Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Nice Place to Visit

The hotel in New Jersey was incredibly convenient. The subway stop was right outside the door, and it's a short ride east to the World Trade Center station in Manhattan, and a short ride west to my company’s offices. Thank God I didn’t have to walk very far, because the temperature dropped into the teens overnight, and a howling wind made it feel like the North Pole.

My business unit is on the 10th floor, with an excellent view of New York harbor.


The office is surrounded by an incredible variety of small, ethnic restaurants, all within a short walk: Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Italian, French, Polish, Hispanic, and more. The local newsstand carries lots of foreign-language newspapers.


Thanks to the cold I caught from my wife, I spent the day sniffling and blowing my nose, trying to wash my hands frequently, because I was constantly being introduced to people, and had to shake their hands. The last thing I wanted to do was spread my misery for Christmas.

Because I had a temporary employee badge for the headquarters building, I couldn’t leave the office area to go to the bathroom without arranging for someone to let me back in. Rather than make a pest of myself, I chose to use paper towels from the coffee area instead of tissue. I might as well have used sandpaper. By the end of the day, my nose was raw and inflamed, my eyes were puffy and red, and I must have looked like crap. I went back to the hotel and flopped into bed without supper and slept for 13 hours.

Feeling better the next day, I took another excursion into Manhattan after work. This time, I went to midtown, where the Empire State Building still maintains a stolid, classic presence over the bustling city below.


I hobbled north, passing Macy’s department store. All my life I’ve heard about the effort they put into the store display windows for Christmas, but I’ve never seen it before. The displays are animated, high-tech and dazzling. I was unprepared for how impressive they were and how much they must have cost to design and install.

Eventually, I wound up in Times Square, which will be a seething mob of celebrants less than two weeks from now, fighting off the frigid temperatures with liberal use of alcohol. I’m glad I won’t be here for that. The weather forecast calls for 5 to 10 inches of snow this weekend, and I’m glad I won’t be here for that, either.


Santa Grabs a Cab

I've been traveling this week, up to New York City. My company flew me to their headquarters in New Jersey, right across the Hudson river from New York, which is where the company that owns my company is located.

As soon as I told my wife I would be leaving, she came down with a bad cold, and I caught it. As I was sniffling and snuffling and getting ready to leave, I lifted my suitcase to put it in the trunk and something went "sproing" in my back. By the time I arrived, I felt pretty miserable.

My company uses a car service to transport vistors from the airport, so I was met by a guy named Rageesh, holding a piece of paper with my name on it.


That was a first for me. Rageesh drove me to my hotel, in a big, cushy Lincoln Town Car. The car was a non-smoking car, which Rageesh had enforced by duct-taping the ashtrays closed.

The hotel was excellent, right on the river with spectacular views of lower Manhattan.


Unfortunately, the Goldman Sachs building obscures my view of the Statue of Liberty.


One of the reasons I haven’t written about the trip until now is because the hotel charges $10 a day for Internet service. Posted on the door of my room is a little sign that reads, “The maximum rate for this room is $873 per day.” I was offended that they felt the need to squeeze out that last little drop of blood, and I refused to pay the $10.

I didn't have to show up in the office until the next morning, so I took the PATH train into Manhattan, which involved a ride on the longest escalator I've ever seen. The thing gave me a case of vertigo.


As the train approaches the World Trade Center site, you can get a glimpse of the vast, complex subterranean work being done for the new building. Above ground, the equally huge metal skeleton of the new building has begun to rise above street level. Work goes on around the clock.


One place I've been curious to see is Amsterdam Billiards. It's an upscale poolhall owned by the comedian David Brenner. It used to be located on the Upper West Side, but the owners of the building forced them to move so they could tear down the building and construct luxury condominiums. Amsterdam Billiards moved to the East Village, and while it's large, well-appointed and comfortable, it now attracts a college student crowd, rather than an Upper West Side after-theater crowd.


Before long, wandering around lower Manhattan, I encountered something you don't see much in Florida: stairs. Between my cold, my sore back and my aching arthritic knees, I wasn't hustling around like the throngs of heavily-caffienated New Yorkers. So I decided to head back to the hotel and get some rest. On my way, I saw Santa Claus, holding his toy bag, standing at the curb flagging a cab. It must have been Rudolph’s night off.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Self-Serving Corporate Weasel

In 2007, Fiserv, Inc. acquired CheckFree Corporation for more than 4 billion dollars. The founder, chairman and CEO of CheckFree, Pete Kight, became the Vice-Chairman of Fiserv, Inc., and was appointed to the board of directors. He’s been quiet for a couple of years, learning which buttons he can push and finding ways to spend his cut of the 4 billion dollars.

On Tuesday of this week, Fiserv employees (there are 20,000 of them) were surprised to receive the following e-mail message from Mr. Kight:

    From: Fiserv Corporate Communications
    Sent: Tuesday, December 08, 2009 2:34 PM
    To: [OMITTED]
    Subject: Message from Pete Kight: An Opportunity to Share in Success

    My fellow associates:

    Through the good fortune of working with associates such as you, I have had the opportunity to acquire a winery, Quivira Vineyards, in the Dry Creek Valley appellation of Sonoma, CA. As many of you know (because you've had to suffer through some of my impassioned discussions on the subject), my time in the vineyards and winery – as we meet the biological challenges, chemistry and artistic challenges in winemaking, and physical nature of the work – is a significant juxtaposition to the daily work I share with you in the world of technology. Because of Quivira's marvelous location in the inland coastal foothills, the all organic-biodynamic vineyards, the opportunity to work with a world-class winemaker, and the surprising success of the resulting wines so far… I feel very fortunate.

