Thursday, October 31, 2013

October 2013: A Lighter and Hopefully Nostalgic Halloween Letter

      On October 26, I posted an old blog on Facebook:  October 2008:  Halloween.  It is a seasonal piece and a personal favorite. 
My first cousins responded on Facebook with the following:

·         Paula Arzoian:  I love this one, Mark!! I especially like the idea of the pre trick or treat parties. Might have to steal that one day. Halloween has always been my favorite, even more so now that the kiddo is a Halloween baby Thanks for posting this!

·         David Aram Gavoor: This is one of your better articles. While clearly not a "deep thought piece," it's written extremely well, covers a topic we all know well and captures you to a T! Thnx.

I was at an engagement party a few weeks ago.  It was for another first cousin’s, Chris Merian’s, son Daniel and his lovely fiancée Laurie.  Chris’s brother, another first cousin, Ralph and I sat out in the beautiful Michigan fall evening and smoked a cigar.  We spoke about a variety of topics.  At one point, about half way through the cigar, Ralph said, “I really enjoyed your last letter. You know the one where you mused and meandered.”  He clearly was saying that he enjoys the lighter letters more than the  ones with weightier topics.
The Wily Ara Topouzian always comments on my writing as well. Comments is actually too benign a word.  He basically takes shots at everything but then makes sure he points out that this means, at least, that he reads everything I write.  In a serious moment, which is rare for Ara but welcomed by all who know him, he will also say that he likes the lighter and more nostalgic pieces over the “deep thought” pieces.
I recently wrote a business blog:   Fire a Customer?  Ara commented, in his inimitable and totally irritating style:

    Mark Gavoor is a prolific writer and it comes to no surprise to me that he was able to capture the essence of the experience. Hemingway, Capote, Nabakov, Fitzgerald and Orwell had what Gavoor no holds and relays on to future generations. Marizad Marko!

