Monday, June 30, 2008

Scientist Tastes Silence

Jill Bolte Taylor is a distinguished neuroscientist who had a severe stroke, which temporarily suppressed her brain's left side - the nattering, analyzing half. The result was exactly what meditators spend decades seeking: an absolutely quiet mind. She found it blissful, fully recovered, can reenter that same state at will, didn't go all "woo-woo", wearing lots of jade jewelry (she's still in science) and wrote a book about the experience ("My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey").

It's amazing stuff, and I could rattle on for pages about the unfortunate chasm between science and spirituality, and how fantastic it is to have a neuroscientist directly experience this stuff from a standpoint that needn't bring down the whole paradigm. But, really, it's better to hear it from her. So....listen to her interview on
Fresh Air, and read an excerpt from the book on that same page.

UPDATE: I forgot to link to this great video of her talk at this year's TED Conference

Friday, June 27, 2008

Les Blank's New Film

Proto-chowhound filmmaker Les Blank, one of the early pillars of the food-lover's pantheon, is still going strong. In the early 1970's he made a series of documentaries about food culture (and music and other good stuff), including the classic Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers, a film about the Gilroy Garlic Festival that's traditionally screened with the stinking bulb sauteeing right in the theater. Les also directed a classic not-about-food, film, Burden of Dreams. It's about the making of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, and is generally considered the only making-of film that's better than its subject.

Les is premiering his newest work in NYC, starting tonight (Friday) night, at Manhattan's Cinema Village. "All in This Tea" profiles tea radical David Hoffman (who I wrote about on my Chow Tour in a piece entitled "The Enchanted Misty Mountain of Tea and Excrement"). See the trailer here, read the rave LA Times review of the film here, and order the DVD here. It's supposed to be great.

I've begged Les to release a complete set of all his films, just to use the title "A Complete Blank".

In other movie news, Les' old friend Werner Herzog has a new film out, Encounters at the Edge of the World, about the folks living and working at the McMurdo Station in Antarctica.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Belonging

A little over a year ago, I joined a local organization of immigrants from a certain state of India (I won't reveal more than that). I'd come across this obscure group while web surfing. I'm a fan of the region's cuisine, they seemed to organize some cool events, and I figured it might be fun to join up and be a part of it all.

So I emailed the club's chairman and asked whether it would be permissible. He was surprised by the inquiry, but also touched - and impressed by our ensuing animated discussion of his home state's food and music. I was invited, with great warmth, to be the association's first-ever gringo member. Elated to receive my shiny cardboard membership card in the mail, I eagerly read the frequent newsletters, and boned up on the region's culture and politics.

Yes, there was a tinge of irony to it all, but I did feel some real sense of belonging, though I'd not met a single member or attended any events. I flashed my membership card in car service offices and spice shops for my 10% discount, taking secret pleasure in the bewildered reactions of dispatchers and clerks, and awaited with great anticipation the next club Feast.

One day, I received a club email about a concert scheduled for the following month. It would be a fundraiser featuring a sort of music that didn't interest me. I ignored it. A more persistent email followed. And then I received a voicemail from the chairman. "Jim, this is Vijay. Would you please ring me back at your earliest convenience? I hope all is well with you!". I called back, and Vijay reminded me that the fundraiser was coming up, and that he needed - no, he EXPECTED me - to buy a couple of VIP level tickets at $75 each. He laid it on quite thickly, phrasing it in a way that permitted no graceful escape, and I had to restrain a bit of pique. This fellow, who I hardly knew and had never met, seemed totally out of line with his pushiness! It felt, in the pit of my stomach, as if I'd somehow been conned.

And then I realized that surely every club member had received a similar call. And that I'd asked to join a tight-knit association of paisano families, and, hey, this is part of the deal! And this realization changed everything.

I'm more accustomed to fake family-joining. Ten thousand times I'd gone into restaurants, befriended the staff, and eventually been regarded as Hungarian or Ecuadorian (or at least as a hip gringo who "gets it"), departing with the warm feeling of having been accepted. But that acceptance was never reciprocal. I'd go home, while the restaurant remained a destination I could choose to revisit...or not. That's not a relationship, it's merely a consumer decision.

On the phone with Vijay, who I'd finessed into treating me like a brother, my instinctual flinch turned to shame as truth dawned. I'd joined as a pose, welcoming the feeling of belonging (and the promise of some good meals), but expecting, for my part, to remain totally aloof. I guess I'd hoped it would function like a restaurant, with open borders in one direction only. The con was mine!

I'd love to report that, upon recognizing my folly, I'd sighed, bought a couple of VIP tickets, and generally melted into my new family; that I'd done the converse of "go local", and had gone immigrant.

Instead, I told Vijay I'd think about it, never got back to him, and eventually let my membership lapse. I did drive a couple hours to one event, which turned out to feature several hours of stand-up comedy in an unfamiliar language. At last, they opened the buffet line, serving uninteresting grub from a local Indian restaurant. I gulped down my ven pongal and bolted, feeling confused and vaguely ashamed.

