Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The G.O.T.F.A.T. Maneuver

We've all done it.

That panicked moment when someone steps into your office when you're in the midst of trolling the postings on Monster, flipping through the Valentine's Day e-greeting cards (hoping someone sends you one), ordering a duvet cover on BlueFly, playing Tetris, or reading blogs (which is actually OK, plus oh-so-much-easier-to-disguise as real work).

Chuck Westbrook, of I Hate Your Job, has actually come up with a new coinage to describe the contortion that most of us go into when caught in workplace flagrante.

...known as the move to go from Goofing Off To Frustrated And Tired, this classic defense mechanism describes the appropriate reaction when caught off-task on your computer. It is typically a spastic attempt to close or minimize a browser executed simultaneously with sitting up in your chair, turning toward the intruder, and adjusting the items on your desk. When done correctly, the G.O.T.F.A.T. creates the illusion that you have been caught in a moment of stressed frustration with your computer, posture, and desk condition all at once. Usually it is followed by a hasty, tired-sounding, “Hey, what’s up?”

The first time I performed a G.O.T.F.A.T. - well before I even knew there was a name for it - was during the Clinton Administration. It occurred when the Monica Lewinsky affair was just starting to burst onto the scene, and I was curious to see whether the White House web site had any reference to it.

Forgetting for a moment that the White House is a "gov" not a "com", I typed in the url whitehouse.com.

Wrong move!

I have no idea if they're still around but whitehouse.com was a sex site.


I frantically began performing what was actually a modified G.O.T.F.A.T. in which I rapidly attempted to close the offending window and pop ups. There was no need to extend the maneuver, as it was a Sunday and there was no one else at work. (Okay, I guess since I was grazing the Internet for news on L'Affaire Monique, I wasn't exactly at work in terms of actually "doing" work, either. But, let's face it, the definition of exactly what work is depends on what the meaning of the word is is. Or work. Or something.)

In any case, as I clicked on X's and pummeled the backspace key, I was worrying about whether someone checking the traffic reports would find that I'd been cruising an X-rated site, which was a little problem we'd been having with a couple of employees.

My next G.O.T.F.A.T. experience was on a workday, and did involve people walking by my office, which was on a well-trafficked corridor, during a high traffic period.

Genuity, where I was then working, made a regular appearance on a site called "f'd company". You had to pay a subscription to get the really juicy stuff, but they could always be relied on for some information teasers and tidbits. I checked in every couple of days just to see how 'f'd' f'd company thought we were.

Well, instead of typing in 'f'd company', I mindlessly typed in a variation on a theme.

Let the porn begin!

I felt like I was playing PacMan. I just couldn't move fast enough to close all those pop-ups(and eye-popping pop-ups they were) that started cascading onto my screen. I finally turned the screen off and unplugged the PC entirely.

Talk about a yuck fest! (Yuck!)

Meanwhile, I knew up close and personal that the company - however f'd it may have been - was monitoring use of the corporate network to go onto unsavory sites. I knew this because someone in my group had been nabbed for engaging in a long running salacious e-mail exchange with a fellow employee. The reason that the company was monitoring the e-mails of this fellow employee was because he had been found spending most of his working hours on sex sites.

Boy, was I thrilled when I was asked to read through the e-mail exchange (after a few passages, I got the drift), and put the person in my group on warning.

Back to G.O.T.F.A.T., I do have a question for Chuck, and that is: what's the acronym or term for the blunder of not realizing you've been caught trolling the online netherworld or playing games on the company time?

At one point in my career, I reported to a woman who was continually calling her team members into her office.

Mostly, she was on the phone with her mother or one of her sisters, but she'd wave us in, gesture that we were to sit, then continue her conversation, a scintillating combo of things domestic ("I got those new curtains up") and familial ("Nicholas said we should name the new baby Poopyhead. Isn't that precious?')

One of my boss' habits was that she was always playing Tetris during a phone call.

And while the phone call may have ended with her hanging up ("Call you later, Mom."), the Tetris games didn't. They continued throughout our meetings.

She would, however, pretend that she was checking on something important, reading her e-mails, demonstrating the parallel processing skills that had catapulted her to the lofty position of managing us. Her brow would furrow, and if one of us was making a point during a particularly tense moment in Tetris (when the game was speeding up), she would say, "Give me a minute. I just want to finish this one thing.")

Since we were staring at the back of her computer, I really don't think she realized that we knew what she was up to.

But not only was her screen - and the Tetris game - reflected in the window behind her, it was reflected in her big oversized glasses. And, of course, even if we had been blind, the tell-tale Tetris clicking certainly sounded more like someone playing a game than answering e-mails or doing strategic analysis.

In any event, I didn't end up reporting to her for very long, and her Mom-calling and Tetris-playing eventually caught up with her and she was laid off.

Still, I'm wondering what the name for not being savvy enough to do the G.O.T.F.A.T. maneuver is.

Chuck, can you help me out here?

Is it FATHEAD? Would that work?

Monday, July 30, 2007

Forbidden Starbucks

I don't drink coffee, so I don't have much to say about Starbucks one way or another. I know that people tend to love or hate the coffee itself. I know that people make fun of the baristas - and the grande-vente pretensions. I also know that when I want to meet a friend at a Starbucks for coffee (I'll have tea), the stores themselves - if occasionally crowded and noisy -  have been unfailingly clean and pleasant: a nice place to sit and catch up.

Starbucks, of course, is all over the map - quite literally. Included in its empire, according to a story I saw the other day on CNN.com, are 3000 international shops, including over 200 in China, where, apparently, they're taking on the green tea drinking public.

Well, today there's one fewer Starbucks in China,

The one that, since 2000, has been located in Beijing's imperial palace museum (The Forbidden City), was closed recently, the victim of a media-led effort decrying the presence of something so startlingly Western in such an ancient historic site.

I can see their point. Kind of.

In Krakow, I ate at a McDonald's that was in the cellar of a 14th or 15th century building. I was struck by how decidedly un-apposite it seemed there.  Beautiful, ancient stone walls instead of glass and plastic. They should have been housing something more 14th or 15th century there, or more Polish. An ancient book store. A pierogi stand.

In the states, we really have nothing comparable to The Forbidden City - can you just imagine how something called "The Forbidden City" would go over here to begin with. Talk about a non-starter.

But Starbucks in the F.C. would be kind of like selling dim sum in Ye Olde Tavern in Williamsburg, I guess. It just takes something away from the experience. Although, given the American Commercial Instinct, it would be no surprise if Ye Olde Tavern did sell dim sum or, more likely, sashimi and soba.

The objection, by the way, is not to money-changers in the palace.  The Forbidden City - which takes up a whopping 183 acres - is home to souvenir shops and trinket sellers (presumably selling tourist junk that's, appropriately enough, made in China), as well as to numerous places to get food and be.

It's the out-and-out American-ism of Starbucks that rankled.

So, if you're heading for The Forbidden City, remember that one thing that's verboten there is Starbucks.

But it's hard to imagine that, with the myriad vendors there - some, I'm guessing, hawking all American drinks like Coke and Pepsi - that having a low-key Starbucks is such a terrible thing. But in general, when we travel we should want to see and experience new things. Sure, I just confessed to eating at a McDonald's in Krakow. And I'm admit that on some other "foreign" trips I've stopped by a Dairy Queen or a B.K. But mostly I try to go native (even when the menu's conveniently in English.)

Obviously, Americans aren't the only tourists crawling around the Forbidden City. But they're likely to be the ones who'll miss that particular comfort from home the most.

They should get over it and take their chances on a nice cup of green tea.

Friday, July 27, 2007

"Doing What Matters" - or Not

With a book backlog that's around 13 feet high, I'm always looking for books to knock off the reading list. Thanks the The Boston Globe's Steve Bailey, I'll be able to scratch Jim Kilts' Doing What Matters off of mine. (Not that I'm a big fan of puff-ographies to begin with, especially of the business variety. Too much "and then I boldly made the brilliant trillion dollar decision on the back of a cocktail napkin, then golfed 18 holes with the Sultan of Brunei" and too little "I so lucked into this.")

Bailey characterizes the Kilts' bio as "your standard CEO how-to manual, written in the standard quick-read style, full of management do's and don'ts and harrowing corporate war stories." I'm yawning already.  

For those who don't follow the ups and downs of the Boston business community as closely as does Steve Bailey, Jim Kilts was the Gillette CEO who masterminded the company's sell-off to Procter & Gamble.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. In the Age of Wal-Mart, bigger = better. Economies of scale. Lower prices for everyone. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

But Gillette was one of the few remaining household-word companies actually born, raised, and HQ'd in Boston, so seeing them sucked into P&G's maw was not exactly happy-making for us locals.

Kilts also raised eyebrows - and not just locally - with the $165 million he managed to pocket on Gillette's sale. That oughta pay for a lot of close shaves for Mr. Kilts. (Talk about looking and feeling sharp, as Gillette's ancient ads had it.)

Kilts is/was by most accounts a brilliant exec. (Bailey pegs him as "a rock star of the consumer products business, having revived Gillette, Nabisco, and Kraft.")

And in the circles Kilts and other "rock star" CEOs operate in, $165 million, while a decent payday, is not an insane payday.

But what galls Steve Bailey is Kilts' characterizing Gillette employees as "the biggest beneficiaries" of the P&G deal.

For starters, Bailey points our that Kilts cut 6,500 positions at Gillette during his tenure there. So from the get go, there are fewer employees who are still around to enjoy being "the biggest beneficiaries". Then there are the additional 6,000 folks that P&G will likely give the heave-ho as a result of the "merger."

But according to Kilts:

"'Gillette employees would become part of an organization that valued people, treated them well, and placed their development and growth as one of the company's highest priorities."

