Jan. 31, 2009

The scene: Yesterday morning, shortly before 9 a.m. I am second in line behind a brunette woman at the Java City coffee stand in my office building.

Coffee girl*: What would you like?

Customer: I’ll have one of your “guilt-free” mochas. You know, with skim milk.

[Based on the coffee girl’s recommendation, the customer declines the option of sugar-free chocolate. Within two minutes, the order is nearly complete.]

Coffee girl: Would you like whipped cream?

Customer: Sure!

[The beverage is presented with a heaping crown of whipped cream and drizzled chocolate syrup. Guilt-free, indeed.]

* Note: I hesitate to use the exotic term barista for someone who prepares coffee. As a teenager, I worked in a bookstore, but I never expected the job title of libraio.

[ No. 500 ]

Jan. 23–25, 2009

Joined a group of 13 past and present Jersey shore housemates for our fifth annual ski trip weekend at Jack Frost in the Poconos. Having organized the trips in 2007 and 2008, I had passed the torch to our friends Alison and Kevin, who did a great job with the plans.

Our lodging in Snow Ridge Village was comfortable as always, but for some reason, we seemed to notice more of the regrettable decor this year. Inside one of our two 1980s-era townhouses, the striped wallpaper in the upstairs bathroom was also applied to the door. Above the landing in the stairwell, we were greeted by an enormous, non-working wall clock comprised of a lacquered cross-section of a tree trunk. Not to be outdone, the living room’s walls closely resembled the color and waffled texture of Triscuits.

After getting settled in on Friday night, most of our group hit the slopes shortly after the mountain opened at 9 a.m. on Saturday. We were surprised to ski through some snowfall early in the day, but the trail conditions were excellent, with very few patches of ice. Personally, I decided to challenge myself and spent the late-morning hours with some friends on several black-diamond slopes without a single fall. However, as we grew rather tired by mid-afternoon, our diminishing group returned to the easier trails to close out the day.

Our latest Poconos outing will definitely serve as a great warm-up for my planned return to Park City, Utah in early March — a weeklong trip that I’m increasingly looking forward to.

[ No. 499 ]

Jan. 21, 2009

I’ve previously lamented the media’s love affair with the infamous story of angry Eagles fans who once threw snowballs at Santa Claus. It’s an old yarn that’s almost always blown out of proportion, and for the record, it took place in 1968. You know, back when Veterans Stadium was still under construction.

But thanks to a recent tip from my fellow blogger Citizen Mom, I can make a strong argument that those late-’60s South Philly crazies are no match for a pair of present-day Arizona fans.

According to a story from today’s Daily News, two knuckleheads showed up at the Chandler, Ariz., residence of Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb a day before last Sunday’s NFC Championship game (which, of course, the Cardinals went on to win, 32–25). The pair allegedly burned messages into McNabb’s front yard by pouring and lighting diesel fuel on his lawn. Their words of wisdom read: GO KURT (as in Warner, the Cardinals’ veteran QB) and GO CARDS.

Fortunately, the two men made it very easy for the local police department to track them down. In addition to their yardwork, they had also left a cardboard sign in McNabb’s driveway, and attached to the sign was a sticker with the home address of one of the vandals. Nice going, guys — you’ve captured the early lead in the race for America’s Dumbest Criminals of 2009.

Still, I’d be willing to bet that this story has no legs. And why is that? Because the majority of sports journalists have much more fun by simply repainting the caricature of rabid Philly fans, regardless of boorish behavior that takes place in any other city.

[ No. 498 ]

Jan. 20, 2009

For some time now, I’ve noticed “1.20.09” bumper stickers on many vehicles in the area. Apparently, things had become so bleak in this country that many Americans were literally counting down the remaining days of George W. Bush’s second presidential term and were looking forward to his successor a few years before even knowing who that might be. That date always sounded very far off to me, but it has arrived.

During a lunch break while working from home, I watched live coverage of the inauguration of Barack Obama, who became the 44th president of the United States at noon today. The estimated crowd of 2 million people at the ceremony in Washington, D.C., was amazing. Having grown up in an era when relatively few Americans even bothered to vote in the first place, I simply can’t recall this level of excitement over a new president in my lifetime.

