Monday, September 27, 2010

The Square -- You Are the Banking System

      Have you ever felt like you needed a cash register wherever you go? Me neither. But now that everybody's running their own business and collecting fees from a gig here and a gig there, it might come in handy to have a portable, digital, tiny cash register that lets you collect money from anybody owing you. All they need is a debit card, and all you need is a smart phone.
       My 20-something coworker told me about it, and I said, "Are you serious?", and of course she was. A week later, she had gotten this gitzmo, called the Square, and proceeded to demonstrate on her iPhone, which has apps for every conceivable information-getting activity, but was sorely lacking one for cash-getting activities.

      The device is called the Square and it's made by Twitter creator Jack Dorsey.  The Square is really a cube, made of plastic and measuring less than one cubic inch, and which plugs into the headphone jack of the iPhone, iTouch, iPad or any Android OS phone. On top of the cube is a slit through which your client, benefactor or debtor can slide a debit card and zap! -- money from the account connected to that debit card is now getting transferred to your account. You use the keyboard to type in the amount. A record of the transaction is created and saved, and I'm pretty sure it also can be twitted somewhere, as in "You paid me the $40 you owed me. Thanks."
      Next time I go to dinner with friends and we're splitting the bill, I'm sure someone will pull up one of these. It won't be me, as I don't have a smartphone. If you do, I understand you can request a Square for free, as its maker is giving out one per user. They'll make money in transaction fees, which are paid by you. In other words, somebody means to pay you $50 and you key in that much, but when it's all said and done you get slighlty less than $50, and the Square's maker has the rest. (Don't know exactly how much the transaction fees are, but I imagine not much. The profit is in the volume of use.) Here's the website where you can get one:
     I won't be getting a Square any time soon. Nonetheless, I was just thinking this past weekend, while taking the "L" in Chicago, that the world is becoming increasingly modular. Everything one needs to do, every trajectory one needs to cover, has been broken down into pieces, and those pieces have been broken down into more pieces, and you connect as many or as few as you need to reach your goal. It's like every activity we undertake has undergone engineering scrutiny and creativity, from cooking a meal to traveling in space.
      The Square seems like a new module, a tiny one, connecting you to the banking system. It's still you and the big banking system, you navigating through that big system, but you've got a new direct route that begins on the palm of your hand.
      Modulizing things isn't new. What seems new to me is the ever increasing number of modules for an increasing number of connections to larger systems. We all become like a Me-Central of information and communication, with a gadget here and a device there.  We have the option to rely on the communal system and be part of larger modules -- like just standing in line at the bank and depositing your friend's check -- or to create an individualized one, as in:  "Here, zap your debit card through my Square."
      It brings home to me the notion that nothing is fixed, that there isn't just one route, that the whole can be broken down, parceled and compartmentalized in infinite ways, and so we do. What may be getting harder, in all aspects of life, is fully grasping the whole. We increasingly function like the the human version of a kitchen cabinet system. And at the same time, we're all blending more into the larger systems through our individualized modules, so that the whole is not so different from ourselves.
     When it comes to electronics, the more we individualize, the more we blend.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Gigonomics, or How We All Came To Be CEOs

