Tuesday, September 27, 2011

An Easy Way to Magnify the Benefit of Aerobic Workouts

There are few free rides in the world of fitness, and fewer still which favor newbies. Here's one I've never seen mentioned before.

"Recovery time" is the time it takes for your heart rate to return to normal after exercise. Recovery time is much longer if you're not super fit, and that creates an opportunity. As your heart rate slowly returns to normal, you "ride" at least some aerobic benefit all the way down. You may get an extra four or five minutes of benefit, absolutely free (though, obviously, you won't get full benefit near the tail end of recovery).

Say you can manage a 15 minute aerobic workout. And say your recovery time is six minutes. That's 19 or 20 minutes of de facto workout. But here's the trick: play with that a bit. After your workout, you will be unable to jog (or cycle, etc) with much intensity, but you can surely walk swiftly on the treadmill, perhaps even at an incline. Ten minutes of this will delay your recovery, making light exercise yield a greatly magnified benefit.

You will find, in other words, that a brisk treadmill walk which normally would bring your heart rate only to, say, 90 bps may, after an intense workout, keep your rate at, say, 110 or 120 bps. While this non-peak heart rate won't yield maximum benefit, it's still within aerobic weight-loss range, and you're keeping yourself there with minimal discomfort, since, after all, you're only walking!

And "minimal discomfort" is essential, because for this to work, you must first push hard in your regular workout (i.e. maintaining 140, 160, 180 bps, depending on your age). Don't skimp on that! And don't take any break afterwards (you don't want to allow yourself to recover). Just immediately switch to walking, cycling, etc., near the top end of your easy comfort range, for as much time as is available. Sort of like a warm-down, only a little more vigorous and for a lot more time.

This wouldn't work for a an elite athlete, whose pulse quickly slows to a crawl in the absence of heavy exertion. It's a free ride exclusively for the rest of us!

Another tip: it's been shown that we continue to burn fat for some time after a workout. It's a good idea to wait 30-60 minutes before eating anything, because eating is thought to suspend this after-burn.

By combining these two tips, you can magnify a fairly short aerobic workout into a much more extended fat burning session with little additional discomfort.

Pass it on!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Elizabeth Warren: Moderate's Messiah

Ok, that title's hyperbolic. But I'm truly excited about Elizabeth Warren getting involved in politics. I haven't been this fully behind a politician since Michael Bloomberg. I like smart, grounded, sensible politicians with a practical streak and specific policy positions, who don't doubletalk or push tribal (i.e. partisan) buttons, and who'd sooner choke than hew to talking points. The country faces pragmatic challenges, and we need pragmatic leaders

If you're a moderate like me, she's your gal. If you're a moderate conservative, whiplashed by your party's co-option by the extreme right, she's your's too. Same if you've never been entirely comfortable with the strident utopianism of the left, or its wishy-washy leadership skills. She's sensible and real, and, man, what a relief that is.

Her opponent in the Massachusetts Senate campaign, Scott Brown, is the darling of Wall Street, with a huge campaign war chest. So, even if you live nowhere near Massachusetts, she could use your help. We will, after all, need a helluva good president in 2016.

Naturally, Warren's being played as "anti-Wall Street" for proposing grievously needed reforms which all sensible Americans understand to be necessary (e.g., unbelievably, the voodoo-like derivatives market that caused this mess is thriving). But that's nonsense, much like calling the push to raise rich people's taxes by 4.6% to Clinton era rates "class warfare" is nonsense. To extremists, sensible moderation always seems extreme, but in Warren's case, the characterization won't stick; she's too eminently sensible and pragmatic to be painted as some sort of radical. I have most of my savings invested in the stock market, and I'm certainly not worried about her.

Unless you're a doctrinaire libertarian (here's why I'm not one anymore), I can't imagine that this 90 second video wouldn't seem like a breath of fresh air to you, and make you want to contribute a few bucks:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

SIGA: Feeling a Bit Brighter

Well, investment expert Andrew Tobias has bought more SIGA. I'm not sure how much of a resonance chamber this is (i.e. my optimism may fuel his buying, which in turn fuels my optimism), but it's hard not to be heartened when one of the nation's smartest investors (and most respected financial gurus...not to mention best writers) understands the potential...while appropriately cautioning that these sorts of investments are only for money one can afford to lose.

