Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Where there’s a will…

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get our wills redone. This has been on the resolutions list for years, but with a recent cancer diagnosis for my husband, it took on a bit more urgency. (Jim is being treated and doing well, but this health issue did remind us that neither one of us is going to live forever.)

Given that our wills had last been done on crinkly white paper on a typewriter – and that our mothers, now both long dead, were among the beneficiaries - it was definitely time.

So, early in January, we got new wills done. I even did some research on whether you can inherit frequent flyer miles. (A point which will amuse anyone who knows my husband, who is an avid frequent flyer miles accumulator, and possibly even an FF savant. By the way, while it’s apparently something of a time-consuming nuisance to wrest the decedent’s miles out of the airlines, you can, indeed, inherit them.)

Unless those FF miles count, one thing that neither my husband nor I put any particular thought into was what to do about digital assets.

For one thing, other than his e-mail account and favorites list, Jim doesn’t actually have any. And other than about a half-dozen e-mail accounts, half-arsed Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, a defunct marketing blog, and Pink Slip, I’m not exactly awash in digital assets either.  We must be capital-A atypical, because:

According to a survey conducted last year by McAfee, the average US consumer placed a value of $55,000 on their digital assets, which included sentimental items like photos.) (Source: Business Week.)

Since $55K is probably not all that far off from what the average US consumer has in their retirement account, I’d say that placing a value of this magnitude on digital assets is pretty wishful thinking. Tasty as we may imagine it to be, ya just can’t eat sentimental value.

Still, digital assets are going into estate planning, and LegalZoom – which, although we did zoom on our wills once we got around to it, we did not use – is putting it there.

Because, you never know. Suppose you spend a lot of time tilling the soil in FarmVille. And then  you’re killed in an accident – say that, inspired by your Mr. Green Jeans time on the virtual farm, you decided to spend a weekend on a real one.  And you’re run over by a tractor or eaten alive by a combine or gored by a bull:

… and your three children – all of them equally ambitious virtual farmers – end up in a nasty feud about who deserves ownership rights to your amazing cows and spectacular barns.

Chas Rampenthal is the “in-house counsel and legal life coach at LegalZoom” – now if that’s not a 21st century job title, I don’t know what is – and he thinks about this stuff:

“When you think about these digital assets, they are the types of things that are difficult to pick up and hand to someone,” Rampenthal says. “It’s property that you can’t get your hands on.”

So LegalZoom is making digital asset disposition a part of its basic last will and testament service.

There is, of course, something to be said for including a list of your userids and passwords among your important documents, if only so your executor can get in there and clean things up for you. (Any day now, mine will be in the safe deposit box, along with other important “stuff.”)

But I suspect that most of us don’t have to worry about who gets our World of Warcraft account – at least nobody that I know:

… a World of Warcraft aficionado, for example, might not want his account to go a spouse or child. “Some people take this stuff very seriously,” Rampenthal says. “That person has probably amassed a certain level of strength, and it could make more sense to hand the account to his favorite gamer.”

I decided to go over to LegalZoom and see what else they had to say about digital assets. Well, nothing quite as interesting as raising the question about whether your WoW strength should go to your indifferent spouse or to a gaming pal. But they did say this:

It’s easy to forget that digital assets are just as important as tangible assets. And like real estate or money, it’s important to protect the legacy of digital assets and consider who should maintain control and how. (Source: LegalZoom.)

Well, maybe to some folks, those “digital assets are just as important as tangible assets.” Maybe to the average American who believes theirs are worth $55,000. But personally, I will hold to the belief that my condo is worth more than my blog, that my 401K is worth more than my LinkedIn profile, and – just to prove that I’m not above valuing the sentimental – my grandmother’s cookie jar is worth more than the old AOL e-mail account I use to accumulate junk mail and spam.

But, hey, I’m a tangible native, not a digital native. We do stuff. Maybe someday we won’t say “it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.” Instead it’ll be “it’s not worth the byte of storage it takes up in the cloud.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hamburger Helper

Candy mint or breath mint?

Coke or Pepsi?

Under or over for toilet paper?

We’ve always asked ourselves the big questions, that’s for sure.

But an upcoming ginormous question seems to be at the intersection of these three biggies: Live or Memorex, Pets or Meat, and animal, vegetable, mineral.

It’s whether our meat will come from actual animals which - however nasty, brutish, and short their lives may be – at one point or other in those nasty, brutish, and short lives drew breath. Or from labs, where it will have been grown from scratch in a Petri dish.

According to a recent story in The Economist, we’ll be closer to having to ask ourselves this question come fall, when Dr. Mark Post, a scientist in the Netherlands, expects to have enough lab-grown ground beef to make himself a hamburger. Yum!

What Post and his colleagues are looking to do is replace the current inefficient (and methane gas belching and farting) way of producing our beef:

Raising animals is a resource-intensive process. About 30% of the world’s ice-free land is used for it. Yet of the nutrients in the plants these animals eat, only around 15% is turned into meat. As the human population grows, and grows richer, demand for meat is increasing. Dr Post hopes to satisfy at least part of that demand by making the stuff in factories, in a way that converts about 50% of the nutrients into something people can eat.

Factory produced meat may sound gruesome, but the factory is pretty much where most of our hormonally augmented, breast-size-of-a-turkey-of-yore chickens are plucked from.

Beef factories are still a long way off. The first hamburger will have cost about a quarter of million Euros to produce – this sounds low, but what do I know -  which would make them a tad prohibitive to grill up for us Happy Meal drive-through folks. But the technology will scale, thanks to stem cell science.

Other than the obvious general Foodenstein nature of this whole deal, there’s one part of this development that I find particularly creepy. That’s where once the stem cells have been turned into muscle cells:

…they are encouraged to exercise and build up their strength by being given their own gym equipment (pieces of Velcro to which they can anchor themselves in order to stretch and relax spontaneously). The fatty cells of adipose tissue, needed for juiciness, are grown separately and then combined with the muscle cells before the whole thing is cooked. In theory, one cow could thus supply as many hamburgers as a million slaughtered animals can today.

Well, even though it does raise some questions about where we’re going to get the leather for our footwear, I’m all in favor of that sort of yield from one cow. (Talk about the ultimate miracle of the loaves and fish.) But the notion of these cells actually building muscle (if not burning fat) by exercising? Maybe they should come up with another word for it before we start seeing ads for Wonder Beef. The flash images of cells working out on ellipticals or in spinning class is too weird for me, although it may not be for most consumers. I can certainly see an ad campaign of these little guys – see how easy it is to animate them? – doing cardio and weight exercises to help keep us healthy.

The article suggests that, because no animal will die so that we can eat Big Macs, vegetarians might even start eating meat. I doubt it. Once they start reading about all those muscle cells climbing the Velcro, I’m sure that the vegetarians will start thinking about them as almost human.

Me? I think I’ll wait this one out a while. Maybe 50-75 years to see whether real-fake meat is safe at any speed. By which point the whole thing will be moot.

Hmmmm.  On second thought, maybe I will try one. If I’m already 90, what harm can it do me? Maybe I’ll even volunteer to be a guinea pig. Two all-lab-patties-special-sauce-lettuce-cheese-pickles-onions-on-a-sesame-seed-bun coming right up.

Want fries with that?

Monday, February 27, 2012

By all means, let’s leave nothing to chance: KLM’s new Meet and Seat program

When it comes to whoever’s sitting next to me on a flight where I’m flying solo, I guess I would have to say my luck is average.

I was going to say that it was terrible, but that’s only because I remember all those boors, the nose pickers, the ones with BO. The jerks who don’t understand that, if you’re the one stuck in the middle of a three-across, you are, in fact, entitled to 2/3’s of the space on each arm-rest – or at least half; but definitely not none. The leg spreaders who manage to encroach on your space.  (Not to mention all those times seated in front of the non-stop kicking brats, and behind the yahoos who immediately and aggressively throw their seat into the full recline position to a degree I would not have thought possible if I hadn’t spent those flights with their heads in my lap.)

One time, on a flight to Ireland, I sat next to a little old lady who had to get up every twenty minutes to go to the bathroom – and who needed assistance (that would be from me) to get up and out of her seat. I offered to change seats with the woman in back of me – who happened to be the little old lady’s daughter – so that she could help her dear ma-ma, but she declined, as she preferred to gab with her sister rather than deal with her mother. I suppose she was going to be “stuck” with her for the rest of the vacation, and wanted to enjoy her last few precious hours of freedom. Still…

It hasn’t all been terrible. I have occasionally had interesting conversations with my seat mates. Once, noticing the name on her customs form (which was an unusual one), I struck up a conversation with my next door neighbor and found that she was the cousin by marriage of a former colleague. One seat mate – who turned out to be the friend of a friend – gave me a lift home from Logan one night. A few times I sat next to unaccompanied kids – I always suspected that airlines put them next to mom-ish, grandma-ish, and aunt-ish women so that they’d be entertained (and safe). The most interesting of the unaccompanied kids was a 9 year old named Sabrina, who was heading to Alaska to join her mama and go pannin’ for gold.

Sabrina’s odyssey had started in North Carolina, from whence she’d flown – with a stop or two – to Phoenix for a visit with her grandparents.

When I caught up with her, on a leg from San Diego to San Francisco, she had nothing to keep herself entertained, other than a brown bag full of candy. And me, I suppose. Although Sabrina, who was quite the talker, did most of the entertaining. When we parted company in San Francisco, she was going on to her next flight to Seattle and, from there, to the gold fields.

