A Couple of Free SF Short Stories
Tor.com recently went online, and apparently has a new John Scalzi short story from the Old Man's War universe and a new Charles Stross from his very enjoyable "Laundry" series (I have not mentioned the latter series very much, but it is sort of HP Lovecraft meets Men in Black crossed with Office Space. Really.)
Thumbs Up For Scalzi's New Zoe's Tale
Several weeks ago, when he was going away to camp, I tried to come up with a gift to send along with my 14-year-old son. Because he is a big John Scalzi fan, I bought him a semi-bootleg pre-production copy of Scalzi's upcoming novel Zoe's Tale off eBay. I feel kind of bad about abusing Mr. Scalzi in this way, but feel a little better when I consider what our household somehow seems to own at least two copies of every book he has published.
Anyway, I just snagged the book back from my son and he said it was great. As all you parents know, 14-year-old boys can be oh-so nuanced and deep in their communications with their parents, so I did not get a lot of detail (oddly enough, having read a few chapters, the communication and decision-making abilities of teenage boys seems to be a minor theme in the book). The best metric of his fondness for the book was that he told me to make sure to read the acknowledgments at the end. It must be some kind of sign of engagement when a teenage boy reads the acknowledgments.
I am several chapters in and really like what I have seen so far. Always nice to see a strong teenage girl protagonist, and Scalzi is as funny as ever. Apparently it is available in mid-August.
By the way, later this year I believe an early novel of Scalzi's called Agent to the Stars is coming back into publication. I loved this book, and you can check it out early as Scalzi has it available free online. (update: Here it is on Amazon, with an Oct 28 release date).
Two Old Favorites Re-Discovered in the Same Day
The other day, I was sorting through my bookshelves trying to find something for my son to read. He just blew through the four books of the Hyperion series and was looking for fresh meat. As I was browsing, I picked up Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash, which I have not read in several years. Despite reading the book twice before, I was immediately engulfed by the first chapter. I know I am a geek, but I honestly think that the first chapter of Snow Crash may be the best opening of any book I have ever read.
I seldom watch TV, but later that day I had just finished watching the A&E remake of Andromeda Strain, which was a favorite of mine when I was a boy. I happened across the Redford-Dunaway movie "Three Days of the Condor." This is one of my favorite spy movies, and not just because I am a sucker for Faye Dunaway (I always thought the young Faye Dunaway would have been a great Dagny Taggert in Atlas Shrugged.) One of the reasons I like the movie is its pacing. I enjoy a full-speed ahead never-take-a-breath action movie as much as the next person, but do they all have to be that way. This was a thriller with an almost languid pace.
One of My Favorite Short Stories as a Boy
I rediscovered today an old favorite of mine, a short story written by Winston Churchill (yes, the same guy) in about 1930. My son was searching for examples of alternative history, and found "If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg"
Amazon One-Star Reviews
Have I ever told you that I really like author John Scalzi? Not just because I love his books, but I do really enjoy his work. I like him because he spends a lot of time promoting the work of other young writers and promoting the science fiction and fantasy genre in general.
Recently, Scalzi published on his blog all his Amazon one-star reviews. As a fairly novice writer who will never write as well as Scalzi, I found this quite liberating. If folks like him endure these bad reviews, maybe I should not let my own setbacks get me down. He has challenged other authors to do the same, publishing their Amazon one-star reviews online. In this post, he links a number of authors who have taken up the challenge, including Charles Stross and Jo Walton.
So, though I am not in the league of these other authors, I will post my one-star review for my book BMOC.
I like the concept for the book and like reading Warren Meyer's Coyote Blog. I don't understand how crude and uncouth became popular and I am disappointed that is the approach that was chosen with this book. I should have paid attention to the review by "Warren's mother." I've returned my copy to Amazon for a refund.
Wow, I actually feel better. Based on this review, I will warn you as I warn my friends when I give them a copy: The book has its crude parts, and I have only let my kids read highly edited portions. That being said, its not Fear of Flying either, and my parent's priest read it without spontaneously combusting. But don't buy it if you are turned off by harsh language and some sexual humor. I have two youth novels in the works, you can save your money for them ;=)
Postscript: This is one of the one-star reviews posted for Anya Bast's Witch Fire:
“Not romance, not erotica, basically porn - what little plot there is exists to connect the sex scenes, note I didn’t say love making scenes. Altogether distasteful and I won’t waste money on this author again.”
LOL, if the review is trying to hurt Ms. Bast's sales, I am not positive this is the right approach.
Don't Bother Reading the News; Just Read My Novel
Excerpt from my novel BMOC that I posted hours after the Spitzer revelations:
Taking a deep breath, Givens said, “Senator, there is a reason that this one is not going away. I will spell it out: S-E-X. The press doesn’t give a shit about a few billion dollars of waste. No one tunes in to the evening news if the teaser is ‘Government pays too much for a bridge, news at eleven.’ The Today Show doesn’t interview the contractors benefiting from a useless bridge.”
“However, everybody and his dog will tune in if the teaser is ‘Your tax dollars are funding call girls, film at eleven’. Jesus, do you really think the CBS Evening News is going to turn down a chance to put hookers on the evening news? Not just tonight but day after day? Just watch – Dan Rather will be interviewing hookers and Chris Mathews will be interviewing hookers and for God’s sakes Barbara Walters will probably have a weepy interview with a hooker.”
OK, I missed it by that much. It is Diane Sawyer, not Barbara Walters.
At least one good thing has come out of Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace: Diane Sawyer will finally get to air her hooker special!
Almost two years ago, Sawyer and producers at "Prime Time Live" set out to do a story on prostitution. Wanting to examine Nevada's legal brothels, she headed out to the famous Moonlite Bunny Ranch.
"She really hit it off with all my girls," Bunny Ranch head Dennis Hof tells us. "We even gave her one of the terry-cloth bathrobes they wear. We had it embroidered, "Diane: Trainee."
Useful Advice from John Scalzi
Another fake memoir has been revealed:
In “Love and Consequences,” a critically acclaimed memoir published last week, Margaret B. Jones wrote about her life as a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.
The problem is that none of it is true.
Margaret B. Jones is a pseudonym for Margaret Seltzer, who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family. She graduated from the Campbell Hall School, a private Episcopal day school in the North Hollywood neighborhood. She has never lived with a foster family, nor did she run drugs for any gang members.
You know, the rules of a memoir are pretty simple. If an event actually happened to you, you can use it in a memoir. If it didn’t actually happen to you, you can’t. Because then it’s fiction, you see. Which is different from a memoir. No, really; you can look it up. I’m not sure why this has suddenly become so difficult for everyone to process.
I must say that this actually sounds like a good book -- he should go for it:
On the other hand, I’m looking forward to selling my memoir of my life as a teenage transvestite in the Bogota slums, who later joined the Navy SEALs and adopted the twin daughters of the ruthless Afghan opium warlord whom I battled to the death using only a spoon and 14 bars of the 1812 Overture, and then, having beaten back a terrible addiction to khat, went on to become one of the most famous celebrity chefs on The Cooking Channel. Because apparently this would be at least as true as most of the other memoirs on the market today. And, I’d wager, a great deal more entertaining. I’m waiting for my check, I am.
Up and Coming Writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy
One of the things I like about John Scalzi, other than the fact his books rock, is that he goes out of his way to promote other up-and-coming writers. His series in December called "a Month of Writers" has pounded my Amazon bill and filled up my "to be read" shelf. He indexes the entire series here.
Perfect Gift for the Holidays!
From the Business Opportunities Weblog:
Continuing my list of my favorite business books of 2007 brings us to another unconventional one: BMOC. While the book, by Warren Meyer, is fictional, it does contain a number of interesting business ideas, including my favorite outlandish business opporunity of all time: fountain coin harvesting.
Amazon link for BMOC here (sorry, I tried to get the price cut for the holidays but it really takes a long time for that to work through the system).
The DRM Genie Just Won't Go Back into the Bottle
Another milestone has been reached in DRM lameness: Western Digital, which I considered, at least until today, to be the clear leader in the hard drive wars, has instituted DRM on its hard drives:
Western Digital's 1TB MyBook external hard drives won't share media files over network connections (UPDATE: Don't install the "required" client software! See workaround below). From the product page:
"Due to unverifiable media license authentication, the most common audio and video file types cannot be shared with different users using WD Anywhere Access."
It doesn't matter what the files are: If you try to share these formats over a network, Western Digital assumes not just that you're a criminal, but that it is its job to police users. You see, MP3, DivX, AVI, WMV and Quicktime files are copy-protected formats.
Here is the list of 30 file extensions the hard drive won't let you share. It does not matter if those mp3 files are just dictation files you created yourself using an MP3 recorder -- you still can't share them. Really lame. Why WD feels the need to get into the business of policing this stuff is beyond me. Can you imagine the product meeting. Gee, I think we should jump into the DRM fray, even though we don't receive a dime from the media companies and it will really piss all of our customers off. Corry Doctorow also comments.
Atlas Shrugged at 50
Apparently Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged is turning 50, a fact I know only because my fairly libertarian-tilted feed reading list has been deluged of late with retrospectives.
One of the oddities of posts on Ayn Rand is that every author seems to feel required to say something like "I like her work but I am not in total agreement with everything she says." Uh, OK. I'm not clear why this proviso seems so necessary. I have never heard someone saying "I am a big fan of Mozart" and then following up with "but I don't like all of his works." I am sure that is true, but they don't bother saying so. I am a big fan of Ayn Rand, in particular with her non-fiction essays, but of course there are parts of her writing I don't agree with. For example, I would be less likely to take her advice on managing my love life than I would to eat out of Hannibal Lecter's cookbook.
What Rand did so well in Atlas Shrugged was to take collectivist and anti-rational philosophy and play it forward in practice in a very compelling way. She demonstrated with almost mathematical precision the end results of collectivist philosophy. The entropic United States in Atlas Shrugged, running down under the weight of socialism, has turned out to be repeatedly prescient. For this reason, I find her anti-heros to be more memorable. I see analog's to the Jim Taggerts and Lee Hunsackers and Starnes children nearly every day in the news. Through these analogs, Rand still helps me place current events in their philosophical context.
By the way, if you enjoyed her novels but have never read her essays, I encourage you to do so. The Virtue of Selfishness is a reasonable place to start. She was not the first person to voice many of these messages (Hayek and others were saying many of the same things) but because of her novels, I, like many others, heard them first from her.
Finished Harry Potter (no Spoilers)
My whole family was nice enough to choose this weekend to be away, so I could read Harry Potter 7 in peace (yes, I know, I am getting old when I use a bachelor weekend to read a book). I thought is was a well-done conclusion to the series.
On Friday at midnight, I went out to get a copy for my son, who was driving with friends to San Diego early Saturday morning. The Borders near us was a zoo -- what looked like a 2-hour line, and I didn't even have the right armband to get into it. Fortunately, the 24-hour grocery store 2 blocks away had plenty and no line, so I did not have to wait. (My bet is that if I had gone back to the Borders and shouted that there were books with no waiting a few blocks away, only a few would leave -- it was an event, not just a line. Somehow, I think the perceived value of the book went up having waited in line for it.)
Anyway, I just wanted to make a couple of observations about the Harry Potter books:
- You can complain all you want about JK Rowling's writing style or selective character development or whatever, but anyone who can have teenagers waiting in line at midnight to buy the last 800 pages of a nearly 5000 page narrative -- waiting in line to read! -- should have a spot reserved for her in the Poet's corner at Westminster Abbey.
- Name any other book that had such an even mix of adults and kids reading it over the weekend
- I am not big on the need for shared national experiences like certain conservatives or liberals are, but the Harry Potter books certainly constituted such a shared experience.
BMOC Continues to Be Precient
This week, TJIC points out that the New York Times is starting to sniff around another business model in the book, that of fountain coin harvesting. They are starting to see the market:
In all these babbling places, the story is the same: Coins pile up, Mr. Mendez removes them and people’s fascination with tossing pocket change into water continues, unexplained…
But miss the real business model (from the book):
On the basis of this market research and his quirky insight, Preston Marsh founded 3Coins, Inc, and began an intensive six month research and development program. He hired engineers from several hot tub and spa companies that had developed the modular spa, a design where all the necessary pumps and plumbing were integrated with the tub into a single portable unit. His designers worked long weeks coming up with three modular fountain designs, driving down the estimated manufacturing cost to just $350 per unit.
