Saturday, January 28, 2012

Best Political Show on TV

I'm not a fan of MSNBC. I find Rachel Maddow overbearingly partisan and maddeningly repetitive. Ed Schultz is a holdover from the Air America Radio scheme of putting forth liberal windbags as obnoxious as their conservative counterparts. Lawrence O'Donnell is more thoughtful and understated, and has deep political experience, but, like his colleagues, his tone is often condescending. These hosts all assume themselves to be broadcasting to idiots, and talk down incessantly (which is why, I suppose, Maddow finds it necessary to repeat each point twelve times).

But.....there's one dynamite MSNBC show you shouldn't miss. Up with Chris Hayes, buried very early on weekend mornings (Saturdays 7-9 a.m. and Sundays 8–10 a.m., Eastern), is highly intelligent. So intelligent, in fact, that I need to pay close attention to keep up. The show is devoted to analysis rather than persuasion or process, and features the sort of discussion insiders have with one other when the public's not present (as demonstrated by Marc Maron's WTF Podcast, great things happen when interviewees assume few people are listening).

Which means everyone doesn't always take the side you'd expect. Last week, Eliot Spitzer offered an interesting and insightful defense(!!) of the Citizens United decision (start the video - after the quick toothpaste commercial - at 3'40" - and, yeah, Melissa Harris-Perry is pretty old-school noisy/indignant, but she's not always on).

As you'd expect on MSNBC, there is a mildly (and sometimes more than mildly) lefty bias, but a conservative is usually present, serving a beefier role than mere straw man. There's little spin - the show's way too smart to rehash the usual tired dogma and catchphrases - just smart talk and analysis. What a relief to hear politics discussed without self-conscious use of the platform to further an agenda.

Good journalism serves its audience, rather than journalists and their bosses. And it doesn't talk down; it challenges you to keep up, and to question your assumptions. "Up" is still young, but, so far, it's very good journalism.

(I wonder where they get the muffins no one on the panel's ever eating; they look great.)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Good Counter Arguments Against Defunding Space Exploration

These are the best arguments I've seen in favor of space exploration even in tough economic times. Quoting again (as I did last week) from the "Starship Asterisk" forum (the discussion site for the much loved Astronomy Picture of the Day), someone said:
"The money should be instead used for disease research, such as a cure for cancer."
...and someone else added:
"I would rather have a (much needed) subway line in my area than another rover on Mars."

The replies were:
"No planetary mission has been mounted that didn't return a wealth of new information- much of it applicable to our understanding of the Earth as well. And of course, the money invested in these programs isn't thrown away, but is spent developing new technology, and helps the economy both directly and indirectly. 
"It's a mistake to think that you can't invest in space exploration without also investing in other areas of research. And realistically, if we were not spending this money on Mars, I doubt very much we'd be spending it on disease research. That's not really how scientific budgeting, or budgeting in general, works in this country."
"Are we really going to argue about the relatively insignificant amount of money that NASA's amazing projects take again? If $2.5 billion dollars could cure any disease it would have been done a long time ago. 
"For that matter, why don't you take that $2.5 billion from the $21 billion Harry Potter franchise? Or the $5.6 billion NCAA budget? Why should we have movies, books, or basketball when someone out there has cancer or needs a subway line?"
"I'd rather have another rover on Mars than a subway in your area! (Seriously, there's no chance that money which doesn't go to NASA would ever be used to build a subway line.)"
Not all the logic is airtight. NASA is, of course, funded from public coffers, unlike Harry Potter or basketball. But if we're talking, generally, about where humanity ought to spend its resources, then, yeah, space exploration is at least as important as that stuff. Perhaps we should be spending every last dollar to heal our sick and feed our hungry (in fact, strike that "perhaps"). But we don't. And as long as we're going to be selfish and frivolous, space exploration, like all science, deserves its tiny slice of the pie.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Free App Makes Portable Audio Sound Great

Programming/guitar wiz Bill Monk hipped me this morning to Bongiovi DPS, a just-released iOs app he's been checking out.

It optimizes audio for small speakers (like iphone or ipod) or for Apple headphones, dock, airplay, and bluetooth. And the difference is profound. It's a creation of the guy who founded legendary Powerplant studios in NYC. And, best of all, it's free (you can upgrade for a couple bucks to make it more versatile and kill the ads). The sole downside is it won't play any DRM tracks (i.e. music you've bought via iTunes).

There's a version for desktop computers, which has been around for a while, too. You can get a free trial, but I haven't used it because I have decent speakers hooked up to my computer.

