Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Baby, you can drive my car...

Baby, you can drive my car? Forgive me. I mis-blogged. What I really meant to write is, Baby, you can steal my car. Or total my car. Or even buy my car, maybe for less than the Blue Book value (which is a little over five thousand bucks) -  I repeat, I'll take less than the Blue Book value, even though my 1998 Beetle is still in fairly good shape.

My car problem is that, while I have always enjoyed being a car-driver, being a car-owner has never been high on my list of must-be's.

I realize that my attitude makes me suspect.

After all, I must be anti-consumerist, because - even with all that Internet shopping - I can't possibly get to The Mall and shop if I don't have a car. How can I possibly buy all the stuff I need to pull my weight by contributing to our GNP?

And, of course, I also shirk my consuming duties by not buying cars.

I've only owned three cars in my life - which is probably below the average count of the average 22 year old.

And the sum total of my spending on car purchase in my life is less than $30K.  (Rusted out, used Honda Civic: $2K; new Mercury Tracer: $9K; Volkswagen Beetle: $16K - maybe $17. I used the Civic as a trade-in for the Tracer. Sight unseen, the dealer gave me $100 for it. By the time I drove the Civic in to pick up my new car, something was so seriously wrong with it I couldn't get it out of third, and had to take backroads. The dealer told me that if he'd known how bad it was, he'd have given my $0.)

And I must be anti-American, because - let's face it - isn't one of the great appeals of being an American hitting the road? Jack Kerouac, Route 66, Travels with Charlie, On The Road with Charles Kurault.

OK, Charles has been dead for 10 years; and I'm sure that John Steinbeck's poodle Charlie has been dead for a lot longer than that.  Route 66 may be the only old TV show that's not available 24/7. And Jack Kerouac? Well, Jack's dead and buried just up the road in Lowell, Massachusetts, and I suppose I could go visit him if I were willing to get in my @*#*)#Q&*&#&@!*car and drive up and see him.

But the point is, having a car is a big part of the American myth, or mystique, or way of life - a lot more so than in any other place on the face of the earth. I mean, do other countries have journey sagas that involve hopping in a car?  I mean, Canterbury Tales, for crying out loud. They walked.

And all those songs of my youth that were paeans to cars: Little Deuce Coupe, Little GTO, Fun Fun Fun ('Til Her Daddy Took the T-Bird Away).

We're supposed to love cars - or at least like them - not loathe them.

Perhaps it my urban life style that makes me so averse to car ownership. Having a car (and no place to park it) makes me think twice, and then think again, every time I start my engine. Wherever I go, my first thought when I hop back in the car to get home is, wonder whether, where, and when I'll find a parking place. So personally the conditions of car ownership are unpleasant from the get-go.

Then there was yesterday.

My car is filthy. We have had no snow this year, but I was up in Syracuse where there was snow. So my car is covered with all that highway salt-sand-crud blowback from 18-wheelers. And it makes no sense to go the car wash because we're having snow today and Friday. So I'll wait.

Even so, I had to clean the windows, which I thought I did a pretty good job of when I filled 'er up yesterday. But once I got in the car and hit the glaring rays of a late January afternoon, I realized that the windows were still streaky, the light blinding. Even with the windshield wiper fluid on perpetual, I could barely see where I was going.

I have now cleaned all the windows by hand, using Kleenex for the final touches.

But my car's being filthy is one good reason to hate it.

And why stop there?

Today, the front license-plate-holder was hanging by a thread, so I yanked it off.

It is impossible to get it screwed back on without - I believe - removing the entire engine block. Or something along those lines. In any case, a civilian can't do it, so I'll need to go to the dealer. Appointments take 3 - 6 months, and the only other auto body shops I know are a) out of business or b) really out of the way. But sometimes, if you get there before 6:45 a.m., and look kind of sad and weepy, the guys at the dealer take pity on you and do a quick repair. Their definition of quick is different than my definition of quick. So I'll just have to sit there taking in the muzak and basking in the fluorescent lights for 2-3 hours while they screw the license plate back on.

This repair job - which I've now had done about 4 or 5 times lasts a couple of months, then back I'll go.

Definitely a design flaw, exacerbated, no doubt, by city parking, which involves more bumps and grinds than the afternoon show at the Ba-da-bing, let alone when compared to friendly, suburban driveway parking.

Today's final straw was the pop-off of the little "thing" on top of the gear shift knob - you know, the "thing" with the line diagram that shows where the gears are.

Other than the fact that if felt a little odd, I don't really think I need the "directions".  I don't look at the top of the gear shift when I drive. (I was going to write that "I can shift blindfolded," but that's probably not such a hot idea.) Yet, when that little plastic sucker popped off, I had a moment of panic, forgetting for a moment where reverse was.

Which is not as dumb as it sounds.

There are some cars where putting the car in reverse actually takes a foreward, not a backwards, motion. Once I borrowed my brother's car that had this peculiar property. I couldn't figure out how to get the car in reverse, I couldn't get a hold of my brother, and I finally resorted to asking people walking by for help. Which didn't do me much good since the average American driver doesn't drive a standard shift car to begin with, let alone know how to deal with this one. There was a couple from Ireland strolling by, and the mister hopped in and showed me how to get into reverse gear.

In any case, I found the plastic shift-top and put it back on.

I thought.

It popped off again.

In fumbling around trying to find the black thing, on the black floor mats, under the black seats, I managed to gouge the knuckles on my right hand, proceeding to bleed all over my recently dry cleaned coat. Good thing it's black.

So, baby you can buy my car.

Name your price.

This girl has had just about enough of the joys of car ownership to last me the rest of my life.

Beep, beep-m, beep, beep. Yeah!

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Option Pass

I am continually amazed by the new financial instruments that seem to emerge all the time - hedges on hedges, derivatives on derivatives. Last year, I was intrigued by housing price futures.  (Baby needs a new pair of playrooms?) And the other day, I read in The Boston Globe about a big game ticket futures company,, that lets you buy options to purchase future game tickets at a certain price.

The article profiled a Patriots fan who, in October, when the Pats were looking pretty good and he was feeling bullish, had paid $1,000 for the right to buy two Super Bowl tickets for $600 a piece if the Pats made it that far.

Even though this fan really wanted to go see the Pats in the Super Bowl, he put his options out for bid during the Pats-Colts game on Sunday. The game was back-and-forth, the trading hot and heavy, and someone took the options off of his hands for $4,000. Which turned out to be a tidy profit of $3,000 for the options trader, and a loss of $4,000 for the options tradee.

It must have been a weird feeling once he'd sold the options. As the game see-sawed back and forth, I suspect the guy's emotions did, too. Damn, I'm going to miss the Super Bowl, I should have hung on. Damn, the Pats have lost. But, hot damn, I'm ahead $3K. (I bet he headed home from the bar humming the refrain from The Gambler: You gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.)

And there was the options purchaser on the other end of this particular see-saw. Damn, the Pats lost, plus I'm out $4K. (I bet he headed home from the bar humming an entirely different tune.)

If you bought the options pre-season, you could get in cheap and find yourself sitting pretty at game time. Before the opening kick-off, the option prices for the four finalist teams were Pats $125, Colts $100, Bears $18, and Saints $25.  So a Bears' fan who bought options at $18 - or even a Colts fan at $100 - is paying only a small relative premium on the ticket price. And the Saints and Pats fans who went long and hung on aren't crazily out of pocket, either.

I'm not much of a gambler, nor am I a crazed enough fan of any sport that I'd pay huge bucks to see a game in person that I could, in truth, watch more comfortably on TV, let alone take an option on it - so none of this holds much appeal to me. But it's interesting to see that there's a company trying to make a buck with this options play. And I hope for their sake that they sold enough options, and took enough of the vigorish, to cover all their positions.  At last look, tickets in the end zone were going for $3500.

Meanwhile, there's always next year, and the action's already heating up on Super Bowl XLII. The last trade I saw for the Pats was $262 each for a pair of options to purchase $700 seats. (This was not that far off the Chargers and Colts action at $280 - although Da Bears were a bit higher: $330.)

Meanwhile, since it is already, almost baseball this year, I was curious to see what the take was on Red Sox for ALCS, or even World Series. Alas, TicketReserve may play NFL. They may play bowl games. They may play NBA and NHL. But, dammit, they don't play ball.

(A nod to my sister Trish for giving me a head's up on this story.)

Monday, January 29, 2007

In Her Majesty's Service

Although I'm not looking for a full-time job, and although I am never qualified for the positions they advertise, I do enjoy reading the want-ads in the "Executive Focus" section of The Economist. The jobs advertised are an interesting brew of professorships, foundation execs, consultants, program managers for the World Bank and IMF, etc.

The ads are black and white, and give a lot of detail, which really appeals to me. I always like ads where there's a lot of information to read, and in The Economist want-ads, there's a lot to learn.

Unless I'd read the ad for President and CEO of The Albert P. Sloan Foundation, I never would have known that Alfred P's middle name was Pritchard. And unless I'd seen the write-up for the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, I never would have heard about limphatic filariasis.

But the recent ad that really caught my eye is for The Royal Household - yes, that royal household - which is looking for an Assistant Private Secretary to the Queen, Buckingham Palace.

The Private Secretary's Office "acts as the primary source of advice to The Queen on all policy matters and is responsible for managing the official programme." (I guess that anyone qualified for this position will already know just what the 'official programme' is.)

There's a tick list of specific duties for the Assistant PS. 

