Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas 2011

And so this is is Christmas. (Or close enough, at any rate.)

And so this was going to be a picture of my Christmas tree.

But the tree doesn’t vary much from one year to the next. Some years it’s taller. Some years it’s fatter. Some years it’s to the left of the fire place. Some years it’s to the right. Although each year there’s an addition or two, and a subtraction through breakage, the ornaments themselves don’t change. And I’ve had the same tree topper and skirt forever.

So this year Pink Slip is featuring a smaller piece of holiday decor: a picture of my husband with our sweetie-pie nieces, many aaa-xmaslong years ago. (They are still sweetie-pies, but, as teenagers, perhaps not quite the sweetie-pies they were when they were little ones.)

Anyway, if my tree and my other decorations don’t vary much from year to year, neither do my wishes.

Peace on earth, good will to men, women, and children.

Prosperity for not just the 1%, but for the 99%, too. (With special care paid to the needs of the bottom 1% who are there for a lot of good reasons, the foremost of which seems to be bad luck.)

Good health – physical, mental, financial, personal, professional - for my family and friends.

A political process that’s conducted with more civility, honor, dignity, common sense, and truth than we’ve seen so far in the current cycle. (Is some straight talk about globalization, the future, our headlong return to the America of the 1890’s, and the state of the environment too much to ask? And how about some straight talk about what being an American can and should mean?)

And, to get a little personal and selfish here: a respectable showing by the Boston Red Sox, and decent weather for our (me, my husband, and those almost grown up sweetie-pies) trip to Rome in April.

I’m also going to put in a bit of an appeal.

Oh, I’ve had my hand stretched out before, and no doubt will in the future. But here I am, at it again, doing it for yet another worthy cause.

If you’re reading Pink Slip, you’re probably a reader. And if there’s one thing that readers need, it’s writers.

For ten years now, I’ve been a member of The Writers’ Room of Boston, a 24/7 writers’ workspace that one of our members calls his haven. Our writers are young, middle aged, and some of us getting on old. Some are widely published, some not so. Some you may have heard of, some you never will. What we have in common is the desire for and need to have a place of our own, where our work and our lives as writers are taken seriously, even if all we do is blog…

Every year, The Writers’ Room struggles to keep our rates affordable, so that young poets trying to piece together a living through adjunct teaching don’t have to give up eating to have a workspace. So that those working full-time have a place to do their heart’s work when they have an evening or weekend to spare.

We do get small grants – bless you, Mass Cultural Council and NEA – but it’s tough. We’re always looking for donations. (And that’s a somewhat “royal we”, as this year I was elected our organization’s president.)

So, if you’re reading Pink Slip, and are inclined to make a tax-deductible gift to keep The Writers’ Room going – as it has been for over twenty years – here’s the link. (Thus ends my one and only attempt to monetize Pink Slip.)

As has become Pink Slip’s end of year tradition, we – that’s Pink Slip and I - are taking the week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for commenting.

See you on January 2nd.


Can’t get a Pink Slip enough Christmas? Here are links to some posts of Christmas past.

How I manage to get my tree decorated without professional design help (2010)

Why I like decorating the Christmas Tree (2009)

Santa Claus is coming to Town (2008)

Oh, Tannenbaum! (2007)

All I Want For Christmas (2006)

(Hey, these are pretty good.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Feliz Navidad from the Mayor of San Juan

After my mother died, we went through her cartons of pictures and tossed out a) pictures in which we couldn’t identify anyone; b) those in which we could identify someone we didn’t’ care to keep a picture of; c) snapshots of rooms (which we might have kept if they were Martha Stewart-esque House Beautiful rooms; mostly they were pictures of a twin bed with a chenille bedspread and a side table next to it, with maybe a crucifix on the wall over it) that family members sent from Chicago when they got a new place; and d) Christmas photo cards.

We got hundreds of Christmas cards each year, but back in the day not all that many people sent photo cards.

I don’t know if they were more expensive, or whether it seemed too personal and pushy, or whether, since everyone had a passel of kids there was not much desire to look at a picture of someone else’s passel of kids. Especially if they were a passel of kids you saw everyday. (For some reason – possibly because one of their girls was named Maureen – I remember that one year we got a photo card from the Dailey family.)

My mother hung on to these Christmas photo cards long after she had recycled the non-photo cards. (My mother was the original recycler. Who needed to spend 59 cents on an assortment of gift tags when you could use the front of last year’s Christmas cards? And, of course, you could hardly use a photo card as a gift tag.)

Actually, I can understand why my mother was reluctant to give those photo cards the toss: it almost seems like a statement that the card sender is expendable, doesn’t it? And, so, I find myself hanging on to the Christmas card photos that I get each year, even if they’re not among the ones that make it onto the fridge. (Aside to RK: your kids are on the fridge.)

In any case, I have never seen a Christmas photo card as dramatic, weird, and outright daffy as the one that was hung with care by the Huffington Post chimney last week.

Nothing says Christmas quite like a stuffed leopard murdering a fear-stricken antelope. Err... wait, how did we miss that part of the Bible?…The caption under the astoundingly strange photo is equallySANTINI-1 as puzzling:

“That you may illuminate your dream this Christmas,” it reads in Spanish.

Well, Feliz Navidad to you and yours, too, Mayor Santini.

Is this some kind of a play on the lion shall lie down with the lamb?

I know it’s not supposed to be reindeer. No sleigh, no Rudolph the Red Nose.

I suppose the one they used was better than the out-takes:


Although the one with the penguins is a tad more topical, what with the snow and the cold and the North Pole – South Pole, what’s the big diff?

Anyway, hizzoner was promoting the San Juan Wildlife Museum, and he’s out there on a talk show defending his decision to celebrate the season in what some might consider a rather silly fashion. In fact, he claims it’s becoming something of a meme. (Yay, Internet!)

"Some might think the card is absurd but others -- thousands of people -- have sent us superimposed images of themselves and their family on the card. Kids, adults, elders -- everybody! Boricua [Puerto Rican] folklore is unlimited, just like people's imagination."

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to Puerto Rico, but I doubt the Wildlife Museum would be on my list of must-sees. Who wants to go someplace else to look at stuffed animals that aren’t native to that someplace else? Not me.

But, hey, I give Mayor Santini props for trying to promo the local cultural institutions. And I’ve got to say that there are a lot more people who’ve heard of the Museo De Vida Silvestre than there were a month or so ago. Not to mention that there are a lot more people who’ve heard of The Great (Mayor) Santini.

Feliz Navidad to that.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Santa Claus ain’t comin’ to this town. (Santa Land has closed.)

As a baby boomer, I grew up in the Golden Age of kiddie attractions. In addition to all the hold-over amusement parks from the pre-war era, there were any number of hastily thrown up miniature golf course, drive-in theaters, and “Something-or-other” Lands. (Of course, Disney Land also opened when I was a kid, but that was in another whole category by itself. We mere mortal children could only aspire to a trip there.)

Crummy amusement parks were everywhere. The big two in the Worcester area were White City in Shrewsbury and Whalom Park in Fitchburg. Our family’s big annual thrill was our day-trip to Nantasket Beach, where you got not only the ocean, but also LeHage’s salt-water taffy (“Oh, so good!”) and Paragon Park. These places are long-gone. All that’s left is Paragon Park’s carousel. (At least it was still there last time I looked.) Even the beach at Nantasket is eroding into nothingness.

(The first time I went to Canobie Lake Park in New Hampshire, I was amazed by how clean it was. Nothing like the amusement parks I grew up with.)

In addition to amusement parks, there were tatty mini-golf places.

We had one within walking distance of our house. It was altogether unimaginative and, as we used to say, crum-bum. Still, it was great fun to aim that colored ball at the mouth of the whale, and tote up your score with the little golf pencil. Nothing like the fancy-arse mini-golfs we “play” every summer on the Cape. (My favorite is the one with the koi pond.)

Last summer, while visiting my brother and his wifIMG00092-20110730-1611e, we went to a retro mini-golf course in Long Beach, Washington. Talk about the way-back machine! Here’s one of the swell holes. Yabba-dabba-doo!

And then there were the other types of attractions which were, for want of a better term, “theme parks” called Story Land, or Dry Gulch Ghost Town, or Fairy Tale Land. That most of these attractions were tawdry, rundown, and seedy mattered not. Just because someone had found themselves in possession of a dusty one-acre lot and five-hundred bucks and decided to throw up a bunch of painted plywood something-or-others and charge admission didn’t mean it wouldn’t have  incredible appeal to kids.

Sure, we also went to “real” places like Old Sturbridge Village, and The Old Manse, and The Old Grist Mill – ah, the benefits of living in Ye Olde New England – but, while interesting, these places were just a tad too educational. One of the best places we ever went was on a trip to Chicago. While staying at my grandmother’s house on a lake (i.e., glorified muck pond) about 50 miles out of the city, we (the combined Rogers and Dineen tribes) went to some run down Western ghost town attraction which I don’t recall was much more than a single dusty street with a bunch of abandoned “buildings” – e.g., the saloon with the swinging doors – some of which were just facades. We did not question for one New York Chicago minute what a Western ghost town might be doing outside of Waukegan, Illinois. All we knew was that, like Rin-Tin-Tin, The Lone Ranger, and Range Rider, it was made for kids. We loved it.

