May 2015 Archives
Update [10/5/16]: David Halver helped with the management of ARCO artwork collection in Los Angeles and Denver in the late 70s, and he contact me after reading this post. He provides a true insider's look at the collection and gave me permission to share his experiences, which I've done here.
In 2000, BP Amoco PLC acquired Atlantic Richfield Company for $27 billion, thus bringing a temporary end to my oil and gas career after 25 years. One of the things that ARCO was known for was its corporate artwork collection. Under the guidance of its chairman and CEO, the legendary oilman Robert O. Anderson, the company accumulated over 15,000 pieces of original artwork, housed in offices throughout the country. The collection included works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Herbert Bayer (a close friend of Anderson). Whether an oil company had any business investing so heavily in art is a legitimate question, but R.O. Anderson was a persuasive and charismatic guy, and the board and major shareholders didn't seem to mind.
The good stuff was, of course, on display at the corporate headquarters in Los Angeles, but even our office in Midland housed almost 300 pieces. They weren't universally appreciated - some of the more abstract pieces were subjects of ridicule, in fact - and the corporate art department seemed to be a bit tone-deaf when it came to providing regionally appropriate artwork, although they perhaps were simply trying to refine our philistine West Texas preferences.
Anyway, BP (they dropped Amoco in 2001) apparently didn't share ARCO's tastes in art, and so it was that the Midland office was instructed to dispose of its collection. They didn't express any strong opinions as to how we were to do that, and so during a brainstorming session I suggested that we might donate the proceeds from a sale of the artwork to the United Way, an organization that the Midland office had provided significant support for through the years. That idea quickly evolved into putting the pieces up for public auction, thinking that it might be a way to not only raise a tidy sum of money but also generate some good publicity for the United Way. According to a spreadsheet I found in my files, the original cost of the artwork was more than $75,000, and some of the pieces were thought to have appreciated significantly in value.
Update (7/21/15): I received an email today from someone whose sister bought one of these pieces - this one, to be exact - in an estate sale in Los Angeles a couple of days earlier. She found this post while searching for more information about the artwork, and contacted me to see if I could tell her anything more about it. Unfortunately, it seems that even the ARCO art department didn't know anything about it, because the original inventory list didn't list an artist or title. But it was quite interesting to track at least part of the journey of one of these works.
I volunteered to build a website that would showcase the artwork, and also provide a means for bidding. This was essentially my last project as a BP employee, and it was a fun one.
The first thing I had to do was photograph and catalog all 287 pieces. I had never photographed artwork, so everything was trial and error. My camera was a state of the art Sony Mavica MVC-FD7 [PDF] digital camera, which recorded .3 megapixel (640x480 pixels) images onto a 3.5" floppy disk. The pictures were pretty bad by today's standards, but given time and budget constraints, shooting high resolution photos on film just wasn't practical. If nothing else, the Sony provided quick turnaround and web-friendly results. (I still have the camera, but no battery to power it.)
If you've ever tried to photograph artwork, you know that it's not easy, especially if it's behind glass. I spent a lot of time in Photoshop cleaning up the images so they at least remotely resembled the originals.
The website design was also pretty laughable by today's standards, but not bad for the early Oughts. The site was actually designed with the idea that it would be distributed on CD-ROM, in addition to online access. But for some reason I can't recall, I resized the images to even smaller dimensions; most were only 250 pixels tall or wide. I suspect it's because at smaller sizes the images out of the camera didn't look so flawed, but that's just a guess. But keep in mind that at that time, home internet access was generally via dial-up modem and bandwidth was extremely limited. Image size was a big deal.
The end of this story gets really fuzzy for me, because I left the company before the final disposition of the art took place. I vaguely recall that the decision was made to donate all the art to the United Way and let that organization decide how best to dispose of it, and I further think they then found a dealer to purchase the entire collection. I have no idea how much they netted from the sale; I hope it was significant, but it didn't get a lot of publicity so perhaps it wasn't.
This is actually just a long introduction to the real purpose of this post, which is an attempt to preserve a little history that would otherwise fade completely out of sight. I have resurrected the original website that showcases - if you can call it that - the artwork that is now in the hands of unknown people. For all I know, much of it is now gracing garage sales around the country, while some might hang in other corporate HQs. But if you follow this link, you'll get a look at that art, as well as a reminder of what websites looked like fifteen years ago. (If you look carefully, you might find the lightning bolts that indicated hyperlinks...how clever was that?)
A front page article in our local newspaper described how the incoming president of the University of Texas at Austin - the second largest university in Texas, by student population - has declined a $1 million salary in favor of "only" $750,000 per year (plus deferred pay, and a bonus which he also requested be capped at 10% instead of the offered 12%). Gregory Fenves is apparently concerned that a seven-figure salary could be negatively perceived by faculty and students.
