Friday, November 30, 2012

Paranoia strikes deep, into your heart it will creep

I bow to no one in my capacity to be a world-class worrywart, a fretter par excellence, a neurotic’s neurotic.

I need recall no further back than the sleepless nights, the obsessive visits to Nate Silver 538 (the polls really don’t get updated every three-and-a-half minutes), my fixation on what Chris Matthews knew and when he knew it, that plagued me 24/7 in the run up to this year’s election.

No, here I bow to no man (woman, or child).

Other than the political scene (and, of course, global warming: I do live on reclaimed ocean), I’ll occasionally indulge in a bit o’ fret about my own health, wealth and happiness. But most of my worrying is displaced, one, two or three degrees of separation from my own sweet personal moi. Which I’ve always figured is pretty similar to the worry profile of most folks: we worry about who and what we care about.

Then I read a review on WSJ Online of a new book, Encyclopedia Paranoica: The Indispensible Guide to Everyone and Everything Your Should Be Afraid Of or Worried About, by Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf. A.k.a.:

The Definitive Compendium of Things You Absolutely, Positively Must Not Eat, Drink, Wear, Take, Grow, Make, Buy, Use, Do, Permit, Believe, or Let Yourself Be Exposed to, Including an Awful Lot of Toxic, Lethal, Horrible Stuff That You Thought Was Safe, Good, or Healthy; All Sorts of Really Bad People Who Are Out to Get, Cheat, Steal from, or Otherwise Take Advantage of You; and a Whole Host of Existential Threats and Looming Dooms That Make Global Warming, Giant Meteors, and Planetary Pandemics Look Like a Walk in the Park (with Its High Risk of Skin Cancer, Broken Bones, Bee Stings, Allergic Seizures, Animal Attacks, Criminal Assaults, and Lightning Strikes)

All I needed to do was see the review – forget about reading the entire book (which, just sayin’, would make a Yankee Swap par excellence) – to realize that, when it comes to worrying about stuff, I’m nearly Forrest Gumpian in my carefree, insouciant approach to life.

Sure, the book covers some a the big stuff that occasional splats like a June bug on my worry screen – stuff like the aforementioned bug bear of global warming. (Remember when we used to laugh at Kevin Costner’s Waterworld?)

But there’s also plenty about existential threats that I haven’t bothered to worry about. And I don’t intend to start now. Those “assorted pieces of Damoclean cutlery” lurking around every corner, under every sink, in every cupboard.

Mega-tsunamis, for one thing. Which, if I thought about, might not be a bad way to go, if you didn’t get much advanced warning. A moment or two of terror, then swept away and/or crushed. Makes me not mind living by the ocean. (And, yes, I googled, and Atlantic tsunamis can occur.) But I’m more apt to worry about rising tides when the North Pole goes south than I am about a rogue wave.

There are also super-volcanoes to fear. But that would be another pretty quick hit. And I like the idea of some future archeologist tapping away at all that volcanic cement uncovering perfectly preserved cans of Progresso soup and all those expired laptops squirreled away in our bedroom.

As for nuclear warfare, my only fear is that I’m not at Ground Zero when the big one goes off. I used to say I’d like to have one of those propeller beanies with “aim here” written on its crown.

There are, of course, more pedestrian things to worry about. And none of them have been high on my worry list.

For one thing, I’m not germaphobic.

Sure, I have a tiny bottle of Purell in my pocketbook, but mostly I use regular old soap-soap to wash my hands. I don’t close the lid before flushing because maybe, just maybe, those germs that fly up and land on my toothbrush won’t kill me but will make me stronger. And I really don’t care that my long hot showers “distribute the scary Mycobacterium avium.” Yawn.

I don’t feel the need to sterilize my dishwasher. Sterilize my washing machine. Or sterilize pre-packaged salad greens which, I trust, are pre-washed well enough. And while I’ll give an apple a quick, cursory rinse – with germy tap water – I don’t use any special fruit scrub.

I don’t bleach after cutting the fat off of a chicken breast, or throw in the sponge after I use it once – even if it’s to run over the counter where, no doubt, some of the chicken yuck I’ve just been cutting has spread.

I do exercise some precautions. Now that I’ve read that public restroom hand-dryers are regular bacteri-o-matics, I’ll just give my hands a shakedown then wipe ‘em dry on my jeans.

Meanwhile, if granite countertops emit radon, well, I’ll have to assume that my 1980’s Formica emits something toxic, too.  So what’s the alternative? Organically growing my own oak tree and hewing my own countertops?

And ask me if I care if there’s arsenic brown rice. One second thought, don’t. Because I don’t.

Sounds like it’s time to throw away those worry beads. If I can find them. Last time I saw them, they were wrapped around a pose-able Bullwinkle figurine. (The beads matched his blue-green gloves.)

Viva joie de vive!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rubber Match

When I was a kid, everyone knew where stuff came from. Cities, states, and countries were known for what they made, what they grew,  and what they lucked out and had underground.

Geography quizzes had fill-in-the-blank questions like “Wisconsin is known for its ___________.” And even the dullest of dullards knew the answer was something to do with cows. (I remember one even more cretinous quiz in which the question was “Singapore is a ________ city”. The correct answer was “hot.”)

We played with map puzzles. These always miffed me a bit, in that New England, with our puny states, got a bit short-changed when it came to product picto-grams – Maine, I believe, sports a potato. But games like this meant that even in our blissfully ample free time in those blissfully unprogrammed days, we were absorbing information about what people did in places, and what resources they had available to them that enabled them to do what they did in those places.

Alas, many of ye olde verities are not so vérité anymore.  Most of America has switched from “what you make” to “what you do,” where we all do “services.”

So Pittsburgh’s no longer the Steel City. Shoes aren’t made in Brockton, Mass. And you can go blind looking for the union label in clothing.

And what do you think when it comes to “Made in China”? Electronics? Junk? Sneakers? Everything?

Nope, it’s not so easy any more.

Fortunately, you can’t do much about what’s underground, other than use it up.

As far as I can tell, they ain’t going to be making any more fossil fuels any time soon.  So peat still comes from Ireland, and coal still comes from Kentucky. (Which reminds me of a conversation I had in Ireland years ago with a local County Kerry politician. He was talking about the peat bogs, and I asked what Ireland was going to do when they ran out of peat. “Sure,” he told me, “There’s plenty of it.” Well, yes, but there is the fossil fueliness of peat…)

And unless Superman flies in and starts crushing coal for us, there’s a finite supply of diamonds. So we remain confident that “real diamonds” – and not cubic zirconia – will still come from South Africa. (Whether round, square or pear shape they’ll always be a girl’s best friend is anyone’s guess.)

Then there’s what you grow – somewhere in the middle between what you make and what you have underground -  which doesn’t tend to change all that much. No one’s growing bananas or cotton in Aroostook County, Maine, any time soon. (At least I hope not.)

And rubber is always going to come from rubber trees, which are always going to grow in places that are hot.

Maybe not in hot places like Singapore, which mostly grows tall building.

But in hot places like Malaysia.

Anyway, a while back, Malaysia decided that it didn’t just want to export buckets o’ rubber to places that were going to manufacture something out of those raw materials. Things like galoshes, bathtub slip-proof mats, erasers, rubber bands (known in New England as “elastics”), red rubber balls. And rubbers.

So Malaysia made the moves to develop into a more vertically integrated country and started using some of its rubber to make condoms. Which look startlingly like binkies. Or Mexican sombreros. Ole! And now Malaysia’s home to Karex, the “world’s biggest condom manufacturer.”

“Demand for condoms is continuously growing,” said Goh Miah Kiat, whose great-grandfather started the company as a grocery store on a Malaysian rubber plantation almost a century ago…

“When we got into condoms, it was pretty much a dirty word,” Goh, executive director at Karex, said in a Nov. 12 interview. “Today, things have changed. Asia is going to create a lot of demand because our population is very young.” (Source: Bloomberg.)

And, let’s face it, because there are many circumstances in which condoms are the real girl’s best friend.

That’s quite a move Karex made, from grocery store to world’s largest maker of condoms. As the granddaughter of a grocery store owner, I wish that Jake’d been a bit more enterprising (which maybe he would have if he’d made it beyond the age of 52). Not that Chicago in the 1930’s and 1940’s needed all that many condoms. Still, if Jake had branched out, his many grandkids – and two surviving daughters – might be sitting pretty pretty.

It’s also quite impressive that Karex only began making those rubbers in 1988 and in just under 25 years grew its way to #1.

It’s no wonder, when you look at the rather winsome ads they’ve run.

And it’s not just rubbers  - 17 varieties, by the way, including fruity, sweet, and spicy - that Malaysia’s churning out. The country is also the world’s leading supplier of rubber and latex gloves.

