Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stop Complaining

I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally I’ve had to cope with some relatively unpleasant working conditions in my time. I’ve worked in a retail store front in Inglewood, California that had originally been a four-room cottage – it would have been okay except for all of the random shootings in the neighborhood. I’ve worked in an office block in South Central Los Angeles – which would have been a lot better without the people actually shooting at us, but at least we had armored buildings and bullet-proof glass. I did worry when the passing gang bangers would take potshots at the six 1.2 million gallon gasoline tanks across the street, but those were armored well enough to defeat most small arms (and some anti-armor weapons, too)…

I’ve worked in offices that lost their air conditioning in the summer; I’ve worked in a windowless office so dark I was considering getting some toy bats to hang from the ceiling; I’ve worked retail in South Central, where you don’t have a nice armored bunker to hide inside (which is why I found the Unocal gig so easy to take); I’ve worked in converted military barracks in the process of being eaten by termites, and I’ve worked in food service under conditions best left undescribed. But even I can’t top the people in this next story…

A story being reported this week on UPI online tells the unusual story of a guy whose office is actually a converted elevator shaft, abandoned when his employer ran out of funds to install additional elevators and later converted to storage space and then to office space. He says the complete lack of ventilation is a drag, since he has to keep his door open at all times or suffocate, but it’s still a step up on the guy whose office is a converted restroom, complete with two urinals on one wall. They both envy the guy who got the office converted from an old bomb shelter, but at least they aren’t stuck in a cubicle farm. What makes this story so unusual is that all of these people are, in fact, Federal employees, and the building they work in is the U.S. Capital…

Which means, I suppose, that the accommodations may not be first class, but you can’t beat the location, especially if you work in Congress, which all of them do. Still, the next time you’re feeling bad about your windowless cubbyhole or fabric-covered box, cheer up. At least you’re not getting The Shaft…

Friday, January 30, 2009

German Engineering

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a guy pulls into a gas station in a small town in his brand new Cadillac, and when he gets out he accidentally spills several extra golf tees he had in his pocket.

“What are those?” the attendant asks him.

The man can’t believe that the attendant has never seen a golf tee. “Those are what I put my balls on when I drive,” he replies.

“Wow!” the attendant exclaims. “Those Cadillac engineers think of everything, don’t they?”

[RIMSHOT]

Okay, it’s a sophomoric joke, and you’ve probably heard it before. But if you think that’s dumb, wait until you hear about the latest thing in automotive design, which is now available on certain Porsche models…

A story being reported online this week tells about a new exclusive Porsche feature that allows the drive to increase the volume and pitch of their engine’s sound by means of a special exhaust flap built into the muffler system and activated by a button on the dashboard. That’s right, folks; at the push of a button you can make your car even louder and harder to ignore than it already is, just to make sure that EVERYONE notices you…

I’ll leave out the comments made by some of the other people reading this story (that you can get the same effect with a gadget you can make at home for free and save the $2,500 Porsche will charge you for this extra) and just point out that if your personal feelings of inadequacy and need for undeserved attention are so acute that you don’t feel paying a minimum of $75,000 (up to $140,000 for the convertible Turbo model) for a car is enough, I really doubt that the tricked-out exhaust system that makes your ride even louder is going to help…

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Vegetable Foreplay?

Let me begin this post by saying publicly that I do not now, nor have I ever, had any personal animosity toward vegetarians. Some of my friends and several members of my (extended) family don’t eat meat for various reasons; some because of the undoubted social, environmental and medical benefits of a vegetarian diet and others because they just don’t like it very much. As with most other forms of personal conviction, I am more than happy to respect anyone’s beliefs on the sole condition that they return the favor. Which is probably why I’m so amused by NBC’s refusal to air the most recent PETA ads because they fail to meet FCC guidelines – or the Network’s own standards…

A story being reported in the New York Post states that NBC has refused to air the commercial message PETA wanted to run during the Super Bowl, which extolled the sexual benefits of a meat-free diet, because the television spot included scantily-clad females being “too intimate” with various vegetables and fruits. Quite apart from the obvious First Amendment issues raised by this story (exactly what is protected speech, and at what point should legislated morality take priority?), I was immediately struck by two other burning questions: Who, exactly is this ad targeting, and why on Earth would anyone convert to a vegetarian lifestyle because of a television spot featuring (presumably) comely women and produce?

One assumes that ads featuring scantily-clad women are aimed primarily at men (and a specific group of women), and that these people would be the targets of this particular appeal. I can’t speak for the women, of course, but for the most part, the primary concern that (heterosexual) men have on viewing a woman in revealing costume is not whether she eats meat. I supposed it is possible that a very small number of viewers might actually be attracted to a woman based on her eating habits, but I can’t imagine that element of our society is large enough to justify the cost of a Super Bowl ad. As to the content of the spot, we all know that sex sells, but it seems far-fetched to expect anyone to accept the premise that “if you stop eating meat, women like these will want to sleep with you,” which is the presumptive message in this case. It actually seems more likely that some of the flashy cars and/or personal grooming products that are advertised in this fashion would improve your chances more than a dietary change – and none of those claims seems particularly likely…

Which leaves only a few other possible explanations. One is that PETA has been using this same marketing approach on-line for several years now, presumably with some measure of success, and they believe that expanding their audience in this fashion will pay off. Unless they can specifically identify increases in membership (or at least in vegetarian lifestyles) as being associated with this form of advertising, however, it still seems like a waste of money and time…

A much more likely explanation is that PETA was hoping for precisely the chain of events which has actually happened: that their television spot would be rejected by the network censors, the story would be picked up by news agencies all over the Internet, and their message would be viewed by millions of people – and best of all, that they would never have to shell out the huge cost of a Super Bowl ad. If so, then we must conclude that the PETA people are much smarter than we had previously believed…

But if they think this is going to generate any mass conversions to their cause OR their lifestyle, they’re still likely to be disappointed…

