Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Crack down on graffiti “artists”? GOOD!

Over the last couple of years, the state has been workinglongfellow_Lg to repair and restore the Longfellow Bridge, one of the connectors between Boston and Cambridge. The Longfellow  is lovely.That’s it in the foreground. (Another wonderful bridge, the Zakim, is in the background.) And those towers that look like salt shakers are what’s given the bridge its nickname: the Salt & Pepper.

I walk over it pretty often, and always fantasize about living in one of those shakers. I’ve got it all planned out, including a cut-in that a car could swing into to make a delivery, and the geraniums I’d put in window boxes. The towers aren’t occupied, or used for anything as far as I can tell. So why not? But it would be pretty odd living on a bridge with the T-rumbling over it 20 hours a day. And likely damp, dank, and dark. But the views…

The restoration of the Longfellow is complete, but the graffiti taggers just can’t leave it alone. Here’s an example of one of the brilliant works of art defacements that some a-hole left.


I don’t know whose mark this is, but I hope he’s among the three “high-profile graffiti taggers” that Boston PD recently arrested. (One of them is suspected of vandalizing the Longfellow Bridge.) Because they’re notorious reoffenders with long histories of defacing public property, they’re being charged with felonies.

“This is a habitual thing for these offenders,” police spokeswoman Rachel McGuire said. “These particular suspects create a quality of life issue in Boston.”

According to Massachusetts law, graffiti is punishable by up to three years in state prison for a felony charge and up to two years in a house of correction for a misdemeanor. A fine of $1,500 or three times the value of the property marked may also be assessed in both cases. (Source: Boston Globe)


I’m not a big law and order type. Although there are a couple of circumstances when I might be persuaded otherwise, I generally don’t support the death penalty. I think three strikes you’re out, which has put some guys in prison for stealing a $5 pair of socks or being in possession of a couple of joints, is absurd. I believe in prison reform. And I believe in second chances. As a volunteer at a homeless shelter, I’m around ex-cons a couple of days a week. Guess what? Most of them are actually just people, trying to get by.

So maybe three years in the state pen is too much time for someone who defaced a bridge. But graffiti vandalism is serious, as anyone who lives in a city knows. And it makes living in a city less livable.

I love when street artists ply their craft on blank walls in their communities. I like the decorated mail boxes. I like the work of the guy who replaced the late “Sidewalk Sam” and does chalk drawings on Boston Common.

But these graffiti guys?

I know art when I see it and this ain’t art. And it’s not even much by way of craft. I put these tags in the category of the kid who’s considered the best “artist” in eighth grade because he can draw Mighty Mouse and the Superman logo. Then I take points away because they’re destroying public property. And more points because their “tags” as a form of self-expression are really just a boring expression of their narcissism. It’s mostly ugly and detracts from the underlying beauty of what it’s sprayed onto. And there’s often a hint of menace in their work. Let them tag their own bedrooms. Have at it! Just stay off my bridge!

Maybe they all think they’re going to end up like Banksy, the British graffiti artist who’s exhibited in galleries and is a multi-millionaire. But most of them are going to end up like Chico 158, or whoever the guy was who did the ugly tags on NYC subway cars in the 1970’s. A big fat nobody.

Maybe they’ll all plead down to misdemeanors. But I have no problem with these guys doing time.

My father had a term for professional baseball players who were on his shit list, and it was “no talent bums.” It seems to apply here.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Taxidermy? Not for me, but…

The other day, while walking across the Boston Common, I passed two fellows taking a picture of a squirrel that was flattened and spread-eagled on the walkway. Once home, I quite naturally googled ‘spread-eagled squirrel’ and learned that squirrels lie flat when they’re frightened, tired, or want to cool down. For this squirrel, with those two giant humans looming over it, on a muggy and hot day when there were a ton of tourists and eccentrics out and about to beg food from, this little critter might have been all three.

That squirrel and its urban kindred spirits, the rat, and the pigeon, and the odd wild turkey or hawk, are as close as I get to nature on a typical day. And I’d pretty much like to keep it that way. Still, it did enter my mind as I passed that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little fellow that this might not be a bad, if somewhat unorthodox, pose for a stuffed and mounted squirrel. If I were interested in a stuffed and mounted squirrel.

If I were, I now know where to turn. Vincent Kersey lives in Western Mass, and a decade or so ago he hung out his shingle as a taxidermist. And for $350, he’d stuff and mount a squirrel for me. I crossed out stuff there, because what Kersey does is mount. And, if SniffyI’ve got this straight, there’s a difference between stuff and mount. Stuff is stuff, like my childhood comfy Sniffy.

Now Sniffy was never a real animal, so he wasn’t taxidermed. He’d probably look a bit more spruce if he had been. But, back in the day when Sniffy still had eyes and a nose, he was stuffed with whatever 1950’s toys were stuffed with: some sort of yellow-ish particulate foam, as I recall. Which was replaced by my mother at some point with pre-pantyhouse nylon stockings.

So stuffed is stuffed.

Mounted is attaching the skin to an armature created to replicate the animal’s body.

Anyway, I learned about Mr. Kersey from an article that quite wondrously appeared in The Boston Globe the very same day I observed that squirrel playing quasi-possum.

Squirrels were where Kersey got his start, but he took off from there. Since becoming a taxidermist a decade or so ago, he’s won many national and world championships, and he’ll work on  anything from big game like lions and hyenas to local fauna like bobcats and woodchucks. He makes rugs. And does all sorts of things with turkeys. Plus he has over a million flesh-eating beetles (harmless to humans, or so they say) that are used to strip the flesh off bones if someone wants a clean skull and antlers set up.

Kersey, a hunter, fell into taxidermy. But once he started down the path, he was hooked:

For the first time in my life, I enjoy every project that I do.

Bravo, Vincent Kersey! I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone in my professional life who could make that claim. If we’re lucky, the good projects outnumber the bad, but I don’t know anyone who’s enjoyed every project that they’ve worked on. And that’s including folks like me who thrive on dysfunction and irrationality.

In case you’re interested, here (in Kersey’s own words) is how the process works:

“The hunter shoots the animal and takes it to the butcher who processes the meat for the customer. The skin gets salted, dried, and sent to a tannery, which turns it into leather. It gets shipped back to me and I prep it, sand it, and sew up any bullet, arrow holes or nicks. I’ll order glass eyes and ears and start putting it together. I use a styrofoam mannequin in the shape of the animal that has to be carved. The hide is glued and sewn onto the form. There’s a lot of air brushing and painting and some clay work to bring back the natural colors once an animal dies.” (Source: Boston Globe)

And it’s a living:

“In the right market, I can make a very comfortable living. This past hunting season, 120 deer came in — 80 black bears; two muskrats and brown bears from Alaska, as well as mountain goats and elk.”

I made my way to Kersey’s website, Three Arrow Taxidermy, and found it to be a paragon of clarity. Unlike on many of the tech websites I routinely visit, I was able to figure out right away exactly what his business is. I realize this is easier to do when you’re product/service is something concrete, as opposed to some sort of enterprise software, but still… Tech marketers could take a lesson here. (When I was a regular 128 commuter, I would occasionally see a van emblazoned with the motto “We Clean Blinds”. Each time I saw it, I would sigh and make a fervent little wish that someday, somewhere I would work on the product/service that was that straightforward and easy to explain…)

Beyond clarity and lots of interesting information, another plus of Kersey’s website is that he posts his price list! Way. To. Go.

That’s how I learned that a mounted squirrel – which Kersey would prefer not to do these days – would set me back $350. A javelina’s $1500. A wildebeest’s $4,650.

I’m not wild about big game hunters, of course. I’m not exactly a vegan, so it’s one thing to hunt and kill to eat. But who eats hyena and wildebeest, other than other wild animals and maybe people who are otherwise starving to death? (Maybe Lil’ Donny and Eric eat what they kill.) This reservation aside, I’m all for Kersey’s business to succeed beyond his wildest imagination. Anyone who enjoys the projects he works on that much deserves it.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Open office plans don’t work? What a surprise!

I’m pretty lucky.

I left the wonderful world of corporate for the freelance life before companies started implementing open concept floor plans. You know, the ones in which workers don’t even have cubicles anymore. Your desk is next to the next colleague’s desk, separated (in the best case) by an 8” high panel – probably frosted to let the light through. No physical, aural, visual, or psychological privacy.

The majority of my work years were blessedly spent in a private office. But I did log time in a semi-private office, and a few stints in a cubicle.

The semi-private was fine. My roommate had excellent technical skills and was pretty helpful when I had questions. We were friendly enough. But it wasn’t the ideal situation on either side, and we were both delighted when we each got a room of our own.

After the brief stint in the double, my time at that company (5 or 6 years) was spent in a private office, generally with a window. Yay! I’ve never worked with anyone who does not have a strong preference for a private office with a window. Never.

I left that company for a place that was primarily cubicles, and although techies at my level got private offices, senior product managers didn’t. It was dreadful. I could overhear every conversation within 10 yards of my cubicle, and the PA system, which paged employees all day, blared over my head. On my first day, I made a pit stop on the way home and got a Walkman with headphones.

