Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Food Chemistry Marches Forward

A couple years ago I wrote an article entitled "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors", in which I explained how I'd reached a position of acceptance toward a future in which actual deliciousness, rather than vulgar, soulless emulation, is created via test tubes and chemistry. Food chemists, I noted, seemed to be getting closer and closer.

They're not there yet, but for an update, try the chipotle barbecue sauce on McDonald's grilled chicken wraps. The future is approaching.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Crusaders Among Us

"Jesus Killed Mohammed," by Jeff Sharlet in the current Harper's Magazine (May 2009), is a must-read describing elements in the US military deeming the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan a Christian jihad - precisely the neo-crusade many in the Muslim world have been accusing us of perpetrating.

Consider: the soldiers who painted the phrase "Jesus killed Mohammed" in giant red Arabic script on their Bradley fighting vehicle. Or the soldier quoted as saying "“Each time I go into combat I get closer to God." Or the stupendously aggressive evangelizing of Air Force cadets by elements in their senior command whose aim is to turn our armed forces into de facto missionaries:
"What men such as these have fomented is a quiet coup within the armed forces: not of generals encroaching on civilian rule but of religious authority displacing the military’s once staunchly secular code. Not a conspiracy but a cultural transformation, achieved gradually through promotions and prayer meetings, with personal faith replacing protocol according to the best intentions of commanders who conflate God with country. They see themselves not as subversives but as spiritual warrior -- "ambassadors for Christ in uniform,” according to Officers’ Christian Fellowship; “government paid missionaries,” according to Campus Crusade’s Military Ministry"
Not real great for the whole "hearts and minds" thing...

The article is not legitimately available online. So read it with ergonomic comfort in the magazine - i.e. support the publication of excellent articles covering crucial topics ignored by other press - or else read it in horrendous formatting pasted into a message board as a likely copyright violation.

I heard about this article in an illuminating radio interview with the brilliant Reza Aslan, author of the just-published How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror, which I plan to read soon.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Blogging the Pandemic Part 5

I finally heard from my doctor. She notes that there are other strains of flu going around, and since I'm feeling better, there's no need for me to be tested. Which makes sense, though if only severe flu cases are reported and tested, I worry that it might skew the data...

Blogging the Pandemic Part 4

Feeling much better; Excessive sleep plus oscillococcinum have helped a lot. Really, the most unusual thing about this flu is that it's the mildest I've ever had. I'm still quite sure that it was flu - those sorts of muscle aches don't come from colds.

The government is still reporting only a handful of cases in New York. Of course, I have no way of knowing if I've got swine flu or another strain. But my doctor still hasn't gotten back to me, and I suspect lots of other data hasn't yet made its way into the system. The fact that this all ramped up over a weekend has surely delayed reportage.

Many people don't understand that the very worst variety of flu is most deadly to those with young, healthy immune systems, aged 20 to 40. The peril comes from the so-called cytokine storm wherein the immune system superheats in trying to repel invaders. You're killed not by the virus, but by your own defenses. Older and younger people, and those with unhealthy immune systems, are much less likely to suffer this fate because their immune systems aren't so studly to begin with.

This might explain why the Queens kids who apparently caught the flu in Mexico (and those kids who caught it from them) exhibited such a mild form of the flu that's been so deadly in Mexico. And it would explain my easy fate, as well (I'm 46) if swine flu's what I've got. We may just be lucky that no one of the right age has caught this thing.

Meanwhile, I've read a couple of reports like this indicating that the situation in Mexico may be far worse than has been reported.

Please wash hands like you've got OCD, and buy a couple boxes of oscillococcinum!

Blogging the Pandemic Part 3

I've slept 15 of the past 24 hours, and am feeling a bit better (oscillococcinum + sleep almost always works for me). I just faxed my doctor to find out if I should go somewhere to contribute my data. 

I'm living out every male's ideal: to be sick, and to have the entire world be in turmoil about it!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Dalai Lama Knows Just What to Say

The Dalai Lama, hanging out with the homeless in San Francisco, had a great quote, as reported by San Jose Mercury News:

"Our lives depend on others," said the Dalai Lama. "Me too. My life depends on others. You are still in human society, human community. Please feel happy and feel dignity."

We're All Torturers Now

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has insightfully noticed that our society seems to have turned a corner with regard to our attitude toward the use of torture. The following sums up her case, but do give the whole article a read; it's short.
The MPs caught abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib later claimed that they did so because they were merely following orders from superiors, orders to "soften up" the detainees who would then be more amenable to interrogation. I keep wondering whether they inadvertently softened up the rest of us as well. We have become so casual about torture that we now openly debate its efficacy—something nobody would have dared do in the first days after Abu Ghraib. The fight playing out between the left and the right now isn't "Did we water-board?" We already knew we did. It is barely even "Was it legal?" Virtually nobody seriously argues that it was. The fight we are having in America now is "Did it work?" And if we manage to persuade ourselves that torture does work, whether it's legal or even moral will no longer matter. And such tactics will never be able to horrify us again.

Blogging the Pandemic, Part 2

Fever 100-101, muscle ache, fuzzy headed, some stomach tempest ('you're welcome' for the euphemism). Those kids in Queens who got flu tended to show sore throat, which I don't have, so I'm trying to determine if there are other flu strains out there. It sure feels like flu, though. Especially the muscle ache.

