Friday, August 30, 2013

The Standard Hotel’s Ad: yet another reason I am just as happy not to be a hipster

It may be because I no longer stay at hotels when I’m in NYC – we’ve been pretty much into the rent-by-owner apartment thing for the last few years – I had never even heard The Standard.

Or it may be that I am just such an irredeemably non-hipster old lady that I was not aware of these hotels.  My hipster quotient is no doubt well below The Standard’s minimum threshold: I don’t own a fedora, or wear Tom’s,  Converse high-tops, or Keds low-tops. I do wear vintage, but it is vintage I own from the first time around. (If only I’d held on to that kelly-green boucle coat…) I like irony as much as the next guy, but I don’t own a single ironic tee-shirt (assuming that the Just Say Moe with the picture of Moe Howard on it doesn’t count).

With zero awareness of The Standard, I had no knowledge of the controversial ad campaign they’ve been running for the last year.

So here I was, blissfully enjoying my The Standard-free dotage, when I saw (over on Buzzfeed) that their latest in a series of provocative ads – the kind certain to make an old crone, however keen on staying in a hotel on NYC’s wonderful High Line, Just Say No – was creating a bit of controversy. Which I suspect is pretty much right up the alley of The Standard’s hipster audience.Standard Hotel ad 4 Although, now that I think of it, The Standard might be a bit out of the price reach of the average hipster, who is no doubt more likely to seek out the type of raffish hotel that William Burroughs might have overdosed in. But, nonetheless, The Standard does seem to strive to give off an artsy sensibility, and where there’s an artsy sensibility, surely there’s a hipster sensibility as well.

In any case, while I don’t necessarily see that this one is “trivializing violence against women, which is how Rosie at Make Me A Sammich views it, there is nothing about seeing a dead young woman crushed by her suitcase that calls out “why not stay here” to me, that’s for sure.

Others in the series have been equally (non-)Standard Hotel ad 3enticing:

Young woman drooling into her soup? Is there anyone who’s thinking I want what she’s having?

And how about about guy with heStandard Hotel ad 2ad down dining woman’s shirt? No wonder people order from room service.

My particular favorite shows a woman peeing on the floor. I’ll spare you that one, but who wants to stay in a hotel that advertises someone urinating on the carpet? Maybe not as bad as finding bedbugs in your room (as long as you don’t step in a damp spot). But, still…

The photos used in these ads are from Erwin Wurm’s series “One Minute Sculptures.”

While Wurm is a bit long in the tooth to be a hipster, he’s certainly got a lot of it down.

His web site doesn’t actually show any of his photos: just lists of his galleries and shows. And there’s his ultra-minimal biography:

Born in 1954
Lives in Vienna and Limberg, Austria

Date-of-birth aside – that and the fact that last time I looked neither Vienna nor Limberg was a cool address – there’s something decidedly hipsterish about that bio.

I know I’m not The Standard’s demographic. These days, I don’t think I’m anyone’s, other than the AARP and Centrum Silver. Perhaps for my epitaph I’ll use “the only demographic in which she belongs.”

I don’t suppose The Standard gives an AARP discount, do you?

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Body language

I saw an article last week in The Wall Street Journal on body language. The piece suggested that those who want to get ahead in this man’s world might want to practice “powering posing” for a few minutes every day.

Striking a powerful, expansive pose actually changes a person's hormones and behavior, just as if he or she had real power. The Great John L(Source: WSJ.)

Don’t know about you, but here’s what I’m picturing. (I shook the hand that shook the hand that shook the hand of the Great John L)

Guess those bad boys were on to something.


Merely practicing a "power pose" for a few minutes in private—such as standing tall and leaning slightly forward with hands at one's side, or leaning forward over a desk with hands planted firmly on its surface—led to higher levels of testosterone [which tends to boost confidence and aggressive behavior] and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in study participants. These physiological changes are linked to better performance

“Power posing” is applicable beyond the office. For one thing, it might help you get in the door it you pose it up before a job interview. And get you into the college or B-school of your dreams: posers who posed before college entrance exams raised their score levels.

Perhaps the one tiny thing missing in my otherwise illustrious and all together excellent career was the small amount of energy I put into power posing and raising my testosterone level.

Anyway, the article got me thinking about body language-related incidents in my past.

Early on in my career, I took a presentation skills class in which they video taped us all giving a brief talk.

Me being me, I volunteered to go first, foregoing the opportunity to learn by observing the mistakes my colleagues were making and avoiding them.

Anyway, I was pretty shocked to see the video, in which I was leaning back at an almost impossible angle, with my hands clasped in front of me in what I later learned was called the Fig Leaf pose.

Fortunately, I was an eager learner, and on the final exam my body language was superb. (Sheryl Sandberg was on to something when she titled her book Lean In.)

Fast forward a few years, and my friend Cathy and I decided that we had better things to do than sit through yet another interminable rah-rah meeting during which some Wang exec tried to convince us that Wang had a rosy future.

On our way out, we ran into another Wang exec who was on his way in to wave a few more pom-poms.

We spoke with him for a few seconds – I can’t recall what he asked us – but we learned later that, when he got up to give his Buckle Down, Winsocki oration, he referred to us as “a couple of slump-shouldered women” that he’d run into making an early exit. Clearly our posture had given us away as the type of dud employees who were not going to help lead Wang out of the abyss and into its glorious future.  Bad Wangers!

In truth, it was amazing that, by that point, there were any Wang employees capable of walking upright. After all we’d been through, you’d think that all of us would have been stretched out in the corridors, sucking our thumbs and staring off into space. Now that would have been the body language more appropriate to the situation.

Oh, I have a few more body language stories in my corpus o’ business tales, but my favorite is one that I know second hand only.

At Genuity, I was friendly with a fellow who, for a few months, reported to this extremely strange and paranoid individual who, even by the all-politics, all-the-time standards of the company, was always on the political alert. (That she was spectacularly inept at playing politics was beside the point; she was always trying to get in the game.)

Anyway, I ran into my colleague and he told me that he had just had quite an encounter with his boss, who had dressed him down for the behavior he’d shown in a meeting.

“I can’t believe the signals you were giving off when X was talking. They were entirely inappropriate,” she told him.

My friend played the meeting back through his mind, and couldn’t come up with anything that could be construed as inappropriate.

“I don’t understand,” he told her. “When X was presenting, I leaned forward, listened attentively, and asked good questions. At least I thought I did…”

What my friend hadn’t taken into consideration was that X was The Enemy of the Day.

“Exactly,” crazy manager hissed, “That’s precisely what you were doing. You acted as if you were interested. You encouraged him. You made him look good. You were totally off base.”

So beware of your body language! It can get your going or coming.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Donald: still being schooled on Trump University

If there’s someone on the American celebrimaginative scene who’s more stunningly ridiculous and obnoxious than Donald Trump, the name’s not coming to my mind just now.

I would say that he’s a latter-day P.T. Barnum, if P.T. Barnum had been born with a silver developer’s groundbreaking shovel in his hands. But P.T. Barnum actually gave us some worthwhile stuff: like General Tom Thumb and his equally diminutive bride Lavinia, the Barnum & Bailey Circus (if you like that sort of thing), and a stuffed elephant granted to Tufts University, which gives Tufts its team name, The Jumbos.

He also gave us an adage to live by – “There’s a sucker born every day”  - even if it’s more likely that it was said not by him, but about him, in reference to the folks he was duping.

What’d we ever get from The Donald? “You’re fired,” birther nonsense, and bad hair jokes.

Anyway, there’s plenty of wisdom packed into that one little sentence.  While most of us would take it as a caution – i.e., don’t be a sucker - Mr. Trump apparently adopted it as words to live by. It may even be on Trump’s coat of arms. (Dollar sign rampant, hair piece couchant.)

And now, a couple of years after his Trump University had to rebrand itself as the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, and shroud all Trump U’s wisdom and knowledge behind the firewall of its virtually ivy-covered virtual halls by password-protecting it, the New York state AG is going after Trump for defrauding “students” out of their hard-earned (or hard-borrowed) cash in hopes of becoming a Trump Mini-Me:

…saying the real estate mogul helped run a phony "Trump University" that promised to make students rich but instead steered them into expensive and mostly useless seminars, and even failed to deliver promised apprenticeships.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says many of the 5,000 students who paid up to $35,000 thought they would at least meet Trump but instead all they got was their picture taken in front of a life-size picture of "The Apprentice" TV star. (Source: Huffington Post.)

While it’s hard to imagine someone so limited in intellectual capacity that they’d let themselves be fleeced out of $35K like this, such is the hold that “brand” and “celebrity” and the lure of “get rich quick” have on the American psyche.

Meanwhile, Trump – no doubt delighted to have this free publicity opportunity handed to him during the summer doldrums -  has countered by claiming that the lawsuit is without grounds – sort of like Trump U, come to think of it – and that the AG is motivated by politics.  Trump’s attorney is arguing that the AG is trying to extort campaign contributions. But surely the AG is canny enough to realize that it’s hard to grift a grifter.

