Wednesday, June 30, 2010

YouTube Lets You Skip (or Choose) the Ads

Why is Google about to allow YouTube users to skip ads? To charge the hell out of advertisers for viewers who don't opt out, of course!

But reports on this have buried the lede. The really important part is this: "YouTube will offer users a choice of the ads they can see within a video."

It's a watershed moment. And, somewhere, Seth Godin
just had an orgasm.

We needn't hate ads. Hating ads dates from broadcast days, when we suffered through gazillions of ads of no interest to us. But there are companies and products out there which any of us would be eager to learn about. Now, finally, advertising is shifting toward giving us a say in that process. It's about time!

Further cluefulness: "It will encourage advertisers to invest in compelling ads," says senior Google product manager Baljeet Singh.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Lotan Baba

This guy has the only gig worse than running a food community.

The Fundamental Truth of Investment

Apple's new iPhone has been the most successful product launch in the company's history. They sold 1.7 million of 'em in just three days, and they'd have sold many more if there'd been more supplies to sell. And just six days ago, Apple announced sales of three million iPads (a much more expensive and less established product) in 80 days

These are two absolutely sensational bits of news, blowing out all analyst predictions and translating into billions of dollars for the company's bottom line. And yet the company's stock price hasn't budged.

It's true that Apple's being investigated for anti-competitive practices, but we've known about that for a while. And it's true that Android's doing pretty well, but that, too, is relatively old news. And, yes, the new iPhone has a couple of minor flaws, but what newly designed (or redesigned) gizmo doesn't? So the question remains: how can a company hit two resounding home runs, each beyond all forecasts, yet not see its stock price increase?

Answer: the stock price already reflected investor confidence that resounding home runs would be hit. If the iPad and iPhone had sold merely well, the stock would have tanked. Exuberance is so high that fantastic results are mere status quo, unable to move the stock price. The only way the stock can move higher is for future sales to be so miraculous that they exceed even the most exuberant expectations.

It's a reminder of a fundamental truth that so many individual investors fail (at great peril) to fathom: that buying a company's stock is not a wager that the company will do well. It's a wager that other investors have undervalued the stock; that the company will exceed the expectations of a bunch of very close observers, including brilliant people who've chewed every number and investigated every competitor.

You don't bet on companies. You bet against other investors. And they're mostly smarter than you (I bought Apple at $114, because I thought it might be undervalued, but only because I thought I had real world perspective that smarter investors lacked).

Exception: the long tail of little pre-commercialized companies which nobody has time to investigate.
SIGA has created a very safe and effective cure for smallpox (and all its weaponized varieties) which is less than a year from FDA approval and even closer to a (much-delayed) nine-figure contract to stockpile the drug for homeland defense (to be followed by orders from India, EU, South Korea, and any other country fearing bioterrorism). They have an amazing pipeline of other miracle drugs under development, and a wee market cap of $320M, yet no one's ever heard of them, and their stock price remains in the sevens. That's undervalued, relative to the likely potential.

Don't even think of investing in a speculative bio-tech with funds you can't afford to lose. But I expect this will be my last mention (here's the
first, and here are all, in reverse chronological order) before you hear about SIGA on the news - though, obviously, I've been way too optimistic on the time frame previously, and I may be doing so again. On the other hand, none of the delays have affected SIGA's potential. On the contrary, it's brighter than ever (if anyone has invested in SIGA previously and is curious for an update, let me know via comments, and I'll post one. I'd rather not bore everyone with details if no one has a stake!).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Back From Band Camp

I've been telling the epic tale of how the site I'd started,, wound up a part of CBS. Only a few installments remain, but this week I lived the final chapter. So you can consider this a flash-ahead.

As those who've been following along in that series know, I launched Chowhound as a hobby, but it soon took over my life, and I dropped just about everything to sit at my computer screen day and night, accommodating an increasingly vast flow of users.

The toughest sacrifice was that I hardly played a note on my trombone for many, many years. I'd been a top New York professional, and loved music so much that I'd bring my horn everywhere I went, just in case there might be an off chance to play. But I grew so rusty that I could hardly produce a sound. After a decade of Chowhound, and after my year of servitude with CNET, and after the year or two it took me to get myself back together (losing weight, overcoming the post-traumatic stress, etc), I sounded like Lucy Ricardo honking away on her saxophone. And it ate me up. I've always identified as a musician, but a musician who can hardly play a note is a contradiction in terms. I felt truly disabled.

