Friday, November 28, 2008

The Friday after Thanksgiving

One of the great breakthroughs of the latter part of the twentieth century was making the day after Thanksgiving a kind of/sort of holiday. If it wasn't official, you could swap out Veterans' Day or Columbus Day or one of the  other lesser days for it. (If you did go into work, it was something of a blow-off day. Good for cleaning out files, and catching up on miscellaneous and sundry.)

So, even though I'm no longer working full time, I'm taking the day off.

If it's warm enough, I'll plant my tulip bulbs. Then maybe I'll go through some piles of junk in my office. If it's at all cold and rainy - or maybe just cloudy -  I think I'll take an afternoon nap. Then off to my sister Kathleen's to celebrate my brother's birthday/my birthday (just  a few days apart).

Really, there are few days more wonderful than the day after Thanksgiving - especially if you have the capacity to stay the hell out of stores.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Well, I just looked at last year's Thanksgiving Day post, and darned if I'm not pretty much thankful for the same stuff - family, friends, work, health, home - again this year.

In addition, I'm thankful for the health of my brother, Richard, who gave us a scare this fall. Fortunately, he's made tremendous progress, and we're hopeful he'll continue to do so. (And, as today is his birthday, here's a shout out: Happy Birthday, Stick.)
I'm thankful for Kennedy Brothers PT. Last year, I was recovering from a recent broken arm/shoulder. But I had stopped making much progress with my physical therapy, and was told that I'd probably need surgery to restore anything near full range of motion.

Thanks to Kennedy Brothers, I've gotten almost all my arm function back. Surgery? No thanks/no need.

I'm thankful that the Boston Celtics won the NBA Championship this year. Not for myself - I'm not that big a basketball fan. But for my husband, a life long Celtics fan (and former starter for the St. Charles K of C team from Bellows Falls, Vermont), well.... Now he can take pleasure in watching a skilled team that is a delight to see in action, and doesn't have to resort to watching re-runs of twenty-plus year old Bird-McHale-Parrish games when he wants to see great Celtics' basketball being played.

I'm thankful that we have a new president elect who is calm, thoughtful, intelligent, well-read, articulate....He certainly has his work cut out for him, but I'm certainly thankful he's here - or will be as of 1/20/2009. (Extra thanksgiving points for our fab first-lady-to-be, and their completely adorable little girls.)
I'm thankful for the work done by St. Francis House, which helps Boston's poor and hoLeaf Series #12meless rebuild their lives.  St. Francis House (a.k.a., "Frank's" in street parlance) starts with the basics: meals, clothing showers...and moves on up to their excellent Moving Ahead Program (MAP), a program that helps people who are ready and able to take back their lives. One of my favorite things to do is to go to a MAP graduation and hear the graduates talk about their life's journey - and their hopes.

Thanksgiving is as good a day as any to think about the basic services that St. Francis House provides - starting with those all- important meals. Over the last year, we've seen the number of meals served each day grow from an average of 700-800 to over 1,000 - with some days hitting 1,200. These numbers will only grow as the economy gets worse, I'm afraid.

I'm thankful for all the donors (especially my family and friends) who make the work of St. Francis House possible. The art work shown above, by the way, is done by one of the guests working in the House's Art Room.

I'm sure there are other things I'm forgetting to be thankful for.

And, of course, as an atheist, I'm not quite sure who I'm directing all my thanks for to.

So maybe this time around, I'll change the wording a bit.

Forget that I'm "thankful for". Let's just say that this year I'm "thankful to."

Happy Thanksgiving 2008.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

I see a tall, dark small cap index in your future

The New York Times reported last weekend that some folks are turning to psychics for a bit of guidance.

As a Florida trader interviewed in the story said, "if she [his psychic] tells me she is getting a negative view, I will sell.”


“Your mortgage agents, your realtors, your bankers, you can’t go to these people anymore,” said Tori Hartman, a psychic in Los Angeles. “They’re just reading a script — at least that’s how my clients feel. People are sensing that the traditional avenues have not worked, that all of a sudden this so-called security that they’ve built up isn’t there anymore. They come to a psychic for a different perspective.”

Psychics, astrologers, spiritualists may be one of the only market sectors that's not in hopper. Business, they say, is strong - and those in need are forking over upwards of $75/hour. And that upwards can be very upward: the article mentioned that some can charge $1,000 an hour. I took a forecasting class in business school. Too bad it was econometric forecasting, not soothsayer forecasting. I always liked playing with Ouija Board. I bet I could have learned how to read a tarot card. Yet another point where my career could have been on that $1K/hour trajectory. Damn!

“My Web traffic is up and up and up,” said Aurora Tower, a New Yorker who constructs spidery star charts for her growing clientele. “People will entertain the irrational when what they consider rational collapses.”

Increasingly, the folks turning to psychics are men, especially those from the beleaguered real estate and investment industries, along with CEO's looking for help trying to figure out whether they're candidates for a give out, a buy out or a bail out. (Having more men in the mix is interesting, if only because these captains of industry tend to ask  questions about the psychic's accuracy rate, and whether they'll guarantee their readings. Oh boy.)

One of the companies cited in the article was which offers - as the name implies - live consultations. Live Person (with  revenues this year of $30 million) doesn't just have spiritual readers on board. I swung by, and you can get a C++ programmer for $.50/minute, someone to give you real estate advice for $1.00/minute, and help with your PowerPoint preso for $.75/minute. (Hmmmmmm. Maybe I could find a little sideline here.... What's help with your blog worth per minute?)

There's also a mixed bag of medical practitioners, psychologists, life coaches and others who are out there, willing to charge by the minute.

I don't know about anyone else, but I really don't think I'd want to go to a doctor who charges $2.99/minute. ("Average time take per live advice is 10 minutes.")

Many of the Live Person consultants seem to be south Asian - but unlike those "hi, my name is Brian" customer service reps who try to pretend that they're sitting in Wisconsin ("Go, Packers!", these folks are using their real names and personas, which I find a plus.

But the professionals - south Asian or not -  on Live Person are absolute cheap dates compared to the spiritual readers.

On the first page alone - and there are 249 pages of spiritual readers, ten to a page - you could find yourself paying $17.70/minute to a "God gifted psychic."

Or you could send an e-mail to Elizabeth (no price quoted), who is a "certified, 6th generation psychic who will give you an open, honest reading every time."

People are asking their psychics all sorts of life, professional, personal, political, and other pressing questions. (One New York astrologer said "I get a lot of Republicans wondering where their party is going.”)

Given the uncertain times we live in, it's not surprising that people are grasping at the straw of psychic readings - although it's hard to believe that it's worth $17.70 a minute.

But I know the feeling.

During the run-up to the election, I found myself looking at the polling data a dozen times a day; reading every comment on HuffPo; and channel cruising every evening from one talking head to the next. When I really wanted to make myself crazy, I looked at Rush Limbaugh's web site.

Did it really matter what Zogby was saying about Pennsylvania or what Rasmussen was saying about Florida? Especially when it wasn't changing from one hour to the next?


But I was so completely crazed and neurotic that I just couldn't keep myself from behavior that simultaneously alleviated my anxiety and exacerbated it. ("He's down by 1 point in Wisconsin!")

As it turned out, the biggest anxiety-allayer was working a phone bank the Saturday before the election.

At least I felt I was doing something.

Which, as it turns out, is also a pretty decent antidote for recession anxiety.

Read a book, watch a ball game, bake brownies, take a walk, blog...or just commiserate and anxiety-swap with your friends and family, who - last time I checked - do this kind of "work" for free.

The answer, as it usually turns out, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The minute he checked into The Clinic, I could see he was a sheik of distinction

Well, Saudi King Abdullah made a recent visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and his trip was apparently just what the doctor ordered to help boost the local economy.

Unlike those of us who visit the hospital with a loved on or two in tow, King Abdullah likes an entourage, and this one included a cast of 500-1000.

Now, if I were to create a list of people who would be interested enough in my hospital stay to accompany me, and I expanded the list to the very maximum possible number of people who might conceivably want to attend me during my time on the catheter, I can generously come up with a nose count of twenty. And that's if I do a bit of rounding-up (of both the numbers and the nose count).

Then again, I am not a beloved monarch, and I don't need body guards, and my friends and family have enough personal freedom on a day by day basis that they don't need to hop onto a 747 and jet off to Rochester, Minnesota, to be able to have wine with their dinner and shop 'til they drop.

Did I say drop?

Well, drop the Saudis did, spending - according to the Rochester PostBulletin -  anywhere between $1M and $2.5 M during their visit. It is suggested that their spending "in the past week [is enough] to offset the impact of the nation's economic woes for the year."