Trump’s man also says that:

… Trump University provided nearly 11,000 testimonials to Schneiderman from students praising the program and said 98 percent of students in a survey termed the program "excellent."

Ah, but what does this mean if you don’t know the measurement scale:

Would you rate your experience with Trump University: a) excellent; b) better than excellent; c) unbelievably better than better than excellent; d) all of the above. In order for us to provide you with a colored photograph (suitable for framing) of you yourself standing in front of a life-size cardboard pop-up of Mr. Trump, you must answer this question.

On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that 98 percent of those who were capable of convincing themselves that matriculated at Trump U was a good idea were equally capable of convincing themselves that the experience had been excellent.

The $40 million that Schneiderman seeks will be used to repay Trump U alumni.

There may, indeed, be a sucker born every minute, but sometimes those suckers have a moment of WTF clarity – sucker’s remorse, as it were – and sometimes the attorney general steps in and decides that even suckers deserve consumer protection.

Personally – if somewhat maliciously – I’d love to see this lawsuit succeed, if only to find out whether Trump has the $40 million on hand to pay it off.

Here was Pink Slip’s take on Trump University -  Hey, Donald Trump. Wossamotta U? – from May 2011.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Remember when the big toilet paper debate was putting the roll over or under? Make way for the fatberg!

When it comes to putting the toilet paper roll on the holder, I grew up in an “over” household. But somewhere along the way I converted to “under”.

I understand that I am the minority here, but in truth, I can go either way.

I did, however, embrace the family brand, and I am a Scott toilet paper girl all the way….

Scott is a nice compromise between those “cotton-y soft” or “quilted” brands that are too squooshy for my tastes, and the completely non-absorbent, shiny waxed paper variety I encountered on my first trip to England many long flushes ago.

I believe that the toilet paper in the British Museum even had the crown embossed on it. 

It struck me at the time that, if Her Royal Majesty could go out of her way to endorse a toilet paper, she could have chosen one that actually worked.

A square of newspaper would have done the trick far better than waxed paper, that’s for sure.

Personally, other than the over-under argument, and the squooshy soft vs. Scott’s “just right” options to chose from, there shouldn’t be all that much to do, say, or improve upon the use of toilet paper, should there?  After all, toilet paper has been – at least by my apparently lax standards of hygiene –  a completely adequate replacement for hayballs, corncobs, leaves – what about poison ivy? – Sears Roebuck catalogs, snow, moss, coconut shells, a sponge soaked in salt water, mussel shells, and sand, which, according to the Toilet Paper World Encyclopedia were all used at one point or another.  There was also something called a gompf stick, which I take it was a scraper. (Ugh.)  When in Rome, if you were wealthy, anyway, you used a combination of wool and rosewater, which sounds okay as long as you weren’t the one responsible for disposing of the wool.

Having seen them on “reality TV”, I do understand that there are some frugal fanatics who make their own reusable toilet paper out of rags, apparently discounting the water, soap, bleach, and energy (assuming they don’t hand wash) cost of laundering said rags, the opportunity cost spent doing said laundry, and the reputational and child-embarrassment costs associated with being the type of person to make your own reusable t.p.

Anyway, in the world we live in, I would have thought that the lid was firmly down on any to be or not to be discussion on using toilet paper.

If it ain’t broke…

But the consumer gerbil-wheel we all spin on requires constant innovation. So now we are being invited by Kimberly Clark brand Cottonelle to “start the conversation” about the “taboo topic” about whether plain old toilet paper is sufficient to meet the purpose at hand. Or whether:

…North Americans [should get] talking about their bums and on the road to a better way to clean "down there" by using the Cottonelle Clean Routine -- combining dry toilet paper and flushable wipes for a cleaner, fresher experience. With the help of London-based immersive journalist, Cherry Healey, Cottonelle is helping consumers to open up about their bathroom behaviors and "makeover" their old toileting routine. And with a sleek, newly designed dispenser for Cottonelle Flushable Cleansing Cloths, Healey is set to start the conversation now. (Source: Kimberly Clark press release.)

Well, all I can say is the Brits have come a long way in terms of their own loo-ish fastidiousness since the days of the waxed toilet paper.

Now they’re telling us how to come clean?

It's true that nothing will leave you feeling cleaner and fresher than the Cottonelle Care Routine. This combination provides a clean you can feel throughout the day so you'll be ready for anything. Unfortunately, since bathroom habits are not something that people regularly talk about, many people don't know that there is a better way to get clean than just using toilet paper alone. According to a recent survey, one third of Americans find "wiping your bum" to be the most taboo topic likely because more than 50 percent of us say we were raised not to discuss what happens behind the bathroom door. However, it seems America is ready to open the door to this topic since 80 percent of Americans say they would be comfortable talking about bathroom habits with others.

Hard to believe that Americans are uncomfortable talking about anything these days. Especially given that, “more than 60 percent of us talk on the phone and nearly 40 percent email while on the toilet.”

I did not need to know this.

The Cottonelle brand feels so strongly about the importance of highlighting better bottom care that it updated the flushables' packaging to an upright, durable dispenser as well as the name - from "wipes" to "cleansing cloths" to better reflect the role they play in a care routine. …The goal is for the Cottonelle Care Routine to become a regular bathroom habit, so much so that having wipes on hand become part of bathroom etiquette. Right now, most Americans agree that not wiping off the seat (94%), forgetting to flush (92%) and not refilling toilet paper (74%) are offensive bathroom behaviors. One quarter (25%) of Americans agree that not having flushable wipes is offensive but that number could increase as more people adopt the routine.

More than one quarter of Americans “agree that not having flushable wipes is offensive”?


Well, I suppose that nothing should surprise us here, given that only about half of our country-folk believe in evolution.

Before we all start adopting the Cottonelle Care Routing, and revving up the numbers on how we negatively view those who lag behind the adoption curve, we may want to take into consideration a bit of the British experience with the use of wet wipes “cleansing cloths,” which they have been taking to more rapidly than their American cousins.

What those “cleansing cloths” are doing over there is combining with fat to form something called a fatberg:

A sewer-clogging lump of congealed cooking fat mixed with wet wipes and other products. Coined from fat and the suffix of iceberg.

Last week workers cleared a “bus-sized” fatberg from the London sewer system, averting a huge sewage overflow in the suburb of Kingston. (Source: Nancy Friedman’s blog Fritinancy).

Just what we need.

A squeeze of the Charmin to my sister Kathleen, who first read about this on Britishisms (bum being more of a Brit usage than the more All-American bottom or butt).

And as if the world were not already a crazy enough place, Galley Cat spotted one of the cartoon Charmin teddy bears carrying a volume of Kafka while on his way to do his thing…

Monday, August 26, 2013

Put a ring on it…

Before I leave to take a ride on the T – Boston’s public transpo system – I take my Charlie Card (smart card that contains the electronic version of the subway tokens that used to clang around in change purses for us women and pockets for you men*) out of my wallet and place it in my hand.

That way, when I get to the T station, I don’t have to fumble around in my pocketbook to find my wallet it, and can quickly glide through the turnstile and head on up or down to catch my train.

The Charlie Card fumble is but a minor annoyance, one of many on the long list of minor life annoyances (which will be a full topic for another day). Personally, I find it more annoying that, whencharlie card I approach the T station I am most likely to use, I have to decide whether it’s worth jay-running to catch the train I can hear chugging out of the tunnel, or prudently wait for the light to change and catch the next train. This is less of a problem than it used to be, now that there are heat lamps that makes dead-of-winter waiting less onerous at the Charles-MGH station,  which has an outdoor platform.

For those not familiar with this T station – and why should you be? – this is a partial of what the approach is like. There are actually two of these stretches, and a) they’re not that wide; b) they have Walk-Don’t Walk (which in Boston is pedestrian-optional) signs; and c) they generally have cars in them. This street-level approach replaced a couple of rickety metal bridges. The risk on those was that you’d slip on the steps and break your leg running for a train, as opposed to the far worse risk of getting hit by a car hurtling off the Salt-and-Pepper bridge and running a red light (or failing to stop for jay-runners). So, we now have a more handicapped accessible way of getting to the station than we had in the past, but it’s a way that may well produce more people requiring at least temporary handicapped accessibility precisely because they were run down by a delivery van, cab, or commuter. Hmmmm.

But I digress, when the real point of this post is to address – not digress – the minor annoyance that is making sure that you have your Charlie Card in hand when you’re hurrying to catch a train.

For every minor annoyance (turn, turn, turn), there is a minor solution (turn, turn, turn), and a time for every purpose under heaven.

And for the minor annoyance that is making sure that you have your Charlie Card at the ready, the minor solution is the Sesame Ring, the brainchild of some MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design undergrads:

“Having missed the train many times while fishing for our Charlie Cards (smart cards used for public transportation in Massachusetts), we looked for a solution in wearable technology. After months of hard work, we created the 3D-printed Sesame Ring, supported by the MBTA,” the project page states. “Now, you can walk right up to the gantry, use scientifically approved magic, and scoot on through!”

