Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Nice Place to Visit

The hotel in New Jersey was incredibly convenient. The subway stop was right outside the door, and it's a short ride east to the World Trade Center station in Manhattan, and a short ride west to my company’s offices. Thank God I didn’t have to walk very far, because the temperature dropped into the teens overnight, and a howling wind made it feel like the North Pole.

My business unit is on the 10th floor, with an excellent view of New York harbor.


The office is surrounded by an incredible variety of small, ethnic restaurants, all within a short walk: Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Polish, Hispanic, and more. The local newsstand carries lots of foreign-language newspapers.


Thanks to the cold I caught from my wife, I spent the day sniffling and blowing my nose, trying to wash my hands frequently, because I was constantly being introduced to people, and had to shake their hands. The last thing I wanted to do was spread my misery for Christmas.

Because I had a temporary employee badge for the headquarters building, I couldn’t leave the office area to go to the bathroom without arranging for someone to let me back in. Rather than make a pest of myself, I chose to use paper towels from the coffee area instead of tissue. I might as well have used sandpaper. By the end of the day, my nose was raw and inflamed, my eyes were puffy and red, and I must have looked like crap. I went back to the hotel and flopped into bed without supper and slept for 13 hours.

Feeling better the next day, I took another excursion into Manhattan after work. This time, I went to midtown, where the Empire State Building still maintains a stolid, classic presence over the bustling city below.


I hobbled north, passing Macy’s department store. All my life I’ve heard about the effort they put into the store display windows for Christmas, but I’ve never seen it before. The displays are animated, high-tech and dazzling. I was unprepared for how impressive they were and how much they must have cost to design and install.

Eventually, I wound up in Times Square, which will be a seething mob of celebrants less than two weeks from now, fighting off the frigid temperatures with liberal use of alcohol. I’m glad I won’t be here for that. The weather forecast calls for 5 to 10 inches of snow this weekend, and I’m glad I won’t be here for that, either.


Santa Grabs a Cab

I've been traveling this week, up to New York City. My company flew me to their headquarters in New Jersey, right across the Hudson river from New York, which is where the company that owns my company is located.

As soon as I told my wife I would be leaving, she came down with a bad cold, and I caught it. As I was sniffling and snuffling and getting ready to leave, I lifted my suitcase to put it in the trunk and something went "sproing" in my back. By the time I arrived, I felt pretty miserable.

My company uses a car service to transport vistors from the airport, so I was met by a guy named Rageesh, holding a piece of paper with my name on it.


That was a first for me. Rageesh drove me to my hotel, in a big, cushy Lincoln Town Car. The car was a non-smoking car, which Rageesh had enforced by duct-taping the ashtrays closed.

The hotel was excellent, right on the river with spectacular views of lower Manhattan.


Unfortunately, the Goldman Sachs building obscures my view of the Statue of Liberty.


One of the reasons I haven’t written about the trip until now is because the hotel charges $10 a day for Internet service. Posted on the door of my room is a little sign that reads, “The maximum rate for this room is $873 per day.” I was offended that they felt the need to squeeze out that last little drop of blood, and I refused to pay the $10.

I didn't have to show up in the office until the next morning, so I took the PATH train into Manhattan, which involved a ride on the longest escalator I've ever seen. The thing gave me a case of vertigo.


As the train approaches the World Trade Center site, you can get a glimpse of the vast, complex subterranean work being done for the new building. Above ground, the equally huge metal skeleton of the new building has begun to rise above street level. Work goes on around the clock.


One place I've been curious to see is Amsterdam Billiards. It's an upscale poolhall owned by the comedian David Brenner. It used to be located on the Upper West Side, but the owners of the building forced them to move so they could tear down the building and construct luxury condominiums. Amsterdam Billiards moved to the East Village, and while it's large, well-appointed and comfortable, it now attracts a college student crowd, rather than an Upper West Side after-theater crowd.


Before long, wandering around lower Manhattan, I encountered something you don't see much in Florida: stairs. Between my cold, my sore back and my aching arthritic knees, I wasn't hustling around like the throngs of heavily-caffienated New Yorkers. So I decided to head back to the hotel and get some rest. On my way, I saw Santa Claus, holding his toy bag, standing at the curb flagging a cab. It must have been Rudolph’s night off.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Self-Serving Corporate Weasel

In 2007, Fiserv, Inc. acquired CheckFree Corporation for more than 4 billion dollars. The founder, chairman and CEO of CheckFree, Pete Kight, became the Vice-Chairman of Fiserv, Inc., and was appointed to the board of directors. He’s been quiet for a couple of years, learning which buttons he can push and finding ways to spend his cut of the 4 billion dollars.

On Tuesday of this week, Fiserv employees (there are 20,000 of them) were surprised to receive the following e-mail message from Mr. Kight:

    From: Fiserv Corporate Communications
    Sent: Tuesday, December 08, 2009 2:34 PM
    To: [OMITTED]
    Subject: Message from Pete Kight: An Opportunity to Share in Success

    My fellow associates:

    Through the good fortune of working with associates such as you, I have had the opportunity to acquire a winery, Quivira Vineyards, in the Dry Creek Valley appellation of Sonoma, CA. As many of you know (because you've had to suffer through some of my impassioned discussions on the subject), my time in the vineyards and winery – as we meet the biological challenges, chemistry and artistic challenges in winemaking, and physical nature of the work – is a significant juxtaposition to the daily work I share with you in the world of technology. Because of Quivira's marvelous location in the inland coastal foothills, the all organic-biodynamic vineyards, the opportunity to work with a world-class winemaker, and the surprising success of the resulting wines so far… I feel very fortunate.

