Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Skinned Ya: Just what is a baseball card worth?

My cousin Robert never forgave his mother for packing up all of his baseball cards (without his permission) and giving them to his younger cousins. That would be me and my siblings. We pawed through the cache of cards - there were well over a thousand of them -  looking for ballplayers who were still active or who at least we'd heard of.

Cousin Rob went on to become a very astute and successful businessman, and to this day he bemoans the fact that all those cards would be WORTH A LOT OF MONEY TODAY. How much could he have gotten for a mint-condition Lou Boudreau? That "Ted Williams is back from Korea" card? A Mickey Mantle rookie year?

Unfortunately, the Rogers' children were not hoarders, we were destroyers. Few toys beyond a couple  of moth-eaten stuffed animals survived our collective childhoods. I always envied my friends - typically only children or children with one sister - who still have Barbie dolls in their boxes, Gilbert Erector Sets, the "real" version of Candyland. While they were keeping their toys and games in pristine condition, we were playing "let's cut Little Lulu's arms off", "let's stretch that Slinky out and see how long it is," and "let's see if we can smash open that pooner and see if we can get the little metal elephant out." (A pooner, for those who never played marbles, is the big marble you'd use as a shooter. And no, while I was able to chip away at the pooner, I never managed to extract that tiny little elephant.)

So if real toys made out of cloth, metal, glass, and plastic didn't survive in our house, what chance did baseball cards have?

Little to none.

Since Robert may be reading this, I regret to report that the cards he so long lamented the loss of were really not good for much. At first, they were OK for flipping, but after a while the other kids caught on that we were playing with cards that they didn't care to win. Some kid would be gleefully yelling "skinned ya" when he wiped us out, only to find out that all he'd won were the 1952 St. Louis Browns. It didn't matter to us if we got "skunned". Who cared? It wasn't like the cards we lost were any good.

Robert's cards did have some minor use as flashcards for my baby sister Trish (known then as Po). We would show her the cards and she would tell us who the players were. (One of her first complex words was Gary Geiger (ga-gy-guy-gah) - an outfielder for the Red Sox.) But a toddler has only so much patience, so much interest in memorizing the names of ballplayers.

No, the primary use of Robert's stash of baseball cards was to attach them to the spokes of our bicycle wheels with clothespins so that we'd make that entirely satisfying, clackety-clack sound as we road around. And since nobody wanted to wreck current cards - unless they were triplicates of really bad players - by using them on their bikes, we could keep every kid in the neighborhood happy. And, as anyone who's ever attached a baseball card to their bicycle spokes knows, they get soft after a while and no longer make such a satisfying clacking sound. So you need to change them often.

I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Robert, but that's where your cards went. (And thanks to your preservationist instincts, your cards - packed so tightly in those shoe boxes, unexplosed to the softening air - had stayed pretty darned crisp.)

I am quite sure, however, that among the many cards his mother gave us, there was not a 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card. There are only a few dozen of them left. Most are long gone. Perhaps my father used one on his bicycle. He was not alive in 1909, so if he had a Honus Wagner, it would have to have been a hand-me-down from an older cousin, given on the sly to my father by his Aunt Roseanne or Uncle Pat. Little would he have known that some day that Honus Wagner card  - called, in the article I saw, "The Holy Grail of baseball cards" - would fetch $2.35M when it was sold earlier this week.


For a baseball card.

The world is indeed a wondrous place.

I'm sure that my cousin Robert read the story with interest, and not without a pang.

What card among the thousands that my Aunt Margaret brought us on that long ago day might actually have ended up being worth something someday?

The Mel Parnell? The Dom DiMaggio? The Jimmy Piersall?

If only his mother had let Robert hang on to them. If only his ghastly younger cousins had been more forward thinking about their value.  If only we had been more careful, less given over to the folly of noisemaking bicycles. If only we'd been less sneakily triumphant when we let some chump think that he'd skinned us, when all he'd really gotten was some useless old baseball cards that nobody wanted anyway.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dice-K URLs - "Speculative Intent"

The headline on the business page of last Monday's Boston Globe read "Web name loophole exploited for profit." Since I have a colleague who's got some Web names that he wouldn't mind exploiting for a profit, I thought I'd give the article (an AP wire story by Anick Jasdnun) a quick scan.

The article described a grace-period that's available to those who put a claim on a URL. Apparently, you have 5 days before paying to figure out whether there's going to be any interest in the URL as a mechanism for generating advertising revenues. The pracitce of grabbing lots of URLs and figuring out whether there's any there there is called "tasting," and is aimed at trapping those who mistype in an address. Instead of getting "site not found," you got to the faux site that will contain ads and links - as likely as not, to the offers and and sites of rivals. In December the number of daily tastings averaged 1.2 million.

Here's how tasting works:

Speculators write software to automatically register hundreds or thousands of names. Some are variants of trademarks or generic keywords that Internet users are likely to type -- or mistype. Others are names grabbed after their original owners fail to renew.

During the grace period, the entrepreneur puts up a Web page featuring keyword search ads and receives a commission on each ad clicked. Services like Google Inc.'s AdSense for Domains and Yahoo Inc.'s Domain Match help large domain name owners set them up, even as the search companies officially oppose abuses in tasting.

Addresses likely to generate more than the $6 annual cost of domain name are kept -- not a high threshold given how lucrative search advertising is these days.

The rest are thrown back into the pool on the fourth or fifth day, only to be grabbed by another group of domain name tasters

This article also quotes the CMO of a "brand protection firm" - and who ever heard of such a thing - as saying that the system"allows people with criminal or speculative intent to dominate."

Now, regarding the URLs that my buddy managed to snag once Dice-K was signed...

When the Red Sox signed Japanese ace Daisuke Matsuzaka, my colleague - whom I shall call "Mr. T" - jumped right on a few Dice-K URLs. He is more of what I would call a lifelong Red Sox fan than what I would call an out-and-out URL speculator, but his intent was, frankly, speculative. What the hell, Mr. T thought. Let's see if someone is interested in any of these. He didn't grab these URLs by spamming or scamming. He went online and signed up for them. No tasting: he paid for the full meal. Now he wants to know if anyone else is interested in taking a bite.

Like me, Mr. T is already a Dice-K fan. Unlike me, Mr. T has not - at least to my knowledge - yet penned a haiku tribute. Here is mine:

Dice-K fans
Nation cheers.

And that was even before I knew that Dice-K would be wearing Damon-san's number.

Back to the URLs that Mr. T owns:

I don't want to put words in Mr. T's mouth here, but, as his agent of sorts, I will state that he does not want these URLs to go to anyone with intent to trash or make fun of Dice-K, anyone who is now or ever has been a fan of the New York Yankees, or anyone who would be up to no good here. He would prefer to make these URLs available to Dice-K himself, to his translator, to his agent Scott Boras, or to other nice guys. Members of Red Sox Nation. Sons of Sam Horn. Dirt Dogs. Rem Dawgs. Theo Epstein.

Mr. T especially welcomes friendlies. But business is business, and Mr. T is no fool when it comes to business.

Anyone interested in a Dice-K URL, click on the link and you'll find a way to contact Mr. T.

Principals only, please.

Act now. This offer will not be repeated. The season starts in just a few weeks.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Broad Air Conditioning: Environmental China

The other day, in a discussion on global warming, someone mentioned that China - for all its deserved reputation for filthy brown air and environmental laxity - had a jump on the States when it came to investment in green technology. I filed this comment away, but out it popped when I read James Fallows' fascinating article on the founder of Broad Air Conditioning in the March Atlantic Monthly ("Mr. Zhang Builds His Dream House").

The article profiled Zhang Yue, Broad's Founder and CEO - in all his entrepreneurial, exuberantly capitalist glory. Sure, there's an element of make-fun in the article: the Broad compound includes life-sized bronze statues of Zhang's heroes, including James Watt, the Wright Brothers, Rachel Carson, Mahatma Gandhi, Confucius, Socrates, and Jack Welch. (Jack always manages to land himself in pretty good company, doesn't he?) Not to mention a gold-covered pyramid. And then there's the weird - and weirdly Maoist - employee training and ongoing communal activities (accordion orchestras, anyone?).

But there's no overlooking what Mr. Zhang is doing right, and that's all about the environmental consciousness of his efforts - the Broad air conditioners, which are non-electric absorption chillers that produce cold from hot using natural gas rather than electric energy and freon. As their web site states, this "seems like magic to many, but the science of absorption is like the blood running through BROAD’s veins."

The site is quite instructive about their process:

[With Broad chillers] chilled water is produced directly by burning fuel, harnessing the sun or recycling waste energy streams through a repeatable chemical process called the absorption cycle. This single energy conversion becomes important when comparing with electric chiller performance which requires a five fold process of energy conversion. Electric chillers require fossil fuel conversion into heat, heat into mechanical energy, mechanical into power, power into mechanical energy and finally mechanical energy into chilled water. The second law of thermodynamics teaches us that there is some loss in every energy conversion which results in energy waste. Thus, electric chillers consume much primary energy and create the need for a large electric grid to serve only a few hours of peak demand each year. BROAD non-electric chillers, on the other hand, burn clean fossil fuels, can recycle any waste heat above 90 oC or use the sun’s rays and dramatically reduce the need to invest in generating, transmitting and distributing peak electric energy.

Broad products don't come cheap - they're "double and even triple the cost of competitor's chillers." But they promise ROI through energy savings - so far, they claim to have saved their customers 4 million tons of oil - and lower cost to install and run. Among the benefits of their approach: during the non-heating season, natural gas is often just burnt off. With Broad products, it's utilized at off-peak prices.

Broad is also all about sustainable development, environmental friendliness, and the importance of being green. Since we hear so much about how costly and economically devastating it is to be environmentally conscious - it's one of the major pillars of the "there's no such thing as global warming, and even if there were we can't afford to do anything about it" argument - it's interesting to hear about a successful business with a different approach to a product that in its most common state is a major user of fossil-fuel powered electricity - with Broad, CO2 emissions and pollution are reduced.

