Friday, August 31, 2007

Duck or You Could Be Hit by an Elevator Pitch

On my way to the funnies in the Boston Globe the other day, an article on elevator pitches caught my eye. The sub-head in particular: "Amidst the sound of bad music, here's how to give your best two-minute elevator pitch."

Two-minute elevator pitch? That's a stuck in the elevator pitch. That's a monologue.

Personally, I don't remember ever being impressed by anyone's elevator pitch. Maybe I've never even heard one. Maybe nobody I've ever met in an elevator deemed me worthy of his or her two-minute elevator pitch.

But according to this little article, Mark Wiskup, author of "The It Factor," believes that "a great elevator pitch runs longer than five sentences and should 'impress the listener with its intensity.'"

I'm sure if I were the recipient of an elevator pitch of two-minute, five sentence length, I wouldn't be particularly impressed by its intensity. I'd be thinking, please, stop and take a breath. Or, please, stop and ask me a question about myself. (Or at least let me ask a question about you.)

I realize that so many of us have jobs that are difficult to explain, working for companies that nobody understands, and that all of this may necessitate a longer spiel. Maybe there's some universe in which Mr. Big asks the bright young feller in the elevator to give his. ("Son, I'd love to hear your elevator pitch.") Maybe it's a good idea to have a handy, dandy definition of what you and your company do, just in case somebody asks. (Okay, I'll admit that it's a good idea.)

Yet the thought of actually listening to an elevator pitch leaves me numb.

Elevator pitch.

I've written my share of them over the years, mostly as a way of forcing myself or the folks I'm working with to come up with a sentence or two that in simple, crisp terms explains what exactly is it that our product and/or company does. (It's a great exercise, by the way.)

And, although I tend to ignore this bit of advice, I've been hearing for years that nobody wants to hear about the products or features, they want to hear about the clients and benefits - and this is supposedly true for your personal elevator pitch, too. But, let's face it, don't all benefits boil down to make money, save money, save time, improve productivity, improve quality? At least they pretty much do in the tech B2B circles I float around in.

So, if I'm in an elevator, what's going to be more informative to me:

"I sell gizmos for Acme Inc., and we help our clients save time and money."


"I sell gizmos for Acme Inc. Our gizmos are those little green things that connect the pillar to the post."

I know I'm an oddball, but I want to hear the latter, not the former. ("Oh, those gizmos. I know you guys.")

But back to that two-minute elevator pitch.

Two-minutes might be fine at a presentation, but ain't nobody wants to hear the other guy talk for two-minutes unless the story they're telling is really interesting. Which would, I suspect, preclude most elevator pitches.

Forget about elevator pitch. How about elevator catch?

You pitch, the other guy catches and throws the ball back. And so it goes. Each person gets a chance to pitch and catch. Isn't that more interesting than just watching the other guy toss their own ball repeatedly up in the air?

This is called a conversation, and it can go in any number of ways.

I guess it just comes down to the fact that I'm much more likely to be impressed by someone who can carry on an intelligent conversation, and who has the EQ to involve the other person in that conversation, than I am by someone who's an intense monologist. Even when I'm the one asking most of the questions, and moving the conversation along, I still like to occasionally see a glimmer of recognition in the other person's eye that I'm an also a human being who might have something interesting to say.

Then again, I'm not some captain of industry who anyone'd want to elevator pitch to.

Wiskup does offer some good advice about including in your elevator pitch a very concrete example about a problem that you helped a customer solve. This could, actually, be the key to an interesting and effective elevator pitch - one that I'd want to listen to.


Mostly I'd rather have a real, however brief, conversation with someone. Or just stand there like a glom and listen to the Muzak.


I like to provide links to articles I source, but I just did a quick google and couldn't find this one. It was in a Boston Globe special business-section sometime in late August.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bees (on their) Knees

The other day I had lunch at the Colonial Inn in Concord with a couple of friends. It was a beautiful late summer's day, and we sat out on the porch. The porch is surrounded by lush gardens, so we were surrounded by harmless droning bumble bees going about their busy-bee business with the begonias, and by not so harmless yellow jackets that just seemed to be hanging around for the free lunch. The yellow jackets were pretty aggressive - one of them crawled down my straw - but eventually they got the point and realized that we were going to give them the brushoff and not let them light on our food.

Bees are another one of those things that us city folk don't have to think about too much. We do have them, but they are decidedly not something I give much thought to. Us city folks, we spend more time fretting about silverfish and rats. (I noticed that the neighbors a couple of doors up have two new rat traps out back of their house. Yuck.)

If I thought anything about what bees did, it would fall into two categories: buzz around and make honey. Even when I see the all those hives on my annual pilgrimage to Brookfield Orchard (home of the Happy Apple), I thought it was because Brookfield sold honey. The bees' role in the apple making process never occurred to me.

But a recent article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert ("Stung," August 6, 2007) has got me thinking about bees.

Agriculture relies on honeybees to pollinate/cross-pollinate many crops, including apples, "blueberries, cranberries, cherries, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, and pumpkins", and the bees that they rely on are often migrant workers, owned by commercial beekeepers who truck them around the country following the different pollination seasons as surely as migrant workers follow the crops that need picking.

The magnitude honeybees required is truly staggering.  Kolbert writes that the California almond industry alone needs the help of 1.5 million hives to service it.

Unfortunately for farmers (and consumers: as the price of pollination goes up, so does the price of what's being pollinated), we are now being plagued by something called "colony-collapse disorder."

Sounds grim, and it is.

Starting last year, it seems, honeybees are dying off. Some apiaries have lost up to ninety percent of their bees.

There were and are a lot of different theories about the "why": drought, insecticides, cell phones.... But it seems that, whatever the "why" is, the dead and dying bees are infected with multiple ailments, which Kolbert characterizes as "an insect version of AIDS." (A virus from imported bees is the likely suspect for "lead pathogen.")

Honeybee die-offs are not unheard of - a paper cited by Kolbert states that there have been 14 unexplained wipe-outs in the last 100 years. Still, there is ample cause for alarm. Honeybees are what is called a generalist that can pollinate so many different fruits and vegetables.  (Think Type O blood.) Replacing them won't be easy.

Further, wild pollinators are also dying off, and many species are becoming extinct because of loss of habitat, pesticides, and - yes - climate change.

Not good.

Lately when we think of species becoming extinct, we're likely thinking polar bear. And I, for one, do not want to live in a world where the only polar bears are in the Central Park Zoo.

But, as Kolbert has it,

...if it's a bad sign when an ecosystem loses its large mammals, it is probably an even worse sign when it can no longer support its insects.

 Citing a report from the National Research Council, she continues:

"Pollinator decline is one form of global change that actually does have credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world."

When I was a young folkie fan, one of the more popular songs was the anti-war anthem, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

We may be asking ourselves that question again soon.As the last words of the song go:

When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


A while back, I wrote about a company E Ink that's developing a "'digital screen that looks, bends, and folds like paper'". This technology may eventually make it possible for someone like me to actual enjoy turning the pages of an e-book. Someday.

Now there's Zink.

Zink, which stands for Zero-Ink, is a new technology that will enable you to print "without ink, ribbons or toner". Think of it. No more shaking the printer cartridge to try to eke a few more pages out of it. (Okay, it's for colored printing, not b&w, which is 99% of the printing that I do. But I'm sure it's just a matter of time...) No more - I'm guessing - weird, "off" colors when you get down to the bitter end. No more big, bulky printers taking up all that desk space.

The footprint can be incredibly tiny, and a Zink printing system will be able to be embedded in small devices - like your cell phone, so that you'll be able to print out all those pictures you're snapping away. How cool is that?

Zink will also be embeddable in larger devices - like your PC or TV. How cool is that?

There's a video on their web site that shows a portable printer - it's about the size of a book or a video. How cool is that?

Here's the not-so-tech talk on Zink:

The key to this process is the patented ZINK™ Paper, an advanced composite material with dye crystals embedded inside and a protective polymer overcoat layer outside. ZINK™ Paper is durable, colorful, and affordable.

Before printing, the embedded dye crystals are colorless, so ZINK™ Paper looks like regular white photo paper. The ZINK™ Printer uses heat to activate and colorize these dye crystals. The printing process is now radically simple. Just add paper and press "print". The result is high quality, long-lasting, durable, and affordable images

How incredibly cool is that?

Zink is based in Waltham, which is just outside Boston. And E Ink is in Cambridge. Is it any accident that the Athens of America would have companies that are focusing on the technologies that are going to facilitate reading, writing, and printing in the 21st century. I'm such a homie.

It's also heartening to us local bleeding hearts that Zink is a spin out of Polaroid, which is not surprising, given how Polaroid's worked - all that printability in a camera.

I'm old enough to remember the earlier Polaroid cameras, one of which - surprisingly - my father bought somewhere around 1959 or 1960. I say surprising because my father was not by any stretch of anyone's imagination an "early adopter" (or whatever such folks were called in the good old days). We didn't even get a colored TV until the 1970's, since my father refused to consider one until the color was in his judgment "as good as a Technicolor movie," a day which my father did not live to see.

But he did bring home a Polaroid camera, with it's miracle "print itself" film, which had to be coated by a ghastly-smelling chemical that came on some sort of pink sponge that came in the package with the miracle film.

I remember sitting around on Christmas Eve at our house the year my father bought the Polaroid. After my father figured it out - with a major assist from my cousin Charlie the engineer - he spent a good part of the evening taking family pictures. Most of the pictures were terrible - half exposed, too dark, too light - the technology wasn't all that advanced. But what a miracle when the camera spit out the picture. You had to wait a minute of so for the picture to "gel" (or whatever it was doing), then you'd peel off the facing paper and treat it with the chemical.