Things got a bit better with the headphones. And improved even more when some fellows on my team found a cubicle door somewhere and installed that for me. (The company had stopped “investing” in cubicle doors a couple of years before I blew in, so only legacy employees had them.) My guys commandeered a cubicle door after someone in their area quit. Others in my area had made do. There were a couple of folks with beaded curtains, which made their digs look like a fortune-teller’s. And some people had put up cloth curtains.

The only “advantage” of this cubicle environment was that, on layoff days – and there were regular layoff days – people would stand on their desks and survey the floor. When they saw someone from HR swinging by a cubicle to drag the layoff-ee off into a private office so they could get fired privately, the town criers would holler out the name of the person who’d been tapped. “Alice is gone!” “They just came for Jay!”

At my next company, I always had a private office. Until I didn’t. After nine years, we were acquired by a company that mandated cubicles for everyone form the CEO on down. (The CEO, of course, had a private conference room next to his cubicle…) We were grandfathered into our private office situation, but when we had to move to another building, we were cubicled. The building we moved into was new, so we were able to design our floor and we made sure that there were plenty of meeting rooms – from phone rooms that people could use if they needed to work in peace to large conference room.

Although we did our best to make the new digs habitable, ain’t no one was happy to have been demoted from a private office to a cubicle. No one. Pissing, moaning, grousing were the norm.

At my next stop, I always had a private office which included enough room for a table where you could hold a meeting with four or five others. Sadly, most of the people who reported to me suffered in cubicles. My final corporate gig was in cubicle-ville, the hideousness somewhat ameliorated by working from home once a week.

At home, where I’ve worked for well over ten years, I have an office. It’s small, but it’s got a door and a window. And, since I live alone, really doesn’t have to be private. But it is.

I’ve worked with plenty of people over the years, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a preference – make that a strong preference – for an office of their own.

And yet, corporate space planners, HR-ers, whoever decides what the work-scape is, became ever so fond of those open offices. Not even cubicles. Open concept, all in the supposed service of communication and collaboration.

But a recent study by two researchers offers evidence to support what many people who work in open offices already know: It doesn’t really work that way. The noise causes people to put on headphones and tune out. The lack of privacy prompts others to work from home when they can. And the sense of being in a fishbowl means many choose email over a desk-side chat.

In an open office workplace, study co-author and Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein said in a recent interview, “I walk into this space, and I see everyone wearing big headphones staring intently at a screen trying to look busy because everyone can see them.” The result can be that “instead of interrupting people, I’ll send an email.”(Source: Washington Post)

In one company Bernstein studied, the finding was that “workers spent 73 percent less time in face-to-face interactions. Meanwhile, email use rose 67 percent and IM use went up 75 percent.”

There’s a “natural human desire for privacy, and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it,” Bernstein said. “What it was doing was creating not a more face-to-face environment, but a more digital environment. That’s ironic because that’s not what people intend to try to do when creating open office spaces.”

I doubt that this study will put a stake in the heart of open offices. They’re cheaper to erect than cubicles, let alone offices, and you can cram more people into a smaller footprint. And communication and collaboration remain among the buzziest of corporate buzzwords. Still, it’s good to have the academics confirm what anyone who’s worked in an office for more than a week or two can tell you: pretty much everyone wants to work in a private office. Cubicles are bad enough, open concept – that’s fine on HG-TV, but in the work world. Thanks but no thanks.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

God Save Our Noble Swans

Every country has its own peculiarities, some more so than others. Into this latter category, England surely falls. Vegemite. Benny Hill. Eel pie. And then there’s Swan Upping, an annual July event during which swan uppers – you’ll note that some of them appear to be dressed like Gilligan from Gilligan’s Island – travel up a section of the Thames, counting the swansSwan Upping, half of which are owned by The Queen.

Unlike Vegemite and Benny Hill, Swan Upping is not John-Bull-come-lately to the British peculiarity list. It’s been going on since 1168, making this the 850th anniversary.

Swans aren’t just any old bird; they aren’t crows, starlings, wrens or blue jays. Like peacocks, swans are beautiful and kind of ritzy. And a lot rarer than commoner birds like crows and wrens. Thus – what else- the royals took control:

From the 12th century, there began an elaborate system of ownership, with the crown granting special license to landed lords and special institutions, such as the universities, abbeys and livery companies, to husband the swans

The lucky few who were granted permission, and paid fees, marked their swans’ beaks with nicks of a sharp knife — hieroglyphs of triangles, crosses, dots and bands, which were recorded on rolls of vellum.

By 1378, there was an Office of the Keeper of the King’s Swans. By 1405, no one could own a swan unless given permission by the crown.

Miscreant yeomen who poached a swan egg, or harassed nesting swans, or — heaven forbid — ate a swan could be punished by a year and a day in jail. (Source: Washington Post)

I don’t imagine that swan tastes all that different than goose or turkey does, but there is something about the thought of eating swan that leaves a very bad taste in my mouth. Don’t know why that is the case, but there it is. Spare me the roast swan recipes.

Swans are strictly for looking at. There are two living in the Boston Public Garden, which is pretty much my front yard. And then there are the swan boats, also in the Public Garden, which are Swan boatfun to ride on. So I take a swan boat ride every couple of years of so, just to glide around pond in the green, peaceful, and charming Public Garden. And gaze upon the pair of swans who make the Garden their home.

If I don’t care to eat one, neither do I have any desire to own one.

But the Queen apparently likes to get what’s coming to her, and that includes half the swans that get counted in the annual census. (The other half go to the Vintners and Dyers Guilds.)

Swan-upping isn’t just about making sure that the Queen knows how many swans she owns. 

“It’s all about education and conservation today,” [Swan Marker to the Queen David] Barber said.

It was swan uppers who discovered a few decades back that ingesting the lead pellets that fishermen used to weigh down their nets was killing the swans. Once the lead was banned, the swan population had a bit of a rebound.

But the conservation actually dates back to the royals’ largesse, and privileged folks wanting everyone to know that they were swan-worthy:

The aristocrats craved the status that a pair regal swans in the castle moat or manor lake could afford them. “It is rare to preserve such a big edible, easily caught bird in a heavily populated area,” [Oxford Professor Christopher Perrins] he said. “If it weren’t for the snob appeal of owning swans, we probably wouldn’t have them.”

Well, yeah, snob appeal. But don’t forget you could get a year in the hoosegow if you poached (and then poached) a swan egg. And if prisons are terrible places now, just imagine what they were like in the 12th century. (Hmmm. Now that I think of it, for poor people – the type who might have a hankering for an occasional dish of swan - prison probably wasn’t all that much worse than life no the outside.)

Swan upping, which entails grabbing newbie swans (cygnets) and tagging them, can be a pretty nasty business. Swans beaks aren’t that dangerous, but swans come equipped with a sharp claw hidden away in their webbed feet. And they’re pretty prolific poopers, too. So uppers need to contend with swan parents that don’t want to be separated from their offspring, and once you grab a cygnet, you’re likely to get shit on. Nevertheless, swan uppers persist in wearing swan-white pants, no doubt keeping a stiff upper lip all the way.

Ah, England.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Will the real Daniel Kalt please stand up

As it turns out, I have an appointment tomorrow with my financial advisor. That probably sounds grander than it is. Basically, I’m meeting with a very nice young man from the place where most of my retirement money lives. Jake will assure me that I’m going to be okay, even if I live to be 100. Jake will be there in person, and whoever the other guy is on my two-man tag team will be on the phone. I still haven’t quite figured out what the other guy’s role is, but whatever it is, the other guys seem to rotate in and out. And they don’t add much value, as far as I can tell. Unlike Jake, who is not only nice but smart and who seems to get me. I will, as I always do, ask for role clarification on what the purpose of the other guy is, after which the info will rapidly move out whichever ear is opposite the one it came in on.

I also have a small account at UBS, but it’s not especially material. At some point, I’ll grab what’s in there and take a trip.

‘But if I were a big macher client for UBS – a high wealth individual or a money bags corporation – you’d think that I might, on occasion, get to hear from Daniel Kalt, the bank’s regional chief economist Daniel Kaltand chief investment officer. Most likely, he wouldn’t be there in person, like Jake is for me. Or even on the phone like the other guy. A computer-cloned version of him would be:

Mr Kalt (49) is well-known in Switzerland as a commentator. Much of his job involves briefing UBS clients on the outlook for the world’s economies and financial markets. By cloning him using the computer gaming industry’s latest animation techniques, he could serve many more account holders. (Source: Irish Times)

In real life, the virtual Mr. Kalt is not yet meeting with clients. While they perfect things, he/it (or, since I’m “learning” German via DuoLingo, er/es) is used to advise the advisors. And he/it (er/es) isn’t all there yet. He/it (er/es) can give a briefing, but can’t answer even basic questions on Brexit. And apparently the lip synching is imperfect.

