Thursday, April 24, 2014

Meet Me at the Fair

When I was a child, one of the many things deprivations I had to endure was never having attended a World’s Fair.

But, unless a World’s Fair were actually held in Worcester, driving someplace other than Chicago or the Cape and traipsing around a futurama was not the sort of vacation our family went in for.

No, our vacations had to be:

  1. Visiting Family: Going to Chicago to see my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
  2. Relaxing for my father: That meant renting the Bass River cottage of my parents’ friends Mae and Nemo for a couple of weeks.
  3. Quick and cheap: Day trips to places like Nantasket Beach or Bennington, Vermont. We’d take a couple of these during my father’s two weeks off, and the rest of the time he’d relax on the chaise longue in the backyard.

The closest I came to the World’s Fair was when friends came over with slides that their son in the Air Force had taken at the Brussels’ World Fair in 1958. Did the excitement never end?

Why couldn’t we have lived in St. Louis in 1904? We could have lived next door to Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien, and met them at the Fair. (Don’t tell me the lights are shining, anyplace but there.)

It’s not as if I would have expected to go to the Brussels’ World Fair. (As if…) Or that I believed that there was a way-back machine that could produce a meet up in 1904 St. Louis. But I was a bit miffed that we couldn’t even make our way 180 miles to Queens, New York for the 1964 edition.

Practically everyone else I knew got to go. (Wah, wah, wah.)

Over fifty million folks attended the New York World’s Fair. Sureunispherely we could have been among them, catching a glimpse of the future and what would have been my first glimpse of New York City.

I’ve had to settle for seeing the Unisphere coming and going from the airport.

What did we miss?

At the Bell System pavilion, engineers touted a "picturephone" that allowed callers to see who they were talking to, a concept that lives on in modern-day apps such as Skype and FaceTime. (Source: CBS News)

Picturephone? I would have been thrilled with a sleekly modern Princess Phone. I suppose I should have been happy that, in addition to the old time black phone in my parents’ bedroom, we had a hip yellow wall phone in the kitchen.

The fair also gave wide exposure to the power of computers, which at the time were seen as huge cabinets of blinking lights and electrodes operated by big corporations. At the IBM pavilion, visitors saw a computer system in which a machine took in a card with a date written on it and gave back another card with a news story from that date. At the NCR pavilion, a computer would answer scientific questions or give out recipes from a cookbook.

Hey, we’ve got that.

One exhibit I’m happy to have missed was the Disney “It’s a Small World” attraction. And The Talking Mr. Lincoln? I saw both of these a decade later at Disneyland, and wasn’t impressed with either. Robots have come a long way, baby. But:

"This is the first time that millions of people had the opportunity to see something that could be described as robotic. The special effects you could see in the World's Fair blew away what you could see in the movies," said Joseph Tirella, author of a book about the fair.

Jet packs were demo’d. We still don’t have those, but we do have drones.

And General Motors foresaw a future that would include:

…colonies on the moon as well as in Antarctica, huge underwater dwellings and a machine that used a laser to cut through rainforests, leaving behind paved roads.

Maybe another fifty years or so.

Regardless of whether such notions survived, observers say the fair offered a vision of the world's potential that made it seem like anything was possible.

"It really seems like 50 years ago, we had more exciting visions for 50 years in the future than we do now," [filmmaker Ryan] Ritchey said.

Oh, I don’t know about that. We may have some bleak predictions, but there are also those drones that will be delivering goods to our door from Amazon. I.e., the goods that we won’t be able to print in our own homes on our 3-D printers. Goods we’ll pay for telepathically from the comfort of those homes, which we’ll never have to leave. Because our doctor robots will be able to perform surgery remotely and so microscopically that we won’t skip an Amazon-ordering or 3-D printing beat.

Futurama, come on down.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

And how about a Nobel Prize for the Ooho guys…

I haven’t done any sort of real analysis here, but my gut instinct – and the fact that I do pick up trash when I’m out and about – is that discarded water bottles (and around here, that’s mostly Poland Springs) are in the Top Four when it comes to sidewalk trash. (Starbucks paper cups, Dunkin styro, and McDonald’s wrappers account for the rest. If there’s a fifth, it’s probably parking tickets.)

