Monday, March 31, 2008

Sue the Bastards!

I grew up in a far less litigious world than we all now occupy, and in a family that was not the litigious type.

It's not that my world was devoid of people who did sue - my father was forever making fun of some neighbors, who were actually pretty good friends of his, who had been involved in a couple of fender-benders and had gone after the "other party."

"Whiplash!" my father would sneer. "Can't prove anything, but you can't disprove anything. Whiplash! Hah!"

While my family was not litigious, we were not especially the roll-over-and-play dead type either.

One time, when my father was driving up Worcester's Main Street, some young fellows ("Puerto Rican punks!") jumped out in front of the car. This caused my father to slam on the brakes, causing my sister Trish, who was - in those bygone pre-seatbelt days - standing behind the front seat, to slam her adorable, much doted upon little baby of the family self into the seat back. Blood, tears, and shrieking ensued.

My father - by then well into his fifties, and in mortally ill health - took off after said Puerto Rican punks. Although my father had been quite an athlete, and was, illness and all, a still somewhat vigorous man, he was no match for young men in their late teens. Nor was he able to ignore my mother's clarion call to get back in the car.

Family lore also includes the saga of my father's prolonged efforts to get back the $25 or $50 he had loaned to an old Navy buddy, Vincent P. Egan.

The story was that Vincent P. Egan showed up in Worcester one day with some sort of tale of woe, and looked up my father, a very generous man and - for such a hard head - a notoriously soft touch.

Egan - speaking "Irishman to Irishman" asked to borrow some money.

No, my father insisted, I'll give it to you. No need to pay it back.

But Egan insisted that he would only take the money as a loan, and drew up the papers then and there.

Needless to say, Egan absconded with the dough, and made no effort whatsoever to pay my father back.

My father spent several years trying to track Vincent P. Egan down, with no luck.

In the late 1940's/early 1950's, a loan of the Egan magnitude was not insignificant in our family. My baby pictures were never purchased because my father had slipped the ten bucks that was going to pay for them to his ne'er do well brother. Thus, what exists of my studio baby pictures is a few shots of a perfectly adorable baby with the words "PROOF" stamped in purple ink across her face.

It was not, as my father explained again and again, the money. It was the fact that Egan had conned him out of it by insisting that it was a loan, by playing the "Irishman to Irishman" card.

But hire a lawyer to sue the bastard? What a bunch of malarkey!

Ah, but this is a different world, and even though I am genetically the non-litigious type, it did cross my mind to go after the hotel in which I tripped, fell, and broke my arm. It was there cleaners, after all, who had not put the rug back down, leaving it there for me to trip on....

Perhaps if a bone had been protruding through my skin, I might have given it more thought, but I got up, walked home, and - after an uncomfortable night during which the pain didn't wear off - figured out I'd really been hurt.

Still, I decided it wasn't worth it. Yes, they may have been liable, but it wasn't as if I would never walk-work-play the violin again, was it?

Which did not stop my health insurance company from contacting me to ask if I was suing, to see if they could recover my medical and PT costs from whatever damages I received.

I realize that they have to go through this formal step, but they're now after me for the second time to check and see whether I've lawyered up and whether the hotel has coughed up.

And here is the best thing about their position: The amount you reimburse XYZ Insurance will not be reduced by any attorney fees.

Now, I get that, if I was awarded damages, I would have to reimburse them for their costs. Fair enough.

But, even if I were the litigious type, what would be my incentive to hire (and pay) a lawyer? Maybe - but not necessarily - I'd get some money out of the deal. And then I'd have to turn around and perhaps give it all (including the amount I would have liked to pay the lawyer with) to my insurer.

We are not talking about huge amounts of money here: An ER visit. A few sets of X-Rays. A couple of follow-up MD visits. Non-trivial PT.

I haven't toted up the costs, but unless I have to hyper-extend the PT beyond the first 30 appointments - and they don't think I'll have to do so by many visits, given the progress I've made since switching from a namby-pamby hospital setting to kick-ass sports PT - we're talking about (maybe) $10K (not counting my deductibles, which will tack on another $1K).

Now, given that the hotel cleaning guys didn't deliberately trip me. And given that, while I was hurt, I haven't been devastated, what could I possibly expect to exact from a claim against the hotel?

Maybe $10K? Maybe a little more? Maybe enough to pay off my insurance company, but not my lawyer's fee, let alone my deductible? Not to mention my time and psychic energy.

This was an accident.

Sorry, but there are no bastards to sue here.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Heart of the Commonwealth

I spent the first weekend in February in lovely Worcester, Massachusetts, a.k.a. The Heart of the Commonwealth, the city where I grew up.

Now, one might ask why anyone would want to spend the a February weekend in Worcester, Massachusetts, but we had our reasons.

"We" are the Banshees, my sister-cousin posse.

Every winter, we head off for a getaway weekend somewhere - generally to someplace a bit more touristy than Worcester, but we've been talking about "doing" Worcester for a while, and this year we did.

It is, after all, where all but one of us grew up - and, peculiarly, that one - my cousin Barbara - recently retired to suburban Worcester after spending her life in suburban Boston. (Go figure.)

At this point, pretty much all of my remaining Worcester connections - other than Barbara - are in the cemetery. (And, yes, we did pay a rolling visit: too much snow on the ground to get out for a close-up visit, but we'll assume everyone's right where we left them.)

Worcester is one of the many old industrial cities you find in New England, but Worcester was always larger than most of them. (I'm not sure where it stands now, population/rank-wise, but when I was growing up, the city had over 200,000 people, and was, among New England cities, second only to Boston. (Springfield, Providence, and Hartford were, I recall, pretty close in size.)

Needless to say, Worcester has changed quite a bit in the decades since I grew up there.

As with so many other industrial cities, the manufacturing base has eroded. Gone are the factories that made wire, M-16 rifles, combat boots, space suits (not a high volume operation, to be sure), plastic toys, pocketbooks, boilers, and bras. The big industrial manufacturers - Wyman Gordon and Norton - still have trace elements remaining.

But Worcester is by no means a bombed out, blighted husk of a city. For one thing, they have a growing bio-tech industry Worcester also does alright in the fin-serv department, with banking and (especially) insurance.

And Worcester was always something of a college town, with Holy Cross, Clark, and WPI - among others - as campuses in the city. (While it's true that Worcester has a lot of colleges, I was amused to see a few signs positioning Worcester as "the intellectual capital of Central Massachusetts.")

I don't remember this being the case - but we didn't eat out when I was a kid - but Worcester has some great restaurants. And if our weekend stops were any indication, the city's economy can't be hurting all that much.

We ate at a trendy new Italian place, Via, that's in the old Worcester public schools maintenance building. Dinner was wonderful, and taking in the sophisticated ambience, one or the other of us kept saying, 'pinch me, I'm in Worcester.'

On Saturday, we dined at the Sole Proprietor, an old standby where I'd taken my mother many times. Good thing we had reservations, as the wait without them was 2 hours. ('Pinch me, I'm in Worcester.')

Worcester, and especially it's eastern suburbs, have become something of a bedroom community for Boston. Prices have shot up over the years, but you can still buy a fair amount of house in Worcester and environs for half of what you'd pay in near-Boston. (The idea of commuting to a job in Boston would have been unimaginable when I was a kid, just as living in Worcester is unimaginable to me as an adult.)

All in all, I'd say that Worcester is more fortunate than many other large Northeast industrial cities.

What it doesn't have is much of a downtown by way of shopping. There have been many attempts to restore downtown to its resplendent glory over the years, but they all seem to have failed. Of course, Worcester in all its resplendent glory was never all that glorious. (As my sister Kathleen pointed out as we drove around Worcester in the Banshee-mobile, downtown always dropped off pretty rapidly into wasteland in most directions.) But Worcester in my memory did have a vibrant downtown shopping area, with nice department stores and speciality shops, as well as movie theaters.

As far as I can tell, if you don't have a car to get to a suburban mall, you're pretty much sunk if you want to buy something or catch a movie.

It's hard to believe Worcester doesn't have better shopping, because there are still some very nice residential neighborhoods. If you have an image of Worcester at all, it's probably of steep hill after steep hill crowded with triple deckers. There are plenty of those around still. But there are also some areas that are quite nice.

(And then there's the area I grew up in... We buzzed by my grandmother's house, where I lived until second grade. It's more or less kept up, but the white paint doesn't do it for me, and the owner winterized the porch on the second floor, where we once sat with my mother stringing macaroni necklaces, and where our clothes line hung off of. The first floor porch, a.k.a., "the piazza", where my grandmother held court in an ancient glider, surrounded by ancient pots of geraniums and sansaverius, and where her clothes line hung off of, has not been walled in. (I'm closing my eyes, but I can't remember whether the big old creepy fir tree is still there, or the lilac, or the bridal wreath bush.)

(When we moved, we went just a block away, but to a stand-alone house, rather than a three family. Our street was pretty much all modest, cookie-cutter "ranch" houses painted in pastels. We were one of the few houses on the street with a serious color: charcoal gray. However modest, crackerbox, and pokey those houses were, the folks who lived in them - mostly first generation in terms of single family home ownership - kept their houses and lawns up.

(Alas, the street, which was running down the last few years my mother lived there, has run even further down. "Our house" has two grills, a couch, and some plastic lawn furniture in the front yard - the front yard my father nurtured and babied, and where my mother planted annuals every year. The front yard! Don't grils go in the back yard?

