We Are All Safer

The not so Nobel Prize


April 1 2002

Where Angels Dread


As the world’s accountants fiddled, one of the largest corporations in the world crashed and burned. No one really knows what happened and why. Not many are aware of the function of the energy giant, Enron. Enron was supposed to be in the energy business, but it did not produce any energy, it did not dig for oil, in fact it did very little. According to Enron propaganda, “It’s difficult to define Enron in a sentence, but the closest we come is this: we make commodity markets so that we can deliver physical commodities to our customers at a predictable price. It’s difficult, too, to talk about Enron without using the word “innovative.” Most of the things we do have never been done before.” So true, nothing like Enron has happened before, and hopefully will not again.

Since Enron is all about innovation, they must have had innovative employees. One of them probably was the sculpture that adorned the entrance of the Enron headquarters. Purchased for $10,000 and called the Moost Imoovative; it was a cow.

The penchant for innovation at Enron caught the attention of our massive Department of Innovation. In pursuit of an innovative journey, we delved into our well-endowed funds, we amassed a crew of trained professionals, and we went off to visit the laid-off employees of the pinnacle of innovation. We spend painstaking months hunting down the best of the best, in the suburbs of Houston, weathering the sweltering heat of the Houston winter. What we found was inspiring, amazing, and voluminous. And did I say, innovative? Here we present a sampling.

Ivana Geteau was in middle management at Enron, managing the middle of the toppled giant. She spent her formative years in the great pastures of the American Midwest. To all those who are not intimately aware of this enchanted garden, the Midwest is the flattest place on Earth. The International Flat Earth Society conducts its orientation tours here. (This society is a confederation of people, who are convinced beyond belief that the earth is flat. Visit their website at http://www.flat-earth.org for further information). It is said that if you place three bricks on the cornfields near Chicago, and climb up, you can see flat out to the snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains, 900 miles to the west.

The Midwest is not only flat; it is not at all bubbly. Corn grows everywhere, and after a long day of tending to the herds and the fields, everyone goes to bed at sundown. The youth have not much to do. During the day they watch the corn grow, and at night, after a few bottles of the famous midwestern brew, called beer, they enjoy the innovative entertainment of cow tipping. Braving the subzero temperatures and lashing winds they stomp out to find a cow. The object is to find a cow that is sleeping standing up. Then get behind the sedating beast and push it, till it topples over. The resulting exhilaration cannot be described to anyone not from the Midwest.

After years of cow tipping, followed by managing the middle at Enron, Ivana has discovered a new, innovative hobby that she wants to pursue: penguin tipping. She is off to the Falkland Islands, the habitat of countless penguins. The penguins have a fascination for airplanes. Ivana will fly a rented Cessna over the beach, and as the plane slowly sputters over the coast, it will attract a myriad of waddling penguins. They will scurry over, in thousands, from the water, from the shore, from the mountains and from the woods, and gather on the beach, gazing at the plane.

As the crowds of critters gather, Ivana would fly slowly to the right. Tens of thousands of heads would turn eastwards. Then she would fly left and they heads would slowly turn the other way. Then she would fly out over the ocean and the eyes would look down, transfixed. For the final crescendo, Ivana would fly back to the shore, and the heads would look up. Then as the plane crosses the beach, the heads go up, up, up, and ten thousand penguins should topple over gently, onto their backs.

Hugo First was in the promotions department of Enron, and he says he has heard them all. Good ideas, bad ideas, sordid ideas and even some innovative ones. But he has one of his own, a way to make money quick. Animal fur is quite in demand for various articles of clothing, and a good source of fur, according to Hugo, would be the domestic cat. Cats are easy to bread and easy to fatten, and he is going to set up a cat farm. 

Feeding the army of cats is a problem, but setting up a rat farm solves that. Rats breed rather rapidly and can be used to ensure the cats are full, healthy and fat. After a cat is used for fur, the remnants make good food for the rats. So, in effect, feed the cats to the rats and feed the rats to the cats and sell the fur for a happy retirement. Managing the farms would need some labour, so Hugo is looking into the greener pastures of offshore locations where humans are cheaper and have no emotional attachments to cats or rats.

When we met Rick Shaw from Transportation, he was in terrible shape, with a broken arm. He had nothing innovative to say, after the accident that almost took his life. Earlier that day, he had taken some potted plants from the garden into the house, and a harmless green snake had hitched a ride in one of the pots. Rick was taking a bath when he heard a horrendous scream. He rushed out, without even a towel, and found his screaming wife, pointing at the sofa and yelling, “Snake”. He dove under the sofa to get it, and at this point, the dog stuck its cold nose into his privates. Thinking the snake was behind him, Rick fainted in fright. The wife called the paramedics, who put him on a stretcher and as they were taking him out, the snake sneaked out, frightened the Pikov Andropoff who was holding the stretcher, and Pikov let go. Rick ended up with a near heart attack and a broken arm.

Bjorn Liar, before he became an attorney for Enron, is from Alabama. Alabama is the most progressive state of the United States, since it is the alphabetically first state. In the early 1990’s, Alabama legislators noted that the mathematical constant “pi” was a source of much impediment to progress, especially as no one in Alabama had even managed to completely calculate it. A scientist from NASA in Huntsville was consulted and he mumbled something about pi being an “irrational number”. Irrationality is an abhorrent trait, and obviously needed legal intervention. Hence, to protect the rationality of scientific progress in Alabama, the legislature passed a law, rationalising pi. Lawson, the pioneer of the new law said “We just want to return pi to its traditional value,” he said, “which, according to the Bible, is three.”

Bjorn was born into doing innovative things. As a teenager, he lived next to Amy Finickey, a crusty and nasty old lady who kept her house extremely neat and her front lawn impeccably mowed. One night Bjorn wrote some dirty words on her lawn using ammonium nitrate. (Ammonium nitrate is a white powder that is a powerful fertiliser). Next morning, Amy discovered the vandalism and washed the powder out with water. The water activated the fertiliser turning the words into deep green grass, and the epithets could be read for weeks.

Bjorn’s innovative idea for the future is not too innovative. He wants to go on a hunt for the world’s funniest joke. We had bad news for Bjorn, the world’s funniest joke had already been found! Psychologist Dr Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, in collaboration with the British Association for the Advancement of Science created “Laughlab” and collected over 10,000 jokes which were rated by 100,000 people and proclaimed the funniest joke in the world is: 

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson are out camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. Sometime in the middle of the night, Holmes wakes Watson up. “Watson, look up at the stars, and tell me what you deduce.”

Watson says, “I see millions of stars, and if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it’s quite likely there are some planets like Earth, and if there are a few planets like Earth out there, there might also be life.”

Holmes replied: “Watson, you idiot, somebody stole our tent!” 

“Oh that is not too funny”, said Bjorn. “What happened to my Japanese co-worker, Hero Hito, is funny but true. He came to Enron after he was released from jail. You see, he was an apprentice in a Japanese trawler that sank in the Sea of Japan. The crew was rescued, but was imprisoned when its members told the authorities that the ship sank because a cow fell on it, from the sky.”

“They remained in prison, until the Soviet Air Force reluctantly disclosed that the pilots of a transport plane had stolen a cow wandering at the edge of a Siberian airfield. They forced the cow into the plane’s hold and departed. The cow had a fit and went on rampage in the hold. To save their lives the pilots discharged the cow, while they were at 30,000 feet.”

We were innovatively impressed with all the stories and the plans and the innovative energy futures and options trading pioneered by Enron. Given the nature of the business Enron found itself in, they should have renamed the company April Fuels.


Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha



Partha Dasgupta