Wonder how they made out.

My husband and I generally sit aisle-aisle on long trips, and on one return from Ireland, many years ago, he sat next to a young Irish woman who became a good friend of ours. She was heading to the States for the first time to visit her boyfriend, whom she later married (and later divorced). We went to Ireland for the wedding – a memorable event. L is now an American citizen. We see her regularly, and visit with her parents when we’re in Ireland.

Anyway, the person you end up sitting next to is a crap shoot. But, on the whole, it’s a reasonably tolerable and harmless one. And, you never know, you could end up making a friend for life.

Boors, nose-pickers and all – and even though about 99% of what I do on any flight is read or sleep - I actually like the serendipitous nature of getting stuck next to a random travel companion. One little bit of life’s overall voyage of discovery.

So, even if I do end up flying KLM some day, I won’t be signing up for their new match making scheme:

This month, the Dutch carrier KLM began testing a program it calls Meet and Seat, allowing ticket-holders to upload details from their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles and use the data to choose seatmates. 

…After selecting the amount of personal information they wish to share, passengers are presented with seat maps that show where others who have also shared their profiles are seated. You can then reserve the seat next to anyone who seems interesting — provided it is available — and that person will receive a message with your profile details.

…While it is not possible to “reject” a person who has chosen to sit with you, you can select another seat as long as two days before the flight. Those feeling awkward about moving can delete their data and select new seats using the standard — anonymous — online platform. (Source: New York Times.)

Which doesn’t exactly like it would stop the person you chose not to sit next to (even though they wanted to buddy up to you) from already having seen your profile and be a little ticked off. And figuring out where you are on the plane. And doing a little in-flight walking around (to, ahem, stretch their legs and avoid an embolism). Mile high stalking, anyone?

So I won’t be availing myself of this service, thank you.

There was a service mentioned that allowed FB “friends” to check out whether they’re on the same flights as each other, which is a little better.

Still, I like leaving that those accidental meet up to chance, as well.

A few years ago, I was on a flight from Paris and ran into two former colleagues, guys I had worked with years ago. We were all long gone from the company where we’d met, and all got a kick out of three Softbridge alumni ending up on the same flight. I felt very jet-set-ty and international, that’s for sure.

There was one service mentioned in the article that I do see as a travel possibility for me:

For fees of $6 to $60, Air New Zealand, AirAsia Xin Malaysia and Vuelingin Spain, for example, let passengers request empty seats next to theirs. If a flight turns out to be full, the extra charge is refunded.

Now you’re talking!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Post-MBA Investment Banker Syndrome

Ah, pity the poor investment banker.

Sure, they manage to eke out a better living than average schnook – even a first year analyst with a BS degree can make a couple of hundred grand. And they do get to do God’s work (at least if you believe Lloyd Blankfein, and who doesn’t?).

But it turns out that tt’s not just coal miners and lumberjacks who have it rough. All that investment banking may be hazardous to your health, too.

A University of Southern California researcher found insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders and an explosive temper in some of the roughly two dozen entry-level investment bankers she shadowed fresh out of business school. (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

And this doesn’t even factor in breathing town-car exhaust, shoulder separation from dwarf hurling, back problems from slurping down jello shots off the bellies of lap dancers, and carpal tunnel from tying bow ties. Not to mention eye strain from staring at their Bloombergs all day, and brain-strain from having to come up with jokes within 15 minutes of something horrible and/or interesting in the news. (E.g., the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship run-aground set off a cascade of bad jokes, most of which come from The Street. What's the difference between the Italian economy and the stricken cruise liner Costa Concordia?  Nothing - The bottoms dropped out of both. As I understand, the day that Pope John Paul II was elected, no one on Wall Street got any work done as the Stock Exchange became the Polish Joke Exchange.)

Anyway, these poor guys are just walking wrecks. No wonder they get paid so much.

Alexandra Michel, who teaches at USC’s b-school, began her study a decade ago, having gotten permission to hang around two banks, as long as she kept the banks’ ID’s quiet. Michel:

…shadowed the bankers at the office—sitting next to them, following them to meetings, mirroring their hours and even pulling all-nighters—for more than 100 hours a week during the first year, about 80 hours a week during the second year, and then followed up with in-person interviews.

“By the fourth year of the study, many bankers were a mess. Some were sleep-deprived; others developed addictions.”

Gosh! And that was years ago, before we learned that everything that goes on in an investment bank is not necessarily laudable, or aimed at the common good. How much worse it must be under today’s harsh spotlight?

These days, there’s the frothing mob howling  when they read that bailout money went to paying mega bonuses to contend with. Bad enough that we have to fork over because the banks were too big to fail and their tumble could take down the entire economic shebang. Who among us wants to write the check so that  investment bankers can get something more than a lump of coal in their stocking – something more like a lump of coal crushed into the Hope Diamond – because if they didn’t the talent would walk.

It’s kind of hard to dredge up complete sympathy for investment bankers. Presumably most of them were smart enough to know what they were getting into. It’s not like someone with my interests, skill set, personality, and competitive instincts was transported one morning to the Goldman trading desk and not allowed to leave. (As the WSJ article has it, “no one is being drafted into high finance.”)

Still, I wouldn’t wish “long-term health conditions such as Crohn's disease, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disorders” – all reported by those averaging 80-120 hour work weeks in i-banks – on anybody.

Interesting, the study found that, after five years, while one-fifth had left investment banking for fewer greenbacks but greener pastures, only 40% of those remaining chose to “prioritize their health, meaning they paid more attention to sleep, exercise and diet and set limits on how much they allowed work to consume them.” The other 60% soldiered on. This latter cohort I would definitely place in the little sympathy for category.

If you can’t stand the Crohn’s disease, get out of the investment banking kitchen.

You can see the full study, Transcending Socialization: A Nine-Year Ethnography of the Body’s Role in Organizational Control and Knowledge Workers’ Transformation here.

Other than the quick summary in The Journal, I haven’t seen any translations anywhere. For those who speak ASL (academic as a second language), here’s the paper’s abstract (from the Administrative Science Quarterly):

A nine-year ethnography is used to show how two investment banks’ controls, including socialization, targeted bankers’ bodies, how the bankers’ relations to their bodies evolved, and what the organizational consequences were. The banks’ espoused and therefore visible values emphasized autonomy and worklife balance; their less visible embodied controls caused habitual overwork that bankers experienced as self-chosen. This paradoxical control caused conflict between bankers and their bodies, which bankers treated as unproblematic objects. The conflict generated dialectic change that cognitive control theories overlook because they neglect the body. Cognitive control theories predict outcomes only in bankers’ first three years, when the banks benefited from bankers’ hard work. Starting in year four, body breakdowns thwarted organizational control. Despite bankers’ increased attempts to control their bodies, performance declined. Starting in year six, intensified breakdowns forced some bankers to treat their bodies as knowledgeable subjects. Because the body cannot be socialized completely, it helped numerous bankers transcend the banks’ socialization and modify their behaviors. Surprisingly, the banks benefited from this loss of control because the bankers’ ethics, judgment, and creativity increased.

And I wonder why I decided after one year in a PhD program that I just wasn’t cut out for the egghead life?


And a tip to Rick T for sending along a raft of Costa Concordia jokes.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Giving the bride away. (I’m my own grandpa)

Personally, I don’t believe that rich folks are any sleazier, say, than poor folks.

It’s just that, when the sleaze involves the kind of money that only PowerBall winning poor folks get to see, the sleaze is more fascinating. A sleazy poor person may snatch a couple of bucks from the church poor box. Yawn! A sleazy rich guy: now you’re talking!

Thus, I view the heart-felt adoption of a 42 year old “girl” by her48 year old boyfriend (father figure?) through the twin prisms of sleaze and fascination.

John Goodman – the new dad – is the founder of the International Polo Club of Palm Beach. So, of course, I am benevolently disposed towards him already. He made his polo-ing money the old-fashioned way, inheriting it from his hard working old man, who made it big in the air conditioning biz. Johnny, apparently, didn’t give a chukka about AC, but he did like the ponies, and he’s devoted most of his adult life to the polo cause. To his philanthropic portfolio he’s now added adopting someone who was probably a little hard to place.

Goodman now faces up to 30 years in the slammer because of a drunk driving accident in which he and his Bentley allegedly ran a stop sign and ended up slamming someone’s 23 year old son and his non-Bentley into a ditch, where he drowned.

With the prospect of both criminal jail time and the prospect of a wrongful death suit facing him, Goodman decided that the time was right to add to his family – he has two children by his former wife – by adopting his girlfriend Heather Laruso Hutchins. This entitles Hutchins to one third of the $300M trust fund that Goodman had established for his heirs.

The trust was off limits in the wrongful death suit, so it’s not a direct dodge. As his lawyer is eager to assure:

Dan Bachi, Goodman's civil attorney, said Hutchins' adoption was done to ensure the future stability of his children and family investments.

"It has nothing to do with the lawsuit currently pending against him," Bachi said. (Source:Palm Beach Post .)

But in case a good chunk of Goodman’s remaining assets are wiped out by said suit, he’s likely hedging that his loving and devoted 42 year old daughter will take dear old dad in, and support him in the polo style to which he became, thanks to his daddy dearest, accustomed.

This sets off all sorts of questions:

If, at some point – when wrongful death suits are in the next Bentley’s rear view mirror – Goodman decides to propose to Hutchins, does he have to ask himself for his daughter’s hand in marriage?

