Archive for April 2005

I’m Hit! I’m Hit!

Kathy of Freshman44 tagged me with the book meme that has been making the rounds.  Usually these viruses move rapidly, killing off the eligible hosts in a week or so, but this one has been around for two or three weeks and now (cough!  cough!) I’ve contracted it.  It’ll take a little more thought than I can devote to it right now, so watch this space.

One-Minute Mangler

Going through mail this morning at my Milwaukee client’s, I came across these inspirational suggestions from a management newsletter, in an article entitled Make recognizing employees part of your daily routine:

  • Add the names of people who report to you to your list of goals to accomplish.  Then cross off names as you praise them.
  • Use voice mail: Rather than using it only to assign tasks, leave employees voice mail messages praising them for a job well done.  Do it from your cellular phone on the way home.
  • At the beginning of the day, put five coins in your pocket.  then, during the day, each time you praise an employee, transfer a coin to your other pocket.

You’d have to have the personality of firewood if you needed cornball shit like this to maintain professional relationships.  Another article is entitled Four Ways To Reward Employees Without Spending Any Money.  ‘Nuff said.  And one more, Model Your Work Team After A Flock Of Geese includes the following parable:

When the nature of the work changes, the geese reorganize themselves for the best results.  They fly in a “V”, land in waves and feed in fours.  WTF???

I read these to the accounting department just to let them know what to expect from me this week.  I can already feel the energy out there.

Reading Circle

I just finished Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.  It’s a futuristic novel wherein the professional classes live in corporate-sponsored enclaves, islands of gated, guarded isolation from rival corporations (biotech companies are the focus of the novel) and from the gaggle of unclean humanity that occupies “pleebland”.  Gene-splicing has advanced to the point where new, purpose-specific species are being uncorked seemingly without much federal oversight - indeed, the enclaves seem to be self-governing, although reference is made occasionally to country and/or geopolitical entities that we are familiar with. 

The story is narrated by neither Oryx nor Crake, but by one Snowman, with whom the book opens in some post-calamitous era as a dissolute, naked and vermin-plagued beach bum who sleeps in a tree to avoid the roving packs of wolvogs.  He appears to be attended by a group of human-like creatures who dote on him to the extent of bringing him a fish to eat each day (he seems to be terrified of the ocean), but it’s unclear whether he’s their guest or prisoner.  He refers to them as “the children of Crake”, and in serial flashbacks he introduces us to Crake as his brilliant, sort of nerdy childhood friend, and their progress through schools and professional life, then brings us forward through the events that have landed him thus on the farthest frontier of a continent and of humanity.

Atwood calls the novel “speculative fiction” rather than “science fiction”.  By that, she means that she’s extrapolating events using technology and social structures we currently have, rather than inventing things like transporters and phasers out of the whole cloth.  It’s a cautionary tale, I guess, about what happens when man doesn’t have the will and courage to regulate and set ethical limits on burgeoning technologies.  The world she envisions is, in a way, the perfection of the corporation-as-government that seems to be evolving in the 21st century.

I don’t think this book has the richness of prose and biting wit that some of her other work has.  And, though she spends a lot of effort on the personal relationships in the novel, I don’t feel that she achieves a satisfying clarity regarding either their stated depth of feeling or their motives.  I’ll have to read some reviews, and do some more thinking.

Greeting From Great Falls

I’m off to Milwaukee again for the week, with an odd routing that takes me from Seattle to Great Falls, then to Minneapolis, then Milwaukee.  For some reason, it was over $200 cheaper.  I’m sitting in the Great Falls airport, and, even though there’s no Worldclub to plop my pampered ass in, the Wifi is free, and everything’s blissfully unhurried and laid-back.  That’s a welcome change from Seatac, which is still apparently afflicted with spring break traffic, with gaggles of parent-brat combinations clogging the concourses and standing in front of the check-in kiosks, scratching their heads and staring at them like they’re inscrutable 2001 monoliths.

Some great decor here, though.  I took pictures, and will post them when I can get my usb cable out of my luggage in Milwaukee.  Oop, gotta board.

OK, here they are - Lewis & Clark portage the Great Falls on the Missouri, and various game festooned on another wall.

A picture named GreatFallsInternationalAirport.jpg

Cooling My Heels

So we just learned our kid has started a blog, and he’s up there crafting an entry while I’m down here cooling my heels waiting to take him out to the Tangletown Pub for a beer.  He’s 23, but it still feels strange to go to taverns with him.  Ok, now that I’ve started my OWN entry, he deigns to show up.  Laters.

I Imagine Clear Channel’s Feeling Threatened…

A picture named StapleBan.jpgFor the last few years, there has been an ongoing skirmish between utilities, city government and music-promoting posses over affixing performance flyers to utility poles.  The utilities say the signs and staples endanger workers, others say simply that the signs are unsightly and the fans aver that the practice represents protected speech.

For the last couple of years, anyway, it’s been legal.  I was amused by this treatment of the subject.  It’s also the first time I believe I’ve ever seen a soda can affixed to a pole.  Maybe if they upped the ante to Guinness or at least Bud, the utility workers would reconsider their opposition.

