Friday, August 22, 2014

One awful way to make an awful living

One thing I’ve got to say: there are an awful lot of awful ways to try to make a living out there.

And one of them has to be dressing up like Elmo, Spider-Man, or Cookie Monster and hanging around Times Square, hoping that you can sucker some tourist into taking a picture with you – and giving you a tip.

I am a bit familiar with the posers – or whatever you call the folks who paint themselves verdigris, don robes and diadem, and stand stock still while holding a torch – you see in Battery Park and elsewhere in Manhattan. A while back, I took a picture of my niece Caroline with one of them. I’m not sure if there was an explicit charge, or whether I just tipped her. But I paid up.

Fast forward a couple of years, and there were some gold and black painted posers, representin’ King Tut, hanging out along the banks of the Seine. I think we took a picture of them, but not with them. Did we tip? Probably. I know I would have wanted to avoid any potential for someone screaming “Ugly American” at me in French.

Then in Rome a year or so ago, there were some guys – unpainted – floating around the Coliseum dressed as Roman centurions. They were good-humored, in a creepy kind of way, and Caroline wanted her picture taken with them. (My niece Molly’s creep-ometer was too flashing to want the same.) That, I do believe, cost an outrageous five euro.

Statue of Liberty poser. King Tut poser. Roman Centurion “re-enactor” (hah!).

Each time I forked over a tip I remember thinking “that’s one lousy way to make a living.” I also remember thinking, in the case of the Statue of Liberty and King Tut posers, about the scene in Goldfinger where the girl covered in gold-leaf ends up asphyxiated.

Like I said, it’s a lousy way to make a living.

But I suppose when you’re an artist of some sort, it’s at least something.

Unfortunately, it’s something that must get pretty uncomfortable in less-than-clement weather. And to have to rely on the kindness of tourists to earn your keep. Take it from one who did so as a waitress at Durgin-Park and Union Oyster House…...

Anyway, the news from NYC is that the NYPD has been cracking down on the character portrayers, going so far as to hand out flyers (handily printed in five languages) letting tourists know that they are under no obligation to tip.

The crackdown followed a string of harrowing incidents in which some of the characters assaulted tourists, including children. Others harassed people and groped women. The face-offs peaked last month when a Spider-Man demanding money punched a police officer telling a woman she was not obliged to pay. (Source: Latino Fox News.)

TIme Square characters

Needless to say, the characters are not exactly delighted with this turn of events.

Some costumed characters in Times Square ripped off their mammoth heads on Tuesday, showing their real faces to protest what they call a "hostile move" by police telling tourists they don't have to tip for photos.

And those characters are even organizing. I’ll be in NYC in a couple of weeks. Maybe I’ll see if I can line up a Joe Hill costume.

More than 130 formed a group this week called NYC Artists United for a Smile to explore how the characters might regulate themselves instead of the licensing now being proposed in the City Council.

Artists United for a Smile, huh?

Maybe it’s just me, but being approached by someone in a sweaty, matted Elmo suit looking for money is not going to make me smile. It’s going to make my cringe, shudder, shy away, and – certainly if I took a picture of one –be completely overwhelmed with pity for their plight, and guilt that I could afford to swan around Times Square taking pictures with my smartphone.

But make me smile?

Maybe if I were a three-year old kid who could look past the sweaty, matted costume and get jazzed at the thought of meeting the “real” Elmo…

This is, by the way, a job that earns around $50-$70 for a 12 hour day. How desperate do you have to be to work for an uncertain $50 a day – an amount that doesn’t come any where near minimum wage? Plenty desperate, as it turns out. Many of the characters are undocumented workers from Latin America.

And just the thought of there being 130 people in NYC alone attempting to make their livings posing as cartoon characters is mind boggling. Although not when you consider that, as I learned when I posted about them earlier this week,  as of 1992 there were some 35,000 Elvis impersonators out there.

The characters are positioning their protest in constitutional terms:

Lucia Gomez, executive director of La Fuente, a pro-immigrant nonprofit that helped organize the performers, said it's their First Amendment right to entertain people.