Does he get to walk her down the aisle?

If they have a child, is he the father, the grandfather, or both?

Is Hutchins the half-sister to Goodman’s other two kids, and does she become their step-mother if she and Goodman marry.

Who do you turn to for the answer to such questions? Other than Woody Allen and Soong Yi, that is.

Meanwhile, Goodman’s teenage – as opposed to 42 year old – children are challenging the adoption.  They’re doing so through their guardian, Jeff Goddess. (How fun would it be to be in court for Goddess vs. Goodman?)

[Goddess] claims that Goodman, 48, defrauded the court by a move that a local judge called a "surreal" step into a "legal twilight zone." (Source: Houston Chronicle.)

“Surreal” is right.

I’d love to be a horsefly on the wall of the International Polo Club of Palm Beach if Dad decides to take the best little girl in the world to lunch some Sunday…


Other Info Source: HuffPo

And a tip of the polo helmet to my cousin Mary Beth, currently visiting Florida, perhaps in search of a non-sleazy rich man to adopt her. Having known her for most of her life, I can attest to the fact that she would make someone an excellent child.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Fraudster, beware. (And just plain old innocent e-mailers, you beware, too.)

Back in the day, I did manage a modest but non-trivial budget, so I suppose if I’d been cagey enough I could have set up some bogus outside contractor and funneled some money to myself way. But my budget, while a lot for a small company, didn’t include a lot of money to burn. And, hey, I managed that budget down to the dollar, so I would absolutely noticed if anyone – including myself - were embezzling from it. (Hey, I don’t remember hiring Maureen Rogers to do any work for us…)

At one far larger company I worked for, a marketing manager had done something along those lines. I think it she “hired” her husband (who had a different last name) to do something or other – make that nothing or other - that didn’t get done. I don’t remember the exact details, but she was rousted out of the office one morning and everything was ultra hush-hush.  At that time, I was running a pretty good-sized product marketing group and, beyond salary and travel, we had no budget. Marcom had the $$$ so we had to play nice. And the $$$ that Marcom had was large enough that a bit of embezzling might have gone unnoticed for a while. (How LARGE was the budget at this company? Well, let’s just say they spent $40 million on a product launch for a product that nobody actually ended up buying. Ah, what was $40 million in the era?)

But, hey, who wants to embezzle, anyway?

Well, apparently plenty of people – at least plenty enough that there are now a number of applications on the market that help ferret out wrong-doers by spying on analyzing their e-mail exchanges.

According to a recent article in The Economist, linguistic software is the way to go. (I would have thought forensic accounting was the way to go, but, according to The Economist, “this is like looking for a contact lens in a snowdrift.” Really? Really???? Wouldn’t looking closely at the transactions of those who could have their hand in the till work – maybe even just checking out payments made to an account that wasn’t, say, IBM or National Grid? But I guess that wouldn’t help nab inside traders and the like.)

Rip-offs tend to occur in what gumshoes call the “fraud triangle”: where incentive, rationalization and opportunity meet. To spot staff with the incentive to steal (over and above the obvious fact that money is quite useful), anti-fraud software scans e-mails for evidence of money troubles. Phrases like “under the gun” and “make sales quota” can indicate that an employee is desperate for a bit extra. (Note: I Americaniszed the spelling in the extracts from The Economist.)

Hmmmm. I would think that phrases like “under the gun” and “make sales quota” would be found in, say 75-80% of all end of quarter e-mails from sales folks.  Plus sales people don’t tend to have ready access to the till, do they? Sure, they can pad the old expense account. And cadge a few bucks from the coffee fund.  But if they were faking sales orders, wouldn’t that show up when shipping went to ship and accounting went to collect. Maybe this sales one is a bad example. A more likely scenario might be someone in accounting who sends a note to his buddy that includes the words “trifecta”, “desperate”, and “baby needs a new pair of shoes.” Or “Porsche” and “Rolex” – words that, frankly, you’d hope would show up in the missives of a coin-op sales force. But what do I know about anti-fraud software.

Spotting rationalization is harder. One technique is to identify those who seem unhappy about their jobs, since some may rationalize wrongdoing by telling themselves that their employer is an evil corporation that deserves to be ripped off.

Spotting people who seem unhappy about their jobs? Time to purge “suck” and “clueless” from the old e-mail vocabulary.

Ernst & Young (E&Y), a consultancy, offers software that purports to show an employee’s emotional state over time: spikes in trend-lines reading “confused”, “secretive” or “angry” help investigators know whose e-mail to check, and when.

Checking on the emotional state of employees via software. That’s just ducky.

But most companies aren’t just looking for pissed off employees. (And, frankly, who needs software for that?)

Financial firms are apparently big users of anti-fraud linguistic software to search for insider trading and Nick Leeson-style shenanigans.

Anyway, checking up on what your employees are saying isn’t all that new.

The last company I worked full time for monitored IM for something or another. Which is how they caught one employee calling the COO a useless jerk. Which he wasn’t really. He was an exceedingly decent man, caught up – as we all were – in a company that was pretty much useless and relentlessly jerky.

But it was kind of creepy when learned through the non-IM, non-e-mail grapevine – a guy in IT told us – that the company was spying on our IMs. This company was an agglomeration of a lot of small companies, all in different locations. My closest work buds were in NY and Texas, and we lived (and swapped rumors and bitched mightily and sometimes actually did work) on IM.

Of course, someone who’s engaged in fraud or otherwise doing bad stuff deserves to have their e-mail analyzed. But what about the 99.9999% who aren’t doing anything untoward?

Methinks that if you haven’t already it’s time to stop using your work e-mail account for anything that’s even vaguely personal. Gmail, only please. Unless they start intercepting and analyzing all transmissions over their network you should be okay. But if your particular evil empire does go that far, you can always grab your personal smartphone and head out of the building with the smokers and vent out there.

Wait until mind-reading software hits the market.

Forget fraud. No one will be employable.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paper Mill

Many long years ago, I spent the weekend in Berlin, New Hampshire, where my college roommate’s sister and brother-in-law were living while he worked as a Legal Aid lawyer.

I remember a few things very clearly about this trip.

One, Berlin is a long way up there. Almost as far as the North Pole (or at least the Hudson Bay Colony).

Two, we saw a black bear out the back window of the house where we stayed.

Three, the Androscoggin River, which ran through Berlin  was covered with an unnatural, yellow-ish white froth.

Four, the town smelled horrible, the noxious odor emanating from the same source that produced the Androscoggin froth: Berlin’s pulp and paper mill.

As the locals will tell you, that smell was the sweet smell of jobs, which pretty much left Berlin (and a lot of other old New England mill towns) when the factories shut down.

Berlin, once a Coos County paper hub whose motto is "The City That Trees Built," had been a bustling mill town of more than 15,000 in 1970 but by 2010 had lost nearly 40% of its population, he said.

As has often been the case when one industry falls off, another one steps in. For Berlin, the job slack has taken up by the prison-industrial complex. (Thank goodness for those criminals!)  New Hampshire has a state correctional facility there, and the Feds are now taking job applications for a medium security facility they’re opening there.

A bit further down the Androscoggin, however, in Gorham, papermaking remains a going concern, mainly because going remains a going concern.

When the region's last mill closed in 2010, 197 workers were out of good-paying jobs, and the pain of lost paychecks rippled through this tiny mountain town of 2,848….

But the century-old Gorham paper mill is running again, under new owners, with 176 employees and plans to hire 48 more. The rebirth, and optimism at other paper mills nationwide, is due to one of the few bright spots in the industry: steadily rising demand for toilet and tissue paper that goes with population growth.

"I know of nothing that can replace it. You can do digital on books and financials and all this, but it's hard to do digital on tissue paper, hand towels and so forth," said Willis Blevins, the 70-year-old manager of Gorham Paper & Tissue. "Your bath tissue is always going to be there, in my opinion. What are you going to replace it with?" (Source: Wall Street Journal.)

Well, I guess if you’re rich enough one of those Japanese toilets that hoses you down you wouldn’t need toilet paper.

And I guess if you’re poor enough and live on a farm you could use corn cobs. (No more Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs, I’m afraid.)

But I’m with Willis Blevins here. What are you going to replace it with?

Which is good news for those in the paper biz, now that folks don’t write letters, read newspapers, or take notes on yellow pads. (Other than me, I guess: I still use yellow pads for my weekly and daily to-do lists, as well as for general purpose notes. I do economize and environmentalize by using both sides, however.)

For those who work in paper mills, of course, the decline of this industry, which employed so many in northern New England for so many years, is devastating.

As much as those of us with other options might be just as happy to be rid of the smell and the riverine froth, it’s a different story if  you swing a lunch bucket and want to stay put in your home town. When one of Gorham’s old mills was dismantled, three smokestacks were blown up:

"I could hear it and I was crying," said 56-year-old Mike Johnson, a fourth-generation mill worker. "It was like someone taking out a part of you."

And the mills provided pretty good jobs – “as much as $23.17 an hour with benefits.”

Fortunately for those who toil in toilet (and other tissue) paper mills, tissue manufacture is not so easily offshored. The combination of low cost and bulk makes it less than economical to ship from “over there.”

There’s a danger that, with so many tissue plants being opened or re-opened – Gorham is not alone – supply will outstrip demand, and prices (and no doubt wages and benefits) will be tamped down.

