Friday, January 30, 2009

Ten reasons why I'm pulling for the Steelers

I'm not the world's foremost pro football fan.

Baseball's my game of choice.

But there's something about having a strong local team ("our" New England Patriots), not to mention having a kick-butt 46" flat screen TV to watch a game on, that's got me watching more football games than is my norm. (Where my historic norm is pretty much zero per year.)

Despite the Pats not having made the play-offs (despite a season's record far superior to the Arizona Cardinals, who are representing the NFC in this year's showdown; and despite having whomped those Arizona Cardinals during the regular season), I have watched quite a few of the post-season games this year, and most have been interesting and exciting.

Super Bowl this year has the Cardinals up against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and I'll be watching. And rooting for the Steelers.

Sure, there are some good story lines on the Cardinals part: this would be the franchise's first championship since the 1947 season. (I use the word "franchise" here, since this crew has moved around. They were originally in Chicago, then moved to St. Louis, then decamped to Phoenix.) The same family's owned them for eons, which is a plus in my book. But in this respect, they are not unlike the Steelers, so this plus gets neutralized.  The Cardinals are the underdogs, and I tend to like underdogs. And I do enjoy watching their wide-receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, at work. Wow! Finally, I have more relatives in Arizona (my brother Tom, my sister-in-law Betsey, and my cousins Mary Pat and Michael) than I do in Pennsylvania (zero family members).

But all this doesn't combine to make me want to root for the Cardinals.

For a number of reasons (10, in fact), I'm rooting for Pittsburgh:

  1. They play in the cold. I have no idea where football was invented, but I'll bet it was in some nasty weather place. Maybe not Green Bay, Wisconsin. But someplace like that. So I've come to believe that real football is played in weather: cold, snowy, miserable weather. Buffalo weather. New England weather. Pittsburgh weather. And if you're a cold weather team, you'd better be playing outdoors if you want me to be a fan. Maybe playing in a dome kept the Indianapolis Colts out of it this year. (Wusses!) Maybe playing in a dome is responsible for the Detroit Lions record-breaking 0-16 record. Yes, I know that Super Bowl is always played in some warm weather (or domed) destination site. Still, real teams play real football in real weather.
  2. Their stadium is named for something real. Speaking of real, the Steelers play in Heinz Field - as in Heinz ketchup. The Cardinals play in University of Phoenix Stadium, which is named for a virtual university that doesn't have a football team. And naturally, it's domed.
  3. They've stayed put. Unlike the Cardinals, who've been something of vagabonds, the Steelers have always been in Pittsburgh. As a stay-at-home, native New Englander, I'm down with that. Rather than snowbird it down to Arizona, the Steelers have been true to their home town.
  4. Oh, that lunch bucket name. They may no longer make steel in Pittsburgh, but the image of men of iron, forging steel with their bare hands, sweltering over Bessemer ovens, that the name Steelers conveys... What a great name for football team. (The only equivalent is the Green Bay Packers.) It's a harken back kind of name, isn't it? Harkening back to the days when we actually made tangible stuff in the good old U.S. of A., rather than just dream up financial instruments. (I don't think we'll ever have a football team named the "Credit Default Swappers.")steelers logo 
  5. Oh, that lunch bucket logo. I'm trying to think of another team logo that's also the former logo of a company (US Steel) and is now the  logo of an industry. Sure, it does have a kind of jazzy, 1950's-1960's feel to it, but, hey, in those days, we still made tangible stuff, etc., etc.
  6. Oh, that lunch bucket town. Yes, I know, Pittsburgh has high tech, financial services, bio-med, and all the other modern industries. But, come on, don't you still think steel mill, coal mine, blue collar, Deer Hunter? I'm also thinking hilly and ethnic. All of which, of course, reminds me of Worcester and other places that people are actually from. Whereas when you think Phoenix, you're thinking desert, sprawl, and people fleeing cold.
  7. Their ultra basic color combination. My personal preference for team colors are those that use the basic color pallet. Here, the Cardinal's do just fine: can't get much more basic than red and white. But I hate the color combos that include fancy-ass colors like teal. Steelers have black and gold. Just the basics. Not my favorite colors, but good for them that they haven't tried to fancy things up for themselves.
  8. Pittsburgh's baseball team is terrible.  Well, who wouldn't rather have a great baseball team than a great football team? I know, I know, the answer is football fans. Given how lousy the Pirates are, the Pittsburgh fans deserve a win - even if, for baseball fans, it's second best.
  9. The owner walks to work.  Dan Rooney, son of the original owner, by the way, still lives in the same house  - in the city - he was brought up in. It's a 10 minute walk from Heinz Field, so the boss can walk to work. This also means that at least some other Pittsburgh fans can get to the game via shanks mare, and don't have to get in their cars and drive out to some suburban sprawl-ville to watch their team.
  10. Pittsburgh: city of my dreams. Unless you count a stop-over in Pittsburgh Airport, I've never been to the city. But for years I had a recurring dream that involved being on a bridge at the confluence of the Alleghany, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers. I have no idea where the dream came from. I haven't had it in years. But I've never had a dream about being in Phoenix, even though I've been there in real life. Go figure. It must mean something....

So, despite the fact that Rush Limbaugh is a Steelers' fan, that's why I'm rooting for Pittsburgh on Sunday.

In truth, of course, I will neither shed tears nor lose sleep over the outcome of this game. It's just that I don't understand how anyone can watch a sporting event and not pick one side to cheer for. Even when I'm watching a game where I'm 100% indifferent to the result, I always end up picking a side.

This time, I know going in that my side's Pittsburgh. But if it's going to be the Cardinals, I'm picking Larry Fitzgerald for MVP.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Trickle down from Lehman: things get gruff for GoatsRUs

Last fall, I posted about those who were losing their jobs when Lehman folded. A month later, I wrote about Lehman CEO Dick Fuld's putting his art collection on the market - the high end version of the just folks hawking their Beanie Baby collections on eBay.

Then I stopped thinking about Lehman.

There were, after all, so many other things to fret: the election, the total economic meltdown, Bernie Madoff, layoffs, layoffs, more layoffs. (Including last week's layoffs at Bernie Madoff's company.)

So I never thought about any of the trickle down impacts of the Lehman fiasco. If I'd given it any thought, I'd have given that thought to tailors who made bespoke suit, cigar bar owners, and, maybe, the little sandwich guy around the corner.

Well, The Wall Street Journal's got me thinking again about the far reaching fallout of the Lehman implosion. (Note: access to this article may require a subscription.)

About $43 billion of Lehman's $639 billion in assets was from the firm's far-flung real-estate operations, which included housing projects, resorts, office buildings and other properties all over the world.

When Lehman went bankrupt, a lot of those  who labored on those projects got stuck holding the bag - an empty bag:

Those hurt include hydrologists near San Francisco and chambermaids in Palm Springs. Also left in the lurch were Chinese laborers who were flown into the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies to help build a Ritz-Carlton resort. The workers stopped getting paychecks abruptly after the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing. About 60 of them followed managers of the project around the property until they finally got paid.

Another one of their ventures was a housing development in Oakland. And one of the small businesses that worked on that project was Goats R Us, which:

...provide[s] communities with environmentally friendly vegetation management as well as public education about alternatives to traditional abatement techniques.

Those vegetation managers are the goats.

Big land owners use goats for fire control because they are dependable and hard-working. They clear brush and poison oak, which two-legged landscapers try to avoid. The goats also are often preferable to herbicides, especially in residential areas.

The Goats R Us critters have been working that site for years, since it was a Navy hospital. A couple of times a year, the owners schlepped 1,000 goats to the site, where they grazed to their tummies content, under the watchful eye of Peruvian and Chilean ranchers.

Now, this all-natural, do-good company is out $53K for work they did, and which they'll likely never be reimbursed for.

Goats R Us, of course, didn't know Lehman from a pile of tin cans or a heap of goat turds.

They'd been hired by SunCal, a California-based developer that was partnering with Lehman. Thanks in part to Lehman, SunCal's got problems of its own: some 450 creditors knocking at its door, including the Goats R Us folks.

SunCal claims that they were "assured by Lehman" that the little guys would get paid. But the Lehman estate, which is handling the bankruptcy, is head-butting with SunCal about whether to foreclose on the SunCal properties or, as is SunCal's preference, see if they can keep them going.

$53K is a lot of money for Goats R Us. It "nearly equals her annual alfalfa budget."

As for the goats themselves, the owner:

...says the goats will be cared for and will never be sold for meat. After they become too old to travel, they "retire" with medical care to the family ranch.

Even though I don't eat goat meat, that's comforting to know.

With everything that's going on, these are the kind of stories we'll be ruminating on for years to come.


Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Disingenuous, that's what you are...

I don't know how I stumbled on these guys - it may have been when I was noodling around with a possible post on the rise of shoplifting - but there's a business out there devoted to creating fake receipts.

They have all these completely disingenuous warnings like "for novelty use only" and a  list of things that you shouldn't use fake receipts for (tsk, tsk). But, come on, how many legitimate uses are there for fake receipts?

I can really only think of one, and that's if you lose a receipt you need for business reimbursement, and your company is a complete stickler on this matter.