    For quite a while I've been thinking about a way to share my gratitude with those who have worked beside me and helped me create this marvelous opportunity. After all, it is all that we have developed together in leading financial services technology over the years that made Quivira possible for me. There is always an open invitation to any associate who finds an opportunity to head north out of San Francisco to visit the winery, to have a personal tour, and to experience personal wine tasting. But recognizing I won't be able to thank too many people that way, and in keeping with our technological heritage, the opportunity to extend thanks to all of you recently presented itself when we updated and upgraded the website. Effective today, any Fiserv associate who wants to purchase any wine from can enter a special code at checkout, and 20 percent will automatically deduct from the price of the wine. The code is: [OMITTED]

    Please note that this isn't a solicitation. The wine will all sell out and I'm not trying to boost sales. The 20 percent represents my margin, and is simply my way of saying "thank you" to everyone who helped me build this company over the past 25+ years. You should feel as if you have a bit of a stake in making Quivira possible, and this is the best way I can think of to share it with you.

    Thanks for making it all possible.

    Pete Kight
    Vice Chairman

I’m always delighted to see examples of corporate executives waving their private parts in public. Mr. Kight, sensing a free marketing opportunity, used the Fiserv corporate mailing list to broadcast an open solicitation to people who depend on him to make their mortgage payments. Fiserv explicitly prohibits workplace solicitation by employees, as described in the following policy statement:

    Workplace Solicitation

    Fiserv business unit or corporate management may periodically allow selected non-profit organizations to solicit voluntary contributions from, or distribute information materials to, Fiserv associates in the workplace. Any actual or implied pressure to make such a contribution or accept such information materials constitutes harassment under the Code. Workplace solicitation or information distribution not approved by business unit or corporate management is prohibited because it may pose conflicts of interest, create discomfort among solicited associates, and cause distraction from normal business operations.

Mr. Kight is indeed fortunate, because can simply approve his own solicitation, enabling him to flaunt his wealth and engage in personal sales activities with impunity.

His arrogant declaration that it’s not a solicitation merely serves to illuminate the fact that it is. But I'm especially fond of his attempt to "spin" the ugly sales pitch as a gilded thank-you note. It comes off cheap and tasteless, much like I expect the wine to be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Midnight vs. Midnight

We have a black cat, named Midnight. He’s sweet and friendly, but not one of those cats that sleeps curled up on your pillow with his anus in your face all night. So while I’m not exactly a cat person, this one comes pretty close to perfect.


Unfortunately, we live in a part of the country that has a lot of predatory wildlife, so we don’t let him out of the house. He can use the cat door to get out onto the screened-in pool deck, but that’s as close to nature as we allow him to go. Nevertheless, sometimes he escapes, and spends a heart-thumping night creeping around in the woods. But he always shows up the next morning, meowing to be let in so he can get some food and some sleep.

One day, I looked out in the yard and saw him slinking along outside the pool screen. I went out to catch him, only to discover that it was a different black cat. Unlike our cat, this one wore a collar. To my amusement, the tag said his name was Midnight, and he belonged to the new neighbors across the street.

My Midnight and the new Midnight don’t get along. The new Midnight wanders casually along the outside perimeter of the pool screen enclosure, while my Midnight stalks him from the inside. They used to growl and spit at each other, but now the new Midnight will drop by once in awhile and piss on a bush to claim it, while my Midnight just lies on the diving board and gives him the finger.

Shortly after I discovered the existence of the new Midnight, I was out in the yard pulling weeds. The new Midnight wandered over and sat next to a ligustrum tree next to our house. When he was sure I noticed him, he scrambled up the trunk into the canopy, climbed out onto a branch and made a short jump onto our roof.

Like many homes in Florida, we have a ranch house. It’s all one floor, but the architect designed it with two fake dormers so that it would appear to have a second floor. The fake dormers cover actual holes in the roof. These have been cut to enable the henpecked homeowner to climb into the attic and hang pretty curtains in the windows of the dormers, heightening the illusion of a second floor.

Under the eaves of the dormers are soffit vents, with plastic covers to keep out the squirrels.


The covers aren’t fastened, they just clip into the vent holes.


While these covers are effective squirrel-prevention devices, they’re no match for a cat. I suddenly noticed that the new Midnight had pulled out all of the easily-reached vent covers and, turning back to make sure I was watching, he jumped up into the dormer and disappeared. Now he had access to the entire attic area of our house, and spent frequent evenings prowling around up there, to the clear dismay of my Midnight, who spent hours staring at the ceiling.

I tried replacing the soffit vent covers, but the new Midnight just pulled them out again. So I hired a guy to replace the plastic vent covers with perforated aluminum, fastened with screws. It cost me a hundred and fifty dollars. I have no idea if the new Midnight was sealed inside or if he was watching from across the street.



