Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Didn't we used to call this time-sharing?

When I first began my post-B school career, nearly 30 years ago, I worked for a company that specialized in econometric and financial forecasting models, which we created using an arcane proprietary modeling language, XSIM, that ran on a mainframe somewhere "out there." (Out there was in Waltham, Massachusetts. We also sold time-sharing to companies who wanted to roll their own models, write their own reports, and access their own data. Mostly, given the intricacies of XSIM, they wanted us to do it for them.)

Us consultants wrote our models on "dumb terminals, DecWriters, which didn't have screens but were, instead, paper based - sort of like typewriters, only attached to the mainframe. We worked in a bullpen, the "terminal room", where there weren't enough dumb terminals to go around. If you had work to do, you haunted the edges of the terminal room, watching for your moment. When someone left their terminal unattended for more than the time it took to go to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee, you could "sleep" it - suspending someone else's session - and go about your business.

Most of the DecWriters were 300 baud, but a couple speed-demons revved up to 1200. Zoom!

The only advantage of the paper terminals was that you could thumb through the piles of waste paper that people left there while you were waiting for a model to run. (That's where I came across the printout that contained everyone's salary. Of course I looked - but I did shove it under the door of the finance guy who'd left it there.)

Eventually, we got a handful of dumb, screen-based terminals, which we all jockeyed for.

So much cooler and faster!

When you logged into the mainframe, you got a slice of the pie worth 1024 bytes (can that be?). Some things required a bigger bite, so once you logged in, you could re-IPL at 2048. Sometimes, usage was so heavy that "the phantom" would warn internal users to log off or get knocked off. We'd then sneak back in at 512, then re-IPL ourselves up to 1024 or 2048.

Eventually, we all got VT 131 terminals in our offices, which really changed the culture of the company. When we all worked in the terminal room,  you could just yell out if you had a question about some XSIM command or function, and usually there was someone there who could answer it. (The alternative was pawing through the XSIM documentation, two large volumes covered in tan leatherette, each the size and heft of a Gutenberg Bible.)

Once we were in our individual offices, I can't exactly say that anomie set in - this was a very social workplace. Still, things changed.

But things were changing on the outside world, too.

The first PC came through our doors - no hard drive, it ran off floppies - and it was give an office to itself. We took turns oohing and aahing and doing "stuff" on it. Most of the stuff we did was connect to the mainframe and use the PC as a dumb terminal, but bit by bit the action went to the PC - and we started doing our work in Multiplan and WordPerfect.

One of my favorite moments of this era was our company's president being quoted in some mag saying that he couldn't understand why anyone would want a computer in their home. What a futurist!

Anyway, all this came to mind when I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal the other day on virtual desktops, which are apparently making their long forecast appearance on the scene. Companies are going virtual to wring costs out of their operations.

Of course, we've heard this in the past.

The so-called thin-client revolution has been touted before, but has so far failed to arrive. At last count about 633 million desktop PCs were humming in offices around the globe, according to technology watchers at Gartner.

Gartner and other analysts say improved virtualization software for the desktop, the rising cost of maintaining PCs and demands for more security and regulatory accountability are all making conditions ripe for virtual PCs.

Gartner says the number of virtual desktops doubled in the last year to about 600,000. It predicts that over the next five years, 15% of current PCs will be replaced by virtual desktops.

I wonder if Gartner ever looks back at their predictions to see how they pan out?

Anyway, they're calling the virtual desktop the "hottest trend out there."

Hot, hot, hot!

Past is prologue. What's old is new. Coming full circle.

Personally, I like keeping a bit of power local for those few, those precious few, moments when I'm out of range of the Internet. Of course, these days, that pretty much rules out anyplace other than Tierra Del Fuego. Still....

A tip of the hat to The Journal for this little stroll down 1024 byte (or is it bit?) memory lane.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Fluffernutter madness

Personally, I am a complete and utter sucker for pretty much any product that's made in Massachusetts - especially the non-boring ones, like food-products. This has nothing to do with the ecological virtues of buying and eating, say, locally grown turnips that are hand-walked in from the farm.

No, I just like the idea that there are some things that are actually still made here. Plus I like regional variation and hope I never see the day when there's no local color.

Thus, I drink Polar soda - Orange Dry, Cranberry, and a mix of the two. (Made in Worcester.) I only buy Everett's own Teddie peanut butter. And I prefer my fast food to come from chains that had their humble beginnings here: Friendly's, Dunkin Donuts, Finagle a Bagel, Bertucci's. No Texas Roadhouse for me, thank you!

So I have mixed emotions about the proposal to name the Fluffernutter the official sandwich of Massachusetts. (By the way, also on the same legislative agenda: making the Necco wafer the official candy, and the Charleston Chew the official candy bar. Personally, I didn't even know they still made Charleston Chews. The moment you experience your first loose filling, you abandon any thought of the Charleston Chew, the Sugar Daddy, or Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. Plus, every time I'm on the train to Salem, I pass the abandoned Charleston Chew factory - which I think has been converted to condos - leading me to believe that the Chews are no longer made around here.)

On the Salem train, I also pass the Lynn factory where Marshmallow Fluff  - one of the two main ingredients of the Fluffernutter - is still made.

Ah, the Fluffernutter.

Many the happy lunches of my childhood that included a big, goopy Fluffernutter. In our house, they were made with Peter Pan, not Teddie. If I were to make one now, it would be made with Teddie. But that's big if, as I will pass quite happily out of this life into the great unknown even if I never have another Fluffernutter.

Which is not to say that I didn't eat many of them over the years. Not to mention that one the most vivid memories of my young adulthood was watching Grimbald, the family dog and chow-hound supreme, gulp the Fluffernutter right off the plate of one of my brother Tom's friends before Fran could even take a bite out of it. The poor mutt! Sure, it served him right, but between the fluff and the nutter, Grim's mouth was almost glued shut for a couple of hours.

If you're unsure just how to make a Fluffernutter, there's a YouTube that'll demonstrate how for you.

Since I seem to have a god-awful time embedding video, just google fluffernutter, and pick the 3:35 minute one, which provides a full Fluffernutter tutorial. In real life, a Fluffernutter takes anywhere between 5 and 15 seconds to make, depending on the freshness of the fluff. Also be warned that when you get to the bottom of the fluff barrel, it turns to the consistency of set grout, and requires a chisel to get at.

No comment on why our state legislators are taking up any of their time yaying or naying the Fluffernutter's status. Maybe it's because we're pulling out of the recession faster than a lot of other states. (See yesterday's post.) And perhaps it's just as well they spend their time on fluff like this, rather than - say - stripping funding for the disabled and homeless shelters, which they have been known to do.

And does this mean that the state song will be the Fluffernutter jingle?

Oh you need fluff, fluff, fluff to make a fluffernutter,
Marshmallow fluff and lots of peanut butter.
First you spread, spread, spread your bread  with peanut butter,
Add marshmallow fluff and have a fluffernutter.
When you enjoy, joy, joy your fluff  and peanut butter,
You're glad you have enough for another fluffernutter.

(Although the music is in my skull forever, I did remember all the words. Thankfully, there's a site for this sort of memory lapse.)

Monday, September 28, 2009

Lucky us/Yay, us!

Well, the upside of living in an area that a) isn't dominated by manufacturing, and b) wasn't part of the recent speculative real estate run up: "The Commonwealth" (of Massachusetts, that is - there are other commonwealth states) is starting to make it's way out of the recession a bit sooner than the rest of the country.

Our job losses have slowed, and are far lower than that of the overall country. Job growth is actually occurring. Home sales are up. We haven't had a single bank failure - there have been 100 across the country since the recession began.

All this was reported in Globe yesterday.

Of course, we do suspect a bit of boosterism at play here. (Over the weekend, one of our main-man sportswriters had a charming little piece on why the Red Sox were wise not to exert any energy trying to beat the Yankees, when the Red Sox were pretty much guaranteed a place in the post season and, thus, should be saving the energy of their stars. This article was homerism to end all homerism, as far as I'm concerned. When you play the Yankees, you play to beat the Yankees. Which, unfortunately, didn't quite happen this past weekend.)

As for the economy, whatever element of homerism was in the Globe article, it sure dovetails with the feeling around here. Which is, as long as we don't look at our 401K's, runs pretty much along the lines that you wouldn't know there was a recession on.

Yes, some restaurants have closed. But restaurants are always closing.

And, yes, we do have some mighty ugly holes in the ground that don't seem to be turning into luxury high rise condos anytime soon.

And, yes, the Talbot's on School Street in Boston has shuttered its red door.

And, yes, the state and local governments have less money, so we now have to pay a tax on bottled booze. I think this went into effect a couple of months ago, but I guess I haven't bought anything in a liquor store since then. Yesterday, I bought a couple of bottles of wine, and there it was: tax.  (For all the pissing and moaning people did about this new tax, let's face it: buying beer, wine, or Stoli is not exactly a necessity of life. It ought to be taxed. And shame on those aginners who waste gas and their time - although, apparently, with no opportunity cost - to drive to NH to avoid the revenooer and load up in the live-free-or-die state liquor stores.)

This aside, when I look out my window,  it just doesn't seem like the worst recession since the Great Depression. The city seems bustling. The restaurants seem full. Tourists seem to be taking up than more of their fair share of our narrow sidewalks.

Since my career has been in high tech, I always know people who have just been laid off. At this point in time, I barely know a sole on the dole.

Sure, I read about what it's like to live in Elkhart, Indiana. And about the tract housing ghost towns in Arizona. And about the median house price in Detroit (about $7K, if you can imagine it).