Even then, most business expenses will be credit carded, so you'll have the info on your statement. Plus, any hotel, restaurant, car rental, or whatever can easily send you a duplicate receipt, if you need one. As for those little buck-here-buck-there receipts - doorman tips - that's what those tiny little pads in hotel rooms are for. (Tip for maid. $4. Jan. 28.)

I will say that I haven't been above hoarding cab receipts from Boston Cab, so that I'd have some on hand if I was too harried to ask for one.

Other than that...

But FakeExpense has all sorts of legitimate uses for fake receipts, starting with the receipt was innocently lost, or has faded to the point of illegibility.

Then there was the fellow who'd used his corporate card in a lap-dancing bar, and needed to clean up his expenses or risk losing his job.


How about, if-it's-okay-in-your-sleazy-corporate-culture-to-take-a-client-to-a-lap-dance-bar-then-it-should-be-okay-to-expense-it. And if it's not, then this should be something your don't do. Or something you pay cash out of your own pocket for. Or, if you really feel justified in the expense, something you make up for a couple of dollars at a time. (C.f., "tips for maids.")

I'm just as happy that springing for lap dancing has never come up in my expense account experience.

Another legit purpose that FakeExpense cites?

The man who supposedly created fake lap-dancing receipts 
"so his wife would divorce him."

Oh, yes, I'm sure that happens all the time. ("I can't get my darned wife to divorce me. Maybe if I left these receipts from Happy Dayz Pole Dancing around, she'll decide to dump me.")

Other ideas?

Convince someone that your Rolex watch is the real deal, or that the rock you've just slipped on her finger came from Tiffany's.

It's all in good fun!

You shouldn't, of course, use fake receipts for insurance fraud, or to use to sell bogus goods on eBay, or cheat on your expense account. Tsk, tsk, tsk-y, tsk, tsk.

These uses would be WRONG!

And just to make sure you get this this is wrong, there's that disclaimer:


Which certainly jives with their list of products, wouldn't you say?

store receipt template
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counterfeit store receipt The website that allows you to build custom receipts from whatever retailer for any amount, for any type of service or goods.

These will be printed on real thermal till-roll and posted to your address – for only $14.99.

They have all sorts of templates if you want to create your own receipts, replete with legit-looking logos (Apple, Tiffany, Toyota - for a fake car repair claim.)

Ah, yes, for novelty use only.

What's your estimate on the ratio of illegitimate to legitimate uses of these products? 10 to 1? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1?

We welcome all emails with a few exceptions:
Any email that contains wording on using our product in any form that is not legal. IT WILL NOT BE ANSWERED.

Using a counterfeit store receipt in any form that is not legal? TSK. TSK. TSK. TSK. TSK.

They also partner with sites that provide bogus doctors notes. The one I clicked on had one of those pop-up dialog boxes, and "Nurse Kym" - who looked like a porn star, but who is actually a chatbot - offered me  $5 off a 30-pack of "Kickass doctors notes."

Our excuses don't look fake because they have authentic looking logos and watermarks. This is extremely important in any legal document.

A 30-pack of doctors notes? How often do you call in sick? How often do you call in sick where you need a note from your doctor?

A 30-pack would have lasted me far more than a lifetime. (I'm an incredibly healthy person - knock on wood - and, when I was working full time, I probably averaged half a sick day a year.)

Scuz-buckets helping scumbags. What a way to make a living.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hub Fan Bids Updike Adieu

He was by no means my favorite writer.

For the most part, I could take or leave his novels.

I enjoyed reading his short stories, but there was a sameness about them that I eventually grew weary of, the same affluent, suburban, Ivy League WASP adulterers appearing time and again. And, to me, the stories had an evanescent quality. I would finish reading one, then have to ask myself what was it that I had just read.

But for all that, I absolutely loved his writing, and I don't think that there was ever a sentence of John Updike's that I found less than perfect, that I didn't love reading.

Years ago, I had a minor squabble-debate with my husband over the importance, the merits, of literature.  Ever the pure economist, he was on the side of unimportance. I left in a minor huff, heading over to Cambridge - probably for a writers' workshop - and there, on the Red Line, in the very car where I was sitting, was John Updike.

Just seeing him there, I felt vindicated, as if I had won a no-win argument with Jim. I smiled all the way to Cambridge and back.

I was not at Fenway Park the day "The Kid" played his final game for the Red Sox, but in July of that year, my father had taken us to a game so that his kids would be able to say that they'd seen Ted Williams play ball.

The Red Sox - a hapless team that season - did manage to beat the Cleveland Indians 6-4. And Ted Williams, "The Kid,"  hit a home run.

Just as he did in his last at bat in September, 1960, with John Updike there to witness it.

He wrote about the event for The New Yorker, in what has to be one of the greatest essays ever written about baseball: "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu."

Adieu, John Updike, adieu.

It was the best of jobs, it was the worst of jobs...

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal published a listing, compiled by Len Krantz and put out by, of the best and worst jobs "out there." (Note: Access to content may require a subscription.)
Well, who doesn't like a good list, let alone one that talks about jobs.
The study...evaluates 200 professions to determine the best and worst according to five criteria inherent to every job: environment, income, employment outlook, physical demands and stress.
Krantz drew on data Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, studies done by trade association, and his "own expertise," so there's obviously nothing supremely scientific about the list.

Still, it's interesting to look at what he came up with.

According to Krantz, here are the twenty best jobs:
The Best
1. Mathematician
2. Actuary
3. Statistician
4. Biologist
5. Software Engineer
6. Computer Systems Analyst
7. Historian
8. Sociologist
9. Industrial Designer
10. Accountant
11. Economist
12. Philosopher
13. Physicist
14. Parole Officer
15. Meteorologist
16. Medical Laboratory Technician
17. Paralegal Assistant
18. Computer Programmer
19. Motion Picture Editor
20. Astronomer
Well, it certainly looks like it pays to be good with numbers, doesn't it? What with those top three jobs, plus economist and accountant in there.

Techies and scientists are also right up there. (What else is new?)

What really jumps out at me from this list is that they state that, in coming up with it, the employment outlook is factored in.

Sure, software engineers, parole officers, and medical laboratory techs would logically seem to have healthy growth - especially parole officers, given our national urge to incarcerate.

But where, pray tell, is the demand for historians, sociologists, and philosophers coming from?

Especially philosophers.

I understand that the job would score some points because it's not exactly physically demanding or stressful. Hey, I can think great thoughts about the meaning of life while in the shower or lying in bed. And what does it matter if I don't get those great thoughts right? Nobody gets hurt - unless your great thoughts turn to nihilistic, violent political theorizing, and you manage to get yourself appointed dictator. (Or to religious theorizing that sets your religion up as the one and only, but let's not go there.)

But how, precisely, does a plain old philosopher get paid? Unless they're teaching, and there can't be all that much demand for philosophy teachers. Who's letting their kids major in philosophy these days?

Sociologist is another interesting position in the top twenty.

I was a sociology major, and maybe I should have stuck with it.

The article talks about some guy making well over $100K for a 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. job at the Department of Agriculture, studying hunger from his desk, where, he admits "The main occupational hazard is carpal tunnel syndrome." Sort of like blogging - only I haven't quite figured out how to get paid for it, let alone how to get a pension ou of it.

It's not the salary that's so attractive for the job  as sociologist. It's the idea that the government is pretty much the only place you can count on these days for a pension. (At least until the citizen taxpayers decide that they're no longer willing to foot the bill for a benefit that they no longer enjoy. Not that I'm looking forward to that day - the spite and venom that will be unleashed will be no fun to witness - but, I'm afeered, that day is coming.)

And just how many motion picture editors does the economy require?

As for the worst, these jobs pretty much speak for themselves - and for the most part, the word they speak is "ugh."

The Worst
200. Lumberjack
199. Dairy Farmer 
198. Taxi Driver
197. Seaman
196. EMT
195. Garbage Collector
194. Welder
193. Roustabout
192. Ironworker
191. Construction Worker
190. Mail Carrier
189. Sheet Metal Worker
188. Auto Mechanic
187. Butcher
186. Nuclear Decontamination Tech
185. Nurse (LN)
183. Child Care Worker
182. Firefighter
181. Brick Layer
Most of them are physically demanding and/or dangerous and/or smelly (garbage collector, child care worker, dairy farmer).

I feel especially bad for mail carriers in the snow-belt this time of year. It's been a very rough winter, and with so much ice on the sidewalks, the broken hip hazard must be immense.

Nurse and EMT are jobs I wouldn't expect to find among the worst. Not as long as there are still jobs that entail working in a chicken factory or fish cannery.

Yes, nursing and EMT-ing are stressful and physically demanding, but I would think that the feel-good benefits - and the fact that, at least with nursing, there are shortages, and the salary has been bid up - might at least balance things out. I'd certainly rather be a nurse or EMT than a nuclear decontamination tech, roustabout, or butcher.

Since Krantz applied his own insight to developing this list, I took the liberty of using my own to come up with what would be my idea of the best and worst jobs.