OK. I can't resist. In addition to plentiful information on their technology and philosophy, in addition to all the "firsts" and "bests" that Broad brags about, their web site also includes enough "house of weird" stuff to keep us Western snobs amused. Much of the goofy stuff is contained in the pictures and descriptions of the hotels in the Broad complex (where, by the way, all of the wooden fixtures and flooring are created from recycled packing crates). The hotels seem to be inhabited exclusively by Chinese school girls, in stilted poses. One is pictured sitting on a bare wooden floor reading a book, another appears to be picking her teeth in the bathroom mirror. Those who like to look down their condescending and snotty noses at the mysterious East will be amused by the wacky translation that accompanies a picture of the Spanish-themed hotel:

Childish mini three-table set, that clumsy bookcase and the ox skull have made up the Spanish characters.


But we laugh, of course, at our own economic peril.

If we don't figure out how to create more environmentally friendly products and a greener way of living, someone else is going to do it for us. It looks as if Broad has gotten something of a broad jump on us here.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The JetBlue Blues

JetBlue's Valentine's Day meshugas has not quite managed to trump all other news events. That's because there have been such major items as what's to become of Anna Nicole Smith's body which lies moldering, just unfortunately not in the grave. And, locally, we have understandably had to devote prime time to the urgent news that New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's and his ex-girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan, are expecting. Yet another celebrity having a baby wouldn't be that big a deal, but we're talking about Tom Brady, the guy everyone in this area - man, woman, child - has a crush on - and the fellow who's been portrayed as so clean-cut, wholesome, and nice-guy-ish that to even suggest any hint of caddishness just seems, well, caddish. (When St. Tom of Brady and said ex-girlfriend  - depending on who's commenting, that would be St. Bridget of Moynahan, Virgin and Martyr or Mary Magdalene's evil sister, Jezebel - trekked to Rome a couple of years back, we were subjected to all kinds of coverage of their call on the Pope.)

But I digress...

JetBlue's massive flight cancellation troubles, and their attempts to recover from it, have managed to stay in the headlines for over a week now. According to many voices in the mainstream media, talking-head TV and the blogosphere, staying in the news has been about all the JetBlue has been managing to do lately.

Last Wednesday Boston got smacked with an ice storm, and for much of the Midwest-Northeast, it was a bad weather, no school day. Yes, we get bad weather all the time, but this storm was truly terrible. It may not sound like it should be, but 2 inches of ice is far worse to dig out of than 2 feet of snow. When I went to dislodge my car the day after the storm, I felt like I was on Shackleton's South Pole Expedition. Even though we've had a few days of above freezing temperature since, the ice mounds, fields, banks, floes, and shards that are all over the city will be here until Opening Day in April.

Due to the grossly inclement weather, flights last Wednesday were completely bollixed up. Under the conditions, all airlines experienced delays and cancellations, but apparently only JetBlue managed to leave plane-loads of passengers sitting on the runway for 11 hours. And, unlike in the good old days when stranded passengers could just complain about it after they got back to the gate, in this day and age they can send real-time videos of their fellow-travelers trying to cope with overheated cabins, clogged plumbing, and lack of water, and debating whether to wrest control of the plane, activate the hatches, and slide down to the runway so they could grab some supplies at Au Bon Pain.

As the story unfolded, we came to learn that JetBlue was the carrier hit worst terms of their operations. Nearly a week after the fact, they were still doing wholesales flight cancellation, trying to play catch up and get their planes and crews where they needed to be, not where they were. For a number of airports, that meant canceling all flights - in and out - while JetBlue tried to get planes where they needed to go, and gave their crews the rest required.

Well, caveat traveler to anyone who counts on friendly skies during February, when as often as not there's a big storm of some sort. Still, this being school vacation week in these parts, I do feel bad for all those Disney-bound families and cruise bound teachers trying to escape the winter for a bit of fun in the sun.

JetBlue tried its darnedest to remedy the situation by hiring charter flights, adding flights where they could, rebooking passengers, booking seats on other airlines, as well as refunding fares, paying for hotel rooms, giving out freebies for later travel. A major spendathon trying to make things right. And from a PR perspective, they did the right thing getting their senior executives out their apologizing and taking the heat in pretty short order.

But what I didn't see early on were the reasons why all this was happening with JetBlue and not the other guys. I made a few trips to their web site and, while they had sparse but clear and decent information on the cancellations, how to rebook, and how folks were going to get their checked bags back, but there was little "why" information that I could find.

Maybe they don't believe in excuses, but there's a difference between excuses and reasons. And I think it would have helped people (once they'd calmed down at bit) if they could have gotten a better understanding of the reasoning behind why JetBlue got so tangled up. The airline should have explained why this happened - if it's the downside of their relatively inexpensive flights, or the fact that they're a relatively young and inexperienced operation, I think that they should have come clean. And explained what lessons they learned from this and how they would do things different if they had to do things over again.

JetBlue's still trying to make up and make good. Earlier this week they unveiled a "Customer Bill of Rights," and I noted with interest that one of the items on it states that when they have cancellations and diversions, they will notify customers of their cause.(Maybe most people wouldn't care, but travelers like me sure would.)

The Bill of Rights is pretty specific about remedies for customers impacted by "Controllable Irregularities" which is apparently how they're categorizing their own operational screwups. (Obviously, they can't make guarantees about the weather.) There are vouchers of different amounts depending on the length of the departure or ground delay. Guaranteed access to food, drink, toilets,and medical help during ground delays. And no more 11 hours on the tarmac due to a ground delay, either. After 5 hours, you get to deplane.

My personal favorite guarantee is the overbooking one: Customers who are involuntarily denied boarding shall receive $1,000.  

(I have occasionally watched Airline, a reality TV show about Southwest Airlines. Based on what I've seen on the show, Southwest has a little too much aggressive friendliness for my taste. And since I really don't want a stewardess leading a sing-a-long, thank-you, I would not put them high on my airline of choice list. But they also seem to make a habit of overbooking, and a number of the episodes I've seen show their nice and friendly personnel dealing with not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers. In the shows on overbooking, the nice and friendly Southwest personnel are shown trying to bate the not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers into swearing at them or downing a drink or too so that they can better tolerate dealing with the Southwest nice and friendly personnel. Drinking and cussing appear to give the nice and friendly Southwest personnel a reason to ban the not so nice and friendly overbooked passengers from the flight, thus easing Southwest's overbooking problem. Yet again, I digress, but I'm wondering if Southwest will end up matching the $1000 overbooking promise from JetBlue. Since Southwest seems to run on overbooking, I somehow doubt it.)

Back to our friends at JetBlue:

In addition to the Bill of Rights, they're also apologizing all over the place: on their web site and in the local papers where they provide service. Well, if may be all spin, but they certainly come across as one abject airline that's truly sorry and trying to make things better - not just with their Bill of Rights, but by "putting a comprehensive plan in place to provide better and more timely information to your, more tools and resources for our crewmembers and improved procedures for handling operational difficulties."

JetBlue, of course, has a lot to be sorry about. Their heretofore excellent reputation has been clobbered, their stock price has been trashed, and they're still contending with thousands of ticked off customers (and ex-customers). But they're not trying to brazen this out by blaming the weather, either. And, with the Customer Bill of Rights, they're putting their money where their apology is.

Everyone I know who flies JetBlue gives them pretty high marks for service and value. The airline doesn't have to get a permanent black eye out of all this. Time - and the next time they have a big problem on their hands - will tell us whether they've really figured things out. (As will seeing whether they start trying to weasel out of things by defining "Controllable Irregularity" so narrowly that the only "Controllable Irregularlity" would be CEO David Neeleman's lying down in front of a taxi-ing pane. You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to.)

'Til then, I'll just chalk it up to growing pains - JetBlue doing the growing, and for this past week at least, their customers feeling the pain.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Who Wants to Be a Plain Old Millionaire?

If I'm in the car, I usually have NPR on, but it was mid-afternoon and I wasn't all that interested in the topic du jour (water on Mars), and my fall-back radio station (WUMB - the only full-time folk and acoustic station in the world) was playing too much interview and not enough music. So I turned on a third choice - an oldies station - that actually plays good sign-along music when they're not blaring mind-numbing ads.

But one of the blaring, mind-numbing ads caught my ear.

Chock Full o' Nuts is running a knock-off American Idol contest looking for someone to sing their old advertising jingle. (You could win $75K.)

In the good old days, there was little escaping the Chock Full tune - fewer stations, fewer advertisers - and it rattles around the brains of anyone who watched more than 4 minutes of TV in the 50's and 60's, along with the theme song to Gilligan's Island (which a guy I used to work with whistled non-stop - and off-key), and images of the Jolly Green Giant (ho-ho-ho) and Speedy Alka-Seltzer. (For Boston-locals, it competes for shelf-space with the old ad for Adams and Swett Carpets: How many cookies did Andrew eat? Andrew ate eight-thousand. How do you keep your carpets clean? Call ANdrew-8-8000. And with Bib Brother, Bob Embry, playing So Long, Small Fry on his ukele.)

The ad promoting the Chock Full contest had someone singing the little ditty for us - just to refresh our memories. But I noticed one very tiny little change that they'd made to update things for modern sensibilities.

What used to be "Chock Full o' Nuts is that heavenly coffee (heavenly coffee, heavenly coffee)...better coffee a millionaire's money can't buy" is now "....better coffee a billionaire's money can't buy."

Does this mean that millionaire no longer has any cachet? That it no longer holds any meaning? Does this mean that a millionaire's money can actually buy better coffee - or is that notion so ridiculous it's not even worth considering? Is there a new assumption that a millionaire's money can't buy jack these days? (And, by the way, thanks to Wikipedia, I learned that the original ditty ran "better coffee a Rockefeller's money can't buy" - until Nelson Rockefeller sued.)

It's been years since I've actually stooped down to pick up a penny off the sidewalk. And I've pretty much given up on nickels and dimes, too - unless there are multiples. (I still stoop for quarters.) So I know a million ain't what it used to be.

I mean, you can sell your 1140 square foot condo in downtown Boston and become one overnight. And once you're got that dough in hand, you realize you can't retire off of it, if it's all you've got, unless you want to move to Guatemala. 