For one, he/she plans and organises The Queen's official programme, which I guess means figuring out which ribbon cutting ceremonies, inaugurations, coronations, 500th anniversaries of church belfries, and corgi shows The Queen will attend, and which ones she will beg out of. I can just imagine the sheer volume of requests The Queen gets, and how many disappointed requesters there are in throughout the British Empire. I know that she has four children, and a bunch of grandchildren, to share the wealth with, but I'm sure there's still no end to occasions that could be nicely marked with a royal presence.  

For a newbie in this position, I'd hope that there'd be plenty of guidance on what type of events The Queen prefers. You'd hate to have your first week in office go south when The Queen spots yet another ship christening on the agenda, and yells out the regal equivalent of "who the bloody bollocks scheduled this one?"

I know that her Mum lived to great old age, and The Queen herself certainly looks pretty darn good for her 80 years, but there is the risk that you'd overschedule her. She may just want to slow down and spend the day organizing her cashmere sweater set drawer.

The next task is "keeping The Queen informed of developments and dealing with constitutional issues in the UK and the Commonwealth countries." Well, this one seems a whole lot meatier than the official programme. In fact, it sounds like something that the Personal Secretary should do himself, doesn't it, rather than fob it off on his underling? How do you figure out what The Queen needs to know and when does she need to know it? Obviously, she needs to see information like the recent stunner that police in Northern Ireland protected their Unionist informers - even when they knew that they were guilty of murder.  But where do you draw the line? I mean, there's a lot going on out there, and the Assistant Personal Secretary will have to figure out pretty quick what the line is between "why didn't I know about this" and "why bother me."

The list goes on: working with Government departments and with devolved administrations; dealing with management and organisational issues within the Household; liaison with other Royal Households to provide guidance on policy.

Again, I have to ask, if this is what the Assistant Personal Secretary, just what is the Full Monty responsible for?

No surprise that they're seeking "an outstanding candidate...with excellent judgement, administrative and organizational skills, conceptual thinking and strategic planning ability...good communication skills...and the ability to absorb and disseminate a large volume of information...a team player with good interpersonal skills." They don't state that discretion and the ability to keep not just a stiff upper lip, but a set of stiffly zipped lips, is also essential. But that's obviously implied.

Actually, if it weren't for the requirement of a "well developed knowledge of the UK, the constitution, and the British media", this is one of the few Economist positions that I almost qualify for.

It doesn't say what the pay is, but there is an e-mail and snail-mail address if you want to apply.

The Queen is sure a trooper, and Prince William's a cutie pie and all that, but I'm not all that big on The Royals. Still, this position certainly sounds challenging and interesting. I'm guessing it's not exactly 9 to 5, and it's definitely not for the faint of heart, but I've never held those sorts of jobs before. Why start now? Maybe I'll brush up on my British constitution and knowledge about devolved administrations and apply. If nothing else, it would be fun to see what the rejection letter looks like. I'm guessing a heavy cream, embossed notecard with a formal, polite, nicely printed 'we'll keep you c.v. on file' note.

What really surprises me is that this is the type of position that they'd have to advertise for. Wouldn't they already have people in their inner circle who already know the players and the ropes, and who were more of less bred for Her Majesty's Service?

But to see the job posted...It doesn't say so in the ad, but could it be that The Royal Household is an Equal Opportunity Employer?

The non-royal we will be interested to see who lands this plum.

Friday, January 26, 2007



Stanford prof Bob Sutton is gearing up for release of The No Asshole Rule, and I'll be one of the first in line to buy it. The tolerance for bad behavior in the workplace has certainly caused a lot of problems over the years. (Bob has written extensively on it, and prompted by Bob's work, I've posted a few times on it myself.) As he launches the promotional tour for his book, it will be interesting to see how the more mainstream outlets deal with the provocative title word - a word that is certainly used aplenty in business, but still has a cringe factor associated with it in what used to be called "polite company." (This is a group that by my count is surely shrinking. It may be the company I keep, but I can think of no more than a handful of people with whom I actually interact who might - I can't even say for certain would - be offended by the use of the word.) You'll recall that it didn't do much more than cause a bit of amusement when, during the last campaign, George W was caught in an unguarded moment using the word to describe a reporter he didn't like.

I'm sure that once Bob hits the road, there'll be plenty of use of the word "jerk", and all kinds of minced word, prissy, and smirking work-arounds as the interviewers skirt the title issue. It will be interesting to see how many different ways people can say 'it' without actually saying 'it.' (Although some barriers are falling a bit, and the Today show used the word a-hole.)

'(I don't remember how they got around "the word" when Princeton's Harry Frankfurt published On Bullshit a couple of years ago. Did they blur out the cover, like they do with the private parts when they show nudes?)

The whole discussion, and - as we used to say on the playground of Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School - the whole Sugar-Honey-Ice-Tea-storm that starts swirling up in the aforementioned polite company will be fun to observe. (Not to mention the discussion around the tyrannic reign of workplace assholes, which is the more important point to begin with. If you're interested, I've done a couple of posts on it here on Pink Slip: Building a Civilized Workplace and All Worked Up. )

There are several paths that I suspect that the conversation around "the word" will take. One is just why some words are considered offensive and others not, and why some words make good and effective slang and others don't.

Using the word "anus" might cause a titter among 11 year old boys. ('The planet Uranus. Haha. Get it? Your-anus.'). But it's an "acceptable word", while the word asshole is not. Similarly, manure's okay, so's excrement. But shit? And the f-word. Well, let's not even go there: not to be used in polite intercourse. (And ever notice then when people use the kiddie substitutes like "sugar", "poop," and "fudge" they seem to draw more attention to the word than if they used "the real thing"?)

The thing is, when it comes to the sheer brilliant pungency of using the impolite words, the substitutes just won't do.

He's acting like an anus? No way.

She's full of excrement. Yawn.

Go have intercourse with yourself. Not quite there.

As for asshole? To quote my dear cousin Barbara who once and only once used the word in front of her exceedingly polite, proper, and genuinely kind mother, my beloved Aunt Margaret, "sometimes you just have to call an asshole an asshole."

Accept no substitutes: jerk don't work.

There'll also likely be a lot of side-conversations about what type of language is acceptable in the workplace. I suspect that it all comes down to the industry, the setting, the uses, how and why it's said, and "who's around." I mean, I wouldn't want to go into a hospital and hear the doctors and nurses swearing their heads off, but if they want to do it when patients and visitors aren't around, who cares? I wouldn't want to hear a judge swearing at an attorney in court, but whatever she says in chambers, well, that's just fine, too.

I admit it would be terrible to work in a place where everyone swore at each other in anger, i.e., behaved like assholes. But for the most part I've worked in companies where using four letter words as descriptors, using them humorously, as terms of endearment, and as casual sprinklings in the general conversation, has been completely acceptable. I'm pretty much inured to it by now.

(I did not, however, grow up around much swearing. My mother never swore*, and my father never used "strong language" in front of the family. One time, when our ball rolled into a neighbor's yard and the old grouch wouldn't roll it back, my father said he was an S.O.B. My mother had a fit. And when I was in second grade, someone told me that my brother Tom had said S-H-I-T - yes, they spelled it out for me. I denied that he had - hey, I was going to defend my bro; if anyone was going to tattle on him, it was going to be me - but I had no idea what S-H-I-T was.)

In the workplace, there doesn't need to be a "no swearing" rule. The rule should be just use your judgement: not in front of the senior execs (unless you're one of them, a near-peer [note to 11 year old readers: that's peer, not pee-er], or not unless you really need to use a word to underscore a point). Not with your customers (never). Not in front of someone's little kids or grandmother in for an office visit. And never to demean someone. While we're at the no-rule rules: when you first join a company, don't start shooting your own mouth off until you figure out just what type of language the traffic will bear.

All this may be just because I'm used to it. During the Clarence Thomas appointment hearings, when Anita Hill reported on some of the things he'd said to her, I remember Senator Orrin Hatch saying something along the lines of it being just unimaginable to think that someone would use the words pubic hair in the workplace. As we said at the time, old Orrin had certainly never worked with us.

All this aside, there remain words that I have never and would never use - personally or professionally. Years ago, I worked in a large cubicle environment. The woman in the next cube, who had a piercing voice to begin with, threaded terms in her conversations that I - no doubt like Senator Hatch - found just unimaginable. I mean, sometimes you have to call an asshole an asshole, but a c***? Or a c***-s*****? Here's where I draw the line.

I do think about the general coarsening of society a lot. I worry especially that children are exposed to too much that is blatantly sexual and blatantly violent. I worry about everything - books, magazines, movies - getting dumbed down and coarsened, that people will value Eminem over Cole Porter, Bratz dolls over baby dolls, celebrity over contribution.

Is an acceptance of language that was once used rarely, or completely verboten, a sign that we're reaching the end of time? I don't think so. And I'll also note that, while words formerly categorized as coarse are more commonly used these days, ethnic and sexual slurs have, for the most part, blessedly fallen out of use. Sure, the people I know throw the f-bomb, but they'd never hurl the n-word, or any of the other vicious and demeaning terms used for groups of people.

Good luck to Bob Sutton with his book (and his quest to fix a part of the workplace that in many companies is broken). I'll be looking for him to autograph my copy when his tour hits Boston.


*Yes, I know that technically "swearing" means taking an oath, and the "cursing" means calling down a curse on someone. But in common parlance, we all know that it really means using "vulgar" language.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

101 Dumbest Moments in Business

Business 2.0 ( does an annual roundup of some of the year's most appalling business stories, and the 2007 edition is out (101 Dumbest Moments in Business). There are the usual suspects: Wal-Mart gets its licks for a few boners, including the Edelman blog fiasco; Disney's attempt to restrain a bereaved family from etching the image of Winnie-the-Pooh on their child's headstone; Nardelli's swag bag separation agreement from Home Depot; etc.

