Saturday, September 29, 2007


Four grandstand tickets for the September 28th Red Sox vs. Twins game at Fenway: $220.

Two hot dogs, one sausage sandwich, one slice, one bag of Cracker Jacks (with hardly any peanuts, I will note), one bag of M&M's (mostly consumed after the game), and two soft-serve ice creams in plastic Red Sox caps which, according to my niece Molly, fit very nicely on Webkinz: $31.75. (Cost held down by my sister Trish bringing four bottles of water from home.)

Being at Fenway with my Trish and my nieces Molly and Caroline when the Red Sox won a really great and exciting game that turned out to be the division clincher: PRICELESS.

Walking home on a beautiful night, safe and away from the crazed revelers who we assumed would pour out of the park, the surrounding bars and clubs, and the local college dorms if the Baltimore Orioles accommodated Boston by beating the Yankees (which didn't look that likely when we left Fenway,but you never know...); finding out when we got to my house that the O's had tied things up and they were in extra innings; watching Melving Mora bunt home the run that would result in the Red Sox winning their division for the first time since 1995: FROSTING ON LIFE'S CAKE.

Sure, there's a lot more baseball left in this season, and there are certainly no guarantees that the Red Sox will be playing until November, but what a glorious night it was to be a baseball fan in  a baseball city.

Let the October Games begin. "We're" still playing ball!

(And if there are sports gods watching: what could be more wonderful than a Cubs-Red Sox match-up in the World Series? The only downside would be that everyone in the country - other than members of Red Sox Nation and ticked-off White Sox fans - would be pulling for the Cubbies. Even I would be hard put to get that upset by a Cubs win. But I am, of course, getting ahead of myself.  Nuf  Ced. GO RED SOX!)

Friday, September 28, 2007

Mission Statement Impossible

I've likely spent as much time agonizing over mission statements, vision statements, elevator pitches, and twenty-five-words-or-less descriptions over the years as anyone else on the face of the earth.

Mission and vision statements are the absolute worst. Especially if you're in a small, one product company, nobody ever wants the MS or VS to be too close to what the company actually does.

What if we want to expand our mission beyond selling lobster-shaped lollipops to savings and loans in states with names that begin with the letter "I"?

What if we decide to move into adjacent "M" states and sell into insurance companies, too, let alone expand our product set beyond lollipops to, say, nuclear waste disposal?

I know the answer to those questions:

Let's make our mission statement and vision statement- and I must confess that I really don't know what the difference is here - as high level, as lofty, as inclusive as possible.

Our mission is to provide our customers with the highest quality products and services.

It may not exactly distinguish us from, say, every other company's wishful mission statement, but it doesn't limit us in any way either.

But why bother to agonize when has a mission statement generator for you. The mission statements I generated in a brief call on that site would be LOL funny if they weren't so close to the bone of statements I've actually seen (and, I will admit, worked on):

We exist to synergistically supply long-term high-impact technology such that we may continue to efficiently foster high-quality infrastructures to meet our customer's needs.

We have committed to completely network mission-critical sources and interactively facilitate emerging benefits to set us apart from the competition.

We have committed to assertively facilitate high-quality solutions so that we may seamlessly engineer performance based leadership skills.

Admittedly, it's easy enough to make fun of mission statements as one of the most ludicrous activities a business can spend time on. Which is not to say that it's not useful to have a periodic discussion about a company's purpose in life. It just shouldn't have to be boiled down into a sentence that's so airy and banal that it loses all sense of that purpose.

Pink Slip's mission? Simple enough.

Pink Slip's mission is to provide Maureen Rogers with a creative outlet, and offer its readers posts that are generally - if not 100% consistently - interesting and decently written. Oh, yes, and Pink Slip tries to keep all topics at least tangentially related to business.

I've just celebrated my first blog-iversary. I may not be a catalyst for facilitating high quality anything, but so far I think I've actually done a decent enough job living up to my mission statement.

So maybe it's a vision statement that I need....


Hat tip to an oldie from Business Filter, which pointed me in Dilbert's direction.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

All Aboard, Amtrak

Whether it's the whiff of diesel fuel, the clickety track as the schedule board turns over, the clackety-clack as the train sails along, or just staring out the window, I've always enjoyed train travel. So part of the pleasure of last weekend's trip to New York City was taking the Amtrak Acela from Boston.

Years ago, when I was making frequent business trips to New York, I wouldn't have considered taking the train. The train took a long time and was notorious for delays.

No one took the train. Everyone flew.

After all, taking "The Shuttle" to New York was a no brainer. It was fast, cheap, and ran once an hour - or more, during peak times. You didn't need a reservation, you could just show up and, amazing as it sounds, if they filled up one plane, they'd run something called the "second section". I was on a couple of second sections with no more than half a dozen travelers on them. If not exactly The Golden Age of Air Travel, it was certainly fast and convenient.

Everyone took The Shuttle. When the Challenger exploded, the receptionist at our office got on the public address system to announce that "The Shuttle just crashed." We all came streaming out of offices, trying to figure out who among our colleagues might be on the The Shuttle. Oh, that shuttle. Big and tragic news to the world, but a small relief to those of us with immediate concerns about friends. (When it comes right down to it, everything's local, not just politics.)

Two things have happened that make flying to NYC  less attractive. One is the improvement in the trains. They now run pretty much on time - if you take the Acela Express, takes under 4 hours - and the cars are better. The other, of course, is the hassle factor since 9/11.

So, rather than cab out to Logan, queue up (or not: sometimes there are no security lines), wait on the tarmac, get to LaGuardia, cab into the city.  Well, this process can take 3-4 hours - only 50 minutes of which is relaxing on a flight. Why not just walk over to the station and hop on Amtrak? For what will often be an equivalent time investment, you're right in Manhattan (not sitting at the entrance to the Midtown Tunnel breathing fumes).

Every once in a while the talking heads come out to rail against railroad subsidies. They only benefit the East Coast. They only benefit a few people. This is public (ick!) not private transportation we're talking about.

Is it just the general hinterland bias against anything and anyone living and working in the Boston-NY-Washington Corridor? These are all damn blue states! And why is it okay to spend on highways? To build airports? To bail out airlines? But not to spend on passenger rail?

You can certainly argue that nothing in the transportation world should get a government subsidy, that if it can't pay for itself, it shouldn't exist.

But there is such a thing as a common good, and having a decent rail system is one of them - or at least it should be. As the price of fuel increases, and the cost of pollution - from cars and planes, becomes more obvious, this is one common good that's going to start looking gooder and gooder.

All I know is that as I went back and forth among staring out the window, reading The New Yorker, and drifting in and out of naps, the Amtrak journey to and fro New York City was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. (We sat in the "Quiet Car", where you can't do more than whisper. Very nice.)

Yes, I know there are train travel horror stories, but this wasn't one of them.

All aboard, Amtrak!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The telepresence of your company is respectfully requested

Business Week recently devoted an issue to "The Future of Work," and one of the articles described a "telepresence" system from Cisco in which an employee sits in a Cisco office in Texas.  While she also appears - Live and in color! - "on a 65 inch, high definition plasma screen with full stereo sound that sits precisely where she did in her old office", facing her boss, before she decided to re-lo to Texas but keep her job in California.

And she can see and hear what's happening back in her old office in San Jose - clearly enough to eavesdrop on her bosses phone conversations, so that she can "anticipate his needs", and clearly enough to give a wave to a colleague walking by.

This is either wonderfully creepy, or creepily wonderful.

At $80,000 a pop, it will be a while before this gets widely adopted, but this could mean the end to home workers standing there bleary eyed in their PJ's scratching their butts.

Having sat through enough endless early-days- of-teleconferencing meetings, in which the remote parties were all jerky and jittery, with latency that made it seem that they were attending the meeting while sitting underwater, I welcome the perfection of this technology as good news.

Still, while it's wonderful, it's also creepy.

While I love not commuting, and not having a routine, I'm actually happy that my full-time career was spent in person, at the office.

There's so much you miss by not being there that telepresence just can't make up for.

  • No hall (or ladies' room) chats - unless the telepresence follows everyone. Talk about creepy.
  • No shaking hands with someone being interviewed.
  • No holding the newborn that the proud mom or dad brings in.
  • No Tootsie Pops or Hershey's Kisses to snag from the candy bowl on someone's desk.
  • No end pieces of sheet cake. (Oh, no!)

