Archive for the ‘Failure’ Category

Service of Research

Thursday, November 7th, 2019


I admire researchers for so many reasons. It can take decades for them to make a discovery and years more to prove it. Diligence, the ability to fight frustration and dissent are just three characteristics of this valiant group.

I was distressed to read Noam Cohen’s New York Times article, “M.I.T. Shuts Down ‘Food Computer’ Project” about the world-renowned research citadel. The allegedly promising venture–The Open Agricultural Initiative [OpenAg]–involved greenhouses, called food computers, designed for crops that grow in air–without soil or sunlight. In addition to those in food computers at the university there were larger greenhouses in shipping containers in Middletown, Mass.

M.I.T. Media Lab. Photo:

Cohen wrote: “The once-celebrated M.I.T. Media Lab micro-greenhouses were supposed to grow food under virtually any conditions. In the end, they worked under almost none. And now, M.I.T. has turned off the lights, possibly for good.”

He added “The project has been accused of misleading sponsors and the public by exaggerating results while the Media Lab has been under scrutiny for its financial ties to the convicted sex offender and financier Jeffrey Epstein.”

The director of the OpenAg program, Caleb Harper, posted images and videos on social media “that looked like experiments” and exaggerated or made false claims. Former researchers said he bought plants and put them in the “food computers” pretending they’d grown there. They said that data would have “little scientific significance” because they could not “control the conditions within the boxes.”

The Middletown containers were closed down recently because they dumped wastewater “with 20 times the legal limit of nitrogen underground.”

M.I.T. Photo:

According to Cohen, Harper boasted that food computers he’d sent Syrian refugees in camps gave them “the means to grow their own food inside the camp.” Instead, these computers ended up “in a Jordanian research lab where they faltered because of hot, dry conditions and technical failures.”

The project attracted $millions in sponsorship funds and heaps of positive publicity including the likes of “60 Minutes” and a TED Talk.  I wager it received the acclaim and financial support based on its affiliation with M.I.T. Such shenanigans can’t help the university’s reputation and I wonder who minds the store in such institutions to prevent this kind of tempting fabrication from happening more often.



Service of How Did That Happen?

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

how did that happen

Monkey Business

primateI’ve covered plagiarism before and am consistently amazed by the reaction of the outed plagiarist. This time it’s a world-famous primatologist according to Christopher Joyce, NPR. Jane Goodall who, according to a statement reported by Joyce, wrote the following about “Seeds of Hope.” “This was a long and well-researched book, and I am distressed to discover that some of the excellent and valuable sources were not properly cited, and I want to express my sincere apologies.” I added the bold to part of the quote to underscore the passivity of the apology. Joyce points out that Goodall had a co-author.

 What’s a $Billion Among Friends?

BillionBankruptcy is a different kind of oops, especially when a $billion is involved and in so short a time. The Revel Casino in Atlantic City is less than a year old, according to Tom Hals and Jonathan Stempel of Reuters, and management expects to be out of bankruptcy by summer. A little bump in the road to everyone but those who are owed all that money and if the vendors are small enough and unable to weather the loss, they won’t be in business as Revel expects to be. quoted CEO, Kevin DeSanctis, in an earlier article: “‘Today’s announcement is a positive step for Revel,’ DeSanctis said. ‘The agreement we have reached with our lenders will ensure that the hundreds of thousands of guests who visit Revel every year will continue to enjoy a signature Revel experience in our world-class facility.’”

How benevolent, how wonderful for the CEO to be concerned about future guests: Is my scorn coming through loud and clear?


LululemonThe press had fun writing and speaking about Luluemon’s $98 yoga pants that turned out to be see-through by mistake. It affected the stock and reporter Sapna Maheshwari covered analysts’ interview of Lululemon’s CEO, Christine Day. Day told them:

“The truth of the matter is the only way you can actually test for the issue is to put the pants on and bend over,” Day said on today’s conference call. “Just putting the pants on themselves doesn’t solve the problem. It passed all of the basic metric tests and the hand-feel is relatively the same, so it was very difficult for the factories to isolate the issue, and it wasn’t until we got in the store and started putting it on people that we could actually see the issue.” [Highlight is mine.]