Still, for now, for some paper mill workers, the news is good.

One of them is Mike Johnson, who’s back in the mill.

Good for him.

One hopes that the next generation is better prepared for the brave new world of employment. (And I don’t just mean as prison guards.)

On my part, I’ll do my bit, buying toilet paper and tissue to stuff in gift bags. I’ll have to find out where Scott,  my t.p. of choice is made. I’d like to act locally.

And is it too much to hope that the plants no longer produce all those noxious effluents?

Monday, February 20, 2012

What better way to celebrate Presidents’ Day?(Hail, hail Freedonia!)

Today is as good a day as any to reflect on our form of governance. Say what you will about the tawdry spectacle provided by the current political season, it sure as hell beats living under a monarchy. (Which we don’t have, despite Jeb Bush’ lurking in the wings awaiting a presidential nod from a brokered convention, and, more locally, Joseph P.Kennedy the Whatever (Jr? III? IV?) deciding that the U.S. Congress isn’t a bad choice for a first run at elective office.)

After all, a system that gave us Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelts TR and FDR strikes me as infinitely superior to one that offers up claimants to the throne of countries like Romania.

Not that I have anything against Romania, which is something of an ancestral homeland.

Although she was German, my mother was, in fact, born in Romania, in a German town that, after WW I, had been realigned out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and into the Land of the Vampire.

But I have never harbored any romantic ideas about what Romania might be like. My mother’s family emigrated when she was a toddler, and any residual family was more or less drop-kicked back into Germany after WW II. So pretty much everything I know about Romania comes from reading about the brutal and, if they weren’t so brutal, brutally nonsensical lives of the Ceauşescus –  Nicolae and Elena – who, thanks to an assist from The People, slipped the surly bonds of earth more than 20 years ago.

My only current mental images of Romania are crappily constructed Soviet era cement apartment buildings, and Count Dracula, fangs and all, swooping around a forest.

If I were in the neighborhood in and around Arad, Romania, I would drop in on my mother’s hometown of Neue Banat – these days known by it’s Romanian name of Panatul-Nou – to say howdy. But it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll ever be in and around Arad, Romania.

Still, when I see Romania in the news I generally have a “hail, hail, Freedonia” moment. Especially if the news is about Romanian royalty.

This week’s news from home is that Prince Paul Hohenzollern has been declared by no less an illustrious outfit than the country’s highest court as the legitimate grandson of King Carol II – not to be confused with Carole King: no relation – and thus entitled to something that’s not quite clear. (Source: AP article on

It doesn’t sound like this will put much of any royal conniption hoo-hah to rest, as his uncle, the former King Michael has indicated that the ruling means bupkis.

The 90-year-old Michael, who was forced to abdicate by the communists in 1947, says Tuesday's ruling does not give Paul any claims to the throne.

This battle over the non-throne throne has been brewing for a good long time.

Prince Paul was considered not-so-legit because his grandfather – that would be King Carol II – had done a no-no and married one Romanian Zizi Lambrino, when “by law Romania's heir to the throne was obliged to marry a foreign princess.”

So that marriage was, alas, annulled. But not before Prince Paul’s father was born.

After the annulment from Zizi, King Carol did what he was legally required to do and went ahead and married a Greek princess, who gave the world King Michael.

Well, what with the marriages and remarriages, the abdications and the renouncements, the Nazis and the Communists, this is a pretty complex tale – a lot more involved than King Edward and Wallis Simpson, especially if you leave out the Nazi sympathies, the kinky sex, and the cabochon rubies.

Anyway, Michael was last King Michael in 1947, when:

He abdicated after Romanian Communists threatened to kill 1,000 young Romanians if he did not renounce the throne.

Which, all and all, seems like a better reason than “for the woman I loved.”

Anyway, whether Paul ends up with anything other than the honor of having been declared legit, it’s been a big, big, BIG couple of years for him. In 2010, at age 62, he had his first child – a son named Carol. (Am I alone in thinking that one of the worst things you can do to a boy is give him a girl’s name? But, what do I know, I’m not royalty.)


In December 2011, Hohenzollern was named "Ambassador of Romanian-Chinese Friendship" in Beijing. (Source: Wikipedia.)

To top it all off, he’s now the Prince of Romania.

Well played, Prince Paul.

Meanwhile, King Carol II, whose misplaced marriage to Zizi Lambrino set this whole thing off, died in Portugal in 1953. Fifty years later, his body was exhumed and reinterred in good old Romania.

No record of whether Prince Paul attended, but his father was still alive. He couldn’t go because in 1940 he had been forbidden to enter Romanian territory, a prohibition that I believe most of us could live with.

King Michael did not attend, either, but he did send as his emissary his daughter, Princess Margarita, and her husband Radu Duda, who was named Prince of Hohenzollern-Veringen after his marriage to Princess Margarita. (Source, again, Wikipedia.)

You can’t make this stuff up. But you don’t have to, as long as there’s Romanian royalty – and names like Radu Duda – out there.

Anyway, happy Presidents’ Day to all, especially to our incumbent and the ex-presidents (Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush) still around to enjoy “their day.”

It all makes me want to go out and chop down a cherry tree…

Friday, February 17, 2012

Never eat at a restaurant named Mom’s? How about one named Heart Attack Grill?

Mid-20th century novelist Nelson Algren had a couple of rules for life, one of which was “never eat at a restaurant named Mom’s.”

Personally, I would have no problem eating at Mom’s.

I wouldn’t say my mother was a great cook – my father was way too meat and potatoes for that to happen – but she had some dishes that were pretty darned good. Her soups were fantastic. For a German girl, she made a very tasty spaghetti sauce. And I wouldn’t mind opening the fridge door and finding a vat of her beef stew sitting there. She was also an excellent baker. If I found one of her apple pies next to that vat of beef stew, I would be completely delighted.

So I would happily eat at a restaurant named Mom’s.

But a restaurant named Heart Attack Grill?

Come now. Isn’t that just asking for trouble.

As it was for one hapless nosher who, having been foolish enough to sup at a joint that displays a warning sign reading "Caution! This establishment is bad for your health," almost died.

“It was no joke," said Jon Basso, who promotes himself "Doctor Jon," his scantily-clad waitresses as nurses and customers as patients.

Basso said he could tell right away the man in his 40s eating a Triple Bypass burger was having trouble. He was sweating, shaking and could barely talk. (Source: AP article, here from The Washington Post, but initially spotted by my brother-in-law Rick on Bloomberg. That terminal is worth every penny you pay for it!)

Apparently, he was having a heart attack that his fellow patrons thought was part of the act. Some of them were shooting videos as he was being hauled out be EMT’s.

An intrepid reporter for Bloomberg Business Week had dined there a few months back, and his description was enough to make me seriously consider signing up for a water and tofu diet. It’s not just that the waitresses – ho-ho (ho-HO?) -  wear naughty nurse uniforms, and are referred to as nurses. It’s not just Dr. Jon, wears a doctor’s gown and sports a stethoscope. It’s not just that diners wear hospital gowns, too. It’s that:

Wheelchairs are on hand to assist those who have become immobilized by a triple- or 8,000-calorie, two-pounds-of-beef, $12.94 quadruple-bypass burger (three or four patties, plus American cheese and optional bacon—15 or 20 slices of the latter).

8,000 Calories!  That’s 4 to 5 times what the average sedentary middle aged American requires. (And why am I guessing that the average diner there is not a four-sport male high school athlete who would have a hard time mowing down 8,000 calories. Let alone your average sedentary middle aged American.)

There are many other nice touches at Heart Attack. Like letting those who weigh in at 350 pounds (plus or minus) gorge themselves for free. Like pictures of Colt 45 that pose the question “Feeling Ghetto?” (Why am I guessing that they don’t put out the welcome mat for certain segments of our populace, even those of the obese persuasion?)

The Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas is a re-lo of some now-closed outlets in Arizona. This after their local AZ spokesmodel died last year at the age of 29. And the weight of 570 pounds.

I suppose that everyone in Arizona who was going to give the Heart Attack a one-shot try, just for the novelty, has done so. And the repeat customers may have all died off. So Las Vegas must seem like the perfect venue: Lots of tourists who will try anything once.  No such thing as moral suasion not to behave like a self-indulgent jerk. A big fat fatwa on prudery and moderation of all kinds.

Apparently the man with the Heart Attack heart attack is doing okay.

If he’s got any sense, he’ll keep his name withheld and regret that he gave in to such a gluttonous impulse. If he’s one of those 15-minutes-of-fame guys, he’ll no doubt be back for another pass the Triple Bypass burger, hoping for a cut of the “I survived a triple bypass” tee-shirts that are no doubt in the making. And posing with a “nurse” waitress feeding him some lard-ass inducing fries.

Hey, people are welcome to pick their poison. But is it any wonder that we have an obesity epidemic in this country?

Me? I’ll take a moderate serving of stew and apple pie at Mom’s, thank you.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

This little piggy went to McDonald’s…

Okay, on Monday I had a BLT for lunch.

But I’m only a couple of helpings of meat per month away from being a vegetarian.

Yes, I would miss the occasional chicken soup, the odd filet mignon, the yummy BLT.

But, while vegan is out of the realm of possibility,  it would be pretty easy for me to go vegetarian (especially if I allowed myself a once in a blue moon fish exemption). I am, more or less, what one of my friends calls being a practitioner of at-home vegetarianism. About 99% of my meat consumption is when I’m out.

