Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TMDTIATW: Connecticut Kababs

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was at the best North Indian/Pakistani restaurant I currently know, Kabab Grill (35 White St, Danbury, CT; 203-205-2222). I wrote about them on Chowhound a few months ago, and I've been making special trips there.

Pretty much everything they make is great. And this time, the many plates we ordered were devoured before I had a chance to photograph them. But I did catch the tail end of our luscious chicken achar (chicken in pickled sauce, traditionally featuring mustard oil and white vinegar) and some beautiful garlic naan fresh from the oven:

As always, click each photo for the full experience.

Kabab Grill is a humble undecorated boxy storefront. They do absolutely nothing to trumpet their quality, and, as a result, it's chronically empty. I live in fear that they will close due to lack of interest. If so, we just don't deserve great places.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricanes Bring Us Cuba

East Coasters: When the hurricane hits you, don't forget to take a deep whiff. It's like a trip to the Caribbean. Hurricane air masses are dense, so you're breathing at least some tropical air, and you can smell it. Hurricane air makes me feel like I'm in "Key Largo" with Humphrey Bogart!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mark Zuckerberg isn't Mark Zuckerberg

Seth Godin is rightest when he's wrong. Or wrongest when he's right.

Here's his latest:
Mark Zuckerberg isn't Mark Zuckerberg

"Mark Zuckerberg" has become a codeword for the truly gifted exception, the wunderkind freak of nature for whom traditional rules don't apply.

Well, sure, Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of Harvard, but you're not Mark Zuckerberg...

Here's the thing: Even Mark isn't Mark Zuckerberg.

This notion that there's a one in a billion alignment of DNA and experience that magically creates an exception is just total nonsense. Mark is successful because of a million small choices, not because he, and he alone, has some magical properties.

Mostly, the best way to be the next Mark Zuckerberg is to make difficult choices.
But the difference between anything and anything else is an aggregate of a million small choices! Everything you or I do - and everything we are - stems from that aggregate. Magic - an alignment of myriad small choices - is precisely what makes Zuckerberg "special". A "one in a billion alignment."

Yes, anyone could do equally well by making a plethora of canny nano-choices. Similarly, anyone could play like Paganini by carefully choosing their hand movements.

The deepest question is: what drives us to make the choices we do? We can't discuss that without getting all yoga. For one thing, scientists still have no idea what consciousness is.

Kudos, Commenters

I wanted to take a moment to thank our commenters. When I launched this Slog, I considered closing it off to comment, because one of the most unpleasant parts of running Chowhound had been finding myself splayed open for public excoriation by any Internet troll or crazy. I was burnt out on that. And furthermore, I expected my unorthodox perspectives to be misunderstood, and have never devised an effective means of responding to people angered by opinions they've misunderstood (if you have a suggestion, please leave a comment!).

But the commenters here, while few, have been uncommonly thoughtful and courteous, even on contentious issues. I really value their contribution. And invite you to check back to read the commentary on previously-read articles. Like the recent couple about Libya (#1 and #2). Or the terrific book recommendation here. Or this extensively commented golden oldie.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

His Darling Condoleezza

Gaddafi apparently wasn't kidding when he said, a few years ago (of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice):
“I support my darling black African woman,” he said. “I admire and am very proud of the way she leans back and gives orders to the Arab leaders … Leezza, Leezza, Leezza. … I love her very much. I admire her and I’m proud of her because she’s a black woman of African origin.”
A news story today reports that he's been scrapbooking her photos. Eeesh.

On a serious note: if the description of admiring someone for "leaning back and giving orders" strikes you as bizarre, consider it in light of my suggestion a few days ago about tribal societies having very different values (also, have a look at the discussion currently going on in the comments beneath that article).

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

SIGA's Pipeline

More good news from SIGA: a $7.7 million grant from the government to develop its drug for Lassa fever and other arenaviruses. According to SIGA's chief scientific officer:
"This grant is similar to the $6.5 million grant for dengue fever drug development awarded to SIGA in May in that both grants are expected to fund development activities that will lead to an investigational new drug application ("IND") that SIGA can file with the FDA."
Dengue fever, by the way, is an enormous potential market. SIGA's lead drug, ST-246, treats a virus no one will catch unless terrorists unleash it (as they well might), but dengue is a growing scourge. It's currently spreading out of Southeast Asia into China, around and across the Pacific into America. The potential profit from a dengue cure would be enormous.