People in a store are different from people at headquarters or at the plant? I’m not the only PR person to test a client’s toll free number or website link before sending out a press release that includes such references. Chefs are known to have bad teeth because they are test-tasting food all day long. At that price point, couldn’t somebody at headquarters or at the plant try on a pair of these pants and use them as “people in the store” would?

Anybody interested in taking responsibility these days?


Service of Who Approved This?

Thursday, December 8th, 2011


I just wasted 10 minutes trying to order a Christmas gift on line.

Long story short, I went to the site’s online chat to ask how to delete something from my order. I explained that while I carefully clicked one size, the item on the invoice was a different–and the wrong-size–and I couldn’t see where, on the screen, to delete it. I’d added the right size and color by then.

I followed the directions of how to go back to the order page “without messing up our system by back-clicking” and thought I’d solved things by removing the “1” leaving the “quantity” square blank. Up came a red alert notice that in effect wouldn’t let me leave a blank quantity.

Back to online chat. I got a set of instructions to change the spam filter on my computer in order for their site to do thus and such ….at which point I thanked and said I’d cancel the whole thing and I got off the site.

llbean1Went to LL Bean where I noticed there was a delete option you couldn’t miss under every ordered item.

So I wondered who had approved the system for the first website. They sure knew what they were doing search engine optimization-wise: Their site was the first one that popped up when I inserted in Google the key words identifying what I wanted to buy. But their site wasn’t customer friendly for people who don’t want to muck around with their computer’s cookie and spam invasion-level just to buy something.

notthinking-003As for this self stick label, [photo left], the buyer at Home Goods hadn’t explained to his/her Chinese supplier that eight year olds don’t shop at this store so that most customers would be giving this item as a stocking stuffer or small gift and they’d want to remove the price. This wasn’t simple to do: The sticker was under cellophane wrap. So who placed the order and approved the shipment?

streetglitchestarlump002small2This asphalt street/sidewalk sculpture, [right] where the bus stops, has driven me nuts for months. I waited for someone to fix the sloppy application of asphalt. Nobody came. Yet somebody approved the job and somebody was paid. Who pays the lawyer and settlement when people tumble on the mess and hurt themselves?

streetglitches-flood004smallLast, on my walk to work yesterday, I was surprised by a lake on 47th Street near First Avenue [left]. It had rained in a mostly misty way the day before and overnight, but nothing much. It was still raining in the morning, but again, no cats and dogs. Near the UN and right by one of the Trump properties, one would think that engineers might keep drains clear or slant the street so that children didn’t mistake the spot for a pond for sailing toy boats. Imagine if we had a freeze: Ice skating for one and all! Cars slowed down when they saw the pool in daylight: At night, some might find the deep water in the middle of the street quite a surprise.

Have you wondered how certain procedures and/or jobs were approved and who OK’d them?  I’d love to know of other examples.


Service of Rejection

Thursday, October 27th, 2011


A great friend asked me a question that someone inquired of her: “How is it that you remember the slights and putdowns forever and never the compliments?”

And while I agree that you can wear yourself out, feel and act whipped if you dwell on negative input, facing and fixing the cause of a verbal slap or rejection, whether true or unwarranted, is like practicing to improve your tennis backhand: It can’t hurt and you may become remarkable.

f-grade-2Peggy Payne pointed to three others, in addition to herself, whose careers benefited by fighting negative evaluations, expectations or an F grade in “How Insults Spur Success.” I have an issue with the word “insult” in her case. Being passed over by a program for brilliant teens isn’t insulting, it’s a rejection. This is what happened to Payne 46 years ago. She’s now an accomplished, prize-winning author. But whatever you call it, Payne observed:  “There’s nothing like a little ‘I’ll show ’em’ to incite ambition. Many people cherish their motivational insults.”

anxietyPayne also wrote about a woman whose test revealed she was too anxious to succeed at grad school. She not only graduated, she’s currently a psychologist. Then there was a philosophy professor who got an F in his first philosophy course and a designer and producer of books who was crushed when her first grade teacher said: “You are nothing like your brother. He loved to read and draw.”

