Friday, January 31, 2014

The Year the Internet Stopped Being a Computer

This has already turned into a watershed year for me. After 20 years of online activity, and 15 years of using Google (I was an early advocate), I've switched to always using natural language searches.

"Natural language" is just a fancy way of saying "normal human speech". As an early Internet adapter, I've been in the habit of using computer-speak with computers, rather than phrasing things conversationally and expecting them to understand. So if I were trying to find listings for 2008 Camrys, I'd have framed my query like this:

allintext:camry toyota 2008 "used car" price -review

...asking Google to find me pages containing (in their actual visible text) "camry", toyota", "2008", the phrase "used car", excluding pages containing the word "review".

These days, I simply search for 2008 toyota camry used car prices, and I actually get better results than when I try to finesse it. The tipping point has been reached.

The glib upshot might be that Google's computer is now better at understanding my human-speak than I am at speaking computer-speak. But the truth is a bit more subtle. There are three main factors at play:

1. At the Internet's current scale, there's no choice but to accommodate natural language search.
Google used to be geared toward nerds, but now it serves the world, so it's been forced to accommodate - even favor - natural language. What's more, they've neglected their old nerd tools along the way, so there are fewer and fewer ways to force searches to adhere to your parameters. It feels like a frustrating lack of power, but I've come to accept that we don't really need those tools anymore. More often than not, Google simply knows (it's a real - though little-discussed - example of artificial intelligence).

2. Web sites have prioritized discovery via natural language search queries.
This is a bad thing when shmucky webmasters scheme to lure visitors to their unhelpful spammy sites. But Google is doing a better and better job of weeding those out. So the process is working as it should: the page built at the dawn of the internet by cool Indonesian guys which calculates crow-fly distances between any two world locations can be found simply by simply searching the phrase "how far is it". As well it should!

3. Google triggers a plethora of web apps from natural language searches
Search for 124 x 236 = and you'll be shown a calculater with your calculation pre-keyed in and the result shown in bold. Search for 25 euros in US dollars and you'll be shown currency converter app. Search for AAPL stock and you get Apple's stock chart. Etc., etc., ad infinitum. You used to need to type special terms to trigger these apps. But, per #1, the nerds lost and the masses won, and we no longer need to manually trigger them.

Yesterday capped it. I needed to know how many days had passed since last September 22nd. So I searched, like a frickin' idiot, for this: how many days since 9/22/13?

And I got my answer in the very first hit.

There's no going back.

Also, it's now officially ridiculous that Internet news is categorized as "High Tech" or "Science" news. The Internet has as much to do with tech at this point as the TV industry does.

Oldies, Hopefully Goodies

A couple of my old reviews just went up on Chowhound: my Peter Luger review from 2003, and my original DiFara Pizza review from 1998.

You can find a bunch more of my old writings here.

Not many people paid much attention to the super-ambitious ten week Chow Tour my corporate overlords at CNET forced me to take (Clay's memorable line was "I'm not asking you to do this, I'm telling you to do this"), but I believe I extracted some real good lemonade. Coverage starts here (and you can navigate using the sidebar). Some of the more popular stand-alone entries included:

Biltmore Blueblood Blues (Plus Barbecue) (suffering in splendor at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC)
The Greatest (Chowhounding) Story Ever Told (miracle tales in rural Kentucky)
36 Sublime Hours in Newfoundland (Newfoundland is like heaven)
Madly in Love With Maxine's (the scary black sheep of the Bardstown, Kentucky restaurant scene turns out to be the only place with real heart)
The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement(drinking rare tea and eating strange food with the legendary David Hoffman in NoCal)
Chow Tour Redux...or: Lots and Lots of Millet (thinking back on What It All Meant)
...and Vacation Tamales (incredible tamales in Puerto Vallarta)

Finally, I got good response from my "Chowhounding St. Louis" article posted here to the slog last year.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Sur La Table Burnished Bamboo Stir-Fry Spatula, 12"

A bit random, I know, but this $4 bamboo spatula from Sur La Table was one of the best purchases I made last year.

People overuse wooden spoons. Same for full spatulas. Both are specialized tools with little versatility, yet many people struggle to use them in wide-ranging cooking tasks for which they're not appropriate.