Friday, January 23, 2009

Just a Suggestion…

I don’t intend to get into the habit of issuing warnings in this space; I’m trying to stick to business topics rather than public safety. Still, when I saw this story online I thought there was a basic principle here that needs repeating. So, for your own safety and quality of life, let me suggest to my readers that intentionally annoying a large group of men who have been trained to kill people silently and undetectably is probably not a good idea, no matter how strong your fantasies about being one of them happen to be…

A story being reported this week in the Daily Mail UK indicates that police have recovered the body of a man who posed as a member of the UK’s famous Special Operations regiment, the SAS, in order to write a best-selling book about the war in Afghanistan. If the identification of the body is correct (if it is actually the same man) then it would appear he was killed several months ago, and the body hidden in his garage in Antwerp (Belgium), without anyone seeing, hearing, or noticing anything…

The story goes on to note that the man in question has attempted to fake his own death (in order to escape both official and unofficial retribution for his crimes) before, and we should all probably wait until the identity of the body is confirmed. They also tell the rather more sad than annoying story of the “author,” a former British soldier who was unable to pass the entrance exams for SAS, and was eventually banned from their base in England, presumably for being too creepy. We see this type of behavior all of the time in America, where there seem to be imposters (and “wannabees”) of every possible kind, but I can’t remember another case that smacks this strongly of pure death wish…

Now, I don’t mean to imply that any of you would be criminal enough to perpetuate this type of fraud, let alone risk incurring the wrath of an entire regiment of Special Forces troops, who (in fairness) are not exactly known for their tolerant, forgiving natures in the first place. I bring it up merely as a graphic illustration of just how unfortunate the Law of Unexpected Consequences can be when it wants to. Clearly, all this poor fellow wanted was to scam up a few bucks while posing as one of his fantasy heroes – which may be stupid, juvenile, or even fraudulent, but is still not something for which he deserves to be killed and then hidden in an abandoned garage…

I am suggesting that the next time you ask yourself “What’s the worst that could happen?” before launching some risky venture you take a moment and actually consider the answer. Some perfectly reasonable ideas have implications far beyond what you had in mind when you launched them, and it is your first duty as an emerging entrepreneur to at least try to plan for the future. And if you can come up with a plausible scenario in which the answer includes “being brutally murdered and then stuffed into an abandoned building and allowed to decay until someone complains to the authorities about the smell” (or something equally gruesome), let me suggest that you seriously consider a less risky enterprise…

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Yes, They Are

From time to time I will get comments on this blog that I’m being too negative about our fellow people; that the common folk out there aren’t nearly as stupid as I tend to portray them, and I should have more faith in people. In response I will often quote P.T. Barnum’s famous quip “No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people,” to which Mark Twain is reputed to have replied “My dear sir, there is no underestimating the intelligence of the American people!” A contention which is supported by a story that came out of Phoenix yesterday…

People will tell you that I’ve been a cynic since early adulthood, but this is not true. I’ve been a cynic since early childhood, and all of that time I have rarely encountered something as randomly bone-headed as this. According to a story in the Arizona Republic a man who was waiting to exit a Delta flight at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix got tired of waiting for the people in front of him to leave, and instead opened one of the window exits and climbed out onto the wing…

He was quite fortunate not to have tried this stunt while the airplane was in the air. There isn’t the least chance that he could have gotten the window hatch opened; while the cabin is pressurized the air pressure holding those hatches in place is heavier than any known person would be able to pry lose. The much more likely possibility is that one or more of his fellow passengers might have gotten the idea that he was a terrorist trying to kill all of them and beaten him senseless – unless, of course, there was a Federal Air Marshall aboard, in which case he’d probably just have been shot…

What, exactly, this fellow expected to accomplish by ignoring every warning sign, posted regulation and iota of common sense may never be known; certainly there was no imaginable scenario in which he would have been able to safely climb down from the wing, force his way into the terminal, and leave the airport without being arrested. In fact, the odds were actually against his being able to exit the plane and the airport this way without sustaining serious injury, such as being run over by a ground vehicle, sucked into a jet engine, or simply breaking his leg trying to jump down off the wing. The subsequent arrest, trial and incarceration would have to be considered merely a bonus after that…

Of course, every one of us has probably seen examples of this same phenomenon every week, if not every day, for most of our lives – if nothing quite this spectacular. So if you’ve ever noticed all of the acknowledgements of stupidity in our society, from warning labels telling you not to use electrical appliances in the bathtub to disclaimers for every possible occasion to the annual Darwin Awards and asked yourself “can people really be that stupid?” I regret to inform you that yes, they can. And the situation is not likely to improve any time soon…

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Public Service Annoucement

Ladies and Gentlemen, your attention please! Your humble blogger would like to call to your attention the date: Today is January 17th. This means that you have just FOUR WEEKS remaining until Valentine’s Day…

Of course, unless you are housebound (or live in a cave) you probably already knew that. Certainly, if you spend any time whatsoever in retail stores, you will already have noticed the disappearance of the Christmas displays and the gradual increase of candies, stuffed toys, greeting cards, heart-shaped editions of merchandise that is not normally offered in a heart-shaped configuration, and rapid increases in the use of the color pink. The real question is what you intend to do about it…

As noted last year in this space, many women and those men who suffer from compulsive disorders have already begun shopping for the ideal V-Day gift; the women are (for the most part) already dreaming romantic dreams about a night in which their significant other manages to do and say exactly what they’d like him to do/say for once, while the men just need something to occupy their time, since they’ve already completed and mailed their income tax forms for last year…

If your plans involve getting something over the Internet (or more primitive forms of mail-order commerce) you would be well advised to put them in motion now; otherwise you face the possibility of shipping delays, lost packages, fraud or theft interfering with your big moment. It doesn’t matter if you are suing a fraudulent retailer or having someone arrested and prosecuted for mail theft if you’re left standing empty-handed on V-Day and your significant other is the type who will measure your feelings for him/her on the basis of what you’ve acquired for this occasion…

