Friday, February 29, 2008

Keeping Abreast of a 'Hostile Work Environment'

A brief article in The Boston Globe the while back caught my eye.

A U.S. Court of Appeals has overturned a district court holding that "habitual breast staring did not create a hostile work environment."

Nancy Billings, a secretary to the town administrator in Grafton, Massachusetts, had claimed that said town administrator had, in repeated interactions with her, stared at her breasts. She wasn't alone - other women had noted the problem, and complained to the town's Board of Selectmen.

The behavior would stop for a while - but only a while. Then Billings boss was at it again.

Billings original complaint argued that she was a victim of both harassment and retaliation, namely:

...being reprimanded, banned from the administrator's office, charged personal time for attending a deposition and mediation (while other town employees were not charged) and transferred from the town administrator's office down to the recreation department, an arguably less prestigious position that required her to clock in.

(This summary, and other information in this post, is taken from the web site of Chicago law firm Meites, Mulder, Mollica and Glink - how's that for a mouthful? - which, I guess, specializes in EEO cases.)

The town of Grafton had argued that staring at a woman's breast should not be deemed sexual in nature, because it did not involve touching or sexually-laced comments. (Duh?) And the lower court had obviously bought this argument. (Double duh?)

Fortunately, the higher court has ruled that the behavior of the town administrator could, in fact, be considered harassing - and that staring at a woman's breast was nothing other than sexual in nature.

While I never had a manager who behaved in this way, I do know the breast staring feeling - and it's not comfortable.

Years ago, I worked with a very nice fellow who had the unnerving habit of looking at a woman's breasts when he was talking to her. All the woman in the office joked about it, but we chalked it up to "Ben being Ben."

Ben was a techie, and, like many of the techies we worked with, he was socially awkward, and especially clumsy around women.

Despite the breast staring, we all liked Ben. He was truly a decent guy - kind, personable, good sense of humor. If it wasn't for the breast thing...

A few of us did mention something to Ben, and he would just turn beat red. One of us - I truly can't remember if it was me or my friend Liz - on one occasion, pointed to our chests and said, "These are breasts," then pointed to our eyes, saying, "These are eyes. When you're talking to someone, you look in their eyes, not their breasts."

Ben was a peer, not a manager, but his behavior would have been more disturbing if one of us had been reporting to him.

Mostly, we just laughed it off. (I haven't seen Ben in years - I wonder if he ever outgrew this habit.)

I worked with another techie who had a breast obsession of a different sort.

Ira, a fellow manager, would sit at management meetings drawing objects that most people would plausibly interpret as being breast- like in nature. I was the only woman on the management team, and I was pretty friendly with Ira. Again, like Ben, Ira was a very nice man, and I liked him a lot. The curlicue breast-like drawings I could have lived with out.

One event sealed my interpretation of Ira's doodles.

I had helped Ira out with a presentation he had to give, and he took at moment at our next meeting to "thank Maureen for being my wet nurse."

"Wet nurse," I yelled. "Wet nurse?"

"Help me out here," Ira said. 'What's the word I'm looking for?"

"It's nursemaid," I told him, "And if you're looking for a wetnurse, you'd probably not want to pick someone over 40 who never had a child."

Yes, I will confess that I've gotten a lot of laughs out of Ben and Ira stories over the years.

But it certainly would have been a different story if I'd had a reporting relationship with either one of them.

I'm glad that Nancy Billings is going to get her day in court.

My guess is that her boss wasn't a leering, evil, salacious monster. He may well have been, like Ben and Ira, a goofball, a nerd. Maybe he has Asperger's. Maybe he can't help himself.

But he still put the women around him in an uncomfortable position.

And however little he could help himself with respect to his breast-staring compulsion, the punitive tack he took when Nancy Billings complained lifted him out of the category of harmless.

Good luck to Nancy Billings as she furthers her complaint.

Thursday, February 28, 2008


One thing that Wikipedia hath wrought is a slew of take-off-pedias.

There's the mean but funny dickipedia. There's something called "chickipedia", which I happened to stumble on but instantaneously realized was neither for nor about me. And now there's the generally more interesting and useful dealipedia, which, as described by Megan McCarthy at Wired:

...aims to become a hub of information about mergers, investments, acquisitions, and other business deals by encouraging the people in on the deals to upload information to its public wiki. The goal is to help entrepreneurs, VCs, and other curious parties understand what goes on behind the scenes of the business world.

Dealipedia is the brainchild of Michael Robertson, who made his boodle when he sold to Vivendi a few years back. His personal boodle, which he's happy to reveal, amounted to $115 - easily enough to enable him to create X-ipedias for the rest of his life.

There's a big part of me that says what Michael Robertson or anyone else made on a deal is none of my business, and yet...

Isn't it just the type of information we all want to know? Come on, who hasn't looked up an address or two on Zillow to see what our friends homes are worth - or were worth. (I don't know how frequently Zillow updates; and, by the way, they have the wrong number of bathrooms for our condo: it's two full, not one and a half, thank you). Who hasn't trolled through one of the campaign donation sites to see if the person they suspect is a Republican actually is? Who hasn't debated signing up for one of those online people search sites so they can play their own personal version of Private Eye?

Dealipedia - if it takes off - will obviously satisfy our desire for gossipy little details about who just got rich (note to those who just got rich: beware a call from your college development office). Plus it will provide interesting - and relevant - business information that will help:

...entrepreneurs negotiating a first round of investment, investors dipping their toes into the startup market, or shareholders trying to figure out how much money one company paid to acquire another.

I will definitely be drifting over to Dealipedia when I get my next market research project.

Sure, you can pay for a lot of this information, but with Dealipedia, it will be free.

Of course, you do get what you pay for, which means there will be plenty of holes in the information. And, when it comes to money, I don't know about the wisdom of crowds. I suspect that most of those who have the direct skinny on a deal won't be all that inclined to offer up that information. (Robertson may not be alone, but I'm guessing he's not in the majority.)

Plenty of contributors - who contribute anonymously - will likely have the urge to aggrandize or play down their plays.

Will there be enough interest to keep the info correct?

The most interesting information, by far, is in the the "Who Made the Money" section, which you can probably discern from the name gives out about how much the key players got out of a deal.

I will definitely be grazing around at Dealipedia from time to time. How else can I find out scoop like CrunchyRoll scoring $4.05M in VC. Just what is CrunchyRoll, you might ask? Well, I might ask, as well, since I spent a few minutes over there and have no idea what they are - something to do with anime, but other than that...And I have no opinion whatsoever on whether there should be something called "manga" on CrunchyRoll. (Okay - out of context I could figure out that it was something you read. For my fellow ignorati, I wiki'd: manga's a Japanese comic book.)

But I'll leave the last word to Michael Robertson.

"I'm proud that I made $100 million, or whatever it was, on I'm proud of that. I don't mind people knowing because, at some level, that says that I'm a decent businessman," Robertson said. "So I think that if people may be fearful of being boastful, I think that deep down, they will want this information to be made public and that's our bet with Dealipedia."

Did I say last word?

I meant next to last word?

I was pretty much liking this guy until I read "I made $100 million, or whatever it was."

Michael, honey, if you're not sure how much you made on the deal, you made way too much. If it means that little to you, I know plenty of people who'd be just delighted to keep the change.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

"Is this a recession? Americans say yes"

This was the blaring headline in last Monday's Metro, reporting on an AP-Ipsos poll that revealed that sixty-one percent of the American public believes that we're in a recession.

Now, I haven't checked lately, so we may well be in a recession. And if we aren't, we may well be heading for a recession.

Vox populi and all that - and I know that economics has a lot to do with expectations - but does anybody really believe that most people know what a recession actually is?

I didn't think so.

How much more intelligent this poll might have been if it had asked a question that the man and woman on the street are actually qualified to answer. That would be a question like:

  • Do you think the economy is in good shape?
  • Do you feel confident about your personal economic future?
  • Do you believe that your children will be financially better off than you are?

"Fee-lings, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh fee-lings." That's what we have about the economy, and those feelings are understandable. After all, we are in an economic situation brought about in no small part by greed, economic illiteracy, and mindless consumption. And also brought about by globalization, which if it does nothing else is going to put a serious dent in what can only be characterized as America's blind consumer exceptionalism - the feeling that (if we think about it at all, which is unlikely; see: economic illiteracy) we are entitled to consume way more than our share of everything than anyone else on the face of the earth. Just because we're us! And God, apparently, shed not just His grace on we, but a never ending stream of credit cards. (Talk about pennies from heaven.)

No argument here that in plenty of ways, we deserve more. Chalk some of it up to just plain luck (natural resources, geographic isolation, etc.), but much of the rest gets chalked up to the unquestionable brilliance of our institutions (financial, legal, and - yes, even political). Then there's the American can-do attitude and inventiveness. (Years ago, I read that one of the aces in the hole in the American effort in World War II was the ability of GI's to improvise in the field, figuring out how to get that Jeep going, how to cut through those hedgerows.) Immigrants, meritocracy, public schools, The American Dream.

While God was shedding all that grace on we, we were shedding a lot of the crap that didn't work so well in the Old World. (Let's face it, there was a reason our grandparents and great-grandparents got on The Boat and immigrated. To quote me sainted grand-mither: If Ireland were so great, we wouldn't have all had to come over here.)

So, yeah, we have a lot, but a lot of it we've worked pretty darned hard for.