With fond memories of these sorts of places, I was saddened to read that Santa’s Land of Putney, Vermont, had shuttered its doors last Saturday, after 54 years in business.

Talk about a lump of coal in the stocking of life!

I had never been to Santa’s Land (which, amusingly – to me at least, as my husband was born in Bellows Falls – is located on the Bellows Falls Road).

The one and only family day trip we ever made to 357_Santa_s_Mistletoe_Mill_Book_ShopVermont we did something edifying and Ethan Allen-ish around Bennington. (Other than our semi-annual trips to Chicago, we seldom ventured out of state. Taking a ride that strayed into Connecticut or Rhode Island was a big thrill, with all of us back-seaters thrusting our feet under the front seat to be able to “call” that we were the first one who’d crossed the state line.)

It’s certainly no wonder why today’s kids turn up their noses at the simple things that so delighted us in yesteryear.

They’ve all been to Disney World, Busch Gardens, Universal Studios.

They’ve seen Toy Story 1. And 2. And 3.

They’ve played with Wii’s and read Harry Potter on their Kindles.

And they’re going to be interested in something like Santa’s Land?

Fraid not.

As one employee explained it:

Chris Harlow used to work here as a boy in the early 1970s and later operated the train, Santa’s Land Express.

“I came here for the nostalgia,” he said. “Kids have other ways to entertain themselves these days.”

No matter th285_Iglooat they lowered their admissions price to $10. No matter that they had a Facebook presence. No matter that this looked a lot nicer and cleaner (albeit more commercial, i.e., some junk for sale in most of the attractions) than the lands of my youth. (We never saw anything as sturdy and cool as Santa’s igloo.)

Santa Claus will not be coming to this town anymore.

Talk about a Grinch story.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Robo Restaurants? Wasabi with that?

I’m not opposed to an occasional gulp-and-go fast food spree. In fact, when I get finished with this post, I’m heading across the street to Big Al’s to grab lunch.

But when I go out to eat, I like to get waited on, and I don’t like to get rushed out the door while the fork – or the chopsticks – are still in my hand. For this reason, I don’t like restaurant buffets. And, while I must confess that the Automat has always held a cheesy romantic appeal for me (even though I never ate at one), I don’t like the idea of eating off a conveyor belt.

So I don’t think I’ll be running out to Wasabi in the Natick Mall anytime soon. had a bit on Wasabi a few weeks ago, and I’ll run their bit in full:

It takes a while to make sense of what’s going on at Wasabi. Most of the normal restaurant conventions - ordering, pricing, courses, menus - have been turned upside-down in a robotized space with no walls and no right angles. Snaking through the dining area, a divided stainless steel conveyor belt curves like a surreal bi-directional river. Along its banks, diners in plush, wedge-shaped booths are encouraged to grab brightly patterned plates of sushi that float along on the belt’s 300 elevated white discs. There’s seating for 100 here, in a perpetually balmy skylight expanse of the upscale Natick Mall. A grove of stylized faux-willow trees rustle in a ventilator breeze nearby, and Christmas shoppers stroll by with curious glances at the odd robo-restaurant, now in its fourth month of operation.

There are waiters – or, possibly, waitrons – to take your drink order. But for the sushi, you’re on the own, grabbing plates that are color-coded by price, so that you can keep track of how much the meal is costing you.  I learned about the color coding from a late summer article in the Natick Patch. For all its cool graphics, the site for Wasabi itself conveys nothing that I could find about how the meal is actually conveyed. All their FB page has to say about it is that the food is “uniquely crafted and delivered.”


The big restaurant lie used to be “home made”, which somehow snootily morphed into “house made”. From whence there was nary a pause before we got “house crafted” and “hand crafted.”

I walked by a lunch place the other day, and they had a sign for “hand-crafted soups.”

Personally, when I read “hand-crafted soup” I think of someone running it through his fingers. Yuck! Use a ladle, please.

And don’t get me started on “artisanal” which, to its credit, is a word that Wasabi doesn’t seem to be using. Yet. (Maybe they have an artisanal conveyor belt.)

“Uniquely crafted” is odd enough for me, thank you, given what it does to the imagination. There is so much that “uniquely crafted” can mean, isn’t there?

It could mean that it’s ABC. (Remember that from when you were a kid talking about ABC gum. As in Already Been Chewed.)

It could mean that the chef “crafts” only while wearing a clown nose, or an angel gown, or nothing at all.

It could mean that they use only day-old fish to capture a certain pungency for the experience.

No, “uniquely crafted” I could do with out.

The most “uniquely crafted” food I ever saw was a billion years ago, when I waitressed at the Union Oyster House.

One lunch, a waitress (completely stoned, I believe) dropped a large platter of steamed quahogs on the sawdust (and whatever else) covered floor. The clams went rolling out of their shells and, given the rubbery consistency of mega-quahogs to begin with, they really had a bounce. During that bounce, they picked up all sorts of sawdust (and whatever).

Well, that waitress wasn’t going to be waiting around for no replacement order. Do you know how long it takes to steam a quahog?

So, with the help of the rest of “the girls”, she picked them up and stuffed them back in their shelves.

Now that, I’ll give you, was “uniquely crafted.”

If I can do do without “uniquely crafted,”I can also do without “uniquely delivered.”

Bad enough when you find out that the party ahead of you got the last order of sea bass. Do I really want to be in open competition with the folks at the next table for the edamame and California roll that are about to float by? (Whispered aside to eating companion: It looks like some veggie tempura just came on the line. Now go and distract the couple in the next booth. Pretend you know him from work or something.) Chopsticks at ten paces!

It seems like Wasabi is one of those “fun concept” kind of places that folks might try once for the thrill element of hunter-gatherer, for the sheer novelty. (Think Rainforest CafĂ©: is there anyone on the face of the earth who has eaten their more than once (or, more than once per child or grandchild)?)

All I can say is, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory,  have some new company.

Monday, December 19, 2011

It’s all in the context

Oh, I admit it.

If I had the money, I’d be out there buying Cole-Haan boots rather than stalking Zappo’s trying to find a replacement for my go-to, 12-year-old Hush Puppy moccasins that are finally showing their age. (And after six years, I’ve finally had it with the bleach stain on one of them.)

But, ‘tis the season for class warfare – bring it on – so I’ll do my bit by playing along and dishing on an article that appeared on’s business page last week. High end, you’ll be delighted to know, is back in high demand.

Even as unemployment remains high and job growth is anemic, luxury spending is up, with some retailers reporting business booming at prerecession levels.

While at Kohl’s, sales are below the doldrums, at Saks – I almost typed Sears there for a moment; hah! – things are looking pretty dern good:

“Some of our best sellers are the most expensive items – the exotic handbags, the high-end diamonds.

And don’t let those class-baiters tell you that this doesn’t trickle down:

Revenues are up more than 30 percent at the Seaport Candle Co., which makes custom handmade candles and light fixtures... The small factory in South Boston is running seven days a week and took on two more workers to keep up with the demand, according to Carole Lucas, the company owner. The most expensive luminaires cost $95 each and some orders can easily reach $1,000.

Working in a candle factory in South Boston! How positively, how Dickensian-ly, romantic. I hope their logo is the poor little match girl. (No, wait, she froze to death on Christmas Eve. She won’t do.)

But the point so clearly demonstrated here is that the big spenders are job creators. Yea, us! I mean, Yea, them!

Ah, but this so so arid. Someone needs to put a face on high demand for high end, and has kindly obliged, providing us a character for a best of time/worst of time that Deloitte & Touche’s Tom McCrorey has dubbed “the tale of two consumers.”

At Neiman Marcus,

…Debbie Lurie tried on designer dresses and sweaters. Lurie said her outlook on the economy has improved this year, so she’s spending more freely. Already that day, she had purchased a pair of Cole Haan boots and an Alice + Olivia winter coat.

“Our portfolio is doing better this year, my husband tells me,’’ said Lurie, who was visiting from Baltimore.

Must be a lot more fun at her house than in the ones where the husband is telling his wife that he just got laid off.

Lurie estimates that she will spend a few thousand dollars this holiday season, partly because “the kids need ski clothes.’’

And partly because Alice & Olivia winter coats aren’t cheap  - low-end’s about $500 a shot; and Cole Haan boots aren’t leaping off the shelves at PayLess, either.

But poor Debbie Lurie. Here I am excoriating her when, for all I know, the bit on her was taken completely out of context.

So, Deb, honey. I’m going to give you not one, but two contexts because my context portfolio is doing better this year. (And, frankly, my husband didn’t need to tell me. I figured it out for myself.)

Full Context #1:

At Neiman Marcus,

Lurie said her outlook on the economy has improved this year, so she’s spending more freely. Already that day, she had purchased a pair of Cole Haan boots and an Alice + Olivia winter coat, which she was donating to an online auction to benefit the scholarship fund at her kids’ school.

“Sometimes the bidding just gets carried away, especially at this time of year, which really brings out the generous in people,” Lurie said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone ends up paying $2, 000 for that striped pea-coat I got for $500.”

Lurie noted that she and her family are quite blessed.

“Our portfolio is doing better this year, my husband tells me,’’ said Lurie, who was visiting from Baltimore.