Needless to say, SIGA's stock price appears to be headed into the red for the day on the good news of this grant. Sigh. A SIGA investor's prayer: please, Jesus, let there be no more good news from SIGA for a while so its stock can recover.

Long term, it's great for SIGA to have a thriving pipeline of drugs in development. And it's great to have this income. Between the grants and the whopping prepayment soon due for their smallpox contract, there's little chance they'll need to dilute the stock to fund operations (always a peril with biotechs).

One curious thing. On August 3, SIGA presented to the bigwigs at Goldman Sachs, and their stock immediately crashed on very high volume. Curiously, the other (very bright prospect) biotech presenting to GS that day was DVAX, and their stock also tanked with a very similar chart. It can't possibly be that Sachs found a way to crash both stocks so they could enter cheaply, can it? Well, either way, all good things come to those who wait....very, very patiently!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

TMDTIATW: Powwow Chow

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was at the annual Mohegan Wigwam Festival (aka Green Corn Festival), out in the woods a mile or so from the shiny Mohegan Sun Casino and Hotel complex.

It feels like a million miles from all the din, though. If you'd imagine that the casino glitz has diluted the tribal culture, you'd be dead wrong. Each year, the tribe hosts this dandy powwow. And while the facilities are, as you'd imagine, top-notch, it all feels soulful and down-home. And the drumming's stellar:

I come for that and for the food stalls. While the Northeast isn't known for primo Indian cuisine (ala Arizona or New Mexico) - indeed, the fry bread here tastes more like street fair zeppole - there are always some unusual and delicious items to be found. Last year, I loved the deer meat and potatoes, as well as the luxuriously broad-flavoed Indian pudding. But this time I got [as always, please click photos to expand for extra porn]:

Smoked mussels (outrageously smokey, beautifully sauteed):

French fried frogs legs (sorry for blur):

And, most locally authentic of all, quahog fritters (just superb; the batter is permeated with the flavor of clam and ocean). Here's something you won't find on reservations in New Mexico:

Good news: the chef of this particular concession (Sherry Pocknett) has a catering business in Massachusetts (Sly Fox's Den/Wampanoag Cooking, 13 Main Street, Mashpee, MA; 774-521-7405). Here's her flyer:

Libya: Celebration and Ambivalence

At last, it looks like the end for Muammar Gaddafi. One of the worst monsters the world has known, this thug enslaved two generations of Libyans. Seeing beaming, relieved faces celebrating in the former Green Square of Tripoli on television tonight was a great joy.

And yet, I do feel ambivalence. We never seem to learn an important lesson: tribal societies rarely seem to hold together without a strongman chief - abhorrent though such a system is to us. Otherwise, there's often chaos, civil war, and the sort of nihilism which gives rise to extremism. Mongooses like Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein are ideally suited to repel cobras such as Al Qaeda. And from a perspective far beyond these country's borders, that's a potent truth.

From that same perspective, the nice thing about dictators (Kim Jong-il aside) is that they're individuals with whom we can speak and negotiate. They're at least somewhat subject to pressure and persuasion. Try that with the Taliban or with Iran's mullahs. And this is why America has often propped up dictators. Such immoral associations may violate our democratic values, but the practical benefits are undeniable.

Another element of my ambivalence is that we've never been quite sure who the Libyan rebels actually are or what they really want*. The humanist in me, who exults in the downfall of Gaddafi, says "Who cares?". Everyone deserves to live free, regardless of my approval of their perspective and values. But the realist in me recognizes that similar exultation was felt when oppressed masses overthrew the Shah, the Soviet invaders in Afghanistan, and the Russian czar. The outcomes were tragic for locals, but violently shook the world far beyond their borders, helping make the 20th century the hell it was. Even the rise of Nazi Germany might be seen in this light: a defiant throwing off of insufferable economic/political shackles imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, with bad consequences for locals and utter catastrophe for the world.

My soul, which is sympathetic, roots for revolutionaries. But my brain, which is fearful, sees the value of strongman-enforced status quo. This is why I stop short of completely deploring America's realpolitik post-war policies. They were rarely humanitarian, but they may, in some cases, have been best for humanity.

In other cases, not so much. And, as with capital punishment, when you get it wrong, innocents inevitably get brutalized. I'm not much for that, so tonight I celebrate with the Libyan rebels.