SIGA's market cap has sunk below the company's share of a signed governmental contract (funding for which is pre-allocated), and totally fails to price in foreign contracts, alternative formulations and applications, much less the pipeline of in-development drugs. So it's hard not to deem their stock a steal (along with nearly the entire biotech market, currently offering gigantic bargains). The stock price is already starting to bounce back from the lawsuit verdict, and even if appeal upholds their order to share half of net profit, half of "billions and billions" is still billions. So patient investors may have the last laugh yet.

It will take a year or two before we start feeling smug again, however. But it was going to take that long, anyway, to finish off the FDA odds/ends that will lead to foreign orders and the rest. We were always destined for a lull here.

P.S. - I'm glad I didn't hedge with SIGA's opponent in the lawsuit. Naturally, all the retail investors got stomped in the stampede for the exits, and now face a much longer - and less assured - wait than we do (because we're splitting only net profit after all expenses, and SIGA keeps the first $40M....plus it's hard to imagine PIP's management giving stockholders more than a taste of this annuity when it arrives).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Counting My Blessings

I'd be extremely happy to sit day after day helplessly watching huge chunks of my savings evaporate if that were the only alternative to doing this guy's job!

Note: if this sort of thing seriously upsets you, shut it down after the first couple seconds, 'cuz it only gets worse...

Judge Rules Against SIGA

I predicted that the lawsuit between SIGA and Pharmathene (the company it failed to merge with years ago) presented little peril to SIGA. But the judge has just ruled, splitting net revenues of ST-246 between SIGA and Pharmathene (SIGA gets to keep the first $40M net).

So I was wrong. And the lawyers and corporate experts I spoke to were wrong. And several respected analysts were wrong. And Fidelity and Vanguard, major institutional investors who'd taken a large stake in SIGA (surely only after having checked out this lawsuit) were wrong.

Well, either that or the judge was wrong. Hey, it happens.

But, lousy news though this is, the recent collapse of SIGA's stock price has overshadowed the legal drama. That collapse was not the result of insiders banking on this decision, because Pharmathene's stock price tanked, too. It was the result of uncertainty from this dragged-out lawsuit, plus the implosion of biotech prices as a sector, plus (as I wrote back in August) the lack of immediate further revenue on SIGA's horizon (they'd recently won a huge contract, but the market, as usual, wanted to know "what's next)?".

So now there's a great big pile of salt on that wound. Having plummeted from $15 to $5 already, perhaps now we'll sink to $2 or $3 once trading resumes. That would not be a happy thing, but neither will it be an entirely new level of pain. On the other hand, bargain hunters may step in, along with investors long sidelined by the uncertainty. I continue to worry about a take-under by Ron Perelman, but that would come at a substantial premium (likely giving me - and most Slog readers who've invested - their investment back plus some). I'd still hate that result, because even shared, SIGA's fantastic potential would still leave enough profit to go around.

The star of the show, and the focus of my attention, is ST-246, an amazing and versatile drug. Whether revenues are split with Phamathene or not (my guess is still not; I can't imagine this will stand on appeal), SIGA is worth better than single digits.

And here's the thing: while a windfall is due from the recent BARDA contract, that revenue will arrive piecemeal, as the drug is gradually delivered. In their last conference call, SIGA gave a very slow forecast for fulfilling the order (in fact, this was one reason the stock tanked). Bearing in mind that SIGA keeps the first $40M in revenue, it will take at least a year before that mark is hit and PIP starts getting their share (and even then, their cut is after expenses, which have been huge). And the appeal will likely be wrapped up by then. This, I suspect, is why SIGA had worked out such a strangely protracted fulfillment process. The revenue comes slowly.

So it's not utter disaster. But that's not to say that I'm not going out right now to drink about fourteen shots of whiskey (cheap stuff, too, as I can no longer afford single malts).

While I never promised anyone SIGA's rise would happen quickly - in fact, I was clear from the start it'd be long and painful - this was a development I never foresaw. But we're still undervalued.

Three Mac Tips

Ask Different ("Answers for your Apple questions") is a great lesser known site for how-to-dos and tips. Too many users in an online discussion makes for long, frothy threads. Too few is useless. This forum, at least for now, is Goldilocks. Particularly good is this thread on Safari extensions that had some tips even I didn't know (and I'm a fan boy!).

Courtesy of the above site.....if you're a fan of Sogudi or Keywurl (two Safari add-ons that allow you to do quickie custom searches via the URL field), you're probably peeved that neither work in Lion. But Safari Keyword Search does.

If you leave lots of windows and/or tabs open in Safari 5.1, and find that it starts slowing down your system, here's something to try, courtesy of the comment thread beneath this article.

