Thursday, July 28, 2011

Centrism, Shmentrism!

Let me say it squarely: the Republicans are behaving shamelessly. They haven't given a damn about deficits for many years (Dick Cheney, 2004: "You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don't matter"), plus many wouldn't mind wrecking the economy if it might harm Obama's reelection chances (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." And remember Republicans openly gloating at Chicago's failure to secure the Olympics?).

So, there. I'm off the fence on this issue. But I am still, generally, an independent, a centrist, a....well, according to Paul Krugman, a cult member. And he has a point. What the hell; I'll paste in his entire piece
"Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis — a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences — it’s increasingly obvious that what we’re looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.

And no, I don’t mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, OK, that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.

No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship."

It reminds me of the press we used to get. Chowhound was the most extreme case of a sincere labor-of-love public service do-gooder big wet maraschino cherry kumbaya kiss. If Pollyanna had a web site, Chowhound would have been it: nice people encouraging nice people to share tips about yummy yum-yums, with no ads or commercialism. It was a sugar sandwich on sugar bread frosted with sugar and eaten off a sugar plate.

Reporters loved the site - what's not to love? - and effusively praised it to me, privately. But then they'd write these reserved, tight-assed if they didn't want to appear uncool. And their signature move was to strain for gratuitous dirt to serve as counterbalance.

They'd approach our competitors for "the other side of the story", which they'd gleefully supply. And a handful of jealous food writers - former friends of mine - enjoyed an ongoing trickle of national publicity by supplying catty remarks on cue. None of their tropes were legitimate, it was all bullshit. At one point, I actually considered creating a document to send to reporters listing bona fide negatives about me and the site, so they could have their blessed balance without circulating untruths.

That said, I still always recognized that reporters are not supposed to take a stand - or even appear to. If Jesus came back to hand out lollipops, they'd need to find disgruntled diabetic atheists to cluck their tongues. And that's as it should be...usually. We don't want journalists supplying just one side of the story. Talk radio is no worthy model. And, as a result, there's a brisk trade in concocted dissent re: all matters under the sun. A trumped-up yang for every worthy yin.

But as with Chowhound, there aren't two legitimate sides to this particular story. When one party holds the fiscal well-being of the nation ransom to advance their reactionary agenda, that's not conflicting philosophies. That's not partisanship out of control. That's not two breeds of ineffectual bums. No, that's unpatriotic self-serving assholes amply deserving rebuke.

And I'm well aware - as I'm sure you are - that this is mere opportunism, and that of course the freaking debt ceiling will be raised (for six months, anyway; the goal clearly being to entrench this opportunism as a periodic lever). But not before the business climate, hair-trigger sensitive about future interest rates, is chilled, markets tumble, and our rock-like world-leading fiscal steadfastness - America's premier asset - is irreparably eroded by the widespread horror at this cynical game of "chicken"

Talk about being on the wrong side of history! A century from now, historians will recall this action as the baldest villainy.

So, there, Paul Krugman, I've said it!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Selling Apple

I just sold all my Apple stock, which I'd bought at $115, for $400.

This does not mean I believe their success won't continue. It's just that enormous future success is already built into the price, so there's nowhere to go.

Apple has been swinging between $325 and $375 for quite some time. As I've written previously, one characteristic of a hyper-optimistic stock price is that investors are skittish, and prone to sell on the slightest whiff of bad news. In Apple's case, the price always quickly recovers because 1. the bad news has all been slight, and 2. hyper-optimism is valid.

At some point, though, there will be bad news that's more than slight, and some panic selling. And that's when I'll buy back in again.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Always Opt For "Manic"

I've had a challenging couple of weeks. SIGA, my beloved (and super-slowly unfolding) biotech investment has plummeted to under $8, for reasons described here. My paper losses are off the hook, though I'm as hopeful about the long term prospects as ever. And I  learned owning one's own home means either 1.watering plants, or 2. seeing plants die. I hadn't factored that in, and so I've unexpectedly found myself a resentful slave to hoses and sprinklers. And I lost the smart keycard for my car (no fancy ride, just a regular old Mazda), and the dealer wanted $800 - not a typo! - to replace it. I spent weeks unable to drive it, while ransacking my place in futile effort to find the damned thing. I developed, weirdly suddenly, "old guy" eyes; all of a sudden I can't read without removing my glasses. And, the heat wave knocked me, like many people, into a semi-fugue state. Lastly, there was friction with a couple of the folks managing my old web site; perhaps the final chapter of an old woeful saga many of you have been following along.

I don't reset swiftly. As negatives aggregate, I feel more and more weighed down. Add in a few errant everyday slings and arrows, and my usual reaction is to pull inward - to hunker down for a day or two, until, bored and restless, I zestfully return to the outer world.