(There was also an old, low-riding Caddie with no plates, parked half in the driveway, half on the lawn. The house needed a paint job and, if you looked closely, there's a palimpsest effect, and you can see where someone spray painted a pentagram on the front of the house.

(Are the people who bought our house devil worshippers? If she weren't dead already, my mother would die. As for my father, well, if he'd been with us, he'd likely have hopped out of the Banshee-mobile, knocked on the door, and given these new owners, whoever they are, a piece of his mind about how Dogpatch the place looked. Of course, in order to go knock on the door, one would have to ignore the "No Trespassing" sign posted on a tree in the front yard.

("No Trespassing"? Not to worry. I really don't need to take a closer look at that rusting old Caddie or the pentagram.)

You can't go home again, and sometimes you just don't want to.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Welcome to the slums of tomorrow

Last month's Atlantic Monthly had an interesting piece by Christopher Leinberger, who predicts that the most recently built up suburban developments (many of them suffering from fallout from the subprime crisis) are on there way to being tomorrow's slums.

He points to a development outside of Charlotte, North Carolina - which one resident, who had there from New York characterized as "Pleasantville" when she'd first moved in, and where now more than half of the new "starter homes" are in foreclosure. Many of these homes have been vandalized, and anything with any resale value stripped out. Drug dealers have moved in, homeless people are squatting, and bullets are occasionally flying.

Leinberger also describes a more upscale California development near Sacramento - a development where dream houses were a short while back going for over $500K - as plagued by graffiti, broken windows, and gang activity.

If this sounds like the making of urban slums in the 1950's and 1960's, when people fled their crowded central-city neighborhoods for greener and leafier quarter-acres in the suburbs, it does to Leinberger, too.

And while acknowledging the role that the foreclosure crisis plays in the slumming of the suburbs, he also points to:

A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.

After the steady march to the suburbs, which has continued pretty much unchecked since the end of World War II, more and more people are expressing a preference for city living - or for living in older, more densely populated near 'burbs where they can take public transportation into the city, and where there's some sort of downtown area with shops and restaurants that they can walk to.

Leinberger cites a study by Arthur C. Nelson of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, which:

...forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

That's a lot of (often shoddily built) housing stock sitting around idle - and a lot of disappointed folks hoping to sell their little bit of paradise and put the money towards retirement. Not a very pleasantville kind of prospect.

Now, I am not now more ever have I been a big fan of the suburban way of life. I have never lived in one, and I'm not likely to ever have the experience at this point in time - although it's entirely within the realm of possibility that I would one day live in one of the close-in, older Boston suburbs that ring the city. I like these towns, which were always had more "community" than "bedroom." Some of them, in fact, were "stand-alone" towns or cities at some point. Arlington. Belmont. Brookline. Newton. Quincy. Salem. Waltham. Watertown. There are plenty of other places like these around here where I could live quite happily.

But the car-dependent, big-box, sprawl-o-rama suburbs? Never say never, but I am willing to say "not in a million years."

Still, I find it disheartening to think of suburban communities - bought into with such optimism and enthusiasm by those who equally bought into the myth that the only place to raise kids is one in which there are no sidewalks, no corner stores, and no way to get in and out other than behind the wheel of a mini-van - rotting away.

But it seems that,

... today, American metropolitan residential patterns and cultural preferences are mirror opposites of those in the 1940s. Most Americans now live in single-family suburban houses that are segregated from work, shopping, and entertainment; but it is urban life, almost exclusively, that is culturally associated with excitement, freedom, and diverse daily life. And as in the 1940s, the real-estate market has begun to react.

Some developers are creating "walkable" suburban enclaves, where they cluster homes around some sort of commercial core. These places, he notes, sell at a premium over comparable homes in more sprawl-ish suburbs. (Amusingly, he notes that one such development, in Colorado, has been "built on the site of a razed mall." (These sorts of developments, by the way, are called "lifestyle centers." I guess I'm living in what can be described as an organic and natural "lifestyle center:" I can - and do - walk to the supermarket, the doctor, the dentist, the shoe repair guy, the bookstore, the hardware store, clothing stores, the movies, restaurants, etc. I can also walk to "big box" stores - which in cities are as likely to be in older buildings - like Bed, Bath and Beyond, and Best Buy. I can even get to a Home Depot on public transportation, although - if I had to go there for some reason, it would likely involve hauling enough stuff that I'd need to have a car.)

This is, apparently, a "lifestyle" that people increasingly want. Leinberger cites a study in which 1/3 of the suburbanites studies would be willing to trade off suburban amenities (more space) vs. urban amenities (walking distance to something you'd want to walk to); 1/3 expressed a preference for staying in the 'burbs; and 1/3 had mixed feelings.But more than 10 million new single-family homes have already been built since 2000, most of them in the suburbs.

As energy costs heat up, it will become more and more costly to live in the farther-out suburbs (especially those not on public transportation). Those who can afford to will move into or closer to the city. Schooling and safety - two of the key perceived suburban benefits - will improve in the city, and likely deteriorate in the suburbs.

Leinberger predicts that suburban housing prices will decrease to the point where they're available to lower-income buyers, and that they're likely to be converted into apartments. He points out that, when this happened in inner-city neighborhoods in the 1950's, the houses that were being broken up were solidly built, and could withstand being split in multi-family dwellings.

By comparison, modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up.

This all makes me quite happy to be living in a building that was constructed the mid-1800's, with a new-fangled addition that was tacked on in 1919. (Our condo is in the "new" part, but those are hardwood floors and real wooden doors, thank you.).

I'll be happy to see more and more walkable communities develop. This is good for the environment, good for the culture, and good for the soul. And, of course, I don't mind seeing my "lifestyle center" lifestyle being vindicated.

But the idea of all those suburbs - however much I don't want to live in one of them - turn into "magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction." I can't say I'm looking forward all that much to that.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Not a bad return on a paltry investment

There was an interesting article by Joe Nocera in the March NY Times sports magazine on a very interesting aspect of major league team ownership. (Login may be required to access this link.) He notes that, while sports teams tend to be owned by those who were sufficiently successful in business that they could afford to buy a team, teams are often run poorly and/or irrationally.

And, oh, yes, they tend to appreciate wildly in value - even if the team is irrationally and poorly run - and wildly unsuccessful.

Here's Nocera on the "spectacle" of "the Bad Owner:"

...He says he wants to win — really, he does! — but he never seems to have a clue as to how to go about it... Sometimes he spends his money so freely he appears to have forgotten the business acumen that made him rich in the first place...In other cases, he can’t bring himself to bid for free agents and keeps his payroll so low that players flee the franchise as soon as they can. He chews through coaches — or keeps them too long. He surrounds himself with mediocre executives. Even though he gets top draft picks almost every year (and, in the National Football League, an easier schedule) to compensate for all the losing, his fortunes never seem to change.

Clearly, he’s not in it for the glory — there isn’t any for him. Frustrated fans call for his head. Sportswriters mock him. At times his own league clashes with him. And yet, amazingly, he holds on to his wreck of a team, year after blessed year...Why does the Bad Owner seem so impervious to it all?

Because, as Nocera points out, if you own a team in any of the dominant U.S. sports - baseball, football, or basketball - the value of the franchise is in perpetual upward motion.

He points to Donald Sterling, who owns the hapless Los Angeles Clippers, the "other" team that plays NBA basketball in Los Angeles.

Sterling bought the Clippers for a paltry investment of $13.5 in 1981.

Since then, they've been nothing less than terrible. Through most of their history, the team was also a money loser, and have only become "marginally profitable" in the last couple of years.

And yet, the value of the team has grown to almost $300 million - and that's a conservative estimate, by the way).

Not bad at all, given the rule of thumb that an investment should at least double every 8 years. (At that rate, it "should" be worth about half that $300 million.)

As Nocera says:

That’s why the Bad Owner doesn’t sell, the way a normal businessman would be forced to if he ran his company into the ground. No matter what the Bad Owner does, the value of the franchise only goes in one direction: up.

Nocera then makes a Business 101 point: that there's generally a "direct correlation between running a company well and a rise in its value."

There are, of course, other things that get factored in - luck, the market you're in - but, as a rule to go by, it's hard to argue with this one.

But professional sports is, of course, a wildly different animal than most businesses.

No, it's not just that people adulate the hired hands in a way that they don't look up to, say, the average employee of GE or Bank of America. Nor is it that it's one of those odd-ball businesses in which the rank and file employees make more than the managers, which while not unheard of in business is not all that widespread. Nor is it that TV networks pay vast amounts of money for the rights to broadcast the work of the employees of sports teams - can you imagine a bidding war for the rights to "watch" the assembly line at the Saturn plant, or barrista training at Starbucks? Sure, there's a reality show that takes us behind the scenes of Southwest Airlines, and it's weirdly riveting when I'm in the right mood. But I don't imagine that Southwest gets paid all that much - if anything - for it.

The fact of the matter is that, like very few things in life - ocean front real estate being the only one that comes to immediate mind - they don't often make that many more of major league sports teams.

Sure, it happens. Leagues occasionally expand, opening up franchises in new cities. And there were, within my memory, upstart leagues in both football (the American Football League) and basketball (the American Basketball Association), which opened up shop in mostly what we would call in normal business an "underserved territory" (note: that's under-served not undeserved). When the new leagues were formed, there was clearly some disequilibrium going on: not enough supply to meet the growing demand.

Before the AFL, there was no professional football in New England. We followed the N. Y. Giants. Without the ABA, I don't believe there would have been a pro basketball team in New Jersey.