I'm sure that Dr. Fenves has only the purest motives in requesting a lower salary, and in some circles his gesture is getting rave reviews, but I can't help thinking this is yet another attempt to legitimize the angst over so-called income inequality that's become a favorite cause du jour in liberal circles. And the implied, even if unintentional message he's sending to students is that rewards for achievement should somehow be limited for the "greater good of society."
A good question to ask Dr. Fenves would be "if $750,000 sends a better message than $1,000,000, wouldn't working for $0 send the best message of all?" Seriously. What level of compensation is "right" for a given position or a given level of achievement? I suspect the answer to that question for many would be "I don't know, but it's less than you're making now."
Also, in light of UT's 2014-2015 operating budget of $2.6 billion, Dr. Fenves's gesture is completely inconsequential from a fiscal perspective (it works out to about $5/student). It won't make an iota of difference in program or staff funding, or in the fees and tuition paid by students. If he wanted to truly have a measurable impact, he should have taken the full offer, then donated $250,000 each year to a scholarship fund, or to another worthy charitable cause. But this would have had the effect of transferring control from the "government" to the individual, another liberal no-no.
As a rather ironic footnote, on the same day we learn of Dr. Fenves's gesture, we also learn the details of UT's new basketball coach's contract:
UT System regents have approved Shaka Smart's contract as bball coach. Here are the terms. pic.twitter.com/XRCviuqV5L-- Matthew Watkins (@MWatkinsTrib) May 14, 2015
As far as I know, Coach Smart hasn't offered to reduce his $22 million contract, apparently feeling that his individual accomplishments - past and expected - wholly justify that pay. I'm not really a basketball fan so I can't say whether that's a legitimate expectation, but I would never argue that he isn't entitled to receive what the University is willing to give.
Just a few random observations from the Wide World of Nature - Midland, Texas Edition.
First, the following video is noteworthy in spite of its poor quality (shot through an office window with a zoomed-in iPhone), because it shows a ladder-backed woodpecker who landed on a red yucca and began working over the blooms. These woodpeckers are not exactly unknown in our parts, but I've only seen a few during the decades of living here, and I've never seen this kind of behavior. (Click the full-screen arrows to get a slightly better view; the ticking noise in the background is not intended to evoke a woodpecker's noise - I just forgot to remove the audio track.)
Can anybody identify this bug? We noticed several of them on one of our Texas Mountain Laurels. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the photo, but they're really tiny. They weren't damaging the leaves, as far as I could tell (although something is eating on one of our trees).
Update: After some intense scientific investigation (aka, several Google searches), I've narrowed it down to a member of the Pyrrhocoridae family. Possibly. That's my story, anyway.
A couple of weeks ago I posted some photos of a dove that built a nest - and I use the term very loosely - on top of our concrete block wall, under the eave of the house. I pretty much forgot about it until last week; when I checked it, here's what I found.
The eggs had hatched and two babies were growing rapidly.
A few days after this photo was taken, we had a serious wind- and thunderstorm. I had assumed that while the nest was of the typical shoddy construction that's the dove's trademark, it was still well-sheltered. However, when I checked on things, I discovered that the storm had had a bigger impact than I expected.
Both doves were on the ground, but one was deceased. The other seemed to be in good shape, and even better, the momma was keeping close watch over it. I got within a few feet and while she was clearly agitated by my presence, she didn't fly away. Again, forgive the quality of the photos, which were taken at dusk with a phone.
And, finally, anything Nature can do, Photoshop can...well...undo? Overdo? Outdo? You decide.
Someone recently posted a photo on Facebook of their office walls, and that caused me to think about the offices I've had over the course of my career(s). In four decades of work, they've run the gamut from yuck to bling, and in looking back I've realized that some were pretty noteworthy.
- The Introductory Bullpen - I started as an accountant trainee for an oil company in Dallas, and my first workplace was a desk in a large open room which housed a dozen or twenty others. Cubicles didn't yet exist, at least not in our offices. Our desks were pushed together in groups of four, and we shared a single phone. You learned to filter out all but the most interesting personal conversations.
- The Voyeur's Paradise - A couple of years later, I was supervising a group that was responsible for implementing the accounting system that would allow us to comply with the newly enacted Windfall Profits Tax (aka the Oil Accounting Full Employment Act). Our offices were located in a high-rise that overlooked a huge atrium containing a shopping center, ice rink, and hotel. In fact, our office windows directly faced the hotel windows, less than a stone's throw away. Although potentially intriguing, in reality nothing too personal was ever revealed. As a footnote, while working under some challenging deadlines, we rented a few of those hotel rooms for employees to get a few hours of sleep while working 24/7.
- The Architectural Horror - Fast forward a few more years, and I found myself working in Midland with the same company, in a downtown office affectionately known as the Belt Buckle Building because of the Totally Sixties architectural design featuring huge concrete rectangles bolted to the exterior. Those rectangles were particularly attractive to roosting pigeons, making for some pretty gross views from our windows. A few attempts to poison them allowed us to trade dead birds for messy birds, which wasn't an upgrade.