Next, Preston Marsh took these fountain designs to mall owners, architects, building managers, landscapers and anyone who designed or owned public spaces. In every case, the deal was the same: Preston Marsh would give the client one or more free fountains to adorn their public spaces, and would even provide the labor to clean and treat the fountains once a week. In return, Preston Marsh literally “kept the change”. Preston Marsh paid local entrepreneurs 25% of the change drop to clean the fountains and empty and deposit the change. The rest was pure profit.
The resulting economics were startling. For each installation, Preston Marsh had up-front investments of about $750, including the $350 tub plus delivery and installation. In return, Preston Marsh gained about $50 a week in revenue, or $37.50 after the servicing agent took his 25%. Over a year, the fountain would produce $1,950 in revenue, with virtually no expenses or overhead.
After five years, 3Coins had nearly 10,000 fountains in place, generating almost $20 million in annual revenue, over half of which was profit. And Preston Marsh owned 100% of the company.
You can still buy BMOC at Amazon, which has had a bit of a sales resurgence of late after a couple of press mentions. Servers are standing by.
Coyote Sees the Future
James Dean, reader of both my blog and my book BMOC, sent me a great article about several companies that are pursuing business models surprisingly close to the one I made up for BMOC in my book.
Quick background: In my novel, I imagined that the company BMOC had recruited the most popular kids at a number of high schools -- kids who were true social opinion makers, so to speak. I posited that BMOC monetized these relationships by 1) Helping clients of BMOC in the same school become more popular and 2) Seeding these kids with free products (video games, cosmetics, etc.) which would cause other kids who followed their example to go out and buy the same products. The free products both paid the popular kids for their consulting work helping to make BMOC clients more popular, and acted as a guerrilla marketing tactic for the companies that sell these products. (The section of the novel explaining the business model in detail is here).
Well, I have not seen anyone pursuing part 1, but apparently a number of companies are pursuing part 2:
Shoppers will be given the opportunity to test products or services, share them with their friends and, all being well, recommend them to a wider audience - without a cent being spent on traditional advertising.
One company, Yooster, predicts it will have 50,000 "influencers" - the marketing moniker for trendsetters and mavens - on its books by June, ready to spruik a client's wares solely for the social kudos of getting the product before it hits the shelves.
The chief executive and founder of Yooster, Piers Hogarth-Scott, said: "If you are a 20-year-old girl at university and you get the latest lipstick from Gucci months before it is out on the shelves and you are able to give it to your friends then you are going to look good. That gives you immense [social] currency."
You can buy BMOC at Amazon.
I vote for Noble House
Nick Gillespie at Reason asks folks for their favorite business novels. I vote for Noble House by James Clavell. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged has a great deal of influence on me, but that book is ultimately about government making business impossible, not about the conduct of business per se. Noble House is a sympathetic and hugely entertaining depiction of business people being business people in as close to a libertarian environment as we might find (1960s Hong Kong) in the modern world. Sure its not real business -- too much deal making, not enough productive investment, but it is a novel for god sakes, and not a seminar on the capital asset pricing model.
PS - Is there anyone out there who has read both novels and would rather hang out in a bar with Hank Reardon than Ian Dunross? I didn't think so.
PPS- Personally, I think this business novel is good too.
I am way behind on posting some of these reviews, but Market Power has a review of BMOC here.
There is also at least one new (5-star!) review up at Amazon. It makes a great, uh... President's Day gift!
Science Fiction as Literature
A while back, a question went around the blogosphere: Are there any science fiction writers that we might legitimately label "literature" in fifty or a hundred years? I think there may be several, but my first nomination is for Neil Stephenson. Now, its hard to call him a purely science fiction writer, since he bounces around between future, present, and past, but anyone who wrote the incredible "Snow Crash" has got to be labeled, at least partially, a science fiction writer.
I just re-read Cryptonomicon for the second time, and what struck me, beyond just being an engaging story, is the incredible quality of his writing. In an bit of good timing, Catallarchy actually has a post up with some short excerpts from Cryptonomicon.
BMOC Online Reviews
I am a little behind on my email, so I am late in posting some of the reviews coming in on my book BMOC. My habit is to post every review I can find, positive or negative. Let me know by email if you have a review and I will link it as well. Some of the reviewers below seem to like the book a lot, while some are more lukewarm, but I thank everyone for reading it and taking the time to post a thoughtful review.
After years of practice with non-fiction, I am still refining my fiction voice and style. It is hard to over-emphasize how important it is to get critical feedback from people who are not a) paid by me, i.e. editors or b) friends and family, who make up most everyone's first readers. I am already learning a lot from reviews about what works and doesn't work, what is interesting, and what comes off as a cliche. And of course I continue to be proud that I have some of the smartest readers in the blogosphere. Thanks. [Of course I am going to quote the good stuff, but click through to see everything]
Human Advancement (what a beautiful web design he has)
I picked it up Christmas morning, with the intention of reading a chapter or two in that little lull that always comes after the presents are opened. You've heard the cliche "I couldn't put it down"? Well, next thing I knew dinner was ready, and after eating I picked it right back up and finished it.
I had kind of assumed it would be another one of those libertarian fantasy novels. You know the kind, Montana secedes from the US; or a small band of people decide they won't take it any more and go off somewhere to found their own government; or a lone rebel plots to take down the system by finding and eliminating the few key people who keep it going, etc. I've taken to calling it "LibFic". So I thought this would be more of the same: a book from a fellow libertarian blogger whom I've had on my blogroll almost since I started this, and a book that was in a niche - a very narrow niche - that I like.
Turns out that it was a pretty mainstream corporate espionage novel, complete with a murder to be solved, a young, attractive and competent protagonist, and more than one opening for a sequel. It fits the genre that is popular today, (with dramatic but generic names like "Malice of Intent"), and as such is entertainment, not great literature. But it is a good story, and while it is not overtly libertarian (seems that Warren forgot to include the 70-page speech painfully "integrated" into the plot that outlines his entire philosphical edifice), it does have a refreshing libertarian sensibility that is usually absent from books in that genre....
In the process, the book paints a picture of the media/legal/government complex that is as damning as the portrayals of the military/industrial complex, or the profit/oppression complex that is usual the root of all evil. Warren pulls this off without lengthy digressions to explain to us that this cabal exists, and why it is so bad. Instead, he just shows it in action, and each example serves not to "interrupt our plot for this important message", but to further the plot and to draw the characters.
The Unrepentant Individual (great blog name)
Pagan Vigil (does everyone have a better blog name than mine?)
Dispatches from TJICistan (I wish he would stop making me feel guilty with his workout synopses)
BMOC, Chapters 5 and 6
A few days late (I usually publish on Thursday night) here are chapters 5 and 6 of my book BMOC, available on Amazon.com and as a low-cost pdf. Chapters 1 and 2 are here; Chapters 3 and 4 are here. All chapters are indexed here.
“Tell me, Mr. Marsh, what does BMOC do?”
Susan Hunter and Preston Marsh sat in a small room loosely modeled in both size and adornment on a public bathroom stall at an moderately-nice restaurant. The room barely had space for just one small round table surrounded by four chairs. Susan and Preston Marsh had already completed the obligatory yet awkward dance around the chairs, each trying to decide whether the etiquette of attractive-young-female-being-interviewed-by-older-man demanded that they sit in the chairs across from each other or next to each other. That dilemma having been solved in favor of the more modest separated-by-the-table solution, Susan could proceed to figuring out just why the hell she was here.
Susan had no intention of interviewing any more this spring. She had interviewed weeks ago with several consulting firms, had several job offers, and was close to choosing a company for her summer work that not only paid well, but had a reputation for giving out permanent job offers at the end of the summer. By accepting the right offer, she might well avoid this whole interview hassle next year, and she had absolutely no need or any real desire or energy to look for anything different.
But everything about her sitting here was odd. Oddest of all was the way she was invited to interview in the first place. Usually, students obtained interviews by demonstrating interest in a particular company and signing up for an interview. In some cases, like say for the job of asbestos plant manager in Toledo, just asking was enough to score an interview, since the schedule didn’t really fill up. For other more popular jobs, say marketing manager at Victoria’s Secret, one had to get invited to interview based on a submitted resume.
For today’s interview, though, Susan had never signed up to talk to BMOC, had never submitted a resume, in fact had never even heard of BMOC or Mr. Preston Marsh. Out of the blue, she had received an engraved invitation to this interview along with a beautiful box of chocolates from the finest shop in New York. Intrigued by the mystery, and frankly feeling some guilt about not accepting, given that she had already inhaled the chocolate, she showed up.
Preston Marsh was an interesting-looking guy – and not quite what she expected. He was tall, at least 6-foot-3, and appeared reasonably fit. Susan generally expected executives to be in their fifties or sixties, but Marsh looked younger, perhaps no more than forty-five. His hair was starting to turn gray, but she only noticed it because the rest of his hair was jet black. He wore dark slacks and a black turtleneck, an outfit that had become almost a uniform for the entrepreneurial class.
In moments of paranoia, she had feared, due to the nature of her invitation, that this might be some kind of bizarre stalking. To some extent, her fear was alleviated when she checked on Preston Marsh at the Harvard career office, and found that though he had not previously recruited on campus for BMOC (whatever that was) he was a long time, very legitimate employer of Harvard MBA’s in a variety of his enterprises. Nevertheless, she still chose to put the table between them when she sat down.
The career office kept files on most of the major recruiters, with articles clipped from business magazines like Fortune and Forbes profiling the companies. There was no file for BMOC, but the counselor on duty was able to point Susan to a profile on Preston Marsh in an issue of Business Week from a couple of years ago, which could be found in the stacks of Baker Library. This presented a small problem, as Susan had never once set foot in the campus library, and didn’t know how to go about finding a magazine article there. However, after some wandering about, she managed to get the back issue of Business Week without too much humiliation.
The article on Preston Marsh was near the end of the magazine, and was titled “Dancing to his Own Tune.” It apparently was written before Marsh started BMOC, because it was not mentioned. The tone of the article was more of a human interest story than a business analysis, finding humor rather than general lessons to be learned in what the article called “Preston Marsh’s quirky career.”
The first surprising tidbit was that Marsh graduated from the University of Colorado as a music major. Whatever his dreams of music writing might have been, they were not enough to pay the bills. So, while he wrote his symphonies at night, during the day he sought out a way to make his talents pay. In doing so, he came up with the first of his many offbeat but lucrative ideas.
The story began when he was riding in an elevator up to his dentist’s office. Already stressed over the prospect of being chided for an hour or so about not flossing enough, he from some whim pushed all the floor buttons, slowing his ascent to the dreaded appointment. And, as the elevator stopped at each floor, he found the various tones made by the elevator extremely grating. To his musician's trained ear, the tones were off key, and, what’s more, were often minor chords when majors would be so much more pleasing. Or maybe, he thought, one might have major chords for up and minors for down.
Preston Marsh endured the dentist, but his notion of “fixing” elevator tones just wouldn’t go away. About two weeks later, he showed up at the door of Veradyne Engineering, one of the largest conglomerates in the world, and maker, as explained by the nameplate in the elevator car, of the particular lift Preston Marsh had ridden to his dentist. Marsh approached Veradyne’s engineering department about designing better tones for their elevators. Well, apparently it took a while to get the engineers to stop laughing, but after a lot of persistence, Preston Marsh finally managed to get them to take him on a no-risk basis – he would draw no salary, but they would pay for performance based on a standard musicians contract.
Preston Marsh’s timing was perfect. Just weeks after he started work, AT&T actually branded and trademarked a tone (you must have heard it, those first few notes played behind the woman who says “AT&T” whenever you first connect to an operator). The business press was soon full of discussion about branding of musical tones being the “Next Big Thing.” And for Preston Marsh, it was. He was quickly Shanghaied from the Veradyne elevator division to their communications division, matching AT&T with Veradyne’s own branded tone. Eventually, he got back to doing the elevators, and for good measure, created short musical tones for trains, airports, and computer software. Within two years, Preston Marsh’s tones were playing somewhere in the world hundreds of times every second of the day.
