Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sappy Spiritual Holiday Homily

I was going to keep this to myself, but, it being the holiday season, I thought I might get away with slipping in some embarrassingly sappy mysticism.

I was attending, god help me, an eight hour long Buddhist lecture (Dzogchen, for whatever it's worth ) and the teacher was going on about Love, as spiritual teachers often do. A student raised his hand, and overshared about how he loves his cat...and his girlfriend...and whatever...so much that sometimes he simply can't stand it. Sometimes, he feels just..... gaaaaaaahhh!!

He made a roaring noise in his throat, like he just couldn't quite let it out. Or in. Or whatever. And setting aside the fact that I despise cats, I'd suppose that's a feeling we can all relate to a little bit. "I love such-and-such so much, I feel like I'm going to explode or something" (for me, that might be the duck penang curry at Woodside's Ayada Restaurant).

The teacher, an eloquent fellow, tried to weave together an explanation. But it was late in the day, and he had trouble organizing his thoughts, and he petered out with some dry Buddhist jargon. I got up my nerve (I'm horribly shy with strangers) and piped up the following suggestion, which started out sounding like me, but veered off in a direction I had neither intended nor expected:
Love is infinite.

The cat? It's limited and finite.

You? You're limited and finite.

And "Gaaaaaaahhh!!" is the sound of something infinite trying to squeeze through limitation!

So...don't be so specific. Forget the cat. Forget you. Drop the whole scenario of you loving the cat and just let it be love loving love.
No idea where that came from. And I wouldn't blame you for dismissing that as cliched hippy spirituality. But, in any case...happy holidays. Thanks for slogging along with me this year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Good Source for Cheap Cables and Adapters

It's really hard to find stuff like USB or firewire cables and adapters for any kind of decent price. Best Buy, Radio Shack and Amazon will gouge you, and web sites offer great prices but heart-stopping shipping fees.

Monoprice offers great prices, thorough inventory, and cheap first class shipping.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Huge Chocolate Sale From Great Maker

Hotel Chocolate is spectacularly good. As I wrote here, they make a few of my favorite specific varieties, and while none of those esoteric products (the chuao being the best) are represented in the Christmas samplers currently discounted 50%, everything these guys make is worth having and eating.

The prices are astounding (and apparently last until they're out of stock). Man, they must have really overestimated with their holiday inventory....

Thursday, December 23, 2010

To Roth or Not to Roth?

Roth IRAs are so, like, totally hot right now.

Year's almost up. Time to move if you want one. My favorite financial writer, Andrew Tobias, is enthusiastic about them and wrote about them on his (terrific) blog
here and here and here.

A trusted Wharton-educated CPA friend is more leery. Take it away, leery trusted CPA friend:

1. The key question is "do you expect your marginal income tax rate when you are retired and making withdrawals from your IRA to be higher or lower than your current marginal income tax rate?"

If you expect your retired marginal income tax rate to be higher than your current rate, open a Roth IRA

If you expect your retired marginal income tax rate to be lower than your current rate, add to your traditional IRA.

I find it odd that so many people rushed out to open Roths. But if you are not working when you are retired, your marginal income tax rate would normally be lower than your current rate. Thus, a Roth IRA wouldn't make sense.

Also, eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out as your income increases. For Single filers: Up to $106,000
Modified Adjusted Gross Income (to qualify for a full contribution); $106,000-$121,000 Modified Adjusted Gross Income (to be eligible for a partial contribution)

2. If you have self employment income, a much better retirement vehicle is a self-employed 401k. That's because the amount you can contribute (thereby reducing your taxable income) is much, much higher. You need a bit of time to set this type of vehicle up and must do it by year end.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Statistical Observation re: YouTube

Many YouTube videos play out over multiple parts. And in such cases, each of the later installments always has fewer views than the one preceding. You can count on it.

It'd be an interesting data analysis experiment to see if the trail-off always follows the same curve. Also, that same curve might apply to a number of other human activities.

I'd wager that there is no multi-part video that could hold all viewers through all parts. Even if Jesus and Muhammad returned to Earth to issue a joint proclamation video, Part 4 would have fewer viewers than Part 3, which would have fewer viewers than Part 2, which would have fewer viewers than Part 1.

