Monday, April 30, 2012

Halfway Heroic

I can't believe the end of April is already here. Maybe it's hard to believe because the weather has been spectacularly disappointing, especially after the unseasonably warm May-arch weather last month.  That's not to say that April hasn't had it's share of nice's just that without fail, the temperature immediately plummets, clouds roll in, and rain starts to fall on Friday night and continues through Sunday night.

Then Monday morning hits, the sun returns, and the temperature leaps back into comfortable territory.  Seriously, this happened every single weekend, all April long!  It's like the weather gods were mocking my every step two and from work.  I think I spent a grand total of thirty-five minutes outside all month, and that's the cumulative total from walking between the car into various buildings.

But enough about the sad, depressing weather.  The final day of the month means that it's my last chance to post my monthly ad revenue update, a long-standing tradition here at Away from the Cubicle.  And by long-standing tradition, I mean second post on the topic...but all traditions have to start somewhere.

I hadn't checked my AdSense account for quite a few weeks--Google's overhaul of the Blogger interface made it temporarily difficult to locate the Earnings button, but I finally found it and did some investigating this morning.  I was beyond pleasantly surprised by the results--Blogger business is booming!  First of all, with March's money in the bank, I'm up to $26.82 in revenue, not including anything from April:

And, like I said, April has been a very good month.  At this risk of making this feel a little too much like work and not enough like a blog titled Away from the Cubicle, let's go to the woefully undersized graphs:

I nearly doubled my ad revenue in April, with over $25 for the month!  And the lifetime earnings chart is looking pretty darn good, too:

With more than $50 in the bank as April comes to a close, I'm officially more than half way to my $100 AdSense-minimum cash-out goal. And, as you may recall, when I break through that illustrious $100 barrier and receive my first Blogger payment, I wiill officially proclaim myself a professional writer. Given powerful trend I'm working with, I'll be wealthy and retired by the end of next year.

Ad revenue is more than doubling every month, and with two months worth of data supporting this explosive exponential trend, I see no reason why that won't continue indefinitely.  Who knew it could be this easy?!  With all the free time I'll have in retirement without that pesky little thing known as "employment," the quality of this blog will surely skyrocket along with my earnings, creating an unstoppable, virtuous cycle.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Three-Eyed Hurricane

As I reported last Sunday, I was expecting a stormy week ahead at the office.  That week is now behind me, and I'm happy to report that those five days went shockingly well, blowing away even my most optimistic expectations.  On the latest night of the week in the office, I was out of there by 5:15PM--not bad at all considering that this time last weekend, I was mentally preparing myself for an office camp-out.

By late Tuesday afternoon, we had essentially finished building our budget.  But that's not the tough or scary part.  Once we've finalized what the actual total dollar amount, we start preparing the explanation to that annoying, looming question: "What changed between this year's expense and next year's budgeted expense?"  This entails filling out the dreaded analysis of change template, or "AOC," the three-letter acronym and resident four letter word of the Spring Plan process.

We fill out all of the things that we know changed--total production volume is up or down, our mix of more expensive versus less expensive products changed our budget by $x amount, and these three hundred other known changes also caused our expense to go up or down.  The leftover amount--the gap between what we can explain and what our actual budget amount is...that's the part that can really create problems.

There are horror stories where the unexplained amount reaches into the tens of millions of dollars.  Unfortunately, there's no "uh...we're not sure..." section in the AOC template, so closing the gap requires some brilliant fiction and storytelling to come up with possible explanations on why things changed form one year to the next.  It it makes presenting and defending the budget very challenging and unnerving, knowing that if there are questions about the stuff you made up, you need to make up even more stuff to defend it...

That part of the process had me the most scared--if that gap was big, it was going to be a very, very long week.  When we got everything put together, the gap was $15,000.  That's tiny...microscopic...on a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, fifteen thousand is less than an fraction of a percent!  It doesn't even show up in the rounding.  I could easily walk in and say "I have no idea what this $15,000 is," and I'd get laughed out of the room for even talking about such an immaterial number.

I could not believe my good fortune.  This was the stuff of finance legend--if there were a Finance Hall of Fame, I'd be a first ballot inductee.  I wanted to high-five my calculator and frame my spreadsheet when the budget came back with almost $0 unexplained dollars.  That never happens...never!  The freakish rarity of the situation made me worry that I'd missed something in the process, but there was no time to get too concerned--we had to shift our focus toward presenting the budget, first on Wednesday and again on Friday.

The presentation portion of the week went equally well.  The overall budget was generally good news, which always makes things easier, and having logical explanations for all of the changes in the AOC template further simplified the process.  No fiction this time around; no feeling like the whole thing was a giant house of cards that could come crashing down at any moment during the presentation.  It didn't hurt that me and the other two guys in my group coordinated the night before Friday's presentation and all wore green shirts, which drew a few laughs and one "Three Stooges" remark.  By Friday afternoon, I was thrilled--no late nights, no missed workouts, and expectations wildly exceeded.

