Wednesday, November 30, 2005

More Canuckery

See what happens when you pay more attention to politics than to marketing and advertising. No sooner does the Canadian Liberal Party lose a vote of confidence in the country’s House of Commons – that would be in Toronto – than Leigh Lerner sends another story from Montreal:

A city boy, Jean, moved to the country and bought a donkey from an old farmer for $100.00. The farmer agreed to deliver the donkey the next day. The next day the farmer drove up and said, “Sorry son, but I have some bad news, the donkey died.”

Jean replied, “Well then, just give me my money back.” The farmer said, “Can't do that. I went and spent it already.”

Jean said, “OK then, just unload the donkey.” The farmer asked, “What ya gonna do with him, eh?” Jean replied, “I’m going to raffle him off.” The farmer was shocked. "You can't raffle off a dead donkey!” Jean said, "Sure I can. Watch me. I just won’t tell anybody he is dead.”

A month later the farmer met up with Jean and asked, “What happened with that dead donkey?” Jean replied, “I raffled him off. I sold 500 tickets at two dollars a piece and made a profit of $898.00.”

The farmer asked, “Didn't anyone complain?” Jean answered, “Just the guy who won. So I gave him his two dollars back.”

Jean grew up and eventually became the Prime Minister of Canada.

The Liberal Prime Minister who lost the vote and will have to stand for re-election is Paul Martin. It sounds like he could use a good advertising agency.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Short Endorsement

It is way too easy to complain these days – perhaps it always has been. Moses was reported to have been extremely upset with the contractors for delays in building his ark: I’ll post that story someday.

Since Signalwriter has just acquired a second computer, the “executive offices” have known the joys and the frustrations of dual access.

And as several of you know, I have been having connection problems, with intermittent access to the Internet this past week, starting just before Thanksgiving. (“Intermittent” is Texas slang for “the dang thing don’t work right!”) After trying a number of fixes, the problem has been narrowed down to the connection between the Time-Warner cable and the outside wall of our premises.

I have heard from friends and colleague innumerable times about difficulties with the cable company (ies) and the Internet service providers. I’d simply like to balance those remarks with the ongoing friendliness and helpfulness I have experienced with the EarthLink technical support people – with whom I’ve been on the telephone three or four times in the last few days.

While the experience is angryfying, and the problem is not yet fixed, my conversations with EarthLink have been pleasant and encouraging. “A soft word turneth away wrath,” so ‘tis said. Until something truly aggravating happens, I’d like to thank the TSOs at EarthLink for their telephone demeanor.

Something else to be thankful for, I guess.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Do-Right Red

First, Leigh Lerner e-mailed from Toronto, “We, too, celebrated Thanksgiving because it gives Sasha [Leigh’s daughter] an anchor in the midst of a sea of Canuckery. At that time of year, every true blue American longs for a table groaning from heavy food and grandpa’s bad jokes.”

I responded, “As a Republican, I of course prefer ‘every red-blooded American’ versus ‘every true blue American.’ So much for what the Red State-Blue State divide has done for our clichés.”

What I got back was a lesson from the Frozen North: “I don’t know where this red/blue stuff started. Reds were always leftists, except the Bosox. Oh, and don’t forget the Cincinnati Reds, who had to be Republican: ask the Tafts who broadcast their games.

“Up here, where even American red stuff coagulates in the veins at this time of year, Red means Liberal. The Liberals produce a Red Book for every election, telling you in advance where they’re going to spend all the money they tax away so prolifically, and even some they intend to print.

“Blue means Blue Jays, as in T.O., or Blue equals Conservative, and that means Alberta. Alberta’s blue is more toward the black, like that refineable liquid in the ground. Blue Collars always vote Red in these parts, New Democrat and PQ kind of red, which is redder than any pink-o down there can imagine.

“They even give every Quebecois a red card to give to the doctor for free service 90 days after you need it. Up here, Red also means RCMP, which you don’t mess with, even if they look like Dudley Do-Right©, even if you’re from Texas. Also, Red means $50 bills, which you want a whole mess of, and no matter how many you have, it's only 85% of what your Houston buddies’ green ones can buy.

“Now what's this about Red States and Blue States?”

Photo courtesy Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Thanks, eh.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Bakers Saddened

Steve Collier sent this: “I hope this does not break your heart. I hope that you can pull yourself together. Please join me in remembering a great icon of the entertainment community.” The news item is all over the net by now – one source has attributed it to a Mr. Joseph White in Indiana. I have added information from my own historical records.

Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy died yesterday of a yeast infection and trauma complications from repeated pokes in the belly. He was 71.

Fresh was buried in a lightly greased coffin. The grave site was piled high with flours. Dozens of celebrities turned out to pay their respects, including Mrs. Butterworth, Hungry Jack, the California Raisins, Betty Crocker, the Hostess Twinkies, and Captain Crunch. The eulogy was delivered by Aunt Jemima, who lovingly described the Doughboy as a man who never knew how much he was kneaded.

Fresh rose quickly in show business, but his later life was filled with turnovers. He was not considered a very smart cookie, wasting much of his dough on half-baked schemes.

Well known for doing his own stunts, Fresh was badly burned in a microwave oven accident on a movie set in the early ‘70s. He also became the subject of off-color jokes over the past several decades, such as ‘Yo’momma like the Pillsbury Doughboy: Everyone gets a poke!’ Despite being a little flaky at times and frequently pie-eyed, he was still a crusty old man and considered a roll model for millions.

According to a source close to the family, Fresh is survived by his wife Play Dough; two children, John Dough and Jane Dough; Fresh and his wife had one in the oven. He is also survived by his elderly father, Pop Tart. Piping hot rumors, though, credit Fresh with a girlfriend of many years, Poppie; a son, Popper; another son, Bun Bun; a cat named Biscuit; and Flapjack the dog.

The funeral was held at 3:50 for about 12 minutes.

RIP, Poppin' - you were the toast of the town.

Pillsbury and the Doughboy character are trademarks of The Pillsbury Company. Photo from

Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanksgiving Past

This post’s subtitle could be The Incredible Lateness of Thanking. This is due to a disagreement between the original computer and the new one, which pair I networked on Monday evening using a router. The combined system worked reasonably well ‘til Wednesday afternoon – then started acting up. (Please: all Macintosh users forego the usual criticism.)

Late this afternoon, before our Thanksgiving sit-down, I took the router out of line and plugged one computer into the EarthLink modem…and it connected. So I’m posting this to wish you all a happy Thanksgiving – just a little late in the day.

There were eight for the feast: Barbara and I; Doug and Donna and Maddy (son, daughter-in-law, and grand-daughter respectively); Rose Slavik (mother-in-law); and Elisabeth and Steve Lanier, friends from Galveston, where they own the
DesignWorks gallery on Postoffice Street.

Barbara outdid herself. Plenty of turkey and dressing with gravy, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, sweet peas, cole slaw, rolls. Desserts included Barbara’s traditional pumpkin, pecan, and mince pies – the mince was particularly fine this year. You’ll notice that I have never suffered from my wife’s cooking; rather, the reverse.

The evening ended with a fairly intense discussion of branding, of all things. Steve used to teach Branding for the Arts years ago…so the topic covered everything from non-profits to department stores. Elisabeth won’t set foot in a Wal-Mart, but readily admits to frequenting Target (but shopping is limited on Galveston Island).

I originally intended to dedicate this year’s Thanksgiving post to friend and blog-watcher Susan Kirkland because she lives in North Carolina: oddly, the largest producer of turkeys in the US. However, for everyone who wished us well for this particularly American holiday, and whose e-mails I missed because of computer outages, I return best wishes…a little past due as I said but very warmly meant and sent. I have much to be thankful for, friends and colleagues near and far.

More tomorrow.

Photograph of President Truman receiving a Thanksgiving turkey from members of the Poultry and Egg National Board and other representatives of the turkey industry, outside the White House. Thanks to

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Chilly? Alaska.

Thanksgiving is also when we think about family and friends far away. You can’t get much farther away, in terms of the continental US, than Alaska. I was a little surprised to get this from Scott McKinley: friend, former marcom client, and demon cyclist.

“Congrats on the Lantern awards! I accepted a job in Anchorage, Alaska (still with ConocoPhillips) as a Commercial Analyst – economic analysis. Got a phone call the evening of Hurricane Rita's appearance in Houston asking me to report at the Anchorage office on November 1st. It's been a whirlwind ever since. After the 2005 hurricane season, moving to Anchorage was the major strategy of my ‘hurricane evacuation’ plan.

“Should you and Barbara ever wish to have a ‘home base’ while exploring the Last Great Frontier, know that a guest bedroom with y’all’s name awaits you.

