Wednesday, July 31, 2019

One more tale from the gig economy

For the past 15 years, I’ve been a full-fledged member of the gig economy. Why I do believe I joined up even before the term was invented. We just used to call it working freelance, or – more grandly – doing consulting.

The gig economy has much to recommend it (most notably flexibility), but I’m just as happy that most of my career was spent working full-time. I liked belonging, having colleagues, having a place to get up and go to. And even though my career has been in high tech, which is not exactly famous for offering much by way of stability, it was helpful (both financially and psychologically) to have stability. All that said, when the point came where I didn’t want to commute, politic, manage up, manage down, etc., I was just as happy to get out and get gigging.

As my paid work life winds down – any year now, it’ll all be in my rearview mirror – I can honestly say that I enjoyed myself while gigging. (It helped, of course, that I never had to hustle. Pretty much all of my work has come through folks I knew from my fulltime career. I’m now working mostly with “begats” – people a degree of separation or two or three from the ur source from my fulltime days, but all my gigs have been network based.)

I’m also a gig economy consumer.

I’m an irregularly regular Uber rider. I’d use Lyft, too, if I wasn’t too lazy to download the app.

I’ve hired TaskRabbit-ers a few time, and may be using them again any day now to help clean out an especially stubborn closet.

I haven’t gotten around to using GrubHub or any of the the other meal delivery services. Not that I’ve got anything against them on principle; it just hasn’t come up. There’s always something in the cupboard I can turn into a meal of sorts. That, or I can walk around the corner and forage for a slice, a burrito, or an order of pad thai.

Which isn’t to say that on a cold and scarily icy winter’s night I might not get the hankering for some food – maybe Indian - that I’d have to go further afield for.

But I haven’t used any of the the new gig economy food delivery services. (My husband and I used to order take out Thai quite a bit, but our favorite place – despite our best efforts - closed, so… And the restaurant didn’t use a delivery service. They had their own guy. Ditto the pizza place I’ve had deliver a couple of times. Mostly, though, I don’t want to wait for delivery so I hoof it over. It’s only a couple of minutes walk, even thought they have the most dangerous stoop in the world.)

Even though I haven’t used them, food delivery services have certainly proliferated over the years. GrubHub. Uber Eats. Postmates. DoorDash.

The folks who do the delivering – most/all of them are signed up with more than one of the services, sort of like how most Uber drivers have the Lyft app on their phones, too – have it hard. It’s no accident that the words “grub” and “dash” are part of the names of two of the best known services. Delivers grub for gigs and have to dash around to fulfill them while trying to make a living.

A NY Times writer decided to check it out for himself.

What he found wasn’t pretty.

Mindless as the job may seem, it is often like a game of real-life speed chess played across the treacherous grid of the city, as riders juggle orders from competing apps and scramble for elusive bonuses.

And there are risks. Nearly a third of delivery cyclists missed work because of on-the-job injuries last year, one survey, and at least four delivery riders or bike messengers have been killed in crashes this year. (Source: Andy Newman in The New York Times)

And then there’s the race to the bottom compensation that’s one of the most salient features of the gig economy: the more workers who jump in, the lower the pay.

Maria Figueroa, director of labor and policy research for the Cornell University Worker Institute in Manhattan, called the food couriers “the most vulnerable workers in digital labor.”

“People think digital economy or the future of work, we’re all going to be these hipsters sitting by their computers or driving these luxury cars,” she said. “That’s not the case with these guys.”

DoorDash is the one that’s been in the news of late, with publicity centered on their rather duplicitous tip collection process.

Until they had a recent, post-bad-publicity change of heart, here’s what that company was up to (with Andy Newman’s up close and personal example).

DoorDash offers a guaranteed minimum for each job. For my first order, the guarantee was $6.85 and the customer, a woman in Boerum Hill who answered the door in a colorful bathrobe, tipped $3 via the app. But I still received only $6.85.

Here’s how it works: If the woman in the bathrobe had tipped zero, DoorDash would have paid me the whole $6.85. Because she tipped $3, DoorDash kicked in only $3.85. She was saving DoorDash $3, not tipping me.

As it turns out, Dashers were actually okay with this model, as they tended to make more on a DoorDash gig than they did with other apps.

But from a customer perspective, the sleight of hand with the tipping gave DoorDash a big old black eye.

That woman in the bathrobe would have reasonably expected that the $3 she tipped Andy went to him, not to DoorDash.

I’m sure that if DoorDash had explained this policy – “this tip enables us to guarantee your delivery person a good delivery rate” – there’d have been less of an outcry from customers. The lack of transparency left customers feeling bamboozled.

Anyway, the customer outrage caused DoorDash to change their tipping policy.

Whether this will mean any more in the pocket of those life-in-their-hands-so-someone-can-get-sushi delivery folks remains to be seen, as DoorDash will be making up the diff by paying less per delivery.

(Note to self: when using the gig economy, tip using cash.)

It’ll probably be moot in the longer run. As Andy Newman wrote as he considered his short experience as a food delivery guy:

I thought of what a colleague had said the day before: “You’re one step above an Amazon drone.” I thought of something Professor [Niels] van Doorn [University of Amsterdam] had said, that the couriers’ real value to the app companies is in the data harvested like pollen as we make our rounds, data that will allow them to eventually replace us with machines.

Just as happy that my little piece of the gig economy was a bit more humane. That I was less likely to be replaced by a drone. And that it’s almost over.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

“The original search engine”

For years  - well beyond the point where anyone who lives in my building was interested in them – Yellow Pages were delivered (or perhaps forklifted: those packages were plenty heavy) to the front stoop. Shrink-wrapped in sets of four, they would sit there until I dragged them into the foyer. There they would sit for a few days, at which point I would lug them out back for recycle day.

There were, I believe two competing versions of the Yellow Pages, one published by the phone company, the other by someone else.

Anyway, the delivery of the unwanted Yellow Pages occurred, as I recall, twice a year.

There didn’t seem to be any way to get of the list to receive them. The advice, as I recall, was to recycle. And I would have felt bad to cancel the delivery. What about the printers? The sales people? The delivery folks? I didn’t want to contribute to their loss of work.

Ah, the Yellow Pages.

Although we never used them, my husband for some reason did like to hang on to one of them, perhaps to use as a doorstop. He also had a little trick he would show kids in which he could somehow ram a pencil through the book. But since Jim’s death in 2014, those tomes go straight from stoop to recycle.

Then a couple of years ago, the Yellow Pages stopped coming.

That is, until the other day, when darned if a couple of shrink-wrapped packages full of The Real Yellow Pages showed up. They’re a lot thinner than they used to be – maybe a quarter of the width of the fatsos of the good old days. But there sitting on my stoop nonetheless.

Why us?

I guess because we are largely a building of mostly olds, so there are likely a couple of landlines still in operation in the building. I’m one of those olds. Although I rarely use it, I still hang one to mine, if only to try to catch most of the spam calls I get. And it’s part of my Xfinity account, and only costs a few bucks a month. So on I hang.

But I neither want nor need the Yellow Pages. And neither did anyone else who lives here. After sitting in the foyer for a few days, out the latest delivery went (with one hold out, for research purposes only).

The arrival of the Yellow Pages did leave me wondering who exactly does want and need them.

It’s actually pretty obvious: folks who don’t use the internet.

And that group is pretty obvious, too.

Overall, 90% of Americans use the internet. Of those over 65, 27% don’t. Income less than $30k? 15% aren’t internet users, vs. only 2% of those with incomes $75K of over. 

People of color have lower usage rates than whites; those without a high school diploma have far lower usage rates than those with a college degree (29% non-users vs. 2%). And rural dwellers, likely because there are still remote areas with spotty broadband, use the internet less than city folks and suburbanites. (Data source: Pew Research)

So there you have the folks who might need to rely on the Yellow Pages when they want to find a florist, a dumpster, or a dentist

The Yellow Pages, after all, are according to their tag line “the original search engine.”

Or, as they used to say, “let your fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages.”

I flipped through the skinny new Yellow Pages to find that my dentist, of all things, has a listing. But not an ad. I guess someone could let their fingers walk through the list and stop at the “R” for “Riley” because the address showed that they’re convenient. But it seems like such a crap shoot. Maybe next time I’m at the dentist, I’ll ask the office manager why they still keep a Yellow Pages listing. I’m guessing that it’s cheap enough and they do it for old time sake.

There’s also a little White Pages stuff up front, so I guess if you don’t have internet access, and you don’t want to pay for a 411 lookup, you can look up Riley Dental in the white-pagey front end of the book.

The three pride-of-place advertisers – full-page colored ads on the inside front cover, and the back cover (inside and out are a curious mix.

FTD makes sense. And maybe the ambulance chaser who’s grabbed the back cover. (“We help people who are injured in auto accidents.” Well, I’ll give them credit. From a marketing perspective, it’s pretty clear what they do.) But how much demand is there for new and used restaurant equipment? Well, Ed Smith must find that there’s plenty, because he has a big old ad inside the cover. Auctioneers! Liquidators! Appraisers! I’ll keep them in mind if I feel the urge for a commercial pizza oven or bar glasses.

