Thursday, May 27, 2010

ford kills mercury

Finally. Perhaps as a young-ish person, I never properly understood either the appeal or historical significance of the Mercury brand for Ford Motor Co. In my eyes, they were a homeless tweener brand that was stuck between Ford's increasingly high-end trim models and improved quality and Lincoln's lowest level of luxury offerings.

From the chart in the WSJ article, this is hardly some recent trend, not even induced by the last two recessions. This has been a long-term decline since the mid-80's with a sharp drop-off in sales starting in the late 90's. I don't understand the automotive business well enough to figure out why this decision took so long to make. Perhaps some bit of silliness called hope egged them on into believing that Mercury would become hip and popular with younger buyers. Or the dealerships and their byzantine relationship with the manufacturer. It was taking nearly 1800 dealerships to sell less than 100K cars a year. Even accounting for many of those dealerships selling other FoMoCo models, that's not enough sales volume for that many dealers.

Anyway, I like Ford, as much as I can like any large automaker. I have no doubt the decision to kill their Mercury brand was difficult, but it seems long overdue. For what it's worth, at least Mercury cars had reasonably normal names unlike the move towards increasingly silly letter combinations over at Lincoln.

Edit: I rephrased a horribly awkward sentence that I had previously thought was exceptionally well written. However, since I rarely proofread my work, it turns out it was quite poorly phrased.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Q1 comedy

I know this is old news by now, but I've been re-listening to the Q1 earnings conference call from April of this year. As always, you can find it available for download on the company's website. If you do download the .mp3 and listen to it, there is a hilarious moment at the 37:45 mark when one of the analyst asks a very long run-on question and the "um" that is initially uttered in response is just epically unintentionally hilarious to me. I'm not sure why it is, but I just laughed out loud in the middle of the office while listening to it. It's such a deer in the headlights moment for our usually polished CEO.

Edit: The shock was not due to the information being asked for in the question, but the astounding way in which the question was asked. At the beginning of the Q&A session, analysts are told they can ask one question and one follow-up question. Most will actually end up asking one question, then an often unrelated second question and then perhaps a short-follow-up question so they often sneak in an extra question, but everyone seems okay with how it all works out. For this question, this was the analyst’s follow-up question, but it was a doozy.

Friday, May 21, 2010

i'm on a plane!

More accurately, I was on a plane. The not-so-top secret company charter that works it's way up and down the West African coast from Angola to Nigeria and back down again (but not in the same day). I could be wrong about where it starts and stops since I've never flown the entire length of the charter route. It's a 30-passenger Embraer 120 complete with drink service. A definite step up from the Beechcraft 1900 that flew out of Farmington.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

i'm on a boat! (or ship?)

But maybe it was an FDPSO. Specifically, this thing and whatever you want to call it. FDPSO stands for floating, drilling, production, storage, and offloading. As the very sexy name implies, it floats in the water, drills wells, produces oil, stores said oil, and then offloads the oil into tankers. Here’s a picture of it (that will prompt for download).

Actually, I’m no longer on the boat. They block a lot of websites including blogger which I suppose makes sense since bandwidth is limited. Instead, I’m back on the non-slowly undulating land. It was somewhat reminiscent of the recent cruise I took back in January, complete with pretty decent food, but less onboard entertainment, and the “moon pool” on the rig is not for swimming.

The trip also included my first helicopter ride. In the picture linked above, the tower at the front of the ship is actually the flare stack and it is (almost?) always burning. As we approached the vessel, the music from Jurassic Park was going through my head and I was picturing the scene when the chopper first lands on the island by the waterfall. As a point of clarification, there were no dinosaurs on the rig.

I suppose I could discuss why I was there (work of course), but you know I generally won’t go into too much detail about work-specific matters in this forum.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Indestructible corollas

Taxis here are blue and white. Well, they are mostly blue, with various white stripes and piping, but from what I can tell, no two paint jobs are alike. Apparently, the requirement is to just be mostly blue with some white stripes and make it look however you want. (For what it’s worth, the buses are 12-15 passenger vans that are mostly blue with some yellow. However I did see one with yellow as the dominant color. Blasphemy, the guy who drives it probably gets made fun of by the other bus drivers.)

