How To Have A Small Business


There are over nine ways to get your own small business. The quickest to start is to locate some large business that nobody’s paying particular attention to, and hit them with the full might of your shrink ray. If you then have a large enough bottle you can keep the business in your home as a convenient profit-generating center. If you do this make sure to poke some holes in the lid to let fresh air in. But this approach, while it skips many of the harder parts of getting set up, does have its lasting costs, not to mention the trouble of dropping in needed business supplies like shrunken lunches and miniature dry-erase markers and ISO 9.001 certification. Plus if they develop superpowers in the shrinking you’re in for all sorts of headaches. Small headaches, yes, but they might be persistent.

Taking a medium-size business and shrinking it a little bit is generally safer. But this, ironically, requires a larger floor plan to fit the appropriate scale. Putting the businesses close enough to HO scale means the disparity will be noticed only by the most exacting train enthusiasts. Three-quarters of all model railroad layouts are former commercial districts plucked out of their original communities by train enthusiasts running their own businesses. Utica, New York, was formerly a bustling megalopolis of over two million people before it was dispersed into thousands of model sets, and there are concerns the city disappeared in 2014, but we haven’t had the chance to get back upstate to check. Its residents have suggested they could swipe Rochester which is somehow a completely different upstate New York city, but they haven’t had the chance to get over there and check either. Anyway, check whether your business district is right for you before shrinking it.

When it comes to starting a small business of your own the basic idea is to provide some goods and, or, or services. Goods, though, are right out. The trouble with goods is you need to extract them from wherever they come — the ground, probably — which is a lot of digging and hard work for stuff that turns out to be worth as much as stuff found in the ground around your home would be. There is a market for moldy leaves and sun-faded empty cans of Diet Dr Pepper Cherry Vanilla. But it’s not one that pays well to the people who actually find stuff. And unless you expand your resource-gathering territory vastly it just won’t bring you that much money. If you don’t extract them, then you have to make them out of something someone else found. And that seems like it should be workable, except that it turns out anything you have to do a lot of, a robot can do better and cheaper. So they’ll cut you out of the doing of it and then where are you? Goodless, that’s where.

Services, then, look a lot more promising. In services you don’t necessarily find or make anything that can be definitely traced back to you. You just do something, and trust that someone else will realize they need to pay you for it. Where this breaks down is that you need to convince someone who has money that they should give it to you for that. But there are already plenty of people earning a living by rhetorically asking the television whether the people who make the News at Noon understand how they look, or engaging convenience store cashiers in elaborate stories about how much change they have, and there’s no need for more of them. What you need is your own niche.

A niche is a little spot where your project can thrive, kind of like Mrs Frisby’s cinder block home, in the vast farmer’s field of capitalism. A good (not goods) niche should be several paces from one side to the other, be reasonably dry, close to good sources of food, and should come with a team of genetically modified super-intelligent rats who can put together a block-and-tackle system to move it from peril. You can carry on without rats for a while, but the crash will come. Many observers credit the collapse of Pacific Electric Railway and the disappearance of Pan Am to well-intentioned pest controllers who relocated their rats to the American Broadcasting Company and to Cisco, respectively.

If you can’t stand the rats you might make do with a couple of guinea pigs with master’s degrees. But that’s really only appropriate if you regard your business as a bit of a lark (not the bird). And if you don’t mind when it comes to a sudden tragic end as the guinea pigs look on indifferently and squeak. The lesson is clear, and should really be made plain by someone or other.

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In Which The Neighbors Taunt Me


Yes, I believe strongly in minding my own business and letting people deal with their own stuff unless they say they want me coming in messing things up. But it’s sorely tempted since I noticed someone’s taped an 8½-by-11 page with close, tight writing on the neighbor’s front door. I mean, yeah, probably it doesn’t indicate anything ore than that talks have completely broken down over the issue of who is supposed to take the recycling bin to the curb on which days, and who is supposed to bring it back the next day after the truck has collected it, Ron, after. But what if it’s something really exciting, like there’s a new policy about when new orange juice will be made from concentrate or a memorandum regarding how many articles of clothing may be tossed into the laundry chute at once without jamming it? How am I supposed to live as though that’s none of my business either?

The Conference Call


The call is scheduled for 2:00 Friday. PM, the office manager sent out a follow-up e-mail about, as though AM were up for discussion. It’s the same joke sent out every time. But we must respect the rituals of the Conference Call. To leap in without the assurance that everyone was not getting together at 2:00 AM would be unthinkable. And it would bring about the ambiguity about whether they meant the 2:00 AM reached by staying up late on Thursday or staying up late on Friday.

The subject is the M’Gregor Project. The M’Gregor Project has been going on for so long and gotten discussed so well that it has achieved organizational Nirvana. There is no task on it, however minor, which can be completed by any known means. The attempt to establish how to complete any part of any task on it results in the task splitting, like a free neutron, into three smaller tasks and administrative neutrinos. And yet these smaller tasks are no more completable. And yet call for as much discussion. It is not that anyone is avoiding work. They put reasonable, responsible efforts into their tasks. It’s just that everyone needs something someone else does before they can finish, and there is nothing that can be finished first.

Thus the need to set a careful agenda. There should be time to review outstanding tasks. This is all of them. There will not be time to review outstanding tasks. The group will get through about ten minutes of this and then ask whether there’s anyone falling behind. Everyone feels themselves falling behind. Even without trying to subdivide tasks two or three new ones have appeared to everyone. Tasks are like feral kittens scratching at the break room door. After consideration most everyone accepts these newly subdivided tasks. They set them up in the least-used corner of their workspace with a small bowl of kibble and bedding made of shredded printer instructions. There is special time given to the person who’s found five new tasks. Two of them are given away to people who think they could whip that out Monday. Monday’s when the printer is set to explode, but that isn’t on the agenda and so is not considered.

There is no one at the company who remembers the M’Gregor Project’s start. There is no one at the company who will be there when it ends. There is no one at the company who can explain why it’s not MacGregor. There is no one at the company who can convince those separatists that it should not have been McGregor. All agree there is some benefit to the company if the M’Gregor Project should be completed. Something, surely. But to just make some clear progress before the end of the quarter would be good too.

