Friday, November 30, 2007

Proton's Islamic Car

I'd never heard of Proton, Malaysia's national car maker, but - thanks to The Economist November 17th issue - I now know that they're coming out with an automobile aimed at Muslims.

Proton is hurtin' for certain. It sold only 130,000 cars last year, and it's export numbers were 20,000 in total. Not much of a dent in the car market - and sales numbers that led to a substantial loss. (Sure, that $169M loss is chump change compared to what a Ford or a GM might do, but it's all relative.

So their last ditch effort is a car designed for Muslims.

Which sounds pretty ridiculous.

Hard to believe that people will be clamoring for cars rigged out with a compass that points to Mecca, and special storage for a Koran and a headscarf. (Pardon me, but isn't that what we used to call the glove compartment?)

Yet people do like to buy from their own, don't they?

Half the painting-carpentry-plumbing vans in the Boston area have a shamrock painted on their side. I don't suppose they're doing that because it's bad for business.

But when it comes to driving, I'm guessing that there's really no meaningful way to differentiate along religious lines.

I guess you could have a born-again car with a radio hardwired to receive Christian stations only. Or that was named for something biblical: Goliath, The Ark.

I guess you could have a Catholic car with built-in St. Christopher medal and holy water fonts where the drink holders are now. The colors could be saint-inspired: St. Jude Green, Our Lady Blue.

The Jewish car could use Yiddish to send the driver a message: Oy, you're running low on gas! What, are you meshugas driving so fast?

The Buddhist car's interior would be completely quiet. The Hindu car could be saffron-colored and go "Ommmmmm" when you turn it on.

No, when it comes to car-buying, people want plenty of things - they want fuel economy, or pickup, or room to carry, or luxe interiors - but I don't see them sacrificing on anything for the sake of a few religiously inspired conveniences.

Plus, there's such a low barrier to entry to any of the stated Islamic features. How much does it cost to glue in a Mecca-oriented compass? If there's anything to providing these features, the incumbent companies selling into Muslim countries will be able to tack them on quite easily.

Proton doesn't even dominate the market in Malaysia. Once the protectionist gloves came off, their market share plummeted from 60% to 23% in just 5 years.

I'd say that Proton has problems that won't be solved by adding a couple of inexpensive features that no one really cares about to begin with.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Living Over the Store

One of the great pleasures of living in a city is that you can walk to shops and restaurants. I am a two-five minute walk from a grocery store, hardware store, drug store, cobbler, the Post Office, and a half-dozen restaurants. Not to mention a lot of other stuff: gift stores, florists, CVS, liquor store, 7/11, bakeries....

And I'm about a ten minute walk from Filene's Basement, Borders, Macy's, Lord and Taylor and a whole bunch other stores.

So I get why people want to live near stores.

And, of course, with city life you get a whole lot of extras: theaters, parks, urban street life, dynamism, and - if you're lucky enough to live in Boston - Fenway Park. (There are few urban experiences that compare to the walk home from Fenway after a Red Sox win.)

As I said, I get why people want to live near stores.

But I really don't get why someone wants to live near a suburban shopping mall.

Apparently, however, there are folks who are heeding the call, and are scooping up luxury condos that are tacked on to the Natick Mall. (This was reported in a recent Boston Globe article by Sarah Schweitzer.)

The condos, on the site of a defunct Wonder Bread factory [NO COMMENT], are part of a development called Nouvelle Natick. Living there, you're right on top of Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom's, and the Cheesecake Factory. Gives new meaning to living over the store, doesn't it?

The suburbs, according to Nouvelle at Natick's marketers, are places where traffic, parking woes, and other city hassles are practically nonexistent. And some buyers see in the mall development all the glitter that city living offers.

"I have lived in the Back Bay, and it was very collegiate, very busy and noisy. It just wasn't San Francisco," said Donna Niles, a director of creative services for a fragrance company in her 30s who once lived on the West Coast and is now is mulling the purchase of a Nouvelle at Natick unit. "I think living at the mall would have a little more of that feeling."

Earth to Donna: I really don't think living in a mall is going to feel like San Francisco. LA, maybe. But San Fran?

She also expects to find like-minded people.

"I am sick of Faneuil Hall and the bars there. I am buying Manolo Blahniks," she said, referring to a brand of shoes that costs hundreds of dollars. "I don't like beer being tossed on them. That's not my idea of fun anymore. And that's the part of Boston that's missing. It's nice for the college students and the twentysomethings. But for the thirtysomethings and fortysomethings it starts to get, like, where do you go? You want to hang out with a different caliber of people."

And Boston to Donna: There are adults in Boston. Thirty-somethings. Forty-somethings. Even - gasp - fifty- and sixty-somethings. Who are a different caliber of people than the folks tossing back brews and leering at waitresses at The Rack. Although, in truth, if you're looking for fellow Manolo wearers, you are probably best to forego the bricks on Beach Hill for the faux-whatever at Nouvelle of Natick.

One of the couples who've just bought into Nouvelle have businesses in Hudson, a former mill town in Central Massachusetts. I understand why they might not find Hudson quite, well, nouvelle for them. Especially if they view shopping as a way of life.

"It's a little scary living above a mall," Kellie DuGally said. "I told Michael that he'd have to get a second job."

"We both love shopping," Michael DuGally said. "So why not live someplace where there is so much stuff accessible?"

"So much stuff accessible." If ever there was a motto for the American Way of Life in the early 21st century.

Michael DuGally had more to say:

He added, "It's like getting the Newbury Street experience, without having to fight for parking."

Okay, Michael, I'll give you the "fight for parking."

But "it's like getting the Newbury Street experience."

No, it's not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

To Have and Have Not

I was intrigued by a short note in this month's Atlantic that addressed a recent Pew Research Center study on how Americans see our society increasingly divided into two groups, the "haves" and the "have nots".

I'm one of those believers that we're heading in the direction of a have/have not world, and that the shrinking fortunes of the middle class will have a lot to do with it. Not surprisingly, I'm - demographically speaking - spot on for those who see the country as divided into haves and have nots: female, East Coast, Democrat.

Admittedly, the survey is based on the fuzzy notion of perception. At least from what I've seen of it, there's no real definition of what constitutes a "have" vs. a "have not" - it's whatever you see it as.

So we never really find out whether a "have" is someone who doesn't have to worry about money, or whether a "have not" someone who's about to get their house repossessed. Does a "have not" have to shop at WalMart? Is a "have" anyone with a summer home? Is a "have" anyone with more than I have? A nicer car, bigger house, bigger IRA?

But, perception is everything in life, isn't it?

My first reaction to this it that, with pockets of dire poverty in the midst of our American plenty, we need to get a grip here: compared to most of the world, even our "have nots" live better lives in terms of health and material comfort than large segments of the population in Asia, Africa, and South America.

Still, the study is interesting, and some of the numbers are startling.

...the number of Americans who see themselves among the "have-nots" of society has doubled over the past two decades, from 17% in 1988 to 34% today. In 1988, far more Americans said that, if they had to choose, they probably were among the "haves" (59%) than the "have-nots" (17%). Today, this gap is far narrower (45% "haves" vs. 34% "have-nots").

Only 43% of middle-income Americans perceive themselves as "haves" - down from 61% in 1988.  In the lower economic tear, the number who see themselves as "have nots" grew from 28 to 47% over the same period.

Perversely, of those in the upper third in terms of income, those who considered themselves "haves" dropped from 82% to 66% between 1988 and 2007, and the number who saw themselves as "have nots" grew from 15% to 27%.

Am I the only person who's shocked to find that nearly 1/3 of those in the top third of income see themselves as "have nots"?

So what's behind all this?

For one, I think that the more we know about the lifestyles of the rich and famous, the easier it is for us to slip into the sense that we are "have nots". Sure, we may have a flat screen HD TV, but we don't have A-Rod's contract. We don't have Paris Hilton's bling. We don't have Donald Trump's gilded palace.