Okay. I haven't read the book. For all I know, Kilts had a lot to say about the 6,500 + 6,000 formerly-employed Gilletters. Maybe he at least offers a bit of lip-gloss service about the folks who lost their jobs, and how painful it is to make decisions that result in such collosal pain to others.

But to characterize Gillette employees as the "biggest beneficiaries" of the sell-out to P&G? What about the 6,500 employees who got the heave-ho?

Oh, I see, they're no longer employees, they're ex-employees.

What a difference and "ex" makes.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


 Tom Peters had an eye-catching little blurb over on his blog the other day.

A $10,000 investment in "Mr Trump's empire" in 1994 when it went public would result in a valuation of $636 today. (Source: NY Times/Business Day 0706.2007)

Well, I'm sure that anyone who "follows" Trump at all will know that his empire is always on the verge of something or other, so it's no surprise that investing in Trump turned out to have been not so wise.

I'm actually no stranger in bad $10,000 investments, although mine have been closer to home. They've been in places where I've worked: Wang, Genuity.

All I can say about these is "carry forward loss".

I wouldn't have considered investing in Trump for a New York minute.

While I do find him mildly entertaining on occasion, and I'm quite sure he's a highly intelligent man, overall I am put off by oversized, self-promoting egos.

Speaking of which, I also saw recently that The Apprentice, which was supposedly going off the air, is coming back for a few more rounds.

Now, other than the first season, when I have to admit I was riveted, I haven't spent much time watching The Apprentice. I'll catch a few episodes, but, frankly, all those eager-beaver, "Mr. Trump" asskissers start to all look and sound alike.

But I can think of an idea that would really revitalize the show for me.

Have The Donald himself take on The Apprentice tasks. Have Trump come up with the idea and the all-but-the-face-out-front execution and see how he fares. No, you couldn't have him selling lemonade in Central Park. His celebrity draw would bias the results. But you can have him be the mastermind, the brains behind the idea and see how good the idea was.

For those tasks where "a panel of experts" picks the winning team when there's no objective "made more money" to go by, have them blindly and objectively pick the best product idea, ad, whatever - without knowing which one Trump had a hand in.

I'd love to sit there and watch the look on Donald Trump's face as one of the experts said "this is the lamest idea I've ever heard."

Now that would be worth tuning in for.

How about it, Mr. Trump. Wall Street might not love you, but TV - more or less - does. You're always looking for the biggest, the best, the shiniest, the greatest. Are you up for the task? Do you think you have what it takes to be the next apprentice?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

You Must Remember This (Gordon Bell's lifelong lifelog)

I have a pretty good memory. Nowhere near photographic, but more than serviceable. I tend to have a particularly good recall of social details, even those of people I don't know all that well: where someone's husband went to college, the name of their long-dead dog. I have a lot of "important occasion" clothing memories: what I wore the first day of kindergarten (a brown and yellow striped dress); what I had on the day my period started (blue plaid skirt and orange "middy-style" blouse); what I was wearing when, at age four, I was the first one to spot the grassfire burning in the field next to our house (gray wool skirt with suspender straps, and with navy and dark red stripes).

I have pretty good recall of feelings, too - like how upset I got on that first day of kindergarten when the patrol line exited from a different entrance than I'd come in. I was panicked that I wasn't going to able to find my mother and brother Tom, who were coming to escort me home on the first big day of school. When I realized we were going out a different door, I tried to rush back up the stairs. A "big girl" neighbor (Yvonne LaChapelle) grabbed me and assured me that she'd help me find my mother and Tom. She did. Overwhelming feeling of panic turned into relief.

An imperfect memory, but pretty darned good, and I rely on it. One reason that I rely on it so heavily is that I don't save much stuff. Oh, I have a few things - some pictures, my diplomas -  but no heaping cartons full of the pictures I drew in first grade, my First Communion veil (which was probably borrowed, anyway), and my eighth grade autograph book. Let alone my college notebooks, grad school papers, and all the memos, documents, plans, and PowerPoints I accumulated at work over the years.

Sometimes I wish I had hung on to more of life's detritus, but my attitude has always pretty much been that my memory is a good enough repository. Plus I live in a not-so-large condo with very little storage. There'd be no place to keep this kind of junk, even if I wanted to.

So I read the article on Gordon Bell by Alec Wilkinson in The New Yorker (May 28th), and listened to him interviewed on NPR a bit after that, with definite interest.

For those for whom his name doesn't, well, ring a bell, Gordon Bell is an engineer - and not just any old engineer. While at Digital Equipment Corporation (a.k.a., DEC), he "was among the first engineer to fashion computers in a network; and [he] led the National Science Foundation effort to link the world's supercomputers - the Internet". He now works as a researcher for Microsoft, focusing on projects that require a genius.

What Bell is noodling around with these days is putting his life on line.

This involved scanning:

...all the papers in his file cabinets and in the boxes crowding his garage...his scrapbooks and photographs, the business cards he has saved, the posters on his walls, and his many commemorative T-shirts...his interesting coffee mugs, which were first photographed, [and] the manuals for his appliances...

Bell's now also contains a hundred and twenty-two thousand e-mails...thousands of recordings of phone-calls...every Web page he has visited and instant-messaging exchange he has conducted since 2003.

The archive also includes books Bell has written and wine bottle labels. Definitely someone who's hell-bent on going paperless.

Bell also wears a small camera around his neck that takes pictures at set intervals during the day, capturing a photographic record of what he's seeing - or not seeing, if he happens to be paying attention to something else when he walks by, say, a dog peeing on a hydrant.

Bell and his collaborator, Jim Gemmell, "believe that everyone will eventually store [this sort of stuff] on their computers. (By 2010, a typical life, they feel sure, will fit on a cell phone.)"

I'm 100% certain that the minutiae of my life is nowhere near as valuable and interesting as the accumulations of Gordon Bell. (I sure wasn't the one who figured out that connecting computers was a cool idea.)

But I'm also 100% certain that I don't like the idea of my life, in its entirety, fitting on a cell phone. Nor do I like the idea of the care and feeding that archiving my life would require. Forget about getting everything to date in there to create a baseline. I've pretty much minimized that particular task by not saving all that much stuff to begin with, although I do have a couple of old corporate mugs that I could photograph...

What Bell is engaged in with this project is called "lifelogging."

Although Bell's photographic logging is done automatically, we've all seen examples of lifelogging in action. Think of all those folks taking videos of their kids being born rather than squeezing their wife's hand. Think of all those cellphone pictures ("Here I am at Fenway Park."), which can oh so easily be accompanied by recordings of cellphone conversations ("Here I am at Fenway Park."). Think of Twitter: "just flushing the toilet." Think of blogging. (Although I and my blogging buddies, of course, engage in the far superior form of blogging - the personal essay, the opinion piece - rather than doing all that lowbrow, 'who cares' cataloging of what we ate for breakfast. Which, if you must know, was cottage cheese and a plum.)

Occasionally, [Bell] feels encumbered by the project. "There's a number here," he says. "I'd like to say that I'm living ninety-five per cent of the time, keeping this system five percent. I want to live a life, not be a slave to it."

Meanwhile, Bell et al. are searching for applications for all this stuff. There are clearly some that sound pretty useful - like having your medical information, including real-time observations, on hand. One use (not mentioned in the article, but which I recall from the NPR interview) would be having your life stuff available as a memory jog (or memory replacement) for the elderly whose recall is not as sharp as it once was.

So far, so good with my memory, but maybe I'll regret not having saved all my personal Rosebuds someday. But 99.99% of the things I've thought-seen-said-done. No thanks. Most of it's beneath interest to me, even, let alone to anyone else. And, frankly, there's plenty of stuff I'd just as soon not have captured for posterity.

And the thought of devoting 5% of my life to "keeping up my system?"

That sounds like way too much overhead.

Blogging's bad enough!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

This Takes the (Wedding) Cake!

Somewhere along the blog trail, I stumbled across the Ethics Scorecard, which had posted a commentary of the use of fake wedding cakes. Since then, I've found that, what with June brides and all, fake cakes has been pretty widely covered recently. (Here's a link to a Business Week article.)

Personally, I don't give all that much thought to weddings. When I go to small, intimate ones (generally paid for by the couple themselves), I always think about how sweet and heartfelt they are, and how sensible it is not involve a cast of thousands in the "big day." When I go to big blow-outs (generally paid for by the bride's parents), I - like everyone else at my table - mentally estimates what the whole thing costs; exchange at least one remark about how the couple would have been better off with the cash; then drink my champagne and go ask the band to play "Going to the Chapel of Love" (the Dixie-Belles oldie). Now, my expectations of wedding cake are pretty low. In my experience, it's bland and white, and I personally never get enough of that over-sweet, Crisco and confectioner's sugar icing. Sometimes, the wedding cake is a pleasant surprise: chocolate or carrot cake, "real" butter cream frosting.

But mostly the wedding cake is about what's on the outside, not what's on the inside.

On the outside it can be layer upon layer of "traditional tacky" with the little plastic bride and groom (or, more recently bride-bride, groom-groom) on top. Or it can be a gorgeous work of art with frosting sculptures on them that look too good to eat.

And apparently some of them do, in fact, look too good to eat for the very reason that they're inedible. Truly inedible.

It seems that there's a growing demand for fake-cakes, as some people want the bee-yoo-tee-full, drop-dead good looking cake as a showpiece for the picture taking. But they don't want to pay for it. So they buy the bogus cake and serve up cheaper-faster-better (?) sheet cakes for the wedding guests. The cake is always carted out to the back room to be cut up anyway, so who knows and who cares that the picture-perfect cake is cardboard covered with frosting.

Rent the Cake of Your Dreams of East Aurora, NY, is one cake rental outfit.