Perhaps if New Englanders could figure out something else to do with the sap we tap from our maple trees… I guess we’ll have to content ourselves with maple syrup, maple sugar candy, and pictures of sap buckets on the map of Vermont (if they can squeeze in a picto-gram.)

Meanwhile, if they’re still quizzing kids of geographic word-association, I’m pretty sure they might still be saying “rubber comes from Malaysia.” Rubbers, I’m pretty sure, have not (yet) made it’s way onto the grammar school pick list. At least I hope not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This is ground control to Passenger Tom

I’m not quite sure how I feel about the coming of the computer-controlled vehicle.

Yes, I do know that most accidents are caused by driver error. But I am equally well aware that systems fail. So what will happen when your car system crashes? Will your car crash, too? Will the on-boards onboard every other car on the road sense that you’ve screeched (metaphorically speaking) to a halt in the middle of the road and drive around you? Will son-of-OnStar guide you to safe harbor on the median strip or in the breakdown lane?

These are the questions I ask myself, now that I have finally gotten over the fact that the only manual over-ride for an electronic window failure is a) open the door or b) smash the glass with a wrench.

But the march of automotive technology time is inevitable.

Just as our grandparents thought the the essence of car driver-ship was cranking the flivver. And our parents coped with the choke and the clutch. Just as my generation, which learned on the push-button automatic, then segued to manual shift so we could drive Beetles, eventually settled for the wonders of the semi-automatic. So the next gen will learn to drive cars that have automated parallel parking (wimps), and eventually commute in the ultimate ‘look, ma, no hands’ vehicles.

So if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’ll no doubt be chugging to my funeral in a pre-programmed, automated “smart hearse.”

Still, I am completely unprepared for the pilotless airplane.

Yes, indeed, I know that the military have been using these for quite a while. But drones don’t have passengers.

Yet unmanned commercial aircraft are likely to enter service before people can buy autonomous cars. Modern aircraft are already perfectly capable of automatically taking off, flying to a destination and landing. These tests are trying to establish whether they can do those things safely without a pilot in the cockpit and at the same time comply with the rules of the air. (Source: The Economist)

In its initial stages:

Pilotless aircraft could carry out many jobs at a lower cost than manned aircraft and helicopters—tasks such as traffic monitoring, border patrols, police surveillance and checking power lines.

Ah, no more Joe Green in the ‘BZ traffic-copter. No more breathless in-air, on-air reporter narrating The Flight of O.J. Simpson.

They’ll be on the ground, their bird’s eye view coming from screens, like it does for the rest of us.

They could also operate in conditions that are dangerous for pilots, including monitoring forest fires or nuclear-power accidents. And they could fly extended missions for search and rescue, environmental monitoring or even provide temporary airborne Wi-Fi and mobile-phone services. Some analysts think the global civilian market for unmanned aircraft and services could be worth more than $50 billion by 2020.

Commercial freight services will be the next domino to fall – just think of all those big old UPS and FedEx jumbos sailing around loaded with L.L. Bean Fitness Fleeces and Harry and David grapefruits, a few of the items that cannot – for now – be downloaded.

But as The Economist notes, it will be a while before even the most “penny-pinching, cut-rate airline” will be able to get away with putting passengers on a pilotless aircraft. (I vote Ryanair as the first one to give it a whirl.)

But as The Economist also points out, the day of the co-pilot may be nearing its end. Who even remembers that planes – other than WWII Flying Fortresses – used to come staffed with a flight engineer, a navigator, and a radio engineer?

Space flights, of course, have been ground-controlled for a while. But they represented a pretty good ratio of on the ground operatives to astronauts. (Think of all those guys in white, short-sleeved shirts and pen protectors at NASA.) I can’t imagine there’ll be anything like that for passenger flights. Plus the astronauts were trained pilots who, when needed, could be called on to take over and man the spacecraft if all else failed.

Who’d be on that pilotless flight?

Would Pilot Bob on the ground have a stew – for, presumably, there’ll still be someone onboard to serve drinks and curb unruly passengers – get on the PA and ask if there’s a volunteer to go into the cockpit and have Pilot Bob talk them down? This is ground control to passenger Tom?

Would a airplane-sized parachute deploy and float the plane to ground for a soft landing in a Kansas cornfield (or even a belly flop in the deep blue sea)?

Would the “flotation devices” under the seat be replace with a parachute and we’d all bail out while Pilot Bob – comfy in his white, short-sleeved shirt - hollered for us to abandon ship?

Some of this is being worked out:

A pilotless plane must also be able to act autonomously in an emergency. In the event of an engine failure, for instance, it could use its navigational map to locate a suitable area to put down. But what if this was an open field that happened to be in use for, say, a fair? A forward-looking video camera might show a ground pilot that. But if communications were lost the aircraft would rely on image-recognition software and an infra-red camera to detect the heat given off by people and machines and so decide to try to land elsewhere.

But what if all the systems went into an A-NoKay swoon at the same time?


No, I’m not ready to slip the surly bonds of earth in a plane that doesn’t have a pilot. And probably never will be.

Twas a brave man (or woman), indeed, that 'et the first oyster.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tweeting your way into business school? Not anymore…

Business Week had a recent article on a business school that, for a couple of years, gave “students the option either to write a second essay or to craft a thought-provoking tweet.”

The school was the Tippie School of Management, which I had never heard of, and which, I must admit, I thought was a misspelled joke. (Surely, only a tipsy school of management would ask for a tweet…) But Tippie is, in fact, for real. It’s the B-School at the University of Iowa, and is named after its benefactor, Henry B. Tippie, an Iowan business success who, I’m guessing, has twittered nary a tweet in his life.

I rather like the idea of tweeting your way in to B-School, but the Tippie School was really looking for prospective students who would include a tiny url in their tweet that would lead to something more creative, like a video or a slide show. Which is what the winners of the domestic and international “best in tweet” scholarship contest winners did last year. The international winner’s tweet, which included a link to a photo essay, definitely has his finger on today’s brand-me pulsing pulse.

In an age where packaging is as imp as content, I present myself in a manner that makes me stand out from the crowd.

Rahul Rathi definitely gets that packaging is as imp as content – maybe even more so.

But most Tippie tweeters just stuck to the 140 characters, so the school decided to discontinue the practice.

I think that this is a shame. In fact, I think they should have expanded the program, and given applicants the choice of doing a link-less tweet or a tweet that embedded a self-aggrandizing and/or self-explanatory and/or self-created video.

After all, 140 characters calls for ingenuity, cutting to the chase, the ability to manage under constraints – all good things in business. (By the way, that’s a cool 139 characters, including spaces.)

Consider the possibilities:

There’s the mixed message of do gooder and greed-head:

I want my MBA so that I can become a job creator, plus make lots of money. (74 characters)

The overtly earnest and noble (with implicit greed-headedness):

Understanding business is essential if we’re going to turn our economy around, and I want to be part of that work. (114 characters)

The unabashed suck up:

I’m inspired by the business success and philanthropy of Henry B. Tippie, and hope to follow in his footsteps. (110 characters)

Or the god’s own truth:

As a Kelly Girl and Durgin-Park waitress, getting an MBA is like getting my “union card” (to use a quaint term) for professional employment. (Jackpot: 140 characters)

I could, of course, go on. But the Tippie School’s off tweet.Plus I already have an MBA, and – if at this advanced age – I actually wanted one, I wouldn’t be dragging out to Iowa for it. (Now University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop…that might be worth the haul…)

Tippie may have rethought its twitter contest, but it was not alone in admissions innovation.

Perhaps admissions innovation runs in oddly named business schools, but Duke’s Fuqua (which is pronounced “few-kwa” and not, as you may have imagined, “fuk-yah”)

…now requires applicants to submit a list of 25 “random things,” including life experiences, achievements, or fun facts.

This sounds like fun, until you start to thinking about how to craft a list of 25 things that aren’t random, but sound random, because a lot of random crap that pops into your head when you think ‘fun facts about me’ may not be the sort of material that you want the admissions director to read.  Plus, every time you start thinking about your not so random list, that name “Fuqua” (with the wrong pronunciation) starts running through your mind – like the theme to Gilligan’s Island – and you can’t shake it out, and it’s coloring every possible random life experience, achievement, and fun fact you can come up wtih.

And then you start thinking, Duke’s great and all that, but do I really want a degree that says “Fuqua” on it, which will make everyone think Fugazi and Fukawi and a lot of other random things that start out with FU.

So this one seems innocently interesting and amusing enough at the beginning, but rapidly deteriorates into a sweat that has you wishing for the old “in 300 words, please explain why you are applying to the Fuqua School, what you bring to the school, and what you hope to achieve here.”

Other innovations include Chicago’s Booth (phew!) School allowing applicants to submit an optional Power Point presentation. Now I realize that a lot of business activity entails creating and/or giving and/or suffering through Power Point presos, but should such a reputable B-school be encouraging the practice of PPTX behavior?

