Friday, October 31, 2008

I'm Maureen Rogers and I approved this message

Although it wouldn't take a genius to figure out the direction my flag waves in, I don't "do" politics on Pink Slip, other than indirectly,

But I do want to put a mention (and a link) in here to a thoughtful, well-written essay on  restoring trust in democracy, over on the Huffington Post. Too Much Fear is the work of my good friend (and "virtual niece") Sophia Carroll.

For those who decry the Gen-Y/Millenial/Echo Boomers as The Dumbest Generation, a topic I've posted on in the past, her thoughtful piece is there to dispel the notion that people in Sophia's "cohort" can't think or write.

Congratulations, Soph, for contributing in such a meaningful way to what they now call "the conversation."

(Is it too hokey to say I'm really proud of you?)

Scarier and scarier

I'm spending tonight in Salem, Massachusetts - the ur center of American Halloween.

I won't be with the thousands of costumed crazies - the twenty-somethings who flock to Salem each Halloween. I'll be at my sister's.

But since Trish and her family live near downtown, just around the corner from the Witch Museum, it will be hard to avoid the costumed crazies.

If past years are any predictor, a lot of the grown-up costumes will be Goth, monster, blood, and gore. With a bit of sexed up thrown in.

I'm more interested in seeing what the kiddies are wearing.  Hundreds of them will be ringing Trish's bell: it's a Friday, nice weather is forecast, and this is, after all Salem. I'm sure it will be the usual assortment of princesses, witches, football players, super heroes, Harry Potters, pirates, kitty cats, scary monsters. Maybe not all that much has changed (other than the Harry Potters) since I was a kid.

But one thing has changed, and that's the sexed up nature of the commercially available costumes for little girls.

This came up today when I asked my friend George what his three little girls were going out as.

"Cheerleader, angel, and Minnie Mouse," he tod me. "But you should see what's out there. It's really disgusting." 

He told me that his wife had even seen a French maid's costfrenchmaidume.

A French maid costume!

What parent puts their little girl in a character straight out of a soft core porn fantasy?

And isn't Halloween about a kid's fantasy?

We want to be angels, princesses, gypsies, brides.

What little girl fantasizes about being a French maid?

Have at a google - there are plenty of these costumes on line - in sizes as small as 4. Feather duster, extra. The picture I've grabbed here is relatively benign - if you can get past the idea of a little girl in a French maid's costume.

There's an article about it on MSNBC, complete with video of all sorts of "innocent" costumes - cheerleader, witch, princess - with tight bodice, bare midriff, and full cleavage. The little girls pictured on the packaging are mostly in come-hither poses, straight out of the unfortunate (and ultimately tragic) Jon-Benet Ramsey playbook. (She's on my mind because I'm reading Joyce Carol Oates' excellent fictional imagining of that poor child's life, My Sister My Love.)

All part of the detritus left behind as our culture continues to over-sexualize everything - most disgustingly, our little girls.

What's wrong with any parent who'd let their daughter go out as a French maid?

My mother - a prude if there ever was one - had all kinds of clothing rules that she was more or less able to enforce with her daughters until we were in our late teens. Part of the enforcement "just happened": we wore uniforms to school. Another part was that clothing, for the most part, was just less sexy. Even the mini skirts weren't all that micro-mini quite yet. (At least when Kath and I were in high school, that was the case. A decade later, when Trish was in high school, things had loosened up a bit: bikini-bikinis - not two piece bathing suits, hot pants...)

My mother's rules (channeling, to some extent, my father's wishes) were you couldn't wear anything that was too short, too tight, too plunging, or - weirdly - black. (She didn't believe that anyone under the age of 40 wearing black.)

For the most part, by the time we started wearing things that were short, tight, plunging, and black, we were in college, when - let's face it - 99% of the time, I was wearing jeans and workshirts. If on a trip home, we appeared in something that she didn't like, my mother was free to make her opinion known. And we were free to ignore her. (In particular, I'm remembering a purple jersey dress I had that was pretty short that she really disapproved of.)

My sisters and I still use our shorthand on occasion, laughing about whether something is TS, TT, TP, or TB. (I tried on a walking skirt last summer that I instantly decided was TS. Maybe if I had tanned legs....)

Anyway, I think of my mother, and what she would be making of a French maid costume on a 4 year old.

Prude that she was, she probably wouldn't be making of it anything much different than I am.

The horror!


Over on Opinionated last year, I had a Trick or Treat post that might be a fun read for you.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


Last February, I posted about my conversion to replacing my wanton consumption of flimsy, disposable bags by using (and re-using, and re-using) my own tote bags.

So far, I've been doing pretty well.

I'd say I've cut down by about 90% on my personal consumption of those white plastic enemies of the environment. And my tote bags are holding up pretty well, thank you.

But I have to admit that I miss having at least a few of those little plastic suckers around. They're convenient for bagging up yucky garbage (slimy chicken fat, anyone?). They're good for bagging up a burnt out lightbulb so it doesn't get all shardy in the garbage bag. And they're useful for lugging a small thing you want to give someone else (without giving over your own precious tote bag). So I'm okay with the fact that PeaPod, which we do a bulk order from every couple of months, brings everything in those bags. So I get to keep the nice cotton tubular white-plastic-bag holder my mother got me - the one with the cheery apple print - stuffed. (I really do hate to see that plastic bag holder, hanging there all limp and forelorn.)

Mostly (and smugly), I no longer take bags at CVS, Staples, or the grocery store. (Ah, virtuous me!)

Thus, I was interested to read a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, "Inconvenient Bag," that described just how darned hard it is to be a friend of the environment. (Note: access to this content may require a subscription.)

Alas, the writer tells us, the reusable shopping bag is not so green, after all. (I will note here that I only have one of these - from Whole Foods. My principal shopping bags are nylon totes that I'm hoping are a little longer lasting and tree-hugging.)

For all the "environmental slogans" printed on them,

... well-meaning companies and consumers are finding that shopping bags, like biofuels, are another area where it's complicated to go green.

And that's not just because they're not biodegradable. (Because they're heavier, once you do dispose of them, they linger longer in all those steaming, heaping landfills of our nightmares.) And not just because some of the reusable bags (gasp) aren't made with recycled materials.

Finding a truly green bag is challenging. Plastic totes may be more eco-friendly to manufacture than ones made from cotton or canvas, which can require large amounts of water and energy to produce and may contain harsh chemical dyes. Paper bags, meanwhile, require the destruction of millions of trees and are made in factories that contribute to air and water pollution.

Many of the cheap, reusable bags that retailers favor are produced in Chinese factories and made from nonwoven polypropylene, a form of plastic that requires about 28 times as much energy to produce as the plastic used in standard disposable bags and eight times as much as a paper sack.

Hmmm, I do believe that my Whole Foods reusable is in that nonwoven category. I guess I'll just have to make sure I use it at least 28 times before it falls apart. I haven't been counting, but I'm sure I've used it a dozen times at least.

But mostly reusable bags don't work because a lot of people don't actually reuse them - a figure cited in the WSJ article is that only 10% of people reuse bags. (I am reminded of the novelty tune of my youth: "My Boomerang Won't Come Back." The trick: "If you want your boomerang to come back, well, first you've got to throw it.")

The good news is that if you do reuse a reusable at least once a week, you can replace 100 plastic bags a year.

Reusable shopping bags have replaced other sorts of swag among the smart set. Google distributed some at a recent conference, and the Sundance Festival did as well.

These swag bags will come in handy for any San Franciscans or residents of Westrport, CT (Westportians? Connecticoots?) who attended either conference or Festival, since both those places have banned the use of the plastic flimsies. Whole Foods doesn't use them, nor will Ikea,which will:

... discontinue their use, forcing customers to carry their purchases to their cars, bring bags from home or buy the chain's 59-cent reusable blue plastic substitute.

Which was the way in which the late lamented Spag's - a discount emporium outside of Worcester - used to operate. You went to Spag's for work clothes, hand mixers, paint, drills, toothpaste, Pepperidge Farm Goldfish, Candy Land, tapestries, whiffle ball bats, brass planters, nuts and bolts - and for entertainment.

Spag's in its hey-day was cash and carry - and the carry was literal. Spag's merchandise was piled up all over the place, and people would empty out a carton of say, deodorant, leaving all that Ban Roll-on in a neat (or not so neat) pile, and using the carton to hold their foot powder, tube socks, and loose screws.

Before Spag's went out of business - breaking the hearts of everyone who had every lived in Worcester County - they had started taking credit cards, and started issuing plastic bags.

The real death knell was the death of Spag himself, but I'm sure this transition to credit cards and plastic bags helped hurry along the store's demise.

Here they were, on the side of the future - no plastic, squared. Then, whammo, they embrace modernity: the credit card, the plastic bag. And they're gone.

Spag's aside aside, I'm going to keep toting my totes with me.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Steve Baker's Futurama

A few weeks ago, The Boston Globe online had an article on Steve Baker, author of The Numerati. The book "explores the ways mathematicians and computer scientists are using this information to predict — and possibly manipulate — consumer behavior."  In the online article, The Globe got Baker to call some shots on some technological developments he thought would become "mainstream."

One was linoleum kitchen tiles, wired by Intel with weight sensors that can monitor how the elderly are getting around, and whether and if they're heading for a fall.