Nothing is completed. Nothing could be completed. There is something. There is the possibility of reorganizing tasks into new categories. This is more than trading tasks that haven’t got finished. This would be the chance for everyone to think carefully about what they’re good at. To think of what they feel engaged in doing. To think of which of their assigned tasks are too boring to even let fail. A chance to own up to it, to show what one accepts one will never do, and give them up to people who still think themselves ready. To set about such a reorganization is work. A large number of people have to devote themselves to rationalizing their projects. This is a major task. A great many people would like to have done it.

The Conference Call is a chance to share anxious anticipation of explaining why your task is not finished, or fear of getting a new task. In this way do the participants reassure one another that they are part of the group. That they are some of the many, many people who have been involved in the M’Gregor Project. It is the socially acceptable substitute for our instinctive desire to groom one another’s fur for lice and tics. And this, of course, is why the thing is done.

We’re ready for you to join on line two.

Statistics Saturday: Twenty Books About Things That Changed The World


  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, Mark Kurlansky.
  • Banana: the Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World, Dan Koeppel.
  • Symbols of Power: Ten Coins that Changed the World, Robert Bracey, Thomas Hockenhull.
  • In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations that Changed the World, Ian Stewart.
  • Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan.
  • Tambora: The Eruption that Changed the World, Gillian D’Arcy Wood.
  • Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World, Chris Lowney.
  • Legends, Icons, and Rebels: Music that Changed the World, Robbie Robertson, Jim Guerinot.
  • Indigo: The Color that Changed the World, Catherine Legrand.
  • Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano that Changed the World, Alexandra Witze, Jeff Kanipe.
  • Tea: A History of the Drink that Changed the World, John C Griffiths.
  • Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World, Jim Lacey, Williamson Murra.
  • Franklin and Winston: A Christmas that Changed the World, Douglas Wood, Barry Moser.
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony: A Friendship that Changed the World, Penny Colman.
  • Mauve: How one Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, Simon Garfield.
  • Napoleon’s Hemorrhoids: And Other Small Events that Changed the World, Phil Mason.
  • Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, and Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World, Jack Kelly.
  • The Beatles: Six Days that Changed the World, Bill Eppridge, Adrienne Aurichio.
  • Tea: The Drink that Changed the World, Laura C Martin.
  • Nasdaq: A History of the Market that Changed the World, Mark Ingebretsen.

Not listed: The Map that Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology, Simon Winchester.

Also counting the Winchester I’ve read at least seven of these. That Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe volcano book wasn’t about Tambora, don’t be silly.

News From Xerox


I see in the business news which I read regularly when I’m desperate for something to write about here that Xerox is planning to become two companies, so I leave that for talk-show monologue joke writers who need easy source material. Nobody actually thinks you could run a whole company through a photocopier and get anything useful out of it. You’d need a company that did something useful to start, and now that everybody’s been trained not to say “xeroxing” when they mean “photocopying”, it turns out we don’t need Xerox to do anything.

The plan, says Reuters, is for Xerox to split into one company that does its “legacy printer operations”, which almost but not quite answers the question of “does Xerox still make printers or photocopiers or anything?”; and one that handles is “business process outsourcing unit”, which I don’t know what it does but I imagine it means they tell other companies how to fire everybody who does the actual work and replace them with cheaper people who don’t quite know what to do. But see how we didn’t need Xerox to do anything: they’re on top of it already.

The split comes after years of the company trying to figure out how to do both things together. So now they’ll spend a few years figuring out how not to do both things together. The twin Xeroxes can go off and attempt merging with other companies that do still other things and, having engaged in these acts of corporate syzygy, come back in a couple years to merge into one big company that will do all sorts of disparate things kind-of well-ish together. It’s part of the glory that is the life-cycle of money we don’t have.

Robert Benchley: How To Sell Goods


In this piece from Love Conquers All, Robert Benchley shares solid, practical advice he got from reading a book. It’s still solid advice nearly a century on. For the record I’m the kind of customer who tries to hide behind the endcaps and will flee to another store if an employee asks if I need any help finding anything, which slows me down those times when I do need help finding something. However, if I’m really determined to buy something, any old thing will do and I can find something most anyplace to buy. iPod case? $100 Grand candy bar? Soccer ball pressure gauge? Differently-colored underwear? They’re all somethings. They’ll do.

HOW TO SELL GOODS

The Retail Merchants’ Association ought to buy up all the copies of Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Westley Ivey (Macmillan), and not let a single one get into the hands of a customer, for once the buying public reads what is written there the game is up. It tells all about how to sell goods to people, how to appeal to their weaknesses, how to exert subtle influences which will win them over in spite of themselves. Houdini might as well issue a pamphlet giving in detail his methods of escape as for the merchants of this country to let this book remain in circulation.

The art of salesmanship is founded, according to Mr. Ivey, on, first, a thorough knowledge of the goods which are to be sold, and second, a knowledge of the customer. By knowing the customer you know what line of argument will most appeal to him. There are several lines in popular use. First is the appeal to the instinct of self-preservation—i.e., social self-preservation. The customer is made to feel that in order to preserve her social standing she must buy the article in question. “She must be made to feel what a disparaged social self would mean to her mental comfort.”

It is reassuring to know that it is a recognized ruse on the part of the salesman to intimate that unless you buy a particular article you will have to totter through life branded as the arch-piker. I have always taken this attitude of the clerks perfectly seriously. In fact, I have worried quite a bit about it.

In the store where I am allowed to buy my clothes it is quite the thing among the salesmen to see which one of them can degrade me most. They intimate that, while they have no legal means of refusing to sell their goods to me, it really would be much more in keeping with things if I were to take the few pennies that I have at my disposal and run around the corner to some little haberdashery for my shirts and ties. Every time I come out from that store I feel like Ethel Barrymore in Déclassée. Much worse, in fact, for I haven’t any good looks to fall back upon.

Robert Benchley standing meekly before the sales clerk.
They intimate that I had better take my few pennies and run `round the corner to some little haberdashery. Illustration by Gluyas Williams.

