Friday, February 26, 2010

You Eat a Peck of Dirt

The other day, as I pulled out a shopping cart at Whole Foods, I noticed that most of the other cart-pullers were assiduously scrubbing their hands with the germ-removing handy-wipes that Whole Foods so kindly dispenses.  After doing their personal surgical scrub, my fellow shoppers proceeded to do a clean-room disinfectant job on the shopping cart handles.  None of these folks had a babe-in-arms to protect, by the way.  They were just looking out for Number One.

I, too, was looking out for Number One. But my look-out tells me not to be such an all-fired fetishist about germs.

Not that I'm slathering my hands in chicken parts before I pop a slice of cucumber into my maw. Nor am I eating off the toilet seats in airport restrooms. And I worry about being attacked by flesh-eating bacteria as much as the next guy.

Still, I'm of the old-school that says that the way to beat down germs is to build up a resistance to them, not encourage new and more virulent ones to breed in their stead.  So I'm not going to risk a hip-breaking fall by using my foot to karate-chop the flushing mechanism in that airport bathroom. Nor am I using my elbows to open doors that some Typhoid Mary may have touched six weeks earlier.  And I'm not going to start sterilizing my shopping cart, either.

Okay, I do get a flu shot. And I generally have a mini bottle of Purell in my bag. But that's for really icky emergency situations (like when someone just rhino-virused in her hands before touching the doorknob I was about to grasp).

But mostly, I just practice common-sense hygiene.

And, knock on wood (with my elbow, of course; you don't know who's been sneezing on that surface) , I am spectacularly healthy and haven't had a cold in years.

Back at Whole Foods, as I used my germy hands to push my germy cart, I noticed that the handy-wipers had no problem touching the produce.


Were they assuming that everyone had scrubbed up before squeezing the grapefruit and sniffing the cantaloupe? Or that germs don't linger on the skins of fruit and veg the same way they do on grocery cart handles? (Which they probably don't, but for all we know, they linger longer.)

Anyway, while I was germinating, I mean ruminating, about the cleanliness is next to Whole Foodliness brigade, what appears in The Wall Street Journal but an article on a new breed of home refrigerators designed to get rid of refrigerator germs. (Access to this article may require a subscription.)

I hadn't actually given much thought over the years to refrigerator cleanliness.

If there's a mess, I clean it. If there's something rotting - which I am generally successful at avoiding - I pitch it. Other than that, what goes on behind those closed doors stays behind those closed doors. Which means I probably don't clean out the crispers, wipe down the shelves, pry gunk out of the gasket, or toss out 3 year old partially used, completely frozen bags of cranberries often enough.

Still, it will be a long time coming before I invest in the latest in fridge vigilance technology from Viking, which in 2009 brought out:

...a built-in model (priced from $6,600 to $8,800) that contains Sharp Electronics Corp.'s Plasmacluster Ion Air Purifier. The device, located at the top of the fridge, generates positive and negative ions that break down bacteria, mold and mildew, says Sue Bailey, the company's director of major appliance product management. In a test conducted by an outside firm hired by Viking Range, the Plasmacluster killed 99% of the bacteria in the fridge.

My, my, my. Just how did my grandmother live to be 97 without a Plasmacluster?

Few appliance-makers will be able to outdo this, but Whirlpool:

...spent months inventing a shelf with microscopic etching so it can hold a can of spilled soda.

Who says we've lost our innovative edge? (USA! USA!)

Seriously, just how big a problem is a spilled can of soda? Don't most of us down the whole thing in one sitting?

GE is putting in more lights, the easier to find grot-filled corners where germs are apt to homestead in spoiled food. SubZero is tackling the germy fridge problem by focusing on education - No Fridge Gazer left behind. They're including instructions on where to store things. (No milk in the doors, please. That's the warmest spot in the house.) 

Personally, I think that most folks probably police their fridges well enough to avoid ptomaine. Rotting food, well, smells like rotting food.

Where I think these manufacturers are missing the market is in building special refrigerators for the office environment.

These would require that no one be allowed to put anything in the fridge that didn't have an RFID tag with a expiration date time stamp. Further, each item placed in the fridge should send an alert to the owner when the expiration date is nearing. Once the expiration date is reached, the item would be hit with some sort of built-in neutron bomb that would completely incinerate any traces of it.

This would be the Viking or SubZero version.

At the Whirlpool and GE end of the market, we could have a fridge that, every Friday at 5 p.m. automatically heaved its entire contents into a trash receptacle.

Think about it!

No more dire warnings about removing food.

No more  house-mom putting on the rubber gloves and chucking out those desiccated, half eaten turkey on wheats. Those 11 month old Yoplaits. Those Tropicana cartons with the oozing inch of sludge in the bottom.

I'm convinced that it's not the fridge in your kitchen, let alone the grocery cart at Whole Foods, that's the problem. It's the office refrigerator where society's real germ problem flourishes.

Sure, this isn't a sellers market, but before you take a new job, check out the kitchen.

If there's no Plasmacluster in the fridge, you've got a point to negotiate on.







Thursday, February 25, 2010

Blades of Inglory. (How do you say 'oops' in Dutch?)

Although I know virtually nothing about the technicalities of any of the sports I'm watching, I am semi-avidly following the Olympics.

Tuesday night's high - or low - point (depending on whether you're Dutch or Korean) had to be when skating coach Gerard Kempers gave a miscue to Dutch speed-skating supremo, Sven Kramer, just as Kramer was nearing the completion of another Gold Medal performance, and a record-breaking one at that. I didn't quite follow what the boo-boo was: something about changing lanes too soon, or too late. In any event, Kramer was disqualified, and the Korean runner-up got the gold.

Now, speed-skating - which Americans only concern themselves with every 4 years, when, all of a sudden, we know who Apollo Ohno and Shani Davis are - is a very big deal in the Netherlands. They have all kinds of folks over for the Olympics, including the Crown Prince, who's yucking it up nightly with the Dutch medalists. So, losing this race in this way is an extraordinarily big and public deal.

It was front page news on AD.NL, where, curiously, a picture of a yucking-it-up Dutch skating team was shown front and center. (I believe that is Coach K to the right, and, if I'm not mistaken - and I may well be - that's Sven Kramer in the black head band.) Presumably, this pic was shot in palmier days. Perhaps they were laughing at a good one the Crown Prince had just told.

Anyway, this has got to be about the Dutch equivalent of Grady Little leaving Pedro Martinez in when he'd clearly run out of arm. Only more so, given that this brouhaha involves a nation, and the Grady Little bad coaching just involved Red Sox Nation.

I trans-babel-ated some of the headlines, so I know that Kramer said "I do not let Kempers fall this way," that "Kramer makes excuses for clumsy action," and that, when he experienced his brain-fart, Kempers was "surplus inferred." (This latter one must have lost a bit in the translation.) But the reference to "fatale blunder" loses nada, zip, zilch.

There's a poll asking whether Kempers should be dismissed after this.

While I probably have no business voting in someone else's election, I voted, "Nee". (Which, when I voted, was the majority sentiment. I guess the Dutch are nicer than we are.)

This all got me thinking of the things that all of us screw up in our work.  We hire the wrong people. We miscalculate. We don't catch an error when we proof.  We build a product that nobody wants. We choose a bad business partner. We lose a deal we should have closed. We hire a vendor who fails us.

We all - at least I'm guessing we all - make errors in judgement, errors of omission, and errors in execution, at least occasionally. They may be negligible in terms of material impact, but they can also may result in heavy costs.

Most of us don't make the big problem errors on our own. And few of us make the big problem errors publicly.

Sure, some people will know if we f-up. But it's not likely that everyone in the world will.

Poor Gerard Kempers!

I feel a lot worse for him than I do for Sven Kramer, who will no doubt be able to recoup the big bucks, or, rather big euros, that not getting this medal will cost him.

But Kempers...poor bastard.

Will he ever get over his 'surplus inferred,' fatale blunder?

Bet he didn't get much of a night's sleep the other night.

Let's hope the good Dutch citizens keep voting "Nee."

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Certifiably High IQ

Over on the other day, there was a mildly interesting article from CareerBuilder on odd-ball things that people put on their résumés.

One of the odd-ball things cited was the fellow who, in applying for an entry level job, put down that he was a "Pig Wrestling Champion." The hiring manager dinged the guy because the experience wasn't directly applicable to the position he was looking for.

Sure, the applicant may have given TMI - weight of the pig? - but I have a slightly different response. I think that this experience speaks to determination, a competitive instinct, and the willingness to get your hands dirty (in this case, quite literally - or at least I assume so).

While I never saw anything as interesting as pig wrestling on a résumé, reading the article did set me off on a bit of a muck-wallow into some of the things I have seen (or not seen) over many years of résumé-reading.

Eons ago, I saw someone who, under the heading "accomplishments", listed 'home-owner, father of two'.

Now, admittedly, both of these are accomplishments of sorts, and it's nice that the fellow was house- and kid-proud. Still, he would have been better off putting 'father of two' under a "personal" heading  - do these even exist on résumés any more? - and leaving off the home-ownership. (Although nowadays, hanging on to your home may be an excellent sign of fiscal probity and rectitude.)

In the same raft of applications, there was another fellow who, at the top of his résumé, had written "Certifiably High IQ," later revealed to be 110. (Okay, I just found a site that shows the 110-119 range to be "superior", as in "superior" to "normal." Still, if you're going to brag about your IQ - and you really and truly shouldn't be doing so directly - maybe you should be Marilyn vosSavant or something.)

