Friday, June 28, 2013

CarryON! (Here’s an excellent crowdfunding opportunity for you.)

St. Francis House is an incredible place.

Day in, day out, the wonderful people who work there take care of the everyday needs of Boston’s poor and homeless – breakfast and lunch, a change of clothing, a place to take a shower, medical care, counseling, hangout room to get in out of the weather, someone to talk to, someone who’ll listen. It also takes care of their longer term needs, helping folks find what we all want: a place to call home and meaningful work.

The motto of St. Francis House is Rebuilding Lives.

One way in which it’s trying to rebuild lives is through its subsidiary, CarryON.

A social enterprise, CarryON employs guests of St.  Francis House to make bags and housewares out of materials that would otherwise be thrown away, namely burlap coffee bags, awning canvas and other repurposed materials…

At CarryON, we know that the homeless aren’t hopeless, and we want to prove that there are ways to employ the chronically unemployed.

For the last few weeks, they’ve been selling their wares at the Summer Street Art Market at Boston’s Downtown CrCarryONossing (between the shell of Filene’s which – hallelujah! – is at long last a construction site, and Macy’s a.k.a. the ghost of Jordan Marsh past). CarryON bags

This is on my beaten path, so I have naturally stopped by and gotten a few things.  And will be stopping by again. And getting a few more things. (Yes, friends and family, you do have CarryON products to look forward to.)

In addition to the stand, CarryON has some wholesale business – so they’re definitely on their way.

When I’ve stopped by the stand, I’ve also gotten to meet a few of the CarryON employees, who are excited about having good work to do, and proud to be making such high-quality products.

But start ups cost money, and CarryON’s expenses include:

  • Bobbins
  • Thread
  • Vendor booth rentals
  • Website hosting
  • Sewing supplies
  • Workshop rent
  • Salaries/worker stipends
  • Sewing machine maintenance

The other day, CarryON launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

So, here’s your opportunity to do some good.

I can assure you that these are not the Kobe beef jerky jerks I blogged about the other day – the yahoos who got kickstopped.

This is the real deal, and a great opportunity to help get CarryON off the ground.

Note to old geezer readers: you get big time social cred for getting involved in crowdfunding. This is way beyond Facebook and LinkedIn. It’s beyond Twitter, and Instagram, and Pinterest.  Crowdfunding: it’s hip and happenin’, kids.

So carry on. Go forth and crowdfund.

Here’s the link.


Thursday, June 27, 2013

That’s putting the odd in Odd Fellows

The Odd Fellows are one of those fraternal orders that just don’t seem to be front and center in the way they were in, say, 1890 or 1950. 

These days, we are way, way, way too jaded to join outfits that have secret rituals, goofy handshakes, strange titles like Chief Patriarch and Guardian of the Tent, and odd-ball costumes. Actually, other than those titles – which I nipped from Wikipedia – I don’t know if the Odd Fellows have any of that other “stuff.”

In truth, what I know about these fraternal orders was gleaned from Peggy Sue Got Married, when Peggy Sue crashes her grandfather’s Masons meeting, and from watching Amos and Andy (Mystic Knights of the Sea) and The Honeymooners (Raccoons) as a kid.

In other words, not much.

I do know they do good, and that some of them wear funny hats and drive tiny cars.

I would probably know more about them if my father had been a member of one of them. But the secret password and funny hats would not have been his cup of tea. Not to mention that I don’t believe that Catholics went in for organizations like the Masons, the Shriners, and the Odd Fellows.

The Elks must have let Catholics join, because the fathers of some of my friends belonged. But I don’t think the Elks had the sort of mumbo-jumbo that the Masons did. Perhaps the rituals of the Catholic Church – elaborate altars, ornate vestments, incense, Latin – satisfied the need. Or maybe it was just the opposite: the Masons craved the glitter and symbolism of Catholicism that the Reformation drummed out.  Anyway, my impression of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks was that men went there for the bar.

It’s not the my father wasn’t a joiner.

He was a member of the Holy Name Society. I’m not sure what the point of that outfit was exactly, but they did golf on Saturdays, and my father was known as the only one who wouldn’t give the priests endless mulligans or gimme putts. But what the Holy Name did other than golf – and go to wakes: they went to a lot of wakes – I have no idea.

My father was also a long standing member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and I know what they did: they helped members of the parish who were in need. I remember him delivering shoes before the school year. We, of course, did not know who got the deliveries – that was all very hush-hush -  but it was pretty easy to guess. Even in a neighborhood where no one had all that much, you could figure out who the have-nots were – ramshackle houses, double-digit kids…

My father was also a member of the American Legion and the VFW. I know this because he got the magazines every month – boring stories about reunions, and really bad cartoons. He never went to the Legion Hall or the local VFW Post as far as I know.  He may even have dumped his Legion membership – I remember my mother telling me that he thought the organization was “off” (by which he meant too right-leaning and fascistic).

Anyway, once in a while I pass a building and see the letters IOOF carved on the lintel, and I know I’m passing an old Odd Fellows hall.

I don’t imagine there are a boat load of them around here. (There are some: The Grand Lodge of Massachusetts Independent Order of Odd Fellows even has a site.)

But it’s not the Massachusetts Odd Fellows that I’m finding odd these days. It’s their pals out in Iowa.

As the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil reported – and what I wouldn’t give to have the local newspaper be called the Nonpareil, an Odd Fellow placed a classified ad for an antique oak coffin on a stand – a coffin was already occupied by “a full set of skeletal remains.”

Dave Burgstrum of Council Bluffs posted the ad. Burgstrum said the coffin was used in a ritual conducted by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization that has a long history in Council Bluffs…It was used in initiation rituals as a representation of death. “All men are made equal,” he said. “Rich man or poor man, everybody will eventually die. So the lesson was to do as much good as you can while you are alive.” (Source: The Nonpareil.)

Well, having gone through parochial school, I don’t need the Independent Order of Odd Fellows to put me through any ritual that represents death. As if getting ashes each year weren’t enough – remember, OLA first grader, that dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return – death was a constant companion, part of most lesson plans. Well, not quite. I don’t remember any arithmetic problems asking how to calculate the square inches of wood needed to build a 6 x 3 x 2 coffin – but any time that death (preferably ours) could be introduced into the pedagogical conversation, the better.

As for the IOOF, it’s apparent that the ranks of those who want these kinds of reminders are dying out. The Council Bluffs chapter was down to bare bones: Burgstrum, his wife, and his brother. And, I guess, whoever belongs to those “skeletal remains.”

The group had lost its charter, and was selling its coffin, along with other mementos – mori and otherwise – to pay off back taxes on their lodge building.

The coffin was the big memento kahuna. An antiques dealer estimated its worth at $12-15K (not sure if that’s fully loaded), enough to pay off those back taxes.

But now the Council Bluff PD’s involved.

Detective Michael Roberts said the remains could not be sold without an identification tag on them.

“If they had papers of origination, then they would be OK to own,” Roberts said.

But the provenance of the skeleton is lost in the mists of time. The story was that a doctor had used it to explain anatomy, and that somehow it had gotten into IOOF hands, and where better to place them bones than in a handy ritual coffin?

In fact, Burgstrum was selling the locked and loaded coffin precisely because he couldn’t figure out what else to do with the skeleton. You can’t exactly put them in a Hefty Bag and leave them on the curb. Well, I suppose you could if you weren’t the righteous type who joins the IOOF to begin with.

Anyhow, the state of Iowa’s Medical Examiner’s Office is now in on the act.

While they’re unlikely to be able to name names, they will be able to figure out race and gender, and

…if they are of Native American descent they will be returned to a Native American organization.

Other than that, what becomes of the coffin, the skeleton, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, well, remains to be seen.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------No, I don’t normally read the Council Bluffs Nonpareil. I first read of this coffin-plus in an AP article on It must be fun being an AP writer whose job it is to bring these bit o’ Americana stories to us.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kickstarted, then kickstopped. Sorry there’ll be no Kobe beef jerky any time soon.

I like crowd-sourcing as much as the next guy, and in the last month I’ve gotten sucked in for a bit of coin.

I Indiegogo fifty bucks towards a tee-shirt company that’s trying to make sweat-proof tee-shirts (or something) in the US of A.

And, at a friend’s suggestion, I’m helping kickstart a TV show that some young friend of hers is involved in. If all goes well (from the creative guy’s point of view, if not mine: not that I’m hoping his campaign fails or anything, but in truth I’d rather spend the money on something else), and the funding level’s reached, I’ll be putting in an appearance as an extra in one of the episodes.  Which is kind of an ugh reward that I may well take a pass on. If the camera adds another 20 pounds to the 20 pounds I’ve already added on my own, well, I really don’t want a credit as the fat old broad in the bathing suit in episode three.

Even if I weren’t a participant in a couple of these social ventures, I’d still find them interesting -  especially when there’s a crowd sourcing overlap with something else that piques my interest. In this case, beef jerky.