But now that I know the clerks are simply acting all that scorn in an attempt to appeal to my instinct for the preservation of my social self, I can face them without flinching. When that pompous old boy with the sandy mustache who has always looked upon me as a member of the degenerate Juke family tries to tell me that if I don’t take the five-dollar cravat he won’t be responsible for the way in which decent people will receive me when I go out on the street, I will reach across the counter and playfully pull his own necktie out from his waistcoat and scream, “I know you, you old rascal! You got that stuff from page 68 of Elements of Retail Salesmanship (Macmillan).”

Other traits which a salesperson may appeal to in the customer are: Vanity, parental pride, greed, imitation, curiosity and selfishness. One really gets in touch with a lot of nice people in this work and can bring out the very best that is in them.

Customers are divided into groups indicative of temperament. There is first the Impulsive or Nervous Customer. She is easily recognized because she walks into the store in “a quick, sometimes jerky manner. Her eyes are keen-looking; her expression is intense, oftentimes appearing strained.” She must be approached promptly, according to the book, and what she desires must be quickly ascertained. Since these are the rules for selling to people who enter the store in this manner, it might be well, no matter how lethargic you may be by nature, to assume the appearance of the Impulsive or Nervous Customer as soon as you enter the store, adopting a quick, even jerky manner and making your eyes as keen-looking as possible, with an intense expression, oftentimes appearing strained. Then the clerk will size you up as type No. 1 and will approach you promptly. After she has quickly filled your order you may drop the impulsive pose and assume your natural, slow manner again, whereupon the clerk will doubtless be highly amused at having been so cleverly fooled into giving quick service.

The opposite type is known as the Deliberate Customer. She walks slowly and in a dignified manner. Her facial expression is calm and poised. “Gestures are uncommon, but if existing tend to be slow and inconspicuous.” She can wait.

Then there is the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (this one should be treated with subtle flattery and agreement with all her views), The Talkative or Friendly Customer, and the Silent or Indifferent one. All these have their little weaknesses, and the perfect salesperson will learn to know these and play to them.

There seems to be only one thing left for the customer to do in order to meet this concerted attack upon his personality. That is, to hire some expert like Mr. Ivey to study the different types of sales men and women and formulate methods of meeting their offensive. Thus, if I am of the type designated as the Vacillating or Indecisive Customer, I ought to know what to do when confronted by a salesman of the Aristocratic, Scornful type, so that I may not be bulldozed into buying something I do not want.

If I could only find such a book of instructions I would go tomorrow and order a black cotton engineer’s shirt from that sandy-mustached salesman and bawl him out if he raised his eyebrows. But not having the book, I shall go in and, without a murmur, buy a $3 silk shirt for $18 and slink out feeling that if I had been any kind of sport at all I would also have bought that cork helmet in the showcase.

Working Out The World


My love and I were reminiscing things we did in elementary school for reasons we couldn’t figure. I don’t mean stuff like declaring someone who was busy with not playing kickball “The Kissing Bandit”. I mean stuff that doesn’t make sense, like the time my class got taken to the Garden State Arts Center and was taught how to clap with our hands curled. I guess we did other stuff there too, but the cupped hands was the lesson that stuck.

But the thing we shared was the class exercise thing about telling everyone else what our parents did for a living. I realize now I don’t know what the project was supposed to prove. That we could ask our parents what they did for a living, I guess. Maybe be able to tell our peers that our parents are shift supervisors. As skills I suppose that’s up there with cursive and being able to name vice-presidents who resigned, since you can test it. I don’t know how the teacher’s supposed to know if the kid was right, though.

But adult jobs are baffling concepts for a kid, anyway. What do adults need supervision for? They’re adults. Kids need supervision, because if you tell a kid, “stand right here, by the school bus stop, for five minutes and don’t wander away”, there’s an excellent chance before you even get to the second comma they’ve wandered off and got a beehive stuck in a nostril. All a kid knows is that their parents go months without unintentionally ingesting beehives, or they would know if they asked their parents.

For that matter, what’s a job to a kid? It’s just a place adults go to become tired and unhappy somehow. There are maybe five adult jobs a kid understands. There’s being an astronaut, there’s fighting stuff (fires, supervillains, crime, wrestlers [other]), there’s being a nurse, there’s being a teacher, and there’s driving a snowplow. Everything else is a bit shaky. For example, when I was a kid all I quite grasped about my father’s job was that he worked in a chemical factory in the parts that normally didn’t explode. He had to go in for eight or sometimes sixteen-hours shifts and I understood that most of the time things didn’t explode. But that leaves a gap in the imagination about just how he filled his working days. Come in, check that things hadn’t exploded, sure, and then it’s four hours, 56 minutes until lunch.

A kid might understand what someone in a service job does, because they could see a person bringing them food or taking clothes to clean or so. It’s why someone would be hired that’s the mystery, because getting that service means giving someone else money. Money’s hard stuff to come by, what with birthday cards arriving only for a one- or two-week stretch of the year, and maybe a bonus at Christmas if they’re lucky. The tooth fairy can help cover a little capital shortage, but that’s too erratic stuff for a real economy.

But non-service jobs are harder to understand. What is an office job anymore except fiddling with a computer? And a computer job is a matter of pressing buttons so that electrons will go into different places than they otherwise might have. A bad day at that sort of job is one where the electrons have come back for later review. On a good day the electrons all go somewhere you don’t have to think about them again. But the electrons aren’t getting anything out of this. They’re not happy, or sad, or anything at all based on where they’re sent. And they’re not the one getting paid for it anyway. They’d be fine if we just left them alone. All we do by getting involved in their fates is make ourselves unhappy but paid, and we get tired along the way.

The jobs might be leaving us alone soon anyway. Capitalism interprets a salary as a constant drain of capital, and does its level best to eliminate that. For service jobs this means doing less service, making the customers unhappy and making the remaining staff tired and unhappy. For office jobs this means never getting electrons to where they’re supposed to be, because otherwise you’d be an obvious mark for layoffs.

I know my father eventually moved to a job as an ISO 9000 consultant. In that role he ordered companies to put together a list of every word they had ever used for everything they had ever done. Then they put that into a cross-referenced volume of every document every word had ever appeared in. By the time that was done, the company might qualify for a certificate. Or my father had to explain what they had to do again, using different words and Happy Meal toys to get the point across. As a kid, I’d have been better off if he just told me he taught companies how to clap. Sometimes he probably did.