But Sur La Table's Bamboo Stir-Fry Spatula is a champ of versatility, fantastic for stir fries, scrambled eggs, omelets, leftovers, and anything requiring a quick stir or flip. It won't scratch non-stick surfaces, but poses none of the melting risk of the plastic implements designed for that usage. And it cleans up much more easily than wood; nothing ever sticks to it. A quick wipe and you're good.

The only jobs this item fails at are those specifically tailored to wooden spoons (heavy-duty ingredient mixing) or full spatulas (pancake flipping). I use it several times per day, along with my tongs, and rarely find myself going to my implements drawer anymore.

Sur La Table makes a 15" version, but I like the 12" one.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Tate's Bake Shop's Butterscotch Pecan Cookies

Earlier this year, I described a sublime experience of cookie transcendence:
Speaking of cookies, best I currently know are at sherry b dessert studio (65 King Street, Chappaqua, NY; 914-238-8300). It's painfully pretentious, and it's agonizingly expensive (both of which are telegraphed by the name's lower case), but if you can sell some old gear on eBay or take out a second mortgage on your house to cobble together sufficient cash to afford a cookie, you'll find it's actually worth it.
The cookies have a lot going for them. Ingredients are perfectly harmonious, salt is at the inward edge of subliminal, they're texturally complex (crisp outer, chewy inner) and the flavor is as long and full and subtly-layered as a great wine. Plus, they have a quality that no other food writer ever seems to mention: oven flavor.

"Oven flavor", for me, is the distinctive flavor that comes from being baked in a home oven - much as the Chinese describe "wok breath" as the slightly smokey metallic flavor hint of well-sauteed noodles and such. You don't usually find oven flavor in commercial baked goods. It's the flavor that makes you think "home-made", and it is apparently hard to fake. With some items, you can do without it, but, for me, if it's not present in cookies, they'll inevitably taste soulless.

The whole idea of oven flavor angered some highly-respected professional bakers on Chowhound way back in the day. They didn't really understand what I was talking about, but took umbrage at the notion there might be anything missing or inadequate about their work.

The best theory offered was that I was describing flavor imparted by dirty home ovens, courtesy of the light smoke coming off the grease and other shmutz. And this sounds awfully disgusting (which was certainly the spirit in which the proposal was offered), until you realize that grease/shmutz smoke has, until very recently, been a fundamental part of human cuisine. We, as individuals and as a species, were raised on that!

Maybe that's it, but the cookies at sherry b dessert studio, with perfect elegant touch, refined ingredients and overall genteel wondrousness, have oven flavor. Lots of it. And there's no fricking way their tony, expensive ovens are anything but immaculate.

So: stick it, pro bakers! Oven flavor is a thing, and it's achievable with professional equipment!

But here's some news. I just found packaged, widely-available cookies that are very similar. They're nearly as refined, and, best of all, they're just rife with oven flavor!

I've known about Tate's Bake Shop cookies for some time. They make crispy, expensive supermarket cookies which never seem to come together into a delicious gestalt. For example, the chocolate in the chocolate chip cookies is fine quality, but ill-chosen (not enough depth). The butter flavor screams out at you, as if to justify the expense. They're a tad over-salted, and while I like crisp cookies, these are nearly hard/brittle. They're decent cookies, but a bit fussy and superficial.

But I just tried their butterscotch pecan cookies for the first time, and they kill. With these, the aggressive butteryness works. The extreme crispness works. Even the salt works. It all works. And there's even oven flavor! At $6 for a prissily-wrapped bag of eleven cookies, it seems like a regal purchase at my supermaret, but given that the cookies at sherry b dessert studio cost $6 each, it's actually a deal. These are the best widely-available cookies I've ever found in this country.

Christie 'N Kids

Like many moderates, I've considered Chris Christy to be one of my less-disfavored Republicans. I recognized him as a brutal hard-ball style politician, and I realized that some of the Obama-hugging after Sandy was theatrical, but I'm not the sort of person who needs to, like, love politicians to support them (anyone who finds a politician lovable is way too Koolaid-swilling for my taste).

The GWB scandal (and even the Hoboken scandal, if true) dismayed me, but I'm way too politically cynical to have been surprised. Christy and his aids should certainly be busted for any wrongdoing, but, hey, "welcome to politics".