The preeminent taxi vehicle is the Toyota Corolla, circa late 80’s or early 90’s. From the looks of them, it seems like most are sixth generation or possibly seventh generation Corollas. There are some Nissans and a few others thrown into the mix, but it is the almighty and indestructible Corolla that rules the roads here (since most vehicles appear to be taxis). And they are indestructible. Sure they may rattle and squeak and apparently the check engine light is defaulted to being on when they import them here, but they have taught me you can throw dreadfully awful roads at a car and it will survive, though the passengers and their Faberge eggs may not make it. An added bonus is that seatbelts are apparently dead weight and not to be found in many of them. Much like a taxi with more than half a tank of gas. As to whether or not I should tell some taxi drivers that the giant ‘Turbo’ sticker in the rear windshield will not actually make the car go faster seems a bit esoteric. (Note: Turbo is actually a common brand of beer here).

Truth be told, it seems like most taxi drivers take care of their vehicles as best they can. While I may not care for their choice of music, every car I have been in has been clean with seat covers and a reasonable attempt to personalize the vehicle a little bit. During various times of the day, you can usually see several parked near some water with the drivers washing them and wiping them down, keeping them as clean as possible given the roads, occasional mud, and constant dust. Mechanical maintenance is a bit less clear, though any 20-year old car is often in need of replacement bits and pieces like wiring, switches, fuses, and check engine lights.

There undoubtedly comes a time when these vehicles return to the great assembly line in the sky. Or an abandoned mine shaft. Rest assured that these vehicles have seen every bit of their useful life squeezed from them.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

equivalent neighborhood?

I was asked in a comment to compare Pointe-Noire to some US city/neighborhood. I could even break it down to individual aspects if it would help with better comparisons. I don’t think I have seen enough of the United States to find a good comparison to most aspects of this city. Or that’s just my polite way of saying I don’t think there is anywhere in the US that is this poorly developed. You’re not going to find a half-million person city in the US with infrastructure like this. You’d be hard pressed to find a half-thousand person rural town in the US with infrastructure like Pointe-Noire. I think sewage is ok, though it all likely goes into the ocean untreated, but there are occasional power outages, water quality is suspect, food hygiene issues, telephones seem ok, but mobile service seems like it might be over-capacity, internet is less available, and air quality is middling with what I assume are zero emission controls for cars and industry.

As I said before, it’s not a bad city in the sense that it is better than expected. It’s just, as a whole, a still developing (I hope) city. One person who has been here about a year told me he has seen significant improvement in the city in the past year so I certainly appreciate not having been here a year ago. There is construction all over the place, children go to school, and while people are poor-ish (not really sure how poor), food appears to be available.

Part of my inability to really assess to the city is the insular world I live in. I’m at work. I’m at home. I’m out with co-workers. But it’s all an expat world. I’ve seen and been to a couple uniquely local things and I’ll discuss them at some future date, but the vast majority of my time is spent working, sleeping, or eating in an environment that could be transported to many other places. Except for the beach. It’s pretty sweet to eat fresh calamari and crab on the beach just 50m from the water.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The trash is everywhere

The thing I probably dislike the most about Pointe-Noire is that there is trash everywhere. I’ll try to take pictures without looking like a gawker out on the streets, but there are piles of trash of varying composition, size, and decay in just about every slightly lower patch of ground. There’s also a lot of dust or fine dirt or sand that seems to creep into the paved streets with alarming speed, but that’s small potatoes compared to the trash problem. I’m not really sure why it’s all over the place, but I assume it is a combination of poor infrastructure for trash pick-up service, a cultural thing wherein people are not historically accustomed to non-biodegradable trash, relatively recent rise of the city (which is related to infrastructure), and habits from colonial legacy. That last one is not my idea, but one a (French) colleague postulated about since he said much of former French colonial Africa is like this when it comes to trash and he thought it was a French thing. I’m not in a position to compare this place to Ghana, Nigeria, or South Africa, but I suspect it could be a colonial thing, not simply a French colonial thing.