I hadn’t realized that the “right to entertain people” is a First Amendment right, but there was Lenny Bruce back in the day. And George Carlin. (I know, I know, that wasn’t about the right to entertain, but the right to use the type of language that – as I read the other day – can to this day get you arrested in South Carolina, where the f-word is outlawed.)

In any case, I suspect that the First Amendment doesn’t cover using an Elmo or Spiderman costume for commercial purposes without paying a licensing fee to Sesame Street or Marvel Comics. Or is the licensing fee implicitly incorporated in the price of the costume?

Amazing that the owners of these character brands haven’t cracked down yet. Didn’t Disney actually go after a bereaved family that had etched Winnie-the-Pooh on their dead child’s headstone? You’d think the studios would be all over this.

"Once you start putting forward any kind of regulation on a group of workers, you better be prepared to do it to all workers, because you cannot single out one set of workers and not provide the same kind of regulations for everyone within the performance art industry," Gomez said.

Which, I guess, would mean the Statue of Liberty posers (who in their “real lives”, I suspect, are something other than desperate undocumented workers).

I have tremendous sympathy for anyone trying to hustle up what amounts to a pretty darned awful living in this way. Just thinking about the desperate poverty some of them left if hoping that some tourist will give you a buck for taking a picture of you in your Hello, Kitty outfit is a better alternative…

I wish them well, but the idea of so many characters on the make swarming around Times Square is one more reason for me to avoid that particular neck of the woods when I’m in The City in September.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Truth in advertising, or infographic gone bad?

Well, I’m on of those out-of-fashion readerly types who believes that one word is worth a thousand pictures, so my bias is clearly toward the written word over the graphic depiction.

I am, of course, at odds with the (marketing) times, as so-called “infographics” have become all the rage as a means to quickly convey lots o’ information (numerical and other) to those put- upon, info-overloaded folks who have time to read bullet-points at best, but who have not yet gone over to the totally dark side and become capable of receiving input only via audio-video.

Me, I have to work too hard at infographic interpretation to make trying to parse one out worth my while. If I don’t get it at a glance, I give it a pass.

But in my business, I do see plenty of infographics, and, on occasion, even have to come up with suggestions for them.

Whether I come up with suggestions or not, I do find that infographics are increasingly cluttering up the content that I work on. Sigh…

(I do fear that within a few generations, humans will have the literacy level of the average Lascaux cave-dweller.)

Anyway, infographics have become so popular in marketing that last year I even took a one-day course with Edward Tufte, the guru of data visualization. The course was quite interesting and, if nothing else, I learned that a lot of what passes for an infographic these days is nothing more than a glorified design element with a number smacked on it. The course also came with a box full of Edward Tufte’s books. The books are actually quite beautiful, and I put them aside, telling myself that one day I would actually delve into them and turn myself into an infographics expert.

Well, that day didn’t come, but I happily gave them over to a couple of brainy younger relatives of my husband’s – a computer science professor and her husband the mathematician – when they came by for lunch the day of Jim’s memorial service. I suspect that Steph and Scott are getting more out of those tomes than I ever would have.

One of the least info-rich infographics I’ve ever seen showed some type of chart, but an axis wasn’t labeled, so even if you put your mind to it, there was no way you could really figure it out.

Anyway, sneer as I might, there are plenty of times when even written-word little old me finds a graphic approach to conveying information understandable, useful, and helpful.

One of the graphic types that I tend to find particularly clear is the Venn diagram, a pretty good way to indicate the proportional relationships between and among things.

Thus, I was very quickly able to interpret the Venn diagram used in a recent ad for Thomson Reuters, itself an organization dedicated to providing all sorts of information, reuters values_0presumably as clearly and accurately as possible.

As the Thomson Reuters Venn diagram clearly shows, when it comes to values like Trust, Partnership, Innovation and Performance, there is precious little overlap with the values that Thomson Reuters in fact espouses.

Personally, I don’t really give a hoot about when I have any sort of partnership relationship with an information provider. Just provide me with the damned information.

