Friday, September 28, 2012

Who am I?

I have a couple of ancestry-related items on my bucket list.

I’d like to do one of those cheek-swab DNA things at some point, mostly to find out whether my Irish father – with his black hair, tan-ability, and west of Ireland grandmother – may have had a bit of African blood in there somewhere. I’m about as white as you can get: blondish hair, blue eyes, fair skin that goes up in flames when exposed to the sun… What fun to find out there’s something else going on beyond what the mirror tells me.

I’d like to visit Ballymascanlon. This is where my east of Ireland grandmother’s parents hailed from. I understand from my cousin Barbara that it’s a blink-you’re-gone kind of place, but I’d like to blink through at some point, if only to see the native turf of  my grandmother’s mantra: If Ireland were so great, we wouldn’t have all had to come over here.

I’d like to visit Neue Banat. My mother was born in a pokey farm town in the German diaspora. When her parents were born there, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When my mother was born there, after World War I, it was part of Romania. The town is now called Panatul-Nou, and I suspect it’s no longer a pokey farm town, but probably a bleak whatever with decaying Soviet-era cinder block apartment complexes. Still, while I have little desire to go to Romania – almost all of my mother’s relatives, along with ethnic Germans whose families had, for centuries, lived outside of what eventually became Germany were DP’d back to Germany after World War II – I wouldn’t mind seeing where my mother was born.

I’d like to jump into my ancestry on both sides. Which I hope to do when I retire.

I have no expectations that I’ll unearth anything earth-shattering.

Sure, I have a great-grandmother named Joyce, but I don’t think I’ll find out that James Joyce is my fourteenth cousin once removed. Himself, after all, was a Cork Joyce. “We’re” Mayo Joyces.

On the German side of the house, I’m a Wolf. I don’t think there are many famous wolves to go dancing with. But maybe there are some big, bad wolves out there that we’re kin to. (I sure hope I don’t discover that Hitler is my fourteenth cousin once removed.)

Since my family hasn’t been in The States all that long – since the 1870’s on my father’s side, since the 1920’s on my mother’s – I doubt I’ll find that I’m related to George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.

But you never know what you’ll find out, even if it doesn’t tie you to the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

A couple of years ago, I found a website that had information on my grandparents’ emigration – their names, birthdates, date the left Neue Banat, the relatives in Chicago who sponsored them, and the name of the young cousin who came with them. Alas, this was a 3 a.m., can’t sleep, let’s roam around the web find, and I didn’t keep the link. I know it was to a site that was a labor of love of some fellow with an interest in Schwaben Deutsche.

And the other day, again in the sleepless wee hours, I found that, when my Great Uncle Fred Hanratty was killed in the line of duty, my Great Aunt Alice got a $700 death benefit from his union. (Fred worked on the Worcester trolleys.)

So I’ve long had in the back of my mind that I’d do some munging around on Ancestry.com. Whenever I get around to it.

Thus I was interested in a Business Week article  on Ancestry, which, despite it’s ads on TV – the bald guy who found out that all his predecessors were barbers, the woman who discovered that she lived around the corner from where her great-granny had once lived – I never realized was such a big business. It’s even a public company (NASDAQ).

Some of what Ancestry does, through a subsidiary, is dig up interesting celebrity ancestral connections that are presumably more market-worthy/titillating than those of the ‘Great-Great-Great Uncle Louis owned an accordion shop’ variety.

President Obama, for instance, is apparently connected to Brad Pitt, Warren Buffett, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush, and Rush Limbaugh. 

Oh, yes, and Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame is related to Vlad the Impaler.

As I mentioned, Ancestry is pretty big business, with a near monopoly choke-hold on the amateur family tree market.

Both the number of customer subscriptions and the size of its research archives have more than doubled since 2009, and Ancestry.com will net a projected $480 million in 2012, according to Bloomberg News, which means it will be up 189 percent over the last five years.

If you don’t want to shell out for Ancestry, you can make your way to an LDS reading room, where they let you search their files for free. Mormons believe in posthumous baptism, so their faithful often troll the archives to save their ancestors after the fact. They got in trouble a while back for attempting to save victims of the Holocaust, but I believe they backed off that ill-advised initiative. Personally, I’d be a bit nervous that plunking down in an LDS reading room might set you up for a dose of proselytizing, but I used to work with a woman who, when doing her family tree – this was pre-Internet – did go out to Salt Lake City to use the archives at the mother ship and was treated very well. This woman’s antecedents were all from Ireland, and I went with her once to a library at Boston College that was a pretty good resource on Irish immigration. So that would be another place to do some free searching.

But Ancestry.com is the big kahuna:

It owns five of the top 10 genealogy sites on the Net, including RootsWeb.com, Genea-logy.com, and Archives.com, a Silicon Valley startup acquired last April for $100 million.

Ancestry has two million subscribers, who pay on a sliding scale to access all sorts of records. And they try to hook you:

By sending “hints” about possible new family connections to its users, Ancestry.com easily develops into an addiction.

Hmmmm. My mother was born in Romania. Maybe I’m related to Vlad the Impaler. And Robert Pattinson.

I’m thinking of signing up just to see what kind of hints they drop. If they say Roy or Ginger Rogers, I’ll feel a bit disappointed, of course, as neither Roy nor Ginger was born a Rogers.

Speaking of born a Rogers, one of the reasons I’d be interested in doing the ancestry dig is to find out whether our Rogers was an Anglicized version of something more Irish sounding. In which case I may go native and change my name “back.” Or whether one of Oliver Cromwell’s boys paused mid-rampage to marry an Irish colleen and settle down Beyond the Pale in Roscommon. In which case maybe we’re related to The Queen.

Anyway, genealogy is the second most searched online topic, porn maintaining the number one position that helped push the bandwidth bounds to begin with. I suspect the balance will shift as the genealogy-searching demographic – white women 55 and older – continues to grow at its projected clip.

Gee, white women over 55. And I thought I was special…

Speaking of special:

Practically all people of European descent share at least one common ancestor on their family trees sometime within the last 550 years.

So maybe I am related to Roy and Ginger.

Can’t wait until the records go really far back, and cheek swabs are truly perfected. Then we’ll all find out that we’re monkey’s uncles. That’ll be fun! (I’m related to J. Fred Muggs on my father’s side, and Cheetah on my mother’s. Ungawa!)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pre-peeled bananas? That’s one unappealing idea.

One of my high school friends was famous for the over-packaged lunches that her somewhat eccentric mother used to pack for her. The packaging highlight: bananas swaddled in Saran Wrap and tied with a string.

Fast forward a few decades, and we have the opposite end of the banana spectrum: a supermarket chain HQ’d in Austria, with outlets throughout Central/Eastern Europe and Italy, recently introduced pre-peeled bananas, served up on shrink-wrapped plastic trays.

Admittedly, the banana is not quite as portable as some other fruits.  With a peach or a plum, you just have to jettison the pit, or wrap it in a Kleenex if there’s no handy jettison point. With grapes, once you’ve finished the grapes you’ve got the slightly pesky crazy-stem to contend with, but the crazy-stem is not that messy if you have to stick it in your pocket or pocketbook. The ultimate portable fruit is, of course, the apple, with its disposable core that can be left with a clean conscience for the birds.

But once you finish the banana, there’s the peel: slimy and funky, too big to wrap in a Kleenex, nothing you want to forget in your pocket or pocketbook. And nothing you want to leave for the birds. Which won’t take it.

How unpopular are banana peels with wildlife?

One morning a few weeks ago, I was taking our recycle out and noticed that a garbage bag that had been put out the night before had been attacked by rats. The rats apparently hadn’t found much of interest. There was just one pawed/gnawed hole in the side of the trash bag. And streeling out of it was a banana peel. That the rats, initially enticed by the promise of banana, had rejected and left behind.

(Non-urban types are, I’m sure, aghast at the idea of rats, but that’s how cities roll. Which is why we try not to put our trash out until dawn.)

Of course, the Billa solution doesn’t make a banana any more portable by getting rid of the disbilla bananaposal problem. Okay, you no longer have to worry about discarding the peel. Now you have to figure out how to get rid of the plastic wrap and plastic tray. And, based on the picture, this concept doesn’t seem to have much appeal to those who want a single banana – someone heading to the gym, someone brown- bagging to work, someone packing lunch for the kids.

What, precisely, was the problem that Billa was trying to solve here?

Are bananas that time-consuming and difficult to peel that we need a pre-peeled banana as a labor-saving device? Sheesh. You don’t even need a knife or your front teeth to get the thing started.

And in a time when most folks are at least a tiny bit environmentally conscious, who needs all this excess packaging?

Not to mention that fruit peels – banana or other – serve an important function: protecting that inner-goodness from turning brown and rotting.

And not to mention that, let us face it, there’s something vaguely obscene about these suckers when stripped of their protective covering. (Vague obscenity being something that bananas, of course,  have a long running start on.)

This – the pre-peeled, ultra-packaged banana -  from a company that brands itself as a “common sense” supermarket.