Through all of this time, the people who had first signed Preston Marsh’s contract apparently had lost track of what Marsh was doing, and those who knew what Marsh was working on assumed he was paid just like everyone else. This all changed one day when Marsh brought his contract and a bill for $1.58 million to his vice-president. The look of astonishment on that man’s face was very similar to the one he got when he first suggested re-writing their elevator tones, so he was used to it, and explained patiently: Veradyne had signed a standard song-writers contract with him, paying him royalties of a tenth of a cent every time his musical creations were played in public. This bill was his estimate for the past year. Of course, future years were likely to increase since Veradyne continued to churn out products with his music in them.
The article didn’t go into much detail, but apparently the answer from Veradyne to his royalty bill was not just no but hell no, and Preston Marsh soon found himself thrown out of the vice-president’s office, and then in short order, out of the building and out of the company. Not ready to give up, Marsh did what every red-blooded American boy does when he gets hosed by the establishment: He got himself a lawyer (apparently some famous guy named Michael Fang but Susan had never heard of him).
Fang’s victory in court led to an eventual buyout of Preston Marsh’s contracts, details undisclosed but estimated to be in the $10 million range. The fame and fortune from this decision launched Marsh on his business career, and, coincidently, launched Michael Fang, heretofore struggling lawyer, into a lucrative career in litigation.
But in all her reading, she had found no hint of BMOC. So it was with some interest that she listed to Preston Marsh begin the interview by discussing why she was there. Marsh explained that he had several friends who were professors at Harvard, and they usually helped him to identify one or two top students that he invites to interview, and this year, she was the one.
Oh jeez she thought, and, with nothing to lose, actually asked out loud, “Not like in ‘The Firm’? I’m not going to end up hiding out in the witness protection program am I?”
Preston Marsh laughed. “No. As far as I know, I don’t work for the Mafia, and I haven’t knocked off any of my employees, though I have been tempted a few times. The bad news is you also don’t get a new BMW as a signing bonus. The good news is that I can nearly guarantee that you won’t get shot at by the Mafia,” which elicited a small chuckle from Susan.
So that is when Susan, more relaxed, asked what the hell BMOC did.
“Let me answer a question with a question,” Marsh began his explanation. “When TV and radio and magazines sell to teenagers, what are they selling?”
Oh Christ, thought Susan, tricked again. One of the pretensions of many interviewers at HBS was that they liked to formulate a short verbal business case for you to solve. This always struck her as bizarre – if there was anything an HBS grad had been taught to do, it was to analyze and talk about a case. Thinking of Julian, Susan decided that if she were going to interview HBS students, she would instead focus on the question of whether the student had any friggin’ real-world common sense. She had taken this interview in large part because it promised to be different than all the rest, and here Marsh went with the case BS.
“Well, they sell a lot of cosmetics, and clothes, and CD’s,” Susan answered.
“OK, that’s right, but I didn’t ask my question well. Put yourself in the teenager’s shoes. The ads they see … what are they really selling. For example, when a teenage girl buys a hot new outfit, what is she really buying?”
“Hmmm. Positive comments from her friends; an aura of being cool; popularity, I suppose.”
“EXACTLY! When the media advertises to teens it is selling popularity! Taken that way, the teenage popularity business is enormous, literally hundreds of billions of dollars a year. One day, I asked myself: Why so indirect? They are selling popularity, but they are doing it via a lipstick sale. That seemed terribly inefficient to me. If teenagers want to buy popularity, why not let them do it directly?”
“Excuse me? You can’t sell popularity off a rack.”
“Ahh, but you can. The name ‘BMOC’ stands for ‘Big Man On Campus.’ That name, by the way, is one of the reasons you are here – more on that later. For a fee, we guarantee to make teenagers popular.”
Susan thought about this for a minute. Was this a trick? Was this some elaborate case where the key is not to get suckered into accepting such a bizarre business model? She temporized with a question. “What does BMOC actually do to make kids popular? Is it something like wardrobe consulting, helping the dorky kids to dress cooler and maybe take a bath once in a while, that sort of thing?”
“Well, that’s part of it, but probably not the most important part. The keys to our business model’s success are our Local School Operatives, or LSO’s as we call them. We go into area high schools and seek out and recruit the coolest, most popular people. We keep them on retainer, paying them a bonus when we have a client at their school that they can help to become popular. In many cases it’s surprisingly easy – invite the client to sit with them at lunch, to join them on dates, that sort of thing. We can guarantee popularity, because we literally have the local teenage opinion makers on our payroll.”
Susan smiled. OK, this had to be fake. This is all a hypothetical case. The game was to find the fatal flaw. And she was pretty sure she knew what it was.
“I don't think the P&L works. Keeping all of these kids on retainer, plus the bonuses you pay them. I just can’t see how the company makes a profit, unless your fees are very, very high or you don’t pay your student representatives very much.”
“Ahh, a good point, and you’ve hit on our other innovation. First, you are correct, we charge high fees now, though as we grow with economies of scale, we expect to be able to charge much less. The real innovation, though is… do you know what a product placement is?”
“Sure. It’s when a company pays to get their product into a TV show or movie – like when Reese’s pieces were used in the movie ET or I guess if you showed Seabiscuit eating Purina Horse Chow.”
“Exactly! And product placements are particularly effective. They act like an ad but they can’t be ignored like an ad. Anyway, we have taken product placements one step further: We get paid by major manufacturers to place their products not in movies but in the hands of the most popular kids in high school, the ones who really lead opinion as to what’s cool and not cool who we…”
“Who you happen to have on retainer anyway.”
“Exactly. But be careful how you think about ‘on retainer.’ The natural reaction is to assume this means money, but in our case it’s not. We keep the most popular people on retainer merely by …”
“Giving them free products,” Susan interrupted again, with growing excitement, “that manufacturers are already paying you to put in their hands.” Marsh nodded, with a big smug smile on his face. Shit, this wasn’t a joke, Susan thought to herself. It might in fact be brilliant. It served advertisers better by putting their product in the hands of those that really drive teenage opinion. And it served teens better, by giving them a clearer, more direct path to their goal of popularity. And both paid money to BMOC for the privilege. This really could work. She saw the implications of this approach immediately.
“Trying to make lots of friends over at the big media companies, huh? You’re taking on the heart of their business model, stealing both advertisers and buyers from the traditional media.”
“Funny you should mention that, but we can get into that later. What do you think of our business model?”
“Well, I think it might work,” she said, continuing to mentally pursue the idea in twenty directions. She remembered something that Marsh had said earlier. “You said there was something about the name BMOC that caused me to be here today. What was that?”
“Oh, yes. When we started the company, I guess I had in mind the geeky guys from ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ – the pocket protector boys. You notice we named the company Big MAN on Campus. As it turns out, which we probably should have known if we had done even a tiny bit of research, 85% of our customers are teenage girls. Ever study observer bias? I guess I applied my own biases here. As a result, we’re playing catch-up, trying to re-target our advertising, our product tie-ins, everything, to teenage girls. Take one example: One of our initial tie-ins was with Microsoft Xbox. We were hired to try to help the folks in Redmond overcome the enormous lead PlayStation has with teenage boys. Well, it turns out that teenage girls couldn’t give a rip about video games, so we are just now trying to sign up new partners.”
“What I am looking for,” he continued, “is someone to head up all our marketing efforts, with a particular emphasis on teenage girls. We need market research, new approaches to attracting LSO’s, and perhaps most importantly, some blockbuster partnership deals with consumer products companies. The job reports directly to me, and starts at $5000 a month. The job is yours if you want it.”
Huh? Susan thought, doing a mental double-take. A job offer already? It was getting weird again. “I’m sorry, Mr. Marsh, but I have to ask. We’ve been sitting here for, what? Like 10 minutes? You’ve asked me maybe three questions. How can you possibly offer me a job?”
Preston Marsh smiled. “Well, for three reasons… You know, I had consultants come into the company once. I don’t think I learned a thing from them, except whenever they wrote a presentation, everything was in threes. There were never two reasons, or four, always three. Something that seems to appeal to Western minds, I’m told. Anyway, back to three reasons: First, I’ve asked around a lot about you, and you have done beautiful work in your first year. What’s the value of ten minutes of interview questions against a record of sustained performance at one of the toughest schools in the country?”
“I have a second, better reason, though. Do you know that over the last two years, I have explained the BMOC business model to about 500 people, including some of the supposedly smartest people in the country. Many of these people I managed to convince of our value after months of discussions. Only two people have “gotten it” in the first 10 minutes. One, unfortunately, runs a major media company and now views me as a tremendous threat. The other is you. Many, many people call me crazy, and there are times they very nearly have me convinced. But if I’m crazy, you’re crazy in the same way.”
Of course, now that Gladstone had finally arranged a more secure, outdoor meeting location, the weather sucked. It was steadily raining, but it was one of those days where the rain did nothing to cool the temperatures down from the high 80’s. As a result, steam rose from the ground, and the air seemed to be a physical presence that had to be parted as he walked.
He approached the Central Park Zoo from midtown, choosing to walk through the park rather than up Fifth Avenue. He had hoped to get there early, because every spy novel he had ever read emphasized how important it was to get to a public meeting place early, to check things out and watch for the arrival of your party. Unfortunately he was running late, but since he had no idea what to look for anyway had he staked the place out, it was probably just as well.
Near the lion cage he saw a short, dark man in a gray suit, and, God forbid, white shoes. Everything about him, from his white shoes to his posture as he waited, leaning against a wall, said “Mafia” better than a name tag. Gladstone walked up to him and said “Mr. Benedetto.”
“Ah, Mr. Gladstone, I thought I recognized you from our previous meeting. Mr. Primera could not make it himself. Shall we take a walk?”
They strolled back through the park and down a sparsely populated path. Gladstone was not the least surprised that Primera was not there in person. From Ted’s clumsy first approach, Primera had to suspect that Gladstone was looking for some help on the wrong side of legal. Which is not to say that Primera had any problem with the wrong side of legal; he just did not want his name associated with it, particularly in front of a grand jury.
After a few minutes of silence, Benedetto began, “Mr. Primera was…surprised at Mr. Whitney’s lack of, uh, discretion in their conversation last week.” Not as surprised as he might be, thought Gladstone, had he known he was being taped. Gladstone was sure that Primera did not know, through the simple logic that right at this moment Ted was in his office and not imitating a lawn sculpture at the bottom of the East River.
“I can’t believe he was surprised,” said Gladstone, “since he has had dealings with Mr. Whitney in the past. Ted is a complete idiot and an asshole to boot. I am sure that Mr. Primera is smart enough to have recognized that long ago.”
Benedetto looked sideways at Gladstone. “It is not good that you should talk of your boss with such lack of respect,” said Benedetto.
“Ted is not my boss,” said Gladstone. Seeing Benedetto’s reaction, he felt the need to explain further. “Mr. Primera protects himself by working through smart men like you, but to all the world he is still the boss. In my organization, we do things a bit differently. I protect myself by hiding the fact that I am the boss, and working through idiots like Ted.”
Benedetto stared at him for a few seconds. Gladstone knew that Benedetto had served as a corporal in Korea, and given this military training would never quite understand anything but a very straight-forward chain of command. Soon, though, he shrugged in a very Italian way, and got to business.
“Mr. Whitney seems to think we can help each other.”
Gladstone had planned for this conversation for quite a while. The last thing he needed was an open-ended obligation to Carlo Primera, an obligation he would most certainly incur if he asked for a favor without any quid pro quo. So, he began by observing, “Your organization has an associate on trial next month here in New York.”
Gladstone wasn’t sure from Benedetto’s poker face if this opening was what he expected or not. After a moment’s thought, Benedetto replied “You mean Theo Mancuso? So unfair. I can’t understand how the DA could send that nice boy to trial for murder.”
