Thursday, May 31, 2012

Is The Trend My Friend?

Another month comes to a close, and that means it's time for the traditional monthly ad revenue update.  Last month, I boldly predicted that ad revenue would continue to double every month as it did from March to April.  I kept myself in suspense all month, resisting the urge to occasionally glace at the Blogger Earnings report.  This morning was the big the end of May, was the trend still my friend?

Sadly, the answer was a resounding "no."  Today marks the close of three months of non-stop, adventure-filled blogging.  If Away From The Cubicle were a publicly traded company, I would be filing my 10-Q report at the end of my first quarter of operations. (Is it obvious that work is at the forefront of my mind?)  Unfortunately, at this point my stock would also be suffering a Facebook-style downward spiral, as revenue growth fell off sharply in May.

Before getting into the details, I'm going to focus on the good news.  Through April, I'm more than half way to my goal:

That's almost $53 in the bank (well, Google's bank for now), not including revenue from May.  Like I said, that's the good news...less impressive is the lack of explosive growth that I predicted last month.  Once again, let's go to the classic woefully undersized chart:

Unless you click on the graph, that's incredibly difficult to read.  But you don't need hawk-like vision to see that the green bar in May is barely taller than the green bar in April.  Away From The Cubicle pulled in around $24 for the month. Not bad, but that revenue plateau would have even the most optimistic analysts downgrading my stock from "Strong Buy" to "Hold."  The really tragic news is the complete lack of a blue bar for Passionately Apathetic.  For the first month in its two year history, Passionately Apathetic got shut out like John Tesh at the Grammy's.

I refuse to be deterred, however, and will continue to focus on the good news.  Once May's revenue shows up in the unpaid earnings total, I'll be more than 75% of the way to my $100 milestone:

With three months behind me, it's looking like the earnings trajectory is a little more tortoise than hare...a little more Microsoft than Apple...a little more Malibu than Porsche. 

This little setback threatens to push back my early retirement by decades...but in the short term, I have a new goal: I'm within striking distance of the $100 payout mark, so I'd like to ride this plateau all June long and report back at the end of next month that I'm a professional writer. Then I can take my first paycheck and treat myself to a replacement hubcap, making the Malibu a little more Porsche-like.  From there, I'm confident that things will turn around nicely, and ad revenue will continue it's meteoric rise.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Easing Back Into It...

When returning to work after a three-day weekend, it's important that you don't push yourself too hard right off the bat--pulling a brain muscle is both painful and  debilitating.  That's one of the things that I really appreciate about the Memorial Day holiday--not only is it the official unofficial kickoff to summer, but the day off falls on a Monday, which means that the week after the holiday is the four-day week.

This week's work schedule was tailor-made for easing back into the swing of work after a long weekend.  Tuesday and Thursday are full, normal, long, and painful workdays at the office.  Friday, like all others between Memorial Day and Labor day, is a half-day because of summer hours, and today's agenda included a work-sponsored Twins game.  After three hours of hard work in the morning, it was off to Target Field.

While I love baseball, I mainly appreciate the sport as a symbol of summer and welcome it as relaxing background noise on a lazy Saturday afternoon.  When it comes to attending games in person, baseball isn't anywhere near the top of my list of favorite activities.  Stadiums are full of loud and annoying children, the seats are cramped, the food is prohibitively expensive, and baseball is a very slow sport to play, let alone watch.  But when attending an outdoor game is matched up against an afternoon in the office, baseball wins in a landslide.

Today's game was hardly a match-up of powerhouses, with the American League's worst team (the Twins) taking on the American League's fourth-worst team (the A's).  And, as you can see, the seats weren't what I've become accustomed to when receiving free corporate tickets.  Normally I'm so close that I can smell the scent of Joe Mauer, but I was a few feet farther from home plate today:

But given the corporate admin challenge, free anything comes a pleasant surprise.  And the ticket itself sweetened the deal even more:

To the untrained eye, this looks like any other ticket to the nosebleed section at Target Field.  But I learned yesterday that this ticket also had $10 pre-loaded on it to be used at any of the stadium's concession stands, which meant that I didn't have to spend the seventh inning stretch eating a melted protein bar that I snuck into the stadium in the crotch of my underwear on this warm summer afternoon.

And it also meant that I ate ballpark food for the first time in my life--normally, I refuse to pay the exorbitant prices--out of principle if not out of pure thriftiness.  After eating some wildly expensive (but free-to-me) chicken strips, a few of us I rustled up some unused tickets from co-workers and used the paltry balances remaining on our tickets to nab some late-game, wildly overpriced (but free-to-me) ice cream.  This drew some stares and comments from fellow co-workers who have never seen my eat anything other than boiled chicken and vegetables.

Aside from my personal ballpark food milestone, it was a game of firsts (and seconds) in a number of other ways.  This was Francisco Liriano's first start after returning from a stint in the bullpen, it was the Twins' first home series sweep of the season (a testament to their craptacularity), and it was just their second shutout of the season (again, the craptacularity).  Unfortunately, I narrowly missed the return of Manny Ramirez from his second 50-game suspension for violating the MLB's drug policy...his first game back is coming shortly.

The game itself was efficient if not underwhelming in excitement, finishing in a little over two hours.  And a short game meant an early end to this already easy workday.  I took full advantage, arriving at the gym a good two hours earlier than normal.  As if the day hadn't already been kind enough to me, I received an unexpected compliment shortly after starting my workout.

After watching me bench press, a guy standing nearby asked how much I weigh.  When I told him I weigh around 190lbs, he was impressed and asked if I take Creatine.  I told him no, and he complimented my strength and lean muscle mass and said that's what he's trying to achieve.  And this wasn't one of those senior citizens who's awed by anyone who can lift a 25lb dumbbell without using both hands--this guy was in decent shape and couldn't have been more than about 30 years old.

That was an unexpected compliment...and I must say, "lean muscle mass" has a much nicer ring to it than "scrawny beanpole," which is a "compliment" that I've received on a much more regular basis.  Could the day get any better?  I really doubt this point, my best bet is to go to sleep while I'm still ahead.  And I better rest up for that grueling eight hour day back in the office tomorrow...I don't need to pull a brain muscle at this critical juncture in the fiscal year.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Yes, There's Even An App For That

In the middle 2005, a few friends and I embarked on the Barbecrusade, a weekly summer-long tour of North Carolina's barbeque establishments.  One made one particularly memorable stop on this tour at a place called Davis Family BBQ.  Nearly seven years later, two things stand out in my mind about the night we ate there. First, the food was downright frightening and left us secretly wondering if we'd eaten squirrel.  Second, the bathrooms were worse than the food.

