Saturday, May 30, 2009

Pringles Officially Declared Non-Potato Products

The Economist reports that Procter & Gamble has been fighting in British courts to establish that Pringles contain too little actual potato to be deemed potato chips...and therefore deserve to be taxed at a lower rate.

The company's not going far enough. Why not move to have the product taxed at the super low rate of non-edible goods? Proctor & Gamble, I hereby offer to contribute my expert testimony, pro bono to the court. 

Friday, May 29, 2009

Yahoo Reaches Singularity

I tried to create an email account on Yahoo. After trying jimleff33@yahoo.com, jim_leff23234@yahoo.com, and d7.7tyy@yahoo.com, and finding them all taken, I tried, in a fit of piqued frustration, this: di_di4di53.32323fdsajasdhajkhywe@yahoo.com. And guess what? 

Yup. Taken.

We've used up the universe. It's all gone. Cosmic retraction is imminent.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fred Flintstone's Mezcalera

I just found this shot I took in Oaxaca at my favorite artisanal mezcal factory. It doesn't get much more old school than this...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

iPhone Art Hits the Big Time


You may have heard that this month's New Yorker cover was created in sixty minutes by finger-painting on an iPhone. Curious, I googled artist Jorge Colombo, and found that he's managed to create other works of preternatural beauty using this same technique.

But the really weird - or perhaps actually not so weird - thing is that Colombo's non-iPhone art seems kind of flat and (to my eye) unexpressive.

Here's a gallery including both his (wonderful) iPhone art and his (less inspired) freehand drawings and photos.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Regulation Vacation Celebration!

This YouTube video is hysterical, and skillfully done. I won't spoil it by giving away the joke, but I can assure you it's worth 60 seconds of your life.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Tipping the Thrift/Greed Equilibrium

Many of us mocked George Bush for urging Americans to go out and spend money in the days after 9/11, when our economy seemed about to plunge into depression. But you know what? He was absolutely right. Consumer confidence drives our economy, and anything that thwarts that can bring down the whole thing. That was a confidence low point, and a self-fulfilling fear-driven economic freeze needed to be nipped in the bud.

I've been watching, dismayed, as a meme has appeared and thrived during our current crisis. It goes like this: we Americans over-consumed for the past decade or so, and now we are paying the price for it. In the future, we must tighten our belts and be more thrifty, save money, and reduce our expectations of radically improved standards of living.

You probably had trouble focusing on that last paragraph; it's been said so many times in so many places that it's seeped into mass consciousness and turned into neural programming. There is a grain of truth to it, but it's actually an amalgam of four completely separate dynamics:

1. "Post Hysteria Buyer's Remorse"
The housing bubble happened because people who didn't merit credit were foolishly given it, and the resulting bad debt is now an immense fiscal albatross. People ought to recognize that a deal that seems too good to be true generally is too good to be true! We ought to build into our decision-making a longer-range view recognizing inevitable comeuppances! Uh, yeah. Sure. Good luck with that. History shows that exuberant crowds will never be prudent and long-sighted.

2. "The Greedy Pigs Running the Show"
Corporate greed was the egg that spawned foolish consumer behavior. We can say "greed did us in", yet greed (another inevitable component of human nature) is also what made our country rich. Governmental regulation is supposed to channel greed into productive results. It failed, massively. We oughtn't blame greed. We should blame the regulators.

3. "We'll Soon Pass the Baton"
The impending ascendency of China has profoundly affected the national subconscious (it's not yet quite locked into our central vision). Having had so much at stake for so long in the notion of being "Number One", we fail to recognize that it's not a zero sum game. China can be on top and we can continue to grow, innovate, and generally maintain our trajectory. But as a society we sniff an impending moment of doom, and are pre-crestfallen.

4. "We Miserable Sinners"
America retains a Puritan streak in its DNA. Consumption and comfort evoke shame - a reaction thoroughly covered over in good times, but easily returned to amid reversals like this one. The mantra of penitence is a go-to reaction amid all the bad news of layoffs, declining 401Ks, etc etc. We were greedy and bad, so now we pay the price.