Obama’s inaugural speech was quite moving. His closing remarks recalled the struggles that our young nation faced in the winter of 1776:

“With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested, we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back, nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.”

As I mentioned after the election in November, I view Obama as neither an infallible messiah nor a dangerous communist. Both of those views are equally extreme and equally wrong. Rather, our new president represents an opportunity for a fresh perspective in our government. And to those of you who stubbornly insist on complaining about McCain’s defeat or Obama’s position on certain issues, the time has come for you to grow up and accept, however reluctantly, that Barack Obama is now your president, too. (I will always support respectful disagreement, but to be frank, I have a hard time with childish pouting, especially when it comes to politics.)

The historical significance of today’s events cannot be overstated. Remember, African-Americans struggled to vote in this country well into the 20th century, until the Voting Rights Act was finally passed in 1965. Less than a half-century later, an African-American man of humble origins has reached the highest elected office in the land. Regardless of the party affiliation on your registration card, today is a very proud day in American history.

Good luck to President Barack Obama and his new administration!

[ No. 497 ]

Jan. 17, 2009

The ongoing carnage among retail businesses is truly amazing. Just yesterday, Circuit City announced its decision to shut down all of its remaining 567 stores in the U.S. That’s a real bummer. I often shopped at their local store over the last few years; in fact, I recently bought a new laptop and wireless router there and got a great deal. I’m definitely going to miss the place.

Just down the street from the doomed Circuit City, the Oskar Huber furniture store is closing, too. They’ve been promoting their liquidation sale by hiring people to stand at local intersections all day and hold up large signs. I saw one unfortunate guy in that position this afternoon — he was doing nothing but trying to stay warm while propping up his sign in the bitter cold (the digital thermometer on my car’s dashboard read 18° at the time).

As I turned left at the intersection, I thought, Oskar Huber is going out of business anyway. Is it really necessary to subject some poor souls to such miserable conditions, just to sell a few more couches at 70% off?

[ No. 496 ]

Jan. 14, 2009

Very few people can honestly say this, but God, I love my coworkers.

This past fall, about 15 people in our department decided to take part in a weekly NFL pool. I opted out, given my fairly casual knowledge of the sport, at least compared to my near-obsession with college football. And I’ve since learned that I was very foolish to decline the invitation.

Our colleague Rob organized the competition, in which a person would win a particular week by correctly predicting the highest number of outcomes. He also promised a cryptic award for the poor soul who failed to win a single week throughout the entire season. (Oddly, the prize for the most weekly wins garnered little interest by comparison.)

As it turns out, our friend Paul followed the example of this year’s hapless, first-ever 0–16 Detroit Lions and captured the dubious honor of zero wins, even though several participants admitted scant knowledge of the NFL. In recognition of Paul’s achievement in futility, Rob actually built a wooden trophy in his workshop at home. Behold the Goose Egg Award:

The Goose Egg Award

At noon today, we gathered in a conference room for pizza and Rob’s announcement of the final pool standings. Paul showed his respect for the first annual trophy presentation by wearing a navy sport coat and tie. After receiving the massive award, he delivered a hilarious prepared acceptance speech in which he thanked the accounting department at Satyam for auditing the pool’s results, and closed with his old high school coach’s maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style.”* I’m pretty sure the people on the floor below us heard our sustained roars of laughter.

The coveted Goose Egg Award, which stands at an imposing 2½ feet tall, is proudly displayed on a cabinet at Paul’s desk, prompting both blank stares and confused looks from passersby. And now, everyone actually wants to finish last in next year’s pool in order to inherit the prize. (On a related note, perhaps the dreaded Land-Grant Trophy should be given to the losing team each year.)

I’m totally signing up for the NFL pool next fall. In the meantime, I will remain eternally grateful to work with equally brilliant and insane people. Special recognition goes to Rob for taking the time to create such an indelible source of amusement in our workplace.