Not to mention how pathetic an amount a million bucks is when considered as, say, CEO compensation. What CEO in his right mind would even bother flying his Lear jet across the street for a million lousy bucks, let alone stooping down to pick it up off the sidewalk. (Sidewalk money.  Ewwwww. You don't know where it's been.)

So agreed: a millionaire can no longer be thought of as someone who is really, truly wealthy.

But is a million now such chump change that it no longer connotes any value?

Of course, it's so much easier thinking about things like this than, say, the Iraq War or global warming.

And I have admittedly wasted entirely too much time already thinking about the meaning of the Chock Full o' Nuts jingle - especially since, while my voice is adequate - especially when it comes to shower and drive-time singing - I will not be entering the contest.

No, it's just one more trivial little thing that I will no doubt continue to allow myself to dwell on - at least until I wake up one morning, clear of head, and find that the Chock Full jingle is mercifully out of it. (No more turning on oldies radio until I think the coast is clear.)

The other "ad thing" of the moment that is perplexing me - not to mention stirring up all sorts of philosophical and existential thoughts - is one now running on TV for a ski area. I have now heard this ad twice and I swear that they are telling me that I can "find my childhood" at the Bretton Woods Ski Resort. Well, if I could indeed "find my childhood" at the Bretton Woods Ski Resort I would hasten there at once. What an offer! I'd sure pay more than the cost of a lift ticket if I could find my childhood, especially if they could guarantee that I could find that really cute pique dress with the little flower carts on it that I had in kindergarten. If I could get back my Ginnette doll in her pristine state - before I Magic-Markered her eyes to make them bluer. If I could jump on the back of a milk truck and beg the milkman for a chunk of ice to suck on (nothing like diesel fuel covered ice to cool you down on a hot day). And, truthfully, I didn't have to beg so hard for the ice - half the milkmen were cousin's of my father's.

"Find my childhood." Wouldn't that be nice. (Hey, forget the Ginnette doll and the chunk of ice. What I wouldn't give to see my father after all these years...)

Unfortunately, until they invent time travel, I'm afraid that finding my childhood is just one of those things that "even a billionaire's money can't buy."


If you want to take a stroll through Chock Full o Nuts history, and listen to versions of both the millionaire and billionaire jingles, here you go.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Internet Addiction - I hate when this happens

Well, we certainly are a litigious society, aren't we?

The other day I read that a former IBM employee who was canned for hanging out in adult chat rooms while at work is suing Big Blue for $5 million, claiming that "he is an Internet addict who deserves treatment and sympathy rather than dismissal." Further, the employee claims that he goes to chat rooms "to treat traumatic stress incurred in 1969 when he saw his best friend killed in Vietnam."

According to the court papers filed, the stress caused the employee to become a sex addict, and that condition was compounded by the Internet, which turned him into an Internet addict. Further, the man claims that he didn't visit porn sites, didn't waste anymore time online than the average IBM employee, and that he's the victim of age discrimination. Seems he got nicked because he had 19 years in at IBM and only needed a year until retirement.

While I have no doubt that being in Vietnam (or any war, for that matter) is more horrific than I could ever imagine, I'm certainly no expert on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have no idea whether you ever get over it, whether it causes sex addiction, or whether there really is such a thing as sex addiction (as opposed to what we used to refer to as someone being "out of control"). I believe that the first time I heard the term "sex addict" was when Red Sox star Wade Boggs was nabbed for some hanky-panky and claimed addiction.

Now Internet addiction I am down with.

Not that I am one, but I can certainly see how one could become one.

I mean, before my friend John got me blogging, I could go months without even looking at a blog. Now, well, I wouldn't say I'm exactly an addict, but if they ever make an Internet-related version of Reefer Madness, I'm sure that it will all start out pretty innocently. That funny cigarette that someone offers unsuspecting you a puff of at a party? Well, you want to find the Internet pushers - look no further than friends who convince you that you should be blogging. Sheeeshhhh. Between looking for things to write about, writing about them, and reading and commenting on the blogs that other Internet addicts - errrrr, Internet users - write. Well, I've had to all but give up my Sudoku hobby. Now I go days without a fix. No time for those little numbered boxes. Once baseball season starts, it will be interesting to see if I slide back into bad habits and keep a few Sudoku puzzles on hand for watching Red Sox games. (And, by the way, this spellchecker brings up the word "studbook" as a possible substitute for Sudoku. So maybe Sudoku is a form of sex addiction after all.)

And my serious reading? I used to get into bed with Orhan Pamuk or Edna O'Brien. Now it's The Economist. (Whose idea was this business-related blog anyway?)

But "chat room at work" addiction?

Okay. Everyone gets online during lunch to check personal e-mails, look on Bluefly for discounted duvet covers, and check out what Britney Spears' new lack-of-hair-do looks like.

But running into a chat room for a quick chat? Isn't that what the coffee machine, water cooler, and bathrooms are for? Isn't that what you do when you show up on time for a meeting and everyone isn't there yet? Isn't that what you do on the elevator? Of course, while the chats you have at work are with adults, they're not exactly adult in the same sense as what I'm sure is the scintillating conversation you find in adult chat rooms.

Didn't this guy have enough work to do?

The one thing I feel a smidgeon badly about is that the guy had 19 years in towards his retirement and, apparently, lost everything.

Although I have spent such little time working in companies that are still standing, let alone that have a pension plan, I would think that IBM could have given this guy some credit for time-in and seen that he gets something for his troubles. At least give him credit for those years before Internet access was made available and he started logging all that time in chat rooms. (I assume that when he was just a plain old sex addict, he was addicted on his own time.)

The good news for our plaintiff, I suppose, is that now he has all the time in the world to indulge in his twin addictions. If only IBM would cut him a teensy little break on his pension.


Here's a link to an article in Information Age on this. It's not the one I saw originally, which seems to have disappeared.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Business Astrology

There is a small ad in the back of the latest Economist for a just-launched company, Zen Temple, that specializes in something called "business astrology" for launch times, decision making, branding & ethos.

I couldn't very well resist a look at their web site, now, could I?

Zen Temple is the brainchild of one Christopher Odle, "an astrologer, psychic and businessman with over 25 years' experience in the industry" with extensive " knowledge and experience as a divination and new age expert". Odle is also the proprietor of Star Temple, a far less business-y site devoted to his psychic readings service, where "over 60 psychic consultants, who between them give around 100,000 psychic readings a year." (Star Temple, we are told, has, since its inception, "always made a monthly profit," presumably using the decision making, branding, and ethos techniques now available through Zen Temple.)

Odle uses a combination of Astrology, I Ching, and Symbolism - all "forms of Divination" as "a way to access the sacred to illuminate the path of good fortune. " His services help businesses figure out where to set up shop, when to launch a marketing campaign, and how to enter into negotiations. Zen Temple can also inform you of the most auspicious time for a coronation - something which I would have thought of as a function of when the old monarch dies. But, given how new-agey Prince Charles is, I wouldn't be surprised if he tapped Odle to divine just the right mo' to don the crown, once The Queen has joined the Royal Coterie in the sky. Since the Queen Mother lasted for such a good long time, however, I don't expect that this date is in the near future. But once you open up one of those crows at the Tower of London, there's no telling what the entrails might augur. So maybe Odle knows something we don't know. (Queen Mum's the word.)

Zen Temple also helps companies clarify their strategy, management structure, and client relationships. Well, where were they when we needed them? All those off-sites, all those endless management meetings, all that time sitting around the conference room table with everyone's name on a slip trying to reconfigure the org chart.

Yes, most of the time we were doing this on our own, but a good quarter of the time we were paying high-priced consultants to help us out.

Here I was thinking all those years that "the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves," when what Shakespeare really meant to say was "the answers lie in the stars, not in our ourselves."

And the "branding, ethos, corporate, and spirit" assistance they could have offered? If we'd only known....

From the most mundane question to the most profound, divination can illuminate the path of fortune by helping us flow with the hidden undercurrents and energies that drive existence. With a sincere heart and open mind, you may begin to see the world in a different light.

Before you launch your company, product, or campaign, take a look at the birth chart and figure out whether the planets are aligned.

I take this to mean that Softbridge should have been able to figure out that if they started out as an Aries, no good would come of it.

I've got two different clients with marketing campaigns just launching, so I'm going to ask a few big questions. Should we stick with the Age of Aquarius, or would it be better if we waited until Gemini, or Taurus even.

(Boy, there's even more to worry about than I thought.)

It's not just the zodiac, however. We could go I Ching instead. With this approach, "patterns of lines are obtained by throwing coins or yarrow stalks whilst focusing on the issue at hand." I'm plum out of yarrow stalks, but I could throw a few coins out there and see whether we should expand or contract our mailing list, and whether we should focus on banks or insurance companies first.

Without a doubt, I'm going to want to think about symbolism, too, since this "can reveal underlying issues and opportunity for change." Well, as I've said to one of my customers, that logo that looks like it was designed by the Bulgarian Central Committee in 1952 has got to go. Any association with the long-discredited Bulgarian Central Committee is definitely an "underlying issue", given that we're techies living under capitalism, not technocrats living under Communism. So I divine an opportunity for change coming along soon on this front.

Admittedly, Zen Temple's approach might strike you as just a tiny bit wacky. But if you think about it for just a second, Zen Temple's services can be thought of as a little help-meet for getting you to think things through. Forget whether the yarrow stalk lands up or down - does it make sense to start this promotion during August when everybody who would possibly want to purchase the product is on vacation? And what are the implications of having a logo that looks like a dagger through a heart when you're promoting a Teddy Bear Tea for 6 year olds? See, it's working already.

Zen Temple may strike some as charlatans - especially given their connection to the Star Temple psychics - but it actually looks like a bargain compared to some of the consultants I've worked with who've charged a lot of money for not much of anything.

Zen Temple offers a free initial exploratory consultation, either in person, or by telephone. Depending on the scope of the project, worldwide visits are also possible. If you then decide to use our services, fees start from £200 + plus VAT if applicable.  Special rates available to small businesses.

Sounds like a pretty good deal, although I'm not 100% sure that this is the right time to get Zen. Today's horoscope tells me "as much as you would like to ignore emotional matters, you must deal with them. Running never solves anything so get to it. It will ease your stress and any guilt you are experiencing if you do."

