Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda

Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda
By Gretchen Peters, Thomas Dunne Books, May 2009 ISBN: 978-0312379278 Hardcover, 320 pages, $25.95

(A shorter version of this review by Lewis Perdue appeared in Barron's Weekly.)

Exit, Allah. Enter, the almighty dollar.

According to Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters, most of the Taliban's religious fanatics have been replaced by organized gangs of big-time drug thugs whose primary goal is to protect their cut of the multi-billion-dollar Afghan heroin trade. Peters estimates that the Taliban get at least 70 percent of its funding from the heroin trade and that both Hezbollah and Al Qaeda also benefit from global dope.

While Western media pundits wring their hands about the Afghanistan troop surge turning into another Iraq, Peters, who covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for Associated Press and ABC writes that:

"The parallels are actually closer to Colombia. The Taliban and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by their Spanish acronym FARC, both got their start like modern-day Robin Hoods, protecting rural peasants from the excesses of a corrupt government. Strapped for cash and needing the support of local farmers, both groups began levying a tax on drug crops."

Then, Peters explains, both FARC and the Taliban started providing protection for the drug lords, gradually taking control of the drug refineries and strong-arming farmers to meet drug production quotas. Severe punishment or death awaited those who failed or refused. Finally, FARC and the Taliban established themselves as alternate systems of a dictatorial government ruling by fear and violence.

And like the FARC, which tried to maintain a virtuous, “people’s army” facade, the narcoterror leadership of today's Taliban uses jihad as a convenient public relations stunt to gloss over its greed and lust for power. Peters tell us that Helmand province – one of the key battle areas for the current U.S. military surge – produces more than half a billion dollars a year in opium. “If it were a separate country, it would be the world’s leading opium producer ….It’s also where links between the Taliban and opium trade are the strongest.” Small wonder then that fighting is fiercest there today. But all across Afghanistan, where there are drugs, the Taliban is there with protection: attacking NATO checkpoints so opium shipments can get through, planting mines around opium fields and rigging IEDs to take out soldiers who dare trespass on the poppies.

But, Seeds of Terror makes it ironically clear that the Taliban could not have achieved its preeminent position in the illegal global drug trade without the blundering of every U.S. President beginning with President Jimmy Carter.

Peters tells us that Jimmy Carter, in 1979, signed off on secret aid to Afghan guerillas fighting against the Soviets despite warnings that the groups were moving dope. President Reagan continued the policy of looking the other way.

After the Russians left Afghanistan, President George H. W. Bush terminated most aid – hundreds of millions of dollars worth – to the guerillas and government. “Overnight, that left 135,000 armed Afghans and their families no way to support themselves,” Peters quotes a former CIA officer.

When President Clinton took office in 1993, his administration eliminated what little financial support was still trickling toward Kabul.

And while money began to flow with the second Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan, not only had the damage done turned the Taliban into a potent, well-financed adversary, but military errors to come also complicated military strategy that continue even as you turn on the evening news tonight.

The military, Peters tells us “doesn’t do drugs.” That is, despite the fact that the Taliban insurgency runs on the lifeblood of opium, the military refused to support anti-drug operations. “One Green Beret complained that he had been ordered to disregard opium and heroin stashes when he came across them on patrol.”

The consequences of all these bone-headed decisions become more significant in the light of a Stanford University study cited by Peters that found, “Out of 128 conflicts studied, the 17 which relied on ‘contraband finances’ lasted five times longer than the rest.”

Seeds of Terror offers layer after layer of fascinating information about the deadly consequences of decades of disastrous public policy decisions. This is a well-written, well-documented and exemplary work of journalism.

Lewis Perdue is a former Washington correspondent, journalism professor and the author of 20 published books. He is currently editor of WineIndustryInsight.Com.

Ascent of a Tech Powerhouse How Israel became a world leader in innovation.

IF YOUR COMPUTER HAS "INTEL INSIDE," then the Intel inside has "Israel inside." So does eBay. And thousands upon thousands of other highly innovative companies and technologies.

This book, subtitled The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, shows how venomously anti-Israel neighbors, terrorism and almost constant war drove a tiny, poor, fledgling country to create a first-world economy with "the greatest concentration of innovation and entrepreneurship in the world."

The numbers are staggering. "In addition to boasting the highest density of start-ups in the world (a total of 3,850, one for every 1,844 Israelis), more Israeli companies are listed on the Nasdaq exchange than all companies from the entire European continent," write Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

At times, they point out, Israeli entrepreneurs have come to the rescue of the world's best-known companies.

Take the episode that could have been titled, "How Israel saved Intel." Around the year 2000, computers -- especially laptops -- were hitting a performance wall limited by power consumption and the heat generated within the machines. Intel's team in Jerusalem suggested a way to operate a microprocessor at lower clock speeds, thus consuming less power and generating less heat, allowing laptops to run longer on a battery charge. Along the way, they built in a method that would let software run even faster.

Intel headquarters in Silicon Valley tried to kill the project because executives were operating in an obsolete mindset where only faster (and hotter) processor speeds created better performance. But the Israelis persisted, leading in 2003 to the famed Centrino chip. The Israelis followed that with the Core Duo processor -- two microprocessors on one chip.

