Friday, February 27, 2009

When hockey moms go bad

As if the news out of Michigan weren't grim enough, last week I saw that a bookkeeper had embezzled nearly $1M from the Ann Arbor Amateur Hockey Association (Source: The Ann Arbor News.)

Kimberly Knight had volunteered to help balance the books for the AAAHA - and who doesn't love a good volunteer. Instead, she ended up unbalancing the organization's decades-long savings, money intended to build an ice rink.

My first thought was, what's a youth hockey organization doing with $1M. But hockey is a serious pursuit in Michigan, just as it is in these parts.

One million dollars. All those years of savings. And "Midwest nice" that wouldn't assume for a New York minute that that nice lady volunteering to do the books was cooking them.

Knight -  who in her mug shot closely resembles a more heavy-set version of Lorraine Bracco, the wonderful actress who played Tony Soprano's shrink, Dr. Melfi - used the money for reasons great and small. She helped out the family business by purchasing construction equipment, and she spent all kinds of money on nice little gifts for herself.

Among the items that Knight purchased: a 2005 Cadillac Escalade for her husband. (Happy birthday, honey!) And why is it that embezzlers never buy anything that's not showy? But I guess that she should get some props for buying something that's Michigan-made.)

She also treated herself to:

$3,890 for designer 14-karat white gold and diamond earrings; 21 Pandora beads and a diamond watch for nearly $2,500; $5,300 in watches and link-style bracelets; $2,853 on bracelets and 33 Pandora beads; and $5,300 on 96 Pandora beads, rings and a bracelet.

Not familiar with Pandora jewelry? Well, neither was I until I saw this story, but apparently collecting Pandora beads and designing your own bracelets and what-nots is yet again one of those quite popular trends that I miss out on entirely. Think Build-a-Bear for grown women. (The other one that I missed out on was Longaberger Baskets, which I'd never heard of until I worked for a company that had them as a client. Live and learn.)

Knight's attorney says that his client - whose own kids were involved in AAAHA at one point in time - "is remorseful."

Well, you can't eat thanks - and you can't eat remorse either.

And, I'll bet she'll be even more remorseful once she has her day in court.

While my first question was what was a kids' hockey group doing with so much money, my second one was: where was the group's Board?

I'm on two non-profit boards and, even for the piddly little $70K non-profit, we have to file forms and sign off on statements. Don't non-profits in Michigan have to submit some sort of returns? Didn't anyone, during the two years that Knight was on her Pandora spree, look at a bank statement?

I guess when it's an all-volunteer organization, it's easy to assume that everyone's on the up and up.

Especially when the group involves kids, and when the volunteer bookkeeper is someone who - for years, apparently - was associated with the group on an honest basis. Just a Midwest-nice hockey mom helping out.

I suppose when people have access to the till, it's easy to put their hand in. You tell yourself that, what with all the volunteer hours you put in, surely they can spot you a couple of Pandora beads. Especially when you think of how much they'd have to pay a real bookkeeper.

The outcome of Knight's trial will be interesting.

My guess is that, a couple of years ago, she would have gotten off with restitution and a long probation.

These days, people are a lot more pissed off.

That Escalade! Those Pandora beads! All those donations that will be so hard to replicate in a thinner economy - especially in Michigan.

My bet is that Kimberly Knight will be stamping out license plates, not stringing together another Pandora charm bracelet for herself.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gimme Shelter

I saw a mention in the Wall Street Journal the other day that LA developer Mohamed Hadid is letting go of his 48,000 square foot bungalow. If you need 10 BR/14 Baths, a ballroom that seats (and presumably dances) over 200 folks, and a 20-car motor court - plus you have $85M, you just might be able to get yourself pre-qualified to take a look.

Personally, I think that having only a 20-car motor court would be a bit problematic, given that you could be entertaining 200+ in that ballroom - but what do I know.

Mr. Hadid is downsizing. Sort of. He's now building himself a more modest little house, a 35,000 square foot chateau.

"Once you finish with your creations, you start to have other ideas," Mr. Hadid says.

Well, I feel the very same way about blogging! Small world!

Not that I'm in the market, but I did scoot on over to realtor Joyce Rey's site to get a closer look and a bit mBelvedereore info. Well, you can't see all that much until you pre-qualify, but you can see a couple of pictures of this single-family honey, and read up a tad - certainly enough to figure out whether you even want to pre-qualify.

It's on Nimes Road, "the most prestigious street in Bel Air," and "offers 280-degree majestic views of the city below and the surrounding mountains.:

As with the 200 seat ballroom/20-car court ratio, this 280 degree business puts me off a little. I mean, what are you missing in that other 80 degrees? More to the point, what's blocking your view? Public housing? The freeway? The Bel Air landfill? I would have been more comfortable if they'd just left it at "majestic views", and not added that bothersome 280-degree piece of news. But I guess you'd find out soon enough when you went to peek around the curtains in the master bedroom and the realtor slapped your arm.

The property is:

....embraced by a massive 1,000-foot long by 36 feet high hand-chiseled Jerusalem stone wall, is softened with lush foliage and specimen plantings, a swan pond and an infinity pool reaching toward the endless vistas.

Well, in another small world little coincidence, my property is embraced by a 12-foot (or so) long by 4 feet high wrought iron fence, so I really get what that embracing is all about. Embracing rocks!

Our property, too, is softened by a Chinese dogwood that, every other year, actually flowers. Our specimen plantings include tulips and crocuses. Once they die, our specimen plantings consist of impatiens in our plastic, terra-cotta look-alike planters. You might even say that the planters embrace the impatiens. I would, anyway.

We don't have a swan pond but are, in fact, just across the street from the swan pond, where from April to October, you can get pedaled around in a swan boat. As for live swans, the Friends of the Public Garden place two there each summer, but they have to fence them off because they're so damned cranky.

We don't have an infinity pool, but if you fill the sink in the downstairs bathroom to the top, and crouch down and look at it from nose level, it more or less resembles an infinity pool. More or less.

As for endless vistas, I live in a city. We don't have particularly endless vistas. At least that I know of. So I might like that aspect of the new digs on Nimes Road.

Le Belvedere is a place of magic, a fully-realized dream estate. It is welcoming, warm, comfortable, extravagant, unique and richly imagined for sophisticated owners of international vision and incomparable taste.

I get incomparable taste - and surely the pictures and descriptions give great evidence that the taste that went into Le Belvedere is, indeed, incomparable. But what, pray tell, is "international vision"? Is it what you get when you gaze upon "endless vistas"?

At $85M, the place is nice enough.

But I really wanted to know more about Bridesheadthe prize property that Joyce Rey is representing.

This Brideshead Revisited house - no details available - is listed for $125M.

Gimme shelter, alright.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Must Girl Scouts be prepared for a slow cookie year?

Of all the depressing trickle-down and ripple-effect stories about the economy, the big bite that the recession is taking out of Girl Scout cookie sales has to be one of the biggest downers. The USA Today article I saw reported sales in some regions are down by as much as 19% off last year's pace, but closer to home, the Portsmouth NH Girl Scouts are saying that they're down 50%.

Yes, at $3.50 a box, G.S. cookies are expensive.

And, yes, this year's boxes have shrunken a bit in size.

But honestly, letting a G.S. thin mint melt in your mouth and follow it down with a milk chaser is a transcendent and unparalleled experience. (And, by the way, the Girl Scout peanut butter cookies do not contain salmonella.)

I have done my part, and have ordered a number of boxes from the daughter of a friend of my sister.

I will no doubt go into panic mode and buy a few supplemental boxes from the girls who'll be selling them on street corners over the next couple of months.

Having been a member of the world's most dysfunctional, do-nothing Girl Scout troop, I never had the experience of selling cookies. Our troop meant once week in what was called the "portable school," a two classroom wooden building that had ben part of the original Our Lady of the Angels Grammar School. It stood plunk in the middle of the parking lot, where it took up valuable parking space in the good old days when Catholic church parking lots were packed. So, they moved the portable school to the side of the lot, where - once our permanent, unmovable new school was built - it was used for Girl Scout, Boy Scout, Junior Catholic Daughters, Catholic Youth Council, St. Vincent dePaul, and other church group meetings.

A troop meeting meant sitting around the portable school doing homework and gabbing. For excitement, we'd run into the boys' room, look at the urinals (eke!), and run out.

Sometimes we did crafts, or sang a Girl Scout song.

But we never went camping, helped old ladies across the street, or earned any merit badges.

Both of our troop leaders were dying of lung cancer, so some high school girls helped out by sitting around doing their homework and gabbing, while us Girl Scouts sat around doing homework and gabbing. (I do not recall the high school girls ever running into the boys' room to look at the urinals and shout 'eke!')

At the end of the year, we voted to get our dues money back and close down the troop.

Before they'd let us out, we all had to spend 15 cents of that dues money on a blue and gold "world pin." I think we all got a buck and change back.

Despite my experience, I am benevolently disposed towards the Girl Scouts, who seem quite admirably to keep on trying to foster values that aren't centered on Bratz Dolls sexualization, texting, and crap consumption.

We should be supporting our local Girl Scouts - you can find the council nearest to you by clicking on this link.

I'm warning you: it may seem prudent to forego the luxury of a Girl Scout cookie purchase at this point, but come next September, when you open your freezer, hoping against hope that a box of thin mints will materialize in there, you will absolutely regret not having shelled out the darned $3.50 for a box of them.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The check's in the mail: Microsoft's severance clawback

Well, these things happen.

Microsoft overpaid some of its recent 1,400 layoff-ees, sending them a bit more than they had intended in their severance check. They apparently also underpaid some folks. But these things really don't have a way of balancing themselves out in the aggregate. Those who got short-changed want more. And those who got long-changed are being asked to send back a check for the overpayment.

Well, these things happen.

And when they do happen in this day and age, the information's all over the 'net before the rage has set in.