Of course, you also miss the experience of smelling the rotting, supurating yams that some oblivious techie kept in a dark corner of his office. You miss standing in the driving sleet for 45 minutes until the fire-drill all-clear sounds. You miss struggling to change the 10 gallon water bottle when no one taller and stronger's around, and slopping at least a half-gallon onto the floor.

I'm guessing that telepresence will one day be the way we all work remotely. It won't be enough to just be "always on", you'll have to be "always seen." 

I don't know. I find the idea a little invasive, but maybe that's because they say the camera adds 15 pounds or so. Let me know when that stops happening, and I may be ready for my close-up, Mr. Chambers.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

MIT's Star Simpson: Standing Out on Career Day

Once again, Boston is in the news for reacting or over-reacting (depending on your point of view and, no doubt, age) to the sight of something that looks like it just might be an explosive device.
In this case, the star turn has been made by one Star Simpson, an MIT student who showed up at Logan airport "wearing a sweatshirt that had a circuit board affixed to the front with green LED lights and wires running to a 9-volt battery."  (Source: Boston Globe artcle, September 21, 2007. Check out the article for a look at the device. I'm not bomb expert, but at first, admittedly ignorant and superficial, glance it doesn't look that unlike what you might find under the shirt of a suicide terrorist.)

Simpson was at the airport to pick up a friend, not only wearing the sweatshirt in question, but holding "a lump of what looked like putty in her hands." It turned out to be, duh-oh, Play-Do. (I'm no plastics explosives expert, but doesn't white Play-Do look like the stuff called "plastic explosive"?)
The upshot was that Simpson was surrounded by the police, who arrested her and "quickly determined that the device was harmless." The sweatshirt also had "Course VI" written on it. For those in the know - which apparently doesn't include the folks at Logan Airport - Course VI is MIT speak for their computer science major. (I was a Course XV student back in the day, but I never wore a sweatshirt that contained something that looked like an Improvised Explosive Device.)
"She said it was a piece of art and she wanted to stand out on career day," [Massachusetts State Police Major Scott] Pare said.  "Thankfully because she followed our instructions, she ended up in our cell instead of a morgue," Pare said. "Again, this is a serious offense ... I’m shocked and appalled that somebody would wear this type of device to an airport."
Star Simpson is no doubt a very smart cookie. For starters, she's at MIT (and in a rigorous Course like VI). She's also imaginative and clever. On a site that she's a member of, Instructables, she's got all sorts of her inventive ideas on display: a backpack made out of a plastic shopping bag; how to open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew; how to concoct mint-flavored milk.

You tell me why a female MIT student, Course VI, an athlete (swim team), from Hawaii, creative and imaginative (with, by the way, a rather unusual hair-do) needs to wear something that is going to look to stupid, over-reacting, boring, tedious grown-ups kind of bomb-ish to stand out on career day.
Any more evidence needed that Brand Me is running amok?

In any case, Star Simpson is now standing out well beyond career day. Prospective employers may, indeed, give her a second and third look. Next wave companies - what are we up to now? Gen Z? - may even find this little piece of deliberate or unintentional performance art to be just the thing. But some employers are n doubt going to make the determination that she is someone who is a bit too edgy. Deliberately provocative.  Careless. Unthinking. Narcissistic.

Sorry, Star, your little star turn may not turn out to be your smartest career move of all time.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Oh Blackwater - more downside to outsourcing

It's one thing to outsource customer support to "Brian" in Mumbai. Or to cede manufacturing of just about everything to China.

It's quite another to outsource functions historically taken care of by, say, the military.

This is, of course, in the news because of the still brewing brouhaha over the recent killings of 11 Iraqis by Blackwater, a private firm whose employees are part of the 20,000 - 30,000 hired security guns currently working in Iraq. (Security forces just a part of the over-all private "army" that takes care of everything from security to feeding GI's and doing the wash.)

The Iraqi outcry may prove to be unjustified - just borne of frustration at the overall American occupation. Or it may prove entirely too justified. (The Iraqis claim to have a video showing that the latest shootings were unprovoked.)

Private security personnel operate, apparently, in a sort of gray area no-man's land, exempt by US fiat from Iraqi law - and apparently not monitored any too closely by the US, either. This latest incident is not the first flap about quick-on-the-draw security "consultants" - only the most recent and the largest. According to a report in The Washington Post:

Before [this latest] episode, U.S. officials were made aware in high-level meetings and formal memorandums of Blackwater's alleged transgressions. They included six violent incidents this year allegedly involving the North Carolina firm that left a total of 10 Iraqis dead, the officials said.

Ten dead Iraqis here, eleven dead Iraqis there. With so many thousands upon thousands dying in Iraq, these numbers seem infinitesimally small. (Unless of course you are one of them, or a loved one....)

What is disturbing, of course, is the distinct possibility that these private security services are, in fact, out of control. And that their use and presence undercounts the number of US "feet on the ground" in Iraq. And that their use and presence undermines whatever it is that we're trying to accomplish in Iraq at this point, which, presumably does not include further riling up the population. Whatever our aim, it is surely not supported by the image of guns for hire shooting from the hip in our name.

Back in the US,

Blackwater is facing a possible federal investigation over allegations that it illegally smuggled weapons into Iraq... The company on Saturday denied the allegations, calling them "baseless."

So Blackwater has plenty of problems on its hands these days.So do we, of course. Even if we want to fire Blackwater, I don't imagine we have the troops to replace them. (Just another downside aspect to this sort of outsourcing.) So Blackwater is likely to keep on rolling for a while.

But what, exactly, is Blackwater (other than the old Doobie Brothers tune that has to be rattling around everyone's head these days)?

Blackwater, in their own words:

...was founded in 1997 from a clear vision developed from an understanding of the need for innovative, flexible training and operational solutions to support security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere.

Security and peace. Freedom and democracy everywhere. What's not to like?

Well, for starters, aren't these functions that are best not privatized? That are best taken care of by government?

Looking at Blackwater's positioning is pretty chilling:

We are not simply a "private security company." We are a professional military, law enforcement, security, peacekeeping, and stability operations firm who provides turnkey solutions. We assist with the development of national and global security policies and military transformation plans. We can train, equip and deploy public safety and military professionals, build live-fire indoor/outdoor ranges, MOUT [Military Operations in Urban Terrain] facilities and shoot houses, create ground and aviation operations and logistics support packages, develop and execute canine solutions for patrol and explosive detection, and can design and build facilities both domestically and in austere environments abroad.

Blackwater lives its core values of excellence, efficiency, execution, and teamwork. In doing this, we have become the most responsive, cost-effective means of affecting the strategic balance in support of security and peace, and freedom and democracy everywhere.

Turnkey "solutions." Canine "solutions." Marketing blather. Shoot houses? Don't particularly like the sound of that one, but that might just be me. The real question is whether we truly want a private company "affecting the strategic balance in support of security and peace"?

Blackwater is also part of something called the International Peace Operations Association. How about that? They have their own trade association.IPOA "mission is to promote high operational and ethical standards of firms active in the Peace and Stability Industry." How about that? There's an industry called the Peace and Stability Industry. Well, I guess if there's going to be a P&S Industry, it should have an association that comes up with a code of conduct for members. Of course, just how effective this organization can ever be in enforcing that code of conduct is a question.

Maybe we don't want or need a huge standing army, but doesn't all this smack of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of almost 50 years ago?

Overall, we have about 130,000 civilian contractors in Iraq. Not all of them are armed and dangerous. I posted earlier on some of the downside to outsourcing in  a post called "Soldiers of Misfortune."

Some of the information mentioned in this post came from a September 23rd ABC news report.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Kid Nation: Reserving Judgement

I almost forgot, but 20 minutes into show-time I remembered to turn on the first episode of Kid Nation.

For those who haven't heard any of the buzz, 40 kids come together to build a society in a desert ghost town. No adults; kids rule.

Several months ago, I'd blogged about my concerns with this concept: the age of the kids (as young as 8), and the way in which reality shows edit the footage to create a story arc. I felt that this would mean the balanced picture of kids getting left on the cutting room floor to make way for the casting call: bully, whiner, sweetheart, sneak. On the other hand, kids are so programmed and mediated these days, I felt there was something to say for a bit of free-ranging - for kids in the upper age range.

Well, opening night was not as terrible as I'd feared it would be, and the kids were far more appealing (for the most part) than I would have forecast. Mighty precocious, some of them, that's for sure. And they only seemed to be playing to the camera about half the time. Not bad.

But of course...

I was on the mark with 8 being a bit too young. The only kid who decided to leave town was an adorable little 8 year old who missed his mom and dad. At one point he says, "I'm too young for this." Right you are, Jimmy. Keep up that level of self-awareness, and the ability to withstand the pressure from the other kids urging you to stay, and you'll do just fine in life.