I'm all for things that are going to help the elderly, as I intend to become one at some point. If not tomorrow, then within the next couple of decades.

But do I really want a kitchen floor that weighs me every time I step foot on it? I can just see my weight flashing on the front panel of the fridge every time I go to open the door.  And after I have cagily programmed the freezer to refuse to dispense that Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich if my BMI is up a hair, I can see myself battling that freezer compartment to the death. Let me have it! I promise, I'll only eat half of it.

No, I can see the point of the weigh-in linoleum floor, but I think I'll stick with what I've got.

For the other end of the age spectrum, Sense Network has an application,

...Citysense [that] allows users to look at cellphone usage patterns to gauge the flow of foot traffic in a city. The service will be available first in San Francisco and New York.

You can check Citysense to figure out whether people in your "behavioral 'tribe'" are showing up at a club. (I suppose us old fogeys could use it to see whether there's a waiting line for flu shots.)

Face recognition technology was also mentioned, specifically a Google app that will "help sort out who's who in family photos."

Fortunately, I already took care of this pretty much before my mother died, when we went through the hundreds (thousands?) of pictures she'd accumulated over the years.

We had a simple rule.

If she knew who at least one person in the picture was, we wrote that person's name on the back. If we didn't know anyone - or if the picture was a photo Christmas card from 1962 from long gone neighbors - we tossed it.

An old fashioned process, perhaps, but it did seem to work.

Supermarket "smart carts" would be a mixed blessing. These work via a smart card, which you swipe and which then pops up a shopping list for you. I can see that this would have some value - how many times have I found myself in the checkout line, or (worse) home unbagging, and realized I'd forgotten the wine vinegar or the Marhsmallow Fluff. On the other hand, if Marshmallow Fluff is only a once in a decade purchase, would the smart card have known I wanted it this one time?

Something to be said for the paper list, isn't there?

Soldiers helmets wired with info for first responders.Robots that capture data in enemy (or friendly?) territory.  A service that lets readers rate the credibility of news stories and blogs. (Hmmmm, just how would the Dittoheads rate the credibility of Rush Limbaugh?) Maps that include data, such as housing costs and transportation info.

The scariest look at futurama is something the globe terms "compulsion TV". We are asked to:

Imagine a TV that allows you to click on an image — a woman's bracelet, her sweater, her shoes — to reach the item's e-commerce site. This is Internet marketing brought to TV and DVDs. Many of us wouldn't click even once. But it could be a breakthrough for the home shopping set.

As if there aren't enough opportunities around for impulse consuming. I really shudder at the thought of this one.

My favorite look into the future tells us that maybe, just maybe, the past is the new future.

With mileage topping 70 MPG, mopeds might be coming back.

But only 70 MPG? Don't I remember TV ads for something called the Honda bike?

You meet the nicest people on a Honda bike.
It's the world's biggest seller, and I know you'll like
A hundred miles per gallon and a rugged machine.
And Honda prices start about two-fifteen.
Go, little Honda! Go, little Honda!
You meet the nicest people on a Honda.

I just googled it. This ad ran in 1964. I didn't look very hard, but I couldn't find the lyrics. But I've got a pretty good memory for miscellaneous, goofball crap, and I bet I'm not that far off...(And Honda prices start about $215? Those were the days.)

Now, I've got to go off and get me a copy of Numerati.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

"Guns Don't Kill People"

Before my husband's Uncle Bill died, and Aunt Carrie got rid of them, there were quite a few guns in Bill and Carrie's home. Most of the guns, part of Bill's antique collection, were in locked cabinets. The only free-range gun was a shot gun resting next to the toilet in their downstairs half-bath. Bill used it to blast away at squirrels trying to get into Carrie's bird-feeders. I don't know if he ever actually killed one of them, but the warning shots were enough to get the squirrels to high-tail it.

Every time I used that toilet, I was extra careful not to knock the gun at all.

I'm sure there was a safety on it, but as I know absolutely nothing about guns, what do I know?

Bill was an outdoors man, a hunter, a farm boy who'd grown up on a tobacco farm -and who stayed a farmer through a good many years, until the farm was converted to a golf course, of all things.

He grew up around guns. His friends had guns. They hunted.

Sure, I was in culture shock when I visited, especially the first few times.

The places I frequent don't tend to have Ronald and Nancy Reagan calendars in the kitchen, let alone shot guns in the bathrooms.

But, hey, these were people who knew what they were doing around guns. And they were also extremely kind, decent, and generous people.

sMost of my family and friends don't go in for guns, with the exception of my mother's brothers, Jack and Bob.

For city boys (Chicago), they were really something: hunting, fishing, all kinds of outdoorsy stuff. And, come to think of it, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they had a Reagan calendar or two around. (My mother, from girlhood, was a political outlier in her family.)

Mostly, I think that if people aren't hunters, or cops, or soldiers, they don't really need guns. I don't want to live in a world where every civilian is armed (and dangerous).

I do, however, understand that impulse that would prompt someone to acquire a gun for self-protection.

I don't necessarily condone acting on the impulse, especially on the part of those who don't seem to be capable of keeping those guns out of the hands of assorted children and crazies. But I understand the impulse.

Not my cup of tea, but I get it.

I also get that there are folks who enjoy sport/target shooting on a rifle or gun range.

Not my cup of tea, but I get it.

That said, I think that there should be stringent licensing standards and conditions.

And I absolutely don't understand, for the life of me, why anyone who's not issued one when they join the infantry needs an Uzi, an AK-47, or any other sort of sub-machine gun/assault weapon - although it's easy to see the slippery slope incrementalism here: if the bad guys have Uzi's, then the" good guys" will need them, too. Gulp!

This all comes to mind because of a ghastly tragedy that occurred over the weekend in the western part of Massachusetts - not far from Bill and Carrie's home, in fact.

An eight-year old at a Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo was trying to shoot a pumpkin with a Micro-Uzi, when he lost control of the gun and shot himself in the head, killing himself.

(I am deliberately not mentioning the name of this little boy or his family. They are enduring an unfathomable grief that will last them a lifetime, and don't need one more entry on the search engine list when someone google's their son's name.)

The outfit running this shoot is something called C.O.P. Firearms & Training, which provides training classes, gun auctions, gun-smithing services, hunting trips, and other gun-related stuff. Including the machine gun shoots. (I'm not sure what the C.O.P. stands for - maybe nothing, maybe it's just "clever" marketing, to give the aura of police imprimatur to them.)

Machine Gun Shoots!

I was going to write "who could have imagined that there's a supply of and demand for such a thing", but there are, of course, plenty of thrill seekers among us. And for someone who's a "gunny", I can imagine getting to fire off an Uzi would be a thrill. Even - make that especially - for an eight year old kid, who's probably grown up on shoot-em-up movies and video games.

Yet there's something decidedly unsettling about the thought of very small children getting their hands on something this dangerous, even in nominally controlled circumstances, isn't there?

It shouldn't matter whether a parent gave permission.

There are a lot of things that parents might want to give permission for that are against the law: letting your eight year old kid drive a car comes to mind. I can think of plenty of eight year olds who'd like nothing better than tooling down the highway in the family SUV. They have, after all, driven virtually plenty of times.

But that doesn't mean we should let them drive.

It shouldn't matter whether the kids at the Machine Gun Shoot had really been looking forward to it, that they really wanted to do it.

The more I think about it, the more I have serious doubts about whether anyone should even be allowed to hold a Machine Gun Shoot.

What is the purpose of one?

Hunting rifles, target rifles, even the lousy hand gun.

Well, have at it.

There are purposes to those guns that don't scream "kill another human."

But is there any other reason for an Uzi, other than for a soldier to kill the enemy?

I can't think of a one.

You don't need an Uzi to shoot-up a pumpkin, that's for sure.

Yes, the death of this little boy was a hideous accident - but one that would have been easily prevented if there were a a law against Machine Gun Shoots - or at least a regulation setting an age limit on who gets to fire off an Uzi.

"Guns don't kill people"?

No, I guess not.

Except when they do.

Monday, October 27, 2008


I'm am spending nearly every waking hour these days on news sites, watching talking heads, reading countless political blogs (including the comments). For a lot of reasons - this among them - November 4th can't come soon enough.

But in my excursions, I've tripped upon some interesting finds, including an article on MSNBC on an urban survivalist who's preparing for what he terms a "Greater Depression," and predicting a  “'major paradigm shift' that will, in a decade, leave the U.S. with a Third World economy."

Seattle's Atash Hagmahani - not his real name, but his nom de survivalist blog - has socked away enough food to last his family for two years, come the failure of "the system." He's also making sure his kids have some practical skills:

...such as sewing, nursing and wielding a gun for self-defense.

“One thing I’m adamant about is that each of the kids needs real skills; they can’t just be a pencil pusher,” says Hagmahani of 19-year-old Hans, Sofia, 14, and Erik, 12. “You might get lucky and get a cushy job, but you might not. You need high-tech skills and low-tech skills for dealing with a systemic breakdown.”

Well, I'm all in favor of people having practical skills.

I'm not exactly hip deep in them myself, but I do know how to sew, wire a lamp, and do some rudimentary plumbing fixes. I can bake from scratch. I know how to make soup. When I was 18, I pierced my own ears so I guess if I had to take my own or someone else's appendix out, I could probably figure out how.  (It helps not being especially squeamish.)