Because of this, the family anticipates doubling, perhaps even tripling their annual charitable donations.

“We’re focusing this year on places where the need is greatest,” Lurie added. “For us, that means underfunded social services, and small non-profits in the arts. Sure, it may be more prestigious and glamorous to write a big check to MOMA, but the shelter that feeds out-of-work vets, and the group that teaches puppetry to deaf kids, well, let’s just say that, in this climate, some charities are more worthy than others.

Lurie estimates that she will spend a few thousand dollars this holiday season, partly because “the kids need ski clothes, which we’re not going to go hog wild on. The younger one will be wearing some hand-me-downs. But mostly we’ll be spending that much because we’ve adopted a family and we’ll be doing a lot for them this year. We’re all about teaching our kids that just because they were born lucky, doesn’t mean they were born deserving.”

See what I mean about context? For all we know, the reporter missed the real Debbie.

Of course, there’s that other possibility…

Full Context #2:

At Neiman Marcus,

…Debbie Lurie tried on designer dresses and sweaters. Lurie said her outlook on the economy has improved this year, so she’s spending more freely. Already that day, she had purchased a pair of Cole Haan boots and an Alice + Olivia winter coat.

“The funny thing about Christmas shopping is that I always manage to get a few purchases in pour moi. I suppose I should be a bit embarrassed, but the truth is that I’m the designated shopper for the whole kit and kaboodle, and they’re just a big bunch of ingrates.

“Our portfolio is doing better this year, my husband tells me,’’ said Lurie, who was visiting from Baltimore. “And I’m taking him at his word. Let the bucks stop here,” she smiled.

Lurie estimates that she will spend a few thousand dollars this holiday season, partly because “the kids need ski clothes,’’ but mostly because  - ha-ha - I deserve that $500 striped pea-coat from Alice and Olivia, and those Cole Haan boots. Not that I want my kids to look like ragamuffins, especially since we’ll be spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s in Gstaad. We were thinking about Park City or Vail, but, quite frankly, Americans are such a bunch of negative, gloomy guses. You’d think they’d be happy for those of us who make the wealth, like my husband, and those of us who spread the wealth, like me. And did I say a ‘few thousand dollars’. Who am I kidding? You did say our portfolio is doing better this year, didn’t you honey?

Context #1 vs. Context #2: Admit you can see that wrapping a little context around some quotes can make all the difference in the world.

So will the real Debbie Lurie please stand up?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Condo mondo.

We live in a small, quasi-self-managed condo building. About a year ago, I wrote about the joys of living in a small, quasi-self-managed condo building.

Well, I’m not here to tell you that things have gotten all that much better. Sure, we’ve had yet another condo meeting at which we all pinky-swore to get some things done. But it’s still the same old nada.

But, having read The King of All Vegas Real Estate Scams in a recent Business Week, I can only say that it could be worse. It could be a whole lot worse.

First off, we’re not in Las Vegas.

When there’s no boom, you don’t tend to get a bust, so property in our neck of the woods is pretty much holding its own. It sure helps that there’s not a lot of room for expansion in our neighborhood, which is well-placed, attractively quaint, and has quite a lot going for it, if you overlook the fact for that you don’t get a all that much, square-footage wise, for the money. On the upside, having no room in your particular inn really does hold the lid down on acquiring things you don’t need.

Second, our building went up when things were built to last, in 1860 or so. It’s made of granite, not stucco’d sheetrock, and it wasn’t slapped up. Sure, it could use some help. And anyone who’s owned an old building knows that they require more care and feeding than newer construction. Except when newer construction is really slap-up lousy. Which is, apparently, the case with a lot of what got glued together during the Las Vegas R.E. Boom.

And because so much of what got built during the Las Vegas R.E. Boom was built to POS standards, not built to last, many of the condo developments started falling apart immediately. And we’re not talking a few stray punch-list items here – it’s pretty much systemic.

So, to keep up with all these post-construction traumas, there emerged a:

…growing market for the contractors who fixed the construction problems, such as leaky roofs or faulty electrical outlets, that emerged at the hastily built developments.

And where there’s a growing market for post-construction contractors, there’s a growing market for lawyers specializing in post-construction “construction-defect” lawsuits to go after those shoddy developers.

Here’s where it gets interesting, i.e., down-right criminal, as one particularly cagey group came up with an idea for cashing in on the post-construction problem market.

When a new development was nearing completion, the group would buy a couple of units in the community and then transfer partial ownership of the condos to individuals secretly on its payroll, according to court documents. While pretending to be residents of the communities, these “straw buyers” would run for leadership positions on boards of the new homeowner associations. By paying off community managers, hiring private investigators to find dirt on legitimate candidates, and rigging elections, the documents allege, the straw buyers were able to infiltrate boards at several new developments in Las Vegas from 2003 to 2008. Once in control of the boards, the straw buyers would then use their governing positions to steer millions of dollars in construction and legal fees back to their co-conspirators.

Among other tricks of this new-found trade, the conspirators sometimes helped rig election by casting absentee-ballots in the name of out of state folks who had purchased condos as investment and/or vacation properties. The thinking was that out-of-staters would have a tendency to not bother to vote for board members, not wanting to get embroiled in issues on whether it was okay to plunk a pink flamingo on your square of zoysia grass, and the like. The conspirators even made trips to remote zip codes to make sure that the ballots had the correct postmark, so that no one official would suspect anything.

Some of the real-fake board members owned as little as 0.5 percent of the condo they were representing.

A number of the schemes involved a firm called Silver Lining Construction, which managed to get some of its employees on boards as 0.5 percent owners. (When it came to naming, they sure didn’t lack for a certain brazen imagination, that’s for sure.)

Lurking in the murky background here were shady political operatives, and a lawyer whose uncle was portrayed in the movie Casino. He was the guy (played by Joe Pesci) buried alive in the Indiana cornfield. And for a sunnier element of the story, a group of retirees in one of the condo complexes getting screwed starting acting as amateur detectives, and sleuthed their way into finding out all kinds of stuff (like Silver Lining’s board-packing). They then went with their findings to the police, and to the Nevada state agency that regulates real estate, and the conspiracy gradually started to unravel.

But by that point, the sleuth’s condo association had reached a hefty settlement – $19.1M – with its developers.

Sounds like enough money to fix a few leaky roofs and cracked sidewalks.

But, stunningly, $11M of that went for legal fees and expenses with a couple of law firms in cahoots on the scheme.

The money got spent down pretty rapidly, and the real-fake board members pulled a disappearing act. Their job done, they stopped showing up at board meetings.

The plot thickens – there’s definitely a book in here – with the FBI, botched suicide, arson, insurance fraud, busted kneecaps…

These days, conspirators are starting to cop pleas. One highly placed political operative – he had been the chairman of the Nevada GOP – has pled out and could be facing 30 long-ones in the state pen.

In the meantime, thousands of people who bought condos during the boom are still coping with their own financial hardship. Two-bedroom, two-bath condos at the Vistana were going for $200,000 in 2007. In November a 929-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bath unit sold for $59,000.

That can’t feel very good.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Unless the story gets told in Business Week.

This one’s a lulu. Can’t wait for the book.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ah, to be young and in Paris

Even at my advanced age, I continue to look for ways in which I can live my life better.  Unfortunately, the operative word her is “look”, as I must confess that, while I’m always on the lookout, I seldom if ever put any of the swell new ideas into action. Hell, after five years, I can’t even manage to get my blog to look better.

Still, I read with interest a recent article on CNN about a young American woman who, while she didn’t quite manage to learn everything that matters in life in kindergarten, was able to figure out a few things during the six months in college she spent living with a family in Paris.

Jennifer Scott – lucky girl! – didn’t just get to live with any old family in Paris.

No, she wasn’t stuck in a boring, sterile suburb, let alone in a banlieue teeming with malcontents and rioters.

No, Scott was fortunate enough to live in a swank arrondissement, where she got to live with the French equivalent of the 1 percent, “an elegant couple she dubbed Madame and Monsieur Chic.”

Not that French 1 percenters would ever use a term as vulgar as 1 percenter.

Besides, in France, as I understand things, the 1 percent is more like 0.1 percent, and it has as much to do with pedigree as money.

Not that there aren’t things to be learned from other folks, and I certainly don’t want to hold pedigree and/or money against Madame et Monsieur Chic, let alone their chic. So I approached the article in a spirit of openness. After all, for Scott,

"Paris taught me not how to just exist, but to thrive and make every small moment meaningful."

It also gave her enough ammo for a book, now out, in which she catalogs the twenty things she learned from Les Chics. The CNN story listed five of them.

As noted, I’m always on the lookout for life enhancing ideas. And, despite what I wrote above, I do occasionally embrace them. Why, just two years ago, I took the advice of my sisters and started buying really good bras. So I thought I’d look through Scott’s list to see if there were any game-changers for me.

First up:

Live a passionate life

Now, I’ve noticed in the last few years that the word “passion” has really crept into the vocabulary of the younger set. It is no longer enough to love one’s family and friends, like one’s work, enjoy one’s hobbies, or enthuse about one’s cultural interests, political party, or sports teams. One must embrace everything with a passion that, in the drab and staid time of my youth, was reserved for the likes of Madame Bovary, or for those who followed big college football in the South.

Nowadays, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing of passion.