But in both cases - AFL and ABA - the upstart leagues were relatively quickly assimilated in with the existing leagues (the NFL and the NBA). I don't know all the ins and out of these assimilations, but clearly the original leagues didn't really want any competition. What they wanted was control - over the quality (too many teams and the product quality gets diluted) and, of course, over the money.

The last thing these guys are going to do is tolerate a threat to their monopoly.

And the cost of mounting such a threat is, of course, astronomical. In this day and age, you'd have to have an awful lot of dough to be able to foot the bill for the average sports team payroll, let alone all those extras like balls and uniforms.

Talk about barriers to entry!

In truth, while I don't think that the average sports team owner is turning up his nose at the money machine he's bought into, do we really believe that most of these owners are in it for the money?

It's axiomatic that most sports-playing kids - boys only, in my era - dream at some point about growing up to be a professional athlete. Not many get to realize this dream, but for those who get to realize another sort of dream - financial success in business - buying a sports team is, well, something of the ultimate. It's the private jet. The mansion on the hill. The big, fat Cuban cigar.

And, unlike private jets, mansions on the hill, and big, fat Cuban cigars, they aren't making any more of them, and there just aren't enough of them to go around.

So, the rich get richer, and Nocera's "Bad Owner", while failing to succeed on the usual terms of the sporting life - winning it all - are still doing what they have already proven they can do pretty well. And that's make money.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Just hop on the bus, Gus.

Planes and boats and trains are all fine by me, but I've never been much of a bus aficionado. Maybe it was all those early mornings sitting in the back seat of a diesel-belching bus, heading to high school, feeling queasy. (Why my friends and I insisted on sitting at the back of the bus, given how disgusting the diesel fumes were, is beyond me.)

Maybe it was the bus ride out of New York on Thanksgiving Eve. I fell asleep when I got on the bus at Port Authority. And woke up 3 hours later, by which point we'd reached....Yankee Stadium.

Maybe it was the bus ride from Shannon Airport to Galway, on an unseasonably warm and sunny Irish spring day, on a bus full of smokers.

No, it's been a while since I've hopped on any bus other than a city bus.

But the bus, it seems, has become cool.

I should have seen this coming - all those kids lined up in Chinatown to pay $15 to take the Fung Wah bus to NYC. So what if you risked an engine fire or an off-road experience. $15 to get from Boston to New York. How cool is that. (A lot cooler than the $700+ airfare I discovered when I had to get into New York for an early meeting. Having converted to the train, I hadn't taken the shuttle in several years. And, of course, aging crank that I am, I'm nostalgic for those $69 round-trip air fares of the 70's and 80's.)

And my sister and her family have taken the far more upscale luxury coach to New York a couple of times.

So, the bus is back!

According to a recent article in The Boston Globe, cheap fares are one of the drivers swelling demand for bus travel. On the Boston-NY route, Greyhound is going to take on Fung Wah with fares as low as $1 and with wifi. ($1? I can't get from Boston to Cambridge for $1. Of course, that fare is a come on, and there will be few seats available at that price. Still, even at the likely price of $25 for most seats, it's what you'd have to call a bargain.)

But it's not just the money, honey. The article also sites "frustration with driving in traffic jams and standing in airport security lines" with the increase in bus travel, which - based on the numbers of departures and arrivals - grew by 13% last year. It's still not where it was in the "halcyon" days of bus travel, but it is on the rise.

MegaBus operates primarily in Chicago, and their COO, Dale Moser is quoted in The Globe, as saying that the bus is no longer just for poor folk who can't afford to fly.

"We're getting affluent travelers who are leaving their $45,000 SUV at home," he said.

Meanwhile, the train travel between Boston and New York has grown quite a bit over the last few years, too. (It's definitely my preferred mode. I can walk to the train station from home, and - once in New York - can often walk to where I'm going. Neither of these walking options are available when I fly. Not to mention that the shuttle to LaGuardia can run you voer $700.)

I'm not sure I'm quite ready for the bus to New York - I like the train too much - but I'm happy to see think that the jump in bus travel means fewer cars on the road, and fewer fuel-guzzling planes in the sky. Or maybe it just means more people on the go.

In any case, once Greyhound starts up their BoltBus service, I may at least wander over to the bus station to check out what it looks like. Anything's better than $700+ bucks on the shuttle, and that always-exciting cab ride in from Queens.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Equal Housing Opportunity at Superior Ink

I don't normally spend a lot of time reading the ads for "luxury homes and estates", but I was having a bit of insomnia, and the Sunday Times Magazine was sitting there, and one thing led to another, and...

Of course I was interested in a new clump of West Village Town Houses - 3,800 to 4,800 square feet - that are coming on the market for $12.95M.

After all, if I lived in New York City, the West Village would be one of my neighborhoods of choice.

And, although I know from experience that I'd never use it, of course I'd like a wood-burning fireplace. Not to mention a 24 hour garage valet. Plus a rooftop garden. And an anticipated Silver Rating for Leadership in Energy and Environment Design from The United States Green Building Council. (Okay, it's not a platinum rating, but we're I'm living now would probably rate as "tin.")

I suppose that it might push up the price a tad, but I'd like to check out the interior options from Yabu Pushelberg, who on name alone I'm quite sure would present me with some mighty fine interior options.

And these townhouses have the decided cool factor of being located on the site of the Superior Ink Factory.

If I can't quite afford the $12.95M (plus or minus the Yabu Pushelberg options) - which might be a little difficult given how chintzy lenders are getting about stretch mortgages these days - I might be able to swing one of the condos, which I understand start at $2.5M or so for a 2 bedroom. (What with what we'd get for our Boston Condo, plus my availability to work as a 24 hour garage valet, which would certainly yield beacoup d'tips around the holiday, and the flat out fact that there's so little to do in NYC that I'd never want to go out to eat I'd have all that restaurant savings...)

But what really caught my eye in the ad for Superior Ink was the quite prominent lettering that read "Equal Housing Opportunity."

Well, given that money is the great equalizer, I would think so.

Or is this a nod to the NYC peculiarity in which so many of the luxe buildings are co-ops, not condos, which means - I think - that you can get rejected as a purchaser without the co-op board having to be specific about why you're being rejected.

I don't think the co-op right to refuse is permission granted to discriminate along lines of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin. I mean, people can sue boards if they suspect they're victims of discrimination. And I'm guessing that most of the not-our-kind-ness rejection attaches to financial considerations and, more subtly, applies to wealth origin more than national origin. "We" may not want Britney Spears because of her trashy celebrity. "We" may not want a Saudi prince because of security. "We" may not want Tony Soprano because....well, just because.

In any case, I was really struck by those three little words - "Equal Housing Opportunity" in an ad for a $12.95M townhouse. Which, yes, I've seen in other ads, now that I'm on the lookout, but in most ads it's in teensy, weensy, itsy,bitsy little type, not PROMINENTLY DISPLAYED.

Seemed a little odd, no?

But what do I know about NYC luxury housing? Not very much, I'm afraid.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Not a Peep Out of You

I'll know that it's officially spring when I'm bitten the head off of my first Peep. It has to be yellow - I don't really consider the pink, blue, lavender, or (yikes!) green ones authentic Peeps. Nor do I like the Easter bunnies. I will not even mention the jack-o'lantern, snowman, Christmas tree, or Valentine's Peeps. Faux Peeps, all.

When it comes to Peeps, I accept no substitutes. The little marshmallow critter on the right (and huddled in the box) are the real deal:


When it comes to Peeps appreciation, I am not alone. As I learned from the JustBorn web site, Emeril LaGasse, Diane Sawyer, and Ellen DeGeneres are Peeps aficionados. You do have to wonder what Emeril actually does with them. JustBorn - "Born", by the way, is the family name of the folks who make Peeeps - tells us that some people use Peeps as pizza topping, but I don't imagine that would be Emeril's thing.

If you want a Teletubbies kind of Peeps experience, JustBorn has a site dedicated to just Peeps.

JustBorn, by the way, also produces retro products like Ike 'n Mikes and Hot Tamales - candies that were considered weird throwbacks when I was a kid, let alone now. Maybe they've jazzed up the packaging a bit.

But Peeps - "Always in Season" - are JustBorn's biggest claim to fame, and they produce an awful lot of them:

Due to demand, Just Born now produces over 1.2 billion MARSHMALLOW PEEPS® a year covering all of its holiday seasons. That’s enough PEEPS® to circle the earth twice.

Which I wouldn't mind seeing.

Although steel is no longer produced there, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is where those 1.2 billion Peeps are made up to 4.2 million a day. They can make so many because, since 1953 - when JustBorn acquired the Rodda Company that invented the Peep, they've made an amazing leap in productivity:

In 1953, it took 27 hours to create one MARSHMALLOW PEEP®. Today, it takes six minutes.

Hey, if the steel industry had made this type of gain, they'd probably still be a big American industrial force.

Given that it's not - and given that Bethlehem is in Pennsylvania - I think it would be nifty idea if the Pittsburgh professional football team - The Steelers, named and logo'd when U.S. Steel was a mighty local force - changed their name to the Pittsburgh Peeps. (They could still keep the black and yellow color scheme, although obviously they'd have to get rid of the U.S. Steel-ish logo.)

Peeps are, in fact, almost as durable and sturdy as steel. According to the Peeps article in Wikipedia,

...scientists at Emory University performed experiments on batches of Peeps to see whether they could be dissolved. They concluded that the candy is indeed difficult to destroy.

