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    Published on: October 8, 2021

    Last night, KC did something he hasn't done since mid-February 2020 - he went to a movie theater.   The occasion:  the new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, which has seen its release delayed several times by the pandemic.  It has been a long stretch for someone who used to go to the movies in theaters two dozen or more times a year, and KC has some thoughts about ther experience.

    FYI:  KC reviews No Time To Die in "OffBeat," below.

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    Bloomberg has a story about how a number of the delivery partners who are a critical part of the infrastructure that allows Amazon to get packages to customers in a speedy and efficient manner are saying that the company "imposes unrealistic demands on the drivers who play a critical role in delivering packages to customers around the U.S."

    The story notes that "video cameras, telematics devices and smartphone apps monitor drivers’ every move. Software dictates how many packages a driver should be able to deliver in a 10-hour shift, a number that keeps creeping up and can be difficult to meet. The system is designed to maximize efficiency and discourage hazardous behavior, such as texting while driving. But the algorithms often get things wrong, several delivery owners said, dinging drivers for offenses they didn’t commit. These demerits affect the report cards the delivery contractors receive each week. The lower the score, the less Amazon pays them."

    The story notes that Amazon "argues that automating these businesses is the only way it can manage an enterprise of such daunting scale and complexity. But if error-prone algorithms have marginal consequences for Amazon, they can be catastrophic for a small business owner who suddenly sees his or her income reduced or cut off entirely. Amazon is willing to accept a certain amount of collateral damage. After all, there are always new recruits ready to take the place of those who don’t measure up."

    You can read the entire story here.

    KC's View:

    This is a fascinating story, and I find myself somewhat conflicted in my response to it.

    On the one hand, I am bothered by the whole reliance on machines and algorithms and the seeming inability by Amazon to understand real-world nuance.  We all know that in any moment there can be dozens, maybe hundreds of variables that can affect how and when things work - or don't.  One of the ways that a business thrives, it seems to me, is by understanding that it is by empowering people to work through or around those variables that superior service can be achieved.  Denying the existence of variables and nuance doesn't; t strike me as being logical.  Or realistic.

    But, let's face it.  The depth and breadth and complexity of what Amazon is trying to create here is enormous - I'm sure it seems as if machines and algorithms are the only way to have any sort of handle on it.

    The thing is, there are times that Amazon seems capable of doing almost anything, times when Amazon seems to defy laws of physics in delivering superior service.  Maybe it needs to apply some of that magic to this issue, and find a way to make nuance and variables a feature rather than a flaw in the system.

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    The Hill reports that Walmart has announced new sustainability goals, saying that it is committed to reducing its "use of new plastic by 15 percent by 2025 … The company said in a press release that it intends to achieve this goal by reducing the amount of plastic it uses overall in addition to using more recycled plastic.

    "The retail giant will also aim to use only recyclable or compostable brand packaging by 2025."

    According to the story, "The announcement added that Walmart would use more sustainable materials to produce its apparel. The company will also ensure its suppliers do not use materials from endangered forests, the habitats of at-risk species or other unethical sources as described by Canopy, an environmental nonprofit organization."

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    TechCrunch reports that Instacart is acquiring FoodStorm, described as "a SaaS order management system (OMS) that powers end-to-end order-ahead and catering for grocery retailers … as part of the acquisition, Instacart will integrate FoodStorm’s technology into its suite of enterprise grocery e-commerce solutions."

    The story says that "FoodStorm has developed a SaaS offering that covers multi-channel ordering, order management, payment and fulfillment. Its technology also integrates with several third-party systems, including point-of-sale systems (POS). The technology also offers CRM capabilities that help grocers collect feedback and leverage promotional features."

    Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    Random and illustrative stories about the global pandemic and how businesses and various business sectors are trying to recover from it, with brief, occasional, italicized and sometimes gratuitous commentary…

    •  Here are the US coronavirus numbers:  45,021,267 total cases … 730,206 deaths … and 34,479,131 reported recoveries.

    The global numbers:  237,649,405 total cases … 4,851,696 fatalities … and 214,728,694 reported recoveries.   (Source.)

    •  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 76.2 percent of the US population age 12 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 65.8 percent of that group being fully vaccinated.