Oh, passion used to creep in the conversation occasionally in the old days. I once had a manager who told me that I would not be able to have a truly great career at the XYZ company unless I developed a “passion for securities.” Alas, I had to confess to her that, while it was possible for me (despite the passion-negating twin heritage of being Irish and German) to at least entertain the idea of being passionate about people and causes, securities – I believe the Collateralized Mortgage Obligation was just coming into play – was way, way, way down on my list.  Besides, even at the time, I figured that if I were to develop a passion for securities, I would no doubt want to make money shorting and longing them, rather than helping manage products that analyzed them. So I ended up with a middling career, and some fond memories of this manager. (Among other things she told me was that she only wanted to have good looking guys in her group, and, thus, felt that she was somewhat stuck with me reporting to her.)

I find Scott’s example of passion to be even more modest than a zest for securities:

…every night after dinner we would have a cheese course and every night we would have Camembert because it was Monsieur Chic's favorite cheese. And every night without exception, before we cut a slice of Camembert for everyone, he would proclaim it to be the 'Roi du fromage' -- or the king of all cheeses," Scott recalled.

"He did it with passion. They turn the smallest things, the smallest rituals and they make them passionate events."

A couple of thoughts come to mind.

First, I must have different definition of “passionate events” than does Scott.

Second, if you turn the smallest ritual into a passionate event, then it seems that the largest rituals – you know, the ones that revolve around man-woman-birth-death-infinity – diminish in importance.

Maybe it’s the Irish-German thing, but cutting the Camembert just doesn’t seem to belong on the same plateau as, say, falling head over heels with the love of your life, getting into your heart’s desire college, or even seeing your team win the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

The Camembert passion, by the way, was prelude to an evening spent listening to classical music.

"They never sat in front of the television with a box of pizza and zoned out, never," Scott said.

Well, as someone who’s tried to watch French television, Les Chics have a point. But didn’t they ever want to throw on a little Charles Aznavour or Johnny Hallyday and shake their booties? Or watch a movie by that genius, M. Jerry Lewis,  who is held in such high esteem by the French?

Cultivate an air of mystery

The French reticence when it comes to personal revelation is lesson number two. (Sounds plenty Irish-German to me, folks.) But part of what Les Chics and their friends kept mum on was revealing what it was that they did for work.

No, they were happy to discuss books and film, but they didn’t go in for the old confessional “overshare [of] details about their personal lives."

In fact, according to Scott, when in France, it’s rude to ask someone what they do for a living.

Now, I’m cool with not oversharing, especially as we get deeper and deeper into a world of TMI. But isn’t inquiring about what someone does a pretty fundamental question to ask of a new acquaintance? I mean, it’s not like asking them how much is in their 401K, or what their sexual fantasies are.

But, I guess, French of the chic class have a different relationship to work than us grubby, ugly Americans. If tout le monde attended the same posh schools, live in the same posh arrondissements, and have the same passionate relationships with Camembert, that’s all you need to know.

Look presentable always

I will say that, in the nicer ‘hoods in Paris, where I will confess to staying when I’m there, the people do look pretty darn chic. So maybe I’ll take this life lesson up, and, next trip to Paris, pack only chic navy and black clothing, and Hermes scarves. (Note to self: find knock-off Hermes scarf.)

Then again, in the lesser areas, where I have been known to wander on occasion, the French look just like a) French working stiffs, or b) Americans.

But that would not be Madame Chic, for whom:

…looking presentable was a way of honoring the people she came in contact with everyday.

Personally, I was not thrilled when the guy who grew up next door showed up at my mother’s wake in grubby cut offs and a tee-shirt. Nice he came on his way home from work, but…

So I do get that looking presentable can be a mark of respect. And self-respect.

But I actually see plenty of women like Madame Chic in my neighborhood. And my mental reaction is always the same: don’t you have anything better to do with your time than get dressed up like that to run your errands? Is it really a mark of respect for the guys at the hardware store or the PO, or is just sort of showing off that you have the money for fab clothing, and – I guess thanks to that husband who makes oodles at what, to the French, would be an unmentionable job – you don’t have to work.

Admittedly, we’d all no doubt be better off if, like Madame Chic, we had “10-item wardrobes” made up of really, really, really nice things.

So, second note to self: buy really good black suit (on sale, after first of year).

But, no, unlike Scott, I’m not going to wear my best clothes on a daily basis.

Honey, I’ve seen how those snobby French-sters can cut you down with a look if you’re not chic enough for them, even if you are wearing perfectly presentable clothing – I’m not talking Mr. and Mrs. matching khakis, windbreakers, sneakers, and fanny packs here.  I’ve caught that looking down the Gallic nose with a superior sneer when they overhear that strangled French coming from the mouth of a clearly non-chic American. (If I were the nasty type, I would have muttered something like, ‘Thanks for the Statue of Liberty, but who bailed you out, Monsieur et Madame Collaborateur?’)

Don't forget the simple pleasures (and do not deprive yourself)

For Madame Chic, this was baking a strawberry tart. For Monsieur Chic, it was that Camembert. Oo-la-la. (Is the French text OLL?)

Another example Scott cited was someone taking great pleasure from cleaning out her pocketbook.  Well, I like cleaning out a junk drawer, so same-same.

But I don’t think there’s anything special about the French savoring the simple pleasures. Even though I’ll give you that they don’t do a gulp and go when it comes to having a meal.

Make life a formal affair

Scott was impressed by the formal manner in which her host family lived. They were always elegantly dressed, their apartment was beautifully furnished and they maintained graceful rituals.


Nothing about whether anyone ever cracked a joke about, say, Monsieur Chic cutting the cheese. Or whether Madame Chic ever came back home from her baguette run and realized that she’d stepped her elegantly-shod foot in dog merde. Nothing about whether anyone in this family actually enjoyed day to day, formal, ritual life with each other.

Maybe you have to read the book, but Madame and Monsieur Chic sure sound bloodless, emotionless, humorless, and, quite frankly, passionless to me.

There’s something to be said for being self-contained, but I think these two ought to get outside that box now and again.

Meanwhile, Scott, on her very chic-looking, very well put together blog, reveals what rings her pasionaria chimes:

She lives passionately in Santa Monica

Where she shampoos her makeup brushes once a week, and where:

A good nail polish evokes passion in me...

Well, I’m pretty fond of OPI’s Mrs. O’Leary’s BBQ, but I can’t say that it exactly evokes passion in me.

No can do.

Must be the Irish-German blood.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

You will know them by the catalogs they keep

Whatever else ‘tis the season for, it sure is the season for catalogs.

I live in a six-unit condo building, and every year the combined units receive buckets of catalogs. And I do mean buckets. As almost everyone abandons their catalogs, leaving them on the hall mail table or tossing them into the basket next to it, I have the pleasure and honor of recycling most of them. So, when I say buckets of catalogs, I know whereof I speak.

Since this is New England, everyone gets L.L. Bean.

But beyond that, while there are sub-groupings, we get an awful lot of disparate catalogs coming in.

My take is relatively modest, and reveals me to be the never-in-style,  never-out-of-style clothing wearer that I am. In addition to L.L. Bean, I get Eddie Bauer and Land’s End. But I am a New England loyalist to the core, so the only one of those three I regularly buy from is the great L.L. And I would expect that those in the Midwest would show similar loyalty to Land’s End, while West Coasters would buy their flannel shirts and turtlenecks from Eddie Bauer.

I also get a lot of shoe catalogs. For those who believe that, prior to Zappo’s, one could and would not order shoes sight-unseen and fit-unfelt, I assure you that us foot-size oddities have been ordering from catalogs for years. From eighth grade on, I wore a 10AAAA, and if you think your local carries that size, you’ve got another think coming. (I maintain that if the rest of my body fit my long and skinny shoe size, I would be three inches taller and thirty pounds lighter.) Just recently, my foot expanded to a 10 1/2 AAA. This turns out to be an even odder size, since many shoes, for some reason, don’t come in 10 1/2 anything, skipping from a size 10 to a size 11. Size 11! I do NOT want to go there.

My most precious catalog is from the Vermont Country Store, the most delightful catalog on the face of the earth. While I rarely order anything from it, I order enough to get regular copies, and I read through it with the level of glee and zest that I imagine those living in sod huts in Nebraska in 1899 experienced as they thumbed through their Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. (I adore VCS, but please put me out of my misery if I begin buying any clothing other than socks from them.)

This year, I did order a few things from VCS, mostly old-timey toys for a couple of the little ones on the list. The kids will probably look at me like I have two heads, but – jeez Louise – who wouldn’t want a baking-powder powered submarine?

Anyway, my catalogs are pretty much all of a piece: durable, timeless, practical, sensible. Which is not unlike how one might describe certain characteristics of my character.

You will know me from the catalogs I keep.

I noticed, however, that not everyone sticks to a theme. And the family upstairs is definitely one of them.

These folks get more catalogs than anyone in the building combined, possibly because they’re the only ones in the building with small children. But the assortment that they tossed in to the basket the other day really got me head-scratching. Sure, there were the predictable Brookstone, Levenger, and Pottery Barn Kids catalogs. The L.L. Bean, the Crate and Barrel, the Hannah Andersson.