Which is not to say that, if I went full-out veggie, I wouldn’t miss those rare stops at McDonald’s.

So, even though I don’t tend to order anything porkish when I eat there, I was pleased to see the news  - “applauded by the Humane Society of the United States” – that McDonald’s will require its pork suppliers to stop using pigskin-tight cages to confine pregnant sows.

"Confining pigs in gestation crates is arguably the cruelest practice in factory farming," said Josh Balk, spokesman for the Humane Society of the U.S. "These are iron maidens that are barely larger than the pigs' own bodies." (Source: Money/CNN.)

Well, iron maiden may not be quite the right analogy…

Anyway, now these not-so-little piggies will be able to, if not exactly free-range, then at least hang around in pig pens where they can socialize with their fellow pig beings. Given where their piglets will end up, I’m not so sure the camaraderie of the pen will make porcine life all that much more pleasant but, let’s face it, most animals that are part of the food supply wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for our desire to have them on our plates. And, thus, we must grapple with the Big Philosophical Question: is it better to have had some existence, even if it’s short term, entirely under the control of The Man, and subject to the death sentence, than never to have lived at all. (Oh, being a quasi-vegetarian is so darned difficult.)

Not surprisingly, the pork industry says that claims that the pen is mightier than the gestation cage are hogwash.

"Pens have some real problems," [Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council] said. "Let's say you put ten pregnant sows in a pen. They get mean."

And that meanness, according to the pork-ers, translates into the pigs (fat) backbiting, and danger for factory farm workers. They’re also (pork) belly-aching that the the cost of switching to the pen will put some small farms out of business.

Further, they say that studies have shown that, whether it’s the pen or the gestation cage, the quality of life for the pigs is pretty much the same. And that, I guess, means nasty, brutish, and short. (Oh, wait, Hobbes was referring to humans, not pigs…)

The pork industry does, however, acknowledge that the perception is better if the sows get to do a little snuffling around, rather than do time in gestational jail cells.

Whether it’s perception or reality, McDonald’s does seem to have come down on the side of humanity, or, at minimum, perceptual humanity.

And that seems to be providing us with a tiny ray of sunshine on what was otherwise  a fairly standard, i.e., fairly grim, news day.

But just having to think about how the critters we rely on to fill our lunch boxes actually live has made me regret, at least a bit, Monday’s BLT. Just not enough to make me go full-bore vegetarian. Not yet, anyway. Maybe the next article on chicken factories will get me there.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mommy, can you ask that nice man if he’d give me a job?

I had truly thought that it was an urban legend, right up there with the scare stories of my youth (…and when they found her sitting on a shelf in her closet, gnawing on an arm bone, her hair was standing out straight, like a fright wig…).

But then I saw a Smart Money article, linked from The Wall Street Journal, so it must be true:

There are some parents who have actually accompanied their college educated adult children to their job interviews.

Give us a “W”. Give us a “T”. Give us an “F.”

I don’t have any children, college educated adults, or other. But I can certainly imagine that I would be a completely Helpful Hannah on the job front if I did have any who were looking for work.

What would I do?

I’d edit a résumé. Look over letters. Suggest places to look. Buy an interview outfit. Tap my network. Coach on interview behavior. Offer advice on negotiating. Provide cab fare. And, yes, I can imagine that, if my Boomeranger were acting like a slug, I’d nag. (I don’t think I’d resort to my mother’s approach when she thought her teenagers were laying about a tad too long in bed, which was revving the vacuum cleaner next to their heads. Trust me when I say that it’s very difficult to enjoy a few extra zzz’s with the Hoover reverberating in your skull.)

But actually show up for an interview?

Drive the kid, maybe. But make sure to let him/her off out of the sight-lines of any HR rep or prospective hiring managers.

But actually show up for an interview?

Apparently this behavior is NOT, I repeat NOT, an urban legend.

Stuart Friedman, president of Chicago consulting firm Progressive Management Associates, will never forget the time he helped a financial-software client interview candidates for an entry-level position. In walked not one but three well-dressed hopefuls -- a fresh-faced college grad and his proud parents. Mom and Dad were on hand, the grad explained, to make sure he got "a fair opportunity to get this job."

Well, sonny-boy, I do believe that you got as fair an opportunity to snag that job as any other mummy-daddy girl or boy would have been granted.

Seriously, folks, who would take someone seriously – in a professional, non-sheltered workshop situation – who shows up on an interview with their folks?

The only thing that I personally experienced that came even vaguely close to this was when I worked with a man whose wife was the most painfully shy and inverted individual I have ever met. He brought her to a company function and, while I was standing there, came over to introduce her to our boss. As our boss extended his hand to shake hers, my colleague took his wife’s arm, thrust her hand into that of our boss, and pumped it up and down a few times.

So I have indeed witnessed some strange workplace behavior in my time. But if anyone I interviewed for a job had appeared at my door with a parent, the sound they would have heard would have been my jaw dropping to the floor.

I would hope I would have had the presence of mind to escort mommy or daddy dearest to the reception area. And I hope I would have advised the ninny young person I was interviewing that it would be best to leave their parents at home, or at least in the parking lot. But, unless the ninny young person looking for a job in my group happened to be, say, the son or daughter of the CEO, who happened to be the mommy or daddy dearest who brought them around, well, I cannot imagine that I would have wanted to have someone that woefully clueless and dependent on my team. (Hey, I hired enough woefully clueless people on their own merits, even if they did come without their parents in tow.)

I find it truly astonishing the Baby Boomers have become such extreme helicopter parents that they’d do something like this.

I don’t even think my parents knew what my college major was. (Not that they would have thought sociology was a waste of time and money or anything.)

When I was a kid, there was a popular ad – one often lampooned (there was even a novelty song based on it )  -  for Anacin headache relief.

The gray-haired mother tried to help her middle-aged daughter in the kitchen, only to have the daughter snap, “Mother, please, I’d rather do it myself.”

Time for the young folk to millennial-up and tell their parents to back off the job hunt.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Field trips, Dallas-style. (Hey, little ladies, don’t you worry your purdy little heads about havin’ to see a war movie.)

When I was in grammar school, there was no such thing as a field trip.

With fifty kids in a class, how were we going to get anywhere?

Plus, our nuns were semi-cloistered and couldn’t really leave the confines of the church-school-convent compound. Dads worked; moms were home with the younger kids. So who was going to supervise?

And, of course, there was the real question. Who was going to pay for nonsense like a field trip?

So, unless you count the fact that, every other Friday, we trooped down the parking lot hill to church for confession, we never caught a break.

We did, occasionally, have a movie during school hours, to raise money for the missions.

If you didn’t bring your quarter, you had to stay in the classroom and do work. But everyone, other than bad boys in seventh and eighth grade brought their quarter in, even if it was just to watch a movie that was so boring that all you did was watch the reels turn. (In a rare act of grammar school rebellion, in the fifth grade, my friend Bernadette and I refused to pay up, and had to spend a couple of hours doing busy work in an unsupervised room with those bad-boy seventh and eighth graders, who ran around jack-assing, blowing spit-balls, and generally being ridiculous. The fact that Bernadette and I had succeeded in both infuriating our nemesis, Sister Saint Wilhelmina, and got to be entertained by a handful of goofy “older boys” for a an hour or two made this one of my best grammar school memories.)

The one and only event that even vaguely resembled a field trip during my eight years at Our Lady of the Angels occurred during the waning weeks of my grammar school career, when a carefully selected group of good-student girls and boys were permitted, during school hours, to take the bus into downtown Worcester for a screening of a completely dreadful Italian movie about the life of Maria Goretti, a child saint who had died while resisting rape and who, on her deathbed, forgave her attacker. She was canonized in 1950. (No, I didn’t remember this detail; I had to look it up.)

We were instructed that the girls were under no circumstances to sit near the boys, but as there was no one there to supervise us, we all clumped together and made fun of the badly-dubbed and poorly made film.

In Dallas these days, they are also selective about who they send on field trips to the movies.

As I saw on the Huff-Po the other day, the Dallas’ public schools recently packed all of the fifth-grade boys – all 5,700 of ‘em – off to see Red Tails, a new film about World War II’s Tuskegee Airmen, I’m guessing as part of Black History month. Now, this movie may be no great shakes – the one review I saw said that it was pretty retro, reminiscent of the corn-ball war films that were made during the war; kind of a make up call for the fact that war films made during the war didn’t show any black faces – but it had to be more fun to get bused to a real movie theater and see a real first-run movie, than it was the stay in school and watch Akeelah and the Bee. Inspiring as it may be, Akeelah was released in 2006. If they wanted to show gender-specific films featuring African-Americans, they could have at least been a bit more current and shown The Help.  (If you’ve seen The Help, you will understand why, although the girls may have loved it, unlike the Tuskegee Airmen, there was no way that it was ever going to fly as a show for ten year olds.)

I’m not opposed to separating the sexes, but what’s the justification here?

Only boys would be interested in a film about WWII fliers? Boys get to be brave, courageous, and bold, while girls get to be spelling-bee nerds?

The school district justified it by saying that there wasn’t enough room for all the kids, and that “leaders of the district also thought boys would enjoy the movie more than girls.”

Maybe so, but here’s the message that comes through: the boys are worth spending on (the excursion cost $57K in federal funds earmarked for low-income kids), while the girls aren’t.