Most of the feedback I get is in line with my cousins and Ara.  Even the hits to my blog tend favor the lighter and more nostalgic pieces.  This most certainly begs the question, why I do not listen to my audience.  It is a basic tenet of Total Quality, a field in which my industrial and consulting career is based, is to seek out and heed the Voice of the Customer (VoC).  The VoC here is speaking pretty loudly and clearly.  The VoC is saying reminisce more and stay on the lighter side of thing.
I would heed this sound advice except that I write about what moves me.  I write about what is top of mind and what is in the news to the point of being in my face.  This kind of personal writing and blogging is definitely a hobby not a business.  In this light, I appreciate and value the VoC but might not heed it as much as I might if it were a business.  But, I certainly do get the point and will try to make this piece lighter and more nostalgic.
It is the end of October.  It is actually Halloween Day as I am finishing this letter.  They holiday hype is in full gear.  People decorate their house like they do for Christmas.  Costumes are elaborate and there are opportunities abound to wear them for kids and adults alike. 
Back in my day, which was basically the 1960s, it was a different story.  Halloween was big for us as kids but it was really just one day.  The decor was minimal.  The vast majority of folks around our part of town had a carved pumpkin and that was it.  If someone had two pumpkins or even three we would ooh and ah at the extravagant decorations.  No parents really dressed up for the evening that was entirely the domain of kids. There was no scary music blaring from any loudspeakers.  There was no eerie lighting, animatronics, ghosts in the tress, or gravestones in the yard.
We did not have specially made plastic pumpkins for our treats.  Some of used pillow cases while others simply used paper bags with handles.  As the paper bags got heavier, there was always the very real fear of the bag ripping and our booty falling all over the ground.  This was an even greater risk when we trick or treated in the rain. 
We always went out on October 31st.  There was no real concern about it ever being a school night.  Back then, we did not have that much homework in grade school and certainly teachers were conscious of the holiday in their lesson planning.
Back then there was no notion of global warming and it was often down right cold on Halloween.  There was no daylight savings time, so it was dark by 5 or 5:30.  It was dark and cold.  My Mother, wanting to make sure that none of got sick had us in winter coats and even snow suits if it was cold enough.  So, we had dual level costumes.  We were not just skeletons, ghosts, or vampires.  We were the Michelin Man dressed as skeletons, ghosts, and vampires. 
Our costumes were not elaborate.  The vast majority were not store bought.  As a result, there was a disproportionate of us trick or treating as hobos back then wearing our fathers’ cast-offs and thus the easiest costume to make.  Ghosts, being equally easy to fabricate, were also quite popular.  If the costumes were store bought, they were pretty budget by today’s standards.  There were not a lot of choice and I recall the skeleton costume as the most popular store bought one for boys and perhaps a princess for girls.  I do recall the store bought costumes had molded plastic masks that were both uncomfortable and almost impossible to see out of.  If we used make up for mustaches or beards, we used whatever our mothers’ had make-up wise and it was adorably amateurish. 
I am sure my Mother will correct me on this but I not recall wearing our costumes to school or any church related activities.  There were no parades and the local businesses really never did anything special for the holiday.
It was a darker time.  Truly, it seemed darker.  The streetlights were few, far between, and incandescent.  Our flashlights were essentially useless and the only lighting on houses was the porch light and sole candle burning in the sole pumpkin.
Some things, however, have not changed.  The first and foremost is the love of the holiday.  Certainly the buildup was shorter.  Homes weren’t decorated the entire month of October.  There were not really any Halloween parties leading up to the big day.  But, the big day was, indeed a big day.  Our joy and delight in Halloween was as pure and fun as it is for any kid today.
I only remember trick or treating with my sisters.  There was no question about that.  It was a family thing and we reveled in the glee of it.  As in most households, one parent took us out and the other stayed home to dole out the treats to other children.  We would get home by eight and pour our bounty on the living room carpet to take inventory.  As we went to the same houses, we had exactly the same assortment.  We were allowed to eat a few items… but not too much. 
Friends were not involved until the last year I went out.  That year I went out with my friend and fellow Boy Scout Brad Lackie.  It was clear after just a few houses that we had pushed the envelope a bit far and had no business being out there but continued and gathered our bounty in our trick or treating swan song.
In Detroit, Halloween was, in fact a two night event.  Certainly, the 31st was the bigger and better of the two.  The night before, however, was something different.  We called it Devil’s night and it was dedicated to mischief and mayhem.  Windows of homes and, mostly, cars were either waxed or soaped.  Doorbells were rung with the goal of running and hiding to see the reactions of those answering the door and finding no one there.  Eggs were tossed at both houses and cars. 
I may have soaped a window or two and, maybe, I rang a few doorbells but Devil’s Night was never my thing.  I am pretty certain calling it Devil’s Night was exclusively Detroit.  With the decay of the city, the mischief and mayhem intensified to the point, about ten years ago, when arson became the main focus of Devil’s night.  There were so many abandoned buildings that people just burned them.  It became so bad that the mayhem became national and international news for several years running. It was embarrassing notoriety for the city I grew up in and had such warm Halloween memories.
There is a neo-classic 1983 vintage Christmas movie, A Christmas Story.  The film is based on a 1966 book “In God We Trust, All Others Must Pay Cash” by Jean Shepard (1921 – 1999).  The story took place in a fictional Indiana town very much like Hammond, Indiana where Shepard grew up.  The story is set in the late 1930s or early 1940s (the family car in the film was a 1937 Oldsmobile).  There was nothing special about the working class neighborhood but the popularity of it is in the charm of the characters and nostalgic strings that the movie pulls on.   As a result, everything was special about that working class mid-west neighborhood.
Jean Shepard was a master at both aspects that made this film memorable to the point that per Wikipedia “in 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’.”  Shepard was able to weave timeless charm around characters we could all relate to.  He created a nostalgic feeling for a time that was a good twenty years before my time but felt so very close.  Given the popularity of the film, I apparently am not alone in my reaction.
Certainly Jean Shepard’s words are a major part of the nostalgic lure of this movie.  But to anyone who has seen the movie, the narration, an adult Ralphie basically telling his own story, was a large part of the movie’s alluring longevity.  Shepard, who was also a radio personality, did the narration himself.  Cool.
That is kind of how I view my Halloweens back in the 48227 part of Detroit that I grew up in.  We had the same charming and colorful people in our family, as friends, as neighbors, and as teachers in our beloved Burns School.  It was a time when families only had one car, one television, and one radio which was only AM.  We did not have a dishwasher, dryer, garbage disposal, or air conditioning.   We weren’t wanting but it was a time just before the consumerism for which America is now known took over.  That may be why those days were closer to the America of A Christmas Story than it is to the America of today.
All this nostalgia is good and all.  It refreshes the soul and allows the spirit to recall memorably good times.  But, this does not eliminate the duality of that was raised at the beginning of this letter i.e. between reminiscent and deep thought pieces.  I am after all a mish-mash of right and light brain.  Obviously, if you simply prefer the reminiscent and nostalgic, I recommend you stop reading right here.
On the way to teach a statistics class this morning, I was listening to Morning Edition  on NPR.  They had a great piece on a statistical study around trick or treating.  George Wolford, a psychologist at Dartmouth, along with some colleagues conducted the following experiment.  They gave half the children full sized candy bars and the other half of the children a full sized candy bar and a piece of bubble gum.  Wolford noted that “Those children that got both the full-sized candy bar and the bubble gum second, rated how delighted they were to get these treats lower than those people that got the candy bar only.”