From what I could see in the dingy light radiating from that single, dull, 40-watt bulb, it looked like the toilets hadn't been flushed or otherwise maintained in any way since Ronald Reagan sat in the Oval Office.  The sink wasn't much better, and when I tried to wash my hands, the faucet spewed nothing but boiling-hot water.  How the health inspector let the Davis family continue operating that indoor outhouse, the world will never know.

If only I'd had some advanced warning about the dismal state of the bathroom going into that night, I would have worn a diaper or done anything to avoid walking into that minefield of human waste.  How could I warn the world and save the next unsuspecting patron from learning a tough lesson in the importance of bathroom maintenance in that very restroom where I'd suffered so dearly?

For all these years, I've felt helpless and hopeless, but this month I finally found a solution to my problem, thanks to Charmin.  And, believe it or not, even this problem isn't too big or messy for the almighty smartphone.  The solution comes in the form of SitOrSquat, an app that lets users rate and search for nearby restrooms. 

The minute I read about this, I knew that I had to have the app on my phone.  This brilliant new piece of technology would place in my hands the power of George Costanza's encyclopedic knowledge of public restrooms.  But unlike his mental Rolodex of New York City bathrooms, this app provides worldwide wisdom--and it's available in Spanish! Fantástico!

I rushed to the App Store and read the description, and I was flush with excitement.  The app lets people view pictures and ratings for the public restrooms nearest their current location.  Users rate a restroom as "Sit" or "Squat" depending on the quality of the accommodations, and they are encouraged to provide "relevant experience and honest opinions."  (How users have only rated this only two out of five stars in utterly unexplainable.)

When I read that users are encouraged to upload photos, I couldn't download the app fast enough.  With SitOrSquat, not only can I save the world from the restrooms at Davis Family BBQ, but now I'll be encouraged and praised for snapping and sharing bathroom photos!  SitOrSquat is my one stone that will kill two birds.  Take that, everyone who's ever told me that my bathroom hijinks are childish!

SitOrSquat and the infamous pooping Charmin bear now sit comfortably alongside my other apps.  I will be fast on my way to becoming the most prominent restroom rater in this history of the world, as soon as the Charmin team answers one simple question: do I submit my "Sit" or "Squat" rating before or after I use the facilities?

Believe me, that slight difference in timing often make all the difference in the world when it comes to the cleanliness of a restroom.  This critical observation comes from a man whose bathroom handiwork has literally required a shovel-bearing cleanup crew at a state park facility.  And this skill runs of the family--my brother once clogged a toilet in a women's bathroom at a Chicago Chinese restaurant.  But those are stories for another day...right now, I have some very important photos I need to go capture...

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Flavor Rodeo Of Rodizio

As Memorial Day weekend comes to a close, I'm thankful that yesterday involved plenty of physical activity, because it was a much-needed offset to Saturday's calorie-intensive festivities.  The day's feeding frenzy began in the early afternoon at the recently-opened Rodizio Grill.

Rodizio is a Brazilian steakhouse much like Fogo de Chao, with the dual advantages of a non-downtown location and cheaper prices.  At a mere $20 for a lunch of unlimited anything-you-can-imagine, you can't go wrong.  Our table's green "bring me more food" indicator was in its full upright and locked position for a solid hour.  (Green side up means more food, red side up tells the meat ninjas to ignore the table, and a sideways indicator means that you've surrendered like a weak Frenchman):

Despite a relatively sparse lunch crowd, the meat ninjas weren't giving our table the attention I felt it deserved early in the meal, but I took a slow and steady approach and didn't leave until I'd eaten so much that the owners will surely ban me for life or seriously reconsider their pricing strategy.  The meat ninjas will be passing down the legend of "Bottomless John" for generations.  The nickname was born not only out of my late-meal decision to remove my pants due to eating-induced waistline discomfort, but also out of my unquenchable appetite.

Comparing Rodizio to Fogo, one mildly disappointing difference was the notable absence of bacon from Rodizio's salad bar, but I'm willing to forgive the oversight because of the delicious yucca dish and the amazing sausage/black bean mixture.  I haven't left a restaurant so delightfully uncomfortable in many, many years.  I don't know if heaven exists, but if it does, I imagine it's a place where calories don't exist, stomach space is unlimited, and all food comes wrapped in bacon, including bacon itself.

 Don't worry, every plate was licked clean before I was done.

After a painful ride home and an "eventful" trip to the bathroom, I spent a half hour on the floor, sleeping my way out of a protein-induced coma.  But in short order I felt surprisingly well and immediately got to work, drawing up blueprints and whittling my own special food indicator that will be dipped entirely in green paint and will be spherical in shape, making it impossible to lay on its side--I'm no quitter.

As if the day hadn't already involved plenty of eating, Saturday evening marked the early celebration of my grandma's 80th birthday.  The menu consisted of homemade vanilla ice cream with all kinds of sweet, sweet mix-ins:

Normally, I'm a model of discipline and self-control, but 80th birthdays are a rare occurrence and a major milestone.  I figured it would be disrespectful and downright rude to not fully participate in the festivities, so I grudgingly took one for the team downed 3+ servings of ample proportions.  But keep in mind, I did this strictly out of love and respect my grandmother--I received no personal satisfaction whatsoever from this delicious event.

Did I mention that Saturday was a calorie-intensive day?  It's okay, it'll all even out as long as I don't eat anything until Thursday.  Plus I burned through a fair amount of calories yesterday as I hiked and sweated out bacon and Oreo frosting.  It was a great weekend, and more good news is on the horizon: I have a going-away lunch for one of my coworkers in less than a month at none other than Rodizio Grill!  My only change in strategy will be to wear loose-fitting, highly-elastic sweat pants instead of jeans.  And, or course, I'll be bringing my homemade food indicator.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Another Ride On The Interstate

Since it had been more than a month since the last trip to Interstate State Park, Memorial Day weekend seemed like the perfect time to return.  The March weather was beyond perfect last time I was there, but today's visit still had a leg up in the weather department: temperatures in the mid-80s and plenty of humidity.  Not to mention the fact that the park is practically glowing green with the official color of summer.