Within a Redford-minute of the first clawback letter being received, a copy of the dunning notice appeared in a post on Techcrunch.  (The particulars  - name and amount - are blacked out.)

As if Microsoft didn't have a lousy enough reputation - lousier than they probably deserve - for lousy quality, we now learn that they can't even get their payroll right.

Microsoft, of course, "apologizes" - make that sincerely apologizes - for the inconvenience their "inadvertent administrative error" has caused. But makes it clear that they want their money back in 14 days.

And please send that check to our payroll department, which is located in Fargo, North Dakota.


That suggests that payroll was using Great Plains accounting software, which MSFT acquired a number of years ago. Their very own product...

And Fargo,of all places.

I'm sure the marketing slicks and techies in Redmond who got the dings are doing their best Frances McDormand and William Macy imitations. You betcha!

It will no doubt pop out at some point, but it's not clear how great the overpayments were.

It does sound like the severance payments were relatively generous to begin with. The Seattle-PI had it as 60 days pay - 12 weeks - plus severance, which varied by tenure.  Of course, 12 weeks plus severance in this job market may not take you into your next "opportunity." Still and all, it's not a bad starting point.

Microsoft really doesn't have much choice in asking for the money back, I suppose. If they didn't, the folks who didn't get the extra scoop would be howling for equal pay for equal non-work. And it is Microsoft's money (even if it is equally Microsoft's error).

And folks should pay it back, if only to protect themselves if they have even a glimmer of hope (or a glimmer of desire) to get called back at some point - perhaps to help with unbugging the payroll system screw ups.

But post-layoff feelings are always raw, and there's no way that Microsoft doesn't end up looking clumsy and dumb on this one. And, of course, they also look like a bunch of miserable cheapskates. Even if they overpaid half those laid off, to the tune of $5K each, that's a mere $3.5M. Given Microsoft's bottom line, this is nothing.

If I were Microsoft HR, I would have explained how the error occurred;  pointed out that it wouldn't be fair to anyone if they got to keep the money; and acknowledged what is probably going to prove to be pretty obvious: i.e., that they don't really need the money. Then I would have said that the money was going to be put in a fund to do something or other for all of those laid off: extend everyone by a week's pay; hire a resume service that everyone can use for free; add on to whatever outplacement services they're offering; give everyone x-dollars worth of coupons for Microsoft products.

There really is no way that Microsoft needs the money that they overpaid. And there really is no way they can fully extricate themselves from this without looking a little bit inept.

Thus, my suggestion that they use the givebacks for the common good of those laid off.

But there's also no way Microsoft shouldn't be able to get the money back - in the same way that the bank can come after you if they inadvertently plunk an extra 100 grand in your checking account and you go ahead and spend it.

Still, if they didn't want to look massively tone-deaf, Microsoft maybe should have thought through how they could have better handled this mini-incident, before they sent out those gimme-back notes. (And now I'll have to go back over to Techcrunch and look the note they have posted and see if Microsoft was at least generous enough to include a self-address-stamped envelope. You betcha!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Bernie, Bernie, Bernie. Zsa Zsa, Zsa Zsa, Zsa Zsa.

On Friday evening, I watched a segment about Bernie Madoff on ABC's 20/20.

I must admit that, while I have not been following every jot and tiddle of L'Affaire Bernie, I have been generally fascinated by it. Last week's revelation that he tried to spare his poor wife the ignominy of having to do without, by having her withdraw $15 M in survival money in the weeks leading up to his confession, had me sitting here obsessing on what would be the appropriate course to take with this family, whether or not Bernie ends up in the slammer or not. Ah, but that's the topic for another day. (Hint: if her sons aren't in prison with Bernie, and can't take care of her, and if she knew nothing, Mrs. M gets a modest annuity that enables her to live out her years in Co-Op City, shop sales at Macy's, and rent movies from NetFlix.)

But I digress.

The interesting kernels in the 20/20 story were:

  • Video of Bernie sitting in his comfy-cozy den, in his comfy-not-so-cozy luxe apartment, working at this computer. My question: if you had embezzled $50B out of people, wouldn't you pull your shades down so that 20/20 couldn't film you (and so that someone with far worse intent couldn't do something far worse)? What, Bernie, are you nuts?  And what, Bernie, were you doing? Trying to move loot out of Swiss bank accounts before the Feds have a chance to get UBS to name names? Inquiring minds, etc., etc.
  • A few weeks before Confession Day, Bernie purchased a pair of $2,000 pants, and a $1,200 shirt at a Palm Beach store called Trillion. The salesclerk who sold Bernie his Last Shirt was almost misty-eyed, relating how it was navy blue - Bernie's color. Perhaps the pants - more respectfully called trousers, I suppose - were from Kiton, which, until just last week I'd never even heard of: now it's everywhere. Where these the hangaround trousers Bernie was spotted in, while he was working away at his computer, getting up on occasion to fluff his pillows? Trillion, no doubt, will be lucky to survive the economic downturn, given their Palm Beach location and the damage that Hurricane Bernie has wrought there. But I will say this for them: the models on their web-site aren't skinny young things. They appear to be fit and attractive people in their sixties. (Next time we're in Palm, and we have a hankerin' for $2K pants, errrrr, trousers, we'll know where to shop.)
  • Among Bernie's victims are the now 92 year old Zsa Zsa Gabor. Well before Paris Hilton was on the scene, Zsa Zsa was famous for being famous. A bleached out, over made up glamour-puss in fur coat, beaucoup d'bling , and cigarette holder, Zsa Zsa would appear on TV shows like Mike Douglas, calling everyone Dah-link and talking about her husbands. One of those husbands was none other than Paris Hilton's grandfather, Conrad Hilton. Her ninth, and possibly final, husband, is Prince Frederic Von Anholt. Prince Frederic, who is almost 30 years Zsa Zsa's junior, is a "prince" like I am the Queen of Romania. His title derives from his adoption - at age 35 - by an aging German Princess. Since acquiring his title, Prince Frederic, a former masseuse, is said to have adopted a number of young men, passing on the title, for the low-low price of $2M. In any case, who better than Prince Frederic to have been gulled by Bernie Madoff into investing Zsa Zsa's fortune in his now rancid funds? If we've said it once, we've said it a trillion times: you just can't make this stuff up. (Source for all this Prince Fred info? Where else? Wikipedia.)

Having grown weary of bad news on the economy, and lousy winter weather, I was briefly cheered by 20/20's delicious little report on Bernie, if only becuase it is impossible to be of a certain age and hear the name "Zsa Zsa Gabor" and not, if you can suppress the urge to burst into outright prolonged laughter, at least smile.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Swiss cheese banking: there's holes in them thar vaults

Keeping up with all the twists and turns of the economy these days is tough. It's like trying to keep track of a what's going on in every ring of a 13-ring circus. My head's twisted around so badly that I feel like the kid in The Exorcist (minus the pea soup).

It's so hard, not to mention exhausting, trying to figure out where to look next.

Just when we thought we'd seen enough of Bernie Madoff, we get not only the alleged treachery of Mrs. Bernie Madoff, but the mini-me CD Ponzi scheme of Allen Stanford - all jumping through flaming hoops for us.

Lay-offs are being shot from cannons. And then there are the tightrope-walking states that are about to stop issuing tax refunds and/or pay their employees.

Part of The Donald's empire, I've heard, is going bankrupt.

And now, may I direct your attention to the UBS fiasco, which may well result in names being named on some of our mega-rich fellow citizens who've been socking things away in secret Swiss bank accounts. (Source of information: NY Times.)

UBS has owned up to conspiracy to cheat the IRS, and is on the hook for paying back $780 million in a settlement.  The settlement would likely have been higher if it weren't for the crummy economic conditions. (Amazing: doesn't that figure look like chump change at this point?)

UBS has also agreed to give up some names - not clear how many, but, man, is the "who" going to be interesting when this starts making it's way into the insatiable maw of public discourse.

Federal prosecutors have been examining about 19,000 accounts at the bank, but UBS ultimately may disclose the identities of only a few hundred customers.

UBS, of course, is not acting out of the goodness of their hearts. Apparently, some of their execs are under threat of indictment if they don't hand over a list.

Maybe we'll find out that Zurich is where Bernie's $50B went. And that Mr. Stanford's $8B is in Basel.

I can hardly wait, and will be completely disappointed if there aren't some juicy big names on that list. Of course, we've have to put up with a lot of "poor-me, I was just acting on the advice of my trusted Swiss banker" moaning. But there's no denying that there'll be some satisfaction in seeing a pack of frauds exposed.

By the way, UBS will no longer be offering offshore accounts to Americans, who supposedly managed to hide $20B (and evade $300M/year in taxes) between 2002 and 2007. All part of a scheme under which:

UBS urged some American clients to destroy records and to stash watches, jewelry and artwork that they had bought with money hidden offshore in safe deposit boxes in Switzerland. The bank also encouraged them to use Swiss credit cards so the I.R.S. could not track purchases.

Hmmmm. Destroying records may make it difficult to make the "poor-me" defense. (Maybe Bernie will claim that UBS was after him to try to mail off his $1M worth of bibelots last December.)And so much for the sterling rectitude of Swiss bankers, eh?

“The Swiss are saying that this is the end of Swiss banking as they knew it,” said Jack Blum, an offshore tax specialist. “Nobody will trust the security of the Swiss bank account.”

Which raises the question: is there any reason to have a Swiss bank account that's on the up and up?

I guess if you had a place in Gstaad you'd want to keep a bit of lift ticket money over there.

As for the tax evaders: no one likes to pay taxes. But, even in the highest tax brackets, it's really hard to argue that American taxes are all that confiscatory. Of course, the folks on The List likely have a different idea of what's confiscatory than I do. (Maybe confiscatory is when it's you, and non-confiscatory if it's someone else.)

Ah, there's been so little news to look forward to.

No we have The List.

