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29 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Breakfast with Scot

Breakfast with Scot is a delightful 2007 Canadian movie. The Scot (Noah Bernett) in question is a young boy whose great misfortune is his mother was a drug addict and raised him as if he was a girl.

His mother, whom we never meet, is finally successful in finding eternal bliss, but the social workers tell him she died in an auto accident instead of as a result of a drug overdose. She has left Scot to live with her former boyfriend, Billy--apparently never having gotten around to updating her posthumous wishes. Scot hasn't seen the old boyfriend for several years and he is living in Brazil.

Until his guardian can return to the U.S., Scot is fostered by the old boyfriend's more stable and responsible brother, Sam (Ben Shenkman), a sports lawyer whose life partner is Eric McNally (Tom Cavanagh), a gay retired hockey player (Toronto Maple Leafs) who currently works as a sportscaster. He's not totally out although everyone seems to know he is gay.

In most cases, the movie would deal with the brother in Brazil first loathing and then finally loving his new parenthood or his brother would be forced to bring his wayward brother and change him into a more responsible person. Yet the movie isn't really about the two brothers who are the legal links to guardianships.

The story centers on the unwilling partner being dragged into foster fatherhood. Eric is only semi-out-of-the-closet and Scot's presence forces him to deal with his own half-acceptance of his homosexuality. Hockey is the means although Scot's ice skating ability first manifests itself with some graceful artistic figure skating moves at the local rink. Ed seems more afraid of his softer, feminine side than Sam and Scot's flamboyance (wearing make-up and feather boas, love of Christmas carols and hugging and kissing other boys) is a greater problem for him than for Sam who considers it as Scot's attempt to keep part of his mother with him.

In a post-Will and Grace world, nothing here is too shocking and even the couple's relationship is underplayed--there's not open affections expressing coupledom. I also wondered about Brian Orser, winner of two Olympic figure skating silver medals (1984, 1988) who seemed to be openly supported by Canadians and was later outed as being gay in a palimony suit. Is ice skating perceived differently in Canada or do people still feel that male figure skaters are most likely gay?

Based on a book by Tufts University professor Michael Downing, this 2007 comedy goes for true feelings. Downing cast Sam as a chiropractor and Ed as an editor for a chic Italian magazine.

As directed by Laurie Lynd, the screenplay adaptation by Sean Reycraft glows with good-natured humor and shows how homophobia can infect and poison friendships. Of course, this has a warm and happy ending--the kind that goes with pancakes and syrup shared around the table when the chef is a young child eagerly waiting for approval.

Some might think this film belongs on TV and perhaps it does, but this movie has the distinction of being the first gay-themed film to get the approval from a major league sports franchise. The Toronto Maple Leafs approved the usage of their logo and name in 2006.

24 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: 8th Hungarian Film Festival (Los Angeles)

Although this is the 8th Hungarian Film Festival, I had never thought much about Hungarian films. This is partially because the festival is on the other side of town, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood and the Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills, but only partially. We definitely have to move beyond the Gabor sisters because Hungary is producing some wonderful movies well-worth seeing. In Hungarian with English subtitles.

Eszter's Inheritance (Eszter Hagyatéka): written and directed by József Sipos, this 2008 movie begins with a woman in despair. This is in a golden distant past, before ballpoint pens. We know she has loved the wrong man and he has brought about a catastrophe, but we aren't sure at first what. She, Eszter (Eszter Nagy-Kálózy), is determined to write down how her one and only love returned after twenty years to totally ruin her. Lajos (Gyorgy Cserhalmi) courted Eszter, but married her sister. Now widowed, he will return with his two children, one of whom needs money and believes that Eszter somehow owes her. Based on a 1939 novel by Hungarian writer Sándor Mírai, this movie is beautifully filmed and the cast move us into a tragic world where a middle-aged woman makes a romantic sacrifice in the name of a love that was and one that was not, during a time when a well-to-do woman had few choices except fate.

Opium (Egy Elmebeteg No Naplója): Like Eszter's Inheritance--also known as Esther's Inheritance, Opium is based on a book, but not a novel...an autobiographical book about a lothario who used his doctor's license to procure both women and drugs, in this case morphine. Directed by Janos Szasz, the long title is Opium: Diary of a Madwoman. The movie begins with a view of the startlingly pale Gizella (Kirsti Stubo). Her platinum blonde white hair is cut short, almost mannish. She is underwater. Alive? Dead? It isn't clear at first. This is psychiatric treatment of a less enlightened age, where lobotomies are commonly practiced and this water therapy attempts to calm the prolific writing of Gizella and her hypersexuality. This 2007 movie, written from Géza Csáth's diaries with András Szekér writing the screenplay, won actor Stubo a best actress award at the 2007 Moscow International Film Festival. Csáth was the pen name of József Brenner (1887-1919) who was a medical doctor from 1909 and did supposedly suffer from writer's block in 1912 when he was a doctor at a Slovakian health spa. There he had sexual intercourse with many women, not all of them apparently consensual. He was a cad, misogynistic and without a conscience. He did eventually commit suicide. This movie is an absorbing account the cruel practices of another era and of how the doctor cured his writer's block while supposedly curing a patient.

