Lint-Trap 1/17/01: Roiling Blackout

Roiling Blackout


We had an all-day offsite for software managers of my company today. Ate too much, drank too much at dinner (excellent Merlot!). It always amazes me how effective it is to just spend a day with people that you usually see for 5 minutes at a time, or sit silently with in a meeting without exchanging a word.

People are remarkably three dimensional if you give them a chance...

Got home to discover that I was an apparent victim of a rolling blackout. In any case, my computers were off, my microwave and oven were blinking plaintively, my answering machine had become totally confused, etc. I felt a little like my own little branch of FEMA, going from room to room dispensing comfort to little electronic minds that from time to time need a compassionate touch to put them back on the path.

I'm sure that people will be studying this power situation for decades. But when you are in a train wreck, the last thing you want to think about is how vivid the morning headlines will be in tomorrow's paper. It seems to me that the power companies could have looked at the situation months ago, see how broken it was and the eventual end, and saved themselves many billion $$ by starting the blackouts then rather than waiting until they were mere shells of their former selves. If I were a stockholder, I'd want the hides of people who could buy anything for 30 cents and resell it for 5 cents for months and months.

The only theory that fits the facts is that the power companies thought they were .com's! They imagined that all the money they had in the bank was actually the result of their IPO. With the help of a few power producers, they were able to make look like a piker in the losing money department. And they seem to have had a similarly naive belief that, because they were one the side of truth and justice, somebody would come along and save them or give them more money when they ran out.

This is perhaps the best example of a regulated industry just not 'getting it' when it comes to living in an unregulated world. There have been a few similar examples in other industries (such as airlines and telecommunications) that deregulated. Sad relics of the past, doing things the way they always had until they sank into the tar pit, never to recover.

Montgomery Ward is a similar example. I have a memory of going into a Montgomery Ward about four years ago, looking around, and selecting a frying pan. The whole floor was pretty empty, but finally I found an employee and took him the pan. He explained to me with somewhat ill grace that he was a furniture salesman, and couldn't handle housewares. When I pointed out that he was the only employee on the floor that I could see, he snarled and grumbled, then disappeared backstage for several moments. "Go wait over there." he said. I did. A couple of minutes later, a very large woman slowly appeared from behind the scenes. I have never seen someone move so slowly. It looked like he had woke her up, or interrupted a drug exerience. Although there was little sign that her eyes were focusing, she was able to take my money.

I didn't go back there for years.

I went back just before Christmas this year. I found a dining room table I liked (I'd been looking for a year), and it was a close-out and half price. I bought it and was very happy, despite some holdovers from the old 'Wards' mindset ("Oh, we don't deliver to that zip code. It's in the mountains."). And then, right after Christmas, the bullet to the head. Wards suffered their own blackout, not rolling but permanent.

And the power people may well be facing the same kind of oblivion they have been dispensing to us in little drips. They faced a new world, and turned their face away. They violated fundamental laws of economics, buying stuff they couldn't pay for and selling it at a loss. They covered up the problem until it was too late. Another company that had been solid and had met the needs of their customers and stockholders for decades was destroyed.

I'm sure they were thinking "There was nothing I could do!". I'm sure the buggy whip makers, the steam locomotive makers, the makers of vacuum tubes and bell bottom pants all felt the same way. Evolution seems so impossible at times to the unevolved. I can feel some compassion, since when evolution takes such a messy path it leaves a lot of pain behind. But there is no escaping the forces of change. There is no substitute for awareness. As the Fram ads say, pay me (a little) now, or pay me (a lot) later. The companies that think they are exempt from payment make the biggest noises when they fall. Like the workings of karma, the blackouts that the utilities inflict will soon swallow them up as well.

"Do not go gently into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

Thank you for reading.

Copyright © 2001 Pete Stevens. All rights reserved.