Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Dumbest Idea In The World

The Dumbest Idea In The World: Maximizing Shareholder Value is a much-discussed article about a much-discussed book (Peter Drucker's "The Practice of Management"). Here's a taste (I hope you'll read it all, though):
CEOs and their top managers have massive incentives to focus most of their attentions on the expectations market, rather than the real job of running the company producing real products and services.

The “real market,” Martin explains, is the world in which factories are built, products are designed and produced, real products and services are bought and sold, revenues are earned, expenses are paid, and real dollars of profit show up on the bottom line. That is the world that executives control—at least to some extent.

The expectations market is the world in which shares in companies are traded between investors—in other words, the stock market. In this market, investors assess the real market activities of a company today and, on the basis of that assessment, form expectations as to how the company is likely to perform in the future. The consensus view of all investors and potential investors as to expectations of future performance shapes the stock price of the company.

“What would lead [a CEO],” asks Martin, “to do the hard, long-term work of substantially improving real-market performance when she can choose to work on simply raising expectations instead? Even if she has a performance bonus tied to real-market metrics, the size of that bonus now typically pales in comparison with the size of her stock-based incentives. Expectations are where the money is. And of course, improving real-market performance is the hardest and slowest way to increase expectations from the existing level.”

Interesting stuff. Sometimes somebody has to state the obvious to make us really see deep changes. And this sheds light on a vexing economic mystery: why are the folks at the top of the economy so eager to suppress the middle class, when that's the worst possible move for commerce and economic growth? Harming commerce and growth ought to harm the rich. After all, a thriving middle class was the engine that enriched America's upper class in the first place.

But commerce, I suppose, is just so very last millennium. At this point it's all about the side bets: a few thousand tycoons betting against each other in an arena as untethered from the real economy as those junk mortgage derivatives they so love to swap around.

Hand me my hacky sack; I'm heading down to Wall Street....

Monday, December 26, 2011

GarageBand Sketches

Fooling around with the iPad version of GarageBand.

The title of the first one speaks for itself: "Merry Drunken GarageBand Christmas"

Merry Drunken GarageBand Christmas

Here's a tribute to some incredible blueberry pierogi I ate this summer:

Blueberry Pierogi

The Burden of a Perpetually Clean Slate

I've figured out what's been bugging me. Many thanks to niece Laura, who helped piece this together.

Meet the niece

I have, in my lifetime, walked into countless Ecuadorian joints, provoking reactions ranging from mild bewilderment to thinly-veiled hostility. Waiters take a deep breath before approaching my table in halting English, dreading the prospect of trying to accommodate the imperious clueless gringo.

But, in spite of appearances, I speak Spanish, I'm friendly, and I understand the cuisine and the culture. More than that, I actually fit in - if you'll give me a chance. I'm not just some anglo foodie who knows to order guatita; I am 1% Ecuadorian under the hood, and by the time I leave the restaurant, the waiter will be my pal and the other customers will nod amiably and ask whether I have an Ecuadorian grandparent or two (my usual reply: "¡ojal√° sea cierto!", i.e. "if only it were true!").

The problem is that whenever I enter a new Ecuadorian restaurant, I always start from scratch. Ecuadorians can't detect the cumulative approval of previous paisanos. And while it's fun to pull off this magic trick, it is, after decades, starting to get tedious. I feel as if I'm caught in a loop, and am developing an irrational expectation that all these experiences ought to afford me some tailwind.

Restaurants aside, the same issue applies in the myriad other circumstances where I must strain to overcome initial impression because I simply don't look like everything I am.

Most people avoid such issues by not meeting many new people or going to many new places. They segregate into tribes and retract into routines. They fit themselves more or less comfortably into narrow circles from which they seldom emerge.

To reject all that and maintain a thirst for adventure requires, alas, locking into a perpetual Groundhog Day loop. Unless you're skillful at making yourself seem special or at projecting a shticky image (ala Tom Wolfe's white suit), you've got no choice but to play each and every new hand without chips.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mind-Boggling Distance

If you think you can come anywhere near to grasping the immensity of cosmic distances: no. You really can't.

Consider: the Voyager 1 spacecraft, launched in 1977, has been travelling really really fast. Hurtling away from the sun at 38,200 mph, it's expected to cross over into interstellar space shortly (here's the latest update from NASA). It's now just over 11 billion miles away - so distant that light takes 16 hours to travel from Earth.

A light year, as you know, is the distance light travels in a year. And traveling 38,200 mph for 35 years brings you just these puny 16 light hours. So now just try to imagine a light year (Voyager will go that far in 14,000 years). And remember that the nearest star (aside from the Sun) is over four light years away.

But the mind blower is that there are galaxies billions of light years away (here's one 13 billion light years away).

Here, FWIW, is a particularly pretty one a "mere" 10 million light years away, courtesy of the wonderful Astronomy Picture of the Day site.

Previous astronomy posts:

Good Galactic News (when galaxies collide, stars don't actually crash into each other)

The Andromeda Galaxy and You (The Andromeda Galaxy occupies much more sky real estate than the moon)

Tap Dancing on Saturn (hear the sound of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft passing through Saturn's ring dust)

The Photopic Sky Survey (sort of like Google Maps for the Milky Way)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Nonexistent Upstairs Neighbors

Here is a recording of my upstairs neighbors. The only problem is that I have no upstairs neighbors. Above me is an (empty) attic, and, above that, the roof.

I don't think it's a woodpecker. It's more of an intermittent clunking than a woodpecker's relentless hammering. It actually sounds a lot like Jacob Marley trudging around (God bless us, every one). Or could it be my old biz partner, Bob Okumura...?

My Nonexistent Upstairs Neighbors

Does anyone have a theory?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Cathy Whimsically Chooses to be Unhappy

I was driving with a very young friend named Cathy. We hit a red light, and she groaned with exasperation. "I hate red lights!" she grumbled, being at the stage where kids begin to define themselves by their turn-ons and turn-offs.

I proposed an experiment: just for laughs, let's pretend we love red lights. Red lights make us happy. Red lights are like candy. See if we can make ourselves really believe it!

And so we had riotous fun for the rest of the ride, cheering wildly for each red light we hit. Red lights became like old friends. The way a baseball fan feels when his team wins a big game, that's how we'd feel each time a light turned red. We slowed ahead of green lights, madly hoping to see red. And when we did, we'd coo with delight.

"Cathy," I said, "the only reason you hated red lights before is because at some point you just decided to. Or else you imitated someone else who decided to. But you can re-decide anything you want to! So...would you like to know the secret to a happy life?"

"Uh-huh," she nodded.

"Take everything you dislike and make it something you love. That way nothing can ever bug you or make you unhappy."

Cathy thought about it for a moment, and then narrowed her eyes and grinned slyly. "I hate lots of things!" she proclaimed brightly, completely understanding that she was being ridiculous and arbitrary. End of conversation!

And there it is, the precise hinge of human unhappiness, right there. An early ballasting choice. It's nothing more than locking into whimsical, defiant preferences as we swiftly forget how childishly arbitrary they were to begin with. We split the world into what we want more of and what we want less of, and it's all a never-ending, pointless, painful game of whack-a-mole from there on out.

Watch this:

Also see: An Adult View on Preference

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchins

The recently deceased Christopher Hitchins once said "Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do".

That being the case, I feel somewhat released from the duty to distinguish man from work, and may celebrate the writing's demise without straining too hard to regret the writer's.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

PamFax: Cheap Online Faxing

I don't own a fax machine. Or a landline phone. So faxing's a problem. I'd previously used eFax to fax online, but they stole several hundred dollars from me (I asked not to renew, they pretended not to hear, they renewed me, then promised, twice, to refund but didn't, and my credit card refused to reverse the hideously inflated charge....and this is, Google reveals, not an unusual story with them).

For the past year, I've been running to the drug store to fax, which has a certain Leave it to Beaverish charm, up to a point. Having passed that point, I signed up for Pamfax and loved it. No contract, no obligation. You just pay about 12 cents/page domestically, and international rates are reasonable. You also get a free fax number.

I convert my documents into PDFs, and send via their web interface. Easy peasy.