Eighth Day of the Week: This is not the 1958 German movie. Reminds one that once the glory of one's youth is gone, one still must live. After her husband dies, Hanna, a former prima ballerina, finds out about her husband's infidelity and her son's indifference to his heritage and her future. She is cheated out of her home and ends up homeless--a fear that many women in many different countries are haunted by. Yet this 2006 movie isn't so dreary and is a gentle fable and how when one really looks at the nobility in all people, one can find a life worth living and, yes, even love late in life. Under the direction of Judi Elek.

Girls (Lányok): Directed by Anna Faur, the 2007 movie begins with a standard declaration that the characters are fictional. Instead of claiming this movie was inspired by a real incident (which it was--in 1997 a taxi driver was murdered for no apparent reason by teenage girls), Faur brings us dirty, bleak realism in a fictional tale about young teens wandering through life without a cause, direction or care. The girls in question are Dini (Fulvia Collongues) and Anita (Hélène François), who, if they lived in the U.S. would be little more than mall rats. They loiter in shopping malls and offer sexual services to taxi drivers in exchange for money or driving lessons. They seem always a little greasy, more than a little cheap and their mouths are caught in a pout accented by cheap, smeared lipstick. Dini is the dominant of the two and seems without any real feeling--except when she is called a whore and takes offense. Anita lives with her mother and her mother's lover who seems to have an interest in both girls. While Anita doesn't involve herself in Anita's sex for sale, she will become involved in the murder. The taxi drivers are no less repellent. Dini's regular customers, Ernő (Sándor Zsótér),is constantly looking for ways to make fast money but he's trapped in a loveless marriage. With teenagers calling out "stupid, cocksucking faggot" or having parties where sex (masturbation and groping) are nothing more than means of passing the time and adults in equally meaningless relationships, director Faur illustrates a culture more dead than alive and without hope. The murder becomes just little monsters being monstrous to a bigger monster.

My Yahoo Years: Part 5 Branding Faux Pas or Branded as Moral Pygmies

Yahoo! was created by Jerry Yang and David Filo while they were studying at Stanford University and began as “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web.” In the spring of 1994, it was renamed Yahoo!, and by 1995, it was incorporated.

According to Wikipedia, they selected the name because it came from Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and meant rude, unsophisticated and uncouth. This hardly sounds like a good choice for a consumer product.

As a brand name, what does Yahoo! stand for? Unlike Google, Yahoo! has a landing page that offers news, weather and other things like information on movies. While the landing page for other countries is similar, the offerings are not the same. Yahoo! for America and Japan have extensive information on their movie Web sites. Go to France or Mexico and you’ll see a marked difference.

On the Yahoo! landing page for France if you look up Maurice Chevalier, you’ll find a brief paragraph:
Chanteur, "Valentine" (1928)... "Prosper" (1935)... "Ma pomme" (1936)... "Ah ! si vous connaissiez ma poule" (1938)... Si le cinéma français l'a beaucoup boudé, les producteurs américains ont élus le gars de Ménilmuche "The French Lover"...

If you try the U.S. version, you’ll find much more in the way of a biography. Besides that, there is information about awards.

Yahoo! in Mexico and Argentina do not currently have a movie sections where you can look up information. They do have an entertainment section with a movie subsection.

Yahoo! Mexico has an English entry for Carlos Saura’s Goya in Bordeau and oddly, it is in English.

Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

There is no searchable movie database for the Yahoo! Argentina Web site.

Yahoo!’s U.S. movie Web site has the following on the Goya movie:
Set in the early 1800s, a tale told in flashbacks by an 82-year-old Spanish artist Francisco Goya, living in exile with the last of his lovers, Leocadia Zorilla de Weiss, and reconstructs the main events of his life for this daughter Rosario. One by one the mysteries surrounding the artist's life are unraveled to unveil the dreams and demons that drove him into exile and are so passionately displayed in his life works.

How odd that a Spanish Web site should have the very same paragraph as the U.S. Web site and both in English. The American Web site, however, has a long biography of the Spanish director.

The question becomes one of what does Yahoo! as a brand stand for? How is it serving its customers? Carlos Saura’s 1998 movie Tango was nominated for a foreign film Academy Award. It featured Julio Bocca and Juan Carlos Copes, both well-known Argentine dancers and choreographers. Yet this Spanish film and its director, also known for this flamenco trilogy, is given more space in English on the U.S. site than on the Spanish sites, including the one starring two famous luminaries of Argentina on the Argentine Web site?

While Yahoo! continues to buy new services and properties, it doesn’t seem to care about the quality of the things it already has such as the movie Web sites.

As a news portal, Yahoo! has done much worse.

