Monday, December 24, 2007

Oh, Tannenbaum!

We have a pretty good sized living room, with 12 foot ceilings, and my usual Christmas tree runs about 6 1/2 - 7 feet, and about a foot higher once the topper tops it. But this year....


I got my tree from the same place as usual, but I phoned it in this year, and asked for a tree between 5 - 6 feet, figuring that with my right arm range of motion still being limited...

Anyway, I just got my tree a couple of days ago, and they "surprised" me with a behemoth for the price of a 5-6 foot tree.

I couldn't get a full shot without including things like my husband's napping feet, but this will give you an idea: this is one honkin' Christmas tree (by my standards, anyway).

Good thing I have about 250 cool ornaments accumulated over the years. And good thing the tree is a large (or, in Starbuckese, a "venti"), because I didn't do holly and and winterberry and greens this year, nor did I put out all of my decorations.

The important ones have made it out, of course, including:


Here, plastic Santa on reindeer with broken leg is artfully posed against a black backdrop, but in real life it goes in my kitchen. I'm not sure exactly when this one came into the family, but I'm guessing my parents got it for one of their first Christmases, and it's definitely got that late 1940's look and feel.

It wouldn't be Christmas without it. (Yes, the original is still the greatest.)

Unless I get ambitious - and, frankly, I don't feel much ambitious coming on - I will not be posting on Pink Slip until the New Year.

So, Happy Holidays (Chanukah - yes, I know it's over, Kwanzaa, Eid, Winter Solstice) - you can pick which ever one makes you merry and bright.

For me, it's Christmas. (And this year, it's white with a vengeance: we've already gotten 2 feet of snow in Boston.)

So, Merry Christmas to all.

And, to celebrate my bilateral ethnic heritage, here you go:

  • Nollaig Shona Duit
  • Froehliche Weihnachten

For a pretty exhaustive list of Christmas greetings around the world, here's a handy link. (And, yes, I had to cheat a bit. I knew the German, but only recall the "Nollaig" in Irish -  remnant of a failed effort to teach myself the native tongue from wayback.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Party Time

I've been invited to a client's holiday party, and it's actually one that I don't mind going to. The company is small, and the event it low key and not in the least "command performance," and I know and like all the people. It's held in the warm and wonderful home of the warm and wonderful CEO with his warm and wonderful wife and kids in attendance. And oh, yes, the food and wine will be great.*

But for the most part, I HATE COMPANY CHRISTMAS PARTIES, and it pained me to attend most of the ones I've gone to. (Being a large party hating introvert definitely informs my feelings here.) Too much buttering up, trashy behavior, politicking, loutishness. Too much pressure on all those poor spouses brought for show and tell purposes having to stand around listening to shop talk all night.

Not for me.

If I went at all, it was to make a guest appearance, float around a bit, eat a few shrimp, and flee into the cold, dark, winter night. (Although I will say that when the company was smaller, I tended to enjoy the parties - especially those years when they were held in January, after the holiday pressure had somewhat subsided.)

In any case, I would always have preferred the option of being given the dollar amount per capita. Unfortunately, that never happened.

So I was pleased to see a recent article  by Nicole Wong in the Boston Globe reporting on what some organizations are doing in lieu of the holiday party.

Still, it was heartening to see what some places were doing.

Instead of a party, Fallon Community Health is giving everyone Christmas Eve off. Fallon used to host a semiformal (ugh!) affair, but fewer than half of their employees were showing up. Rather than try to put the arm on people to attend - which I have seen happen - Fallon decided to give their employees something they could really use.

Lionbridge Technologies is running a potluck lunch. Last year, they took everyone out to The Chateau, an Italian restaurant near their Waltham offices where the house specialty is fried ravioli, which sounds disgusting but is actually quite good and a definite must if you ever get to one of the Chateaux, a small Massachusetts chain.

My brother-in-law works for a consulting firm that, on the day before Thanksgiving, holds a brown-bag lunch at which the long version of Alice's Restaurant is played - which strikes me as one of the more fun holiday traditions I've heard of.

According to a Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey of 100 HR execs cited in the article, more and more companies are making the parties employee-only: no more parading-of-the-spouses, no more dredging up a date. A lot more companies are holding the parties in the office, during the workday. (As I've always maintained, going to office party is work, so it should be held during normal business hours - or come with comp time.)

More companies are also doing away with alcohol - which is a lot easier to do when it's in the office during work hours, and which should solve a lot of par-tay related problems.

To those whose companies are giving them the day off, the $50 bucks per head, the in-the-office lunch: Congratulations! (Lucky you.)

To those who hate company parties, but whose companies continue to run the big be-there-or-else bashes: My condolences. (Better you than me.)

*This post was written pre-party. The party was Tuesday night, and I had a warm and wonderful time.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Here's a real treasure trove for you: Paleo Future

Don't even bother to read what I have to say about it.

Go immediately to Paleo Future and prepare yourself for a good, long browse.

What Matt@paleofuture has done is assemble all sorts of goodies on what folks in the past though the future would hold. You can check things out by decade, starting with the 1880's and moving on up through the 1990's.

I have by no means exhausted this site, but the gems that Matt has pulled together range far beyond the flying car. (Although there are, of course, plenty of them, as you can see from this nifty picture of the family helicopter as envisioned in 1947.

1947 helicopter by Alexis Lapteff

If I have any view of the future, I'm afraid to say that it's a dystopic one.

The earth will warm, the ocean waters will rise, and the flat of Beacon Hill - where I live - will be reclaimed by said ocean waters.

Extra taxes will be levied on non-Christians, with an extra-extra levy on non-churchgoers, who will not be allowed to vote. (In the words of Willard (Mitt) Romney: "Freedom requires religion.") Us pagans will, however, be given the option of accepting repatriation to decadent, secular humanist-run Europe.

The only books that are published will be those of Timothy LaHaye. Literary works will circulate a la Soviet era samizdat, and if the authors are caught, they'll be banished to an American gulag in the Nevada desert.

People will be jailed for uttering the sentence "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle."

I have spent so little time envisioning the fun aspects of the future.

So let me make up a bit of all that time lost fretting, and do a little imagineering about what might be available in the year 2020.

  • Complex, interesting, tasty and healthful freeze-dried meals will be available that take less than 30 seconds to prepare.
  • There will be a harmless hair coloring pill that you take once a year that produces the same natural, multi-hued impact as expensive every 8 weeks foils.
  • Clothing will automatically adjust to your body, so that you don't have to buy your pants a size or two larger than you need anywhere else when you really just need to get them to fit in the waist.
  • Cars will fold up into light-weight, wheeled carrying cases that you can easily tuck into your hall closet when you can't find a parking space.
  • When someone is talking on a cell phone in a public space, you will not hear their end of the conversation. ("I'm, like, walking down Charles Street right now. Like, where are you?") Or you will have the option of hearing both ends of the conversation.
  • Television - or home entertainment paradises - will be voice activated. No more searching through long and tedious online guides. You will be able to say, "I'd like to see the Dr. Kildare episode where he falls in love with Yvette Mimieux," and there it will be.

Hey, I could really get into this futurist stuff big time. My dystopic days are over. In fact, I'll be able to go into a book store and say, remove all Timothy LaHaye books from my sight, and they'll be gone.

Yep, I am so loving the future. Bring it on!


Thanks to my brother-in-law John for introducing me to Paleo Future.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Chicken (or, how I temporarily became a little old lady)

A few years before she died, I took my Aunt Margaret to visit an elderly cousin who was temporarily in a nursing home recovering from a fall. It was winter. The parking lot was icy. Margaret took my arm.

I was shocked.

Although Margaret was then in her early eighties, I always thought of her as being as sure footed as a mountain goat.

But, of course, she was getting old and a bit frail and she, no doubt, did not want to end up like Mary Hanratty in a nursing home with a broken hip.

Well, neither do I. Nor do I want to refracture my arm or do anything else to set back the steady but frustrating and overlong course of recovery I'm on.

Against my husband's advice, I went out during last week's ice storm for my PT appointment. Jim had salted our stairs and side walks, but I can't say the same for everyone else along my route from home to Mass General Hospital - which is generally about a 5-10 minute walk.

I crept along, ultra-cautious at the corners where the slush and ice had built up, not taking any chances at the walk-lights. (No jay walking for me!)

After the appointment, I crept back home and pretty much stayed put the rest of the day.

The weather stayed cold, and the streets and sidewalks didn't fully recover to their normal late fall danger combo of slick-brick-cum-wet-leaves. Icy patches were everywhere.

Later in the week, I took at cab to a client's, and asked him to pull up in a better spot to let me out. Spot number one was on an ice patch.

That night, I slowly made my way through the dimly lit streets of Beacon Hill to my friend Susan's. I generally like those dimly lit streets, the old-fashioned gas lamps casting their old-fashioned, exceedingly limited glow. Half way to Susan's, I found myself walking in the generally clear streets, rather than on the iced up brick sidewalks, wishing that I'd had the presence of mind to carry a flashlight.

I wondered whether I should see if LL Bean sells city crampons.

On Friday, we had a mini-ice storm.

I was at The Writers' Room of Boston when the storm struck. I had to go out and pick up some food etc. for The Room's holiday party.  The Sultan's, where I went for grape leaves and hummus, is just across the street, and I made it there with nary a slip up. But I also needed to get a bag of ice.

