Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Precedent of Muffin Refusal

I think psychologists underestimate the degree to which earlier actions can affect subsequent behavior.

When I was 24 and writing restaurant reviews for NY Press, I was poor. I hadn't made it as a writer (lots of people were reading me, but the paper was paying less than $100 per article), and my music career, never a huge moneymaker, was in a stagnant phase. Late one night, I was with my girlfriend, who worked as a waitress in a tiny cafe I'd reviewed some months earlier (before she worked there). She was closing up the place, and we were the only people there. I was quite hungry, but had no money, and neither did she (it had been a slow night and her rent was due the next day). She offered me a muffin, and pleaded with me to eat it. No one, after all, would ever know.

I have to say: I really wanted that muffin. I wanted it out of all proportion. I wanted it nearly as much as I've ever wanted anything. But it defied my reviewer ethics to accept favors from restaurants, period. So I refused the muffin and went to bed hungry.

Since then, whenever life has presented the opportunity to bend my values to gain an advantage or to somehow smooth my way, I recall the muffin. And I realize that if I were to bend in the slightest, it would make a mockery of 24 year-old me, who chose to take a stand even on such a trivial, easily-rationalized issue. He doesn't deserve that!

While I can't claim to have lived 100% ethically (or 100% anything) since then, I've at least tried to the best of my imperfect ability. Not because I'm so extremely ethical, though. It's simply because I was extremely ethical once, and the psychic pain endured (if you've ever gone to bed hungry, you understand) would have been for naught if I were ever to cross that line. I can't bring myself to say "Stupid kid, shoulda just eaten the goddam muffin!" I honor his action, and so I'm held hostage to his precedent.

The interesting thing is that, from my perspective as an old dude looking back, I realize that if all my principled stands had been ditched in favor of easy gain, I wouldn't have gained all that much. Some things may have worked out more my way, but the benefits (e.g. being known to be good for my word, a handy perq) have outweighed the lost opportunities.

The crux of any hard-won bit of wisdom inevitably boils down to some sappy cliche or other. But it's true: crime doesn't pay. Not crime in terms of disobedience, but in terms of defying one's conscience. It's not the winning move in the long run. I've never met anyone who's consistently lived with integrity and who regrets it.

It's never too late to set oneself a precedent, either.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 17

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order


You may want to reread forward from installment #13 to refresh your memory after the long gap.

A couple of installments ago, I recalled that:
"A rage management problem, combined with a healthy streak of paranoia, had appeared in Clay (not his real name), our business development guy at CNET, as he became increasingly convinced, in spite of much evidence that I'm no business sharpie (I hadn't, for one thing, tried to get him to raise his offer) that we were using CNET's offer as a bargaining chip to get a better deal elsewhere. "If you're shopping our offer around, I need to tell you right now that this offer is off the table!!!" he screamed into the telephone one afternoon. I understood this was just twitchy dealmanship - just doing his job, albeit in a brutally ungraceful way - and that the people I'd actually be working with at CNET, guys like Martin Green, were far more temperate and low-key. But coming to the end of this long, long, saga, "off the table" was not a phrase I received calmly."
It wasn't the only time threats were made as this process played on. I recalled bad romantic relationships I'd had where wails of "That's it: we're
finished!" inevitably followed each quarrel, no matter how trivial. And most of our disagreements seemed to exist entirely in Clay's mind. He'd hear threatening tones where none existed, and would find ways to take umbrage at the most neutral, friendly language (and I was predisposed to feeling as friendly as any human being could possibly feel, seeing as how this was the guy who'd push through our deal!).

At first I figured it was a negotiation tactic; that Clay was functioning as both good and bad cop. But soon it became clear that the guy was unhinged; ranging, in a single breath, from honeyed corp-speak to fiery eruptions to haughty spite. I began to handle him like nitroglycerin. But on those occasions when circumstance compelled me to gingerly, politely take well-reasoned issue on some point or other, he'd launch into full-on harangues, his fury seldom organizing into coherence. It was spectacular.