One that I'd missed the first time around noted that the bodies of a couple who pioneered the cryonics movement - unclear how much of a movement it ever became, other than for Ted Williams head - had thawed out due to a freezer malfunction.

There were a lot of good bits on lay-offs that are worth a look. Some of the best:

Northwest Airlines gave laid off employees a booklet entitled "101 Ways to Save Money."

The advice includes dumpster diving ("Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash"), making your own baby food, shredding old newspapers for use as cat litter, and taking walks in the woods as a low-cost dating alternative.

When a 5 months pregnant colleague was laid off at one company I worked for, and protested that she wouldn't be able to find a new job in her condition, she was advised to wear baggy clothing to an interview and disguise her pregnancy.

Another one they picked up on was the Radio Shack lay-off via e-mail (which I had written about in one of my initial posts last September). Just think, it an employee had their spam filter turned on, they might have missed out on learning they were being pink slipped!

National Semiconductor got dinged for demanding that laid off employees give back the iPods they'd been given the month before as a 'morale booster'. (National Semi made the chips in the 30 gig iPods.) What next? Demanding that your laidoff folks give back the logo t-shirts, baseball caps, and tote bags?

Bank of America offered some laid off tech support workers a severance package - on the condition that they train their Indian replacements.

My personal favorite - personally experienced - dumb lay-off story (or one of them: I have quite a few) happened when I worked at Genuity. The day after a major (10%) lay-off, we had a company all-hands meeting via teleconferencing. Someone asked the president whether the lay-offs were over. He answered was along the lines that, as far as he knew, no one had been laid off. (This the day after 1000 people or so had been frog-marched out of the company.) The next day, we got an odd little follow-up e-mail in which the president claimed that of course he knew that there had been a lay-off, it was just that, while the employees were on severance, they were still "with us in spirit."

(Note of thanks to my sister Trish for cluing me in on the Business 2.0 "Dumbest" story.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Employee of the Year

Every once in a while, I worked in a place that instituted some type of employee of the month/quarter/whatever award system. While I'm all in favor of rewarding employees who go above and beyond, I've found that the effectiveness tends to breakdown over time if it becomes a formal, routine practice. It's especially hard to keep it up you're in a smaller company, where a year into your employee recognition program you may be running out of employees to recognize. Then you start doing the "can someone win more than once?" routine, or the "wait a minute, we haven't recognized anyone from marketing yet" nose-counting.

Still, I like employee recognition just fine, and I was thinking of it when I heard on the news the other day that the woman accused of trying to sell Coca-Cola secrets to Pepsi is on trail, and facing up to 10 years in prison if she's found guilty. From an AP Wire story by Harry Weber I learned that Joya Williams is being described by a co-conspirator as being ticked off at her boss, and hoping to make big bucks by selling the secret to Coke's Blak drink to rival Pepsi.

I was handed a free sample of Blak last fall, and all I can say is that Coke would have been playing it smart if they'd deliberately slipped the secret to Blak to Pepsi, and got them investing down this path. But that opinion is neither hear nor there.

Joya Williams may be found not-guilty, but I'm guessing she's not a candidate for Employee of the Year anytime soon.

Nor is the woman charged with embezzling nearly $6.9 million from a Massachusetts construction firm. There was an extensive profile of Angela Platt in The Boston Globe a while back, and yesterday they had a story by Raja Mishra that she's now been charged.

While Ms. Platt was pursuing her non-candidacy for Employee of the Year she apparently:

...indulged her love of Halloween by purchasing a 20-foot-tall, smoke-spewing dragon statue, mechanical talking trees, and a life-sized Al Capone statute [sic], federal prosecutors said...Prosecutors [also] said Platt threw lavish parties and flaunted her wealth, despite a $40,000 salary. For her brother's planned wedding in 2006, she hired legendary singer/songwriter Burt Bacharach and dancers from "Riverdance."

Her former boss, who will not be nominating Ms. Platt for Employee of the Year, has been able to recover some of his losses through the real estate and equine investments Platt made. But who wants a life-sized Al Capone statue? And I don't imagine he got an invite to the brother's wedding and see Burt Bacharach or the Riverdancers. What a shame.

My final pick as non-Employee of the Year is the nit-wit out in Iowa, who has received wide acclaim for trying to collect unemployment benefits after she was fired for keeping a work diary - written on a company PC, printed on a company printer - in which she detailed how she spent all her time at work pretending to work. Her manager found the diary, which included Dear Diary gems about how great it was that the very act of typing the diary looked like work.

She is quoted in an article I saw in Sunday's Boston Herald as having written, "I am only here for the money and, lately, for the printer access. I haven't really accomplished anything in a long while...and I am still getting paid more than I ever have at a job before. I can shop online, play games and read message boards and still get paid for it."

I actually feel a twinge bad for Emmalee Bauer. She's definitely not Employee of the Year material, but she may well have been aggrandizing an occasional work-dodge. I heard on one news program that she had been considering turning her journal into a book on goldbricking. Yes, I feel a teensy twinge for Emmalee - but I will also never hire her.

The Emmalee story reminded me of a fellow I interviewed for a part time admin job at an arts-related non-profit. The guy bragged that at his last job he'd pretended to work while writing poetry. Was this intended to impress upon us the fact that he was not just a job seeker but also a devoted artiste? Truly, I almost laughed out loud when he made this statement.

In any case, we all need to keep in mind that employee recognition goes both ways. Yes, we still need to recognize the great ones, but it sounds like there's a parallel need to keep your eyes and ears open so that you'll recognize the near-do-wells, too.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bad Sports

No one who spends even the shortest of periods in American business can escape the use of the sports metaphor. Advertising. Awards plaques. Rah-rah sessions. Sales kick-offs with the inspirational speech given by the ex-Olympian or pro-athlete who's now on the lecture circuit.

We've all seen it all, haven't we?

I very much enjoy sports, and am not averse to using sports analogies. I even did one product campaign around a baseball theme. (We plugged in soccer for international, but it didn't work quite as well without a pitcher, a catcher, and home plate.)

But we see so much of the "sports stuff" used and abused, that it starts to lose all meaning.

I remember one company meeting that included a good half dozen slides that showed pictures taken at football games. As the company president ran through his mind-numbing speech on how we were going to execute our plays with him as the quarterback, play to win, come to play, I - the impatient, bored little I that there's none of in team - wanted to scream out the old New Yorker caption: Block that metaphor! It didn't help my mood that most of the pictures seemed to be showing dirty or out-and-out illegal plays - neck tackles, cheap shots, piling on.

Then there was the sales kick-off with Mia Hamm. Nice touch to have a woman athlete for a change, but ho-yawn-hum. And I guess it's safe to say that it didn't really inspire the sales force - the company went bankrupt. (Paying Mia Hamm's fee probably didn't help out any, but we were such big spenders at Genuity that it probably didn't hurt much, either.)

Yes, sports tells a good story about hard work, team work, playing smart, climbing to the top, staying on top, starting from the bottom, perservering, getting in your game, surmounting tough competition, exploiting your strengths and their weaknesses. We get it already. While it's certainly more useful as a governing metaphor than, say, the literary world - inspire your team with the life of the great writer who made his three wives miserable until he drank himself to death, but not before disowning his son - enough gets to be enough pretty quickly. While it's probably not right to throw sports metaphors out of the game entirely - or even call a foul - companies who over-use sports-talk should consider a time out.

The use of all sports as metaphor reminds me of a Little League game I sat through a number of years ago. (Long ago enough that the Celtics were a championship team.) The kids had been a bit lackadaisical on the field. They didn't appear to know how many outs there were at any given time. One kid had been told to "take right", and he'd walked down to the furthest point on the edge of the park and pressed his body into the corner of the fence. When he got on base, another kid took a lead off second - but in the direction of first.

Anyway, the coach decided to give the kids a bit of a pep talk, and told them that they should emulate the Celtics: playing heads-up, focusing on the game, playing smart, etc. The coach's younger son - who looked to be about five or six, too young for the team - was playing in the dirt in front of the bench. When his father finished his little talk, the kid looked up at his father and said, "That's beside the point. We're not the Boston Celtics."


And, of course, there's the pick-and-choose element to exactly what parts of sports we hold up for emulation. And the blind eye we turn to the less savory aspects: player loyalty to fans and team and team loyalty to players (which, come to think of it, is the perfect metaphor for the 21st century relationship between an individual and his job: we're all free agents these days); using steroids to pump up records; betting on games; spitting tobacco; deliberate fouls; out-and-out cheating; ridiculous end-zone dances. 

Hmmmm. I might be on to something here. Think of how much more fun those sports-laden company meetings and sales-kickoffs would be if they focused more on smack talkin' the competition than they do on gravitas pronouncements about "no I in T-E-A-M."

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ashes to Ashes

An article Patricia Leigh Brown in The New York Times the other day - pointed out to me by my sister Kathleen, who has a keen eye for Pink Slip fodder - cited a forecast by the Cremation Association of North America - there's apparently a trade group for just about everything - that the cremation rate would grow to over 50% by 2025.