And there you had it: a miracle of modern technology. How cool was that?

I'm happy to hear that Polaroid is still at it.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------Thanks to Maura Welch over at Boston Filter for the tip.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Conspicuous Consumption, Oom-pah Style

 A short while ago, I was cranking about the upsurge in the ultra luxury goods market that caters to the rich getting richer. $700K pens. $40K pocketbooks. $90 bottles of water.

I am certainly not naive enough to believe that this is an American phenomenon, what with all those stories about empty Saudi flights to London that come back chocked full of stuff, etc.

Still, I was a bit surprised to see that our German friends are getting into the "hey, big spender" act, too - and with custom lederhosen, of all things.*

A recent AP story let us know that Christian Wohlmuther, an Austrian designer, can stitch you up a nice deluxe pair of lederhosen for you. Wohlmuther recently kitted out a German with deluxe pair for $114,000.

I'm not a particularly big fan of lederhosen, since I think they look odd on anyone too old to be modeling for a Hummel statue, but to each culture its own, I suppose.

The $114K lederhosen are studded with 166 diamonds, and were shipped to their German owner in Dubai, where he lives and works. Now, there's a reason why men in Dubai tend to wear long, loose white robes, but lederhosen in Dubai are what air conditioning was invented for. And the German can wear them apres ski at Dubai's indoor ski slope. (And why am I thinking of Richard Nixon at Camp David with the air conditioning cranked up so that he could have the fireplace on in the middle of summer. Well, at least Nixon wasn't wearing diamond studded lederhosen. At least not that we know of.)

It's sweltering in Boston as I write this, so just the thought of lederhosen makes me break out into a sweat. But I guess if you're rich enough to afford $114K lederhosen, you can afford to crank up the AC.

So if you have a fancy dress occasion coming up, and you've had it with black tie, and you're not enough of a Scotsman to wear a kilt, you could try a pair of Woldmuther lederhosen, for which you can:

...choose from an array of stones, including garnets, rubies, emeralds and diamonds, that are then mounted on buttons made either of sterling silver, gold or platinum.

In any case, I'm a bit relieved to know that all of the Western world's conspicuous consumption isn't on our tab. We may be Richistan,*but it looks like there's a reiches Reich out there, too.


*Blanking on lederhosen? They're the leather overall-style shorts that the guys wear in the oom-pah bands that play at Oktoberfests.

**And how's this for weird? The spell-checker just suggested Reichstag for Richistan. Ach du lieber Augustine.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Like an Extra Virgin

I'm not much of a cook, so when I first saw EVOO on a menu, it took me a sec to translate this into Extra Virgin Olive Oil. But you see it once, you see it a million times. (Just like all those other menu items that didn't used to exist, then  - all of a sudden - they're on every middle-brow restaurant menu: focaccia, chicken Caesar salad, sorbet. Where do these things come from?)

If you can set the concept of just what an "extra virgin" might be aside, there are apparently strict guidelines on what sets EVOO apart from the plain old VOO in the gold can that sits in my cupboard.

From a recent New Yorker article by Tom Mueller on olive oil fraud, I learned that what separates the V's from the Extra V's is the free acidity percentage. (Free acidity tells you how decomposed the olives were when they entered the vat.) There's also something a grade below VOO, and it's something called lampante, or lamp oil. (I had best check my tin of olive oil to make sure it's not lampante.)

Whatever it says on the bottle or can, what's inside may or may not even be olive oil. As Mueller's article recounts, there's a long history of olive oil fraud, in which sunflower seed, hazelnut, and canola oil is doctored up with dyes and flavorings. And less you think of the olive oil industry as peasants filling baskets full of olives on their sun-kissed hillsides, then carefully make the oil in ancient wooden presses - or even stomp on the olives, like Lucy when she and Ethel made the wine - olive oil, like most agriculture these days, is a huge business.  The lesser oils are often smuggled into Italy in tankers, where it's miraculously transformed into EVOO.

All this smuggling of seed oils (and semi-legitimate importing of lesser olive oil), does, of course, have an impact on those delightful peasant farmers you're thinking of. It makes it hard for them to compete with the real thing.

In any case, Mueller's article is fascinating reading - even for non-cooks like myself who don't hang around gourmet shops agonizing over just how much to spend on a bottle of EVOO.

Despite not cooking, however, I do have a long history with olive oil.

When I was a kid, my mother cooked with vegetable oil, but we did have a small, ancient bottle of olive oil around, which was used to cure earaches. A bit of olive oil was warmed up, eyedropped into your ear, and stopped up with a cotton ball. I can't remember if it worked or not, but I don't remember having many earaches.

I do remember having dandruff in eighth grade. Far be it for my family to actually go out and buy Head and Shoulders so that their self-conscious 13 year old could take care of what was very likely a minor but magnified case of dandruff.

No, my mother's remedy called for olive oil, and here instructions to me were "use olive oil."

Now, if she had told me to rub a little olive oil into my scalp, and then shampoo it out, I would have done so.

Left to my own imagination, I massaged the entire bottle of olive oil into my scalp and went to bed.

In the morning, I awoke to a sodden pillow and odiferous hair plastered to my head.

In a panic, I hopped in the shower and tried to wash the olive oil out.

There was not, however, enough time to do enough lather-rinse-repeats to rid me of the results of my olive oil treatment before it was time to leave for school.

Hard to believe, but the thought of letting me stay home and keep on shampooing never occurred to my parents, and the thought of skipping school never occurred to me.

Off I went, and I remember walking to school - it was early March - with my knit cap (red wool with white angora trim) only partially covering the fiasco that was my head of hair.

The day was one of agony.

Curiously, I do not remember anyone making fun of me. Given that the eighth graders at Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School were not known for their kindness and compassion, I can only guess that, what to me seemed like an obvious case of olive oil head must have passed for no more than an average hormonally-prompted greasy hair day.

In any case, I'm guessing that the bottle in our house was lampante.

At thirteen, I might have been what you'd call an extra virgin, but there's no way that the olive oil was.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Bad Form

A friend of mine  - let's call her Z - interviewed recently for a job.

Z didn't get it.

Which is OK, because a lot of the jobs you interview for you don't get. That's part of life.

What we both found surprising was how Z was informed that she hadn't gotten the job. Rather than getting a phone call, she got a perky little e-mail from HR letting her know that they'll "hold on to your resume for future opportunities that crop up here."

Which might have been OK if Z'd been applying blindly for an entry level position. Or even a more senior position. Which Z wasn't.

Here's the story (and why I think the little e-mail ding was bad form - and not very smart business).

Z has known A for many years. Z has, in fact, done consulting work for A over those years. That's how A knows that Z might have been a good fit for the C level job that was available at Company X.  A knew about the job because he's a board member and major  investor at Company X.

Company X, meet Z.

Z, meet Company X.

Although A is a private investor, and , thus, plenty aggressive, A is not the pushy type. He just made his introduction and got out of the way.

Z went into Company X and met with President and all the other C-level folks.

After the meeting, Z followed up with the President asking whether he was interested in moving the conversation any further along, etc. Here was Mr. President's opportunity for a graceful out. If he'd had another candidate in mind, here was his opportunity to call Z back - or send her a personal e-mail in the middle of the night - telling her "thanks, but no thanks."

Instead, Mr. President let a few weeks go by, then had an HR minion knock Z her Dear Z note.

What's bad form here?

Okay. I'm a hierarchical snob, but if you're applying for a C-level position, and meet with the President and all the other little C's, then you deserve a direct and personal  no-thank-you note from the President. Or someone very senior. You really shouldn't be getting the pro-forma "we'll keep your resume on file" (hah!) note.

What's bad business here?

Z did not come in over the transom. Nor was she introduced to the company by the cleaning crew or the new receptionist. Z was introduced by a Board Member and major investor. Wouldn't you think that Mr. President would have offered a bit of personal touch here? What was he thinking?

I'm not talking about feeling obligated to hire Z.

I'm talking about being savvy enough to say to yourself, "Hmmmm. A knows Z pretty well and seems to like her. Maybe I need to get back to her personally," - and let A know the outcome.

Wouldn't you think?

I know that it's hard to tell someone that they didn't get the job. I've had to do it a number of times, and always felt that  a personal call to all the finalists was the least I could do, especially when the job was at all senior level. (Let alone C-level.)

One time, having signed the paperwork and seen the offer letter, I made a mis-timed verbal offer to someone I was very eager to have join my team. P had worked for my group over the prior summer, and we were all looking forward to having him around. He was exceptionally bright and talented, not to mention a very nice guy.

Hours after I'd called P, a company-wide hiring freeze kicked in.


So, I called P back to give him the news, feeling like the dope that I was and feeling genuinely bad.

This was not a Boom Year for new grads, and I knew that P was looking forward to accepting our offer and working for us.

"I know just how you feel," P told me when I called.  As the managing editor of his college newspaper, P had just had to inform a very close friend of his that he had selected someone else for that position for the next year. "It's a really tough call to make, and I appreciate your calling."

Here was a 22 year old who was mature and savvy enough to know that you bear the bad news yourself - you don't let someone else do it - and mature and kind enough to try to make me feel better.

Wouldn't you think that someone who'd gotten to the level of President of a company - no matter how poky that company is - would know enough to have called (or e-mailed) Z himself?

Bad form. Bad business.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Who says there's nothing on TV?

Internet TV, that is.

Well, the other night I couldn't sleep, so I got up and read for a while, and what was lying around handy was The Economist, which is one rag in which I even read the tiny little B&W ads in the back of the book.

And there I found an add for Supreme Master Television

A new satellite channel broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a variety of engaging programs in English with German, French, Italian, Spanish, Persian, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Korean and Aulacese subtitles. Being the ideal television channel airing throughout Europe that brings to your life nobility and spirituality.

