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Frontlines

Fortnightly Magazine - December 1996

It was the week before Thanksgiving. On the train ride home (I live in downtown Washington, DC, in an old, sprawling apartment building that once claimed Huey Long and Richard Nixon as tenants), my attention was drawn to a frazzled female lawyer sitting in the seat next to me, who was feverishly making notes in the margins of a thick, serious-looking, legal-sized document.

I confess. I like to read over people's shoulders, but often lose interest after the first few words. This case was different, though. My eyes locked on the strange text, filled with words like "linoleum," "danger," and "maple syrup." This was not your typical government memo.

It was a legal brief, a plaintiff's brief. It began with the story of a certain puddle-a puddle that was growing ominously on the floor of an isle of a neighborhood grocery store. It told of leather scuff marks nearby, flanked by the spilled contents of boxes of breakfast cereal. It continued for page after page, citing court cases on how temperature affects syrup viscosity. It ended with this dire question: "Did the puddle of maple syrup grow so rapidly in diameter as to absolve the store of constructive notice of a hazardous condition?"

For a 30-page memo on maple syrup, it was a work of art. I thought about tapping here on the shoulder, and saying: "I'm a magazine editor, and I just want to say that you write very well."

Before I could gather up the courage, the train had reached her stop and she was gone.

* * *

As log as I'm reading over another's shoulder, please let me share with you another entertaining essay-this one recounting events at the recently concluded 31st Annual Financial Conference of the Edison Electric Institute, sent to us courtesy of Leonard Hyman, the irrepressible utility financial expert, formerly of Merrill Lynch, but lately of whatever new project he can get his hands on. Len is another writer who needs no editor:

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"As hummingbirds flitted to flowers bordering the tight green turf that surrounded pools of dark water in which flamingos waded, under the purple mountains and swaying palm trees of Palm Desert, CA, a setting in which all streets seem named for dead Republicans or faded show biz stars, thousands of electric executives, bankers, and investors flocked to EEI's Annual Financial Conference, with the not-so-incongruous them: 2001: An Industry Odyssey.

"No one could accuse the association of failing to modernize for the occasion. Between laser shows and booming music, the speakers, projected on large screens, loomed over the audience. And a futurist, opening the conference, told the assembled and surprised multitudes that utilities should forget about stranded costs, write them off, and get on with their lives. He even used words still unprintable in the New York Times. To add to the insult, no windy government official followed to drive everyone to an early coffee break.

"Is this the EEI we have grown to love, or is it something better?"

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Len offered a few more thoughts:

On Competition: "The

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