Not that I’m a fan, but beef jerky does seem to appear on my mental radar screen more often than one might think, given that the very thought of it makes me gag. Usually I’m so there for a combination of salt and grease, but not in the case of jerky.

Sure, I’m thinking Slim Jim here, but still.

Anyway, kickstarting and beef jerky converged in a highly entertaining way when a something or other – individual? entity? con men? spoof? – named Magnus Fun tried to raise a bit over $2K to help them fund their beef jerky enterprise, which was going to make high-end Kobe beef jerky.

They were touting:

The worlds first 100% JapaneseKobe Red Kobe Beef Jerky. Made from beer fed cattle. Wet aged & infused with sweet & savory gourmet flavors. (Source – for now, anyway: Kobe Red on Kickstarter.)

And had all kinds of backstory about being a Japanese-American who first experienced Kobe beef on his uncle’s ranch. There were also claims that they’d done taste tests at SXSW, and iPhone-ish shots of all kinds of thumbs-up messages from happy taste test takers.

Most of the backers – i.e., those who had put their money where their mouth yet wasn’t – were on the small side: fewer than 200 had pledged at the $100 level. But, as we know, a dollar here, a dollar there. And, in the case of Kobe Red, it all added up to over $120,000. Or would have…

That’s when a couple of guys who were making a film about Kickstarter – a film entitled “Kickstarted” -  started hearing from suspicious minds who thought the campaign might be a fraud. That wasn’t Kobe Red Jerky they were smelling: it was a rat. And they went public with the claim that they had “uncovered the biggest fraud in Kickstarter history.”

On their voyage of discovery, these hardy boys found that:

  • Magnus Fun Inc had created another project - a mini coffee table book – that failed only 2 days before Kobe Red was launched.

  • The project creators never released their names, photos or other personal details.

  • Their taste test testimonials were mostly from iPhone screen caps. The names of the people giving the testimonials were not discoverable in thorough Internet and social media searches.

  • Many commenters began asking legitimate questions about how the beef jerky could be made – and pointed out many issues that the creators never addressed. Most questioned the cost structure of making actual Kobe beef jerky, as it would likely be much higher than the reward levels indicated. This project simply did not make sense financially given the price and quantity needed to fulfill their backer orders. Also, according to many commenters, Kobe beef wouldn’t be good for making jerky. The marbled fat of Kobe would likely lead to very greasy jerky.

(Very greasy jerky? Isn’t that what jerky’s supposed to be?)

They – that would be Jason Cooper, Jay Armitage and team “Kickstarted” – also sleuthed out some of the backers who were attempting to counter the mounting Kickstart suspicions. And found that they seemed to be one and the same as Magnus Fun.

At some point along the line, the folks at Kickstarter entered the fray and suspended the project before the Magnus Funsters were able to collect the pledges.

Amazingly, when I checked out other jerky projects, there were four active ones on Kickstarter at the moment, including one for bacon jerky. (Now there’s a combo!) So, if you’re interested in funding a jerky project, just go to Kickstarter and search on jerky and you will be amply rewarded with investment options.

Who knew there was such demand for all things jerky?

Actually, I should have known that something wazzup.

After all, just last September I’d blogged about Grass Roots Jerky, which had been profiled on Bloomberg/Businessweek.

I don’t know how successful Ryan and Eric Turri have been in their quest to slip the surly bonds of the financial services industry and forge new careers in the jerky biz. They now have a website, but there’s not much to it.

If they still want “to take the jerk out of jerky”, which they claim they do, they might want to get on over to Kickstarter and set themselves up for some crowdsourcing.

There are, apparently, thousands of folks out there who aren’t afraid to add something really jerky to their investment portfolios.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A real Gap in confidential information procedures

This isn’t the first time that confidential employee info has fallen into the gap at Gap.

I had recalled “the case of the stolen laptops” of a few years back, and sure enough, in 2007 there was this fiasco:

An unnamed contractor is being blamed for a data breach at Gap Inc. that has compromised the data of about 800,000 people who applied for jobs with the U.S. clothing retailer.

On Friday, Gap said the data had been stored on two laptop computers that were stolen from the vendor's offices. Although the job applicant information on the laptop -- which included Social Security numbers -- was supposed to be encrypted, it was not. (Source: PC World)

So by Gap standards, the latest is nada much – and probably would have been nada even less if it hadn’t involved actor Richard Dreyfuss’ daughter. (Whose name may actually only mean something to old geezers like me who remember him in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. More recently, he played a mean – in both senses - Dick Cheney in W.)

Anyway, the fiancé of Emily Dreyfuss ordered a tie and pocket square  from Banana Republic, which is part of the Gap. (Tie and pocket square: how Ralph Lauren-Downton Abbey is that? Okay, okay,  not all that Ralph Lauren-Downton Abbey. The use of the term pocket square is at least a recognition that nobody actually blows his nose on a handkerchief these days, and the use of the pocket square itself is an acknowledgement that every navy blue blazer out there could do with a spot of color.)

What the couple got in the mail instead on Thursday would make an identity thief giddy: the confidential files of about 20 former employees, including Social Security numbers and W4 tax forms. (Source:

Plus hand-written resignation letters and performance reviews – not all that confidential, but who wants those sorts of innards exposed.

The mix up occurred because of a labeling error. Apparently confidential info is shipped to whatever elephant’s graveyard it’s stored in in the same type of bag they use to send out ties and pocket squares.

Fortunately, the confidential info didn’t fall into the hands of an identify thief. Not that it couldn’t have happened. After all, there’s no doubt that rogues who want to pose as upstanding members of Martha’s Vineyard society, and con there way in there, could be duding themselves up with ties and pocket squares from Banana Republic. (I’m sort of envisioning Michael Caine here, not Richard Dreyfuss. But mostly I’m thinking of my former neighbor “Clark Rockefeller” – psychopathic impersonator extraordinaire. But Clark didn’t exactly steal anyone’s identity, like Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley – he just made one up out of whole, very fine cloth.)

No, the information fell into the understanding and safe hands Emily Dreyfuss:

‘‘We totally laughed,’’ Dreyfuss, 29, said on Friday from her home in Cambridge, Mass.

Dreyfuss, who runs the home page and also writes for technology website CNET said she didn’t look through everything.

‘‘I got a queasy feeling and felt like I should stop looking at this,’’ she said.

I admire her restraint. While I certainly wouldn’t have done anything with the information, other than let the Gap know that I had it, I don’t know if I would have been able to resist grazing through those performance reviews and resignation notes. Although maybe I would have. At the Writers’ Room of Boston – where I am writing this post -  we used to ask applicants for our needs-based fellowships to provide an explanation of why they had financial need. Some sent in the most incredible detail about income and expenses, that when reading the applications I got Emily’s “queasy feeling” myself. So we stopped asking for any backup, and just made it clear that the fellowships (which aren’t monetary: they’re a year’s free membership in The Room) are based on genuine need. We want them to go to poets who are adjuncting, not corporate lawyers who are trying to get some filler credentials to list on their artistic c.v.’s.

Mostly people self-select, and you really don’t know what people’s financial circumstances are, so we let it go at that.

But I did toss one applicant into the “no” pile when I saw her address – which I zillowed: $2M+ – and saw on her application that she worked for one of the major management consultancies. (If you’re thinking “Mitt Romney”, you’re not far off the mark.)

Another applicant self-unselected herself when she told me that her need was based on the fact that she had not yet taken her teen-aged children on a trip to Europe.

But, I digress….

Back to the story at hand, the receipt of the Gap info was, bizarrely, the second close encounter – sorry, couldn’t resist –that Emily had with someone else’s personal information in the last couple of months:

Here’s the crazier part: this is the second time in three months that confidential employment and financial information has accidentally been sent to us. Two months ago an Ivy League university mixed up some letters and sent us the employment records for a new professor. They meant to send my fiancé the final documents about his new post-doctoral position. (Source: EmilyDreyfuss on Tumblr)

As Emily points out in her post, these breaches aren’t the digital ones we’ve come to expect, with bad guys electronically swooping in and scooping up all sorts of our personal info and using it to buy iPads and Manolos. These errors are “old school”: slapping the wrong label on an envelope.  Human error – these days who’s got time to double check?

But mixing up the ties and pocket squares on order, and sending the pink to Cambridge instead of the green, is an annoyance for the recipient. It doesn’t do anybody any harm. Packaging up confidential info, on the other hand, could do someone plenty of harm. Or embarrassment if, instead of alerting the Gap, Emily had been the nasty sort who went to town posting those resignation letters and performance reviews.

Bet the Gap’s working on a new process for sending out confidential files.


This episode got me to wondering about whether we should be more worried about our information getting out old school-wise, or through digital means. So I googled “physical vs. digital data breach”.

The second item on the list – Worst Data Breaches of 2012, on a site called DABCC, a tech news/aggregator site – looked interesting, so I clicked on it.

I have to say that I was bit weirded out when what came up was a piece that I’d written for a client.

