Revere’s House, to Paul Revere’s statue. Which is one of the benefits of living in a city that’s chocked full of history. And a bit of poetry.

Thanks, Michael Beschloss, for putting this in my mind.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Peak gingham? Who knew

For the last couple of summers, my go-to shirt was a washable linen number, faded denim-blue, from LL Bean. Simple. Cool. Comfy. Goes with everything, if your everything is pretty much khakis, jeans, and no-color linen pants. Anyway, I lived in it, and have been looking forward to living in it again, if we ever have anything resembling spring or summer weather.

I’ve gotten so much use out of that shirt that, when I saw it in the LL Bean catalog in aqua teal gingham, well, $10 coupon in hanLL Bean Ginghamd, how could I resist? 

So I didn’t.

Of course, the weather has been ghastly. And, of course, I’m well aware that one doesn’t wear linen or white or a straw hat before Memorial Day (or after Labor Day). Still, I’ve had that gingham shirt sitting there on the catch-all ottoman in my bedroom, and every once in a while I’ve picked it up, given it a look, and envisioned myself, portrait of simple, cool, comfy sophistication. Out there playing Beacon Hill doyenne. Passing for a W.A.S.P.

And along comes Bloomberg to suck the joy out of any and all anticipation. Their joy-sucking vehicle: an article entitled:

We’ve Reached Peak Gingham. You Should Find Some New Shirts

Well, I never.

You should find some new shirts, not me, thank you.

Gingham, the woven cloth in contrasting checks, has had a fashion moment in recent years. Somehow, it’s managed to become a pervasive summer style. Now it seems those checks are starting to fade.

The pattern is peaking and will likely retreat back to its status as a humdrum basic for warmer months, fashion trend analysts predict. This means that, while we’re bound to see city sidewalks laden with gingham again this summer, it may be the last such time in a while. (Source: Bloomberg)

At least I’ll have next summer to be part of the gingham-ladening of city sidewalks before this charming little check declines into frumphood. Fashion oblivion.

Until I read the article, I had not been aware that gingham had been last year’s go-to print for a number of fashion labels. Not surprisingly, someone who orders clothing from LL Bean is not all that up on fashion labels. But Kenzo showed off a “white-and-red gingham vichy dress” during Paris Fashion Week last year.

Here I must take a pray-tell pause to ask: what, pray-tell, is a vichy dress? Something worn in Vichy, France? Huh?

Googling did little good to find an answer. One of the items that came up when I searched for “vichy dress” was an image of a blue-checked gingham dress from the Vermont Country Store, an emporium that makes LL Bean look like the devil’s outfitter, Prada.

Anyway, gingham has drifted from Fashion Week down to mass-marketers catering to the hoi polloi.

Stores such as Target Corp. and department store outlets updated their basic offerings, including shirts and blouses, with gingham. They caused a 73.8 percent spike in new items featuring the print in March, according to data from trend forecasting firm WGSN.

And once Target et al. latch on, high fashion puts its nose in the air and moves on.

The mass-market stores are “where trends go to die,” said Emma Griffin, an analyst at WGSN. The garments being sold at those stores are the simplest basics. It’s gingham in its most boring form. “It’s reached its peak,” she said.

Guess I’ve been told. The gingham dream is dying. For everyone other than myself. I’m still itching to get into that gingham LL shirt.

Will calico supplant gingham? (As in gingham dog and the calico cat.) Apparently not.

What’s replacing gingham? Mixed checkered patterns and plaids, another timeless print with overlapping stripes. Appearances of these checks are up 15 percent year-over-year on pre-summer 2018 catwalks, thanks to such high-end fashion brands as Victoria Beckham and Red Valentino, according to WGSN. Meanwhile, gingham was relatively quiet on runways over the past two seasons. That may have been a signal.

Thank the fashion gods I have a checkered shirt in my closet. And maybe a plaid or two. Not sure what “overlapping stripes” are, but stripes I do.

But the signal about gingham being on the way out? That’s a signal I’m ignoring. At least not until I get to wear my new shirt a few times. In fact, I’ll bet that I’ll still have that shirt when gingham comes back around.

Never in style, never out of style…

Monday, April 16, 2018

Five years on…

It was a chemo day. And because on chemo day my husband was pumped full of steroids and felt pretty good and had plenty of energy, we always went out for lunch. Scampo’s? Toscano’s? One of those places. I can’t remember which one, but they were our two post- chemo spots.