Hmm, Gladstone thought to himself, I don’t suppose it would have anything to do with the fact that something like 16 people, including two off-duty police officers, witnessed Mancuso walk into a small restaurant in the Bronx and put three slugs right into the face of a local Columbian businessman. But he wisely kept this observation to himself, and what Gladstone actually said was, “Yes, it’s terrible. You know, it’s really not going to help come jury selection seeing articles like that one in the Post the other day – what did it say? ‘MAFIA HITMAN FACES JUST REWARD.’”
“Damn those guys at the Post,” Benedetto said with his first display of emotion, “they seem to always have it out for Italian Americans. I’m tempted to take it up again with the Anti-Defamation League, but it’s probably a waste of time.”
“I too am appalled to see such irresponsibility in the media,” Gladstone said with as much sincerity as he could muster. “We in the M Group have labored for years to uphold quality journalistic standards. There are always those who want to play in the sewer, though.”
“Maybe there’s some way you could bring a little balance to the coverage,” observed Benedetto slyly. He had quickly guessed Gladstone’s intentions. “Mr. Primera has always had a special fondness for Theo, and would greatly appreciate any help you could give him.”
“Absolutely. Consider it done. I think we can arrange for more, ah, sympathetic coverage, particularly right around jury selection time.” Gladstone didn’t think there was a hope in hell of Theo getting off, even if he was given the Nobel Peace Prize two days before the trial started. However, Gladstone suspected that Primera & Co. were planning to “persuade” a few jury members over to Theo’s side. In this case, television and newspaper stories sympathetic to Theo would give those jurors some cover when the highly unpopular hung jury was announced.
Gladstone took a breath, and then proceeded. “However, Theo’s troubles do leave Ted and I in a bit of a bind. I hate to trouble you,…”
“Please. What can I do for you?”
“We’ve got a little business problem out in California we need a special consultant to help us take care of. Last time we needed similar help, we used Theo. But of course, Theo is kind of busy right now with this court case. We were hoping you might know someone else with, uh, similar skills who could help us.”
Three years ago, one of M Group’s California music divisions came under investigation from the state attorney general and the SEC. The SEC suspected that the company was using phony transfer pricing to a series of shadowy overseas affiliates for the sole purpose of hiding operating losses. Which, Gladstone remembered with a smile, we certainly were. Gladstone had followed with interest the sad parade of Enron managers going to jail for doing something similar. Pussies. We figured out how to shift money and assets between multiple joint ventures when those guys were still falling asleep in the back of their business school classes.
Once he’d been tipped to the investigation, Gladstone soon learned that the government’s key witness was the wife of some dumbshit assistant treasurer. To understand why this twit had gotten his wife involved, you had to understand a little about how one can make magic with joint ventures. The accounting method for joint ventures is primarily determined by the percentage ownership one has in the venture. If a company controls 51% or more of a joint venture, the law requires that the joint venture’s books be consolidated with the owning company’s – in short, all the venture’s assets (and debts) and profits (or losses) would be included in the parent company’s statements. The magic happened when the corporation’s ownership dropped below 50%. Then, the venture is treated like an entirely unrelated company. All the assets, liabilities, and even sometimes the profits and losses of the JV disappear off the books of the parent.
The trick then was twofold: 1) set up a joint venture with the company owning 49% and 2) find someone related to the company, a stooge that the company trusted, to own the other 51%. Then, the company can retain control, through the stooge, but the venture can become a dumping ground for all the crap the company doesn’t want its shareholders to see. Got a money-losing division that is pulling down earnings? Voila! Dump it into a minority JV, and earnings are up. And if you are really good, sell it to the JV at a profit, so the company not only gets rid of the losses but realizes a big one-time capital gain on the sale – and all the while, the company still gets to control the venture and operate it as normal.
Over time, the deals became increasingly more complicated. Often Gladstone was structuring multi-party deals to manage reported income as well as to provide tax shelter benefits. As the complexity increased, many traditional investment bankers began to shy away from the deals, fearful of incurring the regulators’ wrath. This in fact was how Gladstone first met and became involved with Carlo Primera: As transactions became more complicated, Primera was a critical resource in making them work, and, more importantly, keeping the details private.
Of course, there is one small stumbling block – how do you find someone to take 51% control of the joint venture that can be trusted to do the company’s bidding? Years ago, various corporate managers would act as the JV partners, but over time the courts have struck these ownership structures down as shams. Today, one of the best approaches is to use corporate wives.
In this particular case, M Group’s pencil dick assistant treasurer did what was entirely normal practice: He put several of their key earnings-management JV’s in his wife’s name as majority owner and general partner. So far, so good, but it was here that the idiot made his critical mistake: Instead of the tried and true practice of sliding papers in front of his wife when she was already rushed and saying “here, sign these”, he actually was stupid enough to explain to his wife what was going on.
Gladstone thought about that a bit. He had been married for over twenty years, but he understood divorce statistics. He may have promised to love, honor, and cherish when he slipped the diamond ring on her finger, but while diamonds may be forever, marriages most certainly were not. And, nothing was going to get him to tell his wife anything that might be interesting to a grand jury. Divorces were expensive enough.
Well, the asshole treasurer did not have such foresight, and after a series of arguments with his wife over the allocation of household chores, he soon had his wife whispering in the DA’s ear. And the IRS’s ear. And the SEC’s. And her divorce lawyer’s.
So along came Theo, whose uncle Carlo not only owed Gladstone a favor at the time, but also had some financial interests in several of the JV’s nominally controlled by Mrs. Pencil Dick. After a brief visit to LA by Theo, she soon saw the light and was so crushed with shame she committed suicide by hanging herself in her closet with a beautiful dragon-patterned Hermes scarf.
Incredibly, Pencil Dick himself does not realize just how lucky he was, considering that he was still breathing, shed of a messy divorce, and had escaped of a lot of legal troubles. The bozo actually threatened to raise a little hell by calling for a more careful investigation of his wife’s suicide! What an idiot.
It was a sticky situation, since a second death would be tremendously suspicious. Theo solved the problem brilliantly. He arranged for a series of out of work actresses to earn a little extra money by, to put it bluntly, banging our accountant senseless. Soon even this micro-weight was able to put two and two together and determine that maybe he was better off with his wife dead. As a sidebar, the dumbshit still can’t figure out why he doesn’t seem to get laid like he did for that one six week period.
“Well, Theo is uniquely good at what he does, but I am sure we have someone in our organization who can help,” Benedetto said. “I seem to remember two men in our Bayonne office who have made some sort of reputation for themselves. Real up and comers. Let me check, and I will have them get in touch with you.”
“If they’re the right guys, have them meet me here, same time, two days from now.”
And with that, Benedetto nodded, and walked away.
BMOC, Chapters 3 and 4
In what is becoming a Thursday night tradition, I am posting the next two chapters, numbers three and four, of my book BMOC. The first two chapters were posted here. The next chapters after these are here. Before we start, here are some of the "reviews":
“Who is this guy? You’re not allowed to portray lawyers in novels as anything but dedicated warriors for the common good. In the words we teach all of our clients when they are suing for millions over spilled coffee, ‘it is not about the money.’ We hate this book, and if you read it, we will sue you.”
– America’s tort lawyers
“This Meyer person obviously never read the instruction manual for writing novels. Journalists are supposed to be brave and honest, while corporations are supposed to be evil and rapacious, not the other way around.”
– Other modern novel writers
“It’s not that bad here.”
– The Harvard University administration
“I was kind of proud that Warren wrote a novel, but then I read it and saw the dirty stuff and all the bad words. Now I am really embarrassed.”
– Warren’s mother
“We are shocked that anyone would imply that our legislative efforts are aimed more at helping favored political supporters than championing the common man.”
“This is what he was doing at the office instead of driving the kids to soccer? Writing a novel? I thought he was doing work!”
– Warren’s wife
“Warren was never my student. I swear. Don’t even think about blaming this on me.”
– Warren’s high school English teacher
And now, chapters three and four:
It was one of those rare, perfect weather days in New York City – sunny and 70 degrees. A few weeks from now, it would be slit-your-throat weather, so hot and humid that the grime from the surrounding buildings would seem to leech into your pores. On a beautiful day like this, everyone was in a better mood, and New Yorkers could almost creep up the attitude scale to “human”. Now, it wasn’t like they would smile at you and wish you a good day, but it did mean that if you keeled over unconscious in the middle of the sidewalk, someone might check on you rather than just stepping over your body on their way to lunch.
Gladstone reflected that given so perfect a day, only a meeting with Ted the twit could ruin his good humor, and of course, that was where he was headed now, walking up Fifth Avenue towards the InterMedia building. As he approached the lobby, he reflected for the hundredth time just how awful that building was. Rumor had it that Ted’s first wife had taken a personal hand in the building’s decoration, and Gladstone knew that to be true. The lobby, and in fact all the public areas of the building, were built in true 1980’s style, with every knob and fixture that would sit still covered in gold plating. It reminded Gladstone of a bad Atlantic City casino, reproducing the polyester-clad tourist’s vision of opulence. If you surveyed the residents of any number of Appalachian trailer parks, this lobby would represent their consensus ideal of luxury.
The whole effect was made worse when Ted saw the cost estimate for all the gold plating, and, needing to cut costs but unwilling to deny his wife anything at the time (especially given the then-recent unfortunate misunderstanding he and his wife had over the frequent visits of Sonya, his VP of sales for the Swedish market), Ted had the builders put the gold plating on with the absolute minimum thickness. It was probably, Gladstone reflected, quite a technological achievement to limit the plating to what appeared to be just a few molecules thickness. Unfortunately, twenty years later, much of this thin gold plating had rubbed off, giving the building a leprous look.
Gladstone sailed past the main elevator banks, heading for a special elevator in the rear, guarded by a single security guard at a small desk. Gladstone sighed to himself. Ted could be such a putz, and no more so than with his security fetish. For years, Gladstone had advised all of his friends that the first key to security was maintaining a low profile. Come the revolution, the guys with the torches and the pitchforks can’t show up at your front gate if they don’t even know you exist. In all the world, there probably weren’t two hundred people who knew the kind of power Gladstone wielded, both in and outside the media industry.
On the other hand, there were probably not two hundred people in the world, or at least in this country, who had not seen Ted on television numerous times, often beside his much younger second wife who was famous for the priceless diamonds that usually hung down between her nearly-as-expensive breasts. So, rather than relying on anonymity, and knowing that he would be one of the first ones up against the wall when civilization crashed, Ted relied on the Maxwell Smart school of security – complicated systems with lots of sliding doors and cameras and locks.
After a tedious ten minutes of navigating identification checks, code-key doors, thumb print analyzers, and receptionists behind clear bulletproof glass partitions, Gladstone finally entered Ted’s office. He nodded at Ted’s secretary, Elaine, but made no attempt to engage her in conversation. Elaine was quite a piece of work, perhaps the surliest and most ill-humored person Gladstone had ever met, which was saying quite a bit given the people he worked with. Ted must have scoured every drivers license office in the country to find an employee so misanthropic and unhelpful.
And, upon entering, Gladstone marveled at how thoroughly predictable the room was. All offices, of course, reflect their owner. Gladstone’s office was his private abode, with few concessions to visitors. The only item in the whole room that might even hint of his achievements was, in the corner of the office and in a position of some prominence, an impressive silver trophy labeled the “William Hastings Cup”. For over thirty years, that cup had been in his office, and in fact had been listed on his resume and later his official biography. Never once had anyone asked him what it was for, though a few of his (infrequent) visitors had paused and looked at the award on his shelf with admiration. The cup had become his secret joke on the world, for he had won it in college for being able to drink a pint of beer faster than any other contestant.
While Gladstone’s office was efficient and full of inside humor, Ted’s was a stage, a set piece designed to impress, aimed not at his own comfort but at the opinion of the outside world. Ted had all the three classic elements of such an office: Expensive furniture (to prove that he was rich), Leroy Neiman sports prints (to prove that he could be a sophisticated art lover, but in a manly rather than faggy way), and, of course, pictures of himself with the famous and powerful, to prove that he was, well, famous and powerful too.