But while "the game is the game" (as they say on The Wire), here's something that totally bummed me out. Christie answered questions from schoolchildren the other day, and I really really don't like how he's interacting with these kids. The nasty-assed snickering, the back-turning, the over-head-talking...ick. I don't have to love politicians, but I prefer not despise them...and thuggish true colors ring out here. It's pretty jarring, check it out.

Watch for a minute or so starting at 3:17 after the commercial in the video below.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Still Rad in Rehab"

I don't know any of these parties, but the story (and the photo, and the daughter's blog) affected me:
As many of you know, [artist] Ron Baron, his wife Irit and Ron’s daughter Ruby recently suffered devastating losses. On Thanksgiving eve, Ron and his family were driving to join relatives when their car was involved in a collision in Hillsdale, New York. Ron and Irit lost their 5-year old daughter Naomi. Ron’s 14-year old daughter Ruby suffered permanent damage to her spinal column. Ruby is now in rehab for several months at the RUSK Medical Center in New York City.

Please visit Ruby's wonderful blog STILL RAD IN REHAB

Since Ruby has been lovingly raised between two blended families, both of her households must be ready to accommodate her needs and new challenges. Ron and Irit are now arranging a home that will be wheelchair accessible and comfortable for Ruby. They also need a handicap accessible car to share in Ruby’s transport.

Sadly, an insurance settlement will not cover their expenses.

This is where we can help. We are dedicating this fund specifically for Ron & Irit‘s immediate expenses for Ruby's return home. Our goal is $75,000.
I sent a check, along with this thought (which I hadn't originally intended to publish here, but, what the hey):
I've never met a person who wasn't somehow disabled. In the end, it's not the cards you're dealt, it's how you play them.

The miracle of human beings is that we're finite - i.e. limited - in every respect, yet we're capable of infinite love, infinite creativity, infinite joy, and infinite wisdom within those limitations.

If you love transcendence, you've got to cherish the obstacles which spur it; the necessity which mothers the invention.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Cousin Libby's Yellow Rice

There were a few wake-up moments during my snoozing childhood in suburban Long Island in the late 1960's and 1970's - an era when no one gave a damn about food - where something passed through my mouth and provided revelation.

Even just the notion that eating could be a sum-positive experience was mind blowing for a child growing up in a home rife with canned Green Giant French-Cut String Beans (over-boiled, then served lukewarm). But there'd occasionally be a glimpse of so much more. I gradually came to realize that life didn't have to be grim and plodding. Ordinary moments lack extraordinariness only because we care too little to make them so. The most insignificant things can spring to life and inspire and delight.

I had my cherished childhood chow; Eddie's Pizza in Fort Salonga, Hamburger Choo-Choo in Huntington, potato pancakes at Ratners, and a few other favored spots where my parents occasionally indulged my finicky caprices. They recognized the deliciousness, but they just didn't understand why it mattered so very much - or, for that matter, why I'd been rejecting those ghastly string beans. My dad dubbed me (with no small disdain) "Charlie Gourmet".

But let's roll back the tape to the very first enchanting bite. Ponder with me the tender, saffrony, fluffy, buttery yellow rice cooked by my father's cousin Libby. I pined for it, lived for it. It was my Proustian madeline. Really, all my subsequent chowhounding was an effort to reclaim the radiance I'd first experienced from Cousin Libby's yellow rice.

Such passion was ignited in me, back at age 3 or 4, that it powered my life, my career, everything. I never understood - and can't understand, still - how anyone could experience transcendent greatness (in any realm) and not want to devote their lives to transcendent greatness.

That passion proved contagious, first as a writer, as I built a cult following of kindred spirits who were also out there searching for life-altering hyperdeliciousness, and then as I attracted a critical mass of users to Chowhound. Everyone has their analog of Cousin Libby, their analog of yellow rice, but some of us instinctually worship at that alter. And this underground religion eventually went mainstream. Today, teeming hordes of people seek out peak experiences, in food and other realms. And it seems like it was ever thus. We forget how dryly complacent things were up to just a few short years ago.

I certainly don't claim credit for the change, even in food. It was a zeitgeist, which is why Chowhound attracted a critical mass in the first place. But if my passion contributed to the nucleus around which it all condensed, then it's worth noting where that passion came from: Cousin Libby's yellow rice.

