Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Really Smart Cars

I love the look of Smart Cars. Seriously, who wouldn’t want one of these cutie-patootie little vehicles. Every time I 2010-passion-coupesee one, it fills me with at least a little bit of joy. And when I pass one parked – and there are a few in my neighborhood – I always look in and smile.

Of course, I would never actually take one out and use it on a highway – not even an itty-bitty, kiddie car of a highway like Storrow Drive. And for the neighborhood runabout errands, well, most of them can be accomplished with a walkabout. Or with a Zipcar.

But they do so make me smile.

There are, however, Smart Cars (which are fundamentally Cute Cars), and then there are really smart cars.

You know, the ones that won’t just parallel park themselves, but will drive themselves. You’ll just speak your destination, and they’ll take you there, dodging in and out of traffic, sensing (and avoiding danger), sensing (and grabbing) parking spots.

As someone who actually likes to drive, there are so many ways in which I’m not looking forward to a world in which you don’t have to have any smarts whatsoever in order to operate a vehicle. (I know, I know. The barrier to entry for car drivership is pretty darned low, and there are an awful lot of terribly dumb drivers out there. Still, you do have to know how to put the key in the ignition, step on the break, and turn on the radio.)

But I sure do hope that the really smart cars get here before not-so-smart cars become souped up, four-wheeled search engines, as was promised at the recent Computer Electronics Show. (Source: CNN.)

Imagine a future in which icons flash on your car windshield, hologram style, as your car approaches restaurants, stores, historic landmarks or the homes of friends.

Gosh, I can imagine that future, and it’s one in which drivers are even more distracted (and, thus, dangerous) than your average phone-caller and texter.

Can’t we live without knowing at the very exact moment when the question enters our bee-bee brain exactly when the Salt and Pepper Bridge was built?

Oh, but who wants to focus on boring old driving – where you have to pay attention to boring stuff like how many car lengths the guy in front of you is, and whether someone’s trying to pass you on the right while you’re trying to move over a lane.  Bo-ring.

Simply point your hand at them, and the icons open to show real-time information: when that bridge over there was built, what band is playing at that nightclub on the left, whether that new café up the street has any tables available. Wave your hand again, and you've made a restaurant reservation.

And who cares about all that duller than dull stuff like signaling, as long as you can find out who’s “playing at the nightclub on the left.” (Probable answer: Crash Test Dummies.)

“Gesture is very intuitive. It's very natural," said Vera Schmidt, a user-interface designer with Mercedes who led demonstrations of the technology. "You point at something, and you want to know more about it."

So true. Because you won’t always have someone with an iPhone in the seat next to you who can google it up for you, and by the time you get home you may not remember that you had such a burning need to know whether the Crash Test Dummies still exist.

Anyway, all this peachy-keen technology isn’t quite here yet. Nonetheless:

Many automotive designers here seem to have taken inspiration from smartphones, with their promise of being always connected and their vast menu of apps for every purpose.

"Cars are becoming platforms to participate in the digital world in a fully networked sense, just like your tablets can and your phones can," said Venkatesh Prasad, a senior technical leader with Ford Motor Co.'s innovation division. "It's our job to take those computing services people are used to at 0 mph and make them available at 70 mph."

Is it possible that Venkatesh Presad actually made this statement without adding a follow on: “And, of course, it’s our job to make them as safely available at 70 mph as they are at 0 mph.”


Cars will also be seeing to our health and welfare, and one day soon may:

…help diabetic drivers by employing wireless sensors to monitor their glucose levels…or help allergy sufferers by monitoring for high-pollen areas, then recirculating air within the vehicle instead of pulling it in from the outside.

I’m all for good health, but it sure looks like the day is coming when we will have absolutely no agency whatsoever over ourselves.

"We're working on a new generation of vehicles that truly serve as digital companions," said Dieter Zetsche, head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, in a keynote speech at CES. "They learn your habits, adapt to your choices, predict you moves and interact with your social network."


There’s something to look forward to.

Monday, January 30, 2012

$14,000? Costa Crociere’s got to be kidding

Forget the lost luggage and the ruined vacation.

Capri pants and cotton sweaters, Tumi bags and iPads are all replaceable.

Ruined vacation? Your typical ruined vacation turns into a funny story within a year or two.

But this isn’t about lost luggage and ruined vacations.

This is about surviving an “accident” that never should have happened, likely brought on by sheer negligence and recklessness on the part of the ship’s captain and/or the cruise line managers who allegedly pressured the captain to give the passengers a thrill by passing close to shore.

Even if  you were one of the lucky ones – first off, exposed to minimum panic – you now know how easy it would have been to have lost your life.

Most likely, if you survived you experienced the chaos, the panic, the fear, the tumult, the disorientation. Most likely you can’t help thinking “what if”. What if you had or hadn’t returned to your cabin? What if you had or hadn’t taken the staircase you did? What if you had or hadn’t stayed for that second nightcap? What if you had or hadn’t run into someone calm and helpful? And, of course, ‘what if’ you could have done something to make matters better, and didn’t? Or, worse, ‘what if’ you did something that made matters worse?

Not, exactly, pleasure cruise questions to ask yourself.

I don’t imagine there are many survivors – passengers or crew – who aren’t replaying this event, running their ‘what if’ scenarios, and waking up in the middle the night with an occasional cold sweat.

This has got to be worth more than the $14,458 that Costa Crociere, owners of the Costa Concordia, are offering passengers who survived the entirely-avoidable shipwreck that changed them from happy campers cruisers to people who, however mentally healthy they are, will no doubt always be haunted by images, memories, and ‘what if’ scenarios. (The $14,458 covers lost luggage and “psychological trauma”; cruise fare, travel costs, in onboard incidental charges are being separately refunded.)

Costa Crociere made its offer in return for passengers signing a waiver not to sue. I doubt they’ll have many takers – unless it comes to light that they are underinsured, have no assets, etc., and that this is the best they’ll be able to do.

This disaster wasn’t an act of God, or an act of terrorist, or an act of bad manufacture. It was an act of man – the ship’s captain who thought it might be fun to sail dangerously close to shore to give a wink and a nod to a retired fellow captain. And it was the act of a company that may have goaded the ship’s captain to do the crowd-pleasing nautical drive-by, and that either hadn’t fully trained its staff on how to respond to an emergency, or had hired the wrong kinds of people (c.f., The Captain) to begin with.

Given all this, $14,458 seems pretty darned low-ball.

Yes, I understand that those who were injured, and the families of those that lost their lives, will be better compensated. Still, $14,458 wouldn’t quite do it for me. Even though I’m not the particularly litigious type, I’d hold out for the inevitable class action suit that will be mounted against Costa Crociere, and its (presumably deeper pockets) parent, Carnival. Even if the outcome is near lawyer-take-all, I’d rather have the satisfaction of sticking it to the cruise line, thank you.

I always like to go direct to the source, so I wandered over to Costa Crociere, where “a cruise vacation is the best way to travel in comfort and style”, to see what they had to say.

Although on the day I looked there was no mention of the $14,458 tender, there were a couple of updates, including this:

…the company welcomes discussion with its guests and all consumer protection associations to determine indemnity for the hardship endured, with the support of tourism sector trade associations with which it has been in contact for days.

Which is, I believe, the crew that came up with the $14,458.

Well, I suppose you have to start somewhere. And, of course, the first rule of negotiation is that your first offer isn’t your last, and your starting offer shouldn’t be where you want to end up.

Maybe, having conferred with consumer protection and industry associations, they really do think that this is the “right” number – or close enough. Maybe the figured that, if they got something out there quickly, they could do some passenger cherry-picking that would keep what is likely to be an astronomical award down a bit. Maybe (understandably) they just want to get the survivors over and done with so that they can focus their legal efforts on the dead and injured.

But if I were a survivor, I’d be sitting there thinking, hmmmm.

The stuff – shoes, clothing, tote-bags, jewelry, electronics, reading material, toiletries - that I lost was probably worth several thousand dollars, by the time you added up replacement costs. To make things simpler, let’s just say it all added up to $2,458.

That means that everything I went through, including fearing for my life, the lives of those I was traveling with, and the lives of several thousand complete strangers. Living through those moments when the ship started to list and, having seen Titanic and The Poseidon Adventure, knowing that this isn’t a good sign. Having my life turned, if only temporarily, upside down, is only worth $12,000.


I don’t know what the right number would be, but this ain’t it.

See you in court!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kodachrome: True colors are fading (or maybe just showing).

The other day, I was in the car with my niece Molly, driving near her old grammar school.

“Oh, no,” she gasped.

The ice cream shop where she and her friends had hung out after school during seventh and eighth grade had shuttered.

Molly’s in ninth grade, so this hanging out was just last year.

Welcome to the wonderful world of grown ups, honey, where the places, things, and  - oh, yeah – people we remember are so often, as we get older, gone, baby, gone. Alive only in our memories, or in snapshots, if we’d bothered to take them.