This, of course, makes sense. For one thing, cremation is cheaper and easier. For another, it makes less sense for an increasingly more mobile population to put down its final roots in a place where they have none. I'm definitely going the cremation route although, for old time sake, I may have some of my ashes scattered in the pretty little cemetery outside Worcester that houses (?) one set of great-grandparents, my grandmother, my parents, two uncles, one aunt, great aunts, great uncles, first cousins once removed, second cousins, et al. And why not? It's as good a place as any. (If you're wondering why my grandfather isn't there. Well, he's buried with his parents - and a lot of other collateral family members - in his own hometown of Barre Massachusetts. But my grandmother had no desire to get buried in god-foresaken Barre along with her miserable sister-in-law Lizzie who she never got along with. Nanny wanted to be with her own people, thank you.)

In any case, I will not be around to directly orchestrate the scattering of my ashes anywhere. But my preference would be to have them thrown to the winds, rather than have them put out with the trash (the ultimate recycle) or have anyone hang on to them. (Not that I can imagine that anyone would.)

Which brings me to the real topic of The Times article: the

...emerging funerary art movement that will reach an apotheosis of sorts when the nation’s first art gallery dedicated to cremation urns and other 'personal memorial art' opens Jan. 27 in Graton, just outside Sebastopol in Sonoma County, about 65 miles northwest of San Francisco.

Yes, it seems that the baby boomers, having now buried a parent or two, are turning their attention to that true object of their affection, themselves, and are looking for something a bit more upscale than a cardboard box in which to have placed their keepsake cremains. And they'll be able to find it at Maureen Lomasney's gallery in just a few days time.

Ms. Lomasney, an artist and photographer, was inspired to start Funeria — a name she invented because it sounded Italian — after reading a 1997 newspaper article about rising cremation rates. She combed Internet sites like and and was horrified by what she saw. As The Cremationist magazine noted last year, urns have traditionally been regarded as “somber functional containers rather than as an opportunity to express the unique taste and character of the individual.”

In terms of artistic chutzpah, Ms. Lomasney may be in a league of her own, representing pieces like the whimsical Urn-a-Matic, a vintage vacuum cleaner that flashes home movies on a built-in screen while playing the 1970s pop song “Seasons in the Sun.” This kind of high style doesn’t come cheap: the Urn-a-Matic costs $1,900 (most of the works are in the $800 to $1,200 range and are designed to prescribed dimensions).

Some of the folks mentioned in the article are already using art urns for their parents ashes, and/or have purchased arty containers that they have on display in their homes and which they assume will contain a little reminder of them. (We'll see. It's pretty easy to imagine some middle-aged Gen X-er saying "What was Mom thinking? This is a perfectly beautiful jar, and I love it, but I really don't want to keep her ashes in it. What she doesn't know won't hurt her.")

I understand that a lot of people need and want a place to visit their dead. I'm actually one of them - I make a couple of treks each year out to St. Joseph's in Leicester to plant geraniums and trim the yews. But I like the fact that there's a bit of a remove associated with it. I wouldn't want anyone's ashes actually sitting on the living room mantle, and have to worry about whether the urn would get knocked over and I'd end up with bone fragments on the rug.

Maybe it's the Irish blood, but I'm not particularly squeamish about death. (And hey, it's no accident, that Funeria's owner is named Maureen Lomasney.) Still, I'll take a pass on the arty urns - although some of the things pictured I like. Art for art's sake is just fine.

As baby boomer indulgences go, however, this one is pretty harmless. Frankly, I'm more concerned about how my "don't trust anyone over thirty" generation is going to deal overall with aging and dying. I predict a lot of rancid behavior around organ harvesting and a completely solipsistic "right to life forever" movement. ("Don't trust anyone under ninety.")

The boomers buying art urns strike me as a little egotistical, but they're real grown ups who are dealing with the impending inevitable in a mature and humane way. I may not feel the need to purchase an Urn-a-Matic, but I think it's just fine that they're doing so. And I wish my fellow Maureen the best of luck with her new gallery.

The article also got into a few other uses of ashes, which seem far more peculiar than funerary art. One - which I'd heard of before - is the diamond made from the ashes. I can just see the look on the beloved's face when it dawns on her that the guy who just proposed to her didn't say, "This belonged to my grandmother," but "This was my grandmother."

And the hands-down worst use of cremains: turning them into pencils - 250 pencils, in fact, which is what the average set of ashes translates into.

There is something completely unsettling and creepy about this. Just the thought of unconsciously chewing on your pencil while you try to solve the Friday Sudoku, forgetting for a moment that it's actually your favorite aunt..... Oh, dear. Oh, dear.

This idea has got to join the pantheon of worst products ever.

All in all, ash in ash, I like the burn and scatter method far better than funery art.

I plan on making a list of the places I wouldn't mind getting tossed: that cemetery outside Worcester, where I'll be with family; the warning track at Fenway; the Boston Public Garden (from the swan boats, discreetly); Galway Bay. I'll include travel (and game ticket) allowances in my will, and hope that those near and dear to me will occasionally think of me when they're in one of "my places."

Friday, January 19, 2007

A Jury of My Levi-Clad Peers

Earlier this month, along with 200 or so of my fellow citizens, I reported for jury duty in Suffolk County (Massachusetts) Superior Court. Unlike about 150 of them, I wasn't wearing jeans. I was wearing what I would wear to work: wool slacks, a sweater, and a jacket. Business casual-plus, as it were.

The jury attire shouldn't have surprised me. I've been observing this trend towards an ever more casual jurisprudence look for over a decade. Blue jeans, I'm guessing, have now reached a level of critical mass as jury wear. In Boston, at least, it's the wardrobe of choice when answering the jury duty call.

I am not a dress-up kind of person, and most of my days not-with-a-client are spent in jeans or their equivalent. Comfort aside, part of the attraction for me is the uniform aspect - a habit that was drilled into me from an early age. Throughout grammar school and high school, day in, day out, I wore a uniform: green jumper, white blouse. Yes, even after every other Catholic high school in the universe had moved on to the relatively cute and hip plaid skirt and blazer, my school stuck with the jumper - the tried and true look for the Catholic girl since the 1930's. Maybe the nuns liked the jumpers because they were a lot harder to hike up and turn into a mini-skirt than an actual skirt-skirt would have been.

In college, my new uniform became blue jeans, and it's been that way pretty much since. So I well understand and appreciate blue jeans.

I just don't understand and appreciate blue jeans as all occasion-wear. Shouldn't there be at least a few occasions - wakes and weddings and jury duty - that call for garb that's a notch or two up the costume food-chain?

Why isn't business casual the minimum dress requirement for serving on a jury?

Business casual - khakis and shirt with a collar for men, equivalent something or other for women - is neat, professional, and dignified. It conveys a seriousness of purpose that says that this event is more important than watching a baseball game, walking the dog, or raking leaves.

My career has been in high tech, which has combined elements of ultra casual (everyday for techies, Fridays for everyone else), business casual (most everyone), full business drag (customer-facing people on "customer days," or personal choice). Basically, it's been whatever's appropriate for the individual, the role, the group, and the occasion, and it's worked out pretty well.

That's generally worked out well.

At times casual became too casual and at various places I worked we ended up with dress codes that outlawed flip-flops, cut-offs, and belly shirts. In one place we had to create a new, impromptu rule when one of the techies showed up in what appeared to be a pajama top with holes in it, with what appeared to be claw-mark blood stains on the back.

None of that so far on jury duty, and yet...

We may not need to be all suited up like the prosecutor and defense counsel, but I think we should have been a notch above the defendant, who was wearing a battleship gray scrub shirt that said DOC (Department of Corrections) on the back in block letters and, of course, a pair of jeans.


The above was harrumph was written before we actually sat down as a jury and started to deliberate what was an exceedingly difficult and emotionally exacting case.

When it came to weighing the facts, discussing our understanding of them, sharing our interpretations (and personal experiences), and trying our damnedest to separate our gut, emotional reaction from what we were being asked to do with respect to THE LAW, it didn't make one scintilla of difference whether the jurors had on jeans, business casual, or something out of Vogue or GQ. All my fellow jurors were intelligent, thoughtful, honest, and committed to doing the right thing.

And I believe that we did it.

Ours was not an easy case or a comfortable verdict. This was not about whether Mary Smith sprained her ankle in a roller rink and feels like suing. It was not about whether someone stole the Sunday collection from a church. Or embezzled enough to retire from their employee. Or knocked the other guy unconscious during a bar fight.

Our case was really hard.

Half way through our deliberations, we discussed throwing up our hands, declaring ourselves hung (and unable to get unhung), and leaving it for both sides to make a better case and put it before 12 other jurors.

But, whatever way we voted, whatever we were wearing, everyone took the instructions of the lady in the black robe very seriously, playing the recording we were given of them over and over again, and talking each time about what she'd said - and about what it meant to us as we struggled to reach a unanimous verdict.

What was the case that was so hard? We had to decide whether the Commonwealth of Massachusetts could prove that a man who, 14 years ago, raped a child, remains sexually dangerous. The Commonwealth couldn't.

I hope that I never pick up the papers and find that this man has "recidivated" and committed another heinous offense.

But, whatever the outcome here, I will always remain convinced that this jury of denim-clad peers did the right thing, with the utmost of care, thoughtfulness, and integrity.

Gmail: some things are simply brilliant

Since I blogged about the Google culture the other day, I might as well heap some product praise their way, too. Not only is their search engine something that I rely on regularly (i.e., incessantly), but their e-mail is pretty darn good, too.

I don't use Gmail as my every-day e-mail. I pretty much just do it for my blogging. But it is a paragon of elegant design. The feature I find most brilliant is that it keeps together all of the messages exchanged in the course of a conversation, rather than stringing them along .