And then I saw, nestled snug in the trash basket, aaa preppantsright next to each other, catalogs from Vineyard Vines and NASCAR.

Now there’s a combo!

For those who don’t know Vineyard Vines, thinkaaa whale belt prepster on steroids. As in these natty holiday pants. Forget you ever heard of Nantucket Reds. Get ur freak on with these puppies.

Which I personally think would look even better with a whale belt.

No, it’s not ‘to the hounds’ fakery – we’ll leave that to Ralph Lauren. But it sure is ‘to the cocktail shaker’, isn’t it?

Not that the folks upstairs are buying. Vineyard Vines went tout de suite into recycle. Maybe it’s because, as Holy Cross grads, they can only aspire to second-order preppiness to begin with.

The NASCAR catalog was actually far more perplexing.


Not exactly something I associate with the urban lifestyle, and the folks upstairs – other than for those four years in exile in Worcester at The Cross – are bona fide city folks. She’s from NYC; he’s from Boston. City-city; not suburbia.

Not surprisingly, the NASCAR catalog has a different look and feel.

Unlike the polished prepsters in the Vineyard Vines wishbook, the NASCAR models have shaved heads (males) and big hair anaaa-nascar1d lots of makeup (females). Which is not to say that we can’t all be friends. In fact, I think that the VV holiday pants would look might fine when worn with this jacket, although it would be better it came in Sam Adams, rather than Bud. Small cultural thing. Just saying.

NASCAR and Vineyard Vines: when worlds – and cultures – collide.

Mostly, you will know them by the catalogs they keep throwaway. But apparently not always.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Fatwa on e-mail? Not so quick!

I once worked with a very wise man who had this to say about e-mail:

People are always coming up to me in the halls and asking whether I got the e-mail they sent me, and why I hadn’t responded. I always tell them, I get hundreds of e-mails each day, and it takes me a while to sift through them. If something requires my attention, call me: I listen to voice-mail before I read through e-mails. If it’s really, really, really that all-fired important, come to my office. If I’m not there, leave me a note. Trust me, I’ll get back to you.

He was right, and I always remembered that, as a business rule of thumb, sending an e-mail does not convey urgency.

Another colleague at the same company told me that she had attended a seminar on time management, and the big take-away piece of advice was to check e-mail at regularly scheduled times during the day. Not every couple of minutes, which was way too distracting.

This was a decade ago, when we were already becoming slaves to our cell phones, our Palm Pilots, and our e-mails. Some folks wore pagers, but I always maintained that the only people who should be using pagers were guys whose wives were 9 month pregnant, folks who needed to know when the heart they were in the transplant line for became available, and the doctor who was going to perform the transplant.

Other than the “I’m important” guys who wore the pagers, we were not completely on. We were absolutely getting there, but we were not yet imprisoned by the real-time culture of IM, or the 24/7 demands of smartphones.

Still, it was easy enough to wake up to make a bathroom run at 4 a.m. and remotely access your office e-mail account via VPN to see who was looking for you. (And, oh, the brownie points and one-ups-man-ship of those 4 a.m. e-mail exchanges.)

Now, employees in professional occupations are generally expected to stay at least loosely tethered to work around the clock, even when they’re on vacation. In return, employees can at least theoretically expect to have some scheduling flexibility. So maybe the tradeoff’s worth it.

While everyone these days is way too harried by way too many e-mails – I’ve been to one of the Meadows and Byrne stores in Ireland, but I don’t remember buying anything there; so why are they sending me e-mails a couple of times a week, and do they really think I’m going to buy a turkey platter in Clonakilty and have it drop shipped to Boston? – e-mail’s just a part of the everything-overload problem.

Still, it’s a pretty big part of that problem, and some businesses are making efforts to minimize the use of in-house e-mails, or eliminate it altogether.

One such company is Atos Origin, a French IT services firm that “plans to ban internal e-mail form company communications within two years.” (Source: CNN.)

Instead, employees will communicate mostly through instant-messaging tools or wiki-like documents that can be edited by multiple users online.

"We are producing data on a massive scale that is fast polluting our working environments and also encroaching into our personal lives," said Atos CEO Thierry Breton in a statement earlier this year. "At Atos Origin we are taking action now to reverse this trend."

M. Breton walks the walk, and claims not to have sent a work e-mail in the past three years:

"If people want to talk to me, they can come and visit me, call or send me a text message," he told the newspaper. "Emails cannot replace the spoken word."

I agree, but neither can the text message.

Nor can a text message – or the spoken word – replace a well-wrought, well-thought-out e-mail, of the sort that we used to put on paper and call a memorandum.

I agree that most e-mails sent, received, and read (or, more likely, deleted unread) are less than useful. And for exchanges in which you need to relay or find some piece of info a.s.a.p., the text message, phone call, or personal appearance works best.

But sometimes you do have to communicate something to multiple people. And sometimes what you need to communicate just won’t fit in a tweet-sized message wrttn n txt.

The fact that e-mail usage is declining among the young folks

….who prefer faster, less formal means of communication such as texting or instant messaging on Facebook or Twitter

…doesn’t mean that there’s no room for the memo style e-mail. (Or the e-mail with memo.docx attached.)

IMHO, not to mention IMHE(experience), memos provide a means for the sender to organize their ideas and findings, and present them in a thorough, coherent format. For the receiver, they’re the means to read and evaluate a body of information without springing immediately into what their response is to some point raised on the third line.

As you may have surmised from this, when I worked full time, I was past master of the long, ultra-analytical memo in which I would hold forth on company culture, senior management’s lacking, process improvements, product ideas, etc. I remember one boss – the president of a small company I spent a lot of years with – stopping me in the hall and saying ‘I received your screed’, and letting me know that he was going to read it through again and get back to me to discuss it. This same guy had also told me that in many ways I was his ideal direct-report, in that I communicated my thoughts in writing and didn’t demand or expect much face time.

Things sure have changed if the Mr. Bigs of the world only want to hear from you in a txt msg or a hall chat.

And not necessarily for the better.

I, for one, don’t really want to live in a world where all that matters is what’s happening in the mo’, and where it’s no ‘think’ and all ‘do’.

If only I had someone to e-mail and tell them…

Monday, December 12, 2011

$800K from the Saugus Library? It’ll be hard to make that up from overdue book fines.

I have to say that the one crime that never ceases to amaze me is embezzlement.

Truly, you’re more apt to be hired somewhere if you murdered someone than if you have a history of embezzlement from the workplace. Murder could have been a one-shot event, a crime of passion, an accident… (We’re not talking first degree murder here, of course.) Unless you killed your former boss or fellow employees – in whatever degree – I think that most employers would rather take a chance on a murderer than a thief.

Don’t these folks with their hand in the till think they’re going to get caught?

Maybe most of them don’t. Maybe we only hear about the few and far between.

But there does seem to be an awful lot of them – like the construction firm secretary who stole money to pay for things like hiring Burt Bacharach to sing at her brother’s wedding. (This gal got a mention in a way-back Pink Slip.)

Maybe it’s the times. Maybe it’s the technology that’s getting better at catching those with a yen for the company’s yen.

The latest local story is about a former Saugus (Massachusetts) Public Library employee who’s been indicted by a federal grand jury, charged with ripping the library off to the tune of $800K:

…money she allegedly used to pay bills, to fund work on her home, and to splurge on jewelry, flowers, and hotel stays.

Linda Duffy was only on the staff, as an administrative assistant, for 7 years. That’s an awful lot of bill paying. I suppose the work on her house and her “splurge” items all added up.

Duffy allegedly set up a “decoy bank account”, in which she deposited donations, as well as library fines. She then moved the money along to her own account, conveniently in the same bank.

The majority of the money came from donations: $143K from a family estate, and $450K from the GE Foundation in matched donations from employees and retirees. (Saugus is the town next to Lynn, where GE – which now has a small presence – was once a mega-deal. Lots of ex-GE-ers on the North Shore of Boston, from whence Jack Welch also hails.)

The matched GE donations included non-donations that she faked up to get the match. (Clever girl, that Linda Duffy.)

Among the bogus donations she reported: $50,000 from people she personally knew and two $50,000 donations from her mother-in-law, the widow of a former GE employee, who is more than 100 years old.

And she thought she had mother-in-law problems before?


Although I’m sure there are some circumstances under which embezzling from your employer may be morally okey-dokey, the only such scenario I can come up with would be ripping off I.G. Farben to save people from concentration camps during WWII.

So stealing from “the man” is very rarely a good thing to be doing.

But stealing from a library seems especially heinous.

Saugus is not poor, but it is by no means a swank community. $800K is a lot of books that don’t get put on the shelf, programs that don’t get run, employees that don’t get hired. Public libraries are one of the few institutions that can actually level the playing field. They’re free. They’re open to all. They can be a great and potent equalizer. Libraries should be supported, protected, defended, not ripped off.

For shame, Linda Duffy!

You weren’t stealing from GE, lady. You were stealing from every kid in Saugus. Every out-of-work resident who queued for the libary computer for their job search. Every old geezer who uses the library as a reason to get out of the house every day. Every high-schooler who didn’t get the afternoon job they wanted.

In general, I am slack-jawed when I hear stories about embezzlement.

