Saturday, December 15, 2012

Body and Soul

Monday December 10, 2012
I was in the computer industry for 25 years until it departed me in 1994. My interest was in business application development, software and supporting methods and procedures to assist organizations in doing their work better, faster. The major lesson I learned from those years can be captured under the title of the Roumanian Invoice Problem. I’m reminded of this by an article in the business section of the Sunday Times under the headline Billion Dollar Flop, describing the US Air Force’s attempt to introduce a new computerized logistics program. After six years and one billion dollars of our money, your money, and even Mitt Romney’s money, the effort is being abandoned.

The basic idea was a sound one, build on an established commercial software system with known results and modify to the Air Force’s requirements. It was an approach that I preached in my time consulting to organizations planning for new systems. The Air Force selected software from one of the world’s largest and most successful software companies and set about making the perceived updates. In retrospect, a government spokesperson said, "We started with a Big Bang approach and put every possible requirement into the program which made it very large and very complex." That goes to the kernel of the Roumanian Invoice Problem.

I give it that label, because, in the mid 1980s, I consulted with a large local manufacturing company that produced electrical parts. Not diodes and transistors, but extension cords and light bulb sockets, items that wound up in ordinary households. It was a very successful business, about 60-years old at the time, with thousands of inventory items and thousands of customers all over the world, including Roumania.
At that time, Roumania was still part of the Soviet bloc, ruled by a Communist despot. The government, accordingly, tried to exercise tight control over commerce, especially incoming goods. It probably feared the bourgeois threat posed by bubble gum, Playboy magazine and, most dangerously, rock’n’roll records. Therefore, the Roumanian authorities demanded precise documentation on any shipment of commercial goods into the country, far more detail than would be needed in the normal course of buying and selling.

While I was engaged by the company’s top management, my immediate dealings were with the company’s top computer people, who were very jealous of their domain, and had little interest in seeing an outsider introduce change under their noses. When I identified an existing automated billing, inventory and accounting system that came close to the company’s stated needs, and seemed able to handle their substantial transaction volume efficiently, the computer guys were adamant. "It won’t handle the Roumanian invoices." They voiced their objections to top management and our project was abandoned, because of the likely time and expense to modify the existing system for this special need.

I don’t take defeat gracefully, which is consistent with my lack of grace in almost any endeavor. After I learned that the Roumanian Invoice Problem was a deal-breaker, I dug into the issue. How great was the need to automate Roumanian invoices? Well, the computer guys told me, there were maybe two a month. This company issued thousands of invoices monthly, hundreds each work day. While I would be guessing about the economic value of the Roumanian trade for that company, somehow I don’t believe that the number of extension cords and light bulb sockets going into Roumania in the mid 1980s was critical to the company’s profitability. A clerk with a typewriter could have dealt with the Roumanian Invoice Problem in less than an hour each month, and the rest of the company could have migrated into a new computer system with far-reaching benefits. The good news was that we did not try to adapt the computer program to the Roumanian Invoice Problem, which would have produced a result akin to the Air Force’s, although not at taxpayers’ expense.

The moral of the story: Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are serious about managing a sizeable operation, or even a personal relationship, figure out what’s important and invest your resources accordingly.

I entered Famous Sichuan, 10 Pell Street, thinking about the tea-smoked duck attractively-pictured in the window. Once seated, however, I realized that I wasn’t that hungry and really needed a companion to assist me in comparing and contrasting this tea-smoked duck with Grand Sichuan’s. Instead, I ordered one of the lunch specials at $5.95, up from $5.50 when I visited on March 12, 2010. I got a small bowl of won ton soup, a small dish of cold, diced vegetables in hot Szechuan (Sichuan) pepper oil, and beef chow fun. Another dish would have come with rice, as well. The portion of chow fun was small, but it contained pea pods, carrots, yellow onions and green onions along with more tender, freshly-cooked beef than noodles. That made it a very cost-effective dish. While the noodles could have been a bit more al dente, they took a back seat to the beef.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012
The most typical spam e-mail that I usuallty receive offers me means to increase the size of my body, at least in part. Lately, however, the trend has been the opposite, to shrinkage. I just deleted messages offering to share the weight loss secrets of Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Jennifer Aniston, Beyoncé Knowles, Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, Jessica Alba, Salma Hayek, Reese Witherspoon and Britney Spears. I guess that I should be bothered that so many famous people are aware of my weight problem. That might explain the absence of invitations to really slick parties in my mailbox.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
Happy birthday, Harold Gotthelf.

This was a busy and varied day, but without any interesting food, so you can skip to Friday. I went to work for a few hours in the morning and then attended a funeral back on the upper West Side. From there, I took a long subway ride to the north Bronx to consult with senior faculty members of Montefiore Medical Center’s dental school about my degenerating mouth. I got back to the ‘hood just in time to pick up a borrowed copy of Cultures of the Jews, edited by Daniel Biale, the densest book that I ever can recall trying to read.  In spite of the title, the book had nothing to do with Al Jolson or Philip Roth. The assigned chapters for tonight's discussion dealt with Jews v. Hellenes, Romans and Christians roughly 2,000 years ago. Other than some isolated factoids about the Maccabees and the supposed origin of Hanukkah, and the growth of early Christianity, I pull a total blank on Pharisees, Essenes, Sadducees, Hasmonaeans and other popular bands working the Middle East in the good old days.

The book is a scholarly attempt to portray the development of the Jews outside of a purely religious frame of reference. In doing so, it throws out names, places and ideas at a rate that would leave the thumb of the most knowledgeable Jeopardy contestant raw and bloody from pressing the buzzer with recognition. I managed to ask a couple of semi-intelligent questions in the group, and learned a few things, as well. It was very hard work, however, and I might go back to my own version of Jewish history, that is, Jewish history began in 1903 when my father was born.

Friday, December 14, 2012
The Law Secretaries and Law Assistants Collegium, our local successor to the International Workers of the World, is holding its Holiday Party (get that "Holiday" Party) today, at lunchtime. The spread of food includes a Kosher table, just in case you need an incentive to maintain the War on Christmas.

PS -- We have a new friend who lives in Newtown, Connecticut, and has an apartment near us for weekend visits. When I heard the terrible news about the school shooting, I called her New York telephone number and then her Connecticut number seeking reassurance that she was safe and sound. When I only reached voicemail, I sent her a simple e-mail, which evoked an immediate comforting response. I know that the horror was not lessened because this dear woman was safe, but it was a reminder that the mosaic of our lives has so many pieces, some very ugly when seen up close. I hope that those people directly affected by this terrible event will eventually be provided with at least some bright colors and beautiful images to incorporate as they move forward and look back.  


  1. Spot on as usual, however while Roumanian sounds better, for historical accuracy, it was probably more a Honduran Invoice Problem, since Romania, as part of the Soviet Bloc, didn't use US electrical configurations. Regardless of the detail, "don't sweat the small stuff" is a useful guide.....Love your posts and I hope you were trying to extract a response from me....

  2. Since Warren was my client contact, I'll have to defer to his recollection. He, in contrast to his computer staff, was a dream to work with.