“P.S. 22 degrees and falling....and here's the view from my ‘backyard’.’”

It’s possible he accepted the job because it puts him that much closer to the mountain named after him, in the Alaska Range. That’s where you get Alaska’s most famous mountain, Denali, also referred to as Mount McKinley – North America’s highest peak at 20,320 feet…which is about as tall as Scott.

Happy Thanksgiving, Scott, and to all far-away friends.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Familial Goose

Wanted to post this feedback from Lynn Slavik, Minnesota-based sister-in-law (who's married to Greg, who is Barbara's...oh never mind - she's family).

“Wonderful photo of Barb... I, too, noticed the fridge decor even before you brought it to our attention. Well, Greg lost (won?) the coin toss, and he picked up Rose Mary after work and got her to Tom and Peg's last night. I think her flight leaves here around 10:45, so soon she will be all yours! I worked late and didn't have a chance for a visit with Tom and Peg, which has become somewhat of a tradition as well.

“We had her and the Musils over for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday. Greg introduced the clan to the game of Dominos. It took Rose Mary a bit to catch on, but the cribbage board never came out, so that must mean something. I learned it when I visited my aunt and uncle who winter in Florida. It's all the rage with the senior crowd, I guess. She'll need a cribbage fix, so I hope you'll have the board all set up upon her arrival.

“My mom and dad are hosting Thanksgiving in their apartment this year. We will be close, but then, we always have been. We're having our traditional goose, dumplings and sauerkraut. (Turkey breast for those who have not fully embraced the Hrabe tradition.) I'm sure you're looking forward to the holiday as much as we are. Enjoy your time with the family. We'll be thinking of you.

“Greetings to all... Love, Lynn and Greg.”

Tradition, Tradition

It is the modern era – it’s always the modern era. Families change and grow. Traditions often change too, and it’s rarely more evident than at Thanksgiving.
Understand, in some cases, that one or another “family tradition” may no longer be possible. At Signalwriter’s home, however, we’re holding onto these traditions with a grip of steel.

Example: Barbara’s reluctance to be photographed, as you can see in this dramatic demonstration, photo by Rachel Elizabeth Baron from last Thanksgiving’s dinner preparations, ©2004. It is an honored custom in the Baron kitchen.

Note the very traditional refrigerator decor. The fresh-baked mince pie in the foreground. The colorful apron. The firmly upraised palm. She's not asking for permission.

Perhaps your entire extended family can't gather together at your house. Instead, find new ways to celebrate together from afar, such as sharing pictures, e-mails or videotapes. I’m sharing this picture of Barbara with you, as one more way to wish you a Happy Turkey Day to come.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Runeous Communication

Meet the Elder Futhark. I learned about it from a crossword clue recently, and had to Google it. For someone interested in communication, runes are the first language – and the first symbology in the European heritage.

Runes are a Norse alphabet (even though they aren't really an alphabet, are they?) developed around 200 BCE, from characters used for magical purposes. According to Nordic legends, they were discovered by Odin as he hung upside down and wounded for nine days on Yggdrasil, the World Tree.

There are three commonly known rune sets: the Anglo-Saxon futhork; the Danish short-twig or script alphabet; and the Younger and Elder Futhark. It’s obvious that JRR Tolkien knew all about ‘em.

The Elder Futhark is the oldest. There have been as few as 16 and as many as 33 runic characters at various times. Runes have been used as a divinatory device from the beginning. Some scholars believe that at one time, a special class of diviners who dealt exclusively with rune-reading. The word “rune” literally means whisper or secret.

As currently accepted, the Elder Futhark has 24 runes. It consists of three sets of eight letters. This “runic alphabet” got its name after the sound of what is traditionally held to be the six first runes in this alphabet: F - U - Þ - A - R – K. Listen to how they're pronounced here.

Looking at these runes as symbols, a simple transliteration of my initials would allow for a divination. “R” is raido. “L” is laguz. And “B” is berkanan.

Raido-Laguz-Berkanan. According to one divinatory Web site, the first English word in each symbol’s set of meanings may foretell the runic message. In the case of RLB, those words would be “journey,” passage,” and “renewal.” Isn’t that an interesting gloss on my life and career?

The Elder Futhark makes up a fascinating sidebar in the history of human communications. At the same time, it’s a clever starting point to examine shapes and meanings as visual signals, since each of the runes itself stands for an object, just as Chinese characters did originally.