Since I do pick up a fair amount of trash, I find myself completely irked by people who have no problem carrying a bottle or cup when it’s got something in it, but who –once a vessel’s empty – can’t bear to hang on to it for a couple of minutes until they find a trash can. Or, heaven forbid, just tuck the empty into their pocket or pocketbook and take it home with them.

So I am completely in love with the fellows at Skipping Rocks Lab who’ve come up with Ooho.

Ooho is a green, homemade alternative to the tens of billions of disposable water bottles produced annually. The flexible, watertight container has the texture of a gel and, although tasteless, is easy to bite into. (Source: Business Week.)Ooho

We have Rodrigo Garcia, Pierre Paslier, and Guillaume Couche – all 30 years old or under – for this idea, which has won the Lexus Design Award for 2014.

Of course, this isn’t the first example of the fully edible foodstuff, in which the packaging can be consumed. Think ice cream cone.

But in general we have a mania for over-packaging everything. Remember the olden days when we used to survive and manage to hydrate without plastic water bottles? We were able to do so because there were bubblers everywhere. (Aside to non-New Englanders: bubbler = water fountain.) Well, those bubblers have gone the way of the payphone. Whenever I see one – there’s still one in the Boston Public Garden and, quaintly, it has a bit of mossy slime in its stone bowl – I take a swig (fingers crossed that no germy kid has just stuck his mouth all over it: probably not; I think today’s moms are way too germ-averse).

Here, in the designers’ own words (apparently translated by someone with English-as-a-second-language) is how Ooho works:

"Ooho!" replicates this behavior, encircle the water in a eatable membrane of algae. It is new way of packaging that propose an alternative to the plastic bottle. Using the culinary technique of sphereification, the water is encapsulated in a double gelatinous membrane. The technique consist into apply sodium alginate (E-401) from the brown algae and calcium chloride (E-509) in a concrete proportions in order to generate a gelification on the exterior of the liquid. The final package is simple, cheap (2ct/unit), resistant, hygienic, biodegradable and even eatable.

…After experimenting the spherification technique with different ingredients, proportions and dimensions, a “recipe” was found to create “Ooho!” with a double gelatinous membrane and in different sizes. The double membrane protects hygienically the inside and allows to locate between the two layers identification labels with out any adhesive. …The main idea of “Ooho!” is that everyone could make them at their kitchen, modifying and innovating the “recipe”. From DIY to CIY (Cook It Yourself).(Source: Design Boom.)

I may never be one of the folks using the open source recipe to brew my own Ooho, let alone improve on it. But what a great idea!

The number of plastic bottles that are thrown away each year by Americans is 35 billion. Of the plastic produced in the United States only about 25 percent is recycled. (Source: Ask)

Even if it can save us from a mere one percent of these tossed- away bottles, Ooho will make a phenomenal contribution to the world we live in.

Bless you, boys. I hope you win the Nobel Prize in something or other. Chemistry, Economics, Peace. Something or other should apply.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

I dreamed I was 10 pounds–not just 38 bucks - lighter in my Maidenform undies

I am a member of the last generation that wore something called a girdle.

No matter how slender, by their early teen years, girls of my era – at least good Catholic girls, and what other kind are there? – wore panty girdles when they “dressed up” for church, a school function, a date. (Not that I had many of those…) To not wear a girdle was immodest, a near occasion of sin, and was to invite leering, pinching, and worse from the wolves just hanging around street corners waiting to leer, pinch, and worse at girdle-less girls sauntering by.

While our mothers kept on wearing them – when my mother, in her later years, went on European bus jaunts, she packed a girdle and bra for every day of the trip – most of us peeled off the girdle somewhere around the end of high school/beginning of college.

Many of us then went on to enjoy a few girdle-less (and sometimes braless) years before we realized that our tops, if not our bottoms, could use a bit of control. And thus we pulled on “control top panty hose.”

Somewhere along the line, cellulite reared its ugly head, and all us girls in our twenties started examining our thighs looking for those nasty little lumps of fat.

The cure at one point was scrubbing the offensive cellulite away with a loofah, with or without a special cream.

Any concerns I had about cellulite faded before I managed to loofah it away. I haven’t checked lately. I assume it’s still there. (The cellulite, not the loofah.)

