Friday, October 02, 2015

Remind me not to buy any lottery tickets next time I’m in Chicagoland

I don’t play obsessively, but I do pick up an occasional lottery ticket or two. I may even be a winner who just doesn’t realize it yet. I tend to forget about  the tickets I have until months later, when I come across a little wad of Power Ball-MegaBucks-MassCash tickets. I then do a quick check, and generally find that, in what must be somehow against the laws of probability, I never even have one number that matches. Ever.

But I play. It’s especially fun when the payouts get up there. What to do, what to do with all that free money?

While I may not be a Play-ah, I’m not philosophically opposed to state lotteries.

And yet, when I see some of the folks who spend a ton of money on tickets that, from the looks of it, they can ill afford, I wince a little at what a nastily regressive tax playing the lottery is.

When I do buy tickets, it’s usually from Bob the Key Guy who has a lottery ticket sideline. He’s just around the corner from a veterans’ shelter, and on days when the disability checks come in, I see an awful lot of guys buying an awful lot of scratch tickets. Okay. If I can dream, they can dream. Still, sometimes the lottery seems like a kind of underhanded way to extract some tax coin from those least able to pay – and to get at those who likely don’t pay much by way of normal taxes.

The lottery is, of course, also a well known way to do money laundering. If you’ve seen Black Mass, a movie about James “Whitey” Bulger, Boston’s own psychopath gangster, there’s a bit about the time Bulger “won” the lottery. Sure he did…Anyone willing to bet he didn’t make someone in Southie an offer they couldn’t refuse?

Anyway, at least if you play the lottery in Massachusetts, and you do happen to win, you can pretty much count on being able to collect your winnings.

Not so in Illinois.

The state is pretty much broke, and in a big general political mess. As a result, lottery winners aren’t getting their payouts.

Of course, given that other creditors include “state employees whose health premiums aren’t being covered and private vendors who haven’t seen checks since the last budget ran out on July 1,” it’s hard to have all that much sympathy for someone whose quick-pick payout isn’t getting made.

But the lottery is pretty much a pay-for-itself item. Folks who play the lottery drop oodles of money into the coffers and, in return, they get a fraction of that oodles back. So it would seem as if the great state of Illinois would have the money to pay those winners.

Certainly, one would hope that there’s no one out there who’s actually relying on their winnings to get them through the day to day. But if you win, you win, no?

And sometimes baby really does need a new pair of shoes.

Info source: Bloomberg

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Too. Much. Choice. (Too. Many. Decisions.)

We’re about half way through my renovation project.

I say “we” – perhaps royally – because, any day that I have any involvement in the project – and that would be pretty much any day – I come home (actually my sister Kath’s home) and go into a swoon. Find me a fainting couch, ASAP.

I drop by my “real” home every couple of days to pick up my mail and to the see what’s up  Or tp make some decision about something that, prior to being asked to make a decision, I didn’t know existed. And that, post being asked about it, I realize I really don’t have an opinion on. Nor do I give a damn about.

Some things I do care about. Like paint colors. And they’re something I more or less understand. Or at least I know my own tastes.

In the past, I’d just go to the hardware store and figure out what colors I liked.

But this is a real project. And I made the mistake of sending away for a couple of Benjamin Moore color wheels.* Yowza!

Fortunately, I made a bee-line to the colors that are “mine.” And even more fortunately, I decided to use a professional to help figure out how the colors would hang together as we moved from room to room. The colors I ended up with aren’t that different than what I would have done on my own – hey, I picked Blue Hydrangea for the bedroom, and Blue Jean for the hall outside the bedroom – and Manchester Tan (which in my mind is actually called Manchester United, which I think would make it red) in the living room is pretty much what I already had there. Yet Linda’s deft touch is going to make the entire thing hang together. Blues and neutrals are us, with a slight detour into green (Peaceful Garden) for one of the bathrooms.

