Friday, July 30, 2010

Casual Friday

How casual is this Friday?

It’s so casual that I’ve decided not just to wear khaki shorts and a tee-shirt. Heck, that’s pretty much what I wear every day during the summer, anyway. (Ah, the joys of working from home…)

No, it’s so casual that I’ve decided to take a day off from Pink Slip.

It’s not that I’m out of ideas. (Every time I think that’s about to happen, I open a virtual newspaper.)

It’s just that I’m out of steam at the mo’.

Meanwhile, to tide avid readers over, here’s a link to the July 30th post from 2007 – my first July 30th post EV-AH!  Don’t know if it’s any good – I just write the stuff, not read it.

With that, I’ll close, other than to note that Ivy Bean, at 104, the oldest Twitter user in the whole, wide word, has passed on to the giant social network in the sky.

I suppose now we’ll be collecting Famous Last Tweets. For the record, Ivy’s was: “Going to have my lunch now will be back later.’’

Ta-ta, Ivy.

Personally, I hope that when I’m 104 I’ll be dead, but just in case I’m not, well, I hope I’m still embracing at least some of the new and not just sitting around bitching about the fact that we’re all eating weird hybrid pellet food, there’s no such thing as a printed anything, and the Beatles sounded better on LPs.

By the way, if you want to check out some famous last words, here’s a link. I’m sure that these are all apocryphal but true.  Gotta love that one from Voltaire:

"This is no time to make new enemies." (When asked on his deathbed to forswear Satan.)

“Til Monday, then. Ta-ta.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Inflate me, my sweet inflatable you

Although it pays little or nothing, I’ve always thought it would be kind of fun to appear as an extra in a movie. Of course, I’d probably be bored standing around all day trying to blend into some background or another, making sure to cast my eyes down and keep my lips zipped whenever The Stars were around so as not to impose on their aura, or be so bedazzled that my eyeballs turned to egg whites. (That’s what happens when you look directly at an eclipse, no?)

Why just the other day, I came upon a film crew in downtown Boston, setting up a fake wedding reception in the park on Congress Street, and I thought to myself, hey, I could be a guest at that wedding.

Alas, there just aren’t as many slots for extras these days, now that blow up dolls are on the scene.

Yes, blow up dolls.

No longer just for propping up in the front seat, so that a single gal can feel safe driving around at night.  No longer just for plunking in your car so you can weasel into the high occupancy lane. No longer just for – well, whatever else they do with blow up dolls.

Since Seabiscuit (2003), Inflatable Crowd has been providing, well, inflatable crowds. (And even before there were inflatable crowds, films apparently used dummies or card board cutouts to fill things out. Who knew? I always thought that those big crowd scenes were either borrowed from actual events, or cut and paste from a starter set of humanoids, so that if you looked closely you’d see that woman in the blue jacket over, and over, and over.)

Inflatable Crowd was the subject of a brief piece in a recent New Yorker, that focused on Gail Boykewich, head of East Coast ops for the company.

Gail is an artist, and she must have one of THE most interesting keep-your-day-job-jobs in the art world. She’s the one who creates the personas, making up masks that the inflatables wear so they’ll look like people. It’s actually pretty amazing, the level of detail they go to to make things look real – freckles, five-o’clock shadow.  Then there’s the wigs, and the clothing – tops only: the inflatables are torsos and heads. With all this personalization it makes me kind of wonder whether it wouldn’t be just as easy to use, like, real people.

Of course, real people do have some pretty nasty habits - like taking bio-breaks, bitching up a storm, and fawning over THE STARS – none of which a member of the inflatable crowd will do.

On the other hand, real people don’t blow up when over filled, or spring leaks, or get blown over in a storm.

In any case, Inflatable is a pretty cool little business.

As mentioned, they started out life (or lifeless) during the filming of Seabiscuit. Joe Biggins – then an assistant on the film – was asked to create a crowd for the racetrack scenes:

Before then, cardboard cutouts had been the most popular way to save on extras. But a racetrack is not a stadium. The crowd, instead of wrapping around a field, sits on one side of the track; so, as the camera followed the horses around the track, the spectators would be revealed as a bunch of flat cutouts. “I saw some serious issues with the 2-D solution,” Biggins said, “so I came up with the idea for an inflatable.”

He designed a prototype, then had thousands of Depression-era track fans made.

The rest, as they say: he’s now done over 80 films, providing crowds of anywhere from two for a commercial (cheapos: couldn’t they have sprung for real humans? No wonder we have double digit unemployment) to 11,000 for Cinderella Man.

One company, of course, does not a market make, and there’s at least one rival: Crowd in a Box, which seems as if it may be a more cut-rate operation, from the looks of their web presence. (Just saying.)

A couple of years ago Crowd in a Box tried to sue Inflatable Crowd for patent infringement – and lost.

The companies do offer the crowd-purchaser a clear choice, however.Inflatable starts with a blank tableau, and adds “real clothing, individual, 3D faces, wigs, hats, etc.  Box, on the other hand, provides inflatables that come with “faces, hair and clothing silk screened on. No need for hair, makeup, or wardrobe. Just inflate and shoot.”

Hmmmmm.  That inflate and shoot sounds pretty good – and cheap. On the other hand, how can ready-to-go inflatables be repurposed for fight fans in “Cinderella Man,” toga’d thumbs-downers in a film like “Gladiator”, and contemporary St. Bartholomew’s churchgoers in “Salt” (which used Inflatable Crowd blow ups)?

Plus Inflatable Crowds -  while it may take away (un)paid work from extras -  does give at least one artist a way to make a living that’s at least related to what she wants to do in real life.

Beats pulling ventes at Starbucks.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Buckle down, David Brooks, buckle down

It’s one thing to have bling  - say, a Super Bowl ring – awarded to you. It’s quite another to purchase a big, fat, piece o’bling – say, a $100K belt buckle – and expense it to your public company.

But this is, apparently, what David Brooks of DHB Industries, did. DHB – now doing business (and filing for bankruptcy) under the name Point Blank Solutions – is a  maker of body-armor for the military, police, and anyone else in need of body-armor. (Thankfully, the only body, mind, and soul-armor I’ve needed in marketing has been metaphorical.)

The belt buckle is one of the more fascinating exhibits in a trial that’s winding down in U.S. District Court on Long Island, in which Mr. Brooks is being tried for fraud, insider trading, and, I guess, padding his expense account. (Source: NY Times.)

Curious to know what a $100K belt buckle looks like? Sorry the image isn’t that clear, but you get the patriotic motif – all those diamonds, rubies, and sapphires.  imageLong may it wave!  But this is just one of the dubious expenses claimed by Brooks. Others included:

…university textbooks for his daughter, pornographic videos for his son, plastic surgery for his wife, a burial plot for his mother, prostitutes for his employees.

A little something for everybody.

And, yes, I know that a mind is a terrible thing to waste, but when I read that list, why oh why, did I end up with Gene Autry spinning “Here Comes Peter Cottontail” in my ear?

He's got jelly beans for Tommy
Colored eggs for sister Sue
There's an orchid for your mommy
And an Easter bonnet too.

And, just as in the 50’s Tommy got the jelly beans and sister Sue got the hard-boiled eggs, you’ll note that the daughter got textbooks while the son got porn. Not that sister Sue would have wanted the porn, mind you, but some things never change.

I’m also reminded of some expenses that were paid out in a company I worked for years ago. This company was an agglomeration of a number of small businesses lumped together with little or no integration or, ahem, synergy.  One of those businesses had apparently had an open checkbook expense account for its president. Which he continued to use even after his little company had been merged in with the others. The key expenses I remember were fertility treatments, Porsche repair, and taxidermy bills. Personally, I always felt bad for this guy who, while essentially useless, was essentially a nice guy – unlike a number of other principals of this company who were scheming, nasty bastards.

Personally, I never went in for expense-padding.

The one and only time I ever got a expense report rejected was when I was at Wang. Wang had a $30/per diem food limit. Even in the late 1980’s, this wasn’t all that much, especially in NYC, where I traveled weekly. While there, I always stayed with my sister Trish so that I could both visit her and avoid staying in the tawdry hotels that Wang put us up in. (In Chicago, I stayed once in a motel surrounded by a chain link fence topped with coils of razor wire.) I usually got around the $30/per diem by having someone in the field buy my lunch, and by eating dinner at Trish’s. (I’d spring for a bag of groceries at Key Food.) One time, I splurged and took her out for Chinese in her ‘hood. Since I was saving Wang a hotel bill (however minimal) every time I stayed with my sister, I really didn’t think they’d mind if I – just this once – exceeded the food per diem. Which I did by $1. My expense report was rejected, and I had to refile.

I never would have gotten away with a $100K belt buckle – not with those canny accounting folks at Wang.

Anyway, the Brooks trial has been going on for months, and, while I wouldn’t want to get stuck on a lllloooonnnnggggg jury, if you do get stuck, it might as well be an interesting case.

Oh, I’m sure that The Times pulled out the good bits, but here’s at least some of what the jury heard:

  • That Brooks had investigated slipping his CFO a memory-erasing pill, so that she couldn’t testify against him.
  • That Brooks had falsified information —” including significantly overstating the inventory of bulletproof vests” — to boost stock performance.
  • Brooks’ lawyer asking for a mistrial, claiming that the prosecution’s picture of the defendant had focused on “irrelevant evidence to portray Mr. Brooks ‘as a sex-obsessed, tax-cheating boor’”, and that this had “’incurable prejudiced the jury.’”

