Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

Since the Irish pretty much invented the holiday, it’s somewhat fitting that this year’s Halloween post begin in the ould sod, keying off an article on haunted houses I saw last week in The Irish Times.

Without going all Shirley Maclaine here, I’m open to the notion that there may be something to visitors from the great beyond. My 99.99% bet is that every inexplicable stray whisper in the night, every inexplicable creepy hair-raising feeling on the back or your neck on the back staircase, every inexplicably rattling tea cup or turned on burner, has a scientific explanation. But I  will get my Shirley Maclaine on and say that I’m open to the 00.01% being poltergeisty-ESPish-ghostbusting whatever. And I’m a believer that, someday, that 99.99% scientific explanation may cover the weird stuff.

Hey, if matter can neither be created nor destroyed, what’s to say that some of the matter that was in, say, Bridey Murphy’s brain, might not have stayed connected, with Bridey Murphy’s memories and experiences imprinted therein. And what’s to say that this clump o’ matter might not have found its way into the host brain of a Colorado housewife a hundred years later.  Wooooooooooo….

As for the cumulus-and-harp filled afterlife, I remain a skeptic. If it’s up and out there, I will be pleasantly (I hope) surprised. If it’s not, well, I’ll never know, will I?

Anyway, I found the Irish Time article interesting.

A middle aged banker quoted in it grew up in a Dublin house haunted by a benevolent/neutral ghost, who may or may not have been killed in a duel in their parlor.

But not all ghosts are Casper-friendly.

…one exorcist, who doesn’t want to be named – a practising Catholic priest – has noted “a huge increase in people needing deliverance. Their lives are absolutely miserable. They don’t want these spirits.”

Demand far exceeds his ability to supply spooked homeowners with counsel, he says, adding that the service is free, but church donations can be accepted.

Not to be outdone by the Catholics, the Church of Ireland offers exorcisms, too. Only they call it “deliverance ministry”.  Deliverance, huh? Now there’s a name that wouldn’t fly in the US. Shades of a bunch of toothless yet armed and dangerous mountain coots.

The C of I Archdeacon of Ireland, David Pierpoint, suggests that, when you find yourself in need of a ghostbuster, you look to the church, rather than a non-religious outfit.

“We can help. There are a number of people trained to deal with these issues. With haunted homes you’re often dealing with the spirits of the dead although it is also possible to be possessed by an evil spirit.”

As an alternative, you can bring in Paranormal Study and Investigation (PSI), which:

…was established in 2005 to investigate and research paranormal phenomena. As a research team we take a completely balanced, unbiased and scientific view-point to this controversial field. Research areas we have focused on include; the alleged existence of spirits, the afterlife, mediumship, ESP (Extra sensory perception), PK (Psycho kinesis), EVP (Electric voice phenomena), possession and past life regression.

I’ve spent all of my adult life living in older buildings but, except for a couple quasi-waking up fugue state experiences of “something/someone” – immediately shaken off once you lift your head off the drool-soaked pillow -  I’ve never felt the presence of an evil or kindly spirit (that wasn’t in the body of someone I know). I’ve never witnessed a vase being teleported from the mantel to the end table without someone’s embodied hand attached to it. And I just can’t bring myself to blame poltergeists for disappearing socks or the ability for any electronic appliance cord to tie itself in knots when left unattended.

But if I did experiencing something strange in my personal neighborhood, I wouldn’t call in the clergy. I’d call in the Boston-version of PSI. That would be the Paranormal Research Association of Boston,  

…a team of scientific paranormal researchers coming from all walks of life. We are dedicated to the research of all claimed paranormal experiences with a three fold mission.

1. Above all, to help people who are suffering from paranormal experiences in their residences / places of work

Places of work? Would that I had known of the possibility of the haunted workplace when I was working full time. Paranormality would have explained an awful lot of what was going on that I, perhaps naively, chalked up to plain old vanilla dysfunction.

2. To further our, and as a consequence the public at large, understanding of paranormal activity through logical, verifiable scientific means.

3. Through presentations, classes and our published research papers, to give the public an understanding of both paranormal activity and the methods we use to locate and test paranormal activity.

And why am I not surprised that the founder of PRAB – which, by the way (in case you’re in need) – “will never charge any business or person for [its’ services” – is one Ian Murphy, who had earlier founded the Paranormal Research Association of Ireland. Not to be confused with the aforementioned PSI.

As noted, it’s no surprise to me that Ireland is a hotbed of paranormality. And, given our fine city’s Irish connections and relative antiquity, it’s apparently no accident that Boston holds it paranormal own, with at least one other group devoted to the study. That would be the Boston Paranormal Investigators. Theirs is a somewhat low information website, but they do claim a mascot which is sufficiently creepy to merit inclusion here, given that it’s Halloween.

Ecce – and dedicated to my sister Trish, who will be well aware of why she’d on the receiving end of this dedication – Benny:

Benny is a marionette believed to be from the 1920s carrying a paranormal energy. Normally, he is hanging around near the bathroom door. While no activity has surfaced since his arrival to BPI in late 2008, Benny has become a mainstay as well as the group mascot.

And with that, I will wish everyone a Happy Halloween, no smashed pumpkins, and fully loaded trick or treat bags. (Lots of Butterfingers.)

A Halloween shout-out to my shut-in friend V, who today is having her second hip replacement surgery since August. Wishing you a successful operation and speedy recovery.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Fare-thee-well, Locke-Ober’s

I seldom get to use the word ‘bastion’ in conversation or in blogging, but the shuttering of Locke-Ober’s restaurant really leaves me with not much of a choice: Locke’s was, for many years, an absolute bastion of Boston’s WASP business community.

It was so bastion-y that women could only dine in the main dining room on the day of the Harvard-Yale game (when the game was played here), or in one of the warren of private dining rooms on the second floor.

Presidents visited, along with sports stars, Hollywood actors, and power brokers from coast to coast. Some diners were so regular that the Globe once published a map of the dining room showing who sat where. When customers died, their chairs were leaned against the tables to signify the loss. (Source:

Wonder how long those chairs were cocked? Maybe it made a difference whether you were Quentin Tetley Brewster III and Quentin Tetley Brewster IV…

Anyway, after Durgin-Park and the Union Oyster House, Locke’s was the oldest restaurant in Boston. And the only one of  the big, old three that I never worked in. Maybe something to do with there being no waitresses there during my waiting days.

It is, however, the only one of the big,old three where I ever ate more than once or twice over the years (other than the free grub Union and Durgin fed us workers, which doesn’t count).

Yes, although I’m not now, never have been, and never will be part of haute WASP Boston (which really doesn’t even exist any more, as far as I can tell), at one point in my life I ate with some regularity at Locke’s, in both the first floor dining room (after it went co-ed) and in the intimate little upstairs rooms. I also drank at the bar on occasion. (Champagne cocktails.)

Maybe I haven’t been there in, twenty years. Maybe thirty.

The food, in my dining days there, was pretty much haute Boston WASP: oyster stew, lobster stew, liver and onions, iceberg lettuce wedge with Russian dressing…

It probably hadn’t changed much from 1875.

Well, even though I haven’t eaten at Locke’s at any point during the last 25 years, I am at this very moment missing the oyster stew.

Most of my visits to Locke’s were Saturday lunches with my husband, so I’m not just missing the oyster stew, but having a bit of nostalgia for my personal good old days (30 years/20 pounds, or is it 20 years/30 pounds?)

I also had a couple of business dinners there.

Most memorably, I was the junior member of a team that was trying to get a couple of investors to partner with my then-company on a product aimed at money managers. The crew at this dinner was the company president, a VP, my boss, me, and our potential investors, Neil and Larry.

During the period when we were trying to woo Neil and Larry, the company was going through a major wrangle with a very prominent company in the financial services industry. We had just settled with the company, and those of us who knew about the situation and the settlement had been told that mentioning it outside of the company was a firing offense.

Fair enough.

At the dinner, the company president – as haute-WASP an individual as I ever worked with – slammed down a couple of Negronis, and proceeded to blab all about our touchy situation and settlement to Neil and Larry.

At least we were in one of those private dining rooms!

Anyway, we ended up developing a prototype with a lot of input from Neil and Larry, but without the infusion of any Neil and Larry cash. Maybe they were afraid that we’d piss it away on another settlement.

And now Locke’s is no more…

“Here’s what I was faced with,” [David] Ray continued. “I had a choice. Make Locke-Ober more casual, lower our standards to conform with the way society is today, or I could close it. I could close it with its history and its dignity intact. Because, frankly, it looked as good as it’s ever looked. The service was good, and the food was good.”

There are plenty of online quibblers about whether the service and/or the food was good. And that “lower our standards to conform to the way society is today” sounds a bit peck-sniffy. Maybe it’s just that tastes change and life goes on.

Practically speaking, I won’t miss Locke-Ober’s.

But I have to confess that I will miss the idea of it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Backfield in motion (gonna have to penalize you if you don’t know what that means)

Outplacement, in my experience, means cleaning up your résumé, thinking through what you want to do with the rest of your life (other than the obvious of ‘find a job’), talking with generally sympathetic and maybe even helpful counselors, and commiserating with a bunch of strangers who are pretty much in the same boat you are. Plus, it gives you a way to ‘go to work’ when you don’t actually have a place to ‘go to work.’