    The CDC says that 9.5 percent of the US population age 65 and older has received a vaccine booster shot.

    •  The Associated Press reports that "Pfizer asked the U.S. government Thursday to allow use of its COVID-19 vaccine in children ages 5 to 11 -- and if regulators agree, shots could begin within a matter of weeks.

    "Many parents and pediatricians are clamoring for protection for children younger than 12, today’s age cutoff for the vaccine made by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. Not only can youngsters sometimes get seriously ill, but keeping them in school can be a challenge with the coronavirus still raging in poorly vaccinated communities."

    According to the story, "Pfizer says its research shows the younger kids should get a third of the dose now given to everyone else. After their second dose, the 5- to 11-year-olds developed virus-fighting antibody levels just as strong as teens and young adults get from regular-strength shots.

    "While kids are at lower risk of severe illness or death than older people, COVID-19 does sometimes kill children and cases in youngsters have skyrocketed as the extra-contagious delta variant has swept through the country."

    However, the AP points out, "If the FDA authorizes emergency use of the kid-sized doses, there’s another hurdle before vaccinations in this age group can begin. Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will decide whether to recommend the shots for youngsters, and the CDC will make a final decision."

    •  The New York Times reports that "a surge driven by the Delta variant is receding in the United States, but officials and experts say that increased transmission during the coming colder months remains a threat and that steady rates of vaccination are key to keeping the coronavirus at bay."

    The Times gos on:  "Surveys from the Kaiser Family Foundation show that vaccine support has been rising out of fear of the Delta variant: Almost 40 percent of newly inoculated respondents said they had sought the vaccines because of the rise in cases, and more than a third said they had become alarmed by overcrowding in local hospitals and rising death rates."

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    •  Amazon said this week that it has opened its first Amazon 4-Star store outside the US,  at the Bluewater shopping centre, near Dartford in Kent, about 20 miles east of London.

    The 4-Star format seems products across a wide range of categories that are rated as four stars or more by Amazon's online customers.  

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    •  From the Wall Street Journal:

    "Filings for jobless benefits last week fell for the first time in four weeks, as employers continue to eschew layoffs amid a tight labor market.

    "The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial unemployment claims, a proxy for layoffs, fell 38,000 in the week ended Oct. 2 to a seasonally adjusted 326,000, from a revised 364,000 the prior week. That put initial claims close to their pandemic low of 312,000 in the week ended Sept. 4.

    "Meanwhile, the number of Americans continuing to claim unemployment benefits again dropped sharply, a sign of the impact of states broadly ending several federal pandemic benefits programs."

    •  Also from the Journal:

    "U.S. job growth fell to the slowest pace of the year in September, as the Delta variant and a persistent shortage of workers restrained the ability of companies to hire.

    "The economy added 194,000 jobs in September, the smallest gain since December 2020 and down from the upwardly revised 366,000 jobs added in August, the Labor Department said Friday. The jobless rate fell to 4.8% from 5.2% a month earlier. The rate fell largely because many workers exited the labor force.

    "The figures add to evidence that fears about the virus and global supply constraints continue to hold back the economic recovery. The biggest factor behind last month’s weak payroll gain was a decline in public-sector jobs, mainly at schools. Employment in private-sector industries rose by 317,000 in September, with modest gains across several industries."

    •  In Minnesota, the Star Tribune reports that Hormel Foods Co. and Sacramento-based Better Meat Co. have announced a new partnership.

    Better Meat, the story says, has " developed a meat alternative it calls Rhiza, an all-natural whole food mycoprotein produced through a process of potato-based fermentation."

    "It's critical that we give our consumers choices. Plant-based products are one choice, traditional meat is another choice," said Fred Halvin, Hormel's vice president for corporate development, adding that Hormel will "continue to align our portfolio with consumer trends, and we believe plant-based is a significant consumer trend."

    •  Benzinga reports that Target is collaborating with Affirm Holdings and Sezzle to offer buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) services at its stores.

    The installment payment programs will be available for any purchase over $100.

    "We know our guests want easy and affordable payment options that work within their family's budget," said Gemma Kubat, Target's president of financial and retail services, in a prepared statement.