Anyway, it’s no surprise that environmental groups, including Greenpeace, have been all over this bad idea. And Billa has decided that it wasn’t the smartest thing they’ve ever done

The supermarket has since apologized, according to the Austrian Independent, saying the "one off" mistake would not happen again. (Source: Huffington Post)

Billa isn’t the only one to dabble in fruit packaging, of course. One Huff Po commenter (handle: River City Slicker) graciously supplied a link to Mott, which offers packages of pre-sliced apples.

I’m sure that 90% of all kids would, for better or worse, prefer to have a nifty little package of pre-sliced apples ratherapple slices than an apple-apple. And with one of those little mini-bags, there’s greater likelihood that the the kids will eat everything. Rather than take a few bites from the apple and toss it aside.

But unsliced apples have a tremendous benefit: they last a very, very long time in your fridge. In contrast with sliced apples, that start browning around the edges immediately.

Is there some fixative treatment that gets used on peeled fruit to keep them “fresh”? If so, one more unnatural act that we don’t need.

Anyway, I’m glad that Billa came to its common senses and took the peeled packaged bananas off the market.

I’ll take the slight risk of slipping on a banana peel to the larger risk to the environment that comes when we keep adding all sorts of plastic packaging to our already heaping trash dumps. At least my high school friend recycled her Saran Wrap and string.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The world’s smallest violin now plays for Dietmar Machold

The U.S. of A. has had its share of Bernie Madoffs over the years, but I guess in Europe they go in for more high-brow swindles.

Such is the case of Dietmar Machold, who, at 63 is facing jail time for a fraud scheme that involved Stardivari and other ultra-ultra stringed instruments.

Dietmar wasn’t an overnight violin huckster sensation.  The story began when his father opened a modest violin shop in Bremen, Germany, in 1951.  Son Dietmar took over the business in 1980, the dawn of the Greed Is Good decade.  Not content to sell pedestrian violins to folks with less-than-Yehudi-Menuhin, not-so-prodigy children so that the kids could scratch out a few bars of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to an audience of beaming grandparents, Machold decided to think and do BIG.

A generation later, as upper-end violin prices — like those of art, houses, credit default swaps and medical care — had crept inexorably upward, a dozen or so global dealers had dwindled to three or four, and Machold was one of them. The Bremen shop was still operating, and Machold now had shops and affiliates in Zurich, Vienna, New York, Chicago, Seoul and Tokyo.

The trade had never known a multinational on this scale. Instruments below $90,000 were “Mickey Mouse violins,” Machold told interviewers. Anything below $1.25 million was not worth his time. (Source: Washington Post.)

Well, as far as I know, Mickey Mouse never played the violin. Maybe Machold meant Jack Benny?

In any case, Machold became the go-to’s go-to for Strads. His reputation was such that he was able to prepare the appraisals for two violins, valued at $6.8 million, that he himself used as collateral for a multi-million dollar loan from the Bremen Sparkasse savings bank.

Those Bremen bankers had a gulp moment when violinmaker Roger Hargrave informed them that the violins were not Strads. In fact, they were worth close to $6K and $6.8M.

The bankers[also] had Hamburg forestry expert Micha Beuting examine the alleged Stradivari instruments. If they had been genuine, the trees used to make them would have to have been felled before 1737, the year of Antonio Stradivari's death.

In his report, Beuting noted that based on the growth rings, the trees had been cut down decades after Stradivari's death -- probably in the northern Alps or the Bavarian Forest, but clearly not in the southern Alps, where the spruce trees Stradivari used to make his violins grew. (Source: Spiegel.)

But it was pretty easy for the bankers to be duped.

After all, Machold had been a good bank client for years. He lived in a 700 year old Austrian castle. He was named an honorary professor by the Austrian ministry of culture. And, in 2005:

Erwin Pr├Âll, the governor of the state of Lower Austria, awarded Machold the "Grand Gold Medal of Honor for Services to the State." Best of all, he anointed Machold a "citizen of the world" in full view of the illustrious assembled guests. (Source: Spiegel.)

Seriously, who would doubt the word of a ‘citizen of the world’? One who owned 44 cars – mostly Bentleys, Rolls, and Aston Martins. And Machold was such a trusted authority that:

At the 2005 annual meeting of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel in Orlando, members were invited to bid on a weekend at Machold’s castle. The ACTEC Foundation looked forward to the auction proceeds. The winning bidder looked forward to “a personal concert played on a Stradivarius violin.” (Source: Washington Post.)

Hmmmm. How many of those American College of Trust and Estate Counsel members do you think could tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a Mickey Mouse fiddle worth $90K? Wonder who won that bidding war…

In real life, by 2005, Dietmar Machold’s world was beginning to come unstrung. Not only was he foisting off violins of dubious pedigrees as thoroughbreds, he was using instruments which he didn’t actually own as collateral in multiple banks, for multiple loans, to pay off the real owners. In some cases, the collateral that the banks held was a photograph of a violin, not the actual violin. (See me after if you’d like to look at a Kodachrome snap of the Brooklyn Bridge.)

In true Madoffian-Ponzish fashion, he’d pay off  Person A with Bank Loan B, and pay off Bank Loan B with Bank Loan C. Thus he managed to keep all the balls in the air until 2008 when the economy went south, taking Machold with it.

Machold filed for bankruptcy, and an assemblage of banks and individuals have claims against him that amount to about $200 million.

Well, they’re not making any more Strads, so the price will keep going up as long as there are folks who want them – a couple of years ago, one went at auction for nearly $16M. But whether he ends up in the hoosegow or not, it’s a safe bet that none of them will be sold or appraised by Dietmar Machold.

Meanwhile, his creditors are no doubt playing one very sad song for him on the world’s tiniest violin.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fight fiercely, Harvard Club waitstaff

Back in my college waitressing days, I worked a couple of shifts at the Harvard Club of Boston.

It was not a regular gig, but I had a friend who worked there every weekend, and I occasionally got drafted to fill in. My memories are that I mostly served fairly desiccated duck a l’orange to fairly desiccated old geezers who lived there and took their meals in the dining room.  And that my friend was usually humming the Beatles “Everywhere there’s lots of piggies, leading piggy lives” under her breath while she worked.

I think we were paid a flat rate per shift – no tips included – which if I recall correctly worked out to $13.54 for a three-hour shift. At a time when the minimum wage was $1.60, that certainly wasn’t terrible – and was probably the equivalent of what you’d have made with tips. I remember thinking that the flat rate wasn’t a bad deal. But that was eons ago, and today’s wait staff are apparently more attuned to whether or not they’re getting screwed:

Employees filed a class action lawsuit in November, claiming they had been cheated out of potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in tips because of a misleading 17 percent surcharge on food and beverage bills that the club stated was collected “in lieu of a gratuity.” Some club members thought they were effectively paying tips, but the workers didn’t get any of the surcharge money. (Source: Boston.com)

Why not just fold the extra 17% into the price and say “no tipping”, which is their policy?

I’m assuming that The Club was paying the waitrons more than the minimum that’s required for those who receive tips – which has always been pretty darned minimal and which I don’t imagine, relatively speaking, has gotten much better over the years. Still, even if they were paying a decent hourly wage, it does seem sort of sneaky and mean-spirited to let the diners infer that the wait staff was making a bit extra off of them.

Anyway, Harvard’s making the aggrieved waitstaff $4 million settlement:

“…in part with the proceeds of a projected sale of one of its buildings at the main clubhouse on Commonwealth Avenue.”

Which is where I worked.

I wonder what’s for sale? Did all the desiccated old grads die? Do they no longer need to clubhouse to be a bunkhouse?

When I did my waiting, I was under the impression that the gentlemen who lived there were a bunch of ancient bachelors for whom Harvard was their dearest and closest relationship. It’s not just poor folks who need Single Room Occupancy residences…But maybe in this day and age, there are a lot more housing alternatives for the elderly with money. (Of course, I’m making a couple of assumptions here. One, that a Harvard grad will be able to afford a place to live in his dotage, and can take advantage of the housing alternatives out there. Two, that the part of the “clubhouse” that’s for sale is the part that the old dears lived in. Not that anyone I waited on could possibly still be alive…)

Anyway,

It was not immediately clear how many current and former waitstaff would receive compensation from the settlement.

I’m wondering whether it’s too late to get in on the settlement. I’ll have to let MB know. She’s a recently retired librarian, so I’m sure she’d be happy to have some folding green in lieu of the tips we didn’t make. I know I would.

Solidarity forever!

Monday, September 24, 2012

How do you like them Apples?

Other than those iPhone and iPad users who “upgraded” to iOS6, or the millions of fanatics who queued for iPhone 5 (and attempted to navigate their way home with it), or the starry-eyed worshippers who believe that Apple can do no wrong, I’m a-guessing that most tech watchers are somewhat amused by the fairly hilarious, if not quite epic, fail of Apple’s new mapping application, which they just introduced as a replacement for Google Maps.

Not that Google Maps is all that perfect.