1. Quit Safari

2. Launch Terminal

3. Type (or paste) the following:
defaults write com.apple.Safari DebugNewWindowsUseSingleProcessWebKit 1

4. Quit Terminal

5. Launch Safari

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

My Email to Amazon

If you'd care to add your voice, here's a list of email addresses for Amazon managers.
Dear [Amazon Exec],

I've been one of your best customers since 1996. The web site I founded, Chowhound.com, was one of your first Amazon associates, and I've been an Amazon Prime customer since the program's launch.

I'm disturbed by what I've read about work conditions in your Lehigh Valley warehouse (re: this article). Happy workplaces are an integral branding point for other companies (e.g. Trader Joe's, Costco, Apple Stores) which enjoy tight customer identification and loyalty. If the magic were dispelled and Amazon came to be recognized as just another worker-chewing Walmart, that would be disastrous for you.

I give Amazon more business than any other single retailer. And I try to be cognizant of the sorts of operations I support with my business. So I'll be watching to see how you address this. If I keep hearing about workplace cruelty issues, I'm prepared to break my fifteen year Amazon habit.

Jim Leff

South River Miso

I made a mistake (currently corrected) in my salmon rice recipe. The company I meant to recommend for miso is South River.

Their four miso sampler is a great way to get started, and highly recommended But their most noteworthy products are a couple of things you might overlook: the Tohum wood-fired tahini and the miso tamari.

Both are incredible ammo to have handy for adding healthful tasty intrigue. If I ever finally write a part 2 to my "A New Way of Healthy Cooking" article, you'll read why such ammo is vitally important.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

TMDTIATW: Salmon Rice

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) was this salmon rice I whipped up here at Chez Leff.

Chop a one pound salmon fillet (wild Alaskan has the best flavor, if you want to splurge) into bite-sized chunks.

In a large bowl, combine a couple rounded tablespoons of miso paste (I used South River chickpea), a tablespoon of soy sauce (I used "Mother's Best" Filipino calamansi soy sauce, available at large Asian grocers), a garlic clove or two chopped fine, black pepper, a generous handful of chopped scallion or chives, and two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil (I use Goya for cooking), plus an optional few shakes of ground marjoram. Dilute with a half cup of water and marinate the salmon, stirring infrequently to ensure even coating.

Chop a medium onion, sautee in olive oil at medium heat. Remove half when it begins to brown, and caramelize the rest. Remove the caramelized onion, set it aside, and reintroduce the lightly browned onion.

Add to the pan 2 cups of chicken stock (I used Trader Joe's low-sodium organic) and a cup of short or medium grained rice (I used Carnaroli - a bit firmer than arborio - from Lotus Foods). Bring to a boil, then stir in a few ground saffron threads and the salmon plus half the marinade - or all of it if you want a really zingy flavor (I prefer not to crowd the subtle rice and salmon flavors). Cover and reduce to simmer.

Cook for 20 minutes, adding chopped carrots after 10, coarsely-cut asparagus after 15, and a generous handful of baby spinach plus the caremlized onion after 19 (also check for salt; note that this recipe tastes great with none additional). If you have leftover veggies, chop them and throw them in at the end, too. Turn off heat and allow to sit a few minutes before serving. Finish with a drizzle of your best extra virgin olive oil.

Firmly scrape the pan with a metal spatula, and top off your guest's plate with the crunch.

Serves 2 or 3

Nitpickers: yes, the recipe doesn't perfectly match the photo, because I'd run out of onion!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sanctimony is Counterproductive

"Q: I have definite spiritual ambitions. Must I not work for their fulfilment?

A: No ambition is spiritual. All ambitions are for the sake of the [individual mind]. If you want to make real [spiritual] progress you must give up all idea of personal attainment. The ambitions of the so-called Yogis are preposterous. A man's desire for a woman is innocence itself compared to the lusting for an everlasting personal bliss. The mind is a cheat. The more pious it seems, the worse the betrayal."

--- Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj ("I Am That")

"Most of spirituality is a myth and a dream. It belongs firmly to the dream state. 90% of what we call spirituality actually serves the dream state rather than serves waking up from the dream state."

--- Adyashanti ("Complete Interview") (but here's a better introduction)

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Symmetrical Radicalism

The left is terrified by the ambitious radicalism of the right's push for shrinking government (rolling back services, safety nets, regulations, etc.). They appear almost conservative as they reflexively defend status quo, horrified that a chunk of the country aims to force extreme changes which seem un-American.