If your plans involve reservations (restaurant, hotel, airplane, boat, train, or whatever) you would also do well to make those reservations at once; you may already be too late for the most popular choices, but I don’t intend to start issuing these Public Service Announcements in September just to make sure you act in time. Get busy on those telephones and you might be able to come up with something better than last year’s three hour wait for a table fiasco…

Which brings me to the real point of this humorous post, at least to the extent that it has one. A holiday – any holiday – is supposed to be something you enjoy. If you are putting so much pressure on yourself and/or your significant other that Valentine’s Day has become something that either of you dread (because you can’t ever seem to please your partner, or because he or she can never seem to live up to your expectations) then you need to re-examine your priorities. We’re living in a world filled with fear, hatred, anger, desperation, despair and anguish; if you can’t lighten up enough to enjoy a simple lover's festival, sappy and corny though it might be, Hallmark Holiday though it may have become, then I really don’t think anything heart-shaped is going to help you…

Friday, January 16, 2009

Not All That Funny…

Actually, this story is only funny within a very limited context. For some time now we’ve been watching various Native American tribes launching casino operations in and around the United States, all of which seem to have been successful in drawing huge amounts of revenue from surrounding non-Native communities. The actual benefit to rank-and-file members of the tribes from these ventures is a matter of considerable dispute. There appear to be examples of tribal gaming operations that really do bring incredible benefits to the members of the tribe, paying for vital public facilities, education, and medical care, as well as providing much-needed employment in economically depressed areas; there also appear to be cases where only a few tribal leaders will see any real benefit, or even cases where all of the profits will be siphoned off by the casino’s financial backers and/or organized crime (to the extent that there’s any difference between those categories). In other words, these projects work out more or less the same as gambling facilities run by non-natives…

Since such projects are generally very lucrative (for somebody, at least) and since it is very difficult to obtain permission from state and Federal authorities to build a gambling facility if you are not a Native American tribe, many people have joked in recent years about somehow gaining tribal citizenship and/or getting their house declared “Indian Land” so that they can open a casino on the property and rake in the profits. It’s important to note that these are jests made at the expense of our Federal government, and by extension at the expense of those elements of the non-Native population who are na├»ve enough to believe that they can profit by visiting a casino; no sane person would be likely to blame the tribes themselves for finding a commercial application for America’s most abundant natural resource, e.g. stupidity…

All of these trends appear to have reached their logical conclusion this week in a case in California being reported the Associated Press on the local television station. It seems that a band of Native Americans living on the Buena Vista Rancheria have just received clearance to construct their own casino facility, following the dismissal of a Federal lawsuit brought by the county in which they intend to site the facility to block the project. Local residents in the community just east of Stockton, California had either been worried about traffic, crime, and environmental damage or bigoted against Indians, depending on which side of the case you’d care to take. Given the weakness of California’s economy, construction of a 130,000 square foot facility and the addition of 800 new jobs to the local market seem like a good thing. What makes the project unusual is that the tribe in question consists of just one family; a mother and her children…

That’s right, folks, the Me-Wuk Indians are, in fact, a single family, and just as in the terms of the joke, they have succeeded in turning their Native American status into a license to make money. Of course, they’re not putting it into their house; they will have a proper casino location. And they’re not even trying to handle the construction or operation of the facility on their own; they’re bringing in investment money and professional management personnel to assist. Still, it does make you wonder how many other small bands of Native Americans, poor in population but rich in entrepreneurial spirit and sheer chutzpah, may be planning similar projects even as we speak. I’d be willing to venture a few dollars that it’s a non-zero number – and that some of them will succeed…

So the next time your neighbor tells you that he’s going to declare his house “Indian Land” and open a casino, you might want to make sure he’s joking before you laugh…

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Automotive Politics

I continue to be mystified by people who fail to understand the role image plays in our culture, and particularly where public figures and politics are involved. The unfortunate truth is that much of the time the truth is less important than the impression given by images or sound bites. It would be comforting to dismiss these facts as nothing more than a by-product of our media-saturated age, but even a casual review of American history will confirm that this has pretty much always been the case, at least where public figures are involved. Which makes the current flap in Gary, Indiana that much more baffling…

Regular readers of this space will recall a post from last summer where I commented on the cost savings available to the Chicago Police Department if they were to adopt hybrids or crossover vehicles instead of full-size SUV units. No one is likely to dispute the advantages of 4 wheel drive vehicles when traveling off-road or in deep snow, but the police SUVs were intended for ordinary urban patrol duties, and the primary argument in their favor was visibility (the SUV units are both easier to see in traffic and easier to see out of for the officers operating one). However the situation in Gary does not involve a city vehicle at all…

A story being reported in the South Bend Tribune tells the story of Gary Mayor Rudy Clay and his spirited defense of the city’s purchase of a new Hummer H3 for his personal use. The mayor has come under criticism for this purchase from both local and state sources given that the city is currently operating under a $36 million deficit and the Hummer is perceived as both expensive and wasteful to operate. As a political choice it is particularly obtuse, especially if (as several local sources have claimed) the Hummer replaces a similar vehicle purchased just two years ago…

Now, speaking as a native of Los Angeles, where city and county budgets are frequently larger than the budget of entire states (Los Angeles County, for example, has roughly the same population as the entire state of Michigan), I have to say that neither the deficit or the $30,000 price tag of the H3 look all that impressive. I can clearly remember the scandal that hit Los Angeles a few years ago when it was revealed that the President of the school district was spending $200,000 per year on his chauffer’s salary, and another $50,000 or so on his personal vehicle, in a time when that would have paid the salaries of 8 or 9 full-time teachers and the teacher’s union had just been asked to take a 5% pay cut in order to deal with a budget crisis…