It was a chemo day, so when we got back home after lunch, I took a nap. Jim – all pumped up – didn’t.

He got me up about 3 p.m. to tell me that something had happened at The Marathon. Something bad.

I walked out front, and there was the usual complement of runners walking around, shrouded with their silver warmer-upper-blankets. Were there cops? There must have been. Were there sirens? There must have been. All I remember outside our front door was runners milling around the Public Garden and the Common.

Soon enough we found out what had happened. It was bad. Really bad.

Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Here’s what Pink Slip had to say five years ago today. April 16, 2013:

What was, up until 2:50 p.m., a glorious day…

Personally, even at the time I knew it hadn’t really been a glorious day. Not for us. We kinda-sorta already knew that, if this chemo wasn’t last ditch, it was second-to-last-ditch. Which is what it turned out to be. We already knew that Jim’s cancer wasn’t curable. But we hoped for manageable. We hoped for remission.

But Patriots Day is always a glorious day for Boston. The Marathon. Spring. Sox at home…

Only not that day. Not April 15, 2013.

A week on, I had processed my thoughts, and here they are in a rather long post dated April 22, 2013.

That was the week that was…

And a few days later, things were sort of back to normal, and I went to see the Sox play with my dear old wonderful friend Marie, which I wrote about on April 26, 2013.

Home Opener

It was pretty clear by April 2013 that my husband was on borrowed time. Not so with Marie. Her cancer recurrence wasn’t diagnosed until the fall.

But by the end of April 2014, I’d lost them both – Jim in February, Marie in April.

I guess I’m going full-narcissist here and, on a day when I should be thinking about the fifth anniversary of the Bombing, and the death and destruction it rained down on so many, I’m thinking about what was going in my world at that time.

Anyway, I still love Patriots’ Day.

The forecast is for rainy weather, but not call-the-game rainy weather, so I’m heading out to Fenway to watch the Red Sox play the O’s – my home opener for this year. After the game, I’ll watch a few late coming runners finish. Then I may head over to the post-Marathon party at my gym/PT hangout, where the owner and a lot of the patients/gym rats are runners.

But I will also be thinking of those who were killed – Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi, Sean Collier, and this little guy, Martin Richard:


Five years on…Those five years sure went fast…

Friday, April 13, 2018

Throw another log on? Not so fast!

We haven’t had much of a spring quite yet. Lots of days when the temps have stayed in the 40’s. Damned few of those glorious early spring days when the temps are in 60’s or even – how loverly – the 70’s.

So a lot of my neighbors are still using their fireplaces.

I like the smell of smoke. I like the feeling of toasty toes when I get up close and personal with a fireplace-fire. I like the occasional occasions when one of those neighbors invites me in to enjoy a glass of wine by a big roaring fire.

But my own fireplace?


I have a perfectly nice fireplace in my living room. And during the 27 years I’ve lived here, I’ve had exactly one fire in that lovely fireplace. A Duraflame log, maybe 25 years ago. And that was that.Fireplace (2)

Too much of a hassle. Too much concern about a cinder hopping out and singeing the carpet. Or my toasting toes. Too much clean up after. Too much worry about something ugly happening in the chimney.

And as you can see, instead of logs, I have stuff in my hearth. candles. A vase. A work of art – an enameled copper plate made years ago by an artist friend of my brother-in-law. At Christmas, this all gets augmented with poinsettias.Nice big festive flaming-red poinsettias.

Turns out that, in terms of the environment, by not firing up my fireplace, I’m onto something. Turns out that burning wood in your own fireplace is a big contributor to air pollution. At least in Europe, so I’m guessing that – even though we have more wide-open spaces and big skies – it works the same way here in the good old US of A.

This is becoming a big deal in Britain, where wood burning – in fireplaces and in wood-burning stoves – has caught fire.

About 175,000 new wood-burning stoves are sold in Britain each year. In 2015 an official survey found that 7.5% of Britons burn wood at home, usually to provide a little extra heat (most wood-burning households have central heating) or because they like looking at flames. Wood-burning is fashionable and seemingly environmentally friendly, since trees can be replanted. It is also, unfortunately, a big contributor to air pollution in Europe.Gary Fuller of King’s College, London, an air-pollution expert, has calculated that wood-burning is responsible for between 23% and 31% of all the fine particles generated in the cities of Birmingham and London. These particles, which are less than 2.5 micrometres (thousandths of a millimetre) in diameter, are blamed for various respiratory diseases and lung cancer. In fact, pollution from wood-burning seems to be falling gently, despite the rush to install stoves—perhaps because new stoves are cleaner than old ones, and much cleaner than simply burning logs in a fireplace. But that is still a lot of smoke. (Source: The Economist)

One reason for the pollution is that all those wonderfully evocative smelling particulates going up in smoke are doing so in densely populated areas, where pollution is already clustered. Places like Birmingham and London. And Boston.

