Friday, March 30, 2012

I guess it was smarter than saying he was Bill Gates

As an AWOL soldier, Brandon Lee Price was already in a bit of hot water, what with being AWOL and all, which means he was a deserter, which is just not an entirely cool thing to have on your résumé.

And the he owed his Armed Forces Bank loan account $658.81, which may not sound like a lot, but I don’t think that GI’s make a ton begin with, and I’m guessing that, when you desert, the buck stops altogether.

So it might have seemed like a nifty idea to call Citibank and change Paul Allen’s Seattle address to your own address in Pittsburgh.

Okay. Not everyone’s familiar with Paul Allen’s name.

I mean, it’s not like he’s Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Scott McNealy even.

Although there’s only one Paul Allen who was co-founder of Microsoft, it is, after all, a pretty common one. I just searched on White Pages, and there are 100+ in the U.S. alone.

So I’m not surprised that the hapless person who answered the phone at Citibank and said, “Certainly, Mr. Allen, I’ll make that change right away” didn’t know who she wasn’t speaking with.

Still, isn’t it a bit odd that a bank would let you call up and make this sort of change without asking for something like your account number? Or Social? Or mother’s maiden? Or DOB? (Okay, anyone could find that one: January 21, 1953, if Wikipedia is to be trusted.)

And I don’t imagine that the hapless person on the phone got to glance into his account, which probably doesn’t hold anywhere near all $14B he’s worth either, and ask herself/himself, “Wonder why he’s moving from Seattle to Pittsburgh? If I had that kind of dough, I’d live in Tahiti."

Still, I’d be a bit surprised to find out there there’s not a process for change of address, a tiny bit of security control, that the hapless person on the phone neglected to follow.

So Brandon Lee Price succeeded in getting the address changed. Just in time to report a lost debit card. Which Citi replaced and proceeded to mail to the fake Paul Allen, who was really the real Brandon Lee Price.

By the time the time the debit card showed up in his Pittsburgh mailbox, Brandon Lee Price must have been thinking I’m the luckiest darned deserter in the entire US Army.

Brandon Lee Price’s ideas of what to do with that debit card weren’t all that outlandish or extravagant. He didn’t seek to buy a major league sports team. Or fund an enterprise to make spacecraft. Or set up a foundation in his name. Or in Paul Allen’s name.

No, he just wanted to, if not pay his debt to society, then at least pay his debt to the Armed Forces Bank. And take care of a couple of other modest purchases. by trying to use the card in a video game store. And at a dollar store. And then he got a bit greedy and tried to wire himself $15K through Western Union.

At some point, Citibank detected the fraud. That $15K Western Union deal-io was likely over a transaction threshold. I suspect if he’d gone to the dollar and dollar stores first, he could have gotten the knock-off Kraft Dinner and Head ‘n Shoulders. And Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto or whatever he was looking for to take up some of the free time he had now that he wasn’t on his own personal call of duty in the US Army.

But the only transaction that went through was the loan repay. (Loan repay? Honor among thieves?)

Anyway, Brandon Lee Price was arrested, and the Army may want to take him into custody.

I suspect that Citibank will make good on the $651.81 to went to pay the loan bag, but if I were Paul Allen I probably wouldn’t be keeping my walking around money there any longer. Of course, when you’ve got $14B, what’s $15K kiting scheme at Western Union?

It does make you wonder about how easy it was for Brandon Lee Price to lay his hands on Paul Allen’s debit card, doesn’t it?

Just under 280,000 cases of identity theft were reported in 2011, according to the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Wonder how many of them involved billionaires?

Source: AP article on

Thursday, March 29, 2012

I’ve (no doubt) been (pink) slimed

I suspect that for every hand-crafted, 100% grass-fed Kobe beef slider I’ve downed, I’ve had a dozen All-American hamburgers that have contained All-American pink slime. Some have come from my rare but not unknown stop-ins at McDonald’s or Burger King. Sure, mostly I go the “virtuous” salad or broiled chicken route, but sometimes I do have a burger.  And every five years or so, I wash that burger down with a chocolate shake. (If something as viscous as a McDonald’s shake can actually wash anything down.)

More often, though, I consume my burgers at one of the two bar-cum-burger joints my husband and I occasioned in that far away time (i.e., last fall) before he figured out he had gluten intolerance and can no longer eat a bun. I have no illusions that the delicious burgers I wolfed down over the years  at the Pour House and the Red Hat – loaded with onions, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, pickles, and (at the Pour House) blue cheese – started life as anything  other than a frozen patty containing pink slime.

So, yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been slimed.

For those who haven’t been following the pink slime story, ABC had a recent news segment on Beef Products Inc. (BPI) a South Dakota company that produces something called “lean finely textured beef”. This is made up of beef trimmings  that get purified with ammonia and water, so that the consumer doesn’t get an e-coli infection, then extruded into something that looks like regular old hamburger meat. (Beef trimmings! You’d think the toe-to-tail gastronomes would be happy, what with nothing going to waste. But you know those toe-to-tail gastronomes…)

“The lean finely textured beef”is  then mixed in with ground beef to create the product that appears in the meat lockers of an awful lot of grocery chains and food wholesalers.

Not, I will hasten to inform you, Whole Foods.

Whole Foods Market does not sell any fresh or frozen meat containing lean finely textured beef (“pink slime”) as the company’s stringent quality standards do not allow for it.

What a relief!

I have a pound in my freezer of Whole Food 97% lean ground beef, and, although I don’t fear and loathe pink slime all that much, I’m just as happy that my beef comes from contented cows. Who, before they voluntarily sacrificed themselves for our pleasure at a Temple Grandin-approved slaughter house where Vivaldi was piped in, spent their brief but happy lives gamboling in pastures, munching on buttercups and debating whether they’d prefer a slaughterhouse that played Vivaldi to one that favored Big Band music.

But lesser chains – tut, tut – were selling slime-burgers. Given the hue and outcry that followed the ABC story, they’re falling all over themselves to get it off their shelves.

This resulted in BPI halting production and furloughing employees at three of its plants.

They are, by the way, doing the right thing by their employees, who, I’m a-guesing, are not exactly among the 1-percenters.

According to The Associated Press, Beef Products will suspend operations at plants in Amarillo, Texas; Garden City, Kan.; and Waterloo, Iowa. About 200 employees at each of the three plants will get full salary and benefits for 60 days during the suspension, the AP reported, adding, the company’s plant at its headquarters will continue operations. (Source: Forbes.)

I guess BPI’s hoping that, by the time 60 days are up, pink slime fever will have died down.

Which it sounds as though it should.

Certainly, we could use a conversation about our overall food-industrial complex, providers of so many chemical-ed up, non-nutritious, flat out bad for you, unsafe, disgustingly-produced and, don’t forget to mention, addictive food-like products.  Of which pink slime, apart from its unfortunately moniker, is far from the worst. In fact, it’s all-beef, not all-additives. So if you overlook the ammonia wash and the Play-Doh extrusion process, pink slime is almost natural, if not entirely Whole Foodian.

And BPI is by no means the worst member of the food industry. Au contraire, according to NPR, which quoted Penn State ag-food professor Ed Mills on BPI. Mills termed the company:

…"poster child for food safety and was very open about letting people into their plant. ... Of all the companies I've dealt with, they're not the one we should be attacking for food safety."

NPR also reminded us that a lot of our “meat products” are processed. “Lunch meat,” anyone?

If the pink slime flap doesn’t die down, I guess BPI and its employees will be out of luck. And consumers will be paying more for “pure”, non-slimed ground beef, whether it comes from the Whole Foods-style buttercup gamboling cows or wretched cattle with lives that were nasty, brutish, and probably  not short enough.