I also have a pretty good supply of practical clothing: turtlenecks, jeans, sturdy shoes, wool sweaters.

So, if worst comes to worst, I wouldn't have to be one of those babes in the disaster movies trying to run in spikes and stay warm in a silk dress.

Hagmahani wasn't the only survivalist profiled.

There's also Jim Wesley Rawles - somewhere in the West (need to know basis only) - who's an authority "on preparing for and surviving “TEOTWAWKI” — The End Of The World As We Know It."

Rawles notes that his audience, once largely Christian conservatives, is now across "the entire political spectrum."

Then there's Utah Shelter Systems, the 2008 version of the bomb shelters of my childhood, now running for $40-50K and built to survive a biological or nuclear attack.

I will be visiting Utah Shelter Systems site, and the survivalist blogs, over the next couple of weeks.

For now, one of the most intriguing bits in the article was a comment made by Richard Mankemyer, who runs something called the Survival Center, out in Washington. Mankemyer noted that it's not just families who are putting aside 100 pound bags of rice, 5 pound cans of beans, and 10 gallon jugs of water, but also businesses:

...including a major Northwest corporation that recently spent “tens of thousands of dollars” to stock up on shelf-stable foods for its executives. He would not identify the company, but he said he urged the officials to stock up for its other employees as well.

What I wouldn't give to know the name of that 'major Northwest corporation'.

Boeing moved to Chicago, right?

That still leaves Microsoft, which I don't see it. Wouldn't they be stocking for employees, too?

I wonder what their intention is.

Do they believe that, come TEOTWAWKI, they want their executives to survive so that they can rebuild the company?

If that's the case, they sure have more faith in the denizens of the average executive management suite than I do.

They should at least drop down a few levels in the organization to make sure they include at least a few of the worker bees who still remember how to do stuff (and where everything's hidden).

And let's face it, if it is TEOTWAWKI, they'll need people whose skills go beyond briefing analysts; making PowerPoint presentations that someone else has prepared for them; reading between the lines on financial statements; figuring out what company to acquire, what business to de-acquire, and how many employees they need to lay-off to satisfy some short term Wall Street blood lust.

I vote for the company nurse, the folks who run the cafeteria, the custodial staff, the security guards, and the guys on the loading dock, for starters.

But it must not be about perpetuating the entity in particular. Or society in general. It must be about perpetuating the executives.

Or providing just one more perk.

There's the first class flights, the company car, the nifty expense allowance, the "performance based" bonus, the golden parachute, and now there's the two-year supply of peanut butter and dried lentils. (With maybe a humidor or two full of Cohibas?)

Where is it kept? Will it cover their families, too? How will the executives get to it, come TEOTWAWKI? Will they be allowed to keep their admins around so that there'll be someone to help them find it?

Stockpiling food for the company executives!

Am I the only one who finds this equal parts hilarious, idiotic, and enraging?

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Canyon Ranch Tip Off

I've never been to Canyon Ranch out in the Berkshires, but I'm certainly - if vaguely - aware of it.

For starters, there's that peculiar name: Canyon Ranch. I guess it's a good enough brand, but I still have to wonder why they insist on calling it "ranch" when it's in Lenox, Massachusetts? Oh, well, there aren't really any canyons in Lenox, either.

I guess we're just supposed to accept the brand and not actually think about the fact that a name the works in Tucson may not travel so well.

For those unfamiliar with the brand or the concept, Canyon Ranch is a luxury health getaway: gourmet, nutrition-minded, portion-controlled, calorie-counted meals (with no cosmos before, wine during, or liqueur after - this is a no alcohol resort, unless you want to drive yourself silly in your room); fitness stuff; spa stuff. And, I'm sure, the requisite 10,000 thread sheets and organic toiletries. It runs about $1K a night per person, but that includes an allowance that will cover some of the spa treatments, etc.

I've been to some pretty nice hotels but, needless to say, I haven't been here. lg_img_lenox_main

The focal point of the property is a 100+ year old mansion:

...a replica of Le Petit Trianon, Louis XV's Versailles chateau. Today it’s the architectural centerpiece of Canyon Ranch, a setting of casual elegance where you'll feel right at home. This is where you'll dine on award-winning cuisine, attend workshops and meet with an amazing variety of health experts all in one building.

Not exactly the Bonanza's Ponderosa, let alone the dirt-poor, unnamed ranch on The Rifleman.

But I digress.

Canyon Ranch is in the news this week because they've been found to have been a bit duplicitous with respect to their tipping policy, as I learned from an article in today's Globe.

Canyon Ranch, as their web site lets us know, "is a no-tipping resort."

Instead of allowing tips, they've incorporated an 18 percent service charge.

Problem was, the service charge didn't find its way into the employees' metaphorical pockets - those yoga instructors probably don't have any pockets.

And when they asked management about the fate of the money, the employees claimed in a lawsuit that they were "met with overt hostility" and told it was "none of their business."

Well, hell hath no fury like a yoga instructor, nutritionist, or waiter scorned, and a bunch of them went after Canyon Ranch under a Massachusetts law that prohibits bars, restaurants, and similar from cadging tips meant for "the help."

This week, they reached a settlement. 600 employees who worked as ranch hands from 2004-2007 will be divvying up $14.75M - or whatever that comes to when you tip the lawyers. In any case, it will turn out to be a nice bit of coin in the tip jar.

While Canyon settled, they haven't admitted that they did anything wrong. Head office - at the Ranch-ranch in Tucson - released a statement that said:

..."was never intended to be a significant part of the employees' compensation plan" and that "any confusion or misunderstanding created by its use of the term 'service charge' was unintentional."

This sounds a bit like depending on what the definition of is is, doesn't it?

I mean, when you've seen a service charge and a no tipping policy, haven't you assumed that the money some way, some how, went to those providing services that you would, under normal circumstances, tip for?

Workers alleged in the suit that they "feared that they would lose their jobs if they pursued their inquiries or pressed for payment of the tips."

At the same time, Canyon Ranch went out of its way to discourage guests from giving extra gratuities, enforcing its message that all tips are included in the 18 percent service charge, according to the suit. If guests insisted on tipping extra, employees could accept them only after first declining. Even then, the suit said, employees could not accept the money personally but had to direct guests to a designated area of the spa, where the guests had to complete a form or enclose cash in an envelope - something relatively few ended up doing.

Well, the 18 percent service charge is now gone. The Ranch has substituted something called a "resort amenities fee", without implying it has anything to do with tips, which they will continue to forbid, believing that a no tipping policy is "'consistent with the stress-free environment that Canyon Ranch guests have come to expect.'"

Well, stress-free for the guests, if not for the workers.

Some judge still has to okay the settlement, but it looks like the wranglers and cowpokes at Canyon Ranch are finally going to get to keep the change.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Want to get your mind off the economy?

At this point, I'd really like to put myself into suspended animation until, when, until whenever.

Not that I haven't lived through crummy economies before. When I got out of business school in 1981, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts, as I recall, was around 10%.

But this seems so much worse....

Maybe it's because the US economy, for a variety of reasons - credit binge, wacko mortgages, savings-smavings attitude, citizen-as-consumer, globalization, derivatives, greed on Wall Street, greed on Main Street, rich getting richer, poor getting poorer, middle getting squeezed, all sorts of sins of the past catching up to us - is not quite as fundamentally sound as it was back in the day.

Maybe it's because fewer people have those molly-coddling pensions anymore but are, instead, on our own with roller-coaster 401 Ks. (I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not planning on taking a look anytime soon. And if anything gives pause to the "drive" to privatize Social Security, the current crisis should be it.)

Maybe it's because the world is just a boat-load more dangerous than it was then, thanks to Al Qaeda et al.

Maybe  it's because we are bombarded 24/7 with grim news - market down, lay-offs up, while in the old days, we got the economic news for 5 minutes on the nightly, and the next day in the papers. Now, the immediacy of all the info - the man and the woman in the street asking every five minutes what the market's doing - can make us all crazy.

Now that I've done exactly what I thought I wasn't going to do, i.e., keep folks thinking about the economy, let me deliver the antidote.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Cake Wrecks, a site devoted to some pretty dubious looking cakes.

I wish Cake Wrecks had been around a couple of years ago, when we got a professionally-made 3-D, Tweety-bird cake for my niece Caroline.

The cake started out okay, but by the time it was transported 100 miles from Brookline to Wellfleet in the heat, well, Tweety had suffered a pretty systemic collapse.

Personally, I've never attempted to make a fancy cake. The most I've done is put green-dyed coconuts and a bunch of jelly beans around the edges of a carrot cake so that it looked Easter-ish.

So for the amateurs who've made some of these cakes, well, I'm willing to cut them plenty of slack. But many of the cakes on Cake Wrecks are professionally done - and just out and out weird.

Anyway, spend a few minutes on Cake Wrecks  - courtesy of a lead from my sister Kathleen (I think).

It will definitely take your mind off the economy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The sound of me rolling my eyes

Now, as a Sloan grad, I like The Sloan Management Review as much as the next guy - probably even more.

But I have to say I was a little underwhelmed by an article in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, in which an SMR editor interviewed an MIT professor on The Power of Nonverbal Communication.  (Note: access to this article may require a subscription.)