The question becomes both how do we sustain it, and - more importantly - should we sustain it at the rate of increase that we still enjoy today.

There are ample reasons for Americans to be uneasy about the economy, and I wish the conversation would occasionally veer in the direction of an honest conversation about that unease - rather than in the direction of a simple-minded question about whether we're in a recession. (I'll have to check that poll out and see what was actually asked.)

While I'm on my ripped-from-the-headlines rant: While there is plenty of reason to be nervous (mortgage crisis, energy, aging population, etc.), people are, I'm sure, made a lot jumpier by the ubiquity of noise about the economy.

CNBC has non-stop Talking Heads - experts, pundits, journalists, entertainers - who have to fill 24/7 with blather. Sound bites are easier on the ears than long drawn out explanations and analysis.

Henny Penny says the sky is falling! Pass it on!


NASA spokesperson Henny Penny today announced that the sky is falling at the rate of on gazillinth of a centimeter a year. At this rate, which is expected to decelerate due to the uplift factor of increased commercial flights, the sky will fall to earth in the year 471,986,261 A.D. NASA scientists are exploring the feasibility of erecting an umbrella.

OMG! The sky is falling!

I try to tune it out, but I heard one of the TH's in the background the other day yakking about people in mutual funds who don't realize that their funds are worth less, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Well, even the financial illiterates among us probably "get" on some level that our mutual funds are often, in fact, composed of stocks. Maybe we just don't feel the need to make ourselves crazy by checking our "position" morning, noon, and night and figuring out that we've got paper losses.

Sixty-one percent of Americans believe that we're in a recession?

Maybe we are.

But guess what? Whether we're in a recession or not, there are serious questions to be had about our collective American economic future. And I'm not hearing much of it.

Asking whether we're in a recession or not doesn't quite do it for me.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Resorting to Resort Fees

A few weeks back, ABC's 20/20 had an interesting segment on resort fees. These are the extra-added tack-ons that some hotels add to your bill, that you may not be aware of when they're quoting the rack rate.

20/20 checked into the de luxe Arizona Biltmore, where the measly $450/night room rate didn't cover the USA Today tossed outside the door. Or the use of the putting green. (Hey, it is an 18 hole putting green.) Not to mention use of the gym, and the shuttle to a nearby shopping mall.

This reminds me of the list of cruise amenities I once saw, which had on it "free calisthenics". I'm sure they meant "free exercise class", but "free calisthenics" sounds like "free breathing"  - it's definitely something you can do on your own.

While the Biltmore's sneaky mandatory charges may seem niggling, ABC reports that:

Resort fees at other hotels are even more incredible including items like pool towels and the in-room safe. Some places even charge for opening the mini bar whether or not you take something out.

Opening the mini bar?

Kids, get away from that mini bar. No, you can't even look. I know it's more fun if you take it out of the  mini bar, but, trust me, that bottle of mini-Snickers bars is probably stale. And you're paying a big premium for that jar, which we're just going to leave here anyway.

Get me the desk. No, I'm not paying for the privilege of having a mini bar in my room. You should be paying me to have it in here.

(As it turns out, it's actually a good thing I had a warning about this. During February school vacation, I always take my young nieces - now 10 and 11 - for a hotel-with-a-pool overnight.  Well, we were in our jammies and got into bed to eat pretzels and watch a movie when Caroline remembered that she'd seen a tray on the desk.  Figuring that having a snack tray was good idea, she went over to it and started removing the stuff that was on it, when I let out a shriek. The items on the tray - mini-cans of worth-their-weight-in-gold cashews, etc. - were all hooked to a computer, and merely removing them put a charge on your room.  Unfortunately, Caroline was swifter than my shriek, and I had to call the desk to unload the charges from my bill. The items, by the way, weren't that securely fixed to the tray, just resting in slots. So I can imagine that quite a few folks incur charges this way. Sure, you can fight it at checkout, but I'm sure plenty of people say to hell with it.)

And paying for the use of the safe? What's the message here? We offer these safes because the cleaning people, or other hotel employees or guests, may want to filch your pearls or your iPod, but we want to make sure you pay for this benefit.

And, as "20/20" discovered, some hotels don't even disclose their resort fees until it's too late.

At Colorado's Cordillera Inn, the resort fee was for the nightly turn-down service?

Is having someone plump your pillow, fold the quilt, and put a chocolate on your pillow really worth $11 a night?

The ABC report also chronicled hefty fees for sending a fax and holding a package for pick up by FedEx.

Interesting, isn't it, that it's the expensive hotels that gouge for these extras? When I've stayed in lower end hotels, I've had the front desk send fax for free, and take care of other little niceties. And the bare bones, retreat-house-like motel I stay at in Syracuse includes free Internet access and long distance, while the  more upscale one just up the street charges $10 a night for Internet. (This was the straw that broke my back in terms of staying at the "nicer" hotel.)

If you squawk about the fees - and promise not to use the putting green or the room safe - some hotels will make the "mandatory fee" go away.

We've found something similar in Ireland, where breakfast is often included in a hotel charge. Generally, when we've told them we don't eat breakfast, they remove the charge.

Many years ago, we stayed at Ashford Castle in County Mayo - a mistake all round, given that we're not the posh country resort types, and given that everyone else in the place was a cigar smoking American MBA on a golf junket. (Shudder.) And the entertainment in the in house "pub" was as stage-Irish as I've ever seen. (I must admit, the restaurant was excellent, albeit pricey. On night two, we ate at a small B&B in town, supping on  fresh-caught salmon that the proprietress' husband had just caught.)

But the thing I remember most was the tack-on charge for breakfast, which I remember as $40. The one day we ate breakfast there, we did so late, and they were no longer serving anything other than coffee, tea, and brown bread.

Now, my idea of heaven is Irish tea and brown bread, but it's not my idea of $40 worth of heaven.

They whittled the fee down a bit when we complained, but it really can cost you if you don't read the fine print.

(Fee for opening the mini bar, indeed!)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Make my day, Hello Kitty.

As if there isn't enough out there driving me nuts, I happened to be doing some mid-day staring at the TV while doing incredibly tedious stretching exercises at PT (for last October's fractured arm), when along comes a story about a placAK_HOT_PINK_DuraCoate in Wisconsin that sells brightly painted guns. Including one really scary one in bright pink decorated with a Hello Kitty cartoon on its stock.

Oh, and if you look carefully, there's a matching pink bayonet.

And while I'm in a questioning mode, have hunting weapons always come with bayonets? What are they used for? Finishing off a wounded animal? Eviscerating and dressing a dead one?

I thought bayonets were for hand to hand combat, but what do I know? My sole knowledge of bayonets comes from All Quiet on the Western Front and Guadalcanal Diary.

But back to Hello Kitty.

Where to begin on this one....

Well, for starters, how about making a real gun look like a toy gun? It seems like only yesterday we were all complaining about toy guns that looked like real guns, which led to a few incidents in which cops killed a kid they thought was aiming at them. Only to find out that they weren't staring down the barrel of a Glock, but the barrel of a flimsy chunk of plastic manufactured in China (which, I'm guessing, is so repressive that people can't carry concealed weapons, toy or otherwise).

Now we have to worry about some little kid picking up the Hello Kitty gun, thinking that it's just a product line extension: notepad, pocketbook, hair clips, ankle socks, music box, gun.

At least we don't have to worry about half the child population. Very few little boys that I know would be caught dead with anything to do with Hello Kitty. Although caught dead might actually be what they end up if some innocent decides to bring this one in for show and tell.

Oh, yes, I know, responsible gun owners keep their weaponry under lock and key. They keep the bullets separate from the guns. They teach their children about firearms.

But what about all those irresponsible gun owners who aren't so careful?

Must be a few of them out there, or we wouldn't keep hearing all those stories about the kid who accidentally shot and killed his brother, would we?

Having a gun around that looks like a harmless toy would seem to me to at least marginally increase the likelihood that something bad will happen.

Then there's the assumption that if-you-paint-it-pink, they-will come. They being women, of course.

Now, I like pink as much as the next guy, errrrr, woman. It is, in fact, one of the colors in my color palette (along with periwinkle and Dutch blue). And I have seen the magic that pink and purple seem to work on little girls, to the degree that I've begun to wonder whether attraction to things pink and purple isn't a secondary sex characteristic.

But equating pink with marketing to woman does kind of strike me as the lazy man's way to sell to us. And I can't imagine any woman who wasn't going to get a gun to begin with deciding to get one now just because it's available in pink.

More than likely, pink gunners will be folks like Connie Cody:

...a 48-year-old administrative assistant in Kenosha, [who]said she only wishes she had seen pink guns for sale after she completed her hunter safety course about 18 months ago.

Since then, she has bought a 9-millimeter pistol, a .357 revolver, a .38 Derringer and a .380 pistol, all in traditional hues.

"If they stock them," Cody vowed after learning about pink guns, "I'm going to buy one."

But wooing young girls who would not otherwise be attracted to gun ownership strikes me as insidious. What is it that we're after here? Making sure that there are equal opportunities for girls to shoot up their colleges and high schools?

I'm sure that, out in Cabela's-land, there are plenty of fathers who hunt who might want their daughters to share this interest. In many ways, I don't get it, but I'm not a vegan, either. But it seems to me that teaching your daughters (or sons) about guns is a serious business. Brown. Black. Grey. These are serious, gunnish colors. Pink? Sorry, not serious enough.