So about six months ago I tried, in earnest, to get back in shape. I could only play a minute or two before tiring, so I started "
microshedding": practicing for just two minutes per day, and increasing it by a minute or so every week. After a half a year, I sounded like a decent (but unusually musical) high school player, but was at least able to play for an hour. Hoping to ratchet ahead to the next level, this week I headed off to band camp.

Yup. I packed up my cut-off shorts and mosquito repellent and headed out to the woods to play for hours per day, coached by illustrious musicians who, back in the day, would have been my colleagues. I ate horrendous food, made beer runs to Safeway with the older, legal, kids, and, generally, made vast strides. Back in 1980, as a teenager, I'd been greatly inspired, and came into my own as a young musician, at a summer brass quintet program at Tanglewood. And though I played no chamber music during my subsequent trombone career, I was attracted, like a salmon, back to my musical spawning grounds. So it was a week of deja vu brass quintet concentration for me.

I had the great honor of playing in an ensemble with some of the less technically adept students who were also by far the most musical ones. We created moments of exquisite magic amid the many cracked notes and blown entrances (a fair portion of them my fault). I kept trying to explain to them how unbelievably rare and precious these errant little moments of magic are - how even professionals rarely manage it. Of course, they'll only appreciate it in retrospect. There was a vast chasm between our perspectives, but that's ok.

Clocks can reset, but only with herculean effort. This week involved a few of them resetting simultaneously....all while feeling like Frodo newly returned to the Shire after his harrowing adventure, unable to aptly convey what he'd been through. But it felt great, and I made tons of progress. There were moments where I was able to fully put myself into the music, not thwarted by technical limitations. My bandmates chalked my perpetually watery eyes up to an allergy issue.

There was much instruction in the art of musical psychology - how to psyche yourself into giving a good performance, rather than allowing negativity to derail you. But I rediscovered a fundamental truth: the way to avoid that quagmire is to play generously; to put all focus into inspiring the musicians you're with. If it's not about you, what's to be negative about?

If you listen to our dress rehearsal with a careful ear, you'll hear me playing creakily - and sporadically out of tune (ack, those G-flats...) - but you'll also hear all five of us kids playing our absolute freaking hearts out.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Must've Been the Cookie

Last night I was riding in a bus with some friends when I remarked, as a conversational non sequitur, that many people who experience spiritual realization report that it feels like waking up from a dream. And they say the experience can be so subtle you might fail to notice the momentary shift.

My friends thought this must feel awfully strange, because the world seems so rock solid. I had to agree; my surroundings had never seemed more real and non-dream-like.

As the bus drove on, I gradually settled into a state of pure perception, with less and less post-processing of my moment-to-moment sensations. I let go. And I awoke. I yawned and stretched, and it wasn't until I'd lingered for a full two minutes in my bed at the Doubletree Hotel that I recalled what had happened. It was so subtle that I'd missed it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Bright Side of BP

Some of you may come here to hear unorthodox viewpoints. Well, here's my take on the BP oil spill:

If this enduringly kills "drill, baby, drill" sentiment, then greater and wider peril will be averted (albeit at tremendous cost to our friends in the Gulf Coast). A large number of merely horrendous disasters wouldn't have been sufficient. But now we've reached critical mass, and that required something this big and this awful.

And if this disaster serves as a tipping point for wider environmentalism, and inspires a really serious push, finally, for the development of alternative energy sources (there's been some serious push already), that would be one heck of a silver lining in the long run.

It's often observed that society doesn't mobilize unless there's some catastrophe. Well, we've had our catastrophe. And we are addicted to oil, and all addicts must hit bottom before they clean up. In both respects, a bottom point was necessary, and it looks like we have ourselves a great big flashy one, with absolutely no wiggle room for thinking otherwise. And that's exactly what we needed (with, again, apologies to our friends on the Gulf Coast, who oughtn't have borne the brunt of this).

Friday, June 4, 2010

Leff's Second Law

Any sufficiently advanced feat of creativity is indistinguishable from magic.

For those who don't pick up on the reference, this is inspired by the third of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws.

Fwiw, here are my other laws

Extraordinary Crimes Warrant Extraordinary Measures?

Why do we read Miranda rights to child abusers? And why do we let them lawyer up and proceed, comfortably, through our criminal justice system - where they might, in the end, be released due to some legalistic technicality and permitted back into society to damage the lives of untold innocent children?

Furthermore, pedophiles often join rings to share child pornography...or worse. Breaking up such rings is absolutely critical. Each day such rings operate means monsters indulging their thirst for rape and abuse. In light of this clear and present danger, why do we merely interrogate pedophiles when they're caught? Harsher methods are called for to ensure that they name accomplices. Surely that's a worthy goal at literally any cost. Should the abstract notion of legal rights trump the well-being of our children?

