Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fedtime 101 - it's there is you need it

Well, trust The Economist to find something interesting to write about. In last week's edition, it was a novel little consultancy that focuses on helping white collar criminals navigate and survive the prison system.

Talk about niche marketing.

Or maybe not so niche.

Business for Larry Levine of Wall Street Prison Consultants is said to be thriving.

His website is a complete and utter trip, juxtaposing pictures of an exchange floor next to those of prisons. His positioning couldn't be simpler: Specializing in stock and securities fraud Federal sentence reductions. Succinct and to the point.

Levine provides a long (prison) laundry list of crimes you may have been charged with: embezzlement, healthcare fraud, insurance fraud, offshore banking, RICO/racketeering...And he asks a couple of captivating - or pre-captivating -  questions: Going from the Exchange floor to the prison yard? And ARE YOU SCARED and CONFUSED?

Hard to imagine anyone heading into prison for the first time, especially us white-collar types, who wouldn't be scared and confused, so this messaging truly speaks to the prospect's heart, no?

Levine - who got into this racket from the inside out, having done time on a couple of different charges - has plenty of business savvy, including productizing and naming his services. As in, "Fedtime 101...a unique "SURVIVAL PROGRAM" on Federal Prison life."

Fedtime 101 - available at the low-low price of $999 - is a "telephone crash course designed to help you get out alive."  "Telephone crash course", you might ask. Seems that Larry can't consort with felons or he goes back in the clink. Here's his prison ID, which is kind of scary. Maybe just as well that you do business over the phone. (Actually, he somewhat resembles the Red Sox Kevin Youkilis.)

The syllabus covers topics like how to prevent rape, the do's and don'ts of prison etiquette, how to avoid snitches, how to stay out of the way of gangs, and how to get a lower bunk pass. Hard to imagine anyone looking at trading in the bespoke gray flannel for the orange poly jumpsuit not coming up with the scratch to elect this course. Spend that last $999 before the Fed's get it!

Levine doesn't miss a trick: you can even buy a pack of "Financial Crisis Most Wanted" Playing Cards, featuring Bernie Madoff as the ace of spades, Ben Bernanke as the ace of diamonds, and Dick Fuld as the king of clubs. Only $5.95. And if you promise to tell two friends about the cards, you get 10% off of shipping - so I guess I qualify.

Imagine what Levine could have accomplished in the business world if he'd gone straight to begin with?

One of my favorite parts of this site is a list of happy customer testimonials that would do a B2B tech marketing professional proud. Here's one of them.

When I was sentenced to seventy months I was shocked, my overpriced lawyer who told me I'd get probation dumbfounded, and my wife was panic-stricken. We made phone calls, searched the Internet, and found practically no useful information about the BOP. When I self-surrendered, they put me in with killers, bank robbers, and other violent hardcore felons. As a first-time white-collar inmate doing time for sending a fax...I could of been killed. WhenI got to the BOP and met Levine, the education he gave me about the BOP was priceless. I only wish I could've taken his program before I came in. I can't thank Levine enough for  the peace of mind he's given me and my family. I'd recommend his services to anyone.

Daniel Berardi - 28048-112 MAIL FRAUD, WIRE FRAUD - Boston, MA.

Well, I chose Beradi's testimonial because he's from Boston, but I wasn't familiar with his rap sheet, but I was guessing he might have done a bit more than send a fax. I, after all, have sent any number of faxes and I'm not doing time in the Federal pen.

Info is just a google away, and I'm guessing that this is the same Berardi:

Daniel J. Berardi - Principal in Palm Desert-based BBH Resources, an investment arm of MX Factors. Sentenced in 2006 to five years and 10 months in prison for wire fraud and money laundering. Ordered to pay more than $11 million in civil fines and penalties.

This was a relative chump-change Ponzi scheme in which 500 folks were bilked out of $58.5 million. Honestly, Mr. Berardi, are you sure you just sent one teensy-weensy innocent little fax? Not that it really matters. I have on occasion, I'm sure, gotten customers to exaggerate a bit when I worked with them on case study/success stories. It's not exactly a Federal offense.  (Source for Berardi fraud info: Article in the Press-Enterprise.)

Personally, I hope to never have to avail myself of Mr. Levine's services, but it is good to know that, if you need them, they're a phone call and a PayPal away.

And I am truly grateful to Larry for one thing. Wall Street Prison Consultants has inspired me to at least consider coming up with a $999 course - DysfunctionalTechTime 101 - in which I could coach folks who are about to begin working at the sorts of squirrelly little tech companies I seemed to specialize in during my full-time career. The course could cover topics like  reading the non-public company's financials to determine whether the company actually does have any income; the etiquette and wisdom of asking tough questions at company meetings; tea-leave interpretation - just what those closed doors and that nervous laughter might mean (hint: it's not always lay-offs); how to cope with wishful thinkers.... There is certainly a full and rich list of possible topics. I could even borrow a few from Larry Levine: Dealing with Other Inmates, Avoiding and Spotting Informants, Calculating Release Dates. and Defusing a Confrontation. I do not, however, think I'd have to include Getting a Soft Shoe Permit (whatever that means) or How to Survive a Prison Riot.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

I knew it all along

Occupational hazard, but I read a fair number of business books.

Most have been thrust upon me - at a corporate off-site, or through a publisher/publicist who wants me to blog about it. Even if the books generally aren't all that revelatory, and even if there is a depressing sameness about so many of them, most - even, I'll admit, the CEO puff-ographies - have something to say that's of interest, a decent enough point to make.

Having spent my full-time professional career largely in companies that are no longer among us, I've been especially interested in those books that purport to having divined the secret to corporate success.  But what can you make of classics like Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence, which profiled Wang as an example of the excellence he was searching for?

Sure, Wang - where I worked for a miserable 2 years, 7 months, and 14 days - had a brilliant founder and guiding force (An Wang), and some kickin' technology in its day. And, at one point in time (assuredly before I walked in the door), it may well have been excellent. But before In Search of was a decade old, it would have taken a business archeologist to go in search of Wang Labs, which had ceased to exist.

How excellent is that?

As I mentioned, most of the business books I've read do have something useful to say, but my experience has informed me that, while there are certain things (sins of omission, sins of commission) that will pretty much guarantee failure - and I have pretty much experienced them all - there's never anything I've been able to put my finger on that can actually guarantee success.  Even the companies I worked for that did the right thing at one point or another in their life cycle - were focused, had a coherent strategy and a plan to execute on it, had decent products, knew how to sell, treated and understood their customers well, provided value, etc. - didn't succeed. (Here my definition of succeed is not necessarily 'become a household name and make everyone rich', but the more humble and seemingly achievable definition of 'stayed in business long and well enough to go out on their own terms, and not get knocked down and acquired in a distress sale.')

The only thing I could ever put my finger on was that you really had to have some ration of luck (with timing being the biggest 'lucky-me' factor).

Now, it seems, there is a body of thought emerging that suggests that this is, in fact, the case.

This was discussed in a recent Boston Globe ideas column by Drake Bennett.  (And speaking of success and failure, The Globe's mothership, the New York Times Company, is threatening to close down The Globe in the next couple of days.)

Here's Bennett on books like In Search and Jim Collins' Good to Great,

While the particulars vary, the basic idea underlying the literature is the same: that the secrets of success can be divined by careful study of the institutional habits of the world's business all-stars - companies that set the standard for their industries, that thrive in tough times, companies that win the war for talent, companies that are built to last. In the imperturbable focus on core values of Hewlett-Packard or the restless innovativeness of Google or the ruthless accountability of GE, there are lessons for us all.

And here he introduces the revisionist theory:

But a few consultants and business school professors have begun to argue that much of this literature is, in fact, useless. Far from a science, they argue, the success literature is made up of little more than just-so stories in which authors use dramatic anecdotes - often drawn from previously published magazine profiles or interviews with the very executives whose performance is being examined - as evidence for "secrets" that amount to little more than warmed-over homilies. The critics accuse the success gurus of cherry-picking their evidence, of doing little to double-check their results, of circular reasoning, and of making elementary statistical errors.

Better yet, Bennett cites the work of Michael Raynor, a Deloitte Consulting researcher, who claims that if you really scrutinize the success of the companies studied in all these business-success books, what explains most of the success is plainly and simply luck.

Once a company has gotten lucky, it's easy to look back and ascribe their luck-based success to doing the right things - but maybe the unsuccessful, pathetically dysfunctional companies that didn't succeed were also doing things right. Why didn't they succeed?

In truth, I think that successful companies no doubt do have more than just luck going for them. And the companies I worked for sure as hell had more than bad luck going against them.  (I could write a book about it. Wait a minute. I did write a book.... ) But it was also generally the case that the companies I worked for lo those many years seldom experienced any good luck.

A lot of the bad luck seemed to revolve around having technology that was ahead of the market, and not having the wherewithal to create the market. Oh, sure, often we didn't have the wherewithal because we'd blown it on dumb stuff and no one would give us any more wherewithal. (Oh, boo-hoo.)

And there were other types of ill-luck: the economy tanked; a well-heeled competitor came in and ate us alive by underpricing to take our business; we ran out of runway; we were out and out screwed by something/someone/somewhere - some force over which we had no control.

I will have to take a closer look at Raynor's theories, and I thank Drake Bennett and the (possibly soon to be late and lamented) Boston Globe for introducing me to them. It certainly explains a lot, and I will now be able to sleep much easier at night knowing that I spent my career in companies that just plain flat-out lacked luck. (It wasn't me, after all.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hot dog! The 21st century's apples and pencils

I've been seeing all sorts of stories about folks who've lost their jobs and are saying 'to hell with it', and pursuing the sorts of work they've wanted to do all along: carpenter, graphics designer, DJ.