Somehow, I don’t think that mentioning the words “sex-obsessed, tax-cheating boor” in the same sentence as your client’s name is great legal strategy, but what do I know.

Brooks’ lawyer further tried to rally the jury to their side by painting Brooks as the apotheosis of the American dream, making a buck while doing his patriotic duty.  The defense also stood up for spending on the prostitutes that the company hired to take care of employees and board members (which may explain why these expenses were approved).

Hiring some working girls was a legit expense “’if Mr. Brooks thought such services could motivate his employees and make them more productive.’”

Forget “Good to Great”. Forget “Seven Habits of Highly Effective Managers.” Think Sex Drive!

Our Mr. Brooks, who is only 55, faces more than 30 years in the stir – sans belt buckle, I imagine.

Okay, he’s not going to prison for expense account fraud – although Brooks’ lawyers may well be correct that this info will tip the jury: it’s a lot easier to follow and understand than accounting-based fraud. But wouldn’t you think that someone running a public company might think twice about crazed expenses like the ones he claimed? Why didn’t he just finagle himself a bigger salary (adjusted, of course, for taxes).

What’s with people, huh?

It’ll be interesting to see what the jury does with this one, but I’m thinking ‘say hello to Bernie Madoff.’

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Well, kiss my Super Bowl ring

There’s always, apparently, a silver (or platinum or diamond-encrusted) lining, even in the pitchiest of pitch-black economies, and one of the sectors where there’s a lot happening is the aftermarket for championship rings.

You know, like the 2004 Red Sox World Champeen Ring – the first Red Sox bling-ring ever, given that their last  win had been in 1919, before rings were routinely awarded the winners.  Thanks to the recession, there are plenty of rings to be had on eBay, in pawn shops, and on, from whence comthumbnail_RMLB04REDSOXSM (TOP - RS).jpgeth this staff-owned Red Sox ring, which can be had for a bit under $40K. Personally, I like the 2007 edition better,thumbnail_RMLB07REDSOXSMA (LEFT DIA - RS).jpg as I’ve always been partial to the red socks vs. the B.  Needless to say, I won’t be bidding on either (although I would be feeling a bit wistful about not bidding if those socks had been the funny old Red Sox logo with the face on it).

Bling, in general, is just not me.  And sports championship ring bling, on top of its general gaudiness, reminds me of brass knuckles. Another item that, in both particular and general, is just not me.

Fortunately for companies  like Josten’s, and Balfour – purveyors of fine sports bling – there’s a recurring market for it, what with multiple professional leagues, and college championships. And even (at least at Josten’s) fantasy sports championships that can and should (at least according to Josten’s) be commemorated.

Then, as noted, there’s the after-market, which was written about in a recent article.

If I find the primary market a bit odd – really, wouldn’t most people rather have something simpler plus a big old check - I rather like the secondary market. Most of the rings on offer seem to be from staff members, scouts, umpires – people who apparently share my sentiment about not being sentimental, and grabbing for the moola, rather than the oo-la-la. (One ring I saw on the Champion Ring site was a Lakers’ ring given by Shaquille O’Neil to a member of his entourage.)

Unloading this stuff makes perfect economic sense. Say you’re one of Shaq’s entourage members... Or a $60K/year staffer for the Red Sox, and have a chance to unload your championship rings – which, after all, you didn’t exactly earn – and get a full year’s salary in return. Not exactly a Christmas turkey.

On eBay, you can buy a full suite of Atlanta Brave’s rings-of-the-90’s for a bit under $80K. They’re being sold by a Braves scout. Don’t know what scouts make, but a lot of them aren’t full timers, so $80K puts a nice, healthy wad in the wallet.

Naturally, if the provenance of the ring is such that it once graced the bling-finger of the athlete, himself, the value is higher than one being hawked by the towel boy. Most athletes part company with their rings:

…because of what sports memorabilia dealers call “the three D’s’’ — divorce, drugs, and death. Now, add the economy.

(I guess that third-D isn’t exactly the athlete’s decision.)

But, 3-D’s aside, the article claims that:

Most players’ rings reach the open market

Where they are considered pretty good investments, fandom being what it is (and diamonds being forever, and all that). On the Champion Ring site, for the most part, you aren’t told who the player is unless you’re making a serious inquiry.

Popularity of the sport matters, too. Hockey and soccer rings are worth less than NFL and baseball rings. Oddly, all of the bowling championship rings (say what?) are out of stock on CR. And there are NO Women’s NBA rings. (Diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Or is it that the guys scooping these rings up on the after-market want the full try-it-on-look-in-the-mirror-and-fantasize that they just wouldn’t get with a ring from a woman’s sport?)

If you’re looking for bargains, you can head to e-mail, where there are some salesmen’s samples at relative low cost, as well as oodles of replicas on the real cheap. (Think cubic zirconium, not diamonds.)  All of those replicas don’t say replica, by the way, but you can make an assumption about a $300 ring vs. a $30K ring.

Caveat emptor!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Bob Sutton’s Good Boss, Bad Boss

I’d really rather get into bed with Alice Munro or William Trevor, so I’m slowing down a bit on my reading of business books.

A goodly proportion of the ones that I’ve read are just plain stupendously boring.

They take a shred of an idea and magnify it way out of proportion, so what might have made an okay article has been stretched into a yawner of a book.  Or they state the obvious - ‘little did I know that being focused would help my business’ – which wouldn’t be all that dreadful if the books were written with more color. Or they shell out high level, strategic advice, based on wild generalizations from a couple of places the author has consulted (which, as often as not, turn out to be not so good examples a couple of years down the road).  Some are just way, way, way too academic; some are just way, way, way too jargon-ridden. (Those two categories are grouped together for a reason.) Then there are the cutesy-pie ones that are portrayed as carrying great and profound wisdom:  pick a catchy title, write for the fourth grade reading level, add a lot of white space, and sell a lot for use at company off-sites. (“Who Put the Overalls in Mrs.. Murphy’s Chowder: How Companies Can Play the Blame Game and WIN”.)

And please do not, for the love of God, get me started on business puffographies. (Some day I’ll have to figure out what the Irish word for oy is.)

And then, it seems, there is Stanford professor Bob Sutton, who writes with humanity, wit, clarity, and purpose.

The purpose is to actually make the workplace better for the people who work there.

He did this a couple of year’s ago with The No Asshole Rule, which I blogged about a few times, including here.

Did this book change the face of American business?

Unfortunately not. I have it on good authority that there are still plenty of a-holes out there.

But I’ll bet you anything that it changed the face of plenty of individual businesses when people actually started thinking about the impact that having jerks around has. Maybe it even helped a few people recognize themselves and do something about it.

Well, Bob has a new book – Good Boss, Bad Boss – and since we are blogosphere buddies, he sent me a pre-publication copy.

There is so much to commend this book, and I’m not going to commend it all here, as I’m thinking of taking some of the chapters and using them for point-of-departure posts.  But I will tell you what the book will do for you:

  • If you’re managing people (or have been a manager) and you’re not a complete dope, you’ll have plenty of things to think about in terms of your management style. (Got me thinking, and I (thankfully) haven’t managed anyone in years.)
  • It will provide you with very concrete and useful tips on how to become a better manager. (Most of these are little things. E.g., during heated group debate “take special care to invite people who are shy, new, or at the bottom of the pecking order to express opinions – and defend them vigorously against personal attacks.” Obvious, maybe, but how many great, dramatic, ‘let’s really punch things out here’ meetings have you been to that devolve into shouting matches or, worse yet, the senior guys monologue, punctuated on occasion by some toadying remark?)
  • It will hold your interest. In fact, I put down Alice Munro, at whose short story altar I worship, to read this book. I am not going to lie and say that, if I were going to be stranded on a desert isle I’d rather have the collected works of Bob Sutton than the collected works of Alice Munro. Yet Bob is a damned good writer, with a highly personal, accessible and engaging style.  Here’s Bob on how ticked off he was at the heads ofGood Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best... and Learn from the Worst the financial services  firms responsible for tanking their companies and the economy: “I despise these assholes for losing my money and everyone else’s, even though, as an organizational theorist, I know that blaming them for this entire mess is irrational.”
  • There are loads of really interesting and fun examples throughout the book.

This is NOT a one simple secret, miracle-occurs-here, guide to being a good manager – just a lot of good ideas that managers can put into practice to improved their managerial lives – and the managerialed lives of those who report to them.

Was I a good boss?

In some respects, yes.

I didn’t call fire drills. I didn’t micro-manager. I defended my peeps. I let anyone who wanted to get exposure to the next level or two up from me. I pushed back up when stupid rained down. I gave credit. I passed on information whenever I could. I treated people humanely and decently. I only lost my temper at an underling once. People wanted to work on my team.

And, yet, I know that I could get caught up in analysis paralysis, playing the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand game well after every option had been exhaustively examined and argued. I’m sure that some people under me felt I played favorites – and I’m sure that I did.