When I was in B-School, the outgoing second-year students participated in accepting the incoming class - which meant reading a lot of interesting applications.

My favorite was someone who claimed that after his junior year in college, he'd done "strategic planning for GM."

Well, that may explain what happened to GM, but I did have my doubts about whether he'd been the strategic planner he described himself as, or someone who sat around with a TI calculator - this was before Excel, or even Multiplan - and toted up numbers.  (I wonder what became of this applicant. I do know that he never made it to the Sloan School.)

Fast forward a number of years, to the time when I interviewed a guy who was applying for the VP of Development at a small software firm I worked at.  Under personal attributes, he had written that he was exceedingly adept at conflict resolution. Which would have been fine with me if, during the course of our interview, he hadn't tried to pick a couple of fights with me by insulting our collateral and website, which -  it should have been obvious to him -  I was responsible for.  Maybe he meant that he was good at resolving conflicts that he'd precipitated, but I never did get to find out, as we gave him a pass.

One of the weirdest - in retrospect - résumés I ever saw was that of a young woman applying for an admin position at the same software company.

In truth, I don't remember exactly what was on her résumé, but I guess we weren't very good at vetting candidates.

After she was hired - against my recommendation, I must say* - and was already exhibiting major signs of not working out, she came into my office, revealed that she had an EE degree from a fairly prestigious school, that she had worked as an EE for a fairly well-known technology company, and that - after being left at the altar - had suffered a nervous breakdown.

Which, of course, made me very interested in her work- and personal plightiness, and more than willing to help her with her overbearing and demanding boss.

And which just might explain why a few days later I encountered this young woman, who looked like Alice in Wonderland (prissy Disney version), in the ladies' room cursing out her boss in language that would make Bluto blush.  And why a few days after that, when her boss asked her how things were going, she said "Fine" while dragging her fingernails down the full length of his office door.


For a number of reasons that included not only the above, but enough ins-and-outs to fill a couple of telenovelas, we had to let this person go.

For a while there, I was concerned for her safety, not to mention that of her manager, not to mention that of our little company. But she went away quietly.

Ah, résumés.

I haven't looked at mine lately.

All I know is how bummed I was when "combat-boot polisher in a shoe factory" fell off. A lot more credible an entry - at least in the way-back, when we actually made things in the US - than strategic planner for GM.

*I make no claim to being a particularly able hirer. Yes, most of the people I hired (or helped hire) worked out, but I had several bad hires where I clearly ignored signals as loud as the dive klaxon on a submarine. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, however, my reasons for not wanting to hire her had nothing to do with suspecting her instability. I just thought she would be too meek and mild to stand up to her overbearing and demanding boss. So, I was both right and wrong.

We ended up hiring candidate #2, who had been my recommendation to begin with, and she worked out fairly well. (At least she could hold her own with her overbearing and demanding boss.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Here Come Da Judge

Always casting around for my next career, sporadically watching the Winter Olympics has resulted in a bit of an epiphany: I am a natural judge.

How else to explain that, having watched just two guys in the Men's Halfpipe competition, I was able to figure out who deserved a 39 vs. a 45.

The fact that, prior to turning on The Games that evening, I wouldn't have known a halfpipe from a tailpipe, doesn't suggest to me in the least that I don't know what I'm judging about. No, to me it just screams, 'you were born to judge.'

Apparently, my husband has the same innate Olympic judging capacity.

While, prior to turning on The Games that night - which I'm now more or less celebrating as our own personal Feast of the Epiphany - Jim wouldn't have known a halfpipe from a peacepipe, he quickly got into the Olympic spirit, metaphorically donning a black robe of his own.

"What's the scale they use?" he asked.

"Max is 50," I answered, quite authoritatively, I might add, given that the answer just seemed to come to me, as naturally as breathing out and breathing in.

"Okay," he said, "This guy's going to get at least a 48 for this run," referring to Shaun White's post-gold-clinch 'what the hell' star turn.

Damned if White didn't score a 48.4.

As I said, my husband is as natural at this judging stuff as I am.

So what if he was off by 0.4 in that last call?

I say - especially when you take into consideration our complete and utter ignorance of snowboarding up until the split second we began watching it - he nailed it.

When it came to judging the Original Dance part of the pairs ice-dancing, I was more or less the only judge on our living room bench, as Jim had fallen asleep after the second or third pair in which the guy wore a cowboy hat and the gal dressed like Annie Oakley.

I will admit that the scoring is a bit more complex than it was for Halfpipe, but I did intuitively and immediately grasp that the Canadians, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were the best. (I had seen them in the Compulsories a few evenings prior, and - based on Tessa's costume alone - my judging gut said "Gold.")

As I write this, the medal outcome is uncertain. We just don't know who'll be on that podium.

But if it's not Tessa and Scott, or the Americans Meryl and Charlie, then we wuz robbed, as surely as another pair of Canadians were in Salt Lake City, when the French judge claimed she was bullied by the Russians to vote for their duo over the clearly more meritorious Canadians.

This brouhaha resulted in the new, complex trig and log-based scoring system that replaced the old and discredited 6.0 scale.

As a judge, I would rather have liked just having to finesse the scoring between a 5.8 and a 5.9, but I believe the the new system will be more transparent, once I have mastered its opacity.

Meanwhile, I continue to demonstrate, if only to myself, my innate grasp of the new scoring, since, when Tessa and Scott performed, I told myself, "at least a 68."


Similarly, I called Evan Lysacek's Gold, even though, I must confess, I can't yet tell the difference between an axel from a lutz. (Naturally, as a natural judge, I can tell the difference between a camel spin and sit spin.)

But, with respect to any compare and contrast of the axel and the lutz, while I may not be up to speed yet, I can guarantee that, with all he has to do running Russia behind the scenes and running with the oligarchs, Mr. Putin - who criticized Evan's win, claiming that his boy, Plushenko, did better - doesn't either.  (If I weren't something of a judge, with decorum to maintain, I would be taunting "Double L - Loser" in Plushenko's face, if not in that of Putin's, who is, admittedly, a bit scarier.)

I'm pretty much relaxing during those events that require no judgement beyond sagely observing that 'the Dutch woman sure skates fast." Then again, all judging doesn't have to be Solomon-like. Some of it is, in fact, sage observation.

But when it does come to those subjective sports, I am all there.

Judge not lest ye be judged.

Feh - that's for wimps.

Let The Games continue!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shop until you (or the cabin pressure) drop(s): window shopping at the Sky Mall

Not that I know anyone who's actually bought anything there, but haven't we all thumbed through a Sky Mall catalog at least once?You know the moment when you pick it up. You've just had a fitful nap, and your face is coated with that special airplane sweaty sheen that comes when the cabin is too darned hot. You have to pee, but you really don't want to wake the person next to you for the ramble back to the fetid toilet with a big soggy wad of toilet paper stuck in the bottom of the bright blue swirl-pool. You've just decided that the book you brought for the trip is dreadful, you've exhausted Vanity Fair, eating another Mento takes only so much time. And the crossword puzzles and sudokus in the inflight mag were all partially filled in by an innumerate who doesn't know that Qum is a holy city in Iran, even when spotted two letters.

So, with an hour left in your flight, you reach for Sky Mall, which Ground Hog Day-like, hasn't changed all that much from the last time you picked it up.

First off: too many watches, too much golf.  That must be because flights - despite the recession - are still filled with golf-minded business travelers who haven't gotten the IM that nobody wears a watch anymore. (What do you think your phone is for, buddy?)

But once you get through the watches and golf-related sections, there is all sorts of interesting stuff I'd never buy (like key chains with dirt from Yankee Stadium).

Much of the merch on offer is high-tech gadgetry - "discreetly monitor home or office with this hidden video camera" (glad I don't work in that company); the Nano-UV Wand that you wave over food to kill salmonella, and over your bedding to kill dust mites; a mini voice-activated R2D2.

Much of it is house-hold-y (all kinds of shoe-racks to help you stow all the shoes you're no doubt buying from SkyMall; and something that will help you keep your Silestone countertops cleaner 24/7 - I just hate when germs build up when I'm not watching!). Or pet-tish - potty training seems a particular focus, and in one case, we're actually talking true potty training - Remember to flush, Princess.

There's lots of luggage; tons of comfy foot stuff; and quit a bit of jewelry. (Now, I like a good Mobius strip as much as the next guy, but enough is enough. Can't you make a bracelet, ring or pendant that's just a plain old pre-Mobius circle?

But enough is never enough in the Sky Mall catalog.

In truth, there's not much here that you haven't seen already, since most of it comes from catalogs you've probably thumbed through at home (Signals), and brick and mortars you've strolled through (Brookstone).

What's so gloriously goofy about the Sky Mall catalog is that vendors only take a couple of pages, so you're checking out the cute little monogrammed kiddie scrubs, and you flip the page to find the self-watering trellis or the skullcap that cures migraines.

For whatever reason, a few products jumped out at me.

That Ski-Z, that helps you push your skis along, rather than carry them awkwardly over your shoulder. Now, the pictures show you rolling along on pavement which, at least in the olden days when I used to ski, wasn't where I was generally lugging my skis. Mostly, if I had my Heads on my shoulder, the ground crunching beneath my ski boots was snow covered. Which makes me wonder just how well that Ski-Z would do in snow and ice. Perhaps there's a version where runners can be swapped in for the wheels.