This is counter intuitive to the old trick or trick belief that more is simply better.  The Morning Edition piece concluded that more candy is not necessarily better. 
I had, of course, another point of view.  Not being a psychologist but more so a mathematician and statistician, I would separate this question into two parts.  First, there is the perception of getting the particular treat either the full sized candy bar alone or the full sized candy bar and bubble gum.  Each exchange has, as any kid would tell you, its own level of discovery and delight.   I recall approaching each house and wondering what they would be passing out.  A full sized candy bar both in my day and today is a very nice and generous surprise.  I can see where combining a delightfully surprising treat with a more mundane would diminish the delight to somewhere in between the high delight of the candy bar alone and the more average delight in just getting a piece of bubblegum.
Secondly, there is the issue of volume and the joy in having done gathered a lot.  This might not be fully appreciated until the end of the night when the bounty is poured out onto the table or floor.  Then we can assess fathom how much we collected and how much we collected relative to others. 
Am I making this more complex or simplifying things?  That is the topic for some future piece.  This seems different then and more meaningful that making this judgment based on the treat given at just one house. 
I have to go there are trick or treaters at the door.
Happy Halloween.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

No Defense? Apparently No Problem: Michigan beats Indiana 63-47

Jeremy Gallon who had a record setting 14 reception
for 369 yards and 2 TDs in today's game.  Photo from
The Detroit Free Press.

I am watching the Michigan vs. Indiana game on the Big Ten Network.  The score is Michigan 49, Indiana 47 and there is 10:53 left in the 4th Quarter.  Michigan has amassed the most yards ever in a game which was 504 a few plays ago.  Together the two teams have posted over 1,000 yards.  Clearly, by the end of the game, the teams will have amassed over 100 points.  

Michigan was on the verge scoring.  The ball was on the three yard line and fumbled.  This is the second turnover of the game for Michigan, the first was also a fumble on a pitch-out.   Indiana being gracious returned the favor by letting Michigan intercept a pass and return it to the Indiana 6.  So net-net it was a loss of two yards.

What is the point of this posting besides blogging real time on what is a very exciting game?  The point is DEFENSE.  I miss the stone wall, bone crushing, shut-em-down defenses of the not too distant past.  

Michigan just scored making it 56-47.  They have 668 total yards and there is still 5:32 left in the game.  Crazy.

Our defense is better than it was in the Rich Rod era.  But, it is not what most Michigan fans want.  Heck, I am sure it not what Michigan Head Coach Brady Hoke and Defensive Coordinator Greg Mattison want.  Last week Penn State handed Michigan its first loss of the season in quadruple overtime:  43-40.

Indiana is running on Michigan with 3:16 left in the game.  If they score, they score they will no doubt go for an onside kick.  