You’d think the Germans would be pretty good at that, given that they’re past masters at dubbing. When my husband and I were in Berlin for the Fall of the Wall – now nearly 30 years ago – we were lolling around the hotel room one afternoon, taking a break from dismantling the wall with my nail file, and one of us said to the other, “What I wouldn’t give to see an old Streets of San Francisco re-run just about now.” This will sound unbelievable, but it is 100% true, that when Jim turned on the TV, there it was, an episode of Die Straßen von San Francisco.

We were expecting subtitles, but what we got was dubbing. Which would have been fine if we didn’t know what Mike Stone (Karl Malden) and Steve Keller, a.k.a., Buddy Boy (Michael Douglas) actually sound like. Not to mention that this was the episode in which Rick Nelson plays a former rock star turned pimp. And whoever’s voice was dubbing the Irrepressible Ricky (as he was known when he played himself on Ozzie and Harriet) sounded nothing like Rick Nelson.

With the technical advances over the last 30 years, and the head-start the Germans had on making words and mouths worked together by dubbing all those old TV shows, you’d think that they would have perfected things in this arena. I know that I’d be sitting there, completely distracted by the cloned Daniel Kalt’s weirdly moving mouth, even if he did have some good answers to what up with Brexit.

But virtual advising is probably the wave of the future:

As digital disruption gathers pace, retail and private banks in Switzerland – the world’s biggest centre for cross-border wealth management – are travelling in two directions at once. To cut costs, they are automating processes and services, including using “robo-advisers”. But to increase revenues, they are also looking to provide high-value services – via humans – to their wealthiest clients.

Cloned advisers “might be a way to bridge that gap” and provide “a kind of high-touch service at scale,” says Matthias Koller, project manager at UBS’s Wealth Management Innovation Lab.

They can tear the other guy away from me, but I really hope that my financial institution doesn’t decide that I no longer deserve a real live human in the form of Jake. I do not want to talk with, take advice from, or make facetious remarks to a clone.

One ambition of the design team, which is working with IBM on Mr Kalt’s dialogue and conversation skills, is to build a better relationship between client and clone. On the screen, Mr Kalt can wink, broaden his smile – and fall asleep. The sensors could notice that I am not wearing a tie – and remove his, Mr Koller says.

“He would change his shirt, because you have a blue one. He would maybe want to build up a rapport with you.”

Dear Lord. I’d rather get an email from a real fake human than develop a rapport with a virtual reality character. But maybe that’s just me. There may come a day when I wouldn’t recognize the difference.

The assumption of [Koller’s] programmers, however, is that interactive animation techniques in three or five years’ time will have improved so “you can hardly differentiate whether it’s a real or digital person,” says Mr Koller.

I haven’t come across this phrase yet in my German lessons, but, as my mother would say, “Ach, du lieber strohsack.” (Oh my dear mattress, if you must know. If I have to work with a clone, maybe I’ll just stuff my money under meinen strohsack and hope for the best.)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Age-tech? Bring it on! Just not any time soon…

Any year now, I’ll be turning a corner and find myself an old lady.

Oh, they say that “age is just a number.” But when that number is approaching triple digits, well, there are some inevitables that come with it. For me, there won’t necessarily be mind-slippage, at least to any great degree. My mother only lived to 81, but she didn’t miss a beat. My Aunt Mary is 93 and is still in full possession of her entire set of marbles. The longevitiest of my family members – my grandmother Rogers – made it to 97. Although she did have an occasional mental hiccup, she was mostly all there.

But not matter the level of fit as a fiddle-ness you strive for and even achieve, things fall apart. At some point, however far in the future, the center cannot hold. And I will most assuredly die. As will everyone else.

This can, of course, take decades. We live a lot longer than we used to. If you make it to 65, odds are you’ll make it to 83. And a bunch of Boston startups are focusing on products that will make those decades full of inevitable difficulties, big and small, a bit easer on us.

Pillo, a startup in Boston’s Fort Point district, has developed a robot that sits on your grandparents’ kitchen counter, greets them in the morning, and gently reminds them to take their pills.

Another early-stage local company called Eversound sells wireless headphones whose volume controls let seniors with varying levels of hearing loss exercise or watch movies together.

And a third Boston startup, Rendever, has created immersive software that can transport housebound elders to the African Serengeti and the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, with the help of virtual reality goggles. (Source: Boston Globe)

I don’t need a robot to remind me to take my pills, thank you. At least not yet. But my hearing is not as sharp as it once was – a noticeable loss for someone nicknamed “radar ears” as a child. Not that I have anyone to watch TV with – oh, boo-hoo – but I’ll be a candidate for those headphones.

I wouldn’t mind going to the Serengeti and/or Machu Picchu without having to actually go there, but I’m a bit curious about what’s the difference between virtual reality travel goggles for old folks and those for everyone else. Do things move more slowly for us oldsters? Fewer scary bits? Machu Picchu from the ground, rather than from above? No sudden heart-stoppers?

Rendever does offer something that’s more personal for old folks:

Moving into a facility no longer means leaving everything behind. Allow residents to take a stroll down memory lane by revisiting their home, favorite park, or wedding site.

I’m thinking that these strolls down memory lane might prove a mixed bag. Looking through old pictures are one thing. Virtually walking through the rooms of you old home that you probably didn’t want to leave? Might that not make you sad? Those look backs are used for something called “reminiscence therapy”, which I guess is helpful for those with senility. Thus, I hope I never need any more “reminiscence therapy” than laughing at the pictures my cousin Ellen texts over to me, as she did the other day when she and my cousin Mary Pat were going through some old family pictures and found a couple of lulus. I loved the one of some of the Dineen kids, some of the Rogers kids, and my not-much-older-than-us Aunt Kay. We looked like the Dead End Kids,it they’d been straight out of Appalachia. 

Anyway, the tech companies listed above are part of the emerging “age-tech” cluster in Massachusetts.

I believe this clustering was pretty much kicked off by the AgeLab at MIT, which has been around for nearly twenty years. Shortly after it was founded, I heard Joe Coughlin, its founder, speak. The Lab’s work – using technology to keep the elderly up and running - was fascinating then. It’s even more fascinating now, given that I’ve aged into the demographic of interest.

As of a couple of weeks ago, there’s even a “global innovation challenge” – run by a consortium of the AgeLab, GE, and state government – “seeking to generate new ideas for technology-assisted aging.” The goal: make Massachusetts the “Silicon Valley” for the greying of our society, focusing on “emerging products and services that reduce social isolation and loneliness for the older population.”

To date, a lot of the focus of the overall old-folks tech industry has been on applications like remote patient monitoring, medication monitoring, and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” devices. These are mostly “keep you alive” apps. The Rendevers and Eversounds of the world are about “making life better” apps.

Go for it!

If I’m going to live longer, I sure want to make sure I live better.

Not everyone sees the age-tech boom as an unalloyed blessing. Alexandra Suchman, a management consultant in Washington, D.C., acknowledges some utility in the plethora of devices coming to market. But she worries that many may be too complicated for older folks to use.

And she doesn’t see them as a substitute for human contact.

“Technology overpromises,” Suchman said. “People think they can design a robot or write some code that will solve all problems. But only people can meet the emotional needs of other people.”

I’m with Suchman. I’m delighted that there’ll be all sorts of wonderful technology to help me along my merry way out. And I’m delighted that a lot of it will be made in Massachusetts. But I’m pretty sure I’m still going to want the human factor to factor in.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Economists discover the downside of being a fan

As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am well familiar with both the downside and upside of fandom.

Up until 2004, when The Olde Towne Team finally won a World Series for the first time in 86 years, I actually lost some occasional sleep rooting for these boys of summer. Over the years, I certainly shed plenty of tears. In especially tense circumstances, I would refuse to watch a game, choosing to get my updates second-hand while I sheltered in place in my bed with the covers over my head. This worked as long as my husband was here to provide those updates and let me know when and if it was safe to come out. Since Jim’s death, I have managed to force myself to look at the scary bits.

Since 2004, however, I’ve had less of a fear factor. Once the Red Sox won it all, and we had our “Ode to Joy” moment, the stakes were no longer as high. I enjoyed the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007. I enjoyed the win in 2013. And I didn’t mind all those intervening loser-ama years all that much. This year, the Sox are on a tear that has lasted through mid-season. We’ll see how it all ends up. I hope they win. I hope the Yankees lose. Either way, I’ll live.

But I do know, up close and personal, the derivative thrill of victory and agony of defeat that come when you’re a sports fan. Mostly I’ve enjoyed my fandom over these many years – prime for the Red Sox, second order for the Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins.

Turns out that, on balance, “sports make the world a sadder place.”

Armed with 3 million responses to a happiness monitoring app, plus the locations and times of several years worth of British soccer matches, University of Sussex economists Peter Dolton and George MacKerron calculated that the happiness that fans feel when their team wins is outweighed – by a factor of two – by the sadness that strikes when their team loses.

