June 2007
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Month June 2007

Ratatouille, Simply Brilliant


A.O. Scott:

The moral of “Ratatouille” is delivered by a critic: a gaunt, unsmiling fellow named Anton Ego who composes his acidic notices in a coffin-shaped room and who speaks in the parched baritone of Peter O’Toole. “Not everyone can be a great artist,” Mr. Ego muses. “But a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Quite so. Written and directed by Brad Bird and displaying the usual meticulousness associated with the Pixar brand, “Ratatouille” is a nearly flawless piece of popular art, as well as one of the most persuasive portraits of an artist ever committed to film. It provides the kind of deep, transporting pleasure, at once simple and sophisticated, that movies at their best have always promised.
Its sensibility, implicit in Mr. Ego’s aphorism, is both exuberantly democratic and unabashedly elitist, defending good taste and aesthetic accomplishment not as snobbish entitlements but as universal ideals. Like “The Incredibles,” Mr. Bird’s earlier film for Pixar, “Ratatouille” celebrates the passionate, sometimes aggressive pursuit of excellence, an impulse it also exemplifies.
The hero (and perhaps Mr. Bird’s alter ego) is Remy (Patton Oswalt), a young rat who lives somewhere in the French countryside and conceives a passion for fine cooking. Raised by garbage-eaters, he is drawn toward a more exalted notion of food by the sensitivity of his own palate and by the example of Auguste Gusteau (Brad Garrett), a famous chef who insists — more in the manner of Julia Child than of his real-life haute cuisine counterparts — that “anyone can cook.”

I was impressed with this film on many levels, especially the incredible attention to details. Bird’s framing of Ego was superb. Go! Brad Bird directs (he also lead the Incredibles).

Interesting Look at How Easy it is to say “No”, rather than take a risk

Seth Godin:

Given the mass hysteria, it’s probably not so good to be Denny Strigl this week. He’s the COO at Verizon quoted with pride about turning down the iPhone deal (Verizon turned down iPhone’s advances.)
The reason you need to care about this: Almost everyone is like Denny.
Most innovative business people who dream of bizdev imagine that they can be just like Steve Jobs. Come up with a super idea, a useful service, a great gizmo and go to an industry leader. Sign lots of NDAs and go to lots of meetings. Demand that they change their ways in order to make your wonderful innovation a game changer, something that will fix their broken industry and make you both a lot of money.

When Public Records are Too Public

Jason Fry:

But then there’s another set of personal details that have made their way online, and these documents are much more worrisome. Property deeds, marriage and divorce records, court files, motor-vehicle information and tax documents are increasingly being digitized, and contain a wealth of information that few of us would want online: Social Security numbers, birth dates, maiden names and images of our signatures. Local governments have rushed to put those documents online for a decade or so, often without scrubbing them of such information. And that’s made them potentially fertile ground for busybodies, stalkers and identity thieves.
Betty “BJ” Ostergren, a 58-year-old from outside Richmond, Va., has made it her mission to alert people to the dangers of public records online. Ms. Ostergren is feisty bordering on ferocious: Her tactics include mailing letters to people alerting them that their personal information is online and posting copies of public documents (or links to them) displaying the personal information of circuit-court clerks and other politicians, including former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. (See her Web site, the Virginia Watchdog, here; this Washington Post profile of her is also a good read.)

iPhone: Game Changer

Apple’s iPhone has received no shortage of hype since it was announced earlier this year. From a technology perspective, I find the multi-touch interface most interesting. It cleanly addresses many small screen issues, including navigation and zoom in/out.
Having said that, I believe the real paradigm shift is the activation process. Years ago, while replacing a dead phone, I stood at the usual cell phone counter for quite some time while the customer in front of me went through a long activation process with Verizon’s representative. What a waste of time.
Apple has dramatically simplified (assuming it works) the activation process by baking it into iTunes. Buy the phone via bricks and mortar or online, sync and activate with your mac or pc and get on with it.
In many ways, Apple has pulled an identity-ectomy (identiectomy?) on AT&T. They are selling phones via AT&T’s channels, but the user experience (and therefore brand and stock price leverage) is all Apple. AT&T will get the fumes, but this is Apple’s win. I’m no fan of AT&T [rss].
Finally, two years ago, while on travel, I spoke with someone who should/would know. This person told me that the iPhone was due later that summer (2005). I wonder if Apple scrapped an early version and decided to wait for the right time and place in terms of technology and software? If so, that takes guts, particularly given the pieces that need to be in place for a launch.

Eliminate Agriculture Subsidies?