I don’t use it a lot, but I have noticed that it often has a “last-mile” problem. It’s pretty reliable getting you from, say, downtown Boston to, say, Syracuse NY. Which is, of course, the macro, easy part. And less good at getting you to the doorstep you actually want to get to, which is the micro, not-so-easy part.

It also does an occasional choke on my home address. There’s more than one Beacon Street in Boston, but you’d think that putting my zip code in would let them find the right one…

Still, there’s something so smug about Apple, that – as long as no one gets hurt driving off the edge of a cliff – it’s kind of fun to watch them squirm a bit.

I consider myself neither an Apple basher nor an Apple aficionado.

I have an old iPod. Somewhere.

Within the next few months – probably around my birthday – I will finally break down and get an iPad. 

When my Blackberry – what was I thinking? – bites the dust, I will absolutely consider an iPhone (although I will look at Android, too, this time around.

And I’d have an Apple computer if, every time I need to replace my laptop, I didn’t cheap out and stick with Intel onboard.

What I absolutely admire about Apple is their design savvy – without even using them, Apple products just appear lighter, cooler, simpler, more elegant than anything else on the market . And, from a marketing perspective, their ability to build a fan base that is rivaled only by that of Harley-Davidson is an absolute source of wonder and envy.

But it’s hard not to gloat just a teensy, weensy bit. (And if I’m gloating, imagine what the folks at Google, Samsung, Nokia et al. are doing just about now.)

Anyway, if you haven’t read about the Apple map problems, you can do so here on Huffington Post.

Among other glitches, the writer of the HuffPo article, from within Manhattan, tried to get directions to a location on Broadway. But instead was directed to Bayonne, New Jersey. As anyone who’s ever been to Bayonne can attest, Manhattan and Bayonne are not one and the same.

HuffPo  is also the source of these wonderful slides. Which will give you a sense of the mapping problem we’re talking about.

Here’s a highly useful view of Colchester, England. Or maybe it’s Colchester, Connecticut. Or Colchester, Vermont. Through this sort of cloud cover, they pretty much all look alike.

slide_251885_1548015_free

I’m not quite sure what this is a map of, but remind me that I really don’t want to drive on roads that are equal parts Salvador Dali, acid trip, and nightmare.

s-APPLE-IOS-6-MAPS-FLUB-large

My personal favorite, of course, is local, which is captioned Boston is melting.

Boston melting

It’ll be a while before I can drive over the Zakim Bridge without having this image flash through my brain.

As you can imagine there’s a lot of moaning about how Steve Jobs would never have let this happen. And a lot of speculation that this is black eye that Apple will have a hard time recovering from. But Apple is pretty much doubling down:

We launched this new map service knowing that it is a major initiative and we are just getting started with it. We are continuously improving it, and as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get. (Source: CNET.)

I don’t quite get that “as Maps is a cloud-based solution, the more people use it, the better it will get” reasoning.

I know there are self-healing networks. But self-healing applications that make Boston look like it’s melting? I must be missing something here. Maybe they just mean that it’s so easy to access cloud-based apps that a lot of people will do so, will take part in the world’s largest unpaid beta test and report problems, etc.

Apple, of course, has its reasons for wanting to get its own map app out there. See if you can locate the operative word:

Apple could have kept Google's more reliable and mature mobile mapping app, but it made a strategic decision about something it needed to own and monetize. Put another way, getting rid of Google Maps was more important than delivering a less-flawed Apple Maps app and dealing with the grumbling.

If you picked “monetize,” you’re correct-a-mundo. Plus:

Apple knows that it can commit resources to fixing the problems and count on the goodwill of its loyalists. The latest evidence: Across the nation people queued up outside Apple stores on Friday as the iPhone 5 went on sale. Why does anybody really need to do that? They don't, but this is like Woodstock.

The mention of Woodstock is pretty apt, given what some of those maps look like. (One pill maps you larger, and one pill maps you small.)

Meanwhile I do appreciate that mapping applications are incredibly complex. And that very few applications – even ones that are far simpler – are released without a few bugs, no matter how well tested they are.

I also appreciate that Apple will be rectifying their mapping problems as fast as they can. And will probably not suffer any permanent fan loss.

Still, it’s kind of fun to watch this unfold, and to ask yourself just what would Steve Jobs do? If there is a great beyond in the clouds, he’s probably doing a bit of teeth-grinding just about now.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Hats off to Buckey!

My mother collected salt and pepper shakers. Sort of. Mostly she accumulated them so that there would always be something inexpensive that her kids could give her for Christmas. (I believe I was responsible for the little pink pigs and the turnips with the long faces.) I don’t think her collection ever amounted to more than a dozen or so pairs.  I have some of them in my kitchen, and they’ve been added to over the years. But I wouldn’t say I collect them.

When I was in first grade, the school crossing guard – a nice old geezer who’d probably be under arrest these days – gave me his collection of match book covers. (Why he singled me out, or how the collection was conveyed, I have no recall. Maybe he gave them to my father, and I was the only kid in the family who wanted them. Maybe the old geezer felt badly that I got stiffed on my birthday that year – no cake – because my mother was bringing my brother home from the hospital that day. These theories are actually less creepy than the thought that the crossing guard wanted me, personally, to have them for some reason other than a stiffed birthday.)

Anyway, all those pages of nicely mounted match book covers – organized by theme (birds, flowers) – are long gone.

So other than those few, those proud, those salt and pepper shakers, I don’t actually collect anything. And I don’t actually know anyone who’s a serious collector of anything other than experience.

Although I am not a collector, I was nonetheless intrigued to read about the collection of the late Roger ‘Bucke'y’ Legried, of Frost, Minnesota, who bequeathed over 100,000 baseball caps his son Scott.

Now, at first blush, the thought of 100,000-plus baseball caps sounds like fun.

Think about it: Old time caps from the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the New York Highlanders. Caps from every Major League Team that ever was. Caps from the Negro Leagues. Caps from the Minor Leagues. Now that is a collection that I could get completely caught up in.

But Mr. Legried, alas, was not a baseball cap collector. As a farm-equipment salesman:

The bulk of Mr. Legried's stash consists of freebies from farm conventions and trade shows. There are no duplicates or toppers with salty language. (Source: WSJ Online.)

Okay. I’m with him on the salty language caps – one time at Fenway Park I sat next to a guy who had a tiny little penis sticking out of his cap. I don’t remember what the salty language was, but I do remember thinking that it probably wasn’t the only tiny little penis he had on him.

But it’s really hard to imagine caps that are more boring than those square-ish, mesh-backed caps that are given out at aggie trade shows. (If you’re wondering what I, as a bona fide city girl, know about agriculturally-related caps: my husband had an aunt and uncle who owned a tobacco farm. By they time I met Jim, they’d converted the farm to a golf course, but there were still plenty of tobacco farms in the neighborhood, and Uncle Bill and his farming neighbors always had some freebie tractor-fertilizer-equipment type of cap on.)

But however boring they are on an individual level, I will say that, when you put them all together, it looks rather jaunty, as you can see from this picture of Buckey with a subset of his collection.

image

Janet Kubat Willette/Agri News

And what the collection lacks in individual item interest, it certainly picked up in volume. The collection holds the Guinness record for hats.

It’s housed in:

…a garage, a basement and three 42-foot-long semi-tractor trailers at the Legried family farm. A three-ring binder catalogs each cap and its provenance—every John Deere hat from every state is listed, along with a black cap with intricate gold and red beadwork.

Buckey Legried had hoped that the caps would end up in a museum – one of the locations he had his eye on was in Blue Earth, Minnesota, which was already home to a major tourist attraction: a 47-foot high statue of the Jolly Green Giant.

Frost, Minnesota. Blue Earth, Minnesota.

I have to say that other parts of the country have it all over New England – where it’s mostly a combo of British and Indian – when it comes to place names.

Buckey had also hoped to get on the Letterman Show. (You’da thunk an Indiana boy would come through, now, wouldn’t you?)

Looking for a home for the caps has now fallen to Buckey’s son Scott.

It’s conceivable that Blue Earth could come through:

Cindy Lyon, executive director of the Blue Earth Area Chamber of Commerce, dreams of displaying the hats in a park near the Jolly Green Giant…

In her plan, the hats would share space with the museum of Giant memorabilia, just off a coast-to-coast interstate highway and near other local attractions, such as the Spam Museum in Austin, Minn.

"Why not have it at the Giant park? You wouldn't believe the number of people who come there. We've had 23 countries and every state in the nation this summer," she said.

One problem: it’s estimated that ten foot high racks would have to extend for half a mile to hold the entire collection.

Another: while I see the connection between Spam and Green Giant – it’s almost a full, yummy meal – the John Deere caps only connect tangentially.

But here’s hoping, Buckey. My fingers are crossed, and my cap’s off to you.

If I’m ever driving through Blue Earth, Minnesota, I will absolutely be sure to stop..

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Full El Monte

It’s been a tough year for lifeguards.

First, there was the young man in Florida who was fired because he made the bad decision to save the life of someone drowning in a section of the beach that his company wasn’t being paid to watch. Then there was the fellow lifeguard who was fired for acknowledging that he would have done the same thing.