I probably shouldn't pick on the Treasury of Storybook Classics for $99.95. Except that they're narrated versions read by "Sarah Jessica Parker, James Earl Jones, and other celebrities."  Say what? Isn't Grandma enough of a celebrity to narrate Curious George? And then there's the claim that "these exceptional programs make books come alive." Am I missing something, or isn't it reading that makes a book come alive? (Oh, what an aging crank I have become.)

Then there were the Vegas souvenirs. Don't you buy souvenirs when you actually go someplace? Or is this for those who were too bleary eyed to pick up an extra-large Vegas-style shot glass at the airport.  Or those who lost their shirt, so they didn't have the scratch to buy those cool "Do Vegas Right" boxer shorts in the hotel gift store.

I was completely unsure what to make of the copy that accompanied the Vegas flip-flops.  Personally, even though I come from the era when you never paid more than 99 cents for a pair, I'm all in favor of pricey tourist flip flops. Last April in Paris, my nieces both bought pink and green Mona Lisa flip-flops at the Louvre. But the copy read "Let help you leave your mark on parking structure ceilings everywhere."

Am I missing something? What is the connection between parking lot roofs and flip-flops (which, by the way, in a more innocent time and place, we called thongs, something pronounced "tongs").

Anyway, the Sky Mall catalog was an entirely and thoroughly satisfying read. But it does make me wonder what we're going to do with all these warehouses full of no-one-needs-it-crap when we become the post-consumer society. Will the Chinese and Indians, once more of them have started grabbing their share of the brass ring in earnest, be willing to fork over $299.00 for next-gen laser hair therapy? For traveling humidors (only $99 for the 12 cigar-version)? For "magical lingerie" (called Squeem) that trims the waist for $72.99?

Oh, what a world we live in.


A tip of the uCrown Head Massager ($199.95 - batteries not included) to my sister Kath, who on a recent flight from Florida, handed me the Sky Mall catalog and said "blog fodder."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pinot Noir from La France? I spit on you.

I am mostly a white-winer, but I am a wine drinker.

No oenophile, I tend to purchase wine by price, name, and label. (For whatever reason, I'm partial to vineyards with animals in their name and/or on their logo.)

When ordering by the glass in a restaurant, I do exactly what they want me to do: pick something in the middle price range.

In a blind taste test, I believe I could discern red from white, and maybe even chardonnay (buttery) from sauvignon blanc (grapey).  I hope that I'd be able to recognize that Annie Green Springs and Boone's Farm are plonk du plonk.

Beyond that..

Still, I was disturbed to read an AP article in the online WSJ yesterday which reported that a slew of French wine producers and traders ha been convicted of fraud in conjunction with:

...a scheme that exported fake Pinot Noir from Southwest France to the U.S., duping American giant E. & J. Gallo Winery among others.

Eight defendants were found to have passed off  cheaper Syrah and Merlot grapes as Pinot Noir.

Sacre vin! C'est incroyable.

The French wine industry has been suffering from the recession as it was.

"Falling global demand and consumers' switching to entry-level brands weighed on our results last year," said Claude de Jouvencel, the federation's [Federation of French Wine and Spirits Exporters] president.

This scandal shouldn't help them any.

Nor, by the way, M. de Jouvencel, will that snide little 'entry level brands' thang you got going there. Perhaps it suffered in the translation, but can't you just say 'cheaper'. And speaking of entry level wines, isn't that what E&J Gallo used to specialize in, back in the day when the choices were Gallo jugs, Blue Nun, (hey, hey, hey) Mateus Rosé, Lancers, and the white wine that came in the green bottle shaped like a fish?  (Just remembered: Antinori.)

Weirdly, the one growth sector in the French beverage industry was vodka.

Demand for premium vodka - mostly Grey Goose - was up 14% last year, and most of the exports came our way.

While the US may no longer be imbibing the high-priced vins, we're apparently not interested in entry-level vodka. (Gilbey's? Smirnoff? Phooey on you-ey. Gateway booze, if ever.)

As for Pinot Noir from France. I spit it out. Or would, except that, when I do drink red, I generally order the clearly inferior and pedestrian Merlot.

Maybe we can get back at them - horse meat in the frozen McDonald patties?

Nah, horse meat. They'd be fine with that.

Goes very nicely with a glass of Pinot Noir, I hear.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tweety Dog

There have certainly been any number of useless "novelty" products over the years - PetRock, anyone - so I won't say that this one takes the dog biscuit.

But do we really need a dog collar that sends tweets?

Apparently, Mattel thinks so.

This fall they'll be launching the Puppy Tweet, that enables your dog to send Twitter "updates."

When I first heard about this - thanks to my friend John Whiteside, who is both a dog lover and a techno-guy (but who I doubt will be buying one for his pup, Teddy) - I thought, wouldn't that be interesting.

I've always wanted to get into the mind of a baby, a bonobo, or a beagle, so the idea of a bit of technology that could actually interpret what a dog was seeing, feeling, and thinking was really intriguing.

Alas, Puppy Tweet is no more a communication device for our furry friends than Chatty Cathy was a doll you could really and truly hold a conversation with. (Not that I ever had one, but Chatty Cathy came with a string in her back, and you pulled it to hear pithy sentences like "Please take me with you," and "I want a cookie." Chatty C, by the way, also came to us courtesy of Mattel.)

No, Puppy Tweet is just a tweet parrot, a $29.99 collar which:

...detects when your dog moves or make a sound, then randomly selects one of 500 pre-written tweets to post to Twitter. Your dog has to be within a reasonable distance of the room with your computer in it, though; the tweets are sent wirelessly from the collar to a USB receiver that has to be plugged into a supported Internet-connected device. (Source: Mashable.)

...A couple examples [of the tweets]: “I finally caught that tail I’ve been chasing, and . . . OOUUUCHH!” and “I bark because I miss you. There, I said it. Now hurry home.”

The human part of the equation, presumably, has to establish the Twitter account for their pet, which I'm guessing a lot of them have already. Thus a built-in market for those who want to ease the burden of having to tweet for their dog by having the dog do it on his or her own.

Somewhere out there, there may be a dog or two capable of tweeting. I read somewhere that Thomas Mann's pet once sat in front of the typewriter and pawed out something about being a bad dog. Perhaps he had just gnawed up the original manuscript for Buddenbrooks.

Now that's a dog I'd like to hear a tweet from.

Sure, it would be awwwwww cute to get a little fake tweet from your best friend, the first couple of times, anyway.

But if more dogs were like Thomas Mann's super-hund, we could get the real truth:

  • Just humped the leg of a chair. That felt good.
  • What makes them think I like venison?
  • I'd prefer watching The Dog Whisperer to chewing their slippers. Leave the damned TV on!
  • Still can't tell the difference between dog-bowl water and toilet-bowl water.
  • Sniffed three new butts today.
  • How'd you like to have to hold it in for 8 hours?
  • Another second and I'd have nailed that squirrel.
  • Never get tired of stick-fetch.
  • I dream about flying. And flunking obedience school.
  • As a species, we are so underestimated.

Now, that be worth buying a tricked-out $29.99 dog collar to find out. And can you imagine the hordes signing up for it? Ashton Kutcher, look out....

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Snake Eyes

Bad enough that we're up to our eyeballs in alligators (metaphorically speaking) across the economy.

Now, The Wall Street Journal tells us, the market for teenage mutant ninja snakes, and regular old mutant pythons and boa constrictors, has collapsed. (Access to this article may require a subscription, which you can well afford, now that you can get a piebald boa constrictor for a lot less than you could a year ago.)

I hadn't realized that we were living in a snake bubble as bubble-worthy as Florida condos and tulip bulbs.

Snakes alive!

Early in 2009, "investment grade" big snakes—critters with genetic mutations that create rare colorings—still held their premium values. But since last spring, the mutant-snake bubble has burst.

Premium pythons that could fetch $40,000 in 2007 now go for half that sum, breeders report. The price for a hypomelanistic boa constrictor, one with a mutation that lightens its skin tone, was $99 on Feb. 1, down from $5,000 in 2007, on, a classified-ad site that acts as a market-maker for snakes.

This market constriction may not be helped any by the general economic flattening, but the real culprit behind it may be the potential for federal laws against import and interstate commerce restrictions on snakes deemed "injurious":

... "no one is willing to give me $10,000 for a snake when they think they may be added to an injurious-species list," says Mike Wilbanks, 41 years old, an Oklahoma python breeder.

The bills promoting these not-yet-enacted laws were prompted by fears that escaped (or discarded) snake-pets are invading the Everglades and body-snatching native animals, pets, and even toddlers. (Think Meryl Streep was making things up when she cried "A dingo ate my baby"?)

While Pink Slip doesn't usually get political, I'm all for laws that provide homeland security around run-amoks like feral pigs, zebra mussels, and other creepy, crawly, rampaging, yucky out of place, stay in your own territory creatures.  (I guess I have to exempt from this the iguanas of Boca Grande, Florida, which - I take it - were there first. However, I do have to sympathize with my cousin Laura who, after a long drive from Chicago with two-kids and a husband who likes to drive right through, found her bleary-eyed way into her brother-in-law's house. Only to find a three foot iguana hanging out in the kids' bedroom. Those iguanas are also known to come up through the toilets, making them, I guess, commodo dragons. Reason to be very, very careful in Florida, I'd say.)