Why not? If you've got severance and/or unemployment benefits and/or savings and/or can live on air or off of your spouse, why not take some time off to learn to juggle flaming batons, carve duck decoys, or bake dog cookies. Especially if you're in a career/industry that's imploded - finance, auto-making - it does seem to make some sense to spend a bit of time doing what you damned well please.

Sure, only about 0.0001% of the would-be whatevers will actually make any money pursuing the objection of their affection, but at least they'll have tried. And the recession will no doubt last long enough to allow everyone ample opportunity to train-up for a job-of-the-future in green technology and elder care, the only things that seem like anything near to a sure bet (especially the latter: too bad it's so ill-paid and depressing).

Not all of the 'why-not' jobs that folks are pursuing are as unlikely to pan out as, say, DJ-ing.  The WSJ, in fact, is a bit bullish on the hot dog cart business. (Note: access to this article may require a subscription.) Those who are newly unemployed, fearful of becoming unemployed, or just trying to grab their piece of the American Dream are snapping up hot dog carts:

Sales of carts, which start at about $2,000 new, have heated up in the past year. "Every model is...taking off," says Joel Goetz, owner of American Dream Hot Dog Carts Inc. in St. Petersburg, Fla. Since January, he has sold about 25 carts a week, 15 more than usual.

From American Dream's site, we learn that:

Hot Dog Carts offer more opportunities than just about any other new business venture today...Hotdog Carts present one of the greatest opportunities to start your own business. It can easily grow as fast as you want and be as large or small as you need it to be. You can start your business with a brand new hot dog cart (with a big yellow "Sabrett Hot Dogs" umbrella), or with one of our quality inspected used hot dog carts (with a big red "Hebrew National" umbrella) (availability varies).

Well, I've always liked the Sabrett's Hot Dog carts, so that's where I'd head, although I have no idea what a Sabrett Hot Dog is. So maybe I'd be safer with a kosher, all-beef Hebrew National that wouldn't contain awful offal.

American Dream's not the only hot dog cart vendor that's seen an uptick in business.

For Nation's Leasing Services, "'business is really off the charts,'" and the company's revenues (most of which come from those little hot dog carts) have grown threefold over last year. Willy Dog, Ltd.'s sales have increased by 30% over the past two-years. So life is good, if you're a hot dog cart maker.

Not all the hot dog vendors are setting up (rolling up?) shop in big cities or tourist areas.

The Guajardo family from Bandera, Texas (pop. 957) was interviewed for the WSJ article. My first reaction was, 'just how many hot dogs can you sell each week in a town of 957?' Well, the answer, apparently, is plenty, if you've got a few honky-tonks where you can go vending on a Saturday night. The  Guajardos are taking home over $1,000 each weekend.

So far, both Guajardos still have their day jobs. For them, the cart is both their backup plan and the financing source for the college education of their four kids, all of whom help out with the cart.

One caution for prospective hot dog carters: with so many folks getting into the business, competition is heating up, and there are only so many desirable locations out there. No fun setting up shop in the abandoned warehouse district.

Still, it's not a bad little business - if you don't dwell that much on the provenance of the product you're selling.

Nobody seems to be selling pencils or apples, those Depression-era down-and-out staples. This is understandable. While the upfront costs of setting up a hot dog cart business are clearly higher than putting out a card table with a can of pencils or a bushel of apples on it, the returns are greater. After all, a hot dog with mustard-relish-onions, plus chips and a soda, is a bigger ticket item than a lone apple, let alone a lone pencil. (Other than Sudoku players and sketch artists, who uses a pencil anymore?) And stopping at a hot dog stand is a cheap, recession-y way to eat out. Not to mention that, anything purchased and consumed in the great out doors seems so much more healthful, natural, and organic than fast food grabbed and gulped in an overlit chain outlet.

The WSJ cited a statistic from the American Meat Institute's National Hot Dog & Sausage Council. During the summer months, American's ingest seven billion hot dogs. If I've got my 000's and US population estimate down right, that's about 2 dozen hot dogs per person.

While I like hot dogs as much as the next guy, I'm not doing my share here. I probably have anywhere from 3-6 hot dogs each year, depending on home many baseball games I get to. (I don't know about apple pie and Chevrolet, but baseball and hot dogs really do go together in the good old USA.) I may also get one from the permanent, not rolling, hot dog stand down by the Hatch Shell.

Personally, I'd generally rather have a disgusting, fatty, oily sausage with pepper and onions, but I only allow myself one of those suckers every other year. (Fortunately, I think that this is an on-year.) Mostly when I'm eating something shaped like a cylinder and sitting on a bun, it's a hot dog.

And now that I've read about what a good little business it is, I may be more inclined to stop at one of the vendors that I pass at the entrance to the Boston Common, or over on Washington Street. (No, wait, the guy I'm thinking of on Washington Street sells sausage and peppers. My mouth is watering. I must away....)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Filene's Basement's marked down, and maybe even out.

Well, go away on a meager, scrawny little 6 day vacation and come back to the news that Filene's Basement has been purchased by a liquidator that's now exploring its options on what to do with it.

Most of what I've gotten in The Basement over the last few years has been umbrellas, socks, and PJ's, but The B and I have a long history, and I'd hate to see it go.

In a time before there were Marshall's, TJ Maxx's, and "outlet malls" all over the retail map, for those of us fortunate enough to live in Massachusetts, there was Filene's Basement. The Basement sold "Irregulars", manufacturers surplus, and the end of season stock of big name department stores.  In addition to the mother church in downtown Boston, there was an outpost in Worcester. (When I was growing up, I believe that Worcester's was the only branch.) Having a Filene's Basement meant that I could occasionally afford a Villager sweater or a John Meyer of Norwich skirt.

Villager, John Meyer, Ladybug, Pappagallo - these were the ragingly preppy brands that were popular when I was in high school in the mid-1960's.  I went to what was (by Worcester Irish Catholic standards) a fairly ritzy and snooty girls high school, where most of the students were daughters of the Worcester Irish elite: doctors, lawyers, local pols, funeral parlor owners. I was there on scholarship and, fortunately, we wore uniforms. There was no way I could ever begin to compete, clothes-wise, with the funeral parlor et al. daughters. (Fortunately, I was more than able to compete academically.) We were only allowed to wear "real clothes" for a few days at the beginning and end of the school year, and I completely envied the "rich girls" their duds: colorful skirts with matching sweaters, matching two-toned Pappagallo shoes, and matching Bermuda bags.  I had a pair of Bass Weejun's. Having a pair of hot-pink loafers with yellow tassels was beyond my comprehension.

But I did want some of what the "rich girls" had.

So I frequented Filene's Basement, which was easy to do since I had to make a bus transfer in downtown Worcester on the way home from school.

At The Basement, I was able to buy a couple of Villager sweaters. So what if they were stamped "Irregular". So what if they were colors that looked completely and utterly rotten on me - dark olive green, orange heather. I also had a pair of Bermuda shorts that were Ladybug brand. The shorts had a white background with red flowers on them. Any Ladybug item came with a small stickpin with a ladybug on it, and I remember proudly wearing that pin on the white "poor boy" sweater I wore with those shorts.

I also scored a London Fog raincoat at the B - the same Peter Pan collared, navy blue one that everyone else in my class had.

The Basement was a high school godsend.

In college, I started shopping at the Boston Basement.

Again, it was the only place I could really afford to buy anything. Not that I wanted much. After a year of so in college, I was living in jeans, army shirts, and workboots. Who needed real clothing?

Still, I may have gotten the navy blue dress I wore to my father's funeral in The Basement...

For a while in my twenties, I worked downtown, and completely haunted The B. I recall the Bonwit Teller merchandise sales being especially good. One dress I very fondly remember was a white cotton knit a-line with blue and red floral sprigs on it. God, I loved that dress and hated to see it turned into a dust rag.

Sales like the Bonwit one were well advertised in advance, and eagerly anticipated. At lunch time, the stores would be completely mobbed. You'd just go in, grab as much as you could that was in your size, and carry your stash off to a corner to sort through it at a more leisurely pace than was possible if you were vying for merchandise on the racks or tables. If you were willing to stand around half-naked in front of strangers you could also try stuff on. (There were no fitting rooms for women in The Basement; just for the men.)

For years, I bought a non-trivial amount of my clothing at The Basement, and went there regularly, even when I was no longer working downtown. I still lived close by, and could easily pop in on a Saturday morning.

Most of what I got there was pretty good, although there was one dress I brought that was a complete failure. Once I got it home, I realized that someone with BO had already worn it and returned it. I really liked the dress - a "my color" purplish madras shirtwaist -  so I tried washing it out, but I don't think I wore it more than once. (If someone was going to wear something and sneak-return it, they could at least have used deodorant, ya think?)

The Basement was famous for its automatic mark downs.

Each item had a date stamped on it, and for every week or so that it remained on the floor, you got a 25% mark down. Once it was there for a certain amount of time, an item went to charity. I remember once trying to buy something that was beyond its "go to charity" date, and they wouldn't let me. I never really played the automatic markdown game - waiting an extra day or so to get the next 25% off -  but was always delighted when I happened upon a marked down item.

Over the years, Filene's Basement got less interesting.