This fascinates me, though I'm not sure why...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Generosity in Business

One key to raging success in business is a predisposition toward generosity. Generous people naturally anticipate the needs and desires of others, and their customers can feel that, even if only at a subconscious level. Ungenerous people may try to simulate the same result by coldly thinking through their customers' prospective needs and desires, but the result's never as good (Microsoft's interfaces are a pain to use because no generosity has been applied).

It's not black-and-white, though. There is a spectrum of generosity which extends quite far. Those extreme cases, instinctively driven to absolutely delight their fellow man, almost can't lose.

Much has been written about the basis for Apple's success, but the key is the extraordinary generosity (in design, interface, and attention to detail). When you fake it, it's not the same.

As I wrote
Chowhound had a vibe, and that vibe was the nucleus of attraction for (at the time) nearly a million unique visitors per month. With no publicity budget, our success was entirely due to that powerful and singular vibe, which extended in subliminal ways into all aspects of the operation. The vibe was seamless because it was real. Everyone running the site was sincere and cared deeply, and perfectly mirrored the sensibilities of our audience. You just can't beat Love as a unifying principle. If, say, Coca Cola or Union Carbide had such synchronization of the heart, there'd be no limit to what they could achieve. Instead, the corporate world has created a vast array of mechanisms to simulate that - and to hypnotize various parties into sniffing it when it's not really there. Comparatively shoddy workarounds, all.

Once a Rising Star, Chef Now Feeds Hungry

Forget the great work he's doing; you ought to send his organization some money just for the feel-good buzz you enjoyed from watching him in this amazing video:

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Cheating Death with Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.

Maybe it's just me, but this list of imaginary medicines from Stephen Colbert made me laugh harder than anything I've seen in a couple years. Beautifully written comedy (comedy, at its best, is the equal of poetry in its careful, knowing subtleties of word selection and rhythm).

I'll quote liberally, but there's a lot more at that link (and it's all good):
Vaxadrin – The only weight loss pill recommended by Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, D.F.A.

side effects:
Dry Mouth
Severe Weight Loss
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless Arm Syndrome
Restless Torso syndrome
Massive weight gain

Children’s Vaxadrin – It’s guaranteed to grow strong, healty teeth. Often in your mouth!

side effects:
Mild Hulkism
Diet Cherry Vanilla Vaxadrin

Vaxadrine – From the makers of Vaxadrin

side effects:
Phantom Hand Syndrome
Vivid dreams of self-cannibalism
Bad humors
Late onset albinoism

Vaxadrine with Calcium

side effects:
It has a certain sedative effect
Spontaneous pregnancy
Increased risk of vampire attack

Vaxa-Smacks – It’s the first cereal guaranteed to shrink your prostate. Or, if you’re a lady, grow ya one.

side effects:
Dry mouth
Hairy Uvula
Speaking in toungues

Vaxa-Smacks is not for people who have, may have, or have decided not to have children

Vaxa-Dream – Kissing someone who brushes with Vaxa-Dream is like making out with the cleaning crew at a steak house

side effects:
Spontaneous and uncontrollable gum growth

Vaxadril – Curbs your appetite by causing short-term blindness

side effects:
Increased appetite
Permanent blindness

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Self-Destructive Self-Righteousness

I was in a very minor traffic accident last week. Backing into a parking spot on a narrow street in Manhattan, I was surprised to see that I'd sideswiped a car which had zoomed up and tried to go around me.

The driver jumped out of his car in a blinding rage. With a thick Israeli accent, he screamed "I knew it! I knew it!". He'd seen me backing up, concuded that I wasn't paying attention, and, sure enough, I (clueless asshole that I am) swiped his car. I asked the fellow why, if he'd foreseen this, he'd decided to zoom in and squeeze past. He bellowed back "Because it was
my right of way!!!"

I looked him calmly in the eye and suggested that this was precisely the same psychology that's led to Israel's West Bank settlements.

Naturally, he wasn't amused. But I was. Feeling delightfully detached, I sat placidly on the trunk of my car as he made a big show of checking every single system of his car for damage (there obviously was none; my car was the one scraped up). Finally, he drove away, still angry, his afternoon both thoroughly ruined and completely validated.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Aggressive Drivers in Cheap Cars

Followup to this enty:

Each time I get cut off by someone driving a cheap car, I wag my head ruefully. If you're so aggressively and heartlessly out for yourself, why aren't you stupendously successful? Why live the worst of all worlds?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 19

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

In case you missed them, installments #17 and #18 were posted just a few days ago.