The Wharton School – and what’s not to like about a business school named after a great American writer?*– is:

…inviting some of its most promising applicants to participate in a discussion with six other applicants, who will then work as a team to find a solution to a real-world business problem.

Which means that there are a whole lot or promising applicants gaming how much effort they should devote to prepping for this endeavor, rather than throwing more effort into their Harvard and Stanford apps.

Meanwhile, the Tippie school has not given up on innovation. This year, it’s asking applicants to send in a photo, and

…explain,in 350 words or less why the picture is meaningful to them,

Why is it that the first picture that comes to mind is me (in the company of my sister Kath, brother Tom, and my way late and much lamented father, the split second before I stopped believing in Santa Claus?

Perhaps I am just not B-School material…


*Yes, I do know that the Wharton School is not named after Edith Wharton.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Kids don’t try this at home: the 2012 W.A.T.C.H. list.

In keeping with its holiday tradition, Pink Slip is once again merry – if that’s the right word – to report on W.A.T.C.H.’s (World Against Toys Causing Harm, Inc.) “10 Worst Toys” of the year.

Before I run down the list, I will make my annual statement about being a survivor of the Great Postwar Era of Dangerous Toys.

Many of us Baby Boomers grew up the children of deprived parents: poor, semi-orphaned, newly immigrated, Depression kids who were lucky to find a pair of socks, a mold-covered orange, or a sack to drown kittens in under their tree. So, having survived both cheerless Christmases and World War II, they were delighted to ply their kids with all sorts of toys – danger be damned.

Half the boys in the ‘hood had air rifles, and if you don’t think a poodle’s behind caves in when shot point-blank with a fully loaded air rifle, you have another thought coming.

And speaking of poodles, I had a toy poodle whose googly eyes popped out if you gave them the mildest of fingernail flicks. Which would have been okay if those googly eyes hadn’t been connected to something that resembled a cork screw. Instant weapon!

Other toys plugged in and heated up to Bessemer degree so you could bake, iron, or mold liquid plastic goop into some sort of object. One Christmas, some kid in my house got a kit that enabled us to commit pyrography on unsuspecting Latigo leather. (I can still remember what it smelled like.) Ninety percent of boy toys involved some sort of violence, and I’m sure that parents didn’t pause for a second before grabbing a couple of rubber daggers – say, these look like fun! – off the Woolworth’s toy counter for their sons’ stockings. (Oops, almost typed stalking there…) Not that rubber daggers were dangerous – at least the ones from Woolworths’s – way too floppy to take an eye out with.

Yes, the toys of my childhood were plenty dangerous, stopping just short of being dry-cleaner bags with instructions to place over head and inhale.

Then again, the children of my childhood were pretty much capable of turning anything, even the toys that weren’t projectiles and/or weapons, into projectiles and/or weapons.  And I suspect that this hasn’t changed all that much over time.

That said, today’s dangerous toys don’t seem all that dangerous to me – not when compared to an air rifle that could cave a dog’s butt in.

This is perhaps because parental consciousness and toy-maker awareness have been raised by W.A.T.C.H.

Still, the bad toy, bad toy list is definitely worth a run-through.

First up, a magnetic fishing game, the kind of cheapo-deapo stocking stuffer that folks throw in the basket aTWIST ‘n SORTt the last moment. The problem is that, while the packaging says 3 years an up, online, it was marked as appropriate for children 16 months an over. (I checked on Amazon: it now says “not recommended for children under three”). Both the packaging and W.A.T.C.H. agree that this toy represents a choking hazard for tiny tots.  My bottom line is that this is a completely awful piece of flimsy junk that should probably not be sold anywhere. Yet it is sold (in bulk) on Amazon, and it no doubt makes its way into dollar stores, street vendors, church fairs where, sadly, someone without much money and/or someone moving too fast to process that this is a completely awful piece of flimsy junk, might actually buy it.

I was sorry to see something called the Toys ‘R Us Bongo Ball on the list, as it looks like a lot o’ fun. The Bongo Ball is a large inflatable ball (with multiple inflatable chambers, which seems like it would be a pain in the butt to blow up) that kids can climb into and bounce around in. In my day, we only had appliance cartons to roll down the hill in, and they were square, not round, so you didn’t bounce, you splatted, when you came to edge of the hill that ended in a four foot high cement wall, and proceeded to hit the sidewalk.

W.A.T.C.H. points out that the Bongo Ball requires adult supervision  - rather than the mixed message that the toy and its packaging send, bouncing back and forth between that adult supervision being “required” vs. “recommended.” Plus, W.A.T.C.H. warns, there’s a “potential for impact and other serious injuries.” (In my day, appliance cartons did not come with warnings about adult supervision. Of course, in those days, any play that occurred outside of the house did not merit any adult supervision, other than the occasional mother at the kitchen sink or nosey, buttinski neighbor.)

There must be something about online warnings that just don’t make sense, because W.A.T.C.H. has picked up on the rapidfire Quickfire 12 Dart Gun, which comes with an online recommendation for 7 months to 5 years. Well, there are  just no words for anyone who’d put this in the hands of a child 7 months to 5 years of age.  And anyone who has even a scintilla of concern that their 6+ child that the packaging recommends this for might not heed the warnings “do not shoot at people or animals…do not shoot at any one's eyes or face" might want to take a pass. I’m with W.A.T.C.H. on this one. Dart guns are just asking for trouble. You really could shoot someone’s eye out with that.

The Shark 4-Wheel Kneeboard is a steerable, low-riding skateboard that kids kneel on, which is not supposed to be used on “sloped or hilly surfaces”, on streets, or “in proximity to motor vehicles.” There’s also a duh! warning that “kneeboards can and are intended to move, and it is therefore possible to get into dangerous situations and/or lose control and/or fall off.”

So, quasi fun in the basement, quasi fun in the park, but not for the real world. Before I make too much fun of this – one of our great sports as kids was cramming a bunch of kids into old baby buggies and pushing them down a hill – I will observe that there is a lot more traffic on the streets than there was in the day when a family had one car, which dad took to work each day. Kids had the run of the mostly empty streets. Not so these days. So, while this looks like a fun item, it’s all too easy to envision a kid hurtling unseen under the wheels of a car.

The Explore & Learn Helicopter looks innocuous enough, but that 24 inch cord is too long for W.A.T.C.H. Fine if the 12EXPLORE & LEARN HELICOPTER month old is actually pulling it; not so fine if it finds its way into crib or playpen, where that 24 inch cord can get tangled up, and, far worse, a baby could get strangled up. Sounds like this one would only work with attentive caregivers.

You don’t need to un-sell me on the N-FORCE VENDETTA DOUBLE SWORD,  which comes with the ludicrous warning “do not poke or swing at people or animals…use away from breakable objects.” What, pray tell, does the manufacturer imagine that an 8 year old boy is going to poke or swing at? Then again, most 8 year old boys are perfectly capable of turning anything into a weapon. So if toy swords are outlawed, only outlaws will have toy swords. The rest will be armed with sticks.

Again, the Water Balloon Launcher from Water Sports (don’t go there) has an online age recommendation of 8-15 months. (Doesn’t anyone double-check work any more?). The packaging says age 16 and over, which seems almost equally silly, since a water balloon launcher is squarely aimed at the 8 – 12 demographic. And why would anyone need to buy a water balloon launcher, when most 8 – 12 year olds come equipped with a perfectly good one: their throwing arm. Anyway, W.A.T.C.H. doesn’t like this one because of the possibility for facial injury and, I guess when used by an 8 month old, choking. I don’t like it because a manually propelled water balloon strikes me as allowing just the right mix of aggression and force, without compounding the force factor.

The Playful Xylophone is sold at Magic Beans, a decidedly upscale chain where I have shopped, and where BIG BANG ROCKETI would have presumed that everything was carefully vetted. The problem W.A.T.C.H. finds is in that detached drumstick which “could be mouthed and occlude a child’s airway.”

I could actually have seen myself considering this for an upcoming first birthday for a certain someone. Thanks for the warning!

The Avengers Gamma Green Smash Fists pretty much land in the same category as the Vendetta sword. As the W.A.T.C.H. warning has it:

THE AVENGERS GAMMA GREEN SMASH FISTSThese oversized fists, resembling those of a popular Marvel comic book and movie character, are sold to enable three year olds to “be incredible like The Hulk” by “smashing everything that gets in [their] way!” No warnings or cautions are provided.

On the other hand (sorry, fist), unlike with the Vendetta sword, there is no ready substitute for these smash fist. So if you don’t want your 5 year old “smashing everything that gets in [their] way!”, don’t buy them Gamma Green Smash Fists.