If you finish Payne’s New York Times article you’ll learn that she wrote it to report that the legislature has cut off the program that rejected her–the Governor’s School of North Carolina–and that alumni are raising funds to keep it alive. Her support is an example of her gratitude to the program; the good it does and what not attending has done for her.

You may have been rejected or insulted and therefore driven to action by a relative, teacher, friend, fellow student, boss, acquaintance or stranger; rejected by a university, potential employer or scholarship program or shocked into high gear by a bad grade or test score. And now look at you! You are recognized and/or you excel thanks to your drive to discredit the naysayer. Can you point to such examples?


Service of Deadlines

Thursday, April 28th, 2011


Joseph S. Nye Jr. was on Book TV on C-Span 2 the other weekend discussing “The Future of Power,” at a February 15 presentation taped at the Center for a New American Security. When I tuned in he was discussing the difference in cultures between academic and government work.

His example was a hypothetical research paper due at the White House at 3 pm. As the deadline approached, the writer, from academia, thought the project could be better, that currently it was a B + and with a bit more work could be an A. So he polished and tweaked it until it was perfect. It arrived at the White House at 5 pm.f-grade1

Government Grade: F. Why? It got there too late to be used.

We’ve discussed writing blog posts, press releases, proposals, late breaking news or anything deadline-related. There comes a moment you must give up the work because in most cases, nobody can pay for Pulitzer Prize-winning copy.

more-time1It’s not only in academia that you can plead for an extension, though in Nye’s example, the person didn’t ask for one. I’ve never worked in government. In business, you can usually ask for one, though it isn’t a smart idea especially if you’re responding to an emergency or a scandal or announcing a product launch you’ve known about for eons, press kit material for trade show introductions or the guts of a press kit to distribute at a press event.

I don’t believe in missing other people’s deadlines nor do I ask for extensions.  Why? The Golden Rule. It’s awful when you are left in the lurch by someone else who misses their deadline whether a vendor, free lancer, partner or staff. Contractors and repair people have a reputation of not showing up when expected and giving no warning. You may have the hard deadline of a January wedding reception at your house but be prepared to cut the cake in an unpainted dining room on an unfinished floor.

In Nye’s illustration had the writer contacted the White House to ask for more time, he/she might have heard: “Don’t worry that it’s not perfect. We need the information in it to help us make a decision.” It seems to me that the imaginary person was thinking more about him/herself than the recipient of the research.

Are deadlines a part of your life? What do you do if you see you can’t meet one?


Service of Brand Loyalty

Thursday, April 7th, 2011


I don’t usually identify brands when I have something negative to write, but since Ann Zimmerman let the crayon out of the box in a front page story in The Wall Street Journal, I decided to comment about the reaction she described to a product introduction, Crayola Washable Colored Bubbles.

The title and subtitle of her article summarize parents’ experience with the $10/bottle February launch: “Crayola’s Colorful Soapy Bubbles Leave Indelible Memories…When They Burst, as They Always Do, Cleaning Up Can Be Challenging.”

bubbleZimmerman reports “The problem: when the bubbles pop [or the solutions splash], they leave a neon-bright-and, parents complain, often permanent-mess. Despite the large type on the front of the bottles that says ‘Washable.'” Zimmerman continues that along with staining skin, according to “product review sites such as and Twitter, it is best to keep the floating bubbles away from walls, carpets, driveways, decks, grout-and just about everything else.”

The bottle features an unusual thing for bubbles: A long warning. While Zimmerman notes that most have none, Crayola’s alerts parents to first test surfaces for staining.

chemistIt took years for the brand to introduce its version of colored bubbles. Meanwhile, Tim Kehoe collaborated with a chemist to invent Zubbles in 2005, which received Popular Science‘s Grand Award for General Innovation. Kehoe ran out of money to mass market his bubbles and sold Zubbles, Zimmerman reported, which she noted nevertheless gets “glowing” praise in Amazon comments. It is available online and in select toy stores.