It had a lot of competition from other discounters. Big name stores started to open their own outlets, like Sak's Off 5th. They started selling a lot of clothing that was made expressly for The Basement. (That's no fun!) The company expanded pretty widely, trying to go national, a business decision that didn't work out all that well for them.

And then The Basement's historic location, where it had been in business since 1908, closed down so that developers could put up a high rise mixed shopping-office-residential-hotel whatever on the site of the old Wm. Filene & Sons Department Store. The Basement relocated to Boston's Back Bay where it is no longer located in a basement. I don't think it has any automatic bargains there, either. I don't really know. I've been in there only once or twice, when I bought a sweater I ended up wearing once, and a Sigrid Olsen shirt that I've never worn. It's very pretty, but a bit diaphanous. I just wanted something Sigrid Olsen, but was never willing to pay the full retail price. (Hmmmmm. Some things haven't changed since high school. Of course then I'd have been willing to pay full price if I'd had it.)

Anyway, the wrecking crews came in and tore the old Filene's building down, leaving some of the facade, but mostly a big hole in the ground, surrounded by a cyclone fence.  The developers weren't able to secure funding, and there's no telling when they'll be able to do so. (Do we really need more office space and luxury condos in this economy?)

Part of the developers' deal with Filene's Basement was that, once the project was complete, The Basement would get to move back in and occupy their original digs.

Now the question is, will The Basement even be around to occupy its holy ground once more? Or will some sort of big box store usurp its spot.

Once again, I fear the permanent loss of yet another unique Boston institution.

Oh, bleccchhhhhh. Plus, I could use an umbrella that wasn't half blown out. It would be really convenient if The Basement was still where it's supposed to be...

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The votes are in - nude hiking update

Last month I blogged about nude hiking in Switzerland.

Well, the voters in the canton of Appenzell Inner Rhodes have voted, and they've turned a thumbs down. Nude hikers in their canton will now be subject to a hefty fine.

Appenzell Outer Rhodes-ers haven't voted yet, so there's still a bit of time if you want to make a nature-nature hike. But you'd better hurry:

A similar legal move is expected in neighboring Appenzell Outer Rhodes with legislation being prepared against "this shameless behavior."

Looks like this canton is going to follow (birthday) suit.

Source: AP article on

Friday, April 24, 2009

I want, I want, I want

Late yesterday afternoon, we got back from our Big Trip to Paris with our nieces, Molly and Caroline.

Although we had our moments - let's face it, we're not used to having kids around 24/7 for almost a week straight; and there's a reason why people our age don't have kids (unless they're crazy) - everything went very well.  The girls are bright, curious, and fun to be with. And if the occasional giggle-fits could be irritating, hey, I remember what is was like to be that age.

This was my fourth trip to Paris, and it was tremendous fun to see it through young eyes, experiencing something so new and exciting for the first time. (Hey, I even liked the corny Seine boat tour.)

Now that we're back, here's what I most want (besides world peace, economic prosperity, etc.):

A bagel. A poppy-seed bagel. With chive creamed cheese.

Network news. (Although Al Jazeera could be habit forming, I did miss Brian Williams.)

The Red Sox. (The season's first series with the Yankees starts tonight).

Spring weather. (After a rainy first day, the weather in Paris couldn't have been more perfect. It's still cold and cloudy here. Bring on spring.)

Leaves on trees. (Yes, the trees are budding, but Paris was in full bloom. Bring on spring.)

Better towels. (The apartment we rented was great, but the towels were sort of thin, sparse and scratchy.)

Girl Scout Cookies. (Fortunately, there are two boxes of thin mints in the freezer.)

The mail.

The mail that includes a magazine, and not just donation pleas.

Light at night. (It was still light in Paris at 8:30-9:00. As far as I'm concerned, there's never enough daylight time.)

My comfy LL Bean slippers.


Traveling's great, but...there's no place like the place where you part your comfy LL Bean slippers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Not much to report

This is our last day in Paris, so we're on the run: Bateau Mouche, and our last bit of POC shopping.*

Yesterday, the girls and I walked up to the first landing on the Eiffel Tower - about 300 steps. Better than waiting 45 minutes for the lift.

We all went to the Ile de la Cité to walk around and have dinner. This was the area the girls seemed to have liked best - ultra quaint and ice cream shops every ten feet. Alas, all the charming little French ice cream shops were closed by the time we finished dinner, so it was on to Haagen Dazs. (Ben and Jerry's was closed.) On the way back from the Ile, we spent a bit of time in the Marais. Not enough for me...

This morning, we walked the local open air market, where the highlight was some crazy guy - we'd seen him kicking a news kiosk - coming up behind be and leaning his head on my shoulder.

Well, allons-y. A toute a l'heure


*Piece of Crap - which works in any country where tourist is spoken.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Flash Mob at the Louvre

Yesterday, I participated in my first flash mob.

Okay, it wasn't an official flash mob exactly - we didn't connect via Tweets. But it sure felt flash-mobbish to be racing around the Louvre with 50,000 other tourists, elbowing and jostling not just to see the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo - but to make sure that everyone in the mob (other than me, who is un-camera'd) taking a picture of each work of art with a digital camera.

My nieces both took picture of the crowd at the Mona Lisa, et al. all snapping photos, which if they weren't still abed, I might upload and include here.

Some of the tourist-photographers included a friend or family member in their pics. Here's Shoji with the Venus de Milo.  Or maybe that should be here's Han with Venus, as the Chinese seem to have overtaken the Japanese - or at minimum tied with them - for the most omni-present tourist groups. Seeing this volume of Chinese travelers was a first for me. Yet another example of China's success in building a middle class.

And another sign that the wwr (world wide recession) has not yet scuppered every one's travel plans.

Not that the Chines and Japanese were the only high-volume travelers at the Louvre. There were plenty of European groups, and a lot of drips and drabs Americans. (I didn't, however, come across any American's traveling in packs.)

But the Louvre was packed, and - even if you wanted to leisurely stroll around meditating on a Giotto here and there, it would be really difficult to do during prime tourist season (which this must be).  Pretty much all of the galleries were jammed, although the biggest action was at the Mona and other "must see" art.  Everyone was running around looking for them as if they were on a scavenger hunt, or trying out for an episode of The Amazing Race.

In their defense, the Louvre has all the hot spots mapped out, with ample signage. I don't remember this being the case when I was on my last treasure hunt there, 30+ years ago. I think then you were pretty much on your own with the generic museum map.

I remember Whistler's Mother's having been on my prior tour, but I see that she/it is at the Musée D'Orsay. Maybe she/it was at the Jeu de Paume when I was last culture-vulturing around Paris.

So, for your viewing pleasure:

What's actually kind of interesting about all the tourists taking pictures of famous works o' art is that they can get a postcard that is probably a much better crafted representation of it in the gift store. Plus if you buy the post car, you don't have to contend with all the negative space around the painting. On the downside, you don't get to see the cool frames - or get to photoshop your head onto Venus' body, either.

In any case, I found everyone snapping away at art works to be quite peculiar. I can only accept it when the photographer is 12 and under.

Speaking of 12 and under, kids sure are free riders for a lot of things here.  I think that the Louvre is free to anyone under 26. (Imagine!) I don't think we had to pay for the girls at our other museum-ish stop yesterday either: Napoleon's Tomb.

All I can say is, they don't make monuments to dead emperors the way they used to.

There was also a little excitement at Les Invalides, which fronts the Napster's tomb: flag at half mast, lots of security.

I was able to piece together from the radio on in a cab that Nicholas Sarkozy was there for something or other to do with the Resistance. (You can pick up information, even if you do only understand every tenth word or so.)

From le google, I learned that Maurice Druon, a French author and political figure who had written the words to the Resistance's anthem, had died, and that his funeral was held at Les Invalides.

We saw a couple of WWII vintage soldiers walking around (slowly). One had lost an arm, and - from his gait - may also have been missing a leg. So sometimes people do actually give and arm and a leg for something that they care deeply about.

We had lunch at the upscale Cafe L'Esplanade - which was sprinkled with American tourists, but mostly full of chicly dressed French folks staring down their haughty noses at the American tourists.


They made me want to eat at McDonald's! Which we did for dinner. The local Mickey-D's was flash mobbed - and not with homesick Americans, but with French 20 somethings looking for frites.

So zere.

Monday, April 20, 2009

C'est fou: Louis Vuitton key chains

This week, I'm in Paris with my husband, and our nieces Molly (12) and Caroline (11).

Based on the trip so far, you'd never know there's a global recession on.

For starters, our Air France flight was overbooked. They were offering 400 Euros, plus overnight accommodations, to anyone willing to get on the next day's flight. We weren't. Nor were any of the kabillion Acton-Boxborough High School students on their April break trip.

In the line at passport control on Saturday morning, the American ex-pat behind us said that, in 35 years, he'd never seen such a mob scene of Americans at the airport.

Our first day - Saturday - was cool and showery, and we just walked around for a few hours, managing to avoid tourist areas, and just soaking up the atmosphere. For the girls, who refused to wear uncool rain jackets or hats, or carry an uncool umbrella, this also meant literally soaking up the atmosphere. Ah, to be 11-12!  I, meanwhile, with my baseball cap, hooded rain jacket, and umbrella, remained perfectly dry and comfortable.

The high points for the girls on our first jaunt was the ubiquity of pharmacies. (They are everywhere.) And the availability of Haagen Dazs ice cream. (Let's hear it for an American export!)

The area around the Eiffel Tower has been crazily thronged. We haven't gone up yet - the lines have been too long - but as it is about a 5 minute walk from our apartment, we will drift over at some point and make the trip.

