Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It’s only money

Just about a year ago, a man armed with two Berettas killed 13 people, and wounded another 4, in a Binghamton, NY immigrant aid center before turning one of the guns on himself. While the rampage was going on, dozens of people hid for hours from the gunman.

In the aftermath, around $300K was raised “for the victims.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports, who got what from that $300K has not been without controversy.

Relatives of the dead felt they deserved the lion's share. The wounded pressed their claims. Those who escaped with no physical harm but deep emotional scars also ended up in the lottery for compensation.

In the end, many were unhappy. "People were murdered," says David Marsland, a software developer who lost his wife of eight months. "If you weren't shot, then you were a very lucky person and should be grateful to be alive, and shouldn't expect a cash payout."

I don’t think I sent any money to Binghamton in the aftermath of this event, but, on occasion, I have written checks to the ‘widows and orphans’ funds that spring up when, say, some firefighters are killed in the line of action or when a family befalls some terrible fate. Without giving it much thought, I guess I’ve always assumed that my mite became part of a kitty that was evenly divvied up (on a per dead person basis) or went to some sort of common-good cause (scholarship fund for surviving children). When the tragedy involved a specific family, I assume that they’ve gotten the entire proceeds, minus the inevitable shipping and handling.

Next time I go to write a check, I’m going to see if I can check out these assumptions.

In Binghamton, there really wasn’t much money at stake.

… about $110,000 of the $300,000 raised after the shooting was spent on funerals, airline tickets, hotels and other emergency needs. Another $35,000 was earmarked for the American Civic Association, a stone-colored building where the shootings took place.

The remainder – a paltry $153K – was left for the claimants – 62 in total, when those present at the center who were traumatized by the shootings were added in to the killed and wounded.

On an even-steven basis, that’s about $2.5K per – or about twice the amount I dropped at Best Buy last week on a new laptop when my old one punked out. In other words: not much.

Still, there was a lot of controversy about how to disperse the funds, likely compounded by the awareness that those involved in other highly public, highly publicized events received fairly substantial compensation for what were, in many cases, fairly equivalent losses: death of a loved one.

There was a table in The Journal article, that noted that the average payout to the families of those killed on September 11th was $2.1M.  (I can’t remember exactly, but I believe that a good part of this was government money spent to stave-off potentially bankrupting lawsuits against the airlines involved.) After the murders at V-Tech, the victim’s families received about $208K each from the fund.  Those who suffered in the Omaha Mall killings got $20K each.

So, I guess, it’s understandable that victims would want something, anything, beyond what they were already insured for (which probably wasn’t all that much for folks at an immigrant support center). And that they might anticipate that the something, anything could be something big, not just anything.

One man (not the one quoted above, I must note) whose wife was killed wanted a house; another (ditto) wanted someone to pay for his son to go to college.

But $153K just doesn’t stretch that far.

And this wasn’t 9/11, when thousands were killed.  (And where the government assumed some responsibility – in the case of 9/11, the government contributed $7.1B. Interesting, the WSJ table didn’t mention what, if anything, the Federal government paid out after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, arguably something they could have defended against, as it was of a Federal building.) Or Columbine, with it’s horrific narrative of innocence, alienation and revenge – and everyone who’d ever been or known a high school student was touched, and, thus, a good deal of money was donated ($4.6M), even though the number of victims (12 dead) was comparable to Binghamton.

Binghamton, alas, was just another variant on the mass-murder theme, in which some loosely-wrapped individual – psychopathic, mentally ill – completely unraveled and, as they so often do, became hell-bent on taking a lot of innocent folks out before they turned gone to self or performed suicide-by-cop.

Who has the deep pockets on this one?

In this case, the kindness of strangers – which toted up to $300K or so.

Not the stuff that dreams are made of, nor enough to help someone get rid of their nightmares.

The good people of Binghamton who were charged with King Solomon-ing the pool of money came up with a complex formula which they felt was fair, but which, of course, didn’t make much of anybody very happy.

The man who wanted to get a house got $3.3K.

"They were saying to me, 'This is all Doris [his wife] was worth,"' he says.

But even if he’d been awarded the entire $153K, would that have been what his wife was worth?

Of course not. There’s no way to put a price on the pain and suffering, but, in an actuarial sense, even someone with low earning potential would make $153K in a few years.

The whole business of putting a value of someone’s life is a tricky one, never more so when there’s so little money to go around.

An interesting part of the article talked about Kenneth Feinberg, the person who:

…headed efforts to manage funds in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks and the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007. Both experiences have led him to question whether any payments related to mass killings can be truly just…As a general rule, he is now "very wary of compensating victims of life's misfortune," says Mr. Feinberg, who wrote a book about the 9/11 fund called "What is Life Worth?" "The minute you go down that road of deciding that certain victims are entitled to public money but not others, you get into a very serious political and philosophic question.”

If there is money to be divided, Feinberg is on the side of an even split, as was the case in the V-Tech payouts he oversaw.

In the case of the man who received a check for $3.3K, that would have meant an even less substantial amount of $2.5K.

I guess the moral is, if you’re going to have a loved one killed in a mass killing, you’re better off – in a financial sense – if the event is truly massive, and if it’s the type of event that the government is likely to get involved in.

Mostly I’m with Mr. Feinberg in terms of a wariness about “compensating victims of life’s misfortune.”

Bad things happen to everybody.

Sure, it is more traumatic for the survivors when a loved one is killed in a mass killing than when they die in their sleep at the age of 97.  But is it any worse to be killed on contact by a plane that flies into your building than it is to be shot by a maniac at an immigration center than it is to have a chunk of concrete fall on your head while you’re walking down the street (one of my minor occasional fears)?

From the point of view of the dead person, there’s probably not much difference.

From the point of view of the survivor, ‘never knew was hit them’, of course, trumps ‘died in sheer terror.’

But what’s it all worth? And who, beyond ‘the insurance company’ should pay?

Yes, the kindness of strangers is a nice to have – and I hope that the Binghamton survivors take some comfort from the fact that those strangers contributed $300K to help them out.

But the bottom line is that bad things happen all the time, and often to good people. Sometimes you just have to live with it, and sometimes it just doesn’t pay.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Yes, we have no location for The Banana Club Museum. (We have no location today.)

Sure, you can read the Wall Street Journal to learn all about WaMu going Chapter 11, who’s going to buy Volvo, and what surprised-to-hear-you-of-all-people-say-that things Karl Rove is going to write about in his regular op-ed. (Yawn.)

Or you can read it for the far more interesting news that The Banana Club Museum, of Hesperia, California, has been asked to vacate its (metaphorical) fruit bowl, and find another place where Ken Bannister, founder and head of the International Banana Club, can exhibit the “17,000 banana-themed artifacts” that he’s bunched together over the last 38 years or so.

According to the WSJ article, the top banana at the Hesperia Recreation & Parks District, which has been housing the Banana Museum for the last few years, wants to make way for an exhibit that recounts local history.

Well, I’m quite certain that Hesperia has quite the history – what town doesn’t? – and my visit to their web site was amply rewarded.  There I read that:

The City’s history stretches far beyond its 1988 incorporation. Hesperia’s past is rich with the history of the Mojave Indian Tribe, Spanish settlers and the westward travelers of the Mormon Trail.

The first major turning point in present day Hesperia occurred in 1874, when the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad tracks were completed. This resulted in Hesperia’s first industry, providing juniper wood to bakers in Los Angeles by way of train. Juniper is a very hard wood that was used as fuel for kilns up until the early 1900s, when oil became the principal fuel for bakers. That change in technology did not slow Hesperia’s progress.

The 1900s were a booming time with the increased popularity of automobiles and Route 66. The City served as the last stopping point before travelers made the treacherous trip down the Cajon Pass.

Okay. With a history that “stretches far beyond its 1988 incorporation”, they must have plenty of historical stuff to strut.

Maybe I thought the Mormon Trail ended in Utah, but Hesperia historians no doubt have a wagon wheel, or a repro Conestoga wagon they want to show off – replete with 1950’s department store dummies wearing long, drab dresses and sunbonnets.

The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe connection will surely account for some additional artifacts – no doubt including a video of Judy Garland singing the eponymous tune.

Then they’ll need room for the exhibit of ovens and plastic loaves of bread.

Not to mention the replica of the cool Corvette that Buzz and Todd drove cross-country in Route 66.

So I understand that Hesperia needs room for its history. But its hard to believe that there are enough Hesperia-related artifacts to displace all 17,000 of the Banana Museum’s collection, which, the Banana Club’s website informs us,

    ..is now listed in the Guiness Book Of World Records as the the "WORLDS LARGEST COLLECTION devoted to any one fruit!

Perhaps, as generally happens with bananas, the museum has started to rot a bit, turn soft, blacken, attract a nimbus of fruit flies. Maybe it’s time to fire up a juniper-fueled baking oven and make banana bread.

Which is, apparently, what Mr. Bannister is trying to do, in his own way. When he got his eviction notice, he decided to split amiably. But he would like to recoup some of the $150K he’s invested in his collection over the years. Thus:

The entire collection went up for auction on eBay in the beginning of February at "bargain price" of $45,000. "No bites," Mr. Bannister says.

Two weeks after his initial auction, he lowered his price to $35,000, then again and again to $7,500, taking out his Internet domain name and branding rights. Still no bidders.

Wow! $150K in and not even worth $7.5K out. And I thought I’ve made some lousy investments.

But I suppose that, for Mr. Bannister, it was a labor of love.

So, what’s in the collection? 

All sorts of stuff, as you can see from this picture taken from The Banana Club’s site. (I’m assuming that’s Mr. Bannister in the neat-o yellow jump suit.)

image

If you want to get in the weeds, the collection’s divided into a few sections. Hard goods, includes:

…bananas made of brass, glass, lead, wood, plastic, ceramic, cement, soap and gold plated bananas. There are banana pipes, banana trees, pins, charms, belts, magnets, rings, cups, glasses, banana slicers, clocks, musical bananas, banana records, software, knives, and banana lights…and even the world’s only infamous “Petrified Banana.”