There are no doubt a ton of important stories that could be told about the food industry.  Not all that sure that Upton Sinclair would have troubled himself with this one.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Now it’s the lobsters. What’s next?

We’ve been having some pretty freakish weather of late.

No winter to speak of. Little cold. Less snow.

Goodie, goodie. Sort of. Until we think about the short term implications: more fires (the ground cover’s tinder-dry), more rats (they breed more in a warm winter), more bugs (ditto).

Let alone the long term implications. (That would be a big, fat YIKES!)

Last week it was 80 degrees. Shorts and flip-flops. Magnolias in bloom.

We had our first tulip unfurl.

Usually it’s in the mid-forties at this time of year, and we see some crocuses.

But last week was the sort of week we usually get in late April, at which point spring, having sprung, pulls back and it becomes “seasonable.” I.e., a lot cooler than 80 degrees.

While everyone’s enjoying the balmy balm, everyone I talk to is also freaked out by it. Scared about whether we’ve reached the tipping point, and that this is the new normal.

I ran into a friend who lives up The Hill. We live on The Flat of The Hill. On ground that, 150 years ago, was a salt water bay. If the ocean starts rising… Well, it won’t exactly be Bangladesh, but, I do think Waterworld.

“You guys had better sell,” he told me. “Just a matter of time.”

Nothing I haven’t thought of before but, hey, now is just not a convenient time to do anything about it.

All this weird weather has been bad enough, but at least we get to enjoy the magnolias a month or so early.

There’s really nothing to enjoy about the latest news on the shellfish front.

Lobsters, it seems, are increasingly being struck by a bacterial infection that results in their shells going soft.  When you boil them – and is not cracking the claw of a boiled lobster a New England birth right? -  the shells do not turn a red as bright and shiny as Rudolph’s nose. Instead, they present with a “speckled, scabby brown crust thin enough to poke a fork through.” (Source: Boston Globe.)

Gag me with a lobster pick and stuff a plastic bib in after it.

While scabby soft-shelled lobster – try rebranding that one and suckering the unwitting tourists in – have not been definitively tied to climate change, the evidence is pointing at us:

Scientists at the New England Aquarium are concerned that the combination of warmer waters and human-generated pollution are triggering the disease, and that the same combination of effects might threaten other species.

“As we impact the marine environment, bacteria are the next thing we really need to understand,’’ said Michael F. Tlusty, director of research at the New England Aquarium.

It’s not just New England lobsters, of course.

Apparently, we’ve given right whales giardia, and are infecting otters through some crud passed into the ecosystem through flushable kitty litter.

The good news, lobster-wise, is that the soft-serve lobster problem isn’t impacting all of New England. The waters south of Cape Cod have gotten warmer, with an increasing number of days when the water temperature gets above 68 degrees Fahrenheit – the “magic number” at which our crustacean buddies start to stress out. But the Gulf of Maine is staying pretty darned cold. (How cold is that? Every single time I’ve stuck my toe in the ocean water in Maine, my heart has stopped and I’ve gone into thermal shock. Well, almost, anyway.)

So far this year, southern tier New England lobstermen are apparently not seeing that much lobster shell disease. Which, economically speaking, is a good thing for the lobstermen since the yucky looking lobsters, which can only be used for things like lobster bisque and lazy-man lobster, don’t command much in the market.

Who’da thunk that that looks would matter this far down in the food chain, but there you have it.

Anyway, one more thing, environment-wise to fret about.

It’s not exactly in a category with the last polar bare balancing on an ice floe the size of a picnic blanket. Still, one more indicator that, at some point, we ARE going to have to get serious about what we’re doing to our fair earth.

What’s the magical thinking that keeps us in denial about the planet’s changing? I’m not talking about those who dispute the magnitude of what’s caused by human activity vs. what’s “naturally occurring.” I’m talking about those who put down the very idea that this is anything to be concerned about. After all, we’ve had ice ages before….

To which I would say, gee, if we had 3 billion people living in the path of the coming glacier – as opposed to 3 hundred dinosaurs – don’t you think it would have been a good idea to try to do something about it and not just wait until we found ourselves stuck in permafrost?

But, hey, we trash this version of home sweet home? As e.e. cummings wrote in this poem “Pity this busy monster, manunkind:”

listen: there's a hell

of a good universe next door; let's go

So, I guess, absent the ability to have a coherent and rational discussion about what man hath wrought, we just keep on hoping and praying that Elon Musk’s space colonization dreams come to fruition. Not that all kabillion of us are going to fit on those 21st century arks, and I doubt I’ll be among the chosen few. (See yah.)

Meanwhile, if someone suggests that you eat a lobster while blindfolded this summer, don’t do it! Boiled lobster is bright red and hard to crack. Accept no scabby, soft-shelled substitute. That bibs for the dripping butter and the “juice” in the legs, not for averting your eyes.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

TaxMasters files for bankruptcy. Is this how they get out of paying their taxes?

I have long been intrigued by the ads I see for outfits that claim to help out those who have problems with the IRS.

I have also been colossally pissed off by them. None of the “success stories” profiled in them seems the least bit sheepish, let alone flat out ashamed, by the fact that they were so incompetent, so clueless, so unlucky, or so dishonest, that they got into that magnitude of trouble to begin with.

I owed $100,000 in back taxes, and I was able to settle with the IRS for thirteen cents.

Now I completely understand that  people make money mistakes, get in over their head, didn’t really know they owed. Etc. Small businesses who paid their people rather than their SSI. Folks who experienced a windfall, or an unanticipated loss, or a major uninsured health incident.  Self-employed folks who haven’t quite got with the estimated tax program.

But I really only want people to get excused from what they owe if they have some totally extenuating, three-hankie excuse, or are dead-broke and, in the opinion of an actuary and a committee composed of equal parts financial planners and humanitarians, will die broke.

Most of the those who screwed up on their taxes, well, I actually expect them to pay it back over time.

But so many of the people in those “I settled ads” just seem so preposterously proud that they managed to get away with something.

My favorite ad, which I haven’t seen for a while, showed a blond and gleaming middle aged couple, standing in front of a sun-drenched hacienda, smiling and talking about how they were able to settle with the IRS and maintain their lifestyle. (I guarantee you that the word used was lifestyle.)

While I don’t want to see anyone thrown into debtors’ prison or forced to work on a chain gang to pay off their back taxes, if you can’t pay your taxes, maybe it’s your lifestyle that’s the problem, not the IRS.  And, heartless bee-otch that I am, I don’t want you to maintain a lifestyle greater than or equal to my lifestyle if it requires thumbing your nose at the IRS in order to do so. Stop gleaming. Stop smiling. Stop looking like you just stepped off the yacht that some tax resolution service has enabled you to keep.

Mostly, my reaction to these ads was “these have got to be bogus.” Yes, I’m sure people settle with the IRS all the time, but don’t they have rules?.

Well, yes, apparently they do.

If we are to take the IRS at their word, with respect to an Offer in Compromise – one of the options for settling your taxes -  it doesn’t look like it’s quite as automatic as those tax settlement advertisers might lead you to believe.

An offer in compromise allows you to settle your tax debt for less than the full amount you owe. It may be a legitimate option if you can't pay your full tax liability, or doing so creates a financial hardship. We generally approve an offer in compromise when the amount offered represents the most we can expect to collect within a reasonable period of time.

We consider your unique set of facts and circumstances:

  • Ability to pay;
  • Income;
  • Expenses; and
  • Asset equity.

And it sounds like they expect you to exhaust your sources.

If you do not have sufficient cash to pay for your offer, you may need to consider borrowing money from a bank, friends, and/or family. Other options may include borrowing against or selling other assets.

So, even if the gleaming, yachting blonds couldn’t get squat from a bank, friends, and/or family, it looks like the IRS might expect them to do something about the sun-drenched hacienda.