Normally, it would take me less than a minute to cover the ground between 111 State Street and the Store 24.

Why hadn't I asked one of the "younger folk" to go get the g.d. ice. I was just as happy to drink the soda warm, and I sure as hell wasn't going to have a glass of wine and chance the streets.

Creep, creep, creep....

After the party, my friend and neighbor Marilyn and I made our way home together. In front of the State House - a complete ice floe - I grabbed on to Marilyn's arm. Not only is Marilyn a fine writer, but she's also a nurse. And nearly my age. We laughed as we crept along on the ice. She told me that some show-off young whipper-snapper had passed her earlier in the evening, only to fall flat on his face. Hah!

Creep, creep, creep....

Saturday was supposed to be balmy.


My niece Caroline and I took the train to Salem to hunt in the Pickering Wharf antique shops a Yankee Swap gift for her to bring on Christmas Eve. (We found an excellent Yankee Swap item - one of several very good options. This is the first year that my nieces Molly (11) and Caroline (10) will be participating in the Yankee Swap*. We keep telling them that they can't get pissed off and snitty if they end up with something they don't want, although, in truth, the way we do our Yankee Swap almost everyone ends up with something they don't want. There may be an occasional offering that's useful or tasteful, but most of what gets put out there is in deliciously execrable taste - including the choice item Caroline found.)

When we got to Salem, I realized that the sidewalks there were still icy.

Creep, creep, creep.

After we found our treasure, we headed off to meet my sister Trish and her daughter Molly for lunch.

Creep, creep, creep.

I hooked on to Caroline's arm.

Caroline will still let me grab onto her hand when we cross a street, but in the last year or so, we no longer automatically hold hands when we're walking together. (Sigh!) She is, after all, 10 now.

The same is true with Molly. She is, after all, 11 now. (Sigh!)

And now, on the icy Salem sidewalks, how comforting it was to have my niece Caroline to hang on to, although I don't know how well someone who weighs - what? - eighty-five pounds was going to hold me up if I started to take a fall. But it felt good.

More bad weather this week.

More iced up sidewalks. (Why can't we just have a foot of snow and be done with it?)

Even where and when the sidewalks aren't iced up - which, earth to property owners/managers: if you don't shovel the sidewalk, all that nice fluffy snow gets packed down and turns to ice - half of the corners are so treacherous I find myself going into a crouch to navigate them.

I'm sure that, in a few months, I will be back to my sure footed, fast on my feet, nimble, jay-walking, mountain goatish ways.

I hope so, anyway.

The Sower 

But I have seen the future, where I am a little old lady, creeping along on the icy brick sidewalks of Beacon Hill, holding on to my niece's arm for dear life, or, perhaps, like the peasant in Millet's The Sower,  casting IceMelt (instead of grain) in front of me as I go. (In real life, I'll probably be crouched down, looking more like one of The Gleaners.)

The Gleaners-------------------------------

*You don't know what a Yankee Swap is? Look here to find out. A very fun idea for an office party, by the way, which is where I first participated in one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Partridge in a Pear Tree Index - 2007

Once again, PNC Wealth Management has published their annual Twelve-Days-of-Christmas index.

Once again - although for far fewer "once agains" that PNC has been putting together their index - Pink Slip is blogging on it. (Here's last year's link.)

This year, the cost of all the goods and services mentioned in The Twelve Days of Christmas will run you $19,507, up 3.1% over last year's amount.

Given all the luxury spending out there - personal submarines, McMansions, etc. - forking over less than $20K for the whole kit and caboodle seems like chump change. And it's not just an absolute bargain, it's a relative bargain. Last year's U.S. Consumer Price Index rose 3.5%, so the rise in cost of the Twelve Days package is trailing general inflation.

Rising commodity prices and an increase in the minimum wage are behind the increases.

Those five golden rings will set you back 21.5% more than last year.

The geese a laying went up 20% over last year, indicative of rising food prices, no doubt fueled by all those transport costs to haul cleaned, trussed, frozen no longer laying geese to market. Most other birds in the index - those that are not generally put on the table - didn't experience any cost increases, although calling birds - which are canaries (at least by proxy in the PNC index) - scooted up 25% in cost due to increased demand. (With our busy schedules, even cats must be getting to seem too high maintenance. Now a nice little canary....No, it can't cuddle up with you or lick your hand, but it's pretty darn near care-free.)

The 13.6% increase in the minimum wage is reflected in the cost of those eight maids a milking.  The maids a milking - the only unskilled workers in the index - would now make a whopping $5.85 an hour, which - based on a 40 hour work week - would compute to $234.

I don't know about you, but it seems to me that milking a cow is actually pretty darned skilled work. Either your hooking a cow up to a milking contraption, or you're pulling on a cow's teats while sitting on a stool trying to avoid a cow swishing at you with her tail, and while trying to avoid repetitive stress injury.

Not to mention it's pretty darned unpleasant work: cold, smelly, and boring.

Shouldn't that come with a premium?

If you want to make minimum wage, surely it would be cleaner, warmer, calmer, and brighter to don some Wal-Mart vest apparel and be a greeter. And I'm guessing that most places that have cows to milk also have a Wal-Mart within squirting distance.

Fortunately, the maids a milking are due for additional minimum wage hikes in 2008 and 2009.

(Meanwhile, they'd be better off moving to Massachusetts, where the minimum wage is $7.50. And where there are still a few - although not as many as there used to be - cows.)

Skilled workers - drummers drumming, pipers piping, lords a leaping - experienced increases of 3-4%. Wages stayed put for ladies dancing.

And not that women can't be drumming drummers or piping pipers, but doesn't the wage flatness for the dancing ladies suggest that irksome gender wage gap that doesn't seem to go away?

If the gifts are repeated to reflect how many times they're mentioned in the song -  12 partridges in a pear tree, 22 turtle doves, 30 french hens, 36 calling birds, 35 golden rings, etc. - the cost is $78,100.

Again, not all that much by super-luxe consumption standards, but, I'm guessing, nothing that PNC Wealth Management would advise its clients to spend on.

So, if you haven't yet figured out what to get for that True Love in your life, and you've got $19.5 (or $78.1) lying around, you might want to spring for the 12 Days of Christmas special.

But be warned, since you've left it go this long, and the weather outside is frightful in most of the country, you may need to order online. If that's the case, you'll have to spend a little extra for shipping and handling.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Idling at Harley-Davidson (Vroom, Vroom)

While I'm afraid I'm one of those nice girls born more to be mild than wild, I've always found Harley-Davidson an interesting company and as good a brand as you're going to find anywhere. (As they say, how many brands end up tattooed on the customers' biceps?)

I'm also a sucker for anything that's still Made in the USA.

And I just love a good layoff story.

Last September, Harley-Davidson, which has been experiencing a downturn in sales, announced that they were going to furlough workers in their Wauwatosa and Menomonee Falls Wisconsin,  Kansas City, and York PA plants for a week in late fall.

Here's what H-D did that was completely right:

  • They didn't lay-off a permanent part of their workforce. Rather than slow production and achieve savings by out and out firing people, they kept their workforce of 5,400 intact. In most places I've worked that had lay-offs, people would actually have preferred everyone take a relatively small hit, rather than have a minority take the ultimate hit. This isn't always feasible, but it's nice to see that there are some circumstances where it is - and that there are some companies willing to make it happen.
  • They gave their employees a couple of months notice that they were going to have an enforced week without pay. Let's face it, no one raises their hand for a 2 percent pay-cut, but if you have a head's up on when it's coming, you can put a few bucks aside, or forego some discretionary spending.
  • They continued benefits during the downtime, so employees didn't have to worry about hiccups in medical coverage.
  • They maintained good relationships with their employees and their union by being upfront and forthcoming.
  • A little over half of the furloughed workers were in Pennsylvania, and the downtime coincided with the opening of deer hunting season. For a lot of employees, that meant not having to take vacation days off.

Plus Harley-Davidson is running some ass-kicking, bad boy holiday ads that are a bracing antidote to most of the gloppy, sugar-rich advertising that plagues the airwaves this time of year.

At this point in time, what is not to like about Harley-Davidson? Doesn't this company really and truly deserve success?

Source for information contained in this post: AP article in Business Week online.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Just when we'll need them: driverless cars

Shortly before my mother died at the age of 81, she had made the decision that she was going to get rid of her car and stop driving. Never a comfortable driver to begin with - she didn't get her license until she was well in her forties - we were relieved and happy that Liz was going to get off the road.

Other adult children are not so fortunate. My brother-in-law had to drop a dime on his mother, anonymously reporting to the Pennsylvania Registry that they had a really bad driver on the loose. Fortunately, Rick's mother never learned that it was her son who caused her to have to re-apply for her license. She assumed it was one of several drivers she'd crashed into. And, fortunately, she failed the test before she did any real harm to herself or anyone else.

My Aunt Margaret - another driver who learned to drive in middle-age - stayed on the road until she died at 85. Most of her treks were local: church, Star Market, the library. But she would still drive from Newton to Worcester to visit my mother (who was nine years younger), well after my mother had sensibly signed off on driving on the Mass Pike. Aunt Margaret's classic RMV story: when she went for what turned out to be her final license renewal just prior to her 85th birthday, the registry clerk coached her on the vision test so that she could pass it. Yikes!