------
Update
The best part of this story can be found in the comments, below. Don't miss them!

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Joys of Full Fare Coach

Every time I've ever had to buy a plane ticket, I've scrambled voraciously for the lowest possible price. You've likely done the same. The onerous rules, restrictions, and penalties that come with supersaver fares have become, over time, a perfectly normal and expected part of traveling.

I need to travel internationally next month, and, per normal, spent hours yesterday trying different dates and airports, ferreting out fare sales and deals, and craftily weeding out red-eyes, 7 hour layovers, and all the other budget travel landmines. The problem this time is that I'm not sure how long I'll need to stay in my destination, and furious research has failed to find supersaver tickets that come without $150 change fees (plus any fare difference, and there usually is). Also, I may want to make a stop en route, but these fares prohibit stopovers.

So I did the unthinkable. I visited terra incognita, the strange and heady world of full fare coach
. And I was stunned by what I found.

For an extra $300, I can get a fully-refundable ticket that will allow me to return any time, on any flight I'd like, without penalty. For that matter, it will let me change my departure flight without penalty! I can stop en route to my heart's content. I can take any flight, including in broad daylight. And there are seats available even on flights that were long-ago sold out on supersaver fares. And they'll upgrade me to biz class for free, if there's room. Best of all, I don't have to purchase a ticket to lock in my seats...they will
reserve the flights for me.

"Reserve the flights." It sounds like crazy talk! We
reserve a colonoscopy appointment; plane travel is simply bought. But, no, I've not laid out a dime, yet have an infinitely flexible departure and return flight
reserved for me to waltz into. All this for a bit more than the expense of a change penalty. It's all so utopian and relaxing, like waking up from a bad dream!

Wait a sec. Did I just say it costs
three hundred bucks more? Hmm...well, I can check again Tuesday and see if the web special fares have dropped...or forego luggage and get a courier gig....or drive to Philly and shave off another $80....or...

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Getting Off Friends' Mailing Lists

I've lost more than one close friend over the years by asking to be taken off mass mailing lists. I've asked politely, graciously, apologetically. The inevitable response? Incensed seething, roiling fury.

I've tried ever since to hone my approach, even resorting to begging and groveling, ala:
"Please don't take this personally, and please feel absolutely free to email me anything personally any time, but, of the several tens of thousands of people I've corresponded with, about 20% sends stuff around to everyone they've ever contacted. Now, I'm not by any means impugning your taste or your fantastic generosity in sharing (you may have saved me a bundle, as, who knows, I may have otherwise sent Neiman Marcus $500 for that cookie recipe!) but this volume is smothering my mailbox, I don't have time to read through it all, and if you could possibly scale back just a tad on the flow of items you so kindly forward to me and to everyone else you've ever corresponded with.....[etc etc]"
But no dice. You can send along flowers, even money, but hell hath no fury like a friend's limericks scorned. 

I figured out a solution, though. It's devlishly simple. Just rig up a second email account (e.g. @gmail.com or @yahoo.com), and ask friends and acquaintances currently sending you mass mailings to send that stuff there
. Tell them that's where you receive all your super-interesting and important subscriptions and such - so you can keep it all close at hand! And ask them to continue sending one-to-one communications to your usual address.

Then ignore that other account. Or blow through it every few days, in case anything personal was sent. Or, if you adore petitions, baby pictures, and "You Know You're a Jewish American Princess When..." humor, you'll know where to dig in when you have time. But the main thing is: you'll never again have to ask a friend to opt you out.

I should note that mass mailing forwards are different from "custom-forwards", i.e. when friends send along items of interest directly to you, or to you and a few other custom-selected recipients, as opposed to stuff automatically sent to an entire address book.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Where's All the Aliens?

MIT's Technology Review recently ran an interesting article: Where Are They? Why I Hope the Search For Extraterrestrial Life Finds Nothing (free registration's required to read...or else use one of these preset accounts, while they last)

Read Jamais Cascio's thoughts on the article (don't miss the comments section). If you're not familiar with the notion of "singularity", it's the idea that soon we'll be able to transcend our bodies and embed ourselves in computers, and, once we do, everything will speed up and change in ways we can't imagine. It's hokum (even if our thoughts, feelings, and memories could be ported, consciousness is a whole other thing, and it isn't in our neurons. Without consciousness, thoughts, feelings and memories are as useless as the money and clothing once buried with Pharaohs for their use in the afterlife). Ray Kurzweil, an otherwise bright guy, is the main person propagating this notion.

Read Tim O'Reilly's thoughts on the end of cheap oil (and how it relates to the article)

News About SIGA

Well, this is a sticky wicket! SIGA Technologies (which I last wrote about here) has just secured $8 million in financing from MacAndrews & Forbes.

I guess this is good news, because:

1. They say some of it will help fuel development of their product pipeline - and I'm concerned about their really promising stuff moving forward as they fight hard to commercialize ST-246, their lead drug for smallpox.

