Thursday, May 31, 2007

Just Scratching the Microsoft Surface

I'm not exactly a full-blown Luddite, but I'm seldom (actually, make that never) the one to be in the must-have-it, first-adopter category of technology consumption. I was a relative early bird on PC's, but nothing like the guys with their kits building computers in their garages. (I was, however, smart enough to foresee that the pronouncement of the then-president of my then-company was way off the mark when he was quoted in some rag asking what in God's name anyone would want a computer in their home for.

My first cell phone was hand-me-down from my friend George. It didn't exactly have a circular dial face on it, but just about. It weighed as much as a walkie-talkie and was not, if I recall, digital.

I made fun of my boss when he got his first Palm Pilot (the name alone!), but I was there with my own PDA not long after.

I iPod.


But I never, ever jump up in wonderment when I hear about new technology. Rather than say, 'how cool', my first reaction is often a dogged, 'great, one more thing to learn that on balance will not make my life any better.'

Still, I was intrigued when I heard a review of Microsoft's new Surface Computing on NPR when I was driving home yesterday. (It was showcased at a Wall Street Journal conference in California.)

NPR's news bit (and I do have to admit that just now when I went to type the word "news" I typed "noise", betraying my usual sentiments about shiny new technology) featured Glenn Derene of Popular Mechanics.

There's no way I'm going to do justice to the Surface, so I'll direct you to Glenn's Popular Mechanics video and written article so that you can take a look for yourself.

For those of us for whom one written word is usually worth a thousand pictures (or videos or audios), here's a bit of a description: The Surface is a no keyboard, no mouse computer (that for now is built into something that looks kind of like a coffee table). With surface computing, everything is gloriously touch screen. You can move objects around and size them, "download" - if that's the right word for it - a picture from your digital computer, "upload" it - if that's the right word - to your cell phone: no muss, no fuss, no USB.

Look, Ma, no wires! Just hands.

It's easy to imagine the applicability for gaming, and for designers and layout folks of all kinds. One of the apps discussed in the NPR story was restaurants using it as a menu that you ordered from, and paid at by smacking your credit card (or smart card) down. (I don't know how it would handle a cash transaction, but those are so yesterday, aren't they?)

When I heard the story, I also shuddered a little at the thought of how creepily invasive it could be. Imagine sitting down in a restaurant and having an unscrupulous table pick your pockets: numbers off you cell phone, credit/smart card info, etc. Talk about upping the ante on table stakes! But let's assume that the tables will, in fact, be completely above board and leave your personal devices and info the hell alone until and unless you wanted it known. (And, of course, by the time the Surface is widespread, biometrics will likely be prevalent enough to insure info security.)

What I found exciting is the possibility for collaboration when a couple of Surfaces are "strung together" (wirelessly, of course). It will make the current whiteboarding technologies look like chiseling into stone.

I will not be running out to by a Surface.  (The cost: $5K to $10K. No wonder I'm a somewhat later adopter.) And I'm such a written word kind of guy, well, the QWERTY keyboard is such a natural extension of my being. There'll probably be a touch screen keyboard for those old-fashion types who still use words rather than symbols, but I can't imagine a world in which I'll just talk into "the box" (or communicate telepathically by resting my head on the surface of the Surface).

Still, when I played the video of the Surface, I have to admit that my first reaction was 'how cool is that?'

Could it be that the last, vestigial scintilla of Luddite in me has withered away and died?

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Put me in, Coach! I speak English.

A little ad in the back of The Economist caught my eye, so I went and checked out MyKnowledgeCoach,which is really not so much what I'd call a knowledge coach and more what I'd call a help-someone-who-doesn't-speak-perfect-English-coach.

What this outfit does is help "foreigners" run through their PowerPoint presos, sales pitches, marketing collateral, business plans, etc. with someone who is both fluent in English and knowledgeable about business.

Their goal:

MyKnowledgeCoach supports the needs of the international business person who wants to do business in English. We help you improve your material, communicate more clearly, and clarify your business goals. By working with a world-class business coach, your content, sales, and marketing will be sharper, and your success will be closer at hand.

Their motto:

Articulate your business in English.

I think that this is a great idea, and I wish I'd thought of it. Not that 100% perfect idiomatic English is likely to make or break most pitches, but obviously anyone would want to put their thoughts in front of potential customers in the most straightforward, clearly articulated way they can.

But I think they're missing a big part of their potential audience - all those native-English speakers who are completely muddled and befuddled in their communications.

I'd like to be a knowledge coach to every person on the face of the corporate earth who started a memo with the words "as per".  There are few terms I've have loathed more, few that I have cast more aspersions on, than "as per."

"As per", I am pleased to note, does not seem to be as widely used in e-mails as it was in paper memoranda. One more reason to go paperless.

But "as per" cannot hold a rhetorical candle to some of the howlers I've read, seen, heard over the years.

I once sat through a presentation in which one of the executives exhorted us to "move head with all the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut." Use of the term juggernaut aside (I mean, deathwagon as a business term?), just how much momentum does something entrenched have?

An advertising agency once suggested that my company use the tagline "the final solution" for a new offering. (Sorry, but that one's been done.)

Then there was the colleague who wrote about the "incarceration of our product". I think he meant incarnation, but couldn't be 100% sure.

How about the fellow who publicly thanked me for being his "wetnurse" after I helped him out with a presentation. Wetnurse? Wetnurse?????? I do not to imagine what he might have been thinking, but I did suggest that the word he was looking for was nursemaid.

Not that I'm immune to the spoken and the written error. I'm sure that my communications - especially my blog posts - are riddled with them. But if everyone could use a proofing coach on occasion, some people would profit from having one all the time - whether they grew up speaking Mandarin, Farsi, or good old American English.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Gospel According to Second Life

A week or so ago, NBC had a feature on the evening news ("Give Me That Online Religion") that chronicled the growth of religion in Second Life ("a 3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents." And before you open your mouth to make fun of such a world, it now has nearly 7 million residents "from around the globe.")

I've written about the confluence of technology and religion a couple  of times in the past - Money Changers in the Temple (ATM's in churches) and From Skype's Lips to God's Ear (prayer requests over IP). But to me religion on Second Life represents something else entirely.

According to the NBC segment, the tech-assisted religious frontier has moved way beyond real folks attending church services via the radio, TV, or over IP. It's now about avatars getting religion.

Given that Second Life has sex, drugs, rock and roll, crime, real estate, fashionistas, travel agencies and just about every other thing you can think of, I don't know why I'm so surprised that it would get religion, too. Still, the thought of avatars attending church services - standing, kneeling, waving their arms, sitting in the lotus position, participating in an altar call, prostate on a prayer rug - is just a tad bit too bizarre for me.

While there are all sorts of churches, mosques, and synagogues on Second Life, with services attended by avatars, and places where avatars hang out to debate religion with, uh, other avatars, what was intriguing about the NBC story was its focus on a mega evangelical church in Oklahoma, Life Church, that broadcasts its services on Second Life.

So, if you're not in Oklahoma City, or in one of the other places where Life Church has a physical satellite church. If you - as you - don't want to listen to the Life Church service on radio. If you - as you - don't want to watch the Life Church service on TV. Or download a podcast. Or view it streaming live over the web... Well, now your avatar can attend for you on the Second Live version. And since you'll probably be looking over your avatar's shoulder during the service, you'll be attending church, too. Sort of.

One of the folks interviewed in the NBC story said he loved attending services via his avatar, a cheetah, claiming that he finds more acceptance at Life Church on Second Life than he would in a real church.

I'm guessing that he's 100% correcto, especially if he was thinking of attending real life church dressed as a blue-eyed cheetah, wearing a T-shirt and this sort of fez-like cap with a feather dangling from it.

So, does Second Life church "count"? As in, if your avatar goes to church, and you attend with it, are you really attending church? Does the kiss of peace handshake you give the avatar sitting next to you in the pew have the same resonance as grabbing the hand of the little old lady who only gets out of the house once a week to attend bona fide, genuine church and have contact with bona fide, genuine people? Sure, at Second Life church, you can probably shake the pastor's virtual hand on your way out the virtual door, but can you buzz over to Dunkin Donut's for a dozen mixed on your way home? How about incense, can you smell it online yet? And the choir? Does it sound tinny? Do you have to put money in the virtual collection plate? Or do you pay in the coin of Second Life's realm.

And the really big question: Do avatars zone out during the sermon? Yawn? Nod off? Whisper nasty remarks to their avatar spouses?

Oh, well. If people have jobs, build homes, and make love on Second Life, they may as well get religion there, too. 

Which must mean that if two avatars get it on, they can have a baby avatar, and have him/her/it christened at a Second Life service. Let's hope they got married in a Second Life church and didn't have that little avatar out of wedlock. (I heard it's not good for an avatar if the avatar parents aren't married.) And will the avatar baby cry when the baptismal water hits its forehead?

There is just so much to think about here.

Do avatars share the religious preference of their owners? (Masters? Masterminds? What's the operative word here?) And if there's a personal schism going on, is it kind of like a mixed marriage? 

Do avatars shop around, experimenting with other faiths? Can your avatar be a "cradle Catholic?" A cultural Jew? A lapsed Methodist?

How about an avatar crisis in faith? Can your avatar lose its religion - while you keep yours? And vice versa. ("That's me in the corner, losing my religion." Or will R.E.M. have to rewrite the lyrics: "That's my avatar in the corner. Losing its religion."

I appreciate that you can meet and befriend people virtually. I've done it through my blog.