The Hello Kitty gun is the product of Jim's Gun Supply of Baraboo, Wisconsin, whose owner, Jim Astle:

...has been coating guns in pink and other colors for four years. His 12-year-old daughter owns a pink camouflage shotgun.

And what, pray tell, is pink camouflage intended to camouflage?

Barbie's Dream House? A mound of Bazooka Bubble Gum? The parking lot at a Mary Kay Cosmetics convention?

But, wait, there's more!

"Females want to shoot guns, but they want them to look pretty, too," Astle said. "Guys could give a rat's butt what their gun looks like."

I'm not quite sure I buy Astle's belief about "guys" and a rat's butt. Plenty of the guns I saw on Astle's sight were "manly" gun colors - like blues, and greens, and multi-colors.

Great! More guns out there that look like Super Soakers.

This can't end well.


Quoted material taken from an article by Tom Kertscher in the September 23, 2007, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Friday, February 22, 2008

So, you want to be an exorcist?

At this stage in the game,it's unlikely that I'll have a second career that's much different than the one I've held up to now. But you never know, and I'm always on the lookout for interesting jobs. Thanks to a recent article from the Washington Post (reported in the Boston Globe), I know that if I spoke Polish, and if I were a Catholic priest, I could consider the job of exorcist.

The Rev. Andrzej Trojanowski, a soft-spoken Pole, plans to build a "spiritual oasis" that will serve as Europe's only center dedicated to performing exorcisms. With the blessing of the local Catholic archbishop and theological support from the Vatican, the center will aid a growing number of Poles possessed by evil forces or the devil himself, he said.

It certainly can't be just Poland, however, that has a growing population "possessed by evil forces". This has got to be worldwide. so forget about having to speak Polish. There remains the priesthood thing...

Although Italy has more exorcists, Poland must be something of a center - think Silicon Valley of Exorcism - because they hosted the fourth International Congress of Exorcists there last July. (I wonder if they had booths for exorcism-related gear, and whether they held any demonstrations. Or was it just boring old scholarly paper and shop talk?

It's a classic case of supply and demand, with the growing number of "people plagued by evil" prompting more and more priests to seek out exorcism training. Who's on the demand side? At least in Poland:

Typical cases, [a priest who does exorcisms] said, include people who turn away from the church and embrace New Age therapies, alternative religions or the occult. Internet addicts and yoga devotees are also at risk, he said.

Well, Internet addicts I can kind of see. (Blogger be gone!) But yoga devotees? Who'd've thunk it?

Not all countries are jumping on the exorcism bandwagon.

In Germany, in fact, they've been verboten since the mid-1970'2, when a young Bavarian woman died as a result of serial exorcisms. The exorcists, along with her parents, were convicted of negligent homicide. (The Church eventually admitted that the woman had been mentally ill.)

But Poland, as we all know from film reels in The World at War is just a blitzkreig away from Germany, and Germans frequent the Polish exorcism center.

Germany is looking in to having their own cadre of exorcists. A spokesman for the Church in Cologne cited "the abundance of apocalyptic images circulated by the media as a factor" in the uptick in requests for exorcism in that area. (Germany's exorcists will work in teams with doctors and psychiatrists.)

Overall, however:

"Pope Benedict XVI has no intention of ordering local bishops to bring in garrisons of exorcists to fight demonic possession,'' Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters.

Too bad. For while exorcist was looking like a true employment growth sector.

Source for information from the German perspective: DW-World.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

JuicyCampus: drinking from a poisoned cup

It's not as if words of gossip never passed my lips, but I really and truly despise the whole idea of JuicyCampus, an anonymous gossip-spreading site, currently in beta, that provides a forum for students from (at present count) dozens of colleges to slam and slander their fellow students. Colleges whose students participate - unofficially, of course: this is not, needless to say, a sanctioned activity - include Duke, Cornell, Baylor, UCLA, and Loyola Marymount.

I first heard of this site when I saw a recent AP article by Justin Pope, which I saw on Comcast, that reported the heartening news that some students are fighting back against JuicyCampus. A Facebook group opposing Juicy has some 850 members who apparently want to live off this particular campus.

Juicy has a high-falutin' sounding purpose:

We were founded on August 1, 2007 with the simple mission of enabling online anonymous free speech on college campuses.

Which might strike a more authentic note if  the topics were a bit more exalted than who got trashed at a frat party. But, predictably, Juicy's founder,  Matt Ivester, who answered questions for the AP article via e-mail, is making this a free-speech issue. (Ah, for the days when the Free Speech Movement was about politics, not about calling some person you don't like a fat slut or a raging whore.)

Here's what Ivester had to say for himself:

"College students are clever and fun-loving, and we wanted to create a place where they could share their stories."

So I trucked over to check out what these clever and fun-loving students were saying, and most of it was of the 'who's the biggest slut at Baylor' variety, along with putdowns and gossip about kids who had the audacity to put themselves forward as campus leaders. (Poor, misguided young fools.) More from the clever and fun-loving Mr. Ivester:

"Like anything that is even remotely controversial, there are always people who demand censorship," he said in response to calls he has rejected — including one from his alma mater, Duke — for him to shut down the site. "However, we believe that JuicyCampus can have a really positive impact on college campuses, as a place for both entertainment and free expression. Frankly, we're surprised that any college administration would be against the free exchange of ideas."

Free exchange of ideas? Huh?

Maybe I was too busy reading through the salacious material - not the mention the 'oops' sections, as in "I wrote that Mary Smith was the biggest whore on campus. I'm sorry, I meant to say that Mary Jones was the biggest whore on campus. I got my Mary's mixed up." - and missed the free exchange of ideas. All I can say is I didn't find much about Obama vs Clinton, or whether global warming is a myth, or whether Something About Mary is the best movie ever made.

No, all I saw was miserable, rancid, hurtful commentary on other kids - all of it served up freer than free, under the cloak of anonymity.

As I wrote up front, it's not as if I never indulged in idle gossip.

When I was in college, a couple of the big items were a handful of students who were reputed to be call-girls working out of the Sheraton Boston, and two women on my dorm floor who supposedly had administered a knitting needle abortion or two. I remember hearing these stories, but don't recall passing them on, other than with the passage of time, when I use the stories - without the long-forgotten names of the principals - to illustrate the tawdry side of my nicey-nice Catholic education.

More recently, there was a rumor swirling around a company I worked at that one of my colleagues - a married father - was gay. A few people, knowing I was friendly with said colleague, asked me about the rumor, and my reply was that a) as far as I knew it wasn't true; and b) if it were true, it was really none of my business. I never discussed it directly with my friend. He did, at one point, refer to it, telling me that he pretty much suspected the source and had asked her to stop it.

I was shocked, then, last summer when another former colleague dredged up the rumor yet again, and told me that she had heard it from "X", who had told her that I was the source.

Not so, I protested. And there I was feeling that I was being slandered derivatively by having my name associated with a rumor that I absolutely did not spread.

In any case, this sort of old-fashioned gossip - heinous as it may be - has one major advantage to it: the gossip-ee can actually go and confront the gossip-er. Which is not possible on the gloriously entertaining and expressively free JuicyCampus, where 99.99% of the comments posted don't have names associated with them. Easy to say whatever you want about someone when there's no danger of being caught out, of having the victim confront you and demand that you retract what you've said - or at least shut up.

JuicyCampus, as Pope notes in his AP article, does its best to protect the anonymity of its posters:

...JuicyCampus seems designed to shield its users from the threat of libel claims. The site's privacy page notes that it logs the numeric Internet protocol addresses of its users, but does not associate those addresses with specific posts. That is unlike mainstream social networking sites, which do maintain such detailed logs.

JuicyCampus also goes further by directing posters to free online services that cloak IP addresses. "Just do a quick search on Google and find one you like," JuicyCampus advises.

Anonymity can serve a useful purpose - e.g., reporting a crime when you fear retribution. But all Juicy-style anonymity does is give nasty and/or insecure and/or self-righteous kids an opportunity to dish without having to pay the consequence of having the dished come after them.

Gutsy, eh?

Juicy's FAQ's warn about posting something that's not true: can’t post lies about people or groups – that’s called defamation and it’s illegal.

But given the contortions they go through to protect anonymity, there doesn't appear to be much risk that anyone posting a lie will be caught. Then there's some palaver about facts vs. opinion vs. parody.

Hmmm. If I post that Mary Smith is a "huge whore" (the phrase used to describe one young woman on Juicy) is that a fact, an opinion, or - to those who really know her  as a sweetie-pie who's never been kissed - an obvious parody.

There's just no end to the fun to be had on Juicy.

I'm delighted to hear that students at many of the schools that are early JuicyCampus adopters are rejecting the site.

"It is an expression from our student body that we don't want this junk in our community," said Andy Canales, leader of the student government at Pepperdine, which recently voted 23-5 to ask for a ban.

Moving forward, the destructive potential of the Internet is going to be ever present in the lives of kids brought up in the post it on YouTube, flash it on MySpace generation. Who better to weed out the "junk in [their] community" than the kids themselves?

Good luck to those standing up to forces of reckless, wanton cruelty unleashed by sites like JuicyCampus.

As for Matt Ivester, I hope he puts his mind and energy to a higher purpose than creating a forum where people can trash-talk to their hearts' content, without ever having to own up to what they're doing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Face to Face with Greatness

A few weeks ago, I saw an article in The Economist about a study in which Tufts University psychologists Nicholas Rule and Nalini Ambady asked undergraduates to evaluate pictures of faces of a bunch of Fortune 1000 executives.