I absolutely know all about petrified bananas, but I wasn’t aware that there was only one infamous version. And now I know where it is.

There’s a curated food, drink and notions section which I would stay far away from. Much as a enjoy a good banana every once in a while – especially on cereal in the morning – I loathe anything that’s banana-flavored or scented (although I kind of enjoyed an occasional banana Popsicle as a kid – bet they don’t make those quiescently frozen confections anymore).

There’s a clothing section, and a soft goods section that includes an “eight-foot yellow banana couch.” (Thanks for letting us know it’s yellow. I was wondering…)

By the way, just in case you were wondering.

NOTE: Nothing lude, crude or lucivious to do with bananas is accepted or displayed in this B.M.

Crude and lucivious I get, but you just might want to drop a ‘lude before you went into the Museum.

Not that there’ll be any more opportunities to do so, what with the B.M. being displaced.

But I’m not giving up hope that the Museum will find a new home. If nothing else, you’d think that this would hold some appeal for one of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museums.

Anyway, good luck to The Man in the Yellow Suit. Hope he finds a taker.

Monday, March 29, 2010

In the beginning, there was the Filet-o-Fish ad, and it was good

I was in CVS the other day – looking for Good ‘n Plenty, if you must know – when my eye was grabbed by a bright blue box that held a fish plaque that plays the McDonald’s “Give Me Back That Filet-o-Fish” jingle.

Only $19.99!

If people are back to frittering away good money on objects like this, then perhaps The Great Frankie the FishRecession is over. Or maybe this is akin to watching Fred twirl Ginger around the nightclub dance floor during The Great Depression: pure escapism.

I will admit, I’m a bit hooked – hah! – on those McD ads – even though I have never actually eaten a Filet-o-Fish sandwich.  And, given my fear that an animatronic fish might start carping – sorry – at me before I took the first bite, I’m not about to try one now.

Give me back that filet o fish
Give me that fish
Give me back that filet o fish
Give me that fish

What if it were you
Hanging up on this wall?
If it were you in that sandwich
You wouldn’t be laughing at all!

Nope. I’m not about to delve into existential questions when all I want is a more or less happy meal – although, indeed, it is completely and utterly true if it were me hanging up on the wall, I certainly wouldn’t be laughing. Fish food for thought, as it were.

Despite the Filet-o-Fish plaque having some potential as a Yankee Swap item – only 9 more months until Christmas, by the way - I didn’t go for the bait at CVS. (It may yet lure me in, come December, if I’m floundering around sans Yankee Swap gift.)

But this inquiring mind did want to learn more about the plaque, which led me to Gemmy, which, for over 25 years, has been meeting our need for “seasonal d├ęcor, animated gifts and unique novelty items.”

Our creative approach to product development and hands-on attitude has lead to the success of recognizable brands such as the Airblown Inflatables and SnowGlobes, the Dancing Hamsters, Buck the Animated Trophy, The Frogz, and the unforgettable Big Mouth Billy Bass – many of which have been featured on The Tonight Show, in USA Today, The Washington Post and Maxim magazine.

So, now we know who to thank for those now ubiquitous inflatable holiday decorations. And for Big Mouth Billy Bass. I’m guessing that Frankie Filet-o-Fish is his spawn. (Side comment: is this the first time The Washington Post and – hey, baby -  Maxim have kept such close company?)

Well, as Gemmy says:

We pride ourselves in creating cutting edge products - whether you’re looking for the perfect decoration or the perfect gift, we’ve got you covered.

And what with Easter fast upon us, I was interested to see what holiday-themed, cutting edge goodies are in store for us.

All sort of ‘em, as it happens, including these plastic egg-hunt eggs:

Now, I fully understand why no one wants to hard-boil up, and decorate, a whole bunch of eggs to hide – especially when no kid in their right mind wants to eat a hard-boiled egg, especially one that may have cracked a bit and have some oogie-oogie green or blue dye leeching into the egg white, when they’ve got an Easter basket full of jelly beans and chocolate bunnies to gnaw on.

So, I get why people go for the plastic eggs and stuff them with jelly beans, nickels, plastic rings, and other little stuff that kids can’t get enough of.

But camo egss?  Camo eggs?

Sure, there’s a war or two on.

And boys will be boys, and, thus, desirous of boy stuff.

Camo eggs?

No, it’s not as bad as the stuffed Torah I saw in a catalog a few years back. Or the teddy-bear Nativity scene that came out about the same time.

But camo eggs?

That’s just plain wrong.

Gimme back that filet-o-fish, any old day.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Crimes and Misdemeanors, 2010 (Failure to tweet?)

Because I have much beloved nieces who are 12 and 13, I tend to keep a close eye on what’s in the teen news – especially when it comes to anything that has to do with reckless behavior and danger. So, I’ve been all over sexting (and the criminalization of), the South Hadley death-by-bullying situation, the unspeakably horrific Deerfield Florida kid-on-kid crimes, and other topics du world-going-to-hell jour. (Good conversation starters, even though both girls are well aware that there’ll be no stopping the Auntie Moe quasi preach-a-thon that will be part of the conversation).

More amiably, because of the girls, I also – at least in a half-baked way -  tend to know who the reigning pop stars are.

Thus, if for no other reason, I am in passing familiar with Justin Bieber. (In truth, I can’t remember if he’s already yesterday in their eyes. I mean, come on, he’s no Ke$ha.)

Thus, I read the recent news about this week’s arrest of Bieber’s manager with keen interest.

For those not in the pop know, Bieber is a teen idol. (For those of a certain age, he appears more Ricky Nelson than Elvis, more Monkees than Stones, more Dr. Kildare than Ben Casey.)

Last fall, Bieber was scheduled to appear at a Long Island shopping mall – an event “canceled due to overcrowding.” (Source of info for this post: NY Times.)

Now, my one and only experience with teen idol overcrowding was experienced when I was 7 or 8.

Some of the Mousketeers were appearing at the Stop & Shop in our neighborhood, and my friend Bernadette’s aunt took us.

We go there early, and were, in fact, in the front row.

But we were roughed out of our position by a horde of early adolescent boys who were hell-bent on getting up close, if not personal, with Annette Funicello who was, by Mickey Mouse Club standards at least, a 1950’s hottie.

Distraught after being pushed to the back of the crowd, we milled around the parking lot, waiting for the bus to show up, grumbling about the unfairness of big boys who were too old to be Mickey Mouse Club fans pushing a couple of little girls and one middle-aged aunt around. (Little did we know about the allure Annette held to these boys. We just thought these boys were big-baby-bullies.)

Anyway, as it happened, the bus pulled up right in front of us, and we were able to see the Mouseketeers disembark.

All I remember was Jimmy Dodd’s big grin, and being shocked that Annette, who couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 at the time, was wearing a full length leopard coat and a ton of makeup.

Needless to say, we didn’t know any teen-aged girls who looked quite like this. Not Bernadette’s older sister. Not my younger than Annette Aunt Kay. Not my big girl cousin Barbara. And not my babysitters.

I was completely and utterly shocked. (As I said, I didn’t get what the boys were getting.)

So I do know a bit about teen idols, teen idol idolatry, and the madness of crowds.

At the Bieber non-event, while a “’horrible disaster’” didn’t occur – kind of surprisingly, since I can imagine that the crowd might have gotten pretty darned ugly once they realized that the object of their affection was going to be a no-show – it could have.

And it was precisely to avoid said “’horrible disaster’” that the police demanded that Bieber’s appearance be called off.

There’s some additional complication involving the arrest at the time of someone from Def Jam, but this week’s Notorious Big Arrest was of Bieber manager Scott Braun. As The Times reported,

Police asked Braun to send out a Twitter message from Bieber's account telling fans not to come, but Braun refused, even changing the account's password so "he could control the event," the office said.

"By refusing to send out the cancellation Tweet and preventing others from doing so, he blatantly ignored police directives," said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice in the statement, adding "a horrible disaster was averted."

Braun has surrendered, and Bieber is tweeting his support for his manager, who did, eventually, get the 140 characters out – just not soon enough to the liking of the police and the DA.

Braun had "endangered the very fans who came to see his client," Rice said. He faces up to one year in jail if convicted on charges of reckless endangerment and criminal nuisance, the District Attorney said.

Now, surely Braun should have co-operated with the police.

But it sure does look like the police were ceding responsibility for crowd control that they might have been able to take care of.

Did they not post officers or mall personnel at entrances to warn fans that the event was full (or being canceled). Could they not have worked to disperse the crowd?

I know, I know, it’s not easy to deal with a couple of thousand emotionally overwrought pre- and teenaged girls, who are convinced that their life would be perfect if Justin Bieber made eye contact with him. But wouldn’t you think that something could’ve been done that didn’t rely on tweeting?

Maybe the police did all of the above, and the tweeting was just a belt and suspenders thing. (Interesting, isn’t it, the assumption – likely correct – that most of the fans were signed up for Bieber-tweets and had cell phones?)

In any case, it will be interesting to see where this one ends up. (I’m sure betting on no jail time.)

And it does make me wonder what the police did when the bobby-soxers were swooning after Frank Sinatra. What they did when the pony-tailers were fainting for Elvis. What they did when the madras-wearing teeny-boppers were shrieking for the Beatles.

Meanwhile, is failure to tweet when so ordered by an officer of the law a misdemeanor or a felony?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Call center job from hell

Like every one else with a telephone and an occasional gripe, I’ve called into many a call center.

Like every one else with a scintilla of impatience, I have punched in the 800 number with a feeling that can best be described as, if not existential dread, then near-existential dread.