It's an interesting exercise to contrast this with the perspective of those once forced to accept sexual revolution, moral relativism, multiculturalism, political correctness, legal abortion, and blatant homosexuality and atheism, etc.. These changes seemed, to them, un-American, but the chunk of the country behind them were unflinchingly certain this was inherently beneficial progress which any enlightened person would applaud. They showed no tolerance at all for other perspectives, which were, after all, obviously backward and hateful.

While I, myself, applaud many of those changes, and find it hard to sympathize with the (backward! hateful!) people who begrudged them, I can nonetheless empathize, generally, with the disorientation of being forced into unwelcome change, and the outrage of having one's values summarily disregarded by arrogant-seeming folks living far away. It's especially easy to understand how the unblinking sense of moral superiority would cause offense. And I can examine the evolution of my own attitudes to understand the perspective of those living in places where no societal tides carried them to conclusions easily embraced in places like my own New York City (please read this).

Can anyone on the left spot the symmetry? It seems glaringly obvious. That said, I can hear the objections: the difference is that Tea Party goals are bad, while 60's goals were good. A priori....much like Michele Bachman. The dogma may change, the radical spin may be clockwise or counterclockwise, but the "a priori" attitude is an evergreen. The answer is: no. No one on the left can spot the symmetry, nor would they acknowledge it if it were pointed out to them. There is a seamless firewall of empathy.

Human beings are reasonably empathic creatures on the local, individual-to-individual level. But our innate intra-tribe empathy is extremely poor. That's always been our Achilles heel as a species.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Retailing Trend: Sham "Tibetan" Businesses

A big retail trend I've been spotting all over lately is Chinese people operating businesses claiming to be Tibetan. Restaurants, spas, medicine, and salons - there are suddenly loads of them.

To my thinking, this is akin to Nazis opening Jewish delis.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why Charles Bukowski Hates Chicks

I just ran across the following Charles Bukowski quote:
"Once a woman turns against you, forget it. They can love you, then something turns in them. They can watch you dying in a gutter, run over by a car, and they'll spit on you."
It's absolutely true. But it's also true of men. This is really a human failing, not constrained to any one group. But we notice universal human failings more sharply in other groups/tribes.

Try something. Each time you hear someone negatively characterize a certain group of people, try to find the truth in it, and then add "...but It's really a human failing." You'll find that it nearly always applies.

Racism, sexism, classism, etc., are nothing more than the incomplete registration of a perfectly appropriate misanthropy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

TMDTIATW: Korean Chain Gangs

The most delicious thing I ate this week (TMDTIATW) were these thin, ultracrisp, buttery almond cookies from the Norwood, NJ outlet of Parisienne, a Korean bakery chain which also does business under the "Zaiya" brand. There are branches in Manhattan plus their original location in Fort Lee, but I'm not certain the cookies taste the same at other outlets (though they seem to have been baked at a central facility, so they probably do).

Runner-up: the lacquered, perfect Korean fried chicken at the newest outlet in the "Mad For Chicken" chain (the new brand name for fabled Bonchon Chicken), in Bergenfield, NJ (121 N. Washington Ave; 201-387-2000). Ask for soy/garlic, answer an adamant "yes" to spicy, and be prepared to wait 25 minutes, because perfection takes time and everything's made to order.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Patent Hypocrisy (and a proposed solution)

Check out this excellent short piece by Philip Elmer-DeWitt on the patent war heating up between Apple and Google (via Daring Fireball). Here's the gist:
The difference is that Apple actually invented the technology it accused HTC — and by proxy, Google — of “stealing”.... One of the patents Apple cited in its 2010 suit...is a 358-page document signed by Jobs himself that covers everything from the way a finger touches the screen of a smartphone to the heuristics that turn those touches into commands.

HTC and Google, by contrast, are accusing Apple (whose smartphone designs they have plainly copied) of violating patents they bought fourth or fifth hand.

"Patents were meant to encourage innovation," Google's chief legal counsel David Drummond wrote last month in his famous open letter "When Patents Attack Android." Google's enemies, he complained, were using "bogus" patents to try to "strangle" Android.

"Fortunately," he added, "the law frowns on the accumulation of dubious patents for anti-competitive means."

The endless repackaging and trading of patents has had a disruptive and distortional effect on the tech sector (much like derivatives re: the financial sector). What if law were changed so patent ownership could be transferred only once? Inventors ought to be able to sell their inventions, but further resale drifts society further and further from the original impetus of patent law...while stifling innovation and competition.