Meanwhile, on the rare occasions when I’m wearing a skirt or a dress, I’m sticking with control top panty hose, thank you.

But there’s a new generation of young women out there for whom control top panty hose aren’t the answer, perhaps because women under the age of 40 don’t wear panty hose. So they’re making the founder of Spanx a ka-billionaire, and, looking for the cure, are also buying up:

…undergarments infused with capsules of caffeine and vitamins. (Source: Boston Globe)

Alas, these undergarments allegedly:

…failed to live up to claims that they would melt away fat.

Which has prompted two local women to sue the bastards:

Annique Bellot of Newton and Tara Stefani of Hingham filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in US District Court in Boston this week against Maidenform Brands LLC and Wacoal America Inc., joining other women who have recently brought cases against the companies for allegedly misrepresenting the garments’ powers.

The Massachusetts suit states that the slimming shapewear, constructed with microcapsules containing caffeine, Vitamin E, fatty acids, and other ingredients that are absorbed by the skin, is marketed as a way to “permanently change women’s body shape and skin tone.” The products cost 50 to 60 percent more than identical garments that do not have the microcapsules, according to the suit.

Maidenform’s contribution to hope for womankind is the $38 Flexee Instant Slimmer, while Wacoal has brought out the $60 iPant.

The iPant – stunningly ridiculous name, no? – is advertised as “anti-cellulite”, and promises to produce “lasting results” if you’re willing to keep it on eight hours a day, seven days a week for four weeks.

“It’s very unfortunate that there are companies out there that are preying on people’s insecurities with claims that may not be supportable by science,” said Newton lawyer Mathew Pawa, who is representing the plaintiffs.

Well, yes, it is “unfortunate that there are companies out there that are preying on people’s insecurities”. And it is equally, perhaps even more, unfortunate that there are people gullible enough to fall for crazy anti-fat, anti-aging, anti-sagging, anti-whatever claims, and underwear seems to be the least of the worries here.

Nutrient-infused textiles are a $600 million annual business, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit. The plaintiffs are seeking refunds and punitive damages, as well as an injunction that would keep the companies from selling the apparel.

Nutrient-infused textiles? Hmmmm.  One would think that piranha-infused textiles might do a better job.

Personally, I don’t see why the two plaintiffs didn’t just go to Macy’s and get their money back, write a complaint letter to Wacoal and/or Maidenform, and then get on social media and trash the products. Isn’t this what social media’s for?

But all that gets you is your refund, not “punitive damages”. And gee, having worn the nutrient-infused girdles for 28 days straight, the duo may feel that they are deserving of “punitive damages.”

Pawa’s co-counsel on the case, Tim Howard, a Tallahassee lawyer and president of Cambridge Graduate University , filed a similar suit against Maidenform and Wacoal in Florida in December.

Telling women you can lose weight “by putting coffee and whatever else you put in the fabric of underwear” is “absurd and extraordinarily crass,” [co-counsel for the suit Tim] Howard said. There are probably tens of thousands of women who have purchased this type of shapewear, he said.

Come on!  If every claim that’s absurd and/or extraordinarily crass leads to court, we’ll have backlogs that will stretch to infinity and beyond.

But some people just want their (pay) day in court.*

Do I have to ask whatever happened to a) caveat emptor; b) if something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

Want to slim that tummy, those thighs? Not that I’m taking my own advice here, but I do believe eating less and exercising more should work.

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*Tara Stefani does seem to be one of them.

She’s not only a plaintiff in this suit, she’s signed on for another class action. In the other one, Ms. Stefani is going after a company called 23andMe that makes a DNA saliva kit and analysis service that the suit claims is based on specious science.(Source: Universal Hub.)

Apparently, she’s a sucker for bad science. Either that, or she’s doing us all a great service by uncovering all these shady products.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Why Patriots’ Day Rules

Well, it’s Patriots Day, a holiday which I have always very much enjoyed.

You want to know why?