What is there to say about the Rangers Super Samurai Shogun Helmet that doesn’t begin and end with “poke anPOWER RANGERS SUPER SAMURAI SHOGUN HELMET eye out”? Better to channel your child’s inner nice kid by getting him (or her) one of those goofy soft hats that look like a bear or a lion or a Rastafarian.

Anyway, the bottom line is that, when it comes to buying toys, you better W.A.T.C.H. out – and you better not cry if you go out and buy any of these toys. You have been WARNED…

And, me, I have been WARNED, too. Three of the kiddies under the age of 6 on my list are getting magazine subscriptions, and the other’s getting a jacket with an appliqued fire engine on it.

Here’s last year’s post on the W.A.T.C.H. list.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Do’s and Don’ts for Black Friday

  • Do loll in bed for a while, reading a library book or maybe even flip through a catalogue or two. (‘Tis, after all, the season to go shopping.)
  • Do – if you were lucky enough to cadge a bit of leftovers from, say, your sister who hosted Thanksgiving dinner – make yourself a terrific turkey sandwich. (Bonus points if you’ve got both cranberry and stuffing to put on it. And bonus on bonus points if you had the foresight to pick up some cider.)
  • Do take a nice, long walk, ideally through an area where you will encounter some frazzled shoppers that you can superciliously look down your nose and/or roll your eyes at.
  • Do dig out the Christmas cards you bought on sale the day after Christmas last year, and address them. (Even though it’s over a month until Christmas, put on Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby and sing along while working those cards.)
  • Do revisit your Christmas list, (smugly) congratulating yourself on how many of the gifts you’ve already checked off.
  • Do resist the temptation to panic because there are still a few items on the list you haven’t gotten yet.
  • Do remind yourself that you don’t have to go into an office everyday and, thus, can take care of those items any old time you want.
  • Do take an afternoon nap. You are, after all, still logy from all that turkey and, let’s face it, wine you downed yesterday.
  •  Don’t get on the scale. Plenty of time for that in a few days, after you’ve polished off all the leftovers and had a day or two living on yogurt and apples.
  • Don’t, while chomping down on that post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich, question the wisdom of eating a sandwich with bread stuffing as one of the main ingredients.
  • Don’t dig out that Christmas sweater you may or may not have gotten rid of last year – plenty of time to figure out if it’s still in your possession.
  • Don’t spend any time on Huffington Post, Politico, or DailyKos. Just be thankful that the elections are over, and that there’s really no need to make yourself crazy worrying about 2014 just yet.
  • Don’t go the Post Office and stand in a long line to buy Christmas stamps. (See above: you work for yourself. You can go to the P.O. any time.)
  • Don’t fret about Red Sox tickets going on sale next Saturday and you won’t be around to hang online to buy any. Keep in mind, the upside of having a truly suck-filled season is that tickets will be way easier to get this year.
  • And whatever you do, don’t go shopping.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Thanksgiving 2012

I may have problems with who or what, exactly, I’m being thankful to, but I have no problem whatsoever figuring out what to be thankful for.

Wonderful family and great friends, as always, top the list.

Health is right up there, too.

I tend to take my own spectacularly good health for granted. The worst thing that’s happened to me in years is left-hand carpal tunnel, which is pretty much taken care of by wearing a hideous, flesh-tone (as in the old Crayola color”flesh”, which was rebranded as “peach” once Crayola realized that everyone didn’t have peachy-pinky flesh) brace to bed.

And then there’s my husband’s health, which has been problematic of late.

Still, I am completely thankful that Cancer One seems under control. Cancer Two – after radiation, chemo, and ghastly invasive surgery – remains at bay, with both our oncologist and surgeon assuring us that so far, Jim is experiencing an outcome that is “as good as it gets”. And possible Cancer Three, while it still needs to be looked at every three months, is, so far, not cancerous.

So I am exceptionally thankful for the doctors, nurses, radiation techs, and everyone else at Mass General Hospital who continue to take such good care of us. (Talk about counting our blessings: The Number One hospital in the country is a five-minute walk, which really came in handy last February when we had to make a 3 a.m. run to the ER.)

I am thankful for my home, even though we could use an additional 200 square feet. For my city, state, and country. (Go, Blue!) For my worldly possessions. For my work. For my blog.

And I’m thankful for St. Francis House, which provides such tremendous services to those who have a lot less to be thankful for than I do.

Here, from the website, is what SFH did in the past year for the poor and homeless of Boston:

  • Served more than 315,350 meals

  • Provided 9,387 showers

  • Distributed 6,985 changes of clothes

  • Provided nearly 12,000 counseling sessions on mental health issues, substance abuse, housing, employment, legal matters, and other issues

  • Partnered with Boston Health Care for the Homeless to provide 9,135 medical appointments

  • Trained 156 people in our First Step Employment Program
  • Graduated the 118th class from the Moving Ahead Program (MAP), our vocational rehabilitation program, whose alumni now number more than 1,300

  • Provided 56 units of permanent housing in our Next Step Housing Program

Thankfully, most of us don’t have to think about homelessness one way or the other. But, metaphorically speaking, objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

We are all only a degree or two of separation from those poor and homeless folks who come through the doors of St. Francis House looking for food, clothing, warmth, companionship, moral support, a doctor’s visit, and a chance to rebuild their lives.

I often tell this story:

A few years ago, I was in the Art Room, talking to a volunteer, and one of the guests overhead us talking about Emmanuel College (my alma mater, where the volunteer was a student). The guest – a fellow I knew, and who is the artist of the wonderful painting that hangs over my bed – mentioned that his sister-and-law and her mother wee both Emmanuel grads.

Oh, why not, I thought.

I asked Pete for their names.

His sister-in-law had been a classmate of mine in both college and high school, and I had also known her mother very well.

Small world, indeed.

If you’re reading this blog, it’s more than likely that, like me, you have much to be thankful for. If you also have a few dollars to spare, I hope that you consider a donation to St. Francis House.

And to those members of my family and to those friends who have so generously supported St. Francis House over the years, many, many thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Porn viewing? Don’t folks have anything better to do at work?

I don’t know how scientifically-based the claim is, but a German sex-therapist recently put it out there that “60 million people view adult films on the world’s largest free porn website on a daily basis”, and that two-thirds of the viewing is done on the job. On the somewhat more scientific side, a July Harris survey found that 3 percent of Americans own up to playing a bit of office porn-site peekaboo. (Source: Huffington Post)

As someone who logged time in the web hosting industry, I am well aware that a whole lot of pornin’s always been going on in the Internet industry.

When I was at Genuity, some of our largest clients were porn “providers”.

This presented us with a couple of problems.

First, at a time when bandwidth was not quite as plentiful as it is now, the porn peddlers consumed an inordinate amount of it, depriving legitimate-biz customers like Tiffany and of their share.

Second, it didn’t look too good to have porn companies way up there on your client list, especially if you were planning a dazzling IPO.

So we fired our porn customers, which, in one notorious instance, involved a fist-fight between our data center techs and the pornsters we were evicting.

You may not have wanted them on your client list, but it used to be said that porn was what really made the Internet.

But who would have thought that so much of that demand would be coming from use, no in the privacy of the home, but in the public of the workplace?

Anyway, the thought of folks consuming porn at work raises a few pretty obvious questions, especially given that most office workers are in cubicles or open areas.

Not that I’m exactly a porn expert, but the first question is how do you not get caught?

I had two inadvertent brushes with porn viewing on the job, and was in a panic when “it” began appearing on my screen.

In one case, I was at work on a Saturday and decided to take a break by checking out whether the White House had made any comment on the then-brewing Monica Lewinsky scandal. When I typed in, what to my wondering eyes did appear but all sorts of “adult content.”

Although I was the only one in the office at the time, I couldn’t get to that backspace key fast enough.

My first thought was that the White House site had been hacked.

Then I realized that my mistake had been a .com vs. .gov one.

Fast forward a few years, and I was at Genuity where, in the wake of our dazzling IPO, we were on the eve of implosion.

Along with most of my colleagues, I was a regular visitor to a site called f’d company, which dealt in gossip about, well, f’d companies. Genuity was a frequent guest, and it was always interesting to see what was being said about us.

I wasn’t focusing that closely on what I was doing, and instead of typing in f’d company, I typed in getf’d.

Wow, did I ever. (Well, not literally.)

Bandwidth had greatly improved since I had had my encounter with, when I was met with nothing more than a scabrous home page.

With getf’d, the images kept popping up, every which way but loose. For a few seconds, I tried to x out those they-can’t-possibly-be-real images, Whack-a-mole style, only to realize there was no way out. Other than a) turning off the screen; b) unplugging the PC.

This occurred around lunch time, and my office was in a well-trafficked area, my desk along a wall that made the screen visible to anyone walking by from that direction. Fortunately, no one was.

