Archive for the ‘Hard times’ Category

Mon 18 Oct 2010 7:00 am   //   Posted in: Hard times, Stray data

Think outside the swan

OK, let’s get started. Chicago, can you hear us on the speakerphone? Fine, fine.

Good morning everybody. I hope you read the file we sent out before this meeting, but in case you didn’t, here are the highlights: Q3 revenues were off 38%. Customer satisfaction is at an all-time low. Frankly, we also expect corporate to implement redundancies before the holidays. I know this is a bitter call to swallow. But it’s also a wakeup pill.

Team, it’s time to think outside the swan.

What does that mean? First, reach for the low-hanging eggs. Seek out the black baskets. For too long, we’ve been putting all our fruit in one box. That changes today.

Second, be nimble. Drive in the fast shoe. Keep lines of communication open. There’s an old saying that goes, a lane can travel halfway around a fact while the world is still putting on its lies. I find it helpful to always keep that in mind.

And finally, adapt. Feed the cloud, and starve the lining. You can’t stop the losers, but you can learn how to ride. And when the surf gets bumpy, remember that every winner has a sugar wave.

I look out at this room and I see a lot of potential. I know we can meet our goals if we all do our best work. But I’m not going to silver-coat the situation. Our chips are to the wall. It’s hard to turn around a table. But we’re going to put our best backs forward. And we’ve put all our bucks on the battleship. I know I speak for all of management when I say, the foot stops here.

Now I’ll open the floor. Any questions?

Mon 2 Aug 2010 9:42 pm   //   Posted in: Hard times

Remember 2008?

There was a point when everything looked like hell. Banks were collapsing, threatening to take New York City down with them. Newspapers and magazines were folding all over the place. We lost Circuit City, the Virgin Megastore, and a lot of small businesses. Food supplies even got scarce enough to drive prices up. I remember talking to someone about the possibility that we might soon walk into a supermarket and find no bread on the shelves. This was only 2 years ago!

Today, the Dow closed up 2%, New York feels like its booming, and Newsweek magazine actually found a buyer. Even Blockbuster is still kicking.

Why were we all so scared two years ago? Why was I so scared?

Sun 16 May 2010 8:00 am   //   Posted in: Brooklyn, Hard times, Transit

You’ll be waiting a long time for that bus

There are a few constant beats in the rhythm of the streetscape of my neighborhood. Food delivery guys ride their Huffys in any weather. Trash pickup is twice a week. Recycling and street sweeping are once a week. In the summer, Mister Softee comes around every evening. And the B67 runs all night.

So much for the B67. This sign says it all:

Sign: Attention! The following changes to bus service will take effect due to budget reductions.

Among the lines being cut are my B67, which will still run, just on a reduced schedule. The MTA is also merging several subway lines (goodbye to the W and V designations) and increasing overnight spacing of trains.

Honestly, I will be fine. I can bike, walk, plan, improvise, flag down a gypsy cab, or do whatever I must do to get around. But not everyone can. Transit cuts disproportionally hurt the poor, as well as the elderly and other people who might have trouble walking long distances. In Brooklyn, bus routes form a fine mesh that fills in the gaps between subway stations. (If you don’t live here and you’ve never seen it before, you might enjoy viewing the shocklingly complex Brooklyn bus map.) Buses enable the people who can’t afford cars, who work in outer-borough neighborhoods, to get to and from their jobs and appointments. It’s not their fault tax revenue is down and the state is cutting the MTA’s funding. Budget cuts hurt the wrong people.

Fri 28 Aug 2009 9:00 am   //   Posted in: Hard times, Movies

We need to talk about your flair

The other day at work I was coding an e-mail newsletter while listening to Dr. Dre and realized: I am pulling a total Michael Bolton.

Ten years ago, Mike Judge directed a movie set at a dot-com company in the generic American suburbs. It flopped in the theater. But time has been good to “Office Space.” It’s actually gotten funnier and even more devastating as the trends this movie dryly observed have become more widespread. For people of a certain age, this movie is as much a cultural touchstone as “Star Wars” and “Back to the Future.”