Dr. Alex "Sandy" Pentland of the MIT's Media Lab has come up with a device - the "sociometer" - that measures nonverbal communications.

The results of a "sociometer" study, we are told "were startling. And powerfully instructive for managers."

First off, I have to say that the fundamental idea is very interesting. Sure, we all know about folded arms, Blackberrying, grimacing, nodding, smiling, and eye-rolling. If the "sociometer" can measure more subtle elements of communications, well, bring it on.

Pentland measures nervous energy, timing between the back-and-forth in a conversation, mimicking another's gestures, and consistency in time and motion, "signals [which] are really qualitative readings of brain state. "

Okay, so what does all this tell us?

Here are the "startling" findings that are revealed to us.

We began to do things like look at job interviews. We found that if job candidates show confidence and practice, if they're mirroring the interviewer's gestures, if they're active and helpful, if they act the right way, they'll get the thumbs up.

In the course of my career I've been on loads of interviews, and I've interviewed loads of job candidates. So I kind of already knew this, without having ever wearing a "sociometer."

"If they're active and helpful, if they act the right way, they'll get the thumbs up."

This is "startling"?

A more interesting finding was Pentland's study of a business plan competition.

It turns out you can estimate their ratings of each other...just by listening to their tone of voice. You didn't have to know anything about the business plan; you didn't have to know anything about the executives. It was how they delivered the plan that determined how it was rated. That's pretty amazing. Because these were not fools. These were executives in their mid-30s -- very successful. And yet they were listening to how excited the presenter was about the plan; they were not listening to the facts.

Could it be that, all things - i.e., the business plans - being more or less equal, the nod would go to the person who was more enthusiastic?

The point Pentland makes is that people have to do more than respond to the way a pitch is given - they have to actually "take it offline and read it also." And this is, of course, good advice.

But wouldn't this finding be more insightful if, after the winners were chosen based on their nonverbal communications, a panel of experts - say the domain equivalent of Jack Welch, Warren  Buffet, and Bill Gates - evaluated the plans, and came back with the finding that some were better than others? And wouldn't it be interesting if the rah-rah plans were actually better? Of course, the scary finding that enthusiasm carried the day would tell us something if, on balance, the rah-rah plans were in fact inferior.

That's what this inquiring mind would like to know, at any rate.

Hey, folks in the Media Lab are -as they say in these parts - wickid smaht. So I'm sure that there is plenty of merit to the "sociometer" research.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite come across in this "Business Insight" article.

It did remind me of an amusing nonverbal communication story that a former colleague was a character in.

Dave and his manager were meeting with someone that the manager considered her enemy. (And, in fact, in this enemy-filled company, was her enemy. She had plenty of them.)

After the meeting, she called Dave into her office and dressed him down on his inappropriate body language.

When Dave protested that he hadn't thought he was giving off the wrong vibes, his boss disagreed.

"You were nodding your head, leaning forward, and smiling," she told him. "You were way off base. I don't want to see behavior like that again."

Imagine what she could have done with a "sociometer".

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

More Cowbell: ten good reasons to root for the Tampa Bay Rays in the World Series

Just about a year ago today, I posted on the ten reasons that folks should root for the Red Sox in the World Series. I was, quite naturally, hoping to recycle it again this year (although I would have to have altered the point about Manny), but (alas) the Olde Towne Team lost the best of seven American League Championship Series to the upstart Tampa Bay Rays.

  1. The Rays don't fold under pressure - part 1: Once the Rays took hold of first place in the AL-East (arguably the most competitive division in the majors), the baseball talking - and typing - heads started with a steady state of 'wait until crunch time, they're young, they're inexperienced, they'll fade in September.' Didn't happen. 
  2. The Rays don't fold under pressure - part 2: Just last week, the Red Sox, with an amazing derring-do, clutch-defining performance, crawled out of a big, brink of elimination hole. Down 3 games to 1, and behind by seven runs with two out in the seventh, the Sox came back. Talk about cardiac kids: my heart was thumping so badly I really thought I was near death. The Red Sox went on to win Game 6, setting up a one-and-done Game Seven.  The talking - and typing - heads were at it again. 'These kids will fold. They haven't been there before. Red Sox in seven. Nice try, kids, but here's where the miracle season ran out.' Didn't happen. These guys stayed focused, loose, and strong. Great mental game!
  3. The Rays have a fish tank in their park, with a real live ray in it. As I watched kids (wearing Red Sox jerseys, by the way) trailing their hands in the tank, my first thought was, 'Didn't one of these suckers kill Steve Irwin. Crikey!' As it happens, the ray in the tank has been de-fanged, or de-clawed, or de-stingered, or whatever they call it. Phew! My second thought was, what it the poor ray got hit by a ball.  Apparently that doesn't happen, or SPCA would be all over them.

    Fish tank in the park...Yes, I know it's non-baseball purist and bizarre to have wildlife in the stadium, but - given all the phoney-baloney fake mascots running around, including the Rays' own Raymond - it's kind of amusing to see the real thing. (Of course, the poor bastard would probably rather have his stinger back and be zooming around in Tampa Bay... And while on the topic of wildlife, I was watching a Rays-Sox game last year when they showed a rat running around the broadcast booth., but that's another story.)
  4. The Rays wear Mohawks. While no one since Uncas (yes, I know he was a Mohican) has looked good in a Mohawk, it's actually kind of fun to see most of the guys on the team - and a lot of their fans - sporting the do. I pity their wives and girlfriends, but it is kind of sweet to see the boys bonding. And speaking of boys....
  5. The Rays are really young. I don't know the stats, but the Rays have a very young team - no grizzled veterans, as far as I can see. I think I heard that their starting pitchers average under 25 years of age.  David Price - the kid who came in and stopped the Red Sox cold, closing out a great performance by young-pitcher Matt Garza - just got out of Vanderbilt last year. These guys are young. Really young.
  6. The Rays have a very low payroll.  When you have young players, you tend to pay less for them. The way it's set up, there's a - relatively speaking - indentured servant system that players coming up must withstand before they get the really big bucks. But the Rays rank 29 out of 30 teams, with a lowly payroll of $44M (vs. the Red Sox slightly exaggerated $133M, which includes the Manny-money). Nice to see the 'have nots' beat the 'haves', isn't it?
  7. The Rays were in last place last year. Worst to first is a tremendous achievement. The Rays were able to do it by taking advantage of all those years when they were worst and making very shrewd draft choices, which are now paying off for them. Moving from the joke-of-the-league to the AL champ, with a very good chance of being the World Champeen, is just remarkable.
  8. The Rays have a couple of New Englanders.  Carlos Pena is from Haverhill (and Northeastern University, and - alas - the Red Sox). Rocco Baldelli is from Rhode Island - and not cool, destination-city, swanked up Providence. Rocco's from Woonsocket, just down Route 146 from my own beloved Worcester.
  9. The Rays beat the Red Sox.  Unless they're wearing pinstripes, rooting against the team that beat you has  always struck me as kind of odd. If they were good enough to beat your team, don't you want them to win it all? That way, you can always say you were beaten by the best - as opposed to getting beaten by second best.
  10. The Rays have a manager who looks like Captain Binghampton on McHale's Navy. Joe Madden is joe Flynn clearly going to be Manager of the Year, and his demeanor and personality bear no resemblance to that of "Old Leadbottom." But he does bear close resemblance to Joe Flynn, doesn't he? (Must be those Roy Orbison glasses.)

I'm not wild about the fact that the Rays fans ring cowbells throughout the games. The noise is appalling, distracting, and ridiculous. But I'm someone who believes you can both be a knowledgeable, discerning baseball fan and also have some fun. Thus, I personally enjoy singing "Sweet Caroline" between the top and bottom of the 8th inning at Fenway. So maybe the Rays fans could just do their cowbell thing at some point between innings, and cheer and chant like everyone else during most points of the game.

But the cowbells aren't enough reason to counterbalance the full list of rooting reasons.

Nor is the fact that they changed their name from the Devil Rays to the Rays and, as a result, I fear that some of those with a certain religious bent will attribute this year's success to exorcising the devil from their name.

Frankly, the only reason I can think of to root against them - other than Jonny Gomes who sucker punched our Coco Crisp during a bench clearing brawl earlier in the season - is that, now that they're winning and drawing more fans, it will be more difficult for Red Sox fans to get tickets. "Historically" - i.e., the last couple of years - in the games I've watched from the Trop, there have been more Sox fans in the stands than there have been Rays fans. So it's been fun to watch, and hear our announcers, Jerry and Don, talk about Fenway-South. Alas, I fear, tickets will be harder to come by next season. (There's always Camden Yards.)

It's not, by the way, as if there are no good reasons to root for the Philadelphia Phillies. I like that they're from a big, old, Northeast city. That they're a big, old, Northeast ball club. That they have multi-generation, rabid fans. That they have Ryan Howard. That they've been waiting to win since before the Rays existed.

Still, while exceptions can and will be made, I'm an American League girl.

I'm looking forward to this Series.

Sure, it may not be the dream matchup by TV audience attracting standards - that would have been Red Sox- Dodgers, out of this year's Final Four - but, on both sides, this is a good story for baseball.

Go Rays!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Cigarette's for the health conscious? Naturally, I'm curious.