He raged at me, he raged at my lawyer, and he raged at his coworkers (I sat in his office as he growled into the phone to a flunky about how she
really wouldn't want to see him get angry). When he wasn't raging, he was pontificating about food and food communities - topics he knew nothing about. And I was expected to enthusiastically concur with his dull-witted ideas.

In spite of the tantrums, Clay considered himself the epitome of professional decorum - and as a sensitive, caring good guy, to boot. So as I began to treat him much more carefully, he sensed the distance and would "reach out to me". Clay, alas, needed me to be his friend. He was excited about working this deal with the famous Alpha Hound! And, given that he was the force behind CNET's interest in our acquisition ("I'm buyin' you" was how he characterized it), he was definitely not someone to splash cold water on. And so I found myself in the torturous position of needing to keep my good buddy Clay feeling like a Chowhound family insider while submitting myself to abuse from Clay the deranged thug....all while praying that Clay the petulant nightmare girlfriend wouldn't fly off the handle and break off our engagement.

Fear and exhaustion can lend a certain clarity, and I remained firmly locked onto the goal: to get through this period, close the deal, and wave bye-bye to Clay, who'd move on to finding some fresh meat to acquire and torment. I would then take a two week vacation and return to collaborate with the reasonable, smart folks who actually ran things at CNET. I simply needed to persevere for a few weeks until December 15 without setting him off. Unfortunately, just about anything could set Clay off.
Read the next installment (#18)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cringeworthy Displays of Status

Everyone has a different idea of what represents "status". And when flaunting opportunities arise, people most often reveal not their awesomeness, but their deep-seated smallness and dysfunction.

I once dined with a well-known food-writer who I'll call Arnold. We enjoyed a pleasant meal, and, once the check was paid and it was time to go, Arnold headed directly for the door. I yelled after him to wait, because he'd forgotten the profusion of plastic shopping bags he'd left under the table. His boyfriend leaned toward me, and, in a stage whisper, explained that "Arnold doesn't shlep!" He and I hastily gathered the bags and carried them out of the restaurant while Arnold strode majestically ahead, unencumbered.

This was what Arnold deemed having "made it": not having to carry bags. It's a fantasy that could be harbored only by someone with sensibilities firmly anchored in the nineteenth century Eastern European ghettos of his forebears. Which is to say that it marks him, unmistakably, as an absolute peasant, even while he feels most aristocratic.

Another example. I once played a jazz gig with a cocky trumpeter who dressed in shiny suits and posed photogenically while he blew. When his solos ended, he'd stride off the bandstand and hand his horn, without eye contact, to his obediently waiting girlfriend. Then he'd amble over to the bar to order drinks and chat with friends while the girlfriend stood dutifully in place next to the bandstand until, again sans eye contact, he recovered his trumpet for the next tune. She, by the way, was stunningly gorgeous and highly intelligent.

I realized that this was a display of power*. He was demonstrating to everyone in the room his powerful sexual domination. Of course, what was really being demonstrated was that both he and she were tragic co-dependent train wrecks. But in his mind (as in Arnold's), he was really living the life. This was status!

* - I must admit that I, myself, don't have the power to make a woman do anything like that - not that I would if I could, or that I'd be attracted to any woman capable of such passivity. Although, hmm, wait...I have, in fact, successfully persuaded more than one hungry women to patiently sit starving while I drove aimlessly for hours in search of hyperdeliciousness, determined not to settle for merely adequate food. Hey, anyone can make a girlfriend hold a trumpet, but I am able to tame even hypoglycemia! But, alas, there was never anyone there to witness my gnarly display of manly vigor....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

SIGA Peril Somewhat Relieved

Apologies to the vast majority of you who have no interest in SIGA. I promise not to turn the Slog into an all-SIGA-all-the-time affair, but some readers have invested, and I feel I owe updates, especially at big shift points (note: if you buy just a handful of shares - currently $12/share - then you can play along, and likely see your stake double within a few months!).