At exactly noon on December 15, 2005, the appointed moment for the CNET/Chowhound deal to consummate - for everyone's electronic signatures to be electronically merged in some terribly official electronic document somewhere, and for payment to be electronically transferred to me and Bob's bank accounts - I got a call from Clay. He sounded oddly downcast.

"Jim, I'm soooo sorry to have to make this call. Let me say that I really respect what you've done with Chowhound. It's a fabulous site, and you have every reason to be extraordinarily proud of your work. But it's been decided that this is just not something we can move forward with. I know how disappointed you must be. I am, again, so very sorry."

Standing there frozen, my mouth agape, I could feel the hot vomit snaking its way up my esophagus. I struggled to regain composure for a reply. But before I could speak, Clay hollered into the phone: "Just kidding!!! Congratulations, my friend, it's a done deal! Oh, and I have big news for you! You and I will keep working as a team; I'm taking a new position at the company, and I'll be your superior! Isn't that great?"

And there, faithful reader, my tale ends. Thanks for coming, please take all personal belongings with you. Yes, there's much left untold. But the truth is, the year you're imagining I had is, indeed, precisely the year I actually had, so there's no reason to recount the obvious. For starters, would you imagine I actually was allowed that firmly-promised and direly-needed two weeks off before starting work?

I know you know the answer. So just take it from here, and you'll find that it all vividly plays out in your mind, like a giant roll of toilet paper ebulliently unfurling.

However, there remain some scraps to attend to, plus a few brief subsequent highlights to share.

Stay tuned.
Read the next installment (#20)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 18

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

When we started this story, I was at a scary point of bedraggled exhaustion; not just on the verge of shutting down my baby, Chowhound, but relishing its closure like a starving man imagines a steak dinner. I was broke, bedraggled, and avoiding traffic. I was, to extend the carnivorous metaphor, dead meat. But that apparent rock bottom, was, by this point, months past. And the site was still there, and I was still drowning in it, plus I'd also trudged through the disorienting and, at times, perilous events recounted in this tale.

It's hard to describe my psychological state, but the upshot was that I was living the nightmare where you try to run but your legs feel all rubbery. More than anything, I just wanted to lie down. I so wanted to just lie down and go to sleep. Lie down right now, right here, right in front of everyone, I don't care. Curl up on cold tiled floor and collapse into undreaming oblivion.

But first we had to close the deal, which meant appeasing a business development guy conjured up by Hieronymus Bosch. And I had to steel myself to work for CNET for a full year. The terms were essentially indentured servitude: if I quit, or did anything to get myself fired, I'd be sued. In consideration of Chowhound's loyal users, I'd give my all to protect against anything especially dumb being done to it. It was my role to make sure the site was modernized without sacrificing its all-essential vibe. This would mean, even in the best of scenarios, plenty of wearying friction. Even better: friction with corporate squares. Hey, my favorite!

But at least they were best-of-type corporate squares. The managers I'd met were reflective, respectful, and smart. I could do this, I told myself. The plan was to take a couple weeks off after the deal was signed, recoup a little, and then blast through the year, giving it my all, and finally drag myself to some dark corner of the world to dissolve into a puddle. It seemed doable. Heck, if I liked the new environment, I might even stay on for a couple years. CNET was, after all, offering dental! Can you imagine? Dental!

Meanwhile, with due diligence done and only fine points remaining to work out, and with CNET confident I wasn't going to bolt, I was being treated less like a coddled prospect and more like a corporate soldier. It was at this point that my business development contact (who I'm calling Clay) began revealing his Orwellian attitude toward Truth. He had two modes: 1. earnestly assuring me of this or that, or 2. testily denying he'd ever given any such assurance. I watched in utter fascination as he'd weasel and repudiate...or, as a diversionary tactic, simply rage about some random issue unrelated to the matter at hand. Then he'd quickly recompose his syrupy charm and move on to the next assurance slated for instant evaporation. I noticed, with growing alarm, that he'd never communicate anything solid in email form. It was all phone calls. For a high-tech company's exec, he sure did love him some phone calls.

But the striking thing was the neediness in his voice as he tried to make me really really really believe him
this time. He needed me to appreciate his overarching empathy, because, naturally, we are, at the end of the day, all on the same team here, though we may have, heh, our little arguments and things might get, y'know, a bit heated from time to time. Hey, know what, Jim? I've got an idea! Let's go get a beer! Wouldn't that be great? Let's you and me go out an' grab a beer! Oops, no, wait, you get a beer, Jim, I'm just so sorry, but I just remembered I need to get home. I'll reimburse your beer, though; just bring me the receipt! Really! Seriously!! Just bring me the receipt! What's this you're handing me? Um, Jim, it is not company policy to reimburse your boozing. Please let's be extremely clear on that, bokay? So...what are your plans for the weekend, buddy?

