A cold end to a bitter year

Snapshots from 12/30/09, Oakledge Park, Burlington, after a period of bitter cold and unsettled weather. Lake Champlain has not begun to freeze so spray from the wind-waves froze solid in the subzero temperatures.

Misty vapors over the broad lake due to about a 25 degree difference between water and air temperatures.


Christmas 2009: After the money's gone

Abandoned trailer, Blush Hill Road, Waterbury VT.

"These are the debauched revels of a dying culture." -- From the blurb for the book Empire of Illusion, which I am reading over the holiday break. It seems to sum things up quite nicely as the year comes to an end.


More Burlington Telecom: The house of secrets at 200 Church Street

Looking down at the bunker: 200 Church Street, Burlington Telecom HQ.

Friends, Romans, countrymen.... In the spirit of this giving season and MAD Magazine -- a huge influence on me growing up, I present a special holiday composition:

"Secret Business Plan (the Burlington Telecom Song)", sung to the tune of Secret Agent Man...


Secret business plan, secret business plan,
Trust us with your money because we have a...

Secret business plan, secret business plan

Secret business plan, secret business plan,
50 million dollars gone and the bills will come due some day

Secret business plan, secret business plan,
But we know what we are doing and "cash-flow positivity" is only a short ways away

(Repeat Refrain)

Secret business plan, secret business plan,
We'll borrow 100 million dollars so Burlington won't need Comcast Triple Play

Secret business plan, secret business plan,
We meet in executive session and don't let facts get in our way

Because we have a....
Secret business plan, secret business plan,

Secret business plan, secret business plan....

(Add in some Johnny Rivers guitar licks and repeat until bankrupt).

The genesis for this idea came from scanning the responses to 124 pointed questions asked by the Vermont Public Service Board about the current operating condition and future business case for Burlington Telecom (BT). Many of the responses, written by managers, refer to "confidential and proprietary information" like this all too representative example:

Also, I've been following this story for a while now -- and can truly say "I told you so" -- not that anyone reads this blog. It seems that every time I have seen the current General Manager of BT quoted in the press, this gentleman has referred to "confidential marketing plans" and various forms of "proprietary information."

This obsessive secrecy raises questions in my mind like: What secrets are they keeping at 200 Church Street? Why the lack of transparency? (If BT were a public company, there would fewer questions about its financial condition.) Where does the money go? Are the inmates running the asylum?

It's no great secret now that BT is hemorrhaging cash and probably isn't generating enough revenue to cover operating costs, let alone its very significant debt service...which may more than double in the near future.

Burlington Telecom was founded on the premise that Burlington taxpayers would not be exposed to any financial risks for approving the scheme... but, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

This truism applies when buying things, electing politicians, watching infomercials, or approving municipal communications networks, and in various other circumstances of daily life.

BT is a subject that could provide me with a year's worth of largely unread blog posts, but I think it's almost time to move on. I do have one more silly idea to publish here on this topic and then I will discuss other even less interesting subjects, unless something especially dramatic happens.


A bad lie, or the new invisible man

Tiger Woods, airbrushed out of history (or at least, off of Accenture's web site and other marketing collateral.)

Accenture has terminated its sponsorship of Tiger Woods. I mention this because I travelled through the USAir terminal in LaGuardia several times in the past 18 months, and the space was like the "Hall of Tiger, presented by Accenture" thanks to several large photos of:
  • Tiger Woods pumping his fist in victory
  • Tiger Woods making difficult shots from the rough
  • Tiger Woods driving a golf ball a long way
  • etc.
The larger-than-life images were superimposed with the kind of graphics and pithy little epigrams one of would expect from a consultancy known for producing "decks" (meaningless powerpoint presentations) rather than a tangible product.

From a marketing perspective, Accenture was 'all in' with their Tiger Woods strategy. Tiger was a winner, fierce competitor, cool and collected under pressure, the best in the world, etc. The company invested tens of millions of dollars to drive home the point that the company possessed the same attributes.

Of course, Tiger Woods proved to be a flawed and fallible human being and turned out to be a different kind of 'player' -- a man who liked cocktail waitresses (and worse) and who had ample opportunity to indulge in his predilections.