In any case, not doing that bad. As usual, oscillococcinum seems to be helping me skate over the worst of the ugliness. Most drug stores carry it, but it's ubiquitous in health food stores if you want to stock up. Obviously, I have no commercial interest...

The media, per their tendency, is screaming about the imminent pandemic, but they're not noting that the variant we're getting around here (see that link above) seems real mild. If a few million people got this particular flu, it would not be the end of the world, though still certainly something fit to be called a pandemic. What I haven't seen explained, though, is why the flu's killing dozens in Mexico, while these kids and other transporters seem to have come down with a milder form. Weird.

Meanwhile, I'm grateful for any flu antibodies I'm currently developing. It would be nice to have immunity if the deadly one starts spreading around. Maybe I could charge people $30 to cough near them so they can train their immune systems on this milder form...hmm....

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I've Caught This Flu (please read for remedy suggestion!)

I'm pretty sure I've got this flu. No reason to panic, or even for concern...while the current flu in Mexico is serious, the version in the US, though extremely contagious, is considered very mild by flu standards. It has a really short incubation time -  symptoms appear 1 or 2 days after exposure.

Do me a favor. Hit a pharmacy and buy some Oscillococcinum, the homeopathic flu remedy, to have on hand. I totally don't believe in homeopathy...I think it's an utterly bogus concept. But this stuff, for some reason, ALWAYS works for flu. Here's instructions: as soon as you spot symptoms, on an empty stomach, dissolve the contents of one tube under your tongue. Don't eat for an hour. And don't brush with mint toothpaste for a couple of days...use baking soda or just a dry brush (mint is supposed to interfere). You shouldn't need to take more, but if symptoms do appear, take a half a tube once or twice per day. And avoid mint anything.

Since homeopathic drugs contain essentially nothing, you shouldn't have side effects. One thing is that if it works, you may feel mildly tired for the length of time you'd otherwise have been sick (it's a lot better than getting sick! you can function!). But no other symptoms should appear.

Since we may be facing a global pandemic of a more serious variety of this flu, it may actually be a good thing for your body to form some antibodies. No one's sure about cross-immunity, but I'll take all the antibodies I can get, in case the more serious strain comes north.

Sorry for the clunky writing...gotta sleep...I don't feel that bad, though; this is pretty lite as flus go....

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 10

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


The business development guy from CNET beat around the bush for a while, but it quickly became clear that he was thinking acquisition. And that suited me fine. I'd been a fan of CNET's tech reviews and radio efforts, plus they owned Ziff-Davis, which had hosted the Macintosh support forums on Compuserve I helped operate back in the 1980's. But the important thing was that CNET had a reputation for offering dependable, savvy information to a discerning audience. This was the sort of company that would know better than to dumb down Chowhound; to do anything that might repel our smart users and irreversibly dilute our data.

To be sure, CNET knew nothing about food. This fact made the subsequent announcement of our acquisition quite surprising to many parties. I myself never saw a disjoint. Data is data, opinions are opinions, and networked communities are networked communities. The actual subject is the least important element. I feel similarly perplexed when people are surprised that I'm able to write about non-food topics; as if they expected me to turn completely inarticulate and moronic when it comes to subjects non-lasagna-related.

I wasn't looking for a company with deep experience in Haianese chicken rice and marrons glac├ęs. Food's just a topic; Chowhound's prospective overlords certainly didn't need to walk around in aprons all day. In fact, food expertise would have been a strike against them. Chowhound's perspective was maverick and iconoclastic; allowing it to be subverted by old school food authorities would have been disastrous (would you want to see McSweeney's bought out by Readers Digest?). What was important was a familiarity with savvy audiences and with online culture. CNET had been deeply into both for years...but with fewer calories.

CNET hoped to add a "lifestyles" division to build out the Web 2.0-ish momentum of some of their previously acquired properties. It made sense. I was invited to San Francisco to discuss, and before I knew it, I found myself on an airplane headed west.

I was met by the business development guy I'd spoken to on the phone, who I'll call Clay. You probably have run into someone like Clay; the sort of fellow with vast confidence in his own charm. He locks eye contact meaningfully, modulates his voice with layers of gooey honey, and carefully apes your body english. Most of all, he diligently affirms everything you say. No matter what I'd ask, he'd lock eyes with me, let me feel his love, part his tense mouth into a mirror-honed smile, and cry "Yes!!! Of COURSE!". To test him, I'd ask questions where I knew the answer was a clear "no". "Clay, would I be able to bring my pet Komodo dragon with me into the office?" "Jim, YES!!! Of COURSE!"

At the end of the day - any day at all - Clay will have uttered "at the end of the day" several dozen times. He spoke entirely in corporate cliches (I learned not to grimace), and had trouble following complex thoughts (I learned to speak in bullet points). But this is what a bizdev guy is: shallow, slippery, and full of himself. He's a dealmaker. And since he was the force within CNET advocating for Chowhound's acquisition, he was my dealmaker!

After lots of time spent with Clay, I was taken around to meet the folks I'd actually be working with. First there was Martin Green, a vice president with great gentility and a nimble mind. He described his vision for the lifestyle division, which I found highly creative and very smart. And I told him so...causing eyes to narrow cynically. I was, apparently, "kissing his ass".