Note: I'm not earning any commission via that link, though PamFax does offer a scheme for that. But if I did (under guise of offering a helpful tip), then the muffin would have been refused in vain!

Time Magazine Blew It

Time magazine has once again fuzzed up it's person of the year feature by choosing not to select an actual person (remember when the wince-worthy Person of the Year was "You"?). This year, the honor went to "The Protester".

Really, a person deserved the honor: Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian peddler whose self-immolation launched the Arab Spring.

I understand that Time's point was that protests on a number of fronts shaped the world this year. But why not name Bouazizi, and let Kurt Anderson, in his cover essay, explain how the spirit of protest extended across the Arab world and to our own Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements? The point of the "Person of the Year" is to put a human face on a global trend. So it seems inane to spotlight the trend, rather than let Bouazizi - who certainly deserves it - serve as its face?

Monday, December 12, 2011

SIGA Gets $36 Million

Note to readers bored senseless by all the SIGA talk: this will be the last such posting for a while. News has been particularly eventful, so I felt obliged to update, but this will be my last until anything dramatic happens. On the other hand, this would be a good point to buy a few dozen/hundred shares for yourself (it won't budge the stock price, so I'm not being self-serving!). There's an excellent chance this stock will septuple within a year or two or three, and having "skin in the game" will make my SIGA postings a lot more interesting for you! But only invest money you can afford to lose...

The first $36M payment is in from the government. So despite all the misinformation, the contract's on, and the company won't need to dilute the stock to remain fully operational.

Someone obviously leaked this news on Friday, hence the stock's mild drive-up. It should have been sharper, but, as I keep saying, don't expect news or "prospects" to do much at this point. Nothing great will happen until the company confirms revenue from multiple sources (and the lawsuit's resolved) a year or two or three from now. The good news is that, short of bankruptcy, it's very difficult to imagine how SIGA would fail to attract multiple revenue sources...even if the bad judicial decision stands on appeal, and even if Chimerix loosens up the primate rule and manages to get a piece of the pie for their inferior drug.

What may happen, however, is another round of propaganda and huffy political nonsense. But that's all about short term shorting, not long term reality. This is the only completely safe and effective drug for pox, including weaponized varieties. Foreign orders (Israel? EU? India? WHO?) await a step or two from FDA. And even assuming Chimerix has their hooks into that agency, eventually we'll emerge from that process, and anyone worried about terrorism will be ready to buy.

Again, it will take time (so your investment may be "dead money" for a while). And the bad guys may drop more shoes. And "stuff happens". But it's been years since I screamed "BUY!" at you. And now's the time. If smart investing means finding extremely undervalued gems poorly understood by the market (stock-hounding!), with known, surmountable downsides, then this is really as good as it gets. This should be a $10 stock right now under the most pessimistic of assessments. And it seems destined for $20 and well beyond.

You're on your own for a while re: SIGA news. If it cycles down, don't panic. If it gears up, don't exult. Give it a couple years for best results. That's my outlook until further notice!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Rats Vs Ayn Rand

A scientific study has demonstrated that rats are more altruistic than, say, Ayn Rand.

[Revisit a golden oldie: How I Outgrew Libertarianism]

Friday, December 9, 2011

SIGA: Off the Mat!

Three pieces of blessed reassurance to report on SIGA today.

There've been times when I've wished SIGA CEO Eric Rose would spin and tout more. Or, at least some. But he's not that sort of CEO. As a discreet, low-profile, well-respected science geek, he's the sort of fellow ideally suited for patiently dealing with governmental bureaucrats and scientists. Since SIGA is funded by and sells to the government, that's essential. But his diffidence has allowed louder voices with greater chutzpah and shameless misinformation to run roughshod, with nary a peep from Rose.

Until now. Yesterday, he posted this glorious rebuttal to the insane, gut ignorant press/political assault of the past few weeks. And the fact that he's so not a spin-meister, and so devoted to steak rather than sizzle, makes it all the more powerful and persuasive. Plain facts, amply footnoted. Finally!

Also terrific was the performance of SIGA board member (and Bush administration Homeland Security advisor) Fran Townsend on Anderson Cooper's show last night. She deftly sliced through the gobs of bullshit being proffered by yet another reporter attempting to trump up a scandal from absolutely nothing. If you're a SIGA investor, don't miss it:

Also, some quieter news.

A study shows that application of ST-246, as expected, creates resistance in smallpox virus, making the drug less effective (this is true of all antivirals and antibiotics). However, the resistant varieties are much less virulent. This is really good news for three reasons:

1. ST-246 is easy to create in a lab (the patent is public), but the bad guys can't whip some up and use it to develop a super resistant strain. This makes ST-246 an extra valuable bioterror counteragent.

2. Chimerix can't (yet?) say the same about their drug

3. This opens a pathway to a safer pox vaccine to replace existing stockpiles, which have side effects and can't be used in immunocompromised patients and others (about 4% of the population overall). It's yet another use for this drug.

Finally: when SIGA receives the $40M downpayment due on their contract with BARDA, it will prove to markets that 1. the contract is good, and 2. there will be no need for a secondary offering (because they'll be flush with cash). I don't expect the price to shoot up hugely (that won't happen until multiple revenue sources are achieved and the legal cloud is removed), but it should help some.

I wrote the following paragraph at Wednesday's stock price, but it applies now, as well:

This is a good time to buy. We're at least a year or two from meteoric success, but it's a lot cheaper to buy at $1.85 [or even $2.30!] than at $3 or $4 in a few months. That said, I certainly can't promise it won't drop further. But I'm still quite confident, long term.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Evil Impulse Behind Christmas Warriors

I try hard to understand people with whom I disagree. When I hear something batshit crazy, I feel an irresistible compulsion to ferret out some kernel of reasonability. But I can't fathom who, exactly, the "Christmas Wars" zealots (the folks enraged by any description of a decoratively lit winter tree without specific reference to the guy they worship) are speaking to.

I do completely understand when Christians remind each other to "keep the Christ in Christmas". That makes perfect sense to me: we oughtn't be so distracted by commercialism that we forget to celebrate and reinforce what we already believe. Who could find fault with that? I feel similarly urging distracted table mates to take deeper notice of their garlic knots or tacos. Hey, people, let's not forget what we're really here for!

But the Christmas warriors aren't kindly reminding kindred spirits. They're at war. But with whom? What's the aim? Do Jews, for example, need to worship Christ on Christmas? I happen not to, but I don't perceive myself as a warrior against Christ or Christmas or really anything else (except maybe Panera). Why would my disbelief constitute a threat? Must every one of us keep Christ devoutly in mind when uttering the "C" word? Is anything less than that intolerable?

I'd imagine their reply would be that their issue isn't with non-believers, per se, but with general secularization of their holiday. As a mass culture thing, Christmas seems less religious "out there". They don't just want to worship; they want a worshipful environment. And, strangely, their freedom to worship is threatened by all the external unworshipfulness. It's like someone with a preference not to marry a gay person feeling threatened unless the external environment reflects that preference. "My household may not be gay, but the world's my larger household, and it feels increasingly gay out there...and, as I just said, my preference is for not "gay"!" Get it?

But I still don't understand who, exactly, they're fighting against. Who's responsible for this secularization, if not non-believers and other-believers? Hey, I'm one of them! So what, exactly, do I need to do differently? How am I spoiling their Christmas? I honestly don't want to!!

Setting that important question aside, the externalization of preference is disturbing in its own right. I'm missing that gene; I hardly expect anyone to listen to me, much less agree with me, much less hew to my values on a mass basis. So it's difficult for me to relate. But it goes a scary step further when difference is perceived as threat. My differing values, however mildly held (e.g. sending "holiday cards") feel like an attack on theirs.

It's one of those strange shifts of perspective I've previously noted. And I believe I have, indeed, found the kernel, but there's nothing reasonable about it. In fact, it's the root of evil throughout history: "By not reflecting me, you threaten me."

It's the dynamic that's gotten my ancestors (in terms of religion as well as overall creative contrarianism) slaughtered and spat upon for countless generations. Though the Christmas warriors make their point from a defensive posture, a close examination of their perspective reveals the true impulse behind their paranoia, and it pushes ancient buttons.