And now I’m faced with a decision. Now that I’ve browsed the latest edition of the Yellow Pages, should I recycle it or hang on? Given how thin this year’s is, this might be it in terms of a print publication. If I give it a toss, what if the internet’s down? What if I have the emergency need for an antique shop? Aromatherapy? Podiatry? Pizza? A pianist?

What to do? What to do?

Maybe I’ll just leave it in the recycle bin for now, but not leave it out back for the truck quite yet. Who knows? Maybe some day it will be worth something on eBay. You never know. The 1971 Houston Yellow Pages (pre-owned) is going for $49.99.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Go fund yourself, Amanda

You remember Amanda Knox.

She’s the young American semester-abroad student who spent time in prison in Italy for murdering her roommate. (Thanks to DNA evidence, Knox was later acquitted.)

From the get-go, the situation was the ultimate cable news spectacle, a true tabloid-palooza: pretty young (American) innocent abroad; salacious details about the personal lives of everyone involved; the seriocomic Italian justice system.

In June, Knox returned to Italy for the first time since her release, traveling to Modena with her fiancé for the Criminal Justice Festival, an event sponsored by the Italian version of the Innocence Project. (Maybe something’s been lost in translation, but is there anyone out there who’s thinking ‘nothing says festival quite like criminal justice’?)

Regrettably, Knox -  who now makes her living as an activist and author, and whose fiancé, Christopher Robinson is a poet and novelist – had to use all the money the couple had been saving up for their wedding to fund their trip to the festival (and a post-festival jaunt to the French Riviera). So now Knox and Robinson are looking to crowdfund their upcoming wedding and make it the ‘best party ever.’ A party where they “can shower our friends and family with love and celebration.”

The wedding they’re envisioning is quite elaborate – they can dream, can’t they – and the potential cost looks way beyond what the couple would have paid to get themselves from their home in Seattle to Italy and back, even with a side trip to the Riviera. But the trip no doubt made them dip into their wedding fund.

The crowdfunding is set up on their registry, where, rather than buy them Kate Spade plates or a Breville blender, you can offer them cash:

Stellar patrons can donate $500 to the wedding with Knox and Robinson saying 'when Madonna's "Lucky Star" comes on, we'll shout you out on the dance floor.'

Galactic patrons can donate $1000 and temporal patrons, who donate $2000 - $10,000, will receive a 'special video from the future, reading you an excerpt from the Encyclopedia Galactica.'

…As a reward for giving money for the nuptials, which appear to be space themed, donors will receive a copy of the couple's love poems book The Cardio Tesseract. (Source: Daily Mail)

Well, that’s not quite enough to get me to cough up, even if the poetry ‘reveals the dynamics of their private life, their hopes, fears, and dark places, from thoughts of suicide and memories of prison, to dreams of raising children.’ But maybe that’s just the me that has no interest in “dynamics of their private life.”

I do have some sympathy for Knox. It must have been terrible to be barely more than a kid, in a foreign country, accused and convicted of a horrendous crime that she was apparently not guilty of. Finally – after 4 years in prison and tremendous legal expense on her family’s part – she is released. All this in the glaring spotlights of our times. And now still living with the overhanging threat that an erratic Italian judicial system could pounce on her yet again.

But that sure doesn’t get me to want to help fund her wedding. (Her legal bills, maybe.)

I’m in no way averse to crowdfunding. I’ve tossed in a few bucks for startups on Kickstarter over the years. I’ll occasionally chip in when there’s a big, fat old drama out there – especially when it’s local and seems like a good cause. I’ve thrown in for ALS sufferers whose families are trying to keep things going even when nobody’s insurance seems to cover the the costs of the round-the-clock care those with the ALS scourge require. And if there’s a doggo in need of surgery, I’m usually good for $25.

But I draw the line at a few things, and the first thing I draw the line on is those trying to raise money for their weddings and honeymoons.

Come on, you aren’t owed a splashy wedding. You don’t deserve one. And if you can’t afford one, get married in a park and have all the guests bring a pot luck dish. Honeymoon at an Airbnb in the next town. Or try a stay-cay.

Don’t register for gifts, and by all means get the word out that cash is what you’re looking for. But when I see people registering, or tin-cupping, for their nuptials or honeymoon, for some reason it just makes me bonkers.

(I also don’t like students stemming for $1K to help fund a spring break vacation. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey – which I’ll take – GET A JOB. Fund your own damned Pedro Island spree.)

And when someone’s looking for $50K for the funeral/send off party that they want to give their loved one… I’m all out on that one, too.

As for the Knox-Robinson extravaganza, I’m not sure whether they’re for real or for surreal.

One thing led to another, and I did find myself on the registry for The Knox Robinson Coalescence, and I don’t know quite what to make of it.

No other pre-singularity union produced as much cerebral-empathic heat, or blazed as brightly through the early 21st century datasphere, as the joining of Amanda Marie Knox and Christopher Gerald Robinson.
That may be because of the threat of existential annihilation that led to their union. Scholars disagree on this point. What is certain is that on 45629.81z8.q14 Galactic Time (or November 11th, 2018, Old Earth Solar), Knox and Robinson were shocked into a matrimonial fervor by the future fact of their union. They learned their fate from a data-crystal shard of this Encyclopedia Galactica that rocketed back in time and landed in their backyard. This mind-boggling event was captured on film.

And no, I most certainly did not look at what was captured on film. Enough is enough. Or, as the Italians would have it, adesso basta. (That was mean. Couldn’t resist.)

There’s a lot of talk about timestreams and cerebral-empathic energy and looking for volunteers to help support their RSVP (Relative Spacetime Volunteer Party). Or something. I’m not quite clear if the volunteers are the invited guests and the well-wishers are the complete strangers who might want to contribute. Or vice versa.

Here’s the last line from a sample poem from The Cardio Tesseract:

Here is my literal finger finding the contours of your literal chin.

And here’s my response:

Here is my literal hand finding the contours of my literal face, while I shake my head uttering ‘go fund yourself, Amanda.’

Friday, July 26, 2019

Hot town, summer in the city

Last Friday, the first day of an intense heat wave, I got out and did the stuff I needed to do early. I got to the gym, to lunch with an old friend, then back home (walking through the lots-of-shade Boston Common) to cool comfort before things really began to blaze.

Later in the day, I realized that I needed to  head out once again. By this point, the Big Stifle had set in. I only had to go about a quarter of a mile, mostly through the lots-of-shade Boston Common. And I was dressed for heat: sandals, loose-light pants, a loose-light linen shirt, a big floppy hat and shades that make me look like a refugee from The Hamptons, and a cooling bandana – purchased just last weekend from REI, in anticipation of the upcoming scorchers – around my neck.

I walked slowly to my destination: FedEx Kinko’s, where I needed to make copies of a document and overnight one to a fellow condo owner. FedEx Kinko’s was plenty AC’d, but once I was back out on the street. Yowza it was hot.

I did a slow stroll back through the Common, delighted to see the kiddies still splashing away in the Frog Pond wading pool. A lovely summer sight!

Saturday was predicted to be absolutely dreadful. Upper 90’s with quite high humidity and a “real feel” – the summer equivalent of wind chill – of well above 100.

Forget it ain’t the heat, it’s the humidity. It’s both.

I pretty much stayed in all day, venturing out only after dusk to mail a letter. The mailbox is about a two minute walk, but the air was so close, it was difficult to breathe. I can only imagine how someone with any respiratory problems would have struggled.

Last Sunday was almost as bad as Saturday. Slightly less humidity, but still a heat index about 100.

I didn’t stick my head out the door once. I barely looked out the window.

But summer does have its rewards, and on Sunday evening I ventured into the kitchen to turn on the stove to cook up a couple of ears of corn.

The beauty of an induction cooktop is that it doesn’t heat up all that much. But boiling water is boiling water, so the kitchen – a greenhouse room with a western exposure, so a real hot-box – was a bit hot.

But that corn…

It was from the grocery store, not a farm stand, so not exactly fresh picked. And I’m not even sure if it were native – I have heard that there is some native corn around, but there was no source on the sign. But it was native of somewhere – Connecticut? New Jersey? – and whatever its provenance, it was pretty darned good to have the first corn of the season.

Really, is there a finer summer repast than a couple of ears of corn loaded up with butter, salt and pepper? Other than the nasty-ish garbage it produces, there’s nothing better.

Except maybe a fresh-picked tomato, either on a sandwich (lettuce and bacon are, of course, pluses) or eaten while leaning over the sink, salt shaker in hand, juice and pips running down your chin. Yum!