My Grandmother Wolf was another driver who should have been off the road well before she died at the age of 78.  Yet another of the family's later-in-life-licensees, Grandma once drove 50 miles out to my aunt's house, where she asked my uncle to check out the car because it wasn't running that well. It turned out that all four of her tires needed air - she was almost running on rims. And one of the great childhood adventures I remember was Grandma's ignoring the flashing lights at some rapid transit grade crossing on the North Side of  Chicago. We made it through, but the striped gate came crashing down on the trunk of her mint green 1957 Plymouth.

The above is not meant in the least to imply that only older female drivers should be off the road.  In my family, we just don't have a long history of older male drivers to compare them to. (I come from a long line of youngish widows.)

I don't imagine my Uncle Charlie would have aged into a great driver. One of the worst drivers I ever had the displeasure of riding with, Charlie, in my father's words, never drove fast enough to stir up a breeze.

One time, Charlie drove me from Boston to Worcester. This was a few weeks before my father died, so I was run down to begin with. I was also coming down with a stomach virus.

Charlie didn't drive fast enough to take the Mass Pike, so we did the stop-and-go on Route 9.

It was winter. I was sick. Charlie was chain smoking.

I lost whatever it was that was on my stomach at a red light somewhere in Framingham.

I have no idea what kind of old-age driver my father would have made. I remember him as being a pretty good driver. He was never in an accident - even a fender-bender - that I'm aware of. But he could be a hothead. When my sister Trish was little, she was standing in the back of the car during a ride, when some "young punks" jumped out in front of the car. My father slammed on the brakes, Trish slammed into the back of the front seat cutting her lip, and my father jumped out of the car to give chase to the young punks. (Al was then in his fifties and not far from death, but he was always quick to defend his kids.)

In any case, as the Baby Boomers age, we can look for the problem of aging drivers to worsen.

We are, after all, the first generation to grow up in an almost completely car-dependent world. There was a reason the women in the family didn't learn to drive as teenagers. Families were less apt to have cars to begin with. People lived in cities with public transportation. Groceries got delivered to your house. Your husband drove you places.

Not us.

Who among the Boomers wasn't itching to get that license the moment he or she turned 16?

And here we are, just a decade or two away from being on the road with slower reflexes, worse eyesight, and, in general, poorer driving skills.

Bring on the driverless car!

In The New York Times last week, John Tierney provided an update on driverless cars, which are, apparently, getting pretty good. (Note: this link may require a login.)

As Tierney points out, it's easy to laugh at the idea of driverless cars. I've done it myself, making fun of the cars that offer automated parallel parking.

But driverless cars...It all seems so Meet George Jetson. At the 1939 World's Fair, the "World of Tomorrow" predicted that we would all be cruising around in radio-controlled cars by 1960. Which, of course, didn't happen - although I do believe the push-button automatic was unleashed on the market just about then.

But smart cars, driverless cars, autopilot - whatever we want to call them - are coming.

For the last several years, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) - the boyos who helped bring you the Internet - have been holding driverless car challenges.

This year, a half-dozen cars completed a 60 mile course in real traffic situations, on an Air Force base. The empty cars had to park, idle, yield, merge, stop, go....There was one accident, but still...

“Within five years, it’s totally feasible to build an autonomous car that will work reliably in several limited domains,” says Sebastian Thrun, a computer scientist at Stanford and head of its racing team, which won the 2005 Darpa competition and finished second in last month’s. In five years he expects a car that could take over simple chores like breezing along an expressway, inching along in stop-and-go traffic, or parking in the lot at a mall or airport after dropping off the driver. In 20 years, Dr. Thrun figures half of new cars sold will offer drivers the option of turning over these chores to a computer, but he acknowledges that’s just an educated guess. While he doesn’t doubt cars will be able to drive themselves, he’s not sure how many humans will let them.

Five years. Ten years. Twenty years.

Looks like this will be perfect timing.

Just as the more sensible aging Boomers are taking themselves off the road, just as the sons and daughters of the less sensible Boomers are diming them, we'll have driverless cars.

I think it will take some getting used to.

Maybe they'll still equip cars with a steering wheel - like the little plastic ones that they used to suction-cup onto the dashboard so that a little kid could pretend to be driving.

Maybe they'll had a few switches for us to flip.

But the roads will certainly be safer with fewer people like my Grandmother Wolf on them, that's for sure.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Cold Case

I am a complete sucker for cop shows. Law and Order is my current fave, but I've been known to watch one or the other of the CSI's, the show about missing persons that stars Anthony LaPaglia, and - an especial favorite when I remember that it's on - Cold Case Files. Cold Case has an interesting little twist to it: when they open up a cold case, the action ratchets back and forth between present day and the time of the crime (complete with period music and atmospherics).

So the other evening when I heard on the news that a cold case in Worcester - the murder of an elderly woman - had been solved after nearly 25 years, I was immediately interested.

When I heard the headline teaser at the start of the 11 o'clock news, I wondered whether this was the case of Mrs. Johnson, who had lived in the neighborhood I grew up in. (She was no longer living there at the time of her death.) I was long gone from Worcester in 1984, but I remember my mother telling me the story about how Mrs. Johnson had opened her door and was murdered.

When the news item came on, there she was, pictured on the screen. Mrs. Lillian Johnson, with the same short, flippy-curly hairdo and kind smile that I remembered.

It turns out that the police had hung on to a blood sample found at the crime scene, and were able to match it to the person who had murdered Mrs. Johnson.

It's hard to imagine who would have murdered this nice old lady - she was nearly 80 when she was killed - but now we know. And it must be a comfort for her family to know that they finally got the guy.

Let's hear it for forensic technology.

Mrs. Johnson...

Until I was six-and-a-half, my family lived on the second floor of my grandmother's three-family house. (My grandmother refused to call it a three decker because the house didn't have a flat roof like most triple deckers did. Instead, the third floor flat had all sorts of weird rooms with short, slanted ceilings.) Our street had an assortment of modest one-, two- and three-family houses on it (including genuine triple deckers), and several of the multi-family houses were inhabited, like ours, by members of the same extended family. (By the way, when we did move into a single family house, it was on the next street, maybe a hundred yards away from my grandmother's house. We definitely stayed in the 'hood.)

Mrs. Johnson lived two houses down from our house, in a triple-decker that also had a flat occupied by Mrs. Johnson's aunt, Miss Anderson.

As kids, we were quite familiar with who lived where, and what sort of welcome we might expect when we showed up on their doorstep. Children in my era were pretty much free-range, and when we were bored, our little pack of three, four and five year olds would call on one of the houses that was inhabited by older folks - those with no children or much older children. (Or we would call on one of the teen-age brides who occasionally took up occupancy in one of the flats on our street. They were a little too young to pal around with the more established mothers, and I think they liked the diversion we offered from being cooped up all day with a squalling infant.) Not all of the neighbors put out a welcome sign; there were some scary grouches out there. But mostly, people seemed happy to see us when we rang their bell.

The Anderson-Johnson house was one of our top stops.

For one, they had a big conch shell on their porch, the clever hiding place for the skeleton key to the front door. No one seemed to mind our taking turns listening to the ocean in that conch shell, as long as we left the key underneath it.

Mrs. Anderson, who I believe was Mrs. Johnson's aunt - in any case, she was an older woman -  would often come out to chat with us. Sometimes she gave us candy, sometimes she gave us nickels. (Both were better than what Mrs. Hurley gave us once: graham crackers slathered with what I remember as mayonnaise, but which may have been margarine. Whatever it was, I remember tossing my cracker into her hedges.)

Mrs. Johnson was, if I remember correctly, a widow, and I think she worked. But she was always very kind to the neighborhood kids.

The main attraction of the Johnson household was her son, Bobby, who was quite a bit older than we were - maybe 15 years or so - but who would let us hang out with him when he mowed the lawn, or washed the car, or did whatever it was that big boys did around the yard. He would always take time out to play catch with us. My brother Tom idolized Bobby Johnson, and I had a big crush on him, too.

His affinity for kids translated into his professional life, as I learned when my mother sent me an article in the newspaper when he became the principal of the neighborhood public school. (We attended public school for kindergarten-only, but my father and his siblings were Gates Lane School grads.)

Bobby Johnson...

I hope that he and his brother lived to see their mother's murderer found.

What a nice family they were.

I think of the open and trusting world Mrs. Johnson lived in. A gentler world in which people left their house keys under conch shells, in which three and four year olds roamed free - three and four year olds whose parents thought nothing of their little ones calling on neighbors' houses and hanging around with those neighbors' nearly grown sons who probably just wanted to catch a tan in their backyard.

Although my mother would mention the case once in a while, I haven't thought of Mrs. Johnson all that often. I suspect that the last time I ever spoke with her was at my father's wake in 1971. But I have thought of her on those occasion when an older person is killed, senselessly and viciously, in their home.

How terrible that Mrs. Johnson died because she trusted that whoever was knocking on her door would cause her no harm. How terrible that her last moments were likely lived in fear and confusion, rather than in ease and tranquility - hearing the ocean in conch shell.

How good that they have finally caught up with her murderer.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Congressman Markey's Avatar

I was intrigued by yesterday's Boston Globe headline informing us that "A likeness of Markey will address climate change meeting."