On the other hand, it may be mere entertainment. What do you call a Norwegian paleolithographer wearing a Stetson? A “Runestone Cowboy.”

Happy Monday, y’all. – and best wishes for Thanksgiving to come.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

“Tanti Auguri”

Today is the birthday of Rosario Laudicina. We could not travel to Catalafimi, in Sicily, home of his forebears, so 30 or 40 of his close friends congregated at a party last evening in the Heights, hosted by Kelly Melone. She organized. She arranged. She cooked. She threw a wonderful bash – and it was a terrific surprise for Rosario.
There was hardly a bottle of Vino di Sicilia left unconsumed (and no one sprung an extra leg as a result). Hardly a bite of food left on the table: antipasti, pork loin, pasta, side dishes by the dozen.

A giant Italian cream cake was served up in slabs. The official ceremony was marked by our entire group singing “Tanti Auguri A Te”…quite an accomplishment given that precisely two people could actually sing Italian. The rest of us got it quickly enough. Bravo!

Now it’s a funny thing: “Tanti Auguri” is the Italian version of “Happy Birthday.” It literally means “many auguries.” Auguries for a continuing life filled with fulfillment and happiness. (We did not dissect the entrails of the cream cake to read the auguries – we properly presume that the foretellings would be, for Rosario, positive.)

I have known Rosario for 20 years. I look forward to celebrating many more for him and for us all. Tanti Auguri, Signor Laudicina.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Antiwar Democrats

You won’t read much about politics here on Signalwriter. Too uncivil. But I can’t resist a historical opportunity. Listening to conservative talk shows on radio here in Houston over the past few weeks, commentators have had difficulty characterizing Democrats who are violently against the ongoing “war in Iraq.” In one broadcast conversation, between Sean Hannity and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, Gingrich was asked if he (as an historian) had ever seen anything like this sort of opposition.

He mentioned the British appeasement of Hitler and the Nazis prior to World War II. Speaker Gingrich has not dug deeply enough into history, nor had Mr. Hannity.

“Copperhead” is the term they are looking for. It’s a good old American term for the antiwar faction of the Democratic party during our Civil War. While you can easily Google the word, the most accessible explanation is in the James M. McPherson book, Battle Cry of Freedom: “…virtually all those who denounced and resisted the militia draft were Democrats.”

Not only did these Democrats lead the resistance against the then-new draft laws, “The ‘copperhead’ faction of the northern Democratic party opposed the transformation of the Civil War into a total war – a war to destroy the old South itself” and the evils of slavery.

As a group, copperheads vilified President Abraham Lincoln, ranted incessantly against Unionist war aims, accused generals and troops of awful ravages against Southern slaveholders – and you wouldn’t believe the language they used in their newspapers between 1863 and 1865. This segment of the Democratic party even nominated a General, George McClellan, to run against Lincoln in the 1864 election. (Note the engraving above, from the NY Historical Society.)

With good reason, this violent, nasty opposition afforded War Democrats and Republicans the chance to question the loyalty of those who opposed Lincoln's policies, either military or civil (for example, the suspension of habeas corpus). It was not until years after the Civil War that the Democratic party lived down the association.

So if, by some chance, you’re looking for a collective noun to describe some of this over-the-top antiwar activity, “copperhead” should do nicely.

Historical Saturday, y'all.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

We're Winners!

Last night, at the Business Marketing Association (BMA) Lantern Gala, 200+ people saw the Landmark Image Campaign win Best of Show [Space Advertising/Campaign, Full-Page or Larger, 4-color, Budget over $100K].

BMA's Lantern show, taking place this year at the downtown Hilton Intercontinental Hotel, is the premier competitive event in Texas business-to-business marketing. It covers the best in over 40 categories of b2b marcom.

This series of ads was created by Landmark’s own Sam Camero and Richard Laurence Baron (that would be moi). We conceptualized the campaign, Sam did the design and production, and I wrote the headlines and copy. It was a great experience creating the ads, for an outstanding client. Communicating business benefits dramatically is the key – awards are icing on the gateau.
The series’ lead “Made to Measure” ad – shown above – also won an Award of Excellence [Space Advertising/Single Ad, Two-Page Spread or Larger] last evening.