Well, it wasn't just the Aulacase subtitles that got me hooked, it was idea that TV could bring my life nobility and spirituality.

Actually, I knew about spirituality on TV, having spotted Jerry Falwell et al. before they became household words. And I know there's a Catholic station that broadcasts the rosary. (Nothing new there: they used to do it on the radio.) But the spirituality isn't of that much interest to me.

But broadcast nobility.

I'm there.

There used to be less of a burden placed on TV. It was for entertainment. Sure, there was edification. Ed Sullivan had the Bolshoi Ballet alongside Ricky Lane and Vel-Vel. And I thought I was learning how Protestants lived by watching Leave It to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. But basically, TV was entertaining.

And there wasn't all that much of it. Three networks, flanked by some network-less local stations that broadcast bad kiddie shows ("Uncle Al, what a pal!") and old movies like The Attack of the Puppet People. Then PBS came around, and you could learn stuff you already knew (the alphabet) or didn't so much care to learn (French cuisine). Still, the TV menu was limited.

Now, of course, there's no end to "what's on," and - much as I'd like to be a big snob about it, I watch plenty: History Channel, pundits, HBO, movies-on-demand, Law & Order (of course I'm in love with Sam Waterston), and baseball.

But none of what I watch exactly translates into nobility, although not throwing a shoe at the screen the other night when Eric Gagne blew another save does, in fact, count in that direction.

So I was eager to see what Supreme Master Television had to offer.

Took a pass on cooking with the Supreme Master Ching Hai. After all, if I hadn't been willing to learn from The French Chef, I wasn't going to start supreme kitchen mastery at this point in my life.

Then I saw the question: Would you like to stop cruelty in this world?

Well, yes I would.

This led to a slide show that talked about flesh eating as the leading cause of death which, I guess, is true if you count animals.

It went on to encourage me to Go Green, Go Veg, and watch An Inconvenient Truth. Well, one-and-a-half out of three ain't bad. I'm going a shade of green, and I've seen the movie.

But by this point, I was beginning to feel aggrieved that folks in Europe were getting to see all this good stuff on TV, while I was stuck watching slide shows and jittery streamed videos. I mean, the production values weren't much higher than the cheesiest of low-budget local TV shows of my childhood.

Still, there was more to keep me occupied, and one such was clicking on the URL for godsdirectcontact.

Even though I wasn't seeking spirituality, how could I resist godsdirectcontact. This might be the proof I've been hungering for all these years.

God's direct contact was, alas, a let down.

The Supreme Master is just peddling "an inspirational series called "Models of Success," based on the lives of accomplished individuals, who through their vision, passion and determination have pursued and fulfilled their noble dreams." Ho-insomnia-hum.

Then I learned that the spiritual elevation of the earth has been increasing, scientists have spent more time researching the aspects of science which are closely aligned with the divine. And as a result, scientists have made some amazing discoveries, such as: one particle existing simultaneously in 2 places, the third eye, the aura, the power of prayer and the zero point field, which contains infinite energy. It seems we have reached the Golden Age where Science and Spirituality walk together hand in hand.

Well, tell that to the Intelligent Design folks.

The Supreme Master made one good point:

This scientific revolution is of great importance because as humans become more scientifically advanced, we will require great wisdom in order to use their technology for peaceful and constructive means.

I'm with you there, Supreme Master.

More vegetarianism. Meditation.  Enlightenment. Inner Light. More vegetarianism.

I'll admit. If I really thought about it, I'd probably become a vegetarian. Not a vegan, mind you. But a vegetarian. I'm not a huge meat eater to begin with - that delish anti-pasto with the Serrano ham the other night aside - so I could probably make it on veggies. But I would miss hamburgers, salmon, swordfish, chicken goulash, and that once-a-year Italian sub from the Venice Cafe on Cambridge Street.

Anyway, the Supreme Master is not looking for "for followers, worshippers, or disciples, or establishing an organization with a dues paying membership. She will not accept money, prostrations, or gifts from you, so you do not need to offer these to Her."

Good thing, because I was not really in the market to become a follower. I was just having trouble sleeping. (Probably because I'm a meat eater who hasn't yet found enlightenment. Unfortunately, I'm just not the type.)

In any case, I came away a bit miffed that I hadn't really been ennobled by my experience.

Maybe it would have worked better if I'd actually been able to watch a show or two on real TV.

Maybe it reads better in Aulacese.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------Admit it. You, too, are wondering just what Aulacese is. I had guessed at first that it was a Filipino dialect, but when I saw it written, it looks more like Vietnamese. Sure enough, a bit of googling determined this to be the case. Curiously, almost all the Google and Yahoo searches yielded up links to the Supreme Master in some way shape or form, including links to recipes on how to make gluten and tofu at home.

I was on to something with the Filipino connection, however. One link led to a report on Imelda Marcos' instrumental role in providing refuge for some Aulaceses boat people. Imelda, dear sensitive soul, responded to "a tear-jerking report from Tung An [which] revealed that five people divided a banana for one day’s meal. This caused Mrs. Marcos to cry." (This, too, was on a Supreme Master related site. She apparently owns Aulacese.)

Eerily, the first words I saw written in Aulacese were "Bhi Quyet." Is the Supreme Master telling me to, more or less, shut up? Perhaps she really is godsdirectcontact.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What I Miss - and Don't Miss - About Full Time Work

I've now been in the free-lance biz for almost three years, and there are pro's and con's about working full time vs. working free-lance (which lately has been more than an FTE - a good problem to have, but I was expecting a summertime lull).

What I Miss:

  • Work-as-neighborhood - All the casual everyday chatter around the coffee pot or in the caf line. The 'how about those Red Sox?' chit chat. Being a concerned (or nosy) neighbor, asking how everyone's sick kid and leaky roof are doing. Passing the hat for baby showers.
  • Sheet cakes - And speaking of baby showers...I'll admit it. Even when they came straight from the grocery store and have frosting made out of Crisco and sugar, I really loved getting a piece of those celebration cakes - especially when I got an end piece. With a rose on it.
  • "Can this company be saved?" conversations - Typically held after hours in someone's office, where we tried to come up with nobody-asked-us ideas for improving product, sales, marketing, whatever. [Unfortunately, in most places I worked, the answer was, "Nope. It's a hopeless case."]
  • Bitching about management - Hey, even when I was management, I still loved trying to figure out what the hell they/we were doing.
  • Techies - Sure, I still work mostly in high tech, but I just don't get as much time with techies as I used to.
  • Direct deposit - Nothing like knowing that the check will be in the bank every two weeks, and the cash will keep flowing. No invoicing. No polite inquiries about delinquent payments.
  • Health & dental  - What's there to say here? Even with employers "sharing" more and more of the costs, it's a wonderful bennie. Writing that check every month to BC/BS....oy. And dental? We figured out that it made little economic sense to get dental insurance, and the benefits were never all that great. Still....

What I Don't Miss:

  • Fire-drills - Yes, customers sometimes want you to drop everything and get "it" done, but nothing compared to those absurd 'we must get this information to Henny Penny by 7 a.m. tomorrow or the sky will fall'  episodes Half the time, it turned out to be a matter of "never mind."
  • All hands meetings - Especially when there was only gloomy news to report, and senior management went through elaborate contortions to explain to us how day was really night, and up was really down, and bad was the new good. Not to mention dodging the rare tough question that came their way.
  • Problem employees - I had some lulu's over the years, mostly self-inflicted, as I kept making the same hiring mistake over and over, wishfully thinking that someone else's problem child would flower and achieve under my deft and genius management.
  • Overwrought emotional involvement - Remember how I said I liked those "can this company be saved?" conversations. Maybe I lied. I don't miss all those toss-and-turn nights agonizing about whether "we" were going to make it.
  • Commuting - Rain, snow, sleet, hail, gloom of night,Hurricane Bob. Once it took me 4 hours to get to work after an ice storm. Another time, during a blizzard, it took me 6 hours to drive home. Even when I took the subway to work, commuting was a drag.
  • Cleaning out the fridge - Somehow, in most places I worked, I was the schnook who ended up tossing out the 3 year old yogurt containers and suppurating take out containers full of ooze.
  • Pink Slips - Picking and choosing which folks to add to the lay-off list is, hands down, the thing I miss the least about working full-time at a "real job."

I very much enjoyed my years (decades!) as a full-timer, and I miss some things about it, but mostly....You couldn't pay me enough to go back to full-time, one-company work.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Sense of Proportion: Watching the Comcast News Scroll By

181 Chinese miners are missing and feared dead in a flooded mine, but on Comcast's rolling, roiling list of headline news, it was deemed more important to let us know that.

Leona Helmsley has died. I guess if I'd given this any thought, I'd have thought she was dead. But hearing of Lady H's demise brought to mind a business trip I took many years ago to NYC with my friend Michele. Our hotel reservations got screwed up, it was close to Christmas, and the only inn where there was any room was a really seedy, fleabag hotel populated, for the most part, by old men in residence who traveled the creaking elevators in robes and slippers. It was also pouring rain out, and we were pretty bedraggled looking when we decided to reward ourselves - and put off going back to our crappy hotel - by stopping in the Helmsley Palace for a drink. Leona swooped down on us and asked us what we were doing in her hotel. Despite - or because of - her warm welcome, we stayed for two glasses of wine. (And to think that, in her day, Leona was one of the most well known business-women in the country.)

Some extras were injured on a Tom Cruise movie set. Although none was seriously hurt, and Tom was nowhere near the accident, this was termed a "disaster" by Comcast. In a later spinthrough, it was elevated to a "tragedy." Of course, this incident gave reporters yet another opportunity to point out that the Germans don't want Tom Cruise playing Claus Von Stauffenberg because they consider Scientology a weird cult. Well, I'm not much of a Tom Cruise fan, but he certainly does resemble Von Stauffenberg.