I pulled one of those annoying, card-stock inserts out of a magazine last week, but before I tossed it in the recycle bin - oh, environmentally friendly me - I gave it a look.

"Not All Tobacco Is Created Equal," is proclaimed.

Natural American Spirit is giving away $20 Gift Certificates, to get you to test their claim that natural tastes better, while also conceding that it does not mean a safer cigarette.

But the cigarettes "provide adult smokers with tobacco the way nature intended - 100% additive-free."

Well, first I read that as "100% addictive free", but once I got over that little jolt, I thought I'd check out American Spirit and the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company.

First off, you have to divulge your age, and whether you're a smoker or not, in order to get into the site. Then, if you push the non-smoker button, a pop up box suggests that if you don't smoke, don't start. (Gee, thanks for the reminder.)

Once you're in, and if you head on over to the FAQ, which is generally my first stop when I'm roaming around a new site, you learn that SFNTC is owned by Reynolds Tobacco - home of "principled, creative, dynamic, and passionate" people, which you'll see if you trip on over to their site. That is, you'll see it once you close the box that says "Attention Smokers: Congratulations. Due to your action, Congress extended the State Children's Health Insurance Program trough March 2009 without increasing the Federal cigarette tax." Well played, smokers! Everyone gets the feel good about healthy kids, without having to cough up any stinkin' higher taxes.

Anyway, RJR's site is full of sure-it's-unhealthy-but-if-you-as-an-adult-choose palaver, balanced out by bragging about their market share and number of brands in the Top Ten. And just so you know, Camel and Pall-bearer Mall are RJR growth brands; Kool, Salem, and Winston are support brands (i.e., there's some advertising). Dad's Lucky Strikes are non-support brands. Smoke 'em if you've got 'em, but don't expect to see Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco, or "Sold American!" ads anytime soon.

But RJR is a side note, a distraction from Santa Fe and their American Spirit cigarettes, and their "certified organic tobacco."

So, who are they aiming for? Health conscious smokers?

Naturally, I was curious - so curious that I lied and said I was a smoker, since, when I hit the non-smoker button I quite oddly couldn't get into the realm of the American Spirit. (Maybe I didn't click hard enough.)

I was most interested in checking out the section on smoker stories, but the ones I saw were pretty boring, and not exactly what I'd call a story, in any 'once-upon-a-time,' character, action, and plot sense:

"I like that your cigarettes are so tightly packed. You get more tobacco in every one." -JP

"My non-smoking friends don’t complain about the smoke smell like they do with other brands." - KW

"I figure if you’re going to smoke, you should smoke something that’s actually natural." -SK

"I’m glad that you don’t add anything to the tobacco. That’s all you really need." -LM

"It’s not just for hippies anymore. This is a quality product." -DP

Well, at least old DP there provided a little color with his/her ' not just for hippies anymore' "story"  - although American Spirits weren't on the market until 1982, which was sort of the post-hippie era. Maybe DP meant "aging hippies".

And it's not as if I expected to see any real stories, with true outcomes. Something along the lines of:

I smoked American Spirit cigarettes for 20-plus years, foolishly convincing myself that "natural" and "organic" meant healthy.  Silly me! I have Stage Three lung cancer.

But I would at least have hoped for a 'how I met my husband when I asked him for a light' or 'when I stepped outside for a smoking break, I saw a kid run into traffic and I grabbed him just before the garbage truck mowed him down' tale or two.

Maybe smokers are too busy smoking to write up real stories.

I'm not really going to get into a self-righteous huff about smoking and smokers here.

No, I don't smoke, and, when I did a gazillion years ago, it was in pretty casual mode - in a bar when everyone else was smoking; when I was waitressing and it was almost always okay to announce that you were taking a cigarette break.

But I do know some smokers, occasional and chain. And plenty of ex-smokers, including some recently come-around ones.

So I know that it's an easy habit to fall into, and hard habit to quit. And that there are definite satisfactions to be had from lighting up and puffing away.

It's just that I'm struck by the overall dopiness of natural, organic cigarettes.

Is it just me, or does it seem really odd that anyone - knowing what we know now - who continues to smoke, would be health-conscious enough to worry about whether that smoke was organic and natural?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Pink Slip to MIT: stay as nerdy as you are....

I saw in The Boston Globe the other day that there are some MIT students who are trying to de-nerdify the schools reputation.

A six-minute, student-produced webcast called MIThBusters that is posted on a university site features sorority girls, bare-chested male cheerleaders, and students taking part in athletics and the arts. On the school's admissions site, some students candidly chronicle their lives in blogs to attract an array of potential applicants by showing how well-rounded they are.

What are they thinking?

This is the school, after all, that - as the article points out - has an a cappella group called the Loga-rhythms. And "a model railroad club that meets on Saturday nights."

Not to mention a school that has graduated an awful lot of the fabulous techies I've worked with over the years.

Yes, many (most) have been true nerdy geeks, the geekiest of nerds.

But they've also (most) been really smart, really good humored, really nice, really interesting, and really fun to work with.

Sure, there have been a couple of exceptions where either the weirdness factor was too hard to overcome, or where the person was out and out nasty-crazy.

But mostly.

Bill. Frank. Steve. Kendra. Caren. Mike. Fred. Another Bill. Another Bill. Tony. Dave. (Note to T: no, not that Dave.)

I know I'm missing some names here, but some of my most enjoyable times at work have been working with, or just plain hanging out with, MIT grads.

No, most of them weren't ultra-smooth, ultra-cool, ultra-hip, ultra-well-dressed.

But then again, neither am I.

My MIT buds were just unfailingly smart and interesting, though. And really good at their jobs.

Frankly, I don't see the attempts to normalize MIT will get all that far. After all, even the sex advice column in the newspaper is called "Talk Nerdy to Me."

"You're just surrounded by so many people here who like to be nerds that if you don't embrace it, you're ostracized," said Christine Yu, a former homecoming princess from West Virginia who inserts geek humor and science analogies as often as possible into the weekly column. "In high school, I didn't really identify with my more nerdy side. MIT has brought it out."

And MIT is the home of the nearly 20 year old "Nerd Pride" movement.

"We're not normal, and we like it that way," [one student interviewed in The Globe article] said. "To some extent, the world misunderstands us."

Well, normal is over-rated.

As the father of the Nerd Pride movement, professor Hal Abelson says, of those trying to un-nerd MIT:

"Oh, they're just being stupid.

"I already got in trouble for saying once that well-rounded people are pointless. A nerd is somebody who's intensely interested in something and works hard at it. That's one of the things that makes MIT great."

Hal sounds like my kind of guy.

I vote for keeping MIT as nerdy, geeky, dorky as it is.

The world doesn't really need any more ironic, hip, cool, well-dressed posers, does it?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

So far, so good (sort of: let's just forget the Red Sox, why don't we)

Nice to see the Phillies knock the Dodgers silly, isn't it?

Yes, I do like their manager, Joe Torre (late of the Yankees). But the Dodgers also have Manny Ramirez, late of the Red Sox (although still on the Red Sox payroll).  And the new, Los Angeles Manny positioning himself as hero, darling, leader, good citizen, dote, etc. is more than I can take.

So I surely didn't want to see a World Series with the Dodgers  in it. And, if the Red Sox were to make it into the World Series, the Fall Classic would surely have revolved around the Manny-Red Sox psycho-drama. (I.e., why did Manny roll over and play dead on the Red Sox, only to turn into the most valuable player in the whole wide world the minute he left town.)

Frankly, I'd rather see the Red Sox go down in the preliminary playoff series, which seems as if it's going to happen, than have had to endure a Dodgers-Red Sox series.


So now I'm saying, bring on the Phillies-Rays.

Sort of.

Despite their abysmal performance so far, I'm still rooting for the Red Sox. I'm not a pink-hatter, bandwagoner, or johnny-come-fan-lately, but someone who's been following the Home Towne Team through better and/or worse for 50+ years (yikes!)

My first memory, in fact, is toddling over to the black and white Philco TV to try to pick a runner off base - no doubt goaded on by my baseball-fanatic father.

I've been a fan through thick and thin, and I've got to say that, over my lifetime, it's been more thin than thick.

So I'd like to see the Red Sox in the World Series.

But if they can't be there, I'll be thrilled to root for the Tampa Bay Rays.

What a great story! (More  on this likely to follow if the Rays, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in MLB, do make it to the Series.)

Whatever the outcome in the American League, I must say that, given the current tempora et mores, I'm delighted that we have sports as a diversion.

When I'm watching the Red Sox (Rays, Phillies, whatever), I'm not worrying about "the market", derivatives, meltdowns, bailouts, masters of the universe, recession, foreclosures, depression, layoffs, Wall Street, or Main Street.

Of course, I do think about overspending, child's play, occasionaly displays of macho imbecility. But still... It's baseball.

Was there ever a more perfect, a more brilliant, a more perfectly brilliant sport?


Bread and circuses?


But I'll take it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Hard Times, Hard Times

While we cope (or not) with the economic news; follow the layoff announcements and rumors; listen for the snap, crackle, and pop of the credit crunch; and anticipate just how hard the times are that are likely to fall, The Wall Street Journal has a report on the Hartshorne, Oklahoma Hard Times Festival, which, they tell us, has (sigh) "fallen on hard times." (Note: access to this article may require paid subscription.)

