Archive for December, 2008

The Ghosts of Businesses, Present and Past

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

This afternoon, I purchased a Wii console at Toys R Us as a Christmas present for my 4 year old daughter (and me). On the way home, I decided to stop by a Circuit City and look for a game or two to go with it. My intention was to spend a small amount of money as a token effort to help Circuit City out, as they are currently operating in bankruptcy. I first set foot in this particular Circuit City one week ago. I was interested in two things: Wii gaming consoles and video cameras. They had no Wii consoles (only games and some accessories). One video camera caught my eye, and I wanted to know what type of connecting cables it came with. The young man that helped me out happened to be carrying around a small laptop computer and he began to look for the video camera in the database. But as he searched, the query of the stock number or model number came back as unknown. He tried this several times, and each time, the result was the same. I could tell that the young man was frustrated by this. I thanked him and told him I would do some on-line research on my own. This afternoon, as I walked to the front of the store with two games, I was unsure where the checkout was located. By happenstance, the same young man asked if he could help, and he rang me up on a nearby register. I don’t know what the future holds for Circuity City. I am inclined to think that the future is not bright, given the current economic situation. But I think the young man that helped me out twice in the past week is gaining valuable business experience with customer service, inventory, and supply chain. I wish him well.

Being in this particular Circuit City made me a little bit nostalgic because the store occupies space that became available when Tower Records closed shop. And so this led me to think about some of the stores that have gone out of business here in the Washington DC area, either because of bankruptcy, acquisition, or downsizing.

  • Raleigh’s, which closed in 1992. My father bought all of his Hart Schaffner & Marx suits from Raleigh’s, and I purchased five suits (totaling $1000) during their going-out-of-business sales.
  • Computer Literacy Bookstore. The store I went to was in Tyson’s Corner and was probably the most comprehensive computer and engineering bookstore that I have ever seen. I was crushed when I went there one day, probably in late 2001, to find it vacated.
  • Hecht’s, which was a popular department store. Begun prior to the Civil War, they were re-branded to Macy’s in 2006.
  • Tower Records, which closed retail operations in 2006. Shortly after starting work after college, I remember making trips to the Tower Records store near the campus of George Washington University and the Foggy Bottom Metro Station.
  • CompUSA, which still exists but with a much smaller footprint. I recall purchasing Microsoft’s FORTRAN compiler  – for $300 – sometime around 1990 from the store in Tyson’s Corner (now closed).

Of the businesses on this list, I was a fairly steady customer of Tower Records and Computer Literacy Bookstore right up until their closure. For the other businesses on this list, my purchasing patterns had changed over the years and, at the time of their closing, I was not a consistent customer. But I was saddened by their closing nonetheless. Very recently, we have seen the demise of the local chain Champion Billiards and Barstools, and the national chains Linens ‘n Things and Tweeter. I am sure that there are many others.

Who knows what the future has in store (no pun intended) for Circuit City, the Big 3 car companies, or your and my favorite businesses? I suspect that many more – some expected, some not – will be experiencing an unfortunate fate.

Please feel free to share your personal stories about your experiences with businesses of the past.

Venti Half Caf Def Breve?

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

I have never been a big Starbucks customer; thankfully, I was born without a discriminating coffee palate. I can enjoy most anything. But I wonder if I would enjoy the most expensive coffee in the world? I am speaking, of course, of Kopi Luwak. This primarily-Indonesian coffee is made of coffee berries that have been eaten and, uh, inspected for quality by the palm civet. How do civets inspect for quality? Well, they pass the berries, if you get my drift. It gives a whole new meaning to roasting. It’s a little bit like a naturally occurring Mochaccino.

Asian Palm Civet

Asian Palm Civet

According to the Wikipedia article

The beans are washed, and given only a light roast so as to not destroy the complex flavors that develop through the process.

Complex? Process? Well, at least they are washed. It’s a little bit like a fine Barolo. Instead of 3 or 5 years in an aging barrel, the beans age in civet bowels for a few hours. You might call this coffee “high end”. Prices for this gourmet coffee range from $120 to $600 per pound, although on-line bean prices are typically expressed per 100 grams to prevent seizures.

