GM's Headless Horsepower

General Motors ( GM) tried this week to sound hip and with it by unveiling a car that drives itself.

The car is not expected to sell, at least not within the foreseeable future. However, GM, which needs a public-relations scrubbing, saw the chance in a car that reminds the average American of Christine, the possessed car of novelist Stephen King's depraved imagination. (I had precisely 1,423 nightmares about outrunning that demon.)

Anyhow, GM introduced its Christine at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Specifically, in the parking lot. How unnerving is the car? Well, put it this way. Seeing crash-test dummies at the wheel as this creation bears down on you and your shopping cart would be a step up.

Even a flat gaze from an oncoming driver, after all, is better than none. And serenity, thy name is seeing hands on the wheel of an approaching car, which signals that maybe, if you are lucky, the hand bone is connected to the foot bone, which is connected to the brake bone.

Maybe I'm being overly sensitive, but I happen to live near Sleepy Hollow, and so the prospect of headlessness at the reins -- if not the wheel -- is ever-present. But at least when I'm walking in the woods here, if the horseman emerges, the horse itself could technically see me and swerve before I'm trampled. Call me paranoid, but I say GM would be thought of more favorably if it stuck to cool-looking cars that worked and got good mileage.

Dumb-O-Meter Score: 93. The vehicle won a government-sponsored contest, driving 60 mph in a staged urban setting, and the best and brightest -- that's right, our government -- think driverless technology can ultimately minimize traffic deaths, which are often caused by human error. But with visions of Iraq, Katrina and Ichabod Crane, I'm not so sure I'm buying the wisdom of government on this one.

Xerox Copycat

First Xerox ( XRX) had to deal with the demise of its signature product: the dedicated office copier the size of a 1958 Buick. Now it has to deal with the potential slowdown of business technology spending. Stuck at these crossroads, these headwaters, this vortex, what does Xerox decide to spend time and energy on?

Well, this week we learned that Xerox detonated its old logo, and with hopeful suppositions about all the good images the public will conjure up, introduced a new one.

About that new logo. It replaces the old one, a big red X, which had marked the spot since just after Sputnik. This wasn't a redolent X, and no one was going to mistake it for a false God. So the opportunity was certainly there for "a brand identity that reflects the Xerox of today," as a vice president for advertising at Xerox said, reflecting the jargon of marketing people of today.

Is the anticipation torture here? Well, lift back the curtain and you get ... smaller red letters. And floating next to these innovative, new, smaller red letters is a sphere, and a vaguely familiar one at that.

A tactical masterstroke?

Xerox said the logo will show customers that the company is: "engaging, approachable, technologically savvy and eager to lead in the 21st Century." It might also signal to the public that the company will be in future cahoots with Sony Ericsson, because Xerox's red orb does look like a not-too-distant cousin of Sony Ericsson's green orb.

Red plus green may equal the color of the combined company's new orb logo. The orb -- the red one, plus the lowercase letters -- was a year and a half in the making for Xerox. Give me a few crayons and one of those copiers the size of a Buick and I may accomplish the same in only 17 months. But maybe that's just artistic arrogance talking.

Dumb-O-Meter Score: 82. The new logo, Xerox said, is all about the subliminal, which is a long way from the sublime.

Retail Pricing on CEO Spots

Timing is everything when seizing power at a company, and a coup is best carried out when the trend is your friend. Many two-bit CEOs have reaped millions and published bestselling management guides because they snuggled into the top spot just as a good economic turn was ambling along.

What, then, are two self-respecting trend-followers like Howard Schultz and Gregg Steinhafel doing taking daily control of Starbucks ( SBUX) and Target ( TGT) just as the economy is putting the thousand-yard scare into the consumer?

"He's a genius," a former Target official said about Steinhafel in Fortune. But forgive me for thinking I've seen defter timing on a broken clock. Target has been reporting tough numbers and, Wal-Mart ( WMT) might finally be back. The only place left for Starbucks to expand in America is on several areas of sea bed off the Atlantic coast.

Do these guys know something we don't? Probably not. Steinhafel, formerly the president of Target, has been prepped for the top spot for years. His predecessor apparently hit company retirement age. So what is Steinhafel supposed to do? Bury his ambitions for two years as he tours with Phish? Sometimes, in life, we choose dumb timing. And sometimes dumb timing is thrust upon us.