At my age, there’s no end to objects in the rear view mirror, often farther away than they appear. My childhood Friendly’s has closed. Don’t even ask about the stores of my childhood – I’m even (almost) capable of nostalgia for Zayre’s tawdry merchandise and garish red and yellow bags. Filene’s Basement breathed its last right around Christmas. And let’s not get started on the products of the past – although many of them seem to take on new lives in the pages of the Vermont Country Store catalog. (I believe you can still set your hair with Spoolies and Dippity Do, if you so desire. And dry it with a bouffant-bubble hair dryer.)

And now, it seems, a brand far more ubiquitous and venerable than Dippity Do may have breathed its last.

Eastman Kodak – which once held a near monopoly on the US amateur photography business - has filed for bankruptcy.

Although I am not one myself, I come from a family (at least on my mother’s side) of picture-takers. And until my father came home one Christmas with a Polaroid, like everyone else’s, ours was a Kodak family.

At first, my mother’s family had pictures taken: stiff family portraits to send back to the Old Country.

Then my grandfather made a wonderful Amerikan purchase which, I would bet anything, was an early version of a Kodak Brownie.

The Wolfs took pictures of everything and everyone.

My sister Trish may still have the carton full of 1930's and 40’s black and white snapshots of my grandparents and their friends (unrecognizable to us), and of my mother and her sibs.

And so, we get to see my mother grow from the stiff immigrant in the studio portrait, to the skinny big sis, to the bookish high school nerd with glasses, to the (almost glamour puss) young woman in her twenties who fell hard for the Irischer sailor boy from Worcester, Mass.

We have far fewer pictures of my father to trace his progression – until he met the Wolfs and became a regular photographic subject and picture taker, himself.

There is the large-group family picture of the children and grandchildren on Matthew and Bridget Trainor, my father an infant in my grandmother’s lap, face blurred because he turned his head. Then there’s nothing until his high school graduation picture.

Or so we thought until my cousin Barbara unearthed a picture of my father, age 14 or so, the shortest and scrawniest member of the South High football team of 1926.

At first, I couldn’t find him in the picture. And then, there he was.

How could I not recognize him?

Although they don’t look at all like each other, each of my brothers is the spit and image of my father.

(Perhaps because he so seldom posed for pictures as a child, my father never got into the habit of looking into the camera and saying “cheese.” In most of the pictures we have of him, if my father is pictured with someone else – my mother, one of us kids – he is, quite winningly, looking (and smiling) at us.)

As for the Rogers’ family, the camera that recorded our mostly informal goings and comings was a Kodak Brownie, a little bakelite camera that took black and white pictures, only.

Yes, there were pictures taken of Baptisms and Holy Communions, but most were us just hanging around, Kodak moments waiting to happen. The neighbor kids standing around a tree that Hurricane Irene toppled in 1959. Or the Rogers and Dineen kids, along with our kid Aunt Kay, posed in front of the stone wishing well at my grandmother Wolf’s lake house. My friend Susan and I – age 7 – horsing around in the backyard in diapers, sucking our thumbs, pretending we were babies.

Pictures came back from the drugstore in envelopes emblazoned with the yellow and red Kodak logo – a far more famous use of this color scheme than the Zayre’s bags. The pictures often had scalloped edges, and most had a date stamp on the bottom (May 55). You also got back a set of negatives, which came in strips, that you used if you wanted to make copies.

For occasions that warranted color film, we borrowed the McGinns’ more updated Kodak camera.

And, although my mother hung on to that Brownie, some where along the line, the family broke down and bought a Kodak Instamatic, which took pictures in color.

But our big switch was to the Polaroid, which captured the family’s imagination for a couple of years, even though no one ever figured out how to consistently take pictures that weren’t blurry around the edges.

Polaroid. Another great brand of my childhood.

Perhaps, like Polaroid, Kodak will emerge from bankruptcy with something (their name, at minimum) intact. Perhaps, like Polaroid, Kodak will name someone like Lady Gaga as their creative director.

Perhaps the brand will just fade away entirely, a victim of its own failure to embrace the wave of technology that turned into a tsunami.

Kodak won’t be the first – hey, I worked for Wang Labs when they were still clinging to the mini-computer – and they won’t be the last. All part of the creative destruction of capitalism. And isn’t it better to be able to take a picture, anytime/anywhere, on your smartphone? And just get Snapfish to print them off for you? No muss, no fuss, no negatives.

So why is the Kodak bankruptcy such a bummer?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

De(bed)bugging: help is on the way.

Long time Pink Slip readers know that I have been on the bed bug case for a good long while. My first post was way back in 2008, and I’ve been at it since, with subsequent posts on bed bug tracking dogs, and even a public service announcement penned after my husband and I got nipped by the pesky pests on a September 2010 trip to NYC. For months, we lived in a State of Fear that we had brought one back with us – a pregnant one, of course – and  infested our condo. Hundreds of dollars (and a full two months) later – new pillows, bedbug proof pillow cases and mattress cover, a bed bug detector, cedar spray – we finally got a good night’s sleep.bed bug

Still, I know that some in my family persist in their belief that I remain obsessed with bed bugs.

Thus, my Christmas gift this year from my wonderfully good-humored niece Molly was a stuffed bed bug, pictured here, posed on my otherwise bed bug free duvet cover.

While I wholeheartedly deny that I am obsessed with bed bugs - absurd, that – I will concede that I keep up with the latest bb news with admittedly keen interest. Recognizing this, my brother-in-law Rick e-mailed me when he saw an article in a recent Economist that help may be on its long overdue way.

At first, the article painted a grim picture about the “vampiric” little buggers that can “drink seven times their own weight in blood in a night”, that continue to plague hoteliers (and flat-dwellers) in New York City, and that are growing concern to hotel staff (and guests) elsewhere. But while everyone is looking for bed bugs – and I can sympathize and empathize with those on the hunt – they’re difficult to find:

Even trained pest-control inspectors can miss them. What is needed is a way to flush them into the open. And James Logan, Emma Weeks and their colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Rothamsted Research think they have one: a bed-bug trap baited with something the bugs find irresistible—the smell of their own droppings.

I’ll all for whatever works, and:

The reason the bugs are attracted to this smell is that they use it to navigate back to their hidey-holes after a night of feeding.

Having discovered that shit happens to be a good way to woo bed bugs, Dr. Logan has designed a trap. Since the team is understandably hoping to cash in on their idea, the details are scant. But it sounds like it might be like those mouse-traps with the glue pan. I once trapped a kitchen mouse with one of these, and I have to say that, once I found the little critter squirming around trying to free itself, I wish I’d chosen the trickier but quicker old-fashion spring the trap and break its neck approach. I assure you that one does not feel good putting a glue-stuck mouse in a couple of plastic bags and crushing it underfoot.

Trapping bed bugs in glue I would feel less guilty about. They’re only around today because we had to protect the environment by banning DDT. They’re the collateral damage of this ban. To hell with them.

I hope I never need to use one of their traps, but I am thrilled that the London researchers are doing something to de-bug the world.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

‘Til death do us party-hearty!

It’s easy to think that the funeral business will always be with us.

After all, everyone dies. And those left behind, if nothing else, have to figure out what to do with the body. What with the Baby Boomers about to start their stroll through the lonely valley, you’d think that the demand forecast would be pretty darned good. Especially when you consider that the first of what promises to be many Me Generations won’t want to go out in a boring pine box while the organist plays the impersonal Ave Maria, I would assume that there’d be a lot of lucrative customization work out there.

Still, with folks ordering bargain-price casket from Walmart, funeral directors are on the lookout for new ways to make a buck. Last year, here in the Commonwealth, they were looking to serve food at funeral parlors. (See Wake Me When The Coffee’s Perking.)

And for a lot of funeral homes – 8.3% of the National Funeral Directors Association respondents in a 2010 survey – non-funeral events are now part of their suite of offerings, with funeral parlors sometimes capitalizing on the impact that the down economy has had on function halls that don’t serve an “anchor function,” such as funerals. So they’re now offering a venue for birthday parties. Graduations. Weddings.

Why not?

Memorial Park Funeral Home and Cemetery in Memphis is one of those that does weddings. You can’t find the info directly on the home page, competing side-by-side with cremation info. But it can be found under About, where you learn that:

Weddings play an integral part in the life of Memorial Park. Each year, couples take advantage of our picturesque grounds and exchange their vows here.

I like that “life of the Memorial Park.”

Ceremonies are permitted (free of charge) at the Crystal Shrine Grotto, Rose Garden, God's Garden, Cave of Machpelah, or Front Fountain. Memorial Park is glad to provide couples a beautiful setting to tie the knot and wishes them well!

I’m glad that the folks at Memorial wish the newlyweds well. Wonder how the bereaved feel about seeing folks posing for wedding party pictures at the Cave of Machpelah while they’re grieving at the Crystal Shrine Grotto. Ah, well. Life belongs to the living. Or so I’ve heard.

For me, I wouldn’t want to, say, attend a wedding at St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Leicester, Mass. It’s not all that picturesque. Plus it was built on top of an underground spring, and it’s pretty darned soggy.

But Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge? The grand-daddy of all cemeteries as park? It’s pretty darned beautiful there.