So, in my two innocent little porn forays, I was only “on” for a few seconds, and had no witnesses. But if you’re purposefully visiting x-rated sites, how do you not get caught?

Well, in case you’re really wondering, Business Insider provides a handy-dandy set of tips, including getting a screen protector, developing speed with the toggle key, or deploying a foot activated device called a “boss button” that instantly hides what you’re doing by bringing up a work-ish looking screen.

Then there’s: is a service that lets you hide a webpage behind an Excel document that looks work-related. As you move your mouse over the document, a transparent window follows you, letting you see what's underneath.

Any of these tricks could, of course, also be used to mask less sordid activities, like shopping or reading Gawker. But those excursions can easily be explained away, especially if you’re doing them while sitting there with your cup of yogurt and your pear. So the most likely use is to disguise furtive trips down porn alley.

Which brings me to my second question about porn on the job.

Is there not the fact that, when someone is viewing porn, one thing leads inexorably to another? And is that one thing not generally taken care of in the privacy of one’s home, or (in the old days) in the demi-privacy of a seedy movie theater or peep show where, presumably, your manager and co-workers wouldn’t be around to observe you in the act (or, if they were, would be mutually caught out)?

Talk about a major ewwwwwww factor.

And I used to think the guy who borrowed the office WSJ when he made his midmorning visit to the loo was gross.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Must-have job skills? Would that it were this simple.

I’m a sucker for articles on subjects like “must-have job skills.” Even though I’m not exactly looking for a job, and even when the article is a you-get-what-you-pay-for quickie from the freebie section of the Wall Street Journal.

So I was delighted to read that “experts say” that the following four skills are critical for those seeking jobs, or grubbing for promotion, or just hoping to hang on for a while longer.

Clear communications: Since it’s my stock in trade, I am always delighted to see that the ability to communicate clearly is still in vogue. Of course, those vaunted “communications skills” likely have been in demand to some extent since Ogg and Glugg decided to go into business selling cave paintings, fire, or wild boar meat. Still, nice to see that they continue to make the must-have list, even though they’re apparently in short supply, in part because so many of the young folks are capable of little written word communication that goes much beyond 140 acronym- and misspelling-riddled characters.

Poke fun as I do about the inability to write more than a tweet, I have found that us old school professional communicators need to be able to get beyond our love affair with the long form.

I’m a reader; I’m a writer.So sometimes I get a bit miffed that, when it comes to business communications, there is way, way, way TMI out there, and that – valuable as the long form is – you’d better be able to get your story down to short form.

Thus I find myself increasingly adding blog post, tweet, web-site blurb and other small bite communications to proposals for white papers, articles, and other longish pieces.

And when I do positioning work for my clients, helping them get their story straight, I always tell them that we’re going to start with a long version to make sure we get it all in. And then we’re going to boil it down, and boil it down, and boil it down, hacking it in half with each boil-down, until we get down to 10 words.

Sure, I’m always hopeful that someone, somewhere will want to read the whole thing, but you’ve got to realize that today, with all the info floating around, most folks are going to want to go with the Readers’ Digest condensed version. Sigh as I might, this is how it goes these days.

Long or short, verbal or written, nice to know I have one employable skill.

Flexibility. Maybe even two.

The ability to quickly respond to an employer's changing needs will be important next year as organizations try to respond nimbly to customers.

As a freelancers, you pretty much need to have near-infinite flexibility. Thus I am so adept at ratcheting back and forth between writing llloooonnnnngggg, tech-ish white papers and winging off tweets.  And adept enough to switch-gears, shifting priorities on the fly, standing down, revving up. That’s just how it goes.

I actually think that having a career in technology, if nothing else, builds your flexibility muscle. Better not get too used to that mainframe, that client server, that command line, that GUI, that PC, that laptop, that smartphone, that tablet… Because there will be something taking its place tomorrow. Of course, if you last long enough, things do seem to circle back on themselves. Isn’t cloud computing kinda-sorta like time-sharing? Or is it just me?

Productivity improvement. Just how “productivity improvement” is a job skill, I’m not quite sure.

In 2013, workers should find new ways to increase productivity, experts say. Executives are looking for a 20% improvement in employee performance next year from current levels, according to a recent survey by the Corporate Executive Board, an Arlington, Va., business research and advisory firm.

Twenty-percent improvement in employee performance next year? Whatever that means. Unless it’s a promise and a threat: we’re going to trim the workforce, so you – you lazy-arse slacker – better be prepared to work harder, faster, smarter, more.

Sounds to me that those old white men are really cranky about the election.

Then there is my personal favorite must-have job skill:

Personal branding. Well, personal branding is sure no country for old introverts. The very thought of having to expend all sorts of energy – energy that would be better spent, well, reading and writing -  trying to “build brand me” and personally aggrandize yourself puts my gag reflex in overdrive.

Somewhat disappointingly, the article wasn’t so much about building “brand me” as it was about avoiding professional death by social media. Which is something I’ve been advocating for years.

I do believe there should be a statute of limitations on stupid things said, done, exposed on Facebook or Twitter by anyone under the age of 21. Those juvenile records should mercifully be sealed. I also believe that HR departments and corporate spies should have better things to do than nose around the personal, outside of work, lives of employees – unless those employees are giving away company secrets and/or trashing identifiable colleagues.

Yet who wants to keep employing someone sending racist tweets?

Me, I’d rebrand this skill from personal brand to “being smart enough not to do really stupid things using social media.”

And given the scandal du jour around General Petraeus and his biographing gal-pal, we might want to add the old a ditto for e-mail.

As the great Boston-Irish pol Martin Lomasney famously said, never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink. Of course, that was before the presence of the ubiquitous digital camera…

Anyway, I can think of a lot of other critical jobs skills that should be on this list: the ability to quickly filter through lots of information and figure out what’s true and useful, vs. what’s false or just plain god-awful; at least a rudimentary understanding of science and technology and how they work; numeracy: the ability to create a ballpark estimate, figure out a budget, and understand what a three percent raise means for you; get-along-ability; get things-done-ability…

Hey, maybe I’m an expert.

Maybe I should be writing freebie articles for the WSJ?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bed as office? What ever happened to counting sheep.

Having idled away many the childhood hour working out in my head how I could live in an apartment the size of our bathroom - which was pretty darned small (maybe 6’ x 6’, if that) - I am no stranger to the concept of the multi-purpose room.

Yet I am still a bit taken aback by the news that so many folks are working from bed that all sorts of new items are coming on the market to support them.

Half of 1,000 workers polled this year by Good Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., mobile-security software company, said they read or respond to work emails from bed. A study of 329 British workers found nearly 1 in 5 employees spends two to 10 hours a week working from bed, according to the 2009 poll by Credant Technologies, a London-based data-security company…One 37-year-old who responded to a 2012 survey on the topic by Infosecurity Europe, a London industry group, said "when you work with people all around the world, it is difficult to avoid" working from bed. (Source: WSJ Online.)

Well, I had read that most of Gen Y/Gen I/Millennials sleep with their smartphones, rather than with each other. And if you’re curling up in bed with a good iPad, it’s not that much of a big deal to start thumbing through some e-mails.


Isn’t be for getting a good night’s sleep in. For napping. For canoodling. (For folks in their prime, the order should probably be reversed.)

Bed is for reading in. For reviewing the encounters of the day and previewing the events of tomorrow. Bed is for plopping clothing on when you do your semi-annual switcheroo from warm weather to cold. Bed is for sitting on when you kick off or put on your shoes. For throwing coats on when you have company.

Unless you’re a working girl (or guy), I don’t think that bed should be for working.

But that’s just me, apparently.  E.S. Kluft is promoting a 7’ x 7’ bed “as a place where couples can work.” What fun!

And you can buy a bed from Reverie with built-in outlets, so you can plug and play work. Which seems a bit at odds with their mission:

We have watched people work harder and harder to maintain the same standard of living, sacrificing sleep – and therefore their health – in the process…We challenged ourselves to create a true Sleep System that would help people sleep better and thus improve the quality of their lives.

But then Reverie did some digging of its own:

Market research by Reverie, a Walpole, Mass., maker of adjustable beds, suggests as many as 80% of young New York City professionals work regularly from bed, says chief executive Martin Rawls-Meehan. (Source: back to WSJ Online.)

I guess being able to answer e-mails in the middle of the night could help you sleep better and boost quality of life. But if you wake up in the middle of the night, doesn’t one generally have to go pee? And while you’re up to go pee, why not just poke your head into your home office, or the nook in your kitchen, or your den or wherever you keep your computing devices and check from there. (Easy for me to say, as my tiny home office is wedged between bedroom and bathroom.

But this does leads me to guess that the next step for bed-makers may be incorporating some sort of relieve-yourself subsystem. Forget the “en suite” bathroom that no self-respecting house-hunter can live without.  Why not “en bed”? Maybe I’m just channeling my inner-astronaut, but this is something to think about.