Yahoo! assisted the Chinese government by giving information that helped identify Wang Xiaoning, an engineer and dissident who had been posting anonymous writings to an Internet mailing list. Wang was arrested in September of 2002. Yahoo! did not immediately come clean and was soundly criticized by a congressional panel, the House Foreign Relations Committee. According to Wired, other writers such as Shi Tao, Li Zhi and Jiang Lijun were imprisoned because of Yahoo! turning over sensitive information.

According to a San Francisco paper, Yahoo!, Google and Microsoft were questioned about their actions in China.

In February 2006, the Republican-controlled House held a seven-hour hearing in which executives from Google, Microsoft, Cisco Systems and Yahoo! were grilled about their compliance with censorship laws in China and elsewhere. At the time, Callahan testified that when Yahoo! turned over information about Shi to Chinese authorities, "We had no information about the nature of the investigation."

The statement turned out to be false. Documents unearthed by the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation showed that Yahoo! China officials had received a subpoena-like document on April 22, 2004, from the Beijing State Security Bureau that stated, "Your office is in possession of items relating to a case of suspected illegal provision of state secrets to foreign entities." China has often cracked down on dissidents by accusing them of leaking state secrets.

Yahoo! protested that the mistake after the fact, admitting that its failure was not to contact Congress to correct the error. Yet lawmakers were angry not only because they weren’t notified, but also because no one at Yahoo! has been fired or demoted for its handling of the case.

"You think that sends the right message to your employees?" Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach (Orange County), asked sarcastically.
Rohrabacher might be furious if he read Jerry Yang’s account given on the Yahoo! employee intranet.

In his defense, Yang, who was born in Taiwan and came to the U.S. as a child said,
"We continue to believe in engagement in markets like China," Yang said. "Why? Today, despite broad limitations on sensitive political subjects, Chinese citizens know more than ever before about local public health issues, environmental causes, politics, corruption, consumer choice, job opportunities and even some foreign affairs."

Unfortunately, this is not how members of Congress saw it:
But most lawmakers complained that Yahoo! appeared more focused on making money in China - with more than 150 million Internet users - than boosting the freedoms of its people. Smith compared Yahoo! to companies who helped the Nazis accelerate their campaign to exterminate Jews in Europe.

Also in November 2007, Yahoo! settled a lawsuit brought by the two Chinese journalists who had been jailed, but the terms of the deal were not disclosed.

In the Associated Press article, “The company has denied any responsibility and maintained it had been complying with Chinese law when it turned over the e-mail.”

Some good did come of this hearing. In April, Republican congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey brought the Global Online Freedom bill before Congress.

The bill was supported by Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International and has been criticized by Electronic Frontier Foundation. This bill attempts to prevent American Internet companies from participating in the censorship schemes of foreign countries.

Smith stated, "The gross mistake of allowing China to host the Olympics in light of its horrific human rights record will be significantly compounded if we do not speak up and call attention to the human rights heroes who languish in Chinese jails."

According to Forbes, Yahoo! was one of the lobbyists for this bill.

Is this an about face? Not according to the San Francisco paper’s article.
In 2005, Yahoo! sold its interest in Yahoo! China to the Chinese Internet giant, Alibaba. But Yahoo! still has a 40 percent stake in Alibaba and Yang holds one of four seats on the parent company's board. Critics say the arrangement allows Yahoo! to wash its hands of responsibility when China cracks down on Internet users. Yang acknowledged he has little say in enforcement issues.

In the autumn of 2007, the San Francisco Gate article wrote the following: "While technologically and financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies," House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, said at the end of the three-hour hearing.

In 2008, I wonder: Has anything really changed?

Has Yahoo! lived up to the image of rude, uncouth and unsophisticated? Far worse, Yahoo! has been compared to Nazi Germany and been called moral pygmies and no one took umbrage.

15 October 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: The Tree of Life

This 2008 documentary, The Tree of Life, has the misfortune of sharing the same title as a yet-to-be-released 2009 film with Sean Penn and Brad Pitt.

Written by David Donihue and Hava Volterra, this is a film about one woman's search for her roots, one's she had wished to explore with her father but didn't move quick enough.

Volterra grew up in Israel, but had moved to Los Angeles where she worked an engineer. The movie begins with a shot of an MRI machine--white, cold and cavernous. In a voiceover, she recalls how one day, speaking to her father over the phone, she thought he sounded old. The 'urgently wanted him to go and visit Italy." She wants to send her father and mother to Italy, but fate intervenes. Her father, a scientist, had left Italy for Israel when he was in his twenties and never looked back. He never spoke to his children about the family he had left or the life he had left in Italy although his daughter felt he was so Italian in his very essence.

Soon after that phone call, her father learns he has a large tumor in his brain and 30 days later, he is dead, having never returned to the land of his birth.

Recalling her father, Volterra feels he lived his life very quietly. He didn't "promote himself" and that he felt himself a failure for not having won a Nobel Prize. Her uncle, his brother, was very interested in the family heritage and shaking the family tree reveals bankers in Florence, a prime minister, a heretic and an American politician.

Volterra takes the trip back to Italy that her father was unable to take.