The situation is even worse in Denmark.

Domestic wood-burning supplies about 3% of Denmark’s energy consumption but accounts for 67% of fine-particle emissions.

Unfortunately, they’re predicting that the spring cold-spell continues for a while here in Boston.

By mid-April I’m usually switching my winter clothing out for spring stuff. I always keep a few un-seasonal things on hand for those cold days in summer and unseasonably warm days of winter (which we do occasionally get, even in this bill chill of a winter freezing its way into spring).

So I’m guessing that my wood-fire-warmed neighbors will continue stoking their fires for another couple of weeks.

Environmental impact-wise, however, sounds like we’d all be better off throwing on another fleece rather than another log.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Sign me up for a sarco

Earlier this week, I went to a wake and funeral for the husband of a friend. Vin was just 69,his death sudden and unexpected. As I told my friend Mary when we spoke at the wake, Vinnie died doing what he loved best: hanging with Mary, something he’d love doing since they met in law school. Vin and Mary had been married for 43 years. They had just met with a real estate agent to talk about selling the home where they’d raised their boys, and were on their way to lunch. Vinnie was a Villanova grad, so it had been  a good week. Nova had won the NCAA basketball championship on Monday night, and this was Wednesday

On the way back to Boston from the wake, we were talking about how much we all wanted to die like Vinnie. No pain, no ventilator, no last ditch/low probability chemo, no heroic measures, no time to panic, no fear.

Yes, we all want to die like Vinnie – just not at the age of 69.

It’s wonderful for the person who dies. Not so great for the ones left behind.

The good part of a more prolonged dying process is that you get to make your farewells and start preparing emotionally for the loss that’s to come. It’s just that there needs to be a happy medium.

When I used to hear about someone being diagnosed with cancer and dying two months later, I’d think that this was just awful. Having lost two loved ones to long, multi-year bouts with cancer, I’m not so sure that it actually is. Two months might well be that happy medium. You miss the hell-scape of a long illness, but you get to say your good-byes and make sure, as they say, that your affairs are in at least semi-order.

Of course, most of us don’t get a choice of how we wind things down and out. That is, unless at some point, we decide to take control.

And, yes, I’m a supporter of right to die/physician-assisted suicide initiatives (as long as there are plenty of safeguards in place). As medical technology improves, this becomes more and more of an issue. There’s a big difference between being artificially kept alive and living.

Physician Philip Nitschke is working on an answer to the question “how do we die with dignity?” And even taking it one step beyond, and focusing on a good death not just for the terminally ill. He’s the founder of a non-profit organization, Exit International, focused on the legalization of euthanasia – and on the well elderly being able to come up with an exit plan so that they’re ready when life takes a real turn for the worse.

Nitschke has been giving a lot of thought to this over the years:

Thinking in this context about what I wanted my own last day to be like, I began to envision a machine, device, invention, thing  ― I’m searching for terminology here that is not yet in our vocabulary ― that might elevate the spirit when the end is nigh.

“The Sarco,” as the capsule that I have co-designed with Dutch engineer Alex Bannink has been named, is my first tangible expression of enquiry for death to be much more than “just dignified.”

The Sarco is a 3D-printable machine that provides death Sarcoby hypoxia, an environment  with low levels of oxygen. It can be transported wherever one chooses. Facing the awe of the Rockies? Overlooking the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean? Where you die is certainly an important factor.

Nice scenery at the end is hardly a new thought. The film “Soylent Green” showed the benefit of the peace that pretty pictures and a soothing soundtrack can bring when drifting away from this world. The thought that ground-breaking film left on the shelf, though, was the possibility of feeling not just dignity at the end, but of feeling euphoric. And why not?(Source: Huffington Post)

Well, I’d just as soon that the good doctor hadn’t brought “Soylent Green” up. First there’s the life-sustaining use of human remains, with its high yuck factor. Then there’s the alarming note that the movie takes place in a completely dystopic 2022. I don’t think that, even at the rate Scott Pruitt’s going, the environment will have gone to complete hell in the next four years. But, alas, we can’t completely rule out Dystopia 2022 either.

