Friday, October 12, 2007

Has Bethany McLean spotted another naked emperor?

The Australian bank that is buying up U.S. toll roads continues to be the hot topic of conversation after a recent report in Fortune magazine. Bethany McLean, the award-winning journalist who is credited with being the first to write about the fraud at Enron, chose Macquarie Bank for her subject in Fortune’s Oct. 8 issue.

Although there is no suggestion that the Australian giant familiar to truckers for buying up U.S. toll roads has behaved fraudulently, McLean’s article is causing plenty of commotion. The eight-page story was much anticipated in financial circles.

One reason, of course, is her track record. BBC News describes her as a “folk hero of financial journalists as the first person to stand up and say the emperor Enron had no clothes.”

In her report on Macquarie, McLean did not disappoint. At age 31, she’s has already earned a reputation for journalistic big game hunting, no matter what establishment darlings are now in favor.

The Bush administration, for instance, continues to push hard for privatization as a remedy to infrastructure maintenance – a notion that unfortunately is being warmly embraced by many cash poor states. But McLean notes with admirable clarity that “there is widespread resentment and cynicism about the notion of private companies making money off what has long been perceived as public property.”

That resentment may be widespread, but that view doesn’t make the news, thanks to the smothering efforts of a White House that is rolling out the red carpet to giants like Macquarie.

Her article suggests that the “financial structures underpinning Macquarie’s assets” may be “as unstable as the steel that supported the Interstate 35W bridge” in Minnesota. Wonder how all this makes Indiana’s Gov. Mitch Daniels feel? As you probably know, Macquarie partnered with Cintra in 2006 to pay $3.85 billion for the right to collect the tolls on the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years.

Soon after Fortune published McLean’s story, CNBC stock analyst Jim Cramer – who previously liked Macquarie – astounded viewers when he urged them to dump Macquarie stock.

Cramer cited New York hedge fund manager Jim Chanos, who has been asking the hard questions about Macquarie since spring, and then said that after reading the Oct. 8 issue of Fortune magazine, he became convinced that Macquarie has an “unsustainable” business model because it overpays for assets and does not make enough back in return.

There’s a video clip of Cramer’s “Mad Money” episode on the CNBC Web site, but to cut to the chase, he said “sometimes a company will do something so devious – not illegal – that you just need to clear out ... you gotta say ‘bye bye’ to its stock.”

Cramer vowed to his viewers he wanted nothing to do with the bank.

On a sad note

We got the word Thursday morning, Oct. 11, that OOIDA member David “Rusty Nail” Broyles had passed away after a long battle with cancer. It had rapidly spread throughout his body in the past year.

Donna “Saddles” Baggett, David’s friend, had let us know and had kept tabs with us in recent months, and had even helped write a poem with David and his girlfriend, Pat.

We faced an interesting dilemma with this story that many publications face on a near-daily basis: What do you write after the death of a reader, a friend, or an acquaintance?

Unfortunately, many drivers, OOIDA members and others do pass on during every given year. We couldn’t possibly write the words to encapsulate each Land Line reader or OOIDA member that passes on.

I remember the death of a young policeman in one town where I used to work. Many members of the local police department wanted us to write a large feature about him after he battled a chronic illness. On the other hand, the young man hadn’t died or been afflicted while in the line of duty, and wasn’t particularly known in town.

We chose to run a standard obituary for the man.

“What makes him different than anyone else that dies of a heart attack?” my editor at the time asked.

At Land Line we tend to not write about the deaths of many drivers, unless there is a story angle that makes it particularly interesting or important to our readers. Sometimes things seem unfair, and sometimes they are unfair. The mere absence of news one particular week and the availability of an extra few minutes of time could dictate why we write any individual story.

In David’s case, his story was particularly touching.

Cancer forced him from the road after 22 years of driving, including many years that he admitted to me were spent being lonely and bitter, and sometimes angry.

A few years ago, however, something spurred David to call into a trucking radio show. Soon he was taking phone calls.

David and I played phone tag a few times before I was able to sit down and interview him. He had a brief break between chemotherapy and other aggressive treatments, and I instantly recognized why David had so many friends in the trucking industry.

David’s positive outlook on life was powerful because it was carried by a voice that offered no BS. Nothing but honest and direct speech.

The interview quickly expanded from its allotted 30 minutes into nearly two hours.