I was, in general, an excellent boss to people who were really good at what they did, didn’t need day to day supervision, and who wanted visibility in the organization.  I was a good boss for someone who had the innate goods, and wanted a mentor.  But I was a not so good boss when it came to people who were really bad. When I had bad performers – and I managed some stunning ones – I wasn’t particularly adept at turning them into good performers. When I first managed, I ended up doing their job for them. Then I got to the point where I could actually sit down with them and try to figure out how they could do their job better. And then when they didn’t improve, I’d generally let them hang on too long.  (I was, on more than one occasion, completely played by a sob story.) This generally ended up with my sandbagging them while we waited for the inevitable next layoff. Or, worse, with them spinning so far out of control that they ended up getting fired.

If there’s one thing that I found missing it was direct advice for those working in management in places where dysfunction reigns  - I almost typed “rains” there, which would have worked, too. You know, the ones where the company strategy is unknown, or ever shifting, and you’re often as not making decisions based on what you think is best, or, frankly, based on what you’re personally comfortable doing.  The ones where it was all politics, all the time. The ones led by really bad bosses.

Anyway, Good Boss, Bad Boss is a very good and useful book. Bob Sutton has, once again, done the working world a favor.





Friday, July 23, 2010

What’s in a name? Jim Thorpe’s grave, in this case.

There are some things I haven’t given much thought to, and one of them is how Jim Thorpe, PA, got its name – other than for the obvious.

If I had given it any thought, I would have guessed that the town was near Carlisle, PA, where Jim Thorpe attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. And that, when the town was a newly incorporated entity, it just picked a name to honor a famous and accomplished quasi-local.

While Jim Thorpe, PA is quasi-near (100 miles from) Carlisle, PA, as it turns out, Jim Thorpe, PA was named Jim Thorpe, PA because just plain Jim Thorpe was buried there. (Main source for this post: WSJ article. May require subscription to access. Personally, I subscribe just to access gems like this story.)

It seems that, in 1953 when the great athlete died, his native Oklahoma didn’t want to put up any memorial to him.

His  miffed wife struck a deal with the powers that were of Mauch Chunk, PA, and East Mauch Chunk, PA, who agreed to rename their town in exchange for just plain Jim Thorpe’s body resting there. (Mauch Chunk is pronounced mock-chun[thorpe1]k by the way, in case it ever comes up in conversation. It’s Lenape for “bear mountain”. Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Mauch Chunk changed its name because its townsfolk were:

…desperate to attract business. They made a bet on the corpse of Jim Thorpe, a Native American athlete from Oklahoma who was the star of the 1912 Olympics and later a professional football player.

Mauch Chunk took the money they’d saved up – one nickel donation at a time – for town improvement, and spent in on the memorial rather than as a kitty for wooing factories.

Probably just as well they didn’t woo factories, even though they might have had a generation’s worth of work before the jobs went bye-bye.

In any case, the Jim Thorpe name didn’t help attract much old economy (factories) or new economy (tourism). Things did turnaround in the 1980’s. That’s when the leisure biz took hold, with tourists coming because the town is scenic, in the Poconos, offers white-water rafting, and has some interesting coal mining-Molly Maguire history. So life is okay in Jim Thorpe, PA. (Mauch Chunk, if not Jim Thorpe, PA, has also given itself the moniker “Switzerland of America.”  PA’s pretty, and everything, but I would think that Colorado or Vermont might have more of a claim here. Mauch Chunk as Switzerland kind of reminds me of a motto I saw on a tee-shirt year’s ago: Worcester: Paris of the 80’s.)

But if just plain Jim Thorpe’s son just plain Jack Thorpe has his way, there will no longer be such an obvious answer to the Grant’s Tomb question that asks ‘who is buried in Jim Thorpe, PA?’

Jack, it seems, wants his father buried in Oklahoma, from whence he hailed. And he’s suing in Federal court to get the body back.

“We just want to bring him home and put him to rest where he wanted to be," says Jack Thorpe. He has no grudge against the town: "They've always treated us well." …Jack Thorpe says his message to the Chunkers is: "The bones of my father will not make or break your town."

Which is probably true, given that Jim Thorpe may not be two household words to anyone who doesn’t remember the 1912 Olympics, or who hasn’t seen the old B&W Jim Thorpe Story, with Burt Lancaster starring. Thorpe:

… was "arguably the first international sports celebrity," says Kate Buford, whose biography of Mr. Thorpe, "Native American Son," is due to be published by Knopf in October

Anyway, even if just plain Jim Thorpe’s body leaves Jim Thorpe, PA, Chunkers – as the town’s citizens are called, rather than Thorpians – aren’t looking to change their name back. (Can’t blame them there.)

Jim Thorpe, PA, will stay Jim Thorpe, PA.

But it does raise some interesting thoughts about how towns might rename their towns if they had a do-over.

Would they rename for historic greatness? (Like we need any more places named Washington…)  Or would they go the fast and easy celebrity du jour route.

Would Clevelanders have renamed their city to keep LeBron? Cleveland could have become Jamestown. Or simply LeBron. (Boy, would they have been stuck if he’d decamped to Miami, anyway.)

Would some city let Donald Trump pay them a lump sum to start calling themselves Trumpchester. (“It’s the greatest, the most magnificent, the number one….”)?

Maybe Bristol, RI, or Bristol, CT, might start thinking about wooing Bristol and Levi to set their reality show there, in exchange for changing their city’s name to Bristollevi.

Hey, we’re seeing (mauch) chunks of highways going commercial. Sports stadium naming rights going to the highest bidder.

Everything’s for sale. So why not let someone who wants a memorial that will last a bit longer than the cover of People or a Tweet pay you a  consideration to keep their name in the streetlights. (Imagine the town of Gaga, Texas.)

Not that just plain Jim Thorpe paid for the honor.

No, Mrs. just plain Jim Thorpe merely wanted someone to memorialize him.

But it’s not that far-fetched to see ailing municipalities, and states, even, at least considering selling their names. Britney Spears could buy Louisiana; Lindsay Lohan could take Manhattan. It might extend even further: the River Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant, Japan. Paris Hilton, France.

You never know…


Interested in Mauch Chunk/Jim Thorpe, PA history? This site is easily as interesting as the Jell-o Gallery of LeRoy, NY.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The office fridge. (Be afraid, be very afraid.)

Well, yesterday’s post dealt with existential issues, so I thought we’d take a bit of a breather and talk about something more pedestrian.

Did I say breather?

That’s a metaphorical breather, folks, because you probably want to be holding your breath (with a clothes pin on your nose) when you open the office fridge door. Which was the topic of a short piece from Bloomberg/BusinessWeek that my brother-in-law John directed my way a couple of days ago.

Anyway, the take is that, with more folks brown-bagging, there’s more opportunity for the office fridge to turn into a hazardous waste site. I’d actually guess that the opposite might be true. What with all this throw-back penny-watching we’ve all gotten into, I’m guessing that folks aren’t so apt to forget that carton of Yoplait that they virtuously brought to work.

No, I’ll bet it was in the palmy, go-go days of “let’s go to Panera” that all those Yoplaits, last night’s meatloafs, and tuna-on-wheats became leave behinds.

As someone who cleared out the office fridge on more than one occasion, I have two words for you: memento mori. Opening up those sixteen month old yogurts is as close as I hope to come to an exhumation. 

I'm, unfortunately, the type that has to open every last container up and look.

Which is, aesthetics aside, a pretty bad idea.

Last year at an AT&T call center in San Jose, a helpful employee decided that somebody really ought to clean the company fridge. When she cracked it open, noxious fumes sent seven of her co-workers to the hospital and forced authorities to evacuate the building. "It was like a brick wall hit you," employee Robin Leetieh later recalled about the stench. Guys in hazmat suits were called in to clean up the mess.

The most noxious fumes I ever experienced in the workplace did not actually come from opening any Pandora’s icebox, however.

One of the more eccentric techies I ever worked with – and that is saying something – worked in an isolated office down a seldom-used corridor. So it took a while for us to get a whiff of what was coming out of said office. The cause: emanations from a 50 pound bag of suppurating yams that looked (and certainly smelled) like they’d been imported from the Irish potato famine.

I didn’t like yams to begin with, let alone when we discovered this retching, wretched excess.

How this guy – who was extremely sweet – was able to work in that environment, I’ll never know.  But I wouldn’t be surprised to open the paper someday and read that he was one of those headline-grabbers found living with their mother/brother/sister/dog who’s been dead for 5 years. (I’m not saying Norman Bates here, but, come to think of it, this guy did kind of resemble Anthony Perkins.)

Among the interesting bits in the Bloomie/BW article was the claim from the owner of a cleaning service that some folks just couldn’t throw old food away because good old mom or their sweetie-pie girlfriend had made it. Awwww….

I will confess that I had a tear in my eye when I ate the last of my Grandmother Wolf’s pickles. And I get a little sniffy when I pick up a recipe written by my mother or my aunt Margaret.  But if there’s no use crying over spilled milk, there’s no use carrying a torch for rotting food, even if it is the last morsel of cole slaw your sainted mother shredded, or the Valentine’s Day beef-something-or-other your girlfriend burned. Use that torch to get rid of the foul stuff!

There are some cleaning services, by the way, that will take on the task of cleaning the office fridge on a regular or ad hoc basis. I never worked in the kind of place that would spring extra for that service.