    Sometimes I'm noticing something, sort of aware of it, but not knowing exactly how to describe it, what to call it or if it even has a name. And just as frequently, I find that people smarter than me have been not only observing the same thing, but also quantifying it and given it a name. In this manner, today I came across gigonomics, a new word that encapsulates what I'm seeing all around me.
    Gigonomics refers to the hundreds or thousands of professionals -- I don't think anybody knows exactly how many, beyond knowing it's a a number big enough to talk about -- who once had solid full-time positions that consumed all their time, talent and skill, but now find that work and earnings come on the basis of a  few hours consulting here, a few hours freelancing there. In other words, they have a gig here and a gig there, hence the term gigonomics. A superb description of the trend,  including a survey with actual numbers, is fleshed out in The Daily Beast: (They posted it in January 2009, but I never said I was going to break news in this blog.)
     I've known all along that the economy collapsed, with casualties measured monthly in the rising unemployment rate. What I didn't have, and now do, is a name for the survivors, the people who didn't lose everything, who didn't become unemployed, not completely anyway, but who are not in the same place at all in their work life. These people didn't take another job with lesser pay or lower ranking. Instead, they're hodge-podging.
     I have a friend who after a series of successful jobs as newspaper editor, launched and published a magazine profitably for five years, her dream enterprise. She had to fold it when the real estate market collapsed. Now she writes a newspaper column once a week, while consulting for a friend who owns a company, while getting a graduate degree, through which she got another gig writing a chapter for a textbook.
    I have another friend whose job with a hotel newsletter publisher came to an end, so now she has a gig running one of the affiliated Web pages of a daily newspaper, and occasionally fills in for editors who go on vacation, and takes any other freelance work that comes her way. (This friend occasionally gives me a free-lance gig off of one of her gigs.) I know of another acquaintance who founded a non-profit, local, hard news blog, whose stories are sometimes picked up, for pay, by local newspapers.
    Granted that print media would be filled with such stories, given the double-whammy of Internet competition and the collapse of major advertisers. But gigonomics isn't circumscribed to print media. I know a psychologist whose position in human resources in a metal manufacturing company was eliminated, so he went back to his roots as a therapist, getting some hours in the public school system and some hours in private practice. I know an accounting assistant whose work week was cut to four days, so with her extra time she is now buying clothes in the U.S. and selling it in South America, and actually turning up a dollar. I know a commercial investment advisor whose business dried up with the freezing of the credit markets, so he now consults on any related topic for clients who already had capital on their side of  the table. 
    Recently I met a middle school teacher whose full-time job, which still exists, has morphed into a disparate collage of classes and clubs and administrative duties, filling in as she is for several people who are not working in that school anymore. It's like even the people who are still employed full time have to shuffle old gigs with new gigs within their organizations. It's all more molecular and piecemeal, whether on or off the regular payroll.
    All this enerprise is great, but no one's becoming rich from it, which is one difference between now and before. There's always been consultant career paths and freelance career paths looming out there for any corporate employee who wanted to pursue it. But before the economic meltdown, people pursued these out of desire and opportunity to take their careers one step beyond their present station in some way, financially or otherwise. Today, it's survival.
    As others have noted, people in the lower income levels have always gone about gigging in order to make ends meet. Established business owners and entrepreneurs also, in a way, are all about finding, keeping and growing a gig. (Just that it's not called a gig when you're established and with a multi-person payroll.) What is new is the kind of people who now gig for a living.
    I'm not saying it's bad, or at least not all bad. Giggers are liberated from the rigors of full-time devotion to one employer. Further, they have more ownership of their gigs than they ever did of their jobs, allowing them to dream it as big as they want. I see friends and acquaintances shaping and naming their gigs into corporate sounding activities, adding CEO and Owner to their email signatures, as well they should.
   For my part, I have a job that became part time before the meltdown, a move I had pursued voluntarily in order to spend more time with my daughter. I now think this move saved my job by making me cheaper. I get no benefits or paid time off, and it seems to me my employer welcomes the occasions when I take a day off, cutting my hours even more for that week.
     In addition, I freelance occasionally for a local newspaper, at about a fifth of the fee I remember getting for freelance work when I was a full time reporter. And then I have this blog, on which one day I might have a Google ad, and of which I am the sole founder and CEO.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Warming Up to the Bestsellers

    For a few weeks now I've been telling myself that I will buy Jonathan Frazen's new book Freedom when it came out. Before all the hype about this book I didn't know who Frazen was, but that doesn't mean anything. I don't know who half the well-known people are. Then he started showing up. First, on the cover of Time magazine sometime in July, while I was at the airport. The profile story focused on this latest novel of his, how he went about it and how he is the current great American novelist. There he was again in a New York Times article about his long-awaited novel -- it's been something like 12 years since his last novel -- and how booksellers and publishers couldn't wait for it to come out, and how it has all the makings of a No. 1 bestseller. I just gotta read it.

    At the same time, I've been doing something else. Without planning, everytime I wonder into a Barnes & Noble I end  up finding my way to Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, opening it to any random page, and reading until I get interrupted by my kid and her friends. Earlier this summer I told a friend that I "hate" Gilbert because...I don't want to say it...because she has a lot of what I'd like to have. First she had a paid trip to go travel for a year and put herself back together. It worked. She healed herself beautifully. The book she wrote about her journey (she had a contract for the book before she embarked on the trip) became a huge success, was translated into a gazillion languages and turned into a movie. (I saw it twice, which was maybe half a time too many, but the timing worked given my program that day.) In her journey, she found a soul mate, married him, went on a second journey with him and got to write another book about that, titled Committed. For her, it's eat, pray, love...write, publish, earn big!
    All well merited, I will add.
    Before the movie came out and without reading the book, I had relegated it to a category somewhere between fluffy exploration and entertaining chick lit. Last night I found myself in the store, peeking. I decided I couldn't read the whole thing furtively, so I dished about $15, took it home and delved into it more. Entertaining it is, but it has all the fluffiness of a juicy filet mignon.
    Reading her I feel delivered with an honest, intelligent, informed, elucidating account of a journey that is one sole woman's journey, but for the telling, she takes in so much of the world and history and other people's experiences, that it becomes more, much more.