Here's a direct link to its page in the App Store.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Betting on Disaster For Fun and Profit

I've long been attracted to the idea of investing in companies in the midst of disaster. Emotional investors always overreact, and there's no more emotional moment than corporate disaster. So unless a given disaster is fatal (and it's not easy to kill a company to bankruptcy in one fell swoop), the stock will always spring back, at least some. The market will, once heads cool, correct the overreaction. And this strikes me as a terrific opportunity for pre-cooled heads.

Have a look at the one month view of Carnival Cruise (CCL), which suffered an, ahem, setback last week with the whole cowardly incompetent captain $90M boat sinking thing.

The stock sunk (sorry) on Tuesday, the next trading day after the news hit, by about 15%. From there, it's been a steady rise. If one had invested Tuesday morning, in the $29s, by Friday afternoon, when it was back up to the $31s, you'd have made nearly 7% profit. And I bet in a couple weeks, it will go to $32, for 10% profit. A great return for a quick hit investment!

Two things to note:

1. This wasn't a situation where more harmful news was likely to unfurl. If we learned that the captain had been drunk, or if additional deaths were announced, that wouldn't have had much additional effect on the stock price. This was a one-hit disaster, and Carnival took the hit all at once. In other words, the low of the trading day following the disaster was likely the true low.

2. None of this could be imagined to permanently injure (much less destroy) the company in the long term. Short to mid-term, sure, some people will be (justifiably!) scared to take cruises. But it's not an existential crisis. It was clear to reasonable observers that Carnival would eventually recover. So buying in at the bottom wasn't a particularly risky thing to do.

Also, have a look at the stock of Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) in March of 2004, which includes the March 5 verdict of Ms. Stewart's insider trading case. It plunged from mid-teens to as low as $8.55 (though only for a moment; really, mid-$9s were the effective bottom). By March 24, three weeks after the bomb hit, the stock had scratched its way back to $11 for a 16% gain from $9.50.

If you watch for this sort of thing, you'll notice that the market always overreacts, and (barring unforeseen and unrelated circumstance), there's usually a short term snap back...if, and only if, the disaster is both one-pointed and non-existential.

Two caveats:

1. It's easier to spot a bottom (the point to buy at) when reviewing historical charts than it is to do so as events unfold in real time. But post-disaster lows tend to appear sometime during the following trading day. On the other hand, there don't seem to be many contrarians with my perspective out there, so there's usually plenty of time to buy in before the overreaction's corrected.

2. Short-term trades such as this are steeply taxed, which eat away plenty of the profit. You might hold the investment for a year so you enjoy long term capital gains rates, but then you're playing a whole other game, and none of the above pertains. I'm talking about short-term recovery, which has to do with market activity, not long-term recovery, which has to do with corporate competence...and which is, obviously, far less predictable.

PS - you can play a bigger, broader, longer version of the same game by investing in index mutual funds (which spread your investment out to most or all stocks) whenever the market falls super low. The same irrational overreaction (both upward and downward) usually takes place, creating opportunity for the cool-headed. And this involves less risk (since you're not betting on one single company) and lower taxation (since you'd be holding stocks through longer swing cycles - years, not days). The downside is that it's incredibly hard to find the bottom of a broad market disaster. We knew on January 17 that Carnival had hit its low, and that's quite a valuable piece of information. But when the broad market slides, the low is anyone's guess. On the other hand, "low" is good enough; you needn't nail the "very lowest" - at least, not unless you're prone to greed and regret!

Small But Helpful Sign-in Tip

When signing in to Gmail, you don't need to enter your whole email address. For example, I'm, and I log on with "jimleff.ny".

You can do the same when signing in to Google or any of Google's services if your account is registered with a Gmail address. Just leave off the portion (if your account is registered with, say, an Earthlink or Yahoo address, you've got to type the whole thing).

Lots of people don't realize this.

Disappointed by Obama?

As a moderate, my two favorite current politicians (not counting Elizabeth Warren, who's not yet been elected to office) are Mike Bloomberg and Barack Obama. I like sensible, practical-minded non-idealogues who don't showboat, propagandize, or spew ditzy talking points. People who, whether you agree with them or not, are clearly trying to do their practical best (not for themselves but for their constituency) within the limits of circumstance.

So I'll be voting for Obama - though I'd have considered a moderate Republican, like Massachusetts Governor Romney, who's unfortunately been replaced with candidate Romney, who doesn't believe in evolution, hates the sort of health policy he himself initiated, and rubs his hands in glee at the thought of attacking Iran.