So just in case, sign me up for a Sarco:

A Sarco death is painless. There’s no suffocation, choking sensation or “air hunger” as the user breathes easily in a low-oxygen environment. The sensation is one of well-being and intoxication.

Here’s how it works: Potential users fill out an online test to gauge their mental fitness. If they pass, they receive an access code to a Sarco device that works for 24 hours. After the code is entered and an additional confirmation given, liquid nitrogen in the generator is released, rapidly bringing down the oxygen level in the capsule. Within a minute, the user loses consciousness; death comes a short time later.

A Sarco death is painless. There’s no suffocation, choking sensation or “air hunger” as the user breathes easily in a low-oxygen environment. The sensation is one of well-being and intoxication.

I will, of course, want to access my Sarco on the very day when life’s no longer worth living. But here’s the thing: what if I wait to long and miss the window of opportunity. By waiting just a few hours too long, I fear I’d be addled or physically unable to put in my access code.

Still, I like the idea of the Sarco. I envision myself talking it over with my nearest and dearest. We’d have a final glass of prosecco, eat ice cream, and tell a few stories. Hugs and kisses all round, and then we all walk together to my Sarco.

I want it to be in a beautiful place. Snail Trail in Provincetown, one of the prettiest places I’ve ever seen, would work. But it would be a drag getting the Sarco in over the dunes. Let alone having to drag the Sarco back out with my dead weight in it.

Sky Road in Connemara? That’s a gorgeous spot. We could just have the driver pull over. The Irish do death pretty well. That might work.

I don’t imagine that the Red Sox organization would be particularly happy to have someone fade out during the seventh inning stretch.

Anyway, I hope I have a good long time to figure this all out.

Sure, when the time comes, I wouldn’t mind going like Vinnie. Just not quite yet. But it’s good to have a back up plan, and the Sarco may be mine.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

This sounds relaxing

It’s not a burning desire, but I’d kinda like to see Australia and New Zealand at some point. I also wouldn’t mind dropping in on Japan.

One thing that gets in my way is the thought of spending so many, so very many, hours on a flight. Bad enough the red eye back to the East Coast from California. Bad enough those overnight flights to Europe that plunk you down in a STRANGE CITY early in the morning, blurry-eyed, slack-jawed and drooling. A 24 hour flight? Especially if you’re flying steerage. Ugh on ugh.

I can always get a doze or two in on  a long-haul flight, but mostly it’s tossing and turning. The plane’s too hot. Or it’s too cold. The person in the window seat needs to get up every half hour to use the restroom. If the person in the window seat has a super-bladder, it’s the person in the seat behind you, grabbing on your head rest when they make their bi-hourly toilet run.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a couple of first- or business-class European flights, and it makes a big difference – even if you’ve just got a fabulous reclining seat and not one of those Emirate studio-apartment-in-a-plane flights where you get your very own double bed.

But the cost of flying first to Australia? Hmmmm. That’s a lot of trips somewhere else. Somewhere else that’s quicker and easier to get to.

But Airbus is coming up with an answer that will enable airlines the opportunity to offer passengers something between cattle car and ultra-luxe.

The European jetmaker is working with seat manufacturer Zodiac Aerospace on the design and construction of lie-flat beds to fit in lower-deck cargo areas. The berths will initially be offered on Airbus A330 widebody aircraft from 2020, the companies said Tuesday at a conference in Hamburg. (Source: Bloomberg)

Quantas is apparently latching onto the option of offering a fourth class – first, business, cargo-dorm, and coach.

I don’t know about flying in the cargo hold. They’d have to prove to me that they’ve solved the pressurization problem that seems to kill puppies in crates.

But I guess this problem has been solved to some extent:

Holds have in the past been designed as cabin crew rest areas and for ablutions. 

Ablutions? Is that, like, washing up?

Anyway, there must be some secret way to get down to the cargo hold –maybe through the cockpit? – because I’ve never seen a pilot or flight attendant in their bathrobe, towel over their shoulder, shower sandals flapping, soap-on-a-rope around their neck,ducking into the cargo hold for an ablution. Then again, I haven’t been on any super-long flight that would require an ablution break.