We did try to go on a Bateau Mouche tour of the Seine, but - after waiting in line for half and hour - the boat loaded up with about 1/3 of the passengers, said nothing to the rest of us, and took off mostly empty. They happily gave us our money back, but we were left thinking w.t.f.?

So far, our boat trip having been thwarted, our touristic things have been Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Champs Élysée.

I must say that Notre Dame is magnificent. Whatever the original looked like, nearly 1000 years ago, I'm sure that anyone's first trip in was met with shock and awe. Definitely easy to see how The Church and the royals managed to keep the peasantry in check.

We didn't climb to the top of Notre Dame. 400 steps just sounded like a bit too much, especially for someone like myself that has such a fear of heights, I wouldn't want to be a the top, anyway.

We did do the 284 stairs at the Arc de Triomphe, which was worth it for the panoramic view of the city.

As we walked down Les Champs Élysée, the girls asked to go into the Louis Vuitton store.

Cannily figuring that the one thing they could possibly afford with their supply of Euros was a key chain, we looked at those first.

Alas, the least expensive were in the $350-400 range.

We still poked around, looking at $2,000 pocketbooks, and $4,000 men's high top sneakers with the Vuitton logo on them. (As you can imagine, but husband was sorely tempted...)

Most of the people in Vuitton - which was mobbed - were, like us, Looky-Lous. However, there was plenty of commerce being transacted, and the clerks were all busy selling bags, watches, shoes, etc.

I told the girls that they could probably get knock-off Louis Vuitton anythings on eBay. (Yes, I know that the luxury goods companies are up in arms about trafficking in their brands. But seriously, folks, the consumers in the market for a $19.95 key chain were never going to buy the real thing now, were they? And then there's that bit about imitation and flattery...)

Anyway, we are off to the Louvre. Fortunately, I was able to get tickets at a FNAC (electronics) store, so we won't have to wait in line to join the hordes of American tourists racing through to see the essentials: Mona Lisa, Whistler's Mother...

Au revoir for now.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

April in Paris

Bon jour, mes amis.

I am on a long planned, long awaited trip to Paris with my husband, and my nieces Molly (who is 12) and Caroline (who is 11).

We are renting an apartment near the Champs de Mars, with a view of the Eiffel Tower from the living room. As of this writing, I've only seen the place online, but oo-la-la. C'est magnifique - or so it seems on the Internet. Sure, I know that, on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog. Or a chien. But this apartment does seem very nice. Plus the guy who owns it only advertises in Ivy alumni mags, and I'm pretty sure that if you screw over one of the 10,000 men of Harvard, or a Princetonian (you know, that "prince" isn't in the name for nothing), you don't get to advertise there for long.

Just the thought of Paris makes me want to don a beret, light up a Gitane, and start doing an Apache dance with a dark and dangerous swain in a striped tee-shirt. (Actually, if we're Apache dancing, I guess the swain gets to wear the beret.)

Just the thought of Paris makes me wish I knew more French than the memorized 'ou est la bibliotheque' ALM dialogues that are still running around my head, 40+ years after I learned them. But thanks to that high school French, my French is sufficient to limp around and make myself primitively understood, relying, quite crudely, on one tense and frequent lapses into the English word for whatever it is. 

I do retain full, multi-tense fluency if my part of the conversation comes from one of those long ago memorization sessions. Thus, if we have a flat tire, broken leg, or malfunctioning record player, I'm all set. Ditto (ditteau?) if I leave my glasses at the opera, or need to get in a discussion about the inevitability of hot dogs for lunch on Wednesday.

Unfortunately, while I can generally make myself understood, I can seldom understand more than every other word of what is rattled back at me. Quel dommage!

Anyway, I truly love Paris, and am looking forward to introducing it to the girls.

There's supposed to be broadband access in the apartment.

If so, I hope to get a post Parisian off each day.

If not, Pink Slip should be back on Friday, April 24th.

Unless I decide to stay to hell with it and stay, 'netless or not. (Note to my sister Trish and brother Rich: I will make sure you get your daughters back.)

Until then, à bientôt.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Domino's Delivers a Pink Slip to a Couple of Real Lunkheads

If you haven't seen the video, it's probably too late. But you still may have heard of the two hapless, clueless, and now jobless Conover, NC, Domino's workers who put a prank video about food prep up on YouTube. (Source for info in this post: NY Times.)

Kristy Hammonds and Michael Setzer are no kids, by the way - they're in their early 30's. But they're now not just jobless, they're infamous for their crude humor and their profound idiocy for not realizing that:

a) Material like this goes viral really quickly.

b) Domino's is not exactly an outfit known for their robust sense of humor.

Sure, they're also 15-minutes of fame famous, but where do they go from here, job-wise?

Okay, the will no doubt get to be interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel and other shows of that ilk. But that's when they get out of jail - they were arrested for violating some defiling of food statute (a felony rap) - and Domino's is considering suing. Although I don't imagine he'll get much out of this duo. What do you suppose a food-prep at a North Carolina Domino's makes per hour?

Here's their mug shot. I don't suppose there'll be a movie deal out of this, but Noah Wyle could play Setzer, no?

Anyway, what these kitchen-eers did to merit all the negative attention was show Setzer shoving cheese up his nose, then putting it on the sandwich. Along with snot. Not to mention a slice or two of farted-on salami. Here's a bit of the clever narration:

“In about five minutes it’ll be sent out on delivery where somebody will be eating these, yes, eating them, and little did they know that cheese was in his nose and that there was some lethal gas that ended up on their salami,” Kristy said. “Now that’s how we roll at Domino’s.”

Recall, please, that these folks are no 10 years old. They're in their thirties.

Not that this sort of antic is unheard of in the food service industry.

As someone who logged a lot of hours as a waitress, I saw a few rather disturbing things. At one restaurant where I worked, the cooks were know to fry up cockroaches and served them on the fisherman's platter. Extra protein!

Anyway, the Domino's Duo posted their just high-larious video on YouTube, and within a couple of days it went viral, with over a million viewers. I also handed a major PR issue to Domino's (which, parenthetically, they handled quite nicely, loth as I am to give Domino's credit for much of anything).

Setzer and Hammonds deny that they actually delivered the despoiled food, but that probably doesn't do much for anyone who had anything from Domino's to eat recently. Stomachs, I'm sure, are churning from coast to coast - and especially in Conover, NC, where I'll bet there are plenty of folks scratching the Domino's phone number off the list of take-out joints magneted onto their fridge.

Ms. Hammonds apologized to the company in an e-mail message Tuesday morning. “It was fake and I wish that everyone knew that!!!!” she wrote. “I AM SOO SORRY.

I'll bet you are, Kristy, but not as sorry as you're going to be when you look for your next job, I'm guessing.

You know, virtually everyone in this country uses working in fast food when they talk about the most downside job they might ever have to hold.

A few weeks ago, I read about some fallen hedge fund manager who claims that he was making half a million per, but is now making $8/hour delivery pizza. He's not the only one I've heard make a similar statement.

Well, the good news is that there are a couple of fast food openings in Conover, NC. 

The bad news for Setzer and Hammonds is that they can't even hold a job at Domino's.

Where do you go down from here? Chicken factory?

Talk about a bad career move.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The ball on Bee's back is bad. (Fa love Pa.)

On of the all time great, ROTFL, completely over-the-top ridiculous movies is The Day of the Dolphin, starring George C. Scott. I can't recall the full plot line, but George C. is a researcher who's trying to teach dolphins, Alpha (Fa) and Beta (Bee), to speak. Speak English that is. (I believe that dolphins already chatter away in some sort of language or another. Dolphinese?) Meanwhile, some no-good-nik is trying to train Fa and Bee for a nefarious purpose that involves strapping a mine to Bee and having her swim under a ship and blow it up.

When George C. gets wind of the bad guys turning Bee into a suicide bomber, he sends Fa off to warn Bee off, explaining to Fa that "the ball on Bee's back is bad."

The movie also has a romantic moment of sorts - a bit of touching male bonding (or is in inter-species bonding) - when Fa tells George C.,"Fa love Pa."

Anyway, I thought of this movie yesterday when I saw The Lede, the The NY Times blog, which featured an interesting piece on a story reported by Xinhua, China's official news ageimagency. Xinhua claims that a school of dolphins recently thwarted a Somali pirate attack on Chinese freighters. The Times blog points out that the photos don't exactly show any Somali pirate boats being held at bay by Flipper et al. Nonetheless, with the current grim news of Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, it's refreshing to have a little feel good story.

Of course, I do have to ask myself how the dolphins knew that the Somali pirates were the bad guys and the Chinese merchant marines, and the Chinese navy that was escorting them, were the good guys. (Having an inquiring mind can sure be irksome.)

The Lede went on to mention a 1980's US Navy program spent millions of dollars attempting to train dolphins and sea lions to guard a nuclear sub base. The Lede said that program was abandoned, but there appears to be some ongoing military action, at least according the folks at Spawar, which has a quasi-official looking site dedicated to the US Naval Marine Military Program. According to the site, dolphins saw action in the Iraq war.

The Lede also noted a rumor that dolphins armed (flippered?) with poison dart guns escaped their holding area in Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Katrina, and posed a danger to swimmers. The Navy claims that they accounted for all the Louisiana dolphins, which is no doubt good news to those enjoying the Gulf Coast waters.

But dolphins equipped with poison dart guns - now there's a thought.  I guess it's not just the ball on Bee's back that could be bad.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Keep me out of here! Canada's megabucks "self-exclusion" lawsuit

Gambling is one vice that I cannot imagine I could ever get hooked on.