* - When the news anchorman reported that Tripoli's Green Square had been renamed, I silently wished for "Freedom Square". But no. It's to be "Martyr Square". This does not bode well for moderation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Retailers Doing Grudging Favors

I shattered the glass on my iPhone, and the Apple Store "genius" told me it's normally $200 to replace, but that, as a one-time courtesy, he'd swap me a new phone. And then he got very solemn, and told me they'd never do me a favor like this ever again. Ever.

A chill descended. My delight at saving $200 had been replaced with a rush of dread. I very nearly asked him to take my money - take whatever he wants! - just, for God's sake, don't cut me off like that! I've been a loyal Apple customer since 1988, and for two hundred lousy bucks, I'd used up every iota of built-up good will...forever?

That script is actually standard Apple policy. There are online accounts of "geniuses" making the same caveat: don't expect any more favors from us. This is it. Last time. Never again.

It's terrible retailing. And it's something restaurant managers do all the time. As a teenager, I once found an industrial staple in a fancy brownie dessert. Non-indignant and undemanding, I quietly told my waiter, who brought over a restaurant manager, who I also quietly told. He nodded wearily, his face flushed with anger, and he brusquely comped the fancy brownie (which I'd finished 75% of before hitting the staple) and walked away. No apology, no anything.

I understood what had happened. Customers pull this all the time: finding a such-and-such in their so-and-so. It's a gambit to have their meal comped. So the guy chose a middle route: comp just the frigging brownie, and let the kid know he knows what a lying little shit he is.

The big issue I was left with wasn't the mortifying way I'd been treated, or my bleeding gum where the staple had scraped the flesh. It was this: why on earth had he comped the brownie? Think about it. If my story was honest, his non-apology and scant redress would ensure I'd never return. If you're prepared to lose a customer, why comp anything?? And if I was a liar, again, why comp anything?? He'd lost eight bucks on the brownie, lost my good will, and gained absolutely nothing.

This is a huge but little-discussed error retailers frequently make: it's irrational to ever do a grudging favor for a customer. If you're going to lose even just a buck on a transaction, milk every iota of good will out of it. Or else don't do it at all. One or the other. There's no benefit from a grudging favor.

The "genius" should have smiled and said, "You've been a customer a long time. We really appreciate that! And I can imagine how awful it felt when you shattered that glass. We at Apple want you feeling only terrific about our products. So, here, give me that nasty old beat up old phone! We're going to give you a brand new one, better than ever! Of course, this isn't something we can make a habit of, but, then again, I know you'll be careful from here on out not to drop your phone again!

They could even leave off that last sentence. If I were to return a month later with another shattered phone, would I conceivably get furious if they didn't do another free swap? How many customers would react like that, maybe 1%? And is it worth chilling the other 99% at the moment they'd otherwise glow with good will?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Stable One's Always the Craziest and Most Dysfunctional

In many years, I've never seen an exception to this rule:

The more stable, functional-seeming person is never the anchor in a relationship. The more flighty, neurotic-seeming one is always propping up the more sane-seeming one.

Except, of course, in movies.

It's hard to observe sometimes, because the true dynamic is often publicly disguised.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

TMDTIATW: Indonesian Wonderment in Philly

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) brought back deep memories. One of my favorite early discoveries was a canteen in the basement of the Indonesian Consulate. Here's how I reviewed it in my first book:
The Cafeteria in the Indonesian Consulate
5 E 68 St., Manhattan

Atmosphere/Setting: You walk down the stately steps of the Indonesian consulate, into the building's basement. Open the massive iron door, buzz to be admitted through another set of doors, pass a receptionist (tell her you're there for lunch), go through still another door and head straight toward what appears to be a large closet. In the center of this closet there's a single long table (covered with a cheap plastic cloth), at which dignified Indonesian men in suits are eating from paper plates. To the right, in a small alcove, a good humored Indonesian woman is juggling dozens of pots and pans on her huge antique stove. The smell is positively hypnotizing. Tell her you want to try EVERYTHING, and go have a seat at the table (grab some plastic utensils from the big central bucket and water from the water cooler) and await bliss.

House Specialties: The menu changes every day; you'll be served tastes of five or six different things, all piled high on your plate. Luscious possibilities include chicken or fish in spicy peanut sauce, spicy potatoes, tempeh concoctions, a vegetable hodgepodge or other and lots of perfectly-cooked rice. The sole complaint is that the sambal (fiery Indonesian chutney) is usually commercial...but at least it's a good brand.