Now I might say who cares, but uber-wealth is in our faces a lot more than it was when the Vanderbilts decamped each summer to The Breakers in Newport. Sure, people knew that "they" lived in immense luxury, but it wasn't in their faces morning, noon, and night.

And while they may not be household faces or names, we all know that the average CEO salary is now a zillion times that of the average worker, where just a few short years ago, it was a small and manageable multiple.

Then there is the very real issue of middle class manufacturing and white collar jobs disappearing - and without the up-up switcheroo we saw when manufacturing first started to seep away, only to be replaced by "better" jobs in high tech.

I don't think anyone sees where the better jobs are coming from this time.

I once heard someone on NPR positing that we would turn from a nation of shoe producers to shoe designers. Well, that may be so, but the ratio of shoe designer to shoe factory worker is not exactly one-on-one, is it? We can't all be shoe designers.

What else fuels the perception that more of us are "have nots"? Obviously, there's general lack of security that people feel about their personal (economic) futures. Sure, some of this is our own damned fault, spending money on HD TV's when we should have been saving for retirement.

But even the most prudent of savers, those sticking with their rabbit-eared black and white tube TV's and putting the savings in the bank, are far less likely to have pensions than the generation before us.  I've worked at places with little or no 401K matching. One place I work matched the first $100 contribution. Yippee! Not exactly a defined benefit plan.

Doing this all savings for the future on your own is hard.

That's no excuse for having $40K worth of credit card debt rolled up buying crap you don't need, while having "savings" of $400 to last you a lifetime. But the dawning realization that being a good citizen-consumer may help fuel the economy, but does nada for future preparedness, is likely bringing some people to perceive that they are - gulp - "have nots". Or are about to become one.

Personal (gulp!) economic future aside, there's also the unsettling notion that the jig just might be up on the Amazing American Spending Spree. Mortgage crisis. Debtor nation. China buying Maytag. Petro-fueled lifestyle - a chicken in every pot, and 3-4 cars in those big old garages. Europeans lighting cigars with $50 bills - hey, didn't that used to be us????

As for me, I'm a definite "have." And most everyone I know is a have as well.

Sure, I know people with a lot more money than I have - better homes, better gardens, nicer cars, nicer clothing - but, hey, that's life. Compared to them, I'm a "have not". Compared to most of the people in the country, let alone the world.

I am one lucky "have."

So just what were those upper income people thinking when they characterized themselves as "have nots?"

If even the rich folks think they're poor folks, who do you fight your class warfare against?


There are two pretty funny cartoons in the November 26 New Yorker that speak to this, by the way. In one, a man is talking to his shrink, telling him "Yes, I do count my blessings, but then I end up counting those of others who have more and better blessings and that pisses me off."

In the other, a man in a business suit is panhandling, holding a sign that reads "Help me fill my offshore accounts."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Crowning Glory

He's at it again.

For the last few years, just around this time, Dominic Luberto has made the Boston news. For those who don't live in the area, or for those who live in the area but don't pay attention to the news and/or don't drive down the Arborway anytime during November and December, Luberto is the fellow who each year decorates his mock-Tudor castle with a gazillion lights.


The stories are always the same: annoyed neighbors who have to put up with the glare, the traffic, and  - until KeySpan put in a bulked up transformer - electricity brown outs; someone who really likes looking at the lights; and Luberto himself defending his right to light up his life - and the life of everyone who lives anywhere within a spotlight's distance from him.

This year's commotion is about a hefty gold crown that Luberto has added to the display.

Luberto claims its a decoration; the City claims its a structure that Luberto hasn't gotten a permit for. (Or maybe he has. I was in the neighborhood on Saturday evening to gawk, and we briefly spoke with Luberto, who was out working the crowd.) Some neighbors fear that in a good stiff wind, the crown will go airborne and crush some ogler or kid walking by.

I've been by Luberto's house a number of times, and the decorations are ridiculously outlandish - a couple of hundred thousand lights, inflatable Santas, penguins, snowmen, choo-choo train, flying reindeer, etc. One of the light displays is an American flag tree. There's also - nice nod to ecumenism - a big, glowing Star of David.

I'm not anti-Christmas lights, by any means. Growing up, one of the holiday highlights was piling into the car to drive around Worcester gaping at the lights. Sure, we liked to go over to the Westside of the city and see the tasteful displays of the rich folk in their big mock-Colonials and mock-Tudors. All those nice all is calm white candles, the simple spotlight on the front door wreathe... But what we really wanted to see was the all is bright people, those who went nuts with candy canes, snowmen, manger scenes, carolers, Santa on the roof, etc. The over the top display people tended to live in neighborhoods like ours: modest one family houses, two-family houses, and three-deckers. (It was the one family houses that went in for the mega decorations. There must have been something so liberating about getting that GI Bill Cape Cod or ranch house. No more worrying about what the cranky tenants upstairs would say. Santa Claus was comin' to town!

I also like the lights they put up on the trees around the Boston Common, and up the Commonwealth Avenue Mall (that's a walking mall, by the way, not a shopping mall).  They're bright and festive, and I miss them when they're taken down (or turned off - I think some years they leave the lights in place).

So, I like lights. Even though global warming's making it a bit balmier, it's still a dark and gloomy time of year. Let there be lights.

But Luberto's house...

One of the first thing that strikes the drive-by gawker is that this is not the type of neighborhood where people tend to go in for major glow in the dark.

The Arborway, where Luberto's castle-like home is located, is full of large, pricey, elegant homes. From the get-go, then, Luberto is putting himself at odds with his neighbors with his déclassé display. Part of me says ha-ha; the other part of me asks: why set something up that aggravates and affronts the people who live around you?

Of course, Luberto's house is a bit of an odd job to begin with. In a neighborhood of vast, stately, Protestant-ethic-and-the-spirit-of-Capitalism homes, his looks like a castle. Sort of. Anyway, it's far different than the houses surrounding it. Not quite Mad King Ludwig, but....

Lights aside, Luberto does provide a certain amount of local color. It's not clear where he made the money that allows him to own a $1.7M house, and drive the Hummer that I saw in the back yard parking lot. Real estate is the working hypothesis, although he claims to be a musician. He has something of the "Hey, I made it in America!" about him - he's not "from here" - I read somewhere that he's from Argentina. I'm sure that the immigrant hustle doesn't help endear him to the more understated folks in the 'hood.

And speaking of hustle, the man's also selling a self-published "Find Dominic Decorating" book for kids - with web site and all - for $9.90 plus shipping and handling. He was handing out little flyers for it when I saw him on Saturday. He'd like to sell a million copies, and is donating $.25 from each copy to Children's Hospital. I'll just bet he'd like to sell a million....It can't be cheap keeping all those lights on.

And speaking of keeping all those lights on, in this day and age, don't we have to sort of question the waste of energy - the energy-energy (let Luberto waste all the human energy he wants putting his lights up and taking them down). Shouldn't we all be thinking about making at least modest, symbolic attempts at conservation? Not forcing our local utility to set up a new transformer so that we won't blow the grid for the neighborhood.

I'm just happy I live nowhere near Dominic Luberto's house, which I'm certain would be a constant irritation throughout the holiday season.

But I will admit that, when I drive by it, or, as I did the other evening, walk around it, it does indeed make me smile, if only at the goofy wonder of it all. Of course, it also made me want to sing what is quite possibly the worst Christmas song ever: "Dominick the Donkey."

Hey, chingedy-ching, hee-haw, hee-haw

It's Dominick the Donkey

Chingedy-ching, hee-haw,hee-haw

The Italian Christmas donkey

La la la, la la la la la la....

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sacred Sea: A Journey to Lake Baikal

Truly, I might not have picked up this book if I hadn't seen Peter Thomson working away on it at The Writers' Room of Boston. (Actually, what I saw was the back of Peter Thomson's head while he was working away on it.)

Truly, I might have seen the title and passed on by: Lake Baikal? Somewhere in Russia? Anything to do with balalaika?

Truly, if I hadn't read this beautifully-written and exceedingly interesting book I would have been missing out on something.