But it's not over just yet.  I'm sitting in the eye of the hurricane this weekend, and it's back into the storm tomorrow morning.  Our portion of the budget is behind us, but we receive two other important inputs from other groups tomorrow afternoon, then frantically consolidate everything and start preparing the presentation of the overall picture on Thursday morning.  The verdict's still out on whether it'll be good news or bad news.  Once again, a staggering amount of things need to get accomplished this week.

Next weekend will be the second eye of this hurricane before we present the budget one final time the following Monday morning to a different, and perhaps our most critical, audience.  At that point, the third, longest, and most peaceful eye of this storm arrives, lasting for a few weeks before the final two-day whirlwind when we do the whole thing over again in two days in early June.

This past week went unbelievably well, but I can't allow myself to set my hopes too high for the coming week.  Things have a crazy way of averaging out over time, so last week's smooth sailing could easily mean violent waters ahead.  I've only weathered the first eye of this ferocious triclops storm, but I can't deny that my outlook for the future is decidedly more positive than it was last Sundae.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nutella and Nigerian Princes

If you're standing, you'll probably want to sit down for this shocking revelation: Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut spread, is not health food.  If you're feeling ignorant and foolish after learning this nugget of information, don't feel too bad--it's not your fault.  Ferrero, the Italian company who makes Nutella, has produced some highly convincing advertising over the past few years that would have you believe that Nutella cures obesity and the common cold:

This one's my favorite.  With words like "whole wheat" and "multi-grain," could there possibly be a healthier way to start the day than Nutella?!   No, it doesn't matter that you're spreading chocolate sauce on other foods like waffles or toast that could contain whole wheat or multi-grains.  And it's a food that kids will "want to eat!"  I certainly can't argue with that--if you can slather an old tennis shoe with enough chocolate sauce, kids would undoubtedly love eating that, too.  "Breakfast never tasted so good!"  That's a strong indicator that you're not dealing with a healthy breakfast.  Health food and good taste go together like like oil and water.

The ad is so unconvincing that it's downright funny.  But if only I were smarter, I would have viewed this as a potential money-grab instead of a piece of comedy; while I was laughing, I should have been calling a lawyer like a mother in California decided to do.  The San Diego woman filed a lawsuit in February 2011, complaining that Fererro's highly convincing ads led her to believe that Nutella was a healthy breakfast option for her young daughter.  When she finally discovered that the health profile of her chocolate spread looked more like a Snicker's bar than a garden salad, she lawyered up.  It makes me wonder if this California mom is friends with Stella Liebeck, the crazy McDonald's hot coffee lawsuit woman.

Technically, it was a 2010 Nutella commercial that got Fererro in hot water, but the message was remarkably similar to the one in the ad above: Nutella is part of a healthy breakfast that includes other healthy foods that have nothing to do with Nutella.  Sure, Nutella can be part of a healthy's just not the healthy part.

"It takes a lot of energy to be a kid!"  Do kids need to sugar-up to sit on the couch and eat junk food? Sadly, common sense lots its battle against the overly litigious and, this month, Ferrero settled that 2011 lawsuit and agreed to pay out $3.5 million, including $2.5 million to be paid as part of a class action settlement. If you bought Nutella at any time between the beginning of 2008 and February, 2012, then you, too, can jump on the shameful money train and cash in on the stupidity of the general population--no receipt or proof of purchase required!


When you read about someone falling for the classic Nigerian prince email scam, it's always good for a laugh.  Aside from the blatantly stupid, the most frequent victims are naive senior citizens who don't realize that it is, in fact, possible to tell lies via electronic means of communication.  The second they hear about a distressed Nigerian in dire need of an American bank account to safely store his fortune, they hand over their bank account number and throw in their social security and credit card numbers just to make sure the prince has enough to survive until he can escape his war-torn country.

The semi-intelligent and marginally-informed are generally immune to financial losses of this variety...generally.  But this month, a local Minneapolis law firm filed a downright Nutella-esque lawsuit against Wells Fargo after falling for a new twist on the classic Nigerian prince scam.  This specific scam targets lawfirms and lawyers and, believe it or not, the scammers have successfully pulled of this scheme nearly eighty times and raked in a total of $31 million over the past few years.

The African con artist contacts a lawfirm, seeking help collecting a debt...but unbeknownst to the laywers, the debtor is in on the scam.  When the lawfirm pursues the unpaid debt, the debtor sends a check, and the lawfirm deducts their fees and transfers the remaining balance of the debt to the original customer. By the time the lawyers realize the debtor issued a phony check, it's too late.

In this case, the Edina lawfirm Milavetz, Gallop & Millavetz lost nearly $400,000 in one of these scams, which included the fabricated story of a middle aged Korean woman pursuing settlement money that was owed to her. Authorities believe one of the famous Nigerian scam artists, Emmanual Ekhator, was behind the fraud.

But instead of taking the loss and hiding their embarrassing mistake, the lawyers put their professional skills to use and sued Wells Fargo, blaming the bank for missing warning signs that the transaction was fraudulent and claiming that Wells Fargo should have been on the lookout for this increasingly common scam.  The biggest warning sign?  The check that Wells Fargo received from the fictitious debtor included spelling errors in Wells Fargo's address.  It makes perfect sense--this wouldn't be a proper Nigerian prince scam story without spelling errors...just think how much damage they could inflict if they learned proper English...