That impulse is, quite obviously, the most unchristian of impulses. So let me be the first to sincerely, reverently, wish the Christmas warriors a far more spiritual Christmas than they're demanding of you and I.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

SIGA: The Return of the Jedi

Last time, I described a multi-pronged attack on SIGA's smallpox cure by a small group of parties. Those guys may well have a few more cards to play. But lawsuits, propaganda, and stock-shorting will only get you so far in attacking a drug our nation (and all peaceful nations) direly needs. This week, tectonic forces are finally reasserting that need, much to the relief of beleagured SIGA investors!

First, the LA Times, which had published the wildly inaccurate hatchet job (described last time) which started the recent firestorm, printed a response from the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) - the agency that's paying us a few hundred million bucks per a signed contract, and intends to buy well over $1B more):
"The article ignores the importance of having a smallpox preparedness policy in place to provide antiviral drugs if needed. Smallpox was eradicated by 1980. Although only two labs are authorized to retain smallpox virus stocks for research, undisclosed or forgotten stocks may exist. If smallpox reappears, mass vaccination would take time. Without anti-viral drugs, mass illness or even death may take place[...].

Only two companies, Chimerix and SIGA, are developing a smallpox antiviral drug. Only SIGA can meet our time frame and regulatory requirements. We are committed to developing new smallpox drugs in the event that they are ever needed."

That's pretty clear, if absurdly understated ("death may take place"???). Then there's this big political news:
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday approved legislation intended to help protect the country against acts of biological terrorism[...]

"Terrorists continue to actively seek out biological or chemical weapons to carry out horrific attacks against us," Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement following the unanimous decision. "We must act to prepare for such threats that we continue to face on a daily basis more than 10 years after 9/11."

H.R. 2405 renews components of the 2006 Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Act, which established the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority[...]

The HHS branch manages the multibillion-dollar Project Bioshield, which was created to provide the U.S. Strategic National Stockpile with additional medical treatments for anthrax, smallpox and other agents that could be used to produce biological weapons or other unconventional threats. Rogers' bill renews the program's Special Reserve Fund, which would receive $2.8 billion from fiscal years 2014 to 2018.[...]

"I hope and pray that we never need to use such defensive measures, but they are critical to ensuring that the public stands protected," Rogers said. "We need to continue to expedite their development and strengthen the national stockpile. Quite simply, we must always prepare for the worst" (U.S. Representative Mike Rogers release, Dec. 6).

This removes the uncertainty that procurement might be cancelled due to budget slashing. Fear of tight government budgets is what recently tanked the entire biotech sector - SIGA along with it - but investors aren't sharp enough to have realized that SIGA's an exception.

Finally there's this, from Reuters:

The United States called on Wednesday for closer international cooperation to prevent terrorist groups from developing or using biological weapons, a threat it said was growing.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said countries must strengthen their ability to detect and respond to suspicious outbreaks of infectious disease that could be caused by pathogens falling into the wrong hands.

"Unfortunately the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. Therefore this must be a renewed focus of our efforts," she said in a speech in Geneva. "Because there are warning signs and they are too serious to ignore." She said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had urged "brothers with degrees in microbiology or develop a weapon of mass destruction."

A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment and "college-level chemistry and biology," she added.

States must do a better job of reporting on measures being taken to guard against the misuse of biological weapons and scientists should exchange views on threats, Clinton said.

Consider the above in light of the statement from HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius last April, who wrote in the NY Times that "The technology now exists for someone with the right tools and the wrong intentions to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory."

This rebuts the "smallpox is eradicated, so this drug is unnecessary" angle, which seems too stupid to be taken seriously, but is being trumpeted by intellects as formidable as Glen Beck (here's a video of his recent rant against SIGA).

Not many people outside the drama are paying attention to any of this. To most of the market, SIGA's just another biotech company with longshot chances, when, really, they're a leading biotech company with prospects so bright as to attract a blitzkrieg of nefariousness.

And so the dots remain unconnected and SIGA still hovers at a ridiculous $2. But when the contract's fulfilled (the first payment - $40M - is due shortly), and other contracts appear, and the product pipeline's announced, lots of people will be hearing about it. So while I have no idea what's going to happen between now and then, and this is obviously not a ride for the faint of heart (and a terrible investment for money you can't afford to keep on ice for a few years), this might be a great point to buy. And then don't even look at the stock price for a year or two!

TMDTIATW: Community Food & Juice

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was brunch at Community Food & Juice (2893 Broadway, near 112th St, Manhattan, NY; 212-665-2800). Specifically, their crispy potato pancakes with Petrossian smoked salmon, caviar cream, and dressed greens - a steal at $17 (definitely click to expand this photo):

...and their butterscotch pudding, which was utterly priceless:

I tried the much-lauded brioche french toast and carrot hash, which were enjoyable, but couldn't match those potato pancakes (even though they're shredded rather than ground, which is my preference). And the butterscotch pudding was a fiendish trapdoor, plunging both me and my guest to unfathomable flavor depths. This stuff is too potent eaten straight; thank goodness for the thick layer of sublime whipped cream serving as fluffy yin embrace for the fierce butterscotchy yang. The un-billed addition of buttery nut brittle cookies were like a final fatal gunshot to the head, but in a good way.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I've been watching the wonderful two-part portrait of Woody Allen on PBS' "American Masters" series.

It perplexes me that someone so evidently miserable, who lives his life in such a grim and stand-offish manner (friends who've played in his band report that he's performed with the same musicians for decades without ever uttering a word to most of them, not even "hello" or "goodbye") would be so deeply fearful of death. One would think he'd be chomping at the bit for release from this contract!

I kept remembering this line from his own "Annie Hall":
"Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions!" Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly."

While I certainly recognize the ills of the world quite keenly, I'm far less negative than he appears to be. Yet if I were run over by a bus tomorrow, it'd suit me as well as anything else. My feeling is that we're all very bit players in this cooperative theater project, our roles forgotten soon after we leave the stage. We inject what's uniquely ours to contribute and we make room for the next guy. We're verbs, not nouns. With that view, you do your very best even when no one's watching, you try to unlock the succulence in the seeming mundane, and you do what you can to help those trapped in the hell of taking it all too seriously - who've utterly lost themselves in their roles. And that's about it, really.

When it comes to existence, I can make equally good cases for it or against it. But why would I want to live forever? What purpose would it serve? I honestly don't get it. Is anyone out there really having such a great time that they couldn't bear to see it end?

There are those who bask in the living, and those who are locked into conceptualization - expectation, labeling, etc.. It's surprising that the latter, who seem less than fully alive, are most fearful of death. Those who actually enjoy are often (though certainly not always) more blasé about it all.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Flipping Your Street Smarts

I'm cursed with street smarts.

My first gig out of college was playing the blues in a crack house in a slummy part of Roosevelt, Long Island, where gunfire erupted on more than one occasion (the trick: never stop playing; no one shoots at musicians). I've played in dozens of countries, and had wild experiences with wild people. Over the course of three careers, I've met and befriended an unnaturally broad range of characters, from crackheads to murderers to movie stars. Having been through innumerable tight situations and seen innumerable people of every background behave under stress, I've developed a faculty for knowing what to expect.

I always figured my street smarts - my ability to instantly know who's who, and what someone's capable of - were a good thing. There's no disputing that they've come in very handy. But I recently realized what street smarts actually are: a nonstop subconscious monitoring and gauging of the very worst in people.

That may sound anxious-making, or even paranoid, but it's actually not. On the contrary, this low-level monitoring makes me feel calmly secure, because I always know what I'm up against. And whereas paranoia is delusional, this scanning provides true, useful info. Much experience over time has borne that out.

I'm not a negative person. This stuff is all unconscious, and it never dominates. Consciously, I appreciate the positive aspects of people I meet. I'd be completely enjoying my conversation with you (not worrying whether you'll attack me!), because you're a nice person! But if the stranger sitting behind you suddenly goes nuts, I'll have spotted him first.

But here's why it's a curse. Human beings have dark depths. Some of us "go there" more easily (and I can smell those people effortlessly). But we also have divine heights. And street-smart people don't monitor for that. There may be conscious appreciation, but it's not part of the humming substructure.