Personal Best
  1. Newspaper columnist - Yes, newspapers are going bye-bye, but this would be my absolutely ideal job.
  2. Grant administrator - Sure, it wouldn't be pure joy to turn worthy causes down, but I know I would enjoy reading applications, vetting causes, and awarding those grants. (Is there a foundation out there that could use my services?)
  3. Librarian - Hanging around books all day, answering questions and going "sshhhhh." I'm there.
Personal Worst
  1. Ironworker - I have supreme fear of heights.
  2. Chicken factory worker - Smelly, boring, dangerous, ill paid.
  3. Walmart greeter - Well, it might not be particularly smelly or dangerours, but talk about boring and ill paid. At least they don't have to wear the vests anymore.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Thane of Merrill Lynch

It's never surprising when the CEO of the acquired gets shown the door by the acquirer. 

And it probably didn't help that the acquired company lost a cool $15.4B - that's $15.4 LARGE - in the fourth quarter of 2008.

But it's also likely that, for acquirer Bank of America, there were several layers of frosting on the cake before Merrill Lynch's CEO John Thain was shown the door.

One was no doubt that he did not directly inform his new boss at BoA of the "December surprise". Instead of calling Kenneth Lewis himself, Thain apparently had some underling inform Lewis of the $15.4B loss. Thain was skiing in Vail at the time. I'm certain it didn't exactly charm Lewis that Thain left the conveyance of this piece of new to someone else. (What's with Thain? Doesn't he know about leaving a 3 a.m. voice mail message?)

Then there was the way Thain handled the awarding of 2008 bonuses, and the far less material - but far juicier - fact that, while Merrill was tumbling arse over teakettle into oblivion, Thain spent $1.2M redecorating his office. (Source: NY Times.)

First, the bonuses.

Merrill bonuses are usually awarded in January, but what with the acquisition, Thain apparently wanted to move them forward a bit - while he still had the authority to grant them. So, in December, Thain okayed payouts said to total in the $3B - $4B range.

In light of Merrill's staggering losses, one certainly must ask just what anyone there did to merit a bonus. NY's Attorney General is said to be asking some questions: the payouts are under investigation.

I haven't seen much detail on who got what, but Thain's personal driver apparently got an $18K bonus, bringing his compensation for the year to $230K, what with base, OT, and bonus.

Presumably, the driver had little to do with the gazillion dollar losses. (I'm sure he wasn't whispering ideas for new, zany derivatives into Thain's ear.) Still, $230K seems like a hefty outlay for a driver. (It's over $600 a day in cab ride equivalents. But, of course, it would be unseemly for Thain to have to get out on the street and vie for a cab with us hoi polloi.)

$230K. Maybe I've chosen the wrong profession. For $230K, baby, I can drive your car. (Beep-beep-beep-beep, yeah.)

Thain is rumored to have considered asking the compensation committee to kick in $10M - the amount to which the desired bonus had "dwindled" from the $30M - $40M amount that Thain had originally felt appropriate -  for his 2008 bonus. In the end, Thain didn't go through with his request.  I suppose his 2007 compensation of $83M will see him through.

But, of course, the most interest tidbit is the $1.2M for office decoration.

What do you get for that kind of money?

The list, which I found on CNBC, says you get:

  • Area Rug $87,784
  • Mahogany Pedestal Table $25,713
  • 19th Century Credenza $68,179
  • Pendant Light Furniture $19,751
  • 4 Pairs of Curtains $28,091
  • Pair of Guest Chairs $87,784
  • George IV Chair $18,468
  • 6 Wall Sconces $2,741
  • Parchment Waste Can $1,405
  • Roman Shade Fabric $10,967
  • Roman Shades $7,315
  • Coffee Table $5,852
  • Commode on Legs $35,115


Four pairs of curtains for $28K. And I thought I was a swell every time I've ordered new stuff from Country Curtains.

Since the area rug and the pair of chairs both log in at the same price - $87,784 - I'm wondering if there's a typo here.

I mean, and area rug is one thing.

Even if it were hand crafted by a four-year old slave laborer somewhere, these things can cost a lot. But two chairs for $87K?

I know they were for guests, and all, but...

And was the $18K George IV chair just for show? What if a guest wanted to sit on it? Does it have a cord between the arms, like they do in ye olde heritage houses, so that you won't accidentally sit on it?

I read on Bloomberg that the unflappable Thain had gone flappable last summer, and:

...halted a meeting with his chief financial officer and hurled a chair against the wall, shattering a nearby glass panel, according to people briefed on the meeting.

Could the hurled chair have been one of the guest chairs, or that $18K George IV?

Of course, the one thing that leaps off the list is the "Commode on Legs" for $35K.

A commode on legs! Really?

Well, according to The Consumerist, really not. It is, in fact, an ornate little chest that was used, in pre-indoor plumbing days, by some rich folks to store a commode,that they no doubt didn't have to empty themselves.

(Hey, English majors, is calling this piece of furniture a commode an example of synecdoche or metonymy or whatever the figure of speech is for "container for a thing contained"?)

There's no mention of an actual commode-commode, but I'm sure that Thain's office did have an executive washroom, with an executive toilet in it.

If not, Thain could, I suppose, have used the $1,405 Parchment Waste Can (not available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, I'm guessing).

He may have been tempted to do so when BofA told him to go shit in his hat.

But I'm guessing he just asked his $230K a year driver to port him back to his $27.5M Park Ave digs, or his $10M shed in Rye.

These corporate thanes, out there living like kings.

How nice it will be if one of the outcomes of the current crisis is the end of the era of wretched excess. ($35K for a 'Commode on Legs'....)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Talkin' 'bout my demographic: Retirement Living TV

Sometime in the coming months, President Obama has signaled that he will be talkin' 'bout entitlements. I'm quite sure that those of us in the first wave of Boomers, now in spitting distance of the promised land of Social Security and Medicare, won't be all that thrilled with what he has to say. (And I'm quite sure the wave behind us will be even less enamored.)

While there will be no way to gently break it to us Boomers that we'll be facing some combination of skimpier benefits and later retirement dates, our incredible shrinking 401K's have already sent us the message that a lot of us will be working beyond the soon-to-be-mythic retirement age of 65.

I think that most of us are okay with that. Sure, all things considered, most of us would opt for the luxury of having enough wealth to live comfortably on, without having to worry about a paycheck. But as long as you're working at something you enjoy, and as long as you're physically able, why not work?

After all, that soon-to-be-mythic retirement age of 65 was established when most people were dead by the time they were 66, and when so many people were engaged in physically demanding, often hazardous, work that they weren't able to keep going much beyond their retirement date (if they even made it that far).

Not us: we're going to be around a while longer, so we might as well work, giving us the combo package of income and social interaction.

Of course, now that we're all going to be working, it will be interesting to see who's going to want us. At least pre-recession, we were always reading about the coming shortage of skilled workers, which would keep us Boomers in demand and able to work the flexible schedules we're looking for. But I'm not quite sure that ever really happened. Maybe if there were a better health insurance system, companies would be more likely to bring oldsters on. There's sure reason to avoid us now, what with our premium inflating aches, pains, and pharmaceutical requirements.  (Ah, this generation always was into those pharmaceuticals, wasn't it?)

In any event, most of us will probably not be able to just chill, grab the channel cruiser and click onto Retirement Living TV.

RLTV, you might ask?

Well, I'd never heard of it, either, until my brother-in-law Rick, sent me a link to an article he saw in The Journal on their new deal with Comcast, which will bring their AARP-ish programming to a larger audience, starting with retirement communities in the sunbelt. (Access to this article may require a subscription - I almost typed prescription - a little senior moment, I guess.)

The Comcast deal is predicated on marketers' willingness to go after the "older crowd" - the demo for RLTV is 50+. (Fifty! Does anyone know anyone sixty who's sitting around watching RLTV, let alone anyone fifty? This is like those plus-size stores that advertise that they carry Size 12 and over - as if any one who wears a Size 12 would be caught dead shopping in one. Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to say caught dead. I meant to say caught pre-dead. After all, aging can be fun!)

RLTV is currently on during daytime hours only - we retire early, us 50+-ers - and covers health, finance, entertainment, current events, and other topics of interest.

Florence Henderson, late of the Brady Bunch and those Wessonality crunch ads, and more recently of denture ads, will be hosting a talk show. There's a dating show - Another Chance for Romance. (Sigh!) There may also be a series patterned on American Idol dubbed, what else, Senior Idol. (Who will they tap to play the role of the nasty judge? The guy who played Eddie Haskell? Don Rickles? Cloris Leachman channeling her Phyllis character?)

Even if I were going to retire anytime soon, I don't imagine I'd be spending a lot of time watching RLTV - although I did see that my fave gossip writer, Kitty Kelly, was on the other day. (I understand her next unauthorized bio is of Oprah, which doesn't have the appeal to me that her Nancy Reagan, Jackie O, and Frank Sinatra works did. Frankly, I'd rather see her take on Roger Clemens.)

Although I probably won't be watching, I do hope that RLTV manages to attract advertisers for products other than those related to irregularity and bladder control. The WSJ article mentions that Sony, L'Oreal, Ford, and Microsoft "have aggressively pursued an older crowd." (I must have missed the aggressive pursuit, although maybe that's how we ended up with that whomping big Sony flatscreen TV.)