2. MacAndrews & Forbes get a very large options deal, which means they're pretty confident SIGA is poised for a major run-up (and the press release indicates that M&F has a place on SIGA's board, so they're privy to the latest issues with the hopefully impending $100M order of ST-246).


But it may be bad news, because:

1. SIGA needs to demonstrate their ability to manufacture quantity of ST-246 if they're going to get the aforementioned order contract. Back in April, they hit a snag in this step and
hit up the government for more dough. So perhaps things have grown desperate...in which case this $8M isn't going to buy much.

2. This deal may dilute the stock (I don't know enough about finance to understand the impact).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Journalism Balance Award Goes To....USATODAY???


One of my fascinations is to watch news reporters (and their editors) work their way out of tricky word-choice traps. I don't mean broad choices, such as whether to say "Downturn" or "Recession" and whether or not to refer to senator Clinton by her first name. I'm talking about the little bits of grammatical connective tissue that convey all the subliminal subtext.

In partisan and sensationalist journalism, such choices are always baldly skewed. When quoting a disliked figure, the individual doesn't "say" or "argue", but, rather, "claims" or "insists". That's a crude, obvious example, but there are far subtler ways in which doubt might be cast and opinion projected, and better publications invest attention in such minutiae. None are as consistently meticulous as
The Economist, which not only lavishes care on its word choices, big and small, but often does so with a sardonic wink toward those who, like me, dote on such things.

But the most precise and ingenious balance I've seen in a long time was struck by, of all things, USATODAY (risk cap-key fatigue, all ye who dare type its name), in its 
coverage of the Olympic torch's passage through Tibet: 

"No disruptions were reported, although the mood overall was far more subdued than at the torch's earlier stops in cities in China proper."
Those final two words earn three separate cheers: 1. for avoiding the easy but one-sided route of saying "cities in the rest of China", 2. for finding a construction that's both true and inoffensive to either side, and  3. for winkingly allowing just a tad of doubt as to whether Tibet is, in fact, China improper...without forcing the hand either way. The balance is precise and seemless, and truth is told.

Photo ©John Hammond

Update: woops, I failed to notice that this report actually came from Associated Press. Kudos to AP reporter Ken Teh!


Friday, June 20, 2008

Insanity Versus Revelation

When I was in college, I took a course in Eastern Religion, taught by a distinguished scholar. I'd already done a substantial amount of reading on the topic, and had dabbled in meditation and yoga since childhood, so I listened keenly as the professor described the absolute non-linearity of saints in traditions like Zen. Those guys never made any logical sense. One might easily reach the impression that mystical roads lead only to mushy-headedness. After all, an ascetic who experiences powerful revelation after years spent meditating in some Himalayan cave might just as well be deemed to have gone bonkers.

I sat down with the professor and asked him whether enlightenment might just be a manifestation of mental illness. The professor explained how he'd spent time in Japan with Zen masters who'd left him utterly convinced that they'd found potent truth and not merely gone Cocoa for Cocoa Puffs. They were non-linear, yes, but they palpably possessed all their marbles. But it was all empirical. He mostly danced around the question, arguing against the meaningfulness of the sanity/insanity dichotomy, and stressing the great discipline required of spiritual adepts (not a compelling point; obsessive-compulsives, for example, certainly don't lack discipline!).

This question of spiritual insight versus delusion bemused me for years, and no one could resolve it to my satisfaction. But here's how to draw the distinction: the insane are never happy and peaceful. Whereas those who regularly (and correctly) practice meditation are. That's the simple difference.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Comfy Folding Chairs

These aptly named Comfy Folding Chairs from Bed, Bath, and Beyond are amazingly, almost demonically, comfortable. They're versatile (they'll work on a porch, in a living room, in a kid's room, etc.). They're lightweight and can be broken down and stored, and they cost just $39 ($32 if you use one of the store's ubiquitous 20% off coupons). There's really no reason not to own a couple of these things.

I'm not sure why they call them "folding", though. They're essentially a cushy pillow attached to a collapsible aluminum stand.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

No One Loves You Like a Hater Does

A large team of workers manages the day-to-day operation of Chowhound.com's discussion forums. I haven't moderated the site in six years or so, yet haters continue to flatter me with their persistent misimpression of my omnipresence - i.e. assuming that I've personally deleted their postings. Crackpot blogs frequently make such statements (often with Nazi imagery).

Sanity check: Chowhound receives upwards of three thousand postings per day. Phalanxes of moderators work day and night to vet a mere fraction of it all (our users pick up the slack by reporting missed problems). And yet I still exist for some individuals as an all-seeing Dr. No, ensconced in my acrid star chamber, relishing my power (pause here to suck air through flaring, vindictive nostrils) as I delete their postings when they act like shmucks - as people sometimes do in online communities (me too; I occasionally get deleted, as well).

No one I actually know would ever mistake me for omnipresent. And no mere fan would deem me capable of such awesomeness. No one admires you, respects you, loves you, like a hater does.