But there's something about spending a lot of time "living" in Second Life, with a brand new avatar self with the attributes we wish we had, and bringing that avatar to church, of all things, that seems very sad to me. I'm sure that Second Life can be - like blogging - an enjoyable time sink. It's also easy to see that it can become an obsession, the place you go when you could be in your life blood community having real experiences with real people.

Like all kids, I was big into fantasy play. I played house, school, pioneers on covered wagons, Titanic, soldiers at war, beauty pageant, movie star, Indians around the campfire, hospital, and just about every other thing we could think of. Including church. If you used the white Necco wafers (or the somewhat inferior, due to thickness, Canada Mint), you had a very serviceable Holy Communion to give out at play Mass. Better yet, girls could be priests.

Yet it wasn't really church, even when we prayed. Did those Hail Mary's count for anything? Not that it matters (especially not to me: avatar or no avatar, that was me in the corner, losing my religion), but I'm guessing not.

Hanging around Second Life doesn't seem all that grownup to me. Isn't fantasy play supposed to help kids learn how to navigate the adult, real world?

Just where does all this stuff end, anyway?

God - or God's avatar - help us.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Decoration Day

When I was a kid, some of the old timers still called Memorial Day "Decoration Day," and in our family we took it seriously. On Memorial Day, we went out and decorated family graves.

There weren't all that many to decorate. My grandfather. My great-grandparents (Rogers and Trainor). My sister Margaret who'd died in infancy. But it required a long drive out to Barre, Massachusetts, where my grandfather and the Rogers great-grandparents were buried. The wrought-iron gates at the cemetery in Barre were lettered with the words "Joyce Memorial", which always made us proud, because my great-grandmother Rogers, born Margaret Joyce, was one of those Joyces. So the gates were in some way "ours." (Last year, when I was out in Barre, the gates were down. I found them rusting in back of a gardening shed. I wonder what it would cost to have them restored.)

Fast forward a few years. Nobody says Decoration Day anymore. It's now Memorial Day, and it's no longer May 30th. Now it's part of a long weekend.

Somewhere along the line, I started going with my mother and my aunt Margaret (named, indeed, for Margaret Joyce) to visit the graves. There were more, now that my father, uncles, and grandmother had died.

There are more now, still, and my cousin Barbara and I do the honors somewhere around Memorial Day, visiting three cemeteries and making a day of it.

For us, it's a time to remember the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins - and one tiny sister - who have died. Even the ones we never really knew, except through the stories we heard. (Our family has always had many great story-tellers.)

Neither one of us plans to rest in peace in any of the cemeteries we visit, although I may have my ashes surreptitiously scattered at St. Joseph's Cemetery in Leicester, where my parents and sister are, and where I'm related to half the people buried there. What the hell. The ashes have to go somewhere.

But Memorial Day is a day to think about those who've died during war.

I actually don't personally know anyone who was killed during a war. I had friends who'd lost an uncle during World War II. Plenty of my friends had fathers who'd been in The War: at Omaha Beach, in Bastogne, at Guadalcanal. There was a man in the neighborhood who'd had his jaw shot off in Korea. I had classmates who'd lost a brother in Vietnam. A second cousin died of a drug overdose shortly after he got back from Vietnam. And indirect casualty of war, surely, but not killed in action. And he was a second cousin, someone I'd see around occasionally but barely knew. He lived in our parish, but in the farther reaches. He didn't go to the parish school. He was a litle older. Johnny, I hardly knew ye. (He's buried near my parents, so I actually see more of Johnny now than I ever did when he was alive.)

So I've actually never lost anybody.

Yet my existence is the result of both World War I and World War II.

My mother's father, Jacob Wolf, was in the Austro-Hungarian army during the first world war. Which meant that he was fighting on the "wrong" side. And fight he did. I have no memory of my grandfather - he died when I was a baby - but I do know the stories. Eating rats in the trenches to survive. Riding home after the war ended, strapped with his big army belt to the undercarriage of a troop train. And my favorite story of my grandfather, who was the World War I version of a "communications specialist", putting a call through from his outpost to another further down the line. He recognized the voice at the other end as that of his brother. "Is that you, Nick?" "Is that you, Jake?"

Neither had known the other was serving in the area.

In any case, my grandfather - unlike many of the men and boys of his town, including two of his brothers, I think - survived. I have a copy of a memorial poster that was made of "the dead and living of the war from Neue Banat". The poster includes small oval portraits of thirty-three "toten" and 89 "lebenden". Neue Banat, a farm town in the backass of nowhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was pretty small. They pretty much sent all of their young - and, from the portraits, many of their not-so-young - men off to the Welt Krieg. And a lot of them didn't come back.

Strapped to the undercarriage of that train, my grandfather did get back. He got married. Started a family (starting with my mother). And started planning their emigration to America. He had had enough of the hardscrabble life, the welt krieg, of peasant Europe. He did not want the sons he intended to have eating rats in trenches and recognizing each others' voices on trench phones. He was getting out. (The sons Jake had were both too young for World War II. Jack was a Korean-era vet, Bob a pre-Vietnam, peace-time era soldier.)

Jacob Wolf and most of his surviving brothers ended up in Chicago, where life was a whole lot better than in Neue Banat, which after the borders changed and it became part of Rumania had it's name changed to Panat Nul. The Germans in town - and there were only Germans in town until after WWII when they were all kicked out and repatriated back to Germany, where none of them had actually lived since the 1700's - continued to call the town Neue Banat.

Chicago is where my father end up stationed for a couple of years during World War II.

When people think of veterans, they think of those who served in combat.

I don't know what the ratio is of support troops to combat troops, but it's high.

For four years, from 1942-194, my father was support.

Shortly after Pearl Harbor, my father tried to join the Army, but he was rejected because of his flat feet.

Maybe because they didn't march as much, or maybe, as my father told us, because he convinced the doctor that he had something called "Indian feet", which meant that he had flat arches but that they didn't bother him, the Navy let my father in.

Because my father had scored so well on the intelligence test they gave you when you joined the service, he was invited to attend Officer Candidate School. True to form, my father decided that he didn't want to be a stuck up, silver-spoon, candy-ass officer, so he stayed a non-com. (He did go as high as a non-com can go, and became a Chief Petty Officer.)

In any case, there was a war on, and (other than a polite refusal to go to OCS), you went where they told you to go.

The first place they told my father to go was Virginia. Then they told him to go to Trinidad, which was an important supply staging area, especially during a period when it was thought that the main invasion point for the European Theater was going to be Africa/Italy.

Then my father was transferred to downtown Chicago.

He met my mother on a fix-up date through one of his Navy friends.

On August 6th, when the news of the first atomic bomb was announced, my father proposed to my mother. At this point, he knew that the war in the Pacific would soon be over and that he wouldn't be sent there.

The rest is our family history.

Decoration Day. Memorial Day. May 30th. Last Monday in May.

Tomorrow I will go with Barbara to decorate our family graves.

Today I will think of those who were not as lucky as Jake Wolf and Al Rogers, those who did not make it home to build their lives.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A My Name is Alice

As a kid, one of my all-time favorite games was "A My Name is Alice".

I was thinking about this game as a I paged through a recent Economist, with its articles on gay rights in Peru, corruption in Cambodia, and rioting in Denmark. How profoundly the world has changed in terms of our awareness of it, our interconnectedness, our place in it.

If you're not familiar with the rules "A My Name is Alice", you go around in a circle - sometimes bouncing a ball while you're doing it -taking a letter of the alphabet and supplying a feminine name, a masculine name, a place, and an item. As in:

A my name is Alice.
May husband's name is Al.
We come from Alabama.
And we sell apples.

Of course, when I played this game, we stuck to the basics. Sure, we could get pretty exotic with the names, especially in later rounds when we got to letters like "Q" and "X".  But early on, we kept to the Alices, Bobs, and Carols - names that real people actually had in our constrained little world.

The things we sold tended to be pretty straightforward, too. Apples, balloons, cars. Every once in a while, we'd get fanciful and through in the name of something - animal, vegetable, mineral - that didn't come from the U.S. ("We sell emus.") But for the most part, there was so much "stuff" made in America that we didn't have to think about things coming from "overseas", other than the cheapo, postwar conquered-nation goods of dubious quality, like the scissors that fell apart in your hand when you cut string with them. We used to turn things over (cheap toys, salt and pepper shakers) and when we saw Made in Japan stamped on the bottom, we'd laugh. Made in Japan! What crap!

Forget about where it's made. In this day and age, there's so many more things that just didn't exist when I was a kid (or an adult, even). I grew up during the post-war, junk-a-rama boom. Yet the amount of stuff I had as a child looks like the small-sack-of-marbles-and-corn-husk-doll existence of Laura Ingalls on Little House when compared to the plentitude of a modern middle-class childhood.

When we played "A my name", we also kept our place names pretty much to the good old U.S. of A. We were playing this game, after all, smack-dab in the midst of the American Century.

I'm guessing that, if kids still play this game - other than when they're riding around with their Baby Boomer aunts - it's gone through a major overhaul.

No more pedestrian "A my name is Alice."

For starters, there are all those names that weren't in existence "then". Ashley. Tiffany. Heather. Some of the new names are ones that we used as place names in the day. (See: Cheyenne, Dallas.) Then there are all the places people could come from - that's all changed, too.  Some places are gone (Rhodesia). Some are new: (Bangladesh). Some are renamed (Beijing). But mostly there's a greater awareness of the world at large than we had in the past. It wasn't so much isolation or isolationism. It's just that the only places that really mattered when I was a kid were the United States and wherever in Europe you roots were.