Mt. Auburn, of course, would just be the venue for the wedding ceremony. And they’re just a cemetery, not a funeral home. But some funeral parlors do offer the full package – reception and all.

Across the USA, funeral homes are building and marketing such centers as not just a place to mourn the dead but as sites for events celebrating the living, including weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, holiday parties and proms.

The lure? It is often less expensive; there is greater availability; and the settings — inside and outside — can be nothing short of wedding-picture perfect. (Source: USA Today.)

In a circle of life kind of way, this all makes perfect sense.

Your funeral may be the big kahuna, but it’s just one event in the entire passel of events that make up a life. And if you lived your life in the same place, it’d be easy to see how a lot of important events could end up taking place under the same roof, which would make a funeral even more of the stroll down memory lane than it’s going to be anyway.

There’s where we posed for prom pictures, the night we first did “it.”

I’m so glad that we had our wedding next to the family plot. It really made me feel like Grandma and Grandpa were with us.

Here’s where we had little Billy’s fifth birthday party, the one where the pony nipped that obnoxious Carlson kid in the butt.

I never liked your mother, and I’ll be dipped if I clean that bird crap off her headstone.

Ah, our 25th anniversary “do”, when you wrenched your back doing the limbo.

Yep, expanding the functions that a funeral parlor can host makes perfect sense. I guess all you need is separate entrances so that the puking prom kids don’t run into the mourners. And that the Chucky Cheese attractions that will draw in the kiddo  birthday parties are out of the sightlines of the wake attenders. Other than that, why not offer cradle, or at least marital bed, to grave services?

It does seem to give new meaning to ‘til death do us part,’ though, doesn’t it?

And speaking of which, in some jurisdictions it’s apparently possible to combine the wedding and the funeral.

In Thailand, as the Huffington Post reports, a man “married” his girl friend of 10 years, during her funeral. She was killed in an accident, and he felt guilty about having put off the wedding she so wanted.

Maybe the Dixie Cups will release Going to the Chapel:

Going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get married.
Going to the chapel, and we’re gonna get buried,
Going to the chapel to get married and buried,
Going to the chapel of love.

Oh, what a world we live in.

You really start to feel old when your much younger sister hands you a copy of her AARP Bulletin with an article of interest in it.  Yikes. A tip of the bridal veil – or a lift of the shroud -  to my sister Trish.

Meanwhile, by some macabre – given today’s topic -  coincidence, today is the 41st anniversary of my father’s death. Still miss you, Dad. Wish you were here…

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

O Captain, my Captain. “Get back on board, for [expletive] sake!”

Along with the “routine” plane crash and the terrorist on board, the sinking ship has got to be one of the top travel fears. Lusitania. Titanic. Poseidon Adventure. Andrea Doria. And all those crowded ferries that seem to meet with mishap with some regularity. Fact or fiction, we’ve seen the movie, read the book, caught it on the evening news often enough to suspect it could happen.

Still, cruising in calm waters off the Italian coast, just off shore, doesn’t sound like the recipe for disaster. But for those on the Costa Concordia, it proved just that.

If not for the horrors the survivors experienced; the grief of those who lost friends and family; the rising death toll (including, heartbreakingly, the death of a 5 year old girl whose father was also killed), and the presumed terror-filled last moments the victims had; and the potential for environmental havoc if the fuel leaks out – and those are some pretty big “if nots” – this event would seem almost ludicrous: the foundering ship in what looked to be within dog-paddling distance of safety.

And, of course, there’s the hapless and feckless captain, Francesco Schettino, allegedly running the ship aground while attempting to “buzz” a friend on shore; wining and dining at the time of the crash with a comely blonde less than half his age; claiming that he hadn’t abandoned his ship but had, rather, fallen into a lifeboat while supervising the rescue of his passengers. Not to mention his man-tan and aging Lothario looks. Straight out of a casting call for opera buffa, with Schettino counterbalanced by the far nobler coast guard captain who ordered him back on his ship, telling him “Vada a bordo, cazzo”. (Which I’ve seen variously translated as “get back on board, for fuck’s sake,” and “get back on board, you prick.”)

Francesco Schettino is being justifiably vilified – what was he thinking heading off course in rocky waters, endangering his ship and all those lives on it? – and may well face criminal charges for negligent manslaughter.

His decision to play fast and loose, his irresponsible ac,t was a terrible dereliction of his duty. But abandoning ship, trying to save his own skin, is not a criminal act, as far as I know. Sure, it’s pretty heinous and cowardly, but if lack of courage, failure of nerve, and disgrace under pressure were crimes, the prison population would be orders of magnitude greater than it is now.

No. What Schettino’s “slip” into the lifeboat tells me is that he was in a job that he had no business being in. Bad career choice, wrong horse for the course.

Because some jobs do require physical courage, calm in the face of danger, clear thinking amid chaos. And captaining a ship has got to be one of them.

I know. You may think you’ve got “it”, but you never get to find out, because nothing bad ever happens. You get through your career with no opportunity to show your mettle.

Still, you would think that before choosing a career in which you might find yourself in life and death situations, in which you would have responsibility for the survival of others, you might do a bit of “know thyself'”-ing and figure out if you were up to it.

If you’re not, there are plenty of other careers open to you.

Most of us, of course, don’t have to make life and death decisions at work. Our challenges are more pedestrian: who to put on the lay-off list, what projects to cancel, putting an under-performer on notice, standing up to a bullying boss, owning up to a mistake you’ve made, pointing out a problem that everyone else seems to be ignoring.  Sure, if takes courage, but it’s different when it’s livelihoods, not lives at risk. And when my life’s on the line, I want the person in charge to be Sully Sullenberger (to change transportation modes), rather than Francesco Schettino.

Maybe Schettino never thought things through. Maybe he decided to become a cruise ship captain after watching dubbed episodes of The Love Boat. Maybe he thought that it would be all Captain Stubing conferring with Gopher about whether Julie was falling too hard for the dashing young man in cabin 12C.  Maybe he really didn’t get what he was signing up for.

Yes, you get the snappy white uniform, and a pretty good salary. You get to give the orders, and have people defer to you. And in return you get to be the one responsible, the one in charge of the tough choices, when things go awry.

However Schettino chose his path, it doesn’t appear that he had much self-awareness, leading him to make a pretty darned poor career choice. One that has had dire implications for many, many people.

Although I did read that Italian law does require a captain to stay with his ship*, in most jurisdictions jumping ship doesn’t make Francisco Schettino a criminal. It just makes him a person who was in the wrong job. That poor career choice has now been rectified: it’s doubtful he’ll be commanding anything more than a personal floatation device anytime soon.

* Huffington Post:

Maritime experts said the tradition of a captain standing by his ship isn't established in international maritime law. Some countries, like Italy, have included it in national laws.

Others respect it as "an unwritten rule or law of the sea," said Capt. Bill Wright, senior vice president of Marine Operations for the Royal Caribbean International cruise line.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Surrendering your hamsters

I was going to start the week with a post about hedge fund managers. Or more dubious technology from CES.  Or a possible cure for the bedbug epidemic. A new theme park in France. But then I saw the article about the poor man in Lawrence, Massachusetts who:

…turned over 94 hamsters to a local animal shelter, telling officials he was running out of room in his apartment. (Source: Boston.com.)

The man had been keeping hamsters for pets for about 5 years, so my first thought was, only94? Surely, with sexual maturity reached at a couple of months, a gestation period of a few weeks, and litter sizes that can run up to 18, a number in the billions might not have been unimaginable over the course of 5 years.

But what do I know from hamsters?

The answer: nothing, other than Hamid of Aleppohaving vivid and fond childhood memories of the book , Hamid of Aleppo. I was so taken with Hamid that I copied most of the illustrations using tracing paper and had a collection – with some sort of feeble story line -  that I called “My Hamid.”

Fortunately,when I wanted to know more about hamsters, there was Jimmy Wales to the rescue! From Wikipedia, I learned that hamsters are solitary little folks, and when housed with a fellow hamster often fight to the death. Plus hamster mothers have been known to cannibalize a few tasty morsels from their large litters. So this would keep something of a lid on exponential rodent begatting.

While I have no hamster experience, I have some second-hand gerbil history. (No, not that.)

For a number of years, my husband and I lived in an apartment in the home of a family that had two small kids, with whom we became very close. This was quite some time ago – those two small kids are now 34 and 30 – but I remember how excited Soph and Sam were when their father brought home what he was told were two male gerbils. The kids named them David and Scamp.

It is, apparently, not all that easy to tell the difference between a boy gerbil and a girl gerbil. No blue for boys, no pink for girls. Within a few days, when a dozen or so little hairless thing-ies appeared in the cage, it was clear that either David or Scamp was a female of the species.

We paid a call on the new parents, and I asked which one was David and which one was Scamp.

Before the words were out of my mouth, gerbil number one – paying no attention to the nicety of a bit of a post-partum lay-off – was mounting gerbil number two’s back.

Never mind, I told the kids. I think I figured it out.

Anyway, whether through gerbil parent intervention of the cannibalistic order,  or through human parent intervention of the flush it down the toilet variety, the baby gerbils were soon gone from the cage. As I recall, Scamp and David didn’t last much longer, either.