Anyway, you do have to wonder whether those aggressively advertised tax settlement outfits can wiggle you out of what you owe as easily-peasily as they imply. Or whether they can do very much for you at all.

In the case of TaxMasters, the wonder is up.

They just filed Chapter 11.

…the company which once spent millions annual on advertising, listed assets of less than $50,000. It also estimated liabilities between $1 million and $10 million.

Wonder whether those “estimated liabilities” include back taxes.

The filing comes as the Texas Attorney General’s Office is set to begin a trial against the tax resolution firm for misleading consumers under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. According to court documents, TaxMasters’ advertisements encourage taxpayers to call its toll-free number for a “free consultation” with a “tax consultant.” But the state alleged callers are not connected to an employee qualified to give tax advice, but rather with a TaxMasters’ salesperson who recommends a “solution” for thousands of dollars. Furthermore, the AG’s office alleged TaxMasters offered payment plans to consumers, but failed to reveal that it would not begin work on a case until the entire fee was paid. In many cases, important IRS deadlines were missed, according to court documents.

The state of Texas was looking for restitution for some of those who were screwed by TaxMasters – promised that they’d be forgiven most of what they owed, and getting nothing (except a Tax Masters bill) in return.  Looks like those poor folks (who obviously never heard about something sounding too good to be true) will be out of luck.

Guess I won’t be seeing any TaxMasters ads any time again soon. (Maybe that’s why the gleaming blonde lifestylists went off the air.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

BATS out of hell

In June of 2000, I played a modest role in what, at that point, was considered the largest failed IPO in history. fever was starting to ebb a bit – the mercury in the thermometer was no longer quite as throbbing as it had been. Still, we were optimistic. After all, we all knew folks who had lucked into big bucks from their company’s IPO’s the business wisdom and prescience to join companies that went on to have successful IPO’s in which they made oodles of well-deserved money. So at Genuity we were asking ourselves the ‘why not us?’ question.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I was closed fisted and suspicious enough to invest at the pre-IPO insiders price only the amount I was prepared to lose. That amount was $11,000, and it’s a darned good thing I was prepared to lose it, because lose it I did.

At least I got to take the capital losses.

All I got to show for the dashed dreams that accompanied the loss of all those beautiful options I held was the mental flash of a loot-bag winging its way out my window. I had been doing the multiplier in my head so often – all the stock would need to do was nudge up 10 bucks a share (surely, not too much to ask) and I could have me a summer house, and a big chunk of retirement dough, and a new bathroom.

Alas, and alack.

But at least I didn’t have to pay for the options.

Anyway, by Genuity standards, I was one of the lucky ones.

I had friends who took money out of their retirement funds, dipped into their kids education accounts, mortgaged their houses, to buy into the Genuity IPO.  One fellow I worked with had taken a pass on a friends and family opportunity on the AOL IPO. He was not going to be denied this time around. 

We knew within minutes of the opening bell, of course, that the Genuity IPO was going nowhere. Correction. Nowhere would have been good. It was going down.

I don’t believe that GENU shares ever hit the pre-IPO price. And since us lucky insiders couldn’t sell for 6 months, we got to spend 6 months watching the price drift off into oblivion.

Needless to say, our big IPO celebration party had many of the elements of a wake – including the black humor.

And now there’s last week’s BATS Global Trading fiasco.

Don’t know from BATS?

BATS Global Markets, Inc. (BATS) is a leading operator of securities markets in the U.S. and Europe. BATS develops and operates electronic markets for the trading of listed cash equity securities in the U.S. and Europe and listed equity options in the U.S. BATS is currently the third-largest equities exchange operator both in the U.S. and globally.

Anyway, they’re in the financial game. Sheesh. At Genuity, we had an excuse. All we knew was bandwidth and data centers, not financial markets. Shouldn’t the Bats guys have had more of a clue? Or was the problem that they’re more of a technical company – financial naïfs, dopes like us Genuity-ites?

Here’s what happened with the Bats-men:

In one of the shortest debuts ever for a newly public company, BATS Global Markets Inc. (BATS) was forced to pull its initial offering Friday after systems issues caused erroneous trades that affected its stock as well as shares of Apple Inc. (AAPL) and other companies.

The BATS IPO will be remembered for its first-day meltdown at the hands of the company's own technology. BATS is an alternative exchange and the third largest stock-exchange company in the U.S.…

Besides BATS, shares of Apple and other securities in the symbol range A through BF were affected.

One veteran Wall Street trader said the BATS system likely was stressed to the breaking point after a rush of BATS stock orders. In this scenario, shares in the company essentially cracked the BATS trading system. (Source: WSJ.)

The BATS IPO had been priced at $16-18 the night before their Big Day, went out at $15, and immediately plummeted to close to zero.

In a statement late in the session, the company's chief executive said the deal was being withdrawn but didn't explain what went wrong with the trading in its shares.

BATS can cancel the IPO because the trades weren’t scheduled to settle for a few days.


So these guys are an exchange. They screwed up their own IPO. Their system choked big time.

Do we think they’ll be venturing out in public any time soon?

I’m sure their initial investors are feeling both cheated – hey, we were going to be rich! And relieved – hey, we just dodged a big one.

And what must their investor relations guy be thinking as he hops out of bed this morning and heads in to work? I love my job? (And I thought the Goldman PR guy who landed his job the day before Greg Smith’s billet-doux was published had it tough.)

Sometimes I’m just as happy to be a nobody.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Looking for a coprolite watch? Come on down…

I was so wasting time. How else to explain that I actually clicked through to see a gossip item on Ernie Boch, Junior.

For readers who aren’t from New England – or who are from New England, but haven’t watched any television for the past 40 years – Ernie Boch, Junior, is the son of Ernie Boch, Senior, the car dealer who made “Come on down” a regional by-word. Ernie Junior is a chip off the old Boch – why argue with success – and so we are still urged, by jingle, to “come on dow-ow-ow-own; Ernie Boch, Junior, everything you’re looking for.”

According to The Boston Herald – there, I’ve outed myself: sometimes I do read it – Ernie Boch, Junior, can’t find everything he’s looking for in Boston. Thus, he recently trekked to Switzerland for Baselworld, the World Watch and Jewelry Show, to see what might be worth adding to his rare watch collection.

What he found was a coprolite watch from Artya.

Coming up empty on what coprolite is?

I’d say that Artya says it best:

This dial is shit, isn't it? Yes, indeed it is

Stunning transmutations fuelled by boundless creativity embody Artya's signature. Always brimful of Watch by Yvan Arpa - ARTYAideas and thoroughly steeped in contemporary art, Yvan Arpa launches a new venture out of the blue, and presents an horological creation crowned with a dinosaur's coprolite dial.

Well, I’m all in favor of recycling. And, metaphorically speaking, the bloom is long off of this particular rose.  Still, I’m not quite sure that I’d want to drop over $10K on a watch made out of dinosaur scat. Somehow, it just seems wrong. Couldn’t there be something else, something scientific that they could do with this specimen? Maybe find a cure for some disease, or do something cool like clone mini-dinosaurs for pets.

Anyway, if coprolite doesn’t sound quite right for you, you may be interested in the world’s heaviest watch, another Artya special.  This one weighs 12 kilos and has a dial made out of concrete.

Hey, I know what you philistines are thinking: form follows function, or function follows form.


Artya's supreme mission is to fundamentally change the watchmaking syntax through the grammar of contemporary art. The workshop's initial assignment, the Artpiece 1/1 collection, heralded a new era, pioneering the appreciation of beauty, thereby relegating the context of time to the back seat. Emotion, creativity and intuition fuel the whole concept.

This avant-garde venture sets a new direction away from the current trend in watchmaking which perceives contemporary art as a device for advertising campaigns or an easy solution to enhance the aesthetics of some dials.