No more reading through a ten-mile long e-mail string (that's lost most of its initial formatting and may have been truncated). No more three dozen messages floating around with the same attachments hogging space. (Despite my settings, in comcast I have to go in and detach all files before I reply to an e-mail that includes attachments.) No more searching and fumbling around trying to figure out if you sent that reply, or got an answer.

With Gmail, all the messages are nested there together in a virtual file folder. Ultra convenient, ultra good sense.

Yes, I know it's easier to build the "next rev" of anything. You have the advantage of hearing what works and what doesn't from people who've used the product - or you've used it youself. You get to learn from the other guys' mistakes. You can design in wonderful new features from the get go, rather than have to re-engineer the entire underlying structure and interface of something that's already built.

Still, kudos to the Googlers who designed Gmail. Simply brilliant.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

They're Number One!

You can google this to prove it for yourself, but Fortune has chosen Google as its number one company in this year's Top 100 places to work. The article on Google by Adam Lashinsky is a must read in full. What follows are good bits but, I assure you, the entire article is a good byte.

First there's the mouth-watering food available at the 11 gourmet cafeterias:

Joshua Bloch, an expert on the Java software language, swears by the roast quail at haute eatery Café Seven, professing it to be the best meal on campus. "It's uniformly excellent," he raves.

I found that to be a gross distortion of the facts. The roasted black bass with parsley pesto and bread crumbs had a delicate flavor, superior mouth feel, and a light yet satisfying finish that seemed to me unmatched.

Of course, when it comes to America's new Best Company to Work For, the food is, well, just the appetizer. At Google you can do your laundry; drop off your dry cleaning; get an oil change, then have your car washed; work out in the gym; attend subsidized exercise classes; get a massage; study Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, and French; and ask a personal concierge to arrange dinner reservations. Naturally you can get haircuts onsite. Want to buy a hybrid car? The company will give you $5,000 toward that environmentally friendly end. Care to refer a friend to work at Google? Google would like that too, and it'll give you a $2,000 reward. Just have a new baby? Congratulations! Your employer will reimburse you for up to $500 in takeout food to ease your first four weeks at home. Looking to make new friends? Attend a weekly TGIF party, where there's usually a band playing. Five onsite doctors are available to give you a checkup, free of charge.

Then there's the Wi-Fi enabled commuter buses. The lectures by Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher. The breast pumps in the lactation centers so that nursing moms won't have to lug their own in. Heated toilet seats. Pajama day. (Hey, my niece has that at her camp. It sounds like fun for the kids, but would I really want to show up at work in a Lanz nightgown and LL Bean robe?)

Of course, you have to take the good with the bad, and Lashinsky found that the "employees can and do cite [the mission statement] with cloying frequency." (For the record, the mission statement calls for Google "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

There's also a hilarious part of Lashinsky's article in which he talks about flyers in the heated toilet stalls that encouraged quality assurance engineers to think about novel ways of testing code. Let's not waste a moment reading the sports section or just staring of into space. (They probably have the same type of flyers in the lactations centers, too.)

Even if you take away all the stuffed quails and heated toilet seats, there are some fundamentals that it sounds like Google does ultra-well with. Dedication. Team work. Creativity.

All Google engineers are famously required to devote 20% of their time to pursuing projects they dream up that will help the company. The projects actually have a realistic chance of being adopted too. Google News, Gmail, and the Google Finance site all sprouted from 20% time.

Who wouldn't want to work there? It sounds like the world's most fun, brainiest, creative, coolest, most energized environment. I'm no longer at a point in my life when I want to "live at work," but at one point this would have been nearly 100% appealing.

Apparently the current students at my Sloan School at MIT (where I got my business degree) fell the same way. Here's Maura Welch on the Boston Filter blogging on an article that appeared in Fortune.

If a recent trip to Silicon Valley by 85 students from MIT’s Sloan School of Management is any indication, the valley is awash with economic health. Students "enjoyed a whirlwind of introductions and sneak peeks. They talked with executives of fledgling start-ups and toured companies with market caps in the billions. They chatted with venture capitalists. And of course, they lunched at Google." While start-ups are also a big draw, 42 percent of the Sloan students were hot on summer internship prospects at Google and 26 percent would consider a full-time job at the Googleplex.

(In my day, everyone wanted to work at Bain, Booz, McKinsey or an investment bank. That is, everyone other than me. I wanted to work at a off-kilter software company in Harvard Square. Be careful what you wish for.)

If Google had been an option, the only things that give me pause are the motivational flyers in the toilets and all that "cloying" recitation of the mission statement. That all sounds a bit Mao-ist to me. But in exchange for having been able to retire at 32? I could have sucked it up and parroted all the sayings in The Little Google Book on demand.

On a more cautionary note, Lashinsky writes:

It's easy for Google's people to be energized, though, when their company is so stinking rich that it continues to ooze cash even while lavishing benefits on its staff. Just eight years out of the garage, Google will surpass $10 billion in sales for 2006. Its operating margins are a stunning 35%, and it ended the third quarter with $10.4 billion in cash. Its stock has soared from $85 a little over two years ago to a recent $483. All of which raises the question: Is Google's culture the cause of its success or merely a result? Put another way: Is Google a great place to work because its stock is at $483, or is its stock at $483 because it's a great place to work?...

So back to that $483 question: Is Google's culture great because its stock is doing well, or is its stock doing well because its culture is great? The answer, of course, is that you can't answer the question when Google's stock is at $483. Like Genentech [which Google cites as a role-model for keeping the culture alive as a company "ages] or any other company that's been through the wringer without losing the loyalty of its staff, you can gauge the impact the stock price has on the culture only once the stock takes a dive - or stalls for an uncomfortably long time (see Microsoft, 2001--06).

If and when the next best tech thing happens in Silicon Valley, or Austin, or SoHo, or Cambridge, or Research Triangle - and someday, it no doubt will... If and when the market decides that the company's on thin ice....If and when rifts develop between the got-rich-quick early employees and the got-not-so-rich-not-so-quick later employees...If and when the company gets so large that some of the perks, creativity, and teamwork become impractical...If and when the sheer amount of not-so-cool work - product maintenance, customer support, etc. means that the employee base starts including a larger complement of "normal" folks, and not just geniuses. If and when, for the latter day option holders, their paper millions shrink into real thousands...It will be interesting to see if Google will still be the techie paradise it sounds like now.

(Thanks to Inside the Cubicle for his post on this subject. I may have missed this year's Best Places to Work edition of Fortune if not for Jeffrey Treem.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


Yet another Internet company has sprung up that will help ensure that we are all staying connected, 24/7, 365, cradle to grave, and - as Buzz Lightyear used to say - "to infinity and beyond." The company's called Deathswitch - that's death-switch, not death's-witch - and what they do for you (or for the corpse and/or ashes that was the former corporeal you, or for your immortal soul) is throw a post-humous switch for you and send out e-mails to loved ones, former colleagues, business partners, enemies ("wish you were here"?). The possibilities are endless.

For the low-low price of just $20 per year, Deathswitch promises to send off whatever final messages you have tee'd up, once you're dead. Deathswitch uses (as noted on their site) include sending passwords...

The system pings subscribers every few weeks to make sure that they're current e-mail address is still active.

If a subscriber fails to respond for a predetermined period of time, Deathswitch assumes that he or she has died and begins sending out e-mail messages, which can contain documents, images and videos.

If users are going to be gone for a while (that is, a while that they can predict the length of), they can set the system to "vacation mode". One more thing to add to the pre-vacation check list: Hold the mail. Unplug the iron. Bring dog to kennel. De-activate Deathswitch.

According to the article by David Kaplan in The Houston Chronicle,

The idea for Deathswitch came from his [founder David Eagleman's] love of the Internet and "how it can extend our human experience." As society moves further into bionics, robotics and new uses for the Internet, the definition of being human is changing, Eagleman said.

Maybe I'm just prematurely lacking in posthumous imagination, but I don't see how my "sending" a queued-up e-mail message after I'm dead will exactly "extend [my] human experience." I'm guessing that, once I'm dead, I won't be seeing, hearing, or feeling a thing. Sure, it will extend the human experience of any message recipient, but in a kind of creepy way, no? And I'm glad that if and when the definition of a human being changes, my person matter - which, if I've got this right, can neither be created or destroyed - will be as one with the universe, with my sub-atomic particles now part of tulip fields, fluffy bunnies, and, say, a Nobel Prize winning novelist. (How come no one ever imagines that they'll come back as a part of a desk chair or piece of plastic crap on sale at WalMart?)

Not that I have any problem with leaving a message behind. One of these days , I'm planning on buying some nice Crane's stationery and using my fountain pen to write a few letters to be read "later." In fact, I think I'll write them after I redo my will, and after I label all the junk that came from my grandmother's house so that someone I care about will be able to figure out why I hung on to it. ("This was Nanny's cookie jar. Please do not ever, ever, ever throw it out.")

Having a letter from a dead loved one would actually be quite nice. I wish my father had written me one before he died 36 years ago. I know that I would have re-read it again and again.

But back-from-the-dead e-mails? This just sounds like one of those 'since it's possible, it could be a business' ideas that the Internet continues to spawn.

In Kaplan's article, Eagleman is quoted as saying "It would be so interesting to receive e-mail from someone who passed away."

I agree that it would be "interesting to receive e-mail" from a dead person. In fact, it would be a lot more than interesting. It would be phenomenal, heaven-and-earth shattering. It would be proof positive, a sign of something big.