Gladstone noticed a couple of additions since his last visit, including a picture of Ted, his second wife Sandra, and two kids. Gladstone stared at the picture carefully, to try to detect signs that the picture had been digitally altered, for it clearly was a forgery. For evidence, he could point first to the fact that “mom” looked to be older than the kids, which Gladstone knew that she was not, and second to the fact that they were all smiling, which Gladstone was pretty sure they never did in each other’s presence.
On the “celebrity” wall, he also noticed a new section devoted to Sandra, who insisted that her domestic staff call her Lady Sandra, but who was often called “Cupcake” behind her back, mostly by the wives of Ted’s friends and business associates. Gladstone knew that “Lady Sandra” was actually born Dorothy Anne in some Midwest town where the local grain elevator was bigger than the high school. Even more priceless, Gladstone also had found out recently that Lady Sandra had once been known as “Tiffany” in her previous career as a dancer, and, ahem, actress. Gladstone, in fact, had a couple of Cupcake’s best movies tucked away for Ted’s son’s upcoming bachelor party. When it came time for the groom to dance with his mother at the reception, Gladstone wondered if the country club could be convinced to install a pole for that purpose.
Most of the pictures on the wall showed Cupcake in cap and gown against various ivy-covered backgrounds. Gladstone knew this to be a result of Ted’s recent campaign to get his wife presented with various honorary degrees in return for handsome donations of his shareholder’s money to the school in question. Looking closely, Gladstone was pleased to see that Lady Sandra had obviously had her academic gowns tailored to show off her impressive cleavage in a very fetching manner. She appeared to be a particular hit at the West Point ceremony.
“Ms. Whitney is getting an honorary degree from the Nebraska Institute of Technology next week,” Ted announced walking into the office, and seeing Gladstone looking at the pictures. “Sorry I’m late, but I was taking a shit.”
Gladstone rolled his eyes before turning and facing Ted. Always Mr. Sophisticated, he thought to himself. For some reason Ted, and Gladstone admitted, many other men like him, felt it somehow better established their masculinity to revert to 10th grade locker room talk.
“She’s getting a degree in lactation science, I assume,” Gladstone offered sarcastically.
“What? Oh no, none of that engineering stuff,” the joke obviously going over Ted's head completely. “In art, for her work in cinema and television.” Gladstone knew that most of Cupcake’s best-known work was in a reality TV show called “Seven Deadly Sins”. In that particular show, eight priests were brought together, tempted each week by one of the seven deadly sins. The viewing audience got to vote each week as to which priest succumbed the most and got kicked off the show. Cupcake was featured prominently in several of the weekly contests, including her now famous take-down of Father Stanly Vincenzo (who had up to that point been considered the shoe-in favorite to emerge victorious) in the “lust” episode.
“Say, Ted, it’s a beautiful day, perhaps one of the last for some time. Let’s go outside. We can take a walk through the park and talk along the way.”
“What? Outside? Like I need to be assaulted by homeless bums and winos. We’ve got everything here – what do we need to go outside for?”
“Well, I think we could have a much more private conversation out in the park,” Gladstone persisted.
“What are you talking about – it’s just the two of us here, and we’d be surrounded by people out there.”
“I’d feel more secure outside.”
“Secure!” Ted said laughing. “Didn’t you notice all the security coming in here? We’re a thousand times more secure in this office than out in the park where any crack fiend can clout us over the head for his next fix.”
Gladstone gritted his teeth and tried to find a way to get his point across to this blockhead. He remembered a story from the 1980’s, when the U.S. was building a new state-of-the-art embassy facility in Moscow. The State Department spared no expense on security in its construction, spending some ridiculous millions of dollars on the facility. Just before it was to open, U.S. officials discovered that the building was riddled with bugs and listening devices planted, presumably, by the Russian construction crews they used for the job. Eventually, the US found that there were so many bugs in the building that it would be impossible to be sure they got them all, and the building had to be abandoned, never used for its intended purpose.
From the hapless State Department’s experience in Moscow, Gladstone took away the lesson that one was never really safe talking indoors. Gladstone sighed, and gave up on teaching Ted about information security and resolved to assume the worst, and to speak in code and double talk that might confuse any listeners, or at least that his lawyer could use to confuse some future jury.
“Have you spoken to our friend about the job in California?” Gladstone asked carefully.
“Pardon?” Ted didn’t get it.
“I said, did you talk to your, uh, New Jersey office about getting a couple of people transferred for that special assignment in LA?”
“What? Oh, you mean did I talk to Carlo Primera, the Mafia guy. Yeah, I had him up here yesterday for lunch.”
Gladstone resisted the temptation to bang his forehead on the coffee table in front of him. So much for cloak and dagger. Please God, he wailed to himself, where was that piranha button?
“You discussed our problem with him? Here? In this office?”
“Sure, yesterday. I don’t think it went very well, though. He didn’t seem to understand what I was asking. I told him very plainly that I needed two guys to help us out in LA by faking…”
“STOP. Please. Don’t. Describe. The. Job. To. Me.” Gladstone said through clenched teeth, like he was talking to a five-year-old and didn’t want to lose it completely. Peripherally he thought he must look like Martha Stewart – the words were coming out but there was no movement from his jaw.
“What?” cried Ted plaintively. “Gad, you sure are being strange today. You sound just like Primera did yesterday. Is everybody nuts? Well, I don’t need to tell you about it, I can show you – I have a tape of it right here.”
“WHAT?!” OK, now he was really through the looking glass. The guy taped a discussion like that? No one in their generation could be that stupid. Had the guy never heard of Richard Nixon? And not just any conversation, but one with a senior Mafia boss! Shit, does he realize how close he probably came to getting a bullet in his brain yesterday, had Primera discovered the eavesdropping?
“Uh, you recorded your conversation yesterday with Primera?”
“Nah…” and for a second, Gladstone felt relieved. “I videotaped it. I’ve got a hidden camera in that funny looking paperweight up on the shelf behind me there. Elaine runs the VCR in a cabinet under her desk.”
Great, not only was she ill-mannered and grumpy but she was also channeling Rosemary Woods.
Ted turned to his left and pressed a remote control. Gladstone bet himself a million dollars that the display would rise magically out of the desk, like something from a bad spy movie. The screen appeared – OK, he lost his bet, the screen actually appeared on the wall when one of the Leroy Neiman prints slid out of the way, like something from a bad spy movie.
The video snapped on, and Gladstone found himself looking over the Ted’s shoulder, watching Carlo Antonio Primera, aka “the Wall Street Don”, across Ted’s desk. Primera was wearing a beautiful gray Thomas Mahon suit, and could easily have been mistaken for a vice-president or director at an investment bank. Primera got his nickname not just from his clothing, but from his affinity for financial scams, and to be fair, more recently for legitimate financial businesses.
Primera first made a name for himself running a derivatives portfolio financed by the pension funds of several unions his father controlled. It had become increasingly popular on Wall Street to break up contracts and financial instruments into pieces, and to sell those pieces off to different buyers. Take the simple example of a stock with a high safe dividend but a volatile price. A stock like that might be hard to sell, since a risk-adverse investor (think: widows and orphans) would like the nice, predictable flow of dividend checks but might be turned off by the risk inherent in the volatile price. Conversely, other investors who look to make high returns by taking on risk might like the underlying stock, but have no interest in paying for the value of the dividends. So, Wall Street had found a way to sell the widow the right to the dividend stream alone, and sell the underlying stock without the dividends to someone else. These hybrid investment tools were often called “derivatives.”
As Wall Street got better at this, the deals got more and more complex, and major contracts might be broken down into many risks that would be parceled out to different parties. Unfortunately, there was sometimes a piece that no one wanted, because the risk was too great, or more likely, the risk was too hard to evaluate. That is where Primera came in. Primera made his reputation buying up many of these otherwise untouchable risks. Because these were the pieces that no one wanted, Primera could buy them cheap and make a fortune if the risk could be managed. And Primera and his father were very good at making sure things came out their way.
Consider one example from early in his career: A bank was making a large loan on a major office building construction project. What were the risks it would face? While there were many, many risks, four mattered the most: One, interest rates might rise, and the bank would find itself with a long term loan at rate that was too low; two, the project might overrun its construction costs or time; three, the project might be blocked altogether, typically by regulatory or zoning snafus; or four, the building might not be profitable, usually because it did not have high enough occupancy. Banks are used to risk one, and are comfortable they can manage it. Risk two was well understood and could be covered by a construction bonding agency. Primera took on risks three and four. If a good “family man” like Primera couldn’t pack a zoning board or lean on a few businesses to lease up a building, who could?
So here was Primera, probably one of the smartest men on Wall Street, and certainly one of the smartest men in New Jersey, on the TV screen sitting across from Bozo the Clown. On the tape, Primera was engaging in small talk, circling around the topic, looking for an indirect way of getting to a deal without saying so in so many words. Gladstone could tell that Ted was just itching to jump in and blurt out what he wanted. And so his chance came.
“Carlo, we need some help.”
“Anything, my friend.”
“You remember a couple of years ago when one of your guys made that woman…”
“STOP. What the hell are you talking about? Why are you asking me stuff like that? I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Come on Carlo, how can you forget, that woman who was…”
“No more, Mr. Whitney. I have no desire to talk to you about these things. I do not know what you are talking about.” Carlo was red-faced with barely controlled anger. Gladstone could sympathize, and not only because he’d had to deal with Ted’s naïve idiocies himself.
A couple of years ago Gladstone had spotted a business acquaintance named Jerry in the park and had sat down with him and his seven-year-old daughter for a few minutes and chatted. While they talked, they watched Jerry’s wife and second daughter playing on the swings. Gladstone had known this guy for years, and in fact had dated Jerry’s wife back before she married him. As they chatted, Gladstone kidded Jerry with one of their running jokes, about how good his wife was at oral sex. They chatted about this and that and Gladstone was just getting up from the bench when Jerry’s wife returned.
After a few hellos, Jerry’s daughter Abby, who had obviously been listening to them, asked, “Mommy, why did you give your head to daddy’s friend?” For one of the few times in his life, Gladstone was mortified, and, glancing at Jerry, could tell that Jerry was panicked as well. Some women would have laughed and smiled at this, secretly happy at the implied compliment but feeling like they had to, at least publicly, act upset. Not Claire though – Claire would not think this a bit funny, either publicly or privately.
By some miracle, Claire didn’t get it. However, it was clear that Abby was not going to give it up, and would ask again, in a clearer way. Jerry and Gladstone both shushed Abby, and tried their best to change the subject. Carlo Primera, the famous Wall Street Don, looked exactly like Jerry did, trying to silence the naïve child.
Primera finally had enough. He stood up, and said “I must go,” and walked out of the room after a perfunctory handshake with Ted. “If you need anything from me, tell Gladstone to be at our usual spot at one in the afternoon a week from today.”
Ted reached over and pressed a button, and the video screen went dark and the Neiman print began to slide back into place. “I don’t get it,” whined Ted, “everything was fine, and then he went crazy on me. Fucking Italians, they’re all crazy. You can dress them up but they are all stupid peasants at heart.”
Gladstone sat for a moment, silently, and considered whether he should try to explain to Ted what he had done to set Carlo off. He eventually discarded the idea – it would just be another total waste of time. He had tried to have the security discussion with Ted at least 20 times in the past, but, unfortunately, despite all of the locks and thumb print scanners and whatever, Ted remained naïve to threats that did not involve physical harm.
Right now, all Gladstone wanted to do was get out. “Look, I’ll go see Carlo next week. I’m sure we can work something out.”
Michael Fang watched the ugliest girl he had ever seen enter the tiny waiting area, nod to the Senator’s assistant, and, after a light knock, not waiting for an answer, walk into the Senator’s office. She was probably twenty or twenty-one, and she wore a very plain, overly conservative suit that nearly every female intern briefly wore in this town as they experimented with exactly how to strike the right balance between individualism and professionalism. That in turn marked her as a first year intern, working in the Senator’s office while on leave from some college or another.
Several years ago the Senator’s wife had an epiphany. As she watched Congressmen, Senators and even a President brought low by sexual scandals involving young female interns, she realized that there was very little standing between herself and total public humiliation. She knew that her husband was attractive, powerful, and completely free of any nagging ethics. Mixing these traits, which were shared by nearly every man in Congress, with young female interns was like smoking in a room that’s been hosed down with gasoline. She was less surprised that there had been a few brush fires in the media than that the whole place hadn’t burned down entirely.