If you want to “fundamentally change the watchmaking syntax through the grammar of contemporary art,” you can’t just use any old materials.  Thus the dinosaur shit. Thus the 12 kilo “time weighs heavily” piece.

They’ve also got “time killers” made using real bullets. And watches made from material that was struck by lightning.

Peculiarly, given how high-art they are, Artya also carries a Kiss line. Personally, I’d rather have Mickey artya kissMouse or Cinderella on my wrist than Gene Simmons. But that’s just me.

I find it interesting that watch collecting has moved from collecting watches that turned out to be rare and interesting, to collecting watches that are designed specifically for collectors.  Actually, I take that back. I don’t find it interesting. I find it kind of boring.

But what do I know about watch collecting?

I wear a watch for practical reasons, which – given that I always have my Blackberry with me – are no longer all that practical. When I really need to know the time, I look at my smartphone. And I don’t view/can’t afford to view watches as art works. The most I’ve ever paid for a watch is about $100, for a Skagen, which has been “my” brand for the past decade or so.  I think their designs are just swell. In fact, the other day at Cosi the cashier complimented me on my watch.

Obviously if the folks like Ernie Boch, Junior, who are collecting watches just wanted to tell the time, they’d look at their iPhones. Or get themselves a Timex (or a Skagen).

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Flying the Friendly Skies: Ron Akana at 83

It’s not everyone who gets to spend 63 years doing the same job, with the same company, unless they’re self- or family-employed. I would guess that, over the span of the typical 63 year career, someone would be employed by at least ten outfits. Not that there’s anything typical about a 63 year career to begin with. This, of course, is subject to change. Even with my aging eyes, if I squint I can foresee a future economy in which 85 year olds, working out of necessity if not the desire to stay active and engaged, provide “ancient-care” to people in their 100’s. Which, come to think of it, would beat Walmart greeter. Which, come to think of it, will no doubt be smartly automated, so that when you walk through the doors a hologram will greet you by name and hover with you during your Walmart stay, helping push your smartcart to the aisles where you’ll find the stuff you need that can’t be virtualized or digitized – like paper towels – or you’ll find the stuff your peers, or opinion leaders, or the powers at Bentonville, want you to buy – like garden elves.

But there is someone who has happily and willingly stayed on the job for 63 years. That someone is Ron Akana, and he’s been flying the friendly skies of United since 1949. Not as a pilot – yikes: an 83 year-old pilot would scare me just a bit. But as a steward.

I had thought that stewards were a relatively recent phenomenon, coming on about the same time as the airlines were no longer able to forcibly retire a stew when she turned 30, got married, or gained an ounce. But I’m obviously wrong in dating the arrival of stewards on the flight scene to the moment when I first encountered a surly, slightly zaftig, non-husband hunting, over 40 stewardess who didn’t really care that I’d just found a full air sickness bag in the seat pocket.

Mr. Anaka joined United when they were recruiting Hawaiian natives to staff their new flights from the mainland to Hawaii.

He showed up to apply wearing an Aloha shirt, and was one of eight young men (out of 400) to make the cut.

Ah, for the good old days of flying:

In his early years, impeccably dressed passengers were served seafood salad and congregated at the cocktail bar on board…Seats [on the Stratocruiser to Hawaii] were all first class, with four bunk beds up front and a private stateroom in the back with its own beds and bathroom. A circular staircase led to a lower-deck cocktail lounge, and flight attendants prepared hot meals for the 52 to 54 people on board.

Forget the bunk beds, the hot meals, and the cocktail lounge. It would be fun just to get on a flight where the passengers were “impeccably dressed.”

Of course the downside would be that they’d all be smoking.

“Impeccably dressed” wasn’t just for flying, by the way. When my family took the train to Chicago in the 1950’s, we’d dress as if we were going to church – my father in a suit, my brothers in sport coats and ties, my mother wearing a hat, and my sister and I in patent leather shoes, white gloves, and dresses. One time, I recall how envious I was of the two little girls – about the ages of my sister Kath and I – who were traveling in the same car as we were, only they were wearing shorts. I remember thinking that they must be Protestants. How else to account for the moral failure of not wearing church clothes during an uncomfortable overnight train ride?

During his years with United, Mr. Akana has logged 20 million miles. He also met his wife, a fellow stew, through work. Once they were married, she had to retire – no married gals need apply. Their daughter took up the family trade. She’s been a United flight attendant for 22 years.

Over time, Mr. Akana got to serve a lot of celebs. The cast of From Here to Eternity flew with him on the way to their film location in Hawaii. He got to make up a bed for Deborah Kerr, and serve Burt Lancaster 12 or 13 martinis. After which Lancaster got behind the bar to give Mr. Akana a hand, appearing both sober (“’as if he hadn’t had one’”) and, one assumes, impeccably dressed.

Red Skelton was also on one of his flights. Possibly the least funny comedian in an era during which he had plenty of competition, Skelton “mimicked the entire routine” while Mr. Akana demo’d the use of the life vest. (And may God bleth.)

Mr. Akana is just part of the graying of the flight attendants. Forget the sweet young things that would have served martinis to Don Draper. Over 40% of the flight attendants in the U.S. are 50 or older. Mr. Akana is not the oldest sky king, however. Robert Reardon, at 87, is still working as a flight attendant for Delta, where he’s done the how-to-put-on-a-life-vest routine since 1951. (If you’re wondering where all the old lady flight attendants are, you must keep in mind that, until the practice outlawed in the 1960’s, stewardesses had to retire at the age of 32. There was obviously no such stipulation for men. (What would Lilly Ledbetter say to that?))

Mr. Akana’s schedule is not that intense. With his seniority, he only has to make three trips to Hawaii each month from his home base in Denver.


I know that 99.9999% of the time, the flight attendant doesn’t have to do anything more onerous than set down trays and give out headsets. But if there were some emergency, I’m not so sure that I’d want an 83 (or an 87) year old trying to pop open the emergency door and help passengers onto the slide.

Mr. Akana acknowledges that he is starting to slow down a bit. “We get an average of four or five wheelchairs a trip,” said Mr. Akana, who underwent knee replacement surgery last year. “I know our bones fail; I’m beginning to feel it myself. Most of the people I help, I’m older than them.”

Congratulations to Mr. Akana (and Mr. Reardon, too) on their career longevity. I hope I’m still able to do something (very part time) that I enjoy when I’m 83 (or 87). Nonetheless, just in case the aircraft has to make an emergency landing, I’d just as soon have a robust and surly 50 year old helping me off the plane.

Source: NY Times.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Global Business Celebrity

I suppose if I were willing to network with people I don’t know and quite possibly would not like. And if I were willing to get up at the crack of dawn, pick up a Zipcar, and gun out to the Newton Marriott, I would go to the regular meetings of the Sales & Marketing Executive, International, Boston Chapter.

If so, I would have been there last week, on the ultra-auspicious Ides of March, to hear global business celebrity and former Fortune 100 C-suite Executive Jeffrey Hayzlett speak.

Now, I’m as familiar as the next guy with what former Fortune 100 C-suite Executive means. So what if the closest I personally got to the Fortune 100 C-suite was being the VP of marketing for a puny little software firm that was acquired by a Fortune 1000 company.

That said, as a TA at Harvard, my husband did have both Steve Ballmer and Scott McNealy as students, and they’re about as Fortune 100 C-suite-y as you can get.  And, years ago, at a tech conference in San Jose, I was alone in an elevator with Bill Joy, with McNealy a Sun co-founder,  and we chatted a bit. He was very nice. Does that count?