Bring it on!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Layoffs hit the not-so-Magic Kingdom

As if things aren't bad enough, Disney announced yesterday that they will be making layoffs as part of an ongoing restructuring of their domestic theme-park business. No word on how many fewer Disney-ites will be whistling while they work, but this is an add-on to the voluntary executive buy outs that the company had previously offered. And no word on how many of the 600 execs who got that offer of a kinder, gentler heave-ho have said hi-ho to Disney, nor whether execs will be impacted by not-so-voluntary separation. (Source: Wall Street Journal - access may require a subscription.)

Two weeks ago, Disney had announced poor fiscal 1Q09 earnings for the quarter ending December 27, 2008:

“We faced a challenging first quarter with many of our businesses impacted to various degrees by the economic downturn,” said Robert A. Iger, Disney’s president and CEO. “We are forcefully confronting current circumstance while
investing in the great creativity, brands and assets that are Disney’s strengths and keys to its long-term success.”

This might as well be a cut and paste to everyone's earnings reports these days. (Company name goes here.)

Just one more depressing marker in a long string of layoff announcements, great and small, that I've lost track of. (The other day it was NASCAR that's retrenching. What next?)

I'm not the biggest Disney fan on the face of the earth, but I'm not a Disney-despiser, either.

I completely adored everything to do with Walt Disney as a kid, and can still sing all of the "theme of the day songs" from the Mickey Mouse Club. ("Today is Tuesday, you know what that means? We're going to have a special guest.") I had one of my first crushes on Tim Considine, the cutie-pie who played Spin on The Adventures of Spin and Marty. And, knowing that I would probably never go there, I watched in utter rapture when Disneyland Anaheim was opened.

Half of the movies I saw as a kid were Disney, and it was a big event to get on the bus and go "downcity" (which is what people in Worcester called downtown) with my friends to see The Parent Trap and Darby O'Gill and the Little People. (And, oh, yeah, I still remember the music to both of those movies. "Let's get together, yeah, yeah, yeah.") Sean Connery, before we even knew James Bond existed, starred in Darby O'Gill, I believe.

My parents weren't big on brand-name paraphernalia - to put it mildly - but we did have a few Disney goods in our house, including a plastic Mickey Mouse wallet that my sister Kath and I may have shared. (Can this be right? How can you share a wallet? Maybe it was hers and she gave it to me. No way it was mine and I gave it to her.) My brother Rich had a stuffed Mickey Mouse (with a plastic face) which he carried around by holding on to its nose with his mouth. All of the black paint peeled off, and the effect was pretty hideous. Picture Mickey with a fleshy-pink nose. Trish was of the Mary Poppins era. (Don't get me started: just thinking about how often we had to listen to that MP album makes me want to kick her Mary Poppins kickball. Good thing Trish was cute.)

Our champeen Disney product accumulator had to be my brother Tom - he of the Davey Crockett era: racoon cap, fringed jacket, cowboy boots, rifle. Not to mention the record which, fortunately, was an incessantly played single, not an incessantly played LP.

But there, of course, has to be an end to the amount of Disney merchandise that even the most modern, consumption-crazed family can accumulate. And only so many trips to the Magic Kingdom that a family facing job uncertainty (uncertainty, that is, unless they've already been laid off) can make - even if you do get to go free on your birthday. Not to mention the fact that, last time I counted, every woman of a certain age who was willing to sppear in public wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt already has one.

I didn't get to see Disneyland until I was in my twenties.  This was in the seventies, when Walt had a fatwa on hippies. Could it be that they refused to let in men with long hair? That can't be possible. But I seem to remember that women couldn't wear halter tops. And I remember being alarmed and a bit creeped out by how clean cut, plastic, and smiley the average worker was in the park.

Still, I enjoyed every last moment of my Dumbo and Teacup rides - even if it was coming about 15 years too late.

Given the world we live in, it's no surprise that Disney is having layoffs.

But, call my goofy, it still makes me a bit sad.

Where is Jiminy Cricket when we need him?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Higher than a Kiton

Forgive me for never having heard of Kiton until seeing an article on them in the NY Times last week. Anyone who's checked out my husband's closet knows that there is nothing resembling a $7,000 suit in there. No, he's more the L.L. Bean and corporate logowear type. His wardrobe, in fact, can be said to have taken a downturn when I stopped working full-time and lost access to regular give-outs of corporate polo and tee-shirts. (Thank God for the Northern Arizona polo shirt Professor Tom sent along in his Christmas box.)

Saks Fifth Avenue, however, has heard of Kiton. In fact, they've been after them for years to let them open a Kiton boutique in New York City.

The dream is now coming true - and talk about poor timing.

With Wall Street jobs crashing all over the place, TARP putting a crimp in bonuses, and Bernie Madoff getting measured for an orange jump suit, it's hard to believe that there'll be a lot of folks lining up to buy a $7,000 suit. And that's a$ 7,000 off-the-rack suit.  (Made to order will set you back $21K.)

It's all in the detail, apparently.

The cuff buttons on Kiton suits can actually be opened - for those times when the man of Kiton needs to really role up his sleeves and push derivatives - which is hard going, these days. Of course, it is considered a bit déclassé and show-off-y to open up the buttons. It's enough for a real Kiton man to just know that they're there.

If the $7K suit is too rich for your blood, sunglasses are $1,395, a pair of pants will run you $1,195, and some rough and ready jeans will set  you back $795.

The clothing is supposed to be fabulous (of course) - and fit like a "second skin." And the suit jackets don't wrinkle in the overhead cabinet.

Of course, I would think that someone wearing a $7K suit is probably in first class, with the stew hanging up his jacket for him, or perhaps in a private jet. But maybe the trade-off is $7K suit or flying coach. (Nah.)

And, by the way, you don't have to pay $7K to have a suit jacket that doesn't wrinkle when crushed. When I was in my prime, business-drag suit wearing days, I used to buy what I thought of as fairly expensive suits. I can't remember the maker - Frederick's of Hollywood is running through my brain, but it was Someone of Boston. The suits cost $400-500 - and this was 20 years ago. They did wear like iron and, in retrospect, they looked like chain mail. This was, of course, in the era when women wore what I called "penis envy" suits, and those snappy floppy bow ties.

Those were the days.

But I digress.

Kiton suits are made by hand in Italy, and it takes 25 hours to make a suit jacket alone. Consider that it probably takes another 25 hours for the trousers, and the fact that the fabric is likely a notch or two above what you'd find at Jos. Bank and, well, it all adds up.

Given the retail doldrums in general, and the hits taken by the Wall Street big spenders in particular, Saks has to be mega-bummed at the timing of their Kiton experiment.

While no doubt privately tearing out their hair, they are putting a game face on publicly.

“These are decisions that are made with significant advance planning,” said Ronald L. Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer for Saks. He emphasized that he would not undo the decision even if he could.

“A store like Saks needs to have the best product available,” Mr. Frasch said. “And I do think the man who wants to present himself in a certain way, he’s still out there.”

I suspect that the Kiton sales guys have some lonely days ahead of them. And with the global economy in generally wretched shape, they can't count on tourists to pick up the slacks. Maybe they'll catch on with the drug trade or other organized crime. Or ball players. A lot of them still seem to be managing to pull down 8-figures a year. And a lot of those guys are in New York. Mark Teixiera's new to town, having signed a big whopping contract with the Yankees. And A-Rod's got plenty of walking around money, and will want to look his best in case there's any kind of Congressional testimony or court appearance associated with the recent revelation that he use steroids.

Saks maintains that "the customer [who] is searching for value" will find it in Kiton.

I decided to head on over to the Kiton website to see for myself. All very luxe, all very nice, all very beautiful. My favorite section is the Duke of Windsor Private Collection. (You may have to search around for this - I'm not sure if this link will take you there.) I can't tell if they just happened to own some of Edward's elegant duds and keep it on exhibit, a little fashionista Smithsonian exhibit. Or whether you can actually buy Duke of Windsor knock offs.04_g_duca

But Saks will probably sell a whole bunch of Kiton $7,000 suits before they sell one of these babies. The best of everything for the young, ambitious hedge fund manager who cares not a whit what man or market thinks of him....

With or without cuff buttons that open, they just don't make men's clothing like they used to, do they?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Dubai, Dubai, doo (or, why the American Century is not over just quite yet)

There was an interesting article in the NY Times the other day on folks who had moved to Dubai in search of, if not exactly greener pastures, then a sandbox in which they could make some money.

Now, like every place else in the world that had employment to begin with, Dubai is laying people off, and the economy is more or less drying up.

But getting out of town is not as easy as it might seem.

One Frenchwoman interviewed was in panic mode.

When she arrived in Dubai to take a job in advertising, she bought a condo, which seemed like a good idea at the time.

Now she's gotten a pink slip.

Without a job, she'll have to leave Dubai within a month, leaving behind her property. But she's of the understanding that, if she can't pay off her mortgage before she leaves, she could end up in debtors' prison. While there's something to be said for people not being able to walk away from their bad economic decisions scot-free, debtors' prison sounds a little harsh - even if it does have AC.

The foreigners who flocked to Dubai during the go0go years, when out-of-towners accounted for 90% of the population, are now leaving in droves. Many of those fleeing are "debt-ridden", and its rumored that the parking lot at Dubai airport is full of abandoned cars, some "maxed-out credit cards inside and notes of apology taped to the windshield." I certainly hoped they parked in long term parking. On the other hand, if they're not coming back, what's the difference if they rack up a big parking bill.

Dubai has entered a spiral, and, if it's not exactly a death spiral, their boom is bust.

At the macro level, Dubai's big run up was fueled largely by financial services, real estate development, and tourism - they are an Arab Emirate without bubbling crude under their sandbox.

As in Florida, when the twin angels of boom - real estate and tourism (which propels real estate development, of course) - start to turn into angels of doom, there goes finance, and just about everything else.

On one hand, it's kind of sad to see the one freewheeling hot spot in the Arab world hit the skids.

On the other hand, when you build your house upon the sand...