Anyway, the snake market that's being depressed is not so much for run of the mill snakes as it is for freaks of snake nature: snakes bred with odd color schemes (albino, platinum, piebald, 'sunglow'). But for a while, snakes looked like a safe bet:

Tom Burke, a 55-year-old former tugboat driver in Long Island, expected his snake investments to be a fallback during the recession. Mr. Burke says his snake sales went up in late 2008, even as the rest of the economy crumbled.

Mr. Burke explains mutant-boa business economics thus: In 2008, an albino male boa and a motley female with an albino gene cost $1,000 for a pair. Within 30 months, the pair would likely produce at least five motley albino young, which sold for $1,500 each, at 2008 prices. Minus $1,000 or so in equipment and rats and mice to feed the snakes, profits would still be greater than 100%. "People who want to diversify their income or get a better income or a higher income, they do this," Mr. Burke says. "It's just like stocks."

Just. Like. Stocks.

And, just like stocks, those prices can slither right into oblivion.

But there are, apparently, unintended, blowback consequences to the snake's bubble's bursting.

Mice suppliers, who sell to snake breeders, are impacted big-time here.

Oh, where does it all end?

Actually, although I do have tiny bit of sympathy for those who fall on hard economic times, I don't personally care where this game of snakes and ladders ends. I don't have a reptile, as it were, in this hunt, thank you.

But snakes just don't charm me, I'm afraid. And I would be just as happy if the northern progress of pythons and boa constrictors - albino, sunglow, or plain vanilla - stops at, say, the southern border of New Jersey.

(OMG, could we even spot an albino snaking across a snowfield?)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Undercover Boss: Despite all the feel good, the fundamental things apply

There was no way I could resist the first episode of Undercover Boss, a new "reality" show in which a senior exec goes incognito and works low-down jobs to see what it's really like to labor in the trenches. If you're looking for Barbara Ehreneich taking low-pay, no-thanks jobs and living off the pay while trying to find out what reality is like in real life, as opposed to on reality TV - which she chronicled so brilliantly in Nickel and Dimed - move along folks, there's nothing to see here.

These execs will not actually be trying to make a living at the rotten jobs that those at the bottom of the corporate pyramid work at. Instead, they get to dabble a bit.

I've only seen episode one, and it was a doozy, I must say. Not sure what the the pretext of having a film crew around in subsequent shows will be, but here the folks were toWMIld that a documentary was being made on someone learning the industry ropes from the trash-littered ground up. And that industry was the waste management biz. The eponymous Waste Management was the company that provided the exec to to do a bit of down and dirty, in their case the exec was President Larry O'Donnell.

Forget about any playing of "Hail to the Chief." Just speed it up, buddy, if you think you want to make it as a g-man.

Certainly, in terms of lowest of the low, you couldn't start much more rock bottom on the scale of crappy jobs that society has to offer than to go to a company that's in the crap business.

The jobs that O'Donnell worked - for one day a piece, thank you - included picking up loose trash at a landfill; riding a garbage truck; gleaning cardboard from tons of recycled matter as it sludges along an assembly line; and cleaning out porta-potties. (In India, I believe that this latter job is for the Untouchable caste.)

While playing drudge-worker-for-the-day, O'Donnell gets to do a bit of gleaning of his own: this is hard, exhausting work; women garbage truck drivers have no place to pee (other than a in a can); having a latter-day Simon Legree timing your every move is unpleasant.

O'Donnell isn't a bad, callous, insensitive guy, and he wants to do right by his peeps.

So, he takes the woman who has no place to pee and puts her on a task force to figure out how to make WM a better place for women workers. (Expect to see some sort of embedded potty in the cab of the garbage truck.)  In awe of the trash-picker, who works a long, arduous and non-complaining day despite the fact that he's on dialysis, and Larry puts him on some sort of worker health committee. He gets rid of the petty, demoralizing, and Legree-ish rule that docks workers 2 minutes for every 1 minute they clock in late from their half-hour lunch. He rescues the poor woman who's about to lose her house by promoting her (she deserves it), so she can afford to stay put. And he takes the smile-on-his-face guy who's cleaning out those porta-potties, and has him speak to employees about positive mental attitude.

All well and good. And I absolutely want to point out that, however edited these films are, the employees with whom O'Donnell played 'lets pretend' are all hard workers, trying to do a good job, not feeling sorry for themselves that their lot in life is to work at what are some of the last resort jobs on earth. For what has got to be pretty short pay.

O'Donnell has toss and turn nights over the plight of his workers, and vows to do something about any directives that he's given that are trickling down into making life miserable for the proles.

But I would imagine that O'Donnell's hands are tied by the cold, hard fact that WM, while the market leader, faces intense competition. They're a public company. Just how much slack can he introduce into the system - 'hey, take your time cleaning out those porta-potties' - before it starts cutting into profits. Hard to imagine that the driving force - given the modern day definition of a business as an entity built primarily (if not solely) to deliver profits to the owners -  is not going always to be: faster, faster, faster. Because if WM doesn't do the job as cheaply and efficiently as possible, there's someone  right behind him - probably employing illegal aliens who're hired through some sub-sub-sub-contracting arrangement - who's offering to clean those porta-potties cheaper, cheaper, cheaper.

One of the little mini-sagas that came out of WM episode featured a garbage woman from upstate NY. One of the things that Janice did to make her work life a bit more tolerable was develop relationships with the folks on her route. For some of the isolated elderly and handicapped whose trash she picked up, the brief visit with Janice was an important social contact.

But, twenty-yards away, the white spy-van from corporate would lurk, watching how much time Janice wasted. If she cut out a couple of conversations each day, she could no doubt pick up another 10 garbage cans. Besides, she's not getting paid to make idle chit-chat with old ladies.

If we wanted our garbage people to have the luxury of being able to strike up conversations with the folks along the route, we might be willing to have our tax dollars going to pay actual municipal workers to do the job, and maybe have one more garbage truck per 10,000 citizens out there.

Instead, we're screeching to squeeze every buck out of that tax dollar by turning as many tasks as we can over to the lowest price bidder.

So I'm guessing that, if Joe O'Donnell lets the word go out that it's okay to stop and smell the roses along the garbage route, he's got to be prepared to lose some business. And how long before he's replaced from someone who's going to be a bit more focused on the bottom line.

Waste Management may well want to make the world a cleaner, better place. And if they can do so while satisfying their profit and growth targets, I'm sure that they will. But the bottom lines the bottom line, so I wouldn't predict that much change will come out of any epiphanies that Joe O'Donnell might have had while chasing down flying trash during a wind storm. A few feel good gestures that make a few feel good.

It did get me thinking about what might be nice to see, and here are my suggestions for some policies that might better benefit Waste Management's workforce:

  • Across the boards profit sharing. Maybe Janice wouldn't feel so bad about curtailing her conversations if she knew that, if her productivity increased, she'd benefit from it directly. A lot of us might sneer at the thought of a couple of hundred dollar bonus, but it might actually mean something to those living at the edge.
  • Educational funds for employees. The WM website says that they have professional development funds for employees. Maybe this is something real and meaningful; maybe it just means that, once a year, the toilet cleaners get to meet and learn about new disinfectants for an hour. But wouldn't it be nice if there were explicit funding for even the lowliest workers to develop skills that might enable them to find better jobs - within or outside of WM. Tuition reimbursement, study sabbaticals based on years worked. Wouldn't that be nice.
  • Tuition funds for the children of employees. I can't imagine that there are many folks collecting garbage, picking through mounds of recycle, or suctioning crap out of portable plastic toilets at state fairs that aspire to having their children follow in their footsteps. Yes, the work is honest. But it's hard to think that there would be the same level of pride around having multi-generational trash pickers that you would have had with multi-generational assembly line workers at the Pontiac plant. So, Joe, how about putting aside a few bucks each year to help pay for post-secondary education for the children of those who are - quite literally -  shit-workers.

Yup. This stuff will cost you more than setting up a task force on making life a bit easier for women working on garbage trucks. But there is no doubt some waste and inefficiencies that could be wrung out of Waste Management that could be used to help make some truly offal jobs less awful.

On balance, Undercover Boss is interesting, but, if Episode 1 is any indication, it's essentially shallow, trivializing, and skirting the main issues that are facing the bottom , under-educated workers in our society. I'm not suggesting that a TV show should try to solve those problems. Hell, if our politicians can't have a serious conversation about it without screaming socialism, we can't expect CBS to.

That's show biz, I guess.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Presidents' Day, 2010

Pink Slip is taking the day off to celebrate Presidents' Day.

I was going to mention my favorite presidents, but do Jefferson, Lincoln, TR, and FDR really need another shout out in honor of their greatness?

So let's hear it for Franklin Pierce, for Millard Fillmore, for James K. Polk. For Taylor, for Tyler, and for whichever Harrison lasted less than a month in office. (Would that some other presidents I could name had done us the same favor. But wait a minute, that would have left us with Dick Cheney...)

Enjoy your day, Rutherford Birchard Hayes, Warren Gamaliel Harding, and Grover Cleveland. And, while we're at it, have fun rolling in your grave, Grover Cleveland Alexander. Sure, you were only a baseball player, but - if Tip O'Neil is to be trusted, and I do believe he is - Ronald Reagan, when he was drifting off, confused Grover Cleveland with his namesake pitcher, whom Reagan played in one of the worst baseball movies ever made.