Well, I'm not going to get in a quibble over whether the likeness will actually be doing the addressing, or whether Congressman Ed Markey himself will be doing the addressing while what appears on screen for the delegates enjoyment if not edification will be the likeness. It's only a headline, after all.

In any case, since Markey couldn't be in Bali for the international conference on climate change - he had to stay in Washington to push for enactment of the energy bill - he decided to participate via Second Life.

Thus he needed to create an avatar (delicately headlined as "a likeness").

While he is not my representative in Congress, Markey is someone that I genuinely like and admire. He tends to be good on the issues I care about, like global warming,

And I certainly laud his decision to attend the Bali conference virtually - that much less jet fuel despoiling the environment, etc.

But why attend via Second Life?

Why not participate using widely available video conferencing technology (which, like Second Life, works over the Internet), in which you get to see the real people talking, not their avatars? Is attending via Second Life more environmentally responsible? Less of a carbon footprint?

Why else - other than the sheer trendiness of it - go as an avatar, rather than as yourself?

This is Ed Markey:

Ed Markey ...or at least that was what he looked like a few years back. (This is the picture posted on his web site.) Ed Markey is 61 now, but I did see him at a fund-raising dinner for St. Francis House a couple of years ago, and he looks pretty good - he's still got the boyish good looks thing going. And this photo is recognizably him.

This is Congressman Ed Markey's avatar:

Markey Avatar

Hmmmm. Not so recognizably Ed Markey.

In fact, I'd say the avatar is downright creepy and weird. (But I pretty much feel that way about avatars in general.)

Markey will deliver his speech from a computer in Washington tonight and an animated 3-D version of himself will address the conference over a computer screen at the Bali meeting. Markey's avatar, dressed in a dark blue suit, white shirt, and green tie, will walk around a computerized version of the Bali conference scene as he speaks.

Markey is no doubt a geek at heart - another one of his principal concerns has long been technology - so he may be getting a kick out of the "cool factor". (Although I must ask whether there can there be any cool factor left on Second Life if 61 year old Congressmen have avatars hanging out there? I mean, I know he's a Democrat, and he is from Massachusetts, and us Baby Boomer Massachusetts Democrats have cool factor going and coming. Still...)

"We've long ago left the world of rotary phones as the exclusive means of communication," Markey told the Globe yesterday. "This makes it possible to create through the virtual world what would be impossible to accomplish in the real world because Bali is one of the remotest locations in the world, and Congress is in session still working on an historic energy bill."

Good luck to Congressman Markey - or his likeness, or his avatar - with the speech. It's obviously important, and let's hope that the delegates don't find the delivery medium off-putting or distracting.

In some frames, it also appears that his onscreen doppelganger has a fairly extensive combover.

Well, at least Markey didn't go for an avatar that makes him look like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt.

I guess the avatar combover is all the more reason to like Ed Markey.

As I said, I don't live in his district. But if I did, I'd surely vote for Ed Markey.

Since I don't, well, I guess I'll just have to get me an avatar and have my avatar vote for his avatar.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Punching Out: Where will you be spend eternity?

Well, yesterday it was all about Punching In, today it's all about what's happening after that one final punch out.

I guess it's just not enough for the rich, nouveau and otherwise, to spend on personal submarines, $8K pocketbooks, $100 bottled water.

No, the rich aren't all superficial like that. They're not all into in the moment, show-off, instant here-on-earth gratification. Some of them are spending on goods that they may actually not get much pleasure out of at all.

No, they're going in for their own private mausolea. (Hey, four years of Latin does come in handy.) Or columbaria (which is what you call a mausoleum built for ashes, not moldering bodies).

Or so we learn from a recent Boston Globe article by Tania deLuzuriaga, A Place to Die For.

The subject of the article was one Thomas Hudson, Jr., a hedge fund manager who runs something called Pirate Capital - which is probably as close to truth in advertising as any hedge fun will ever get.  (And, ahoy, maties, you can link to Pirate Capital but you can't get very far into the treasure chest without signing up as a customer. Not a plank I'm ready to walk.)

In any case, Thomas Hudson, Sr. died suddenly last year. While he was apparently a modest man - according to his son, he "wouldn't have spent a dollar on flowers."

But Thomas Hudson, Jr.

..."wanted to do something substantial," he said in a phone interview. "At the same time, I started thinking about my own mortality."

Something substantial turned out to be:

...the 400-square-foot Roman Doric structure he ordered constructed of 450,000 pounds of Vermont granite features 17-foot high cathedral ceilings, brass doors, and a stained glass depiction of The Last Supper. Flanked by hand-carved stone lions and set amid shrubbery, it is the biggest, most ornate memorial in sight.

Something substantial, it is estimated, costs around $1m. Maxed out, it will provide for permanent housing for 200 persons. Or ex-persons.

Mausoleums and ostentatious memorials are, of course, nothing new. Older cities in the Northeast all have cemeteries that are beautiful, park like, and full of nifty stone houses where nobody's home. In Boston, we have Forest Hills and Mt. Auburn.  Forest Hills is the final resting place of e.e. cummings, Anne Sexton, Eugene O'Neil, William Lloyd Garrison, and Lucy Stone, among others.  Mt. Auburn hosts and boasts Mary Baker Eddy, Edwin Booth, McGeorge Bundy, Felix Frankfurter, Edwin Land, Buckminster Fuller, Curt Gowdy, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, Amy Lowell, and dozens of other luminaries.

Not all of these folks have big-time mausolea, but some do. And most of the mausolea were built then. This is now.

And, according to the Globe article, there's been a recent upsurge in splashy housing for remains and cremains. (And, let's face it, it is certainly more seemly to have your ashes in a nice, solid granite structure than, say, scattered around the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland.)

Of course, since it is now, not then, there's a McMansion-esque aspect to the latest in mausolea. At least in the case of the Hudson memorial building, which is said to "dwarf" the other, more modest addresses in that cemetery.

But Hudson, apparently, likes to live, or after-live, large.

"I did it first out of respect for my dad," he said. "And second, out of fear of where I might go."

Well, Tom, I think we all have fear about where we might go, but I don't think building a 400 square foot mausoleum is going to answer that question.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Punching In

In the 1970's, Haverford College President John Coleman went undercover, working at low-end jobs. He wrote about his journey to the "other side" in Blue Collar Journal: A College President's Sabbatical. During his time off, Coleman worked as a laborer: garbage man, ditch digger, and kitchen boy at Boston's Union Oyster House.  I had spent a summer waitressing at the Oyster House within a year or two of when Coleman worked there, so I read the Oyster House section with avid interest.

While at the Oyster House, Coleman was a salad maker where he must have replaced Willie Plummer, who was always smoking a cigar (Yes! while making salads), and muttered to me (and presumably all the other waitresses) every time we approached his station to order a shrimp cocktail or a side salad.

What he invariably muttered to me was, "I had a dream about you last night, Marlene, we was making love." (I may have been one of Willie's dream girls, but he never got my name straight.)

I knew pretty much all of the "characters" Coleman encountered there, and could easily translate the waitress he called "Myrtle" into the wonderful Bertha White, etc.

Fast forward a few decades, and Barbara Ehrenreich tried to make a living at Wal-Mart, as a Merry Maid, and at a couple of other scratch-out-an-existence jobs that I can't recall. Her efforts produced the brilliant Nickled and Dimed, which so eloquently chronicled just what it's like to be among the working poor.

Which brings us to Punching In, in which business journalist Alex Frankel spends time in a handful of businesses known for their distinct  corporate culture, and gives us a view into how those cultures are created and enforced.

Over the course of a few years, Frankel put in stints at UPS, Enterprise Car Rental, the Gap, Apple iStores, and Starbucks. In two of these situations - UPS and Enterprise - Frankel worked with folks who were for the most part intent on forging careers at the company. Most (although not all) of those he encountered on the retail side held a more temporary relationship to their place of work.

At UPS - a company that Frankel comes off admiring - everyone starts out as a man (or woman) in brown, working their way up to a management role, or content to stay on the truck (which, while a somewhat stressful way to make a living, does afford people the opportunity to make a reasonably decent living). Up through the ranks is a key element of the UPS culture - as is the brown uniform, which the drivers Frankel works with manage to personalize by combining all sorts of logo ware.

UPS folks do take the uniform seriously.l

Years ago, at my company's user group, one of our customer-presenters was from UPS. He was in the IT department but, like everyone else, had started out as a delivery guy. When he gave his presentation, he wore his brown uni.

Frankel presents UPS as a company that combines state-of-the-art technology on the back end with a decidedly old-fashioned front end: those fuddy-duddy uniforms, the retro-trucks, and the personalized service in which everyone seems to know the UPS guy on their route. (When my aunt died, the UPS guy came to her wake.)

Frankel makes an interesting side trip to UPS "package central" in Tennessee. This section doesn't fit all that well organically in the book - and, in fact, occurred while Frankel was working as a journalist, not as a seasonal UPS helper. There we see just how UPS processes such a staggering number of packages in the course of a day. Impressive.

At Enterprise, Frankel actually manages to get himself accepted into a management training program. Here we find that Enterprise is one of the largest hirers of college grads - 7,000 a year, can that be right? - most of whom, of course, will NOT end up on the track to a six-figure income but who will, instead, get burned out by the crappy pay, the 60 hour weeks, and the relentless pressure to sell insurance to car renters who neither need nor want it.