What I found really interesting in the article is the fact that the government keeps a lid on economic data and "real" information. In their absence, the rumor mill works overtime, "damaging confidence and further undermining the economy."

Nothing particularly Dubai-an about rumors "damaging confidence and further undermining the economy." It's entirely possible that the 24/7, beat-it-to death coverage of the recession, not to mention the scores of feckless bloggers stirring the pot, is doing the same thing here. (Mea culpa.)

But a mature economy, one in which people come up with new ideas and invent new businesses -  does provide information, more of less transparently. And the society and economy operate more or less in the open.

Instead of moving toward greater transparency, the emirates seem to be moving in the other direction. A new draft media law would make it a crime to damage the country’s reputation or economy, punishable by fines of up to 1 million dirhams (about $272,000). Some say it is already having a chilling effect on reporting about the crisis.

Here's how the Times article ended:

A New York Times employee in Dubai contributed reporting.

Note that this employee goes unnamed.

Yes, our economy is in at least a temporary hopper. Maybe not the worst we've ever been through, but pretty bad. After our years long credit binge, we've got a wicked hangover. And as tempting as the hair of the dog might be, what we're really going to have to do is sober up fast.

But we remain an open society, where anyone and everyone can bash our country's reputation and economy, without getting fined a quarter of a million bucks.

We have laws, and courts, and financial institutions that, if in the case of financial institutions are admittedly on wobbly legs just now, can and will continue to work.

We have, if not 100% transparency, plenty of data around to snack on.

We still have a stable society, orderly transition of government, and blessedly few national politicians trying to foment an us vs. them, we're the real America mentality. (Remember: Rush Limbaugh may be national, and he may affect politicians, but he is not an elected official and I don't think he could get elected to any office north of dog-catcher.)

It ain't perfect, that's for sure, but when you look around at what's out there....

Sure, I'm one of those Eastern, snotty, liberal elites who every once in a while decides that I could just as easily go live in Canada, or Europe, or one of the other places in the world where the population actually believes in evolution.

Still, we got it goin' here in a lot of ways.

I don't think the American Century is over just quite yet.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Time pins the blame

We all like our lists. Ten best. All time great. One hundred to watch. However unscientific, if not out right arbitrary, we like these round ups, don't we?

So if you're wondering who to blame for the economic crisis, Time has done us the great and noble service of coming up with a list of the 25 folks most responsible for the state we're in.

It's an interesting list, no doubt, a combo of the usual suspects and some people I've never heard of, and covers both Wall Street, Main Street, and Pennsylvania Avenue.

On the political side, there's a nice show of bi-partisanship.

Bill Clinton's there because he unlatched the regulatory door, and GW because he ripped the door off its hinges and threw it in the junk pile. Phil Gramm -most recently in the news for calling the American public a bunch of whiners - is in there breaking the politico tie for us. R-2, D-1.

And speaking of the American public, the American consumer is on the blame list, as it should be. However, this blanket blame should be qualified. Frankly, I'm no shirker - way to much Catholic history to not be able to feel guilty about just about anything - but I don't see why I personally should have to shoulder any of this blame. I'm one of those puritanical, self-righteous, goody-two-credit cards with no debt.  (If it's not too late to join the not exactly exclusive club of those with a debt to income ratio is 1.3 to 1, maybe I can take out a mortgage on my condo and go out and buy some Jimmy Choos. Wheeeeee!!!!!)

On the whole, though, I think is important to keep reminder the American consumer that, when it comes to this crisis, we have met the enemy and they are us.

Main Street is also represented by a couple of bankers - Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide, whose bad banking had - what can we say? - a countrywide impact on the economy.  And Herb and Marion Sandler of World Savings, who came up with the notion of the adjustable rate mortgage, and aggressively pushed all sorts of home buyers (c.f., American consumers) into mortgages they didn't quite fathom and couldn't quite afford. Balloon payment, say what? Fortunately for the Sandlers, and unfortunately for us, they managed to unload their bank onto Wachovia for over $2B. They're mortgage portfolio became Wachovia's problem, which in turn helped begat the meltdown. So, a nice Pink Slip shoutout to Herb and Marion: enjoy your retirement.

Of course I knew he was going to be there, I was nonetheless relieved to see Alan Greenspan on the list. Anyone who worships at the altar of Ayn Rand.....(A few weeks ago, my husband had the movie Fountainhead on, and I watched a few minutes. The movie is based on Rand's novel about the architect who can't be bought. Between the wooden acting, the wooden plot, and the wooden dialogue, I will say that the few minutes I watched gave me my laugh o' the day.)

Bernie Madoff's on the list. Just because, I guess. It will be interesting to see how his wife, recently revealed to have cashed out $15M worth of money to stuff in her mattress just before Bernie turned himself in, starts ending up along Bernie in the rogues' gallery.

It's not just Bernie representing. Wall Street's all over the list -  Hank Paulson, Dick Fuld, Chris Cox, Stanley O'Neal, Jimmy Cayce...Not much sympathy for any of these guys. I'm quite sure they have enough bespoke suits and white-collared bespoke shirts to last them the rest of their lives, and beyond.

I do think it's a stretch to put Lew Ranieri, who, as a Salomon Brothers trader thirty-plus years ago, developed the first mortgage backed securities.

One of the  few women on the list, Kathleen Corbet, presided over the bond-rating business at S&P. Talk about grade inflation. All this paper's good as gold! Fool's gold, as it turned out.

A couple of figures in realty made the list - the head of the National Association of Realtors, and the president of Beazer Homes. I suspect the real estate industry could have a 25 to Blame list all of their own. (As could, of course, Washington DC, Wall Street, banking, etc. But you have to start somewhere.)

To me, the most curious name on the list was that of Burton Jablin. I had never heard of him, but as the program director for HGTV, he came up with shows like:

...Designed to Sell, House Hunters and My House Is Worth What? developed loyal audiences, giving the housing game glamour and gusto.

Come on now.

All that putting Burton Jablin on the list does is allow the American Consumers who got swept up in the leverage-buy-sell-flip game a Twinkie defense. (A TV show made me do it.)

Take Jablin off this list.

Who'd I add for Number 25?

I'd like to blame Dick Cheney, but I'm having a really hard time pinning this on him. He's there by W's proxy, any way.

How about baseball players' super agent Scott Boras?

Yes. I'm liking it.

Boras is the man: it's all his fault.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Things to do during The Recession - or not

With an average of 20,000 pink slips issued  every day during January, and 7.6 percent unemployment - and we know in our heart of hearts that this number understates things big time - there are going to be a lot more people with time on their hands for a while.

Having on a couple of occasions been unemployed-and-looking, I know that it is psychologically, emotionally, logically, and almost physically impossible to look for a job full time. (Although in the age of the Internet it is certainly possible to pretend that you're looking for a job full time.)

So, what to do with those spare hours when you're no longer working and commuting, but just can't muster up the whatever for your job search?

Other than the general and obvious things: play with your kids, hang with your equally unemployed friends, go to the library, pick up some skills for yourself, and stare at the television, I can offer a few things that I've done to ward off, or more or less cope with, recession worries - even though (knock on wood) I am still gainfully self-employed doing product marketing consulting.

  • Calculate when you'll be able to retire.  At first, I thought it would be far too depressing to look at my 401 K. But having taken that first painful and shocking glance, I thought I'd do some re-calibrating of my retirement age. Contrary to what you might think, it is actually quite liberating to find out that, if you save 80% of your projected pre-tax income, you'll be able to retire at the age of 83, if you're willing to pick up a few supplemental hours as a Walmart greeter. No more worrying about when you'll be able to retire. Give in to the fact that you won't.
  • Pretend you're going to move and clean out your house.  I'm mortgage-less and, much as I'd like another 200 square feet of lebensraum and more closet space, we're not going anywhere. Still, if you go through your drawers and cabinets, your storage nooks (behind the chair, under the bed), and your paltry closets, you will find that you have a lot of stuff you don't need. My rough rule of thumb: multiple your square footage by 2, and that's the approximate weight of the crap you could easily part with. Personally, most of my stuff is not worth selling on eBay or Craigslist. What's decent will get donated somewhere. What's not, well, that's what those big, black plastic construction rubbish bags are for. Just don't put them all out with the trash at once. Those garbage collectors - those lucky stiffs still fortunate enough to have real work - will not be happy to see three bags full of your moldering high school AP course paperbacks. (Clarissa, any one?)
  • Try every pen to see if it still works. This is actually a subtask to cleaning out your house, but it has a rigor and a fabulously mesmerizing quality to it that you can't beat. First, you go through every drawer, mug-as-penholder, pocketbook, briefcase, coat pocket, and every other thing that could possibly be used as a pen receptacle and gather up all your pens. Give me your tired, your poor: corporate logo pens, by-them-by-the-dozen Bics, weird colored Sharpies, cheapo hotel ink-sticks. Then sit down with some scrappaper and try ever last one. Divide them into three piles: dried out, still working, and dried out but with replaceable ink cartridge. This final category is the one you'll really struggle with. You will need to decide, on a case by case basis, whether it's worth trying to hunt down and pay for a refill for it. This is hard but, as in playing Trivial Pursuit, go with your gut instinct on what's a keeper. And, yes, I did hang on to the silver and blue swag pen from Inktomi, but dumped the blah one from Microsoft.
  • Use up the back sides of your yellow pads. I like to make notes and my "to do" lists on those swell, 5" x 7" yellow legal pads. But it occurred to me that I was using only half of them up. There's a recession on! Plus we're killing the world with over-consumption. So, now I'm writing on both sides. Which makes me feel frugal and pious - now there's a combination. It also makes me feel sneaky and sordid - as when I deliberate scrawl something large on the back page so that I can pretend I've used it up.
  • Google everyone you went to grammar school - high school - college - grad school with - or ever worked with.  You're probably already doing this on a piece-meal basis when you can't sleep at 2 a.m., and you find yourself wondering whatever happened to that miserable bastard who never called you back for a second date. However, if you really get organized around it, you can spend solid blocks of time at it. Start with your kindergarten picture. (You'll be surprised by how many names you still remember.) Now, the older you are the more of a problem you'll have with the girls, because most of them will have jettisoned their maiden names. (This is a particular problem if you went to an all girls high school, say, or a woman's college. You may have to spring for an alumnae directory, but you can start with the list of those who donated to the most recent annual campaign.) It's also a problem if you grew up in an area where everyone's name was Kathleen Ryan or Kevin Murphy. You might as well google John Doe. Still, with a little creativity, you might find that the kid who pushed you down on the ice at Henderson's Pond when you were in first grade is now a judge.
  • Extract square roots. This is more fun than it sounds - plus it's a good little mind-sharpener that you can do anytime, anywhere you have pencil and paper. (No Sudoku book required.) Write down every phone number you can think of. Your license plate number. Your SS#. Credit card numbers. Draw one of those funky little divider things on top of them and start calculating. If you forget how to extract a square root, start with numbers where you know the answer - like 169 and 2500 - and it will all come rushing back to you. (Alpha variation on this theme: write out your full name and list all the 4 and 5 letter words you can make out of the letters in it. First, middle, last should work. If  you have a lot of time, throw in your Confirmation name. Mine's MAGDALENA, which gives me the treasured letter "D" I would otherwise be lacking.)