Martin was terrific, as were most of the other potential future coworkers. I did meet Neil Ashe (currently the CEO, back then the #2) briefly. He has the pudgy cheeks of a bashful little boy but the manner of a swaggering corporate cowboy. Six months later, as I attended to personal business in front of a CNET urinal, Ashe stepped in beside me and actually struck a Captain Morgan pose; an image I'll never manage to expunge (I used only stalls for the remainder of my tenure). Nothing substantive was discussed with Ashe, and I was pulled hastily out of his office after a very short time. I got the impression the guy was considered too ornery to expose to an acquisition prospect during the delicate buttering-up process.

Indeed, I did have one interesting moment with him. I mentioned that I had a fresh idea in the health field that would instantly attract a demographic advertisers would drool over. His reaction almost made me erupt in guffaws. Grinning with infinite condescension, he wagged his head one single time, a quick jerk from left to right: "no". As if to say, no, chowhound, you really kinda don't. Ha ha, listen to our little Betty Crocker with his ADORABLE big plans! I LOVE this guy! Now off you go! Woops, don't forget your napkin! Buh-bye, now!

(To this day, no one's thought of my idea. It would be enormous; like Chowhound, it's something the Web was born to provide, and it's almost unbelievable to me that it remains unconceived. I didn't have to offer it to CNET, and, in retrospect, it's just as well they spurned it.)

Gratuitous condescension was certainly not a deal-killer. In fact, I found his bluntness refreshing. I fully understood that once Chowhound was sold, I'd have limited say in its operation - though Clay did his best to paint a future for me as a respected and autonomous player within the company. That's his job! I smiled and expressed polite, if slightly detached, pleasure in the thought of my destiny as a corporate middle manager.

I also met one Max Mead, a finance wiz who worked with Clay. Max's non-stop business patter is incomprehensible to mere mortals. Like the Hybrid character in Battlestar Galactica, the brilliance of what he's saying is palpable, but one can never quite wrap one's mind around it. Max didn't just do finance for CNET, he lived it and breathed it. He loved the stuff - and his earnest passion for his job made me love Max. I later found out that, while Clay would never admit it, Max was the guy who had first brought Chowhound to his attention. If there's a hero in this saga, let it be Max.

Having strewn the narrative with multiple spoilers, I'll move next time to the utterly anticlimactic Offer scene, and then we'll talk about the soul-sucking process known as "due diligence", which is only slightly less fun than jailhouse rape.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Game of Life

Accumulate ten points to win!

Realize how stupid, screwed up and selfish everyone is: 0 points

Realize that the above realization, however true, is worth no points: 3 points

Realize you're actually no better: 2 points

Invest heartbreaking love and care into your actions in spite of understanding the ultimate futility of it all: 5 points

Be too oblivious to ever realize how stupid, screwed up and selfish everyone is: 10 points

Monday, April 20, 2009

Healthy Yogurt

Looking for good healthy yogurt is tough. The lower the fat, the greater the sugar. And lowfat, low-sugar yogurts usually taste chalky/awful.

siggi's "Icelandic style skyr strained non-fat yogurt" is creamy delicious, has no fat, and minimal sugar. Interesting flavorings, too, e.g. orange/ginger.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Do Logos "Work"?

In a comment beneath my Logos Redux posting, Dave said:
"I do believe that marketing can be very important, but I'm yet to be convinced that logos are an important part of the marketing mix. I once took part in a consumer panel for Chase, comparing and contrasting logos.

"I did have all kinds of opinions about what they showed me. I had preferences, but they were aesthetic. Would any of them entice me to open an account there? Would any of them make me feel better or worse about having my money there if I did have an account? I don't think so.

"You indicate that the logo worked well for Chowhound, but how can you or anyone else measure that?"

The value of a logo certainly can't be "proven". But I think Dave's taking the wrong tack.

When you enter my house, you'll get an immediate, innate sense of what my house is like. Myriad tiny elements will strike you - some consciously but most not - and you'll glean an impression of what my house is like - and, by extension, what I'm like. This process is not a computer-like evaluation, where you pore over every aspect and judge it against your preferences. In fact, you're mostly not thinking about preferences at all...you're just taking it all in. In no time at all, you'll have an intuitive feeling of either wanting to stick around or to rush back out (which would be a mistake, cuz you'd miss my stellar hors d'oeuvres).

Likewise, a corporate logo certainly doesn't manipulate you into becoming a customer, feeling better about a product, or even consciously pleasing your preferences or aesthetics. It's just one element contributing to your intuitive conclusion of what a thing's all about.

Chowhound was not the first food forum, and certainly not the last. It certainly had the worst software and the least eye candy. So why did so many people stick around? You might say it was the fantastic community itself, which would be very true, but how did we aggregate that critical mass of users in the first place?

Everything in our living room was chosen with care and love, and reflected a certain perspective on food and on life. Those choices were made earnestly; I wasn't an MBA wise ass trying to manipulate an audience toward a "brand"....I myself was a true-believing chowhound, as were Bob and the others.

The logo (which we agonized to have convey the proper emotional mix: lots of passion, a touch of savoir faire, and an overall eager enthusiasm) was part of that. I don't think anyone stuck around Chowhound because they said "Hey, nice logo!" But I don't think anyone does anything because of a logo. 