Half the students were asked to rate how good they thought the person in the picture would be at leading a company, the other half were asked to rate the person for five attributes: competence, dominance, likeability, trustworthiness, and something called facial maturity (i.e., did the person look grown up).

Damned if the students - none of whom, by the way, recognized Warren Buffet's photo - didn't do a  surprisingly good job at figuring out who the "best" leaders were in terms of which ones were running the most successful companies.

From the Psychological Science press release (the journal in which the study was published), we learn:

Without knowledge of the pictured individuals’ job titles, and by rating the faces on competence, dominance, likeability, facial maturity and trustworthiness, the students were able to distinguish between the successful and the not-so-successful CEOs.

Despite the ambiguity of the images, which were cropped to the face, put into grayscale and standardized in size, ratings of power- and leadership-related traits from CEOs’ faces were significantly related to company profits.

"These findings suggest that naive judgments may provide more accurate assessments of individuals than well-informed judgments can," wrote the authors. “Our results are particularly striking given the uniformity of the CEOs’ appearances.” The majority of CEOs, who were selected according to their Fortune 1000 ranking, were Caucasian males of similar age.

Of the traits evaluated, the ones that mattered were competence, dominance, and facial maturity. Alas, likeability and trustworthiness didn't seem to count for much.

My first thought is, great, more support for the value of the "naive judgments" of the twenty-somethings. As if they need yet another boost to their self-esteem.

My second thought: why didn't they ask for a rating on confidence, which I'm guessing may have been what separated the Caucasian males from the Caucasian males, as it were.

My third thought: how very interesting.

Well, I had enough time to either try to find the full report, or to do an unscientific, unnormalized study of my own, evaluating pictures of the first five Caucasian male CEO's who came to mind. (Other than Warren Buffet, all photos taken from the corporate web site.) So here are my ratings:


I'd give Eric Schmidt high marks for competence, likeability, and trustworthiness.  He looks like one smart, fun to work with nerd. Ixnay on dominance, and facial maturity - but maybe this is the wave of the future.



How well I remember the times when Ivan Seidenberg blew into Genuity (a Verizon spinout that spun out of control - and out of business) to tell us that our fate was in our hands. Well, Ivan, that turned out not to be 100% correct, but all (or almost all) is forgiven.

I think Ivan looks competent, facially mature, and - maybe it's the shirt and tie - a tad bit dominant. Gee, I also have to say he looks reasonable likable and even a little trustworthy. Way to go, Ivan.



Maybe those Tufts kids had no idea who you are, but Warren, baby, I'd know you anywhere. Warren looks likable (and rumpled), competent (perhaps because I know he is), facially mature (and hair color mature as well), and trustworthy. Warren does not look dominant to me, but hanging around Omaha, and having a kabillion dollars to his name - he just may no longer have to be.



Well, to me Jeff Immelt looks like Michael Douglas playing Jeff Immelt.(Or Jeff Immelt playing Mitt Romney.)  But once I get beyond that, he looks competent enough, dominant (in a cocksure, sales guy, cigar-ish kind of way), Likable (but with a bit of faux-likeability about the smile), and reasonably facially mature. To me, however, he doesn't give good trustworthy. Maybe a little too much attention paid to looking "approachable". (Maybe it's just the candid shot.)

Jeff Immelt


What's there to say? The person in this picture of Steve Ballmer doesn't look particularly likable or trustworthy. He sure doesn't look dominant. The gaze. The smirk. He looks goofy. (And I'm not dissing the bald, here, either. Some of my best friends are bald, including my husband, father, and brothers. But even when I covered that bald pate with my thumb, he still looks goofy.) I don't even see a lot of facial maturity going on (other than the bald). All I can say is, this guy must be rip-roaring competent!

Steve Ballmer

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Poor Stephen Schwarzman

When Blackstone Group, a private equity fund, went public last spring, founder Stephen Schwarzman made $677.2 million. Plus his twenty-four percent ownership was valued (at the pre-IPO price) at $8B. It's likely drooped a bit since then, but even a 50% hit - which is unlikely - would still mean he's worth four bills.

This, of course, set some Wall Streeters into paroxysms of jealousy. Suddenly, their own personal fortunes seem so trivial, so paltry.

"You have no idea what an impression this made on Wall Street," a friend of Schwarzman's who works at another bank says. "You have all these guys who have spent their entire lies working just as hard to make twenty million. Sure, that's a lot of money, but then Schwarzman turns around and, seemingly overnight, has eight billion."

I could spend a lot of time parsing this quote - taken from a profile on Stephen Schwarzman, written by James B. Steward, and running in the Eustis Tilley number (Feb. 11-18) of The New Yorker.

But the guy quoted at least had the good sense to acknowledge that $20M is "a lot of money."

So, other than to observe that a lot of people work just as hard and don't make more than a fraction of that over their careers. And to wonder just what kind of get-rich-quicker stampede this is going to set off among those who are now feeling rather withered! (And you thought the hedge fund managers already made enough? Hah!)

No, I will save my parsing for a quote from Schwarzman, in which he says,

"I don't feel like a wealthy person. Other people think of me as a wealth person, but I don't. I feel the same as when I was a fifth-year associate trying to make partner at Lehman Brothers."

Maybe Schwarzman feels that way, in the same way that us commoners might feel like we're still in our thirties, even though the driver's license and mirror are screaming au contraire.

But it's really hard to grasp how someone with that much money doesn't feel wealthy. Forget the $8B. What about the $677M? Shouldn't that sum be sufficient for someone to "feel" like a wealthy person.

I might understand it better if Schwarzman were, like the Sage of Omaha, living in a modestly nice house.

But, no, Schwarman lives large. He owns a thirty-five room Park Ave Triplex. He owns the former E.F. Hutton estate in Florida, that turned out to be a tear-down, although a tear-down with some panache. It was carefully torn down so that, when it was expanded, the original building was more or less preserved.

He owns a $34M home in the Hamptons, an estate in Saint-Tropez, and a place in Jamaica. (Hey, mon, I'd just like another 200 square feet and a bit more closet space.)

So, okay, you've got to live large somewhere. But wouldn't you think that the 35 room Park Ave trifecta alone might enable someone to look in the mirror, wink at himself, and say, "You are one wealthy son-of-a-gun."

Apparently not.

And the ability to throw himself a pretty darned nice birthday party didn't do the trick, either.

Last February 14th, for Schwarzman's 60th b-day celebration,

Part of the cavernous Park Avenue armory was transformed into a large-scale replica of the Schwarzman's Park Avenue apartment. Replicas of Schwarzman's art collection were mounted on the walls, including, at the entrance, a full-length portrait of him by Andrew Festing, the president of the president of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.

A replica of his apartment! How homey!

But, given that the Park Ave apartment has 35 rooms, you'd think there'd have been ample room to host the event their, but I guess they needed more room for the "faux night club setting" where dinner was served. Or maybe he was worried that one of his guests might have light-fingered the silver - or drawn a Dali-mustache on the full-length portrait.

Martin Short mc'd. Marvin Hamlisch played the piano. and Patti LaBelle sang. So did Rod Stewart, who ran through his greatest hits - to the tune of a reported $1M fee.

Happy Birthday to you, too!

So just what does it take for someone to feel wealthy these days when even the upper echelonians who us poor folk naively assume have it (financially) made don't feel all that well-to-do.

All I thought I was going to have to worry about was the declining middle class and the growing chasm between the haves and the have nots. Now I have to add fretting about the feelings of the wealthy. (Or is it the so-called wealthy?) Damn! I really didn't need to add anything else to my worry list, thank you.

Schwarzman's second wife, whose first husband was one of the Hearst fortune heirs, grew up the daughter of a New York City firefighter.

Wonder if she feels wealthy?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Presidents' Day (it's a living)

It's Presidents' Day, the holiday formerly known as Washington's Birthday. Since the day has opened up somewhat, I thought I'd let you know that the presidents I'm personally celebrating this year are Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR. Yes, I know, popular and easy choices, but I really don't know enough about John Tyler and Zachary Taylor to celebrate them. (Well, now that I've done a little bit of homework, I do know a little bit about them: post-White House, John Tyler served in the House of Representatives of the Confederacy, so I probably wouldn't have chosen to celebrate him; and Zachary Taylor died in office after only a brief time as president.) Many of the presidents I do know enough about, I don't really care to celebrate.

Since this blog is at least nominally related to the workplace, business, and the economy, I thought I'd take a look at what our presidents did for a living when they weren't being president.

Although he has now bowed out of the race, Willard "Mitt" Romney has nudged this question into my brain by making his business success the central argument for his qualification for the presidency. (Coming off the last 8 years, it's really a wonder why anyone would push the Harvard-MBA-businessman "thing", but - whatever else you think of either of them - Romney arguably had greater business success than W.)

In any case, thanks to Info, Please I now know what-all they did before and after they held The Highest Office in the Land.

Not surprisingly, the majority of presidents were lawyers, soldiers, and/or held elective office before becoming POTUS.