Andrew Martin:

Mr. Kind, a six-term congressman, has introduced legislation that would drastically reduce farm subsidies while pouring more money into land conservation programs and rural development. He gathered 200 votes for a similar bill in 2002 and says he believes he has additional momentum this time around.
“There are so many reasons to do it,” Mr. Kind said, ticking off high crop prices and increasing pressure from foreign trading partners as two reasons to curb subsidies. “Now we are going to see if this Congress has the stomach for meaningful reform.”
To no one’s surprise, Mr. Kind’s crusade has raised the hackles of the powerful farm lobby and its supporters in Congress, who describe his proposal as naïve, ill conceived and even dangerous.

Lonely Planet founder scopes out sensationally bad places

John Flinn:

In nearly four decades of incessant globe-trotting, Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of Lonely Planet, has seen nearly all the planet’s sensationally wonderful places. He’s also seen the great places, the pretty good places, the so-so places and the not-too-bad places. There wasn’t much left to do but to start collecting passport stamps from the really bad places.
The result is one of the most oddly compelling travel books in recent years, “Bad Lands: A Tourist on the Axis of Evil — With Additional Excursions to Places That Are Slightly Misguided, Mildly Malevolent, Seriously Off-Course, Extraordinarily Reclusive and Much Misunderstood.”
Wheeler pulled off the Axis of Evil hat trick: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Then he moved on to Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and George W. Bush’s new favorite country, Albania, for a nostalgic look at the bad old days under Enver Hoxha.
The obvious question is, uh, why? I asked Wheeler this over lunch in San Francisco recently.

Interesting Look at Sam Zell’s Tax Advantaged Structure of the Chicago Tribune Acquisition

Joe Nocera:

As Zell deals go, this hardly ranks among his biggest; he’s putting up a “mere” $250 million to gain control of a company with $5.5 billion in revenue last year. But what it lacks in economic heft, it more than makes up for in complexity. When the deal closes, probably at the end of the year, the Tribune Company will go from being a public company to a private S corporation, meaning it will pay no corporate taxes. Its sole owner will be an employee stock ownership plan, which is essentially a fund, owned by employees, which owns the company’s stock. ESOPs also pay no taxes, meaning that both the company and its owner will no longer be taxpayers. Mr. Zell, who will become chairman of the company, will immediately recoup his $250 million and then reinvest an additional $315 million (don’t ask). He’ll have an option to buy 40% of the company for another $500 million to $600 million. (If he does so, he will become the one taxpayer in the deal.)
The Tribune Company will be laden with debt, $13 billion in all, which it plans to pay down in part with the extra cash flow that is generated from not having to pay taxes. If the company does well — or even just decently — everyone will make out, starting with the employees whose stock in the ESOP will be worth a lot more than $28 a share, the discounted price the ESOP paid for it. But if it continues to sink — and just this week, the Tribune Company announced that May revenue fell 11.1% — then the company could wind up in default, which would hurt everyone, starting, again, with the employees, who would lose the value of their ESOP shares. …
What most seemed to excite him was the ESOP itself. And why not? As the Lehman Brothers tax expert Robert Willens said, “He is using it in a way that no one has ever done before.” Mostly, ESOPs are set up when family owners want to cash out of privately held companies and turn them over to their employees. Mr. Zell, by contrast, is using it to buy out the shareholders of a large public corporation —and turn it into a tax-free private company.

Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games

A New Book Spy Wars: Moles, Mysteries, and Deadly Games”>by Tenant Bagley. A fascinating look at the Cold War battles between the CIA and KGB, among others. Bagley’s perspective is largely one of “counter-intelligence”. He includes some fascinating tales, including the Soviet’s use of plants and “false borders”. The book also provides an interesting look at Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. Well worth reading.

Water Wars in the West

Tom Ashbrook:

ight across the planet, good fresh water supplies are under pressure. In America’s West and Southwest, the combination of drought and booming population growth have made that pressure intense.
As the Colorado River and its giant reservoirs have shrunk, Arizona’s population has grown by 40 percent since 1990, and Las Vegas-area water use has doubled. California’s thirst for water is huge.
The trend lines show real trouble for desert cities. Global warming doesn’t help. And the West may be a lesson for us all.

audio

Committee for the Defense of Authentic Camembert

Elaine Sciolino:

Each of the 400 nine-and-a-half-ounce rounds that he produces every day is stamped with the seal of “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée” or “AOC” — a coveted certification that authenticates the content, method and origin of production of a French agricultural item.
But Camembert purists like Mr. Durand are infuriated these days because two of France’s largest dairy producers want to change the rules.
Citing health concerns, the two companies, Lactalis and the Isigny Sainte-Mère cooperative, which together made 90 percent of the traditional raw milk Camembert in Normandy, began earlier this year to treat the milk used for most of those cheeses.
In doing so, they were forced to sacrifice their A.O.C. status, the first time in French history that Camembert producers voluntarily did so.
But they also have asked the French governmental food board to grant that status to their new Camemberts, arguing that the processing they use — either filtering or gently heating the milk — does not sacrifice the traditional taste and character of the cheese.