This one promises to drag out in the court system for a long while, as Wells Fargo promises to vigorously fight the lawsuit.  If I've learned anything from these absurd lawsuits, it's that I should always have a keen eye out for money making opportunities.  I've been letting common sense cloud my judgment and block my vision when it comes to potential paydays.

I haven't received one of those Nigerian prince emails in many years, so I'm going to post an ad on Craigslist, offering my bank account to anyone who needs a safe place to store large sums of money. I haven't hammered out all the details of my plan just yet, but if I lose money on this, it'll surely be someone else's fault, and I have faith that the court system will find a way to compensate me handsomely.  And to add another level of security to my financial future, I'll be eating Nutella while I'm posting my ad. I have a feeling I'll somehow be able to cash in on that, too...

Check out the full stories:

Friday, April 27, 2012

Efficiently Wasteful

Earlier this year, I walked into the Lifetime parking lot after a workout and noticed that someone had tucked one of those annoying Chinese takeout flyers under the windshield wiper of the Malibu.  My car wasn't the only one who'd been victimized--white slips of paper fluttered in the breeze on the windshields of every vehicle in the lot.  There's something very unsettling about the thought of strangers touching the Malibu, even if they're only lifting the wiper blade to slide a piece of paper underneath.  When you drive a vehicle that's been known to suffer major breakdowns while sitting untouched in a climate-controlled garage, even the little things pose a potentially catastrophic risk.  I was mildly annoyed, but the Malibu seemed to be unfazed and maintained its standard of mediocre performance and sub-par fuel efficiency.

Then, late last month, I was in the middle of my daily post-work, pre-workout routine, sitting in the Lifetime parking lot, wolfing down a container of vegetables and boiled chicken.  Out of the corner of my eye, something caught my attention and interrupted me as I inhaled my flavorless meal.  Someone was walking in between the row of parked cars, pausing at each one, and sliding a flyer underneath the wiper.  It was the annoying flyer-placing guy, and I'd caught him in the act!  As he worked his way up the aisle of cars and approached the Malibu, I wondered if he'd have the courage to slide an ad under the wiper while I was sitting right there eating.

He reached the car next to me and finally noticed the strange guy eating chicken and staring at him from the parked Malibu next door.  Was he going to do it?  I glared at him, hoping he'd get the message that I wasn't interested in buying anything he was selling.  He backed away, skipped my windshield, and continued on his annoying way, littering the windshields of every other car in the parking lot.  Me: 1, annoying flyer guy: 0.  I dodged that bullet--no one puts two unwanted ads on my car in the same year.  I finished eating and went inside to work out, basked in glory.

When I came back outside after the workout, the parking lot was covered in snow.  This was terrible and shocking news, especially since it was a warm and sunny day...but wait...that wasn't snow!  The Lifetime parking lot was blanketed with white advertisements.  Apparently every single person did exactly what I had done months before when I found the ad under my windshield wiper--they pulled it off their car, threw it on the ground, and drove off without giving it a second thought.

At least it wasn't a Chinese takeout flyer this time--a closer look revealed that Liquor World & Tobacco was to blame for this out-of-season blizzard.  I'm surprised the descendants of Marilyn Monroe haven't presented the owners of Liquor World with a cease and desist order to get the likeness of their famous great-grandma yanked from the ads.  I'm sure Marylin liked her alcohol and tobacco, but even at her lowest point she would never have been caught dead anywhere near a run-down suburban Minneapolis booze shack like this.

I was pleased with my victory on the drive home, small though it may have been--I had successfully avoided my second unwanted ad of the year.  Good thing I enjoyed my success, because that sense of accomplishment would be short-lived.  When I got home, I walked up to my apartment door, turned the key in the lock, opened the door, and...bam!  Something ironic that had been wedged in my front door floated toward the floor:

What are the odds?!  While I was over at Lifetime narrowly escaping having my car unwillingly advertised upon, someone from Ju Yuan Chiese Restaurant was staking out my apartment, waiting to hit me where I live with a takeout ad!  Liquor World and Ju Yuan couldn't have coordinated this any better if they were working together.  Victory was not mine!

As I stood open-mouthed, staring at the flyer of doom, it struck me that flyer-based advertising is the most efficient process on the face of the earth...unfortunately, the only output of that perfectly efficient process is pure waste.  Not a single person wants one of these flyers.  That's why the Liquor World guy didn't knock on my widow, interrupt my meal, and hand me a flyer in person. And that's why he was placing them on the windshields of empty cars instead of handing them to people face-to-face as they left the gym.  It would take about fifteen seconds before someone punched him in the face.

Think about it--in what other situation do companies spend money to design and print a bunch of ads, pay someone to distribute them, and annoy and piss off potential customers who glance at the ads for a split second before throwing them on the ground?  It's a spectacular way to litter the ground and drive away customers while also wasting paper, time, money!  Spectacular!  Even if I were an alcohol, tobacco, or Chinese food fanatic, I would refuse to ever set foot in Liquor World or Ju Yuan simply out of principle and pent up frustration for having their advertising thrown in my face.