I'll never forget the time one of the most piqued of the lot, a man I'd never met, sent me a profanity-laced email expressing in most damning terms what a "self-absorbed holier than thou sociopath" I am. He concluded with an earnest invitation to come to dinner with him and his wife the next weekend (he also once guessed my instant message screen name and popped up to say a chipper "Hi!"). It wasn't the first such invitation I've gotten over the years.

No one...no one...loves you like a hater does.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Smart Phone Lookups Page

Do you have a smart phone (i.e. a cellphone that lets you browse the Internet)? If so, you may want to bookmark http://www.jimleff.info/lookup.html, a page I've whipped up to allow super fast, on-the-fly searches of movie schedules and reviews, wikipedia, ebay, local yellow pages, and more. The sorts of sites you'd want to access on the go.

As a gift for Slogging along, send me locations and addresses to include among the Yellow Pages and Google Local and Movies options and I'll add them.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Benny Lava

The Benny Lava video is the latest "viral" video, with hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. I don't direct you to it because it's amusing (though it is), but because it's interesting.

It's a Bollywood video which someone has subtitled not with an English translation, but with English lyrics more or less matching what it kind of sounds like the actors are singing. Hard to explain...it's easier to just go see.

What fascinates me is just how convincing it is. And it's not convincing because the syllables sung are
so close to English. Rather, it's the intense power of subtitles - a phenomenon I don't really understand. I'd noticed it once before, when, for some reason I watched an English DVD with the subtitling on. Bizarrely, I couldn't take my eyes off the subtitles. In fact, I stopped fully "hearing" the dialog after a few minutes. Weird!

There's surely a psychology thesis to be written about all this. But, in any case, I'll bet that even native Hindi speakers (who also speak good English) will find themselves involuntarily hearing the fake English per subtitles in this video.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Everybody Hates Somebody Sometime

One thing that always cracks me up about Chowhound is that there is no great restaurant so beloved as to escape hatred. That's just the nature of the peanut gallery - er, sorry, the online networked community. There's always a contrarian, and he or she is often pissed off.

I decided to test this assumption, and, sure enough, a bit of surfing turned up some harsh words for the following seemingly sacrosanct things. Click for the full rants (I need to stress that the following are not satirical):

The Taj Mahal: "I think that Taj Mahal is a big hype! I have seen grander and more marvelous pieces of architecture in Europe and America than Taj Mahal. Statue of Liberty is more imposing"

Citizen Kane: "It has the aura of the Independent Film Channel about it. That is where you view interesting failed experiments of promising young filmakers"

James Joyce's "Ulysses":  "No more than an adolescent playing with styles to no good purpose whatsoever"

Porsche sports cars: "Very over rated and very over priced. There not even good looking"

Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue": "One star for Cannonball Adderly's and Bill Evans' efforts. Otherwise, it is feces hailed as something good"

Mahatma Gandhi: "So erratic and unpredictable that he may have delayed Indian independence for twenty-five years"

Vincent Van Gogh's "Starry Night":  "I like the starscape idea, but its not nearly colorful or stylized enough."


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Consumer Research Sites

It was 98 here today, and I'm typing at you from an un-air-conditioned room on the top floor of a house with a coal-black roof. My IQ, not all that impressive to begin with, has dipped below the cretin threshold. By around 4:15 yesterday, I was slurring my words and clicking the same bookmark over and over again. Not pretty.

At times like this, one thinks "air conditioner". Though, obviously, it'd be better to have such thoughts
before the gigunda heat wave. Darting around to my usual shopping sites, opinion sites, and deal sites, I found I was just not getting anywhere. I was caught in a nasty loop. It was simply too hot to research air conditioners. So logic told me: must buy air conditioner. But it was simply too hot to research air conditioners. So logic told me: must buy air conditioner. You get the idea.

But I got lucky. I bumped into a site I'd noticed long ago, but failed to bookmark: a consumer research site. The set-up is smart: clever, bright surfers dig into all those opinion sites
for you and report the upshot. It's a great idea, and presages what I hope will one day be many more human-mediated web services. Shoot, I'd be willing to pay someone to save some of the frenzied blitzkrieging sessions I go through to research many of my buying decisions! But this site, and another I found like it, are free. And a quick glance tells me that their recommendations are pretty right-on. They didn't hit every nook and cranny of data, but neither are they hasty. I can't offer a thorough analysis of the comparative benefits of each site, though, because, in case you missed it, my senses are dulled. Houston, we do not have cognition!

So I, an overwhelmed lunkhead unable to research for myself, will simply toss you the links. Put them away for times when you turn lunkheaded and can't research for yourself. Or, more likely (do I know you or what?) use them as extra resources for your own research - though it'd be sort of like melting down truffles to make a truffles, if that makes sense (bear in mind that you're dealing with an individual whose thighs are one with his chair).

So...take
that. And take that...while I go get a cooling beverage.

And if you find any crucial differences between the sites, please say so in the comments. And once I get an ozone-killing, current-draining, spore-spitting box in my window, you'll hear more from me.