  1. Patriots’ Day is ours and ours alone. Yes, it’s a public holiday in Maine – and, weirdly, Wisconsin has some school-based observance around it – but it’s 99.9999% ours. (Maine, in the the way back, used to be part of Massachusetts, so there.) Ours, gloriously, ours - which as the world, let alone the country becomes more boringly homogenized, is all to the good. You might even say it’s wicked pissah!
  2. It means spring. As only people who dwell in northern climes can appreciate, spring getting sprung is a big deal. (Given the longitude of Wisconsin, this may be the reason they’ve decided to give this day a go.) Sure, it can be in the 40’s and sleeting, but as often as not, the weather is spring-like: magnolias in bloom, daffodils abounding, and forsythia starting to blossom.
  3. The Swanboats are back. The Boston Public Garden is my front yard. Bonus points that it’s one of the most beautiful public parks in the United States, and, come swanboatspring, the swanboats are there. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, swanboats are pedal-powered and glide around the lagoon throughout the spring and summer. I haven’t actually been on a swanboat in maybe ten years, but I like the idea of them just being there. Maybe now that spring is sprung, I’ll take a ride. One of these days.
  4. The boys are back, too. Given that this is Boston, this can only mean one thing: the Red Sox are back in town. They have to be back. After all,  it’s Patriots’ Day, which means home game. And the game starts at the odd little hour of 11 a.m. The Marathon used to be timed so that the game ended just about the same time that the lead runners were pumping through Kenmore Square, just outside of Fenway Park. Alas, somewhere along the line it was decided that 35,000 fans hitting the streets the same time the runners do wasn’t a good idea. It worked before the Boston Marathon became the biggy-big deal it’s become, but no more. Sigh! It’s still fun to get watch the Patriots’ Day game at Fenway. Even when – as is the early-going case this year – the boys aren’t exactly covering themselves with glory.
  5. The Boston Marathon is being run. And it’s also being watched. (Safe bet: lots more watchers than runners.) As you can imagine, the race has taken on a new meaning this year, what with the first anniversary of the Marathon Bombings having just passed. With luck, over the years, the Marathon will return to something that more closely resembles what it has always been: a race that brings a lot of elite runners to Boston, but a race that’s also run by people you know (friends, colleagues, neighbors, folks from the gym… ) What’s fun about the Boston Marathon is that everybody knows someone who’s running. And everybody knows someone who’s watching along the way. And everybody knows someone standing near the finish line. Which is one reason why last year’s events shook this city to core. This was personal.
  6. It’s the start of school vacation. This may be a mixed blessing for parents, but as a former vacationing school kid, this was the very best vacation week of the whole, wide school year. Christmas week was Christmas week, but there was way too much going on. Including church, as both Christmas and New Year’s Day were holy days of obligation, which meant Mass. Christmas Mass at least had carols going for it. New Year’s Day*: bor-ing. February vacation week was fine, but there was a pretty good bet that there’d be at least one day during the week when you were stuck inside because of a blizzard. Plus, most of the time it was smack dab in the middle of Lent, so there was always pressure to sacrifice something fun like desert, or get up out of bed to go to completely optional daily Mass. But April vacation week. Bliss!
  7. Patriots’ Day brings with it no obligations whatsoever.  Let’s face it, most holidays haul an awful lot of baggage along with them. Even if you don’t have any of the church-y things hanging over you, there are presents to buy, food to cook, decorations to put up, places to go, stuff to do. Not Patriots’ Day. Nada. Zip. Zilch by way of obligatory. You can watch the ballgame. Or not. Watch the Marathon. Or not. Watch the reenactment of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Or not. Bliss!
  8. This was the day when the shot heard round the world was fired. And we – i.e., New Englanders – were there. Okay, in real life this was on April 19th, which is when Patriots’ Day used to be celebrated. But then a light bulb went off and somebody up there realized that a three-day weekend occasionally trumps historic accuracy. Anyway, speaking of the shot heard round the world, I defy anyone to go out to Concord Bridge and not be moved to think about where those embattled farmers standing there firing that shot. (Well, mostly you get to think about it because Emerson’s poem, Concord Hymn is carved in granite and standing, unembattled, staring you right in the face.
  9. If you don’t particularly care about baseball or marathoning, there’s a reenactment of the Battle of Lexington going on.  Just down the road from Concord Bridge is Lexington Green where, every year, the Battle of Lexington Green is reenacted. I’ve been to this a couple of times and, other than the fact that you have to get up at the crack of dawn to see it, it’s great fun. The best year for it was, of course, 1975, the battle’s bicentennial. That year, my cousin Barbara had what had to be one of the largest pajama parties ever: every inch of her house in Lexington was covered with someone in a sleeping bag. The evening before, we all ate genuine colonial fare: spaghetti and meatballs. Which fortified us all to get up at 5 a.m. and leg it over to Lexington Green. Sometimes you just have to stop and smell the gunpowder coming out of a blunderbuss.