Essex Partners focuses on career advisory for senior executive/C-level folks who, these days, apparently have to really hone their networking edge. Part of that honing involves knowing something about America’s favorite sport which – alas – is not baseball, but football.

Having logged many years in American business, I certainly recognize that it’s helpful to know at least a bit about football, if only so you’re up on who won your team’s last game (plus Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night football, plus all the playoff games). And so that you get the sportive metaphors. (Most of which should be blocked.)

At minimum, I would think that everyone who expects to carry on a full coffee break conversation (as opposed to a hastily mumbled one-line comment), or who wants to follow what the boss is talking about without going duh! blank,  might want to make sure that that they can throw a few terms into the conversation, even if those tosses are pretty much intentional grounding. Ones that might prove especially useful – in my play book – would include quarterback, interception, touchdown!, fourth down (and fourth and long), go for two, block and tackle, blocked kick, blitz, sacked, punt, x’s and o’s, sudden death, Hail Mary pass.

Anyway, Essex Partners recently had a session aimed at helping football-challenged business folks get the lingo down so that they can become, if not knowledgeable enough to intelligently play the pool or coach their own fantasy football team, fluent enough to make morning after water cooler talk.

They brought in Gene DeFilippo, Boston College’s former athletic director to lay out the basics.

“This is a football field,” the instructor said. The class studied the slide as if their futures depended on it. And they might. The students enrolled in “Water Cooler Football: Learning the Game for Fun and Networking Success” were mainly unemployed senior executives, and in a rocky economy, job seekers need every advantage. (Source:

Hard to believe that there are folks who made it to the senior echelons of American business without recognizing the old gridiron, but there you have it.

Understandably, some of the non-cognoscenti are from elsewhere:

“I grew up with soccer,” said Gunther Winkler, an Austrian native who has a PhD in biochemistry but only an elementary understanding of football lingo. “I have an inkling what it means, but I don’t feel comfortable enough to use it myself.”

“When industry leaders use football terms people’s faces light up and the whole atmosphere becomes more relaxed,” he said.

But some are local:

Julie Coyle, 57, had her own reasons for attending. “If you don’t know about football guys look at you like you have two heads,” she said, “and nowadays women do, too.”

I am nowhere near enough of a football junkie to field a fantasy football team, but I can hold my own.

I have been watching football for (yikes) over 50 years. I don’t go back to the leather helmet, Bronco Nagurski days, but I did watch Y.A. Tiddle wearing N.Y. Giants “Honolulu Blue” plenty of times.  I don’t understand – or care to – every nuance of the game, but I can follow the game intelligently. (Intelligently enough to recognize after the first couple of minutes that the Patriots were going to lose last season’s Super Bowl to the very team – the N.Y. Giants – that I used to root for.)

After an early start, I did have plenty of decades where I didn’t watch any football whatsoever. During one of those decades, I nonetheless participated in a few football pools, where I picked my team based on which city I liked better than the other (e.g., San Francisco over Dallas). I made no bones about that’s how I was making my selections, which ticked off “the boys” the time or two when I won.

Anyway, I really don’t think that a two-hour course in the fundamentals of football (combined with the fundamentals of networking) is going to give anyone much of a comfort level on being able to actually do more than vaguely follow the action when football terms are being thrown around. It will certainly not give them enough know-how to be able to fully participate in a water-cooler conversation. Especially if the course goes from such basics as ‘this is a football uniform’ up to the ‘nickel defense.’ I am quite certain that, other than being able to recognize your teams colors, there’s not much to know about the duds. And you really don’t have to know what a nickel defense is to follow the game. (And how could someone new to football possibly take this in during a mere two-hour course. As with most sports, even though 99.99% of team sports follow the same plot, you have to watch it with some regularity and attentiveness to really pick up any real knowledge.)

In truth, if you’re just looking for a brief water-cooler conversation, you pretty much just have to know:

Who won.

What the score was.

What the score difference was between us and them.

An exciting play (and who was part of it).

A bad play or controversial referee call  (and who was part of it).

Most of this you can glean from the five-minute sports segment on the news, or from a quick look at the online sports pages.

If your team won, all you need to say is ‘always good to get a ‘W’’ or ‘I’ll take it.’

If your team won, and the score was tight, all you need to say is ‘too close for comfort.’

If your team won, and the score was grossly imbalanced, all you need to say is ‘in my book, there’s no such thing as a blowout.’

If there was an exciting play, all you need to say is ‘how about that [insert name here: e.g.,Gronk, Woodhead, Welker].’

If there was a bad play, or a bad call, all you need to say is ‘that’s where I turned the game off.’

And if your team lost, all you need to say is ‘that sucked.’

Maybe I can get a gig at Essex Partners cutting to the chase. Forget the ‘nickel defense.’ It all really comes down to knowing whether or not to say ‘that sucked.’

Friday, October 26, 2012

‘Reservoirs of pathogens’. (That would be your smartphone.)

I haven’t gone so f as to put on a surgical mask and pull on a pair of latex gloves.

But I did just swab my laptop and Blackberry with isopropyl alcohol.

That’s thanks to reading an article in the WSJ that asked the ultra important question: Is Your Smartphone Making You Sick? 

Well, there are actually ways in which my smartphone is making me sick.

For one thing, I spend altogether too much time checking my e-mail on it. Too much of which is spam that has nastily hijacked the names of my sisters and is coming my way with way too many infomercials on fat burning drugs. Not that I wouldn’t like to burn me some fat, and not that my sisters don’t know this. But I really resent spammers hijacking my sisters’ names. Maybe it’s time for me to start looking at these jamokes – the spammers, not my sisters – and outing the ones that are in the States and/or at least marginally reputable. You guys leave me and my sistahs alone!

For another, I spend altogether too much time checking on absolutely critical-in-the-moment information like where was the Anne Hathaway movie Passengers filmed (Vancouver); how many home-runs has Jim Thome hit (612 – a lot more than Ted Williams; how about that?); and when was Boston tourist-trappy restaurant Durgin Park founded (1827; sometimes on your quest, you find out TMI, like the info that the guy that owned Durgin when I worked there is known for “enhancing the restaurant's national reputation.” What was not mentioned was his unleashing a reign of terror on those of us who worked there.)

Finally, I’m sick that I even have a Blackberry, which I have to admit is nowhere near as good as an iPhone when it comes to surfing the web. So information that takes me a minute to fumble around for when I’m looking for it, takes a nano second for everyone I know who’s got an iPhone, which includes those afore-unmentioned sisters of mine. But since I got this variant of a Blackberry last November – too lazy at that point to switch from the devil of a smartphone I knew - I can’t justify jettisoning it for an iPhone (or a Droid device) quite yet. Especially since I need to break down and get an iPad before much longer.

But this sort of heartsickness is not what the WSJ was talking about. They’re talkin’ sick sick.

"Some things we think are personal are actually more public than we imagine." Bacteria from a phone can cause flu, pinkeye or diarrhea, says Dr. [Jeffrey] Cain [the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians].

I did have an exceptionally bad cold-flu thing during the summer of 2011. Could my Blackberry have been the Typhoid Mary?

And pinkeye and diarrhea? No problem with either of those lately, but it sounds like you could end up with a trifecta of mobile device maladies.

The bad news – other than the potential for an inanimate object to give you pinkeye – is that:

…there is a disconnect between what doctors and medical researchers advise and what device makers suggest for phone sanitizing.

In other words, if you’re removing 100% of the germs, you’re probably damaging the screen coating. (Hmmmm.  I regularly use Staples Monitor Wipes, which I now see promise to do a streak free, alcohol free removal of dust, dirt and fingerprints, but says nothing about germs. Alcohol does the trick with germs, but it’s not good for the screens. Oh, what’s a smartphone user to do?)

One reason why smartphones are such little germ vectors is that we’re keeping them with us wherever we go – bed, gym, restaurant, and – as we have all no doubt witnessed in public places – incredibly vile restrooms. Which means that:

"We're feeding the little creatures," says Michael Schmidt, a professor and vice chairman of microbiology and immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina. "We've all seen that greasy smear [on the touch screen]. Where there is grease, there are bugs."

Lab tests conducted on a bunch of Chicago office phones (randomly selected), showed:

…abnormally high numbers of coliforms, a bacteria indicating fecal contamination. Of the eight phones tested by HML Labs of Muncie, Ind., there were between about 2,700 and 4,200 units of coliform bacteria. In drinking water, the limit is less than 1 unit per 100 ml of water.

"The results are pretty bad," said Dr. Donald Hendrickson, president of HML Labs and professor emeritus of medical microbiology at Ball State University. He says the results suggest a lack of hand-washing and proper hygiene.

Another study – this one done on 100 cellphones owned by college students – found:

… them to be "veritable reservoirs of pathogens" that can make you sick.

The good news is that there are cleaning solutions coming to market that will handle the germs without harming the screen, including UV disinfectant wants and skins that are more bacteria resistant.  Thus our smartphones and iPads are begetting a whole new set of products that we didn’t need – and could  not have imagined - a few years back.