Their pitch is simple:

More and more brides are seeking cost-effective ways to have the wedding of their dreams. A beautiful cake is always a part of the dream wedding, but can be cost prohibitive. Instead, brides can rent an elegant display cake for their cake table, and have their caterer serve a delicious (and less expensive) sheet cake. The caterer can whisk the display cake away, then cut and serve the sheet cake in the kitchen...When you Rent The Cake Of Your Dreams, you will receive a cake that looks identical to a traditional fondant cake at a fraction of the cost.

They also point out the advantages of a non-melting fake cake for an outdoor, summer wedding.

Just to give it that element of authenticity, the fake cake comes with a small real section - just enough for the married couple to do the ceremonial cake cutting, the feeding of the cake to your spouse, and - depending on what tradition you hail from - the smashing of the cake into your spouse's face. The real cake section must be very carefully marked. Slicing in to the yummy foam section could cause the whole thing to tumble, giving away the secret.

I "ran some numbers" on real vs. fake (info from the Rent the Cake site). Fake costs $30 to rent, plus $1.75 a slice for the real sheet cake. A comparable real cake would be $2.50 per slice, but that's for the "basics". The more ornate, the more costly. Still, it looks like for a 100 slice rental plus real sheet runs you $205, while  the basic would run you $250 for 100 people. You'd pay a little more for fancy, but still. The differential between real and fake is not that great. Is it so all-fired important to have a fancy cake on display?

The Ethical Scorecard calls the fake cakes "ethically reprehensible." Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I will say that  your wedding probably shouldn't be primarily about the pictures. And you don't want to be taking a piece of cardboard out of your freezer on your first anniversary and pretending to eat it. And then there's the fact that if your guests find out, they'll think it's ridiculous (and, by extension, that you're ridiculous).

But mostly you've got to ask yourself, who wants to start a marriage with the metaphor of something hollow and tasteless?

Surely no one would answer "I do" to this question.

That said, I've got to hand it to Cake of Your Dreams and Fun Cakes of Grandville, Michigan (which has its own cake rental spin out, and which was also mentioned in the B-Week article), and the other "bakers" that have jumped on the "need" for a couple to have a phony, show-off display that makes their wedding pictures look better.

What a vast, multi-faceted, and over-the-top economy ours is!

Monday, July 23, 2007

Gold Farming

Pink Slip is perpetually on the look out for odd jobs, so I was delighted to see a recent NY Times Magazine story by Julian Dibbell about the Chinese workers play online fantasy games for a living. They're able to make a living at it (if the equivalent of 30 cents an hour constitutes a living, even in China) because there are gamers willing to buy "game pieces" - coins of the fantasy world realm, magic weapons, jumps to higher game levels - that they'd find just too tedious to have to earn them on their own.

The Chinese laborers, called gold farmers, are experts at getting their characters (or avatars) to the upper reaches of the games they play. They specialize in games - the workers described in the article play World of Warcraft, which is played by over 8 million people around the world. (And to think that I don't know one of them.) In the World of Warcraft,

...players, in the guise of self-created avatars — night-elf wizards, warrior orcs and other Tolkienesque characters — battle their way through the mythical realm of Azeroth, earning points for every monster slain and rising, over many months, from the game’s lowest level of death-dealing power (1) to the highest (70).

The points that gamers accrue let them buy "virtual gear" so that they can kill more monsters and keep rising to the next level.

In addition to companies that farm and sell gear, there are companies that a novice gamer can hire to play for them. A Chinese wizard logs on to your account and, for a small fee ($300) will play you up to the highest level. What might have taken you a few months will only take a few weeks.

Online retailers "sell" the points harvested by the Chinese gold farmers to American or European players who want to play at the highest levels, but don't want to bother with "the grind" (as it's termed) that lets you get there).

The gaming companies have rules about selling "virtual loot", and they do enforce crackdowns. Not surprisingly, the crackdowns are aimed at the gold farmers (who may get banned if their accounts are identified as farmers) and not the players who buy their produce in the market. That would be biting the hand, since the players - even the cheater-pants ones - are paying the gaming companies a nice fat fee in order to play.

And many/most players themselves oppose it as cheating. (They also oppose it because the game farming wizards are so good at raising the virtual playing field that they make it more difficult for newbie gamers to gain a foothold.) In any case, online gamers sometimes unite to go after the game farmers, killing them off virtually (which takes them out of play for a while, and may mean that they earn even less than $.30 an hour on that shift.)

Yet one more thankless task that gets outsourced. (And this is no small-time business.

Collectively they [the gold farms] employ an estimated 100,000 workers, who produce the bulk of all the goods in what has become a $1.8 billion worldwide trade in virtual items.

Gold farming operates under the same shabby labor standards that we all turn a blind eye to in exchange for being able to stuff our even-consuming maws with an endless amount of crap that we don't need. The wages are low, the hours are long, the employee housing (warehousing, maybe, but it's free) is miserable. Still, as for so many, it beats life on the farm or in the even more desperately poor parts of the country. And, as the article points out, unlike laboring in a cheap toy or a plastic American flag factory, the gold farmers do get some enjoyment factor out of their work and may, in fact, go off to play online games in their free time, too.

Still, there's something that seems so whipping-boy about the whole thing. We're rich, you're not, nyah, nyah.

Isn't the purpose of playing an online game to get good at it, to master it for yourself, to have your own fun?

It's one thing to outsource the low-end jobs that nobody wants (other than, of course, the low-end workers who hold them). That's the way of the global economy.

But outsourcing your fun and games? What's the world coming to?

Friday, July 20, 2007

So Yesterday: Running a Video Store

For a while, my Grandfather Rogers was a blacksmith. He chose this profession because it was improvement over life on the farm, and because in the early 1900's he didn't realize that, career-wise, he was beating a dead horse. Sure, there were still horses around for a good long while, but, "Hey, pal, get a car," which is how my father and his buddies would taunt the few remaining horse drawn travelers still around during the 1920's.

My grandfather's next career had more long run staying power, that's for sure.

With his brother, Jim, he opened a tavern, grandly and quite imaginatively named The Rogers Brothers Saloon.  (None of this Roscommon Pub, or Thirsty Druid, or Tir na Og for yer man in those days. I grew up in the same part of Worcester where The Saloon was, and the area was full of equally imaginatively named bars and taverns: McGuire's Breen's, Mulcahy's, Moynahan's, Donahue's, and Hennessey's.) The Rogers Brothers Saloon did have its own theme song, however, sung to the tune of "Back Home Again in Indiana:"

Back home again, in Rogers' bar room
That's the place I long to be...

Unfortunately, bar-keeping went tempoarily the way of the buggy whip and blacksmith, and Rogers Bros. was closed down by Prohibition.

Neither one of the Rogers Bros. had to spend much time worry about a next career move. They both died - still in their forties, Jim perhaps even younger than that - in the early 1920's, leaving my grandmother and Great Aunt Annie with young kids and little money.

Careers come. Careers go. And, technology being what it is, the pace at which they go grows ever more accelerated.  (Clerk-typist: does this job category even exist anymore?)

I was thinking about all this when I saw in our little neighborhood newspaper, the wonderful Beacon Hill Times, that Fred's Video on Charles Street is closing.

Not that I can even begin to feign surprise.

When was the last time I checked anything out at Fred's?

Not since we got Comcast On Demand, thank you. (Sorry, NetFlicks is just too much pressure to decide in advance. Everything comes around to On Demand eventually.)

No more making reservations at Fred's. No more browsing the stacks on Saturday evenings, trying to decide whether we were up for two flicks - or even three. No more pouncing on a video that someone had just returned. No more shoving my returns into the slot early on Sunday morning, only to find that the receptacle was so fillled that you had to prod other returns out of the way.

No more Fred.

He is shutting down ...

Fred Rose has been a neighborhood fixture for so many years, going from Emerson College kid in 1990, when he started working at the store he bought in 1996, to nicely graying before our very eyes.

According to the article in the BH Times, he hasn't yet decided what he's doing next. He is personable, hardworking, entrepreneurial, and business-savvy enough to know when to call it quits. (Wish I'd had that good sense a few stops along the way.) I wish him the best of luck. I'm sure he'll do just fine.

For now, I'll have to wonder what will go into the spot that Fred's Video is vacating.

We absolutely have enough realtors in the neighborhood. We're good on restaurants, coffee shops, grocery/convenience, and liquor stores. We've got a local, unchained drugstore and hardware store. A shoe repair shop. Upscale gift shops, funky "stuff" shops, and shops that cater to rich kiddos, skinny young things, prepsters who buy cumberbunds with lobsters on them, and folks who pay lots of money for handbags. We have our very own Post Office - plus a UPS store. Antique stores we've got.

It would be nice to have a bookstore.

I know, I know. The ones we've had here haven't been able to make a go of it. There are two Borders and B&N a short walk away.

Still, if some rich Beacon Hiller wanted to open bookstore... Someone who, unlike Fred, does not need to earn a living...The space that Fred's Video occupies is not very large. It would  have to be a teensie, tiny little bookstore. Perhaps it could just carry poetry. Or children's books. Mysteries. Travel guides. Or books that I like to read. (I'd be happy to supply a list.)

I know that we're told that books, like videos, are so yesterday.

Still, wouldn't it be nice to have our very own little book boutique? Hopefully owned and operated by someone as nice and good for the neighborhood as Fred was for all these many years.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

You Get What You Pay For (The China Trade)

First it was the puppy-killing pet food. (Chemicals added to make the food sound more nutritious.Bad chemicals. Puppy-killing chemicals.) Then there were some bad-for-kids toys, like the Thomas the Tank Engines decorated with lead paint. (Who'd expect a one or two year old kid to actually gnaw on a toy?) Now it's the anti-freeze in the toothpaste because, hey, anti-freeze is cheaper than putting in glycerin.

And we all know the skinny on the big box stores, right? They push down the prices they pay their manufacturers so low that, guess what, the quality takes a tumble. The label may be the same - it's the brand-you-remember-as-high-quality. Maybe now it's just the brand-your-remember.