Among the more varied pre-Prez jobs:

  • Postmaster (Lincoln)
  • Tailor (Andrew Johnson)
  • Sheriff (Grover Cleveland)
  • Editor (Harding)
  • Haberdasher (Truman)
  • Tariff collector (Arthur)
  • Peanut farmer (Carter)
  • Actor (Reagan)
  • Baseball team owner (W)

After the fact, quite a few were writers - although I'm guessing most of what got written wasn't of much merit, but was a glossed up, not particularly soul-searching memoir. (Apologies to John Adams, Jefferson, Grant, TR, and anyone else who wrote something worth a damn after leaving office.)

There were also a number of "gentleman farmers", a profession that I don't think anyone would admit to these days.

And lots of involvement in academia: university presidents, regents, rectors, chancellors.

A few took a step down, with John Q. Adams becoming a Congressman, Andrew Johnson serving as a senator, and John Tyler, as noted above, serving in the Congress of the Confederacy.

One of Teddy Roosevelt's after-office occupations is listed as hunter. Coolidge became president of the American Antiquarian Society. But my favorite post-presidency listing was for Millard Fillmore, who's noted as a "rogue political activist." Many other fellows are listed as activists of some stripe (political, education, prison reform....), but Millard was the only "rogue." (It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.)

Whoever you're celebrating, Happy Presidents' Day to all!


I cannot tell a lie: If you're reading this post prior to Monday, February 18th, you can tell that I pre-posted this. That's because I went away - laptop-less - for the long weekend, and Blogger, alas, doesn't (yet) have any scheduling capability. You can assign whatever date you like, but Blogger will post it then and there.

Friday, February 15, 2008

What do you do when you're offered the GM buy-out?

Last week, GM offered to buy out all 74,000 of its unionized work force, in hopes of both reducing head count and swapping out workers who average $28 an hour in wages with those willing to work for half that. (Lat month, Ford made a similar offer to its 54,000 UAW workers.)

As reported in The New York Times,

With 46,000 of the 74,000 workers already eligible for retirement, G.M. laid out several attractive options — including retirement with full benefits and a cash payout of $45,000 to $62,500 depending on job classification.

Employees with less than 30 years of seniority can leave and receive fixed monthly payments until they reach full “30 and out” status. Younger employees can depart with cash payments of $70,000 or $140,000, depending on years of service, in exchange for giving up health care and other postretirement benefits.

Well, if you're near retirement this certainly looks like a good deal, but you do have to ask yourself how those retirement benefits get funded by a smaller work force making half as much money. Maybe the pension money is all safe and sound in a big old fund somewhere - hopefully one that didn't have a lot of skin in the high-risk mortgage game.

“These buyouts are a watershed event in the industry that defined U.S. manufacturing for most of the 20th century,” Professor [Harley] Shaiken [UCal-Berkeley] said. “The question is, Do you stay with one of the best-paying jobs anywhere, or get out of an unstable industry and a troubled company?”

Workers interviewed for the Times article were (predictably) mixed. One worker with 30 years on the job was quoted as saying, “I’m out of here. It’s all going downhill, and I don’t think it’s getting any better.” Which sounds like a pretty good analysis of the situation.

Another worker interviewed planned to stick it out until he get one kid out of med school and the other out of college. (And kudos for Larry Walker for seeing the industrial worker handwriting on the wall and making sure his kids are prepared for a different working world.)

What a tough decision these workers are facing, knowing full well that, if they leave now they are exceedingly unlikely to find another job that pays so well - especially for the older workers, who are less able to retrench and retrain. These workers can do the arithmetic: $45,000 is quite a lump sum, but if you're making close to $30 an hour plus bennies, it doesn't stretch all that far.

Then there's the worry about refusing the good offer, only to find your plant closed down - and a less sweetened deal on the table. (I know that when I left Genuity in 2002, my big motivation in volunteering for a lay-off - other than the fact that I was sick of having to make quarterly cuts in my group - was my prediction that the next severance package would be less generous than the one that was then on the table (6 months salary at my level). I was wrong - the good packages were sustained (thanks, I understand, to the CEO Paul Gudonis who, whatever else anyone had to say about him, was a genuinely nice guy) until Genuity's bitter, bankrupt end a year or two later.

But, of course, I wasn't particularly worried about finding another job. I knew I didn't want a full time job, and figured that I'd figure something out. (I did.)

But having worked for 25 years in high tech marketing is a lot different than having worked on the GM assembly line for 25 years in terms of applying those skills elsewhere - and demand for those skills.

The Grand Rapids Press also found a mixed bag when it came to worker response to the buyout offers, but for the most part found "the chill of a tough economy and looming family expenses are pushing many to say, 'No thanks.'"

Older workers - those in their 40's and 50's - seemed the most reluctant - especially those who didn't yet have the magic number of 30 years on the job accrued (which would give them full pensions). But as one guy said, "'If I had another game plan, maybe.'"

For younger workers, the buy out - while trading off on any future pension - is certainly enough to get someone started on a new path in life. (They're looking at one time payments of $70-140K, depending on tenure with the company.)

As for the replacement jobs, paying $14-15 an hour?

One of the workers weighing his options said, "'At $15 an hour, they'll be lined up and down 36th Street [location of the plant where workers were interview] to get in there.'"

And why not?

Sure, it's a meager wage compared to $30 an hour - but it's a lot heftier than what you'd be able to make at Wal-Mart. Maybe these new, lower paid industrial jobs become good blue collar jobs, albeit less lucrative ones, and give a new generation of workers something that at least vaguely approaches a decent living - although $30K a year doesn't buy you many frills.

Maybe what's good for GM is just going to be good for GM, but lets hope it turns out to be good for the 74,000 union workers who are facing a tough decision..

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Worcester First!

I spent the first weekend in February in my home town of Worcester, Massachusetts - which will provide fodder for a forthcoming post on the fall and at least partial rise of one of Ye Olde Northeast Industrial Cities.

Now, I have no idea what it's like to grow up in (or live in at all, for that matter) the suburbs or in a small town, but there's really something peculiar and touching (or depressing and pathetic, if you choose to look at it that way) about hailing from a Second Tier City. These are the cities that don't have major league sports teams (excepting Green Bay, which is probably a Third Tier City in terms of size). These are the cities that have big city headaches - slums, gangs, poverty - without big city bonuses: rapid transit, opera companies. These are the cities that are nobody's tourist destination (other than for a bleak February weekend). These are cities that people come from, not go to.

Second Tier Cities are overshadowed by sharing state-space with the city that everyone's heard of: Boston-Worcester, New York City-Syracuse, Cleveland-Youngstown.

In the case of Worcester, you're also saddled with what is apparently an easily mis-pronounced name. You can always tell the newcomer newscasters on Boston TV stations by the way they pronounced Worcester (and Leicester and Leominster). Surely, by now, one of those TV stations could have come up with a pronunciation guide for the second largest city in New England and its environs.

It's not Wor-sess-ter, or (worse) Wor-chester. It's Wuh-stah!

(And it's not Lye-cester, either. Just think Lester. Not to mention it not being Leo-minster. It's Lem-minster.)

In any case, Worcester when I was growing up had such the Second City complex - and I suspect it still does.

This resulted in a combo of defensiveness (defending the city and your ill luck to be living there - come on, if you had any juice, you'd be in Boston) and boosterism: Worcester was always applying for and sometimes winning designation as an All American City. (When I was a kid, I really thought that this was an ultra-important and prestigious award.)

Another thing about growing up in a place that no one's heard of but should have: you're very aware of the famous people who were from there (or who lived there), and the things that were invented there.

(When my sisters/cousins were cruising Worcester on our recent weekend there, I pointed out where Boston Celtics legend - and Holy Cross grad - Bob Cousy lives/used to live. My cousin pointed out where Boston Celtics legend - and Holy Cross grad - Tommy Heinsohn used to live. When we drove by his home, my father invariably pointed out the home of former big league pitcher Elton Awker. I was a baseball fan, but I suspect I'd never have heard of Elton Auker unless my father always announced it when we drove by his house.) We were especially proud of these blow ins. Hey, they're not from Worcester, they don't have to live here, they could live anywhere!

We also had our home grown "stars": the humorist Robert Benchley was from Worcester. The poet (and Poet Laureate) Stanley Kunitz. Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman.

And we had our Worcester inventions and Worcester firsts.

  • Dr. Robert Goddard, "The Father of American Rocketry", fired off the first liquid fuel rocket on Packachoag Hill in the 1920's. (Hmmm, when I typed the words "liquid fuel" there, I actually wrote "liquid fool," probably channeling my father's telling us that people used the expression "as crazy as Dr. Goddard" when he was a kid. And, by the way, my father and his sibs had Dr. Goddard on their paper route. He lived on Brookline Street, and his widow was still living there when I was growing up - right across the street from my friend Rosemary's house.)
  • The smiley face was invented in Worcester. Of course, the guy who invented it - Harvey Ball - barely made a penny off of it, but I remember when it first started floating around. In the mid- 1960's, I had a smiley face ur-pin. If only I'd hung on to it.
  • Forget Seneca Falls! The first national Women's Rights Convention was held in Worcester in 1850. And speaking of women's rights, Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member, was from Worcester. (She was Secretary of Labor under FDR).
  • One of the rumors when I was a kid was that the Worcester rock-and-roll radio station, WORC - 1310 on your dial, and on my dial until I decided it was more sophisticated to listen to radio stations from Boston - was the place where new recording artists were given a try out. We bragged (bragged!) that they chose Worcester because we had such discerning tastes, and I remember all the talk that "Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain" by the Cascades was first played on WORC. Well, maybe this Worcester-as-the-tryout stage wasn't a rumor. I read on that WORC was the first radio station in the country to play a Beatles record! I did not know that, probably because not only was I snottily listening to Boston stations, I was also snottily listening to Tom Rush and Bob Dylan, and sneering at those who got all hysterical about the Beatles. (I never did get hysterical, but, inevitably, I became I fan. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.)