What I Now Know About The Cigarette Industry In Summer 1974


So why am I the kind of person who’ll read They Satisfy, Robert Sobel’s 1978 history of the cigarette industry in America? It’s because of passages like this:

There was a plethora of new brands in the summer of 1974, most of which were unimaginative and soon were discontinued. For years Lorillard had attempted to find a counterpart to Marlboro — a full-flavored smoke witha western motif. It had marketed Maverick, Redford, and Luke, all of which failed. Now it introduced Zach, which in tests featured a pack that looked like blue denim. Zach lasted less than a year. Brown & Williamson had even less luck with Tramps, an attempt to cash in on a revived interest in Charlie Chaplin. Although Chaplin’s face and form weren’t used in commercials, the company paid the retired actor two cents per pack in royalties so as to be able to suggest the connection. American Tobacco had Safari and Super M Menthol; L&M tried the market with St. Moritz, and Philip Morris produced Philip Morris International. This last smoke, a longer version of the old standard, did find a following, but the others were gone by early 1975.

And now my mind is captivated by the scene in Tobacco Industry Master Command, sometime around February 1974. “Gentlemen,” says the President of Tobacco, a burly guy who insists on people calling him “The Head Honcho” believe he thinks that makes him sound approachable and friendly before he kicks their knees in. “This is 1974! It’s a turbulent year! Nixon’s destroying the national belief that government can be a useful force, and America is about to finish the last Skylab mission! What are we going to do to get more people to smoke?”

And one meek fellow from Lorillard says, “We were thinking, maybe, we could try a blue denim-y package?”

A guy from Brown & Williamson says, “I don’t want to brag, but, we have a little project in mind wherein we’re going to just start giving Charlie Chaplin money without getting anything specific in return!”

The guys from American Tobacco and L&M were dozing through the question, but the Philip Morris guy said, “Um … maybe … do the same stuff, only more?”

And the President of Tobacco leans back, puts his feet up on the desk and says, “Boys, I don’t know who, but someone who walked into this room today just had the best cigarette idea of 1974.” Everyone else applauds The Head Honcho, or else.

And that’s why I read these kinds of books.

The Sign: The Business: The Something


The banner flying at the strip mall proclaimed that Accent Customer Relationship Partners was “Now Hiring!” This sounds exciting, since looking at the name and the logo and the strip mall I have not the faintest idea what they do. They could be marketeers. They could be the people who tell you how your call is very important to the corporation you’ve called which is why the corporation isn’t answering it. They could be a series of foreign-language instruction videos. What I realize is that the words can be rearranged in any order as long as you leave only the last one pluralized:

  • Customer Relationship Partner Accents
  • Partner Accent Relationship Customers
  • Customer Partner Accent Relationships
  • Relationship Accent Partner Customers
  • Customer Partner Accent Relationships
  • Partner Relationship Customer Accents

My love interrupted my glee at this by pointing out that “Accent Customer: Relationship Partners” is obviously no name for a shadowy organization that probably does something you really wish people weren’t paid to do. My love is right, of course, but now I know that Accent Customer: Relationship Partners is just the title to use for my next series of business slashfic.

How The 11:00 Conference Call Turns Out


10:45. You set your cell phone on the table. Turn it on. Stare at it anxiously.

10:55. Wonder if there’s enough time to read all of TrekBBS before the call starts.

11:00. Watch entire minute pass without the phone ringing.

11:01. Elation: you have avoided being called into the conference call. Elation gone when you remember they probably haven’t excused you from the call, they’re just saving up to have you be even more in the conference call.

11:04. Realize that you have a need to go to the bathroom more intense and more urgent than any other need you have ever felt in my life. It’s the way you might feel the need to move your foot if it were underneath the rear tire of a truck holding a lump of neutron star, although with less of the mass of three Jupiters pressing down on your foot and more a wondering if you could hear the phone from all the way in the bathroom.

11:10. Wonder if they’ve forgotten you.

11:15. Send e-mail to someone supposed to be in the conference call to see if they’ve forgotten you. Kind of hope that they have, except that might encourage ideas of maybe they don’t need you for non-conference-call things. Wonder if maybe you should’ve been running March Madness pools so they’d want you around for that at least. It’s desperately far from March. It’d look odd if you started talking up next year’s anytime before June 22nd. The conference call will probably be settled by then.

11:25. Phone rings. This call is to warn you the real call is running about a half-hour late but they didn’t want you to worry.

11:32. You’re worried.

11:38. It may be preferable to explode from bathroom-related needs than wait for the call.

11:40. They call. The conference call is starting, except two of the participants have to finish up other calls that have been going since the late Middle Ages. These calls are cherished, handed down from a long line of mid-level management, to be someday handed down to levels of mid-level management not yet imagined. They cannot be discharged or dismissed lightly. You might be on hold. Suddenly you appreciate hold music: listening to something you don’t want to listen to provides reassurance that you are remembered to exist by telephone systems that are not aware you exist.

11:43. Everyone is able to talk with everyone else and would like to explain how glad they are that everyone else is glad to be there, and doing well, and all agree that it’s been far too long since we had a chat like this, and we’re looking forward to the way we’ll smooth out a couple of little issues.

11:46. The conference call enters that condition of being pretty much the same as guiding your parents through updating their digital camera’s device drivers only your boss is listening in.

12:02. The phrase “the button marked SUBMIT in the upper right corner” is proven to be either intolerably vague or to not refer to anything the other people on the call have ever seen.

12:05. logmein is summoned.

12:07. Emergency e-mails to people who thought they were going to lunch already establish that logmein would have worked except we had the password wrong, the capitalization wrong, and some kind of domain thing wrong.

12:18. You apologize for needing to step away for a moment, which they take to mean that you need the bathroom, which you do, but you use the moment to step outside and berate a chipmunk who proves to have a perfectly good understanding of the limits of Ajax-enabled web technology blah blah blah and why yes, it does have to have Internet to work.

12:29. All agree this has been about the greatest and most productive conference call since the idea of communication began and we’ve done enough of it, and hang up before anyone can suggest otherwise.