When Genuity was being – there doesn’t seem to be any other word for it – dicked around by Verizon, I may have asked Ivan Seidenberg, CEO of Verizon a question at the meeting where they brought all the Genuity directors and VPs in to pile on some blather about how we weren’t really being dicked. I may have.

I exchanged pleasantries with Carly Fiorina when she was signing books at a forum I went to. The books were free with admission, and I had her sign mine though I must confess to not having read it. (I did tear the spine out and recycle the pages.)

And now that I think of it, I once wrote Jack Welch a letter asking him for a donation for The Writers’ Room of Boston. He turned me down, but sent me a very cordial e-mail. And I’ll give him props for having his personal home address right there in the phone book.

Did Lotus ever make the Fortune 100? Probably not, but I once sat across the aisle from founder Mitch Kapor on a flight to NYC.

So while I’m not exactly on intimate terms with Fortune 100 C-sweetie-pies, it’s not like they’re not at least vaguely in my wheelhouse.

But global business celebrity is a new one on me.

Not that there couldn’t be a category for global business celebrity.

I’d put Donald Trump first on the list, since he’s global, he’s business, and he sure enjoys being a celebrity. Steve Jobs would have been there, too. Richard Branson, who I actually passed twice on the street – once on Beacon, once of Charles – in a single day. He made eye contact both times and smiled. I only realized it was, indeed, himself when I saw on the news that he was in town for something Virgin-al or other.

The aforementioned Jack Welch’s celeb star may have dimmed a bit, but he certainly was something of a global business celebrity in his heyday.

I suppose Mitt Romney’s something of one, but he’s such a political wannabe that he loses major points.

And although I don’t think they would actually think of themselves as celebrities, or have courted celebrity personae, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, come on down – separately or together.

Let’s not forget the ladies. I give you Martha Stewart. The late Leona Helmsley. And Betty Crocker, if she’d been a real person.

So there are, indeed, any number of global business celebrities out there. But the name Jeffrey Hayzlett would not, alas, have come to my mind.

And yet if you google “global business celebrity”, Mr. Hayzlett is, in fact, the holder of the post position. Indeed, on the first page of “finds” – and who ever looks beyond? – he is the only person named as a GBC.

It can even be said that Jeffrey Hayzlett owns global business celebrity-hood.

I guess it’s no longer enough to be a smart person who’s parlayed time spent as the CMO at Kodak, where I have no doubt whatsoever that he learned plenty, into a quite decent career as a business consultant, writer, and speaker.

I’m guessing that I would have found his presentation at last week’s SMEI breakfast interesting and entertaining.

I poked around his website, and it looks like he’s got plenty of ideas and the drive to put himself out there. Yet again I reflect on how useful it would have been in terms of my own personal career if I hadn’t drawn the introvert straw. Sigh…

I also saw that he gets on TV. Fox’s Neil Cavuto (business news) apparently likes him. So he’s also a pundit. (Now I’m admittedly jealous.)

So why would someone want to brand himself as a global business celebrity? Sure, we’re a celebrity obsessed culture, but celebrity just sounds so light weight and superficial that, I’m guessing with the possible exception of Donald Trump, no one who comes to my mind as a global business celebrity would want to be viewed as a celebrity. Celebrity is Kardashian territory, not Tom Peters.

I guess in a world where self-promotion is so darned important, picking a brand and sticking to it works. It’s just that I can’t get past wondering who would want to brand himself as a celebrity?

Meanwhile, I was interested enough in Mr. Hayzlett’s celebrity to find that he is a graduate of South Dakota’s Augustana College. Wanting to learn more about Augustana, I took a look at its wikipedia entry.

Frankly, I was surprised – perhaps even shocked – to see that Jeffrey Hayzlett, although a global business celebrity, is NOT on the Augustana list of notable alumni.

Surely a list that has room for such august luminaries as David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), Mary Hart (Entertainment Tonight), and Myron Floren (accordionist supreme, and long-time Lawrence Welk Show performer), let alone the guy who’s VP of Marketing for United Airline, has room for the name of a global business celebrity. What good’s celebrity if you can’t even get on your alma mater’s notable alumni list?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


As a child, one of my great pleasures was browsing through the Collier’s Encyclopedia. Our set resided in a bookcase in the living room, and its very existence meant that there was always something to read in the house.  (Not that lack of reading materials was ever a problem.) A big annual event was the arrival of the annual Collier’s Yearbook, which updated the otherwise static set with the skinny on what had changed in the previous year. Thus, if you hadn’t heard already, you’d learn that the Belgian Congo was no longer the Belgian Congo, and that Hawaii was a state.

It is hard to explain in the era of instant info what a tremendous source an encyclopedia was, and how thrilling it was to look through the updates to review the doings of the prior year.

The Collier’s Encyclopedia, which eventually wended its way into Microsoft Encarta, has been out of print for years.

So I was surprised to read that the print version of the rival Encyclopedia Britannica is about to bite the dust.  (Source: LA Times.)

"We just decided that it was better for the brand to focus on what really the future is all about," said Jorge Cauz, Encyclopaedia Britannica's president. "Our database is very large now, much larger than can fit in the printed edition. Our print set version is an abridged version of what we have online."

The Encyclopedia Britannica was far more venerable than the somewhat parvenu Collier’s, which dated form the early 20th century. Britannica was first published in 1768, when it was founded in Scotland. In the midst of the Great Depression – 1935 – it moved to Chicago.

Since we owned the Collier’s, I had always figured that Britannica must be the classier, or at least the more normal, brand of encyclopedia. (We were known as a family for being somewhat off. P.F. Flyers in a world of Keds. Easy Money, not Monopoly. Keyword, not Scrabble. My parents were not easily swayed by popularity.)

Then I saw that Britannica was owned by Sears. So much for the illusion of swank. It must have been the name “Britannica” that conferred superiority on it. In much the same way, when I hear Shakespeare performed in a British accent, I am never able to discern whether the acting’s any good. It just sounds so high-brow. Like the Collier’s – I just looked it up – Britannica was:

Marketed door-to-door for generations, it was a robust business that employed thousands and sold more than 100,000 sets as recently as 1990, its best year ever, when it generated $650 million in revenue.

I don’t know what a set cost in the late 1950’s, when the door-to-door salesman must have rung our bell. But you can still get a set of the final edition of Britannica for $1,395. Which has got to be at least an order of magnitude more than my parents would have paid for a set of encyclopedias, however mighty the brainy appeal of it must have been. Whatever they paid for in stood five kids in pretty good stead for grammar school research. (By high school, you really had to use the library and get yourself familiar with card catalogs and the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.)

And while we’re on the subject of door-to-door salesmen, the Fuller Brush man gave tiny samples of lilac toilet water, which I still remember the smell of, and which we found hilarious because it was toilet water. Like who would want to dab toilet water behind her ears? But what kind of samples could an encyclopedia vendor have offered? A print out of an article on, say, the Belgian Congo?

"This is probably going to be a collector's item," Cauz said. "This is going to be as rare as the first edition, because the last print run of our last copyright was one of the smallest [at 12,000 sets] print runs.

The company has been struggling for a good long time to compete with online. No longer owned by Sears, it stopped going door-to-door in the mid-1990’s, putting 2,500 contract sales folks out of business.

Today, the company focuses on “instructional materials [for] schools.” When the last of the print sets are gone, the encyclopedia business will be the half-million subscribers who pay $70 a year for access to the full online version. (About one-third of their content is free.)

Their biggest current challenge is Wikipedia, which dominates the search engines.

“We know we have a challenge there," Cauz said. "The challenge is not of preference. The challenge is of distribution and how to please an algorithm that tries to identify quality, but doesn't really quite get it right all the time."

Although Britannica does include user-generated content, unlike Wikipedia’s, theirs gets vetted, helping Britannica position itself as the higher-quality information source.