And yeah, that stuff on the outside of the dormers is mildew. I have to buy an extension hose for my pressure washer so that I can climb a ladder and risk my life to remove it. While I’m up there spraying, I kind of hope the thirsty, emaciated cat hops up into the dormer window begging me to let him out. I plan to give him the finger.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Redneck Rodeo

Every year, a local racetrack closes out its racing season with an event called Crash-A-Rama. It’s a series of novelty events designed to appeal to lowbrows like myself, and it’s billed as a “Redneck Rodeo.” It involves lots of races in which the destruction of opposing vehicles is actually the primary objective of every driver, and a key element to winning.

All of my male friends expressed keen interest in joining me for this absurd treat, but it fell on the day after Thanksgiving. Most of those who are married had houses full of family staying for the weekend, so despite pitiful begging, they couldn’t get their wives to let them out for one night. I wound up going alone.

The parking lot for the track is a gigantic empty field, and it was filled almost to capacity when I arrived, seven minutes before the show was about to start. To my dismay, there was a huge line of people waiting to get in. Just then, a man approached the line, pointed and announced, “If you have exact change, we’ve opened another entrance just over there.” Thirty people, including myself, bolted for the second entrance. I was admitted to the track within a minute.

The track has two grandstands, one along the side where I entered, and another on the far side. The stands on my side were packed, but the stands on the far side only had a few people in them. I walked over to the other side, and found a mob of people crushed together in front of a small gate. Track officials were admitting people one by one, and requiring them to pay an extra $5 for seating. Disgusted, I walked back to the other side of the track.

As I approached the center of the grandstand, I noticed an empty space between two people in the front row. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was able to grab one of the best seats in the house, only about 15 feet from the finish line. The only bad thing about it was the safety screen, designed to protect the people in the grandstand from flying auto parts, and believe me, there were going to be lots of flying auto parts. It wasn’t an obstruction for me personally, but it did hinder photography.


This particular track is only a quarter-mile long, with banked turns. It can be configured for lots of different events. The first race was a standard race, but using junkyard-ready cars on a kidney-shaped track arrangement. Adding the tight chicane meant that there would be lots of vehicle contact, and there was. The race was won by the car that avoided the other cars most successfully.


The next two events were called “Roller Derby” races. The race is run by teams of drivers, three cars to a team. The car in front is called the “puck car,” and it’s not running. The driver can only steer and brake. The next car is called the “pusher car.” The driver of that car attempts to push the “puck car” around the track for the specified number of laps. The third car is the “enforcer car.” The job of the “enforcer” is to keep other “enforcers” away from his team’s “puck-pusher” combination, or to disrupt the “puck-pusher” combination of other teams. By “disrupt,” I mean “destroy.” This race is run on an oval track.


As you can just tell from this photo, there was plenty of carnage. Some “pusher cars” wound up pushing mangled wrecks around the track, with what I suppose were mangled drivers in them. Kids, if you want to grow up and be a race car driver, try not to drive the "puck car."


I was impressed by this driver (the "enforcer" of the winning team), who drove a modified hearse with some kind of plow welded to the front, completing the entire race with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.


The next race was something called a “Skid Race,” once again on an oval track. In this event, each car was a front-wheel drive vehicle. The rear wheels were mounted on a pair of metal skis, which threw up a giant rooster-tail of sparks. The cars fishtailed all over the track, pinwheeling out of control at the slightest bump or steering error.

After the “Skid Race,” they set the track up for a “Flagpole Race.” In this event, a “pole” (actually just a junk car) was set up in the infield, just at the center of one straightaway. Cars raced around the track, then had to careen around the pole and reenter traffic. “That’s where it gets tricky,” said the announcer, a master of understatement. Cars often had to circle very wide around the pole, because of all the wrecked or disabled vehicles surrounding it.


Just before intermission, an unusual vehicle was brought out onto the track. It’s a jet-powered car called Green Mamba. This car is capable of going 300 miles per hour, but it’s nearly useless on a quarter-mile track. It crept slowly around the oval, and on each straightaway, the driver would enrich the mixture and belch a 30-foot tail of flame to amuse the children.


The announcer promised that at the end of the show, Green Mamba would return, and they would use it as a gigantic blowtorch to “burn a bus.” That sounded quite spectacular, but it’s not why I was there.

Finally, they set up for the event I came to see: The Figure-8 Track School bus Race. Twelve junk school busses drove onto the track, which was set up in a figure-8 configuration.


When the race started, the busses were in a fairly tight group. But after the third lap, they had spread out to the point where almost every bus approaching the intersection had to thread the needle between other busses crossing in front of them. There were moments of gut-wrenching terror. Eventually, the inevitable happened, and two busses collided. The bus that was struck rolled completely over, and officials stopped the race to verify that the driver was alive (he was).

There were lots of personnel on the track, used to remove debris between events. They were safely tucked away behind concrete barricades set up in the infield portions of the figure-8. However, one ambulance and one tow truck were parked outside these safe havens, so that they could render aid quickly, if necessary. Some young people lounged on the back of the tow truck, chatting – they had seen lots of these races. Suddenly, two busses collided in the intersection, and one of them careened out of control directly at the tow truck. The faces on the young people were priceless, as they suddenly realized they were about to become part of the show. Fortunately, the driver of the bus was able to recover and slam on the brakes at the last instant, bringing the bus to a screeching, smoking halt inches from the tow truck.