So, if you’ve ever wondered just what it is I do for a living, given my complete and utter lack of interest in making even the most paltry attempt to monetize Pink Slip, this is it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

It’s a dog’s life, I tell you…

A few weeks back, my dog nephew Jack went on vacation.

Not surprisingly, it coincided with my sister’s family vacation which Jack, alas, was not able to go on.

He did get to spend a fun week with his dog walkers, their dog and their one year old.

I’m not sure how much this set my sister back, but I’m guessing it was substantially less than the $73K dog vacation that a “luxury experience” company is promoting.

Forget the doghouse, this one takes Fido to the Paw Seasons hotel in Bristol England, home of luxury breaks for dogs.

Paw Seasons doesn’t just throw vacationing pups a bone.

They advertise something that you probably won’t see offered by most mainstream human hotels, and that’s bedhopping:

We can’t promise finest Egyptian cotton, but the beds here are very comfortable, and there’s no extra cost if your dog wishes to share one with a friend or two.

Get lucky, dawg…

In truth, the Paw Seasons looks wonderful. If I lived in the UK and had a dog, I would definitely consider sending him or her off to Paw Seasons (as long as its references checked out, of course). It not only looks beautiful, it sounds charming and fun, with or without the bedhopping. (With respect to that, I’m guessing that, unless you have an unspayed girl doggy off on a holiday fling, what happens at Paw Seasons stays at Paw Seasons. And even if she does a big of bedhopping, as hopper or hoppee, that unspayed dog-gette might be safe. Paw Seasons doesn’t accept “entire males” which can “upset the balance.” I’ve never heard of an “entire male” before, but I think I get their meaning.)

From a cost standpoint, Paw Seasons also sounds reasonable. It only charges £30 - £50 per night (which includes VAT).

But for $73K, you’re getting a lot more than a charming English country cottage, walks on the beach, and bedhopping.

For starters, this is an exclusive: only ONE dog will get to go on this trip, the VeryFirstTo and, I guess, the Very Last To Go.

Swimming, surfing, reiki, card playing, spa & groom, hurdling with an Olympic athlete, a counselling session, and a personal chef are all included.

I get the swimming, spa and groom, and even the personal chef. And I guess it might be fun to hurdle with an Olympian. Reiki? Oh, why not. What’s good for the human is good for the canine.

But what, pray tell, does card playing mean.

Frisbie hurl, I could see. But as clever as dogs are, I can’t see most of them playing any card game that’s any more complicated than 52 Card Pickup. And good luck, getting them to actually do much of that picking up.

As for that counseling session? I just want to know if shrink-patient confidentiality rules mean that the pup’s “parents” don’t get to find out their lovey’s innermost thoughts. (At least that means they’ll never have to hear that their dog hates his adopted mother for wresting him from his real mother’s front tit when he hadn’t had enough, and for giving his leash a tug just when he’s found something really worth smelling on that 10-below-zero, midnight walk.)

The vacation also includes dog-oriented movies, like Lassie and 101 Dalmatians, neither of which I can imagine any self-respecting dog sitting through. Now sleeping and farting through, that’s another story.

But if the movies aren’t of interest, the dream vacation also offers a hand-crafted doghouse that’s a replica of the dog’s own home.

Then there’s the Louis Vuitton collar and Bottega Veneta leash.

Dog owners aren’t forgotten, either, which is key, given that the average dog is not going to be thinking of bringing a souvenir home for the folks.

…owners receive a bespoke solid bronze car mascot of the dog as well as a portrait by artist Jo Chambers, and are kept updated throughout via Facebook and YouTube.

A $10K donation to charity is also part of the package.

Even with all that bespoke stuff – the doghouse, the “solid bronze car mascot” – whatever that is – the portrait; and even with the $10K charitable donation, it’s really no surprise that no one’s signed up for this one of a kind luxury dog vacation. Which is not to say that there won’t be one big spender who decides to go for it just because.  And even if there isn’t any oligarch or oil-royal or celebritante who thinks that a $73K vacation for a dog is a mere bagatelle, it’s certainly excellent press for the Very First To publicity hound.

Original source: ABC, via my sister Trish, who will NOT be sending Jack on this particular jaunt anytime soon.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Candy is dandy!

This being National Candy month, my thoughts have quite naturally turned to candy, thoughts that quite naturally turn that way, given that I am a complete and utter sweet tooth. (Thanks, Dad! For that, and the long, skinny foot.)

Despite the fact that my father had a colossal sweet tooth, I did not grow up in Candy Land.

We had candy on Easter and Halloween, augmented by boxes of Candy Cupboard or Whitman Sampler that company would bring along at Thanksgiving or Christmas.  And at school, they always gave us a red mesh stocking full of hard candies on the last day before Christmas vacation. But our house was mostly a No Candy Zone.

(My grandmother, on the other hand, always had candy around: Brach’s toffee, peanut brittle, or ribbon candy left over from Christmas that had gone all sticky – the ribbon candy, not the Christmas. Why Nanny would have hard-on-the-teeth candy around, given the state of her dentures, is beyond me. But a trip to Nanny’s always meant a piece of Brach’s toffee.)

Which is not to say that we didn’t have sweets galore. We always had ice cream in the freezer, and my mother baked pretty much every day.

And which is not to say that I wasn’t on occasion able to use some of my allowance on candy.

On one infamous occasion – when, for some reason, I had an entire quarter to squander – I bought five candy bars from the vending machine at the YWCA. And made myself sick. I was eight years old at the time, and while this was above and beyond the age of reason, I will blame my parents for this incident. After all, they had put me in temptation’s way by allowing me to step toe in a Y which, according to our nuns, was a Protestant organization no doubt hell bent on converting impressionable little Catholics to their nefarious false religion. Why, going to the Y was almost the equivalent of entering a Protestant church. So I was pretty much damned from the get go.

Despite the fact that I got sick, I remember how much fun it was to plunk those nickels in the machine and get instantly rewarded with a candy bar. Almost like getting a piece of cherry pie at the Automat, something that I fantasized doing from a very young age.

There are only two candys bar that I remembered from that spree: One was a packet of Charms – a candy I always loathed. The other, a ghastly Howard Johnson brand chocolate-covered something-or-other. (Vomit, maybe?) It was that Ho-Jo bar that put me over the line and into a near death experience. But what was behind the choice of Ho-Jo and Charms? Was the vending machine that lame-o, or was it the desire to experiment – with five options to play with, I could afford to have a couple of Fails.

Mostly, though, if I had candy money it was a couple of pennies or a nickel.

What did I buy with it?

Oh, back in the day I pretty much liked everything and anything: M&M’s, Charleston Chew, Bit-o-Honey, Sky Bars, Hershey Bars, Sugar Daddy/Sugar Babies, Good and Plenty, Junior Mints, Three Musketeers, Milky Ways, Juicy Fruits, Butterfingers, Baby Ruth. Necco Wafers if we were going to play Mass and needed them for Communion. Sometimes I bought a box of Canada Mints – I guess when I felt like eating chalk. I liked the little red box of Heide’s Chocolate Babies (sic: this was the 1950’s), and once I remember my Aunt Kay shared a box of Black Crows (sic: this was the 1950’s) with us out at the lake house. Sno-Caps and Raisenets? Strictly at the movie theater.

I still go for M&M’s – much my preferred main stream candy. And I also still like Good and Plenty, Butterfingers, and Junior Mints (the only candy that I actually prefer in the small size).  And Twizzlers, I like Twizzlers. As for Bit-o-Honey,Juicy Fruits and Sugar Daddy/Sugar Babies – all those cavity-filling pullers -  at my age, I’d just as soon gulp from a trough of quick-drying cement, since it would do the equivalent dental damage.

As a kid, I also liked cherry cough drops. (Still do.)

I discovered licorice all-sorts (the ones from England) on my first trip to NYC, senior year in high school. I suppose I was drawn to them because it was the only candy, other than Michigan Mints, that had blue. (This was before M&M’s foray into more color diversity. I like the blue, but I do wish they would bring back the traditional tan.) I still look at all-sorts longingly when I see them in the Vermont Country Store catalog.

And then there was penny candy…

My childhood coincided with the era when penny candy was actually penny candy, and our go-to spot for penny candy was Carrerra’s Market, a “spa” a couple of blocks away. (A “spa” being a tiny neighborhood store that sold bread, milk, Polar tonic (now known as soda), a few canned goods, and candy.)

Carrerra’s had big glass case full of penny candy just inside the door, and there was nothing better than having a couple of pennies – or even that precious nickel – to spend there.

Oh, the agony of choice. Mary Janes, Squirrel Nuts, wax lips, wax teeth, candy buttons, licorice whips, Frenchies (nougats), Mint Juleps (two for a penny), Banana Splits (ditto), candy cigarettes (those were the days!), Fire Balls, Tootsie Roll minis, York Peppermint Patties, and those little wax bottles full of colored sugar water.