Most of my decisions were made over the summer: Plumbing fixtures: Grohe Seabury downstairs (Peaceful Garden) bathroom; Symmons Carrington upstairs (Santa Monica Blue) bathroom. Kitchen flooring: Armstrong Alterna – Enchanted Fog?; etc. (Why are there so many choices for kitchen sink???? My contract picked it up today so that we could have it for the countertop template. “Is this the one you ordered?” he

Yesterday’s pick of the day was the knobs and pulls for the kitchen cabinets. Easy-peasy.

Today’s is the countertops.

I had originally wanted to go with tempered glass. And I did my research, which suggested that it was going to be about twice what any normal person would spend on kitchen countertops. But, hey, I argued, this is a pretty small kitchen, and more than half of those countertops are only 12” wide. So I threw in what I thought was a fairly outlandish figure into my budget. Only to get an estimated that came in at nearly $500 per square foot. (How much of this is the Beacon Hill Markup is anyone’s guess. I’m guessing at least 50% of a whack for the address premium.)

For that kind of money, they should throw in both new pots and pans and a chef.

So today I’m going to pick something out.

Hey, tempered glass would have been nice, but I’ve had crappy formica countertops for the last 25 years. Anything will be an improvement. (I was leaning toward marble, until I read that if you squeeze a lemon or spill red wine within 20 feet of them, they turn into pitted messes. No thanks.)

We’re getting towards the end of the spending spree.

I still need to figure out a medicine cabinet for bathroom one, and a mirror for bathroom two. That should be relatively straightforward. I had to wait on these because bringing the bathrooms up to code meant the incredible shrinking vanity, and the incredible shrinking medicine chest. I think we’ve got it now.

At least I hope so.

There’s way too many decisions, way too much choice.

It’s going to be great, but, boy, do I want it done.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------*My cousin Ellen had a fun post on color names on her blog, Hello Lamppost. For the record, my favorite OPI name is “I’m Not Your Waitress.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Back home again, in Williston, ND

A few months ago, I watched a POV documentary on PBS – how’s that for a nifty double use of acronyms? if only I could have thought up a third – on the shale oil boom town of Williston, North Dakota. The show focused on the men who’ve flocked to the town to work as roughnecks. They were living anyplace they could find: crummy motels, RV’s, cars, trucks, cots on church floors, chicken coops, camps with slapped up quarters that looked like the “nice” portapotty setups. You know, the white plastic looking ones where you can actually flush the toilet and don’t live in fear that your watch and glasses are going to drop into the horrific portapotty slough of despond.

Pretty terrible, all round, and quite a jolt for the residents of a quiet All American town straight out of American Graffiti. Letterman jackets. Ham and bean suppers at the Lutheran Church. Kids decorating their bikes for the 4th of July parade.

Then all of a sudden, their population almost doubles. Mostly single men from somewhere else, without wives and kids. We’re not talking Tom Joad here. No Ma and Pa Joad. No Rose of Sharon. We’re talking about single men, on their own, and bringing with them the problems that come when you’ve got thousands of unaccompanied males with money in their jeans.

Then the oil boom began to get into a bit of a bust.

A lot of those migrants-in became migrants-out.

Unfortunately, not before a building-binge started:

After struggling to house thousands of migrant roughnecks during the boom, the state faces a new real-estate crisis: The frenzied drilling that made it No. 1 in personal-income growth and job creation for five consecutive years hasn’t lasted long enough to support the oil-fueled building explosion.

Civic leaders and developers say many new units were already in the pipeline, and they anticipate another influx of workers when oil prices rise again. But for now, hundreds of dwellings approved during the heady days are rising, skeletons of wood and cement surrounded by rolling grasslands, with too few residents who can afford them. (Source: Bloomberg)

Development companies, it seems, misread both the boom-bust nature of oil production (oil prices are down), and the interest that there would be in family-friendly apartment complexes and suburban subdivisions to begin with.