The only indicator I have is a friend who's doing consulting while looking for a full-time senior marketing position. His consulting is going great - he just wants to be working for a company "for real". And another friend who's been out of work a while and whom I believe is a victim of age discrimination as much as she's a victim of the bad economy.

Other than that....

Unlike in past recessions, when we seem to have been hit hard, this is a kinder, gentler downturn.

High tech hasn't been hit that badly. We have financial services, but we're not Wall Street. We have a lot of education and healthcare employment. And we apparently do a lot of exporting. Who knew?

Booyah, Massachusetts.

Okay. It's not like we're living in boom town: our unemployment rate is still 9 percent-ish.

And it's hard to take all that much satisfaction in our local economy when you do read about those in Elkhart, Detroit, Phoenix, etc. And when it's pretty clear that a lot of the bedrock jobs in some of the bedrock communities of the nation aren't coming back any time soon. (I'm not especially fond of the tea-bag brigade, but I do get that people are scared.)

Still, if all politics is local, all economics kind of is, too.

So, yay us! (And lucky us, too.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Every day's a holiday...

Having rejected every idea I have in my idea file, last night around 10 I decided that, if I could find that September 25th was a holiday anywhere in the world, I would take it off as a floater.

Naturally, I went to the google, and found a tremendously fun and silly site, Holiday Insights, that seems to have come up with a list that declares every day a holiday.

Would that I had stumbled on this trove o' goofiness earlier in the month. If I had, I'd have been able to celebrate National Beheading Day, National Make a Hat Day, and Dogs in Politics Day (think Checkers Speech).

Today - hold on to your hats, heads, and dogs - is National Comic Book Day.

When I was a kid in the 50's and 60's, TV kids were always reading comic books.

From my point of view, this was one more way in which most kids on TV were as phoney as three dollar bills.

Sure, sometime Bud Anderson on Father Knows Best gave us a tiny little glimmer of near reality. And Eddie on Beaver was sufficiently real that we nicknamed the kid next door - who was always fake polite and smarmy to adults - Eddie Haskell. (I think my father gave him the nickname, something Ward Cleaver would never have done, even if he'd wanted to. June wouldn't have let him.)

But most of the kids on TV were so bogus.

Of course, since they had such fake and inauthentic parents, it would be hard for the kids to be other. Nature, nurture, who knows? Those scripted kids were chips off the wooden parental blocks.

Think about those families. First off, the kids never fought with their sibs. Sure, there was an occasional minor tiff - "scram, kid" to the younger brother; oh, boo-hoo. But nary a raised voice, let alone a raised fist. I'd love to have seen the look on the face of Kitten or Princess if Bud had, say, poured a can of Hershey's Syrup on one of them. (It has been known to happen in real families, I assure you.)

The parents never yelled either.

But I digress a bit.

The point - since this is, after all, National Comic Book Day - is that I didn't know anyone who was really into comic books.

Sure, we occasionally picked one up - Archie or Little Lulu. But they were always an unfunny disappointment. A dime spent on a comic book would have been better spent on 10 cents worth of penny candy at Carrera's. The only interesting part was the weird little ads in the back.

We were TV kids - watchers, that is, not bogus, unreal, too polite, too nice-y-nice kid actors on TV. No comic books for us.

Why buy an unfunny comic book when you could read the unfunny funnies - did anyone ever even smile at the "Little King" or "Henry" - in the papers, or watch surreal, boring but nonetheless captivating kids on TV, for free.

I'm guessing that those TV writers who always managed to put a comic book in the hands of those bogus kids were just recalling their own childhoods in the golden age of comic books - the 1930's and 1940's. (Other than Manga, do they even exist any more?)

I'm happy that comic books have their own day and all that. I don't begrudge them in the least.

It's just that I don't have all that much to celebrate. No comic books in my past, present, or future.

With one childhood exception.

Once we discovered Mad Magazine in 5th or 6th grade, you could always count on the one of the wise-guy boys to have a copy for us to pore over. Forget Archie, Betty, Veronica, and Jughead. Forget Nancy and Sluggo and Rollo the Rich Boy.

Alfred E. Newman. Now there was a funny man. Sly, subversive, balloon-busting, probably had a dirty laugh.

What a bracing antidote to the TV kid frauds.

But at least National Comic Book Day gave me something to blog about. Not that I wouldn't have come up with something. (What, me worry?)

Thursday, September 24, 2009


It's not as if I've never watched TV, listened to music, or had a glass of wine while in bed, but I am nonetheless aghast at the idea of a bedframe that comes with "built-in TVs, iPod docking stations, wine coolers, safes and other guy-friendly gadgetry."  Then again, I'm not particularly interested in 'guy-friendly gadgetry". (In fact, I don't even want to think about what it might entail. Also, I'm guessing that the built-in safe is a safe-safe, to stash loot in. Not a safe. I told you I didn't really want to think about those built-in gadgets.)

Apparently there are some consumers - namely "guys" - who are willing to pay big bucks for a  fully tricked out bed, like the $30K honey with the built in flat-screen TV, surround sound, laptop plugs, and champagne cooler featured in an article in yesterday's WSJ. The Hollandia Sphere can be covered in suede and microfiber. Hubba-hubba.

A thirty-something real-estate investor in Philadelphia - surprisingly, he is married -  bought one. His wife apparently wasn't that turned on by the fact that "the flat screen can bexec_bede lowered into the footboard." Or that she got to pick out the fabric. (Does it come in chintz, I wonder?) As the saying goes, "His wife declined to comment" for the article, which I suspect was not exactly what happened when the dreamliner was introduced. At least this bed looks like a bed - hide-o-matic flat screen aside.

Did I say bed?

Must have been the poor night's sleep I had on my Tempurpedic that caused me to mis-speak.

Hollandia doesn't sell beds, they sell sleep systems, like the Elite:

The newest, most indulgent and luxurious advanced sleep system yet! Includes a state-of-the-art Sony Bravia® Theater System that contains a Retractable 32” Flat Panel HDTV, a DVD/CD Changer, Five Speaker Surround Sound System, Subwoofer and i-Pod Docking Station. The 32” Sony flat screen TV that sits 80” from the headboard, exceeding the normal 1:3 ratio of screen size to view distance. Includes a superior Vita Talalay latex mattress – the highest quality material to assure point-to-point support and plush comfort. Plus, a Flexible Shoulder Zone to accommodate side sleepers by adjusting to improve blood flow and eliminate numbing and tingling. Customizable designer styling in a choice of fabric and colors.

Am I the only one who believes that the more extra, added attractions you lard on to the fundpjMANBEDamental whatever, the more likely you are to have some non-essential break down on you. Not to mention go obsolete. If I'm paying $30 to $50K for a bed, I expect it to last more than the life span one can expect from TVs, DVD changers, and iPod docking stations. This bed could end up with all kinds of weird vestigial organs on it.

The techno-beds  - there's even one that sports a Lamborghini logo (vroom, vroom, big guy) - are  meant to lure men into taking part in - and spending more on - the sorts of household purchases that the lady of the house has typically been more involved in. Not to mention that these things have "bachelor pad" written all over them in the same way that pinto patterned sling back chairs and chrome and black dining sets had in the 1980's.

As for the models with the built in safes:

"A lot of our male customers want to keep a gun close to them at night, so now they have the option to have a safe in the bed," says Maya Ben, Hollandia International's vice president of operations. "It gives them peace of mind."

I have to admit that, after a certain point, the benefits of getting older are decidedly outweighed by the negatives (starting, but not ending, with crepey arm skin: yuck!). 

But I do have to say that I draw no small comfort in knowing with 100% certainty that I will never find myself alone in a bar and, after a judgement-lapsing Cosmo or two, end up going home with some guy who opens up his man-cave bed safe to show me where he's stored his Glock.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Maurizio Montalbini, Cave Man

Always on the lookout for interesting jobs, not to mention always on the lookout for interesting obituaries, I stumbled on an article in The Wall Street Journal on one Maurizio Montalbini, sociologist turned researchee for those "studying the effects of isolation on circadian rhythms, the immune system and human psychology."

To do so, Montalbini went underground, deep underground, in caves in the Apennine Mountains.

So we're not just talking isolation, we're pretty much talking desolation.

There he lived on "pills and powders and other astronaut fare", supplemented by honey, chocolate, and walnuts. But he sure didn't go overboard here - for one subterranean jaunt, which lasted 235 days, Montalbini's goody bag contained, according to the death notice in the (UK) Telegraph, "four kilos of honey, two kilos of walnuts, and one and a half kilos of chocolate."

I don't know about anyone else but, while those four kilos of honey may have lasted me those 235 days, those 4.4 pounds of walnuts of underground noshing might have stood me for a couple of months max. And 3.3 pounds of chocolate?I'm guessing I would have been hitting the wrapper a bit harder than Maurizio. No wonder he lost 30 pounds during one of his stays.

Smoking two packs of cigarettes each day may also have helped trim the weight off, too. (And no doubt accelerated his early death - Montalbini was only 56 when he died of a heart attack.)

Montalbini set a personal record - 366 days in a cave - in 1992-1993, and used some of his research to help those suffering from sleep disorders and stress, using techniques he called "Under-Therapy."

Among the curious findings of extended isolation: the clock goes cuckoo, and people need less sleep, not to mention that they underestimate how much time they've been out of it. After 210 days, Montalbini estimated that he'd been gone 79 days; after 366 days, he guessed 216. (No wonder they don't have windows, or clocks on the walls, in Las Vegas.)

Results of the tests that Montalbini guinea-pigged for were used by NASA, and by university scientists studying circadian cycles, among other things. And he wasn't just a cave man.