No, the fridge was No Man’s Land – at least until some woman (and, yes, it was always a woman; often me) would open the door and start a pitch-out fest. (One weekend, at the same office with the suppurating yams, yet another eccentric [male] techie did help me throw everything out. It was a fine bonding experience.)

The worst thing mentioned in the article was this:

In some cases, decaying food is the least of the problem. Alice Henneman, [a registered dietitian with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension], who has devoted much of her career to studying this occupational hazard, surveyed people on the worst things they'd encountered in office refrigerators. "The two scariest examples were human stool samples stored in the same refrigerator as employee lunches," she says, "and cow manure samples refrigerated next to food items."

Is it just me, or would everyone rather have it be cow manure than human manure?

And I thought it was a bad deal when I encountered a nicely formed (human) turd on the floor of the 3rd floor ladies room at Genuity one afternoon. (Yes, I did dispose of it.)

‘Henneman] concedes that the stool samples "probably came from some type of company involved with laboratory procedures; there was no mention of any workers getting sick."

While it’s not as bad as a crock of shit in the vegetable locker, the article notes that some of the worst office fridge horror stories result from the leftovers from a group gathering are shoved in the fridge.

In my experience, the chips, cookies, and sodas all go, and what’s “wrapped” (with the thinning plastic wrap it came in) and “saved” are the slices of salami, roast beef, and swiss that sit there, eventually buried under fresh Yoplaits, until all those cold-cuts just curl up and die. (Keep in mind that they’d probably been left out en plein air for a few hours before some good soul decided they shouldn’t go to waste.)

There are two antidotes to moldy fridge.

One is to declare Friday everything-that’s-perishable-gets-tossed day.  And:

Then there's the Stackable Office Fridge, the brainchild of a New York industrial designer named Spencer Schimel. Though it has yet to reach the manufacturing phase, this Lego-style stack of mini-refrigerators—which vary in size from 6 in. by 6 in. to 12 in. by 12 in. — could allow your co-workers to have their own individualized lunch storage space.

There is, of course, nothing to prevent a co-worker from keeping rotting food (and, I guess, their very own personal stool samples) in their very own personal fridge.  And it may prove a little harder to clean out someone’s personal property. Nonetheless, as we learned with the yams, the personal ends at my nostrils.

One more thing not to miss about full-time work.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Civilization overboard: checking out the Lifeboat Foundation

God knows I’m no great Maurice Chevalier fan – anyone else see him softshoe-ing for Les Boches in The Sorrow and the Pity? -  but the tune that’s rattling in my head right now is Maurice warbling “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”

I’m blaming yesterday’s NY Times for putting it there, since that’s where I saw Ashlee Vance’s blog post on the Lifeboat Foundation.

The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards the Singularity.

Because I have plenty of folks I care about in the two generations that are behind me, I’m all in favor of doing something about existential risk – as they all might want to hang on no matter what. But if technology gets so rampantly out of control, well, include me out. If it gets that bad, I want to be at whatever Ground Zero is, wearing a beanie with Take Me First embroidered on it. (And I thought today’s techno-fret was that Amazon is selling more e-books than me-books, i.e., books printed on paper.)

That Singularity thang – which sounds like some crazed cult – is pretty scary. The Singularity will come about when machines get smarter than humans, and we just don’t know what HAL et al. will do once they outsmart us. Sorry, I really don’t want to take marching orders from my vacuum cleaner or Blackberry.

What else could be in store for us?

Well, according to one Lifeboat blog post (by Jared Daniel), all plant life could turn black.

A green color may be a sign of health, but it is also a sign of inefficiency. If the could only absorb and use green light better, it would be using solar energy more effectively and could grow faster, for either its own or human purposes. If a plant absorbed and used all light falling upon it, it would be black, not green.

Can’t wait for that to happen. I’ve seen what those packaged up salad greens look like when the arugula turns black. No thanks.

Not that I have anything against the color black. In fact, I like black as much as the next late middle-aging boomer woman – where would we be without black pants? – but I just can’t imagine Ireland as forty shades of black.

The blog categories, by the way, are pretty interesting: …existential risk, finance, fun….  Just think, all that’s between fun and existential risk is finance. How ugly is that?

I just didn’t have the heart to click on “fun” to see what an organization dedicated to combating existential risk might consider fun. Although I didn’t find out what they consider fun, here’s what they consider existential risk:

…a risk that is both global and terminal. Nick Bostrom defines it as a risk "where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential". The term is frequently used to describe disaster and doomsday scenarios caused by non-friendly superintelligence, misuse of molecular nanotechnology, or other sources of danger.

I’m certainly on board with what the Lifeboat Foundation’s doing. For instance, they:

…believe that, in some situations, it might be feasible to relinquish technological capacity in the public interest (for example, we are against the U.S. government posting the recipe for the 1918 flu virus on the Internet).

Me, too!

But all this worry about existential risk…

Man, I’ve been watching Through the Wormhole on the Science Channel, so I knew that the world was going to come to an end in billion years or so. I just thought we had more time.

The Lifeboat Foundation mainly looks to raise money to fund various programs, largely through universities. (When I last looked, they’d taken in about $460,000.)

Vance in his post lists some of the donors. Interesting that Google coughed up a mere $450, while Sun gave $1K. Does Scott McNealy Jonathan Schwartz know something Sergey Brin doesn’t? Nah, probably not.  And if something was going to, metaphorically speaking, eat us alive, I’d bet on Google, not on a Solaris box.

Anyway, you can direct where your donation goes. So whatever existential risk floats your lifeboat….So many existential risks, and (apparently) so little time…

I’m considering.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

There’s always room for a Jell-o Museum

Massachusetts certainly isn’t the only place in the world with interesting things to see.

One Pink Slip commenter – who shall remain anonymous because she was anonymous – noted that she’d paid a visit to the Jell-O Gallery in LeRoy, NY, part of the LeRoy Historical Society.  It’s in LeRoy because Jell-o was invented, or discovered, or however it came into being, in LeRoy.

In 1897, Pearle Wait, a carpenter in LeRoy, was putting up a cough remedy and laxative tea in his home. He experimented with gelatine and came up with a fruit flavored dessert which his wife, May, named Jell-O. He tried to market his product but he lacked the capital and the experience. In 1899 he sold his formula to a fellow townsman for the sum of $450.

“Putting up a cough remedy and laxative tea” – were they one in the same? But isn’t that just the serendipity by which great discoveries are made. Think about how Elmer’s Glue-all was spawned through a quest for a coffee creamer.

Anyway, while Pearle gets credit for the invention, let’s give it up for May – marketing genius, par excellence – for coming up with the name Jell-o. Just think, no focus groups, no $1 million branding brainstorming, and the damned name has stood the test of over 100 years time. May, babe, you knew how to name product!

But that $450. Pearlie, Pearlie, Pearlie, what were you thinking when you sold this formula at not-so-great price? Sure, 450 bucks in 1899 would be worth more today, but only about $11K more. I do sympathize with Pearle, May, and their descendants. I’m quite certain that if I ever came up with an idea, I’d end up selling it cheap, too.

Of course, Pearle and May, despite May’s clear marketing bent, may not have had the chops needed to commercialize their discovery. Having worked for a couple of companies that didn’t have Clue One how to take a great technology idea and actually figure out how to package and sell it, I know the feeling. (Hell, we didn’t even have May’s naming knack. You may recall my mentioning that I’ve worked on products named ATF and AutoBJ.)

The fellow who bought Pearle out, Orator Frank Woodward, was a successful businessman, having:

…engaged in the manufacture of a composition nest egg with "miraculous power to kill lice on hens when hatching." This became a widely known and used product in the United States and Canada.

I guess killing lice on hens is proximate to the food business, but now Orator was in the food biz, with Grain-O, apparently some drink (which sounds way too much like Dran-O for me to want to take a quaff), and Jell-O.

Overtime, Jell-O got marketed, sold, and famous. The rest of Jell-O history is history. The product is now owned by Kraft Food.

Ah, Jell-o. As it’s early packaging had it: Delicate. Delightful. Dainty. Which are not necessarily attributes I would associate with Jell-O. I’m thinking more along the lines of: Tasty. Slimy. Fun.

Too bad LeRoy is a bit out of my way. I am in upstate NY a few times a year, but don’t usually get past Syracuse, which puts the Jell-o Gallery about 100 miles out of reach. Darn! 

While I can’t get there easily, I can buzz the online gift shop, and maybe order me up a tee-shirt. I was always more of a red or orange Jell-o person, but I do like the grape shirt.  I must say I could have lived without that “Watch it wiggle,  See it jiggle” caption over the boxer shorts.  Giving equal opportunity to the distaff side, it’s also the tagline on the aprons. Just below the breastline. Oy!

They’ve got a lot of stuff for sale, but they’re  missing a beat on the Christmas ornaments.  I have one that’s a bright green Jell-o mold. I hang it on my tree each year in honor of my mother, a Jello-o molder from way back.  Sure, I made plenty of fun of those molds, but I rather liked the orange with the shredded carrots and pineapples. And the strawberry one with the strawberries and nuts. Not to mention the classic Waldorf, with celery, apples, and nuts, that was made with the golden apple Jell-o of yore.