All of the above are absolutely no cost. Other than the cost of the pen refills.

As The Recession drags on, I will be augmenting this list with other ideas, both practical and truly, brilliantly, stunningly time-wasting. But I can guarantee that you will feel like you're doing something better than staring out into space waiting for aliens to attack.

Reader suggestions are most welcome.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln's bicentennial

Well, if Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he'd be 200.

That certainly wouldn't have happened, but, as a country, we could have used a few more years of his wisdom, decency, and wit. (Andrew Johnson? Talk about accept no substitutes.)


As a kid, I was always proud that my mother had grown up in the Land of Lincoln.

Of course, her Land of Lincoln was hog-butcher-of-the-world, Windy City, Chicagoland Land of Lincoln, not railsplitting, waving cornfields, downstate Land of Lincoln. Still, I liked to see that motto on the license plates of our relatives. Massachusetts license plates were barren: no Bay State, no Land of the Pilgrims' Pride, no Land of Listen My Children. No nothing. (For a while, our license plates said "Spirit of America," which it seems to me something that most state's would have no problem claiming - rightly or wrongly. Talk about something that's non-differentiated. But even that was something. Now our license plates are once again motto-less. Alas!)

Abraham Lincoln.

Discounting my period of Irish Catholic kid from Massachusetts bedazzled worship of JFK, Lincoln and FDR were always my favorite presidents.

Slaves aside, I also liked Thomas Jefferson - mostly because he was so damned smart.

Which was, of course, one of the reason's why I like Lincoln so much.

He was so damned smart.

He could write, he could think, he had a sense of humor, he didn't belong to a church (this is a later reason for liking Abe: I certainly wouldn't have had it as a kid). He was tough, he was shrewd, he was interesting looking.

He was self-made, something I am always a sucker for.

He came from nothing. He became everything. The American story writ large.


Well, we're all more or less self-made, but it's always so heartening when someone who comes from the back-ass of nowhere, with nothing in his/her pocket, makes it big.

It's something I have complete and utter admiration of Ronald Reagan for. Having driven through Dixon, Illinois, and been on the Eureka College campus, well, all I can say is no wonder Reagan had a dewy-eyed view of the opportunities that are made in the USA.

And coming from nothing is one of the reasons that, even with all his odious, self-made zipper problems, I have always managed to hang on to some degree of complete and utter admiration for William Jefferson Clinton.

Abraham Lincoln. Here's the ending words of his first inaugural:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature. (Source:

I am loath to even try to close after that, other than to say that they don't make presidents like the use to.

Or do they?

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

How'm I doin'? Just Rypple me on that, will ya.

Over the course of my long career, I don't think I had more than 5 or 6 performance reviews. (That's in over 20 years working full time.)

The ones I did endure were generally pro-forma affairs. I had to fill in some checklist items and review it with my manager.

I don't recall ever having much of a conversation about anything. Just some perfunctory whatever.

It was more a matter of "HR says we have to fill in these forms so we can give raises".

In other words, all the things that performance reviews are not supposed to be.

Of course, I generally (but not always) had a pretty good relationship with my manager, working closely together on such a continuous basis that performance reviews always seemed more or less beside the point. I always seemed to get enough in between feedback as it was.

In one of my more memorable reviews, my manager - a turnaround guy who had no interest in becoming too involved with our foundering little company or any one in it - told me that I was his idea of a perfect direct report.

Why was that?

Because he was a hermit who didn't really want to manage anybody - no day to day involvement, let alone idle business gossip or chit-chat.

I had figured that out early on, so what I would do was slip my weekly report under his door, answering any questions he had, and highlighting any areas where I needed him to do something.

It might have worked for him but, as a manager, his style didn't work for me. I liked him well enough, but I tended to play a trusted advisory role for most of my managers, and that sort of relationship was completely absent with this guy.

If I never had much to do with performance reviews on the receiving end, I was generally serious about it on the giving end, and did plenty of them over the years.

I'm not managing now, so I have no "Net Geners" - or anyone else -  to provide feedback to. (Oh, boo-hoo.)

Nonetheless, I was interested in an article I saw in The Economist a while back on a new application, called Rypple, which enables folks to request near real-time evaluation of whatever they're working on at the moment. (I'd heard about the rising generation's need for constant reassurance-feedback, but never got to experience it as a manager. Still, when I find myself working with younger clients - and, at this point, 99.99% of them are going to be younger than I am - I do almost automatically find myself providing feedback when I've seen them in action and think they're doing a good job. Atta boy, atta girl. Oh, yenta me!)

Here's how Rypple works:

The service requires employees to establish a network of trusted peers, mentors and managers whose opinions they value. They can then send out short questions, such as “What did you think of my presentation today?”, to which their network’s members can respond online. The responses are kept anonymous so that, at least in theory, employees cannot tell who has made them.

With respect to that "at least in theory" comment, Rypple claims it all stays anonymous.

I can see a lot of upside in this.

Employees get to ask people they trust to provide them feedback, coaching, etc. It's all web-based, so that people don't have to set up formal, face to face meetings, and can respond when they have a moment or two. While it's anonymous, people who you don't want to hear from don't get to participate. So - as long as you've been wise about who you're asking - there'll be none of the snarky, hide-behind-anonymity comments (often devolving into ad hominen attacks) that you get in the online free for all of the blogosphere.

You can only ask one question at a time, and responses are limited to 200 characters. So the burden on the person you're asking feedback from is more or less the equivalent to answering an IM. No biggy.

I very much like the in-the-moment aspects to this system.

Someone who sat through your presentation might be thinking, "I really should tell her that when she went through that slide on widgets, it was really confusing." But, if they don't see you right after - or they don't have the nerve to let you know - the moment is lost. Six month later, if it was your boss in the audience - and the confusing slide somehow stayed in the back of their mind -  you might get feedback on poor presentation skills. If you catch someone right away, feedback can be specific, and thus more immediately actionable.

If someone's in your Rypple list, they can also provide (anonymous) feedback that's unsolicited. So if you don't ask how the preso went, someone might just let you know "It went okay other than that slide on widgets. I didn't know what you were talking about." (Well under 200 characters, but who's counting?)

As a manager, I would view someone who used Rypple as an employee who was interested in self-improvement. A good thing. (I don't think that I would have any interest in someone's bringing their Rypples into a performance review however: too easy to stack that deck.)

Let's face it, in a time when just about nobody spends their career in one place, you really have to be in control of  improving your skills. Theoretically, your company has an interest in doing so, but, as we all know, you are expendable to everybody but yourself and those nearest and dearest to you.

For a lot of the Boomers, serial stints with multiple companies more or less just happened. Follow on generations - X, Y, Net, whatever - are entering the workforce eyes wide open.

Whether they view job-hopping as scary or exciting, they pretty much know who they have to look out for.

The only downside I can see is the potential that you could get stuck with a grasping, insecure and/or overconfident, annoying little Net Gen-er asking for all feedback, all the time. I guess then you could just slip them a little anonymous feedback asking them to [feed]back off.

I also rather like the company's name.

Sure, it conjures up images of winos in the gutter with a bottle of Ripple Wine.  And since I've been writing this post, The Grateful Dead's Ripple has  been running through my head like tinnitus. Out, out, damned lyric! (I'm not a Dead Head, but I'm sure if someone were to ask me for feedback, "my words [would] glow with the gold of sunshine.")

Managers and managees: go check out Rypple.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Barter up: how the Russians are dealing with their economic crisis

I remember back in the 1970's and 1980's when American students who traveled to Russia would bring extra pairs of jeans or record albums with them so that they could trade for cool stuff like Red Army hats and posters of Lenin - and leave their Russian counterparts delighted to be sporting a pair of Levi's and listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Then, in the 1990's, as Russia transitioned to a market economy, they became a barter economy.

As a NY Times article on the resurgence of Russian barterdom noted:

In the mid-1990s, barter transactions in Russia accounted for an astonishing 50 percent of sales for midsize enterprises and 75 percent for large ones.

And we think our businesses are ultra-canny at avoiding taxes...

The barter society is  apparently  making a comeback, with a Hyundai factory offering SUV's in exchange for, well, what have you got-ski?

Advertisements are beginning to appear in newspapers and online, like one that offered “2,500,000 rubles’ worth of premium underwear for any automobile,” and another promising “lumber in Krasnoyarsk for food or medicine.” A crane manufacturer in Yekaterinburg is paying its debtors with excavators.

"Any" car for 2.5m rubles worth of undies? Any car?