Here’s what the prototype looks like:

Airbus bunk

Somewhere between a modern Swedish hostel and a Japanese micro-hotel. And not all that comfortable and relaxing looking. And I sure hope they’ll have some privacy curtains like the ones in the sleeping cars shown in old b&w movies. And how about making those privacy curtains soundproof. Who wants to hear the guy in the next pod snoring?

It’s not just sleeping berths that are on the drawing boards at Airbus. There’s other stuff you can use those cargo holds for, given that everyone’s stuffing everything from cellos to Casper mattresses into those overhead containers so they don’t need to check anything, leaving plenty of room in those cavernous cargo holds.

In addition to a sleep module, Airbus and Zodiac revealed plans for a children's play module complete with a playground slide, a hospital infirmary module, a bar/lounge module, and a conference-room module. (Source: Business Insider)

I guess having the kiddos have a place to work off their energy is a good idea. It beats the out of control brats running up and down the aisles, screaming their heads off. Or sitting in back of you and kicking your seat for the length of the flight. But if this is a separate class from coach, try explaining to your kid that they can’t go on the playground slide like those other lucky ducks. Let the meltdowns begin!

And, sure, if someone goes into cardiac arrest, it would be plenty handy to have medical personnel on board. But on a flight with 200+ passengers, there’s pretty high likelihood that there’ll be a doctor, nurse, or EMT. Or at least someone who knows CPR. Do we really need infirmaries on flights? Huh? And who would staff them? Someone competent who did it in exchange for a free flight? Or someone who was just short of losing their license when they decided that it might be cooler to be a sort of flight surgeon, rather than play Doc on The Loveboat.

"This approach to commercial air travel is a step change towards passenger comfort," Airbus' cabin and cargo program head, Geoff Pinner, said in a statement. "We have already received very positive feedback from several airlines on our first mock-ups. We are pleased to partner with Zodiac Aerospace on this project which will introduce a new passenger experience and add value for airlines."

Before you get carried away with playground slides and bunk beds, how about improving the passenger experience by adding a couple of inches of legroom. By restricting the recline to a few degrees, rather than head-in-the-person-behind-you’s lap. By improving the ghastly food, which, out of sheer boredom, I never turn down, even if it’s absolute swill.

I’d still like to get to Australia and New Zealand. But I’d have to think about sleeping in the cargo hold. Especially if there’s going to be kid on a playground slide, raging around just outside my bunk. Or some doctor performing an appendectomy in the bunk below mine.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

German restaurants closing? Ach du lieber…

Well, Jacob Wirth’s – Boston’s last (only ever? only since the aptly-named Wursthaus in Cambridge closed twenty years ago?) German restaurant is up for sale. If and when it closes, it will be one of those non-loss losses. I sort of liked the idea of it – after all, where else could you go if you wanted to find exactly what a restaurant looked and smelled like in 1868 – but I hadn’t been there in years. Although JakesI’m half-German, I wouldn’t exactly say that German food is my thing.

There was little that my mother cooked that was German. My father (the Irishman) was pretty much a plain meat and potatoes guy. My mother made great soups that were sort of German-y, but her one mitteleuropa dish chicken goulash (a.k.a., chicken paprikash) may have owed as much to her family’s having lived in the Austro-Hungarian empire, rather than to Germany itself.

She did do some German baking: kipferl, strudel, stollen. And at Christmas my grandmother sent German baked goods: all of the above, plus lead-weight tasteless white cookies, glazed and with sprinkles, and bitter currant cookies the heft of a hockey puck, if hockey pucks were made out of dried wood shavings and sawdust.

Grandma also sent her home made pickles, and some other pickled stuff I didn’t eat (cabbage?). And my Uncle Jack would send along the occasional summer sausage, a smelly salami like thing encased in what appeared to be a Goodyear tire. Since the one Euro ethnic group that Worcester didn’t seem to have much of was German, Jack must have felt my mother couldn’t find any good old Chicago German summer sausage there.

Bottom line: I didn’t grow up eating German food, and I never developed a particular hankering for it.

I’ve been to Germany a few times, and found the food okay. You can definitely avoid the worst of the wurst. The only really dreadful dinner item I came across on my travels there was chicken stuffed with rice – that I had been able to divine from the non-tourist (i.e. no English) menu. Sounds pretty innocuous, you say? Well, I hadn’t counted on the non-mention of the innards of the chicken having been coated with liverwurst. Another god-awful thing encountered on the same trip came from a smoothie menu in our hotel. They all sounded pretty yummy until I came to the one that combined sauerkraut, beet juice, and lemon juice. Nein danke.

