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EXCURSIONS IN LATERAL THINKING FROM

AMHERST, MASSACHUSETTS AND THE PIONEER VALLEY








Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Making Clean Copies: Mr. Clean Tries Multitasking



A true Eureka moment—the realization that the hunk making copies in the ad above was none other than the venerable Mr. Clean. That image, which appeared three weeks ago on the front page of NYTimes.com, was from a two-year-old ad campaign by Xerox, which  boasts that it “helps iconic brands [notably Mr. Clean and Bulls Eye the Target dog] with business processes and document management, freeing them to focus on what matters most – their real business.”
If you’re a literalist, that would free up Mr. Clean to follow his bliss, i.e., getting rid of dirt, and grease, and grime (in just a minute). Why, though, is Mr. Clean making copies in the first place? Initially, I thought, he’s expanding his skill set (and marketability) in a grudging economy where unemployment continues to hover above  8%.  But unlike Mr. Clean’s basic mop-and-wipe m├ętier, which seems pretty much bullet-proof to outsourcing and automation, making copies has become increasingly automated with more than its share of downsizing, especially on the feed-and-copy, noncreative end.

But note the passage below and the dust rag in his  right hand: He’s pumping up Procter & Gamble’s bottom line through judicious multitasking [not every cat's pajamas]. Xerox explains:


Can you imagine Procter & Gamble's powerful Mr. Clean digitizing millions of documents while also cleaning; or a Marriott Hotels & Resorts’ bellman providing exceptional guest services and processing invoices at the same time? Don't you think Bullseye the Target dog could use a hand customizing Target’s direct-mail program?

The campaign takes brand characters out of their expected roles and shows them doing business processes such as invoicing or digitizing documents with exaggerated results. The campaign demonstrates there are better ways for companies to handle back office work – by innovating and partnering with Xerox.
But weep not for Mr. Clean.  Demand for his next-to-godliness skills are unassailable--not to mention his distinction as a pitch man who transcends  generations and the business cycle.







Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Checklists, Checklists Everywhere



By elevating the humble checklist to center stage, Atul Gawande’s 2009 management best seller, The Checklist Manifesto, struck a chord for simplicity in a world preoccupied with complexity. For Gawande, who practices endocrinal surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the checklist agenda underscored in his book focused on extreme complexity with high-stakes outcomes—in enterprises like jet engine manufacturing, skyscraper construction, and, of course, surgery.



Gawande's exceptional narrative gifts combined with the simplicity and adaptability of checklists themselves have inspired ordinary folks to try out a checklist or two in their own domains. No surprise to see, then, that checklist books have mushroomed on Amazon via titles like Checklists for Life, The Style Checklist (fashion advice), Checklists for the New Dad, and my exe's own personal favorite, The Gay Husband Checklist for Women Who Wonder.

An unbeatable value, the latter offers checklists for "reading" telltale signs of spousal cheating and for preventive action through self-examination (i.e., the Checklist for Women Who Attract Gay Men). Cutting to the chase, the book dispenses the 20-item Gay Husband ChecklistThe four entries below typify the larger list:
  • His sexual performance is more mechanical than passionate with a lack of satisfying foreplay.
  • He admits to having a homosexual encounter in the past.
  • He erases the computer history on a regular basis.
  • He starts to spend more time at the gym and works on changing his appearance.
I, for one, smell a confirmation bias with miles of rope for hanging innocent spouses from the highest bedposts.  My advice to Ms. Kaye and her minions: consult Dr. Gawande's own fail safe--his "Checklist for Checklists" in the appendix of his book. Not that the Gay Husband list has much in common with the doctor's concerns, which seek to telegraph critical nodes in high-risk projects.

But there's still much for gay-sayers to gain from his work.  Among other things, Gawande urges that each checklist item prove  absolutely critical to the process at hand. And he asks,  "Is each item . . . not adequately checked by other mechanisms?” In other words, keep things simple by avoiding entries that offer duplication and (wherever possible) overlap with other entries.  

In this spirit, Ms. Kaye and her followers have a golden opportunity to substantially reduce the false positives in their midst--Not that there's anything wrong with true positives themselves, as Seinfeld  might  have said were he a stats geek.








Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Memory Mash-up: The Case of Sherlock Holmes and Fingerprints



The image of Sherlock Holmes in a deerstalker hat peering through his magnifying glass is iconic. But if your memory has him poring over fingerprints through the glass, you are mistaken: Your brain is constructing its own recollection that mashes up two iconic images: Holmes with his magnifying glass and detectives sleuthing out fingerprints. It’s much like the confabulation by many Americans who say they saw footage and photos of Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk in the U.N. General Assembly. (It did take place, but there are no bona fide images of N.K. in the act.)
I got to thinking about the Holmes iconography while reading the June 8 installment of the New York Sunday Times weekly feature, Makers:

But recently—with the rise of DNA evidence—fingerprints have begun to seem like relics from the Sherlock Holmes era, noted Pagan Kennedy in Who Made Those Fingerprints?  
The article traced the origins of police finger printing to the late 1800s. Conan Doyle’s 56 Holmes tales (and 4 novels) began appearing in 1887 and ran until 1927. They covered the era from the 1880s until the dawn of World War I.