But maybe my concerns about bladder control ads are just betraying my underlying ageism. As RLTV's founder John Erickson says:

"We have a significant ageism bias in our country...I wanted to take all that negative 'Oh, they're really supposed to sit at home in a rocking chair and watch reruns' and say this isn't the way life works at all."

Well, he's got a point, although I don't see all that much difference between sitting at home watching reruns and sitting at home and watching Florence Henderson.

There are other networks that have targeted Baby Boomers and older viewers over the last few years - the Hallmark Channel (sniff, sniff, weep, weep, oh-how-noble) and TV Land, which shows things like Hogan's Heroes, Gunsmoke and other stellar entertainment of from those long ago days of The Golden Age of Television. (Hmmmm, whoever came up with that term apparently never watched Red Skelton or I Married Joan.)

TV Land, though, is trying to shift their demographic to skew slightly younger. They're moving away from using the word "Boomer" and are planning on focusing on folks between the ages of 40 and 50.

I'm not sure if this means older is getting younger, or younger is getting older, but I think I'd can Gunsmoke if I were going after people in their forties.

Meanwhile, RLTV is going to keep their eye on the geezer prize, and says that, hell, no, they won't go any younger than 50. (For that, I thank you, Mr. Erickson.)

He is, however, considering the possibility of a name change.

I think this is an excellent idea - which I had already thought of even before I came to this point in the article.

RLTV, he admits, "could turn off people at the bottom of his age range."

Or maybe even people in the middle of his range.

But naming is so hard.

Anything Boomerish would turn off the over and unders. Anything gold or silver will turn off anyone under eighty. WE, I think is taken.

What about Us?

Plays nicely to the Boomer narcissism and shouldn't bother the flanking generations.

Yeah, I'm liking it. What about Us?

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bucksstar? Pizza Huh? McDnonald's? Oh, knock it off

A new mall has opened in China, and for those complaining that every mall in the world now houses the same combination of Abecrombie & Fitch, Crate & Barrel, and Sephora, well, this one offers something a bit different.

According to an article I saw in the Mirror online - an article that, if this were the first of April, I might well have doubted - a shopping center in Nanjing is full of imposters. As in Bucksstar, Pizza Huh, McDnonald's....

Like the CVS generic brands, which you have to look twice at if you want the real thing, and A&P's "Ann Page" products of yore that looked an awful lot like Hellman's mayo and Del Monte fruit cocktail, the knock-off outfits use color schemes and logos that closely imitate the real thing.

City bosses are under pressure to ban the soon-to-be opened mall after pictures of the fake stores were leaked, causing uproar amongst angry consumers who feared they'd be ripped off.

This is one of those articles that takes on a life of its own, and I've been trying to track down a list of the all the real fake stores that are located there.

Alas, the Mirror article appears to be the ur source, and the few store fronts they show are all fast food joints.

They do have some pics of knock-off consumer goods: Adidos, being my favorite.

There's also a picture of a truly low end knock-off of some LaCoste after shave or whatever. It's called LaKosta and the image they use for the logo is a squirrel, not an alligator. (See ya later!)

Fake brands are, of course, a big and serious business, but - perhaps because I have absolutely nothing to do with consumer brands except for the occasional consumption of them - I find it hard to get really exercised about this.

Yes, I think we should crack down on dollar stores that are selling fake tubes of Crest that contain poison to unsuspecting poor people, but do I really think that some guy on a NYC street corner selling fake Vuitton bags and Rolex watches is cutting into Vuitton and Rolex business, as I saw someone claim on a news program I watched recently. (Sorry, I was on the StairMaster at the time, so I was only half paying attention. Plus I didn't have my bloggers notepad and pen nearby to capture source information. I was at the gym, and I think they usually have CNN on, but I can't really say for sure.)

Anyway, the luxury goods spokeswoman was ranting about how Coach, and Versace, and Vuitton were losing kabillions of dollars worth of sales each year because of counterfeiters. But am I missing something here, or is the person who's willing to pay $3K for a Vuitton bag not the same person who's going to pay $30 for a Vuitton knock-off that will look good for a couple of weeks, then fall apart?

("Oh, my, I was headed to the Vuitton store to buy a bag, when I saw an industrious young merchant on the corner selling the very same back for 1/100th the price. And I thought, in the current climate, what with Bernie Madoff and everything, I would buy directly from the industrious young merchant, rather than go to the Vuitton store.")

It's really only a problem if their selling the fakes for the same price, isn't it? Which I guess happens more than we might think. Or if they're selling fakes that present a clear danger. Which may happen more than we might think,, too. Although I doubt it. ("Stand back, that fake Rolex watch is going to explode!")

Look, companies pay lots of money to build and maintain their brands, and, in a perfect world, no one would rip off their hard-earned (or hard-bought) pizzazz, goodwill, and cachet. Companies have a right to protect themselves. And these counterfeiters really should knock it off.

But with everything else there is to worry about these days, somebody in Nanjing buying a fake Quarter Pounder at McDnonald's, or sporting a fake pair of Adidos, is not something I'm going to lose much sleep on my Tempur-Pedic bed over. (Or is it a real Tempur-Pedic? We bought it at Brookstone's, not at Bob's Discount Furniture, and we paid enough for it to be a real Tempur-Pedic. But how can I know for sure? How can I possibly know for sure?)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Art Schmart: David Cerny's "Entropa"

On New Year's Day, the Czech Republic started its turn as holder of the revolving presidency of the European Union. To celebrate, their government commissioned a work of art to honor the EU's 27 members.

Art is, of course, just one of those often subjective things.

While subjective, however, those who would argue that the big-eyed paintings of the Keanes, or the works of Thomas Kincade, Painter of Light, are "serious art" are likely in the critical minority - similar in proportion to "scientists" who don't believe in evolution. And the arguments about the work of Andrew Wyeth- now in the news with his recent death -  sure demonstrates how subjective subjective can be.

But what about art of the absurd, the iconoclastic, the anti-establishment?

Because that's sure what the Czech government got for the nearly $500K they laid out for an 8 ton installation piece to hang in the European Council building.

Rather than extol the glory of the EU nations, "Entropa", the symbolic map created by Czech artist David Cerny, plays to decidedly negative images of member countries.

As reported in The New York Times,

Here is Bulgaria, represented as a series of crude, hole-in-the-floor toilets. Here is the Netherlands, subsumed by floods, with only a few minarets peeping out from the water. Luxembourg is depicted as a tiny lump of gold marked by a “for sale” sign, while five Lithuanian soldiers are apparently urinating on Russia.

Other national disses show France on strike, Germany as a bunch of highways that kind of form a swastika, and Italy as a soccer game. Sweden? It's an Ikea box.

If the name "Entropa" wasn't a tip-off, the Czech's should have known that Cerny might have taken a slightly irreverent approach to the project. In 1991, in Prague, he'd painted a tank that stood as a Soviet war memorial bright pink.

The commission apparently called for Cerny to oversee a project in which there would be contributions from an artist of each of the 27 EU countries. Cerny took the money, but faked the contributions. Instead, he and a couple of artist pals came up everything - right down to fake artist c.v.'s and web sites, and the completely absurd, but definitely authentic sounding, blurbs about each country's piece.

The fake British entry, a kit of Europe in which the piece representing Britain has been taken out, says, “This improvement of exactness means that its individual selective sieve can cover the so-called objective sieve.”

If that doesn't conjure up the image of some pompous, pipe- smoking bogue reading along, and sagely commenting, "Exactly." (While at the same time conjuring up the image of "everyman" reading along and asking himself "WTF?")

The hoax was discovered, but not before the piece had been installed, and not before a Czech big wig said that the work "epitomized the motto for the Czech presidency in Europe, 'A Europe Without Borders.'"

“Sculpture, and art more generally, can speak where words fail,” he [the government spokesman] said in a statement on Monday. “I am confident in Europe’s open mind and capacity to appreciate such a project.”

Cerny claims that he knew the hoax would be uncovered, but he and his posse had  "wanted to find out if Europe is able to laugh at itself.”

Apparently not.

The Bulgarians are so outraged that they called the Czech envoy to Sofia on the carpet.

So, Czech officials have apologized, as has David Cerny.

“We are really sorry” about insulting “individual nations,” Cerny, 41, said at the news conference. He said he’s apologized “to my government” and will return the 10 million koruna ($482,700) money he received for the project to the Czech government. (Source for this and the following quote: article on Bloomberg.)

Cerny claims that he was acting in the spirit of Monty Python and Borat, but he also stated that the "plan to have 27 individual artists collaborate on Entropa could not be realized due to 'time, production and financial constraints.'”

I sympathize with Cerny having to try to line up and corral 27 different artists to produce one coherent work.

On a smaller scale, I was part of a group who worked together on a panel for the AIDS Quilt. After years of back and forth, the only thing that prevented our panel from turning into one, big, incoherent mess was when our late friend's partner decided to hire a professional quilter, who helped work things through. We ended up with a beautiful panel that also included individual contributions from all the friends. But it was a struggle.

So I sympathize.

But then I think of the nearly $500K Cerny took for the project, and I have a little WTF moment of my own.

Maybe artists are worth a lot more than writers, but it seems to me that, even if Cerny took half the money off the top for project management, production, and walking around money, he still could have found artists willing to make a contribution for around $10K.