Jimmy's "crisis" also brought out the best in one of the "middle-aged" kids, a nice little 11 year old named Laurel who sweetly volunteered to stand in for Jimmy's missing mom. (Laurel is a freckle faced, red headed Irish kid from Medford (Meh-fah), Massachusetts, and I truly hope that she brought sun block protection with her.)

I have no idea whether the set is a real ghost town; a real old Hollywood ghost town; or a CBS purpose-built construct, but - if I got this right - a central conceit is that the town didn't make it because the town-folk didn't get along. So it's up to Our Gang to prove that the kids can make it right. Hmmmmm.

If Bonanza is a real ghost town, it didn't make it because the mine played out and there was no water, no arable land, no employment.... The Founding Fathers and/or the Greatest Generation couldn't have made this town "work" in any meaningful sense, and 40 kids - make that 39, now that Jimmy's high-tailed it home - aren't going to do it either. (Oh, what a mean-spirited quibbler I am.)

I have to say it was fun to see the kids enjoy their freedom, just running around (sort of) unsupervised. Kids running around, screaming, going crazy, jack-assing, making-pretend. It actually didn't look all that different than a typical scene of my childhood, other than that we didn't have cool cowboy hats and no one was filming us. (Cameras came out for important events like First Communions and your aunt's wedding.)

Mid-way through the episode, the kids got to decide whether to have seven more Porta-potties brought in (to add to the original), or whether to have a TV. The kids wisely chose the toilets, but it wasn't much of a choice. It would have been more interesting it the choice had been the toilets vs. a couple of flat-screen TVs, rather than between seven toilets and a TV that looks like it came out of the Rogers' family room, circa 1965. B&W, only.

At the end, the "town council" (four of the kids) got to vote on which member should be awarded a gold star for working the hardest. They made a well received pick, and the winner seemed very happy to have won.

Here's where the show veered off in what I think will prove to be an unsavory direction.

Rather than just leave it as an "atta girl," they announced that the gold star was worth $20K.

They then said that each week, a different kid would get to win the award.

Yes, this will no doubt bring out interesting, television worthy behavior - let the games begin - as we see just how nastily mercenary some of these kids will prove to be. But I think it would have been better on the kids if they'd thought they were competing for something that was a bit closer to "goodness is its own reward."

They could have sprung the $20K info on them at the end.

So, week one of Kid Nation went alright, but I'm reserving judgment on how this is going to play out for most/some of the kids. There's much that remains to be seen.

I will also say that, if this show had been one when I was a kid, I would have been super-glued to the set. I worshipped the Mouseketeer's, and the kids on Kid Nation are a lot less scripted (and made up) than Karen, Cubby, Doreen, Tommy, and Annette.

My sister Trish reports that her daughter Molly (nearly 11) really enjoyed the first show. I haven't checked in my other "target demographic" niece, Caroline, who's 10, but I'm guessing that she'll have watched and enjoyed it, too.

I have no idea how long Kid Nation is supposed to run, but I'll reserve my final judgement until the show's over - 0r at least further along in its season.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Hanover High's "Notorious Nine"

What's with the air in New Hampshire - especially in towns with names that begin with the letter "H"?

First there was the matter of the Hooksett Four, fired from their town jobs for gossiping. Now it's nine kids from Hanover High in trouble with the law for breaking into the hallowed halls of HHS to steal advanced math and chemistry exams.

The cheating scandal that Hanover (home of Dartmouth) is embroiled in was chronicled in Wednesday's Boston Globe by Sarah Schweitzer.

Out of a Hanover High population of 750, "some 50 students are suspected of participating in the thefts, either helping to plan them or receiving answers from stolen exams." Of these 50, criminal charges are being lodged against nine - and these nine (including the mere lookouts) have been informed that if they elect to go to trial, the prosecutor may up what are now misdemeanor charges to felonies. Possible prison terms under that scenario: 3 1/2 to seven years in the slammer. Talk about the school of hard knocks.

Parents - predictably, and somewhat justifiably - are howling about the criminalization of these acts. The school is already planning on meting out reasonable punishments. The cheaters will be suspended for 3 days, receive zero grades on their exams, and have a notation placed on their college applications. This seems plenty harsh enough - especially in what can only be the very hyper-intensive atmosphere at Hanover High, where half the kids are no doubt competing to get into the Ivies or equivalent.

Instead of just treating this as a school incident, however, administrators chose to introduce the criminal element by reporting it as a B&E. Okay, literally it was. But the kids - rotten and amoral as they are - did not steal equipment or vandalize. Nor did they break into someone's house and steal things or vandalize. Which would, reasonably, have been treated as criminal activities (although not felonious ones).

I'm sure the felony threat is just so that the prosecutors can clear this one up without going to court. Still, the criminal overlay is distracting enough to draw attention and discussion from what are the real issues.

So, instead of focusing on why smart kids do dumb things, and why good kids do bad things, and why not so good and not so smart kids do dumb things - and the Notorious Nine likely contain a mix of the above - the conversation starts revolving in large part around town-gown tensions, haves vs. have nots, children of privilege vs. children of unprivileged. (Not bad conversations to have, of course, but the very rancid act of cheating may get lost in the 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time' legal shuffle.) 

Instead of lawyering-up, the parents of the Notorious Nine ought to be spending their time and energies calling the wrath of God down on their kids for cheating, pointing out to their kids that they have shamed themselves and their families; that they have betrayed the trust of their fellow students; and and that they have, indeed, seriously damaged their shots at the top schools. This is, indeed, a change of life event.

It may be the difference between Princeton and Poison Ivy.  Between Georgetown and St. Elsewhere. Between UNH and Unheardof State College. But it shouldn't - as in the old joke about where Jens Jensen had spent the last few years - bet the difference between Yale and jail.

I suspect, of course, that some of those children of privilege are already working with high paid academic consultants who are deciding just what note of contrition to strike in the all-important college essay. They're sitting there with fingers crossed while their parents start working their alumni networks to see if this one little flaw in junior's transcript - and character - can get overlooked. They're hoping that Granddaddy Warbucks will succeed in attaching a string to his mega-donation to the endowment.

Let's face it. Some people get away with "it" - whatever "it" is. 

Maybe they learn something, maybe they don't.

But for those members of the Notorious Nine who don't have the pull to get pulled out of the little quagmire they've put themselves in, here's a little moment of truth. Assuming - quite reasonably - that no one goes to jail and ends up with a felony rap, this is NOT going to ruin your tender young lives unless you let it. So you end up at St. Elsewhere with the sons and daughters of traffic court judges, rather than with the offspring of Supreme Court justices at Yale. BFD. Make the most of the smart, nice, funny kids you meet there - and, I assure you, there will be plenty of them.

As for the parents, a little self-examination may be in order. Sure, no one "has" to cheat, but if you're giving your son or daughter the message that they're only worthy of love if they get thick envelopes from the Ivies on April 15th. Well.....

Meanwhile, whatever pressures these kids are under, they ought to be plenty embarrassed and plenty ashamed. Yes, we can cut them some young-impetuous-peer/parent-pressure slack here. And they shouldn't go to jail.

This isn't a trivial matter, but it shouldn't be a criminal one. You think our prisons are bursting now? Imagine if everyone who cheated in high school had to do time - and there were no statute of limitations. (Now there's a thought.)



As it happens, I have two friends who are Hanover High grads, so I know that it's possible to get into top schools without cheating because they managed to do it, as did their brothers and sister. For the record, this crew went to Dartmouth, Smith, Harvard, Harvard, Harvard - and that's just for undergrad starters. And they did it the hard way - on their own merits. Their father was a carpenter: no fancy consultants, no alumni network, no big donations. Just good, old-fashioned plugging away.

Note to Rob: You didn't think I was going to get through a post on Hanover High without mentioning you guys, did you?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mr. Gorbachev, throw out that bag!

I always look at the front cover of The New Yorker. I never look at the back cover.

Well, never say never.

The other day I happened to look. No, it was actually more of a glance. And what I noticed in that glance was a man seated in the back of a limo, with a big old Vuitton duffle bag opened next to him.

And I said to myself, 'Gee, that man looks an awful lot like Mikhail Gorbachev. But that can't possibly be.'

Well, never say can't possibly be.

Gorbachev is shilling for Louis Vuitton.

Say what?

Gorbachev is shilling for Louis Vuitton.