A few weeks ago a darling 2 ½ year old child’s visit to the office reminded me of just how deep-rooted the Crayola brand continues to be. She is the grandchild of an office colleague. Her sandwich was in a plastic container the shape of a standard white or whole-wheat bread slice, decorated with the Crayola logo. Her granddad joked about storing crayons in her sandwich box and she howled with laughter and noted, between guffaws, that “you shouldn’t eat crayons!”

I am disappointed with Crayola. This new product is designed for children to play with; it’s not hair dye or textile finishing spray that usually comes with warnings to test first! How come a giant corporation couldn’t concoct what a few entrepreneurs did?

Can you imagine how you’d feel if you gave a child a gift of these bubbles and they ruined the walls or floors of a friend or relative’s home? Do you think management thought through the ramifications of releasing such an imperfect product? And as a consumer, if you can’t trust a brand like Crayola, what can you trust?


Service of Heart Stopping Goofs

Thursday, March 24th, 2011


I worked at an agency where colleagues loved to give each other heart palpitations by teasing that the printed brochure, invitation or collateral that one had worked on so diligently had a typo in the third paragraph, a flopped photo bottom right or missing copy.

At times there really was a goof. A dog’s age ago a graphic artist designed a logo for a client’s promotion and a major trade magazine gave the launch a lot of space and used a quarter of a huge page to reproduce what the artist sent them. [It was so new that the agency didn’t have the art yet.] You couldn’t miss the logo and normally we’d have been elated. I can’t explain in technical terms what happened, but on the printed page, half the logo, with the program’s slogan, dropped out and made no sense.  I was mortified. The sinking feeling comes back as I write this. That never happened again because for ages [this was before digital], I showed subsequent graphic designers the case of the missing half logo and asked that they take the right preventative measures.

royal-mug2The recent heart-stopping royal mug mishap is only a recent prominent example. Can you imagine opening the carton fresh from China, rushing in to the boss with the first pieces sent express something at great expense to hand the sales staff to generate orders, when someone in the office tells you that featured next to Kate Middleton, the bride, is her future brother-in-law, Prince Harry? “Haw, haw,” you say, only to realize the royally humongous slip up of the missing Prince William.

The good news is that it’s only money. The bad news: Someone at the company has a big mouth. Otherwise, how would the news reach media worldwide, including The Telegraph [where I got the image]?

I mentioned the wrong mug/mug to a crack ad agency art director friend who told me of a mysterious mistake that cost $500,000 to reprint. It involved three aligned coupons. Somehow the copy on the back got switched so that only the middle coupon had the right info.

How to avoid such calamities that cost companies millions? Slow down. slowdown21Being careful takes time. If your copy editor or colleagues and assistants have all been fired, or if you didn’t have any to begin with, ask friends, relatives or neighbors to read or check the material before you click “send” or sign off on anything. When in doubt, check Google.

I wonder if some people are reluctant to bring others in on a project because they don’t want anyone to know what they are up to. Others fear that by asking for assistance they show weakness. Keeping projects close to the vest may make still others feel a sense of power. Any of these approaches are Petrie dishes for cultivating mistakes.

How do you avoid heart stopping goofs? Can you share any good ones?


Service of Big

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011


America is founded on big is better, though pundits analyzing a downturn at Wal*Mart are noting that bulk purchases are going out of style and people are ferreting out better bargains at smaller drugstore and other chains.

Some people favor doing business with small companies or entities and others feel more secure with big ones. And many times, we have no choice.

In anycase, I’m  finding that suddenly some of the giants are dropping balls big time and all over.


envelopeThe USPS rejected all the cards I sent and re-sent to a friend who lives in Brooklyn. [I got back her Christmas card in late January!] After she got no support from her post office–the clerk told her that the address was incorrect when it wasn’t–I wrote the USPS NY district manager. It’s a matter of pride: She’s a foreigner and my postal service was messing up.