If small businesses feel the need to advertise with flyers, they could put themselves in a better position--and do it cheaper and more quickly--by cutting out the middlemen entirely.  Why not have the guy at the print shop take those hot-off-the-press flyers, run out into the parking lot, and throw them directly on the ground?  No alienated customers, and no time or money wasted distributing those frustrating flyers!

The dynamic duo of Liquor World and Ju Yuan may have won the battle that day, but I'll have the last laugh.  I'm off to order Italian takeout food and get drunk off someone else's liquor. Take that!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Very Scary Hybrid

I do my best to get along with everyone, but there are two groups of people in this world who I go to great lengths to avoid: drunks and children.  There are some striking--and very annoying--similarities between these seemingly unrelated groups.  Both are loud, annoying, and messy; both are notorious for exhibiting childish behavior, and neither group is guilt-free when it comes to spitting up and urinating in the most unfortunate places and situations.  And no one wants to encounter drunks or children behind the wheel....unless you're driving and they're pedestrians...can anyone say "speed bump"?

My only consolation is that these groups tend to be mutually exclusive.  You'll occasionally encounter drunks, you'll occasionally encounter children, but they don't usually hang out in the same places.  Children aren't allowed in bars, and drunks usually don't spent a lot of time around daycare centers, playgrounds, or elementary schools...except for the really creepy drunks.  That's good news, because one of the scariest and most ferociously annoying mythical creates in fictional lore is the hybrid drunk child.  As long as the two groups remain mutually exclusive, I can maintain the status quo and steer clear of their frequent hangouts.

 Both bad, but manageable when separate...

But the careless employees at the Olive Garden threaten to upset the balance of the universe with their reckless, care-free approach to beverage service. Earlier this week at an Indianapolis Olive Garden restaurant, a mother--apparently unconcerned with altering the course of her young boy's sexual orientation--ordered a "Wildberry Frullato" for her ten year-old son. (Much like the rest of Olive Garden's menu, this is a weak attempt at creating an "authentic" Italian dining experience--in this case, in the form of a smoothie.)

Instead of fetching the faux-Italian fruit and yogurt drink, the waitress returned to the table with a strawberry daiquiri, which includes rum as one of its primary ingredients.  The waitress realized her mistake and started a game of fast-casual-dining-telephone, informing her manager, who told the boy's parents that their son was sipping booze.  By the time they found out, he'd downed about half of the four-ounce beverage. Completing the circle of stupidity with a classic display of overreaction, the parents made the final call in that game of telephone--to the police--then promptly rushed their son to the emergency room.  

Police described the kid as "alert", but "shaken up."  I'm guessing he was upset that happy hour ended early and that his parents were panicking as if he'd just chugged a bottle of bleach.  What happened to the days when mothers on the western frontier put their crying babies to sleep with a shot of whiskey?  The way this situation played out is a clear sign that Olive Garden is about as far from authentic Italian dining as a person can get.  If this had been Italy, every ten year-old in the restaurant would have been drinking wine straight out of the bottle...

Beverage service seems to be a consistent problem in the fast casual dining segment of the restaurant industry, particularly in the Midwest states.  A very similar story played out last April at an establishment whose classiness rivals that of the Olive Garden.  At a Michigan Applebee's, a 15 month old received a cup of margarita mix instead of apple juice.  His parents started to suspect something was amiss when they noticed their toddler's strange, even-more-annoying-than-usual-for-a-child behavior.  His mom claims that he was "saying 'hi' and 'bye' to the walls" before he became hyper.  Applebee's workers at the restaurant blamed a mislabeled container for the blunder.

I'd be happy to hand label every beverage container in the country--we just can't have this.  I'm not the least bit concerned about children's safety; I just think that children in restaurants are bad enough under ordinary circumstances.  Loud, crying, messy, annoying...sounds a lot like a drunk person, doesn't it?  If we get alcohol in these kids, there's no telling where this will end.  You'd have to be glutton for punishment to voluntarily dine at an Olive Garden or Applebee's to begin with, but with the threat of alcohol-fueled children further damaging the experience, these restaurants will become downright uninhabitable.

I'm happy to report that the Olive Garden waitress was promptly fired for her mistake, but I haven't heard how the staff member at Applebee's fared--and I haven't slept a wink since I read the story.  How can I go on, knowing that a hybrid monster could be unleashed upon the world at any moment?  No one is safe...and especially not me, living dangerously close to a Chili's restaurant.  That's the only logical prediction for the next location of a catastrophic alcohol-and-child mix-up.  

The Mayans predicted that the world will come to end in December, 2012.  If they end up getting this one right, I can confidently cite the cause right now:

If you're not prone to nightmares, here are some links to the full stories:

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Great Lifetime Addendum

As you may recall from my previous blog post, one of the most annoying groups of people at the gym consists of the guys who half-rep their way into an inflated and downright fictional sense of strength.  "The Cheaters" came in at #2 on my list of top ten (well, technically top eleven) weird and annoying groups of people at the gym.  Consider today's blog post an addendum, a footnote, an example, an attachment, supporting evidence, a it whatever you want, but what follows are three videos illustrating my definition--and truly, my inspiration--for calling out The Cheaters in my previous post.