The End. A report by Jimmy Leff. A Jimmy Leff production. Bye bye bye bye bye bye........

UPDATE: I finally got a Sears Kenmore 76081 (8000 btu) for the office, and another for the bedroom. I was initially going to go with the Frigidaire 6000 btu (anything higher than 6000 btu by Frigidaire apparently makes a racket akin to an ascending 737), but the Kenmore is quieter and more sure to handle the full space. For the living room, a Royal Sovereign ARP-5012XH, currently on super-sale for $399 postpaid at Costco.com (though not in Costco stores). It has a double exhaust hose, the holy grail in portable air conditioners. Costco.com also has the more powerful 14,000 btu ARP-3014 for sale at the same price, but it doesn't have the dual exhaust.

Here's the deal on portables: first, they're not so portable. They must exhaust through a window, using short hoses that can't be lengthened. Second, they do not have the cooling power of wall units, even if the BTU rating is the same, because to move the same volume of air they'd need to be far noisier (a window unit vents most of its noise outside, but a portable must be much quieter). Portables can't bring room temperature down to 72 degrees. Rather, they reduce the temperature by ten or fifteen degrees, period. One good thing about portables, though, is that they can be set to just dehumidify (this one removes 100 pints of water/day). So I can ensure that my piano doesn't saturate when if I go away...without creating humongous electric bills by running the a/c compressor while I'm gone.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Get Rich Slow with SIGA

THE MUCH PRAYED-FOR SMALLPOX CURE
SIGA Technologies has developed a clever new way of creating medicines and vaccines to treat infectious diseases. I don't really understand how it works, but results have validated their method. SIGA's smallpox drug, ST-246, seems completely effective in treating smallpox (and other poxes), and in boosting the preventive power of vaccines, all with no discernible side effects.

ST-246 is finally nearing the end of its (fast-tracked) FDA testing phase, but back over a year ago, during preliminary testing, when a child fell ill as a result of his father's smallpox vaccination, this is the drug the FDA recommended. Though he was "covered with 'mounds of pox'" and "suffered kidney failure and lost most of his skin," the boy fully recovered. His "skin grew back at a phenomenal rate and shows remarkably few signs of the ravages of the disease." Not bad, huh? All reported in the NY Times!

But SIGA's stock price bumped up and then fell back down again.

DEVELOPMENT COSTS PAID BY THE GOVERNMENT
The problem for upstart pharmaceutical companies is the obscene cost of discovering, testing, and approving their drugs. But SIGA is smart. They've labelled themselves a biodefense firm and taken on the gnarly catch-phrase "Human BioArmor". As a result, various agencies associated with the health angle of homeland defense have been funding them. And fast-tracking their approval process.

SIGA is working on lots of other drugs, too. While the smallpox drug is nearly ready to roll, there are upcoming candidates for Lassa Fever, Ebola, and Arenaviruses, and they're working on Bunyavirus, Dengue fever, and Anthrax - all horrendous cooties that terrorists apparently drool over.

So we have a company whose drug creation methods have been proven via a smallpox drug with sensational results and a unique real-life success story, and they're working on a portfolio of drugs the US government (and many other governments) would desperately like to buy.

But still the stock floundered.

THE PARTIES WHO FUNDED ARE THE PARTIES WHO'LL BUY
The CDC, FDA and similar agencies charged with protecting the nation's health are not just collaborating with SIGA, not just recommending their drugs when real-world tragedy strikes, and not just funding development costs. These are also the parties who will help make the decisions of which drugs to stockpile for counter-terrorism. Fickle markets won't decide; revenue will flow from the agencies who've acted for years as SIGA's veritable partners.

And the stock still flounders.

QUIETLY MUCH MORE THAN BIODEFENSE
Take a look at a dusty corner of SIGA's web site. Without the slightest fanfare, buried amid jargon-ish fine print, is the news that SIGA's drug for anthrax and botulism will, incidentally, la-di-da, have effectiveness against staphylococcus aureus (the most common cause of staph infections), streptococcus pyogenes (the cause of Group A strep infections), enterococcus faecalis (the highly drug-resistant cause of Group D Strep infections and some endocarditis), and streptococcus pneumoniae (a major cause of pneumonia)....and "their resistant derivatives" (emphasis mine).

Those aren't just biodefense pathogens. They're massive public health scourges, several with horrendous drug-resistance, and all of which are currently treated with drugs bearing side effects - which SIGAs high-tech, laser-like drugs seem to cause far less of. The potential here is massive, especially given that the company's unique model of drug creation has been validated.

So why is SIGA not trumpeting this? Vested interest, for now, in retaining the perqs attached to tight focus on biodefense, which might be jeopardized by winking at investors as a thinly-disguised, federally-subsidized Big Pharma wannabe.

But the stock still flounders.