* Update: I found out that Paul wasn’t really quoting his old coach after all. In fact, the saying came from a sarcastic poster from a company called Despair, Inc., which strives to openly mock those hackneyed, ubiquitous Successories posters through its own pessimistic yet clever line of Demotivators.

This new revelation makes me appreciate Paul’s speech even more, if that’s possible.

[ No. 495 ]

Jan. 8, 2009

In case you haven’t heard of it, Satyam is the fourth-largest offshore services firm in India. Yesterday, its chairman, Ramalinga Raju, issued a stunning announcement that 94%, or $1.04 billion, of its reported cash and bank balances as of September 2008 was completely nonexistent. Moreover, Satyam greatly overstated its revenue and operating margin in their financial statements from the same time period.

According to Raju, an initially small financial discrepancy spiraled into a huge problem as the company grew rapidly over the last several years: “It was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

The irony of this story will make your head spin:

  1. Satyam won a global Golden Peacock Award for Corporate Governance just four months ago. (The award was stripped earlier today.)
  2. Many Fortune 500 firms, ostensibly interested in cutting costs, had outsourced their financial and accounting departments to Satyam. Perhaps you get what you pay for, after all. I also wonder about the accuracy of Satyam’s clients’ books at this point.
  3. Most amusingly of all, the word satyam means “truth” in Sanskrit. I can see the headline now: CHAIRMAN OF TRUTH, INC., ADMITS HE LIED.

Well, at the very least, Satyam’s CEO came clean, submitted his resignation, and actually apologized for the scandal. We certainly didn’t hear any mea culpas from our old friend, Richard Fuld, who had the audacity to tell a congressional panel last October that his decisions were “both prudent and appropriate” while he ran Lehman Brothers into the ground.

Also, I guess we’ve learned that American firms don’t have a monopoly on cooking the books — massive fraud can happen just about anywhere in the world. But Satyam’s fall from grace makes me even more concerned about the worsening health of the global economy. I wonder when companies will start telling the truth for a change.

[ No. 494 ]

Jan. 6, 2009

As I enter my mid-30s, I’ll admit that I’m no spring chicken, but pop culture never fails to remind me exactly how much time has passed me by.

This morning, after dropping off my car for routine service, I rode in a courtesy shuttle from the Nissan dealership to my office building. During the ride to work, the familiar melody of “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News came on the radio. About halfway through the song, I noticed that the minivan’s stereo was tuned to WOGL 98.1 FM — the primary oldies station in the Philly area for the last two decades.

“The Power of Love” was released on the Back to the Future soundtrack in the summer of 1985, and I still remember receiving that album for Christmas later that year (in cassette format, of course). And I can do the math — I’m fully aware that was 24 years ago. But really, does a No. 1 hit from the mid-’80s belong on an oldies station? Really?*

* Update: My friend Steve writes:

Kind of makes you want to jump in the DeLorean and set the time circuits for 1985. Be sure to take a copy of the Sports Almanac for years 1985–2008 and also a laptop with stock data to short [sell] in 1987 and 2008.
I was feeling pretty old, too, trying to calculate how many years back it was from 2009 to the major events of my life (e.g., high school graduation, college graduation, movie release of Back to the Future, etc.).

I completely agree. I wish someone would have told me that time definitely seems to accelerate with each passing year. Of course, I probably never would have believed that advice in the summer of 1985, back when I had just finished fifth grade.

[ No. 493 ]

Jan. 3, 2009

I’d like to start the new year with a tribute to Hilary Coulson, who passed away on Dec. 28, 2008, after a sudden illness.

Hilary was the mother of my close friend Todd, whom I’ve known since our days in high school. I will always remember Mrs. Coulson as a tremendously kind woman who always made me feel very welcome during my frequent visits to their home over the years. She leaves behind a wonderful family and lots of friends, many of whom attended her viewing last night and a beautiful, moving funeral at the Church of the Holy Child in Wilmington, Del., earlier today.

Farewell, Mrs. Coulson. You will be dearly missed.

[ No. 492 ]