Congratulations and best wishes to Sam for his great work. Kudos also to Donna Collum, Kipp Miller, and others of the Halliburton communications team, who took home their own share of Lanterns last night. Couldn’t ask for a nicer group of colleagues.

Made my morning. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Stogie Limericks

Going through very old notes, I came across some limericks I created back in the days when Cigar Aficionado was the newest buzzy publication – and I was smoking stogies regularly. I seem to recall I even got the magazine to publish several, but I could be wrong: perhaps limericks lowered the tone. A decade or more ago, I was much less the sophisticate that I am today.

In order to save these for posterity, I present some of them to you here. Consider them a bit of history. Note the George Burns cover photo, which I grabbed here, with thanks: it’s the Winter ’94 number.

The political statement:
While Cuba (Sic semper tyrannis)
Sells the world all its Habanas,
The people down yonder
Have plenty to ponder
And make do while smoking bananas.

The personal comfort view:
Manuel, lost in thought as he felt a
Big bundle of leaves from the Vuelta,
Bathed in sweat head to feet,
Said, “I can’t take such heat,
If it gets any hotter I’ll melt-a.”

The requisite attorney joke:
A bankruptcy lawyer named Meddars
Would smoke anything – even old sweaters.
Rolled ‘em out long and slenda
All wrapped in Candela,
“I smoke ‘em while processing debtors.”

And finally, the biblical approach:
When Moses schlepped down from the mountain,
He took a long drink from a fountain.
Threw the Laws on his bed,
Lit a Rothschild and said,
“It’s my fifth one today – but who’s countin’?

Happy Wednesday, y’all.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Surfeit Bowl

This morning’s Sports section displayed the annual list of college football matchups, along with the marketing schemes that make them sound ridiculous. Yes, there’s the annual Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA – this year, USC vs Texas (yeah!). Stunning in its simplicity.

Alas, the equally iconic Bowl games of yesteryear have gained sponsors: the SBC Cotton Bowl, the FedEx Orange Bowl, the Nokia Sugar Bowl.

Sponsorships have taken over. I counted 23 brand-sponsored Bowl games, which is great news for football fans, although it’s getting too crowded. As a result, the ability of brands to break through the clutter is once again in doubt.

The Capital One Bowl in Orlando clearly shows what the finance company is doing with the interest I pay on my car loan. Barbara should be happy with the Toyota Bowl (though I suspect not)...she thinks of her car as a Prius. Our town gets the EV1.Net Houston Bowl.

Wretched excess reigns. The Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The GMAC Bowl. The Pioneer Purevision Las Vegas Bowl. The trunk-falling-down-stairs San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. Champs Sports Bowl. Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. Insight Bowl.

Alongside the Japanese cars, there’s the Autozone Liberty Bowl and the classic Meineke Car Car Bowl matchup between Clemson and South Florida. Eaters get their special events: the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl and the Outback Bowl. Perhaps my favorite in an old-fashioned, ducktail-haircut sense: The Vitalis Sun Bowl. I didn’t know Vitalis was still on the market, but with my thinning hair, why would I?

This theme’s hardly played out. At the risk of fulfilling prophecies, look for the US Postal Service Bowl (now that USPS is no longer sponsoring a cycling team) – it’s first-class. The Funland Miniature Golf Courses Bowl. The Chinese-flavored Golden Wok Bowl. The Drs. Hemphill & Goldfine Cosmetic Surgery Bowl. The Count Chockula Cereal Bowl. The Luigi’s All-You-Can-Eat Spaghetti Bowl. And, following Signalwriter’s post about the collegiate honor society, the Phi Beta Kappa Society Bowl.

Signalwriter will take nominations for additional post-season football game sponsorships for its readers. Meantime, check your TV Guide for local dates and times.

PS: Look for my profile photo to reappear soon. It’s just stepped out to make a list of the games it wants to watch this coming holiday season.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Empire State

Today’s story is provided by Nora Fuqua. When I told her that I’d first heard this 40 years ago – and was still telling it – she laughed and said, “What goes around, comes around.” I made some minor changes to match my version.

A physicist, a statistician, and a advertising account manager enter into a Mensa IQ competition. Each one is given a stopwatch and an aneroid barometer and told to find out the height of the structure at 350 Fifth Avenue in New York City: The Empire State Building.