Caves were not Mr. Montalbini's only laboratory. In 1990, long before reality television, he emulated Robinson Crusoe as a simulated shipwreck survivor on an island in the Adriatic. A year later, he spent 48 days adrift in a rescue raft testing survival techniques and satellite mapping gear.

His last long journey to the center of the earth was in 2006, when he logged 235 days down under, after which he swore off long-term spelunking, saying "I used to dream about dawn."

I'm guessing he used to dream about warmth two: the caves were 50 degrees. Brrrrrr. I like to sleep cold, but...

Although I would never actually do something like this, I must admit that, since childhood, I have had the Robinson-Crusoe-top-of-Mt.-Washington-escape-to-the-attic daydream, and have packed my mental bags on many an occasion. And they definitely contained more than a kilo and  half of chocolate. Plus lots of books, crossword puzzles, and sudoku.

But those mental bags also included a debate about whether to have my appendix removed before I decided to strand myself. And fretting about what would happen if I broke a tooth on, say, a walnut. Not to mention thinking about how terrible it would be to come up from under and realize that I'd missed out on a lot of news. Good and bad - I wouldn't want to be away for either. Although I wouldn't mind a wee bit less tea-bagger ranting, and speculation about whether Gisele Bundchen is Tom Brady's Yoko Ono, I'd prefer to find out sooner rather than later what Molly named her dog, and how Caroline feels about her bedroom makeover.

Ah, just when I think I have an alternate profession lined up for myself, I realize that, as compelling as the fantasy might be, I'm just not all that cut out for the isolation chamber.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

If it's Tuesday, this must be the Sistine Chapel

There was an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal last week on the Vatican's travel agency, Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi (ORP), pilgrimage central for those who, when in Rome want to do as the Catholics do: see the pope

Cesare Atuire, a priest from Ghana, runs the agency - on ORP's LinkedIn page, he's listed as its CEO - is tasked with making the Holy See the Holy Must See. (Wouldn't want the Pope to be standing on his balcony getting ready to address the throngs in St. Peter's Square and looking down on nothing more than a handful of Chinese tourists debating among themselves about whether the bishop of Rome is more like the Dalai Lama or Chairman Mao, and a group of American nuns protesting the Vatican's crackdown on their practicing Reiki.)

The ORP is full service - it'll take care of the planes and boats and trains, and even line up bargain-priced stays in convents that run a B&B on the side (now that they can't do Reiki). They even have a call center - Saturday hours during the April-October high season, and a road warrior who goes around to churches in the US to sell the packages.

There are plenty of advantages to booking your next pilgrimage through the ORP. For one, no waits in the line at the Sistine Chapel . Anyone who's waited for a couple of hours in the broiling sun or chilly rain for craned-neck peek at Michelangelo's Creation of Adam  - you know, the one with the little 'goodbye and good luck' finger-bump - knows that bypassing the line is worth a few euros.

And woe betide those who don't go the ORP route.

The Rev. Notker Baumann had heard of ORP but decided to make his own arrangements in planning a trip to St. Peter's for himself and 52 churchgoers from Germany.

When his group arrived at the Vatican City gates to attend an indoor audience with the pope, Holy See guards turned them away. Standing at the edges of St. Peter's Square, the group unfurled a banner intended for the pope while watching on a giant TV screen as the pontiff greeted other German pilgrims.

Well, blessed are those who stand on the edge unfurling their banner, for they shall inherit the earth.

Meanwhile, everyone would rather be the chosen people whose outsized mugs are there for all to see, getting up close and personal with the pope. (Wonder what German for neener-neener is?)

CEO Atuire is apparently a pretty shrewd business man. Last year's 60,000 ORP'd pilgrim total was a whopping 40% increase over the count for the prior year.

Father Atuire's strategy includes getting pilgrimages to elsewhere - Lourdes, Fatima, Czestochowa - make a side trip to Rome. Surprisingly, this is more of a draw now than it was during the reign of John Paul II, a far more popular pontiff than the incumbent, Benedict. This is because Pope Benedict is more likely to be there than his predecessor, who spent a lot of time during his papacy on the road, playing 'where in the world is Carmen Sandiego.' (Planning and executing papal road trips is also part of ORP's charter.)

The ORP, by the way, has been around since 1934 - which has to have been pretty bad timing in terms of opening a travel business, no?

There's a Great Depression on. Mussolini's about to invade Ethiopia. Hitler's poring over maps of Europe.

Let's hear it for organizational survival! (It helps to be a non-profit backed by deep pockets.)

Deep pockets aside, the ORP has not been without crisis.

A lot of their historic business was running pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Between and Second Intifada and 9/11, that business dried up at the turn of this century. In 2001, the ORP booked only 750 pilgrims on trips to Israel.

Father Atuire set about making Rome the hub of religious-based travel, and making sure that he has trips that appeal to less well-heeled travelers - thus the convents and monasteries that are now receiving paid guests.

"The poor you will always have with you," and if they're planning on staying at the convent that ORP is helping renovate just outside of Rome:

... guests will be expected to do their own housekeeping and bus their own tables.

And speaking of bus, Father Atuire is also running hop-on, hop-off double-deckers around Rome that ferry pilgrims from one basilica to another.

His biggest coup may have been his deal with Mistral Air, a cargo airline run by Italy's postal service. Mistral will "offer low-cost connecting flights from Rome to popular Catholic destinations."

The flights include prayers at takeoff, headrests emblazoned with lines from the Bible and, on special occasions, bottles of holy water.

Since there are few atheists in foxholes or on airplanes, most flights already include prayers at takeoff. Those emblazoned headrests sound a bit blasphemous - don't they get greasy? (At least the pilgrims get to ride in seats, not mail bags.) And a note to non-Catholics: don't drink the holy water.

Next up for ORP is the large and lucrative US market. This fall, ORP will launch a web site aimed at Americans. If Father Atuire's market research is correct:

"At least 60 to 70% of [U.S. Catholics] would visit Rome and take part in celebration and visit Holy Father if given the opportunity," he says.

Something tells me that the ORP will succeed.

Business is business, and ORP's CEO sounds like one businessman who's figured things out that you need to know your market, deliver the goods, provide value, negotiate hard, and never get complacent - even if you're a non-profit backed by one of the wealthiest corporate entities on earth.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The lost art of penmanship. (Cursive! Foiled again.)

Once again, a skill that I have finely honed over the years is on the brink of irrelevancy.

In some quarters at least, cursive writing has apparently gone yesterday.

I learned to write in the Palmer Penmanship era, when printing was first grade, and cursive was introduced in second.

Every day, 15 minutes were set aside to practice writing, and to doing the exercises that were designed to enhance our proficiency. The exercises meant filling pages in our penmanship notebooks with "push-pulls" and "running ovals." Push-pulls were slightly angled lines, and running ovals looked like the coils of wire that were manufactured at the Thompson Wire Company, where my father worked.

Each fall, we had to fill out a piece of paper by writing our names and the sentence "This is a specimen of my best Palmer writing for September."  We did the same in the spring. Supposedly, in this first known example of No Child Left Behind performance improvement mania, someone, somewhere was going to look at the before and after and determine what kind of progress we'd made.

I can't imagine that even our nuns had nothing better to do than to look through fifty or so "before" specimens and evaluate how much better the "after" specimens were. Surely, they would rather be making Mother's Day cards out of old candy boxes and holy pictures, or wiring up Kleenex carnations for the May shrine?

But someone must have been at least collecting our writing samples, because in fifth grade, we did both our "before" and "after" writing on the same day, with instructions from Sister Saint Wilhelmina to make sure that the September versions were not as good as June's.

This was just about the most fun I had under the Wilhelmina regime. Deliberately doing something poorly? Yeah!

I'm sure that everyone's "before" was so crude that even the feeblest member of the accountability police would have smelled a rat, but this wasn't the first time that Willie had done something a bit suspect.

Earlier in the school year, the St. Dominic Savio Club newsletter, December edition, had a little contest in which any classroom that had a student with the initials "MC" (for Merry Christmas) sitting in the fifth seat of the second row (25 - get it?) had a shot at winning some prize - probably a statue of St. John Bosco, St. Dominic's teacher.

Anyway, the day before the newsletters were distributed, we had a sudden and unexpected seat switcheroo, in which Michael Curran was moved to the second row, fifth seat.

I'm guessing that every other parochial school classroom - at least all those with an MC student on board - did exactly the same.

In any event, we didn't win a prize, which served Willie right.

Ah, cursive.....

I have to admit that, these days, my handwriting - mostly notes to myself - is not all that it could be. But when called upon, I can still write a decent hand (although not as decent as that of either of my sisters, I'm afraid). And I still doodle push-pulls, running ovals, and the cursive alphabet on occasion.

In grammar school, I always wanted my father to sign my report cards because he had a nicer signature than my mother.

My mother was taught a variation on Palmer that was a bit cramped and chicken-scratchy to my eyes. Her signature was just not as elegant and flowing as my father's, which resembled that of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (My Aunt Mary has pretty much the same handwriting as my mother, and it looks fine to me now, but I still like my father's better. Weirdly, I can conjure up my father's signature in my mind more clearly than I can his face.)

But I'm quite certain that both of my parents would have logged quantity time in grammar school practicing penmanship.

Nowadays, however, kids write less often, and have penmanship drilled into them less frequently.

In an AP article by Tom Breen I read the other day, I learned that in some school systems, penmanship has taken on something of a dodo bird quality.

Charleston, WV, teaches cursive in the third grade only. Too much else to focus on - mainly computer literacy.

In some testing situations, students do their writing assignments on computers, rather than in longhand.

And "handwriting is increasingly something people do only when they need to make a note to themselves rather than communicate with others."