Michael Vick cops a plea. Dog fighting is certainly a disgusting practice - vicious, cruel, irredeemably terrible. But isn't there something slightly disproportionate in the amount of attention this crime is getting.

University of West Virginia is the nation's top party school. Aren't you relieved your not driving your 17 year old kid there this week? Oh, you are driving your 17 year old there this week. Party on!

Obama doesn't like Obama Girl. Or his little girl doesn't like it. Then there's something about Dog the Bounty Hunter (now there's a job for you). Obesity may be caused by a virus. (I knew it all along.) Kevin Federline lands TV job. So much for talent will always out.

You could argue, of course, that the Chinese miners are yesterday's news. But isn't the Tom Cruise movie set yesterday's news, too?

Meanwhile, I heard on NPR that there are an average of 13 deaths per day in Chinese mines.

Just another indicator of the growing pains that China is going through as it builds its economy. And the lack of health and safety checks - no OSHA, there, I'm guessing.

I don't think we import any coal from China, but we do import a lot of other "stuff" - some shoddily made, dangerous even. Much produced under conditions that would not be tolerated here - legally or morally.

We hear a lot of complaints about "regulations" strangling our economy, but regulations prevent Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fires. They prevent lead-painted toys. They prevent mine disasters of the magnitude regularly experienced in China.

As we well know, we have mining disasters of our own. But, as heartbreaking as they are for the families and towns where they occur, mine accidents are relatively rare in this country.

Maybe it has something to do with our regulations.

And maybe because of those regulations, we can focus on trivial events like the minor accident (or should I say tragedy) that involved Tom Cruise's crew.  Rather than spend one iota of our news-watch time thinking about the 181 flooded out miners in China.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Retching Excess: Living in Richistan

A short while back, I blogged about the growing personal submarine business. Personal subs are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg - or the tip of the conning tower - of the goods and services being consumed by the super-rich.

Paul Harris reported in a recent article in The Observer on some of the goodies available to the growing cadre of billionaires in the U.S. (Up since 1985 from a paltry 13 to over 1000. Even adjusting for inflation - i.e., a billion ain't what it used to be - that's quite a growth spurt.)

Here are a few things that money can buy for those wealthy enough to inhabit the parallel universe of the hyper-rich, dubbed Richistan by WSJ reporter Robert Frank:

  • Time sharing at Solstice, where 80 members who pay $875,000 to join get to swan around to one of 10 swank places "fully staffed with cooks, cleaners and 'lifestyle managers' ready to satisfy any whim from helicopter-skiing to audiences with local celebrities." I wonder what the "local celebrities" get paid - or is the mutual preening enough: you're rich, I'm famous, ain't we got fun?
  • A $736K Franck Muller watch that makes a Rolex look like the $12 Timex I got when I graduated from grammar school.
  • A $700K Mont Blanc pen that can be carried in a $42K Louis Vuitton pocketbook. (You have to ask yourself whether a $700K pen writes better than, say, a $1K Mont Blanc-er - or even a measly $100 pen.)

At least these items are durable goods. How about the Algonquin Hotel's $10,000 'martini on a rock', which has a diamond instead of an olive. And I started getting unnerved when a glass of wine started running $10. 

We all know about the high-end Kobe beef burgers, that can run you more than $50, but Harris found a $1,000 omelette - probably a little more elaborate than the Western from Denny's.  I'm guessing caviar. And maybe the chickens are hand raised, free-ranging in $10M timeshares, and sipping from "Bling". For those who are still trying to assimilate the fact that half the bottled water they're paying for comes from a tap, "Bling" can run up to $90 a bottle. (Smart shoppers like Paris Hilton, who is said to give it to her dog, can get it for much cheaper than that, but if you want the really fancy bottles, you have to pay a bit more.)

Now, I appreciate that things that cost more are often of higher quality. A Lexus is more comfortable than a Kia and all that. But you do end up reaching the point of diminishing returns sooner rather than later. Water out of a $90 bottle is still water, after all.

There's an upside to all this, of course: butlers are in such great demand that butler school grads can make six-figures for popping open that bottle of Bling for the master.

But mostly, the growing population of Richistan symbolizes downside, not upside. Rich get richer, poor get poorer, the incredible shrinking middle class keeps shrinking, and even some of the super-wealthy (think Gates and Buffett, who probably aren't buying the $700K watches and pens) are questioning whether it's good for the country to have the level of wealth capable of dropping $1K on an omelette get away with being so lightly taxed.

We're told that keeping taxes down means that more money gets plowed back into the economy, but is this where we'd like to be see the plowing back occurring? Taxes that paid for improved infrastructure, better schools, parks and recreation, more widely available healthcare, and other share-the-wealth items would be plowing back, too, wouldn't they? And those taxes wouldn't have to be all that confiscatory, either.

It will be interesting to see how this story ends.

Nice to live in the land of opportunity, and all that, but as more and more people start feeling closed off from the opportunity they may start feeling a little more 'us and them'.

All this wretched, retching excess....

You know the old joke: One nobleman, seeing the mob gathering outside the castle gates with their pikes, says to the other, "The peasants are revolting."

"Yes," agrees nobleman two, "They certainly are."

Methinks that, these days, it's not exactly the peasants who are revolting.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Meeting Interruptus: The Popularity Dialer

It looks like it started out as a joke, but something called the Popularity Dialer has taken legs, however wobbly.

Their service is pretty straightforward.

If you know you're going to be in a boring meeting, or on a potentially lethal date, or just want people to think that you're popular, you can sign up to have your phone called at whatever time you want. In their own words: is a service meant for alleviating awkward social situations and creating confidence in its users.

At the time specified, you get a call and a prerecorded voice engages you in a conversation. Of sorts. At least it's a good enough conversation to fool who ever's listening in on your end.

You can pick your fake conversation from a list that includes a generic "popularity" call - male or female voice, a boss call, and a "cousin in need" call.

The service is free, but they do limit you. And they're looking for donations. They also have an abuse policy: no harassment, nothing illegal, etc.

The existence of this service got me thinking about a few of the business situations I've been in when I could have used a call from the Popularity Dialer.

  • Thinking-outside-the-box seminar (3 days) in which I got into an argument with the leader because I wouldn't acknowledge that he loved me, or that I "knew" that he was a person who could be trusted. Yuck. I wouldn't have taken a Kleenex from this guy if my nose had been running. If I'd had access to Popularity Dialer, I would have signed up for the "call from the boss". Which would have worked, except for the fact that participating in the Thinking-outside-the-box session was the boss's idea, and he was sitting right beside me during it.
  • Sales call where the "prospect" started out by telling me that he had no idea why the sales guy had "dragged" someone down from the home office to talk to him, because there was no way in hell he was ever going to buy from us. This charm school grad then told an off-color joke. (This was very early on in my career. As time went on, I wouldn't have waited for the sales guy - or needed the Popularlity Dialer -  to end this call.)
  • Strategy meeting at which I was the only woman, and at which one of the senior "leaders" announced that the market was waiting with spread legs for us to penetrate it. I just told him he was disgusting, but a call enabling me to make a full exit would have come in handy.
  • 6 a.m. flight to the West Coast where a guy plunked down next to me and announced "This is your lucky day". It wasn't, but I'm pretty good at feigning sleep.
  • Sales event at something called the Medieval Manor, where you eat bad food with your hands, listen to a lute player strum madrigals, and have to seek permission from "the king" to use the rest room. Actually, that's not quite right: I am proof positive that you really don't have to ask the king permission to do anything. However, a boring evening got worse when one of the sales guys started racing around waving a big loaf of French bread between his legs. Let the games begin! Just let them begin without me. An opportune time for a call from the cousin in need.

Now that I start thinking about it, there have to have been dozens of business situations at which the PD would have been useful. But the real truth of the matter is that, in boring, unpleasant, miserable, ridiculous business situations, sometimes you have to "self-actualize" and just extricate yourself from them. (E.g., sales call gone wrong.) And sometime, business being business, you just need to suck it up.


I also have more social situations than I can think of when the "cousin in need" call would have come in handy, but that's a post for another day.

It also put me in mind of a date I saw "go wrong" years ago at The Ritz Bar in Boston. A guy sitting near us was on what was clearly a blind date. The guy was conducting a non-stop, braggart dialogue about how much money he made, his important friends, sailing off Nantucket, skiing in Vail, etc. The woman appeared bored and not particularly impressed. It was a case study in how not to act on a date.

After about a half hour of her date's bore-a-logue, the woman excused herself to go to the ladies room. I looked out the window and saw her hop in a cab and speed away.

Now, as bad as I felt for her for having to put up with the boring boor's behavior, I also felt bad for him as he kept glancing at his watch, looking at the Bar's entrance, etc. I can't remember if we told him that she'd left the premises, but eventually he got the point.

Here was a clear case where the social lie - or even the out-and-out truth - on her part would have improved the situation immeasurably. And if the social lie (a.k.a., I'm not feeling well) or the out-and-out truth (e.g., this isn't quite what I had in mind) was beyond the woman, here's where the Popularity Dialer would have come in handy in extracting the woman from an unpleasant social situation, and saving face for the poor schnook she left in her wake.  Although he was so self-absorbed, it may not even have registered with him that his date's abrupt and unexplained departure might have been caused by his behavior.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Ars Gratia Artis: Joe Spaulding's mega payday

A few weeks back, Geoff Edgers of The Boston Globe reported that Joe Spaulding, head of Boston's financially-struggling Citi Performing Arts Center, had been granted a $1.265 million bonus. The bonus timing was poor: a few weeks later, the Center announced ultra-steep cuts in its annual Shakespeare on the Boston Common production.