It's hard to pin down exactly what sort of a book Sacred Sea is, so if you're a reader who needs your reading matter tightly compartmentalized, you should avoid this one.

But to do so would be to miss out on a deeply engaging memoir, a highly entertaining travel book (and boys' adventure), and a remarkably acute (and non-polemic) cautionary tale about the environment.

A few years back, Peter Thomson, the editor and producer of NPR's environmental news program Living on Earth, found himself at the loose ends a lot of folks do at 40-ish.

Peter's way of tying up the loose ends was to embark on an around the world boat and train (no planes!) journey with his younger brother, a journey that would center on Siberia's Lake Baikal. Lake Baikal is a natural wonder - the world's largest body of fresh water and home to a unique ecosystem that includes the nerpa (the world's only fresh water seal), and - most remarkably - a minute shrimp species (epischura baicalensis) that does double duty as an element in the food chain and as the filtration system that keeps Lake Baikal's water remarkably clean.

As with pretty much everything else on our fair planet, Lake Baikal is in some danger. There's a heavily-polluting paper mill on its shores, and as anyone who's ever been near enough to a paper mill to smell it, just keep in mind that the smelly stuff isn't just in the air: there's plenty of run-off effluent, too. (Years ago I spent a couple of days in Berlin NH which, at that time, was home to a couple of paper mills. I still remember what the river running through town looked like: the top of a lemon meringue pie.)

But many of the Baikal locals are convinced that epischura will save the day, adapting its ingenious filtration process to filter out industrial pollutants. This seems too much to ask of one little zooplankton - and it seems like wishful thinking.

To date, though, Lake Baikal has been spared most of the depredations of industrial growth, mostly because it's so remote, cold, and bleak.

Thus, it has retained much of its beauty.

Of course, in this day of interest in more exotic travel than plain old vanilla Paris-London-Rome, there's some risk that Lake Baikal will become a "destination." Today, there's some small competition between the eco-tourism forces (who attract visitors who rough it, bunk and sup with the locals, help put in trails, clean up refuse, etc.) and the more glamorous (and destructive) resort developers. Again, Baikal's remoteness may somewhat spare it from souvenir stands selling "Someone who loves me went to Lake Baikal and bought me this tee-shirt".

But will the overall forces of industrialization - and the concomitant global warming - give Lake Baikal a pass?


Peter manages to talk to a number of people on all sides of the Baikal issue - scientists, business people, environmentalists, politicos - and these conversations make for compelling reading.

So do all the sections on getting from Point A to Point B, legs of the journey largely made on cargo ships and not particularly comfortable trains. Other than the final leg of the trip - when Peter took "The Posh Way Home" on the QE2 - Peter went native in his travels, and thus left himself open to the types of encounters you won't have if you're riding the clean toilet tourist bus with the Kiwanis Club.

I know that I am not doing Sacred Sea much justice.

How about I just say that it's an elegantly written book, about universal topics of interest (including purpose in life, family, friends, the environment, politics, and the Boston Red Sox), yet very particularly about Lake Baikal (and its people and surrounds).

My one quibble with the book is a production one: the photographs, taken by Peter's brother James, are gray and a bit fuzzy, some of them hard to make out. This is too bad. Based on the well-reproduced cover photo, my guess is that the problem wasn't with the pictures themselves.)

Minor point.

Those looking for a good read (or a good gift idea) should put Sacred Sea on their list.

Friday, November 23, 2007

How to overcome a food coma

Did you go a little too heavy on the mashed and gravy yesterday? Did you really need that second slice of pie - however teensie? Did you forget to put your hand over your wine glass when someone started to pour? (In our family, it's not necessarily the host who pours: it's whoever's closest to the bottle(s).)

If you're like most Americans, you're just getting over your food coma.

Thanks to my sister Kathleen, I have the perfect antidote:

Turkey hat

Cured? I thought so. The shock alone...

The above picture is of a "sexy turkey hat" and ultra-practical tea cozy from craftsperson extra-ordinaire Angela Catirina.

Check out the holiday patterns - this is actually not the only turkey hat available. Check out the tea cozies - I particularly like the eggplant and the artichoke.

You don't have to be a knitter or a crocheter to appreciate the designs. Just wild.

And just another testimony to the creative capacity of the infinitely interesting and entertaining American economy.

Happy Day After Thanksgiving.

(And what are you doing reading a blog? You should be out exercising your right and duty as an American to go shopping.)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanksgiving Day 2007

So, just what am I thankful for today?

I'm thankful that my broken arm is healing fast - and that I'm a five minute walk from Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the finest hospitals in the world.

I'm thankful that I no longer have a car in downtown Boston, that I no longer have to worry about parking spots, shoveling out, or rats in my engine.

I am thankful that I get to spend the day at my cousin Robert's lovely home, with the combined Wheeler-Rogers clans who've been celebrating Thanksgiving together since 1946. evelyn

I am thankful for the new client I start work with next week on a really interesting project, in a domain I know very little about.  And for all the other clients who provided me with work over the past year.

I am thankful, of course, for family and friends, for hearth and home, for health (broken arm aside) and happiness (getting rid of that $(#*)@(&#& car!).

I am thankful that I have enough money to make a donation to St. Francis House.

St. Francis House, the largest day shelter for the homeless and poor in New England, is a remarkable place.

It feeds and clothes an awful lot of needy people, and sees to their medical and counseling needs, but, more important, St. Francis House helps people rebuild their lives.

They do this through their Moving Ahead Program (MAP), which helps people work through whatever it is in their past that has kept them down - bad luck, bad choices - and gives them the support and structure they need to get beyond.  Moving Ahead graduates succeed in getting and holding jobs, in staying sober, in finding housing, in renewing their lives. I don't have the "fast fact" right here at my fingertips, but my recall is that nearly 90% of MAP alumni make the gigantic step from lives on the street (and/or in prison) to meaningful, productive lives in the community. 

There's a waiting list of over 200 who are ready to turn their lives around and get into MAP.

The need is so great!

No, today's small donation won't speed up the waiting list for MAP. But it will help feed and clothe the folks on that waiting list. It will help provide the counseling and programs that will help them hang on while they wait.

If you want to learn more about St. Francis House, click here. And if you want to make a donation, I can more than guarantee you that the money will be very well spent. As for the art work shown above? I thought it made a good Thanksgiving Day motif. It was painted by Evelyn, a St. Francis House regular, who was also a regular in the writing workshop I ran, where she worked on a memoir about growing up in Dorchester.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Expert Advice

A couple of years ago, I was having some laptop performance problems, so I brought my computer in for servicing to a storefront consultancy not far from where I live.

The fellow who looked at my laptop would have made himself right at home answering a Hollywood casting call for geeks: bad hair, bad glasses  - thick-lensed bad glasses, little eye contact coming from behind those glasses, weird personality.

None of this would have mattered if it had seemed as if the guy knew what he was talking about. But I've worked with a lot of good techies over the years, and this guy was not giving off any sort of good techie vibes.

He did a few pro forma things, announcing what he was doing with a bogus and condescending voice of authority  - defragged the disk, cleaned out some cookies, a couple of other like things I could (and had) done for myself - then sent me on my way.

A hundred dollars lighter. A hundred dollars that I could have put toward the new laptop I ended up buying a month or so later.

This wasn't the first time something like this had happened. I'd called up plenty of customer service lines over the years and listened to (and followed) advice that I knew had nothing whatsoever to do with the problem I was having. Instead, the advice I was given seemed like a rote recital of possible remedies for some problem or another, read off a checklist in hopes that a) something would work at least temporarily, or b) I'd get discouraged and give up.

It's not just tech repairs, of course. The same thing happens with home repairs. Car repairs. And, presumably body repairs - although I think I've always been fortunate enough to get good medical advice.

Which led me to develop my rule of thumb when taking advice about things I don't know that much about: if the advice sounds as if really doesn't have anything to do with your understanding of the problem, it's probably not very good advice. Operating off sheer logic, combined with a bit of intuition, I have a pretty good track record for diagnosing bad advice.