Unlike Enterprise and UPS, the retail jobs Frankel held are not so much careers as places that, for the most part, people work while in school, just out of school, in between "real" jobs. 

On the retail side, Frankel sees Gap as a spent brand that may have created business casual, but has lost itself since. Starbucks is caught between its homey desire to be the "third space" for its customers - the place you hang out that's not home or work - and its corporate mandate to open a new store every ten feet, and every ten seconds. Working at Starbucks during a busy time sounds like something out of Modern Times - or Lucy Ricardo working in the chocolate factory.  (One of the worst aspects of low paid service jobs is that they're not all that easy. At Starbucks, the provision of benefits to everyone who puts in over 20 hours somewhat makes up for it.)

The iStores come off as the best place to be on the retail side. Apple hires Apple-aficionados only, and thus has a ready supply of employees who have already bought into the cool, techie Apple culture.

Also telling, of the five companies Frankel worked at, I believe that Apple is the lone one in which there's no mention of some sort of corporate "quality police"/"spies" - my words, not Frankel's - who come around in disguise to see whether the store's clean, the merchandise neat, the service workers polite, the drivers where they're supposed to be. Apparently, with Apple's ability to hire zealots who hang out in the back room tech talking when they're not at work, there's a lot less need to put mechanisms in place to make sure that the salesclerks are nice to the customers.

In pretty much all of his jobs, Frankel is a fish out of water - not so much that he is clearly well-educated and from a seemingly more elite background than most of his fellow-workers - but because, as a self-employed writer, he's pretty much a loner who's never goint to buy into the enforced rituals, hokey rewards, and camaraderie that strong-culture organizations tend to provide. He doesn't have to. Maybe not at the end of the day, but at the end of the self-enforced stint at each of his punching-in jobs, Frankel gets to go back home to his real professional life. For a lot of his colleagues, that not-so-hot job is their real professional life. So while Frankel may not care if he ever gets awarded a green apron pin at Starbucks, but there are no doubt plenty of Starbuckers who'd covet one.

And, by the way, for those of you who fantasize that you'll always be able to fallback on a job at a store that at least vaguely interests you, Frankel failed to get hired at The Container Store, Home Depot, and Whole Foods.  A word of warning to anyone who thinks they're going to game those online tests. There's a whole industry out there that builds those tests used to weed out undesirables.

Frankel is at his best when he's reporting on the telling little details that mark the daily grind - the little things that sometime creating a truly oppressive atmosphere and sometimes alleviating the god-awful tedium.  I went numb just reading the description of the perpetual sweater and jeans folding at Gap - all while listening to an endless, dreadful Muzak loop. (Definite flashbacks to my retail days.) On the other hand, at Enterprise you get those nice little mini-breaks when you fetch a customer at the car dealership where their ride's getting repaired.

Having worked at my share of crapoid jobs, I enjoyed Punching In. From an editorial point of view, I would have made the book either tighter (more closely knitting in a thesis on corporate culture) or looser (make each chapter more of a discrete article, which some of them, in fact, seem to be). I would also have liked more insight into the career aspirations of the many people Frankel encountered along the way. We do hear from some (Jimmy at UPS, Nate the Natural at Enterprise), but I would have liked to learn more across the boards about the relationship that the workers held to their jobs.

But for anyone who's bitching about their job, threatening to pack it in and go work at "whatever", or who's ever asked themselves what it's like to deliver those packages, push that insurance, fold those khakis, pull those venti lattes, or worship those Apples -Punching In would make a good Christmas gift

Friday, December 07, 2007

Hotels after my own heart

When we travel, one of the things my husband is most concerned with is the size of the hotel room. Even if we're going to spend almost every waking hour outside of the hotel, Jim wants walking around room, breathing room, living room. None of this having to walk sideways to maneuver between the bed and the closet. None of this "everything within reach".

When we're traveling together, I'm down with that, too. Nothing will drive me nuts faster than listening to him carp about the size of the room.

And I will admit that we've stayed in a couple of hotel rooms that were just too damned small for two people.

One, on Achill Island in the west of Ireland, was so small that you had to go through some odd crouch-on-the-bed contortion to open the bathroom door, and the bathroom was so small you had to sit on the toilet sideways. (Size was not the only problem we had with this place. It hadn't been rehabbed since - maybe - 1954, had damp nylon sheets, and our room looked out on a small field that contained rusting appliances and a braying donkey. Achill Island, however, was quite beautiful, and I do believe that the hotel gave us a better sense of the Real Old Ireland - pre-Celtic Tiger prosperity - than most of the places we've stayed have.)

For Jim, one of the best things he can find out about a hotel room is it's square footage. A lot of hotels seem to provide that now, which is great for Jim.

Left to travel on my own, however, I'm all small is beautiful.

I have, in fact, stayed in hotels where the rooms were scarily large.

Once, in Cleveland, I stayed at a suites hotel that was as big as our condo. It had a living room, dining room, full kitchen, and bedroom. There were two separate entrances, which I barricaded with the dining room chairs. I also think I was the only one staying on the floor. The hotel was perfectly nice, but I found this all pretty creepy.

Another time, in Atlanta, I was put in the living room portion of the presidential suite. It must have been about 2000 square feet, with all sorts of socializing areas and wet bars. The bed was a pull out couch in a sunken living room. I got into bed with a bag of M&M's and a book and read myself to sleep, completely wigged out by the wide open spaces around me.

As a solo traveler, I'd definitely be a candidate for the new small-is-beautiful hotels that are emerging. According to a recent article in The Economist (November 17), European hoteliers are taking a page from those Japanese capsule hotels and coming up with versions of their own. The new hotels are quite a bit larger than the Japanese hotels that aren't much bigger than the drawer in a morgue.

But they are tiny: bed (maybe even a Murphy bed), flat-screen TV, shower and toilet. Add wi-fi, and what more does anyone need or want?

There's one in NYC, too, the Pod Hotel. One third the size of a standard American hotel, but a complete steal at $89 for a single - although I think that means with a shared bathroom. The prices I saw were more in the $150-190 range. But, still, those rates are well within steal range when you consider New York heading into the Christmas season, and when you think of New York overrun with exchange rate rich Europeans who think nothing of paying $600 for a room - chump change!


If and when I take my next solo trip, I will keep the minimalist hotels in mind. As long as a place is quiet, clean, and safe, to me size doesn't matter.

I really like the look of the Pod, although from the pictures I am definitely older and extremely less hip than their clientele - so I'd have to worry about the quiet. (I'm probably more a candidate for the hotel they used to be: something quaintly called the Pickwick Arms.)


My affinity for small, cozy spaces apparently goes back a long way. My mother used to tell me that when she was in labor with me, the doctor told her that I was apparently trying to move in the wrong direction in the birth canal. Hankering for small places, or first indication that I was never going to have much of a sense of direction? You decide.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Gum Chewers

Years ago, when I was in business school, some people from Arthur D. Little came and spoke to one of my classes. The folks that came were from some sort of olfactory division which, among other things, did consulting on what dog food should smell like. They told us that the aroma of dog food is intended for the human wielding the can opener, not for the dog.

Next time I was at my mother's, I tested the hypothesis. When I opened a can of Alpo beef stew for Grimbald - which did actually smell like yummy beef stew - I took a bite. Blah. Blech. No flavor whatsoever. At least not to me. Grimbald didn't mind - he just wolfed it down. (While I was at it, I also took a bite of a DogBone biscuit. Again, no taste and this time I nearly broke a tooth.)

I thought of this when I saw an article in The New York Times on Cadbury's New Jersey Center of Excellence, which has in its employ a number of professional gum chewers.

Ah, gum!

I'm not a major gum chewer, but I've chewed plenty over the years.

As a kid, my favorite was Beechnut Peppermint, the one that came in the yellow wrapper. It was what my father chewed, and he would regularly split a stick in two or three - depending on how many kids he was divvy it up among - for us to share.

Beechnut was also the gum that advertised on the Saturday night edition of American Bandstand, which  - if I've got this memory straight - was a straight-up concert, rather than a dance party like the daily show. In any case, I remember watching all those ultra cool teenagers in the audience clapping and chanting, "Who chews Beechnut spearmint gum? We chew Beechnut spearmint gum."

(It was a kinder, gentler era.)

Once I became a gum purchaser on my own nickel, I favored Teaberry, Dentyne, and - for a ghastly while - Juicy Fruit.

For a while, I pledged allegiance to Beechnut Stripes, the sour-fruit gum. ("Yipes. Stripes. Beechnut's got it. Yipes. Stripes. Beechnut gum. Yipes. Stripes. Five fruity flavors.  Get Beechnut fruit-striped gum.")

(It was a kinder, gentler era.)

Sometimes I chewed Wrigley's. Sometimes I chewed Chiclets. Sometimes I chewed Bazooka, which had the major benefit that you could blow bubbles with it, not to mention that you got to make fun of the hopelessly outdated Bazooka Joe cartoons that hadn't changed since the Spanky and Our Gang era. Nobody that I know of actually chewed the flat, brittle gum that came with Topps baseball cards. You could split your lip on a shard, plus it had a weird taste.

Now, on the rare occasion I buy gum, it tends to be Trident.