The project has more than exceeded that $5K Kickstart it’s looking for, thanks to the publicity it received on, which, in turn, inspired those who want to join the ranks of “wearable technologists” (their words), without going cross-eyed and insane with Google Glass, to commit $27 to replace or augment their so-yesterday Charlie Cards with a hip and happenin’ piece of bling.

Michael Morisy, the Innovation blogger, has characterized the rings as “stylish.”

Well, I don’t know about that.

I looks more like something you’d be able to trade the 50 tickets you won playing skee-ball at the arcade for, but I will reserve full judgment until mine – I ordered the tangerine – is delivered in a couple of months.

sesame ring

Ah, the minor annoyance can be such a slippery slope.

Here  I was getting all sorts of ready to make fun of finding a minor solution to a minor problem, and the next thing you know, I’m in for $27 worth a wearable technology.

It was the 3D printing that made me do it…


*I actually wanted to use parentheses with the letters F and M in them here, but attempts to do so resulted in these unwanted and pesky little icons: Red rose and Messenger.  I get the “F is for flower” but what up with those two little guys? Is that supposed to be “M is for marriage” or “M is for men”?

Icons off!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Call 911 for a cable outage? Oh, grow up!

It’s not as if I’ve never called 911.

Why, in just the last couple of years, I have dialed it on several occasions.

Last December, we smelled burning wires. The odor seemed to me to be emanating from our heating system. It seemed to my husband, who just happens to be the great-great-grandson of Ebenezer Scrooge, that, somehow, my plugging in the Christmas tree  - with those oh, so, powerful tiny white lights – had sparked a chain of Bad Events that was going to burn the house down.

After examining the tiny-white-light wire and plug, and the wall socket, my husband conceded that this was not very likely to be the source of the burning wire smell.

We waited a bit to make sure that the smell was not dissipating – it wasn’t – and proceeded to call 911. When I got the dispatcher, I explained that while this did not seem to be an emergency-emergency – there were no flames licking the walls, no smoke billowing from the vent registers – it did seem worthy of a check out. I asked whether they would advise us to call our HVAC service 24 hour number, or whether they thought the BFD should come by.

Not surprisingly, the answer was BFD. An engine was dispatched, and after a walkthrough of our condo, the BFD declared that, while it was good that we had called, it was not a bfd. We did have a smoldering wire in our heat exchange, but once the heating system was shutdown, we were not to worry. (I also got the BFD to declare that plugging in the Christmas tree had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the incident.)

Not having heat wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the world, this being New England in December, but we survived.

Earlier in the same year, I had been at The Writers Room of Boston on a Sunday, working with a friend and fellow member, along with my 15 year old niece, to defrost The Room’s ancient, ice-impacted dorm-sized fridge, which is used primarily to house members’ lunch yogurts, milk for coffee, and left over lunches (which are typically left to go bad). Marilyn and I were doing our civic duty as members. By assisting with Operation Defrost, and helping out a needy non-profit, Molly was earning a couple hours to check off her community service requirements list.

Anyway, in my zeal to complete the project, I managed to sever the Freon line.

Marilyn and I had the presence of mind to get us all out of the kitchen, shut the door, and open a number of windows. Oh, yes, and to dispatch Molly to the downstairs lobby a.s.a.p. so that she wouldn’t be inhaling any Freon.

Heads hanging out the windows so as not to breathe the Freon-ish air, I tried googling to see what level of haz-mat this was. Meanwhile, Marilyn tried to get a hold of her son-in-law the chemical engineer.

When neither of us was able to easily find the answer, we joined Molly in the lobby, where I called 911.

Again, I explained that this was not a grave emergency, but that we just wanted to talk to someone about whether The Room was a haz-mat site, whether we needed to inform the building manager, whether someone who had breathed in some Freon should seek medical attention, etc.

Well, it was a slow Sunday morning in downtown Boston, and the jakes were getting bored hanging around the station, so within a couple of minutes, we had a fire truck out front, and a couple of laughing firemen explaining that the only way the Freon would have harmed someone was if a double-wide freezer-fridge had exploded in something the size of a telephone booth. One of the firefighters volunteered to go up and toss the dorm fridge out the window for us, but we declined.

My third recent 911 encounter occurred after I witnessed a wrong-way bicyclist struck by a delivery truck. The bloody bicyclist was hurled into the air, nearly landing on me, and after I quickly assured him – based on no particular wisdom or authority – that he was going to be all right, I called 911 to report an accident. (By the way, the guy was all right, even though the way he was bicycling was all wrong.)

Of these three incidents, the one where I probably should have called the non-emergency number was the Freon blast – even if I was extremely happy to have the firefighter assurance that Molly was going to be okay.

But, let’s face it, 911 is more memorable than whatever the non-emergency equivalent is. (There is a 211 number but, when I read up on it, it sounded a bit too non-emergency-ish.)

Anyway, over the period during which I called 911 three times, I would estimate that we lost Internet and/or TV service on at least a half dozen occasions.

These occurrences prompted a) grousing, b) calls to Comcast, c) checks on the old Blackberry to see whether there were outages in the area.

It would not have occurred to me in a billion years to call 911.

Then again, I don’t live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and I don’t watch Breaking Bad, which was apparently on the other evening, when  Fairfield was flooded with 911 calls from upset Cablevision subscribers.

The Fairfield Police Department was not amused and took to its Facebook page to post a refresher course on using its emergency system. The message read:

"We are receiving numerous 911 calls regarding the Cablevision outage. This is neither an emergency or a police related concern. Please direct your inquiries to Cablevision. 911 should only be called for Life Threatening Emergencies ONLY. Incidents that are not of an emergency nature may be reported to the Fairfield Police Department. ... Misuse of the 911 system may result in an arrest." (Source: Hartford Courant.)

What would possess someone to call 911 because they didn’t have TV reception?

I don’t typically set myself up as any sort of paragon of normalcy, but isn’t my typical reaction to a cable outage the normal one?

I.e., what is called for is a combination of a) grousing, b) calls to the cable provider, c) checks on the old smartphone to see whether there were outages in the area.

Tell me that almost the entire population of Fairfield, Connecticut, doesn’t have an iPhone that was not impaired…

Calling 911? What a bunch of boo-boo babies.

One commenter on the Fairfield FB page suggested that because the evening’s episode of Breaking Bad was “super-intense and very riveting”, the people who called 911 “ not thinking rationally when reaching for the phone." Which the commenter found “kind of awesome.”

Well, I guess in a way that a TV show can be so “riveting” and “super intense” that viewers suspend the rational parts of their brain is “kind of awesome.”

I certainly got swept up in the final episode of The Sopranos.

But I think that if cable had broken bad while Meadow was parallel parking outside the diner, and Tony was starting to play Don’t Stop Believing on the juke box in the booth, I would have started swearing my head off. And looking for the #$*&&(@!!!&(*number for Comcast.

I might not have been quite as calm as Fairfield resident Benn Gott, who wrote:

"When my Internet went out an hour ago," he wrote on Facebook, "I took a hint, put one of my dad's old jazz records on the turntable, and pulled out a good book. That, plus the crickets and peepers, has turned this into a very good night indeed."

But I don’t think it would have occurred to me to call 911.

I first read about this in an AP article on

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Boredom Room

Somewhere, early on in my work life, I worked at a bank.

There were a couple of older men who “worked” in our immediate area who didn’t appear to have all that much to do. They came in late, had long – presumably liquid – lunches, and left early.

When I inquired, I was told that they had not been doing a particularly good job in their earlier positions of importance, so they’d been kept on in make-work, do-nothing positions. All very old-school-tie WASPy – all the machers at the bank were prepster-Ivy Leaguers.  Let’s put old Dexter Standish III in a place where he can do no harm; after all, I crewed with Dex at the Snodgrass School, and his sister is married to my brother. Let’s allow Mansfield Mayflower IV to wait out the years until he can collect his pension in a respectable “job” where he can continue to make use of all those nifty seersucker suits and bow ties from J. Press.

There was even an eponymous term for the act of taking care of an old school tie-er. When someone was kept on in this way, it was said that he was being Elliot Quincy’d.*

Of course, this benefit was only available to members of the club.

Still, back in the day it was, at least for some folks, a kinder, gentler world when it came to keeping the pay checks coming in.

I hadn’t thought of Elliot Quincy in years. But then I read an article last week in The New York Times about something the Times calls the boredom room, which is where workers who by law cannot be laid off are sent to wile away the hours.

Shusaku Tani is a Sony employee who, for the past two years, has gone to “work” in:

…a small room, taken a seat and then passed the time reading newspapers, browsing the Web and poring over engineering textbooks from his college days. He files a report on his activities at the end of each day.

Bet that makes for fascinating reading.