Anyway, the end of Jake’s is just part of a larger trend, in which German restaurants are closing all over the country, even in really German towns, like Milwaukee, where Karl Ratzch – “a Milwaukee institution: Frank Lloyd Wright, Liberace and President Nixon dined there” (presumably not together).

 All across the country, German restaurants are calling it quits. In Portland, Ore., Der Rheinlander closed after 53 years in 2016. Another Portland restaurant, the Berlin Inn, closed and reopened as the Brooklyn House, with a vegan and gluten-free menu of “European comfort food,” before closing again permanently. (Source: Washington Post)

Serves the Brooklyn House right. After all, nothing says “European comfort food” like vegan and gluten-free.

Outside of Boulder, Colo., the Black Forest Restaurant closed last summer after 59 years. The Olde German Schnitzel House in Hickory, N.C., served its last sauerkraut in 2014, lasting 10 years. One of Nashville’s oldest restaurants, Gerst Haus, died last month after 62 years. That’s 10 years longer than the Chicago Brauhaus, which closed in December.

Frankly, what strikes me as odd here is how young those restaurants were. I would associate German restaurants with the big waves of German immigration in the late nineteen hundreds, not with more recent (i.e., my lifetime) decades. Jake Wirth’s opened in 1868. L├╝chow's, the famous and long-defunct German restaurant in NYC, opened in the 1880’s and made it to its 100th anniversary. Chicago’s Berghoff  - last I looked. still in business – began life in 1898.

It’s kind of surprising to me that someone would have opened a German restaurant in 2004.

Of equal surprise was survey cited in that WaPo article that found that 7 percent of respondents reported that “they ate German food at least once a month.” 61 percent eating Italian; 50 percent Mexican, 36 percent Chinese – that I can all believe. But 7 percent eating German food? Were they counting Bud and pretzels? Gummi bears?

German food’s decline “reflects the cultural mix of this country toward more Latin American, Asian and African American culture, and less of the mainstay Germanic culture that influenced this country for many decades,” said Arnim von Friedeburg, an importer of German foods and the founder of “The cultural shift is going on, and German culture has to fight or compete to keep its relevance.”

If I were going to fight for German cultural relevance, I think I’d skip the food and move over to literature and classical music.

Then there’s the fact that German food is kind of boring. Kind of white and brown. Kind of heavy.

The good news is that, while German restaurants are closing recht and links, biergartens are doing well. Some have tried to incorporate German food into their biergarten mix, but one place that tried to introduce beef tongue with asparagus and capers had to dump it from the menu and slot in “kale-quinoa salad and tahini-avocado toast.” (And, no, that place wasn’t in a Brooklyn, it was in San Francisco. So close. Me? I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want tongue with asparagus and capers…)

I will almost miss Jake Wirth’s, but that’s mostly for the memories and not the food.

Auf wiedersehen, pigs knuckles. Auf wiedersehen, sawdust on the floor (and probably in half the meals)…

Monday, April 09, 2018

Big Sleep–yep, beddy-bye’s a big industry

I’ve generally slept pretty well. I like my 8 hours, and feel a bit off my game when I get less than 7.5 hours. But in semi-retirement, it’s not really a problem. If I get up in the night, I read for a bit (or – ugh – check the news) and then fall back asleep. If I have a particularly restless night, I know that the following night I’ll sleep right through.

And I’ve always been a napper. When I worked full time, at least one nap-read-nap-read-nap-read weekend afternoon was a must. These days, on crappy, rainy-snowy-darkish days, I get a nap in. I sometimes drift off when watching television. And about 90% of the time, for some reason, I nod off during the first act of a live play.

But mostly, I’ve always been pretty happy with my sleep. In Goldilocks words it’s just right.

Others are not so fortunate, making sleep a big business.

…we’ve turned sleep issues into a $30 billion to $40 billion industry, according to a 2017 McKinsey * Company report.

Yes, sleep is the new gold. Or as McKinsey put it: “There’s little doubt that the sleep-health economy will offer robust investment opportunities for private equity firms and growth opportunities for their consumer-focused portfolio companies over the next several years.” (Source: Boston Globe)

I guess over the years, I’ve contributed to industry growth.