Make no mistake about it: Barack Obama is, clearly, plainly, oh-so-obviously, a moderate. If you were watching carefully, you saw that he was branded as a Socialist radical shortly after he took office (when he chose to continue the Bush bailout policy), and they've kept the sticker affixed to him with much tape, spit, and Elmer's glue. If Barack Obama's a radical, then Richard Nixon was a commie.

So at least one of the oft-repeated lies about Obama is untrue. The other is that he's done nothing. It's true that his promise of conciliation and joint effort was a non-starter (I used to talk about that stuff, too, until I realized the radical wing of the Republican party would prefer to permanently harm our global fiscal leadership than compromise or reconcile). Yes, it's true that Gitmo is still open and we're still sending drones inside sovereign borders out of American exceptionalism (creating collateral damage certain to fuel ongoing hatred completing the vicious cycle). And it's true that the conciliatory attitude he was elected for was used against him in many negotiations with Congress, making him appear weak.

But in the case of foreign policy, I think Obama was profoundly shaken when made fully aware of threats we know little about (his reversal on issues like Gitmo and drones certainly weren't done to garner political capital - conservative hawks may have been quietly pleased, but they ain't ever voting for the guy). And in terms of conciliation, geez, that's what he was elected for! He's damned for trying to do what he said, and he's damned for not trying to do what he said.

Democrats are, by definition, awfully hard to please.

But the thing is, he's quietly done much good, despite the complaints of uninformed folks (and pundits) who mindlessly parrot conventional wisdom. There are lists circulating of Obama's often under-celebrated accomplishments, and they're actually quite impressive. Moderates who share my dislike of political showboating, should take the time to seek such information out, since Obama is - per our preference! - not one for showy proclamations of "Mission Accomplished".

The problem with accomplishment lists is their cold, empty terseness. But have a look at this curiosity: a paen to Obama from a conservative (Andrew Sullivan): "How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics" ("The right calls him a socialist, the left says he sucks up to Wall Street, and independents think he's a wimp. Andrew Sullivan on how the president may just end up outsmarting them all"). But the title doesn't go as far as the article does.

It's a great read, but if you don't have time, check out Andrew Tobias' highlighted encapsulation.

If you're a conservative who imagines Obama's too liberal, this may change your mind. If you're an Obama supporter who thinks he's been ineffectual, this may reassure you.

If you're a liberal who resents Obama's moderation....well, I can't help you there. In this country, in this time, a true liberal couldn't possibly win. Consider that George McGovern, an establishment liberal running against an ominous sweaty kook back in a far more lefty era with a hugely energized and energetic base, was pummeled. There will be no viable liberal candidate in the forseeable future, and America will remain center/right, so get real and support a smart, practical, moderate like Obama, who'd fit your bill far better than a doctrinaire conservative pressured to pander to his nutty base.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple's Amazing New Textbook Initiative

I've been following today's Apple announcement of their new initiative with text books. It's fantastic: free textbook reading and composing apps, astounding sleek futuristic interactivity...the result is going to be like total catnip for kids, and the major publishers are on board.

Two unstated upsides:

Announcing this as an education initiative is coy. This is more than about creating textbooks. Apple now has the best-ever e-book creation app, e-book reading app, and tablet e-book reader, period. The package is revolutionary in empowering anyone to self-publish ebooks (not just e-textbooks) for the iPad - and since iPad has such a huge lead over other tablets, it's hard to worry about this being a narrow, dead-ending platform.

Also, I don't know if Apple anticipates this, but their e-textbooks will get huge purchases from non-student adults. Wouldn't you welcome a chance to read through Biology or Chemistry (or "Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Life", "Natural History Insects", E.O. Wilson's "Life on Earth", etc.) with mega-cool interactive and multimedia aids, for under $15 per book? The textbook end of this alone (and, again, this is about a lot more than textbooks) will tap the adult education market, the self-improvement market, and the documentary film market!

Two unstated downsides:

1. Poor kids can't afford to pay for their own textbooks.

2. Poor kids can't afford to buy an iPad.

And it would be disgusting if this amounted to yet another leg up for rich kids ("Turbocharging tomorrow's income disparity!"). So...there will have to be philanthropy.

Note about the announcement: Apple harms their message and image when they go over the top with inane touts. It's sloppy, and so unnecessary. E.g.:
"There is no reason to assume today that kids need to use the same tools they used in 1950. To do so is to prepare them for a world that's already passed."

"The iPad is more durable than paper."


Holy Crap We're Gonna See Real-Time Footage of a Black Hole!!