This is the first time I've read my horoscope in years, and while there's certainly wisdom contained in the above, I don't quite see how it applies to any decision to explore Zen services. Maybe I should widen my divination horizons here. There is no yarrow in the fridge. Perhaps tossing a stalk or two or baby asparagus around will tell me how to proceed from here.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Hershey Kiss-off: Bad job news in Candyland

We may not quite grow inured to the news, but we certainly grow accustomed to hearing about downsizing in the major industrial sectors and in whatever scant remnants are left in the American softer goods manufacturing world. All this continual, and continuously painful, realignment is all part of the inexorable grind of the global economy. But somehow, there are certain things I just don't think of as transportable, that I've somehow imagined would remain home grown in perpetuity.

That's until I heard about Hershey's post-Valentine's Day announcement that they're cutting 1,500 jobs - or is it 3,000? The numbers I've seen vary.

Friday's coverage in local paper, The Patriot News (Harrisburg PA), reported that a company meeting was short on details - and maybe a little long on fudging, given that workers reported that the company said they were creating jobs "elsewhere" but weren't told where "elsewhere", while at the same time the company was talking about building a Mexican plant.

...several workers said that company officials discussed plans to cut 3,000 jobs. The workers also said that the company plans to create 1,500 jobs elsewhere, but were not told where. Workers said they weren’t told where jobs would be cut or whether job cuts would come through layoffs or attrition. Employees said they were not allowed to ask questions during the meeting.

On Thursday, the company announced plans to build a plant in Mexico as part of a three-year plan to trim its work force, realign its operations and become more profitable. The company said it would close plants, downsize some plants, and expand others, but company officials did not identify those plants.

Just enough information to put everybody on edge. ("Workers said they were angry and despondent about the prospect of job cuts." No surprises there.)

Given that Hershey's Bars have always gone kind of limp and greasy in hot weather, the new South of the Border factories will either have to be ultra-air-conditioned. Or Hershey will have to add some insidious anti-melt chemical into its chocolate. And, of course, will the Hershey's Kisses be renamed "Besos"? Not to mention a rename of the Great American Chocolate Bar (although, arguably, Mexico is in Central America. The Great-er American Chocolate Bar, perhaps.)

It was interesting to read through some of the comments in the PennLive/Patriot News online forum. The usually combination of railing against corporate greed, management incompetence, union obstinacy, Wall Street fat cats.

But you read between those lines and it's all about another 3,000 American workers and their families trying to figure out how they're going to hold their existences together.

In every post I write about lay-offs I find myself adding the same boilerplate commentary: Yes this may all be inevitable. Yes this may all be a net-positive at the macro level. Yes there are some individuals who end up better off - and not just executive management and shareholders, either.

But at the micro level, at the individual level, there are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of workers who are left worse off by globalization (and the concomitant shift in economic risk - healthcare, retirement - to individuals). Now, we can just shrug this all off as economic and social Darwinism. Or assume that everything will correct itself over time.

Or we can start thinking about the kinds of adjustments we can make that will shore up the social contract, and help ensure the long term stability of the political and economic institutions that have done a pretty good job in assuring our prosperity and freedoms.

Friday, February 16, 2007

"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul...."

Yes, yes, yes, I know all about being your own brand, controlling your own life, master of your fate, captain of your ship. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Each and every one of us an individual contributor. Each and every one of us a CEO. Each and every one of us a one-man band - sales, marketing, product development, IT, accounting, finance, HR, manufacturing, shipping and receiving, cafeteria, receptionist, and cleaning crew - our own little virtual corporate selves.

Sick of the matrix organization? Go ahead, reorganize yourself into SBU's, each with its own little everything. No more worries that Customer A is hogging too much of marketing's time. Customer B now has its own dedicated marketing slice.

(Wish I'd thought of this reorganization stuff sooner. As soon as I finish this post I'm going to draw up a new org chart for myself. Even if I do go SBU, I may need to do a bit of layering. I don't want to end up with too many direct reports. You how that gets. You end up spending half your day listening to people complain about their salaries, or about how they're not getting any visibility, or how they want to get on the management track themselves. Yep. I've convinced myself. I know that organizations are flattening out, but I've really got to put some layers in place or I'll never get anything done. Maybe I'll even put sales under marketing and watch the sparks fly.)

Yes, sir-ee. It's fun and exciting to work for yourself. Endless possibilities out there, no?

Got a Jones for relocation? Just pick up your laptop and spend the day working in the living room for a change.

Hungry for a little hall conversation (or a good, old-fashion gripe session). What do you think bathroom mirrors are for?

Want to complain to the boss? Demand a raise or a more ergonomic desk chair? Again, there's that bathroom mirror.

Need to call someone on the carpet? Expense reports not in on time? A few key customers who are owed a call or - worse - a deliverable? That bathroom mirror works two ways.

And there are soooooo many advantages to working for yourself.

If you find a 6 month old yogurt container exploding in the far recesses of the corporate fridge, you don't need to do a haranguing memo or post a threat on the fridge door. The boob who left it there is you!

Dress code/smess code. Most days, ain't nobody going to notice that you're wearing bleach stained sweatpants and the hideous, what-were-you-thinking T-shirt you bought in Budapest ten years ago. Or that you're wearing it three days in a row.

You can spend the entire day looking for a 13 inch flat screen TV, watching videos on YouTube, or trying to figure out how many people in the country have the same name as you do. Ain't nobody looking over your shoulder.

You get to decide how often to change your passwords - and whether or not they have to be at least 24 characters in length and combine alpha-numeric-and screech ($#!*((*#&&$) characters.

No corporate all-hands meetings where the execs do their same-old-same-old patter and you're always hoping that someone other than yourself will ask the big, ugly, embarrassing question that's on everyone's mind. (For all-hands meetings under the self-employed regime, see bathroom mirror above.)

No office collections for the shower present for someone you really don't know - or really can't stand.

And if your boss is acting like a jerk - Fired? I quit! - you can take a deep breath and change behavior instantaneously.

At least that's true most days.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Mr. Gutwrench: Big lay-offs at Chrysler

Is there ever good news out of Detroit? Other than the Tigers winning the American League Championship last season, I sure can't think of any. Even that win was bittersweet, given that they lost the World Series to St. Louis.

Yesterday's disheartening news was the announcement by DaimlerChrysler Chairman - and pitchman - Dieter Zesche ("Dr. Z" for those who've seen the ads) that Chrysler's cutting 13,000 jobs. That's 16% of its U.S. workforce. Overall, the article I read on this (from The Boston Globe) pegged the total "devastating cuts" in a "yearlong series" at 100,000 jobs for the domestic auto industry. Yet another World Series that Detroit can't win, I guess.

These lay-offs may be just what the doctor ordered, but they're also a big, fat reminder that the U.S. auto industry still hasn't figured it out yet.

The talking heads at Chrysler are, of course, putting their spin on this.

"We believe that this represents a solid plan to return to profitability and lay the groundwork for a solid future," Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda said at a news conference.

I'm too lazy to go back and look at past announcements, but I'm betting you could lay the last twenty years worth of spin statements from Ford, GM, and Chrysler one on top of each other and they'd match perfectly.

(And, by the way, Tom LaSorda? Last I saw of him he was doing ads for MLB trying to get sore-head fans of loser teams to watch last fall's play-offs - if only to root against someone. Boy, these DaimlerChrysler execs get around. And I wouldn't have pegged Tommy LaSorda for the the CEO type. Oh, wait a second. Tom Lasorda the baseball guy doesn't capitalize the "s". I thought for a moment that this was yet another one of those examples that tell us that baseball is life.)

Back to the Spin:

OK. So they spin. What would we expect them to say?

We've been making products that people don't want? We didn't automate soon enough and fast enough? The world is changing, jobs are changing - so what else is new? There's a big, wide world out there with a lot of other industrialized nation's in it and you can't expect us to dominate it, can  you?

Of course, the truth is all of the above.

And at least one industry analyst - BofA's Ron Tadross had some positives: "We see Chrysler as a decent business, at least relative to the other U.S. domestic manufacturers." Plus the market, naturally, rewarded the announcement, with a morning uptick of 4.2% in early morning trading.

Still, I find all stories depressing and gut-wrenching: 13,000 people. All those jobs. All those lives. All those futures.

Yes, as we all know - and as I've written about before - there are inevitable dislocations as we move further and further into the global economy. Share the wealth. Share the jobs. Sure, it may work fine at the macro level - and, for some, at the micro level. But for many production workers, getting laid off means a big cut in pay, a big shift in life-style, and a flat-out, worse-off existence.

This was no valentine for Chrysler workers, and my heart goes out to them.

(There was also news yesterday about an additional number of lay-offees being added to an already announced restructuring at Kodak. As if it's not bad enough that upstate New York has had about 100 feet of lake effect snow in the the last week, now 3000 more folks at Kodak are going to be out a job. Lake effect lay-offs, anyone.)

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Heading for the Hills: Nuns on the Run

In the last week or so, you may have stumbled upon an article - generally entitled "Nuns on the Run" (irresistible, no?) - about a convent full of Greek Orthodox nuns who started a knitting business that failed - but not until they'd racked up a significant amount of debt (600,000 Euros, which translates roughly into a million bucks). When their creditors came knocking at the convent door, the nuns apparently fled to another convent, heading for the hills in central Greece.

Well, easy to make fun, but who can blame them? I can honestly say that there were plenty of times in my career when I would have loved to taken myself and my colleagues and fled our foundering organizations en masse. (I remember one fellow-sufferer in a particularly quirky company in my past saying, during an especially rough - irrational, chaotic - patch, that he fantasized about every single one of us giving our notice on the same day.) 

Back to the nun story: Like convents everywhere, I'm sure that the Greek nuns were looking for a way to sustain their way of life. Maybe things are different in Greece, but if religious orders there are experiencing anywhere near the strains they are in the U.S., they're facing a situation in which a lot fewer younger nuns are supporting a lot more older ones.  So staying in business means getting smart about business. It means volume. It means scale.