Carrerra’s also sold a candy bar that I have never seen any place else: a chocolate Lunch Bar which, in the era of the fiLunch Barve-cent candy bar, cost a weird three cents. Even if you only had three cents, Lunch Bars were a chump’s game – they didn’t even taste remotely like chocolate. Perhaps it was that “emulsifier added” that did the nauseating trick. They were also the candy that the Carrerras gave out on Halloween.

Once in a while, generally when I’m in CVS and my sweet tooth gets a hankering, I’ll buy a bag of M&M’s (plain or peanut, maybe even the new-fangled coconut version). Or a Heath Bar or Butterfinger.

While the fundamental candy choices continue to apply, as time goes by, I have picked up some more sophisticated cravings – dark chocolate with orange, dark chocolate with sea salt, dark chocolate with anything. And I usually have some Lindt bars around, just in case I need a chocolate fix.

Which, of course, I do now.

All hail National Candy Month!

Liquor may be quicker, but candy is dandy!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Fortunately, I have no plans to go to Austria any time soon

I tried Austria once.

Didn’t much like it.

Maybe it was because I was 23 years old, but I found Vienna bourgeois and boring. Maybe now that I’ve aged into bourgeois and boring, I’d think differently if I were to go back, but I don’t think so. The country side was pretty enough – although I’m not sure whether I’m actually recalling the scenery I saw in real life, or pre-credits opening to The Sound of Music. But I’m just not the edelweiss type, I guess.

So, no donning of the dirndl and yodeling off to Austria for me, danke.

But if I needed another reason to put Austria on my must-avoid list, the Huffington Post just gave me one.

An Austrian hotel is looking for a jester:

Applicants are asked to bring – and play – their musical instrument during the job interview. Also welcome: creative costumes. The successful candidate will earn 1,400 euros – around $1,900 – a month.

Hotel director Melanie Franke says those interested should not think they're on a fool's errand in applying. She says the idea is to treat guests like royalty, noting that "jesters were a luxury that royal families indulged themselves in."

With the exception of rats coming out of the toilets, it would be hard for me to think of anything that would make a hotel less relaxing and inviting than having a jester waving his bell-stick in my face. Or serenading me with some strum on his lute. Or just being anywhere within eye-shot of me.

Jesters. Clowns. Mimes.

Life is hard enough, without having to go into jester-, clown-, or mime-avoidance mode while you’re on vacation.

If you want to treat me like royalty, I’d say to keep your jester way, way, way far away . And I suspect that Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Camilla, and Wills and Kate would feel much the same way. Maybe mad King Ludwig might think that having a jester on board is the height of luxury, but other than that.,,

(Imagine Grace Kelly having to contend with a jester? Or even King Zog of Albania?)

And I do believe that in the days when royalty indulged in jesters, they also had the power within them to have some other court retainer cut their lute strings and/or lop off their heads -  whatever the royal whim of the moment happened to be.

I suspect that this is not what the Austrian hotel has in mind.

I’m also wondering about what they’re willing to pay.

Sure, a dollar may go farther in the Austrian province of Styria than it does in midtown Manhattan, but $1,900 a month?

Perhaps it includes a pallet near the kitchen hearth, as well as table scraps and the occasional dram of mead.

The article I saw didn’t name names as far as the hotel went, but they did provide a clue, telling us that the hotel was:

… designed by famed Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Franke says the jester concept fits its hotel's colorful appearance.

Which led me to discover Rogner Bad Blumau:

Aiming to create a synergy between man, nature and architecture, its designer, the Austrian artist and environmental champion Friedensreich Hundertwasser, devised an enchanting, fairytale exterior, and an wonderfully meandering interior where straight edges have no place and none of its 2,400 windows are the same. (Source: Austria: Arrive and Revive.)

Now I suppose there could be multipleAustrian Hotel Austrian hotels designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, but I’m guessing this be the place, given its “colorful appearance.” Kind of Frank Gehry-ish, I’d say.

Wouldn’t want to have one two many glasses of gewurztraminer and try Austrian Hotel - 2to find my way back to my room. Especially given the risk of stumbling upon a jester up to no good. (It goes without saying, of course, that a jester is up to no good – at least in my guide book.)

As noted, the artist who designed Rogner Bad Blumau was one Friedensreich Hundertwasser. If you find his name a mouthful, even by compound word, German language standards, it is deliberately so:

In 1950 Friedrich Stowasser changed his surname to Hundertwasser. 10 years later he changed his first name from Friedrich to Friedensreich. (Source: Rogner Bad Blumau site.)

The hotel is all about “conveying a light-hearted, visionary life in harmony with nature.”

Which, personally, seems at antithetical odds with having jesters lurking around on prem. But I guess one person’s “light-hearted” is another’s invitation to homicidal rage.

Jesters and the possibility of dizziness-induction aside, I must admit I find the architecture interesting and amusing – plenty interesting and amusing enough without adding an insidious jester to the mix…

But, as I said, I have not plans for a trip to Austria anytime soon.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Asleep at the wheel

Who among us hasn’t zoned out during some drone-on work presentation (especially if the lights were dimmed)? Who hasn’t at one time or another tilted back in that office chair – even if it’s not an Aileron – and rested their eyes for just a mo or two. If truth be fully known, many have also no doubt put their little headies down on the desk and taken a well-earned work snooze.

Hey, we work long hours these days.

And everything’s hermetically sealed, so you can’t crack a window open and help yourself to a good, bracing whiff of fresh air.

Plus sometimes work is just so overwhelmingly enervating that we have to grab a few zzz’s in self defense.

So I am so in sympathy with the German bank drone who fell asleep and:

…accidentally held down the number 2 button on his keyboard for a little too long — think 222,222,222.22 — causing that much money (in Euros) to be transferred out of the bank. (Source: Time Newsfeed)

The narcoleptic bank clerk got away with nothing other than a reprimand, but the supervisor who okayed the transaction was fired. She went to court, and got her job back.

The story seems a bit odd, in that, in this day and age, there were no automated checks and balances that clicked into action when this magnitude of money came into play. What bank would rely on the scanning prowess of someone who “had spent less than 1.4 seconds to examine a total of 603 payments”, which was the case of the woman who got sacked.

In any case, what a tedious job.

Scanning a screen all day looking at payments electronically to-ing and fro-ing?

And I thought that I had some boring jobs…

Because, let’s face it, it’s periods of on the job boredom that don’t make you sleepy that are as apt to plague us as any tendency to go nighty-night while it’s still worky-day.

Okay, boredom can surely lead to a little cat napping. But not always. Sometimes catching some shut-eye at work is just not possible, unless you can sleep on your feet.

The most bored I have ever been on the job was when I worked retail, where the boredom can be just skull-crushing.

Retail’s fine when you’re busy, but when it’s not, there are only so many ways you can straighten out the merchandise. And if you work behind an assigned counter – as I did during my retail stints – you can’t even stroll around the racks pretending to be busy.

During my retail career – which entailed working Christmas seasons at Filene’s and Jordan Marsh, Boston emporia long since gone – I was always behind the counter, stationed in stationery. I don’t know if this was because I was obviously the brainy pen-and-ink type, or because I was obviously not the fashionista type who would actually be able to tell a customer that they looked better in the red dress than the orange. No, I was entrusted to pick just the right box of letter paper, and recommend a nice Parker pen to go along with it. But being in stationery meant being stationary, trapped behind the counter all day. By myself, with no fellow sales clerk to gab with if there were no customers in need of a box of Crane’s thank-you notes.

Just as there are only so many times you can straighten out the merchandise, there are only so many times you can extract the square root of your Social Security number in your head.

But, of course, as a sales clerk, you couldn’t plunk yourself down on the tempting little fold-down stool, similar to the ones that used to be in elevators when there was such a thing as a white-gloved elevator operator.  The fold-down stool was next to the cash register, and I have no idea what it was there for, given that you were forbidden to sit down on it. And just in case you were tempted, there was always a White Flower (I think that was at Filene’s) or a Blue Pen (Jordan’s), i.e., a supervisor wearing a white flower or carrying a blue pen, strolling around to keep you, quite literally, on your toes.

I remember standing a my counter trying to make eye-contact with every shopper who strolled by, begging them with my imploring baby-blues to stop by, if only to ask where the umbrellas were, or men’s socks. I didn’t even care if they came by to shoplift. Anything would do!

Boredom was also an occasional problem on the professional front.

Several of the companies I worked for were always in the throes of some re-organization or another, and there’s nothing that stops productive work in its tracks like a looming re-org.

At Dynamics, when one particularly BIG re-org was in the works, it was as if someone had blown a whistle and stopped the assembly line. There was nothing doing. To keep us occupied, one of the VP’s suggested that we meet in groups and come up with our own designs for the brave, new company that we were going to become. My buddies and I made up little slips of paper with everyone’s name on them, took over a conference room, and spent a couple of days creating org charts.

But after a few days of that, I was calling sales people in the field and asking them whether there was anything I could do for them – create “foils” for a new product presentation? go cold-calling? – or for their customers – get on our time sharing system and create some clunky reports in our powerful, and powerfully clunky modeling language, XSIM?

I needed some work!