It strikes me as high time that we firmed up intellectual property rights for those who actually innovate, and stripped them entirely from litigious trolls.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Recalling 9/11

Thanks to Joshi for pointing out this inspiring interview with an air national guard pilot who helped defend us after September 11

Most people working at the World Trade Center site immediately after the attack were toiling too hard to look around and reflect much. Here's a rare account from an articulate Buddhist chaplain who was one of the very few non-first responders permitted into the area. I found it very illuminating.

In case you missed it, here's the tale of how Hurricane Irene made me remember the deeper, scarier emotions of that time. And the story of a friend lost on United flight 93.

Finally, I've already linked to it a zillion times, but you've just got to read this terrific series of pieces in Slate which worked through the various theories explaining why America hasn't suffered a 9/11 style attack since, er, 9/11.

Balancing Against the Grain

I don't sound like anyone else on trombone. And I got some great advice once: I don't need to try to sound original; I sound that way without trying. So when I make an effort, the result can sound exaggerated.

In the other direction, my natural social tendency is to introvert. If I don't make an effort to be animated, I come off as sullen - even though I'm not. I need to aim a few notches above my natural inclination, and that takes effort.

It's really helpful to figure out where one needs to push and where one shouldn't push at all. The trick is to take stock of where one's imbalances lie.

There's a natural human compulsion to hyperextend our active sorts of imbalances (natural athletes spend hours in the gym, hyper people drink loads of coffee, the mentally ill hate taking meds because it makes life feel boring, etc.) and to cede to our passive ones (ennui, introversion, depression, etc.).

We exaggerate our exaggerations, and we resign to our inclination to resign. That, of course, is completely backwards.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 21

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Throughout my tenure, I'd clutched to my breast, like a spy's cyanide pill, a last-resort scheme hatched shortly after the shocking phone call where I learned that Darth Vader was my father Clay would be my boss. I called it my "Gone Jesus" option. The idea was that I'd claim to have had a religious awakening, and would load up all my writings, internal memos, Chowhound board postings, and press interviews with heavy-handed scriptural references. I'd subsist entirely on Jesus fish and Ezekiel bread, and claim to have lost all interest in gastronomy.

As previously explained, my employment contract pretty much amounted to indentured servitude. If I were to quit or be fired, I'd be sued. But CNET couldn't fire me over a religious preference. So if I'd Gone Jesus, a mutally-agreeable way would have been found to swiftly ease me out. And so I kept Jesus in the wings. Thankfully, it never quite came to that. But any entrepreneurs caught in this position ought to bone up on their bible studies just in case (I particularly recommend the Book of Job).

It's important to note that my trepidations were mostly personal. I was in for a tough year, but Chowhound, with its well-established culture and strong momentum, would be tough to screw up too badly. And I was comforted by my observation that Clay was a big dreamer but a poor executer. Endless hours were endured listening to his grandiose "vision", but the saving grace was knowing that none of it would actually materialize. Poor execution mercifully stanches bad ideas.

Here are Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority, in declining order of preference:
1. Smart ideas, good execution

2. Dumb ideas, bad execution

3. Smart ideas, bad execution

4. Dumb ideas, good execution
Scenario #1 is too much to hope for, and #3 is heart-breaking and volatile and makes everyone give up (#4, God help us, is Nazi Germany). Scenario #2 is a stable condition of steady-state status quo (let's call it "Planet Earth"). It's worked well for Chowhound post-sale, which is why I began this saga by noting that I'm generally pleased with how the site's fared.

Of course, I didn't love being in the surreal position of fighting against foolish initiatives which I knew would never be implemented. But even after Clay's departure from the company (not long after I bailed) a dumb ideas/bad execution culture has remained firmly entrenched among the corporate overlords, much to my relief. This is why Chowhound's culture is still pretty much intact.

Competence is beneficial only when wisdom is assured. That's why the Founding Fathers intentionally throttled the ability of any one branch of government to easily launch initiatives. Gridlock's not always a bad thing.

One horrible initiative was actually pushed through, however, and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.

Read the next installment (#22)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Google Buys Zagat

So Google has bought Zagat. Here are some thoughts:

Impact on Zagat

Aside from the boatloads of money they were surely paid, this rescues Zagat from a slog far longer than the one I endured with Chowhound. Tim and Nina weren't merely slow in extending their brand to the Internet; they were downright luddite about it for years. And even after drawing hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital funding during the Internet boom of the late 1990's - from investors who could see their brand's online potential, even if they themselves couldn't - not much seems to have been done with it.