On the other hand, aren’t we learning the being exposed to some level of bacteria is a good thing? Isn’t that what probiotics are all about?

Maybe having a germy smartphone will help us build up our resistance. (What doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger, etc.)

I used to think that the biggest threats that smartphones posed were those that stemmed from the obviously dangerous practice of texting and surfing while driving. Now there’s pinkeye to worry about.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Into the Boston ‘Shark Tank’

Even though I have at best an exceedingly limited capacity to discern a kick-ass business idea from a dud, I remain nonetheless interested in the new business ideas that are out there (be they kick-ass or dud). Never more so than when they’re ideas sprouting right here in my own backyard.

Today, six of them are getting a chance to pitch investors in a Boston version of the reality show, Shark Tank, being held as part of the FutureM conference (which I really should be attending but, alas, will not be; as with the Red Sox, maybe next year).

I read about the Shark Tank event in an article by Scott Kirsner on

Investors winnowed a list of 70 startups down to six, and here’s who made the cut:

Arcbazar is based in Cambridge, Mass., and although I initially thought the name was something out of Harry Potter – I was confusing it with Azkaban – once I swung by and saw their site, I was struck by what a great idea this is. Folks with small architectural design projects (a vintage 1980 kitchen, or two vintage 1980 bathrooms come to immediate mind as examples)  upload info about what they’re looking for, including how much they’re willing to spend, and designers respond with their ideas.  The project owner picks the top three, and the award is split among them.

Depending on the type of competition you will get dimensioned plans, sections, elevations, and perspective views. Some designers may also submit additional views, animations and other 3D work.

I hope this isn’t the kiss of death, but I think that this is a great idea, putting (presumably) good design affordably within reach of folks who wouldn’t normally work with a designer. And providing opportunities for those just starting out to add to their portfolios.

Jebbit :

  • …looks at your interests and finds websites, clothes, products and services that you may find interesting.
  • …guides you around cool websites by asking you questions that highlight the most interesting features about the product or service.
  • [Lets you earn money, as] each question you answer correctly will earn you cash (usually about $0.30 per question).
  • [Lets you] choose to either keep the cash you've earned or multiply it for more money at the places you love most.

Or, in the description that Jebbit provided to Scott Kirsner,

Jebbit pays college students to check out new products and answer questions.

Whatever they do, I will take credit for having looked at the name and said “founders must be from BC”. As, it turns out they are. One of the co-founders is named Jeb, but I’m guessing that, Boston College being a Jesuit (a.k.a., Jebbie) school, that had something to do with it, too.  (The company’s original name was AddItUp, but the URL was apparently taken.)

Anyway, although I give them props for having a snappy one liner about what they do, I found their site a bit lacking in the type of clarity I’m always looking for – when you hit “About” you get mug shots and Truth/Lie snippets about the members of the team.  But I am so not their audience. You have to be a college/university student to be of interest to the companies that hire them to find out whether they’re getting through to “the kids” (which I guess is what is meant by your getting paid for a “correct” answer).

They do have some good clients already, including Bose and Zipcar. But isn’t this idea already covered? (Maybe not. Maybe it just sounds like something that’s already being done.)

CoachUp pairs athletes in the making with private sports coaches (which the company vets). I do so not want to like anything that puts kids in even more of a pressure cooker than they’re already in, but if your kid really and truly does have athletic talent, and he/she – and not just dear old dad – really and truly does want to take that talent to the next level (Division 1, The Pros), why not? Still…

Plus this seems – however great the vetting is – like a liability engine to me.

They do have Gabe Kapler – a former Red Sox player – vouching for them.  Gabe – along with a raft of angels – is an investor.

But I’d take a pass, just based on personal qualms.


Sidewalk profiles [small & medium businesses] by analyzing their digital footprint. We use this data to help local sales reps sell smarter. In the future, we'll help SMBs digitize. We have 100+ paying customers & 50+ marquee brands (Yelp, ATT, AMZN, etc) queued up for our beta. Scoble called us the biggest idea at 500 Startups.

Whatever Scoble thinks – and how do you like that little flick that we’ll all know who Scoble is (which, admittedly, I do) – I have to say they go on my screw-you list in that you have to “request an invitation” to get anything more out of their web site than:

Sidewalk’s APIs enhance local business data with
rich, social profiles. Discover prospects, research
leads, and enrich listings.

Oh, how very precious, indeed. (Go forth and digitize.)

Timbre (from Intrepid Pursuits) is a mobile app. It:

…highlights live music shows nearby, plays samples, and enables users to buy tickets. From the company's application: "We would like to spin this product out and raise a seed round so a dedicated team can focus on it."

Again, I’m not the audience. But for a website that gives out precious little when it comes to the written word (see me on Sidewalk), I think that what they’ve set up on the Intrepid site, which lets you thumb through all their apps, is pretty darned good. If it managed to convey information to someone like me, who has a complete and utter preference for the written word vs. the visual image, they’re doing something right. (Which is not to say that I care to live after  the last written word gets written.)

And then there’s the ‘now for something completely different’ entry, which looks a lot more like the sorts of companies I saw when I’d go to startup forums in days of yore. Last on the list:

NBD Nanotechnologies, which:

…makes use of a nano-scale surface to enhance water condensation. Mimicking the Namib Desert Beetle, our nanotechnology can be used to collect water in the most arid regions of the world.

Nothing about “apps”. Nothing about being “cool”. Nothing about being “hip.”

Just a bunch of ultra-bright science guys who want to benefit humanity. (Go, nerds!)

My bets are on Arcbazar – because it’s a service I might actually use – and NBD Nanotechnologies – because it’s something that just might change the world for the better.

Hope my bets don’t doom them…

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

How I Acquired My Vast Set of Business Skills Without Using Video Games

A week or so ago, The Washington Post had an interesting article on how video game players are acquiring valuable business skills in the course of, well, playing video games.

Since my personally held belief has long been that they – unlike the mind-enhancing, senility warding-off, intelligence-affirming computer games like TaiPei, WordZap, and FreeCell that I play – will be shown to be the ruination of our youth, the principal culprit behind ADHD, and a major contributor to the end of the written word, I was somewhat taken aback to find that so many core business skills are enhanced by playing video games.  And these findings are backed by research.

I stand (or, rather, sit) corrected.

Memory. Planning. Problem Solving/Creativity. Teamwork. Concentration. Situational Awareness. Multi-tasking. Reading the Market. Management.

All have been shown to be developed through video gaming.

…those playing first-person shooter games did a better job of judging what information should be stored in their working memory and what was no longer relevant to the task at hand.

…Multiplayer titles such as Team Fortress 2 may encourage players to contribute individual skills toward a common goal.

…Massively multi-player online role-playing games that draw millions of players from around the world into a fantasy universe of their own often have in-game marketplaces that benefit those who can read the supply and demand of finite resources.

So how was it that, BVGE (before the video game era), some of us actually managed to acquire these skills without benefit of XBox, PlayStation, Wii, and massively multi-player online role-playing games.

Memory I actually don’t know where my quite excellent memory came from – it may run in the family; my sister Trish has a pretty darned good memory, too - but I’ve always had a very good one. Admittedly, I can’t remember what I walked downstairs for or whether I unplugged the iron, but I do remember:

  • My newborn brother Tom’s coming home from the hospital (I was two and a half; Tom wore yellow: after three girls in a row, my parents were hoping for a boy but not taking any chances by betting on blue),
  • Exactly how I felt walking out of Gates Lane School after my first day in kindergarten (terrified: the patrol line went out a different entrance than the one I came in through. I was panicked that my mother and the famous Tom would not be there waiting for me, on the one and only day that anyone was going to come down to school and fetch a not-yet-five year old kid home; after that day, I was on my own).
  • How guilty I felt – and still feel – about having left my friend Susan a note that said “You stink” and signing it Ginny. (I was seven at the time.) Sorry, Susan. Sorry, Ginny.
  • Etc.

I don’t know whether my memory actually held me in good stead during my business career, other than being able to recall every inconsistent or stupid thing anyone ever said at a management meeting I was in on. (On reflection, my business memory probably did not serve me particularly well.)

Planning In truth, if I’d been any good at planning, I never would have gone into business to begin with. But, absent an alternative, there I found myself.  Yet I did get to be a pretty good business planner. I guess it helped that, an innate worry wart, I could conjure up and think through just about every possible contingency and outcome. Which is probably why, if the business plan writing got divvied up, I always got the risk analysis section.

Problem Solving/Creativity I must say I don’t see that these two attributes are necessarily coupled. You can actually be a pretty good problem solver without having a shred of creativity in you. Or does the very notion of “problem solving” imply that there are no easy answers?

In any case, for problems with answers(if not completely easy ones), I honed my solving skill at Our Lady of the Angels grammar school, where we did daily mental arithmetic drills. You had to be fast and there was no way in front of 49 other kids I wasn’t going to be right.

As for creativity, I wasn’t always the paragon of creativity I am today. In fact, I once challenged my cousin Ellen because she had colored Santa’s cap in with blue crayon.