I know it’s a slippery slope, that most embezzlers don’t set out to steal $800K, that their first “success” makes the subsequent grabs easier and easier, that the act – not to mention the extra “splurge” money – is no doubt addictive. But what are you thinking when you make that first transfer to the “me account”?

And from a library, no less.

Linda Duffy is 65.

I would suspect that, for embezzlement of this magnitude, she may well do time.

So when she gets out she may be too old to work.

But she sure wouldn’t be especially employable, anyway.


What was she thinking


You know what job I would have liked? Forensic accountant.

Friday, December 09, 2011

By the seastead, by the seastead, by the beautiful seastead

That Peter Thiel!

Every time I pick up a mag, there he – cofounder of PayPal, co-funder of Facebook - be.

First, it was The New Yorker profile. Then it was an article in The Economist on “seasteading”, of which Thiel is a big proponent. As are many libertarians.

Where next? People?

Well, enough about Peter Thiel.

The post operative word for today is seasteading.

Forget ‘Go west, young man, go west.’ We’re talking ‘Go wet, rich libertarian. Go wet.’

Seasteaders want to establish brave new sovereign worlds at sea, where meddling, greedy, nosey-parker governments can’t have at them.

Seasteaders face a number of challenges – technical (got to watch out for that ‘huff, and puff, and blow your house down’ kind of weather); political (unless you can figure out a way to be 100% self-sufficient, you’re going to have to have some congress with those meddling, greedy, nosey-parker governments, no matter how far offshore you get); and practical (whose really going to want to live in a no-exit environment without much by way of creature comfort, varied scenery, cultural amenities, fine dining…).

I’m not denying that the idea of living in an enclave of like-minded doesn’t have some appeal. Personally, I would prefer not to live in a mullah-run theocracy, thank you very much. But for those that want to live that way, well, have at it. Unfortunately, there will typically be some type of captive audience who are not all that happy with the status quo, whatever status that quo is.

So it’s hard for me to imagine this working out, other than on the most minute and granular scale.

Look where like-with-like has gotten us.

Partition in India, the Balkans, Israel? I really can’t come up with any examples of where the creation of uniform societies has been an unalloyed success.

Of course, this is different. I guess. A bunch of libertarians aren’t going to get their shorts all in a knot about the types of differences that cause run-of-the-mill cultures to get their shorts in a knot. But how do you protect against those who just can’t stand the thought of a group whose way of life, ideology, modus vivendi, whatever is different than theirs? Who feel so threatened by the “other”, who are so convinced that theirs is the only way one can possibly conduct their affairs, that they have to convert the “other” or wipe them off the face of the earth. (Hmmmm. Where have we seen this before?)  Seasteaders beware!  For some group, the very existence of a seastead that allows decadent westerners to sit around pot-smoking and attending gay weddings, when they’re not rapaciously chasing wealth, will no doubt be a war cry.

So methinks that the seasteaders better be prepared to arm up.

The Seasteading Institute – founded by Milton Friedman’s grandson, co-founded by (ta-da) Peter Thiel - has thought through a lot of the attending issues, and it’s an interesting read. They have thought things through in furtherance of their mission:

…the establishment and growth of permanent, autonomous ocean communities, enabling innovation with new political and social systems.

We're opening this new frontier because humanity needs better ways to live together to unlock our full potential.

They’re all for a post-nationalism-as-we-know-it-now world. Forget countries. It’s the economy now, stupid.

With seasteading, they envision “a vibrant startup sector for government”, where different ideas compete for citizens. And speaking of post-nationalism. Since, in the beginning, the seasteaders will have to be citizens of somewhere, they suggest shopping around for getting citizenship – buying it if you have to – in the countries with the best tax advantages. No flag-waving Americans, they!

I’ll have to give them credit for anticipating, in their FAQ, the first question that came to my mind:

Are seasteading enthusiasts just a bunch of rich guys wanting even more freedom?

The seasteading community is broad and will only become broader over time. We don’t believe that wealth accumulation is the primary motive for seasteading, although we do recognize viable trade will be a key ingredient to seasteading’s success.

Well, it may not be their primary motive, but it sure does seem to be a motive. C.f., shopping around for tax-free citizenship.

People who venture off to seasteads will do so for a variety of reasons, and for many it will be to find more freedom. They may be desperately poor people searching for opportunities and escape from oppression. Or they may be entrepreneurs with valuable ideas. We’re eager to see over time what kind of new innovative governments arise from the experiment on seasteads.

Hmmmmm.  “Desperately poor people searching for opportunities and escape from oppression….Entrepreneurs with valuable ideas.”

I know we’ve got our problems, but doesn’t this sound like the good old U. S. of A.? Or at least what it used to be, before we noticed that a disturbing proportion of those desperately poor people and entrepreneurs with valuable ideas were brown-skinned.

And, while I think of it, where are those “desperately poor people” going to get the scratch to buy-in to a seastead?

Nope, sounds to me like a bunch of rich guys looking for more freedom and more money.

There are worse things to spend your time and money on.

Like buying someone a Lexus for Christmas. (I do so despise those ads…)

Anyway, I wish the seasteaders success. Come the melting of the perma-ice, we’ll probably all be living in seasteads. Better a seastead thought up by Peter Thiel and Patri Friedman than a Waterworld raft with Kevin Costner.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

We’ll remember Pearl Harbor

Yes, I know: the 70th anniversary of “a day that will live in infamy” was yesterday, not today.

But 70 years ago today, Franklin Roosevelt declared war, and we, as they say, were in it to win it.

I don’t know when, exactly, my father decided to enlist, and it’s over 40 years too late to ask him, but at some point, my father decided to sign up. And in 1942, he did.

He was nearly thirty at the time, and his life had not yet taken off. A true child of the Depression – he graduated from high school in 1929 – on Pearl Harbor Day, he was working as a wire-drawer at Thompson Wire in Worcester, and taking night school courses towards a bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University Extension, which held its classes, I believe, at the Worcester Y. As far as I know, he didn’t have a girlfriend – serious or otherwise – at this point in his life. And I hope that he was no longer sharing a bed with his brother Charlie in the cold and dismal back room of the first floor apartment they occupied in the three-flat my grandmother owned. That he had decamped to the bedroom long-vacated by his sister Peg when she had married a decade earlier. But you never know. He and Charlie may still have been sharing a bed; that is when Charlie, something of the Wild Rover of Main South Worcester.,wasn’t sharing a bed, or the backseat of a Buick with some lovely. (Charlie had at least one child out of wedlock, possible two. He was definitely before his time in the baby daddy department.)

Anyway, my father could have used an adventure, and he loved his country. So why wait around to be drafted? He didn’t have a wife. He didn’t have a family. Let’s go!

He tried first to get into the Army, but was rejected because of his flat feet. It was felt that he couldn’t march in the infantry and was, thus, of no use to them. But my father – a tremendously gifted athlete – was not going to let Uncle Sam call 4-F on him, so he tried the Navy, which apparently didn’t mind my father’s flat foot floogie (without the floy-floy).*

Based on the results of his intelligence test, the Navy offered my father the opportunity to go to into officers’ training, but he turned them down. He didn’t want to be one of those stuck up, rich-boy, snot-nosed officers. So he joined as an enlisted man, and made his way up to the highest level non-com, Chief Petty Officer (a rank similar to Master Sergeant.)

He never saw any action. You went, as he would say, where Uncle Sam sent you. And Uncle Sam sent him to Norfolk, Virginia; Trinidad; and Chicago.

At one point, early on, the FBI showed up at wherever my father was stationed to ask him why he had lied on his enlistment form.

He had claimed to have never been arrested, but the FBI had proof positive he had been.

It seems that, at the age of 15, my father had been busted for crashing a dance with some friends. They didn’t have the dime or quarter admissions fee.

Anyway, they were hauled off to the police station on Waldo Street, where my father’s uncle, who was a policeman, came and got him and brought him home.  My father could not recall having been booked, and he never had to go before a judge or “do time”. So he didn’t realize he even had an arrest record.

One would think that, especially in time of war, the FBI would have better things to do – like look for spies – than to hound someone who’d been arrested at age 15 for trying to crash a school dance.

But, ah, the long arm of the law…

The closest my father came to action was on the ship to Trinidad, which went through waters full of U-boats on the prowl. And, while in Trinidad, he saw a captured German submarine brought in. But that was about it.

With an Irishman’s healthy skepticism towards authority, my father liked to tell stories about the idiocy, the arbitrariness, the pettiness of the military.

One time Eleanor Roosevelt was visiting Trinidad, and there was some command-performance review of the troops. My father and the men under him were supposed to be there – well in advance of Eleanor, by the way – at 09.00 hours.  My father had given his Catholic men permission to attend Mass, and they showed up a minute or two late. As punishment, my father had to haul – in the broiling tropical sun – heavy wooden boards (I always pictured railroad ties) from one end of an area to the other. Then back. Then forth. Then back.

He understood that the military needed to maintain discipline, but he found this entire incident ridiculous. Especially the harsh and inhumane punishment. (And you wonder why he didn’t want to be an officer…)

He always said that he would do it again – i.e., give his men permission to go to Mass, even if it meant being a minute late – because church was more important than an extra minute standing in the sun waiting for Eleanor to arrive, which wasn’t going to happen for a couple of hours, anyway. (He didn’t hold it against Eleanor, by the way.)