Years ago, my husband and I had a mattress that had seen better days and was giving us both sciatica. So we invested in a Tempur-pedic – pillows, too -  which turned out to be a cure-all. The only problem was in cold weather, when that mattress turned into what felt like marble or concrete when you first got into it. After a few minutes, it warmed up, but until then it was a near death experience. Or echt death experience: it was what I imagine is akin to being laid out on a mortuary slab. (I no longer have a Tempur-pedic, but I did like mine. Turns out, the reaction is binary: people don’t tend to be neutral, they either love Tempur-pedic or hate it.)

Occasionally, I’ll buy a new pillow. And I like my sheets to have at least a 600 thread count. (Macy’s house brand, when on sale.) But I’m not doing much investing in sleepy time these days.

Fortunately for Big Sleep, others are and their billions are going toward blackout shades, trackers that monitor their restless nights, white noise machines, pillow sprays,

…meditation gurus intoning mantras on downloaded apps, our bodies slathered with cannabis-derived CBD oils, our 25-pound weighted blankets calming anxiety.

And, as an increasingly sleep-deprived society, we’re paying more attention to what’s being called “sleep hygiene.” Even the workplace is getting in on the act there’s evidence that “a rested employee is a better employee.” Some are encouraging work naps, and are even installing sleep pods.

Celebs are, of course, jumping on the bandwagon – or into the sleeping car.

No surprise that Gwyneth Paltrow is all over the sleep thang – it is, after all on-trend - with her “clean sleeping” regimen that, no surprise, requires a special purchase. In this case a copper pillow case that costs $80. Thanks, Gwyneth!

And our Tom Brady swears by sleep-enhancing PJ’s. Sure, at $145, they probably cost more than the Old Navy PJ’s or throwback Lanz nightgown or old, out-sized tee-shirt that’s your current nightwear. And you can’t argue that our Tom continues to perform at a pretty high level. Still, I’m not taking how-to-live advice from someone who won’t eat nightshades or anything white.

Before you waste big bucks in our Tom’s PJs or Gwyneth’s pillow case, you might want to head on out to the Canyon Ranch and invest in an overnight sleep analysis. It goes for about $3K (and that doesn’t factor in the rack rate of nearly $1K). But it could turn out to be a wise investment if it turns out you don’t need our Tom’s PJs, Gwyneth’s pillow case, or cannabis oils.

Turns out sleep hygiene is no laughing matter:

Sleep expert Jeanne F. Duffy sees two factors converging to create sleep’s moment. “People are getting less sleep than recommended, and at the same time they’re becoming aware that a lack of sleep can make them not just cranky the next day, but also more likely to gain weight and to develop diabetes or Alzheimer’s when they’re older,” said Duffy, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the secretary-treasurer of the Sleep Research Society.

Cranky I get – been there, done that – but weight gain, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s?I’m exhausted just reading about it.

Mental distress also comes from wasting money on sleep aids that don’t work. In an effort to guide the tired and poor, Consumer Reports cautioned readers in 2016 about an industry that was just waiting for its moment: sleep coaching.

Sleep coaching, eh?

Sleep coaches charge up to $150 per hour and analyze diet and bedroom environment, but, as a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine told the publication, “There’s little evidence that people who hire these coaches actually sleep better,”

Well, there’s a ringing testimony.

Anyway, I was gong to say that it’s a good thing that we have another growth industry out there, but I think I’ll just sleep on it. (Yawn…)

Friday, April 06, 2018

Twin Cities?

The day is coming, but I haven’t yet sworn off Facebook. But I have stopped revealing, if not my innermost secrets, then my subsurface preferences, by no longer clicking through on those goofy little “quizzes” that cull all sorts of tidbits out of you. With the promise that they’ll let you know what female 1950’s sit-com star you are. (Lucille Ball. Would rather it have been Betty White…) What famous painting. (Mona Lisa. Whatever.) What your ideal state is. (Hawaii. Not! I actually like crappy weather.)

Since I’m no longer filling out these little thingies, I have even more time so waste coursing around looking at other useless stuff.

Among the useless stuff I love are articles about where you live.

I especially, and quite snobbily, enjoy those that rate Boston or Massachusetts as the best x ever.

These tend to reinforce my perceptions about how wonderful my hometown and home state are. Sure, we tend to rank low in some categories. But they tend to be categories (religiosity) that I could give too hoots about. Or where low rankings translate into what to me is a positive (religiosity).