Like most street-smart people, crowds make me edgy. Lots of information, lots of negative potential. But lately I've been experimenting with flipping it. I scan crowd faces (which, if you pay attention, are almost always glum, drained, self-absorbed, burdened, and/or angry in the rich First World), and intuit how close everyone is to erupting into radiant smiles.

It's startlingly, disarmingly easy. To my amazement, it's even true. My radar confirms it's in there! The potential does exist! Always!

And I'm aiming for an even bigger flip. When I talk to people, I'm trying to speak to their latent smile, rather than to their latent darkness. I don't necessarily aim to draw out that smile (which would feel manipulative); I just "get" them in their hidden light, rather than their hidden darkness.

It is, again, surprisingly easy.

[Note - this was close to that, and true. But this is truer]

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Anti-Intellectualism/Intellectual Arrogance

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” - Isaac Asimov (via Daring Fireball).

True enough. However, there's a much older cult, transcending national boundaries, of arrogance among intellectuals, nurtured by the false notion that "my intelligence is better than your creativity, your physical skills, your mechanical ability, your bravery, your resourcefulness, or your virtuousness."

We're all born with certain gifts and deficits, and there's a natural tendency to measure others by the faculties in which we excel. But no group does so with more blunt intolerance or withering condescension than the intelligent (having met Isaac Asimov, I can report that he struck me as the very poster child for intellectual arrogance [note: this observation is rebutted in the comments]). This has, for time immemorial, put less intelligent people unfairly on the defensive. And it's perfectly proper in a democracy not to deem oneself a lesser citizen because one's skill set is jiggered this way or that.

So pushback is apropos. But one fault of all human beings is our inability to respond to extremism with enlightened moderation rather than with reciprocal extremism. And so the pendulum has swung too far, and unintelligent people are supported for leadership positions requiring intellect, solid scientific theories are blindly opposed, and intellect, generally, is shunned in some quarters. But it didn't happen in a vacuum. Intellectual arrogance spurred this mess.

Each of us has deficits. The trick is to recognize when you're over your head - no one would play Stephen Hawking as an NFL linebacker - without losing respect for self or for others.

Monday, November 28, 2011

TMDTIATW: Desi Food Galaxy (Somerset, NJ)

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was en route to the most disgusting thing I ate this week (same acronym).

My relatives enjoy playing "Let's Torture Uncle Jim" by forcing me to endure horrendous food (recall my memorable experience at Tavern on the Green).

This year, Thanksgiving was to be celebrated at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in Princeton. (I won't recount the meal except to say that both Ruth and Chris ought to be hustled out to the parking lot and strangled. Oh, and memo to the manager dude who came around to magnanimously accept our congratulations at meal's end: I'm not sorry if you overheard my stage whisper to my niece about your position in the world being indistinguishable from a Burger King supervisor. If the truth hurts, it's not my fault. Believe me, the evening hurt me a lot more than it hurt you.)

I was, obviously, not looking forward to this gustatory hazing. And so when I pulled off Route 1 to escape the mind-numbing traffic in favor of back roads, some dormant inner juju ignited, and worlds of glory were somehow conjured up amid the bland subdivisions of central Jersey. Great place after great place appeared (see details in Saturday's posting), and I started collecting takeout menus from the ones that were open Thanksgiving day.

One might have gotten the impression that I was in no hurry to get to dinner.

My main function for the evening was to chauffer my Mom, who was beginning to fume in the passenger seat while I grew ever more giddily distracted by the accelerating cascade of discoveries. I composed myself and prepared to drive directly to the waterboarding dinner, when, out in the distance, I spotted a sign bearing a phrase I could not possibly ignore. The sirens of central Jersey called out to me, and their name was "Desi Food Galaxy", and I was powerless to resist.

Desi means, loosely, "homestyle Indian". The real thing. A galaxy of the real thing!

Blood pumping hard in my temples, I pulled into the parking lot to grab a menu. But in the vestibule I found about twelve takeout menus. Puzzled, I figured the owner must also own other local places. But then I swung open the door, and viewed a miracle.

Before me was a large space lined with concessions. Gujarati, Hyerbadi, Punjabi, Indian-Chinese, Tamil-ish Southern, a small operation tucked toward the back staffed with shy Pakistani women in head scarves, and, more segregated still, some dude with wild eyes who does something he calls "Indian/Italian", with a menu that made my head explode (click photos to expand):

Also: a juice/lassi bar. A paan (and newspapers) stand. I may be forgetting a few. Oh, and it smelled just fantastic. Sort of like how South Asia must smell from the International Space Station.

Each concession is a separate, independently owned restaurant, with a full-service kitchen turning out not just a few snacks, but a complete menu of impeccably authentic regional treats (including plenty of rare dishes even full restaurants don't often serve).

My mom protested weakly as I pulled her out of the car while making incomprehensible noises of ecstatic excitement, but she soon was won over by scrumptious plates of samosa chat (Punjab), momo (Nepal), and kati rolls - both chicken tikka and paneer achar (Bombay). It was amazing. Furthering the this-can't-really-be-happening vibe, two bottles of Poland Springs water cost $1, total.

We returned the next day and had, from the Southern guys, the best rava masala dosa of my life (even better than at Flushing's Dosa Hutt):

....and very good sarson da saag accompanied by traditional (and exemplary) makki di roti, i.e. corn bread (Sikh/Punjab):

....and, from the Pakistani counter, glorious goat haleem, the best version I've ever had (including killer haleem made by the great Mina in Queens):

The women there were also flame broiling the best-looking chicken kebabs I've ever seen. I yearn for these kebabs, which I didn't get to try:

Quality ranges from very good to earth-shatteringly great, and everything is diligently authentic (this is no shiny, pandering EPCOT-ish gringo ploy; this place is organically Desi all the way). The catch, which worries me, is that prices are, quite properly, restaurant prices rather than snack bar prices. Non-Indian Americans would never accept this, given the visuals. Hopefully their Indian clientele is cool with it. Me? I gladly pay for quality, period.

Desi Food Galaxy is worth a ride from the city. It's worth renting a hotel nearby for a few days. And lord knows it was worth filling up at en route to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse.

Desi Food Galaxy
2021 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ
The Desi Food Galaxy Online (before clicking to their (outdated) site, be sure and turn your volume up for the full audio experience)

P.S. - Want to know why you can't trust Yelp? Have a look at the complete morons' view.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

SIGA Stress

I started buying stock in SIGA (a firm that's developed an impeccably safe and effective cure for smallpox - including the weaponized varieties which are a major bioterror threat) at about $3.50 (my average is about $6), and, after remaining in the mid-teens as recently as June, it's now down to $1.90. I'll be holding onto my eight year old Toyota for a while.

All of this story is painful, but some of it's interesting, even if you aren't a SIGA investor. I'll compress it as tersely as possible. First, let's review the villains:

SIGA lost a lawsuit this year. Pharmathene, the company with whom they long ago discussed merger (but never signed a deal - all paperwork was stamped - by Pharmathene! - "Non-Binding") was awarded 50% of profits from SIGA's lead drug, ST-246, without any risk or participation in development or marketing. Nice work if you can get it! If that seems crazy, thank Delaware Chancery judge Donald Parsons. Oh, and just before this judgement came out, SIGA's stock was shorted massively

Note: a "short" is a bet that a stock will go down, and it can be hugely profitable when it works - because you don't put up any actual money.

Chimerix is SIGA's only competitor in smallpox antivirals (not vaccines; ST-246 is an out-and-out cure, which works even after infection, and works on weaponized varieties, which vaccines do not). Their drug doesn't cure smallpox in monkeys, and since we can't infect humans with smallpox in order to test it, that makes it a deal-killer, according to the FDA, according to the government agencies that want to stockpile a smallpox cure, and according to most scientists in the field. Chimerix won't go quietly into the night, however. They've protested every effort of the government to award a large stockpiling contract to SIGA. Their monkey-killing drug couldn't win the contract, but they could stall the bejesus out of the process via endless protests (finally, the government, in frustration, made it a sole source contract just to get the damned thing done). And, oh: before each stall, SIGA's stock was shorted massively.