Innovation is a tad more important. After all, if Reuters Thomson didn’t care about innovation, information would still be sent via carrier pigeons or the clickety-clack, dot-dash of the telegraphy machine. So it is somewhat surprising that Thomson Reuters has so little regard for it.

The same goes for performance. Come on, who wants to read (or listen to, or watch, or find in an infographic) yesterday’s news?

But, gee, you’d think that one value that an information provider would really want to get right would be trust. Dewey defeats Truman, anyone?

No doubt the designer who came up with this ad didn’t know a Venn Diagram from his elbow. Ditto the hapless marketing person who okayed it.

But surely there is someone somewhere in the vast Thomson Reuters empire who knows something about infographics (or at least Venn diagrams) - someone, somewhere who should have been able to put the kibosh on this howler.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s some much welcome truth in advertising.


Thanks to my brother-in-law Rick for pointing this one out to me. He saw it on Zerohedge.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Elvis Biz

Last weekend, we observed the 37th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley.

Well, I actually didn’t observe it.

Amazingly, I can go weeks, months, maybe even years, without thinking about The King.

And then I’ll have an oldies station on, and there I’ll be singing along to “Hound Dog,” “Return to Sender,” “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”, “In the Ghetto,” or “Teddy Bear.”

Or I’ll see that Jailhouse Rock is on, and tune in to see that incredibly wonderful scene where Vince/Elvis and his fellow jailbirds rock out to “Jailhouse Rock.”

In any case, while I was never a huge fan, there can be very few folks who came of age with their ears glued to a radio during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s who don’t have an Elvis favorite or two.

That said, I don’t think I’d go very far out of my way to see an Elvis impersonator perform. (Not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing a passel of them stroll by. Years ago, my husband and I were in a hotel somewhere that was hosting some sort of gathering of Cher impersonators, who were quite fun to observe. No Sonnys, that I recall.)

But Elvis impersonation, while it may not be a major industry, like energy or healthcare, is, in fact, a distinct and solid business.

At least three competitions will crown a champion tribute artist at this year’s Elvis Week, the annual remembrance of Presley’s death, which concludes this weekend in Memphis. That includes the Ultimate, which boasts a $20,000 top prize, and Images of the King, which features separate divisions—the Early Years, the ’70s, and a category for Elvis-impersonating youth. The Elvis Entertainers Network World Championship, a spinoff of [Elvis impersonator Ronny] Craig’s old event [King of the World], drew 35 performers and hundreds of paying guests to an airport hotel. (Source: Business Week.)

The “mini-industry” that is Elvis impersonation was started by Edward Franklin, who was the vet for Elvis and Priscilla’s animals. As the 10th anniversary of the King’s death neared, Franklin decided to capitalize on it. He set up a tribute contest, Images of Elvis, which he held at the nightclub he owned. (I guess old Doc Franklin was a different kind of animal when compared to the vets I’ve known.)

Pretty soon, multiple Elvis – or Elvii – shows were popping up around the country.

True Elvis believers scorned the impersonators – ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby – but then someone in Elvis-ville figured out there was some coin to be made:

Tribute artists weren’t fully sanctioned until 2007, when Elvis Presley Enterprises, the business arm of the musician’s estate, held its first Elvis Week contest, called the Ultimate.

All these years after Elvis’ death, Elvis Presley Enterprises generates quite a bit of income. In 2012, it’s licensing business brought in $32 million. (When someone, upon hearing of Elvis’ death, commented that it was a “smart career move,” they were on to something.)

Some of that licensing revenue came from impersonator contests, but Elvis Presley Enterprises apparently doesn’t go after unlicensed contests or individual impersonators.

Just how many impersonators are there?

Rick Marino is president of the Elvis Impersonators Association:

"In 1977, there were 28 Elvis impersonators, and I was one of them," Marino told the San Francisco Chronicle last year. "In 1992, there were 35,000. Do the arithmetic. That means by 2017, one out of every four people in America will be an Elvis impersonator." (Source: ABC News.)

Won’t that be something to look forward to! I’m all shook up at the very thought of it. Wonder who I know who’ll end up one of the Elvii?