The fruit has been okay, too. Cherries have been fine (and a lot more reasonable than the are in the dead of winter, when sometimes I do breakdown and buy them even if they’re $8.99 a pound…) Watermelon, too. And I actually had a peach the other day that wasn’t half bad. Peaches are so risky… A couple of weeks back, down the Cape at my sister’s, we had delish strawberries that – get this – actually tasted like strawberries.

And – at least on the days when it’s not to hot to venture out – I am enjoying having the evening light, the absolutely best part of summer.  Especially when the Red Sox, our boys of summer who performed so brilliantly last year, are at best mediocre and at worst abysmal. Sigh. Nothing that, as a Red Sox lifer – baptized a Catholic, but born a Red Sox fan – I’m not used to. Still, it’s distressing and watching their games (I tend to turn on at least an inning or two) has been no great pleasure this season.

Anyway, last weekend’s hellish weather yielded to more seasonal temps, and even a most welcome coolish, rainy day.

I really hope we don’t have any more of those ultra-hot days. But as I watch the heat maps and weather reports, it sure looks like these days are a harbinger of things to come, and that more frequent sweltering temps (and more frequent violent rain storms: there was a lulu here the week before) will become the new normal.

I’ve been trying to be a good doobie on the AC side, keeping the temp in the low 70’s during the day, and the upper 60’s at night. (I used to do 70 during the day and 65 at night, but I’m now conserving a bit.) Next heatwave around, I’ll put it up higher during the day and just stay in my downstairs rooms, as it’s nearly impossible to cool the living room and kitchen. I know that cold air falls, but there’s not a lot of cold air falling from the living room registers, perched as they are close to the 12 foot ceiling.

Meanwhile, it’s now more or less seasonably, reasonably hot.

Still, it’s hard to forget the weekend of our thermal discontent, when the ear worm of the day came courtesy of the Lovin’ Spoonful.

Hot town, summer in the city. Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty. Been down, isn't it a pity. Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city. All around, people looking half dead.
Walking on the sidewalk, hotter than a match head.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

My word!

Looking for a time waster?

I’ve got an excellent one for you: The Merriam Webster Time Traveler, which provides a look at the first known use of a word in English, by year, back to 1500, and by century back to the 12th century. (Word use prior to that is lumped together.)

Naturally, I wanted to see what was new and exciting in 1949, my year of birth.

Plenty of my words are medical/science-y /techie terms that reflect new discoveries: acid phosphatase, lidocaine, methamphetamine (gulp!), closed-circuit, supercomputer. Others are military/geopolitical in nature: nose-cone, surface-to-air, Green Beret, Titoism.

Some of the foodie1949 words sound to this ear a lot more recent than 70 years in the past.

Falafel. Raclette. Cobb salad. Piccata. Hummus.

I’m sure I never experienced any of those delights before the 1970’s. To think that they were around since 1949. Just not in Main South Worcester, I guess.

Hangtown fry, as a word, as a food stuff, however, didn’t survive. I mean, I like eggs and I like oysters, but an omelet or scrambled eggs made with oysters just doesn’t appeal. Maybe it’s the name Hangtown fry. Anyway, it’s nothing I/ve ever heard of.

There are some words on the list that seem like they should have been around forever.

Like guck. What did people call guck before 1949?

And pallbearer. Surely there were pallbearers back in the day.

Steel band hails from 1949, but my father was stationed in the Navy in Trinidad during WWII, and I’m pretty sure that there were steel bands in Trinidad while my father was making the world safe for democracy. Did no one commit the term to print before 1949? I find that hard to believe. (And my father isn’t here to ask.)

Some words sound pure 1949 to me:

Allergy shot. Anti-cavity. (Look Ma, no cavities!) Cold warrior. Clock radio. Dragon lady. (Wasn’t she a character in “Terry and the Pirates”?) Fluoridate. Position paper. (Something written by a cold warrior, no doubt.) Overnighter. Six-pack. Driving range. Especially driving range. Some of my fondest childhood memories are going to the driving range with my father to watch him hit a bucket of balls.

Other words have more of a 1960’s vibe:

Jet set. Fake out. Free-swinging. Freeze dry. Flip side. Tape deck. Telethon. Double think.

And I’m kind of bummed that lifemanship – “the skill or practice of achieving superiority or an appearance of superiority over others (as in conversation) by perplexing and demoralizing them” – seems to have been supplanted by oneupmanship.

There are words that I use all the time. Like cornball. (Born that way, apparently.)

And words I used when I worked full time. Like dog and pony show. And risk factor. And when I wanted to show off: instantiate.

Some of those 1949 words seem pretty fresh and current: veep, male menopause, ergonomics. hologram, same-sex, performatory. (Maybe because there are so many more performative people around these days.)

Others, well, not so much:

It’s not just Hangtown fry that hasn’t made it into modern usage.

Sure, there are still armless chairs with circular chairs in old-timey ice-cream parlors. But when was the last time you heard someone refer to an ice-cream chair.

There are other forty-niners of note.

The ever-present post nasal drip owes its existence to 1949. (As, of course, do I. And with a December birthday, I was most just born in 1949, but conceived in that year.) And writer’s block stems from 1949.

Not content to spend all my time traveling in 1949 wordland, I had to check out the words associated with my siblings’ years of birth.

I’m jealous of Kath (and her husband Rick). What I wouldn’t give for 1947’s own bikini, collateral damage, cookout and deviancy. Flying saucer, flop sweat, geekdom. Spinal tap, strip search, Walter Mitty. Workaholic, wrecking ball. Now that was a great year for words.

Sorry, Tom, but 1952’s no comparison. Sure, you’ve got capri pants. But cat scratch disease gave eventual rise to Ted Nugent, no? No thanks! And, oh yeah, 1952 gave us oneupmanship, which IMHO can’t hold a candela (1949) to lifemanship.

1955 (brother Rick) was a pretty good year: mind-boggling, kegger, punch list, Rasta, weirdo, zinger.

Some good words from my sister Trish’s year (1959): cloud nine, co-pay, Disneyfication, happy hour, hip-huggers, horror show. Klutz, kooky, navel-gazing, munchies. Nutjob, neatnik, no-brainer.

So many years out there. So little time.

As I said, this is an excellent little time waster – and far better thumbing through your Twitter feed to see what you-know-how is up to.


Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Tide getting clothes cleaner, one locker full at a time

I grew up in a Tide household and, until a recent conversion to Persil prompted largely by the fact that the hardware/general store on Charles Street carries it, I remained largely brand loyal over the decades.

Enough so, that a Tide jingle from my childhood still manages to rattle around in my brain:

My dog is very friendly, but especially when he’s wet.
I found I couldn’t change my dog, I changed to Tide instead.
Tide gets clothes cleaner, ‘cuz Tide makes water softer.
If you want clothes cleaner, you’d better use Tide.

Anyway, Tide is the best selling detergent in the U.S., so when I was Tide-loyal, I wasn’t alone.

But Procter & Gamble isn’t satisfied with having dominant market share for laundry detergent. They’re getting into the dry cleaning biz. And the do-your-laundry-for-you business. In doing so, P&G:

…is looking to the future, and the future can’t be bothered to pair up its socks. Millennials and Gen Z are less loyal to traditional detergent brands, market research has found, and they wear their clothing many more times before washing. And because they place a high value on their free time, they will outsource their chores to get more of it.(Source: Boston Globe)

About that “wear their clothing many more times before washing.” How does this work when it’s 100 degrees out? Doesn’t Gen Z sweat?

So the company has been exploring “out of home” options under the Tide Cleaners name. With the pithy slogan “Life, Not Laundry,” Tide now operates 140 dry cleaning stores in 19 states…

Personally, I like doing laundry and always have. (Oddly – or not – it’s the favored chore of both my sisters, as well.) There is nothing more satisfying than having those folded piles of clean laundry to stow away. (And nothing more irksome than finding a stray dirty sock stuck in the corner of the hamper after you’re all done.) When I was a kid, my family didn’t have a dryer, so laundry involved pinning clothing up on the outdoor clothesline, and taking it down when it was dry. And with a family of seven, each member of which took a two-towel shower or bath every day and never used the same towel twice, there was always plenty of laundry to get done.

These days, my laundry needs as a single elder aren’t all that great – other than when it’s 100 degrees out and a two-minute trip to the mailbox requires a shower and full change of clothing – yet the task is immensely satisfying. In fact, as I write this post, I’ve got a load in the building’s dryer.

Anyway, P&G isn’t just focusing on the rising professional cadre of Millennials and Gen Z’s whose careers don’t allow them the time to revel in laundry doing. They’re also offering their cleaning services for students:

…Tide University is cleaning students’ clothes at 23 colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Is anyone else wondering how students, so plagued with debt they take out for their $70K a year educations, can afford a laundry service as opposed to doing their wash for themselves? Is it because they’re working too many hours to pay for their education? Or is it just, hey, what’s another thousand bucks to pay for laundry services over four years?

College for me was a continuation of my laundry learning experience.

While I’d done plenty of laundry over the years, it was only after I was completely responsible for my own laundry and paying quarters to get it done that I realized that you do not need to use a clean towel every time you take a shower. This was something of a revelation, I can tell you. Live and learn.