It's always been all about Cousin Libby's yellow rice for me. If you've been reading my food writing, you're a child of that rice, as well.

It's not that Libby was some brilliant chef, or had developed a shimmeringly unique recipe, or uncovered channels for acquiring special saffron. None of that. Libby had lots of projects, and cooking barely rated. Her rice killed simply because she cared. She invested herself. She poured herself into the task, just as Libby poured herself into all tasks. Libby cared a lot about everything...often too much (anxiety's the bain of deep-carers). And that's how extraordinary things come about. That's what hooked Proust himself.

I'm an ardent believer in Nano-Aesthetics - the notion that the raw divinity of human beings is most purely expressed via tiny things, which most often go unnoticed. If that seems overblown, consider the trajectory of a few pots of rice cooked up in a small suburban kitchen back in the primordial 1960s, with little apparent reaction apart from one swooning toddler. Libby cared about the rice. I ate the rice. I felt the caring, and it made me care. And everyone who's been affected by Chowhound - or been affected by anyone affected - has been changed by this single dab of caring. Libby's rice changed the world.

If Libby had tried to change the world, she'd surely have failed. Pond ripples don't amplify into oceanic tides via the desire to be an oceanic tide causer. Such aspirations yield oppressively selfish ripples rather than inspiringly generous ones. If you simply sweat the small stuff, sans self-consciousness or aspiration (just "because!"), angels will sing.

The care, the love, the discipline and thoughtfulness we invest in our most prosaic actions changes absolutely everything. That's how the future is perpetually created. I tried explaining all this to Libby once, but she never quite fathomed it. Libby Hildes, who died last week at age 89, wasn't one for grand esoteric concepts.

I recently got hold of the recipe, and, as I might have predicted, there's absolutely nothing noteworthy about it (and, no, my opinion at the time wasn't colored by childish naiveté; knowledgeable adults have confirmed that my various youthful faves weren't so capricious after all; I apparently always appreciated the best stuff).

So don't imagine that this recipe will conjure up yellow rice like Libby's. As with Von's magical cookies, an unreplicable ju-ju made the magic. And the ghost in the rice has at last been set free.

Cousin Libby's Yellow Rice

2 cups raw rice
1/4 lb. butter
saffron (according to taste)
4 cups chicken broth

Cook rice in butter on low heat in a heavy pan till golden in color, stirring with fork as it cooks. Add remaining ingredients. Mix well and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat until broth has been absorbed - about 15-20 minutes. Serves 8.

Sorry Sorry Sorry One More SIGA

Just one last SIGA posting. I beg your patience as I respond to a blog posting you haven't read about a topic you're sick of reading about!

Andrew Tobias - a favorite writer of mine for most of my life - has been investing in SIGA, as well. He wrote about it today, linking to my two articles and including response from a reader.

Tobias and his reader seem to find my reversal a bit petulant and random. But I tried to back up my thoughts with facts and informed observations. Here, fwiw, are my responses to their issues:

I think the lawsuit will come to a conclusion anywhere from next month to at most 12 months from now.
That may (may!) grant SIGA a greater share of revenue on ST-246. For that to matter, there must be revenue. The follow-up contract didn't happen, and shows no signs of happening, and while SIGA may be sand-bagging ST-246 news, the US government has no incentive to do so.

There are more opportunities ahead for ST-246 including with our government
Outside the country, everyone's waiting for FDA approval, and there are no indications that's forthcoming.

The main opportunity from our government is the $1B or so poised to contract in 2011. Again, it never happened. BARDA continues to stockpile all sorts of other bioterror drugs, but smallpox countermeasures - the subject of intense media and political targeting - have nary been mentioned. It's insane that this happened (we badly need this protection), and shameful, too (re: the catastrophic implications of letting politicians short stocks). But it happened, and it's not the first insane, shameful thing our government's ever done.

If Glenn knows other impending US government sources aside from BARDA's explicitly promised, vitally necessary, and never-again-mentioned-by-anyone-in-position-of-power contract, then he ought to inform the company. Because while he "believes" they are "setting up" for acquisition, SIGA announced months ago that they're trying to sell out ASAP.

They have over $100M cash (though not yet booked) and another $200M or so coming in from the present contract. If there's plenty more revenue on the horizon, then it's hard to understand why they're scorching earth (closing R&D) and putting the operation on the block. Or, for that matter, why they haven't already been snatched off that block.