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Be afraid, be very afraid…(Damn, that technology can be scary sometimes.)

It’s not as if I don’t like technology.

Come on, I’ve spent the last 30+ years making my living in the tech biz.

It’s not as if I don’t embrace technology.

Come on, I’ve got the requisite gear: smartphone, laptop (soon to be replaced by a Surface Pro super-tablet), Kindle, special decoder-looking ring that I use for my Charlie Card (smartcard for Boston’s rapid transpo system), programmable thermostat (okay, so I haven’t actually programmed it yet…). And while I’m not “always on”, I spend an awful lot of time online.

It’s not as if I don’t understand technology.

Come on, I’ve actually ghosted articles that appeared in EE Times.

And yet, deep in my heart – or at least in part of one ventricle – there’s definitely an inner techno-worry wart. Maybe even a bit of a Luddite.

The latest thing to unleash that inner Luddite was an article on Bloomberg a week or so ago that warned that:

From Ancient Greece to Mary Shelley, it's been an abiding human fear: A new invention takes on a life of its own, pursues its own ends, and grows more powerful than its creators ever imagined.

For a number of today's thinkers and scientists, artificial intelligence looks as if it may be on just such a trajectory. This is no cause for horror or a premature backlash against the technology. But AI does present some real long-term risks that should be assessed soberly. (Source: Bloomberg)

AI has been around for quite a while.

Many, many years ago, a bunch of my colleagues fled the company we were all working at to join an AI start-up that was supposed to be capable of making the right business investment decision. I wanted to join them, but wasn’t artificial or intelligent enough to get an offer. (Formal word came back that I didn’t seem “ready” to leave the company where I was working; informal word came back that I’d asked too many questions, which led the hiring folks to determine that, in an environment that required true believers, I would be one of those ye of little faith types.)

Of course, it almost goes without saying that that start-up went out of business.

Since then, of course, AI has become a ton more intelligent.

Yet it still hasn’t gotten to the point where, when it comes to “’general’ intelligence”, it’s as good as one of us actual human beings. I.e., there’s still no such thing as a:

…machine that can independently solve problems and adapt to new circumstances, like a human.

Bravo, us!

Maybe AI can beat a humanoid at chess, but we’re still Number One when it comes to things like figuring out what to do when siblings are squabbling, spouses are aggravating, and the dog needs a scratch behind the ears. When it comes to things that require gut instinct, human experience, and emotional intelligence, which – so far – hasn’t leant itself to artificiality, we rule.

Which is not to say that AI won’t someday surpass us:

Experts in one survey estimate that artificial intelligence may approach the human kind between 2040 and 2050, and exceed it a few decades later.

Hmmmm. Wonder what the survey would have said if they’d asked AI machines themselves? Something to wonder about…

They also suggest there's a one-in-three probability that such an evolution will be "bad" or "extremely bad" for humanity.

There are some pretty big names that are worrying about machines going Frankenstein on us:

Elon Musk has warned that it could be "more dangerous than nukes." And Stephen Hawking has called it"potentially the best or worst thing to happen to humanity in history."

They worried that AI could get too big for its smarty-pants britches, to difficult for mere mortals to “understand or predict…more difficult or impossible to control.”

What could happen that’s so bad?

To use a simplified example: A self-learning AI programmed to calculate the decimals of pi might, as it became more intelligent, decide that the most efficient way to meet its goals would be to commandeer all the computing power on earth.

Swell. Satellites will fall from the sky, the grid will go down, heart monitors will stop monitoring, and I won’t be able to get my daily Daily Mail UK fix, all because some jerk of a machine wants to calculate pi  to well beyond the number of decimal places where even the most obsessive, nerdly kid would decide that the task was useless and boring.

What to do, what to do?.

… researchers in the field need to devise commonly accepted guidelines for experimenting with AI and mitigating its risks. Monitoring the technology's advance may also one day call for global political cooperation, perhaps on the model of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The bottom line?

There may be no immediate danger, but, in the long run, there’s every reason to be afraid, be very afraid.