In the hour immediately after their team wins, researchers found a typical fan might feel about 3.9 points happier than usual – about the same boost as from listening to music. That’s more than offset by the 7.8 points of extra sadness that fans will feel in the hour after their team loses, an event that makes respondents feel about twice as sad as they would be after working, studying or waiting in line. (Source: Washington Post)

The economists were, of course, looking at soccer, a sport that on my personal happy-sad continuum doesn’t really factor in. If I’m watching a game, I’ll pick a side and root. And I’m sure that if the U.S. or Ireland made it to the World Cup, my rooting interest would be revved up. But, as Melania Trump’s jacket once asked, “I really don’t care, do u?”

Anyway, I’m sure that most sports fans aren’t going to look at the equation and decide to stop being fans based on the net negative it brings.

Sports fans focus on the upside. Even when our teams are terrible, we look for whatever little points of happiness that do exist, however infinitesimally small those little points of happiness may be. As a kid, rooting for some colossally dreadful Red Sox teams, I could still enjoy Ted Williams (or anyone else) hitting a home run. I liked it when the Sox had really good relief pitchers – Mike Fornieles, then Dick Radatz – at a time when having really good relief pitchers were as much a sign that you needed relief pitchers because you had god-awful starting pitchers as it was anything else. And over the years, whether at Fenway or plunked in front of the television, I enjoy watching baseball. I even enjoy listening to it on the radio.

But as I said, I don’t get as emotionally caught up in the sporting life as I used to, even when it comes to the Red Sox.The thrills and agonies dissipate with age, I guess, especially once your team has WON IT ALL.

Still and all, it’s a pretty interesting finding that the unhappiness outweighs the happiness that sports brings, at least statistically. Who knew?

Friday, July 20, 2018

A-List techies release their inner children

Alas, I am not now nor have I ever been an A-list entrepreneur. The closest I ever came, I guess, was when I worked for a C-list entrepreneur and our company did some technology collaboration with Microsoft and Bill Gates before Microsoft and Bill Gates were all that big a deal. Our big C-list brag was that we were at Windows of the World when Bill Gates when Windows 3.0 – the first REALLY BIG version of Windows - was announced. Our recording technology – yay, us! – was embedded in Windows 3.0. If only we’d been smart enough to negotiate for a penny a copy for each instance of Windows that was sold, we might still be in business. Unfortunately, we were paid a flat fee ($50K as I recall) and all the bragging rights we wanted. That’s pretty much as close as I ever got to an A-list entrepreneur. Other than at the tech conference when I shared an elevator with Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy and we chatted a bit.  Of course, both those brushes with A-list fame are so far in the rearview mirror, those two Bills are A-list emeriti.

Anyway, not that I know/knew them, I can’t imagine either of those Mr. Bills getting “in touch with their inner child in private ‘songversations’”, which is apparently what the latest crop of A-listers are up to.

Tech elites who are looking for more than extra zeros in their bank statements are finding it in an unlikely place: so-called songversations, emotion-heavy gatherings that combine philosophical rap sessions with improvised music, run by a ukulele-strumming songstress who describes herself as a “heartist.” (Source: NY Times)

The “heartist” is named Jess Magic. And she’s not just a heartist, she’s a ceremonialist and a muse.

I truly believe that languages are living, breathing, growing whatevers. But did we really need the words heartist and ceremonialist? I think not.

Guess they’re differentiators. I mean, anyone can be a muse. But a heartist. Well, that’s something else.

And the techies swoon about the magic that goes down when Magic’s in the house, a “safe space” for those who’ve lost sight of the fact that there’s more to life than heading up the next unicorn.

Branded as “Soul Salons” they import the cosmic-explorer sensibility of Burning Man’s dusty playa into the cozy living rooms of prominent entrepreneurs, where they sing freestyle on topics as diverse as environmental degradation and heartbreak. Think of it as a free-jazz equivalent of an Esalen retreat.

As anyone who’s been anywhere near me at the gym, or gone on a road trip with me that lasted more than 10 minutes, knows, I really like to sing. I sing in the shower. I sing along with whatever’s on the CD or the radio. I sign at concerts. (You should have heard me when they did “Chicken Fried” at the Zac Brown concert at Fenway in June.) I don’t have a great voice, but it’s okay. Pleasant enough. I can carry a tune and, thanks to four years as a second soprano/alto in an excellent high school glee club, I can harmonize.

A song in my heart may be the one and only thing I have in common with Peter Thiel. At least when he’s in the presence of Jess Magic.

“I don’t know if you’d call this a breakthrough,” she said, “but I got Peter Thiel to sing along and Elon Musk to smile.”

Actually, I’d call it a breakthrough if she’d gotten Peter Thiel and/or Elon Musk to act like less of a shit, but I’m sure it was something to get them to sing and/or smile.

Ms. Magic, who seems to approach every topic with a sense of giddy wonder, as if she just fell in love five minutes ago, believes that her appeal is rooted in the spiritual hollowness so many business elites feel, despite their wealth.

“The finance and tech scene is still riding the waves of hypermasculine values,” she said. “Coffee to get through the day, alcohol to wind down, then sleeping pills at night to turn off the mind from all that they have going on.”

“People forget that they are human beings rather than human doings,” she added.

You’d think there would be plenty of opportunities for human doings to act like human beings. Playing with their own kids or the kids of non-A-listers. Walking their dog or the dog of a non-A-lister. Calling their mothers and letting them complain about their fathers’ snoring. Chatting with the person at CVS who directs you to a checkout station. Yelling at the ump at a baseball game. Singing along at the gym.

But I guess when you’re spending 24/7 pursuing tech-based mammon, you don’t get to do those pedestrian little nothings.

Enter the Soul Salon, which Ms. Magic calls “a play date for your inner child” and performs as a “gift,” she said (although guests are invited to “contribute in accordance with the value they feel they received”).

I will say one thing, if you’re going to ask people to pay based on the value they get out of something, you might as well do it with the ultra-rich.

The salons usually start with a theme — say, the emptiness of consumer culture. As key phrases arise, Ms. Magic will begin strumming and humming, weaving those lines of dialogue into a lilting melody. The effect is vaguely akin to Joni Mitchell performing freestyle rap at Davos.

As the extemporaneous song grows, others join in with musings of their own, call-and-response style. Not every captain of industry can carry a tune, of course, but that’s not the point. As Ms. Magic likes to say, “We don’t sing to be good, we sing to be free.”

I can only imagine what those call-and-response sessions must be like. Can I get a “platform”?

“One of the reasons why I do what I do, and why I am, honestly, on this planet, is to show up with such a level of vulnerability and sincerity and authenticity, that it almost gives people permission to let it go for a little while,” she said.

Sincerely, authentically, don’t these A-listers have any loved ones? Any friends? A dog? A cat? A goldfish? Anyone they can kick back with? Sit on the porch with and ask Alexa to play a little Springsteen so they can sing along to “Thunder Road”? Releasing your inner child (or inner human) shouldn’t be all that hard.

At least back in the day, Bill Joy was willing to chat with a nerd stranger on the elevator in a hotel in San Jose.

Thursday, July 19, 2018


This is what we used to do on Saturdays.

First, head to Fred’s video on Charles Street and reFred's videont a movie. Or two. Order pizza or Chinese. Put the first movie in. Watch it. Rewind. Watch the other movie.

It was all VHS. I don’t ever remember renting DVDs.

Some people didn’t rewind, since rewinding supposedly wore out your VCR. I think that Fred’s fined the folks who didn’t rewind – at least fined them theoretically – and did the rewinding themselves. But every once in a while, you rented a movie and found that the selfish jackass who’d rented it before you hadn’t bothered to rewind. Nor had Fred.

We’d watch whatever we rented – rom-com, James Bond, whatever - supremely enjoying the fact that we could enjoy a relatively recent movie without having to go to the theater. (The existence of Fred’s absolutely cut down on our trips to the movie theater.) Sunday morning meant walking back to Fred’s before it opened and putting the movies in the slot in the wall, sometimes using the video box in hand as a battering ram to push the boxes that were clogging the chute.

When looking for movies, we never cared about the latest. Give it a couple of months, and it was going to be available. We could wait. But when we lucked out, and something new and shiny was there for the asking, well…

When you went on weekends, Fred’s – a tiny little place to begin with - was always crowded. Nabbing a movie before someone else got their hands on it always gave you a little feeling of triumph.

Fred’s has been gone for quite a while now, done in by Netflix. By infinite choice at the click of a button. By everything on demand.

We didn’t have a Blockbuster anywhere nearby. Blockbuster was a “box store” kind of a place. Suburbs had them, not cities.

We had our own little peculiar and particular stores, like Fred’s. We also had Gary Drug, a terrific little independent drugstore where they knew all their customers and took really good care of them. And Charles Supply, a combination hardware and general store where they knew all their customers and took really good care of them. Fortunately, we still have both of them.

But back in the day, when we had a jones for a movie, we went to Fred’s, or to the place around the corner on Cambridge Street.

Like a lot of folks, we rented a lot of movies over the years. Before, like a lot of folks, we didn’t.

I hadn’t thought of video rental in years. And then I saw on the news the other day that the two Blockbusters in Alaska are closing in another month or two. That will leave the one in Bend, Oregon as the last store standing. At the Blockbuster high point, there were 9,000.