Scientists are planning to network together a number of giant radio telescopes, which should result in real-time imaging of the enormous black hole at the center of the galaxy! (Black Hole Cam?)

Well, of course we won't see the black hole itself. But we'll see its event horizon - the trippy place where physics begins to get screwy and matter and energy edge toward the black hole's death grip.

Ok. I believe we're really in the future now!

Note to those who'd quibble at the term "real time" to describe photography of light that's traveled for 29,000 years: this is actually scientifically defensible. I learned about this earlier this year, and I started a thread on an astronomy forum so I could bone up and defend it here. But, what the hell, go check it out yourself. The first reply is interesting, though not very pertinent. The second, by Chris Peterson, is excellent, and the thread he links to is better still.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Tribute to Yahoo's Jerry Yang

Jerry Yang, founder of Yahoo, has severed his connections with the company, pushed out by advocate stockholders and others fed-up with his poor leadership. And they're right. He's done little good for a very long time, and his company has, under his watch, squandered vast potential. He's been made a fool of. But I want to discuss an earlier time.

It is impossible to explain to anyone who wasn't online in the early 90s how critically important and amazing and trailblazing and invaluable Jerry Yang's Yahoo was at the dawn of the web.

The Internet evolved from a loose aggregation of academic computers which were, for years, gleefully scaled by tech-ish people in a spirit of sheer geeky brio. There was a gradual transition to the Internet we know today: an inviting glossy service where everyone we know dives in and gets anything anytime. Tim Berners-Lee's browser was the technological key, but Yahoo was the human key.

Back in the mid 1990's, non-geeks would ask me what I actually do on the internet. Until Yahoo, there was no satisfying answer. Then Yang and David Filo built a directory of interesting places to go and stuff to do on the Information Highway. We take for granted such online directories these days. But at that moment, it had never been done before. Online people didn't need it; they had their nerdy agendas. And newbies weren't exactly flooding into cyberspace. The Internet was still a cold and forbidding environment, and Yahoo made it warm, inviting, and super-cool. This is what you can do on the Internet! Very soon after, the flood of newbies commenced. The two phenomena were not unrelated.

If Yahoo hadn't built their directory, someone else surely would have. But Yahoo was spectacularly early. And spectacularly good. I'd been using telnet and usenet and all the other fragmented online tools, and could see how the Web would integrate them all, but Yahoo staked out the first big-time user-friendly point of orientation. And it was so cool. You can't imagine how cool it was, especially in light of how extraordinarily uncool Yahoo eventually became.

Yes, the company badly lost its way at some point. But that takes away nothing from its awesome importance. Einstein's career didn't exactly light the world on fire after his early relativity work. But we revere him, and I revere Jerry Yang.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Real Secret

"The Secret" was a popular neo-occult system introduced a few years ago. It taught how to get what you want.

The method was legit. But it's a wicked genie prank, because the problem with getting what you want, as any hedge fund manager or candy store employee will tell you, is that it never satisfies. It never fills the empty place. We convince ourselves a bit more money or power or sex or this-or-that will slake the desperate thirst, yet it so obviously does not. Never has. Never will. Failure to register this evident truth represents the very kernel of human foolishness.

The real secret is not to learn to get what you want. It's to learn to want what you get.

I linked once before to the Tale of the Russian Cosmonaut, but here it is again:

TVHounding and Alan Sepinwall

I had dinner last night with friends who are passionate about sussing out cool stuff. Hounds are hounds, really; it doesn't matter if it's chow, movies, music, books, youtube videos, or iphone apps. There's a mindset where you're convinced great stuff is happening and you feel compelled to find it, love it, and evangelize it, and the mindset transcends genre. Pizza fanatics are more likely to go of their way to buy slightly more comfortable socks, movie geeks tend to listen to interesting music, and mountain bike fans often drink quality beer. Passion and knowledgability are more versatile than people imagine.

The field ripest for hounding these days is television. For the past decade, that's been where genius has converged. Like food in the '90's, film in the early '70's, rock 'n roll in the late '60s, abstract expressionism in the early 60's, and jazz in the 50's, TV is where it's presently at.

Which is not to say TV programming is all great (any more than all 1973 films or all 1969 rock bands were great). But when smart, passionate people get together, more often than not, they swap tips for great TV series, both past and present (thanks to Netflix and DVDs, everything's omni-available). So last night I scribbled reminders to check out Justified, Mastermind, The Sandbaggers, and "Spaced", and I evangelized shows like Party Down, State of Play, Men of a Certain Age, Homeland, and Breaking Bad,

I'm too burnt-out on managing online communities to launch TVHound, but the next best thing is Alan Sepinwall, a former newspaper columnist (with the NJ Star Ledger) and longtime amateur blogger who a couple of years ago went full-time as a blogging pro. He has a devoted following, and I'm part of it.