My mother hailed from the Midwest, and I’ve always associated Jell-o molds with that neck of the woods. I was on business once, at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Illinois, and when we went to the caf for lunch, I was heartened/amused/shocked to see that there were all sorts of Jell-o things to be had.

Jell-o, of course, has its own website, where you can find out about all sorts of nifty Jell-O things. It includes dozens of “recipes”, including those that are alcohol-related, travel-friendly, showstoppers, holiday-themed, and something called first-time-host. (Or was it last-time-host. I’ll have to go back and check.) I also saw that Jell-O now has mousse. Say it ain’t so!  That’s way to fancy-pants and upscale for me.

I’m going grocery shopping later.

Do you think Whole Foods carries Jell-O?

Monday, July 19, 2010

1001 things to do in Massachusetts – now including The Hermitage in Worcester (a.k.a., Deed Rock)

What with all the old stuff, and all the pretty stuff, and all the beach stuff, we get a lot of tourists in these parts.

Oh, I’m well aware we don’t get the most – I’m a-guessin’ that California, Florida, and New York nab a few more.

But Massachusetts probably ranks higher, touristically speaking than, say, North Dakota or Mississippi. Not that there’s anything wrong with Fargo or Pascagoula, mind you. Just saying.

Within the state, I’d give the old one-two to Boston and The Cape. And having spent time in my sister’s town of Salem during the month of October, I’d also say that her city could give any tourist destination a run for its money in those days leading up to Halloween.

Tourists can be aggravating when you’re not one of them. My daily route takes me along part of The Freedom Trail, which guides walkers to some historic sites, like Paul Revere’s House. Our sidewalks are narrow, and I’ll probably die stepping out into the path of a duck boat full of tourists while trying to get around a knot of folks form Pascagoula and Fargo gaping at Old City Hall (it is charming) or trying to take a picture of Old South Meeting House, probably thinking it’s Old North Church. (Keep walking. Old North is not far from Old South.  Old South Meeting House, that is. Old North is a bit more distant from Old South Church.) 

Anyway, in order to expose tourists to some of the lesser sights in our state, kind of a spread the wealth across the Commonwealth, the state has published a list of 1,000 things worth seeing. They made sure along that way, I believe, that every one of our 351 cities and towns had at least one worthwhile something or other in it.  (I didn’t do a nose count on this, but if you’re curious, the list is on

Naturally, I was curious to see what they said about places I know about – and curious to see what was left off.

Take Worcester:

Bancroft Tower, Broad Meadow Brook Conservation Center, Higgins Armory Museum, Mechanics Hall, The EcoTarium, The Hanover Theater, Tuckerman Hall, Union Station, Worcester African Cultural Center, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester Hibernian Cultural Centre, Worcester Historical Museum

Now, most of the stuff I’ve heard of, I get. Not quite sure what the Worcester Hibernian Culture Centre is. Having grown up a Hibernian in Worcester, you’d think I’d have known if we’d had one. But since they threw in eating spots in some other towns – e.g., The Beachcomber in Wellfleet – I thought they might have listed a diner or two, or Coney Island Hot Dogs, if only for the sign. (Photo by James Suprenant.)

But I was really hoping that they’d have the completely obscure but wildly interesting site known to us as kids as The Hermitage on the list.

Not that it’s convenient or easy to get to – no Freedom Trail here – but if you don’t mind climbing through creepy, rocky, hilly woods in the middle of nowhere, it will take you to a completely eccentric little site that was a “must see” local attraction during my childhood.

“The Hermitage” was, we were told, a will carved in a large rock, by “the hermit”, leaving the property around it to God. Having finished his carving, the story went, William Hall donned a set of wire and wax wings, covered with chicken feathers, and tried to fly to God. Needless to say, he didn’t make it.

The Hermitage was the occasional family (other than the women-folk, who were doing the dishes) post-dinner destination on Thanksgiving Day. It was an uphill walk of a mile or so, then some scrabbling through the woods, until we got to The Rock. (Okay, you can’t quite see the handwriting on thHermitagee rock, but you get the point.)  The picture comes from Daniel Boudillion’s interesting and detailed account of The Hermitage, which – in real life, if not in Rogers’ family life – was called Deed Rock (or, erroneously, Will Rock – so I guess we weren’t the only ones who thought it was a will). [If you want to read what the rock says, check out Boudillion’s site, which you should take a look at in any case.)

Assuming that Boudillion’s rendition is more accurate than that of my father’s telling – and there is absolutely no reason to believe it’s not, especially if you knew my father – the real story is only a bit less colorful than the one about William Hall and his Daedalus wings.

Hall was the property owner, and he sold his plot of land on Rattlesnake Hill – yet another interesting hill name in my childhood ‘hood; the other was Dead Horse Hill – to one Solomon Parsons (yes, he of the Parsons’ Cider Mill family, where we bought our gallon of cider on Thanksgiving morning).* Parsons requested that the land be deeded over to God, and Hall commissioned some fellow to carve the deed in one of the boulders laying about.

Parsons had been heavily influenced by a preacher from Vermont who preached end-of-days, and, in addition to deeding the land to God, he also built a temple there. 

While the world didn’t end as promised – good thing, huh? – Parsons continued to worship in his temple every Sunday until he died in the 1890’s.

Meanwhile – and here we get to the name The Hermitage – a nephew of Parsons’ built himself a shack on the property, and lived there for a while, a pond-less Thoreau, in the 1870’s.

So, while it was a bit disappointing to find that the wax-wing story was a canard, the true story is quite fascinating. (Again, go read Daniel Boudillion’s account.)

What I don’t know is whether the wax-wing story was particular to my family, or was the general neighborhood lore.

My father had grown up in the neighborhood. He and his sibs, and my grandmother, were greater walkers (not to mention talkers), so I’m guessing they trooped up to The Hermitage with some frequency.  It was also a great spot for blueberrying, and we did our blueberry picking there each summer. (Nothing like those tiny little low-bush blueberries. Backbreaking work, but yum!)

While it would be interesting to learn whether wax-wing was a family or neighborhood story, I’m leaning family. My grandmother was a mythology buff, and the wax-wing sounds right up her alley.

Like my father, my grandmother was a superb story teller. The best stories, of course, don’t always adhere 100% to the truth, and there were plenty of things I was told as a kid that I now look back on and question. My favorite in this category has to be the story of Mr. Mur-FAY.

Mr. Mur-FAY was a very pleasant looking old geezer, always well turned out  - a nice grey homburg and overcoat in the winter – who walked everywhere.  Not in itself that odd – I knew plenty of people who didn’t have cars.  They walked or took the bus.  Mr. Mur-FAY didn’t live close enough for me to know him personally, but I certainly knew who he was.

According to my grandmother, Mr. Mur-FAY was a left-hander, i.e., someone who had fallen away from the Catholic Church. Further, Nanny told us, after leaving the Church, he had changed the pronunciation of his last name from Murphy to Mur-FAY. Everyone knew, of course, that people named Murphy were Catholic, so the nefarious Mr. Mur-FAY rebranded himself so that no one would suspect his Catholic origins.

Well, somewhere along the line, I figured out that there was probably no one in Mr. Mur-FAY’s family who would have had an inkling of what we were talking about, since they, no doubt, had always called themselves Murphy.

Ah, Worcester.

Anyway, while I’m disappointed to see that The Hermitage didn’t make the top 1,000 list, and while I’m disappointed to learn that the wax-wing, fly-to-God story was a myth, I have decided that I’m going to put a visit to The Hermitage on my bucket list.

I am counting on a sibling, or my intrepid cousin Barbara and her husband Dick – my only remaining Worcester-area relations – to accompany me there.

Any takers?


*This must make it sound like I had some bucolic childhood, a notion at odds with my claim to being a city girl. The neighborhood I grew up in was intensely city: small houses and three deckers clustered cheek to jowl, with an ethnic intensity you just didn’t find in suburban Beaver Cleaver-ville. At the same time, it was on Worcester’s fringes, with lots of woods and ponds, and even a tiny, goofball farm just down the street.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Location, location, location

The big news in the ‘hood for the past week or so was a devastating fire in a local grocery store.

Now, given where I live, this just wasn’t any old grocery store.

Like everything else around here – gaslights, brick sidewalks, wrought iron, window boxes, and even a couple of small cobble-stoned streets – this store was ye olde quaint charming to look at:  charming awning, fruit displays on the sidewalk, bakery shelves laden with yummy looking goodies.  This store is so charming looking, it appears on some postcards of Boston.

As as with so much that looks good – brick side walks can be slippery, and cobble stone streets are completely treacherous -  looks can deceive, and this store had its share of problems.

They’ve had a couple of health violations over the years, and have been shut down for short bursts of time.

Most people in the neighborhood are aware of the store’s rat issues. This is the city, after all, and you do occasionally see the critters out and about in the evening. But a friend of mind saw a posse of them cavorting inside amidst the fruit and vegetables one night when she and her husband were strolling by. 

The son of some friends of ours worked there one summer during college, and he would talk about going on Rat Patrol in the morning to make sure that any gnawed through loose items and packaged goods were discarded.

Personally, even though this store is about a one minute walk from where I live, I stopped buying produce there years ago. They were my go-to for English muffins, Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches, and wine.  Things in cans, or things to do laundry with. And that’s about it.