Some are fearful that handwriting will become completely passé; some believe that rumors of penmanship's demise are greatly exaggerated; and still others are ho-hum about the prospect of the decline in cursive writing.

I'm somewhere in the middle of the  muddle.

I still write occasional notes to people, and love to receive something that's hand-written. When I see anything that was written by either of my parents, by my Aunt Margaret, by my grandmother, I am moved and feel connected in a way that I would never be if whatever it is - it doesn't even have to be a personal message  - had been typed up. (Nothing like picking up a recipe card in my mother's hand to get me going...)

And let's face it, wouldn't everyone - at least those of us of a certain age - rather receive a birthday card with a signature in it than an e-card?

Yes, something wonderful will be lost if no one writes anything down.

On the other hand, if the rising generations conduct all personal communication entirely in text, and they get by just fine - it's their world.

So their grandchildren won't have love letters and sympathy notes to mull over, they'll have other stuff. ("Here's Grammy's first MySpace page. Here's the picture where she got hammered and flashed her....") Okay. So all the other stuff will not be an unalloyed good. But there are surely ways in which the electronic baggage that everyone will be virtually hauling around will be regarded as a treasure trove. Maybe people will have greater insight into what people were like "back in the day" when there's a much richer and more immediate stock of day to day to draw on than posed family pictures and a couple of stilted letters home from camp.

Who knows where all this is going?

One thing I found interesting in the AP article. Apparently, the College Board reports that only 15% of students used cursive for the essay writing section of their SATs; the rest wrote in print.

Now, most people do have neater printing than writing, and - let's face it - neatness does count.

But aren't these timed tests?

Who prints faster than they write?

The bottom line, of course, is that people will always - or at least until the mind-meld is perfected - need to communicate with each other.

I'm betting that we'll all find our way, cursively or otherwise.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Low move by the Hyatt

When I did business travel, I always thought that the Hyatt chain provided reasonably good value. The hotels were comfortable but not flashy, tended to be in decent locations, and were decently priced - a nice middle of the road place that was a couple of steps above the bottom rung, and a few steps below the top rung. Having stayed at plenty of bottom-rung-ers over the years -  including places where I questioned whether the sheets had been changed after the previous guest left, and where I shoved a chair up under the doorknob to provide a bit of a security perimeter for myself - I was generally happy with the Hyatt's because they were clean and felt safe. And I didn't miss the hoopla of the top tier hotels where I occasionally found myself when away on business.

And then I read that Hyatts the Boston area are getting rid of their housekeeping staff and outsourcing room cleaning to a Georgia outfit called Hospitality Staffing Solutions. (Source: Boston Globe.)

So, 100 or so staffers, many of who had been on the job for 15 - 20+ years, and all of whom were making decent if not lucrative wages (think $13-16/hour range), along with health, dental, and 401K benefits, have been bounced in favor a poor souls who are so desperate for work that they're willing to take on minimum wage jobs with no benefits.

Naturally, there's twist that demonstrates soul-less, heart-less, gut-less tin-ear corporate management at its very best.

The housekeepers had been asked to train their replacements under the guise that the newcomers would be filling in during their vacations.

Make that a permanent vacation, although in this economy, I'm sure that some of the original staffers  - workers who, lets face it, are likely to have minimal education, few "marketable" skills, and are often immigrants, to boot - will suck it up and come back as half-price/no bennie employees of Hospitality Staffing Solutions.

For Hyatt, this is not naked, teeth baring, race-to-the-bottom capitalism. It's restructuring in response to "challenging economic conditions."

“Regrettably, the restructuring included staff reductions.’’

Ah, yes, Mr. Pritzker regrets.

Hey, who doesn't get that when business is down - and Hyatt's was reportedly off by 18 percent last year - that measures must be taken. Lay-offs. Pay cuts. Reduced hours.  So what else is new? The hotel industry is certainly not immune and is, in fact, especially vulnerable.

But outsourcing to a bargain basement supplier preying on the poor and uneducated seems a particularly shoddy and odious response.

One other Boston hotel - admittedly the pricey, chi-chi, and standalone Liberty Hotel (which is located in the old Charles Street Jail) chose to terminate its outside contracts for security and janitorial services and redeployed their own workers, who would have faced lay-offs. Sure, those contract workers may be redeployed to the unemployment line, but the Liberty chose loyalty to their existing, "real" employees. How quaint. How touching.

Hospitality Staffing Solutions - "Your Workforce Management Partner" - says that they provide "cost-effective staffing solutions with the attention to your business that builds a long term, mutually rewarding relationship."

Of course, the relationship is mutually rewarding for them and for the hotels: the hotel no longer pays a living wage and benefits, HSS finds people who'll work for a non-living wage, and gets to pocket the difference. Hyatt pays less, HSS makes more. Win-Win.

Except, of course, for those who are squeezed out. No mutually rewarding anything for them. (And the other losers: the taxpayers of Massachusetts, of course, who'll now have to pick up the tab for health care, etc. for the working poor trying to scratch by on $8 an hour.)

No surprise, of course, that Hospitality Staffing is headquartered in Georgia, which has one of the lowest minimum wages - $5.15 - in the US.  (Source: US Department of Labor.) At least, unlike most of their neighboring states, they have a minimum wage.  Southern hospitality? Not to low-end worker. (Y'all come back now and see us when you get a better attitude.)

Personally, I would have a lot more respect for Hyatt if they'd just flat-out looked their housekeeping staff in the eye and told them what's really going on.

Forget this BS about you're being "associates" who are the face of the hotel for our guests. No more bogus crap about you're being part of the Hyatt family. We hire you to pick up wet towels, empty wastebaskets and clean toilets. And, frankly, we don't want our"guests" to have to pay a few bucks more a night for those services so that you can make a passably living wage. We calculate that your labor is worth minimum wage plus whatever middle-man fee we'd pay Hospitality Staffing Solutions. Take it or leave it.

Nope, when it comes to the folks who do their literal dirty work, Hyatt chose to leave the metaphorical dirty work to an outsourcer.

I'm not arguing for socialism here - hey, I went to B-school - but I do think we occasionally need to ask ourselves the "elephant on the table" questions that surround completely unfettered capitalism and the notion that profit-making is the only purpose served by business. (And yes, I do know that if there's no profit- making there's no business there's no employment. C.f., hey, I went to B-school.)

But let's start with a question about how far we're willing to go with pushing down the wages of the many at the bottom for the benefit of the few at the top. 

Do the people who clean our toilets have the right to a living wage, even if it means that someone else may have to forego lighting a cigar with a fifty-dollar bill?

I have a sense where race-to-the-bottom wages will take us as a society, and it ain't pretty.

Meanwhile, while I'm writing about this, my brother Rich - Executive Director of the Greater Boston Labor Council - was on the barricades, speaking at a demonstration last evening at the Hyatt. Good for him!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Winner, winner, chicken feet dinner

There's always a trade war looming somewhere, and the latest has China trying to slap us back for a tariff on imported tires by imposing a tax on imported chicken meat.

Basically, although I do eat it, I try not think "chicken meat." When I do think chicken meat, I think those big, plumped up, hormone crazed, size of a small turkey chicken breasts, stripped of all skin, bone, and fat. (And if I took my thinking one step further, I'd be in the horror show of the chicken ranch I won't go there. I prefer, instead, to think of free range chickens like Foghorn Leghorn and Chicken Little, enjoying life in the wide open spaces, plucking for fat juicy warms and nibbling on succulent grass. Sure, in the case of Chicken Little there are side worries about the sky falling, but surely they pale when compared to factory chickens who have all sorts of grim torture to worry about.)

The one thing I don't think of when I think chicken meat is chicken feet.

But, apparently, chicken feet (along with wings - a chicken part I don't find worth the effort) are what the Chinese like to import.

About half of the chicken parts sold to China are wings and feet, which are worth only a few cents a pound in the United States. As delicacies in China, they fetch 60 cents to 80 cents a pound, a price that no other foreign market comes close to matching, according to industry experts.

We're not talking chicken feed here, either. Chicken exports are a $4.34B business, and China's piece of the action is worth $854 million. (Source for info and quoted material here: NY Times.)

Our chicken feet are particularly desirable because they're big and juicy. (Can't expect scrawny little chicken feet to hold up all those outsized breasts, can you?) In the word of a poultry economist - and how's that for a job -  American chicken feet are practically "paws." (I guess this is one upside to the American obesity epidemic.)

We may no longer rule the roost in cars, steel, appliances - and all the other sorts of goods durable and non-durable that were Made in the U.S.A.  But - hallelujah! - "the United States is by far the world’s leading supplier of king-size chicken feet."

We're Number One!  We're Number One! (U.S.A.   U.S.A.) My non-chicken breast swells with pride.

I'm just as happy we're exporting them. Frankly, the idea of eating chicken feet makes me a bit peckish. Do you know where those feet were standing when those bulky breasts had a leg or two to stand on? At least those chicken breasts are a few inches away from the worst of the action on the factory floor. Chicken feet? Ewwww!

Maybe I'm missing something, but chicken feet really don't appeal to me. (When I was a kid, my father sometimes bought a bottle of pickled pigs feet, which appealed to me even less. I believe that "trotters" were on the menu of his father's saloon, and that he'd eaten them as a kid.)

My husband and I used to dine occasionally at a large and dumpy restaurant in Boston's Chinatown. I can't remember the restaurant's name - it's out of business -  but most of the people who ate there were Chinese, so we figured they knew something - and the food was pretty good.

One time, I asked our waiter what a menu item was and he recoiled and shook his head at me. "Chinese people only," he said.

Well, he didn't have to tell me twice, but I did wonder at the time just what the mystery meat was. Maybe it was chicken feet.