Poor folks. Since when does quality trump free?

I’m out there googling with the best of them. Some question pops into my mind and I look it up online. Occasionally, I’ll look a word up the old fashioned way, in the dictionary. But even if I had an encyclopedia at my fingertips, I can’t imagine looking anything up in it, even something that isn’t subject to change: distance to the sun, definition of pi, birthplace of Harry Truman. Not that pretty much everything is subject to change: didn’t Pluto used to be a planet? It’s just quicker and easier to go to the google. And if what I find there is wrong, it doesn’t tend to matter. (Leonard Cohen’s birthdate, for instance.)

Still, there’s something to be said for paging through an encyclopedia. Sure, when you’re online, you can drift around every bit as aimlessly as you did thumbing through Volume CO-DI of an encyclopedia. But there’s just something junkier - more ephemeral, less brainy – when you’re scooting around online. (Hey, there’s George Clooney getting arrested. Is his aunt Rosemary Clooney still dead? Didn’t her son marry Debby Boone? Is Rosie O’Donnell a Rosemary or a Rose?)

No, it doesn’t make me want to run out and buy a set of encyclopedias. But it does make me want to look up a word in a physical dictionary, if only so I can get lost in a column or two of words. Somehow it seems less time-wasting, more intellectually justified than browsing the ‘net. (Did Alec Baldwin tweet about George Clooney?)

*How about a shout-out to Jiminy Cricket, who taught us all how to spell the word. (Forget that snooty encyclopaedia. I’m with Jiminy on this one.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Goldman culture ‘toxic’? My, my, my, my, my, my…

By now, there can be no dedicated – or even slacker – follower of business who has not at least heard about Greg Smith’s very public resignation from his VP position at Goldman Sachs.

In a scathing indictment of Goldman’s culture and leadership, Smith put it all out there in an op-ed in The New York Times entitled Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs.

Talk about “Take This Job and Shove It”. This was one humdinger of a Johnny Paycheck moment, that’s for sure.

After 12 years with the firm, Smith wrote:

…I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

He lays the blame squarely at the office doors of CEO Lloyd Blankfein – he, the self-proclaimed doer of God’s work – and president Gary Cohn – who, he suggests:

…lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

Smith portrays a Goldman in which all that matters is making money. Making money for Goldman, that is. Making money for their clients, as Smith sees it, places a distant second – if it places at all. Clients – often referred to internally as “muppets” – serve mainly as dupes to take crap off of Goldman’s hands and/or make trades that will yield the greatest profits for the firm. Duping, of course, has become so much easier given the develop of complex, abstruse instruments that even the most sophisticated of investors may not understand. But if you flatter the muppets into thinking they get it, and they open their purse strings then, apparently, you’ll find that the streets at Goldman are paved with gold (for you, at any rate).

(Seriously, folks, in the history of Goldman has anyone made it to the upper echelons without making money for the firm? The point of Goldman is to make money. Maybe not at the complete and utter expense of its clients, but they’re not supposed to be do-gooders, other than the do-gooding of keeping capital markets working well and honestly. Which may not exactly be Wall Street’s strong suit of late.  But do-good do-gooding is secondary for any (financial) firm. It comes when the guys making money write out their charitable checks.)

Needless to say, Smith’s letter went capital-V Viral. (It helps to get your start on The Times Op-Ed page, of course.)

Smith is variously depicted a paragon of integrity, a Brutus, a whiner. He’s cynical and/or naïve. Kind of like Inspector Renault in Casablanca  who was, shocked, shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s, all the while he was pocketing his percentage of the day’s take. After all, this is not the first time we’ve heard that Goldman acted for itself first and foremost.

On behalf of the fully naïve theory, Smith brags in his letter about winning a bronze medal in ping-pong at the Macchabiah Games in Israel, a boast that certainly can’t count for much on Wall Street (or Main Street), and which obviously leaves him open for plenty of derision. (Maybe if the bronze had been in extreme ping-pong…)

Some speculate that the timing is suspicious. With bonuses just paid out, they suspect that Smith’s departure was tied to his bonus check clearing – which might leach just a tiny bit of the high out of his high dudgeon. It’s also been leaked that Smith was pissed off by getting a lower-than-expected bonus this year, a further dudgeon eroder.

Some wonder whether he has his next gig lined up. Will he stay in the financial world? Find work as a crusader? Many commentators believe he will be a Wall Street persona non-grata for life.

Me? He may not be welcome in a large investment bank, but I suspect he could easily land in a smaller boutique firm that prides itself on how it treats its customers. (Be careful, Greg.  Isn’t this what Goldman would say about itself, too?)

My wonder in all this is whether Smith had tried to raise his concerns internally first.

Of course, if the culture is so corrupt that would have gotten him nowhere – other than fired.

In the backdraft of the Smith letter, Goldman, not surprisingly, put its damage control apparatus promptly into motion. (By the way, this hit on Day Two of the new PR guy’s being on the job.) In a statement from Blankfein and Cohn the firm stated that its employee surveys showed that the vast majority of Goldman folks – 89% – say that Goldman provides its clients with exceptional service. Now, this might have meant a bit more if Goldman’s clients felt the same way, but a survey’s a survey. And we know that questions are never skewed, and those polled are always quite exacting in what they say, and always believe that they can be completely candid with no repercussions. (For all we know, some part of the Goldman bonus tied to whether employees believe they provide exceptional client service.)

There’s also a nice little dig at Smith, who has been frequently referred to as a Goldman executive,  in the Lloyd and Gary letter. In rather tortured English, making the point that most VP’s also believe that Goldman does right by its clients, it was noted:

For the group of nearly 12,000 vice presidents, of which the author of today’s commentary was, that number was similarly high.

Okay. There are 12,000 vice presidents out of an employee population just north of 30,000? Kind of like Lake Woebegone, with all of its above average children. But a nice “subtle” putdown that Greg Smith was not exactly a Goldman executive.

But whether Smith was an executive or not. Whether he’s acting completely as a man of honor, or a man who’s had the cherished illusions that informed his self-definition shatter, or a man who’s peeved that he got a low-ball bonus – or, as so regularly happens in life, a combo package of all three and then some, Smith’s words matter.

Goldman stock dropped in their wake. Many voices are calling for Lloyd Blankfein’s scalp – or they would be, if he had any hair. And I’m sure that some clients are considering a move, and some prospects are making other choices.  Meanwhile, a writer on Forbes posted an article over the weekend entitled “Deeper Inquiry Of Greg Smith's Assertions: Might Goldman Sachs Have Intentionally Precipitated The Financial Crisis?

In the midst of pretty widespread suspicion about and disdain for Wall Street, it’s going to take a while for this one to go away.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Answering Ireland’s Call

The first time I went to Ireland, nearly 40 years ago now, I was struck by how familiar it all was.

Everyone looked pretty much like everyone looked back home. Factor out the brogue and factor in the Massachusetts accent – informed in large part by the number of Irish immigrants who settled here – and everyone pretty much talked the same way: story telling, blather, blarney, indirection, put downs. So many of the churches were crowned with the same sort of cupola as my home parish church. And the body language: hey, where have I seen those crossed arms before?

Bonus points for how closely parts of the New England countryside resemble Ireland, stones walls rocky fields and all – it’s no wonder so many of them settled here.

Having grown up in a largely Irish-American neighborhood, this all should have been duh obvious to me. But my understanding that American Irishness – at least in my second- and third-generation ‘hood – was a chip off the old sod  really only dawned on me once I stepped off the night boat in Dun Laoghaire and felt completely at home. (Ah, that’s where it comes from…)

Since that first trip, I’ve been to Ireland many times, so the familiar feeling now is as much from those 15 or so trips as it is from the derivative Irishness of my Main South Worcester childhood.