There may be more info on Peeps indestructibility on a site dedicated to Peeps research.

There are, according to Wikipedia, numerous contests involving Peeps: photo contests, dioramas, and (over)-eating.

You can check out some mighty fine shots of stuffed Peeps - first introduced in 2005, but first seen by me this year in CVS - at artist David Ottogalli's PeepsShow. Note that key extra "s" in the middle. Failure to include it will take you to a place I doubt you want to go.

It's not just stuffed Peeps, by the way. There's all kinds of cool Peep-ish merchandise. Peeps have got to be second only to M&M's as a candy brand that's taken on an extra-confection commercial life of its own.


Then there's Peeps.Com, which has nothing whatsoever to do with Marshmallow Peeps, but is yet another social site - "your crib, your crew, hittin' the web Summer 2008."

Well, my crib, my crew, we'll be hittin' the Peeps. Can't wait to bite that first - and last - Peeps' head of the season off.

Peeps on the store shelves: must be Spring!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Odd job spoken here

With the exception of having worked as a finisher in a combat boot factory - where I applied shoe polish (sloppily) to raw edges, and cleaned glue off the finished product - most of my jobs have been fairly commonplace. But I'm always on the lookout for odd-jobs, and my sister Trish found a treasure trove in an article by Rachel Zupek over on CareerBuilder.

Using photographer Nancy Rica Schiff's books Odd Jobs, and Odd Jobs as her source material - which I must somehow get a hold of - Zupek has come up with some doozies.

Who knew there was such a thing called a "gum buster" - a person who steams gum off from under theater seats. (Given how often I've had the Eeee-ewww experience of finding gum under chairs and tables, I'd guess that professional gum busters aren't called on all that often.)

Not surprisingly - given the eeee-ewww factor - several of the jobs have to do with odor evaluation of both human and canine breath to check whether mouthwash and Milk Bones do the trick. I don't know which would be worse - smelling human bad breath all week or smelling dog bad breath. I guess that would depend on what the doggies had been into. Overwhelming as a human's bad breath can be at times, at least I've never seen a human eat excrement or lick water out of a toilet bowl.

There were a number of tester/inspector positions listed - beer, ball, video game, potato chip, and tampon, of which tampon would have to be the worst if it actually required insertion to fill your quota of 125 objects tested per day.

Ocularists paint artificial eyes which, unlike doll's eyes, have to look human and replicate the real eye in the other socket. So this is a fairly high skill position.

Dieners - a word I'd never heard before - "prepare cadavers for the pathologist before autopsies are performed in hospitals." A companion position of sorts - the gold reclaimer - "scours old teeth for fillings" which are melted down and sold to jewelers. Talk about macabre. I keep looking at my ring finger and wondering where that gold has been...

Ever wonder how ribbon candy gets made? If you thought it was by machine, you guessed wrong. Apparently, the stuff has to be pulled by hand to that nice level of thinness so that it can harden and turn glasslike so you can cut your lip on it if you're nuts enough while at your grandmother's on Christmas to actually bite into a piece. Now this has to be a job that is both seasonal and on the decline, as I cannot help but believe that ribbon candy production will cease to exist some day soon. (Although now that I think about it, the Vermont Country Store will no doubt keep it alive.)

On the fun side of the house, Mattel employs dress designers to create new fashions for Barbie and friends. How odd, though, to be designing for a body that in real life would be about seven feet tall, with five feet worth of legs, way 120 pounds, and wear a size 44DDD bra? And you thought super-models had unnatural figures?

The job on Zupek's list that struck both me and Trish as the oddest is that of paper towel sniffer, who "ensure that once a paper towel is used, there is no noticeable scent." But isn't that, ummm, contingent on what the paper towel is used for. Maybe if you're mopping up after a gold reclamation project, there's not much of an odor. And ribbon candy clean up probably smells cloying but okay. But think about where that dog's mouth might have been...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fudgie the Whale Beaches in Marlboro

Not that I will miss the product in the least, but - sentimentalist and Massachusetts home-girl that I am - I sadly report that Carvel will be closing its ice cream cake factory in Marlboro, Massachusetts, this coming May. Ninety people will lose their jobs producing Fudgie the Whale and Cookie Puss cakes. (This from an AP article that appeared recently in The Boston Globe.)

While I always feel badly when people lose their jobs - especially factory workers, who won't easily find replacement work - I have never been a big Carvel fan. As an ice cream enthusiast, I have been fortunate to have spent my life in a region of the country where ice cream - despite our nasty weather - is really important, and where we have good local chains and brands, and all kinds of small specialty shops.

For a while there, we even had ice cream wars.

Years ago, a homemade ice cream shop - Kelly's, I believe - opened on Charles Street, just across the street from another ice cream store. In the thick of rivalry, someone from the "other" store tried to bomb Kelly's and ended up killing himself. (I want to say that the "other" store was a Baskin-Robbins, but I don't want to impugn that chain if it wasn't their guy who did the deed. I will say that I really dislike B-R ice cream, which tastes gummy and not particularly natural to me. Fortunately, living in a land of ice cream good and plenty, B-R is seldom the only option when you really need an ice cream fix.

But reading that the Carvel plant was shutting down, did make me a bit nostalgic for the completely awful ads they usefudgied to run, in which Carvel founder Tom Carvel would push his wares for whatever holiday was coming up: "Fudgie the Whale, for a whale of a dad" was his Father's Day special.

Now who wouldn't want to put that in front of Dad on Father's Day?

It also got me thinking about the Carvel business in general, and on the Carvel site, I learned that Tom Carvel is an immigrant success story who came from Greece as a small child, and who - on the cusp of The Depression - and with a $15 loan from his future wife - started selling ice cream off the back of his truck.

Corporate lore has it that the first Carvel shop was founded when his truck got a flat tire , and that Carvel holds a patent on some sort of ice cream making machine, as well as on "all glass front buildings with pitched roof". Not to mention that he was the "first to introduce the marketing concept 'Buy One Get One Free'", and that he built the first soft serve ice cream machine. Oh, yes, and was the "first to franchise a retail ice cream store in the U.S.," and created the first round ice cream sandwich.

Well, the firsts just keep on keeping on. First prefabricated ice cream store. (I'm guessing that means that the store itself was pre-fab.) The first in the ice cream biz to use gift certificates.
First in the industry with the gift certificate concept.

Carvel also instituted a "Little Miss Half Pint" beauty contest for girls under the age of six. (Thanks, Tom, the world really needed a beauty pageant for little girls!)

This first shall be last: Carvel was the "first to use [its] CEO in radio and TV commercials, which, of course, is what those of us who grew up in the region where Carvel had a presence - the company started out in NY - grew to know and, of course, make fun of.

There was nothing glib or silver tongued about old Tom. Years later - Carvel died in 1990 - I can still here his mumbly voice and the completely a-rhythmic way he had of speaking. "Fudgie. The Whale. For. A whale of a Dad."

The ads, though, made Tom Carvel famous, and his golfing buddies included the likes of Bob Hope, Perry Como, and Jackie Gleason. How's that for a way -back roster of celebrities of the 1950's and 1960's. ("And away we go!")

Carvel is no longer a stand-alone company, by the way. It's part of a food services company that also includes Cinnabon. Just think - Cinnabon for breakfast, Fudgie the Whale for lunch, and you could lapse right into sugar shock. (I've got a sweet tooth, but I can't stand the smell of Cinnabon, let alone the thought of eating one.)

But what an American dream. Inventions. Patents.Fortune founded on a $15 loan. Household name. Icon. Golfing buddy of Perry Como.

Most immigrants, of course, don't have quite the success that Tom Carvel did. It's nice, however, to think that some of them still do.

But it also makes me wonder how many of the 90 workers who'll be losing their jobs when the Carvel plant in Marlboro closes were immigrants, too, just trying to carvel out a small piece of the American pie (or ice cream cake) for themselves and their families.

As always when there's a plant closing, I'm a little sad.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Best Places to Work

I always enjoy reading the Fortune list of the "100 Best Companies to Work For". I find the disjoint combination of types of businesses - in this year's Top Five you'll find Google, Quicken Loans, Wegman's Food, Edward Jones, and Genentech.

So, the best company can be one in which you're brainically improving search algorithms (taking breaks only for gourmet lunch), or helping someone finance their home, or bagging groceries, or cold-calling widows, or cloning a goat.

(Bringing up the rear, the Bottom Five of the Top Hundred were: Herman Miller, FedEx, Sherwin-Williams, SRA International, and TI. Am I the only one who finds it hard to believe that a company that produces office cubicles is a great place to work???)

Work life is certainly interesting.

Perhaps because it never occurred to me to question why no place I've ever worked made it onto the Top One Hundred list, I've never thought about how the list is created. In case you're wondering, here's how:

To pick the 100 Best Companies to Work for, Fortune partners with Great Place to Work Institute® to conduct the most extensive employee survey in corporate America. Of some 1,500 firms that were contacted, 407 companies participated in this year's survey. Nearly 100,000 employees at those companies responded to a 57-question survey.

Two-thirds of the score is based on the survey results.

What I find interesting is that so few companies are in the running to begin with - only 1,500, presumably because there's a minimum size for consideration - and that only a bit over 400 companies chose to participate.

So, the Top Hundred - rather than being the bestest ev-ah - are really the top 25 percent of the companies that answered the survey.