1:04. You emerge from the curled-up ball of yourself that was underneath the table weeping.

2:45. You finish editing the things you needed to get out of the conference call into a series of four questions, e-mailed to the other main party, with the explanation you need to know which of the two options for each question they want before you can do anything.

Three Days Later, 9:15. The e-mail is returned with the note, “That’s great, exactly that! Thanx for understanding.”

Eight Days After That, 3:23. The suggestion is floated that maybe we just need one more conference call to sort it all out.

So, In Short, We’re All Doomed (Corporate Capitalism Edition)


The offering comes in the mail from a corporation, one of those big ones that I suspect is a multinational although I can’t work up quite enough interest to look it up. It had the odd size of the smaller greeting cards, and a brown envelope, and that lettering that looks like handwriting if you haven’t looked a lot at handwriting. Clearly, the company, which my Love has been a customer for for years, possibly a decade now, wanted to make sure we had the experience of something with the flavor of a personal connection, so as to convince us to buy something we didn’t want.

The letter got our name wrong in no less than two prominent ways.

Mind you, that’s partly our fault, since the name used to be wrong in only the one way, and getting it fixed resulted in introducing the second glitch. Extremely boring conversations about this have allowed us to determine that the easiest way to get the glitches fixed is to wait for the company to go bankrupt and be liquidated, to be replaced with another company providing similar services which aren’t quite as good but which cost more, at which point we’ll get a chance to have fake handwritten greeting-card type advertisements with even more parts of our names wrong.

I’m just not completely sure that we’re any good at things anymore.

Escaping to Lansing


Disasters not afflicting Lansing: Hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanos, pop singers, scorpions.

The local newspaper mentioned that at South By Southwest a trade group from the Lansing area advertised to whoever’s interested in this sort of thing the proposition “Escape To Lansing”. The big selling point — and the one that’s on their web site — is that Lansing is free of many disasters which make it annoying to do business, to wit:

Hurricanes. True. Mid-Michigan is admirably hurricane-free, what with most hurricanes refusing to tromp over the Appalachian mountains and deal with trying to follow the highways around Toledo.

Scorpions. I can’t dispute that the Lansing metropolitan area has a pretty low number of scorpions, and most of those who are around are either in their designated pens within the pet shops or are work-study students helping make sure that visitors to the college or university library are briefly examined by eye and grunted at before they finish entering or exiting. I have to question whether scorpions are a major problem in most business districts, however. If they are then maybe startup businesses just need to buy screen doors.

Radioactive Gas. I hadn’t imagined that Lansing ever had a problem with radioactive gas emissions gathering to dangerous levels, but now that they’re going to the bother of telling people there’s no radioactive gas it’s started to make me worry. They maybe shouldn’t have raised the issue.

Earthquakes. Michigan has a very low earthquake risk, with the greatest hazard being earthquakes which other states or Canadian provinces hold and which spill over owing to inadequate soundproofing in the walls between states. The upper peninsula was subject to a series of earthquakes in the mid-19th century as the copper underneath it was dug out and turned into telephone wires in New York City and Boston, and the remaining crust collapsed over and over again, but the ground has mostly settled since then, and any attempt to get an earthquake going will be dampened by abandoned mining equipment. No serious risk there.

Justin Bieber. This seems petty. Pop stars are a fundamentally unpredictable, whimsical force of nature, prone to blowing into our lives and inspiring tiresome conversations about how we don’t like them and then blowing back out again, sometimes leaving us with a song we can’t quite get out of our heads. We have little to fear from them, and they pay for their existence by giving entertainment journalists something to talk about which isn’t lists of TV shows you won’t watch. They should be appreciated for how they enrich life’s tapestry of things we don’t really have to do anything about.

Tsunamis. Actually, the adorable little wave they use here makes me think of the original Bell Atlantic logo. While it’s true Michigan had very little phone service by Bell Atlantic before it changed its name and become a more annoying company, I don’t see why South By Southwest attendees would be particularly impressed by this. If they didn’t want to do business with Bell Atlantic they could as easily do that in Austin.

The 1984-era Bell Atlantic logo, with a little wave for the crossbar of the A.

Volcanos. Michigan hasn’t had an active volcano in about 2.5 billion years, but it seems presumptuous to say that companies would want to relocate to mid-Michigan just to avoid volcanos. Obviously companies that do volcano tours are going to be attracted by having volcanos, but what about places that hope to get in on something igneous? Maybe they’re figuring corporate headquarters can be away from the magma action and this will be somehow worth it in the end. I don’t know.

Sharks. I’m fairly sure there aren’t many shark attacks even in the business districts of coastal towns. I have to imagine a company that’s routinely losing key personnel or equipment to shark attacks, and isn’t in the shark-annoying trade, is screwed up in fundamental ways. If they relocated to Lansing they’d probably just get lost in the woods and see their business plan get eaten by squirrels.

I notice they don’t say a word about the ice storms causing blackouts or that stretch in early February when it got so cold all molecular motion ceased. Well, it was a harsh winter but we do generally have indoor heating. They also don’t mention that in Lansing you’re relatively unlikely to be surrounded by Texans, which I’d think would be a selling point in Austin. But they didn’t ask me to contribute promotional material.

Also, apparently Lansing has a 3-D Printer you can use, if you need it. Sold!

Disappointed In Big Banana News


I guess I just was thinking the wrong thing is all. When the headline said that Fyffes and Chiquita were going to create the biggest banana firm, I imagined they were working together to produce truly astoundingly big bananas, ones of such massive size that they fit even more awkwardly in the shopping cart, ones that dominate the breakfast nook table where we keep them until we realize we forgot we have bananas and have to throw them out. I was thinking of bananas that reach to a brobdingnagian dimension of, like, maybe an inch longer than the ones I already buy. (I don’t expect miracles in giant banana-ness, not right away from a new firm.)

But no, they’re not trying to do anything awe-inspiring with bananas. They’re just making two banana companies into one banana company that’s worth more money but doesn’t have so many pesky employees to pay. Boring. Anybody can do that and they don’t even have to show off an impressive banana for it. But at least they’re figuring to call the merged company ChiquitaFyffes, so they’re making some advances in Silly Things We’re Just Going To Pretend Are Words.