Ad infinitum. But...whatever. Again and again, I kept reminding myself that, come January, I'd never see the dude again.

Read the next installment (#19)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Charging Headphones?

Why hasn't anyone created portable earphones/earbuds containing a (recharable) battery which charges your device as you listen to it?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Doctor Who and the Reflection Trap

"Fame is a by-product of doing something else. You don't go to a restaurant and order a meal just because you want to take a shit!" -- Banksy
I've become a fan of Doctor Who - the British series about a time traveler careening around the universe in a phone booth. I'm speaking not of the first 26 years of unbelievably cheesey, low-budget Doctor Who, but of the reinvigorated Doctor Who that launched in 2005 with much higher production values.

The series' central conceit is that the Doctor, a 900-year-old Time Lord from another planet, brings a series of human companions along with him as he traipses around the universe. The dramatic function of the companions, of course, is to provide an excuse for the Doctor to explain what's going on to the audience. If there were no companion to serve as our proxy, this would just be some dude silently doing inexplicable things in inexplicable places.

But after viewing a slew of Who, barely tolerating the dramatic kludge of the companion, it hit me: if the Doctor had undergone his adventures without folks along for the ride to observe how cool it all is, it wouldn't seem cool at all.

I've seen people be bored stiff doing the most remarkable things. The glum operator of the Aeri de Montserrat cable car outside Barcelona, who spends his days traversing a spectacular misty mountain face in a cabana dangling from a cord, might as well be peeling potatoes.
The Doctor must see himself through others in order to avoid an existential void. Adventuring around the galaxy for nine centuries would soon come to feel like the most pointless tedium without an external reference point to serve as mirror. All glamour is strictly secondhand. To feel glamourous to oneself requires vicarious self-reflection - a tangly maneuver, indeed.

We've all been in situations where we failed to notice we've said or done something interesting, smart, or funny - until someone around us took note. We've all passed through stages of our lives where we were too busy living it to notice what it was like, remaining oblivious until we could see it via the viewpoint of an outside observer (or, much later, via the hindsight of one's own memory). On those rare occasions when I write or play something affecting, I can only really appreciate it, myself, when it's expressed by others. There have been a number of times when someone's told me how a piece of writing or music I've created has affected them, and I've gone back and revisited the work, and, only in that light, was able to really understand what I'd done.

The problem is that creative people need to shun self-consciousness. It's the death of spontaneity, so attention must be riveted on the doing, rather than on the doer. The periods of our lives when we're too busy living to notice what it's "like" tend to be our most content and productive periods, in large part because we've not distracted ourselves via self-reflection. Divided focus is weakened focus, and so the richest results come from persevering in an unselfconscious oblivion. Results are best when you don't stop to experience them. Show me someone who talks a good game about what she's trying to "accomplish", and I'll show you someone who's more talker than doer.

To make magic (creativity is what magic is) requires heedlessness - utter immersion in moment-to-moment process. Food results from a great chef's work, but he rarely sits at the table. The makers of the greatest port wines never taste their best work, which require decades to mature. Few musicians dance. To take one's own measure is to quench the creative flame - to taint inspiration and reduce spontaneity. The centipede gets along perfectly well until made aware of his hundred ungainly legs.

What's worse, the reflection is never quite apt. Many are the creative people who've been deranged in trying to be "understood". One never can be, precisely. So it's best to pay reflection no heed at all.

A magician fades into oblivion as his work gains power. He can only take his own measure via the reactions of others, but he shuns that fatal yoke at all cost, working on faith alone, with single-minded commitment to process.

But if the Doctor doesn't remind himself how cool and adventurous he is, seeking neither affirmation from others nor self-conscious glimpses into the mirror, how does he forge on for nine hundred years? Or, for that matter, even for seventy? We live, alas, in a society where such a prospect is unimaginable; where the only reason to do anything is so that one can claim doership.

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

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 torment and acquire. 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....