Eagleman may be a brainiac, but getting an e-mail from Deathswitch is not quite the same as getting one from someone dead. It is, in fact, getting an e-mail written by someone alive and sent after their death. Not quite the same thing.

Kaplan quotes Brian Rosenthal, a friend and supporter of Eagleman (and Deathswitch subscriber) as saying that, with Deathswitch, "You can store some part of yourself that lasts beyond your life."

Well, there's nothing new about storing "some part of yourself that lasts beyond your life."

For starters, they're called children and grandchildren and sibs and nieces and nephews and cousins and friends and colleagues. They're the people who survive you (and, if all goes well, cherish your memory). But there's other stuff you leave behind, too. That story you wrote on the local Peace Corps volunteer, even though it only appeared in your high school newspaper. The painting you did of that vase of lilacs - sure, it's not all that great, but from some angles it doesn't look too bad. It's your Girl Scout badge sash. The letters your parents wrote each other during "The War." Your grandparents' ticket to Ellis Island. The Kodak pictures stored in the shoebox. The Bell and Howell "home movies" of you and your cousin running through the sprinkler. It's the video cams of baby's first Christmas and Grandma's 80th birthday.

I suppose that all kinds of online detritus will be added to the glorious mish-mash of stuff we leave behind. All well and good.

But anyone who thinks that an e-mail message is a breakthrough in terms of "some part of yourself that lasts beyond life" hasn't given all that much thought to what really happens when someone dies.

In another one of those Internet/blog begats, my friend and Opinionated Marketer colleague, John Whiteside, blogged on this the other day after he read the Kaplan article in The Chronicle. Just wanted to make sure that John was credited with this find, even though I did not quote from his post here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Spend It Like Beckham

With all the recent publicity given to the grotesque CEO compensation packages that have been rung up recently on Wall Street and in the wonderful world of hardware, the LA Galaxy signing David Beckham to a $250,000,000 contract should not have come as much of a shock.  There is, afterall, a Major League Soccer rule that lets teams make an exception or two to the $250K salary limit. And if you divide the $250,000,000 out over the five years of the contract, it's really only $50,000,000 per annum.  And if you take out the parts that aren't salary per se - the $50,000,000 tied to profits, and the $50,000,000 for shirt sales, and the $100,000,000 for sponsorship - the salary component is a measly $10,000,000 per year.  What's a mere order of magnitude or two difference in salary among team-mates.  So what if the guy sitting in front of the next locker is getting paid forty times more than I am?

OK that's nothing we haven't seen before in sports.

Why, even a middlin' kind of baseball star like Johnny Damon got more than that to change his stripes - or, rather, change into his stripes - and move to NY.

But that's baseball, and this is America, where at the professional level not that many people actually care about soccer.

And, truly, this running out and hiring a slightly older world-wide soccer super star to come to the States and see if he can change the course of American sports fandom so that it's wide enough to include soccer - well, that's nothing we haven't seen before either.

Didn't they try this a long time ago with an aging Pélé?

It will be interesting to see if the Beckham deal turns out to be worth it in terms of bringing soccer into the professional sports fold here. Interest in last year's World Cup was a good start, since it exposed a lot more Americans to the sport as something played by real professionals as opposed to 6 year-olds on Saturdays in the fall. And there is modestly growing interest in the MLS teams: I see a lot more coverage of The Revolution (the local New England team) than I used to. And my brother-in-law and niece are sure rabid fans.

But there are a couple of things that keep me from believing that having David Beckham do a star turn in America is going to completely change the fortunes and future of MLS.

For one, in most of the cases I can think of where a sport-in-trouble has been revitalized, it's been by a rivalry, not a superstar.  (And note the use of the word revitalized. Soccer has never been vitalized here to begin with.) In basketball, interest in the NBA was revived by the great Magic-Bird rivalry in the 1980's.  Post-strike baseball was brought back from the dead not just by Mark McGwire's pursuit of Roger Maris 61 home runs record, but by the fact that throughout most of the season he was running bulked-up neck and neck with the bulked up neck of Sammy Sosa. Who's Beckham going to play off of?

Maybe MLS should try to create "everybody vs. Beckham" rivalries in all of its cities.

Maybe they should see if Zenidine Zidaine, the head-butting MVP of La France's losing World Cup team, is available.

Second, while the high-priced international stars come here - which they've done off and on in the years between Pélé and Beckham - our home grown stars want to head off to play in Europe, where they can make more money, play at a higher level, get treated like rock stars - and even, like Beckham, get to marry rock stars - and play before a rabid, packed house.  Wouldn't it make more sense to spread at least part of the Beckham wealth around the other players? Maybe a local star like Clint Dempsey could stay put with the New England Revolution then.

$250,000,000 is a lot of money to spend on any one player. Sure, Beckham may sell a lot of jerseys and soccer shoes. He may draw a lot of fans into Galaxy games, home and road. He may do wonders for the professional soccer world.

But I can't help wondering whether, 5 years down field, the businessmen who put this deal together won't be kicking  - or heading - themselves.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Ticketed off

In selling tickets to yesterday's playoff game with the New England Patriots (a.k.a., Our Boys), the San Diego Chargers (a.k.a., Them) did their best to keep their home field advantage. When the last few tickets went on sale, they refused to sell them to Patriots fans (unless those fans happened to have a local credit card billing address).

This practice doesn't seem all that sporting, but on the local news the other evening, they noted that it's actually legal. Here's the story (from the LA Times):  

The Chargers, who Sunday will play host to only their second playoff game in a decade, have adopted a philosophy embraced by the surliest of wave riders: Locals only.

When the team sold its remaining 1,000 tickets for Sunday's divisional game against New England, only Southern California residents were eligible. The seats were sold Monday through Ticketmaster — the allotment was gone in 10 minutes — and residency was determined by the credit-card billing addresses. Out-of-area orders were canceled.

"Our No. 1 goal through this was to take care of our fans, the people who have supported us year-round," Chargers spokesman Bill Johnston said. "We did it in hopes of filling our stadium with Charger fans."

Linebacker Shawne Merriman said getting home-field advantage "was the goal since day one….We've seen what it can do with us. Having that 12th man when the crowd is loud and it's hard to audible can make some things happen."

Hey, I can sit here thinking that it's kind of mean-spirited of the Chargers, and that the whole thing sounds like restraint of trade. But what I'm really charged up about is the use of Ticketmaster to do their dirty work for them. If they'd announced that there were 1000 tickets for sale, and said that the first 500 fans to show up at the stadium could each buy two, I'd have been fine with that. If they'd sold them on their own Web-site and said that you had to show your colors in order to buy a ticket. Well, that's fine, too. Maybe not all that fair play-ish, but it's their stadium and their fan base.

It's getting a "neutral" third party involved in the plan that I really don't like. (Not that I like Ticketmaster much to begin with, but this I really, really don't like.) Shouldn't Ticketmaster be an equal-opportunity seller? What's next? Walk up to buy a ticket on game-day and they ask to see your driver's license or passport. If you're not a local, you're out of luck. (That is, of course, for a game that's expected to sell-out. I'm sure that there isn't a major league sports team on earth that won't sell a ticket to anyone who's willing to pay if they expect a few open seats.)

As it happens, despite the loud-proud Chargers fans trying to drown out Tom Brady's audibles, Our Boys managed to pull off a win in a squeaker - and a sloppy, nerve-wracking game -  over Them. (Apparently, playing before a full, charged up house turned out to be just the ticket.)

Maybe it's just as well that there weren't an extra thousand or so Pats' fans there. You read all the time about fans for "the other team" who get verbally abused and beaten up after a game, depending on the outcome (and how much beer was consumed). I hate to think of those poor Patriots fans running for their lives... They need to save themselves for next weeks showdown against the Colts. I wonder if there's any tickets left in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis - and whether they'd sell them to any New Englanders even if there were.

Friday, January 12, 2007


I suspect that most people have something or other that turns them into a nitpicker. The nits I personally like to pick are "fact shifts" in anything I'm reading.

If John had blue eyes in Chapter One, and 200 pages later those eyes are gray, it makes me crazy. I can't just tell myself, "Well, that was sloppy." I have to go back and prove to myself that I'm correctly remembering those baby blues. So I'll start back on page 1 and skim through until I find John's eye color. If I miss it on the first pass, I'll go back again.  This novel reading interruptus, of course, extracts a lot of the whatever pleasure I've been getting out of the book.

I'm am similarly nitpicky about anachronisms. If a character's driving a Mustang in 1958, I go wild. There were not Mustangs in 1958.

One novel I read last year was set during WWII. One of the characters used Magic Marker to draw seams on the back of her legs to make it look like she had found a pair of seamed stockings during the nylon shortage. Well, there were no Magic Markers in 1944. She would have used an eyebrow pencil.

Things like this make me nuts.

So I have to admit to having a bit of a nitpicker in my makeup.

Little did I know that there was actually such a thing as a professional nitpicker.

No, it's not a proof reader of any kind. It's someone who picks the nits out of the heads of kids with lice. And she makes $100 an hour to do it.

This story was in The Boston Globe the other day, and I found it fascinating.

Helen Hadley bends close over the target area, magnifying glass in hand. Repositioning her lamp, she peers carefully at a single hair.

‘‘There it is,’’ she murmurs as she deftly removes her specimen and transfers it for safekeeping. She turns back to her work, steely-eyed and determined.

A detective? A forensic scientist? No, the Needham woman is one of a rarer breed. She’s a professional nitpicker — yes, that’s nits, as in the eggs of head lice, and today’s crime scene is the head of a 9-year-old girl.