Sepinwall's reporting is helpful in three ways: 1. he's good at ferreting out quality shows and getting you excited about them, 2. his reviews are in-depth (and user comments are strong), so I seek them out after I've viewed a show, to get other perspective, and 3. during summer lulls, he does "Rewinds" of legendary series, going back and writing fresh reviews, episode by episode, for viewers who are catching up (the "Newbies" rewinds) or revisiting (the "Veterans" rewinds). Examples: The Wire (Newbies)/The Wire (Veterans), Deadwood (Newbies)/Deadwood (Veterans), and Band of Brothers

His older stuff is archived on his old blog, "What's Alan Watching?". Check out the list on the right side of the page of all series he was particularly jazzed about as of June 2010, and click for reverse-chronological reviews. He's since moved on to a blog under the same title on HITFIX, where his stuff is poorly organized but still high quality.

Some Sepinwall links to get started:

TV Top 10 of 2011: The best 10 (or 11) overall shows (note: this is a video-only report - which allows him to show video excerpts from the shows as he describes them - but you can see a text list in the comments)

TV Top 10 of 2011: The best 10 returning shows

Rookie watch: the best new TV shows of 2011

Particularly valuable is his Best of the '00s in TV, written in late 2009.

Monday, January 16, 2012

John Huntsman Loves Captain Beefheart

Crap! I was just about to support John Huntsman, but he stepped out of the race this morning.

I learned last night that, almost unbelievably, the guy is a huge Captain Beefheart fan. Not just as a name to throw out in order to seem more quirky and less Mitt-ish. But, per a little-noticed Slate report last September, Huntsman really knows his stuff!
Slate: Do you have a particular favorite era of Beefheart?

Huntsman: I'd have to say that I like Trout Mask Replica, which came out in '68, all the way through Bat Chain Puller -- I mean, they represent the diversity of Beefheart. I'm a fan of the really innovative spirit of Beefheart came with the Magic Band, and they really hit it off in '68.

Slate: Which songs on the record?

Huntsman: Ella Guru, China Pig Hammer -- the whole double album. Part poetry, part improvisation. All cutting edge. And then when you get to Bat Chain Puller, it's a little more accessible.

Slate: But Trout was the one they put together when Beefheart forced them to practice in that house...

Huntsman: Yeah, when he played with Zoot Horn Rollo and Mascara Jimmy, and Mascara Snake -- these were great players. He didn't hold onto them very long. The crew he put together for Ice Cream for Crow was good, too, but it was less experimental.

Also, how do you know about this?

Slate: Well, you tweeted about it.

Huntsman: I didn't think anyone would read that! I put it out there to see if anyone was actually paying attention.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Parsing The Yuppie Honk

You know that vocal tone young urban women started adopting fifteen or twenty years ago? I call it the Yuppie Honk. It's a deep gritty rasp, and at a certain point, women just started doing it.

Well, not all women. The Honk is constrained to a certain personality type: the energetic high-achieving go-getter who's loads of fun. But it's awfully popular, particularly in the sorts of places where energetic high-achieving go-getters go to have loads of fun. Walk through any trendy cafe in Manhattan, and you'll hear this same voice emanating from table after table. And, like any highly contagious trope, those who adopt it appear to feel that it gives them individuality (it's one of those shifts of perspective I like to write about). The Yuppie Honker is a maverick. All zillion of them.

It's clearly affectation. No one is born a Honker. This didn't exist before around 1990, and, to the best of my knowledge, human larynx structure has remained fixed for several millennia. And if it were a natural occurrence, what a coincidence it would be that it appears only in women who want to project the image of being energetic high-achieving go-getters who are loads of fun!

How did the Yuppie Honk start? My guess is that some pop culture figure happened to speak this way, and stylistic early-adopters picked it up and disseminated. At a certain point, such a thing takes on a life of its own: if you're going to be identified as a certain sort of person, you need to dress a certain way, pepper your speech with certain catch phrases, and, these days, speak in a raspy honk. And since honkers are over-achievers, aspirants and climbers of every stripe had better learn to honk if they're to bust through to success!