Isaiah Thomas the printer - not the basketball player - printed the first Bible and the first dictionary in the US in Worcester. Eli Whitney ginned up the cotton gin in nearby Westboro. Just up Route 9 in Spencer, Elias Howe patented the first sewing machine in the US.

Could there be more?

Oh, yes, there could be:

The first typewriter and the first ballpoint pen were invented in Worcester. (Which I was not aware of.)Worcester

And, in 1847, "the first commercial valentine was mass produced in the very Heart of the Commonwealth."

Happy Valentine's Day, from my heart to yours!


Source for any "first" listed that I did not know is here.

More Worcester firsts here, including first public insane asylum in the US, and the creation of the windchill factor (what better place?).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Polaroid's Instant Film Plants Shuttered.

I'm a sucker for any article about a local company, especially when it's one like Polaroid, that was such a household name.

It was even a household name in our household when I was growing up, and that was really saying something, given that we were late adopters of just about everything you can think of.

Color TV? Why, we wouldn't think of getting one until the picture was as bright as a technicolor movie. (I'm not sure when color TV's became the visual equivalent of technicolor, but our family did eventually move to living color - sometime after my father died in 1971.)

Clothes dryer? Who needs one? Sheets smell wonderful when they're dried outdoors. So what if in the winter, line-dried towels turn as stiff and scratchy as planks of dried cod.

Dishwasher? What are kids for, if not to wash and dry dishes?

But at some point in the late 1950's/early 1960's, my father bought a Polaroid camera. This was just about the time they were making their first mass-market push, and my father got us one.

Maybe he didn't want us to end up like he did, with no camera recording of his childhood.

Other than an extended family picture taken when my father was a few months old, there were no pictures of him as a kid. The next picture of my father was his high school graduation portrait, which we loved because he had hair. (A couple of years ago, my cousin Barbara found a picture of the Worcester South High football team, taken when my father was 14 or 15. My father didn't get his full growth until later in his teens, and in the picture he still looks like a little kid. I wept when I saw that picture.)

So my father became a Polaroid-ing fool, taking pictures of us on any old occasion - the less formal the better. (In one of my favorites, "shot" by my mother, I'm sitting on the living couch, with my father's arm around me. We're both grinning into the camera. I'm in my PJ's, with my hair all done up in spoolie curlers, covered by a hair net.)

So I was sorry to read the news that Polaroid is closing down its last plants in Massachusetts, as well as those overseas, and is exiting the instant film photography business. (These plants all produced films; Polaroid had already exited the camera business.)

It will only eliminating 150 jobs in Massachusetts - at its high point, it employed 15,000 in the state - but the word "only" only works if you're not one of the employees impacted. And that "only" represents about half of Polaroid's Massachusetts workforce. The good news is that there's a program at Worcester Tech (WPI) to retrain the laid off manufacturing workers for jobs in bio-tech.

Still, it's sad to see this icon go.

As for those who still use Polaroid cameras,

... Polaroid chief operating officer Tom Beaudoin said the company is interested in licensing its technology to an outside firm that could manufacture film for faithful Polaroid customers. If that doesn't happen, Polaroid users would have to find an alternative photo technology, as the company plans to make only enough film to last into next year.

Let the hoarding begin!

As I've blogged about here, Polaroid has an alliance with Zink, which prints mini-prints of digital photos, which may give them continued lease on life. And they're concentrating on flat-panel TV's and other more digital business.

Half of the Polaroid pictures we took turned out terrible. They were light struck, and only developed half the picture. Or they were too dark. Or didn't come out at all.

You had to coat them with a foul-smelling chemical (that smelled like a home permanent), and if you didn't coat them right away, the pictures curled up.

But, ah, the bragging rights when we were the first family on the block with a Polaroid camera!

It almost made up for the those dishpan hands.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Penny Ante

Well, it's Abraham Lincoln's Birthday, and what better way to celebrate the day than to write about a major controversy now swirling around old Honest Abe: whether or not the penny, which has borne his likeness for oh, so many years, should be retired.cent

I can actually recall the last time when I bent down to retrieve a penny from the ground. It was April 1979, and I had just gone to Maury's Delicatessen in Webster Square, Worcester, to purchase cold cuts for the spread we were going to have after my grandmother's funeral.

I was crossing the street with an armload full of pepperoni, salami, bologna, and American cheese, when I spied a penny. I stooped to pick it up, but halted in mid-stoop, saying to myself, "What? Are you nuts?"

And that, my friends, was nearly 30 years ago, when the penny was worth a lot more. Maybe not enough to actually buy anything with, but still of greater value than it is now.

Much as I like the penny, it has, I'm afraid, outlived its usefulness.

And, as they reported on 60 Minutes the other night, it actually costs a lot more to produce than it's worth.

As I said, I rather like the penny. It has a distinctive color, honors a president I admire, and has tremendous sentimental value.

Now, I don't really remember the penny being worth all that much, but when I was a kid there was something called penny candy that actually cost a penny. (Penny candy now seems to cost a nickel or a dime.) If you had a couple of pennies, you could go to Carerra's, gaze into the glass cases that contained the penny candy, and make your agonizing decision: licorice whip, bull's eye, button candy, wax lips, wax teeth, Squirrel Nut, Mary Jane, Mint Julep (2 for a penny!), Banana Split (ditto - but they had a really revolting taste), candy cigarettes, candy lipstick. Wax lips and wax teeth may actually have cost 2 cents, but they were absolutely worth every penny.

Once you made the decision, Mr. or Mrs. Carerra, or their son Butchy, put the candy in a little brown paper bag for you.

One memorable day, my friend Bernadette was given a quarter, and we wiled away the afternoon slipping in and out of Carerra's, buying a few pieces of candy at a time, then going over to hang out at the edges of The Oval, a grassed in area - not quite a park - in the middle of the street in front of Carerra's, where the big boys hung out and played catch.

Carerra's, by the way, was in the basement of a three-decker, a frequent location for commerce in our neighborhood. I don't remember whether Carerra's was a market or a spa, spa being the term most commonly used for the convenience stores that dotted the neighborhoods in Worcester. (The same impulse that went into naming these stores "spas" was similarly directed toward calling the porches on three-deckers "piazzas".)

What else could you do with a penny?

You could go to the Main Crest Pharmacy and try your hand at getting the lucky gumball from the gumball machine. The lucky gumball was yellow with red stripes, and if it came out on your penny, you could trade it in for a candy bar (value: 5 cents). It was rumored that the lucky gumballs were glued to the sides of the gumball machine, since no one ever seemed to win.

Or, if your parents bought you cool penny loafers rather than clunky saddle shoes, you could put a penny in the penny slot. (The really cool kids used nickels.)

(Boy, do I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder writing about the good old days.)

But I digress.

The anti-penny argument, as put forward by Retire The Penny, is that the penny "no longer facilitates commerce."

Inflation has eaten away at the value of the penny to such a degree that it no longer facilitates commerce. The fact that the penny is still in circulation does not mean that it is useful. If the half penny were minted then it too would be in circulation, even though it would be nothing but a nuisance. The half penny was eliminated in 1858, when it was worth over ten times what the penny is worth today. Assuming that the timing was correct before, this means that we should have eliminated the penny fifty years ago.

I remember seeing an occasional half penny or two-cent piece when I was a kid, but they were so long out of circulation, they must have been "collectors items" that somebody showed. But the argument that the penny should have been eliminated fifty years ago doesn't quite square with the existence of penny candy and gumball machines at that point in time. Believe me, no one would have spent a nickel on one piece of penny candy when they could buy an entire candy bar with it.

Retire The Penny argues that producing the penny is a waste of money. If their numbers are correct - that the US Treasury mints 7 billion pennies each year, to the tune of $100 million - each penny costs $.70 to produce. (Thus, the value of the penny seems like it should be $.70, no? I just can't wrap my head around this one, but it sure sounds ridiculous.)

They also point out that the main lobbying force for keeping the penny is the zinc producers, who'd lose out big time if the penny got disappeared on us.

Retire's other argument is that making change that involves pennies is a big waste of time:

The National Association of Convenience Stores and Walgreen's drug store chain estimated that handling pennies adds 2 to 2.5 seconds to each cash transaction (remember that we are including the occasional customer who spends 30 seconds looking for the penny in his pocket).

They then go through some contortions to demonstrate that the cost of using pennies in terms of lost productivity is $10B per year. (Interesting, but if you really think about it, it's like one of those "270 women pregnant for 1 day each can't make a baby" situation.) Sure, I may be wasting 24 hours a year fumbling for pennies, but that time is parsed out so granularly that I'd never be able to string it together to do something really meaningful.

Now, counting, sorting, cashing in pennies by stores may well be a different story, in terms of productivity.

I didn't bother to look for the Zinc Association of America, but I do want to give equal time to Penny Lovers of America, which is an odd little feel-good organization that in no way seems like the lobbying wing of Zinc, Inc.