Three problems always remain, however:

  • Just because the advice sounds plausible, doesn't mean it's any good.
  • I may know that the answer I'm being given isn't the right one, but I still don't know what the right answer is.
  • If the expert tells me that, in the course of his exploration, he's found other problems I didn't even know about, problems that were just about to rear up and nip me in the butt, I have no way of figuring out whether said expert is blowing smoke or not.

What's an advice seeker to do?

Apparently there's not much that you can do, other than rely on your own network to put you in touch with the great computer guy/electrician/mechanic/doctor.

If you're left to your own advice-getting devices, you'll run right smack into the fact that a lot of so-called experts just aren't very good.

So I wasn't surprised at all to read the results of a study that were written up in a recent NY Times article by Bill Wingell that detailed a study by grad student Henry Schneider that found that the majority of mechanics didn't get his car problems - caused by a deliberately loosened battery cable and removal of coolant - right.

Mr. Schneider was trying to answer a question that has occurred to pretty much all drivers who have ever been given the unsettling news that a car needs more repairs than they had expected: Does it really? Or is the garage just looking to make some extra money off me?...

At only 27 of the 40 garages did mechanics tell Mr. Schneider that he had a disconnected battery cable, the very problem to which he had pointed them by saying his car didn’t always start. Only 11 mentioned the low coolant, a problem that can ruin a car’s engine. Ten of the garages, meanwhile, recommended costly repairs that were plainly unnecessary, like replacing the starter motor or the battery.

I may be wrong here, but my sense is usually not that the folks doing the diagnosing are trying to rip you off for bigger, more costly repairs. This could be the case, but I tend to think that it's generally more a matter of the experts just not being any damned good.

That said, the temptation of those diagnosing a problem that they're going to fix to heap on, to keep on finding problems, is pretty great. That's not always a bad thing, of course - if the problems are real, or potentially real, and the solution is a real fix, not a fake one - or a fix with a jacked up price, just because they think you don't know any better.

(The article goes on to extend the argument to the health care system, stating that the same flaw exists because the same doctor's doing the diagnosing are doing the repairing. I'll cross that bridge if and when the orthopedic guy recommends surgery to repair my broken arm, which I don't think is going to happen given the leaps and bounds recovery I seem to be making.)

In any case, in the complex world we live in, surrounded by complex goods governed by complex systems, there's no way any of us are going to become unalloyed experts in everything. No way out of the fact that we're going to have to rely on plenty of expert advice.

Too bad there's no way of a priori separating out the good advice from the bad. Sp I guess I'll just have to stick to my own personal rule of thumb: if the expert advice doesn't seem to make much sense, it's probably no damned good.


Thanks to Rick T for pointing this article out to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Born to manage in the USA

I saw The Boss last night - my first Springsteen concert. I have not historically been a big fan, but my sister Trish has been one since high school, and over the years I've grown to enjoy his work. I even have a couple of his albums on my iPod (although I do find that I drive faster when I'm listening to Bruce). And I certainly have respect for his talent, work ethic, and, admittedly, his politics.

I especially admire those performers who manage to stay relevant and creative, rather than recycling their hits from yore on the oldies concert circuit. (Paul Simon's another one who comes to mind.)

So I was interested in a recent US News and World Report article, which appeared on MSN, that used Bruce Springsteen as a model for managing "a venerable but aging brand." Here's the advice they came up with:

Never let your customers rest. When Springsteen performs, most of his songs end like this: "1-2-3-4!" That's because he's starting the next song before the current one has even ended...By keeping the crowd on its toes, the band keeps demand at a fever pitch -- kind of the way Apple does, with its rapid flow of new gizmos pushing older products out of the way. But with way better buzz.

Innovate. Don't worry, there were no sitars or operatic flourishes at the concert, but Springsteen is brilliant at expanding his brand image without ever shifting his center of gravity...Springsteen's knack for turning old material into something completely new seems like a magic touch compared with all the lame efforts to create hip, modern variations of old TV shows or movies. Instead of copying success, he creates it all over again.

Give the people what they want. Experiments get a more welcome reception when mingled with something familiar.

Share credit. ...this is one maestro who spreads the glory across the stage... It's a pretty neat marketing trick to create a cult of personality around somebody known for humility. Quick -- can anyone name a CEO able to pull that off?

Set expectations. Then reset them. And reset them. And . . . The Garden concert ended after about two hours -- prompting groans in the crowd, even though it was an electrifying show...Springsteen has driven customer satisfaction so high that he can deliver a great product and still disappoint his customers.

Love what you do. Just a hunch, but I have a feeling that Springsteen thoroughly enjoys his job... and if you're pumped about what you do, those around you are more likely to twist and shout right along with you. Not to mention keep on spending.

Okay, this was advice for what the CEO of the corporation with the aging brand can do. But most of it holds for those of us who are plain old individual Baby Boomers still hanging on in the workplace, through economic need, the desire to keep working, or both.

I find it interesting that we keep hearing both that the Baby Boomers skills are needed in the workplace, and that it's hard for people over 50 to get work.  (Not to mention that those under 50 want nothing better than to see those hunched, aged backs scooting out the door.)

But I do suspect that those who are having the greatest difficulty finding and hanging on to employment are those who aren't innovating, who are pretty much set in the ways "we used to do it", rather than expanding their personal and professional portfolios in a ways that demonstrate that they know what's happening in the world today - and maybe even take part, at least around the fringes.

Because they're not open to innovation, to incorporating the new into their repertoire of oldies, the Boomers who aren't having any luck with work they want and need may just not be coming across as people who love what they do. They might love what they did in 1972, 1981, or 1995, but maybe they're not getting with the 21st century program.

I am by no means a perpetual innovator. Frankly, sometimes I find the idea of learning one more new thing mind- and spirit-numbingly overwhelming. To hell with Web 2.0, social media, downloading ringtones... And OMG, if I have to translate one more text abbreviation....

Yet I am continually picking up new tricks, acquiring new tools, and using them to help my clients navigate the choppy waters that all of our boats seem to be floating in these days.

New tricks, in turn, help me enjoy my work far more than if I were sticking 100% to the way I've always done things. I might not go so far as to use the "L" word, but when I come up with something that genuinely helps a client, I certainly capital-L LIKE what I'm doing.

As for The Boss last night?

He was brilliant. What have I been waiting for all these years?


Thanks to Trish for finding the article on Springsteen and management, and for the ticket to see the show.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Resting in Peace at Disneyland

I heard on the news the other day that a Massachusetts fishing boat had caught a body in their nets. The body was identified as that of someone who had been legally buried at sea a few years ago. It seems that you can get permission if you agree to dispose of the remains at least three miles out and in water that's 600 feet deep. Apparently, as those poor fishermen found out, that's not failsafe. Talk about catch of the day! (Hmmmm. Wonder what they did with the fish in their nets. Think I'll pass on the scrod for a while.)

In any case, the deceased's family could have avoided this less than pleasant blowback if they'd cremated their love one and tossed the ashes overboard.

Ashes, after all, just mix and mingle with other natural elements, so it must be OK to pretty much scatter them anywhere, right?

Well, it might be OK to scatter them in the great outdoors, but apparently there are plenty of people who want to spend eternity in the great indoors - or however it is that you would categorize rides at Disneyland.

According to Al Lutz, a Disney-watcher who writes at MiceAge, Disneyland has been dealing with a pretty hideous problem for the last decade: cleaning up the ashes that some lunk head wants left in the Flying Dumbos or some other meaningful place at the Magic Kingdom.

Here's Al Lutz:

The craze seems to have gotten its start at the Haunted Mansion, with the earliest known incident taking place in the late 1990's. Ever since then the practice becomes more popular by the year, and it happens so frequently now that Disneyland has trained the ride operators how to handle such an incident and what to do when remains are discovered inside the attraction. Sometimes the person spreading the ashes is seen on the surveillance cameras and the Cast Members can respond quickly.