Apparently, as depressing and hideous as they were, the men folk were pretty content with whatever man camp they found themselves in. They knew they were only their temporarily. When the boom goes bust, they pack it in and head back home to wherever their families are – or on to the next place where there’s an employment rush.

The migrants out are leaving a trail of RV’s behind them:

As the migrant workers leave, their castoffs pile up in scrap yards such as TJ’s Autobody & Salvage outside Alexander, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Williston. More than 400 discarded vehicles crowd its lot, including souped-up pickup trucks and an RV with rotting potatoes and a dead mouse in the sink.

This must be doing wonders for the look and feel of Williston.

Not to mention what the half-built housing subdivisions are doing for it. Most don’t seem to be abandoned – yet. But in the pictures, parts of Williston are starting to look an awful lot like the “ghost estates” that you’d see throughout Ireland in the wake of their real-estate induced economic crisis.

A few years back, on what turned out to be our last trip to Ireland together, my husband and I walked though one near Shannon Airport, where we spent our last night before heading back to Boston. Talk about hideous and depressing.

Back in Williston, some of the property developers claim to be in it for the long pull. They think that there’ll be enough local oil production in the Williston area to attract a more permanent workforce – the kind that live in houses with their families, not in RV’s with rotting potatoes and dead mice.

Good luck to Williston.

As it happens, North Dakota is on my bucket list. I’d like to do all 50 states, and ND is one of the few remaining states on my list (along with Alaska, Kentucky and Tennessee). Maybe when I get to ND, I’ll take a detour from Fargo and check Williston out. Unless there’s another boom, I suspect I’ll be able to get some short term digs pretty cheaply.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

More from the OED (“It pays to increase your word power.”)

A few weeks back, I blogged about the choice word Masshole getting the nod from the Oxford English dictionary. Nothing we don’t deserve,of course. But I wanted to demonstrate that I’m not so massholishly self-absorbed that I couldn’t give a nod to the other words that are in the OED as of June 2015.

So here goes.

I have a reasonably good vocabulary, but as I started down the OED list, my word wealth wasn’t looking too promising.

Maybe I should have known that an
Antikythera mechanism was used by the ancient Greeks to predict the next eclipse and schedule the next Olympics. But I didn’t. I pretty much struck out on all the “a’s”: arrĂ©? audax? autotune?

Oh, you could look it up. Which I did for the a’s. But the list is long, and I’ll never use any of these words, anyway.

Although I’d never heard the lead “b” word, I do like backronym, which is kind of an acronym in reverse. As in Marvelously Over Excellent could be a backronym for MOE.

Some of the “b” words made me wonder. Birdhouse wasn’t a recognized word up until now? Nor was boiler room? And what’s so special about blue star? I mean, blue I know, and star.But blue star?


I didn’t have to look it up to know that I like the word carcade, even though the only carcades I’ve been in have been the ones from the church to the cemetery. But why would cluster be a new word, unless they’re avoiding the accompanying second part – the luscious f-word – which has certainly come into wider usage in the past decade or so. (I do recognize that many of us shorten it to cluster.)

Crowdfund. Declutter, Dog whistle. Downtick.

All words I use. (Especially dog whistle, which I have often used to describe what a woman’s voice sounds like in the workplace. Only a few ears, I have said, are attuned to it.)

Although my drumbling days are well behind me, I like drumble – drunken mumble.

Sorry I bothered with fap fap fap. (Jerking off.) And what am I missing with go fish?

Gunna makes the list, but where’s gonna? I must already be in the OED, but I’m not gonna check. Too lazy.

On the ass front, half-ass and hard-arse both make the list. I approve.

Hard launch is on the list, but no soft launch. Maybe hard launch made it because it’s always more fun to get a product out the door with a lot of fanfare. Of course, a hard product launch (money spent, and all that) raises expectations about product success. Sometimes it’s just as well to sneak a product out the door.

Hot mess is now made official. As is kryptonite. (What took them so long?)

I’m kind of meh about meh now being in the OED. And what’s new and fresh about North Korean and South Korean? Meh…

SCOTUS and FLOTUS have joined POTUS, by the way.