We all know that if goods are manufactured someplace with cheaper labor (someplace like China), they'll be cheaper than goods that are manufactured with expensive labor (someplace like the U.S.).

And since we want stuff. And we want a lot of that stuff.  And we don't want to pay a lot of money for a lot of stuff. We turn a blind eye to the conditions under which cheaper labor may labor. So what if folks are making what gives an entirely new definition to the term "minimum wage." So what if they're working  under conditions that make the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory look like a company outing. So what if they're living in conditions so crowded that our Lower East Side tenements of yore look comfy-cozy.

China's poor, really poor, so however terrible the working conditions are for the factory workers there, it's no doubt better than what they left behind in the hinterlands. Just like it was for the huddled masses who teemed over here 100 years ago. Triangle Shirtwaist may have been a sweat shop, but - if you survived the fire - your kids had a better shot at life than you had in the Old Country.

So, the theory goes, a generation or two of Chinese workers may labor under appalling conditions, but as the country becomes better off, those conditions will improve. (And/or the jobs will go someplace where the people are actually worse off, like parts of Africa.)

It's all okay, because we want countries like China to be better off and build a middle-class. But mostly it's okay because we want stuff.

We want special hot-dog platters for our Fourth of July cookouts. We want big foam fingers to wave at ball games. We want new iPods because the colors are better now. We want an umbrella for the car, another for the office, one for the carry on bag, and a good half-dozen or so to leave in the hall closet. We want a new fridge because our color scheme changed. We want a new TV because you can't really see anything if you don't have HD. (Don't I deserve to see Big Papi's chin stubble when he's up at bat? Don't I?)

So what if the stuff falls apart and it's not worth repairing it? So what if the minute we get the stuff home and out of the its plastic bag and clam-shell packaging, it's already half way to being obsoleted by the new model? So what if it all ends up in landfills or, worse, poisonous slag heaps that the direly poor in the Third World get to comb through?

So what? At least it doesn't kill us.

So far.

As the inexorable pressures that we as Consumer Nation impose on the manufacturers-of-the-world continue, we will eventually reach the point where more and more corners are going to be cut. Mostly, the corner-cutting won't matter. Things fall apart, well, we'll just go out and get more stuff to replace it. (There's plenty more where that came from.)

But sometimes the corner cutting will.

So we'll see more regulation, more burden on the stuff-selling companies who lend their brand names to stuff made elsewhere to demonstrate that their products are, if not fall-apart junk, at least safe. So we'll see the prices for our precious stuff increase, and we'll start getting pissy about it, because it really is fun to be able to buy a decorations for the Easter Tree, and flip-flops in 12 different colors, and foam fingers for everyone without having to give it a second thought.

But somewhere along the line, we really do need to start thinking about all that stuff, because you really do get what you pay for.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Oh, Promessa Me

Mary Roach is a very funny science writer. (Yes. You read that right. VERY-FUNNY-SCIENCE-WRITER.)

I discovered her in Buffalo Airport, when, John Updike novel in hand (the one about the terrorists - I've forgotten the title), Spook just leapt off the shelf, knocking Updike to the floor and poltergeisting me to the checkout counter. Spook is about scientific attempts to prove whether there's a soul that floats on to an afterlife, and it's quite a hilarious read. (Sorry to disappoint you of big faith, but nothing's proven so far.)

My joy in discovering Ms. Roach led me to pick up a copy of her earlier book, Stiff, which is all about what happens to bodies after the soul - for lack of a better word - departs.

I have actually given some thought over the years about what to do with my own personal corpus when it's no longer quite as delectable as it is now.

I was never planning on joining the extended family in St. Joseph's Cemetery outside Worcester. Lovely as the spot is, burial there would mean being interred in sacred ground on the false premise that I am still a Catholic.

So years ago, my husband and I signed up to give our bodies to Harvard Medical, and for years we carried little yellow cards that said "In case of death, please contact Harvard Medical School." There was plenty of room in those wallets, since neither of us was any longer carrying the "I am a Catholic. In case of accident, please call a priest" cards that we had growing up.

Then we heard that Harvard was outsourcing their cadaver business. India. Plastics. I can't recall what it was.

So we settled on cremation. My plans for my ashes? Toss a few somewhere in Main South Worcester, where no one will notice the grit. Toss a few more in St. Joseph's. Discretely sprinkle a bit in Fenway Park. (I will leave enough in my will to buy good seats for the game. First base side, please.) Maybe some in Boston Harbor, maybe some in Galway Bay. And, since I don't want to create too much of a burden on my sisters and/or nieces who will no doubt get stuck with disposal: you are free to do what you wanted with them.

Jim is completely indifferent. Assuming I outlive him, I'll do the Boston Harbor-Galway Bay thing. Maybe, despite what he might think or want, I'll dump a few in Bellows Falls, Vermont, where he grew up (and fled at a young age).

But I'm rethinking cremation.

Not because the process, as described in Stiff , is so ooogie.

Guess what? All the processes that take ashes to ashes, dust to dust, pretty much are.

No, having read Stiff, I now know that, contrary to what you might be thinking, cremation is not all that environmentally beneficial. It's even a little harmful, what with those mercury fillings getting released into the atmosphere.

So I was intrigued by Mary's chapter on Promessa, a Swedish company founded by biologist/environmentalist Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak, that's promoting something called "ecological burial." Here's some info from the Promessa site:

The method behind ecological burial is crystal-clear, easy to grasp and accept. It is based on a new combination of tried-and-tested techniques that prepare the corpse for a natural process of decomposition...avoiding harmful embalming fluid....

An important part of the solution is to remove that which is least important; the water that makes up 70 percent of a normal-sized body. Technically speaking, this is done using an entirely closed individual process in which the corpse is freeze-dried in liquid nitrogen...

This makes the body very brittle, and vibration of a specific amplitude transforms it into an organic powder that is then introduced into a vacuum chamber where the water is evaporated away.

The now dry powder then passes through a metal separator where any surgical spare parts and mercury are removed...[and the powder is] now ready to be laid in a coffin made of corn starch. There is no hurry with the burial itself. The organic powder, which is hygienic and odorless, does not decompose when kept dry. The burial takes place in a shallow grave in living soil that turns the coffin and its contents into compost in about 6-12 months time. In conjunction with the burial and in accordance with the wishes of the deceased or next of kin, a bush or tree can be planted above the coffin.

I will easily overlook the fact that Promessa sounds like a feminine hygiene product, and look for them to start marketing their services to forward thinking funeral parlors in the U.S.

In the meantime, with no plans to depart this vale of tears anytime soon, I look forward to Mary Roach's next book - whatever her topic may be.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Harry Potter Party Poopers

Much as I enjoy the Harry Potter books - which, to my great surprise, I have - I will not be lining up on Saturday when, at the stroke of midnight, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows hits the shelf.

No, I'll buy or borrow at my leisure, and it really won't bother me at all if I find out who among the principals dies in this one. (I'm voting for Hagrid or Ron Weasley, but as long as it's not Harry himself, I'm fairly indifferent.)

But I love the fact that bookstores have held midnight parties for the last few releases, letting die-hards grab the books the minute they come out of the box and stay up all night seeing whether it's Hagrid or Ron or Hermione or Draco Malfoy who ends up dead. It's just out and out fun to think of bookstores as a place of excitement and entertainment.

And for small, independent bookstores: if they can generate more interest and income by hosting a Harry Potter coming out party, well, bravo for them.

This year, however, the suits apparently have other ideas.

As David Mehegan reported in The Boston Globe the other day, "Warner Bros. -- which controls the movies, merchandise, and all nonbook aspects of the Harry Potter brand -- is clamping down on the fun."

What they're after is cease and desist of events that fall outside the (confusing) guidelines established by Warner and by Scholastic, which is the HP book publisher in the U.S.

In the past few weeks, Warner's London legal office has sent e-mails to booksellers and party organizers around the country, warning them against unauthorized celebrating, under the threat of legal action. "[Your event] appears to fall outside our guidelines," said one e-mail. "Therefore, HARRY POTTER cannot be used as a theme for your event."

Many of these missives have been received by small, independent bookstores, which are often staging the event as part of a fundraiser.

Among the rules: no charging admission to the parties, and no third-party involvement. Which leaves out those bookstores that were rounding up others in their community to take part in the party.

One local bookstore that's been impacted by the crackdown is the Brookline Booksmith, a venerable indie that is incredibly generous to and supportive of the literary (readers and writers) in greater Boston. They were planning on a benefit for their local Teen Center, and signed up 18 neighboring businesses to take part with them. No can do.

Similarly, a group of small businesses in Portland, Maine, had planned on getting together to raise money for Sudanese and Somali refugee programs. But Warner warned them that vendors - like the comic book and candy stores that were going to take part - could profit from the event. So the Portland group is struggling to reconfigure its planned Mugglefest - and is likely to raise less money in the process.

According to a Warner Brothers statement:

...the guidelines are intended "to help organizations run themed events in a way that avoids fans being exploited and helps everyone to enjoy the Harry Potter books, films, and events in the spirit in which they were created.

I guess the only one who's entitled to exploit fans is Warner itself.

Of course, it is understandable that Warner would want to protect its brand from untoward and raunchy uses of its characters, places, and plotlines. It's not all that hard to imagine borderline  - if not over the line - uses of Harry, Hermione, and Hogwarts. (Co-ed, naked, Quidditch, anyone?)

Of course, the co-ed, naked Quidditch teams aren't exactly going to be asking Warner or anyone else's permission to do whatever they want with Harry et al. They're just going to go ahead and do it.

No, it's the nice-guy independent booksellers who really need those Harry Potter books to make their year who are asking, pretty please, can we pretend for the day that our address is Diagon Alley? Is it okay if  we get the pet shop across the way to sell owls or rats? Can the local hairdresser come in and give kids Harry or Malfoy cuts?

