Monthly Archives: February 2006

Interesting spam in Gmail

One of the many good things about Gmail is that its spam filter seems very effective. The little that gets through is mostly dumped in a spam folder, which I check from time to time.

What’s amusing is that Google’s unstoppable ad machine knows no limits, even where the keyword spam is concerned. So at the top of my Gmail page I have a series of spam recipes, including creamy spam broccoli casserole. I haven’t decided whether this is an in joke from the Googleplex or whether Recipe Source is paying for the placement.

Following the Enron trial

If you want to understand what’s going on in the courtroom in Houston, The Houston Chronicle has gone to heroic lengths with both a legal commentary blog and a blow-by-blow trial blog. The legal blog in particular is filled with fascinating detail and some great writing.

Kent Shaffer on whether people plead guilty to things they didn’t do:

The bottom line is that people really do plead guilty to things that they did not do; it happens all of the time. Their decisions can be motivated by money, by a desire to limit their exposure, or simply due to a lack of courage and if the cost of a lenient sentence is doing a few pet tricks for the government then it is simply the cost of doing business. Get ready to see grown men in Oxford suits and wingtip shoes rolling over, playing dead, and barking while on their hind legs; trying to earn a few extra biscuits.

And Samuel Buell, who was lead prosecutor on the Enron case until March 2004, explains what proving intent to defraud will require:

So look for this trial, and later judicial review of the case if it gets that far, potentially to turn on small pieces of evidence that might tell a great deal about the extent to which the defendants were thinking at the time of their conduct that they were engaged in something wrongful. Often, this telling kind of evidence takes the form of efforts to conceal some important fact about a defendant’s conduct from others, in a way that indicates the defendant feared reprisal or rebuke for what he or she was doing. This kind of evidence is what white-collar practitioners often refer to as “badges of fraud.” This might be more than a lawyer’s concept. Juries often focus on this kind of thing too, because it seems to connect to basic intuitions about how to distinguish fraud from routine business practice.

Compelling, wonderful stuff, that provides insight I wasn’t getting from most press coverage of the case.

The People's Republic isn't what it used to be

My children’s wonderful school just issued the results of a diversity survey it conducted last year. There weren’t many surprises in the survey, but I was struck by a few of the choices.

Under religion, there was the expected scattering of Christian, Jewish, Islam and none. There was also one Wiccan. But it was the political affiliations that really made me double-take. No, it wasn’t the fact that two parents confessed to being Republicans (and, not surprisingly, two parents responded that they didn’t feel their political philosophy was supported by the school). What made me shake my head was one of the choices on the survey was Communist. And no one ticked the box (although four did say they were Socialists). What are Berkeley and Oakland coming to?

Why The Berghoff closed

It’s far less important than the distortions about WMD or not publishing the NSA scandal for a year, but another example of how The New York Times completely misses (or conceals) the true story was explained to me the other day.

The Times recently wrote about the demise of The Berghoff, a landmark Chicago restaurant where my father, like many of his generation, ate lunch for most of his business career. I didn’t get to The Berghoff before it closed, but I read the Times article with a huge sense of nostalgia.

According to the Times, the closing was a family decision, taken with regret. No details. But everyone in Chicago apparently knows the real reason. The Berghoff is on an immensely valuable downtown site. The building is landmarked and required to remain as a restaurant. However, close the restaurant, wait two or three years, and, hey presto, you can probably free the land to build an office tower and make a huge, huge financial killing.

The administration's dishonest trash

Glenn Greenwald:

Intimidating and threatening people who expose wrongdoing and illegality are the hallmarks of street gangs and military juntas. The idea that anything meaningful was disclosed when we learned that our Government is eavesdropping without judicial oversight and approval (rather than with it) has always been frivolous on its face. But the statement from Cheney that this disclosure caused ”enormous damage to our national security” is dishonest trash, transparently intended — on the eve of the NSA hearings — to stir up populist rage against anyone who blows the whistle on misconduct by the Administration and to intimidate other potential whistle-blowers with threats of criminal prosecution and treason accusations from the highest levels of our government.

Throw out European business models

Wolfgang Munchau in the Financial Times:

The hostile takeover bid by Mittal Steel, the world’s largest steelmaker, for its rival Arcelor has given us an object lesson in the failure of European economic policy. Its paradigm has been that we can preserve our consensus-based economic model as long as we reform our welfare systems. I would argue that we should do the exact opposite: we should throw our business model on to the scrap heap and try to preserve our diverse welfare systems instead.

The xenophobia being shown by French and Luxembourgeois political leaders in defence of Arcelor is embarrassing.

The Danish brand

As the Danish cartoon furore seems to be growing daily, I had an interesting exchange with a leading Danish executive. He believes that “100 years of brand building” are being destroyed because of the controversy.

Now, he’s far closer to what matters to Denmark than I could ever be. But I’m puzzled by his viewpoint. The damage to Denmark in the Islamic world is certainly there, but how much is Denmark’s “brand” truly damaged? In my friend’s view, Denmark has consistently built an image of modernity, friendliness, tolerance, moderation. In my view, the consistent stance that freedom of the press includes the freedom to publish stupid things is entirely consistent with the Danish “brand”.

My friend went on to say that this incident would be as damaging for Denmark as Joerg Haider was for Austria. As another friend pointed out yesterday, I think more than a few people recall that Austria produced a rather infamous political leader in the aftermath of WWI.

Standing ovations

I don’t know when the tradition of frequent standing ovations in the State of the Union speech began, but I’ll guess it’s a modern phenomenon. Even exuberant American culture once had a reticence that seems to have vanished.

My own feelings about standing ovations were shaped when I was, at a guess, 12 years old. I spent my summer at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan (I went to Interlochen for seven summers in all). That first summer, my friends and I had the great wheeze of invariably giving a standing ovation at the end of a concert — and, at a music camp, you go to lots of concerts every week.

Our cabin counselor decided we needed to learn something about ovations. He was an interesting guy, a composer in the real world, who had severe views about how to encourage contemporary music. He thought music written more than 20 years ago should be available in libraries, but not performed, to create space for contemporary work. He was equally draconian on standing ovations.

“You should give a standing ovation perhaps six times in your life,” he declared. It should be reserved for the kind of performances that were truly memorable, perhaps even life-changing.

I suspect there’s not much advice from 37 years ago, but I do believe what that long-forgotten counselor suggested. I have often found myself at the end of concerts sitting and clapping enthusiastically, while all round me stand and roar their huzzahs. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the performance, it’s just that I reserve my standing “o” for something truly extraordinary.