Mostly he was a supply guy, a paper pusher. (At the end of the war, he was a paper flusher, as he and his boss – one of those officers he hadn’t wanted to be – flushed some of their paper work down the toilet to get thing over and done with.)

In January 1945, while stationed in Chicago, he met my mother on a blind date. They became engaged seven months later, when the first atom bomb was dropped and my father realized that the war would soon be over, and that he wouldn’t be shipped off to the Pacific.

So, yes, we’ll remember Pearl Harbor.

Mostly for the poor boys blown to bits on the Arizona and the other ships that were harbored at Pearl. And for the fact that it ushered us into a war we had been tippy-toeing towards for a couple of years, which took the lives of four hundred thousand American young men and untold millions of soldiers, sailors, and civilians across the globe.  (Hard to imagine those numbers now, isn’t it?) But also because it indirectly brought about my existence.

So, yes. Yesterday, we remembered Pearl Harbor.


*Allusion to a WWII-era jazz song, “Flat Foot Floogie (with a floy-floy)”.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Comment moderator. (Now here’s something I could do.)

Since I so don’t want to go back to waitressing, I sometimes think about what I might do next. If, at my advanced age, there is in fact a next that I get paid to do. As opposed to a likely unpaid next that entails lobbying Washington not to rescind Social Security the day I become eligible, and/or waiting around at Mass Eye and Ear for someone to show me how glaucoma eye-drops work. (Can you tell I just had a birthday? Sigh…)

So I was intrigued when I read a recent article in Business Week on paid online comment moderators.

As I find myself mentally moderating – not to mention mentally rebutting – half the comments I masochistically subject myself to reading, I think that this is a job that I might enjoy.

The article profiled Chuck Dueck, a professional online moderator who works for ICUC Moderation, a Canadian firm that monitors content and comments.


…is the global leader in online content and community moderation services. Our team of multi-lingual content and community specialists manage, moderate and monitor millions of social media conversations, comments, photographs and videos and work inside some of the largest online communities in the world.

Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that ICUC hails from Canada, as I would imagine that the worst sling and arrow on a Canadian site would be a Molson drinker humorously sniping at a Labatt’s quaffer. Or someone ending a comment on whether real Hudson Bay blankets have three colored stripes or four by saying, “Not that it matters. We’re all Canadians, eh?”

I know, I know.

It ain’t all tea-cozies and rose petals north of the border.

They have their contentious politics. Doesn’t Quebec still want to secede?

And God knows that anyone who watched the Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks at their own game to win last year’s Stanley Cup completely understands that young Canadians are as perfectly capable of taking part in drunken, frenzied, destructive mayhem as the next guys.

Still, I can’t imagine that Canadian commenters are as imbecilic, rude, and nasty as many of those whose comments I see on my news haunts: Huffington Post,, and – I’ll admit it – . Not to mention occasional forays onto sports blogs. And these are the comments that get through!

When I find myself being agitated by the venom, silliness, mean-spiritedness, stupidity, and slime that comes across – more often than not in anonymous comments - I take a deep breath and remind myself that this provides folks with an immediate outlet for their roiling emotions. Unlike the old, takes three days, polite, must-make-sense, must-be-signed (if name not withheld on request), letters to the editor that were often thought-provoking, reasoned, and intelligent mini-essays in their own right. Yes, I do miss those staid old days. But I also acknowledge that today’s in-the-moment commenting may, in fact, let enough steam out of the old tea-kettle to prevent a few rocks being hurled through a politician’s office window, stop a few fender-benders for occurring, save a few dogs from being kicked.

I will note that comments tend to be less vile and nutty when people use their own names. Thus, The NY Times comments are generally pretty thoughtful, unlike those of, say, The New York Post.

In any case, I suspect that most of ICUC’s business is south of the border, down our way. (NAFTA, anyone?)

Dueck doesn’t just get to delete the nasties, he also:

…scolds the people behind them (either on the forum or over e-mail), and, if things really get out of hand—say, in the case of repeat offenders—bans their accounts. Over the course of each day he chips away at the cussing and swearing, the spammers, haters, and trolls, temporarily restoring civility to his corner of the Internet. (Source for quoted material here on out: back to the Business Week article linked above.)

ICUC’s work comes from a combination of corporation and news sites.

The company claims $10 million in revenue last year, cleaning up the comments on the websites, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages of blue-chip brands such as Chevron, Starbucks, and the Boston Globe. “Some Fridays you feel like you need to spend two hours in the shower because it’s so disgusting,” says [founder Ken] Bilous.

(Aside to the ICUC moderators who work on the Boston Globe: would you mind informing some of the broken-record commenting cretins who seem to think that Massachusetts is the worst place to live in the world, that our dear commonwealth ranks consistently high in factors like health, wealth, quality of life, and education.)

ICUC is just one of several large comment moderation firms. Others cited in the article were eModeration and LiveWorld.

Moderators are largely middle-aged and well educated. Most work remotely, on flexible schedules. “Ours tend to be women over the age of 35 working from home, sometimes in addition to other jobs,” says Peter Friedman…CEO of LiveWorld.

Middle-aged. Well educated. Work remotely. Flex time.

C’est moi!

You won’t get rich as a moderator, but you could make between $40K and $80K. Sounds reasonably reasonable,

…but need to be prepared for daily exposure to humanity at its vilest. Extreme racism and bigotry, images of pedophilia, and even personal threats are all too common.

So’s burnout. Many new ICUC hires don’t even last two weeks.

To cope, moderators work on sites in short shifts, flipping between forums prone to maliciousness (news stories about Israel, say) and something more joyful (LEGO fan pages).

The article noted that sometimes the law has to get whistled in, as “when threats against President Obama appeared on a website discussing Home Improvement reruns.”

Say what?

How did jawing about Home Improvement reruns prompt someone to make a death threat? How did Barack Obama’s name even come up? Someone speculating about whether he or Michelle’s the go-to when a lamp needs re-wiring? (Actually, it’s probably Michelle’s mother. She seems like the can-do, practical type.)

Occasionally, I have to do my own little bit o’ comment moderation on Pink Slip.

The other day, a post on a fellow who sent a bad-mouthing e-mail about a Congressional Medal of Honor winner that allegedly lost the CMH holder a job, managed to attract a few comments. When you googled the name of the bad-mouther, Pink Slip came to the fore, which brought in any number of new, ad hoc readers. I had to remove a couple of slanderous comments made by someone claiming to be a former colleague and another claiming to be an ex-girlfriend. Opinions, fine: have at it. Statements of “fact” that may just as easily be “fiction,” get off my blog: if I can’t prove something with a 15-second google, the comment’s gone. But mostly comments, even when they – sniff, sniff – criticize me, get to stay.

Comment moderation outsourcing is, not surprisingly, a growth industry. Which we are all for. Except for the fact that this means that folks in India and the Philippines will be drastically undercutting the rates the North American moderators charge. And they won’t even have to pretend to be “Brian” and “Peggy”, anymore, either.

But, of course, you get what you pay for, and – at least for a while – there’ll still be plenty of room for those who understand the culture and all its wondrous nuances to provide moderating services.

Anyway, sounds like an interesting business.

Maybe even my next?

Probably not: I’d probably find it too hard not to get into debates with the jerks.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Bring out your dead in style

I recently received a free come-on issue of The Week. I already read The New Yorker and The Economist, plus a couple of monthlies. And I do feel obligated to keep my oar in the water of haute-culture by voraciously consuming casually browsing People when I’m at my sister Trish’s. So I won’t be subscribing to The Week, although it was interesting enough and was just the sort of rag I grabbed off the US Airways free-mag rack when I was a frequent flyer back in the day.

The most interesting article – an extract from her new book, Making an Exit - was one by Sarah Murray, on the fantasy caskets that are popular in Ghana. Airplanes, coke bottles, elephant, fish, flashy cars, keys, bananas. Let your imagination run wild, and get your concept into the able hands of a skilled Ghanaian casket-craftsman.

In the U.S., of course, you can get coffins with the official logo and color scheme of your favorite major league sports team, and over the years I’ve heard of more than one person buried in his Cadillac or astride his Harley. (Ah, there are no helmet laws in heaven.) And when my sibs and I were in the market, as it were, for a coffin when my mother died ten years ago, we found that you can get a very nice shiny emerald green one with a big shamrock on the inside, or glam up a regular, plain old coffin with lighthouses, golf clubs, baskets of flowers corner pieces.

Although we didn’t do quite what my mother had wanted – the cheapest coffin on offer; which her parish priest reminded us when we went to the rectory to plan her funeral – we didn’t go crazy, either. Bypassing the lower end possibilities, which would have been perfectly fitting had my mother died in the shootout at the OK Corral, and was going to be buried on Boot Hill, we got a very nice one in the lower end of the middle range, with a sort of art-deco design that reminded us of Chicago, where my mother was from.

If we could have gotten a fantasy coffin for my mother, I think we’d have gone with a book. Something by Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility, maybe. A book would have worked for my father, too – it’s no accident that those two spawned five complete bookworms – but I think my father would have preferred something with more of a sportive motif. Maybe a baseball glove.

The more I think about it, the more I’m down with the idea of fantasy coffins.