Because they have been instructed by the Security and Legal departments to never actually detain a park visitor, most of the perpetrators spreading the ashes are never actually caught however, and they disappear into the park. But when a Haunted Mansion Cast Member sees ashes being spread from a passing Doom Buggy, the attraction is cycled out and shut down for hours at a time while the Custodial department comes in and begins the clean up. The Anaheim Police are also involved in the incident, but there's rarely anything they can do about it either.

And it's not just the Haunted Mansion attraction. Recently, there was a sighting of someone strewing ashes in the Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride.  She claimed it was baby powder - oh, that old excuse - but when the cleanup unit arrived, they found something a little crunchier and grayer than talcum.

The ride was closed down while Disney maintenance brought out their special vacuum systems with special HEPA filters and suctioned up whoever it was who always thought of himself as a Jack Sparrow kind of guy.

No word on where those vacuum bags get dumped.

It's been a couple of decades since I stepped foot in Disneyland, but I do remember the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and it's easy for me to imagine a few others where someone might want to flick their loved ones ashes:  Into the maw of the hippo on the Jungle Ride. Inside the guts of the Matterhorn or Space Mountain. Off the decks of the Mississippi paddle-wheeler.

You'd leave too much of a trail in the Spinning Teacups or the Flying Dumbos, but it Mr. Toad's Wild Ride is still around, it would be pretty easy to toss a handful or two out the door of your flivver.

But the big question is: Who Would Want To Spend Eternity in Disneyland? It just seems so goofy, so dopey, so mickey mouse.

And I can't be the only one who's aghast at the prospect of spending my afterlife in the midst of cranky tourists, overpriced souvenir shops, and clean cut college kids dressed up like Snow White and Goofy. Talk about hell on earth. (At least you wouldn't have to pay the entry fee for the privilege.)

With all the beautiful places there are on the face of the earth, why would someone choose Disneyland?

I know, I know. I've said that I wouldn't mind a few of my ashes strewn on the warning track at Fenway, but I was thinking of a very small amount of very fine grained matter - not a paper bag full of bone chunks. And now I'm rethinking even that. 

No, give me the woods or ocean, or stomp my remains into the earth around one of the many burial plots occupied by my relatives in St. Joseph's Cemetery in Leicester, Massachusetts.

Just put me someplace where no one's going to come along and Hoover me up, while in the background a chorus of disgruntled park attendees complain about why the ride's temporarily closed. Someplace where there's zero chance that I'll hear Jiminy Cricket doing "When You Wish Upon a Star" (or the little mice singing "Cinderelly, Cinderelly"). Someplace that wouldn't dare to make the claim to being "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Friday, November 16, 2007

TajTune this one in (or out)

In the beginning, there were e-greetings or e-cards or whatever else they were called. And they made sense.

No, they did not give quite as much pleasure as sifting through your sheaf of bills and worthy cause letters and coming across something personal: a personally addressed card, in the personally addressing handwriting of someone you know and love. Happy Birthday to you. Get well soon. For my Valentine.

But, still, it was always fun when an e-greeting popped up in your e-mail and you knew someone was thinking of you.

Well, if someone is really thinking of you, or you're really thinking of someone, you just might want to surprise them with a TajTune from India - a twentieth century singing telegram for only $5.

A TajTune is not just any old pedestrian "Happy Birthday to You." No, they have their own hip and happening birthday song, a romance ditty, and a get well greeting.

"Feel Better"
From an island far away
A little birdie came to say
(Recipient's Name), please feel better
This little birdie flew far and wide
To sing a song to make you smile
(Recipient's Name), please feel better
Just imagine
The ocean breeze
The shining sun
The dancing trees
Let the island weather
help you feel better!

Then there's the congratulations song:

Hats off to you
You deserve a cookie
Okay... Maybe two!
Fresh baked cookies!
Smell those cookies
Yummy cookies
Fresh baked cookies
A pat on your back
But you won't get two cookies
You deserve the whole batch
Fresh baked cookies!
Smell those cookies
Yummy cookies
Fresh baked cookies... For you

Actually, I'd be more than a little peeved if someone sent me this one. If I deserve fresh baked cookies - the whole batch - then I want fresh baked cookies - the whole batch. Unless they're backing the TajTune up with a cookie or two, this one doesn't make all that much sense.

Oh, well, quibble as I do about the content, scintillating lyrics like these do TajTunes little justice. You really do need to hop on over there and listen for yourself.

And don't let the Bollywood Donny Osmond on the home page throw you off. The voice behind the TajTunes is not glamorous at all. In fact, when it comes to voice quality, it sounds surprisingly like a me-or-you voice - capable of carrying a tune, but not much beyond that. Not to mention that it also sounds like the voice of "Brian" or "Josh", back there in Bangalore helping you with your technical assistance question.

Looks like the singing telegram - "Your sister Rose is dead!" - is one more thing that's been outsourced.

The TajTune is recorded and sent to you (the sender) along with a recording of the recipient's reaction to the "surprise."

I can imagine there'll be more than a few WTF's recorded along the way.


Thanks to my sister Trish for pointing TajTunes out to me. If I wasn't too cheap, I'd send you a TajTune of thanks.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Obligatory Fun

When I was in high school, we invented the notion of "obligatory fun". Obligatory fun drills occurred whenever the nuns provided us with some little break in the routine. All that was required of us in return was that we feign enthusiasm, which sometimes we were hard put to do.

On one memorable Friday afternoon, we were called to the auditorium for a surprise showing of a film. This happened occasionally, and the one thing you could be pretty sure of was that the choice of film would be abysmal - something that the Notre Dame Academy girls of an earlier era would have jumped for joy to see, but which we just rolled our eyes for.

On this Friday, the entertainment was a corn-ball musical starring Mario Lanza - no doubt chosen because Mario was a Catholic.

Mario Lanza!

This was at a time when the student body was pretty well split along the lines of Beatles, Stones, and Bob Dylan.

Mario Lanza!

Well, at least it wasn't a religious clunker like "Embezzled Heaven," another one I recall as a black and white movie that turned into color when the action moved to the Vatican and they showed Pope Pius XII being carried around on his sedan chair.

On our return to homeroom, Sister Josephine informed us that we were a bunch of ingrates, that in the day a Mario Lanza film would have been welcomed with wild cheering, a standing ovation. From here on out, we were warned, we'd be well served if we showed some enthusiasm.

Thus, we coined the term obligatory fun to cover all those occasions that were someone else's idea of a good time. Smile, gush, applause, cheer. We were nice enough girls to oblige.

Years later, I saw obligatory fun in action at a Boston Pops summer concert down on the Esplanade by the Charles River.

Sitting on the blanket next to where I was camped out were a young couple and their little girl, who appeared to be about two years old. During one of the songs, the mother was trying with no luck to get her kid to clap along.

"Clap, honey," she kept saying, becoming more and more agitated as her little one refused to get with the program. After numerous exhortations, the mother grabbed the little girl by the arm and hissed at her, "Clap or I'll clap your ass."

Obligatory fun in action. Have a good time, or else.

Which, of course, we've all seen in the corporate world when someone or other - generally a someone or other as far removed from understanding what will "work" to boost the spirits of employees as, say, that old technicolor pope on his chair - decides that something must be done for morale.

Now, it doesn't matter what you do to improve morale, there will always be cynics who sneer, but, let's face it, most of us don't mind having our morale raised - as long as it's done in an authentic way, the morale-raising event is something that genuinely appeals to a reasonable proportion of the employees whose morale is being raised, and as long as those involved in doling out the morale are really engaged. (Or are such good actors, we believe that they are.)

On my last Christmas Eve at Wang, they replaced what had been a genuinely fun and well-received tradition - morning parties to which everyone could bring their kids, followed by the afternoon off - with a "new" tradition: turkey dinner served up by senior executives. And no afternoon off. (Instead, there was a stern memo sent out reminding everyone that if they left early they had to take a half a vacation day. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.)

