Monday, December 28, 2009

Incredible Tangerines at Whole Foods

Whole Foods is presently selling tangerines with stems and leaves attached, and they're by far the best I've ever tasted. Worth a special trip to pick some up.

[Mrmainstreet, yes, it's me]

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Avatar

I caught Avatar, in 3-D IMAX (on a large screen IMAX, not one of the puny mini-IMAXes), and don't have much new to say. I agree with the hordes who were delighted and inspired by the visuals and repelled and disgusted by the formulaic story and dialog. Leonard Maltin did a good job of describing the extreme ambivalence.

The simple, formulaic story is easily explained. As with Star Wars, Cameron's model in this enterprise - he wanted to tell an archetypal tale, and archetypes are nothing if not predictable. But it's hard to understand how a labor-of-love project,
twelve years in the gestation, could be so rankly amateurish in its dialog, which sounded like it never got out of first draft.

But there's an aspect critics have missed. The first half of the film was actually admirable in its writing. It managed to deliver copious back story with streamlined economy. We were up to speed and out into Pandora's jungle in a jiffy, without feeling rushed. And there was even subtle understatement in how some key story points were delivered in the early moments. I agree with this comment from
Alan Sepinwall's blog (don't worry, it's not a spoiler) about the scene where wheelchair-bound Skully first operates his avatar:
"I was actually surprised that Cameron had enough restraint to not throw in clunky "I can't believe I'm walking!" dialogue; but merely contrasting the chair-bound existence with the athleticism of the avatar is enough to emphasize the new physical freedom Skully feels. Watching him squish Pandoran dirt through his toes tells the whole story."
So Avatar isn't just two films, in terms of visuals versus writing. It's also two films in terms of its first half versus its second half. Many critics have suggested that a script doctor was crucially needed on this project. I obviously don't know the back story, but, to my eye, parts were indeed doctored and polished. Alas, not the entirety.

Still a must-see, however!

Great Granola and Iffy Nutrition

I tried some BOLA Granola. It's almondy/addictive, and achieves the deft balance of salty/sweet shown by the best brands in my recent granola tasting. Roasting's dead-on perfect, too. Great stuff. It also runs 280 calories per serving (lots of almonds, lots of brown sugar), with a serving size defined as half a cup. My 3 oz sample package - the size of a sleek, tiny Razr phone - somehow constituted 1.5 servings!

Udi's Hawaiian Granola, one of the favorites from the tasting, states a serving size of half even
that: a ludicrous 1/4-cup (a deep whiff would ingest the better part of that via nasal osmosis). This allows them to declare a prim 120 calories per serving.

Finally, a nutritional mystery: How is it possible that a single, small, unadorned
Dunkin Donuts poppyseed bagel has 370 calories? And one third your RDA of sodium? And a huge 15 grams of protein?

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Account Cancellation: Score!

A while back, I wrote about the hell corporations put you through when you try to close accounts with them:
One doesn't simply cancel a wireless account. You must call a special phone number and speak to specialist personnel chosen for their psychopathic inability to register expressions of rejection. You will be asked to explain and defend your foolish decision. You will be offered things. You will be cajoled and niggled. After many minutes of spiel, deal, and distraction, your request will eventually be granted, but only after you've uttered the word "no" more times than JD Salinger's publicist.
I've tried telling them I was headed to prison for arson. I've tried telling them I had Lou Gehrigs disease. Nothing could prevent me from being run through the full epic script, cajoled with carrots and whacked with sharp sticks.

But today I may have found the answer; a gambit that had my credit card account shut down, neat and tidy, within thirty seconds. Granted, it's easier to close credit cards than mobile accounts, but I think I may have a winner here:
"I'm moving to Zimbabwe and joining the Peace Corp".
As a bonus, the rep admired my life decision so much that she voluntarily reversed the $60 annual fee which I'd been late in addressing and which I might otherwise have been stuck with. She felt good, I felt good....win-win!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Great Soba Noodles

These organic soba noodles are absolutely dynamite. They're a bit pricy, but you get eight packages, containing three servings each. And, trust me, you'll go through them rapidly.