Quite a bit was made of Spaulding's salary (note: not bonus) as taking a disproportionate bite out of the Citi Center budget. The article noted that Citi Center paid Spaulding 6.5% of its $6.3 budget, a far higher proportionate take than at other "premiere" performing arts centers. (In contrast, the head of Washington's Kennedy Center was paid a higher salary than Spaulding,but that salary represented less than 1% of the Kennedy's far larger budget of $141 M.)

And quite a bit was made of Spaulding's receiving such a large bonus in light of the losses the Center has been experiencing.

Like a lot of arts centers, Citi Center is hurting, and has run budget deficits for the last five years. (For the last fiscal year reported, the deficit was $2.7. The next year's deficit is predicted to far less substantial, due to budget cuts and an infusion of money from Citi, which bought the naming rights. The whole shebang used to be called the Wang Center. The Wang name is still used on one of the theatres that make up the Center.)

However nice a guy Joe Spaulding is - and there is certainly no reason to believe that he is anything other than a hard working and admirable individual - you have to ask just what he did to earn that hefty bonus.

It was billed as a retention bonus. But this raises some eyebrows and questions. Wouldn't a bonus be more sensible if it had been tied to hitting some targets: revenues, expenses.

It just seems like an awfully, awfully large bonus to retain someone presiding over annual deficits. Maybe the bonus was put in play when the Center was profitable, and it made sense to make extraordinary efforts to keep Spaulding around. Maybe it should have been renegotiated to include performance bogies other than just staying on board. (Note to non-profit boards: careful with those retention bonuses.)

While, according to The Globe article, "the center declined to say when the payment was made, and where it came from the budget," the Chairman of the Board for Citi Center, John Poduska, was not so reticent - even if his message is still rather opaque as to where the bonus money came from.

In the wake of The Globe article, Poduska posted a note (since removed) on the home page of Shakespeare on the Common. Poduska's note denied that "the compensation paid to Josiah Spaulding is directly affecting some of the Citi Performing Arts Center’s public programming, namely Free Shakespeare on the Common."

Poduska further goes on to underscore the Board's support for Spaulding, and states "Spaulding’s compensation in no way affects existing or future programming initiatives."

But how can that be?

The money has to come from somewhere.

Sure, it's possible that big donors and board members pitched in to put the bonus package together, earmarking their donations for Spaulding's bonus rather than programming. It's possible. Improbable, but possible.

I know a lot of people involved in the arts. Most are writers and artists, but some are in the performing arts.  Perhaps foolishly, perhaps nobly, most of them live for their art at the cost of financial stability and material comfort. I know a brilliant poet who ekes out a meager living stringing together ill-paid adjunct teaching gigs. I know a very fine essayist who's a medical transcriber, and another gifted writer who clerks at Trader Joe's. A few years ago, I saw a painter carrying a ladder into a building nearby. He looked familiar: I'd seen him in a play a few weeks before.

Some people do indeed strike it rich in the arts. But there aren't many of them.

I also know that it's hard to keep arts non-profits going, and Joe Spaulding's job cannot have been easy. (Nothing of the magnitude of Citi Center, but I'm on the board of a writing-related non-profit, and have done some volunteer work for an arts center. I have no illusions whatsoever that arts organizations are easy to keep afloat.)

Shortly after Joe Spaulding's mega payday, the number of performance for Shakespeare on the Common was cut way back. Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Maybe not.

But it's hard not to think of how many actors' paydays could have been accommodated by just a portion of Spaulding's bonus. And hard to believe the bonus had no impact whatsoever on programming.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Those who grew up in New England in a certain time will certainly remember Moxie.

They may not remember the taste of it - who actually ever drank it - but they will recall its existence.

Although I use the word "soft" advisedly, Moxie is a "soft drink".

I did taste Moxie once, and I remember the taste as somewhere between shoe polish and Listerine. It is, we are told, and "acquired taste," but I've always wondered just who would want to acquire such a taste.

Well, the Cornucopia Beverage Companies of Bedford, NH may not have acquired the taste, but it has acquired the company, and will attempt to revive the brand. (Just running an open bottle of Moxie under the brand's nose might be able to accomplish that feat.)

The acquisition was reported in a recent Boston Globe article by Jenn Abelson, which also tells us that Moxie once "outsold Coke nationally" (oh, those were the days), and was reportedly the drink of Calvin Coolidge. (We already knew that it was the drink of Ted Williams, since you find repro signs with Ted endorsing Moxie all over the place in this region. And Ted did have a good head on his shoulders when it came to endorsements....)

One of the present-day Moxie-cates talk about it as "root beer on steroids" and "a very powerful flavor."

It would have to be powerful to do what it originally claimed to, which was "cure almost any illness, including paralysis and 'softening of the brain.'"

Moxie was put to different uses at the recent Moxie Festival in Lisbon Maine, where Maine's state beverage was used to make muffins, ice-cream, and pizza - all washed down, presumably, with a big slug of Moxie. (The Moxie Festival also featured fireworks, a firemen's muster, a Civil War re-enactment, and a duck race.)

If you're curious to learn more, here's a Moxie-related site for you.

As for me, I've made all the fun I'm going to about Moxie and I'm going to go out and demonstrate my regional loyalty by buying a six-pack and actually drinking some of the stuff. It can't be any worse tasting than Dr. Pepper.


A little Moxie story: When my cousin was looking through her mother's things, she found that, during the first world war, the Rogers family had adopted a local soldier and sent him letters and little things to cheer him up. The soldier's name was Moxie Winn, and if ever there was a quintessential New England name. It's either pure Yankee or truncated-at-Ellis-Island ethnic, but can't you just picture the feisty (little) guy who bore it? Anyway, my then 7 or 8 year old Aunt Margaret embroidered a pillow for him that said "Come back safely, Moxie Winn." I hope he did. If there are any Moxie Winn survivors out there, I'd like to know.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Oh, Ye of Little Faith in HomeBanc...

Having done so just yesterday, I wasn't planning on blogging about anything to do with mortgages quite so quickly, but a front page Monday article by Valerie Bauerlein in the Wall Street Journal was beyond my mortal powers to resist.

No, HomeBanc isn't the only mortgage lender to go bust. They're  probably not even the only faith-based lender to do so.

But there are a few of things about the HomeBanc story that do stand out.

First, the widow's mite "severance package". Most of the 1,100 employees pink-slipped on Friday received a $20 gift card. The gift card was not exactly a severance package, per se. It was all that was left in the emergency kitty that employees had funded via voluntary payroll deductions. The $20 - so paltry and demeaning - is, naturally, part of a "compare and contrast" with the $5M package that Patrick Flood, the former CEO, walked away with in January. That's a lot of manna. If they'd only been half as kind to Mr. Flood, they'd still have had $2,000 for severance for the rank and file folks. But, of course, the $5M was then - January's a long time ago - and the lay-offs are now. Still, it's hard to resist a little after-the-fact question regarding the size of Mr. Flood's farewell gift.

There may, however, be some good news for those who lost their jobs. I'm guessing that the just sacked employees who had been short timers will not have to pay back their $60K in training costs, which they were obligated to reimburse HomeBanc for if they didn't last 3 years on the job.  The training, of course, may only have been good for hard-sell mortgage lending, and there may not be that many jobs opening up in this field for a while. Or at least we can hope not.

My favorite numbers in the article, however, were the reserve numbers that HomeBanc maintained. On $5.1 B in mortgages last year, they were holding only $39K in reserves to cover loans that went bad. They had recently upped the reserves to $340K, but for a company writing loans to people whose credit-worthiness was often determined by the faith they shared with their lenders, $340K sounds pretty darned low. Let alone $39K, which wouldn't even cover someone defaulting on a loan on a trailer. Maybe they were counting on a loaves and fishes strategy.

($39K. How can that be right? It sounds like a number right out of the First Farmer's Bank of Dustbowl, not something that would work in this day and age.)

Golden parachute. No severance for the little guy. Shaky financial underpinnings.

We've heard all this before.

What we haven't heard, however, are the words of Mr. Flood, who is hell-bent on jumping into the faith-based mortgage market again.

He says HomeBanc employees and customers will take what they learned and plant the seeds wherever they land. "When Jesus got on the cross, people at the time thought that he failed because he died and the ministry ended," he said. "But people around him have cascaded it into the greatest movement in history. The company being a financial failure doesn't mean that the work has ended."

What are we to make of this odious little comparison?

If I were a faith-based person, I think I'd be offended.

Miracles do happen, but I'm guessing that the people around Mr. Flood will not be cascading him into anything near the greatest mortgage banking resurrection in history.

Monday, August 13, 2007

But I haven't got the money for the mortgage on the cow....

As I've watched "The Market" go bonkers in the aftermath of all those bad mortgages defaulting, a little ditty from my childhood keeps popping into my brain.

"I've come for the money for the mortgage on the cow."

"But I haven't got the money for the mortgage on the cow."

"But you've gotta have the money for the mortgage on the cow."

We would chant this back and forth, acting out the villainous banker and the poor widow-lady. We were familiar with the concept from having laughed at old kinescopes, and, of course, from watching Snidely Whiplash, Tess, and Dudley Doright in action on Rocky and Bullwinkle.

But mostly we didn't have much of a clue about mortgages.

We all either lived in pokey little houses financed by the G.I. Bill. Or in a flat upstairs from our grandmothers.

And our knowledge of banks was mostly taken from movies, and from the little branch banks in the neighborhood where most kids had a passbook account with a few bucks in it.

If our parents borrowed money for the mortgage on the house that didn't come from the G.I. Bill, they no doubt got it at the same little branch bank in the neighborhood.