"It was great to see everybody collaborating with one another. We had businesses from caterers to fuel providers to transportation to courier services, hotels, you name it. People really came together on this one, and hopefully hit a grand slam," said Brad Jones, executive director of the Rochester Convention and Visitors Bureau, who says a conservative estimate of the economic impact is $1 million to $1.5 million for an eight-day visit by 500 people.

"I have heard anywhere from $1.5 to $2.5 (million), so clearly the visit had a major impact on our community, and we look forward to many more future visits," said John Wade, president of the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce.

Don't you just love that word "collaborating", especially in conjunction with a regime that doesn't have the best of human rights records and that more of less promotes radical Islamists as a way to keep the hoi-polloi's minds off wretchedly excessive behavior like million dollar family outings to The States. Not to mention that the whole Saudi operation puts our country in the shameful position of turning two blind eyes to their abuses because we crave their oil.

Ah, but back to the shopping spree.

It's not clear what all they bought - the storekeepers aren't providing much detail, although one did use the words "cleaned us out."

This photo, from the PostBulletin, shows the shopping caravan heading to the airport for the return to Saudi Arabia. Is the dollar really that bad - and the shopping in RochesSaudis depart with U-Haulster that good - that it's better to trek to Minnesota than to settle for London or Dubai? Or is it that, given that all 500-1000 couldn't possibly sit in the uncomfy chair by King Abdullah's bedside all day, they might as well do a little shopping.

My favorite part of the article was the comment posted that said:

The Royalty from Saudi Arabia are truly welcomed and loved by all.My question is, Why is it important to RPB to publish how much money was spent here? Do the Royalty appreciate that? Just wondering...My point is, it is a private matter.

Kudos to the flak from the Saudi Royal family for getting with the social media, but "The Royalty from Saudi Arabia are truly welcomed and loved by all"?

Yes, Midwesterners are nice and all that. And the Royalty from SA may be truly welcomed, but "loved by all."


According to an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Royals shopped at Macy's, Chico's, and New York & Co.

No Neiman's, no Tiffany's, no Saks in Rochester?

Some of them are also a bit fussy.

At the upscale Chardonnay restaurant, owner Mark Weimer said four members of the Saudi royal family inspected his establishment closely Saturday night as they decided whether to stay.

"People were checking to see if the silver was good enough quality," Weimer said.

Apparently it did, because some of the Saudis supped there. I personally hate, hate, hate if the silver isn't up to snuff, don't you? And don't get me going on restaurants that don't have - at min - Villeroy and Boch china. (Don't tell me you've never turned over a saucer to look!)

Frankly, I'm a bit envious of Rochester, and a bit put out that the Saudi Royals snubbed Boston.

It's not like we don't have good hospitals here. Why fly all the way to Rochester, Minnesota, when Mass General is 1000 miles closer to home? (And we do have a Neiman's, Tiffany's, and Saks - plus plenty of Macy's and Chico's, too.)

Maybe they fear that, in snotty and cold New England, they won't be loved by all.

But they might be surprised by how much love you can buy if you're willing to spread a little green around, especially in a down economy. All that spending! Sweet, sweet charity!

Hey, big spender! Spend a little time with me.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The high cost of giving into temptation: Verizon workers learn the hard way

I don't know how many of them there were - Verizon's being a little bit mum on the topic - but a number of what sounds like VZ customer support reps were canned for snooping around Barack Obama's cell phone records. It sounds like a no-harm kind of deal - they were just looking, not touching - but no-harm doesn't always translate into no-foul, and this is one of those times.

This is not a good environment in which to get tossed from a relatively secure job in a company with great benefits - not to mention a company that's probably not going anywhere, which is more than you can say for a lot of household names these days.

I'm sure the morning after the long arm of corporate HR came down on them, the folks who gave into that temptation to take a quick look at That One's records are feeling like first class morons. Not to mention feeling more than a bit like they have a lump of lead in their stomach, given the looming rec/depr-ession. And given that they were fired, they probably can't even collect unemployment insurance. Talk about a gulp-a-pa-looza.

Yet I can't help but sympathize a bit with the Verizon workers involved in this situation - especially if, as it seems now, they didn't exploit the information or use it in any inappropriate, dangerous, or national security threatening way.

Of course they shouldn't have done it. But how many of us, if given the opportunity to sneak a little glance at some celebrity personal info, wouldn't do the same? Not because we wanted to do anything with it, but because it seemed kind of interesting - and because it was right there.

I can easily see the scenario.

A worker with a few empty minutes on their hands. Oh, why don't I just go into the data base and see if I can find the records of anyone famous. Let's start with A-Rod. No, Jessica Simpson. Wait, how about Barack Obama.


There they are: the man of the hour's cell phone records.

With a few more minutes, you even check out who a few of those calls came from/went to.

But that got old pretty fast, when most of the calls were to David Plouffe or David Axelrod, or to his sister in Hawaii to check on his grandmother. Calls to people you'd never heard of. Bo-ring.

A-Rod might have been more interesting: juicy calls to Madonna. And if you'd sleuthed out Jessica Simpson, maybe you could have counted her calls to Tony Romo.

Very easy to see how someone could scroll around in that big, beautiful, CRM system, killing time during a break, or while waiting for the next boring, disgruntled customer to call up to demand that they get three bucks off their next bill because they spent the day in a dead zone.

After all, isn't this the same impulse that gets us googling during our idle time, sometimes looking for real information, sometimes looking for our kindergarten boyfriends, and sometimes looking for celebrity gossip? (Is Tom Brady ever going to pop the question to Gisele Bunchen?)

I was never in a position to snoop in a corporate data base with anything interesting in it - not with a career in B2B technology marketing, that's for sure.

But I sure enjoyed it the other night when we went to our favorite neighborhood restaurant, and one of the wait staff told us that Mel Gibson had been in a while back, and left a lousy tip.

The only time I ever really saw anything juicy at work - and it was only juicy to those of us who worked at the company - was the time I found a printout of the company salary list.

This was in pre-historic days, before the advent of the personal computer, when we worked on paper-based terminals - ours were DeskWriters - connected to mainframe computers. Our terminals were in the eponymous Terminal Room, and were a shared resource. We worked off of printouts, and generally left material we were done with around so that people could write notes or doodle on it.

One evening, while waiting for some batch project to run - or, more likely, to spit out an error message half-way through - I started glancing through the pile of printouts next to my terminal, hoping to find something at least mildly entertaining.

This was in the early days of personal communication via computer. There was no Internet, but there were some primitive e-mailing types of systems, and techies were finding ways to go back and forth with each other. One of our developers was part of some early Dungeons and Dragons-type group, one that was into mild kink, and he occasionally left weird material sitting about. So sometimes there was something more interesting than printouts of forecasting models or pro forma simulations.

As I flipped through the stack of paper, what to my wondering eyes did appear was a printout of the salaries of everyone in the company.

My first impulse was, 'I can't look. That wouldn't be right.'

My second was, 'I can only look for 10 seconds.'

My third was, 'I can only read it through once.'

By the time my impulse had reached the 'I can only make one copy' level I decided that enough was enough and, before I succumbed to that particular temptation, I took the printout and went and slid it under the door of the stoner guy in accounting who I assumed had left it there.

So I understand the impulse to look. Even if you stop it before it translates into sharing and exploiting the information you find, sometimes you just want to know stuff. It's as simple as that.

I feel bad for the knuckleheads at Verizon who - bored, idle, or just plain nosy - gave into that temptation to search on the name "Obama" and see what they came up with.

I bet they're wishing now that they spent those time-wasting minutes staring off into space, rather than wondering who the hell David Plouffe is.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Ten Assorted Little Things

What were they thinking?
When the Big Three automaker CEO's hopped in their individual corporate jets to fly to Washington to ask Congress to bail them out, isn't it amazing that not even one out of the three thought this might look bad. Couldn't they at least have flown in together? And shared a car service to The Hill. Did they get take their cue from the AIG execs who decided to stick with their par-tays even when it looked like they were par-taying on our dimes.

It could be worse.
In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, there was an article on the Russian economy. Among the other problems they're undergoing, there's a big issues with unpaid wages - 300,000 workers are owed a collective $145,000,00o. One woman who hasn't been paid since September. She's continuing to slog away, hoping to be paid by New Year. It's not as bad as it was in the 1990's, "when tens of millions of people were affected. Then, workers went without salaries for months on end, sparking nationwide protests."

2012 has already begun.
I am really not looking forward to four more years of Mitt Romney campaigning for president. Frankly, I'd much rather listen to Mike Huckabee -who, by the way, is campaigning via book tour. I may not agree with him on much, but at least he's got a good sense of humor.