I got a phone call from a charming person in Manhattan’s customer relations who empathized with my frustration and another one sent me an email. One noted that to help substitute postal delivery staff I had to affix an apartment number to a multiple family dwelling, which hers is.

I explained she doesn’t have an apartment number, that there are three tenants in the house, she lives on the second floor, and one of the tenants brings in the mail from where the postman leaves it outside and the others get it from a table.

I agreed to add “2nd Floor” next time. I haven’t had a reason-or the heart-to send something to see if my efforts have unclogged the system when it comes to personal mail. [She gets bank statements, phone bills and books ordered online.] Yesterday a Brooklyn USPS customer relations person left me a voice message and we’ve played phone tag. I must have hit a nerve.

Meanwhile my sister’s Valentine took over one week to get from Westchester to Manhattan and a second card, from the Midwest, came two weeks late and the stamp wasn’t cancelled.


Several times a week we see “data unavailable” where our cable company posts the title of a program. TV isn’t essential, but we pay plenty to get it. If I tune in when a commercial is running, which is most of the time, I’d like to know what’s on.


smartphone1I bought my smartphone from a wonderful man whose business is connected with a major wireless phone provider. He has taught me all sorts of tricks to fix what periodically ails the device. I pulled out all the stops last week to no effect. All emails had stopped but the phone and Internet browser worked.

My phone maven wasn’t in the store that day-a first. The young man who “helped” me told me I hadn’t received any emails. Good luck. Then he tried something ineffective, handed back the phone, said it was broken, that I should take it to the [dreaded] repair office, turned his back on me and walked away.

Back at my office I found a toll free number captured from a previous breakdown [given to me by an upstate branch of this company]. Two hours after the tech person worked me through various remedies, emails appeared. [It should have revived in 20 minutes, but I was grateful anyway.]

Playing Hard to Get

I use a pharmacy connected to a chain that is gobbling up the competition. The revised Rx renewal system is sick. When the automatic refill computer voice didn’t recognize my prescription number, I called back with one option: To leave a voice message. [I used to speak with someone in the pharmacy department.] I  asked that someone confirm that my order is back on track and waiting for me. Nobody did. I went in, learned that they have a new computer system, that in transferring information much was lost and had to return the next day to pick up the order. The branch is a block from my apartment and on my way home from the office which is fortunate time-waste-wise.

druglinesI felt sorry for the counter person the first night I came in: Everything seemed to go wrong due to the new computer system. On top of my case, she was searching for a young woman’s insurance information. The computer had kept seven year old stats. I must hand it to her: She handled this–and a line that had grown to eight people–cooly and calmly.

Judgement Call

For 20 years a friend has told the Manhattan jury system about her married name yet they consistently send jury duty notifications to both names which then takes hours to untangle. Even this expert communicator is flummoxed.

Are these glitches exclusive to New York City? What big company malfunctions have stymied you lately? Is big really better?


Service of Who Are We Fooling?

Monday, October 18th, 2010


NY Public Advocate Bill DeBlasio told Joe Bartlett on the WOR Radio 710 “Saturday Morning Show,” October 16, that there are 100,000 children who had  failed the New York State Regents math and English exams though orignally, they were told they’d passed.  Inflated grades were the culprits. What is worse than this news: These children who failed won’t be brought up to speed which is standard.

Instead, according to what I took away from the conversation, the system will start fresh and do better in future, more accurately grading the tests and having those who fail them immediately tutored.

A situation involving people shouldn’t be treated as I handle my checkbook, where I add or subtract to adjust a discrepancy that won’t go away when I [try to] balance the numbers. My fiddling concerns only me. The school debacle affects an enormous number of the city’s children who need help. To brush them off as though they are no more than an accounting adjustment broils and is wrong.

children-at-desks5And what inspired the inflated grades to begin with? The answer lies in previous posts on inflation. What’s the point of grades if they don’t identify who needs help? Why cheat the children, citizens and state by making things appear better than they are? Who are we fooling?

The City has what I consider another head-scratcher going on in the form of an experimental system for express busses. Known as “limited” busses, because they stop on avenues only at crosstown stops, they are wonderful especially if you travel on 1st or 2nd Avenues, quite a distance from the Lexington Avenue subway. The limiteds leap through traffic, as much as any vehicle can, and get you to your destination quickly.