As one who once journeyed back to the land of my grandparents and reclaimed my ancestral heritage--for better or worse--this documentary is an encouraging reminder that there is value in the past if only to redefine the present. Yet not everyone's family tree will reveal people of such influence and high stature as is the case with Volterra.

Beyond the sometimes amateurish production values (shaky camera) which is somewhat offset by the quaint animation segments, one wonders what is the real worth of this documentary outside of a personal record of one family's tree?

The tree of life is a concept found in many cultures, uniting the heaven and earth, and is mentioned in the Bible. According to Wikipedia, it is a common term used in Judaism to refer to the Torah itself and, at times, to yeshivas (a rabbinical school) and synagogues as well as to rabbinic literary works.

11 October 2008

My Yahoo Years: Part 3 OSHA and Ergonomics

When I started working at Overture, I was one of many contingency workers. I was hired after taking a typing at the temp agency and then an editing exercise on site.

Like many companies that started as an idea and an agreement between friends, it was suffering growing pains. I have not applied originally because I noticed that as GoTo it was always hiring and that used to be a warning sign of high turnover.

In GoTo’s case, it was that and growth. There never seemed, for a time, to be enough desks and I recall that some of the desks were just boards put across two file cabinets. There were some feel-good things: the free popcorn, free soda, free designer coffee, beer Fridays, instant pay. What do I mean by instant pay? You estimated when you would work, then turned in those hours a few days before payday and then were paid for those hours instead of waiting until next pay period. If you estimated wrong, you got to do historical edits. There would be, from time to time, more free food. When all the computers were down, we once went to have ice cream in Old Pasadena.

Yet, back to those makeshift desk—having planks on cabinets as a desk is acceptable for college students and newlyweds, but for a multimillion dollar business it is actually not up to OSHA standards of safety.

I don’t know exactly who or how this came to the attention of the management, but eventually we were given real desks. Eventually, the instant pay schedule also went away although the free popcorn, free soda and free coffee remained.

We originally were working on a software designed for general usage and then built up by our own software engineers to suit the growing business needs. As we became part of Yahoo! that seemed to be something we also needed to leave behind.

As Yahoo! Search Marketing, it seemed silly to use what was meant for other businesses and as Yahoo! we were competing againt Google. To be competitive, we needed to have our own unique software, apparently, and that would be Panama.

According to Wikipedia, Panama, a new online advertising platform created by Yahoo! was an effort to close the “wide gap with Google in the race for search advertising dollars, a fast-growing and incredibly lucrative business that Google dominates. The platform provides advertisers with a dashboard on which they can manage their marketing campaigns and includes tools that can suggest how advertisters budget their money. It uses a quality index by which advertisers can see how the system will rank an ad and understand how effective their campaign is. This replaced the simplistic Overture algorithm that ranked text ads according to how much advertisers bid for keyword searches by users and this attempts to give higher ranking based on click through rates as well as bids like Google. I paraphrase Wikipedia to ensure that I am not giving away company secrets.

The failure of Panama seems to be apparent when you hear that Yahoo! is now considering having Google do its search marketing.

If you’ve followed my blog, you’ll notice that I wrote up a freeware last year. Called Autohotkey, this freeware is used to program your numeric pad to do repetitive functions based on specific points graphed out on an x and y axis points on your monitor. So if you typed 0, you could double click on something. That saves you two clicks. You would also have it click something on the right side of your screen and then automatically move to the left side of your screen to click something else.

I learned about Autohotkey as a result of the new software used for Panama—not one, but two. A supervisor recommended it and I programmed part of it myself. By that time, I had already filed a workers comp claim due to extensive mousing.

Later, a specific script would be provided to all listings editors. Freeware is not a Yahoo company secret. I believe the provider can tell that it is being downloaded. I wondered how many people downloaded it during March of 2007 in Burbank. Perhaps that’s a secret, but I wonder how many other companies use this software?

The question becomes why should a large company, based on Internet and thus computer usage required another software to make their custom-built software to be usable? Why weren’t standards of ergonomics and human interface considered? If Yahoo! couldn’t consider it for its own people, how much more aware is Yahoo! of its customers and their needs?

Yahoo! is also a source of information, including health information. According to an article listed on Yahoo! Health computer usage can be harzardous to your health.

You can prevent RSI in its early stages by following these suggestions:

* Stop using the computer whenever you start to notice pain or fatigue.
* Watch your posture. Don't hunch your head and neck forward. Keep your back straight, your feet flat on the floor, and your arms parallel to the floor.
∑ Take regular breaks. One option is to install software that reminds you to take breaks.

Yahoo! actually allows its full-time permanent workers to order a software that will time breaks, RSI Guard. When, on the advice of my physician, in 2005, I requested it, I was discouraged from using it. I was told that I would never go advance because I doodled during meetings and I did my “yoga.”

Later, when another co-worker finally got it, she told me a supervisor discouraged her from using it, explaining that if she wanted to remain at Yahoo! she would stop complaining about her repetitive motion pain.