Out of Town News
I'm as bummed as the next Bostonian-Cantrabridgian who's bummed by the impending demise of Out of Town News, which has been selling, well, out of town newspapers since 1955 from plunk in the middle of Harvard Square. I bought papers or magazines there occasionally. Once, before a trip to Ireland, I bought a bunch of Irish newspapers, including flaky little ones like the Kerryman. But, like a growing number of folks, I don't do much newspaper reading off-line. I read the newspaper every day through much of my life, but now I can go weeks without getting newsprint on my hands - even though I'm reading The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal pretty much every day. No, it's not the same experience, and I miss some of the things - like letters to the editors and the obits - that I no longer read. I do not want to see paid journalism die. Someone's got to report on stuff for us bloggers to blog about. But it's the way the world is going. (I sure do hope that there are still magazines in print for the rest of my life, though.)

Bobby Kennedy's birthday
If he'd lived, RFK would have been 83 yesterday. Hard to believe, isn't it?

eMail Addresses
I know that if I put my mind to it, I could consolidate at least some of my e-mail addresses, at least herding a few of them into the same in-boxes. But until I put my mind to it, I will have to continue to deal with the four e-mail systems I look at multiple times during the day, the three I look at on an occasional or ad hoc basis, and the two I really should tear out by the roots.

Gasoline Tax
Massachusetts is considering levying an 11 cents a gallon tax at the pump. The way people are pissing and moaning about it, you'd think that they'd proposed an $11 a gallon tax. If the average driver puts 20 gallons a week in their tank - which sounds high to me, but then again the only cars I've ever owned were tiny little gas sippers - that's an extra $2.20 a week. Yes, times are hard, but $2.20 a week, and people are tearing their hair out? Cease and desist.

Holiday Shopping
Usually I'm wrapped by Thanksgiving - yes, I'm one of those  - but with a couple of exceptions, I haven't bought any presents yet. Like everyone else, I'll be cutting back a bit. I'll be taking at least some of the cut back money and give it to a couple of local charities that help those who have no place to cut back. (I do, of course, already have my Christmas cards - cannily purchased on December 26, 2008; I already have my Christmas stamps (Nutcracker, not religious); and I already have this year's (and next year's, for that matter) Yankee Swap, which is what the grownups do on Christmas Eve in my family.

I'm not yet willing to go gray
Yes, despite the Age of Frugality that will soon be upon us, I am having my hair colored on Monday. For a long time, I just did highlights. And sometimes I still think of the procedure as getting my highlights done. But who am I kidding? This is a dye job. Because it's a color my hair actually was in nature at one time, I somehow convince myself that it's more or less natural. Plus, when it grows out - because it's not that far off from the real me - it doesn't look weird. I don't get that "roots" look.  In truth, I have no idea what's under there. All I know is it's streaked with gray. And I don't really want to find out - not quite yet. So on Monday, I'll go see Rita-the-hair-color-genius.

Did I Say Ten Assorted Little Things?
Silly me. I meant Nine.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

When toys go bad: what's on the WATCH List for 2008

Each year, since 1973, a Massachusetts-based organization has published a list of "toys with the potential to cause childhood injuries, and even death."

It's hard for me to think of a toy that, in the wrong little hands, in the wrong set of circumstances, couldn't cause injury or even death. Let's face it, if you straightened out a Slinky, you could no doubt poke somebody's eye out with it. And I wonder, if you made a thick PlayDoh death mask with no nose holes, I bet you could asphyxiate yourself - or your kid sister.

However, there are absolutely toys that a kid wouldn't have to go very far out of his or her way to do grievous harm with, and World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH) provides an annual service, just before prime toy-shopping season, by alerting us to some of the worst toys out there.

What's on the list this year?

Well, there's this little shop of horrors entry. The ANANIMAL ALLEY PURSE PETIMAL ALLEY PURSE PET, from Toys 'R Us, is aimed at everyone (age 0+) - and that means newborns, who could easily breathe in or swallow that easily falling out, hideously-colored hair. Because this is a very inexpensive toy - just $4.98 - you can see someone (someone whose taste radically differs from mine, I must say) picking it up and, seeing that age 0+ marking, throwing this into baby's first stocking. Just ghastly!

For a slightly older kid, there's NINJA BATTLE GEAR - MICHELANGELO, which includes a set of nunchaks - the "kick butt signature weapon" for 4 year olds. Now, without being vilely sexist here, I've yet to meet the 4 year old boy who wasn't capable of turning pretty much anything into his own "kick butt signature weapon" (c.f., "stick"). So who in their right mind would give a 4 year old an official set of nunchaks? Just ghastly - possibly even ghastlier than the Purse Pet.

Several of the toys are almost OK - the pull-toy dog has a pull string that may be a bit to long for a real little one; the Winnie-the-Pooh 'thing' that should probably be aimed at slightly older kids, given a removable part; etc. For many of these, the biggest problem is the age limit warnings may just be too loose. And have little parts that are too loose, especially given the oral-nature of really little kids, and the real attraction of popping a teeny-tiny little piece of plastic into your mouth. (Hey, when I was a kid, I loved chewing on those little red rubber thing-ies that were on the tips of blouse hangers. I was a little older than the babies many of these suspect toys are aimed at, but I'm sure if, at the age of 2, if I could have reached the blouse hanger and maneuvered the little rubber thing-y off, I would have been quite blissfully in danger of choking on on.) In any case, most people buying toys very likely do look at the age advisories, and make the assumption that they've been tested and are safe for kids in those age groups. Apparently not so! So good for WATCH for putting out their warnings.

Here's the toy that makes me channel Keith Olbermann's "worst person in the world" voice, only it's screaming "worst toy in the world."

The SPORTSMAN SHOTGUN offers some quite confusing "guidance." There's “Not recommended for children under 3 years of age” and “AGE 14+”. Well , that "not recommendedSPORTSMAN SHOTGUN for children under 3" is pretty clear. But what about kids from 4 - 13? Someone might look at the one warning, and think it was safe for kids under 14, as long as they're over the age of 3. Of course, any realistic looking gun just screams DANGER, given the incidents that have occurred where a police officer, making an instantaneous choice, has killed a kid who was aiming a realistic looking gun at them.

The gun comes with warnings about shooting at an animal (I'm assuming that includes two-legged ones), and about not "aiming at eyes or face", but this baby shoots rubber bullets. Real rubber bullets. According to WATCH, "This weapon is not a toy and should not be sold for use by children."

Not that I think it's all that great for kids to have real guns, but I really can't imagine why anyone would want to give a kid a toy gun that looks like a real gun and actually shoots something (I.e., a rubber bullet). If something is assumed to be a toy, I'm sure that parents wouldn't take the same precautions that they would if they were NRA-types giving their kid a real gun. I'm sure they'd be thinking, hell, it's just a toy.

WATCH has a reasonably good track record in getting dangerous toys withdrawn from the market.

But what's shocking to me is that, with 30+ years of pointing out the worst toys in the world, manufacturers are still making the same mistakes: choking hazards, confusing warnings, and misleading - or just plain WRONG - age recommendations.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

When that MBA's only a mirage

Of course, MGM Mirage's ex-CEO is claiming that his bogus MBA from USC has nothing to do with his resignation. But I took four years of Latin - you can look it up on my Notre Dame Academy transcript - and just because post hoc ergo propter hoc is a logical fallacy doesn't mean it can't be true that when something happens on the heels of something else, there's some causation at work.

If you missed the news (which I saw in the WSJ Online, in an article by Keith Winstein and Tamara Audi - it may require a subscription to access), J. Terrence Lanni stepped down after The Journal started sniffing around about his credentials, and USC said it had no record of his being granted an MBA.

For his part,

Mr. Lanni said, "I must stress that this issue has nothing to do with my decision."

I'm not quite sure why the WSJ was poking around here - did someone dime him, or do they automatically check out everybody they're writing about in this way? - but Mr. Lanni is now gone. (He does remain on the Mirage's board.)

It's actually plausible that he was leaving anyway. Las Vegas is in a downturn; the Mirage is trying to complete the financing of a mega, seemed-like-a-good-idea-when-we-broke-ground condo-hotel complex; and the company's net income is in the hopper.

So why stay?

And Mr. Lanni had a good reason for leaving. (Cough, cough.)

His wife lives in Pasadena, and he wants to be a full-time spouse, rather than a commuter. (No indication on how the Mrs. feels about this arrangement, but she's no doubt like every other wife who just can't wait to have her hubby underfoot full time now that he's retired.)

But back to Lanni's little bio-lie-o.