You boil the noodles for only three minutes, then add to any juicy stir fry (boil four minutes if you're serving them right out of the pot). So delicious, it really tastes like a special occasion. And soba's made from buckwheat, a high protein, high fiber,
low-glycemic carb. Three minutes...delicious...healthy. You really can't beat it!

Here's one method: sauté chopped onion in a saucepan until soft, then add equal parts apple cider, olive oil, and water, plus, mixed in and liquified, a half teaspoon of miso paste (I like the lighter varieties from
South River Miso). Also a dash of tamari or Filipino preserved lemon soy sauce. Add some chopped broccolini, carrots, and leeks (sugarsnap peas are good, too), and cook, covered, on medium low heat for 5 minutes. Add raw slices of wild salmon and cook till done. Then stir in the noodles and a bit of their cooking water. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My DVD Collection

Here's the latest catalog of my DVD collection.

Slog Links:
My alternative to Netflix
Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of
$29 Swiss Army Knife DVD Player

External Links:
MovieLens - extraordinarily accurate predictions of how you'll enjoy a given movie (once you train it)
The Movie Review Query Engine - lists reviews for all movies, including older classics (e.g. the original 1941 NY Times review of Citizen Kane)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Matzoh Brei

My recipe for Matzoh Brei.

Busyness Postscript

Speaking of overextension (see the entry beneath this one), the following anecdote offers a glimpse into an entirely different level of crazy saturation.

I'd long been friendly with one of Manhattan's top corporate lawyers, who I'd bump into at food and wine events. He was a kindred spirit, with an earnest, chowhoundish appreciation for good stuff. We'd talk about getting together someday for a bite, but it had never happened.

One day, Chowhound needed legal help for something, and I contacted him. He told me he was too busy to take on the task, but could hand it to an associate, and perhaps we could get together to discuss this, killing two birds with one meatloaf, over dinner somewhere. I agreed, and he told me he'd pass me to his scheduling secretary. Just before leaving the line, he muttered something like "good luck". I wasn't sure if he was still talking to me, or if I'd just caught the beginning of his next conversation.

A sympathetic-sounding woman got on the line. It was mid-November. She told me that the next open dinner slot was on February 5th. I replied "No, no....I'm actually a friend, and this is just mostly about getting together for a bite." Her reply: "If you weren't a friend, the wait would actually be a lot longer."

That is "busy"!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Short Guide to Overextension

Here's a golden oldie; something I wrote during nine years of hundred hour work weeks slogging away on Chowhound (as described in my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" saga).

I'm more overextended than junior high cafeteria meatloaf. I'm not sure how it happened, but I've become the circus performer spinning 75 plates on sticks; the only thing missing is the band frantically playing Sabre Dance. I believe George Jetson said it best: "Jane, stop this crazy thing!"

But I'm not complaining (that's a no-no....see #8, below). I'm explaining that I'm an expert in being busy, overwhelmed, inundated, overextended, burnt, etc. Eskimos have myriad terms for snow, but we modern urbanites have endless descriptors for the state of being worn out. I'd like to share what I've learned about remaining relatively sane in spite of mega-harriedness.

First, a test. Nearly everyone considers themselves busy to the point of overwhelmed, but few truly are at that point. The following is a test question to see how close you are.

You're in the midst of a horrendously busy day, driving to complete an errand. As you go around a curve, you see that the road far ahead has been closed and a solid mile of immobile vehicles is hopelessly backed up. There's no chance of escaping a delay of an hour or two (and: you have no cell phone).

In this situation, your response is to:
A. Fret, curse, sweat, and squirm, or...
B. Recline back your seat, smile a beatific smile, and feel a profound sense of joyful well-being wash over you

Most people would answer A. Such people have not yet reached the breaking point. For the truly under-the-gun, traffic jams and post office customer lines are Cancun. If you've been there (the breaking point, not Mexico), you understand.

The following are ten survival tricks for the massively inundated...and preventative measures for everyone else. I'm no exemplar: I don't follow them all religiously myself. But I'm of the very firm opinion that the best people to seek out for weight loss advice are the chronically overweight.