The other evening, my cause de call center was $120 in charges to my AmEx card from Meetic.com, a European dating site, that’s recently coupled up with Match.com.

This is not the first time I’ve heard from Meetic.

$60 worth of faux charges in November were also on my bill, which resulted in my being issued a new card.

Lo and, ah, behold, charges were still coming through.

To the best of my knowledge – unless I was sleepwalking a few long winter nights – I have never put a profile on Meetic. And I’m100% sure that I haven’t had a close encounter with anyone I met on that particular line, or anywhere else online.

Other than the annoyance of putting up with the Valley Girl voice that meets and greets you when you call the AmEx support line -  (“Please sa-ay or enter your fifteen digit account numbrrrrrrrrr?”) – the call center rep was exceedingly professional, courteous, and helpful. She also told me that she really enjoyed working at AmEx, and was drawn to the company because of her good experience dealing with them as a credit card holder.

Sure, I registered some initial (internal) surprise that someone working in a call center could afford an AmEx card, but, hey, I don’t know whether it’s her second job, whether they get paid oodles, or whether AmEx cards are dime a dozen in terms of income requirement.

The call center rep was great – and took care of my Meetic problem.

For the most part, I must say that the credit card call center folks – who account for most of my support calls – are pretty good. Much better than the mixed bag tech support reps. I’ve found that tech support – especially for someone like me, who’s a bottom of the barrel consumer who’s only entitled to bottom of the barrel free support – is a real crap shoot, much of it involving  apparent trainee reps called “Brian” and “Allyson”, just starting out in Slum Dog Millionaire style careers.

But my happy experience with the AmEx rep the other night reminded me that there are some call center jobs that are truly from the pit of hell.

These are the jobs working for mortgage lenders, which were referenced in a article I saw in The WSJ a bit back on a woman whose house – and parrot – had been accidentally seized by BofA.  (Naturally, I couldn’t resist that particular topic.)

Anyway, in the parrot article, I read this:

Mortgage lenders have struggled in the past three years to hire and train enough people to deal with the biggest wave of foreclosures since the 1930s. Nearly eight million households, or 15% of those with mortgages, are behind on their payments or in the foreclosure process.

Many borrowers complain they get the runaround when they call their lenders for help, receive contradictory information from different employees and are required to repeatedly fax the same documents.

At the same time, suicide threats from distressed borrowers are so common that one lender, OneWest Bank Group in Pasadena, Calif., had to establish procedures for alerting the police. Lenders' call-center employees are under heavy pressure. "These people make $14 or $15 an hour, and we ask them to move mountains," said a OneWest executive at an industry conference last month.

Okay. Someone making $30K a year, and not likely trained by the Samaritans, is not only having to deal with completely ugly financial problems. But the entire ugliness is compounded by their also having to respond to “suicide threats from distressed borrowers.”

Now, I’m assuming that many of these threats are in-the-moment cries of anguish that aren’t really attached to a serious intention to stick head in the soon to be repossessed oven.

Still, would you want to be the call center worker trying to gauge whether someone was blowing off steam or truly in harm’s way, albeit harm’s way of their own making?

Makes me really happy that my career in high tech marketing – while not devoid of moments of angst, anomie, and anguish – didn’t ever bring me into life and death situations. Sure, deciding who to lay off at least borders on the life part of life and death. And I did work on some pretty darned awful (and expensive) products that might have driven a customer to kill (us, not themselves). But I really never did have to worry about a distraught customer pushed to such wits’ end that they would tell me they were going to kill themselves because of us.  There was never any need to train us in the proper “procedures for alerting the police.”

Call center at a mortgage lender….

Yeah, I guess any job is an okay job these days, but is this the job from hell or what?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A pearl of not-so-great price

I'm embarrassed to admit it, but for many years of my life, there was a secret, longing little part of me that wanted to be an impeccably groomed WASP. I wanted to look like Breck Girl, with a glossy page-boy hairdo that reflected the visage of my adoring spouse, who would take my arm and walk me into dinner. Which we would, of course, have dressed for.

I would have worn pearls - the add-a-pearl necklace that my doting Mummy and Daddy had started me off with at birth.

Well, that secret little longing didn't exactly pan out. (A companion secret longing, in which I was part of a wildly brainy family of Jewish intellectuals in Marimekko shirts, arguing over James Joyce and Trotsky, didn't pan out either, but I got a lot closer.)

And I never got to wear any pearls, other than some cheap-o fresh-water pearls the size and shape of mice teeth.

Nonetheless, I have not 100% given up of the image of myself in a tasteful, elegant, well-fitting (takes 10 pounds off) black dress and pearls.

So I read a recent article in The Economist on the bubble-burst in the pearl market with interest.

Yes, along with so many other industries - especially those that are non-essential - the pearl biz is having it rough. The general economy. Currency fluctuations. And, most of all, too many damned pearls out there.

Thanks to pearl farming,

Andy Muller, a dealer based in Japan, estimates that the worldwide production of cultured “South-Sea” pearls (from South-East Asia, Australia and the Pacific) increased from 2.4 tonnes in 1998 to 12.5 tonnes last year.

Way too many pearls out there chasing way too few add-a-pearl strands. (Most pearls, by the way, are cultured pearls, which, I guess, means that the pearl-diving trade has been buggy-whipped.)

Having dropped their prices to below cost, many pearl farms have gone out of business. Some are "climbing up the value chain, making jewellery [sic, by the way, or is that some weird Brit spelling?] from their own pearls." Add-a-pearl? Atta-boy!

Australia pearl farmers are holding there own - mostly because they have a quota system in place.

“Good quality strands made from Australian South-Sea pearls still command prices of A$100,000 ($92,000) or more—the same as ten years ago,” says Andrew Hewitt of Arafura Pearls, an Australian producer.

Which, actually, doesn't sound all that holding-their-own-ish to me, unless Hewitt means inflation-adjusted. (Surely, there's been some inflation Down Under over the last decade...)

Meanwhile, I'm not in the market for a $100K pearl necklace -even if it is $100K Aussie.

I may just look into a pearl of not so great price, however. Maybe one of those faux Jackie Kennedy models, that retail for about $150, and are advertised in the back of Parade Magazine.

Unfortunately, once I put them on, I'd probably look a lot more like The Queen Mum or Barbara Bush than I would like Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis.

But I did say I had WASP urges, didn't I?

The Queen Mum.

Sure, she's dead, but you don't get much more haute-WASP than that, do you?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Suppose they gave a prize, and nobody claimed it? Grigori Perelman wins big.

Not that I'd win it, but, as far as I know, there is no million dollar prize for B2B technology product marketing.

No, the million dollar-ish marketing prizes come if you're lucky and/or smart enough to latch on to a company that goes public and/or gets acquired and is actually worth something. (I've been in on both the go-public and get-acquired end of things, but the yield in the get-acquired case was relatively meager, and in the go-public case. Well, let's just say I never did get to exercise all those make-me-rich options, but I did get to claim a few years worth of capital losses, thanks to the - admittedly modest amount of - pre-IPO shares I felt compelled to purchase.)

But if you're a mathematician, who's doing something a bit more intellectually challenging and (at least theoretically) societally useful than B2B product marketing, you can hit the jackpot.

At least if you're brilliant enough to solve the Poincaré conjecture.

Personally, once I realized the this conjecture hadn't already been solved by Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, I was thinking about taking a stab at it myself - but after I finished up my book of Beware! Very Challenging Sudoku puzzles. It was unlikely, of course, that I would have succeeded. The conjecture involves topology, and, frankly, I don't actually know topology from Topo Gigio - other than that Topo Gigio said "Kees me goodnight, Eddy", and topology doesn't. Nor, for that matter, could I ever get more than one side to work on a Rubik's Cube.

But I didn't have to solve the conjecture, because Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman already did the deed -  and seven years ago, at that. (Why wasn't I informed?)

The million dollar prize was announced late last week by the Clay Mathematics Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts. However,as The New York Times reported this past weekend, Perelman  has made himself pretty scarce over the last few years, so there's some doubt about whether he'll run and take the money.

Perelman had earlier been awarded a Fields Medal (which, in Good Will Hunting, had also been won by Stellan Skarsgård). He was a no-show for that award and, in fact, declined it. (The monetary part of the Fields is pretty paltry - about $15K, by the way.)

Given that he snubbed the Fields, there's some speculation about whether Perelman will surface and take the substantial bait from the Clay Institute.

The Clay Institute is, apparently, not worried:

Will Dr. Perelman accept? “He will let me know in due time,” Dr. [James] Carlson [Institute president] wrote in an e-mail message, acknowledging that they had been in touch. He declined to provide more details.

With or without Perelman, the solution to the Poincaré conjecture will be celebrated this June, in Paris.

Whether Perelman shows up or not, whether he takes the money or decides he neither wants or needs it, whether he really doesn't want to show up and smile for the cameras, in this world of Paris Hiltons, isn't it kind of nice to see genius, intellectual achievement, and, yes, oddball eccentricity, rewarded?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Who's gonna grab your yacht? Baby, it's the repo man.

One man's Great Recession is another man's business opportunity.

At least this is the case for Ken Cage and Randy Craft (great names for repo men, by the way) of Florida's International Recovery and Remarketing Group, which focuses on high-end repos: think yachts and private jets.  You don't send Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez to hot wire these babies, that's for sure.

According to the bio on his company web site,

Ken has 20+ years in the banking and collections industry with prestigious firms such as JP Morgan and DaimlerChrysler Financial Services and has vast experience in skip tracing and investigation within the finance sector. This experience allows Ken to understand the needs of banking, financial and legal clientele while utilizing his investigation and recovery skills to provide the highest quality service.

And it probably also helps him understand the psyches of the banking, financial and legal deadbeats who are no doubt among those that the IRG Group is repo-ing.