While Pagan did not directly attribute fingerprint analysis to Holmes, her mention of him was evocative, at least for me. But being a bit of a Baker Street irregular, I recalled the haziest of memories linking Holmes with fingerprints. So I bought the Kindle version of The Complete  Sherlock Holmes from Amazon and did several searches. The only hit with conviction implicated a hand print from the 1903 tale, The Norwood Builder.

The jury was in: the fictional detective spent a great deal of time ogling through his magnifier at footprints (animal and human), wheel prints, and powder and ink stains—but not at fingerprints. Cross-checking with the BBC’s Holmes series starring Jeremy Brett yielded similar results. Some other irregular besides me will have to tackle the Basil Rathbone movies—I’m forensically all in.
Holmes (and Khrushchev) aside, the moral of this exercise is generic and cautionary: more often than we’d care to admit, our memories can prove imperfect, even (no disrespect to Holmes) clueless.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry Captivate Amherst, Foster Dave Carter's Legacy


Grammer photo
Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry's June 2nd concert at Amherst, Massachusetts' Nacul Center for the Pioneer Valley Folklore Society was her final local appearance as a Valley resident. To the community’s good fortune, Henry, a gifted guitarist and songwriter, will continue to grace our zip codes. Two days after the concert, Grammer moved from Greenfield to northeast Pennsylvania, framing nearly a decade of involvement in the Valley that began tragically with the death in 2002 of her partner and musical collaborator, Dave Carter. In a story that has become legion in the folk music community, the couple had traveled to the Valley to play the Green River Festival in Greenfield. Carter died after a run on the rail trail bike path near their motel in Hadley.

Since then, Grammer has devoted much of her artistic energies as an advocate and archivist of Carter's exceptional body of songs. An American original (with unique cerebral wiring and Ivesian radar into the byways of American culture), Carter offered a quirky take on small-town America through lyric excursions that were both quotidian and cosmic. For him, the artistic liaison with Grammer, an accomplished violinist and vocalist, sealed the musical deal.

Although they gig together infrequently these days, Grammer and Henry have played together since 2003 (from Fairbanks, to Florida, to France, she notes). The Amherst concert showed them to be musically symbiotic (they shouldn’t let geography come between them in joining forces more often).  Seated in close quarters, the audience of 75 was wildly appreciative—they knew  a dynamic musical duo when they heard it.  Grammer and Henry (a polished vocalist and masterful guitarist) proved above all to be ensemble players. Both emphasized mutual rather than individual musical outcomes. With technique a given, they placed a premium on musical nuance and emotional immediacy. As the evening progressed and the musicians and audience bonded, Grammer and Henry relaxed and played their best.


The hour and 25 minute concert alternated Carter originals with tunes from the American roots tradition, including songs by Henry. Home to Me, affirming his attachment to the Pioneer Valley, offered a light-hearted counterpoint to Grammer’s own impending departure. Sound of the Whistle Blow, also by Henry, merits status as an American roots classic.

The duo’s celebration of Carter, which spanned his career, underscored his versatility as a songwriter. Q.E.D.—the same dude who wrote Evangeline and Ordinary Town was the progenitor of Crocodile Man.  And Grammer and Henry also performed Gypsy Rose, an anchor song on Grammer’s latest album, Little Blue Egg, a collection of stripped down tapes, recorded in Carter & Grammer’s home studio between 1997 and 2002. Henry helped Grammer digitize and otherwise resurrect the recordings, which have garnered critical acclaim and considerable play on folk radio [yes, there is such a thing].

For Henry, the road ahead promises little down time with his commitment as Mary Chapin Carpenter’s guitarist for the third summer in a row. Grammer is focusing on festivals—Falcon Ridge, Oak Grove, and Kent. She’s also devoting energy to the Dave Carter Legacy project. A nonprofit venture with Folk Alliance International, the project will celebrate and disseminate the Carter canon. My recommendation to Grammer: Broaden your own repertoire and energize Dave’s legacy by searching out and performing songs by others who share his creative impulses and commitment to song. Candidates would likely be passionate about small town America and wordsmiths with the ability to resonate and surprise. But above all, they should be advocates of song as art. Listeners should respond: "That was unexpected and elevating!"