At Wang, there were also numerous work stoppage spells. But at Wang, boredom was staved off a bit because the company was so large that you could keep yourself occupied working your network, which in those days we didn’t call a network. We called it what it was: a rumor mill.

You’d meet with your morning rumor mill, your lunch rumor mill, and your afternoon rumor mill, all augmented by your e-mail rumor mill. Sometimes one of us would drop a preposterous, entirely made up rumor into the morning mill, just to see how long it would take for it to come back to us as fact. (Not long, as it turned out.)

All of this org-charting, all of this rumor-mongering, was better than straightening out boxes of stationery, but it did get boring after a while, as well.

Still, I don’t remember ever napping while it was all going on. Boring, maybe, but there is always something a bit energizing about rampant kibitzing.

However, it does not beat having real work to do.

But as the German bank clerk and his boss demonstrate, even real work can be soporific, and can lull us into an occasional drowse. Most such drowses don’t result in multi-million dollar errors.

In any case, I’m happy these days to be able to put my head down any old time I want. And with the bedroom just a couple of yards away from the office, when I really need a nap, I just got and take one.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What would you pay for a J. Fred Muggs shot?

There seem to be no end to the number of stories on the meshugas that is the art market.

The latest is a portfolio of photos of Moscow’s Red Square that were taken in 1998. They went for a bit under $77K at auction at Sotheby’s. (Source: CBS News.)

Now, I’m not one of those folks who claim that photography can’t be art. Think Edward Steichen. Think Robert Mapplethorpe. Think Diane Arbus. Okay. Maybe not Diane Arbus. Thinking Diane Arbus might weird you Childwithhandgrenadedianearbusout. Not that a picture of a creepy kid holding a grenade would weird anyone out. Especially if they were the fine art photo collecting type. As they say in snooty gallery, fine art collecting circles, no sirree Bob. Why, just the other day, I was asking myself whether this might not be the time to take down that photo of the golden apple that I framed up from a calendar (Sierra Club?) about 20 or 30 years ago, and replace it with an even artier shot of a kid holding a grenade. Of course, as it would be in the bedroom, I’d have to remember to turn it around to face the wall before I hopped into bed each night.

And if this shot from the Sotheby portfolio is any indication, the photoschimp16n-3-web snapped up at Sotheby’s have a certain artsy charm.

It’s just that the pictures weren’t taken by a latter day Arbus, Steichen, or Mapplethorpe. They were taken by a chimp.

Not that I don’t believe that animals can be artists. Or even artistes.

Why not?

There are sentient beings at other nodes of the evolutionary network.

And as someone who’s actually met a few chimps up close and personal – albeit they were pygmy chimps, or bonobos, who are closer to us, DNA-wise, than “common chimps” like the photographer chimp are  - it’s certainly possible that some of my furry friends could have been, if not professional artists, then certainly Sunday painters. (Based on the chimps I have met, I would say that they are probably a bit to frenzied to do paint by number.)

I first read about the chimp with the candid camera  in The NY Daily News. (Yes, I admit it. I do sometimes indulge.)

Predictably, they got it a bit wrong, referring to Mikki the chimp as a monkey. (Sheesh…) Monkey or chimp, Mikki’s bio is not unimpressive.  Among other things, Mikki did a mid-career change:

…once a popular performer at the Moscow Circus — [Mikki] was taught by contemporary artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid how to snap his first Polaroid when he was 15.

He eventually graduated to a regular camera, and then, an antique. (Source: NY Daily News)

Sotheby’s is all over themselves positioning Mikki’s work as a “new perspective. They’re “akin to experimental photography and reference millions of photos taken by tourists on a daily basis.”

I’m not going to be the one that says that Mikki’s work is a mere step above feces hurling. Still, smart as chimps are, I doubt that Mikki was thinking “new perspective.”

There’s even more gush from Sotheby’s, which is not surprising. I mean, who would expect that they’d come flat out and say, “Hey, these pictures were taken by a chimp. Pretty cute, huh?”

Hifalutin is as hifalutin does.

Meanwhile, the contemporary art curator at Sotheby’s London, had this to say:

“There’s been a lot of interest because it’s very unusual and it works on so many different levels…It’s an alternative view of Moscow as seen through (an) alternative vision.”

Another Sotheby-er claims that the Mikki collection is part of a a wink-wink, nudge-nudge, pant-hoot dig at the art scene,

…meant to poke fun at the very idea of contemporary art.  “You know when people say with contemporary art, ‘I could do that,’ this really talks to that,” Jo Vickery of Sotheby’s was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying. (Source: Moscow News.)

Well, yes, it does talk to that.

Anyway, the Russian collector who bought Mikki’s work "said they showed that sometimes animals could do things better than humans.”

True that.

It would be hard to imagine a chimp, for example, forking over $77K for a bunch of inedible pictures that can’t be used as a weapon or a means of seduction.

But I do wonder what part of the $77K the artist himself actually saw.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Well, isn’t this chummy?

Here’s what I saw on CNBC a week or so back:

A closely watched consumer confidence number that routinely moves markets upon release is accessed by an elite group of traders, for a fee, a full two seconds before its official release. (Source: CNBC)

Happy to know that my confidence as a consumer can be put to work, for a small fee that – alas – doesn’t go to me, to help goose the investor confidence of the folks willing to pay to get them some edge. Glad to do my part, fellows.

Here’s how it works:

The University of Michigan gathers this data, and provides it to Thomson Reuters to distribute to the general public. But five minutes before the great unwashed get to hear whether they’re smiley face or Debby Downer about the economy, “headline numbers” are given out to paying clients. That, in itself, is no surprise and, as unsavory as it may sound – especially to those of us who do so enjoy taking umbrage -  no big deal. This is not government-collected data. It’s data gathered by a university, which can afford to do the collecting because Thomson Reuters is paying for it.

So, while it’s my consumer sentiment that “they” are consuming (and exploiting), it’s really just paid research.

I guess you could argue that the University of Michigan is a public institution, but that’s for the folks in Michigan to argue.

Anyway, the real rub isn’t that the rest of us slobs have to stand behind the paying customers to get the data that will change the course of mighty rivers and bend steel in its bare hands as it impacts the market.

The real rub for the paying customers is that, a few ticks before they get their mitts on the data:

…an even more elite group of clients, who subscribe to the "ultra-low latency distribution platform," or high-speed data feed, offered by Thomson Reuters. Those most elite clients receive the information in a specialized format tailor-made for computer-driven algorithmic trading at 9:54:58.000, according to the terms of the contract. On occasion, they could get the data even earlier—the contract allows for a plus or minus 500 milliseconds margin of error.

Which, of course, gives the computer-driven elite plenty enough time to get in whatever market-moving trades their little low-latency hearts desire.

All of this has been disclosed. Thomson Reuters released a statement that read, in part:

Details of the tiered release of this data are provided openly to Thomson Reuters customers and the wider public and anyone wishing to trade on this data can pay for the service that best meets their data needs."

But apparently some of the paying customers were not aware that, while we the people were, metaphorically, sitting cheek to jowl in coach fighting over a bag of peanuts, and they were a bit more comfy-cozy getting free drinks and plastic food in business, there were, unbeknownst to them, first class travelers sipping Perrier Jouet and eating real food off of china plates.  In less metaphorical terms, they weren’t clued in that what they were getting might not be “the service that best meets their data needs.”

"I worry that there's both a fairness and a disclosure issue," said former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt. "If I'm paying a lot of money, I should know whether I have the best deal possible. If there was no disclosure of the tiered structure, that would be a serious problem."

Well, tut tut, Harvey. Thomson Reuters does tell all:

To demonstrate that it disclosed the existence of a two-second lead time, Thomson Reuters sent CNBC a link to a Webpage of marketing material detailing the system.

“Marketing material?” LOL to that!

There, the firm cited a major market move on Aug. 12, 2011, in which U.S. stocks slipped after consumer sentiment data was released. "Thomson Reuters News Feed Direct customers benefited from the 2-second advance and the fastest delivery in the market," the site said.

Of course, Thomson Reuters doesn’t really want everyone to read their marketing material. Because if everyone bought into News Feed Direct, pop goes the 2-second advantage. Sure, paying customers would still have benefited over nonpayers. What else is new? But the advantage wouldn’t have been quite so great.

The firm explained that this disclosure can be found on the "Machine Readable News" product page of its Website, under a drop-down menu for "suite components."

Despite the terrible design of so many web sites, most companies actually do want you to be able to find product information. But just how many of the five-minute before subscribers had looked under that drop-down menu of “suite components” and found that the sweet deal was going to those who signed on for the two-second component.

Several economists contacted by CNBC said they were unaware that the data are released to the elite group two seconds before the 9:55 conference call. One called the release "disingenuous," another called it "unfair."

Thomson Reuters did not respond to a request for comment on those economists' remarks.

If market advantage accrues to those who do the research, or pay for the research, so be it.