Okay, Vuitton is making a donation to something called Green Cross International, which is Gorbachev's organization with a charter to do environmental good. But I'd still rather not see Mr. Gorbachev sitting (looking decided uncomfortable, I might add) in the back of a limo, with a big old Vuitton duffle bag opened next to him.

First, there's the hilarious conjunction of a former head of the USSR and what before, during, and after the fall of communism has served as at least a minor league symbol of wretched capitalistic excess (not to mention dopey brand snobbery and shopaholism).

Second, couldn't a leader of Gorbachev's stature - a Nobel Prize winner - have just gotten the donation out of Vuitton without having to pretend that he totes Green Cross International do-gooder documents around in a Vuitton bag? (In the ad, Mr. G. is riding by the "Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference." Maybe he's got a few more chipped out pieces of The Wall in that bag. I'm down to my last piece, so if Gorbie's got some to spare...)

Third, without sounding like a complete sexist, I have never seen a man with a real or knock-off Vuitton bag. Maybe it's a European thang, but I know it wouldn't have seemed as odd to me if the ad showed Raisa Gorbachev. Other than the fact that she's dead, of course.

The copy - which is sparse - reads "A journey brings us face to face with ourselves."

Maybe that's true for Mr. Gorbachev, but I've taken all kinds of journeys - which I actually refer to as trips - and I have not once come face to face with myself. Maybe that's my problem. Maybe I need to get me a Vuitton bag. Or at least a knock-off. Too bad I'm not wild about the color brown.

I never thought I'd utter or write the words "where's Ronald Reagan when we need him?"

Never say never, I always say.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Congratulations! You bought something on eBay

Well, I just made my first purchase on eBay, and, boy, am I proud. I wouldn't have felt that buying something on eBay was such a big accomplishment until I got a note from eBay congratulating me.

Gosh, I can only imagine the congratulations I'd receive if I went and sold something on eBay.

Still, it take brains, drive, search technique, and a credit card to make my first purchase, so I should be proud. Not everyone has those qualities, I'm quite sure.

Alas, I have nothing to sell on eBay. All my stuff is stuff I like and/or stuff that's so crappy no one else would want it.

If I hadn't had siblings, I would probably have all kind of cool toys and games that I could sell. But nothing much survived childhood in the Rogers family - except for the children, of course. Toys? You can forget about that.

Our toys got used. Our toys got abused.

Who wanted to worry about keeping their toys pristine in their original packaging?

We wanted to play with them, which we did with a vengeance - often for purposes they were not necessarily designed for.

That Texaco gas station? The metal tray that it sat on made a really magnificent sledding device - it went quite a bit faster than a Flying Saucer, and was less susceptible to developing dents.

That Little LuLu doll? We were good little Catholics, so we never played doctor, but my sister Kathleen and I did perform amputation surgery on Lulu, cutting off her arms and legs with a pair of really sharp kitchen sheers we smuggled into bed.

Well, now that I'm a proud purchaser on eBay, I thought I'd take a little stroll through and see what I'd be worth if any of my toys had actually made it into adulthood.

My God! There's a Ginnette doll going for $149!

I really loved my Ginnette doll, but I don't think my Netty would be worth that much. She'd be more likely to be in the price range of another Ginnette doll I found. This one's got pink stains on her little body, and it's up for sale for $.99. Her eyes are also "clouded over." (A baby doll with cataracts? Sad!) My Netty would probably be worth about $.99, too. She didn't have clouded over eyes, but I did decide I wanted her to have bluer eyes, so I colored hers in with Magic Marker. Unfortunately, I colored outside the lines and got a lot of the whites of her eyes, too.

Ginette's big sister Ginny is valuable, too. There's one going for $189! My Ginny would be less valuable, I guess, since I had destroyed her original hair doing something or other to it - I guess you weren't supposed to comb it. Anyway, my mother had to order a replacement wig and she ordered braids since I wasn't a competent enough doll-mother to care for a doll with a flip.

Easy Money was one of my favorite board games. You could play upright and wholesome Monopoly at anyone's house, but you had to come to our house to play the more low-tone, raffish game of Easy Money. Instead of buying things like the Short Line Railroad, you got to buy the Kit Kat Nightclub.

If I'd hung on to The Taxi that Hurried, one of my favorite Golden Books, I might be able to get $9 for it. Although mine was probably scribbled in by one of the younger kids, so I'd be more likely to get $.82 for it.

Even if she had all her arms and legs, LuLu would only be worth about $6.95. Kath and I certainly got more than $6.95 worth of satisfaction out of cutting Little LuLu up.

Anyone remember those little baking soda frogmen that came in cereal boxes? You put a bit of baking soda in one of their feet and they did something or other when you put them in water. These frogmen couldn't have been more than an inch high? I don't care how polite and careful a child you were - how does anything that tiny survive anyone's childhood for 50 years. Yet there is one available on eBay for $.99.

Stop at once! I can't keep scrounging around eBay feeling bad for myself that I don't have any relics of my childhood to sell.

I'll have to just bask in the glow of my having accomplished an eBay purchase. I have eBay's congratulations, and my own self-congratulations to add to it.

For the record, I bought a pair of Puma RepliCat low cuts, green, 6 1/2 for my niece. They should arrive shortly.

Congratulations will be due all round at that point.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Need an Alibi? C'est dommage, mais est seulement en français.

If my recall of high school French is intact, what I think I wrote in the header is "It's a pity, but is only in French." However tortured my translation is, it certainly is a pity - I guess - if you are in desperate need of an alibi and don't have one. Because if you were in France, you could get one from IBILA.

As reported by Alasdair Sandford in The Guardian the other day ("French website offers 19 Euro alibis to adulterers "- those Brit headline writers sure don't mince words, do they?), IBILA is:

...France's first agency for adulterers who don't want to be found out. It provides alibis for a range of other situations, but acknowledges that its clients are often men who "need a little freedom".

Among the first on Alibila's books was a man who wanted to join his mistress on a tropical island without his wife suspecting. A fake wedding invitation from a distant cousin did the trick. 

The wedding invitation costs a bit more than 19 Euros, however. For the entry-level price, you just get a phone call to your home. Fake invites to faux events will set you back a bit more.

Although I only know enough French to ask where the toilet is (but not enough to understand the answer unless it's coming from someone who only speaks tortured, halting high school French) - and although I personally am in no need of an alibi, I went over to to check them out.

There is obviously a universal language of alibi, because I could pretty much figure out the site a moi meme, or as an English-speaker might say, "on my own."

The initial positioning goes right after putting prospects at ease. I didn't get a few of the words in the middle, but I could definitely parse out "Let those who never need a little alibi cast the first stone" or, if you prefer, jette la première pierre! We're then told that, "thanks to IBILA, satisfying this need will be child's play." Again, my French isn't great, but what else could "un jeu d'enfant" mean?

IBILA even has it's own pithy little taglines:

Votre générateur d’alibis
Alibis virtuels pour situations réelles

Just the sort of tagline that will stay in my mind if I every need someone to generate a virtual alibi for a real situation.

Their list of reasons why you might want an alibi extends beyond those in which you might "put in danger your family life, your marriage." It might be a family event, or dinner with friends, that you want to dodge without hurting your hosts' feelings or royally ticking them off  (sans blesser vos hôtes). I'm not really sure what blesser means, but I'm guessing it doesn't mean "bless."

You don't get just any old boilerplate alibi, by the way. IBILA will work with you to come up with an alibi that will be totalement crédible  to the person you're using it on. No "the dog ate my homework" or "I have to work late again tonight" for IBILA.

What is the world coming to when adulterers can't even make up their own little white lies? What's going to get outsourced next?

By the way, if you use IBILA, you do so at your own risk. As The Guardian warns, there are no refunds. But if  your alibi doesn't work, you've probably got bigger problems than the 19 Euros you paid for it.


A tip of the chapeau to my sister Trish, who spotted this story.


Friday, September 14, 2007

Branching Out: Branch banks making a comeback?

Since the advent of the ATM machine and online banking, I've spent relatively little time in banks. Pretty much my sole up close and personal encounters with retail banking are when I buy foreign currency (approximately once each year), and when I stop into the neighborhood branch bank - hopefully with one of my nieces in tow - to make a deposit into the joint fund that we're building towards our 2009 Paris Adventure.

Thus, I was surprised to see an article in an Economist a while back("Branching Out", June 16th), that detailed a number of indications that branch banking is, perhaps, coming back.

The branches described are not your father's little passbook savings outfits.