Craft's bio also lets us know that he has done repossessions, of "all types of specialty assets," in "all 50 states, as we as several foreign countries," which would be pretty impressive, if it didn't remind me of those third-tier colleges who claim "students from 39 states and 11 foreign countries. Eighty-two percent of faculty members have earned doctorates." Anyway, it would certainly be fun to see what gets repo'd where, but let's just say they're not located in Florida for the marlin fishing and palm trees alone.

Cage's exploits were profiled in The WSJ last week, which followed him, Craft, and their pilot nab a $350K Cessna that was about to jet off from Orlando to Mexico. (Access to the full article may require a subscription.)

The Cessna's wheels, fortunately (for the repo men, anyway) lifted just as the plane's "owner" pulled into the lot.

Phew!

Some poor schnook getting the used Pontiac he bought at a Buy-Here-Pay-Here lot (the ones with the plastic flags, the ones that hide a Lo-Jack under every hood, the ones for folks who can't get standard car loans) grabbed out of the driveway of his rundown, about to be evicted from bungalow, while his wife looks forlornly on and the baby shrieks...He gets my sympathy.

But for those who borrowed above and beyond the hilt so that they could sport around in multi-million dollar helicopters, "$500,000 recreational vehicles" - say what? - "and even a racehorse", well, I'm an empathetic person and all, but the empathy stops here.

Last year, Cage's company took back property:

...valued at more than $100 million. Business, he says, is up six-fold from 2007.

Business has been booming because the value of the items being repo'd have gone up from small-l luxury stuff worth $30-50K, to capital-L Luxury merchandise worth $200-300K.

While this isn't a shop on every corner industry, Cage's group hasn't cornered the market. There are others throughout the country that provide similar services, and business is strong for them, as well.

Competition is strong, too, and Cage - who not only repos, but also slicks the goods up and remarkets them (if you want a gently used Cessna or yacht, there are some listed in the inventory section on his site) - has had to decrease fees from "between 6% to 10% of the resale price....to as little as two percent."

You make it up not so much in volume as in magnitude, I guess, although you do have to wonder about how strong the aftermarket is, these days.

Most of those that Cage repo'd lost, if not their shirts, then their pricey toys, in the real estate collapse. Thus, while he has gotten the goods in all 50 states, most of his work is in Florida, Arizona, California, and Nevada.

Cage got his start in the business through work in cash management at J.P. Morgan, and collections at Chrysler Finance:

...where he hired repo companies to pick up cars.

Even though he never did the repos himself, he said the work became depressing.

"Here we were, taking minivans with child seats in the back, or going to someone's job to take their car," he says. "I had a tough time with that."

It is, of course, easier in terms of sleeping soundly, to repo from the erstwhile rich.

Apparently, it's easier from the "logistical perspective", as well. Aviation and marine records are kept more formally than any info on the whereabouts of that minivan. Not to mention that - at least until this article appeared:

... most yacht owners keep their keys near the ignition and rarely lock the doors. Plane doors can often be easily picked.

The work is, of course, not without risk.

Sure, there was the Orlando JIT getaway, in which Cage and Craft were high-tailing it out as the Cessna guy was high-tailing it in. But these guys:

...have been hit by cars, threatened with shovels and chased on foot countless times. Recently, Mr. Cage says he was on a yacht assignment in Jacksonville, Fla., when the owner boarded another boat and zoomed after him, Bond-style. He soon gave up the chase, and Mr. Cage kept his craft.

Not for the faint of heart, that's for sure.

Some day, Cage would like to own a boat like the ones he repossesses. He, however, will make sure that he stays the repo-er as opposed to the repo-ee.

When he buys a boat, he says. "' I'd pay all cash.'"

Ah, it's sure nice to see a bright spot in this economy, isn't it?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Test-a-roon-y

OK – On Sunday morning, I awoke to find out that my laptop had decided it was time to head to the glue factory.

RIP, my trusty steed. Two years, two months, two weeks. For a laptop that gets the workout mine does, well…. this was to be expected.

Still, it was frustrating.

Broken I/O. Grayed-out everything. Slow-baby performance. Terrible start-up overhead.

 

Simply the worst.

So, it was off to Best Buy, where the service – in my humble experience – is simply the best. Kudos to Dan from Geek Squad for all of his good-humored help

Fortunately, having heard my nag wheezing and snuffling for the last few weeks, I had finally subscribed to an online update – Carbonite, mostly because they’re a home-town honey: based in Boston.

So, rather than watch every second of the health reform vote, I went laptop shopping. And now,  while my files are restored. (Chug, chug, chug.)And as I try to figure out the differences between Vista – which I actually liked – and Windows 7, I thought I’d try a Pink Slip post.

Here we go.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Season passes to Jerry Remy's sports bar? Think I'll pass.

Jerry Remy is a local guy who made as good as it gets in Boston. He played  second base for the Red Sox for a number of years in the way-back, and he parlayed that into an announcing job as the team's color-commentator. Which he's parlayed into dual citizenship/dual presidency of both Red Sox Nation and RemDawg Nation. And he's parlayed that into a hot dog stand, a web-site that chats up the Sox and sells stuff, and, most recently, a new sports bar, located near Fenway Park, that's just opened.

Ah, a sports bar in Boston. If I've said it once, I've said it 1,000 times: Boston was absolutely in need of a new sports bar.

Why, there are some places in this city where you actually have to walk a good 50 or 60 feet, or maybe even yards, to find a place that features dark wood, sports memorabilia (real and faux), and two dozen flat screen TVs. A place where you can get real sports-fan food like potato skins, nachos, and Buffalo chicken tenders. Where it's possible to get a multiple choice of light (lite?) beer on tap. And, oh yes, where it may even be possible to purchase mouthwash and/or condoms from a vending machine in the ladies' and/or men's room.

No, like most big cities, I'm afraid, Boston just does not have enough sports bars per capita - something that I'm sure will be revealed in the upcoming U.S. Census.

So, needless to say, I was capital-T-Thrilled to read that the RemDawg has cut the ribbon on Jerry Remy's Sports Bar & Grill.

And, because there is such a dearth of sports bars in these parts; and, because we never, ever, ever get enough of our sports heroes, especially those who have played for The Olde Towne Team (that would be the Red Sox); and, because the only way we're going to work our way out of this recession is by freeing our inner mad spender, I am doubly, no make that triply, capital-T-Thrilled to learn that you can purchase a "season ticket pass" to Jerry's place. (Source: Boston Globe.)

Yes, sports fans, for a paltry $500, you will be given the privilege of cutting any line that will inevitably form prior to a Red Sox game, with packages available for either home or away games).  Plus, you'll:

...have a guaranteed table (once the game starts), and receive a $25 food credit and one free beer per visit, along with invites to exclusive events (up to a $3,000 value).

Now, admittedly, $500 won't get you much by way of getting into Fenway Park. The scalpers, pardon me, legitimate ticket sellers, have bleacher seats for crappy games for under $100/per, but that's about it.

But only a fool and his or her money would rather shell out that $500 to get into the park than pay for the privilege of a guaranteed table once the game begins.

Although I do wonder a bit about this. Wouldn't I want to be able to get that table before game time? You mean to say I should pay extra so that I can watch the game within proximity of Fenway Park (our soi-disant "America's Most Beloved Ballpark")?

Oh, I forgot, that's because there are so few sports bars where you can go and hang out and watch the game in public. And most of those pathetically few sports bars aren't anywhere near Fenway Park. I mean, some of them are wicked far away. Like near Quinzy Mahket, or The Gahden. Only a few are right there, in the shadow of America's Most Beloved Ballpark.

So, if you look at it that way, why not pay $500 to guarantee a table at RemDawg's, rather than try to fight your way into The Cask & Flagon (even though at the Cask, if you get outdoor seating, you have a chance at a ball that's hit over the Green Monster).

Then there's the $3K overall value. Curious to see the detail on what you get, I made my virtual way to Jerry Remy Sports Bar & Grill, where I found that it includes:

  • An autographed picture with Jerry Remy at your table (Priceless)
  • A $25 food credit plus one complimentary beer or glass of wine - PER VISIT
  • A 20% discount on all merchandise sold at Jerry Remy's Sports Bar & Grill

  • Front of line privileges

  • Exclusive invitations to special events

  • Private dining room fee waived for all pre-booked events and parties

  • Guaranteed seating for you and your guests

    In addition to your season tickets benefits:

    BIG screen seating at a table of YOUR choice

    Priority Reservations

Well, I guess if you went to all 81 home games (plus, knock on Louisville Slugger ash, playoff games), and took advantage of that $25 food credit, plus that glass of house chard, each time, you'd be getting up to the $3,000 value. Especially if you wanted to stock up on RemDawg caps and Wally the Green Monster dolls - 20% off!

So far, the claim is that they've sold 170 of these season tickets, with a goal of 300.

To win over fans, Remy’s has billed itself as an extension of Fenway Park, with a similar facade, exposed pillars, and waiters dressed in uniforms.

Extension of Fenway Park? Does this mean that there'll be little to no legroom? That some of the seats will have obstructed views of the large screen TV's? That the people sitting next to you will get up to make beer and/or bathroom runs every inning, forcing you up and out of your seat to let them get by? That someone will spill beer on you? That you are guaranteed a seat in front of a drunken loud-mouth (as often as not, rooting for the opposition) who will scream stupid stuff in your ear until he dozes off (or gets tossed out) in the later innings? That you'll be able to buy an incredibly shrinking Sports Bar (the ice cream chocolate covered, not a sports bar sports bar)?

“This $500 season-ticket package can deliver an experience as close to an actual season ticket holder as possible, at a fraction of the price,’’ [Restaurant GM Don] Bailey said.

"An experience as close to an actual season ticket holder as possible"?

Can this possibly mean that you'll be able to scalp your season ticket to Remy's Sports Bar?