Other Recommendations: There's optional soup, for an extra buck (raising your tab to a whopping $6). Go for it.

Summary & Comments: Not only is this by far the finest Indonesian food in town (perhaps in the entire country), it's also a regional style (Sundanese) hard to find cooked this well even in Indonesia. The cuisine will please even skittish eaters; its exoticness lies in the spicing and condiments, while staples are relatively familiar (the chef does cook pretty spicy, but rarely does she apply SERIOUS heat as you'd find in, say, Thai restaurants). While nobody minds well-behaved outsiders stopping by, this lunchroom is not particularly seeking our business, either. Be patient about waiting for your food, and expect little in the way of coddling. Remember, this is not a Real Restaurant

Note: there's also a cafeteria in the Indonesian U.N. Mission at 325 East 38 St., but it's nowhere near as good.
Chef Enid didn't stay long at the consulate. She catered for a while from her Queens apartment, but, several years ago, opened a little restaurant in my favorite neighborhood of Philadelphia, the food-dense Asian strip along Washington Avenue that's the closest thing the East Coast has to a San Gabriel Valley.

It's called Hardena (1754 Hicks St; 215-271-9442), I've been there a number of times, and her cooking is even more devastating than ever. I once devised a system for rating food on a scale of one to ten, and this is one of the very few where I'm guaranteed to achieve 10 ("Absolute certainty that no one at this moment, anywhere on Earth, is eating anything more delicious than what you're currently consuming. Total contentment, tinged with the rueful acknowledgement that life can't always be this good").

Indonesian food isn't Western. It's not even Asian. It's something different, and must be approached differently. Plates are heaped with a melange of different foods, and enjoyment is not about fussy probing. It's about cathartic digging in. The mindlessness is augmented by the fact that you won't recognize many of the ingredients. There's nothing to judge, it's a truly pure experience of inspiration.

Nothing to talk about, really. Specifics are utterly besides the point; analyzing components would be like cataloging the facial muscle movements of a heartfelt kiss. What matters is that everything on your plate makes you grimace, moan, and pound the table. You're in and out in twelve minutes. And your day will be a great, great day.

Photos (please click each to expand for the full food porn effect):
A completely vegetarian plate (that's jackfruit stew, not meat, believe it or not!).

Some meat on this one.

The ayam goreng (the most famous Indonesian chicken dish) was just coming off the stove as I finished my plate, and Enid realized an emotional breakdown was likely if I didn't get to try at least a bite...

Strangely, Enid commutes here from Queens. But the good news is that NYC residents can still hire her to cater (she's cooked for hundreds, though she'll also cater small groups). Just call the restaurant.

Monday, August 15, 2011


Did you know that Harry Truman's middle name is actually "S" - it's not an abbreviation - so it should get no period, ala "Harry S Truman"?

Wikipedia gets it wrong. But, then again, so does Encyclopædia Britannica.

I love the oft-attributed Harry Truman quote "It's amazing what you can accomplish when you don't care who gets the credit", but, alas, he seems never to have said it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Unexpected Shifts of Perspective

I was once riding in the back seat of a car. Because I was focused on conversation and not paying attention to the driving, the following remark (from the driver's girlfriend, up front in the passenger's seat) took several minutes to fully register:
"Don't follow too close. Some assholes slow down when you do that."
Hey, at least it's sinking in, right?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Explaining Republican Immoderation

Polls say a strong majority of Americans wants to see a balanced approach to deficit reduction: both cutting spending and raising revenue. So the question is, why are Republicans moving so far right of the country's preference? And why are they so vehemently opposed to compromise?

Here's an insightful answer from pollster Jeff Liszt, explaining the politics of the debt ceiling fight, and our current Congress in general, better than anything I've previously seen:
"I think if you look at the country as a whole, you're going to get a misleading idea of what Republicans' behavior is going to be in Congress. I had a hard time understanding what was going on in the debt ceiling debate as long as I was looking at polls that showed that only 20% of Americans supported the Republican approach and wanted to balance the budget only by cutting spending.