An Insight Into New Financial Services

Since auditing and tax work has become extremely competitive and, in many ways, “commodity” work, the accounting profession keeps looking for new service areas where it can charge its full billing rates.  One approach has been to develop a body of knowledge and package it as something they can develop a certification program for.  An example is the CFP, Certified Financial Planner, which was promulgated to differentiate CPAs from the insurance and mutual fund hucksters holding themselves out as “Financial Planners”.  In that case, it was a useful distinction and had the potential to be a good product offering.  I’m  not sure the general public is capable of concentrating long enough to appreciate the distinction, so I’m not sure how successful they’ve been at branding it.

Another less successful endeavor was an attempt to develop an assurance (like an audit) product called WebTrust to certify that commercial web sites were trustworthy.  The angle was to propose an initial survey of a site’s processes, then review it quarterly, in exchange for being able to display the AICPA’s WebTrust icon on your site.  The problem was that eCommerce was moving way too fast for the ponderous process that the profession was proposing, and it looked to me from the start like an elephant trying to breakdance.

Among some of my accounting email/spam this week arrived information about this new way to provide a distinctive service - the Certified Divorce Financial Analyst.  The game seems to be to insert some kind of service into the interstices between the aggrieved couple and the “fuck-me, fuck-you” posturing of the divorce attorneys that allows the parties (this is a PARTY?)  to somehow convene a caesura in their animosities and rationally consider the present AND future implications of their financial affairs.

What I really think these guys have in mind is to invade the turf previously owned by the divorce attorneys where you can determine how much money the divorcee gets, then have the inside track on catching her on the rebound.  I can appreciate the business model behind this, and could glimpse myself pursuing a certification.  Problems would arise when Mrs. Perils wanted to know what her cut was from my pre- and post-divorce emoluments, and the task of hiring a suitable CDFA to adjudicate the discussion.  I’m better off, I think, sticking to fielding the occasional “smoke is pouring out of the back of my monitor - should I shut down my computer or do you want me to make a backup?” inquiries.

A March Madness Reminiscence

The NCAA men’s basketball championship is tonight and, although I really don’t have an emotional stake in the outcome, I always get a little pang around this time of year because it reminds me of the torrid 3-year affair I conducted with my first sports love.

My mom and dad both attended Ohio State, and there was never any question about where our sports loyalties resided. I was sort of a chubby, unathletic kid, though, and the sports gene pretty much lay dormant until the winter of 1959 - 60. That year, a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class became sophomores and eligible to play at Ohio State, including Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek, Mel Nowell and Bobby Knight. I must have contracted my dad’s enthusiasm, and we started setting aside time on the evenings - Saturday and Tuesday, usually - when they played, and we’d strain our Toledo-area radio’s capability to pull in the Columbus radio station (WTVN) carrying the games.

As this first wondrous season unfolded with victory after victory, we at some point got caught up in scorekeeping. My dad must have seen a bonding opportunity in this virtual sport, an opportunity that hadn’t germinated in the freezing duck blinds and torpid bobber-watching forays he’d tried in vain to entice me with, and he made the most of it. He had scoresheets printed (mimeographed - these were the old days) at his office with the hallowed starting five filled in, and blanks for subs, and, as we listened to the radio broadcast, we assiduously recorded field goals attempted and made, free throws attempted and made, and personal fouls. We’d compare notes at halftime and at the end of games, and compute the shooting percentages for individuals and the teams, and try to do it fast enough to compare ours with the post-game wrap-up on the radio.

We also filled in the opponent’s ledger, and tracked vaunted enemies like Terry Dischinger (Purdue), the Van Arsdale Twins (Indiana) and their wonderfully-monickered coach Branch McCracken, and of course the hated Bill Buntin and Cazzie Russell of Michigan.
A picture named OSU 1960 National Champs.jpg
We were aided greatly in this endeavor by undoubtedly the most egregious homer announcer I’ve ever heard, a guy named Joe Hill. His call was so precise that it was amazing how close our radio-informed statistics would track the official numbers. And, an added bonus, Hill would really scourge the refs if he felt we were being jobbed, and, for the first time in my life, I tasted the seething vintages of the sports fan’s hatreds.
A picture named Jerry Lucas Hook Shot.jpg
The Buckeyes won the national championship that year that Lucas and Havlicek were sophomores, and went on to post a 73-6 record over the three years those guys played. They were beaten, however, in each of the next two national championship games by Cincinnati. I honestly think I lost my religion the Sunday morning after the second Cinci loss. Sitting in church with my eyes closed, seeing nothing but the Blade’s “CINCI WINS!” headline emblazoned in Hiroshima-sized type on my retinas, I finally knew the universe for the cold and brutal place that it is.

Ohio State had a couple of good years after that with Gary Bradds, another all-American, at center, but, for me, bra sizes began to replace field-goal percentages as my stat-du-jour, my dad began to suffer stress from occupational angst and personal demons, and our period of Buckeye bonding dissipated.