A logo is just one facet of an operation's self-expression. If all aspects of your self-expression are unified, kindred spirits will feel at ease, and even self-identify. Chowhound was a good example. Our users are innately hyper-skeptical....yet they dropped their guard in our forum. And even these resolute non-joiners feel a joint sense of group mission in sussing out all the deliciousness.

Chowhound simply felt like their sort of living room, that's all. And the logo surely helped.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Essential Inhumanity of Chain Restaurants

People dislike chain restaurants for the wrong reasons. Many detractors are mere snobs, who recall from the commonness of these businesses and their customers. Others object strictly out of health or environmental concerns (in "Fast Food Nation", author Eric Schlosser concedes  that, sure, the food at fast food chains tastes great, but...). Most commonly, people recoil instinctively from big businesses. I don't share that reaction. If Burger King were to serve fantastically delicious food, I'd be deliriously happy and give them tons of business. I don't drive 75 miles out of my way for greatness because I enjoy hemorrhaging time and energy!

But Burger King can't make fantastically delicious food (at least not for a few more years), because deliciousness is achieved via the personal expression of caring, talented human beings. Chain restaurants, by contrast, function without anything like that in the loop. Assembly line food production methods are geared toward uniformity, rather than deliciousness, so these places are designed, above and beyond all, to snuff out any possibility that individual expression might reach the food. Not only is the process talentless, it's anti-talent.

It's a reality of mass market food service. Operating hundreds or thousands of restaurants, it would be unthinkable to rely upon the talent and diligence of actual chefs. So the system is designed to spit out food simulation without the use of chefs, and without actual cooking. Instead, these places (even the "nice" ones like Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, and Red Lobster) fabricate, operate and reheat. The workers are generic, poorly paid drones. There is no human care in the process...unless something goes wrong.

For a few weeks in the early 1990's, a skinny kid who worked at the White Castle in Astoria, Queens would ignore the bell ordering him to flip the burgers. With an intent gaze, he'd wait an extra minute or two, letting the burgers get slightly crunchy. They were better that way! He took pride in his innovation, and enjoyed an admiring following of customers. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that he was quickly purged.

That was something good going wrong in the process. Here's the dark side - the disgusting result when restaurant workers are trained to repress pride and detach emotions from the end product (and, despite the banner, I don't think they're stupid; just horrendously detached and dehumanized):



Friday, April 17, 2009

Logos Redux

Uncareful readers concluded that the Chowhound logo atop my entry about logo creation was placed there to serve as an example of a logo whipped up according to the suggestion described in that entry - though I made fairly clear that it was not. Many commenters, both below the entry and here, seemed to dismiss my suggestion (that graphic designers are better for polishing ideas than for generating them) mostly on the basis for their dislike of the Chowhound logo. 

Actually, our logo was created by an experienced professional. The torturous (for us and for her) experience of achieving a result that fit our bill was what led me to look for other ways to handle these sorts of collaborations.

It's always amused me to hear contempt expressed for Chowhound's original logo and general design. There's a fallacy involved. As I replied to one commenter (testily, because he'd been particularly harsh):
"The function of graphics for commercial use is not to impress graphics people. Its purpose is to set a tone and demarcate a brand for a given market. Chowhound reached nearly a million people and became a nationally-known brand with a marketing budget of exactly zero. A great many people grew emotionally attached to the brand as soon as they came through our door, and identified with it quite strongly.

All along, graphics pros such as yourself denigrated our design (totally their right, of course!). But I'd say the design was awesome....not to impress the likes of you, but to accomplish our goal: to attract and engage a vast number of eaters of a certain stripe. THAT'S what a (good) graphic designer does. A bad designer designs to please other designers. 
An analogy can be made to music. In composing his chorales, JS Bach invented modern four part harmony. His methods were subsequently analyzed and formulated into a series of rules which have been rigorously followed for centuries. Interestingly, Bach himself broke those "rules" repeatedly! His chorales, judged according to this abstract framework, weren't very "good"! 

Of course, Bach wasn't trying to compose "correct" chorales, he was following his muse to achieve a result that would foster a certain effect. That's an important distinction! Similarly, our logo wasn't crafted as an exercise in logo creation; the intention was to make a certain impression on our audience. And it worked! Many logo professionals deem it a "bad" logo...and thank goodness none of them had whipped us up one of their "good" ones! 

Even artistic types usually learn to do what they do by following dry rules and precepts which, in and of themselves, have nothing to do with the magic of the creation process. Over the course of their training they become thoroughly immersed in these rules and systems, and come to lose touch with the magic that had originally attracted them. A puppet show can no longer be appreciated when only the strings are paid attention to! 

I know expert chefs unable to appreciate the simple goodness of a perfectly boiled potato because there are no skills to gauge - no techniques one can sink one's teeth into. They've lost touch with deliciousness and been caught up with cookery; with stagecraft. That is, alas, how most supposedly creative people wind up.

I'd never want to listen to a four part chorale created to pass the muster of music teachers. And I certainly never wanted a logo designed to wow designers. This is why, per my previous entry, I've learned to launch all collaborations (except those where I'm lucky enough to work with inspired mavericks) with my own creative visions, no matter how crude and sloppy. 