After that exciting spectacle, the track ran a “Boat and Trailer Race” on an oval track. Each vehicle had to tow a boat on a trailer, and to win, had to finish with at least a partial boat or a partial trailer. So the obvious strategy was to demolish the other boats. One guy showed up with a monster truck pulling a cabin cruiser. He was good at demolition, but too slow to win. Boats on trailers don’t corner well, so there was a lot of wreckage on the track after only a couple of laps, and the vehicles that were left were crashing into the wreckage at high speed. The carnage generated a lot of choking smoke, which seemed to delight the crowd.


The final race of the evening was what’s called a “Camper Trailer Race.” In this race, each vehicle must tow some kind of camper trailer or house trailer. One guy had a house trailer with a Christmas tree set up. When it started to fall apart, it dumped a gas stove onto the track.

By then, I was so jaded from this orgy of destruction, I decided to leave rather than hang around for the bus-burning. It's hard to drive a car after you've been watching this kind of thing. I was mentally daring someone to cut me off. Especially if they were towing a boat.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Too Many Muhammads

My new job has a “business casual” dress code every day of the week. For the past six weeks, they’ve been doing something they call “Denim Day” on Fridays, but it’s not what you think. We’re allowed to wear jeans if we pay a minimum of five dollars for the privilege, which is then donated to a local charity, such as Meals on Wheels. I flatly refuse to pay money to wear jeans, as though I’m bribing a prison guard to let me keep a parakeet in my cell.

One problem I’m facing is that this company has a higher standard of “business casual” than I’m used to. The shirts are dressy and crisp, the pants are high quality and the shoes are shiny. Over the years, my “business casual” clothing collection has become outdated and shabby, so I needed to do the one thing I despise: I had to shop for clothes.

My first stop was Casual Male, because I’m long-waisted and require my shirts to be cut long. I’ve never shopped there before. Even though I’m 6”1’ and weigh 230 pounds, it seems that I’m a tiny little elf as far as Casual Male is concerned.

I went to Burlington Coat Factory to take advantage of their low prices, but it seems the bulk of their merchandise is designed to make you look “urban” rather than “urbane.” You don't see many people in the banking profession flashing gang signs.

Finally, I went to JCPenney (that’s how they spell it). In the shoe department, I was greeted by an incredibly attentive and polite salesman. When I made my purchase, he gave me the receipt and explained that if I complete an online survey, I can print out a coupon good for 15% off almost anything in the store on my next visit. “Be sure to enter my name,” he told me, and wrote “Muhammad” on the receipt. I promised that I would, and thanked him for his help.

I wandered around for a little while, and picked up a couple of additional items in the men’s department. When I checked out, the clerk printed my receipt and gave me the same information about the survey. “Please enter my name when you finish the survey,” he asked, and wrote his name on the receipt: “Muhammad.”

So how does JCPenney know which Muhammad to reward for their service excellence? One of them was an outstanding employee; the other was just running a cash register. Who designed this stupid system? Was his name “Muhammad?”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Team Building Exercises

My new company requires all new employees to attend seven full days of Human Resources training as part of their orientation. Some of it will be quite substantive, delving into business unit organization, the business of securities brokerages, and the internal mechanisms of asset management. But a lot of it is Human Resources nonsense, designed to establish the boundaries of tolerable behavior and rules to enforce conformity, hidden behind management buzzwords like “responsibility” and “service.”

Some of it is laughable. For example, we had to watch a Powerpoint presentation that must have been created in the early 80’s and shown to hundreds of employees over the years, but which nonetheless was laden with typos and grammatical errors. And we watched a video on the subject of business dining etiquette, hosted by an older woman who discussed the use of silverware, chewing with your mouth open, paying the bill, etc., all delivered in a condescending tone as though we had all been raised by wolves.

Today we focused on Team Building Exercises, a concept that normally sends a shiver down my spine. These exercises in futility are typically so embarrassing and demeaning that the only thing I learn from them is to avoid teams at all costs.

The “facilitator” divided the nine new employees taking training this week into two teams. Our first assignment was to name our team, define the word “team,” and compile a list of our individual strengths. It was definitely a low point for me. At least the facilitator refrained from gushing over the bullshit we were being forced to shovel.

But then, the day took an odd turn; it got interesting. Each team was given 12 soda straws, 18 inches of masking tape, and a golf ball. We were required to develop a mechanism that would enable us to drop the golf ball from six feet that would prevent it from touching the floor. Only three straws were permitted to touch the floor. We could hold the ball to drop it, but we couldn’t touch the mechanism. It was a challenging problem, and we had only about 10 minutes to solve it. The teams used very different designs.

The other team made a platform, supported by three straws, onto which they attempted to drop the golf ball. It didn’t work of course, because the ball simply bounced off the platform onto the floor. Our solution consisted of wrapping the ball in three triangles made from straws, and then taping the straws to the ball, leaving two small areas of the ball exposed for fingers to touch it. When we dropped the ball, it bounded around for a while and settled onto two of the straws, held off the floor by a fraction of an inch. I was so pleased, I completely lost sight of the fact that I was working for a banking company, and dropping golf balls would probably not be part of my duties.