Here's a starter set for a 21st century round:

A my name is Ashley, my husband's name is Alex. We come from Azerbaijan, and we sell anti-ballistic missiles.

B my name is Brittany, my husband's name is Brandon. We come from Belarus and we sell ballistic missiles.

C my name is Cheyenne, my husband's name is Chad. We come from China and we sell all the cheap crap that you buy at the Christmas Tree Shoppe.

The alphabet is long, my patience is short...

No profound thoughts here:

  • The world is getting smaller
  • There's more stuff in it 

And, of course, the notion that one of the pleasures (and pains) of getting older is reflecting on the changes you've seen in your lifetime - from meaningless ones (while there were 8 or so Maureen's out of 90 or so girls in my high school class, nobody names a daughter Maureen anymore), to the economic, political, social, and demographic shifts that have put iPods, Kosovo, WiFi, and hedge funds in our kids' sing-song games.

Z my name is Zelda, my husband's name is Zeke. We come from Zanzibar and we sell zebras....

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Luck o' the Celtics

Professional sports are interesting from a lot of business angles, that's for sure. All that history.  All that psychodrama. All that crazed, bread-and-circus identification that so many of us do with our home town honeys.

And all that money....

Even franchises that play miserably and draw poorly tend to be worth a lot of money when they come on the market, as there always seems to be a wealthy vanity owner in the wings. Then there's the money ball question: do you or don't you get what you pay for. There are the astronomical salaries - just think about what Roger Clemens is getting paid by the Yankees this season. Talk about a nifty pay rate. (And I agonize over whether a per diem should be 8 hours of work or 10.) There's also the fact that poor performance - both individual player and team - is out there in public for the whole world to see in a way that's just dauntingly public.

And which, in the once proud basketball town of Boston, has been on display for more years than I care to count.

I will admit that I am not now and never have been a capital b basketball fan. Yes, I did enjoy watching them when they were good, so my lack of interest now is partially fair-weather fandom. But it's more than that. I just do not enjoy the noise, flashing lights, Jumbotrons, and showboating that the NBA has come to. When I do watch a game, which is rare, I typically come away unimpressed by anything other than some individual heroics. Maybe I don't watch enough pro basketball these days, but I seem to remember when you could actually see more playmaking evolving. Now it looks to me like pure run and gun.

And, no, Boston was never a capital "b" basketball town. But, hey, everybody loves a winner and people got into the Russell era teams (at least during the playoffs and definitely in retrospect), the Cowens era teams, and - of course - the Bird era teams (when Boston almost but not quite was a Capital B Basketball Town).

But that Capital B was Before: Before their #1 draft pick Len Bias died of a drug overdose. Before Reggie Lewis dropped dead during practice. Before the Celtics had no luck of the draw and didn't get to pick Tim Duncan even when, statistically speaking, they should have gotten first pick that year.

The draft is one of the interesting aspect of the sporting biz - an attempt you don't see if "normal" businesses (for the most part) to level the playing field and not just let the rich get richer and the best get better.

Unlike in those sports where the crappiest team gets the first draft pick, the NBA just gives the crappiest team a better shot at it: more ping pong balls with their name on it get thrown in the hopper. The worse you are, the better your chances. But there are no guarantees.

Given the generally unexciting NBA "product" that's on the market these days - and that's not just the disgruntled, nostalgic Celtic fan in me, although God knows I preferred an obstructed view seat in the Old Boston Garden watching good basketball, to an unobstructed view seat in the New Boston Garden watching not so good basketball, cheerleaders, and a light show - the NBA doesn't want teams throwing in the towel too early and deliberately tanking to make sure they get the Number 1 draft pick. Thus the proportionate but not absolute opportunity that accrues to the crappier teams.

Of which the Celtics are a stellar example.

The Celtics had about a 40% chance of getting either the number 1 or number 2 pick.

They got neither, coming away with number 5.

The team tried to put on its game face: 'there are a lot of good players out there' blah-di-blah.

But they were really expecting something a bit higher up the food chain.

Wyc Grousbeck even had on a (completely hideous) black suit with white and green pinstripes. Special suit for a special occasion.

According to The Boston Globe, "The Celtics, in anticipation of getting the first or second pick, had office staff standing by to field requests for seasons tickets."  And the radio station that carries Celtic games had a party going at one of the bars near The Garden, as did a few other organizations.

Party hats and noisemakers for everyone!

At least the fans hanging out in bars ready to celebrate were able to drown their sorrows without having to go very far out of their way at all to drown their sorrows.

My friend and colleague Jeff called me the morning after the night before and asked me what all the hype and anticipation around "our" chances to nab the #1 or #2 draft pick reminded me of.

Genuity's IPO, of course.

Our IPO - the biggest on record at that point, mid-way through 2000 just as the bottom was falling out of the IPO market - was going to make us all rich!

Hurray for IPO's!

For those of us who lived through the build up and frenzy that attended the event; who saw applications for second mortgages smokin' off the fax machines; who played mental games with what we were going to do with all that money once our vesting period was up and we could sell....

Let down is not the right word.

Worse, the company planned a big IPO Day celebration, replete with party hats and noisemakers.

Well, by party time on IPO Day, most of the noise was being made by pissed-off employees complaining that we had been seduced into buying shares by senior management, and abandoned by a rotten market.

As I commented to one of my friends as we toasted the failed IPO with flat champagne, "There aren't enough office supplies in this place to make up for the losses employees face."

If we didn't have a 6 month waiting period, everyone would have dumped on day 2 and at least salvaged something.

But all the stock did was go down, down, down.

At least we all got capital losses to deduct. (The one bright side, given that there were definitely not enough office supplies to go around.)

As far as I recall, none of our executives wore a pinstriped suit in the Genuity colors (which, if the embroidery on my backpack is correct, were black and copper).

But it was, like the non-celebrations being held the other evening around Boston Garden, a definite case of celebratory prematurity.

How much more exciting and sensible if the Celtics and their fans had held off on the pinstriped suit and ready-to-raise glasses until the team could actually introduce a "franchise changer" like Gred Oden (likely #1) or Kevin Durant (likely #2) to the fans of Boston.  But, no, the anticipation was so built up, all the fans are geared up for now is another disappointing season.

How much more gratifying and sensible if Genuity had planned to hold the big IPO party at the point when employees could have cashed in on our stock purchases six months out.  Since at the point, it would have been clear to everyone that there was nothing to celebrate, the company could have saved on the party hats and noiseblowers, prevented a morale fiasco, and spared us all the spectacle of our senior execs looking sheepish and having to give little gung-ho speeches that were even more transparently BS-y than usual.

Which just goes to show you one more time, in business business or sporting business, you don't toast the deal, celebrate the victory, or light the victory cigar until you know the game is yours.


And a tip of the Celtic leprechaun's bowler to Jeff H. for suggesting this blog topic, and reminding me yet again that I lost $11K (not accounting for the marvelous tax losses) on that $(*)#Q(*(&U Genuity IPO.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Business Darwinism and the will to survive

A while back, Charlie Green over at Trusted Advisor did an interesting riff called Built to Last - Not.

Given that title, it's not surprising that Charlie argues that being built to last doesn't really have all that much meaning anymore.

The continued existence of a particular corporate organization is a pretty un-inspiring goal, when you think of it...The point is not to last. The point is to do great things for all your constituents. Where continued existence helps, great. Otherwise, standing water stagnates. The visionary thing works; but these days, the vision had better be to change, morph, grow, evolve, turnover, shift.

This set off a little comment storm in which people argued the point back and forth for a bit. (Take a look for yourself. Just remember to come back here.)

For me the bottom line is agreement with Charlie that just surviving is not much of a goal in and of itself. I did a lot of time (nearly 10 years, in fact) in a software company that really only excelled at one thing: survival.

Sure, we had brilliant technologists.  Truly brilliant.

And they produced brilliant technology. (Just ask Microsoft, which picked up some of it on the cheap and plunked it in the middle of Windows 3.0, and which copped another idea from us.)

But our sales and marketing never matched the technology, and we never figured out how to exploit what we had.

What we did get very good at was survival.

In the early days, survival meant our charismatic (and downright loony) chairman would fly off and find someone to give us $1M so that we could stay open for another month or two. Even in retrospect, it still amazes me that he was so able to keep geting people to throw good money after bad for so long. (I'm talking years here, and I'm also talking way spendathon.)

In my catbird seat position as corporate business plan and preso writer, I saw this happen, again and again.

One time I told the chairman that he reminded me of Mighty Mouse. Us employees, I suggested, were like the villagers in Mouseville. We would plea in chorus, "Mighty Mouse, oh save us." And our own personal MM would leap up, singing, "Here I come, to save the day."

Since my pal hadn't grown up in the States, he had no idea who Mighty Mouse was - the analogy definitely lost something in the translation - but our ability to survive without bringing in much revenue most quarters was phenomenal. Cartoon-like, as it were.

Eventually, even our laissez faire investors had had enough, and they sent in a turnaround guy.

We did turnaround, but by the time we turned around and looked, the investors had, for the most part, zipped their pocket books closed.

We were on our own.

We got clean and sober and managed to boot-strap ourselves into becoming marginally profitable.

But we never, ever, ever got enough energy going to do more than eke out an existence.

One difference in the company, however, was that we no longer relied on one individual's ability to gull investors for our survival.

No, it was the entire focus of everyone, from receptionist to president, and we all knew the drill.

Some of us knew it better than others.