They’re hoping to sell 160 million boxes of bananas annually, although I wouldn’t be surprised if they ever realized it was two days after Christmas and said, “You know, 159,750,000 is not that shabby. Let’s knock off till after the new year” and did.

Franklin P Adams: Office Mottoes


I’d like to bring out another of Franklin Pierce Adams’s poems, as collected in Tobogganing On Parnassus. And for a poem from (at latest) 1911 it’s nevertheless mocking something that I guess is stil relevant, at least assuming that anyone ever actually buys and hangs those inspirational Successories posters in an actual office.

Office Mottoes

Motto heartening, inspiring,
   Framed above my pretty ‘desk,

Never Shelley, Keats, or Byring*
   Penned a phrase so picturesque!

But in me no inspiration
   Rides my low and prosy brow —

All I think of is vacation
When I see that lucubration:

DO IT NOW

When I see another sentence
   Framed upon a brother’s wall,

Resolution and repentance
   Do not flood o’er me at all

As I read that nugatory
   Counsel written years ago,

Only when one comes to borry*
Do I heed that ancient story:

TELL HIM NO

Mottoes flat and mottoes silly,
   Proverbs void of point or wit,

“KEEP A-PLUGGIN’ WHEN IT’S HILLY!”
   “LIFE’S A TIGER: CONQUER IT!”

Office mottoes make me weary
   And of all the bromide bunch

There is only one I seri-
Ously like, and that’s the cheery:

GONE TO LUNCH

[*] Entered under the Pure License of 1906.

Now Starring … Food


I got to thinking more about Olive Garden’s big plans for Fiscal Year 2015, for which I fully expect to be thanked by the powers at Olive Garden Master Command. Like their PowerPoint slide says, they’re figuring on getting “new plateware that lets the food be the star”. The picture makes it look like the food being the star means the food has to be much closer to the eye. That’s easy enough to attain in photographing, given how starved so many cameras are for fast casual food, but how do you get the same effect in restaurants?

The new plate ware will feature being much closer to the food so it looks bigger.

The obvious way is to keep the patrons’ heads closer to the plates. The simplest way to do that, like I realized, is to take on staff who’ll keep going around and pushing heads closer to the plates. But I’ve realized this can’t work, because incidents will arise when the patrons remember they have access to knives and forks, unless Olive Garden decides to do without cutlery altogether. Perhaps they have, since their PowerPoint slide distinctly spoke about getting new plateware and many people, if you call them and ask if they think forks are plates, will answer, “What? Who are you? How did you get this number?”

Anyway, if Olive Garden is taking this course then I think it’s safe to rule out that they’re going to chopstick-based services because those still allow for a lot of poking. It implies by the end of Fiscal Year 2015 Olive Garden patrons are just going to be tearing their Chicken Somethingorother apart with their hands and chewing it down while hoping the waiter won’t rap them on the back of their necks for sitting too straight.

But that’s madness, because if Olive Garden were to hire a bunch of people to push patrons’ head closer to the plates then they’d have to start paying the employees, and there’s no place in modern business for hiring people that you have to keep paying. The solution has to be technology, because investors are always excited in buying devices and gadgets and other kinds of infrastructure, because those wear out and they can buy new ones later on.

The cheapest thing to do is to have Olive Garden go around and replace all their tables with ones that are taller. Maybe one foot taller, maybe two; it’s going to take maybe the rest of Fiscal Year 2014 to figure out how tall their tables and their customers are, and maybe a couple weeks to go back and double-check when they realize they forgot to write down which measurement was which. This is a promising approach because you just know there are going to be customers who won’t get into the spirit of the thing, and they’ll try bringing yellow pages to serve as a booster seat.

This would be profitable for the yellow pages industry, which right now has to go around stuffing phone books into the dusty spaces underneath the furniture you never move until you’re getting ready to sell the house. But the Strategic Action Plan doesn’t say a word about Olive Garden getting into the yellow page industry, so I have to conclude they either aren’t going the higher-table route or they’re hoping to get into the yellow pages market before anyone else catches on. So I guess I just spoiled it.

Affixing to each plate one of those book-magnifying type plates, I mean the kind you see through instead of eating on, seems like a good way to make the food bigger. But that’s got the objection that they’ll just encourage people to practice their sneezing. Also there’s a chance kids might eat there and there’s the obvious issues of sibling cudgeling.

So I conclude that this is going to require getting new chairs, ones with backs that arch steeply forward. By this simple act of encouraging people to lean forward faces will be that much closer to the plates, and the food will look that much bigger, and the only operating cost is in developing new ways to stack chairs. This will also solve the problem of people swinging their chairs around backwards to sit, which is a major problem, according to people called at random who thought they were finally going to get to use their answers to that plateware question.

Better Eating for 2015


I don’t think I’m saying anything too outrageous if I assert that Olive Garden is a restaurant which exists and has some definite traits in addition to its existence. I wouldn’t make many more strong assertions about it because I can’t really work up the energy to, but that might change come Fiscal Year 2015. According to the Strategic Acton Plan put forth by Olive Garden corporate overlords Darden, Olive Garden has a Strategic Action plan to put forward, and it’s easily the most gripping Strategic Action Plan I’ve read in hours. Among other things their Holistic Core Menu and Promotion Plan (page 21) says they hope to offer “New Culinary-Forward Platforms”, with a side serving of “Simple, Compelling Price-Pointed Promotions,” for which I think everyone who’s struggled to chew down the old, bland, price-unpointed promotion will be grateful.

The new plate ware will feature being much closer to the food so it looks bigger.

I also appreciate that, according to page 23, Fiscal Year 2015 will see “New Plateware That Lets The Food Be The Star”, as opposed to the current plateware, which upstages the food by pulling all those first-year drama student tricks like standing upstage and dropping props and coughing during key moments in the food’s monologue. But I also appreciate the preview from the Strategic Action Plan since, as the picture indicates, apparently the major breakthrough in Olive Garden plateware is that they’re finally using their digital cameras’ Macro feature. Either that or the plan is to have newly-trained staff keep pressing patron’s heads closer to the table, at least until they admit the stardom of their “Smashed Chicken Meatball Sandwich” or “Pappardelle Pescatore”. Either way, it’s going to be exciting.