BARDA this morning signalled that it's swiftly pursuing alternative avenues to award the smallpox contract. SIGA's price is recovering a bit with that news, but the really bright news for investors is that there is now a clear "next step" in this process. So if the Small Business Administration denies the appeal, SIGA won't be perceived to have lost the contract, and its stock price won't temporarily collapse. And with that peril removed, the odds that Ron Perelman, enticed by firesale prices, will buy controlling interest with intention to take the company private (never a very likely scenario) have shot down dramatically. I'm no longer worried about this.

And my other worry, that Chimerix will stall this process further, is somewhat lower. It seems clear that BARDA is working to find a bulletproof means to award this contract. And the language of their announcement this morning (like the language of the original contract offering) makes it clear that SIGA's the only candidate that's remotely suitable.

On the other hand, BARDA has been conscious of Chimerix's pressure from the get-go (defensively changing and amending the process a zillion times already in what would otherwise have been an extremely straightforward contract process), and yet the stalling and gamesmanship have continued unrelentingly...and may for some time more.

But things are looking up. So I'd recommend holding on. And if an SBA appeal decision causes the price to dip a little, buy more.

[Forgot to note: Pharmathene's stock shot up dramatically yesterday, on reasonable volume, with no discernible reason. That company's fate is tied to SIGA's, so this indicates that when Chimerix was informed by BARDA of the next step in the process, someone there may have illegally passed on the information to Pharmathene and/or its investors. Which is interesting, because Pharmathene and Chimerix appear to have diametrically conflicting interests in all this; their only commonality being a desire to try, in one way or another, to screw with SIGA.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

SIGA Paranoia

I've posted enough positives about SIGA (a biotech company with a completely safe/effective cure for smallpox, including weaponized varieties) that I'd be remiss if I didn't express my current concerns.

SIGA's impending (huge) contract award from the government was protested on a technicality by a competitor, Chimerix. That protest was upheld, and has been appealed. For reasons too complex (and insane) to go into, there's a good chance the appeal will uphold the prior decision. However, BARDA (the governmental agency overseeing all this) has many ways to override it all and buy SIGA's drug.

And they very likely will, because the country needs a stockpile of the only known safe and effective cure for smallpox (including weaponized strains). That's why they've offered this contract, worth $500M to $2.8B, in the first place.

Chimerix's drug is less advanced. In primate tests, the monkeys died. That's why the government has signaled that this contract will go to SIGA, and not to Chimerix. So Chimerix is trying to catch up, and part of the strategy is to try to tie up SIGA long enough to stay in the game. So they've been rolling out every conceivable stall tactic. Already, Chimerix has managed to delay this contract over a year (months ago, they protested the terms of the original contract offering, making the government redo it from scratch). Chimerix has political clout; they're located in the politically significant Research Triangle area of North Carolina, and there is reason to suspect management has insider connections with the Small Business Administration, which has adjudicated this protest.

It might be said - and, in fact, I myself said it - that BARDA is likely to override this morass and get SIGA's drug into the nation's stockpile as a national security measure. They do have leverage to do so (though Chimerix will be resourceful in using litigation to try to stall any such move). But, then again, BARDA has allowed itself to be niggled, stalled, and thwarted in its national security aims re: smallpox for a solid year already. Considerable pressure has been applied, and we don't know where it's coming from. Consider that BARDA has drawn very high-level criticism for its ineffectiveness in procuring the bioterror countermeasures it's tasked with facilitating. So whatever's causing BARDA to fear Chimerix is overriding even that pressure. And this scares me a little. If BARDA was inclined to override niggles in the interest of national security, they'd have done so before. But they didn't. And we don't know why.

So further delays seem very likely. But I have a worse fear. If/when SIGA the protest decision is upheld by the appeal judge, SIGA will "officially" lose the contract. Again, BARDA does have funding to buy this drug, and it does want it, and will eventually acquire it, via any of a number of avenues available to it. But the news the market will hear is that SIGA has lost the contract, and its stock price will temporarily crater.