If you prefer your coffee “filtered” by a different animal, Kopi Muntjac is coffee from berries that have passed through barking deer.

Muntjac Barking Deer

Muntjac Barking Deer

From Vietnam comes another special blend, Weasel Puke. Weasel Puke comes from coffee berries that have been ingested and subsequently regurgitated by the local version of the Asian Palm Civet. Apparently, the berries in Vietnam upset the tummy of the civets so that they must, you know, throw them back up. I’m guessing that this coffee is like a strong roast sumatra.

There have been reports of single cups of these coffees selling from anywhere between $50 and nearly $100. I wonder if the $100 cup of Kopi Luwak was anything like double roasted. Now that would be complex.

Hop on the Bus

Friday, December 19th, 2008

Metro is the subway system serving Washington DC and the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. I live near the Vienna Metro Station, which is the western terminus of the Orange Line, in Virginia. For the last two and a half years, I have commuted into the District. It saddens me to report that during that time, I have usually driven my car to the Metro parking garage. This past summer – under the pressure of $4/gallon gasoline, $4.50/day parking fees, the green movement, and extra weight – I began walking to and from the Metro. This worked well for a month or so, before plantar fasciitis set in. I simultaneously replaced my dress shoes and sought the care of a podiatrist. Total out of pocket costs for the shoes (about $140 for two pair of Clarks) and my co-insurance ($90) far exceeded the savings that I experienced in exchange for the foot ailment. No good deed goes unpunished.

My neighbor encouraged me to take the bus, citing the convenience and low cost. For whatever reason, I resisted. But then I learned that the afternoon ride only cost 35 cents and I could pay with my SmartTrip card. What could be easier? But I was still not convinced.

When I first began working after college, I took the Metro bus from my apartment complex near Fairfax Circle to the Ballston Metro station (at the time, Ballston was the western terminus of the Orange Line). I remember taking the bus once on the weekend, traveling from Fairfax Circle to Seven Corners for shopping. It was purely a curiosity; I could have easily driven. Aside from this time, over 20 years ago, I do not recall ever riding a Metro bus.

Eventually, gentle prodding by my neighbor combined with curiosity prompted me to try walking to the Metro in the morning and taking the bus home in the evening. Well, I’m sold. Waiting for the bus in the evening, I have been lucky that the weather of the past week or so has not been horribly cold here. We’ll see how I feel during a snow or a cold snap.

Coincidentally, this week, I had to pick up one of my cars from a shop in Springfield VA that I just recently began using. I took the Blue Line to the Franconia/Springfield Station. I think I could have gotten the “courtesy shuttle” from the shop to come and pick me up. But I decided to take a cab instead. The cab driver had on some rhythmic music and I asked him what kind it was. He replied that it was “Ghanian”. I told him that it sounded “happy”. My fare was just under $10 and I gave the cabbie $13. I hope this was a reasonable tip.

It dawned on me that it has been many years since I have been in a taxicab. I was in a cab in Albuquerque NM on a business trip about 8 years ago. Before that, I occasionally took a cab between my house and Dulles Airport.

I do not ever recall taking a cab around town here to destinations other than the airport. Thus, the simple cab ride to the shop was a first of sorts for me.

Buses and taxicabs. I know they are a common form of transportation for many. But for me – as odd as this may sound – they are a recently discovered transportation alternative. I think I will try to stick with the bus, at least until I get a more environmentally friendly car.

Green Car

Green Car

The Good, The Bad, and the Code Pink

Thursday, December 18th, 2008

In today’s Washington Post, there was an article about a bunch of anti-war pansies that decided to hurl their shoes at a big-headed effigy of Bush. The anti-war “activists” assembled yesterday on Pennsylvania Avenue. According to the article,

They assembled a pile of clogs, boots, flip-flops, slippers and pumps, and, in celebration of the journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush in a news conference Sunday in Iraq, they tossed the footwear at a man wearing a papier-mâché Bush mask and a prison uniform.

I think these sufferers of BDS were getting an early start on Festivus. Even the election of Barack Obama could not mask the crowd’s apoplexy

“Here’s my goodbye kiss, George!” shouted Medea Benjamin, coordinator of the Code Pink activist group, as she hurled a shoe, missing her target.