The longevity of those Alaskan Blockbusters made sense. Alaskans haven’t had ubiquitous Wi-Fi, and broadcast reception in plenty of places has been substandard. But modernity final caught up with Alaska. Leaving Bend, which is privately owned and just licensed the Blockbuster name. Blockbuster dump the last of the stores it owned a few years ago.

Sandi Harding, the general manager of the Oregon store, who has worked for Blockbuster since 2004, said there are no plans to shut the store any time soon.(Source: NY Times)

Ms. Harding is absolutely hands-on. She buys her movies at Walmart and Target, and sells candy she scoops up at Costco.

“We still have that core group of customers that know we’re local, are very loyal and come in every week,” she said. “Everyone’s tired of sitting at home on their phones and their laptops and not having any personal interactions.”

Bend, Oregon, must be kind of a magical place, as it seems to be just about the only place in the US where “everyone’s tired of sitting at home on their phones and their laptops.”

Good luck to Sandi Harding. May it ever be so.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Yep, I’m a liberal. (But I’m not all that white…)

A couple of economists at the University of Chicago business school:

…taught machines to guess a person’s income, political ideology, race, education and gender based on either their media habits, their consumer behavior, their social and political beliefs, and even how they spent their time. (Source: Washington Post)

Well, thank god they taught machines and didn’t do it themselves with their very own calculators and eyeballs. What are machines for, if not to guess race and politics?

Anyway, the machine will peg me as a liberal because I don’t own a fishing rod, a reel, or lures, or hooks. Not that I have anything against fish or fishing. I eat fish. I’ve been fishing. Okay, that fishing was when I was a kid. But I guess I’m just an easy to spot liberal. It’s not just the fact that I haven’t gone fishing. I drink alcohol on occasion. And I buy novels. The one thing I’m illiberal on is that I do on occasion buy ranch dressing.

As for brands that mark you as a liberal, of the ten brands that liberals apparently don’t use. I’m a liberal all the way. Arby’s? No thanks. Maybe if the choice was between Arby’s and Roy Rogers..  But, ah, no.

I’m not choosy enough to use JIF, either. I’m a Teddie’s girl, and when i get “normal” peanut butter, it’s Skippy. (JIF? I didn’t even know if was still available.)

I don’t eat at Applebee’s, own a Chevy, or buy Tyson products. I do eat chicken, but it’s apt to be whatever the house offers or, if I’m feeling flush – and ultra-liberal – I go for Bell & Evans.

The other items on the brand list – Sonic, Wranglers, Dockers, Little Debbie’s snack cakes, and Cool Whip. No, no, no, no, no. Sonic I’d be okay with, it weren’t for their annoying ads. And I’ve got nothing against Wranglers or Dockers. It’s just that, for whatever reason, my husband didn’t wear either brand. As for Little Debbie: a colossal waste of calories. If I’m going to eat crap that’s bad for me, well, there’s plenty in line ahead of Little Debbie’s, starting with Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia and ending with a Drake’s Devil Dog. And  I will note that my politically liberal mother did use Cool Whip. I’m just not all that big on whipped cream. If I do make strawberry shortcake – the one dessert that absolutely demands whipped cream – I whip it up from scratch.

On the whiteness end of things, I’m a little less predictable. I don’t watch “American Pickers” or “The Big Bang Theory” (although, as a liberal nerd, I suspect I’d like “The Big Bang Theory”). And I fall down on the biggest indicator of whiteness: owning a pet. Oddly enough, the second biggest consumer product predictor of whiteness is owning a flashlight which, I guess, is correlated with home ownership, and whites are more apt to own their own homes. I don’t actually get this. Rent, own, camping, squatting. I’ve always had flashlights. Who doesn’t have a flashlight????

But I really don’t come across as white when it comes to social attitudes. The best social attitude predictor of whiteness is that you “approve of police striking citizens.” Say what??? I’d like to see how this one was phrased. There are plenty of circumstances in which I’d say, strike away. On the other hand, tasering an unarmed guy sitting on the sidewalk complying with police directives….

Second up: gun ownership. Third up: pro death penalty. Fourth: own a rifle. Fifth: voted for a Republican for president. (As if…) I’m a little whiter the further down you go. I don’t believe gay sex is wrong; I don’t believe premarital sex is wrong. (While we’re at it, while it’s not on the list, I don’t believe premarital gay sex is wrong, either.)

In terms of income identifiers, it used to be that purchasing Grey Poupon that predicted a higher income level. Today, it’s owning an iPhone. Chalk it up to my just being a “Never Apple” kind of gal.

The researchers find that, across almost every dimension, America’s cultural divide has remained constant. Yes, high-income households buy different things from low-income ones, and white Americans and black Americans watch different television programs and movies. We’re divided. But we always have been and, despite popular narratives to the contrary, it’s not getting worse.

“What’s really striking to me,” [Chicago economist Emir] Kamenica said, “is how constant cultural divisions have been as the world has changed.”

But there’s one exception. And it’s a big one. The ideological difference between conservatives and liberals is wide and growing.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” Kamenica said. “For the past 40 years, liberals and conservatives are disagreeing more each year. On every topic, liberals and conservatives are disagreeing more than they used to.”

I guess if the machine and the economists say it’s so, it’s so. But I would like to say that it seems to me that the real gap that’s emerging is between Trumpists and non-Trumpists. Nicolle Wallace. Steve Schmidt. Bill Krystol. Evan McMullin. Michael Steele. They’re all pretty conservative, and I’ve found plenty of common ground with them.

Oh, well. What do I know? I’m just a non-fishing pole owning liberal who’s white enough to own a flashlight, but not quite white enough to own a gun.

Ah, I love social science.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018


When my nieces were young, I did some time in Build-A-Bear, the shop where you can make yourself a tarted-up stuffed animal. It was actually fun letting the girls pick the skinned plush carcass of their animal of choice, watch it get stuffed and sewn up, and pick an outfit out for it. Cute enough. I enjoyed it. But I remember it as pretty pricey – especially when you considered the quality, which was not exceptionally high.

Anyway, someone came up with what I’m sure they thought was an excellent promotional idea: a Pay Your Age sale. I.e., to get the basics – a stuffed animal with no extras – you only need to pony up three bucks for a three year old, six bucks for a six year old etc. (There must be a break-even age, of course. Surely, if I wanted to build myself a unicorn or whatever, I wouldn’t have to pay $68 for it.)

Word started circulating excitedly on Twitter a few days ago that “Build-A-Bear” was about to have a huge “Pay Your Age” sale. For one day only, the cuddlies would be sold not for the usual price, but for the dollar equivalent of the age of the lucky child, as long as the child was present on the premises. (Source: Wapo)

As a promotion goes, this one actually sounded like a pretty good one. After all, it’s the add-ons that add to the cost, not the bare-naked bear. All those enticing sounds, smells, costumes, and accessories? It goes without saying that any kid is going to want plenty o’that.

But apparently Build-a-Bear, which has claimed to sell “smiles” rather than products  - pardon me while I, as a marketing pro, gag; just like Revlon selling “hope” and not lipstick – underestimated the lure of this promo.

On Thursday, smiles faded at the company’s stores across the U.S., Canada and Britain after a big Build-A-Bear sale drew such large crowds — with lines up to a mile long and waits of 5 to 7 hours, sometimes for nothing — that the great stuff-your-own-bear company had to stuff the sale.

There is nothing on this good earth that I’d wait 5 hours in line to purchase, even at an extreme discount. Let alone a stuffed bear in a fireman’s outfit.

In Leeds, England, the police were called in.  One shopper described the situation as “chaos.” In Charlotte, NC, the words were “Black Friday-like frenzy.” In Raleigh, it was “carnage”, with “mobs of kids (and moms) in tears.”

So Build-a-Bear tweeted out an alert:

Per local authorities, we cannot accept additional Guests at our locations due to crowd safety concerns. We have closed lines in our stores. We understand some Guests are disappointed and we will reach out directly as soon as possible.

If I don’t like products being referred to as “smiles”, and lipstick as “hope”, I really and truly despise customers being referred to as guests. One thing if you’re in a hotel. Stretching it, but okay. After all, you are sleeping in their beds. In your very own-for-the-night private room. At a Build-a-Bear you’re in a swarm of other people, with the pestery-kid-to-adult-ratio of 3:1, all gearing up to put a tutu and a baseball cap on a pink dinosaur. You are not a guest. Guests don’t stand in mile-long lines for 5 hours. Those are customers.

And nutso customers at that.

I understand that you don’t want to disappoint the little ones, but this is a perfect example of being able to offer those little ones multiple life lessons. First lesson: it’s really a dumb-ass waste of time to wait 5-7 hours in line, under a broiling sun, to purchase something that the kid won’t give a stuffed rat’s ass about within 24 hours of stuffing the rat. Second lesson, courtesy of the Stones: You can’t always get what you want.

Build-a-Bear had to jump into (re)action, offering their turned away “guests” a $15 voucher.

