12.31.2009

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.

12.24.2009

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.

12.20.2009

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...

Refrain:

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.

12.13.2009

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.

12.06.2009

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.

12.05.2009

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.