I knew plenty of kids whose families didn't have much money, but I never heard of anyone getting evicted or foreclosed on. It may have happened, but I'm guessing that most things would've been worked out with the little branch banker.

Ah, the good old days.

Now we have colossal mortgages granted to people with not-so-good-credit and/or to people who get swept away by a naive belief that the real estate market goes in one direction only.

A few years ago, I read an article on variable-rate mortgages with balloon payments at the end. One person interviewed in the article especially stood out. I don't have the exact quote, but it was something along these lines:

Without this type of mortgage, I'd only be able to afford a $500,000 condo. This way I can get a condo worth $650,000.

I wonder where this guy is now. Sitting in a $500,000 condo he paid $650,000 for, hoping that rumored transfer to Sheboygan doesn't happen?

I do know where the couple that was profiled in a recent Boston Globe article by Robert Gavin is sitting, and it ain't pretty.

The couple in the article had signed up for an adjustable-rate mortgage and, as adjustable-rate mortgages have a tendency to do, the adjustable rates got adjusted. This translated into an additional $900 a month. Which the couple didn't have.

Unlike the greedy gut in the prior story who wanted the fancier condo, the Martinellis written about in The Globe are a hard luck case who refinanced their home to do renovations to accommodate their disabled son. Maybe they got  a bit greedy, too. Maybe they decided to over-reach, to go for the dream kitchen or the fancy bathroom while they were at it, but mostly, it seems, the Martinellis were just trying to take care of their kid.

When it was time to pay the money for mortgage on the cow, the Martinellis didn't have it. How many people, in modest circumstances, would have an extra $900 a month?

The Martinellis appealed to their mortgage holder, Chase Finance, in hopes of being able to rework their mortgage.

No dice.

It was not really up to Chase, which was just the bill collector for "an unknown investor" who refused to budge on the terms.

The article points out an interesting fact:

Unlike in the last real estate bust, when local banks and credit unions wrote nearly 80 percent of mortgages in Massachusetts, most home loans issued today pass through a nationwide chain of brokers, lenders, service companies, Wall Street firms, and investors.

While all of this boom in the mortgage industry opened up home ownership to a lot of people who were previously closed out, it also takes the local angle out of things.

Let's face it, it's a lot easier to throw yourself on the mercy of the local banker who sponsors your kid's Little League team than it is on a faceless institution that, in the Martinellis case, was not just faceless but nameless. And "it" may not even be an institution at all. It's more likely to be a security, a mortgage backed bond held by some fund that purchased it with the proviso that prohibits making deals with the likes of the Martinellis.

Fortunately for the Martinellis, the milk of human kindness started flowing from the mortgage-holding entity - or, perhaps, it was the threat of the bad publicity that would attend tossing a family out on the street who would then have to stick their son in a nursing home. In any case, the foreclosure proceedings were halted, the mortgage rate was adjusted back downward, and the Martinelli family will live to see another day in their home.

Maybe the good old days weren't all that good. Maybe the local banker "then" would have turned down the Martinellis and they wouldn't have been able to renovate their home. Or maybe the local banker would have more carefully explained to them what they were getting themselves into, and maybe gotten them to think twice about any not-absolutely-essential renovation choices that a funny-money lender would have encouraged.

What's got to be true is that a local bank cares a lot more about its neighbors, and neighborhood stability, than a hedge fund investor 3,000 miles away.

Sure, a lot of the people getting caught up in these foreclosures got greedy. A lot of them were just plain foolish. And a lot of them probably had no business getting those mortgages to begin with - or mortgages like the mortgages, with all these fine-print kickers that someone desperate to own a home may have overlooked, and that someone desperate to sell the mortgage would have been inclined to gloss over.

Sooner or later, the Grim Repo-man was going to catch up with the people who'd signed on the dotted line with fingers crossed.

You just gotta have the money for the mortgage on the cow.

Friday, August 10, 2007

You Wanna Network with Me????

Like everyone else, I get a steady stream of invites to join someone's networked on LinkedIn. Most of my invites come from people I had worked with, and I'm generally happy to hear from - and link to - them (even if the invite is disappointingly impersonal). Mostly, I'll drop the inviter a little "what are you up to" message, which will or will not translate into an exchange or even a lunch.

But every once in a while, I'll get a LinkedIn invitation from someone who I don't know at all. 99.99% of these come from Genuity alumni/ae. Genuity was, after Wang, the largest place I ever worked, and my tenure there was relatively recent (1999-2002).  (Gotta love that word "tenure". As if your time in a corporation bears any resemblance whatsoever to academic tenure. And as if the economy had given Genuity any tenure. No, we were more like an adjunct instructor who never made it to the tenure track.)

In any case, the ex-Genuity club is my greatest source of invitations from people I don't know.

Yes, I know that these folks are just sending out blanket invites to everyone listing Genuity in their profile, but still...I'm really not interested in networking with anyone I don't know.

It's not as if I don't believe in networking. Most of my jobs, beginning with my boot polishing stint at H.H. Brown Shoe in Worcester, came through networking. Yes, I was able to nab some really nifty jobs on my own - waitress, store clerk, office temp - but, with one exception, my professional jobs have all come through networking. The one exception? Wang Labs, which remains the company which, as it turns out, was the place I worked where I was most ill-suited. And everyone of my consulting/freelance marketing gigs has come through networking.

I'm a believer.

But I really don't want to network with people I don't know.

Now, you don't need to be my best friend. I don't even have to have laid eyes on you. (I consider some of my blogosphere pals part of my network.) I just have to have some reason to know you, know what you're like, and trust that we're at least on a partial wavelength. And if I don't know you in some way, I'd consider adding you to my network if someone I do know vouched for you.

For the folks from Genuity who've asked to join my powerful and amazing network:

  • How do you know I'm not a madwoman?
  • How do you know I'm not incompetent?
  • How do you know I'm not duplicitous?
  • How do you know I'm not a bitch on wheels that everyone hated?

And, back at you: how do I know any of the above about you?

I don't. So I'm not gong to add you to my network - even one as passive and remote (at least the way I use it) as LinkedIn.

I really value my network. I value the people in it. They're people I know, like, trust, respect. They're people I can call with a question and get an answer. They're people who (I hope) are happy to get the call. Or see my name show up in their e-mail inbox.

And the same goes for them. When someone in my network (or in my network's network) comes looking for advice or looking for a lead, I take at least a few minutes to help them out. I look over resumes. Answer questions. Make a call. Make suggestions. Act as a reference. Connect people up. (I recently helped someone I've "met" through blogging get a freelance writing gig for part of the corporate blog run by a friend's company. R was just what J was looking for, and last I heard they were about to start working together.

So, sometimes things work out. Sometimes they don't. I have nothing to offer, my advice proves useless. Networks do have their blips.

Still wanna network with me?

Make sure I at least vaguely, kinda-sorta-useta know you. Or know someone who does.

And, P.S., the way to my networking heart is the personal touch, not the spam to everyone on the list.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

You're No Einstein, Baby

I'm someone who actually believes that all babies are geniuses.

Just think about how fast they pick things up, how easily they learn to categorize and distinguish. Just how do these little guys figure out that a dachshund and a Great Dane are both dogs. And that real dogs, stuffed dogs, and cartoon dogs are all, well, dogs.

I don't think that if I were presented with this information at this stage in my life I'd be able to categorize things so deftly and neatly.

If all babies start out as geniuses of sort, it doesn't mean that they stay that way. In fact, most of us don't.

Sure, some of us are luckier than others with respect to nature and nurture, but the actual geniuses among us are few and far between. (Which is no doubt a good thing.)

This does not, of course, stop some parents from trying to turn their little darlings into geniuses of sorts. Or at least smart kids.

So they plunk them in front of the TV to watch "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" when they're still doing more spitting up than sitting up.

As it turns out, the kids who are wiling away all those innocent hours watching "Baby Einstein" might as well have been watching "Baby Huey."

It seems that some pretty smart grownups studied up on the matter and figured out that the baby Einsteins who are watching these  videos have 6 to 8 fewer words in their vocabularies than their peers. Now, 6 to 8 fewer words might not sound like a lot, but we're not talking about grownups who might have to look up words like labile and inchoate every time they run across them. We're talking about kids who have a vocabulary of 90 or so words to begin with. So we're talking about not knowing doggy or choo-choo.

Or so says a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, which was reported in an LA Times article picked up by the Boston Globe yesterday.

Dr. Dmitri Christakis, one of the authors of the study, who was quoted in the article, said that babies were better off if their parents read or talked to them. He even went one further:

"I would rather babies watch American Idol than those videos," Christakis said, explaining that there was at least a chance that the parents would watch with them - giving the babies contact and perhaps interaction that would have developmental benefits.

Imagine that. Exposing your kid to Simon, Paula, and Randy is better for them than watching a "Baby Einstein" video. Who'd've thunk it?

Well, I might not buy the American Idol argument, but is it really a surprise that a baby can get more out of Good Night Gorilla or Good Night Moon than they do out of sitting there trying to figure out what's going in Baby Einstein's First Moves? Come on, should baby's first moves include figuring out how to operate the channel cruiser? Isn't there something in all of us that says that figuring out how to turn the page of Make Waves for Ducklings is better for a baby?

I have not, of course, seen the full study referred to in this article, but I do find it surprising that the Baby Einsteins aren't as verbal as the Baby Schlubs. I actually would have thought that the same parents buying the videos/DVDs are also reading and talking to their kids. But maybe, sadly, that's not the case across the boardbooks.

No response yet from "Baby Einstein", but I'm sure that we haven't heard the last of this one.

I sure right now they're lining up some parents who will parade out Baby Einsteins who have built tree-houses, taught themselves Esperanto, and won high stakes at Texas Hold 'em before they could walk. They may even have found a little tyke who watched one of their videos, then reached for his or her blocks and spelled out e=MC2.