I realize that underwear is not quite as fungible as cash would be, but that's close to $70K worth of undies. For any car?

For a Yugo? For a Chevrolet Aveo?

For $70K you could probably get someone to drive and Aveo over the Bering Strait for you.

Of course, that's $70K worth of undies, not $70K worth of Benjamins. And we don't know if we're talking Victoria's Secret or Fruit of the Loom here, either.

And the crane maker who's paying off debts with excavators.

Imagine the marketing consultant who submitted an invoice for the market research and positioning project, and ended up with a backhoe?

Bartering is nowhere near at the level it was in the day, but Russian economists are closely watching for trends. In November, barter accounted for 3-4 percent of overall sales.

Barter is one way in which the Russians are dealing with illiquidity. No credit? No problem? You got undies, we'll take undies.

Maybe we'll see more of it popping up here. I suspect that in C2C - citizen-to-citizen/consumer-to-consumer there's already a lot of it going on through Craig's List and local swap advertisers.

As for B2B? I can't see this taking off here but there is, of course, nothing new under the sun.

When I worked at Genuity, we had a number of scratch-my-back deals with suppliers. Nortel would agree to do $10M worth of hosting in our data centers, and we'd agree to by $10M worth of Nortel gear. I don't know if any cash ever changed hands, but I do believe that these deals were booked as revenue.

If that wasn't bartering, I don't know what else to call it? (Chicanery? Fraud? Desperation?)

Monday, February 09, 2009

Found a peanut just now

Saturday brought news from the FDA that Peanut Corporation of America's Blakely, Georgia, plant had knowingly shipped products that were tainted.  (The Blakely plant is the Typhoid Mary for the current "peanut butter" scare that resulted from salmonella-infected products causing hundreds of cases of poisoning - and eight deaths.)

As far back as 2007, salmonella-laced products were shipped by a Georgia peanut company that knew the peanuts probably were tainted and sometimes after tests confirmed that contamination, inspection records show.

This plant is no stranger to questionable hygiene:

The 2001 inspection found dead insects near peanuts and holes in the plant big enough for rodents to enter. Those inspectors also discovered that workers at the plant used an insecticide fogger in food-processing areas and didn't wash the exposed equipment.

Similar problems were uncovered in a more recent inspection.

Frankly, if any of us spent more than one nano-second a meal thinking about the food-itary-industrial complex, we'd all be eating only those crops we could grow in our own back yards (after vetting that the starter seeds weren't bio-engineered). We'd be keeping a pig and a few chickens, feeding them healthful table scraps. And we'd have a cow shed, where a contented cow provided us with all the dairy products we needed. Unfortunately, none of this is at all possible for the majority of our urban/suburban dwelling populace (although the folks in the suburbs could grow their own zucchini and tomatoes. And maybe keep a chicken or two, if they were really careful about noise and smell.)

As a result of all the recent peanut commotion, peanut butter sales are down 25%. Choosy mothers are apparently not choosing Jif. Or any other brand, crunchy or smooth.

This is especially bad timing for people to start looking askance at peanut butter, as it's a relatively inexpensive, relatively nutritious, completely easy to serve up, and generally beloved (except by those with peanut allergies) food stuff.

Personally, I'm not doing without.

Local brand Teddie Peanut Butter (extra crunchy) remains a staple in my larder.

I have always loved peanut butter. Not to mention Reese's peanut butter cups, peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle, Cracker Jacks, chocolate covered peanuts, M&M Peanut, and just plain old in or out of the shell peanuts.

One of my great childhood pleasures was sharing a stack of Saltines slathered with peanut butter (Peter Pan smooth) with my father. We'd sit at the kitchen table together, chatting while we ate our snack, chased down with a whole-milk chaser. "Enjoy it while you can, Moe," my father would tell me, presciently anticipating that there would come a point in my life where I couldn't just sit there and devour a sleeve of peanut butter coated Saltines. What he may also have anticipated was that his peanut butter savoring days were numbered.

At the age of 52, my father was diagnosed with the kidney disease that would kill him six years later. He had to go on a no-sodium diet, and my mother had to buy him salt-free peanut butter, which took all the joy out of it for him. Accidentally making a sandwich with the salt-free version was a real mistake. It tasted just awful. We tried not to be seen enjoying a real-thing fluffernutter when my father was around. Not that he would have begrudged us our pleasure. We just didn't want to make him feel any worse than he already did.

So, personally, I'm peeved at Peanut Corporation of America for putting the supply of peanut butter related anything in jeopardy.

And if I were related to one of the folks who has died because of their negligence, I'd know doubt be dialing the law firm of James R. Sokolov.

I understand that companies make mistakes, that problems arise. And I understand that it's always tempting for a business to cut a corner here or there. And mostly they can get away with it.

So someone gets sick.

Hey, it could have been anything they ate. What's the probability it's on us?

Five hundred someones getting sick is more problematic. Not to mention eight people dying.

Does it never occur to the cut corners guys, to the cover-up brigades, that they just might get caught?

What's worse, throwing away some tainted products and shutting down your plant temporarily for a good scrub down?

Or knowingly letting a product that could and did sicken and kill people out there door, with the resulting loss of all sorts of possibly (though not probably) contaminated product, plus damage to your reputation, your industry, you business, and your workforce. (The fifty Blakely workers are out of a job.)

Maybe we need to post signs in all of our food factories. Forget WWJD. How about WWYDITFDAWLOYS? (What would you do if the FDA was looking over your shoulder.)

For an earlier post on when bad things happen to good food, check out Ratatouille.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The five-hundred thousand a year men

During World War I and World War II, Woodrow Wilson and FDR used "dollar-a-year-men", captains of industry who worked for the government for the symbolic amount of $1 a year. Maybe these guys were still getting paid by their companies. Or maybe they were all wealthy enough that they could afford to work for free for the duration.

I've been thinking about the "dollar-a-year-men" because the name Lee Iacocca keeps coming up in the bailout stories. When Chrysler was bailed out in the grand-daddy of all bailouts (age-wise, although not magnitude-wise), Iacocca (their CEO) elected to take one dollar as his salary.

Do we really think that the Iacoccas had to start using powdered milk to make the whole milk last longer, or swapped out expensive solid white tuna for the cheaper shredded dark stuff? Do we think that Lee had to start buying his suits at Anderson-Little? Do we think that the family vacation was a day-trip to an amusement park? That his kids had to set their sights on community college? No, we don't.

He could clearly afford to live off his wealth (which I'm guessing was no where near the wealth, even adjusting for inflation, that today's corporate machers have).

But there is something heartening about a CEO who steps forth and does this - especially when you consider that Chrysler did not get f'ed up on Iacocca's watch: he was the turn-around guy.

Taking a buck a year speaks to leadership, accountability, and to the recognition that times are tough. It speaks to the power of symbolic acts to move us.

Have I been missing something, or have any of the bank or other bailout boyos offered us this gesture, or any sort of symbolic mea culpa?

Perhaps some of them have, and I missed it with the focus on $35,000 commodes on legs that was part of John Thain of Merrill Lynch's redecorating scheme, Citi's $42 million corporate jet upgrades, and Merrill's $4B bonus payouts.

Instead, we're hearing that it's unfair, unworkable, and unAmerican to expect senior bank executives - on whose watch THIS ALL HAPPENED - to work for a paltry $500K. We're hearing how draconian the provision is that bonuses be in restricted stock that can't be flipped until the government is repaid.

We're led to believe that these guys may just bail out rather than accept such insulting and measly salaries. ("I spit on this paycheck. Ptui.")

I actually am somewhat in the middle on whether restricting pay in this way is such an unalloyed good. And $500K - even though it's an order of magnitude higher than the average American's earnings - is not a lot of compensation for someone running a major financial institution, even one that has been so nearly run into the ground that it requires the personal, exceptional one-on-one, bespoke government assistance plan that the salary restrictions apply to.

Still, these guys have pretty much brought it on themselves by their bad decisions, wretchedly excess behavior, and lack of accountability. (Just how can a company that's lost $15B lay out bonuses worth $4B? Was there really $4B worth of bonus-worthy performance in Merrill Lynch last year? What do you think?)

You'd think that at least one of these fellows - and forgive me if I'm being sexist here, but I don't think that any of the institutions in question are headed up by women - would have had the good sense to come forth and announce that he couldn't justify a bonus this year for himself and his top executives. That he would be taking no salary for the duration of however long it was going to take to get his institution un-f'ed up.

For crying out loud, these guys have been raking it in for years.

And while they were at it, you'd think that one of them would have had the god sense to declare that there would be no spending on things that might cause the tax-payer public to raise an eyebrow.

I'm not talking about a nice, expensive dinner with clients here. I'm talking about those 'hey, let's jet off to Bora-Bora on the corporate jet for a weekend of drinking champagne out of the high-heeled slippers of dancing girls' - a mythical example (maybe) but pretty much, for most of us, in the same league as the $35K commode on legs.

(Like hard core pornography, wretched excess is hard to define, but I know it when I see it.)

It's a matter of the CEO's using their judgement. 

And if they don't have ay judgement to use, where are their advisors? Where are the investor relations, corporate communications, HR execs, or executive assistants to take their boss aside and say, "In the current environment, if you do this, you will appear indifferent, arrogant, callous, greedy, and clueless. And while I, of course, know that you are  supremely entitled to a $35K commode on legs, our shareholders, employees, and now - damnably and regrettably - the general, tax-paying public, will interpret this badly."

While I am back and forth on the wisdom (and level - although there are those stock set-asides), I am completely with Mr. Obama on this:

"This is America," the president declared at the White House. "We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we believe success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset -- and rightfully so -- are executives being rewarded for failure, especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers." (Source: Wall Street Journal Online - may require subscription to access.)

Okay, sometimes I have been guilty of disparaging wealth- but only when it's deployed frivolously, okay?

And I do not believe that the CEO should be compensated with a bank teller's wages.