So, Happy President's Day!

Back tomorrow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Desperately seeking Bree

Last week, I caught the tail-end of "How to Marry a Millionaire", an early 1950's flick starring Lauren Bacall, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Grable as single gals, our to snare a big old rich husband.

Naturally, they all end up falling head over heels for guys with nothing much in the bank, although the punch line is when Bacall finds out that her beau actually is a millionaire.

While being a millionaire in 1953 obviously meant something more than it does these days, single gals apparently still hold out hope for finding one. And now, thanks to the Internet, there are so many faster, quicker, better ways to connect with one than there were in 1953.

In this light, I was interested to read a recent post in the WSJ Wealth Blog on how one how-to-marry-(or at least find)-a-millionaire site has fallen prey to scam artists who pretend to be beautiful young women but are, alas, nothing but hucksters trying to take their millionaire faux beau for a few bucks.

“Where you bring together wealthy individuals and those who seek their companionship, you have a lot of potential for fraud,” Stephan Smith, a spokesman for

First, let me laud "Seeking Millionaire" on their straightforward approach. None of this 'I'd love you even if you were a poor man' nonsense.

Unfortunately, you can't be too careful if you're one of the sought after millionaires.

Seeking Millionaire has two categories of members: soi disant millionaires (largely male), and soi disant beautiful people (largely female, or soi disant female).

Trouble is, some low life can apparently sign up as a beautiful female and be no such thing.

On Seeking, a man pretended to be an actual person, Guess model Bree Condon. For a couple of years, he submitted photos of Bree, and had phone sex with unwitting men, swindling lots of money and gifts before the law finally caught up with him in a motel room in Texas.

Apparently, it never occurred to any of these millionaires seeking that a beautiful model probably doesn't have to resort to a dating site to find rich men who want to buy her gifts  - and that, since she's something of a publicly known person, she probably wouldn't want to meet men that way.

Blackmail, extortion, and good old-fashioned, heavy breathing swindling are apparently happening "all to often" (the words are Seeking's Mr. Smith's) on his (and, presumably, other like sites).

Curious person that I am, I had to check out Seeking Millionaires.

Ah, what I'm missing out on by not being rich or gorgeous (although their standards are pretty lax on the "rich" part; you only need to have income over $100K or net worth over $1M to qualify as a millionaire - which must lead to some pretty darned disappointed gorgeous seeking millionaire types).

Seeking Millionaire is a "meeting place for the rich & gorgeous," "dating for wealthy or beautiful singles."

And they're serious about that Boolean little "or"...

SeekingMillionaire is a millionaire dating & elite matchmaking personals for rich, wealthy, classy, affluent, gorgeous, attractive & beautiful singles.100% Free for Sexy Girls.

Or men claiming to be sexy girls.

Here's their model:

Wealthy member pay for the privilege of being sought, but they can connect with either fellow 'rich folks' or with the attractive members.

Seeking Millionaire will help you meet more classy and gorgeous singles than any other sites.

Those gorgeous singles ride free.

You are classy, attractive, and tired of dating the ordinary. Seeking Millionaire will match you with high class singles. Find love & romance with someone who is rich, wealthy, or successful. What do you have to lose? It's 100% Free!

They are the "most elite dating website."

Our members include Executives, Doctors, Lawyers, Professionals, Millionaires, Entrepreneurs, CEOs, CFOs, Athletes, and beautiful Models, Actresses, Playmates, and the sexy Girls Next Door.

You may have worked hard to be where you are today - wealthy, successful and single. You are looking to meet someone who may not have wealth, but have a lot to offer - youth, beauty and personality. You may be young and beautiful, wanting a better life, and looking to date a millionaire

Wealthy members can contact any and all Attractive and Wealthy members. Attractives can only reach out to the Wealthy. Which seems like an unnecessary restriction. An Attractive looking for another Attractive would go to SeekingGorgeous, no?

If you're an Attractive on Seeking Millionaire, you're obviously seeking millionaire. Why settle for a dime a dozen attractive?

There are (stock photo?) pictures of matched couples, where the wealthy are suspiciously attractive. And then there are the endorsements.

This is the most classy website of its kind. We've tried many different dating website but eventually found each other here. SeekingMillionaire is easy to use and attracts a very unique group of singles - those who are wealthy, attractive and serious." - Happy Millionaire Couple

Who says money can't buy happiness, if you're the most classy kind of person?

And then there's:

"I am beautiful, and I knew I did not want to work 7 days a week just to make ends meet. Through SeekingMillionaire, I was able to meet a wonderful man who also happens to be a successful multi-millionaire. If you are beautiful, why settle for less when you can live rich?" - Beautiful Female Member

"Regular dating websites are for regular people. I'm a wealthy man who wanted to date a beautiful woman. On other dating sites, I had to compete with a multitude of ordinary singles. On SeekingMillionaire, I was the selected few and found the relationship I wanted painlessly." - Wealthy Male Member

There's also a link to their Sugar Daddy blog - a topic for another day.

Anyway, I'm not surprised that there are con artists and fraudsters drawn to these sorts of sites.

It all struck me as fairly pimpish - especially that 'beautiful female member' who 'did not want to work 7 days a week just to make ends meet.'  And where there's pimps, there tends to be criminal activity, no?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Love a Book, Love a Writer: help support The Writers' Room of Boston

Like most small non-profits - especially those in the arts and cultural world - The Writers' Room of Boston struggles to keep its head above water. It's not as if we have an earth-shattering, save-the-world mission, that immediately stirs the kind-hearted and the Scroogiest of all Scrooges alike to open their pocketbooks for us. We just want to provide a quiet, secure, affordable place to work - and a sense of community - to writers in Boston.

And not just to those who can afford it.

So we keep our rates moderate enough so that someone juggling a couple of adjunct teaching jobs (If it's Tuesday, this must be Suffolk...); or taking a break from full-time work to finally get that novel written; or only making it in occasionally on weekends, can figure out a way to pay their dues. I know that for some members, figuring it out is not without sacrifice.

Plus each year, we sponsor four fellowships that enable emerging writers - generally young, often broke - who need a place to work - as well as to be with others who affirm their work as a serious writer.

I've been a member for eight years now, and The Room is my second home. I used to say that 'there's nothing else to do here except write.' But that's not exactly true. We now have wi-fi. And before we had wi-fi, there was always the staring off into space option. But, basically, there is nothing else to do here except write.

And, each day, it's where I write my Pink Slip post.

This year, we've declared February "Love a Book, Love a Writer Month", and are asking folks who love books and/or writers to send their Valentine to the books and writers who typewriter-love (2)matter most to them.  You don't have to pay to play, but if you do choose to make a donation - and no donation is too small (or too large, for that matter) - you would absolutely be a Writers' Room (and Pink Slip) Sweetheart.

Here's the link.

Remember: we're writers, not form-designers, so this is a bit kludgey looking.  And if you do make a donation, the donation page comes up after you submit your "Love a book/Love a writer" entry. Once you get to the donation page, you have to explicitly enter the amount of your donation before you enter your credit card info. (If you don't do so, it won't recognize that you've entered an amount, and will keep telling you that you have to put one in.) Oy! Other than that....

Speaking of the wonderful image, I want to give a big old shout out to designer Jennifer Chickonoski of Orange Ostrich Designs for letting us use it. Now, I don't know Jennifer from Adam (or Eve), but I found this design on the 'net, contacted her, and asked if we could use it.  Many, many thanks, Jennifer, for saying 'yes'.

(And a little old shout out to my great friend Sean Branagan for figuring out why the image wasn't showing up in IE.)

Now, I must away, and decide how many Valentines I'm going to send. There's Alice Munro, of course. And William Trevor. Joyce Carol Coates. Robert Russo. George Packer (I don't just read fiction)...

Oh, won't you be our Valentine?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Start spreading the news: strangers in the night should NOT be singing "My Way" in karaoke bars in the Philippines.

As far as I'm concerned, newspapers will live on as long as they continue to publish hard-hitting, interesting, informative and cautionary articles like the one in Sunday's New York Times on the "My Way Killings."

Apparently, in karaoke bars in the Philippines, if someone starts warbling, "and now, the end is near, and so I face the final curtain," they ain't kidding.

...the [Filipino] news media have recorded at least half a dozen victims in the past decade and includes them in a subcategory of crime dubbed the “My Way Killings.”

While no one can fully state the case of which they're certain, there are numerous theories why Old Blue Eyes' signature tune  could be listed as the cause of death.

One is the sheer popularity of karaoke in the Philippines, and, within that universe, the sheer popularity of this song. This theory is similar to the Going Postal Theory, which holds that the reason why there are so many on the job killings among postal workers is because there are so many postal workers.

Others attribute the "My Way"-inspired violence to the arrogance of the words. When combined with what might be a slight disconnect between the actual life and circumstances of, say, a Manila office worker, and the Ava Gardner, Rat Pack, Mafia-fringe, Academy Award, platinum record, life and circumstances of Hoboken's Own Francis Albert Sinatra - well, someone in the audience might just be inspired to heckle or chortle. Which might inspire the friends of the karaoke-ist to take umbrage.

These umbraged friends may not want to eat "it" up and spit "it" out. They just might want to eat up and spit out the heckler.

And what with the heat, the humidity, the liquor, and the ubiquity of illegal guns...the record shows that some people are inspired to haul off and do it their way.