Umpqua, a bank in the Western states, has comfy branches with employees trained in customer courtesies by the Ritz Carlton. Umpqua sells books and music, runs yoga classes, and offers a chocolate with your bank receipt. Yesterday's tellers - now rebranded as "universal associates" are comped on sales of financial services and non-financial stuff.

BBVA, a Spanish bank profiled, sells cars, houses, health care - giving new meaning to the term "full service banking." BBVA also has a clever little activity going in some of its branches. During the afternoon siesta hours when most banks are closed, some BBVA branches are open for business, providing a range of (mostly free?) services to immigrants. They're hoping that the immigrants will grow into loyal, profitable customers. In the meantime, not wanting the raise objections among their traditional Spanish clientele - who might be a little miffed at the thought of such catering to immigrants (and those of us living in the U.S. know just how miffy that can be) - the banks hide this all away by discreetly closing a curtain on this midafternoon activity.

Obviously, the branch banks are trying to create stickiness by offering a lot of services, and , of course, by offering services that can command a premium price in an era that's categorized by such ubiquitous race to the bottom pricing that you almost expect that consumers will start demanding less-than-zero prices for the pure privilege of doing business with you.

I have noticed a few new branches popping up around downtown Boston, including a nice bright new Citi branch not far from where I live.

Despite the shiny newness, I have no plans for increasing my level of branch banking activity.

For now, I'll stick to the occasional deposit to the Paris account. Unfortunately, my bank doesn't offer the nice little passbooks of yore (which almost, but not quite, looked like smaller versions of your passport). Instead of that nice, satisfying deposit stamped on the passbook, I get a receipt.

I save them in a folder and am happy to report that, with nearly two years left to go, we almost but not quite have enough.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

N.E. Patriots' Competitive Intell (Cheat, Cheat, Never Beat?)

Next week I will take myself over to a really techie show and cruise the aisles. I will go because I have a client in the "space", and I want to check out what's happening on the competitive front. My nametag will be clearly marked "Maureen Rogers, Marketing Consultant, Communigration, Exhibits Only." I will grab competitive literature, which is no big deal in this day and age, given that it's all online. And I will stop by booths and see if I can chat anyone up. My badge will make it clear that I'm not exactly a "live one", and if anyone asks, I'll tell them, no, I'm not interested in buying, I just have a client in your space... If they still want to talk - and I'm guessing that some will out of sheer boredom - all well and good. I may have something to relay back to my client, maybe not.

Similarly, when I download collateral from web sites, I never misrepresent who I am: I'm a zero budget, no employees, marketing consultant who is never going to make a buying decision - let alone in the next 30 days, and who doesn't make purchase decisions, anyway. If they still want to let me download the whitepaper, great. If they actually followup with a phone call, I'll think "boy, are you wasting your time," and politely tell them that I just wanted the whitepaper for market research.

My methods don't tend to yield any big secrets, but I do find stuff out this way, and sometimes just traipsing around shows (and web-sites) helps you put a few 2 and 2's together.

I was thinking of my own decidedly amateur competitive sleuthing when the "news" broke that the New England Patriots may have broken NFL rules by videotaping their opponent's coaches signaling plays during a recent game.

Now, we are hearing the outcries from the Patriot-loathing blogosphere and tabloids: Cheaters! They stole those Super Bowls! They can't win without cheating! Forfeit the game! Throw the bum - Head Coach Bill Belichick - out! (However heinous the video-taping was, it's hard not to believe that at least a tiny bit of what's being hurled now is sour grapes.)

I'm sure that more will be revealed about Video-Gate in the next few days, but it seems that the Pats have violated a league prohibition having to do with making videos during a game and bringing the videos into the locker room during half-time. (At least that's what I think the deal is.)

Belichick has said that this is a matter of interpretation of the rules - he apparently has his own - but whether he broke a rule is one thing, whether this offense constitutes real cheating is another.

Maybe I'm just morally lax, but why is it okay to observe the body language and gestures of opposing players and coaches, and figure out what they're doing next based on those observations, but not be able to do it aided and abetted by a camera?

This is not wiretapping the opposition's phones, or bugging their locker room, or paying someone to microfilm their playbook. It's just looking at the pulled earlobe and adjusted belt buckle and noting that every time that happens, there's a quarterback sneak play called.

Of course, there is a rule against it. And Belichick should have abided by it. If the rule was dumb, he should have worked to have the rule repealed. Instead, it appears that he may have taken the rule into his own hands: Stupid rule. Makes no sense. Shouldn't apply to anyone. Doesn't apply to me. To hell with it.

By all accounts, the Patriots are a very good team. (One of those accounts is mine. I'm not a particularly big NFL fan, but I've fair-weathered it over the last few years and enjoy watching the Pats (mostly) win. I do not, however, have much emotional investment in the team. I have been known to lose sleep over the Red Sox; the Pats I just shrug off.)

One of the things that no doubt makes them a good team is superior ability to anticipate what their opponents are going to do next. But if every other team is following the rule book, and the Patriots are the only ones that aren't - which is, of course, highly unlikely (Isn't it? Isn't it? Can it possibly be true that "our guys" are the only "cheaters" out there?) - they have tilted the playing field in their direction in an unsavory way.

Again, I'm puzzled about what's the difference between making a video and just being a good observer. Why is one allowed and not the other?

Of course, the real question that lurks: Why would Belichick do this? He has put his team at risk - they may lose draft picks over the incident. He has exposed his team to the trashtalk and opposing fan oppobrium they're going to have to put up with forever. He has allowed a big question-shaped cloud to start hoevering over their great victories. And he has put his own success, competence, and integrity in doubt. (Cheaterpants! Or in the case of Belichick, cheater-cut-off-sweatshirt!)

And to do it so flagrantly. The Pats were caught in the act during a Jets game. The Head Coach of the Jets was Belichick's protege for years, and there's some bad blood between them. If nothing else, the Jets Coach would have known about the Patriots' modus operandi when it came to videotaping (and have the incentive to rat Belichick out). So why in the world would Belichick do this during a Jets game?

There may be an explanation in there somewhere, but the words arrogance and hubris come to mind.

As for me, when I go to my show next week, I will not be hanging around competitors' booths recording what they say to prospects. But if someone at the table next to me at lunch starts blabbing about something interesting, I certainly won't move my chair out of hearing.

As for the Pats, whatever happens this season, there's now a taint over them that is not going anywhere.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Shop 'til you dropkick

Snotty as I can be about all the vapid consumption that our country seems to be organized around - Biggest! Latest! Newest! Shiniest! - I must also confess that I am someone who likes to shop. No, I don't do as much of it as I used to, but I realize that I've gotten to the point in my life where I really don't need another fruit bowl from Crate & Barrel. And, since I'm no longer working full-time, I no longer have the big jones to stop at the mall on the way home to buy myself a consolation prize - like my 10th or 11th periwinkle blue sweater.

But I still manage to spend plenty of time and money in the course of a year shopping.

Still, I loathe the fact that so much of our culture and our entertainment seems to be focused on shopping. Drive by any super-mall on a Sunday afternoon and you'll find the parking lot jammed.

Shouldn't those shoppers be home cooking a roast beef, or chillin' with their families, or watching football?

A while back, the Kraft family - owners of the New England Patriots and, by all accounts, the very definition of good citizens in terms of their decency, philanthropy, and community involvement - announced that they are building yet another "retail and entertainment complex" on the property they own around Gillette Stadium, where the Pats play on said Sunday afternoons. One of the local TV news stations had an update on the project the other evening, which got me thinking about it a bit.

And the one thought that I can't help but think is this:  do we really need yet another big-ass mall?

This one will not only have the same stores that are on every corner - Christmas Tree Shoppe and Victoria's Secret - but also more off-beat ones (at least in this area) like the Bass Pro Shops. Patriot Place will also contain a Patriots museum, an upscale movie theater, restaurants, and a jazz club. This kind of location for a jazz club strikes me as a bit odd - the antithesis of jazz as hipster and counter-cultural. But this jazz club will have 500 seats, so it won't exactly be a smokey Village jazz joint.

There will also be a sports medicine center - which makes sense. (As does the Patriots museum.)

But while all the retail? Is that the only way to attract people these days? It ain't worth going unless there's some shopping to do? (Hypocrisy note: when I go to a museum I have been known to spend as much time in the store as I do looking at the paintings.)

Admittedly, the area around Gillette is kind of a retail dead zone, but unless I've got my geography wrong, the Wrentham Mall is not very far away. And there's apparently another big-ass mall going up just 15 miles up Route 1.