They were, however, quite cute.

They were also the first in a string of pet mishaps in this family: Persephone, the dog who died; Chico Marx, the bird who died.

Definitely bad pet karma going on downstairs.

As for the Lawrence hamsters, they were:

… well cared for kept in aquariums, buckets and Tupperware containers (Source: Lawrence Eagle Tribune.)

The hamster-meister just got overwhelmed, and went to a local MSPCA shelter for small animals and asked it they could take his furry friends out of their Tupperware containers and off of his hands. The surrendered hamsters will be put up for adoption. Originally, the man was going to keep a couple, then decided to let the entire lot go.

In addition to reclaiming his home, I’m guessing he’ll be in the money now. Even though they’re little mouths to feed, it can’t be cheap when there are 94 of them. And I’m guessing the house will smell a bit better, once the weather gets warm enough to crack open a few windows.

Despite the benefits of de-hamstering your life, I can’t help but thinking: this poor man!

All he wanted 5 years back was a little something to keep him company, a little someone to care for. The solitary hamster that he adopted turned out to be, as the Irish might have it, up the pole. So one hamster just naturally led to another.

I kind of wish he’d kept a few, but it might have been just too hard to pick his favorites. Or maybe he just needed to make a clean break.

Whatever the case, let’s hear it for a man who knew his limits, and let’s hope all those hamsters find good new homes.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Wi.Spi. Who do you spy?

I’m not a gadget-y type of person. I don’t have to possess the leading edge on anything. I would get bored with Siri after asking the second question. I don’t lull myself to sleep counting small electronic devices. I am not, in short, consumed by electronics.

Nonetheless, I am always somewhat intrigued by what happens in Vegas during the annual Consumer Electronics Show, held last week.

Most of it, of course, I would be just as happy if it stayed in Vegas. (Don’t like it. Don’t love it. Get way too much of it.)

Still, I did glance through a report on some of the goodies from this year’s show on Boston.com, and for me the biggest oh-no is the Wi.Spi helicopter, a remote-controlled toy that one can operate with their iPhone or Android device.  Us Blackberry bores have to be content with checking e-mail and looking at tiny versions of PowerPoint slides. We don’t get to do cool stuff like spy on our neighbors with a remote-controlled helicopter that also does video surveillance. (Wi.Spi will be commercially available in time for next Christmas, at the low-low price of $120.)

Not that I am completely averse to spying. I enjoy a good eavesdrop now and then. We used to have neighbors who got into tremendously colorful, high decibel verbal spats that carried right through their doors. I will confess that a couple of times I stood in the hall, spending a few seconds more than was absolutely necessary to lock the door behind me so that I could catch a few segments of their squabbles. This duo – who presented themselves as ultra-proper preppy (him) and sweetness and light (her) – went at it about her ignorance about things financial; his Internet porn habit; her useless, lay-about son. (Before this couple had moved into our building, my husband and I had actually overheard them viciously (but in a conversational tone) bickering about money in our favorite neighborhood restaurant. They were at the next table, and when they had their public face on while talking to their waiter, we learned a bit about where they were moving from, what he did for a living, etc. A few weeks later, they showed up in our building, and I recognized them from the restaurant.)

Not that I seek out opportunities, but an occasional good ED* – which is what I say, sotto voce, when I want my husband to clam up when we’re out – is enjoyable, and, in retrospect, is something I’ve always done. Which is how I got the nickname, from my father, of “radar-ears.”

Hey, I couldn’t help it if, in our pokey little house, my bedroom was right next to the living room.

It’s not that my parents had all that many interesting conversations, but the odd tid-bit would come up every once in a while.

Hell, it’s one of the best ways for kids to start piecing together the Mysterious and Remote World of Adults.  If you don’t want your kids to listen in on you, don’t have kids.

But overhearing is one thing; out-and-out spying is another.

A toy that does video surveillance?

What a terrible (albeit inevitable) idea.

One thing to catch someone with their voice raised. If you don’t want to be overheard, speak softly. Close the door, shut the windows. Learn Ameslan. Caveat speaker.

Quite another thing to catch someone, metaphorically or otherwise, with their pants down when they could and should have the expectation of privacy.

I found a bit more about the Wi.Spi on Mother Nature Network, where I read that,

Virtual pilots and drivers [there’s also a video surveillance car] can watch the video streaming live and also record it for upload to YouTube and other sites.

Such fun…

One of the first commandments of marketing is Know Thy Customer, and Ian Chisholm, marketing director of Interactive Toy (makers of Wi.Spi), characterizes his as “mature wallet, immature mentality.”

Chisholm believes that “people might use them to spy on people in the neighboring cubicles at work.”

One more reason to be happy-dappy that I know longer work full-time. (Hey, I saw your grouchy boss on YouTube trying to swat a helicopter out of her office with a silk scarf.)

But it does give me a swell product idea.

How about making something for those of us who value our privacy and don’t want to be surveilled by folks with “mature wallet; immature mentality.” I’m thinking a toy RPG so we can shoot the toy video surveillance helicopter down.

Are you listening, Interactive Toy?

Next year in Las Vegas!


*That’s eavesdrop – not the other ED.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Serfin’ USA

A couple of months back, there was an interesting article in The New Yorker on a growing industry: temporary personal assistants. (Not sure, but access to this content may require a subscription.)

One of the companies specializing in this is Boston’s own TaskRabbit – since expanded to cities on both coasts, as well as Chicago, and coming soon to South/Southwest – which has as its motto Do more. Live more. Be more. Not sure if that motto is for the taskers or the taskees, but I guess it works both ways.

Folks in need of jobs done – organizing their closets, prepping for a dinner party, getting their laundry done, dropping off donations – post their tasks, and TaskRabbits bid on the jobs. Once their bid is accepted, they’re off. All the grubby payment details are managed on line. No cash changes hands. Those “friendly TaskRabbits” are background checked, so it’s unlikely that, say, an ax murderer will show up to take down your Christmas tree. (Not apparent whether those who sign up to have tasks performed for them are similarly vetted, but I would hope so. Way too many Craig’s List killers out there…TaskPosters do have to use real, verified identities, but I guess there’s no way to weed out the Ted Bundy’s until they make their first strike.)

The New Yorker article didn’t focus on the boring, pedestrian requests that the task-masters set.

No “organize my closets” there.

One couple wanted their compost bucket cleaned out. (Which got done for $31. If I’ve got it right, TaskRabbit adds an approximate 15% service fee, paid by the poster.) Someone needed help retrieving a set of keys he’d dropped down a sewer. ($80)  One TaskRabbit made $100 driving a truckload of burning necessities from San Bruno to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada. I would have driven off the road laughing if I knew I was transporting “A big silver tricycle, a batch of Jester clothes and a large, tent-like dwelling called a yurt.”

One big baby TaskPoster stepped in dog crap and immediately smart-phoned a TaskRabbit request to have someone fetch a “new pair of navy blue Toms shoes from Nordstrom’s.” ($17.)  Okay, I get that Toms are soft shoes, so it’s not as easy as cleaning off leather. Still, you’d think a grownup could cope with a little bit of dog crap, wouldn’t you?

Thousands of unemployed or underemployed workers have parlayed one-off job requests into part- or full-time work. The gigs are especially popular with stay-at-home moms, retirees and students. Workers choose their jobs and negotiate their own rates.

Here’s what the friendly TaskRabbits demo looks like:


The sewer-fisher wasn’t a TaskRabbit, by the way. She was a “fulfiller” for Zaarly, “an online marketplace for micro-labor and goods based in San Francisco”, which has among its investors both Kleiner Perkins and Ashton Kutcher. (Another of the Zaarly projects: someone “who hired someone to buy a Michael Jackson-themed dog costume for a puppy.” Now there is a niche request.)

TaskRabbit and Zaarly are, I guess, the face of the new economy, in which “micro-laborers” make or augment their living doing the little things that someone else can afford to have done for them. The work world is starkly breaking down to TaskRabbits and TaskPosters.

Which did get me thinking about what tasks I would be willing to take care of as a TaskRabbit. Which didn’t last long: I quickly reached the conclusion that, in the grand scheme of things, I would much prefer being a doee to a doer. (We already have a couple who comes in every two weeks and does cleaning for us, so I’ve already pretty much declared where I fall.)

As for tasks I would absolutely consider having a TaskRabbit take care of for me:

  • Help me get the Christmas tree in the stand. An annual moment of tension, although somewhat diminished once I started getting the more manageable 6’ tree, as opposed to one that was 7’-plus.
  • Run bags of clothing over to St. Francis House. Mostly I’m pretty good about this, but sometimes I have a lot of stuff from my sisters, and it can just sit there while I figure out whether I can stuff it all in my shopping cart and get it over there in one trip. (Confession: this happens only after I have gone through the bags and removed the stuff that was obviously meant for me.)
  • Install new drapes in the bedroom and the den. Which I will get around to once I get around to having the bedroom and den painted. Which may or may not be this year, even though it is on my New Year’s resolution list for the nth time. Anyway, I so do not want to break my neck trying to get this job done. Whenever I get around to doing it getting it done.
  • Get rid of the ancient and colossal air conditioner that’s been sitting in the den closet, taking up precious storage space, since we moved into our condo over 20 years ago. Where we have central air, and where we have never used, and will never use, this behemoth.