This time, I tried something new. Instead of shutting down, I opened the throttle and went all "Martha Stewart". I tore fiercely through my long-stalled to-do list. In about eight hours, I snaked through DMV, resolved an insurance issue, trimmed an enormous hedge, took my car for a tune-up, had a business meeting, tracked down and bought a lead sash weight (discovering three very promising Dominican luncheonettes en route), sent a few dozen emails, walked a couple miles, 
watered those goddam plants, and helped a stranger work out the (actually quite sensible) root of his obsession with UFO's.*

I blasted through it all with great manic brio, but also quite a bit of agitation. I can't say it was a pleasant day, but a manic day of jittery mega accomplishment certainly leaves one feeling much better than a depressed day of numb retraction.

Loch Kelly, a brilliant teacher of an esoteric school of Buddhism called Dzogchen, says that the world is so crazy-making that sanity's really not an option. One can either be goaded up into anxiety, or else numbed down into depression. The third option, pursued by a nerdy few, is to drop into clarity. On a good day, I can manage some clarity. But on bad days, when I get caught up in it all, I'm starting to suspect that anxiety may be the better option.

* - and wrote this breathless Slog entry.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Edmund Burke Against Grover Norquist

Garry Wills has written an interesting and eloquent refutation of the trend of imposing "pledges" on lawmakers - most famous of which is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge proferred by Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform: a promise to never, under any conditions, support the raising of a tax.

Wills explains that there's been a long history of attempting to lock politicians into pledges, dating back to the governmental "instructions" of the 18th and 19th centuries:

"Constituents issued instructions on how to vote, and candidates for office bound themselves to follow such instructions. Otherwise, it was said, how could a member of Parliament be echoing what his constituents thought or wanted? The obvious objection to this is that it makes office holders impervious to changed conditions, new evidence, the learning experience of exchanges with his fellows, personal growth, or crises of one sort or another. It would render parliamentary discussion otiose and ineffectual."
It turns out that Edmund Burke thoroughly refuted this sort of thing back in 1774 (here's his gist: "What sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion?"). Of course, one could also point out that Clarence Darrow refuted opposition to teaching evolution back in 1925. Foolishness evades enduring refute.

And irrefutability is the very problem. The more comfortable we become with the irrefutable as we amass foregone conclusions and hardened positions, the less reason will ever be to listen, discuss, grow, or learn.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Seeing and Believing

A couple goodies from the BBC Horizon web site recommended yesterday:

Cool visual illusions

How Good are you at spotting phony smiles

Thursday, July 21, 2011

What is Reality

The BBC has been presenting very high quality science specials in a series titled "Horizon", which is almost completely unknown here, though it puts our Science Channel to shame.

I've found an index of years of Horizons programs. Click a show to view snippets and cool web extras, and google show titles to see if they're available on YouTube, Google Video, or Hulu (many are).

That index stopped at 2008, but here's another, showing some, but not all, subsequent shows. Again, the trick is to search for the show titles online.

One of the most recent, titled "What is Reality", is available in its entirety on YouTube (and, extra confusingly, isn't indexed at either link above). Here it is:

Here's another Horizon program, this one on the development of Big Bang Theory:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

3D Printing is Getting Really Good

3D printers are like regular ink jet printers, only they print depth as well as height and width. And the technology seems to be improving rapidly:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Amazing Transformer Furniture & Mind-Blowing Murphy Beds

I'm going to be posting a series of science/technology/engineering video links over the next few days.

Today's link is a video the YouTube crowd hasn't discovered yet, demonstrating the breathtaking engineering and design of Resource Furniture, manufacturers of amazing transformer furniture and mind-blowing Murphy beds.

FYI, Resource Furniture seems to have a showroom in Manhattan at 969 Third Avenue.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Murdoch and Fox News

If you were wondering about the effect of the mushrooming Murdoch scandal on Fox News, here's a savvy short write-up from NY Magazine's Gabriel Sherman.

The gist:

Depending on how the ultimate chapter unfolds for Rupert Murdoch, [Roger] Ailes, more than anyone inside News Corp., stands to gain significantly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Brain Bugs ("The Cognitive Flaws That Shape Our Lives")

It's weird how a lot of stuff I get interested in eventually becomes trendy. I guess that's something someone might boast about, but I'd rather be squarely in the middle of stuff rather than always being the lonely nerd enthusing about stuff nobody gives a damn about (yet).

I just came across this recent episode of Fresh Air about brain bugs ("The Cognitive Flaws That Shape Our Lives").