Of course, along with the many, many benefits of summer come a few of the downsides: mosquitoes, poison ivy, and ticks, none of which were an issue back in March.  Still, it could have been a lot worse.  The mosquitoes mostly ignored me and focused on biting Mom.  The one tick I spotted crawling on my leg was unable to penetrate my Pete Sampras-like mat of leg hair, I think that same shield somehow protected me from the poison ivy as well.

The hot summer weather also brought plenty of storms--in this case, very strong storms.  We seemed destined to take as long as possible returning home at the end of the day, battling two bouts of hail and the sounding of a tornado siren in Lindstrom, MN.  The last thing the already-soaked ground of western Wisconsin needed was more rain, but that's exactly what it got.  All in all, it was another fine day, with eight miles of hiking and plenty of much-welcome early summer sweating preceding the storms.  Like the two previous posts on hiking trips, I'll let the pictures tell the story:

Lake O' The Dalles Nature Trail.  A little too much lake, not nearly enough trail today...

Mid-80s, humid, and sunny.  Could have been a little warmer though.

Summer clouds, before the storms rolled in.

This could be one of those stock desktop backgrounds that comes pre-loaded on Windows PCs.

Overlooking the high waters of the St. Croix River.

Temperatures held in the mid-80s into the early evening.

The views from the trail were spectacular, with a few notable exceptions.

The skies started to look like impending death on the drive home...

...and only got worse upon arrival.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Top Ten Reasons Corporate Restructuring Can Be Fun (#5-1)

After yesterday's post, I hope no one lost too much sleep last night, tossing and turning as they wondered what could possibly round out the upper half list of the top ten reasons corporate restructuring can be fun.  The wait is over--here you have it:

#5: Off-Limits Jokes Are Now Acceptable
Normally, you don't hear people joking about leaving the company, especially when important people are sitting in the room.  With the looming cloud of layoffs hanging overhead, that stigma has evaporated, creating a very entertaining atmosphere at the office.  Wednesday's staff meeting (the day after the announcement) included some fantastic jokes that would have been taboo just two days earlier.

One of the managers was joking about his frustration with Spring Plan (well documented on this blog) and mentioned that he had moved passed the anger stage. The division VP asked, "what stage are you in now?"  He immediately replied, "the resume-polishing stage!"  Later, another manager joked that we could all start responding to those annoying voicemails that we all get from local headhunters.  A timely comment, since the day of the restructuring announcement, I received a LinkedIn message and a voicemail from an annoying headhunter who had heard the news and was anxious to point out that it's "good to have a backup plan in place in times like these."  Delete...and delete.

#4: Deciphering The Corporate Spin
When it comes right down to it, we all know that "corporate restructuring" means nothing more than laying people off to cut costs.  It just really isn't any more complicated than that.  But if you want humor and entertainment, the official press release is a fantastic read--I couldn't have dreamed up a more long-winded way of saying "we're laying people off to cut costs." The corporate PR staff deserves a pat on the back for their efforts to put a positive spin on positively bad news.  Sifting through the overblown language in that press release feels like solving a riddle littered with corporate buzzwords.  My favorites include, but are not limited to:
  • "Improve organizational effectiveness..."
  • "Better align resources with..."
  • "Accelerate efficiencies..."
  • "Focus on key growth strategies..."
  • "Fundamental shift in the business environment..."
  • "Major productivity and cost savings initiative..."
Less humorous was the fancy language describing the "changes" to the pension and 401(k) plans, which referred to the adjustments as "still highly competitive."  It doesn't take a master's degree in PR-speak to know that likely means the plans were going to be gutted like fish.  After all, most companies offer absolutely nothing in the pension department, so a coupon for a free box of cereal could technically be considered "highly competitive."  Luckily, for the time being, it looks like new hires will bear the brunt of these "highly competitive changes"...

#3: Parking Ramp Paradise
It's was impressive how quickly everyone's mind latched onto the one upside of the layoffs: a 10% reduction in the workforce means that parking spaces in the ramp will be easier to come by--and much more desirable--than tickets to a WMBA game.  By the time winter rolls around, those of us still with the company will be thanking corporate leaders for this whole restructuring thing.  These days, the ramp is so packed that if you hit a few long red lights on the drive to work and arrive a minute later than you planned, you'll face a 15 minute death march from the far reaches of the parking lot to the main entrance.  In about five weeks, it looks like I'll have one less reason to show up at the office on time...

#2: Fantasy HR
Fantasy sports are a popular topic around the office--it's tough to take more than a few steps down the rows of cubicles without overhearing guys talking about their favorite teams, highlights from the previous night's games, or pending trades in their fantasy leagues.  With five weeks of waiting and wondering who's going to get the boot, a few coworkers have tossed around the idea of setting up a friendly wager via some kind of office pool.  Each of us would serve as the HR manager of a fantasy team of office workers, placing bets on who stays and who goes, with odds for each employee.  The details are still fuzzy at this point, but I imagine this game could merge the fun of a game of corporate Survivor with the excitement and rivalry of fantasy sports.

#1: Public Performance Appraisals!
During the Q&A session at the end of one of those "mandatory business updates," someone asked whether the layoffs would be based on performance or position.  Unlike the world of real estate, in this case it's not all about "location, location, location"; the division president responded by saying that the layoffs would be based on a combination of performance and potential.  That's a double-edged sword that offers reasons to feel both comfort and panic if you give it much thought.

For people who feel confident that they're doing their jobs well, it's spectacular news to hear that they won't get axed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  On the other hand, those who do receive the dreaded pink slip have no way to rationalize their misfortune--they'll know that they got fired not only because they sucked at their job, but also because the people they worked with decided there was no hope for improvement.  And when they mysteriously disappear from the office in five weeks, everyone who ever interacted with them will be fully aware of those shortcomings.  Can you say, "embarrassing exit?"