My view that most designers are uncreative is confirmed whenever one of them gauges a logo's success not via its track record in doing what a logo's supposed to do, but via their own disconnected, "inside baseball" criteria.

There's another dynamic to consider. A number of Chowhound elements turned off some people. But Chowhound, unlike most media operations, never aimed for the largest and broadest possible audience. In fact, we actively tried to filter our audience, to preserve the expert nature of our user-generated content, rather than have it dilute into a mass market slurry of Olive Garden testimonials (see this series for much more information). I noticed, over time, that when disdain was expressed for our logo, "mission statement", and overall tone and vibe, it almost invariably came from individuals who didn't fit our target profile of intrepid, iconoclastic food detectives. A critical mass of chowhounds, by contrast, basked in an atmosphere that felt, to them, like home. 

People can be persistent in using their personal aesthetics to judge efforts catering to a very different element. But it's impossible to evaluate a thing without paying heed to its intention (critics are the worst offenders; Miles Davis was derided by some writers for his non-virtuosic trumpet stylings, though he was obviously not aiming to be the type of player they preferred to hear).

When Do Internet News Stories Stop Being "Science"?

Am I the only person who finds it strange that news reports about Google or Twitter are still categorized as"science" stories by most news sources, because they're on the Internet, and the Internet is, you know, technical?

By the same token, shouldn't news stories about TV shows be deemed "science", too, since they're delivered over a technical medium?

Idunno, I'd have thought the wiz-bang coolness of Cyberspace would have dissipated some by now, much as we're all pretty well accustomed to color TV...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Killing Your Greatness

Years ago, I proclaimed (in print) that an unexceptional Italian bakery in Williamsburg was baking NYC's best croissants. The place had no Frenchy genes, and showed no talent in any of their other pastries. These guys were all about lousy biscotti, lousy Italian bread, and repugnant cookies painted unnatural colors. Their stupendous croissants were such an anomaly that I didn't trust my senses, and dragged French and Belgian friends out to Brooklyn to confirm - and confirm they did, with great excitement. 

Then, shortly after my article was published, the bakery stopped making croissants. Readers would make the trek, and be rebuffed by gruff, unsmiling bakers, who grew more and more annoyed with the arrival of each new customer my article had brought their way.

There have since been many similar examples of this phenomenon. And now, the drab and unexceptional Mexican bakery in San Francisco's Mission District which just happened to make the best macaroons ("cocadas" in Spanish) I've ever had, has stopped making them. And they seem equally annoyed by customers asking for them.

I sometimes wonder if I've for some reason been excluded from hearing about a key rule or two by which the world operates.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Funny License Plate

How to Save $5000 on Your Logo

For graphic designers, making a given bit of artwork better, neater, and more professional is easy. Coming up with an original idea is hard. And coming up with an original idea that will fit your bill is nearly impossible. That's why they usually charge many thousands of dollars to whip up a simple logo. It's an agonizing process (one day, I'll tell the story of Chowhound's logo).

Save the pain, save the expense. Here's what you do. Scrawl an ugly, primitive, childish, highly-unsatisfactory mock-up of what your entirely unartistic brain is picturing. Give it to the artist. And have the artist expand, tweak, and polish it...an infinitely easier, quicker, and cheaper task than the touchy business of creating out of thin air. Believe it or not, you've just completed 90% of the task.

This applies to other graphics tasks, as well. Or musical tasks. Or anything else. The vast majority of artists, musicians, writers, and other artistic types are surprisingly uncreative. They can imitate and they can polish, but they oughtn't be called upon to spawn anything fresh out of thin air.

Update: I made the error of writing this strictly from a client's perspective. From the designer's perspective, there are good reasons the conception phase is agonizing, and it's largely the fault of clients. See my first reply in the comments, below, for a more balanced treatment of all this.

Further Update: Read some very insightful discussion of this posting, mostly from the designer's standpoint, here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Google's Stock Quotes Go Real Time (Plus: More on SIGA)

I see no discussion of this anywhere, but Google seems to have implemented real time stock quotes. All the better for watching the price of SIGA Technologies move ever upward!

I first
tipped you to SIGA on 6/9/08 when the stock price was $2.92, gloated about it on 1/28/09 at $4.29, and it is at this moment (real time!) $6.28. And will be up to $15 by year's end. I'm not usually one for touting sure things, but read on.

The government will buy a huge quantity of smallpox meds in September, and is currently gathering proposals from drug companies. Aside from SIGA, only one other company has a drug that could conceivably fit the bill, and their monkeys died during testing. SIGA's smallpox drug, ST-246, was safe enough to
heal a child with a smallpox-like illness a couple years ago. It was nearly instantly effective and had no side effects.

So the contract will go to SIGA, whose 35 million outstanding shares will surely shoot skyward when the check comes in for between 1.7 million and 12 million courses of a fairly expensive drug (and one with a finite shelf life, so stockpiles will need periodic replacement). And that's just the beginning. Other government agencies (defense, homeland security) will want to buy, and Europe, Israel, and India should also be interested. Plus, SIGA has, in its pipeline, drugs for dengue fever (feared a possible future pandemic), 
drug-resistent staph and strep and a broad spectrum anti-viral (ST-669) that just might crack the virus puzzle once and for all. None of that stuff factors into its stock price at this point, which has yet to catch up even with the in-the-bag smallpox contract...though in the past week or two, volume and price are both starting to pick up.