“See if you can dodge this, you draft dodger!” contributed veteran Jim Goodnow, launching a pair of boots toward the Bush character’s head.

What would public spectacle be without Code Pink and Medea Benjamin. I am surprised that Benjamin was able to free up time to come to Washington DC. She usually spends her time carrying the water of Hugo Chavez. She’s pink for a reason.  Jim Goodnow complains that Bush is a draft dodger. I guess that Jim worships at the altar of Dan Rather and the proportional font IBM Selectric Composer of the early 1970’s. Wake up Jim! The government is not after you, and you can remove your hat now.

Earth to Jim, Come In Jim

Earth to Jim, Come In Jim

And this later from Benjamin

“Take this one, George, on behalf of peace-loving Americans!” Benjamin shouted, missing the Bush character.

“Try again, little missy,” Bush taunted.

Benjamin missed again. “Sorry, bad aim,” she explained.

With each toss of a shoe, another accusation flew: “Torturing human beings! Aggressive war! One point two million dead! PTSD! Stem cell research!”

Aggressive war? I hope that every war we undertake is aggressive. What kind of moron complains about war being aggressive? Torturing human beings? Does this refer to waterboarding a couple of pieces of human debris such as  Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Zubaida? That’s not torture in my book. One point two million dead? This refers to the Opinion Research Business survey, in which about 1720 adults were surveyed. I have said many times that I think that pathological lying is a way of life in the Middle East, and I have a hard time believing anything that they say. On the flip side, there is the Iraq Body Count Project, which used the following sources to develop counts.

  • 8,913 Mortuaries
  • 4,846 Medics
  • 4,376 Iraqi officials
  • 3,794 Eyewitnesses
  • 3,588 Police
  • 2,780 Relatives
  • 2,423 US-Coalition
  • 1,976 Journalists
  • 732 NGOs
  • 596 Friends/Associates
  • 196 Other

I don’t know. It seems like the IBC maybe has a slightly more diverse and more authoritative base of data with which to work. The IBC suggests a number of between 83,000 and 91,000 total deaths so far. I’m not celebrating innocent casualties, but 91,000 is much better than the 1.2 million figure that Benjamin professes. To provide some additional insight into the insanity, the ORB survey suggests that approximately 120,000 people – 30,000 more than the total of the IBCP – died as a result of our air strikes alone. So much for the quality of our precision guided munitions.

Stem cell research? I thought this was put to rest long ago. Adult stem cells have been shown to generate embryonic-like stem cell lines using a single-cell biopsy technique.  Make no mistake, the stem cell research debate is a proxy for reproductive rights and the abortion debate. It is not really about advancing medicine per se. Private research was never banned. Bush was right on this one.

Something tells me that we are going to see more and more crackpots as we lead up to the Inauguration. It is pretty hard to see what these people are going to do once Obama gets in office. They say that they will stop at nothing short of a war crimes tribunal. I suspect that most of these twits are awfully close to a diagnosis of Dissocial Personality Disorder. A quick look at the ICD-10 of the World Health Organization fits these people like a glove. Interestingly, people with dissocial personality disorder are never treated by mental health professionals. Apparently they are considered untreatable, and no interventions have proven effective. Untreatable? Now that I believe.

Playa Please!

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

When reading, it takes a whole lot of awkward to make me uncomfortable. It doesn’t happen very often. But it happened this morning as I read an article in today’s Washington Post with the headline Fashion Guidance for Aging Japanese Lads.

The article begins

For 12 straight years, sales have fallen in Japanese department stores, with clothing sales — the most important category for revenue and profits — driving the slide.

Behind the sagging rag trade is demography. Young spenders are increasingly rare. And there are swelling herds of older savers.

This seems perfectly natural because, as the article states later on

With 22 percent of the population already older than 65 (compared with about 12 percent in the United States), and with the old predicted to outnumber the young 4 to 1 by 2040, Japanese retailers, marketers and publishers are all trying to tease more purchases out of the elderly.

But before the article got to this point, it gave me a full-blown case of the heebie jeebies

Enter OilyBoy — a slick new magazine designed to excite consumption among “elder boys.”