Apparently the corporate web site's bio claimed that Lanni had an MBA in finance from USC. A "private fraud investigator" - wonder what he was up to? there may be way more to this story - had found "a discrepancy between Mr. Lanni's corporate biography and a database of college degrees accessible to private investigators."

Lanni does have an undergrad from USC. And says that's he's taken MBA classes. But he also claims that he received an honorary MBA.

Unfortunately for Mr. Lanni, the last honorary MBA that USC awarded was given in 1933, well before his date of birth. (Hey, things can be awarded posthumously, and prehumously. Can they be awarded pre-birth?)

Lanni was the guiding force behind the MGM Mirage's big growth spurt.

So he obviously didn't need the MBA.

So why'd he lie?

Or, if he lied in the way-back, why didn't he come clean and not let the lie propagate. Surely, the brief, minor embarrassment that would have accompanied telling some minion that he didn't have his MBA - heh, heh, I never really finished that degree, so best not mention it, or even,  MBA? where did that come from?  - would be preferable to WSJ-level exposure.

How can there be anyone walking around in this day in age - especially someone in a prominent position, as Lanni was - thinking he/she can get away with something that, in the grand scheme of things is a peccadillo, but in the light of the Internet becomes a major deal that involves completely uninterested and disinterested bloggers flapping away about it?


Over a year ago, I wrote about Marilee Jones, the MIT Dean who resigned in disgrace after her false credentials were discovered.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How you going to keep them down on the farmstead (after they've seen Williams-Sonoma)?

As a non-cook, I don't spend a lot of time in Williams-Sonoma, but I have purchased things (that is to say, 'gifts') there over the years. And I'm sure that if I did cook, I'd want things from there for my own, personal, cook-ish use.

As a non-cook, I'm not on their catalogue list, making it one of the few catalogues I don't get. But someone in our building does, and since I do the recycling here, I was able to get my non-cook's hands on the holiday entertaining issue, A Farmstead Thanksgiving.

A Farmstead Thanksgiving!

While I have spent precious little time in my kitchen cooking delicious and beautiful meals, I have spent even less time on farms, let alone on farmsteads.

There was that one hostel in Switzerland that was a working farm. The hostel bunks were in a Heidi-ish loft in a charming little Heidi-ish chalet, on a Heidi-ish mountainside, in the midst of Heidi-ish pastures, full of Heidi-ish cows. As I recall, those cows even wore dirndls and pigtails. And cowbells.

So that was one night down on the farm.

And when I was a kid visiting my grandmother in Chicago, we drove up to Wisconsin for the day to visit some farmer friends. I remember three things about that trip. One, it was a blistering hot day and they were tarring the roads. And since we were in an un-airconditioned car, well, pee-ewww. The farmhouse itself had been cut in half to accommodate two generations of farm families, and there were no interior connections -just blocked up doors. To get from Generation A's digs to Generation B's, you had to go outside, which struck me as odd. I was used to Worcester triple-deckers, where you had your own flat, and when you went from Generation A's flat to Generation B's flat, you used the front or back staircase. Which were indoors. Most memorably, we were served lemonade made with the most atrocious tasting well water. We were used to Worcester's wonderful, drinkable, non-smelly water, and we always had to make an adjustment to Chicago water which "tasted funny." But Wisconsin water! I'd rather drink tar than that lemonade.

So I am no expert in things farm-ish, or farm-steadish.

And yet I have a distinct impression that farm/farmstead cooks are not cooking their farm/farmstead-fresh turkey in the extra-large W-S roaster - suggested retail $420, but for W-S customers, the low-low price of $299.95.

Farm/farmstead Thanksgivings - especially in the Midwest - would no doubt feature a jello salad, but not one that was made with the ceramic mold for $19.95 which "bears the intricate three-dimensional silhouette of a pineapple."  My Midwest mother - city-girl, not farm-girl - used plain old Club aluminum molds, one of which is still in my possession, although it goes largely unused. Although maybe I'll surprise the family by resurrecting one of my mother's jello salad recipes for Thanksgiving. Will it be orange-pineapple, strawberry-cranberry, or Waldorf? I appear to be making fun here, but I'm actually craving a bite of one of those luscious little beauties.

But $19.95 is actually pretty reasonable for a fancy jello mold, and someone on the farm/farmstead might actually splurge on one.

But someone on the farm/farmstead would not likely splurge for the $419, 13 1/4 quart monogrammed hammered copper stockpot. 

And how about the ruffled pie dish for $44? Or the oval Harvest Berry platter - actually quite pretty - for $299?

There is, of course, a whole lot more - including my own personal favorite: the special, kids' table tablecloth for $59. (Four napkins: $26.)

And, of course, I couldn't help peeking ahead at what's in store for us for the farmstead Christmas.

Like any non-cook (but pro-eater), I cut right to the food-stuffs.

There's the personalized ginger bread boys - 3 for $26. (What's nine-bucks for a cookie?)  And the Nutcracker cookies - 15 cookies for $55, an absolute relative bargain. And that fabulous "personalized gingerbread manor" for $249.95.  (If you're a cheap-skate, or worried about the recession, you can downsize and get a plain old gingerbread house for $56.)

A farmstead Thanksgiving! A farmstead Christmas!

I wonder if those farm folks in Wisconsin would remember me - the skinny little blond with the funny accent, turning up her nose at the rancid lemonade. I'd be happy to accept an invitation to a farmstead Thanksgiving.

Invite me, please.

I'll even bring my own bottled water, plus I'll throw in a kids' table tablecloth.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Walmart's CAN: Uncle Sam needs you!

Well, just when I thought that there was little more to say about Walmart, there comes an article in last week's Hartford Courant on the company's Customer Action Network, which in the state of Connecticut alone has enlisted thousands of residents in a "support group" to act as unpaid lobbyists for Wally.

The Can-Doers have their own official website, and from it we learn that the:

Customer Action Network is a program to keep customers informed about government issues that affect Wal-Mart and its ability to provide good value for your shopping dollar.

When government tries to limit your shopping choices, or interfere in Wal-Mart's ability to offer Everyday Low Prices, Customer Action Network members can help by expressing their opinion.

Ah, those terrible governments - especially ones in liberal-y states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, where elitist snobs (of which cohort I am a proud, if non-card-carrying member) try to do things link rein in sprawl, keep a watchful eye on the environment, and try to see that people make a living wage while not being treated like crap in the workplace).

Of course, all this good stuff comes at a cost, and the cost is that products might actually be a bit more costly than they would be otherwise.

Not that this is a good economy in which to make the argument that we should be willing to pay a tiny bit more for things like food and clothing. People are nervous now. Layoffs - huge layoffs - are rampant. Anyone who has a 401K is afraid to peek at it. And most folks probably don't even have a 401K to peek at.

No, now's not the time to do a wholesale trash on the retail wonders of Walmart.

Hell, come The Depression, I might be hitchhiking to the nearest Walmart to buy ramen noodles and toilet paper in bulk. Fortunately, come The Depression, I have enough clothing to survive a good long time, without having to replace anything other than undies, socks, and shoes. Although God knows I'm getting sick of that 10 year old parka, and I may have been too hasty in bringing that LL Bean barn coat - barely worn - over to St. Francis House so that someone who needs a fairly warm coat could have one. On the other hand, it would have been kind of stupid to keep a coat around that was a size too large, wasn't the color I had really wanted, and made me look like a refrigerator carton.)

According to The Courant article, those signing up for CAN membership - and what an odd echo of the Obama campaign theme that is - have done so "eagerly".

"I would stick up for Wal-Mart as strong as I can," said Ernest Kirschner, a frequent shopper. "I really think they've gotten an unfair shake."

That's just what the world's largest retailer wants to hear. Wal-Mart is turning to loyal customers such as Kirschner to become watchdogs, not just shoppers.

As watchdogs, CAN members will be sic'd on those who oppose things like the opening up of Walmart supercenter, a particularly hot-button issue in New England, where we tend to like our downtowns - and where opposition to Walmart expansion efforts has been especially fierce (and at least temporarily successful, in many cases).

Walmart's doing quite the recruitment job here:

As of Thursday, more than 61,000 New England residents have joined CAN, company spokesman Chris Buchanan said. Connecticut tops the list with 25,218 names.

And, by the way, you don't get much for joining. From the CAN site, we find that:

As a member of the Wal-Mart Customer Action Network, you will receive:

  • Free newsletters with shopping tips, consumer information and specials.
  • Important bulletins and e-mail alerts
  • Invitations to special in-store events and receptions
  • Information on important issues affecting us all and how you can make a difference.

Shopping tips?

Go to the nearest Walmart. Greet the greeter. Grab a cart. Load it up. Check out. Drive away happy.