Conclusion: "Free spending" is bad. Unworthy home buyers took credit foolishly offered them, greedy financiers built palaces upon foundations of those turds, our day in the sun as a nation is over, and we've all been bad decadent sinners for way, way too long. And therefore we (who aren't, ourselves, mortgage deadbeats, financiers, China defeatists, or stern puritans) must tighten our belts and be more thrifty...yadda yadda. The mash-up of those four psychological factors has created a pervasively anti-consumerist sentiment. And, alas, that's what freezes economies and makes downturns endure. It's remarkably self-fulfilling.

Economic circumstance will, of course, kill off consumer spending and confidence, no matter what. But this powerful sentiment has overtaken actual circumstance, tugging even those who've not yet felt much economic pain into a psychology of economic pessimism. What's more, this mindset whitewashes its own pessimism by calling itself "thrift". Who can argue with "thrift"? Well, all things are best in moderation, including both thrift and greed. But the pendulum of national sentiment is swinging precipitously toward the former, which will make it devilishly hard to reboot the economy. And the timing couldn't be worse. Check out this Slate article describing the threat posed by America's new spirit of thrift.

President Obama, under pressure to strike a middle tone - neither unrealistically rosy nor buzz-killingly dour - has done nothing to kill this fast-spreading meme. And his cool, measured, well-disciplined manner, which in other realms feels like tonic on our national wounds, exudes thriftiness. Bush's "Go Shop!" exhortations are seeming less and less foolish in retrospect.

Don't get me wrong. I'm neither greedy nor consumerist, myself. I personally wouldn't mind a bit if America became a third world economy, if consumerism ground to a complete halt, if we all gave up our plasma televisions, and colorized back into a non-anesthetized society more in touch with the deeper rhythms of life and where spirituality is practiced less as political battering ram and more as an everyday process of loving one's fellow man. Human beings only really show their best side - their divine side - in the midst of duress (remember how lovely New York City was for a couple weeks after 9/11?).

But I recognize that that's not how most of us want things to go. People are starkly unwilling to suffer the duress required to unlock those floodgates. So if we're going to continue to aspire to being rich and comfortable, the only thing to do is to nurture consumerism rather than stifle it. There'll always be downturns in any case, which will season our stew a bit more to my personal liking. So, what the hell; let's keep the cycle cycling...and save our thrifty impulses for faster times. Now, with our pumps in dire need of priming, is not the moment for that.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"A Clean Sheet of Paper"

Seth Godin just ran a riff, thought-provoking as always, akin to the suggestion I made a few weeks back about logos (basically: you can save much time and expense by giving creative professionals something - however primitive and scrawled - to work from, rather than asking them to create from a standing start). I particularly liked how he expressed this thought:
"The clean sheet of paper is amazing when it works, but involves so much waste, anxiety and pain that I have a hard time recommending it to most people"
There are pitfalls, however, to this tack, many of which were well-articulated in the comments posted beneath my three entries about logo creation. Here are the two major ones:

1. Old musician's saying: "You can't polish a turd".

If there's no meaningful creative germ (charm, inspiration, vibe, etc.) in the fodder you offer as starter material, only frustration will emerge from the effort to clean it up. Poor execution can easily be polished. But slickly executed bad ideas will never excel.


2. Even polishing requires talent

An overly literal polishing of a draft idea will still look poor. You're providing starter material and inspiration to the designer (or composer, writer, etc.), but if they don't run with it, injecting their own creativity as well as their technical skills, the result will appear flat. So you still need someone good. Or, preferably, great. 

All you can hope to shortcut is the tedious (and expensive) process of their sussing out what's in your head and getting up to speed on what you hope to convey. That process inevitably entails whipping up a long succession of perfectly good creative ideas which happen not to fit your personal bill.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Show You My Tweets

I use Twitter for twitchy utterances which are not as fully-formed or well-considered as the sort of material I'd put here in the Slog. But not all of you use Twitter (those who do can follow me here), so I'm dumping, below, some recent Tweets possibly of interest.

These are lightly edited, and some are combined (which explains why some are more than 140 characters). I've also reversed the order so that, unlike on Twitter, you can read from top down rather than from bottom up.