And there you have it--the top ten reasons why the next five weeks will be one heck of a good time!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Top Ten Reasons Corporate Restructuring Can Be Fun (#10-6)

On Tuesday morning, an email from the CEO showed up in everyone's inbox with an important video announcement: we were undergoing "corporate restructuring."  Shortly thereafter, a series of "mandatory business update" meeting invitations from various important people popped up on the Outlook calendar (is it still called an "invitation" if the meeting is mandatory?), presumably to inform the masses of all the relevant details.  Hours before the first of these meetings was scheduled to take place, however, the news had already been announced publicly.

There would be significant layoffs accompanying this restructuring effort, and we would later learn that roughly 10% of the main office population would be taking the 'ol mandatory, extended, unpaid vacation.  What we still don't yet know is who stays and who goes.  Employees don't learn their fate until late June, which leaves a five week stretch of waiting, wondering, and rampant speculation.

Some are genuinely worried, but I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.  In the spirit of looking for the silver lining in this situation, I've prepared a list of the top ten reasons that corporate restructuring can be fun.  Today's post includes #10 through #6...and yes, that means I'm going to milk this for all it's worth and spread this post out over two days.  But at difficult times like these, I think it's safe to say that the world could use an extra day of unbridled optimism:

#10: A Day at Work "Away From the Cubicle"
The instant I read the email from the CEO on Tuesday morning, I knew absolutely no work was going to get done that day.  Over the next twenty-four hours, I spent almost no time at my desk as I attended four different "mandatory business updates," each ranging in length from thirty to sixty minutes.  Since each different business leader was required to stick to the same canned (no pun intended) script and PowerPoint presentation, these updates were painfully repetitive and uninformative.  It was the same message over and over: "lots of you are going to get fired and most will end up in a new job, but that's all you'll know for five weeks."  But as I expected, nothing got done on Tuesday, so the day wasn't a total loss.

#9: Count the Synergies!
As referenced above, the "mandatory business updates" were a spectacular waste of time, but it was mildly entertaining to count the number of times a division president could sneak some variation of the word "synergy" into a prepared statement.  I lost count somewhere around seventy-eight, halfway through the first mandatory business update.

#8: The Retirement Blues
Retirement is a time for celebration and reflection, but for the unlucky bunch who announced summer retirements in the weeks leading up to the announcement, Tuesday didn't offer much fuel for the celebratory fires--if only they'd withheld that announcement a little longer, there's a good chance they could have collected a hefty severance package before riding off into the sunset.  During the Q&A session at one of these meetings, it's rumored that one such pending retiree asked, "can I rescind my retirement and be severed?"  Apparently the answer was "no."  Bad news for the older workers, yet absolutely hilarious for those of us in the infancy of our careers.

#7: Working Hard, Or Hardly Working?
In the days following the announcement, it's been delightfully entertaining to watch the reactions of my coworkers.  Employees' responses to the chaos generally fall into one of three categories.  Some aren't terribly concerned and go about their business as usual.  Others fear for the worst and adopt the philosophy, "if there's any chance I'm about to get fired, I'm not gonna go down working hard!"  The threat of layoff seems to have a lit a fire under the seats of the third group of workers, who seemed mysteriously motivated and friendly this week.  In my opinion, at this point it's too little, too late--I think the layoff decisions have already been made, even if they're not officially unannounced until late June.  But regardless, the next five weeks hold the promise of pure entertainment as I watch the spectacularly lazy, the suddenly motivated, and the generally indifferent work together in all kinds of potentially hilarious office situations.

#6: The Summer Of George!
An unplanned job search is about as appealing as licking a toilet seat at a truck stop, but it's tough to frown too hard when my mind wanders to the image of collecting a severance package and getting paid to do absolutely nothing for an extended length of time.  Paid unemployment would be a sweet, sweet early preview of retirement...or, for the overly motivated show-offs who hate fun and choose to go back to work immediately, it could mean collecting a double paycheck while working a single job.

Much like George Costanza's glorious three months' severance pay after getting laid off from his job with the New York Yankees, the Summer of John makes for an enticing fantasy...

Check back tomorrow for the top five reasons corporate restructuring can be fun.  If you thought today's blog post sucked, then check back on Sunday, because the outlook for tomorrow looks surprisingly similar to what you just read today....

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The King Of Crust

When it comes to innovation in the pizza industry, Pizza Hut always tries to push the creative envelope crust-first.  Sure, you'll occasionally see Pizza Hut, Domino's, or Papa John's experiment with some new wild and crazy topping--I remember when pineapple on a pizza was a scandalous revelation.  But tinkering with the crust seems like a logical choice; it's the pizza's greatest weakness, serving as little more than a convenient handle for people to grasp as they stuff their faces.  The crust is often relegated to the garbage can, discarded by pizza fanatics who refuse to waste precious stomach space as they focus on the superior meats and cheeses covering that prized real estate trapped within the confines of that bready halo.

I'm no pizza historian, but I think it all started when someone at Pizza Hut came to the conclusion that cheese needn't be caged mid-pie and created the phenomenon that would later become known as Stuffed Crust pizza:

At some point thereafter, a Pizza Hut scientist hypothesized that perhaps pizza didn't need a handle at all, turning every last inch of pizza into a majestic canvas decorated with the finest toppings, daring us to go to "The Edge:"

Further crust-based innovation brought some new "twists" on the norm (quite literally), with Twisted Crust pizza--a braided combination cheesestick/breadstick baked around the pizza.  It was around this time, in the mid-2000s, that crust took its first steps toward becoming an entirely separate meal surrounding an ordinary pizza:

Not unlike the Twisted Crust, Pizza Hut's current crust de jour is a combination breadstick and cheesestick, only in bite-size form: Cheesy Bites.  While I like the idea, at first glance this dangerous dish vaguely resembles a saw blade:

Interestingly enough, it's in the foreign markets where Pizza Hut has taken the idea of surrounding a pizza with a second meal and really run with it.  The strangest part of all is that Pizza Hut is flaunting its pizza ingenuity around the globe using two American staples: hot dogs and hamburgers!  These are two classic examples that I embarrassingly missed in my previous post on crazy foreign foods.

The British, long known for bland food and bad teeth, have the privilege of eating Pizza Hut UK's Hot Dog Stuffed Crust pizza, which makes regular stuffed crust pizza look like an amateur recipe cooked up in a child's Easy Bake oven.

