Monday, April 30, 2007

Review: The Falls

Last week's Hot Docs Festival paid tribute to Canadian documentary film maker Kevin McMahon by screening several of his films including 1991's The Falls, a disparaging examination of his home town of Niagara Falls. The story: corporations poison the Niagara River and the good (if simple) working people pay the price in birth defects and cancer, while fat, dumb, and happy tourists take snapshots of a waterfall manipulated for show by Ontario Hydro. I knew we were in trouble the moment McMahon introduced the film and thanked sponsor Autoshare "because cars are bad", and when the Festival's Executive Director described it as "poetic and lyrical". On a go/no-go scale, I give any movie that's "poetic and lyrical" a "no-go".

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Road Songs: I Got A Name

Through the hill country of the Madawaska Highlands, Highway 41 is squeezed by the pine forests of the Canadian shield. Leaving Upper Mazinaw Lake behind, the chorus from Jim Croce's posthumous classic, "I Got A Name" seems appropriate. Jerry Reed's version is one of my favourites, but the original is unrivaled. Here are some of the lyrics:

Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I've got a name, I've got a name
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad
I've got a name, I've got a name
And I carry it with me like my daddy did
But I'm living the dream that he kept hid
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life wont pass me by

Like the north wind whistling down the sky
I've got a song, I've got a song
Like the whippoorwill and the babies cry
I've got a song, I've got a song
And I carry it with me and I sing it loud
If it gets me nowhere, I'll go there proud
Moving me down the highway
Rolling me down the highway
Moving ahead so life wont pass me by

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Virgin Waters

Scientists this week announced the discovery of a planet that has the climate of the Carolinas and may be completely covered with water. Imagine the size of the bass in this place.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Everything I Love: MBA Graduation

In a few hours I'll be graduating, suggesting that they probably lost my paper on the North American auto industry. I decided to pursue this MBA during a miserable day at the bargaining table where I was fighting a trade union over the placement of a comma. I became determined to find a job as an accountant. Next month I start such a job with one of the world's great companies.

It has been a wonderful two years and I'll ask your indulgence of a little narcissism while I record a few of my favourite reflections of my time here.

  • Early on, billionaire and Hamilton Ticats owner Bob Young shook our confidence when he recalled that he was denied admission to this business school
  • I shook hands with Bill Clinton (and found some Purelle)
  • I spent a month in China teaching business strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing
  • My friends and I won a case competition in a blizzard
  • By January of first year, I figured out cycle time
  • TD Bank CEO Ed Clark told us that networking is for chumps
  • I spent a summer as a consultant with a great firm and mastered PowerPoint
  • I was taught by three great professors
  • I've made some lifelong friends
  • My friends and I helped an international NGO with how not to raise money
  • Of all our field trips, the freezer factory visit was the best
Tonight I get to go home for good. Let the fishing begin.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Back To School: Then and Now

I returned to school for my MBA 10 years after I started my undergrad. Things had changed a little.

Then: For most of us, our first email accounts were through the university. We'd line up 15-deep behind six computers at the library to check our email on a complicated DOS-based email system. The line moved quickly because we never had any email.
Now: I have wireless Internet everywhere on campus which means that, with instant messaging, universal email access, and blogging, I never get anything done.

Then: The only reason we had to leave the classroom was a well-planned bathroom visit to break up the monotony of the IS-LM macroeconomic framework.
Now: The ubiquitous cell phones routinely interrupts class, apparently a land that the vibrate function forgot. It's equally irritating in the library where where students take calls and proceed to converse as though they're talking through a tin can.

Then: A Diet Coke and a Twix bar offered a convenient ten-minute break.
Now: A study break starts with a cup of coffee and ends two hours later at the end of a Wikipedia search loop.

Then: Girls wore overalls and fleece... like on a camping trip.
Now: Lululemon... thank you, Chip Wilson.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Doesn't He Pitch for the Astros?

Yesterday, on Buffalo's WGR 550, morning show hosts Jeremy White & Howard Simon took a call from a Sabres fan.

Caller: Jaromir Jagr is like Samsonite from the Bible. Since he cut his hair he's had no power in the playoffs.