In retrospect, Accenture's millions of dollars in marketing expenditure served to associate the company with a tawdry story about a lack of transparency, cheating, promiscuity, and sleaze. Not exactly a catalog of desirable top-of-mind characteristics for a major international firm competing for business all over the world.

My point in posting this is not to critique the behavior of Tiger Woods -- or even to comment on his taste in women. I think Accenture's marketing choices look naive and stupid in retrospect. It appears that the company's offerings -- which include outsourcing vast numbers of US jobs -- can't be easily explained or marketed without a high-priced celebrity pitchman -- and associating so closely with one fallible person wasn't the wisest choice after all.

Myself, I have spent too much time following the antics of pro cyclists to expect athletes to be anything but athletes, and lots of times even their performances on the field (or in a race) are rather suspect... and apparently this applies on the golf course as well.


Traces of snow

November in Vermont was balmy and clement, marked by many atypically sunny, balmy days. It was actually quite pleasant, and I managed to spend a good amount of time tooling around on my bike.

On the radio, the initial ski reports of the season maintained a false cheerfulness as the nights remained too warm for snowmaking and no natural snow fell.

It looks more wintry than it really is: The Worcester Range dusted by a light snowfall.

It's now mid-December and the weather pattern seems to be changing. There was a dusting of snow on Saturday night and the forecast for the coming week calls for unsettled weather with mixed precipitation, with falling temperatures.

An old truck sits in a front yard near where I live.


Working for a living

"Scultore Supremo": Hope Cemetery in Barre is a collective monument to craftsmanship and artistry expressed in granite.

The scene on a blustery November afternoon, I was briefly wandering around before heading to the 5th Annual Dylan Wannabe Contest in Montpelier, but a strong, cold wind made it difficult to walk around for long.

I'm reading "Shop Class as Soulcraft", written by a guy with an academic background in philosophy who works as a motorcycle mechanic. The book aspires to be a discussion of work -- particularly manual craftsmanship -- and its meaning in modern life. The author contrasts the various challenges facing a mechanic with the purportedly more intellectual -- and abstract to the point of meaningless absurdity -- challenges faced by knowledge workers in the service economy.

I found the book hard to get into. Initially I attributed this to the flightiness of my brain, re-wired by too much time online and exposure to the pointless navel-gazing of social networking sites. I did, however, discover that many reviewers on Amazon found reading the book to be a rather ambiguous experience, there are some sound ideas but parts are dense and repetitive. What could have been a short, pointed essay has been conflated into book length form and the added length doesn't really add too much value.

When the author writes about what he is most passionate about -- the challenges and rewards of intricate, intellectually challenging yet still tactile work on old motorcycles -- the book is quite engrossing. And the author did not just happily become a mechanic -- he wandered down some career pathways more suitable for his academic background, and found the roles to be quite unfulfilling.

I don't know. On one hand I am quite inept with tools: When my bicycles need service, typically I throw the machine in my car and take it to a shop. But in my own experience I know that the modern workplace can be a soul-deadening, absurdist environment where time slides by, work lacks meaning, and boredom and routine are the primary themes. This is hardly an original observation... see Office Space or the series The Office, etc.

For example, in my recent unhappy and abortive work experience, one thing my supervisor did one Friday afternoon when I was quite new, was to block out my calendar for me -- assigning all tasks for the coming week into precise columns, Monday through Friday, and every minute and every hour of every day was planned and precisely accounted for.

The problem was that these were tasks that required inputs from others, editing and revisions -- and so by Monday afternoon the nice, neat calendar for the week was already a shambles. I found the whole experience be somewhat akin to the movie Brazil, I felt like a cog caught in a machine, except the output was random and meaningless.

All these subjects are things to consider as I plot a way forward from the present morass. While I don't foresee becoming a mechanic in my next career, I could see trying to make a go of it myself and not relying on others so much -- flying solo. One consequence of the current economic collapse, is that the opportunity cost for starting something is quite low -- perhaps it's time to take a chance, and begin anew.


"Just a song and dance man": 5th Bob Dylan Wannabe Contest, Montpelier

(I'm not sure where this performer came up with the idea for the white face paint.)

A few images from the 5th Annual (? - there have been years where this event has not been held) Bob Dylan Wannabe Contest in Montpelier, 11/28/2009. I have put up a gallery of all the performers here -- the images are nothing special, and long, fast camera lenses are not in my budget at this point in time.