But the truth is you've got a combination in the Republican caucus of extreme members who were elected on Tea Party craziness who either don't know or don't understand the consequences of their actions, and members who watched all of their moderate colleagues lose in primaries in 2010. Remember, it's very fresh in their minds. They watched Castle lose in Delaware, and Lawden in Delaware, and they know that a minority of a minority is going to vote them out in their primaries. So you can't look at the polling among the general public and predict the behavior of the Republicans in the House."
Good point. In other words, non-extreme Republicans (there aren't more than a handful of genuinely moderate ones) are caught in a political trap detaching them from mainstream sentiment.

And it's killing us. In my rant last week about Republican brinksmanship re: the debt ceiling (a few days before S&P's downgrade), I said:
"I'm well aware...that this is mere opportunism, and that of course the freaking debt ceiling will be raised...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'."
And Thursday, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji explained the credit downrating thusly:
"The stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that “people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default. That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable. This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."
Alas, it's hard to fault his reasoning. Finally, Liszt noted this (and I'd bet pizza for a year he's right):
"I think a lot of moderate voters who helped put the Republicans in power in 2010 didn't expect this, didn't want this, and are going to punish them for it in 2012."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stock Market Crashes Are Opportunities....Period

Thanks to the great Andrew Tobias (one of my favorite writer/authors and longtime treasurer of the Democratic National Committee) for the link a couple days ago (at the very bottom of that column, in his mention of SIGA).

Here's what he had to say today about the stock market plunge:
"The sun will come out tomorrow. (If not literally tomorrow.) Long-term, our little gaggle of mostly biotech speculations will be hurt only if people stop getting sick...or stop wanting to get well...or the government sharply cuts health care costs. The latter might happen if it decides to negotiate drug prices. And I hope it does. But I doubt it will negotiate so hard as to kill the incentive to develop important new drugs.

If you have money you can truly afford to lose, and have not yet dipped your toe in these waters, you’ll be pleased to know these stocks are now on sale. (Stocks like DVAX, CBRX, SIGA, TTNP, YMI, KERX, ALXA, and FCSC – maybe even DCTH – among others.)


In any event, I would not be selling here, even though the market could certainly fall further.
It's no surprise that I agree completely, since I learned most of what I know about investing from Tobias' classic book on the topic (he was one of my biggest influences as a writer, as well).

Monday, August 8, 2011

A New Way of Healthy Cooking

I've evolved, over the past few years, a style of cooking unlike anything I've ever encountered.

Most people who try to eat healthfully modify delicious recipes to be more nutritious. I think that's the wrong approach. It leads to compromises on both ends - such cooking is usually neither optimally delicious nor completely healthy. So I've gone the other way, starting with an athletic diet and working to make it as delicious as possible.

For the nutritional basis behind my choices, please read my series "How (Perennially) Fat People Diet". As I explain there, my starting point is the way bodybuilders eat. These guys are the unrecognized experts on on weight loss, because they are constantly and intentionally cycling between "cutting" (slimming) and "bulking" (gaining). They shed fat on schedule as part of their sport, and have built an impressive trove of shared wisdom. And here's what they pretty much all agree on right now:

•   Eat frequent meals of small portions

•   Carefully balance carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in every meal. A good rule of thumb is to divide as follows: 40% carb calories, 25% protein calories and 35% fat calories. To accomplish this, you must track your foods - a life-changingly great thing for anyone to do for a few weeks, anyway.

•   Carbs should be whole grain and complex. No simple starches (white flour, white potatoes, etc.). Favor low glycemic carbs (kasha, very al dente pasta, legumes, sweet potatoes, heavy 100% whole grain breads, and not brown rice!).

•   Fats should be healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, and grapeseed oil. Also natural fish oil (e.g. from fatty fish) is good.

•   Proteins should be lean and unprocessed. Wild Alaskan salmon, chicken or turkey breast, fish (not shellfish), tofu, nonfat milk or yogurt, egg whites, beans (with a whole grain to complete the protein).

•   No frying and very little sauteeing. Mostly grill, broil, or steam.

•   No sugar or alcohol or diet soft drinks.

•   Cook mostly from raw ingredients. Favor foods as unprocessed as possible.

•   Never skip a meal

•   Don't eat a single bite after 8pm.

Two things bodybuilders do that I don't are: take lots of vitamins and eat an enormous amount of protein. Both practices are only useful if you're doing tons of weight lifting. That said, I do try to never ever eat carbs without an accompanying protein of some sort. One thing I add is to try to eat my biggest meal at midday, and a light supper.