Anyway, when his job was eliminated, Tani – who is only 51 – thumbed his nose at the early-retirement package, which he was able to do under Japanese labor law, which goes to extraordinary lengths to protect employees.

So there he sits in what is called the “chasing-out room” [a.k.a., the boredom room]. He spends his days there, with about 40 other holdouts.

“I won’t leave,” Mr. Tani said. “Companies aren’t supposed to act this way. It’s inhumane.”

I’ve had plenty of bouts with boredom at work over the years, but none of them lasted very long, and I can’t imagine anyone who could go to work, and have nothing to do, for such a protracted period of time and not go nuts.

And it sure sounds like Mr. Tani is letting his stubbornness get the better of him.

Other than knowing about company loyalty and employment for life, I know precious little about how the Japanese economy works – maybe an engineer in his late forties is unemployable - but surely someone that young, with the cushion of a generous severance package, could have spent the last two years trying to find something else to do, other than pore over his moldering college text books and seethe.

The existence of Japan’s boredom rooms is, of course, emblematic of the labor market problems the country has. Given Japan’s rigid labor laws, companies are reluctant to hire younger workers, since employment means a lifetime, death-do-us-part commitment on the part of an employer.

Economists say bringing flexibility to the labor market in Japan would help struggling companies streamline bloated work forces to better compete in the global economy. Fewer restrictions on layoffs could make it easier for Sony to leave loss-ridden traditional businesses and concentrate resources on more innovative, promising ones.

How Sony and other firms cope with the strictures placed on them is setting up rooms like the “chasing-out room”, where:

...the real point of the rooms is to make employees feel forgotten and worthless — and eventually so bored and shamed that they just quit, critics say.

Or stay there, seething. Talk about a recipe for someone going postal.

On the other end of how to treat unwanted/unneeded employees is the USA, of course:

…where companies are quick to lay off workers when demand slows or a product becomes obsolete. It is cruel to the worker, but it usually gives the overall economy agility. Some economists attribute the lack of a dynamic economy in Western Europe to labor laws similar to Japan’s that restrict layoffs.

Crappy as it often is at that atomic worker level, I have to say that I prefer the American way, although we could use a bit more on the support side of things to temper the impact of a crappy economy and/or a crappy company on workers and their families.

Critics of labor changes say something more important is at stake. They warn that making it easier to cut jobs would destroy Japan’s social fabric for the sake of corporate profits, causing mass unemployment and worsening income disparities. For a country that has long prided itself on stability and relatively equitable incomes, such a change would be unacceptable.

Well, the good news and the bad news, from the American perspective, is that no one really seems to give a hoot about the social fabric, mass unemployment, and worsening disparities.

Of course, as the article points out, keeping unneeded older workers in non-jobs means that companies hire fewer younger workers, or hire them on a temporary and part-time basis, in which they don’t enjoy any of the protections that the older cohorts do, which is not exactly a recipe for strong social fabric, stability, and equitable incomes. And punitively treating employees by relegating them to boredom rooms can’t be good for that social fabric, either.

While details to the government plans are still being determined, Mr. Tani’s managers at Sony are already upping the ante. Starting this month, the company has ordered him to work 12-hour shifts on an assembly line at a Sony plant in Toyosato, more than an hour’s drive away. He says he will comply.

And, from a psychological standpoint, he’ll probably be a lot better off than he is reading old textbooks and staring off into space.

Is there not a way in which an economy can work on both the micro-worker and macro-enterprise level? Does a safety net have to mean a boredom room?


*No, they did not say “Elliot Quincy’d”. I made that up. I’m obviously not going to give away the guy’s name that was actually used, even if it’s more than likely that he is long dead.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Brand Maasai

The world these days is much more brand-conscious than it once was, say, back in the olden times of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

No, today Brands “R” Us, which, I suspect, is a brand violation in its own right. Or would be if I could figure out how to get that R to go backwards.

And once a brand is prominent, its owners go to great lengths to protect it.

Only officially-blessed MLB merchandise is good enough to be sold at the old ball game. And Harvard doesn’t let just anybody bandy its name around, let alone print it on a sweatshirt. (What do you think “Fight Fiercely Harvard” is all about, anyway?) A few years ago, Disney initially turned down a grieving family that had asked to use the image of their version of Winnie-the-Pooh on their child’s gravestone.  Eventually, Disney decided to let the brand violation go.  But while it’s hard to imagine that Disney said no to begin with – even if they were worried that this would cut into a potential fortune in Disney-themed coffins and headstones -it’s even harder to believe that the bereaved parents asked for permission to begin with. Thus the power of branding, I guess.

Personally, I think that organizations and individuals have a right to protect their brand. At least up to the point where doing so doesn’t become utterly redonkulous.

Anyway, given how important brands are to consumers and producers alike, it’s no surprise that groups would want to make sure that they get what they believe they’re entitled to, brand-wise.

Still, I was a bit taken aback to see an article in The Atlantic – yes, they do, indeed, have at least one subscriber out there, and that would be me – on the efforts by the Maasai tribe to trademark their name, and protect it from being used on:

…“Masai” sneakers (in British shoe stores), “Masai” tinted panoramic windows (on Land Rovers), and bright-blue “Masai” beach towels (at Louis Vuitton boutiques).

The Maasai are being helped in their efforts by a non-profit called Light Years IP, an:

…organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by assisting developing country producers gain ownership of their intellectual property and to use the IP to increase their export income and improve the security of that income.

Light Years helps:

…producers, exporters, and governments in the developing world to analyze their export potential with respect to identifying the value of intangibles and then using IP tools, such as patents, trademarks and licenses, to secure more sustained and higher export income. The ownership of IP is secured in market countries through the existing legal frameworks of the developed world.

Light Years IP believes that the Maasai brand may have an annual value of about $10M - no small change to a poor, semi-nomadic tribe whose way of life and culture is coming under increasing pressure from modernization and climate change. (Not that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if some of that way of life – e.g., female circumcision – died out.) Anyway, in all likelihood, corporate interests – such as sneaker manufacturers, car companies, and luxury-goods producers – may have beaten them to the registration punch.

The Maasai aren’t alone, as:

… more and more indigenous groups are staking claims to their traditional knowledge. Last year, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters over rights to its name; New Zealand has granted patents to the Maori; India recently offered a trademark to tribes making herbal medicines. Compared with these efforts, the Maasai’s branding battle will be more global in scope, but the tribe isn’t the first to go up against a seemingly unassailable target. The Sami, a group of indigenous Artic dwellers, have already taken on Santa Claus—or at any rate, a Finnish tourist attraction called Santa Claus Village. Among their gripes: that the Sami people’s customary blue-and-red outfit has been used to costume the park’s paid “elves.”

Well, good luck to all these indigenous groups, especially the Sami’s looking for compensation for those elf costumes.

But it does strike me that the sort of usage that they’re going after is a lot squishier than a corporation trying to protect its brand names, icons, and taglines.  And where would it end? Just what’s brand-able and what’s not?

If the Maasai can enjoin Louis Vuitton from describing a color as “Masai blue”, why can’t Germany go after Betty Crocker for German Chocolate Cake Mix? Or Ireland go after the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Or the Boston Celtics.

Maybe the Germans don’t need the money, but the Irish these days could use a bit more scratch.

I’m sure it must be galling for indigenous cultures, now that they’re so exposed to the outside world, to find that some of what’s more or less unique to them is being used by others to make a buck. But are they being out and out exploited, or is this just a case of imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery? Or just a case of flavor of the month: this month’s Masai bright blue gives way to next month’s Inuit white? And if it’s going to cost me to say Masai blue, I’ll make something else up.

Good that Light Years is trying to help out poor countries. And maybe they can get companies to cough up a few bucks to use the Maasai name. Why does Major League Baseball get to have brands, but the Maasai don’t? Is it just being part of a formal structure, with access to lawyers? I guess Light Years will give the Maasai some of that. But I’m still left asking myself what the difference is between a descriptor (German chocolate) and a brand (Disney on Ice). Guess we’ll have to leave it in the hands of the IP lawyers.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Nick Beef: let the crazy 50th anniversary JFK assassination stories begin

With the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination just around the corner, we will all need to gear up for an onslaught of related – however tangentially -  stories.

What are Marina Oswald’s daughters up to?

Are any of the Secret Service agents still alive?

Where did Jackie’s pink pillbox hat end up?

There will be NO END to the specials, the special editions, the strolls down memory lane... (I can already hear Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw droning on.)

Not that I won’t immediately succumb to reading and watching all this “news.”

But I predict that it will be overwhelming, over the top, and over much, as every tiny little bit of trivia is dredged up and examined.

An early entry into the WHAT? sweepstakes has got to be an article I saw a week or so ago on the Huffington Post, which answered – for one and for all – a question that I suspect nSUB-LAND-articleLarge-v4o one other than the most fanatical of Kennedy fanatics has ever asked:

What’s with the Nick Beef headstone market next to the grave of Lee Harvey Oswald?