The entire piece is 172 square feet, which means that each of the 27 country sections would have been a bit over 6 square feet. That would have worked out to about $1500 a square foot.

But what do I know about art? (I will say that, for most writers, $10K gets you a lot of words.)

“What do we really know about Europe?” Cerny said. “We have information about some states, we only know various tourist clichés about others. We know basically nothing about several of them. We did not want to insult anybody, just point at the difficulty of communication without having the ability of being ironic.”

"What do we really know about Europe?"

Well, for starters, I know enough about Europe to come up with the sort of boring images that would make most of the EU countries happy to have represent it in a safe and bland art installation. (I say "most countries" because I would have definitely come up short on Bulgaria.)

But, of course, this wasn't what Cerny was after.

I don't blame him for coming up with something ironic and edgy. He just shouldn't have done it on his country's dime (or koruna).

And what was his government thinking when they forked over almost $500K to a known provocateur? Did they really think they were going to get the noble head of Goethe and the White Cliffs of Dover?

Instead, they got Entropa.

Now they have to decide what to do with it. (As I write this, it's still in place - although they may take the toilets out of Bulgaria.)

Art, schmart!

A tip of the artist's beret to my brother-in-law, Rick, for alerting me to this story.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Hail to the Chief

Of course I liked the speech.

Especially the part where he acknowledged the existence of American atheists.

Okay, he said "non-believers," but we know who he's talking about.

When he uttered those words, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

Hail to the Chief!

How we got here

I had thought that, when the end to the era of irrational exuberance came, it would gradual. Or overnight, but at the hands of the Chinese once they'd discovered enough other world wide crap consumers to unburden them from their reliance on the vast American consumer maw.

Instead, the end seems to have come fast - and at our own hands, where "our" is our government, our financial institutions, our business leaders, and our regular old selves, who've been spending and not saving, and blithely going along with "it" without a thought given to whether "it" was going to do us much good in the long run.

We were happy to form into a collective Roadrunner, running right off the edge of the cliff and staying up as long as we didn't look down.

As is so often the case, and with a nod to Pogo's creator Walt Kelly, "we have met the enemy, and he is us."

One of the best articles I've seen about The Mess was in The Wall Street Journal a couple of weeks back. (Subscription may be required to access it.)

In the article, writer Michael Philips profiles a modest little house - not much more than a shack, really - in a small town in Arizona. In a tale that runs along the lines of "How a Bill Becomes a Law," Phillips lays out how the story of this pokey little house, condemned as "unfit for human occupancy" and about to be razed (as of the column's writing): the story of this year's financial panic, told in 576 square feet. It helps explain how a series of bad decisions can add up to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

In 2007, a local lender, Integrity (you can't make this stuff up)Funding, gave the owner a $103,000 mortgage - despite the fact that Marvene Halterman was unemployed, owed a lot of money, and had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Not to say that Marvene Halterman is a bad person. She, in fact, comes across as rather warm-hearted. But the fact that someone was willing to lend her $103K against her house, even though the place was a dump and she was living in chaos and squalor - and on a small income pieced together from welfare, food stamps, and disability payments - says a lot about how we got here. (As Integrity's then-owner says of the go-go years, "If you had a pulse, you were getting a loan.")

Ah, yes, the less liberal reader is now thinking bad thoughts about Barney Frank, using him as the stand-in, the whipping boym for all those fuzzy-minded and warm-hearted mush-for-brains who encouraged really bad programs in the name of making us a "nation of homeowners." So, here I'd like to point out that Congressman Frank has a long and substantiated record of pointing out that everyone shouldn't own a home, that there are people whose lives are so chaotic and ill-integrated that they need to be renters. And that we should be making sure that there is an ample stock of rental housing available to those who shouldn't be homeowners.

That would seem to include Ms. Halterman.

But she did in fact, own her home for years, having paid $3.5K for it some forty years ago - when, even by the standards of the day, $3.5K didn't get you much house.

It was, however, enough house to secure a $36K home equity loan from Integrity in 2006, after Integrity wooed Ms. Halterman in with a telemarketed call. And, ever helpful, Integrity helped her line up a $75K credit line elsewhere.

Which Ms. Halterman used to pay off some debts and get by for a while.

Tapped out, she approached Integrity in 2007 for some help. Integrity granted her a $103K, 30 year mortgage, with an adjustable rate that started out at 9.25%, but could grow to 15.25%. While one real estate agent says that the house was worth, at best, $63K, it was appraised at $132K.

Integrity had every incentive to grant the mortgage - and every incentive to unload it.

At closing, on Feb. 26, 2007, Integrity collected $6,153 in underwriting, broker, loan-origination, document, application, processing, funding and flood-certification fees, mortgage documents show. A few days later, Integrity transferred the loan to Wells Fargo, earning $3,090 more, Mr. [Barry] Rybicki [Integrity's then owner] says.

For her efforts, what Ms. Halterman realized from the closing was $11K - not much more than what Integrity made off of the transaction.

For his part, neither Rybicki nor his loan officer ever actually went and looked at the house.

When shown a picture last month, he said: "Wow."

Yes, wow.

But the problem was no longer Integrity's little local problem. Nor was it that of Wells Fargo's for very long.

They palmed it off on HSBC, which packaged it up with a bunch of other subprimes to create an "instrument" - one of those instruments we now know to have been instrumental in the downfall of our economy.

But at the time, that instrument looked pretty god - at least to Standard and Poor's and Moody's, which gave it a triple-A rating.S

So money management firms and pension plans bought it. (Hey, S&P says triple-A. What's to lose?)

As it turns out, that triple-A rating isn't worth much more than the paper it's written on, as the little blue house once appraised at $132K sold post-foreclosure for $18K - purchased by the neighbors, who are going to tear it down.

Meanwhile, the money that Ms. Halterman made on the deal was long gone - and all she had to show for her troubles was a falling apart house and roughly $900 in monthly payments she could ill afford.

And so it goes, "widening, widening in the gyre."

Integrity's former owner, by the way, has shifted careers from mortgage banking to venture capital, where perhaps he'll be better at spotting a bad investment.

Today is a BIG DAY for the country.

The problems we face our daunting, and there's only so much that one man can do. But, as we have seen time and again, it absolutely matters who that one man in charge is. And that leadership is important.

I have no illusions that Barack Obama is going to fix everything that ails our nation, let alone fix everything overnight.

But I'm with the 76% of Americans who think he's a strong and decisive leader; the 80% who say he "inspires confidence, can get things done and is tough enough to be president."  (Source: December 31 CNN poll.)

And I'm with the 83% who approve of the way he's run his transition. (Source: January Gallup Poll.)

Good luck, Mr. President.

Pink Slip'll be rooting for you.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Private Eye Business

The Golden Era of Private Detectives on Television extended throughout and well beyond my Baby Boom, prime time TV watching years.

There were the lone wolf private eyes like Peter Gunn and the guy on Tightrope. There were the detective agencies, with their suave PI's - Robert Conrad as Tom Lopaka on Hawaiian Eye, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. - is that a great name or what? -  as Stu Bailey on Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip, which also featured hipster parking lot attendant Edd "Kookie" Byrnes, who even inspired a song. ("Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb.") There was also a somewhat lesser detective agency show, Surfside Six that was set on a houseboat in Miami Beach and starred Troy Donahue. (Quick memory test for fellow boomers: run the theme songs of these three Warner Brother shows through your head. Then see if you can get them out of it.)

I don't remember one investigation any of these detectives ever got involved in, but I watched these shows all the time to see all those handsome detectives - I had a big crush on Tom Lopaka - hang around their swank offices making small talk with the "office girls", who all seemed to be chirpy blonds with names like Cricket.

Even the World's Number One kiddie show of the 1950's had a private detective, Howdy Doody's John J. FadoozleFladoozle - the World's Number One - boing, boing, boing [private eye eye seemingly popping through magnifying glass] - Private Eye. (John J. is pictured here with the World's Number One Weird Puppet Animal, Flub-a-Dub.)

Well after my prime TV watching years - which pretty much started to wind down when I was in high school and started holing up in my room listening to Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, and Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo  - private detective shows were a staple of network television: Mannix, Rockford, Magnum PI, Columbo.

I actually don't know if there are any private eyes on TV any more. (Thanks to the CSI and Law & Order franchises, there are plenty of non-private detectives out there, mostly carrying badges for big city police departments.)

In any case, I was interested to see an article in last week's Boston Globe on one profession that seems to be thriving in this economy: private detective.

Desperation is their life's blood. Like pawn shops, bankruptcy attorneys, and repo men, the sleuthing business seems to be recession-proof.

That's because when the economy's down, crime is up. Phil White, who's executive director of the PI's trade association in Massachusetts - an organization that claims 450 agencies as members - says that business is looking good for his guys because:

"People who can't make a living still need things, so the next alternative is to try to get away with stealing. We get called to do either criminal defense work or a company will call us to investigate internal theft by employees. We work both sides of the street."

John DiNatale, whose detective agency was profiled in the article, pointed out that, in a bad economy, there tend to be more insurance claims, as well, which translates into good business.

"Word leaks out that there are layoffs coming, and people have unwitnessed accidents," says John DiNatale. "It's, 'I slipped on the floor and gotta go out on workmen's comp.'"