Inevitably, Twitter did what Twitter does best: deliver some hilarious posts on the situation:

Gotta love Big Mouth Princess@BigMouthPrincss, who tweeted:

NASA now reporting they can see the queues outside Build A Bear Workshops from space.

And multi props go to local news guy from Boston’s very own WBZ:

“My kids love Build-A-Bear,” tweeted one David Wade. “When I saw they were having a ‘pay your age’ promotion I thought to myself: ‘I’d rather have someone cut my chest open with a spork and insert a plastic heart that makes a fake heartbeat noise’ than be there for that. It was a good call.”

Excellent instincts, David, excellent instincts.

I don’t imagine that Build-a-Bear will be running this promotion again anytime soon. But marketer to marketer, let me offer this: how about a Pay Your Age deal tied to the kid’s birthday? Maybe do it by the month, and have it be the Pay Your Age for the year before, just to let the parents think they were getting a deal. You’d spread the crowds throughout the year, and you’d probably sell a lot more of those add-on plastic hearts.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A glamping we won’t go

I did quite a bit of camping back in my twenties. I drove cross country, camping most of the way. I hitchhiked through Europe, alternating camping with hosteling. I did a few smaller camping trips here and there, including winter camping in the Catoctin Mountains. We were in a cabin (unheated), sleeping in sleeping bags, and it was about 100 degrees below zero. Pee froze on the way out, before it hit the ground. I thought I was going to freeze to death. Let me tell you, I was never so happy to see a HoJo Motel. I do believe that was my last time camping.

The Catoctin escapade aside, camping has quite a bit to recommend it. It’s fun sleeping out under the stars. If you’re under a tent, it’s nice lying there listening to a light rain ping off the tent’s fly. Breathing in all that fresh air is truly bracing. And nothing tastes better than the grub you cook after a day stomping around the woods breathing in all that bracing fresh air.

On the other hand, the ground is hard, even with an egg crate foam “mattress.” There are insects. There are bugs. There are skunks. There are bears. No matter how hard you hammer those stakes in, two-person tents have a tendency to blow down when there are gale-force winds. There are scary sounds. There are scary people. And whether you’re having to make a go of it in the campground facilities, or answering your call of nature behind a bush, in full view of nature, it’s not pleasant. I much prefer having an actual bathroom. Sure, I did actually prefer taking a crap in a beach-side field while being watched by a donkey in a small, off the beaten path Greek island, to having to use the communal, hole-in-the-floor toilet in a 50 cent a night hotel in Turkey that turned the water off at 10 p.m. But mostly indoor plumbing is better than outdoor nothing.

Anyway, re-upping my camping bona fides is most decidedly not on my bucket list.

I suppose if I met Mr. Right, and he wanted to go camping, I’d consider it. But only if he looked and sang like George Strait. Or if he had an Airstream Trailer. In which case he wouldn’t have to look or sing like George Strait. (Are you out there, Mr. Airstream?)

But I must admit I’m a tad bit intrigued by the idea of glamping – the high-end camping options that have been popping up the last few years.

Sandy Pines in Kennebunkport, Maine – a charming little town where George HW Bush summers – has introduced a couple of new ways to go glamping.In addition to up to 16 luxury “Glamp Tents” (from $179 nightly), campers can choose from 12 “Camp Carriages” and another dozen “Hideaway Huts.”

The carriages, stylish cottages on wheels, are fully outfitted with king-size beds, coolers, exterior window shutters, fire pits, and seating areas. Pricing starts at $119 per night. The huts are modern-looking rustic wooden A-frames. The single-room structures also offer full-size beds and lighting, with outdoor seating areas and fire pits. Those rent from $75 per night. (Source: Boston Globe)

But if I really think about it, I don’t care how glampy those “Glamp Tents” are. For $179 I do not want to have to make my way to the bathhouse in the middle of the night. I know, I know, you can always take a discreet leak outside the tent. But if a campsite is in a crowded area, well, and there’s not ample room for run-off without running into someone else’s Glamp Tent, it’s just not done.

I’m sure I’d be lying there on my king-sized bed, holding my water, and wishing that I’d had the brains to come from Old New England Money so that I could have a beautiful summer place like the Bushes house on Walker Point. Or getting up and peeing in a Tupperware container.

Add a toilet to one of those “Camp Carriages” or “Hideaway Huts” and I might consider it. But wouldn’t that be more like staying in a hotel than camping? In which case, I’m back to casting an interested eye on Brownie’s Cabins on Route 6, just around the corner from my cabinc_01sister Kath’s house in Wellfleet. They don’t look all that glampy, but that’s my idea of the great outdoors.

A-glamping we won’t got. But maybe there’s an opening at Brownie’s….

Friday, July 13, 2018

Perfectly on brand, I’d say. (Be Besto!)

I was actually going to take today off.

Friday the 13th. Lovely mid-summer’s day. Better things to do with my time – like use my new electric toothbrush. (You don’t know just how long 2 minutes is until you power up one of these suckers, that’s for sure.)

And then this most excellent of stories appeared before my very wondering eyes:

There’s a Russian asbestos company that is using Trump’s image and his pro-asbestos words to market its product.

be bestos

Well, this would sure get me to buy a pallet of Russian asbestos. And you?

The company Uralasbest posted photos of the pallets adorned with a seal with Trump’s face in the center on its Facebook page in June.

“Approved by Donald Trump, 45th President of the United States,” the seal read, according to a translation supplied by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit focused on human health and the environment that flagged the posting. (Source: Wapo)

While it’s not as widely used as it was in the days when we were less aware/less concerned about products killing us, asbestos is not banned in the US. It has, however, been banned in plenty of other countries. Just not us. In fact, on his way out the door to pick up his used Trump mattress, former EPA chief Scott Pruitt put some policy in place that backs down on asbestos regs.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to get mesothelioma?

I know my friend MB was just delighted that it almost killed her twenty years ago, and that the treatment that enabled her to survive has caused all sorts of spin-off health problems. After all, when you decide to become a librarian, it’s just one big adventure, and part of her big adventure was apparently exposure to asbestos particles when her library was undergoing a reno.

Trump, not surprisingly, is something of a denier when it comes to the connection between health and asbestos. He blames “the mob” for anti-asbestos hysteria, claiming that they turned people against it so that they could make money removing it. This is actually a somewhat plausible scenario. Sounds like something the mob would do. But it doesn’t eliminate the fact that asbestos is a real health hazard. It’s okay as long as it doesn’t decay. But, hey, it decays, as anyone who ever saw a furnace wrapped in an asbestos blanket can tell you. (And by the way, I’m pretty sure that Trump got his scientific education at the same place Elena Ceaușescu got hers.)

The asbestos company focused on this supportive stance in a post accompanying the pictures.

“Donald is on our side!” the company posted in a caption for the photos, which also cited Pruitt.

Uralasbest’s asbestos is mined in a town poetically named Asbest which:

…was once known as “the dying city” because of elevated rates of lung cancer and other diseases, the center reported. A New York Times report from 2013 paints a grim picture of life in the mining town:

“Residents describe layers of it collecting on living room floors. Before they take in the laundry from backyard lines, they first shake out the asbestos. ‘When I work in the garden, I notice asbestos dust on my raspberries,’ said Tamara A. Biserova, a retiree. So much dust blows against her windows, she said, that ‘before I leave in the morning, I have to sweep it out.’ Asbest is one of the more extreme examples of the environmental costs of modern Russia’s deep reliance on mining.”

Doesn’t sound like a candidate for a Trump Hotel, but I did read that the Trumpire was coming up with a down-market chain offering.

Anyway, Trump’s bestie – asbestie? – Vladimir Putin is a big supporter of Uralasbest, so maybe old Vlad engineered the endorsement for his old pal. It’s all about the brand, and this one is so on-brand: Trump, Russia, and something toxic. Win, win, win.

I do hope that Trump is making some money off the use of his image. He’ll be annoyed if he’s not getting a chance to, as the old Mafiosi used to say, “wet his beak.”

And I do have a branding suggestion for Uralasbest. They should certainly consider a play on Melania’s campaign. Forget “Be Best”. How about “Be Besto”? It sure beats, “I really don’t care, do u?”

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Welcome to Boston, all you sheiks, oligarchs and Kardashian types

I saw today that Kylie Jenner, at 20, is the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. I had to google exactly what she does, but it’s sell makeup.

Anyway, if she ever finds her way to Boston – and I don’t suppose she will: too many thin-lipped old frumps like me here – there’s now a place that she can stay. The John Adams Presidential Suite at the Boston Harbor Hotel, which will run her $15K per night.