But while I can only speculate about the social origins of the Yuppie Honk, scientists actually have a physical explanation for how these women are doing it. There's even a name for the condition - and it's better than you could ever hope. Ready? It's called "Vocal Fry".

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tibetan/Hunan Breakfast Rice

I'm still trying to find healthy breakfast ways to use up leftover white rice (propolis knocked out my stomach virus quickly, leaving me stocked to the gills with BRAT). Last time it was the unlikely-but-satisfying Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble. This time: Tibetan/Hunan Breakfast Rice.

Spread out 1 to 2 cups leftover white rice in a nonstick skillet, and cook at medium low heat for 10 minutes, or until bottom is crunchy. Use a fork to flip rice (it should remain mostly intact, but don't worry if it doesn't). Cook the other side a bit less, then transfer to a cereal bowl. (Optional step: pour a tablespoon or two of melted butter or ghee over the rice). Salt (preferably coarse grain, e.g. kosher salt) generously. Add six ounces of unflavored yogurt and a generous drizzle of honey or (better) pomegranate molasses or fruit preserves. Stir slightly and serve.

The sweet/salty rice with sour yogurt (and ghee) is adapted from a traditional Tibetan dessert. Tibetans don't crisp the rice, though...that's my tribute to Hunan. The pomegranate molasses are just good.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Endowing Future Me

For years I've been buying super interesting books - little-known great ones. I hope to read them someday. Also DVDs. And CDs. My coffers overflow with goodness, attained at considerable trouble and expense, all waiting to serve and delight Future Me.

My attention has lately shifted. Like many people, I mostly want to play with my iPhone and iPad. Unsurprisingly, the impulse has transferred. I queue great articles to read later in Instapaper. I queue great web sites to browse later in Pinboard. I download great apps I'll love to try someday.

None of this is mindless/compulsive hoarding. It's all treasure, hunted down with great care. But I rarely touch any of it. It's not for me; it's an endowment that will one day serve and delight Future Me.

At this point, I can hardly read, watch, or listen to a thing. I've built a trove, but where is this Future Me for whom I've been slaving all these years? When will he arrive to bask in all this goodness?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble

You have leftover white rice in the fridge (from yesterday's BRAT diet), but since you're getting over a stomach virus, you don't want to eat anything too controversial, so fried rice is out. You want protein, but it's breakfast. So how about...a Spinach Banana Rice Omelet Scramble?

Wilt a handful of baby spinach in a medium-hot nonstick skillet. Set aside. Layer thin slices of banana on the skillet, cook until the undersides are dark brown. Reduce heat a bit, pour three well-scrambled eggs (or four egg whites) over bananas, let sit 30 seconds. Add a half cup of rice, drizzle very lightly and unevenly with soy sauce (or, better, Filipino calamansi soy sauce, which has a citrusy edge from the calamansi), gently scramble with spatula, reduce heat to low and let sit, covered, or a minute or two. Finish with a generous drizzling of good quality extra virgin olive oil.

Look, I completely understand how randomly juvenile and ditzy this seems. It's one of my dopier kitchen moves. But, really, it worked. And, for easing one's way back to "real food" after a stomach bug, it worked great. It reminded me a little of the sweet plantain omelettes at the wonderful La Carreta chain of Cuban luncheonettes in Miami (there's one right in the airport).

The soy flavor catches onto the dark caramelization of the bananas. The clumps in the leftover rice seem pleasantly breakfasty/curdy/starchy (I wouldn't want this dish for lunch or dinner). The spinach and egg are omelette-ish, and the olive oil binds them all, and surprisingly doesn't conflict with the soy. Between the soy sauce and the banana, blandness was banished, and between the rice and the egg, stomach-settling ease was guaranteed.

I swear, it hung together. Some onion might have made a nice addition, but if you're going to sautee chopped onion, then you might as well fry the banana, and then you'd have a whole other dish...

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Propolis for Colds and Other Bugs

Have you heard about that horrible stomach virus going around? I was up all night with it two nights ago. I started taking propolis yesterday morning, and have now had three doses. And while I'm still laying low and taking things easy, I feel pretty darned good. Propolis is one of my favorite secret weapons.

I stole this image from here.

Propolis is popular in Brazil and other places, but little-known here, and what little information exists on the Internet comes from companies selling the stuff, so it's not very objective. Here's a dump of everything I've learned in my twenty five years of experience.