Pizza Hut struck yet again in the United Arab Emirates with the craziest crust the world has seen to date.  This dish is the undisputed king, and it's got the crown to prove it:

Why the English language dominates in this Middle Eastern commercial, I have no idea...but as you can see, the Crown Crust Cheeseburger Pizza is an odd combination salad/pizza surrounded by grilled mini cheeseburgers.  If there was any doubt that Americans are chomping at the bit go gobble up such a royal delicacy, a man named Jon Gabrus wiped those out by traveling nearly 7,000 miles and 13 hours from New York to Dubai to dine with the king of pizza.

Personally, I would have satisfied the craving on a tighter budget with twin trips to White Castle and Pizza Hut, but I guess sometimes you just gotta have the real deal. Though, given the circumstances, I would have done the exact same thing as Gabrus--the College Humor website funded his journey, asking him to post a video of his experience for the site's Wanderlunch section.

These recent developments in the world of pizza have left me all kinds of confused.  Why not America?!  And I find myself anxiously wondering what's next--which entree will next surround the international pizza of tomorrow?  And despite Pizza Hut's best efforts, why don't these crust-based inventions ever seem to gain permanent traction and stick around longer than a few fleeting months?

I think the time has come to shift innovation back to the middle of the pie.  Not to brag, but my family has a bit of experience in this arena:

What you see above is a bold Thanksgiving experiment, circa 2009.  We shunned the standard turkey feast and toyed with a new pizza-based tradition, with a wild variety of unique concoctions.  We didn't entirely turn our backs on the staples of the holiday, however, with Mom whipping up a Thanksgiving-themed pizza complete with turkey, stuffing, and gravy (sadly not pictured here).  The new tradition didn't entirely take hold, but nevertheless, I'm confident that the wave of the pizza future rests inside the crust.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I don't play the lottery, but that didn't stop me from hitting the jackpot yesterday.  In a previous post, Fear The Mullet, I promised that I would capture a video of the nearby mullet-sporting cube-dweller as she played Farmville and fielded personal phone calls while on the clock.  It took me almost a month, but I'm proud to report that the stars finally aligned yesterday afternoon.

Don't get me wrong; the past few weeks have seen no shortage of personal phone calls and plenty of Farmville and Facebook in her cubicle.  I just wasn't lucky enough to be at my desk when the two events occurred simultaneously and there were few enough people around that I could pull the phone out and start recording.  But everything finally came together yesterday afternoon.

Farmville was up on her screen (though she was so deeply engrossed in her personal conversation that she wasn't actually playing it), and she was chatting away with a person that I later deduced must be one of her offspring.  And I'm proud to report that you're in for a bonus treat with this video--it includes a rather graphic description of some kind of personal medical problem!

The only sad part is that the sound didn't record very well in this video.  Turn the volume all the way up for this one...the sound gets at least marginally better by the end:

It's really too bad the sound didn't come out better, because the gravelly, squeaky sound of her voice pierces the air like nails on a chalkboard when you're sitting nearby.  And the dialog was epic, with her describing the amount of pus that came out when she squeezed some kind of sore on her body (sadly, that part's at the beginning of the video and really tough to hear).

Near the end of the clip, right around the 1:00 mark, mullet woman describes to the person on the phone how one of her stitches recently surfaced "...from when you were born.  On my...."  Thank god she didn't finish that sentence!  I don't want to know what kind of relationship they have in that family, as she goes on to say "when you came over, I was going to show you!"  (You'll notice the video abruptly ends shortly thereafter, as I was leaning over a trash can vomiting.)

Interestingly, this video was shot on the same day that the company announced a major restructuring, complete with a massive wave of layoffs.  I wondered what this woman thought of the bad news...surely if the company is looking to trim some fat from the admin budget, the first place to look is the cubicle where the only output is gossip, games, and idle internet surfing.  But it turns out that I didn't have to wonder what she was thinking very long, because as soon as the news broke, she was on the phone with her friends sharing every detail.

Apparently she's not at all worried about getting laid off because she's been with the company since the dawn of time and is close to retirement.  She actually welcomed the prospect of a severance package to help send her on her way.  Just as I had suspected all along, she views herself as impervious to the pink slip...and sure enough, the day was chock full of Farmville and phone calls, including the one captured in the delightful video clip above.

On a side note, I have to wonder what was going through the minds of the people who happened to walk by during those glorious seventy-three seconds that I spent standing in my neighbor's cubicle filming the crazy person at the desk a few feet away.  This clearly demonstrates my commitment to this blog--I risked both my personal and professional reputations as well as my life; if that woman glanced behind her during my recording session, my shotgun-wound-induced funeral couldn't have been far away.

But anyway...I think everyone involved in this situation is sitting on the cusp of a gigantic win-win-win proposition here.  It's rare that a company can lose an employee and realize significant productivity gains spanning an entire department.  Crazy mullet woman gets her prized severance package and bolts for the exit; someone much smarter and more motivated, skilled, and valuable is spared their job; everyone in vicinity of mullet woman's cubicle is able to redirect the effort they wasted ignoring her phone calls to completing their work. 

She may welcome the pink slip, but I'm willing to bet she'd come crawling back begging for a job as soon as she realized that the phone connection and internet speed back at the trailer aren't what she's become accustomed to...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Instant Justice

As I pulled up to a red light this weekend, a Camaro that had been driving a few car lengths behind me changed lanes, stepped on the gas, and flew through the intersection, accelerating through the blatantly red light.  That sort of thing happens far too often, and the jerks behind the wheel always seem to speed away without any negative consequences.  I sat at the light, hoping to see the driver get pulled over or wrap his car around a telephone pole, but as always, he flew down the street unscathed.

These situations are always frustrating, but I've found that the more expensive the car involved, the more the situation bothers me.  The size of the ego and the sense of superiority I imagine the driver feels grow exponentially with the value of his ride.  With Sunday's Camaro incident, I'd have to put my anger at about a four on a one-to-ten scale, with one being completely indifferent and ten being all-out road rage.  The car was an early 2000s Chevy Camaro, which isn't a completely terrible car, but let's face it, it's made by the same company as the Malibu...

Why couldn't a cop have been sitting at that same stoplight, ready to write up a speeding ticket and a reckless driving charge?  Or why couldn't Mr. Camaro drive himself right into a roadside ditch?  It's rare that you see justice served immediately after a poor decision in an automobile; at the least, you hope that a tragic fate befalls the driver at some point in the future...and that the he doesn't take out any innocent bystanders in the process.