"The huge potential for their dengue fever drug"
The drug's nowhere near ready for approval. It requires further development. What part of "shutting down R&D" isn't being understood?

It's easy to be distracted by the many tendrils of this ever-unfolding saga. It took me a couple months to fully awaken to the implications of that November quarterly statement (see previous link). But if you take your eye off of the all-important component of revenue, this becomes a novella rather than an investment.

"Potentially Pfizer"
That's a knowing and enticing aside, but where Glenn got that from is the fact that a former Pfizer CEO happens to sit on the board. That appointment excited SIGA investors at the time. But there's not a scintilla of evidence Pfizer will buy SIGA.

As for Tobias' suspicion that my prior enthusiasm was "overdone", well, maybe, but how does one judge? Judging by the fact that the investment didn't work out, well...yeah! But that's a fallacious gauge. You've got to measure from what was actually knowable at the time. Having taken a huge bath on this, I've gone over that question a number of times. But, as I said two postings ago, "to this day, I can't spot any error in my original thesis for investing in SIGA, aside from an over reliance on rationality."

I couldn't have predicted people in positions of power drumming up phony outrage about stockpiling an anti-smallpox drug in order to make hay by short-selling. I figured the US government's long-standing partnership in developing and acquiring this drug - a perfectly safe and effective cure for the world's top bioterror threat - made a $2.87 stock a very smart buy. It still strikes me as having been smart. And, indeed, it popped over $15 before the blackest of swans flocked.

Looking ahead, from what's actually knowable now (i.e. no more revenue unless the gov comes through with a contract and/or FDA approves, with neither showing signs of the company dismantling R&D and praying for acquisition - which, months later, has not yet occurred), I'd say Tobias' "high hopes" are the unsupported position. Though I sure hope he's right, because I haven't sold all my shares!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

SIGA: Why Change Perspective Now?

A few people have written in to ask why I chose this moment to reverse my sentiment on SIGA. Was there some trigger?

No, there wasn't a trigger. In fact, the absense of triggers was my biggest problem with this investment.

For years, SIGA faced a series of nightmarish adversities and adversaries - all unrelated to their perfectly safe and effective cure for the scariest of bio-terror threats. It was clearly an investment to sit on until things worked themselves out. So I grew accustomed, over the years, to stoically waiting.

As I learned from my experience running Chowhound (which slogged for years), it can be devilishly hard, amid a long grind, to find an apt "let go" point. Stoic slogging is a steady state that, by definition, lacks dramatic triggers. This makes it surprisingly easy to ride a stock all the way down to zero. It doesn't feel like a plummet; it feels like a lobster feels in a very gradually heated pot of water. At first you feel sleepy, then, before you know it, you're cooked.

Grinds never offer clear break-away points. You just hope you'll notice when you reach a time where you no longer ought to stick around. It's tough because that moment passes silently!

In SIGA's case, I freshly considered the cumulative effects of all the factors, and I fully digested the import of the November quarterly report where they announced the dismantling of R&D and their intention to be acquired. And, most importantly, it dawned on me that, so long as FDA remained stalled (making foreign orders unlikely), the long-promised follow-up contract was absolutely everything.

Distracted by other factors, I hadn't fully realized how significant it was that, two years later, this contract had failed to materialize. In light of the political forces at work, I registered it as fatal. With this in mind, it makes sense for SIGA to have put itself on the selling block.

If there had been obvious interest by big pharma in the two months since, it might have been worth holding on for the acquisition boost. But I've heard nada. And I can no longer justify holding on. For the first time, I can see a possibility that the stock could eventually grind down to zero. And as disappointed as I am at $3.70 (with a stock that climbed above $15 a couple years ago), it's a helluva lot better than zero. Hence my exit.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Selling SIGA

"Nothing is more suicidal than a rational investment strategy in an irrational world."
~John Maynard Keynes

The genome for fabricating smallpox virus is out there. And it's believed that North Korea, Syria, and perhaps others have stockpiles of weaponized-up-the-wazoo, super-virulent smallpox. And vaccine does not protect against weaponized smallpox, so we're all totally vulnerable

Bioterror is one of our greatest dangers, and smallpox is one of the most dangerous agents. SIGA's drug, ST-246 is effective against weaponized varieties, as well as prospective natural world threats such as cowpox and monkeypox. Plus it cures vaccinia, the smallpox-like malady which afflicts a fraction of those receiving any sort of vaccine (ST-246 has been used against vaccinia in several real-life cases with miraculous results, e.g. this amazing story reported by the NY Times). And the next wave of miracle drugs under development includes tons of vaccines (sorry, Ms. McCarthy), so we'll be needing a cure for vaccinia (nothing can match ST-246's safety and effectiveness).