    CNBC writes that "the BNPL market is taking off well beyond Affirm. Square agreed in August to buy Australia’s Afterpay for $29 billion, the largest tech deal of the year. And in June, Swedish fintech company Klarna raised money at a $46 billion valuation, following a partnership with Macy’s in late 2020."

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    Yesterday MNB took note of a Variety report that Meredith, publisher of print magazine titles that are familiar to anyone who has been to a supermarket front end - such as People, EW, Better Homes & Gardens and InStyle - "will become part of Dotdash, the digital publishing division of Barry Diller’s IAC holding company, under a proposed takeover deal. The terms give the deal an enterprise value of about $2.7 billion."

    I commented:

    I often find myself siding with the print-is-dead cohort, but this move suggests that there are some big money players out there who continue to bet on print, or at least some unique combination of print and digital.  This is important to retailers who are selling these titles, and who depend on the level of engagement that they offer to shoppers.

    MNB reader Howard Schneider responded:

    KC, I’m not sure any medium has ever died. Print, catalogues, direct mail, broadcast/cable – all have been repurposed but live on as parts of the media mix. Newspapers no longer run classified ads, but grocers and others still rely heavily on FSIs. Radio remains an important way to reach certain demos during certain dayparts. While text and other more immediate (and better targeted) forms of messaging have taken the place of a lot of email, email is still used (yes, overused) by advertisers. Commercial and residential developers still use newspapers and magazines to showcase new projects. Outdoor may use digital technology, but they are still just big boards along busy routes. Each of these legacy channels still has a part to play in reaching consumers, even though they may have lost their starring role.

    On another subject, from an MNB reader:

    My wife and I were recently bemoaning the WalMart online experience; searching seems to bring back such a vast variety of items, and it’s tough to tell which ones are physically in the store or not. Home Depot seems to have a much better handle on this, and our experiences with them have always been great, including recoveries when the inevitable ‘stuff’ happens. We recently remodeled our bathroom (drawing on my skills in my earlier career in the home center industry) and shopping online there is super, although it admittedly helps when you know what you’re looking for when doing the framing, plumbing, electrical, and finish work yourself. I farmed out the drywall work…a man’s got to know his limitations! (and if he doesn’t he may be blessed with a partner happy to remind him) We took advantage of curbside pickup which was always a pleasant experience. With all that, I hope these two stay separated. I remember what HD was like under Bob Nardelli, it wasn’t pretty from a customer or employee standpoint, and I fear the WM culture might prevail over the much improved HD culture I’m witnessing now.

    There was an MNB reader the other day, by the way, who wrote about the Home Depot online experience this way:

    I think if you start ordering hardware needs online, you give up man points.  Part of the joy of hands-on building and repair is looking in person.  Which BTW, is a much more pleasant experience at Lowes.

    I responded:

    Y'know, it is possible to be a man and have no interest in or talent for hands-on building and repair.  Right?  And so, "man-points" gathered that way are meaningless.

    But another MNB reader makes an even better point:

    You might want to mention to Mr. Manpoints that there is a fairly impressive number of us who do all our own DIY and aren't going to be mistaken for a dude EVER... Some of us have even been successfully selling the stuff he thinks makes him a bigger man for a few decades now.  

    You're right, and shame on me for not making that point myself.  (FYI … Mrs. Content Guy is far more handy around the house than I am.  She fixes and builds stuff.  I cook.  Then we share a glass of wine.)

    Regarding the "smart fridge" that Amazon is said to be developing, one MNB reader wrote:

    We recently moved into a new home and as part of the process we purchased two new refrigerators.   Both of them can be connected to the internet, but I’m not certain that either of them would qualify as a “smart fridge”.   Besides, if the refrigerator truly was smart it would ensure that all the products in our possession were constantly within date, thereby robbing our adult sons of the entertainment they get from pulling all of our outdated products each time they come home for a visit.  