SIGA keeps a low-profile, burying all this goodness amid dry scientific writing for reasons I explained in that
first posting. So very few people have caught on.

Trick for Reducing Time Spent on Internet

I've developed a simple and effective trick to help to reduce time spent on the Internet.

Keep a running list (on actual paper, with a pen!) of things you feel an urge to look up, watch, read or otherwise surf on the Internet, as they occur to you. Then, once per day (preferably late-ish), sit down at the computer and go through the list.

If you run to the computer as surfing tasks occur to you, you'll likely find yourself also checking email, reading a blog or two, and idly surfing around each time. But by saving up the tasks, that generalized surfing will be constrained to one daily period. Keeping the list removes the sense of urgency, because you know you'll get to the task eventually.

As a bonus, many items on the list will, to your sober eye, be seen as completely frivolous, and you'll expunge them. Time saved! And since you'll be surfing with some sense of purpose, as you efficiently work through that to-do list, you'll be less inclined to idly inflate any given task. You'll grab the info and move on. You're in work mode, not drift mode!

The next step is to do likewise when working on your computer. If you think of something you'd like to surf, write it down, and know you'll get to it later. Your work flow will remain undisrupted. In this case, too: don't maintain the list electronically. It's got to be with pen and paper.

One handy tool is a program I mentioned in my iPhone App round-up last week: Instapaper, which can also be used for desktop/laptop browsing. You create an account on Instapaper, drag their bookmarklet to your bookmarks bar, then whenever you spot an interesting article to read, you click the bookmark and it saves the text so you can read it another time (or print it out...or read it on your iPhone via the Instapaper iPhone app). And it's all free.

The trick isn't to surf less, or to restrain one's curiosity and thirst for information. It's to make Internet use a little more compact, focused, and efficient.

Monday, April 13, 2009

"The Age of the Unthinkable" - Why Life May Not Return to Normal

Each time a cycle swings, it strikes a number of people as a permanently cataclysmic cliff (on the down swings) or a permanently exuberant plateau (on the ups). Every bubble feels, to investors, like a new paradigm, though bubbles are the flimsiest of things. The sweeping Republican victory of 2000, to elders of that party, augured decades of dominance, though it was built on mere (Oval Office) blow jobs. It's human nature to expect highs to stay high and lows to stay low, though the pendulum always swings back. In fact, its this very outlook - the inextinguishable expectation of perpetual inertia - that drives the various pendulums in the first place.

I didn't read Joshua Cooper Ramo's book "The Age of the Unthinkable", but this interview shows all the hallmarks of that sort of fallacious thinking. The troubled state of the world has obviously served as a Rorschach test for Ramo's own issues with how things have been. And while I share some of his emotional impressions, I find his arguments just that: emotional. And fuzzy.

In busts, we inevitably hear the word "unsustainable" used a lot, as a peevish "told you so!" from prim (or envious) sideline observers who'd been watching with stern disapprobation through the preceding boom. And they are, of course, right. Booms are always excessive; that's what makes booms boom. But comeuppances are equally finite. Nothing's sustainable in the long run, so the boomsters hope of keeping the party going and the stern primsters hope of keeping a tidy, austere house are both destined to be dashed by the next tidal shift.

Underlying Ramo's proposition is an indisputable truth: change lies ahead. It's hard to go wrong with such a prediction, of course, but change comes neither via cliffs nor plateaus. It's a cycle. The downs go back up and the ups go back down, though the cards always shuffle a bit. At the other end of this economic crisis will be Something Different. But things will be better eventually. And then worse again. The perpetual cycle of reversal is the one single thing that never changes.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Lecture About Relativity

Wow. This thirty minute lecture starts off a bit fuzzy; the speaker, Amrit Desai, had just woken up. But give it some time. This is one of the clearest, freshest, most efficient and accessible explanations of Indian philosophy you'll ever find. There's very little jargon, though one word to know is "prana", Sanskrit for the animating energy of the body.

I ought to acknowledge that the part about plants having auras ("they've proven it scientifically!") is highly embarrassing. And his explanation of karma could have been a lot better. But the part about relativity and happiness is just superb; beautifully expressed. Also, there's a certain vibe; see whether you're in anywhere near the same mindframe after watching that you were before...

Part 1:


Part 2:


Part 3:

Saturday, April 11, 2009

iPhone Applications I Couldn't Live Without

Instapaper (iTunes link) stores web articles you want to read later (great for desk/laptops, too)

iTalk (iTunes link) voice recorder

eReader (iTunes link) ebook reader

Flixter (iTunes link) find movies

FreeMemory (iTunes link) tells remaining battery percentage and frees up memory

Public Radio (iTunes link) streams lots of public radio stations (I plug iPhone into my car stereo when I go beyond radio signal range)

...and the beta versions of the applications we're testing over at FretBone!

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Heart's Slow Reboot

I was always deeply reassured from the meme that passed among school kids of my generation that all the cells in our bodies are replaced every seven years. I didn't know anything about computers in those days, but I dreamed of something akin to a reboot. I was so ready for cell replacement I could almost taste it.

Then we were told heart tissue never regenerates (the Grinch's legendary heart expansion up there on the hill above Whoville was - who knew? - solely the stuff of fiction). We're stuck with the same damned heart for the duration, scientists said.