First to return is the statistician: “It’s 1,225 feet high,” he says. “How did you find out?” he’s asked. “Well,” he says, “I took the elevator to the observation deck and timed how long the journey took. I got the elevator speed from the company who put it in. Then I went out on the observation deck and took the air pressure at the top and compared it to the air pressure at the bottom. The average of my calculations is 1,224 feet.” Not bad, the judges tell him.

Next back is the physicist. “It’s 1,220 feet high,” he reports. “How did you find out?” the judges asked. “I took the air pressure at the base and after using the lift the air pressure at the top. Then I dropped the barometer from the top and timed how long it took to fall to the street below. I also timed how long the sound of its impact took to reach me. I calculated the height at 1,220 feet.” Not bad at all, say the judges.

The advertising account manager finally returned. “It’s 1,224 feet from the 102nd floor observation deck to street level,” he says. “Wow,” say the judges, “that’s exactly right. How did you find out?”

The manager said that he went into the basement of the Empire State Building and knocked on the door of the building’s superintendent. When the super answered the door, the manager said, “Here I have a very fine inlay and brass aneroid barometer and a stainless steel precision Swiss stopwatch. I will give them to you if you tell me the height of this building.”

Nowadays, you could also use the Internet. Thanks, Nora.

Photo:, with thanks.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans' Day

No. 862’3
Ordre Général No. 318

Xe Armee
3e Bureau

AuQGA 30 July 18

Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and soldiers of the Third United States Army Corp :

Shoulder to shoulder with your French comrades you were thrown into the counter-offensive battle which commenced on the 18th of July. You rushed to the attack as to a festival. Your magnificent courage completely routed a surprised enemy and your indomitable tenacity checked the counter-attacks of his fresh divisions. You have shown yourself worthy sons of your great country…
(Colonel John W. Thomason, Jr., writing about the US Marines at Soissons, France. ©1925, Scribners.)

Today is the anniversary of the armistice (coincidentally, “four score and seven years ago”) which ended World War I, after four years of bloody, awful conflict. It was signed by the Allies and the Germans in 1918, in the Forest of Compiegne.

The hostilities of the First World War ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 87 years ago. The day began with the laying down of arms, the sudden outbreak of parades, the closing of places of business. People everywhere cheered and thought, this is the end of war – it is too horrible to ever happen again.

The “war to end all wars” didn’t end them. The name was changed to Veterans’ Day by Act of Congress in 1954.

Join me in a thought for American soldiers and sailors who are serving throughout the world, defending our freedoms.

And pardon me for some personal thoughts. Paul Hirsch Baron, Emmanuel Katz, Thomas Biddulph, Sam Slavik, AJ Smith, Paul Hoven. More names from the Gunroom (you know who you are): Paul Johnson, KCMO, and “Charlezzzzz” Muñoz. Herman Eisenberg. Norman Sabel. Hoi Nguyen and Ellis Alexander. Then Phil Slavik and Alan Vera. Nathanael Charles Yonka, Jr. And me.

If you want to add some names of your own (as Peter Yonka has), send a comment - it'll be very welcome.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

I'm Keyless

What happened to my letter from Phi Beta Kappa? I never got it. True, I graduated from college more than 35 years ago. Then I joined the Navy. Saw the world. I’ve forgotten a lot of things that happened back then. I may have missed it.

Hey, I’m not blaming America’s oldest collegiate honor society. I hadn’t given it any thought at all until I read the article about the Society’s new marketing effort in last week’s Wall Street Journal. But when I saw all those people – Glenn Close, Francis Ford Coppola, Condoleeza Rice, Jeff Bezos – pictured in the article, all of them Phi Beta Kappans, I shockingly realized I could have been among that crowd.

I graduated the same year as honoree Michael Milken. True, he graduated from UC Berkeley and has made a gazillion dollars. I graduated from Oglethorpe University (the “Stormy Petrels,” for crying out loud) – and haven’t. I’m not jealous of his success. But maybe, possibly, that little dangly thing was the key to his future millions.

I obviously missed out on becoming a Captain of Industry (or a Supreme Court justice or a famous actress) because the letter from Phi Beta Kappa never reached my hands. Okay, leave out the “famous actress” part.

The fact is, the WSJ article may be the best piece of marketing Phi Beta Kappa has done in the last 20 or 30 years. Otherwise, I note that professors at local colleges will be e-mailing and calling students “several times after initial invitations are sent…in an effort to boost enrollment.” Also, the Society is sending alumni to high schools to let graduating students know that there could be a gold key in their future.