The quality of the performances was all over the map, ranging from singing in the shower types on up.

Peter Landecker drove down from Quebec and won with a cover of.... I forget. Twenty-eight acoustic Dylan songs in a row, I wasn't taking notes, things ran together in my head afterwards. I do remember, however, that it was an excellent performance. Mr. Landecker demonstrated his impressive (obsessive?) knowledge of Dylan trivia at the end of the evening by recreating parts of Dylan's 1965 press conference (video here) from memory.

After the conclusion of the show each performer introduced themselves to the audience while the judges compiled the results. Many mentioned how important Dylan was to them artistically and even spiritually -- one told of becoming a believer during Dylan's Christian period -- and unlike Mr. Zimmerman -- not losing faith.

The event demonstrated the depth of the Dylan catalog -- more than 50 albums -- and while some well known songs were covered, many selections were unexpected and decidedly out of the mainstream.

Finally, the organizers announced that planning for next year's event has already begun.


A happy post-Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving leaf: Image manipulated in Gimp. Instead of shopping, I spent the morning reinstalling software on a newly restored (new hard drive) PC.

Seen on twitter today: Last year at this time the micro-blogging service was documenting in real-time the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India.

Keeping with a long-standing personal tradition, I was not one of the multitudes that turned out at a mall for the annual festival of retailing: I have little money, and even less inclination, for such experiences.

I tend towards a 'glass half empty' worldview which can be limiting and self-indulgent but... perhaps this is due to the fact my personal history of this "double zero" decade consists of private travails -- mostly involving a constant struggle to find meaningful work -- played out against a larger canvas of mass murder, war, economic collapse, natural disasters, and patterns of deceit, malfeasance, and incompetence.

In this climate it's sometimes hard to feel thankful but I do try and remember that I've made it this far without too many bad things happening despite all the sturm und drang of the wider world. Things could be better, but they could also be a lot worse, and just maybe, with some skill and some luck, things will be alright.


November is still time to ride

Old faithful: My Redline silhouetted against the gray November sky. This bike has seen much abuse, and little in the way of maintenance, but its simplicity is a great virtue, it's definitely a bike that can be ridden clean or dirty, there's not a lot to break, or even wear out - though new brake pads may be in order for next season.

It could be argued that the weather in November has been nicer than the weather in July and so on a few occasions I managed to ride before work or during the work day itself. The Stowe Town Loops may not be deep in the wilderness but the trail network there is perfect for shorter morning or lunchtime rides in the fall and the area is off limits to hunters.

Saturday I went for a group ride with the Stowe Mountain Bike club which was entertaining and also somewhat harrowing because the combination my poor mtb skills and an unforgiving rigid bike meant that keeping up on descents was something of a challenge on the damp and slippery trails. We rode up the new trail up to Trapps that I worked on (with many others) this past summer: Everyone agreed that the new trail -- a highly engineered work cut into the side of the steep hill -- offers a near perfect riding experience.

After the ride there was a short meeting that detailed the ambitious plans for trail expansion in the Stowe-Waterbury area, involving almost $500K of planned work.


Mémoires du Cyclisme

It's mid-November, stick season, and winter is fast approaching. The domestic cycling season is winding down, I've been reading accounts and looking at media from the domestic races and have watched a few international events online.

I'm old enough that I can remember the pre-Internet era, when the only coverage of international cycling consisted of little snippets of the Tour de France on ABC Wide World of Sports or CBS (the "John Tesh" network). Race coverage in print publications was available months after the events described were completed -- it wasn't unusual to read about spring classics raced in sleet and cold rain in the soft warm days of early summer.

Now all that is changed. Races are covered extensively online and digital media - still images and video -- are available almost instantaneously. Racers have even started attaching small cameras to their bikes and providing a participant's eye view.

The effect of all this communication, however, is somewhat jarring. It is not the race or the sport that is important -- it's the act of recording and publishing online. And I know that I am quite guilty of this myself -- cycling coverage is the most popular content on this site, by far.

But lately I've been feeling increasingly all shared out and spending less time on Facebook, Twitter, and keeping this site going. I'm trying to read more books -- kind of a lost art -- and working on developing some alternative ways to make some money on the side.