I don’t drink coffee, which may be why roastery sounds so darned pretentious.

Seachanger and self-immolate are right next to each other on the list. This has a certain logic. I’ve certainly seen it plenty of times in business that yesterday’s seachanger turns into tomorrow’s flaming out self-immolator. (Never the reverse, I’m afraid.)

Shirtfront seems a bit quaint and old-timey. (I may be missing something here. For all I know, it’s another word for fap.) But I do like some of the s-words: shitshow, shizzle, skort, smash-mouth.

Tea partier is on the list. Now that it’s a recognized word, maybe they can just fade away.

Tweet, twerk, twitterati. Got it.

But what’s uncanny valley?

Oh, no. It’s where the animatronic figures start passing for human. Gulp! (But can they twerk?)

Yarn bombing sounds like fun, but I’m probably too much of a wuss to actually do it.

In a nod to us oldies,
young at heart makes the cut. (Note to self: never, ever, ever let anyone use these words to describe me. I’ve always been more of the old soul type.)

The list ends with zef, South African for common, but not so common that I’ve ever heard it.

Vocabulary lesson’s over. Go forth and tweet away. (No fapping, please. At least not in public.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Office of the future? I quit!

Is it just me, but are “things” getting too darned smart, and kind of in a dumb way? As in the “smartest building in the world”. That would be the Edge, an Amsterdam office building.

Oh, there are lots of great things about the Edge – and isn’t The Edge the lead guitarist for U2, not a building in Amsterdam?

It’s the world’s greenest building, with the highest sustainability rating ev-ah granted by the Brits – a near perfect 98.4%.  Sensors – there are 28,000 of them throughout the building – monitor motion, light, temperature, humidity, etc. – and make all sorts of green-friendly adjustments. Robots do the cleaning, and rain water is used to flush the toilets. In the gym, some of the exercise stations throw your energy back into the grid. (Do you get compensated for that, or is it a freebie?)

But what sets teeth on edge at the Edge is not that the building is so enviro-friendly. It’s that it’s so (to my way of thinking) worker unfriendly.

A day at the Edge in Amsterdam starts with a smartphone app developed with the building’s main tenant, consulting firm Deloitte. From the minute you wake up, you’re connected. The app checks your schedule, and the building recognizes your car when you arrive and directs you to a parking spot. (Source: Bloomberg)

Well, I’m down with getting directed to a parking spot, as long as it remembers where you parked and lets you know at the end of the day. But do I really want “them” knowing where I am and what I’m doing – or should be doing – from the moment I wake up? Is nothing sacred? Do “they” need to know I’m in the shower, dawdling over breakfast, sitting in traffic grinding my teeth? I guess if you’ve got an app’d up smartphone, spies really are everywhere.

Then the app finds you a desk. Because at the Edge, you don’t have one. No one does. Workspaces are based on your schedule: sitting desk, standing desk, work booth, meeting room, balcony seat, or “concentration room.” Wherever you go, the app knows your preferences for light and temperature, and it tweaks the environment accordingly.

With 2,500 Deloitte workers and only 1,000 desks, this sounds  like a weird version of musical chairs.

The concept is called hot desking, and it’s supposed to encourage new relationships, chance interactions, and, just as important, efficient use of space.

I like that “just as important”? What makes me think it just might outweigh the benefits of “new relationships” and “chance interactions”.

Meanwhile, I can easily imagine employees gaming this, and figuring out how to prime their schedules so they actually get to stay put for a few hours at a time, rather than having an app dictate that it’s their turn to stand up or bide a bit of time in a balcony seat.

If you’re wondering where people stow the stuff – comfy shoes, a hairbrush, tampons, a toothbrush, a few packages of peanut butter crackers – they used to keep in their desk, the answer is: no place. Workers do have access to a locker. But they’re “discouraged” from using the same locker for any extended period of time:

…because part of the het nieuwe werken philosophy is to break people away from their fixed locations and rigid ways of thinking.