Meanwhile, Ikea has a nifty laptop holder that helps with air circulation. I have one of these that I use on my lap when I’m sitting in a chair, but it came from Staples and is pretty boring. But the point is that laptops run hot, and you don’t want to burn your lap, or scorch your bedding, especially if you have cheesy poly sheets, and not 800 thread count Egyptian cotton. The notion that what’s smokin’ hot in your bed might well be your laptop is pretty sad. And will we have to start worrying about fire hazards here? Will computing in bed replace smoking in bed as an existential threat?

The work from bed trend is apparently bi-directional. Steelcase, which, I’m quite sure,  most of us associate with ugly, utilitarian cubicle furnishings, is offering “feet-up work imagefurniture.” Not wild about the yellow, but now you’re talking – especially for those of us capable of snoozing while our seats are in a fully upright position. (I am definitely the person you want to be sitting behind on an airplane. I pretty much decline to recline – mostly because I’m just as comfortable without pushing back.)

For every yin there is, of course, a yang.

Productivity experts are arguing that if you’re a nocturnal e-mail checker, you’ll slack off during the day, fulfilling the need to work from bed. Lumbar experts are bemoaning the havoc that bed work can wreak on your back. And spouses everywhere are kicking their tech-obsessed partners, if not to the curb, then to the living room couch.

Folks would be well to heed Daniel Sieberg, a recovering device addict whose wife had nicknamed  him “Glowworm” because his face “was constantly illuminated by some sort of screen in bed." His bedroom is now off-limits to devices.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Checking your list of stocking stuffers? How about a chicken coop?

The Christmas decorations and candy canes have been out in CVS for a while – at least since they moved the Halloween decorations and candy corn to the half-priced section.

Although I haven’t yet “thrown a nickel in the drum”, the Salvation Army has its bell ringers out and about.

And yesterday, I got the latest Vermont Country Store catalog. I have long since instructed my sisters to kidnap me and initiate a full wardrobe makeover if ever I order any article of clothing  - other than knee socks - from VCS, with the added stipulation that if the article of clothing is a mu-mu they should forget the makeover and just go ahead and shoot me. Yet there I was, avidly thumbing through the new catalog with Santa on the cover  - even reading the fine print on the mu-mu pages – trying to figure out what minimal item I have to order so that I can stay in the good, catalog-mailing graces of what has to be one of the most spectacularly interesting catalogs ever.

So it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even without any sign as yet of the heinous put-a-big-red-bow-on-a-Lexus ads celebrating the perfect lifestyles of grandees. (Harrumph.)

Yes, Christmas is in the air, and Wayfair, a local online retailer specializing in home goods  - alas, no mu-mus – has just announced its expected best sellers for the holiday season.

Forget everything you think you know about home for the holiday, errrrr, holiday for the home.

Wayfair is predicting that chicken coops will be flying of its shelves.

…with the locavore trend in full cry, is laying in a full line of chicken coops, with prices ranging from just over $100 to more than $1,500.

As the company’s press release notes: “The trend of raising chickens in the backyard has been sweeping the country for a couple of years now and seems to be propelled by Americans’ interest in more self-reliance as well as an interest in locally-raised food. carries more than 30 different types of chicken coops.” (Source:

Well I’ll be a foghorn leghorn.

I’m as loca- as the next vore, so I like the idea of eating what’s near at hand.

Thus I regularly go to the Wednesday farmer’s market at Boston’s City Hall. (Note to self: it’s moving to Congress Street.) I irregularly go to the Friday farmers market in Harvard Square. And I nearly wept for joy when I bit into a tomato that my sister Kath grew on The Cape. (Note to self: ask Kath if she’s planning on expanding from flora-culture to fauna-culture.  I can totally imagine sitting on the porch, wine in hand, watching my brother-in-law chase after a chicken running around with its head cut off.)

For my part, it is a tad difficult to be a genuine, self-sufficient back yard garden variety locavore when when one lives in the concrete jungle (more or less).

Oh, how I envy the residents of The Fens with their marvelous Victory Gardens. Perhaps the city could set aside some section of the Esplanade for urban farming – some section out of trampling range by the 500K folks who show up each 4th of July for The 1812 Overture and John Philip Sousa. Maybe the city couldd return part of Boston Common to its original purpose of cow grazing. (I could even churn my own butter!)

Still, practicing locavore of not, I was surprised to read that chicken coops would be under so many trees this year. It I were the suspicious sort, I might even suspect that a blue-state headquartered company announcing they’re selling a lot of chicken coops might be able to provoke a bit more interest in its press release than they would if, say, the big sellers included Rabbit wine openers and cashmere throws. Just sayin’. Or would be saying if I were the suspicious sort and/or had never written a press release.

Anyway, I way-fared my way over to to see what else was part of their forecast for this year’s “Most Popular Holiday Gifts for Kids and Family.”

Thanks to the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, including local (locavore?) Aly Raisman, trampolines have bounced to the top of Santa’s list. So much for ‘kids don’t try this at home.’ Air hockey tables are also up there, and I have to admit that, if I had a game room, you can forget pool or foosball. I’m an air hockey gal all the way. Kayaks are the third ‘fun for the whole family’ item on the list.

All three of these gifts are great in that they’re timeless, they’re not the sorts of thing that get used once and pushed under the bed, and they’re neither gimmicky nor tied into some grotesque hook the kids early marketing campaign.

Still, I have to admit that kayaks scare the crap out of me. I don’t like putting my head underwater to begin with, let alone when I’m upside down and snuggly caught in my seat with a plastic kayak on top of me. I am quite certain that, once capsized, I would forget everything I’d been told about rolling with the kayak punches and would panic and drown.

Less dangerously, children's recliners and gaming chairs are also on Wayfair’s list of top sellers. Kids love furniture that’s sized right and, to this day, I wouldn’t say no if someone gave e one of those brightly painted little Heidi chairs with the straw seats. But the idea of a kid’s needing a reclining chair… I know that life is very stressful for kids these days, and many are way over scheduled. Still, the thought of an eight year old kicking back on his pint-sized Barcalounger (with cup holder) makes me cringe. Shouldn’t kids be sitting on the floor playing blocks while they’re watching TV, rather than chillaxin’ in a reclined, semi-fugue state with a half-liter of Dew by their side. (No comment on gaming chairs, as, beyond the obvious, I really don’t know what they are and at the mo’ my Internet connection is down.)

And then there are the chicken coops.

I’m guessing that most kids would rather see a trampoline, air hockey game, kayak, or recliner stuffing their stocking. Especially given what a chicken coop might bode for kids, chore-wise: chicken feeding, coop cleaning, egg collecting, smeared-dung-on-egg cleaning, chicken plucking. Not to mention the specter of dad and mom, wringing a neck or two.

I take back everything I said about recliner chairs for kids. If the family’s going to raise its own chickens, the least they can do for them is get them a nice, comfy chair to regroup in.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Power, pipe, ping and the bucket brigade

I spent a number of years in the web hosting biz (hosting providers are where organizations place their servers when they don’t want to run their own data centers). My tensure in hosting spanned the grand and glorious years of the Internet boom, through the crash and the burn, and onto the boring this-is-just-another-scratch-it-out-business-being-commoditized era.

Even in the grand and glorious years, colocation services were the low man on the “value” totem poll.

For those who did not spend a number of years in web hosting, in colocation the service provider rents space, electricity, and connection to the Internet. The customers do the rest: lug their own servers in, and take responsibility for the set up and ongoing monitoring and care and feeding of servers, security, application, data...

Simply put, colocation was pretty much power, pipe, and ping, with the customer doing the pinging (sending signals to their servers to make sure they’re alive and kicking – or at least in some sort of communication via the ‘net.)

Colocation was such a commodity play, we spent most of our time heaping scorn on it, focusing instead on the pricier, more “value added” managed hosting, in which the hosting provider took care of a lot more for the customers.

To get customers to pay through the nose for managed services, we went through all sorts of contortions to figure out how to convince them to pony up for our “value add”.  This was plenty tough, given that our services were inexorably being commoditized as operations became more automated, the ranks of techies with the right skill set and experience expanded,  and high bandwidth grew more available.

At Genuity, part of our “value proposition” was “our guys are smarter”, but whether this really translated into major business value for our customers was not all that clear.

In retrospect, we might have been better off focusing on providing the most cost efficient colocation data centers, making a little money from a lot of customers, rather than struggling to keep extracting a lot of money from the few.

Especially when the competition was so intense, prices were being driven down, and the few were wising up.

If I learned nothing else in my long career in technology, it’s that you will always find a few folks to purchase goods and services that are priced at a premium, even if the value isn’t actually there. Inevitably, the market, in its less than infinite wisdom, but wisdom nonetheless, will figure it out.