Santa cap incident aside, I do believe I can claim some creative capacities, and they were likely developed by having to develop an alternative reality to the general boredom (combined with sheer terror) that I lived through during grammar school, in the 99% of the school day that wasn’t given over to the pep and challenge of mental arithmetic drills.

What else was there to do when Sister Agnes Aloysius insists that it would take everyone an hour to complete a multiple-choice history test? And she wouldn’t let you pull out a book and start reading at minute three when you were actually finished? What else was there to do, other than to make up stories in your own little head. (Well, there was one other thing you could do. You could use your pencil eraser to clean the grunge off your desk. But a little of that went a long way.)

Teamwork. Concentration. Situational Awareness. Multi-tasking. Reading the Market. Management.

I could go on, and I will, for just a bit by noting that growing up in a large family honed my Situational Awareness capability (watch your back, alrighty), and that Multi-tasking was an absolutely essential skill to have if you wanted to be able to simultaneously eat vanilla ice milk with Hershey’s syrup (out of a yellow melmac bowl), set your stick straight hair with Spoolies, watch Flint McCullough be handsome and manly on Wagon Train, and read a Nancy Drew mystery. All the while honing your Situational Awareness skills, in case someone darted over to the TV to try to change the channl.

So much to do, so little time.

You’ll just have to trust me that, when it comes to all these business capabilities, I did manage to develop my skill set without ever touching a video game. Still, it’s heartening to know that some good comes out of them. There are plenty of reasons to fear for the future, but I guess the prevalence of video gaming isn’t one of them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

“Rebecca” meets “The Producers”

I don’t pay all that much attention to Broadway goings-on, but the hoopla over Rebecca: The Musical has absolutely piqued my interest. Enough so that:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

For those unfamiliar with the novels of Daphne Du Maurier or 1940’s B&W Alfred Hitchcock movies, Rebecca – which opens with the line about about dreaming of Manderley - tells the story of an unnamed woman who marries widower Max DeWinter and gets swept up in the mystery of the death of his first wife, Rebecca.

With one classic film about it, one might think that there’s no going back to Manderley, the mansion having burned to the ground. But a few years ago, Rebecca: The Musical was produced in Germany, and had a quite successful run.

So Ben Sprecher and Louise Forlenza decided to bring Rebecca: The Musical to Broadway, and began looking for backers.

It’s never cheap to mount a Broadway production, and Rebecca is no exception. It was costing something to the tune of $12M. (I’m sure the special effects when Manderley burns down weren’t going to come cheap.)

Unfortunately, in their hunt for investors, Sprecher and Forlenza ran into Mark Hotton, who agreed to play middleman.

From there on out, the story – absent a good, old-fashioned murder - is worthy of Daphne Du Maurier and Alfred Hitchcock themselves.

Hotton – in exchange for expense money, a measly $60,000 in fees, and a share of the profits – agreed to find the investors Sprecher and Forlenza needed. Which he supposedly did. Instead,

“Hotton falsely represented that he had secured commitments of approximately $4.5 million to 'Rebecca’ from several overseas investors,” prosecutors wrote.

“In truth and fact, the … investors appear to be Hotton’s own inventions. The businesses of some of these investors have Web sites whose domain names are registered to Hotton and were created shortly before and during the fraud.”  (Source: NY Post.)

When the time got around to actually getting the committed money transferred – and, with Rebecca scheduled to open in November, much of that promised money has been spent -  Hotton killed off “Paul Abrams”, the lead backer, claiming that he’d died of malaria.

Abrams’ made-up assistant broke the bad news in an Aug. 5 e-mail, that Hotton allegedly shared with producers.

“Mr. Hotton, I’m so sorry to relay such Terrible news, Mr. Abrams passed away this evening and the family has asked for your attendance at the services as well the opportunity to discuss their financial well-being as you were so close to him,” the email read, according to prosecutors.

Please contact us tomorrow with your travel plans so we can arrange the family driver to pick you up.”(Source: NY Post.)

There is, of course, no trace that “Paul Abram”s ever existed, let alone that he died of malaria, let alone that the family driver was going to pick Hotton up so he could attend the services.

Sheesh. That’s an awful lot to go through for $60K, but if you factor in expense money, it might have been worthwhile.

But Hotton, a former Oppenheimer broker, was used to bigger and better dealios.

Hotton had filed for bankruptcy protection in February 2011. Creditors include a neighboring family, the Pitches, who claim they were swindled out of their life savings of more than $5 million, according to court papers.

Hmmmm. Didn’t Sprecher and Forlenza do any due diligence on this guy before partnering up with him? If I were looking for a middleman to scare up big bucks to invest in me, I think I’d take a pass on someone who’d filed for bankruptcy and had his neighbors claiming he’d “swindled [them] out of their life savings.”

In addition to the Rebecca fraud, Hotton has also been indicted for a second scam.

It seems that he and his wife had an electrical company, and bilked investors out of nearly $4M by “inventing phony work…to draw in backers”:

By creating fake invoices, the Hottons sold these accounts payable to investors who’d pay a percentage of the amount due, in exchange for full payment of that debt later, according to the unsealed indictment.

The invented $9.8 million in imaginary invoices and made $3.7 million from ripped-off investors. (Source: NY Post.)

There has to have been more in the Rebecca’s scam than the paltry $60K and some walking around money. I mean, this guy’s no petty ante thief. What do you need with $60K when you’ve pulled in $5K from your neighbors and $3.7 from “ripped-off investors” in your electrical business.

Anyway, the show must go on, mustn’t it?

Somehow, Sprecher and Forlenza found an anonymous angel investor who’d promised to bail out the production. Only to have him sprout cold wings and back out, once some phantom e-mailer tipped him off that there were problems with the production.

So for now the show is canceled. The actors, musicians, and stage crew are out of work.

And Sprecher’s left scrounging around to find the money to get the show back on its feet – or I guess he’ll be on the hook for the millions that got spent based on the promises Hotton made.

Anyway, Hotton’s been arrested, and is being held without bail. Looks like he won’t be getting back to his Long Island manse any time soon.(Which, come to think of it, looks a tad bit like Manderley.)

He’s certainly a flight of fancy risk, if nothing else.

All this is certainly given The Producers a run for its money, is it not?



Original source: Bloomberg. (The Post turned out to be so much juicier…)



Monday, October 22, 2012

What ho, Jeeves! The butler’s still doing it.

While the global economy continues to suffer, making stutter-steps, at best, towards recovery, there are certainly pockets of prosperity. They may not all be capable of scaling to the level of job growth the world needs, but they are nonetheless important.

One of the niche markets that has proven itself recession-resistant is, apparently, that of butling, where – The Economist tells us  “demand is soaring.”

Bespoke Bureau, a London agency, has placed 345 butlers this year—twice as many as in all of 2011. The five-week training courses Mr. [Anthony] Seddon-Holland runs at his Guild of British Butlers, which he set up in 2007, are booked until 2013. Demand increases by around a fifth every year.

These butlers are not staffing Downton Abbeys for British aristos.

No, those days are gone. Today’s butlers are going where the money is: wealthy Russians, Chinese, Middle Easterners and Latin Americans.

These days, of course, the job has become somewhat more complex than it was in the days of fox hunts and steamer trunk travel.

A birthday in Venezuela organised by [Mr.] Seddon-Holland, a British soldier-turned-butler, involved three planeloads of guests and security, and booking an entire hotel, plus rock band and film stars.

And the pay has gotten better.

A world-class butler can earn up to £150,000 ($240,000) plus bonus, separate living accommodation and all expenses.

What ho, Jeeves, indeed!

To educate the rising generation of butlers, schools have cropped up that offer training on both the niceties of British upper crustiness and modern-day household management for those with a lot household to manage.

One such school, Oxfordshire’s Butler-Valet School is run by Rick Fink.

When I first saw that name I thought ‘Rick Fink’. Now that doesn’t sound like a butler-ish name.

Richard Finch, perhaps. But Rick Fink?

And then I remembered Bertie Wooster’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle and I thought, if a butler-employing grandee can have the name Fink (however hyphenated) then surely a butler can, as well.

Still, to me, Dickie Fink would work better than Rick Fink. (Rick seems more a name for your head of security, not your butler.)

However lacking I find his name, Mr. Fink makes up for it when it comes to his roster of other trainers, which includes Colin Gaunt and Hugo-Morley Fletcher.

Each of Mr. Fink’s trainers has his/her own area of expertise, and Mr. Fink himself oversees the full course – which costs £8,000 – and provides tutelage on:

…the correct procedure to be followed at weddings and other functions, how to announce meals and introduce guests. He will also talk about titles and equivalent ranks and how to address them. (Source: Butler-Valet School website.)

Everyone could use a bit of coaching on “how to announce meals” I suppose. It really is more of a matter than your mother sticking her head out of the kitchen and hollering ‘supper’s on the table.’ But just how much call is there in the average Russian or Chinese plutocrat’s home for addressing the titled? I guess they’ve progressed from Tovarich and Comrade, but still one has to wonder if butler training time might be better spent on how to find actors and rock stars to jet into your clients’ parties.