Ah, yes, I do see TaskRabbit-ry in my future.

But I am a bit unsettled by the thought that, increasingly, these are what the jobs “out there” are going to be like: menial things – like taking care of someone who stepped in dog crap – that just cannot be outsourced to India or the Philippines. And the TaskRabbits won’t all be stay-at-home moms and male retirees.

It’ll be just like the good old days: you’ve got your lords; you’ve got your vassals; and you’ve got your serfs.

I guess I’m a vassal, but I can’t shake the notion that Serfin’ USA is not going to be such a great place to live.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Worst. Excuse. Ever.

I was never one for mental health days. Or physical health days. Extraordinarily fortunate – knock on wood and formica – when it comes to health, I had few sick days during my full-time career. I did take one mental health day when I worked at Wang – if ever there were an organization that could drive the most mental-health-day-averse employee to call in sick – I ended up feeling so guilty about it that I spent the day in bed feeling miserable.

I did work with some who on occasion abused the system – the every-other-Monday brigade; the Opening Day crew; the I’m sulking about something that happened at work folks. But nothing that can quite compare with the New York City school employee – “a parent coordinator at the Manhattan High School of Hospitality Management” – who scammed an extra week off for her vacation to Costa Rica by submitting a fake death certificate for one of her children. (Source: The New York Daily News)

[As an aside here, what are the Manhattan High School of Hospitality Management’s sports teams called? The concierges? The bell captains? The wait-persons? No use asking what the school colors are. Gotta be tuxedo black and linen white.]

Needless to say, that parent coordinator, one Joan Bartlett, is no longer doing any $37K/year parent coordinating.

Her con was fairly elaborate and involved one daughter calling the school to report that her sister had had a heart attack in Costa Rica, and another one making a later call to say that her sister had died, and that the grieving mommy dearest was part of a delegation heading to Costa Rica for the funeral. The capper was sending in a forged death certificate, a “document [which] is required if a city school employee asks for bereavement days.”

Unfortunately for Barnett, the death certificate was done pretty sloppily. A school official followed up with the Costa Rican government, which reported that the number on the death certificate corresponded to that of a long-dead man. Further investigation unearthed (exhumed?) the fact that Barnett had gotten her tickets well before her poor, dear daughter was supposed to have slipped the surly bonds of earth.

Barnett tried to tough it out by sending in another, slightly less shoddy, fake death certificate, but ended up pleading guilty “to a misdemeanor over the forgery.”

Maybe it’s just me, but faking up a story about your own kid’s death seems about as low as you can go. (I guess it could have been worse: she could have claimed that the dog ate her daughter’s death certificate.)

Now that Barnett’s lost her job – and, thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, is no longer all that employable – wonder if those piña coladas, palm trees, and lolling on the beach were worth it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Yes, ICANN invent some new gTLDs.

When I saw the ad in The Economist for a new president/CEO, the organization’s deliciously Huxley-ian name -  Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – just struck a big, fat chord in me. I can almost here the robotic voice – like the one that tells you to stand to the right on an airport moving sidewalk – welcoming you as you enter the lobby.

Of course, this job would be much more fun in if you actually got to assign names to people. (Numbers, I wouldn’t be so keen on assigning. Way too impersonal.) But this is actually about taking care of the Internet’s addressing system, so that everything can point us information seekers to the right places in a nice and orderly fashion. Which, believe it or not, is no small potatoes, or, in domainish-speak: nosmall.pot.

Or it would be if there actually were a generic Top-Level Domain .pot.

Which I suppose there could be, if the Aroostook County Potato Growers, or the folks a NORML, wanted to pay the $185K evaluation fee to ICANN to see if .pot will fly. And if that was a bit steep, there are grants available for poor and worthy entities that want to add to the list as part of ICANN’s new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) program.

As of now, there are only a couple dozen of them: .com, .net, .biz, .edu, .gov, .mil, .xxx…

But that will change, as ICANN is introducing a New gTLD program to open up the world of, well, generic top-level domains. This is a big deal, given that “TLDs can now, for the first time, include non-Latin languages, such as Cyrillic, Chinese, or Arabic.” (Source: PCMag.)

Although they don’t have to be three-characters long, I personally like this convention, so I stuck with it when I came up with my list:

  • .wot – Not that we all don’t know intuitively that, say, rummaging around The New York Post or The Daily Mail isn’t going to be a colossal waste of time. Still, if time-wasting domains were so registered, at least we would be completely forewarned. And someone would come up with a clever little app to block them out.
  • .duh – While this sounds like it might be negative, I actually see this domain being reserved for fact-checking sites like Snopes, which I immediately hop on to whenever I get a crazy mass e-mail containing something that is so duh-obviously not the truth.
  • .lol – Used for web sites containing clips from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
  • .lie – Websites belonging to politicians, pundits, and truth-stretching members of the media would be required to use this top level domain until they had six-months worth of postings cleared by a .duh site. Backsliders would be permanently assigned a .lie extension, or perhaps even a longer one: .llpof. (That would be liar, liar, pants on fire.)
  • .wtf – To be used by tabloids that specialize in real fake stories, such as “Famed Psychic’s Head Explodes”, and real, should be fake stores about the likes of OctoMom and the Kardashians. (Alternative designation for the Kardashians: .tmi .)
  • .kkk – Perhaps the KKK would object, but this would actually make a nifty TLD for extremist organizations, wouldn’t it?
  • .doh – For sites devoted to all things Simpson.
  • .moe – For use by anyone named Maureen and, I guess, for aficionados of Moe Howard and The Three Stooges. Although there would likely be enough demand for them to have  their own: .nnn (nyuck, nyuck, nyuck).
  • .dog – Years ago, when the Internet was a pup, New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner came up withaaaa-dog cartoon the now-classic “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” With the explosion of social media and TMI, this truism has arguably been reversed, and, these days, everybody does know if you’re a dog. Whether you are or not. Still, I don’t see why pooches can’t have their own New gTLD. I suppose that would open us up to .cat, as well. But, fair is fair. On the Internet, no one knows whether you’re a cat, either.

Anyway, I won’t be applying for the job as President/CEO of ICANN. Or even submitting one of my cool ideas. There’s a lot of other things I could do with $185K. (Maybe I could apply for one of those grants?) Still, I think that some of these have legs.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sorry, cupcake. You’re no longer the Hostess with the mostest.

I saw an article in The NY Times Deal Book the other day on Hostess – the cupcake folks – filing for bankruptcy. Well, my first thought was ‘didn’t I blog about this one a while back?’ And, indeed, I did – in September 2008 (!) when I was bemoaning the possible loss of Devil Dogs, and memorializing my relationship with Wonder Bread, Sno-Balls, and Twinkies.

Well, Hostess – which, last bankruptcy around was called Interstate but has now reverted to the far more evocative name of Hostess – emerged from that September 2008 bankruptcy, only to be refiling now. Mostly, it seems, to shake off the dough they owe to the Bakery and Confectionary Union pension fund.

I’m sure that the machers advising the Hostess CEO here – Perella Weinberg (financial adviser) and Jones Day (legal) must be sleeping better at night knowing that they are helping show those greedy and rapacious union bakers a thing or two. Gee, just imagine what someone who worked, oh, 40 years on the line squirting goop into Twinkies must have been hauling down in pension payout. No wonder this great country is going down the (pastry) tubes, what with retired factory workers sucking us dry. Thugs! Weaklings! Chiselers! If they had any decency they’d be grateful to their betters – like the folks at Perella Weinberg and Jones Day – for the opportunity to work for below minimum wage and no benefits. And to do so for as long as they can frost the curlicue design on the patent-leather frosted top of a Hostess Cupcake. If they had one iota of patriotism, they’d be willing to die with their white cloth booties on.

In addition to untold pensioners, Hostess has 20,000 employees.

Maybe this new bankruptcy will bring them to their senses, to the realization that theirs is one cushy job.

I mean, standing around in a toasty warm baking facility that smells so marvelously sweet.

Now that I think of it, these bums should probably be paying Hostess for the privilege. Instead of a punch clock, each factory door could have a credit card swipe. I don’t think they should charge their workers all that much. And I do think they should occasionally give them a bag of rejects – bad curlicues on the cupcakes - to take home. Christmas bonus, nice treat for the kiddies, excellent gesture of managerial goodwill. Maybe even call it something like the “Let Them Eat Cupcake” program.  Has a nice ring to it, no?

Wonder if they could get anything back from those retirees, no doubt sitting around in posh condos in Florida or Arizona. That’s when they’re not buzzing around in RV’s with a bumper-sticker that says “I’m spending my kids’ inheritance.” Not for much longer, Grandpop! Not if you worked for Hostess, cupcake!

Should I run this idea by the good folks at Perella Weinberg and Jones Day? Nah. They’re plenty smart. They’ve probably already thought of it.