While over-the-counter products like Nix can kill the adult louse, the only way to eliminate the eggs is by manually removing them.

Even with a fine-toothed lice comb, it’s not an easy task. Often families think they have rid themselves of the tiny parasites, only to find a new generation thriving a few days later. For those people, Hadley is a godsend.

 Like many of us with our careers, Hadley fell into hers.  A graphic artist who chose not to make the transition to computer-based design, she got her start de-nitting her own kids. Word got out - school nurse to school nurse - and she was on her way.  She makes a pretty darn good living in the Boston area, where she may be the only nit-picking pro. She does know of others in California, Florida, and Texas.

Weirdly, head lice is something that has gotten worse over the years, not better. When I was a kid, I do not recall one instance of head lice - and I wasn't in some refined, suburban, 15 kids in a class school. I was in a 50 kids in a class urban parochial school. In seventh grade, our teacher became ill. (We learned later what her illness was when another nun, agitated about something we were doing, blurted out, "No wonder poor Sister X had a nervous breakdown.") It took a while to get a substitute teacher - it's not as if the school was actually going to go out and pay someone - so while they looked around for someone, they doubled us up with the eighth grade class, 2 to a desk. Nearly 100 kids in one classroom. Ah, those were the days. But they were also the days of NO NITS.  Was it good old DDT that saved us?

As a kid, I associated head lice with something that took place in yester-year. Laura in the Little House books might have had it in the late 180o's. Or Betsy, Tacy, and Tib in 1905. No one in my day and age.

Now, almost everyone I know has either dealt with it themselves or knows someone who has. A few years ago, I was supposed to meet a friend for a drink after work. She didn't show up, and I couldn't reach her by phone, so I gave up. The next day she called all apologetic.  Late in the day, her husband had called to tell her that all three of their kids had lice. She'd jetted home to shampoo, de-louse, boil her kids' bedding, and in general do whatever she could do to take care of that particular piece of nasty business.

If only she'd known about her local nit-picker, I'm sure she would have given her a shout.

From a marketing perspective, you have a strong value proposition and clear message.  And as professions go, I'm guessing that this one is fairly gratifying. You're doing a tremendous service. It pays well. And it may even be kind of fun since it's a little like a treasure hunt. Combing and picking is probably soothing in its own way. And when the project is over, it's over. Done deal. The nitpicker rides off into the sunset, and the family gets back to its life.

And it's one job that will never be off-shored.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Mary Schmidt has a good post on what to look out for when you're involved in strategic planning sessions. Here's Mary's 5 Thin-Slicing Observations re Strategic Planning: (Go read Mary to figure out what thin-slicing means.)

1. Does the facilitator use words such as “dialoging” and “consensus?” (a lot) There’s nothing wrong with either in practice . But, way too many facilitators can sing the words while being totally clueless about how to write the music.

2. Do the participants look happy to be here? Or, are they more focused on the quality and quantity of the bagels in the back of the room?

3. Is somebody besides the facilitator writing? A good session should spark creativity and ideas in all participants and they should be scribbling away.

4. Is the CEO/top manager participating? Or, is he/she off in a different strategic “top level” (and “top secret”) retreat with “senior management” and/or the board?

5. Are people anxious to speak up? Are they having difficulty letting others complete their sentence? Or, is everyone meekly and quietly following the “operating rules” with the result being a lot of dead air. You can practically see the thought balloons, “Let’s just get this over with and hit the bar.” That’s most definitely not the right kind of consensus.

This, naturally, got me thinking about strategic planning in general and consensus in particular.

"Consensus" is a double edged sword, of course. You want people to get behind the strategy - we all know it won't work if people aren't on board. But sometimes in looking for consensus, you end up with faux-sensus. Everyone gives lip service because they think it's the right or expected thing to do.  Or because they're annoyed that they're not going to get their way. Or because they just want to get the planning session over with.  Or because, whatever the outcome, they're just going to do what they want to do anyway.

As a result you get to toll the death knell for any strategic plan: it won't get executed.

I worked in one company where we had a market strategy that was precisely articulated and reasoned.  Central to the strategy was our plan to go after companies with revenues between $100M and $1B. Everyone "seemed" to agree with the strategy. The CEO would talk about it at company meetings. It's what we said about ourselves on the web site. It's how we executed our marketing campaigns.

The big problem: sales didn't really like the idea. The sales people kept getting involved in "opportunities" (actually faux-portunities) that we had about a 1% chance of winning (there was a reason why we'd come up with the mid-market strategy to begin with). But the sales guy wanted "logo" deals to companies they'd heard of. Rather than have someone put the brakes on sales going where we were seldom successful selling, everyone seemed to fall right in. The CEO would go on calls, marketing would get sucked into working on the RFP's, etc.

The end result, neither the "official" strategy, or the sub-rosa sales strategy worked. What a mess. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Endless, My Foot!

Over on the Business Week blog, Rob Hof has a post on a new Amazon enterprise. It's a site called which specializes in shoes and handbags.

A lot of people tell me that they would never consider buying shoes over the Internet, since they worry about whether the shoe fits. I have ordered my shoes from catalogs, and, more recently, on the We,  for years. I have a very simple reason for doing this: I wear a size - 10 AAA (the only too-thin body part I possess) - that is seldom if ever found in shoe stores. 

Finding shoes that fit is made both possible and easy by the Internet. In a lot of cases, I already "know the brand" and know whether the last will fit. When I try a new brand, having to send it back if it's wrong is worth the gamble. Catering to "I-me-mine" brands is what the Internet does best. No one shoe store wants to carry an inventory in a size that few people wear, but when aggregated over the universe, well, there are probably a lot of us gals with feet that, if you put yellow socks on them, would resemble bananas.  

So I took a look at and found that, when it came to my size, the choice could scarcely be categorized as endless. I searched for shoes in my size and the site only listed 3 pairs. (Over on Zappos, the yield was 66 pairs to choose from.)

I agree with Rob that, for Amazon, furthering its brand by having specific brands that deal with different product categories makes more sense than having Amazon expand into a 100% aggregator of all things to all buyers.  Books and CDs are one thing. It makes sense to sell them in the same place. Books and shoes? I'm not buying. Good for Amazon for further spreading its vast wings - and exploiting all the infrastructure it's put in place around Internet shopping without diluting or confusing its core brand. That's smart business. And gives Amazon endless possibilities for expansion if people really do stop reading books and listening to CDs.

But as for the inventory on Well, endless, my 10 AAA foot.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

I'll See You in the Courtroom

This is not quite just in....the article went out on the AP Wire late yesterday afternoon...but it seems that some disgruntled Apprentice wanna-be is suing The Donald, and everyone else involved with the series, for age discrimination. The plaintiff is Richard Hewett, an IT guy from New Hampshire.

Hewett was 49 when he was rejected in July 2005, and claims in his lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court that only two of the finalists covering six seasons have been over 40. He alleges Trump and the show's producers are in violation of the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"People watching it get the impression that if you want to work for a big organization like the Trump Organization you have to be young," Hewett told The Associated Press in a phone interview Monday. He's seeking unspecified damages.

I went over to the Trump blog to see if Donald has responded to this shot across the bow, but in his latest personal post he's still cranking on what a loser Rosie is. (Talk about sandbox 'na-nee, na-nee, poo-poo'.)

Trump has released a statement, however:

"We have had very few people over a certain age apply to be on the show," said Trump, the show's executive director. "If they did and we liked them, we would love to cast them on the show."

The candidates have ranged from age 21 to 41.

From what I've seen - and I watch the shoe occasionally, but not regularly - of the over a million people (!) who have tried out for The Apprentice, they haven't managed to choose many finalists who weren't fit, don't have good teeth - and don't have better hair than the apprentice-master himself. I sense a class action suit coming on.

But for the life of me, I can't imagine why anyone over a certain age (mid-twenties?) would want to be on the show for a minute. You get to a point in your life and in your career where you no longer want to eat dirt or crow or whatever the candidates on that show do when they have their close encounters with The Donald.  You get to a point where you are unable to do the currying and sucking up that this show seems to demand. ("Oh, Mr. Trump, I just want to thank you for the wonderful opportunity." Sniff, sniff. "And I also want to say that you're making a big mistake.")

Who would want to have their less than stellar moments captured on camera? Who would want to have the management team - Donald, George, Carolyn/Ivanka - criticize their performance (and their personal attributes) for the TV audience? Who would want to feign interest as one of the world's biggest business blow-hards goes on about how everything he sets his hand to turns into the biggest, best, foremost whatever?

And who would want to live in a dorm room - no matter how glitzy the address - and sleep in a twin bed with a roommate; be away from family, friends, colleagues, home, comfort, and stuff and live for a couple of months in a tense, conniving, and phoney environment; and share the bathroom with a complete stranger?

All for the honor of getting a "six-figure salary" and the opportunity of a lifetime to work  on some over-the-top Trump project.

No thanks. I think I'll just stay in my comfy chair with the channel cruiser.

Is We Really Smarter than Me?

Hey, I'm a smart enough cookie, and because I'm so smart, I'm willing to accept that there are plenty of times and places where an individual "you" and a collective "we" might well be a lot smarter than me.

I don't, of course, accept this across the boards. Certainly, there have been plenty of elections in my lifetime that have disproved the wisdom of the collective . And I remember reading a poll a while back that showed that the majority of my fellow citizens believe in creationism rather than evolution. (I googled this to make sure I was remembering it right. I was. In a late-2004 poll, CBS News found that 55% of Americans believed that "God created humans in their present form." Note that this is NOT "God created evolution"; it's "He took 100 pounds of clay" creationism. But I digress.)