I suppose I should come up with a tenth reason here, which seems to be the magic list number. But the beauty of Patriots’ Day, and why it rules, is that there really aren’t any rules.

Patriots’ Day: What’s not to like?

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*Somehow I remembered this as the Feast of the Incarnation, but I looked it up and found that January 1st celebrates the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. Oh, woe is lapsed me.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

The Notell Hotel goes Airbnb

I guess this was inevitable, but it seems that Airbnb is suffering from the “from our house to whorehouse” syndrome.

This we learned earlier in the week when that bastion of journalistic integrity and intelligence – and yet an occasional source of excellent scoop - The New York Post, reported that, just as civilians can save on steep hotel bills with Airbnb, so, too can hookers. No more sleezoid Notell Hotel. No more paying through the nose for someplace upscale. Nope, now it’s all the comforts of home – and more – at Manhattan apartments.

One person who found herself an unwitting madam-for-the-day is Jessica Penzari.

“She [the renter] told me that she was in the Army and needed a place to hang out before she got shipped out,” Penzari said of her Airbnb “guest.”

“She said she was being deployed that week. She was asking for places to go out with her friends.” (Source: NY Post)

Ah, yes, another version of “thank you for your service.”

But when a hooker got slashed by a client in the West 43rd Street apartment over the price of his “massage,” Penzari got a call from cops.

When she returned, Penzari was shocked to find telltale remnants including baby wipes and “at least 10 condoms.”

No word on whether the condoms had been, ahem, unfurled and fulfilled. (Double, triple, quadruple EWW.)

Penzari said Airbnb put her up in the swanky InterContinental hotel in Times Square for two nights — with room-service meals — and also paid to change her door locks, clean her apartment and replace her pillows and other belongings.

Which does not exactly make up for the full double, triple, quadruple EWW factor, I’m guessing.

I suspect there’s a new apartment in Jessica’s future.

And Jessica is not, of course, the only one whose digs are being compromised. One working girl told The Post that her escort service rents Airbnb flats for days at a time.

“It’s more discreet and much cheaper than The Waldorf,” said the sex worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Hotels have doormen and cameras. They ask questions. Apartments are usually buzz-in.”

Smart business move, no?

And speaking of working girls and not-so-smart business moves. Many years ago, my husband and I were in the lobby bar at the NY Hilton on 6th Avenue. Sitting at the table next to us were what we assumed were, based on our eavesdropping, a prostitute and a prospective john.

I remember feeling terrible for the girl – who seemed very young, maybe 20-21 – who told the fellow that she was a model. When he asked who she modeled for, her answer was “Mostly for myself.”

She then agreed to accept a check, which didn’t seem like the shrewdest move on her part. On the other hand, if he used a legit check and tried to cancel payment, the girl would have a way to track him down. Wonder whatever happened with that transaction. Personally, I would have held out for cash.

There have been plenty of unseemly incidents involving Airbnb renters: an orgy that was promoted online; a flat that ended up used as a nude massage parlor; apartments pillaged; souvenir crack pipes left behind.

Although I do know some people who have done so – not as prostitutes, druggies, orgy-participants, or crack smokers; just as ordinary travelers - I’ve never used Airbnb. I have, however, used vacation-rental-by-owner services (including Vacation Rental By Owner), which are a bit more structured: references, contracts, security deposits required.

Airbnb maintains that all the unseemly incidents are nothing particular to their business model:

“The entire hospitality industry deals with issues like this, and we have zero tolerance for this activity,” it said.

Zero tolerance, sure, but also zero security measures – guards, cameras, front desks – that even the slimiest of Notell Motels would have.