And now I just wonder when the Olive Garden Fiscal Year starts, and I bet you weren’t thinking at all about that question when you got up this morning (Olive Garden financial affairs experts excluded from this bet). Also “plateware” is a thing that’s not just dishes and cutlery, I guess?

Approved


I don’t object per se to corporations spending their money foolishly. A corporation spending money on something pointless and useless is one that isn’t spending money figuring out morally outrageous they can be before they start getting protestors from the respectable classes of society or figuring out how little service they can actually provide before too many customers end their transactions with the use of cudgels.

So, every credit card company in the world has concluded they need to spend their time sending me applications for their cards. That’s foolish on their parts, since I’ve got as many credit cards as I need, plus an extra one to use in case of emergency, plus one that I could use if I felt like digging behind the nightstand where it fell and it’s just too hard to get back there. That would be fine by itself but now they’ve stepped up the sending, to the point that over seven-quarters of the mail every day is appeals to me to get more credit cards.

I’ve done the obvious with the offers; when there were too many to throw out, I used them to build a new breakfast nook, and then a little nook on the side of the nook that I guess could be used for English muffins, and then a little nook on the side of the nook on the side of the nook (I’m seeing those little jam packets from diners in its future), but that obviously can’t go on forever. I don’t even eat English muffins more than like once a year. I’ve got to get this stopped. Things are too nook-heavy as they are.

The Internet and Pumpernickel


You know how the Internet has changed things? Suppose that you like pumpernickel. In the pre-Internet days you’d probably just go along liking pumpernickel, eating it in appropriate amounts and wondering if you’re maybe the youngest English-speaking soul who still eats it on purpose. Certainly nobody you ever meet except your grandparents eats pumpernickel. This might be because you switched to a supermarket, away from the bakery that’s in the midst of downtown’s bustling Customers Pronking Into Traffic district because it closes fifteen minutes after you get out of work and there was that time you asked about what eight similar-looking loaves were and got into a painfully awkward conversation with them not understanding what it was you didn’t understand, and don’t ever have to talk with anyone to buy actual bread anymore.

Now and then something called pumpernickel turns up in the sandwiches Arby’s tucks into the weird subdivided parts of its menu board like they don’t want to have them but also can’t take them off without hurting somebody’s feelings. But mostly, you just like pumpernickel, the taste and the way saying “pumpernickel” over and over again makes you feel, and the store usually has sufficient pumpernickel for your immediate heavy-breaded needs, and the worst that ever happens is occasionally your brain is haunted by the idea that ABC’s classic “The Chomper” public service announcement supporting dental health might have shouted out to pumpernickel and carrot sticks as good things to eat, please hopefully not together. How pumpernickel can be all that good for teeth was still mysterious, what with it just being bread, but at least you could take in the message.

With the Internet, that’s changed. You can find all kinds of people who also like pumpernickel, which right away is a big change in your bread-based social interaction. Before any pumpernickel-based socialization you had was of a strictly practical kind: buying pumpernickel, eating pumpernickel, maybe answering the awe-struck questions of children who don’t understand why you’d go eating a kind of bread that’s the color and pattern of the decorative walkways in the garden paths in back of the boring restaurant their parents dragged them to once and swore never again.

Now there’s a theoretical aspect to the whole thing, having bread-themed social interactions in a setting that’s far removed from any actual bread, or possibly any other actual people. Certainly real people can’t be writing this much about pumpernickel, or as they spell it “pumpernickle” or worse, and why whatever it is you like about it is the wrong thing to like about it. Where would they find time to do the necessary things of daily life, like driving to the hardware store or being hissed at by squirrels?

And yet what they write is compelling, because it all leaves you miserable. You’ll learn, for instance, that your favorite brand of pumpernickel was created by a white supremacist, Euell M Pumpermeyer or whatever, who figured that by improving the yeast or rye or whatever used to make his bread products he’d be able to inspire wider eugenicist movements. He sold out decades ago to a big multinational conglomerate, and he’s been dead for literally a couple years now anyway, and at least he was an incompetent white supremacist who never noticed that yeast is just not among the top hundred things suppressing people. But still.

Worse, you’ll discover that the multinational conglomerate that makes that pumpernickel, only with not so much overt racism and more high-fructose corn syrup, is still a horrible, horrible company. Some in the pumpernickel forums try to argue about this, pointing out the company’s placement as one of the Top Ten Ethical Multinational Conglomerate Bread Manufacturers, but that mostly means they’re responsible for fewer than average maimings of low-level employees and there’s room to plausibly dispute their links to the Blood Caraway trade. And the supermarket isn’t any great shakes either because it’s sustained mostly by the profits derived from smacking cinder blocks with kittens. This earned the store a certificate for being in the top twenty percent of ethical supermarket chains before the ethics panel went into the shoe closet and started weeping and hasn’t stopped yet.

All these things were going on before, but you never had to know because you never learned anything about the pumpernickel trade beyond that you could buy and, if you chose, eat some. Now the Internet can reassure you that, yes, “The Chopper” does tell you pumpernickel is somehow important for your teeth.

Money-Making is Also a Service


I’ve been doing some more reading about good investments, since I plan to make one someday, probably by accident. The strong candidates are all in services, which is a strong growth sector of the economy because everyone’s discovered that goods just don’t cut it. The problem is that whatever good you might try making, it turns out it’s cheaper to have it made somewhere else and shipped to you instead. Which would be fine for that somewhere else except they’ve found it’s just as easy to get the good made somewhere else and shipped to them, and so on. The last place in the world that actually made any goods — Snipatuit Pond, Massachusetts — closed up shop late last year when it was noticed that it hasn’t existed since 1946 and now everyone’s just in the business of getting the goods already made shipped to them to send out again in the hopes of making good on their good-making contracts. Shipping, of course, is a service.