Things are different in Gary, however. Unaccustomed to the idea of million-dollar perks for politicians (and $30 million movie contracts), the good people of Gary appear to be a bit concerned by their mayor spending funds the city does not have on his personal transportation, and the defensive comments (that it was $20,000 cheaper than a new Expedition would have been, and that the mayor saved $5,000 on the Hummer) do not appear to have helped. The question, at least from where I’m sitting, is why any of this would come as a surprise. The country is in the grips of the worst recession in a generation, the city of Gary is in dire financial straits, people are facing the loss of their jobs, their homes, and their hopes, and the mayor is telling them that he is entitled to a nice new car…

Under the circumstances, I can only hope that Mayor Clay has a backup career choice in mind, because if this is his idea of deft political maneuvering, I have to question how long he can survive in his current occupation…

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Parking Magic

Did you ever find yourself facing the unappealing choice of either risking a ticket because you don’t have any change to feed a parking meter, or not being able to park and having to go somewhere else? How about those occasions when you need to be somewhere for a few hours and the only space available has a 30-minute limit, forcing you to keep running out to feed the meter? Well, if a new development going on in Chicago starts catching on in other cities, these problems may soon become a thing of the part – although I won’t make book on a new set of problems failing to appear soon thereafter…

According to a story being reported in the Chicago Tribune this week, the city has been testing an electronic parking system that allows you to purchase parking time electronically from a device mounted on your dashboard. Plans are already underway to expand the system and adopt new technologies that will allow you to purchase your parking minutes directly from your cell phone – and buy more minutes if you should find that your virtual meter is about to run out and you need more time to complete whatever errand you’re on. As usual, this idea has both positive and negative aspects…

On the one hand, feeding coinage into a parking meter is a pain, particularly when the amount you’re being charged for the space is as high as it is in parts of Chicago, Los Angeles, or any other large city. Consider that if parking is $2 per hour (not unusual these days) you will need 8 quarters per hour, or 64 of them (nearly two rolls of quarters) for a day at work. Even at 75 cents per hour I was spending $3 or $3.50 per day to park in Santa Monica the last time I worked there, which meant three rolls of quarters every two weeks – not a very appealing choice, but still preferable to the $175 that the parking lot under our office building would have charged me for a month of non-reserved parking. I’d probably have preferred an electronic system to taking $60 in quarters out of the bank each month…

On the downside, this system not only requires the user to have a higher level of technology available in order to park, it eliminates any practical considerations for not raising the cost of parking in the city. If your parking enforcement personnel no longer have to empty parking meters – or even walk a beat to write parking tickets – but can handle all of the functions of their jobs from a desk somewhere, not only is it much easier to enforce parking laws, it’s much easier to keep increasing the cost per hour. In fact, this would really require no effort at all…

In the long run, of course, it really doesn’t matter what we think of such developments; cities will continue raising parking rates because they need the money – and because they can. Eventually, the simple pole-mounted coin box will become obsolete, simply because it will not be possible for anyone to carry enough small change around with them to buy enough time for even a short errand, let alone a day at work. At that point a system that accepts credit cards, debit cards, and electronic payments by cell phone or over the Internet (for as long as there is any difference between those functions) is probably a good thing. A much more serious issue is that those electronic purchases can be traced – in fact, they have to be traced for billing purposes…

On-street parking will probably always be the low-cost alternative to expensive parking lots, and it may remain more convenient than having to drive off and find space in a lot somewhere. But the idea that one day soon anyone who wants to find out will be able to learn exactly where you park your car everyday has some very disturbing implications…

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Shooting the Flu

Readers of last year’s posts about the flu vaccines occasionally available to the public in this country will recall that I’m a bit skeptical about the whole thing – not because I’m a raving skeptic about most things (although I am) and not because I personally can’t use flu vaccines because I appear to be allergic to the compounds used to create them (although I am), but rather because just about every flu season we are confronted with stories about artificial shortages of vaccine, random pricing for flu shots (with as much as 400% price variance reported) or vaccines that don’t appear to work on this year’s strain of flu. It’s reading these stories in the news that makes the whole process so difficult to take seriously…

Now, it has often been pointed out to me that I lack any training in biology or medicine, and it’s probably unfair of me to judge this process on a purely business basis. This year’s story about the flu vaccines being off-target in Canada, which was sent out by The Canadian Press this week, demonstrates the point. Apparently there are three different families of virus circulating, each with many different specific strains, any of which may not be effectively controlled by any one specific iteration of the vaccine. It might be possible to combine multiple iterations of the vaccine into a single shot, but the story goes on to say that this might not help (you’d still need to get the specific iteration to kill the specific bug that’s attacking your system), but it would dramatically increase both the level of difficulty experienced in making the vaccine and the cost we’d be charged for it…

From a business standpoint, of course, the idea of a preventative product that costs a lot of money, can easily make you as sick as the disease it is intended to prevent all by itself, and has an excellent chance of not working in the first place seems so absurd that you’d have to wonder why anyone is even allowed to sell it. From a medical standpoint the concept of a treatment that has a nonzero chance of preventing a debilitating (and occasionally fatal) illness from infecting the patient is a wonderful thing, particularly when you consider all of the debilitating (and occasionally fatal) diseases for which there is no such preventative, and the possibility of the shots not working is a non-issue, since the field can never offer an absolute guarantee, anyway. From a consumer standpoint, it probably comes down to a judgment call…

If you’re one of those people in the high risk group, the chance of having to deal with a mild reaction to the flu shot is probably worth avoiding a severe reaction to the virus (e.g. several weeks in bed, pain and weakness, occasionally death); if you’re young, vigorous, disease-resistant or all of the above, it might not be, and if you’re allergic to flu shots then the whole matter is irrelevant. The point is that this is another one of those decisions that can not be made on a cost-benefit basis, or indeed, on any type of business basis. As absurd as it might seem to purchase a product on the terms offered for flu vaccines, the idea of letting an insurance or health care company make that decision for its customers on a cost-benefit basis is completely repugnant...