And, across the years, Ireland itself has changed, of course.

When I first went, the country was still pretty darned poor, its most important export its young. There was, among many of those you met, a mild sense of embarrassment  - shame is too strong a word - over the way people lived, so materially deprived when compared to their relations who’d crossed the big pond to America, and even those who’d crossed the little pond to England. There were apologies for the lousy heat, the mushy peas, the damp loos.

Then it got better. Way better.

Decent heat. Great food. Higher quality toilet paper in the no longer damp loos.

Sure, there were still plenty of poor rural outposts, but the cities and their environs were, all of a sudden, like everywhere else in the modern Euro-American world. More prosperous, even. Trendier.

And no more were they exporting their young. All of a sudden, they were net importers from somewhere else: Poland, Russia, the Czech Republic.

And then it got worse.

Most of those my age and older, who remembered back when, had never trusted the prosperity – not really. Still, they were saddened by what the downturn was doing to their young. Once again, they were watching their children head off to someplace else. (Worse, they were also seeing an upsurge in suicide.)

These days, it’s no longer a matter of holding an American Wake for your children who will never return – Aer Lingus gets them back for Christmas and other holidays – but it’s still the hollow and sad feeling that your kids will be building their lives (and having your grandchildren) far and away.

Unlike some of the PIIGS, Ireland is on the mend. Behaving, in fact, like a Euro exemplar of the “right way” to dig yourself out of the economic bog. (I guess all those years getting whacked around by Christian Brothers inured the Irish to taking their medicine and keeping their gobs shut. Even for us Irish Americans, the motto Erin Go Bragh could just as easily have been translated as ‘Suck it up’ as ‘Ireland Forever.” Me? I can’t help but feel a bit proud of how Ireland has sucked it up.)

The country’s economy barely grew in 2011. Inspired by German-style economics, the Troika takes a dim view of any kind of stimulus—tax cuts or public-works spending—choosing instead to allow wages to fall over time, increasing competitiveness. Evidence suggests this is happening: Ireland’s unit cost of labor has dropped 12 percent in the past two years. But this kind of readjustment is a slow process, leaving Ireland a painful experiment in austerity. Unemployment has stayed above 14 percent for almost 12 months. And in the fiscal year ending in April 2011, Ireland saw the most outward emigration since the 19th century. (Source: Business Week.)

Despite all the gloomy-doom, Ireland is on the road back. But the road they’re on is long, and hilly, and rocky – and the wind may not always be to their backs.

So they’re over in Amerikay, looking for a bit of a lift. In February, “they” – Prime Minister Enda Kenny; Richard Bruton, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation; and Barry O’Leary, who runs the country’s Industrial Development Agency (with a boost from Bill Clinton) – came to the U.S. looking for some private sector stimulus of the sort that got the Celtic Tiger going a generation ago.

“You can’t grow our economy or any other economy by an austerity program on its own,” said Kenny onstage in New York.

So part of what they’re looking for is outside investment, and they’re counting on the vast diaspora to help them out.

When approaching an American company, [O’Leary] says, “if there’s somebody at C level in the company who has an Irish name, it sure is a good starting point.”

If I had a business, I’d consider investing in Ireland.

Hey, it’s almost home.

Anyway, Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone in the diaspora. (Other than those wearing big foam leprechaun hats and puking in the gutters to celebrate, and those who persist in using “St. Patty” when anyone with half an Irish brain knows it’s “St. Paddy.”)

I’ve been celebrating Paddy’s day on Pink Slip since the get-go. Some of these are pretty darned good…

2011: St. Patrick’s Day 2011

2010: St. Paddy’s Day No More We’ll Keep.

2009: Irish Eyes Not So Smiling These Days.

2008: You Say Po-tay-to, I say Po-tah-to. Who’s Irish and Who’s Not.

2007: Kiss Me, I’m Irish.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Come out ye Nike Black and Tans*? Sure, someone might have thought that a bit of a googleen was in order.

Taglines, naming, branding…

Trying to figure out what to tag and name your products can be a minefield. As someone who was at one point the product manager for a product named Auto BJ can attest. And no, I didn’t name it. For the record it means “Automated Box-Jenkins” (a technique used for time series analysis and forecasting, which I’m sure clears that up).

I also worked one time with an outside marketing firm that suggested we bill our new product as The Final Solution. I had to point out that this was already, ahem, taken.

And then there was Black Rocket, which was how Genuity branded its hosting service  - all the while pretending it was something other than web hosting, something that we touted as the world’s first Network Services Platform in our hell-bent drive to create a new category that we could lead. No need to ask how this one played out.  Anyway, as we started to roll Black Rocket out we found that the name was used by a condom in Spain and a particularly potent form of hashish in Holland. That’s some Network Services Platform you got there, baby.

The latest somewhat ill-considered product name comes from Nike which, just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, is advertising black sneakers called Guinness, and black and tan sneakers dubbed Black and Tans.

Now, it is my guess that if people in America are familiar with the term Black and Tan at all, at all, they’re thinking of the drink that’s half Guinness (stout – the black) and half Harp (a lager – the tan). This is actually quite a tasty concoction. I’m not a big beer drinker, but on occasion, in an Irish pub, I’ll have one of these. I think that in Ireland, I would order this as a Half and Half, however, not as a Black and Tan.

That’s because there is still plenty residual animosity to the Black and Tans, a paramilitary band of notorious British ex-soldiers who shot up and burned down quite a bit of Ireland during The Troubles, when Ireland struggled to throw off the British yoke. There are few people left alive who have anything but a vague childhood memory of this time, but cultural memories (especially when it comes to things-horrible) are long. There are plenty of places in Ireland where there are monuments to those fighting the Brits for independence, or fighting each other over the form that this independence would take. (The end result being the division of Ireland into two countries, which, as history has shown us, doesn’t tend to work out.)

Last May, my husband and I rented a carriage house in Galway that was just off Father Griffin Road, named for Father Michael Griffin who was murdered by the Black and Tans in 1920.

On the one hand, naming a product Black and Tan doesn’t seem like something that’s going to get a lot of kilts in a knot. Most people won’t get the allusion. It’s something in the way back rearview mirror. Etc. On the other hand, while calling your product Black and Tans may not rise to the level of, say, calling it The Final Solution, it is perhaps not in the best of taste – but maybe on a par with the novelty song of my youth, “Please Mister Custer, I Don’t Want to Go.”** A laugh-riot to most of us in those pre-PC days, but maybe something hurtful to descendants of those killed there, and even to those descended from those doing the killing. Sample of the lyrics, as I recall:

I had a dream last night,
There was a terrible fight.
Somebody yelled “Attack!”
And there I was with an arrow in my back.

Mildly distasteful by today’s sensibilities; keen wit in 1960. (At about the same time, the Massachusetts Turnpike came out with a logo that depicted a pilgrim’s hat with an arrow through it. That arrow is long gone.)

Anyhow, there hasn’t been a colossal hue and outcry against Nike, but there’s been some. The Huffington Post ran an article on it he other day.

While the company may not be aware of the historical meaning of the name, some Irish-Americans are unimpressed. Ciaran Staunton, President of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, told that the move left him speechless. "It would be the American equivalent of calling a sneaker 'the al-Qaeda'... Is there no one at Nike able to Google Black and Tan.”

Well, I don’t think this is quite the equivalent of “calling a sneaker ‘the al-Qaeda’”, but I’m with Mr. Staunton on “Is there no on at Nike able to Google Black and Tan.”

If they had, they would have gotten a bit of the old history for themselves, and maybe someone with a modicum of sensitivity might have given pause before deciding that this was a good name for a sneaker.***

*“Come out ye Black and Tans” is an Irish rebel song, lyrics by Dominic Behan (Brendan’s brother) and popularized by the Wolfe Tones.