Why does the idea of a "shopping tip" remind me of those Cool Whip ads of yore, when people asked "Sarah" in wonder how she made pudding in a cloud, which didn't appear to be anything more than dollop of Cool Whip plopped on  pudding. (Old family recipe, I guess.)

In any case....

Anti-Walmart activist Al Norman thinks the numbers of New Englanders who have actually signed up to man the barricades may be over-exaggerated.

"Here's a giant retailer doing community organizing instead of selling cheap underwear and bananas," Norman said. "A lot of people signed up for this group, thinking they were going to get information about the next sale."

Also worth noting: Walmart hired an outside group to do its CAN recruiting, possibly hoodwinking some folks into believing they were joining an independent outfit. Hmmmmm.

Then there's this from the New England CAN website. (We get our own because we're so special - and nasty - I guess.) I cawalmartn't actually read the fine print on this one, but I'm generally a pretty good guesser, and I'm guessing that the extra $250o is not on top of what Walmart is already claiming you save at Walmart . (This claim is the subject of some controversy, by the way. But there is supposedly a UMass study that finds that just having a Walmart in town saves everyone money because of price pressure. I wonder if the study also examines any negative impacts of race to the bottom pricing. ) Hmmmmm.

According to Walmart spokesman, Chris Buchanan, the CAN effort is really grassroots.

"It came about at the store level. Customers said they would like to be more involved with the company. That's where it sprung from. We're recruiting customers to join a coalition around issues affecting Wal-Mart."

Customers said they would like to me more involved with the company?

I'm trying to think of the last time I said I wanted to be more involved with a retail empire (other than buying a cap and pins from the Obama website). Hmmmm. (Nice to meet you, Mrs. Dubious.)

The group hasn't made any great headway in New England quite yet.

One of their biggest triumphs?

Wal-Mart's CAN newsletter credits members in Sturbridge, Mass., with helping to defeat a town ordinance that would have banned plastic grocery bags, a ban the newsletter describes as "not the best for Wal-Mart or the community at large."

Nice going, guys! We can sure use more of those initiatives to keep a kabillion flimsy plastic bags in circulation, especially when everybody else on the face of the planet is trying to find ways to reuse, recycle, and generally respect the environment.

CAN member Kirschner, for one, is happy to see Walmart come out swinging

"I think they're finally putting their boxing gloves on. ... They do need the community to fight for them."

Allons, citoyens! Aux barricades! Uncle Sam needs you!


Thanks to my cousin Mary Beth for sending me the link to the Courant article.

And am I obsessing on Walmart lately? Here's my post from 11/7.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What I'd like to do, come the WPA

Well, all I can say is that in the last few weeks, I've been Ayn Rand-ed by Alan Greenspan's admission, or near admission, or whatever it was, that the market, left to its own devices, may not always regulate itself in such a grand and glorious fashion.

And then, my not so invisible hand involuntarily reached up to cover my mouth as I gasped - gasped! - to hear Martin Feldstein speak about something that sounded almost Keynesian, almost - dare I say it - WPA-ish.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next year or so.

Will the 'worst economic crisis since the Great Depression' turn out to be better or worse than we expected? Will everything shake out for the better, leaving us in more robust shape (as in 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger')? Will more of the institutions that have been part of the fabric of our economy since, like, forever disappear on us? Will the last company that actually makes something tangible, like a car, disappear from our shores?

And what does President Obama have up his long skinny sleeve and in that big, smart brain of his?

I'm hoping for a twenty-first century version of the Works Project Administration, the New Deal initiative that put folks back to work building roads, court houses, libraries, and other public structures.

Surely, we could use some investment in our infrastructure - all those tumbling down bridges, pot-holed roads, and crumbling inner-city schools.

And while we're at it, how about keeping branch libraries open longer hours. And set up more after school learning programs for kids?

Hey, we're already so in debt, what's another tril if it helps us out of the current funk?

And how about a resurgence of the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Surely there's environmentally useful work to be done in our parks, national or otherwise?

And, of course, while we're at it, how about a new Federal Writers' Project.

Surely, those travel guides that folks like Studs Turkel, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and John Cheever worked on in the thirties need updating. (Thanks, wikipedia, for this list of FWP writers.)

Even if it only paid the "$80" (inflation adjusted for 2008) a month that writers got paid during the Depression, I'd like nothing better than to work on the Massachusetts guide book.

A lot of people, I'm sure, will stick their hand up to take Boston, but I'd love to do Worcester.

City of the Seven Hills. Heart of the Commonwealth. Land of my father's pride.

And, while I'm at it, I'll take Leicester (where my grandmother Rogers hailed from), and far-out Barre, Massachusetts (where my grandfather Rogers grew up and fled at the first possible moment to forge his way in the big city of Worcester).

FWP writers took oral histories down, too.

I volunteer to speak with everybody over the age of eighty about what Worcester, Leicester, and Barre were like in their day.

I'm not sure how far the FWP charter extended, but now I'd like to see it fund poets, fiction writers, essayists, playwrights, and - of course - bloggers.

What a contribution we could make to the preservation of our culture before it goes completely non-written word. Before the only written language is txt.

Federal Writers Project! Make that FWP!

Hurry! Hurry!

Where do I apply?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Get Smart Shoe

As I inch towards geezerhood, I'm increasingly interested in the technology that's going to keep us doddering old Baby Boomers up and, if not exactly running, then at least walking.

One use of technology is the iShoe - it had to happen, didn't it? - which I read about in an AP article I saw on a while back.

The iShoe - which is actually an iInsole - was developed by Erez Lieberman, a graduate student at a joint Harvard-MIT health sciences and technology program.

It doesn't prevent falls, but gathers information, and provides an early warning system if someone's in danger of falling. Falls can be catastrophic for the elderly. Many result in hip fractures, and hip fractures have a surprisingly lousy mortality rate. (According to the article, 24 percent of those over - ahem - the age of 50 die within a year of fracturing their hip. Many others end up disabled. For joy!)

Having fallen myself last year and broken my shoulder, a fall is no bed of roses for the pre-elderly, either. I also know that, when my mother was still living, we worried constantly that she would take a bad fall, with our two main "worry zones" being the "scatter rugs" that she had on the slippery hardwood floor next to her bed, and the steep cellar stairs she went down to do the laundry. My mother did take one spill, but it wasn't a catastrophic one. Still, we worried, and did our best to spill-proof her environment. Boy, did she hold on to those scatter rugs!

The sensors in the iShoe insole monitor the wearer's balance, which tends to worsen as we age. There are exercises for improving one's balance , which - by the way - you're never too young to get working on.

The idea for the iShoe came from work done for NASA to help astronauts get back down to earth after living in zero gravity conditions. (Who says the space program is a waste of time and money?)

The iShoe, with a half dozen sensors, is not an instant alarm, though it will send out a signal if the wearer actually falls. It's more like a data recorder that the user can bring to a doctor or balance specialist for help if the dangerous pressure patterns are seen.

Once a balance problem's detected, the doctor can figure out the cause and the cure.

The iShoe is still in development, but it's general availability is not that far off.

But for those who don't want to wait around for the iShoe, or who don't want to have to worry about improving their balance, there's always the personal airbag (as written up by the BBC).

A Japanese company - Prop (great name, eh?) - has come up with a device that the elderly can just strap on and fall away. The device inflates when it detects the wearer falling, and has two separate air pockets to cushion the fall: one behind the head, the other around the hips. (Best not to fall flat on your face: no airbag.)

With its aging and aged population, Japan is big into assistive devices for the aging and aged.

The personal air bag isn't cheap - $1.4K - but what price safety?

And by the time I need one, the price will no doubt have come down. Or the iShoe will be so perfected that it will actually prevent a fall to begin with.

Not that I'm looking forward to being an old geezer or anything, but I'm sure happy that scientists are at work to help make sure that we can stay our independent, crotchety, geezery old selves.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Collateral Damage: Icon Recognition and the crimp in the Wall Street "deal toy" market

There are so many ripple effects to the Wall Street implosion. It's not just all those rescinded MBA offers. All those lay-offs. All those incredibly shrinking bonuses.

It's also the sandwich shops and after-work hangouts. The cigar bars and the car services. The custom tailors and the cufflink purveyors. The bicycle messengers who won't be pell-mell pedaling, and the restaurants that won't be hosting those lavish holiday parties.

And the company that sells the "deal toys"

Like everything else over the last decade of up-the-ante, up-the-spoils excess, the mementos of done deals have gotten more and more elaborate.

Back in pre-history, you may have gotten a framed copy of the "tombstone ad" that appeared in the WSJ to announce that Apogee Industrials had acquired Nadir General, and that the deal had been "done" by Goldman, or Merrill, or whoever brokered and icon medtronic banked it.