In the long run, if you want to take your chances on a flu shot that may or may not even work on the strain of flu you encounter, that should be your choice, and you shouldn’t be thwarted by profit-seeking insurance companies or pharmaceutical laboratories that can’t seem to make enough vaccine to last through the winter without accidentally tainting a huge lot of it. I’m just going to keep warm and take a lot of vitamin C…

Monday, January 12, 2009

Workplace Security

Considering all of the uproar surrounding we heard least year regarding employees bringing guns to work and then defending their workplace from armed attacks (and how horrible and unsafe this is), I noted with great interest an article being reported by The Daily Mail Online about a robbery gone bad in Paris last week. It seems that two men attempted to rob a sushi restaurant, and when the owners refused to hand over the money in the cash register, the criminals attempted to make off with the tip money that had been left for the waiters and sushi chefs. Unfortunately, the hapless thieves appear to have forgotten one important point about how sushi is made…

According to the story, seven of the employees became incensed that someone was stealing from them and attacked the robbers with the extremely sharp sushi knives that all such personnel just happen to be experts in using. One of the thieves received a fatal stab wound, and the other was badly slashed up before the police arrived to arrest all seven of the waiters who had been defending their money. The story doesn’t mention what became of the surviving robber, or what the waiters were being charged with, but it does suggest that they have some different ideas about the use of force, and what levels of force are permissible, in France than what we enjoy in this country…

Now, I’m not qualified to practice law in this or any other state, and I don’t propose to comment on the legality of these actions; I’m just going to comment that in America there would be a completely different set of complications in play. For one thing, most companies have a standing policy of not offering resistance to armed criminals, even if that is the way the 9/11 attacks were transformed from simple hijackings to major outrages featuring the deaths of thousands of people. A lot of firms would fire the waiters just for resisting the robbery, and many others would be worried (correctly, I believe) about the possibilities of being sued by the waiters (for maintaining an unsafe work environment) and the family of the dead robber (for wrongful death, although that one would be harder to win)…

Personally, I can’t help wishing that the flights hijacked on 9/11 had been equipped with an in-flight sushi service, and that these same waiters had greeted the hijackers with a flurry of razor-sharp steel. I’m not sure what the reward for attempting to kill yourself in a suicide attack and instead being turned into a decorative rose garnish on the side of a sushi presentation is supposed to be, but I’d be willing to bet it’s something less than 72 virgins. And I can’t speak for anyone else, but if an airplane I’m flying in is saved from murderous idiots by heroic sushi chefs, not only am I going to open my wallet and tip the chefs with ever dollar I have on my person, I’m also going to book a lot more flights on that airline…

I kid, of course, but that doesn’t change the underlying point of this story: sometimes offering no resistance isn’t the best choice; sometimes an employee with the right combination of experience, training and equipment really can safely resolve a situation without blindly following the manual; and no matter what, you should never second-guess the man on the ground…

Especially when the man on the ground is carrying a razor-sharp sushi knife…

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Ethics of Misappropriation

Here's an interesting ethical question that came up a few times in my past. Suppose you are working with an organization that is operating under government funding, and you discover that the work they are doing is not the work their grant application (and subsequent award) specified; they have, in effect, misappropriated the funding for an unauthorized purpose -- which includes paying you. Let us further suppose that the work you are doing is having a real benefit in the community you serve; the management team has made the substitution because they genuinely believe that the service they are providing is more important than the one they had originally proposed. You point out that they are still violating Federal and State laws, but they tell you to just get on with the job; they will worry about the consequences. What are you going to do?

On the one hand, it's not as if the management team is spending the funds on yachts and luxury cars (which has also happened in recent years); they're making a genuine attempt to provide what their constituents actually need. Government funding programs are often oriented more toward political expediency than toward actual community needs, and it is possible that this is the only way this particular need will ever be addressed. If the population receiving services under the misappropriated funds is traditionally underserved, this may indeed be the only way they will ever receive such assistance...

On the other hand, misappropriation of government funds is against the law; depending on the terms of the contract and the agencies involved, the senior management team may just have committed a criminal offense, and as a law-abiding citizen, you have a civic duty to report them for doing so, even though doing so might deprive a deserving community of services it desperately needs, divert those same funds to some pork-barrel project that will materially benefit political patrons of whoever extended the money in the first place, and eliminate a job that you need in order to buy food and pay your rent...

What are you going to do? The obvious thing to do here is for the agency that received the funds to make contact with their grant officer and request permission to change the primary activities authorized under the contract. If they can demonstrate that their revised purpose is a better use of the funds (and has the same levels of political advantage) the grantor will probably authorize the change, particularly because no one want to be displayed in the media yanking back funds that are being used to make a real difference in the lives of deserving people. But if you are not a member of the management team (or, even worse, if you're a contractor working for the agency) you can't take such an action, and you probably can't force the senior managers to do so either...

I don't have any concrete suggestions for this situation; if you've pointed out the potential legal issues to the management team and offered to help them with the appeal to change the purpose of the program, and they're still insisting on staying the course, you're just going to have to vote your conscience. In the long run it probably is more important that the right things get done, even for the wrong reasons, but this situation is a slippery slope, and it's just one step from using public funds for something you think benefits the community more to using those funds for something that benefits YOU more. One quite small step, in fact. But does that mean you should be the one to report someone who is doing what he thinks is the right thing to the authorities, or would it be better to just quitely resign and slink away?