Anyway, Tide Cleaners sets up laundry lockers in apartment buildings where folks can drop off their clothing for dry cleaning and/or old fashioned wash. It’s returned 48 hours later, all nicely folded, and the customer gets pinged to let them know it’s ready.

Tide Cleaners says it’s priced competitively when it comes to dry cleaning.

And it offers wash-dry-and-fold plans starting at $29.99 a month for 20 pounds of laundry or $99.99 for 80 pounds.

I have no idea how many pounds of laundry I do each month. I suspect it’s somewhere in between 20 and 80 pounds. But this sounds really expensive to me. (I’ll have to check with my brother Rick on what he pays. Rick is single and has a very demanding job. He clearly didn’t develop the Rogers girls fondness for doing laundry – no surprise, given that the Rogers boys didn’t actually do any laundry – and he’s been having his washing done by the same folks who do his dry cleaning for years.)

In addition to their apartment building lockers, Tide plans to have them in retail outlets as well. (They’re actually not doing the work themselves. It’s outsourced to local outfits who promise to use Tide detergent. Tide is mostly doing the marketing. And the local outfits are trying to figure out how they can make any money, given that the mighty P&G is wringing their profit margins out of existence. Where have we heard this before?)

Here’s something I found astounding:

According to the US Department of Labor, the average American consumer spends 375 hours a year dealing with laundry.

That’s over 7 hours a week. And even if your laundry takes 7 hours a week to get done, it’s not like you’re bending over a galvanized washtub using a scrub board, and then churning wet duds through a ringer. If there’s a load in the dryer or the washer, if you’re at home you’re or at the laundromat, you can be doing something else. If you’re staring at the machine watching your load wash or dry through the window, that’s on you.

Given work-from-home and business casual, the dry cleaning biz has been on the decline for a while. Leading some to wonder why Tide would “want to get into the game now and risk diluting the potency of its brand?”

P&G may actually have a larger goal in mind, says Howard Yu, author of “Leap: How to Thrive in a World Where Everything Can Be Copied.”

“P&G has no direct consumer interface. They sell the detergent to e-commerce sites or retailers, then they lose the relationship,” Yu said. So the Tide Cleaning business is an opportunity for the company to collect data on its users and “keep itself relevant for the second half of the 21st century.” Add the consumer behavioral data the company is now collecting from smart appliances, and it creates a fuller picture of who we are and how we (attempt to) keep clean.

So now I have to worry about whether the communal washing machine in my building is reporting our laundry habits to P&G HQ, and whether they know whether I disloyally switched brands to Persil. Fortunately (or not) I really don’t have to worry about being relevant in the second half of the 21st century.

Anyway, if P&G and Tide are spying on my building, I wonder what they make of the lovely but OCD women upstairs who washes a half-dozen pairs of Lanz flannel PJs, a half-dozen men’s 2XL white T-shirts, and a whole bunch of white towels, every other day on the extra-heavy duty cycle. And dries them as stiff as salt cod.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Stone carvers wanted

I read the other day that Notre Dame Cathedral almost didn’t survive the April fire. But it did. And while “still in a precarious state” (i.e., they’re still stabilizing the structure), there are plans in place to fully restore the cathedral, “a process that will take years.”

And that means demand for workers with the same set of skills that those who built Notre Dame nearly a thousand years ago possessed.

Fortunately, there’s a school in Paris – Hector Guimard – where stone masons are trained on how to “maintain and restore France’s historical monuments.” The program is intense and demanding.

Every year, about 30 new stonemasons graduate either with this [professional] degree, the professional license in stone carving for historic monuments, or a less advanced diploma in stone carving. (Source: NPR)

And in the wake of the Notre Dame fire, those new stonemasons are going to be in demand. And have reasonably good job security.

Emmanuel Macron, France’s President, has predicted that the restoration will take five years. But the students at Hector Guimard think he has, well, rocks in his head.

As [student François] Menut puts it, "You can't be president and stone carver at the same time."

C’est si vrai.

For those looking for the professional degree – a two-year post-baccalaureate program -

…students must also take classes in math, French, computer design, geography and art history.

"Art history is extremely important," says Eliette Coutherut, the head of the Saint Lambert center [which offers the degree in conjunction with Hector Guimard]. "You can't work the stone without knowing its history and the different currents that influenced architecture."

By the time the students earn their degrees, Coutherut says, they've had four years of training in stone carving, due to requirements to enter the degree program. On graduating, they are fully qualified to work, either alone or as part of a masonry stone carving team on France's most treasured historic monuments.

As part of their course, they also serve an apprenticeship.

Hmmmm. I look back on my rather meager degrees, which didn’t fully qualify me to do much of anything useful. I could think and write, but, hey, I could do that before I went to college. But that was then and this is now.

The stone carver degree program was started after World War II, when so many of France’s historic gems were damaged.

There’s an alternative to becoming a licensed stone carver by degree. There’s “Les Compagnons du Devoir” (Companions of Duty), a guild that follows the same professed used for training during the Middle Ages.

To become a "compagnon" takes at least five years of rigorous training, and apprentices are expected to travel around France working on different sites. The apprentices live and eat together and follow certain customs. They have gained a near-mythic status in France.

Naturally, I needed to know more about the Compagnons. Yikes! I was thinking they were sort of Civil War re-enactors learning their trade, but they work like dogs, live communally, and – sort of like religious brothers and nuns – are given new names. Only the names reflect where they’re from, rather than saints. Sort of cultish…

If I had to pick one approach, I’d go the degree route. Something about the communal living. Plus the folks studying in Paris get to use leading-edge technology. There’s even a 3D stone carving app. Not that students consider tech all that. As one said, “drawing by hand is still the best way to acquire that skill."

While there have been people drawn to the restoration degree program since 1945, the Notre Dame fire has brought on a new sense of urgency. There’s a new initiative, in conjunction with the government:

"France Worksite" to promote the restoration of heritage sites and revive young people's interest in old professions like stone carving.

Even if they bring a lot more students in, sounds like it takes too long to get trained to help Macron meet his five year goal. Still, kind of cool that people can pursue these grand old professions. Nice to know that everyone hasn’t been swept up in the digital revolution!

Monday, July 22, 2019

Has the world really been demanding Forever Charmin?

Sometimes I get why certain ads pop up when I’m scrolling through my Twitter feed. Techie stuff. (I do a lot of searching for info related to my clients.) Financial services companies. (Targeting retired/retiring geezers.) Democratic candidates for anything. (For obvious reasons.) An ad for the limited addition retro-doublewide Popsicle. (What is not to like? I’m guessing that the knack for splitting one of those Popsicles is like riding a bicycle. Muscle memory kick in, and as long as the quiescently frozen confection is quiescently frozen so it’s really frozen hard. A squishy Popsicle does NOT split easily or well.)

And then there are the mystery popups.

No, I don’t really want to join Nikki Haley’s fan club. Decidedly not a fan.

And then there’s the ad for Charmin toilet paper. Charmin, the one toilet paper I’ve vowed never to buy since the first Mr. Whipple “don’t squeeze the Charmin” ad appeared well before my toilet-paper buying days. (And don’t get me going on those execrable Charmin “clean heinie” ads.)

Anyway, the ad that popped up just the other day was for the Charmin Forever Roll.

I’ve seen those giant rolls in public toilets, and in crummy bars and restaurants, but never for at-home, civilian use.

Who really wants or needs that?

Maybe no one, but that’s not what Charmin believes:

Charmin’s web site promotes Forever Roll starter kits that come with customized wall mounts or freestanding to accommodate the massive roll. A “subscribe & save” option includes free shipping in the U.S., and automatically delivers three rolls every three months for $13.17, before tax. (Source: CNBC)

TP subscription? Really?

Of course, they’re not targeting those of us who don’t actually have any interest in subscribing to toilet paper. We’re the old guard who, when we hear the word “subscribe” think newspaper, not toilet paper. And Charmin doesn’t care about us old fogeys who don’t find it a major inconvenience to throw a couple of rolls in the grocery cart when we’re shopping, who have enough time on our hands to see to the incredibly time-consuming and arduous task of putting a new roll on.

No, Charmin’s targeting the younger folks:

Rob Reinerman, Director of Innovation, P&G Family Care, tells  CNBC Make It that the company believes the Forever Roll will be especially useful to millennials who may be living alone or in limited square footage.  “Since our TP can last up to one month, that means it takes up less room for storage than a larger pack of TP would, and the Forever Roll can be delivered directly to your address to save the hassle of carrying TP and other purchases into your home.”

The “hassle of carrying TP and other purchases into your home”?

Because millennials are too busy, what, dreaming up time-wasting apps, or swiping right – or is it left? – on Tinder, to be bothered shopping for TP?

Maybe I’m just jealous. I came of age when you either did the boring, adulting tasks like shopping and laundry or they didn’t get done. Maybe my time could have been better spent working on a novel. Or reading someone else’s novel.