In my case, I was admonished for my low productivity on the day I reported the workers comp industry and the next day back when it became obvious that the wrist braces were too big. I was also suspiciously moved in December 2007 to a position that would be eliminated in February 2008. My HR representative would neglect to tell me that I could refuse such work as it went against my physician’s restrictions and even a month after I had complained about the pain it was causing, my HR person was not able to move me back to a position that my physician had cleared me to work full-time.

This is not to say these were all problems inherent to Yahoo! Overture also had problems listening to the workers and most of the managers I worked under had been there during the Overture days. Training in the Overture guidelines was confusing and if it was confusing for college graduates, most of whom, like myself held higher degrees, how much more confusing was it for people who had trouble comprehending what a superlative was?

If you’ve noticed, now as Yahoo! Search Marketing, the move has been to make the guidelines easier to understand and more like Google. Although search marketing should be essentially a service-oriented business, there was a lack of concern for the customers as compared to more traditional service jobs that I had worked at such as retail sales or food service. Which is why later Yahoo! would make a move to be more “customer-centric.”

Yet Panama also showed how some of that arrogance that came from forging a new type of service and business remained. How long do you think the managers were ideating over what to call the ads—things we once called ad titles and descriptions? They came up with the label: creatives (among other things). That didn’t last long. What customer service person or marketing person wants to waste time explaining to a customer what a creative is and why you’re calling an advertisement a creative?

Kevin Lee of ClickZ Network looked at Panama in September of 2006.

Phase one of Panama is an updated DTC that allows for a more flexible Ad Group structure, permitting a single creative (or group of creative units) to be shared by a basket of keywords. Yahoo even goes as far as to expand the targeting definition beyond keywords to reflect that the DTC (like Google and MSN) is evolving beyond search. Yahoo calls the keywords "targets" in one presentation, but in the DTC they're still called "keywords" within the publicly shared tabs, so there's no need to start freaking out yet. When one thinks about marketing, much non-search marketing is really about reaching a target market: home buyers, music enthusiasts, in-market auto buyers, new moms, and so forth.

If you look at the current information about Yahoo! Search Marketing such as their introduction and their guidelines, words like targets for keywords and creatives for ads or ad creatives are no longer used.

By March 2007, some bloggers had a list of complaints including StraightUpSearch.com had a post with a wish list that included dayparting, ad position reporting by time frame, time of day and time zone specification and the ability to choose which sites you want your ad to appear on and which ones you do not.

The post concluded: “Think like your customers and give them what they really want - transparency and control..”

TechCrunch also had a pertinent question: Why can’t Yahoo Search Marketing block fraudulent transactions. According to Duncan Riley in a December 17, 2007 post, a leading affiliate of Yahoo Search marketing’s program was earning five figure monthly returns until he received an email from Yahoo! saying that 65 percent of his traffic was signing up for YSM with stolen credit cards and so Yahoo canceled his account.

Riley didn’t think it made sense to cancel the affiliate’s account.

I have to admit that I applied for Yahoo Search Marketing for one of my blogs but was rejected. Google, however, accepted my blog for its free Adsense ads.

I notice that for pay-per-click (PPC) ads you can also be shown on Google Maps, something that doesn’t seem to be available on Yahoo. Yahoo maps like Google can give you live or real time traffic, but this isn’t has good as SigAlert.com. Google took their maps and improved them with features such as terrain and street view. The street view is great for someone who’s going to a new place and wants to know what landmarks to look out for.

Why didn’t Yahoo! think like map users?

Why didn’t Yahoo! think like map users? Why didn't Yahoo! think to make software easier to understand and easier to use, not only for its customers, but also for its workforce? Too busy ideating?

While busy ideating, Yahoo failed to consider simple things like ergonomics in its new software design. If Yahoo! can't think of their own employees, can Yahoo! really know what people need or want?

10 October 2008

My Yahoo Years: Part 2 Health Insurance and Workers Rights

You might ask why I stayed so long. For a while, it was that I believed in Yahoo as a brand and as a company and then later, I just needed to have health insurance. Health insurance was later used as a bargaining chip during the layoffs. In this respect, Yahoo! wasn’t unusual, but it does point out how national health insurance would improve the status and treatment of America’s workers.

This also goes beyond just a matter of workers rights, but also the rights guaranteed most citizens of the US, those guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, such as the First Amendment.

What price can one place on freedom of speech? Yahoo put a price on the First Amendment—one month's salary and two months worth of COBRA health insurance for each and every one of the people who were recently laid off.

The news came on 12 February. People were called at home, called on vacation or escorted individually into a conference room before being escorted off the campus. I was called on my way to my doctor's appointment for a workers comp re-injury—a re-injury that could have been avoided if Yahoo had paid attention to my doctor's orders and my own complaints of pain. This is to say that although I complained to the HR representative on the last day of December and requested to be returned to the job I had been cleared to work full-time at by my physician, yet as of the last few days of January, I was still waiting.