I repeat, do we really need another big-ass mall?

Don't these stores eventually start cannibalizing each other? Or are there so many untapped shoppers out there who have just been waiting for a Christmas Tree Shoppe to open 4 miles from their house instead of 8?

Eventually, Patriot Place is meant to have housing, and perhaps some corporate presence, although why anyone would want to live on top of a football station truly eludes me.  They're also using local construction and architectural firms, so there's no doubt that this is something of a labor of Massachusetts love.

Still, do we really need another big-ass mall?

"For me, this is a legacy project," said Robert Kraft , the 65-year-old chairman and chief executive of The Kraft Group and the New England Patriots, during an interview at Gillette Stadium.

"This is where I come to work every day. We want to build something special," he said, speaking for the first time about his vision and motivation for the project.

Well, it's their legacy.

But isn't it possible to envision a legacy that's not primarily centered on shopping? How about starting with residential, but including the types of stores that sustain a residential community - grocery, drug, hardware, dry cleaners? Since it's the Pats, why not add all kinds of sports facilities - indoor tennis and soccer, batting cages, par 3 golf, mini-golf, running track, health club/fitness center, swimming pools, basketball courts, skating rinks - places where families, recreational athletes, aging jocks, and semi-pros could come to play. Shops could be related: Bass Pro - yes; Victoria's Secret - well, this depends on how widely you want to define sport, but probably not.

Keep the jazz club and the theater (everyone doesn't have an inner jock to release; some have an inner Coltrane), keep the restaurants (everybody's gotta eat).

Well, it's their legacy. But do we really need another big-ass mall?

Oh, well, at least this one's within walking distance of the train station, so that you don't have to drive to Patriot Place in your big-ass car.

Source for info contained in this post: Boston Globe article by Jenn Abelson, May 20, 2007.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Gone Fishing: The Most Dangerous Jobs Out There

A few weeks ago, I spent the day playing tourist in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with my niece Caroline. As part of our visit, we stopped by the famous Gloucester fisherman's statue, where there's a memorial to all the Gloucester men who've lost their lives over the years. I don't know how many names are listed on the tablets, but I read somewhere that over the years about 10,000 Gloucester fisherman have died at sea.

Two things strike you when reading through the names. One is the shifts in ethnicity, from primarily "Yankee" names, to a lot of Irish names, to Portuguese and - mostly - Italian names over time. The second is that there are a lot fewer deaths in recent years. Part of this is no doubt due to the decline in the size of the Gloucester fleet. But it's due in some part to better equipment, better technology, and better weather forecasting.

The job of fisherman is safer than it used to be.

Which is not to say that it's not still dangerous.

It is, in fact, the country's most dangerous job, according to a recent article in Forbes by Tom Van Riper (based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data.)

Fishing death is not all dramatic Perfect Storm types. It's apparently a lot of slipping and falling overboard. But dangerous it is. There were 142 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2006. (This somewhat overstates it, since there aren't actually 100,000 workers in the industry. The number of deaths was 51. In absolute terms, of the Top 10, the most dangerous jobs were Farmer and Rancher with 261 deaths, and Drivers, with 940 or 1300, it was various reported in the text vs. picture captions. Most of these were caused by asleep-at-the-wheel accidents.)

Also in the Top Ten:

Pilots and flight engineers
Iron & steel workers
Refuse & recyclable materials collectors
Farmers & ranchers
Electric powerline workers
Drivers (truckers and traveling salespeople)
Agricultural workers

Surprisingly, given all the recent focus on it, mining is not that statistically dangers - thanks in large part to regulations passed over the years.

Not surprisingly, men account for the vast majority of workplace deaths: 92%.

Not surprisingly, agricultural states had the highest per capita death rates: Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota, and Montana are the most dangerous places to work. (Meanwhile, East Coast city-slicker states were the safest: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.)

What I found shocking was the number of murders at work. While the 516 homicides recorded "was the lowest total in 12 years," I still find it startling that over 500 people were killed while working. (Several months ago, I wrote about one such killing - the murder of the receptionist at a Michigan accounting firm.)

As we observe the sixth anniversary of 9/11, it should be noted that on that day, it was exceedingly dangerous to be a NYC firefighter, police officer, or paramedic; a Cantor Fitzgerald bond trader, a secretary at the Port Authority, waiter at Windows of the World, staff officer at the Pentagon, American Airline pilot, or any number of other innocent by-stander jobs. Hard to believe that six years have passed since that dreadful day.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Countrywide Lay-off Spree

The fallout from the mortgage lending crisis is not just the foreclosures that have all those people losing their homes. It's all those employees  losing their jobs.

There have been a lot of layoff aftershocks in the wake of the subprime meltdown - HomeBanc laid off 1,100 a few weeks back, IndyMac is cutting 1,000 jobs - but Countrywide's announcement that they're letting 12,000 people go is an aftershock's aftershock. (A few weeks back, they'd announced a more modest cut of 1,400 jobs, but that enough was apparently not enough.)

Well, you can certainly argue that 12,000 fewer loan officers making questionable loans is not the worst thing that can happen to the economy. Especially if they were practitioners of the Countrywide Way described in a NY Times article The Countrywide Lending Spree a few weeks back. (Link requires registration, I think.)

Countrywide’s entire operation, from its computer system to its incentive pay structure and financing arrangements, is intended to wring maximum profits out of the mortgage lending boom no matter what it costs borrowers, according to interviews with former employees and brokers who worked in different units of the company and internal documents they provided. One document, for instance, shows that until last September the computer system in the company’s subprime unit excluded borrowers’ cash reserves, which had the effect of steering them away from lower-cost loans to those that were more expensive to homeowners and more profitable to Countrywide.

This despite the assurances that their sales folks were trained to give customers: that they would find them "best loan possible." I'm guessing they neglected to qualify that statement by adding that it was the best loan possible for Countrywide.

Of course, every company's computer systems and incentive pay structures should "be intended to wring maximum profits", shouldn't they? Nothing wrong with that, is there?

It's just the nagging, niggling little notion that Countrywide was really doing something that is, if not illegal, then a bit shady - like steering people toward more expensive loans. Not to mention being outright exploitative in taking advantage of poor schnooks. (Okay, in a lot - most? all? - of those cases, it was no doubt poor schnooks suffering from the dual maladies of greed and economic illiteracy. A powerful combo!)

Twenty-five percent of Countrywide  sub-prime loans are in default:

Many of these loans had interest rates that recently reset from low teaser levels to double digits; others carry prohibitive prepayment penalties that have made refinancing impossibly expensive, even before this month’s upheaval in the mortgage markets.

Then there's this nice bit:

Other documents from the subprime unit also show that Countrywide was willing to underwrite loans that left little disposable income for borrowers’ food, clothing and other living expenses. A different manual states that loans could be written for borrowers even if, in a family of four, they had just $1,000 in disposable income after paying their mortgage bill. A loan to a single borrower could be made even if the person had just $550 left each month to live on, the manual said.

Obviously, anyone willing to take this deal is - there is no other word for it - an idiot.

And obviously any company willing to make this deal is - there is no other word for it - immoral.

As the shakeout continues, we'll see just how much of our economy is a subprime mortgaged house of cards.

For now there are 12,000 more pink-slips on their way; 12,000 more people who may well have a hard time making their next mortgage payment, compounding the misery all the way around.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Facebook of the rich and famous

I rarely look at Business Week, but my brother-in-law gave me a copy of a recent edition on The Future of Work, which he thought I might want to mine for Pink Slip. Which I will be doing one of these days.

But first, I have to get by the little article in the UpFront section that talks about an invitation-only networking site that, for some unfathomable reason, I have not yet been invited to join.

ASMALLWORLD [is] a private online community for like-minded individuals. Most networking communities are open. Ours is only by invitation. Trusted members who have existing social networks of quality in the real world extend the invitations. aSmallWorld offers a retreat that intimately allows members to enhance their networks and to reconnect with old friends...

We have imposed certain criteria in order to keep the network exclusive. To join, you need to be invited by a trusted member.

If you have not received an invitation, you can ask your friends to invite you. If you have no friends who are members yet, please be patient.

So, not to worry.

A Small World has 45,000 members at present, and will max out at 250,000 which is, apparently, the number of people on the face of the earth worth knowing. It was founded by one Erik Wachtmeister, whose bona fides include both work as a Lehman Brothers banker and a royal title. (He's a Swedish count. I don't imagine this holds the same cachet as being Prince William or Prince Harry, but I'm still sure that it counts for something.)

Who's got their face on aSmallWorld?