None of that fan exploitation, please!

Restricting booksellers who are trying to conduct fundraisers and/or even just trying to turn a buck seems dastardly. (Let's face it, life ain't all that easy for the indie booksellers in this day and age.)

It's the kind of thing that the Dursleys would have dreamed up. Or the residents of Slytherin. Or maybe even Voldemort.

Yet another example of the ridiculous lengths that the bigs can go through when they're applying the defensive arts to their brands.

I know that it would be suicide for small bookstores to thumb their noses at Warner and Scholastic. We all know what the bigs can do when they want to hurt the littles. But don't you just wish that, for this one Saturday night at least, they'd let the small independent bookstores throw an invisibility cloak over themselves and celebrate the long-awaited release of the new Harry Potter book?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Get a Job (Da-da-da-da, da-di-da-di-da-da)

Every time someone tells me about the fabulous summer experiences their high school and college-aged kids are having -   high-falutin, résumé building internships where they're involved in strategic planning for GE; heart-warming, character building weeks spent planting yams in Nigeria; life-broadening, passport building trips to Machu Pichu - I think to myself: What????? Don't kids actually get crappy jobs anymore.

Well, according to a Boston Globe article by Marcella Bombardieri, some kids still do - and, interestingly, colleges are starting to look favorably on it during the application process.

Bombardieri wrote about some local kids with the kinds of job we held in days of yore - jobs like ice cream scooper and school janitor - and came up with a startling statistic:

Only 49 percent of American teenagers ages 16 to 19 were working -- or even seeking a job -- last month, down from 60 percent in June 2000, according to the US Labor Department.

Which would more than account for the estimate given by Lee Coffin, Tufts University's dean of undergrad admissions, that "only about a quarter of Tufts applicants these days have ever held down a steady job."

Coffin for one likes to see a job-job on a kid's applications.

"When we read an [application] folder with work experience we usually comment on it in a very favorable way. If he works 20 hours a week at Stop & Shop, we'll say, 'That's really refreshing and old-fashioned. Good for him.' "

Almost everyone I know had a few truly crappy jobs along the way. Most of us put in at least one summer stint working in a factory or something equally mind-numbing and dreadful. This was, of course, in the days when unskilled, minimum wage factory jobs were plentiful. I spent one summer polishing combat boots in a shoe factory. While I was polishing combat boots, my friend Marie was working in a gun factory. She was not, however, making guns, which was a higher-skilled job than you'd get for the summer. She worked in the office, but you could say that in those days before our consciousnesses were raised, we were doing our Rosie-the-Riverter bit for the Vietnam War. While I was making those combat boots - regular old your-mother-wears-combat boots for the U.S. Army, and paratroop boots for the Vietnamese army (boy, those guys had small feet) - Marie's company was making M-16's.

I had other friends who worked in plastics factories, pie factories, sausage factories.

If we didn't work in factories - and most of us didn't for more than one summer - we worked as waitresses or busboys. As lifeguards. As book shelvers in the library. Doing construction. Bagging groceries. Moving furniture. Working retail. Showing kids in the park how to make gimp lanyards.

If I'm remembering this correctly, one of my cousin's worked one summer as a garbage man. (Despite, or perhaps because of, this job, he went on to become an extremely successful business executive.)

What we learned from our less-than-exciting summer jobs was how to show up. How to deal with strange bosses. How to get along with strange colleagues. How to deal with life's little challenges without mom and dad being around. We also learned just how much fun it is to have however small and temporary a measure of financial independence. Sure, we had to save some of our meager pay "for college", but the rest we got to spend. And we found out the pleasure of nobody being able to tell you you couldn't buy that record album, book, or sweater, because no one could tell you what to do with your own damned money.

In Bombardieri's article, she does talk to a couple of kids at a Tufts interested-student event who haven't figured out the beauty of work.

One kid interviewed, who's father is a Hollywood producer, had to work for one and a half weeks as an office assistant for her father. Maybe it was working for her father, but this kid just didn't find work to her liking.

"I'd wake up and think, 'Oh gosh, not again,' " she said.

A week and a half.

Good luck to you, honey.

Maybe you'll be able to afford to be someone like Paris Hilton.

But if you do end up having to work-work, no matter how carefully you pick your career and your jobs, there'll no doubt be days when you wake up and say, 'Oh, gosh, not again.'

And that, my young friend, is plain and simple a fact of work life. The trick is making sure you find work where the 'not again' days are more than evened out by the 'good day at work' days.

Trust me. Unless you're the world's worst job-picker, you'll have plenty of those.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Whole Foods' John Mackey: sowing some wild oats over on Yahoo finance.

My husband usually has business news on as background noise, and yesterday morning, my ears pricked up when I heard the newspeople commenting on a less than wholesome practice that the CEO of Whole Foods was caught out on.

It seems that John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO and founder, has been anonymously commenting on a Yahoo stock market forum, plumping for Whole Foods and trashing Wild Oats (a rival "natural foods" chain). Using the  nom de Yahoo of "rahodeb", an anagram of his wife Deborah's name. Clearly he was not trying to disguise himself all that cleverly. You'd think he could at least have come up with a better anagram. Sometime like ORB HEAD or DEAR HOB.

Mackey posted for a period of some eight years. He only ceased and desisted when he lost a bet with a fellow poster.

Awareness of Mackey's online alter ego came about because not only are Whole Foods and Wild Oats rivals, Wild Oats is a takeover target for Whole Foods.

The FTC no like this deal, claiming it will create an natural natural foods monopoly for Whole Foods. Part of the FTC's suit to stop the takeover sites comments made by Mackey/rahodeb.

It's not clear that Mackey did anything illegal. He apparently didn't use insider information.

But what are we to make of "anonymous" comments that touted Whole Foods and dissed Wild Oats?

One might think that the CEO might understandably have wanted to keep Whole Foods' price up.

One might think that the CEO might understandably have wanted to keep Wild Oats' price down.

That would explain speculation on Rahodeb's part that Wild Oats might be slip-sliding in to bankruptcy. Or that it had incompetent management. Or that it's fundamentals aren't fundamentally sound.

(It does not account for the comment also attributed to Rahodeb that Mackey's hairdo was "cute." Maybe he was just channeling his wife on that one. Can't blame a guy for trying.)

Once outed, Mackey claimed that the FTC is just trying to make him look bad. (Wasn't too hard, now, was it?)

He also said [in a posting on his web site]: "I posted on Yahoo! under a pseudonym because I had fun doing it. Many people post on bulletin boards using pseudonyms." He said that "I never intended any of those postings to be identified with me."

I can certainly imagine that he never intended for "those posting" to be identified with me. (And why am I now channeling Bill Clinton? I guess it all depends on the meaning of the word 'those.')

Caveat emptor to anyone who gets their stock advice on Yahoo. Sure, there's a lot of honest back-and-forth. But there are also a lot of yahoos - long boosters and short-sellers - out there trying to convince naifs to buy deer and sell sheep. Yahoo! alright.

So what has Mackey done here - legalities aside?

  • He's embarrassed himself.
  • He's made himself look stunningly duplicitous and untrustworthy.
  • He's embarrassed his company.
  • He's no doubt ticked off at least some of his shareholders.
  • He's put the deal to acquire Wild Oats at greater risk.

Shouldn't he have known better? Come on, already. John Mackey is a vegan - no egg yoke or sour milk curdled his judgement. No Mad Cow disease addled this brain. Certainly, there can be no thought of a Twinkie defense. (Let's face it, most Whole Foods desserts taste more like desert. No two ways about it, carob just can't hold a bean to real chocolate.)

No, this whole episode casts a big ethical cloud over John Mackey and Whole Foods.

This is a company that worries about the worklives of chickens and pigs. That won't stock lobsters because the poor bastards might feel the pain of boiling water.

Surely, John Mackey must have had some inkling that trash-talking the competition in the name of 'rahodeb' was going to come back to haunt him like a tainted meal.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Reefer Madness: The curious ban on hemp

A few years ago, while walking through Boston Common, I was buoyed by the sight of thousands of college-aged and twenty-somethings flooding into the Common for a protest of some sort or another. Waxing nostalgic for my own college years, I smiled benevolently on the kids I passed, making the small assumption that they were demonstrating about global warming and the environment.

A once-familiar smell wafting from the assembled protesters told me that it wasn't exactly the environment that the young folks were so agitated about.


I had, in fact, stumbled into HempFest, an organized protest against marijuana laws.

Little did I know that it's not just the reefers that the U.S. government bans. It is, for better or worse, the entire American hemp farming industry.

Or so I was told by an article in the June 32rd issue of The Economist.

Despite the fact that industrial hemp contains only a trace concentration of the THC that makes marijuana marijuana, it's growth has been heavily regulated since the 1930's.

A truce was called during World War II so that farmers could grow hemp needed for ropes used by the Navy, but since then the DEA requires farmers to apply for rarely-issued permits if they want to grow hemp. The anti-hemp lobby, composed of nylon-makers and those who believe that legalizing industrial hemp will turn us on to the harder stuff.  A hemp sweater today can surely lead to tomorrow's heroin coat. (Personally, if hemp-made clothing has any of the properties of ramie-made clothing - or if, in fact, ramie is hemp - the regulators have nothing to fear. I always check a sweater's fabric label for TDR (the dreaded ramie). Not only does it wear poorly, growing "hair" after the first washing, but anything made out of ramie takes forever to dry.)

 In any case, the U.S. has to import the hemp used in many products - including "food, lotions, clothing, [and] paper".

Demand for hemp hemp is growing. The founder of Nutiva, which sells the ghastly-sounding "hemp bars, shakes and oils," believes that "hemp is the next soy."