    For quite a while I've been thinking about a way to share my gratitude with those who have worked beside me and helped me create this marvelous opportunity. After all, it is all that we have developed together in leading financial services technology over the years that made Quivira possible for me. There is always an open invitation to any associate who finds an opportunity to head north out of San Francisco to visit the winery, to have a personal tour, and to experience personal wine tasting. But recognizing I won't be able to thank too many people that way, and in keeping with our technological heritage, the opportunity to extend thanks to all of you recently presented itself when we updated and upgraded the website. Effective today, any Fiserv associate who wants to purchase any wine from can enter a special code at checkout, and 20 percent will automatically deduct from the price of the wine. The code is: [OMITTED]

    Please note that this isn't a solicitation. The wine will all sell out and I'm not trying to boost sales. The 20 percent represents my margin, and is simply my way of saying "thank you" to everyone who helped me build this company over the past 25+ years. You should feel as if you have a bit of a stake in making Quivira possible, and this is the best way I can think of to share it with you.

    Thanks for making it all possible.

    Pete Kight
    Vice Chairman

I’m always delighted to see examples of corporate executives waving their private parts in public. Mr. Kight, sensing a free marketing opportunity, used the Fiserv corporate mailing list to broadcast an open solicitation to people who depend on him to make their mortgage payments. Fiserv explicitly prohibits workplace solicitation by employees, as described in the following policy statement:

    Workplace Solicitation

    Fiserv business unit or corporate management may periodically allow selected non-profit organizations to solicit voluntary contributions from, or distribute information materials to, Fiserv associates in the workplace. Any actual or implied pressure to make such a contribution or accept such information materials constitutes harassment under the Code. Workplace solicitation or information distribution not approved by business unit or corporate management is prohibited because it may pose conflicts of interest, create discomfort among solicited associates, and cause distraction from normal business operations.

Mr. Kight is indeed fortunate, because can simply approve his own solicitation, enabling him to flaunt his wealth and engage in personal sales activities with impunity.

His arrogant declaration that it’s not a solicitation merely serves to illuminate the fact that it is. But I'm especially fond of his attempt to "spin" the ugly sales pitch as a gilded thank-you note. It comes off cheap and tasteless, much like I expect the wine to be.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Midnight vs. Midnight

We have a black cat, named Midnight. He’s sweet and friendly, but not one of those cats that sleeps curled up on your pillow with his anus in your face all night. So while I’m not exactly a cat person, this one comes pretty close to perfect.


Unfortunately, we live in a part of the country that has a lot of predatory wildlife, so we don’t let him out of the house. He can use the cat door to get out onto the screened-in pool deck, but that’s as close to nature as we allow him to go. Nevertheless, sometimes he escapes, and spends a heart-thumping night creeping around in the woods. But he always shows up the next morning, meowing to be let in so he can get some food and some sleep.

One day, I looked out in the yard and saw him slinking along outside the pool screen. I went out to catch him, only to discover that it was a different black cat. Unlike our cat, this one wore a collar. To my amusement, the tag said his name was Midnight, and he belonged to the new neighbors across the street.

My Midnight and the new Midnight don’t get along. The new Midnight wanders casually along the outside perimeter of the pool screen enclosure, while my Midnight stalks him from the inside. They used to growl and spit at each other, but now the new Midnight will drop by once in awhile and piss on a bush to claim it, while my Midnight just lies on the diving board and gives him the finger.

Shortly after I discovered the existence of the new Midnight, I was out in the yard pulling weeds. The new Midnight wandered over and sat next to a ligustrum tree next to our house. When he was sure I noticed him, he scrambled up the trunk into the canopy, climbed out onto a branch and made a short jump onto our roof.

Like many homes in Florida, we have a ranch house. It’s all one floor, but the architect designed it with two fake dormers so that it would appear to have a second floor. The fake dormers cover actual holes in the roof. These have been cut to enable the henpecked homeowner to climb into the attic and hang pretty curtains in the windows of the dormers, heightening the illusion of a second floor.

Under the eaves of the dormers are soffit vents, with plastic covers to keep out the squirrels.


The covers aren’t fastened, they just clip into the vent holes.


While these covers are effective squirrel-prevention devices, they’re no match for a cat. I suddenly noticed that the new Midnight had pulled out all of the easily-reached vent covers and, turning back to make sure I was watching, he jumped up into the dormer and disappeared. Now he had access to the entire attic area of our house, and spent frequent evenings prowling around up there, to the clear dismay of my Midnight, who spent hours staring at the ceiling.

I tried replacing the soffit vent covers, but the new Midnight just pulled them out again. So I hired a guy to replace the plastic vent covers with perforated aluminum, fastened with screws. It cost me a hundred and fifty dollars. I have no idea if the new Midnight was sealed inside or if he was watching from across the street.



And yeah, that stuff on the outside of the dormers is mildew. I have to buy an extension hose for my pressure washer so that I can climb a ladder and risk my life to remove it. While I’m up there spraying, I kind of hope the thirsty, emaciated cat hops up into the dormer window begging me to let him out. I plan to give him the finger.