Every step Zagat's ever taken in the tech world has been sluggish and tottery. The books were great. The branding was great. The distribution was pure genius (bookstore sales were surely dwarfed by sales via the countless unconventional channels they opened). But tech + Zagat, even at this late date of 2011, has yet to fully happen. They've been waiting...and waiting...and waiting...

Impact on Google

Google is all about data. Lots of data brought into their computational fold toward the goal of "organizing the world's information and making it universally accessible and useful". Tech nerds, who traffic in algorithms and such, prefer their data normalized (or at least normalizable). That means it's presented in a format which can be organized, standardized, crunched, analyzed, and generally be easily digested by computers.

Zagat offers highly normalized data on restaurants and more, and it's a natural for Google (so what took them so long?). Contrast with Chowhound, a data hairball where lots of people fling information at each other in chaotic plain language, all within only the loosest organization. Try extracting all references to Mel's Diner, much less parsing a nice clean number reflecting its quality relative to, say, Bob's Diner. It's not going to happen (and, for lots of good reasons, it must never happen), and that's why I didn't even talk to Google when I was selling the operation.

Add in the key issue of locality - which Google's previously been slow to seize upon - and it's easy to see why Zagat's a good fit.

One problem, though, is that Zagat's data, while normalized, is highly subjective. And subjective data is not Google's specialty. Moreover, this is not particularly high quality data. It's always been insanely easy to stuff Zagat's ballot box.

Posters to Chowhound offer a rich trail of information about themselves, allowing users to decide who's smart, ignorant, or a likely shill. Still more of that trail is available to moderators, helping them remove dishonest postings and monitor patterns of subversion. Chowhound's not completely honest, nor could it ever be. But it's damned good, and that's because the hairball approach supplies a thick enough trail to keep it that way.

But anonymous individuals plugging ratings into survey forms offer little evidence as to their honesty - much less their savvy. The aggregated result may be sleek - assigning each restaurant a clear rating, which Google's processors can chew on and repurpose to their kernel's content - but it's shallow and iffy.

On the other hand, when it comes to data, the perfect is very much the enemy of the good. In the large view, tons of iffy data is super useful. So load it in, boys.

Impact on Chowhound

Mild positive. The pitfalls of Zagat's algorithmic approach make an alternative like Chowhound more attractive for more dedicated enthusiasts. A few of many reasons:

1. Restaurants are too dynamic for a numerical rating to mean much.
Consider how many of your dining opinions - even your most confident ones - are for restaurants you haven't patronized in months or years. Chowhounds (who by the nature of the forum, strive to offer specifics and currency) often report recent meals, while Zagat raters often lazily report stale opinions (or simply regurgitate conventional wisdom, which is staler still).

2. Averaging restaurant ratings shaves off too much value
An otherwise mediocre restaurant with one mind-blowingly great dish may be a perfect ten for a savvy eater, but will always be underrated in an aggregate. Same for a restaurant with one great cook and one poor one. In both cases, you need to strategize, and Zagat won't help you much with that. Similarly, aggregated ratings lead to distorted results. Should a very good street lollipop vendor rate as highly as a very good French bistro? My answer, of course, is a loud "yes", but I'm hardly Zagat/Google's target.

3. When ratings clash with actual experience, confidence plummets
For reasons above, plus lots more, restaurants don't lend themselves to hard ratings. So when Zagat tells people unambiguously where to eat and their experience drastically differs, that erodes confidence in the brand. Chowhound's hairball approach offers nuanced opinions from individuals, rather than a branded rating. We convey a sense of a dynamic dining scene requiring plenty of strategizing and intrepid exploration - quite a different thing than issuing official pronouncements re: "What's Good".

4. He who controls the agenda controls the outcome.
Zagat's playing field is determined by the listing of restaurants offered for rating, and there have always been (and will always inherently be) limits to the currency and breadth of that list. I like lesser-known places, so many of my favorites aren't even on that list. Chowhound's the place for learning about off-radar venues.

This isn't a sales pitch for the superiority of Chowhound. They're apples and oranges, and the vast majority of people, not so picky, will of course find Zagat's neat, clean orange more useful than Chowhound's fuzzy, sprawling apple. (I actually had a clever plan for polishing Chowhound's data without changing its culture. It would have worked, but CNET rejected it. I'll be recounting it as the final installment of my tale of the Chowhound/CNET merger, so stay tuned).