I find myself curiously disappointed - and yet curiously heartened - by this bit of information.

Disappointed because I actually like the idea that Wegman's, which I know only through my regular trips to Syracuse but which I know first hand is a terrific grocery store - is a great place to work.

But I suspect that my personal favorite local chain - Roche Brothers - may also be a great place to work. It's just that they may not have been among the 1,500 selected to participate (or the 407 that elected to do so). And that's what makes the list so heartening.

These may be good places to work - even great places - but they're not the only good places to work, dammit!

Another company that made the Top One Hundred is Shared Technologies, which caught my eye because their average annual pay was listed as $187K, putting it up there in the company of the big, white-shoe law firms. The average salary listed was that associated with the most common job title. In the case of Shared Technologies, that's apparently salesperson. Come on, how can an organization where the most common job is salesperson be a great place to work. Sounds like a complete nightmare to me.

Ah, well.

I'm sure that all of the Top Hundred will enjoy some bragging rights, and that HR will make something of it when it comes to hiring. But this is obviously not any great objective and "scientific" ranking of workplaces. I'm sure that some places that thought they'd get terrible results opted out, but it would be interesting to see (without necessarily naming names) what the spread was between the Top Hundred and numbers 300-407 on the scale. Probably not all that much.

Monday, March 17, 2008

You Say Po-tay-to, and I say Pa-tah-to. (Who's Irish and who's not.)

Not that I do much of anything to celebrate it, but I've always been rather fond of St. Patrick's Day.

I do send a few cards out. Sometimes I bake soda bread. I might watch some schlocky music program on PBS the weekend before. I'll no doubt listen to a few of my rather large collection of Celtic music CDs. I'll wear something green.

But I don't really celebrate-celebrate.

When I was a kid, attending parochial school staffed in large part by Irish-American nuns, in a parish populated in large part by Irish-Americans, St. Patrick's Day was a small respite in what was an altogether glum Lenten month.

We decorated the classroom with cardboard cutouts of shamrocks and leprechauns. We already wore green uniforms, but most of us tarted things up with a green carnation, a flimsy little Erin Go Bragh flag pinned on, or a "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" button. (Show offs!) In music, we sang hoary old tunes like "My Wild Irish Rose", "Irish Eyes," and "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen." From whence cometh my fondness for schlocky Irish music, I suppose. We also sang slightly peppier songs - "The Wearin' of the Green," "Oh, the Days of the Kerry Dancers," "Paddy McGinity's Harp."

And the nuns, depending on their temperament, would use the opportunity to demean the pathetic few students among our ranks who could not claim any Irish heritage; ignore the fact that there might be anyone in the class who wasn't Irish - and, presumably, didn't care; or take some sort of melting pot high road.

Not surprisingly, I have the keenest recall of the demeaners, in particular one nun who spent the day pretty much goading kids to make fun of the handful of French, Italian, and Polish kids in the class - "all in the spirit of good natured fun." (Hah!)

In the fifth grade, we went row by row, around the class, announcing what our ethnic background was. In a class chocked full of kids named Mulcahy, Ryan, Shea, Murphy, Sullivan (two), Walsh (two), Leary, Harrahy, and Tivnan, we already knew "who was and who wasn't." If your last name was Monfredo or Goyette, there was no way to disguise things - although I had friends with French and Polish names whose mothers were Irish. (Those are the ones I felt especially bad for. If only their fathers had the Irish names, no one would have to know....I was especially sensitive in this area because my mother was German. Horror of horrors: what if my last name had been Wolf?)

As Project Ethnic Identification proceeded up my row, I decided that - St. Patrick's Day or not - I was going to say that I was German. My stomach started to tighten. I told myself that this was a practice case for martyrdom. If I didn't have the guts to say I was German, surely I wouldn't have the guts to defiantly tell a Communist soldier, standing over me with his bayonet poised, that I was a Catholic.

"I'm German," I announced, to the gasps and titters of my fellow classmates.

What was I? Crazy?

Sure, Rogers was a kind of neutral surname. I mean, no way was Roy Rogers anything but a big old Protestant. And Ginger Rogers - wasn't she a Christian Scientist? But in our family, the name was Irish. And Maureen - well, that was an ethnic dead give away of the highest order.

Our nun would have nothing of it. Wanting to make some point about the proportion of Irish-ers in her classroom, she told me, "You don't have to say that about yourself, dear." She marked me down as Irish.

I went home, no doubt to a dinner of corned beef and cabbage, which I liked for two reasons alone: butter slathered and salt sprinkled on mashed up boiled potato, and the next day's leftover hash. But those potatoes. Talk about a little bit of heaven. Perhaps this year, I will forego bread baking and make meeself a few praties. Yum!

For desert, my mother always marked a holiday with some sort of theme cake, so we would have had chocolate cake with white frosting, decorated with bright green shamrocks.

We didn't celebrate any German holiday. No Oktoberfest. No Steuben Day. No St. Boniface. For every other ethnic group that Worcester had, it didn't seem to have any Germans, other than my mother.

And - for that one fleeting moment when I had the courage to utter the words "I'm German" - me.

Recipe for the world's best soda bread:
This is the recipe that my beloved Aunt Margaret used to make. It came from a friend of hers who hailed from County Cork. Margaret died just before St. Patrick's Day, 12 years ago. On the night of her funeral, my sister Trish told us that she was expecting a baby - my niece, Molly Margaret. At times, the world does have a wondrous way of giving back, doesn't it?

As you begin:
Heat oven to 3750Grease 2-quart casserole OR a cookie sheet

Ingredients:4 ups all-purpose flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. baking powder
3 tblsp. Caraway seeds (or more)
1 1/3 cup buttermilk
¼ cup butter
1 tsp baking soda
1 egg unbeaten
1 egg beaten
2 cups seeded raisins (These are hard to come by. I order mine in bulk from Sun Maid. If you have to use regular old raisins, the bread will still be fine, but the big, seeded raisins are better.)

Sift flour, sugar, salt, baking powder into mixing bowl.
Stir in caraway seeds
Cut in butter
Add raisins
Combine buttermilk, egg, and baking soda. Beat with egg beater
Stir into flour mixture until just moistened.

Turn dough onto slightly floured surface.
Knead lightly until you can hold it in your hands and it’s not sticky.
Shape into ball and place in casserole OR shape into two balls and put on cookie sheet.
With sharp knife, make a cross about 4” deep in the center. (Less deep if doing two smaller loaves.)
Brush with yolk of the beaten egg (beaten with a fork).
Bake in moderate oven for 1 hour 10 minutes (big loaf); 45-50 minutes (smaller loaf).
Cool in pan.

Make yourself a nice cup of tea - Barry's or Lyons, or Twinings Irish Breakfast - and enjoy.

Friday, March 14, 2008

I see dead foreclosed property, no less

Well, when they write the obituary for the sub-prime lending crisis, I vote for the story about the foreclosed home with the dead body in it as a must for inclusion.

Of course, this particular story was not just about sub-prime lending, but about out and out crime in that not only were the loans sketchy, but there had been considerable flim-flam with respect to the titles.

(This story was reported by Susan Chandler a week of so back in The Chicago Tribune.)

The most recent transaction involving the house in question was a purchase at a foreclosure auction. When the new owners came to check out their new digs - a rundown house in a rundown South Side Chicago neighborhood - they discovered:

...a human skeleton in a red tracksuit. Next to him lay a dead dog. Neighbors told police the corpse was almost certainly Randy Johnson, a middle-age man who lived alone in the North Kenwood house.

Now, set aside the pathetic element that someone was so bereft of family and friends that no one would notice that they hadn't heard from him in a while - a difficult set aside, I'll admit.

And set aside the fact that some neighbors did notice that they hadn't seen Randy around, and that firefighters came by, busted down the front door, took a look around but somehow missed the human and canine remains. Again, a difficult set aside

And set aside that this one involved not just misjudgments and sleazy, bordering on immoral tactics, but actual, bona fide crime - stolen titles, illegal "notarizations."

What we have a story that becomes an apt metaphor for the overall real-estate crisis, which has at its root some fairly careless and casual lending practices.

No surprise the lender that's involved:

Left holding the bag is Countrywide Home Loans, the nation's largest mortgage lender and a company whose practices are being scrutinized by the Illinois attorney general's office. Countrywide made mortgages of $450,000 on the property. Now it is likely to lose it all because it financed the sale of a home whose rightful owner was in no condition to sell.

Left holding a $450K bag? Serves them right.

Apparently Countrywide, and a lot of other lenders, are so eager to bad properties off their books that they'll just dump them out on foreclosure sales.

Lenders duped into making loans have every incentive to unload the properties, and almost none to blow the whistle on wrongdoers. If borrowers or government watchdogs fail to cry foul, the same home can change hands again and again before anyone is the wiser.

You might think you're buying clean property at that foreclosure sale, but it could be that no one has ever bothered to straighten out the title.

Talk about caveat emptor.

As noted, this story is not just about slipshod lending, but about fraud. Someone in the way back forged the signature of Johnson's mother. Someone other than a curious neighbor noticed that Johnson had gone missing. One thing led to another, and the charmers who'd forged the title set up a straw buyer for the house - and not for cheap, either. That $450K price tag was covered by a loan from Countrywide for the full amount. Why bother to put anything down when you're planning on disappearing shortly, anyway? The fraud artists get to pocket the $450K (minus whatever chump change they have to throw the straw buyer's way).