A MEDICAL SUPERSTAR QUITS HIS DAY JOB
Eric Rose, arguably the nation's top cardiac surgeon, chief of surgery at Columbia Presbyterian, and a professor at Columbia's medical school, was widely lauded for his uncommonly broad medical knowledge and business savvy. He had, for many years, been sought-after to sit on the boards of medical firms and start-ups.

It's safe to say that Dr. Rose was doing quite well for himself, financially. But in March of last year, he chucked his medical and teaching careers to become CEO of SIGA. Of all the hot-prospect companies with which he's been involved, this one compelled him to quit his day job. It's clear that Dr. Rose expects a serious windfall. And by windfall, I mean an abandon-his-comfy-source-of-torrential-dough sort of windfall.

Yup. The stock languished.

$100M IMMINENT, WILL FUEL MASSIVE FURTHER DEVELOPMENT
SIGA has announced that a $100 million purchase of their smallpox drug by the US government may be imminent. They've completed the application procedure, and the next step is for their buddies in the government (with whom they work closely, and who trusted this medicine sufficiently to have given it to a desperately ill two year old) to unleash their enormo budget on a first purchase toward a massive stockpile to protect the public from one of its gravest threats. European health agencies have also been approached.

SIGA has stated its intention to channel any such revenue into expedited development of their drug pipeline. Strep, staph, and pneumonia, watch out.

The stock? Nothin'!

BIG-MONEY INVESTORS WATCH AND WAIT WHILE DAY TRADERS NIBBLE AND RUN
So why has SIGA's stock mostly languished? Two reasons, one of them interesting. The first is that there are so many pharm upstarts that the sector's like a vast thorny tree whose ripest plums can remain surprisingly concealed (also, few investors seems to have read the NY Times on 5/18/07). The second is that while there are traders who do have SIGA in their sights, and who expect a tremendous run-up, they don't want to park their money. Not even on an apparent sure thing (one exception is Ron Perelman, who I've heard holds a stake). These cowboys don't just want to make tons and tons of money, they want to make tons and tons of money RIGHT NOW. The old school investment model of finding unsung gems early and sticking with them (which, by the way, was the traditional means for unsung gems to be funded into well-sung-ness) is history. And SIGA does not yet have in hand its first big order. It has not shown the proverbial money.

If you study SIGA's stock price chart , you'll notice a curious see-sawing which bears no relationship with company news or overall market swings. It's been painful for small investors like me to watch the stock price randomly build and sink, again and again. But here's what I think is happening. Day traders, who know investors are watching for a run-up, are doing occasional bouts of buying to drive up the price and trigger broader purchase (e.g. preset automatic "buy" orders), and then getting out quick.

I HATE PRE-FAB ROAST BEEF, BUT...
Of course I realize nothing's a sure thing. And I've seen my SIGA investment flounder for some time. I've endured traumatic ups and downs triggered by wise guy day traders. But I'll say this: if the stock price ($2.92 as of this writing) doesn't pass $10 within a year and $35 within a decade, I'll eat Arbie's for an entire month.

Disclosure: I, duh, own stock in this company. But I write this not to goose the share price by .01 cents, but rather as a thank-you gift for visiting and reading my Slog.

UPDATE: While the ordinarily circumspect SIGA has boasted of an imminent $$$M order of their smallpox drug (ST-246) from the government (they're talking to European governments, as well), the order has not yet been announced...and the stock remains in the dumps. But have a look at these two slides from recent government presentations, which seem to confirm that it's a done deal.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Deslogging

The Slog will go on hiatus for a couple days to allow real work to get done. 

The next posting will be a stock tip that will make your toes curl (or, if they're already curled, it will straighten them out).

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Hillary, Sexism, OJ, and an Apology to the Right Wing

I'm the sort of person who tries to find sense in other viewpoints. But this Associated Press article has me at a complete loss.

I can understand why people might deem Hillary Clinton the superior candidate, though I, myself, happen not to. I can understand that many women had hoped to see a co-genderist in office, though I, myself, would flee to Denmark if Joseph Leiberman, my co-chosen-people-ist, ever took the nation's helm. I even think I understand - insofar as I'm willing to go to that scary place - how Hillary managed to inflate to heights of entitlement not seen since pre-Revolutionary France. And I'm feminist enough to bristle when Senator Clinton is condescendingly referred to by her first name. And sexist enough to have inadvertently done so myself, just above. Yet honest enough to leave the gaffe for all to see.

But the article linked above, wherein the reporter writes that "Her loss was painful for women who have encountered sex discrimination themselves," as if it were a foregone conclusion that gender was her undoing, left me completely sputtering.

Hillary Clinton - who entered each campaign event with her face screaming "Well HELLO, everybody, it's ME! Yes, it's really ME! It's ME and I'm HERE!!", who from day one in the campaign used "when I'm president...." phraseology in a way that clearly went above and beyond cliched candidate-speak, who openly scorned as a smooth-talking airhead an opponent who many found impressive and who declined to volley back the disrespect, and who has generally seemed so delusional in her demonic refusal to acknowledge defeat that I'd hate to imagine the distractions she'd create with our military should her reelection seem in question in 2012 - is someone who can easily be expected to cry "sexists!" That makes sense to me. What other explanation is there? She was obviously supposed to be the next frigging president! It was her's, dammit! No candidate could have fairly beaten her; not even a superior one!