I am doing my best to not dislike the trash. Why? Mostly because I loathe trash on the ground. But there’s just so much of it, I’m better off, well, not exactly embracing the trash, but just accepting it as part of the landscape because it isn’t going anywhere. I’m not planning to contribute to the problem, but I really don’t know if the trash cans I diligently use actually end up somewhere appropriately dedicated for their contents.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Congo - 1 month in

I think the best way to summarize my first month in Congo is to say that it has been better than expected. By that, I mean my expectations for quality of life, city, some parts of work were terribly low. Much of this was governed by what people in the business generally say about working in West Africa. More accurately, what people I have had a chance to know say about working in West Africa, but until now people I have known have not been working here. They have been working somewhere else, which is not entirely unrelated to their ability to adjust to a place like this.

Additionally, there is a pay coefficient for this location. A pay coefficient is a factor applied to one’s base salary that you get paid in addition to your salary. Various locations around the world get various different levels of coefficients based on working conditions like general infrastructure, remote location, security situation, proximity to airport, international schools, hospitals, and other developed world services like McDonald’s. The coefficient here is high though the money isn’t really the point. I was using the coefficient as a proxy for expected quality of life and the expectations were low. Evidently, Pointe-Noire is the gem of locations in West Africa and some people here sheepishly admit the coefficient really ought to be one level lower, but they’re not exactly lobbying management for less money.

In the end, I’d generally call it not a great place, but a good enough place. Good enough for me though is probably not going to be acceptable to some people who are more accustomed to more pleasant surroundings. It continues to be my recommendation that my parents not visit me here.

The work remains interesting with much to learn, new challenges to rise to, and plenty of interesting people from all over the world to meet. While the base suffers from what I have dubbed “big-base syndrome” the size does make for lots of interesting people to meet and learn from. As I said about the coefficient, it’s not about the money that goes with the work. The money is nice and as enriching as being here is, I wouldn’t be working here for free, but I wouldn’t care all that much if the coefficient was lowered.

Being an expat here, and again related to my previous post, the relative affluence of my lifestyle here insulates me from much of the local culture. There are many restaurants and other establishments that are predominantly patronized by expats in the industry. This is not to say that locals aren’t also eating a lot of seafood and fried bananas, but it’s definitely not the same.

In semi-related news, I’m now five weeks out from my last hair cut. It’s starting to get a bit shaggy and it’s very clear that almost every Congolese man just shaves/buzzes his head. Thus, there is going to be some sleuthing about for a proper hair cut.

A big part of what makes it better than expected is the security situation which is quite good. Freedom to move about and go out at night and walk around without too much hassle is a big deal. The last thing anyone really wants is to feel like a prisoner within a city. And while I’m a stranger in this city, it’s a good place to be, at least for me.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

fiduciary things

I have no illusions about the relative affluence of the upbringing I had and the lifestyle I continue to have. I’m not sure when I became ‘aware’ of the fact that I had a distinctly above-average childhood. It might have been around the time I realized that it was possible for me to know things that my teachers did not know. (By this, I mean analysis and not the memorization of some random factoid). I peg that realization at fifth grade and a problem involving permutations of outfits from different pant, shirts and hats. What the mind remembers is so strange.

Combined with this realization, I also learned that money does not buy happiness. It buys things. And things can enable paths to happiness, or perhaps can take away paths to misery. Or maybe it just buys peace of mind, which is a far cry from happiness, but much better than misery. But things don’t answer all the big questions in life like who are we and where are we going. (Answers: people, forward through time on a preciously small marble that we need to take better care of).

As someone who does not suffer from fiduciary distress (hey, I like my euphemisms), I don’t give it a lot of thought. I should clarify that since I track my financial inflows and outflows with great detail (or at least used to and am trying to decide the best way to resume). I track it because I find it interesting because it tells me things about myself, my habits, and my relationship with money (which is something everyone should know about himself or herself). It’s certainly not about being some miserly cheap-ass or achieving some highly specific goal. Financial planners (and panthers [Simpsons reference]) are probably distressed to hear there is no well-defined fiscal goal, but at this point, general financial principles are in play like strong savings, capital preservation, and mostly not buying lots of fancy toys that don’t help happiness (see previous paragraph) and that I don’t have the luggage space for anyway. For now, money comes in, less than that amount goes out and all that’s about it.

Why I’m not posting much

I’m busy; I’m still getting up to speed; we’ve been painfully short-handed this past week (which should get resolved this coming week); and there is little to no internet from the hotel (and I don’t like posting from work).