Weathered, wrinkled and bald though they may be, the aging Japanese lads who read OilyBoy are still out on the town, drinking. Or up in the mountains, backpacking. Or down at the beach, surfing.

If you have read that far, you are rewarded with this infelicitous quote

“We don’t think we have become elderly people,” said Masami Kanno, 52, editor of OilyBoy, which appeared on newsstands this fall and is selling briskly. “We think we are players, even if we are 50 or 60 or 70.”

50 or 60 or 70? Players? What the krunk is Masami thinking? Listen, if you ask me, hip hop means The Sugarhill Gang and rap music means Kurtis Blow. So, no, I’m not exactly a “player”. But I have enough playacation to say: Playa please, you be trippin’ Masami.

Thanks, But No Thanks

Thanks, But No Thanks

OilyBoy, Tease, Elder Boys, Excite, Aging Lads, Drinking, Old Boy!

Yeech!! Here’s what comes to my mind. Sorry fellas.

OilyBoys?

OilyBoys?

As it turns out, OilyBoy is the nickname of “the late Jiro Shirasu, once the coolest guy in Japan”. Well, I feel all better now. Now someone get me a beer outa dat Playa Pack.

A Politically Correct Pick and Roll

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

In today’s Washington Post, there is an article about Obama’s pick for education secretary, Arne Duncan. Duncan has been chief executive of Chicago’s public schools since 2001.

I think that maybe political correctness crept into this pick. Obama didn’t really have any athletes in his cabinet, and Duncan was co-captain of his college basketball team and played professionally in Australia. So it is kind of refreshing to get a little brawn instead of the Ivy League propeller heads that will be commonplace in Obama’s Cabinet Room. Oh, wait, never mind. I see that Duncan’s college was Harvard University. The pick is a two-fer.

I think Obama will be lacing up the Chuck Taylors and maybe he and Arne – who have been long time basketball partners – will go looking for a little 2-on-2 action. For some reason, Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes come to mind.

Barry and Arne?

Barry and Arne?

Speaking of Chuck Taylors, have you seen the cost of a pair? I know people who bought houses (now in foreclosure, by the way) for less money down.

As I read the article, I came across this

Duncan is embraced by the teachers unions, who have been concerned about high-stakes testing and worry about merit pay being tied to test scores, as well as reformers, who favor charter schools and tougher standards.

I cracked up reading this. The teachers unions are concerned about testing and merit pay based on test scores. Quel Horror! This underscores what is wrong with so much about governments and bureaucracies. We measure, and hence reward, the wrong things. What would be a better measure of teacher effectiveness? Apples received? I can’t help thinking that the teachers unions – and the Democrats – are more concerned about teacher pay and administrator/teacher ratios than they are about actual education of our young people.

And the sad thing is that the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are the party that emphasizes education. Of children.  R-i-g-h-t. And I never should have given Petra Nemcova those necklaces. She totally got the wrong impression. I have to keep asking her to stop calling. Things just aren’t going to work out…

Please, Stop Calling Petra!

Please, Stop Calling Petra!

Duck, Shoes

Monday, December 15th, 2008

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 15 – George W. Bush displayed quick reflexes for a man of his age as he ducked footwear chin music from Muntadhar al-Zaida. Zaida, a  journalist of a Cairo-based pro-Sunni TV station, is unhappy with the United States occupation. Sorry Muntadhar, no more mass murder for you.

Ball 1

Ball 1

The high and tight tossing of hightops, we are told, is absolutely, unequivocally the greatest insult that the Iraqi culture (and I use the term loosely) can bestow.  That, and being called a dog. Which happens at every hip hop concert, I am told. This explains why Bush nearly cracked up during the incident. I know it is not polite to smirk while being shown a balmoral brush back. No doubt, Bush will take some, uh, heat over this one. He should have had greater respect for Zaida’s plain-toed purpose pitch. But what was Zaida thinking? Bush loves baseball.

When Zaida climbed the ladder again, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nearly committed fan interference as he reached for the blucher beanball. Had Bush been hit, he could have received treatment from a medical professional, such as Dr. Scholl.