Fast forward to Countrywide's attempt to recoup some of their losses by unloading the property for what was more or less a steal: $93K.

Or at least the buyer's thought it was a steal until they made there way over to the house and found that it was already occupied.

The court has vacated the sale, so Countrywide won't get it's $93K, after all, and will have to eat the full $450K, which represents, of course, just a drop in the loss bucket.

Obviously, all foreclosures don't involve fraud, let alone dead bodies. But this sordid episode is absolutely symbolic of the overall crisis.

It's easy to be nostalgic for the good old days when Banker Bob knew just who and what he was setting up a mortgage for. Those days, of course, will not return. The world is way too complex for that.

But when there are mortgages getting granted where no one even bothers to investigate whether the title is legitimate and clear, whether the owner is dead or alive, and whether the dead or alive owner is in residence...well, I guess you can say we've got a problem.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The guy in the next cubicle is driving me nuts

I spend several hours a day working in the Writers' Room of Boston, which provides quiet space for writers. We have about 50 members, with working space for 10 (12 if we stretch things), and at any given time we average 3-6 folks writing (or reading or thinking) away.

When we say quiet space, we do mean quiet space: no talking, no humming, no whispering, no muttering, no cursing, no whistling, no slamming your fist down on the keyboard.

But we are only human, so there are, of course, many small disturbances.

  • Sometimes people forget to turn their cell phones off.
  • Sometimes it's too damned hot and people futz with the windows.
  • Sometimes people forget that the kitchen is not all that soundproof.
  • Sometimes people leave things to rot in the fridge.
  • Sometimes people text (loudly).
  • Sometimes the bar across the street has a University of Michigan football game on, and we have to hear the UM fight song all Saturday afternoon.
  • Sometimes people use the last leaf of toilet paper and don't bother to run downstairs and buy a roll at the 7-11. (Grrrrr.)

But mostly, it's amazing tranquil in here - at least by my standards. Some of the writers, however, are disturbed by very small things - the sound of someone's fingers striking the keyboard, the rattling of a newspaper, the clicking of a pen. These tend to be writers who haven't spent a lot of time in offices.

Me? Given all the years I logged in offices open and closed, I'm pretty much inured to the noises and irritating behaviors here. How can any of this compare to:

  • The guy in the next office who whistled the theme song to Gilligan's Island every moment of every day - other than during those moments when he was reciting some Masonic incantation or another - nothing like the sound of someone speaking in archaic tongue!
  • The health food techie who kept a bag of sweet potatoes in his office, but somehow never noticed the foul stench emanating from the suppurating bag of yuck those puppies had turned into.
  • The woman who, in an extremely loud and grating Australian accent managed to insert, not just the lowly f-word into every phone conversation she had, but the m-f word and the c-word. Throwing the f-bomb is one thing - I've been to those barricades myself plenty of times - but wrack my brain as I will, I can't really come up with a business context for the c-word.
  • The creep who, claiming he had a bad foot that needed to be exercised, wandered around the office every hour, pausing in the doorway of every woman in the place to stare in at her.
  • The fellow who, over a two week period, spent an inordinate amount of time recounting every last detail of the fender bender he'd been involved in with his pickup truck. (As Jeff, my buddy in the next cubicle said, "Hey, at this point, I know so much about the accident, I should file the insurance claim.")
  • The paging system at Wang that was right over my head, and paged incessantly for someone or another from the shop floor to pick up on line 23. Of course, I was about 1/4 of a mile over, and 10 floors up from the shop floor, but paging had to be "available" (and on) everywhere.

For me, the Writers' Room is comparative bliss. It doesn't bother me at all that in the next cube over, Mark is quietly working away at translating poetry from Spanish to English; the next to him, Marilyn is polishing her novel to send to her agent; that beyond that, Mimi is writing about communications skills, that Peter is writing about the environment, that Jenny is writing a poem.

In fact, I rather like it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


Just think, a few short weeks ago, I'd never even heard the term, and already I feel I could become dangerously addicted to trolling around the web looking for old stock certificates and other money-related paraphernalia.

My prime trolling stop has been at, where I've found a Genuity certificate for $49.95.

If only I'd had the presence of mind to take possession of an actual physical certificate or two, my Genuity stock could have been worth something.

As it turned out, those thousand shares I purchased at the low-low pre-IPO price of $11 were worth nothing!

By the time us lucky insiders could sell, 6 months after Genuity's IPO, the stock price was nearing zero and the stock had been delisted.

Even though the $49.95 price is $20 off the old price, I'd be happy with the $49.95.

Alas, I must draw comfort from having gotten a few years worth of capital losses to deduct.

Genuity stock

Now, I actually did have some real Wang stock certificates, but I must have given them the heave-ho at some point or another. Or did I have to surrender them to get some warrants for something else that turned out to be worthless?

In any case, I just did a cursory flip through my (paper) files, and couldn't find any of those beauties.

Too bad. They were nice red ones, and looked a lot like the ones available for $89.95.

This historic document was printed by the American Banknote Company and has an ornate border around it with a vignette of an allegorical woman. This item has the printed signatures of the company’s president, An Wang and its treasurer. This certificate is over 21 years old and very hard to find.

Wang certificate

Hey, my Wang stock certificates are over 21 years old, too. And they're hard to find - at least they're not in my filing cabinet.

And, ah, the vignette of the allegorical woman!

What might the allegorical woman have told us?

Abandon the mini-computer business before it's too late? Let someone other than Dr. Wang make a decision in this company? Screw the lightbulbs back in in those dark halls, or someone might fall and hurt themselves?

Alas, we will never know what the allegorical woman might have been able to help us with.

Clearly, we were no match for our arch-rival Digital Equipment, which managed to outlast Wang by quite a few years.

Even in death, they out do Wang. DEC stock certificates are going for $395. Even Data General's are running for $195.

Life is unfair! Death is unfair!

I can't stop trolling, there's too much of interest on this site.

Stop, stop, stop before I go off on a daffy, unhealthy stock certificate buying spree. I've been such a poor judge of actual stocks themselves, perhaps I can pick some defunct company certificates that will appreciate in value...

And speaking of daffy, here's a beauty on sale for only for only $195!

Oh, I know, Daffy is Warner Brothers, Goofy is Disney, but wouldn't I love to own this one:

disney war bond

A 1944 Disney war bond $195. I must have it now! And, I know it pre-dated me, but is it too late to help that particular war effort? It sure was worth winning, wasn't it?

Now that I look at the bond, I see Mickey, but where's Minnie? I see Donald, but where's Daisy? The Seven Dwarfs, but no Snow White. There's Bambi - but wasn't Bambi a boy? Is that other deer-like thing Bambi's mother? Probably - only she dies!

Come on, Walt, women participated in the war effort, too. Just ask Eleanor Roosevelt. And Rosie the Riveter. And my mother's friend Ethel, who was a WAVE.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tomorrow's Growth Jobs

Not that I'll be looking for a new career in the year 2016 - at least I hope not - but I did enjoy looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics forecast of the fastest growing jobsmanipedi. This was written up in a recent Picture Gallery - one of their annoying little things where you have to click through a bunch of pictures to get the whole story. Me, I really didn't care to click through and see everything - I pretty much got the picture after I saw a charming shot illustrating "manicurist/pedicurist." And this one for "environmental science Enviro techand protection technicians". Gosh, will all the growth jobs of the near future involve slathering or spraying stuff on feet? I certainly hope not. (Maybe I should have looked through more of the pictures, but I'm not a particularly patient person when there's a lot of clicking through required.

In any case, I gave up on and went straight to the source at the BLS to check out what the growth jobs are, and how many more of them we're going to need.

Manicurist/pedicurist is projected to grow by 27.6% from 2006 - 2016, and, while I do like a good mani-pedi now and again, I have to wonder what's fueling this growth. And whether there will be enough Vietnamese women to fill all these slots. Or maybe another ethnic group will come along and pick up the slack, the way that the Brazilians are moving in on what used to be the Irish house-painting monopoly in Boston, and how the Koreans became the dry cleaners.

Environmental technicians will experience a similar growth rate, which is kind of good-news, bad-news: does this mean that there'll be more to worry about, environmentally speaking. More bad things that need to get sprayed off the bottoms of our pedicured feet?

Other growth jobs include physicians assistants and physical therapists, who will help cater to the aging boomers. (Thanks in advance, you guys!)

Physicians assistants are, I think, a great answer for routine medical calls. Just last weekend, after spending a Saturday in sore throat agony, I diagnosed myself as having strep and took myself over to the walk-in clinic at Mass General Hospital. Where I waited for 4 hours for an MD to tell me I had strep. Seems to me that a PA could have swabbed my throat and read the culture, no? (I have to say, I was somewhat gratified that it was a strep throat, as I would have felt like a fool if I'd hung around the germ-factory waiting room for 4 hours, only to find out I had a plain-vanilla viral sore throat.)

And while I'm not exactly looking forward to have to draw on the services of Physical Therapists with any regularity, I am now enjoying those services while I work to restore the usefulness of the arm I broke last fall.

The most curious job title on the BLS list is "gaming and sports book writers and runners", projected to grow from 18,000 to 24,000. What, precisely, is this job? Sports book writers I get, but if America is going to need 6,000 more of them, I just may consider a career shift. But "a gaming and sports runner"? Is this like a numbers runner? And by sports book writers, do they really mean those involved with sports gambling? I'll definitely have to research this profession. "Gaming surveillance officers and gaming investigators" is another profession on the move, what with the casino-as-panacea-to-all-economic-woes movement.