The US government was set to buy over a billion dollars worth of ST-246 for its strategic stockpile, but a competitor, Pharmathene Chimerix, kept gaming the process until a compromise was worked out: the gov would buy a few hundred million dollars worth from SIGA, and the vast remainder would be contracted afterwards, giving Pharmathene Chimerix a better shot (since government health officials prefer back-up and redundancy, I assumed both drugs would be stockpiled, for a win/win).

What's more, the stockpiles would need to be periodically replaced with fresh product (i.e. perpetual revenue stream). Plus: upon FDA approval, ST-246 would be snapped up by other governments and international health agencies for their own stockpiles. The problem with getting FDA approval is that smallpox drugs can't be tested directly. We're not going to infect humans with smallpox, so we test primates and other animals (sorry, PETA). But the procedure-bound FDA has no precedent for approving animal-tested drugs. Progress seemed likely, though, when, a couple years ago, the agency held a major conference to work on the issue.

Additionally, an exciting pipeline of drugs under development presented a possible "kicker" for SIGA's bright future.

I bought SIGA - and recommended it to you - at $2.87 back in 2008, long before anyone had heard of it. And it blasted over $15. But then problems appeared:

• After that one conference, we've heard nothing from FDA on animal-testing (and other alternative pathways for approving drugs for diseases untestable in humans).

• A silly lawsuit hit SIGA with a jaw-dropping verdict, awarding away half its profits on ST-246 to litigant Pharmathene. But half a huge windfall would still be a great thing for SIGA. And the appeals court found the basis for that judgement to have been rectally extracted. But the case is stalled while the original (very very slow) judge devises some new mechanism to put the screws to SIGA.

• While the aforementioned competitor, Pharmathene Chimerix (whose drug is less easily proven), managed to gum things up for SIGA for years, the best drug seemed poised to eventually win. But then "activist shorts" (investors who bet against a stock, then go out and try to tank its price by menacing the company in the real world) had some success in unleashing a process resulting in major media (e.g. the LA Times) and politicians (e.g. Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill and Republican Darrell Issa) ranting against the prospect of spending tax dollars to stockpile a cure for an eradicated disease. I don't know for a fact that the parties perpetrating this well-synchronized outpouring of phony outrage were short on SIGA, but it's either that or they're complete morons, and I suspect greed here rather than stupidity. SIGA has always been a titanically shorted stock, even when its prospects were brightest.

• As the law suit grinds on and on, the plaintiff has delighted in citing optimistic SIGA press releases and investor conferences in order to inflate their expected share of profits to the various judges. So SIGA's gone into stealth mode, hardly saying a thing. As a result of the possum-playing, its stock price bottomed out.

As SIGA hit these snags (which I analyzed over the course of a long series of Slog postings), I figured it was just a matter of waiting for each to pass. The better drug would win, the batshit-crazy lawsuit would work out, and the shorts who drove SIGA's price from $15 down to $2 would take their profits and move on to fresh victims.

But the combined assaults proved a crippling combination. And then some deeply troubling indications arose:

1.The (large) remainder of the original government contract has never gone back on offer. We waited and waited, but it seems to have gone "poof".
Could the government possibly have changed its mind, declining to stockpile a cure when smallpox is such a titanic threat? Well, consider that one small, primitive, cheap atom bomb exploded in the atmosphere over the NYC/DC metropolis would decimate the power grid for months. And while we could update the grid so it's less of a set of interdependent dominos, our leaders have not lifted a finger to do so.

Just because a threat is unthinkable and a solution's at hand doesn't ensure anything. My guess is that the trumped-up media outrage over stockpiling a drug for "an eradicated disease" was sufficient to cool the government's heels. No politician one wants to get caught funding a boondoggle, and scientific reality has little to do with it. And the problem is that no other revenue is immediately on the least until FDA approves.