1. Don't Keep Reinventing Wheels
It's easy to get so caught up in the flow of tasks that you never take time to evaluate the big picture and rig up short-cuts for recurring issues. Devise templated email responses. Create macros to automate oft-repeated computer activities. Write up thoughtful manuals for subordinates (to avert Delegation Fallacy Syndrome, where the people helping you manage tasks become, themselves, tasks to manage). Time so invested is wisely spent.

2. Change Venue
Don't get "stuck". Bring your laptop to a cafe. Take your cellphone to a park. Edit writing on a subway (this one works
really well for some reason). Just move around. Diners make swell offices.

3. Prioritize Fun
Day after day, the tasks at hand may fill all gaps like liquid cement. Before you know it, you've become a lifeless zombie (witness the average CEO). The trick is to make fun a high-priority task. A movie isn't just something you squeeze into your down time when you
have no down time. You must aggressively clear your schedule to catch a movie or show, take a drive or a walk, hang out in a sake bar...if for no other reason than to heighten your ability to get more done (at much higher quality) after the refresher.

4. Return Emails ASAP
It's essential to prevent the accumulation of various Scary Mountains. Email's one of the worst. If you receive a few dozen emails per day and defer answering half of them, you'll face a queue of a hundred to-replies within a week. Answer as they arrive to stay on top of the flow. Learn the fine art of being terse without projecting brusqueness.

5. Stay Up Late
It's obviously impossible for those who work 9-5, but freelancers and self-employed should consider that late nights are quiet and devoid of real-life distractions, email and phone calls. If you can stave off fatigue, you'll find that you can get far more done at 3 am (and in a more relaxed frame of mind) than at 3pm while life is blasting at you.

6. Buy Time
Don't blindly follow patterns of thriftiness when time's a greater factor than money. Everything's relative, of course. A CEO might rent a helicopter to fly to a friend's wedding rather than lose a few hours of productivity while driving. The rest of us, who'd normally circle rather than pay for a parking garage, might consider whether, in certain instances, delay and stress cost more, in the end, than the twenty bucks.

7. Exercise
The busier you are, the more necessary daily workouts become. Neutralize stress. Increase your body's ability to sit in an office chair or withstand whatever other repetitive punishment you throw at it. Lose weight which can strain movement and pride (physical and mental stress!). Plus there's the reinvigoration tactic of evacuating to the gym whenever you're too glazed and dopey/useless to work effectively. This beats napping (both are addictive, and I always try to choose the positive addiction).

8. Don't Ever Complain
Everyone
thinks they're overwhelmed. Merely busy people don't understand how deeply overwhelmed it's possible to get, and tend to grow angry and competitive at the suggestion anyone can be busier than they are - even if they watch the national average of four hours of TV per day and spend their weekends bedding-and-breakfasting. This pride-in-overwork meme stems from some weird twisted puritanism I don't fully understand. In any case, complaining always backfires, so suck it up.

Corollary: Don't use inundation as an excuse - for being late, turning down invitations, etc. It won't wash. You think you're so busy? Hey, everyone is busy! I'm busy! So...what's your real excuse?? Worse, the phrase "I'm busy" has evolved into a widely-acknowledged expression of brushing-off. If that's not what you intend, then find some other excuse.

9. Don't Stop Getting Into New Things And Meeting New People
"I don't need new hobbies, I don't need new friends." This is a trap busy people get into. Such people slowly ossify. If you lose your curiosity - if you allow yourself to crystallize and block off all possible tangents - you lose the value of life. And nothing's worth that.

10. Be a Chowhound
A wonderful bite on the way to a meeting or errand makes all the difference in the world.

A Rare Window Into Tiger's Soul

You cannot escape Tiger Woods and his sex life. Not even here. Sorry.

Untitillated by the sordid revelations, I'd been avoiding the uproar, but randomly ran into a photo which stopped me in my tracks. This sex scandal stuff seemed so discordant with Tiger Woods' affable, bland, nerdy image. But some uncredited photographer managed to pierce through it and capture the guy's withered soul. A Dorian Gray catch-up moment.

Prepare to have the life force sucked straight out of you (you've been warned)...and click here.