And now there are the 14 El Monte, California, guards who got the hook after posting a YouTube, “Lifeguard Style,” that spoofed a wildly popular (well over 200 million views) video done by Psy, a Korean pop star.

Apparently, the spoilsports at Sony or Google won’t let me do an embed here, so you’ll have to click through to YouTube, but here you go:

The El Monte 14
This is cute and funny enough on its own – a bunch of healthy young folks obviously enjoying themselves, but when you look at the video it’s parodying, it gets even better

The world gets smaller, and crazier…

All made funnier to me because I first  heard the words as “Condom Style,” not “Gangnam Style.”

For those who aren’t familiar with Condom Style Gangnam Style – which, when I wasn’t hearing it as Condom Style, I was reading it as Gangman Style:

Gangnam is a wealthy neighborhood in the South Korean city of Seoul where young people go to party. In the song, Psy describes the kind of guy he is and the kind of girl he wants, painting caricatures of the ostentatious culture of people who hang out in Gangnam. (Source: NY Daily News.)

As for the El Monte lifeguards:

Supporters thought the goofy video brought good-natured attention to El Monte and offered a rare opportunity to market the city of 114,000 people.

City officials disagreed. Supervisors in the Parks and Recreation Division called the lifeguards — as well as a manager who did not appear in the video — into a meeting in which they were asked to review pages from a staff manual.

Then, the 14 part-time employees — mostly college students making $9.54 to $14.20 an hour — were fired.

In a statement, officials said the lifeguards made an "unauthorized video" that used city resources without permission, namely distinctive red lifeguard swimwear and the city pool itself.  (Source: LA Times.)

What a bunch of stiffs those city officials must be.

Who cares if they used those city resource bathing suits, which didn’t look all that distinguished to me. I’ve seen Baywatch. Doesn’t every lifeguard in California wear a red suit? And do they actually re-use the suits or share them one guard to another. (Ewwwww.) And if those guards were working later that day, what’s the big difference if they put the suit on a couple of hours early?

As for using the city pool, it pretty much looked like they were doing this during off-hours, so what was harm? Okay, I guess there was some liability – what if one of them bonked their head or slipped on the edge of the pool. But it isn’t exactly as if they were ignoring someone doing the dead man’s float for real, or a kid with a diaper leak, or a teenager cannonballing onto the neck of the some old lady doing geriatric aquarobics. Sheesh.

Those fired – which apparently included at least a couple of folks who didn’t actually participate in the video – were given no warning, no notice, no nothing.

Firing these lifeguards – most are college students – seems way disproportionate to the offense. Maybe a verbal or written warning. Or a day without zinc oxide on their nose.

But firing?

The functionaries who made this decision have to be a bunch of humorless cranks, that’s for sure. Sure, there’s a little vulgarity in the video, but on the vulgarity continuum, it’s pretty tame – especially for this day and age.  But mostly the video just looks like some kids having fun. And I suspect they had fun coming up with the idea, choreographing it, rehearsing, etc.

Aren’t organizations looking for employees who understand technology, social media, creativity, and collaboration? Aren’t these good things?

Not in El Monte, I guess, where at least a few of the town sachems felt the guards were lacking in propriety, and embarrassing the city. (A city that, of course, most people have never even heard of.) 

As I see it, the only ones being embarrassed should be the officials who’ve made El Monte out of El Molehill.

Meanwhile, the El Monte 14 are fighting back.

They’ve appeared at a City Council meeting to defend themselves. And, not surprisingly, they’re using the social media – which, of course, was how they got into trouble to begin with. But which can certainly be well-mobilized for their defense.

You can sign a petition to support them here.

Bring back the El Monte 141

(Marco. Polo. Marco. Polo.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Attention young folks: have you considered nursing school?

Maybe I’m just being a bit oversensitive here, but if there are three words I don’t like to see strung together in a headline, they’re aging, baby, and boomers.

So I was not exactly delighted to spy a Business Week headline that read Aging Baby Boomers Face Losing Care as Filipinos Go Home. (The inclusion of the words face, losing, and care certainly didn’t contribute any postivos to my feeling.)

Health care among aging baby boomers is much on my mind of late. Even though, frankly, I don’t think of us as aging. Not aging aging. Not yet anyway.

Last week, my brother-in-law had a hernia operation. (Doing fine.)

A few weeks back, a friend had a hip replacement. Her second hip is scheduled for Halloween. (Talk about trick or treat.)

Although my PCP has told me that I am in stunningly good health, I was just diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. So each night I Velcro my left hand and wrist into a Futuro splint.

(I won’t even count my husband’s health woes in here, as he’s technically not a boomer, having missed by two years. He just looks like one of “us.”)

Anyhow, it seems that, over the last few decades, hospitals throughout the U.S. and the rest of the developed world have increasingly relied on nurses and physicians from elsewhere. Much of the time, for nurses, that elsewhere was the Philippines. (The doctors are from India.)

In truth, the Filipino angle hasn’t been apparent to me. Of the dozens of nurses I have encountered over the course of my husband’s illness, almost all were American. At MGH, in fact, most of the nurses we ran across were local. The only true outliers I can recall were a nurse from Jamaica, and another from the Midwest who was surprised when I recognized – thanks to a cousin-in-law from Port Wing – that her accent was from Wisconsin. I guess this isn’t all that surprising: in the US, only 5% of the nurses are foreign. For doctors, the percentage is 27.

We didn’t run into any Indian doctors that I know of, but I certainly get the 27% foreign stat. Jim’s PCP has a Spanish name and accent. I think he’s from Latin America somewhere. Of the “Big Three”  (oncologist, radiologist, surgeon) for Jim’s recent cancer ordeal, two were “foreigners”: a Greek oncologist and a Korean radiologist. Jim was also treated by a few other MD’s from somewhere else, but none that I recall were from India.

But that may just be Mass General for you.

A hub for crack international physicians from everywhere, but not having to actually import doctors from anywhere. Ditto for the nurses, I guess. There may just not be any shortages when it comes to MGH, which (as we know from the signage that’s all over the place these days) is ranked the Number One Hospital in the country.

But shortages are starting to occur in less desirable locations. And they’re going to get worse, as there are more of us (consumers), and less of them (providers).

The BW article doesn’t tell us what’s up with the doctors from India, but apparently a lot of those Filipino nurses are now starting to stay home.

One young nurse profiled decided that she didn’t want to spend her life sticking thermometers under tongues, and switched to becoming a call center worker, where she places calls to bank credit card holders reminding them to pay up. Tough as nursing is, I can’t see call center as a career alternative, but as Nurse Nancy said:

“If I can maintain a relatively high standard of living as a customer-service representative, why go overseas to work as a nurse?”

Overall, this is bad news for boomers in the US, Europe, and Japan as we:

…reach the prime age for medical care. Economic growth in emerging economies, despite some signs of recent slowing, is stoking investment in hospitals and creating job opportunities in other industries that mean a growing number of health workers choose to stay at home.

For Filipinos, of course, this is good news: better health care, more career options. But what about us?????? (Can you believe the complete and utter selfishness?)

Of course, the medical personnel shortages  - WHO estimates a world-wide shortage of 3 million health workers - are nowhere near as acute in the US and other developed nations as they are in  poor places like sub-Saharan Africa:

…which has a quarter of the global burden of disease and only 3 percent of the world’s health workers.

All this is good news, of course, for doctors and nurses, as their pay is apt to go up and their options spread out.

At least we’re in a place where a lot of the potential migrant nurses and doctors are going to know the language. Not so in Japan, which has a rapidly aging population and a language that people can’t learn from pop lyrics and exports of “Two and a Half Men.”

Meanwhile, a shout out to young Americans: have you thought about nursing or med school?

Just think how much fun it will be ministering to us aging baby boomers…

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A Day’s Whistleblower Pay, for a Day’s Whistleblower Work

I don’t know about you, but my image of a whistleblower is a nebbishy little bean counter. A frumpy-podgy admin who got sick and tired of watching the shenanigans of the “beautiful people.” An engineering type who still wears a pocket protector (and still knows how to use a slide rule).  Someone a bit on the square side, hard working, earnest, “good.” Not in it for the do-re-mi.

And then there’s Bradley Birkenfeld.

Birkenfeld is the former UBS employer who let the IRS in on UBS’s schemes to help his fellow American citizens dodge taxes.

Mr Birkenfeld came forward in 2007 with information on how UBS helped clients hide taxable income. Some revelations were routine, others anything but: Mr Birkenfeld himself stuffed a customer’s undeclared diamonds into a toothpaste tube to move them across borders. Related charges were settled by UBS in 2009; the bank paid a fine of $780m, from which Mr Birkenfeld will get his award. (Source: The Economist)

A tax advisor who “stuffed a customer’s undeclared diamonds into a toothpaste tube to move them across borders” is some kind of tax advisor, providing some kind of customer service.

Wonder what other sorts of tricks he had up his sleeve?

Have you thought of swapping out in these Brooks Brothers and Talbots labels for those designer ones?