California requires 60-day notice or at least 60 days worth of pay and benefits. In addition to those, Yahoo was willing to help those laid off find work through a referral service as well as that extra one month of pay and two months worth of COBRA health insurance if and only if individual employees were willing to sign a severance agreement which included signing off on all claims—known and unknown—of discrimination and signing a non-disparagement agreement.

Non-disparagement agreements are becoming widespread it seems. What is the harm of that? Plenty if the company is violating state or federal labor laws. The Yahoo non-disparagement clause is as follows:

You agree not to disparage Yahoo! Or its officers, directors, employees, shareholders or agents, in any manager likely to be harmful to them or their business, business reputation or personal reputation; provided however that statements which are complete and made in good faith in response to any question, inquiry or request for information required by legal process shall not violate this paragraph.

This means that I could not work as an Internet services analyst and be critical of Yahoo's services in comparison with MSN or Google for the rest of my life. The agreement isn't reciprocal. If there was a subpoena, however, I could respond to specific questions.

While I immediately, as per their instructions, inquired about my future ability to analyze search marketing services and they assured me I would receive a response to my questions, I never did until after the first deadline when I reminded them that their response hadn't come soon enough. The best they could do was allow me to speak freely as required by my employer (but not supervisor in the case of a non-paid work or educational treatise).

They also couldn't help me get around another part of the separation agreement where I would have to swear that I have "not suffered any discrimination, harassment, retaliation, or wrongful treatment by any released party." Unfortunately, as of 2 February 2008, I had filed another complaint to Human Resources about wrongful treatment.

I had asked for arbitration as Yahoo was unwilling to follow my doctor's instructions, leading to re-injury and even when informed I was in pain, I wasn't allowed to return to work that I could do—the work that my doctor had cleared me to work full-time at in October 31, 2007.

Yahoo was funny like that.

Yahoo, like other companies and private individuals, is protected from liable, slander and defamation of character. You can't yell fire in a crowded public place as per Schenck v. United States - a case that actually was about the distribution of anti-draft fliers during the World War I. Yahoo is protected by regular contract agreements from having employees steal ideas they came up with while under contract and working at Yahoo on Yahoo projects.

Yahoo is also a news portal and one would think supportive of journalists—unless they are in China being investigated by the Chinese government.

Dan Fost wrote in the San Francisco Post that non-disparagement agreements were surprisingly effective, but also problematic for reporters—and somewhat questionable when it was media outlets requiring non-disparagement clauses signed for severance.

He reported,

The issue first reared its ugly head in February when Amazon.com -- not even a media company -- tried to make the clause part of a severance package for 1,300 laid-off workers. Workers who refused to sign it would get only two weeks' severance, compared with the more generous 12-week packages awarded to those willing to keep their mouths shut. But in the resulting hue and cry, Amazon backed down.

Non-disparagement clauses kept workers from Inside.com, BabyCenter.com, Healtheon/WebMD, Health magazine, Cnet Networks, according to Fost.

It's just standard business in the tech world, Cnet spokeswoman Blaise Simpson told me. "That's part of our standard agreement when they become an employee here," Simpson said. "The First Amendment does not prevent private parties from voluntarily entering into a contract to keep information confidential."

She added, "In a situation like this, it's not to anyone's benefit to disparage anyone."

Yes, but I thought the truth would set one free?

If I live 20 more years, Yahoo would be paying me about 50 cents per day for that free speech. If I lived 40 more years, it would be less than 30 cents per day.

Bennett Hall of the Corvallis Gazette Times wrote about HP's 2005 layoff of 570 employees.

Most of the five-page document is boilerplate stuff — standard promises not to give away company secrets, take home office equipment or make copies of confidential customer lists.

But right smack in the middle of the 17 numbered paragraphs comes Article 9, which begins: “Employee agrees that he/she will not make or publish, either orally or in writing, any disparaging statement regarding HP.”

In the article, the possibility that whistleblowers might be afraid to report a former employer's misdeeds after signing such a clause was considered. The agreements are legal because you are allowing an organization to compensate you for your silence. You're losing your job. Can you afford to turn away from money?

“Most people are not in a financial position to walk away from it,” Hunt noted, “so it’s not as freely entered into as one would like.”

Hall spoke with social ethicist Courtney Campbell who commented:

“Even though it has legal standing, it’s really a form of moral blackmail,” said Campbell, who chairs the philosophy department at Oregon State University. “It’s a form of intimidation of the employee to keep silent, to place a muzzle on them, which I think is contrary to the values of a free society.”

Having been through two major injuries in the last five years, I cannot actually afford to give up that money, however, I also think I cannot lie.

After speaking with a person at Industrial Relations, I was encouraged to go to Fair Employment and consult a lawyer because there were several "red flags." Yahoo's actions astounded or confounded insurance adjusters and my own doctor. One of the first questions I was asked during my Fair Employment interview was had I signed the severance agreement.

What's wrong with Yahoo? Their managers do not seem to know state and federal labor laws and instead of recognizing their errors and the possible repercussions those discriminatory actions might have on employees, they gloss over those problems and carry on as if nothing was wrong.