Technology capable of calculating pi to infinity and beyond could end up doing some pretty awful things.


Monday, August 18, 2014

I know where I’ll be planted, but what about my plants…

I don’t have the green thumb that my mother had – Liz was a complete and utter plant lady. But I don’t have a gangrenous black thumb, either. If I had to characterize my thumb, I’d say it’s grayish-green. Or greenish gray.

While I was plant-free for quite a long while, I now have several plants that seem to be thriving on the kitchen windowsill.

Two are them were sent to me shortly after my husband died, the other – an oxalis – I had at the church where Jim’s memorial service was held. That was right after St. Patrick’s Day, and an oxalis looks like a shamrock, only a bit jacked up, so the florist recommended it when I asked for a shamrock.

The oxalis is the one plant I’d really like to hang on to, but if it goes, it goes.

And if when I go, and the oxalis is still with us, well, I actually haven’t given much thought to who gets it. Make that any thought. If it ends up in the trash, well, so be it. (I’ll probably stick to my guns on this. Unless, that is, we find out that plants have some level of sentience that has so far gone undiscovered. In that case, I guess I’ll have to make provisions. Afer all, I’ve grown rather fond of that oxalis in an inanimate, no exchange of emotion kind of way.)

Some folks, however, have developed true relationships with their fine potted friends.

Pittsburgh’s Ronna Scoratow – une dame d’un certain age, i.e., mine – is one of them.

She’s had her dearly beloved plant for over 40 years, even longer than I had my dearly beloved husband. Her plant is a 7-foot-tall lacy tree philodendron.

Ms. Scoratow has no children. Her siblings don't share her enthusiasm for indoor greenery. So last year she put a provision in her will granting $5,000 for a friend to use in caring for the plant. "It was interesting," her lawyer, James Wood, said when asked about that provision. "I've done provisions for pets but never a plant." (Source: WSJ Online)

As plants go, I do get how one could grow attached to a philodendron, since they have a tendency to get attached to whatever they’re around, twirling their tendrils around.

Personally, I’d rather have the more contained coleus or sansevieria. You get your greenery, and you don’t have to worry about it wrapping its metaphorical arm around you and getting you in a chokehold, as I can imagine a philodendron might be tempted to do. Especially if, in fact, plants are as sentient as we may well find out they are.

Whether they’re proven to be sentient or not, many plants apparently do know something we don’t.

Some plants live for centuries. A giant cycad has thrived in London's Kew Gardens for nearly 240 years….Bonsai trees are famous for lasting centuries. The National Arboretum has one more than 400 years old.

So while your plant I not likely to survive to infinity and beyond, it may well outlive you, as Ms. Scoratow believes that hers will.

The money set aside in her will isn’t the only amount that she has spent on her plant. In addition to its regular care and feeding – a bit of water, an occasional sprinkle of plant food, the odd re-potting event – she paid movers $370 to move her plant when she changed locations last year.

Would I have moved a plant?


If it were going to set me back $370?

Well, maybe not.

By the way, Ms. Scoratow’s posthumous plant caring doesn’t extend beyond the philodendron.

She hasn't made long-term provisions for her other plants. "I don't have the same love with them. I don't know how to explain it. I don't want to be cold or anything." The others are smaller and easier to move, so she hopes someone will take them when the time comes. Her philodendron is special, Ms. Scoratow says, because "I've had that one the longest."

Even if her concern is limited to her one special plant friend, Scoratow is not alone. A Maryland couple interviewed in the article has a ponytail palm that they’re rather fond of.

They call it Gordon, after a friend who swapped it to Ms. [Karen] Upton 37 years ago for a Porsche steering wheel…Eventually, though, the Uptons may grow too frail to care for the palm. Mr. [Christopher] Upton, 62, said their exit strategy might be to take Gordon down to Florida and "set him free" outdoors..


I seem to be detecting a pattern. An understandable pattern.