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What the HELL is this?

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Funkiest trombone solo I ever played on a recording.

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Brilliant Larry Wilmore commentary on tonight's Daily Show. It's a meme he'd been playing with, but it's really jelled. Hilarious.

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Drunk last night in Brooklyn, it seemed vitally important to determine whether Alan Greenspan's middle name is "Irving", making him "AIG".

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BTW, Alan Greenspan HAS no middle name. Food for thought, no?.

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Big jerk chicken discovery today.

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I'm a fan of smart grid tech, but it's vulnerable (ala Battlestar Galactica, low tech sometimes means better security!).

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Bartender last night, who looked like he knows about such things, says this is the world's best beef jerky.

Corroboration from "Beef Jerky Life".

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Pepperidge Farm's new granola cookies are gonna be a problem. Not that they're great. But they put crack in em, as w/ their Sausolitos.

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"Hovering, boosterish parents who want to gratify their child's every impulse will churn out more narcissists".

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My porridge recipe (with salacious photo).

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Ate three meticulously crafted cookies from Galaxy Cookies in Westport. Body feels happy, brain feels bleary.

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Found "cancer neck crepes" on the menu of a restaurant in a Russian steambath in Sheepshead Bay.

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Eating beef jerky from Mingua Bros in KY, supposedly America's best. It's damned good...but still beef jerky.

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I follow the same recipe, but every day there's more porridge. Is the non-porridge world shrinking?.

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Whenever I like a car model, I subsequently learn it's considered a "chick" car. Guess I have TAA (transgendered automotive aesthetic).

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Dog Schwarz Smoked Double Lager is one of the best American beers I've had in a long time. Certainly Flying Dog's best-ever work.

BTW not much Steadman art on the label. With Flying Dog, less art seems to mean better beer.

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Some hilarious moments and interesting insights in this Adriane Quinlan piece. about a week w/out tech.

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Great article on Doubles (a Trinidadian street food) in NYC.

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"The market raises all boats...if you own a boat!" -- Stephen Colbert.

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I am sad. Just finished last box of Jordan's Sweet Crunch, my favorite British cereal, which I'd smuggled back from Hungary. Must move on...

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Signing up for Trader Joe's e-newsletter.

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Radical oatmeal: Filled rice cooker w/steel-cut oats, dried hibiscus and blueberries, maple syrup, banana and milk before bed. Will eat soon and report.

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My extraordinarily trippy experience at the Dreamaway Lodge some years ago...

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Oatmeal was great, btw. Hibiscus didn't add much, though. Should have mentioned I used Penzeys' Vietnamese cinnamon.

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Major culture week. Chinese tomb art on Friday, and convenience store expo on Thursday.

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What a strange photo of Obama and Medvedev, who look like they're ready to kill each other.

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Went to enormo Hunter College MFA exhibit. Found one budding great painter, totally beneath radar.

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Sadly, did not do so well at the convenience store expo. Two food samples were spit into napkins...an event record for me.

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Weirdly, a taco truck's in the courtyard of the Brooklyn bar we were hanging at after the art show. Not sure ever mentioned on Chowhound.

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GM, looking to propel itself back into relevancy, turns to the Segway.

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Patsy's Pizza (the original, in Harlem) is 90% of the way back to form. Jose's retired, but new replacement has the knack.

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9/11 conspiracy theorists are loonies. Yet seven CIA vets (including the highly respected Robert Baer) are unsure. But here Baer kinda/sorta/not-really recants.

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I've finally settled on an epitaph: "He kept all options open".

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Fascinating/depressing new angle on these African "pirates" and what their true motivations may be. The really big story's the duh non-optimal combo of both fishing and dumping nuclear waste in Somali waters. Is Euro seafood contaminated?.

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Hate smalltalk? Attend a Quiet Party.

Hmm, but doesn't that set-up just further boost the premium of good looks? Just what the world needs: more emphasis on the superficial...

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Latest logo draft .for FretBone...still primitive (a pro can clean it up). Thoughts?

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If you shorten URLs w/Bit.ly, then later you can add a + to your URL to see how many people clicked! Example: http://bit.ly/JTkk+.