Then the framed tombstone turned into a lucite embed.

And if you can embed a piece of paper in lucite, well, there's a lot of other stuff you can get in there as well. Icon - mirage And it doesn't have to be suspended in mid-lucite, it can stand on its own. And the standalones can be pretty darned spectacular.

Icon Recognition, right down there on lower Broadway, did a pretty good business embedding stuff in lucite, and coming up with honeys like the gold-plated Mandalay Bay Hotel shown here (all pictures are from their site).   Icon was written up recently in The New Yorker "Talk of the Town" as yet another victim of the collateral damage that the current economic crisis is inflicting.

“This is definitely a tough time,” Stephen Sokoler, the president of the company, said. He’d been up early working the phones: “You call and ask, ‘Is there anyone who’s announced a deal recently or closed a deal? Anyone you’ve heard of?’ ” He added, “It feels like we’re a ship in the middle of a storm. Not only are you in the storm but there’s no visibility as to whether the storm’s gonna clear.”

I haven't as yet had to resort to these type of calls - 'Anyone you've heard of who needs some product marketing help?' -  to keep my own modest enterprise going, but I do feel bad for anyone who's scrounging for business - especially those whose business is more or less 100% reliant on discretionary spending decisions. (Although if there are any deals going down that aren't complete fire sales, I'm sure people will want to commemorate them.)

Sokoler is a young man - only twenty-nine - but he's nostalgic for the old days, when:

...he made a faux emerald-and-ruby crown to celebrate a deal for Merrill Lynch, and J. P. Morgan ordered up a batch of ten-by-fifteen-inch Lucite blocks with dinosaur heads inside (three hundred dollars each)—a “Jurassic Park” reference—to celebrate a deal involving Universal. “That was just a monstrous piece,” Sokoler said. icon - atlas

Icon has embedded all sorts of things in lucite: a fake banana split for a Friendly's buy out was one of my favorites.

The days of the free-wheeling embeds may be waning. The New Yorker article mentioned that at Goldman, a directive's gone out announcing that employees who want a deal toy have to buy it for themselves, which will likely put a crimp in Ion's business - maybe those retro framed tombstones will take on a new cachet.  Who wants to go out-of-pocket on a miniature banjo that you can actually strum? Or a bronze statue of Apollo shooting a bear - especially when it now seems as if the real story would be a bear mauling Apollo.

If people are going to still go for deal toys, it's interesting to think what they would use, iconically speaking, to illustrate the deals.

  • Pile-up car crash to commemorate the acquisition of one of the Big Three automakers? Or a little toy tow truck hauling away a wreck?
  • A smashed tea-cup for Royal Worcester China (ye olde UK company that announced its bankruptcy last week)?
  • Empty piggy bank on its side for WaMu?

The possibilities, as they say, are just endless, aren't they?

Meanwhile, I'm just as happy I don't have any deal toys made up of cool stuff embedded in lucite.

I know that the inner child in me would want to get the cool stuff out. Just as I tried (as an outer child) to free the tiny little brass elephant embedded in clear glass in a pooner marble I had when I was 9 or 10.

I remember sitting in the back yard, holding the marble on a flagstone surface with one hand, hammer in the other, trying to get rid of the glass imprisoning that cool little elephant, without destroying that cool little elephant.

Needless to say, all I did was wreck the marble, and end up with a not-so-cool little elephant covered with nasty pointy shards of glass.

Not to mention that it was probably my sister Kath's marble to begin with....

No deal tools for me!

Best wishes to Icon Recognition in their attempts to weather the storm that Stephen Sokoler so well described his little company as having found itself in.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day, 2008

When I was growing up, everyone's father was a vet.

This was the Baby Boom.

For us first wavers, everyone's father was in WW II.

For some of the younger Boomers, the war was Korea.

When we picnicked, or hung out in the backyard playing Monopoly or Clue, we did so on Navy or Army blankets. When we played war, we had real canteens. We wore white sailor caps - brim turned down, which was the cool way.

We got VFW and American Legion magazines. They were pretty boring, and had the least funny cartoons - cartoons that made Beetle Bailey look like a laugh riot - but they came every month, and, since I'd read anything, I read them. My father wasn't active beyond dues-paying in either organization. I doubt he even paid American Legion dues, since he considered them a bunch of right-wing nuts. But we still got the magazines.

And when my father died, we - his surviving children as long as you were in school and under the age of 22 - got money from the VA.

It wasn't much, and I only got to collect it for a year, but for my younger sibs and mother it came in handy.

It wasn't much, but it was pay back for the four years my father took out of his life, 1942-1946, to serve in the Navy.

He didn't do anything very exciting while in the service.

He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia; Trinidad; and downtown Chicago. (War is hell!)

Getting to and from Trinidad by ship was the most dangerous experience my father had. And while he was stationed there, they brought in a captured German U-Boat.

Why Trinidad, you might ask?

My understanding is that at one point, the main front was going to be through Africa and Italy, and Trinidad was a prime staging area for materiel. My father was a Chief Petty Officer, and he managed some sort of supply depot.

As my father always said, you went where the Navy sent you.

And after Trinidad, that was Chicago, where he was a paper-pusher. And where he met my mother.

From World War II until Vietnam, military service was pretty much an expectation for young men.

You went in. You went where they sent you. You (mostly) came home in one piece.

Vietnam put an end to that - and an end to a military comprised of people from all walks of life, all levels of society.

I still know plenty of veterans of my era. Yes, most of the people my age that I know escaped somehow - lucked out with their draft number; got the get-out-of-military free card from a willing doctor; worked (like my husband did) for government agencies that got you a deferment; went into the Guard/reserves when, unlike in today's Army, that was a way out of actually going to war, not a guaranteed way in. But I know a lot of men in my cohort with military experience.

But next generation down?

I don't have any friends or family with sons or daughters in the military.

Other than a few acquaintances with relatives who are "in", my only connection to the war is reading the sad stories in the newspaper when someone local is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I used to be more optimistic, but now I pretty much believe that, as long as there's mankind, there will be war. Whether they involve "us" or not, there'll be no escaping that, I'm afraid.

Somewhere along the line we fell into the notion of the professional military - things were too complex and sophisticated to leave to draftees who were only in for two years. And yet somewhere along the same line we fell into the deployment of the 'citizen soldiers', the members of the reserves/National Guard who thought they were signing up as back-up, and instead find themselves front and center (and front and center, and front and center).

Somewhere along the line we omitted the national conversation on what's worth dying and killing for. The national conversation on who's doing the dying and killing, while the rest of us get to do the living. It's easier to avoid that conversation if your skin (and that of your kids) isn't in the game. Which is a darned shame.

Veterans Day is as good a time as any to reflect on that.

Monday, November 10, 2008

There goes Speedy*: no more greyhound racing in Massachusetts

In last week's election, voters in Massachusetts got to vote on several initiatives. We (collectively) voted "No" on getting rid of state income taxes; "Yes" on decriminalizing marijuana; and "Yes" to end greyhound racing.

I was with the majority on two out of three.

I could have gone either way on greyhound racing, but at the last moment, doing away with dog racing entirely struck me as both overkill - wouldn't better safeguards on the treatment of the dogs have worked? - and class-inspired. The people who work at and frequent "the dogs" are blue collar folks, working stiffs - "them", not "us."  Not exactly the sport of kings.

Wouldn't it be better, I thought as I cast my vote, to just make sure that the dogs are better cared for, let the people keep their jobs, and let dog tracks wither away and die from lack of interest, which is what's happening anyway?

But getting rid of greyhound racing passed handily - the proponents of the ban were very well-heeled and spent a lot of money on advertising.

And in the aftermath of the vote, come 2010, those who worked at the dog tracks in Raynham-Taunton and Wonderland/Revere will be out of work. [Dog] shit out of luck, as it were.

One such worker was quoted in a Boston Globe article on the vote:

"I'm 52 years old with a high school education," said Mike Curran, a trainer at the track for 30 years whose eyes welled with tears as he spoke. "This is a dream job: playing with dogs all day. That vote is a life-changing event for us."

Hard to believe this is someone's dream job, but there you go. And there it went.

The tracks are going to see if they can get slot machines legalized, which is, of course, just what we don't need; and which, presumably, wouldn't necessarily translate into one-for-one jobs for dog trainers like Curran.

As noted, dog racing has been dying out on its own anyway.

Now, many afternoons at Wonderland, fewer than 50 people gather in the spacious, dreary building that smells of stale cigarettes. Most are retired men watching simulcast races on small television sets. One man was there yesterday just to watch the weather forecast.