See also: The Delectable Opportunity to Finally Be The Asshole You'd Always Aspired to Be

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


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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lotus of Siam Manhattan

For those who don't know, Lotus of Siam, an incredible northern Thai restaurant located in a strip mall far from the strip in Las Vegas, is opening a branch in Manhattan on 5th Avenue at 9th Street, in the old Cru location, and everyone's ecstatic. They're not yet open to the public, but have been hosting preview meals for friends.

My understanding is that Lotus of Siam chef/owner Saipin is training a NYC staff, and will remain based in Las Vegas (though she'll return frequently to check up). And I thought I'd share a report I got from a from a keen-palated preview attendee:

"It tastes as if a really great Thai chef gathered some random semi-skilled kitchen workers with little familiarity with Thai food, tutored them for a month, and gave them top-notch ingredients and recipes to work from. And that, in fact, is exactly what this is."

So: "good-not-great", I'd suppose. They
will surely improve, but could scarcely ever hope to resemble the original location (whose kitchen has enjoyed years of Saipin's daily presence). And it may well wind up being a welcome addition to the local dining scene.

But strategy suggestion: don't run in opening week. It sounds like the kitchen needs some serious time to calibrate. And pay scant heed to early reviews, which will flood in during this awkward time (on the other hand, they keep delaying the opening date, so the owners seem mindful of the need to make a good first impression).

Thursday, October 28, 2010

DiFara Pizzeria Omnimedia

Check out "The Best Thing I Ever Done", a short film about DiFara Pizza (thanks to Wayne Frost for the tip!).

Thursday, October 21, 2010


I was reading today about how unmotivated voters are expected to stay home in droves this election. And I wagged my head in stern disapproval. But then I realized that I, myself, am unregistered. I'm one of those people! How embarrassing!!

If there's one dictum to live by, it's this: don't act like the sort of person you hate!

If you acknowledge that democracies require participation, and if you disapprove of voter apathy, then you must either register to vote ASAP, or else accept that you're a big fat hypocrite!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Death of a Fulton Fish Market Fixture

Our modern day saints aren't the shiny faced smoothies delivering inspirational lectures on TV. And they're not above sin; rather, they transmogrify it.

Have a look at Dan Barry's beautifully written article,
"Death of a Fulton Fish Market Fixture".

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Different Perspective on "The Social Network"

I went to see "The Social Network" expecting a hatchet job (if you haven't seen it yet, be warned that the following is mildly spoiler-ish, though, really, the history of Facebook is public knowledge). The film was based on an unauthorized and admittedly semi-fictionalized tale told in the book "The Accidental Billionaires", which takes the side of (and was fed juicy information by) aggrieved ex-partner Eduardo Saverin.

And, indeed, the
NY Times says Mark Zuckerberg "is presented as an arrogant, aloof, socially inept computer nerd, who eventually tricks Mr. Saverin into signing documents that diminish his stake in Facebook to near-nothingness".

I suppose that's how people who have never run businesses see things. I, however, had a very different perspective, perhaps because of my experience running a web site that also grew from humble beginnings to...well, to a miniscule fraction of Facebook's scale and success (on the other hand, Chowhound aimed for a niche audience, whereas Facebook strove to hook up the whole world).

Even as portrayed in this supposedly slanted film, the Saverin character is obviously the wrong guy to be CFO of that operation. Premature greed plus twitchy anxiety over his investment drive him to a determination to plaster ads on the nascent site, ignoring Zuckerberg's keen insight that all Facebook had going for it was "coolness", and that ads would have detracted from that. Sure, Facebook has ads now, but it's out of growth phase. If, back when they were confined to students of a few universities, Facebook had been festooned with ads, it never would have exploded. Conventional-minded and small-visioned, Saverin was a drag with his insistence on monetizing the operation even if the monetization might kill it.

It's a huge drag to run a business with a partner who lacks vision. And it was miracle enough that college kid Zuckerberg turned out to have the maturity and vision to take Facebook all the way to world scale. He was an aberration, and it's quite unsurprising his college kid partner failed to buck those same long odds.

So Zuckerberg found a way to get rid of him. It was the right thing to do for Facebook (removing a principal who was out of his league and dragging down a radical, fast-scaling online phenom), and it was even the right thing to do for Saverin. Because if Saverin had remained, retarding growth, Facebook would never have exploded, making Saverin a billionaire. And it did, in the end, make Saverin a billionaire.