But interesting new research indicates that the heart does churn its cells...albeit real slowly.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

New Orleans Trip, Part 4

by guest slogger Paul Trapani
Our final breakfast was at Dizzy’s (in the Whitney Hotel at 610 Poydras, 504-212-5656). Their jambalaya omelet contained ham, sausage, shrimp, tomatoes, cheese and eggs and made me glad I'd ordered it despite being the menu's highest priced omelet. You can see my wife’s equally excellent bacon omelet in the background. I was heartbroken when the waiter came back from the kitchen to tell me they were out of biscuits, but my spirits lifted when he brought an order of perfect buttered toast instead.


Anywhere but New Orleans I’d be surprised to see an Oompa Loompa asking for directions in a shopping mall...


...or jars for arsenic and Horlicks Malted Milk side-by-side on the same shelf!


During a visit to the Garden District we found Still Perkin’ (2727 Prytania St., 504-899-0335), a great little cafe, and hung out on the patio for a bit. I had shrimp corn bisque, which was scrawled on a sign as a special. It was spicy, delicious and tasted nothing like restaurant food. The cafe au lait pictured below was also great as was coffee granita. The sad chocolate chip cookie you see sulking to the left was dismal, but the unbelievably good lemon crunch cake made us forget all about it.



Sadly, the trip came to an end soon after, but we had a blast and I’m already thinking about returning next year. I’ll close with some miscellaneous tips:

Great pralines and other candies at Leah’s (714 St. Louis St., 504-523-5662). I prefered the softer creamy pralines to the traditional style.

Napolean House (500 Chartres St., 504-522-4152) is a great place to go for drinks. They make a big deal about a British drink called Pimm’s Cup (flavored gin and lemonade with a cucumber), but I preferred the old school New Orleans Sazerac (sugar, rye, bitters, Herbsaint, lemon).

If you’re like me, you won’t be able to resist stopping at The Kerry Irish Pub (331 Decatur St., 504-286-5862), a real Irish pub in the French Quarter, for a Tullamore Dew or other Irish Whisky either to start or end your night.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

New Orleans Trip, Part 3

by guest slogger Paul Trapani
Our second day's breakfast was at Petunia’s (817 St. Louis St., 504-522-6440) Street, which everyone considers their secret out-of-the-way breakfast place, even though it's listed in all the tourist literature. The sausage breakfast comes with homemade andouille and boudin, a mess of scrambled eggs and home fries. We also had some kind of eggs benedict with crab meat. Portions sizes are outrageous (next time we’ll share a single dish).



Then on to the amazing Cajun fried chicken at Coop’s (1109 Decatur St., 504-525-9053) for a late lunch. Rabbit and sausage jambalaya were also great, as was the cole slaw. I loved this place because people sitting at the bar were passionately discussing recipes the way people in New York talk about sports teams. They pour the full suite of local Abita beers, so you can try several as you listen in.


Occasionally between eating and drinking, one needs daytime diversion. I recommend paying a visit to Mardi Gras World), where you get to see lots of the parade floats up close. You have to shell out for a tour to see more than just a few floats, but it’s worth it and lots of fun.

Dinner was at Cafe Adelaide (in the Loews Hotel at 300 Polydras St., 504-595-3305). Drinks from the Swizzle Stick Bar were outstanding, especially the Swizzle Stick and Chocolate Martini.

Highlights of the meal were shrimp and tasso corndogs and salad with strawberries and vanilla onions.


Shrimp with smoky grits were also great - especially the grits - but unfortunately I forgot to snap a photo!

"Where the Hell is Matt 'Hoax'"

If you haven't seen the "Where the Hell is Matt" videos on YouTube, watch this now.

If you have seen them, watch this to projectile laugh.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

New Orleans Trip, Part 2

by guest slogger Paul Trapani

Dinner was at Cochon (930 Tchoupitoulas St; 504-588-2123), one of the hot new post-Katrina restaurants.

Normally, I wouldn’t even consider ordering a drink containing vodka, beet juice and lemon, but it was named a "Jitterbug Perfume" after the great Tom Robbins novel (featuring New Orleans) so they got my money. It was surprisingly refreshing.

We were brought a basket of crusty biscuit rolls that were quickly finished:


I loved an appetizer of ultra smokey andouille....and didn’t mind the lima beans, though they didn't really enhance the andouille.

Louisiana cochon (aka pork cooked in a wood fire) with turnips cabbage and cracklins. The sauce/broth it was sitting on was an umami masterpiece. Smoked beef brisket with potato salad was the best brisket or potato salad my wife and I had ever had. The macaroni and cheese casserole left us giddy.




The strawberry chiffon tart was delicious - full of fresh ripe strawberries and cream. The cornmeal pineapple upside down cake was a perfect 10 and left me in a state of bliss for a good couple of hours.



Reserve in advance, as this is a popular place!

Monday, April 6, 2009

New Orleans Trip, Part 1

by guest slogger Paul Trapani

Our hotel room at the Westin had views of the French Quarter on one side and the Mississippi on the other. I could easily have spent most of the day just watching the boats go up and down the river.



The Westin is up the road from Cafe Du Monde, (800 Decatur St; 504-525-4544) our first stop for beignets and cafe au lait. It’s a great way to ease into New Orleans, sipping the chicory laced coffee, eating doughy yet light beignets covered with absurd quantities of sugar and watching tourists and locals. And they're open 24 hours!