Somewhere along the line, the good sisters had set up a business supplying knit goods to shops. Their business involved investing in some pretty pricey equipment. Not surprising, given the lure of automation. Sure, the finished goods may not have been quite so nice and interesting as hand-crafted wares, but you sure could churn out a whole lot more. 

But, as often happens, the business just ran away on them, prompting the nuns to run away on it.

This whole story reminded me of the "business" run by the nuns at my grammar school. They produced hand-made Valentines and sold them to the school kids - all proceeds went to the missions, I believe. The Valentines were nothing that you would ever give to a friend or classmate. Rather than the punning little Valentines we gave out - the needle says to the spool of thread: I'm SEW glad I know you, etc. - the ones the nuns made were both clunky and religious, a double whammy. The typical ones were pieces of construction paper cut in the shape of a heart with a holy card (i.e., a two-by-four inch picture of a saint) glued to the middle, or construction paper hearts with doilies and angel stickers pasted on them.

All of us, of course, bought a few - at least if we knew what was good for us - and gave them to our parents and grandparents. I'm sure that a few suck-ups even gave them to the nuns themselves. I hope that I wasn't one of them. If I were, I have blessedly managed to repress the memory. 

Our nuns did make some Valentines that I really did crave. I would have liked to give one to my mother, but, at 50 cents or a dollar, they were way out of my league. These cards used the covers of fancy, heart shaped candy boxes - the kinds with the crimped fabric, gilt edged ribbons, and paper roses. I wasn't the only one who wanted one. In first grade, I remember Stephen Walsh - like me, one of the "December babies" in the class - crying because he couldn't afford on for his mother. Sister Marie Leo, more usually an afflicter than a comforter, took him onto her lap and rocked Stephen to console him. She should have just slipped him the damned Valentine on the QT, although she might have feared unleashing a riot among the other December babies.

Back to the main topic...A BBC account of the nun's on the run (by Malcolm Brabant) added one nifty little detail to the story:

According to the Kathimerini newspaper, they exacerbated their financial problems by going abroad to fashion shows to check out the latest designs in woollen garments.

I'm having a hard - but very fun - time picturing a group of black clad nuns at Fashion Week in New York, Milan, or Paris. What a fashion statement they must have made. No doubt, some designer or another will pick up on it and next spring we'll see some spare, clean, all-black lines gamboling down the runway. (I believe that Greek nuns, for the most part, still wear old fashioned garb, rather than the mufti that many American nuns adopted in the 1960's and 1970's.) 

As I wrote, I have plenty of sympathy for a group of nuns with, I'm guessing, quite limited business and manufacturing experience and training, setting up a business. I don't know what the statistic is, but most start-ups fail. Why would we expect anything different from this one?

I hope the nuns-on-the-run come out of hiding. I hope that the Greek Orthodox Church can square this away for them, and that the nuns don't lose their convent. (Selling it off is one possibility for settlement of their debts.)  I hope they come back and pick-up-their knitting needles and this time stick to their knitting and avoid the mammon temptations of bigger business. 


In addition to the BBC article, an article in a Sydney newspaper was a source for information contained in this post.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

True Colors

I've always known that there were a lot of colors in the world.

Even when I was sitting there with my 8-pack of Crayolas, I knew that there was the possibility that Santa might bring me the 48 - or even the 64 - crayon set, where I could find wonderful colors like magenta, burnt siena, and flesh (a color that, when last I looked, had been renamed peach).

Once I reached an age of even greater color awareness, I began interpreting colors in socio-economic terms. Why, I asked myself, weren't the colors used in clothing sold to poor people at Zayre's and The Mart as nice as the colors found in the clothing we  bought at Anderson Little. Which were nowhere near as nice, I could tell, as the wonderful Villager and John Meyer of Norwich colors on the preppy clothing sold at Filene's, which most everyone else at my high school could afford but which my family generally couldn't. (Thankfully, we wore uniforms with the true-blue color of forest green. I was a "scholarship girl" and there's no way I could dress in the same league as the doctor-lawyer-funeral parlor daughters I went to school with.)

Nice girl that I was, I felt worse for the poor people (who had really bad clothing) than I did for myself (clothing on the next rung down from really good). Even as a teenager, it struck me as bad enough that poor people had to wear clothing that was of bad cut and crappy quality. Why did the colors have to be so ugly, too? Dull or lurid, clothing for poor people was always just a little off-color. It didn't seem fair to me. It was as if the clothing manufacturers were deliberately punishing poor people for being poor. Shouldn't color be a free good?

And then I started to notice how colors would go in and out of style. This actually took me a lot longer than it might have taken someone else. Throughout grammar school and high school, I wore a green jumper and a white blouse to school. Never in style. Never out of style.

But once I started noticing what colors were in fashion, well, I'd see them everywhere. Not just in clothing, but in everything.

If you were alive in the sixties or seventies, you would have had to have been completely color blind not to have picked up on avocado and harvest gold for appliances and pots and pans.

And take company color schemes. In the early eighties, there was a lot of pink and gray going around. In the nineties, it was teal and purple. Now it seems like there's more use of orange.

And brown and blue? That was quite the decorator combination in the late seventies when I lived in a great little studio apartment on Beacon Hill. I still have that brown and blue batik comforter stashed away - good for using as a picnic blanket for the picnic I take every ten or twenty years. And the brown and blue casserole dish my mother got me for a housewarming present? Still in use!And now that the brown and blue color combo has cycled back into popularity, well, I've never felt so fashion forward.

Somewhere in the eighties, I also began noticing the trend in color naming. Way, way beyond maroon and bottle green. Way beyond  burgundy and jade. Sometimes I'd read catalogs and not be quite able to figure out what the name meant.

Was Occult gray or black? Was Tranquility blue or green? Portent. Labile. Tonsure. Jinx.  And why is the paint color in my upstairs bathroom called Cougar when it's really dark taupe? Are cougars dark taupe?

I began thinking deep, rich thoughts about colors, and asking myself the big, colorful questions.

Who was out there inventing all these colors that trickled down to the rich and poor alike? Who was coming up with these color schemes? Who was declaring new names for all these new colors?

Well, sometimes you do find you answer.

"Made in the Shade," an article by Eric Konigsberg in The New Yorker (January 22, 2007 - it doesn't seem to be posted online just yet), profiles color consultant Leslie Harrington who works for companies like Pottery Barn, Avon, and - yes - Crayola, and is member of an organization, the Color Marketing Group, that's responsible for determining what colors we're going to be seeing a lot of.  All of those brown and blue housewares, furniture, clothing, and decorating color schemes? They don't, in fact, just spring out of nowhere.

The Color Marketing Group(CMG) meets twice each year, and at each meeting professional color consultants bring their candidates for colors that are going to be popular a couple of years out (by the time they get into the product development and manufacturing cycle). The consultants don't just show up with color chips and swatches of cloth, they need to back up their choices with something more than "looks nice and I like them." They need to bring insights on trends and socio-economic and demographic factors that inform their color choices.

There are also industry-specific sub-groups: transportation (primarily cars), sports equipment, paper products.

The groups go through a somewhat involved process of making forecasts of what colors will be in, which, as Konigsberg points out, become something of self-fulfilling prophecies, since the CMG sells its predictions to companies which, in turn, deploy the forecasted palettes in their manufacturing process.  This group is also somewhat responsible for the unusual names that colors have. What's on the hit parade: Buddha, Mineral Springs, and Soul.

And, as I've suspected all along, poor folks do get stuck with worse colors. The more sophisticated, nuanced colors use a more complex set of inputs. So prettier, richer colors cost more. Thus the lurid and dull colors I had so long ago noticed that the poor got stuck with, and the gorgeous hues that my more well-to-do classmates could afford for their Bermuda bags and Pappagallo shoes.

Once again, life shows it's true colors: it's unfair.

But the good news is that the color consultants don't have a monopoly on nature, where the real true colors live.

Rich man, poor man, as long as we're not afflicted with RG color-blindness, we all get to see the same  midnight blue sky.

Monday, February 12, 2007

From Skype's lips to God's ear

Boston Filter's Maura Welch - a never-fail source of quirky stories - has done it again with a brief on an Israeli company called POIP (Pray Over Internet Protocol). Here's Maura:

Can't make it to the holy land in person? An Israeli startup called POIP (Pray Over Internet Protocol) makes it possible for you to broadcast your prayers over the Internet. The company sells phone cards that allow you to record your prayers in your own voice and then send them via Internet phone and webcam speakers to places like the Western Wall or the Sea of Galilee. The company's chairman says it's a better deal than buying a lottery ticket. "It's just $5 or $10, and you get eternal life."

Well, talk about a compelling value proposition. Plus a pretty safe bet for POIP, given that they'll never really have to make good on any money-back guarantees now, will they?

But wait, there are even more benefits. On the POIP web site there's a header that reads Pray Over IP & save. They don't specify where the savings comes from, but I guess it could be either saving on a trip to Israel you don't have to take, or saving your immortal soul. Wow! That's some ROI.

POIP has certainly thought a lot of things in their business model through, and when it comes to ways to get your prayer across, they leave no stone uncast. According to their web site, you can use a phone (a VoIP phone, presumably) to make a recording of a prayer in the language of your choice, which is then "delivered to the Holy City of Jerusalem and will be heard in as it was recorded using your own voice!"

If you don't like the sound of your own voice - and who does? -  you can key in your prayer, which is "converted automatically to a person's voice that will be heard in the Holy City of Jerusalem." (I wonder how real a person's voice it is, or will it sound like one of those atonal sci-fi voices...'Ah-ten-shun-the-doors-will-now-be-clo-zing.' ('Make that gates-of-heh-ven-will-now-be-clo-zing.'))

Further, you can send a video that POIP will play for you, or mail a letter that they'll deliver to, Jerusalem.

I wonder if the folks at POIP do any quality control to make sure that people aren't sneaking in the wrong sorts of prayers - things along the lines of  'may bad things befall my enemies." And do they make sure that people don't record something in gibberish just to make fun of the whole thing. Or slip in a prayer that people come to their senses and not let the pay-to-pray folks at POIP prey on the vulnerabilities of those who think that this is really the path to eternal life.