Someone running a ka-billion financial institution is working and worrying long, hard hours. They have had to work long and hard to get where they are. They've put themselves out there. They've taken risks.

I'm delighted that there are people with enough wealth to generously support the arts, social service institutions, medical facilities and health programs, environmental causes, and education.  (This is one of the reasons why Bernie Madoff's admitted crimes are so heinous: he stole do-gooder money.)

But enough is enough.

While I may not necessarily agree with everything about the bailout pay restrictions, I can't say I'm sorry to see these guys hit in what is apparently the only place that where they have any sensitivity whatsoever.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Trash-out Business

Until I saw the report about it on NBC News last night, I'd never heard of the trash-out business.

But when I googled it, I got over 14 million hits.

In a late-December article in USA Today, I read that:

Foreclosures are creating an economic boon for entrepreneurs, as brokers and investors require services to clean or "trash-out" homes seized by lenders.

One of the folks interviewed in that article, Rancho Mirage's Joe Cino, who runs a booming trash-out business (and also manages ongoing upkeep of foreclosed homes), said:

"It's an unfortunate business to be in, it's sad, but the reality is, someone has to do it....We've had rocks thrown at us... There's yelling, cursing, screaming."

I'll bet.

The trash-out businesses often do maintenance clean-up work, fixing broken windows, patching holes in punched in walls, etc. That's after they've hauled away the moldy food and broken toys.

Business, all agree, is booming.

And it's no doubt especially booming in the states that are having the most foreclosures: Florida, California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Not only are there all sorts of trash-out businesses, there are all sorts of businesses to help people starting up a trash-out business. One such outfit,in foreclosure hotspot Florida, Cleaning Foreclosures, claims that:

This is a recession proof business.  As the economy crashes and unemployment continues to rise.

My Business Booms!!

Well, it may not exactly be a recession-proof business. Sure, people clean out houses even in good times, but this is more or less a counter-cyclical business. While there will no doubt be foreclosures for as long as there is real estate, one can assume that the rate and level of foreclosures will decline if and when the economy improves. Especially given that, at least for a couple of decades or so, there are likely to be more stringent rules about who gets what size mortgage. But I'm quibbling here. It's obviously this recession proof.

But you can apparently make quite a bit of dough at it - this site says you can make up to $2.5K per clean out, in the USA Today article, put the figure at $2K. Plus you can, apparently, keep the trash-treasures you find.  Joe, the guy who runs Cleaning Foreclosures, has a picture of a decent flat-screen TV that he picked up on the job.

Joe-the-Clean-out guy has written a book about setting up a business, which you can buy for $29.95.

He has pictures of some of his jobs, and it's really amazing to see how much junk people leave behind, and just how chaotic and out of control the lives of some of these fore-closees must have been.  The places look as if someone just up and fled in the night which, come to think of it, is probably exactly what happened.

I suppose that, for many people, what they can take with them is what can fit in their car. Thus, they're leaving behind food, clothing, toys, kitchen goods, appliances. While a lot of the stuff is straight-to-the-dump trash, some of it could no doubt have been e-Bayed or yard-saled, making them a little driving around money.


Obviously, people are leaving with no place to go - or at least no place for their stuff to go.

Of course, if your place gets foreclosed, you probably don't have the money to put it in storage, let alone the money to rent the van to schlepp it there.

And who knows how much of the stuff that gets left behind was bought using the same beyond-their-means credit that went into the home purchase.

All very depressing and horrifying.

I may also be writing about Joe-the-Clean-out guy over on Opinionated Marketers at some point.

It does not appear from this site that a lot of web-design or fancy-arse marketing help went into this operation.

But, boy, this guy has message clarity down pat.

You don't have to look very hard to figure out what Joe's about.

Go read the Info  About Me page:

Life is hard and it just seems to get harder every day. I am not an author or claim to be a book writer. The One Thing I do know is that I Know about the Foreclosure Cleaning Business Inside and Out. I know anyone trying to sell a book 200 pages on this subject is just trying to portray themselves as some kind of experts.There is nothing that you can write in 200 pages  about cleaning foreclosures that my package can not offer. I am an honest person .I  really never get mad ,but just like most people piss me off and  I get even. I am selling my package for very little . My package is "cut to the chase" so you do not waste any time learning this business.

One of the big marketing trends now is to give your business a personality.

Well, Joe does a pretty good job getting his across - although he really could use a common after "most people," so the casual reader easily understands that it's not "most people" who "piss him off", it's "just like most people, piss me off and I get even." (If you're reading this, Joe, please put a comma in.)

This has got to be one god-awful business to be involved in.

Just going through all the detritus of someone else's life, seeing the anger (those punched in walls) and the despair.

But with all the major lay-offs being announced, I guess it's good to know that some businesses are booming.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Oh, oh, the Wells Fargo wagon is a-coming

Yesterday's big "thumb your nose at the public, the politicians, and the pundits" story was about Wells Fargo's employee reward trip to Las Vegas.

Within a couple of hours after AP dimed Wells Fargo with a report that said:

Wells Fargo, which received $25 billion in taxpayer money, has booked 12 nights at the Wynn and Encore hotels starting Friday. Some of that is for a company conference honoring the top mortgage lenders.

Wells Fargo said they had scaled back and were reconsidering the event.

Within a couple of hours of that, MSNBC reported that the event had been canceled.

When I worked at Genuity, I got to go on one of these rewards vacations, so I have a pretty good understanding of how lavish they can be. I posted about this  last fall when AIG got it in the neck for going ahead with a $442K employee "retreat" - just before they got a $85B loan from the Feds.

In the world we live in - dismal economy and 24/7 media (amateur and professional) willing to jump on anything they think that people will get riled up about - it's amazing to me that Wells Fargo thought they could get away with this. (Frosting on this particular cake: the event was apparently a reward for their highest performing mortgage lenders. Now's not the time to give a big, fat trip to the Wynn Hotel to someone who worked in the m-word group. How could they possibly be thinking that they were going to get away with it.)

Yes, it is completely, fundamentally, supremely tone deaf for a company on the receiving end of  TARP money to jaunt off to Vegas to celebrate last year's success. Talk about a sub-prime use of TARP money!

But, in truth, these events are planned so far in advance, I would bet that, by this point, most if not all of the hotel room costs and food expenses for the communal events has already been paid. If they were having big-name entertainment - and in the past, they've had Cher, Jay Leno, and Huey Lewis - that's been fully paid up, too. So have the costs for the polo shirts, golf umbrellas, revere bowls, tote bags, digital cameras, and every other piece of swag that they were going to bestow on attendees. (I'm guessing that those disappointed attendees will at least get their swag bags.)

What would have been left - or refundable - would be travel costs, reimbursement for your-on-your-own dinners, and a few other sundries.

The big bucks are sunk - and I'm doubtful that the Wynn Hotel is going to provide a refund.

But Wells Fargo has canceled, but the reputation and common sense damage has been done.

So, what could Wells Fargo have done here that would have made them look good?

They could have canceled the reward trip before it became a public hoop-de-doo.

Yes, this would have disappointed those who truly feel they deserved their reward, even if it was for closing 125% of their quota for sub-prime loans that turned out to be non-performing. Oops. But these are grown ups, who presumably would understand why the trip has been canceled. And Wells Fargo could have thrown them a bone: more vacation days (they can't be doing much business this year anyway); maybe a small bonus check; maybe a $250 take-your-spouse-out-to-a-nice-dinner American Express gift card.

Then they could have contacted some charities and said, hey, we've got some nice paid for rooms in the Wynn that you might want to raffle off.

Wells Fargo wouldn't have gotten their money back. But they would look like they had a clue. Given the national mood and the reality that they needed a big, whomping bailout, you'd think they could have figured this one out before the damage was done to whatever shred of a reputation they still have.


Oh, oh, the Wells Fargo wagon is a comin' now.
I don't know how I can ever wait to see.
It could be something for someone who is no relation,
Or it could be, something special, just for me.

What's a matter? You don't know every word to every song in The Music Man? What's wrong with you?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Some upside to the downside: Blackwater's losing its contract

Late last week, CNN reported that the U.S. State Department will not be reupping with Blackwater, the para-military security contractor, when their current contract runs out in May.

Blackwater will be looking for other work, I'm sure.

Perhaps there are still some banana republics with enough in their treasuries to bring in the Blackwater forces. 

And I saw that, with the shutdown of the Waterford factory in Ireland, the "lads" who'd been working there starting talking about occupying the plant, and got into a bit of a set-to with the police.  It could happen here, too. Blackwater to the rescue!

If the consumer jones starts to overwhelm folks, and massive looting began at shopping malls - iPhones! Flatscreens! Abercrombie & Fitch! - those malls might need more than a hapless mall cop on a Segway. They might need Blackwater. 

Maybe the American peasantry in general will start revolting, and the rich folks beat a retreat to the most isolated of their many fortresses, and have Blackwater man their security perimeters in the Hamptons to fend off all those ranting barbarians at the gates.

But it's more than likely that, if Blackwater loses the Iraq work, there will be some pink slips coming there.

While it's hard to shed a tear for them, the prospect of a horde of mercenaries hitting the pavements is a bit scarier than the prospect of a bunch of sales people from Macy's women's department, Microsoft junior marketers, or Starbucks' baristas losing their jobs.

Blackwater, of course, is not losing their contract because of any turndown in the fortunes of the global economy.

No, they're getting the heave-ho for other reasons:

The decision was made after the Iraqi government refused last week to renew the firm's operating license because of a 2007 incident in which the Iraqi government says security guards -- then employed by Blackwater -- fired on and killed 17 Iraqis.

For the State Department:

"No license, no renewal," the official said. "If they don't have a license to operate, we would certainly not renew the task order."

Not to worry, though, about the work getting done. DynCOrp International and Triple Canopy (which sounds rather like a parachute, or a 4-poster bed, doesn't it?) also work in Iraq, and can pick up the Blackwater slack.