I'm not sure why I find this group so simultaneously annoying and hilarious.  Maybe it's the fact that these guys must know, deep down, that they are far weaker than they think they are.  But do they really think they're fooling everyone else in the gym?  When they warm up with lighter weights, the barbell or the dumbbells come magically close to their chests; the weight moves all the way up and all the way back down.  Not only that--their arms seem fully functional at the elbow joint!  Then, as they work their way up the dumbbell rack, there's a highly noticeable, mysterious inverse relationship between the weight and the range of motion with which they lift...

I don't consider it my job to give anyone else tips on lifting technique, and I'm probably one of the last people that gym members would turn to for advice.  But there are plenty of others at Lifetime who don't share my hesitation in this department and freely hand out workout tips.  On multiple occasions, I've seen people pass by these guys and offer up questions or comments such as, "Why aren't you going down all the way?" and "You should let the bar go down to your chest!"  But even when directly called out like this, The Cheaters still cheat.

I may be weak, but I hold firm in my commitment to a full range of motion.  If he's bringing the bar down all the way, I have much more respect for the scrawny high school kid who just buried himself under a barbell with five-pound plates on each side than I do for The Cheaters, who are often half-pressing two hundred fifty or more pounds.  I have a secret hope that these guys will someday have themselves so thoroughly convinced of their strength that they enter a power-lifting competition, where they will undoubtedly get laughed off the stage and/or buried when they try to follow the referee's orders to bring the bar down another sixteen inches if they want the rep to count.

So, without further wait, here are the clips.  These are three different guys--they're all friends; perhaps they learned their technique from one another--doing three different bench press lifts, with different types of weight (some barbell, some dumbbell).  The only constant is the fine spotting effort of Brandon.  He and I have worked out a scheme where he volunteers to spot and offer encouragement while I stand nearby, pretending to play with my phone while capturing it all on video.

We make quite a team in this effort, and he even requested that I write this blog post.  So Brandon, enjoy--just promise that with all this spotting, you'll never forget how to bend your arms all the way when you lift.  If the cheating is contagious, it could mark a sad and embarrassing end to your promising bodybuilding career.

First up, we have the flat bench half-press with 105lb dumbbells.  Something closer to 85-90lbs is probably right for this guy, but he throws caution--and range of motion--to the wind and goes big:

Next up is the equally impressive barbell incline half-press at 225lbs.  Different guy, different lift, exact same issue.  One-seventy-five would be about right, but it's just too hard to impress people with that kind of weight...

And finally, one of my personal favorites: The Cheaters' decline dumbbell half-press.  Prior to the shooting of this clip, this Cheater pulled off a mediocre set with 120lb dumbbells.  Spotters helped him pound out his half-reps, and when the set was over, I fought back laughter as I heard him tell people that he'd gotten ten reps!  I didn't bother asking if he remembered to discount that number 50% for the spotters and the remaining 50% for the range of motion.  But he was pretty happy with himself and didn't pause for a second before heading over to the 130s:

And here, Brandon and another spotter help the guy complete half of the down-half of two reps.  But when it was over, the guy's smile clearly shows that he was pleased with his stunning accomplishment.  If only Lifetime had dumbbells heavier than 130lbs, we could see just how strong this guy really is...

And there you have it--three clips that remind you that it's not the quality of the workout, your physical appearance, or your level of physical fitness level that truly matter--it's about thoroughly fooling yourself and those around you into thinking you're incredibly strong.  A select few might be impressed, some might criticize or question your technique, and most will laugh behind your back, but if you're one of The Cheaters, you're sure to get noticed.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Breakfast Affair

I have some exciting news: there's a new woman in my life.  I've been seeing her every day for nearly two weeks.  I think about her when I go to sleep at night, and she's right there with me at the start of every day. I've been eating breakfast with her every morning, and the crazy thing is, I don't even know her first name.

This tale gets even more scandalous: this new lady of mine is married--and she's an older woman.  She's been married at least thirty years, but that hasn't stopped our scandalous love affair.  I won't get into the details, but I'll just say that she's added a certain spice to my life.  Craziest of all?  It was my grandmother who first introduced us!

This special new friend of mine is truly impressive. First of all, she's hardly tough on the eyes, with a slender figure, a hard body, and head of the brightest yellow blond you could ever imagine.  She's the quiet type and loves a good recipe, and she's held impressive positions at several important companies, including Alberto-Culver, Unilever, and now B&G Foods.  I'd say she's my sugar momma, but she's a health nut--she won't go anywhere near salt, let alone touch the sugar.

That's right, it's Mrs. Dash who has shaken me out of my mundane breakfast routine. I can claim with conviction that variety isn't the only spice of life.  Mrs. Dash runs circles around Aunt Jemima and puts Betty Crocker to shame.  For my single friends who are jealous of my new relationship, you can take consolation in the fact that Mrs. Dash has some equally attractive siblings.  Looking for a southwestern fling?  Prefer Italians, or maybe the Caribbeans?  Lucky for you, the Dash family is very a diverse group:

Think this blog post is a little cheesy? Well, so is my breakfast.  A few eggs, a sprinkle of shredded cheese, a rendezvous with Mrs. Dash, and the most important meal of the day has never been the same.