Well, it seems like The New York Times wanted to get a jump on Assassination-palooza, and sussed out the story for us. (Why focus on boring stuff like sequestration, or Egypt, when there’s news like this that’s fit to print?)

So if you have been asking ‘where’s the (Nick) Beef'?’, now you know:

Patric Abedin, a writer and “nonperforming performance artist,” uses the persona “Nick Beef.” He says he has a penchant for the morbid, creating photographic haikus with tombstones in Calvary Cemetery in Queens. (Source: NY Times.)

But before he began “creating photographic haikus with tombstones” in the Queens, he was a kid growing up in Dallas, Texas. A kid who, as a six year old son of an airman, was at the Air Force Base when Jack and Jackie landed in Fort Worth the night of November 21, 1963.

Fast forward a few years, and Abedin was something of a “non-performing performance artist” prodigy, whose mother would regularly swing by the cemetery where Oswald was buried:

“She’d get out and look at Oswald’s grave,” he recalls, “and tell me, ‘Never forget that you got to see Kennedy the night before he died.’ ”

The years passed. When he was 18, he read a newspaper article’s passing mention that the grave beside Oswald’s had never been purchased. He went to Rose Hill, where a caretaker in a glorified garden shed thumbed through some cards and said, “Yep, that’s available.”

The young man put $17.50 down, and promised to make 16 monthly payments of $10.

Fast forward one more bit, and Abedin decided, on a lark, to dub himself Nick Beef, while a friend adopted the handle “Hash Brown.”

Fast forward once again, and, in 1996, Abedin – now a humor writer who sometimes used Nick Beef as his byline - plunked down a heftier fee – close to $1K – to purchase and install the Nick Beef gravestone marker that sits next to that of Lee Harvey Oswald. The cemetery official – wisely assuming the name was a joke – initially refused to take the order for the Nick Beef marker. But, fortunately, Abedin happened to have a credit card in the name of Nick Beef, so…

And now the truth is revealed, quieting – perhaps only for a bit – the assassination buffs and conspiracy theorists who have been trying to crack the Nick Beef code:

With the gravestone planted, rumors and speculation took root. It was said that since the cemetery refuses to provide directions to Oswald’s grave — at the family’s request, a spokeswoman for the cemetery said — two reporters had bought the plot so that the curious could ask instead for Nick Beef. It was also said that Nick Beef was a New York stand-up comic who used references to the grave in his act. Assassination buffs swapped theories on the Internet.

And now that truth is out.

And it’s not, according to Abedin, a laughing matter.

Yes, [Abedin] admits again, he has a penchant for the morbid. But this does not mean that he bought the plot next to Oswald’s as a joke, or a piece of installation art, or anything of the kind. It’s personal. It’s about change. The fragility of life. Something.

Look, the Kennedy assassination – or the assassination of any elected official, for that matter – is really not funny. And trust me when I say that I grieved the way that only a 13 year old Irish Catholic girl from Massachusetts could grieve when JFK was killed.

And yet, with all the sentimental clap-trap about the Kennedy family, the obsessional interest – all these years on – in everything to do with JFK’s death, and the complete and utter onslaught of rehash that will start rolling out in the next couple of months as the momentous anniversary nears, it’s kind of bracing that someone’s managed to extract a bit of humor out of it all.

Good we got it in before the real onslaught begins.

HOOPLA is a-comin’. Big time.

You heard it here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Royalty is just so NOT what it used to be. (“Romanian princess arrested in Oregon cockfighting sweep.”)

Well, I suppose that, having lived through Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) trying to sell access to Prince Andrew, and Prince Charles having once pined to be Camilla Parker-Bowles’ tampon, no royal behavior should ever be shocking. Especially when the royals are from one of those hail, hail Freedonia countries with all sorts of pretenders to the throne and exiles in waiting (straight out of Ninotchka) running around. A country like, say, Romania.

Still, I was a bit started to spy this particular headline over on CNN the other day: Romanian princess arrested in Oregon cockfighting sweep.

What’s not to like about that one? (The headline, not the cockfighting.)

Princess Irina Walker, who is fifth in line for the Romanian throne – if it ever comes up for grabs – and her husband were among a half dozen folks out in Oregon “charged with operating an illegal gambling business.”

Those six are also charged, along with 12 others, with conspiracy to violate the animal Welfare Act by conducting unlawful animal fighting ventures on 10 occasions, the statement said…Each of the offenses carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000, according to the Justice Department.

As always, the local Oregon news had more detail on the case, including information on just how completely and utterly despicable this “sport” is:

The indictment alleges that the derbies featured dozens of cockfights in a ring, much like a fight card in a night of boxing. But the combatants were roosters, each with knives, gaffs or other cutting instruments attached to their legs, fighting to their deaths in a blood sport now outlawed in all 50 states. (Source: Oregon Live.)

Not in my wildest dreams can I imagine even knowing someone who would want to watch armed roosters gouge at each other until one died. Or until one stopped fighting, at which point it would be killed by a human. Some fun, eh?

A referee supervised the fights as concessionaires sold beer and food, and those managing the action took a 10 percent "house" cut, prosecutors allege.

In this country, cockfighting is largely an immigrant pursuit – the others arrested with the Walkers all had Hispanic names – so I’m guessing that the princess and the pea-headed husband were in it for the “house” cut. Or maybe they ran a concession. (Avoid the chicken satay: it might be a bit too real-time.)

Cockfighting is no petty-ante operation, by the way:

Top purses in the earlier cockfighting case sometimes reached into the tens of thousands of dollars, authorities said.

But the Walkers could lose their ranch, because it’s:

…subject to federal forfeiture because it was used in a criminal enterprise.

In truth, both of the Walkers look like a couple of sad sacks - the sort couple who tied the knot not in the Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral in Bucharest, but rather in the Heart of Reno wedding chapel in Reno. Which was the case.

Princess IrinaPrincess Irina's husband

But, hey, I don’t imagine that Gwyneth Paltrow or George Clooney would look like Gwyneth Paltrow or George Clooney in their mug shots either.

Irina Walker has never been a visible member of the royal family, which owns four castles in Romania. She has visited the European nation only a handful of times, said historian Filip-Lucian Iorga. Her biography is largely unknown to the Romanian public, he said. The royal family is popular, but largely uninvolved in local politics.

Being largely involved in local politics is generally a wise move, especially in a country that so recently escaped decades of totalitarian insanity at the hands of the Ceausescus. (Not all royals are despots, and not all despots are royals.)  But what, pray tell, does it mean, exactly, to be a royal Romanian?

We get the Brits – they change the guard, they wave from the balcony, they walk around in bespoke suits with their hands clasped behind their backs. They get their faces on tea towels. They have followings. They play polo. They give out the trophies at Wimbledon. They cut ribbons. They are a visible, tourist-attracting presence.

And we even get the lesser royals – like those in Sweden and Holland – who get trotted out for ceremonial occasions and marry each other.

But what’s the function of royalty in Romania?

Not much, apparently, as the royal family has lived very modestly during its long exile. After the communists forced him to abdicate in the late 1940’s, King Michael:

…worked several jobs in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, including as a test pilot and running  a chicken farm and a carpenter's shop. (Source: Second article on Oregon Live.)

And Irina had to work, too. A life-long animal lover – at least according to her family – she had a series of jobs on purebred horse ranches. She sold stuff at Christie’s.  She got married. Had kids. Got remarried in that Reno wedding chapel.

And now she stands accused of running a cockfighting ring on her ranch.

The small-r small-f royal family gave a measured response:

The Romanian royal family released a statement, saying King Michael I "has taken notice with profound sadness of the events concerning Princess Irina of Romania, his daughter. His Majesty and the entire Royal Family hope that the American and Oregon state justices will solve this case in the fairest and quickest manner possible."

My guess is that Princess Irina was a quasi-innocent bystander to the cockfighting operation, tolerating it for the income, excusing it as an other-culture “thing”, letting her husband take care of whatever arrangements were made – but not attaching gaffs to the roosters’ claws or refereeing the matches.

But innocent or guilty, all I can say is that royalty is just so NOT what it used to be.

I don’t imagine that any latter-day Dorothy Parker will be doggerel-ing Princess Irina up the way old Dorothy did for Irina’s great-grand-mama:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.

But she has made CNN news.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Monopoly Empire (We li-ive in a material world…)

Last month, my sister Kathleen had a wonderful post on her blog – yes, we’re the bloggin’ sisters -  about the latest brand-extension to the Monopoly line.  Monopoly Empire joins such properties as the Disney Princess, Sponge Bob, and Simpson’s Electronic Banking (doh!) versions.