Still, we had it, that period of delirious sports lust, and its corollary, the searing heartache of defeat and entitlement forfeited. Good fortune, time and mobility allowed my dad and I to enjoy each other’s company until he died last fall, and I’ve had satisfying adult relationships with other sports teams, but I always feel a little nostalgia during March Madness for those nights by the radio, brow furrowed and pencil poised, urging Big Luke to sink another of his soft hooks.
(Pictures from The Golden Age of Ohio State Basketball by Lee Caryer)

Bonus shot - Basketball cognoscenti familiar with the scowling, silver-haired visage of Bobby Knight might get a kick out of the shot below, taken at the Cow Palace after the 1960 national championship game:
A picture named Bobby Knight OSU 1960.jpg

Computer Geriatrics

I think my laptop had a little stroke last weekend.  At some point, the “8″, “i”, “k”, “+” and a couple other keys quit working.  Powering down didn’t help.  I found a spare keyboard in my closet and plugged it in, but found the space bar only worked intermittently, so I pitched it back into the closet and faked my way through various tasks.  I did this by cutting and pasting the missing letters into a Word document, then whenever I needed one and couldn’t think of reasonable synonyms, I’d ‘Ctrl-C’ the fugitive letter and ‘Ctrl-V’ it into my text.  It felt both incredibly resourceful and incredibly stupid at the same time.

I went to eBay and found a replacement keyboard for sale pretty cheap, and I bought it, dreading the day it arrives and I’ll have to undertake the disassembly of the laptop.

I had just finished scouring the internet for some schematics about how to take it apart when I noticed that the keys had started to work again, the industrious little electrons having found an alternative path around whatever thrombosis had caused the outage.  It’s stayed fixed for a full day now, and I’m crossing my fingers.

Still, in the past when I’ve found myself adding components to a computer, it’s really time to look for a new one.  Just one more task on my lengthy list, another learning curve I’ll reluctantly mount.  Not to mention the expense.

Financial Digression

One of the fun things about being a Berkshire Hathaway  shareholder (NYSE:BRK.A) is receiving the annual report, which I just received last week.  Unlike other annual reports that are rich in smarm, platitudes and slick layout, and short on real information, the BRK annual report is written in large part by Warren Buffett himself, in first person.  He recounts, with humor and apparent candor, the operating results and significant occurrences of Berkshire’s far-flung empire, and often it’s larded with pithy commentary like the following.

Investors should understand that in all types of financial institutions, rapid growth sometimes masks major underlying problems (and occasionally fraud).  The real test of the earning power of a derivatives operation is what it achieves after operating for an extended period in a no-growth mode.  You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out.

While this enjoyment doesn’t completely ameliorate the $6,000 drop in share price over the last few weeks, it’s still refreshing.  The media has Warren on the griddle a bit lately.  He’s being called to testify in Eliot Spitzer’s investigation of insurance giant AIG.  A few years ago, a Berkshire subsidiary and AIG did a transaction that AIG then proceeded to record on its books in a misleading and perhaps fraudulent manner.  Buffett is being called as a witness, not a target of the investigation, but there are questions about whether the Berkshire unit knew beforehand of AIG’s fraudulent intent, and tailored the transaction to accommodate it.  And, there is a question about how much Buffett knew about it at the time.

Part of the interest this case has generated occurs because, in his speaking and writing, Buffett has been an unwelcome scold regarding shoddy and deceptive accounting practices, advocating, for instance, that stock options be expensed by companies that grant them as compensation, long before the SEC reluctantly agreed last year.  So, there’s a little shadenfreude in seeing him be made to squirm a little.

Berkshire is a former textile company that Buffett has turned into a holding company, and it owns myriad businesses in diverse markets: GEICO Insurance, Shaw carpets, Dairy Queen, See’s Candies, just to name a few.  Being a shareholder is tantamount to investing in a mutual fund managed by Warren Buffett.  So, my sentiment as well as my economic self-interest wants to believe that Buffett was oblivious to the minutae of the AIG business.  Buffett’s MO is to purchase a company that has strong fundamentals and competent managers and then let them run it.  His “Owner’s Manual” for Berkshire shareholders says:

Charlie (Munger) and I are the managing partners of Berkshire.  But we subcontract all of the heavy lifting in this business to the managers of our subsidiaries.  In fact, we delegate almost to the point of abdication…Charlie and I mainly attend to capital allocation and the care and feeding of our key managers.  Most of these managers are happiest when they are left alone to run their businesses, and that is customarily just how we leave them.

However, since, in my view, Eliot Spitzer has basically been the country’s justice department for the last five years, if I weren’t a BRK shareholder, I’d probably be going, “Aha!” like a lot of other folks are, happy to see another corporate miscreant being brought to heel.  In this instance, though, I’m hoping Warren Buffett’s reputation and cachet remains intact.

I mean, the Pope can die and it only affects my life to the extent that I worry if the Final Four games will be pre-empted.  When Warren Buffett dies, I’ll be anxiously scanning the color of the smoke exhalations over Omaha.