And although this is my confidence as a consumer we’re talking about here, in this case, it’s not the government collecting the data. If the Bureau of Labor Statistics or other government entities started selling market-moving data – or slipping it to friends and family -  that would be truly heinous. And “accidents” do happen. A few weeks ago, there may have been some slippage  as there was “a burst of trading about a half second before release of the Department of Labor's highly scrutinized monthly jobs data, which often set the tone for market trading all day. It remains unclear what caused that spike in trading.” (Where was Edward Snowden that day?)

But in the case of the Thomson Reuters information, this is data that’s being privately paid for – no different than analyst reports, etc. If I want the information, I can collect it myself, or pay someone else to go door to door for me.

Still, it’s hard not to believe that there are at least a couple of disgruntled Thomson Reuters customers on the horn to their sales rep, wanting to know why they weren’t offered the opportunity to buy into the two-second elite.

Here they were, feeling pretty chummy about getting that info five minutes early so they could make some coin before the slow pokes with their thin wallets hit the market, and all along they were getting chumped by an even more elite elite.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Oh, my achin’ feet

This month marks the 45th anniversary of my debut gig as a waitress.

That first waitress job was at Ted’s Big Boy in Worcester’s Webster Square, where, for two summers and one Christmas break, I happily served up hamburgers and strawberry pie, gabbed with my fellow waitresses, and occasionally flirted with the less unsavory of the cooks, a motley crew that over time included a cynical but wildly entertaining Clark grad who was writing a novel called Eighty-Six that Dream, a couple of jaded Vietnam vets, and at least one ex-con.

The waitress uniform was a brown polyester knee-length skirt, a white polyester pleated shirt, a brown clip on bow tie, and an orange apron. The uniform was provided by Ted’s. We had to supply our own hairnets and shoes – comfy white waitress shoes. Comfy was very useful both for running around all day, and for walking the mile or so back and forth to Big Boy’s.

My next two waitress jobs both required you to provide your own waitress outfit -  a white nylon nurse/waitress dress – and, of course, your own comfy white waitress shoes.  (Providing your own outfit, by the way,  had two immense benefits. Because you could buy yourself more than one, you didn’t have to wash your smelly, greasy, sweaty dress out every night when you got home. Plus you didn’t have to wear something that had been worn to death by someone else.)

Those waitress shoes did double duty, by the way. My roommate and I once climbed to Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mt. Washington wearing them. When a better equipped hiker asked us about them, we told him that they were special Italian walking shoes. So there.

My final waitressing job issued the uniform: a rather fetching bright blue poly sailor dress (barely butt-covering mini), made out of some double-knit fabric that was so stiff  the dress could stand on its own. Again, this was worn with comfy white waitress shoes.

Even with comfy white waitress shoes, my feet always ached when I came home from a day on my feet, and there were plenty of times I soaked those aching feet in a hot water.

I cannot imagine how anyone could work as a waitress wearing anything other than comfy shoes.

Thus, I am in great sympathy with the Foxwoods Casino cocktail waitresses – especially the older gals – who put their aching foot down at the recent edict that they wear two-inch heels while on the job. Their union – Local 371 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union – has footwear on the list of items its negotiating on behalf of its members:

The casino yielded on a recently imposed requirement for 2-inch heels, but it is insisting that servers wear polishable black shoes, subject to approval by management, according to union representative Keri Hoehne and members. Servers could be exempted with a doctor’s note for up to a year, but would then have to resign or take another position. (Source:

The older waitresses (rightfully, no doubt) feel that all this is Foxwoods’ way of pushing out the older waitresses in favor of sexy young things who might be willing to wear uncomfortable footwear under the (likely correct) assumption that they’d make better tips as sexy young things in spikes than they would as middle-aged women in orthopedic shoes.

Cheryl Haase, at 52, is one of the older gals at Foxwoods.

Haase said she wears black clogs after a doctor urged her to ditch narrow-toed shoes preferred by the casino, but she worries she would have to switch back if the casino has its way.

‘‘After 20 years of being there,’’ she said, ‘‘I can’t wear a shoe that’s angled like that because my foot is too wide for it.’’

Foxwoods, of course, has bigger problems than what shoes its waitresses are wearing. Casino revenues are declining, and will decline even more once Massachusetts gets its casino-ing in gear and our citizens no longer have to bus down to Connecticut to squander their Social Security checks playing the slots.

So, whether shod in fake polishable Manolos heels or in clunky Dansko polishable clogs, the waitresses at Foxwoods may be in for some tough times. (How life can get much tougher for a 52-year-old waitress is hard to imagine, but the worst job is generally better than no job.)

Still, I hope that they prevail in their mission to wear comfy waitress shoes.

Surely, their achin’ feet deserve as much.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Now that’s what I call fundamental investing

The battle between quantitative and fundamental investing is nothing new.

It’s just that nowadays all the old arguments, at least for me, seem to be overwhelmed by the sinking feeling that there are super-computer models out there that are basically determining the direction and magnitude of every trade that gets made. That or the equally sinking feeling – made even sinkier when Bernie Madoff and a bunch of his fellow felons were interviewed a few weeks ago on the topic – that every other trade that gets made is done based on the ultimate in fundamentalism: insider information.

What’s a two-bit investor to do other than throw his or her money into a mutual fund and hope that its manager is either a super-computer or a felon-in-the-making?

Personally, when the debate was on between the quants and the fundies, I always sided with the fundamentalists. (This is perhaps the only domain in which I side with the fundamentalists.)

After all, quantitative is all about the numbers. It’s arid, dry. All IQ. No EQ. Boring. Robotic. Automaton.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is the English major of investment analysis. It’s about what a company does, what they make, how they make it, how they market it, how they’re run, and who’s doing the running. It’s got plot. It’s got characters. It’s got dialog, narrative, and action.

I can’t imagine curling up in bed with a chart, but I can imagine curling up in bed with a well-written annual report.

Anyway, given my fundamental bias, I was delighted to read an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day on investment tourism, or what the writer dubbed “adventure capitalism.” For a “few intrepid investors” who want to diversify their portfolios, but do so more up close and personal than the pages of, well, the WSJ:

… investing abroad means getting on a plane to scout out interesting companies in frontier and emerging markets up close and in person; then, trading in those shares directly, either by accessing the exchanges where they are listed over the Web, or by going through a brokerage based in the company's home country. (Source: WSJOnline.)

Of course, most of us don’t have the time or the scratch to buzz around kicking the tires, or peering into the yurt, in person. But for those with the will, the way, and the means, and, yes, the smarts not to get hoodwinked in multiple languages, it does sound pretty fun.

The article focused on a couple of “adventure capitalists.”

One, Chip Feiss, is a local guy, a fellow from Cambridge who:

…has purchased stocks on the exchanges of Mongolia, Thailand, Brazil and Tanzania—among others—and says he has turned a sizable profit on most of these investments over the years.

He doesn’t find his investments by being an armchair traveler. While he does do some of his hunting and pecking on the Web, he’s a management and development consultant who does a lot of international travel.

“I talk to people on the street, people in the hotels, taxi drivers," Mr. Feiss says. "I'll go out to a brokerage firm and talk to them and say, 'Send me to a business.' Then I'd go take a look at that. It's really quite simple."

He’s dabbled in New Zealand government bonds, tanzanite-mining (in Tanzania, naturally), South African diamond-mining, an herbal medicine in India.

All this is not without problems:

"All the time," he says. "You have less control, you have more political risk, there are cultural issues, there are language issues, timing issues." If he decides to sell a stock he owns in Mongolia, he says, "it won't be simple. I'm going to have to call [my Mongolian brokerage]. It's probably going to be a multiday process."

Yes, but just the cachet of being able to drop the name of your Mongolian broker at a party. Not exactly like mentioning Charles Schwab.

Erika Nolan is another one who puts her feets on the overseas streets - all part of her work with The Sovereign Society, an ultra-libertarian outfit:

…conceived in 1998 by a group of four uncompromising advocates of liberty and free markets. We felt strongly that individuals are born sovereign over themselves, not as chattels of governments.

Lest you think that “not as chattel” is only code for “no pay taxes,” Ms. Nolan is the ultimate in fundamental investing:

When she travels, she says, she loves to see what's being sold in local grocery stores. "You'll find a product on the shelf and say, 'Wow, there's company XYZ, and they make an entire line of whatever,' " she says. "You might notice that there's certain products you see everywhere, a product that we've never seen on our shelves."

None of this is, of course, without risk. No investing ever is, but investing in Mongolia and Tanzania is more fraught with the perils of instability than, say, investing in IBM. On the other hand, as we have amply witnessed, thanks to the likes of Bernie Madoff, Raj Rajaratnam, and Jeff Skilling, investing in the U.S. or the rest of the western world is not exactly peril-free.

Anyway, poking around grocery stores in Kenya, and checking out what they’re making in that Mongolian yurt, does sound like more fun than listening in on IBM’s quarterly investor call. I’d say the adventure capitalists are – har-dee-har-har- putting some of the fun back in fundamentalism.