There’s something oddly comforting about knowing that you’ll go to your eternal – well, a couple of hundred years, anyway – rest in something that’s personal to you. (And could there be anything more personal than your barque on the River Styx?) Which is why I, while opting for the quicker and cleaner ashes to ashes route offered by cremation, like the idea of having my ashes strewn in a few places hither and yon. My ultimate bucket list includes somewhere-in-the-west-of-Ireland; Fenway Park (I promise: just a teensy-weensy particle on the warning track); and the cemetery where my parents et many al. in my family are buried.

If I were going the fantasy coffin route, I guess I’d have to go with a book, myself. (I know: BOR-ING. Guess I’m just singularly lacking in imagination, but I really can’t see wanting to be buried in a replica Coke bottle. Maybe a replica carton of Cherry Garcia fro-yo. On second thought, some anthropologist/archeologist in 2525 might exhume me and think I was a Dead-Head. No way!)

Murray, before leaving Ghana, ordered herself up a coffin that’s a replica of the Empire State Building, which she keeps in her NYC home.

That’s a nice idea, although I would have chosen the Chrysler Building, instead.

It does get me thinking building-wise, however. For my mother, either the Wrigley Building or the Statue of Liberty. For my father, maybe Worcester City Hall.

In addition to talking about the fantasy coffins of Ghana, Murray also mentioned the growing market for doublewide coffins in the US:

Rising obesity has prompted the arrival of new supersize coffins. In Indiana, one company has made a business "serving the oversize needs of the funeral industry." With coffins named Harvest, Heartland, and Homestead, the Goliath Casket company offers a variety of sizes — ranging in width from 29 inches to a massive 52 inches (the standard is 24 inches).

Quite naturally, I had to pay a visit to Goliath, which has quite a winning little “about us” tale:


Back in the 70’s and 80’s oversize caskets were hard to get and poorly made.

Special size caskets were made by hand, and without much regard to quality or integrity.

In 1985, Keith's father [Keith is the current proprietor], Forrest Davis, (Pee Wee) quit his job as a welder in a casket factory and said, ‘Boys, I’m gonna go home and build oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.’

Say what you will, but I’ve seen worse tag-lines that “oversize caskets that you would be proud to put your mother in.”

Are there that many individuals in Lynn, Indiana, burying obese mothers?

Fortunately, my mother didn’t need an oversize casket. Plain vanilla 24” did her just fine.

Fittingly, Goliath began its life in “an old converted hog barn”. Its initial offerings were limited, but now you can get them in a number of different styles, with bespoke ones available. (The site features a nifty bright orange one for University of Tennessee die-hards. Dead-hards?)

Goliath caskets range up to 52” wide, and up to 8 feet long.

Woah, baby!

I wouldn’t want to be a pallbearer on that one.

But I guess it’s good to know that, if you do die obese, you don’t have to be crammed into a tiny-little casket.

Bring out your dead in comfort and style.

Here’s a question: do these mega-caskets fit in a standard hearse, or do you have to go with a stretch limo?

Nothing’s ever easy, is it?

Monday, December 05, 2011

Greetings from Happyville

I am a complete and utter sucker for city rankings, however bogus (not to mention inconsequential) they are. The zanier the better: bring ‘em on!

So I was deliriously, well, happy, to learn that my very own Boston was ranked fifthSmile happiest town in the whole USA.

What crazed survey came up with this result, I had to ask myself.

I get why Honolulu would rank #1 here, but, let’s face it, Boston ain’t no one’s idea of tropical paradise. And surely no city dominated by ethnic pillars – the dour Yankee and the sardonic Irishman – not exactly bursting  with happiness; that’s populated, thanks to a all those local halls of ivy, with folks who are too smart not to be neurotic; and that suffers from a lot of crappy weather, can make it to #5. Not to mention that we have the Red Sox driving us baseball-bat-shit crazy.

What? Us happy?

Talk about counter-intuitive!

Naturally, I had to move it on over to Men’s Health to find out how this old town got to be a bridesmaid on the happy-dappy list, while sun-dappled St. Petersburg, Florida got to be the old maid: ranking dead last out of 100 cities rated.

Here’s how Boston clawed it’s way near the top:

We calculated suicide rates (CDC) and unemployment rates (Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of June 2011). Then we tapped SimplyMap for the percentage of households that use antidepressants as well as the number of people who report feeling the blues all or most of the time.

Now it starts to make some sense. Sort of.

We’ve been pretty fortunate, this recession around. Sure, there are some empty store fronts – Borders and soon, alas, Filene’s Basement – but mostly you’d never know there was a bad economy on.

As for suicide, Catholics (even ex-Catholics) may not be as likely to kill themselves as those from more enlightened backgrounds for whom suicide might seem to make some sense as a way out. No, us Catholics (even ex-Catholics) know that we’re here on earth to be miserable – what else is new? – and that killing yourself buys you nothing more than a one-way ticket to hell, which is forever. Nope, we’ll take our hell on earth, thank you, where at least it has an ending.

And there’s the Irish in us: kill ourselves and give the Red Sox the satisfaction? That’d be the day!

Anti-depressants aren’t us, either. We prefer alcohol.

And we’re just too darned pissed off most of the time (c.f., the Boston Red Sox) to have any time for the blues.

So I guess maybe we are happy. Even though you’d never know if to look at us.

We’re in interesting company in the top ten, that’s for sure:

1. Honolulu, HI A+
2. Manchester, NH A
3. Fargo, ND A
4. Omaha, NE A
5. Boston, MA A-
6. Madison, WI A-
7. Sioux Falls, SD A-
8. St. Paul, MN A-
9. Burlington, VT A
10. Plano, TX A-

New England grabs three places in the money!  Four of the top twenty, when you add in Portland, ME. Although I must ask how Manchester, NH scored better than Burlington, VT or Portland, ME or Boston, MA.

And odd, isn’t it, that eight out of ten are places where it snows?Take that, sunbelt, where everyone supposedly wants to live.

The big surprise, for those of us who’ve seen the movie, has to be Fargo…As mentioned, the saddest Sad smilecity is St. Petersburg, followed by the completely understandable Detroit. Which is the only city in the north that ranks in the bottom decile, which is dominated by Florida (St. Pete, Tampa, Miami) and Nevada (Reno and Las Vegas).

Boston as happyville! Hap, hap, happedy, hap, hap!

Here’s the entire list, in the reverse order it was published in. Absurd as it is, this is a fun read. (No wonder I’m happy.)

100. St. Petersburg, FL F
99. Detroit, MI F
98. Memphis, TN F
97. Tampa, FL F
96. Louisville, KY F
95. St. Louis, MO F
94. Birmingham, AL F
93. Miami, FL F
92. Reno, NV F
91. Las Vegas, NV F

90. Toledo, OH F
89. Bakersfield, CA F
88. Jacksonville, FL F
87. Atlanta, GA F
86. Winston-Salem, NC F
85. Sacramento, CA F
84. Cincinnati, OH D-
83. Phoenix, AZ D-
82. Orlando, FL D-
81. Washington, DC D-

80. Wilmington, DE D-
79. Greensboro, NC D-
78. Jackson, MS D-
77. Columbia, SC D
76. Newark, NJ D
75. Fresno, CA D
74. Cleveland, OH D
73. Kansas City, MO D
72. Chicago, IL D
71. Riverside, CA D

70. Albuquerque, NM D
69. Portland, OR D
68. Richmond, VA D
67. Tucson, AZ D
66. Milwaukee, WI D
65. Los Angeles, CA D+
64. Denver, CO D+
63. Colorado Springs, CO D+
62. Providence, RI D+
61. Oakland, CA D+

60. Philadelphia, PA D+
59. Nashville, TN D+
58. El Paso, TX D+
57. Charlotte, NC D+
56. Aurora, CO D+
55. Little Rock, AR D+
54. Charleston, WV D+
53. Stockton, CA C-
52. Baltimore, MD C-
51. Baton Rouge, LA C-

50. Indianapolis, IN C-
49. Houston, TX C-
48. Dallas, TX C-
47. Seattle, WA C-
46. Fort Wayne, IN C-
45. Boise City, ID C-
44. New Orleans, LA C-
43. Fort Worth, TX C-
42. Norfolk, VA C
41. Tulsa, OK C

40. Pittsburgh, PA C
39. New York, NY C
38. Bridgeport, CT C
Buffalo, NY C
Columbus, OH C
Corpus Christi, TX C
San Diego, CA C
San Antonio, TX C+
Wichita, KS C+
Santa Ana, CA C+

30. Cheyenne, WY C+
Lubbock, TX C+
Billings, MT C+
Oklahoma City, OK B-
Anchorage, AK B-
Laredo, TX B-
Durham, NC B-
Salt Lake City, UT B-
Lexington, KY B-
Raleigh, NC B-

20. San Francisco, CA B
Austin, TX B
Jersey City, NJ B
Des Moines, IA B
Portland, ME B
San Jose, CA B
Minneapolis, MN B+
Chesapeake, VA B+
Virginia Beach, VA A-
Lincoln, NE A-

Blues-proof towns

10. Plano, TX A-
Burlington, VT A-
St. Paul, MN A-
Sioux Falls, SD A-
Madison, WI A-
Boston, MA A-
Omaha, NE A
Fargo, ND A
Manchester, NH A
Honolulu, HI A+