But I suppose that if you want to get cute, it's a case of buyer be-damned. You want to play around here with false prayers and gibberish, hey, it's your eternal soul, not POIP's. You pay your money and you take your chances. Want to mess with The Big Guy, well, have at it.

POIP's web site also has web-cams of a number of different places in Israel, and I think that you can direct your prayer - in whatever  format - to any of these sites. (The web cams actually do make a lot of sense to me. I'm quite sure that people who will never have the opportunity to visit Israel draw comfort from being able to view places that are sacred to them. So why not just pray with the webcam going? Why is it better to have a recording played at the site?)

A few years ago, I read about a service through which you could send a written prayer request to Israel, and someone would run it over to the Wailing Wall and tuck it in a crack for you - an idea that actually doesn't seem to me to be all that odd. POIP's services may just be a high-tech extension of that business concept, but they strike me as infinitely odder.

All this techie-ness around something as personal and, largely, private, as prayer is exceedingly weird to me. Call toll free and record your prayer...Click here for a pin code...24/7 web-cams. POIP also has a place on their web site that talks about their partnership program, that doesn't sound on the surface all that different from every other techie partnership program I've been involved in. The exact details of the partnership program, however, are only available via e-mail (or maybe from the Hebrew part of the site, which is the main event). 

Let Us Pray or Let Us Prey?
Who knows if these guys are on the up and up or just exploitative charlatans who are taking advantage of people's vulnerabilities and deep desires. I guess it could be both - well intentioned people using technology in a novel way to both make a buck and provide a service that they believe will be meaningful to people. Maybe my problem may just be that I just don't get how it could be meaningful.

If God is indeed everywhere, what difference does it make if your prayers - make that a recorded version of your prayers, in your own voice or someone else's - are played in Jerusalem? Does that really make them nearer, my God, to Thee?

The POIP site doesn't specify whether both prayers - the one you make when you're recording and the one that gets replayed - count. Is there an implicit two-fer out of the deal - when you're praying live and when it's replayed? And does the offer scale? Can you request multiple replays and do they all count the same?

As I said, the whole techie-ness and business-y aspects of POIPare a little too weird for me. (Plus that it smacks of the medieval Catholic practice of selling indulgences - sort of "Get out of Purgatory quick cards" - which was outlawed by the Church.)

Then there's one of their marketing claims, that I can only describe as a bit of hyperbole if I ever saw one (the bold letters are POIP's):

We provide your soul unlimited access to holiness - try it now!

It's statements like this that lead me to believe that the POIPl people are going right over the top with misleading claims. "Unlimited access to holiness?" Huh?

What I do understand is why people want to go to Israel. Religious, historic, literary locations have a true and strong emotional appeal to most of us. (Me? I tear up at Ellis Island and the Louisa May Alcott House in Concord. ) I can even understand how someone who knew someone going over to Israel might ask them to say a prayer for them. Or even to tuck a prayer into one of those Wailing Wall crevices.

But, oh me of little faith, I just don't "get" how someone could believe that their prayers can yield better results, will matter more, if they're said - or, rather, played - in Jerusalem.  From your lips to God's ear, but from your Skype account to God's ear? I just don't get it.

Maybe POIP is all very well-intentioned and sincere. Maybe I'm just way to much of a skeptic. I just pray that they're not preying on all those souls just hoping that they're prayers will be answered - and not on a VoIP phone.

Of course, it really doesn't matter, does it? The people who believe in prayer in this way will get something out of it.

The POIP people may be "inventing a need", but they certainly won't be the first ones in the history of business to create a need and exploit it.

And maybe you can serve God and Mammon.

Friday, February 09, 2007

A Hunting We Won't Go

Last month, a Massachusetts state senator, Robert Creedon of Brockton, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA), filed a bill that would outlaw Internet hunting. In their announcement, the MSPCA wrote:

Already illegal in 22 states, this computer-assisted form of hunting operates like a game but kills real animals. The “hunter” pays a fee to watch a feeding station on their computer screen. When an animal appears on screen the hunter can point and shoot a remotely-operated rifle with a click of their mouse.

What's interesting is that the practice is opposed not just in the expected settings - touchy-feely urban bi-coastal places - but in states where there are likely proportionately more people who are hunters and gun owners - places like West Virginia and Georgia . "Computer-assisted remote hunting" is also opposed and by the NRA itself. (Well, I never imagined I'd ever be writing these words but, I'm with NRA on this one.)

Talk about something that doesn't seem quite sporting, and makes a blood sport - with all that it implies, pro and con - and neutralizes it into something quite bloodless.

I've never gone hunting, and have no intention of starting anytime soon. The closest I've ever come to a gun is the downstairs bathroom of my husband's aunt and uncle's, where Uncle Bill - who, in his day had been a hunter - kept a shotgun at the ready to blast away at the squirrels raiding Aunt Carrie's bird feeders. And I didn't like it one little bit. I was always worried that I was somehow going to knock the shotgun over and blow my head off while I was flushing the toilet. (It must have made Carrie nervous, too, because she got rid of the gun after Bill died.)

Still, I can easily see how the sport has its appeal. The camaraderie, the (mostly) male-bonding, the cold, the boredom, the swigs of whiskey from the hip flask, the thrill of the hunt (and, yes, the kill), the frisson that something could happen. (Hey, you could even get buck-shot in the face by the VP.)

I eat meat. I wear leather shoes. How is the six-degrees of separation I have from the slaughter of the steer and the entire production process of the hamburger morally superior to someone killing a duck or a deer, cleaning it, and eating it?  Well - unless it's hunting with Uzis on an over-stocked, no-miss game preserve -  it's not.  Or over the Internet.

 Come on.

Killing from the desktop? What kind of hunting is that? I find it completely chilling and bloodless. And, apparently, there's some greater risk of suffering to the animals with this mode of hunting. In "real live" hunting, the hunters have a better chance of getting off a clean shot and of humanely finishing off the animal if they don't. Then there's the - however remote - possibility that the great remote hunter could shoot an employee of the Internet hunting range who happens to get between the gun and the target. Yes, of course, this can happen with "real live" hunting. (VP Cheney, et al.) But just the thought of being able to accidentally kill someone 1000 miles away, where you're in no position to run over and try to staunch the blood flow or save his life?  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Just another way in which the Internet changes everything, I suppose, but this one was decidedly not for the better. I hope that Massachusetts joins the 22 other enlightened states who've put the kibosh on this form of hunting.

But it certainly seems as if there is no end to the type of wacko businesses that the Internet continues to engender.

What's interesting, however, is that Live-Shot, the ur-company of th computer-assisted remote hunting industry (if there can be said to be one) that seemed to have  precipitated the firestorm around remote hunting a couple of years ago, seems to be no longer among the living.

It just may be that there aren't enough remote-hunters out there, and that "real hunters" want to give our furry friends more of a sporting chance.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Little White Book: The No Asshole Rule

Occupational hazard, I guess, but I read - or, at any rate, skim - a fair number of business books. They tend to fall into a few categories. There are those that describe how a successful company got that way. Given the now-disappeared companies I've kept during much of my career, these read to me like science fiction: strange tales that have characters and situations that are vaguely familiar, but are set in a parallel universe. (So that's how it's supposed to work. Hmmmm.)

Then there are the largely dreadful business puff-ographies, second only to presidential memoirs in their fatuousness. (Has there been a decent one since Ulysses S. Grant?) These tomes tend to be long on self-congratulations and name-dropping ("...that's me golfing with Nelson Mandela and Prince Charles") and short on self-awareness and introspection. Bor-ing.

Then there are the little big-print-small-idea books that they give out at company off-sites. The ones that are supposed to "change everything" if you only follow a few simple steps. If only is right...

Perhaps because I'm a marketer, the ones I typically find the most immediately practical and useful are marketing books. When I read about topics that are relevant to my work - understanding your customer, improving communications, strategic marketing, competitive intelligence, how the Internet changes everything - I generally learn something I can (or should) use in my work.

Overall, the books that I find the most interesting are the ones that deal with organizational dynamics, with human behavior, with how businesses really operate. The latest one I've read is Stanford Professor Bob Sutton's The No Asshole Rule, a book that should be read and taken seriously by anyone running a company where jerks are allowed to roam free, creating a reign of terror that results in heavy costs to individuals - and to businesses themselves.

Advice to those offended by the use of the a-word. Get over it. Think "jerk," think "creep", think "lout" if you must, but don't let this get in the way of the wisdom contained in the book. I've been reading Bob's blog, and a lot of thought went into the use of "the word." There are really no substitutes, and we all know it.

Advice to those who think that the book's kinda-sorta a joke. Get over that, too. Sure, on title alone it will make a great gag gift, but don't let that trivialize it. Open it up and give it a read. If you've ever been victimized by asshole, witnessed them in action, or, indeed, acted like one at work because it's all part of the corporate culture, here's where you find out it doesn't have to be that way.

The book's thesis is that the workaday world would be a better place if companies would institute - and enforce - a no asshole rule. Bob builds a compelling case why this is so, drawing on both academic studies and the painful experiences of "real people" whose careers and lives have been done grave harm by working with assholes.

I know that many of us bandy the word asshole around, using it as a catchall for all sorts of real, imagined, accidental, or whatever behavior, but Bob gives us a definition by providing a brief test:

Does talking with the person in question make the victim feel worse about him or herself? And is the victim someone who's less powerful?

Just in case this doesn't do it for you, there's a checklist of typical asshole behaviors.

Yes, most people are capable of such, and Bob's hoping to minimize the occasional offensives, but he's really aiming at rooting out ongoing loutish behavior by regular offenders. The world's certified assholes.

He points out that the costs of tolerating assholes can be high, even providing a way to calculate the "Total Cost of Assholes" to an organization. (I predict that TCA will find it's way into the acronym pantheon with TCO and ROI.) And he points out that allowing assholes to operate can be poisonous, since the behavior tends to be infectious and exposure to it can cause even nice folks to stray over to the dark side. (There's a very funny example in which a company docked a fellow's bonus after they calculated what he cost the company in terms of HR costs, recruitment of new employees due to turnover, etc.) And Bob writes, too, about the impact on not just the victims, but on those who witness asshole behavior but are powerless to do much about it. Reading this section brought to mind a witness situation I was briefly in a few years back. Cringingly painful. (I feel another post coming on...)