I believe that your granddaughter’s American Girl doll has a hollow head. You could definitely fit a string of pearls in there.

You may want to consider threading your sudoku book with $1,000 bills.

Whatever he was or wasn’t up to, quite a few changes came about after Birkenfeld put his lips together and blew:

  • UBS named names, providing the IRS with info on 4,500 Americans who, while they may not have been stuffing diamonds into toothpaste tubes, were nonetheless evading taxes.
  • Congress passed the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires overseas banks to report on American-owned accounts (which impacts Americans living abroad).
  • The IRS announced an amnesty program that prompted taxpayers to re-file 33,000 returns – and netted $5B in back taxes and wrist-slap penalties. (Speculation is rife that one of the re-filers may have been Romney, which definitely explains the reluctance to release his returns.)

Another aftershock? Birkenfeld’s culpability landed him in Federal prison to serve a 40-month sentence for “his role in helping a property developer dodge the taxman.” (He was released early, and is currently in a halfway house in New Hampshire.)

The hard time, of course, served him right, as he was himself a perpetrator of tax fraud, and may even have been a procurer, wooing innocents to stow their money abroad with the fin-serv version of “Hey, sailor.”

In any event, goodness was not its own reward here.

He’s being awarded a $104 million bounty.

A lot of loot, even after he divvies it up with his attorney, Dean Zerbe, who in a prior life:

...wrote the relevant legislation on informants in 2006 while serving as tax counsel to the Senate Finance Committee.

He’s still going to be pocketing a tad more than he would have made stamping license plates in the pen, or even working as a tax advisor at UBS.

Lawyer Zerbe, meanwhile, is up to his eyeballs in whistle blower cases, claiming he’s working on two dozen others, including a couple that are even larger than the Birkenfeld windfall. (I am just delighted to know that Zerbe will be able to make up for those years toiling for a pittance in the sweatshop that was the Senate Finance Committee. Nice that he can capitalize on his labor.  And what a nifty way to be a job creator! Even if it did only create a job for himself and a few of his fellow whistleblower attorneys.)

In truth, I think that having laws that protect whistleblowers is a good idea. And, since they’re probably unemployable once they’ve blown that first whistle, they really do need to be rewarded.

But, as The Economist points out:

…the size of Mr Birkenfeld’s award may have perverse results. Employees now have a big incentive to report crimes to the government rather than to their employers. That may not be the best way to stop wrongdoing.

The law of unintended consequences, I guess. Just a bit of blow-back from trying to nudge whistleblowers into doing the right thing.

------------------------------------------------------------Additional  source: WSJ.

Monday, September 17, 2012

La Caminata

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with a pseudo experience.

Hey, I enjoyed sitting in the one-room Sturbridge Village school house pretending it was 1820 and I was a post-colonial girl book-learning the 3 R’s from a school marm. That was until I thought about it for a moment, and realized that, if I had been a schoolgirl in 1820, what I would really have been experiencing was:

  • An unheated classroom full of smelly kids
  • Kids who’d been sewed into their long underwear in October, and wouldn’t be taking it off until May
  • Kids who had impetigo and head lice
  • Virtually no books
  • Other than a few that were boring and preachy
  • Teachers prone to physical violence*
  • No pasteurized milk at recess
  • A fetid outhouse when I had to go (no doubt full of rats)
  • Lard sandwiches and wizened, wormy apples for lunch
  • A barn-load of chores waiting for me when I got home, chores that generally had something to do with manure
  • That is, if I didn’t die of diphtheria or typhoid fever on the long walk home

So, in fact, sitting in that schoolhouse on a balmy summer’s day, listening to some historical recreator pretend to be teaching something while a bunch of tourists looked at their watches while pretending to be learning something, did not quite give me the echt schoolgirl of 1820 experience. It just let me soak up a tiny bit of the look and feel.

Nothing wrong with that, of course.

But what to make of La Caminata Nocturna, a theme park of sorts in El Alberto, Mexico, that provides:

…a simulated experience that allows tourists to act as migrants attempting to cross the border. During the four-hour Saturday night trek, participants must evade immigration officials and border patrol agents, while trying not to trip and fall in the dark wilderness. (Source: Huff Po.)

La Caminata (Spanish for hike) goes more than a few steps beyond parking your carcass on a splintery bench at Sturbridge Village.

The 7 1/2-mile hike starts with border patrol agents in pickup trucks with sirens and flashing lights in hot pursuit of the "immigrants." Caminata participants must climb under fences, run through the brush, dodge low-hanging tree limbs and, most importantly, hit the ground if they see a flashlight.

When I first read about this, I was prepared to completely scorn it. (Seriously, my lip had already begun to curl.)

But, having looked at the film clip, I’m actually leaning towards the idea that we should maybe have more of these ersatz experiences on offer.

Forget Rock and Roll, or Baseball, Fantasy Camp.

Maybe provide people with the opportunity to spend the night in a homeless shelter, and see how many of them come away claiming that people who are homeless want to live that way. How about paying for an excursion that has you pretend that your next doctor’s appointment is in an under-staffed clinic in a poor area of town. (And you think that last wait you suffered through was terrible, what with nothing to occupy you other than thumbing through a bunch of dog-eared, 9-month old Golf Magazines.)  Fake towns where you can spend a week or two pretending to live on a minimum wage job.  (but with lodging at least as clean and comfy as the average Motel 6.)

Of course, in all these circumstances, you’d have the psychological advantage of knowing you had an out, that the experience wasn’t really real.

And, of course, people have done all of the above. A member of the Board of St. Francis House (a Boston center that provides day services to the poor and homeless) spent a couple of days and nights living on the sleeps to see what our guest go through. Barbara Ehrenreich, a few years back, did serious time in dead-end jobs (while understandably keeping her health insurance going), and brilliantly chronicled the experience in Nicked and Dimed.

They just haven’t paid to do it in a theme park.

But back to La Caminata,  which I actually like for a few reasons.

First, I must admit, that in the film trailer, the patrons weren’t a bunch of middle-class American tourists. (It truly helped that there were no overweight middle aged couple in matching windbreakers, white sneakers, and fanny packs.) They were a bunch of middle-class Mexican tourists. Which, somehow, worked better for me.

And, not that American tourists wouldn’t – the average tourist of any stripe isn’t going to casually sign up for a forced nocturnal run through rugged terrain – but the tourists in the clip, while yelping about the cactus needles, seem to really understand that what they’re enduring ain’t so bad:

"Keeping in mind that [immigrants] experience this a thousand times worse, because they have to worry for their lives," another explains, "then this is easy."

But the very best thing about La Caminata is that it employs a lot of the El Alberto locals and, since 2004, has kept many of them from having to run the immigration gauntlet looking for a way to make a living.  Over the last few years, the population – which had precipitously declined – started to perk up again. And El Alberto is no longer the ghost town it once was.

Some people regard La Caminata as a “training camp” for prospective illegals. But a tour guide believes it has the opposite impact and, in fact, discourages night-crossings by showing just how unpleasant and dangerous they are.

"Some people think we are training people," he said. "If we were training them, we'd make it much harder!"

Which probably would weed out some of the tourists willing to pop for the $18 to run the course.

Anyway, there probably won’t be anything comparable springing up in the States. We’re mostly content sitting on our couches, watching how “others” buy their wedding gowns, decorate their homes, and pawn their possessions. And congratulating ourselves that we’re smarter than Honey Boo-Boo.

 

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

*As distinguished from the mental-torture regime I went to school under

Friday, September 14, 2012

Herky Jerky: The Brothers Turri Talk (Jalk?) Jerky

Scrounging around for a blog topic du jour, I was about to click on an article about it being a good time to be a dead pet. And then I saw this irresistible header:

From Credit Suisse to Jerky: One Man's Dried Beef Odyssey

Well, since I prefer live pets to dead pets – and cannot abide beef jerky – the choice was simple. Jerky: you’re on!

Ryan Turri used to work for Credit Suisse, and before that for Merrill Lynch (which I got from his abbreviated LinkedIn profile).

“I really wanted to do something that I didn’t know that much about and that was different and challenging,” Turri says, taking a pull on his whiskey, while the Golden Gate Bridge fills the window behind him. “I definitely got that with beef jerky.

God knows I’d have to be pulling on the whiskey to get into the jerky biz, but, with jerky, Turri is arguably doing something closer to the Lord’s work than he was “pushing IPOs to hedge funds,” which was his job at Credit Suisse. Still, beef jerky?

Of course, the only beef jerky I’ve ever had is one bite of a Slim Jim, so I may not be the best judge of jerky worthiness out there. And it sounds like Turri is trying to come up with the anti-Slim Jim: all natural, with none of the Slim Jim-ish preservatives that eliminate a goodly proportion of your taste buds when you take that first (and sometimes only) bite.

Setting up a jerky company  - Turri’s is the still web-site-less Grass Roots Jerky – is not as simple a matter as one might imagine – especially when the person doing the imagining (that would be me) imagines that it would merely entail slicing up an old shoe, soaking the strands in salt water, blowing them dry with a hairdryer, and wrapping them in Glad Wrap.