Rather than land on Marvin Gardens or St. Charles, in Monopoly Empire, you acquire properties like Coca-Cola and Samsung. It’s also a streamlined version, and takes only 30 minutes to play.  In Kath’s words:

The battle against product placement everywhere has everywhere been lost. Time-stressed multi-tasking is a way of life even for toddlers. We all live in Snack World.
But it seems a little sad that a lot of today's kids just don't have the time, even if they had the inclination, to loll about on an old blanket in someone's backyard and play Monopoly for hours. Yes, kids, there was a time when the phrase "drink the Kool-Aid" meant sugar-soaked fun, when sun tan lotion was meant to attract rays not repel them, and when "Go directly to jail," didn't sound like the tagline for yet another TV show.

Like Kath, I realize that the battle against product placement has lost – if it had ever been waged to begin with. Which is not to say that we still aren’t entitled to decry it.

Not that there weren’t product tie-ins and marketing aimed dead-eye at children when we were kids. Among my most prized possessions as a kid were a pair of felt slippers shaped vaguely like cowboy boots, and sporting the image of Roy Rogers rearing up on Trigger, and a plastic Mickey Mouse wallet. I would have given anything for a Cinderella watch, even though it was well known that no child needed a wristwatch until they graduated from eighth grade, when they were gifted with an old-lady or old-man Timex.

But there just wasn’t as much of it, and brand consciousness was pretty limited.

Sure, we knew that some kids wore Keds, and other kids, like us, wore P.F. Flyers, which we wore because that’s what Mr. McEarchern (pronounced Ma-geck-rin, by the way) sold in his cobbler’s shop. Somewhere, since we’d seen the ads on TV, we imagined there were kids who wore Red Ball Jets, but we never encountered any. The supposition was that those sneakers must have been too highfalutin for Main South, or too trashy.

Other than sneakers, I don’t think I realized that clothing came in brand names until I got to high school and saw all the ritzy girls at my school wearing brightly-colored Pappagallo flats and Villager sweaters. (And the brand back then was in the label, not on the outside of the garment. In those days, people weren’t walking billboards.)

Along with being appalled by the crass commercialism of Monopoly Empire, I am saddened by the truncated playing time. One of the best things about Monopoly was that it could go on forever. We would even toss out the rules to keep people in the game, with under the table (or, more likely, blanket) loans, debt forgiveness, and barter.

What a shame that kids are so time-crunched and attention-challenged that they don’t have a couple of hours to wile away playing a board game.

And, while on the subject of playing games, I don’t remember ever being crushed by defeat or thrilled by victory. Even as an eight year old, we knew that this was a fun but essentially meaningless game, a fun thing to do with your friends.

Kath covered the essential story line but, because she hopped on it so early-on, she did report that that Jail and Go To Jail had been removed from the Empire version. Which would have been a colossal mistake, given that so very many empire-builders end up in the hoosegow – have we already forgotten Jeff Skilling and Bernie Madoff? Anyway, the Wall Street Journal had erroneously reported the No To Jail idiocy but, as it turned out, later media outlets pressed Hasbro on the matter, and it does, indeed remain. (Phew!)

Of course, there is no more “Do Not Collect Two Hundred Dollars.”

Such a paltry amount would mean nothing to today’s gamers, or nothing more than their allowance. No, today you collect “Tower Value”, which I guess is tied to how big your tower – built by acquiring brands – is. Which, if this is the case, is one more negative.

In the more egalitarian, Depression-era version we grew up playing, there were certainly haves – hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk – and have-nots – a couple of measly green houses on Baltic – but all players were created equal when they rounded Go.

But here the goal is empire-building, and why not have the rich get richer. Isn’t this far more true to life?

By the way, that empire-building involves acquiring brands and stacking them up in your tower, and:

Watch(ing) the Monopoly Empire towers rise and fall

…And how much fun will you have watching those towers rise and fall? Lots, I'll bet, since you are probably too young to equate towers falling with the fruits of jihad. (This is Kath again.)

To add to the general detestability of Monopoly Empire are the game tokes:Monopoly tokens

  • A bottle of Coca Cola
  • A Ducati bike
  • An Xbox controller
  • A Corvette car
  • McDonald's fries
  • A Paramount director's board

Which are, of course, all branded, not to mention that hideous platinum color…

But what, pray tell, would today’s kids make of the tokens-of-yore, which were already a bit butter-churny dated by the 1950’s and 1960’s. That high-button old tokensshoe?  The flat iron? The thimble? (I had, until Kath mentioned it, forgotten that “unless you owned the Monopoly set, you were never ever in a million billion years going to get to use the Scottie dog or the
racing car.” I was definitely a Scottie girl.)

Here’s the product description from Hasbro’s site:

Buy your favorite brands one by one and slide their billboards onto your Empire tower: the game is a race to the top! Collect rent from your rivals based on your tower height. And be the first player to fill your tower with billboards to win!

With the Monopoly Empire game, you can own some of the biggest brands in the world! Every space on the board is an iconic brand, including Xbox, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Samsung! Splash your Monopoly cash to build your Empire tower as high as it can go. You'll need to make tough decisions and smart moves to take down the competition and be the first to reach the top. Hit the big time and own the world's top brands with the Monopoly Empire game!

That’s right kids, start making those touch decisions and smart moves – and do it in lightning speed-dating time. Top of the world, Ma!


Thursday, August 15, 2013

High on the hill stood the lonely goatherd, no doubt wearing lederhosen

I will be the first to admit that pursuing my (half) German heritage has never been high on my to-do list.

Not that I ignore it entirely, but I just grew up far more Irish- than German-identified.

After all, it was a lot easier to identify as Irish when, in the post-war era I was born into, German pretty much equaled Nazi.

So for every German author I’ve read, for every Heinrich Böll, there’s been a raft of Irish writers I’ve enjoyed: William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright… (Let’s face it, after Dubliners and Portrait, no one actually enjoys reading James Joyce…)

I have an extensive collection of Irish traditional music, but nary one CD of lieder.

Sure, I’ve been to Germany a handful of times, but I’ve made the pilgrimage to eretz Ireland about twenty times.

On my walls, I have at least a dozen framed something-of-others that came from or evoke Ireland, but only one poster – from the fall of The Wall – from Germany.

I would be inclined to say that this is in large part because I grew up with and around the Irish half of my family, in an area nearly devoid of German-Americans. But then I look at my also half-Irish, half-German Chicago cousins, who certainly grew up around plenty of landsmann. And I don’t see any of them joining oompah bands, becoming worst connoisseurs, or wearing dirndls and lederhosen, either.

But we are, after all, Americans.

So if we’re going to go native, it should really be in buckskin shirts and gingham bonnets, I suppose. Even if our ancestors weren’t yet here when that style of clothing was the norm.

But if we were full-time Germans, and if we were back in the old country – alten heimat, if my googling got it right – we might very well be decking ourselves out in traditional garb which is, apparently, all the rage.

In Munich, tracht (traditional clothing) is taking off:

For the men that means lavishly embroidered Lederhosen, short or knee-length breeches made of leather, and for the women a brightly coloured Dirndl consisting of a tight bodice, a blouse with puffy sleeves, a full skirt and an apron. Perhaps more surprisingly, most patrons wear it, too.

The many other beer gardens in the area present much the same sight. So do wedding parties, dinners, concerts and galas. Teenage boys have been spotted sporting their Lederhosen at the disco. (Source: The Economist.)

Personally, I think that lederhosen are cute on two-year olds, with the caveat that anyone who’d put leather shorts onhummel a little boy who’s not yet toilet trained is out of his or her mind. And they’re cute on Hummels. But, seriously, it’s pretty much impossible for a grown man in lederhosen to look like anything but a Nazi or an extra in The Sound of Music. Ditto for teenage boys going to discos: Hitler Youth meets Euro-pop.

In my mind, dirndls have less an association with the Third Reich than they do with St. Pauli’s Girl, but I’m not about to run out and outfit myself. It’s like those women of a certain age and size whom I see sporting Winnie the Pooh sweatshirts. I’m too damned old, and too damned zaftig, to wear a skirt that accentuates my hips and shows the tops of my boobs. There are just some things that shouldn’t be done. (And, come to think of it, women of a certain age in dirndls do somewhat evoke Fuhrer worship. Another reason to avoid the look.)

But little girls in dirndls are cute. And I can appreciate that big girls in dirndls can be cute, and sexy in a boob-showing kind of way.

Anyway, not all Americans of German descent – even, I suspect, half-breeds like myself – have any problem celebrating their heritage. And its associated fashions.

It certainly didn’t take too long for me to find Erika Neumayer, a proud Chicago German American, who designs and sells tracht. Including some very hip and happening dirndls.  Which do not in the least look like something that Heidi or a Fuhrer wild_spirit_mediumworshipper would wear. And which do not come cheap. Wild Spirit (to your right) goes for acid_rain_medium$375.  Acid rain, there on the left, will set you back $478.  While I could find only one pair of lederhosen on her site, Erika isn’t leaving the men out. She’s got plenty of shirts – trachtenhemd – for sale.  I suspect that these sell very well among the Wicker Park hipsters.

Her spring collection was called “Down the Rabbit Hole.” The upcoming fall-winter edition will be called “Nevermore,” which sounds a tad too close to “Never Again” for my tastes.