Sure, I buy lottery tickets every once in  a while, quick picks for MegaBucks and MegaMillions. I usually forget to check the numbers until I find the slips wadded up, a month later, in my wallet. I rarely get even a one number match, although I did win $75 once.

I've been to casinos a few times, but I'm only ever willing to play the slots and spring for one roll of quarters - one and done. One time in Reno, I won a couple of hundred bucks, and a by-stander was really shocked by how happily I walked away from the lucky machine.

"Are you kidding me," I said. "I just spent ten-bucks and made two-hundred. This will be the best investment I've ever made in my life."

I've been to the horse track a couple of times. I'm strictly a two-dollar window kind of gal, and pick my ponies based on their names and/or the color of the silks their jockeys are wearing.

I make "I'll bet I'm right" bets with my husband all the time. Unfortunately, although I mostly win, he never pays off. Maybe I'd have more luck if we made bets for less than a thousand dollars.

Although I will never be one, I do feel badly for compulsive gamblers, which in some ways has got to be worse than alcoholism or drug addiction.

So I was interested to learn of a Canadian law suit, in which Peter Dennis, an admitted gambling addict, is suing the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation for $3.5 billion because they failed to keep him the hell out of casinos after he'd signed up for a "self-exclusion" program authorizing casinos to prevent him from entering their premises. (Source:

Under the voluntary self-exclusion program begun in the mid-1990s, problem gamblers could sign a form authorizing the province's gambling facilities to use their "best efforts" to keep them out or remove them if they sneaked in anyway.

The proposed class action filed [by Dennis and his wife] in Ontario Superior Court and served on the gaming corporation this week suggests the program was a sham that profited from the most vulnerable gamblers.

Dennis supposedly signed up for self-exclusion in 2004 - after he'd blown about $350K on the slots. (Canadian or US, that's a lot of rolls of quarters.) Even after he signed up for self-exclusion, however, Dennis continued to frequent gambling facilities, and racked up another $200K in losses.

As a result, he lost his homes and his job. (He'd borrowed money from a client, which can never, ever be a good idea.)

Among other things, the suit alleges, the corporation was lax in allowing people on the list in, failing to train staff properly to enforce the program, and not implementing technology to detect those who sought entry anyway.

I had never heard of these self-exclusion programs - need to know basis, only, I guess - but apparently they're big in Canada, where 12,000 have signed up for it. There are few such state-run programs in the US, as well.

Well, unless you have sophisticated technology that can detect who's coming and going, I don't really see how a self-exclusion program could work. Would you have to bio-metric everyone trying to come into a casino? I don't see how that would fly with most people who want to do a bit of gambling?

And if someone were so addicted to begin with, I can imagine that they'd figure out some way to get around it  - like sneaking in, or taking up another form of gambling. Peter Dennis could easily have come across the border from Ontario and gambled his brains out at one of the casinos in upstate NY, for crying out loud.

The whole self-exclusion thing sounds sort of ridiculous to me - talk about the nanny state. It's easy to see how this sort of thinking could extend to all sorts of addictions: 'stop me before I eat-drink-shop again.' Sure, maybe it would help a teensy-weensy bit, but it seems to me that if you've got a major addiction, you need to be relying on more than a 'save me from myself' program.

I'll bet - but not all that much - that this case won't get very far - at least not as far as a $3.5B payout to the plaintiffs. I also bet - though, again, not all that much - that the self-exclusion programs will tighten up their "contract" so that those who sign up have to initial the "best efforts" wording, or explicitly sign something that says "I acknowledge that this is my problem and that you're just trying to help." Or maybe they should just do away with the programs entirely. Other than a step in the way of acknowledging that you have a problem, they just seem like a screwy idea to me.

On the other hand, I really can't fathom what it must be like to be addicted to gambling in the first place. Bad enough I've lost 20% of my IRA. I can't imagine how I could live with myself if I'd blown half a million feeding quarters into a one-armed bandit.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sub-primed nuns suing State Street

Apparently the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary have decided that while forgiving may be divine, it's strictly for the Divinity Himself.

The good sisters claim that they lost more than $1m because State Street Global Advisors "promised to invest conservatively but instead put their assets into risky investments." (Source: AP Article.) So they're suing the bums. The article I saw didn't specify what damages they're looking for, but I'm sure that it's something more modest than suing State Street's pants off. (Sorry: I just couldn't resist.)

If the suit gets to court, we'll find out whether the nuns got naively greedy, or their financial advisor conned them by downplaying the risks of investing in subprimes, and perhaps preyed on the nuns' commitment to social justice by up-playing some do-gooder angle about putting poor people in homes. Having looked at the Sisters of Charity of the BVM's homepage, I would bet any appeal to social justice would have worked. Like many other orders of nuns, they may not be doing as much teaching these days, but they do plenty with the' least of our brethren' communities.

Looking at the nuns pictured on the order's web page, I can't help but think that they all look so pleasant, earnest and harmless.

Have the crazy nuns of my childhood all died out? Or was this order of nuns just Midwest nice?

My education was at the hands of nuns who all seemed to be one of two types: kindly, patient, good, understanding paragons of nunny-bunny-ness, a la Sister Benedict from Bells of Saint Mary's; or blatantly cruel and completely demented harpies. And let me tell you, when you got stuck with one of the dementos, you learned how to keep a straight face, you learned how to cope with the completely arbitrary, and you developed a keen sense of the absurd.

I will say that all of these skills have kept me in good stead during my business career, as have my ability to write a clear sentence and do arithmetic in my head. Still, my education was decidedly something of a mixed bag. I remember grammar school largely as alternating currents of sheer boredom and sheer terror.

That said, I do have quite a bit of sympathy for these aging religious congregations that no longer have the droves of younger nuns coming along to support them. Nuns taught "for free", and went without marriage and children, with the expectation that they'd be taken care of in their old age.

These days, with the nun shortage, this bargain is getting tougher to live up to. Still, many congregations are fortunate in that they have some wealth, often from prime real estate that was given to them somewhere along the line: mother houses, novitiates, schools run by the order (rather than owned by a parish).

Wherever the Sisters of Charity got their nest egg, it would probably be pretty difficult to replace a million dollar loss. If State Street representatives were deliberately misleading, they ought to pay up. But if this was just a case of financial naivete...Well, sorry, S'tah. You got played, but so did an awful lot of other folks. (If this whole crisis isn't one loud wake-up call for developing more widespread financial and economic literacy, I don't know what is.)

Anyway, because they look like a bunch of nice old nuns, I hope the Sisters of Charity of the BVM do get their money back.

I'm also on their side because, in 1937, the Sisters of Charity of the BVM offered my mother a scholarship to Mundelein College in Chicago.  Because my grandparents didn't believe in college education for girls, they wouldn't let my mother go. Another part of their claimed "reasoning" for keeping my mother out of college was that the scholarship was only half-tuition. This always struck me as completely bogus, given that they were willing to pay two years worth of tuition at a secretarial college for my mother. Whatever the reason, not being able to go to Mundelein (then a women's college, now part of Loyola University) broke my mother's heart.

After she died in 2001, I found the scholarship letter among my mother's papers. (I still have it.)

So, after all these years, thank you to the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary for recognizing that my mother was very bright and completely deserving of a college education.

And good luck in court.


A tip of my flying-nun head-piece to my friend Joanne for alerting me to this story.

Monday, April 13, 2009

We're Number 9! Worcester named 9th most livable city in the US

Well, I have to say I was just bit surprised to hear that Worcester - yes, that Worcester: Wuh-stah, Wormtown, thimagee Heart of the Commonwealth - ranked number 9 on a Forbes list of livable U.S. cities. My first thought was: what were the criteria? Clearly, availability of interesting places to shop; number of steep hills impossible to drive on during icy weather; and percentage of high school seniors who agree with the statement "I don't care where I go to college, as long as it's somewhere other than Worcester" weren't part of the statistical mix that went into this pick.

In fact, the cities were chosen by assigning ratings to:

Five-year income growth per household and cost of living from Moody's, crime data and leisure index from Sperling's Best Places, and annual unemployment statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Here are the vitals listed for Worcester, with the rankings vis a vis the 379 cities evaluated in parentheses:

Metro Population: 787,000
Income Growth: 3.5% (No. 145 of 379)
Cost of Living Index: 106.1 (No. 147 of 379)
Culture Index: 98 (No. 7 of 379, tie)
Crime per 100,000: 2,334 (No. 29 of 379)
Unemployment: 7.8% (No. 13 of 379)

I love the "Culture Index" rating - whatever it means.  Cambridge may have ranked higher than Worcester overall - it came in 7th - but Worcester had 'em beat on culture. Cambridge was number 11th in this category. Take that, Cambridge snobs! (Of which I would be one, if I lived in Cambridge. Which I would, in fact, like to do someday. Hopefully before the polar ice cap completely melts, the Atlantic Ocean rises, and the Flat of the Hill (where I live in Boston) doesn't revert back to from whence it came, reclaimed by the sea. If and when that happens, the value of our condo will plummet, and Cambridge will be oceanfront.)

As with most/all such rankings, they're wildly interesting but fundamentally arbitrary and a little dumb. Although I can't argue with Portland, Maine's landing at Number 1. This is one very nice little city, and every time I visit I'm reminded that I could live there quite nicely. Yes, Portland strikes me as very livable.

As, in fact, does Worcester. Likable, lovable, and livable.Although I don't particularly want to live there, I don't think it would be a bad place to live. And it's an excellent place to be from.