I've also resolved to rebuild my road bike -- it hasn't been touched in two years -- next spring and start riding regularly on the road again. At this stage of my life I can't see myself racing on the road... but perhaps pinning on a race number in the local fall cyclocross training series would be an attainable goal. Not that I was ever even remotely successful as a cyclocross racer...

The image is of Marc Gullicson in the mid-90s. I remember watching him getting tag teamed by the McCormack brothers (racing for the Saturn Cycling Team -- look at how that attempt at brand-building turned out) at the cyclocross race at UMass-Amherst.


It don't mean nothing

My college degree. Other than an investment in time and money, what exactly does it signify? The connections between 'talent', 'ability' and 'schooling' are tenuous at best. But it's also true, that Vassar Quarterly (now published 3x/year due to budget cutbacks!) is full of accounts of classmates who have achieved much more than I have in my small and misspent life.

I try not to write about work -- and usually manage to accomplish this small goal.

But a recent work experience was rather scarifying, and it's hard to put it out of my mind. As I have noted, I was subjected to intense criticism about my ability to write (and even to think). I think some of the criticism was justified, some was rather capricious and whimsical -- an example of hiding what I really think behind fancy words.

Anyhow, I read a post on Copyblogger -- a vastly more popular blog than this mostly unread document -- that summed up the problem quite nicely: 7 Bad Writing Habits You Learned in School. I felt like this post was a critique of me and me alone....
  • Sound Like Dead People -- Check
  • Writing Long Paragraphs -- Check
  • Staying Detached -- Check, check, check
The whole post is worth reading, and something for me to consider going forward.


Professional communications

I had a job. And, even as the United States, which looks more like a bankrupt banana republic with each passing day, remains mired in a tepid and largely jobless recovery, I quit. Actually, what I did was to return to my old job, a rather risky proposition, given the state of things.

Why did I quit (resign)? Without retelling the whole sorry story , it came down to differences in communications style and expectations. Which is a very sanitized way of saying, that I was subjected to a barrage of criticism about my ability to express myself with the written word. Some of the criticism had some validity, some less so... it was not a pleasant situation.

But it don't intend to write about this here -- though I could easily point out some examples of incoherent writing published online by my former employer.

Instead, I would point out (celebrate?) the fact that I did work on a website for a local small business this past summer, and my client was very happy with the outcome.

The client's old website was old-fashioned, unattractive and invisible to search engines - inexplicably, the whole site consisted of image files, not text.

Acting as project manager, I selected a vendor for coding and site design work, and was very pleased with how the relationship played out. The new website is much more modern, easier to navigate and search engine friendly. Joomla is used as the CMS, so making edits and additions is relatively straightforward.

I also wrote some copy and worked closely with the business owner to ensure that the site conveys an effective, consistent marketing message.

Finally, some of the photography used on the new site is my work, and I also recycled and reprocessed some images from the old site.

After my recent abortive and unhappy job experience, I admit, it's somewhat gratifying to be able to point to a project like this, and to know that my client was happy, and I was paid for my work -- pretty much the definition of 'professional' -- unlike amateur efforts like this mostly unread blog.


Choke on this fiber: Further observations on the Burlington Telecom debacle

When I wear this Burlington Telecom T-shirt... I can literally drape myself in irony!

Burlington Telecom (henceforth referred to as 'BT') has been prominent in the news lately. Its business model has failed, and without additional financing it cannot continue as an ongoing 'entity' - as a weird amalgamation of public and private assets, BT cannot really be characterized as a business. BT required a $17 million cash infusion from the City of Burlington to stay afloat and the underhanded nature of this transaction is causing controversy.

Now, it's a cold gray autumn Sunday, and I could spend hours writing a trenchant analysis of this situation, but that would be not a good use of my time. So I will attempt to be concise.*

In May of 2008, some news reports surfaced about BT's deteriorating finances, and I wrote a blog post entitled Failed socialist daydeams by the lake that offered my perspective on the situation. That post concluded:

I just cannot see how an organization with 30+ employees working in a small and tightly defined market, saddled with $33M in debt will ever break even... and I do have a slightly informed opinion.