I was one of those who had to sit down with our finance guy every month and figure out who to pay and who to stall. I was also second on the list of those who wouldn't get paid if we missed payroll (which, fortunately, never happened).

We did anything and everything we could to get the deal, make the sale, please the customer. It didn't matter if the big deal ended up costing us in the long run, as long as the short run income let us survive another quarter.

This went on for years.

This got tiring.

This I learned: you can tread water for a whole long time.

And that's what we did. But what happens when you tread water is that your arms get tired. You lose the ability to start stroking toward shore. You're just there, bobbing along, taking an occasional gulp of seawater and hoping that somebody will come and reach an oar out to you.


This post was triggered when I read John O'Leary's current post over on Tom Peter's, where he has resurrected a Fast Company article by Adam Hanft on The Death of Corporate Permanence. I've spent my career learning up close and personal about Business Darwinism. Most places I've worked are no longer around, but in no case did they disappear over night. Maybe in the grand scheme of things few if any companies will be built to last.  But it's amazing just how long the ones that are so unbuilt to last can hang on if their only goal is survival.

More on corporate permanence and impermanence to follow....

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Office Gossip and the Hooksett Four

What had been a local brouhaha is becoming a national story, as the Hooksett (New Hampshire) Four are taking their show on the road with an appearance on Good Morning America. If you haven't yet seen them, the women who comprise the Hooksett Four - now former town employees - have supposedly been fired for spreading rumors about their boss, the (married) Town Administrator, and his relationship with another (also married) town employee. It seems that a lot of speculating started going around when "the other woman" got a raise and promotion. (It is also claimed that one of the Hooksett Four used an expletive to refer to her boss. Now if that becomes a firing offense, they'll need to widen the doors at the unemployment offices around the country.)

The Boston Globe was all over this story yesterday.

[T]he firings of the four women -- long time employees who had earned stellar performance reviews -- have unleashed a wave of disbelief and anger among many residents.

Critics of the town have boiled their argument down to one question: Is there an employee anywhere who isn't guilty of gossiping about co workers?

In defending the move to fire the women, 

...a lawyer for the town, said at a public hearing last week that the rumor spread about [the Town Administrator] was serious, with potential to damage his marriage and career, and was not "some little gossip, like 'oh, she dyes her hair.' "

Further, a town report on the matter stated that the specific tongue-waggings that led to the firings were just a small part of a miserable workplace in which "gossip, whispering, and an unfriendly environment are causing poor morale and interfering with the efficient performance of Town business."

I have no problem believing that the Hooksett Four were malicious gossips who got tripped up by their own tongues. On the other hand, they may well be the victims of a witch hunt initiated by a boss who just didn't like them very much. And, of course, both could be true.

What's also true is that people do gossip at work.

I'll sure admit to it, but I also have to say that damned little of the gossip I hear or engage in at work has to do with anyone's personal life. Why speculate about things that are none of your business when there is such a rich stew of work-related idiocy to jaw about? I've always found that the work related foibles of managers and rank-in-file workers (especially those of the managers) were sufficiently dramatic, comic, and intriguing to satisfy the chattering classes.

It was always great fun to comment on the latest nonsense pronouncement from on high (and there was always some nonsesen pronouncement from on high); speculate about who would win and who would lose in the upcoming re-org (and there was always an upcoming re-org); and laugh about some knuckleheaded move someone in a senior position had just made (and there was always a knuckleheaded move to laugh about.)

Did they really just announce that we were reversing course on the new strategy that was laid out last month with such great fanfare? Do you think that Dick with end up reporting to Ann, even though they hate each other? Did Phil really say that we would be moving forward with all the momentum of an entrenched juggernaut? (Huh?) Did Paul really throw a drink in Chet's face at the dinner after the management meeting? Did Lindsay really get nabbed at the fax machine sending the company listing off to a headhunter?

I mean, who needs personal stuff to rag about? Personnel's personal lives, well, they're personal. Who cares?

Occasional personal life gossip happened, but it was never the main event.

At one time, I worked for a small, recently acquired division of a larger company where, rumor had it, most of the senior managers were screwing around with junior employees. This rumor fed our belief that we, with our innocent boy-meets-girl office romances, were morally superior to the evil acquiring force. And when we were integrated with Company Big, the number of second marriages between senior managers and folks they'd met at work seemed to confirm the screwing around rumors. But who cared? Once you got to know people, they all seemed very nice. Stuff happens to marriages. End of story.

At another small company, we were all sort of aware of an infatuation between two (married) employees, and we became really aware of it the day that the guy's wife showed up at work and started screaming at the woman in question. (Soon to follow: two divorces and one re-marriage.)

And there was the time a colleague was involved in a disastrous long-distance and quite exploitive relationship (he was being completely used). Ed decided to confide in a few of us about the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his relationship with Tina, right down to showing us the ring he was going to put on her finger on the cruise he was taking her on. We had been cautioning him all along that he was taking things too fast, and during cruise week, we had a few lunch confabs in which we speculated about how the cruise was going.

On the following Monday, Ed called one of us to say that he'd be in late, since he had to go to the jewelers to return the ring. And that was the last we heard of Tina (although I'm sure we spoke among ourselves about her a few more times).

But for the most part, my career has been devoid of the personal gossip and innuendo. As I said, there's plenty enough to talk about at work without getting personal.

Still, I think that the Hooksett Town Council went about the firings all wrong. It the Hooksett Four were poisoning the workplace, they should have been put on notice and counseled that their behavior had to change. It might not have worked, and I'm sure it would be quite hard to define the distinction between damaging gossip and office chit-chat. Not to mention how difficult it is to deal with passive-aggressive behavior, which could well have been the result of calling these folks on their malign gossip. The town would, however, have been better off if they had this sort of documentation (rather than file-folders full of glowing reviews). And they wouldn't be in the absurd position of having to outlaw all conversation that is not specifically work-related. Good luck with that effort!

Of course, if I were the Town Administrator and the other party, and had been the victim of damaging and hurtful rumor and innuendo, I would be pretty angry. I'm guessing that they never imagined that the whole thing would explode into a national story, and what had been a tempest in the Hooksett teapot would become the subject of water-cooler gossip in offices across the country. Not to mention fuel for the blogosphere....

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lucky Me!

A few months ago, I received a quite generous offer to help an off-shore investor looking to invest in the US (which I naturally blogged about: Spam Scam Artistry).

And just the other day I received an e-mail informing me that I am a winner of the British Charities Lottery "Mega Jackpot Lotto Winning Programs." My "company or personal e-mail address is attached" to a ticket that drew the Lucky Winning Number of 06-14-17-28-30-41. I don't remember actually entering a British Charities Lottery. And I think the last time I was in England was for a one day business trip in 1999, the highlight of which was taking the day flight from Boston to London. And I did feel all kinds of high-powered jet set by spending just one night in some very nice London suburb before jetting home.

But somebody over there must love me - at least enough to attach my personal e-mail address to a Lucky Winning Number. And if I de-compose the winning number, it actually is a number I could have chosen. 06-14-17-28-30-41. Surely, it can't be just a coincidence that I have actually experienced each of the ages associated with each of these numbers, and I'm sure if I thought about it I could come up with a lucky something-or-other that happened to me at each of those very ages, starting with the arrival of my brother Rich, who came home from the hospital on my sixth birthday. So whoever associated the winning numbers with my name sure knew what he/she was doing. Perhaps it was someone I met on that brief business trip.

I haven't yet followed up with Mr. Steven Howard to figure out how to collect my total lump sum of £680,000.00 which is way over a cool million in US. Sometimes it works out that the dollar is weak! And I'm guessing is probably tax free, given Lend Lease and all the other great and generous things we did for England at one time or another; let alone given the love-fest between Tony Blair and George W. I'll have to hurry up and claim my prize before Tony leaves the auditorium next month.

Or I could follow up with online co-ordinator Mrs. Elizabeth Grayson. She sounds nice - like a real lady. She's the one who sent me the e-mail letting me know I'd won and offering me congratulations from her and the staff.

I understand that there may be a small amount that I have to send across the pond before I can get my hands on the £680,000.00. Currency conversion fees, shipping and handling, etc. It will certainly be worth it.

According to the letter I got from Lady Grayson (as I'm starting to think of her), Sission Marketing International is the manager of the charity lotteries. Interesting that Lady Grayson, in her haste to inform me of my win, wrote "Sission" not "Sisson", which is the actual name of the company.

And funny (as in funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha), when I checked out Sisson, they have a little disclaimer on their site:

If you have been contacted by the British Charities Lotteries Promotions (BCLP), please be aware that this is a scam. Sisson Marketing International Limited is not managing these lotteries. The Gambling Commission and the police have been notified.

So maybe Lady Grayson typed in the name correctly, after all, and that there is a Sission Marketing out there.

In any case, I don't believe that WSCAM AERT!!!! stuff for a New York minute. I mean, all those exclamation points!!!! How hokey and fake is that?????

Tomorrow when the banks are open, I'll be writing to Lady Grayson and/or Steven Howard, who left me his e-mail address at Yahoo, so it's obviously not a scam or he wouldn't have left his e-mail address. How much can they be looking for as a sign of good faith? One percent? A half percent? I'm sure it's not much more than that. And we all know you have to spend money to make money.

I'm really pretty excited, as I sure wasn't expecting to win a lottery I'd never even entered.

And who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lord of the Flies: CBS Kids' Nation

There are many ways in which I feel bad for kids today, and foremost among the ways that I feel bad for them is that so much of their lives is mediated in a way completely foreign to us Baby Boomers. Kids' play is more structured, they're more closely watched, there's a lot less freedom, and a lot more adult interaction and intervention.