Darrell Issa is an extraordinarily wealthy Republican congressman with numerous ethical and financial issues (for starters, this and this). A few months ago he made noise about a potential investigation of SIGA's contract. Issa proclaimed that this was a sweetheart deal, using a slippery sole-source contract, perpetrated by Obama (never mind that SIGA was supported and nurtured during the Bush administration, or that it might actually be good to protect millions of citizens from bioterror).

The investigation never occurred. But neither did Issa ever retract his allegations. The threat tanked the stock (already weakened from the lawsuit and the collapse of the biotech sector as a whole in light of the Tea Party slash-and-burn ethos - which actually won't affect SIGA, because funding for bioterror countermeasures is pre-allocated). And...just before Issa made his announcement, SIGA's stock was shorted massively.

Getting the picture?

It was revealed that Chimerix' lobbyist, McKenna, Long, and Aldrigde, is a longtime contributor to Issa. So the football was handed off to the right-wing press, salivating for another Solyndra-like boondoggle to trumpet. Last week's press wave was started by a journalist with impeccable credentials and no visible ties to Issa, Chimerix, or McKenna, Long, and Aldrigde, who published a wildly unbalanced and inaccurate hatchet job in the LA Times. I won't take time to rebut the article point for point, so let me just characterize it with a single word: "No."

Fox News picked it up, as did Rush and Glen and all the rest. Obama is throwing big money to SIGA (even though smallpox has been eradicated!) as payback to Ron Pereleman, the company's major investor, because he's a Democratic contributor (Pereleman also contributes to Republicans, and Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security advisor, sits on SIGA's board, and, again, this deal was brewed by the Bush administration, plus - yes, I'm nearly hysterical at this point - this is the sole safe/effective cure for a major national security gap considering that any smart scientist with the right tools can synthesize smallpox virus in a lab and it's a dandy way to make tens of millions of Americans die....but, hey, let's not quibble).

Need I mention that SIGA's stock was massively shorted before this press onslaught launched? You see, shorting's where the real money is! It's hard to make a stock go up, so better to bet that it'll go down, and then do stuff to make it go down! That's a much smarter bet! Not unrelated, you may have seen the 60 Minutes report last week revealing that congressmen are free to short the bejesus out of stocks without restraint - even stocks impacted by their own actions.

Meanwhile, SIGA's drug is very close to FDA approval...and has been for a couple years. The hold-up is determination of dosage - a technicality. Why's FDA stalling? They're not an apolitical agency, so the aforementioned shenanigans are almost surely at play. Next month FDA makes a crucial ruling as to whether, gee whiz, monkeys are really the best test after all. Obviously, Chimerix - which is about to IPO, by the way - would love to see the rule overturned. This has been their game plan: use political leverage to overturn the monkey rule while stalling SIGA in every possible way. FDA's super-sluggish treatment of SIGA indicates they may be sympathetic - or even shorting! Stay tuned for more laughs and excitement.

So that's how my "sure thing" wound up at $1.90. It's basically deus ex machina. And if, meanwhile, terrorists unleash smallpox, just duck and cover. Works like a charm.

On the positive side: forces this titanic aren't randomly unleashed. This is all happening because there are, indeed, gobs and gobs of money at stake (which is why I invested in the first place). So unless SIGA completely dies, which I don't think it will, there should be eventual success. They may be forced to share profits with Pharmathene, thanks to the nutty judge. And they may split contracts with Chimerix, thanks to the crooked Congress and agencies. But it's a great big pot. And right now the stock price doesn't even reflect the $40M shortly due free/clear as down payment for their signed contract with BARDA. But even at $1.90, the shorts are still all in. So it may well go lower before then. The upshot is, as I wrote in September, the stock will go nowhere until multiple contracts are signed (for example, with any country concerned with bioterror) and money's in hand. At this point, news won't do it; only revenue will. So I hold and wait.

The best potential of all is completely undiscussed: ST-246 cures eczema vaccinatum (EV), a rare but life-threatening complication of vaccines that's very similar to smallpox. And lots of major impending medical breakthroughs depend on delivery via vaccine. Plus: don't even get me started on SIGA's pipeline of other drugs (it would be nice if SIGA would update us on them).

On the negative side, SIGA is not defending itself or talking to stockholders. They have not even issued a press release to (easily) rebut the outrageous claims of the recent press blitz. Which makes me wonder about Ron Pereleman's role in all this. I'm not nearly smart enough to see through the veil, but one thing's certain: so long as this company, with prospects so bright as to attract a blitzkrieg of nefariousness, remains a near-penny stock, we'll need to worry about Perelman finding some way to take it he gets all the money (could he be shorting? My head hurts!). This remains my main long-term concern.

In the short and medium term, it's all about yet more patient waiting. Hey, I said from the start that the way would be slow and bumpy!

[Update: there've been some good comments to this post. You may want to give them a read]

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wasteland Wonderland

Ten miles south and across a river from the Indian conclave of Edison, NJ lies a no man's land of central Jersey. It's so nondescript that the area doesn't really have a proper name. Call it Somerset, or call it North Brunswick, what it mostly is is the wasteland to your right as you drive down the clogged artery of Route 1 between New Brunswick and Princeton. It's all strip malls and sterile housing developments where an enormous unseen hand has plunked down ghastly cookie-cutter abodes in tight, nervous clusters. Welcome to freaking nowhere!

The surprising news is that "freaking nowhere" has the most exciting food scene I've found in years. I spotted a dozen Indian restaurants of scattered regionality, serving a new community of Indians fleeing Edison (Indian immigrants tend to cluster, then develop an irresistible urge to disperse but then all wind up together again in some new enclave....rinse and repeat).

But there's way more than just Indian food. I spotted the following great-looking spots, shopping strip holes-in-walls all, which my chow-dar pronounced killer: Luca's Ristorante (2019 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-297-7676), an unsettlingly authentic-looking Ischian spot right next to La Casa De Tortilla (2017 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-398-0660), which appears to offer that rarity of rarities: good Tex-Mex. Just north of those two is a brand new Afghan restaurant (which doesn't google, but I think it was called Chopan). And my chow-dar perked up big time at Istanbul Restaurant & Patisserie (1000 Aaron Rd, North Brunswick Township, NJ; 732-940-1122), right next to an Egyptian grocer, and also at Szechuan Ace (1721 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-937-9330). Amid all this wonderment is also (as I discovered later, via web search) a location of that great Hyberbadi restaurant I raved about in Norwalk CT. This branch is Paradise Biryani Point (1980 Rt 27, Somerset, NJ; 732-821-6300).

One amorphous "town" south, I'll bet Pho 99 (3151 Rt 27 Unit K, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-821-1828) makes terrific Vietnamese soup, and Aroma Royal Thai (3175 Rt 27, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-422-9300) and Paratha Hut (3191 Rt 27, Franklin Park, NJ; 732-940-1005) are worthy, as well (of course I'm a sucker for anything with "Hut" in the name, Pizza Hut being the obvious exception). Even further south on the same road, I actually got to try Main Street Eatery & Gourmet Bakery (56 Main Street, Kingston, NJ; 609-921-2778), and found their brownies and raspberry bars excellent, though a couple notches two sweet. Their cookies, though, are primo.

But none of this is the really big news. That - the find of the year - will have to wait till Monday.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Evolution of Beer Festivals

1980-1995: Closeted beer geeks - taste pariahs in a Bud Lite nation - thrill at the chance to sample lots of great beers all in one place. Brewers bring their best suds, bonds are formed. Food: pretzels if you're lucky

1995-2010: Beer geeks have gone mainstream, and therefore are jaded by omnipresent long beer lists. So beer festivals now mostly serve newbies, and are mostly drunken affairs. Brewers steer clear, sending sales reps with kegs of their most obvious and cheapest products. Food: crass, crappy mustards, novelty beer-flavored cheeses, etc.

2010 - : Hyper-geeky alterno-fests cater only to elite devotees, charging a prohibitive price to filter out drunks and riffraff. No obvious products are served - only the purest and most esoteric beer porn, selected by geeks who know more than you do. Food is awesome and surprising.