It’s just not sustainable to have a business where you have to charge more because of your cost structure if that cost structure means pricing that exceeds the worth you’re offering your customers. In the case of Genuity, part of our cost structure was building data centers that were not just functional, but bee-yoo-ti-ful. I remember getting into one heated discussion in which I argued with the data center decorators that I did not want my team burdened with having to figure out how to justify data centers with hand-hammered copper ceilings in the customer briefing rooms. It was hard enough trying to position our brainy techies.

Anyway, as a hosting veteran, I was interested in a Business Week article I read on how companies were recovering from the disaster that was Hurricane Sandy.

Naturally, I was drawn to part about a hosting provider that has a colocation data center in the NYC flood zone:

Peer1 Hosting, a Net outfit based in Lower Manhattan, thought it was in the clear—it had generators on the 17th floor ready to keep the data servers humming. But when the fuel pump in the basement was flooded, Peer1 was unable to get the necessary diesel fuel upstairs. So it improvised, too. “We had a team of 30 people getting buckets of diesel fuel going up 17 floors to keep the generator working and our customers online,” says Rajan Sodhi, Peer1’s vice president of marketing. Employees hoofed it up darkened stairwells for more than 48 hours, replenishing the tanks.

Bucket brigades lugging diesel up 17 flights of stairs! Now that’s dedication.

Peer1 brags about providing redundant power:

Unlike some providers, we don't rely solely on the local power grid to guarantee around-the-clock power. Our onsite diesel-powered generators and uninterruptible power systems (UPS) deliver redundant power if a critical incident occurs, so that all operations are uninterrupted and your dedicated servers remain online.


I don’t know who these “some providers” are, other than that they are the lamest of the lame data centers, the ones that no business in its right mind would host in. Certainly, having personally toured them, I can attest to the presence of backup, diesel-powered backup generators and UPS at any hosting provider I worked with. Whether you’re just providing power, pipe, and ping, or the whole meghilla of services, you need to be prepared for the eventuality that power will go down.

But Hurricane Sandy is once again reminding us that things can gang agley, and that an erratically rising tide can founder them. Thus, while it was a good idea to have those back up generators on higher ground, it doesn’t help if the pump don’t work. Even if the problem – with a nod to Bob Dylan and his Subterranean Homesick Blues - ain’t that the vandals took the handles.

So the folks at Peer 1 in Lower Manhattan replaced pump power with manpower. Which meant lugging fuel up 17 flights of stairs.

Obviously, the fuel consumption depends on the size of the generator, etc., but at about 7 pounds a gallon, the Peer1 brigade was doing plenty of heavy lifting.

Yes, I know they weren’t the only ones. Hospital employees were doing the same. Those still out of power are trudging up and down long flights to make sure they have enough water to gravity flush their toilets and brush their teeth.

Still, this story reminds me of what I always enjoyed about the operations guys: they always seemed to be able to figure out how to make things work, even when all they had to work with was spit and baling wire.

When I looked at the Peer1 website, they hadn’t gotten around to touting this story.

Maybe they don’t want to. Maybe they think it points out that they were flawed in their planning, that they should have had the backup generator on a lower floor. Or had a diesel tank higher up. Or whatever they coulda/shoulda done to anticipate the pump problem.

But I love this story.

I hope there was a nice, fat bonus for the 30 Peer1-ers who “hoofed it up darkened stairwells for more than 48 hours, replenishing the tanks.”

At Genuity, we used to sell on the brains of our techies. But sometimes it’s the brawn that matters.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

No psychopaths need apply

I was intrigued to see a recent blog post in Huffington Post headlined Which Professions Have The Most Psychopaths?

Now who among us could resist that?

The post, in turn, was drawing on a new book by Kevin Dutton entitled  The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success.

Yet another simply irresistible title (which I will definitely be putting on my library request list).

In case you’re wondering just what defines psychopathy, we are provided with the Wikipedia definition:

Psychopathy is a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions,(in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, cold-heartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial charm, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.

Which, of course, sounds like plenty of folks you run across in life, even if you don’t spend a lot of time chilling with them.

And they’re not all Charles Manson’s or Dexter’s, either. In fact, many of them are, in fact, people we deal with on a day to day basis. They’re in control, and productively channeling their psychopathic attributes into their work.

So where do they work? Asthe Dutton book informs, psychopaths tend to be found more so in certain professions and less so in others.


Where to begin with the list?

Why with CEO, of course.

I’ve known/worked directly for a number of CEO’s or individuals who went on to become CEO’s, and in my experience, they’re a mixed bag, psychopathy-wise.

A couple were very nice – decent, caring, good-humored, self-reflective. A couple were, well, not so very nice. In fact, before we knew that there were so many inner psychopaths among us, we would have just called them a-holes. Other than parasitic lifestyle – unless you count mooching off investors – and criminality – unless you count mooching off investors – there are a couple I have in mind who definitely meet the psychopath definition dead-on, although one of them may just have been nuts. (Is that a term that’s in use anymore?)

Lawyers? Well, the ones I know up close and personal don’t strike me as especially psychopathic. But then I think of all those ambulance chasers, and the creeps with the $2,000 suits and bespoke shirts who defend Bad Guys…

Media (TV/Radio)? I suppose I shouldn’t be diagnosing Rush Limbaugh based on the snippets I’ve seen of him on occasion, but if the psychopathic shoe fits. As they say, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and the same holds for psychopaths.

But I refuse to believe that Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow are psychopaths. No way!

As for salespersons, I’ve known plenty who were absolutely ghastly: slick, aggressive, chronic liars – slime personified. In fact, before we knew that there were so many inner psychopaths among us, we would have just called them a-holes. I was always amazed that some of these guys ever managed to sell anything. Didn’t their prospects have any slime-dar? Or were these salespeople just such arch manipulators and connivers that they could dupe folks into thinking that they were on their side? Or was it a matter of it not really mattering whether your salesperson was a P.O.S., as long as you were getting your money’s worth out of the product they were selling you? Which in some – but not all – cases, the customers actually were.

Or maybe the prime salesperson psychopathy was visited on us schnooks from home office who had to put up all that “cold-heartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity… manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity…” while the customers just had to deal with the “superficial charm?”

On the other hand, as with “my” CEO’s, “my” salespeople tend to be really nice people who actually wanted to do right by their customers. (And yes, V, I’m talkin’ you here. Kev, too.)

As for the rest of the list, I actually prefer that my surgeon has high stress tolerance. I want him/her to be cock-of-the-walk arrogant and have reduced fear. But the surgeon I’m most familiar with – and with whom my husband has a follow up visit this very morning – is someone I really like. He’s calm, funny, and straightforward.  Hey, he saved my husband’s life. Do I care if he’s egocentric or whether he’s given to “shallow emotions” in his personal life? Do I need to know one way or another?

And chef?

Hey, I’ve watched Gordon Ramsay in action on Kitchen Nightmares. Say no more.

As for the low-psychopath professions in the right hand list, no surprise that it’s dominated by the caring-creative types.

But I do have to say that anyone who doesn’t think a teacher can be a psychopath didn’t log much time in my grammar school.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

It is good to be Brad Pitt. I guess.

I like Brad Pitt. Well enough.

Kinda cute in Thelma and Louise. Kinda liked in the one where he played the IRA guy to Harrison Ford’s cop. Ummmmm. Lots of movies I didn’t see. Very much liked Moneyball.

But to me, a very, very, very tiny bit of Angelina Jolie goes a very, very, very long way.

If I had to be stranded on a desert Ireland with Saint Angelina of Jolie or Jennifer Aniston, I’d have to go with Jen. Seems a lot, well, more approachable. Friendlier, even.

But with or without Angelina, with or without Jen, Brad Pitt is a force all on his lonesome. Or in his case, all on his awesome.

As in the awesome $7M he was paid for becoming the spokes- model for Chanel No 5.

Every journey ends, but ads go on…

If you somehow manage to resist clicking through and seeing and hearing for yourself, here’s the monologue:

It’s not a journey. Every journey ends, but we go on. The world turns. And we turn with it. Plans disappear. Dreams take over. But wherever I go, there you are. My luck. My fate. My fortune. Chanel No. 5. Inevitable.

Forget the parodies that showed up all over the place.

Is it me, or is this parody enough?

How to parse this gibberish.

Every journey ends but we go on.

Well, not really, Brad. Every “we” ends, too, even for those who’ll attain some level of immortality – at least short term immortality – on the celluloid screen.