All of this is causing many karaoke singers to avoid "My Way" entirely.

Some bars have taken it off their play list, entirely - although you never know just what song might provoke violence.

A Thai man killed eight of his neighbors in a rage after they sang John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”

My guess, however, is that you're probably safe with "Knock Three Times", "Sugar Sugar," and "Sweet Caroline."

But - at least if I were in the audience - I'd advise karaoke singers to steer clear of "Horse with No Name", "Some People Call Me the Space Cowboy," and "Stairway to Heaven."* Not that I'd be carrying an illegal weapon, mind you. Still, these songs would represent a clear provocation to me, that's for sure. You wanna climb a stairway to heaven? Right this way. (While I'm in warning mode, perhaps all radio stations should remove these songs from their play lists. While I try not to be a distracted driver - no texting, no phoning, just an occasional Power Bar snack on a long drive - I could well drive off the highway or plough into the vehicle in front of me while lunging wildly to the radio to press "Seek" when one of these tunes comes on.)

In addition to outright bans on "My Way," some Filipino karaoke bars are looking at other ways to tamp down potential problems:

A subset of karaoke bars with G.R.O.’s — short for guest relations officers, a euphemism for female prostitutes — often employ gay men, who are seen as neutral, to defuse the undercurrent of tension among the male patrons. Since the gay men are not considered rivals for the women’s attention — or rivals in singing, which karaoke machines score and rank — they can use humor to forestall macho face-offs among the patrons.

First, I want to vote "Guest Relations Officer" the best euphemism of the year. Wow. They don't get much better than that.

Second, how about "tension deflector in a karaoke bar" as a job title? Gay applicants only, please.

Scooby, dooby, doo.


*Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," not the utterly charming and snappy Neil Sedaka "(I'll Build a) Stairway to Heaven."

And thanks to my brother-in-law, Rick T, for suggesting this as a good blog topic.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Management practices that don't make perfect

Business Week's Liz Ryan had a recent article "Ten Management Practices to Axe". These practices, she argues are both "brainless and injurious" and should be done away with.. One can certainly argue why stop at ten, but the list she comes up with is good and more or less manageable.

Her list/my comments:

1. Forced Ranking

Much of my formal career was spent in small companies, so "forced ranking" didn't really make much sense. But when I was at Genuity, there was an attempt to force all managers into numerically ranking employees. Genuity being Genuity, nothing really came of it, but I argued at the time - and argue it still - that it is more than theoretically possible to have people in your group who all do a pretty darned good job. Now, if the purpose of forced ranking is to chop heads - which, as often as not, it is - wouldn't it make more sense to ask managers to define the skills, abilities , and personal attributes most essential to executing a known strategy, and then pick the employees across groups who have the best set of them.  This seems to me to make more sense - and be less cold-blooded and stone-bogus - than numerically ranking employees. Forced ranking programs just encourage managers to sandbag poor performers so they'll have someone to rank last when it comes to lay-off time.

2. Front-Loaded Recruiting Systems

I have little direct experience with processes that:

..."require candidates to surmount the Seven Trials of Hercules before earning so much as a phone call from your HR staff. Those trials can include credit checks, reference checks, online honesty tests, questionnaires, sample work assignments, and other mandatory drills that signal "We'll just need you to crawl over a few more bits of broken glass, and you may get that interview."

But I'm with Liz in that these trials and tribulations are best reserved for candidates that you're serious about.

Frankly, that roster of checkpoints looks suspiciously to me like someone's trying to scientize the hiring process. Maybe that works when it comes to more or less low-end, completely standardized jobs (Walmart greeter?), but for professional positions? Good luck with that!

Years ago, I interviewed for a job with a company that had me fill out an on-the-spot writing sample while I waited to be interviewed. This was for a senior product management position, but I was told that everyone had to go through this exercise, which I found pretty idiotic and demeaning. (As it turned out, further into the interview rounds, we decided that I wasn't the right horse for this particular course, but I recommended a former boss, who got the job and did reasonably well there for a couple of years.)

Bogus as I found this little 'describe a toothbrush to someone who'd never seen one' exercise, I would have totally balked at having to do any online honesty test or personality profile.

I think I'll always come down on the side of what's on the resume, comfort factor during the interview, and network vetting. Sure, you can still make hiring mistakes - I made my share - but I don't really think it's any of my business to know someone's credit score before I sit down across the desk from them.

3. Overdone Policy Manuals

Years ago, I worked for a crazy - and I mean certifiably crazy, if institutions can be said to be certifiable - company that thought it could sane-itize itself, and get rid of all its bad behavior and chaos by hiring a retired admiral in the US Navy to come in and kick some sloppy Cambridge hippy ass.

One of the things that The Admiral brought with him was a former aide who decided what we needed was a military-style procurement process that we needed to go through every time we wanted to requisition a pen. No more raiding the company supply cabinet. Now, you had to consult the manual, familiarize yourself with the 15 page flow chart on how to order a pen, and take it from there.

Needless to say, all the publication of the policy manual that contained the supply req process was met with was outright, prolonged laughter.

(I did have some sympathy for The Admiral, however. Shortly before he left, I said to him, "If you had seventeen legs, you couldn't kick ass fast enough and hard enough to get anything done around here." The Admiral just laughed - outright and prolonged.)

4. Social Media Thought Police

In her article, Liz mentions receiving an e-mail from someone who was informed that her company had a "no LinkedIn profiles" policy.

Say what?

I think that companies are entitled to establish ground-rules about what employees can blog and tweet about when it comes to the company's business, proprietary information, etc., and about use of the company's name when commenting, etc. Beyond that...let the tweets fall where they may. And if some lunk head goes beyond, well, they'll get what they deserve, even if it means being fired. (Not to mention that employees - particularly younger ones - are advised that they may want to exercise some discretion and circumspection when it comes to their public profiles. A job opportunity or a promotion can evaporate if someone finds that insanely vicious rant you've made - whether it's about business or the girl in the next door room.)

But refusing to allow employees to get themselves LinkedIn? Restraint of trade, and sheer and utter nonsense.

5. Rules That Force Employees To Lie

The example Liz cites is those maternity leave policies that point out that your benefits won't get paid if you fess up that you have no intention of coming back once the leave is up. Her solution:

Pay the same percentage of insurance premiums for all employees in a category (e.g. new moms) without requiring pointless declarations of their intentions.

If I ruled the world, I'd add that, if an employee does come back, you reimburse them (after n months) for any premium they paid on their premiums while they were on leave.

6. Theft of Miles

I can't imagine working for an outfit that didn't let you keep your frequent flyer miles. Sure, those miles are accrued on behalf of, and paid for by, the business. But all those runway hours, those interminable middle-seat flights trying to grab your share of the arm rest, those soggy airport sandwiches "prepared fresh" seven days prior to consumption, are all coming off of your back. Not to mention that, as often as not, most miles are racked up after hours, flying out Sunday for the Monday a.m. meeting, suffering through a red-eye to save a "wasted day" on a coast-to-coast flight, etc.

I can see a company wanting to dictate what airlines their employees fly. Within reason.  Companies need to be reasonable with their expectations of enforcing out of the way flights to save a dime.  When I worked for Wang, some departments had a distinctly odious flight policy that dictated 'cheapest fare', no matter how long and ridiculous the flight was. Just because it's cheaper for someone to fly back from Kansas City to Boston via Spokane doesn't make it right. Wang's crapoid travel policy was compounded by the rule that all flights had to, where possible, be made outside of regular business hours. So, to the dictum ''don't be a miles thief', I'd add 'don't be a time thief, either.' Most people will want to get home, so they'll naturally gravitate towards flights that get them there. This usually means flying after the business day is done. But making a rule about it....Bah.)

7. Jack-Booted Layoffs

Liz claims that:

One-on-one pink-slip discussions and dignified, non-immediate departures are the new norm for ethical organizations.

Having lived through the jack-booted era, I am delighted to hear this. In my day, yesterday's valued employee was tomorrow's demento, who would use the two-week notice period to trash their hard drive, send crazed e-mails to customers, and in general throw every monkey wrench they could think of into the works. Oh, yes, and they might well be violent, so let's make sure we have extra security guards on lay-off day.

Would crazed employee behavior have happened in real life? Who knows. We never gave it a chance. Instead, on riff-day, we helped those laid-off pack up their boxes and escort them immediately to their cars. No time, even, to remove personal files and work samples from their computers.

Out now! Don't look back, you might turn into a pillar of salt. Just surrender your badge, thank you.

I'm all for giving those laid-off the ability to wind-down and transition what they're working on, but I'd vote for making any length of stay optional. How about having the managers sit down with those being pink-slipped and figuring out what the transition plan might be - including what's okay for someone to make off with in terms of work samples. 

8. 360-Degree Feedback Programs

I've never done the 360 degree feedback thang, although I have long been intrigued by it, and my impression is that it's not a bad idea. Then I read in wikipedia, that the concept was first deployed by the German military during World War II. Enough said. ('Ach, Wolfgang, drei kamaraden said that when you blitzkrieged through that Dutch town you smiled at a little Dutch boy.') And how'd you like to have been part of Hitler's 360 (or, rather, 270).  Just imagine the Third Reich's HR director explaining to der feuhrer's face that it was all anonymous when he demanded to know the name of the scheisskopf who said that they should have pushed right on to England after France?

So I think I'll just take Liz Ryan's word that 360-degree feedback programs are a bad idea.