But if you want something that both tastes good and gets past the USDA, it’s a bit more complex than that.

First, Turri tried to buy out the business of someone who was already producing natural jerky.

“I tried to work with him or buy his business, but he’s a nice, old Italian man who didn’t want to sell. So I said, ‘Screw it. I will figure it out on my own.’ I bought a small industrial smoker and started doing batch after batch.”

Left to his own devices, Turri tried 400-500 different marinades to get the flavor just right. He also had to make sure that the meat he was using wasn’t standard super-market fare chocked full o’ hormones and chemicals (let alone old shoes). That mean grass-fed beef. From New Zealand.

Once Turri perfected his recipe, he started in with the USDA which, he contends, has rules that favor yecchy commercial jerky.

“They basically wanted me to get the jerky to the point where it becomes hard like a potato chip, and that’s just not appealing.”

Personally, potato chip consistency would be preferable to Slim Jim tire-tread consistency, but I doubt that Turri’s aiming for Firestone-style, either.

While he works out the USDA regulations, Turri’s been on the lookout for someone to manufacture his product for him, and, it seems, is near to lining someone up. (The article said that the likely producer is in “Caron City”, which I googled and came up empty on. Carson City, perhaps? Nevada seems like a reasonable enough location for beef jerky production. A city associated – if only in name – with Leslie Caron of Gigi fame, less so.)

Meanwhile, to support his jerky jones:

Turri buys old sports cars, cleans them up, and then flips them. He also spends weekends racing and crashing clunkers.

Crashing clunkers? Seems like a logical next step from pushing IPOs to hedge funds.

There’s also another Turri in the Grass Roots Jerky business  – Ryan’s brother Eric – who’s also a fin-serv renegade, and who for some reason wasn’t mentioned in the Business Week article I saw.

I was able to view Eric’s full LinkedIn profile because, for some goofball reason – errrrr, the magic of networking – I apparently have three entirely disparate connections that also connect to Eric Turri. According to Eric’s detailed profile – which lists him as the Grass Roots co-founder:

    • Grassroots Jerky Inc…is launching a line of all-natural, grass-fed beef jerky products for national distribution via direct and retail channels; product will be marketed towards a different demographic than typical jerky
    • With no food background, spent 6 months creating recipes until deciding on those that suited us in both taste and texture
    • Developed a relationship with a USDA meat processing facility to produce, package and distribute our product
    • Hired a design agency and worked with them to create packaging that fits our parameters in both ergonomics and design
    • Performed many administrative duties required to start a business, including incorporation, obtaining business licenses, setting up bank accounts and researching USDA and other regulatory guidelines.

Perhaps the brothers decided that Ryan would be Mr. Outside, the face of Grass Roots Jerky to the world, while Eric labored behind the scenes getting things done, like fitting “parameters in both ergonomics and design.” Perhaps the article’s writer could only focus on one brother, and flipped a coin.

I sure hope that Ryan wasn’t being a jerk about it, and hogging all the attention.

Anyway, because I am only one degree of separation from Eric Turri – not just once, not twice, but three times – I’m feeling a bit protective of him.

So, Eric Turri, come on down.

And please let me know if you want my address to send me a sample of Grass Roots Jerky. I might not want to try it, but as long as it’s Gluten Free, I wouldn’t mind giving my husband a go at it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Do over: I want to work for Evernote

Despite having enjoyed the free-lance life for the better part of the last decade, I occasionally wish that I had another job-job in me.

Part of this is, no doubt, a bleating little desire to peel off a few years.

And part of it’s, also no doubt, a bleating little desire to work in a cool company.

It’s not as if I did my entire time in stodgy, bureaucratic, floppy-bow-tie organizations – that would be the 2 years, seven months, and 14 days I spent at Wang Labs.

Much of my career was spent in places that, while just as dysfunctional as Wang, were a lot more fun: Friday Parties with junk food and joints (ah, those were the days…); casual Friday (not to mention Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday…); video games in the kitchen; invitations to everyone in the company to come up with a re-org plan; subversives who thought nothing of tacking a paper bag with “punch your way out of this one” outside of a management meeting…(Dysfunctional, but fun, that…)

It’s just that – sniffle, wipe tear from corner of left eye – even the fun places didn’t work out so well. (If I had a dollar for every busted option I ever held, I’d be writing this on a tablet of solid gold…) I sure could pick ‘em.

So I hope I’m not putting the kibosh whammy when I say that Evernote sounds like a cool place to work. (Having interesting products helps, too.)

I’m basing this on Adam Bryant’s interview with chief exec Phil Libin that appeared in The New York Times way back in April, which I recently stumbled on. 

Now, we all know that in real life there may be a complete and utter disconnect between what the smooth talking Big Mahoff has to say, and what it’s actually like in the workplace. Still, if I were in Mountain View or Austin and wanted to get back in the game full time, this sounds just like the type of place I’d be happy. (Another ‘if I were’ would have to be ‘if I were younger’. I suspect that I’m more than double the mode, mean, and median age of employees at Evernote, and would never be considered hip and cool enough to work there. But, what the hell, here’s a shout out: if you need a remote writer, I do everything from tweets to white papers. Forget I mentioned white papers. You are a company of few words.)

Anyway, here’s why Evernote appeals to me:

  • The Big Mahoff comes across as a no BS kind of guy. Phil Libin talks about how when he first ran a show, he thought he was a natural as a CEO, only to realize that he was a brilliant manager for the types of people he had working under him: high-energy, focused on the same goal, etc.  Once he began managing in a more typical environment, he was awakened to the reality that you may end up with people reporting to you who don’t share your agenda, your goals, your work style.

    When people who worked for me tell me what a good manager I was, I always have to laugh. I was an excellent manager for folks who were self-directed, capable, and didn’t want or need anyone looking over their shoulders. Folks like this enjoyed working for me because I trusted them, gave them free rein, and never stood in their way when they had an opportunity to get in front of higher-ups. My philosophy was: Have at it! Knock yourself out! Make me look good!

    Unfortunately, for those who were less self-directed, less capable, and in dire need of someone not just looking over their shoulders but manipulating them like a puppet to get them to get anything right, I was a not so hot manager. (And with my managerial Wonder Woman complex, I brought some of this on myself by assuming I could take on extreme management challenges that no one else wanted to deal with and cure them by my Wondrous Woman presence. In pretty much every one of those cases, I had to be the heavy who got rid of them. But it always took me far longer than it should have.)
  • Evernote’s culture: “We have a flat and very open structure. Nobody has an office. In fact, there are no perks that are signs of seniority. Obviously, there are differences in compensation, but there are no status symbols.”

    Wang was the very worst place I worked in terms of hierarchy and perks – if you were a denizen of cubicle land, you didn’t even get your waste-basket emptied all that often. And the communal dumpsites on each floor, where we went to throw our apple cores and banana peels so they wouldn’t stink up our cubicles, were often in over-flow mode. Meanwhile, those in offices got their workplaces cleaned every night. (And don’t get me going on the unscrewed light-bulbs…)

    But “fun-cool” places can be hierarchical, too. The president of one small “fun-cool” company I worked for was so remote and inaccessible that I once suggested that he put a dog-door in his office. Someone willing to crawl through the dog-door should have been able to meet with him.

    Anyway, in this day and age, compensation seems like enough of a differential. People can get hinky about what the other guy’s getting paid, but at least it’s not in their face every day. The big office, the better parking place, the separate dining room… Pure resentment builders that get folks focused on the wrong thing – i.e., working toward the parking spot, not a goal that furthers the business.
  • They got rid of desk phones, and are “uprooting” the e-mail culture.  Okay, I’m not 100% in favor of the ‘everyone has a cell phone with a plan we pay for’ element of contemporary work culture, only because it officially makes it okay for everyone to be on call 24/7. Let’s face it, most of us tap into our e-mail when we’re away, but how often do you check voice mail? Having an official phone on the desk gives  you a tiny bit of a break. While most everyone leaves a cell number on their message, this means that it has to be important for someone to call you. If your mobile’s all you got, then you’re always fair game. On the other hand, this philosophy reflects the flexibility of today’s work-style. A reasonable trade-off. (And one that’s probably not even viewed as a trade-off by post-Boomer workers.)

    On the other hand, I love this approach to e-mail: If you want to talk to somebody and you’re a couple floors apart, I kind of want you to get up and go talk to them.”

    E-mail’s certainly a useful mass communication vehicle, but it also leads to cc-madness. (Do 50 people really need to read this missive?) Not to mention that e-mail, which despite emoticons, is lacking in nuance, is subject to misinterpretation. Plus it’s become a “drop everything” medium – even without the ! – which can really disrupt your productivity if you’re not highly disciplined.

I haven’t even gotten to the really interesting stuff, but if I want to convince anyone I’m capable of composing a tweet, I’d better speed things up:

Unlimited vacation – and, just to make sure that people take some, they give you $1,000 of spending money to make sure that you take at least one week-long trip each year.