Not that I was considering it to begin with, but I sure won’t be renting out my digs anytime soon.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

There’s even a popularity contest for spokescharacters

Someone over at Forbes had nothing better to do with their time than to get E-Poll Market Research to figure out which “spokescharacters” are the most popular. (Hey, it takes a time waster to know a time waster.)

Anyway, E-Poll is best known – that is, it would be best known, if they were known at all – for its celebrity rating service, which I guess is there so that marketers won’t sign up a celebrity spokesperson, only to realize that people detest him. (I mean, who wants to get stuck with Justin Bieber representin’ for them, when they really should have gone with Justin Timberlake?)

As Justin B., Lindsay Lohan, and untold others have amply demonstrated over the years, having a celebrity front for you – unless it’s someone 100% guaranteed for sweetness and light, like Jennifer Garner – can really backfire.

Which is why spokescharacters are so much the safer choice. Tony the Tiger is not going to get wasted and drag race and/or urinate on his neighbor’s front lawn. As the man says:

“Spokescharacters can be a very safe and memorable way to represent a brand as they won’t end up in jail or the tabloids and they won’t Tweet something inappropriate,” ” says Gerry Philpott, president of E-Poll Market Research.” The fact that they never age allows them to appeal to many different age groups and provides the marketing nirvana of ‘cradle to grave’ branding.” (Source: Forbes)

I don’t know how much we can trust E-Poll. I’m a tad bit suspicious, given that one of the little fast facts on their home page claims that “one-quarter of 16-34 year olds plan to purchase a Toyota or a Honda in the next year.” Even if I were a marketer at Toyota or Honda – make that especially if I were a marketer at Toyota or Honda – I wouldn’t be all that excited about this, as it sounds so obviously BS-y. Maybe one-quarter of 16-34 year olds who a) participated in our unscientific poll, and b) say they’re going to be a car next year, for whatever reason said they’d be buying a Toyota or a Honda.

But. I. Digress.

It’s all about the ranking of the spokescharacters.

First place is occupied by the Budweiser Clydesdales, and I have to agree with this one. I am a complete and utter sucker for an ad using a Clydesdale. Not that this translates into my actually purchasing a Budweiser. Still, those Clydesdale ads: the soppier and more sentimental, the better. Throw in a Clydesdale baby and/or a dog, and I’m there.

Met Life’s Snoopy is in the second spot, which is a nice nod to tradition. And it’s interesting that the first two spots are occupied by silent spokescharacters. (Does this make them non-spokescharacters?)

Insurance grabs the next two spots: Allstate’s Mayhem – one of two spokescharacters on the list that’s actually a human – is in third. Well, E-Poll never asked me, because I heartily dislike this campaign. (I was going to say “despise”, but it really does seem excessive to “despise” an ad campaign, doesn’t it?) But this is just me, apparently:

Allstate was ranked by Facebook to be in its top five brands globally, and the Mayhem page has 1.8 million fans.

Geico’s Humpday Camel comes in fourth. Not wild about this ad, but, in general, I find much about Geico irritating, including the Geico gecko and the Geico pig. Perhaps they would be less irritating if, like Snoopy and the Clydesdales, they didn’t give voice to their spokescharacter-ness.

Believe it or not, a real oldie but goodie places fifth: Smokey the Bear. I wasn’t even aware that this icon of my childhood – Only YOU can prevent forest fires – was still in play.

Shamu, who fronts for Seaworld, is next, followed by the Coca Cola Polar Bear. Awwww, those coca-bears are awful cute, but I pretty much resent the fact that Coke went after Worcester’s own Polar Beverage, which – as the name implies – has had a polar bear as its spokescharacter since time immemorial. And, by the way, Polar sodas are way-far better than anything that Coke has to offer. I highly recommend the Orange Dry and the Cape Cod Cranberry Dry.

The talking M&M’s placed eighth. Is it just me, or is there something vaguely obscene about these guys?

The E-Trade Baby – who I just love – comes in ninth, but he’s being replaced, I’m afraid.

And speaking about vaguely obscene, there’s the Pillsbury Doughboy rounding out the Top Ten.

All this got me thinking about the spokescharacters Reddy_Kilowatt_with_wall_outlet_poseof yesteryear: Speedy Alka-Seltzer, all those cereal spokescharacters, Chiquita Banana (is “she” still around), and my personal favorite, Reddy Kilowatt.