However, the Senator had one other trait that, if possible, made the whole mix even more combustible: The Senator was a total klutz at cloak and dagger, so much so that he made Detective Clouseau look like a hero from a Tom Clancy novel. Worse yet, he thought he was in fact clever and Machiavellian. The Senator was like many doctors Fang knew, totally arrogant and assured of themselves, convinced they were great at everything, who then poured their money into one ridiculously bad investment after another. Whereas the Senator thought himself to be supremely devious, he was in fact completely transparent, much like a child trying to hide by standing behind a table leg.
Now, the Senator’s wife really couldn’t care less that the Senator was fucking a bunch of young girls. Given the Senator’s absolute inability to keep anything well hidden, she had been forced to face up to his infidelity for twenty years, and at this point in her life honestly could not work up any real emotion about it. At least, she thought, it wasn't young boys.
However, after the latest series of very public revelations concerning other prominent politicians, she now found she did have emotions relative to the Senator’s sex life: Fear and revulsion. Fear, that she would become a laughing stock among her women friends, publicly humiliated by the turd she’d married; and revulsion, that she would be forced to publicly play her part in the set-piece that was now becoming the de rigueur response to such allegations: The family, appearing together on TV, with the loving wife standing by her man and accepting his apology. The very thought gave her hives.
So, rather than just sitting back and praying that disaster would not strike (roughly the same chance, she estimated, of laying down in Times Square and not getting run over), she took drastic action. For the last three years, she had taken over the hiring of interns for the Senator. Unfortunately, in these politically correct days, the Senator could not just stop hiring women. So, she interviewed every female candidate face-to-face, ruthlessly purging any aspirant who showed the least sign of sex appeal, or even being provably female short of a DNA test. The result was a collection of women that would have done the old East German women’s shot-put team proud.
Michael Fang laughed to himself, just as he did when the Senator’s wife had first poured out this story (he was one of the few privileged insiders to the family business) after a few too many Chardonnays at a party for some disease. What she did not know, and Michael did not have the heart to tell her, was that her plans were defeated by the simple fact that there was nothing with two X chromosomes that the Senator would not fuck. For the Senator, like for many men in power, sex was not about sex, but about validation. He gave little notice to the intern’s droopy body or not-so-subtle mustache, but to the look of adoration and submission in the eyes. In fact, in some ways the unfortunately provisioned women his wife selected were even more intoxicating to him, because they brought him not just adoration but gratitude, gratitude that someone so attractive and with a blood alcohol level less than point two zero would pay attention to them.
Fang thought about all of this as he sat with growing anger and resentment in the Senator’s waiting room. The Senator was already ten minutes late for their meeting, and, from past experience, he knew that the wait could easily stretch to half an hour. Michael had known the Senator for almost thirty years, but the great and Honorable Senator Buchanan still made Fang wait in the lobby. It was the same stupid chicken-shit power game played all over Washington.
Michael had known the Senator since their first day at Princeton, assigned at random to the same four-person dormitory room. Fang, Buchanan, and media mogul Robert Gladstone lived together all four years of college. Their fourth roommate was different each year by necessity, each getting thrown out of school for a more spectacularly bizarre reason than the last.
For years, Fang, Gladstone and the Senator had shared a symbiotic relationship that helped to propel each one to the pinnacles of their professions. Together, the three of them had become the Tinkers to Evers to Chance of the litigation world.
While the process varied some and was refined over the years, their basic roles had not changed. Fang usually got the play started, when his firm identified a new issue that was ripe for litigation. When Fang first started, these litigation opportunities were usually cases where people were getting injured or killed. The quest would begin with a victim wronged.
Despite the fact that this strategy proved quite lucrative, Fang had identified a certain inefficiency with this approach. For you see, true victims often had the unfortunate habit of getting hurt by companies or people without very much money. This lack of vision on the part of the victims made litigation a sometimes iffy business – you could spend a lot of time and money and win the case, only to find you hadn’t really earned much for the effort. His friends in the litigation bar often discussed this lamentable situation, but no one could really figure out a solution. And, since it only takes a few cases against truly rich defendants to keep up the payment on the wife’s Mercedes and the mistress’s apartment, no one really worked that hard on the problem.
But Michael did. One day, lying in his bathtub (where he often did his best thinking) Michael had one of those great insights that can change the world. In the years since, he’d often wondered with wry amusement whether Bill Gates had a similar moment in his own tub, perhaps shouting to his rubber duck, “Dang, let’s forget the hardware and try software!”
Michael’s insight was simplicity itself: Instead of starting with victims, and then tracking down who did them wrong, often to find out their bank accounts were unexciting, why not just start with a target, a rich target, and then go find some victims? That insight had made Michael one of the most powerful and wealthy attorneys in the nation – and by extension, the world, since the good old USA had become to lawyers what Switzerland was to cheese makers.
Of course, there had been refinements over time. He’d learned that it was a lot easier to take on an unsympathetic and unpopular target. Fortunately, there were plenty of those – tobacco makers, drug companies, oil companies, gun makers – they all made excellent targets because it was so easy to turn a jury against them, or, even better, turn the press loose on them and force a nice fat settlement.
And this is where is his ex-roommates Gladstone and Buchanan came in. Once Fang had a target, it was critical to turn public sentiment against it. As he refined his approach, he would bring in Gladstone, to push the case in the media, and Buchanan, to use his bully pulpit in Congress to rail against the target and to propose all sorts of government interventions to stop whatever kind of bad behavior the target was accused of. Of course, all of his partners benefited as well: Gladstone scored headline-grabbing issues for his papers and Buchanan gained a patina of common-man populism, while Fang made incredible amounts of money.
Fang had also learned that there were certain states and individual courthouses in the country where he was far, far more likely to get a sympathetic jury and a headlines-grabbing verdict. This is not too surprising – if you wanted to find great high school football players, you don’t go to Vermont; you go to Texas or Oklahoma. Well, if you wanted an eye-popping damage award in a case no one thought had any merit, you don’t go to some well-educated enclave of Boston or Seattle, you go to JEB Stuart County, Mississippi. Yes, that JEB Stuart County, the one with 6,400 residents (nearly 40% of whom had a high school education), one courthouse, one judge, and one Piggly-Wiggly. That is why Michael Fang, who was one of Washington DC’s most elite inside-the-Beltway power-lawyers, had a partner named Earl (for God sakes) Nugent in JEB Stuart County, Mississippi.
A lot of people laughed in the Washington social set about “Michael Fang, Attorney at Law” becoming “Fang & Nugent”. Fang endured a lot of cocktail party jokes, both in front of and behind his back about “Mike and Earl’s Law House” or “Bubba & Co.” Everyone promptly ceased laughing, though, after the Immudine case, when Fang & Nugent secured, in the beautiful but frankly long-ignored JEB Stuart County Courthouse, the first ever billion dollar class action verdict, not to mention over $400 million in contingency fees for the firm. With Immudine, Fang had perfected his trade, and the case was to set the pattern for most all of the firm’s future litigation, not to mention the litigation at many other firms (which goes to explain why there was a small firm in Washington DC that made a very nice living preparing local lawyers for the Mississippi state bar exam).
“Michael, how good to see you, come on in,” beamed Senator Buchanan, striding in to greet Michael.
“Thanks for seeing me, Senator.” Yes, unbelievably, the man he had roomed with for four years at college, who had been his friend and sometimes business associate for over thirty years, who had once thrown up on his shoes, insisted that Mike call him “Senator.” Shithead.
“Mike, did you see my press conference laying into the credit card companies the other day? I was brilliant,” he said, once again ignoring Fang’s repeated entreaties not to call him “Mike.” Not waiting for an answer, the Senator continued, “it looks like a good issue to keep riding into November.”
“Glad to hear it, Senator.” Which, in fact, he was. His class action suit against the credit card companies would be coming before a jury right around October, and a frenzy of negative publicity could only help. Which is why Fang had fed the Senator all his press conference materials in the first place.
“Actually, the reason I wanted to see you is that we’ve got something new we’d like your help on.”
“Oh, really,” the Senator chuckled. “My, aren’t we busy? I thought you were already suing most of the Fortune 500. Who’s left?”
“Never heard of it. Chemical company?”
“No, it’s actually a startup, run out of Los Angeles.”
“A startup? Michael, that’s so unlike you. Where’s the money in that? I can’t believe there is enough on a startup’s books to pay the fuel bill for your Gulfstream V to go out and meet the plaintiffs.”
“Well, that may be true, but it’s run by Preston Marsh.”
“Ah, things start to become clearer. Our old friend Preston Marsh. Haven’t you already taken enough money from that poor boy? Why are you still after his hide? And come to think of it, how are you going to get money from him anyway? Surely he’s smart enough to put up a tight corporate wall to protect his own assets, especially after you took your last clip at him.”
“I’ve got nothing against Preston Marsh,” a statement that nobody in the Western Hemisphere believed, much less the two men in this room. “This one is sort of a freebie, a bit of pro bono work for our old friend Gladstone. You see, Gladstone is concerned…”
“Whoa, Mike. I don’t really care. You and Robert both know that I’ll help, like I always have. Besides, it doesn’t have to make you money to still help me. Now, tell me, what does this ‘BMOC’ do?”
BMOC, Chapters 1 and 2
As a way to celebrate the holidays and perhaps compensate for a more relaxed pace of blogging for a while, I am beginning a serialization of my new novel BMOC. If there is interest, I will keep it going for a while. So, lets get started. Enjoy! (You didn't really feel like doing any real work today, did you?). By the way, for you prospective business school students, though it may seem un-serious, embodies my best advice for you. Chapters 3 and 4 continue here.
Robert Gladstone, multi-millionaire CEO of the M Group, looked around the room at his fellow conspirators and longed for the piranha button.
Of course, reflected Gladstone, these privileged and successful men would never call themselves something so dark as “conspirators” in public, and most of them would refuse to use that term even in private.
In fact, few casual observers would first think “evil conspirators” just from looking at these men. When most people imagined a group of global conspirators, they might typically conjure up the SPECTRE conference room in a James Bond movie – gleaming stainless steel and black leather, edgy and exotic looking men in sharply tailored black outfits, all in some deep bunker accessible through a secret door in the back of a antique book store or buried deep underground on a deserted island.
No, this room definitely did not fit that image. This group, Gladstone lamented silently to himself, entirely lacked even the smallest hint of SPECTRE-ness. If a secret agent were somehow to break into the meeting, he would probably utter a quick “uh, sorry, wrong room” and beat a hasty retreat back to headquarters, where he would gleefully dream of ringing M’s neck for sending him to such an utterly preposterous location. Devious international conspirators, after all, did not look like balding middle-aged men; they did not wear sport shirts and slacks out of the 1969 Lily Pulitzer catalog; they did not meet in a Maui hotel room; and, as outlined in nearly every take-over-the-world manual, they most certainly did not play golf when they were finished meeting. For God’s sakes, the group had not even taken the elementary and most basic precaution of wiring the volcano just outside the window to blow up at the push of a big red button.
Gladstone longed for the slick sense of style and off-center cool that came with being a conspirator in SPECTRE. Well, not all of it. He never really liked the numbers instead of names – you know, that classic James-Bond-villain conversation like, “Number 3?”
“Yes number 1?”
“Give us our report from number 11.”
Such dialog reminded Gladstone too much of those drinking games in college where one had to quickly recognize his number and then call the number of someone else in the circle. Gladstone was never very good at those games. Actually, truth be told, he was really, really terrible, effectively acting as the savior of every other player at his school, who could always, in the deepest inebriated depths of panic, incapable of facing the possibility of yet another dose of alcohol, call Gladstone’s number and be assured that someone else (i.e. Gladstone) was going to be imbibing.
If Gladstone could tolerate numbers at all, he would likely have majored in something at school that actually had some income-producing potential. Instead, he had done what every self-respecting numbers-hater did: He got a degree in English and pursued a career in journalism (journalism just edging out, at least in salary, the other two alternatives for English majors in the French fry production industry and the playing guitar in subways industry).