Although there were plenty of times when word leaked out about impending layoffs, I don't recall any slipping on the floor or unwitnessed accident episodes during my career in high tech. When I worked at Wang, however, one guy suffered a fatal heart attack on the eve of a big layoff. I didn't know the guy, but I knew who he was, since his cube was next to that of someone in my group. (And, yes, his name had been on the layoff list. A pink slip is infinitely preferable to a white sheet drawn over your head, but the stress really got to this poor bastard.)

One part of the PI business is down, however: domestic surveillance. DiNatale attributes that to "not enough extra cash to keep a honey on the side."

If cheating spouse work is down, what's up?

Bogus disability claims, which for white collar workers tend to be around claims of psychological, rather than physical, impairment.

Other areas that are au courant are fraud investigations around subprime mortgage defaults, and a new line of business: investigating hedge fund managers being sued by investors over losses. PIs also work both sides of the James R. Sokolov did-anyone-ever-look-at-you-cross-eyed, you-may-be-able-to-sue aisle, checking out bogus claims for insurance companies, and helping those hoping to reinforce their claims.

Subprime loans, hedge funds, oh-my-aching-back claims.

While I can't remember exactly what sorts of cases TV's private detectives got involved in, something tells me that, whether it was Tom Lopaka or John J. Fadoozle, the cases were just a bit more riveting.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tastes like chicken? (There'll always be an England.)

I'm nobody's idea of a vegan, but I'm not the biggest meat eater in the world. When I do eat meat, maybe once or twice a week, it's pretty pedestrian fare: chicken, turkey, steak, hamburg, pork, bacon. Rabbit's okay, but I wouldn't seek it out. Venison, anyone? No thanks: too gamey. One time I ordered brain by mistake. I was in Paris, and recalled enough of my high school French to recognize the veau was "calf/veal". But I fell down on the cervelle. Cervelle, when it arrived on the table, looked like a big spaghetti bowl full of gum that I had extruded through the gap between my front teeth. It did not taste like chicken. It actually didn't taste like anything. (Mon dieu, you didn't think I was not going to eat it, did you? And admit to that imperious French waiter that I had made a mistake? What do you think I am, fou or something?)

At least in England, the menu is as God intended it: in English.

So while you may be making a mistake by ordering anything, you don't have to know that rognon means kidney. Kidney pie is kidney pie. And mutton, well, mutton's mutton. (Blechh.)

Meat choice has taken a new turn in England these days - a turn that brings to mind Jed Clampett more than it does, say, Henry the VIII.

What's cookin' over there these days, says the NY Times,  is squirrel.

And not just any old squirrel.

No, in what us Yanks can only interpret as a bit of a slam, the Brits are focused on gray squirrels, a North Ameriredsquirrelcan import that is apparently wreaking havoc with the native population of adorable little red squirrels - as in Beatrix Potter's adorable little Squirrel Nutkin. The reds, it seems, are being preyed upon and overwhelmed by their American cousins.

Now, I understand that comparative squirrel cuteness is completely subjective and arbitrary, but I've got to give the cuteness nod here to the Brits. That little red squirrel looks like a completely adorable little bunny rabbit-ish thing. (Those ears!) Our pal, the gray squirrel, while moderately cute, bears a disturbingly close resemblance to a rat on steroids.

Whatever the cuteness merits of various versions of squirrels, there's a movement apaw in England to save the red squirrel by getting rid of the gray squirrel. And in conscientious waste-not-want-not mode, some are taking to actually eating the gray squirrels.

Squirrel cuisine has been tried once before, during World War II, but the British valiantly resisted. Stiff upper lip, perhaps combined with wobbly lower stomach. Or maybe squirrel in that era meant eating red squirrel, and the English may have felt better dead than red.

These days, however, in farmers’ markets, butcher shops, village pubs and elegant restaurants, squirrel is selling as fast as gamekeepers and hunters can bring it in.

“Part of the interest is curiosity and novelty,” said Barry Shaw of Shaw Meats, who sells squirrel meat at the Wirral Farmers Market near Liverpool. “It’s a great conversation starter for dinner parties.”

Well, yes, I can imagine it is quite the conversation starter.

"I say, old chap, just what is in this soup?"

These days, it may well be a squirrel that was either culled because there are too many squirrels to begin with, racing around what is still a small island with some limits to growth, or because the grays are beating the squirrel-ish crap out of the reds when it comes to domination.

The grays take over the reds’ habitat, eat voraciously and harbor a virus named squirrel parapox (harmless to humans) that does not harm grays but can devastate reds. (Reports indicate, though, that the reds are developing resistance.)

Embarrassing as it is to admit it, this sure does sound like the image of the Ugly American, doesn't it? (Parapox aside. Of course there was the matter of smallpox....)

Enter the market for gray squirrel meat. (Forget real food for real people, they've got a pithy motto of their own: “Save a red, eat a gray!”)

Which is now recipe'd in cookbooks, sold in farmers' markets, and cooked up on foodie TV. Someone's even created a version akin to Peking duck.

As with all foods (other than, perhaps, chocolate), some folks love the taste, others don't.

Nichola Fletcher, a food writer and co-owner of a venison farm, held a squirrel tasting for Britain’s Guild of Food Writers, finding “their lovely flavor tasted of the nuts they nibbled.” At a later event, however, she found the flavor disappointing, with “a greasy texture and unpleasant taste,” presumably reflecting these squirrels’ diet.

Other than the obvious problem of rodent revulsion, there are a couple of other issues with eating squirrel. For one, they're hard to skin. And there's not all that much meat on them once skinned. (Remember, these are wild animals, not our pumped up, all white meat chicken, factory farm food stuffs that are approaching the size of an ostrich.)

And you have to make sure not to eat the head, as squirrel brains may carry "the human form of mad cow disease." (Why do I think that no one's going to have to warn me twice about eating squirrel head?)

In any case, the taste of squirrel has been likened to "a slightly oily rabbit." And since rabbit tastes like chicken...

Well, there you have it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Vassalboro's new coffee shop? Not my cup of tea.

Times are hard in Vassalboro, Maine.

Donald Crabtree has tried to make it as a contractor and a wholesale lobsterman, without much luck. But he hasn't lost the will to keep trying to grab on to that elusive brass ring.

So he will be opening a coffee shop - and it won't be a pedestrian old knockoff of Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

No, Crabtree's coffee shop will be topless, making his employees - male and female alike - bare-istas of sorts. (Or is is no-bra-istas?)

This was reported in the Boston Globe the other day, and - as a former (and perhaps future) waitress -  I read the article with interest.

In a long-vacant building that once housed Mac Daddy's Pub at the Fat Cat Grille, Crabtree plans topless service between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 25 tables arranged on a checkerboard floor behind blacked-out windows and a cordon of security.

Blacked-out windows will, of course, be a necessity. Crabtree certainly won't want any Lookie-loos standing on the sidewalk, holding their cup of joe from DD's staring in at the DD's working at his cafe. This blacked-out window business harkens back to what was standard operating procedure for the taverns in the 'hood of my youth: curtained windows so that no one could look in and see who was hunched at the bar enjoying a mid-day Boilermaker or bottle of Knickerbocker when he should have been at work. In this case, the black out will serve a dual purpose: you won't see the goods, nor will you see the patrons.

Even if I were to find myself in Vassalboro, Maine, anytime soon - which is highly unlikely - I'm not apt to make my way into Donald Crabtree's Topless Coffee Shop.

I have no interest in a peep show, whether the peep-ee is male or female. Even if I were a coffee drinker, this is just not my cup of tea.

But I am not, of course, the target demographic for this business.

Whether I am the targeted demo for this business or not, I do have a business person's reservation about the likelihood that this place can succeed. These reservations fall fairly neatly into two buckets: attracting clientele and attracting employees.

Attracting Clientele
Even for those so inclined to take their cup-a while making guesses about cup size, I don't imagine that there'll be a ton of repeat business. Reasons why I think this:

  • Our town. Vassalboro is a relatively small town and, blacked out windows aside, people are going to know who's checking in to check things out. Most people will overlook someone's going in once out of curiosity, but I would guess that few people will want to be identified as habitués.
  • It's the money, honey. Presumably, a topless waitress or waiter will be doing it for the tips. Especially in this economy, folks are going to be only so willing to fork over extra $$$ when what they really need is a shot of caffeine, not a shot of some tootsie's naked flesh.
  • All the free time in the world. Even when there's high unemployment, people do work during the day, when the Topless will be open. People who hang out in coffee shops  - beyond the get-in-get-out patrons - tend to be "consultants," writers, college students, retirees, and moms with kids. For consultants, in the long term, wireless would probably attract more customers than topless. Ditto for writers. For college students (Colby College is not far away), I would guess that the novelty, even among frat boys, will wear off pretty quickly. Besides, the parents of Colby students aren't forking over all that money for a liberal arts education so that their kids can hang out in the Topless Coffee Shop.

    Retirees? I can't exactly see the gray-haired gang heading out for a cup of coffee after daily Mass deciding to make the Topless their hangout. Plus old geezer-ettes outnumber old geezer by a huge factor, and the Topless - despite the diversity factor of offering topless waiters - is clearly not aimed at the distaff side of the house.