Contrast the harsh unvarnished realism of my post with this glib and pollyanna-ish recent statement from BT's current General Manager:

We are extremely pleased with our success to date despite the worst crisis in the national and international economy since the depression....Burlington’s customers and citizens can be confident that our finances are sound and Burlington Telecom is a viable business.

Here's why I think BT is a doomed business venture:
  • The basic premise behind BT was fatally flawed and required too much capital. Having a state of the art municipal telecom network is nice but building it is expensive. Estimates of BT's current debt load remain in the mid-$30 million range. [Correction: It's probably in the area of $5o million when the $17 million from Burlington is added in.]
  • BT has never been a lean, mean entrepreneurial organization. It operates as a regulated utility and as a quasi-municipal department. Such organizations are rarely small and nimble, and lots of employees equals high operating expenses. It's unlikely that current revenues cover existing operating expenses, let alone debt service. (I'm not a financial analyst, but I can play one on this blog.) Burlington City Government does not have the intellectual and managerial resources to adequately oversee this slow motion train wreck, and the recent controversy arises from inadequate financial controls.
  • Failed marketing. BT has less than 5000 residential customers. I think the citizens of Burlington made an impulse purchase when the decision to build the network was made. Voters were upset with the then-incumbent cable company, so they decided to approve building a state-of-the-art municipal fiber optic network. It appears that these same voters then neglected to sign up for BT's services. And I think even if BT had a high market penetration in Burlington it would still have a crippling debt burden. Finally, I don't believe that the current Great Recession is responsible for BT's lack of subscribers - though it probably does constrain their ability to borrow more money from newly-skittish banks.
To conclude: It's been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Having a state of the art municipal communications network is nice. Paying for it is not so nice, especially when the business case for building the network was far too optimistic, and accountability is in short supply.

There is a decidedly utopian, socialist, not-grounded-in-reality streak to Burlington (and Vermont) politics and now the bills are coming due, and the outcome of the BT project is likely to be unpleasant and markedly non-utopian. Taxpayers - who, after all, did vote for this project, albeit with imperfect understanding - beware...

*Recently, my ability to write concisely and to a point has been harshly questioned, with this blog held up as a example of poor written communication.


Vermont fall foliage: Looking up, down, and sideways

Columbus Day weekend is traditionally the peak of Vermont's fall foliage. This year didn't disappoint, the colors seem brighter and more vibrant than I recall from recent autumns.

After a damp drizzly morning the weather cleared in the afternoon.

Sun and shadow on the forest floor.

It looks quiet and bucolic but in reality there was near-gridlock on local roads and the Ben & Jerry's Factory (Vermont's #1 tourist attraction, and located about 1/2 mile from where I live) had to hire a sheriff for traffic control on Rt 100. This was not a good day to be running around doing errands in a car.

9 more images from today here (photobucket album).


Why it's hard to post much here anymore, continued

And oftentimes excusing of a fault
doth make the fault the worse by th'excuse
. Shakespeare*

Another excuse: Once I manage to get to work, it's my job to string words together. Now, there are some topics I will not blog about (first and foremost being work and personal relationships) but suffice it to say that I would describe my main task at my job as "writing compelling copy about [insert appropriate adjective here] subjects."

Blank screens are how I usually start my day (thanks to blogging, I'm quite attuned to writing in the morning) but stringing words together is proving to be a struggle, regardless of the time of day.

So the last thing I want to deal with when I get home is another blank screen, waiting to be filled with more words.

*Quoting Shakespeare is deliberate. Work is a struggle partly because too much time online has rewired my brain in new and flighty ways. It's rare for me to sit down and read in depth anymore. So I think spending less time online and more time reading would be a good thing.

And, perhaps the quote itself, found online with a quick Google search is more symptomatic rather than illustrative.


2009 Verge Series Race #1 @ Catamount, 9/26/09

Images from Saturday's first race in the 2009 Verge New England Cyclocross Series at Catamount Family Center, Williston Vermont on a spectacular early autumn day.

A group of riders turned up the hill to start another lap.

Roger Absholm, Masters National Champion, won the Masters 35 race convincingly. Between the GMSR and the GMCW, he earns quite a bit of money for himself on his trips to Vermont.

Stephan Marcoux with his pain face on in the Masters 35s.

The 3s race had over 100 entrants, a record for a cyclocross race at this venue. Consequently it was very hectic at the start.