In any case, good for Erika Neumayer for setting up shop, and for being a proud, hipster-ish German-American.

(Now I must away to see where I put my Aran Island sweater….)


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

If the stakes weren’t so high, conman James McCormick would be LOL funny. But the stakes are so very, very high…

Interesting article a few weeks back in Business Week on a British businessman conman named James McCormick, who’s now serving a ten year sentence for selling the Iraqis (among others) real fake bomb detectors.

And he sold a lot of them:

By the time police in Britain raided his offices [in 2009], McCormick had spent three years selling the Iraqi government these devices, sometimes for more than $30,000 each. The best estimates suggest that the authorities in Baghdad bought more than 6,000 useless bomb detectors, at a cost of at least $38 million.

While those with any technical know-how (or common decency) knew that the ADE 651 was a fake and a fraud:

McCormick dismissed U.S. military assertions that the detectors were worthless. “We’ve created a product that fits a demand here in Iraq,” he explained. “Just not necessarily in all countries.”

Hard to believe that any country, no matter how beleaguered, would actually have any use for a non-working bomb detector.

McCormick’s ADE 651 was a version of the Quadro golf-ball detector was the “brain” child of one Wade Quattlebaum, and was just one application of a:

…new detection technology he called the Quadro Tracker Positive Molecular Locator... Quattlebaum said he originally invented the device to find lost balls on the golf course but had since refined it to locate marijuana, cocaine, heroin, gunpowder, and dynamite by detecting the individual “molecular frequency” of each substance.

In terms of how well it worked, the Quadro made stringing two juice cans together look like a Samsung Galaxy.

The Tracker consisted of a handheld unit, with an antenna mounted on a plastic handgrip, and a belt-mounted box slightly smaller than a VHS cassette, built to contain “carbo-crystallized” software cards programmed, Quattlebaum said, with the specific frequency of whatever the user wished to find…Tracker was powered by the static electricity created by the operator’s own body; when it found what it was looking for, the antenna automatically turned to point at its quarry. Prices for the device varied from $395 for a basic model to $8,000 for one capable of locating individual human beings, which required a Polaroid photograph of the person to be loaded into the programming box. Quadro’s golf ball-finding variant, the Gopher, was available by mail order for just $69.

Ah, the old load-the-Polaroid-in and find the missing person technology. Edwin Land was some genius!

While a number of police departments bought them – not to mention plenty of unsuspecting golfers – the FBI called BS.

“They said, ‘This is a car antenna and a plastic handle. It doesn’t do anything.’ ”

Further analysis by the FBI and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico established that Quadro’s programming cards were small squares of photocopy paper sandwiched between pieces of plastic. Dale Murray, who examined the device at Sandia, discovered that the Quadro programming method was to take a Polaroid photograph of the desired target—gunpowder, cocaine, or on one occasion, an elephant—blow up the image on a Xerox machine, cut up the copy into fragments, and use these to provide the card with its “molecular signature.” “They had a very naive explanation of how it worked,” Murray says. “They were fascinated by Polaroid photographs.”

The Quadro business was shut down in 1996, but Quattelbaum and his business partners were not found guilty of fraud. Apparently, the jury believed that they were believers. One of the business partners, however, never came to trial. A Brit, he headed back to the UK before his day in court, and took the Quadro concept with him. Soon enough, James McCormick glommed on, and began selling something called the Mole Programmable Substance Detector.

Once again, it ended up in the hands of Sandia Labs. While the investigator there recognized the Mole as a re-branded Quadro Tracker, he went through the testing, anyway. The Mole failed. Undeterred, McCormick kept rebranding and “refining” the device.

He was also able to track down, in the US, a stockpile of Gopher golf ball finders, and ordered 100 of them.

In his garage in Somerset, he later told police, he programmed these for “electrostatic ion attraction” using a collection of jam jars and spice pots that contained samples of drugs and explosives. In each jar, he placed small colored stickers and left them for a week to absorb the vapor of whatever substance his customers might wish to detect. The samples included cannabis; folded fragments of a Japanese 1,000 yen note; and a piece of gauze McCormick had used to staunch a nosebleed, which he later explained was used to aid in human detection. After a sticker had spent a week absorbing vapor, he glued it inside the Gopher. He then removed the plastic badge that identified it as a golf ball finder, and replaced it with one bearing ATSC’s logo. This became the ADE 100—sold for the first time, in March 2006, to McCormick’s agents in Lebanon. Price: $3,000 each.

McCormick eventually found his way to Iraq where, for obvious reasons, demand for a bomb detector was high.

There, McCormick found a willing audience for the new, souped up ADE 651  equipped with the insignia of the International Association of Bomb Technicians (a bona fide organization) -  which sold for$30,000 each.

The police eventually caught up with McCormick.

As in the original Quadro case in the US, prosecutors needed to prove both that the device didn’t work, and that McCormick knew it didn’t work.

The former was easy enough; the latter required a few years of sleuthing, but Scotland Yard eventually got their man. Not by finding any “smoking gun” – McCormick was apparently plenty canny about never admitting to anyone that the device was bogus – but by tripping him up on smaller fibs (claiming to be a member of that Bomb Technicians organization), and on ignoring the Sandia labs pronouncement that his product was useless, and continuing to sell it.

While no deaths in Iraqi are specifically tied to the ADE 651, McCormick was found guilty of fraud, and is in the pokey for 10 years.

The device, however, lives on, still used and, it is feared, still being produced in Romania.

If the stakes weren’t so high, if this wasn’t just being sold as a golf-ball detector, the quack technology involved here would be laugh out loud funny.

But it’s not.

People have been duped into thinking it will detect bombs.

How’d James McCormick like it if one of his kids was blown up as a result of someone at a checkpoint waving through a bomb-laden truck because the ADE 651 said it was okay?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Manager? Boss? What a way to harsh the mellow AND the buzz.

I am not a particular fan of layer-cake management structures, totem-pole hierarchies, and nit-picking bureaucracies.

When I worked at Wang in the 1980’s, wending your way through the Byzantine processes to get anything done was your life’s work.

We would sometimes make bets with each other on the elapsed time between decided to do something and actually getting it done. I’m not talking about the product development process here. I’m talking about, in those pre-Power Point days, getting a set of 35 mm slides that you could use for client presentations taken care of. Or a data sheet (or function strip – remember those?) for your product. Or even permission to step toe out of the office for business travel (which, in my group – which was under the engineering EVP – was sometimes not granted until 5 p.m. the evening before your trip, which made it pretty darned difficult to set the things up that you wanted to accomplish while you were on the road).

In my experience – and I do know people whose experiences were different than mine – Wang was complete and utter crazy-ville. Personally, I believe that John Chambers (who was at Wang while I was there) became such a success at Cisco because he was smart enough to have learned what not to do during his time at Wang.

Wang aside, I’ve also, on occasion, had the experience of working under managers who did absolutely nothing except go to meetings, get in the way, grab credit, and play endless rounds of CYA and suck-up.

So I understand where the “just say no” to management philosophy might spring from.

Still, it’s pretty clear to me that, once your company gets to a certain size, it may not be possible to get away without having someone make decisions, set priorities, define processes, adjudicate differences, and speak with authority on behalf of the firm.  Not to mention take care of the usual employee-related shit that all managers have to put up with: listening to grievances, dealing with problems, figuring out what to do with underperformers, finding growth opportunities for superstars (which hopefully won’t involve taking your job).

Anyway, I was reminded of this while watching a recent episode of Newsroom, in which anchorman Will McAvoy (played by the wonderful Jeff Daniels) went on a rant about why Occupy Wall Street has been largely ineffective, while the Tea Party has proven to be pretty darned good at getting its way.  Secret Koch money and manipulations aside, the reasons were lack of leadership and lack of clarity of purpose (which, as often as not, is tied to lack of leadership).

Sure, “Will” was talking about political organizations, an about leadership, not necessarily management, but there’s certainly plenty of overlap with companies, as well.

And as those companies grow to a certain size,  they’re no longer going to be able to rely on a leader or two at the top. They’re going to need a couple of management layers.

In any case, there was an article related to this topic in recent WSJ, which focused in part on 37signals.

First, I have to say that I’m amazed that 37signals – originators of open source software framework Ruby on Rails and makers of Basecamp, among other web apps -  has accomplished as much as they have with fewer than 40 employees. So they must be doing plenty right.

And earlier this year that something right involved appointing their only manager:

[Co-Founder Jason] Fried previously oversaw the company's main product, Basecamp, in addition to looking after other products and setting strategy. But he was stretched so thin that key decisions about the project-management software, which serves as a hub for workers to share messages, collaborate on documents and discuss ideas, were sometimes left hanging for weeks or months. (Source: WSJ Online.)

So he tapped Jason Zimdars for the (unwanted) task.

Rather than manage coworkers, he says, "I like to code and design and make things."

I can certainly understand his feelings.