It's worth thinking about...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Republic of the Easily Offended, South American Edition

We’ve had a lot of cases pop up recently where the line was hard to draw, where the slope was slippery, or where the principles of the case were sound enough, but we still wouldn’t have wanted the exact events described to happen on our block. But there are also those events where we find ourselves shaking our heads at the antics of people who seem to have nothing better to do than take massive offense at every utterance that they think has the potential to cast them in a bad light, saying to ourselves “Come on, people; it was just a cream pie!” These are the events that make me want to re-name the society we live in as “The Republic of Nice” – as in we’re all required to be nice at all times or else! – or, less sarcastically, “The Republic of the Easily Offended…”

Although apparently we’re just the North American Republic of the Easily Offended; it would appear that other continents have their own version of our society. A story being reported today in The Associated Press online details a lawsuit being planned by The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation against a U.S. cartoonist and his syndication group over a cartoon that they feel "attacks the national dignity and the reputation of coffee from Colombia." The cartoon was one of a series printed last week that riffed on the story of the inventor of the Pringles can being buried in one, and included the comment that given the levels of violence observed in Colombia, perhaps the old sales slogan “There’s a little Juan Valdez in every can” should be taken literally…

The Federation is going to be seeking at least $20 million "for damage and harm, detriment to intellectual property and defamation.” Why, exactly, they feel that $20 million in harm has been done to them will be quite interesting to observe; why they feel they should be immune to the satire that every member of our society is subjected to should be even more so. There is no chance that any reasonable person would actually believe that Columbian coffee cans contain the slightest trace of human remains; there is also essentially no chance that anyone who has ever heard of Columbia doesn’t already know about the drug cartels and ongoing violence that have plagued that country. It is thus difficult to understand how this unassuming newspaper cartoon could actually harm the Federation’s business. And if there has been no damage to your business, you can’t demand money in compensation for that damage…

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that the Federation has no right to be irritated. Consider, for example, how you would feel if someone implied (even in jest) that your company’s products were tainted with traces of human remains. More to the point, the Federation has spent a vast amount of advertising establishing Columbian coffee as a brand, and we all know what happens if you don’t defend both your brand name and reputation against anyone who implies that it’s not worth what you’re charging for it. If the Federation ignores this once, it will be harder for them to quash the next joke made at their expense, and eventually their carefully-built (and expensive) brand name will just be another mixed-media joke, resulting in heaven only knows how much lost sales and lost revenue…

Clearly, the cartoonist in this story did not intend to create an international incident, let alone touch off a $20 million lawsuit naming both him and his syndicate as parties. As his response in the AP story makes abundantly clear, he merely thought it was an amusing reference to other world events during this same time, and did not expect anyone to notice, let alone take massive offense. But, just as clearly, this mostly harmless and certainly non-malicious joke was taken quite seriously by the people whose business, country, brand, and tag line he was mocking. Given the way U.S. civil laws regarding satire of public figures/groups are usually interpreted, it’s unlikely that this case will amount to much, even assuming the cartoon syndicate doesn’t just settle the matter and make it go away quietly. But it’s still something you might want to keep in mind before you make your next public joke at the expense of somebody’s business…

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Drawing the Line

The famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) anti-pornography crusader and U.S. Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock was, at one point, asked to give a practical definition of pornography, so that other people (notably including local Postmasters) could be on the lookout for mailings that would violate the anti-pornography law that bore his name. Comstock replied that he couldn’t define porn, but he knew it when he saw it. This attitude led not only the anti-censorship groups of the time but most liberal thinkers in general to denounce Comstock and his namesake law, and launched the feud between free-speech advocates and decency advocates that continues today. One can only imagine what Comstock would have made of the Internet, and the vast oceans of pornography it makes available to anyone who cares to log on and view them…

Anyone thinking (or hoping) that the issues are clearer or the lines are easier to draw a century later will probably have their hopes dashed when they learn of a case that came up in Hopkinton, MA this week. According to the story in the Metrowest Daily News online site, the town’s manager was forced to resign after a town employee claimed that his viewing of pornography on a town-owned laptop constituted sexual harassment. This would appear to be a relatively simple matter, except for two points: First, no one on either side of the matter has made any claim that the town manager showed the questionable web pages to the employee raising the sexual harassment issue or anyone else; and Second, the town manager was actually at home when the web viewings in question occurred…

Now, no one, least of all me, is going to argue that free speech extends to the right to view pornographic materials while at work or while using a computer or network system owned by one’s employer. One must wonder why the town’s manager could not afford his own laptop (and his own high-speed network connection) if he wanted to engage in this particular leisure activity, and why he failed to realize that anything viewed over the town’s network would be tracked (and probably visible) by the town’s IT personnel. By the same token, however, it’s really difficult to understand why, exactly, catching a municipal employee making improper use of a town computer and the high-speed network constitutes a crime as personal as sexual harassment. Particularly when he was doing so in the privacy of his own home...

As a miscarriage of justice it hardly compares to the case last year where a town employee (in a different state) was hit with a virus that hackers use to stash porn on an unsuspecting user’s hard drive, and never even knew he’d been hacked until a city employee removed the virus and found the porn files, whereupon he was fired. This is more of a tragic case of someone lacking the tech-savvy to understand that he was leaving himself open to detection, or the common sense to realize that he needed to keep his questionable leisure activities off his employers’ computer network. Still, it begs a few questions from those of us who are reading about the case…

At what point does it stop being invasion of privacy and start becoming sexual harassment? If the employee claiming harassment is someone the “offender” has never met, never spoken to, and does not know the identity of, can we really consider these actions to be “harassment?” If an employer has failed to inform its employees that using company equipment for recreational purposes (e.g. surfing for Internet porn) is a termination offense, can they reasonably terminate an employee for such conduct? If the employer has such a policy and HAS informed all personnel of that policy, why can’t they just fire anyone who engages in such activities for violating the organization’s computer use policies, without bringing sexual harassment into it?