Next most curious growth area: forensic science technicians. Just why are we going to need 30.7% of these folks?

Many of the growth jobs are in the "allied health professions", in counseling services (apparently, we're going to be abusing more and more substances, and entering into worse marriages), and in health aides who will be needed to keep us aging Baby Boomers in our homes. We're also going to need more "allied veterinary health professionals". (Arf.)

Technology is another big growth area, networking specialists, software engineers, database administrators, computer analysts. And financial analysts will be in demand, as well.

Finally, while the absolute numbers are small, the BLS is predicting that demand for "makeup artists, theatrical and performance" will grow by 39.8%.

What, pray tell, is driving this job growth?

"I'm ready for my close up now, Mr. DeMille."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Dream Job

I always used to tell people that my ideal job would entail a considerable amount of lolling around all day sipping tea and reading books. The rest of the job would require talking and hanging out. Maybe watching some baseball.

Well, apparently there is a job that's somewhat akin to this. Plus it pays pretty darned well - $150K - especially when you consider that it's considered a job for a twenty-something.

Who knew?

Anyway, a brief article in the March 10th New Yorker covered a job opening for a "cultural attaché" for Brian Glazer, a movie producer I've never heard of, who's a partner with Ron Howard, a movie producer and child star (Opie of Mayberry) I am familiar with.

Here's an excerpt from an e-mail describing the position, which was circulating so madly that it started to sound like an urban legend, but was apparently the real deal:

...This person would be responsible for keeping Brian abreast of everything that's going on in the world: politically, culturally, musically.

Okay, I'll admit, this part of the job is only quasi-dreamy. I mean - especially in this day and age of TMI - how can you possibly keep up with everything. Think of the pressure of deciding whether it's more important that Brian knows that John McCain lost his temper over a question about talking to John Kerry about being his VP in 2004 or that he knows that an advisor to Obama had to quit after she referred to Hillary as a "monster". Or would Brian need to know both?

And culturally? Brian should probably know about the most recent spate of fake memoirs - after all, he might want to make a movie about a child raised by gang-bangers or wolves, so he's got to know that these stories are bogus. But does he need to know who Heath Ledger left his estate to? Or does he already know stuff like that, just automatically, because he's a Hollywood guy.

And musically? Does the latest on Britney count as music or culture or both?

...They're also responsible for finding an interesting person for Brian to meet with every astronaut, a journalist, a philosopher, a buddhist monk.

Well, I'm sure you just don't go looking in the yellow pages for ex-astronauts or buddhist monks. And what if you made the mistake of offering up a really boring ex-astronaut or buddhist monk? Luck of the draw, there have to be a few of them out there.

Here's where the job gets really dreamy:

There's LOTS of reading for this position! Grazer may ask you to read any book he's interested in. You'll probably get to read about 4 or 5 books a week.

But on second thought, what if the books aren't interesting? What if most of them are self-help nonsense or puff-ographies? What if they're Tom Clancy novels? I mean, would Brian ever ask you to read a really good book on his behalf? Shouldn't he be reading those himself? And how do you impart what goes on in a really well-written, really good book - fiction, memoir, whatever? You really can't.

Sure, you could give him a juicy plot summary of The DaVinci Code - one of the books he's turned into a movie. But if the book was really good - The Kite Runner - wouldn't you just want to say, 'Come on, Bri, read it yourself.' (And why does this part of the job seem like a more pleasurable version of whipping boy: the job exists because someone can afford to pay for it.

There's a travel component of the job: may be required to travel with him on his private plane to Hawaii New York, Europe - teaching him anything he asks you about along the way.

At least you don't have to make your own travel arrangements. And even if you did, this job comes with an assistant.

There's a slightly edgy element to the job, too.

"I like to meet people in dangerous organizations, and my cultural attaché" finds out who that person is - who runs the Yakuza, or the Masons, or M15."

Ah, those dangerous Masons, with their medieval double speak and weird velvet robes. Not to mention the Shriners in their fezzes and those goofy little cars.

Yep, I'd sure lump the Masons in the same category as the Yakuza.

One thing about Brian Glazer, though.

He apparently doesn't expect anybody to do anything for him that he hasn't done for himself.

"I used to do the begging and groveling and ass-kissing myself."

I guess that's what separates someone who gets to be a private-jet owning, mega-important Hollywood producer capable of getting the Dalai Lama or the head of the Yakuza on the horn, from a run of the mill schlump like myself, who never in a million years would have thought about writing a letter to Edward Teller asking to meet him. (Not that I would have picked Edward Teller to begin with, but Grazer did.)

Not that my career has been entirely devoid of begging and groveling and ass-kissing. But most of it was in the service of getting some tech publication to write about my company, or getting a few extra bucks in the budget, or snagging a raise and promotion for myself. Not much time left in a day to write to Edward Teller (or equivalent).

Anyway, the job actually does sound like it would be fun for someone young, energetic, and curious.

Unfortunately, I've only got two of the three covered.

Besides, they're down to the four finalists already, so it would have been too late to float my résumé out there even if I had all three.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Weekend Warriors

On a recent Sunday morning, I checked my e-mail, and found one from one of the other consultants I'm working with on a client project.

I replied, and as I was hitting the "send" button, a message came in from one of the clients who was on the thread.

Five minutes later, one of other clients responded.

Of the six people on the e-mail list, four were working at the same time on a Sunday morning.

As a free-lancer, I don't so much mind the blurring of time and days, since my time is mostly my own. Working on a Sunday morning is an absolutely reasonable trade-off for staying in bed and doing nothing on a Wednesday.

But two of the four folks who weighed in on the e-mail are clients, who have full-time jobs.

What's with all of us?

Laptop. Cell phone. Blackberry.

Miraculously, we're untethered from the office - which is mostly a good thing. We can work more flexibly, etc. etc. etc.

But all of a sudden, vacations and weekends away are no longer the getaways they used to be. I took off for the weekend earlier this month, and deliberately left my laptop behind. It took me at least 24 hours to get used to the idea of not checking my e-mail - or just trolling the Internet - regularly. There was a business center where I could have checked in, and I did look at it wistfully a couple of time, but didn't succumb to the urge to log in and check.

What I did find was that I was making notes of things I wanted to Google or Zillow when I got home. Who, exactly, is Benny Hinn the evangelist? What's that McMonstrous McMansion on Westwood drive worth?

Although I have historically tried to keep vacations (at least) sacred (which I no longer do, now that I'm a blog-addict), through much of my full-time career I was a weekend warrior.

Originally, that meant you had to go into the office to get things done.

But I do remember the first "portable computers" I used. The company I worked for - which was still largely mainframe oriented when I was there - got a couple of these massive, unwieldy Toshiba "portables," which must have weighed 50 pounds.

They had couplers on the back, which you tucked your telephone receiver into and dialed into the mainframe at a rate that I believe was 96 baud.

Oh, miracle of technology, but it was so cumbersome, I almost always just went into the office when I had things to do on the weekends.

A few years later, the same company got a couple of Compaq portable PC's. They were khaki green, and had a screen that was about 9" diagonal - if that - but all of a sudden, we had a product demo machine to take on the road.

I remember one trip to Chicago with my boss.

We were there for a couple of days, each of us with a briefcase and hanging garment bag (or whatever they're called). And each of us prepared for Chicago in January, with heavy winter coats.

Too bad it was in the 50's and pouring rain.

We couldn't get a Friday-afternoon cab back to O'Hare, and decided to take the El.


There we were, Steve and I, trying to juggle all our stuff, most notably the deadweight Compaq, which not only weighed a ton, but was an awkward size and shape.

Sweat pouring off the two of us, I grabbed both briefcases and my suitcase, Steve took his suitcase and the Compaq, and together we trooped to the train station. By the time we got there, our heavy wool coats had sponged up, and we were sweating even more. The escalator was on the fritz, so we had to hump our baggage up the stairs.

Portable PC, my foot?

It's amazing neither one of us had a heart attack.

Then, blessedly, came the laptop, but - while certainly an improvement on the army-green Compaqs - these weren't all that gloriously lightweight, either - especially since, by this point, I was working on a client-server product and had to bring two machines with me to demonstrate the product. What a pain!

But in those days, we still weren't so dependent on e-mails that you felt you had to stay connected all the time. (I can't even remember when voice-mail became popular. At one point, you had to call back into the office for your messages, which were written up on pink slips.)

Over time, anyone who traveled at all got fully equipped with a laptop. You were good to go. The desktop-pers figured out how to get connected from their home computers. Secure remote access via VPN. Yippee! I can work from home! Life is good. Life is great.

Now, unless I make a deliberate decision to leave it at home, my laptop comes with me. Untethered from an office, I like to be tethered to the world wide web.

Yes, there's certainly a lot of positive things to say about the ability to be "always on". But when four out of six people on an e-mail thread are online on a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. checking their e-mail, there's something a little disconcerting about the picture, isn't there?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Sexiest job titles - 2008 edition

As if there isn't enough nonsense out there about jobs, celebrated Valentine's Day by publishing a survey of the "sexiest job titles." The survey results were picked up on

Leading the pack, as it did when the survey was first conducted three years ago: firefighter.

Now, given the heroic nature of their work - combined with all that downtime that enables firefighters to keep beef-cake buff, this one is no surprise. Plus there's the whole "love a man in uniform" thing, not to mention all those cutie-pie calendars.