Hartshorne, a rundown coal-mining town 100 miles from Tulsa, hasn't been holding their "Festival" all that long - the first was in October 2001. (Was that supposed to take people's minds off of 9/11? Hey, let's not think about madmen in airplanes and pancaking buildings. Let's think about those swell times in the 30's when Ma and Pa had to strap the mattress to the roof of their jalopy and Tom Joad it out to California to escape the Dust Bowl.)

But The Hard Times Festival has been a way to kick a little life into a down on its luck town, bringing vendors and tourists in for a few days, and paying homage to the Greatest Generation, who may have become the Greatest Generation because of World War II, but who sure got a running start during the Great Depression.

The Festival features the usual array of vendors: funnel cakes, cookies, flea-market junk ("used dresses, table lamps and rusted gas cans" - rusted gas cans? and "rusted feed store dollies" - rusted feed store dollies?), as well as musicians/street entertainers.

It has also featured a few Depression suppers  - all you can eat beans and corn bread suppers for a quarter.

In the past, though, there were more Depression-related events:

The first year, a bakery donated 500 loaves of bread, which were given away in a re-enactment of a 1930s bread line. Using grant money, Ms. Nicholson brought in Depression-related photo exhibits, authors and musicians. To raise money, the Sun published a cookbook.

One of the more popular events was the "talk around," held under a canvas canopy donated by a funeral home. There, Depression survivors and others spent hours telling stories about how they and their families had been affected.

Stories like that of the 78 year old woman who, as a girl, hunted for jack rabbits while she was wearing "'boots'" made out of burlap sacks and wire. (They sure don't make stories of deprivation the way they used to. Today a kid would think it was a hardship to have to wear knock-off Uggs rather than the real thing. Burlap sacks and wire are just inconceivable. Which is not to say that people won't suffer relative deprivation in what is and what's to come.)

But the folks who remember those stories are tiring out and dying off, and this year's festival had little of the Depression-era "stuff" that characterized earlier Hard Times Festivals.

Hard Times Festival activities run the gamut from outhouse relay races to a period-style fashion show, and cheap eats are a big part of the day. Gangsters such as Bonnie and Clyde prowl, hoboes panhandle and people in period dress rub shoulders with itinerant preachers, street performers like the incomparable Hotsy Totsy Girls, unemployed men, newsboys, farmers, coalminers and 5-cent shoeshine boys along Pennsylvania Avenue, Hartshorne's main street.


Fake hoboes panhandling, and "people in period dress rub[bing] shoulders with....unemployed men."

While it seems a shame that the talk-arounds have died out, the concept of hobo panhandlers and "unemployed men" working the crowds sounds truly ghastly.

There are plenty of real unemployed men - and women - already, and there will no doubt be more in the months to come. And I'll bet there are at least a few of them in Hartshorne, already.

While there may be no panhandlers in a town that small - population 2,100 - Tulsa's a fairly good sized city. So is Oklahoma City. Bet they have panhandlers.

So it's may be just as well that next year the founder intends to drop the hard time theme and making it just a(nother) fall festival.

Sure, our hard times aren't likely to hold a candle to Depression hard times. And it's really hard to gather much sympathy for someone who now feels deprived because they can't upgrade to a McMansion, or put a flat screen TV if every bathroom. But they'll be hard enough for those who lose their homes and their jobs.  For the people who've already fallen through the cracks of the system, and for the greater numbers who're starting to fall through as the cracks widen.

At St. Francis House in Boston, New England's largest day shelter for the poor and homeless, they're regularly serving 1,000 meals a day (breakfast, lunch), where last year the average was under 800.

Hard times, to be sure, for plenty of folks already.


                                            Hard Times

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor.
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears,
Oh, hard times, come again no more.
'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary.
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door.
Oh, hard times, come again no more.

                                                                       -  Stephen Foster

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Give Me That Five-Star Religion

There are secret shoppers, who tattle on the clerks who yack with their friends when they should be helping you find the next larger size in those jeans. There are sub rosa diners, who let management know that the soup was salty and the waitron haughty.

Through an article by Alexandra Alter in the Wall Street Journal, I learned last week that there are also mystery worshippers who rate churches on both godliness and cleanliness. (As if religion weren't enough of a mystery....)

As for the ratings:

No friendly greeting? Ding!

Weeds sprouting up in the brick walkways? Ding!

Boring sermon? Ding!

No surprise, I guess, given that religion is a pretty big business. And given that, according to a Pew survey cited in the article, 44% of American adults have switched brands, errrrr, religious affiliation.

We are, after all, a nation of consumers who like to shop around.

Most of the action is with the large Christian churches with congregations in the thousands, which have taken a very pro-marketing approach to getting folks through the door and keeping them there. The mystery worship biz has become an off-shoot of marketing firms that specialize in things-Christian.

Mainstream secret shopper companies are branching out and offering church evaluation services, too.

I was intrigued by the mention that one of the secular secret shopper companies had run a pilot project of the concept, and had done work for several denominations, including Unitarian and Catholic.


I thought that the only marketing Unitarians did was word of mouth among ex-Catholics.

And just what do Unitarian sermons get dinged on? Failure to ask enough questions?

But the idea of mystery worshippers at Catholic churches completely cracks me up.

Sure, the Church has sent mystery worshippers out for years, but the ones I've heard about were mostly to liberal congregations so they could spy on what the priests were saying.

I know that things have changed, but the Catholic Church of my youth would have found the entire notion of mystery worshipper preposterous.

First off, in those days, you didn't get to shop around: you belonged to the parish you lived in. Almost period, almost end of story. The almost was because, if you wanted to belong to an ethnic parish, you were free to do so. We had a Polish-American family on our street who went to Our Lady of Czestochowa.

This, of course, set them apart from everyone else in the neighborhood, but it was okay with the Church. If you lived in Worcester and were French, Polish, Lithuanian, or Italian, you could join Notre Dame, Our Lady of Czestochowa, Our Lady of Vilna, or Mount Carmel.

But that was the extent of freedom of choice.

And why would the Church of my youth have cared what you thought about the way you were treated or greeted?

If you didn't go to Mass every Sunday, it was a mortal sin and you were going to hell.

With the fires of hell hanging over you, who was going to jump ship because of a little scum in the holy water font.

Today's mystery worshippers rate the cleanliness of the church bathrooms.

Well, there didn't used to be any such thing in the churches of my youth.

In case of a real emergency, you could use the toilet in the rectory. But this had to be a real emergency. Even then, the housekeeper would treat you as if you had come to steal money from the collection plate. Although I wouldn't know, as I never once had to use a toilet at any point during my church-going career.

And rating the sermons?

Captive audience, baby. You sat, and you listened. Or you sat and stared off into space. Or, as I saw once, read Lady Clairol hair-dying directions, which she had tucked into her missal.

We had our own rating on confession: you tried never to go to Monsignor Lynch, because he not only listened to your sins and actually commented occasionally, but he gave a comparatively hefty penance: Five Our Fathers, Five Hail Marys, Five Glory Bes.

So, nascent worship consumers that we were, we tried to avoid Msgr. Lynch.

Of course, since we went to confession supervised by nuns, they always managed to force some of us into the line for Msgr. Lynch.

Msgr. Lynch, by the way, was the priest who heard the one and only non-rote (I-fought-with-my-sister-I-talked-back-to-my-mother-I-lied-to-my-father) confession of my life. My big sin was this: I had bitten my fingernails and, although I knew I had broken the then-required three-hour fast, I went and received communion, anyway. Since knowingly breaking the fast and receiving communion was a mortal sin, I figured I had a mortal sin to confess.

Msgr. Lynch didn't quite see it that way.

He told me, "Don't be foolish."

I realize now that he was being quite rational, but at the time it was a true shocker, since he was pretty much contradicting what we were told by the nuns on a regular basis.

But back to the mystery worshippers.

"My competition is Cracker Barrel restaurant down the street," says Pete Wilson, pastor of CrossPoint Church in Nashville, Tenn., who regularly enlists a secret shopper to evaluate his 2,000-person congregation. "If they go in there and are treated more like family than when they come to CrossPoint Church, then it's lights out for me."

So to compete with Cracker Barrel more effectively, churches hire the likes of Real Church Solutions, which tees up its "Shopper Program" with a bit of F.U.D.


The provide a "3-step, comprehensive church evaluation resource for churches."

They make no bones about who they're sending. They call it a "Secret Shopper." And after the "Secret Shopper" makes an unannounced visit, the team evaluates the strengths and weaknesses, then debriefs the church staff.

In the WSJ article, they price the service-services out at $1500 to $2500 for visit and report. But for the church marketing companies, the "Secret Shoppers" can be the thin edge of the wedge.

It is common for church leaders to retain Real Church Solutions for ongoing coaching or consulting at the completion of this evaluation. RCS is available to expand the findings of the Church Secret Shopper Program into a specially designed leadership training, church growth plan, or staff leadership training, depending on the interest of the church leadership.

No mystery here. This is business baby.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Columbus Day, 2008 (My Head Hurts)

It may not be the most politically correct liking to admit, but I've always liked Columbus Day.