First off, I get that it’s the Presidential Suite, and that John Adams was the first president from Boston. But still… Defending the redcoats who killed our boys during the Boston Massacre? Sure, it was all kinds of ACLU-y, but still… And then there was the Alien and Sedition Act. The letters to and from his wife Abagail make up for a bit of it. But still…

That aside:

The suite, which made its debut this week, occupies two levels that were previously used as event space. The palatial 4,800-square-foot suite includes two bedrooms, a large, open concept living room/dining room/bar, a full kitchen, a multimedia room, and 2½ baths. You won’t find any mini bottles in the bar here. It’s filled with top-shelf brands, and the wine fridge is well stocked. If your spirit of choice is missing, the staff will find it for you. Don’t worry, there’s no extra charge for the liquor. If you feel like eating in, or having friends over for a dinner party, meals can be prepared by hotel staff in your kitchen. The dining table seats eight. (Source: Boston Globe)

There’s also a 1,000-square-foot patio – harbor view, natch – that’s almost as large as my condo.

There’s also a private elevator, because if you’re paying $15,000 a night for a hotel room you shouldn’t have to share an elevator with strangers.

In the event that you need more bedrooms, or that 4,800 square feet feels a bit cramped, you can add two bedrooms to the suite for an additional $1,000 a night. If you’re already spending $15,000 a night, what’s another $1,000?

Not sure who-all comes to Boston who’d spring for this sort of spend. The hotel is looking at those in the entertainment biz. I guess I can see George and Amal Clooney and the twins staying there, if they decided they wanted to see where Matt and Ben grew up. The hotel is also expecting that someone coming to town to take advantage of our hospitals might want to have a nice place for family to hang out for the duration, a nice place to recuperate after the procedure. Surely, a really well-to-do person – the kind who could afford to spend $15K a night to shelter in a place – wouldn’t want to stay at the Holiday Inn that’s practically right next door to Mass General.

I can’t share any pictures of the hotel. There are plenty in the article, but The Globe is being remarkably mean-spirited about sharing. Still, it’s safe to say that the decor is more Bostonian than Trumpian. There’s one sort of glitzy chandelier in one of the pics, but mostly it looks like a bit more pumped up version of Restoration Hardware. Even the framed Hermes scarf is something of a salute to fuddy-duddy old Boston, no?

Anyway, I for one am happy that Kylie Jenner, George and Amal, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or any number of oligarchs have a place to call home away from home when they’re in our previously humble little town. Not that the oligarchs will be coming here. I’m guessing Mar a Lago would be more to their liking.


Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The men and women in the copper coats

In the Boston Public Garden, just across the street from where I live, there’s a monument to the first use of ether as an anesthesia in surgery. This triumph of medicine occurred in 1846, just down the street at Mass General Hospital. Here’s the painting commemorating this wonderful event.  You’ll notice that the men in white coats are all wearing, errrrr, black coats.


That’s because doctors didn’t start wearing white coats until the early 20th century when:

Doctors swapped their traditional black coats for white ones, similar to those worn by scientists in laboratories. This was meant to bolster a physician’s scientific credibility at a time when many practising healers were quacks, charlatans and frauds. As the importance of antiseptics became more widely understood, white was also thought to have the advantage of showing any soiling. (Source: The Economist)

My doctor wears a white coat over her civvies. But these days, if you’re seeing a doctor in a hospital setting, as often as not they’re in scrubs – even those who aren’t about to perform surgery. (Blue and green scrubs were introduced for surgery “to reduce eye strain in brightly-lit operating theatres.”) Hospital nurses, in my experience, are nearly 100% in some form of scrubs – and not just blue and green ones. I seem to recall a lot of purply-red ones and, at least for the women nurses, patterned tops. All worn with Dansko clogs, I believe. No more of those white starched dresses, the sensible white nursing shoes, the caps that indicated what nursing school someone had graduated from. (The caps for Mass General looked like little cupcakes.)

But white, black, blue, green, purply-red, or patterned, whatever the doctor’s wearing can be germ carriers. Which is why:

Many clinics and hospitals now have a “bare below the elbows” policy for staff, whether in uniform or their own clothes.

To prevent medical staff from being their own little germ vectors, Liu Xuqing of England’s University of Manchester, has come up with a way to make clothing that’s preventive medicine.

Some metals, such as gold and silver, have natural antibacterial properties and are used to coat certain solid items, such as medical implants. But putting metallic coatings onto stretchy and foldable fabrics is tricky, and those coatings can quickly be swept away in a washing machine. What is needed, reckons [Dr. Liu]… is a way to make antibacterial coatings for fabrics that, quite literally, hold tight.

And Dr. Liu has landed on copper, which like silver and gold, can kill germs dead before they spread, but is a lot cheaper.

Liu and his colleagues have come up with a process that “brushes” fabric and then treats it with a solution that contains copper. (The process is pretty interesting, and is worth a full read.)

The process works on both cotton and polyester – good thing: I’ve seen a lot of scrubs and I’m guessing that most contain poly… – and two of the bugs that it can kill are e coli and staph. Which is a good thing. So many people who are hospitalized end up with secondary infections they caught in the hospital, and that have nothing to do with what they were hospitalized for.

The tests show that the clothing makes it through 30 washings with its antibacterial magic intact. (By the way, it’s not just for the medical field. Food processing is another big bacteria producer, so this technology would be a good idea for chicken-pluckers et al.)

The good doctor is looking into other applications.

Dr Liu is considering other uses for his invention, as well. One of his thoughts is to make conductive threads that could form part of electrical circuits woven into clothing. Such circuits might, for instance, link sensors that monitor the body. They might even carry current and signals to other fibres, treated to change colour in response, to produce fabrics that vary in hue and pattern—maybe to reflect, as detected by sensors, the wearer’s mood. A doctor could then have a coat of many colours.

Hmmmm.  Don’t know how much I like the idea of wearing a full-length mood ring around all the time. Sure, nice if people could have an early warning, but there’s something invasion of the mood-snatchers about  it that me no like. Other than that…

There’s so much technology that is put to use innovating around things that are completely useless  or, worse, has a negative overall impact on users and society. (And, yes, social media, I’m looking at you, among others.) So I’m glad to see technology directed to a use that, first, does no harm.

If I’m ever hospitalized, I’d be delighted if the doctors and nurses come all decked out in copper.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Buyers beware!

I have a very close friend who had a long and quite successful career in retail. She spent many years as the buyer for designer ready-to-wear for N-M – a high-pressure, high-stakes, high-visibility job that she loved. She’s now retired, but she logged millions of miles jetting from one Fashion Week to the next -  Paris. Milan. NYC. She was on a first name basis with household-word designers and she remains a dedicated follower of fashion, even though she’s now out of the game, other than as a spectator..

So the other day, when I saw an article in the NY Times on Artificial Intelligence’s incursion into the fashion biz, Joyce was the first person I thought of. I sailed a link to the story off to her. A nano-second later, I got a response: “Love this!!!”

We didn’t get into detail on why she loved it. Does she think it will help buyers? Put them out of their misery? Does she wish that she’d had an AI assistant when she was in the throes of her buying “sprees”? Is she hearkening back to an early stage in her career, when she actually did design work for a sweater company?

One of the best-selling T-shirts for the Indian e-commerce site Myntra is an olive, blue and yellow colorblocked design. It was conceived not by a human but by a computer algorithm — or rather two algorithms.

The first algorithm generated random images that it tried to pass off as clothing. The second had to distinguish between those images and clothes in Myntra’s inventory. Through a long game of one-upmanship, the first algorithm got better at producing images that resembled clothing, and the second got better at determining whether they were like — but not identical to — actual products.

This back and forth, an example of artificial intelligence at work, created designs whose sales are now “growing at 100 percent,” said Ananth Narayanan, the company’s chief executive. “It’s working.”

The fashion industry illustrates how machines can intrude even on workers known more for their creativity than for cold empirical judgments. Among those directly affected will be the buyers and merchandise planners who decide which dresses, tops and pants should populate their stores’ inventory.(Source: NY Times)

The AI guys, of course, keep assuring us that AI will only partially automate jobs like clothing design and buying. It will augment the way human works, make them better at their jobs.

Maybe for a while, but as AI gets smarter and smarter – and there’s an underlying AI technology called Machine Learning that helps make AI smarter and smarter as it goes along – the human role will inevitably diminish further and maybe even disappear.

Again, the counterargument arises: we’ll need more human intermediaries between companies and consumers. AI may make  all the decisions about what’s going into your closet, but there’ll be a human being to check on whether you really do like that yellow, blue and olive color-blocked shirt, a human being devoted to keeping you brand-loyal and spending away.

The same day I spotted this Times article, I caught a headline somewhere that wasn’t quite click-baity enough for the mood or the moment, but it was something along the lines of when AI and robots take all those jobs away, there’ll always be the need for home healthcare attendants to see to aging Baby Boomers.

Trouble is, of course, two-fold.

One, these jobs don’t pay as well as the skilled blue-, pink-, and white-collar jobs they’ll replace. And two, what make anyone think that robots won’t be taking care of a ton of what healthcare attendants do.

I suppose I’ll see for myself one of these days. But if I don’t recognize the difference between a human wiping the drool off my chin and a robot, what difference will it make anyway?


Glad that I won’t live to see the full culmination of the brave new world.

Meanwhile, buyers beware. AI’s coming for you, and it’s coming fast.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Those oldies but goodies…

I’m still working. Part time. Very part time.