Meanwhile, the kicker is the one of the surviving Tuskegee airmen, Herbert Carter (age 94), was married to a woman who was a fly-girl:

Carter's wife of nearly 70 years, Mildred, who died in October, became the first black woman in Alabama to hold a private pilot's license, their son Kurt Carter said.

But while Herbert Carter trained at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute and went on to serve, Mildred Carter was barred by the military from flying, Kurt Carter said. She would go on to fly privately for decades after the war, he said.

"My wife would turn flip flops," Herbert Carter said. "She thought that all human beings were equal, regardless of sex, race, creed or color. She would take great offense to young women being denied this (opportunity)."

George Lucas’ company produced Red Tails, and he may want to set up a screening for the Dallas fifth-grade girls.

But you kind of have to asked yourself this question: haven’t we learned anything about separate and equal?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Put me in, Life Coach, put me in…

Many years ago, I ran into a former colleague and his wife. Although they had grown up on another planet, I was quite fond of the two of them and was delighted to see them. When I talk about another planet, the planet I’m referring to is the one populated with well-to-do, blonde and beautiful, highly privileged WASPs.  Not the lower-middle class, third generation, three-decker ethnics who were my peeps. The two of them were charmed, but also charming.  Sure, I was dazzled by the gleam thrown from their perfectly straight, perfectly white, teeth. But I will admit that they were both hard-working and thoughtful. And lucky in the lottery of life.

Their story-book wedding had been profiled in The New York Times, and had been selected to be a chapter in the story-book wedding book that The Times wedding-beat writer pulled together a couple of years after their nuptials.

Although I do understand, thanks to Bob Franke, that “there’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life,” from the outside looking in the holes in these particular pretty lives were pretty damned tiny – pinpricks, not gaping rents in the fabric.

I chatted with the two of them for a while, catching up. With a family assist, they had finished restoring their early-19th century farmhouse; their blonde and beautiful children were, well, blonde and beautiful; their dog’s tail continued to wag.

Life was good.

And, oh, yes, Serena had a new career, something that was just coming into vogue. She was hanging out her shingle as a life coach.

I took her card, wished her luck, and walked away thinking, ‘who wouldn’t want to get coached into your life?’

Please, Serena, tell me do how I can get me some blonde and beautiful husband and children; a gorgeous home; that ability to walk away from the job that resulted from an expensive (and loan-free) advanced degree?

Apparently, there are plenty of folks out there who do want to get their life coaching from Serena. She has been spectacularly successful.

And while she may not be “America’s Life Coach” trust me when I say that Serena is a biggie. (The America’s Life Coach honor, when I googled, fell to someone from Boston named Chris, whose tagline is “Be Human”, which is excellent advice if you happen to be human, and is also, thanks to it being incorporated in Chris’ tagline – advice that you get for free.)

I thought of her a couple of weeks back when I saw an article on life coaching in the very same NY Times that profiled her wedding so many years ago.

In its headline, the article posed an important question: should a life coach have a life first? I.e., can and should someone barely out of their teens be offering life advice for hire. (As opposed to someone barely out of their teens doing what everyone does, which is offering life advice to friends for free.)

There is, of course, no real answer, other than yes-no-maybe.

Which, to me, is the same answer you get when you ask yourself whether the world does, in fact, actually need life coaches to begin with. As opposed to, say, friends and family, who, imperfect as they may be, know you and love you and mostly have your best interests at heart. Plus they don’t charge anything. And as opposed to, say, psychologists and other therapists, who, imperfect as they may be, are well-trained and vetted, and equipped to objectively advise you and to recognize, and do something about, situations in which you are in roiling, perilous waters and can do something to help save you. Plus at least some of the sessions will probably be covered by insurance.

And then there are life coaches.

While there are plenty of places where life coaches can get certified, both the training and the services offered seem to be widely (and wildly) variable.

That said, there is a definition of life coaching. According to Janet Harvey, the International Coach Foundation’s incoming president, life coaches:

…are only charged with helping clients to hear themselves and to hold themselves accountable to articulated goals…

Which, unless I’m missing something, you could do on your own with an alarm clock, a checklist, and a tape recorder. (Maybe I’ll put together a kit and sell it online. Wheeeeee!)

“The cornerstone principle of coaching is you and I are already whole, resourceful, capable and creative,” said Ms. Harvey, who runs Invite Change, a Seattle-based coach training firm. “Coaching is strictly peer to peer, expert to expert.” And it is “distinct from other disciplines such as consulting, mentoring or counseling.”

Expert to expert? Huh?

Does this mean that I’m the expert in my own life, and the life coach is the expert at bringing out my expertise? Maybe I need some life coaching…

Anyway, now that I quasi get it, I suspect that, for some people, the life coach becomes their shrink – and a shrink unqualified to identify real problems. Or, sadly, a substitute for a friend. (Admittedly, your friends might find it a real pain in the ass to have to check in with you each and every day at 10 a.m. to see whether you did your sit-ups, wrote 500 words of your novel, or chose the paint color for your bedroom.)

The article mentioned a couple of young coaches: a 25 year old who charges $160/hour to provide tips on sexual performance, which, in my day, was something that was “strictly peer to peer,” with an assist from Playboy (guys) and Cosmo (gals).

And a twenty year old Brooklyn College student who provides Torah-based coaching. Her clients include:

…a 48-year-old woman who, until recently, was living in denial of the fact that she has diabetes.

“It was a very difficult breakthrough for her, she was crying,” Ms. [Chanie] Messinger, who charges from $25 to $75 an hour, recalled of a recent session with the client. “I just made her aware of more options, like maybe you can try Splenda.”

When I think about the people I’ve told about Splenda for free, well… If I had an nickel…

Anyway, I think this life coaching stuff is pretty tricky business, somewhere in the no man’s land between friend and shrink. Definitely a sign of the times, or, perhaps more accurately, a sign of the American times. Life coaching is, after all, just another instance in a long line of American self-improvement schemes: Horatio Alger books; Dale Carnegie; don’t let anyone kick sand in the face of you 98-pound weaklings; Steven Covey; chicken soup.

The essence of being an American is to want something more out of life.

Life coaching takes the off-the-shelf, read up on it or sit through the lecture, approach, and makes it one-on-one personal. Another branch of the American tree of life: individualism. It’s not just in a book that anyone can read, or a speaking engagement that anyone can listen to; life coaching is about ME, glorious ME.

Not for me, not so glorious me, but I will say, if I were going to use one, I’d just as soon not have one who’s 20 year old.

Serena’s must be in her 40’s by now, or thereabouts.

Maybe, when she’s not talking to Barbara Walters, she’s got a slot open.

About that novel…

Friday, February 10, 2012

Our house, is a very, very, very fine house. (Which doesn’t make Palais Stoclet a home.)

Sure, I know he wasn’t the world’s nicest person, but Frank Lloyd Wright could still design a mean lookin’ hoFalling Wateruse. I have always loved Falling Water in Bear Run, Pennsylvania. The Robie House at the University of Chicago. All those fabulous prairie style houses in Oak Park, Illinois.

But, as I learned when I toured the Robie House years ago, given the architect’s dictatorial powers, a Frank Lloyd Wright house might not have been all that comfortable to live in. At the Robie House, the guide informed us that the dining room chairs that came with were originally designed by The Master with 90 degree angle backs. Symmetrical enough to look at, if not particularly inviting, but pretty darned uncomfortable to sit on. None of this form-follow-function nonsense for Wright. He did concede a bit and, if memory serves, redesigned the chairs with a slightly angled (3 degrees) back. As part of the tour, you got to sit at a replica of one of the 3 degree chairs. Still not all that comfortable. But I believe that one of the dictates of owning a Frank Lloyd Wright house was that you couldn’t change anything.

I don’t know how this translated into all furnishings – hard to believe that you couldn’t swap in a Barcalounger for a swell looking but rigid and uncomfortable straight back chair. But I think one of the tradeoffs in owning an FLW house is that you can’t touch an architectural hair on its head. So you have to pretty much live with that 1910 bathroom and kitchen – no blowing out the back wall for a great room and modern kitchen with granite this, cherry that, and SubZero Gaggenaus.

This came to mind when I read an article in The Wall Street Journal on a house in Brussels that was built a century ago. Palais Stoclet was designed by Joseph Hoffmann, founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, a design collective with sensibilities that I have long admired. For a couple of years, I even sent out very cool Wiener Werkstätte Christmas cards. (Note to self: Google Wiener Werkstätte cards.)

Palais Stoclet, like some of the houses that Wright designed, was built as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or "total work of art." I.e., everything from the outside-in was designed by Wiener Werkstätte artists.

Fully designed from the outside-in, with nothing left to the taste, desires, and quirks of the inhabitants. Unless, of course, the tastes, desires, and quirks of 100 years of Stoclet family members meant that they never wanted to change anything. Whether the Stoclets wanted to, didn’t want to, or just couldn’t bring themselves to make any change, Palais Stoclet has remained pretty much intact since the first wave of Stoclets moved in.

For the inside stuff, Hoffman brought along some of his Wiener Werkstätte bros:

…Werkstätte members including Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and Michael Powolny brought splendor to the interiors. The designers placed every item within the house and its grounds, supplying specially created artworks, gardens, furniture, light fixtures, cutlery and silver toilet articles.

For the dining room, Klimt crafted a dazzling marble mosaic encircling a table with 24 chairs. Silver candleholders and tureens studded with malachite cabochons sit atop polished ebony sideboards. Chandeliers strung with pearls heighten the magic.