Nearly Fan Interference

Nearly Fan Interference

Bush worked Zaida to a hitter friendly 2-0 count. But Zaida got the hook when he ran out of shoes, and was escorted from the mound.

When asked about his right shoe, Zaida had this to say in clear but accented English

It is a [expletive deleted] valuable thing. You don’t just throw it away for nothing.

When asked about his left shoe, Zaida had this to say

I’ve got this thing and its [expletive deleted] golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for [expletive deleted] nothing.

When asked about a possible pitching contract with the Daytona Cubs, the Chicago Cubs’ Advanced A minor league affiliate, Zaida had this to say

Hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive]. [Expletive] them.

Future In the Minors?

Future In the Minors?

When asked how his fellow Iraqis felt about his flame throwing, Zaida had this to say

They’re not willing to give me anything except appreciation. [expletive deleted] them.

Actually, that’s not true, of course. Zaida is being hailed as a hero across the Arab world. I’m sure that newborn boys in Iraq and elsewhere will be given the name Muntadhar. To Zaida and his adoring mob, I have something for you to to enter on your scorecard

[expletive deleted] you and the shoes you wore in

Powell Is On Fire, And So is Palin’s Church

Sunday, December 14th, 2008

On Sundays, I typically try to post something that is uplifting. Not this Sunday.

In the past 24 hours or so, we have learned one thing and possibly two. The one thing we do know is that Colin Powell has his camo briefs in a bunch. Who is the cause of this bunching? Why, Sarah Palin, again, that’s who. Powell continues to present himself as a Republican concerned about the direction of the party caused by Polarizin’ Palin. Apparently, when Palin describes small town values as good, this is polarizing. But when Obama (Democrat, Illinois) describes these same people as clinging to their guns and bibles, this is not polarizing. Nor, apparently, is it polarizing when John Murtha (Doofus, Pennsylvania) refers to these same people as racists and rednecks. Or when Jesse Jackson (Nut Cutter) referred to New York as “Hymietown”. Or when Robert Byrd used the “N-word” on the floor of the Senate. Come on Colin, for the love of God, please think. You have a lot of history to be proud of right there.

Palin is to Powell as Israel is to Jimmy Carter. Some kind of taproot of an evil tree. One gets the impression that Powell is chaffed because Palin is still in the news. Powell is miffed because, after his magnificent articulation of his Obama endorsement, he would have thought that Sarah would return to Wasilla, never to be heard from again.

Powell asserts that the Republicans must do a better job of attracting blacks and hispanics. But, um, Colin, wasn’t the 2000 presidential nomination yours for the taking, from the Republicans? Didn’t GWB appoint black and hispanic members to his cabinet, and weren’t these folks partly responsible for his success as Governor of Texas? In other words, they were in his inner circle before he took the high office. Contrast this with, say, Clinton, who made a point of explaining check-a-box search for a cabinet that “looked like America”. Isn’t Michael Steele being mentioned as a possibility for RNC Chairman? Didn’t the Republicans nominate a relative moderate – who didn’t really excite the base – but who has a history of reaching across the aisle, often to the chagrin of his party leadership (as opposed to someone who said he does, but offered no real evidence)? If, as Obama says, there is no black America and no white America, why does Powell insist that Republicans must do a better job of attracting blacks and hispanics? Shouldn’t Republicans simply do a better job of attracting Americans?

I have heard Powell’s name mentioned as a possible Secretary of Education. Here is a good example of an area where logic would dictate that blacks and hispanics might lean Republican, assuming that they care about education, that is. Democrats prefer to measure inputs, a very government thing to do, as a measure of success. Whereas, output is what really matters. So much in the thrall of the education lobby, Democrats oppose things like vouchers while Republicans and Bush, through efforts like No Child Left Behind, are trying to measure and improve actual educational results. Maybe if Powell spent a little less time worrying about Palin and a little more time drawing important distinctions in areas like education…

Now, I understand that many are concerned with the apparent populism that Palin brings to the Republican party. I have heard that the Republican party needs to recast itself as the party of ideas. Or the party of simple competence. Let us hope that the party is successful in rebuilding. But, frankly, in the current climate, I don’t think the people are listening for ideas; they are pining for utopia where cataclysmic events do not exist. They are understandably drained from the series of events over the past 8 years: terror, war, natural disasters, and financial meltdown.