And is “the world turns” a nod to fans of As the World Turns? Which is not even on the air anymore. Is that the demographic they’re after? Retirees with walkers and stay at home moms folding laundry? And I would have thought that the Chanel No. 5 demo skewed more toward ladies who lunch wearing Chanel suits – think Nancy Reagan – rather than those for whom the scruff meister that is Brad Pitt appeals to. (And is this rat-ass look one that Chanel wants to be associated with? Plus, I hate to say it, but I’ve read in a couple of places that it’s not just unkempt hair and slouch clothing. Brad Pitt is supposedly not into personal hygiene – as in soap, water, and deodorant. Is that what you want associated with your fragrance brand? What’s the message here: splash enough of this on and you’ll never have to shower again?)

But back to that monologue. There’s the sorry fact that, for most of us, it’s the dreams that disappear, and the plans, to-do lists, and day to day life junk that takes over.

The monologue reminds me of the intro to The Worst Brochure Copy I Ever Read, which started out:

There’s no such thing as a bad idea. All ideas are to be extolled…

As someone who was asked to review the copy, I was delighted to note in the margin that there were plenty of ads that were bad and/or otherwise not to be extolled. And I listed a few of them in the margin.

Personally, I think the Brad Pitt ad falls into that bad, non-extollable idea category.

But what do I know about parfum.

Anyway, if you’re Brad Pitt you get to make a lot of money, slouching around in your grubbies, babbling some nonsense that a high-priced copywriter pulled out of his or her wherever.

And if you’re Brad Pitt, there’s even more you get to do.

LikeA bed that features nickel feet, trusses, and side tables with silk-under-glass tops. have a furniture designer take your doodles and turn them into high end pieces. Like this bed that looks like it would topple over on you if you sat at the front end to put your sneaks on. Not to mention leaving you no place to store your boxes full of sweaters and rolls of wrapping paper.

And this chair looks sort of comfy, in a A curvaceous armchair upholstered in white patent leatherStay Puff Marshmallow Man kind of way. Until you find that it’s covered with patent leather. Because nothing says curl up with a good book, or your iPad even, like patent leather.

And don’t try playing footsie under this table:

A 5m-long dining table is supported by a single twisting line of timber

I guess if you’re Brad Pitt, dreams do take over.

And wherever we go, there he is.

Source on Brad Pitt, furniture designer: Guardian UK.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Veterans’ Day 2012

When I was a kid, Veterans’ Day was a holiday. Which meant no school, no mail, and no work.

It was certainly fitting that it meant no work. This was the 1950’s and 1960’s, when most of the workforce was made up of men, and most of those men had been in the service.

Unless they grew up in some gated pacifist community, it is impossible to imagine anyone who was not 0-1 degree of separation from folks who had been in the military.

My father had spent 4 years in the Navy in WW II, but that was no different than pretty much everyone else’s father.

Even my feckless Uncle Charlie, who managed to weasel out of pretty much any responsibility over the course of his life, spent a bit of time in the Army during the waning days of The War. It wasn’t quite Hitler enlisting 12 year old boys and 72 year old accountants to defend Berlin, but the Army must have been fairly hard up if they felt the need to dragoon my uncle, well into his thirties by the time his uncle (Sam, that is) caught up with him.

The stories were told that by the time they got Charlie, Ft. Devens was out of uniforms and guns. Thus, Charlie and his fellow draftees drilled wearing their civilian clothing and carrying fake rifles. (Actually, Charlie was probably drilling wearing my father’s civilian clothing. When my father returned from his war, he went to look for his suits, only to be told by Charlie that moths had gotten to them. My father’s assumption was that his brother had worn them out or pawned them.)

In any case, Charlie didn’t last very long before he received a medical discharge for hearing loss.

Still, Charlie was a veteran and is, thus, entitled to his flag on the other side of the combo-grave he shares with my father,  mother and grandmother.

Without further digression on Charlie, during my childhood, pretty much every able bodied male was in the service.

I remember an “incident” when some boys were jumping in on (and spoiling) the jump roping of me and my friends. I threatened that I was going to tell on them to my grown up cousin Charlie – nephew, not son, of the famous Uncle Charlie – who was then in the Army. And that Charlie would come by and beat them up and/or shoot [at] them. So there!

Even in peace time, being in the service was expected, maybe even a little exciting. After all, folks in the service got to go to exotic places, even if it were only Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Jack around the corner was stationed in Germany and came back home with a German bride. (Boy, was Hildy ever happy to find my mother, the only German in our Irischer neighborhood.)

One of the son’s of my father’s friend Chuck was in the Air Force in Europe, and we were thrilled to see his slide show of the Brussels World Fair. (Did I mention that it was a simpler time…)

A classmate’s older brother was stationed in Japan and sent back a geisha doll. Ooh, aah…

It was routine to see young men in uniform pretty much everywhere: downtown, at a ball game, on the train.

Certainly, they weren’t as prevalent as they would have been a decade or two earlier, but seeing soldiers and sailors out and about was pretty much part of every day life.

Of course, by the time the boys in uniform were my age, the Viet Nam War was at its height, and only the unfortunate sons got stuck going.

In may official capacity as a Student Council officer, I went to the funeral of a schoolmate’s brother who’d been killed n Nam.

The morbid story circulated that his mother had insisted on seeing him, and that his face had been unrecognizable: swollen and black.

I remember little about the funeral, other than that it was colossally sad.

While most of the “boys” I grew up with did not end up going over, all of their lives were impacted by Viet Nam one way or another, and I did know a lot of folks who served in the military (including a good friend from high school who became a Navy nurse).

Now I do not know one person who is on active duty, and very few who have served in the last twenty or so years.

But I do have few veterans to wish Happy Veterans’ Day to. So I wish them a day of rest, and a free breakfast at Denny’s and whatever else is on offer.

By the time I began working, Veterans’ Day as a widely observed holiday (in business) had gone the way of the dodo bird, squeezed out by popular demand to have off the day after Thanksgiving, so that we could do our latter-day patriotic duty and shop. Or loll around eating turkey sandwiches with stuffing and cranberry sauce. (Yum, actually.)

But to hell with the rest of us. Maybe veterans should get the day off.

Happy Veterans’ Day: this one’s for you.

Last year’s Veterans’ Day post.

Friday, November 09, 2012

I’ll miss the calls and e-mails. Hope they all stay in touch…

I know, I know.

If you look behind the label and see the real e-mail address, it was actually “ but I still liked getting those e-mails from Beyoncé.

I mean, they seemed so personal. Or at least quasi-personal.

Like the one that began:

Maureen --

I usually don't email you -- but I have an amazing invitation I have to share.

Jay and I will be meeting up with President Obama for an evening in NYC sometime soon.

And closed with:

Can't wait to meet you!

Now, some might maintain that B was just looking for me to pony up a few bucks more, but I have to say that I feel that we bonded a bit, even if we didn’t get to meet. There was, after all, that “Love, B” that indisputably gives me a pretty strong sense that there may be a real relationship between me and B in the making.

“Love, B”…

Back at you, girlfriend. How’s Blue Ivy doing? Remind me that I owe you a baby card and a copy of Make Way for Ducklings.

I’d like to stay in touch with Alec Baldwin, too. And Ashley Judd.

Plus I have to say I was thrilled to get a phone call from Matt Damon.

I was truly sorry to miss his call. And, fool that I am, I deleted the message.

Some folks may believe that Matt’s call – and the one from Bill Clinton – were robo-calls. But I know better.

Silly boys, the two of them. Didn’t they realize that I was going to vote for Elizabeth Warren even if those guys hadn’t reached out to me. Which leads me to believe the calls were actually personal, and that both of them just wanted to yack a bit. (Next time, either leave a call back number or try me on my cell.)

And all those e-mails from senators – John Kerry, Claire McAskill, Patty Murray. Kristen Gillibrand.

She’s not a regular, but I appreciated that occasional notes from Jill Biden.

And I really loved the ones from Joe Biden – who seems just like the kind of regular Joe I grew up with in Main South Worcester. So what if mostly he was looking for money. He asked so nice. Though I don’t quite get what’s going on with the request for $113. It seems like such a quirky amount… Anyway, I know you’re busy, but if you could let me know what’s up with that $113 amount.

Personally, the phone call from Bill Clinton would have been quite enough. With those e-mails, he doubled down on contacts. Nice!

I have to say that Michelle Obama is someone that I’d just love to give a big hug to. So it was always good to hear from her. Not to mention hearing so regularly from her husband, including the personal note he sent out last night at 1:13 a.m. just before he was going to go on and make his speech (which was, by the way, well worth staying up for). 

1:13 a.m.? $113?

Is 113 some kind of magic number, like 666?

Anyway, I know that all of your are busy running the country – well, maybe not Beyoncé and Alex Baldwin – but I will say, every time I saw your name in my inbox, I got a smile on my face.

I may not have been all that diligent at getting back to you, or when it came to clicking through and donating a few bucks each and every time that one of you asked for it.

But I do have three words for you all.