It’s worth thinking about…

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Helmet Law

Some time last year Nigeria passed a new helmet law, which apparently took effect New Year’s Day. Readers from California may remember the controversy that surrounded a similar law passed in that state, pitting advocates for the right of motorcyclists to ride with the wind blowing freely through their hair against advocates for the rights of everyone else not to have to pay for expensive medical care (and burials) for uninsured motorcyclists who would die from head injuries that could be prevented with the use of helmets. Eventually the helmet law passed, and that should have been the end of the matter, if not for a handful of stubborn bikers and enterprising businesspeople…

In response to the law, several companies began manufacturing helmets that conformed to the very minimum requirements of the helmet law – that is, which provided just enough coverage to prevent a policeman from being able to ticket the rider. It seems that the law hadn’t specified that the rider’s whole head and face had to be covered, just that their headgear provide a certain level of crash protection. The resulting designs were vaguely reminiscent of military helmets used in the early 20th Century (German or British styles, depending on the brand) and didn’t provide the same level of protection that a full-coverage helmet would have, but allowed the user an increased feeling of exposure to the elements over a conventional helmet…

In Nigeria, a somewhat different solution is being used by motorcyclists who can not afford to purchase a conventional helmet: dried pumpkin shells. A story being reported on the BBC News Africa website tells the unusual story of improvised motorcycle helmets being adopted by Nigerians who make their living transporting people on the back of their motorcycles (motorcycle taxis, another service that would never occur in the U.S.). Nigerians are also protesting the helmet law on the grounds that it is possible for someone to put hostile magic in a helmet, which would permit the taxi driver to rob unsuspecting passengers…

Why does he tell us about this? I hear some of you asking. No one reading this post is ever likely to move to Nigeria and invest in a motorcycle taxi business, and if you did you’d certainly make sure that you have enough startup capital to afford TWO helmets, one for your and one for your passenger. So why am I wasting your time with this exotic tale of business and government regulation once again coming into conflict? Because, you guessed it, this situation plays out in one form or another every day in ever country in the world, and sooner or later you, too, are going to have to deal with the equivalent in your own business…

I’m not sure what aspect of your business our government is going to decide is unsafe, environmentally unfriendly, too expensive for your poorer customers to afford, or otherwise displeasing to the powers that be (or to some hyper-liberal advocate group with a really strong lobby); I only know that if you stay in business long enough, sooner or later there will be some form of safety law passed that will require you to spend money you can’t afford on safety provisions that will not make your business any more safe (but will generate a lot of money for whatever company makes the safety equipment). In your next strategic planning cycle you should probably add the possibility of blue-sky government safety laws being passed to the list of potential threats in your business environment; and if you don’t already go through a regular strategic planning cycle, you might want to consider starting…

Alternately, I suppose, you could look into shifting your production capabilities into making safety equipment…

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fact Checking?

Anyone who was reading the newspapers three years ago will remember the curious case of James Frey, whose memoirs of drug addiction and rehab were powerful enough to draw Oprah’s attention and sell millions of copies before somebody finally got around to checking his background and discovered that Frey was lying through his teeth. The supposedly true story turned out to be more fiction than fact, and the author was eventually berated by Oprah herself (on national television) for his betrayal of millions of readers. No reasonable person blames Oprah for being taken in; any reasonably sane publisher would have fact-checked the book before publishing it – or at least warned the author that if any of these facts weren’t true, SOMEONE would notice, and eventually call him on it…

Unfortunately, there appear to be a great many people out there who don’t really mind being exposed as a fraud so long as they get to keep the money they made while people actually believed their stories. Regular readers of this space will recall posts I’ve written about two Food Network personalities who fall into this category, and a quick check on the Internet will yield literally hundreds of parallel cases, ranging from the relatively harmless (the dozens of “fifth Beatle” pretenders) to the completely horrific (the Madoff case and ongoing outrages), and yet people seem to continue to be willing to trust that someone is telling the truth, simply on the grounds that not doing so would be insane, damaging to their personal credibility, or just not nice…

Another case that has hit the news wires this week parallels the Frey case almost exactly, right down to the appearance on the Oprah show and pending book deal – although this one has some rather more serious overtones. It turns out that a highly anticipated book by a Holocaust Survivor who was helped to survive by a young woman living outside the wire, who many years later met and married her in New York City is a complete fabrication. You can find the Seattle Post-Intelligencer story here if you’d like to; alternately, you can read about the MSU professor who helped to debunk the story here if you like. Now the publisher has cancelled the release of the book (and is seeking to get the author to return the advance he was given), and no one knows exactly how Oprah is going to respond. But the case still does not inspire me to any light-hearted mockery. In fact, it’s making me rather angry…

Now, I realize that it’s highly unlikely that the author meant any harm in this action. Indeed, the stories that have (this time!) been checked out clearly indicate that the couple had been telling this story to everyone they knew for roughly the last 50 years. No one had ever bothered to call them on it, and over the passage of a half-century, they’d more or less forgotten that it was just a touching (or sappy, depending on your point of view) romantic yarn they’d been spinning to explain why their feelings for each other were so powerful, magical, unique, and so on. It’s really quite unfortunate that they decided to enter the tale in a story contest…

So if it was just a harmless yarn that got out of control, why is it irritating me so much, and driving hundreds of Holocaust scholars and Survivors into a relatively genteel fury? Simply put, because it’s cheapening the experience. Because it’s making the death camps seem like quaint, charming places where you might (if you were lucky) encounter a heroic ministering angel who would one day turn out to be the girl of your dreams. Because it’s turning one of the most horrific atrocities in all of human history into nothing more than the setting for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie special, and giving aid and comfort to Holocaust Deniers, people who make the Nazis themselves look good…

And all because somebody at Penguin Berkley (and, to be fair, in Oprah’s production company) failed to do any fact checking, despite such embarrassing recent examples as Margaret Seltzer, James Frey, Benjamin Wilkomirski or Robert Irvine. Believe me, it’s far from being the worst thing anybody ever did to make a buck, and it hardly compares to the malfeasance of criminals like Madoff. But I can virtually guarantee that there will be many more parallel cases coming until people finally start doing their jobs and checking the facts before they put them on the air…