Which doesn't bother me much. Long term prospects are as bright as ever. But I'm worried that billionaire investor Ron Perelman (who's been behind SIGA since forever) might use that opportunity to buy a controlling interest cheaply and then take the company private, depriving the rest of us of the rewards of SIGA's bright future.

There are very good reasons why this will not happen. First, Fidelity and Vanguard, huge institutions both, own a large chunk of SIGA, and if Perelman burns them, it will be awfully tough for him "to do business in this town", as they say. Second, there are legal issues - which, to my layman's understanding, make such a move a clear no-no. Yet the scenario (called a "take-under") has been seen more than once in biotech.

Perelman is now at his lowest level of investment in SIGA in years, apparently because if he owned too much, SIGA might no longer qualify as a small business. Chimerix's protest, in fact, was on those very grounds, though it found traction in spite of Perelman's partial sell-off. But once the small business issue is moot (immediately after the appeal judge's decision), Perelman will want to buy lots more. And if the price crashes over bad news about the appeal, he may be enticed to scoop up tons and tons cheaply. If he goes above 50%, there are grounds for worry.

And if Chimerix can tie up this contract for another 18 months (which seems hard to imagine), and if foreign governments don't pay $$$$$$$$ for SIGA's drug in the meanwhile (and I'm nearly sure they will), Chimerix may reach a point where they have a competitive drug on their hands.

So...I intend to sell enough SIGA stock to redeem my original investment, and leave the rest (the "gravy") in. If the price craters, I may buy a bit more. I think we'll see $40 one day, if we can get through this. And then enjoy acquisition by big pharma.

Lesson learned: even if you spot an undiscovered biotech with a perfectly safe/effective cure for a #1 priority national security issue which the government (and other governments!) would pay billions to acquire, the slime and corruption in the game can still derail your fortunes.

On the other hand, I've quadrupled my investment, so who's complaining?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Google Goggles Just Totally Blew My Mind

Google Goggles is a service that allows you to submit a photo shot with your smartphone and have Google identify whatever's in the photo, and search for web pages about that thing. So if you shoot a UPC code, it will find web pages about that product. If you shoot the Eiffel Tower, it will find web pages about that attraction. Etc, etc.

The problem is there's no way to submit preexisting photos. My workaround: open a photo on my computer screen, and then shoot the screen with my smartphone. It works!

Everyone has their Google Goggles miracle story, but this is way beyond. Longtime sloggers may recall my entry about Milton Resnick, the abstract expressionist painter. I fell in love with his painting, East is the Place, at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Here it is:


Figuring such a paint-splattered abstract work would be a challenge for Google Goggles, I gave it a try, and Google somehow found a page containing the tiny ad below! And, yup, that's the museum's bench and floor, and about 2% of the painting. Oh, and neither painting nor museum - whoops! - are credited in the ad (hmmm...potential business plan alert!).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Philanthropy: The Factor of Time Urgency

A couple of entries ago, I sort of buried the link to Peter Singer's groundbreaking NY Times article on philanthropy, which makes a counterintuitive but persuasive argument that failure to give away most of your savings right now is deeply immoral. Bill Gates still holds many billions, so a case can be made that obscene greed has led even history's greatest philanthropist to hoard assets in a world fraught with grave immediate need.

But please don't ponder my inelegant thumbnail version of Singer's well-nuanced argument. Read what he has to say. It's mind changing. But I felt that one critical piece missing, and asked him to fill me in:
Dear Prof. Singer,
Each moment is indeed rife with dire need, but the direness is not unique to any one moment. Extreme suffering has been rife for millennia, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

So if we invest our savings and live modestly until death, keeping funds available in the event of calamity, and bequeathing the vast majority to good international charities, where's the negative? Yes, people will die now who'd have been saved if we'd donated earlier, but others will die later if we'd donated later. Suffering is unending, so what's the special significance of giving at any particular moment?