When I stopped buying produce at the store, I wasn’t so much aware of the rodent problem as I was of the freshness problem.

Inspect those raspberries as I would, holding up the container at all angles to catch sight of any tell-tale mold, by the time I got them home, they were in full, fuzzy, mold bloom.  A cucumber might appear firm to the touch, but within hours it was a suppurating mess, oozing around the bottom of the vegetable crisper.

Interestingly, the guy who used to be their produce buyer showed up at the Cape as the produce buyer for my sister’s summer-local store. For the first year he was there, the produce freshness deteriorated, but Kath says that it’s back to being good. Leading us to surmise that this fellow took everything he’d learned about buying looks-okay-but-is-just-about-to-rot produce at a bargain (and selling it at a premium) with him to the Cape. But that the Cape store and its patrons wouldn’t put up with it.

Anyway, these days, the only produce I’ll buy there is a banana for tomorrow’s cereal. (Examined for tiny tooth marks, of course.)

There was also the time that I found a dead lizard of some kind in my green beans. But that can happen. At first i thought it was a long, moldy green bean. But then I saw its little legs, in full rigor mortis.

Then there was the sour milk problem.

You’d think that, as long as you checked the sell-by date, you’d be good, wouldn’t you?

Not always. Their dairy cases weren’t always cooled to the extent necessary. (Don’t know whether this was to save on electricity, or because the ancient electrical system was the problem.)

Cheese was another sketchy item.

The store carried a wide selection of imported cheese, and one day I went in, hoping to pick up a few things for a party I was going to.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything other than Cabot’s Vermont Cheddar was well past the sell-by date. When I reported this to the cashier, she asked which cheese, and I had to tell her pretty much all of it.

My sister Kath’s theory is that throughout the store’s existence – it’s over 100 years old – it has been a dumping ground for Haymarket cheese and produce that the keen-eyed Italian shoppers from the North End – little old ladies who knew how to pinch a tomato or a sniff out a rotting cantaloupe – would reject. In 1910, the merchants were probably laughing up their sleeves about the Beacon Hill haute-WASPs and their Irish servant girls never noticing the difference.

And don’t get me going on the over-under charges.

I finally stopped checking, figuring that, for every time they charged me 2 cents for a can of tuna, they were charging me $5 for a banana. It just wasn’t worth hassling every transaction with them.

So I generally took my custom elsewhere, ordering non-perishables from PeaPod, and making the 1/4 mile schlep to Whole Foods for everything else.

The story of The Great Beacon Hill Grocery Store Fire – in which, fortunately, no one was hurt; the store was open, there are a number of upstairs apartments and a number of other businesses in the block, this could have been a bad one  – got more interesting the other day when it was reported that the store owner had moved some of the goods from the burnt-down store and was trying to sell them at his other similarly quaint store in Back Bay. (Thanks to my sister Trish for alerting me to this story.)

While it was initially reported that the owner had tried to salvage produce (which might have been okay – smoke does preserve things, no?) - it was apparently some canned goods, bottled water, and cases of wine that he didn’t want to go to waste.

But of course, there are laws about such things, what with insurance claims and all that. Not to mention that something like wine that’s been exposed to the tremendous heat of a fire might have turned a bit.

Someone – I’m guessing a disgruntled (ex-)employee  - dimed the store owner on the transfer of the they-don’t-look-damaged-to-me goods.

And apparently, while the inspectors were there checking out this violation, they noticed that the salad bar wasn’t properly cooled and was covered with flies.

So they closed the Back Bay store down for good measure.

Anyway, the upshot is that the store owner, who was initially getting gobs of sympathy in the media for his fire, now looks like he was trying to pull a fast one with some of the stuff that had made it through the fire.  Plus dozens of folks who’ve never even heard of the store are seeing the online comments come in fast and furious – and most are about the rats, the limp produce, the expired cheese, and the general dirtiness of the store.  Most of those commenting confess to shopping their on occasion, even though they know about the rats, the produce, the cheese, and the dirt. It comes down to location, location, location.

Astoundingly, though, some of the store’s defenders rave about the fresh produce and the array of cheeses. Maybe there’s a parallel universe they’re shopping in, and there may well be. My husband was told by someone who worked there that the owner set aside fresh items for his favored regulars. (We got the lizard in our green beans.)

It will be interesting to see how this all ends up: how soon they’ll come back, whether the store will be cleaner, whether the produce will be more up to standard.  Great fodder for the neighborhood yack-mill, that’s for sure.

In the meantime, I’m hoping that the 7-11 – the next nearest store – will start stocking Pumpernickel. Don’t know where I’m going to get my Skinny Cow ice-cream sandwiches between PeaPod orders.


A tip of the butcher’s cap our grandfather wore to both of my sisters for their keen following of this story, and their suggestions for this post. 

As for why the store isn’t named.  Anyone who knows Boston will know exactly what I’m talking about. For anyone else, it really doesn’t make any difference. And, while I’m sure that owner doesn’t know me, he would sure recognize me as someone who’s in and out for wine, baking powder, a banana, and Skinny Cow. I wouldn’t want someone figuring out that I’m the bee-otch who blogged about him, and having him berating me, and banning me from his store. Not just being paranoid here – my sisters had the same thought.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

So long, George. (Sure glad I never worked for you.)

I’m in the process or reading an advance copy of Bob Sutton’s forthcoming book, Good Boss, Bad Boss – more on this next week – and George Steinbrenner’s death this week makes this read particularly apposite. (Apposite: now there’s a word I’ve always wanted to use.)

Naturally, as a Red Sox fan, I had found Mr. Steinbrenner to be a loud mouthed jerk.  But, as they saying goes, you can’t argue with success.

Or can you?

Sure, he was an enormously successful businessman, and there’s no doubt that he was instrumental in (if not the pure, direct cause of) the rebuilding of the Evil Empire New York Yankees organization from a middling, shadow of their past club in the 1970’s to, well, the team they are today. (Hiss, boo.)

But as a manager?

The word “boor” comes to mind. (As does the key word contained in the title of Bob  Sutton’s last book, The No Asshole Rule. More on that next week, too.)

Steinbrenner was certainly not alone as an out there sports team owner. One has to look no further back than last week to find the wildly entertaining, but extremely unhinged, screed launched by Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert at LeBron James when James announced he was departing Cleveland for the sunnier climes of Miami. Without defending James here – he certainly came across as a narcissistic heel throughout the entire will-he-won’t-he process of declaring his next move – if the open letter that Gilbert wrote to Cavs’ fans is any indication of personality type…Well, Steinbrenner sure had some company.  (Talk about Fathead.*)

Anyway, Dave Anderson had an interesting column on Steinbrenner in The NY Times the other day that focused on Steinbrenner as a manager.

One of the central incidents cited in the column was the one in which Steinbrenner fired Yankees Manager Dick Howser when, after having a banner year in terms of wins, the Yanks were swept in the ALCS playoffs and never made it to the World Series.

… Steinbrenner invited 14 reporters and columnists to a rare news conference in his Stadium office. …

“Dick has decided,” Steinbrenner began, “that he will not be returning to the Yankees next year. I should say, not returning to the Yankees as manager.”

Dick has decided. Ostensibly, Howser had decided to go into the real estate business in Tallahassee, Fla., rather than continue as the Yankees manager. When Steinbrenner was asked if Howser could have returned as manager, he said yes. But when Howser was asked why he didn’t want to continue as manager, he said, “I have to be cautious here.” When he was asked if he had been fired, he said, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

“I didn’t fire the man,” Steinbrenner barked.

The principal owner even added, “I think it’s safe to say that Dick Howser wants to be a Florida resident year round, right, Dick?”

Dick Howser didn’t even answer that one.

This was an execution, not a news conference, and when it was over, as everybody was walking out of his office, the principal owner looked around and said, “Nobody ate any sandwiches [that had been offered earlier].” He didn’t seem to realize that nobody believed that “Dick had decided.”

Of course, one of the hazards of managing a big league sports team is that, when you get bounced, there’s a press conference or, at least, a press release, and everyone in the whole wide world gets to find out. Name o’ the game.

But what, Anderson seems to be asking still, a good 30 years after the “Dick has decided” farce, was what was the point of not just saying ‘we let the guy go’? Why humiliate Howser by setting up a kangaroo press conference? Was it because Steinbrenner wanted to position himself as a good guy. (“See, I’m not firing anybody.”) Or was it because – as is so often the reason with those in power –  he could.

Who knows what he held over Howser’s head to get him to go along with it.

But I don’t care if you’re firing the manager of the NY Yankees (someone used to being in the public eye), or laying off the manager of the accounting department at Acme Widget, there are ways to go about things that get the ugly deed done, while somehow allowing everyone involved to save face/keep their game face on.

Public humiliation is not one of them.

But for many of those in power roles, it’s not sufficient to just wield the knife – and, let’s face it, anyone who’s been a manager for more than a month has had to wield some knife or another, even if it’s a butter knife, rather than a shiv. No, mere wielding, a graceful jab,easy in/easy out, is not sufficient.  It’s just plain no fun when there are no witnesses to see the look on your face, the shock of recognition that this is it.You need to thrust it in and twist.