Monday, January 5, 2009

Specialty Business, Specialty Problems

I could never understand what the big deal was with the Hooters chain. Possibly this stems from the fact that I was raised in Los Angeles and took my undergraduate degree in Santa Barbara, two cities in which one can observe women dressed far more revealingly than any Hooters waitress merely by going to the beach on a sunny day. And while I grasp the concept that many women find the infamous Hooters uniform offensive, the great American custom of voting with one’s feet seems to take care of this situation, in the sense that these women do not patronize Hooters restaurants, and the people (male and female) who do are not those who find the uniform offensive…

In fact, Hooters is hardly the only company that selects its personnel in accordance with a specific image; one can find similar (if less blatant) examples throughout the service and retail sectors. Many jobs actually have much more extensive physical requirements than those placed on the Hooters wait staff, who are, after all, only required to maintain a “glamorous appearance,” whatever that means. Specialty job functions may place requirements on the height, weight, girth, age, or physical abilities of the employees selected for those jobs, and no one seems to mind. Unfortunately, specialty businesses that require the services of specialty personnel experience a series of problems that will never occur in a mainstream firm…

There is a case being reported in The Des Moines Register this week that illustrates the point rather well. It seems that a waitress at the Hooters in Davenport was unable to report for duty after a domestic violence incident that left her temporarily unable to present a “glamorous appearance,” whatever that means. The waitress wasn’t fired or even laid off; she was just told that she wouldn’t be put back on the work schedule until her injuries healed. Unfortunately, the waitress was unable to just go without pay for several weeks, and had to file for unemployment – which left the company in a really unpleasant situation…

If they refused to pony up their share of the unemployment benefits the waitress would receive, they ran the risk of being lambasted in the media, mocked by bloggers and Fark readers, and sued for any number of discriminatory offenses, real and imagined. But if they paid the claim to someone who had not, actually been fired they ran a very real risk of having to pay those same benefits to anyone who quit their jobs, or being lambasted and sued for quite real discriminatory practices (e.g. providing benefits to attractive women, but not other employees who might have chosen to quit for other reasons)…

Now, I know some of you are saying “It’s their own fault; they chose to have this idiotic dress code for their servers, they can live with the consequences!” And, in fact, you’re quite right. If Hooters hired people based entirely upon their abilities as servers and dressed them in, say, white long-sleeved shirts and black trousers, the waitress in our story could have been back on the job as soon as she was well enough to stand up. It is only because they have chosen to occupy a specialized business niche and provide a specialized version of casual dining with specialty personnel that they are experiencing this monetary expense and public relations nightmare. The point here is that, sooner or later, every specialty business is going to face a similar or identical problem…

Maybe a business that needs very tall people will have to deal with injuries sustained on the overhead fans; maybe a business that requires very small people will be sued by someone who was pulled off a roof while trying to pull something up on a rope; maybe a business that requires people with exceptional senses of smell will be sued for using the wrong brand of disinfectant in the restrooms. Unless your workforce is an exact cross-section of the people who live in your community, your business will have this same problem, albeit in a less cosmetic sense, sooner or later…

How are you going to deal with it?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Happy New Year 2009

I’m not sure if I’m going to start each new year off with a post about the changing of the seasons; it might get old after a while. But this particular New Years is being hailed as a change in the world, far more so than the rather anticlimactic “Millennium” celebrations of 2000 (or 2001), and even in business terms it seems like there are a few things worth talking about this week…

To begin with, the year seems to be showing at least a passing resemblance to another Inaugural year: 1933, to be specific. The current recession hasn’t yet become as dramatic as the economic crisis of that time, although there are still reasons to believe that it might, but it is clearly the economy hitting the bottom after a long fall that should not have surprised anyone, but somehow does. Specifically, we’ve been hearing a lot of talk about the decline in the stock market mirroring the Crash of 1929, and the potential/ongoing failure of financial institutions mirroring the bank failures of the Great Depression era, but no one seems to have connected the recently popped Real Estate Bubble with the failures of that time, particularly the Crash of 1929…

In the 1920s, insane greed and lack of judgment DID send the Stock Market spiraling up to unreasonable levels, much like the dot-com boom and Real Estate Bubble of our time did to tech stocks and real properties, respectively. This was facilitated, if not exactly caused by, several unsound investment practices, notably including buying securities on the margin (using a stock holding as collateral to borrow the money to purchase another stock holding, then repeating the process) which have subsequently been outlawed by both Federal law and common business practice. None of these were any more insane, in the wide view, than some of the lending practices that were going on just a few years ago – and some of them were essentially the same insane process…

None of those things can happen today, of course. In fact, the very idea of running a business in such a fashion would invite massive public ridicule for the few minutes you would have before the SEC descended on your company like a pack of hungry wolves on a cheeseburger. What I am suggesting is that the same kind of fundamental changes on how banks (and investors) do business is going to have to happen in the next few years. Just as all of the reformers trying to prevent the sort of unsound investment practices that resulted in the Crash of 1929 were finally proven right by a national disaster, so, too, will all of the people who have been campaigning against Predatory Lending and related practices see the reform they wanted – after the disaster they were trying to prevent has already devastated the country…

Then we have the inevitable comparisons between the Dust Bowl and the pending destruction of several American industries, starting with the Auto Companies. Will the new Presidential administration be able to prevent the loss of over 3 million jobs? Will they be able to stave off the losses in all of the other related industries, including ripples that really could return us to a time when a third of the country was out of work? If not, will they be able to recreate the New Deal programs that pulled the country back from the brink long enough for the economic recovery provided by the run-up to World War II to take effect? And if so, where will the next war come from, and will the country (and Planet Earth) be able to survive THAT calamity, whatever it turns out to be?

Once again, I’m quite sure I don’t know. But I’m fairly certain that we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and also that the man who will be (at least nominally) running the country in a few weeks knows enough history to recognize these parallel cases. I must therefore disagree with both the people who think they new year will bring with it doom and destruction as well as those who believe that the Millennium is finally upon us and Utopia is about to be realized in our time. From where I’m sitting, the new year is dawning upon a time of uncertainty, when both the best and the worst our nation has ever seen are possible. Stay tuned, folks; this could get interesting…