In New York, the new crop is best exemplified by New York's Get Real guys. These ever-creative organizers are trying something new, a Get Real NY Beer Bar Fest, on Saturday, December 10 at 404 10th Ave in Manhattan. Here's some P.R. (caution: despite what I wrote above, Rattle 'N Hum's food is anything but awesome...but I'm sure there'll be good stuff, as well):

WHAT: Get Real NY returns this December with its fourth festival – the Beer Bar Fest NYC. The Beer Bar Fest, a premiere craft beer and food event, will bring eight of the city’s best beer bars to one location. Long gone are the days when craft beer bars were known just for their exceptional craft taps.  Today, beer bars are launching serous food programs and awakening to the wonders of how well artisanal foods pair with craft beer. Beer Bar Fest NYC Attendees will relish small bites from each bar artfully paired with some of the finest American craft beer available. A cask and oyster festival will also take place on the second floor and educational seminars on beer and food pairing will be given throughout the sessions. 12% Imports, a premier Brooklyn-based craft beer importer, will be serving a carefully curated selection of their finest kegs during the VIP hour.

WHEN: Saturday, December 10, 2011 over two sessions: 1-4 pm and 7-10 pm. VIPs will gain entry at noon and 6 pm, respectively.

WHERE: 404 Space, 404 10th Ave at 33rd Street, New York, NY, 10001

WHY: The National Restaurant Association Chef Survey (results) recently cited “food-beer pairings/beer dinners” as the number four alcohol and cocktails trend to watch for in 2011 (“locally-produced wine and beer” came in at number two). New York City bars are integrating the enjoyment of exceptional craft ales and lagers with artfully crafted food. The Beer Bar Fest is designed to showcase the finest food and craft beer that New York City has to offer.

SAMPLE PAIRINGS: Rattle n Hum will be pairing its first dish - house ground sea scallops, tiger shrimp and cod fish with herbs and hop salt served with garlic mayo and basil on a toasted brioche bun - with the Stillwater Stateside Saison, a Belgian-style ale brewed in Baltimore. The Bronx Ale House will be serving braised short rib chili, which will be paired with the local Bronx Brewery Pale Ale.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Brain Storm

Wow, this is some seriously rich and brilliant comedic stew...and I don't even get most of the insider references. Adding Mel ("oy vey!") Gibson was pure genius, but so's his contribution. Thanks to Barry Strugatz for the tip.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cookie Video Dissected on Chowhound

There's a very interesting Chowhound discussion going on about that cookie video. There are lots of interesting insights, but, most practically, people have spotted some subtle quirks in how Von does things (like this posting).

There are also some good points made in the comments to the original Slog piece.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mexican Coke

I just learned something new. Did you know that Mexican Coke - the kind made with cane sugar instead of fructose, which comes in old-fashioned heavy glass bottles, usually found in Mexican grocers and taco shops - is distributed to those grocers and taco shops by regular American Coca Cola bottlers? I'm not sure who does the importation, but it sounds like Coca Cola is likely handling that, as well.

I can't even begin to parse out the biz angles involved. But there you go...

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Enigma of Von's Magical Cookies

I've finally completed the video about the great cookies (the trailer was posted a few days ago). There's a story behind why it's so amateurish - I'd originally intended to bring up a production crew - but this isn't the time to tell it. As-is, I invite you to roll with the rough editing, mismatched sound, and fever dream-ish driving footage, and concentrate on the central mystery: why are these cookies so superbly great, when they're made from the most pedestrian recipe and lousy supermarket ingredients? Regular Slog readers will recognize this as a perfect example of the issue that most fascinates and inspires me (see previous articles here, here, and here).

Here's the video (note: you can play it in HD by clicking once in the video frame and then clicking "360p" near the bottom and choosing "HD"). Also: scroll down for the recipe (which I've annotated based on my cookie baking afternoon at Von's). If you try it for yourself, please post your findings in the comments!

Von's Oatmeal Cookies

Crush lumps in 7 oz dark brown sugar (1 cup)

Cream in:
1 stick of Crisco shortening at room temperature
7 oz granulated white sugar (1 cup)

2 beaten large eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract

7 oz flour ( 1 1/2 cups)
1 tsp baking soda
a bit less than 1 tsp salt

At this point, move quickly, because the baking soda is working!

9 oz oatmeal (3 cups)
1/2 cup well-chopped walnuts
1 handful (approx 1/3 cup) Heath bits (found near the nuts at the grocery)

Shape dough into balls, put on parchment paper atop a cookie sheet, flatten to 1/2 inch with a spoon while pushing the edges inward with your other hand.

Put sheet low in preheated oven, atop a second (empty) sheet. Bake 7 minutes at 350 while preparing second sheet.

Move first sheet to a higher oven position and replace it with the second sheet. Bake another 7 or 8 minutes, and continue similarly with subsequent sheets.

Transfer cookies to cooling racks one minute after they're removed from oven

if baked for the right length of time and at the right temperature, the cookies will rise and stay risen, which is ideal. If not, they will collapse slightly. Either is ok, though. The taste is the same.

Update: read a fascinating and insightful Chowhound discussion about the recipe and video.

Update 2: After ten years of pondering this mystery, I figured it out.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"The Enigma of Von's Cookies": The Trailer

I'm working on a video about a guy who bakes the best cookies I've ever had. When I went to his place to shoot the process, I was hit with a great big honking surprise, and I've decided to spoil it right in the trailer.

I'm busily editing the final video right now, and hoping I can make some sense of it all. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the trailer:

Sunday, November 6, 2011

TMDTIATW: Another Connecticut Indian Score

Astonishingly, Connecticut is home to the two best Indian restaurants I currently know. And my latest discovery, Paradise Biryani (280 Connecticut Avenue, Norwalk, CT; 203-956-7133), demolishes the previous fave, Danbury's highly-under-radar Kabab Grill. My meal there last night was the most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW).

Paradise Biryani is part of a chain, with outlets in places like New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and, according to that last link, new ones soon to arrive in Manhattan and Long Island. But that's ok; Indian chains are good (e.g. this one).

There are accomplished chefs who work with great precision and flair, and possess a keen sense of balance and a careful eye for detail. And there are more grandmotherly chefs, less fastidious and refined and fuzzier about details, but whose work devastates you with enveloping soulfulness. The chef here is both: an uber-fastidious technician of great skill and confidence who's easily capable of launching you into a woozy reverie. This incredibly rare combination makes this restaurant well worth a trip from pretty much anywhere. The chain's other locations may be perfectly good, but they certainly won't be the same. Chefs with both chops and soul aren't mass-produced.

Every dish is like a new world, with its own seasoning and lots of unique touches. Don't even imagine you won't need to eventually try every single dish. And don't insult the place by asking me to recommend "what's good". It's not one like that. This is greatness. So much so, in fact, that I'm not entirely sure I deserve to eat here.

The meal was like an Escher painting, in that each new dish surpassed all those preceding, yet, as we returned for second bites of previous items, we always found them better than we'd remembered. Perhaps the experience of each new miracle had made us better people, with improved palates and increased capacity for appreciating greatness. In any event, the math sketches out like this: A is better than B. B is better than C. C is better than A. B is better than A or C. A is better than B or C. Everything is, simply, better.

The place is BYO, but it would be a crime to bring anything less than exquisite to drink. We paid $40 each with tax and tip for a pretty serious repast.

Paneer 65. Grown-up cheese; so much more firm, mature, and nuanced than the norm. It's sauteed until centers are moist and edges crispy. The sauce, like all this kitchen's sauces, makes my head spin. Tons of curry leaf flavor.

Chicken pakora. A cumin-y miracle. So crisp yet so moist. So light and greaseless, you expect them to float. I couldn't escape the feeling that eating these was making me lose weight.

Fish curry. You don't want to fall into the trap of ordering only enticingly-described dishes. This was just: fish curry. But it left me giddy from deliciousness. Sorry for lack of specificity; as I explained once, at a certain quality level, analysis becomes impossible.

Mirch ka saalan, one of many dishes built around chili peppers. The sauce is sesame-based, but tastes a bit like the Lebanese/Turkish approach to lentil soup.