Maybe the kids have it right. Why not just outsource all the humdrum, quotidian chores, if you can afford to?

I’m admittedly a bit of a hypocrite here. I don’t really like to clean, so I have cleaning people in every two weeks. Sure, it’s probably a waste of money. I’m pretty neat and clean, and it would probably take me less than an hour a week to take care of most of my regular cleaning. But, as my husband used to say, “I’d take a job as a clerk at the 7/11 before I gave up the cleaning people.”

Still, switching to a big, subscription based roll of toilet paper to save the time and effort associated with buying toilet paper and storing toilet paper is on an altogether different level. Ridiculously so. (And just how much storage space does a couple of rolls take up, anyway? Pretty much fits under the sink, no?) Not to mention the onerous task of putting a new roll on. Which, let’s face it, you can do while sitting on the pot. Multi-tasking at its finest!

Anyway, Charmin is one of a number of consumer-products companies that are exploring making life more convenient for single-person households.

I may not be a millennial, but as a single-person householder, I’m all in favor of smaller servings.

I’d love to see Nashoba Brook Bakery come out with half-loaves. And if grocery stores would offer smaller amounts of parsley, I’m all in.

But giant rolls of toilet paper?

Come on, Charmin, just squeeze yourself out of my Twitter feed!

Friday, July 19, 2019

Men on the moon, women on the sewing machines

Fifty years ago tomorrow, the first men landed on the moon.

I was watching

I was 19, working as a waitress at Big Boy’s for the summer, but my shift had ended by 8 p.m., and I was home.

So I watched. Who didn’t? I read somewhere that 95% of Americans were watching.

Even someone like me, who wasn’t all that interested in the space program to begin with.

Sure, I’d been excited in May 1961 when they shot Alan Shephard into space, mostly because they wheeled a b&w, rabbit-eared TV into my 6th grade classroom and we got to watch it in real time. This was quite a novelty, A/V at Our Lady of the Angels grammar school being fairly limited.

Occasionally we “enjoyed” a St. John’s Catechetical Film Strip. This was a glorified (hah!) slide show that illustrated some point from the Baltimore 2 Catechism, accompanied by a voice track playing on an LP. When the slide needed to be advanced, there was a very distinctive plink sound, that I can still recall 60 years after I last heard it.

A typical episode might cover a sacrament.

You’d see a picture of a boy walking in a cross walk, a car barreling down on him, and hear the screech of brakes, followed by someone hollering “Johnny’s been hit. Better call a priest.” Plink. The next slide would show Father Holymoly giving poor Johnny the last rites.

On rainy days, when we couldn’t go outside at recess, they played records over the PA to keep us occupied. Not normal music, mind you, but aide memoire ditties to help us memorize the commandments, the sacraments, and important items like the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. All these decades on, I can still sing you the works of mercy, if you’d like.

The chief corporal works of mercy,
They number seven,
Practice the corporal works of mercy,
And go to heaven….

And once in a blue moon, we had movie afternoon to raise money for the missions. The movies were pretty awful. I recall watching the reels spin around rather than watching the boring, dreadful movie.

Watching Alan Shepard get shot into space was a treat and an excellent diversion from the norm.

I’m not sure if they did it again the next year when John Glenn went into orbit.

But I only kept a partial eye on space.

Not that I didn’t follow the news. By the time I was 10, I was watching Huntley and Brinkley and reading every word of Newsweek. It’s just that space never captured my imagination in the same way that, say, Ngo Dihn Diem did.

But on the night of that first moon walk, I was watching on the b&w TV in the family room, surrounded by my family.

July 20, 1969.

Fifty years. A lifetime ago, just yesterday.

As the anniversary has been approaching, there’s been quite a bit of news about it, which has been a welcome break from the regular old news. 

One of the more interesting stories I saw was about some of the folks behind the scenes, who, unlike the glamorous astronauts and “the chain-smoking guys in Mission Control”, were out of sight and out of mind.

I give you the women who sewed the spacesuits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore for the big occasion.

And those spacesuits were important:

In the vacuum of space, without the right spacesuit, an astronaut could blow up like a balloon, or burn up, or maybe get drilled by a micro-meteorite. (Source: CBS News)

Oh, that.

For the moon suits, NASA needed something that was more flexible than earlier spacesuits, so they turned to – of all things – the makers of Playtex girdles and bras, rubber gloves, baby bottle nipples.

So a company that specialized in things for the distaff side of the house, for the domestic realm, was going to make the suit that would take that “one small step for man.”

The women tasked with making the suits were the “bra-making seamstresses.”

Women, it turns out, had the perfect touch, according to ILC [the Playtex folks] project manager Homer Riehm. "The people that sewed the suits were all women, that's correct," he said.

And the reason? "Agility."

And it took plenty of agility: Each suit was comprised of 21 layers of gossamer-thin fabric, sewn to a precise tolerance of 1/64th of an inch on a sewing machine your grandmother might've used.

Reihm said, "We were interested in accuracy."

In other words, there was no room for any mistakes.

Women’s work, alright!

Anna Lee Minner was one of the bra stitchers turned moon suit maker. The work was a lot weightier than making bras, as bra wearers are not apt “to blow up like a balloon, or burn up, or maybe get drilled by a micro-meteorite” if, say, a bra strap breaks.

Minner said, "I went home on many a night and cried because I knew I couldn't do it. I was scared. this was a person's life this depended on."

That would be Armstrong and Aldrin.

The women at ILC took their job very seriously. "They may have had the most important job of all, frankly," said Basil Hero, author of the Apollo account, "The Mission of a Lifetime." "As Neil Armstrong said, 'Those space suits were mini spacecraft.' You were one pin prick away from death. If those suits failed, that was it. You were done."

I may not have been watching the moon landing, but the women who made those suits sure were:

…on July 20, 1969, when the big moment finally arrived, the women of International Latex held their breath. Lillie Elliott recalled, "Once they started down the ladder, and he put his foot on the moon, that was a pinnacle of watching something that you've helped do."

Smith asked, "Where was your heart in that moment?"

"In my throat!" Elliott replied.

"Was there an inner dialog going on, a voice in your head?"

Elliott said, "Oh my, 'I wonder if that's gonna hold? Oh my, I wonder if this gonna be all right. I hope that stitch didn't pop!'"

Hats off – space helmets off? but not until you get back on earth – to those meticulous seamstresses, the unsung heroes of the first men on the moon.

At some point, I took a break from watching the moon walk and went out and sat on the front steps. I think my sister Kath and her fiance were there, too. We looked up at the moon. Was it full? I remember it as so. It was a nice, clear, warm July night.

We looked up, and despite being fine young cynics all, I believe we were all looking up with a bit of wonder. For all my lack of interest in the space program, it was pretty awesome just sitting there on the front steps on a summer night and knowing that, all those hundreds of thousands of miles away, there were a couple of guys in moon suits, walking around, having just taken one giant leap for mankind.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Etiquette in the weeds

It was, I suppose, inevitable. The onslaught of marijuana-related books.

Nearly a decade back, there was the more or less discreetly titled “The Little Black Book of Marijuana.”

Now there are all sorts of titles out there for folks who want to get into the cannabis business, or just get into the loop they may never have been in, or have been out of for decades. (Ahem.)

So, as of this year, you can get yourself a copy of “Cannabis for Dummies.”

But if manners matter – and, of course, they should – there’s now “Higher Etiquette: A Guide to the World of Cannabis, From Dispensaries to Dinner Parties.” And the author is none other than Lizzie Post, the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post who, back in the 1920’s, quite literally wrote the book on etiquette, appropriately named “Etiquette.”

I wouldn’t have imagined that anyone would need a book on manners to help folks navigate the shoals of acquiring and using weed (which may or may not be an acceptable word for marijuana, which may or may not be an acceptable word for cannabis – more on the linguistics a bit later). When I heard about the book, my first thought was this will sell plenty as a gag gift, stocking stuffer, and Yankee swap item.

But it’s getting fairly good reviews, and if you need a primer for what strikes me as fairly obvious behavior, this one may be for you, or as the Times reviewer has it:

…your cousin who is about to visit her first dispensary on a “weedcation”…or your aunt who wants to learn about CBD oil, made from a chemical compound in cannabis, to palliate the burden of her arthritis pain. (Source: NY Times)

Hmmmm. An aunt who wants to learn about CBD oil? There is that matter of my gimpy shoulder….

Anyway, a lot of what gets covered seems pretty obvious.

Don’t slobber on the pipe. Don’t take too many hits at once. (“We all know that dude.”) Try not to dreamily repeat “I’m so high” over and over again. Don’t go robotic and mindlessly scarf all the munchies. Don’t assume we want to hear your theory of existence, at least not right now.