He wrote back this:
Depends whether you can invest it at a better rate of return than it would have (in human, rather than financial terms) in a developing country. There is evidence that the return rate is very high, in helping people to help themselves.

Grown-Up Midterm Election Analysis

If you're upset about the midterm elections (e.g. you're a Democrat sorry about the cremation, or you're a sane Republican mortified by your party's descent into extremism), you may be trying to ignore the news and punditry.

I know I have been. But I found myself absorbed in the election rundown by Vanity Fair's national editor Todd Purdum on Fresh Air. I found it insightful, interesting, and, much to my amazement, calming. Purdum is one of those old-fashioned journalists who reports even-handedly, with bemused detachment. And I'd forgotten that the political process could be viewed - much less reported - like that. Can we clone this guy?

The program ran down lots of election topics, but focused on House Speaker-elect John Boehner (who Purdum profiled here). And I actually listened to it twice.

I especially enjoyed his simple, sensible analysis of John McCain's recent political transformation (he profiled McCain here):
"John McCain ended his 2000 presidential campaign thinking it was a wonderful ride, and he'd experienced something he'd never see again, and that he'd be too old ever to run for president again. But then he did run for president in 2006 to 2008, and he did get the nomination. And by that point I think at that point he really wanted to be president, and he wakes up every morning, I think, and can't believe that Barack Obama is the president and he's not. And I think in some ways he'll never be the same again."

Saturday, November 6, 2010

ChemoHounding

Do you know anyone undergoing chemotherapy? If so, please point them to this wonderful Chowhound discussion sharing resourceful tips for eating through it all.

Housing, Parking Garages, and the Selfishness of Bill Gates

The move to a new home I announced in June never happened. It fell through. Don't ask! And I've been searching ever since (my current landlord is about to sell the place I'm currently renting). I've seen forty places, but can't seem to find anything with any charm and which fits my fairly modest needs. I made another offer last week, but the owner responded by pulling the place off the market. At this point I'm seriously thinking about giving away all my possessions and wandering naked through the woods. Smear warpaint on my forehead and frighten the bejesus out of everybody.

During all the years I was flat broke, or nearly so, I always figured if I ever had a little money, I could easily grab some awesome pad and live happily ever after. But no. Having a little more money to budget for housing doesn't make the process the slightest bit easier. It just makes the same nightmares more expensive.

In fact, that framework of sliding nightmares characterizes perhaps 90% of the supposed advantages to having money. All it's really good for, assuming you're reasonably healthy and well-fed, is that you get to use parking garages (I giggle gleefully each time I pull into one...which is actually fairly seldom...which, hmm, means it wouldn't have killed me to use them even back in the day!).

If this makes any sense to you - that there's little game-changing in going from "reasonably comfortable" to "having extra", but that
going from "impoverished" to "mildly comfortable" is huge - then the only rational thing to do is try to help the latter with your former.

This article makes a really strong point that's hard to argue against. And if you agree with it, you'd also have to concede the writer's counterintuitive argument that Bill Gates is actually one spectacularly greedy SOB.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Slog Contest: The Answer

Here's the answer to Wednesday's Slog Contest:

The first thing I did was to google
"carrot top" and "$70 Million". And I found 320 pages mentioning both terms, but none of them actually associated him with the $70 Million. The guy just happens to be mentioned on a number of web pages which happen to contain the phrase "$70 Million".

And that's the "eureka". This site works its dubious and unreliable magic purely by algorithm. It's a computer program written to search the web for pages containing famous names, dollar signs, and numbers in the millions. It looks for multiple citations, hoping to eliminate some of the "noise" (it may also disregard pages with words like "house" or "contract" to weed out some flagrantly irrelevant hits). And since the name "Carrot Top" is on lots of pages which also include "$70 Million", that's how it tagged him (more evidence: Nikki Sixx googles "Nikki Sixx"' $40 Million"," Art Garfunkel googles "Art Garfunkel""$35 Million", and Mario Lopez, googles "mario lopez" "$9 Million").