Office Training – Employees can volunteer for this, which means they get randomly assigned to meetings – where they’re expected to participate - in other groups, exposing them to functional areas they wouldn’t routinely work with. What a great way to groom managers!

Telepresence – A big video wall, in a high-traffic area,  linking their Mt. View and Austin so that employees in different locations can have “water cooler” encounters.

Professional housekeeping – Forget Wang not cleaning our cubicles. Evernote pays for twice-a-month cleaning in your home.  This is so that spouses won’t encourage their hard-working SO’s to look for work elsewhere. Genius!

A robot for when Phil Libin’s not there – Management by Walking Around is one of the best methods to keep in touch with what’s going on with your employees, and senior managers do far too little of it. (Wheeling an ice-cream cart through the halls one a quarter doesn’t count.) I love the idea that, when Phil’s on the road, he walks around via a robot with telepresence, so that when “it” strolls into your workspace, it’s not a creepy spy cam, it’s the next best thing to being there.

The robot does it. I want a do-over. I’m coming back as an Evernote employee.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

My turn, my turn!

I began working in the wonderful world of technology in the early 1980’s. Long ago enough to remember when, if you were lucky, computing didn’t mean punch cards and batch jobs, but a mainframe computer that you worked on in real-time via a dumb terminal. We called it time-sharing. Today, I guess it would be called The Cloud (a technology term that has as elastic a definition as any bit o’ technology I’ve come across in 30+ years.)

Anyway, when I first began working in tech, I worked for a small company that offered time-sharing services to Fortune 500’s . Our service was slices of time and computing power during which our customers could access data, run reports, write programs, create models. We also offered consulting services, in which we were the ones who’d access data, run reports, write programs, create models for our clients.  We also had our very own computer language, XSIM, which was what we and our clients used to access data, run reports, write programs, create models.

We did our work in a communal area called “the terminal room” that had a dozen or so mostly paper-based terminals, and a few coveted screen terminals, that were connected to our mainframe. 

Those of us who needed to use the terminals to get our work done outnumbered those terminals by a factor of about 3:1.

We operated under a set of informal rules. You could stay at a terminal for as long as you needed to, but you really weren’t supposed to be a hog and monopolize it for the whole day unless you were working on deadline. Whether on deadline or not, if you left for more than 20 minutes, someone could grab your terminal and put it to sleep, preserving someone’s work wherever they’d left it, but free to open up and get moving on a task of your own. Occasionally there were minor spats, but it generally worked pretty well.

And although it could be annoying at times, working in the terminal room was actually fun. There was always someone to get help from if you were stuck on a problem, which happened to me often enough. XSIM was more “user-friendly” that coding in binary, but it wasn’t all that intuitive.

When screen-based terminals – VT 131’s – in our offices replaced paper-based terminals – DecWriters – in the terminal room, the culture of the workplace changed.

Anyway, although the situations aren’t totally analogous, the terminal room was what jumped into my mind when I saw an article in the WSJ on something called “paired programming”. Paired programming is:

…where two people share one desk and one computer. One person is the "driver," controlling the keyboard and typing in code. The other "navigates," monitoring design and scanning for bugs.

It’s collaboration taken to the extreme, and it’s in use in Silicon Valley in companies from wacky start-ups to Facebook.

Its advocates speak in glowing terms of the power of coupling, saying paired coders can catch costly software errors and are less likely to waste time surfing the Web.

Interesting, that “waste time surfing” note. The most solid programmer I ever worked in – fast, meticulous, pitch-perfect – spent half her day knitting while watching soap operas on a small b&w TV in her office. (This was the pre-Internet days, so no Web surfing.) It was during that knitting to All My Children time that she worked out what she was going to write. She then went ahead and did her coding, with all the problems solved ahead of time.

"The communication becomes so deep that you don't even use words anymore," says Kent Beck, a programmer at Facebook and a strong advocate of pairing. "You just grunt and point."

While I’m not all that keen on grunting and pointing, I’m all for collaboration. Two heads better than one, etc. But I’m also all in favor of just getting my own work done, and having it be mine. (Not to mention being able to do it at a desk of my own. Sharing an office is one thing. A desk and a computer: a bit too Siamese-twin-ny for me.)

Two recent projects of mine, both white papers, come to mind.

In Project A, I was given the topic, did some research, and came up with some questions for company experts. We spent an hour together in a virtual meeting, going though my questions, exploring themes, gathering input.  I then went off and wrote the white paper. After a couple of review rounds, we were done. A nice collaborative project – and mine. Even though my name wasn’t on it.

In Project B, the white paper was written by committee. I was provided with some ideas and raw input, made a first pass – sort of – and from that point on worked more or less as a copy editor for multiple on multiple on multiple iterations. I don’t think there are many spots where there are more than a couple of sentences in a row that were actually written by me. Oddly, they credited me as an author, when the credit should, at best, have been as the midwife. Nowhere near as satisfying as Project A. But because I really like the client, I would do a similar project for them again. Even though I derived far less satisfaction, pride, and sense of ownership from the Project B effort than I did from Project A.

So I’m with the programmers who aren’t completely grocking to paired programming.

If the ideal for pairing is soulmate-level bonding, the reality can be more like an endless bad blind date. Annoyances that plague partners everywhere can quickly pile up: from poor personal hygiene and table manners, to feet on shared desks and loud chewing.

But the theory is that programming by duet would result in faster, cheaper, better software production.

Maybe, maybe not.

The story about how it came about pairs Facebook’s Kent Beck with Ward Cunningham (developer of the first wiki) – who worked together back in the 1980’s at a software company.

The relationship began when Mr. Cunningham asked Mr. Beck to check for bugs in a software application he was working on. But eventually the collaboration grew deeper, and the two would pair up to knock out assignments so they could move on to their own pet projects.

The checking for bugs I totally get. Even the deeper collaboration.

But I just don’t see that it would work well for everybody. Which of course it doesn’t.

But there are plenty who do it, and there are a number of variants, including part time vs. full time coupling. Then there are “promiscuous” pairers who switch partners every day.

Ping-pong pairing involves hopping back and forth between partners. Remote pairing is the computer world's version of the long-distance relationship, with programmers sharing the same screen via the Internet.

Since I’m always juggling multiple projects/multiple clients, I guess I’m doing ping-pong pairing, of sorts. And sometimes I do white-boarding, so there’s a remote pairing angle to my work, too.

But I’d never be able to get into it for core writing projects. One thing to edit and rewrite this way, one thing to kick around ideas ahead of time, but when I sit down in front of the blank page, I absolutely DO NOT want to see someone else’s fingers start doing the walking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Fun and game in the office, Newton PD edition

I am always astounded to read about folks who, in this day and age, behave in a completely oafish manner in the work place.  Or even in what (in the oaf’s mind, at least) may be a  humorous manner that backfires.

Thus we have the case of Newton (Mass.) Police Chief Matthew Cummings, who is on administrative leave because  of “boorish, disrespectful, and insulting” comments made to female employees. (Source: Boston.com.)

According to the report, commissioned by the city, Cummings called his former secretary a “bitch” and told her “I think you look like a whore” in 2010. That year he also kicked the secretary, Jeanne Sweeney Mooney, in the foot, sending her shoe flying and causing a bloody cut on the back of her foot, according to the report.

Oh, har-har-hardy-har-har.

What woman wouldn’t want to be called a bitch, told she looks like a whore, and kicked in the foot by Mr. Big?

The report also states that in the summer of 2011, he told a pregnant officer, “You’re almost as fat as I am,” and asked another female employee who had a tattoo, “How drunk were you when you got that?”

The sad thing here is that, as the report notes (although not in these exact terms), Cummings wasn’t being bullying or a shit, but was trying to be funny. (And I’ve got to say that the “How drunk were you…” question is pretty darned funny.)

I’m guessing that Cummings was just not taking into consideration that he wasn’t just one of the guys in the office, who might be able to get away with this type of kidding around – I say might because you really never know who’ll be offended by what.  I’ve seen situations in which completely innocuous, lame-ass attempts at humor were blown completely out of proportion by umbrage-takers with an axe to grind. You really do have to pick your spots before you make flip, offhand remarks at work. Stranger-danger unless you completely know that the other person won’t be offended. Or that you can trust the person to tell you that they’re offended, without making a federal case out of it (i.e., ratting you out to HR).

But Cummings wasn’t just one of the guys – he was the boss – so comments that might have elicited groans or eye-rolling if they came from a rank and filer take on a Bigger Meaning.

For Cummings, this Bigger Meaning means that he’s on leave and the city has started moving towards firing him.

“This is not the conduct and behavior I expect, or the people of the city expect,” [Mayor Setti] Warren said.

Warren said Cummings’s behavior was “unacceptable no matter what framework.”

Cummings will have his day in court, but he risks losing a job at which he earned $168K last year. That won’t be easy to replace at age 57. On the other hand, as a cop of long standing, he will have a pension.

Meanwhile, the complainer who’s letter set off the investigation into Cummings’ conduct has an interesting story in her own right.