The biryani was puzzlingly similar in appearance to Uzbek plov, the least refined branch of the pilaf tree. The fine basmati rice made it another thing entirely. Yet this, the restaurant's signature dish, which we ordered as a goat version, was merely good-not-great. A great biryani should offer a grab bag; each bite delivering a different mix of components. This was uniform and a bit simple. The meat was added late (and tossed into the bottom, hard to extract), adding little essence to the rice.

Not pictured: Mango lassis weren't made to order, but made use of particularly classy mango. Breads were based on Bisquick, like most places do it, but presented uncommon subtleties of flavor and texture. For dessert, double ka meetha, a buttery Hyerbadi bread pudding, was terrific, but way too rich for me.

Service borders on maddening. It took a half hour to get water and menus (admittedly on a busy night), and we were really looking forward to masala chai at meal's end, but it took a full ten minutes before we were informed that they were all out (and, by this point, the room was pretty empty). Our waiter told us this with a big cheery smile, as if it was really good news. On the other hand, everyone down to the busboy is so absolutely stoked about the food quality here that when they ask how you like everything, they do so with huge Cheshire cat smiles and burning eyes - conspiratorially, as if to say "This is an absolute frickin' miracle, isn't it?" It's exciting.

I'll offer, as a mere lagniappe, a tip about the Polish deli a few feet north up Route 1. Taste of Europe (239 Westport Ave; Norwalk, CT; 203-846-9668) is, I believe, a major culinary point of light. Arriving too late for buffet lunch, I harpooned the remaining single tiny morsel of pork tenderloin from beneath a sea of lukewarm gravy in its steam table tray and found it supernal. There's a short menu of prepared dishes, too - goulash, potato pancakes, etc. I ache to try them. I did grab a take-out slab of Polish cheesecake, and it was as good as I've had. Again and again, I've found that greatness tends to cluster.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

So This is Why Trees Shed Their Leaves For Winter

In Hudson Valley, with three inches of snow fallen and eleven to go, I'm hearing two or three explosive snaps of big tree trunks per minute. This is not good.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Evil That is Panera

I've touched up my massive rant against Panera (and everything else evil in our society). It reads a lot better now. If you've never seen it, take a look - if you can stomach a view of the future where branding wins and independent restaurants go the way of independent bookstores. Plus a bite of horrid, horrid, unthinkably horrid pineapple upside down cake.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Naomi Wolf: How I Was Arrested at Occupy Wall Street

It ends in huffy hyperbole (eroding the power of the piece, which otherwise is wisely cool and factual), and describes what most of us recognize as the inevitable result of defying a cop with his back up (in societies both fully civil and less so). But, still, there are troubling things in this tale of "a middle-aged writer in an evening gown arrested for peaceable conduct".

I don't like one bit what Wolf describes as "the web of 'overpermiticisation' – requirements that were designed to stifle freedom of assembly and the right to petition government for redress of grievances." And I like even less implications that police may be fabricating new rules on the fly and lying about law in order to make their work more convenient. Protecting the expression of civil liberties must always take precedence over the inevitable inconvenience such expression causes authorities.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Poverty is Relative

It's a horrendous recession, everyone's unemployed, their homes underwater or teetering on foreclosure, but, man, just try to get anyone to do an odd job at a reasonable price. Last spring I invited an unemployed, in-foreclosure friend to build a new deck for me at an hourly wage that would help pay his bills for a while, but wouldn't kill me, either. He agreed, but, six months later, he's still "too busy" to get around to it.

Many years ago, I was friends with a talented photographer who constantly complained about her lack of work. She could never go out and do anything; there was literally no cash on hand. Things were really tough.

A magazine I wrote for didn't have time to shoot a restaurant facade to accompany my review. I recommended my friend, and they agreed. So I called her up to tell her the good news - that she could make a quick $75 by simply walking a few blocks from her apartment and snapping a photo. I figured she'd be thrilled.

Her reply?
"$75? Tell them they can go fuck themselves!"

Monday, October 17, 2011

Six Writing Tips

I once was a writer (entertaining examples). Nine books as author, coauthor, or contributor, columns for Newsday and NY Press (back when it was good!), frequent contributor to Newsweek, Bloomberg News Radio, and many others.

My writing here on the Slog sometimes springs from the writerly part of my mind, but usually is more personal - ideas and observations offered informally, without particular care taken in their expression. The following are hard-won writing tips for occasions when you need to take particular care. Many are actually editing tips rather than writing tips. But writing is 75% editing (in fact, that's the best tip of all!).

1. Keep Switching Formats to Edit

After you finish editing on computer, print it out. You'll be shocked by the number of new problems you find. Then try reading it out loud, noting problems (there will be plenty) as you go. Then print it out again with a different font and line spacing to uncover still more issues. Another trick: have someone read and offer their general impression. Then return to the writing, and you'll view it in a new light - and spot even more flaws.

2. Time Lends Perspective

If at all possible, put the writing aside for a few days (or, at least, a few hours). And pity theater critics, who must always get their reviews in the next day's paper. I honestly don't know how they do it.

3. Close Shave

Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.


Now, at this point, pass through looking to relentlessly cut cutting every single unnecessary word (as if you were aiming to trim it to fit an arbitrary word count). You need to Do this as dispassionately as possible, because we all have habits of using certain extra words, so they can seem perfectly ok at your first glance. But you'll find that if you remove them, the writing gets sleek and easier for people to read.

4. Butcher Your Favorite Children

Every creative person, without exception, has had the unenviable experience of cutting out their favorite material because it failed to serve the greater good of a given piece of work. Join the ranks of The Miserable, and get used to the idea that literally anything's fair game.

5. Change the More Changeable

It's very common for inexperienced writers to fix the wrong instance. For example, the repeated word problem in this sentence:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!
gets corrected to this awkward result:
I decided to move to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong action!
rather than this better one:
I decided to relocate to suburbia, but, boy, was that ever the wrong move!

6. Fix the Thinking, not the Writing

When you get stuck, you may feel certain the idea itself is well-formed and the problem is in the expression. You'd be wrong. Well-composed thoughts always express fluidly. If you can't express something, you haven't fully fleshed out the idea. So stop writing, mull over the subject, tighten up your understanding, and then return to writing. You'll find that it flows easily.

(Anecdote: I used to play in a big band alongside a trombonist who was a great player but couldn't improvise. He often complained that he had really great solos in his head, but could never seem to get them out on his horn. I finally asked him to hum one of those great solos. What came out were just vague, unspecific shapes and gestures.)

Finally, see the "Audition" portion of "The Times Everything Worked Out" for a taste of the commitment required to really excel.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I'm Not the Only Bozo

Google says "thnaks" appears 1,900,000 times on the Internet.


I'm incredibly thnakful for the validation....

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Times Everything Worked Out

I'd fallen rapturously in love with Portugal on my first trip to Lisbon. My nights were spent playing jazz in a local club, but afternoons were free, so one day I took a trip to Sintra, a mystical mountain renowned for its lush beauty. I brought along a camera, though my photography skills were minimal (I'd point the thing toward whatever I wanted to document and push the button. There: my cousin. There: the boat. There: the building. After all, isn't this what you're supposed to do? I was following the instruction manual to the letter!).

But this day on gorgeous Sintra, I was moved. I saw beautiful scenes, but, raising my camera, felt the daunting near-futility of trying to do justice to them on film. So I applied unfamiliar levels of time and care, refusing to snap the picture until what I was seeing through the camera expressed precisely what I was feeling. Until then, I waited, patiently peering through the lens, micro-adjusting the composition by a millimeter in one direction or another. There were still subtler nano-adjustments, where the shot didn't change but my intention somehow did. Only when I felt an inner swelling of exultation, moved by what I saw, did I push the button.

To my flabbergasted astonishment, the photographs were gallery quality. Everyone who saw them fell in love with Sintra just as I had.

Tasting Notes
A friend and I were invited to a high-end port wine tasting. My friend loved port, but fell ill and couldn't attend. I felt badly, and vowed to capture the experience so evocatively that he'd feel as if he'd tried everything.

The tasting evoked treasured memories of drinking low-end port in Portugal, and I drew on that as I sat alone, blissfully sipping and furiously scribbling, intent on doing justice to these rare and fantastic wines.