My point is that for all the attractions of standardized data, much is lost when rich, dynamic, and subjective realms are hammered into machine-readability. And the stuff that's lost is the stuff Chowhound specializes in. Which is one reason I built it in the first place.

But Google + Zagat is a natural, and a great move for both of them. Shoot, I'll make good use of it myself. The standard rap among food writers and aficionados for decades has been that Zagat makes a sensational address book. Well, we're about to enjoy a much more souped-up address book.

With, surely, APIs. Hmmm.....

Jimmy Kimmel's Uncle Frank

Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel's Uncle Frank died recently. Even if you know nothing about Kimmel's show, or Uncle Frank's place in it, if you could use some uplift, read on.

First, enjoy this beautifully done (and highly entertaining) remembrance by one of the show's writers. And then watch this touching, lovingly produced field piece Uncle Frank did with Mike Tyson in his urban rooftop pigeon coop:

I dare you to laugh at Tyson or find him pathetic. He's on to something, and it took that rarest of rarities - a fully genuine human being on network TV - to serve as a lens allowing the camera to zero in on the truth of a public figure whose image has been distorted beyond all recognition. Within the hurricane, we now see, is boundless silence and kindness.

Absolutely beautiful. Rest in peace, Uncle Frank.

Bonus: Kimmel's tribute, with Uncle Frank's best highlights (I particularly love the part where he tells Meryl Streep she's got a great future ahead of her).

If you're not a fan of weepy intros, start 30 seconds in:

Michael Arrington: Callow Pundit

I've been through so much in the online biz world since I started Chowhound in 1997 that I don't shock easily. But this shocked me: Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch, who has for years tried to position himself as a savvy expert on tech biz issues, sold out to AOL a year ago. And now he's publicly posted this:

"I believe that AOL should be held to their promise when they acquired us to give TechCrunch complete editorial independence.

As of late last week TechCrunch no longer has editorial independence. Some argue that the circumstances demanded it. I disagree. Editorial independence was never supposed to be an easy thing for Aol to give us. But it was never meaningful if it shatters the first time it is put to the test.

We’ve proposed two options to Aol.

1. Reaffirmation of the editorial independence promised at the time of acquisition. Given the current circumstances, that means autonomy from Huffington Post, unfettered editorial independence and a blanket right to editorial self determination. To put it simply, TechCrunch would stay with Aol but would be independent of the Huffington Post.


2. Sell TechCrunch back to the original shareholders.

If Aol cannot accept either of these options, and no other creative solution can be found, I cannot be a part of TechCrunch going forward."

Memo to naive entrepreneurs: the folks who buy your company get to do whatever they want with it. Period. The shower of assurances which rain down prior to closing are mere lubricant allowing you to make a deal you very much want anyway (in Chowhound's case, there was no choice: it was either sell or shut down). When Mike and Frankie on "American Pickers" wheedle you out of your family heirloom, telling you it'll go to nice people who will love it as much as you do, they're throwing you emotional rope, that's all. The assurance is a meaningless, unbinding bit of nicey-nice fluff. Only ditzes take it seriously. And only dunces bluster with public outrage when it doesn't turn out that way.

You took the money. You sold out. There is a sound basis for the pejorative shading of the term "sell-out", and there's nothing more pathetic than a morally aggrieved sell-out. If Arrington believed the assurances, he's a hobbyist, not an entrepreneur...much less a biz pundit.

When CNET was engineering its acquisition of Chowhound, a ton of promises were made, and I didn't feel particularly savvy in knowing to smirk wearily as they spewed forth. I fully recognized that selling means sold, and while I wasn't happy with some of their subsequently choices - and I certainly advocated for what I felt to be the site's best interest - I never questioned CNET's prerogative to do as it likes, assurances be damned. And I'm just a food guy, while Arrington's a supposed authority on just these sorts of business issues.

Arrington's not going to buy it back. His bluff is as empty as were their assurances. This is just whining.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 20

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Last time, I was on the receiving end of a sadistic prank by the brutish business development dude who had coordinated the purchase of my web site, Chowhound, by his company, CNET (now a part of CBS). Shortly afterwards, he relayed the terrific news that he'd been promoted out of business development, and would be serving as my boss for the year that I was contractually obligated to work at CNET.

I have a few scattered recollections to close out with (befitting such an epic saga, it will take me a few installments to finish up).