Finally, we were presented with a bizarre survival problem. We were told that our team’s airplane had crashed in a wilderness area of sub-arctic northern Canada in late October. We were alive and unhurt, but we were wet, and the temperatures were below freezing. We had salvaged fifteen items from the crash, which included a compass, a box of matches, an axe, 50 feet of rope, an inner tube, a bottle of 151 proof rum, a flashlight, and so on.

We were asked to rank the items by importance to our survival. Then, the teams met to come up with a “consensus” ranking of those items. So those who put the compass first on the list had to defend that choice against those who selected matches. We wound up ranking matches first and the axe second. One of the guys on my team, who is not particularly bright, thought that we ranked the axe second on the list because we would use the matches to burn the axe for warmth. We eventually made him understand the value of the axe. I live in Florida, and people here just don’t understand cold at all.

Eventually, the facilitator showed us a video of a member of the Canadian Forest Service Rangers who explained the true survival ranking of each item. A score for each team was calculated, and my team won by a large margin. After the round of congratulatory fist-bumps, I started to wonder why a banking company would want to develop good team-building skills in a disaster scenario where no typical banking resources were available. Perhaps they know something about the future that I don’t know. I confess the words “zombie apocalypse” crossed my mind.

The facilitator told us that when he took the training, he was on a team with two other guys. They decided that the best survival strategy was to try and walk out of the wilderness, but one rule stated that if you wanted to leave the crash site, you could only carry one item each. They decided to carry the matches, the axe and the rum. “You all died,” joked one of the participants, “but at least one of you died drunk.”

“Yes,” he replied, “but not the one who was carrying the rum.”

“What do you mean?” asked the participant. “Who died drunk?”

He smiled knowingly. “The one with the axe.”

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Empty Wastebaskets

My first week at my new job has been something of a radical culture shock. At my last job, I wore jeans and t-shirts, worked on easy projects that I finished ahead of schedule, and spent the rest of my day checking my e-mail and reading blogs. Those days are gone forever. I have entered a realm of ponderous bureaucracy, inflexible rules and strange company culture.

I’m forced to wear “business casual” clothing, which I despise, because I just look sloppy in it. If I have to look sloppy, at least let me wear jeans and t-shirts so it seems intentional.

Security is very tight, sometimes incomprehensibly so. For example, one business unit is sealed off behind electronically locked doors that separate it from another business unit. This isn’t because either business unit could somehow violate the security of the other, it’s because their revenues are accounted for in different ways, and in the banking industry, that’s equivalent to having offices next to a lab housing rabies-infected monkeys.

The wastebasket beneath my desk seems to have no purpose, because I’m not allowed to throw trash in it. Corporate documents must be deposited in locked bins on the other side of the building so that they can be shredded. Cans, bottles and garbage must be hand carried to the lounge area and deposited in garbage cans. So I’m afraid to throw anything in the wastebasket, even Kleenex.

My computer is heavily protected and the content I can view is filtered through a carefully-controlled firewall. I can’t read blogs or personal e-mail. Worse, there’s no software installed on the machine that’s newer than 2003. Bankers are conservative, and they want to make sure all those nifty new productivity features that Microsoft introduced in 2007 aren’t really just evil Chinese spyware designed to destroy our economic system.

In fact, I can’t read any e-mail at all, because this company uses Lotus Notes, and for some unknown reason, it doesn’t work for me. Corporate management, in their wisdom, limited the scope of different IT groups, so that one single disgruntled employee can’t shut them down completely. One employee does one little part of the task to fix my system, and then passes the task along to another IT guy in some other location who does the next part, and so on. If anything fails during this process, it all goes back to square one and we start over.

My boss called me today, and I answered the phone conventionally: “Hello.” She laughed and told me I had answered the phone incorrectly. Apparently, there’s some corporate script I have to follow, that wasn’t explained to me by Human Resources. She promised to e-mail it to me, but my e-mail isn’t working yet. So now I’m afraid to answer the phone, which means the IT guys won’t be able to tell me when my e-mail is working.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


I’ve had my fingerprints recorded twice in my life: Once when I was 11 years old, and again on Friday.

When I was a kid, my parents enrolled me in the Cub Scouts for awhile, which consisted mostly of hanging out at someone’s house and doing stupid crafts projects. It was really just an extension of the adult babysitting network. When I turned 11, they convinced me to join the Boy Scouts, which was really just an extension of the juvenile justice system.

I’m sure some kids had a wonderful Scouting experience, learning knots and Indian lore and all that crap. But in my case, it was terrifying. Every kid in my Scout troop was a vicious delinquent, and the only reason they stuck with the Scouting program was because it gave them easy access to knives and guns. I called them “hyenas,” but never to their face.

I attended lots of events, such as campouts, Jamborees and exhibitions. Campouts were the worst, because the adults would hang out around a campfire drinking, and the younger kids were left to fend for themselves, out in the dark woods in the company of psychopaths. We would set up our tents and then disappear, huddling in the mosquito-infested woods until the hyenas lost interest.

On one campout, one of the hyenas brought a large package of firecrackers. He and his buddies spent most of the early evening catching frogs in a nearby pod. They caught a hundred or so, which he kept in a bucket. Every few minutes or the rest of the night, he would stuff a firecracker into the mouth of a frog, light the fuse, and let it hop away. Boom.

He was thrown out of the Boy Scouts a year later for dousing another kid’s tent with kerosene and setting it on fire, with the kid inside, sleeping.