    On the subject of attending live events in a time of pandemic, one MNB e=reader wrote:

    Last month we had the pleasure of attending a Michael Buble concert in a smaller venue near our home (attendance for the show was between 4000 to 5000) and Michael required proof of vaccination for all attendees.   It took some additional people and planning to create areas outside the entrances where ticket holders could go to show their identification in order to get in.    Both of us have our vaccination cards stored in our smartphones and showing those along with our drivers’ licenses allowed us to receive a wristband to enter the arena.  The start of the show was delayed by about 30 minutes to allow the vast majority of people time to get into the building with the additional processing that was required.  Just the same, it was an incredible show and there were plenty of people indoors who were willing and able to wear their masks during the performance.   Most of all, we were supported by a performer who encouraged us to do so.

    Under the current circumstances, there aren’t many events I would consider attending indoors with a large number of people, but with the precautions that were taken for this show we felt that we could participate and enjoy the music, which we did tremendously.   Michael had cancelled the show twice previously and rescheduled his tour; it was well worth the wait.   I gave the tickets as a gift to my wife…..for Christmas of 2020!

    Yesterday I did a FaceTime video in which I talked about how Facebook - beset by media attention, Senate subcommittee hearings and a whistleblower bearing damaging internal studies - reportedly is pausing many of its initiatives to conduct "reputational reviews."  I said this is a good thing, as long as it is not just about optics, but also asked whether a "reputational review" is the same thing as nurturing one's value and brand proposition, and therefore ought to be part of the daily conduct of business.

    MNB reader Bob Wheatley responded:

    Great point. I would build on your observation about whether or not product and policies are really contributing to brand reputation. We have arrived at a time when brands and businesses actually need to care about the health, wellbeing and happiness of its core users. Company values and mission need to align with helping consumers on their life journey not just selling them a product, in what would be described as a more transactional relationship.

    People can’t be treated as walking wallets any longer. Authentic corporate behaviors that operate with the consumer’s best interests at heart is now a requirement for business growth and sustainable success. Values, beliefs and deeper meaning should drive policies and behaviors. Facebook is an example of what happens when your values are upside down.

    Yesterday we reported that "Steven Burd, who served as Safeway's CEO between 1993 and 2013, testified in the criminal trial of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and former CEO of Theranos, saying that a financial commitment by the company of $85 million to the startup was predicated on false information provided by Holmes."

    One MNB reader responded:

    $85mil without vetting. Wow!  She must of charmed him well. 

    Earlier this week, MNB took note of a Bloomberg report that Walmart "has demoted the chief operating officer of its core U.S. business and installed a finance expert in the role, shuffling its senior leadership team just before the key holiday period.

    "Dacona Smith, one of the retailer’s highest-ranking Black executives, will shift to become executive vice president and chief operations officer of Walmart’s U.S. stores …"

    An MNB reader wrote in to ask why it was appropriate to point out that Smith was Black.

    I responded:

    I think this is a fair observation.

    As an explanation - not an excuse - I'd point out that the reference was by Bloomberg, not me … though I'll own it, since I quoted it.

    I think that Bloomberg would argue that because diversity is such a prized and much-talked-about priority in many companies, that made the reference appropriate.  But in retrospect, I think I agree with you, and I should've edited out the specific language.

    Rich Heiland, an MNB reader who also happens to be an experienced journalist and a Pulitzer Prize winner, offered some sage advice:

    From one old editor...OK..."older"editor to a fellow younger editor..

    Had you edited out "black" in the Bloomberg story most of us would not have known Bloomberg chose to make race a part of it....

    I totally agree with your point about race and I think if you had a failing it might be that you didn't make your comment in response to a reader a part of your initial in, "by the way, I don't know why they felt they needed to mention race...."

    As always, your daily postings make me think. Keep it up....and don't retire. I did. Too soon. Now I am trying to get back to at least some part-time work....I didn't realize soon enough that work was also my hobby...

    Point taken.  Thanks.

    And finally, this email from MNB reader Monte Stowell:

    Come on Kevin, you are too young to be exhausted after two playoff baseball games. Last nights Dodgers and Cardinals game was what baseball is all about. A walk off dinger by Chris Taylor to win a great game.  Now we are off to the second round of the playoffs and then onto the World Series. Personally, I have always been a lifelong Dodger fan and hope they go to the World Series again, but wouldn’t it be great to see Tampa Bay sneak into the World Series. Batter up! 

    I agree that the two wild card games were great … but Monte, I would point out that I'm watching the games three hours later than you are, because I'm on the east coast and you're in the Pacific Northwest.  That's why I'm exhausted - not because of the games.