2. We've heard nothing about SIGA's drug pipeline in years.
This couldn't have been due to the aforementioned possum-playing, because the lawsuit pertains only to ST-246, not to other drugs. And in early November, SIGA's CEO announced that its R&D department would be closed (under the euphemism of "an optimization program to sharpen focus and increase efficiencies within its operations").

3. As part of that same announcement, the CEO announced that they were trying to sell the company. And it hasn't sold yet.
If SIGA gets bought, it'd presumably be at a premium (i.e. good for stockholders). But the market for a pharmaceutical company isn't like the market for, say, lawnmowers. There are a very small number of potential buyers. And if none of them have bitten yet (admittedly, they might be in negotiations and we simply don't know), takeover will be highly unlikely.

Lack of acquisition interest would confirm a sentiment that no further revenue is forthcoming. Again, the follow-up contract has never been heard from, FDA remains a black hole, and the closure of the R&D department seems to presage a long, grinding run-down (i.e. very very bad for stockholders).

The shuttered R&D work was terrific science, but it was the kind of tough-slog early-ish development which requires a financially healthy company with a multi-decade time frame. In spite of bright prospects, there was nothing poised to come online fast enough to replace ST-246 as lead product.

In other words: checkmate.

A few tepid positives remain: the company may yet sell, which would help the stock price a bit. And, earlier this month, a patent was assigned SIGA for its arenavirus (e.g. lassa fever and hemorrhagic fever) drug, based on previous work before the R&D shut-down. This may have caused the modest uptick this week. And, hey, FDA might miraculously un-jam and the government may change its mind about protecting us from smallpox. Finally, while I'd rather lose my entire investment than wish for it, if bad guys were to unleash smallpox somewhere in the world, you can bet the farm that SIGA would garner gigantic juicy orders galore within days. We eagerly throw money at out-of-barn horses.

But I doubt any of those things, at least in the near-to-mid term. And, since development's halted, that arenavirus patent is nothing more than a minor kicker in the event of a sale. And there may be no sale.

Also, the lawsuit may resolve favorably. But to be intellectually consistent, I must admit that just as half a huge windfall would constitute a great result, retaining 100% of revenues from a drug with no revenue stream won't help much (though the stock price would pop, at least for a while, upon announcement of such a decision).

One other tepid enticement: SIGA hasn't recorded any of the very substantial revenue it's already received from the government...and the stock price certainly hasn't taken any of it into account. But there's an equal and opposite repellant to that enticement: majority investor/shadowy puppeteer* Ron Perelman may have clever ideas for those funds.

* -When I last checked, SIGA CEO Eric Rose made more salary as a VP of Perelman's holding company than as head of SIGA.

In conclusion

To this day, I can't spot any error in my original thesis for investing in SIGA, aside from an over reliance on rationality (per the Keynes quote up top). The drug is safe, effective, and sorely needed, and there's nothing as good out there. No one rational would deny these things. I feel quite certain that I'll never find a brighter, smarter investment ever again. But after all these years, I'm selling....for a damaging loss (I originally bought at $2.87, but a lot more at $5-8).

We live in a country where powerful people can, simply to protect a bet, destroy a company, even if it harms our readiness for a horrendous prospect like smallpox contagion. I won't go on and on about this, as my windy sanctimony would be unseemly given that I, like those short-sellers, stood to personally benefit from my side bet. But side bettors ought to remain on sidelines (you certainly won't see me unleashing smallpox virus in order to goose the market). And it's particularly insane that we allow our leaders to bet against the interests of the country they purport to lead. We hold baseball players to a higher standard than that!

Regardless of what actually happened to SIGA and its contracts, and how the plume of fake outrage was fabricated around a proper and necessary biosecurity contract, the fact is that it's legal for members of Congress to short stocks. Given that they possess the power to crush companies they've bet against, this needs to change.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Why are cheap cars unattractive?

I thought this was a thoughtful and interesting question, so I posted it to Quora (a site where "experts" chime in on queries, mostly - though not entirely - business-related). Figuring I'd noticed a "thing", I hoped to spur interesting discussion of a range of related issues. Alas...nothing.

Why are cheap cars unattractive?