I keep saying that this is the year I’ll pack it in entirely, and I am winding down. But then someone offers me a small project, and off I go. This week, I’ll be doing some work for four different clients. Some weeks it’s more, some weeks fewer. And I’m guessing that this will be how it goes for another couple of years. I won’t look for work, but if it happens, it happens.

And why not?

Other than the typing, it’s not physical. It keeps my mind going. It keeps me engaged in the world I spent my career in. I enjoy the folks I work with. I make money. I enjoy doing good work – and I’m really good at the work I do. Sure, I wish it were something else I was so really good at, like writing novels, but, as a well-known novelist once said, so it goes…(That would be Kurt Vonnegut, still writing into his 80’s.)

But do I see myself still working at 85? Not unless I’ve made a transition to writing novels, thank you. Other than working as a volunteer at something or other, I don’t imagine working-working.

Breathing down 70 in the tech world is one thing. (And although I make not secret about how old I am, and some of my clients absolutely know my age, I have a hunch that some would be weirded out if they knew I was 68. In the tech marketing world, 40 is ancient enough.) 85? I should live so long…

There are,however, over a quarter of a million Americans, 85 and older, who are still part of the workforce.

That's 4.4 percent of Americans that age, up from 2.6 percent in 2006, before the recession. It’s the highest number on record.

They're doing all sorts of jobs — crossing guards, farmers and ranchers, even truckers... Indeed, there are between 1,000 and 3,000 U.S. truckers age 85 or older, based on 2016 Census Bureau figures. Their ranks have roughly doubled since the Great Recession.(Source: WaPo)

This is all due to a number of factors: people live longer, fewer people have a pension plan to count on, folks are better educated, the jobs they hold are less physically demanding. And so work goes on.

Some of the older members of the workforce are famous – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Warren Buffett, and – as we saw the other day at the Boston Pops Fourth of July concert – Rita Moreno. But most are just working away in more pedestrian jobs than member of SCOTUS, billionaire investor, and drop-dead gorgeous entertainer.

Crossing guards are relatively likely to be age 85 or above. The same goes for musicians, anyone who works in a funeral home and product demonstrators like those you might find at a warehouse club store.

But there aren’t a ton of jobs in these professions. You only need so many embalmers. The oldies but goodies, by the numbers, are farmers and ranchers, who don’t retire, but just die in the saddle of their John Deere, with their cowboy boots on. They’re CEOs and in legislative and public administrative posts. (Remember Strom Thurmond? He was nearly 100 when he packed it in as a US Senator.) Other jobs that age well: property managers, lawyers and judges, retail salespeople, bookkeepers and accountants, clergy members, and real estate agents.

On the other hand, the 85-plus brigade are underrepresented among miners, construction workers, and computer programmers.

No 85 year old miners? I’m guessing that there are very few 85 year old ex-miners, what with black lung and the inherent dangers of the job. So I wouldn’t expect there to be many/any guys still manning a pickaxe at age 85.

I’m thinking about the people I know who are still working at my age, plus or minus a year or two. R is an investor. M and H still run their restaurant business, but are transferring it over time to their son. P works in social service. T is a lawyer. So is J. My dentist is in his 70’s, but he’s only in the office part time, and his son is taking over the practice. I see one doctor who’s my age, but my primary is in her early 40’s. Other than dentistry, none of these professions are especially physical.

If I’m still around at 85, wonder what I’ll be up to.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you? Bad statie, bad statie.

From time to time, Pink Slip has opined about business malfeasance. I’ve always been particularly intrigued by stories about those with their hands in the till. The construction company accountant who pilfered enough to pay for Burt Bacharach to perform at her brother’s wedding. The kids hockey league treasurer who bought a fancy SUV and a ton of Pandora jewelry. And we, of course, just learn about the ones who get caught. I’m guessing that because so many don’t get caught, those who do get caught thought they’d get away with it. So they cadge the first bit of money, and no one seemed to notice. On to the next.

That construction company bookkeeper? She managed to take home nearly $7 million before she got found out. That’s a ton of not noticing. No wonder she thought it was safe to hire Burt Bacharach.

The latest caught-in-the-cookie jar scandal isn’t about the direct theft of company funds. It’s about the indirect theft of taxpayer money at the hands of dozens of Massachusetts state police.

There are roughly 2,300 state troopers in Massachusetts – plus or minus – and these days, with all the early retirements, it’s mostly minus. In 2017, their average salary was a bit under $150K, and as many as 300 state police officers hauled in over $200K.

Those salaries are shockingly large. This may be a slightly apples/oranges comparison (mean vs. median), but as far as I can tell, the average statie salary was more than double that earned by Boston cops. And those statie salaries were jacked up by lucrative overtime gigs.

Not that Boston cops don’t get their own overtime opportunities. Worksites around here require police officers rather than guys holding flags. And those police officers are paid a boatload more than flagmen.

But the Massachusetts State Police are something else, entirely. Some of those guys hauling in the really big bucks? Turns out, a lot of them were collecting a ton of overtime, but they weren’t exactly working those hours they were being paid for.

The other day, three staties were arrested in their homes by none other than the FBI. Indictments are expected shortly for another 10 overtime thieves, with more anticipated. And yet another just pleaded guilty, accepting a prison term of only 12-18 months and agreeing to co-operate with the investigation that’s so far got dozens of staties under a major cloud. A number of those under the cloud are retiring, hoping that, if worse comes to worst, they can keep their lucrative pensions even if they’ve been caught doing the overtime cheat.

Among the tricks that these rogue cops had up their sleeves were submitting “ghost” tickets that made it seem that they’d been working. Technology was what helped nab these guys. Radio transmissions were checked that indicated that the cars that were used during the overtime shifts were parked, say, in the staties’ driveways doing nuthin’, rather than patrolling the Mass Pike saving lives.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those who gets caught is someone who lived near my sister in her old neighborhood. We used to laugh about how often we’d all spot a state police patrol car parked in front of a building at the corner of the street. Maybe the trooper was just “working” overtime.)

I hope they throw the book at all of these aholes. Here you’ve gotten yourself a job that’s pretty well paid to begin with, and that comes with something that’s gone dodo bird in the public sector: a pension. And it’s a pension that you can collect after just 20 years on the job.

Yes, I recognize that there are stresses associated with being a police officer of any stripe: working irregular hours, dealing on occasion with highly charged and often dangerous situations, having to carry a gun… Still, not a bad job.

And then you go and blow it by stealing. Enjoy your time in the stir, boys. As for your pensions? You can get out of it what you put in, with interest, even. But, sorry, I don’t want any of you sitting around getting a monthly check for doing nothing. You’ve already been doing plenty of that.

I’m sure that there are some fine people who are Massachusetts State Police officers. But there are plenty of them who swagger around in their jackboots, intimidating citizens, swinging their weight around. My one and only close encounter with a statie tells me that there’s at least one. And from what I hear from friends on their one and only close encounters with staties tells me that there are lot more. (I know that they can be swaggering goons in their own right, but when it comes to local police officers, all of my experiences have been just fine. BPD were wonderful to me when, decades ago, my apartment was broken into. More recently, my cart – full of groceries – lost a wheel in the Stop & Shop parking lot, and the police officer on duty offered to drive me home. On the other hand, one did yell at me when I was jaywalking, getting on his speaker and bellowing, “Lady, don’t you do that again.” Admittedly, it was a more riskier jaywalk than my norm.)

Anyway, here’s my statie story:

A decade ago, I was in a minor accident with a delivery van. As luck would have it, it was while turning off a road – Storrow Drive – patrolled by staties. While making my turn, the van veered into my lane creaming the side of my car. Enter the statie.

He took one look at the situation, one look at my Beetle, one look at the poor schnook driving the delivery van, and, well, I might as well have been waving a flag that said Anti-police Lesbians for Hillary. I started to speak, and he told me to be quiet. And not politely. He asked the van driver what had happened.He gave his side of the story, and when I started to give mine, the cop started yelling at me, telling me that if I was lucky, the company that owned the van didn’t sue me. Huh?

I started to go into self-defense mode, verbal edition, and then I took my own look at the situation. A big, burly guy in his Sam Browne belt and jackboots, just looking for some excuse not just to berate me, but to concoct some BS excuse to arrest me for disrespect or whatever he was going to come up with. I had visions of him throwing me up against the side of my car and cuffing me.

I put my claimin the hands of my insurance company and found out that the cop hadn’t bothered to file a report. I did call his barracks and told them what had happened, and they told me that I had been in the right: it was okay to make a left turn from the lane I was in, not okay for the van to veer into my lane, and not okay for the cop not to have filed a report. But I ended up not pursuing anything. I didn’t return a call from my insurance company when they were going to battle for me. I just went and paid the deductible. Too small potatoes to get into a fight over. And the van driver seemed to be a nice enough fellow, and I really didn’t want him to lose his job over a minor accident. I should have raised more of a stink over that cop – he was really bad news – but I took the coward’s way out.

Wish I’d gotten his name. Sure wouldn’t mind finding out that he’s one of the overtime bad guys.

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?