Which is not to say that the school ignores the practical, day to day skills. At Mr. Fink’s school, prospective butlers will learn about:

…the carving of meats, poultry, game and smoked salmon. Care of fine silver, jewellery, antique furniture and glassware.

How to:- organise large dinner parties, shooting and hunting weekends.

Shooting and hunting weekends?

Again, I’m back to wondering how this applies to the life of today’s kabillionaire. Sounds a bit Queen’s corgis and Balmoral to me, but what do I know about the lifestyles of the rich and famous? I mean, I do get invited to weekends in second homes, but these weekends don’t usually involve shooting and hunting, other than the shooting off of mouths and the hunting down of missing jig-saw puzzle pieces.

Training also covers table laying, food and bev serving, cigar care, and “cellar control.” (Hmmm. I thought it was the imbibers that needed controlling, not the cellars.)

And who knew you had to go to school for table laying?

Admittedly, I never remember if my bread plate is to the left or the right, but I do know that the fork goes to the left and the knife to the right of the dinner plate. And – thanks to my mother – that a plastic gallon milk jug does not belong in the middle of the table.

“Dressing room duties” are also covered:

(Bedrooms provided to practice your skills) how to lay out clothes, including evening wear, uniforms and day wear. How to pack a suitcase correctly. Care of Hunting ,Shooting clothes. The art of caring for all types of apparel and footwear professionally. Emphasis will always be on the formal way of carrying out these duties.

I have to say I wouldn’t mind seeing the formal way of cleaning stag blood off of shooting jackets and hound scat off hunting boots.

Does one remove the boot from the well-heeled foot first, or kneel down and clean things off in situ?

The one trainer I would like to hear speak is Hugo Morley-Fletcher.

As one might infer from his hyphenated-name, Mr. Morley Fletcher grew up not a butler, but a butleed, who:

…was born and brought up in A Stately Home. In the days when such places were still fully staffed. As a child and a young man he spent time on both sides of the Green Baize Door and acquired a cosy insight into how it all worked.

“How it all worked” was tapping the family butler as:

…a useful and friendly source for cigarettes, alcoholic refreshments and other creature comforts… Hugo Morley - Fletcher will recall his experiences in such a household and the lessons he has drawn from it, which may be even useful to you.

I couldn’t find it mentioned on his web site, but I suspect that one of the skills that Mr. Fink trains butlers in the making on is keeping a straight face., and placing tongue firmly in cheek without letting it show.


When it comes to butlering, Pink Slip is no Jeeves come lately. Here’s a post on the topic from 2008.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Zimny Sweep

I suspect that when Mark Zimny hung out his shingle at Ivy Admit Consulting Associates  -  “the worldwide leader in Business School and competitive University admissions consulting for international applicants”  - he did not envision that he’d end up in court, sued by a couple of parents who felt they’d been hoodwinked, who came to the ‘buyers’ remorse’ realization that ponying up $2.2 million for tutoring and advice for their high school age sons was just a tad excessive. That sometimes you don’t get what you pay for. And that greasing the skids may not be quite as simple and straightforward over here as it may be in a more under-the-table economy.

Whatever their expectations, whatever their intentions, it sounds like what happened to Gerald and Lily Chow, a well-to-do Hong Kong couple trying to navigate the American educational system and guarantee the future for their boys by getting them into an Ivy League college, should not have happened to anyone.

But what happened was that the Chows ran into Mark Zimny, who was there to help them out. And help them out of a fairly good sized cash pot.

Zimny no doubt struck them as well-credentialed. He’d been a lecturer in sociology at Harvard and a visiting assistant professor at its School of Education for a few years in the early-aughts,which may have translated to and/or for the Chows into “Harvard Professor.” His business appeared to have some references. And, however minimalist it was – even by the way-back standards of 2004, when it was apparently last updated - Ivy Admit had a web site.

The Chows were Tiger Mom savvy enough to know that, in the brave new global economy, the path to success doesn’t run through Joe Blow Community College. So why not get Zimny’s company to:

… provide tutoring and supervision while the boys attended American prep schools.

…At first, according to invoices, receipts, and financial statements, the Chows wired him at least $8,000 a month for their two boys. Then, in late 2008 and early 2009, they gave him a $2 million retainer.

In exchange, several of Zimny’s employees provided intense tutoring and miscellaneous help not only to the Chow sons, but also to their father, Gerald, a jewelry magnate. The invoices suggest that some of the employees went so far as to write papers for their clients. (Source:

I’ll get back to that Two Large in a moment, but the bit about getting Ivy Admit employees to write term papers is particularly amusing in light of 2002 article in The Harvard Crimson in which Zimny spoke about how he personally dealt with plagiarism.

Lecturer on Sociology Mark J. Zimny says he has uncovered several instances of plagiarism in his class the old-fashioned way—by getting suspicious when a paper doesn’t seem quite right.

“It’s almost like trying on a piece of clothing that isn’t made for you,” Zimny says. “It doesn’t fit the way it should.” (Source: Harvard Crimson)

Zimny went on to opine that he didn’t believe in using anti-plagiarism software.

“This is our job,” he says. Using an anti-plagiarism service “would be like sub-contracting your grading to a grading company. I think it’s our onus as faculty to...determine whether or not it’s actually genuine work.”

Which is not to imply that the term papers written by Ivy Admit were plagiarized. There’s plagiarism – which is stealing someone else’s ideas – and then there’s plagiarism – which is paying good money for someone else’s ideas. And if you can’t tell the difference…

As for $8K a month for tutoring and term paper writing for two kids?

Yowza. (Of course, when you break it down, that’s “only” $4K per kid per month which, at $100/hour – which is I’m quite sure what an Ivy Admit tutor was worth – that’s only 10 hours of tutoring, mentoring, handholding, “supervision”, and ghostwriting a week.)

The $2 million was not for term paper writing, however:

…according to a complaint and other documents the Chows filed as part of a lawsuit in US District Court in Boston, Zimny said he would grease the admissions wheels, funneling donations to elite colleges while also investing on the Chows’ behalf.

According to the suit, Zimny warned the Chows against giving to schools directly. “Embedded racism” made development offices wary of Asian donors, he allegedly advised them; better to use his company as a middleman. (Source:

Not that there’s any “embedded racism” in trying to snow job a couple of Hong Kong parents with a lot of money and not much understanding of how things rolls in the US.

Not clear if any of that $2 million made its way into any Ivy League coffers, by the way. And just how would someone position their donation as coming through a middleman? Say it was coming from an anonymous source? That wouldn’t help buy any consideration. Say that it came from Zimny himself? Ditto to that.

I guess that the Chows didn’t quite think things through.

The legal wiggle room for Zimny, no doubt, is that he was “also investing on the Chows’ behalf.”

Educational counselor and investment advisor.

Not bad for a sociology major, I must say.

Zimny’s lawyers tried to get the suit dismissed, claiming that:

…“common law counts do not serve as an insurance policy for poor judgment, avarice, or any other of many human failings.”

The Chows may have been guilty of ‘poor judgment, avarice, or any other of many human failings’, but it sure seems like they have a right to know where their $2 million went.

Although neither of their sons got into Harvard, they are at “top universities.”

Whether Harvard or another “top university”, $2 million sounds like an awful lot for helping a couple of kids finish high school and apply to college.

My cousin is a retired high school guidance counselor.

If that’s the going rate, maybe she should consider hopping back in the biz…

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Red all about Dit. (Michael Brutsch finds out the hard way.)

Reddit is one of those Internet things that I was vaguely aware of and kinda/sorta knew what it was, but had not to my knowledge ever visited. Which is not to say I haven’t stumbled across it at some point, as it has forums on topics – politics and atheism are two -  I’m interested in. It also has a significant underbelly, a demimonde of porn-y, largely anonymous/pseudonymous forums (subreddits) dedicated to things like provocative pictures of underage girls.

Gawker is one of those Internet things that I was vaguely aware of and kinda/sorta knew what it was, but had not to my knowledge ever visited. Which is not to say I haven’t stumbled across it at some points, as I am certainly not averse to reading those who dish celebrity dirt, and clicking through to find out the skinny on the TomKat divorce or pictures of Anne Hathaway’s wedding.

Bottom line: neither site is in my usual consciousness, or on my Favorites list.

Nonetheless, I’ve been reading with interest about the outing of one Redditor “Violentacrez", who moderated a number of the sketchier forums on Reddit.

Michael “Violentacez” Brutsch’s explanation of what he was up to:

"I do my job, go home watch TV, and go on the internet. I just like riling people up in my spare time." (Source: Huffington Post.)

I apparently have a different idea of “riling people up” than Brutsch does.

To me, “riling people up” might involve, say, throwing it out there that the Red Sox should go after A-Rod, now that the Yankees don’t seem to have much use for him, and agree to pick up all of the considerable swag-bag of a contract he has left.  “Riling people up” might be claiming that Jim Lehrer did such a bang-up job with the first presidential debate that he and his descendants should moderate all such debates in perpetuity. “Riling people up” might be suggesting that Alzheimer’s patients be shipped to the Philippines where their care will be cheaper and, what the hell, they don’t know where they are, anyway. (This last idea, by the way, was actually put forth by a relatively well-known business consultant at a dinner I attended a couple of years ago. He also suggested that it would be no big deal if all the polar bears disappeared. Too bad they can’t be shipped off to the Philippines, too.)