The second thing we have learned is that Sarah Palin’s church in Wasilla Alaska was victim to suspected arson this past Friday night, so Powell’s timing for this second round of scolding could not have been better.  I will stop short of saying that the media’s treatment of Palin – including Powell’s treatment of Palin – would make it easy for a weak-minded individual to justify an act such as church arson. But I’d certainly like to hear Powell weigh in on this event and spread some of his genius. I’m not holding my breath.

Colin Powell, Thinking Hard

Thinking Hard, Or Hardly Thinking?

Happy Birthday Skunk and Nuge

Saturday, December 13th, 2008

Today happens to be the birthday of two of rock’s most interesting characters. Jeff ‘Skunk’ Baxter and Ted Nugent were both born on this day in 1948.

Jeff Baxter was a founding member of my all-time favorite group, Steely Dan. He went on to play with another successful group, the Doobie Brothers and has been a sought-after studio musician in the years since. I saw him playing with the Doobie Brothers when they came to Blacksburg Virginia. I would guess this would have been some time around 1978.

Ted Nugent has had a long solo career and frequently declared that he did not drink or use tobacco or marijuana. A member of the Board of Directors of the NRA, he is frequently in the news espousing conservative views and support for gun and hunting rights. At one time, he was thinking about a career in politics and, more specifically, a run for the US senate from Illinois. He currently lives in Texas, so I doubt we will see him mentioned as a Candidate in Blagogate.

Ted Nugent

Ted Nugent

Jeff Baxter is another interesting character, but you are much less likely to hear about him. I remember him at the Doobie Brothers concert at Cassell Coliseum on the campus of Virginia Tech. He spent the entire concert playing his guitar, sitting on a stool, wearing headphones. Not exactly the consummate entertainer, but a real commitment to the music.

Baxter’s second career has been as a self-taught defense consult on matters relating to missile defense. He has had contracts with the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies, and companies such as SAIC and Northrop Grumman.

Jeff Baxter

Jeff Baxter

Happy Birthday to two great musicians and entertainers.

Chinanimadigans

Friday, December 12th, 2008

I wasn’t feeling well today and so stayed home from work. This morning, on Fox News, I watched a news conference that featured Lisa Madigan, Illinois Attorney General, explaining her action of filing a motion with the Illinois Supreme Court for a Temporary Restraining Order that would temporarily remove that &%@* head Rod Blagojevich from office and elevate the lieutenant governor “…so the business of the state of Illinois can go forward.”

Chicago

Chicago

Madigan is approaching the high court because it is quicker than impeachment. The thinking is that impeachment could not occur before the end of December, and, on January 4th, a new state legislature will be seated. The AG is arguing that the &%@* head Blago is unfit to serve. But the rule under which the AG is acting is intended to cover cases in which the governor has some debilitating illness. So it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Shenanigans

Shenanigans

The AG explained that that the state is facing billions of dollars in unpaid bills for the likes of Medicaid patients, hospitals, pharmacies, nursing homes and schools. Madigan explained that in order for Illinois to meet these obligations, the AG must certify that there are no legal proceedings that threaten the ability of the governor to hold his office. Of course, such certification would be difficult to make at this time, even in Chicago.

Lisa and Michael Madigan

Lisa and Michael Madigan

Madigan is very comfortable in front of the cameras, and came off as very smart and on top of things as she fielded questions. In fact, Madigan has aspirations for higher political office, and here is where things get even more interesting. From 1998 to 2002, Madigan was in the Illinois state senate and was a friend of Barack Obama and had an office down the hall. She was elected AG in 2002 and again in 2006. Madigan is considered a possibility for the US Senate or the Illinois Governorship. In fact, there is speculation that Madigan is Candidate #2 in the Blago tapes. Madigan’s father, Michael Madigan, is the Illinois Speaker of the House. He is, apparently, a fiscal conservative and has clashed with that &%@* head Blago over state spending. And finally, Madigan is mentioned in some circles as potentially the first female president of the US should Hillary Clinton fail in her bids.

Chicago + Shenanigans + Madigans = Chinanimadigans