Having had this done to me – although less publicly and dramatically - I know whereof I speak.  Years ago, when working for the remnants of a little software company, I reported directly to the founder.  Not that there was much to run – we were a 20 person company by that point – but I ran marketing. I was sitting in the founder’s office, in a meeting with “S”, my opposite number in sales, when “E” announced that I was now reporting to “S.”

While “S” sat there Cheshire-catting, I composed myself.

This was a clear demotion, and not a move that I had anticipated. That I didn’t particularly like or respect “S” certainly factored in to my feelings.

After the meeting, I told “E” that he should have told me privately, ahead of time, rather than announcing it in front of “S”.

He just smirked and airily dismissed me. “I knew you wouldn’t mind.”  But the smirk – and knowing “E” as I did – told me everything I needed to know. And that was that “E” didn’t give a rat’s arse about whether I was going to “mind” or not.  No, it was all about his having the power to jerk me around in the same way that I had seen him jerk plenty of other people around during the years I’d worked for and around him.

Well, reporting to “S” turned out to be even more disastrous than I had thought it would be. But it didn’t last for long.  As it happened, “E” got himself bounced by a turnaround guy the investors brought in. (Hah, hah.) And the turnaround guy decided I no longer reported to “S”. (I had asked rather nicely, after all.) Plus I outlasted “S” by many years. So, there.

In a far worse incident, my cousin and his manager were both fired at a branch meeting, in front of the entire staff.

Nice, eh?

As for George Steinbrenner, there are other anecdotes in the Anderson column, including how The Boss fired Yogi Berra as manager by sending a minion to do the deed – a couple of weeks into the season, after Steinbrenner had guaranteed Yogi a full season. Come on, who’d be mean to Yogi Berra?

There’s no arguing that Steinbrenner did a lot for the Yankees. There’s no arguing that there’s not a free agent in baseball who shouldn’t be kissing his feet for driving up their prices. And by all reports he was extremely philanthropic. (Thank God for rich folks.)

But I’ll close with the final word from Dave Anderson:

I loved George Steinbrenner, too, but as somebody to write about, certainly not somebody to work for.


*A joke: Gilbert also owns Fatheads, which makes the life-sized, puffy wall hangings of athletes. After James announced he was moving on, Gilbert discounted the James’ fathead to the price of 1741 – the year Benedict Arnold was born.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Digital ads on license plates. Talk about California dreamin’.

There was a brief article in the latest edition of The Economist on a deficit-reducing idea under consideration in California. Good thing the article was small, because I had to read it twice to actually get it.

Yes, California is considering making their license plates digital so that, when a car was stopped at a red light or on a clogged freeway, the license plate would turn into a mini-digital billboard.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I dug up the source article on  it – AP (here from the Mercury news) – and, indeed, state Senator Curren Price has proposed that California’s DMV and Highway Patrol look into the idea. (Oh, how tempting it is to write ‘the Price is wrong’, but I’m sure it’s been done.)

Are we surprised that there’s already a company working on this concept? Yes, indeed, SmartPlate, in San Francisco. I did a bit of snooping around for them, and couldn’t find much web presence. (They’re probably SmartPlate Mobile and/or SmartPlate Technologies, but, web site-wise, they’re both empty suits. Gosh, I thought the first thing a start-up did was put up a site that makes them look like they’re a real company. Maybe that’s just so yesterday.)

Anyway, SmartPlate does have a CEO, so they must exist, no?

Reached by e-mail Friday, the company's chief executive, M. Conrad Jordan, said the legislation provides an opportunity for the state to harness some of the creativity and technical expertise of its private sector.

Jordan said he envisioned the license plates as not just another advertising venue, but as a way to display personalized messages—broadcasting the driver's allegiance to a sports team or an alma mater, for example.

"The idea is not to turn a motorist's vehicle into a mobile billboard, but rather to create a platform for motorists to show their support for existing good working organizations," he said.

Oh, not just for paid advertising. It’s-all-about-me broadcasting. That’s so much better. (By the way – and not that I searched all that hard – but M. Conrad Jordan is something of an international man of mystery, google-wise.)

Part A of initial screed: With respect to digital advertising on license plates, does everything in the world have to be so crassly commercial? Bad enough those little signs on the highway letting us know that this mile is brought to you by Acme Widget. Bad enough every sporting event has become more advertising venue than match.  Bad enough that every movie has obvious product placements. (Gee, if it’s good enough for Angelina Jolie…) Bad as it is to have advertising in these public realms, does it now have to invade what is more or less the private realm? I.e., your own personal car.

God, what if I don’t like the company advertising on the back of my car?

Right now, no one can make me, say, wear a Nike shirt. But what if the state decides to Just Do It. Do I really want a smaller than life – and these days, he’s decidedly smaller than life - LeBron James on my bumper?

What about Joe’s Gun and Ammo? What about Bob’s Discount Furniture?

And will the advertisers pick and choose what type of vehicles they want to advertise on?

No heaps for Louis Vuitton bags – those are only advertised on Beemers and Benzes.

Will we have to pay more to register a clunker that won’t be attractive to advertisers?

Can’t we just have a little stuck-in-traffic time  so we can stare off into space, curse the guy who’s passing everyone in the breakdown lane, or hit the Seek button on the radio when Horse with No Name comes on?

Part B of initial screed: With respect to Mister Jordan’s assertion that license plates could also become a personal platform for motorists to broadcast their own me-ness.

Yeah, why put up with that modest Penn State Alumni license plate holder and Nittany Lion decal on your back window when you can digitally flash the lion roaring. (Not picking on Penn State here. I just happened to notice one of the plate holders the other day…)

And who’s going to police whether the motorist is actually showing an “existing good working organization”, such as the Penn State Alumni Association? Who decides what good working means? I’ll bet the KKK is a good working organization. Do I need to know that I’m sitting in back of the Grand Kleagle. Well, better sitting behind than in front of, I guess, although the thought of those beady eyes, staring out at my through the hood and into the rear-view mirror.

Oh, I’m quite sure personal digital license plates will be here sooner or later, but this concept makes the advertising one look good.

Come on, between bumper stickers, decals, vanity plates – none of which particularly bother me – don’t we have enough ways to show who we are. Do we need one more opportunity to chip away at any sense of common belonging by taking the good old license plate and making it your narcissistic little message space.

Second, nostalgia-based screed: Now please queue up Jan and Dean’s Little Old Lady from Pasadena, as I launch into yet another aging Baby Boomer treatise on why license plates were oh, so much better, in the old days.

Many years ago, in the by gone, near-Conestoga wagon days of yore, when folks went on a long car trip they checked off how many state license plates they could spot.

Massachusetts had pretty boring license plates: solid dark colors (green, black, or maroon, varied by year) with white numbers. No motto to speak of. But when you saw it, you knew it was from Massachusetts. Just like you knew that blue with white was Connecticut, orange and blue was New York, and light tan with black was New Jersey.

Some states actually had a motto on their license plates. That’s how you learned that New York was the Empire State, Pennsylvania was the Keystone State, and Illinois was the Land of Lincoln.

Some states even usedlittle icons. I believe that Pennsylvania had a keystone, so you learned what a keystone was. And New Jersey and Texas both broke their numbers up by dividing them with a tiny little state map.

Some states, especially those with so few drivers that they didn’t have to devote all the plate real estate to numbers, had pictures. Wyoming had the cowboy on the bucking bronco.

It wasn’t just little kids who did the license plate thing. When I drove cross-country with my college roommate, we felt a real sense of triumph when, in a strip mall parking lot in California, we spotted a Hawaii plate. Bingo! We got ‘em all.

Then, gradually, state plates got fancier, and a lot more states got into the motto business.

Massachusetts plates stayed pretty boring. The big shift was to a cream background with red or green numbers and, for a while, the tagline Spirit of Massachusetts. (Or was it the Spirit of America?) Certainly nothing as provocative as Live Free or Die, as our neighbors to the north have it.

But, of course, if you didn’t want the bland state, most states started introducing theme plates and let motorists pick and choose their theme.

Now we could declare our allegiance (and make a donation to something or other).

But this made spotting different state plates far more difficult.

Who even knew what a Florida plate looked like anymore?

And it was one more push in the direction of having the license plate be about me, rather than whatever old state I happened to have registered my car in. (God forbid you’d actually want to identify with your state.)

Of course, letting drivers pick and choose from theme plates is nothing when compared to letting them broadcast their own personal story.

Frankly, I’d rather stare at someone’s exhaust pipe than watch an A-Rod replay on some Yankee fan’s car.

So, even if I do ever own another car again – which I sincerely hope not to – I will not be doing any personal messagign on it.

But if I do have a car, and if Massachusetts has jumped on the digital license plate advertising bandwagon, I hope we all get the PBS option.

This car is brought to you without commercial interruption by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, or the Pew Charitable Trust.

Now that I could live (and drive) with.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Happy Trails to you: Roy Rogers’ Trigger’s on the auction block.

Seven months too late, I have learned that the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri has closed. (Source: news article on Comcast.)

Damn! Or, as Roy and Dale might have said, dang.

It’s really too bad about the Museum, alright, but their demographics are tumbling along with the tumbling tumbleweeds. After all, there can’t be too many folks under the age of 55 who actually know who or what Roy Rogers was. (I say what as well as who, because for a number of years there were a lot of Roy Rogers fast food “restaurants”.  Now – the market having exerted its supremely good taste – there are blessedly few. But, damnably dangably,  most of them seem to be on the NY State Thruway, which I travel with some regularity.)