Dry conditions allowed the riders to ride the run up in the woods.

But eventually #130 riding for cyclocrossworld.com broke away and won solo (sorry, didn't get a name).

Natasha Elliot and Mo Bruno-Roy corner hard on the first lap of the Women's race.

Elliot soon broke away and rode solo for most the race, winning alone.

Dan "Grizzly Adams" Timmerman lurked near the head of the field at the start of the Pro/Elite race.

Just like last year, Timmerman rode alone for most of the race. But with Jamie Driscoll not present, no one was able to track him down.

Two determined chasers could not close the gap.

Former Euro-pro Justin Spinelli had his pain face on.

32 additional images posted here (photobucket).


GMCR Verge Series #1 photos coming

Adam Meyerson rides the run up in the woods. An over-exposed image but one that does capture some of the intensity of the race I think.

I spent the afternoon at Catamount Family Center watching the cyclocross races and taking photos: Another day, another bike race. It was a glorious, perfectly clear fall day and I couldn't help but feel that it would have been nice to go for a long bushwhack in some lonely patch of woods, but oh well. There were many people at this race who I know from my days ineffectually racing a bike so it was sort of like going to a class reunion, and that part of the day was fun.

I will post more photos tomorrow morning.


Green Mountain Cyclocross Weekend (2008): Jamey Driscoll and Chris Jones

The two main protagonists of the recent 2009 CrossVegas race also rode together at the 2008 Green Mountain Cyclocross Weekend. I'll be at the 2009 event with my camera and will post some images here. I will also try and squeeze in some time in the woods as the fall colors emerge more with each passing day, and I feel that I have spent enough time chasing skinny guys (mostly) on bikes with a camera of late.

The hole shot: Cyclocross from JG on Vimeo.

Video of the start of last year's GMCW Sunday race. Images from 2008 here.


Why it's hard to post much here anymore

112 miles from JG on Vimeo.

So I have a new job. I'm grateful for this situation, these are hard times as the Big Deleveraging keeps rolling along... Three years ago I lived in Burlington, changed jobs, and so moved to Waterbury to be closer to the new job, which has now ended. So now I make the trip every day in reverse.

It's really not that bad, 28 miles one way, and probably 27 of the distance is on wide open Vermont interstate. But commuting is a tremendous waste of time and I can feel my muscles atrophying from sitting down all day staring into a screen, and as the seasons change and the days get shorter, it's dark in the morning when I leave and dark in the evening when I get home. Compounding the situation is the fact that I can see where I used to live in Burlington from my office, when I'm bored I can daydream about living on shabby, postindustrial Riverside Avenue again.

The whole present situation is kind of dispiriting and I find the idea of coming home, sitting down and trying to come up with something to post here to be burdensome... so posting will be quite irregular going forward. Maybe I'll try podcasting from my car, I certainly have the time.


Last batch of 2009 GMSR photos posted

I spent a little time quickly sorting through my images from the 2009 GMSR. The photographer from the Burlington Free Press put up a gallery of images from the criterium that were very good and which demonstrate the difference between 'amateur' and 'professional'.

Cycling information is the most searched-for material on this site, however, and most of the events I 'cover' (the GMSR, local cyclocross events, etc.) receive scant coverage in the media so I guess I can describe myself as a marginally successful citizen cycling photojournalist.

The first moments of the Pro-1 criterium on Church Street: 14 images from this stage are posted here (Photobucket album).

Stage 3: Marshall Ambros with his pain face on in the Category 3 race. He bounced back to win the Criterium the next day: 18 images from GMSR Stage 3 posted here.

The Pro-1 racers contest a points sprint in the GMSR Stage 2 circuit race. The circuit race was the stage where I had the most time to just hang out with my camera and I live very to the course... so I took the greatest number of photos: 34 images are posted here.

As a final note, I have it on very good authority that the miscreant responsible for this situation described in the stage 3 communique was none other than a certain ex-pro racer from New England, currently suspended for a doping infraction:
"Team CCB is fined $150USD for having its support vehicle in the race caravan from Forest Dale the finish (4H3) and disregarding the Chief Referee’s specific prerace instruction not to do so."
And I thought that once riders were suspended that they were not supposed to be involved in racing in any way.