So, calling each other by names rather than numbers was a plus. Also, he supposed upon further reflection, it probably was good that his chair was not wired, at their leader’s whim, to dump him into a boiling pool of piranhas or to fry him with 20,000 volts of electricity.
Definitely a good thing, given their leader, Francis Theodore Whitney. Ted, as he was known to his friends (never, ever Frank) was the product of careful New York breeding. Both his mother and father were old money, with Vanderbilts and Astors sprinkled through the family tree. Like a pure-bred collie, Ted had a fabulous pedigree, and was both beautiful and dumb as a post. Over the years, Gladstone had tried to come up with just the right classification for Ted. Once, Gladstone had an infatuation with Meyer-Briggs psychological profiling, and had all 25,000 people in his organization tested and classified. He still had a huge color-coded organization chart in one of the conference rooms near his office showing everyone’s classification. Was Ted an I-N-T-J? Or maybe an E-N-T-P? At the end of the day, Gladstone eventually threw out all the fancy psychology terms and concluded, most satisfactorily, that Ted was simply a T-W-I-T.
While much of the conspiracy lacked any resemblance to movies or novels, there was one lesson that Gladstone had carefully taken away from all of those stories: Smart people do not put themselves at the top of illegal conspiracies. What one needed was a figurehead, a King Louis to your Richelieu, who took the public risks and provided a layer of protection when things went bad. And, the chief requirement for that position, the number one specification on the job posting, was that you needed a complete twit. Ted was nearly overqualified. And while Ted might be the perfect front-man, you certainly did not want his finger on the piranha-dumping button.
Right at the moment, Ted was doing the one and only thing he did well, which was to drone on and on and on. Gladstone had never regretted his decision to acquire a figurehead-twit, but there was much more to maintaining that figurehead than the evil conspiracy manuals ever hinted at. For example, one of the defining characteristics of good figureheads turns out to be that they have to constantly justify, to themselves and the world, that what they are doing is right and proper.
They can’t just say, as Gladstone could, “Gee, this price war is costing me a ton of money, let’s see if we can’t get together and fix some prices.” No, the Ted’s of the world had to convince himself and others that in fact we are all getting together to agree to improved working conditions or environmental standards, and that certain price adjustments were only necessary in this limited context, blah blah blah. That Ted was so consistently successful at justifying, at least to himself, nearly any type of action, no matter how outrageous, was what of course qualified him so completely as a twit.
The net result was that even in these small private meetings of the core seven conspirators, where everyone knew exactly what they were doing and why (and which had very little to do with buck-toothed salamander protection or carpal tunnel syndrome among Indian programmers), there still had to be so much of this talk.
Ted had now rambled on for about 25 minutes, and Gladstone had left impatience behind long ago. In fact, he had passed out of impatience, right through squirming, and into his AADD (Adult Attention Deficit Disorder) driven need-for-action phase. Right now, Gladstone’s favored action plan, plan A we shall call it, involved having the piranha button for himself. He had begun to long for the piranha button like a smoker about 24 hours into going cold turkey. Nothing at this moment could possibly be more satisfying than to see Ted’s chair flip backwards, dumping him into a seething, boiling mass of ill-tempered carnivorous fish. He pictured the shocked and fearful expressions of the other men in the room as Ted’s toupee floated to the surface, too unnatural even for the piranhas to consume, and looking exactly as it did now on Ted’s head, that is to say like a small drowned mammal. When Gladstone found himself jabbing at an imaginary spot on the arm of his faux-bamboo chair, he reluctantly realized that he had to abandon plan A, despite all of its attractions, for plan B.
“Look, we have a tee time in less than an hour and we have a decision to make,” he interrupted. In terms of grabbing the group’s attention, this interjection scored, on a scale of one to ten where one is a polite clearing of the throat, close to an eleven. Gladstone was not a fanatic golfer, but he understood the type, and he knew that the missed tee time threat was the equivalent of dropping the big one. Another defining quality of twits is that no matter how important the business, how critical the decision, how long they would normally masticate the issues to reach a considered verdict, they would rush it all up and slap a decision down if they had a tee time waiting.
Gladstone continued, now that he had their attention. “As Ted pointed out, BMOC needs to be stopped. It is exploiting textile workers in Asia, killing untold number of species, causing cancer, creating global warming, and, just as an entirely incidental and tangential aside, which I add as a bit of interesting but hardly relevant trivia, it is threatening to totally destroy the businesses we run and the lifestyles that those businesses support. Ted wants to know what you all are going to do about it.”
Of course, in actuality, Ted did not want to know any such thing. Ted really would have preferred to keep talking about “that other stuff,” a broad category into which just about anything vaguely resembling an action seemed to fall. On the other hand, Ted loved it when he sounded tough.
Eight thousand miles to the east, Susan Hunter was, coincidently, also longing for the piranha button. Susan sat in the back of her first year classroom at the Harvard Business School, in the exact same chair, in the exact same room, and with the exact same eighty-eight people as she had in every other class for the last year. Those eighty-eight people, who had all seemed so fresh and exciting and, yes, a bit intimidating last September, now, in May, after over a thousand hours cooped up in the same room listening to each other talk, now seemed as exotically romantic as Jed Clampett’s family and only slightly less irritating than having your weird cousins from Arkansas show up unannounced for Christmas dinner.
At the Harvard Business School, or “HBS”, the vast majority of those thousand hours spent in that same room with those same eighty-eight people was spent listening to other students talk. Because, you see, Harvard, as the leading educational institution in the country, would never do anything as obvious as provide knowledgeable lecturers or even textbooks about a given subject for your $60,000 tuition. Any of those other schools can be so ordinary as to pay experienced business people to actually teach what they know about business. No, at Harvard they have adopted the novel and now oft-copied approach of, in exchange for the highest tuitions in the land, having you spend most of your class time listening to other students, who likely know absolutely nothing more about the subject at hand than you do.
Harvard calls this the “case” method, because each class is structured around a business case starring a hapless, real-life company facing some “dramatic” decision. More often than not, these cases are written by professors who, in their after-class consulting gigs, have run into a business situation for which they have no answer. The professor’s job in class is to guide the discussion while looking sage and wise (every one of these guys has a hard-on for being John Houseman in “The Paper Chase”), in the process greedily hording any ideas that might help them with their consulting.
Susan would like to be able to say that the current class was about average, but sadly this day was a special kind of hell. Picked to start the day’s discussion was Julian Rogers, perhaps the most stultifyingly boring person ever produced by the British Isles. Now normally, like many American women, Susan found British accents to be pretty sexy. Listening to Julian, unfortunately, was more like being poked in the ribs repeatedly by your younger sister than being caressed by a sexy voice.
Julian has been “cold called”, or picked at random with no advanced notice to “open” the case, starting the class with a 10 minute (oops, now 15 minute…. Aaargh going on 20 minute) recitation of the issues in the case and his proposed solution. In the battle for the hearts and minds and attention of students, this bit of academic Russian roulette – choosing a random student to open the case – was the professor’s ultimate doomsday weapon.
To understand why this threat was necessary, one must understand that every class at HBS required a case to be read and analyzed in advance. This meant that every day of every week, each student must have read and be prepared to thoughtfully discuss three cases. And, unfortunately, by “cases” we are not talking about the “Case of the Purloined Letter” or anything half so interesting or one-tenth as well written. These cases were long, turgid, convoluted regurgitations of business situations that were probably not interesting to the people involved in the first place. And, most demoralizing, they kept coming. Relentlessly. Much like the human wave attacks in the Korean War that Susan’s dad had told her about.
Harvard students, while nothing like their reputation, were arguably more dedicated to academics than their peers in Austin or Tempe. And graduate business students, often with families and debts, could reasonably be assumed to be more dedicated still.
However, they were still students. And any student, whether in Cambridge or Columbus, when faced with this unending wave of cases, will, in the language of microeconomics, eventually assign greater value to the marginal case of beer over the marginal case for class, and decide to blow off the reading.
It was for this predictable decision that the professors had to maintain their nuclear umbrella, the ultimate deterrent threat of a cold call, combined with a grading system that assigned most of the student’s grade based on class participation and required that professors find at least nine people to fail in every class.
For most students, at least in the first year, this very clear threat of public humiliation and failure had approximately the same effect as the Soviet invasion of Hungary had on the rest of Eastern Europe: Everyone lived in fear.
When you went to high school, there were probably two or three people out of the hundreds in your graduating class that treated every life event as critical to their whole future. You know the ones – they sweated every SAT, exam, tryout, election, and ballgame as a test which, if failed, “will ruin my chances for getting into Princeton, which will kill my chance to get into Stanford Business School, which will end my ability to be Chairman of General Electric.”
But there were only a few of such folks, and you kind of pitied them their fear and envied them their ambition. Now, think of Harvard as a big sorting machine designed to collect these people from all over the country and put 89 of these rabid type-A neurotic worry-freaks together in one room. Add to the mix an academic incentive system based on Russian Roulette, and administered by professors who take a certain mad glee from drawing out the suspense each day and carefully picking the day’s victims, and the resulting fear and panic were palpable.
All of this was pretty funny now to Susan, since she had figured out how to game the system about ten days into the first semester. Which is fortunate, because Susan had a dangerous secret, one that could eventually threaten the success she has had at Harvard so far. She always had to be on guard around others to hide her secret, much like an alcoholic trying to disguise the fact that he was drinking at work.
For you see, since her parents' deaths, Susan had not been particularly driven. She was no longer very career-oriented. She, unlike most of her peers, had never been type A. And, she had become unbelievably lazy. Susan’s life goals were a little hazy, but they generally included a vision of retiring early and living off her investments. Right now, though, she didn’t have any investments. And, because she couldn’t sing, couldn’t act, and couldn’t hit a baseball, a life of idle leisure seemed to depend on having some type of successful business career first.
What Susan did have going for her was that she was incredibly bright, was able to fake ambition and motivation for the benefit of those around her, and, most importantly, she was able to quickly assess whatever system she was in and figure out how to excel in that system with the absolute minimum of work.
In her first two weeks at HBS, she had discovered the two rules for success that had so far catapulted her to the top of her class with a gratifyingly small amount of effort. To herself, she called these rules the “squeaky wheel” rule and the “Jerry Springer” rule.
The squeaky wheel rule actually meant the opposite: Unlike the squeaky wheel in the old saying, at HBS the silent wheel got the attention. More specifically, you were much more likely to get cold called (i.e. get the loaded chamber in the Russian roulette game) if you had not contributed much in class. So, in the first two weeks of every course, Susan raised her hand constantly and talked as much as possible. She got the reputation with each professor early-on for being aggressive and prepared. Once this reputation was established, she could safely blow off any number of cases with little fear of getting cold-called unprepared.
Whereas the squeaky wheel rule helped her reduce her work load and stress, the Jerry Springer rule ensured her success. While the professors may have thought of themselves as John Houseman presiding over law student discussions in a stately manner, she saw the class differently. To her, the professors and what they did looked more like Oprah or Sally Jesse Raphael, succeeding or failing at their jobs based on how lively a discussion they could evoke. And, as Jerry Springer has proven, the one who can be the most controversial gets the best ratings.
As a result, Susan watched the discussion each day from her elevated perch in the back row, swooping into the discussion on the side opposite to where the majority opinion was going. She strove to be as controversial and inflammatory as possible: She heatedly defended outsourcing to India when bashing this practice appeared hip; she advocated mass layoffs when worker team building was in vogue; she defended executive pay and stock options when it was clear that big CEO compensation packages were not politically correct. Sometimes she believed what she was saying, sometimes she did not, and often she couldn’t care less, but the professors always ate it up. She made them and their classes look better, edgier, more interesting. And they rewarded her for it with top grades in every course so far.
Today, however, was a bit of an exception to the squeaky wheel rule. Poor, boring, earnest Julian was always prepared, because he was always terrified, scared to death that one night slacking off might somehow destroy his future Career (always with a capital-C), and therefore future Life, much like the fear of catching AIDS from a one night stand. Julian participated (unfortunately) all too much in class, droning on in that irritating voice of his, advocating positions as spectacularly expected as Susan’s were non-conformist.