One that I stumbled on the other day wasn’t so much of the great place to live variety, as it was a listing of which cities yours is the most like. And it was based on not things like weather or education or affluence. But on job mix.

The cities Boston most resembles are New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Hartford, Bridgeport, Austin and and LA. For the most part, other than Bridgeport, there’s nothing surprising here. These are all, other than Bridgeport, cities that I like. Cities that  I mostly could almost even see myself living in. That said, Boston is nothing like New York Chicago or LA. Let alone Bridgeport. When I’ve made comparisons, it’s been along the lines of Boston is like Seattle, Boston is like San Francisco. Maybe because they’re cities of comparable size – and have hills and techies – I’ve felt quite a bit at home in both those places. I don’t know Austin– it’s on the bucket list – but maybe the college town/tech-ness would remind me of home. LA? Not so much.

Still, job mix isn’t a bad proxy it seems.

And what are the job mix commonalities?

For New York, they’re clinical trial administrators (at least 3.7x normal), medical secretaries (3.6 times normal),and ABA therapists (3.7x normal) –  yeah, I knew it wasn’t American Bar Association or American Basketball Association therapists, though god knows the lawyers could use some therapy. Turns out it’s Applied Behavior Analysis.

Anyway, the medical overlaps aren’t surprising. We’ve got a ton of hospitals and bio-techs; so does NY (although I thought their bio-techs were more or less in New Jersey).

But ABA therapists. What’s up with that?

For Chicago, the jobs we have in common are dog walkers (3.2x normal), directors of analytics (2.6x normal), and school nurses (2.6x normal). Directors of analytics I love. Forget hog butcher of the world, Chicago is a knowledge worker kind of town. Lots of brainiacs. And dog walker and school nurse? Just plain sweet and charming commonalities. Especially the dog walkers…

In common with San Francisco, Boston has a lot of scientists (4.5x normal), research associates (4.1x normal), and clinical trial administrators (4x normal).

I loved the sheer nerd tech-ness of the Austin common jobs: product marketing managers (3.5x normal)  - no wonder I’m at home in my home town: I’m in good company, Ruby on Rails developers (3.4x normal), and customer success managers (2.9x normal). Who even knew that ‘customer success manager’ is enough of a thing that there’s a whole profession around it?

The article also threw in comparisons to a less populated area and a place that voted for Trump. Our less populated twin city is college-town Charlottesville, Virginia, which, like Boston, has demand for more than its share of substitute teachers (4.4x normal), research associates (4.1x normal), and research scientists (4x normal), These last two make sense, but what makes a location have such wildly greater demand for substitute teachers? Better contracts for teachers that let them actually take time off? Or a lot of teachers calling in sick? Hmmmm.

Our Voted for Trump pair-wise is Dallas, on of the least Boston-like places I’ve ever spent time in. But we both have a lot of demand for support engineers (2.4x normal), assistant vice presidents (2.2x normal), and client services managers (2.1x normal). Is a client services manager sort of like a customer success manager? Could it be? Should it be? As for AVPs, AVP of what? (Or does this title only exist in banks?)

The fun part of this article is that it’s interactive, and you can plug in your city of interest and get back some fun info. (Or is it just me that finds this interesting, now that I’ve sworn off those prying surveys that grab personal data on whether I’d rather do the cha-cha or the Dougie?)

So, quite naturally, I plugged Worcester in.

Not surprisingly, Worcester is most like Providence, Springfield (Mass), New Haven, and Hartford: all old New England cities.It’s also like Buffalo, and Allentown, Boston (huh?) and Philadelphia. And, oddly enough, Worester’s a lot like Kansas City.

What Worcester has in common with Providence are residential counselors (at least 7.1x normal), recovery specialists (6.7x normal), and substitute teachers (6.1x normal). Which in a dreary sense seems just about right. The Kansas City connections are medical office workers (3x normal), claims representatives (2.5x normal), and patient transporters (2.5x normal).

Pick a random metro, pick any metro, random or not. If you can access this pageNY Times is gated – you, too, can have fun finding out what your cities of choice are twins with, jobs-wise.

How I do love wasting time on the web, especially now that I’ve thrown aside the urge to take part in those nosy, personal info-hoovering surveys. Being interested in what’s like Worcester isn’t much of a give away. (By the way, the real answer is: ain’t nothing like Worcester.)