But “riling people up” has a different meaning for Brutsch:

In a phone conversation, Brutsch admitted to being the Reddit user named Violentacrez, who created or moderated sections dedicated to pornographic and violent images, including subreddits called r/rapebait, r/incest, r/picsofdeadkids, r/jailbait, and r/chokeabitch. (Source: Huff Po, again.)

He’s also the man behind r/creepshots, “a space dedicated to pictures of women unaware that their photographs had been taken.”

Anyway, Gawker journalist Adrian Chen sleuthed out just who “Violentacrez” is in real life. And let the world know, ignoring Brutsch’s pleas that being doxxed would lead to him losing his job.

Which is, indeed, what happened, and Brutsch has been fired from his job as a techie for a “financial services firm” that does payday and pawn loans. Even payday loan outfits have standards. Who’da thunk it? (I’m wondering what grounds they fired him on? Was Brutsch redditing on the job? Is it possible that a payday loan company has a code of conduct that got violated?)

So much for “on the Internet, know one knows you’re a dog.”

If someone wants to find out, they can figure out what breed you are and when you got your distemper shot.

Now Brutsch finds himself in one big, ugly soup:

"Nothing like living in the US with a disabled wife and no health insurance," Brutsch wrote on Reddit after he lost his job. “I'm eligible [for insurance], but COBRA is very expensive. Who can afford to pay 5 times as much for insurance at the very moment they lose their income? Only rich folks can afford COBRA. I have maybe 3 weeks pay in the bank. I just hope I can hold out a month. My wife hasn't been able to work for over a year, and our savings will last about 3 weeks, not considering the current lack of health insurance.”

Brutsch is looking for his fans – who are moaning about “free speech” violations -  to provide financial support through a Pay Pal account he’s set up. I’m sure that he’ll bring in some money, but once this dies down, I don’t imagine it will be anywhere the equivalent of a regular pay check.

Although Brutsch sounds like a complete and utter turd – somewhere I read that he’d even bragged about having oral sex with his 19 year-old stepdaughter (“nothing like living in the US with a disabled wife” who now knows you went way, way, way over the line with her child) – I do have a tiny bit of sympathy for him. He’s 49 and, unless some porn site snaps him up, he’s pretty much got to be unemployable from here on out. Maybe if Chen had just confronted Brutsch and told him he wouldn’t out him if he quit as a redditor and got some much needed counseling…

But, of course, under those circumstances, there would no doubt be someone else willing to take his place.

Now, at least, when someone wants to step in and take up the slack on r/picsodeadkids and r/chokeabitch they might pause and consider that they could end up, if not on the cover of Rolling Stone, then at least on the front page of the Huffington Post. And find themselves losing their livelihood and jeopardizing whatever relationships they had with their fellow human beings.

Personally, I’m not completely wild about all the anonymity on the ‘net.

I read way too many online comments that are uncivil in so many ways: misogynist, racist, homophobic, generally demonizing of anyone who doesn’t agree with them, fact-free, and all-round cretinous.

Truly, I wish that all online forums would have two comment streams, one for those who wanted to maintain civility (used by those using their real names, or with a pseudonym if they feel the need for self-protection/privacy), and another for those who just want to sling any bit of craziness that pops into their head.

I do understand why anonymity is important.

If I worked for the Koch brothers, or developer David Siegel, or any of the other CEO’s – who sent out pro-Romney materials to their employees - I might have a genuine fear that a letter to the editor of the local paper extolling the virtues of Joe Biden might get me fired. Maybe someone who worked in an environment that was mostly liberals who went around tearing their hair out every time a Republican gets elected, might not want the local news showing them canvassing door to door for the local Tea Party favorite.

I can imagine plenty of circumstances in which people would want to keep their private (and political) lives private.

But when the private lives go so far over the line (r/chokeabitch?) of common decency, maybe they forfeit their claim on some of that privacy.

All I know is that, today, Michael Brutsch is one sorry-ass, unemployed dude who has no one to blame but himself.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hermès and LVMH at each others’ throats? C’est dommage.

I have to admit that when I read that there’s a spot of bad blood between Hermès  – they of the $500 silk scarf – and LVMH – to which we owe thanks for the very existence of many a $5000 pocket book* -  I wanted to pop a bottle of bubbly (Moët, of course). There is, sans doute, a somewhat thrilling element when the luxury folks go at it that’s just so not there if the squabble is between, say, Timex and Wranglers.

The trouble began when LVMH acquired a stake in Hermès which Hermès was none too happy about. (I was going to say that LVMH scarfed down part of Hermes, but that would be a really bad pun. So I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.) And now Hermès  has made a claim that LVMH was doing something shady – insider trading, share manipulation – to have their way in building their stake. (LVMH owns a bit more than 20% of Hermès .) (Source: Washington Post.)

Since I have no affiliation at all to either brand, I can’t say that I really care one way or the other how this contretemps plays out.

It did, however, get me thinking about the teeny-weeny relationship I do have with each brand.

Many years ago, my husband and I were dining in a neighborhood restaurant and ordered a bottle of Moët Chandon, which was, more or less, the “house champagne”, and at that time probably cost about $25 or $30 in a restaurant. Anyway, when they brought it out, we half looked at it, saw that the bottle said Moët, and proceeded to enjoy it.

A few days later, we were in a liquor store and I noticed a familiar bottle of wine.

‘Hey,’ I said to my husband, ‘That’s the wine we had the other day at The Charles.’

He agreed that the label did, in fact, look like the wine we’d been served.

Only this bottle was Dom Perignon – an LVMH brand - and the liquor store price was over $100.

Next time we ate at The Charles (no longer in business under that incarnation and name, but still our neighborhood go-to), the owner (somewhat snottily) informed us that we’d had a nice “treat” the other night in that they’d mistakenly given us an expensive bottle of champers and charged us for a cheaper one.

Given that we at there at least once a week, you’d have thought that he would have said something along the lines of ‘since you’re such good customers, we wanted you to have a nice thank-you bottle of wine, but forgot to tell you at the time.’ Rather than imply that we should have offered to pay the difference. (We might have been willing to do so if we’d realized that we were getting something special and perceived a vast qualitative difference between DP and our usual. But we weren’t aware that we were drinking anything other than what we’d ordered.)

If I ever have Dom again, I do hope I know enough to enjoy it.

Anyway, my other “interaction”, as it were, with LVMH is on the LV side of the house.

A few years back, while we were vacationing in Paris, our nieces – then 11 and 12 – asked if we could “shop” at the Louis Vuitton store on the Champs Élysées.

Oh, why not, I thought. It’s Sunday afternoon. The place will be crawling with gawkers. Maybe the girls can afford a keychain or something.

I believe those key chains cost about $300.

We ended up doing our shopping at a souvenir shop near the Louvre.

Who actually needs a $300 keychain, anyway?

As for Hermès, I am a scarf wearer. I have plenty of them and wear them pretty much every day. Even in summer, I will carry one with me to drape over my shoulders if I’m going to be in an AC’d environment.  My scarves range from polyester cheapos, through cotton, to challis, to hand woven, to very nice silk.

But none of them are from Hermès.

Even if I had $500 that I was willing to spend on a scarf, I don’t actually like most of the Hermès designs.

Maybe if I were part of the horsey set, I’d like them better.

Sure, some of them are quite beautiful, but far too many of them seem to feature stirrups which, quite frankly, I associate more with a visit to the GYN than I do with donning a pink velveteen jacket, a pair of jodhpurs, and riding to the hounds.

But I did almost have one in my possession.

Many years ago – which, apparently, is when many things happened, the older you get – a colleague returned from a business trip and handed me a scarf which he’d found in his hotel room.

Why he hadn’t just left it there, or handed it in at the front desk, I don’t recall.

Anyhow, he had brought it home and decided that, as the office scarf lady, I was the logical recipient of it.

I will say that the silk was quite beautiful, heavy and lush. Those silkworms must have been supping on organic mulberry leaves or something.

But the pattern was an incredibly ugly gold and blue stirrup thang. (Not to mention that scarf was impregnated with some ghastly – but no doubt expensive – perfume.)

It went in the donation bag…

So much for me and my Hermès.

Little did I know that, according to the Hermès site, some scarves are, “good enough to eat.”

Good enough to eat off of, maybe, if you’re having a picnic and you’ve got a bottle of Dom. But good enough to eat?

Maybe the rich are, indeed, different from you and me….


*Not that Hermès is any slouch in the pocket book category, either. I stopped  by their online store and randomly selected a “unisex shoulder bag [made of] taupe clemence bullcalf” that retails for $7,300.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Ugly American? Not I (mostly). Phew…

Well, I just read that Americans are considered the world’s worst travelers. I would take that with a giant grain of salt, taking into account that a) the survey was decidedly non-scientific, b) there are an awful lot of us and some are bound to be, well, ugly, c) we may suffer from some knee-jerk, generalized they’re-Americans-they-must-be-ugly effect. 