It may be just as well that the good citizens of the Commonwealth are putting it out of its misery. ('They shoot horses, don't they?')

But there is the troubling matter of those who will be losing their jobs, especially those who've worked at the tracks for 30, 40 years (which, from the sounds of The Globe article, is just about everybody on the rolls). They're wondering where - at their age, with their education, with their résumé, in this economy - they're going to find work.

Wal-Mart greeter comes to mind, but that's about it.

And they're feeling more than a little devastated by what they perceive as their portrayal as animal abusers. As one trainer said, "you wake up and find out the state of Massachusetts don't want you. It's a little more than just getting fired."

I could have gone either way on this matter. And maybe it's all for the better, that we're truly putting a lot of nice doggies out of their misery. But we're sure putting a bunch of two-legged creatures into some misery of their own.



*For those who grew up in places where they never saw ads for dog tracks on TV, Speedy is the mechanical rabbit that the dogs chase.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Last Store Standing....

The market's down again. And again.

Just about every place you've heard of  - Fidelity, GM, Mattel - not to mention all those places you haven't heard of are having lay-offs.

The only fun economic news lately was yesterday's revelation that Sarah Palin didn't know which three countries are part of NAFTA. (This can't possibly be true, can it? But it was on Fox, so it must be true, eh? Plus, they report, we decide. I like being a decider, and I decide that this is true.)

We are in this weird place right now, aren't we?

During previous recessions, we weren't bombarded by 24/7, incessant pre- , intra- , and post- on what was happening on a moment by moment basis. You read about it in the business section of the paper, and heard five minutes per night about it on the news. "It" - the recession - happened; we endured it; we came out of it.

But now, with all the reporting, it's almost as if we're gearing up for bad economy as Godzilla, recession as tsunami. We're the panicked citizens, racing to get out of its path, or huddling in our houses hoping it passes by (or crushes us quickly). Shriek! It's coming! I hear it. RRRUUUNNNNN!

And while we're waiting for it, there's also some sort of odd sense of Phoney War, as we all wait for the other metaphorical shoe to drop. (At least during this Phoney War, the other shoe isn't on the goose-stepping foot of Nazi storm troopers.)

So we're in an eerie place now, aren't we? And, Obama election aside (at least for some of us), all the news is bad.

The latest bad news cluster is around retail sales, that economic bellwether in our shop-aholic, consumer-driven economy.

Retailer after retailer is reporting disappointing autumn sales, store closings, low Christmas expectations.

Bad news on every store front.

But what's this I hear, that ka-ching coming from Bentonville?


Wal-Mart, we are told in The New York Times, is "poised for a blockbuster Christmas."

“In my mind, there is no doubt that this is Wal-Mart time,” H. Lee Scott Jr., the company’s president and chief executive, said recently at a meeting of analysts and investors in Wal-Mart’s hometown, Bentonville, Ark. Referring to the discount chain’s founder, he added, “This is the kind of environment that Sam Walton built this company for.”

I'll admit, I'm a fourteen-carat gold snob. Maybe even a twenty-four-carat gold one.

Plus, I'm a carless urban dweller.

The amount of time and money I've spent in a Wal-Mart, if somehow combined, could dance on the head of a pin with the heavenly choir, leaving room for The Rockettes.

I have been in exactly one, where I bought some stuff to stuff in logo'd lunch boxes my company had for some trade show promotion we were doing.

That was it.

So my one and only Wal-Mart expense was expensed.

As a fourteen-carat (possibly twenty-four-carat), East-coast, elite, liberal, urban, godless snob, I quite naturally do not particularly like Wal-Mart. While I don't exactly sneer at them, I don't like much of what I've read about their labor practices, the pressure tactics they use with vendors (eventually low price usually does have to come at the expense of quality), or their greeters.

I also found the one and only Wal-Mart I've been too depressing, poorly lit, chilly, and not all that clean. It reminded me more of shopping in East Berlin (pre-reunification) than shopping in most places I frequent.

All this said, I recognize that they do offer many necessities at a low price, and that this can be a life saver for many people, especially those on a fixed income and/or with families.

But I sure don't want them to be the only shopping alternative left in this country.

If that's the case, what will us carless, urban folks do?

Will there be airlifts from Bentonville? Will the drop crates of Levis, Nerfballs, and Cup-a-Noodle Soup into our parks? Will we develop a new, urban cargo cult, worshipping the shipments from Arkansas that drift down from our dreary skies? Will I cat-fight other women for the parachute silk (or whatever it's made of) so that I can hand-craft my own underpants?

Forget what I said about being godless a moment ago.

Dear God, please, don't let Wal-Mart be the last store standing in the world. Really, please, pretty-please, reverent-please: I'll do anything you ask. Just don't let that happen.

(Can I get an 'Amen'?)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Bitter (Cold) Truth about Life Atop Mt. Washington

Although it hasn't been on my active fantasy list recently, for years I used to think about what it would be like - and how wonderful it would be - to be stranded up on Mt. Washington for the winter. (Mt. Washington is the highest point in New England, and experiences some of the worst weather in the world - certainly some of the highest winds recorded.)

In my little hideaway fantasy world, I had it all planned out just how many jars of Teddie Crunchy Peanut Butter, and how many boxes of cavatappi, and how much red sauce, I'd need to get me through the winter. I had my cozy little room all planned out in my head: the books, the music (I think this fantasy was most active in the LP era). I had my mental suitcase packed - and had even figured out that I'd have my appendix removed just in case.

I always sort of knew that there was a job attached to hanging around the Mt. Washington Observatory. But I always thought it would be more of less along the lines of peering out the window at a thermometer and a wind sock every few hours and recording the data. The rest of the time, I guessed that I'd be reading, thinking, writing, napping, and eating cavatappi with red sauce.

Guess again!

Last Sunday, The Boston Globe featured working at the Mt. W. Observatory as an odd job (a topic they write about with some frequency).

So now I know you can't just sit around and observe. You actually have to do hard work.

The article focused on Ryan Knapp, a young meteorologist, who went after the job, that "imprison[s] him in a thick fog for six months of the year", even though, at $30K, it pays about $20K less than he could make observing weather at an airport.

"Sadly, most weather jobs don't involve going outside, but sitting behind a computer all day," Knapp. "I wanted to go outside and experience the weather firsthand. When I heard about the record-breaking 231-mile-per-hour wind that shrieked across on the summit here in 1934, I said, 'sign me up.' "

Hmmmm. Most of my career has involved sitting behind a computer all day. Which may mean I'm better suited to airport observer work. And I hadn't known about the 'thick fog.' Sure, I knew the weather up there was frightful, but I thought that at least you could see stuff like other mountains and Canada. And I certainly hadn't considered actually having go outside in 231 m.p.h. wind. Of course, offsetting the fog and the wind is the salary. In my fantasy, I went up there for free, checking the thermometer in exchange for my cozy little room and my cozy little peace and quiet.

I did learn a bit more about the Observatory job that kind of put more crimp in my fantasy.

It's week-on/week-off shifts - not quite the 6 long hibernating months of reading and writing bliss I'd envisioned. And the digs are described as "a dorm-style bunk." I was thinking something more homey - a nice chintz arm chair, plenty of good lighting, a fireplace, maybe a Christmas tree in the corner, gloriously downy comforter on the bed.

Yes, you have to schlepp all your groceries up yourself.  But I had figured it was a one shot deal - horde for the entire six months, forgoing such niceties as fresh veggies, fruit, eggs, and milk. Kind of like being on a space station. Knapp has to schlepp up and down bi-weekly, "in the unheated cabin of a Bombardier snow tractor."

That's what he uses to get up the mountain.

And to get back down the mountain? "Sometimes I'll buy an $8 orange sled from Wal-Mart and slide all the way down the eight-mile auto road. It's kind of scary, since there's a few turns and pitches - you have to make sure to keep your feet out and your ice ax ready. The sled is trashed by the time you get to the bottom."

My guess is I'd be the one trashed by the time I got to the bottom, not just the sled.

And while he's on top he has to do things like collect the precipitation can, that's 300 feet away from the bunker - 300 feet you have to negotiate over bare-naked mountain summit, with winds of 150+ an hour.

300 feet? Can't they just move the precip can a bit closer? And have it be nice clear plastic so you can see what's in it through your window?

But here's what really nixed the job for me:

That same night [when he'd been tossed by high winds and lost the damned precip can], I also had to go to the top of the weather instrument tower and swing a crowbar to deice it. The building was shaking, and it's made out of concrete. I felt like my arm was moving in slow motion. It was frightening but fun at the same time.

Knapp also has to help out stranded hikers (most of whom aren't there in the dead of winter, although it can be dead winter like in the dead of summer). And with rescues. And with at least one recovery.