If that's the case, and there's actually an after-market for them - which there no doubt will be, given the lack of sports bars in Boston - then, hey, $500 is well worth the price of admission.

Play Ball!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"The Big Picture" (Can this be right? A business book that's actually entertaining?)

Occupational hazard - and I do mean hazard - but I end up reading a fair number of business books.  Most of them are, for better or worse, set pieces, with a variation on the theme of business truths, bromides wrapped in anecdote or example. Generally somewhat useful, if only because you've forgotten the business truth and need to be reminded. Generally somewhat yawn inducing.

So I didn't have supremely high hopes when The Big Picture by Kevin Coupe and Michael Sansolo came over my transom.

And, indeed, there are the same business lessons we've all learned, neglected, forgotten, and re-learned, along with the 'here's an example of' stuff.

But lo and behold: it's all presented in an entertaining, interesting, novel, and quick-read manner, tying all those tried and tedious truisms to The Movies, with each chapter extracting some business lesson drawn from a popular flick.

The book covered some of movies that I particularly liked, so I'll focus on a couple of them here.

Working Girl is one of my all time faves. From the moment we see Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) on the Staten Island Ferry, heading into Manhattan - the World Trade Center towers gleaming, and Carly Simon's New Jerusalem revving on all engines - I love this movie. I will confess that this is not least of all because the heroine is a blue-collar Irish girl taking on the snotty, preppy, WASP establishment. (Come on, what's not to like there?) Just watching Tess transform herself from big-hair girl to polished exec, taking down her haughty boss (deliciously if age-inappropriately played by Sigourney Weaver) is widely entertaining.

The lessons that The Big Picture draws from Working Girl are that "idealism can matter", and that you need to keep your eyes open for "the creative and unexpected solution."  No argument here, although I will note the use of the operative word "can" in that "idealism can matter," as opposed to "will" or "should" or "does."

But there are another couple of business lessons in Working Girl.

One, which we'd certainly all like to believe, is that "talent will out."

In the real world, of course, this is "talent may out."  We all know that, as often as not, pedigree and politics rule the day. Still, it's nice to think that the meritocracy can and does work.

Another lesson, if less noble and grand, is that payback can be a bitch - and entirely satisfying to those other than the paybackee.

This seldom comes as dramatically as it does when Tess' boss Katherine is called out ("bony ass" and all), but it can, nonetheless, give you one of those memorable, 'ain't work grand?' moments.

Many years ago, I worked for a manager singularly lacking in redeeming features. She was snotty, condescending, sneaky, mean-spirited, malicious, and a credit-grabber. Other than the fact that she wasn't from a moneyed background, the Katherine character in Working Girl could have been based on "S."

At one point, after I was no longer reporting to "S", our company's president, the turnaround guy who was about to start a round of lay-offs, asked a few of us (individually) who we thought should be on the list.

I went through the names of the people I thought were expendable, giving my reasons and keeping it all very professional, rather than personal. At last, I got to "S" and laid out my thinking about why she should laid off.

The president gave a little laugh and said, "Nobody starts with 'S', but every one gets to her."

'S' was pink slipped, much to the relief and satisfaction of those of us who'd suffered under her - which was pretty nearly everyone in the company.

Hoosiers is another one of my favorites, and in The Big Picture, they cite the words that the basketball coach, played so brilliantly by Gene Hackman, uses to encourage and inspire both individuals and his team as a whole.

At least in my experience, most executives are not, alas, the inspiring type. As the BP authors point out, it's not just the inability to inspire that's the problem, it's the utter lack of credibility. 

What the Hackman character does so effectively is avoid the false rah-rah, and focus on the real and the personal, without letting the real and the personal become a completely demoralizing downer.

Even if it's the truth, nobody wants to hear, 'At the rate we're going, we'll be out of business in six months.' That's the invitation to start pinging our network so that you can get out before the tumbrels show up to haul you off to the guillotine.

On the other hand, nobody's going to believe the 'prosperity is just around the corner' speech if there have been no measures put into place, or no external event, that might make it so.

I have been on the receiving end of so many falsely and inanely optimistic gung-ho speeches over over the years, that it's hard to select the least inspiring. (So many choices, so little time...)

Let me pick one out of what is a mighty full hat:

After yet another major lay-off at Wang Labs, the new president met with small-ish (50-100 people) employee groups to urge us all to stay.

There was nothing new or credible about our products, our markets, our strategy, or our tactics that would lead any of us to believe that we were in a turnaround. Spin around was more like it.

When our new president - who'd been brought in from the outside - spoke, the gist seemed to be that, now that he had landed, everything that was ineffective about Wang would just fall away. So far, whatever he'd been doing behind the scenes, out of view of the average peon employee, what we'd seen was that he had been focusing on nasty little initiatives like doing away with flex-time. He did so not by directive, but by hanging at the entrances and introducing himself to late-comers and early-leavers, and asking who they were and what they did. Management by intimidation. It just made a completely miserable situation - quarterly lay-offs, pretty much - even worse.

At the latest post-layoff meeting, the president's big question to us was "Why would anyone leave now?"

Well, Mr. President, perhaps because we see no future here, either with our own eyes or through what you've just non-outlined.

Maybe because, unlike you, none of us has a golden parachute, so all we'll have to show for our time-served at MCI-Wang is a couple of weeks severance.

How much better it would have been if he'd said something like, "I don't have all the answers, but here's where I think we have opportunities..." If he'd shared with us, in concrete terms, what he thought was good about the company (and us), why he thought we had a shot at making it - and how that might happen, maybe we would have said, 'Yeah, maybe I should stick around."

But, no, he just mouthed the standard, cookie-cutterisms about working hard, doing our best, etc.

With the predictable results: people fled the sinking ship; the ship sunk.

Anyhow, I can definitely see The Big Picture being used for a b-school course, or for a corporate training thing-y of some sort.  It's a fresh take on some old business lessons, and is absolutely worth a look.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

St. Paddy's Day No More We'll Keep

As I write this post, it is the Saturday before St. Patrick's Day.

It is late in a cold, dreary, rainy afternoon - not unlike a typical late winter/early spring afternoon in Ireland itself.

I am at The Writers Room of Boston, housed on State Street, within shouting distance of any number of Irish pubs.

And I do mean shouting distance.

I have been here since one, and the streets are thronged with marauding bands of bar-hoppers, wearin' o the green, and getting pissed, as the Irish would say. Not satisfied to merely hear their bellowing through the streets, I just looked out to see the leader of one team waving a large Irish flag - in front of cars trying to make their way through the widening puddles on State Street.

Kiss Me, I'm Irish and all that, but Oy!

I don't expect everyone to celebrate The Day on their knees, praying to St. Patrick to drive the snakes out of their lives. Celebrate away, my friendeens! Have fun at MacFadden's, Kitty O'Shea's, The Black Rose, The Purple Shamrock, The Green Dragon, Mr. Dooley's, Jose McIntyre's (known colloquially as 'Spics and Micks' - ah, the wit...), Hennessey's, The Irish Times, Sherlock's, Coogan's Bluff, J.J. Foley's, The Littlest Bar, Ned Devine's, The Kinsale.... (Just how many cheesily-framed pictures of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats lie within?)

Here I'm going from memory to tick off the list of Irish bars within a couple of minutes walk of where I sit (Irish) stewing. I'm sure there are plenty more - more than you can shake a shillelagh at.

I look out yet again.

Now there's a young colleen in a truly hideous green dress that looks like an extra's costume from Finian's Rainbow doing a clumsy step dance in the middle of the street.

Ah, darlin', it's pourin' out and you'll be catchin' your death. (But probably not soon enough.)

Now the sodden - in more ways than one - young amadáns are chanting "USA! USA!" Followed by a girls-only chorus of the Dropkick Murphy's Shipping Up to Boston.

I want to throw open the windows and shout 'hold your whist, ye fecks.'

I am not an enemy of The Drink. Nor of having a good time. Nor of celebrating St. Patrick's Day.

But O'Jeez O'Louise.

All that commotion out in the street makes me want to swear off soda bread and start going by my middle name.

Nonetheless, Happy St. Patrick's Day.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Links to a couple of posts from Paddy's Days past:

You Say Po-tay-to

Irish Eyes Not So Smiling

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Don't let the bedbugs bite. (Arf.)

Well, there are dogged workers, and then there are dogged workers.

And it's truly dogged workers that are walking the bedbug beat in New York City these days, which has become a mighty big beat to walk.

Thanks to global travel, bedbugs - a curse that was pretty much eradicated in the US by the 1950's - are now showing up in droves.

As reported in an article in The New York Times last week, the little devils are on the move:

Consider that six years ago, there were 537 bedbug complaints and 82 violations (in other words, verified infestations); last year, complaints topped out at nearly 11,000, with 4,084 violations cited (nearly double that of the previous year).

This is just infestations in rental units, by the way. Private buildings take care of the problem on the hush.

Well, one man's bedbug infestation is another man's opportunity, and for Jeremy Ecker, your itch to scratch has been the springboard for his new business.

Bed Bug Inspectors which boasts "New York's only independent bed bug dog inspection teams":

...was formed as the bedbug problem has made its reemergence back into our homes, offices, schools, hotels and our lives in general. We use only NESDCA* trained and certified Bed Bug Dog Teams so we can get the most accurate results for our clients - upwards of 95% on the scent of live bedbugs and viable bedbug eggs.

This compares pretty darned favorably with the human detection success rate, which maxes out at around 30%.  Not to mention that dogs are a lot faster than humans. Our four-legged friends take minutes to do what someone walking upright would spend hours on.

Increasingly, The NYT reports, those buying condos or co-ops are urged to do a bed bug inspection as routinely as they check for loose wires, soft spots in the flooring, and grot.

Which of course translates into a market for BBI that extends beyond those already suffering.

An inspection doesn't come cheap - $350 is BBI's rate for a residential sniff-fest - and inspection doesn't equal remediation. You need an exterminator for that.