There's more to the trade war than tires and chicken feet, of course.

Also on or off the table is processed chicken. Apparently - who knew? - we send our chickens off to China to be cooked, canned, and frozen.

Now, am I crazy, or does it not seem to make a lot of sense to send a puffed up chicken breast off to China so that someone can parboil it, seal it in a jar, and send it back here?

Perhaps I should ask the poultry economist about this. Sounds like just the sort of thing he might know about.

Meanwhile, tonight I eat vegetarian.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nothing up my sleeve that an itch-protector wouldn't help

I obviously have little enough to do with my time that I can actually read the little black and white ads towards the back of The New Yorker.

Thus, I happened upon an ad for SoftSleeves, insert-able sweater sleeves that you can put into scratchy sweaters and jackets so that they can be worn more comfortably over short sleeve or sleeveless tops.

I have certainly had my share of scratchy sweaters over the years - remember those cool looking, funky and colorful sweaters that Peruvians sell in big city flee markets; and how about those wonderful Nordic ski sweaters with all the reindeer and snowflakes on them - just thinking about them make me want to just schuss on over to Oslo and buy by them by the armful. But I managed to resolve the scratchy sweater problem in one of two ways.

  1. I wear a long sleeved shirt under them, which pretty much is the way to go. After all, you wouldn't be wearing a camisole under a Nordic, snow-flake pattern woolly-wool sweater to begin with, unless the cami was under your long-sleeved turtleneck.
  2. I got rid of those items that were so insidiously scratchy and porcupine quillish that the wool made its way through the protective long-sleeved layer.

But, for some folks, these are apparently not options.

And one of those folks is Marnie Fricke, who invented - and patented - the SoftSleeve.

Plagued by the erratic heat-chill on airplanes, and often traveling to destinations with different weather than in her departure city, Marnie likes to travel in a sleeveless shirt, with a wool sweater to throw on as needed.

I'm with Marnie on that layering. Whatever the season, I do not step toe in an airplane cabin without a sweater and a scarf.

When I'm traveling to or from a warm weather place, which is, admittedly, seldom, I'm always amazed when people get on in flip-flops, shorts, and tee-shirts - no cover up in sight. Even with my sensible sweater and scarf approach, I can't get to the shut off valve for the air blowers fast enough when they start jetting in all that stale air that feels like it's just passed over Greenland (which it may well have, on flights heading to and from Europe, I suppose).

And then, of course, there's the opposite effect, generally on overnight flights when you're trying to sleep, and the cabin heats up to a stuffy 80+ degree bake-off. Talk about sleepless in Seattle. How about sleepless over Seattle?

So my in-flight entertainment is often getting comfortable by donning and doffing my top layer and scarf.

Sleeveless doesn't factor that heavily in my wardrobe, nor - as noted above - do scratchy sweaters. So I'm good to go without a SoftSleeve.

But Marnie likes sleeveless, and is apparently someone with pretty sensitive skin: even cashmere isn't soft enough for her. After finding herself using a cotton sweater as a buffer zone between her sleeveless shirt and her sweater, she whipped up her alpha pair of SoftSleeves, "'the scratchy sweater solution.'"

As they say, every product is the solution to something.

With her SoftSleeve invention, Marnie no longer has sweater-avoidance issues. She can buy "'any sweater in any store.'" With SoftSleeves, she could even wear a hairshirt - if the hairshirt had sleeves to protect from.

Buying 'any sweater in any store' used to work for me.

Now, in addition to avoiding those ultra-ethnic sweaters that are interesting, but make you look like the carton the refrigerator came in, not to mention take about 3 1/2 months to dry, I avoid any item containing ramie (a.k.a., TDR - or the dreaded ramie). Ramie I avoid because of the drying problem, and the fact that, in my experience, sweaters containing ramie look really terrible after you've worn them a couple of times, and definitely look terrible if you've ever washed them - post wash, they tend to resemble shredded pulp. (Many the times I've picked up a cute sweater, only to find that it contained, alas, TDR.)

Although I don't like ramie sweaters, I never experienced itchy sleeve difficulties with them.

I guess I'm just not the sensitive type.

But, judging from the endorsements on the SoftSleeve slight, a lot of women in California are. (For one endorser, they even "add a couture feel," which may be the only time that something made  of polyester charmeuse has been described as couture-ish.)

SoftSleeves aren't perfect, and the site warns against using them with any "heirloom-quality garments" or where there's a potential for snagging.

I have some pretty nice sweaters, but I don't think that any of them actually qualify as "heirloom-quality". Although, come to think of it, the itchiest sweater I own is probably my mother's old Christmas sweater, the one with the poinsettias that I usually drag out on Christmas Eve. This sweater perhaps qualifies as an heirloom.

Anyway, while I don't need SoftSleeves myself, I would guess that they'd be useful for those who want to be both both sleeveless and warm. Me? I just roll up my sleeves if heat's an issue, and roll them down to protect my baby-soft skin from contact with scratchy wool.

SoftSleeves, as I mentioned, are patented - so don't get any ideas. Plus part of each sales goes to support services for homeless women and kids, i.e., people with problems far greater than whether their arms itch. So you should buy from Marnie, not roll your own.

I have no idea just how big this business is, but it's an interesting one.

Find a niche and fill it. Find an itch and scratch it. This really is an infinite economy, isn't it?  Maybe this is why and how the US economy will rebound: one scratchy idea at a time

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

To the best of their Jabil-ity

There's certainly more than enough pain to go around on the job front, isn't there? Pink slips, "jobless recovery", unemployment benefits that are running out - even after they'd been extended so long that they were starting to look like almost like a UK-style permanent dole...

As anyone who's been laid off can tell you, there's only so much the company giving you the boot can do for you.

If you're lucky, and you were working for a "good" (and lucky) company, you get a decent severance package, decent outplacement services, and maybe even a hanky to cry into.

If you're unlucky, and were working for "bad" and/or unlucky company, you get shown the door. (Don't let it hit you as it slams behind you on the way out.)

But with all the bad news, there's occasionally, if not a glimmer of hope, a glimmer of true decency on the part of the company doing the laying off.

I read about one a couple of week's ago in a Boston Globe article that wrote about the local facility of Jabil Circuit, which is letting go over 300 workers as they shut down their plant in Billerica, Massachusetts.

Jabil earlier this year gained national attention when it advertised its plant closing and urged other companies to hire its “exceptionally skilled and experienced workers.’’

It has continued to follow through, working with the state to match its workers to training programs, and to job openings.

Jabil worked with the state to set up an "emergency" career center at the plant, donated computers and printers for the workers to use, and - with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts playing matchmaker - set up a recruiting effort for Raytheon - which has some jobs opening up for skilled manufacturing workers - to come and interview Jabil employees.

In addition to being less crowded than the presently over-taxed state career centers, the Jabil career center provides the benefit of having the laid off employees see their friends and colleagues. (As anyone who's been laid off can tell you, one of the worst things is being suddenly cut off from the folks you've been spending most of your time with for the last n years.)

Of course, having Raytheon there in the wings with some actual jobs certainly helps make this a relatively rosy situation. And I'm sure the small-ish number of employees involved helps, too.

Still, with all the terrible stories we keep reading about, it's nice to hear about a company that's treating its employees so decently. I know nothing about their business, but I do hope that fortune smiles on Jabil. If nothing else, efforts like this certainly have to help with morale of Jabil workers, wherever they are. And a lot of people, in fact, do prefer to do business with firms that show a modicum of goodness, so Jabil may get back far more than it has invested in the outplacement support they're giving their employees.

I was also going to say that it's also nice to see something modestly positive about government -  something that would seemingly have few nay-sayers. Then I thought about how those who see government ogre-ism, mismanagement, and waste everywhere would surely see this effort as communistic involvement in the inner working of divinely-inspired capitalism. And how those who are driven insanely jealous by any benefit that accrues to someone who doesn't share their name, habitat, or ethnicity, would point out that every hour spent by a state employment counselor with one of those 300 Jabil employees represented a loss of one minute each to 60 equally deserving ex-employees who didn't work for Jabil. (No wonder El Globo didn't allow comments on this article.)

Still, even an old cynic like me was happy to see a bit of a feel-good story for a change.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Invisible Ink

One of the great pleasures of my childhood was writing something in "invisible ink." Our preferred medium was milk, and we never let it stay invisible for long. Generally, the whole point was to create some sort of pirate treasure map, so once we'd written our invisible message, we held the paper over a flame until it appeared - in a nice, brownish color that looked ye olde. The edges of the paper crisped up quite nicely, too, for an ultra pirate treasure look and feel.

The idea was to leave the pirate map around so some gullible younger kid could find it. (As one of the older kids in our family and in our neighborhood, there was no dearth of gullible younger kids around.)

In order for the pirate map to look really authentic, we had to make sure that we used plain white paper.

Surprisingly, that wasn't that easy to come by in our house.

That's because our scrap and coloring paper was provided to us courtesy of my father's old friend Chuck Favreault, who worked at Melville Shoe.