This was my fourth trip to New Orleans and each time I look forward to Mother’s Restaurant (401 Poydras; 504-523-9656). We split a delicious and ridiculous Ferdi Special, consisting of debris (the stuff that falls off a cooking roast beef), roast beef and ham, all fully dressed with mayo, creole and regular mustard and shredded cabbage. Also: red beans and rice. I'm sad to report that the latter, though quite photogenic, was not as good as on previous visits. The dish was greatly improved by some salt and a few drops of hot sauce, but somehow the beans still tasted flat.




Like Cafe Du Monde, Mother's is packed with tourists and locals. It’s also apparently been featured on some travel and food shows, so try to go during off hours.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Australian Spongecake (Normal Pants)


I really love Tuck Shop (1st Street just west of 1st Avenue) for Australian eats. Last night they had this great spongecake. I don't even like spongecake, usually. Shot with a phone camera, but you get the idea.

Laughing Your Troubles Away

Don't miss this hilarious (and, incidentally, extraordinarily apt and keen) British satire on the financial crisis by the Long Johns. It's currently going viral on YouTube, though I've been told they recorded it back in 2007.

Less funny, but also a must-see...

In this video from Bill Moyers Journal, William K. Black, former senior regulator of the crackdown after the Savings and Loan meltdown back in the 1980's, makes the case that the current crisis was caused by bankers and politicians who were - and remain! - in cahoots creating and covering up activity that amounts to a Ponzi scheme ("Bernie was a piker. He doesn't even get into the front ranks of a Ponzi scheme..."). Geithner and Paulson are part of a cabal - sounds like wild-eyed conspiracy theory, but his case and credentials are both persuasive. It's extraordinary; do check it out.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Friday, April 3, 2009

New Orleans Guest Slogging Preview

Starting Monday, my friend Paul Trapani will be guest blogging about his ecstatic recent New Orleans trip. Here's a preview:
(note: this is from Coop's Place)

Mint: Serious Security Flaw?

I was thinking of joining the hordes using Mint, a web-based application ("we download, categorize and graph all of your finances automatically every day, so you know where you’re spending, without spending any effort") to handle their personal finance. But I found this interesting bit of criticism in the comments for Mint's iPhone app (referring not specifically to the iPhone app, but to Mint as a whole):

"Mint states that they don't store your bank password. That is right. They instead give your password to yodley. And what yodley does is encrypt your password with an encryption key and store the encrypted password as well as the key in their database. It is important to note that the key has to be stored somewhere on the system since it will be needed to periodically decrypt your bank password in order to pull fresh data from your bank. Unfortunately, What this means is that a database administrator or anyone with suitable access can first read the key and then use that to decrypt your bank password. You know the rest of the story... Thank you mint... I initially thought that you were using federated identity management to avoid storing my bank passwords in any system. But I was wrong. I am closing my mint account."


I have no idea if it's true, but after spending a decade vetting Internet postings to pick out disgruntled parties, kooks, vandals, and smearers, I'm pretty good at it, and this guy rings true. But while Mint is insanely popular, web searching has turned up no other parties making this claim. And that's really curious.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

midimanche

I'm one of eighteen contributors, from around the world, to midimanche, a blog consisting of photos snapped at noon on Sundays (local time).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Scuba Imbibing

Few people are drawn to Jones Beach in the off-season, and fewer still choose to venture into the icy waters. But such unadventurous folks will never know the experience of ScubaSensei, the Tristate area's first underwater sushi bar.

It takes a bit of doing to enjoy ScubaSensei's plump rolls and pristine sashimi. There's gear to be donned, oxygen tanks to be tested, diving certificates to be earned before you're permitted to sloshingly pad down down the beach and under the waves and be served the world's freshest sushi. Yet, surprisingly, there's often a crowd at ScubaSensei's tiny bar, where owner/sushi master Iyama Posei Don holds court, slicing, rolling, expelling waves of exuberant bubbles, and kibbitzing with his appreciative audience of gently bobbing devotees. In opening ScubaSensei, master Don has united his dual passions of scuba diving and sushi, and, against all odds, his place is a hit.

Naturally, you'll need to forego the niceties of soy sauce, wasabi, and pickled ginger (not to mention tables or chairs). You are handed your fish one piece at a time to gobble forthwith - brine from surrounding seawater providing all seasoning necessary, and pure oxygen sharpening perceptions and enhancing enjoyment.

Sushi doesn't get any fresher than this. Master Don always has a supply of land-bought fish on hand in case swim-by ingredients are scarce. But what a mind-blowing pleasure it is to watch a mackerel grabbed, eviscerated, and expertly cut into toothesome bits before your very eyes! Whereas even the freshest of sushi is served literally outside its element, this direct communion with the pure essence of sea-food makes for truly extraordinary dining (avoid fried items).

Master Don isn't certain whether he'll continue during the busy summer beach season (when it will be considerably harder to elude the attention of park police). But, at least until Memorial Day, head to Field Three, and walk directly seaward from the shuttered snack bar/rest room area. You'll spot floats with the distinctive ScubaSensei logo, and can rent equipment, view menus, wax chopsticks, etc.

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