But is it truly possible that women who are not Senator Clinton actually share this view?? I haven't felt so woozy since African Americans backed OJ Simpson - and I'll hasten to note that I was one of the few white people at the time who knew how police treated black people in Los Angeles (I toured there in 1989 with an all-black band, and was surprised to see my normally nonchalant bandmates waiting anxiously for lights to change before entering crosswalks. It was explained to me. I gulped. Hard.).

Racism exists. Sexism exists. But this was obviously neither. A candidate who many people, right or wrong, saw as a divisive, reflexively pandering and triangulating old-school politician lost to someone fresher and more composed, who offered a message that galvanized millions (including scads of women). Her prohibitive lead vanished as she was out-campaigned by an opponent who may indeed turn out to be all talk, but who's the first politician in a very long time to say the sorts of things many listeners had been waiting desperately to hear, and who repeatedly demonstrated a coolly disciplined ability to rise above the take-no-prisoners sort of politics which went nova during the first Clinton administration and supernova in the Cheney administration. She was, in other words, beaten fair and square.

I don't expect Senator Clinton to ever accept this. Since it's unthinkable that she could possibly be deprived of her birthright by anything as ludicrous as a candidate whose fresh approach feels like tonic for an irritated electorate, it must be something else. Something insidious; something sinister! And I'm seized with a recognition that this delusional, paranoid disconnection and hyper-inflated, mega-annoying sense of entitlement are precisely what the right wing has lambasted all along. And I'd thought the anti-Hillary rhetoric was just empty vitriol from partisan haters!

So I'd like to take this moment to apologize to the red states. You guys were right. You warned us, and we failed to take you seriously. Sorry. Now, if you'll just apologize for assuming the rest of us were unpatriotic for opposing the Iraq war, we can hopefully all shake hands and blend ourselves back into a nice shade of violet.

UPDATE: Read Dahlia Lithwick's analysis of the split between bitter female Clinton supporters and perplexed female Obama supporters. She ascribes it to a generational difference. Not sure that's entirely right, but it's an interesting read, in any case.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Liz Clark and The Voyage of Swell

When I try to imagine a 27 year old unknown surfer sailing a 40 foot boat ("Swell") from San Diego to New Zealand (and then all around for another year or two), having lined up funding plus an impressive list of sponsors (far more than I was able to secure for Chowhound during its long slog, in spite of a national brand and wider connections), getting off the boat at landfall and surfing with gaping wounds from her repeated coral wipeouts, and all the while writing mature, insightful prose about the journey (including some intriguing food writing), my brain sort of explodes.

Links:
The shamefully disorganized site that was set up for her reports 
The voyage's MySpace page

Monday, June 2, 2008

Milton Resnick: Ecstasy Made Visible

I've been making frequent pilgrimages to the Milton Resnick show at Cheim & Read Gallery (547 West 25th Street New York, NY; 212-242-7727). I'm not sure what I'll do with myself after it closes on June 20, 2008!

It's not that I'm such a huge art fan. While I peruse galleries and museums as often as any reasonably cultured urbanite, I'm rarely viscerally turned on, and I've never learned to rattle off painters, paintings, and periods the way I can tapas and bebop pianists. But every once in a while, one finds magic.

Last month I stumbled upon Resnick's "East is the Place", a sprawling, epic work of abstract expressionism at the Milwaukee Art Museum. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, this is one of those "squiggly" paintings that people tend to stare at in numb bafflement. But unlike many of the impenetrable works it superficially resembles, Resnick's painting wouldn't let me go. I dove in and swam happily, exploring an entire world, feeling as if I was cannily guided by the artist through an immense frenetic quagmire of blotches, smears, and squiggles.

I could easily have sat in front of the painting for a week. Viewing for a few minutes and then passing on to the next painting seemed as futile as hoping to appreciate a Mahler symphony by surfing a few moments on a CD. I'd found the ultimate Desert Island Painting, with infinite depths and dynamic richness that could engage the viewer for an eternity.

Resnick's work is so visually slippery that the eye can't help but keep moving, and the result is a sensation of active motion not easily described without resorting to hallucinogenic cliches. It's often said that the paint seems suspended in the air several inches in front of Resnick's canvases, and that's putting it mildly. Shortly after viewing "East is the Place" in Milwaukee, I stepped into the museum's
“Infinity Chamber," a trippy room designed to evoke an experience of infinite depth. But after Resnick, it seemed shallow and blandly finite.

Upon returning from Milwaukee I began sussing out opportunities for viewing other Resnick work around town, and, amazingly, this retrospective was under way. I hurried over, and discovered that Resnick's magic is consistent. The eight paintings in the show all have the same immersive, ecstatic quality that so mesmerized me in Milwaukee. I stood slack-jawed while my eyes throbbed and I softly whimpered.