A video recently hit YouTube that brings a smile to my face every time I watch it.  Not only does the driver get exactly what he deserves, but I feel grateful that the kids in the car behind him had the luck and foresight to capture the whole thing on video.  As they sat behind a yellow Lamborghini at a stoplight, they could tell the driver was itching to step on the gas as soon as the light turned green.  And boy were they right....take a look:

It's worth noting that this particular car, the Lamborghini Gallardo, costs around $225,000.  The driver is obviously too rich to care about a speeding ticket, so watching his Lamborghini wear a Grand Marquis and a Honda SUV like a pair of earmuffs at the end of this little joyride is about the sweetest ending I could imagine. And then pile on the embarrassment of losing control of his car and having the scene played over and over on the internet (12.6 million views and counting!).  I only wish the kids in the car behind him had stuck around to capture the look on his face.  Like I said before, this sort of thing doesn't happen nearly often enough, but in this case, I'm incredibly thankful it was a Lamborghini and that someone was there with a camera.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Life Lessons At The Ballpark

In any given Major League Baseball game, dozens of fans league the stadium with souvenir foul balls or home run balls.  But rarely does lazy foul to the first baseman cause as much controversy as one did in an April 26th Yankees/Rangers game in Arlington.  Mitch Moreland, the Rangers first baseman, tossed a foul ball into the stands, unexpectedly sparking a debate that wound up all over the internet and on The Today Show.

When Moreland tossed the ball into the stands it hit the ground, and an older guy and his fiancee ended up with it.  Sitting next to the couple was a three year-old who immediately started crying out of disappointment.  The camera zoomed in on the lucky couple who got the ball, and the man's fiancee posed with her trophy as he snapped her picture with his phone, the toddler still shrieking behind him.  To the untrained eye, it appeared as though the couple was flaunting their victory right in front of their little selfish nemesis. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something I really like about this couple...

The Yankees announcer very publicly expressed his wildly unjustified disgust as soon as he saw the cranky toddler: "Oh my god, they can't give it to the kid?  That's awful!"  Then later, as the couple snapped their photos with the ball, "Wow, they're actually, like, rubbing it in the kid's face!"  Did I mention I really like this couple?

Personally, I hold a more traditional--and less generous--view when it comes to ballpark etiquette.  When a ball goes into the stands, it's every man, woman, and child for themselves.  That couple would have been perfectly justified in giving that toddler a stiff-arm to the face or using him as a human stepping stool if it gave them a potential advantage in snagging that foul ball.

The video coverage of the foul ball incident hit the internet and went viral, setting off a massive debate on proper baseball etiquette.  The couple who walked away from the fray with the ball plead innocent, claiming they didn't notice the screaming monster in the next seat.  (If you watch the video below, they do appear oblivious...and I'd love to know their secret for blocking out annoying children.)  They rightfully claimed that Yankees announcer Michael Kay owed them an apology for berating them on the air for the last few innings of the game.  And, for the record, the couple even offered the ball to the kid after they realized what had happened.

Before I'd read all the articles and watched the video clips, I assumed the parents of this annoying child were crying foul that the couple didn't hand over the foul to the crying child.  But it turns out that they actually handled this quite well, saying that no apology was necessary and that not getting the ball was a good life lesson for their young son.  I must say, I was pleasantly surprised--weaker, stupider parents could have easily taught their kid that crying will immediately get him whatever he wants.

So the story has a happy ending, right?  Selfish toddler's world is crushed, but he learns an important life lesson in the process and becomes a better person because of it.  If only the story ended here...instead, others had to step in and destroy an otherwise perfectly good act of parenting.

A few minutes after the kid was denied the foul ball, someone in the Rangers dugout tossed him a different baseball to help calm him down.  Then, in the media circus that ensued, the kid earned appearances not only on the local news in Texas, but national coverage on The Today Show.  So long, valuable life lesson; hello, undeserved sense of entitlement.  Thanks to someone in the Rangers and all the newscasters, not only has the kid learned that crying will get him things that he doesn't deserve, but he'll also get national media attention in the process.  What's the world coming to?

Here's a clip of the local news coverage in Dallas:

And here's a clip to the segment from The Today Show, which provides an excellent example of how loud and obnoxious this kid is.  To offset the missed opportunity to learn that valuable life lesson, let's collectively hope that this kid spends the rest of his childhood being denied everything he wants.

And here are some links to the story:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Quaker Makevoer

Take a look at the following two Quaker logos featuring Larry the oat guy.  Aside from the obvious differences in background colors and fonts, can you pick out the major differences between the faces on the two Larrys?

This feels a lot like one of those games on a kids' menu at a cheap restaurant that asks you to name the differences between two seemingly identical pictures.  But once you've tried to figure out the differences, answer one more question: which logo makes you feel more like buying oatmeal--Larry (A) or Larry (B)?  Indifferent?  Me too...

What you're looking at on the right is what's known in the marketing industry as a "brand re-invigoration."  PepsiCo, which owns the Quaker brand, decided to give Larry a new look, hoping to keep the brand "fresh" and "innovative."  Yet somehow, when I stare at the face of new Larry, those aren't the words that spring to mind...three others seem more appropriate: "waste," "of," and "time."

I've spent enough time around marketers and witnessed enough "brand reinvigorations" firsthand to muster an educated prediction: this will cost PepsiCo a lot of money and have virtually no impact on sales.  Marketers spend so much time with their focus groups and consumers insights teams, exploring the depths of the consumer psyche, that they lose touch with reality.

Here's the answer to that question: "what's different about Larry (B)?"  Quaker's brand consultant, a company called Hornall Anderson, claims that the changes were critical to convey Quaker oatmeal's key messages of energy and healthy choices.  The consultants scaled back on Larry's double chin and removed just a hint of portliness from his cheeks.  Apparently Larry also received a haircut, though I've stared at the logo for about five minutes and can't see any difference in the hair, other than some darker shadows on new Larry's 'do.  I feel like it's one of those 3-D Magic Eye pictures that I've always struggled with...

 Tree?  Horseshoe?  Semi-truck?  ????