Again, please read that whole series for more background information. Next time, I'll explain how I actually cook within these (tight) limitations.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Why I Love Hangovers

If you have a daily meditation practice, try over-drinking to the point where you'll get a mild to medium hangover the following morning. And then meditate in the morning. (If you don't have a daily meditation practice, I recommend this one).

You'll never see this suggestion anywhere else, in spite of the unvaryingly stupendous results. Why has no one noticed this before? Several reasons, I suppose. First, most spiritual practices discourage or prohibit alcohol (because alcoholism is a hideous hindrance). And most serious meditators don't get really drunk much. And those who do tend to skip meditating during hangovers (really, it's the very last thing you feel like doing).

Why does it work so well? My theory is that the body's undergoing massive natural purification, so your meditation's augmented by that underlying momentum.

Doing this more than rarely would surely be counterproductive. But it's a wonderful practice to do a couple times per year.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Judging Others Against Our Own Strengths

•  I'm poor at mechanical stuff. A friend who's good at nothing BUT mechanical stuff has to fight to remember I'm not a total idiot. I have to keep reminding him he doesn't need to speak slowly to me.

•  A fellow SIGA investor has testily cut off all communication. He's expert in pill production, and I said something ignorant on that topic, causing him to conclude that I'm not so smart, after all.

•  Most jazz musicians feel superior to the general public because they can improvise whereas others can't. The fact that most people have no interest in that skill matters little.

•  If you worked for twenty years learning to balance 200 quarters on your elbow, you'd cluck your tongue at everyone's laughably uncultivated sense of elbow balance.

Most grown-ups lack a crucial awareness every child has: that human society is an aggregation of specialties. The pilot doesn't need to know how to repair computers, because there are people for that. We can be proud of our talents and abilities, but everyone's got one.

But something about human nature makes adults irrationally judge others against our own strengths. It's a sort of selfishness ("I'm a master carpenter! Pay me, helpless shlub, and I will deign to build your house!"), and it runs in opposition to the drive toward sharing ("Hey, I build houses. You slice meat. I pay, you pay...and together, it all works!"). Which is interesting, because any economic system could be seen as massive competition or as massive sharing. They are absolutely both at the same time, but people fix their perspectives on one view or the other. And isn't that the entire socio/economic/political schism, right there? Two perspectives on the very same result - a unified field theory encompassing both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand!

People with "fun" professions (cupcake bakers, toymakers, comedians, jazz musicians, food critics, etc.) tend to be miserable bastards who are no fun at all to be around. Truck mechanics and sewer workers tend to be much more fun and well-adjusted. I think it's because they are a little more cognizant of the notion of trades and specialties. People with sexier-seeming skills assume others envy their particular fortes - and are therefore inferior to them. Which makes such people miserable bastards who are no fun to be around.

You may want to read a related previous article about "Vocation and Identity".

UPDATE: Einstein said it earlier...and better.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

SIGA: No New Revenue Soon

After an unsurprising quarterly conference call yesterday, SIGA has plunged still lower. I believe the name of this game is "No New Revenue Soon".

Short version (for those who don't want to read through all this):
Buy, baby, buy.

Long version:
SIGA's stock languished for years, even as it became clear they had a magnificently safe and effective cure (not vaccine) for smallpox - including weaponized varieties - one of the main bioterror worries. It languished even as the government created an entity (BARDA) to help companies exactly like SIGA develop drugs exactly like SIGA's and to purchase them for a national stockpile. It languished as a kid with vaccinia (a smallpox-like vaccine reaction) was given special permission to be magically cured by SIGA's drug. His skin was falling off and he was near death, but a couple days later, he was good as new.

SIGA's stock languished as the science looked better and better. Its stock languished as a promising drug candidate for dengue (a major scary scourge) was found and began development. And it only slightly ticked upward when BARDA gave notice that it was planning to buy $500M to $2.3B worth.

As that contract drew closer and closer, finally the stock price went up....because there was a concrete timeline to revenue.

SIGA got the contract, but the timing is poor, as multiple clouds accompanied it. First, a baloney lawsuit was being trumped up in the press by their opponent as a ploy to force a settlement. This clouded the stock price. Second, a competitor with a smallpox drug that's less safe and which doesn't prove itself with non-human primates has been shrilly protesting every step of the way. Third, a congressman with ties to that competitor put out a well-timed press release hinting that SIGA might be investigated for using unfair influence to get the contract. That was the final straw; the stock price has tanked.