Well, if that doesn't convince you that demand for hemp is getting high, there's also the prospect of hemp-fueled cars. ("Don't bogart that joint, my friend, pass it over to me" so I can stub it out and toss it in my gas tank.)

Some American farmers want to grow hemp, and they have their supporters, including Ron Paul, the Libertarian congressman who's running for the Republican presidential nomination.

Doesn't seem to be much reason to stand in the industrial hemp farmers way, now does it? Sometimes a little deregulation can make a lot of sense.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

MyFootballClub: The Ultimate Fan Fantasy

The Economist is a complete treasure trove of interesting business stories.

In the June 16th edition, they had a brilliantly titled little article ("Here Comes Fanchester United") about one Will Brooks, a U.K. football journalist who's trying to enlist 50,000 football fans willing to invest about $70 each to buy their own team.

What they're out an about is amply described on the My Football Club site, where we learn that the membership fees will be used to buy a club, which will be equally owned by its members. The club of choice will be decided by member votes, with due diligence resulting in selection of "the most suitable and feasible club." (I.e., the members might well vote to buy themselves Manchester United, but 50,000 fans at $70 a pop would render purchase of this club a tad infeasible.

They aren't looking for any old club, however. They need to be able to buy controlling interest (at minimum, 51%); they want no or low debt' and "the club has the potential to reach the Premiership." (Beyond knowing that Manchester United is the big kahuna of British football clubs, I'm not all that sure how professional sports works in the UK. I believe that the Premiership means the top league - to and from which clubs can rotate in and out of based on their performance. It would be as if, say, the Boston Celtics could be dropped from the NBA for abysmal performance and replaced by a team playing in a lesser professional league - maybe the University of Florida or the Harlem Globetrotters.

Once the fans own the team, they will also:

...have a say in tactics, by voting for [the] preferred style of play and substitutions depending on match situations. The Head Coach will field the 11 players, formation and tactics chosen by MyFootballClub members.

To help [the] decision-making, the Head Coach and players will give regular video briefings. There will also be reports from the training ground and members can submit Opposition Scouting Reports.

Members will also have veto/approval power over which players the team hires or trades.

Now this sounds like fun. Can you imagine if the Yankees' fans had the power to override some of George Steinbrenner's decisions? Closer to home, would Red Sox fans have let Theo deal Bronson Arroyo for Willie Mo Pena?

Democracy in action might mean chaos on the field and in the clubhouse, but this sure takes Citizen Marketer - not to mention all those rotisserie fan fantasy leagues - a step further.

I will be watching developments here with interest. Fortunately, I will be able to do so with minimal effort on my part, since my brother-in-law John, the only truly rabid American soccer fan I know personally, has signed up for a share.

So far, the club as over 42,000 members registered. 50,000 is the magic number. I have let my husband know that, if in a couple of months they're still short a few fans, that we will ourselves be joining. We will leave the voting on tactics to John, but - as long as the colors are decent - I will purchase a football jersey and wear it proudly.

I do not, however, have any plans to fly over to England and become a soccer hooligan.

I will remain on this side of the pond, discreetly rooting our boys on, hoping that they gain the Premiership - whatever that means or is.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mumbai Jumbai

A while back I posted about the mega-house that basketball star Lebron James is building in Ohio. Well, Lebron forgive me, for I knew not what I was blogging about. What looked like an case of X-treme housing is nothing compared to the maisonettes catalogued in a recent Business Week article.

There were a couple of predictable American candidates for housing overstatements.

Donald Trump is selling - isn't he always? - Maison de L'Amitié in Palm Beach. I'm not sure if this is the same place that used to be called Mar a Lago after one of his ex-wives, but I'm guessing it is. The house is 62,000 square feet, and the asking price is $125 million, or a cool $2K per foot. House of Friendship, all right.

Bill Gates is also on the over-the-top list. His dream house is only 50,000 square feet, but comes with an underwater entrance to an outdoor terrace. Plus a "private library with an oculus". Okay, I took Latin so guessed the "eye" part, but the dictionary didn't give me a lot of help here, but I'm guessing that it's something like the dome in a planetarium. It must be something extraordinary to pump the house's value up to $125 million. (And you didn't think that Bill Gate and Donald Trump had all that much in common.) In any case, I'm guessing that Gates put in every techie, nerdie thing that he could think of. And I'm also guessing that his wife, who seems eminently sensible and modest, pretty much loathes this place and is embarrassed by it. Maybe there's a family wing, like in the White House, that's comfortable and tasteful - and where you can tell where your kids are without electronic surveillance.

I never heard of Ira Rennert, but he's got a place in Sagoponeck, New York, with 29 bedrooms, 39 bathrooms, and its own private power plant. I would think so. Here's a question: who do you put in 29 bedrooms? Here's another one: if you've only got 29 bedrooms, why do you need 39 bathrooms? Can't anybody share?

It is, of course, not just Americans who are living large.

Qatar's Foreign Minister's London digs include parking for 115 cars, 24 hour room service (from the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which is connected), a floor to ceiling refrigerator, bulletproof windows, and a panic room. I'd panic, too, if I lived in a place with parking for 115 guests, just thinking of feeding all of them. Guess that's what the floor-to-ceiling fridge is for.

There are a bunch of other places described, and nary a one is a fixer-upper.

But the take-the-cake award goes to a "home" that's going up in Mumbai for a cool $1 billion. Mukesh Ambani's twenty-seven floor house includes 5 floors for parking Ambani's 168 cars, and features:

An entertainment floor including a 50-person movie theater; three floors of terrace gardens including an interpretation of the hanging gardens of Babylon; two floors with facilities for health and fitness; a two-floor guest apartment; four floors of living space; three rooftop helipads; one floor for air traffic control.

Three helipads? Air traffic controllers?

Do his kids take helicopters to school?

If you have the dollars or pounds or Euros or rupees or petrodollars, well, you're certainly entitled to pour it into the place where you hang your hat(s), tiaras, or whatever it is that these folks hang. Or have hung for them.

But there is really something off-putting about the idea of 50,000 and 60,000 square foot homes in a world where a lot of people would be happy to have a floor that wasn't dirt and a sanitary latrine, let alone 39 bathrooms.

I guess that when these folks go to build their dream houses, they just keep saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if..." And since there's no monetary constraint, "wouldn't it be nice" slides right into "it will be nice."

But doesn't it ever occur to these folks, as they're putting together the ultimate in punch list, to answer an occasional "wouldn't it be nice..." question, with an answer more along the lines of, "No, actually. It wouldn't be nice. It would be wretched excess."

Monday, July 09, 2007

Potato Queen Gets Pink Slipped

Well,  you don't generally think of beauty queens as being vulnerable to lay-offs, but the Munger, Michigan, Potato Queen, has been thrown off of her throne for "failure to attend enough events as queen." (The info in this post was peeled from an AP article published in the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Awareness of the potato-sacking came from my Rick T, my brother-in-law and tipster par excellence.  He's got eyes in the back of his head for good blog fodder.)

Allison Nowicki begs to differ with the notion that she was slicing her events schedule pretty thin. She says that she appeared at plenty of events, including:

 Miss Bay County Pageant, St. Johns Mint Festival, Bay County Fair, Montrose Blueberry Festival and Linwood Pickle Festival.

Allison did make one big mistake, however, in that she took a pass on the Bay City St. Patrick's Day Parade last March. She did have a good excuse: she goes to school 3 hours away from Bay City and had a compulsory school meeting to attend that coincided with the parade.

But let's face it, if the Potato Queen was going to skip an event, she might have been better off opting out of the Blueberry or Pickle Festivals, rather than something so completely pratie-related as the St. Paddy's Day Parade.

Allison's one big mistake, however, may have been compounded by her having "called the first runner-up and told her I wasn't going to make it."

The first runner up? No lesser than the daughter of the Munger Potato Festival chairman.

Easy to see how this one was going to turn out....

There were more goodies about the potato queen brouhaha in a UPI article (which I don't have a link to). In that piece, Ms. Nowicki (or is it Queen Allison?) says that the queen committee offered to rescind their dethronement letter if she agreed to keep her mouth shut. But Ms. Nowicki decided she wanted to go public.

There was a lot more for her at stake (steak?) than just the title. There were her mashed feelings, and her concern for future Munger Potato Queens:

"To me, it wasn't about getting a crown and getting a sash - it was about getting to meet people and showing my love for Munger," Nowicki said. "Who knows if they're going to do that to next year's queen? I don't want anyone else to have to go through this."

Well, who knows whether Allison Nowicki really got a raw deal - the chairman's daughter waiting in the wings to assume the tiara certainly looks suspicious - or whether there were a lot more county fairs; fruit, vegetable, and herb festivals; and parades that Allison opted out of than she's admitting to.

This year's Munger Potato Festival is coming up soon, and I'm sure this whole thing is leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some Munger potato fans.


Okay, okay. I'm a big city snob making fun of the Munger Potato Festival, not to mention the Linwood Pickle Festival, and the St. John's Mint Festival. In truth, I actually like the idea of foods and products being associated with cities and towns. I miss the fact that nicknames like Steel City (Pittsburgh), Whip City (Westfield Mass), and Watch City (Waltham Mass) seem to live on only in brew pubs. Somehow names like "The Back Office Processing City" just don't have much of a ring to them. At least Munger, Michigan knows who and what they are.  

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's not easy being green, but I'm trying

I like trees, and grass, and nature, but I'm not especially fond of the color green. This stems, I'm sure, from my having worn a green jumper throughout grammar school and high school. Even when every other Catholic school in the universe converted to the relatively hip and with-it plaid skirt and jacket uniform, my high school persisted in requiring a jumper that was nearly identical to the one my mother had worn to her high school 30 years earlier.

Whatever my feelings about the color green, I know deep down that we all have to start getting better at being it.

A few weeks ago, while tootling home from Syracuse, I took a bio-break at one of the Turnpike stops. I passed the iZone sunglass area, and saw that they were selling fold-up shopping bags, called Totettes.