Note: This blog is in no way affiliated with B&G Foods, the owner of the Mrs. Dash brand.  I was, regrettably, not paid a single cent for this shameless promotion of the Mrs. Dash line of seasonings--I'm just a newly converted, die-hard fan.  But if someone from B&G stumbles upon this, I'm certainly not above cashing a giant thank you check...

Monday, April 23, 2012

Un-Sportsmen of the Year

Every December, Sports Illustrated selects the Sportsman of the Year, bestowing the award upon the "athlete or team whose performance most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement." Past winners include Lance Armstrong, Michael Phelps, Cal Ripken Jr., and the 2004 Boston Red Sox. This year's selection is still months away, and since the year is still young, I'm unable to offer any solid predictions for frontrunners. What I can offer, as of late April, are two athletes who have effectively eliminated themselves from the running.

Last week, Delonte West of the Dallas Mavericks committed a fairly typical foul, then followed it up with a highly unusual foul--one that left the announcer stunned, saying, "I don't know if I've ever seen that in professional sports!" West got called for a foul after pushing Gordon Hayward of the Utah Jazz.  After the ref blew the whistle and called him for it, West walked over to Hayward and delivered a school yard classic--a wet willie--then gave him a little shove.  Check out the video: 

Why the wet willie?  West wasn't even the one who was on the receiving end of the original foul--he was twice the aggressor!  Even more confusing is why he would decide that sticking his finger in another guy's ear was a winning proposition--I wouldn't even want to put my finger in my own ear...but that's why West apparently has a reputation around the NBA as a crazy person.

This incident begs the question: how do some professional athletes get so good at being so bad? Well, just like a jump shot, a home run swing, or a touchdown pass, bad sportsmanship is a skill that must be practiced--and starting young age is a clear advantage when it comes to reaching the highest levels of un-sportsmanship in professional sports.

Miles away from Willy-ville, a high school baseball player looks like he's well on his way to the top.  Down in Palm Beach, Florida last week, an unnamed player on the Dwyer High School team prepared for a match-up with crosstown rival Palm Beach Gardens by doing some "decorating" in the visiting team's dugout.  Prior to the game, the player covered Palm Beach Gardens' dugout in urine.  The quantity of urine involved in the prank was so impressive that fans were complaining about the odor during the game.

The coaches of both teams, both painfully aware of the toxic smell, discussed calling off the game, but eventually decided to proceed.  When interviewed, the visiting coach claimed, "You couldn't get away from it."  Despite his team's 7-4 loss to Dwyer, he was able to say in defeat, "I don't think that (the urine) was a factor in the game."

After an investigation, officials determined that the dugout dousing was the act of a single urinator.  The "pee-rpetrator" claims that he acted alone, though many suspect that others must have had a hand (among other things) in the prank due to the sheer amount of urine and the overwhelmingly powerful odor.  Not one to piss and tell, that unnamed player now faces a pending suspension.

There's still a lot of games left to be played this year.  Baseball season is just getting started, the NBA playoffs are fast approaching, three of the biggest tennis tournaments remain, and the summer Olympics roll into London this summer.  There's no telling who's going to be the Sportsman of the Year, but I'm happy to help cross two names off the list.  Beyond that, it's anyone's guess...

Here are some links to the stories--enjoy!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Storm Up Ahead

It's Sunday afternoon, and I'm on the eve of what will likely be the busiest, most painful week of work all year.  Well, among the top three anyway.  The week after next doesn't hold much more promise, and the first week of June will make a run for the top of the charts, too.  Why the stress?  Two words: Spring Plan.

Around this time every year, we build the cost of goods sold budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts in June.  This is my second time through the process, but it is unfortunately my first time leading the process for the group.  At this time last year I'd only been in the job a few months; I could barely find the way to the drinking fountain, let alone lead a major process.  I hardly understood what was going on back then, and my confidence is only marginally higher today.  The one thing I took away out of all that Spring Plan confusion last year was that when my turn came, I should work ahead as much as I could, because the deadlines come fast and furious in late April and early May.

It was good advice for my future self, but unfortunately, I've realized this year just how little I can accomplish in advance.  We present the first semi-official version of the COGS budget on Friday, and we haven't even finished building it.  The amount of work that needs to get done between Monday and Friday is downright frightening.  If I could spend today getting some of that work done, then this would be a much shorter blog post.  But there are too many missing inputs and too many meetings that need to happen this week for me to check anything meaningful off the to-do list.  I can see that work is lining up to deliver a forceful kick to my groin this week, and there's not a thing I can do about it...

Despite my best efforts, most of the work is going to get crammed into a two-day window (tomorrow and Tuesday), because we present a preview of the budget in a pre-meeting to the main meeting on Wednesday afternoon.  With two days to do a month's worth of work, everyone is stressed out and ready to kill each other.  We have to request information from people that simply isn't available yet, then find ourselves in a vicious catch-22, asking for inputs to the budget that should be an output of the budget-building process.  The inevitable compromise is "give it your best guess," but we're left holding the bag when Spring Plan is all screwed up.