Why haven't these practices been stopped? In my opinion, formers Yahoos are too afraid to talk for fear of losing their severance pay and current Yahoos are afraid of losing their job so they won't talk and they won't stand as witnesses. This probably isn't peculiar to Yahoo.

From what I heard in the group severance explanation meeting in February, perhaps the cause for greatest concern was health insurance. Aren't Americans all just one major injury away from poverty? That's probably why, without making any sort of limitation, Yahoo was willing to offer two months worth of COBRA for meeting their deadlines.

I know that I was willing to tolerate certain things because I desperately wanted to keep my health insurance. I'm sure the desperation at Yahoo is much worse now, particularly since one person they kept on, took a manager's advice and didn't initially report her on-the-job injury. She mentioned she had even been told by a supervisor to quit complaining. Last I heard, she was paying for her own physical therapy.

Were there other red flags? Will we ever hear about them? Does Yahoo have a reason to stop? Why should they when they can intimidate or buy off people so easily?

I wonder how it works in countries like Japan, Canada or Great Britain where there is socialized medicine or national health care systems. I don't know what kind of carrots they use when health care is guaranteed.

So in some ways, the lack of a national health insurance does influence free speech. Fear of losing health insurance, even for a month or two months puts a chill on free speech. Companies like Yahoo take advantage of that in their non-disparagement agreements.

My Yahoo Years: Part 1 Managers and Mismanagement in Pasadena and Burbank

Ever work at a place where a supervisor called you at home and told you you were driving your mini van to the next county? He hadn’t cleared you for time off with pay. He hadn’t even cleared pay for your gas. He just needed you to empty your car that night. Even the next morning, the managers weren’t sure about either the time or the gas.

When I complained, my manager defended that supervisor’s professionalism.

That’s what it was like, working for Yahoo! Search Marketing. As it turned out, I was told after the fact that I’d be using a vacation day—as if there weren’t better ways to use a vacation than driving a load of donated goods to firefighters to make Jerry Yang look good.

I only found out later when I complained that although we worked next to Burbank airport, the supervisor thought it was too much trouble to rent a van. Why have someone else clean the car, pay to lease a car, pay for insurance and drive when you can have an employee do it on their off hours and vacation time?

The week after that incident, as a reward, for that sleepless night spent cleaning and washing my car, I was told I could never volunteer for any charity-related activity again. Up until then I had been the co-chair of the Yahoo volunteer committee. My co-chair was the supervisor who made the decision to take my mini van on a trip that I hadn’t expected to go on. I was also one of the thousands laid off a few months later in mid-February.

What do you expect? This is the same place where a manager prevented me from changing my Tuesday-Saturday schedule to my preferred Sunday-Thursday for two years. Employees couldn’t turn in a form for a schedule change request; they asked their managers. My manager just decided that my interest in taking business classes on Saturdays wasn’t important enough and never turned in my name—for two years or eight quarterly review sessions. Was that manager punished? Of course not.

When I finally was granted permission to have a schedule change, her manager demanded that I never, ever ask for Sunday off.

The reason for this? I had taken too many Saturdays off the previous year. I pointed out it wasn’t written down anywhere (like our contracts) that we had a limited number of weekend days we could take off. He replied that managers would take aside an employee when they had reached their limit. My manager never did and managers have to sign off on each vacation day request. So you might ask, if I got permission, why was I being restricted for doing what my manager had given me permission to do?

The person I was trading schedules with wasn’t under the same restriction. No one in my department was. This wasn’t a secret. Other managers knew and instead of stepping in and objecting, in my opinion, they took advantage of the situation.

When my aunt died and I asked to take a Tuesday off, I was told I was too late by my immediate manager even though it was a Saturday. I persisted. She relented. When the software designed to measure our productivity had obvious problems—showing one thing to the manager and another to the employee, I was held to the score I could not see and put on probation. A request to have the equation used for each value so I could make an Excel spreadsheet was ignored.

Even when I could show that the score might change—going up or down for the same day in less than 24 hours, it didn’t matter. I found that other people had noticed the problem and just worked around it. I had been there before, working during lunch and overtime without pay in order to make my quotas. The first time, I had thought I was at fault. The second time, I wasn’t sure any more. The third time, I knew that the problem was in the methodology used to determine the metrics. I wasn’t willing to work any more overtime without pay.

When I challenged that manager in question about the no-Sundays off policy, he sent me an email. I responded with legal questions and cc’d his supervisors and HR in Sunnyvale. I got a month of silence and then the no-Sundays policy was rescinded without an apology or admission of wrongdoing. Instead, I was given a bonus and told that I talked too much on the phone among other things—things that were subjective.

I went home and cried, basically having a nervous breakdown. What I should have done was complain to Fair Employment. What I did instead is try to go through the bureaucracy of Yahoo’s HR department and workers comp.