    Gilbert is a well-read author whose musings and insights incorporate a wealth of knowledge from others. For example, I already knew Italy was a sensuous place full of beauty, history and good food. But I didn't know Italian author Luigi Barzine, who wrote something called The Italians in 1964, in which he explained Italy to everybody else. I won't get into what he said here, because it would make this posting too long, but I will tell you that it makes so much sense in understanding Italy and Italians. (It's in page 114 of Eat Pray Love's paperback edition.) So I learned something not only about Italy, but also about humanity. She has plenty of literary and historical inserts like that throughout her story, her search, her struggle and her resolution. In the end, it's the journey of one person with lessons that are universal.
   Which brings me back to Frazen and his Freedom. So I'm at the bookstore, I have it in my hand, the hardcover (it's not on paperback yet), some 600 pages. I look at it. I remember from Time's profile piece how he writes in complete solitude, on a bare desk, without even the Internet, and has been at that year after year for more than a decade, one of his few distractions that of watching birds. I remember reviews to the effect of how Freedom is a piercing look at our middle class existence and how that existence doesn't really makes us freer or better at making choices, but not choices as in what flavor to choose, no, choices and freedom in the existential sense, and I already feel my soul 100 pounds heavier.  I remember also learning from the profile  that fellow writer, David Foster Wallace, his buddy, committed suicide in his forties, after he had published Infinite Jest, which also had huge success. I open the tome in my hand and I read lines that are..I don't know how to describe's prose that I'm not ready for, it's intimidating in some way.
   I had heard Frazen himself the night before in a National Public Radio interview, and he sounded amicable and light and he expressed regret that his novel could result depressing, and made himself responsible as a writer if readers fail to see the change his characters undergo in the story, a change I now presume is redeeming. I liked the way the guy came across.
   So, Jonathan, here's where I am: I will read you, I want to, I have a feeling your stuff is good, and not just because of the hype. But I'm not ready yet. I'm getting there. I'll get there. For whatever it's worth, know that nothing I've read about your path to success has made me "hate" you. And Elizabeth, I'm beginning to absolutely love you.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Skinnier Than Skinny Jeans

With this blog I have given myself the responsibility to observe and ponder trends, but when nothing is entering the radar, I must seek outside expertise. So I asked my daugther, "What's trendy these days?" Without flinching, she answered, "You're weird." But then she offered some suggestions: "Smartphones, jeggings..."

"Jeggings? What are jeggings?"

"They're leggings that look like jeans."

Indeed they are. They are made to look like denim, but fitted so tight they might as well be made of Lycra. The good thing is that they're not Lycra or nylon, they're some sort of stretch denim -- I'm not sure if technically that can be considered denim -- but the point is that they are something like jeans, which give them more respectability than leggings ever had.

Jeggings are like skinny jeans taken to the next level. Skinny jeans -- real denim jeans that wrap very tightly around the leg, all the way to the ankle -- had gained respectability in their own right, because real jeans in any style incarnation will always be respectable, and because so many long-legged models and actresses look so fabulous in them. And one more thing -- when cut right, they lift everything up and pull everything in, and your legs might actually look half an inch longer. Jeggings have been trying to ride on the coattails of skinny jeans since last summer.

This year the trend gained momentum. In the spring, rising sales and stock prices at apparel and accessories maker Guess were credited to its peddling of skinny jeans and the jeggings variation: There's also skinny jeans and jeggings for babies.

And jeggings were breaking news in several news magazines in India, of all places. (Something's going on with India, I tell you. See my earlier post). So this garment has some mileage still left, at least in the other side fo the world. Here's the article:

You might think this is some completely inconsequential fashion topic, which of course it is by so many measures. Then again, economic recovery could ride on how we take to jeggings. That's because retailers' fortunes rise and fall with the rest of the economy and vice versa. For apparel retailers in particular, the trick is to hit on that must-have garment to spur consumers into action. This back-to-school season all bets were on the jeggings.

Consider this from an Aug. 2 article in  "As retailers head into the critical back-to-school season, the industry's second-biggest selling period, they're using an array of new tools and deals to spur consumers to buy. They also hope exclusive products such as Madonna's Material Girl line at Macy's Inc. and trends such as skinny jeans, so-called jeggings, and iPads, will spur demand."

That's a lot of hope to put on jeggings when you kind of lump them in the same category with the iPad, but indeed, that expectation was shared by many apparel retailers and the analysts who follow their stocks. Investment firm Goldman Sachs for one has had its share of bloggers and commentators poke fun at it for its focus on jeggings as a sales catalyst that would boost some retail stocks. (It's always fun when you know what a stock analyst is actually talking about.) In any event, neither jeggings nor anything else did that much for retail sales this back-to-school season.