Julian, therefore, was not really a candidate to get cold-called to open the class discussion, particularly this late in the year. However, it was clear to everyone in the room, particularly the professor, that Julian longed to open a case. Every day Julian would look at the professor with this hopelessly wistful expression, only to be followed by a look of desolation when someone else was chosen.
So today, letting Julian open was in the same spirit as the homecoming queen giving a pity-fuck on the last day of high school to the geek who has been mooning and sighing over her for four years. And right at this moment, Julian had the same surprised and ecstatic look on his face that the geek would have.
But it was not just the sight of Julian creaming all over himself at his chance to open that had Susan longing for the piranha button. Some satanic twist of fate had Julian Rogers earnestly and painstakingly laying out a strategy and plan for the new product roll out of ... contact lenses for chickens. Contact fucking lenses for Christ-sake chickens. Right this very second he was outlining his sales pitch to chicken farmers, explaining how putting contacts in chicken’s eyes will somehow reduce the number of chickens that have to have their beak cut off. Did she hear that right? This had to be a joke – but no, everyone seemed to be taking it seriously, and certainly Julian was taking it deadly seriously.
God, if only someone with some wit had opened, it might have been a pretty funny day. But no, Julian had set the grimly professional tone, and while she might have been able to redirect the class, she just did not have the energy today. Instead she fabricated an interested and attentive look on her face and turned her thoughts to her interviews later that week.
Don't want to wait? You can buy BMOC at Amazon
Thanks Alot, Amazon
First, on the good side, I thought this linkage was fine on the product page for my novel BMOC:
But this one made me laugh out loud:
Fart pen? That's what I get for appealing to libertarians, I guess. The tie with Glenn Reynolds is cool though.
* Don't ask why $3.46. I don't know either.
Offer to Bloggers -- Review Copy of BMOC
This is an offer to other bloggers out there. I still have some marketing budget left, and would be happy to send out a few more free review copies of my book BMOC. Just email me at Coyote -at- CoyoteBlog -dot- com with your name and address and the web address of the blog you write for and I will send you a copy. I reserve the right to cut the list off if it gets too
expensive long. I would especially love to hear from bloggers who have supported this site from the early days.
All I ask is that you actually think you might read the thing if you ask for one. I don't require that you write about the book as a pre-condition. You will write about it or not just like you have linked this site -- if there is something worth talking about, I am sure you will do so. If not, well I'm a live-and-let-live libertarian, so that's cool too.
By the way, I am going to serialize the first several chapters on the blog in the coming days and weeks, so everyone can get a taste.
My New Novel BMOC Now at Amazon
Just in time for the Holidays! My new novel is called BMOC and its now available via Amazon.com. It's a lighthearted mystery that my test readers have found to be engaging and funny. Frequent readers of this site will not be surprised that I turn many stereotypes of modern fiction upside down. A corporate CEO who's actually a good person? You can't do that -- You'll get thrown out of the writers guild!
In one sentence, the novel features a quirky corporate CEO and his summer intern Susan Hunter, who must save their startup company named BMOC from the ravages of tort lawyers, a corrupt Senator, and an out-of-control media while solving the murder of an innocent young girl.
Sounds like a typical day of blogging here at Coyote Blog. Except for the dead girl part. I think folks who like this site will enjoy it.
The price at Amazon is not great -- I am still hoping they will put a discount on it. You can also buy a copy here cheaper, but the shipping options are much worse than Amazon's. For those of you who are cool with digital technology, you can download a pdf for a bit over three bucks. The best deal of all is that you can preview the first several chapters gratis here. Finally, I have set up a web site with more information about the book here. (Update: B&N has a bit better price if you are a member)
Distracted by My Novel
Blogging has been light, as I have been working on the publication of my new novel called "BMOC". We're a number of weeks from getting it through Ingram and onto Amazon, etc. but it is available today at my Lulu storefront. If you order the printed version from Lulu, be careful! The Lulu UPS shipping options are really overpriced. Only the regular US mail delivery is a very good deal. For those of you who have the version with the old purple cover, this is an updated version.
Once it gets some broader distribution, I'll be running a special event on this site. Details later.
A Final Note on "Don't Know Much About History"
In an earlier post, I observed that my audio CD of the bestselling book "Don't Know Much About History" struck me as extremely odd, focusing on only the lowest points in American history. I can report after finishing the CD that it stayed on this path to the end. After the Cuban Missile Crisis we had conspiracy theories of JFKs death, then the Mai Lai massacre, then Watergate, then Iran Contra, then Monica Lewinsky. Yes, the last 40 years were summed up in total as Mai Lai - Watergate - Iran Contra - Lewinsky and essentially nothing else. Wow, what a view of history! As a libertarian, I am happy to showcase the foibles of government, but this seems like a crazy loss of perspective even to me.
In addition, bits of the history were just terrible. For example, he said that the Puritans who came to America were much like a cult today and treated as such. That is a lame simplification of history. Sure, one can argue that today's religions were yesterday's cults, but it is silly to say that the Puritans were treated poorly in England for the same reasons a cult might be today. This completely ignores the whole reality of having a state religion in England at the time of the Puritans. A state religion trying to purge itself of dissent is a really different dynamic than a modern cult getting shunned by mainstream society (except perhaps when Janet Reno controls some tanks). This distinction is also important because avoiding state religions is an important foundation block of our government, and its prohibition is buried in that arcane and little discussed thing called, uh, the First Amendment.
It's clear the author is not a big fan of capitalism, and I would generally not even comment on such a thing because it is so common in academia. I managed to mostly ignore numerous off-the-cuff quips he makes about evil corporations and greed and the assumption that any action by a rich person had to be out of a desire to repress the masses rather than from principle. However, his bias creates some really bad history in at least one instance. In discussing Hoover and the depression, he really lays into Hoover for how block-headed and absurd Hoover was for not initiating massive government welfare programs earlier in his administration. I mean, he absolutely hammers Hoover for being a total cretin, and the author laughs at various Laissez-Faire speeches by HH.
But this is a stunning loss of context for a historian. While government handouts to people who are out of work may seem a no-brainer today, it was absolutely unprecedented at the time. It had never been done. And, nowhere in the Constitution, whose 10th Amendment specifically says that Congress only has the specific powers enumerated in the Constitution, does it say Congress has the power to tax one person and give the proceeds as a handout to another to relieve economic distress. In fact, it was enough of a Constitutional question mark that the Supreme Court would later rule unconstitutional most of FDR's new deal, at least until FDR could repack the Court with his guys. HH had good reason, beyond just his principles, to believe that he would be breaking the law and violating the Constitution to do as the author suggests. But nothing of this context is mentioned. The author only portrays Hoover as an idiot for not being interventionist enough.
In fact, the author leaves out a point I would tend to make first -- that the Depression would have been much better off if Hoover had in fact been truly Laissez Faire. Unfortunately, his tightening of money supply in the face of a depression and liquidity crisis via the relatively new Federal Reserve, his acquiescence to the Hawley Smoot tariffs, and his tax increases to close the budget deficit all contributed far more to sending the train off the rails than any intervention could have ameliorated.
Don't Know Much Good About America
One of the ways I like to pass the time on long drives (we went to San Diego this week with the kids) is to listen to audio books in the car. For this trip, my wife picked out Kenneth Davis's Don't know much About History. This particular version had been edited down to a quick 3-1/2 hours.
Its of course impossible to edit American history down to this short of a time, but we thought it might be enjoyable for the kids. Also, I am used to the general "America sucks and its heros suck too" tone of most modern revisionist history, so I was kind of prepared for what I was going to get from a modern academician. But my God, the whole history of this country had been edited down to only the bad stuff. Columbus as a source of genocide -- the pettiness of American grievances in the revolution -- the notion that all the ideals of the Revolution were so much intellectual cover for rich men getting over on the masses -- the alien and sedition acts -- slavery -- massacre of Indians and trail of tears -- more slavery -- civil war -- mistreatment of the South after the war by the North -- more massacre of Indians -- Brown vs. board of education -- the great depression as the great failure of laissez faire economics -- did Roosevelt know about Pearl Harbor in advance -- McCarthyism -- racism and civil rights movement. All of this with numerous snide remarks about evil corporations and rich people and the never-ending hosing of the poor and women/blacks/Indians (often in contexts entirely unrelated to what he is talking about, such that the remark is entirely gratuitous).
That's as far as we have gotten so far, but I am really giving you a pretty honest outline of the segments. I have zero problem admitting that America's treatment of its native populations was shameful and worth some modern soul-searching. Ditto slavery. But to focus solely on this litany, with nothing about the rising tide of standard of living for even the poorest, of increasing health and longevity, of the intelligent ways we managed expansion (like the homestead act), of having the wealth and power to defeat fascism and later communism in the 20th century when no one else could do it. Of creating, in fits and starts and with many long-delayed milestones, the freest country in the world. Of a history where every other democratic revolution of the 18th and 19th century failed and fell into chaos and dictatorship but this one succeeded. He begins the book by saying that he is bravely going to bust all the myths we have grown up with, but in essence helps to reinforce the #1 myth of our era: That America is a bad actor on the world stage and less moral than the countries around us.
Which of course, is insane. And remember, I am the first one to criticize our government over any number of issues, but the moral relativism that academics apply to America represents a shameless lack of correct context. To borrow from a famous saying, I am willing to admit that America has the most shameful history, except for that of every other country in the world.
Postscript: I don't even deny that a book with the premise that "schools and media often gloss over the bad stuff, so I want to let you know that America has a dark side too" would be a perfectly viable project. However, this book represents itself as a general history text, and does not claim this particular mission as its context. By the way, I am not sure what country he is living in if he thinks this stuff is not taught in schools. My kids' schools totally wallow on all the bad stuff - the racism, the environmental problems, etc. I would be willing to bet more graduates of public schools today could answer "Maintenance of slavery" to the question "what was the biggest failure of the Constitution" than they could answer the question "Why did the US Constitution succeed when so many other democratic revolutions failed?" The latter is a much more interesting question. Of course, in this audio book, predictably, Mr. Davis addresses the former in great depth and never even hints at the latter.
Congrats to John Scalzi
Congrats to John Scalzi for his Hugo nomination for "Old Man's War". I hope he wins. I read a lot of science fiction including several of the other nominated books but Old Man's War was one of those instant classics, a book that 25 years from now could easily be included in a best of science fiction series. I also have to agree with Glenn Reynolds on the accesability of his work. If I wanted to get someone excited about science fiction, I would likely hand them "Enders Game", "The Foundation", and "Old Man's War"*. I just finished Vernor Vinge's "Deepness in the Sky", which was awesome. It and his previous book "Fire Upon the Deep" are beautiful and rich and deep and textured masterpieces, but I would never hand them to a SciFi first-timer. SciFi needs writers who bring the general population back to SciFi, and Scalzi along with Card and a few others will certainly help.
* Honestly, if you rank yourself as someone who hates or just doesn't read science fiction, give just one or two of these three a try. Scifi is not all cute robots and Imperial Star Destroyers. And for those looking for the next step beyond these books for more hard-core stuff I might suggest classics like "Mote in God's Eye", "Ringworld", "Dune", or about anything by Louis McMaster Bujold. After that, your ready for anything, from Charles Stross to Harlan Ellison (the latter if you want a good downer).
Who Will Die in the Next Harry Potter Book
We are big Harry Potter fans in our house. The world has been warned that another major character will buy it in the next book Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (similar to Sirius Black's death in the last book). Trust the Brits to have a betting line on it:
Reading About the Next War
I just finished reading these three books, one after the other:
- Starship Troopers (don't confuse the unsubtle movie with the classic book)
- The Forever War
- Old Man's War
In basic outline, each book has exactly the same plot, about a man joining the army in some future war. Each have many of the classic war-story elements, including the tough over-the-top drill Sargent in basic training.
At the same time, all three are totally different, in different universes with different physics and different politics and enemies. And, perhaps most importantly, each with a different outlook on war and its necessity. Each one is awesome individually but created an amazing accidental trilogy when read together.