Other viewers looked at the paintings, but there's nothing to "look" at, per se, but squiggles and blotches! These are sensory rides, not pictures. Yet few seemed to immerse. They gingerly stepped around the raptly smitten fellow, peered dully for a few seconds, and moved on.

This is artwork to inhabit rather than to observe. One might be intimidated by the sheer scale of the canvases (the largest is nearly 25 feet long) and their lack of obvious entry point, but one approach is to concentrate on a single color, deeming it the background, and allow eyes to come in and out of focus naturally. Then shift to another color as background. At a certain point, you give up and simply drink in the beauty, letting the painting direct the eye's movements as colors and brushstrokes begin to roil and radically transform.


Resnick's work superficially resembles that of other "energy" painters such as Jackson Pollock, but whereas Pollock's art is often said to be "energy made visible", Resnick's is ecstasy made visible. There's also a hard-to-pin-down classical quality to Resnick's work. These are lush, romantic, unmodern opuses...which happen not to contain recognizable content. They don't sneer in staunch resistence to figure. Rather, they hint, slip, and slide through the figurativism of the unconscious. Resnick described art as the unhinging of soul from sight, and his is the work of an unhinged romantic painter.


It's a happy coincidence that
Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 is currently at the Jewish Museum through September 21, 2008. I'd be more upset at the curators' having snubbed Resnick if the Cheim & Read show weren't up in parallel, but the two together offer a sensational survey of this period of American art. If you hit the JewMu, do buy the catalog - gallery speak for that pricey hard-bound commemorative booklet with color images - which is already selling online at steep premium. I bought the Resnick catalog, but, alas, he has absolutely no impact in reproduction. I just might be forced to relocate to Milwaukee.

P.S.- after writing the above, I found the following quote by Resnick, who was apparently the rare visual artist able to convey his vision in words: "It isn't canvas that you approach for your focusing. It is a place…A very important part of this whole thing lies in whether this canvas, which becomes this place, also becomes a world."

Update: Here's a photo of "East is the Place", the painting I saw in Milwaukee. The image is about a thousandth as good as seeing the thing in person, but it's still pretty great. Click to expand (and open your browser window widely, or else download the image and open with a graphics program):

Sunday, June 1, 2008

How to pick out shill-reviewed places on Trip Advisor

One helpful thing to know about shills (people who post rave reviews under alias for their own operations, or those of family or friends) is that they have no restraint. In fact, lack of restraint is an inherent part of what makes a shill a shill! Take a look at this page listing a few Trip Advisor reviews I wrote (anonymously) about hotels I stayed in during my massive Chow Tour

Notice anything strange? Users generally find me quite a helpful reviewer. On three of the four places I reviewed, all raters rated my review "helpful". On the fourth review, I was found remarkably unhelpful, and by a much larger pool of review-raters. Take a look, and you'll see I'd written a tepid review for a very highly rated hotel; a review in stark contrast to the many raves for the place. And you'll see a number of others whose experience failed to live up to those of other reviewers. They were voted "unhelpful" as well, and by a larger-than-usual pool (relatively few Trip Advisor users rate reviews...much fewer than on, say, Amazon). 

In things like food, books, movies, etc., avid-but-honest partisans will annoyingly down-rate a review's helpfulness simply because they disagree with the opinion. The most thoughtful negative review of Star Wars, for example, will swiftly be marked "unhelpful" by scads of incensed fanboys. But while the Montreal Springhill Suites may have its genuine fans, they are unlikely (unless they're stark raving bonkers) to be quite so fervid. No one, in other words, but an insider would down-rate a well-written negative review of a hotel. But, again: lacking restraint, insiders can't help themselves.

So the upshot is this: if a venue on Trip Advisor seems over-hyped, watch for down-rated "helpfulness" ratings on reasonably thoughtful negative reviews. If so, you should be extremely skeptical of ratings for the venue. 

It must be noted, however, that some good - even great - businesses shill. So some raves for shilly places may be legitimate. Of course, it's hard to distinguish, and that ambiguity greatly reduces the power of legitimate raves. What a pity to see good businesses devalue genuine consumer word-of-mouth via their own underhandedness!

The penalty for dishonesty is always devaluation of one sort or another. Quality operators would do far better to let their reputation grow organically! They also have a vested interest in seeing earnest consumer opinion networks retain credibility, because a robustly authentic consumer network is the best imaginable friend to quality businesses.

Lousy operators who shill would be better served in spending their time and energy* improving quality, rather than striving to guerilla market mediocrity. Customers lured to a poor experience via subterfuge are likely to become unhappy customers, and unhappy customers can be more expensive, in the end, than no customers at all. 


*In some cases, they spend hard cash. Public relations firms have over the past couple of years begun offering outsourced shill services. We at Chowhound were aware of this early on (one perq of running a beloved resource is that we have moles pretty much everwhere), and the Wall Street Journal reported on it late last year.

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