Mayhem? Humpday Camel? They sure don’t make spokescharacters like they used to.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Nice to know that some things haven’t changed. (Harrumph…)

My first job out of business school was for a company that sold software and data to Wall Street.

The confluence of technology and finance? Well, let’s just say it was a perfect storm of sexism.

Shortly before I’d joined the company, they had run an ad that was notorious, even for the times. (This would have been the late 1970’s.) I can’t remember all the salacious details, but it featured a mini-skirted chick, legs spread, shot from behind while walking towards a bunch of leering men. I have fortunately blocked the caption completely out of my mind.

At one point while working for this company, I was the product manager for a forecasting tool called AutoBJ, which I occasionally had to demo to the Wall Street crowd. Let the hilarity begin.

I will say that the techies were not quite as bad as the traders, perhaps because half the techies had a touch of Asperger’s, and were overtly more goofy than puerile-y sexist. But in general, the tenor of the place was often hostile to women. There were few – if any – women in policy positions, and some of the senior executives were complete and utter skirt chasers.

Fast forward to a new company, where I was still in the technology for Wall Street game, and where I was the only woman on a team charged with plotting the company’s financial services strategy. At one meeting, one of the charmers on the team said, “Think of financial services as a prone woman, legs spread, waiting for us to penetrate her.” It goes without saying that our strategy failed abysmally – as did that company.

Somewhere along the line  - yet another tech company, but one not focused (thankfully) on The Street - I made my way into the management ranks, where I quickly learned that a woman’s voice was like a dog whistle: only certain ears were attuned to hear it.

Truly, I would say something at a management meeting and it would be totally ignored. Until a couple of minutes later, one of the men made the same point. I soon learned that the best thing to do was to say something like, “Thanks, Joe, for supporting me on this.”

Truly a grrrrrr situation.

Meanwhile, one of my fellow “execs” – we were such a small company, it seemed ludicrous to think of us as executives, but, indeed, that’s what we were – was famous for doodling breast-like doodles throughout our meetings. This same fellow, at one point, thanked me for helping him prepare for a major presentation by saying “Thanks for being my wet nurse.” (I don’t think he was being sexist. I did mention Asperger’s, did I not? Still, it will give you some sense of the climate for women back in the dark ages of the late 20th century.)

Given all this, I was not surprised at a recent article in The New York Times chronicling the troubles that women continue to have in tech – especially women who are themselves techies. The article leads off talking about Elissa Shevinsky, who realized she’d had it with the tech sector over the positive (hee-haw) reception that an app called Titstare which enables “you to take photos of yourself staring at tits.”

Ms. Shevinsky felt pushed to the edge. Women who enter fields dominated by men often feel this way. They love the work and want to fit in. But then something happens — a slight or a major offense — and they suddenly feel like outsiders. The question for newcomers to a field has always been when to play along and when to push back.

Today, even as so many barriers have fallen — whether at elite universities, where women outnumber men, or in running for the presidency, where polls show that fewer people think gender makes a difference — computer engineering, the most innovative sector of the economy, remains behind. Many women who want to be engineers encounter a field where they not only are significantly underrepresented but also feel pushed away.

Tech executives often fault schools, parents or society in general for failing to encourage girls to pursue computer science. But something else is at play in the industry: Among the women who join the field, 56 percent leave by midcareer, a startling attrition rate that is double that for men,according to research from the Harvard Business School.

A culprit, many people in the field say, is a sexist, alpha-male culture that can make women and other people who don’t fit the mold feel unwelcome, demeaned or even endangered. (Source: NY Times)

I find this colossally disheartening, especially since I am a major proponent of young women pursuing a STEM education and career.

Alas, the number of women in the computing field is actually going down:

In 2012, just 18 percent of computer-science college graduates were women, down from 37 percent in 1985, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology.

Which is really too bad, especially because this is where a lot of the good jobs are going to be.

It’s not just the jerk quotient that keeps women out of tech. It’s a complex combination of factors that Pink Slip is certainly not going to come up with a solution for.

And I will say that I very much enjoyed working with most of the techies I met over the years, and that some of my best friends are engineers.

Still, I’m bummed that 30-plus years after I started in technology, it remains a tough go for women.

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