9. Mandatory Performance-Review Bell Curves

Early in my career, I worked for a company that mandated that, when it came to performance reviews, the supreme majority of employees would be given a "3" for does the job. My manager took this mandate seriously, and everyone in our group was given a "3". The other managers just laughed at it, and gave "1" and "2" rankings out liberally. Come raise time - tied, of course, to those rankings - "1's" and "2's" got decent raises, us "3's" got a pittance.

Bell curve, schmell curve.

10. Timekeeping Courtesy of Henry Ford

With 30,000 employees, Wang was the largest company I ever worked for. And, when it came to personnel policies, across the boards it was the benighted worst. Wang's petty bureaucratic idiocies were just unbelievably numbing. When I joined the company, my request for a book shelf and file drawer in my cube was rejected because I didn't put down a reason; once I wrote "book shelf to put books on", and "file cabinet to put files in", it was approved.

Their lay-off procedures were completely dehumanizing; a Russian-emigre colleague said that he 'felt like the KGB had come' for him. Their attitude towards employee honesty was exemplified by the fact that supply cabinets were locked up in the weeks leading up to a new school year.

But what precipitated by departure from Wang was an encounter with the new president, Rick Miller, who was brought in to turn the company around.

When he first joined Wang, Rick made it a habit to sit with groups of peons in the people's caf, where he would hold forth. Those sitting at the table with him would then pass his hold forths on to the rest of the company. As a communications tactic, it was actually brilliant.  Immediately after lunch everyone who ate with Rick would hit their e-mail and let x others know what the day's pronouncement was. Within a couple of hours, everybody in the company - and I do mean everybody - would have gotten the word.

On the day he sat with my group, the topic du jour was flex-time.

Rick didn't "buy it." Plain and simple, people should be at work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. While those were, in fact, the hours I worked at Wang, I knew a number of people who, for commuting or kid-care purposes, came and went earlier or later. I pointed this out to Rick, and we went back and forth for a few minutes, before I figured that, as president, his prerogative was bigger than my prerogative, and let the argument go.

But his assumption that those who weren't working the normal hours were somehow cheating the company really irked me.

As did his practice of stationing himself by the main entrance points at 9:00 in the morning, and 4:00 in the afternoon, when he would accost, errrrrr greet, entering and exiting employees, ask them their names and what group they worked with, and thank them for coming to work.

This little management technique completely sent me over the edge.

No, I was never caught up in the Rick Miller punch clock snare, but I loathed the very idea of it.

Not that I wouldn't have been gone in one of the jack-booted lay-offs eventually, but this 'time-served' nonsense pushed me right out the door. Within a couple of months of Miller's arrival, I had departed.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Death becomes you, or will, anyway, if you ever bother to get around to dying

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal the other day on investors who've bought the rights to the life insurance policies of others - in hopes that The Last Rites will be performed sooner rather than later.

In Catholic Church parlance, the communion given to the dying as part of those Last Rites is called viaticum, and, nice and companionably, the practice of selling your life insurance policy is called a viatical. In both cases, it's all about provisions for the journey. (Gosh, Sister Daniel Vincent and Sister Theresa Bernard were right. Latin does come in handy.) And, of course, as we generally accept as true  - for anyone who's neither a pharaoh nor a "cryonics patient" suspended head-down like a human Freeze Pop hoping that, in another few years, someone will figure out how to undead and rejuvenate them - you can't take it with you.

So, if you're on life's final journey - and who isn't? - and if it no longer seems that important that your kids get the $1M insurance policy you took out when they were toddlers, why not get some cash out now, when you can still put your dancing shoes on?

Thus cometh the viatical business, which:

... began during the AIDS epidemic, when the disease was usually fatal. Medical advances hurt the business back then, so it changed its focus to the elderly in which those who want the cash can sell their policy to those looking for a sure-fire investment.

Oh those wicked, hurtful medical advances that are letting those AIDS patients live.

But old people, now there's a market. Old people, like, die. So you can buy the policy (or a piece of it); granny gets the money; you keep paying the premiums; and you wait.

Which is fine. After all, what is life but one big waiting room in which there's only one door on the other end to go through - a door that we know not where it leads. We only know that no body - with a couple of possible religious-based exceptions - returns.

So, waiting for someone to die is something of an investment-strategy no-brainer.

But the problem is that you may have to wait wait. And wait. And wait.

Because actuarial tables don't mean that any particular granny is going to check out at age 81 years, 6 months, and 4 days. They just mean that most grannies will.  Just maybe not yours. Who, of course, is not your literal granny, but the granny who's policy you own. Which means you get to comb the obits and be happy to learn that Mildred Muletrain has gone on to her reward, and you can get yours. Yippee. Rather than be saddened that, while Granny Muletrain had a good run, you will miss receiving a hand-tatted doily every Christmas. Of course, I don't imagine that in real life (or death) you actually get to know the name of your viatical granny. It might be way too morally hazardous to the average investor if they could find out where Mildred Muletrain lives, and maybe - wink, wink, nudge, nudge - help her across the street. Oops.

Anyway, the long and indeterminate wait for the original policy holder to die is one of the soft spots in the viatical biz. Another is its association with fraudsters: viaticals rank in the top-ten of investment scams.

Many viatical (or life settlements) firms are on the up and up, including the charmingly named Life Partners Holdings. Sounds more like a dating service, no? Or relationship counseling. Which is what you get if you think that the url for Life Partners Holdings might be

Life Partners Holdings, however, is not without its own touchy-feely attributes. One of its community endeavors is helping out with an animal shelter. Nothing remarkable there. But another part of their community engagement is a little higher up on the odd-ball scale.

Life Partners, Inc. is proud to serve the community by offering free tours of the exquisite museum-quality Ice Age display at their local headquarters. Purchase of these artifacts has helped in funding the John Wood Ministry in Russia and also provided funds for future paleontological excavations. Children of all ages are encouraged to make a reservation today to see many fascinating items, including the 50,000 year old mammoth skull, skeletons of a woolly bison and rhinoceros, and the prized, full-size replica of a female woolly mammoth.

If I'm ever in Waco, Texas - which I fervently hope not to be - I (as a child of all ages) would definitely call for a reservation. Wooly bully, indeed.

Meanwhile, investors like the 52 year old woman mentioned in the WSJ article sits around tapping their feet - and shelling out more money to pay for what are now pretty costly premiums - waiting for the 89 year old policy holder to go the way of the wooly mammoth.

So viatical investing is not quite the no-brainer that one might imagine.

As the WSJ article warns:

Only people with ample financial assets should venture here. Much as with hedge funds, a Life Partners investor must have an annual income of at least $200,000 ($300,000 for a couple) and a net worth of $1 million or more.

"This is not a place for amateurs," says Doug Head, executive director of the Orlando, Fla.-based Life Insurance Settlement Association. "It's a high-risk investment that requires considerable sophistication."

It viaticals are no place for amateurs, we amateurs can take comfort in knowing that, amateur and professional alike, jaded sophisticate and naif, Hattie telling Matty or Matty telling Hattie, we may bet that we're going to live, but the really smart money says that, sooner or later, we're not.

And whether you're a viatical investor or the viaticalite yourself, for the most part, man (and woman) knoweth not their time.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Get Rich Quick (Pssst. Pass it on.)

A few weeks back, my sister got a glossary postcard in the mail.

"What if", the words on the card asked:

The person who sent you this is someone powerfully working the "Secret" Law of Attraction, and blogging about his results that are quickly going from pleasantly surprising to awe inspiring.

He's into things like Yoga, Martial Arts, Holistic Health, Alternative Energy, Soveriegn (sic) Citizenship [Pink Slip note: i.e., someone who doesn't believe in paying Federal taxes] ...generating capital (cash) and starting projects and building businesses that serve the world.

What if he wants to work with you to help you achieve the same for yourself?

What if YOU attracted this message into your life.

Well, I'm not sayin' that Trish didn't attract this message into her life. Stranger things have happened. But, silly us, both my sister Trixie and I had the same reaction: What if this were, if not a capital S scam-scam, then one of your classic MLM (Multi-Level Marketing) schemes, where things work out for enough of the first-in that those who don't make it big are sloffed off as Double-L Losers who just didn't have what it takes to be a Soveriegn Citizen.

Anyway, it is recession-time, and the fancies of a lot of folks - young and old, male and female - do tend to turn to ways to dupe other folks into thinking there's an easy way out of "it," this slough of despond we're now wallowing in or through (in my case, exacerbated by a sick o' winter unlike any I've yet experienced; I am completely tired of nose-as-Popsicle, I can tell you that).

To help us avoid the temptation to grab onto what looks like a helping hand, but is really (surprise) the hand of a pickpocket, the Better Business Bureau has published a list of trial offers and scams that are too good to be true. The list, in general terms, outlines what were the Top Ten bad deals for 2009 - many, apparently, perennial favorites, but others more specific to this particular recession.  Thanks to the list, we're warned not to fall for the following:

  • Free trial offers for "teeth whiteners, acai anti-aging pills, and other miracle supplements [that] blanket the Internet."

    Personally, I am completely fascinated by those teeth-whitening ads - the ones that show an alabaster-white tooth next to an ochre-colored fang that looks like it was pried out of the mouth of a nutria.  But not fascinated enough to actually click on one - just to give it a side-wise glance whenever I shows up.