    Moms with kids? Well, you have to be 18 years old to patronize the Topless. Not to mention that I can't see the average parent wanting to listen to a 3 year old holler "Why is that lady bare?", or to watch their 2 year old trying to wrestle her Disney Princess tee-shirt off "But, Mommy, if that lady doesn't have to wear a shirt...."

Attracting Employees
So, yes, I can see that there'd be a clientele problem. Then there's the problem of attracting employees.

  • This is Maine, not Key West. I don't care how toasty-warm the Topless Coffee Shop thinks they're going to be able to keep the joint, every time that door opens, brrrrrrrr. Who's going to want to be standing around in the wintry Maine draft. I've worked in drafty old restaurants and baby, it can be cold inside. And that's when you're fully dressed, and wearing a sweater.
  • It's the money, honey. I'm guessing that most people who want to make a buck off their breasts would rather do it in some sort of bar, pub, or strip joint that's apt to attract a more regular, less sober, and thus more free-spending clientele.

    While I guess there'll be some who are willing to go topless for some amount of money, but who wouldn't dream of doing a poll dance in a g-string, I'm guessing that there may not be all that many of them. I would think that most of the waitresses so disposed to go topless would just as soon take a bit more off for a lot more money.
  • Splish-splash. The worst burn I ever got was when a waitress using the wrong entrance into the Durgin Park kitchen collided with me while I was carrying four cups of coffee. In my case, my wrists were badly scalded. I shudder to think....

Then there's the potential problem of employee discrimination.

I'm sure that Donald Crabtree envisions a retinue of nubile, perky waitresses, with nubile perky breasts. Yes, he's looking for some diversity:

"We're not just going to pick someone off the street," Crabtree said of his staff. "They've got to be friendly, and we'll try to hire a variety of sizes. Not everyone likes a skinny girl. Not everyone likes a big girl. I think it's important to have a variety."

But what happens when a very skilled, 72 year old with scads of coffee shop experience and a friendly demeanor applies for a job - with great experience, but perhaps with breasts that are not quite so perkily nubile any longer.

Maybe not everyone likes a skinny girl or a big girl, but I'm guessing the the operative word here is "girl".

So how do you tell somebody's great-grandmother that she doesn't get the job?

I wish Donald Crabtree all the best.

Although there's some opposition to his venture in Vassalboro, the feeling seems to be more one of general sorrow and resignation about the town's worsening economic prospects.

Paul Mitnik, the town's code enforcement officer and plumbing inspector, concurred that Vassalboro could use a lift.

"Any kind of business we could get here would be good," said Mitnik, who declared himself officially neutral on the propriety of such a shop. "But I think the novelty of the topless staff will wear off pretty quickly.

That said, Mitnik seemed sadly wistful that such an enterprise has emerged as a partial answer to Vassalboro's economic prayers.

"I'd like to see a business that people accept more, that everybody feels good about," Mitnik said. "A lot of people are making a joke about it. But for many people in town, it's not a joke at all.

Any bets on how long the Topless Coffee Shop stays in business?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Update on the Hitler Cake Family (why am I not surprised)

Twas the night before the night before Christmas, and I had a cheery little post  - Happy Birthday, Little Adolph - on a New Jersey family that had named their children after Nazis.

Well, now it seems, the three toddlers - Adolph Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell -  have been removed from their home by New Jersey state authorities.

The court hearing is scheduled for January 15th, and it will be interesting to see what comes of this. The hearing proceedings are apparently confidential, but some information will no doubt leak out.

By the way, the children haven't been taken away because of their names.

But I wouldn't be surprised to find that all the attention this family drew upon themselves with their Happy Birthday, Adolph Hitler cake controversy may have brought some state scrutiny down on their heads. One can only imagine what goes on in the minds and the home of parents who would give their children such horrendous names.

Source: Comcast news.

Does anyone actually own a Snuggie?

The high point of my family's Christmas celebration is the Yankee Swap. We've been doing one for a while now - since that glorious moment when we came to the collective realization that the adults don't really need to exchange present-presents.

So we started doing a Yankee Swap. There's a $20 limit, but if you keep your eyes open in the Brookfield Orchard "antique room", you can get a swell swap item -  e.g., a monkey made out of a coconut - for a lot less than $20.

As is typical, our swap items were a combination of things that someone might actually want (as in the rate-busting $25 Border's gift card that my brother Rich, who can generally be counted on to bring something in the "actually want" category), and things that nobody would actually want (as in the Elvis Presley clock that Rich "won" and left behind). The Elvis clock would have made a good repeat Yankee Swap gift, but we instituted a rule that only the item voted the worst can be re-gifted the next year.

We had an initial three-way tie for worst this year. The coconut monkey was an early contender, but didn't get voted in as the worst. I'm not sure what did. Was it the statue of Winnie-the-Pooh in the mint green bunny outfit, an exceedingly heinous product of the amateur ceramics movement, or the "Purple Passion" shadow box, an exceedingly heinous product of the amateur art movement? (By the way, the "Purple Passion" is not our name for this work, it's the artist's.)

On Christmas Eve, once the Swap was over, someone mentioned that we'd all missed the opportunity to have purchased a Snuggie, which would have made a perfect Yankee Swap item.

Not familiar with the Snuggie? I'm not sure if this video will play, but if you want to see the ad, or, indeed, order up  a few Snuggies for you and your loved ones, then head on over to Snuggie-ville. Oddly, the word "flare" appears in the URL - odd because it strikes me that if that Snuggie fleece got anywhere near an open flame it might, in fact, turn into a flare, or melt, like napalm, onto your skin. And I'll bet is some marshmallow goo drips on the Snuggie, it washes out real nice.

The Snuggie is basically a cheap fleece blank et with sleeves, or in their words, a super soft, luxurious fleece. The marketing message suggests that it is far easier to don a blanket with sleeves than a plain old blanket when one is a bit chilled, yet wants to get on with life as usual - reading, knitting, channel cruising, eating popcorn, toasting marshmallows.

I'm a New Englander. Make that a New Englander who lives in a building that was constructed in the 1860's. Make that a New Englander who lives in a building that was constructed in 1860's, and has 12 foot ceilings (hot air does rise, by the way) and four, double-wide 10 foot windows in the living room.

Baby, when it's cold outside, it's often drafty inside.

When it's drafty and cool, I have an easy-peasy way to handle it.

I put on a sweater. Or a Polarfleece. Or a snuggly bathrobe.

Or I throw an afghan - there's at least one per room, save for the kitchen and bathrooms - over my shoulders or lap.

And, even if I do have that afghan draped around my shoulders, I can still manage to read, knit, channel cruise, or eat popcorn. I suppose if we ever used our fireplace, I could also toast marshmallows while I'm wrapped in an afghan.

So what do I need a Snuggie for?

In fact, since I like to have my neck and back warm, I would think that the Snuggie would, in fact, have a major drawback: no back.

Those folks at the football game? Wouldn't they be better served by a warm coat, a scarf, and a lap blanket?

I also like the fact that the ad shows a range of ages - and both sexes - wearing a Snuggie.

Try as I might, I'm having difficulty picturing anyone I know in a Snuggie. But I'm especially having difficulty picturing any man I know.

Which I'm hoping will not prevent some member of my family of Yankee Swappers from ordering one up for next year's event. I'm not wild about any of the colors, but please no green: it looks really lame - not so much on the website, but definitely in the TV ad.

By the way, the Elvis clock didn't remain unclaimed for very long. On the Sunday after Christmas, it was swept up by our virtual nephew Sam when spotted it in the bathroom. I'm assuming it will grace some wall or other of his apartment in Brooklyn.

And, by the way, the topic of the Snuggie also came up on Sunday. As Sam pointed out, isn't a sweater a blanket with sleeves already? In fact, a more attractive and less cumbersome one.



Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Satyam what it am (is that all that it am?)

Satyam is one of those big ol' IT services/software developer company that we love to hate.

All those jobs off-shored to India. All those clipped, often incomprehensible Indian accents on the phone - tied to the bogus "American" name. ("Hello, my name is Kevin, what is it that I can be helping your with today?") All our fears that India will be producing 1,000 crack computer engineers for every one that our colleges turn out. (Our kids will be majoring in hospitality, beach volleyball, or communications.)

So I'm sure there was more than a teensy frisson in some quarters when the news came out last week that Satyam was in trouble. Big trouble. Enron big trouble.  Go to jail big trouble.

The founder Ramalinga Raju (Raju), and his brother (and co-founder), Rama Raju (Ramu), have been arrested, as has the company CFO (who last fall had tried to unload a slew of Satyam shares while they were still worth something). The Indian government has stepped in to constitute a new board. And rumors are flying all over the delightfully colorful and unrestrained Indian press.

But the somewhat less rumor-ridden Wall Street Journal reported last Saturday that Raju has

...admitted to overstating profits -- and creating a fictitious cash balance of more than $1 billion -- over several years by inflating the amount of debt owed to the company and understating liabilities.

(Note: access to WSJ content may require a subscription.)

The magnitude of the fraud is pretty staggering. On Bloomberg, we're told that:

Of Satyam’s reported cash and bank balances of 53.61 billion rupees on Sept. 30, 50.4 billion rupees was non- existent, Raju said in the letter sent to the Bombay Stock Exchange.