Gawker uses “The Bobs” as slang for “consultants.” The Wikipedia entry on TPS report includes half a dozen pop culture references. Web sites sell red Swinglines and Initech T-shirts. The “Pieces of Flair” Facebook app has 4 million users. Call “Office Space” a cult movie if you must, but it’s one heck of a big cult.


Fri 8 May 2009 7:09 am   //   Posted in: Failure, Hard times

R.I.P. Duke Nukem

In the early 1990s, a software company called Apogee released a series of totally addictive side-scroller games for MS-DOS. (See my good friend Commander Keen above.) Since my parents thought a PC was more educational than a Nintendo, DOS was the gaming platform of choice for my brother and me. We played and beat many of these games. Great fun.

One of the best was called Duke Nukem. Duke was some kind of commando with a huge arsenal of bulky, cartoonish weapons. The game was set, as Wikipedia notes, in the “near future” of 1997. A vastly refined and more violent sequel called Duke Nukem 3D came out a few years later. Then, in April 1997, the developer behind Duke Nukem 3D, 3D Realms, announced another sequel: Duke Nukem Forever. It was going to be the best video game of all time.

They’ve been working on it ever since.

This week, various tech blogs including this one at the Wall Street Journal report that development of Duke Nukem Forever is finally over and the game may never be released. 3D Realms has been shut down. The greatest setup in video game history has ended with no payoff.

What happened here? Were they really even serious about this game? Can you imagine working on the same project for 12 years, only to have it be scrapped?

Sun 3 May 2009 9:30 pm   //   Posted in: Hard times

The year of down 30%

Over time we expect most things to get a little bigger, a little better. Not this year. Right now, stuff is down 30 percent.

Stock prices. Car sales. New York City tax revenue. Advertising at newspapers and some magazines. The list goes on. If you read a lot of business news you’ll the number 30% a lot (often in parenthesis).

There are some good things about this sinking decline. Suppose you do ten things every day. Now you have a free pass to re-prioritize and only do the seven things you’re best at, and do more of them. But for the most part, the situation sucks. Everybody who still has a job is working really hard, and it’s frustrating to do that and see 7/10 of last year’s results.

Here are some things I wish were down 30 percent:

  • Rent.
  • The cost of a Nintendo Wii.
  • Traffic merging from 17th Street onto the Prospect Expressway.
  • Panhandling in the subway.
  • The amount of coffee I drink every day.
  • The cost of renting a car in New York City.
  • The number of TV news helicopters.
  • The volume of the music in most bars and restaurants.

Sun 19 Apr 2009 3:17 pm   //   Posted in: Hard times, Movies

The journalism-proof company

Recently I sat down to watch “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” the 2005 documentary about one of the biggest business failures in American history. This movie literally put me to sleep. Why?

I think it’s because Enron, despite being an epic failure, is just a bad story. Enron traded products like natural gas, something you can’t actually see, and electricity distribution, which is just a concept. “The Smartest Guys in the Room” is stuck using footage of mirrored-glass office buildings with rows of empty workstations inside. The executives profiled in the film aren’t especially interesting. Their motivations—to make money and ruthlessly crush the competition—are easy to understand, and their downfall is a simple morality play. And what exactly happened to Enron is so hard to explain that if the most interesting person in the world told a story about it, you’d be bored to tears.

Enron built a journalism-proof company. Some reporters understood the company was doomed and even managed to get articles published before the company collapsed. Nobody paid any attention. It was just too boring!