Business Week lists Ivanka Trump, Naomi Campbell, Tiger Woods, and Paul Allen as members. Hmmmm, I happen to know that I am only two or three degrees of separation from Paul Allen in a couple of different directions, so maybe that will be my invite angle.

I did a bit more sleuthing, and found out (thanks to the poor man's info source, wikipedia, as well as through The Gawker) that Josh Groban, David Reuben, James Blunt, and Fredric Fekkai are also part of this elite bunch, along with a bunch of uncommon common folks who consult or manage money. I have to admit that, as celebs go, this is a somewhat lame-o bunch. Of course, some of this is my celeb ignorance. Are we talking about David Reuben the sex doctor, or David Reuben the Brit billionaire? And who the fekkai is Fredric Fekkai? James Blunt I had to google, too, but at least I've heard his song, "You're Beautiful."

All in all, it's no wonder I haven't been invited. Maybe Dr. David Reuben will invite me. I did, after all, read his Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask. It was quite the read in 1970.

Just what do all these quasi-celebs do on aSmallWorld?

Apparently not much.

Aili McConnon, the Business Week reporter, found postings for a political fund-raiser and chat on private-jets, along with ads for champagne and pricey watches. She also learned that Ivanka has over 300 friends, but that Tiger Woods, has only one, but I'm guessing that is by his choice.

I always wonder how celebrities link up with each other.

After all, Leo DiCaprio can pretty much assume that Chelsea Clinton is going to know who he is and vice versa. If Meryl Streep sees Barbra Streisand on the street, does she just say "hello"? Does Puff Daddy automatically know P. Diddy. No, wait, they're one and the same person.

And just how did football player Tom Brady meet supermodel Giselle Bundchen?

A Small World or not, there is a parallel universe in which rich and famous people operate, in which they trade phone numbers, send each other IMs, and just plain hang out. I suppose at this late stage of my life it's a tad too late to find my way "in."

And who would I want to meet there, anyway?

In truth, I'm pretty content with the friends and family I have, and I'm hard put to think of any household namer that I'd just "love" to meet. (Okay, I actually do think that meeting Bill Clinton would be a hoot.)

I guess I will have to be content with my occasional celebrity sightings. Who've I seen? Dolly Parton, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Sam Shepherd and Jessica Lange, lots of other actors - major and minor, lots of athletes, Ziggy Brezinski. Puff Daddy, in fact, at the DNC in 2004. One time at LaGuardia, I was almost mowed down by the Secret Service contingent accompanying Barbara Bush and her daughter. I was on a plane flight once with the actor Kurt Russell, who I've also seen on the street (he was with Goldie Hawn), so it's almost as if I know him.

Out of sheer self-protection, most celebrities don't make eye contact. (Robert Redford did. We smiled at each other. Jack Nicholson, made eye contact, too. It was years ago at P.J. Clarke's in NYC and that eye contact can be best characterized as glassy-eyed, and accompanied by a truly leering grin. I think I'd stick with Robert Redford, even though he is pretty short.)

A Small World. I guess I don't really see much of the point, other than to connect investment bankers - those star f-ers - to famous people. The famous people themselves seem to be doing a pretty good job of getting to know each other already. And I'm pretty sure that none of them could give a damn about meeting me.

The feeling is, of course, mutual. (Although Robert Redford did have an awfully nice smile.)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

After All These Years: Filene's Basement's Gone

The other day, I stopped in to Filene's Basement in downtown Boston. (No, not the glossy above-ground version in Back Bay. The original - and, until recently, the greatest  - which is now closed down to make way for progress.) There was nothing much there. Only one floor was open, and that was sparsely populated with a handful of 80% off racks. The one that caught my eye had men's white briefs on hangers (something I'd never seen)for a buck each. The lines were long, the merchandise limited, the scene depressing. I breezed in and out.

One more link to my past gone - although this time only temporarily. We are promised that a new Basement will take it's place when the site is developed into whatever combination of luxury condos-office space-shopping is going up there. Whatever they do, I hope they maintain some/all of the original Filene's façade - an elegant and lovely grande dame that ceased to exist when Federated decided that every department store in the world had to be called Macy's.

In the last decade or so, I haven't done much shopping at The B. There are so many other bargain outlets, and The B had started to produce their own labels, so it was getting harder and harder to find the real steals. But I remember the adrenaline rush when the Bonwit Teller, Nieman, or Saks left-overs showed up - and I still recall one of my favorite B purchases: a little cotton knit dress, from Bonwit's, white with blue flowers - remembered fondly as much because it was 30 years and 20 pounds ago....

But lately most of my "buys" were umbrellas and picture frames.

Still, my recall of The B are many and fond.

I first shopped The B in Worcester when I was in high school. Like everything else in Worcester, it was a scaled down version - one floor instead of two - but it had the same creaking wood floors and ancient merchandise tables.

It was thanks to The B that I was able to buy the same Villager sweaters that the rich and swank girls at my high school all wore. Like my sister Kathleen, I was a scholarship girl at Worcester's "elite" Catholic girls school, where the students were the daughters of doctors, lawyers, and funeral parlor owners - all of whom shopped at Casual Corner and the Ivy Shop - and upstairs at Filene's - and who all seemed to have endless wardrobes full of Villager, Lady Bug, John Meyer, and Papagallo clothing. Thankfully, we wore uniforms, but for the first few days of the school year, you could wear "real clothes."

Not that I ever measured up clothing-wise with these girls, and not that spent that much time trying to. (Why bother? I was never going to own 6 pairs of Papagallo two-toned flats and matching Bermuda bags. Or have my own Mustang, like one of the funeral parlor daughters drove.) But I did want to have a few things that weren't made by my mother, and The B gave me that chance.

So what if the only Villager sweaters to be had in The B were olive green or yellow-orange heather - the two least flattering colors in the world on me - they were real Villager sweaters and, as long as I kept them on, no one could see the IRREGULAR stamped in black ink over the Villager tag.

Later, when I moved to Boston, I haunted The B and for years got most of my clothing there: the great Barney's sweater marked down to near-nothing; the black suit that was perfect other than for the yucky buttons, which were easily replaced; the cool taupe suit with the Eisenhower jacket; that fabulous Liberty of London silk scarf - still wearable, as long as I tuck the stained edge under.

One time, my sister Kathleen and I found a rack full of floor-length plush coats in bright red and orange. They were truly crazy, and truly cheap - marked down from what - $500? $1,000? - but something ridiculous, to something that was reasonable enough for us to buy one of the red ones as a joke gift for our sister Trish.

My all time worst Basement purchase was a madras shirt-waist dress. When I put it on for the first time, I realized that it was redolent of someone else's body odor. Unfortunately, I didn't pick up the smell until after I was at work. So I had to sit all day giving off someone else's odor. Yuck! It's okay to have buyer's remorse, but not after you've worn something - and sweated in it. Yuck! I washed the dress and got the odor out, but I never wore it again.

Ah, The Basement.

Yes, it will be back in 2009, but it won't be the same. Gone, I'm sure, will be the crummy tile floors and beat-up tables, the terrible lighting and the no dressing rooms, the signs letting us know when the goods were going on further markdown. (The B dated the tags of all it's merchandise, and every few weeks marked things down by 25% until, eventually, they were taken off of the floor to the charity desk.)

One of the great pleasures of getting older is looking back, and look back I do at Filene's Basement. For years, cruising The B was a regular part of my existence. That hasn't been so for a long while, but how I will miss it.

I believe that Filene's Basement was first opened in 1908. If so, it will narrowly miss it's 100th anniversary. It's a shame, but that's progress. Downtown Boston could use a facelift. It's just that, like most beautiful 100 year olds, to me The B really didn't need one.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

You Can Tell It's Mattel by Its Smell

As a charter member of the first generation that marketers actually started marketing to, I heard plenty of ads toys on Saturday mornings - prime time for kiddie TV watching at that time. Most of the toy companies then advertised are gone - "Every boy wants a Remco toy - and so do girls", anyone - but Mattel lives on. At least for now.

We, of course, had our own version of toy ads, and our one for Mattel was "You Can Tell It's Mattel by Its Smell."

God knows the kids in Main South Worcester weren't very clever if this was our best shot. But it was one of them - our witty little take off on the "You Can Tell It's Mattel. It's Swell!" (Another one was the joke that the P.F. in P.F. Flyers stood for "Pink Farts". Ho, ho, the Baby Boomers were a funny bunch of kids!)

The very word "swell" made us roll our eyes.