I had read recently that the flimsy plastic bags you get everywhere are contributed mightily to the ruin of the environment, so I thought I'd get me one of them Totettes and start using it in lieu of the evil plastic bags.

When I went to pay for it ($12.99), the woman working the stand chirped up, two for $20. So I sprung, and I now keep one in my laptop backpack and one in my pocketbook, and am religiously using these totes in lieu of the plastic bags I'm used to getting when I buy toothpaste, a loaf of bread, a printer cartridge, a pair of socks... I figure I'm saving the environment a couple of hundred bags a year this way. The Totettes are nylon and come in a bunch of bright colors (plus, I think, black). Each has a self-contained (self-attached) little case. Once you've used the Totette, it folds up very readily into that case, and you have something somewhere betweeen the size of a glasses case and your cell phone to handily toss in your pocketbook (or pocket).

Since purchasing my Totettes - one neon green, one electric blue; the better to see them in the far reaches of my black pocketbook or my black backpack - I have been using them religiously at Staples, CVS, and the corner grocery. In the first week alone, I've saved a good half dozen plastic bags.

And being green may have a reward attached beyond just plain goodness and virtue. I used both Totette's when I went to pick up a few things at Trader Joe's, and got to enter a drawing (winner gets $25 worth of groceries) for those who are bringing their own bags. Even if I don't win - and I actually have pretty good luck with raffles - this is a nice touch!

Feeling virtuous, feeling green, I now vow that I will start bringing my big canvas tote bags to the grocery store when I do my major grocery haul next week. Let's see if I keep that vow.

But I do already recycle my bottles, cans, newspapers, and mags. I already drive a small, fuel-efficient car. I already believe that global warming is a clear and present danger. I have already gotten plastic-bag-replacing Totettes for The Banshees (my girl gang: six sisters-cousins who convene twice a year for no-boys-allowed, wine, shopping, and song weekends). I figure if all six of us forego 5 of those miserable little plastic bags each week, at the end of the year, we'll have "saved" 1500 of them.

Damn, I'm good and green.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Don't Let the Door Hit You...

If the three most wonderful words to say are "I love you," the world's most satisfactory two-word utterance has got to be "I quit." (On further thought, "I quit" is actually just one of them. The other was spotted recently on a t-shirt worn at Yankee Stadium by Mrs. Alex Rodriguez. The one that Mrs. A-Rod sported may, in fact, win a few more points because of the call and response that it can evoke: "F-you." "No, f-you." "No, f-you." Not exactly "I love you, too." But still...I digress, however. Back to "I quit.")

Typically, by the time you've decided to leave a job, you are fed up with something or other about it. Your boss. Your pay. Your colleagues. Your commute. Your position. Your hours. Your company. Their politics.

Sure, there are situations when you're lured away by what appears to be the "Mr. Right" (ha!) of jobs - that one special offer you weren't even looking for but just can't refuse.

Generally, however, you started to look for a new job for a very good reason: you're sick of your current one.

Most of us, of course, however much we fantasize the "I quit," end up blowing out the match well before we set fire to that bridge. We pen a courteous resignation letter, tell everyone that the decision was a difficult one, and move on.

Not so the author of a recent resignation letter supposedly authored by someone leaving JP Morgan/Chase that's been making the blog rounds in the last week or so. (My brother-in-law Rick sent me an unattributed copy; the first source that came up when I googled was an Invictus post on Blah3, which notes that the letter remains unauthenticated.) 

Those who want to see the entire screed in it's full power and glory, can check it out at the link above.

Real or not, it ain't pretty.

First shot taken is a buckshot blast at all of co-workers and managers:

For nearly as long as I've worked here, I've hoped that I might one day leave this company. And now that this dream has become a reality, please know that I could not have reached this goal without your unending lack of support. Words cannot express my gratitude for the words of gratitude you did not express.

Surely, viperish nest that JPMorgan/Chase may well have been, it's inconceivably that in a several year stint there, not one co-worker or manager provided any support, uttered an encouraging word?

The writer does signal out one manager here as an exception, but the letter is so woefully written that it's not clear whether the exception is indeed "wonderful" or the worst of all.

The years for this poor unfortunate were full of miscommunication, misinformation, ignorance and "intolerance for true talent." Undoubtedly the author's.

Instead, it was a steady diet of "absolutely interchangeable supervisors on a wide variety of seemingly identical projects", where the prime takeaway was figuring out how to "overcome daily tedium."

With this true talent for overcoming daily tedium shining forth, it's kind of a surprise when the annual review was "meets expectation."

He - for our scribe has admitted to being a man - then goes on to single out various managers, name by name, as blame-shifters, racists, credit-grabbers, blabber-mouth keepers of "disgusting secrets." (Hmmm. Wonder why he holds back on this one.) Managers are backbone-less; guilty of cronyism, racism, sexism, and jealousy; profiteers who benefited from "the suffering of scores of people but then again, with this rooted history in the slave trade it only makes sense. "

Okay. Who - other than the profiteering executives themselves - doesn't have a slightly unsettling feeling when big bonuses accrue to those  who lay-off thousands of employees? But the connection to the slave trade is a bit tenuous.

The letter rambles on a bit about the "over worked and mistreated", "faceless little people" who are "still loyal not to those who abuse them but to the greater mission of providing excellent customer support."

And then we hit the main rub: the letter writer's position is heading off to a lower-wage slave in "India or Tampa."

Which is just as well, since he would "sooner kill [him]self" rather than have to work there again despite the co-workers that he now acknowledges he did have a great relationship with.

I can understand and empathize with the bitterness and pain that this fellow is experiencing. Just like everyone else who has worked in an organization for longer than 3 weeks, he's taken a practical, hand's on course in Bad Management 101 and Introduction to Less than Edifying Human Behavior. Deal with it. Learn from it. Or if it's so god-awful, get the hell away from it.

But if you're tempted to write about it in the form of a flame-letter that names names: think twice. This sort of thing can do you a lot more harm than it will ever do to the organization you're trying to get back at.

I'm sure, of course, that the writer found tremendous satisfaction in writing up his final manifesto and blasting it off in a universal e-mail.

I'm also sure that many of the "faceless little" co-workers got a little buzz while reading it, and that it provided fodder for more than one water cooler, cafeteria, and ladies' room conversation, where the author is either a ballsy, tell-it-like it is hero; or a bitter ex, foolish enough to put it something widely-circulatable writing that could keep jumping up and biting him in the professional butt for years to come, once his name gets attached to it - which it will if the letter is at all for real.

So, two years from now when I'm thinking of hiring Joe Blow and I google him and find this, am I going to think 'Here's a poor, misfortunate, good guy, badly mistreated by a cruel, heartless, slave-trading institution," or am I going to think "Do I need to take a chance on someone who goes off half-cocked like this"?

Surely the latter impulse will arise more often than the first.

Good luck to this guy as he starts looking for another job.

I'm guessing that he got a thrilling little moment of satisfaction when he hit the send moment. That he's received a handful of calls from former colleagues who lauded him for being such a truth teller. I'm sure that he got a truly exhilarating, heady rush of freedom when he gunned out of the parking lot for the final time.

But those thrilling little moments may prove to be a high price to pay for what many prospective employers may view as a rash, immature, foolish act.

Of course, it could well be that, even though it appears to name some real names, the e-mail is not "for real". Or that the sender covered his tracks well enough to avoid being ID'd (although there do seem to be some incriminating "fact prints" in it). So it does sound for real enough to me...

As for all those managers, those cronyist executives, those racists, those sexists, those gossipers, called out by name in the note?

Maybe the higher-ups won't give it a New York minute's worth  - of bother - other than to make a mental comment: "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out, pal." And maybe a call to HR to see if it's worthwhile trying to void the guy's severance pay or something. They may, in fact, be so fully insulated that they haven't even seen thenote.

But for those lower down in the food chain. You can be guaranteed that they're all mega-steamed, and will remember this guy for quite some time. All those informal reference checks that get made by someone looking for someone who really knows the job candidate? Easy to imagine what will be said and not said.

Some return to sender for a few minutes of "I'll show you."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Glorious 4th

I've always kind of liked the 4th of July.

When I was a kid, The Fourth in Worcester meant the annual block party, sodas kept cold on dry ice, cherry bombs and snakes, and a trip to Auburn High School to watch about 15 minutes worth of fireworks. During the every-other-year trek to Chicago to visit my mother's family (spent mostly at my grandmother's house on a lake about 50 miles outside the city), The Fourth meant sparklers, spitting out watermelon seeds, and a jaunt into Libertyville to watch about 15 minutes worth of fireworks. (I think that one year, by the time we got there, the fireworks were over.)

Now I don't tend to do very much to celebrate The Fourth.

Before the Boston Pops concert at the Hatch Shell became a big-time media event drawing half- a-million people, I used to go to that. (And where one time I witnessed a truly amazing tribute to freedom. A mother on the next blanket was enouraging her little girl - who must have been about 2 1/2 or 3 - to clap along with "The Stars and Stripes Forever". When the kid refused to clap, the mother grabbed her arm and hissed, "You clap, or I'll clap your ass." Now that's what I call getting into the true spirit of the Fourth of July!)
Sometimes I go to my sister's house for a cookout. Sometimes I stay home and watch the fireworks out the window, then stand and watch to make sure that no one leaving the Pops Concert on the Hatch Shell stops to relieve himself against our back gate.

Even if I don't do all that much, I like The Fourth anyway - if only because it seems to be the one and only day in the year when it's off-limits to state that anyone who voices opposition to something or the other that the U.S. is doing is at best non-patriotic and at worst a traitor. It's the one day that the flag seems to belong to everyone.

One thing I always do on The Fourth is read The Declaration of Independence, which The Boston Globe conveniently publishes on its editorial page.