Founder Richard Barber:

...promote[s] the penny as the symbol of "self-help and self-reliance", and as the central vehicle in conveying lessons of Character, Scholarship and Patriotism to young people.

His "personal relationship and affinity for the 'penny'" began when he was a little kid and swallowed five pennies. Forty-two years after this seminal event, Barber:

...was awakened around 2:00 a.m. one morning from a deep sleep by the hand of God with the inspiration to write the words "A PENNY SPEAKS." These words expressed by a "penny" itself, convey the burning desire to unite with other non-productive, abused and seemingly worthless pennies to make positive contributions to society and improve the conditions and the quality of life for our people through united "PENNY POWER."

Well, you have your burning bush, and then you have your talking penny. God sure works in some mysterious ways.

But God spoke to Richard Barber in 1984, and the pennies gone down hill since in terms of value, and uphill in terms of nuisance.

I can be as sentimental a fool as the next guy, and I sure will miss those great expressions:

  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
  • Penny wise, pound foolish.
  • A penny for your thoughts.
  • If I had a penny for every time (which, I believe, has already inflated to "if I had a nickel")

But penny candy is already devoid of all meaning, as is penny arcade (although I think that one of the ancient fortune telling or weight machines at the Salem Willows still costs a penny). Penny ante will hold its meaning (sort of). Are kids with red hair still nicknamed "Penny"?

Enough is enough! The penny must die! And it just might work out. Surely, someone can re-master Bing Crosby crooning, "Every time it rains, it rains, quarters from heaven."

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Mu$eum of American Finance

The Museum of American Finance has recently opened in new digs, in the old Bank of New York building on Wall Street. (No, I'm not the one who thought of that clever use of the $-as-S, they did.)

I'd never heard of it either, until I saw a bit on it in The Economist, but you should know that it's:

...the nation's only independent public museum dedicated to celebrating the spirit of entrepreneurship and the democratic free market tradition which has made New York City the financial capital of the world.

New York is obviously the right place for this museum. Not that museums always end up in the right place, of course. Why, if they did, that would mean that it actually made sense that the Museum of American Sanitary Plumbing (a.k.a., the Toilet Museum) was located for many years in my home town of Worcester, Massachusetts. Hmmmmm. (The curators are retiring, and the museum is moving to the almost eponymous city of Watertown, Mass.)

Circus Stock

As is always the case when I visit a museum - even if the visit is only virtual -  I wend my way to the gift shop. (Confession: sometimes the only reason I visit a museum is for the gift shop.) Among other things for sale at the Museum of American Finance:

  • A fine art photograph of a $500 bill, selling for a mere $550.00.  On second thought, you can get a fine art photograph of a $1000 bill for the same price. I'd go for the $1,000 photo - that is some real value!
  • For $1200, a print of "The NYSE at Noon."
  • All kinds of bull-and-bear statues, bookends, clocks and paperweights, all pretty high quality, judging from the prices, but - then again - it is only going to sit on the desk of someone who at least has to convey the image of financial success. No tawdry plastic objects here!
  • Stroll-down-memory-lane stock certificates for outfits like PanAm, NY Central RR, and Howard Johnson's. (Hey, Howard Johnson still exists, don't they? And who knew that Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey was/is a public  company. Very cool certificate, by the way, but, alas, only available as computer wallpaper. I couldn't tell if there was a company tag line on it. Is it still "There's a sucker born every day?")
  • A doily made out of one dollar bills - very artfully schnitzeled, it that's the right word - for $800. (Who said doilies are out of style?)
  • Bear & bull cufflinks, pendants, and earrings, but, I am floored to report: NO SUSPENDERS.

And I learned a new word here:

Scripophily, the collecting of antique stock and bond certificates, is a fascinating and growing hobby, with thousands of collectors worldwide.

My favorite sales item is a CD containing songs about money. I guess they could find any songs that are exactly in praise of the rich, of Wall Street, or of hedge fund managers. Most of the songs are by folkies like Woody Guthrie, Sony Terry and Brownie Magee, and Pete Seeger,  (I'm not familiar with Pete's song "Business", but I have a fairly strong hunch that it's not in praise of.)

Which reminds me of Tom Lehrer's classic tune, The Folk Song Army, with my favorite stanza:

Remember the war against Franco?
That's the kind where each of us belongs.
Though he may have won all the battles,
We had all the good songs.

In any event, on my next trip to The City, if I make my way to the Wall Street area, I will definitely try to stop in at the Museum of American Finance. It looks like a very interesting place. (If nothing else, I want to check out the fab looking sofa made entirely out of nickels. I think I'll take a pass on the exhibit with the actually pork belly in it.)

Friday, February 08, 2008

A perfect career path for the Perfect Master

"I heard the news today, oh boy..."

Well, actually, I didn't hear the news that the Beatle's guru and Transcendental Meditation teacher, the Maharishi, has passed on to his eternal reward, apparently having failed in his mission of making the world a happy and tranquil place.

But my sister Kathleen did hear the news, and upon doing so, her inquiring mind spun into a bit of not-so-Transcendental Meditation, hitting upon a very important question: whatever happened to the Maharishi's sidekick, the so-called 14 year old Perfect Master?

Well, thanks to wikipedia, I now know that Prem Rawat is still "touring extensively" encouraging folks to give inner peace a chance, and that, in 1985, he changed the name of Divine Light Missionaries (which could easily have been confused by Catholics with Divine Word Missionaries) with the far trendier Elan Vital (a term with no known association with the Catholic Church).

He also went on to establish a humanitarian foundation that helps those in need not so much of inner peace as of food, water, and medical care.

But wait, there's more!

The Perfect Master lives in Malibu, plus:

He holds an Airline Transport Pilot License and has type ratings for a number of multi-engined aircraft and helicopters. His résumé lists skills in computer graphics, computer-aided design and the development of aviation software. He is listed as co-inventor on a U.S. patent for a world-time aviational watch. He has contributed to startup companies in various industries, and supports his family through investments in several areas of business, including software.

So, the 14 year old Perfect Master is all grown up, and living a presumably innerly peaceful life as a Venture Capitalist! WAY-TO-GO!

This is reputedly his Malibu digs:


"Just chant in the name of the lord, and you'll be free...."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Going Green: Say goodbye to witch's knickers.

After a good run at Business Filter at, Da Filtuh is no more, and Maura Welch is blogging elsewhere. I lament the loss of Maura's blog, not only because it was a frequent source of Pink Slip inspiration, but because - occasionally - I got to return the favor and supply Maura with ideas.

Tramp. Tramp. Tramp.

That's the sound of time marching on, but Maura can still prompt a blog, as she's done with her post on the billions of cheesy plastic bags that we use mindlessly and needlessly, and which are the scourge of the earth.

Billions? you might understandably ask.

Yes, billions: an estimated 42 B in January 08 alone.

And about 41B of them seem to end up in gutters or caught in tree branches. The other 1B end up in landfills, where in some post-apocalyptic future world, people (or whatever we end up evolving to) will come across them - still undecomposed.

I'm with Maura on these bags. Enough! (She points out in her blog that in Ireland, you have to pay for the bags now, which has really cut down on usage. I can attest to the fact that, since this law went through, there are a lot fewer of these bags - called, by the way, witch's knickers - floating around.

Last spring, I bought a couple of fold up tote bags that were being sold as a sideline at the sunglass stand at a MassPike rest stop. They hold quite a bit of "stuff", and they fit in your average pocketbook, briefcase, or laptop bag. I bought one in green, one in blue.

I liked them so much that I bought one for each of the Banshees - my sister-cousin posse.

This Christmas, I used them as stocking stuffers for my nieces.

Let's see.

I pop into some combination of the local drug store, CVS, the local grocery store, Whole Foods, and Staples at least twice a week.

At minimum I was consuming 100 of these miserable little plastic bags every year.

No longer!

I now use my handy-dandy little fold up tote (which, in fact, I rarely bother to fold up at all). I also sprung for a Whole Foods bag (99 cents, I think). Plus my sister gave me one from her town, Salem, Massachusetts - an environmentally friendly version of witch's knickers.

Of course, my 100 bags a year, plus the 100 bags a year that each of the Banshees and my nieces blow through, barely makes a dent in that 42 B in January alone.


What do we need these bags for?


I use them as a dirty undie bag if I'm going away for the weekend, but I'm not staying at a hotel with laundry bags.

I use them to wrap up rotty stuff from the fridge before I put it in my garbage bag.

I use them when to wrap up dead lightbulbs or broken glass of some kind.

Other than that: THEY'RE NO DAMN GOOD.


If I had a dog, I'd probably use them to pick up after it.

But mostly: we just throw those no-good bags away.

I just did a little googling, and couldn't find where I bought all those totes for the Banshees and "the girls". Was it the Sunglass hut? I seem to remember it was in New Jersey.

Matters not: there are a lot of collapsible, re-usable tote bags out there, and we should all be using them.

Go forth and unmultiply! (While we're at it: what about those plastic sleeves that newspapers get delivered in?)

And best of luck to Maura Welch in her new endeavor.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Your credit's no good here

Some credit card holders with Egg accounts - Egg's an online bank recently bought by CitiGroup - got word the other day that their cards were being canceled.

Just who were these bad eggs getting their plastic shredded?

Not necessarily - as you might easily and naively imagine - those who are charging up a storm and neglecting to pay the bank what they owe them.

No, a lot of the folks getting humpty-dumptied by Citi are clean, sober, respectable, responsible credit card holders with the ridiculous tendency to pay off their balance every month.