Who said swell? Mickey Rooney an Judy Garland in those old black and white movies we liked to laugh at. Even when goody-two-sneaker kids like Wally and The Beav said "swell", they were mostly being sarcastic  - or resigned to some lame decision that Ward and June had made.

I'm also quite sure that we had all kinds of unsafe toys.

I remember a stuffed poodle named Pierre whose googly eyes were attached by a sharp, spiraling inch and a half of metal that could be easily pulled out of the dog and used as a weapon.

My sister Kathleen had a plug-in iron with a real plug - or she would have if our boring old safety-conscious-before-her-time mother hadn't removed the plug and replaced it with a boring old suction cup. Come on! What's not to like about a four year old playing with a play iron that heats up to 500 degrees?

We also had some cast iron apparatus that contained molds for the heads of something called "Creeple People". You poured some plastic goop into the mold, plugged it in and baked away until the heads solidified. You then stuck them on the end of pencils. (It was a kinder, gentler era.)

We laugh now, but I'm sure there were plenty of kids who were injured by poorly designed toys "in the day."

And now we know better.

You really shouldn't have to think twice when you pick up a toy that it's hazardous to your kid's health.

So toys are generally safer. I bet there aren't many stuffed animals on the market with corkscrews in their eye sockets. And toys are labeled so that those meant for the age-bracket that puts everything in their mouths aren't full of tiny little choking hazards and coated with poison. Or so we thought.

Then Mattel started recalling toys that used lead paint. A million here, a million there.

The latest recall involves more Barbie accessories, and a Fisher-Price musical instrument set. Bad enough your kid sucking on a loose shingle from the Barbie Dream House. At least the majority of kids probably aren't doing that. But musical instruments? Aren't they supposed to go into a kid's mouth? What else are you going to do with a toy horn?

I don't know how much of these toy recalls is over-reacting hysteria, but who wants to find out. Maybe a little lead in the diet does no harm, but is there anyone who'd take a chance with their own kid?

So, just what did happen here?

Did Mattel not bother to tell the Chinese factories that they shouldn't use lead paint?

Was Mattel too focused on getting the goods made as cheaply as possible that they turned a blind eye to manufacturing conditions and practices "over there"? Let's face it, if they had to pay for higher wages and better working conditions, they wouldn't be able to pour all that money into what really matters: marketing to kids who aren't even potty trained.

Or did the Chinese factories figure that no one would find out that they cut a few corners here and there?

Did the factories of record, of relationship with Mattel, subcontract out to lesser outfits that couldn't pass Mattel's direct scrutiny?

Don't ask, don't tell where and how all these toys are getting made. All that matters is that they're getting made, marketed, bought up, and tossed aside - turning up still-in-the-box on eBay, beaten up in a yard sale, or into the maws of landfills, where 1000 years from now someone will pick up a still intact, teensy-weensy pink Barbie pooper-scooper, and a little plastic turd, and ask what the hell we were doing back then.

Bad business, all around.

The smell is going to be wafting around the Mattel brand for quite a while to come. And I don't know if there's anyone at Mattel who's feeling very "swell" this morning.


For more on the China Trade: You Get What You Pay For

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Terry Francona: He is the very model of the modern middle manager

Okay. I don't know how it's all going to work out this season. And, God knows, I've cursed, booed, and second-guessed him plenty of times. This is, of course, my right, privilege and, I daresay, obligation as a lifelong member of Red Sox Nation. (I am thinking of retiring my self-definition from "baptized a Catholic, but born a Democrat" to "baptized a Catholic, but born a Red Sox fan." My earliest memory is toddling over to the black-and-white Philco to pick a player off base - undoubtedly egged on by my baseball-loving father. I was no doubt second guessing Pinky Higgins and Billy Jurgis before I reached the age of reason.)

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that Terry Francona is, in fact, the ideal middle manager for this day and age.

Us Baby Boomer managers - and at 48 Francona is a "last wave" Boomer - are told that we have to handle Gen X and Y-ers far differently than we were ever treated by the Greatest Generation. No autocratic, top-down, jump!-how-high? for these guys. It's about standing back, getting out of their way, and just letting them go.

The role of manager has been redefined over the years from "I'm in charge" to "please, what can I do today to facilitate your getting your job done." Gen X, Gen Y - they're the talent. Baby Boom managers - we're the facilitators.

Well, there's Francona managing a bunch of aging Gen X-ers and kid Gen-Yers, and he's facilitating away, standing behind his guys, not bad-mouthing them to the press, and not pulling any Billy- Martin-charging-Reggie-Jackson-in-the-dugout histrionics. (For those who haven't seen The Bronx is Burning, a Fox mini-series on the Summer of 1978: John Turturro, who plays Martin, is one hell of an actor.)

Francona's refusal to go ballistic on team members regularly brings the wrath of The Nation down on his dear little bald head.

We are pissed off when there's a bone-headed play, when Manny doesn't hustle, when someone makes a truly dumb base running error. So why isn't Francona?

Do something already! Yell, scream, let the spittle fly. Give us that satisfaction, will you please.

But whatever Francona says to his players, he's doing it privately, leaving those of us sitting in front of NESN with our mouths hanging open to pine for some Billy Martin-et getting in the player's face.

Yet when I think of the managers I've worked around and, fortunately, seldom directly for during my professional career, which ones were the biggest jerks? The ones who dressed down an employee in front of others, who hung someone on their team out to dry, who finger pointed when the flames started licking a little too close to their butts for comfort.

So, who's the better manager? Captain Queeg or Terry Francona?

Hmmmmm. Queeg got the mutiny, Francona got the World Series ring - and is sitting, however tenuously and uncomfortably if you listen to Red Sox fans, on the best record in the majors and a decent although certainly not insurmountable lead in the American League East. 

Like other middle managers, Terry Francona is also charged with carrying out someone else's strategy, and that can't always be easy. He may choose the starters and the batting order, but he doesn't choose the team. He may give advice, but he doesn't make the trades.

How often have us middle managers soldiered on, trying to execute "the plan" not of our making?

Talk about a poster boy for middle managers!

One big difference, of course, is the visibility factor. For most middle managers, the truth is that no one actually knows who the hell we are. Oh, maybe the president or CEO knows what group we're in or remembers our first name if we run into them on the elevator, but no one in the outside world recognizes us. No one comes up to us on the street and tells us what we're doing wrong. No one blames us for the slide in the stock price, the disastrous acquisition, the 20% lay-off, the moronic ad campaign. (Hey, we just work there.)

Not so with Francona, or with any other manager of a professional sports team. These guys get pestered. All the time. Especially if you manage for a team like the Red Sox with its large and rabid following, and many fans living in its diaspora. So there's no real escape whether you're in a home stand or playing in Anaheim or Tampa Bay. People come up to managers on the street and tell them off or, more benevolently, give them tedious, repetitive, unwanted advice or just plain suck up to them. ("Oh, Terry, you look so fine in that long-sleeved red tee shirt.")

Of course, I've always said that the key to being a good manager is having good people on your team. So it helps that the Red Sox are willing to open their might pocketbook and buy quality.

In any event, it ain't over 'til the Dropkick Murphy's sing Tessie, and I'm sure that I'll have plenty more to say about and to Terry Francona before this season's one for the books. But next time I get all bug-eyed, slack jawed, and w-t-f about what the guy's doing, I'm going to have to remind myself.  Terry Francona's a pretty darned good middle manager.


I make no apologies whatsoever to Gilbert and Sullivan for (mis)appropriating their words for my headline.

I will make mention of Dan Shaughnessy's column on Terry Francona in the September 3rd Boston Globe, which prompted my thoughts on Francona-the-manager.

For more on managing the Red Sox, check out: Why I'm Glad Manny Doesn't Report to Me.

Monday, September 03, 2007

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night

...and Joe told me to take the day off to celebrate Labor Day.

Far be it from me to ignore the advice of a dead labor organizer, so I'm not working today.

Meanwhile, Happy Labor Day to all the white collar, pink collar, blue collar, no collar workers who, we are told, "lead the world in labor productivity." Let's hope that are some point this starts to translate back into workers' pay packets.

Happy Labor Day especially to those who received pink slips during the last year. I hope that you've all found the work you want and need - or will soon.

Finally, Happy Labor Day to my brother Rich, who is the Executive Director of the Greater Boston Labor Council. Solidarity forever!


Joe Hill was a radical labor activist and member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies). He was executed after what many believe was a crooked trial aimed at framing Joe because of his union organizing.  "I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night" is the title (and first line) of a famous labor anthem.