As the old memento mori starts to click in when you’re in your sixties, and folks start giving some thought to where they’ll be planted, it’s no surprise that they start thinking about what’s going to happen to the things they’ll leave behind. Plants included.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Just a couple of degrees of separation from Bernie Madoff

I never took a course with him – he was in Operations Research* which, beyond the one required course, I avoided like the plague – but when I was a student at Sloan (MIT’s business school), Gabriel Bitran was a new faculty member. A lot of the folks I knew took courses with him.

Perhaps because he wasn’t much older than the students, I remember him as being quite popular. Because Sloan was so small at the time – maybe a hundred students, plus or minus, in our class; and very little hang around space that was shared pretty much equally by students, faculty, and admin – I’m sure I met him at some point or another, if only to say hello.

Well, Gabe Bitran, it seems, has gotten himself into quite the soup.

A couple of years ago – and I missed this one completely – Bitran and his son Marco, who’d been running a $500 million fund:

…agreed to pay $4.8 million to settle U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission claims that they lied to investors about their track record. (Source: Bloomberg)

Their Ponzi within a Ponzi unraveled during the Madoff debacle, because they:

…put money into “funds of funds,” which rely on investments by other hedge funds, and fed money to Madoff’s firm and Madoff feeder funds, according to prosecutors.

While Bitran père et fils were running GMB Capital Management into the ground – the fund lost more than $140 million over time, which is $140 million worse than money in a mattress – they were also paying themselves handsomely. (Surprise.)

The smoking gun on the Bitrans was some e-mail exchanges. (Duh! This is an MIT business school professor and he doesn’t get how e-mails can bite you in the ass. Yikes!)

“A person with experience and knowledge of the financial sector and a veteran professor of MIT should not have engaged in this type of behavior,” Gabriel Bitran said in an e-mail to his son in July 2009 that was cited by prosecutors. “I feel very embarrassed because we told them a story that was not true!”

Well, I guess embarrassed could be one way to look at. But, really, deeply ashamed and absolutely contrite might have been better.

For his part,

Marco Bitran said in a September 2009 e-mail to his father that “we are certainly sharing equally in this” and that “lots of problems were caused by my good intentions but very poor actions when it came to true honesty,” according to prosecutors.

“Good intentions but very poor actions when it came to true honesty.”

Huh? Talk about gobbledygook. This from someone with degrees from MIT and Harvard Business School. (I had to get this dig in . I’m not putting this all on MIT.) Tsk, tsk.

Oh, indeed, my intentions – make everyone a lot of money, especially me – were excellent, it was just that piss-poor execution. That and, oh yeah, lying through my teeth. And beyond:

After the SEC began its probe, the Bitrans took steps to shield their assets by transferring them out of GMB to other entities using the name of a family member who wasn’t aware of what they were doing, prosecutors said.

Mighty fine thinking there, boys, mighty fine. Bet that family member was just thrilled to death to be made part of the grand scheme.

Despite the fiasco that the Bitrans got themselves involved in, Marco apparently doesn’t share his father’s embarrassment. On his blog (which, admittedly, was last updated nearly a year back; but still well after he and his father agreed to the SEC fine), he brags:

..,Bitran grew an exchange-traded fund to $550 million in assets using models developed by MIT professor Gabriel R. Bitran and MIT graduate Shioulin Sam.

Well, he may be blogging from prison, because Gabriel and Marco Bitran, it seems, are about to each:

…plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities fraud, wire fraud and falsify documents and face a maximum sentence of five years in prison, according to agreements with prosecutors.

According to their lawyers, Gabriel “accepts responsibility” and Marco “looks forward to…putting [this matter] behind him.”

Say hello to Bernie for me.


*I remember nothing about OR, other than that we had to do some computations – by hand – involving some type of matrix, something called dual simplex, and something called pivoting. That and a case study called “Red Brand Canners” about optimizing the production of canned tomatoes. So clearly my education wasn’t wasted on me.


Thursday, August 14, 2014

Bosses ask the darndest things

The Guardian recently asked readers to send in the oddest (generally inappropriate) things that there managers had ever asked them to do.

Not surprisingly, there were a lot of goodies.