Back in the day, unless there were blood and guts spilled, parents pretty much stayed out of the picture. And kids pretty much figured it out for themselves.

I remember one childhood incident in which an older boy (5th grade to our 2nd grade) was pestering my girlfriends and I while we were playing jump rope. Michael Sheridan kept jumping in and wrecking the game for us, while also showing off how easy it was for him to get the knack of a stupid girls game even though he had a broken arm.

Overlaid over this whole thing was the exciting little frisson that Michael Sheridan was really cute. That he was older. That he had a twin brother.

Well, all this aside, Michael jumped in on our jump roping one too many times. My friend Susan and I, who were working "the ends" (i.e., the ones swinging the rope), pulled the jump rope taut on him, tripping him up and sending him home crying. Served him right.

About an hour later his twin brother, Neil (also crying), showed up and yelled at us that Michael had reinjured his arm and was on the way to the hospital.

You're just lucky, you big fat crybaby, we told Neil, that we didn't call Susan's policeman uncle to report Michael for trespassing on our game.

That was the last we heard of that, and I don't recall either of the Sheridan boys bothering us again.

These days, this "incident" probably would have brought on the cops, a battery of psychologists, restraining orders, and lawsuits. And that's too bad. Susan and I were nice kids; the Sheridan brothers were nice kids. There are just some things that kids need to learn themselves. Susan and I learned that we weren't powerless in the face of a bigger kid bothering us; and - as nice little girls - we also learned that a small act, done in anger, could cause harm. We felt guilty that we may have actually done something that caused harm to Michael Sheridan - as deserving as he may have been.

Michael Sheridan, presumably, learned not to be so quick to tease us little girls.

So I actually think that there's a lot to be said for kids working things out among themselves when it comes to squabbles, turf wars, and petty pissing matches.

Truly, there are certain things that you just don't need adults around for.

Still and all, I am completely, 100% appalled and aghast at a new series that CBS is proposing, according to a Variety report.

Kids Nation brings 40 kids - aged 8 to 15 - together f0r 40 days, (nice biblical touch, no?) during which time they're supposedly on their own, building their own society: economy, culture, polity.

The kiddies relocated to Bonanza City, N.M., a ghost town abandoned more than a century ago. Prodigal children live without parental supervision and modern comforts.

Goal for the kids is to build a functional society. They have to pass laws, choose leaders and build an economy. People familiar with the project said the kids may also be given choices between things they need (food and supplies) and things they want (think Nintendo Wii)...

CBS brass have kept the project quiet in part out of fear that the idea of the project -- kids living sans parents -- could kick up a media frenzy and threaten production before it began. By wrapping the show before its announcement, net will now be able to show off clips and perhaps quash some pre-broadcast controversy.

Where to begin on this one.

As much as I believe that kids nowadays are cosseted, protected in many ways from the reality of "real life", over-defended, over-mediated...Is this not the absolute WORST idea for a reality TV show?

Okay, it may not be the absolute worst: Pitting people against each other to see who "wins" a life-saving organ transplant would be worse. Going into an office and announcing that 20% of the people were going to be laid off in 3 weeks - but the list hadn't been decided yet - would be worse. Having Alzheimer patients play "do you remember" games would be worse. But this concept is pretty darned awful.

For starters, there's the age range.

Eight year olds are still sitting on laps and snuggling. They're still hopping into bed with Mommy and Daddy on Sundays. They still (want to) believe in Santa Claus.

Can you imagine shipping your eight (or nine or ten) year old off to a ghost town in New Mexico to hang out unsupervised - except for the cameramen, I guess - for a month?

Yes, the kids can leave anytime they want. And it's not like Survivor or American Idol, where people get kicked off or eliminated. But having kids "pass laws, choose leaders, and build an economy"? Say, isn't that our job as adults.

Although I don't watch a lot of reality TV shows, I've seen enough to know that there's a story arc that gets edited in, and that the participants often become stock characters. Easy to imagine that the stock characters on Kids Nation will include the crybaby, the sniveling whiner, the bully, the sneak, the liar, the meanie, the brat, the braggart, the foolish risk taker, the goofball, the dummy.

Most kids have a little of all of those characteristics in their personal repertoire at one point or another. That's life. But which one of these would you want to be the defining focus for your kid? For each kid who gets to be the natural leader, good shepherd, or talented improvisor there'll be one whose tagged as something less flattering. You want that to be your kid? Is being on TV, is being People Magazine-famous, is having a c.v. "credential" so all-fired important that you'd a) ship your kid away to a ghost-town for 40 days, and b) risk having him or her portrayed as someone other than society's darling?


This wouldn't be such a bad idea if they were doing it with older kids: know-it-all high school grads, or even 15-18 year olds. You're so smart? Go figure it out.

But pre-teens and early-teens are far to vulnerable and needy for this.

Kids may not need to be as over-mediated and over-protected as they are in today's world. (I read that there are parents of recent college grads who are negotiating their kids' job offers for them. Huh? I think I'd be rescinding that job offer as fast as you can say Mummy-Daddy.) Kids, we all know, are tough and resilient. But they're also fragile and dependent.

Kids Nation? Sounds like a recipe for disaster, at least for some of its young citizens.


September 19, 2007: This post has been picked up by The Issue, a blog newspaper. If you want to see what others have to see about this issue, you can head there.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Give Those Huddled Masses Their H-1B Visas, Already

Every year, the U.S. issues 65000 H-1B visas allowing "foreigners" to work here on a temporary basis. Those here on a student visa can't apply until they graduate, and that's apparently leaving a lot of them in the lurch when it comes to accepting offers from U.S. companies.

That's because each year's allotment of H-IB visas are given out starting April 1st. This year, the supply had dried up by April 2nd. (Source: US Citizenship and Immigration Service, used in a the Boston Globe article cited below.)

Hiawatha Bray's recent article on foreign born grads "stymied" in their attempts to get visas that would enable them to work in the States focused on Harvard grads-to-be with golden opportunities with outfits like Lehman Brothers and Google. But it also laid out the overall problem, with both sides heard from on the let-them-in/keep-them-out debate.

Apparently, this year's problem with the H1-B visas is multi-fold. Partially, it's because of the tech boom, which has increased demand for workers to the go-go levels last seen in the late 1990's.  Because of the tech-bust that followed the go-go years, however, the number of H1-B visa available had been reduced by 2/3rd's - from its high of 195,000 to the current 65,000.

According to the spokesperson Bray quotes for the lobbying group that opposes an increase in H1-B visas (Jessica Vaughn of the Center for Immigration Studies), the program has been "swamped" by tech services companies like Tata, Wipro, and Infosys that have gobbled up the visas for workers who take jobs from American workers because they're willing to work for far less. (When I worked at Wang in the 1980's, the company had many imported Indian and Chinese programmers and QA professionals. I don't know how they were paid vis a vis their American counterparts, but there were some in my group and I do know that they lived cheaply in crowded apartments, commuted together, and sent savings home.)

On the other hand, technology and other companies that want to hire talented, high-skilled college grads are limited in what they can do. When sectors of the economy are growing rapidly, and need all the good workers they can lay their mitts on, it seems to make sense to keep these talented, high-skilled college grads here for a while, rather than see them take jobs in London or Singapore or some other place where it's easier for them to find a welcome.

No, these aren't the tired, the poor yearning to breathe free.

They're young, educated, and ambitious. But they are, indeed, huddled, and it sounds like the immigration folks should do a bit of huddling of their own. And figure out a program that is flexible enough to contract and expand with the economy, that prevents the Tata's and Wipro's of the world from flooding the market and undercutting salaries, and that keeps those with the brain-power and ability to help our economy keep expanding stay put for a while.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Living By The Sword

Growing up, the idea of the circus held absolutely zero appeal to me. What I knew about circuses my prime sources of derivative experience: library books and television.

Kids in the books I read sometimes went to the circus, but they were always kids from the past. Small town, turn of the century - that other century - children for whom the circus coming to town was a long anticipated event. Or kids - the boys in their knickers, the girls at play wearing dresses, of all things -  from the 1930's and 1940's - decades that seemed impossibly remote to me as a child in the 1950's and 1960's.

I also learned about the circus from TV. Each week, one of the Mickey Mouse Club shows was devoted to the circus.

So hurray for the circus, every one loves the circus.
And that includes the merry Mousketeers. 

Well, I did love the Mouseketeers, but I drew the line at loving the circus. I much preferred the weekly Talent Rodeo. Still, I learned a bit about circus acts from watching the Mickey Mouse Club. I picked up more information from watching a show that was on Friday nights for a while. I'm not sure what the name of it was, but the film actor Don Ameche was the host, and, as I recall, the show featured European circuses, and from this I decided that the circus was not only old-fashioned, but vaguely old-world. Mittel Europa. Unamerican. Communist, even.

And on Sunday evenings, the Ed Sullivan variety show, with its stupendous, breathtaking combination of high and low brow acts - Bolshoi Ballet and Señor Wences; Metropolitan opera bassos and Topo Gigio, the Italian mouse; the Beatles and the borscht-circuit comedians - often featured circus acts. Men and women in outfits that even on black and white TV seemed dazzling and lurid who spun plates, threw knives, and swallowed swords.

In our living room, TV shows having to do with things-circus also featured my father making fun of circus acts, so not being a circus fan came naturally.

The circus, I felt, was weird, freakish, and creepy.