But it sure sounds like those who own the bedbug dogs deserve every penny of that $350 inspection fee. Ensuring that the bedbug-sniffing pups continue to associate getting fed with finding bugs means ongoing reinforcement. So the handlers have to keep a supply of bedbugs around.  Which means care and feeding of bedbugs. Which means, well...

Remember that dinner for a bedbug is a nice long quaff of human blood; Mr. Ecker rolled up a sleeve to reveal a horrifying tattoo of old bites. (Bedbugs don’t carry disease, but their bites can itch like crazy.)

Happily, the bugs need to eat only once a month or less, he said. “It’s not so bad. You can hardly feel it.”

New York may or may not be the epicenter of the bedbuggedness, but, according to The Times article, the city established a "bedbug advisory committee" last year, and they'll be reporting out sometime next month.  That'll be an interesting read...

Bedbugs are canny little travelers, by the way. They:

...can crawl through walls and along wiring and pipes, and hitchhike on clothing, furniture, luggage and more.

Just reading this makes my scalp itch. And makes me want to bring a plastic pillowcase with me next time I stay in a hotel. Which will, no doubt, be in New York.

I wish I'd had a plastic pillowcase, not to mention a plastic body bag, when - many years ago - I took a night train in Spain.

Ay, caramba!

Buenas noches, sleep tight, don't let the chinches bite.

If only we'd had a bedbug sniffing perro with us. My traveling companion and I might have avoided a whole lot of itching going on if we'd spent the night sitting up in the smoker, rather than tossing and turning in the stifling, bedbug infested sleeper car.

________________________________________________________

*National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association

Monday, March 15, 2010

Day-O, Day-ay-ay-O. Daylight come, and I want to go out.

This has been a particular winter of discontent.

We may have gotten less snow than normal, and may not have had as much ice and bitterly bitter cold as usual.

But the winter started early, didn't provide much relief by way of any January thaw to speak of, and, in general, was nasty, brutish, and long.

Not to mention dark.

Especially for those of us who live on the eastern edge, and the northern slope, of a time zone, winter evenings, when they be icumen in, are enough to make you cuckoo.

It's not so terrible in December, when we have holiday lights and holiday hustle to divert us. (And whatever else we have to say about the ancients, they were sure psychologically keen enough to center the holidays around the darkest spots of the year, when the weather outside is frightful, and when a lit tree, a bottle of wine, and a calorie-filled Christmas cookie can make the days be merry and bright.)

But once it's Christmas lights out, and winter begins in earnest, it is depressingly dark by 5 p.m.

Sure, inch by inch, or, rather, minute by minute, there's a bit more light every evening. The dimming of the day begins later and later - perceptively so, by February.

Nonetheless, come late afternoon, I am always wishing for more light - which is one of the reasons I don't actually mind an occasional winter business trip to Syracuse: it stays light later, that far west.

So I will forgive this past weekend for the cold rains that soaked my flat feet and penetrated my old bones, since it brought us daylight savings times.

Spring ahead!

I do so con brio, smiling as the first, still-reluctant crocuses peep their little headies up in the garden out front. (The people next door - the ones with the gardening service, the ones who get more direct sun - have mo' better crocuses,  plus daffodils and hyacinths already. While I am intensely envious of how their garden grows, I still smile benevolently as I pass by. Flower on!)

Across the street, I believe that the forsythia have started to bud.

Any day now, I will see a red, red robin come bob-bob-bobbin' along.

Admittedly, it may be harder for those at the western end, who are now contending with the fact that it's not just darkest before the dawn, but darkest at the dawn.

So I hope they will forgive me when I crow about the wonder and glory of daylight savings time.

Day-o, day-ay-ay o. Daylight savings come, and I want to stay out.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Polly want a lawsuit? Polly want a lawsuit?

Well, our love affair with gigantic banks is never going to get old, is it?

The latest smooch to an American home-owner was delivered by Bank of America to one Angela Iannelli of Gibsonia Pennsylvania. And this was no chaste peck on the cheek.

No, this was hot-lips all the way.

To show their appreciation of Ms. Iannelli as a mortgagee, they dispatched a local contractor to her house to show her some love. (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

Because she had missed one payment - which she caught up on shortly - Iannelli's name made it on to a BofA repo list.

While Iannelli - a working woman who owns a diner and tends bar - was away, BofA's errand boy made his way into her house:

...cut off utilities, padlocked the door and confiscated her pet parrot, Luke.

Not that she was thrilled to come home and find that, not only was she locked out, but that:

...the contractor stopped utility services, cut water lines and electrical wiring, damaged flooring and finishings, poured antifreeze into sinks and toilets...

But the worst of it was that someone had made off with Luke.

It took Iannelli over a week to reunite with her pet (she had to drive 160 miles round trip to do so, thank you), and suffered considerable distress over the incident.  As one can imagine.

The bank has admitted that it made an error in siccing the contractor on Iannelli, given that she hadn't defaulted.  But not before they denied any knowledge of what had happened to her parrot. (It was with the contractor.) Nor before, Ms. Iannelli claims, a bank rep:

...told her they were "tired" of hearing from her, hung up on her and advised her to seek help from the police.

Now, I'm sure the lowly bank rep taking calls from Ms. Iannelli may have been ill-equipped to handle the agitation on the other end of the line. And was no doubt thinking, 'this ain't worth what they pay me.'

But surely, in this age of default-o-rama, there should be some training provided about how to deal with the evicted - whether legitimately evicted or, as in the case of Ms. Iannelli, through a bank mistake. Maybe an escalation policy that shipped these calls up the line a bit. (It probably wouldn't hurt the BofA executive team to spend a day with headphones on in a call center.)

As for the contractor, didn't he notice that the house was occupado? Which kinda-sorta should have been obvious, no? I mean, what would it have taken to look in the fridge, check the dates on the People on the coffee table, or, gee, notice that there was an obviously well cared for pet in residence.

I'm not a big "sue the bastards" kind of guy. (Nor am I a big bird lover, for that matter. But a pet's a pet.)

But it's completely understandable to find that Iannelli is suing Bank of America.

She's looking for over $50K, but the amount will be set by a jury if this goes to trial.

Hmmmmm.

A jury of Ms. Iannelli's peers, deciding whether a local diner owner in western Pennsylvania whose house was mistakenly  tossed and whose pet was parrot-napped, deserves a bit of pay back from Bank of America?

Hmmmmm.

I don't think this case will ever get its day in court.

I do believe that Bank of America will be settling this one, and fast.

How about they pay off Ms.Iannelli's mortgage for her? And maybe throw in a little extra for her troubles.

While they're at it, why not a lifetime supply of Saltines for Luke?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

If you were Steven Roth, would you say this out loud?

Anyone who's been in downtown Boston in the  last couple of years will be familiar with the giant hole in the ground - surrounded by partial let's-preserve-the-past remnants of grand old facade - that has replaced one of our grand old department stores, Filene's.

The hole is surrounded by chain link fence, the grand old facade is shrouded in tarpaulin, and if there's a more depressing, recession-reminder sight in these parts, I don't know what is.

As my gym overlooks it, this particular mote gets in my eye three times a week.

Grrrrrrr.

Now, I get that Vornado Realty, the site's developer, got caught up in the downturn. So I get why the project's stalled.

But Vornado's done precious-nothing to make the hole any more attractive. (I really don't count the tarps and the cheesy Christmas wreathes they put up in 2008, but not this past holiday, as anything.)

And now, I guess, we know why.

Apparently, Vornado's betting that keeping a blighted piece of unused property out there will get him more money from the public coffers.

Or so Hizzoner The Mayor is interpreting some recent comments by Vornado's chairman, Steven Roth. (Reported in Tuesday's Boston Globe.)

In speaking to a group at Columbia University:

Roth was quoted as saying he sat on the former Alexander’s Department store in midtown Manhattan in the 1990s, allowing it become blighted in order to squeeze money out of public officials.

Vornado acquired the site after the store closed and, similar to the Filene’s site, left it half demolished before eventually building a glass skyscraper that now houses the Bloomberg financial news company.

“Why did I do nothing?’’ Roth said, according to the Observer. “The more the building was a blight; the more governments would want this to be redeveloped; the more help they would give us when the time came.’’

Mayor Menino has been getting it in the neck for a while because of shortcuts in the permitting and approval processes, taken on Vornado's behalf. These shortcuts apparently meant, among other things, that no one dealt with the "what if's" (as in "what'll we do with the hole in the ground if the bottom falls out of the world?") . So, we end up with this hideous eyesore that no one's responsible for doing anything about.

But Roth's comments have enabled Menino to seize the moral high ground. And, possibly, more than that. He is, in fact, rattling his saber, and has:

...threatened to revoke permits for the stalled Filene’s redevelopment and even take the property by eminent domain.

Although it's not clear whether eminent domain is a true legal possibility, or what, exactly, the city would do with the hole once it eminently domained it, I give the mayor one big "Attaboy, Tommy."

As for Steven Roth: you might think it, you might do it, but why would you publicly tell the Alexander Department Store story? Now, I'm quite sure that Roth isn't giving away a trade secret here. But - given the hole in the ground in Boston - I think you need to be making statements like that like you need a hole in your head (one not covered by blue tarps).

Maybe Roth is just a braggart. Maybe he's got an ulterior motive going here. He obviously didn't get to be one of the richest men in America by being a complete dummy. (At least I don't think so.)

But in this case, I think that he should have heeded the advice of a Boston politico of a far earlier era than Tom Menino.

Martin Lomasney was never the mayor, but he was the Boss Tweed of Boston in the late 19th/early 20th century.  He was famous for having said:

"Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."

Yep, Roth would have been a lot better off if he'd just nodded about Alexander's. Or winked, even.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cowboy turned tech wrangler? Maybe, maybe not.