I thought of all this after a friend told me about a nice tradition in his workplace that had deteriorated into something that actually became even worse than obligatory fun.

His company had been holding monthly gatherings to celebrate everyone who had a birthday that month. Yes, they were no doubt trying to put an end to all the time-wasting individual birthday celebrations that, in fact, may have made some birthday boys and girls feel excluded. Still, they would get a nice cake, invite everyone in the group into a conference room, sing Happy Birthday to those whose month it was, and generally make everybody happy - especially those who got end-cuts of sheet cake with lots of greasy, sugary frosting.

Well, someone new was charged with keeping up the Birthday-of-the-Month tradition, and she wasn't all that happy with it. For her, something that had clearly become obligatory was just no fun.

Thus, on Birthday Cake Day, in early afternoon, an e-mail went out:

"The September birthday cake has been delivered. It's in Conference Room B. Feel free to take a piece."

Okay. A piece of sheet cake is generally welcome in the workplace, and I'm sure that people piled out of their offices and cubes and helped themselves. But so much for the tradition of getting the team together for a little mini-break, a small chance to socialize, an opportunity to get to know the guy two cubes down a little bit better.

So much for a morale boosting opportunity.

Maybe it's all for the best.

Because, let's face the fact that there's really nothing that works to improve morale as success in the business: exceeding the numbers, finishing the project, getting a new client... All the sheet cakes in the world can't substitute for really good news.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

What's in your spam filter?

If there's one Internet-ish thing I don't get it is who on earth actually responds to crazy spam e-mails?

Presumably, somebody must, or they wouldn't be sent out in such insanely prodigious amounts. But I just don't get it. An e-mail comes in from a complete stranger - say, Blake Fontenot, - offering you the opportunity to "obtain huge dic'k" and there's actually a living, breathing, sentient human being out there who says to himself, 'Hey, I may not know Blake Fontenot, but I sure wouldn't mind hearing a little more about what he has to offer."

Who are these people?  Are they nuts? (Senders and responders.)

Most of my spam comes to my gmail address, where the spam filter catches almost all of it.

Occasionally, I stroll through - never clicking on anything, but just taking a look at what's being offered. And enjoying some of the more interesting and colorful names.

So what's in my spam filter?

I guess I'm a laggard here, but it's only recently that I've gotten on the list for all the male genitalia related offers. Forget Viagra and Cialis. Ward V. Griggs wrote to let me know that my new penis is waiting for me.

Gosh, Ward, a new penis? I hadn't realized that I needed one. I mean, I've gotten along without one for my whole, entire life.

Some of the mail headers read like bad porn. Or what I imagine bad porn would read like, since I actually haven't read any porn, good or bad. Genevieve Field: you should be ashamed of yourself.

One fellow sent me greetings, asking me if I like "german har...", but I was reluctant to click on this and see what "har..." turned into. That message, I'm sure, would have come to no good.

Of course, it's not all X rated.

There are a lot of people out there sending me confirmation for my pharmacy orders.

You must have the wrong Maureen Rogers.

The one and only prescriptions I've gotten during the last year - both filled at the friendly, neighborhood non-chain pharmacy - were for a) an ear infection; b) pain reliever for my broken arm. Which made me so groggy and rope-a-doped that I only took three of them, without dispensing of the rest of the pills.

The e-mails letting me know that my loan - make that !oan - has been approved seem almost quaint and wholesome.

But, again, who gets an e-mail about a drug order or loan application they didn't make and responds to it?

I know that the numbers must be there, or no one would bother to send our spam. I suppose if it only costs a few cents to blast out a million e-mails, and you get a couple of live-ones to respond, you're golden.

But who in their right mind responds?

The world is, indeed, a strange and mysterious place.

No, I'm more of an off-the-shelf kind of guy, and not much of that, even.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I feel like a complete whiner, but my achey-breaky arm is throbbing and twinging.

I hate everything I've written that's half done and sitting in my Pink Slip backlog.

I can't bring myself to write about the goofy topics that would ordinarily get me going: the company that makes the fancy stuffed marshmallows, the heated toilet seat that doubles as a bidet...

I really don't want to think about the abandoned neighborhoods in Clevland, Ohio, that I saw on NBC News last night. Cleveland is apparently the frontrunner, the canary in the coalmine for mortgages gone bad. And tonight NBC's broadcasting from Detroit. Wonder what fun things they'll find there.

I've been a bad citizen of blog-ville, ignoring my old favorites - barely keeping up with reading, let alone commenting.

So, you know what?

I'm calling in sick for the day.

Back tomorrow. Maybe.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Carfree, Carefree

Well, after hemming and hawing about it for, oh, about a year, I have done the deed and rid myself of my infernal machine, a.k.a., my car.

It was as easy as a call to Volunteers of America, who came and hauled it off to an auction in NH, where it will likely go for parts.

Generally, philosophically, it is really ridiculous for anyone to keep a car that they don't use regularly (i.e., every day) in the city. As I have written about here - on more than one occasion - urban car ownership is one major pain in the arse if you don't have a parking place.

It's all trolling for a place, having to move your car every two weeks for the street sweepers, or with two days notice if someone's mover, repairman, or a utility decides they want the spot you're in. It's shoveling out the parking place you're in, knowing that you'll lose it once you move your car (and knowing that you'll have to shovel out a space to get back into). It's rambunctious parallel parkers breaking your taillights. It's seagulls strafing your car with crap. (I guess this could happen even if you don't park in the city.)

And that's just the parking related nonsense....

There's the rats in  your engine, the vandalism, the in-town insurance costs.

So, I've been itching to get rid of my 1998 VW Beetle for quite a while.

Three events precipitated my decision.

One, I was hit by a van while making a perfectly legal left hand turn that the van driver didn't think was legal. (This is another whole blog story.)

Three thousand dollars damage on a car worth about four thousand dollars.  (But still, miraculously, drivable.) As the adjustor told me, 'If I were you, I'd just take the money and drive it as is.'

Well, that would be if I wanted to keep driving it - as is, or not.

I don't.

Precipitating factor number two occured a few days after the accident.

In an entirely unrelated event, the passenger side window fell in. (Second time this happened. First time was when I was in the funeral procession for the father of a friend.)

The dealership told me that it would cost $400 to $500 to repair.


I'm not the savviest of economic decision-makers, but $500 worth of repair on a car worth $1000 that I am going to junk in a few weeks, anyway.

No thanks.

I made a heavy duty plastic, duct  tape repair, and waited for the Beacon Hill Civic Association, who monitor the look and feel of the neighborhood, to lodge a complaint about my eyesore.

And then I broke my arm.

So now I can't even drive the damn thing.

Volunteers of America, take my car, please.

They did.

A few days later, I still have a gut reaction when I see an empty parking place on River Street and automatically think 'Hey, that's a better space, I should move my car' from wherever I've left it.

But mostly I'm delighted.

I don't care if NStar or Verizon or Gentle Giants or anyone else wants to post a "no parking" sign.

I don't care if we get three feet of snow.

I don't care if they close down the Storrow Drive underpass, making it nearly impossible to get in and out of the neighborhood.

Well, actually, I do care a little for my car-ridden neighbors. Just a little bit. Mostly, I won't think about it one way or the other.

I'm asking myself the big questions now:

Will I forget how to drive a standard shift? Will I lose my superlative parallel parking skills? Will I ever drive again??????

Oh, of course I will.

Because while I may loathe car ownership, I really enjoy driving.

(I'll admit, I may not 100% loathe car ownership. I got a tiny bit sniffily wistful when the guy loaded my baby onto the flatbed towtruck. I confess, I patted it on the back one last time.)

The minute my arm is good to go, I'm signing up for ZipCar, which has a fleet of cars scattered around the city which you can use to run errands. (Can't wait to get behind the wheel of one of those adorable Mini-Coopers.)


To see other rants on cars and parking, read: I believe in miracles. This post contains links to several other auto-related screeds (under the heading Car Talk). 