My feeling was confirmed when my friend Kathy Shea and I spent a high school spring vacation week in New York City with her "career gal" aunt Mary, who took us to Madison Square Garden to see the Ringling Brothers circus.

I hated it - especially when a clown making his way through the audience seemed as if he were going to engage me in his act. His time-honed instincts, however, were able to pick up on the 'back off, buddy' vibe I was sending out, so he moved on to the next row.

I was depressed for days by the side show freaks, the ghostly pale giant, the bearded fat lady, some guy with tattoos.

Never again, I promised myself, and kept the promise for many years, but broke it to take my nieces to the wonderful Big Apple Circus, and even to the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Greatest Show on Earth (which I found too noisy and extravagant, but which I did enjoy - especially when a clown dusted my husband's bald head with his feather duster).

So, although I'm something of a latter-day circus fan, it's not high on my entertainment list.

Still, I am always on the lookout for intriguing professions, so I was interested by a bit in the May Atlantic Monthly about sword swallowers.

Citing a survey in the British Medical Journal ("Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects" by Brian Witcombe and Dan Meyer), the Atlantic  noted that those who lived by the sword seldom, in fact, perished by them.

Surveying 33 sword swallowers, the authors find that many suffered occupational maladies from soreness ("sword throat") to chest pain and perforation of the esophagus...sword swallowers rip their innards most when swallowing curved blades, when taking in multiple blades at once, or when distracted by audience members...Yet they have an amazing low rate of mortal injury: The medical literature lists not a single fatality.

First, that there are even 33 sword swallowers to survey is, for starters, amazing enough. (I can hear my father asking his regular circus question: "Just how do you find out you have that talent to begin with?") But to learn that, aside from a bit of post-show blood vomiting, it's a relatively safe occupation. Well, who would have thought that sword swallowing is no more hazardous than all the occupation-hazard-guff swallowing that we all have to do on the job on occasion?

More curious still, sword-swallowing wounds tend to heal better than similar perforations inflicted accidentally by doctors who insert scopes down their patients' throats.

Just amazing.

Still, I am reminded of my early in life sentiments about the circus. Weird. Freakish. Creepy.

(Which is perhaps what circus folks would make of a career in B2B technology marketing: weird, freakish, creepy.)

Yes, I know that there's more to the circus than sword swallowers. There are amazing acrobats and aerialists, jugglers and animal acts.

Sword swallowers. Amazing. My original sentiments still hold.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

A few weeks ago I saw an AP article by Michael Rubinkam on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (picked up by the Boston Globe) that struck me as both telling and sad. The article spoke of how a good part of the old Bethlehem Steel plant site is being dismantled to make way for a casino complex being built by Las Vegas Sands Corp, the outfit that brought us the Venetian. The complex will include a hotel, convention, center, and a casino housing 5,000 slot machines.

Mayor John Callahan said the casino complex will help resurrect the long-dormant Bethlehem Steel property, regarded as the nation's largest brownfield.

"It will be one of the most unique economic development projects in the country, and people will come far and wide to see it," he said. "It will be a national model for the redevelopment of an industrial site."

God knows it's not worth lamenting the demise of the American industrial economy. It is, however, worth lamenting the loss of well-paid industrial jobs - even those at Bethlehem Steel that are long gone. Casino employment might look pretty good to folks in a job-starved area, but the jobs that come with casinos aren't really all that much of a substitute - not in the same way that other sorts of "real jobs" - call center, technology, biotech, light manufacture - would have been.

Did Bethlehem try - and fail - to remake itself for the post-industrial economy? Have they given up, thrown in the towel, and figured that a casino is better than nothing? Do they really see this as a good alternative? Does Mayor Callahan really believe that Bethlehem will be "a national model for the redevelopment of an industrial site"?

No doubt there's a lot of Bethlehem babies in need of a new pair of shoes, but relying on gambling to revive an area's economy always strikes me as a house of cards.

I'm sure that the Las Vegas Sands people did all the calculations needed to figure out the economic feasibility of this project - (pi  x the distance to Atlantic City)/median age in Pennsylvania - or whatever the equation is. But it's hard to see that this site will do more than attract busloads of pensioners willing to blow a bit of their Social Security check each month while reminiscing about what it was like to live in the United States when we actually made things here. (Among the things made at Bethlehem Steel: the steel used to build the Golden Gate Bridge, Madison Square Garden, and all sorts of warships.)

Convention center? Good luck. A think tank for labor scholars trying to help figure out how we will make our way through the continuing, painful transition to a fully global economy - and just what it is that the folks who have traditionally held blue collar, manufacturing jobs are going to be doing in it - might have been a better choice.

Some parts of the plant will be retained in the casino complex:

[Las Vegas] Sands plans to save more than 20 buildings -- including the 1,500-foot-long No. 2 Machine Shop, once the world's largest -- and incorporate many of them into its plan for a destination resort ...

Also staying put are the iconic, 20-story blast furnaces that have helped define Bethlehem's skyline for 100 years. Sands will install architectural lighting to spotlight them.

Not exactly the fountains at the Bellagio, or the gondolas at the Venetian, but there is something bracingly real about the sights at Bethlehem, aren't there? Spotlighting a dormant blast furnace. Well, it beats the fake Eiffel Tower and Brooklyn Bridge on The Strip.

Other parts of the old plant will be salvaged:

An1885 press and the pumping engine that operated it will be saved -- left behind as monuments. Eventually, a parking lot will surround them.

Okay. I've never been to Bethlehem PA, but I'm guessing we're not exactly talking "paved Paradise and put up a parking lot" here. Working in a steel mill had to be dirty, smelly, hot, and dangerous.

But it's also dangerous to believe that casinos are the answer to the question "what are we going to do to bolster our economy." Every rustbelt survivor can't put up a casino and assume that it will make everything better. There's a pyramid scheme element to the whole thing, isn't there? If every location has a casino, what's the big draw? Who's going to come gambling? What's going to be generating the income to pay for all those rolls of quarters?

Good luck to the little town of Bethlehem. They're going to need it if they think that economic salvation comes from a row of cherries.  

Monday, May 14, 2007

Synthetic Travel

On my way back from some real travel last week, I saw a brief article in Newsweek about a new trend in travel - virtual tours of synthetic places.

One place offering to be your guide on such trips is, an Italian company that promises that:

 ...the new frontier of travel is out of our world. It is hidden in the invisible geography of the cyberspace. In a few years, this geography has been expanding, broadening in every direction, configuring new territories, inhabited by new societies.

In virtual worlds you can find everything, the good and the bad, the poor and the rich, sumptuous castles and futuristic space bases, luscious women and rough warriors.
But, most of all, you can find many lands to discover, extraordinary places to visit, that will ravish your imagination.

Well, in the real world, you can also find the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. Why just last week I was in Germany, where I had good and bad food, good and bad train rides, good and bad weather. If I'd wanted to, I would have been able to see sumptuous castles. All that would have been missing is the futuristic space bases. Luscious women and rough warriors I wasn't looking for. But there are some things I wouldn't have found in the boring old real world:

Traveling in these territories will be like dreaming: you will see exotic landscapes where among prehistoric trees break out bizarre surrealistic architectures, strange fantasy regions where the elves built astonishing temples, synthetic deserts covered with post-atomic ruins, seas of pixels where float ghostly vessels, organic architectures that conceal undercover avatars.

Synthravel tells us that it's actually not so easy to find and enjoy these virtual worlds. "You must pass many hours in front of your monitor, accomplishing weary tasks."

It is an understatement of several orders of magnitude to say that I would not be willing to pass many seconds in front of my monitor to accomplish the weary task of finding a place where elves built astonishing temples, where synthetic deserts are covered with post-atomic ruins, and where ghostly vessels float in seas of pixels.

Nor would I pay Synthravel to get me there, either. Talk about the Tour from Hell. ("If it's Tuesday, this must be the post-atomic synthetic desert.")

But for those adventurers who don't want to put their three ounce bottles of lotion in one quart Ziploc baggies, don't want to crane their necks to look up at cathedral ceilings, and don't want to "go native" in any way, Synthravel, my friends, "is the answer," offering "a complete guide service to all the people who want to make a tour in virtual worlds without knowing these new realities, even if they have never put their feet in these strange, synthetic grounds."

(I actually think that Synthravel is talking about putting eyeballs, not feet, on "strange, synthetic grounds," but since they're talking about virtual feet, it really doesn't matter.)

If I want to limit my virtual travel to Second Life, I can sign up with SL Tourguides. Unlike Synthravel, which seems aimed at the individual armchair tourist, SL Tourguides "aims to give businesses an immersive experience in the Second Life virtual world so that they can have informed discussions about how their business may use this environment.

Here is the fastest and most powerful way for business people to come to grips with Second Life, the virtual world that is also a commercial platform.

You will learn the lingo, learn the protocols, ask questions as you go and find the places/experiences you need to know about.

Once you’ve done a tour you will be better placed to decide whether you want to do business in SL.

Maybe I'm in denial, but I'm guessing that I'll be able to finish out my business career without having to "come to grips with Second Life". I just don't see all that much demand for virtual B2B technology.

SL Tourguides also offers Second Life training courses, that will "teach you how to communicate discretely, look around corners, take photos, search the classifieds and store the locations you visit."

This would come in especially handy, I suppose, if you wanted to take a Second Life sex tour, since I read somewhere that a lot of the business that gets done in Second Life has to do with the sex trade, starting with un-neutering your personal avatar.

SL Tourguides makes sense, I guess, for anyone who feels the need to find out more about Second Life without having to really jump in, create and avatar, and start "living" the life.