Lovely to look at, I’m sure, but, well, just a tad bit oppressive and anti-human. I have to say that this dining room doesn’t exactly look like there were a lot of cheery, laughter filled pot-luck dinners taken within over the last ten decades.


Didn’t anyone in 100 years get sick of ladling gumbo from “tureens studded with malachite cabochons”?  Didn’t anyone ever wake up one morning hating on that bedside lamp and with a colossal jones to replace it with something a bit more up to date and easy to read by from the Levenger catalog?

I’m not exactly Martha Stewart, doing over all my rooms every couple of months, but – for better or for worse – where I live reflects my tastes and interests, not those of some designer. In fact, whenever I see a designer showcase kind of house, it always strikes me how damned perfect and impersonal they are.

I’m not talking marring perfection with a driftwood lamp with a burlap lampshade.  But maybe something on the wall that you actually picked out yourself? A couple of knick-knacks that have some meaning?

No one has lived at Palais Stoclet since 2002, when the daughter-in-law of the original Stoclets died, and “her daughters opted not to move back into what they once considered a "maison enchantée."”

Enchantée, certainement. But could somebody actually live-live there, and kickback and enjoy themselves?

Meanwhile, the Belgian government has “designated the specially designed furnishings as integral to the landmark,” which pretty much ties the hands of the Stoclets from parting company with a malachite cabochon studded tureen.

"It is something inhuman," Christian Witt-Dörring, a specialist on the Wiener Werkstätte, said by telephone. "It's an enormous burden for the family. The house belongs not to the occupant, but the other way around."

I’m with Christian Witt-Dörring here. A house where there’s no change or self-expression allowed is never going to be a home. Even The Royals get to kick-it up a bit in their private rooms, as we learned when Princess Margaret’s digs were revealed to be have been done up in Caribbean turquoise blue.

One Stoclet relation, Philippe Stoclet (who doesn’t seem to be an heir to the Palais) fears that it will fall into the wrong hands:

"I am afraid that one day a Russian oligarch or an Arab sheikh may offer to buy the house for $200 million and they'll sell."

Well, why wouldn’t they sell? Enough is enough. (And I’m guessing $200 large might be enough is enough is enough.)

And while I, too, might harbor doubts about the tastes of Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs, why would they – or anyone else – buy a house where they couldn’t do anything to redecorate it and make it their own?

Meanwhile, the Brussels regional government has come up with a restoration plan in which a good chunk of the costs are borne by the taxpayers. Some of whom are, understandably, balking. Why should they pay for restoration of a private residence that can’t be used as a museum but could be sold by its owners for a whopping amount? And, of course, from the Stoclets perspective, how can they operate when the government is dictating that they can’t change their home’s insides?

Talk about caught in a trap.

It’s certainly true that you don’t own property, that it owns you. But the Palais Stoclet story gives it a few new twists.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Elly Mae Clampett’s Day in Court

While I do recall actively despising The Beverly Hillbillies – baptized a Catholic, but born an intellectual snob - I don’t remember ever actually watching the show. But of course I must have.

How else would I know ‘bout a man named Jed, and how one day, out on a hunt, he came across some bubblin’ crude. After which he made his way, along with Granny, Jethro and Elly May, out to California. Where they had daily run-ins with Mr. Drysdale and Miss Hathaway over at the bank.

So, yes, I guess I set a spell in front of the old family TV often enough to take in a heapin’ helpin of their hospitality.

But, quite frankly, when The Beverly Hillbillies was first on, I believe I was in the throes of a torrid affair with Dr. Kildare. Something of a ménage a sept, as all of my friends were involved, as well. And then I was in high school studying. And then I was in college, when nobody had a TV and we wouldn’t have watched, anyway.

Still, I feel I must confess to having watched The Beverly Hillbillies on occasion, if only to keep the less refined members of the family company. But  I draw that line at ever having enjoyed the show. Or laughed with it, as opposed to at it. I’ve got my snob cred to maintain here.

Anyway, although I wasn’t a fan, I was interested to come across a late December article on the Shreveport Times* web site about Elly May Clampett’s, or, rather Donna DouglasElly May’, suit against Mattel and CBS over the use of her Ella May-ness as a Barbie doll.

It seems that CBS and Mattel went behind Elly May’s back to cook up something other than possum stew. They claimed they didn’t have to cut Elly May in on the action because CBS owns the Elly May character. Which seems pretty crappy and selfish on CBS’s part, that’s for sure.

Well, Donna Douglas said just a danged minute, and went after them.

They should have known better than to take on a purdy little lady armed with a sling shot.  CBS and Mattel settled with her, out of court.

Whatever Donna Douglas got in the settlement, it’s hard not to believe that it’s not more than she would have gotten in royalties.

Come on! Who, other than one-of-everything-Barbie collectors, and die-hard fans of The Beverly Hillbillies, would want a dungaree and rope-belt wearing Barbie armed with a slingshot.

Barbie fans want glamor. Barbie fans want glitz. Barbie fans want sleek.

They may have a down-home outfit or two for Barbie, but mostly they want going out in ball gowns Barbie. Or interesting career Barbie, who, after spending the day pursuing her interesting career, puts on the sequined lounge-singer slinky dress and steps out to par-tay.

It’s hard to see Elly May Barbie’s feet in this picture, but is it possible that she’s even wearing sensible shoes? (Nah, probably not. I think all Barbie’s come with deformed, en pointe-ish feet.)

So, whatever Donna Douglas got out of the settlement, well-played Elly May. And you didn’t even have to holler in Cousin Jethro to back you up.

Not quite bubblin’ crude money, but, certainly, enough for a hot tub and new teeth (P.R.N.).

*Wonder what I was doing over on the Shreveport Times? I was, in fact, engaged in some ultra-brainy, anthropological online field work, researching the Dowden family, stars of the new reality series, Bayou Billionaires. Bayou Billionaires, should you not happen to share this particular intellectual interest and academic bent, is something of stay-at-home Beverly Hillbillies. The Dowdens don’t Model-T off to Californy, they stay put and spend their “mailbox money” on things like hot tubs and new teeth. From a multi-cultural perspective, absolutely riveting.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

I know that cost cutting is all the rage, but using a paper clip for a dental post?

Few business practices seem more important these days than squeezing out costs.

Not that I don’t believe in fat-trimming.

Nosiree! I don’t want to pay one penny more than it takes for someone to make living wage, under safe conditions, producing something of reasonable, you-get-what-you-pay for quality.

But cost cutting can be perplexing.

On the one hand, we find ourselves witnessing race to the bottom wage and cost structures to such an extent that pretty soon the average non-elite American worker will be laboring for a buck an hour – and kissing his master’s cuffs in gratitude for the work. Of course, since he’ll be working 90 hours a week, he’ll make some of it up in volume. Which would, I guess, be okay if the cost of a flat-screen TV comes down to about $20. But I guess that won’t happen if the rapacious corporate profiteers deserving corporate shareholders and executives are going to get their fair share of the loot they’ve earned by pushing costs down…

But there’s cost cutting, and then there’s cost cutting, as we see from the case of a Massachusetts dentist, Michael Clair, who’s been sentenced to jail:

…after he pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his use of paper clips rather than stainless steel posts during root canals, according to the attorney general. (Source:

Man, and I thought Wang Labs as bad when they started unscrewing every other light bulb.

“The defendant physically and emotionally harmed his patients by taking advantage of the trust they placed in him as their dentist,” [Massachusetts AG Martha] Coakley said in a statement.

The thought of a dentist unbending a paper clip and embedding it in my jaw…Well, let’s just say that I would prefer not to have Laurence Olivier’s Marathon Man dentist anywhere near my mouth. Or Michael Clair, for that matter, assuming he’ll still be licensed to fill when he’s released from the hoosegow.

Fortunately, I have a wonderful dentist, who would not in a million years unbend a paper clip and use it in lieu of a stainless steel post. (How wonderful is my dentist? He’s so wonderful, that he’s brought his wonderful young dentist son into his practice, so I’m set for dental life. But wait, there’s more. The wonderful young dentist son’s wonderful young doctor wife is my primary care physician, so I’m set for medical life, too. The things you have to worry about as geezer-hood sets in…)

Now, the cost of a stainless steel dental post is not all that great. A little sleuthing suggests that they might go for $10-$15 per. And I’ll bet you can get them even cheaper on Alibaba. I just wasn’t willing to chat it up with Mr. Renhua Hu over there in order to find out.

Also, given the slipshod quality that is sometimes associated with Chinese manufacture, it may well be that you can get dental posts that are made out of paper clips. But Michael Clair apparently crafted his own.

In any case, we do know that, whatever a bona fide dental post costs, it’s likely more than what a paper clip from Staples will run you.

Unlike some cost cutters, Dr. Clair didn’t pass the savings on to his customers. Or to the state’s Medicaid program, which he’s accused of bilking, having charged for a steel post while providing a paper clip:

“Mr. Clair brazenly cheated the Medicaid program and defrauded taxpayer dollars, billing for health care services he did not provide.”

Clair bad-billed Massachusetts Medicaid for $130K over a two-year period.

Thanks, pal! The citizens of the Commonwealth salute you.

In case you’re wondering why substituting a paper clip for a dental post is such bad medicine, the International Business Times has an answer for you:

Dr. Robert Gold who practices dentistry in Croton-On-Hudson, New York stated that the primary risk in using a paper clip during a root canal is that it is soft and bendable.  "Normal materials would be titanium and cast gold.  It [the paper clip] is so weak that it would fracture," said Dr. Gold. The dental work on top will fail."