White: First of all, it's Sampson. Samsonite is a brand of luggage. Second of all, Sampson wasn't in the Bible, he was in a movie with Delilah in the 1950s. He's a Jewish hero. What would he be doing in the Bible?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Choosing an MBA Program (2)

After deciding what you want from the MBA, consider the business school's pedagogy, of which there are two approaches. Everyone is familiar with the lecture method where you (plan to) do the assigned readings, attend the lecture, and practice the skills. The case study method tries to present real life situations for students to analyze and discuss in class. Theoretically, the students' discussion is the focus of the class and the professor's role is that of facilitator.

Lectures require the discipline to attend class and keep up with the readings, and the stress comes at exam time. Cases build the discipline into the curriculum. Class participation comprises between 30 to 50 percent of a course's grade, making inadequate preparation fatal. The workload can be overwhelming - preparing three cases per night tends to equal nine to ten hours of homework; the stress is daily with the chance of being called on to explain your quantitative analysis while 59 classmates watch you sweat. The pay-off is during exams when you might as well go to the movies because there is no value - and I cannot overemphasize this point - in studying for a case exam.

Neither method is necessarily superior and each should probably be employed as necessary depending on the subject being taught. I'd look for programs that blend the two approaches because either in its extreme becomes tiresome. This is particularly true for cases because, Harvard aside, it's hard find professors who can teach them properly.

With the major considerations out of the way, there are a host of additional factors including program length, placement strength, alumni network, physical facilities, and location. Take at least a year to apply and kick the tires on at least four programs.

Review: Manufacturing Dissent

In 2003, intrigued by his controversial Oscar speech, documentary filmmakers Debbie Melnyk and Rick Caine turned the camera lens on Michael Moore. What was to be a biography by a pair of Moore fans, in time became Manufacturing Dissent, a critical look at Michigan’s most controversial son.

Unlike most of Moore’s critics, Melnyk and Caine are not conservatives, a point they emphasized at the film’s Canadian premiere this weekend at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. They agree with Moore’s politics and enjoy his movies (Canadian Bacon aside). Shedding their initially favourable view, the film can be enjoyed from either one of two perspectives – that of the documentarian, dismayed with a propagandist masquerading as one of their own; and that of the citizen aghast that one of their own could be such a complete asshole.

Labeling Michael Moore a propagandist wouldn’t cause him to lose any sleep, but to the documentary filmmaker, his casual approach to the truth is a capital crime. Manufacturing Dissent puts the lie to Moore’s winded Oscar acceptance speech about “fictitious times”. In Roger & Me, a film about GM President Roger Smith’s refusal to speak with him about the plight of the American autoworker, Moore omitted out the fairly salient fact that Smith met with him twice during filming including a lengthy interview, the transcript of which was published in a national magazine. Most galling is Moore’s hypocrisy. Having made a fortune pillorying business people and performers for refusing to talk to his camera, Melnyk and Caine chase him with interview requests for years and are repeatedly stonewalled by Moore and his entourage.

Aside from employing Moore’s own questionable editing style (turnabout is fair play, I guess), one fair criticism leveled against the directors by a couple of true believers in Sunday’s audience its possibly excessive focus on his personality. Moore is a boor. His mistreatment of those close to him – friends, colleagues, political allies – is appalling. Roger & Me could just have easily been called Me, because that’s what it’s always been for Michael Moore – shameless self-promotion and profiteering through the misery of the down-and-out.

For me, the film put Moore in perspective – the left’s version of Ann Coulter: shrill, intellectually lazy, and dishonest. I was anxious to gauge the reaction of the progressive Toronto Annex art house crowd to a film casting him in an unfavourable light. More than all the nicks the film inflicts, it’s in the amused and approving reaction of that audience, the most loyal of Moore’s constituencies, that would cut Moore, a thin-skinned narcissist, the deepest. With that kind of endorsement, on a go/no-go scale, I give Manufacturing Dissent a “go”.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Choosing an MBA Program (1)

Two weeks ago, Skeelo asked whether I'd recommend the Big Picture School's MBA and I left a brief comment in response. Choosing an MBA program starts with what one plans (or hopes) to do afterwards and where that might be.