He was enjoying a crisp spring morning outside his Tennessee house as he described the change in his life after he chose to be friendly with others at every truck stop, loading dock and diner. He shutoff his CB after hearing too much negativity and decided to help newbies to the trucking business rather than chime in with sarcasm, David told me, and it made him feel better.

Birds chirped in the background as he became emotional while talking about cancer.

He laughed as he recounted beating multiple timetables for fatality.

He told me how stunned he and Pat were when they heard that a FedEx package with $15,000 was on its way to help with medical expenses. Truckers, many including strangers, had held an impromptu fundraiser at the 2007 MATS show to help him.

There’s one less good guy out there today, but it’s clear that the world is a little bit better because of him.

Below is a brief poem David worked on with a friend, forwarded by Saddles.

“I won’t be home tonight”

It’s quiet here in Heaven tonight. I need to send this through. I want’cha all to think of me and know I think of you.

And Pat, please know I love you, gal. I hope things are alright, but Babe I gotta tell ya, I won’t be home tonight.

I’m up here in a better place, and I don’t hurt no more. Please find the strength to carry on, I miss you, that’s for sure.

I’ll miss you at each sunrise, as night begins to fall, I’ll miss those smiles you gave to me, you made me feel so tall.

I’ll miss all of our good times, I’ll miss even the bad, Because we were together, so please girl, don’t be sad.

The trail of life was something else, I really liked the ride, But now that it’s all over, I wish you were by my side.

I’m making loads of friends up here, such beauty fills the sky, But Babe, please know I miss you so, sometimes I almost cry.

Hey, thanks for taking care of me in those awful, final days, your love showed through so many ways I wanted so to stay.

I’ll wait for you to join me in this peaceful place, alright?

Remember me forever ’cause I won’t be home tonight.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Home – virtually – every weekend

Some trends you just know should be nipped in the bud. That may be the case with the new “Virtual Visiting Robot” from iRobot, the folks who make the Roomba, as well as other domestic cleaning robots and also some nifty automatons for the military.

The “Virtual Visiting Robot,” (VVR) also called iRobot ConnectR is described as “a fun new way to see, talk to and interact with your loved ones, friends and pets – when you can’t be there in person. Combining the latest in Internet communications and robot technology, ConnectR lets you virtually visit with loved ones, relatives and pets anytime you wish – seeing, hearing and interacting with them in their home as if you were there in person.”

It has audio pickups and a video camera that can be operated remotely over a wireless broadband Internet set-up – the “away team,” so to speak, can drive the robot around and interact with the folks back home. Or just look around and see if the kids have thrown a party or if that lazy brother-in-law of yours has remembered to water the plants and feed Fluffy. Like the Roomba, the VVR can automatically charge itself, so you don’t have to worry about it running out of juice.

I wonder how long it will take some smart fleets to realize this could be an incredible driver perk. I can imagine squadrons of drivers parked for the night at a Wi-Fi equipped truckstop or hooked into IdleAire, watching their kids learn to talk and walk. Whatever this gizmo will eventually retail for is far less than the revenue you’d earn – for yourself and your far-off family, as well as the carrier – if you ran on instead of coming home for those promised “weekends home.”

Oh wait – I just saw the flaw in my reasoning. They’d charge the cost of this against the truck – because you’re making extra $$ for spending more time on the road, it’s only right you should pay for the privilege of virtually visiting your family. Right?

As Emily Litella would say, “Never Mind!”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Shades of gray

It’s not winter, so it couldn’t have been a whiteout. It was daytime, so it obviously wasn’t a blackout.

I’m not sure if the term “grayout” has a definition that refers to driving, but if it doesn’t, I’m about to give it one.

We’ve all driven in the rain and through the mist churned up by other vehicles on the highways.

But the best way to describe my trip to work on Monday is by using the term “grayout.”

It was 7:15 a.m. and quite dim. The weather was overcast, misty and raining at times, but there was no fog per se.

All of a sudden, the conditions blended everything together in a dull gray. The sky, mist, rain and roadway became one massive gray blob no matter which way I looked.

I let off the accelerator and after a few seconds, I began to make out the welcoming glow of taillights up ahead.

People around me, oblivious to the adverse conditions, continued to drive at a hurried pace, pass on the right, and brake needlessly.

I passed a crash site a few miles later and wondered if it was caused by a “grayout” – either the same type I experienced, or the “grayout” defined on dictionary.com as “a transient dimming or haziness of vision resulting from temporary impairment of cerebral circulation.”

Could have been either.