But nobody pays me to chew it, which is unlike the folks at the Cadbury Schweppes Sciences and Technology Center who test out new product ideas.

While it might seem that being a gum tester is as simple as, say, chewing gum and walking at the same time, apparently only 10 percent of the US population

...have palates discriminating enough to distinguish between strawberry flavors that are, say, green, gritty or jammy and nearly 70 other ingredients in a typical piece of Bubblicious, Dentyne or Trident. Tasters must also succinctly convey their findings and resist being swayed by their colleagues’ opinions.

Hundreds of people apply for jobs as testers, and the few that pass the rigorous screening process have "undergo six months of training to learn the scales, terminology and measurement techniques used to evaluate products." The tasters now working at Cadbury include retirees, students, artists, and moms.

And make no mistake: this is serious business. The gum, mint, and breath freshener market is worth over $5 billion. Chew on that, why don't you?

And why all this attention to taste? Because, unlike other foods where nutrition factors in, with gum it's all about the flavor.

And that flavor is a lot mightier than it once was:

“Today’s gums were not what they used to be,” said Maura Titone, the sensory support leader who runs another group of panelists. “Ten years ago, we didn’t chew for 30 minutes. Now you can chew that long because there is better flavor technology.”

Among the flavors the testers have tested: menthol and pina colada. Be on the lookout!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

It's not just a bot, it's a fellow creature

We got the latest Sharper Image catalog last week, and they're urging us to shop for bots, leading off with the Jurassic pet, PLEO Life Form, which, they tell us, is ready for adoption. Pleo

I'll be the first to admit that this little, er, life form is mighty cute, with its:

...large, expressive, soulful eyes; nubbly organic skin; vocalizations of snuffles, snorts, honks, and coos; and more than 200 realistic biomorphic movements...

And PLEO is more than just another pretty dinosaur baby-face.

PLEO seems to feel and show emotion; he is aware of himself and his surroundings; and he evolves over time as he learns from countless interactions with his environment and with fellow creatures.

Oh, Brave New World!

Is a $349.95 PLEO Life Form by Ugobe really a fellow creature?

Cute, yes. Fun, yes. Funny, yes. Interesting, wildly - given that, we are told, "PLEO develops his own distinct personality, largely based on how he's treated and raised."

So, maybe this is a good thing. People can do nature vs. nurture experiments in their own living room without having to involve actual living, breathing children.

But what about those qualifiers:

A well-loved and nurtured PLEO may become outgoing and playful, while an oft-neglected PLEO may grown up more timid and reserved.

May become outgoing? May become timid and reserved?

You mean I can be really, really nice to my little PLEO and still find it's the bad seed? Could it turn Jeffrey Dahlmer and actually go after me?

And if I get of all those limb, eye, tail, neck, and head biomorphic movements under foot, and give the thing a good, swift kick in its biomorphic arse, it may still grovel over to me to lick my hand? Or turn into a sort of Jurassic Mother Theresa caring for PLEOs, fellow bots, and fellow creatures (goldfish, parakeet, rugrat)?

PLEO's are emotional little beasts, that's for sure,

...capable of expressing a wide range of emotions - happiness, sadness, anxiety, curiosity, moodiness, surprise, and love.

No, no, no-dee-no-no they aren't.

PLEO's can be programmed to mimic the expression of emotions. But unlike, say, a pet or an actual human, they can't actual express a true emotion. And, although I am a complete anthropomorphist - if there is even such a word - in my belief that many of our friends in the animal kingdom have rich, complex and interesting lives, with which (or whom) you can develop a rich, complex, and interesting emotional connection (at least on your side), they're not humans.

And a PLEO is one step removed from this equation: they're not even animals.

You will be amazed at how quickly you establish an emotional bond with this little creature; you will bask in the warmth of his wonderful companionship.

I can certainly see that there could be circumstances in which a PLEO would "break through" to someone with mental illness or some sort of emotional disorder in a way in which human beings or garden-variety animals could not. But I'd only resort to PLEO if those possibilities were exhausted.

And as for it being a "super smart" doll or stuffed animal? (Which is not in the "positioning" but is certainly implied.) Aren't kids better off using their imagination on an object that's more inert - and in their complete emotional and intellectual control?

Other than that, if you have $349.95 (plus S&H) so that you can amaze yourself with the cool technology and the "how do they do that's?", well, that's one thing.

But it's a pretty sad state of affairs if someone has to order a Life Form from Sharper Image so that you can "establish an emotional bond" with it. Just another ersatz, derivative "experience" for us to consume.

I hate to be such a downer before the holidays and all, but selling points are getting creepier and creepier. Is this the way the world ends, not with a bang but with the whimper of a PLEO Life Form?


If you'd like to read last year's crank on animatronics, here's my rant on Butterscotch the Pony.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Winners & Losers: Timothy Elliott Plays the Lottery

Last week, The Boston Globe reported on a Cape Cod hard luck case whose ship finally came in - only to find that it may have to be scuttled.

Timothy Elliott is a 55-year-old bank robber who looks like Santa Claus, but who may end up getting Scrooged.

Last week, he scratched a lottery ticket and won $50,000 a year for the next twenty years.

Unfortunately, when he pled guilty to unarmed robbery last year, one of the conditions of his parole was that he do no gambling. Included among the things verboten: buying lottery tickets.

It is likely the proviso against gambling stemmed from Elliott's defense that his gambling jones led him to rob banks.  Part of his probation agreement stipulated that he get mental health counseling - by inference, for his gambling addiction.

Getting hooked on gambling is something that I know with absolute certainty will never happen to me.

The few times I've been to casinos, it's been with a roll of quarters for the slots. Roll used up? Night's over.

Given the nature of slot machines, a roll of quarters can last you a couple of hours, but it's been known to last a couple of minutes. So be it.

I've been to the track a few times, but I'm strictly a $2 on the horse whose name I like bettor.

As for the lottery, I play occasionally, especially when the prize is sizable. I buy my quick-pick number and spend a day or so fantasizing about what a Lady Bountiful I'd be if I won. Then I forget I have the ticket, until I find it a few weeks later. And when I check the ticket I'm lucky if I have one matching number, let alone six. Easy come, easy go.

But I do see people in the grocery store, the 7-11, and at Bob's locksmith kiosk in downtown Boston, where I usually buy my losing tickets, who are spending big bucks on all sorts of games. And some of the folks shelling out $50, $100, $200 on tickets don't look like they have two nickels to rub together - or even one nickel to rub their scratch tickets with.

So I get that people get hooked on gambling - and there's obviously worse ways to get hooked on gambling than buying scratch tickets, e.g., making large sports bets with leg-breaking bookies.

Who knows what it was with Elliott, but it was obviously something ample enough to cause him to try to rob a bank over.

Now he's facing a hearing for violating his probation. What could happen? Word on the street is that he could be thrown into prison for said violation and/or not be allowed to keep his lottery winnings.

Both of these seem like pretty terrible outcomes, especially for a middle aged guy with what can only be exceedingly limited career prospects, given his record.

If I were the judge, I'd make sure that Elliott knows he needs to stay in counseling. I'd then let him keep the money - he bought the scratch ticket, he didn't steal it - but I'd make someone else the guardian of the funds, at least for a few years - maybe for the entire 20 year run of the lottery pay out. 

I believe I heard that Elliott is homeless. $35K (the yearly after tax amount) isn't a lot of money, but it could certainly pay for a modest apartment and cover modest expenses. The guy clearly could use some help, so, rather than leave him out there on his own, have some social service agency find a place for him. Ideally, it would be in a supportive environment where ex-cons, recovering addicts, and others who need help reintegrating - or integrating for the first time - into society can find the help they need. Including help with finding a job, because at 55, Timothy Elliott needs to find something to do with himself, paid or unpaid, that doesn't involve gambling.

Of course, there aren't a lot of places like this around. Which is too bad. Because there are a lot of people who are down and out, people who've had bad luck and, yes, made bad choices, who need a break.

When you talk to homeless folks about what they want, they all pretty much say the same things: a place to live and a job. (The only ones I've heard say different are severely mentally ill and off their meds.) Timothy Elliott may not need all that much of a job, but like everyone else he needs a place to live.

I do not pretend to know the full story on this fellow's life and life in crime. But living in prison doesn't sound like a great alternative for a 55-year-old gambler who maybe just needs some support to make it on the outside.

Timothy Elliott has something that homeless people - and, let's face it, pretty much all of us - dream about: some free money coming their way. This may be the worst thing in the world that can happen to someone who's addicted to gambling, but it's happened to Timothy Elliott.

Maybe I'm a romantic here, but it seems to me that with a bit of support, this windfall could provide the foundation for a new and better life for Elliott.

Wouldn't it be a kick in the teeth if he found himself back in prison - and out the $1 million - because of it?

Monday, December 03, 2007

David Maister's Strategy & The Fat Smoker

Occupational hazard, I suppose, but I read a fair number of business books.

I tend to avoid the purely theoretical and academic ones. They're easy enough to spot: the titles aren't that catchy and they contain text-booky things that look like IS/LM curves.