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I kind of wish there could be a moratorium on using the phrase "death spiral" in reference to the economy.

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Saw Sunshine Cleaning. What a manipulative mess. Like a salad made from parts of other Indie films. Seeing Tokyo Sonata soon at the Quad.

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I found godly chole bhature in Queens.

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My awesome must-eat Chinatown find.

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Saw Monsters v Aliens IMAX today. Per A.O.Scott: "a highly competent, smartly engineered delivery system for the very clich├ęs it pretends to subvert."

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Kashi's got a new entry in its monumental "Autumn Wheat" line: Island Vanilla. I'm thinking triple mix-ins with AW and Cinnamon Harvest.

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I swear to god I didn't set up this shot at all.

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For 1st time, I was just charged sales tax on an Amazon order. Looked around online for explanation, and found only this.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Project Cashew

by guest slogger, sculptor Dimitri Gerakaris

While wending our way up the torturous but tropically gorgeous east coast of St Lucia, our driver slowed down for a moment to point out a local man alongside the road. Over a bed of coals, as if panning for gold, the fellow was frantically swirling a large wok-type pan which spit a mass of flames over two feet high. "He's roastin' cashews," the driver exclaimed. I eagerly asked whether we could buy some, but, unfortunately, it was still too early in the season.

After a couple of weeks had passed, I asked another driver whether cashews had appeared in the market, and he responded that it was still too early, but a moment later he suddenly stopped his vehicle right in the middle of the road under a large tree and climbed up the hood to the car's roof to pull something off a pendulous overhanging branch. He handed me what looked like a small "Sheepsnose" apple with a little ornament attached, and explained that the cashew is unusual in that the seed (i.e. cashew nut) grows on top of the fruit and not inside it.


Each fruit grows but one nut. You pull it off, let it sit under the hot sun to pull its oils to the surface, and then patiently roast it on all sides until the oils begin to smoke and then flame. Then you keep working it around until the entire surface is black, and crack it open to produce one single roasted cashew. No wonder cashews are expensive!

I couldn't resist. Armed with my cashew, I followed the prescribed method and shared the final product with my wife. The taste was heavenly, though I'd failed to let the shell cool enough, making mincemeat of our one warm cashew as I cracked it open (I also gained new respect for those cans full of Planters cashews!).

I showed the photos of my cashew roasting sequence to a guide at a traditional Lucian farm which produces cashews, pineapples, mangos, guavas, vanilla, cocoa, six varieties of bay leaves (including one that's lemon-like), tumeric, almonds, coconuts etc. She laughed, convulsing so hard she could barely draw breath to call her colleagues to come have a look at how this crazyman had roasted one solitary cashew. Hey, you've got to start somewhere!


Here are some photos:

St. Lucia: Land of cashews and much, much more.


After sitting in the strong Caribbean sun, which brings
volatile oils to the surface, the nut's transfered to a pan for roasting.


The magic moment when nut oils ignite (don't try this at home!).
The shell must be blackened evenly all around.


Next time I'll let the shell cool so the nut doesn't break!


Shawna at the farm of B.J. and Mother Anthony. We're standing under a "Julie" mango tree.
Of the 150+ kinds of mangos grown in the Caribbean, this is just about everybody's favorite.
It's a smallish, yellow fruit with an intense flavor and luscious texture.
We haven't sampled all 150 yet, but the Julie is our hands-down favorite.


Checking out Mother Anthony's fish cakes with breadfruit and crab balls...yum!
I will eat anything she prepares! If you're down there, you can take a guided tour of her farm.

Photos by Dimitri and Mary Gerakaris and Bill Borton

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 11

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


Throughout my visit to CNET headquarters, Clay kept painting a picture of how CNET was going to make me a star. All the mighty resources of the corporation would be put behind the pumping of my "personal brand" in addition to the Chowhound brand.

This is apparently a line that works well with egotistical founders: not only will you not be squeezed out of control of your baby, you will be supercharged; made so much more; your massive awesomeness swollen to a girth you could scarcely imagine!