Since March is apparently Cowboy Month at Pink Slip -  c.f., last week's post on Cowboy Ethics - I was just dee-lighted to see a header in the WSJ Career Section entitled "Cowboy Turned Tech Wrangler."  (Access to the full article may require a subscription, pardner.)

Yippee-ki-yay! I just knew I had to get me some learnin' about a cowpoke who switched gears and got into technology.

The article started out promising:

It's hard to imagine that castrating bulls could be relevant to building a successful Silicon Valley technology storage company.

But from there.... Well, I was a little disappointed.

Certainly the background of NetApp founder Dave Hitz puts him quite off the path of the average techie. And it's pretty interesting that he spent a couple of years at a teeny-tiny junior college cum ranch before launching a brilliant tech career.  But before you start thinking that we're talking about High Plains Drifter Community College in Tumbleweed, Montana, the ranch JC we're talking about is Deep Springs, an eccentric and highly selective alternative school that sends it's alumni to Ivy League colleges, from whence they go on to write novels, become professors, invent stuff, get elected to Congress, and generally do what Ivy League grads do: rule the world. (And don't tell me that we've had true cowboys ruling the free world:  Reagan played cowboys, and GW played at cowboy.)

Hitz went on to study at Princeton, where he roomed with Jeff Bezos (yes that Jeff Bezos), which makes the story slightly different than if he'd spent his teens and twenties snowed in in the bunkhouse with Gabby Hayes and Trampas, learning to whittle.

Seriously, folks. Does having spent a few early-twenty years castrating bulls make Dave Hitz an echt cowboy who really changed careers?

Okay, I will confess to my own personal "up from blue collar" conceit. There are plenty of occasions when I position myself as a former Durgin-Park waitress. Which I am. I worked professionally and full-time - not just a summer job - as a D-P waitress for over a year.

However, in the cold, clear light of truth-telling dawn, I was also a drop-out of a PhD program at Columbia who a couple of years later headed off to business school at MIT. Which hardly puts me in the same waitress category as someone who - like most of the Durgin-Park "girls" I worked with - had been hard-scrabble supporting herself and her family for years on end serving prime rib, Indian pudding, and scrod - back-breaking, no-benefit, no-guarantee work that the women not so much chose as accepted because they had little if any alternative.

Which is why I'm going to say that Dave Hitz is no more a career-changing cowboy who became a techie than I am a waitress who became a tech marketer.

I am not saying that Hitz positions himself as such.

Sure, he makes the most of his cowpoke bona fides - and has even written a book - How to Castrate a Bull - which, on title alone (not to mention the device that appears on the cover: yikes! ) may make it one of the greatest business books of all time. (Who among us hasn't wanted to, at min, castrate some bullshit(ter) in the course of our careers?)

But the positioning of Hitz as a career changer by the WSJ strikes a truly discordant note with me, for whatever reason - perhaps nothing more than late winter crankiness; or maybe because I really wanted to read about a cowboy-cowboy who became a techie-techie. Not about another brilliant, privileged guy who made good (and, admittedly, made the most of his brilliance and privilege).

I have no doubt that Dave Hitz learned a lot on the ranch that stood him in good stead in his career in terms of self-sufficiency, decision making, and risk.  And, in truth, I'd rather work for someone who'd been a cowboy than someone who's never broken into a work-related sweat (handball doesn't count, even when it's networking), and whose sole work experience was some fancy-pants internship his father had engineered for him.

So, kudos to Dave Hitz. And a big raspberry to the WSJ for calling his move from cowboy to techie a career change.

Career change to me is the fifty-five year old laid-off accountant who goes and becomes an EMT.  The lawyer who chucks it to become a teacher.  The long-time cowboy who becomes a chef. The Durgin-Park waitress who, at age 40 goes back to North Shore Community College for an AA degree in office management.

Nope. In my book, it's not much of a career change if you did something - like cowboying at Deep Springs or waiting tables at Durgin-Park - that you knew wasn't what you were going to be doing when you rode off into the sunset.

Meanwhile, I know I am being a complete pissy crank here. (Amazing the things that set you off, isn't it? Truly, with everything going on in the world, I'm annoyed by what to me is a misleading headline in the WSJ? When I'm not annoyed that they run a steady stream of op-eds by Karl Rove? Okay. Those I generally avoid.)

Anyway, I repeat my kudos to Dave Hitz and his book, which I may even read some day. (When I finish getting rid of all the partially read, yawn-a-rama business books I have piled up in my bedroom.)

And I will semi-end with a quote from Mr. Hitz:

"As a cowboy, life was simpler. I was taking care of meat. There was something very satisfying about doing work that so directly helped satisfy a fundamental human need. It made me wonder how to find similar meaning in my later life," he says.

Yes indeed. As a waitress, life was simpler as well. And I was taking care of meat, too.

Oh, for the days when the challenge was to see if I could carry 6 fully-loaded platters of roast beef at once, without dripping the au jus down the back of a customer.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The opposite end of the spectrum

Even as I advance into old(er) age, my nose remains resolutely pressed against the creative life window, somewhere among hoping, assuming, and planning for another career of some  writerly sort.

So I was interested to read the obituary of "Patricia Travers Violinist Who Vanished", in Sunday's NY Times.

Travers, who died in February at the age of 82, was a child violinist who made her solo debut at the New York Philharmonic when she was just 11. From there, she went on to appear with symphonies throughout the US and Europe; record Charles Ives on Columbia; and perform on the radio. She even went Hollywood, with a role in a comedy about a music camp. (I don't recall ever seeing "There's Magic in the Music," but it's hard to believe it didn't appear on "Boston Movietime" at some point during my childhood. I'm guessing that Patricia was the serious, quiet, brainiac kid, not one of the Mickey-Judy, 'hey, kids, let's put on a show' exuberant teens who wanted to strike up the band. Don't know for sure, but I'm guessing this clip might be from "Magic." Sure looks like a swell camp, doesn't it?

In 1951, at age 23, she gave her last performance, playing Brahms with the Boston Symphony.

With that, she hung up her bow, moved back home with the 'rents, and wound up managing her father's commercial property business (and playing for the entertainment of her parents).

Her tenants knew her as the landlord.

The "narrative arc" of Travers' life is familiar to those who study child prodigies:

“Prodigies are much less likely to go on to become major famous creative geniuses than they are to become unheard-of and drop out,” Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “What it takes to become a prodigy is very different from what it takes to become a major creative adult.” She added, “Most do not make that leap.”

Although I do wish my creative genius had been encouraged or at least acknowledged, all this certainly makes me happy I wasn't a child prodigy.

At the age that Travers was playing to stellar reviews at Carnegie Hall, my highest level attainment was being able to simultaneously read a book (at age 11, likely some goopy teen romance like "Double Date," or "Sixteen"); roll my straight, limp, baby-fine hair in spoolies; eat ice cream with Hershey's sauce (from a pale yellow melmac bowl); and carry on a conversation (or fight) with a sibling. All while watching a re-run of Wagon Train, and mooning over the wagon train scout, Flint McCullough.

When I wasn't using my hands to spoon in the ice cream, I might have been using one of my father's discarded razor blades to saw the covering off one of his discarded golf balls. Ahh, the pleasure of peeling off the last of the cover and tackling the tightly wound strands of rubber to get at the magic center: a tiny ball the size of a small clay-ie marble, but with the most remarkable bounce and whiz possible. Those suckers flew. So it was worth all the stings suffered when the sawed off rubber strands spronged out an lashed your face or hands.

Prodigy? Not I!

But while it is certainly too late to become a child prodigy at this point, I still retain a belief in the possibility that I may one day become an old lady prodigy.

Still, I wonder what Patricia Travers thought all those years.

Did she regret the many years of "lost" career - it's not as if she just stopped performing; she didn't teach or seemingly have anything to do with the violin. Did she fret about her "lost" childhood? Did she just shrug it off - that was then, this is now?

From the write-up in the New Jersey news, she certainly doesn't come across as a misanthropic, hermit crank - just a pleasant, quiet older woman.  Which is, I guess, what I'm on the way to becoming - unless I do become an old lady prodigy, or give in fully to those still wispy tendencies towards misanthropic, hermit crankhood.

Fairewell, Patricia Travers. I hope you had a good life. It does sound as if you did.

Monday, March 08, 2010

And you thought your job as a chicken plucker was terrible - try chicken sexing

In the midst their quarterly technology section, The Economist included a small article that most readers no doubt sped by to get to the more über-techno stuff - 6 Million Dollar Man prosthetics, self-healing wireless antennas made out of liquid metal. With my hunt and peck method of scratching around for blog feed, I dipped my beak right in to the story on breakthrough technology for chicken sexing. (This first appeared in The Economist's online mag in February. Not sure, but you may need a subscription to access this.)

Now, peculiar as it may seem, I am not a complete stranger to bird sexing. Many years ago, my husband made a donation to the research work of a bird-sexster scientist at the San Diego Zoo who was trying to figure out how to distinguish Mr. from Mrs. in those bird species where the males didn't sport the colored plumage. Not that Jim had the least bit of interest in bird sexing - which was done by examining the bird's scat - but we were wildly interested in the bonobos, and Jim's donation to the art and science of bird gender ID helped open the cage doors a bit, and we got to meet our little cousins from the way back. Which was a lot more interesting - at least to us - than trying to identify a bird's sex. (With apes, there is no problema whatsoever figuring out the boys from the girls.)

What I wasn't aware of was the importance of sexing in the wonderful world of chickens, in which a lot of the layers get to live, and most of the non-layers - chicken layabouts, as it were - end up boneless and skinless in a yellow styrofoam Perdue tray. 

But how to determine which is which, in a population without apparent genitalia or secondary sex characteristics - no Foghorn Leghorn deep voice to ID the critter.