Not that there isn’t something to be said in the negative about the behavior of Americans abroad.

Still, I looked through the round-up on why we’re so bad with a somewhat tempered eye.

But here’s why Smarter Travel (care of Huffington Post) thinks that, once the passport’s stamped, we’re so god-awful.

Inevitably, they start off with attire:

White sneakers, a fanny pack, a baseball hat.

Personally I don’t wear white sneakers unless I’m heading to the gym or out exercise-walking. So there’s no way I’d be caught on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in a pair of New Balances. There really are shoes that are comfortable for walking that don’t look terrible – or at least aren’t white. But, really, who cares? If Grammy and Grampy want to tromp around in their sneaks, so what?

Fanny packs are quite another item. No one wants to get pick-pocketed at the Trevi Fountain, but if there’s one accessory that screams paranoid-American-who-thinks-that-everyone-in-a-country-where-the-people-have-dark-hair-is-a-thief it’s the old fanny pack. Me? I carry my wallet in an inner zipped compartment of a zipped up pocketbook, likely slung bandolier style across my chest, and with my hand on it. With the exception of the hand on it, that’s how I mostly roll when out for a city walk anywhere, unless it’s the kind of walk where I just stuff my ID, a credit card, and a few bucks in my front pocket. (Bandolier-y-ing is actually the most comfortable way to carry a pocketbook on a long walk.) Hands on is only if I’m in a really touristy and crowded place that I’ve read in Lonely Planet is a den of thieves.

Baseball cap? I confess! I’m one of those light-eyed folks who needs both sunglasses and a brimmed hat when it’s bright out. And most of my non-winter hats are baseball caps. But I don’t see how this necessarily marks you as an American. I’ve been in plenty of foreign places where I’ve caught the eye of someone wearing a Red Sox or Yankees cap, only to find out they don’t speak much English and haven’t a clue what baseball is. So there!

The article stresses that you should:

…make an effort to blend in with what the locals wear, especially when it comes to covering up in more modest countries.

Agreed that you probably don’t want to be cavorting around Jordan in a pair of Daisy Mae’s and a halter top. (In fact, based on personal experience in the long ago, I’d say that you don’t want to be walking the streets of Izmir, Turkey, in a pair of cut offs and a tee-shirt if you don’t want some guy grabbing your thigh and giving it a squeeze.)  But my personal attire fatwas would be put out against anyone over the age of 12 wearing a Winnie-the-Pooh sweatshirt (especially if obese), and against couples who hit the road dressing alike. (Sorry, Grammy and Grampy, I know if you order all your travel duds from L.L. Bean or Land’s End you could accidentally end up in matchy-tatchy chinos, polos and windbreakers. But at least do the world a favor and compare your color choices ahead of time. If Grammy wants Barn Red then Grampy has to settle for Marine Blue.)

Expectations of everyone speaking English is another thing that marks us indelibly as Ugly Americans. I am a complete proponent of learning a few words in the local tongue, enough to say hello and do you speak English. Thus, I can utter please and thank you in at least a dozen languages. Plus order red wine in Hungarian. Expecting that everyone across whatever pond you’re crossing is going to understand you is ridiculous. And yet…if most of your travel abroad is to major European cities – as mine is – you will have no trouble, in my experience, finding serviceable English spoken in most shops and restaurants on the beaten track.

This doesn’t exempt you from at least trying your high school French out. (Or your phrase book Hungarian.) But the fact is that pop culture, if nothing else, has put English on the tip of an awful lot of tongues out there.

I was not aware that Americans are known for complaining about portions. I’ve done an awful lot of eating out in an awful lot of places and recall nary a complaint about portions (especially when I accidentally ordered brain in Paris years ago; no complaining about a too small helping of brain). Grumble about food, maybe. But the portion?

I have occasionally complained – or at least remarked on – getting too much food in the USA. Too little? Hasn’t ever happened to me when dining “over there”, and I’m no picky minimalist eater, either.

Apparently “we” also do a lot of “demanding to know the price in dollars.” If Americans do this, well, shame on them. Converting foreign currency is what mental arithmetic (as taught in the Catholic schools of my childhood) and/or a spouse is for.

Maybe I lead a charmed traveling life, but I have never been witness to excessive patriotism, as manifest by:

…pointing out customs that you think are flawed or not as good as "how we do it here"

In fact, I wouldn’t associate pointing out those flaws with excessive patriotism but, rather, with rudeness. Unless the flaw you were pointing out was, say, British toilet paper from 40 years ago when it was made out of waxed paper… Pointing that out was, in fact, doing the Brits a favor.

We’re also not supposed to try to recreate America abroad. Which means we’re supposed to stay out of Starbucks and not have a hissy fit when we find out the the toilet is a hole in the floor. I agree that one of the reasons to travel is to see how they do things in different places. That said, one of the reasons that 99.99% of my overseas travel is to Europe is because you can generally expect pretty much the same level of creature comfort – maybe without the A/C – anywhere you go. The days when I’d be just as happy to relieve myself sitting on a stone wall, crapping in a pasture while a couple of donkeys looked on, are long over.

Back on the other end of the food chain, while I will take most of my meals out at local restaurants, I have been known to give in and grab a small fries at McD’s, a comfort I seldom allow myself at home.

The seventh deadly American sin is overpacking. I suspect that this is mostly done by American’s on tours that include runs around the countryside in motor coaches. The ones where, at 7 a.m. the next morning, you place your king-size roller-bag outside your door and someone comes by and stows it in the gaping maw of the motor coach. Anyone who has to schlepp their own bag – with the exception of my nieces Molly and Caroline – will pack only what they need. Which is a lot less than what you think you need.

I gave up a long time ago on worrying about what someone might think if I wore the same sweater three days running.

I’m pretty much a carry-on girl, and mix things up by packing a few extra scarves. They take up no room and it lets you vary things up a bit. Which is not to say that I don’t get sick of a steady diet of black pants after a while. But, hey, I spent 16 years wearing a uniform, and if I can live day in, day out, in a green jumper and white blouse, I can stand 10 days figuring out whether I’ll wear black pants or black pants of, say, how about black pants today?

Anyway, while – according to the checklist presented – I’m not a particularly Ugly American, I don’t really see how the rules are much different whether you’re here or there: don’t be a loud-mouthed persnickety a-hole, no? Beyond that, what’s the difference if you’re wearing white sneakers and a baseball cap or not?

Monday, October 15, 2012

A vinyl resting place

I’m always interested in reading about how people these days get sent off to The Big Sleep.

In fact, death so becomes Pink Slip that I should set up a separate category for it entirely.  Just a quick graze through the last year or so came up with these posts:

And these were just my deathless proses of recent vintage…

Not that I’m by any means obsessed with death, or especially morbid. But what can I say? I grew up Irish Catholic. This is how we roll (roll out? roll away? roll on?).

All this is to underscore just how natural it was for me to glom onto something I saw in the Odd Jobs section on the Business Week site: an article on Jason Leach, whose company, And Vinyly, will turn your remains into a vinyl record. Forget ashes to ashes; you can have ashes to LP. (And talk about a signal advantage that vinyl has over digital. Try that with MP3!) And Vinyly has been around since 2009, but the service is just starting to get some traction.

He’s only processed four records so far—including one with the ashes of a DJ whose parents wanted their late son “to be played at his favorite clubs a few more times”—but Leach has had hundreds of inquiries. “I’m sometimes up 24 hours a day just answering calls,” he says.

As spinal tap starts replacing Spinal Tap in the Boomer vocabulary, and they start buying tickets to their final concert, I would expect that Leach will have more of those 24 hour days.

The service isn’t cheap. The minimum point will set you back £3,000 ($4,600) for 30 copies of a record that had your ashes added into the raw vinyl soup. And we’re not talking true LP’s here: you only get 12 minutes per side.

You can provide your own audio, or get Leach – who runs a couple of record labels – to tap some of his musicians to write and record a tune or two for you. (That’s £500 a pop hit.) Similarly, if you don’t have your own sleeve art, you can line up a portrait artist to do the honors for about £3,500.  Leach’s company will also take care of distribution for you, if you want your record to actually get into stores. No doubt there’ll be record shops just clamoring for these records. Imagine if yours went platinum?

No info on who does your liner notes, but, presumably you can hire someone to do that for you, too. (Maybe I’ll add this to my list of writing tasks.)

The article points out that:

…You can also choose which specific body part is put into the vinyl.

I so do not want to go there, except to note that this is between you and your crematorium, which, I would think, would charge extra for the carve out and separation. And who’s to know if they’re on the up and up? You may want to make sure that someone you trust is there to verify.

Your recording doesn’t have to be music, of course. You can do your very own Dylan Thomas on Caedmon Records – ars poetica, or if you’d prefer, posthumous advice, posthumous nags, posthumous love notes, or a rant and rave. After all, wasn’t it Dylan T who advised?

Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Leach also points out that you can record sounds of nature, sounds of place, or just have your record contain dead air, which he’s considering for his own last word:

…letting the only sound on his final LP be the pop and crackle of his ashes vibrating against the needle.

I don’t quite see the point of that one, but, hey, my peeps are all word people. None of this sounds of silence for us. (You’ll get enough of that once you’re dead and buried, or turned into a record.)