Jeanne Sweeny Mooney:

…is at the center of a separate criminal case relating to allegations that she took an envelope containing cash collected through various police permit fees, and destroyed nearly $1,500 in checks and a schedule of the payments.

Mooney, who has been on paid administrative leave from the city since late September, was charged last week with one count of larceny of over $250.

Mooney has denied the charge and accused the police department of pursuing a criminal case in retaliation for her complaints against Cummings.

But there is, of course, the other way to look at this: that blowing the (police) whistle on Cummings would have investigators investigating that-a-way, rather than looking into whether Mooney was sticky-fingering a few bucks.

If the best defense is a good offense, Mooney’s got game:

…Mooney demanded $600,000 from Newton for her pain and suffering stemming from the theft allegation, as well as a reinstatement of her job and the firing of Cummings.

In addition to the bitch-whore-kick-in-the-foot claims –which were found to be true, albeit crude and clumsy attempts at humor -  Mooney also claimed that Cummings had put in for a raise he wasn’t eligible for – turns our he was. And that he’d tried to browbeat her into doing more work by showing her a surveillance photo, purportedly taken by a TV station investigating her – which he hadn’t. (Oddly, another police employee, acting alone, had been taking pics of Mooney – to what end, it’s not clear.)

Wonder what kind of productivity hit this grand old soap opry has inflicted on the Newton PD?

Who needs to talk Red Sox around the water cooler when they’ve got this multi-threaded gossip-fest?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Telepromptly

If not for the persistent (and persistently loathsome) meme about Obama and teleprompters, I wouldn’t give teleprompters a thought in the world.

But this persistent (and persistently loathsome) meme does manage to hang on, and on, and on. I suspect this is in large part because it’s a cagier, more sophisticated way of delegitimizing the president than the thousands upon thousands of blatantly racist and/or just plain moronic ones circulating out there.

Although I haven’t given much thought to teleprompters – other than being irked (and bored) by the Obama meme – the folks at The New Yorker have given it a bit of attention, with a recent “Talk of the Town” entry on those who operate what Herbert Hoover dubbed “that blasted contrivance.” (Hoover was one of the first politicians to use one. He did so at the 1952 Republican National Convention.)

Because I’ve never thought about teleprompters in general, or about how they work in particular, I was a bit surprised to find out that there are actually operators who push the scrolling along. Apparently you can automate it, but the “pro’s” – news anchors, actors, and politicians – use manual prompters who “turn a knob” – I’m envisioning an Etch-a-Sketch  - “that scrolls the text on the monitor.” Automation would obviously not work if you wanted to put in a few unscripted riffs. (At the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton’s off-script flights apparently doubled the word count.)

Anyway, prompters come from “the New York production scene” – which I take it is folks who make a life for themselves in the arts.  One of the two prompters mentioned in the article is an Off Broadway actor, who was headed to Tampa to prompt for the biggest speeches delivered at the RNC (both Romneys and Paul Ryan). As the actor, Michael Barringer, noted, he had no intention of doing what his friends suggested, i.e., sabotage the event. Whatever comes out of those prompted mouths was going to treated fairly and squarely.

“Maybe there will be some terrible things that they’re going to say but I still have to twiddle the knob, because it’s paying for me to do weird downtown theater.”

If it ain’t one weird theater, it’s another, I guess.

I’m not especially familiar with the “production scene”, but I am somewhat familiar with the “theater scene” and very familiar with the “writing scene”, so I know that people for whom asking their parents is not an option do what they have to do feed their creative habits.

A few years ago, I saw a guy wearing paint-splattered overalls and hefting a ladder gonig into a building in my neighborhood. It took me a minute to realize I’d seen him a few nights before in a play.

The writers I know mostly eke it out as adjunct writing instructors, but one of my writing friends worked the cheese department at Whole Foods for a few years and another is currently working in a bakery.

You do what you have to do.

Barringer found his prompting gig through the Flux Factory, an artists’ collective in Long Island City (Queens). One of the co-founders, Morgan Meis, was also an RNC prompter – she drew doing the honors for Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie, and in the past had done Rudy Giuliani.

The Flux Factory “supports and promotes emerging artists through exhibitions, commissions, residencies, and collaborative opportunities.”

Among other things, it offers gallery rental, a silk screen studio, and co-working space with wi-fi, lockers, a kitchen, and:

…proximity to a multi-talented group of ambitious and creative people including coders, painters, and social changers.

Which, as a long-standing member and (gulp!) current president of The Writers’ Room of Boston, I get entirely.

Although I can’t imagine I’d be much good as a prompter – I’d probably find myself scrolling ahead, or accidentally putting it in reverse, then overcorrecting, or getting distracted or bored or annoyed or tempted to applaud (although that would be unlikely during a Paul Ryan or Newt Gingrich speech), or just plain feel that the pressure wasn’t worth it – I think it’s great that actors and other artists have the chance to make a little scratch by “twiddling the knob”.

It’s a tough job and, despite the Obama meme which might lead one to believe that he’s the only teleprompted politician, there are apparently a lot of somebodies who’ve got to do it.

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Friday, September 07, 2012

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’. Though the creeks are swollen. Keep them dogeys rollin’. Rawhide!

Every once in a while, The Annals of True Crime comes through with a True Crime that’s interesting – dare I even say amusing – in nature.

I will submit that one such True Crime is the recent instance of cattle rustling in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, a seacoast town outside of New Bedford.

For starters, there’s the very notion of cattle rustling occurring in New England to begin with.

Of course, there are plenty of cattle herds in New England. It’s just that we don’t think of them that way – let alone as the type to go around getting themselves rustled. Around these parts, most herds are dairy herds, and the bovine generally associated with our neck of the woods is the black and white Holstein that appears on so many Things Vermont, including cartons of Ben and Jerry’s.

Actually, for all I know, the 49 head of cattle rustled up were milk cows, and not the beef on the hoof steers one associates with cowboys. (Let’s face it, the old Western show Rawhide would have been a comedy if Gil Favor, Rowdy Yates, and Wishbone were trying to move along a couple of hundred black and white cows with bursting udders that had to be milked a couple of times a day. Just think of where Clint Eastwood’s career might have ended up if his character Rowdy Yates had been more milkmaid than cowboy. I suspect it might not have ended up with the weirdness of his engaging in a “dialogue” with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention. Just sayin’.)

Fortunately, the good citizens of Dartmouth do not have to fear that their cows by any other name are going to be stolen.

The crime – which ended in the recovery of the missing bovines –

…was an isolated episode perpetrated by someone who did business with the owner. (Source: Boston.com)

40 of the 49 purloined sirloins were found at an auction house in New Holland, Pennsylvania. The others were found closer to home.

“The community certainly doesn’t have to worry about cattle rustlers going around Dartmouth stealing their cows,” Timothy M. Lee, chief of the Dartmouth Police Department, said in an interview Tuesday.

He added:

“The Wild West hasn’t moved to Dartmouth.”

Which is too darned bad.

Still, some days it must plain fun to be the chief of the Dartmouth PD.

Less fun, of course, to have been the cattle owner (rancher? baron?), Ahmed Mahmoud. (What better testimony is there to this great nation of ours than to have a cattleman named Ahmed Mahmoud and not Ben Cartwright!) But I’m sure that Mr. Mahnoud is just happy to have his property – valued at $50K - back.

I must note that Chief Lee of the Dartmouth PD may have been a bit too hasty in characterizing the cattle theft as an isolated incident. Perhaps in Dartmouth proper… But not in the general area.

After all, last March, a dozen Holsteins were swiped in nearby Tiverton, Rhode Island.

The alleged thief told police he had stolen them as payment for feedstock. Those cows were valued at $42,000. (Source: Herald News.)

So, milk cows, with their recurring revenue stream are more valuable than run of the mill cattle, which are pretty much one-and-done. Or is it just the cuteness factor with Holsteins?

Meanwhile, for those whose idea of a ranch is tdepressing farmhe piney and verdant Ponderosa of Bonanza fame, with its resplendent man cave lodge and what appeared to be full ownership of Lake Tahoe, here’s what the farm/ranch where Mr. Mahmoud kept his livestock looks like.

Forget everything you know about the Triple R or South Fork. We’re talking Spahn Ranch look alike contest here, I’m afraid. (I know that Charles Manson’s still in prison, but I do believe Squeaky Fromme is free. Could she be lurking around the fringes? Whether we’re talking all-beef patty or nice cold glass of 2%, I would not want to ingest anything that lived on this place. I want my animals to live in terrain that looks like the Teletubbies’ front yard.)

Meanwhile, thieves beware. Between Dartmouth and Tiverton, you apparently can’t get away with cattle rustling in these parts.

And remember, you could do worse than to live by these words:

Move 'em on, head' em up
Head 'em up, move' em on
Move 'em on, head' em up
Rawhide
Cut 'em out, ride 'em in
Ride 'em in, cut 'em out
Call 'em out, ride 'em in
Rawhide

And remember:

Don't try to understand 'em
Just rope, throw and brand 'em.

Yippee ty-i-o!