What it does have going for it is, in fact, culture. Among other things, the Worcester Art Museum is a complete gem.

It also has some beautiful neighborhoods, none of which I ever lived in, with some beautiful old houses that are a lot cheaper than equivalent beautiful old houses closer to Boston. Not that Worcester's that far from Boston: 50 miles - just a breeze down the Mass Pike.

Worcester also has great restaurants, few traffic jams, lots of colleges, and a minor league baseball team, the Tornadoes, peculiarly named after a devastating 1953 storm in which nearly 100 people were killed, including a baby that was spun out of his mother's arms as she ran for safety.

So Worcester's Number 9!

Bravo! This is so much better than being named an All American City, which Worcester seems always to be vying for. (I am such a snob: the very hokeyness of wanting to be named an All American City makes me cringe.)

So, where else besides Portland, Cambridge, and Worcester is up there in the Forbes list?

Take a look at the Top 15:

1. Portland, ME
2. Bethesda, MD
3. Des Moines, IA
4. Stamford/Bridgeport, CT
5. Tulsa, OK
6. Oklahoma City, OK
7. Cambridge, MA
8. Baltimore, MD
9. Worcester, MA
10. Pittsburgh, PA
11. Denver, CO
12. Harrisburg, PA
13. Madison, WI
14. Peabody, MA
15. Little Rock, AR

What immediately stands out, of course, is the striking absence of places in the sun. The only southern city is Little Rock, and there's nary a choice from the West Coast. (Modesto, California, by the way, figured dead last.)

I'm sure that commenters on Forbes are all in a flap about this, but I say: to hell with them. Maybe this is just a make-up call for all those great places lists populated solely by cities south of the Mason-Dixon line and/or built in the desert. These lists are obviously based on criteria as arbitrary as the ones used by Forbes, and likely include measures like number of days when you could play golf, average driving distance to a Wal-Mart, and frequency with which a complete stranger gets in your face with a smile and a big hearty 'how are ya?'

Anyway, I haven't been every place on the list, but I must say that Tulsa has never sounded appealing to me. I always imagine it smells like oil. And I am surprised to see Bridgeport on the list, given that every time I travel through it on Amtrak on the way to NYC, I always think a) how weird that they have a jai-alai fronton, and b) what a dump. I guess Stamford must have swung more than its weight on this pick.

Peabody, Massachusetts is a very nice little city, but I really don't think of it as being a metro of its own: it's a suburb on Boston. (I suppose that you could make the same claim about Cambridge, but Cambridge just seems like more of an autonomous stand-alone.)

I like the Midwest picks on the list. I've never been to Madison, but it does seem like a very nice city. And, call me deluded, but I've been to Des Moines a couple of times on business, and I really liked it. My main problem with Des Moines, other than the screw-driver-in-the-ear Midwest accent, is that it's too damned flat.

But I still can't get over that Worcester's Number 9!

If I know my homeys, there's a spring in the steps being taken these days on Main Street, more than a few "how about that?"'s being exchanged when the after-Mass crowd goes out for coffee and danish, and a toast or two being made at Breen's to the good old Heart of the Commonwealth.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Waiter, what's that fly doing in my soup?*

A month or so ago, it was the woman who called 911 to complain that McDonald's wouldn't give her a refund, after she'd paid for something (McNuggets, I believe) that they were out of. Although calling 911 does seem a bit extreme, this dialer did have a point: since Mickey-D's was out of what she  wanted, they should have given her her money back. Holding back her money was, I guess, tantamount to petty theft. But rather than fork over her money, McDonald's tried to force her to select some equivalently priced alternative. (I'm guessing the clerk didn't know how to do a refund.) If you've got a jones for McNuggets, you've got a jones for McNuggets. Accept no substitutes.

Still, calling 911? When there could have been a real crime going down somewhere? Come on.

This is where you ask for the manager's name, and write a complaint letter to the store, or to McDonald's HQ. My guess is that they would have sent her something in return that was worth more than the price of her value meal.

Instead, she persisted in calling 911 - multiple times - and ended up getting herself arrested.

McDonald's offered her a free meal for her trouble.

Hmmmmm. I'm guessing a well-worded complaint letter - or even a phone call to some level of HQ - would have produced a far preferable outcome.

But calling 911 over a withheld refund almost seems like a righteous move compared to the one where the woman in Texas called 911 because she didn't feel she'd gotten enough shrimp in her fried rice takeout. (Source: AP article on

Unfortunately, this customer had departed in a huff before the police arrived (although I guess there's always the possibility that she can be back-tracked if she used a cell-phone).

Sure, there's less recourse if you get screwed in a mom-and-pop restaurant - which I'm guessing this one was - than in a chain or more established establishment.


What do you have to be thinking to whistle in the cops when you think you got short-weighted on shrimp?

And I don't know about shrimp fried rice in Haltom City, Texas, but the few times I've ever had it, there are never very many shrimp. And the shrimp that were in it are small, tasteless, and still semi-frozen. In a sense, you should almost want fewer shrimp and more water chestnuts which, while likely to be canned, are more likely to be tasty than are those heinous little bitty shrimp.

There are a number of ways in which this disgruntled customer could have vented her spleen.

She could have refused to come back.

She could have bad-mouthed the joint to friends and family, browbeating them to stop patronizing it.

She could have gone online and given the place a no-star review.

Truly, I don't believe anyone needs to suffer bad meals in silence.  I'm not a chronic complainer: I'm not much of a cook, so mostly what I get out is frankly better than what I'd cook at home. But I do speak up when something is out and out lousy. And I can honestly say it has never occurred to me to call the police - even when the wine smelled like formaldehyde, the de-caff coffee was poured from the same pot as the caff (I saw it with my very eyes!), and the salmon was way overcooked.

Sometimes your complaint gets handled to your satisfaction. Sometimes you're s.o.l.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Banshees (sisters and cousins) were on our annual winter (actually, early spring this year) weekend getaway. We had a very nice breakfast in our very nice Portland, Maine hotel on Saturday. Since Sunday was pouring rain, we decided not to venture out for breakfast that day, either. Unfortunately, everything we ordered - omelets, French toast, oatmeal - was stone cold. We mentioned it to the waitress. She told the manager, who took the entire breakfast for six off the bill. The waitress got a huge tip. And we left feeling very good about the very nice Portland, Maine hotel.

On the other hand, a number of years ago, with a couple of my sibs and spouses, we took my mother out to a pricey restaurant for her birthday dinner. Everything about the meal was sub-standard, starting with the table they jammed us - six pretty much average sized people - which they insisted was a table for six. The food was mediocre at best - except for my husband's swordfish. Fifteen or so years later, I can still get my stomach to churn if I conjure up the image of that pile of taupe slime. Oh, and they made a big point of telling us that we had to vacate our table - which we had reserved well in advance - by 8 p.m., when they had another party coming in.

Our complaints mattered not to anyone at this outfit.

We left muttering we shall not return. And we couldn't have, even if we'd wanted to. A couple of months later, the place was out of business. We do still talk about it occasionally, as this event looms fairly large in our chronicles of family meals, out (or family meals, in, for that matter).

Having waitressed for a number of years, I was also on the other side of the counter when it came to complaints about food.

My first waitress job was at a Big Boy's Restaurant, where the special dessert was strawberry pie.

One day, a woman came in and ordered a piece.

She proceeded to mau it down to the last crumb, then told me it was terrible and demanded another piece. I was dumbstruck, but I was also 18, and this was one cranky old lady - she was probably 50. So I went and got the manager, and he told her she should have spoken up before she took the last bite. She came back regularly, always ordered the strawberry pie - and never complained about it again.

One day, when I waitressed at Boston's historic tourist trap, Durgin Park, I served a couple of young women on their lunch break.

They both ordered the Poor Man's Roast Beef luncheon special: a thin slice of rump roast au jus, served with potato and veg, plus a piece of cornbread and a cup of coffee. I believe it went for $1.25. (This was the early 1970's.) Anyway, the cook gave me two plates to take out. One held a nice, rarish piece of rump roast. The other held four small, gray end pieces, so dried up, they were curling up at the edges.

Given my long career in food service, I knew I couldn't very well put those two plates down in front of the same party, so I asked to cook for a matched pair of meals.

He told me to try to "sell it", but that once they refused to take the offending plate, he'd replace it.

A minute later, as I was marching back into the kitchen with the turned-back meal, the owner - a Grade A, no redeeming quality that I could ever find S.O.B. - stopped me.

"Where are you going with that," he growled.

"The customer refused to take it," I answered.

"There's nothing wrong with that meat," he said.

I explained that the two women were sitting together, one got a better looking meal, etc.

"Where are they?" he barked.

I led him back to the table where the two women were sitting and slammed the plate down.

"There's nothing wrong with this," he yelled.

The women started to argue with him, but he wasn't budging.

"Get the hell out of my restaurant," he told them. "And don't come back."

Well, I don't think he had to worry much on that count.

But The Boss wasn't done yet.

He pointed his finger at me, "You," he yelled, "Make sure you get the 10 cents for the cornbread."

Needless to say, I went out of pocket on that one. (And, needless to say, I bet that meal looms large in the chronicles of meals out for those two women.)

So, yes, I've experienced it all: bad food where complaining worked; bad food where it didn't; good food where complaining didn't work; and terrible, ghastly looking food where the entirely justified complaining customer should have just saved her breath.