While the demographic for the Roy & Dale is not such a hot one, it’s probably not that off the mark for Branson. But there’s a lot competing with it, what with Yakov Smirnoff, Andy Williams, and Paul Revere & the Raiders out there. And, you know, when you see a live show you might want to go again, because the stars can vary it up from time to time. I mean, I’m sure Andy always does Moon River and Can’t Get Over Losing You (personal fav, by the way), but if you’re lucky one show he’ll throw in Canadian Sunset, and in another Born Free.  You never know. Plus I hear Yakov Smirnoff has a boatload of jokes.

But a museum commemorating a dead cowboy star, and his dead, stuffed horse, is probably pretty static. Seen Trigger once…

Even though the Roy & Dale Museum is now defunct, I was delighted to learn that, if I get down to Christie’s sometime in the next couple of days, I can bid on some of the exhibits. Unfortunately, I don’t have room for the primo item on the block: the stuffed Trigger, Roy’s boon companion, his golden palomino stallion.  Too bad, because I think an investment in Trigger could be a sound one.

Sure, they’re not making any more Roy Rogers’ fans, but they’re not making all that many more stuffed movie and TV star golden palominos, either.

So forking over the expected price of $100K - $200k wouldn’t be a squander, it’d be a steal.

After all, you may not be able to beat a deadroy_trigger_playing_cards.jpg horse, but you can buy and sell one. And this big boy has BRILLIANT INVESTMENT written all over it. That’s Roy and Trigger on happier trails. But I do want to make sure that folks understand that it’s the stuffed Trigger, not a stuffed Trigger avec Roy, that’s on sale.

Nice shot of both, I must say, although I suspect that some parts of Trigger might have been airbrushed. Wonder if they’re stuffed.  HmmTrigger, the horse of singing cowboy Roy Rogers, is among the items from the Rpy Rogers and Dale Evans Museum being auctioned by Christie's.mmmm.  Okay. I did a bit more “research”, and found stuffed Trigger.

Looks like those private parts may be covered over by saddle parts. For a moment there, I was thinking Whoa, Nellybelle!

By the by, there’s a bit of sexism going on here. Dale’s horse, Buttermilk, is only slated to fetch $30K to $40K. And speaking of fetch, Roy’s German Shepherd Bullet is predicted to go for a measly $10K to $15K. It may be a dog’s life, but it’s apparently a horse’s after-life (at least if you’re Roy’s palomino stallion). 

If you’re not interested in stuffed animals, Nellybelle, the jeep driven by Roy’s hi-larious TV sidekick, Pat Brady, is on the block, along with cool stuff like boots, belt buckles, a cowboy shirt, walking sticks, and a bolo tie.

Did I say bolo tie?

There is a plain old vanilla bolo tie, but just when I was asking myself who might be the audience for all this stuff, I happened upon what must be the most novel novelty in the auction:

Comprising two Buffalo Nickels and a bolo tie and an ash tray made from Trigger's road apples

Could be yours for a mere $200 - $300. This must be a first for Christie’s.

(I found all this good stuff on Christie’s site. Don’t know if they keep this type of info up post-auction, but just search on Trigger. If it’s there, you’ll find it.)

Alas, they weren’t auctioning off the one item I would really have been interested in: the Roy Rogers slippers that were one of the few gimmicky, branded items I possessed as a child. I did find some on eBay, but mine were black.  I believe they also had a little yellow star-shaped spur. Find a pair in black for me, spurs intact, and now we’re talking, cowpoke.

If you want to learn even more about Roy Rogers, there’s a website, of course.


Roy, of course, is no relation. His real name is Leonard Slye, which would have made a terrible name for a cowboy hero, that’s for sure. Someone named Slye would be wearing a black hat, not a white hat. Roy Rogers makes a far better cowboy name – better than Gene Autry. Although maybe not quite as good as Hopalong Cassidy.

And a tip of the cowgirl hat to my brother-in-law Rick for letting me know about the auction.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Pet or meat? Or, Foghorn Leghorn wears pull-ups

Well, you got your dog people. And your cat people. Your ferret, parakeet, guinea pig, rabbit, gerbil, tropical fish, snake, and Capuchin monkey people. My friend Pat’s daughter counts her Mexican jumping beans among her menagerie. You even got your rat people.

But, until I read about it in The Wall Street Journal last week, I wasn’t aware that there were an appreciable number of chicken people.  Oh, I knew vaguely about it. Years ago, when her kids were small, my friend Marie (dog people, if ever) had next door neighbors who kept chickens as pets for their little ones. The neighbors were considered complete eccentrics, utter kooks.

Well, fast forward a couple of decades, and chickens are no longer being kept for the potential to offer a home-grown, free-range, corn-fed, backyard alternative to the hormone-inflated, breast-pumped, solid-white-meat, factory-produced chicken product. (Which, I will confess, I have been known to buy.) Or as mere providers of fresh eggs.

No, chickens are now bona fide pets.

And to prove it, the WSJ found MyPetChicken for us. MyPetChicken, I suspect, is as much for those whose chickens become working pets, at least of the egg-laying variety. The site is  silent on the pet or meat aspects of their business. So there’s no info that I could find about neck wringing, head chopping, feather plucking, disemboweling, and what to with the yucky parts like gizzards. Instead, they focus on things like incubators and coops. And fun items like these nifty chicken beak glasses.

This business is not chickenfeed, by the way. The couple who run it used to do so as a sideline to their real professional careers. Now the business brings in over $1 million a year. Good-bye, corporate America. Hello, entrepreneur-ville.

And lest you think that chicken-related businesses are all in places like Arkansas, MyPetChicken is in Connecticut.

But there are, naturally, chicken businesses other than Tyson’s in Arkansas.

One of them is Hot Springs, Arkansas-based Chicken Diapers, which is run by chemist-by-profession Ruth Haldeman. Having decided she wanted the eggs a few years back, she started raising chickens. These little critters, she found:

….are like peanuts, you can’t have just one.

Which is actually how I feel about Buffalo chicken tenders with blue cheese and celery sticks, but that’s neither here nor there.

Of course, where there’s a chicken, there’s going to be chickenshit. And Ms. Haldeman soon realized that, bless their yucky-tasting little hearts, chickens can’t be trained to use a litter box or hold it until the owner gets home from work.

So, she invented a chicken diaper:

…with a replaceable liner. She says it takes her about an hour to stitch one together, and her diapers are available in a variety of colors and patterns, such as rainbow and camouflage. She usually charges between $9 to $14 depending on a bird's size.

This has got to be a labor of love, because working as a chemist sure has to pay more than $9 an hour. (By the way, if you don’t want to buy liners, you can make your own out of sanitary napkins. Personally, chicken-petting sounds like way, way, way too much work for me. When would I find any time to blog, what with having to splice up Kotex?)

The diapers are reusable – none of this filling up landfills with mounds of itsy-bitsy Pampers that won’t bio-degrade until the 25th century (if then). But I do have to ask myself who wants to change and wash chicken diapers. (Maybe there’s a diaper service. If not, there’s a dream of an entrepreneurial idea for you.)

Diapers, which enable “your bird to have freedom of
movement in your home without the mess,” are, in fact, helping elevate the status of chickens.

In January, Kevin Tschida bought diapers from Ms. Haldeman for the four chickens he and his wife, Paula, live with in their rented single-floor home in Bakersfield, Calif. "They have made a huge difference," he says. "There is less smell in the house, less bending over."

Mr. Tschida says the birds, plus two ducks who wear diapers he bought from a different vendor, spend most of their time frolicking and sleeping indoors. "It is like the diaper removes them from the farmyard and gives them the status of pets," says Mr. Tschida, who also owns a dog, two cats, two parrots, a rabbit and some fish.

As a city girl, I am unlikely to ever, ever, in a billion years have chickens (let alone ducks) as pets. But I suppose if the sea-level rises, and floods me out of Boston, I can retire to what will then be the mild and temperate climate of central Maine and raise me some chickens, so I can have an occasional omelet to go along with the delish tomatoes I’ll be growing during the long, sunbaked winters.

But I don’t imagine I’d have chickens – with or without diapers – running around my house.

I like my pets to be a tad brighter, a teensie bit more sentient than your average chicken. I know I’m probably being humanist here, but what does the average chicken IQ run? Mid single digits? Dog IQ’s run up to 30 points or so, so there’s a bit more two-way streeting going on, no?

I know why a dog would cross the road: to fetch a stick, grab a Frisbee, chase a squirrel, come because I’m calling him, lick my hand, lick my face, and sniff out the dog bone I’ve hidden in my hand.

I have absolutely no idea why the chicken would cross the road.

Nor would I be designing special outfits for my chickens, even though those 4th of July chickens look rather sporty. (Good thing the Supreme Court ruled that it was okay to wear a flag patch on the seat of your pants, no?)



I wonder how the chickens feel about getting dressed up? Maybe in some cases, it’s not so bad to have a single digit IQ…

Still, it’s comforting to know that not everything in our economy is at a dead end. As long as we’ve got people willing to buy chicken diapers, it ain’t all over.