Jumping ahead a few months to near the end of my tenure with CNET, I'd confessed to the NY Times that "insofar as my input, there's a lot of meetings where I'll say, 'I think we should do this,' and they say, 'I don't think so,' and I say, 'O.K.'"

It was my sole blip of public venting (which, to be honest, I kind of regret; I was otherwise very disciplined), and a blogger I don't know, named John Wilson, wrote an article about it:
"Oh, the joys of becoming an employee in a big company.


1. Talent starts innovative business

2. Big company buys talent & their company

3. Big company "B listers" sit on top of talent, using their experience of never having had to build value from scratch to direct the new division activities

4. Big company can't figure out why it hasn't continued to see the success achieved by the business it acquired, in the period since purchase and decides even tighter control of new division is required

5. Acquired talent leaves in disgust [taking most of their riches] and lives on yacht for a while

6. go to 1."
Man, does that ever sum it up. Except for the yacht. I didn't make yacht money. But I'm not sure I'm really a yacht guy, anyway.

Also, the corporate talent was more D-list than B-list. Like every other rational entrepreneur in my position, I had fully expected Chowhound to be run by someone with less feel for it than I had; but I never ever imagined they'd put the business development ("bizdev") guy in charge. This is like finding yourself on an operating table and learning your surgery will be performed by the hospital's fundraising manager. And: here he is, with his big cheesy nervous smile, hovering over you, his scalpel poised to cut.

To be sure, the fellow was a whiz of a dealmaker - I've never known anyone with such deep and consistent awareness of the goings-on in his field - but beyond having no food knowledge or experience (or, really, interest), he knew nothing about online communities. Nor did he understand editorial - though he knew the lingo and could bluff a little. And I'm pretty sure he'd never managed workers (if he had, he'd have been put through several anger management courses by then).

So what was my time there like? Again, you know. But let me put it this way: one month into my tenure, a friend bought me, as an ironic gift, a DVD set of The (British) Office. I watched about 45 seconds, leapt violently from my couch, and stabbed the eject button. To this day, years later, I can't bear to watch it.

Yet there were saving graces.

Read the next installment (#21)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hurricanes, Hijacked Planes, and the Skewing of History

Hurricane Irene was a bit traumatic. Huge dead tree limbs, which I'd procrastinated removing, hung ominously over the house. A particularly iffy giant tree waved drunkenly above my second floor bedroom, so I spent the night downstairs on an uncomfortable couch, awakened every few hours by the sickening crack of one large tree after another snapped by the wind. I was ready to flee into the basement if any of the Branches of Damocles pierced the roof.

The house was unscathed, but there was little time to exhale, as I got to work cleaning up the jungle of fallen wood. It was a full week before it was all cut, split, and raked.

And then another monster hurricane, Katia, was announced. I heard about it late last week, on a clear, crisp, pre-Autumn day with a brilliant blue sky. Which roused an odd deja vu.

I was transported back to a similar day in the fall of 2001 when my stomach began to freeze as I pondered what might come next. While the loss of 3000 was awful, the crippling thing was the sense that greater doom was imminent. That was where the terror was. New Yorkers were jittery for months - the anthrax scare, a mere footnote in the history of it all, was a really, really big deal.

Historians always know the outcome, and that distorts everything. I knew then, as I was party to history, that the takeaway - buildings and planes went down, so people grieved the loss - would be skewed and incomplete. The anthrax affair would be devalued because it turned out minor. The paralyzing dread, without any concrete event to pin it on, would hardly appear in historical accounts, though that was the tenor of the time.

In fact we do the same with our own memories. September 11 is recalled entirely via images of firemen, debris and fleeing mobs - concrete pictures we can can pin our emotions to. The more intangible emotional layer - the forward-facing dread - is less specific, more limbic. It's much harder to connect our memories to at an intellectual level. And history is always written from the layer of intellect.

But after a night of cracking tree trunks and 75 mph winds, followed by a week of physical recovery and emotional rawness, I received word of another storm headed my way beneath a crisp, autumnal blue sky. And I remembered.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Nice Try, Dick...

From Fox News (of course):
"Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday that Hillary Clinton might have been better at building bridges with Republicans if she were in the White House than the current president, as he gently egged on the secretary of state to challenge President Obama for his party's 2012 nomination.

Cheney said a Clinton bid 'would be good for a two-party system.'"

Botched Links

I completely botched the links on my posting pointing out posts with especially interesting comments. So you may want to take another look, and, especially, check out the book recommendation (I'm reading it now).

Blog Archive