There were plenty of times when I was a manager that I looked back on a meeting-packed day and tried to come up with one concrete thing that I’d done. During my managerial stints – which ranged from managing one person (yay, totem-pole) to managing a team with a couple of dozen members – I made sure that I always reserved some hands-on work for myself. (Obviously easy enough to do when the team was small, harder when there were enough people to pretty much handle all the work-work.)

Disdain for management sometimes seems as common as free snacks among tech startups and other small or young companies founded without layers of supervisors, fancy titles or a corporate ladder to climb. Leaders of these companies, including 37signals, say they are trying to balance the desire to free workers to create and the need for a decision maker to ensure projects run smoothly.

Which is why Mr. Fried passed the decision-making baton to Mr. Zimdars.

The trick for smaller companies, such as 37signals, is making sure decisions get made and tasks get done without evolving into a bureaucracy.

So far, it seems to be working out, but 37signals had a less positive middle management experience a few years back, bringing in someone to oversee customer service. That didn’t work out, so they now operate on a manager-of-the-month basis, taking handling management tasks, while also keeping their day jobs.

This seems like both a good and a bad idea:

"If you are too far away from actually doing the work, you don't really understand the work anymore and what goes into it," says Mr. Fried.

So very, very true.

On the other hand, not everyone’s cut out to be a manager.

Anyway, good luck to 37signals (and Mr. Zimdars).

GitHub is another young tech company grappling with the to-manage-or-not-to-manage question.

"I'm not denying that the work of a middle manager still has to get done," says [co-founder Tom] Preston-Werner, who is also the company's chief executive, a title he says he holds in name only. "But," he adds, "how do you solve that problem in a way that embraces freedom, as opposed to hierarchy?"

At GitHub, they apparently do so by avoiding the word “manager”, and have come up with the term “primarily responsible person (PRP).”

But since GitHub hires smart young things, I’m betting that someone, someday will figure out that a PRP is a manager.

Of course, both 37signals and GitHub try to hire self-managers – don’t we all? – and seem to have been able to do a pretty good job not staffing up with those who are manager-needy.

But, as we all know, everyone is not above average, and, unless you’re Google or Facebook, at some point in time you’re going to end up with people who may not be so spectacularly gifted, passionate, motivated, and altogether excellent.  And even the spectacularly gifted, passionate, motivated, and altogether excellent can come up against something they need help with that their peers may not be able to help with. Or they may just have an occasional bad day.

I hope that these tech companies can keep things as unhierarchical an unbureaucratic as they possibly can.

I wouldn’t wish another Wang Labs on anyone.

Still, research shows middle managers may affect company performance more than anyone else in an organization, even top executives or workers in creative roles.

In reviewing 12 years of data for 395 companies in the videogame industry, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School professor Ethan Mollick found that middle managers were more important to the success of individual products than creative game designers or than other organizational factors, such as firm leadership or HR practices... According to his analysis, middle managers accounted for 22.3% of the performance differences among companies, more than three times as much as the game designers who invent storylines and characters. Dr. Mollick says middle managers play a critical role in "making sure the people at the bottom and the top are getting what they need."

Managers. Bosses. Sure, it can be like having the ‘rents around to harsh your mellow. They can be a total buzz-kill.

Still, having been one, it’s comforting to know that they do have their uses.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Inspecting gadgets

There was an interesting listing on the other day of ten gadgets you are probably not aware of needing. Generally, I despise these things you have to click through – I’d always rather read a traditional full article – but this one was amusing enough to hold my attention.

Some of the gadgets seemed pretty useful, if you actually had any use for them. Like the Kangaroo water bottle that has a storage space for your keys and ID. This seems like a reasonably good idea for someone who always carries a water bottle around on a run or bike ride. Me, I’m a walker, and, if I’m going to be carrying a water bottle around on my walk, I might as well be carrying some type of small pack that will fit said water bottle, keys, ID, plus other essentials. Like my phone. A far better app, which might not be technologically possible just quite yet, would have your smartphone or Google Glass dispense water.

There was also a wine saver. May not be right for me - as if, once opened, wine actually needs to be saved for all that long –but I can theoretically appreciate the value.

There’s an umbrella with a coffee cup holder in the handle, which does free up a hand. That is, until you want to take a sip out of the coffee cup, in which case you need to use that spare hand to bring the coffee cup to your lips. Or risk poking the eye out of the person walking just behind you.

Ben and Jerry’s is offering the Euphori-Lock, which wraps around a pint of B&J’s and only opens when your personal code is entered. (Its tagline: “There is no “u” in “my pint.”) This would have been a good one for my brother Tom when we were kids. Tom was known to use his allowance to buy his own personal pints of orange and lime sherbet and leave them in the freezer with his name on them.

U-Socket lets you power up four devices simultaneously, two via AC plug, and two via USB. Good idea.

And as a rising senior, I could use a BiKN, which is a smartphone app that comes with tags you clip onto items you tend to mislay – like your sunglasses, your keys, your wallet, etc.  Unfortunately, the item I most tend to mislay is my smartphone, and since I generally have it on vibrate rather than ring-tone, tracking it down is not as simple as calling it from another phone. But I suppose that BiKN has thought of this, and that there’s an app for it…

I thought the Drizly iPhone app that let’s you order liquor from your local packy for home delivery was just numbnuts. (There’s an app for that? Don’t most urban packies already deliver? Can’t you just call them up and place and order? Or do I just know that because ours does, or at least it does when we order a case of wine…) Sure, ordering in is certainly better than drunk driving if you find yourself running on empty halfway through the par-tay. But as far as I can tell, at least in the city of Boston, which is where Drizly is making its debut, pretty much everybody lives within a five minute walk of a packy. If you’re so hammered you can’t make that five minute walk for your packy run, then I suggest you’re better off ordering an extra-large everything pizza and a couple of meatball subs to soak things up.

Anyway, having inspected the list, my favorite gadget – in a non-favorite kind of way – was:

The My Choice Gateway “let’s you watch the game, not the ads.”

MyTVChoice protects the family from the sex, violence, materialism, and degrading images of women that are common on TV commercials during live sporting events.

I suppose I should take their word for it that there’s way too much “sex, violence, materialism, and degrading images of women” present in TV commercials for sports, but, for the life of me – and I watch a lot of sports on TV – the only place where I recall seeing such ads is on the Super Bowl. Maybe I don’t pay enough attention, or maybe nothing much offends me anymore, or maybe my husband clicks off too fast, but I watch baseball pretty much every night, and don’t find the ads all that offensive. Sure, I could live happily if I never saw another ad for Bob’s Discount Furniture, which is degrading to furniture, but not women. Other than that, nothing particularly off-putting comes to mind.

Of course, there is way too much “sex, violence, materialism, and degrading images of women” (and men, for that matter) on the shows, as well. And the solution to that is JUST DON’T WATCH.

But just how much of a problem is it to hit the “Last” button and go somewhere else if you don’t want to watch a commercial?

The simple to use application and the proprietary MyTVChoice Gateway monitor a live broadcast and automatically change the channel when a commercial break begins and switch back when the break ends.

Oh, I see. It’s smart enough to get you back there when the break ends, so you don’t have to deal with the terrible, awful, really bad problem of getting back to the game two seconds too early and being exposed to something sexy, violent, materialistic, or degrading, or getting back to the game two seconds to late and missing the catch of the century.

No do-or-die searches for the remote control; no young eyes seeing objectionable content; no guessing when commercials will start and end; and no missing key plays.  RELAX and ENJOY the game, instead of worrying about the commercials.  Watch the game, not the ads. If you watch a couple of games a week -  for less than $2 a game.

Maybe I’m just not sensitive to this hideous problem because I don’t have kids to protect, but the risk of seeing “objectionable material” or “missing key plays” doesn’t seem all that awful, and searches for the remote control, while annoying, are hardly do-or-die.

Are there really all that many folks who can’t enjoy a game because they’re “worrying about the commercials”? And are willing to pay a pretty hefty price to eliminate all that worrying?

MyTVChoice Gateway (one-time purchase):  $79.95
Annual Subscription (billed monthly): $9.95
MyTVChoice Smartphone/Tablet Application:  Free download.

Upfront cost, and $10 a month in perpetuity, to save you from having to hit the “Last” button? Sounds like a solution – and a high-priced one, at that – in search of a problem.

MyTVChoice will cover the most popular sporting events from the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and NCAA Football. Additional sports and family events such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and The Voice will be added based on subscriber input.


There are people who don’t mind their kids watching 300 pound linemen bash each others’ helmets in. Who don’t mind their kids watching a snarky host make mean comments on American Idol. Or have their kids see has-beens shake their booties in risqué costumes on DWTS. But are nonetheless offended by ads for GoDaddy that only seem to crop up on Super Bowl?

I could be dead wrong here – it’s been known to happen – but if they’re looking for some non-subscriber input, I’d suggest that they stop throwing any more money at this non-starter, or that at least they lower their prices.