On fellow reported that a friend was asked to break in his boss’ shoes for him. (Let’s hope the boss got blisters, anyway.)

Another person said that a colleague who was leaving the office because her water had just broken was criticized for “abandoning her job.” (This reminds me of a colleague who was laid off while pregnant and showing. When she told the HR person who was seeing her out the door that it was going to be difficult for her to find another job, the HR manager told her to wear loose clothing and pretend she was fat.)

One guy was asked to remove a dead cat from under the hood of the car of his boss’ daughter. The cat had been strangled in the fan belt. Which explained why the car hadn’t started…

Then there were the garden variety requests – like ordering flowers for both wife and mistress. (No small thing, apparently. I have a friend who works in high-end retail, and they have to be very careful about delivering anything, especially sexy lingerie.)

Anyway, it got me thinking about odd (generally inappropriate) work requests I’d gotten.

Numero Uno happened when I was a product manager, reporting to one of the few female VP’s in the company.

I was asked to come up with the plan for product enhancements, the market research, revenue outlook, and cost benefit to justify the plan, and the script for a demo for a rough prototype.

Great! Happy to do it. My product, after all.

Alas, I was told by my boss, I would not be attending the meeting at which all this was presented. She was going to be taking care of that.

Product managers, she assured me, had never been invited to participate in the meetings at which senior management decided whether or not to keep investing in their products.

I made a strong case for my presence – and for product managers in general – to attend the meeting, but she insisted that it was just not possible.

To add insult to injury, on the day of the big meeting, I had to surrender my PC for the day, as it was the only one on which the prototype demo could be run. So I had to spend the work day using a battered old spare PC squirreled away in a glorified storage closet.

Grrrr, grrrr, double grrrr, triple grrrrr.

As lunch time approached, my boss stuck her head into the glorified storage closet and told me, “I think I’ve found a way for you to get into the meeting.”

I asked her whether she wanted me to talk through the research, explain the proposed features, give the demo.

Oh, no, she told me, “Since it’s almost lunch time, I thought you could go out and pick up pizzas for us. Then, when you brought it in, you could just stay for a while.”

My jaw went completely slack.

I told her that if she wanted someone to fetch lunch, she could ask our admin, but there was no way I was coming into that meeting as the waitress. I went to business school precisely so I wouldn’t have to take food orders, hand out napkins, and serve the grub.

Furthermore, I told her that, as the only woman participating in that meeting, she shouldn’t have been the one jumping up to take the lunch order, either. (We both knew that she was always, but always, the one who did so.)

So there.

She was pretty much in shock that I wasn’t going to make the pizza run. “You’re usually so easygoing, I didn’t think you’d mind.”

Anyway, after the meeting she swung by to apologize, and told me I was right that she shouldn’t keep playing the good girl who took care of the hungry boys.

The only other odd work request had happened years earlier.

Before I went back to business school, so I wouldn’t have to be a waitress, I did scut work in the economics department of a large bank.

At one point, my boss – the chief economist – decided that he’d have everyone work on some research on the New England economy, specifically, the New Hampshire economy. And that he was going to provide this research to a senator who was running in the Democratic primary for the presidential nomination.

Although this was post-Watergate, and people were growing a bit more conscious of what you could and couldn’t do for a political candidate, none of us gave second thought to preparing briefing materials for the good senator.

Until one day, when it dawned on one of the senior economists that this might not be a good – or even a legal – idea. (She was a Republican, so probably wanted to rat the big boss out for helping a Democrat.)

Anyway, she stopped by the bank president’s office and – so she told us – presented him with a hypothetical, what if situation.

The president was able to quickly interpret the hypothetical, and was told, “You tell J that he’s got 24 hours to get every piece of paper that mentions anything about working for the senator out of the bank.”

This was on a Friday, so us trusted troops were invited to work on Saturday, purging the files. We put them in cartons, taxied them off to the chief economist’s condo, and shoved them under his bed. He then made Tex-Mex food for all of us.

Those are my top two. I’m sure there are others – make that I know there are others – but I’ll save them for another day.


Thanks to my sister Trish for this idea.