The opposite of Enron, in terms off journalism, is General Motors. A proud, historic company, it has tens of thousands of workers and vast acres of American industrial infrastructure at its disposal. You’ve got great visuals: Cars, trucks, gigantic assembly plants, rusting factory towns. You’ve got personal stories of unemployed workers. The product is something almost everyone uses. GM has been the subject of countless books and articles, and two of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen: Roger & Me” and “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

As a result, everybody knows GM is on the brink of failure—unlike Enron in late 2001.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t lend themselves to popular stories as neatly as GM. Did we really learn anything from Enron? The AIGs and Countrywides and Washington Mutuals and Wachovias and Merrill Lynchs are still poisoning our economy with schenanigans similar to those that brought down Enron. Our economy has stopped rewarding people who create stuff and instead rewards people who trade stuff that already exists. Then it was energy, this time it’s debt and real estate.

Journalists and regulators know what’s going on. Some watchdogs actually bark. The problem is human nature. People don’t want to hear barking, they want to hear a good yarn.

Fri 17 Apr 2009 9:00 am   //   Posted in: Food & drink, Hard times, New York is different

There’s always a recession at Gray’s Papaya

Gray’s Papaya is the most famous of Manhattan’s many hot dog lunch counters. Gray’s has locations all over town, and like its many clones, it sells pretty good dogs and dubious fruit drinks. When I moved to New York, I was immediately amused by Gray’s signage. The owner likes to use current events to promote deals on hot dogs, and back in 2002, big signs in the windows advertised a “Recession Special!” That slogan is copied all over the place, but Gray’s basically owns the idea.

In fact, in the last seven years, I don’t think Gray’s Papaya has ever stopped offering a Recession Special. After all, it takes a year or so to know when a recession has started or ended, but it only takes a minute to sell a hot dog.

Mon 6 Apr 2009 9:00 am   //   Posted in: Hard times, In the news

Cliché alert: The “not normal times” lead

In normal times, a company with its name on a baseball stadium would be flattered to have the chief executive take part in the opening-day festivities. But these are not normal times.”

— Ken Belson and Eric Dash, The New York Times, April 4, 2009.

“The century-old Russell Senate Office Building… is not ordinarily a spot for political rallies. But these are not ordinary times.”

— Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, April 2, 2009.

If these were normal times, it would be ludicrous to issue a report card on the Obama administration’s economic policies. … But these aren’t normal times.”

— Paul Krugman, Rolling Stone, March 3, 2009.

By any normal political standards, this week’s Congressional agreement on an economic stimulus package was a great victory for President Obama. … Break out the Champagne! Or maybe not. These aren’t normal times, so normal political standards don’t apply.”

— Paul Krugman, The New York Times, February 12, 2009.

“Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed? In normal times, this would be a ludicrous question. But these are not normal times.”

— Martin Wolf, Financial Times, February 10, 2009.

“The economic case against protectionism is that it distorts incentives: each country produces goods in which it has a comparative disadvantage, and consumes too little of imported goods. And under normal conditions that’s the end of the story. But these are not normal conditions.”

— Paul Krugman, The New York Times, February 1, 2009.

(P.S.: Snap out of it, Krugman, you’re better than this!)

Thu 2 Apr 2009 8:27 am   //   Posted in: Hard times, Media

Bad news

Yesterday afternoon (after my post poking fun at Wired), there was a report of 20 people laid off at Turns out it was more like three. Or maybe it was mostly freelancers. Hard to say. Even Keith Kelly kept it vague in his column today.

The odd thing about the media covering the media is that there are fewer of us. Inevitably, coverage suffers. You need to get the stories right, and post lots of them, and post them fast. I do my best to keep standards high. I tend to avoid rumor stories of the Gawker template: “We’ve heard XYZ, but we can’t confirm. E-mail us if you know more.” Almost nobody ever e-mails in response to those queries. And when somebody does, they’ve often heard the same rumor from somebody who read it on your blog. I still feel bad when I post something that turns out to be inaccurate, so I work hard not to.

But with pressure to write good stories, and lots of them, something else has to give. These days I sometimes I take a pass on a good story just because it will be time-consuming to fact-check. In journalism school terminology, I might be accused of practicing “poor news judgment.” But in J-school they also taught us to fight management for bigger news budgets and spend as much as we could on good journalism. As if.