Then there's the initiation rite for new observers.

You have to walk around the observation deck  - only one/11th of a mile - but you have to do it when the wind is "gusting" at over 100 m.p.h. And, oh, you can't use your hands - just your own two feet. And no crawling.

The first time Knapp tried it,

I took two steps, hit the deck, slid across it, and couldn't get back to the door. I thought I was going to die. It felt like I was out there an hour, but it must have been only five minutes.

Fifteen attempts later, he made it.

No cavatappi and red sauce. No cozy book nook room. No nice cups of tea by the fire with your feet up. No blissful peace and quiet.

Just near-death experiences getting blown to shreds by insane winds, fetching the precip can, deicing the weather tower.

And just one more cherished little escape fantasy blown away, gone with the wind.

Oh, boo hoo.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

We're all tired

Some of us are elated; some of us are depressed (although, in truth, almost everyone I know is in the former category, not the latter).

We've all been up late - but not that late, thanks to this not being a squeaker.

Some of us have been weeping and celebrating; others have been weeping and moaning (although, in truth, almost everyone I know is in the former category, not the latter).

I started my pre-weeping early, when I teared up as I slipped my ballot into the scanner. I started my pre-celebration when Pennsylvania. I started my sigh-of-relief-celebrating when Ohio came in. We ordered our celebratory pizza when New Mexico was called.

We're all tired.

So who couldn't stand a laugh (even if it is a sardonic one.)

Thanks to my brother-in-law, Rick, for sending this along.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

My hopes for today

I hope that the better man wins.

I hope that my candidate is judged the better man.

I hope that, whoever wins, he wins with a plurality of the popular votes - not just with the majority of the Electoral College. (Faith in democracy took a big hit in 2000; we don't need that again.)

I hope that the margin of victory is substantial.

I hope that there are minimal voting machine glitches.

I hope that we know the outcome before I go to bed tonight. ( I really want to go to bed tonight.)

I hope that nobody has to wait six hours to vote, gets discouraged, and goes home.

I hope that the Supreme Court has nothing to do with this election.

I hope that no one, in conceding or giving their victory speech, uses the word "real America/real Americans." Real Americans are anyone who voted (even if they voted for that ardent narcissist, Ralph Nader).

I hope that Ralph Nader has no impact on the outcome of this election.

I hope the Michigan woman who, on Halloween, refused to give candy to "Obama supporters, liars, tricksters, or kids of supporters", enjoyed her 15 minutes of fame, and her left-over M&Ms.

I hope that Joe Wurtzelbacher doesn't let the door hit him on his plumber's smile on his way out.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Ten things to do when the lay-off's looming

I can't (virtually) pick up a (virtual) newspaper these days without seeing yet another headline about big lay-offs coming.

Whether it's 40 folks at some Web 2.0-ish place that everyone publicly thought was a winner (and now claim to have privately known was a loser), or thousands of folks at American Express, lots and lots of people will be losing their jobs over the next couple of quarters.

Lay-offs are never easy, never pretty, and never come soon enough after they make the public announcement that they're coming.

No, once the word is out - by that public announcement, or via the often stunningly accurate rumor mill - folks will start acting the way they always do when pink slips are in the offing.

Just in case you've never been trough it before, and you're wondering whether you and your work-buds are normal, here are at least a few of the thing that people do when lay-offs are looming:

  • Act like everything's hunky dory. God knows, I never fell into this camp, but when I worked at Wang - where we always had a couple of months warning about the next "big one" - you'd get on the elevator, and there'd always be a couple of folks in a serious conversation about whether the XYZ was shipping next week. Which would have been just hunky dory - life goes on while life goes on, and we were, after all, still being paid - but you always got the impression, from their ultra-earnest tone of voice and rigid posture, that these happy talkers were hoping some executive would laud them, take down their badge numbers, and remove them from the potential lay-off list for not being defeatists.
  • Try to get some work done.  Unlike hunky-dory-ism, where you're pretty much faking while quaking, you can actually just put the bad stuff out of your mind and try to get your job done. This can be harder than it sounds. I've been in places that so completely shut down before the shut down, that you had to concoct things to work on. Truly, whether you're on the target list or not, it does feel better to leave at the end of the day knowing you've done something. So give into that urge to write the datasheet, fill in the cells in the spreadsheet, and comb through every last piece of PowerPoint clip art on Microsoft Online. It'll keep you mind off of things, and it's less nerve wracking than hanging around trading rumors all day.
  • Hang around trading rumors all day. Let's face it, this is where most of the pre-lay-off action is: It's only people hired after 2006. It's only Level 27 and above. It's only Level 27 and below. It's only marketing and finance. It's only research and HR. It's everyone who got average on their last review. It's all the satellite offices. It's only at HQ. It's everyone that Dave hates. It's everyone that Dave likes. It's everyone who skipped the holiday party last year. It's no one who went to the strategy off-site.  In the absence of information, people will naturally make stuff up, and you'll probably be one of them. You'll speculate with your morning rumor buddies, then pass your collective speculation on to your lunch rumor buddies. By late afternoon, something that you completely made up in the morning will be coming back to you from your afternoon rumor buddies as the official word. In a weird way, all this rumor mongering can be entertaining - especially when you spot your rumors coming back to you as fact. But it's also completely enervating - surprisingly, much more fatiguing than actually doing some work.
  • Dredge up every cliché you can think of. Favorites include: "These a-holes couldn't find their way out of paper bag." (May be accompanied by an actual paper bag, posted in a public place, with something like 'Try finding your way out of this' scrawled on it, as happened once in a small, falling apart company I worked for.) "They're just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." "What goes around comes around." "We don't need no stinkin' [revenue, products, worker-bees]."  When these and other stock sentiments are uttered by anyone other than yourself, you nod, act as if you've never heard it before, and say "ain't it the truth."
  • Resort to morbid humor. See "Titanic" (above). And, in general, sprinkle words and phrases like death, dying, funeral, dirge, casket, coffin, death rattle, eulogy, obituary, six feet under, hearse, wearing black, mourning, crepe hanging, pall bearer, cemetery, ghost, and ghoul into every conversation. (E.g., if you spot the CEO pulling up in his chauffeured limo, say, "I see that Mr. Big has just arrived in the corporate hearse.")
  • Resort to anger. Complain loudly and furiously about how "they" (i.e., company management) have f'd everything up; how if they'd only asked you what to do, the company never would have gotten to the point where they had to lay off so many people (possibly - maybe even probably - including you).
  • Bug your manager. Your manager may or may not know anything. They may or may not tell you. But this won't stop you from bugging them, now, will it? Best if you've already developed a trusting enough relationship with your manager so that they'll tell you what they can (as long as you promise not to pass it on, a promise which you're honor bound to make and keep, by the way). If you don't have this sort of relationship with your manager, guess what? You're not going to develop one now, so save you're breath and stop bugging them.
  • Bug anyone you know in HR. Yes, they can be perfectly kind, warm, good-hearted, nicey-nice, or even really nice. But keep in mind that, despite the somewhat humane sound of "human resources", at the end of the day, they're there to represent the company's interests, not those of any one individual within in. (Nice if both can happen, but if push comes to shove...) And, even if they're your best-est friend, if they're in HR and they're any good, they're highly unlikely to blab very much to you. (If you do have a good and trusted relationship with someone in HR, however, you might get a teensy-weensy head's up or piece of mind tidbit. But, as with your manager, if you don't have that kind of trusted relationship with someone in HR, you're not likely to develop one now. So save your breath.)
  • Take a "mental health" day. This is actually a really foolish thing to do, since all you're going to do is sit around like a mope wondering what's going on at work. If you take this "mental health" day off to do look for another job, tsk tsk: you should really have taken it as a personal or vacation day. (No wonder you're on that lay-off list.) If you do insist on taking a "mental health" day, do something "mental healthy": long walk on the beach, Candy Land with your 4 year old, clean out a closet. Whatever you do, do not go shopping: you have enough stuff already, and you might be on unemployment benefits in another month. What are you thinking?
  • Do a little planning. I do not advocate using work time to troll job-sites, send out your résumé, or conduct informational interviews. In fact, I forbid it (except, maybe, during your lunch hour). But you might want make sure that you've backed up any personal information (files, contacts) onto your handy-dandy thumb drive; that you've gained a sense of who you might want to use as a reference; that you have contact info for those you might want in your network.

Getting laid off is not the end of the world, of course, but don't underestimate just how terrible it is. If it's not the end of the world, it's the end of a world, and it's probably a big and important part of your life. And, having been through sooooooo very many of them during my career, I have to say that the days leading up to the actual event are typically far worse than whatever the aftermath is.