Such rectitude! Such caution! Who'd want these sanctimonious and no doubt parsimonious bores as customers anyway? Fuss-budgets all, no doubt, with crocheted antimacassars on the armchair. Probably the type who use coasters to protect the coffee table and bring their shoes to the cobbler for new heels.

Well, I don't have an Egg account, but I do have a credit card or two with Citi, so I won't be surprised if I get a ding one of these days. I am, after all, one of those middle-aged, middle-class drudges who actually pays of her balance every month, too.

In fact, I just got a statement from one of my Citi cards notifying me that I have a credit of $244.84. It seems that last month when I did my online banking I plunked $244.84 into the wrong account. Oh, well, maybe the account I stiffed was also a Citi one. Maybe they'll like me a little more when they get to throw that 1/12th of 19.2% interest charge on my $244.84 and make a little dough off me. At least this should offset the disturbing fact that I have actually pre-paid for something. Why, that's almost as good as money in the bank! (Note to self: run out and find something worth spending $244.84 on. Use United Mileage Citi card. Upside: 244 more frequent flyer miles! My husband the frequent flyer savant will be so pleased and proud!)

If they can't make a bit of interest off us, the credit card providers are just going to look elsewhere. We just don't shift our own weight. Our credit's no good there.

Be bad! Be careless! Be profligate! Or be gone!

This new (?) practice of dumping the solvent was written up in The Sunday (UK) Times this weekend, and blogged in Global Economic Analysis, where it was seen by my eye-for-a-Pink-Slip-topic brother-in-law, Rick. From The Times article:

One industry insider said that as businesses credit card providers had a right to ditch customers who do not generate income. "In the last two years more and more customers have been paying off their credit card debt and that means less interest charges and other fees for the provider," the source said. "Maintaining a customers account costs money - it's hardly surprising that they want to lose some of those people."

MBNA, the credit card giant, recently introduced annual charges for those customers who very rarely use their accounts.

Egg denied it was targeting unprofitable customers, saying the cull spun from a review instigated by Citi when it bought the internet bank from the Prudential last May.

It said customers were chosen if their credit profile had deteriorated since they had joined Egg, and was mainly based on their relationship with Egg rather than taking into account if they had fallen behind with payments to other lenders or utilities.

Some of those who got the Dear John notes, however, beg to differ. They're pretty riled up about being so unfairly dumped. And who can blame them?

After all, it's the fact that rapacious credit card providers have been so eager to give anyone and everybody cards with mega-credit lines - only to have them go completely bust - that makes them have to rely on the rest of us to pick up the tab. Maybe if they weren't so damn eager to let some knuckleheads rack up 10 times their take-home in credit card debt, they wouldn't need us to let our payments lag so they can gouge us.

It seems, however, that things will get worse for us pecksniffs: checker Experian said better customers may be less welcome in future as banks chase profitable business to offset losses from delinquent borrowers with rising bad debts.

"Put yourself in their shoes. You spend very little and pay it off every month. You are not an ideal customer for them," said Peter Brooker, a spokesman for the company.

Well, I will put myself in their shoes, and I still come back to the fact that if they didn't have deadbeats defaulting on them all the time, they wouldn't need me to pay usury. And doesn't it seem that, with all the minute transaction-level info "they" have on all of us - Alert! Alert! Alert! Account holder Maureen Rogers just bought a $6.99 loaf of bread and a $6.99 pound of cherries at Whole Foods - plus all that credit history on everyone in the world - they can pretty much figure out who's most likely to default and, at minimum, not give them much of a draw? Or charge them the heftier initiation fee.

Must be hard for the credit card companies, walking that fine line between identifying those who will rev up a big load of debt, then struggle forever to pay it down at usurious rates, and those who'll rev up a big load of debt and walk away from it.

In any event, looks like those of us who are religious about paying off our credit card debt will have to resort to cash and debit cards in the future.

For the credit card companies, we just won't be worth the risk.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Death of a Salaryman

Every time I turn around, there's another story about how Gen-Y is going to approach the workplace in an entirely different way than their career-obsessed, workaholic, complacent, buck-crazed, conspicuously-consuming,  scaredy-cat, security-craving Baby Boomer parents.

No, the new kids on the block will not settle into boring old jobs, but will build ultra-interesting, infinitely-flexible, fully-work-life-balanced careers for themselves.

Of course, I'm probably just jealous that I didn't figure out how to get me one of these until I was into my well-advanced middle-age. Good for Gen-Y for plotting new career paths for themselves. (They may as well, given that globalization and technology make this relationship to work both inevitable and possible.)

It's interesting to learn, however, that a similar phenomenon is taking hold of Japan, as the salaryman goes Willy Loman.

If the Gen-Yers think the Gen-My-ers were corporate tools, what would they make of the salarymen, who completed traded off home life in return for security. Part of that trade-off meant hanging around the office - often falling asleep at your desk - well after hours. It wasn't necessarily about working, it was about face time. You just had to be there, even if you face was face-down on a pile of papers on your desk.

Salarymanhood also meant little pay-for-performance, little meritocracy. One for all, all for one: salaries pretty much went along in lockstep for everybody in the firm.

Another part of the trade-off meant you stuck with the same company for life - in exchange for a nice comfy pension. (Gen Y-ers who imagine that all Boomers went this route obviously haven't met the Boomers who worked in technology, financial services, manufacturing, or any number of other industries. Perhaps they are confusion the Boomers with the Greatest Generation who did, often, get to work in the same boring old place in exchange for a nice comfy pension. I will admit, us Boomers are starting to look a bit like the Greatest Generation...a little hate-that-gray in the temple, a little thickish in the waist.)

And you not only stayed at the same company for life, you may well have lived in company-subsidized housing, and vacationed at company-subsidized resorts. (How's that sound for a fun and relaxing holiday?)

Most of what we associate salarymen with is no doubt the after-work drinking. Whether entertaining clients, or heading out for a few with the boys after a long day working (and sleeping) at the office, saki and scotch were a big part of the picture.

Now it seems that fewer and fewer young professionals want to be salarymen. And as economic forces have their impact on the Japanese economy, there are fewer and fewer salaryman jobs out there anyway.

(The Economist, in recent article "Sayonara, salaryman", noted the rise in part time or temporary workers who may not have the stresses and strains of being a salaryman, but don't get any of the bennies, either.)

While, with the death of the salaryman, there will no doubt be attendant dislocations in Japanese society, one doesn't have to be an ultra-capitalist or sociologist to feel that having a career that includes bit more personal freedom, job-choice, performance incentives, and work-life balance is, overall, a good thing. And you don't have to be Carrie Nation to regard the demise of the 2 a.m. saki matches as a societal good.

Still, let's give the salarymen a bit of credit here.

In 1945, Japan was in shambles.

Out of those shambles, a couple of generations of salarymen apparently helped build the Japanese economy into one of the world's largest. (I think they're Number 2 to you-know-who.)

Imagine what they could have accomplished if they hadn't been sleep-deprived, hung over, and in a stupor half the time?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Too too Toto

In reading through the Fortune 101 Dumbest Business Stories of 2007, I realized that I missed a few good ones. (I'll definitely have to fine tune my quirky-story-o-meter for 2008.)

One that I missed was the story about Toto's toilet recall.

While I have two Toto toilets in my home, they are the definitely from the bottom of the Toto line: all they do is flush.

The toilet that Toto recalled was their high tech number, complete "with bidets that have blow-drying, air purification and seat-warming functions".

Apparently some of the hot seats started to smoke, and three actually caught fire.

No one was injured, but what a way to go.

Imagine, sitting there calming reading the newspaper, when flames start - quite literally - licking your butt.

Fortunately, there's water available to help put the fire out, but you have to worry about just how flammable toilet paper might be - something that up to now I have never thought about.

Bidets I get, since I'm at least familiar with them from French hotel rooms.

Air purification?

Well, it is sometimes necessary, but isn't that what a spritz of Lysol, an open window, or a match are for?

And a heated toilet seat?

I hadn't realized that toilet seats were all that cold. Yes, the rim of the toilet bowl sure is if you get up in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter, and the man who last used said toilet had neglected to put the seat back down. But a heated toilet seat wouldn't handle this problem at all.

In my experience, toilet seats actually heat up pretty fast on their very own once they come in contact with human flesh, which, in my experience, is not so apt to spontaneously combust. (I do, however, heartily endorse heated car seats.)

As I said, I fortunately do not have to worry about my plain vanilla Totos going up in flames. I can just keep to my plain vanilla toilet fear - that a rat will come up through it. Yes, we have a special valve that is supposed to prevent back-wash (and rat appearances), but every once in a while I hear something about a rat torpedoing up through the toilet of some misfortunate urban dweller. Sounds like an urban legend, but apparently it's not - when my friend Mary Beth was a librarian at Cambridge Public Library years ago, they had rats coming up through the toilets.

All I can say is that, if that happened to me, I would either get the most high tech, anti-rat toilet I could find - or install some type of clean and fragrant version of a Porta-Potty in our condo.

Just to make sure it doesn't happen, I think I'll go google what your supposed to do for rat prevention. I think it's put a few drops of bleach or ammonia in the toilet bowl. Let me check to make sure. Wouldn't want to combine bleach and ammonia and get knocked out by the fumes...


Description of the toilet used above taken from this Reuters article.