Given that part of my personal belief system is that "we" can, indeed, be smarter than "me," I read of the "We Is Smarter than Me" project with interest. For those unfamiliar with it, I'll let the smarter than me guys speak for themselves:

Be an author of the first networked book on business.  Together we will write the book on how the emergence of community and social networks will change the future rules of business.  Collaborate with authors from MIT, Wharton, and thousands of professionals from around the world. See your name in print when the book is published next fall by Pearson Publishing

I will admit that I haven't had a great deal of success with collective writing efforts since Sister Josephine of the Sacred Heart had us write a hideous joint essay freshman year in high school in which each row was responsible for a different sentence. One of the worst I ever saw was an expensive brochure for a company I once worked for that let each different product group write and design its own section. Still, I surrendered to the collective wisdom that says that the world of business (if not of literature and brochure-writing) is changing. It is no small point in the favor of the "we is smarter" folks that "we" have a book contract, while "me"....Well, not yet. And then there's the fact the authors won't make any money off of the book, while the "paid professionals" involved in it presumably will. (I told you "we" is probably smarter than "me.")

In any case, eager to collaborate with authors from MIT, including folks from the Center for Collective Intelligence who are from Sloan School, where I got my business degree (which I choose to interpret as some type of certificate of smartness), I signed up to participate in the writing of "the book."

Well, I signed on as an author in late November and, shame on me, I haven't been back over there authoring up brilliant ideas as part of the smart set. But shame on the "we are smarter" folks, too. Since signing up, I haven't received one communication from them. I would have expected at least a little "welcome on board" message that would encourage me to get my smart on and start authoring.

Well, I have a lot to do this week. But by the end of the month I'm going to smarten up and start writing about something. I hope I'm smart enough to throw something that matters into the collective book hopper. It will certainly be interesting to see the end product (which I'm guessing will be well and closely edited, and contain interesting nuggets from a whole slew of "me's").

But if we're so darn smart, wouldn't we have figured out that part of building community is sending a cheery little welcoming message over to the newcomer's house?

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Enron Mystery Deepens

In the January 8th New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell writes about Enron in an article entitled "Open Secrets." As with every topic that Gladwell sets his pen to, the article is lucid, interesting, and provocative.

He writes about the sentencing hearing of Jeffrey Skilling, and notes the "victim impact statements" of former employees who've lost jobs, savings, retirement dreams - or, having read their testimony, have lost faith (in the system), hope (that they'll be able to retire on anything other than dogfood), and charity.

Here's one comment:

"Mr. Skilling has proven to be a liar, a thief, and a drunk,” a woman named Dawn Powers Martin, a twenty-two-year veteran of Enron, told the court. “Mr. Skilling has cheated me and my daughter of our retirement dreams. Now it’s his time to be robbed of his freedom to walk the earth as a free man.” She turned to Skilling and said, “While you dine on Chateaubriand and champagne, my daughter and I clip grocery coupons and eat leftovers.” And on and on it went.

(I have posted on this earlier, and continue to believe that, whatever crimes were committed by Skilling et al., and whatever their personal faults - 'liar, thief, drunk' - a lot of the individual losses suffered were a) paper losses above all else, and b) the result of bad - uninformed? naive? wrong-headed? stupid? - investment decisions that had people putting all of their retirement eggs in one Enron basket.)

Gladwell is not here to write about the feelings of Enron employees, however. The article deals primarily with a general phenomenon, with specific reference to Enron, and that phenomenon is the reason why it's so hard to figure some things out. Gladwell's argument rests on the distinction between a puzzle and a mystery. A puzzle is something that you can solve if you have all the pieces you need. A mystery is something in which all the evidence/information is available, but it may take a lot of work to filter through the information and discern what's a real clue from noise.

Enron, Gladwell asserts, was a mystery, not a puzzle. The clues that would have led someone to conclude that Enron was going to fold were all there in plain sight and no one at Enron was really trying to hide them. It's just that few people were able to - or chose to - see them. The few that did included reporters for the WSJ, a short-seller, and a team of Cornell MBA students who analyzed the Enron financials as a course project.

The issue this article raised (implicitly) about the sentences imposed on Skilling and company is troubling. To me, the sentences seem more proportional to "feelings" - outrage of employees and shareholders who feel screwed (whether they were or not by anything other than their own misjudgments); a general public fed up with executive greed, arrogance, and hubris; and the justice system looking to create an example/deterrent - than they do to the actual crime.

Maybe, just maybe, the information was so overwhelmingly complex and convoluted that a lot of those who should have known better (Skilling, Fastow) were as much in over their heads - and too greedy and arrogant to recognize it - as they were in cahoots to defraud employees and shareholders.

As a result of Enron the other scandals, we see companies fall (and with them all those jobs, pensions, and share value). And we get new regulations that virtually everyone concedes cost more than they're worth. What we get in return is the spectacle of CEO's in the slammer. Not such a great bargain, however viscerally satisfying and justified these sentences may be.

If all this doesn't represent a dead weight economic loss, we need to change its definition.

We have a really interesting long term issue here around how we are going to handle the hyper-growth in information, in information complexity, and in the creation of new financial instruments (like the SPEs that helped bring Enron down) without becoming paralyzed or making ourselves all crazy.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Would that it were so..."Brand Abstinence"

Over on The Business Filter, Maura Welch had a post yesterday on the notion of "Brand Abstinence" which has been put forth by an outfit called Piers Fawkes, which I suppose I should have heard from but haven't.

Piers Fawkes predicts that 2007 will see a rise in "brand abstinence," a trend caused by a mix of ethical consumerism and brand disappointment in which consumers will develop apathy for new product purchases. Some companies will try to offer us guilt-free purchases (ex: products made from recycled materials, the Prius) but Fawkes believes a rising number of consumers will simply recycle, re-craft or maintain and retain products instead of buying new ones. When eco-conscious products are not available more and more people are saying, "Why should I replace my phone so often? Why upgrade my PC, my car?"

Maura ends on a note that all this junk ends up in a poison-seeping landfill in China, so good thing if we stop overconsuming crap we don't need.

I'm not - never have been, never will be - a 100% practitioner of brand abstinence. I like stuff - and urban life - too much to toss it all over and move to a cabin where I spin my own wool and use my personal, ah, droppings, to fertilize my root garden. Where I squeeze berries to make ink and brush my teeth (or will it be tooth?) with a twig.

But I've never been a major league acquirer. I drive an aging, beat-up, but high MPG car. My furniture is aging and beat-up, too. My boom-box is outsized and you really need to lean on the lid to get it to start playing a CD. My cell phone could conceivably do text messaging, but I don't. My PDA is a separate device entirely and does no more than it did when I got it seven years ago (i.e., keep my calendar).

I will likely break any Brand Abstinence vow I might take by getting an iPod this year. But I can convince myself that it's something of a necessity. I make a long haul commute from Boston to Syracuse every few months and, given that I was too cheap to get a CD player in my car, I have to rely on my tape deck - and my aging and beat-up tapes to get me through the trip. Half of the tapes I like are worn out - they're probably 20 years old - so I kinda-sorta-need an iPod. But I'm happy to live with my 20 year old kitchen that's so dated it might actually be hip again at some point.

And I think that Brand Abstinence could well become an exciting new parlor game as we all sit around trying to out-do each other with brands that EVERYBODY should be abstaining from. Dibs on Hummer.

The only thing that keeps me from getting wildly excited about Brand Abstinence taking off is my fear that our economy is so wobbily based on our insane consumption habits that it'll crumble if we stop spending our Sundays worshiping in the 21st century cathedrals - Best Buy, WalMart, and Target - buying junk that's already obsolete before we get it home and manage to claw-hammer our way through the plastic "clam shells" it's all packaged in.

And then there's that pit-of-the-stomach feeling that this "trend", if it materializes as anything more than an infinitesimally small blip on the consume-dar screen to begine with, will die fast and be replaced by the next new thing.

Which would be too bad. No, more than too bad. It will actually be terrible if at some point soon we don't take real stock of how much stuff we can and should accumulate within the constraints of finite resources, sustainability, an increasingly fragile planet, and common decency.

I won't be around to see it, by I still hate to think that 100 years from now we'll have overplayed our consumption hand so badly that the only consumer options will be some futuristic equivalent of berry squeezing and twig toothbrushes.

So out of it

I recently followed a blog lead and went to the Piers Fawkes site to read the urtext on an article on Brand Abstinence (which I'll post on later today).

Running across the top of their site was a banner that said Josh reads it. Malcolm reads it. Seth reads it. Now you read it.

Seth I got right away. At least I think so. Marketing guru Seth Godin, right?

Malcolm took me a blink. My first thought was Malcolm Forbes, but I believe he's dead. So he's probably not reading Piers Fawkes. They must mean Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker.

Josh is a stumper for me. Josh Groban? Josh Hartnett? Josh the guy who lives upstairs? Josh who????????

I have a long history of being out of it, and there's no real need to rectify this condition now. Piers Fawkes may or may not have my readership, but they did get my attention.

Anyone out there got a clue who the mystery man is? Maybe there is no Josh. Maybe he's everyman. Maybe it's a little Piers Fawkes in-joke designed to wrack all would-be readers' nerves. Maybe it's someone so obvious that I'll be permanently enshrined in the Clueless Hall of Fame. Somebody, anybody, help me please. WHO IS JOSH?