Sure, I’m a bit tempted to feel bad for those 20,000 factory workers and those fat-cake union pension-eers.

But, when they chose a career in confectionary, they should have looked ahead and figured that this day would come.


What was wrong with them?

Why didn’t they go out and get meaningful and real jobs like the ones at Perella Weinberg and Jones Day?

Personally, while the Devil Dog is, more or less, one of my remembrances of things past – so what if it’s not a madeleine? – I won’t miss those cupcakes.

If I want a cupcake, I’ll do what a real American does. I’ll stop at one of the fancy-dan cupcake stores that are sprouting up all over the place and get myself a $4 Red Velvet with buttercream frosting.

What’s wrong with people if they can’t see that this is a so, so, so much better way to live?


Friday, January 13, 2012

Checking out the library

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to start going to the library.

This resolution was prompted by the closing of the Border’s that I walked by each day, and stopped into each week.

The nearest bookstore is now a further walk than the library. So why not start using the BPL? It’s not as if I don’t have a long, library-loving history.

I grew up in a house of books, a house of voracious readers.

Now my parents weren’t sitting around reading Flaubert and Henry James. They read popular novels, historical novels, Ellery Queen mysteries. They subscribed over the years to the Literary Guild, the Book of the Month Club, and the Quality Paperback Club. (I still have those Quality Paperbacks, which I’m holding in reserve for some future book shortage and/or disablement. The only one that I can recall the title of off-hand is Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson.)

For a few short (and later deemed shameful) years, they subscribed to the Reader’s Digest condensed books, where I first started reading grown up books by sampling best sellers of the day. Most memorably, I read the condensed version of I Was Chaplain on the Franklin, a harrowing World War II story by a Jesuit from Holy Cross . (Father Joseph O’Callahan, who won a Medal of Honor for his heroics.)

Although they were less likely to be cracked open, we also had “The Classics,” leather bound editions of whatever – I actually don’t remember any of the titles, other than the Jane Austens, which my mother re-read every year, and I’m guessing some Alexander Dumas. Then there was the blue, cloth-bound complete Yale Shakespeare collection. These high end books were housed in the living room, along with the Collier’s Encyclopedia. The more pedestrian books were shelved in the family room and in our bedrooms.

Naturally, we kids had our own books, too. From the time we could grasp an object, there was likely a Golden Book in our hands.

Once we could read, we were also book club members:  Children’s Classics, American Heritage, and Vision Books. Vision Books were for Catholics. My two favorites were More Champions in Sports and Spirit and Lydia Longley, First American Nun. My favorite chapter in More Champions, was about Herb Score, a gifted pitcher who was never the same after being hit in the eye with a ball off the bat of the Yankees’ (figures) Gil McDougald. (I just googled Gil, and found that he was a graduate of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit school, so he was no doubt, like Herb, a Catholic, too.)

We saved up our allowances to buy The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys at Woolworth’s. We always got (and gave) books as gifts.

But there was no way we could afford to buy enough books to satisfy our collective and individual reading joneses. So each and every Friday evening, after supper, we went en famille, to the Main South Branch of the Worcester Public Library. (Or the Worcester Free Public Library, as it was then called.)

The en famille who went were my father, my sister Kath, and my brother Tom. My mother stayed home with the little guys, but my father took her library card so that he could check out twelve books, instead of the allotted six.

My cousin Ann Kelly worked at the library while she was in high school, and I remember how great it felt to walk in the door and see our ‘big girl’ cousin’s welcoming smile.

I checked out a lot of drivel – teen romances – but at the Main South Branch of the Worcester Public Library, I also discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and the wondrous Betsy-Tacy-Tib books by Maud Hart Lovelace.

Since then, my tastes in reading have been catholic, but have arced towards great writing of lasting quality.

Early on, the habit of reading was set for a lifetime. But when I began working full time, I bought more and checked out fewer books.

And now I’m back.

I had forgotten what a wonderful experience it is to graze the shelves, making a grab for anything that looks interesting. I had forgotten what a marvelous experience it is to see, all in a row, the complete works of a recent crush like Stewart O’Nan (which I am making my way through), rather than the couple of novels that even a good bookstore might have kept in stock. I had forgotten what it was like to pick up and enjoy a book by an old favorite, like John Le Carré, whose work I last read over 40 years ago. Or to finally read a book by a writer who’s been on my list for years – Pat Barker – and see what I’ve been missing  up til now.

Dumping a tote back full of library books onto the bed and deciding which one to pick up first is every bit as satisfying as dumping the tote back full of Border’s books. Or opening the delivery from Daedalus or Kenny’s Book Store, two sources of bought books over the years.

Actually, it’s even better than bought books, as I no longer have to fret about where those bought books go next. The good ones I can always find a home for among my read-a-holic family. But the not-so-good ones, the buying mistakes… Fortunately, my sister Kath is always willing to take them to the Wellfleet Library book sale. Still. A checked out mistake is easier on the pocketbook and on the environment than is a bought mistake.

Some parts of the library have changed since I was last a regular.

You no longer search through card catalogs. And check out is automated – no more smiling cousin Ann at the checkout desk! Just a security guard who can also help you figure out how the bar code scanner works.

Still, browsing the stacks, sitting down to read a few pages to see whether a book by an unknown-to-you author is “it”, and heading to the check out with an armful of good reads…

There’s nothing like it!

So what if, six weeks after signing up, I’m still only 60th for a reserve copy In the Garden of Beasts. They have dozens of copies. I’ll get there soon enough.

Ah, the library.

I think I’m falling in love again.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Of Mice and Mountain Dew

I’ve never been a Mountain Dew drinker. Actually I dew do not  believe I’ve ever had one. Then again, I don’t believe I’m the object of their desire, either, demographic-wise, which I’m guessing skews young, male, Dukes of Hazard-ous.

So, no, the great bottled/canned mouse controversy will not stop me from buying me some MTN Dew. It will, however, give me pause when it comes to my soda habits, which is a once-a-day Diet Polar Orange Dry (oh, how fortunate to live in New England) and/or Diet Coke.

After reading about the latest, I will definitely be reading the fine ingredients print.

In case you haven’t heard about the Mountain Dew brouhaha, which I saw in The Huffington Post last week, one Ronald Ball of Wisconsin is suing PepsiCo (the bev-co behind Mountain Dew), claiming that he got a can from a vending machine, took a swig, tasted something ghastly, and spit out a mouse.

Not that it makes all that much difference, gastronomically or aesthetically, but that must have been some teensie-tiny little mouse for it to sluice out the not-so-large flip top hole in a soda can.

But, hey, mouse is mouse.

Ball, who is seeking damages in excess of $50,000, claims he then sent the mouse to Pepsi, which destroyed the mouse's body.

Well, I for one can’t wait until we all get replication technology in our homes, so that we can create a true, 3-D copy of something like this, and not just trust the gods that open Mason Jars containing Mountain Dew and mouse parts for Pepsi to hang on to it for future reference.

What’s interesting is not that Pepsi may have destroyed the evidence. It’s how they’re pushing to get rid of Ball’s case:

…Pepsi is now moving to dismiss the case, citing testimony from an expert who claims that acid used when the drink is bottled would have caused the rodent to transform into a "jelly-like' substance," according to LegalNewsline.com.

So, if I’ve got this straight, they’re saying that you wouldn’t have found a whole mouse, you would have gotten a mouthful of “jelly-like substance”, which most of us would likely chalk up to sediment or general flavor goop. Not reduction of rodent.

(Note to JK Rowling: if you ever do another Harry Potter, it looks like we’ve got a new flavor for Bertie Botts’ Jelly Beans. Yum!)

Anyway, it seems that Mountain Dew contains something called brominated vegetable oil (BVO), which is the not-so-secret ingredient that dissolved the mouse. That’s not what BVO was doing in there. It’s prime purpose is “more consistent flavoring.” Mouse-dissolving is, apparently, a side benefit.

BVO, by the way, is banned in nanny-state places like Europe, but in the US is allowed in “limited quantities”. (Just enough to even out the flavor and dissolve the occasional mouse.)

In addition to Mountain Dew, BVO is used Squirt and Fanta Orange, neither or which I would have thought was still on the market.

Anyway, I’ll be slowing down my soda consumption, even if my bevs of choice don’t contain BVO.

As always, be careful out there.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Guess I’ll never work at (Barney) Google

The Wall Street Journal, a few weeks back –Remember then? Last year? Whoa:  talk about the way-back machine  - had an article on the oh-so-clever questions that Google asks when it interviews folks for a coveted position there.

The first poser was how you would survive if you were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in an about-to-start whirring (Wearing) blender.

I know that the Googs have to weed out a lot of folks – the odds of getting a job there are nearly an order of magnitude worse than the odds of getting into Harvard – so they have to start somewhere.

Presumably, they don’t jump this sort of question on, say, a prospective receptionist. Or marketer.

Most of the Google questions had a high mathy-physics-dweeb factor.

I guess they’re not that into wordplay, or anything that I’d be good at. (Like trivia.)