Friday, November 09, 2007

The High Cost of a Broken Arm

I was going to give myself the day off from Pink Slip - kind of a day off to feel sorry for myself because, even with the new remote, wireless, ergonomic keyboard, it's still not all that comfortable to type. My arm and back get twingy and tight. Wah, wah, wah...

Then I thought I'd do a bit of a post-een on the non-medical costs associated with having a broken arm.

First off, once I figured out it will be a while before I manage to get a bra on again, I decided that I needed more camisole tops. The stretchy cotton ones from LL Bean with the built in bra-ish thing looked good. I ordered a couple. They are good. I ordered two more.

All of my nightgowns are overhead-ers. I got sick pretty fast of sleeping in sweatpants and a cotton hoodie. LL Bean had a button front nightgown with a sappy, grandmother's wallpaper print. But what the hell. I needed one. Order on!

It was not just that I was sleeping in clothing that looked like Patriots' coach Bill Belichik's. I was wearing it all day, too. And some of those sweatpants were ridiculously high water.

There's an Eddie Bauer outlet nearby, and I figured they'd have some easy on, comfy clothing. I was right. A few shirts, a sweater, and one of those ultra comfy velveteen track suits.

When I told my friend Peter that I went to Eddie Bauer for comfy clothes, he said, "As long as you didn't get one of those little track suits that old ladies wear to the mall..."

Well, Peter, I did, but I guess I won't be wearing it when we have lunch next week.

Maybe I'll just wear it during this current time of need, then put it away until I'm a mall-crawling old lady

As it happens, we have oodles of pillows in our house. It's just that they're all firm foam and/or Tempur-Pedic. Not what I needed to nestle my poor, broken arm in. So I'm now in possession of a nice, soft down pillow that enabled me to sleep in my bed last night for the first time in 2 weeks.

Then there is the aforementioned new keyboard...

It all adds up.

Lucky me that I can afford all kinds of things to make my life easier during what will be a relatively brief period of discomfort. Unlucky those who are trying to figure out just how to pay the medical bill.

It's apparently "Broken Bone" month in my extended family. Out in Chicago, my 82 year old Aunt Mary (who looks, acts, and sounds 72 - if that) broke a bone in her foot a couple of days after I broke my arm. She was bringing chicken and coleslaw over to my cousin Ellen, who had undergone a (Successful!!! Yea!!!) lumpectomyfor breat cancer that morning. Mary tripped leaving Ellen's house. (And you thought everything in the Midwest is flat. Apparently not.)

To make it a tri-fecta, my niece Caroline - poor kid - has just broken her toe.

What a month!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Salem Power Plant Explosion

It was only three guys. Three working stiffs that no one ever  heard of, other than their family, friends, and co-workers. Just three guys.

But they went to work on Tuesday figuring, I'm sure, that they were  heading into another day of same old/same old. Except, maybe for the  new guy, the kid. Only 20 years old, Matthew Indeglia had been on the job only one full day. Tuesday was his second day at work.

Looking around at the fellows he was working with that day - Phillip Robinson and Mark Mansfield, Matthew might have been thinking that he had it made. Those guys had been working at the Salem (Massachusetts) Harbor Power Plant for twenty or so years.  A lifetime. Matthew Indeglia's twenty year lifetime, in fact.

These were good job. Pay the mortgage, feed the kids, vacation at Hampton Beach, 'how about that kid Papelbon' kind of jobs. The blue collar, lunch bucket jobs that have gone so far away, most guys would count themselves lucky to have them.

Well, on Tuesday a boiler blew, and these three regular guys were killed in what can only be imagined as a hideous and painful death. And they didn't die instantly. No, they had to suffer for a while - the accident was in the morning and they all died overnight.

I have been by the Salem Harbor Power Plant many times. My sister lives in Salem, and the plant is on the way to The Willows, a throw-back little park with fried dough stands,; arcades with everything from skee-ball, to virtual car racing, to wack-a-mole, to the 10 cent monkey band; hot dogs, ice cream, and salt water taffy at Howe's; a few tawdry kiddie rides; and the world's most difficult to dismount merry-go-round. It's also go shaded picnic groves, a bandstand where they have corny concerts in the summer, and a scabby little beach.

In other words, The Willows is absolutely marvelous.

I can imagine that The Willows is the kind of place that the two older guys might have taken their kids. When they went by the power plant, the kids would have said "That's where Daddy works." And everyone in the car would have been proud.

I can imagine that The Willows is the kind of place that young Matthew Indeglia might have taken a date next summer. You see them there all the time. Young couples with cotton candy and the cheap junk you win with the tickets you accumulate in the arcades.

It's easy to take things like our power supply for granted, but keeping it going can be dangerous work.

One good thing about the switch to a more techno and services oriented economy is that a lot of the dangerous jobs go away.

Sure, white collar folks can get killed on the job - generally this happens when a colleague goes postal. But there's nothing inherently dangerous about most of the work we do.

Not so for those who work in plants. Who work on power lines. Who fish, who farm, who put out fires.There's a lot of risky business out there that doesn't involve hedge funds and subprime lending, carpal tunnel syndrome and screen fatigue.

Sad day for the folks at Salem Harbor Power Plant.

Three guys with pretty good jobs just got very, very unlucky.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Super Bowl Monday

When I heard it on the news the other evening, I thought it was a joke.

But, no, there is a group organizing a campaign to have Super Bowl Monday declared a national holiday.

They have their own web site, so they must be real.

In any case, they're looking for folks to sign a petition to Congress to declare the day after the football Super Bowl a national holiday (or a day of observation, whatever that is). They've even got a bunch of suggestion names, including National Football Day, National Recovery Day, and Lombardi Day.

I will not be signing.

Although I will confess to being a bandwagon frontrunner who will watch the Super Bowl if the Patriots are playing in it, I generally don't care. I decided years ago that the SB spectacle is not to my liking. Too much hoopla, too much hype. Blechhh. I did watch last year to blog about the ads, but I generally and genuinely don't care.

But I don't mind the idea of another national holiday. We have such a chintzy amount compared to most of the industrialized world. So here are my suggestions:

  • If we must have a sports-themed national holiday, I'd make it about baseball.  How about Start of Spring Training Day. Or Pitchers and Catchers Report Day. Maybe we could have the national holiday be Opening Day.
  • National Don't Drive Your Car Day could replace Earth Day. Instead of people getting into their Volvos and Priuses to drive to an Earth Day celebration, everyone could just stay home. Give Mother Earth a little breather from all those rotten carbon emissions.
  • Similarly, we could celebrate No Electronics Day, which could also be called Noises Off Day.
  • April 15th - the holiday we all pay for.
  • We could use a couple of national heritage days. How about We Were Here First Day to celebrate Native Americans, and, six months later, Huddled Masses Day, commemorating our immigrants.
  • I'd like to see a Crap Free Day, on which no one would go to a WalMart or Christmas Tree Shoppe and buy useless crap that they don't need "because it's cute."

Yes, I can think of plenty of things worth declaring a national holiday over. The Super Bowl just isn't one of them.

The prospect of Super Bowl Monday turning into a Day Off is dim, of course.

Just look at how long it took MLK Day to get off the ground?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Agreeing with Jim Cramer. (Who knew?)

Every once in a while I'll walk into the room when CNBC is on and hear Mad Money mad man Jim Cramer screaming about stock picks, the economy, the Fed. Spittle flying (his). Blood pressure rising (mine).

"How can you stand listening to him," I will inevitably ask my husband.

"Oh, I really don't pay any attention to him."

Well, for all my years working in somewhat noisy environments, Jim Cramer is someone I just find it impossible to tune out. Mute button, please.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had on some Tim Russert gabbing head show, with Jim Cramer as one of the guests.

And found myself agreeing with some of what he had to say about what we're not, as a nation, doing about the loss of American industry and the people losing their jobs because of globalization.