The whole thing reminds me of some friends who, many years ago, got caught up in a little comparison betwen their adorable but not so obviously brilliant and talented son, and the daughter of friends who, at age two, was playing Suzuki violin and speaking French. The two kids were in the tub together, little Antonia fretting about the temperature of l'eau, when Sam pulled one of his feet out of the water. From the look on his face, Sam's mother was certain that this was going to be a "Eureka" moment for Sam, and that he was going to utter something so profound and pithy that Antonia would want to smash her little violin over his head out of pure jealous rage.

Well, Sam did have something to say. He looked at his foot, looked up at his mother and said, "Foot wet."

And, you know what? Sam had something there. His foot was wet. Should we really be asking much more of a two year old than that?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Darling Companion: Real fake pet ownership

My friend John recently got himself a puppy, so I'm suffering from dog-envy.

Teddy, John's pup, is a cute little guy, mostly lab, and John is both immensely enjoying Teddy and tearing his hair out. Teddy is John's first dog, and he's used to cats who - furniture clawing aside - are just a lot easier to "raise."

In any case, dog person or cat person, having a pet is wonderful. Dogs are happy to see you. They snuggle. They lick. You can stick your cold toes underneath their stretched out, loafing bodies to warm yourself up. They do funny things. They can be awfully cute. They get you out of the house. They never seem bored when you talk to them. They'll eat leftovers.

I'm no cat-tie, but I know that - aloof as they can be - cats, too can be tremendous companions.

So what are we to make of the Zzz Animals, battery operated puppies and kittens, that a company called First Street is offering?

They are advertised as pets you can love unconditionally, without any of that nasty overhead: pet food, trips to the vet, walking and poop scooping. No peeing on the couch. No gnawing the chair leg. No hairballs to step in. No ticks to pull.

The Zzz Animals, named because they are perpetually napping,are "hand-crafted" using "super soft" synthetic fur (no shedding!), and

... are so amazingly lifelike you may forget they are not real as they lie sleeping on your hearth, or next to your chair. Their little midsections rise and fall as they "breathe".

You can pick and choose your darling companion from among a Golden Retriever, Chocolate Lab, Pug, Shih-Tzu, or orange tabby.

Each comes with an adoption certificate, collar, bed, and pet carrier. If you need any more convincing, batteries are included, and the come-with batteries should keep your pet "breathing continuously for up to three months."

The thought of anyone buying one of these "creatures" as anything other than a joke is completely depressing to me. Completely.

Come on, having one of these is no closer to the real pet experience than hanging around Second Life watching your avatar get laid is to the real thing.

Yet another example of our marvelous, infinite economy - and another example of its marvelous, infinite capacity to produce goods that are ersatz, useless, and profoundly ridiculous. (And just what is going through the minds of the Chinese factory laborers making them. Probably something along the lines of 'Americans are soft and idiotic, and spend too much money on this pathetic crap. The end of the over-extended American Century is near.')


To read about a real, live puppy, here's a link to John's By the Bayou posts on Teddy.

And here's what a real pet looks like:

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Carbon Discredit

I haven't yet figured out quite what to think about carbon credits and carbon offsets.

On the one hand, having polluters large and small neutralize their carbon emissions by having something countervailing done in their name doesn't seem all bad. Even if all they're doing is buying credits from a less polluting outfit, at least it's something...

On the other hand, wouldn't it be better all around if we didn't just offset the junk that's spewing into the atmosphere, but decrease as much of it as possible. Shouldn't we think about decreasing the emissions from carbon-belching plants, not just offsetting them by planting a few tree. I mean, the whole thing sounds too much like hiring a whipping boy. Or those Civil War grandees who weaseled out of the Army by paying for some schnook - most likely an Irishman just off the boat - to take the musketball in the leg for them. There's something just not quite right about the whole thing.

But shaking our carbon jones is going to be expensive, and take a while, so starting out with carbon offsets probably not such a bad idea. And at least the major industrial offsets are regulated and fairly well governed: if you claim you're buying credits, someone can verify that the credits really exist. It's regulated and it's official.

Apparently, there are private companies sprouting up that cater to small businesses and individuals by selling them certificates that let them trumpet that they're green. This office uses AC, but someone's planted a tree. Our executives are still jetting all around the world, but someone's investing in a wind farm. I'm still got my AC jacked up, but someone's bottling methane.

Slap on that little green sticker: kiss me, I'm environmentally conscious!

Trouble is, this is all run something on the honor system, and for all the "legitimate" green certifiers, there are likely a whole lot of bogus ones. (Or honest ones working through intermediaries who may well be charlatans.) Honestly, if you purchase your carbon offset, you expect your green star, but you're hardly going to hop on a plane and jet down to the tropical rain forest to see that the offsetting trees have been planted. Wouldn't that cost too much - not to mention that it would create a big contrail of filthy emissions behind you?

If there's no official certifying entity out there who can pinky swear that these carbon offset providers are legitimate, there sure ought to be.


Thanks to an NPR story I heard a while back for putting this bug in my ear. I don't have the cite, but they were focusing on some carbon offset folks who admitted that the business was ripe for scammers duping innocent tree huggers.

Monday, August 06, 2007

We All Live in a Yellow Submarine...

Well, my sister Trish alerted me the other day to the growing popularity of private submarines, so I just had to check it out.

As Bloomberg had it a few weeks ago, in an article by A. Craig Copetas:

The ocean floor is the final spending frontier for the world's richest people. Journeying to see what's on the bottom aboard a personal submersible is a wretched excess guaranteed to trump the average mogul's stable of vintage Bugattis or a $38 million round-trip ticket to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket.

Well, I might quibble here. I think I'd equate the trip to the Space Station with owning a sub, but Copetas points out that the submersibles have the advantage of being secret. Most of the sub-makers' lips are sealed about who their clientele are. Loose lips apparently sink sub makers.)

And just when you thought that the industrial manufacturing sector had abandoned the U.S., there's Oregon's U.S. Submarines, maker of at least some of the 100 private luxury subs that are running silent and deep pockets. There's also Washington's Olympic Tool & Engineering, which designed a sub for Paul Allen. Exomos is a Dubai-based maker of custom subs. (I guess when you buy a sub, you want one that's bespoke: none of this off-the-shelf sub buying.)

Maybe it's not just the secrecy angle that appeals to our civilian submariners. There's apparently at least a little frisson of danger that goes along with it. (And not just the danger of getting stuck on the bottom, or breaking apart under pressure, or running out of air.) There's the little matter of depth charges.

Herve Jaubert, the CEO of Exomos, is quoted in the Bloomberg article as saying:

``Side sonar scanners are always mistaken for torpedo tubes...Government agencies make visits to see if there are torpedoes aboard our boats. Owners are supposed to let authorities know when they're in the area. They often don't, and it causes problems.''

Here's what the sunk cost would be:

Jaubert's 10-passenger sub costs $15 million. A gymnasium is optional. U.S. Submarines' mid-size model is the $25 million Seattle 1000, a three-story-tall vessel with five staterooms, five bathrooms, two kitchens, a gym, a wine cellar and a 30- foot-long by 15-foot-wide observation portal. It has a range of 3,000 nautical miles.

3,000 nautical miles on your hands.

That's a lot of time in which a submariners fancy can turn to love. (And all that energy to expend if you cheaped out and didn't spring for the optional gym on board.)

But apparently the native denizens of the deep get restless when they see submariners having a little underwater go at it. Dolphins have been known to bang their snouts up against the love nest window when they see a little love making going on that doesn't involve them. (Remember that wacky George Scott movie, Day of the Dolphins? Well, I'm a sucker for talking animals - like Bea and Pa in the movie - so I enjoyed it. One of Pa's lines is, "Fa [George Scott's character] loves Pa." Well, Fa may love Pa, but the Pa's of the world apparently don't cotton to fantastically rich submarine owners shagging their trophy wives without pulling the curtains closed.)

I cruised around a little on the U.S. Submarine site.

They claim that their ride can take you "to unseen regions of the deep ocean in perfect comfort and absolute safety."

Depth charges and charging dolphins aside, how can you guarantee absolute safety? Am I the only person who remembers The Thresher. And The Kursk?

 Anyway, US Sub has a wide range of offerings. There's the entry level Triton 2-3 passenger submersible "designed for launch and recovery from megayachts, but it is lightweight enough to be trailered. " Then there are several classes of luxury subs that run all the way up to The Phoenix 1000.

The ultimate personal transportation device, 65 meters (213 ft.) in length with 470 square meters (5000 sq. ft.) of interior space on 4 levels.

Which would give it a bit over four times the floor space, and two times the number of levels. So it might not be that bad to live in a submersible. But, as they say, if you have to ask the price you probably can't afford it.

If you don't want to sail the seven seas, US Subs also has something called a SeaRoom, a "permanently anchored "floating residence" that puts one floor underwater.

A new lifestyle, dramatically different from your peers. Peaceful, exploratory. And why not? After all, none of us live forever.

Although you might live longer in the SeaRoom, given that it's only partially submersed, so the U.S. Navy probably wouldn't be taking pot-shots at it.

In any case, the private submarine is just another example of how the other 0.000001 percent lives in a parallel universe where money is no object, and nothing, but nothing, is too outrageous to spend it on.

For the record, Paul Allen's submarine is yellow.

I'm enough of a cornball that mine probably would be, too.

Friday, August 03, 2007


The other day, I posted about I Hate Your Job's Chuck Westbrook's delightful coinage: the G.O.T.F.A.T. Maneuver, in which an employ caught in the act of goofing off, tries to quickly recover by putting on a show of faux busy-ness.