Penn State scored 40 points on Michigan.  They had 20 first downs and amassed 390 yards of which 305 were passing.  Michigan had an opportunity to stop them on the final drive of regulation time.  They did not.

Michigan just intercepted Indiana for the second time.  They are moving the ball on the ground and a surprise pass.  There is 2 minutes left in the game.

Last week Michigan had the chance to win twice in two of the four overtimes.  They could not kick a field goal.  The play calling was conservative leading up to the missed and blocked field goals.  They were playing for the field goal instead of getting first downs.  Coaching and play calling was partially responsible for losing the game.

That was not really the case in today’s game.  There was no room, time, nor opportunity to be conservative in this barn burner.  That pass was a surprise because everyone, including yours truly, thought Michigan would simply try to run out the clock.  The coaching staff, thankfully, knew better and knew they had to get first downs to keep the potent Indiana offense off of the field.  So, they threw a pass, where last week they would have run the ball, and it surprised everyone including Indiana.  

Michigan just scored making in 63-47.  751 total yards.  

There is no way Indiana can win.  There is 4 seconds left and Indiana is 4th and 10 on the Michigan 29.  But there is no quit in this Indiana team.  The final score was Michigan 63, Indiana 47.  

There was 1,323 yards of offense in this game and 110 total points scored.  Michigan had a record of 751 yards offense.  The coach of Indiana has admitted that he wants to win with offense.  He just wants to score points and believes he and his team can score more points than their defense will give up.  

This was a great win in a very exciting game.  Indiana is a rejuvenated team and will give their opponents fits moving forward.  This all being said, I still miss the bone crushing, brick wall, stop them in their track defense.

Here is the box score from this historic game that resulted in several records for offense:

1st Downs
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
Total Yards
Yards per pass
Rushing Attempts
Yards per rush
Fumbles lost
Interceptions thrown

Monday, October 14, 2013

Field Jackets, Google, and Facebook

It has been a few weeks since I bought the Royal Robbins Billy Goat Bedford jacket and inherited the LL Bean field jacket.  I am enjoying both when the weather is cool enough to wear them.  I have two of them.  As I no longer need such a jacket, naturally I have stopped shopping for them.

Yet... every other day or maybe every other session of Facebook, I get an ad for LL Bean highlighting some version of the several field and barn coats they offer.  This is both cool and uncool.

Let's start with the cool perspective.  Facebook knows what I have been searching.  Rather than pester me with ads for items I will probably ignore, it is instead providing ads for things it believes I am actually in the market for.  If I am going to be subjected to ads, and that is not really a question, I am happy to get ads and offers for things I am interested in and might actually buy.  This is a win-win-win.  I win by seeing ads that will help me. If I click on the ad, both Facebook and the on-line retailer win.  This is technology working for me, Facebook, and the retailer.

From another point of view, the "how did they learn all this stuff about me" and "egads... big brother is watching perspective," this is scary stuff and totally intrusive.  Many of us do not want our shopping and interest profiles so available and so detailed that we getting personalized ads at every turn. This makes us feel like cattle and chattel.  We like to believe we are independent and unique.  This kind of profiling reminds us that we are not.  Personalized ads make us think we are being watched and we are being manipulated.  

This is clearly a glass half-full half-empty kind of thing.  When it helps us it is good.  When it surprises and irritates us, there are no limits to the kinds of language we use to express our discontent.  It raises many questions.  

First, all of my searching and shopping was done using google.  I went directly to the store sites e.g. REI, LL Bean, and Amazon where I finally made my purchase.  I did not access any of these companies via Facebook.  The question that came to my mind, was how then did Facebook know I was looking for a barn or field jacket?  Clearly, they are buying or sharing information with google or they have put some kind of tracking spyware cookie thing on my laptop and iPad to track my behavior.  The latter does, in fact, bother me as intrusive.  

People used to wonder how Facebook made money and was worth so much.  This is exactly how.  They have a lot of information about its members, users, or whatever it is we are called.  

A few family members have actually stopped using Facebook for this very reason.  They just do not want to feel manipulated.  They do not want to feel herded like cattle.  The do not want to feel like they are pawns to be manipulated by retailers hence the use of the word chattel.  