He also had a wonderful baritone, and was a member of the Our Lady of the Angels choir. One of the prime auditory recalls of my childhood is hearing Mr. Favreault sing the Agnus Dei - especially moving when sung at funerals. We were entwined with the Favreaults in other ways. Mrs. F. was the Avon Lady, and I made many runs up the back stairs of the Favreaults three-decker on Henshaw Street to pick up my mother's order of hand cream or whatever. Helen Favreault was a little older than my mother. Like my mother, she always had an apron on. Unlike my mother, I seem to remember that she wore black lace up "nun-shoes" that were more like what grandmothers than mothers wore

The Favreaults had a couple of kids roughly my age, but they also had "big boys", one of whom attended the Brussels World's Fair when he was stationed in Europe while in the service. One evening, the Favreaults came over to run through the slide show that their son had made of his trip to the World's Fair. Who said slide show's are boring? I was riveted watching those slides, and derivatively thrilled by knowing someone whose brother had been to the World's Fair. In Brussels. In Belgium. (I was similarly thrilled when my friend Susan and her sister Mary Ann got to fly to San Francisco to visit their newly-married cousin Marcia and her husband. Just knowing someone who'd flown cross-country on an airplane. Wow-eee! Talk about a kinder, gentler time. I feel absolutely Little House just thinking about it.)

Once a year or so, Mr. Favreault would show up with a couple of cartons of jumbo yellow and white pads. The front was printed with some type of inventory or ordering form, but the back sides were blank. Perfect for drawing on - especially the white pads, which we fought over, as they were outnumbered by the less desirable yellow pads by a factor of about 3 to 1.

While the Melville Shoe pads were good for coloring (and for my mother to solve her diagramless crossword puzzles on), they weren't much good for pirate treasure map.

Anyway, given my vast experience with invisible ink, I was delighted to read in this week's Economist about a form of invisible ink that's the opposite an pirate-map-milk. Rather than turn visible, this modern, more refined and high-tech incarnation goes invisible after a while. 

Based on nano-technology, this form of invisible ink - which is really more appropriately called self-erasing paper -  is the brainchild of Northwestern University's Bartosz Grzybowski and his team.

Though this is not the first time that self-erasing paper has been made (in 2006 Xerox demonstrated a light-sensitive paper that self-erased after 16-24 hours) Dr Grzybowski’s method is more deployable. The writing can last longer, and the paper can be reused hundreds of times without loss of quality.

And that paper being reused is the part I really like.

Just as I was back in the day of the Melville Shoe pads, I remain a heavy user of paper.

No, I no longer read newspapers, other than on line. I don't print out a lot of versions of my work. And I try not to print out stuff that can be just as easily consumed on line. But I do subscribe to magazines (including The Economist), I do buy books, and I do use up an inordinate amount of scrap paper making lists, taking notes, and jotting reminders to myself.

Yellow pads of all sizes, post-it notes, swag pads - forget tee shirts, pads are much my preferred corporate giveaway...

Of course, I'm trying to be less wasteful and at least pale-green, so I'm starting to use "side two" rather than toss all that scrap away.

Still, from a forest primeval, from a pulp/paper/pollution standpoint, I'll be happy to make most of my notes on self-erasing paper.

All it will have to do  is last a day or so - just until I transfer whatever's left on yesterday's to-do list to tomorrow's.

Sorry, Staples, but I can see the day when I'll only need to buy one or two yellow pads per annum.

Until then, I will continue my eco-conscious use of both sides of the pad, and will see if I can find a magic slate somewhere. I'll try not to press down too hard with the stylus. Don't want to gunk up the waxy-pad underneath the nifty peel up plasticky page...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Just another day at the office...

Will there come a day when 9/11 doesn't hit like a ton of bricks? When we watch those planes plow into the Towers and no longer find it unfathomable? When we see those Towers, one after the other, pancake and collapse, and not shake our heads in disbelief?

Maybe because it's NYC. Maybe because the  planes were from Boston. Maybe because there were more people killed, when I think 9/11, I think of New York, and not Washington. I think of all those workers doing what you do at work.

Just another day at the office. Same old, same old.

Doing what you do.

Leaving a swallow-full of coffee in the bottom of the pot so you wouldn't have to put on another one. Chatting with the colleague who'd taken a long weekend. Heading in for an interminable staff meeting, hoping you wouldn't drift off or get caught rolling your eyes. Cursing your boss under your breath for some nonsense fire-drill demand. Putting the finishing touches on a preso that no one was actually interested in. Getting out a proposal the was doomed (they'd already picked your competitor). Firing off a CYA e-mail. Asking the woman in the next cube where she'd gotten that cute pocketbook (and hoping she'd tell you what she paid for it). Closing a deal. Making a trade. Figuring out where to have lunch - it's such a nice day, no way you're not going out.

Who'd have thought that a few minutes later you'd be heading for the roof, hoping to get airlifted to safety. Making your way down a billion flights of stairs, passing all those handsome boyo firefighters on their way up, cheering them on - and remembering, irrationally of course, that you'd forgotten to turn off your PC.  Holding hands with your best office pal as you decide it's better to die with the weird hope that you'll bounce than it is to get incinerated in a firestorm.

I was in Orlando, participating in a panel on web hosting at a Gartner Group event. I wasn't an invited speaker - Genuity had paid for the privilege of having me sit there talking about bandwidth, failover, security, web servers, app servers, SAS70 certification, world class data centers, and - by the way - we did invent the Internet. (Or at least BB&N, our predecessor had. Plus we had bragging rights for the @ sign, and the first VPN. Talk about 'who cares?')

Surprisingly, nobody interrupted us to say what had happened, but by the time the panel ended, the hotel had brought a couple of TV's into the common area outside the function rooms, and people were standing around - not quite comprehending, but not yet numb.

It took me a while to process what was happening.

After the first Tower collapsed, I kept thinking that when the dust cleared, most of the building would still be standing.

I called home - of course.

Then tried to figure out how to get there. (Once I learned that the planes had come from Boston, I figured that Logan would be closed for a while.)

Thanks to John, my transpo brother-in-law, I was able to get on an Amtrak train heading our way - final destination unclear; the only promise was that we'd get as far as Richmond.

My colleague, Tom, and I caught a train around 8 p.m.

Husbanding our cellphone bars  - neither of us had a charger, even if there'd been a place to use it - we made our way north, grabbing bits of info from our brief calls home, and scrounging for whatever rumors the conductors passed along.

I ate chicken soup that was salty, greasy, and delicious, and watched the south go by. In Virginia, we slowed to a crawl as we made our way over a bridge that struck me as rickety enough to be Civil War vintage. Why were we moving so slowly?

Were we at war? At war-war?

Tom and I had the Acela to catch in DC.

We made it with 2 minutes to spare, only because they waved us through without making us change our tickets.

Carol Burnett was in our car, but there was no star gazing, no autographs, no celebrity chit-chat.

Most of the wakes I've been to have been far livelier.

As we pulled out of Newark, the car went dead silent.

A big black cloud was extending from the WTC up half the length of Manhattan.

I thought at first that it was smoke. But of course it was a hideous amalgam of pulverized concrete, plastic, silicon, steel, paper, the remains of a handful of nihilist bastards, and most of what was left of a couple of thousand of workers who were just having another day at the office.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dormez vous in a high-rise university residents' hall?

We're in the midst of the annual rite of move-in, when all those college students descend on the city of Boston. Although I live near several schools - Emerson, Suffolk, Fisher - I'm not in the midst of plenty, as those living in the student 'tos are.

One of the student areas is Allston-Brighton, where a lot of BC and BU students live, and where Harvard Business School is located. But I don't imagine there were too many B-Schoolers in the bit I saw on local TV news last week, when they did their annual rite of reporting on students moving into uninhabitable housing. Not that I would be lacking sympathy for HBS students stuck living in about to be condemned apartments. It's just that I think most of those who got stuck are from BC and BU.

The places they showed were truly gross. Apparently the exiting students weren't familiar with the concept of "broom clean." Or even with a minimal notion of cleanliness. Filthy tubs and toilets, roach-infested kitchens, basements full of rat-ripped trash bags and hundreds of discarded red plastic cups - the ones that scream "kegger."

I real wouldn't expect students moving out to clean the grout with a toothbrush. But flushing the toilet shouldn't be too much to expect. Of course, the students moving in no doubt rented sight/site unseen, or looked at their home sweet home to be when there was a shower curtain sheltering their eyes from three-inch scum buildup, the toilet seat was down, the cracked walls were covered with posters of whoever the hotty pin-up babes of the moment are, and all those messy futons looked kind of inviting.

As usual, the story on the slum dogs of 2009 featured indignant students, grossed-out parents, streets jammed with U-Hauls, and the building's owner shielding his face when he makes the slumlord version of a perp walk.

I am noting this only to contrast it with the scene taking place a couple of miles down Commonwealth Avenue. Down the road, some BU students were moving into a luxury high-rise dorm. This which was reported in The Boston Globe the same day I saw the report on the hapless students trying to figure out how to get their deposits back and where to go with a UHaul full of electronics and futons that's due back at the airport in 5 hours.

BU has erected a 26-floor residence hall that apparently looks and feels more like an upscale hotel.

So luxurious is the 960-bed dorm that parents’ jaws dropped in disbelief when they helped their children move in last week. The suites of singles and doubles, with elegantly furnished common rooms, large private baths, walk-in closets, and floor-length mirrors, resemble nothing like what older generations remember of their college housing - sterile cinder-block boxes with institutional bunk beds and a communal bathroom down the hall.

How well I remember the cinder-block box and communal bath. But, like 99.99% of the students of my by-gone era, I was delighted to be there. Who cared how dreary and drab it was? Undrabbing and undrearying were what Monet prints and Mateus bottles with paper flowers in them were for. Hey, as long as your parents couldn't come barging in on you, what was there not to like? It wasn't like most of us had private rooms or private baths back home.

But BU wanted to put on a bit of the Ritz:

Other amenities include soundproof piano rooms that allow students to practice without disturbing those studying in the 24-hour reading room, which is outfitted with plush adjustable furniture befitting a first-class airport lounge. The laundry room - with washers and dryers programmed to alert students via computer when they are available - overlooks the athletic field and stadium.