In my post, I challenged Chuck to acronym-ize the word FATHEAD, my name for those who don't ever bother to try to cover up, but go right ahead obviously wasting company time.

I am happy to report that Chuck is up to the challenge, and we now have:

F.A.T.H.E.A.D.S. - Fully Apathetic Towards Hiding Egregious Actions Dismissed Swiftly.

I like the idea that the actions could have been dismissed swiftly, and the those caught in them should have been dismissed swiftly. Alas, it always seems to take time to catch up with F.A.T.H.E.A.D.s

Here's Chuck's post, which you should go read (along with the rest of his blog, by the way). 

And many thanks to Chuck for his immediate response to my call.

It's All About Me

Over on AlmostGotIt, which chronicles the day-to-day of a job hunter who almost got the job... I've been tagged to come up with 8 random facts about me.

Now "me" is always a fun topic. Random's harder - I categorize pretty much everything. And since I've been tagged by this one a couple of times before, I thought I'd come up with 8 tidbits about things that have happened to me while at work.

  1. One day, when I was walking down the hall to get a cup of tea, my skirt (navy blue wool) dropped down around my ankles. Fortunately, I was wearing a slip. More fortunately, it was 7:30 a.m. and there was no one in my area who was yet at work. (At least no one ever let one that they'd seen me standing there trying to figure out how my skirt fell off.)
  2. After having worked about 3 weeks straight without taking a day off, I burst into tears when, at "an important meeting" my boss asked me where something or other was that I was supposed to have completed for the meeting. The only other woman at the meeting burst into sympathetic tears. Thanks, Annie W, wherever you are.
  3. In the ladies room at Genuity, I once found a turd on the floor. I was going to call the building people but then I said, what the hell, I've changed diapers. I've scooped dog poop. I took care of the mess. (The turd was small-ish but not teeny-tiny.) I laughed my way back to my office and immediately called my friend Judy to report my finding.
  4. At Softbridge I was the only woman on the management team. One time at our weekly meeting, one of my peers - whom I had helped out with something he was having a hard time with - thanked me for being his "wetnurse". This same individual was always doodling objects that looked suspiciously like breasts. I was both disturbed and amused by the slip. I corrected the fellow, pointing out that he meant "nursemaid."
  5. I took a 15% paycut to leave Wang. It was worth it.
  6. At a big meeting, I sneezed suddenly and violently and a small spray of blood mist flew all over the conference table.
  7. I was once the target of an anonymous poison pen letter complaining that incompetent women were getting ahead at his expense. He shouldn't have worried. The company was shut down two weeks later.
  8. The first time I ever had a management position, I ended up doing my one and only direct report's work over so that my boss wouldn't find out how lazy and lax he was.

So, that's 8 things that have happened to me at work.

And here's a bonus fact, that has nothing to do with work: Every chain letter I ever received stopped with me. Maybe it was my Catholic background. As kids, after all, we were told that to continue on with a chain letter was a mortal sin. Now I know better, but I still don't carry chain "things" on very well. If at all.

Everyone I know who blogs may well have been tagged already on this one, or, I suspect, wouldn't appreciate my tagging them. Although I don't really no why I feel this way, since I really don't mind being tagged. In fact, on a sweltering August day, it's nice to have a blog idea JUST HANDED TO ME. But the tag ends here. Any readers who want to add their 8 cents, please feel free to do so in a Comment or on there own blogs. I'd love to hear from you.

And I do want to thank AlmostGotIt for her including me in her tag list and for her Pink Slip readership. For obvious reasons - she's looking for a job and squawking about the process (and her former employer) in fine high dudgeon - Almost is anonymous. Which is too bad, because I'd love to put a name with a blog.

Anyway, reading her blog makes me very happy that I'm not job hunting. I have certainly had job searches where I felt that I would never work again. I'm almost positive that this will not happen to Almost.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere

As part of my teensy-tiny, baby-step attempt to go a bit greener, I've decided that I've (mostly) had it with bottled water.

I say mostly because I know there will be times when I need to break down and spring for the Poland Springs. One such event is upcoming. My sister Trish and I are attending a Red Sox game scheduled for an afternoon in mid-August. Seats in the bleachers. Now, the bleachers are fine at night. And they would have been fine for the Sunday afternoon game at Fenway that got rained out in April. But mid-August afternoon in the bleachers? We may not last that long, but for as long as we last we'll be sucking down water. And, as the Fenway patrols will not allow you to bring your own liquids in to the Park, and the water fountains* are few and far between, what we'll be drinking will be pricey bottled water.

Still, there are plenty of reasons to turn away from bottled water.

  • It costs a lot more money than tap water.
  • In most places in this country, the tap water's pretty darn good.
  • In some cases, the bottled water is tap water. (No matter what those Alpine-rimmed, glassy-glad, mountain tarn labels lead you to believe. A couple of years ago, a local news station showed us how a small local bottle water "producer" was producing bottled water directly from a house in the bathtub of his apartment in Dorchester, a neighborhood in Boston. The brand was something like "Vermont Mountain Springs.")
  • Bottled water also requires bottles, most of which are not, apparently, re-cycled. So they're sitting around in landfills leaching out plastic yuck.
  • Speaking of which: I read that you shouldn't put bottles of water in the freezer, since freezing breaks down the plastic yuck into carcinogens.
  • Just hauling all those gallons of bottled water around the country requires a lot of fuel use.

So better to be a little green, a little prudent, a little cheap, and go back to tap water.

Following my sister Kathleen's lead, I've ordered a nice, environmentally friendly aluminum bottle to carry around my own personally bottled tap water. Even though we won't be able to take them out to the ballgame, I've also ordered one for my sister Trish. And for my nieces: less plastic, more better.

Of course, it may be easier in Boston than it is in some other parts of the country to accept no substitutes for tap water. Old pipes and all, our Eau d'Quabbin Reservoir is pretty darn good.

Even a couple of wine-tasters say so. On the Today show recently, they ranked Boston water second out of 12 in their taste test. (There was nothing scientific about it, but still it was good to hear. Salt Lake City came in first.)

I am not surprised by the results. New England water is pretty good, and it's one of our greatest natural resources. (I guess that will be true until the majority of the country's population moves to the desert and sucks our acquifer dry.) As a kid, I remember not liking the Chicago water we drank when we visited my grandmother. And I really hated the Wisconsin water we drank when we visited some family friends who had a farm there. Ewwww. I can still remember the bitter, sulphur taste.

So, I'm going green with my H2O, swearing off the bottled water wherever I can.

Just not at Fenway Park. Not in the bleachers in the middel of August.  And besides, at least I know that unlike a lot of the brands, the Poland Springs they sell at Fenway does not come from the tap.


*I wanted to write "bubbler" there, then realized that only people who grew up in New England will have any clue what a bubbler is. Years ago in San Francisco, I asked someone if they knew where the nearest bubbler was, and he thought I was a Brit looking for a mailbox.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Soldiers of Misfortune: The Downside of Outsourcing in the Military

When I was growing up, one of the humorous military situations you could always count on showing up in the Beetle Bailey comics, or on the Sgt. Bilko show, was someone getting stuck peeling potatoes on K.P.

K.P. Kitchen Police. It was part of the post-war vocabulary.

I even seem to remember my Uncle Bob, whose Elvis-era sideburns and pompadour were razored off when he was drafted, telling us enthralled kids about his stints on K.P.

K.P., I'm guessing, is a thing of the past, outsourced, along with a lot of other functions. As a recent article in The New York Times by John Broder reported, there are "130,000 civilians  supporting 160,000 United States soldiers and marines" in Iraq.

...these contract employees cook meals, wash clothes, deliver fuel and guard bases. And they die and suffer alongside their brothers and sisters in uniform. About 1,000 contractors have been killed in Iraq since the war began; nearly 13,000 have been injured.

One injured civilian was the sad focus of Broder's story.

Shaheen Khan, a U.S. citizen originally from Pakistan, along with her husband, wanted to do something about their debt problem. So they decided to take jobs in the war zone. Mrs. Kahn was able to triple her salary as a nursery school worker by signing up with KBR to do laundry in the Green Zone.

We're not talking about the six-figure incomes we hear thrown around for the security guys, the truck drivers. We're talking about someone whose pay-day bonanza is an annual salary of less than $50K, but some overtime upside that could have gotten her tax-free take up to $80K. The lure was just to great for Mrs. Kahn. 

But instead of $80K - or even $50K, what Shaheen Kahn ended up with was a crushed spinal cord and life back in Houston in a nursing home, wrangling with KBR's insurance carrier about whether she should be compensated based on her original salary as a nursery school teacher, or on what she could have made in Iraq, if she hadn't been so seriously injured after just five weeks in country.

Okay. Hessian. Mercenary. Soldier of fortune. Profiteer.

Argue all you want that there's no reward without risk.

Still, there's something distinctly unsettling about the notion of outsourcing jobs that used to be done by soldiers when part of the cost savings is predicated on the played forward notion that a wounded civilian doesn't get lifetime military benefits or access to VA hospitals, that the coverage provided by something called the Defense Base Act, which covers civilians, is not as costly - or, of course, as valuable -  as the "real thing." Even though the person is performing a function that just a war or two ago was performed by a soldier.

Some Americans shrug about the casualties among contractors, saying they made their money and they took their chances. Others, though, think the nation owes them something more.

I'm one of them.

Whether it's not looking too closely into the conditions under which goods are produced "somewhere else", or not looking too closely when it comes to saving the taxpayers a little money on the war, we seem to turn a lot of blind eyes to the real costs to us as a society.

1,000 contractors have been killed. 13,000 have been injured. Sure, these soldiers of misfortune "made their money and they took their chances." But does any of this make us feel good about the outcome?