There’s a hell of a good universe next door. Let’s go…

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

No sweatshop. No sweat. Thompson Tee’s making it in America.

Hey, I went to business school. I’m married to an economist. I get how this works.

Stuff gets made (and work gets done) where it can be done most cost-effectively. And this works especially well when we ignore the rotten Bangladeshi-style working conditions that put Triangle Shirtwaist to shame.

But I do have a couple of problems with everything being off-shored.

One is the bad-for-democracy feeling I get at the thought of how easy it will be for some captains of industry to completely discount their fellow citizens when they realize that, not only are we no longer needed as producers, we’re no longer needed as consumers. We have seen how the tobacco companies niftily shifted their marketing attention to the third world once most Americans stopped smoking. And now they’re waking up to the light-bulb notion that, hey, we don’t need these jamokes to buy cars or iPods or pocketbooks, either.  So, given that we don’t need them as buyers, we really don’t give a hoot whether they’re workers, either. Thus out Henry Ford’s down-home dictum that if you paid your workers well enough, they’d actually spend some of it on the stuff they were making.

My other problem with full-bore off-shoring is a perhaps mistily sentimental attachment to the importance of actually making things.

Perhaps this is just the H.H. Brown old combat-boot assembly line worker in me, I am always happy to read about manufacturing segments making a comeback.

But skilled manufacturing – even if they could find enough skilled-enough workers - can’t employ everyone. So maybe we could use a few manufacturing jobs at the cruddier end of the job spectrum – jobs that could be available to low-skill, no-skill workers who wanted to do something other than flip burgers or work as home-care aides.

Into this category, I’m assuming that tee-shirt manufacturing falls.

So I do hope that Thompson Tee makes it.

Not only do they make their tee-shirts here, but eponymous founder Billy Thompson is trying:

…vehemently to keep the entire supply chain of his T-shirt company located in the United States, but doing so is proving harder than he ever imagined. (Source: Huffington Post.)

Thompson is looking for investors to expand what he says is both a sustainable and profitable business, but has found that most investors will dime-in only if he moves production out of the country. And he wants to keep his entire supply chain here.


Thompson’s tees aren’t cheap, but they are, apparently, sweat-proof – patent-pending technology, woo-hoo. Thus you don’t have to buy as many to replace the grodie, pitted out ones that you work up a sweat in. So, yes, $30 may be a lot to pay for a skivvy shirt, but…

I actually pay almost that much for my workout tee-shirts, shirts that have some sort of evaporating magic to them that cotton shirts do no. So I’d be game to buy a couple of Thompson tees.

Now Thompson is turning to the public for aid. On June 1, he's kicking off a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help expand the company’s operations in the U.S.

He's looking to raise at least $25,000 to cover materials and labor to launch a new “Classic Tee,” without the added underarm protection, and to introduce black shirts to his line of products.

Hmmmm. Don’t know what the advantage is to having a more expensive tee-shirt without that “added underarm protection”? Can’t you just buy a package of three Calvin’s at T.J. Maxx and toss out last year’s mutts with the stained arm pits?

The company promises that for every 2,000 shirts made by Thompson Tee, one American job will be added to its supply chain.

Okay. That 2,000 shirts = one job sounds like some fuzzy math in action.

Still, I’m in, all indie-a-go-going for Thompson to the tune of $50.

Look, Ma! I’m a crowdfunder.

My investment entitles me to something or other. Not quite clear whether it’s free stuff, or the right to order stuff at a discount, or whatever. Whether I end up with a reward for my goodness is largely irrelevant. I’ve spent plenty in $50 increments on zilch, so, I approach this investment with some no sweat sang froid.

But if there are some goodies in store, I will be sure to get one for my sister Trish. Not to imply that she sweats. The Rogers girls simply don’t.

No, her very own sweat- and sweat-shop proof tee-shirt will be her payback for sending me the link to this article.

Black or white?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Listen, ooo-aaa-ooo, do you want to know a secret? Edward Snowden’s conversation starter.

I have to admit that, when it comes to Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations, my feelings are decidedly mixed.

Do I think he’s a hero? No.

Do I think he’s a traitor? No.

Do I think he’s a crappy employee?  Yep.  (And do I think that his employer Booz Allen Hamilton has some explaining to do? Hell, yes.)

I think Edward Snowden’s idealistic. I think he’s naïve. And I’d have a lot more respect for him if he hadn’t high-tailed it out of the country, but had held his ground here. (If, as I’ve heard, he could out our entire security apparatus if he’d wanted to, I would think he’s at plenty of risk floating around out there – and mostly not from the FBI getting their hands on him. Yikes!)

As for other notorious info-outers:

My opinion of Julian Assange is almost entirely negative. I think he’s narcissistic putz.

And Bradley Manning? I think he was used, and I think he was dead wrong in putting people at risk.

Not everything needs to be transparent.

When it comes to national security, we could do with a little opaque.

But I do think we’re long overdue for some conversations about privacy and security. And if Snowden’s action is the opening conversational gambit, good.

In my opinion?

Personally, if the government wants to sift through phone records looking for patterns that might reveal terrorist activity, have at it. If they want to listen in on phone calls without a warrant, well, get thee to the warrant-granter.

If the government wants to keep track of who’s searching for “pressure cooker bombs”, be my guest. If they want the records of everyone who buys a Mirro pressure cooker at Sears? Get out of here.

If they keep an eye on everyone who trades in kiddie-porn and build the case that puts them away: good. If a cop’s out there trolling for predators, and traps some guy with an otherwise clean record into meeting up, thinking that the cop is a 13 year old girl, well, here’s where I start thinking “thought police” and entrapment.

The Internet. Big data. The cloud.  When it comes to preventing or solving crime, all just big tools of the trade.

So the government is going to use them the same way that G-Men used Most Wanted posters and fingerprints.

And let’s face it, there’s so much out there that nips at our privacy that we out there voluntarily, every time we google, order online, swipe an awards card.

Privacy? What’s that?

We already surrender so much, day in day out, without giving it a thought. And it’s just plain creepy, whether it’s the NSA or Amazon with the potential to know my every heart’s desire.

But at the end of the day, when we start making tradeoffs, I’d rather have cyber-snooping than cops with assault rifles and attack dog in every subway station. Or have to undergo a strip-search to get into Fenway Park for a ball game.

Yes, I know all this data collecting could turn out to be a really terrible thing.

Suppose that the powers that be decide they want to ferret out everyone who reads Paul Krugman and thrown them in jail. Or everyone who’s a member of the ACLU. Or follows Glenn Beck on Twitter. (Do I really think that last one is going to happen? Nah… I just threw that one in there to even things up a bit.)

If we get one of those wack oppressive/repressive governments in there – the kind that will have us all breaking out our V for Vendetta masks – then, guess what? They’re going to be keeping track and  tracking us down whether we like it or not, and they won’t give a hoot whether the slope they’re on is already slippery.

But that’s not the government that we have at present (or past).

Certainly, we have a less than glorious history of propping up some fairly rancid dictators. And, at the more micro level, plenty of folks have been the victim of gross miscarriage of justice. They’ve been railroaded by cops and prosecutors who wanted to “solve” a crime and had a jones for them. (And just think how much easier these frame-ups will be when someone can create an entirely bogus cyber-record against you.)

Still, on balance, I’ll take our society over one in which women get beaten over the head if they go out in public without their burqua.

While we’re at our conversation about privacy and security, how about revisiting just how secure our security apparatus is.

If one 29 year old geek could get access to all this info, imagine if evil-doers, bad guys, rotters, thieves can get at it.

So while we’re having the conversation about privacy and security, let’s save some time to talk about checks and balances, and who watches the watchers.

I said earlier that I though Edward Snowden is naïve.

I read that he was hoping to find safe harbor in Iceland because the society is more open, more Internet friendly, more “free the information”, more whatever.

Believe me, I have on occasion thought about where I’d go if things got really bad here. Canada’s the obvious choice – it seems like the U.S. without the baggage. Then there’s Ireland. Or Denmark.

Iceland? Sure. Why not?

But it’s a lot easier being an ideal society – or whatever it is that Iceland appears to be – if you’re small and out of the way and monochrome.

The U.S. – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – is The Player. We’re richer. More powerful. Bigger. Bolder.  More diverse. More complex. Better at everything. Worse at everything else.

Let’s face it, it’s easier being Iceland than it is being us.

But most of us do, of course, want to form a more perfect union.

Which means we really should have the conversation that Edward Snowden has kicked off.

To quote one of our recent presidents, bring it on.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Storm Chasing

When those tornadoes started spinning across Oklahoma a couple of weeks back, I was as riveted to the TV as the next guy. There’s just something about the unpredictability – and, of course, the potential devastation - of this type of storm that makes them so fascinating.

Sure, I watch the hurricane and blizzard tracking all the time. But while they do have their twists and turns, and as often as not peter out after we’ve all hunkered down prepared for the worst, they do tend to stay more or less on track.

With tornadoes, it’s the weird touch-downs that are so particularly unsettling.