And what about frauds who pose as doctors, or who peddle counterfeit medicines? Unchecked, such people endanger the lives of untold innocent victims. When caught, we must immediately pore over their patient lists and supply chains to stave off grievous bodily harm. If such information isn't willingly offered, there is a clear pressing need to force it out by any means. And how can we ever return such individuals, in all their menace, to normal society? It's impossible to imagine them being rehabilitated by jail time. Once their information is extracted, they need to be forever removed from society. Do you want child abusers and homicidal medical frauds walking around freely?

Beyond-the-pale criminals ought to be handled beyond the confines of a criminal justice system designed to coddle garden variety criminals! (Or else we ought to avoid the (very) slippery slope and stick with our established time-tested system, come what may, for all offenders.)

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Verticality for Health and Fitness

Ever since learning that sitting is deadly, I've been thinking up ways to stand more. The problem is that I can't imaging writing or web surfing on my feet, so a standing desk is out. But I can:
  • Go to a museum or gallery once per week (lots of standing!)

  • Take a 30 minute walk per day (in addition to gym workouts)

  • Eat, drink and socialize standing as much as possible (e.g. at the bar rather than at tables).

  • Never sit at bars...stand only!

  • Get faster at catching the point when I've been sitting too long and would be amenable to standing up for activities I usually prefer seated (e.g. writing and web surfing)....rather than waiting until I'm dying to get up.

  • Set a timer (e.g. using this iPhone app) to remind myself to get up and walk around every x minutes.

  • No "optional" sitting. If I feel a strong compulsion to sit, fine. But simply spotting a nearby chair doesn't mean it must be sat in. One example is while cooking; I stand and leaf through a magazine while waiting for water to boil.

  • When standing for long periods, use some sort of block or support to elevate a foot. The reason for the elevated foot rests you see on bars (see photo below) is that they make it much more comfortable to stand for long periods.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Thoughts Upon Moving

I'm about to move to a new home. Which means gathering belongings, dusting them off, throwing or giving away all the clutter, cleaning the shower tiles and everything else, and generally making my current place vastly nicer for the next tenants than it ever was for me. There's a whiff of insanity there, no?

When my mother moved out of our family home, we threw out all the boxes she'd long stored in the basement (intending to eventually go through and organize it all). It dawned on us that none of it was actually so important or valuable. The storage of that stuff had been utterly pointless all along, but we realized it too late to free up space in the basement we could have used all those years. How foolish of us...

We also fixed dozens of small problems in the house that had bugged us for decades. We did not get to enjoy the benefits of any of these improvements. Again: insane!

I have a friend who drove around in an ugly bomb of a car for years. Having decided to sell the thing, he invested in a paint job. The car looked great, but he never drove the great-looking car. That pleasure was passed exclusively to the new owners. Crazy!

Why are we so generous to the people who come after?

Speaking of "after", let's consider the afterest "after" of all. Imagine your heirs saddled with the task of disposing of your belongings. Of course, 95% will be trashed. We store our possessions for "Someday", but the likeliest "Someday" scenario is a profusion of black plastic bags being carried out to a curb. As with the repairs, the painting, and the organizing, why not cut straight to the end game? Presumably we like our heirs better than future tenants or car owners. So why do we pass on burden to folks we like, and pass on pleasure to strangers?

As I begin the moving process, I urge you, courtesy of the temporary clarity arising out of all the stress and hysteria, to consider pretending you're about to move (and/or croak)...right now. Fix all the little problems that you'll finally have to fix anyway, so you can actually benefit from the result! Paint what needs painting, so you can actually enjoy the fresh look! Throw or give away every item you haven't touched in the past 12 months (i.e. 75% of your stuff) so you can lighten your burden, free up storage space, and have mercy on your next of kin!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Problem Solving Solved

Zen teacher Adyashanti has said that the way to distinguish between genuine intuition and ditzy brain chatter is that genuine intuition pipes up quietly and only once. The ditzy brain chatter, by contrast, tends to insist.

This applies nicely to my quandary about problem solving (stated here and here),

Our deep intuition is what we actually are: the silent fundament of consciousness upon which the noisy mind drama projects. It never grows exasperated when we spurn its inclinations because, being utterly in the moment, it's detached from outcomes.

But detachment doesn't require disengagement. Disengagement's an illusion, anyway. What appears to be disengagement is nothing but another sort of engagement.

So the task, I suppose, is to offer a quiet whisper and let the drama continue as it will.

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