In fact, the very means of Saverin's removal (he foolishly signed documents relevant to his future role in the company without consulting his own lawyer, a move which even he conceded was beyond stupid ) demonstrates that this kid was severely unequipped to serve as CFO of a burgeoning grown-up company...and that his further presence would have exerted a debilitating drag on the company's growth.

But here's where the public misses the obvious. Can you really imagine that when Zuckerberg forced out Saverin, he (and his team of big league corporate lawyers and advisors) didn't anticipate that the guy would sue, and wind up with tons of money? Does anyone really think this outcome was unexpected, or aggressively fought? No, Zuckerberg found a way to ditch the guy quick so the business could achieve the growth he knew was possible, allowing Severin to reap billions in the subsequent law suit. It was a conscious decision, and a smart one. It was exactly, perfectly right. Knock him out of a role he shouldn't be in, and let him sue to gain what's rightly his. Win-win.

So where's the problem with this story? Should Zuckerberg have kept his old buddy around out of sentimentality at the expense of the phenomenal outcome he saw possible for them both? (Note: I probably would have done this, myself - but I'd have been dead wrong) Is it a bad outcome that Saverin got rich in spite of having the business skills of a callow undergraduate? Or that Zuckerberg saved Facebook from a horrendously underqualified CFO, going on to tremendous success able to pay said CFO ten thousand times more money, standing on the sidelines, than he was qualified to ever earn via his own skill set?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Follow-Up Stock Tips

If you missed out on SIGA (or you bought some and are celebrating), you might want some other suggestions.

First: SIGA. Yeah, still. If you'll do the math, SIGA should be in the high teens or twenties as a result of this contract. So, clearly, the market is skittish about the protest lodged by a SIGA competitor. I won't delve into details, but I see little risk to the contract's award. And, per my last entry, the future is very bright; SIGA will be worth way more than its present $12. So SIGA remains my top buy (though I'm sorry if you didn't catch it at $2.92!).

I bought Apple at $115, and it went over $300 today. And while that price bakes in an obscene level of positive expectation, I think Apple will beat it. The iPad will be absolutely humungous, especially after they come out with a lighter one. Jobs correctly guessed the future of computing, and it will be a light, easy-to-use, shiny information appliance like this rather than beige hardware with a learning curve. And I called this way back in January when Apple's stock was under $200.

Finally, Eric Rose, CEO of SIGA, is brilliant at both science and business. Invest strongly in all companies whose boards he serves on. I've already made a huge profit on KERX.

SIGA Finally Hits

I first touted SIGA (a drug development company working in biodefense) in 2008 when its stock price was $2.92, and I've been keeping you appraised as they've awaited a government contract to stockpile their smallpox drug (effective against all poxes, including weaponized smallpox and animal poxes, with the safety profile of Tylenol).

Well, the contract's in (though it's being protested, weakly, by a competitor), and the stock price is hovering around $11-12. Congrats to all who bought. But don't even think of selling!

FDA approval is due sometime in the next year or so [update: nope, that's slipped back to 2012, but it's not a huge deal, because this isn't a drug your doctor will prescribe you,it's something that will be stockpiled for first
responders to use in case of catastrophe
] , and that will allow the World Health Organization to purchase ST-246. Other countries needn't wait. Israel has signalled its intention to stockpile it, the European Union is looking at it, and it's likely that Canada, India, and other countries fearing bioterror will want to stockpile it, as well. And stockpiles must be replaced every 3 years, as that's the drug's shelf life. Furthermore, the government bought ST-246 at a favorable price, $300/dose, since they financed the drug's development. So there will be higher profits on those other sales (it costs virtually nothing to produce).

ST-246 is highly effective against vaccine-related complications, and a new generation of advanced vaccines for various maladies is currently under development (sorry, Jenny McCarthy) and in need of a hedge against such complications. There is also a potential connection to HIV treatment.

News junkies will know that we face
a potential monkeypox pandemic, and ST-246 is safe and effective against monkeypox ("Tecovirimat, also known as ST-246, has shown efficacy in all small animal and nonhuman primate prophylaxis and therapeutic efficacy models of poxvirus-induced disease tested to date.", according to a scientific paper by SIGA's chief scientist). As with animal flu, the monkeypox virus must jump from animal-to-human, and then from-human-to-human, before we need to really worry, but we seem to be there now. From a recent issue of Scientific American: "The rise that we're finding is way above and beyond what anyone expected to see...[I]t's not linear, it's exponential. That suggests that secondary (person-to-person) transmission is going on."