For one thing, Cramer doesn't think the Chinese play fair. I think that most people agree with this, yet we're so grateful for those cheap HD flat screens and the dancing Santa's singing "Jingle Bell Rock," that we don't seem to mind the currency manipulation, labor conditions, pollution, intellectual property issues, not to mention the loss of industries and industrial jobs here that comes along for the ride. (And no, Cramer is no protectionist - and neither am I. We just need to be more conscious and deliberate about the trade-offs we're making.)

CRAMER: We’re letting it happen.  And no one is offering any resistance.  It’s almost as if we’ve decided, you know what?  We’ve ceded great American jobs to the Chinese.

It’s wrong, Tim.  We should be—we should be stopping them and building up our industries again.  And I am not against most free trade, but this is not free trade.

And then there was this on job retraining, of greater interest now that GM has just announced another vast round of lay-offs:

CRAMER:  But why just kids?  Our country has left and abandoned a whole generation, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60-year-old people who need that training.  But I don’t see any government action about that.

I understand that this administration believes that government should be hands off, but that’s not enough anymore.  We’re having a disenfranchised group of people in this country that need help from the government.

This one especially resonated after a recent conversation my husband had with our mailman about his two twenty-something, thirty-something sons, high school grads with a string of the types of no account jobs that are never going to translate into home ownership, family building, and all those other good citizen types of things. Yes, these "kids" may have been more feckless than a lot if guys their age, but I've got to believe that, a generation ago they would have stumbled into something that suited them by now. Multiply these two by a million other average Joes...The prospect is not pretty. 

And on the Two Americas, Cramer is positively Edwardian in his outlook:

 CRAMER:  You can’t just have two countries, either.  We can’t have rich—the large, rich population do well, but the much larger poor population be left out. 

As I said, I usually flee the room when Jim Cramer's ranting, but I sure found myself agreeing with him.

Who knew?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Malaysian Love Song

A few weeks ago, I heard a bit on NPR Morning Edition about a new ad campaign that the Malaysian tourism office is running.

It seems that the campaign relies on a catchy little folk tune, "Rasa Sayang", or "Feeling of Love", which the Indonesian government claims is theirs.

The NPR story was interesting enough that I thought I'd look for a bit more, and found it in the Sydney Morning Herald

Now, I am the first to admit that the sum total of my awareness of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur and world's tallest building. Most of what I know about Indonesia comes from the 1980's film The Year of Living Dangerously. And, of course, there's general regional stuff like batik fabrics (which have been the rage at least twice in my lifetime; wish I still had that cool, blue batik shirt), monsoons,shadow puppets, and the 2004 tsunami.

And not that the Sydney Morning Herald article yielded up a lot more, but now I know that, not surprisingly:

The two neighbouring countries have close religious and cultural links, and are part of the vast Malay archipelago where the Rasa Sayang song is believed to have originated. The archipelago straddles the Indian and Pacific Oceans, consisting of some 20,000 islands between South-East Asia and Australia.

And that the Indonesian government is, somewhat preposterously, thinking of suing the Malaysian government.

Indonesian Tourism and Cultural Minister Jero Wacik today said he was investigating whether Indonesia could claim copyright and had scheduled a meeting with legislators, one of whom has called for legal action against Kuala Lumpur.

"Our two nations might come from the same root, so our songs are sung in Malaysia and the other way around, but for commercial use, ethically there should be a legal notice," he said...But  said Jakarta should consider action against Malaysia for using Rasa Sayang in its "Truly Asia" radio, television and online tourism commercials.

"We want a proportional response," said [Indonesian House of Representatives member] Hakam Naja today. "We ask the ministry to sue Malaysia, but only after checking the originality of the song. We should not let other countries misuse any of our national heritage."

It's easy to laugh this off, of course. Musical borders tend to be pretty porous. Did the Scots come up with "The Banks of Loch Lomond", or borrow it from Ireland's "Red is the Rose"? And who owns all those folk tune strains in Aaron Copeland's Appalachian Spring?

As an immigrant culture, American's are used to borrowing. Hard to imagine our music without the twin strains of Africa and Ireland, with a little Eastern Europe shtetl and a bit of South of the border thrown in.

So I'm inclined to think, what's the big deal?

And then I go take a look at Malaysia's tourist web site and compare and contrast it with that of Indonesia.

Looks like there's at least a little rich country, poor country antagonism at play.

Malaysia's aiming at the upscale experience for the upscale traveler. It's not clear what Indonesia's aiming at - other than here's some stuff about our country.

Indonesia government officials are no doubt miffed that their more well-to-do cousins are able to appropriate and exploit what's in the family with a slickness and panache that they cannot.

Silly and sour grapish to consider suing? Of course.

But it must be hard when so much of what you've got going for you is your cultural richness, and you don't even have that loving feeling of "Feeling of A Love" to call your own.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Reign of Terroir: Masquerading as Champagne

New Yorker readers may have noticed a recent ad from Champagne US  - not to be confused with US Champagne because, we are told, there is no such thing as US Champagne; accept no pale, sparkling imitators - Champagne can only come from France.

And Champagne US wants us to sign a petition to force American vintners to stop using the word champagne.

I love champagne. My idea of heaven includes a bottomless flute of Mumm's Purple Top, dark chocolate, and raspberries that never get that gucky, fuzzy gray mold on them. (Such mold generally occurs between point of purchase and home.)

And I definitely agree that French champagne is better.

But, truly, I don't understand what all the big fuss is about.

When I buy a bottle of Korbel to make mimosas, I know I'm not buying prime sipping stock - just something to pour orange juice into.

When I want the real deal, vive la france!

As Champagne US tells us, the difference between the real deal and faux is significant. For one thing, they follow:

... a process carefully developed and perfected over hundreds of years.

Machine-harvesting is strictly forbidden in Champagne, according to the quality regulations of the Champagne appellation.

The Champagne region’s distinctive chalky soil, cool climate, and strict regulations come together to create a unique sparkling wine impossible to duplicate anywhere else in the world. Only wines produced in the Champagne region of France can bear the Champagne name...

Strict rules... [relate] to grape growing, the authorized pruning systems, harvesting and handling conditions in Champagne, as well as the method of natural fermentation in the bottle...

Today, throughout the evolutionary process that took place in Champagne, true Champagne lies essentially in the selection of the best grapes from the region, blending the growths, the production of a unique wine with perfect limpidity and one final touch of a harmonious and sustainable sparkle

 Hmmm. I guess this must be all that appellation controlee we see on wine bottles. But, in truth, the word champagne is eponymous. I doubt that my Worcestershire sauce comes from Worcester, England. And my cheddar comes from Vermont, not Cheddar. Sure, the terroir, the hand picking, etc. may make more of a difference than cheesemaking processes. But I think that consumers "get" that, when they buy domestic champagne, it's not quite the same thing. Just like we "get" that Parmesan cheese in a cardboard can from Kraft is not quite the same as a chunk cut off a big slab from Parmigiana and grated by hand.

I think that the Champagne US guys would be better served through an ad campaign that focused on educating the consumer on the difference between here wine and there wine that they are whining about how unfair it is for the there wine guys to use "their" word.

What next, someone coming after Ernst and Julio Gallo to get them to stop using the words "hearty Burgundy" to describe the red liquid that comes in a jug?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

One armed blogger

I broke my arm last week, and am at least for a while longer a one armed blogger. Not only does it take quite a bit longer to do one handed typing, I just have less energy in general. (Wah, wah, wah.) I find myself drifting off every hour or so for a catnap - and this is without the grog-inducing drugs they prescribed for me.  (Take one every 4 hours as needed. Well, I found two in forty-eight hours enough to reduce me to a drooling piece of mush, nodding off again pretty much every time I opened my eyes. And these, I was assured, were not even the super-duper drugs. Apparently, if you haven't taken pain killers before, they can really throw you for a loop.)

So, while I am clear-headed enough to post, it just takes too damned long to do everything.

Thus, I will be posting sporadically until the doctor tells me I can use two hands - which could happen today - or not.

Off to MGH to see the ortho man. Must allow plenty of time to make sure I don't trip on the brick sidewalk and bust the left arm, too.