Maybe it's because I was in my 40's, and had some life experience. Or maybe it was because I've always been more driven by job-well-done satisfaction than by ego gratification. Or maybe it's because Clay's greasy stroking was so laughably transparent to me. But whatever the reason, I listened placidly, clearly recognizing every word to be complete bullshit. That's not how acquisition works, not how it should work, and certainly not how this one would work. This process would involve weaning me, and I was more than ready to be weaned.

My weaning would be gradual, however. CNET's model seemed to be for founders to hang around for a while after acquisition. (One exception: TV.com founder John Nestoriak, who'd been quickly disappeared without a trace. Hours of ardent Googling couldn't uncover his whereabouts, and my request to speak with him was refused. Instead, I was told how gravely CNET regretted the fiasco that had ensued when his online community was overhauled suddenly and insensitively, alienating loyal regulars. It was patiently explained to me all that had been learned in the process, which I was assured would never be repeated.)

At minimum, I'd be expected to work for the company for one year. No sweat; after all, it would be a relief to have lots of smart people and rich resources to draw from, rather than struggling to devise cheap, out-of-box solutions to deflect every obstacle. A year seemed easy, and two or three possible. But I had no illusions about continuing to call the shots, much less having my personal awesomeness pumped skyward.

When he wasn't flattering me or flatly lying to me, Clay would offer up his weighty thoughts on food and food media. My cuticles grew bloody as I dug thumbnails through flesh, trying to stave off winces and giggles. Acquisition would be a painful process, and painful processes inevitably involve tedious small talk with one's captors. Wherever wisdom teeth are pulled or fender damage is assessed, the lords of those processes - their sensibilities evolved in an ecosystem free of natural adversaries - can be counted upon to freely spew on current events, politics, or, in my case, food. Stuck, helpless, in Clay's office, without benefit of anesthetic, I nodded amiably while he shared his incoherent ideas.

But Clay's role was dealmaker, so it was only a matter of time before we finally began discussing an actual deal. A couple of hours before my plane was to take off, we sat down and he made an offer. Suddenly, Clay turned competent. It was clear to me that he was the one advocating for Chowhound within CNET, so I knew to deem him my ally in negotiation rather than an adversary. I understood that he'd make the best offer he felt he could. And he mentioned a number, and explained how he'd arrived at that number. He did this very clearly and very skillfully. This is what Clay is damned good at.

As I left the building, darting down steps to make my flight, I had a lot to think about. I needed to press Washington Post for an answer. I needed to gently let down the mogul who'd offered to quit his day job and come work for Chowhound. And I needed to call Bob. But, most of all, I needed to edit four newsletters and thwart the latest in a very long series of attacks by "Julie", a psychopathic vandal who'd worked full time over the previous decade scheming to subvert Chowhound discussion via thousands of aliases using dozens of ISPs. It definitely buoyed my spirits to know I'd soon be paying off all my debts and moving into nicer digs than my Queens hovel, but nothing's ever for sure, much hard work lay ahead, and there was scant time for rumination about the future. I hardly looked up from my laptop as the taxi brought me to the airport, as I waited at the gate, and during my six hour flight back home.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fake Fake Music

I think we've just reached a turning point.

RockBand is a popular video game played by holding fake instruments and striking buttons. It's the latest sensation from the people who brought us the smash hit Guitar Hero. Games like this offer the ultimate in posing: people with no talent or training get a taste of the rush experienced by those who've actually worked to accomplish something musically. All the glamor with none of the tedious, nerdy work!

But, actually, it does take work to master a video game about fake music. Indeed, people everywhere are spending long hours on this and on Guitar Hero. Which naturally makes me wonder why they don't simply invest that same time and effort into learning to play real music!

Well, here's a mind-bender. Several days ago a competition was held for Rockband players at Harrah's, where the winning fake band won $10,000 and the opportunity to open for the B-52s (plus an all expenses paid trip to London, MTV interviews, etc.). And a friend of a friend of mine was in the winning fake band, playing fake guitar. But get this: the guy's a very talented real guitarist. And he just achieved more from a night of fake guitar playing than he ever could with a real gig.

It's a turning point, because I've long had a creepy feeling that our world was in danger of turning into World World...and this makes me think the transformation might now be complete.