But, for the life of me, I can't imagine for a moment calling 911 unless outright theft, violence, or general mayhem was involved. (Which reminds me: pre-911, pre-cell phone, while I was eating at Jack and Marion's, a famous, now gone Brookline, Mass. deli, I witnessed a knife fight between two cooks in what was a semi-open kitchen. Floor show!)

A few years ago, they came up with 311 for non-emergency situations.

Maybe we need a restaurant complaint line, a you-pay-for-it service, like a 900-number, in which any consumer can lodge a complaint and have the service follow up on it. $10 per complaint.

If only this service had been available, the Haltom City police might have saved themselves a trip to run down a complaint about skimpy shrink in the fried rice.


*The backstroke.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Major League Gaming: going pro in something else

The NCAA runs ads that talk about the hundreds of thousands of students involved in college athletics, "and most of them will be going pro in something other than sports." 

Well, you can debate whether running these ads during the Final Four of the March Madness men's basketball playoffs is unintentionally hilarious or not, but I thought of this tagline when I saw an article on some non-NCAA competitors who had chosen to go pro as video-game players. (Source: NY Times.)

Alas, unlike those NCAA "student" ath-a-letes who will be going pro in the NBA or the NFL, most of the opportunities for professional gamers are drying up.

One fellow referenced in The Times article is the world champion "Dead or Alive 4" player. He was one of a hundred professional players who had been paid a base salary plus tournament winnings by Championship Gaming Series, a league sponsored by News Corporation and DirectTV.

Alas, the Series was shut down a few months ago.

Like so much else these days, it was a victim of the recession.

Now Emmanuel Rodriguez, who chose to focus on Xbox-ing rather than go to college post-high school, is back to working at Sam's Club. There, I suppose, he can keep his skills up with the demo versions of Xbox on the floor - when he's not stocking, greeting, complaint taking, cashiering, or whatever else that ol' Sam has got him doing. (Actually, there are probably a lot of kids with college degrees who are looking for jobs at Sam's, so maybe Rodriguez wasn't being so impractical when he started pursuing a career in the video game pros. On the other hand, it's one thing for Lebron James to decide to go pro after high school - that's sure worked out okay, hasn't it - quite another thing to go pro in a sport that's wildly popular, and still pretty much wildly amateur.)

For Rodriguez, the loss is tremendous:

“Going into this, I busted my heart out,” Rodriguez said recently. “It felt like I put in all this energy to build something big. I felt like everything I built up was gone.”

Fortunately for Rodriguez, he's just 23, so he has plenty of time to put all that energy into building something else that's big. (Techie yenta that I am, I'm channeling him to get some technical credentials and go and build, or QA, or market Xbox games.)

I don't do video games. I didn't do my era's version - the pinball game - either. (I will note that, at arcades, us older folks do tend to gravitate to the pre-point inflation mechanical games, while the youngsters head for the latest electronic ones.) But I'm no stranger to the enormously absorbing, some may say time-wasting, potential of computer games. Many the happy, near catatonic hours I've spent with Freecell, Tetris, WordZap, and TaiPei. It's great: since none of these games require particular concentration - other than WordZap when you're on a winning streak: it can get pretty fast after you've won 40 or 50 games in a row - you can think about other things, and it sort of looks like you're working. I never played games at work, so it really doesn't matter to anyone whether I'm trying to remember whether "yuk" is an allowed word in WordZap, rather than working on the big report for Mr. Big.  These days, I'm on my own clock. I did have a boss once who would sit there playing Tetris while she was talking to us. She'd say something like, "Just let me check this for a moment," but we could see the floating Tetris shapes reflected in her glasses.

So, while I do think that professional video game playing is somewhat peculiar, I am not one to make out-and-out fun of it, either.

The good news for those aiming to go pro in this field is that there remains at least "one significant competitive circuit in North America, Major League Gaming."

“We have driven everybody else out of the business,”  Matthew Bromberg, the league’s president and chief executive, said in a recent interview at his office in Manhattan. “The history of league sports begins with one league.”

Anyway, I'd have to give some thought to Bromberg's statement that "the history of league sports begins with one league." It seems to me that before and after baseball's National League emerged, there were a ton of duffer little leagues around the country. And both the NBA and the NFL are examples of one dominant professional league absorbing the less dominant, upstart ABA and AFL.

But it's pretty interesting that Bromberg's business has raised over $40M in venture, and several of the players in his league make over six figures, between salaries and endorsements.

I'm not quite up on any video game nuances - the only video games I've heard of are "Grand Theft Auto" and "Guitar Hero"(which, now that I think of it, may not really be a game). But there are apparently two types: console games (like the Xbox ones Emmanuel Rodriguez excelled at) and personal computer games (like TaiPei?). Major League Gaming's big game is "Halo 3" -  "a first-person shooting game" (whatever that means).

Maybe if he can switch from console to PC, Emmanuel Rodriguez can try out for the MLG.

“I still believe in gaming,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I just gave it up.”

Given how ephemeral most jobs (and careers, even) can be these days, why not?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Monster, Monster, Monster. (So sue me, already.)

Until I saw a Wall Street Journal article on them the other day, I'd never heard of Monster Cable products.

Well, now I have. And, frankly, I've developed a fairly monstrous disliking for them - to the degree that, if I ever do become some kind of monster audiophile and need mega-serious, millions of colors, cable, I will take a pass on their products.

That's because Monster has been picking on mini-golf company owners Christina and Patrick Vitagliano.

The Vitaglianos, I must note, are not running your every day, cheese-ball mini-golf with 18 flat and boring holes, one dinosaur, one whale, and one tunnel.

They are the founders of Providence-based Monster Mini Golf, which franchises "monster-themed, glow in the dark mini-golf."

Every course incorporates area-specific trademarks and themes. The monsters are unique to each Monster Mini Golf course and all the artwork is original. The only consistent features in each franchise are the "Enter at Your Own Risk" sign that hangs above the cast-iron gated entrance to the "cemetery," and the trademark clown statue that escorts customers out after the last hole.

Black lights and theatrical visual effects set the monster mood. Brightly colors and individually crafted monster images splash the walls. Three - dimensional set designs, with props like life-like possessed trees, fog and lasers fill the course, and a DJ provides music and gives away prizes while people golf. All around for fun for all ages!

Well, I'm a mini-golf aficionado and, while I may be no good at it, I do enjoy playing. (Actually, I'm usually good at the front nine, but when it looks like I might actually win a round, I blow up on the back nine.)

There are a couple of courses I especially like on The Cape - the cornball Pirates' Cove, which I now realize is part of a franchise, and the very nice one with the goldfish pond  off the rotary in Orleans.

The best mini-golf course I ever played was Steamboat Landing in  Naples, Maine. Each hole had a beautiful wooden Maine-themed something-or-other, including a black bear and the Casco Bay ferry. Definitely worth a trip to Naples to check out.

Many years ago, I also had an interesting mini-golf related business experience.

For my company's user group, we decided to have our special event at the DeCordova Museum, which was, at the time we made our reservations, planning a mini-golf course exhibit. Each of the holes was going to designed by a contemporary artist. Sounded like fun, so we signed up.

And, it was fun, if you ignored the fact that several of the artists used their holes to make political statements. Unfortunately, some of our customers were not willing to do so.

There was one hole, in particular, that stood out. It focused on domestic violence. Each time you hit a ball, you heard a woman's moaning voice. In another one, white men got to hit from a point that guaranteed them a hole-in-one, while everybody else had to hit from a place that made them bogey.

Oh, well.

But I digress, which I have been known to do...

Anyway, when the Vitaglianos went to trademark their mini-golf enterprise's name, Monster Cable reared its ugly head:

It filed a federal lawsuit against their company in California and demanded the Rhode Island couple surrender the name and pay at least $80,000 for the right to use it.

The Vitaglianos' had a reasonable reaction to this suit:

"It really seemed absurd," says Ms. Vitagliano.

Monster Cable has been fighting off other monsters since it trademarked its name in 1980. And not just monster cable monsters. Monster monsters.

Over the years, it has gone after purveyors of monster-branded auto transmissions, slot machines, glue, carpet-cleaning machines and an energy drink, as well as a woman who sells "Junk Food Monster" kids' T-shirts that promote good eating habits.

Needless to say, they went after, Disneys Monsters Inc." and - say it ain't so - my beloved Boston Red Sox who were trying to trademark some of their Green Monster products. (The Green Monster is the towering left-field wall at Fenway Park.).

Monster Cable, of course, defends its right to defend its right, but I'm with Ms. Vitagliano on this one. Absurd.

I can understand them going after someone trying to peddle Monster cables.

But Monster Mini-Golf?

One way or another, most of Monster Cable's suits have "have been settled privately under confidential terms."

Occasionally, Monster Cable has retreated. After it sued MonsterVintage LLC, an online used-clothing store based in Oregon, owner Victor Petrucci says he drove a rented truck to Monster Cable's headquarters and around San Francisco for two weeks. It was emblazoned with a giant sign that read in part, "Monster Cable S-." Monster Cable dropped the lawsuit.

Monster Cable has also pretty much retreated when it came to Monster Mini-Golf - if only because the Vitaglianos refused to back down from a bullying monster.

They mounted an online effort to build support, which resulted in Monster Cable's being bombarded by complaints. With all this incoming negativity, Monster:

...decided to drop the lawsuit, withdraw [the] company's opposition to Monster Mini Golf's trademark applications and pay up to $200,000 of their legal expenses.

Maybe not a Godzillan victory, but certainly one of Frankensteinian magnitude.

Congratulations to Monster Mini-Golf.