Dr. Gold went on to say that as the paper clip weakens and bends it would allow food and other bacteria inside which would cause infection.  An infection would ultimately lead to the loss of the tooth.

Talk about for want of a nail…

Meanwhile, I wonder if they’ll let Michael Clair practice on his fellow inmates.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Detlev Hager and the law of unintended consequences

In a recent article I saw in The Economist on Alabama’s harsh new immigration law, I was interested – make that amused - to read all of the early arrests were not one of the little brown Central American variety who are the target of the law. No, instead of Diego Hernandez, one of Alabama’s finest nailed a German citizen named Detlev Hager, an employee of Mercedes Benz, which has a plant in Alabama. (Hager, by the way, was driving a rental Kia when he was arrested. Interesting, that, although not quite in the same league as the Toyota exec who showed up to a press conference to defend Toyota quality in an Audi.)

While no one can argue with the impartiality of the police officer’s handling of the violation – the law’s the law, ma’am – it is beyond reasonable doubt that no one, but no one, who was congratulating himself on the law’s enactment wanted an arrest made of a Mercedes Benz executive.

Nein, nein, a thousand times nein.

And just to reinforce that they’re in truly color blind mode, a week after Detlev was busted, the Alabama po-po nabbed a Japanese Honda employee for a similar license violation.

In both cases, it sounds as if those darned foreigners were, in fact, at fault for driving without their licenses on them. Still, this used to be the type of offense that got you a citation, not a trip to the hoosegow in plastic cuffs.

It’s not like either of these fellows did hard time, Cool Hand Luke style. Still, the Alabama bidness community is all fluffed up about the impact this all might have on their ability to attract overseas company to their state. Certainly, no one wants to see their employees get rousted. Or, worse, start to demand hazardous duty pay if they get posted to Alabama. Across the state, there was much editorial gnashing of teeth about whether foreign companies would decide that the home of the Crimson Tide is just too foreign for them. From a round up on NPR (drawn from Reuters):

 The Tuscaloosa News writes: "Immigration law is costing Alabama jobs".

The Birmingham News writes: "The arrest of a Mercedes manager under the immigration law shows the danger that exists for international companies looking to expand into Alabama".

The Birmingham News also spoke to business leaders across the state, who called the arrest an "embarrassment." Here's a bit of the conversation the paper had with one leader:

David Bronner, chief executive of the Retirement Systems of Alabama and a key player in luring new business to the state… said companies looking to invest in the U.S. are watching the controversy over the immigration law, and at the same time, Alabama's competitors are reminding those companies of the issue.

"We've used difficulties in other states to make sure those people come and look here," he said. "We've just used a hammer and we've hit ourselves over the head with it."

Others characterized the incidents as a “black eye” for the state, or evidence that Alabama is a “hostile and unsavory environment.”

For his part, Bronner is right. What goes around does have a nasty habit of coming around, and other states can and will use these events to do some Alabama bashing.

The St Louis Post-Dispatch, in inviting Mercedes Benz to expand in Missouri, editorialized:

"Our state has many advantages over Alabama. We are the Show-Me State, not the 'Show me your papers' state." (Reuters, found on the Bay Ledger News Zone.)

While the detention of Detlev Hager and the unnamed Honda employee are unlikely to have any immediate impact on foreign investment in Alabama, it’s events like this – especially when placed within the context of the harsh anti-immigrant law that was passed – that do tend to have a longer run impact. There are plenty of other states out there, let’s go.

Similarly, I can’t see bio-tech companies open up shop in states that dumb down their schools’ science curricula so that they downplay evolution. Or cool outfits like Google or Facebook setting up outposts in states where gay employees may not feel welcome.

Sometimes you do get what you legislate for, and it hits you in the pocketbook.

Meanwhile, back in Alabama, many Latino illegals have “self-deported”, and many legals have reportedly left as well. (This from The Economist article cited above.)

Farmers complain of rotting crops and building companies of rising costs, both because there are too few workers.

And a University of Alabama economist, Samuel Addy:

…estimates the law’s total cost – taking into account productivity declines, increased enforcement cost, and declines in aggregate consumer spending and tax revenues since so many workers have left – in the billions.

Are you happy now?

Monday, February 06, 2012

How do you like them Apples?

A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times had article on the hazardous conditions that Chinese workers labor under when they’re making the wondrous electronic devices that power our lives and our livelihoods.

The principal focus of the article was Apple, but it could have been any one of a number company that produces electronic gizmos. The Sony laptop I’m writing this post on was Made In China. As was the Logitech mouse I use because the built-in touch-pad mouse is so awful. (It may be good for something, but that something sure doesn’t have much if anything to do with composing full sentences.) My Blackberry doesn’t even bother to state the obvious, but my money’s on Made In China there, too.

So, whether you’re listening to tunes, texting away, killing time playing games, catching up with your sister, watching TV, or even working, the device you’re doing it on was probably made in a factory in China that may well be  the 21st century equivalent of Triangle Shirtwaist.

Yes, as we’re loath to admit to ourselves, all our whiz-bang gear comes at a cost:

…the workers assembling iPhones, iPads and other devices often labor in harsh conditions…

Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.

More troubling, the groups say, is some suppliers’ disregard for workers’ health. Two years ago, 137 workers at an Apple supplier in eastern China were injured after they were ordered to use a poisonous chemical to clean iPhone screens. Within seven months last year, two explosions at iPad factories, including in Chengdu, killed four people and injured 77. Before those blasts, Apple had been alerted to hazardous conditions inside the Chengdu plant, according to a Chinese group that published that warning.

But, as Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health, was quoted as saying:

…what’s morally repugnant in one country is accepted business “practices in another, and companies take advantage of that.”

It’s inevitable that production will move to where it can be done the most cost-effectively, even if there is a whopping “out of sight, out of mind” cost that gets swept under the table.

And so we saw all those New England shoe factories and textile mills close down and move south.

This happened in my lifetime.

When I was a kid, we made a trip each summer to Ware and/or Fall River to buy tee-shirts at factory outlets that were attached to the actual factory. One summer, I worked in a shoe factory, doing finishing work on combat boots.

So I know that, while New England’s mills weren’t fun-fun places to work, they were – at least in my mid-century experience – relatively clean and relatively safe. People may not have made all that much, but it was a living of sorts.

But the costs of production were lower in the south, where people more desperate for jobs, any jobs, would work longer for less, and where the states were less likely to have pesky regulations of their own, or to tightly enforce pesky Federal regs.

But even the Old South couldn’t compete with China, so there the jobs went.

As citizen consumers, we get to enjoy the benefits: lots of stuff, cheap.

So what if it’s not built to last? Let’s face it, America may run on Dunkin’, but the world’s economic order runs on built in obsolescence based on a) shoddy goods, and b) the relentless desire for the newer and shinier that’s been hammered into us since Madison Avenue was a pup.

Apple is supposedly working on improving its supplier standards, but their main focus is on cost, profitability, time to market, innovation. Worker health and happiness? Must have in the US – just think of all those Happy Apples manning Apple stores – less important when it’s worker standing on his feet all day in China. 

Customers [that would be us] want amazing new electronics delivered every year…

“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

“If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?” the executive asked…

Good point, that.

“We’re trying really hard to make things better,” said one former Apple executive. “But most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from.”

Yes, indeed. Workers are often forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week in physically taxing positions. After hours, they go home to apartments where Apple supplier Foxconn might cram 20 workers in to three-room-flat. Worse yet:

…Employees [at Foxconn] who arrived late were sometimes required to write confession letters and copy quotations.

Some in the article maintained that Apple is trying to do a better job with respect to working conditions among its suppliers; others claim that Apple doesn’t try all that hard, and that other companies – HP and Intel were cited, as was Nike – do a far better job of pushing their suppliers to conform to standards, while making allowances for the costs of improving working conditions and allowing their suppliers to make reasonable profits.

Sounds like Apple is really the Walmart of the technology world, continuously pressuring its suppliers to cut their costs, and allowing them minimal profit margins – the better to keep Apple’s profits high.

So suppliers often try to cut corners, replace expensive chemicals with less costly alternatives, or push their employees to work faster and longer, according to people at those companies.

“The only way you make money working for Apple is figuring out how to do things more efficiently or cheaper,” said an executive at one company that helped bring the iPad to market. “And then they’ll come back the next year, and force a 10 percent price cut.”

And the bottom line is, of course, the bottom line. Said one current Apple executive.

“And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

Of course, if it’s not China, it’ll be someplace else.

As wages, expectations, and working conditions  improve in China, lower skilled production jobs are moving to places like Vietnam and Bangladesh. From there it’ll no doubt be to Africa, where working for a pittance in a dangerous factory is a step up for gleaning in the municipal dump.

But as long as we get our new goodies, what do we care?

And, much as I’d like to, I’m not going to go all goody-goody here.

I still love my iPod. I still wish I’d replaced my old Blackberry with an iPhone rather than a new Blackberry. I will get a notepad at some point, and the iPad is pretty darned nice.

I will say, however, that when I go for my next laptop – which should be any day soon – I will give another look to HP. I’ve had problems with their products in the past, and I sure hope they’ve fixed the faulty adapter problem that plagued them (and me). But if they’re a notch better than the next guy at how they treat their offshore workers, I’ll at least consider them.