Operating margin in the quarter ended Sept. 30 was 3 percent of revenue, instead of the reported 24 percent, Raju said. The company’s revenue was 21 billion rupees, 22 percent less than the inflated figure of 27 billion rupees that had been reported.

That's a lot of rupees, even at 50 to a buck.

Then there are 53,000 employees at Satyam, and while a good old jingoistic response might be to say 'tough them,' some of those employees are good old Americans. Satyam has offices throughout the US, including in Bentonville Arkansas (so I guess you-know-who is a customer). So if Satyam goes down, it will take a few of "our" jobs with them (even as it can and no doubt will be argued that they've already taken "our" jobs).

There are so many interesting aspects to this, it's hard to figure out what to choose to blog about. But I'll pick a couple:

The unintentional hilarity of the messages on their web site.

  • Success: It's about having an eye on the outcome all the time.
  • Demystifying challenges: It's about simplifying apparent complexities.
  • Uncommon ideas: They can come from any quarter and in many ways.
  • Execution: Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
  • Business transformation. Together: It is not alchemy. It is chemistry.

If I were Satyam marketing I think I'd get busy crafting up some "what we do" messages - like we code software, or we provide phone support - and bag these airier, abstract one liners.

Business Transformation. Together. is Satyam's tagline, which:

...reflects the organization’s maturity—our move from service provider to collaborative partner. It also reflects our ability to enable businesses transformation in turbulent times.

Let's see how they handle their own turbulent times, shall we?

When I looked last weekend, the Satyam home page also had sections on their thought leadership on compliance management and business intelligence.

The overarching intent of all of these compliance programs is to help enterprises address four key areas: information integrity, process integrity, controlled access to information, and secure information retention.

I might give compliance and BI a rest for a while.

(By the way, our old pal Bernie Madoff had similar "cringe-inducing" copy on his web site, which I posted on last month.)

And the winner of this year's Golden Peacock Award for Corporate Governance....

May I have the envelope please?

Satyam in September was awarded the Golden Peacock Global Award for Excellence in Corporate Governance by the London-based World Council for Corporate Governance. The council today withdrew the award.  (Source: Bloomberg.)

Just what do you need to do to demonstrate excellence in corporate governance these days? Inquiring minds - apparently far more inquiring than those at the World Council for Corporate Governance - want to know.

And the winner of this year's Golden Brownnoser Award for Corporate Suckups....

Alas, is no longer available. And, alas, I just looked through it without copying any of the information, other than to grab the front page intro.

But, whether it was set up by Satyam employees, or by Raju himself, this site was truly something.

Raju: our god father, our hero, our doyen. It is heart wrenching to hear people saying bad things about you.....

I was able to copy the section below. Yes, I know it's hard to read, but I couldn't grab it digitally, so you'll have to cut it and blow it up if you're willing to read fuzzy text. It's all I managed to grab from the site before it was taken down.Raju

This was followed by page upon page of breathless encomia to our hero. As my brother-in-law Rick, who pointed this site my way, wrote me,  "I doubt even Mother Teresa got such great reviews." My sister Kathleen's theory is that all the "Vanessas," "Kevins," and "Brians" who answer the support calls at Satyam were charged with spending some of their downtime adding tidbits in praise of Raju to this site. There were hundreds of them. (I sure wish that site were still up, if nothing else than to demonstrate the cultural differences between India and the US.  As Kath said, a site about Bernie Madoff would be chock full of expletives and death threats.)

Fight fiercely, Harvard

In deference to my Harvard Business School alum brother-in-law - and in gratitude for his spadework on this post - I was not going to mention that Ramalinga Raju is an alumnus of this esteemed institution of higher learning. The bio on the Satyam website does state that Raju has an MBA from Ohio University, so that time at Harvard may have been spent in one of those drive-by, errrrrr, I meant to say intensive, executive programs.

So he's not really an HBS alum, now, is he?

Ah, well, wherever he got his degree from, Raju may soon find himself with plenty of time on his hands to pursue all the correspondence degrees he wants.


Title of this post a bit too obscure? Think Popeye.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In-car computing, or how I'm dealing with my inner Luddite

My first reaction when I started reading about the in-car computing products being touted at last week's mega Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas was to text myself OMG.

Then I realized, OMG, I really didn't have to text myself. I could actually think the thought directly to and from my very own brain without having to use my handy-dandy, but in this case not necessary, opposable thumbs.

In-car computing! How much more of it do we really need?

After all, every time we step toe out of the house we're already in peril from in-car cell phoners, texters, and iPod-ders driven to distraction by their consumer electronics. Enough, already!

I used to imagine that, if I were going to be killed in a car accident, it would be while driving in the Fresh Pond rotary in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Well, that rotary has been made all better with the introduction of lights. Plus I don't drive much anymore.

So I have revised my forecast of car accident death: if it happens, it will be because I was mowed down by a young, fur-coated matron driving an Escalade as she races to pick up Chloe and Trip from the drop off point for their private school bus, saving them from the need to walk 200 yards home. Our young matron will be on her smartphone (note: no longer just a plain old cell phone - so very yesterday), and will fail to observe the stop sign on the corner of River and Beacon.

Alas, I will fail to calculate the speed at which she is traveling, not to mention fail to recognize that she is so involved in her ultra-important phone conversation that she won't see me. I will step out into the street, and she will run me over. Thinking that I'm just a large chunk of iced-up slush that has gotten stuck in the Escalade's axle, she will proceed to the bus stop post haste, at which point either Chloe or Trip will bleat, "Mommy, what's that dead women in the old LL Bean Parka doing wrapped around our axle." [Note to Palin-watchers: that's Trip with one p, the approved, preppy nickname for John Beresford Tipton III, not the new two-p Tripp coinage used by Bristol and Levi for their little one.]

But, I - the still very much alive I - digress.

Over the weekend, I read an article on CNN on the in-car computing that was showcased at CES.

And I have come to the conclusion that, clear and soon to be even more present dangers aside, I'm pretty much okay with it. Sort of.

First up in the article was some information on an upcoming offering from Ford: dashboard computing in their pickup trucks.

In March, Ford will release a fully functional, dashboard computer -- complete with keyboard -- geared to contractors and other business folks who want to access the Web, review documents and log inventory while on the go.

Plus, AT&T's bringing out a TV version of XM-Sirius Radio. That'll bring 22 channels for your in-car viewing pleasure. (You're not just cruising, you're channel cruising.  If someone starts using my tagline, you heard it here first.)

With the in-car computer, I'm okay with that contractor in his parked vehicle running some numbers and printing out an invoice. 

Yet my inner Luddite yelped 'just what we need, guys cruising around in 4x4's while watching sudden death football playoff games on ESPN. '

That 4x4 may be built Ford tough, but the car I would likely be traveling in would probably not have been.

Much as I might want Adam Vinatieri to miss that field goal, I really don't want to die for it.

And I also started think that, when you combine two things together - like a car and a personal computer - you are probably going to get some weird hybrid that doesn't quite work in either direction, like a Barcalounger with a built in fridge.

But I dismissed this thought and replaced it with another. And the other I replaced it with is hey, this is coming whether I like it or not, so let's just hope they figure out a way to make it safe rather than sorry. New cars are already coming equipped with MP3 players, Bluetooth connections, and onboard navigation equipment. Help with parallel parking? That's so old hat,

I blogged about it in 206.

Full in-car computing is inevitable.

So I was cheered to learn that Hyundai is:

...launching a system that warns motorists when they drift out of the lane they're traveling in. Another manufacturer has developed pedestrian-detection software that works with heat-seeking cameras to alert drivers when someone is in their path.

That "other manufacturer," FLIR Systems, has a camera to detect us pedestrian heat sources. Once it spots one:

...the on-board computer alerts the driver by highlighting the pedestrian in yellow on the dashboard screen.

Hmmmm. This means that the driver would be looking at his computer, not at the road, which may be a problem to begin with. ("Hey, honey, what's that outlined yellow thing on the screen? Is it some kind of cartoon human? Did somebody just die on the football field after Vinatieri's failed kick? Is that why it's outlined like a crimse scene?" Thud.)

I'm sure they'll figure it all out. Then if we can get Ford to merge with Hyundai and the folks at FLIR, we'll be all set.

Cruise the Internet, channel cruise AT&T, and the car will let you know if I or anyone else is in your path. And presumably, you will be alert enough to respond to the alert.

We are, of course, cruising in the direction of auto-auto pilot. Which may not be such a bad thing, given how crazy and dangerous driving can be.

"Maybe 15 years from now, cars will drive themselves. That's certainly a goal some companies have," said Jay James of FLIR Systems. "It's not just 'Jetsons' stuff now. It's really starting to happen."

Ah! You won't even need a human onboard. That Escalade can be programmed to pick up Chloe and Trip.

As long as they have the heat seeker turned on, and it spots me stepping off the corner in time to stop, I'm down with that.

So in-car computing?

Bring it on!

My inner Luddite can just go back to fretting about things like end of books. Or the end of real food. Or whether that little eye on the lid of my laptop will be spying on me and sending my every blink and grimace over to Homeland Security.

Now those are worries worthy of a Luddite, inner or outer.