Does anyone really need to be told not to slobber on a pipe? And, sorry, if you’re in the frame of mind to “dreamily repeat ‘I’m so high’ over and over again,” I can pretty much guarantee you that nothing you’ve read in an etiquette book is going to prevent you from doing so. Ditto for munchy scarfing and theories of existence. Some things just come with the territory.

There are other territories that are, at least to me, pretty much terra incognita (and likely to remain that way).

Post considers pot and table settings, a brave new world for sure. About vape pens, she writes, in a passage that would make certain hosts and hostesses of my acquaintance have instant Fred Sanford-style heart attacks, “they may be placed to the right of the setting or across the top of the setting either between the place card and dessertware or behind the place card.”

That said, I recently went to the wedding of a young vaper I know and love. Vape pens were not, however, placed on the table.

Post also offers advice on nomenclature. Don’t say "pothead”, it’s stigmatizing. (Okay, but sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade, no?) And she also suggests avoiding the word “marijuana.” She doesn’t mention it, but some folks claim that “marijuana” has racist connotations (others refute this). This point reminds me about a mini-furor that spun up a couple of years ago with claims that using the word “jimmies”, a New England-ism for chocolate sprinkles, has racist origins. Snopes has pretty much knocked this one down, but nevertheless, it persists.

Me, I hate to let go of New Englandisms.

I still miss “tonic” for “soda”, and “jimmies” will always be “jimmies” to me. Given that we have real racism to deal with, it seems pretty stupid to waste time and energy on fake racism. But I guess this can go either way – use or don’t use a word that may (however irrationally) cause offense. Me? Right about now I crave a mocha almond cone from Brigham’s with jimmies chocolate sprinkles.)

Cannabis, by the by, is the current go to term for marijuana. To me, it sounds too clinical.

The terms of use back in my day were “dope,” “pot”, “ganga”, “Mary Jane – or MJ”, “weed.”

I poked around a bit and it seems that “dope,” “pot,” and “Mary Jane” are out. Sort of like calling a young woman in a short skirt a flapper.

Don’t know about “joint”, but “Doobie” is out for “joint.” So what is it? A “jay,” a “spliff,” a “blunt”? Need to know basis, I guess. And I really don’t need to know.

But I wouldn’t mind at least thinking about trying some CBT oil for that shoulder of mine. And maybe a mildly laced gummy bear. A bit of weed of the mellow sort of my youth. There are pot shops cannabis stores in both Brookline and Salem, where my sisters live. What do you say, girls?

Even without reading Lizzie Post’s book, I promise not to drool on anyone’s pipe.


A nod to my sister Kath for pointing this book review out to me.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

And the hellscape just keeps getting hellscapier

A few weeks ago, I saw a YouTube clip of a giant rat climbing a pole in a NYC subway car.

So okay. Maybe it wasn’t a giant rat, just a plane old rat. But any rat climbing a subway car pole is going to appear to be giant. At least to me.

I haven’t been on a NYC subway in a few years, but I’m no stranger to the system.

Sometimes, on our frequent trips to NYC, my husband and I would jump on just for the hell of it. One of our favorites: the Crosstown Shuttle.

But from here on out, I think I’ll be taking a pass. Or an Uber. One thing to have a rat cross your path when you’re out for a stroll. The price you pay for living in a city. But no way do I want to see a rat scurrying around a subway car, shimmying up a pole.

At least those of us who live in northern climes don’t have to worry abut alligators. This I only have to do on behalf of my cousin Ellen, a Chicagoan, who spends half of the year in Florida, in a lovely community that has been known to have an occasional alligator prowling around.

I also just started watching Bloodline, a Netflix series that takes place in Florida. I am not afraid to say that when the “thing” in the mandrake grove turned out to be dead woman and not an alligator, I breathed a sigh of relief.

But, thanks to a facetious post by some police officers in Tennessee, there’s a new fear in town: alligators on meth.

What happened was the the cops arrested a fellow who was trying to flush methamphetamines down his toilet. They then put out a folksy warning:

“This Folks…please don’t flush your drugs m’kay (sic). When you send something down the sewer pipe it ends up in our retention ponds for processing before it is sent down stream. Now our sewer guys take great pride in releasing water that is cleaner than what is in the creek, but they are not really prepared for meth."

"Ducks, Geese, and other fowl frequent our treatment ponds and we shudder to think what one all hyped up on meth would do. Furthermore, if it made it far enough we could create meth-gators in Shoal Creek and the Tennessee River down in North Alabama. They’ve had enough methed up animals the past few weeks without our help. So, if you need to dispose of your drugs just give us a call and we will make sure they are disposed of in the proper way.” (Source:

The “methed up animals” referred to may have just been a party of one. A few years ago, Alabama had a little sitch on their hands: a drug dealer accused of feeding his pet attack squirrel meth to make it aggressive.

Pet. Attack. Squirrel. How do you parse that one?

Anyway, the fellow claimed he knew better than to feed his pet attack squirrel meth because it might kill it. No such conscience, apparently, about what meth does to humans.

But there are, apparently, plenty of instances of animals on meth, especially dogs. And in Australia, a shelter was coping with a meth- addled python. Not to mention that I came across a link – which I a) did not click on, and b) will not include here, to “Cute Animals on CRYSTAL METH – YouTube.”

I don’t know about meth, but I do know from life experience that there are certain drugs that you are not supposed to flush down the toilet to keep them out of the water supply.

When my husband was on home hospice, we had a CARE Package of drugs that was delivered as part of the deal so that you’d have them on hand for the end-of-life stage. I don’t remember what all was in it, other than Haldol and Morphine.

In any event, we never used the contents of the CARE Package, as by the time Jim was in the final stages of his life, he was in a hospice-hospice situation, where they took care of the drugs.

So, there I was after Jim’s death, with a fridge well-stocked with drugs I didn’t want to have around.

What to do, what to do?

The FDA provides a list of flushable drugs, and I believe that Morphine was on it. But some of what we had kicking around, from both the CARE Package and whatever prescriptions Jim was on, couldn’t be flushed. The advice was to toss them in the garbage, but to make sure that they were wrapped up in coffee grounds so that rats, squirrels (attack or otherwise), raccoons, and assorted other vermin wouldn’t get into them. (Living in Boston, there were no worries about alligators…)

I don’t drink coffee, but the Starbucks on the corner was happy to supply me with three bags full of coffee grounds.

Down went some of the drugs; out went the others.

As for flushing meth, whether those cops in Tennessee were just being tongue in cheek, or there really is something to meth entering the water supply, let’s just say I am plenty happy that I don’t have to live in fear of alligator meth heads.

The hellscape does just seem to keep getting hellscapier, does it not?

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Eye of the beholder

You’d never know it from the look of Pink Slip, but I’m an okay designer. I can pull together signs, flyers, brochures, etc. that don’t look half-bad. I used to do this one of the companies I worked for, and my “talent” was borne of necessity. No budget, ergo…What I’d do back then was collect signs, flyers, brochures, etc. that I liked and figure out how to modify them. My corporate pieces didn’t use much by way of images. No money for stock photo, let alone artwork, back in those days. If I couldn’t find something to use in the Microsoft clipart portfolio, I was strictly the written word, fonts, colors, shading… But things looked professional. (Okay. I once designed a product logo that was pretty lame-o.)

Now I put my hand in, on occasion, for a non-profit organization I do some volunteering with. My creativity relies on clipart, on images I can borrow from the web and play around with.

But what I can’t do is draw or paint.

Oh, I kept up with the other equally non-talented kids until midway through grammar school, when the kids with talent – like my friend Bernadette – moved away from the pack.

I could envision things. I could have big, bold ideas. But I couldn’t execute worth a damn.

On occasion, I think it might be fun to take a drawing or painting class for beginners, but I’m pretty sure that anything I did would be dreadful and wooden. As they no doubt would have been if, back in the day, I’d taken painting lessons from Bob Ross on PBS’ The Joy of Painting, a show I’d never even heard of until I spotted an article in the NY Times the other day on his works of art. (The show ran in the 1980’s and 1990’s.) Which, to the eyes of this beholder, look plenty dreadful and wooden in their own right.

Admittedly, I’m a ferocious snob, but seriously folks. If I could paint, would I want it to look like this?

I mean, I’ve got better looking art on the gallery wall in my living room.

And for these art works – done by my sister-in-law (still life), a colleague’s ex-wife (abstract blue), outsider artist who was working in the studio at St. Francis House (Fenway Park), a friend (Irish calligraphy), photographer friend of my sister’s in the wayback (green silkscreen of trees), Jack Yeats woodcut (Irish cottage woodcut), street artists (Berlin, Paris, Budapest) – I didn’t pay anywhere near what an original Bob Ross goes for on eBay. There an authenticated painting can run in the tens of thousands of dollars. (You can get amateur versions, painted by people in the style of Bob Ross, and using brushes and paints he sold, for a lot less. And they don’t look all that different than the real things.)

If someone told me my only option was filling my walls with Thomas Kincade lit-up elf cottages, Margaret Keane’s big-eyed child paintings, or Bob Ross landscapes, I’m pretty sure I’d go Zen and leave them all blank.