Almost every incoming MBA candidate (here anyway) wants to be an investment banker or a management consultant. 5% might actually know what either profession involves, but hope is held out until the Christmas Dean's list dashes the hopes of two-thirds, at which point selling soap flakes looks pretty good. For the rest, the appeal is quashed by a summer spent aligning boxes on PowerPoint slides. All kidding aside, if there's any chance that you want to be an investment banker or a management consultant, you should go to either the Big Picture School or the University of Toronto since those are pretty much the only places where these employers recruit.

If you just want to become a general manager with an interesting company or get ahead in your present line of work, it really doesn't matter where you go. I don't see any advantage in going to Big Picture or U of T, where you'll get stressed out by grades and pay a (now slight) tuition premium. You learn the very same things at Laurier and McGill that you do at the other schools, but you pay less, are more likely to graduate at the top of your class, and will have a more relaxing time.

Things change if you plan to work in the U.S. when you're finished. While it's not impossible to be recruited by an American firm out of a Canadian school, it requires plenty of initiative and becomes something of a lottery. You really have to go to an American school to be certain. If you plan to work in Canada right away, and you'd just like to have Wharton on your resume, you're paying a big premium for which you won't be rewarded. To recoup your investment, you really need to work there for several years because that's where all the money is.

Part 2 - Teaching Methods.

Guy Clark Plays Homer, New York

Last weekend, my cousin - the Rubber Duck - and I travelled to Homer, New York, for some pickin' and grinnin' with song writing legend Guy Clark and guitarist Verlon Thompson. We were a tad surprised that this giant of country music was appearing in tiny Homer, but we were grateful for a road trip that took us over the Appalachian Upland, through the Finger Lakes - what I believe to be the most beautiful place in the northeast.

Several years ago, Homer's Baptist congregation vacated its red brick church for a concrete cathedral out by the Interstate. A community group bought the church and established the Centre for the Arts. The result is the most intimate and engaging concert hall that I have ever visited. The pulpit has been removed and a small stage is enveloped on three sides by barely enough seating on the floor and balcony for 400 visitors. The stained glass windows and hardwood pews set a particularly stark atmosphere for music laced with drinking and cheating themes.

Guy Clark has been penning songs in Nashville and Austin for over thirty years and he treated us to his very best. When the audio equipment failed, sounding "like rice crispies up here", he and Thompson took to the front of the stage and performed an unplugged version of "Tornado Time in Texas", while the sweating music director frantically sorted through cables. He cruised through two forty-five minute sessions, hitting all the songs the Duck and I had come for including "Magdalene", "L.A. Freeway", "Desperadoes Waiting for a Train", and of course, "Out in the Parking Lot". The highlight of the evening was the duet performed Clark and Thompson on "Boats to Build", the song they co-wrote and which Jimmy Buffet and Alan Jackson have covered.

The trip was capped off when we ran into Guy in the Hampton Inn lobby later that night and thanked him for the show before he limped off with a guitar in one hand and a sack of McDonald's hamburgers in the other.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shoes In The Parking Lot

The CFO and I were doing a little grocery shopping at Wal-Mart this afternoon and saw no fewer than four pairs of shoes between the car and the store. How do you lose a pair of shoes in the Wal-Mart parking lot?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rant: Cart Before the Horse & New Verbs

An email from the Big Picture School today congratulates the class on "transitioning from students to up-and-coming executives". A couple of thoughts come to mind. First, had the program spent more time teaching me how to do be an analyst and less time on how to be an "executive", I'd be more confident about starting work next month. Second, when did "transition" become a verb?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Blackberrys Down

NBC is reporting that all Blackberry devices in the western hemisphere are neither receiving nor transmitting data. Imagine how productive everyone will be this morning, actually doing work instead of discussing it over email.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Stephane Dion: Economic Nationalist Nutter

Liberal leader Stephane Dion is accusing the Conservative government of setting up Canadian corporations for foreign takeover. Because economic nationalism and foreign ownership restrictions are the hallmarks of good economic policy. It is becoming increasingly clear that this man is a dangerous loon.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Road Songs: Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Winding up Lake Superior's north shore from Sault Ste. Marie to Wawa, Highway 17 offers a coastline panorama so breathtaking that it puts British Columbia's fog-laden shore to shame. Beyond Batchawana, out past the mouth of Whitefish Bay, is where the Edmund Fitzgerald went down in a wicked storm in November 1975. It's a good time to throw Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald into the CD player.