Synthravel makes a lot less sense.

I guess you could save money over what it costs to take a real trip. But there's already so much that's ersatz in our travel portfolio - think Las Vegas, think Disney World, think Busch Gardens, where you can "experience" faraway places with strange sounding names without actually having to deal with food that's not chicken fingers, people who don't speak English, and custom's officials.

Why do we need more fake stuff in our lives?

Whether you're traveling to the next town over or getting on a plane and flying 10,000 miles, travel is not just about seeing something different, it's about fully experiencing something different. Yes, in the virtual world, you can see different stuff (luscious women, rough warriors). And you can probably hear different stuff that sounds pretty close to the real thing (for those synthetic travel sites that actually are real places). But until the technology improves quite a bit, you won't be able to fully experience a real or a synthetic place on line. You can't experience the taste of chicken breast stuffed with liverwurst and spinach. Smell the diesel fuel on the train to Dresden, or the beeswax votive candles in the Dom. You can't get jostled in the Sunday crowd on Unter den Linden. Have someone mistake you for a native and ask you for directions. Close the hotel door at the end of a long day and flop onto new bed.

Synthetic travel?

No thanks.

I'm strictly a real world kind of traveler, myself. 

Friday, May 11, 2007

For a Few Dollars More: Clemen$ back in NY

There's no escaping some news, and some of the news that there was no escaping while in Berlin was the news that Roger Clemens was back in The Bigs. He announced on Sunday that he would be rejoining the New York Yankees.

Lest anyone would think that Number 22 (that is his number, isn't it?) is doing this for the money, let's listen to his word on that:

"If you think it's about money, you're greatly mistaken. I'm not going to put my body through the paces I put my body through to earn a few more dollars," Clemens said.

The quote is from an AP article by Rebecca Santana that appeared on; the emphasis is mine.

Since when is $22 million dollars (for a partial season) a few more dollars?

This amount will, in fact, give Old Rog the highest salary per game in the major leagues, not quite but almost dwarfing the pittance paid to his fellow teammate A-Rod, who's now in the number two position. But, love him or hate him, A-Rod plays every game. If Clemens' take home factors in that he'll only be hurling every five days or so - and that, during the interim games, he doesn't even have to show up (where he could, presumably, help his team by guiding younger pitchers, offering advice to batters on how to go after certain pitches and what to expect, etc.) - if all this is factored in, Clemens will be having some mighty fat pay packets.

Even if to the boy from Katy, Texas, it looks a little light.

In any case, at season's end, it will be interesting to see if Roger was worth the $22 million (plus the salary cap penalty that elevated the cost of the deal to $28 million).

Of course, the only way it will be worth it to the Yankees is if they win it all.  As Roger himself said (this time, at least, acknowledging that he makes a decent living at his trade):

"It's great to be able to make a great living, but when it's all said and done it's about how many rings that you have."

Clemens now has two rings, both won with the Yankees.

I seriously doubt he'll be picking up #3 this year.

If that's what he wanted, he would have gone with a team (like the Red Sox) that are a lot more likely to get to the World Series.

Does Roger truly think that he can get the Yankees there?  Or is this just one more opportunity for him to play some ball (which he no doubt loves and is great at), draw some large and appreciative crowds on what may well be his final Frank Sinatra tour, and grab a fist full of dollars?

No, picking the Yankees is an interesting choice for a lot of reasons.

If on the outside chance that the Yankees win, Clemens can - as long as he posts a few W's - claim partial credit. If they don't win, well, lots of injuries, bad start, never got it going, not our year...

And if they don't make it to the World Series, if they don't win it all, there's no risk that Roger Clemens will have to put it all on the line in, say, Game 7 of the ALCS against, say, the Red Sox. Or in Game 4 of the World Series with the Yankees down 3-0 and their backs entirely to the wall. Which are scenarios that I do not believe Roger wants to find himself in at all. For less us face the fact that, for all his greatness, the "c word" has hovered over Roger Clemens for a good long time.

Roger Clemens may well be the greatest pitcher of all time. And I would no doubt like him a whole lot better if he wore a different uniform, if he'd stayed with the fellas' who brung him (i.e., the Red Sox). But he has not been a tremendously BIG, BIG GAME winner. In the play-offs during his two ring years, here's what he did for the Yankees:

1999 - took the Yankees only ALCS loss against the Red Sox; won Game 4 of the World Series in a Yankees sweep (when a Yankee loss wouldn't have meant going home).

2000 - won a brilliant, one-hit game against Seattle in the ALCS when the Yankees were up 2-1 in the series; won game 2 of the World Series against the Mets (again, a less pressured situation than backs-to-the-wall).

Okay, in 2001 he won against the Diamondbacks in the World Series when the Yankees were down two games to one, and also pitched well in the 7th game, which Yankees ended up losing in the 9th. (It was 2001, was anyone in the country - other than people in Arizona - rooting against the Yankees? I sure wasn't.) In 2003, he pitched in one game against the Marlins. Yankees lost, but Roger didn't get the L because they'd tied it up in the 9th and went on to lose in extras.

Anyway, easy for me to sit here on the arm chair pitching mound, but Roger Clemens - for luck of the rotation, luck of the draw, or for whatever goes on in his head - does not have a record of winning in the "one and done" games. And I don't think he'll get the chance to prove himself this year.

As for the measly little $22 million he'll be making this year? Oh, puhl-ease. "A few more dollars" my aching wallet. Let him choke on it.


Thursday, May 10, 2007

Auf Wiedersehen: Us vs. Them

Well, it's always good to get away. And it's always, always, always good to be going home. (Even though it's 85 degrees in Boston, and our condo will be broiling, and I'll have to start worrying about whether Roger Clemens'$ new turn as a Yankee is going to end with him beating the Red Sox at some crucial point. Or whether he will choke and fail at just the right moment... Yep, I'm almost back already.)

Travel outside the country ALWAYS gets me thinking about what I appreciate most about Boston and The States, and also about the things that "someplace else" may have that's superior. Not surprisingly, this will not be a sophisticated analysis of the merits of different economic or political systems. Just what comes to mind when it comes down to us vs. them.


  • Public transportation. Dresden train debacle aside (and, remember, it was a Czech train), the public transport (including taxis that actually know where they're going) is really tremendous, leading to one other place in which Berlin is superior:
  • Traffic. This is a Big City. We have not seen anything that even vaguely resembles a traffic jam, and the city is stunningly free of the highways/expressways/whatevers that bisect so many American cities.
  • Pedestrian friendliness. Boston is pretty darn pedestrian friendly compared to a lot of places in The States, but the sidewalks here are wide (many wide enough to accommodate the ubiquitous bicycles) and the little men on the walk/don't walk signs (which have become a tourist symbol of the city) are just adorable. And I have the earrings to prove it.
  • Clean. Most of the trash we've seen on the streets was blown out of trashbaskets, or lifted out by dumpster-diving birds. The other day, after a light rain storm, there was a street sweeper out swooshing down the bicycle paths. The restrooms we've been in - including in the train stations - have been immaculate. Why, you could eat off the floor....
  • Capable of electing a woman to the country's highest office. Angela Merkel's election put Germany up there with Israel, India, Pakistan, The Phillipines, and Great Britain as places that have entrusted their fate to a woman. Maybe someday...


    • Diversity. Okay, there are plenty of Turks, and the occasional Asian or African floating around, but there's not all that much variation out and about. Sure, they all look like me, but I could have done with a few hip-hop kids or some little old Italian ladies in black dresses. Just for a little change of pace.
    • Jaywalking. I admittedly noted above that Berlin is a more pedestrian friendly city, but I really couldn't live in a place where no one jaywalks. Which may mean that I will remain in Boston the rest of my life. (One time in San Francisco, my husband and I started stepping out into the street against the light but with no traffic whatsoever in sight when a cop hollered to us, "Hey, Boston, get back on the sidewalk.")
    • Food. Boston may be no one's idea of a gourmet capital, but at least when I order a club sandwich I don't have to worry about whether it's going to have egg salad smeared all over it. Or be served on cracker-bread. Not to mention a bit too many sightings of pigs knuckles on menus. Food court at the KaDeWe department store (which rivals Harrod's) aside, Boston's got it all over Berlin.
    • TV. Yes, most of our television is complete and utter crap. But there's a reason that most countries import our TV shows. BBC aside, it's better. No doubt it would help if I spoke German or Turkish, but when you say "There's nothing on TV" in Berlin, you really and truly mean it. (And, please, nobody tell me what happened on The Sopranos the other night until I have a chance to catch up.)
    • Baseball. They absolutely, positively, 100% don't know what they are missing.

    Wednesday, May 09, 2007

    Hovering Over the Country

    Looking around, there are few people old enough to have been soldiers in World War II, let alone held any responsibility for the Nazi regime. Yet the big "it" still hovers over Germany.

    In Berlin you pass a government building with an historical marker out front indicating it had been Goering's headquarters during the war. You see the place where Claus von Stauffenberg and the other July 2oth conspirators were executed for their role in the (somewhat belated - it was 1944) plot to kill Hilter. You tour the Berlin Dom where SS Reinhard Heydrich had a massive state funeral after he was assassinated by Czech partisans.

    "It" is everywhere.

    In Dresden, I observed my own personal moment of silence for Kurt Vonnegut, whose literary career was so influenced by his experience there as a young American POW during the Dresden firebombing, which he turned into the fable Slaughterhouse Five.

    And I also thought about a far more important - and far lesser known - work written in and about Dresden during the war.