At one exhibition, various groups of Boy Scouts were working on merit badges, and had set up booths for public demonstrations. Some were cooking, some were making arrowheads, some were demonstrating Ham Radio sets, and one group was taking fingerprints as part of the Criminology category of merit badges.

They demonstrated the procedure for me, rolling my fingertips on an inked pad, and then carefully pressing them into the corresponding locations on a fingerprint card. When they finished, I asked what they would do with the dozens of fingerprint cards they had collected. “We send them to the FBI,” they told me.

I’ve thought about this many times over the years, wondering if he was joking, or if somewhere in the basement of the FBI building, there’s a fingerprint card with my 11-year old signature on it. The requirements of the merit badge say nothing about sending the fingerprint cards to the FBI, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. I’d like to believe that the FBI has fingerprint cards for all of those future serial killers in my Boy Scout troop.

Fifty years later, as part of the requirements of my new job, I had to be fingerprinted and photographed. It’s a holdover from the days when banks of this type actually handled money instead of electronic representations of money. Security is very tight. The door to the office area is locked from the inside, and a uniformed guard sits outside, verifying that anyone wishing to enter has a proper ID badge. All of this security is necessary because there are Boy Scouts out there somewhere.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Slums of Heaven

For generations, people have been searching for the answer to the ultimate spiritual question, “What is the Meaning of Life?” But it’s a stupid question, because it’s loaded, vague and subject to personal interpretation.

First of all, the question presumes that life has meaning. Life may be meaningless; get over it.

Secondly, the answer to the question, if there is one, is different for everyone, because what’s meaningful for one person may not be meaningful to another. Does the answer have anything to do with God? Love? Responsibility? Ethics? Brotherhood? Afterlife? Personal Growth? Victory? Humility? The list goes on and on. Pick one - that’s your category of “meaning.” Your neighbor will pick something different. Even if you manage to work out some sort of “meaning,” people with the same category will come up with different answers.

But the worst part of the ultimate question is that even if you find the answer, it’s useless, because you can’t trust it. How many people will actually accept the answer if it disagrees with their expectations? Most people will engage in “curve fitting,” adjusting the answer until it falls into their belief system. Those who triumphantly claim to have found the answer are lying to you, but worse, they’re lying to themselves.

For these reasons, it occurred to me that people have been asking the wrong question. There’s a much better question. One that isn’t loaded or vague. The answer will differ for everyone, but that’s OK, because it’s a personal question, and everyone already knows the answer.

Call me a cynic, but I think the answer can be found on page one in the playbook of every salesperson who ever walked the earth: “How much are you willing to pay?” Car salesmen who work on commission have been asking this sly question for a century, lulling the customer into a sense of control.

This question can be applied to every situation, every decision, and every moral quandary. It has nothing to do with money, although in the case of moral quandaries, money is often a factor. Payment can be measured in time, energy, consequences, etc.

For example, most people devote one day a week to spiritual maintenance. Is that enough? How many days a week are you willing to attend church services to ensure that your personal relationship with God isn’t leaking oil?

And for those worried about an afterlife, how much are you willing to pay to get an acceptable deal for eternity? If you believe in reincarnation, how much karma are you prepared to deposit to come back as a higher mammal instead of an intestinal parasite?

Some people are incapable of answering these questions for themselves, so they rely on others to give them an answer. That’s why we have a clergy who dictate the price (prayer, music, lectures, community service). But if they work on the same principal as salesmen, they’re getting a commission, which they cash in after death to live in a nicer part of heaven. Do you suppose that heaven has slums? That’s where I’m headed.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Most Unpopular Guy in the Room

I haven’t written anything about this particular topic, because I didn’t want the wrong people to see it. But it’s reached the point where I can talk about it.

About a month ago, I got a phone call from an internal recruiter for a very large bank headquartered in New York City. During the five months I was unemployed, I must have fired off two or three hundred resumes, and one of them had finally percolated down through the layers of bureaucracy at this particular institution. The wheels turn very slowly in banks, despite the efforts of bankers to stop them completely.

The recruiter told me that they’ve opened up an office near where I live, intended to house portions of their business that don’t need to be in New York. He described the position they had available, which would be a radical departure from the work I’ve been doing for over 30 years. Since the 1970’s, I’ve been a Technical Writer, producing thousands of pages of user’s manuals for software and electronics products. In other words, I write books that nobody reads.

In this new job, I would be documenting banking policies and procedures, not products. The purpose of this documentation is to satisfy government regulatory agencies, who are under fire from government lawmakers for failing to properly regulate banking activities in the past decade. Ironically, this is the primary reason that millions of people around the world, including me, were out of work in the first place.

The regulatory agencies will review the documents I write to verify that the bank practices are in accordance with federal laws and regulations. In the banking industry, this is known by the term “compliance,” and it’s a deadly serious business. The Compliance department at a bank is equivalent to the Internal Affairs department at police headquarters. As one of the managers who interviewed me said, “You’ll be the most unpopular guy in the room.” No problem, I’m used to that.

I interviewed with a total of four people over several weeks. This particular bank is what’s known as a “custodian bank.” That’s a bank that provides services to other banks. They’re profitable whether the economy is doing well or doing poorly, because they make their money on transactions, whether the money is coming in or going out.