Listen here or read some of the lyrics:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin'.
Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it's been good t'know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Photo credit: whitebirch

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don Imus Gets Canned

Over the last several years, Don Imus got comfortable (and apparently turned 867 years old - look at that photo!). His political positions were reasonable, his guests were moderate partisans (Chris Dodd, John McCain) and mainstream media bores (Tim Russert, Evan Thomas), he made fun of buffoons (Jerry Falwell, Hulk Hogan), and he looked after kids with cancer. It's with no small degree of irony then that the first shocking thing in five years uttered by this "shock jock" got him fired.

The network execs win no honour in this thing. They didn't fire him - they waited for Oprah to do it.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Everything I Love: The End of School

I wrote my last exam last night and I'll hand in a take-home today at noon. This draws to a conclusion the sixteen months of coursework required by the Big Picture School for its MBA. It also marks the completion of twenty-two years of formal education. That's it. Stick a fork in me - I'm done.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rant: Job Postings

Irrespective of its scale or industry, every organization that recruits here at the Big Picture School brags of its "entrepreneurial" culture and its interest in "entrepreneurs". Just once, I'd like to see one of these firms tell the truth:

This is an unresponsive bureaucracy that wants its employees to come to work and do as they're told. Creativity and initiative will only bring you trouble. Experience as a sycophant is an asset.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Raclettes: Something Worthwhile from the French

Last week, Pastor T treated our corporate financial reporting study group (a rowdier group than the name would suggest) to a feast of "raclettes". This meal essentially amounts to melted cheeses poured over buttery semi-mashed potatoes, and topped with cold cuts, pickles, and olives. It's like a gourmet poutine - who knew the French had this kind of contribution to make?

Photo credit: Glynnish

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Road Songs: Battle of New Orleans

Driving through Lanark County where the Mississippi River slithers its way towards Pakenham, Ontario, Johnny Horton's classic The Battle of New Orleans is brought to mind. This story of the Battle of Chalmette Plantation describes how Andrew Jackson stopped the British, led by General Pakenham, in their tracks and sent them scurrying towards the Gulf of Mexico during a little extra-curricular activity in the wake of the War of 1812.

Listen to the song here or enjoy some of the lyrics:

Yeah, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast that the hounds couldn't catch 'em
Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

We fired our cannon 'til the barrel melted down.
So we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
We filled his head with cannon balls, and powdered his behind
And when we touched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.

Photo credit: dbking

Thursday, April 05, 2007

North American Auto: Reason for Optimism (3)

One hears repeatedly that the problem with General Motors, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler is their unimaginative product portfolios. This assessment tends to come from two camps: SUV-haters and car aficionados.

The first group loathes the fact that gas-guzzlers are made in this sensitive environmental age (it's five below and snowing here in London today) and hold up Asian cars as the ideal in fuel efficiency. They ignore that (a) there are plenty of fuel-efficient domestic cars, and (b) light trucks and SUVs are selling like hotcakes.

"Car guys" assert that domestic cars are boring. I don't get exactly how a Camry is more exciting than an Impala or how a Lexus is sexier than a Cadillac CTS, but these guys probably find Asian cars boring as well. They'd prefer to spend a fortune on European performance cars, putting them outside the target for domestics to begin with.

That said, some companies are better at design than others. Ford has been hit-and-miss lately and Japanese designers have long been criticized for their conservative models. On this competitive dimension, General Motors has an ace in the hole: Bob Lutz. The GM Vice Chairman is the king of product development, staking claim to the Ford Explorer, the Dodge Viper, the Plymouth Prowler, and BMW 2002. Coming out of the winter car shows, GM won praise for its enhanced styles and interior fittings, a sign that its $8.7 billion investment in product improvement is paying off.

Rant: Email Signatures

The next time somebody signs off an email with "cheers", sign off your reply with "bottoms up".