But Schultz, at least if you believe his Valentine's Day Memo last year, is so upset about the direction of Starbucks that if he doesn't take daily control, he just might spontaneously combust. Giving in to dumb timing at least beats that.

Dumb-O-Meter Score: 78. Who knows? Give these two uncommonly bright guys some time, and we just might find out that it pays to be dumb. Look at what they've done so far in life. We should all be such idiots.

Another Dumb Online Scam

From an ethical perspective, I really don't like crime. But if there is one thing I hate worse than plain old crime, it's poorly executed crime.

When you leave footprints in the snow from the 7-Eleven you rob back to your home, you've really lost my respect, and I barely want to talk to you anymore. But what might be even worse than leaving bread crumbs for the cops is getting in trouble with the authorities when it's unclear if you made one thin dime off of your scam.

Enter PeoplePC, a division of EarthLink ( ELNK). PeoplePC couldn't stop flapping its gums about how they'll give you dial-up Internet service for $5.47 a month for three months. Never mind that teaser rates are bad form these days, what with two out of every three Americans surveyed losing their homes because of one. And never mind that pushing dial-up on the public seems, itself, a crime today. Waiting that long for photos to come up is murder!

But here's the rub, from a real legal perspective. The service regularly selected nonlocal numbers, which ran up user phone bills. Enter the New York attorney general's office, and suddenly refund claim forms are being handed out, a fine is being levied against the company and crime-watching brows go all a-furrow. A spokesman for PeoplePC referred all calls to the attorney general's office, who did not immediately return a call. But any way you slice it, this was extraordinarily dumb.

They got in trouble with the authorities because they didn't realize they were routing people to nonlocal numbers. Dumb, what a waste.

They got in trouble while only making money for the phone companies? Dumb, what a bigger waste.

They got in trouble and didn't make money for themselves? Dumbest of all.

Dumb-O-Meter Score: 72. Who knew $5.47 a month meant an extra $500 on the phone bill?

Laughing at Lawyers

When someone falls down a manhole into a sewer, it's a tragedy. But when that someone is a lawyer, it's a comedy. And when that fall trips up a corporate client? That's Gold, Jerry! Gold!

That is why we all had to honk and snort this week at the lawyers from the firm of Morrison & Foerster who might be able to successfully sue your ankle when it trips over your foot, but don't do as well handling afternoon traffic, even when $1 million bucks of Toshiba's money is at stake.

"Intellectual agility is the hallmark of Morrison & Foerster," the 1,000-lawyer firm coos about itself on its Web site, and they are perhaps right. It's the roadside agility that apparently flummoxes them.

News broke this week that the firm sent a motorcycle courier (sure, sure, blame the motorcyclist) to file federal court papers in California on behalf of Toshiba, their client, appealing an unfavorable ruling. Turns out, motorcycle dude was one minute late for the filing, apparently hung up on Grand Avenue, waiting for a long train to pass. Don't you hate when that happens?

But the judge, perhaps overly influenced by Evel Knievel's recent death, ruled that having to stop at a long train (and not jump it?) does not rise to the level of "excusable neglect," the legal benchmark when it comes to securing a courtroom do-over because of your dunderhead of a messenger.

Dumb-O-Meter Score: 59. The judge ruled that the evidence was not good enough anyway to merit awarding attorney's fees. But perhaps that was just to make the trusty lawyers and their inept motorcyclist feel good. To paraphrase Tom Hanks' character Jimmy Dugan, There is no crying in the courtroom. Or on motorcycles.

Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers and a money manager before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' "County Lines" column for six years. He also did back-up beat coverage of The New York Knicks for the paper's Sports section for two seasons and covered other professional and collegiate sports. He has contributed frequently to many of the Times' other sections, including National, Metro, Escapes, Style, Real Estate, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Money & Business, Circuits and the Op-Ed Page. For his "Business Press Maven? column on how business and finance are covered by the media, Fuchs was named best business journalist critic in the nation by the Talking Biz website at The University of North Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Fuchs is a frequent speaker on the business media, in venues ranging from National Public Radio to the annual conference of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. Fuchs appreciates your feedback; click here to send him an email.

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