It turns out that the Society has done a fine job of defending its trademarks – which is a good thing. It sued Compaq in ’88 to prevent the company from using the slogan “Phi Beta Compaq.”

My lost invitation is water over the bridge – seriously.

I herewith offer my services as an ad guy to the professors and the administrative team who run Phi Beta Kappa. I think they could use my help. After all, of the 10 renowned Society members interviewed in the article, only three read the newsletter on a regular basis; John Updike admitted he read the last issue.

It’s clear these folks need to raise the marketing bar a little higher than a new brochure. Example: the Society appears to mail letters to qualifying college seniors. (I never got mine.) It’s possible that e-mail marketing might be a more contemporary way to get to its audience than the United States Post Office, which, by the way, is raising its first-class postage rate by 2¢ this coming January.

Underwrite some events. A NASCAR sponsorship could be the path to an entirely new appreciation of the Society and its place in the intellectual firmament of our great nation. Or sponsor one of the WNBA teams, a combination of social action and sports entertainment that could be your next big thing.

Here I am, Kelly Gerald. Willing to let bygones be bygones. Just e-mail me or give me a call: I’ll leap into the breach for dear old Phi Beta Kappa.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Home, Susan

Think a particularly bubbly champagne and wish Susan Ellis a happy homecoming. She’s returned to Houston from Dallas, is now working here – and thrilled to be back. She had spent the past year or so working out of the Dallas office of a multi-city agency; loved the people. But she really, really wanted to get back home. Now she is.

It’s the answer to that nagging question, “Where’s Susan these days?”

There are big differences between Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston…lots of pros and cons. We can debate this later. For right now, I am happy she’s back. Her homecoming will put a little action back in the Houston TV arena, ‘cause she’s so good at creating TV spots. And she is absolutely energizing to be around.

Wilkommen. Bienvenue. Glad you’re here.

Monday, November 07, 2005

B-b-blog? Huh?

Wired or unwired. Techno-fan or Luddite. Sometimes, it feels as though there are only two kinds of people in my Contact section (no nod to Iain M. Banks here): those who are new-media savvy and those that…ain’t.

I was asked again this past weekend, “What’s a blog?” Simplistically, a blog is an online journal. Go here to see how simple it is to start one. Use your blog in a wide variety of ways: make it personal; make it professional; make it provocative.

Say you’re an agent provocateur. Reporters Without Borders – one of the more ardent blog proponents – says, “Blogs get people excited. Or else they disturb and worry them. Some people distrust them. Others see them as the vanguard of a new information revolution. Because they allow and encourage ordinary people to speak up, they’re tremendous tools of freedom of expression.” You can download the handbook pictured above here. It’s a good one (and thanks again to Susan Kirkland).

Blogs in this sense are the current equivalent of fax machines…the insidious technology that helped destroy the Soviet Union, the easy way to distribute samizdat throughout the entire Eastern bloc. (Combined with things like Radio Free Europe, fax machines let the light in.) Why else does China seek to restrict the use of the Internet among its population. By the same token, political groups here in the US use blogs as commentaries to support their points of view and distribute them widely. This is the blogosphere; the Wall Street Journal calls it the “Internet fever swamp.”

There are kinder, gentler blogs. Funny blogs. Touching blogs. Everyday, ordinary-life blogs. Read more about blogs just by Googling the word. Review a couple of dozen and see if the form is right for you.

Meantime, Signalwriter will just keep plugging away - and hopes that you’ll keep on reading.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Eino's Reprise

This from Susan Kirkland, responding to posts from yesterday and today.

“Eino probably knew Fish Friday was a political arrangement the Pope made with local fisherman when they suffered as a result of a red tide one year. People stopped eating fish for a while and the Pope decreed Fish Friday to boost the local economy and save their only industry.

“I'll be sending my oysters to you via snail mail so you'll know they're coming well in advance…snicker snicker.”

Given where Susan lives, I wonder if they’ll be mountain oysters.

On the other hand, there’s some additional background about fish on Fridays – from nearby Wisconsin. Back in the Year 3, Tanya Gillitzer worked on Folklore 530 Project for Prof. Ruth Olson. You can see the results of their field research here. Since Barbara and I have recently spent a Friday night on Lake Pepin in Minnesota, I’m sorry that we didn’t venture over to the Wisconsin side to see if Fish Fry Fridays were still going on. We didn’t even meet anyone named Eino.