You may also notice that Larry's shoulders now appear in the logo, and that's no accident.  According to Hornall Anderson, including his shoulders in the logo makes Larry appear "stronger and more vibrant."  I have no way of proving this, but I think that might be the first time that the word "vibrant" has every appeared in the same sentence as the word "Quaker."

And, perhaps most obviously, the logo now has a two-toned red background in place of the old, dull white.  Again, behind this seemingly minor change is a load of marketing crap.  The multi-toned color allegedly adds "a sense of movement."  Normally, I'd insert another sarcastic comment here, but I'm not even sure what that means...

Maybe it's the finance person in me, but I would have left Larry alone--at 134 years old, I'd say he's looking pretty darn good. Too bad the rest of us don't hold up to the test of time so well--if Larry were an actual person, Quaker would have a decaying pile of flesh for a logo...but obviously, that's not vibrant and says nothing of energy or healthy choices.  Regardless, I really don't see Larry (B) selling any more oatmeal than Larry (A) sold for all those decades.

The consultants may sound like snake oil salesmen as they explain the meaning behind each trivial change, but they know how to rake in the money.  When asked, Hornall Anderson wouldn't say how much they were paid for the overhaul, but I know from experience that "brand reinvigorations" don't come cheap.  Most impressive is a quote from the VP of design for Hornall Anderson when explaining the subtleties of Larry makevoer: "the goal is not to have anyone notice he is different."  I'm having trouble trying to think of another job where you can earn a mountain of cash by coming up with changes that you hope no one notices!  I'm going to convince my manager that I'm not unproductive; I'm just very effective at subtly accomplishing things...

I'd consider hanging up the spreadsheets and making the move to marketing, but I think my approach is all wrong.  If someone asked me to freshen up or reinvigorate Larry, subtlety would be the last thing on my mind:

Now that would get people's attention on the shelves.  But I don't want a Larry that appeals only to the female population, so I'd take it one step further and create an alternative package option:

Now men will want to eat more oatmeal, too!  But Larry's head on a female body, while popular in the LGBT community, might ruffle a few feathers back at Quaker headquarters.  A transgender Larry may not be consistent with the brand's conservative, foundational pillars.  So until I master the art of subtlety and unconvincing marketing-speak, I guess I'll continue crunching away at those numbers.

Here's Wall Street Journal's coverage of Larry's makeover:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

This Day In History...

Last year, May 19th was a remarkably unremarkable least for the first two-thirds of the day.  Unfortunately, that date became painfully memorable at the end of my daily drive to The Gym after work.  I knew something was wrong before I even pulled into the parking lot--at 5PM, the lot should have been half-filled with cars, but it was emptier than the stands at a WNBA game.  I'd only seen this happen once before, and it was terrible sign.  The Gym must have flooded yet again, which meant another summer of pathetic corporate gym workouts.

But that infamous sign on the door informed me that things were even worse than I could have ever imagined:

On Wednesday the 18th, another gym member told me that he'd had a brief conversation with the owner, Jimmy, and things looked grim.  The Gym had been officially and unofficially for sale for the past few years, but apparently a sale was in the works and the buyer backed out of the deal at the last minute.  Jimmy was swearing about the deadbeat buyer and the tough spot in which he now found himself with the bank.  This type of grumbling was nothing new, so we didn't think anything of it when we walked out of The Gym for the last time ever.

The only bright side to this dark day was the two free weeks of gym membership that I ended up with as a result of this unexpected closure.  Upon reading that sign, my first two thoughts were: "Where am I going to work out?" and "How am I going to get my money back?"  The latter question was particularly concerning because I had extended my membership at a price of more than $400 just two weeks before The Gym went dark.

I called the credit card company and explained the situation, and I eventually got the charge reversed.  And the full charge--not a prorated portion of my membership--was reversed, meaning I'd worked out for free for the past two weeks. Those who had paid cash for their memberships had no such luck--and Jimmy had continued signing up new members and extending old memberships right up until the bitter end, leaving some very unsatisfied customers.  But my two free weeks were a very dim bright spot, however, and Lifetime's sign-up fee and significantly higher monthly dues wiped out my savings from day one.

I won't drag everyone through the details once again of the painful, aimless workout wondering that led to joining Lifetime a few weeks later.  When it comes to writing about The Gym, this ain't my first rodeo.  I've written about the Lifetime and The Gym on the other blog, on this blog, and on this blog again...and again.  Looking back over the past few months of blogging, I realize that I've gotten a lot of mileage out of my misfortune.

The Gym briefly reopened under new management last June--rumor has it, Jimmy's original deadbeat buyer got a bargain from the bank.  The monthly dues were much, much higher, so I never rejoined, but the resurrection was short-lived anyway, with The Gym closing its doors for good a month or two later.  One year has passed since the original closure, but time has failed to heal my wounds--I think I'm still stuck in the denial stage.

Earlier today at Lifetime, I overheard two old guys talking, and one mentioned that Lifetime is the type of gym where if you stopped showing up and came back two or three years later, you wouldn't recognize anyone.  That's the polar opposite of The Gym, which was a dingy time capsule.  If The Gym's spectacular run had continued, I have no doubt that twenty years from now, the equipment, the decor, the members, and the music would be exactly the same as they were in 1985, 2000, and on May 19th, 2011.

The place was dirty, damaged equipment took years to get repaired, and I often wondered if the "clean" towels were simply dirty sweat towels that had dried out and been refolded, but May 19th will always be a day of mourning in the Minneapolis area.

A contributing factor to the declining membership that eventually did in The Gym?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Life Does Imitate Art!

I've obtained official, irrefutable evidence that life does, in fact, imitate art.  In this case, it took decades for this to reveal itself, but that doesn't make the story any less impactful.  On Thursday, November 12, 1992, the eighth episode of the fourth season of The Simpsons aired on Fox.  It was a classic episode--this was back when The Simpsons was in its comedy prime, many years before it's sad demise into mediocrity.  So for those of you who have forgotten the details of this episode, shame on you; I'll give you a recap of one of the episode's intriguing sub-plots.

Homer sees a commercial for an all-you-can-eat seafood special at The Frying Dutchman that's too good to pass up.  When he and Marge go to the restaurant, Homer immediately grabs a steam tray off the buffet line, cleans out the restaurant's shrimp supply, and polishes off two plastic lobsters along the way.  When closing time arrives at The Frying Dutchman, Homer hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, and the staff has to drag him out of restaurant--twice--to finally cut him off.