Propolis is one of the amazing things bees make. It's a resin, used for sealing big gaps in the hive, and it keeps the place very clean (all those bugs living in such close quarters could easily create infections, but that's nearly unheard of....thanks to propolis). Luckily, propolis' antiseptic and antibiotic/antiviral qualities carry over to humans. Beekeepers have for centuries recognized it as a panacea. Medical science would, too, if it weren't for a vexing problem: each hive makes slightly different propolis, since its components are gathered from varied local sources. There is, therefore, no apt way to test the stuff, and so its effectiveness is mostly anecdotal. But I've been using it for years, and have turned friends (like you) on to it.

Resins are hard to ingest (much less assimilate). You can chew it, but it makes your teeth feel fuzzy (no health issue though; it kills plaque). To avoid these difficulties, propolis is often prepared as a tincture. The downside is that the processing and the alcohol is thought to erode some of the goodness. And you've got to take it with honey, or, like the resin, it will cling to your teeth. Easiest to ingest are capsules of powdered propolis, but this is the most processed and least fresh alternative. And in these sorts of natural substances, freshness is a good thing.

I should note that while I'm always seeking out the freshest propolis, I've found that even musty old drug store capsules which have sat at the back of my medicine cabinet for a year or two still work pretty well.

Propolis is impossible to test and difficult to ingest. On top of that, there's at least some risk. Any dense, rich, concentrated food is a boon, due to the concentrated nutrients, but also concentrated are toxins. Fortunately, bees are meticulous in sourcing components of propolis, so you don't have to worry about most sorts of taint. But there's one thing they don't know how to winnow: heavy metals. So, as with fish oil, the dense concentration of nutrients carries a risk of concentration of bad stuff, too. I doubt it's enough to really harm you if you take propolis only occasionally, but it's worth bearing in mind as you 1. source your propolis, and 2. decide when to take it. I've probably taken under two ounces, total, in my lifetime, and view the benefits as greatly outweighing the small risk.

You'll see brands of propolis touted as "organic", but that's a crock. Bees are the ultimate free-range critters. No one can control where they go and what they gather. I'd eat honey from bees in, say, Staten Island, but never anything as concentrated as propolis. So I try to buy directly from beekeepers in rural areas, and I only take it when I need it.

The temptation to take it often is great, because this stuff is a panacea. If you have situations like a cold, mild to medium bronchitis or sinus problems or diarreah (from food poisoning or virus), and are on the fence about resorting to antibiotics (i.e. your condition isn't yet dangerously severe), propolis can bring surprisingly dramatic improvements (though, if it doesn't, please don't be stupid: antibiotics are a nasty business, but they're vastly better than serious infection, toxic shock, and death!).

I've heard that you can use the tincture on burns, or chew the resin for a sore throat, but I've never tried those things. I use propolis whenever I get that "Uh-oh" realization that I'm coming down with something. And it generally knocks it out. I always bring it when traveling, in case of tourist tummy (it's not for ordinary indigestion, however).

Dosage is hard, because, again, no two samples are identical. If you take too much propolis, the first symptom is a slightly upset stomach (no big deal). So one strategy is to find that point, then back off the dosage. A good range would be 10-20 drops of tincture twice/day (mixed into honey for assimilation and to minimize tooth-coating), or a half to one capsule twice/day (most of the capsules are rather high dosage). Hardcore types who chew the resin should start with a chunk the size of a match head. I like the taste, but you may not (if you hate it, capsules are for you).

Propolis is what Chinese doctors call "heating". Actually they don't call it anything, because it's apparently unknown to Chinese medicine. But if they did, they'd consider this one of the most heating substances known. So if you already have chronic symptoms of over-heating (aside from any fever associated with your momentary illness) - such as night sweats, menopausal hot flashes, irritability, or if you're having issues with kundalini energy), go easy on the dosage.

If you're using honey to treat allergies (a really good idea, by the way), you must buy local, to ensure the honey's made from the local pollen that's troubling you. Locality is less important for propolis. You can find a 70% tincture from YS Royal at Whole Foods or Amazon, and they at least seem to be cognizant/diligent about purity, though the "organic" label is, as I said, misleading. They also make capsules.

I'm more confident about White Oak Apiary, a small operation in Brewster, NY. They sell resin for $8/ounce (and an ounce goes a long way) and also make a tincture, which I haven't tried. The problem is you need to order ahead; by the time your propolis arrives, it may be too late to help with your bug du jour! But one nice thing about ordering from White Oak is that you can also stock up on their wonderful honey, particularly the hugely intense buckwheat honey.

For immediate situations, even lousy pharmacies carry cheap capsules of propolis from God knows where (in the vitamin aisle). Know what? It'll work. So if you're feeling skitchy right now, go for it...and then stock up on some good stuff for next time.