The brief bios, likewise, are grabbed from elsewhere (I guffawed at
the one for Yoko Ono, who's "a Japanese-American artist, musician and author, perhaps best known for her marriage to John Lennon", which was snarfed from this random blog comment). Likewise, the photos are all drawn from the first page of google image results.

This explains the weirdly bland nature of the site. There's no one home! Just a computer creating amusingly shitty content. But it's also terrifically enticing shitty content for those googling for what's essentially unfindable information (there's no legitimate resource listing the net worth of lots of movie stars, as that info isn't public knowledge). And, as Seth Godin pointed out in the comments to my first entry on this (link above), they've done a pretty fancy job of search engine optimization (SEO) to ensure maximal mileage from this scheme.

Very clever! Figure out something lots of people search for but which doesn't exist. And make it appear to exist in some slapdash manner, with no human effort. Even without the search engine tricks, because no one else out there can possibly be offering this info, you'll get the big traffic (and the big ad revenue).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Slog Contest: Explain Why Site Says Carrot Top's Worth $70M

I don't much like puzzly puzzles. Crosswords, sudokus, etc., do nothing for me. But I can't resist real-life puzzles. Like this one. Sorry to have inflicted that photo on you, but read beneath it. Carrot Top is worth $70 Million? Whoseewhuwaitahuhwuhwhat??

If the dude's got that sort of cash, it sure ain't from comedy. Those AT&T commercials paid well, but that's no $70M gig. So I ran over to Wikipedia to see if he's the heir to some fortune or other. But no, Scott Thompson (snicker) doesn't appear to come from extravagant wealth.

But wait a minute. The site itself is sort of weirdly bland. There's no accounting for how these figures are ascertained; just the number, boom. On the other hand, most of the other listings (
Elijah Wood = $20 Million) seem vaguely plausible, so it's not completely random.

It took a minute, but I've got it. Can you figure out what's going on? Post your guess in the comments, and I'll reveal the answer on Friday. First correct response wins a genuine vintage Chowhound Passport!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Confirmation Bias

You ought to become acquainted with the interesting - and dangerous! - phenomenon of confirmation bias, which is about how people tend to look for information confirming their prior beliefs, and to seek out like-minded crowds to engage with. This tendency, of course, is what's led to our climate of extreme political polarization. And while my simple explanation makes the phenomenon seem fairly obvious, there are more ramifications than you'd imagine.

Confirmation bias is perilous for people who, like me (and, I'm guessing, you), who tend to research issues exhaustively. In so doing, we are almost certain to be unconsciously amplifying our own prejudices by 1. seeking out confirming data more actively than we pursue contradicting data, and 2. conversing with those who share our outlook (who therefore strike us, unconsciously, as more expert and socially attractive). So, yes, this intellectual trap is, weirdly, most insidious for those who are especially curious and thoughtful.

The problem is worse than ever these days, as we plunge into the vast data sea of the Internet. It's often said that the Bible's so long and dense that one can prove virtually any point by some phrase or other therein. So imagine what can be done (and is being done, every second) on the Internet!

Most writing on confirmation bias pertains to investment. But it's worth reading that stuff, because it applies in countless other spheres.

Bloggingstocks sums it up neatly:
Decision-makers often tend to lap up information that reinforces their view of the world and ignore information that undermines that view.This so-called confirmation bias plays out in investor's portfolios every day. That's because if an investor buys a stock, he or she tends to look for information that makes them believe the stock will rise. Investors filter out any negative information. What they should do is ask an objective analyst to weigh all the pro's and con's and make a recommendation about what to do. But thanks to confirmation bias, most investors would ignore such advice anyway.
Here's an in-depth look at confirmation bias from the Wall Street Journal, entitled How to Ignore the Yes-Man in Your Head

An article from Red McCombs School of Business explains how confirmation bias is a particularly strong issue in online communities

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