The congressman will almost certainly never be heard from again. The competitor can protest, but can't stop the inevitable (every country with concern about bioterrorism stockpiling ST-246, and replenishing their stockpile a few years later as it expires). And the legal decision is due momentarily. So none of the threat is serious.

That brings us to a few weeks ago, as the price settled into the $8s - a price barely reflecting the value of this first in-the-bag half-billion-dollar contract.

So why's the stock still dropping? No new money soon. BARDA has expressed need for another $1.5B or so worth of the drug. Israel has signaled keen interest. Other countries (and World Health Org) know about it. It's useful not only for bioterrorism, but for treating complications from any sort of vaccine. It doesn't need FDA approval for emergency governmental stockpiling, but the only remaining step prior to applying for their final approval is a decision on dosage, which should be done this year.

So there's bad stuff that won't happen, and lots of good stuff that will, but no timetable for it. There's no new revenue specifically and concretely on the horizon. And investors just hate that. It's a show-me-the-money market, not a buy-and-hold market. On the other hand, SIGA has recently shown quite a sum of money - and the stock price is barely reflecting even that.

Often, when a stock drops precipitously, it's a sign that insiders "know something". But it's hard to see a secret peril that could produce this result. Dilution isn't a big risk; they have $15M on hand plus a $44M prepayment to keep the lights on and help ramp up production of the government order.

So this stock trajectory is a combination of manipulation and antsy-pants investors. The only dire scenario I can see is that this company is approaching the point where it can be bought for little more than the value of the signed contract. If it was taken over (for a substantial premium), I'd deem that a nightmare, as I've been patiently waiting for the aforementioned goodies to come in, and for their drug pipeline to develop, bringing us to $40. But I'd still make a large profit over my initial investment (averaging under $4), and a decent one over the current price.

And so while I've got a whopping percentage of my savings in SIGA, and never imagined buying more, I'm starting to itch to do just that. If you don't own any, and can afford to put some money on ice for a few years, this is a mind-blowing opportunity.

Like most small biotech stocks, SIGA's has been greatly manipulated. But I agree with a poster on Yahoo who points out that even one of the most manipulated stocks of all time, Dendreon, eventually shot to around $40...and stayed there. Nearly all the individual investors bailed out before this happened. But if they had simply waited, the value of the company was realized, and they made out like bandits.

And so we wait...

Update: one bit of good news: SIGA today presents to Goldman Sachs, along with another undervalued biotech with socko potential, Dynavax (DVAX). That's a helluva handpicked couple of biotechs. Whoever chose, chose well. I find this very encouraging.

TMDTIATW: Dutch Nun Potato Cheese With Magic Oil

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW)may also be the most delicious thing I ate this year. It's from one of my favorite points of gastronomic light: a tiny shop in Tarrytown called Mint (18 Main St Tarrytown, NY; 914-703-6511). 

The place is stocked to the rafters with seemingly random packaged food products - Lebanese fig jams, Georgian pomegranate molasses, artisinal French apple compotes, and much more - including, if you're lucky, the crown jewel of Dutch stroopwafels, Gouda's Gilde brand (otherwise nearly unfindable in this hemisphere).

In spite of appearances, nothing here is random. Each item is expertly selected, and available in very limited quantity (one gets the feeling a bedraggled messenger brings back suitcases full of this and that). Nothing's bargain-priced, nor ought it be. Great hand-picked items, mostly quite obscure and available nowhere else; it's chowhound heaven!

Most customers come for the prepared food, made by a sometimes cranky but good-hearted Mexican woman, but I'm all about the cheese. The owner, an amiable Moroccan guy with encyclopedic knowledge of just about everything, carries cheeses no one else carries - cheeses no one else has even heard of! He cuts only directly from wheels, the only proper way (he's spoiled me; I will no longer buy pre-cut blocks). He overwhelms customers with samples. And I buy and buy until all my cash is all gone.

The latest revelation was a Dutch cheese, made by nuns, containing potatoes. I don't understand it, and can't even describe it. It's the most potatoey item imaginable, yet has full integrity as cheese. It's like one of those convex/concave optical illusions; one can perceive it as spuds or as cheese, but not as both simultaneously. It's simply the apotheosis of potatoes and of cheese. It is potato cheese, and there's nothing more to be said.