You can read my first posting (same link as above) for information on SIGA's exciting drug pipeline (while you're at it, consider reading all the rest, in reverse chronological order). There have been no reports on this pipeline for a year. We may hear a humdinger - my first use of that word in print, by the way - of an update from SIGA now that they have everyone's attention.

Once many of those impending deals are sucked up and the pipeline's been advanced a bit, SIGA will likely be bought by a big pharma company for mid to high $30s. So it's still a good buy!

Finally, this contract is worth much more than $7 in additional stock value. "Efficient markets" be damned, it may take a while for the stock to reflect the full value of a $500M - $2.8B contract on this tiny company's 46M outstanding shares.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Authority Vs. Creativity

All my best learning has stemmed from sharply negative experiences. But isn't that always how it works? People whose autos never break down never learn about cars. Those who've spent hours troubleshooting computer disasters and nursing broken hearts come away knowing far more about computers and love than those who've sailed right through.

But the apparently smooth sailors hit snags of their own. We all do. Whoever you are, life is nonstop friction, offering a
choice between relaxing into it all, come what may, or recoiling in anxiety. Whichever you choose, friction will surely find you, so you may as well accept and learn!

This week I had illuminated, as if with a precise laser beam, the crux of much of the friction I've encountered in this world. I can't say it was pleasant, but the resultant "Eureka" will help me transcend this particular recurring source of pain and frustration in the second half of my life.

I've been playing with a few bluegrass string bands. Now, a bluegrass band needs a trombone like a fish needs a waffle maker. But I don't really consider myself a trombonist. Instead, I'm a wannabe singer who can only perform by holding an unwieldy metal contraption up to my face. That's what a trombone is to me: a prosthetic. I don't walk into musical situations thinking like a trombonist; I just aim to boost and elevate the musicians around me with my mechanically-assisted singing. It's spontaneous and unambitious, but sometimes results can be magical.

It's been working well. I play softly and sparingly, with an almost prayerful attitude, calling no attention to myself, but letting flow whatever seems to be called for. Fresh new strategies bubble up for fitting my odd cog into bluegrass music via inventive new angles. I paint with a note or two here or there, or I wield pregnant silence. And when I solo, it's brief and there's no intent to impress. It all feels infinitely more musical than in the old days, when I had a big stake in how people perceived me. And I come and go as I please, because I'm just sitting in. I pack up when I get tired of hearing a trombone - which is thankfully always before the musicians or audiences grow tired of it. The players are always glad to see me (more so, in fact, than back in the days when I strived for esteem).

But as I've said a number of times here on this Slog, stuff has a way of sneaking up on you. That damned Snake can entice even the most ingenuous Eve.

A few weeks ago, a bluegrass musician who'd heard me in some gin mill invited me to play a big concert with his group. The concert's guest artist would be a musical hero of mine, and the fellow told me he'd be honored to have me. I got excited.

At this point, since you're probably not a musician, I'll switch to metaphor.

Let's say one night you've blundered into an all-Korean party with no English spoken. Mustering creativity and charisma, you manage to fit in beautifully. You make friends, have a great time, and, most surprising of all, you find you've made the party better; everyone leaves exuberant. Let's say you then start getting invited to other Korean parties, where you somehow repeat these results. You're delighted and amused by your unexpected role as a sought-after Korean partygoer.

Then let's say someone offers to pay you to attend a really important Korean party. And he calls a few days beforehand to say:

"Some of the party-goers are uneasy about having a non-Korean there. I'm sure you'll be just great, but would you mind if we talked through things, so I can convince them to give this a try? Ok, first, don't talk too much for the first half of the night. We want to introduce you to the party gradually. And don't mention Korean food or sports or music. Maybe could you recite some limericks when I point at you? And remember how at last week's party you threw the grapes up in the air and they landed in your mouth? That was great, please do that when my wife comes in. And go sit in the kitchen between ten and eleven, because we want to discuss purely Korean matters at that point. And, just in general, speak softly, because no one likes a loud American. And don't stand near the window. And don't talk when Mr. Kim talks. And we're so happy you're coming; we can't wait! It's going to be awesome!!!"

And then at the rehearsal for the party (yes, I realize the metaphor's breaking down), let's say he keeps signalling "Not now!" each time you started to interact, and "Ok, GO!" each time your instincts told you to hold back.

Let me ask you: would you be able to create any magic at all?

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