** I have absolutely no idea why thinking about the Black and Tans jogged my noodle into dredging this one up. The mind is, indeed, a wondrous thing.

***Nike’s apparently not the first to commandeer the name Black and Tan for a product. Ben and Jerry’s did it a couple of years ago, but ended up withdrawing the ice cream flavor (or at least the name) as being inconsistent with their pacifist leanings.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The gamification of shopping. (Hey, it’s always been a game…)

It’s not exactly big game hunting. Nor a blood sport (mostly). But, for some shoppers, there’s always been an element of being “on the hunt” – for bargains, for the perfect little black dress, the funky pillow that will look really cool in the corner of the couch. Many years ago, I used to love to hit (the late, lamented) Filene’s Basement on the day of the Neiman-Bergdorf-Bonwit’s-Bendel’s whatever sale – this in the days before there was outlet shopping, or T J Maxx and the like.

So I get that shopping has always been something of a game.

And shopping, back in the day, was social, something you did with friends. (“You want to cruise The B [Filene’s Basement] on Saturday?”)

Even at my advanced age, I still go on a couple of social shopping excursions each year.

So I completely get the concept of social shopping.

Alas, these days, most of my shopping is for a specific purpose. If I’m not gift shopping, it’s practical stuff: I need new bras, or a black suit, or a white shirt, or something to wear to a wedding – and it’s often done online.

I no longer shop like I used to. Nor do I care to.

Still, I remember just how exhilarating shopping can be when you make the Big Score, or buy something that is so perfectly you that you’re still wearing (and enjoying) it 20 years on. I have a number of sweaters in this category.

But when you do shop for fun and hobby, you can end up buying a lot of crap you really don’t need.

Sometimes it’s a bargain that’s too good to turn down. In this category, my champeen purchase – some 30+ years ago – was a gorgeous camel-colored knit dress that fit perfectly, was from some reasonably upscale designer label, and was colossally marked down at Loehmann’s.  Unfortunately, with the possible exception of olive-drab, there is no color that looks worse on me than camel. Every time I put the dress on, I realized that I looked like death warmed over. So I never actually ended up wearing it.

Sometimes it’s something you buy because you love the color, only to realize, once you get it home, that the reason you were drawn to it is because you already own multiple variations on the same theme. Thus, I would occasionally find myself in possession of three periwinkle blue cashmere sweaters.

So I can absolutely understand the appeal of Fantasy Shopper, which I read about in The Economist recently.

Fantasy Shopper “gamifies” shopping.

Shoppers use virtual money to buy virtual items at real stores. They pull looks together and get other folks to take a look at them and tell them what you think.

Sometimes there are contests. In the one mentioned in The Economist article, players accessorized outfits pulled together from items available through the store Matches with a Stella McCartney handbag. Participants voted, and the winner got the Stella bag – worth nearly $1K. (As the Beatles – including Stella’s old man - used to say: Gear! Fab! Fab! Gear!)

Shoppers can also collect other rewards, including coupons to use for real goods. (They can also accumulate badges, but I’m not sure whether these translate into something tangible or are their own reward.)

For the stores participating, there are a number of benefits, including figuring out what flies with their shoppers, and what’s a dud. And, likely, attracting some real buyers who might not have shopped there otherwise. (One gamer commented that she thought that a certain store was geared toward her mother’s set, but realized through Fantasy Shopper that there were some things for her there, as well.)

Fantasy Shopper “works” in London, but is coming soon to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the company – the brainchild of a crew of Exeter University guys who have clearly figured out how to tap into the female psyche – has beaten out 1,500 other start-ups to win an Amazon newbie award. And, better yet, in January got a couple of million in VC money.  Real, not virtual.

When I think of online games, I mostly think of hunched over guys in their parents’ basement living on Doritos and Dr. Pepper while devoting their lives to World at Warcraft.  Or odd-balls livin’ la vida loca in FarmVille

But Fantasy Shopper seems fresh and fun. And useful. No more getting stuck with a closet full of camel-colored dresses. No more drawer full of periwinkle sweaters. You go, girls!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Machine Gun Vegas: that town is just one big old fun-house

Given the history of Las Vegas, it’s amazing that it’s taken so long for someone to come up with this concept. But now they have. There’s now a shooting gallery, Machine Gun Vegas (MGV), that combines: “the look and feel of an ultra-lounge with the functionality of a state of the art indoor gun range.”

The New York Times reported on its opening last week, and gave us snotty, elitist, hoity-toity non-gun types the low-down:

With its provocative mix of violent fantasy (think blowing holes through an Osama bin Laden target with an AK-47) and sexual allure, it is the latest example of how the extravagances and excesses that have defined Las Vegas are moving beyond the gaming table.

It’s not just Osama bin Laden targets, however. The picture illustrating the article show a gal cradling a bad-ass looking gun – I don’t know an Uzi from an AK-47, but this one looks serious – which is semi-pointed at a target the depicts a scary clown.  There are bad guys, and then there are bad guys

The MGV folks apparently know their audience. Let’s hear it for the graying of the Vegas wild-man conventioneer:

In the main lounge, Barry Burmaster, 54, of Williamsburg, Md., was giddy after he and three friends, in town for a convention, compared a stack of bullet-riddled targets.

“Twenty years ago, I’d spend $400 at the strip clubs,” he said. “Now, I just come here to shoot.”

Others come for the “exotic weapons,” like M-16’s, which may not seem all that exotic to your average Viet Nam vet, but does to a 20 year old fire-arms enthusiast.

The MGV concept raises, in my mind, any number of question – not particular to MGV; I’d ask his about any shooting gallery. Are the guns chained down so no one can run out the door with them – before or after they take a shot at the scary clown target? And what if some psycho-sicko (sicko-psycho?) decided to turn it on the guy?

Not just everyone can wander in off the street and start a shoot ‘em up, however:

…the owners of Machine Guns Vegas said they would carefully screen customers and that their clientele would be made up of people who enjoy the sport of shooting.

Wonder how they’ll do that? 

Will they run police checks?

Do some profiling, which will or will not stand up in the lawsuit when someone gets refused entry – “the prospective client appeared sweaty and confused…he kept muttering ‘I just told the wife, “Honey, I’m going out to hunt humans”…’”?

Can they screen customers by having them take a psychological test, like the Myers-Briggs? (For each question, please choose the activity you’d rather participate in: 1) read Jane Austen or pull the legs off of frogs; 2) shove a fire-cracker up a cat’s butt or listen to Chopin…)

However they do their screening, however they protect their clientele from run-amoks, the good news is that, although MGV looks like an ultra-lounge (whatever that is) it does NOT serve alcohol, perhaps making it the only place in Las Vegas other than the local Mormon stake houses that can make that claim.

Anyway, among the amenities at MGV are a VIP area with a cappuccino maker and leather couches. And the usual Vegas eye-candy hostesses, who, a manager assured The Times, are not just the usual bims from The Strip. Some of them are military veterans who are also models.

I went over to the MGV site to check it out, and found the full list of guns – handguns, semis, fully-auto – that you can use. And the packages – like World at War, Femme Fatale, Mob – that combine different guns and differing amounts of ammo and number of targets.

An interesting angle is that getting to shoot the real thing is drawing video game users. Video games used to tout that they were patterned on real guns. Now the guns at MGV have taglines like “as featured in Call of Duty.”

For The Mob package, you don’t get to shoot Moe Green in the eye – at least it doesn’t say if you can – but you do get 50 founds with a Thompson, 10 with a Pistol with suppressor, and 5 with a 12-gauge shotgun – plus tee-shirt – for $99.95.

Well, Bugsy Siegel should have lived to see this. I’m sure he’d be kicking himself that he didn’t think of it earlier.