White Oak doesn't list propolis on their web site, or sell it at farmer's markets. There's little consumer demand, so you usually have to ask. But wherever you see local honey, propolis will be available upon request.

If you have questions, feel free to comment and I'll reply. And if propolis works for you, pass it around. Half the people I know are miserable this week. So unnecessary!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Less Moldy Milk

Virtually all commercial milk has an unpleasantly moldy aftertaste. I'm surprised no one else tastes it, but I'm hypersensitive to moldy flavors (which is why, I suppose, I dislike moldy cheeses like bleu or gorgonzola). I've tried all brands, including organic, and all taste moldly (somewhere between production, storage, transportation, and packaging is a step that's never completely sterilized between batches).

Best I've ever found here in the northeast is Five Acre Farms milk, from a cooperative near New York City. It's not completely clean-tasting, but the mold flavor is very faint. They're not organic, but claim to use sustainable methods and to be free of hormones and antibiotics.

Here's a store locator. I mostly buy at Fairway and Key Food.

iPad Stuff

Some scattered thoughts and tips re: iPads:

I bought a WedgePad for my iPad. It's like a little beanbag rest that props the thing up, either on your desk or on your lap. I love it; it's really versatile, and makes couch-potato reading much easier, but the beans are styrofoam, and quickly compact (no problem; I just bought this to refill). They seem to have only models with white straps in stock now; you may want to email in and ask if they'll be selling black straps (which are less distracting) again.

Metacritic offers a good list of iPad/iPhone games, though they underrate one of my favorites, Dark Meadow.

One feature I just discovered: if you put web site bookmarks in Safari's "bookmarks bar" folder, they always appear atop browser windows (there's not much room, so make the titles terse). This is super handy. Update: you also have to check "always show bookmarks bar" in Safari preferences (in the Settings app.)

Speaking of bookmarks, I find Pinboard (an online way to store bookmarks) absolutely invaluable. It's not a replacement for browser bookmarks - i.e. URLs you visit often. Rather, it's a repository of pages you mean to visit, may one day refer to, or quickly need to pass off to another device. I pay up for the "archive" service, which archives the actual page - handy in case it ever disappears, plus it lets me search text of all the actual pages I've bookmarked in one pass. So cool! You can send pages to Pinboard via email or via bookmarklets, which install in any browser, including mobile (this, by the way, is one of the best items to put in the aforementioned Safari bookmark bar).

With the whole world accepting that tablet computers (i.e.* Apple's iPad) are going to largely replace PCs for much of the general public, I thought I'd crow about having predicted this within a week of Apple's original iPad announcement (at a time when most people were dismissing as an oversized iPhone).

One thing I was wrong on, though: I bought the smallest capacity iPad 2, figuring that since I would only use it on WIFI, I'd stream my music and videos from my computer, freeing up the need to store those files on the iPad. But then I began downloading my subscriptions (Wired, New Yorker, and The Economist), and soon found my storage full to bursting. When will I learn: always buy the highest available capacity?

* - no, I didn't mean "e.g."

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The People Can Always Be Brought To The Bidding Of The Leaders

This quote from Herman Goering is all over the Internet, though I only came across it today. So, apologies if you've seen it. But for those who haven't, it's useful to bear in mind in case the Republican candidate wins and we attack Iran (and the war, like the previous couple, is marketed according to the Cheney/Goering playbook):
Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship. ...voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country

Monday, January 2, 2012

Interesting Perspective on Euro Crisis

I had dinner last night with an ex-guitarist friend who's currently a hot prodigy in the financial analysis industry. He had an interesting perspective on the European crisis: The Greeks and the Portuguese (and perhaps others) may go off the Euro for a while, and there will be incredible fiscal pain in those places, short term, as their economies, previously propped up by the currency union, spin into depression.

But when other countries have undergone massive sudden currency devaluation (e.g. Russia and Mexico), economies tend to lean up, creating stronger roots, and outside investment eventually floods in, attracted by bargain prices (finance abhors a vacuum!).

So, in his view, these European crises were inevitable, will be shorter term than most people expect, and will put the individual countries - as well as the Euro community as a whole - on stronger footing in the long run. This is, in other words, nothing but a correction; a comparatively brief release of negative pressure, healing to the entire system in the long run.

That said, pity the working classes in these places, which, as usual, will bear the brunt. But if you have savings to invest, you could do a lot worse than Greek and Portuguese bonds. Because investors tend to flock, and the flock is now avoiding those supposedly doomed locales....but may not for long.

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