Robert Benchley: From Nine To Five (Excerpt)


[ Among the many talents of Robert Benchley was his capturing of a very specific sort of fumbling monologue; he could spin out meticulously crafted strings of words falling against one another. This is a segment of “From Nine To Five”, reprinted in Of All Things,a surprisingly lengthy essay about business, in which he describes his problems dictating, and how his self-aware discomfort feeds back on itself. Comedic fumbling is a most precious skill; Benchley was great at it. Those who haven’t heard Benchley’s voice well enough to know his speaking style might do almost as well imagining Bob Newhart reading it. ]

“ Good morning, Miss Kettle. . . . Take a letter, please . . . to the Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady . . . S-c-h-e-c — er— well, Schenectady; you know how to spell that, I guess, Miss Kettle, ha! ha! . . . Nipco Drop Forge and Tool Company, Schenectady, New York, . . . Gentlemen —– er (business of touching finger tips and looking at the ceiling meditatively) —– Your favor of the 17th inst. at hand, and in reply would state that –— er (I should have thought this letter out before beginning to dictate and decided just what it if that we desire to state in reply)–— and in reply would state that –— er . . . our Mr. Mellish reports that — er . . . where is that letter from Mr. Mellish, Miss Kettle? . . . The one about the castings. . . . Oh, never mind, I guess I can remember what he said. . . . Let’s sec, where were we? . . . Oh, yes, that our Mr. Mellish reports that he shaw the sipment — I mean saw the shipment —– what’s the matter with me? (this girl must think that I’m a perfect fool) . . . that he shaw the sipment in question on the platform of the station at Miller’s Falls, and that it –— er . . . ah . . . ooom . . . (I’ll have this girl asleep in her chair in a minute. I’ll bet that she goes and tells the other girls that she has just taken a letter from a man with the mind of an eight-year-old boy). . . . We could, therefore, comma, . . . what’s the matter? . . . Oh, I didn’t finish that other sentence, I guess. . . . Let’s see, how did it go? . . . Oh, yes . . . and that I, or rather it, was in good shape . . . er, cross that out, please (this girl is simply wasting her time here. I could spell this out with alphabet blocks quicker and let her copy it) . . . and that it was in excellent shape at that shape — . . . or rather, at that time . . . er . . . period. New paragraph.

“We are, comma, therefore, comma, unable to . . . hello, Mr. Watterly, be right with you in half a second. . . . I’ll finish this later, Miss Kettle . . .
thank you.”

Thriving In The Modern, Annoying, Economy


Of course, when we talk about ways to screw up the company by diversifying, we have to remember that there’s a lot of different rules if you want to be in an entertainment industry. There, you have to diversify, because it’s more profitable per hour to run around suburban streets with your eyes closed and mouth open and wait for fifty-dollar bills to land upon your tongue than it is to wait for people to pay you for being entertaining. You need to start spinoff products like T-shirts and posters, and iPhone apps, and one-of-a-kind experience events like coming over and watching The Price Is Right with your audience even before they ask. If someday your fans can say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that band back when it was a utopian commune in upstate New York manufacturing kitchen appliances,” then you’re doing something right, which I hope is stoves.

Uncertain Investments


I’ve been trying for a while to do that thing where your money turns into piles of bigger money, without using counterfeiting, so I have to look at investments where someone else does the counterfeiting for me. But I’m skeptical about this new one e-mailed me. The prospectus says they’re going to make self-hopping socks, so that you don’t have to go about manually making your socks fly up off the floor anymore, thereby freeing up large parts of the day for other chores, such as towel-waving. Besides the automatic socks they figure to sell conversion kits so people can adapt their earlier footwear to the new standards. They estimate growth over the first three years at “eleventy kerspillion percent” and are listed on the Camden, New Jersey, Stock Exchange, under “bouillon (soup)”. And yet I don’t know; something about it feels too good to be true. Still, it’s only a couple bucks to get started, or I can trade them a pair of worn-out sandals or some packets of Arby’s horsey sauce. I like that sense of scrappiness in a startup.

It’s Somebody’s Business


The history of a company usually has distinct phases, like the step where a small team of like-minded idealists with skills in an exciting new technology realize they’ve been coming to a garage workshop garage for four years now and have almost completed a salable product none too soon because the owner of the garage almost caught them last time. And then there’s a stage where everybody gets quite tense about selecting the right sort of cake for the birthday party for someone who’s out sick anyway. It wasn’t the right day anyway. And then there are also all intermediate stages like deciding what to make for their fifteenth product, and deciding that the company logo has to be redone so it’s at an angle. It can make for fascinating reading to follow all these stages. I plan to do so by putting the logo at an angle and changing its typeface to something sans serif that badly imitates handwriting.

I Never Was a Business-Minded Person


“We’ll need you for a conference call,” said the voice on the phone. This was a friendly voice, which made me think things were going well.

“All right … what are we going to be talking about?”

“We’re still figuring out the exact agenda, so just, stay loose, roll with it. We probably won’t need you really, we just want the insurance.”

I said thank you rather than work out whether to be insulted. “When is the call? When should I be there?”

“Oh, we’re working out the time. We’ll just call you when we’re ready.”

“Are you thinking it’ll be late morning? Early afternoon? Late afternoon?”

“Can’t really say. Just wait and we’ll be ready for you.”

“Is it going to be today?”

The voice sighed. “Don’t worry about trivialities. We We need you for the big-picture thinking, that insight you bring into our i-dotting and t-crossing.”

And this is why I spent the whole day sitting at the table, staring at my cell phone, wondering if I could dash off to the bathroom without getting caught.

I Miss Out On My Wheelbarrow


I was in Walgreen’s, which is not a joke by itself except to the CVS partisans, and noticed by the checkout counter a transparent plastic stand featuring a sign: “FREE!!!!! If we fail to offer you one at the time of purchase.” The stand was empty. The cashier didn’t say a word about it.

What am I supposed to do with a checkout counter transparent plastic stand? I bet the stand is a loss-leader, and they’re hoping to make the real money selling me the Walgreen’s to fit around it. But I’m on to their game. It’ll serve them right if I go to Music Comics instead and buy the stuff to open a Music Comics shop. Although they’ve palmed off some free comics and flyers on me, come to think of it.

Maybe I can open a shop holding nothing but the stuff I’ve got thrown in free from other shops. That’s a good plan. Anything I charge will be pure profit.