Infuriated by the premature ending to his all-you-can-eat meal, Homer hires a lawyer and sues the restaurant.  During the trial, it's revealed that after getting dragged out of The Frying Dutchman, Homer drove around Springfield searching for another seafood restaurant, then went fishing when he couldn't find one that was open.  In the words of Lionel Hutz, his attorney, "Do these sound like the actions of a man who had had all he could eat?!"  It's a storyline that's too absurd to happen anywhere other than a TV show--a cartoon TV show, to be more precise.  Or is it...?

Nearly two decades after that episode aired, a eerily similar story played out in Theinsville, Wisconsin.  The real-life Homer Simpson is 350-pound man named Bill Wisth, and a restaurant called Chuck's Place plays the role of The Frying Dutchman in this charade.  Like Homer, Bill decided to take advantage of an all-you-can-eat seafood deal--a Friday night, all-you-can-eat fish fry at Chuck's Place.

After Bill had downed twelve fish, Chuck's place was running out of the designated variety of fish that they were offering in the all-you-can fry and tried to cut him off.  The staff offered their large, angry customer eight additional pieces of a more expensive variety of fish for the inconvenience of the abrupt ending to his feast.  But even with twelve pieces of fish in his stomach and another eight in his pocket, Bill hadn't had "all he could eat," and he wanted to make sure the world knew it.

Bill called the police and filed an official complaint and now spends every Sunday picketing in front of Chuck's Place with a homemade sign reading "Poor Business Practices!"  Wisth vows that he will continue picketing until Chuck's Place finally makes good on its promise to give him "all he can eat."  As he puts it, "I think that people have to stand up for consumers."

The news coverage of the incident is priceless.  Be sure to take note of the quality workmanship on Wisth's sign, which appears to be little more than a torn-up box with a message written pencil, which is unreadable from a distance of more than five feet.  And the reporter can hardly conceal her disgust for Wisth's personal crusade.

I can only hope that you were able to draw a fair, level-headed conclusion about this situation.  With Bill Wisth's charming, charismatic speeches, it's far too easy to hear the details of this story and immediately applaud Wisth as a brave crusader for the everyday consumer.  He's willing to spend his valuable Sunday free time standing up for the common man, to the detriment of his personal fortune.

I'm sure Wisth would rather spend those hours working for a living so the that he could pay down that "running account" he has at Chuck's Place, but he's answering a higher higher calling in life.  It feel like I'm watching a white, modern day Martin Luther King Jr.  Someday, textbooks will reference the "We asked for more fish, and they refused to give us any more fish" speech the same way kids today learn about King's "I Have A Dream" speech.

There's no simple solution to the standoff between Wisth and Chuck's Place.  On the one hand, he's an alleged "problem" customer with an unpaid tab who violated the sacred rule of "all-you-can-eat" deals by sharing food with a non-paying customer.  On the other hand, you have a large, slow-witted man who was promised all he could eat, but who clearly did not get all he could eat.  Petty customer?  False advertising?  This could take years to snake its way through the courts.

But things don't have to be so complicated.  Since this story has already so freakishly followed the plot of The Simpsons, we only have to return to that classic episode for the answer.  In the end, Homer and the The Frying Dutchman worked out a perfect compromise: Homer was allowed to eat all he wanted in front of a large window, and allowed The Frying Dutchman got to use him as a freak-show attraction known as "Bottomless Pete, Nature's Cruelest Mistake."

If Chuck's Place is willing to part with some generous portions of fish, and if Bill Wisth is willing to part with a little more dignity, I think we have ourselves a classic win-win situation.  It's all going to come down to Chuck's willingness to compromise, because based on what I've seen in the news coverage, Wisth isn't exactly thrifty when it comes to shelling out the dignity.

Note: YouTube has an excellent movie trailer parody clip of the story and news coverage--click here to check it out, it's worth a look.

Here are some links with more coverage of the story:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Could It Really Be...Summer?!

I'm well aware that summer doesn't "officially" start until June 20th, and I certainly don't want to jinx anything, but all the signs are telling me that the worst is finally behind us.  I haven't worn a jacket outside in a few weeks, I haven't closed my patio door in ages, and nature's predominant color has transformed from dark gray/brown death to bright green, vibrant life.

Honestly, the transformation has been nothing short of remarkable.  Remember early March?

What a difference two months makes...below is the same place, virtually unrecognizable just two months after I took the first picture.  This is nature's version of the absurd, blatantly photo-shopped before-and-after infomercial diet photo.  Above you have the equivalent of the middle-aged, fat, bald, frowning, pot-bellied, pale guy, and below is the twenty-five year-old, tan, six-packed, smiling, muscular, lush-haired Adonis.  But the best part is that this is no photo-shop job--this attractive man is my new reality (that sounds creepy when I say it that way...but you know what I mean):

I played outdoor tennis last Saturday, and instead of battling both numbness in my fingers and lingering concerns about about hypothermia and windburn like the last time I tried that, my only concern this time out was avoiding a sunburn.  This was the first legitimately good weather weekend of the year!  And, best of all, the season's old pattern is officially broken--unlike the pockets of warm weather earlier this spring that were immediately followed by plunges back into the bitter cold, the weekend perfection has carried forward into the work week.  Staying inside the cubicle on Monday was no easy task as I stared at the temperature on my phone:

Then Tuesday night softball arrived, and things continued to look good--much better than last week's cloudy, rainy mess of an opener:

And finally, with the work week winding down, the crown jewel of perfect weather showed up in the forecast. As of this morning, the forecast for Friday and Saturday calls for temperatures in the low 90s!  It'll be time to open the windows, lay on the floor sweating, and bask in the glory of summer weather.

Like I said before, I don't want to jinx it, but I'll risk it anyway and say that the cold, sleet, snow, and frost are gone for good.  Well, at least for a few months.  For the sake of my own sanity, I'm going to block the depressing thought out of my mind that's reminding me that in about a month, the days start to get shorter.  And that other nagging thought telling me that just as quickly as the world bursts to life, it dies a fast and colorful death in a few short months.  For now, I'm putting away the pants, the sweatshirts, the gloves, the stocking caps, and the ice scraper, and I'm focusing on the spectacular heat.  Up yours, winter!