I spread it on well-toasted Trader Joe's whole wheat English muffins (surprisingly wonderful), with a light drizzle from a tiny expensive bottle of magical Moroccan oil I'd not previously heard of, which makes everything sumptuous. The Mint guy explained that only the aristocracy of southern Morocco ever had access to this stuff:

And life was good.

Note that all photos expand upon clicking, but this next photo absolutely must be viewed at full size:

The version in the photos was actually a subsequent effort, with cheese crumbled, not spread, on toasted sopes (from Tortilleria San Roman, 951 South 9th St, Philadelphia, PA; 267-507-9161), again drizzled with magic oil.

The cheese is called, phonetically, something like "De Lotia", but don't bother trying to Google it. 

Monday, August 1, 2011

Announcing New Slog Feature: "The Most Delicious Thing I Ate This Week"

Among my worst-ever mistakes was trying to keep up a "What I Had For Dinner" diary on Chowhound starting back in 1997. I later repeated the mistake by attempting a "Chow Alert" email newsletter in 2002, which covered pretty much every noteworthy item passing my lips in the previous week (plus enough writerly writing to hopefully entertain readers beyond my geographical area).

I find deliciousness all the time - at a rate that exceeded my weekly restaurant review pace, back when I was doing that. And I love to share my finds, so these attempts to document my ingestion-in-progress seemed to make sense at the time.

The reality, though, is that while I'm experienced both at chowhounding and writing, it's excruciatingly difficult to do both in real time. Fatal resonances built between writer's block and eater's block, plus I was forced to abandon non-gastronomic life interests, making these undertakings hellish slogs. If you try to do what comes naturally "on-command" and under a spotlight (and with relentless deadlines), life can become weirdly unnatural. It's a huge buzz kill, and it took over my life.

When my corporate overlords had the idea of sending me off to do a "Chow Tour" - nine weeks of nonstop solitary ingestion and daily reporting - it nearly killed me. For a visceral impression, view the slideshow linked here, showing every bite I'd eaten on the trip (my boss couldn't fathom why I'd used such morose music).

So...I've been off food reporting for quite some time, aside from occasional items posted here and on Chowhound. And I resist being pulled back in.

But, like an unmilked cow, I feel overburdened with pent-up goodness worth sharing. So I'm going to try an intermediate solution, and start a feature called "The Most Delicious Thing I Ate This Week", starting tomorrow. Hopefully, it will allow me to share primo finds without feeling pressured - or turning this into yet another ditzy food blog.

Is Apple Actually Undervalued?

Comment from "Dave" on my "Selling Apple" entry last week:
Other than the share price, I don't understand under what rubric Apple is more expensive than it was last year or five years ago. Its relative PE is lower now than it has been at any time since 1998. It's PE ratio is well below its growth rate, a trait more characteristic of a value stock than a growth stock.
This was a timely comment, as I was about to discuss the following brief statement from Daring Fireball's John Gruber, responding to a piece by Matt Richman about Apple's price/earnings ratio:
"If a company’s P/E ratio is supposed to be indicative of its growth prospects, then why is Netflix’s P/E ratio more than 4.5 times higher than Apple’s when Apple is growing its bottom line more than twice as fast as Netflix is?"

I think it’s psychological. Wall Street, collectively, can’t wrap its head around just how big Apple has gotten and how fast it continues to grow. Ten years ago Apple traded at $10 a share; five years ago $65. That’s the Apple Wall Street remembers, and thus today’s Apple at $400 seems like it’s had a really nice run to reflect its last five years of success. The stock is weighed down by old impressions of Apple as a smaller company with niche appeal.
Gruber really nails the reasoning - and changed my mind a bit. However, price/earnings isn't everything. The market may in fact undervalue Apple at $400, but current investor psychology creates the same stock price ceiling that would result from an overinflated PE ratio.

Apple may eventually rise well above $400, but as I said, investors are (right or wrong) mega-skittish at this level. That's the reason the price keeps cycling between $325 and $375; dabs of moderately bad news spur sell-offs whenever the stock approaches that ceiling.

I'm as bullish about Apple's prospects as anyone, but I realize that it's only a matter of time before some serious bad news hits. When it does, I expect a serious sell-off down to the $200s (like last summer). And that's where I'll buy. Will I sell at $400 again? Not sure. I'll see how things feel.

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