Number two was "personal trainer", which replaced "flight attendant," a title that fell off the top-ten list this year. (How anyone can think that a position that entails traipsing up and down a narrow aisle pushing a cart full of nips while wearing bad polyester clothing equates to a sexy job title is beyond me, and, apparently, beyond this year's survey respondents.)

"Personal trainer," on the other hand, has an up-close-and-personal element that makes it a logical choice for this list.

Number three both years fell to CEO.

Ah, the aphrodisiac impact of a big, fat salary accompanied by big, fat perks. Makes it a lot easier to overlook those nose hairs and receding hairline. Or maybe I've just met the wrong CEO's.

Bartender was ranked number four. ("It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place, except you and me....") Ah, the aphrodisiac impact of a nice, slurpy Cosmo poured by a moonlighting firefighter with a sympathetic smile.

Fifth place went to nurses - nice to see that respondents think caring can be sexy. And nice to see nursing beat out surgeon, which came out number eight, just ahead of cowboy. (And here I was thinking all these years that surgeons were cowboys.)

I find cowboy a very curious choice. Not that I know all that much about cowboying in this day and age - other than what I saw in Brokeback Mountain, where the cowboys were really shepherds, if you want to get technical - but I don't suppose that it's exactly the Marlboro Man anymore. I'm guessing it's more about driving around in trucks and ski mobiles, armed with cattle prods and walkie-talkies. But maybe it still is the strong, silent, man on a horse profession we grew up watching on TV. (Although, come to think of it, those cowboys never changed clothing from one season to the next, which I don't think would make them all that sexy.)

Pilot, photographer, and soldier also made the Top Ten list. Pilot and soldier: there's that man in uniform thing again. (I guess that goes for cowboys, too, given that the ones on TV never changed outfits, they were really wearing a uniform of sorts.) And for photographer, I'm assuming that folks were thinking about photojournalists, and not paparazzi, let alone the people who snap kids' "portraits" at Sears.

Needless to say, no job I ever held made it to the Top Ten. Waitress. Soda jerk. Customer complaint taker. Store clerk. Combat boot polisher. Office temp. Research assistant. Product manager. Marketer.

You'd think that at least Marketer would have stood a chance, but I guess it's just not quite as sexy as surgeon or cowboy.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Walk-In Closets. Make that Live-In Closets

It is certainly one of the more curious aspects of American life as the world's über-consumers that we are both a throw-away society - producing mega-tons of wretched refuse that ends up in land-fills, in "floating islands" of ocean-going garbage, and being picked over by trash-gleaners working the slag heaps that dot the landscape in third-world slums - AND a nation of accumulators who can't seem to fill our homes up fast enough. And who, it appears, can't seem to build homes big enough to contain all of our "stuff".

To accommodate our need for more space, storage centers - where you can rent out space to keep the stuff that doesn't fit in your closets, attic, basement, or garage - are becoming a bigger and bigger business. As someone who lives in a modestly-sized urban condo, with limited closet space and no attic, basement, or garage, I've often thought about renting one of these spaces where I could store things like my Christmas decorations and other stuff I don't need or use all that often. But I've avoided the temptation, largely because I don't want to have to go fetch that stuff I don't need when I do need it. And also because I really don't want to accumulate any more stuff than I already have. With our premium on space, I have to think twice before buying anything, and getting something new means pitching out something old to make way for it. Thus, we didn't hang on to our trusty old TV when we got the new flat screen. We gave it to the guy who'd come to fix the condo washing machine.

Some folks, however, do have a lot of things they want to hang on to, and for them we have "storage condominiums," which - unlike the dank, drab, prison like self-storage outfits of yore - are becoming something that's more akin to a second home.

A recent article in The New York Times noted one such place, Garage Town USA in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where storage condos are:

...bought and sold like homes and come with cable television, high-speed Internet, individual thermostats and even clubhouses.

Many of the super-storage condos are near resort areas, and are used to shelter RV's, boats, sports equipment, etc. But they suit many other purposes.

One fellow quoted in the article has invested nearly $120K in his unit, which - at 1,152 square feet is almost equal in size to my condo - he's turned in part into a gym and batting cage. Another uses his condo for an art gallery. In general, the storage condos - some of which are duplexes, with lofts or mezzanine levels in them - have become:

...places where people want to linger for a televised football game or a poker game in the clubhouse or just hang out with other condo owners.

Those clubhouses, by the way, can be pretty swank. One was described as having leather sofas and couches, and a kitchen with granite counter tops - something that my pathetic little kitchen sorely lacks.

At Hollywood Storage Center, a rental facility in Newbury Park, Calif., there are movie posters on the walls, wine-tasting rooms, a kitchen and even a post office. For Christmas, there were free photos with Santa Claus with cocoa and chocolate chip cookies.

Remember, we're talking about storage units here.

But given how enamored Americans are with acquiring things, given our shop-til-you-drop consumer culture, it shouldn't be much of a surprise that our storage cathedrals are becoming social centers.

Reading The Times article made me feel almost monk-like in comparison to those with storage units the size of my home - and I'm hardly a non-consumer.

And the idea of someone paying $60,000, or $80,000, or $100,000 for a storage condo, well - I may not live in one them, but I'm quite certain that there are still places in the good old US of A where you can buy a house for that kind of money.

Obviously, there's nothing "wrong" with people wanting to store their stuff, or even to convert those storage places into a sort of home-away-from-home. They're by no stretch of the imagination Habitats for Inhumanity.

Still, there is ample reason to reflect on the care and feeding we lavish on our material possessions when we have so many homeless in our midst who would more than delighted with a 900 square foot storage unit (with or without loft), and access to the clubhouse kitchen (with or without the granite countertops).

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


A week or so ago, my husband printed off an article from The New York Times on the widening gap became those colleges and universities with the mega endowments, and those without.

No surprise that Fair Harvard leads the endowment pack with $34.9 billion - which grew by $5.7 billion last year alone. (This $5.7 billion figure is larger than the total endowments of all but 14 other schools.) Harvard's endowment in 1990 was a measly $4.4 billion. Looks like 10,000 Men of Harvard *- and a handful of money managers of Harvard - wrote some hefty checks and did some pretty smart money management over the years.

Harvard's endowment, of course, enables them to do some wonderful things, like giving financial aid to students from what can only be termed upper-middle class families. And some not so wonderful things, like buying up Cambridge and Alston, decreasing the tax base. (I do think they pay fairly high "in lieu" of fees to both Cambridge and Boston. At least for the sake of my property tax bill, I hope they do.)

Well, good for them, a big part of me says.

They have generous alumni who look benevolently upon them and each and every year swell their coffers.

But when we're at the point where a kid from a family making $180,000 will end up picking up less of their educational tab than a student at UCal Berkeley coming from a $90,000 a year income family, you have to ask yourself whether this endowment disparity is all for the good.

According to the article, of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the country, fewer than 10 percent have endowments greater than $100M.

That means that graduates of some reasonably good private colleges - and, as we see from the Berkeley situation - some more than reasonably good state universities - who don't quite have the je n'est sais quoi to get into Harvard - may come out into the world with a boat load of debt. While the Harvardians, in addition to having that golden degree, that enviable network, and that marvelous certainty that no one they ever meet in their life is going to wonder why they went to college where they did, will not be looking at loan payments of $1,000 a month.

One thing, we're sure of,
The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.
In the meantime, in between time,
Ain't we got fun?

Fast forward, and where does this take us?

A lot of the lesser (lesser everything: lesser known, lesser quality, lesser endowment) colleges are gone, and the folks who used to go to such places now attend University of Phoenix online (where they'll miss out on at least 80% of what most people get out of an education, and have the college degree equivalent of a GED).

The competition will get fiercer and fiercer to get into Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and becomes even nuttier than it is now. Pressure on the 3 year old not to grab his wee-wee during the pre-school interview, because if he doesn't get into the right pre-school, his chances in life are doomed. Pressure on the kid who wants to play clarinet in high school in Pittsburgh to move in with Grandpa in Montana and play the tuba, instead. Pressure to plagiarize so that you'll be seen as a novel-writing wunderkind. (Wait, these kinds of pressures already exist. Now it will just get worse.)

Hey, it's always been the case that if you want to be a Supreme Court Judge, you're better off with a degree from Harvard or Yale Law than you are from Buddy's Match Book Legal Academy. But if you wanted to have a nice little legal practice in your home town, Buddy's would do you just fine.

But where are we going to be if the only degrees worth having are free of cost, and you have to pay plenty for the ones that aren't worth a damn?


Will this be an unalloyed good?

The Times article contrasts the giving habits of a father-son duo who both went to Princeton undergrad. Pere donates to Princeton, fils donates to Virginia Tech, where he did his graduate work, figuring that Princeton already has $15.8B, which V-Tech has a wan $525M (which still puts in the upper echelon of endowments, by the way).

This little anecdote reminds me of a story my brother-in-law tells (and that always makes me laugh).

For years, he got an annual shake-down call from a fellow Harvard B School grad. For years, my brother-in-law - who is a very philanthropic and generous fellow, by the way - turned down the request, telling his friend that he would write a check if the friend could come up with just one less worthy cause than HBS. One year, the friend did the trick, naming Harvard Law School. My brother-in-law, a man of his word, wrote the check.


*This is a Harvard fight/marching song, which I only know because I've been to a few football games where their band plays this tune. A note on watching a football game at Harvard's decidedly old-fashioned Soldiers' Field: it's actually fun to see normal-sized student athletes play the game.