I'm also not wild about the "here-are-ten-thinly-disguised-case-studies-from-my-consulting-practice-that-my-assistant-has-strung-together," which I may get conned into picking up by a reasonably catchy title. Not that it matters, but when the true company names are masked, I always spend my time trying to figure out if Deutsche Motors is BMW or Mercedes. (And I don't cheat by looking at the author's bio to find out that "Mr. Blow's clients include Bank of America, Monsanto, and BMW, among others.") And since the examples tend to be mega-firms, while I tend to be working in and for mini-firms, I have a hard time identifying with the problems or the solutions to begin with.

I also hate the clever, skinny little big type books - "Toe Nail Clippers and the Art of Management" - that seem designed as credibility boosters and handouts that get tacked on to the bill for the big off-site that the consultant runs.

On title alone, David Maister's Strategy and the Fat Smoker might sound like it would fall into this latter category, but that's not the case at all.

Instead, it's a very interesting and insightful approach to "the strategy question", one that draws on Maister's personal and professional experience and includes a few real, live actual tools that people can apply to help ensure that their strategy will work (e.g., tools for defining yourself as a manager, and tools for deciding the attributes you want and need in an executive).

For starters, Maister's title is derived from his decision - forced on him by companion health problems - to lose weight and give up smoking. While he doesn't advocate that a company wait until it's in jeopardy to do something about its ill health, hey, it happens. The point Maister makes is that successfully implementing a strategy, like getting and staying healthy, depends on a permanent commitment to a lifestyle change.

If you're not willing to make the lifestyle change, Maister writes, "there is no shame in aiming for competence if you are unwilling to pay the price for excellence.  But don't try to mislead clients, staff, colleagues or yourself." (Maister works with professional services organizations, and Fat Smoker is aimed primarily at them. Most of the material, however, can be generalized across other types of business.)

Maister devotes part of the book to the importance of saying "no". Having lived through this many times, I know first hand that some people balk at the notion of any strategy that seems to limit opportunity.  Thus, you find that people stay "on strategy" some of the time, while at the same time being perpetually willing to veer off course when there's a big deal, or a name brand prospect, or some other glittery, distracting object on a nearby path. Not the way to succeed. Sticking with a sound strategy may seem limiting, but it's actually liberating.

There's also some very good advice on setting up a binding set of rules that apply to your strategy - what you will and won't do. If you can't come up with a rule set that you're willing to be governed by, well, guess what? You don't got no strategy, because "strategy is a set of rules and guidelines that tell you how to go about making decisions."


There are a few really wonderful stories in this book. My favorite is one in which Maister recounts how a senior faculty member at the Harvard Business School helped Maister out when he was embarking on his teaching and research career there. (Reading about the deft and graceful way in which this professor mentored Maister - and trying to figure out how to apply this approach to helping new and more junior employees in your company, or anyone in your life you're trying to mentor - is worth the price of the book.)

You'd think after all these years, and after all the books on the subject that have been written, that companies would finally get the importance of not only establishing a strategy, but making a real commitment to executing the strategy. But as Maister points out, coming up with the strategy is easy; actually doing something about it is hard.

So why do companies keep making the same mistakes?

Well, David Maister is a businessman, not a shrink, and he doesn't have the answer any more than I do.

But, God knows, I've worked for enough places where we had a nominal strategy that everyone gave lip service to, but which did not connect in any way shape or form to what we were actually doing on a day to day basis.  And while sticking to a strategy might be hard, it's not so damned easy being unsuccessful, either.

I guess if everyone figured it out, there'd be no winners and losers, and that would be no fun.

Anyway, lots of kernels of wisdom contained in David Maister's book, and some nice little how-too freebies as well.

If 2008 is finally going to be the year that your fat smoker of a company is going to do something about its bad habits, this would be a pretty good book to read.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Proton's Islamic Car

I'd never heard of Proton, Malaysia's national car maker, but - thanks to The Economist November 17th issue - I now know that they're coming out with an automobile aimed at Muslims.

Proton is hurtin' for certain. It sold only 130,000 cars last year, and it's export numbers were 20,000 in total. Not much of a dent in the car market - and sales numbers that led to a substantial loss. (Sure, that $169M loss is chump change compared to what a Ford or a GM might do, but it's all relative.

So their last ditch effort is a car designed for Muslims.

Which sounds pretty ridiculous.

Hard to believe that people will be clamoring for cars rigged out with a compass that points to Mecca, and special storage for a Koran and a headscarf. (Pardon me, but isn't that what we used to call the glove compartment?)

Yet people do like to buy from their own, don't they?

Half the painting-carpentry-plumbing vans in the Boston area have a shamrock painted on their side. I don't suppose they're doing that because it's bad for business.

But when it comes to driving, I'm guessing that there's really no meaningful way to differentiate along religious lines.

I guess you could have a born-again car with a radio hardwired to receive Christian stations only. Or that was named for something biblical: Goliath, The Ark.

I guess you could have a Catholic car with built-in St. Christopher medal and holy water fonts where the drink holders are now. The colors could be saint-inspired: St. Jude Green, Our Lady Blue.

The Jewish car could use Yiddish to send the driver a message: Oy, you're running low on gas! What, are you meshugas driving so fast?

The Buddhist car's interior would be completely quiet. The Hindu car could be saffron-colored and go "Ommmmmm" when you turn it on.

No, when it comes to car-buying, people want plenty of things - they want fuel economy, or pickup, or room to carry, or luxe interiors - but I don't see them sacrificing on anything for the sake of a few religiously inspired conveniences.

Plus, there's such a low barrier to entry to any of the stated Islamic features. How much does it cost to glue in a Mecca-oriented compass? If there's anything to providing these features, the incumbent companies selling into Muslim countries will be able to tack them on quite easily.

Proton doesn't even dominate the market in Malaysia. Once the protectionist gloves came off, their market share plummeted from 60% to 23% in just 5 years.

I'd say that Proton has problems that won't be solved by adding a couple of inexpensive features that no one really cares about to begin with.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living Over the Store

One of the great pleasures of living in a city is that you can walk to shops and restaurants. I am a two-five minute walk from a grocery store, hardware store, drug store, cobbler, the Post Office, and a half-dozen restaurants. Not to mention a lot of other stuff: gift stores, florists, CVS, liquor store, 7/11, bakeries....

And I'm about a ten minute walk from Filene's Basement, Borders, Macy's, Lord and Taylor and a whole bunch other stores.

So I get why people want to live near stores.

And, of course, with city life you get a whole lot of extras: theaters, parks, urban street life, dynamism, and - if you're lucky enough to live in Boston - Fenway Park. (There are few urban experiences that compare to the walk home from Fenway after a Red Sox win.)

As I said, I get why people want to live near stores.

But I really don't get why someone wants to live near a suburban shopping mall.

Apparently, however, there are folks who are heeding the call, and are scooping up luxury condos that are tacked on to the Natick Mall. (This was reported in a recent Boston Globe article by Sarah Schweitzer.)

The condos, on the site of a defunct Wonder Bread factory [NO COMMENT], are part of a development called Nouvelle Natick. Living there, you're right on top of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom's, and the Cheesecake Factory. Gives new meaning to living over the store, doesn't it?

The suburbs, according to Nouvelle at Natick's marketers, are places where traffic, parking woes, and other city hassles are practically nonexistent. And some buyers see in the mall development all the glitter that city living offers.

"I have lived in the Back Bay, and it was very collegiate, very busy and noisy. It just wasn't San Francisco," said Donna Niles, a director of creative services for a fragrance company in her 30s who once lived on the West Coast and is now is mulling the purchase of a Nouvelle at Natick unit. "I think living at the mall would have a little more of that feeling."

Earth to Donna: I really don't think living in a mall is going to feel like San Francisco. LA, maybe. But San Fran?

She also expects to find like-minded people.

"I am sick of Faneuil Hall and the bars there. I am buying Manolo Blahniks," she said, referring to a brand of shoes that costs hundreds of dollars. "I don't like beer being tossed on them. That's not my idea of fun anymore. And that's the part of Boston that's missing. It's nice for the college students and the twentysomethings. But for the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings it starts to get, like, where do you go? You want to hang out with a different caliber of people."

And Boston to Donna: There are adults in Boston. Thirty-somethings. Forty-somethings. Even - gasp - fifty- and sixty-somethings. Who are a different caliber of people than the folks tossing back brews and leering at waitresses at The Rack. Although, in truth, if you're looking for fellow Manolo wearers, you are probably best to forego the bricks on Beach Hill for the faux-whatever at Nouvelle of Natick.

One of the couples who've just bought into Nouvelle have businesses in Hudson, a former mill town in Central Massachusetts. I understand why they might not find Hudson quite, well, nouvelle for them. Especially if they view shopping as a way of life.

"It's a little scary living above a mall," Kellie DuGally said. "I told Michael that he'd have to get a second job."

"We both love shopping," Michael DuGally said. "So why not live someplace where there is so much stuff accessible?"

"So much stuff accessible." If ever there was a motto for the American Way of Life in the early 21st century.

Michael DuGally had more to say:

He added, "It's like getting the Newbury Street experience, without having to fight for parking."

Okay, Michael, I'll give you the "fight for parking."

But "it's like getting the Newbury Street experience."

No, it's not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To Have and Have Not

I was intrigued by a short note in this month's Atlantic that addressed a recent Pew Research Center study on how Americans see our society increasingly divided into two groups, the "haves" and the "have nots".