The strange part is, the process of actually building the budget isn't all that complicated or time-consuming.  It's the insane number of Excel templates and PowerPoint presentations we have to complete, explaining in painstaking detail exactly what changed from this year to next year.  The toughest, most panic-inducing part of the process is filling out the templates in a way that tells a positive story, regardless of the actual numbers we're given.  The process of building that story can (or at least should) take a very long time, but it all has to happen on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Once Wednesday afternoon hits, the presentations begin.  We present the first look at of the budget on Wednesday.  We'll get poked, prodded, and challenged to make adjustments.  We'll update the maze of Excel spreadsheets, revise the PowerPoint presentations, then do it all again on Friday.  More poking and probing, then back into the labyrinth of Excel templates; more revisions to the PowerPoint presentations.

Early the following week, we receive two more key inputs to our overall budget, and then it's déjà vu.  Fill out more templates, build another PowerPoint presentation.  Then Thursday arrives, and we present the almost-final budget to even higher ranking people.  It's déjà vu of déjà vu--poking, probing, changes to the budget, updates to the spreadsheets.

The two weeks after that will return to something resembling "normal," but once the fiscal year closes at the end of May, we redo the whole budget in two days--I kid you not.  We get roughly forty-eight hours to adjust and take into account how the fiscal year actually ended, since right now we're building our budget for next year based on (inevitably wrong) assumptions about how we'll finish this year.  By the middle of June, this image will be burned into my retinas:

The most common phrase at the office these days--and one I'm sick of hearing--is, "did you build that into Spring Plan?!"  Everyone wants to know what assumptions we're making in the budget.  Did we put enough dollars in?  Did we put too many dollars in?  Everyone wants to make sure we're capturing every little change, overlooking the fact that at this point, most of the underlying information we're working with is weeks or months old.  And every time we have to make even the slightest change, it creates hours of rework as it cascades through spreadsheet after spreadsheet.  It's a finance nightmare.

That's a very long-winded way of saying that I hate Spring Plan.  If this were happening to someone else, I'd probably laugh--the ridiculousness and absurdity of the process is humorous, in a sad and twisted way.  In meeting after meeting over the past few weeks, I've been tempted to point out to everyone that this is only a plan!  I desperately want to remind them that no matter what numbers we put on paper (or enter in an Excel spreadsheet, for that matter), it's not going to impact next year's performance or profit in any way.  So far I've been able to bite my tongue...but how long can I keep it up?

Perhaps that's what I find so motivating about this whole endeavor.  Why should life become unbearable for three weeks when the output of that effort doesn't make one bit of difference in the end?  To top it off, leading the Spring Plan process is a very thankless job--if you do it reasonably well, everyone takes it as a given that the plan should be accurate and thoughtful.  If you screw it up, your name will come up in every monthly business update throughout the next fiscal year as the bosses explain why actual results are deviating from Spring Plan.  So there's no pressure or anything...

In other news, dreading Monday has made me realize that Sunday is really only good for one thing: to act as a buffer between Saturday and Monday.  Without Sunday, I don't think I could truly enjoy my Saturdays. By the time Sunday hits, I'm nearly as depressed as if I were actually at work.  Of all the days of the week, Monday takes the brunt the world's complaining, but I feel much better on a Monday night than I do on a Sunday afternoon or evening.  Over the past few months, I've found myself staying up later and later on Saturday nights, subconsciously avoiding going to sleep because I know that when I wake up the next morning, a little piece of my soul will have died overnight.

Even writing the word "Sunday" makes me twitch.  I think I'll start spelling it "Sundae"...I won't dread Monday any less, but at least I'll have a positive image in my mind as I prepare for the week.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Hard Road

Getting hit by a car is bad.  Getting hit by your own car is worse.  Getting hit by your own car while driving it is the absolute worst.  Until recently, I wouldn't have thought that was even possible, but a very sad news story recently proved me wrong.  In nearby St. Paul, a high school senior died in the freakiest of freak accidents, somehow running himself over after a tire blew out on his car.  I wish the accident had been captured on video--not to be morbid, but I can't even imagine how something like this could happen...

A week ago yesterday, the 19 year-old Congo native, Medard Prosper, was driving to work.  As he drove across a bridge, his 1998 Maxima suffered a tire blowout.  While he was still traveling somewhere around 50mph, he opened the door to the car and stuck his foot out.  It caught on something and pulled him out of the car, then his back wheels ran him over and killed him.  Was he trying to jump ship like an Italian cruise ship captain?  Was he trying to look at the damaged tire while he was still moving? The world will never know.

I wish I'd had the chance to offer him advice on how to handle a tire blowout, as this is an area where I'm something of an expert.  Never jump out; always go down with ship, and do everything you can to gently guide the vehicle to a safe resting spot by the side of the road:

As if the story weren't sad enough, Medard Prosper had already endured incredible hardship in his short life.  Five years ago, his parents were killed in the civil war in Congo, after which  Prosper and his six siblings started off on a five-hundred mile hike out of Congo to Tanzania.  During that journey, he lost two siblings to a combination of malaria and malnutrition, and another sibling died upon arrival on Tanzania.  More than half of his family was dead, but things took a positive turn, and Prosper got a second chance in America when the U.N. relocated him to Minnesota.