Anyway, the occasion of the Times article was the acquisition of a number of Ross’ paintings by the Smithsonian.

Along with those paintings – and  Ross was quite prolific: for each of the hundreds of shows Ross did, he produced three paintings – the National Museum of American History acquired:

…a converted stepladder that was used as an easel during the first season of the show, and two handwritten notebooks that were used to plan the production of Seasons 2 and 3…

The Smithsonian also acquired fan letters sent to Mr. Ross, including some written after he died of lymphoma in 1995 at 52. “These letters help reveal the significant impact Ross has had on diverse individuals and communities, helping them to express and feel better about themselves,” Mr. Jentsch said.

Okay. Now that I know Bob Ross helped people “express and feel better about themselves”, I feel a teensie-weensie bit narsty. But not enough to retract my sentiments on the caliber of Ross’ work.

In any event, it’s now in the Smithsonian:

The paintings and other objects officially became part of the museum’s permanent collection on March 22.

For now, the Smithsonian has no plans to display the paintings.

Which would apparently have suited Bob Ross just fine.

Here’s what he had to say about fame:

“Most painters want recognition, especially by their peers. I achieved that a long time ago with TV. I don’t need any more.”

Ah, well. Bob Ross will live on long after I’m forgotten. But is it art? Not in my book (or on my walls).

Monday, July 15, 2019

Chill! (Or don’t.)

It’s summer. It’s hot out. And humid. And in my condo, in the background, pretty much 24/7, my A/C is humming along.

If you live in a city that gets hot – and humid – in the summer, and you’re not in a standalone house on a hill surrounded by trees, you really can’t live without it. Literally.

My mother grew up in Chicago, and she told us more than once that, during a heat wave, the newspapers would publish lists of those who had died.

My mother’s family was fortunate. They lived in a bungalow in the leafy reaches of the North Side, Not in a dense, tenement.  Even in that bungalow, leaves and all, I can guarantee you that it was broiling when, sweaty and grasping for air, you tried to get to sleep on that bungalow’s second floor during July.

Lucky for us, on our every-other-year vacations to Chicago, we only spent a few days (and nights) in the city before heading out to my grandmother’s vacation house (called “The Country”) on the appropriately named Sand Lake, up toward the Wisconsin border. Where it was a lot cooler.

We didn’t grow up with air conditioning in Worcester, either.

But our house was freestanding. On a hill. With lots of trees.

Even there and then, there were plenty of toss and turn nights. When we were kids, we often slept on The Porch, an addition that had been bolted on to our compact ranch house after the arrival of my surprise-baby sister. The Porch began life as, well, a porch: three sides of screens in the summer and glassed in (but unheated in the winter). That mode didn’t last long, and The Porch became what would now be called a Great Room or Family Room: a combo dining and TV watching and general hanging out locus. The Porch was furnished with two fold-down (not pullout) couches that converted to double beds. A boys bed and a girls bed, when we were little. It worked. It was breezy and sleep-able. As we got older, we migrated back to our stuffy, hot box bedrooms. But, because we weren’t in a tenement in the heart of the city, and were on a hill, in the shade, there weren’t that many really dreadful nights. And we always had the option of The Porch.

Eventually, my mother did get herself an A/C for her bedroom. Sleeping in the heat doesn’t age well. As we saw a few years ago when a heat wave in France – where air conditioning is rare – killed thousands of elderly folks. I understand it’s not a terrible way to die. Something to keep in mind…

That said, I’m not quite ready to turn the A/C down and drift off into Big Sleep.

So, the A/C stays on. And on. And on.

But the other day, Penelope Green, writing in The New York Times, asked a provocative question: Do Americans Need Air-Conditioning?

Although my answer is, yes, in fact we do, Green makes some good points.

Offices can definitely be overcooled. No need to have them cooled so that it’s only comfortable if you have a suitcoat on.

She doesn’t mention restaurants or movie theaters, but I never go out in summer without some sort of schmatta to throw over my shoulders in case the temp is set to 62 degrees.

So far, by the way, the cooling battles, the thermostat settings, have been won by men, who on balance like temperatures cooler than women do.

Turning the thermostat up a bit is one thing, but there’s other things we could be doing.

I’m quite sure that buildings could be made more efficient on both the heating and cooling fronts. They oughta be, given the impact heating and cooling have on the environment.

But sometimes the building thing can go too far.

A few years ago, an architectural firm in Philadelphia reno’d a new space for themselves and got rid of AC.

Passive and active features provided the cooling, like mechanical and natural ventilation (fans and windows that opened); automated shades; insulation, including a concrete slab floor; and dehumidifiers. The design thinking behind these contemporary refinements has worked for millenniums — imagine an adobe house, or a Roman villa, sealed and shaded against the day’s heat, and opened up at night.

Unfortunately, the employees hated it.

More fans and pushing folks to get to work earlier and dress more casually didn’t quite do the trick. So the firm had to add some traditional A/C to be deployed as needed. Still, the building “is a model of energy efficiency.”

There are things that can be done beyond concrete slab floors and automated shades.

So I’m delighted that MIT’s Neri Oxman “and her colleagues are developing self-cooling building facades and clothing.”

At M.I.T., Dr. Oxman’s team is experimenting with polymers and bacteria in the hopes they might “grow” building facades, and “wearables” — clothing, for example — complete with arteries to hold cooled liquids or gas. They can already 3-D-print glass structures with “spatial pockets” designed to be filled with cooling liquid, as well as “biocompatible synthetic skins” for bodies and buildings, Dr. Oxman said, which would “act as thermodynamic, environmentally sensitive filters and barriers” to respond to temperature changes in the environment and self-regulate.

Yay, scientists! Yay, MIT!

Let’s get moving on those “biocompatible synthetic skins.” I could have used one the other day working in the kitchen at St. Francis House. If you can’t stand the heat, you don’t want to be doling out chicken corn chowder when it’s 90 degrees out.

And speaking of 90, I found it interesting that “nearly 90 percent of American households now have some form of air-conditioning,” the highest proportion of any country other than Japan. A lot of these, I’m sure, are folks in the leafy-shady burbs or cool and comfy country who only need A/C a few times a year, when things are truly unbearable. Still, that’s a pretty stunning figure. As the planet heats up, places that have done without – like Europe – will likely be clamoring for more A/C, not to mention places like India where more people are being more affluent and urban, and the country is heating up beyond what folks have become acclimated to over the centuries.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping my A/C on, thank you.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Dream Island

I will admit, I have fantasized about having my very own private island.

But who am I kidding?

I’m a city girl who tends to freak out if she’s away from sidewalks, out of sight of tall buildings, deprived of at least a bit of the madding crowd, for more than a few days. Isle of Manhattan? Yes! Isle of my own? Not so much.

So it’s just as well I can’t afford one.

But Dr. Albert Sutton can. And he owns two of them, which he paid $1.45 million for.

But Dr. Sutton’s islands are not in the Caribbean or the Pacific… His islands are a five-minute boat ride across Long Island Sound from New Rochelle, N.Y.less than an hour north of Manhattan. (Source: NY Times)

When Dr. Sutton bought Columbia, the first of his islands,14 years ago, his thought was:

I would have great thoughts out here,” he said, standing on his doorstep on Columbia Island, the smaller of the two.

What he thinks about these days is the $8 million he’s forked over to make his islands habitable.

Last year, I took a tour of Boston Harbor.

One of the points of interest was a tiny little island that was home to a lighthouse.

Little more than a pile of rock on which the lighthouse sits, someone bought it and was trying to turn it into a vacay spot for his family.

To get to the lighthouse, you had to climb up a ladder, accessible from a swaying pier, so that would be a non-starter for me to begin with. Part of the set up was an even smaller pile of rocks about 10 yards away. To get to the shack (guest quarters?) on this island-een, you had to take a zipline from the lighthouse.

The entire thing was a hard pass on my part.

Dr. Sutton’s islands are a lot dreamier.

On his main event, Columbia Island, he’s invested big time, necessity being the mother of investment. And he’s built a lovely home for himself. But a costly one.

He said he put money into necessities, like a decommissioned Navy vessel to get to his island and a barge that can carry about one tractor-trailer load of material from the mainland.

There was a building on the island, but it wasn’t fit for habitation: it had been built in the 1940s as the base of a radio transmitter.

He had to rip out the ordinary wallboard he first installed, replacing it with concrete-backed board that is resistant to water seeping through walls. To keep the basement dry, his contractors installed a three-pump system that can handle a storm surge; it can drive out 60,000 gallons of water an hour.

…And while WCBS  [the radio station that had owned the retired transmitter] must have had an electric cable from the mainland, it was long gone when he arrived. He opted for solar panels on the roof, with a backup system for cloudy days — two 50-kilowatt generators.

And landscaping was a challenge. He first planted honey locusts and shrubs that would do well on the mainland. They died in the salty air. Now he has mulberry and kwanzan cherry trees.