That same building also featured windows that "breathed" when the wind blew, and of course, the wind always blows in Midland, Texas. Seriously, you could see the glass panes on the west side of the building move in and out during particularly strong winds. It took one of them imploding and shredding an office chair (fortunately the occupant of the office was not present at the time) before Plexiglas panes were overlaid to reinforce the glass.
- The Highly Convenient Office - Our group later moved across the street into an office suite in the Fasken Towers, and we inherited the arrangement vacated by the previous (and unknown) tenant. There was nothing too unusual about the layout, except that the supervisor's office had a private restroom attached to it. That might not be unusual for some of you, but it was just weird for us, and to my knowledge, it was never used.
- The Awful Horrible Office - I'm now in a custom-designed office building in the Vineyard development and it's among the nicest facilities I've seen in my career. In particular, it's a wonderful contrast to the one we moved from, a Seventies-vintage, absentee-landlord structure with plumbing, HVAC, electrical, and pest problems galore. There were times when the smells in the restrooms tempted us to order Porta-Potties for the parking lot, as they would have been preferable. And speaking of smells, on at least one occasion it took a while to find the dead rodent in a first floor office that had everyone on that end of the building gagging.
- The "Feels Like Home" Office - Of course, the office that was most comfortable and most like home was, well, the one in my home during my website design phase. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to once again occupying that space, now that my career is starting to wind down. I've kept my current place of employment intentionally spare, with almost no decoration, as a reminder that the office is not my home. Different people have different philosophies about what best gets them through the day, and some like to have reminders of who or what they're working for, but for me at this point, my office has no more or less attachment than that first bullpen desk.
The bluebonnets are thinning out in the Texas Hill Country, but wildflower season is far from over. The amazing fields of blue are giving way to even more vivid arrays of yellow, red, and white blooms, and not just from the typical flowering plants. Cacti are busy putting out their own displays of color.
And, of course, where the flowers go, bugs are bound to follow. And, sometimes, creatures more reptilian.
We spent last weekend at Horseshoe Bay and on Sunday afternoon Debbie and I took our cameras out for a walk. The first thing I did was drop my macro lens on the pavement. Fortunately, Canon makes a really rugged lens and even though it suffered a few scratches and dents, it continued to perform perfectly.
It was quite breezy and those of you who do macro photography know what a challenge it is to get decent closeups when your subject is swaying continuously. But my technique of taking about 8,000 photos at a time paid off in a dozen or so semi-decent images.
Here is some of what we came back with. You know the drill; click on each picture to see a larger, uncropped version, complete with pithy caption.
A Facebook friend posted a link to this New York Times article. It's a long but entertaining look at a failed* Kickstarter campaign to fund a PID-controlled espresso machine. The article is a cautionary tale about what happens when a good idea is poorly executed, and project backers feel they have been treated unfairly, if not defrauded.
Kickstarter is the preeminent crowdfunding website, where people with ideas seek people with money, and, in a perfect world, the combination results in a commercially viable (or emotionally fulfilling) result. Some projects are spectacular successes, some are dismal failures, and most fall somewhere in the middle.
I have backed three Kickstarter projects over the years.
One was a cap for a pen or pencil that turned it into a stylus for use with a touchscreen device, another was a whimsical attempt to laser-cut old vinyl record albums so that they could be assembled into monsters, and the third was a titanium bicycle lock designed to be practically unbreakable as bike thieves rarely carry band saws or water jet cutting machines. All three of these projects brought their products to market; as far as I can tell, the bike lock and stylus cap are both commercial successes (the Monster Records domain name is for sale, so I assume that it, like its models, suffered an extinction-level event).
Who wouldn't want a vinyl stegasaurus?
Who wouldn't want a vinyl stegasaurus?
My investment in each of these campaigns was nominal. I pledged $150 to the bike lock campaign, for which I received a lock now selling for $199; a $25 pledge got me a stylus cap. The laser-cut record pledge was a bit more incautious: $120 got me two dinosaurs. And while I use the bike lock, the stylus resides somewhere in a Drawer of Miscellaneous Miscellany (we all have one, right?) and the vinyl dino puzzles are in a bookshelf, partially (OK, mostly) unassembled.
As the New York Times article implies, crowdfunding a project carries some inherent risks. You're trusting someone you probably don't know to do what they say they can do, and you have no control over the outcome. You don't have any legal ownership in the process or product, and very little recourse if things go south.
From my perspective, it's best to think of these projects as charitable endeavors, minus the tax deductibility of the "donation." If you think the product is innovative and useful, or the idea resonates on an emotional level (a vinyl T-rex made from a classical LP? Awesome!), then read through the business plan and let its apparent credibility and achievability determine at what level to back it. But, as with any gamble, don't bet more than you're willing or able to lose.
As a concept, crowdfunding has much to recommend it. As an investment strategy...well, you might be better off investing in an internet startup with a sock puppet spokesthingy.
*This project's Kickstarter page has a somewhat recent update from the creators pledging to keep the project alive. The update is a bit poignant considering it was made before the New York Times report.