BU has put up their Hotel d'Dorm for a number of reasons. They want to be viewed as more of a residence school, and thus need to provide more digs on-campus. They also feel that they need to do something to attract upperclassmen to stay on campus all four years - and apparently the cinder-block-housing doesn't quite do it.

I'm with the students on this point.

I moved out my senior year, to a $150/month apartment off campus. Sure, that was a lot of money, but I had a roommate, and very much enjoyed our little place on Queensberry Street, which we furnished with family cast-offs and made quite homey.

Back at BU, students had to enter a housing lottery to get into the luxe dorm, which, at $13K, costs about $5K more than standard digs.

One student interviewed - a young woman who was the only one of her friends who wasn't "too cheap" to spring for the $5K - is financing the dorm fee with a student loan.

"For the past three years, I lived in the lowest-priced dorms, [she said]. "Being a senior, I’ve worked really hard and I figured I deserve to live in a place "like this.’’

From BU's perspective, having a posh dorm is no doubt a smart move. In addition to keeping more students on campus - and out of the hair and apartment buildings of an often-resentful adjacent neighborhood - they will be able to use this as a competitive differentiator. I'm guessing that facilities like this will become more important schools compete for that declining number of students (and parents) who can "afford" a pricey second-tier private school.

For the students, however, I don't think this is an unalloyed good - and not just because I have an old-timey everyone-should-walk-4-miles-in-a-blizzard-to-an-unheated-one-room-school-house attitude toward how students should live.

Mostly I'm troubled by someone taking a $5,000 loan to pay for it.

Maybe the student quoted has no school debt and figured, what the hell.

Maybe she has so much school debt that she figured, what the hell.

But I can't help but believe that, a couple of years from now, having to pay down a $5K debt that was assumed so that someone could have a nice view of the Boston skyline, and lounge around on trendy furniture in tangerine and mocha walled rooms, won't seem like such a good idea.

Monthly payments on a $5,000 loan at 6% is about $100/month for 5 long years.

Maybe the student will be making such good money, or has no other debt, so this won't be a big deal.

But $100 month to live large for your last two semesters of college?

That's a couple of pretty nice dinners out with friends. It's concert, play, or game tickets. It's something off the sale rack at Ann Taylor's. Over the course of a year, it's a vacation. It's a nicer shower or wedding present, a bunch of baby gifts. It's sending flowers to Mom and Grandma on Mother's Day. It's being able to make a nice charitable donation. It could even be (gulp) pure savings.

Sure, it's not much, but there's still a lot you can do with a hundred bucks.

BU may be plenty smart to have decided on a luxe dorm. And parents who can afford, and choose, to foot this type of bill, well, that's their lookout. But taking on debt to live high in the high-rise?

I'm betting that next year there'll be plenty of buyer's remorse going around.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

"I want to be wanted...."

On Labor Day, the news on the job front all seemed to be around the jobless recovery; when we can expect to see jobless rates peak; the permanently unemployed/ unemployable...All dire, all dreary.

But just as I was about to summon up the  dream-couple specters of Joe Hill and Mother Jones, I came across a chirpy little piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled "How to Make Employers Want You".

Obviously, the article is aimed more at WSJ readers than it is at, say, assembly line workers at a GM Powertrain plant in Rustbelt, Michigan, but - truly - is there anyone reading the WSJ for whom this advice from a partner with Deloitte Consulting's Human Capital Group is a revelation?

"Candidates have to think deliberately about how their skills will fit."

For this reason, the most successful candidates target prospective companies carefully, using the Internet and their networks to learn about organizational culture, history, financial performance and recent news.

By the time the interview takes place, they are able to have an intelligent discussion about the value they bring to the position, and the employer can easily envision them starting tomorrow.

Say what?

You mean I can't use the question, "So, what exactly does your company do?" as an opening interview gambit?

Man, life is just unfathomably hard these days, isn't it?

As for that "intelligent discussion" stuff, I could be snarky and point out that it's actually hard to have an "intelligent discussion" if you never actually score an interview.

But that's where your network comes in.

Have one! Use one!

Ditto your skills and experience.

Have some! Use some!

If only I could think of advice of this caliber, why, I'd have a column in the WSJ. No one wants to read the musings of a poke-funner. They want good, practical, useful advice.

The column goes on to tell us that:

Attractive personal qualities are a service orientation and diversity.

I get the "service orientation" (a.k.a., community involvement; see below), but I'm trying to wrap my bee-bee brain around how diversity is a personal quality.

Does this mean that you need a diversified c.v. - scholar! athlete! networker! multi-tasker! service orientator! Or that you're better off if you introduce some element of EEOC-style diversity into the workplace. And just how do you express this if the give-away isn't all that obvious. (Hey, you want diversity? My mother was born in Rumania. But she was not, alas, the queen. Just a little peasant girl who came through Ellis Island when she was almost four.)

When it comes to that community involvement, however, best not to fake it.

...if you have a legitimate interest in what the company is doing from a social-responsibility perspective, discuss that," Mr. [Jeff] Schwartz [of Deloitte again] recommends.

Those italics are mine, by the way. And I'll add even more value here by warning a job candidate that legitimacy is not achieved by reading on the company's website that their primo charitable outlet is the Society for the Preservation of the Praying Mantis, and announcing that, mirabile dictu, you've had a long-standing interest in the praying mantis. From a social responsibility perspective, this would be BS unless you actually did have some long-standing interest in the praying mantis. (No, watching one crawl up your arm in stoned fascination is not a long-standing interest. And - in real life - watch out for things like dropping bits like mirabile dictu into an interview. On the one hand, it speaks to an attractive personal quality, such as diversity - in that you're diverse enough to have taken Latin. On the other hand, 99.99% of those who have taken Latin are old fogies. Hiring an old fogy might be good for diversity, but - let's face it - having someone who remembers when Ike was president is not the type of diversity that anyone really wants around the workplace. So ix-nay on the mirabile dictu. And ix-nay on the ix-nay, while you're at it. There's something distinctly 23 skidoo-ish about Pig Latin. It's certainly in the same category as Latin-Latin, and may, in act-fay, be even worse. At least Latin-Latin has something a bit brainy and high tone going for it.)

But if you really want to get multiple job offers,

...nothing takes the place of demonstrating excitement about every firm you approach, and this enthusiasm should be expressed to everyone from the relative who is a company alum to the receptionist who greets you in the lobby.

No job?

'Don't mourn, organize' your network, résumé, community cred, and anything else you can think of that will make employers want you. (Duh?)

Demonstrate excitement! Be nice to the receptionist! Don't let the door hit your arse on the way out until you've expressed your enthusiasm about everything and everybody. Blow kisses! Bring donuts! (Better not: you don't want to appear self-indulgent or fattish.)

And, whatever you do, don't let on that you remember Brenda Lee singing, "I want to be wanted."

Talk about old fogey...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

28th Anniversary of My Brilliant Career

Well, today marks the 28th anniversary of my brilliant, post-business school career.

Sure, I had worked before I went to Sloan, but those jobs were just jobs, paychecks, line-items on a hapless résumé heavy on oddities (boot polisher in a shoe factory) and glorified nothingness.

On September 8, 1981, I had an MS degree in management, and an ideal job: it was in Cambridge, the people were brainy, the company was funky, and it paid $30K, which was the median salary for my graduating class. So what if I had not yet heard the term 'career trajectory', or maybe even 'career path.' I had a business degree. From a Top Ten-nish B-School, no less. Mattered not that I had no idea what I was going to be doing, other than "something" to do with "consulting."

I'd got me a career!

Unfortunately, I'd neglected to ask what the hours were. Since every job I'd ever had was an 8 o-clock-ish kind of deal, I showed up at 8 a.m., only to find the doors locked and the lights off.

By 9 a.m., someone had shown up, and I was shown to my office, which I was to share with someone who was quite hard working and intelligent. Unfortunately, he was also a control freak obsessive-compulsive who no one wanted to work for. A few scant years later I was to be the target of a mildly threatening poison-pen letter (or, rather, poison e-mail) sent to the company's president. Without naming names - his or mine - the e-mail attacked me for getting ahead while people with far superior technical skills were languishing as individual contributors. 

My ex-office mate - he was my "ex" by then - never admitted that he'd sent the note.

However, the tone, language, and details - not to mention some of his past history, as well as the flat out fact that no one else who could have provided those details had the technical acuity to use our mainframe e-mail system to send an anonymous e-mail - combined to make a dead giveaway. When I was shown the note, I knew immediately who'd sent it, as did the company president and the HR manager.)

No wonder he was so ticked off.

At the time the note was sent, I was clawing my way up the managerial ladder/totem pole: I had all of one person reporting to me. And I was also the only woman in the company with a window office.

At the time the note was sent, the company was a few short weeks from imploding, and having its remnants sucked up into the company that had acquired us shortly before I'd joined.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

On Day One, once I was shown into my office, I asked around for a Sloan alum who was supposed to be in our group.

He was nowhere to be found.

"Where's A?" I asked one of my fellow consultants.

"Oh, he was fired so that they could hire you," I was told.

So that's what the hiring manager said when he told me that he'd "found the money in the budge to hire you."

I was given two large volumes of documentation for XSIM, the company's mainframe forecasting and modeling language, to study up on. The tomes each weighed about 50 pounds, were covered in tan leatherette with gold lettering, and were the heft of a Gutenberg Bible.

With nothing better to do, I paged through the documentation - Volume One: Commands; Volume Two: Functions, in hopes that, when I did get a project, I would at least know where to look to figure out what to do with it. (XSIM was how us consultants created the models that our behemoth corporate giant customers - AT&T, GE Capital  -  paid us big bucks to develop and run for them. Ah, the world of time-sharing, the cloud computing of its day!)