Yahoo! Search Marketing was founded in Pasadena. One of several ideas that came out of Idealab, it was the first company to over pay-for-placement services on Internet search terms. Y!SM wasn’t always under the purple flag. Beginning as GoTo in 1998, it was renamed Overture in 2001. In 2003, it became part of Yahoo! and eventually its name was changed eventually to Yahoo! Search Marketing in 2005. I was there through the launch of a project called Panama and laid off in 2008 while on workers comp sick leave, having asked for arbitration as was required by my contract. My lay off was the first response given by Yahoo to that request.

According to Wikipedia, Panama, a new online advertising platform created by Yahoo! was an effort to close the wide gap with Google in the race for search advertising dollars, a fast-growing and incredibly lucrative business that Google dominates. The platform provides advertisers with a dashboard on which they can manage their marketing campaigns and includes tools that can suggest how advertisers budget their money. It uses a quality index by which advertisers can see how the system will rank an ad and understand how effective their campaign is. This replaced the simplistic Overture algorithm that ranked text ads according to how much advertisers bid for keyword searches by users and this attempts to give higher ranking based on click through rates as well as bids like Google. I paraphrase Wikipedia to ensure that I am not giving away company secrets.

If you’ve listened to the financial news, you know that Panama has not been successful and Yahoo is under threat by Microsoft and has turned to Google for help.

Clearly Yahoo! is having some problems, but the problems are not just in its failed business models, but also in its failure to understand the laws that govern industrial relations in the state of California as well as some basic, old business rules.

07 October 2008

Theater Review: Inside Privates Lives for a Slightly Catty Characterizations of 20th Century Newsmakers

You’ll be asked to turn off your cell phones, but for the Sunday evening performances of “Inside Private Lives” at the Fremont Centre Theatre, you don’t have to zip your lips. Backtalk is heavily encouraged.

After all, the six people who will make up the bill are from a cast of 16 newsmakers who often sought attention.

The cast of characters are all from the 20th century and changes from night to night. While they break the fourth wall and speak, touch and even dance with audience members, they do not interact with each other. One character at a time, tells his or her story. The night I attended, Kristin Stone opened the evening as Christine Jorgensen, the first transgender personality. During her heyday in the 1950s the joke was: "Christine Jorgensen went abroad, and came back a broad." Jorgensen is disappointed to find that Playboy magazine isn’t interested in having her as a centerfold and chides the audience members as Hugh Hefner and other Playboy related people for their lack of interest. Stone is charming and polished, the model of the June Cleaver-type of woman who was just naughty enough to become a nightclub act (Jorgensen died in 1989)

Adam LeBow was a sincere, young Elia Kazan, who is meeting with his friends who had been in the Communist cell with him. He’s been recalled before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee where he will names names, an act that will save him from being blacklisted but would follow him for decades.

While Kazan and Jorgensen are polite, Leonora Gershman’s Julia Phillips is a foul-mouthed bitter woman on cocaine, railing at the executives who are firing her even though she won an Academy Award in 1973 for producing “The Sting” (an honor shared with Tony Bill and her then-husband Michael Phillips). She also was one of the producers of the 1977 “Taxi Driver” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and would, in 1991, write “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again,” a book that topped the New York Times bestseller list but named high profile names in Hollywood.

For those who don’t remember, former president Jimmy Carter had a younger brother, Billy (Bryan Safi), who was best known for swilling beer and behaving badly. With his brother running for re-election, Billy has just been told he won’t be allowed to speak at the Democratic National Convention and proceeds to get drunk.

David Shofner as David Koresh isn’t mesmerizing, yet does have the kind of confidence one would expect from a man who was accused of taking young girls as his wives and concubines and made Waco, Texas a fiery inferno in 1993. Shofner’s Koresh has just announced the abolishment of all marital bonds and his intention to become the husband of all the faithful women.

Mary MacDonald as Marge Schott has come before a committee hoping to be cleared to adopt a child. The infamous foul-mouthed former owner of the Cincinnati Reds was well-known for her love of her St. Bernard, her racist slurs and her praise of Hitler who began good, but just went too far. MacDonald’s Schott is a tough woman, who wants to be one of the boys and is utterly oblivious to the effect of her cringe-worthy sentiments.

Phillips died in 2002. Kazan in 2003. Carter in 1988. Schott, in 2004. None of the characters are living.

Other characters who might appear would be King Edward VIII (Freddy Douglas), Ann Landers (Diana Morrison), evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson (Molly Hagan), Channeler of the spirit “Seth” Jane Roberts, (Maddisen Krown), Tupperware Home Sales innovator Brownie Wise (Eileen O'Connell), IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Paul Thomas Ryan), and the woman Edward gave up his throne for, Wallis Simpson (Shelia Wolf).

Under the direction of Lee Michael Cohn, the segments are funny and generally flow although with audience participation some of the pacing is unpredictable. Yet on the night I attended, the performers handled the questions and minor heckling with grace and in character.

Originally opening in Los Angeles in October 2006, this production was performed in New York City and was part of the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Inside Private Lives continues until sometime in November at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena. Sundays, 7 p.m. General admission, $25; seniors and students $20. Call (866) 811-4111.