Bob also offers some bracing, even exhilarating, advice for those trapped in bad companies. If you're in an environment where people are routinely treated poorly, ignore all those calls for passion and commitment that are typically trumpeted in business books. "Develop indifference and emotional attachment," Bob advises. "There are times when the best thing for your mental health is to not give a damn about your job, company, and especially all those nasty people."

I can give first-hand testimony to the wisdom of these words.

While most of my career has blessedly not been spent in the company of certified assholes, I've had some close encounters, and these coping mechanisms work. In one place of longtime employment, I worked briefly for a manager whose mission in life seemed to be to make me feel incompetent, undermined, and useless. Once I gave myself permission to not care what she said, did, or thought - indeed, once I gave myself permission to walk out the door without giving notice if I had to - "it" all went away. A year or so later, when the president of the company asked me for my recommendations for a lay-off list, I was able to add her name and the reasons why she had to go. (The president's reaction. He gave a little laugh and said, 'Nobody starts by naming S, but everybody gets to her eventually.' I was apparently not her lone victim.)

Bob offers other coping strategies: find and hang out with "the good guys," look for small victories, offer emotional support to other victims (while avoiding bitch-fests), take control of what you can... All sound advice.

The No Asshole Rule also gives, if not quite equal time, then enough time, to the notion that some assholes are worth all the trouble. (The case in point: Steve Jobs.) Bob makes the arguments (...assholes can inspire people to work hard and try for perfection, etc.), but for the most part he doesn't buy them. (He does, however, argue for the occasional, strategic use of the temper tantrum if you really need to get something done and clueless and lazy people just aren't paying attention. He also provides a brief tip list for how, if you're going to be an asshole, you should at least be an effective one. Mostly, however, his advice here is ultra cautionary.)

Maybe it's the charmed life I've led (in uncharmed companies), but I did find a couple of the examples of workplace assholes so extreme that they were nearly beyond my ken. My fear is that they could lead people to start thinking, 'hey, I don't have it so bad' or - worse - 'hey, I don't act this bad.' Yes, these examples are dramatic, but it seems to me that someone who steams through 250 administrative assistants in 5 years because of his bullying behavior is not your garden variety, certified asshole. He's probably certifiable. (To borrow a bit from the "Gee, Officer Krupke" song in West Side Story: "This boy don't need a job, he needs an analyst's care.")

While I'm on the quibbling side, I found that the surveys and studies cited throughout all started to sound the same. That said, one of the statistical points made is a good one to keep in mind: negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions.

The bottom line: I found The No Asshole Rule not just an enjoyable read, but required reading for anyone who thinks they may not have such a civilized workplace and is intent on building one.

I'll end with a quote from Bob's final page:

We are all given so many hours here on earth. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could travel through our lives without encountering people who bring us down with their demeaning remarks and actions?


FYI, I've blogged about this topic several times before in the following posts: Sugar-Honey-Ice-Tea, All Worked Up, and Building a Civilized Workplace.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Green Squared: MIT Sloan School's S-Lab

The Sloan School of Management at MIT is initiating "a program to train students on the connection between business practices and environmental change." The Laboratory for Sustainable Business - called, in inimitable MIT style, the S-Lab - launches today, and, in the words of their press release:

"...recognizes climate change as one of the most daunting challenges mankind faces in creating a sustainable society, says [Sloan Professor Richard] Locke. "A critical issue for global warming is the ways in which the risks are communicated, and the framing of the solutions, both for specific organizations and for communities," he says. "S-Lab will teach future CEOs and business leaders the challenges of implementation and how the science of sustainability can be best communicated to policymakers and citizens."

Key to addressing sustainability, says Locke, is in re-defining it. "Up until now we have considered aspects of sustainability - climate, energy, water, food, poverty, and social development - in isolation," he says. "S-Lab is developing an integrated framework to consider the system-wide dynamics of human society along with tools and methodologies for measuring and monitoring sustainability efforts and their applications."

With the just-published U.N. study on global warming forcing the issue front and center - for once and for all, one might fervently wish - this program is well timed, and - once you cut through the academ-ese, well defined.

So much of the foot-dragging around addressing human activities that contribute to environmental degradation stems from fears - real or imagined - about the negative impact on jobs and the economy.

Factoring in the environmental impact will and must become a cost of doing business. And, let's face it, while the start up costs of transitioning to cleaner and greener may be steep, in the longer run the new products and services spawned by the need to be better stewards of Mother Earth will become important elements of the economy. I suspect that, as with globalization, in which there are winners (multi-national companies, investors, and "the consumer") and losers (the displaced workers, their families, and their communities), there will be some of both when environmentalism becomes a more ascendant force.  Polluting and "old energy" industries will lose out. The businesses that come up with alternative energy and technological fixes to damage done will obviously win. So will those that development more environmentally friendly practices, as this will give them a marketing edge as the citizenry inreasingly demands it. (So, of course, will those that start claiming that they're "green" even if they aren't - but that win will be temporary, as their green spin gets outed.) At the macro level, it will be an overall long term win.

S-Labs may also turn out to be a smart move in terms of job opportunities for Sloan grads:  the U.S. Climate Action Partnership is a group that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council AND 10 A-list CEOs (including those of GE, Alcoa, BP, Dupont and Lehman Brothers) is pulling together to push for a market-sensible approach to greenhouse gases (trading of emission credits). Those organizations will no doubt be looking for the type of environment and business savvy MBAs that will come out of S-Labs.

In any case, the S-Lab is good news.  And, of course, since it's MIT, "will include role-playing computer simulations requiring students to balance profit maximization with practices that factor in environmental impact."

When I was at Sloan - lo, these many years ago: in June I went to my 25th reunion - the main case study in our Operations Research class was about a company called "Red Brand Canners" that, if I remember correctly, made ketchup (or something else to do with tomatoes).  The problem sets were around maximizing production - or was it profit -  subject to certain constraints.* 

Kudos to Sloan for doing something that's more relevant and interesting than Red Brand Canners.

If we want to hang on to the world as we know it for at least a couple of generations to come, it's time to start thinking - an acting - more seriously about "balancing profit maximization" subject to the very real constraints imposed by our all-too fragile environment. Tim to figure out the formula for green-squared: how you can be green without giving up on the greenbacks.


*While we did, in fact, have computers and calculators in those days of yore, we also did things the old-fashioned way: by hand. Probably because my understanding of the whole process was so tenuous to begin with, I have only vague memories of how we solved the Red Brand Canners OR problems. I recall filling in matrices, and doing something called "pivoting on the dual" (or was it "dueling with the pivot".

Source for this blog idea, and for the quoted material that did not come from the press release, came from the Business Briefs section of The Boston Globe (February 3, 2007).

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Spam Scam Artistry

I am in receipt of mercifully little unsolicited e-mail. For a while, I was getting all kinds of offers from people with wonderful names like Eureka Frontile, Alistair Loveless, and Cassia Brawn, who wanted me to take their stock tips, pop their pills, or buy their knock-off watches. But comcast got wise, and I get them no more. (Alas, I do miss the names.)

So I was somewhat surprised - but quite elated -  to receive a note from Mr. Len Mcray, "writing from London," who has an amazing deal to offer me. One that certainly looks like it would provide quite an excellent return. I haven't gotten back to Mr. Mcray just yet, so I don't have all the details. But let's just say that I could be ahead $1.8 million with very little investment on my part.

For those of you with suspicious minds, I can only say that you must have very little faith in your fellow man (and fellow e-mail users) if you don't believe that Mr. Len Mcray is on the up and up.

He sounds to me like a very generous individual - or someone who works for a very generous organization - who is willing, out of the sheer goodness of his heart, to share  with me in a way that few investment opportunities have offered in the past.  All he's asking in return is a hand-up - not, I must stress, a hand out.

To demonstrate just why I think this is such a sound way for me to generate more wealth than I could ever hope to make in such a short time from my own hard work or paltry investments, I will offer some excerpts from Mr. Mcray's e-mail.

The first grabber is his way of addressing me:

"Attention Manager/Ceo"

Well, I'm not a CEO, except of my own life, but I have been a manager.

So this assures me that Mr. Mcray already knows something about me. Mistaking me for a CEO is commonplace. I don't golf, but if I had an only slightly different personality I'm quite sure I could have been one. In fact, as I mentioned, there is some context (my own life) in which I am, in fact, a CEO, and Mr. Mcray may be alluding to that.

Mr. Mcray then, quite nicely, introduces himself.

"My name is Mr. Len Mcray,writing from London."

Note that he has given me not only his first and last names, but his honorific ("Mr."), and his location. He is clearly someone who is proud of just who he is, a humble "Mr.", and not someone who feels the need to aggrandize himself as a "Dr." or an "Esq." I like that in a business man. I mean, Jack Welch has his PhD, but I've never heard him referred to as Dr. Welch.

In fact, the use of "Len" rather than Leonard is another nice Welchian touch. It's always Jack, never John.

So Len Mcray is in good company. (Perhaps he has even read Jack. I must ask him when I respond to his e-mail.)

Mr. Mcray also tells me that he is from London, not from Nigeria or some other place where one might expect Nigerian scam artists to be from. (This is reinforced quite well by his e-mail address at And no, I am not suspicious that he does not provide a formal business address, which means nothing. Do you know how easy it is to hop on GoDaddy and sign up for a "real" url and e-mail address? In fact, the use of a yahoo e-mail address further underscores my belief that Mr. Mcray is a humble and honest man. No fancy honorific, no fancy e-mail address either.)

I myself use simple e-mail addresses, once again underscoring what I sense is a growing bond, a certain simpatico, between me and Mr. Len Mcray.

Mr. Mcray - or, as I'm starting to think of him, Len - lets me know that "your info was reliably introduced to me." Again, he astutely offers me assurances by indicating that my info was reliably introduced, not unreliably introduced. I don't know who to thank for this introduction, but I encourage him or her to come forth. (And, let's face it, once I score the $1.8 M, they'll be coming out of the woodwork to let me know that they were the ones who reliably introduced my information to Len.)