Yes, indeed, the desire not to have to schlepp your sweater and mouthwash in every day is a sure indication of a rigid way of thinking. Oh, wait a minute, in a smart building you’ll never need a sweater.

And as for the personal stuff – pictures of the kids, Dilbert cartoons, that mug filled with pencils, the communal come-on-in candy jar – that people used to keep on their desk. I guess the answer is forget about it. Only a rigid thinker would want to go to the same fixed location everyday, and look at a picture of the same damned kids.

Is it just me, but does all this sound like a nightmare?

Just as it’s wonderful to walk in the door when you get home at night and just plop on our very own couch and decompress, when you’re at work, most of us want to, say, come back from a grueling meeting and plop into our very own desk chair and decompress.

Maybe none of this bothers the hellzapoppin’ millennials who are always on, tech savvy, and, let’s face it, know that they’re just one bean-counting minute away from having their job downsized or outsourced, or being turned into a contract worker on a short term contract.

But human nature being human nature, it’s hard to believe that millennials don’t want to have a home base, with their own stuff in it. That they don’t want to know that they’re going to see their office buddy first thing Monday at the coffee machine. That they wouldn’t even miss the annoying neighbor who’s always on the phone complaining about something.

Why are new relationships so much more important than old relationships?

Guess it’s just my old school, fixed location way of rigid thinking.

Glad I don’t work at the Edge.


With special thanks to one of my oldest – and most fixed – relationships, my sister Trish, who saw a reference to this article on Huff Po.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Hello, Barbie

Not that I’m much of a toy shopper – the little kids on my list these days tend to get boring old books – but a Bloomberg article on the hit list for the upcoming holiday shopathon season caught my eye. Star Wars. Yawn. Frozen. Yawn. Hello Barbie, equipped with artificial intelligence and speech recognition. Yikes.

I guess it’s good that they’re equipping Barbie with intelligence (artificial or not).

But do we really need this sort of living doll?

I loved dolls when I was a kid, and was always a bit miffed that – unlike some of my friends – I never had a doll that “said” Mama in a “voice” that was so recognizably not human that, if you were out of the room when “it” spoke, what you heard was something that pretty much sounded like a bleating sheep.

I also would have liked a Chatty Cathie. You pulled the ring on the back or her neck and got a couple of stock phrases. (E.g., “I love you.” Awwwwww.)

But Chatty C was way too novel – and probably way too expensive – for my family’s tastes. Besides, my brothers would have tugged on that ring as if they were starting an Evinrude. I would have been lucky to get through the full litany of sayings before that toy went bust.

Then there was Tickle Me Elmo, which I believe my niece Molly might have had. She had some sort of talking Sesame Street muppet. I may even have gotten it for her. I think that Elmo went rogue and started to monologue – or, worse, laugh - in the middle of the night at one point, waking everyone up. But TM Elmo only had to say what he had to say.

Hello Barbie is all AI’d up. Think Siri. Think Cortana.

Ask and you shall receive. Tell and you’ll get some sort of answer. Call and you’ll get a response.

Is it just me, or isn’t it better if kids get to use their imaginations, and improve their verbal skills, by controlling both sides of the conversation? Or am I just an old fogey who doesn’t think that technology necessarily improves everything it touches.

Mattel had experimented with a talking Barbie a while back. Remember the Barbie who said that “Math class is tough.” (Maybe so, but couldn’t she have said “I really like math” instead?)

There are so many concerns that Hello Barbie raises.

Barbie, as we know, influences little girls about gender roles (“Math class is tough.”) and body image (if you’re not 7 feet tall with an 18 inch waist, and walk on your tippy toes, there’s something wrong with you). How will Hello Barbie respond if your little girl says “I can’t do math” will “she” say, “Sure you can” or “Neither can I”?

Then there’s the question about whether small children will be able to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real. Sure, little kids already invest their toys with human attributes, but will this send some of them over the reality edge?