I understand why inexpensive cars aren't mind-bendingly beautiful. That'd require top designers and fancy production techniques.

But somebody designs these cheap cars, and I can't imagine the second or third string designers at big auto companies have really horrible taste.

After all, if you sell a million cheap cars, adding $1 to each would enable a million dollar design at minimal per-unit cost! And maybe the result wouldn't be stunning, but why should it be ugly, or even plain?

....unless big auto companies deliberately uglify their cheaper cars to protect the premium edge of their more expensive ones. But, if so, then why hasn't that encouraged smaller manufacturers to make nice-looking cheaper cars and gobble up that end of the market?

I'd ask the same of many other realms: why should ugly be that much less expensive than decent-looking, unless human beings are so terrible at design that only a handful of (very expensive) designers can create non-horrendous products?

Update - I think I may have answered it. See the comments, below (which include an interesting but, to me, slightly opaque posting by El Seth)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Don't Give Them Your Zip Code (and Meet Donny, My Deceased ConjoinedTwin)

Next time you're paying by credit card in a store and they ask for your zip code, make one up. If you give them your real zip code, it's very nearly the same as offering your address, phone, age, social security number, mother's maiden name, etc.. Because they can find you and get all that info anyway.

If you've ever tried to track down an old friend, you sort of knew this. Using a service like Veromi or USSEARCH, you quickly discover that you need to distinguish somehow, and geographics is the way. Plug in the location where someone lives - or even once lived - and you've probably got them, unless the name is super common. And once you've got them, you've really got them. These services might not give up the full privacy goods without being paid $25, but that person has been thoroughly got. The Database knows all about them. And, naturally, Veromi and USSEARCH aren't the only operations with access to The Database.

When you give Target or Walmart or Radio Shack your name (as you do when you pay with a credit card) and your zip code, you are (so long as you're not John Smith) fully got. They know which Andrea Hallsberg you are, and they know pretty much everything else, too. It's not full-on Orwellian, of course; they don't want to persecute you...they just want to learn more about you, and track the things you buy and where you buy them, because they like you and want to help you buy lots more things by letting you know all about them without subjecting you to less interesting ads less well-tailored to your needs and preferences (yep, just like your Gmail!).

As a restaurant critic, I always carried an extra credit card with a fake name. The bank didn't care; for all they knew, Donny Fossbinder was my son or brother or gay partner; Donny's card had my same account number and I was of course responsible for his charges. You can do the same, if you'd like. Of course, it was only a matter of time before I was crushed under marketing, spam, and junk mail directed at Donny. It's sort of like carrying around the heavy corpse of a conjoined twin (and I speak from experience). But at least Donny and I are now moving targets, changing zip codes like we change our socks. Cuz that's just how we roll.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Where's George?

Don't be a killjoy! If you find yourself with money stamped "Track this bill at", go to the site and add your part to the tracking. It's enterducational!

I learned about them when I received such a bill, yesterday, and discovered that it was first received at a bank window in Webster Groves, MO two years ago.

They're not allowed to sell the stamps any more, so nothing new will be defaced. It's just a question of tracking what's out there, and it's fascinating to see how far and how fast bills travel.

More info courtesy of NPR

Buy LED Bulbs Now

Home Depot's running an unadvertised [see update note, below] sale on the Cree LED 60W-equivalent soft white light bulbs - the top-rated ones in this exhaustive survey. They cost an insanely low $9.97 per bulb (no adapter's necessary; they screw into any normal socket). For comparison, the bulb costs $18 on Amazon. And normally sells for $13 at Home Depot. This price - available in-store only as of now - is crazy low.

This is LED - cutting-edge technology! - not fluorescent, so there's no annoying hum or sickening light quality (there are some reports of noisy performance when the fixture's on a dimmer switch). Plus stupendous efficiency and a long lifetime ("long" as in a ten year warranty!).

Most seem to prefer soft white (which Cree apparently used to brand "warm white"; this has the same bright temperature of 2700K) rather than cool white, which is also on sale at Home Depot.

I just installed one in a hard-to-reach fixture, and the light's as good as incandescent. At this price, there's no reason not to stock up. They'll pay for themselves in just a few years, you'll never have to change them, and you're helping the environment.

Update: the sale's "unadvertised" no more. The new price now appears on the bulb's page on (though it's not available via mail order).

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