Don't stare at the eyes too long.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Don't Opt Out...Just "Correct"

I'm not sure if this tip is completely obvious (i.e. coming from my moron side) or ingenious (i.e. coming from my resourceful side). But here goes.

I made the mistake of ordering something from luggage.com (fwiw, this Eagle Creek suitcase). I've since gotten several pieces of junk email from them. I went to their site to dutifully opt out, and they offered a sensible page for doing so (it would have been nice if I'd been offered this option at check-out, though).

But I found no way to opt out my snail mail address or phone number. And their privacy policy stated:
"We collect your contact information, including, but not limited to, addresses, email addresses, phone numbers, and financial information. Collected information is used for the benefit of Luggage.com to send information to customers about orders, about our company, to send promotional material from some of our partners and in some cases may be shared with our partners."
So I "updated" my address, my email address, and my phone number (to the personal information for Herman Munster - yep, 1313 Mockingbird Lane). And I think I'll do likewise in lieu of opting out in other sites, as soon as my order's gone through, since my guess is that updates are paid much swifter attention than opt outs.

Or, better yet, I'll be even more hesitant about being lured away from my cozy relationship with Amazon...and my much-loved Amazon Prime account.

UPDATE: it's more work, but more green to change your info and then also opt out. If your opt out request is ignored, great, you won't see the resultant junk mail. But if your request is respected, that will mean a lot less paper and transportation waste!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

SIGA Update

Ugh, there will be yet another delay on the long path to wild success for SIGA Technologies.

We've been waiting for announcement of a huge (possibly $500M to $1B) contract with the government to stockpile SIGA's smallpox drug. Its been due any day. But Friday, Health and Human Services posted an amendment to the deal, which will delay the award, probably for months (see below for further explanation). The stock plunged to the fives, from a high of ten a few days ago, as a result.

Nothing fundamental has changed; the company's future is just as assured. It will just take a few more months to get there. The contract will eventually be awarded, FDA approval is still likely for mid-year, and negotiations continue with Europe, Israel, India, Canada, and anyone else with an interest in defending against weaponized smallpox (i.e. everybody). Plus, there's reason to believe that progress has been made with SIGA's pipeline (which I've written about
previously), but the company may have been waiting for the contract announcement to speak about that.

SIGA also issued a shelf offering worth $20M the day before the government announced the contract delay, presumably to ensure they have capital to continue their work in the interim. The result is, unfortunately, dilution for stockholders, but nothing egregious. And, as a final piece of bad - but not critically bad - news, it appears that the contract will be split between SIGA and a competing company, whose drug isn't as safe (it has a nasty tendency to kill monkeys in safety trials). The government is prudent in stockpiling both, however. In the event of a smallpox attack, it's smart to have more than one agent on hand, in case of unforeseen problems.

SIGA will be updating their situation via a
conference call Monday at 8:30 am, eastern. If you've bought this stock, my suggestion is to hold it and forget it. We pee-ons have had a remarkable opportunity to get in early and cheaply, and the trade-off is the necessity of parking that money in a fraught waiting game. You even may want to consider parking a little extra, especially if the stock price falls any further. Again, the science, the product, and the prospects remain unaffected by last weeks news and market tumult.

Here's what happened, in more detail. Kathleen Sebelius, HHHS Secretary, has decided to reconsider all terrorism countermeasure contract proposals (as reported in
Washington Post). They cancelled the sketchy ones, and amended the good ones. That's what happened here. This was likely a political move, and is awfully risky re: the country's security. It's also likely to discourage upstart pharmas from going into this sector in the future.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Great Mother-Gibleting Technology

For some unfathomable reason, my iPhone auto-corrects the word "fucker" to "giblets".


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Protecting Your Email Address from Spambots

It hasn't worked since about 1994 or so, but people still think they're being extra prudent by cloaking their email addresses like this to try to foil the spambots:
Contact me at: jim leff ny ...AT!....gmail (dotcom)
There are geekier methods that can be employed, but most yield similarly weak and annoying results.

Here's the best solution I've seen lately: hide it in a PDF file.

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