Not that I hold any particular fondness or respect for old Cristobal. Sure, it took some guts to get on a creaky wooden hulk and sail off into the sunset to see whether the earth was flat or round - talk about a nasty 'what if' scenario.  But I don't blame him for wreaking great havoc on native Americans, despoiling the New World, etc. If Columbus hadn't discovered America, someone else would have. (Wait, wasn't that already Leif Ericson. Or was it St. Brendan?)

And I'm just happy someone discovered it so that I didn't have to end up hatched in the back arse of nowhere Ireland, or the back arse of nowhere Germany. (No comments about getting hatched in Worcester, which is the Heart of the Commonwealth, and not the back arse of anywhere.)

No, I've always liked Columbus Day because it was a day off of school and, sometimes, work.  Because the weather in early October can be pretty glorious around these parts, as it is this weekend: blue-sky, sweater weather. Because it provides an opportunity for an ethnic group - in this case the Italians - to get out and strut their stuff a bit. Because it's a holiday with no particular commercial overlay, other than the car and furniture dealers who use it to announce sales. Because there's a big 10K race for women that goes right by my house.

Columbus Day.

It's just a low key, no real purpose in mind kind of holiday.

We could use more of them.

Especially this year.

When my head especially hurts.

Needless to say, the economy in general is making my head hurt. In particular, the things that make my head hurt:

  • All mention of the Wall Street roller coaster
  • The clang of the closing bell
  • Shots of crazed traders on the floor
  • The idea that some unworthy jerks will make out from the various bailouts
  • My 401K (which actually doesn't make my head hurt, as I'm not going to look at it for at least 3 years; maybe 4)
  • The idea that a lot of people are going to lose their jobs, and that we're in for a big, collective hurtin' (even if I also think that some of the hoohah is a necessary corrective for years of excess and bad-doing)

It's not just the economy, stupid.

  • Sarah Palin makes my head hurt; I want her to have a starring role in Fargo II, not in Washington (you betcha!).
  • John McCain was making my head hurt, too; but watching him trying to come down the crowd ('....but he's an Arab!) was like taking an aspirin. Maybe it was a baby aspirin, given that it seemed a bit grudging. And, earth to John McCain: Arabs can, in fact, be family men. But thanks just the same, Senator.
  • Manny Ramirez makes my head hurt - but hopefully not for much longer. If some team actually signs him to the 5 years/$85M I heard he's looking for, my head will really hurt.
  • Manny's agent, Scott Boras, always makes my head hurt.
  • Comcast makes my head hurt. Mostly I used to like them, but we lost Internet, TV, and one phone for 24 hours and, except for the cable guy who showed up, the service was pretty rude; plus they just fired Bob Cousy as an occasional Celtics' announcer, and demoted Tom Heinsohn to the Cousy's old role. The upside of not having had Comcast for 24 hours was having the great pleasure of listening to Friday night's Red Sox playoff win on Friday night. I'd forgotten just how good baseball is on the radio. There is no upside to the firing of The Cooz and the demotion of Tommy H. Boo!
  • Bags of Brach's Halloween Mix used to contain candy corn/harvest corn, pumpkins, bats, cats, and moons; as far as I can tell, the bags on the shelves this year just have candy corn/harvest corn, and a measly couple of pumpkins. So Brach's makes my head hurt.

But it's a beautiful day out there. And even for us consultants it's a quasi day off.

Happy Columbus Day!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Check out this check in

There may not be huge demand for this hotel room anytime soon, but the NY Times the other day had an article about a $30,000 per night hotel suite at The Four Seasons Hotel in NYC.

And given the times, the article's author, Alen Feuer, pretty much gets it right when he characterizes the rack rate as "Bolshevik Revolution-producing."

Well, before we all grab out red flags and head to the Finland Station, I thought I'd check the digs out for myself.Hotel Suite - 2

With cantilevered glass balconies and floor-to-ceiling bay windows, set beneath 25-foot (7.6-metre) cathedral ceilings, the Ty Warner Penthouse offers a breathtaking 360-degree view of all Manhattan. Custom-commissioned in every detail, from semi-precious stone surfaces to fabrics woven with platinum and gold, the nine-room suite creates the sense of living within a multilayered work of art. It raises the bar for even the most seasoned travellers.

I really like that nice, British-y upper-crust touch of the double-l in traveler, don't you? Some people might poo-poo it as la-di-dah. And Congressman Westmoreland, R-GA, might call it "uppity." But I think it sets the right tone. As does that use of metre vs. meter. No one does posh better than the Brits.

If you want to know a couple of "the basics", the suite:

  • Has 4,300 square feet of space
  • Can, if you insist on shoe-horning an extra bed or two into those cramped quarters, accommodate 4 adults and 2 children
  • Has - unspeakably - only one full bath and one powder room, so if you do insist on crowding folks in, you may end up queuing up for a shower. But at least the powder room is "completely clad in semi-precious tiger's-eye stones." Good gosh, one would think so!

Before I'd cram any extra souls in to those 4,300 square feet, I'd take the hotel's advice:

If the number of guests travelling exceeds the maximum occupancy stated, please book more than one room or contact the Hotel directly for alternate accommodation options and assistance.

Beyond the basics, the "TVs [are] programmed for every channel worldwide." So there's no excuse that there's nothing on: you can watch all the Al Jazeera, Bollywood classics, Korean weather channel, and reruns of The Streets of San Francisco dubbed in German that you want.

Or you can tickle the ivories on the baby grand. Or grab one of the books off the library shelves - assuming they're real books, and not Potemikin village shellacked spines. But travellers' warning:  eve if the books are real and not faux, I'll bet those shelves are heavy on coffee-table books, rich-people-buy-stuff hard cover catalogs, and "classics" that no one wants to re-read, if they read them for the first time to begin with. Betcha find a copy of Middlemarch and Bleak House before ya find what you really want to look at: the copy of People with Sarah Palin on the cover.

Betcha can get the personal butler that comes with to go find People and Us for you.

The Penthouse Suite also comes with a "personal trainer/ therapist", and I got to wonder if that's like a physical therapist, an aroma therapist, or a therapist-therapist. And if it's a therapist-therapist do you get unlimited access during your stay, or just a measly psycho-analytic hour? (Sort of equivalent to a hotel day, that only lasts 20 hours.)

If it's not a therapist-therapist, you may well wake up in the middle of the night with hotel guest remorse, and want to get your head examined by a real therapist-therapist, who will help you explore the inner- and outer-whatever that got you to check in to a $30,000 a night hotel room to begin with. In that case, you can get the all-included private chauffeur to get you to the couch in a Rolls Royce Phantom or Mercedes Maybach.

Ah, the rich are different from you and me.

And, no, it's not just that they have more money.


A nod to Rick T for pointing the Times article out to me.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Party off! AIG's last spending gasp

Well, the old media and new media have been all over the $442K that AIG spent on a "retreat" for its top sales agents at a fancy California spa just a week before the Feds floated them a $85B loan. (Or was it a "loan"?)

I'm sure that all the high, low, and medium dudgeon that this spending has inspired would be even higher if all those dudgeon-ers checked out the St. Regis Resort.

Situated high on a bluff overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean, stands a landmark resort of legendary proportions. Located midway between Los Angeles and San Diego, the Tuscan-inspired St. Regis Resort, Monarch Beach is devoted to the pursuit of service and elegance with a seamless blend of comfort and technology.

I can't really figure out what the legendary proportions they're talking about are - nor can I figure out what a seamless blend of comfort and technology is.

But I can pretty much guarantee that, at least on an absolute basis, the AIG spending was not all that extreme. I don't know how many sales people were on the jaunt, so on a per capita basis this might have been a wild one. But in absolute terms, this one was not of legendary proportions.

Winners' Circle. President's Club. Golden Eagles.

Whatever they call it, posh vacations as a reward for sales performance are nothing new.

And one year, when I was at Genuity, I even got to participate in one.

It was 2001, and the company was already in the slip, stumble, and fall that ended with Genuity's bankruptcy.

I don't know whether they had room in the inn - the Mandele Bay in Lanai, Hawaii - because not enough sales people made their number, or because they'd decided ahead of time to bring some non-sales folks along. In any case, I was one of a couple of dozen "civilians" chosen as in iLeader (i as in "Internet," get it: we were an Internet Services Provider), and invited to come along with a companion of choice.

My first thought was, 'even in paradise, spending a week with a hundred Genuity sales people is my idea of a nightmare.' But once I found out that a couple of my friends had also been tapped, things started to look up.

All I needed to do was find a companion.

If the week had initially been my idea of a nightmare, it was my husband's idea of an unmitigated horror. So I invited my sister Trish. As Trish was the mother of a then 4 year old, I thought she'd take a pass, and I'd be able to pass the invite on to my sister Kath, thereby gaining sister brownie points going and coming. In either case, I was assured of an ace traveling companion with whom I could shut the door of the room and make complete fun of everything that was happening.

Anyway, Trish jumped at the chance for a luxe vacation, and off we went.

The resort was nothing short of fabulous. We were wined and dined, dined and wined, then wined and dined again.  Not to mention the whale watch, jeep drive through the mountains, shopping trip to Maui, and spa treatments.  Golf, tennis, horseback riding: all free. We had a full menu to pick from, and if all we wanted to do was hang by the pool and get served slushy drinks, that was fine, too.