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Remembering Dave Stieb's No-Hitter

On September 2, 1990, I was hours away from starting grade nine and Dave Stieb threw the first and only no-hitter in Toronto Blue Jay history. It was Labour Day weekend and we were we were shuttering cottages and stacking deck furniture inside the house - the most disheartening tasks of summer. Hoisting shutters from truck to building, we listened to Tom and Jerry, tension building in their play-by-play as Stieb pitched through the middle innings. It was the middle of a three-day blow on the Ottawa River and at times the howling wind would drown out the call on a deep fly and we'd scurry to the radio for reassurance. When Stieb retired the Indians in the eighth on three fly balls, we ran to the log cabin to watch the ninth.

Youtube clip was here.

This clip gives me chills and you have to love the glimpses of Henke, Wells, Bell, and Rance Mulliniks in the congratulatory scrum.

Editor's note: Youtube has been forced to remove the clip due to copyright violation.

North American Auto: Reason for Optimism (2)

In almost any quality survey of either vehicles or production facilities, the North American auto manufacturers are on par with Toyota, the gold standard in productivity and quality. Unfortunately for these firms, consumer perceptions have yet to adjust. This is an ironic dilemma in which the Big Three find themselves. Once upon a time, these companies promoted products as reliable when in fact they were lemons - subscribing to the fallacy that, by creating perception, marketers can manufacture a reality. Today, although their quality matches competitors, it is almost impossible for those same marketers to change the perception that they still produce lemons.

Through its NUMMI and CAMI joint ventures with Toyota, GM has learned how to make cars using lean manufacturing and, copying the Toyota Production System, its Oshawa No. 1 and Lansing Grand River plants are rated above the Japanese transplants for both productivity and quality. It will take time, but eventually through word of mouth, news reports, and personal experience, consumer perceptions will adjust and the competitive advantage that the Japanese automakers presently enjoy on the reliability front will be eroded. For GM and Ford, though, this has to happen before their liquidity evaporates.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

North American Auto: Reason for Optimism (1)

I know nothing about cars. I've been known to check the windshield washer fluid while meaning to check the oil, and if you asked me what kind of car I drive, I'd tell you that it's a blue one. My understanding of the automotive industry is limited to reading the papers and cramming for job interviews.

While doing research for my paper last week, I expected to find General Motors to be a lumbering bureaucracy, dismissive of consumer taste and a laggard in quality, as it is often portrayed in the media. I was not shocked to find that portrayal to be a fiction. In business school, we're counseled not to fall back on "management is stupid" hypotheses, despite the fact that both the business media and business school professors routinely employ it in their critiques of GM and Ford. Management at these companies is a lot sharper than they're given credit for. GM's quality today matches that of Toyota, its ten brands are not the the unimaginative portfolio of duds that aficionados assert, and it was not so myopic as to invite its current burden of insurance. I'll comment on each of these three issues, as well as the challenges that confront Toyota as the soon-to-be number one automaker over the next couple of days.

Review: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland, the Idi Amin biopic, takes place through the experience of a fictional Scottish doctor whose life becomes entwined with the murderous reign of the Ugandan strongman. The young physician, in Africa to pursue adventure and heal the poor, is conscripted by the Scot-o-phile president to be his personal doctor. Quickly, he's elevated to political advisor and, later, cuckolds his polygamist boss. Forrest Whittaker's portrayal of Amin is stellar and, unlike Jaime Foxx in Ray, it never seems like he's just doing an Amin impression.

This is the third film about Africa that I've seen over the last few months and it doesn't want make me want to visit the place any more than the others. Amin was a murderer, a comedian, a radical Islamist, and a tartan turkey - all of which make you want to read more about him. On a go/no-go scale, I give The Last King of Scotland a "go".

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Toyota Tundra: A Pretty Truck

The professor pushed the deadline for Friday's paper to today, so student's syndrome being what it is, I finished it this morning. My plan to use this blog to sort out my thinking didn't work out, but I'll offer a few observations from my research over the next few days.

For tonight, I'll respond to a comment left by Sgt. Dub on last week's post. He asked about my quip that the Toyota Tundra pick-up was excessively feminine. The Tundra has been a disaster for Toyota since its launch. A quality embarrassment, it has had recalls of 800,000 trucks in 2005 and 500,000 trucks this year. Analysts have been critical of the Tundra body design, which they have labeled "too curvaceous" for the full-size pick-up market. You may note that its commercials are now trying to "man-up" to reassure Tundra buyers that they will not pull up to a red light to find a soccer mom driving the Tundra next to them.