I have your Danvers, Massachusetts, franchise on my list of courses to play this summer.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

Last week, the Times Co., which owns The Boston Globe (the newspaper of record in my town), threatened to shut down The Globe if the paper's unions didn't quickly grant some hefty concessions.

The Globe, like most/all big city newspapers, is struggling. The classifieds have been replaced by Craig's List. The signature downtown department stores have all been swooped up by Macy's. The car ads are online.

A few weeks ago, I picked up The Globe for the first time in ages, and I was shocked by how thin it was. (Not to mention how much of the content was from generic news services, which I have, of course, observed online as well.)

My having bought a copy for the first time in ages is as symptomatic of the troubles newspapers are grappling with as the lack of advertising. I've been a daily newspaper reader since I could read, and a daily Globe reader for the last 40 years. So if I'm not buying...

Somewhere along the line, I started reading the paper online. Everyday, I read online articles from (The Globe's online presence), as well as from The NY Times and The Wall Street Journal (the latter for which I pay over $100 for an annual subscription). When the printed newspapers are in front of me, I do relish reading them: you really read more and better when you're grazing through the entire newspaper, rather than just clicking on whatever headline/lede grabs your attention. (I used to read all the obituaries in The Globe. Not anymore. Not to mention all the letters to the editor - which were actually signed, and were thus more thoughtful and cogent than the anonymous screed that accompanies most articles on

(Curiously, I hate reading magazines online, and subscribe to - and avidly read - The New Yorker, The Economist, and The Atlantic, as well as a few less newsy mags.)

But these days, for me, reading the physical newspaper means being on vacation: part of the overall vakay enjoyment. It's no longer an everyday matter.

But newspapers themselves, and the function they perform, are an everyday matter - and their continued existence can and should matter. Personally, I don't so much care whether they survive on paper or online, as long as they survive somewhere.

Sure, it's interesting to read iReports and see what's happening after the tornado in Backporch, Kentucky, as reported by some local with a digital camera and an Internet connection. But we really do need professional reporters who can tell us more than just "looks like the next door neighbors' chicken coop went airborne."

We need reporters who will brave Darfur - and downtown Binghamton - and let us know what's happening. We need reporters who have the time and resources to ferret out "the truth" about why the tornado siren didn't go off in Backporch, Kentucky, leading to loss of life, limb, and chicken coop. We really can't rely on getting our news through amateurs relying on gossip.  We need investigative journalism, not just innuendo. We need intelligent, thoughtful articles and commentary on politics, the world, the economy - whether it's coming from the lefties at The Times or the righties at The WSJ. And whether it's online or in print, it has to be the written word - not videos and soundbites that may inform us, but do little to edify us (and likely contribute to the nationwide attention-span deficit and hyperactivity).

I don't know what "the answer" is to any of this.

Yes, I pay for the WSJ, and would pay for The New York Times and 

And I don't think it's too late for a subscription model.

On second thought, it may be too late for the subscription model for the current players. But I certainly hope that, if our newspapers collapse, there'll be something to replace them. Maybe it's only a few national newspapers that survive: USA Today, God help us, would probably be one of them; but so might The Times and The WSJ. Maybe they're augmented by smaller, locally oriented papers that just focus on local news (and local ads). There's certainly a model for success with small town, suburban news outlets. Maybe that model gets transported back to the larger cities, too.

I just don't want to live in a world without news, or in a town without newspapers.

And, I promise, if The Boston Globe survives, I'll start buying it. Maybe not regularly. But occasionally. Maybe I'll get it on Sundays. How's that for starters?


Interested in some intelligent commentary on this subject? Read Sophia Carroll's "My Generation Is Information-Hungry and Freeloading: Make Us Pay" over on The Huffington Post. Sophia is a friend, a writer, and my virtual niece. Go give her a read.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Thoughts on Opening Day

Weather depending - and as of this writing, things look iffy - the Red Sox open their season today at Fenway Park.

I enjoy most sports, and can follow them reasonably knowledgeably, but baseball.....

Ah, baseball/ah, Red Sox: my one and only, my first, my true, my 4VR sporting love.

Oh, we've broken up on occasion - I've cried bitter tears, stormed off in a huff, slammed the door and gotten into bed with the covers pulled over my head, refused to play the game of being driven nuts by a bunch of highly paid overgrown boys. But I always come back. Always.

This year looks promising for the Olde Towne Team. But, then again, on Opening Day it always does. Still, this year's edition is a good one. And thanks to the presence of Jonathan Papelbon, there is enough zaniness to keep things lively, and I will not regret for one inning that we no longer have to put up with the drama and sometimes odious antics of Manny Ramirez, late of left field and currently of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In addition to some excellent baseball from the Red Sox, which I will experience via a nightly game-dose on NESN and a couple of trips to Fenway, here's what I'm especially looking forward to this season:

The Opening of the New Yankee Stadium: Sure, I may root against them. (See below.) But I'm enough of a baseball lifer and fan to admire their history. I watched the televised last game at the original Yankee Stadium, loving every moment - even the petty, nasty little omission of any mention of Joe Torre, which just reminded me of why this is a team you love to hate. I don't know if I'll get to New Yankee any time this season, but I will get there someday.

The Collapse of the Yankees: Hoping that the Yankees place no higher than third in the AL East is an evergreen wish, but I'll make it again. May there be dissension in the club house, as all those high priced prima donnas get their egos in a swirl, with the swirling pot gets all stirred up by the NY tabloids who will not for a NY minute let anyone forget what Yankee neophytes Mark Texeira and CC Sabbathia are getting paid, especially if they founder for even a few seconds out of a NY minute. And what it there to be said about Alex Rodriguez?

A-Rod: I will admit that, when A-Rod was homering up a storm (was it just last season, or was it the season before?), I was somewhat rooting for him to break all the home run records. That's when I thought he was clean of steroids, and I was hoping that a home run spree on A-Rod's part would let him surpass the feats of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds. Alas, we now know that A-Rod "used". Now, what we have to look forward to is the reception that A-Rod will get at Fenway, and every place else he plays (including Yankee Stadium, where he's no fan favorite). I aa-rodm not someone  who typically wishes trouble raining down on anyone's head - even as I write this, I feel a tiny bit guilty about reveling in what must be some pin-striped mental anguish - and yet, any ball player, in this day and age, who consorts with Madonna and allows himself to be photographed in such a way that he appears to be kissing himself in a mirror. Well, it's hard not to feel that he has brought whatever it is that's coming his way on himself. I can certainly imagine that when the Yankees hit Fenway for the first time, a least one third of the fans will be holding up mirrors and making smooching noises. And that, as he comes to the plate, the music playing with will be "Like a Virgin."

Manny Being Manny Somewhere Else: For those who don't follow the Red Sox, last year was the last year of a lengthy and hefty contract that Manny Ramirez had with the Red Sox. The Red Sox had a couple of option years tacked on at the end, but Manny - believing he was worth more than the paltry $20M the Red Sox were paying him - wanted out. He made his feelings known, then proceeded to act out in a most unpleasant way: slapping a team mate in the dugout; knocking down the much older Red Sox traveling secretary during a club house flare up; and, perhaps most notoriously and unforgivably, dogging it on the field - including keeping his bat on his shoulder in the final inning of a crucial game against the New York Yankees. By the time Manny left mid-season, the Red Sox had pretty much given him away to the Dodgers for free, and the Red Sox players had pretty much unanimously voted in favor of getting rid of him.

Alas, the Dodgers will likely get the "good Manny." He's on a short contract - for not much more than the Red Sox were willing to pay him -  and no doubt believes he can get a multi-year, bigger-bucks contract in LA or elsewhere if he hits like he's capable of hitting: brilliantly.  Alas, the Red Sox do not meet the Dodgers in inter-league play this season, or I could have looked forward to Josh Beckett  (or Jon Papelbon, who a few weeks ago referred to Manny as a "cancer" on last year's club; or someone brought up from Pawtucket specifically for the purpose of) drilling him in the butt. (If the Red Sox were to face the Dodgers in the World Series, I would not look forward to Manny getting drilled, unless it was in the fourth game of the Series, with the Red Sox up three games to none, and a lead of 10 runs in the 9th inning. (Then, and only then, should the Red Sox risk a pitcher suspension.)

All the Surprises and Suspense that the Baseball Season Offers: Will Tampa Bay repeat their Miracle in the Trop performance of last year, in which a team with one of the lowliest payrolls made it to the World Series? (I know they're the Red Sox sworn enemy, but it's hard not to like this team.) If not, who's this year's Cinderella team? (There's always at least one.) Will the insanely protracted World Series drought of the Chicago Cubs continue? (Probably.) Will the National League win the All-Star game? (God, if they do, I hope it's not thanks to Manny. Go, A-Rod!) Will Roger Clemens - whom I didn't like when he played for the Red Sox, let alone since - end up wearing an orange-jump suit somewhere. (Liar, liar, baseball uniform on fire.)

As for the Red Sox: Will Mike Lowell stay healthy? Will Jon Lester out-ace Josh Beckett? Will the rest of the league finally figure out how to get Dustin Pedroia out? Will the short-stop problem ever get solved? Does Big Papi still have it in him? When will Jim Ed Rice's number be retired? Will I still tear up when I'm at a game where Carlton Fisk is also in attendance, and they play "Like a Rock" while showing Pudge highlights? (1975: that home run!) 

Where it began, I actually can begin to knowin': today in Fenway Park, weather permitting.

Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good as they do on Opening Day.

Play ball!