Maybe it’s just me who would find these questions off putting and just plain weird. Personally, I never needed anything beyond budget-managing math, and erect a portable trade-show booth physics, to do my job. (Okay, this is not quite true. I was once the product manager for software that did state-space modeling… But I would never have gotten that job if anyone had shrunk me to the size of a nickel and thrown me in a blender.)

Even non-tech companies are moving beyond the “where do you see yourself in five years” questions of yore. (Now that I think about it, I don’t imagine that anyone asks the five-year plan one these days.) I would sure do better on the more prosaic, less AP physics questions that the likes of AT&T, J&J, and BofA pose:

"If you could be any superhero, who would it be?"

"What color best represents your personality?"

"What animal are you?"

At least I think I would do better: Wonder Woman. (Boring, but is there anyone else?). Teal. (Or periwinkle. I’m such an equivocator, I’d never get the job.) Pygmy chimp. (Sorry, Jack. I did consider black lab.)

Although these are probably completely twentieth century, I can think of a few good interview questions – drawn from old-timey, real-life situations -  that would pretty much work for any company. Here’s one for marketing:

Explain what Google (or company x) does in 25 words or less.

Better yet,:

Explain what Google (or company x) does in a tweet. (Hey, I can be hip and happenin’ too.)

This would gauge your ability to express yourself with clarity and brevity. I’m (obviously) in love with the long form, but I can do brevity, too. All marketing people need this skill.

Here’s one for figuring out how someone manages their manager.

It’s 3 p.m. on the afternoon before a long Fourth of July weekend. Your manager was in the presence of the CEO, when he said “Wouldn’t it be something if we said ‘to hell with the Internet’ and developed a whole set of printed marketing materials.” Rather than laugh in his face, your manager called you and told you that, by Tuesday, you and your team would have to create and produce a dozen data sheets, six case studies, and a white paper. Doing so will f up your weekend, as well as that of everyone under you. Plus you can’t believe the CEO really wants this. What is your response to your manager?

And how someone might manage their directs:

You’ve just learned that someone on your team has done something incredibly stupid to a very senior person in the company. What do you do?

These questions obviously come from someone who worked in the old, hierarchical world – not in the flat-earth, collaborative, shifting spheres workplace of today.

Good thing I’m not looking for a job at Google.

But I do have one question that Google might want to use to immediately weed folks out:

Fill in the rest of this line:

Barney Google….

Answer: with his goo-goo-googly eyes

If you know this answer, you are way-way-way too old (or too retro) for the likes of Google.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Learning from the failures of others

As I wrote yesterday, The New York Times had a recent article on a handful of small businesses that didn’t quite make it over the line and into 2012. Just as each business succeeds in its own way, so do they fail. Which is not to say that there aren’t abundant lessons to learn from the failures of others. It’s just that so many of those lessons never really end up applying. We are, after all, as unique as snowflakes, are we not? As are our businesses.

And let’s face it, the only way to separate the winners from the losers is to look back after they’ve either succeeded or failed. Even the smartest of smarty-pants VC’s fail 90% of the time, don’t they?

As for The Times lineup:

Colorado’s Elizabeth Anne Bed & Breakfast lasted 8 years before getting tripped up in some equity financing to renovate their kitchen. Another case of maybe-we-should-have-stuck-with-the-1980’s-laminate-cabinets-and-formica-counters. But, hey, in 2007 it was still up, up, and away.

The kitchen reno larded an extra $1,700 per month onto their mortgage tab, and, once the recession set in and they had fewer visitors, the owners starting missing payments and got re-po’d.

They recognize that their refinancing decision did them in.

Back then, we didn’t anticipate things slowing down.”

Bet they wished they’d stayed with their dumpy old kitchen but, of course, back in the day we were all brainwashed into thinking that if we didn’t want glam, we weren’t quite Americans. All well and good if you can afford it, but, wow! These folks went out and revved their mortgage payments up $20K per year on a business that, at its peak, brought in not much more than $100K.

Moral of this story: Don’t make investments that aren’t necessary and/or don’t directly contribute to the growth of your business. The fancy-schmancy kitchen was neither.

Just Moulding, a company in Maryland, also folded after seven years in business. First, I want to say how much I admire a company with a name that says it all. Although personally I would have used the spelling “molding,” I get it: they just do moulding. (Similarly, my favorite tagline ever was on a van I used to see on my 128 commute: We clean blinds. No question about what they did. None of this, ‘we help the enterprise achieve greater productivity and increased sales’ blah-di-blah.)

The fellows who owned JustMoulding thought they “did everything right.” Apparently not.

Here they were, stuck in a recession, selling a product – crown molding – that nobody actually needs. Which is not exactly recession-proof. But this is now, and that was then, when the owners decided that they were going to franchise their swell idea.

And then the recession hit. They were stuck with all the administrative costs associated with running an operation that franchised, but they had few takers.

Moral of this story: It’s a two-fer: If we you really have your heart set on selling something that people don’t need, get into the luxury space. Or balance things out by offering a complementary product or service that people do need. Or figure out how to position your product as a need. (“Houses with crown molding sell at a premium, and faster, than houses without it.”) The second moral is don’t get greedy. Selling franchises probably looked like free money. Not!

The third company was a Brooklyn-based commercial mortgage company “that specialized in finding loans for small businesses.” It only lasted a couple of years.

I’m sure it looked like a good idea to help small businesses navigate the tightened up credit markets, but, alas, P&H Capital was no better at prying open the purse strings than were small businesses going directly. And then there was the “dream deal” that got away: a $500 million factory in Asia. Mssrs. P&H would have gleaned $5M on the deal, had it gone through. Which it didn’t.

Moral of this story: Nothing’s easy, and never, ever, ever count on the one big deal that’s going to save you. 

But, not to worry, Mr. Humet and Mr. Porat – the eponymous P&H of P&H Capital got some other hustles going – one that “promotes small businesses online using free giveaways, and “an online marketplace where monetary judgments can be bought, sold and traded.”

Gentlemen, place your bets. (Winner, winner, chicken dinner.)

Elsewhere in Brooklyn, ScooterFood, makers of all-natural dog food, lasted 5 years in real life, but 35 in dog years. Unfortunately, Michelle Lewis’s concept had a fatal flaw:.

Because her food was perishable, she sold it frozen — but did not realize that in 2006 few pet stores had freezer space. In part because frozen food was expensive to ship, ScooterFood was priced higher than other dog foods.

And unfortunately, Ms. Lewis didn’t keep that careful track of costs vs. revenue, either. She sunk in $60K to keep the business afloat before realizing that she was never going to make a go of it. Arf!

Moral of this story: When you come up with your business plan, have someone on the outside who knows your market scrutinize your assumptions and risks. They may have helped recognize that there was a real problem with the frozen food model. And, if you can’t keep your records straight enough for you to recognize that your money is going down the drain, get a bookkeeper. (Which Ms. Lewis is doing for her new business: caramel sauce.)

The final business, SmartyVA, should have bitten the dust on the name alone. The premise of Smarty VA – which buckled after less than two years – was creating a cadre of social media proficient “virtual assistants”.

The six-week training program cost $1,000 and was aimed at stay-at-home mothers and disenfranchised women, like victims of domestic violence. When graduates took jobs through leads on the site, SmartyVA received 10 percent of their earnings.

Well, I guess that social media management beats addressing envelopes, stringing jewelry, or selling Amway. But, unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of the virtual assistants trained never ended up working. Maybe it takes more than a six-week training program to make someone into a social media manager. Maybe those stay-at-home moms and disenfranchised women figured that after they paid their $1K for the course, they shouldn’t have to fork over another 10% of what they earned.

SmartyVA was the brainchild of Starr Hall.

“I didn’t anticipate how different the mindset of the women I was training was from my own,” she said.

Moral of this story: Naming a company Smarty Anything will come back to haunt you.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Not so epic fails

The New York Times rung (wrung?) out the old year with an article that contained a set of thumbnail sketches on five small businesses that had failed in 2011.

Small business failures – hey, large business failures, for that matter – are nothing new. The fast fact, I believe, is 50% of new ones fail in the first five years.

Most of the small – and, hey, large  - businesses I’ve been associated with, which would be most of the outfits I worked for when I worked full time, ended up failing in one way, shape, or form.

Let’s see, of the five places where I hung my hat during my 20+ years in corporate, the two small companies were acquired  by (still-standing) larger companies. In both of those cases, most of us would have preferred to continue to operate as a stand-alone entity. But the companies were way too weak for that. And that swooshing sound we heard was our fun little workplaces being sucked out of our comfort zone – whee! - and into the maws of what we regarded as an evil empire.

The larger companies I worked at weren’t exactly models of stability, either.

Other than watching the few shares I held plummet to zero – gotta love those capital gains losses – I didn’t pay all that much attention to Wang once I breezed out the door, heading for one of those swooshees (which when I joined it was going to be the next billion dollar software company – this was 1989, when a billion was a BILLION; needless to say, LOL on that one). I vaguely remember that Wang filed for bankruptcy before being acquired by a Dutch company. Basically, it did a Douglas McArthur and just faded away.