Yes, the lanugage may seem a bit stilted to the 21st century ear, but there's no denying that these fellow could write. And they could think. Couple this with the Constituion, and you've just got to say, lucky us to have men of the Enlightenment lay such a tremendous foundation on which to build a country.

And lucky us to have left the internecine struggles of the Old World so many thousands of miles behind. Sure, we've come up with some of our own, and we didn't exactly crown our good with brotherhood with respect to the native Americans and the slave trade, but Civil War aside, it has been pretty darn civil over here. By and large, the melting pot did its job: it melted the lumps out.

Lucky us to have such vast and beautiful physical space, so far away from "the other guys", which protected us for so long. And lucky us to have such an abundance of natural resources, such an embarassment of riches.

And lucky us to have the freedom to build and create, to piss and moan, and - yes - to not clap along with "The Stars and Stripes Forever" if we don't damn want to!

Can democracy last in an age of information overload - what's false? what's true? Can democracy prevail if the chasm keeps widening between haves and have nots? Will this - or any other nation state - survive forever in a globalized, corporatized world? Will we make more enemies and fewer friends?

Oh, just reading The Delaration of Independence. That King George III! We the people submitted the list of "repeated injuries and usuprations...to a candid world."

Stilted language and all, the list is worth reading. even the items that kind of make you want to smile:

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
Then there's this one that has quite a bit of current resonance (although I certainly can't fault our own current George here; too bad W wasn't able to "fatigue" the Republican senators "into compliance with his Immigration Law):

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither.
How dazzling. How brilliant. How gutsy the whole thing was.

Thank you, Massachusetts' own John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry, and Boston boy Ben Franklin (who signed from Pennsylvania).

Thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for The Declaration and for the invention of the clothing closet. (At least I think I remember this from a long ago trip to Monticello.)

Thank you, Charles Carroll of Carrolton who, we were taught in grammar school, was the most important signatory of The Declaration of Indepence. He was, after all, the only Catholilc.

Thank you Button Gwinnett, for the singular charm of your first name.

The Glorious Fourth!

Happy 4th of July to everyone.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


With summer officially upon us, it's always good to take a look at how the U.S. stacks up, vacation-wise, against the rest of the world. Of course, since we've been hearing for years about those European lay-abouts who take entire months off at a time, virtually closing down their countries, we all know already that we're at the low end of the vacation stack. Now Mercer Human Resource Consulting, in an article that recently appeared on CNN's money-related site, has the confirming details for us.

Of the 49 countries (27 in Europe, 6 Mideast-Africa, 14 Asia-Pacific, plus Canada and the U.S.), you can put the foam finger away. Based on the number of vacation days, plus paid national holidays, We're Number 45! Only Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, and - here's  a surprise - our neighbors to the north trail us. (China is not on the list. I guess that as long as there's a Wal-Mart, there'll be no taking any time off in China.)

So much for my fantasy that Canada is a fairy-tale version of the United States: all the perks and advantages and none of the crap. I already knew that the Canadian dollar was worth less, now, it appears, the vacation time is, too.

But there's a bit of apple-orange going on here (or maybe it's apple and grape). Unlike most (all?) of the other countries in survey,  the U.S. has no laws mandating how much vacation must be granted. (E.U. membership stipulates 20 vacation days in addition to whatever public holidays are granted.) For the U.S., Mercer uses a figure of 15 vacation days for an employee with ten years tenure in a large company, plus 10 holidays, to come up with a total of 25.  If this number sounds high to anyone who's just switched jobs and is back with a lousy two weeks off, it is. A study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) suggests that such a figure greatly overstates what most U.S. workers experience. The CEPR study found:

...the norm to be much lower when considering companies of all sizes and workers of all tenures: 9 days of paid vacation with 6 days of paid holidays. It also estimates that almost one in four U.S. workers don't get any paid days off at all.

If we use this lower figure, the U.S. would come in dead last in terms of vacation.

The places to live if you want lots of vacation? Well, topping the list is Finland with 44 days off (30 vacation days, 14 public holidays). This I can say. It's so cold and dark there during the winter, they have to make sure that everyone has the chance to make a Vitamin D getaway to someplace warm and sunny each year. (I'll bet that one of those public holidays is "Seasonal Affective Disorder Day", on which the Finns hold a parade in which everyone wears goggles and carries a sun lamp.)

France places second, with 30 vacation days and 10 public holidays. This is, of course, no big surprise, given that we've all at least heard that France shuts down in August when toute le monde hops into their Citroen and heads someplace else. And, all the antipathy we hear towards France aside, is there anyone who has spent more than a nano-second there who hasn't said to themselves, "These people sure know how to live."

Israel (24 vacation days, 16 public holidays) ties with France for second place. And who can blame the Israel government if they mandate a hefty vacation schedule. The alternative would have to be lots of Israelis calling in for all sorts of mental health days, given the tension that the country lives under so much of the time.

In addition to skimpy vacation days, the U.S. is not great on public holidays, either. Our 10 public holidays is at the lower end of the ranking, although a few countries do trail us (the U.K., Ireland, Vietnam, and the UAE - but they get 30 vacation days which, of course, they can well afford).

The grand champeens for public holidays are Morocco and India with 19 each.

I just don't get it.

Just think about it for a minute.

They don't celebrate the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, or President's Day. How can they possibly have so many public holidays?

Many people in the U.S., of course, don't take off all the vacation days they do get. When I worked full time, I always liked to enter a new year with at least 5 carryover days in the bank. As often as not, I had more than that, and would get sulky if the accountants decreed a use it or lose it policy, forcing everyone to take those blissful clean-out-your-files-and-answer-all-your-emails days between Christmas and New Years.

And many people, are "always on", staying connected during vacations: answering emails, calling into meetings, and generally being available. I've done it a few times, but have always tried to limit it. I really am a big believer in taking a vacation and leaving the office worries behind. And, let's face it, how all-fired important is what most of us do for a living that we need to be available 24/7, 365 days a year. We're not machines. None of us should have to guarantee 99.9999% uptime.

People really do need getaways and, however wonderful it is when people so love their work that they can't live without it, you're really not doing your family or friends a favor when the entire vacation has to work around your need to be in touch continuously. Emergencies are one thing, as is staying in light touch (once a day check in if you're too neurotic to let things go). Other than that - and, of course, blogging, which never takes a holiday - vacations should be sacred ground.


A note of thanks to my husband for alerting me to the CNN article on vacations.

Monday, July 02, 2007

TutorVista: Yet another job moves abroad

When I was in high school, I did a bit of tutoring. I was terrible at it, and, since the concept of "results-oriented" had not yet been invented, I have no idea whether the grades of anyone I tutored actually went up.

Mostly what I tutored was Latin and, if I recall correctly, most of what I did was vocabulary drills and someone else's homework for them.

I think that tutoring paid a bit more than babysitting. Actually, it couldn't have paid worse than babysitting. One of my main babysitting gigs was for a family with 7 boys, including infant twins. At $.50 an hour, that worked out to a cool seven cents per kid. I used to make the oldest kid stay up with me out of fear that the twins would wake up at the same time expecting to be fed or diapered.

So tutoring must have paid better.

I have no idea how I got my tutoring jobs. I'm guessing that the nuns figured that because I was a good student, I'd be a good tutor so they recommended me to parents who were nervous that their daughters would flunk Latin. (Two years of Latin were required. I was dogged: I did the full four.) The nuns were wrong. I have no idea how to say it in Latin, since all I remember is "Quo usque tandem abutere, Catalinam" and "Arma virumque cano, but:

A Student ¹ Tutoring Competence

At least not in my case.

I hadn't thought much about the tutoring biz in years but, like almost everything else, it's gotten a lot more corporate - and no doubt a lot more "results oriented."

And it's also being offshored, as I read in a recent Economist article about TutorVista, a Banglore tutoring company that offers "World Class Tutoring, just a click away."

Unlike Maureen Rogers, Latin Tutor Manque, TutorVista is available 24/7, with well-educated Indians, working from home, providing the tutelage in quite a few subjects, as well as prep for all kinds of exams.

"Users" sign up for unlimited access for $100 a month, and for that they get access to "the premier online destination for affordable education - anytime, anywhere ayd in any subject. .. They use our comprehensive and thorough lessons and question bank to master any subject and have access to a live tutor around the clock." The web site claims that they have 1,500 students in the U.S. and the U.K.  currently using the service. (In    article, the number of customers is given as 2,200.)

Tutors - and there are 200 so far and still counting (recruiting) - themselves must have a Master's degree in the field the'll be teaching - which would have left high school me out, right then and there.  Many are former/current teachers, picking up some extra rupees.

You can't quite tell how many rupees that might be, but they do pay shift differentials for non-peak hours. The payment is in Indian currency, whether you live in India or not. And, while it doesn't seem like there would be any nationality requirements - other than a willingness to receive remuneration in rupees, the FAQs give the impression that non-Indians need not apply to be tutors. Not that I was considering it, even though I do now have that Master's degree...

Naturally, you apply online and are interviewed over Skype. Training is also online.

There was some concern voiced in The Economist article about understandability, TutorVista believes they will weed out the thick accents during the Skype interviewers. But there may be some communications problems, if the info on the web site is an indicator:

Once you have the required PC Configuration and clear the online test and the interview, you will be intimated about the commencement of your training programme.

Chop, chop, on that training programme, but I can't see the average U.S. student knowing what the heck someone is talking about when the words "intimated about the commencement of your training programme" are strung together."

Intimated...doesn't that sound like something that happens on a dating service?

Oh, well, if they get over the stilted English and the accent problem, I'd say that TutorVista is going to be a hit. After all, some school districts are already recruiting Indian grads for teaching positions since they'll work for so much less.

One more job going overseas, one more amateur act being professionalized.

Tutor la vista, baby.