They made me a verbal offer that was $15,000 a year more than I make now. I don't know what came over me, but in the middle of a terrible recession, I turned it down and demanded $20,000. Three days later, which is positively warp speed for a bank, they agreed - but with the condition that I interview with two additional senior managers, who apparently wanted to meet The Man With Brass Balls. Those interviews went well, and they sent me the formal offer.

So today I gave my notice at my current job, which I’ve only held for six months. I was hired as a Technical Writer, but the job is actually something I call “Software Paleontology.” This is where a software product has been around for a long time, undergone dozens of revisions, and nobody has kept track of anything.

There are features in the software that no one knows how to use, because the developer that wrote the code is long gone, and there are no specifications or documentation of any kind. Nobody is using these features, but management can’t spare software engineers to remove them from the product – they’re too busy working on new features for which there are no specifications. I spend most of my day digging for tidbits of information that will enable me to formulate plausible descriptions of product features that nobody uses. It’s unfulfilling, and people cringe when they see me coming. I’m the most unpopular guy in the room.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Betrayed by Aluminum

In the course of civilization, numerous social conventions have developed for the sake of efficiency, safety or courtesy. One example is the handshake. Another is driving on one side of the road. My favorite is the line (known as a “queue” in some cultures), in which people line up to take their turn receiving a service.

Over time, lines have been abstracted by “take a number” systems, so the line doesn’t have to physically exist. Express lines have been created to speed checkout in the supermarket so the guy who only has a six-pack of beer doesn’t have to wait for Octomom to buy her weekly groceries. But the concept of the line still exists: First come, first served.

Regardless of the form it takes, the most essential component of line formation is trust. Members of the line trust that other members of the line won’t attempt to change position, and that the service provider will respect the order of the line.

However, last night my trust was betrayed. I was waiting in line at Federal Express to pick up a package. The clerk called me forward and took the package claim slip from me. Normally, the clerk would leave to go into the back room, pick up the package and return to have me sign for it. But this time, another clerk happened to be walking by on his way to the back room, and offered to pick up the package. My clerk handed my claim slip to him, turned around, and said, “Can I help the next person in line?”

Some guy with a huge, heavy box that had been poorly taped together came forward and heaved the box on the counter. He was sending it to Africa. He wanted insurance. He hadn’t filled out a shipping label. He didn’t speak English very well. When she asked what was in the box to establish a value, all he would tell her was “Aluminum.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had been bumped from the line! While the clerk was dealing with Big Box Guy, the second clerk returned from the back room and dropped my package on the counter. It sat there for twenty minutes until the clerk finally wrapped up with Big Box Guy. During that time, every other customer in the office completed their business with the other clerk, who disappeared into the back room after the last one left.

I understand that the clerk was attempting to use what would otherwise be considered “down time” to improve service for the other customers. But she accepted a task that ruined the service for me. I’m not a violent man, but I wanted to hit her over the head with a big box of aluminum.

Friday, September 25, 2009

We Don't Need No Stinking Lobsters

Today is my last day in Lafayette, Louisiana, a comfortable, charming small town full of pleasant, courteous people and fantastic food. If I lived here, I’d weigh 600 pounds.

The city is pretty much the Cajun capital of Louisiana. Many of the people speak with a pronounced French accent. Public buildings are often labeled in French and English, and street signs alternate between English with a small French sub-label and French with a small English sub-label.

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Lots of interesting older buildings have been renovated, giving the older sections of the city a hip, funky appeal.

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Music is readily available, but it’s usually traditional Cajun or contemporary Zydeco, both of which make heavy use of the accordion. If you don’t like the accordion, it can wear on you.

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But the food is the real draw here, especially seafood (which includes freshwater delicacies such as catfish, crawfish and alligator). Unlike Florida, most of the restaurants are unique family establishments. Sure, they have chain restaurants like Olive Garden and fast-food franchises like McDonald’s and Taco Bell, but those are concentrated around the university area. Downtown, it’s a different story.

Cajuns take pride in their seafood dishes. One resident told me that Red Lobster tried to open a restaurant here, which quickly failed. “Who would eat that mess?” he asked.

Cajun food is simple, but delicious and always expertly prepared. Rich Gumbo soups, shrimp and crawfish etouffe, rice stuffing, fried oysters (my favorite), and much more.

Tonight is my last night here. It’s going to be difficult returning to Florida, where unique, interesting restaurants are almost extinct, and people willingly eat at Red Lobster.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hot Stuff

I drove down to Avery Island, Louisiana to tour the Tabasco plant. Technically, I suppose it is an island, because it’s surrounded on all sides by water. But it’s just slow-moving black-water bayous surrounding a large natural dome-shaped salt deposit.

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Avery Island started as a salt mine, which was destroyed by Union forces during the Civil War. The owners returned after the war and restored production, which they now lease to a salt mining company.

After the Civil War, oil was discovered; it’s often found near natural salt deposits. The oil is still being pumped from the island. But the salt and oil operations are concealed from public view. Everything is carefully managed to preserve its natural beauty, and the island functions as a wildlife sanctuary for thousands of migratory birds.

The island and its production facilities are owned by the McIlhenny family. In 1868, one of the family members invented Tabasco sauce and sold about 600 bottles. Today they produce over 700,000 bottles every day and ship them all over the world.

To enter the island, tourists cross the bayou over this small bridge to the gatehouse.