Fortunately, Dr. Sutton had been a real-estate investor for decades, and a successful one, so he could afford those kwanzan cherry trees.  Not to mention buying the island next door to protect himself from having a lousy neighbor.

If the kitchen – the only room pictured in the article – is any indication, the place is drop-dead gorgeous. Although a tad bit sterile and unlived-in looking.

That’s because no one has actually ever lived there.

Dr. Sutton has spent one night in his dream island. And now he wants out. Columbia and Pea Islands are on sale for $13M.

Not that he had ever actually intended to live there.

“It never really occurred to me that, gee, I should spend more time there or get more pleasure out of it,’’ he said. “I was here to make it beautiful and let it realize itself.”

Now that is my idea of wealth: being able to afford to make something beautiful and letting “it realize itself.” But I guess what he means by realizing itself is realizing a return. Which is where the $13M comes in.

“You know, I started in my 70s. Now I’m 85. I’m less adventurous,” Dr. Sutton said. “It’s not about me or my wishes or dreams any more. I can dream in a chair.”

Well, that’s where I do my island dreaming. And my great thought thinking. It’s simple, it’s convenient, and the price is right. Still, much as I’m a city girl, I think if I’d done this reno, I’d have spent more than one night there.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Yet another awful, future-destroying app

“Deepfake” has been in the news of late, what with concern on the part of some that there will be wholesale manipulation of videos, audios and images during the upcoming (make that already upon us) election cycle. The technology has gotten so good at creating real-looking but entirely bogus clips that it will make the social media fakery and Russian bot activity we suffered from (make that continue to suffer from) during 2016 look like amateur hour.

It’s not difficult to imagine how this will play out. A low-information, easily gulled electorate will be doused with vids of Barack Obama trash talking the Democratic nominee. Etc. (As for fakery on the other side, well, what would the content be exactly? Trump trash talking a Gold Star family? Making fun of a handicapped journalist? Claiming that a woman who accused him of rape isn’t “his type”? Cozying up to tyrants? This time around at least, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doctor anything up. And while I’m not big on bothsiderism these days, I don’t suppose that anyone would have to use technology to make zany Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson look like a wack job.)

In any case, fact checkers will be working overtime next/this time around.

Of course, artificial intelligence won’t just be drafted into use to put words in the mouths of politicians.

Though much has been made of the technology’s threat to national security, it has also been harnessed to make a torrent of fake porn, including widely circulated videos of celebrities such as Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson. Although sites including Reddit, Twitter and Pornhub have tried to ban pornographic deepfakes, they have had limited success. The technology is cheap and easily accessible, and the opportunities for use are limitless. (Source: WaPo)

Not that I don’t have some sympathy for Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson here. This is pretty awful stuff. But, at least they have Reddit and Pornhub on their side. (Pornhub? WTF?) Frankly, I’m more concerned with a fake video of one of the Democratic woman revealing her secret plan to castrate all white men. Or something.


An app developer who created an algorithm that can digitally undress women in photos has pulled the plug on the software after high traffic and a viral backlash convinced him that the world is not ready for it.

DeepNude used artificial intelligence to create the “deepfake” images, presenting realistic approximations of what a woman — it was not designed to work on men — might look like without her clothes.

I don’t think I have to worry that anyone will want to use this app on me. Still, the potential for this to be used on “civilians”, i.e., women whose images aren’t more of less in the public domain, makes it pretty awfuller stuff than the porning of movie stars.

The coder, Alberto, who came up with DeepNude – an app with a freeware version that incorporated a watermark so that people would know it was fake, and premium $50 version that had an easily crop-out-able stamp in the corner that says the image is “FAKE” – says that he is:

“not a voyeur,” merely a technology enthusiast who was driven to create the app out of “fun and enthusiasm.”

Well, “fun and enthusiasm” and also looking for “an economic return from this algorithm”.

Alberto based his app on UCal Berkeley open-source code.

DeepNude’s creator said he mulled the ethics of his software but ultimately decided the same results could be accomplished through any number of photo-editing programs.

“If someone has bad intentions, having DeepNude doesn’t change much. . . . If I don’t do it, someone else will do it in a year,” Alberto said.

“Bad intentions”? Come on, Alberto. What good intentions would there be out there?

Sure, on Twitter – where after a few days, @deepnude had 21.9K followers – the thought was that the app would be used for “user’s entertainment.” But at quite a cost, my friend.

As for “someone else will do it in a year,” in this, Alberto is 100% correct-o-mundo.

But at least Alberto did the right thing and closed up shop. Not, of course, before his app was written about on Motherboard and Vice. Which accounts, I guess for all those followers. Download attempts eventually crashed the server it was on, but DeepNude got out there before Alberto had his crisis of conscience. And since it’s “out there,” anyone who wants it can have at it.

“We don’t want to make money this way,” the tweet read. “Surely some copies of DeepNude will be shared on the web, but we don’t want to be the ones who sell it.”

I looked through a few of the Twitter comments, and they were split between “this is a sexist outrage” and “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” Oy.

DeepNude itself had this final word:

“The world is not yet ready for DeepNude,” it said.

But California is getting ready for it. They’re looking at legislation that would outlaw deepfake porn.

Between the return of old-style fascism throughout the world, and the techno shit shows that are coming on harder and faster, this is really not the future I want to live in.

Maybe Marianne Williamson is onto something when she talks about “harnessing love.”


Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Looks like it’s the insurance companies that are going to save us

Whatever your thoughts on the impact that human activity has on climate change, there really can’t be all that many folks out there who think that energy generated by coal-fired plants is a good thing.

As The Wall was falling in 1989, I spent the week between Christmas and New Year in Berlin. This was winter, so the heat was on.

And heat in East Berlin was generated by coal. Really dirty coal. And if you think that The Berlin Wall kept filthy air from wafting over into West Berlin, where we were staying a few minutes walk from Checkpoint Charlie, you think wrong.

The air was brown, gritty almost. And it smelled awful. We first noticed it when we got to our hotel room, and I thought my husband was having a gas attack. Talk about rotten eggs.

Not that air quality in the U.S. was always so great.

Boston used to have a lot more smoggy days than it does now.

But when coal-generated electricity is replaced by something better (i.e., cleaner), the air gets cleaner.

As for clean coal. No. Such. Thing.

I’m also old enough to remember when home heating with coal was a thing. Until I was 7, my family lived in my grandmother’s three-flat, and, although oil eventually replaced coal, when I was little, each flat had its own furnace and coal cellar. I can still hear the rattle of the coal as it was sent down the chute.

But coal?Ugh!

Basically, coal is good for making a snowman’s face.

That and making steel.

Despite the efforts of coal companies, and the current rage for rolling back anti-coal regulations by the entity that used to be known as the Environmental Protection Agency, coal for power generation has been the way out in the U.S. for decades.

And this trend will be accelerating, thanks to American insurance companies.

Other insurers are expected to follow suit, but first up is Chubb, which is banning coverage for coal companies.

Chubb, facing increasing pressure from environmental action groups, said Monday it will no longer sell insurance to new coal-fired power plants or sell new policies to companies that derive more than 30% of their revenues from thermal coal mining…

“Chubb recognises the reality of climate change and the substantial impact of human activity on our planet,” said Evan Greenberg, Chubb’s chief executive.

The company, which is officially based in Switzerland but does much of its business in the U.S., will also stop making new investments in companies that have a big exposure to thermal coal mining or coal-based energy production.(Source: LA Times)

This decision is, of course, an economic one.

And it won’t end with coal-fired plants.

When it comes to climate change, insurance companies are already living in the future. There are a lot more natural catastrophe claims being made than there used to be, and while they’re not all climate-change related, plenty of them (think California wildfires) are.

So insurance companies are facing the money-making challenge of charging organizations and homeowners premiums that put insurance out of reach. If no one can afford to buy insurance, well, that’s not good for the insurers or the insurees. But insurance companies can’t stay in business if they can’t charge enough to make payouts. They’ll back right away from losing business.

Their risk models are telling them that something’s got to give. And for Chubb, that means giving up on coal.

Not everyone believes that environmental salvation is going to be up to the insurance companies:

In an interview with the Financial Times in April, Warren Buffett said decisions around how to deal with the declining use of coal “overwhelmingly ... has to be a government activity.”

But the insurance companies are doing their bit:

Last week, Zurich extended its policy, saying that it would not underwrite or invest in companies that generate more than 30% of their revenues from oil sands or oil shale. It also said it would avoid companies that operated infrastructure such as pipelines and railways for oil sands projects.

At the time, Mario Greco, Zurich chief executive, said that the policy was “simply the right thing to do.”

“We see first-hand the devastation natural disasters inflict on people and communities,” he added.

I’m with Warren Buffett that we can and do need government to step  on the side of the environment. The stakes (and not just the temperatures) are too high.

But Chubb and Zurich are sure showing where a little capitalism can lead us.