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    In game one of their best-of-five American League Divisional Series, the Tampa Bay Rays shut out the Boston Red Sox 5-0.

    And, in the other ALDS, the Houston Astros defeated the Chicago White Sox 6-1, to take a 1-0 game lead in their best-of-five series.

    In Thursday Night Football, the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks 26-17.

    Published on: October 8, 2021

    In music, there is something called a "sting," which is a brief series of notes that are designed to evoke an emotion in the listener, or, when used in television or movies, tell you where you are in the plot.  (Think of the chime sound so familiar from "Law & Order," which always serves to move the plot along.)

    I thought about the concept a the musical sting a lot while watching No Time To Die, the new film about James "007" Bond, which also happens to be the 25th in the series that began with Dr. No back in 1962, and the fifth and final film in which Daniel Craig plays Britain's most legendary secret agent.  There are a variety of moments in No Time To Die that recall moments from earlier films, whether from the Sean Connery era (he was the most ironic and emotionally detached Bond), George Lazenby (who only played him once in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, one of the best in the series despite the fact that his performance is workmanlike at best), or Pierce Brosnan (who worked hard to combine elements of Connery and Roger Moore, who did his Bond with one arched eyebrow and his tongue firmly in cheek).  The movie also does a good job of acknowledging the attenuated tenure of Timothy Dalton, who was a gritty, emotional Bond before audiences were ready for him.  (Dalton's and Lazenby's brief tenures may get more love here than anyone else's.)

    But mostly, No Time To Die is about Daniel Craig's Bond, which is as it should be.  Craig always has carried and conveyed more emotional weight than his predecessors, and for me, that makes him my favorite Bond.  His movies weren't always great, but he always was better than the material, offering us a kind of earthbound hero for whom it was easy to root, even though he carried a license to kill and was unafraid to use it.  His was a Bond with baggage, and we got a chance to sort through it during his films, which stand alone in the series as carrying an extended narrative with a broader connectivity than any of the other Bond films.

    At almost three hours, No Time To Die is, to be honest, a bit long;  I have to believe there are 20 minutes or so that could've been trimmed from it.  That said, the movie delivers exactly what we expect from a Bond film - gorgeous locations stunningly photographed (by director by Cary Joji Fukunaga), kinetic action scenes, clever (and sometimes not-so-clever) puns, and a madman villain with dreams of world destruction/domination.  And it manages to do so while also delivering solid characterization and plotting that is absorbing even if it occasionally threatens to go off the rails.  (That it does not go off the rails is notable, since the franchise has done so more than once.  As in, Bond goes into space in Moonraker … Bond wears a clown suit in Octopussy …. and Bond drives an invisible car … Die Another Day.)

    The supporting cast is strong:  returning from previous films are Léa Seydoux (as Dr. Madeline Swann, Bond's paramour), Ben Whishaw (as Q), Naomie Harris (as Moneypenny), Jeffrey Wright (as Felix Leiter), Christoph Waltz (as Blofeld), Rory Kinnear (as Tanner), and Ralph Fiennes as M, given a lot more emotional/political complexity in this film than in the past).  New to the franchise are Rami Malek (as the diabolical villain), Lashana Lynch (terrific as another MI-6 spy), and Ana de Armas, who almost steals the movie in a brief turn as a CIA spy who aids Bond during a Cuba excursion.

    But mostly, there is Craig - he started this 15-year, five-movie run as a young Bond who had just earned his 00 status, and now he's an aging spy who jokes about being "an old wreck."  His Bond always has been an intriguing mix of arrogance and soulfulness, cynic and romantic, organizational skeptic and committed patriot.  He also may be the best actor ever to play the part - watch his face during a minute-long sequence in which he interrogates Blofeld, and you see every one of those shadings.

    I won't tell you anything more about the plot, except to say that it is a fitting capstone to Craig's tenure.  I look forward to seeing it again, though I'm going to wait until it is available for home viewing.  No Time To Die was worth venturing out to a movie theater, worth waiting for when the pandemic postponed its release.  But I think it may be the exception, not the rule.

    That's it for this week.  Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.

    Stay safe.  Be healthy.