Will kids who talk to smarty pants Hello Barbie get bored with their human friends, who aren’t quite up to Barbie-level snappy repartee? Will they still want real friends?

And my biggest concern about what having pre-programmed dolls hurt the development of creativity and imagination.

It’s not just Barbie, of course. So many toys come with story lines these days. Even those purpose-built Lego kits are more like puzzles than a tabula rasa inviting kids to knock themselves out and let the number of Lego pieces they have be the only limit to what they can build.

Sigh… At least adding all this technology has put a bit of meat on Barbie’s plastic bones. Her thighs have thickened a bit, so she’s a bit more normal in terms of her proportions.

Anyway, the bottom line is Mattel’s bottom line. Barbie revenues have fallen off in the last few years. Hello Barbie is supposed to take care of that.

Maybe they should ask her whether she thinks she’ll be a success.


There’s an interesting article in The New York Times on Hello Barbie. It gets into the technology and the process that was used to fill Barbie’s bubble brain with personality and intelligence.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


I’m old enough to remember coal.

I spent  my first seven years living in a flat in my grandmother’s decker. Our heat came from coal. In the basement, each of the three flats in Nanny’s house had a furnace and a coal bin.

I remember the coal being delivered by truck by Claflin and Sumner, the chutes poked in through the windows in the cellar, the sound of the coal shuttling down the chute.

I remember my father shoveling coal into our furnace, and into Nanny’s. (I certainly don’t remember my Uncle Charlie, who lived with Nanny, ever putting his shoulder in to this effort. Building up a sweat was not exactly Charlie’s style.)

I remember picking small pieces out of the coal bin to use on snowmen: two for the eyes, three to five for the mouth. Much better than using stones!

Because I’ve held pieces of coal in my very own hand, I actually know just what “black as coal” means.

More recently – but already 25 years ago (sigh!) – I traveled to Berlin during the winter, at a time when East Berlin was powered by dirty, smelly, sulfur-ish coal.

So, yes, I remember coal. But I also know that coal is a big polluter – all those scrubbers aside – and the world will be a better place once it’s phased out.

The US coal industry is dealing with its worst market slump in decades because of a global supply glut, escalating competition from cheap natural gas and tighter regulations as policy makers try to wean the power market off of fossil. (Source: Boston Globe)

Of course, I do feel bad about the displaced miners and all those desperately poor communities where coal has been king, but coal mining has always been a dangerous, lousy job, and a destroyer of the local environment. So in the long run, we’ll be better off without it. And it’s not just environmentally concerns and competition that are hurting the coal industry. Mines are playing out. And they’re not making a lot more coal in any hurry.

But there is a flicker of coal-fueled light.

The growing appetite for coal-fired pizza is creating new demand for anthracite coal -- it’s the hardest kind and burns the hottest. “That market just kind of snuck up on us,” Greg Driscoll, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania producer Blaschak Coal Corp., said in an interview. “It’s sort of in the face of everything that is going on.”

I actually don’t know whether I’ve ever had coal-fired pizza. From Google, it doesn’t look like there’s a ton around the Boston area, although it looks like there’s more coming. (Frank Pepe’s of New Haven is expanding this-a-way.) The flavor is supposed to be good – carcinogenically, no doubt. In any case, I’d be happy to give it a try.

Anthracite won’t be getting back to its glory days any time soon. Those days would be when World War One was ending, and 100 million tons were mined. The forecast is that anthracite will average 5 to 10 million tons in the next couple of years.

I guess this is good news and bad news.

Good news if you’re a Pennsylvania miner, where anthracite comes from. Good news if you like coal-fired pizza. Bad news if there’s a mining disaster, which does tend to happen with fair regularity. Bad news, no doubt, for the environment (although I don’t imagine the coal-fired pizza ovens give off a lot of pollution).

Me? I’ll give it a try it it opens nearby.

But pretty interesting that such a dying, old-school industry would get a bit of a lease of life from a food fad.