One night, there was a luau - and just to make sure that we got into the spirit, we all got our pick of a sarong or Hawaiian shirt.

Another night, we had a picnic on the lawn, with a Michael McDonald concert and fireworks.

And the swag?

Let's see: binoculars, golf shirts, tote bags, beach blanket, quilt, specially-designed bowl, beach chairs. All of which was FedExed back home so that we wouldn't have to wait a day for it.

The only crappy gift was the iLeader Award.

I saw those pale blue Tiffany boxes and thought, this might be good.  Too bad it was a lousy glass paperweight, etched with my name and my designation as iLeader. The only use I could think of for it was murder weapon. I think I left it in the hotel room.

Other than that....

What a week!

And tax free, to boot. All we had to do to make in non-tax free was go to a breakfast meeting and listen to a couple of sales guys talk about their success. Definitely worth the price of admission -especially when the price of admission was ZERO.

Every once in a while, one of us would estimate how much this whole shebang was costing the company, and the best guess was $10K/couple. At 100 couples, that would have been a cool $1M, which easily trumps the measly $442K spent by AIG.

And every once in a while, one of us would ask - rhetorically, of course - why a company that was losing money hand over fist was spending money hand over fist. Did the right hand even know what the left hand was doing?

The answer, of course, was that almost all the money had been committed way before, and there was no way out.

Sure, Genuity could have saved the marginal cost of airfare (and of sending all the swag back home FedEx, even though it absolutely, positively didn't have to get their overnight).

So it was, no doubt, with the AIG sales trip.

Absolutely, positively, someone in executive management should have stopped this event in its tracks. Bad timing, bad taste, bad luck, and absolutely, positively rancidly bad publicity.

But were they spending part of "our" $85B on a let them eat cake, smoke cigars, golf, and get a seaweed massage boondoggle?

At the margin, maybe. But no doubt most of the money on this junket was long since spent.

Now, of course, it's out there for all to see, for all to criticize, and for all to exploit to foment "the masses" to call for rolling tumbrels and heads on pikes.

Hey, I like class warfare as much as the next guy, but where does this one all end? With the sound of Madame Dafarge's knitting needles, clicking away?

Wednesday, October 08, 2008


Growing up, the only people I knew who moonlighted where firefighters who, on their off days, painted, wallpapered, and did yard work.

My family didn't use them.

My parents did their own painting and wallpapering, thank you very much.

And yard work?

What was the purpose of having a slew of kids if you didn't want them to do yard work? (I will state here, though, that my father was the clear captain of the yard work squad.)

Once I began working, I ran into occasional moonlighters, all/most of which fell into one of three categories. Most fell into category one: someone with an avocation that could conceivably and occasionally make them some money. In this grab bag, I'll put the bass guitarists, antiquers, painters, quilters, jewelry-makers, photographers, and other primarily creative types I've worked with over the years. (There may have been some Saturday real estate agents in there, but I don't recall any.)

Into the second category were National Guard members and reservists who, in bygone days, were not generally called up for anything much beyond their weekend a month/two weeks in the summer stints. (Those were the days.) I don't know if these folks technically counted as moonlighters, but it was another job - something they got paid for - that they worked in addition to their "real job." (Those were the days.)

The final bucket holds the home party types who, over time, migrated the home parties to a conference room in the office  - or just circulated the catalog so we could order the damned Tupperware without having to put up with the party.

In all of these categories, the side jobs were just that: side jobs.

With the exception of the active duty periods for reservists, the side jobs didn't really conflict - or compete for time with - the real job you were being paid to do, and which actually paid your bills.

A new category of side-liners is now emerging. Daylighters are so called because, unlike moonlighters, who for the most part had the decency to wait until after wok to do their "other job" until after 5 p.m., they do their work during the regular work day. Generally in stealth mode.

This I learned from a recent article I saw floating by on CNN last week.

The article talked about Brian - no last name for obvious reasons, and likely a bogus first name as well - a NYC sales guy who uses a stall in the men's room as a "secret cubicle" for taking care of his other job as a mortgage broker.

Brian, it seems, has:

"...a certain lifestyle, and I need a certain amount of money coming in."

Don't we all, Brian, don't we all.

It's just that most of us don't work two jobs simultaneously - clearly cheating on at least one of them.

But mortgage broker? Good luck to him these days. And remind me never to look for a mortgage from someone in NYC named (or not) Brian. I hate those business conversations with flushing going on the background!

Brian is supposedly part of a trend that's emerging, at least anecdotally: those

...squeezing two jobs into one shift -- moonlighting by day, as it were -- as a hedge against a sagging economy or to maintain their style of living.

Of course, Brian is a sales man, so I guess if he's making his numbers, his company may be happy to turn a blind eye - or deaf ear in the men's room - to his other job.

As it turns out, the mortgage brokering is his first love, one in which he's been able to bring in as much as $20K a month. But not all months are $20K months, and to balance things out, he found a "real job". Full time, but not quite so full time that it takes up his full time.

And taking care of his second job while on the clock for his first clock, enables Brian to step out for:

...three or four nights a week of lavish dining (with a bar bill three times the food bill), several vacations abroad and an apartment in New York City.

With that kind of social schedule, it's no wonder he can't be working after hours.

All this is made possible, of course, by the miracles of technology.

You're on your computer, unless someone's looking over your shoulder, who knows if that website you're looking at is related to your job-job, or to something else.

You're on your cell phone, unless someone's eavesdropping, who knows whether that call is to a client of the company, or your own personal customer on the side.

You're keyboarding away, unless someone finds a business letter on the printer in the hall, who knows whether you're writing up the business plan for that save-the-company product, or a contract for that mortgage you just brokered.

It's hard for me to see where someone gets the cycles during their workday to take care of job #2. I realize that I was never the most efficient worker on the face of the earth, but my full-time days were full, and generally spilled over into 10-11 hours on the job every day.

And it sure makes me happy that I'm not a manager wondering whether I should start peeping over shoulders, listening more closely to calls, or standing guard at the printer trying to snare an employee up to no good. (Or up to something that's no particular good to our company.)

As for Brian, he laments that all those sneaky runs to the bathroom to juggle his two jobs are "really tough."

Really, Brian?

Not as tough as it will be if you're boss' boss has to take a bio-break when you're occupying the stall he needs, making a call.

Here's hoping that he scares the living daylighting out of you.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Poor Mouth

There's a great John Kenneth Galbraith bon mot on the conservative approach to the economy:

The poor aren't working because they have too much money, and the wealthy aren't spending because they don't have enough.

I thought of this a couple of weeks ago when I saw an article in the Wall Street Journal on Lehman chairman and CEO Dick Fuld and his wife's decision to unload some of his art collection. If you're interested, and have, say $2.8 M for an Arshile Gorky drawing, there's a Christie's auction coming up this November. (Note on link: it may require a paid subscription to view this content.)

The Gorky drawing is part of a group of 16 postwar drawings owned by the Fulds that were quietly put up for sale by Christie's last month, according to people familiar with the situation. The sketches were consigned in early August following a competitive bidding process between Christie's and Sotheby's. Christie's wouldn't confirm the identity of the seller but says the total presale estimate of the works is between $15 million and $20 million. The auction house also confirmed the deal included a guarantee, an undisclosed sum promised to the seller whether or not the works sell.

It's no wonder that the Fulds are feeling a bit strapped these days. A year and a half ago, Fuld's stake in Lehman was worth nearly a billion. Today, that stakeen has shriveled to less than $4M as of the date of the article - it may be worth even less now. (Please save some of those crocodile tears for those who had a lesser stake to begin with. Some Lehman peon who used to "own" $1M worth of Lehman, is now looking at a nest egg worth less than $4,000.  Not exactly enough to pay tuition or live out your Cialis-ad style retirement years in dual claw-foot bathtubs on an ocean bluff.)

Mr. Fuld was, of course, canny enough to have taking a bit of walking around money out over the way - just some folding green for the wallet: $139.3 M in the last few years. Maybe he gave it to his wife to buy some of the art work they're now selling.

The Fulds are still hanging on to much of their art collection, as well as their homes in Connecticut (that's the one with indoor squash court); NYC (Park Avenue co-op); Vermont; Sun Valley (there's skiing, and then there's skiing); and Jupiter Florida  - a $13.75M home that he had to rebuild. That was so 2004! These days, you can actually get something reasonable livable for $13.75M.

Fuld isn't the only Lehman poor soul: apparently, former president Joe Gregory shed his commuter helicopter, and has his $32.5M Hamptons home up for sale.

While the Fulds will make some money on their upcoming Christie's sale, apparently the sorts of works that they've specialized in aren't the sorts of "trophy paintings" that the nouveau riche Euro and Asia buyers are after. Their collection has more appeal to a "close-knit group of American drawings collectors."

The good news for the Fulds: their collection hasn't been over-inflated, since the trophy painting money isn't chasing it.

The bad news? The American collectors who are the most likely buyers don't have quite the purchasing power they used to.

In any case, it's hard to feel too badly for the Fulds.

But you do have to wonder why they're selling now, given that they still must have a fairly comfortable amount of money in the bank. (Hope it's not in WaMu.) Is it that, once you've been a paper billionaire, anything short of that is going to make you feel like a pauper?

Or do they know something we don't know about where this is all heading?

Now there's a scary thought.