But, then again, look at me. If I were still a real journalist, writing for real publications, I'd pitch the story to an editor, interview the musician, and produce a polished, fact-checked feature article. But as a real writer posing as a blogger, I've simply delivered the snarky gist without doing any of that tedious, nerdy legwork.

Will the last authentic person to leave World World please turn out the lights?

Friday, May 8, 2009

Joshua Allen Harris' Street Art Video

Don't miss this YouTube video of street art by Joshua Allen Harris:



Also this one:


Per usual, copycats will imitate his specific idea ("Trash bags! That's the answer: trash bags!!"), rather than be inspired to find the zillion other creative ways to do surprising and engaging art.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Gerrymandering Backlash

Nice bit of political analysis in this CNN.com report on the decline of moderate and liberal Republicans:
Increasingly precise gerrymandering to create safer districts for incumbents has taken a bad situation for moderate Republicans and made it worse. Safe Republican districts are conservative districts, and conservative districts don't nominate moderates.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Singularity, Shmingularity

Ray Kurzweil is the latest in a long line of very smart people who've staked their vaunted reputations on the proselytization of a very dumb idea. In his case, it's the notion of Singularity, which says that we will soon reach a point of technological sophistication where we'll be able to port our thoughts, memories, and consciousness to machines, and live (wince) forever.

While it may one day be possible to port memories and other brain-stored information (for an extra $200, they'll purge specific data points - ex-girlfriends, bad meals, Dick Cheney interviews), that stuff's flotsam, not consciousness. We are not the sum of our memories and our fleeting thoughts and urges. If you pile those things in a heap, the sum is not who you are. Nor is it alive or self-aware.

Keep up a meditation practice for a few years (a good one, like this one) and you'll discover that consciousness is beyond those things; it's an unchanging intelligent presence.

A stockpile of one's mental belongings will be just as inertly useless to Kurzweil's fabled transition as those buried personal belongings were to the dead Pharaohs.

Flogging SIGA Once More

You may have missed the chance for a nearly sure-fire quintupling when I recommended SIGA at $2.92 , for a tripling when I wrote about it at $4.92, and for a better-than-doubling when I mentioned it again here at $6.28. This morning the stock price touched $7, on news that Ron Perelman had executed options to buy millions more shares (he already owned something like 15% of the company...and he's no fool). But there's still time to get in on doubling.

As I explained here, SIGA's smallpox drug, ST-246, is the only viable candidate for a mega lucrative BARDA contract to be awarded this fall, which will make this, easily, a $15/share company (possibly $20). BARDA would just hand the money to SIGA right now, but being a government agency, protocol must be followed. BARDA has already signalled its expectation of buying this drug in June 2008; see page 2 of this PDF file, listing ST-246 as a done-deal part of their toolkit. Another governmental agency, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, has signalled similar intentions with this slide (though it's not on DTRA's own site, so I can't be sure it wasn't faked).

Beyond this one single contract will almost certainly be other contracts with other agencies and with other governments (India, Israel, and France come to mind). Plus there's SIGA's breath-taking pipeline of antivirals (outlined in the links above). But those things are speculative. What seems nearly for sure is $15.

I'm not trying to "sell" this stock. I don't need to. Any blippy boost from new investors would be strictly marginal in the long term. I'm trying to reward Slog readers with an astounding opportunity during tough economic times.


Note: this entry has been updated with a new link to and clarification about the image files tipping BARDA's hat to SIGA.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Great TV Review Site

If, like me, you're a fan of the TV series Breaking Bad, consider following the "What's Alan Watching?" blog, where Star Ledger television critic Alan Sepinwall posts insightful reviews of each episode. The commenters are great, too. I surf through after viewing an episode to read interesting thoughts and observations about elements and nuances I might otherwise have missed.

"What's Alan Watching?" also covers 30 Rock, Battlestar Galactica, Freaks and Geeks, Lost, Mad Men, The Office, The Wire, and lots more....including "Party Down", an exquisitely funny and well-acted show on Starz which is my latest obsession (view the first episode here ...click to "full episodes" and choose #101).

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