Not being a trained wine taster, I lacked vocabulary. But I funneled my writing skill, my vast admiration for the wines, and my fervid desire to create an evocative account into the task. And the results so impressed the tasting's host (a major wine collector) that he spent the next several years opening the best wines of the century for my enjoyment and education.

The Audition
There was a call for restaurant critics at a small Manhattan newspaper. Never having written professionally, I prepared three sample reviews of favorite restaurants, and I did not look up from my computer until these articles were honed to perfection. Each word - every phoneme - contributed to the picture I was painting, and it was all painstakingly arranged to create a seamless rhythm. I applied the minute care usually reserved for poetry or haiku so the reader would immerse in a vicarious experience of eating in these restaurants I loved so much.

I got the job.

Here's a secret about Chowhound. We were not the first restaurant forum. When I built it in 1997, there were a couple of other sites devoted to user-contributed restaurant reviews. They consisted of bland (or cutesy) listings of restaurants, each of which contained a space where you could write your review. Ok: Go! Review!!

Of course, no one did, and these flat, corporate, soulless sites remained empty edifices. I opened Chowhound, and filled it with personality. Every element was chosen with loving care. People arrived and instantly felt at home. We eventually pulled in nearly a million of them with no budget or advertising.

Romantically, I discovered early on that if you commit to never touching your partner with less than 100% of your full love and affection, and to focusing 100% of your attention on their every touch - and extend this commitment to the subtlest possible level - nothing else matters.

The Upshot
I wasn't trying to take great pictures, much less have people think I'm a good photographer. I wasn't trying to write great wine notes, much less impress wine honchos. I wasn't trying to become a well-known food writer, or start a massively popular web site, or impress women. I was simply caring...a lot. Possibly too much. Likely to a degree the mainstream would consider odd.

Don't get the wrong idea. My victories have been few; I've failed much more than I've succeeded. I've recounted a few singular high points amid a life mostly spent in a state of rushed, anguished obliviousness, so I can't be smug about any of this! I am, however, confident that I've dumbly stumbled upon the key, even though I only rarely remember to apply it: Love. Care. Fervor. Attention. Intention. Subtlety. Detail. Commitment. "Doing justice to..." Or, as I more succinctly explained in my article explaining the magic of Steve Jobs, it's about "lavishing heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it."

This is all that's necessary to transcend humanity's needlessly grey, grim, grinding experience. It's the open doorway of the divine. Shakti makes the choice and shakti empowers the result. You only have to give a damn (about what you're doing, rather than about reaching a specific result).

Pot Roast Postscript
My mom, a poor cook, always burnt the pot roast. Literally always. I kept trying to problem-solve the situation, which had evolved into an exasperated family joke. But as we discussed it, over many years, I gradually recognized the truth, which shocked me: it didn't really matter to her. Feeding the family, period, felt sufficient. Food was on the table. She'd pointed the camera and snapped the button.

An eternal problem makes all of this extraordinarily slippery for most people. Here's the thing: anyone who does anything (most people do nothing) labors to do that thing, even if their work is pedestrian and uninspired. It takes exertion and discipline to write a crappy novel or cook insipid chowder! Sloppy, ordinary hackwork requires serious effort (though a mere fraction of the effort required to produce greatness), so even complete hacks figure they've dug deep, paid dues, and know all about commitment. Hordes of shiftless shitheads would read this posting while nodding their heads in sage affirmation. "So true!"

500 miles is a long journey, and so is 20,000 light years, but the fact that both could be described as "long" doesn't make them similar.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Best Coconut Water

Coconut water's a big craze right now. I've tried many brands, and they all taste more or less the same. But I just discovered Taste Nirvana Real Coconut Water, which is made from a different variety of Thai coconuts than we're used to.

This stuff's so much deeper, clearer, and more alive-tasting; I don't think I can go back to other brands now that I've tasted this. Here is a store locator (I see they're for sale at Whole Foods, and at a reasonable price in bulk from Amazon).


Friday, October 7, 2011

Explaining Steve Jobs

I'd like to try to discuss the thing about Steve Jobs that everyone's dancing around - the thing Jobs himself danced around on the few occasions he tried to explain himself.

I'll give it a name. But I'll dance around some, too, because I won't try to define that name. The naming will help, though, because once you have even a vague, intuitive notion of what I'm describing, you'll start seeing it everywhere. It's the thing that made Jobs Jobs - and made Apple so successful and capable of changing all our lives.

People never get to the root of this thing which I haven't yet named. They poke around surfaces, trying to reverse-engineer a recipe, figuring they can achieve similar results by reducing it to rules and then following those rules. Silly humans! JS Bach composed deeply beautiful and inspiring chorales, which musicologists later explained via a series of rules which theoretically allow anyone to whip up chorales of their own. Composers follow those rules even today, though their work is seldom beautiful or inspiring.

Whatever it is, it ain't in the rules. The rules always come after. Bach wasn't following rules. You don't get anywhere great from canned recipes. And, yes, I've just restated one of the primary rules Jobs-watchers (and even Jobs himself) have frequently cited. But, you see, the rule is never the thing. And "the thing" is too slippery to explain directly. I wrote about magic several months ago, describing it as the last undefined term, and the only one with any power left. So here's another facet of all that:


Like "magic", I won't neuter it by trying to define it (you may google and wiki it all you'd like, but you'll only drift further and further away). But you've seen shakti at work. It's what powers those moments when humans do extraordinary things.

Remember how Chris Rock was just so-so on SNL, but then he did that first TV special, and he wasn't just funny, he was deeply, deeply brilliant; so lucid, so razor-sharp, so oh-my-god-I-just-can't-stand-it that you knew a whole other thing was happening? It wasn't just a good comedian getting better. It was an entirely new level. Shakti!

Keith Jarrett's legendary Koln Concert was a great big wave of Shakti, and you can hear it mounting if you listen closely. Einstein's theory of General Relativity, which popped out of nowhere from the 37 year old mind of a respected but not exceptional scientist (who never reached those heights again) was another example.

Whenever someone pushes their game up to Infinity, giving chills or changing the world (regardless of whether the world notices), that's Shakti. It's the ozone one smells during the lightning flash of profound creativity. And it's the fabric of the lightning itself. We know it intimately, because without a squirt of Shakti, we're all just bags of meat. With a full jolt of it, creativity is boundless, and we are elevated, for a moment, to the Divine.

An indescribable sense of elevation galvanizes your attention. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. Picasso's Guernica. The kindness of New Yorkers on 9/12/01. The first hug of new love. Susan Boyle singing her heart out on that sappy song. Stephen Colbert's wit, at least once per show. The Arepa Lady on a good night. Rising unexpectedly to an occasion...that's Shakti. When someone kisses you so ardently you have to breathlessly pull away, that's shakti. Most of all, when you recognize, with astonishment, that someone's lavished heart-breaking love and caring generosity and ingenuity into something - so much so that you almost can't stand it, that's Shakti.

"Almost can't stand it." That's it right there. People love their iPhones so much they almost can't stand it. And their iPads. And there was always a buzz to be caught from the unlikely childlike sincerity of Jobs' keynote speeches. Such feelings don't make you a fanboy or a materialistic yuppie. Apple's devices are transcendent, because they are steeped in Shakti. It's incredibly contagious.

What's the source of Steve Jobs' Shakti? He tried to explain in his Stanford commencement address. Ironically, he condensed it into rules. That's always what happens. Again, the rule's not the thing (must one dutifully obey a command to "Think Different"?). You can't codify it. You just gotta surrender to the Shakti. Simple as that.

How does that come about? While I've not used the actual word (except here), I've been quietly writing about just that here for several years - especially in the entries you may have least felt like reading. This is territory few modern, sophisticated, educated people want to go near (as much as they may covet the results). Jobs wasn't actually very sophisticated. He wasn't even a college grad. What he was, even with all his deep flaws, was one of our era's foremost karma yogis. And the ozone-like smell in the air this week - so palpable, as multitudes feel unexpectedly crestfallen over his death, and suddenly realize that his creativity was of an entirely different, transcendent level, utterly permeated with love and caring generosity and ingenuity - is the contrail of his shakti.

Blog Archive