    Victor Klemperer was a Jewish academic in Dresden who kept a meticulous diary from 1933 through the end of the war in 1945.

    He managed to survive because he was a privileged Jew, a World War I veteran and, more importantly, married to a Christian woman.

    His two-volume diary, I Will Bear Witness, was published in the 1990's and is chilling, horrifically fascinating reading on what it was like for everyday people to witness the relentless, incremental changes that made life - both everyday life and life itself - worse and worse for the Jews of Germany as the noose was tightened and tugged.

    It's been a while since I read the book, but a few of the details that have stuck with me over the years were Klemperer's noting when new laws were passed: Jews could no longer buy flowers. Jews could no longer have pets. Jews could no longer read newspapers.


    And obligatory reading for anyone who wants to gain a deeper understanding on how "it" happened - which, in Germany at least, was not overnight.

    One of the fascinating things about Victor Klemperer's life is how in the end he managed to survive the war.

    In February 1945, luck had run out even for the so-called privileged Jews, and Klemperer had received a deportation order for February 16.

    On February 13, the Dresden firebombing occurred.

    In the chaos that followed, Klemperer removed his yellow star, claimed that he and his wife had quite understandably lost their papers, and fled the city.

    As Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five said, "and so it goes."

    I also thought of Klemperer's book in context of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The memorial - which contains thousands of stones that resemble large grave markers - starts out gradual. When we passed the other day, people were sitting on the outer stones (which are not that high) taking in the sun. Only as you walk deeper into the memorial does it start feeling scary, and by then the markers are bigger, and you're in over your head.

    And so it goes.

    (Here's a link to an NPR story that includes some pictures of the memorial.)

    Tuesday, May 08, 2007

    Side Trip to Dresden

    The Hauptbahnhof (main train station) in Berlin is a thing of wonder - and much like Berlin itself: clean, well-marked, bustling, and full of shops. We decided against first-class tickets to Dresden, but did spring for the roughly five-dollar a piece uptick for reserved, non-smoking, window seat even though we were assured that there would be plenty of seats available. 

    Our reservations were clearly marked: car 257, seats 25 and 26.

    What were not clearly marked were the cars themselves.

    With no conductors in sight, and figuring it would be easy enough to find the right car once onboard, we crowded on to the train (a through train from Hamburg heading on to Dresden, Prague, and Vienna).

    Finding our seats was one little adventure in traveling.

    The car that we found ourselves on was packed - and I mean horizontal version of the last helicopter out of Saigon packed - with students. Students lolling. Students reading. Students playing cards. Students sleeping. Students making out. Each student was accompanied by a backpack large enough to contain his or her döppelganger.

    The train lurched out of the station, and we tried to make our way through - to where we knew not. By we did know we wanted out of what was clearly a non-reserved car. Or at least what I hoped was a non-reserved car. It did appear to have an occasional seat or two that was reserved.

    What little space was available in the aisles was packed with the newly boarded Berlin passengers, moving in both directions, and each carrying their own döppelganger-sized bag. We had shrewdly left our larger bag in Berlin and were traveling with a small roll-on suitcase and my modest little (laptop-only) backpack. (I know that we had decided to go second class rather than first, but it was hard to believe that this wasn't a class in itself. Like steerage. I flashed on Leo DiCaprio step-dancing with the other doomed passengers on the Titanic.)

    Our progress through the car from hell - hot and redolent of meaty sandwich and smoke-infused clothing (no one, blessedly, was smoking) - was facilitated by a young, buff German policeman, traveling in uniform, who was able to block his way through the throng.

    Progress towards what, however? No one seemed to be able to tell us where car 257 was.

    At last we saw a sign on the window of the car from hell. It was 258.

    Fingers crossed, we pushed on.

    At one point I said to my husband, "So much for German efficiently."

    A German woman also making her way through our "line" turned to me and said in clipped English, "The is a Czech train, not German."

    After that, I noticed that the signage was in Czech.

    Still no sight of 257.

    At last we broke through to a less crowded, fully reserved car and, making the assumption that this was the mythic car 257, we took seats 25 and 26.


    (Only readers who know my husband will fully understand just how relieved I was. I'm sure that Jim was looking for one of those brake-pulls and would have been happy to stop the train and hop off in the middle of nowhere.)

    The remainder of the journey to Dresden was uneventful.

    Dresden itself is quite interesting, with its combination of stark and dreary Communist era buildings, and 18th century confections straight out of Amadeus. The centerpiece is the recently restored Dom/Frauenkirche, the Protestant cathedral, which was turned to rubble during the 1945 Dresden fire-bombing, and left by the Communists as a reminder of war (and, presumably, as a "reminder" of how terrible the West really is).

    Well, the Communists are now gone, and the Dom has been meticulously restored through a combination of brilliant archeology, architectural sleuthing, and craftsmanship. Just beautiful.

    The Communist regime did leave its own architectural "gems" behind, including the hideous, moderne philharmonic hall, sporting a Soviet-realism mural picturing (presumably) heroes of the revolution. I didn't really recognize anyone other than Karl Marx, but he actually looked more like Charlie Manson, so who knows?

    Unlike Berlin, and despite its supposed 7 million visitors a year, Dresden if far less touristic (read: less English-language oriented). This has largely manifest itself in restaurant menus, which seem to be available in German only. (It is, after all, their country.)

    We were able to order a decent enough lunch, avoiding a sandwich that sounded like it combined ham, gouda, and tuna. But we had a more difficult time at dinner.

    I could translate the entree as stuffed chicken breast with rice and mushrooms, which we both ordered, but I didn't think to ask the waitress (English-speaking) just what it was stuffed with.

    Who'd have thought of liverwurst and spinach?

    But we are adults, and were able to soldier through the meal, even though the liverwurst and spinach combo was mighty strong.

    Back to our hotel for a nightcap, I was thinking cup of tea when I noticed a small menu for smoothies.

    Most of them sounded pretty good.

    Until I got half-way down the list.

    Could this be right?

    Red-beet juice. Sauerkraut juice. Lemon juice. Salt and pepper.

    My stomach is still a tad tender. (Vaste-basket, bitte.)

    I hate to play the ugly American, but this smoothy surely loses something in the translation.

    Anyway, we're back off to Berlin.

    At least this time we know the train ropes - at least enough to avoid getting on car 258 to begin with.

    Monday, May 07, 2007

    Berlin Revisited

    Well, I thought that I would spend the weekend working up a few trenchant posts on Berlin then and now, but most of what I did over the weekend was sleep, slurp down ginger ale and the Euro version of Gatorade (quite tasty), and munch on pretzels. Good thing I hadn't been looking all that forward to German cuisine...

    Thursday and Friday we did get quite a bit of stomping around done, and here are the first impressions.

    First off on the "compare and contrast" is the glorious weather (upper 60's and low 70's, not a cloud in the sky). When we were last in Berlin, over New Year's 1989-1990, just as The Wall was falling, the weather was dreary, gray and damp, and the city was covered with a brownish, odiferous miasma - the result of the sulphury Communist block coal that was used for heat.

    The weather underscores the other differences, of course. Obviously, we're not far off the beaten tourist trap, but Berlin sure looks like capitalism (i.e., shop 'til you drop) writ large.  The streets of the old Eastie are full of pricey (Escada, Rolex) and not to pricey (Footlocker) shops; American fast food (I was expecting the McDonald's, of course, but there are Subways, Starbucks, and Dunkin Donuts all over the place, too); and charming and not-so-charming outdoor cafes. The place is teeming with tourists and seemingly happy natives out for a Sunday stroll and boating excursion. (I was able to get off of my death-bed long enough for a little Sunday stroll of my own.)

    Last time we were here, both sides of Checkpoint Charlie were teeming with tourists, too. Westies able to get over to the other side for a casual visit, and Easties - for the first time in over two decades without risking getting mowed down by a sub-machine gun- able to get over to the West and check out what they'd been missing. You could spot the Easties right off - with their drab, ill-fitting clothing and the stunned look on their faces as they road the escalators at the KaDaWe, Berlin's Harrod's equivalent. Now - East, West - everyone looks pretty much the same. I.e., other than an occasional weird sandal thing going with the men, and the Turkish women wearing head scarves, everyone looks like an American.

    Which, of course, gets me to the not so profound point that one of the primo effects of globalization is that every place (i.e., every large city) pretty much starts to look alike.

    The good news is, you can get a Dunkin Donut. That's the bad news, too.

    What's gloriously different, of course, is turning that corner and spotting a beautiful old cathedral, museum, or bridge... Or, in the case of Berlin, seeing the starkly dramatic and moving Holocaust Memorial not far, fittingly, from Potsdamer Platz where Hitler had his bunker.

    What's also different in Berlin? For a big city, there's not all that much crazy traffic, People take public transportation. They ride bicycles. They walk. Even at "rush hour" on Friday, the streets weren't clogged with weekend escapees. Jawohl!

    Cars are smaller, too. Not a ton of honkin' SUVs. Not a lot of Beetles, either. I've spotted more PT Cruisers than Beetles. I've only seen one Trabant, the tiny little East German belcher that was pretty much the only car on the road here 17 years ago. The one I saw was a collector's item, I'm guessing, with a new coat of paint -  a cheerful green and white.

    Off to Dresden for the night.

    I'm hoping that today will bring full recovery - or at least something that's the gastro-intestinal equivalent of the full recovery that Berlin seems to have made. No, I haven't seen the downside, the poor neighborhoods, the un- and underemployed, the shabby underside of every big city.

    But what the hell, I'm a tourist, not an anthropologist.