I've been fascinated with the subject years. Here are a few brain bugs I've noticed:

Never Count on Redemption
Ceding to the Idiots
Natural Egocentric Dispositions
Going All the Way in One's Shmuckery

...and, especially, this trio:
Selfishness and Generosity
Common Strange Shifts of Perspective
and More Strange Perceptual Shifts

Finally, see Leff's Laws

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Natural Egocentric Dispositions

Nine ways our natural egocentricity (the tendency to think of ourselves as central) steers us wrong. Several are surprising and revealing.

I've loved this sort of thing from an early age. At age nine, I began noticing that everyone, without exception, was nuts, and developed a fascination with spotting fallacy and delusion. I tried, for a few decades, to singlehandedly correct the problem...with disappointing (not to mention unappreciative) results. Then I began observing my own irrationalities, a more fruitful pursuit (unavoidably involving increasing interest in the unconscious).

Not that it's necessary to be a rigorously logical Spock. Sometimes I revel in irrationality, if only to spice things up. And, anyway, the more I observe my own thinking, the more inspired I am to think less, generally, as sanity is found in flow, not cogitation. But I see myself as having been placed on an inexplicable planet where inexplicable things happen, with a vague sense that we all have everything quite wrong. So it's a no-brainer (heh) that I'd seek to identify and remove layers of delusion.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Best Wine Buying Tip You'll Ever Read

Here's the best and littlest-known wine trick out there.

Fancy, expensive restaurants do not, for the most part, serve fancy, expensive wine. Here's why: the $100 (retail) bottles which might be expected to accompany $200 dinners must be healthily marked up, and few diners will lay out  hundreds for a bottle of vino. You'll find such bottles lurking on some wine lists, but they are by no means the bulk of what's actually served.

Because of this conundrum, sommeliers at high-end restaurants must make it their stressful job to suss out $20-40 retail bottles which deserve to be served with top-quality food...and which will strike diners as being well worth a 200%-300% marked-up price. A sticky wicket!

I'm fanatical about discovering great unsung foods and drinks myself. But these legions of sommeliers - competing with each other to find fantastic values, all under flop-sweat pressure to pull off nonstop wine buying miracles or else lose their jobs - make me lazy. Like them, I'm interested in great $20 bottles. We share that goal, and so I often draft along behind their efforts. They are my chowhoundish stringers, fervidly foraging under pain of (career) death. Nice!

So here's what you do. Go to the web site of two or three expensive restaurants you trust and admire. Crib from the wine list. Check retail prices. Rub hands in glee. And go pick up a few bottles.

Or, better yet, go to the restaurant, enjoy a meal, and ask for sample splashes of a few wines at the bar before seating. This instant free wine tasting might pay for the entire meal if you discover a great budget wine or two.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

More Strange Perceptual Shifts

Followup to this posting:

Thoughtful people are surprised and disarmed by thoughtfulness.

Thoughtless people are unsurprised and unaffected by thoughtfulness.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

SIGA's Latest Chapter

SIGA's price has fallen alarmingly low. But keep the faith. 

SIGA finally got its contract, worth $433M. Which is huge news (though the most lucrative parts will be pushed forward into a different, future contract). But as SIGA transforms from a speculative little biotech company with no revenue into a serious, profitable pharma outfit, they're being considered by more mainstream investors. And while long timers like me are used to things like the Pharmathene lawsuit, Chimerix's attempts to stall, and the various political games, these more staid investors are terrified by all these clouds, and so they ain't buying. Meanwhile, long time SIGA investors, fed up and less patient than I, are selling in disgust (individual investors love to sell low...nearly as much as they love to buy high!). And since there won't be another big gulp of revenue for some time, the fast-buck hotshots, who don't like to buy-and-hold, are also standing back.

Lots of sellers and few buyers. Hence: stock price tankage.

But the clouds will gradually part. The lawsuit should resolve shortly. The politics? Who knows; but the important thing is that SIGA has the only safe/effective smallpox cure. The company has won a $433M contract, many others will follow, FDA approval and foreign orders will come in time, and SIGA's pipeline of in-development drugs is awesome. So the stalling can only postpone the inevitable. Their sole competitor's product can't cure monkeys, and since no one's going to make humans sick with smallpox for drug testing, that's a fatal flaw in more ways than one.

It will remain bumpy for a while, but in the long run, SIGA will be enormously profitable. As one of the honchos of the US Dept. of Health and Human Services recently said, "The technology now exists for someone with the right tools and the wrong intentions to create a new smallpox virus in a laboratory.” It's terrifying. And the possibility also exists for cowpox and monkeypox to become human scourges. And SIGA's drug (and SIGA's drug alone) is completely effective on all variants, and is ridiculously safe.

I never said it'd happen fast, or on schedule. But it will happen.

An interesting article: Page 1 and page 2

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