But will they "serve America" as well, ahem, as Blackwater has?

I ask this because, in December, The Wall Street Journal Online ran an op-ed piece by Blackwater founder Erik Prince letting us know - in pure advertorial fashion - just how darned wonderful Blackwater is. (Access to this content may require subscription.)

Hawkish or mawkish, Mr. Prince feels that:

...before the histories are written, it is crucial to understand the often mischaracterized role of security contractors in this unique war.

As Prince sees it, Blackwater's role "evolved from [the] unprecedented dynamic" of having so many civilians working alongside troops. All those civilians - doing laundry, cooking meals, drawing up constitutions - have to be protected, and the government chose Blackwater to meet this need.

Blackwater, after all, can recruit from the ranks of ex-military members (and police officers), no doubt offering them a lot more by way of compensation than the lousy pay, MRE, and college tuition that Uncle Sam gives its soldiers.

In addressing the incident in which the Blackwater employees were alleged to have murdered some Iraqis:

...Blackwater personnel encounter myriad potential or actual hostile acts on a daily basis. Enemies attack with rocket- propelled grenades, sniper fire and car bombs.

Enemies attacking with RPG's? Sniper fire? Car bombs?

Why does that not scream "send in the civilian security forces" to me?

Doesn't this sound more like something that, say, soldiers might do?

Prince goes on to write about one of his employees who was seriously injured in Iraq.

Derrick Wright and the other team members injured that day were not in Iraq to fight the war. Just like every Blackwater professional who makes the trip to Iraq, they were putting their lives at risk each day to protect U.S. Department of State officials and other civilians working in the country. Yet somehow that role and the part they play in this war have been grossly misunderstood.

I guess I really shouldn't fault Blackwater for what was the government's decision to use civilian contractors to do a job that might more normally and naturally performed by the military.

And there is no doubt that Blackwater employees are brave and highly skilled (albeit perhaps, on occasion, a bit trigger-happy).

But it still prompts me to ask the question: why aren't we using soldiers to perform these tasks? Do we just not want to admit to ourselves that we need a larger standing army than we have currently in place?

Prince ends with a paean to his employees:

While some of our critics seize upon inaccurate labels, I doubt they have ever known one of our contractors personally or been protected by them. Our teams are not cooking meals or moving supplies. They are taking bullets. They are military veterans who have chosen to serve their country once again. Very few people know someone who would voluntarily go into a war zone to protect a person he has never met. I know 1,000 of them, and I am proud that they are part of our team.

Actually, Mr. Prince, a lot of us do know people "who would voluntarily go into a war zone to protect a person he has never met."

Didn't we used to call these guys soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines?


Oh, Blackwater! Today's post isn't the first thing I've had to say about this company.  Here's a piece from September 07.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Celebrating Ground Hog Day, 2009: why we hate winter in Boston

Well, I can never remember whether it's a good thing or a bad thing if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. All I know is that this winter can't end soon enough.

I thought last winter was bad, mostly because I was nursing a broken shoulder. This winter.... Yikes!

Unlike winters past, there was no January thaw this year. None. Nada. Zilch. Some years, we even get a bit of weirdness in which the buds start to appear on the trees, before beating a retreat once they realize it's still winter. This year, however, we've had generally cold, below average temp, miserable weather since before Christmas. has been trying to put a smiley face on things, with all kinds of "Why We Love Boston in the Winter" features.

Fair enough.

There are, after all, some things to love about winter here:

  • After a snow fall, it's pretty.
  • It's fun to see the apple-cheeked toddlers being dragged along on Flying Saucers and toboggans.
  • The nighttime skating on the Frog Pond on Boston Common has got to be one of the most beautiful urban sights on earth.

Mostly, though, there are a lot more reasons "Why We Hate Winter in Boston." Here are mine:

  • Ice bound corners: Yes, most people - at least in my neighborhood -  do manage to shovel their sidewalks. So you can make it from one end of the block to the next without risking a broken ankle or hip. Alas, at the corner, you get to the no man's land, where - depending on the temperature - you'll find an 8" deep, 10' wide icy-cold slush puddle, or mounds o' ice. Gray, treacherous mounds o' ice. Come on, Boston residents and businesses: it only takes an additional 15-30 minutes of shoveling to clear out the corners and open up the storm drains - I know, because I do the one nearest my house - but you have to do it before the snow hardens to a gray, treacherous mound o' ice. At that point, you'll need to spend an hour with a jack hammer to clear things up.
  • Everybody doesn't shovel their sidewalk: And when that happens, the entire sidewalk turns into a gray, treacherous patch o' ice. The other night, we went to dinner, and when we go Arlington Street, where it's bisected by the Commonwealth Mall, we had to pick our way gingerly over that gray, treacherous patch o' ice. I believe this is city property, Mister Mayor. You could at least have someone throw sand on it.
  • After it's pretty, snow gets ugly: The Public Garden, which is right out front, does manage to maintain its pristine snowy beauty for the duration, but the snow that borders the sidewalks turns to hardened, soot-covered, dog-pee (and worse) stained yecch within days of a snowfall. The yecch is typically decorated with blown-on pieces of trash, too. U-G-L-Y.
  • The trade-off between looking good and being warm:  I pretty much decided where I stand on this trade-off twenty years ago, when I tied a headscarf under my chin, babushka style, and braved a storm, hunched over and passing for my grandmother. So, like most other folks (excluding girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 32, who continue to venture out in light coats, no hats, high heels....), I bundle up: big old LL Bean parka, goofy ski hat, clunky boots. I even have a pair of polarfleece snow pants that are so baggy I can wear them over my workout clothes, and probably even a pair of jeans. Still, there are times when I do want to look good. For those times, I want to wear the same good, black coat that appears to be owned by 95% of the women in Boston between the ages of 21 and 91. Mine is lovely: a long, black, double-breasted, cashmere-wool combo from Lord & Taylor. It's just not all that warm. Sure, I was smart enough to buy it large enough to fit over a business suit, but that's not quite warm enough. Maybe next time I need a good winter coat, I'll get one that fits over a snow suit.
  • Potholes: I no longer have a car, but, when I did, I went through 2-4 hubcaps a year. Sure, that's what I get for being too cheap to take the good, built-in wheel rim option, and electing to go with the flimsy, cheapo plastic ones instead. Still, 2-4 per year. I got so I kept a couple of spares in the trunk. The first time I lost a hubcap, it was on Storrow Drive. I saw where it flew off to (a safe space on the side of the road), so I pulled off at the exit and went back to retrieve it. When I neared the place where I thought I'd seen it land, I spotted it. Only to find out that it was for another make of car. I then looked up and saw that there were about three dozen hubcaps on the ground. I did find mine. But after that, I seldom bothered to go after a lost hubcap. I'd just pop a spare on. And, of course, there's far worse damage that can be done from potholes than lost hubcaps: destroyed tires, bent axles, etc.
  • Runny noses, fogged glasses, chapped lips, broken nails: Yes, winter in Boston: one misery after the next.
  • The alarmist weather reports: For those of us who lived through it, the Blizzard of '78 - which shut the city down for over a week - was something to behold. Our forecasters apparently missed the boat on calling it, so people were stranded: at work, in cars.  This was before there were ATM's, the banks were closed, and people ran out of cash. Stores ran out of things like bread and milk, and when they were first re-stocked, they asked people to limit their purchases. The woman ahead of me buying the-first-bread-in-Boston was a hoarder: her arms were full of loaves of bread, English muffins. And I thought I was a carbo-junkie. Well, ever since the Blizzard of '78, every storm is treated as if it's going to be The Big One: Storm Alert! Winter Storm Warning! Run for your lives..... This, despite the far greater sophistication of the forecasting technology these days. Two inches, two feet, makes no difference: every storm story is a huge deal.
  • The predictable news stories: Two inches, two feet. No matter. The night before The Storm, we can be guaranteed a news story on people stocking up on milk, bread, water, batteries.... Of course, this year, they're probably feeling quite justified, as there was a brutal ice storm in the central part of Massachusetts and in New Hampshire, pre-Christmas, that left some people without power for a couple of weeks. Still, those "stock up" stories have such a sameness, they could slot the same one in year after year and no on would notice. Then there are the stories on the municipal salt/sand/plowing budgets. (Reporter, live, standing in front of 20 foot high mound of municipal salt, in headlights of plow, telling us we've already spent the entire year's budget and it's only November....) Post storm, there's the kids in Harvard Yard who are seeing snow for the first time. Are there no new news angles under the snow-blotted-out sun?
  • No school:  As a kid, there was nothing I'd rather hear on the radio than the blessed announcement, "No school, all schools, Worcester public and parochial" - an announcement that was only made once or twice a year, and then only when we had at least a foot of snow. Now, they call off school for any amount of snow, even before any snow has fallen. I don't have any kids, so I don't know why these prophylactic school closings drive me batty. Perhaps I'm channeling the feelings of my sister Trish and broth Rick when they hear those dreaded school closing announcements. (Of course, I am delighted for my nieces when these calls are made....)
  • The glare: Sure, we complain when it's overcast, but on the odd sunny day, you will be snow-blinded if you're so foolish as to venture out without your sunglasses. Seriously, in these parts, you can get away without wearing sunglasses in the summer, but in the winter? Never!
  • No baseball:  Okay, there's plenty of hockey and basketball, but, other than the Hot Stove League dramas - (Will Varitek take the paltry $5M the Red Sox are offering him? Well, yes he will.) - there's no baseball.

Ah, winter in Boston.

But at last it is Groundhog Day.

Which means it's February, which brings longer days, warmer nights, and the first crocuses peeping up.

Big storms may dump a lot on us, but they disappear faster.

At some point, I will be able to venture out in a shoe that doesn't have a lug sole.

Pitchers and catchers start in a couple of weeks.

And I also heard that, if Rush Limbaugh ventures out today and sees his shadow, he'll be off the air in six weeks. Here's hoping!