Personally, I’d be more apt to make a video of myself for after-hours consumption, rather than just a recording. But I can’t imagine who’d want to play it. (Maybe once, if I died suddenly and someone found it in my special effects.)

If I did go the vinyl route, I do know that I wouldn’t choose silence. I’m just not sure if I’d do spoken word or tunes. Spoken word would actually be easier – I’ve always have plenty to say. But if I had to choose a couple of songs that had meaning? All I can come up with for now is R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion.”

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tea Party Hearty: The Toy Hall of Fame Finalists for 2012

With all the crazy madness going on in the world, it’s nice to have the distraction of the National Toy Hall of Fame Finalists for 2012.

This year’s list – little toy drum roll please – includes:

Clue: Although I’m not especially fond of the current look and feel of the game board,cards and pieces – like everyone else in the world, I’m enamored of the version I grew up with – I will say that Clue is one of my all time favorite board games. I’d put Parcheesi/Sorry, and Monopoly, ahead of it. But I certainly whiled away plenty of hours over the years sussing out whether Professor Plum did it in the Conservatory with the Rope, or Colonel Mustard did it in the Billiard Room with the Revolver.

Clue is fun on many levels, not the least of which is imagining you’re Agatha Christie invited to spend a country weekend with some rich Brits to the manor born. What ho!

I’m not the only one who likes Clue. According to the Hall of Fame folks, it’s been the best selling board game since 1947.

Dominoes: This one has stood the test of time – it may have been invented by the first walking fish – but it’s not something I grew up with. I have played it a bit, and I do love the videos of a lineup of a kazillion dominoes keeling over. But is it really a toy toy?

Fisher Price Corn Popper: This is an inspired nomination, if only because it satisfies an underappreciated toy attribute: it drives grown ups nuts!  The Hall of Fame folks claim thFisher Price popcorn popperat the Corn Popper “makes loud and engaging noises.” And those noises are certainly engaging to any toddler making them, that’s for sure. I actually wish that they made an adult version. Imagine the fun you’d have pushing one around the office making “loud and engaging noises”.

Lite Brite: This ones after my time, but I’m all for the “potential for open-ended creativity”, but:

Little Green Army Men:  Talk about “open-ended creativity”. War on war on war on war. Sure, it hurt if you stepped on one barefoot. Maybe not bayonet through the pinky-Little green army mentoe hurt, but definitely an ouchy. But anything that costs next to nothing so that you can have in multiple-multiples is automatically great, is it not? Plus, if you liked chewing on plastic, you could always gnaw the heads off. (Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.)

Magic 8 Ball:  This is an excellent item, and everyone should have one – and, let’s face it, will need to have one – at some point or another in their life. But it is kind of the lazy kid’s Ouija Board, so it wouldn’t get my Hall of Fame vote.

Sidewalk Chalk:  In the age of graffiti, this seems pretty quaint, but, as long as there are sidewalks, I would hope that there would be chalk. But maybe not. I remember reading a few months back that some Home Owners Association was trying to ban chalk – talk about a no-fun bunch. Banning chalk? It’s not as if it’s spray painted on. One good rain storm (or a hosing down) gets rid of the hopscotch, tic-tac-toe, and jellyroll markings.  Or the swear words.

Tea Sets:  I had a couple of tea sets as a child - the standard issue pink plastic kit, and a miniature china set (white with pink rosebuds) that could not really be used for a tea party (too small) but was pretty to look at. I would have been all in favor of electing the tea set to the Toy Hall of Fame, if not for their write up on it:

Tiny tea sets have been part of child’s play for the last three centuries, encouraging children to imitate the adult rituals, manners, and decorum of tea drinking. Along the way, children learn gender roles, poise, and social graces, and start to imagine their futures as adults.

Imitating adult rituals – check. (Even though the tea party hasn’t really been much of an adult ritual since the days of Mamie Eisenhower.)

Manners – check. Really, some level of politeness should never, ever, ever go out of style.

Decorum of tea drinking – need to know basis only, and I really don’t think there are very many people with that particular need to know, are there?

And I’m not wild about that learning gender roles bit.

What, precisely, does this mean? That little girls should be trained up to pour tea, pass the milk, and ask whether someone wants one lump or sugar or two?

Poise and grace are things that both genders could stand to develop. But learning your “gender role” from a tea set? Personally, I’d rather bite the head off of a little green soldier.

There are a few hold-overs from last year’s nominees, and my feelings from last year still stand.

Pogo Stick: Kids were supposed to have them, but I never knew anyone who actually did.

Simon:  A memory game and, thus, something I would have been good at.  But not something I was especially familiar with.

Start Wars Action Figures: Not my cup of tea set.

Twister: Too dangerous.

I will brag here that of last year’s list, the two that I would have voted for – the doll house and hot wheels – were the two that were elected.

This year I have to go with three: Clue, Little Green Army Men, and Chalk.

Come mid-November, when the winners are announced, we’ll find out how I did this time around.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Miracle Whipped

Last week, Kraft Foods became two companies, Kraft Foods Group, which focuses on the duddy old grocery store business, and the far more glamorously named Mondelez, which is in the snack food biz.

The good news for the folks who got to stay with Mondelez: they’ve been growing about 30% a year over the past few, pushing what people want: Oreos, Cadbury Egg Cremes, Dentyne. 

Those who got spun out as Kraft are in a group that’s been on the losing end of market share and is:

…saddled with a portfolio of aging brands in need of freshening as it confronts potent rivals and rising commodity costs…starting life with a handicap: years of underinvestment in new products and marketing. (Source: Bloomberg.)

Interesting looking at what went where. While Mondelez are the snacksters, Kraft kept Koo-Aid and Mr. Peanut. (How is Mr. Peanut not a snack?)

In any case,there’s some good news for Kraft marketers, as the company is looking to retool and pump new life into old standby brands like Oscar Mayer, Miracle Whip, Planters, Jell-o, Kraft, and  - who even knew they still made it – Velveeta?

When I was growing up, there weren’t all that many kinds of cheese to choose from – at least not at the Morris Market.

You had your American. You had your cream cheese, which was used in our house to make a cracker spread that contained maraschino cherries and crushed pineapple. You had your “chive cheese”, which came in little glass jars that turned into juice glasses. And you had Velveeta, which came in bricks, and which my brother Tom was addicted to. (Question: Is Velveeta really cheese, or is it a processed cheese-like product?)

Another cheesy product that Kraft owns is, of course, Kraft Mac & Cheese, which I will admit to having I do always manage to have a box or two of Annie’s version on my shelf. I prefer Annie’s if  for no other reason that you can get it with the white powdered cheddar, vs. the orangey yellow.

Another old-school brand that Kraft owns is Jell-O, which:

… is an example of a brand that needs a turnaround.

Sorry, but a brand that needs a turnaround probably doesn’t need the Jell-O mosaic bar staring them in the face when you go to their web site:

Jello Mosaic Bar

This doesn’t exactly scream brand refresh to me. 

And the tagline for Jell-o pudding may be a refresh:


But to me it sounds like a promo for Bachelor Millionaire. (Hey, baby, for a good time, Derek is smooth, rich, and available…)

Perhaps the Jell-O site doesn’t have its new mojo fully on just yet.

There’s also news about Cool Whip:

Kraft is also adding Cool Whip frosting to the frozen foods aisle.

What a breakthrough! Next time I’m at Whole Foods, I’ll be running my cart right after it.

By the way, I would have thought that Cool Whip went out of business after my mother died. (I do miss having the Cool Whip containers around. They weren’t exactly Tupperware, but they could go a few rounds once the Cool Whip had been consumed.)

Overall, Kraft doesn’t appear to have found its spark divine quite yet, as you can tell from its home page:

Kraft home page

That mac and cheese looks like it was made in 1903. And what’s up with that Oscar Meyer wiener mobile with the pickle wheels? Hot diggity dog, that looks hip and current. Think I’ll make up a batch tonight. Vroom!

Miracle Whip is another of the Kraft brands.

Now, although it is my husband’s “mayo” of choice, my stomach churns at the very thought of Miracle Whip. Yet I will give them props for their ad campaigns. I thought the one last year that played off the two type of people in the world – those who like Miracle Whip and those who don’t – was pretty good.

And I really like their Scarlet Letter ad.

Arthur Dimmesdale maybe, but Hester Prynne?

I suspect the literary allusion is lost of a lot of the Miracle Whip audience, but this is a really funny ad. Not enough to get me to – gag – use MW. Enough that I have to let it co-exist in our fridge with my beloved Hellman’s. (Really, is there any other mayonnaise? I know, I know, I’m a New Englander. I’m supposed to like Cain’s. But I’m a Hellman’s girl, all the way.)

I do think that Kraft has their brand challenges cut out for them, with their unglamorous, old-fashioned brands. Not that it will take a miracle, exactly…

I do hope that they have some fun, doing for Jell-o and Cool Whip what they’re doing with Miracle Whip. Won’t get me to buy, but the ads will be enjoyable. Meanwhile, aside to Jell-O: do something, anything about that Mosaic Mold. Sheesh.