As did Genuity, after it went bankrupt and bits and pieces were picked up by dumpster divers like Level 3.

Ah, the good old days.

The fifth company I worked for remains standing. Everyone I knew there is long gone, so I don’t really follow their fortunes. Its name comes up occasionally – it’s a partner of a company I’m doing some free-lance work for. But, mostly, yawn.

Anyway, the companies that were cited in The Times article were really small ones – far piddlier than even the piddliest of the piddles I worked for.

For the most part, their problems were “weak sales.”

On the surface, this is kind of duh obvious. But company can have decent sales but poor ability to deliver, or mispriced products, or insane cost structures, or whatever. 

All of the long-gone joints where I worked had, to some extent, “weak sales,” but I wouldn’t say that any of this could be attributed to a weak economy. It was due in each case to some combination of weak strategy, weak discipline, weak resources, weak products, weak marketing…

These days, of course, weak sales can be a reason in itself, I guess.

Anyway, in tomorrow’s edition of Pink Slip, we’ll take take a look at the not-so-fab The New York Times Five.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Let me get this straight: someone actually thought the Verizon surcharge was a good idea?

Seems like only yesterday we were in a pet about Bank of America’s having the nerve to impose a hefty tax on use of their debit card. It’s not like they weren’t already gouging consumers with their monthly checking account fee structure, only slightly offset by the trace element of interest you were accruing on your savings account. Oh, I know, I know. The poor old bank had to do something after those meanies in Congress told them they couldn’t be so darned usurious towards those who don’t quite manage to pay their credit card balances off monthly. So, who could they turn to other than those upright, non-charging, debit-using citizens.

Although I am, I’m somewhat embarrassed to reveal, a BofA customer, I was not one of those who joined in the hue and outcry against the rapacious megabank. I do use my debit card, but pretty much only when I buy groceries at Whole Food. Since there’s a BofA cash machine next door to Whole, my workaround was going to be making a stop at the ATM and taking out the cash – for free – and paying for my groceries with folding green. But enough BofA customers took up torch and pitchfork – or, rather, the 21st century social media equivalents – twittering and blogging – and forced them to back down.

Given all this, you’d have thought that Verizon might have thought twice, or even three times, before they decided to levy a $2 convenience fee on those who want to pay their bills on line.

As with BofA, while I am a VZ customer, I was not one of those who was going to be victimized by the $2 surcharge. I already use the automatic payment option – direct from my BofA account to VZ’s coffers -  that they’re trying to drive people toward with the new $2 fee. At least I don’t think I was one of those targeted by the convenience fee. Now that I read the details, I’m not so sure. Maybe I was going to be gouged because BofA was turn-around-gouging VZ to get at my money.

And “convenience fee”? Talk about one of my all-time favorite euphemisms. I especially like it when it’s imposed by those who sell tickets for something or other, and who jack you for the privilege of printing the ticket on your home printer, rather than having a cardboard version sent to your home via US Mail – for free.

Anyway, Verizon went ahead with their bone-headed move by announcing the new surcharge, only to get torn to shreds by “the people.”

Once vox pop was heard loud and clear, VZ kind of started to reposition their announcement as the world’s largest unmanaged focus group. Once the people had dialed up and dialed in their fee-rage, VZ heard things loud and clear. Apparently there weren’t that many no-bars, dead zones out there.

The upshot is that Verizon looks rapacious and, on the heels of the BofA brouhaha, really and truly dumb.

Don’t these behemoth enterprises have all kinds of marketing folks to take the pulse of “the people” before they announce something like this, in the current economic, political, and social climate (Occupy Tea Party). Not to mention the no-going-back-to-the-good-old-days role that social media, in all its glorious ubiquity and immediacy, plays. Did the folks who do this kind of thing get laid off? Are they just plain dunderheads? Or is this yet another indicator that the world really has changed utterly.

I can forgive a stodgy old bank for not getting this. But shouldn’t Verizon have figured out that its customers were going to take to the wireless airwaves? What do they think folks are doing with all those smartphones, all that wifi, all that 24/7?

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Drive with Care(y’s)

There was a lovely article on Boston.com the other day about a local driving school, Cam’s Automobile School of Waltham, that has allegedly scammed $175,000 out of over 500 drivers’ ed students by taking their money, even as the owner – one Frederick Lovely – knew that the outfit was closing down.

Cam’s is now defuncto – it went out of business because it was financially ailing -  so the likelihood that those students will get their “tuition fees” back is not good.

It will be interesting to see how this turns out.

Maybe Lovely did know he was about to slam the trunk down on his operation, but still wanted to steer some more driving-around money his own may. Or maybe he honestly thought that by getting all these eager drivers in the making to pay upfront, he was hoping to stave off what it’s now clear was the inevitable demise of his outfit. In car talk, it could be that what Lovely thought was a slow leak turned out to be a loose tire that flew off the axle.

Time will tell.

One thing of note in the article was that drivers’ ed at Cam’s cost $575.


If it had cost that much in my day, I can pretty much guarantee that no one would have taken drivers’ ed.

I can’t remember what it cost to take it over 40 years ago at Carey’s in Worcester. “Drive with Care(y’s)” was their clever motto, and I believe that when you graduated, you got a small, navy blue plastic folder in which you could place your license so that it didn’t get all dog-eared. This was in the dark ages of cardboard, picture-less licenses, and dog-eared they did get.

My vague recollection is that it cost $30 to take the course, of which I had to pay half.

The classroom instructor was a young man named Terrance O’Hara, who was either a real school teacher, or a fireman, or a policeman. I forget which, but the drivers’ ed gig I do know was a moonlighting extra.

Drivers’ ed was held after school, in a classroom in the Care(y’s) office on Main Street.

I took the course in November of 1965. One evening, after class, I had just gotten off the bus and was walking home when I turned back to see that all of the lights in the city of Worcester, except for some emergency lights at St. Vincent’s Hospital, had gone out. It was the night of the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. For years afterward, people would ask “Where were you when the lights went out?” an altogether cheerier question than “Where were you when Kennedy got shot?”

Well, when the lights went out, I had just gotten off the 19 Cherry Valley bus, right after the Sunoco Station on the corner of Winchester and Main, and was heading up the rise next to the Clark Manor Nursing Home to take the shortcut home.

As if learning to drive wasn’t excitement enough.

After the classroom instruction, you got your learner’s permit – I aced the easy-peasy test – and hit the road.

My road instructor was an older fellow named Francis I. Linehan.

As I recall, Mr. Linehan wore bow ties, took his students up the steepest hills in the rattiest sections of Worcester, and spent the entire session yelling 10-2 – the positions on which you kept your hands on the steering wheel. For some reason, I think he was a teacher at Classical High School.

Until I got in the car with Mr. Linehan, I had never been behind the wheel of any vehicle that wasn’t a bicycle, and Mr. L. spent much of each lesson hour berating me for my lack of driving skill. Brutally so.

“You’ll never pass the road test” were his parting words after each excursion.

I finished up the classes with him – you had to in order for your parents’ to get the new-driver discount - but dropped out of the wonderful world of driver’s license pursuit for six months.

While I was getting my license, my mother was, too.

She had quasi-learned to drive in her late teens, but when she asked her father if she’d ever be able to use the car, his answer was, ‘of course not.’ He wanted his oldest child to get her license so that she could move his car from the street to the garage in the alley out in back of the house.

Thanks, but no thanks.

I, on the other hand, was going to be able to get frequent use of the car, competing for it with my mother – who never learned to like to drive – and my sister Kath when she was home on vacation from college.

Just as I had dropped out of driving after my awful experience on the road driving with Care(y’s), my mother dropped out of learning to drive after her awful experience on the road with my father.

In contrast, my experience learning to drive with my father beside me was quite wonderful. I loved logging road time with him. And he sure knew better than to take a new driver up steep hills in the worst sections of Worcester. Most of my early outings with my father were to St. Joseph’s Cemetery, where there were neither cars nor people to hit. A few years later, it was where my father was buried. Anyway, my father was quite patient, and an excellent teacher. With me, that is.

My mother claimed that he yelled at her all the time when she was trying to learn to drive. Come to think of it, given how my mother drove, this is not surprising in the least.

Anyway, my mother decided to go with professional instruction. Probably at Care(y’s). But probably not with Mr. Linehan.

I, on the other hand, managed to master the art of driving at my father’s side.

In May of 1966, I got my license on the first try, nimbly executing a Y-turn and coming to a complete cessation of all forward movement at each stop sign.

I never did develop much of a sense of direction, however.

Before I drove to school for the first time, I made a weekend trial run, and got lost making my way to the school I had attended for nearly 3 years. Yes, I could have taken the longer way and not gotten lost, but that would have been no fun. I tried the short cut, and got bollixed up on Flagg Street or thereabouts.

I note that Care(y’s) is still in business, although it’s now in cahoots with LaPorte’s, which was the other big driving school of my era.

Their motto is:

We were here yesterday, we are here today and will be here tomorrow.

Unlike Cam’s of Waltham, which will likely not be back.

As motto’s go, LaPorte’s is fine, but I do prefer Drive with Care(y’s).