The second concern I had was perhaps more important.  I only noticed this after I bought my jacket.  I have had it for a few weeks and I am still getting ads on google.  Really?  Why?  If they are smart enough to know what I have searched and shopped for, why are they not smart enough to know that I already bought one. I did buy it on-line after all.  So... why am I still getting ads?  This is just irritating.  This is what made me notice this practice.  I might not have noticed the ads as much if I were still shopping.  I would have probably found them helpful.  Given, that I made a purchase already amplified the presence of these ads.  

I imagine technology will close this gap.  Soon, instead of offering me products that I have already bought, Facebook will become more sophisticated and offer me related or accessory products in the vein of "hey if you liked the Royal Robbins Billy Goat Bedford jacket... you will probably love these shoes (or shirt, pants, hat etc.) that are based on the same consumer attributes.  This would definitely increase the probability of more sales.

Maybe there oughta be a law.  People should be able register with some government agency to stop being stalked like I just realized I was.  It sounds good in principle but I am sure it will not work?  Why not?  I am simply using the Do Not Call List as a failed model.  I registered for the Do Not Call List.  It worked for awhile. Now, several years later, I am getting more calls than ever.   With no risk of punishment, such regulatory laws are not very effective.  

It does make me think twice about what to search for on-line.

Barn Coats and Field Jackets

My Field Jackets
I once had a barn coat. It was from Lands' End when that brand was newer and hotter before Sears bought them and made it much less relevant.  It was a putty color cotton canvas coat with big pockets and with dark green forest corduroy cuffs and color.  I bought it very reasonably at the Lands' End outlet in Vernon Hills, IL.  It must have been in the mid 1990s.  I do not think I paid much form the coat.  The figure of $20 or $25 is in my head.  

I loved the coat and wore it casually for many years.  It kind of fit my Wilton, CT fall and mild winter weekend style.  I no longer have that coat and am not sure if it wore out or if I donated it to good will because it no longer fit me during an extreme of my weight loss and gain yo-yo. In pondering what happened to this coat,I concluded three things.  First, I am pretty sure that I did not wear it out.  Secondly, I no longer have the coat and have no clue what I did with it. Lastly, I miss that coat and casual look and feel of it.

I have always wanted another barn coat..  That urge become more intense a few weeks ago when I got an email from Hansen's Clothing where I have made purchases before.  I clicked on the linked and went to their outlet site as I am a bottom feeder.  I browsed around looking for deals on Bill's Khakis and other products.  I noticed they carried Royal Robbins a line of casual chic outdoorsy wilderness wear that appeals to the weekend urbane me.  I browsed there and found a similar jacket they called the Billy Goat Bedford Jacket.  It was about $60 and it came in two colors Light Olive and Turkish Coffee.  For some reason, the Turkish Coffee resonated with me.

But, it did not want to spend $60.

I did decide to search more.  So, I googled "barn jacket" and a lot of alternatives came up.  It seems what I have been calling a barn coat is passé.  Field coat seems to be the category these days.  These kinds of jackets are available from Eddie Bauer, REI, J. Crew, and LL Bean to name a few.  They are in a variety of price ranges from $40 to $400 with no collar and cuff trim, corduroy trim, and leather trim. 

Nothing I saw excited me. I kept going back to the Royal Robbins jacket but I still did not want to pay $60 for it.  Since, I liked that jacket, I googled "royal robbins billy goat bedford jacket."  I found several on line sources, one of them being  The price was $20.  So, I bought it.  A few days later it showed up and I love it.

A week later, my mother in-law called to say she had a lot of jackets that belonged to my father in-law.  They were all larges and as that is my current size, she wondered if I wanted to stop by and see what she had and if I may want any or all of them.  So, I stopped by and looked that several jackets.  There was a light olive LL Bean jacket of the same style. It was not quite a barn coat but definitely a field jacket.

Now I have two.  I prefer to price average them at $10 each and feeling even better about them.  Heading into fall, I like both of these jackets that are right on the edge business casual and knocking around.  Both of them are nicer than the Lands' End barn coat I have been missing.