When I heard about Prosper's story, I couldn't help but think that he was the Congolese version of The Simpsons' Frank Grimes, who had to earn everything in life the hard way.  Abandoned by his family before his fifth birthday, Grimes spent his childhood earning money by delivering packages to rich, happy children.  At eighteen, Grimes was severely injured in a freak silo explosion, and when he eventually graduated from college, a bird tried to steal his diploma.  And, like Bedard, Grimey suffered an untimely death at the hands of a freak accident.  He was electrocuted at the tender age of thirty-five.

Like I said, it's a truly sad story.  When you think about all of the possible ways to die, getting hit by your own car while driving to work is certainly among the most surprising and the least likely.  Why does the universe seem to hate perfectly good people for no apparent reason?  If you're not already depressed enough, here's a link to the full story:

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Fundamental Shift In Pop Culture

The soft drink industry can be a fickle business, and bold attempts at innovation are often met with rapid failure.  Even the biggest, more powerful companies struggle with this challenge, and Coca-Cola is no exception.  Coke's epic 1985 "New Coke" reformulation is still a textbook case of marketing gone awry.

Give it some thought--can you name the last time a brand new, truly ground-breaking soda flavor hit the market and actually stuck? A decade after New Coke's funeral, the flame that was Surge, another Coke product, burned brightly in the late 90s, then quickly lost its fizz.  After it's launch in 1996, Surge looked like it was making a run at Pepsi's citrus powerhouse, Mountain Dew.  Yet by the end of 2001, Coke had shut down production of canned and bottled Surge, and the final drops of sweet, sweet citrus--in fountain-syrup form--dried up the following year.  The marketing teams at Coke were back to the drawing board...

These days, the soft drinkers of the world don't seem too willing to branch out and try new flavors.  Every "innovative" new Pepsi and Coke product in the stores is some weak variation of Pepsi, Coke, Diet Pepsi, or Diet Coke.  Remember all those Super Bowl ads for Pepsi Max? Regular Pepsi with more caffeine.  Pepsi Throwback?  Regular Pepsi with real sugar.  And don't get me started on all those sad twists on diet soft drinks: Pepsi One, Coke Zero, Dr. Pepper 10...the list goes on and on.  Are those ten calories in Dr. Pepper really going to convince men that it's okay to drink diet soda?  I doubt it...and I still don't understand how a successful product launch begins by aliening half of your customer base. But I work in finance, not marketing...

Day after day at the office, I find myself sitting with coworkers in the cafeteria, listening to one person after the other finish off a can of soda, then complain, "I'm still so parched!  If only I had another half ounce of pop!"  And when it's not the portion size, they start complaining about how much trouble they have holding onto the can!  When will it stop?!

Well, it looks like it ends today. After all the wheel-spinning in the soda industry over the past ten years, I can confidently say that the marketing teams at Coca-Cola have overcome their bad case of bottlers' block and broken the mold with a product they recently sent into the marketplace.  Just today, I heard a radio ad for a new drink that will solve all of my coworkers' problems and more: the 89¢ Coke 12.5oz bottle!  Unnecessary flavor experiments are a thing of the past; let the package size proliferation begin!

Genius!  It's no wonder the big consumer goods companies hire armies of high-priced MBAs to market their products--mere mortals can't some up with ideas like this.  One of the big-shots at Coke offered the following sound-byte for the launch of 12.5oz Coke, which targets convenience-store shoppers: "The new package holds tremendous appeal for traditional gas ‘n go consumers and less frequent in-store shoppers, such as females and white collar professionals.  While the design will capture shoppers’ attention at the cold vault, the comprehensive immediate consumption strategy behind it will captivate operators."

At the risk of sounding like a naive finance guy, I have my own opinions on the prospects for 12.5oz Coca-Cola. The Coke guy went on to talk about the allure and value of the below-a-dollar price point.  Yet gas stations already have that...a 32oz fountain Coke costs ~60¢ at a lot of convenience stores.  Where's the value in paying a little less and getting a lot less?  Good thing people suck at math...maybe the 12.5oz offering is nothing more than a ploy to make the cost-per-ounce that much tougher to calculate by throwing fractional ounces into the mix.

But moving beyond the price, it's important that we don't lose sight of the fact that this is America, and when it comes to vehicles, junk food, and sugary beverages, less is not more.  Bigger is better; it's just simple evolution:

 By the time that kid reaches adulthood, he'll have to cut the roof off his car:

When that radio ad sparked my interest in 12.5oz Coke and I went online to learn more, my search turned up a brilliant one-liner on some blogger's Twitter feed: "New Coca Cola 12.5 oz Handheld! Uh, yeah. That's called A CAN OF COKE. Thanks, marketing team."  I'm glad I'm not the only one who has trouble admiring the innovation.  

But if you disagree with me and can't wait to shell out 89¢ for 12.5oz Coke, please be careful.  Read those labels closely, because there are a lot of look-alikes out there, which, coincidentally, also happen to be authentic Coke products.  Don't grab the 20oz bottle, avoid the 16oz bottle, and whatever you do, don't be fooled by the 12oz bottle, or you're going to find yourself in a sad, thirsty search for that last half ounce.

Best of luck to you.  It's a complicated world.