But considering how long cargo pants and all its variations have lasted, I'd give jeggings at least through the holiday season. In the meantime, the girl in the house wants to go shopping for some, especially after this posting. "You owe me, mom."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Skin Deep Male Beauty

In Miami, it's not that uncommon to run into men of all sexual persuasions with waxed eyebrows. It always makes me wonder, Why on Earth, if you don' thave to!  Once in a blue moon I'll see a guy getting a pedicure at my nail salon. Given that I live in a suburban area, I have to figure that when I'm seeing one here, it means there's a higher ratio in more concentrated, hip urban areas. And the laser salons' brochures show pictures of men lasering away their unwanted hair, although I've never crossed paths with one. Again I would have to wonder, Dude, why? It's never been expected of you. I've come to understand that it's all part of the Metrosexual thing, which I'm not sure exactly what it means but associate with stylish dressing, grooming, and just taking care of your body.

Now comes the New York Times with this article: Men’s Cosmetics Becoming a Bull Market.     (Read it here: Apparently, sales of men's cosmetics -- who knew, but there is such a category -- are showing some significant sale increases. Concealers, face powders, even mascara.

Could it be that the pressure to look young at any age is crossing gender barriers and men are beginning to hate dark under-eye circles and dull skin as much as women? Is it an expansion of self-care with options that until now had only been acceptable for women? Are we now also going to compete on how well we apply makeup?

For my part, I like the clean-shaven, neatly dressed, cologne-splashed type. And far be it from me to get between anyone and a pedicure. I also don't wish dry skin on anybody, so go ahead and slather the moisturizer wherever you need it. Definitely work out. Everybody should. And whiter teeth, sure, if you have the patience for it. Beyond that, I really hope I don't have to see lipstick or mascara, unless you're about to go on a theater stage.

But men, if you decide to go for this trend anyway, fine. Just know you're doing it just for you. The fact that a completely natural look in men is more acceptable and well regarded that a completely natural look in women might be the one inequity that we don't need you to give up.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Life is Good...Even in Traffic

I first became aware of Life is Good as something on a t-shirt we weren't exactly meant to have.

My daugther borrowed it from her cousin during a sleepover. (No matter how much she packs for a sleepover, she invariably comes back wearing some garment from her hostess and leaving some of hers behind.) Anyway, it was a soft cotton t-shirt, light blue, with a cartoon-like drawing of a smiling face (not the classic yellow smiley face but another kind of face, one with an open-teeth smile and wearing a beret) and the words Life Is Good printed underneath the image, in type that seemed to be dancing.

It soon became my daughter's favorite t-shirt, what with the color, the soft cotton and the fun, happy, easy-on-the-eye image. Being that her cousin is family, I let it slide that my daughter sort of "forgot" to ever return the shirt, and just wore it thin. (I owe you one, dear niece.)

A few weeks later, shopping in TJ Maxx, I saw this same logo printed on some canvas bags, good for carrying books or beachwear. It struck me that this logo was kind of simpatico. Happy, but without hitting you on the head with it. December came around, and while browsing through the hodge-podge of kids' clothing at Marshall's, a long-sleeve t-shirt with the logo randomly appeared. Hmm, this logo sure reproduces, I thought.

Most recently, I saw it in the most unlikely place. Driving to work in the morning, I'm staring at the cars in front of me, and an SUV, the kind with the spare tire hitched on the back door, had the logo on the spare tire cover. So it's official: Life is Good is going to keep popping up in my life. What is this thing?

The way the story goes, the logo is the creation of two brothers from Boston, Bert and John Jacobs, who unsuccessfully sold t-shirts for five years, until one happy day, for a street fair in Cambridge, they printed a set of t-shirts with the ever-happy face of a stick figure called Jake. They sold all 48 t-shirts that day and the rest is history. Their logo expanded into different variations of the same optimistic theme, and got imprinted on every kind of merchandise, hence the tire cover with the t-shirt logo. A Google review shows that they now sell millions, both online ( and in stores, including their own dedicated stores, which operate under franchise agreements. (None in Miami, though.) The company's web site is all about the good stuff, such as being green, donating to charity and holding community festivals. Life indeed is good for the Jacobs brothers.

How does something so simple generate such a merchandise empire? Beats me. But according to their story, they always felt that life is good, even when they weren't a huge success. One has to imagine that they also worked like dogs. Having lived in the Boston and Cambridge for 11 years, I can almost see them at it with conviction and perseverance, as those cities seem to engender the unrelenting kind.

But what I really like about this brand, so far, is that big as it seems to be, it has sort of sneaked on me, subtly, in unexpected places. I don't see ads for it in fashion magazines. In fact, I don't run into any promotional materia for it anywhere, I've just run into the actual merchandise. There is something fresh and organic about that.

So maybe I should heed the message and pass it along: Life is Good. And may we all end up with such happy stories as the Jake brothers.