I was told that, until I got on a modeling project, I was to fill in my time slips with "GNA" - whatever GNA was. It took me a few weeks for someone to tell me that I was supposed to be writing G&A (for General & Administrative tasks).

But I wasn't on G&A  - or GNA - for long.

By Day Two, I'd already absorbed the prevailing sense of the corporate culture - "we" loathed the company that had acquired us; "we" felt that we'd all been screwed by the buyout; "we" openly and vociferously sneered at the stunning incompetence and trickery of senior management. (Sample: a paper bag tacked to the wall in a public area with "manage your way out of this" scrawled on it. Did I mention that I was soooooo happy to be working with all these brainy people?)

On Day Three, I was asked to help out on a project, writing reports for Libby Owens Ford.

After spending eight hours creating reports - which were all variations on a theme - a row changed here, a column added there, redo some headers - the project manager asked how many I'd completed.

He was delighted when I told him that I'd almost gone through his entire list.

He was less delighted when he asked what I'd come up with for a naming convention.

Naming convention? Say what?

I'd called them all LOF for Libby Owens Ford.

Thus, on my first non-GNA day, I had nothing but one report to show for 8 hours sweating over a hot terminal. (That day, I gave new meaning to the words 'dumb terminal.')

In the end, I stayed at that company (or its parent) for almost six years, learning tons, and making some of my closest friends.

I can't say I loved every moment. (In fact, I left in a huff, ticked off at my boss  - a genuine nice guy - for a temporary lapse into jerk-dom.) But I did love most of it. Unlike those folks who learned everything they needed to know in kindergarten, I can say that I learned pretty much everything I needed to know about business at Dynamics Associates - what makes a company tick, what makes a company work, how to treat employees well, how to treat employees poorly, how to manage a product, how to manage a project, how and when to communicate to customers, managers, fellow employees, underlings, etc., etc., etc.  I learned through a combination of observation - and screwing things up on my own. Both excellent teachers, by the way.

Twenty-eight years ago!

I just looked up the gift idea for a twenty-eighth anniversary.

Oddly, it's orchids, which is what my old office-mate and his wife raised for a hobby.

For the heck of it, I googled him. He's on LinkedIn and is interested in hearing from people who want to get back in touch.

Well, I doubt I'm one of them, but you never know.

Anyway, Happy Anniversary to Me.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Antidote to the summertime blues

Supreme nerd girl that I am, even as a child, I never minded when summer was winding down. End of summer was a nerd girl's dream: back to school!  New pencil box. New Stride Rite saddle shoes. New nun - and if you had Sister Mary Antipathy last year, you had a decent chance of getting Sister Angela of the Smiles this year. (Unless they pushed Sister Mary Antipathy up a grade, which happened to my sister Kath one year. Although there's something to be said about the devil you know...)

Still, there's something about the end of summer that makes me a bit wistful. For what, I'm not so sure.

So Pink Slip is  taking a couple of days off to enjoy NYC - wonder of wonders, capital of the universe, greatest city ev-ah.  Other than those damn Yankees, what is there not to love about The City?

Unless I'm inspired to do a Labor Day post, I'll be back on Tuesday.

In the meantime, I ¤ NY.

Who said there ain't no cure for the summertime blues?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Girded for Battle ("I dreamed I was walking down Fifth Avenue in my Ardyss Body Magic 2")

A number of years ago, I was walking along the beach, when I reached back to pull down my bathing suit.

"The elastic's really going in the rear of this bathing suit," I thought. But as I tugged the suit down, I realized it wasn't the elastic in the rear of the bathing suit that was going, but, rather, the elastic in the rear of the bathing suit-ee.

I thought of this when I read a CNN article yesterday on a gathering in Atlanta of the sales folks for Ardyss International, which specializes in foundational undergarments. That would be corsets and girdles.

Believe that needlepoint pillow motto, never too rich, never too thin? Ardyss might just have something for you. At least if you buy the promises on their web site, and the guy who was revving up the crowd by telling them:

"They say money doesn't grow on trees. Well, I've got a money tree in my backyard, and Ardyss planted it there!"

Move over Tupperware, so long Mary Kay.

Ardyss is another of those multilevel marketing outfits: sell stuff and make money, get others to sell stuff and make more money, get those others to get still others to sell stuff and make more money.  And so on, until everybody in the world is a distributor, and the last schnooks in have no one to sell to.

But until then...

"I've only been involved for two months, and I have a check with a comma in it," said Robbyn Washington of Snellville, Georgia.

Well, over the last two months, I've gotten a number of checks with commas in them, but I did it by writing white papers, not by selling the Body Magic corset thing-y that claims to get you to "Drop 3 sizes in 10 minutes."

I'll just bet...

One of the numerous social changes I've lived through is the decline of the wearin' o' the girdle.

When I was in high school, it mattered not whether you were a slender-ella or 40 pounds overweight. If you were the Catholic daughter of a Catholic mother, you never went out without wearing a girdle under your dress or skirt.

These were "panty girdles" which didn't really give the control of the sturm und drang girdles those Catholic mothers (and grandmothers) wore. Still, a girdle's a girdle.

Then, blessedly, panty hose came upon the scene, and one of the main functions of the panty girdle - it had fasteners to hold your nylons up - went by the boards. And, hey, this was the 60's. Even though we were Catholic girls, we were girls. Who cared - other than those Catholic mothers - about reining in that butt jiggling?

So, since I remember the girdle (and will confess to usually wearing control-top panty hose on the odd occasion when I'm wearing panty hose), I was interested in what Ardyss has to offer.

So I wiggled my virtual way over to their site, to see what was up, or what was being held up.

First off, I have to say that they have one of those annoying sites that won't let you grab text or images, or even print a page into a pdf. I suppose that's to ward off us snarky bloggers.

Hah, as long as these fingers can find the keyboard....

Different messages seem to appear on the site, but the last time I look, it challenged the reader to "imagine your body looping and looking excellent."

It's hard enough for me to imagine my body looking excellent, let alone imaging it looping.  But if I used their products, presumably I could unleash my imagination.

With Body Magic 2 steps System, is possible to reduce sizes instantly, reaffirm your abdomen and get the figure you have ever wanted, and also have the advantage of getting a better health and get all the antioxidants benefits through Le 'Vive.

And lest you think that I made some typos while transcribing info from their site, I must - forgive me - mention that the site is written in ESL, so most/all of those errors should be considered [sic].  That said, I wouldn't mind reaffirming my abdomen, especially if I could stop doing those damned crunches with the eight pound medicine ball that don't seem to be doing all that much good.

If you're wondering, Le 'Vive is their nutritional drink that

MAY help you

  • To neutralize free radicals, responsible for aging*
  • Increase your energy and strength*
  • In preventing cancer*
  • Keep good health*

*This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Man, disclaimers are such downers!

But back to the Body Magic 2 Step system, which, among other "incredible" (their word) benefits:

Loose sizes instantly without surgery
Stop aging through antioxidants
Helps fight against degenerative terrible illneses
Helps your bust from falling

I hate when that happens, which it seems to be doing more often these days. (Note to self: get better bras.)

Increase your energy
Helps the correct internal organs function
Protects the lumbar spine
Get a firm abdomen instantly
Reduce up to two waist sizes

Well, I'm all for getting all the correct internal organs to function. And keep that useless appendix from acting out. But didn't we used to hear that Victorian ladies who were laced into their corsets ended up with their organs in the wrong position, and, in fact, ended up with organ damage.

I guess the technology has gotten that much better...

Despite the disclaimers on the site, the Atlanta conventioneers were more unbridled.

They ascribed restored bladder control and diverted surgeries to Body Magic. One distributor lifted her blouse to reveal not only the über-girdle but also her Angel Bra, which she said can protect a woman from breast cancer. Many thanked Body Magic for putting their organs "back in place."

There you go again. Just the other day, I was wondering what my kidney was doing on my hip. If I'd had my Body Magic on, I might have saved myself the trouble of having to prod that rogue kidney back into place.

The stories passed around of those saved by Le' Vive, a drink said to be rich in antioxidants, included tales about warding off diabetes and arthritis. But distributors also said a woman was cured of Bell's palsy. Another, they said, had Lupus, was given six months to live and is now in remission. And then there was the unnamed blind man who distributors claimed began to see.

I will point out that these claims came not from Ardyss, but from their ardent distributors.

It goes without saying that, especially in these times, there are a lot of distributor wannabes, many from less affluent and educated backgrounds, who want to buy-in to the Ardyss promise.

In the last half year, the business has grown by 600 percent.

It pays, of course, to be at the top of the pyramid. One with 15,000 distributors under her wing claims to rake in $55K per month. (Hmmmmmmm. Maybe I should rethink my career in product marketing. Anyone want to buy a Body Magic from me?)

But, of course, with "only" 140,000 distributors in toto, there can't be many who have 15,000 distributors under them - especially when one of the other primo Ardyssians has 55,000 under her. That takes care of half right there.

Still, if you want to become a distributor, you can get yourself a starter kit for $299.

I couldn't find any list of the contents on their site, but I did find a couple of before and after shots under "real people, real results."

Strange, that women with the long straight hair - the one in the completely hideous black dress with the Crayola-flesh thingy on top that looks like it's a skin disorder - seems to have a thinner nose and face in the after shot. Could it be that they stretched the picture a tad.

Naaaahhhhhh. That would never happen.

Meanwhile, if you want to contact Ardyss US, they're on Paradise Road in Las Vegas. The mother ship is in Mexico. Is it too late to revoke NAFTA?