The purpose of the 1st and 2nd Avenue experiment [and before that, in the Bronx]–is to help move people in and out of a bus quickly by allowing them to enter all doors, instead of only the front door where the MetroCard swiping machine is. The concept is good; the execution pathetic.

limited-bus1The City has placed machines on the street by the bus stops. They dispense paper receipts after you’ve slipped in your MetroCard where the machine subtracts the cost of the fare. Police are making spot-checks of the busses to confirm that everyone has a receipt. Trouble is: You never know when the limited bus is coming. If you pay for a receipt, it won’t work on a standard bus so you’ve lost the cost of the fare if a local comes and you don’t want to wait for the next limited bus.  Who knows when it will come? And if there is a crowd, you can miss the express bus if you’re in a line for a turn at a machine that, you can bet, won’t work in freezing weather or if it’s been vandalized. [One of the machines takes coins.]

Last, I tried to buy pretty commemorative stamps for a mailing at a country post office where I’ve bought hundreds of seasonal stamps for 15+ years. The branch had only 45 decorative stamps in the safe and in any of two workstations–none matching. This is scary: Feels very third world. It’s costly to design a stamp and once the art is in place, printing a good number at first printing is de minimus. Why bother designing them? Where is the lobbyist for the greeting card industry? NOTE: I dropped into the Grand Central Station post office and they had plenty of stamps. So are we closing small town post offices and giving them little to sell? Is it so nobody will miss them when they are gone?

What are your thoughts about these examples? Do you have other “Who are we fooling” stories to share?




Service of Double Checking

Monday, July 19th, 2010


I improve what I’ve written every time I reread the copy but there’s a limit to how much time I can spend on a project as nobody will pay for unlimited hours to edit and rewrite. Under ideal circumstances, I like an hour to pass before picking up and reviewing copy–overnight is even better. If in a severe time crunch and the copy is more than a memo, I ask another writer/editor to review it.  Being clear and error-free matters.

[I digress, but have you read books by some well regarded contemporary authors lately? It appears that nobody, not even their Aunt Sadie, an editor or even the author has read the book cover to cover before it goes to press looking, at the least, for facts repeated a few pages apart.]

bashingbrandsI don’t bash brands on this blog, but the instances to which I refer are so widely known that I am making an exception.

I wonder what was going through Steve Jobs and the Apple tech team’s minds to put a flawed phone on the market when someone had to know the antenna would give trouble. Just as poor copy won’t kill anyone, [unless you are writing dosage and side effect information for potentially lethal meds or assembly instructions for parachutes or bombs], an imperfect phone won’t either [except if the caller is dialing 911 for help and touches the antenna on the rim, which causes a dropped call.]

This lack of double checking [or ignoring the results of someone who has] seems to be communicable. Where was it going on at BP before crews sank a pipe in water far deeper than standard? And now that the horse is out of the barn-or rather, the Lockerbie bomber is out of jail and back home in the lap of luxury–we find out that he isn’t as sick as the judge thought/was told and he may live another 10+ years. [Apart from nobody checking the doctor’s prognosis, since when should we care so much about the final days of a killer like this? But that’s another subject.]

weddingflowersAt the same time as some think of serious double-checking as a waste of time, we have reporters postulating where Chelsea Clinton’s wedding will be. TV reporters are stalking passersby in Rhinebeck, New York to gauge whether locals think the wedding will take place there or, as Erica Orden in The Wall Street Journal wrote on Friday in “Rhinebeck Conspiracy Theory,” when she quoted a resident police officer, “My wife thinks this is a decoy location….” On Sunday, in the Style section, The New York Times had its own, slightly different version of guessing the where and when.

Do you think that we should apply the sharp brains being wasted on this fluff to double check what’s going on in so many crucial areas such as finance and the war, or do we need the frivolity to survive the consequences caused by the rampant lack of double checking, even by some in the media, our traditional watchdogs?


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