Oysters Exploded

Several posts back, I used the urban legend about only eating oysters harvested in months with “r” in them. I used this to make a point about “r.” This is an urban legend, like giant alligators in the New York City sewers, and I knew it.

Let me ‘splain. Oysters are “in season” during the “r” months, September through April. According to Nobody Ever Tells You These Things by Helen McCully (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, ed. 1972), “Actually, oysters are edible any time of the year, but they spawn in the summer and are, therefore, thinner and less succulent. Further by the very nature of things, if they were not allow this spawning period (enforced by the government), there wouldn’t be any oysters.”

McCully’s book was originally published in ’67. In 1971, NY Governor Nelson Rockefeller (remember him?) permitted the year-round consumption of oysters.

James Trager, in The Food Chronology (Henry Holt and Company, 1995), writes, “The European oyster (Ostrea edulis) tastes gritty in the summer months because it keeps its young within its mantle cavity at that time of year, but the American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) discharges its eggs directly into the water. Pacific Coast Oysters have been sold the year round.”

These days, you are as likely to get farm-raised oysters (depending on what part of the country you’re dining in). Here in Houston, we get sweet-tasting oysters even in May, June, July, and August. Barbara and I enjoy every dozen we eat. Don't like oysters? Good - that means there are more for us.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

So Minnesota

Social commentary from our own Bridget Marie Murphy Hoffman, who got it in turn from Marcella Kahn:

Eino, a Finlander from Cook County in northern Minnesota, was an older, single gentleman who was born and raised a Lutheran.

Each Friday night after work, he would fire up his outdoor grill and cook a venison steak. Now, all of Eino's neighbors were Catholic. Since it was Lent, they were forbidden from eating meat on Fridays. The delicious aroma from the grilled venison steaks was causing such a problem for the Catholic faithful that they finally talked to their priest.

The priest came to visit Eino and suggested that he convert to Catholicism. After several classes and much study, Eino attended Mass. As the priest sprinkled holy water over Eino, he said, "You were born a Lutheran, and raised a Lutheran, but now you are Catholic."

Eino's neighbors were greatly relieved until Friday night arrived and the wonderful aroma of grilled venison filled the neighborhood. The priest was called immediately by the neighbors. As the good priest rushed into Eino's yard, clutching a rosary and prepared to scold him, he stopped in amazement and watched.

There stood Eino, clutching a small bottle of water which he carefully sprinkled over the grilling meat, and chanting: "You were born a deer, and raised a deer, but now you are a walleye.”
Illustration by Duane Raver, courtesy of the US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Delta R

What a difference an “r” makes. Without it, the word signalwrite is my Web address. With it, signalwriter is part of my blog address. (You have to add a dot and a “blogspot” to it, plus the usual “com,” etc. See above.) Get the distinction?

That one-letter change, the delta as we say in physics and chemistry, will help you distinguish between my Web site address and my blog.

What is the distinction, you inquire? Well, “write” is the verb form; cleverly, it takes both transitive and intransitive forms. It really means “to express or communicate in writing” – just the kind of thing I do for clients. It is the writing that helps clients market to their customers, to send the right signals. I can write up a storm, write off a debt (which doesn’t happen too often), write in my journal…but never write down to my audience.

When I “express ideas in writing,” I am a writer: “One whose occupation is writing” for client marketing communication programs. Add the “r” (technically, the suffix “-er’), and I differentiate myself as a person from the object of my occupation. Writer, thinker, presenter, creator – okay, that’s an “-or,” but you get the idea. I am also “taller,” although this is really a comparative adjective.

Somewhere along the advertising line, “creator” became “creative” – here, a noun describing the bead-wearing casual dressers around the advertising agency that came up with the weird (and often award-winning) ideas.

I’m partial to “r” since it appears so frequently in my name…four times altogether. It has more meanings than you imagine. Not too long ago, for example, you were only supposed to eat oysters harvested in months with an “r” because those are the colder months – you didn’t want summertime oysters because you might croak.* Which would make you a frog.

Write is what I do. Writer is what I am. Surprisingly, there is no “r” in “ad guy.” I can live with it.

*Urban legend, to be exploded in a later post.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Icon Story

Just received this AM from Rob Schoenbeck in San Antonio: "This is what happens when you leave your computer on at night...and you thought it was just sleeping."

Ya gotta see it. Ta.