Until now, there've been two methods:

“Vent sexing”, the most common way, requires a worker to squeeze a chick’s anal vent, or cloaca, to clear the faeces and assess the size of a telltale bump inside the hole. Not the most popular of jobs. The alternative, “feather sexing,” is a form of cross-breeding that leaves females with detectably longer pin feathers than those of their male counterparts. This is slightly more salubrious, but the long-feather gene has been linked to other traits that may be undesirable to hatcheries, such as cancer. That discourages hatchers from adopting the method.

Which means a lot of vent sexing - especially given that there are an estimated 6 billion laying hens in the world - which is just about a chicken in every pot.

But it's hard to imaging a worse job.

I'd rather clean out Porta-Potties, thank you.

I guess all you could say about vent sexing is that it wasn't likely to be off-shored.

But now the job may be going the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers of Westfield Massachusetts.

That's thanks to Dr. Tauseef Butt of LifeSensors, a Pennsylvania bio-tech outfit.

Dr. Butt - - and could there be a better name for someone who's come up with a way to replace having to hand squeeze a chicken's anus? - has developed an estrogen sniffing sensor that pricks an egg, extracts a bit of goo, which is analyzed to determine just what's lurking under that shell. (Too bad it still doesn't fully answer the 'which came first debate', although for purposes of chicken sexing, it's clearly the egg.) Most boy eggs will get to stay boy eggs; a lot of the girl eggs will get the chance to grow up and become chickens. Don't know which I'd choose. Hmmm, do I want to end up in am omelet without ever having gotten the chance to peck my way out of my shell? Or would I rather go for the gusto and get blinded, de-beaked, chained to a "nest", and plumped up with hormones. (All in all, it's better to be a human, or a bonobo.)

Implementing the sexing technology in the real hatchery world is a bit in the future, so chicken vent sexers can breathe a sigh of relief that it will be a while before their jobs are replaced by automation. (Advice to vent sexers: breathe that sigh of relief away from the vents you're sexing. Just saying.)

So, it's Monday morning. You may have started the week feeling boo-hoo bad for yourself because your job's not perfect. 

But as you head into that boring status meeting where you chant your rote weekly update as if it were confessing your sings in third grade (I fought with my brother. I talked back to my mother.),  answer a pointless e-mail that you already responded to twice, or watch a colleague under fake-deadline run around like a chicken with its head cut off, ask yourself whether you'd rather be doin' what you're doin' or sexing chickens in a hatchery for minimum wage?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Cowboy up: in Wyoming, "cowboy ethics" are more than just lore, they're law

Well, as a child who grew up watching every Western TV show there ever was on a black and white Philco, you don't need to tell me a whole heck of a lot about cowboy ethics.

Cowboys wore the white hats of my childhood, pardner.

I watched them all: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, The Range Rider, Annie Oakley, Twenty-Six Men, Tombstone Territory, Wyatt Earp, The Lawman, Rawhide (a cowboy-cowboy show), Paladin, Cheyenne, The Rebel, The Rifleman, Wanted Dead or Alive, Branded, Wagon Train, Maverick, Bat Masterson, Bonanza, Bronco Lane, Sugarfoot...

Have horse, will travel to the living room and plunk myself down in front of the tube and return to those thrilling days of yesteryear.

The only one I didn't watch was Gunsmoke. It was on too late. The only time I recall seeing it was when I sprained my knee clambering over a giant downed tree - dubbed "Dinnny the Dinosaur" by us kids - that had all sorts of cool branches that you could ride like a bucking bronco. Too bad I fell off my steed, severely spraining my knee. The upside was that I got to stay up after everyone else was in bed and watch Matt Dillon, Kitty, and Doc with my father. While it was thrilling to be up so late watching TV, the show itself was boring.

But mostly, yippee-kai-ai-oh. I loved those Westerns.

When I was four, I got a pair of Roy Rogers slippers for my birthday. They were little black shorty felt cowboy boots with Roy and Trigger stamped on them in yellow and white.

My first crush was on Dick West ("The All American Boy"), the Range Rider's sharp-shooting, trick-riding teenaged, cutie-pie companion.

And I will confess that I cheated on my more mature true love, Dr. Kildare, with Adam Cartwright, which really shouldn't count as cheating because they were in different centuries.

Still, cheating on a true love is likely a violation of the "Code of the West," which has been adopted by Wyoming as part of its official (if non-enforceable) state code. (Source: AP.)

The Code is the brain dogie of former hedgie James Owen, founder of Cowboy Ethics, who believes that the world would be a better place, you gents and purdy liddle ladies, if we all would all cowboy up and:

1 Live each day with courage

2 Take pride in your work

3 Always finish what you start

4 Do what has to be done

5 Be tough, but fair

6 When you make a promise, keep it

7 Ride for the brand

8 Talk less and say more

9 Remember that some things aren't for sale

10 Know where to draw the line

At first glance, not much there (to argue with), although on a tick by tick basis...

Living each day with courage is not something that most of us necessarily want to have to think about on a day to day basis, is it?  Truly, unless you are suffering from some debilitating mental or physical illness, or have a job like IED patrol in Iraq,  just how much courage does it take to get up out bed in the morning, take a shower, and get one with what needs to get done (code item #4).

Sure, in the course of the day, we all need to be prepared to stick by our guns; jump in front of a speeding SUV, driven by a madly texting driver, to push a texting stroller pusher out of the way; defend those who are being bullied; and other sorts of other ad hoc things that call for some degree of courage. But consciously living each day with courage? For all those cowboy shows I watched, I guess I don't get what this means. Wouldn't "act courageously when you need to (which may, in your life, be every day, or may be seldom if ever/never)" make more sense?

Taking pride in your work makes sense, but, you know, sometimes it just doesn't make sense to finish everything you start.

You know how it is.

The project turns out to be a really stupid waste of time. Sure, this may indicate that you agreed to take it on during a day without courage. But sometimes you just have to know when to walk away, know when to run.  Everything is not, I guarante, worth finishing - and that includes the novels Lorna Doone and Cider House Rules. Trust me.

Do what has to be done.

O-kay...

But who decides what has to be done?

What if some lunatic decides that what has to be done is fly a plane into an IRS building? Or assassinate their Congress person? Or whatever. "Do what has to be done"? Thar be dragons, I'm afraid.

Be tough but fair.

Ah, the old chestnut about Sister St. Slaphappy: she was tough, but she was fair.

Ya know, in my opinion, there's entirely too much belly-butting, "I'm tough" strutting around as it is. Sure, we all need inner toughness (and outer toughness, while we're at it). Who wants to sit around listening to a bunch of whiney wimps belly-ache? But I don't want to sit around listening to a bunch of chicken-hawks goad each other into action, either.

Anyway, I just hate this 'tough but fair' pairing, as if they actually went together. Please separate these two immediately. Being tough - not in a macho, hectoring way, but in a truly roll with the punches, live with courage way - is one thing.  So's being fair.

Promise keeping? Good one. Except when there are extenuating circumstances, like you found out you promised your best friend's kid a hot fudge sundae, just to find out it sets his hair on fire.  Okay, this would be a stupid promise that you had no right to make. Still, there are promises made in good faith, but with lack of full information, that sometimes have to be broken.

Ride for the brand, I presume, means work loyaly for your employer. Certainly, if you feel that the place and people you work for are all that sordid and rotten, you really need to quit. But what is life without bitching about work? And, in this day and age, when the CEO would outsource your job to Bangalore if it meant another 0.00002 percent in his bonus wallet, if you're riding for the brand, it better be with both eyes wide open, looking out for vamints and sidewinders.

Talk less, say more. Blah, blah, blah. Certainly none of my friends and family buy into this saturnine little piece of advice. Talk more, say more 'r us. Which is perhaps why our ancestors all got off the boat and stayed put, waving good-bye to their friends on the Conestoga wagons heading West, longing to be cowboys. My peeps were the ones standing there, holding their tongues, shaking their heads and saying, once the wagons had ho'd out of earshot: 'Thank goodness we're rid of those bores. They don't have a darned thing to say.'

Remember that some things aren't for sale? Clearly written before eBay and Craig's List. But certainly hard to argue with in the 'my good name/my good virtue' sense. In the realm of material possessions, however... Sure, I'd like to hang on to the polished steer horns (from a steer roped by a cowboy, do you think?) that hung in my grandfather's saloon (which was, sadly, in Worcester, not Dodge City). But for the right price, someone could absolutely hook them horns.

Know where to draw the line seems as much a virtue that's required for self-preservation as it is for any more noble purpose. But this item, too, is hard to argue with.

They all pretty much are, and that's mostly because these bromides are so high level and nebulous that carrying them out is all going to be in the subjective eye and definition of the beholder.

But, of course, cowboys are so much more romantic and heroic than, say, product marketing professionals.

Me? I'm just city-slicker, back-East, do-gooder, who might suggest that the Cowboy Code get expanded a bit.

I, in fact, could rustle up some good suggestions.

How about one about protecting the weak and defenseless. Being generous with your time, talent (and, if you have it, treasure), when it comes to good causes, and friends and family. Maintaining a sense of humor. Not giving in to the impulse to demonize the "other." Etc.

Because I'm the talk more, write more kind, I could go on.

And I will for just a smidge, if only to say that I'm glad that some Cowboy Code items never made the list:

  • Be suspicious of and hostile to strangers (especially city-slickers from back-East)
  • Shoot first, ask questions later
  • Shoot Indians first; don't bother to ask questions
  • Don't run over that coyote with your snowmobile any more times than your need to in order to flatten it into the ground
  • Wear the same clothing, season in season out (Can you imagine what the Ponderosa smelled like after 14 years of 4 grown men, five if you count HopSing, who never changed their clothing?)

And now I shall ride on into the sunset, drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.

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A tip of the ten-gallon Stetson to my brother-in-law, Rick, for pointing out the Cowboy Code story to me.