I'm one of those believers that we're heading in the direction of a have/have not world, and that the shrinking fortunes of the middle class will have a lot to do with it. Not surprisingly, I'm - demographically speaking - spot on for those who see the country as divided into haves and have nots: female, East Coast, Democrat.

Admittedly, the survey is based on the fuzzy notion of perception. At least from what I've seen of it, there's no real definition of what constitutes a "have" vs. a "have not" - it's whatever you see it as.

So we never really find out whether a "have" is someone who doesn't have to worry about money, or whether a "have not" someone who's about to get their house repossessed. Does a "have not" have to shop at WalMart? Is a "have" anyone with a summer home? Is a "have" anyone with more than I have? A nicer car, bigger house, bigger IRA?

But, perception is everything in life, isn't it?

My first reaction to this it that, with pockets of dire poverty in the midst of our American plenty, we need to get a grip here: compared to most of the world, even our "have nots" live better lives in terms of health and material comfort than large segments of the population in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still, the study is interesting, and some of the numbers are startling.

...the number of Americans who see themselves among the "have-nots" of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the "haves" (59%) than the "have-nots" (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% "haves" vs. 34% "have-nots").

Only 43% of middle-income Americans perceive themselves as "haves" - down from 61% in 1988.  In the lower economic tear, the number who see themselves as "have nots" grew from 28 to 47% over the same period.

Perversely, of those in the upper third in terms of income, those who considered themselves "haves" dropped from 82% to 66% between 1988 and 2007, and the number who saw themselves as "have nots" grew from 15% to 27%.

Am I the only person who's shocked to find that nearly 1/3 of those in the top third of income see themselves as "have nots"?

So what's behind all this?

For one, I think that the more we know about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the easier it is for us to slip into the sense that we are "have nots". Sure, we may have a flat screen HD TV, but we don't have A-Rod's contract. We don't have Paris Hilton's bling. We don't have Donald Trump's gilded palace.

Now I might say who cares, but uber-wealth is in our faces a lot more than it was when the Vanderbilts decamped each summer to The Breakers in Newport. Sure, people knew that "they" lived in immense luxury, but it wasn't in their faces morning, noon, and night.

And while they may not be household faces or names, we all know that the average CEO salary is now a zillion times that of the average worker, where just a few short years ago, it was a small and manageable multiple.

Then there is the very real issue of middle class manufacturing and white collar jobs disappearing - and without the up-up switcheroo we saw when manufacturing first started to seep away, only to be replaced by "better" jobs in high tech.

I don't think anyone sees where the better jobs are coming from this time.

I once heard someone on NPR positing that we would turn from a nation of shoe producers to shoe designers. Well, that may be so, but the ratio of shoe designer to shoe factory worker is not exactly one-on-one, is it? We can't all be shoe designers.

What else fuels the perception that more of us are "have nots"? Obviously, there's general lack of security that people feel about their personal (economic) futures. Sure, some of this is our own damned fault, spending money on HD TV's when we should have been saving for retirement.

But even the most prudent of savers, those sticking with their rabbit-eared black and white tube TV's and putting the savings in the bank, are far less likely to have pensions than the generation before us.  I've worked at places with little or no 401K matching. One place I work matched the first $100 contribution. Yippee! Not exactly a defined benefit plan.

Doing this all savings for the future on your own is hard.

That's no excuse for having $40K worth of credit card debt rolled up buying crap you don't need, while having "savings" of $400 to last you a lifetime. But the dawning realization that being a good citizen-consumer may help fuel the economy, but does nada for future preparedness, is likely bringing some people to perceive that they are - gulp - "have nots". Or are about to become one.

Personal (gulp!) economic future aside, there's also the unsettling notion that the jig just might be up on the Amazing American Spending Spree. Mortgage crisis. Debtor nation. China buying Maytag. Petro-fueled lifestyle - a chicken in every pot, and 3-4 cars in those big old garages. Europeans lighting cigars with $50 bills - hey, didn't that used to be us????

As for me, I'm a definite "have." And most everyone I know is a have as well.

Sure, I know people with a lot more money than I have - better homes, better gardens, nicer cars, nicer clothing - but, hey, that's life. Compared to them, I'm a "have not". Compared to most of the people in the country, let alone the world.

I am one lucky "have."

So just what were those upper income people thinking when they characterized themselves as "have nots?"

If even the rich folks think they're poor folks, who do you fight your class warfare against?


There are two pretty funny cartoons in the November 26 New Yorker that speak to this, by the way. In one, a man is talking to his shrink, telling him "Yes, I do count my blessings, but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings and that pisses me off."

In the other, a man in a business suit is panhandling, holding a sign that reads "Help me fill my offshore accounts."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Crowning Glory

He's at it again.

For the last few years, just around this time, Dominic Luberto has made the Boston news. For those who don't live in the area, or for those who live in the area but don't pay attention to the news and/or don't drive down the Arborway anytime during November and December, Luberto is the fellow who each year decorates his mock-Tudor castle with a gazillion lights.


The stories are always the same: annoyed neighbors who have to put up with the glare, the traffic, and  - until KeySpan put in a bulked up transformer - electricity brown outs; someone who really likes looking at the lights; and Luberto himself defending his right to light up his life - and the life of everyone who lives anywhere within a spotlight's distance from him.

This year's commotion is about a hefty gold crown that Luberto has added to the display.

Luberto claims its a decoration; the City claims its a structure that Luberto hasn't gotten a permit for. (Or maybe he has. I was in the neighborhood on Saturday evening to gawk, and we briefly spoke with Luberto, who was out working the crowd.) Some neighbors fear that in a good stiff wind, the crown will go airborne and crush some ogler or kid walking by.

I've been by Luberto's house a number of times, and the decorations are ridiculously outlandish - a couple of hundred thousand lights, inflatable Santas, penguins, snowmen, choo-choo train, flying reindeer, etc. One of the light displays is an American flag tree. There's also - nice nod to ecumenism - a big, glowing Star of David.

I'm not anti-Christmas lights, by any means. Growing up, one of the holiday highlights was piling into the car to drive around Worcester gaping at the lights. Sure, we liked to go over to the Westside of the city and see the tasteful displays of the rich folk in their big mock-Colonials and mock-Tudors. All those nice all is calm white candles, the simple spotlight on the front door wreathe... But what we really wanted to see was the all is bright people, those who went nuts with candy canes, snowmen, manger scenes, carolers, Santa on the roof, etc. The over the top display people tended to live in neighborhoods like ours: modest one family houses, two-family houses, and three-deckers. (It was the one family houses that went in for the mega decorations. There must have been something so liberating about getting that GI Bill Cape Cod or ranch house. No more worrying about what the cranky tenants upstairs would say. Santa Claus was comin' to town!

I also like the lights they put up on the trees around the Boston Common, and up the Commonwealth Avenue Mall (that's a walking mall, by the way, not a shopping mall).  They're bright and festive, and I miss them when they're taken down (or turned off - I think some years they leave the lights in place).

So, I like lights. Even though global warming's making it a bit balmier, it's still a dark and gloomy time of year. Let there be lights.

But Luberto's house...

One of the first thing that strikes the drive-by gawker is that this is not the type of neighborhood where people tend to go in for major glow in the dark.

The Arborway, where Luberto's castle-like home is located, is full of large, pricey, elegant homes. From the get-go, then, Luberto is putting himself at odds with his neighbors with his déclassé display. Part of me says ha-ha; the other part of me asks: why set something up that aggravates and affronts the people who live around you?

Of course, Luberto's house is a bit of an odd job to begin with. In a neighborhood of vast, stately, Protestant-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-Capitalism homes, his looks like a castle. Sort of. Anyway, it's far different than the houses surrounding it. Not quite Mad King Ludwig, but....

Lights aside, Luberto does provide a certain amount of local color. It's not clear where he made the money that allows him to own a $1.7M house, and drive the Hummer that I saw in the back yard parking lot. Real estate is the working hypothesis, although he claims to be a musician. He has something of the "Hey, I made it in America!" about him - he's not "from here" - I read somewhere that he's from Argentina. I'm sure that the immigrant hustle doesn't help endear him to the more understated folks in the 'hood.

And speaking of hustle, the man's also selling a self-published "Find Dominic Decorating" book for kids - with web site and all - for $9.90 plus shipping and handling. He was handing out little flyers for it when I saw him on Saturday. He'd like to sell a million copies, and is donating $.25 from each copy to Children's Hospital. I'll just bet he'd like to sell a million....It can't be cheap keeping all those lights on.

And speaking of keeping all those lights on, in this day and age, don't we have to sort of question the waste of energy - the energy-energy (let Luberto waste all the human energy he wants putting his lights up and taking them down). Shouldn't we all be thinking about making at least modest, symbolic attempts at conservation? Not forcing our local utility to set up a new transformer so that we won't blow the grid for the neighborhood.

I'm just happy I live nowhere near Dominic Luberto's house, which I'm certain would be a constant irritation throughout the holiday season.

But I will admit that, when I drive by it, or, as I did the other evening, walk around it, it does indeed make me smile, if only at the goofy wonder of it all. Of course, it also made me want to sing what is quite possibly the worst Christmas song ever: "Dominick the Donkey."

Hey, chingedy-ching, hee-haw, hee-haw

It's Dominick the Donkey

Chingedy-ching, hee-haw,hee-haw

The Italian Christmas donkey

La la la, la la la la la la....