    But shouldn't folks either go to their dentisyellow teetht, or go to The Google, before they fork over big bucks to get their teeth whitened. Or to the dental aisle of CVS to spend a few bucks on some teeth-whitening strips.

    And then there's anti-aging.... Not that I'm delighted to be counting crows feet, but do we really want to live in a world where everyone over the age of 21 looks the same age - just like in that Twilight Zone where everyone looked like Richard Long.  Not that I want to hag-up, you understand. It's just that I don't mind being able to at least vaguely place someone in the right decade - plus-or-minus - so at least I can guess whether they've ever even heard of the Twilight Zone and/or Richard Long.
  • Stimulus/Government Grant Scams.  Does this mean that President Obama is not offering every mom out there $2,500 to go back to school?  And what is it with all these online advertisements who are using/abusing "mom". Why, look at those teeth whitening tricks. All discovered by "mom."  And all those ads for "Boston Mom earns $7,500 a month without leaving her home or lifting a finger." 

    Did the scammers do focus groups and find out that, when people see the word "mom" they think "apple pie"? Good ol' mom! If a mom's doing it, it must be good. Or are the scam ads mostly aimed at moms? After all, my sister Trish - of the invitation to become a Soverieign Citizen is - you guessed it -  a mom.
  • Robocalls – making claims about car warranties and reducing interest rates are also on the BBB's list of must avoids.  I've gotten a couple of these, and I'm always tempted to string them along for a bit. But I never give into that temptation. I just slam the phone down.
  • Lottery/Sweepstakes Scam – This is the old one about you have to spend money to win money: cash this check, wire us the money, we'll take care of the rest.  Variation on a theme of the Nigerian e-mail scam, a personal favorite.

  • Job Hunter Scams – No surprise that, with fake unemployment at 10%, and real unemployment pushing 20%, that folks desperate for work are being scammed right and left. This is quite a scary one. Without thinking twice, a job hunter might actually believe that they need to provide their SSN in order to be considered for a job. It's even vaguely plausible to believe that you'd be asked for bank account information - or even a copy of a prior W-2 to prove earnings.  Yep, easy to see how someone could fall for this, and give out wildly personal information.

    And the credit report companies are apparently getting into the act, as well, Bay-bee. A job offer is dangled, with a mention that in order to be considered, the employer needs to run a credit check. Next thing you know, you're on the hook for a monthly credit monitoring fee.
  • Google Work from Home Scam – There you go, Mom, you, too, can make $7,500 a month from the privacy of your very own home, in the comfort of your very own PJ's, addressing envelopes (it'll only cost you a few hundred bucks to get set up), making jewelry (it'll only cost you a few hundred bucks to get set up), or starting your very own MLM (it'll only cost your a few hundred bucks to get set up). The kids will be so proud...
  • Mortgage Foreclosure Rescue/Debt Assistance – Nice one, and a double whammy for those who are unwilling to just walk away from an underwater mortgage and go buy a better house around the corner for less. Not only do they get to lose their home, but they get fleeced in the process. Yowza!

    And, while we're on the subject of walking away from debt, what's with all those TV ads for people who settled with the IRS for a fraction of what they owe.  Big smile on the face, "I saved $39,000 on what I owed the Feds." How does this work? Is settling up with the IRS that blithe an experience? 

    Maybe next time I get one of those 'you transposed two numbers on line 22, so you owe us $32, plus $654 in penalty' notes, I'll call one of these IRS dealerships. Yes, that'll be me, blithely smiling, "They saved me $654 in Federal tax penalties. These guys are good!"

    Nah, that would take all the fun out of being so aggrieved at these smiling yahoos, all white-teeth grinning about how they got away with, if not death, then taxes. (Perhaps they are Soveriegn Citizens.)
  • Mystery Shopping – Let no scam opportunity go unturned! There are bums out there who are asking prospective mystery shoppers to "evaluate their shopping experience at a few stores as well as a money wiring service such as Western Union or MoneyGram by wiring money back to the scammers."
  • Over-Payment Scams – In this one, the bad guys deliberately overpay by check, then ask you to wire the difference back to them. (Puh-leese: wait for that check to clear first... Oh, it didn't? Hmmmmmm.)
  • Phishing e-mails/H1N1 spam – My various, multiple, and sundry e-mail addresses are pretty good at catching things in a junk filter, but I got one the other day, citing my sister Trish (you know Trish, she's the mom who's been invited to become a Soveriegn Citizen), and asking me to connect to some Microsoft IM system.

Then there's the fake rent a vacation house on Craigslist scam, which had more than a few folks last summer showing up at the Cape with an SUV packed with boogy boards and cranky kids, only to find that they'd paid someone a rental fee who didn't actually, like, own the property.

Not to mention the official invoice-looking thing that gets sent out, for, say the directory you never ordered.... I've seen a few of these come to small businesses or non-profits, and its easy to see how someone could make the assumption that Joe Blow made the decision to list your organization in a directory, and agree to purchase it. And, what the hell, so what if there's no PO, it's only $69.95...

And, of course, we're calling on behalf of the Veterans/Police/ Firefighters because it's credulous, errrr, generous citizens day, and we're asking you to put cash in an envelope and leave it on your doorstep. We'll be by tomorrow to pick it up.

Truly scary how many scams they are out there.

Some, of course, are easy and obvious to figure out. (Smug me!) Others, not so easy.

When in doubt, go to The Google. Type in the name of the offer and the word "scam". See what comes back at you.

Better yet, just learn to live with your off-white teeth.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Professor Wodinsky vs. Michael Kettenbach. Who you betting on?

When I was just a cub blogger, oh so many years ago, one of my first posts was about one John Walsh, who felt that he'd been denied the ability to purchase a co-op on Beacon Hill because the jut-jawed WASPs on the co-op board didn't want to have some Irish parvenue in their building.

The co-op board eventually settled some $2.2 M on Walsh for his troubles.

And, by the way, I walk by the scene of the Great 2006 Co-Op No-Irish-Need-Apply Massacree every day - it's a couple of doors down from where I live - and I believe that the unit in question is still unoccupied.

Perhaps the co-op board would be interested in letting it be used - at least on a temporary basis - by Brandeis Professor Jerome Wodinsky (aged 82) and his wife Bernadette.

Not that a Brandeis Professor would fit in any better in a bastion of WASPdom.

But the flat in question is ground-floor, which would save Professor Wodinsky his daily crawl up the dark and narrow back stairs of his building, just a few blocks away, on Commonwealth Ave.

Wodinsky has to crawl up the stairs because he's a) getting on in years; b) in poor health.

Oh, and because the couple who owns the rest of his condo building ripped out the elevator eight months ago, in what certainly appears to be an attempt to make life so miserable for the Wodinskys that they'd go, if not quietly, then just go.

I read about this in a couple of Brian McGrory columns in The Globe over the last several weeks, in which he recounted how Michael and Frances Kettenbach - she of the DeMoulas grocery chain fortune - had, over the past decade or so, bought up four of the five condos in a McKim, Mead & White building in Boston's Back Bay, with hopes of turning it into a single-family palais. (McGrory Part II is here.)

That would mean nudging the Wodinskys out. But the Wodinsksy weren't interesting in getting nudged out, because their condo has been home for over 30 years now, and you know how it is.

So, while the Kettenbachs nudged, the Wodinskys no-budged.

The Kettenbachs, however, kept nudging, and decided to go ahead with some ultra-expensive communal repairs, which, as 4/5's owners of the building, they can vote-in.  This put the Wodinskys on the hook for over $200K in improvements that they didn't want and couldn't afford. Including a replacement for the elevator. In addition to the new elevator - the old one's been out of commission for 8 months now - the Kettenbachs voted in all kinds of fixer-uppers:

When the roof leaked, rather than repair it, they put on a new one - even though it was only 10 years old. Leaky skylights? They got new ones of those as well. They completely replaced the building’s heating system and did a massive overhaul of the electrical system. Each job was within about a year of the one before it.

The Judge in the civil suit that the Wodinskys have going against the Kettenbach's has said that: was “highly likely’’ that the Wodinskys would prove that the defendants wanted to own the entire building, “colluded to assess exorbitant Common Expenses,’’ purposely decommissioned the elevator to deprive the Wodinskys of its use, and applied pressure to force the Wodinskys to sell their unit at a below-market price.

She's given the Kettenbachs until May 1 to get the new elevator up and running.

Which still leaves poor Professor Wodinsky with three more months of crawling up the stairs.

Which got me thinking about that still-free, ground-level co-op on Beacon Street.

Especially when I learned that - enter stage left field - John Walsh is on the scene. Yes, John Walsh - he of the rejection letter from co-op chairman Jonathan Winthrop (yes, those Winthrops) that stated that Walsh “would not reasonably coalesce as a member of this cooperative community.’’

Walsh saw the first McGrory article, and contacted the Wodinskys, offering them "help from a legal, financial, and emotional perspective...Whatever it takes.’’

Well, whatever that means, but I wouldn't bet against the team of Wodinsky and Walsh.  Come on: a scrappy, self-made Irishman and an 82 year-old Brandeis psychology professor who specializes in animal behavior, and whose been forced to crawl up four flights of stairs for the past 8 months. Which side would you bet on?

“Mr. Kettenbach has to have a good place in his heart,’’ Walsh said. “I ask that he come forward, pay the fair value, own the whole building, and put this behind him.’’

Mr. Kettenbach, I believe this ball's in your court.