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Because the gatehouse is on the right side, the attendant extends a broom handle through the passenger window. On the end of the broom handle is a spring-loaded clothespin holding a parking permit. You take the permit and clip a dollar onto the clothespin, then drive up to the main factory building.

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I took a tour of the factory, which was a little disappointing because production was shut down on Sunday. There are a few dusty exhibits, then a brief film. Afterwards, we walked past a long window looking out onto the factory floor, ending in another dusty exhibit room. But I learned a lot.

Only two percent of the peppers used to make Tabasco sauce are grown on Avery Island. The rest are grown in Central and South America. They’re shipped to Avery Island, where all of the production takes place.

The peppers are crushed into a pulp and then poured into oak barrels. A hole is drilled in the lid, which is then covered with coarse salt mined on the island. The salt enables fermentation gases to escape, but prevents intrusion of bacteria. Fermentation takes three years, then the resulting glop is mixed with vinegar and other ingredients, stirred for about a month, and bottled. They re-use the barrels over and over. Some are a hundred years old.

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There’s a gift shop nearby, where you can buy t-shirts, key rings, china, Christmas ornaments and jewelry emblazoned with the Tabasco logo. You can also buy a wide variety of Tabasco sauce products, sold in all sizes from an eighth of an ounce to full gallon bottles. A freezer holds these massive bags of dried pepper pulp, which are used when boiling crawfish Cajun style.

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With the salt mine, the oil wells and the Tabasco factory, I think it’s safe to say that the McIlhenney family has money. I’m sure their kids have no trouble finding a date for the prom. I wonder if they carry pepper spray.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Open Containers

Sandy and I decided to drive to New Orleans on Saturday. But Saturday was also the day of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette vs. Louisiana State University football game, a traditionally bitter contest that draws an enormous throng of football fans from all over the state. In fact, the stadium seats over 92,000 people, which is about 2% of the entire population of Louisiana. So we decided to avoid Baton Rouge, where the game was being played, and took the southern route along the coastal bayou region.

We passed lots of these little “truck stop casinos,” which are only permitted to offer slot machines. Large casinos can offer table games, but we only saw a couple of those.


Another peculiar thing we saw were these little drive-through Daiquiri stands. Yes, you heard me correctly.

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In Louisiana, you’re permitted to drive with an alcoholic drink that has a cover, which is considered to be a sealed container. If there’s a straw in the drink, it’s considered to be an open container. So these Daiquiri stands sell you a drink in a plastic cup that has a plastic lid with a straw poking through a hole in the lid. If you get pulled over, all you have to do is remove the straw and you’re legal. If you leave the straw in the drink, you’re busted.

You can also walk almost anywhere with a drink in your hand in Louisiana, as long as it’s not in a glass bottle. It’s technically illegal, but the police don’t enforce it, particularly in New Orleans. If you’re drinking from a bottle in a bar and you want to leave, the bartender will give you a “to go” cup and pour your beer into it.

Another strange thing you see here is the bartenders. The drinking age is 21, but you can tend bar at the age of 18. So lots of bartenders are too young to drink the products they sell.

When we arrived in New Orleans, we didn’t travel through the areas that were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. But you do see some houses that are in rough shape, possibly as the result of neglect. Others are just old.

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We took a walk though Jackson Square, chuckling at the fortune tellers and street performers. But it was a brutally hot day, and cold beer started to seem like a good idea. Bourbon Street is only a couple of blocks away. We found a place called Huge Ass Beers with a guy holding a sign out front. I gave him a couple of bucks to let me have this picture taken.

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The beers are served in huge, tub-like plastic cups. Here’s the bartender, standing by a tip jar labeled “Huge Ass Tips.” Sandy and I wondered why she didn’t have a huge ass, which would make perfect sense.

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I used the bathroom, which I’m sure has been the site of some awful events. The walls were covered with the usual obscene graffiti and crude anatomical drawings, but also bore this testament to the success of the bar.

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Just down the street is another bar that hasn’t managed to think big enough.


It occurred to me that there’s a business opportunity for someone to open “Ginormous Ass Beers.”

When we left New Orleans, we drove north across the Lake Ponchartrain bridge, which is 24 miles long. It’s a marvelous feat of brute force engineering.

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In our efforts to avoid Baton Rouge, we circled north around the city, eventually arriving in the tiny city of St. Francisville. An automobile ferry crosses the Mississippi River at this point, which costs one dollar. The ferry runs every half hour. Here’s the ferry landing. You can just barely see the ferry approaching from the other side in the twilight.

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The ferry is a wide boat with a wheelhouse in the center. Cars drive on from the side of the boat, circle around the wheelhouse, and exit from the other side.

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The view of the mighty river during the crossing was breathtaking.

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Unfortunately, the oncoming darkness proved to be too much for our navigation skills, and we got lost in the rural back roads of Louisiana for a couple of hours before finally finding our way home. Worse, the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns lost to LSU. They’ve never beaten LSU. In fact, they haven’t scored a touchdown against LSU since 1924, a streak of bad luck that they were unable to break that night. I’m not a football fan, but it seems as though everyone else in Louisiana is. That means our customers, who live in Lafayette, will be unhappy about the loss on Monday. The good news is that Bernie is doing the training, so they’ll take it out on him.