In an example of brilliantly concise business writing, Len then cuts to the chase:

I will like to invest in your country but I don't know
anybody that will help me when I come over there that
is my reason of contacting you to know if you will be
of assistance.

That poor fellow! He doesn't know any Americans who can help him out when he comes over here. No wonder he's contacting me. Maybe he knows that I'm the daughter of an immigrant, and am way benevolently disposed to people coming over here to make their fortune. Len, Len, Len, I (metaphorically speaking) "lift my golden lamp beside the Golden door."

Len falls down a bit when it comes to the actual details of the business deal, but he does talk magnitude.

I have $18M dollars to invest in a profitable business
in your country.

OK, $18M won't exactly buy you a YouTube, but it's not exactly chump change, either, now is it? And I'm almost tearing up about his desire to invest in a profitable business. How many times have I worked for unprofitable businesses? Yet Len doesn't hold that against me. I mean, when I told some people that I was thinking of exploring work in the  non-profit sector, they actually seemed to sneer. "Well, you've certainly got plenty of experience working for non-profits, don't you? Might as well try your hand at places that are intentionally non-profit, eh." 

Although Len doesn't ask outright for my help in picking a business, I'm going to read a bit between the lines and say that he does seem to have faith that I can maybe help him identify a good, profitable business for him.

I thank you, Len. From the very bottom of my heart, I thank you for that show of faith.

Len's note continues:

The money is right now in an Embassy vault in Europe.

Once again, just when I might be starting to be a teensie-weensie bit suspicious, Len lets me know that the money is in Embassy vault. Embassy? Does it get any more reputable than that? And vault? That sounds to me like he's got the money in cash.

I am ready to give you 10% of the money if you assist me.

That 10% rings loud and clear. And, knowing Len the way I think I do, my guess is that the tit-for-tat is not going to be that big a deal. I'm guessing he'd like me to help him find a local bank, maybe show him around town, introduce him to a few friends in financial services or tech. It sounds like he's looking for a friend as much as he is looking for a business partner. He may need a little walking around money once he gets here, a little spare change for starting things up. I've heard how slow to move those Embassy vaults can be when you try to get your cash out. They're as impregnable as Fort Knox. So I may have to put a little good faith money up. I mean, how can I expect a reward as big as $1.8M if I'm not willing to risk a paltry couple of thousands?

Here's where it gets a little fuzzy for me, and I'll have to think about it some more.

If you can handle it then let me know so that we shall plan how to meet ourselves to workout modalites.

The problem is that Len's asking about working out modalites, and I'm not exactly sure what he means. Modalities I've heard of. And electrolytes, sure. Which may make sense since he's talking about "workout modalities" and when you work out you need to worry about your electrolytes. Maybe he's thinking of investing in a business like Gatorade?

In any case, I'm going to do a little bit more research - especially on modalites - before I get back to Len.

But I'm really leaning in the direction of making the bold move and just saying yes. Throw a little caution to the wind here. Fortune favors the brave and all that.

And, no, I'm not going to give you his e-mail address and have the poor guy bombarded by people who want to get in on the big pay-off.  You think I was born yesterday or something?

Smarty-pants readers who already have some modalites in mind may think they can figure out his e-mail address just from the hints I've dropped here?

Well, here's a little warning for you. I'm usually the trusting type, but this one's just too big, so I've disguised "Len's" name just a tiny bit.

If somehow you manage to figure it out, if somehow you and "Len" find that all your cylinders and modalites are clicking, if somehow you're able to score the $1.8M ahead of me. Well, just remember, YOU OWE ME ONE.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?

I admit. I am a sucker for cop shows. Law and Order. NYPD Blue. Hill Street Blues. Cold Case. Without a Trace. The Closer. The Shield. Hey, I'll even watch a re-run of Dragnet just to see Joe Friday carry a badge. I even like reality shows like COPS.

COPS, for those unfamiliar with it, rides with a different city or state police force every episode, and is "filmed on location with the men and women of law enforcement. All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law." Yeah, right, that's a big part of their premise, especially when you think of their theme song - Bob Marley's Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when they come for you? Bad boys, bad boys.

So I should have been all over the new reality police show, Armed and Famous.

And I would have been if I don't find the entire premise ridiculous and, frankly, insulting to "the men and women of law enforcement."

For those for whom Armed and Famous has been beneath the radar gun, the show involves taking a group of C-list "celebrities" and turning them into police officers who would actually be protecting and serving the folks in Muncie, Indiana.

The "armed and famous" cops make the cast of Hollywood Squares look like the red-carpet brigade. Erik Estrada, who in some recursion around life imitating "art", used to play a highway patrolman in the 70's clunker TV show C.H.I.P.s. Johnny "Wee Man" Acuna, a skateboarding champ, star of the Jackass movies, and, not incidentally, a dwarf. LaToya Jackson, sister of Michael and Janet, and "author" of some tell-all on growing up Jackson. Trish Stratus, who is what we would have called in the good old days a "lady wrestler" (although in the good old days I don't believe that lady wrestlers looked quite this good). And Jack Osbourne, Ozzy's kid, who, I take it, is famous for being famous because of the reality show about his family that was on the tube a few years back.

The "plot" of the show calls for its, ahem, stars, to go through "real" police training, and become bona fide reserve police officers. They don't call it reality TV for nothing!

According to the CBS web-site (which I'm assuming will come down soon, given that the show has already been canceled) states that:

...the celebrities undergo police training...They learn everything from fire-arms to hand-to-hand combat, and even learn what it's like to be on the receiving end of a Taser shock as part of a process to be certified to carry stun guns. Upon completion of their training, they'll be issued badges and guns, partnered with veteran officers and immediately hit the streets of Muncie. The five celebrities will protect and serve on the busiest shift of the night, 6 pm to 2 am, responding to emergency calls, helping victims and making arrests.

Apparently these guys did go out on real calls - responding to, among other true crimes, a stabbing, a domestic disturbance, and a burglary. And LaToya and Trish went undercover as ladies of the night shift walking Muncie's wild side. (Remember when every other plot of Angie Dickinson's Policewoman seemed to be "Pepper plays a hooker.")

When I first looked at the web site, I could swear that there was a section that talked about Erik and LaToya having helped deliver a baby. When I looked at the picture of the "baby" they had allegedly help deliver, I could see that the "baby" was clearly made out of plastic, which certainly must have been a Taser-level shock to its parents. Well, they've still got the pictures up there, but there's no more "story line" about the baby they helped deliver. (I could only find a downloadable pic of Jack O with the plastic fantastic baby, but it shows it off quite well.) Guess holding a plastic baby doll and pretending that it's real was all part of their training.

In any case, the show has been canceled after only a few episodes - although I did see that one of the less mainstream networks is going to show a "marathon" of all four of the episodes that were made. Given the nature of the show and the level of the stars in it, I'm sure that even with so few shows to look at, watching would definitely constitute a marathon.

Of course, there is the laugh out loud aspect to the whole thing. I read that one of the perps apprehended by Erik Estrada (and his real cop partner) mistook Estrada for Emilio Estevez, which apparently set Estrada off big time. One Taser-shock a minute for you, you no good skel, until you get the name straight. (Skel is a word for no-gooder, which I picked up from Detective Sipowicz during my NYPD-watching days.)

Actually, I will be a bit tempted to watch this show, rather than just think about it and react to it. But I will resist because I think that having anyone become a "real-fake" police officer is an honest-to-goodness bad idea.

Yes, much of being a member of the police force is quite likely routine, boring, unglamorous, and undangerous. But when it's not... Who wants a cop who's more concerned that they're filming his "good" side, rather than focusing on the bad guy? Who wants someone in a tense, difficult situation who'll be distracting to everyone? Did it really help the Muncie police out when Emilio Estevez, I mean Erik Estrada, went ballistic when someone got his name wrong?

There are certain jobs that just don't lend themselves to these sorts of bogus impersonations, and police officer is one of them. I'd also add firefighter to the list. If my house is burning down, I want to see one of those big, brawny fireman there to carry me down the ladder - not Paris Hilton worrying about whether she's going to break a nail, or whining, "Ewww, she must weigh more than 115 pounds. That's so not right."

I also don't want anyone who plays a doctor on TV to show up in the examining room, thank you. Not even the guy who plays Dr. Kovacs on ER.

Airline pilots. No, no, no. No "this is your pilot, Kevin Federline. Just wanted to let you all know that if you look out the window on the left side of the plane,you can see the lights of Las Vegas, where I used to be a back-up dancer for Britney Spears."

Let's have a wee bit of respect for jobs that not only require special skills and training, but also have more than a little element of risk associated with them - and not just risk to the worker, but risk to the worked on, as well.

Stick to those jobs where it would be more or less harmless for a celebrity to fill in - Celebrity Marketers, anyone?

Celebrity Marketers? What was I thinking? As we saw from the recent marketing "bomb scare" in Boston, even marketing can't be said to do no harm. (Here are links to my Opinionated Marketers rant-o-ramas on this event: Bad Idea Marketing from Turner Broadasting, and More on "Adult Swim" Marketing Fiasco.

In truth, anytime a celebrity wants to pantomime someone's real job for real, rather than as an actor, it's going to be a) ridiculous; and/or b) insulting and demeaning to those who hold the job in real life.

Whatever the profession, let's not pretend that just anyone can zip in off the street and get the job done. Let alone these celebrity types who are so out of touch with reality to begin with.

Armed and Dangerous? Bad idea - and apparently the real world thought so to.

Citizens' arrest after just four episodes. Perp walk for the bad boy at CBS who came up with this notion. Book 'em, Dano.

P.S. Am I the only person who found it interesting that Muncie, Indiana, was the location for this show? As a Sociology Major, I read the Middletown books by Robert Staughton Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. These were classic sociological studies written in the 1920's and 1930's that profiled the habits and characteristics of the city of Muncie, "disguised" by the authors as Middletown. One of the books was titled Middletown in Transition. Seems to me that, by letting themselves get wooed into doing a reality series, the Muncie P.D. made a little transition of their own from what I suspect was "Midwest sensible" to a pretty embarassing "famous for a day wannabe."

What would the Muncie-ites of Middletown have made of all this?