Not to mention the crazy images of houses and cows being sucked into the swirl and plunked down miles away.

Anyway, while watching the latest rounds from Tornado Alley, I actually learned a few things. That the clay soil of Oklahoma makes it difficult (but not impossible) to build basements. That cost as much as anything prevents people from including basements, safe rooms, or some other type of shelter in the plans when new houses are built. (Wonder how many opt for a walk-in closet or “great room” rather than a means to shelter in place?) That a car is a really terrible place to be when a tornado’s bearing down on you, and you’re better off getting out of your car and throwing yourself face down in a ditch. That sometimes those in the path of a tornado may receive conflicting advice – as in the weatherman who was urging residents in a certain area to get in their cars and drive south to outrun the tornado, while emergency management personnel were telling folks to go knock on the door of the prudent neighbor with a safe room. That there are serious, professional storm chasers whose work may actually saves lives. And that even serious, professional storm chasers – and not just the thrill-seeking lunkheads and/or members of the media, perhaps distinguishable from the thrill-seeking lunkheads only in that they are traveling in cars/van with a newstation logo on the side  – can get killed by a tornado.

On the one hand, you almost wish that if someone were going to get sucked up in the vortex, it would be the thrill-seeking amateur lunkhead rather than the skilled professional. Apparently, there are droves of amateurs who hop in their cars, camera in hand, with hopes of being the ones to get the best capture on video, all the while getting in the way of the serious plodders (i.e., the scientists) who are recording information on humidity, temperature, wind velocity – the closer the better - so that they can fuel the models that are making tornado predicting more accurate.

"It's dangerous to have a lot of storm chasers out there because you create traffic jams near a twister and then it's impossible to get out of the way," [Howard Bluestein, University of Oklahoma] says. "With so many cars in an area, it becomes impossible to get out of the way if something happens."

[Tim] Samaras commented on the growing number of storm chasers in an interview he gave to National Geographic in May.

"We run into [storm chasers] all the time," he said. "On a big tornado day in Oklahoma, you can have hundreds of storm chasers lined up down the road ... We know ahead of time when we chase in Oklahoma, there's going to be a traffic jam." (Source: National Geographic.)

Tim Samaras, of course, is the weather professional who was one of three killed in the latest Oklahoma tornado.  His death apparently comes as something of a surprise, given that he was considered the anti-thesis of the reckless, cowboy storm chaser. He was cautious: a scientist, an engineer.

Samaras was in his fifties, and had been storm chasing for years. He was drawn to tornadoes as a kid while watching – you can’t make this up – The Wizard of Oz, and made it his life’s work.

He was also a founder of TWISTEX, which does tornado research, and had developed a number of probes to take storm measurements.

Worse ways to go out than doing something you love, that’s for sure.

Sadly – and, of course, there’s always a sadly - his twenty-something son, Paul, who also worked at TWISTEX, was killed as well.

Somehow, someone in his fifties dying doing what he loved is easier to take than someone in his twenties dying doing what he loved.

In truth, although I was vaguely aware of storm chasers before reading about the death of Tim Samaras, there’s an awful lot on them out there – and an awful lot of info on storm chasing, too.

Needless to stay, I didn’t plow through all mega-million hits when I googled “storm chaser.” But in addition to the bogus certificate programs and “professional storm chasers” advertising their willingness to do product endorsements, I came across the bracing opinion of meteorologist John Knox, who cried “bunkum” on storm chasing – professional and amateur -  in USA Today last week.

Without addressing the merits of Samaras’ work – other than to poo-poo most distinctions between good and bad chasers -   Knox pointed out that, since the movie Twister came out in 1996, meteorology programs began offering storm-chasing classes, and the number of meteorology degrees sharply increased. Many of these students, Knox argues, specialized in the “experiential learning” of storm chasing, rather than the nuts and bolts math and science work that real meteorology requires. 

Which met the perfect storm of 24/7 “news”, promoting an interest in what “one colleague calls this "ptornography," tornado pornography,” and which Knox fears – with the recent Oklahoma deaths – will now start bringing us “tornado ‘snuff films’.”

Knox wants the world to:

Embrace the scientific and educational good in chasing, and there is some, but condemn the rest publicly.

And put an end to “storm chasing” as a career option “for the hundreds or thousands who went to college thinking they'd be the next cable-TV chaser hero.”

Having spent a couple of hours gaping at the TV reports following the recent Oklahoma tornadoes, I guess I let myself get a tad too close to becoming a “ptornography” consumer.  But I really don’t want to see any "tornado ‘snuff film’.” Next time, I’ll just hit the channel cruiser and find a re-run of Rockford Files or something…

Meanwhile, I still don’t think it’s all that bad to die doing something you love, even if it’s not apt to happen in the wonderful world of marketing.


My friend Valerie sent me this from NewsOK, which shows a storm chasing tourism pic. Yikes! (Thanks, V.)

Screen capture from Extreme Tornado Tour's Facebook page. <strong></strong>

Friday, June 07, 2013

Go nuts for cronuts

Forget everything you knew about “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” 

Among epicures, screaming for sweeties is out, queuing is in. At least in lower Manhattan, where folks are lining up in the wee hours outside of Dominique Ansel’s Bakery so that they’ll be able to snag a cronut when the place opens. Not familiar with the cronut? Why, it’s a:

…a croissant-doughnut hybrid that has seizecronutcropped-slideshow (1)d the New York imagination like a must-see show. (Source: Huff Po; picture, however, is from the bakery site itself.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional donut. (My donut of choice: DD chocolate glaze.) And a once in a blue moon croissant is fine, too. (Croissant of choice: Au Bon Pain chocolate, spinach if I’m feeling virtuous.) So maybe a combo – pardon me, a hybrid – would be delish. Especially if concocted by a pastry chef who had worked at Fauchon, a gourmet food shop in Paris that’s food porn on display if I’ve ever seen it.

But would it be worth standing in line for two hours to get one?

This is not a trick question, and the answer is “no.”

At least if you’re anything like me, the type who seldom/never waits in line for anything.  Let alone a cronut.

This sort of reminds me of when Krispy Kreme opened a couple of stores in the Boston area, and folks were lining up for the opportunity to sample a diabetic-coma-inducing, tooth-enamel-penetrating, Southern fried confection. I actually was able to try one at a customer meeting. None of us were impressed, and I guess that goes for most of the locals, as well.  I just looked at their locations, and I believe the only one in New England is a Mohegan Sun (a casino in Connecticut).

As is well known, New Englanders are so naturally sweet that we don’t require infusion of cloying Krispy Kreme, thank you.

I’m quite certain that a cronut from Dominique Ansel is tastier than a Krispy Kreme donut, but I would not wait in (or, in New York parlance, on) line for one even it it promised to be the BEST THINKG EVAH. Or for anything else. We won’t even wait more than 10 minutes for a table in a restaurant. Some things are just not worth it.

Some New Yorkers have also decided that waiting two hours to buy a cronut is not worth it to them, either. But they are paying scalpers to get their hands and mouths on one.

The other day, the first in line were:

…a pair of cronut scalpers named Joe and Danny Bird who, moments after purchasing four of the $5 treats, have flipped them for $20 a piece to a woman who approached them about a cronut exchange before the bakery's doors even opened.

"Tomorrow, the price is double," says Joe Bird, who works in construction and is just flipping cronuts to pad his income. After his first purchase, he immediately gets back in line to buy a second round, with plans to unload those, too. Before most people are at work for the day, he and Danny are on track to clear $120.

The Bird-men aren’t the only ones.

On Craigslist, cronuts are on offer for $25 per, $55 if you buy two:

…unless you’re above 59th Street, in which case it’s $30 for one and $65 for two. It’s okay if you don’t have cash, he takes PayPal. (Source: Betabeat.)

More if you want to take delivery in Queens. You’re apparently out of luck if you live in the Bronx or Staten Island.

Of course, people who are paying $30 for a cronut are not really interested in the cronut. They’re just swept up in the madness of crowds, and want bragging rights for having bagged a cronut. In the old days, folks got to prove their mettle by being hunter-gatherers. Now they show their chops by effetely ordering up a couple of cronuts on Craigslist.  Okay, maybe this doesn’t really mean that we’re on the road to perdition, but it’s not exactly setting the societal/cultural bar any higher than the dismally low bracket it already occupies.

There used to be a cigarette ad that had a smoker claiming he’d walk a mile for a Camel.

Well, walking a mile is hardly a barrier to entry.

If I really wanted a cronut, I would have no problem walking a mile to get one.

But I’d be (honey) dipped before I’d wait in line two hours to buy one, let alone paying a scalper $25 for the privilege.

I suspect that the next time in New York, cronut-mania will have died down. If I’m in the neighborhood, I might drop in to Dominique Ansel’s and see what the big fuss was all about.


A munch of cruller to my sister Trish for pointing this story out.

And for my sister Kath’s great take on Cronuts, click here.  LOL her first thought that “Cronuts” stood for batty old ladies, as in Crone + Nuts.