Start-Up Nation vividly illustrates how Israel has developed a culture where authority not only can be challenged, but must be. Bluntly. No waffling. Instead of showing corporate deference or blind obedience to a superior, the average Israeli challenges questionable decisions and pushes alternative suggestions with real tenacity.


Start-Up Nation
By Dan Senor and Saul Singer
Twelve (Hatchette Book Group)
320 pages

That cultural trait comes, in large part, from the near-universal military service that throws the wealthy in with the poor, corporate executives in with assembly-line workers. In the IDF -- the Israel Defense Forces -- a CEO might very well report to one of his or her corporate underlings. Regardless of rank in the military or civilian world, it is the best idea that matters, not the status of the proponent.

Another force behind Israeli success is Jewish immigrants. The authors quote Israeli venture capitalist Erel Margalit on their importance: "If you're an immigrant in a new place, and you're poor, or you were once rich and your family was stripped of its wealth -- then you have drive. You don't see what you've got to lose; you see what you could win."

With immigrants from 70 countries speaking no common language, sharing little common culture other than the Torah and a tradition of persecution, military service, the authors argue, is at the forefront of both immigrant assimilation and overall technological success. Service in the Israel Defense Forces begins at age 18 and lasts for a minimum of two years. Business people often serve in the reserves well into their 40s, 50s and 60s.

"So for combat soldiers, connections made in the army are constantly renewed through decades of reserve duty," says Start-up Nation. "...Not surprisingly, many business connections are made during the long hours of operations, guard duty and training."

Although the authors do not draw the analogy, this is very much like Switzerland, where the business elite are connected by years of reserve military service. But Switzerland isn't known for innovation. It also is not a nation of immigrants, tolerates failure poorly, behaves with a reserve that is the antithesis of chutzpah, and lacks the "advantage" of being surrounded by rapacious enemies ready to incinerate them at a moment's notice.

In all, Start-Up Nation is a compelling and satisfying work, filled with eye-opening revelations and shot through with rich examples, explanations and analysis.

Friday, November 14, 2008


UPDATE: This was originally posted on August 22. It bears repeating because Comcast has never fixed the issue.


Emails sent by Comcast broadband customers are failing to reach their properly addressed recipients because the company has changed the settings on its outgoing mail servers without informing its users or most of its own customer support agents.

Some Comcast customers have noticed a complete failure of all outgoing emails while others have found that some, but not all emails have gotten "lost in cyberspace."

Figuring out how to adapt to Comcast's covert email reconfiguration may leave millions of average users stuck in a technical quandary. They're unlikely to find help with Comcast because four of the five support people I spoke with over a two-hour period last night had no clue about the issue.

In brief: email uses two completely separate server systems to handle messages. One system (most often called a "POP" server) handles incoming mail. Outgoing mail is handled by another server called an SMTP server. This is why customers may find no problems receiving email, but later learn that important emails they have sent never arrive.

Only the fifth Comcast person -- a tech support supervisor I demanded to speak with during my marathon phone session -- knew that the company had changed the outgoing mail from SMTP port 25 to port 587. He said this was designed as an anti-spam action.

The support person wisely (for his own job) said nothing about why Comcast had not notified its customers about the change.

Fixing the problem will require all Comcast users to reconfigure their email client software to use the correct port. The procedures will be different depending on whether they use Outlook, Thunderbird or other software. But the change is not as simple as changing the port once that is located. The software must be configured to provide the same password and user name that is used for incoming email.

Businesses and individuals who have their own Internet domains (such as and receive their emails at that address ( will find the road even rockier. Many of those people have never set up the password and user name required to use Comcast's outgoing, SMTP server.

Comcast customer service will be unlikely to help these people either. Four of the five agents I spoke with had no clue.

Rather than deal with congenially clueless Comcast support people, the fastest and easiest way to solve the issue is to get a Gmail account from Google that provides an SMTP server.

In their email software settings under SMTP server, users can enter: "" and then enter their Gmail password and user names in the appropriate fields.
In addition to the broadband hassles, my two-hour conversation raised significant issues with Comcast's ability to provide telephone service. My call was dropped twice. Plus the connection to the last tech was so scratchy and faint he had to repeat himself frequently.

Over the past week, emails my wife and I have send from both our home and business broadband accounts have not been received. In addition, numerous emails sent to us by Comcast customes have not reached us. Many of these have been important and significant communications and their loss has had a significant effect.

I am fortunate to have been the Chief Technology Officer of an Internet company and have many years of technical experience. This gives me a knowledge base and many tools with which to diagnose this problem. The average user who has been deluded into thinking Comcast is a reliable service provider will simply be baffled and assume that one more mysterious cybermonster has eaten their mail. This does, however, show that Comcast has done the impossible: made the U.S. Postal Service look really good.

This irrational, irresponsible, financially punitive and completely avoidable disruption to the business and personal lives of Comcast customers shows that the company cannot and should not be trusted.
posted by Lewis Perdue at 8/22/2008 07:55:00 AM | 0 comments links to this post

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Book Publishing Posts Here, Rest at Dvorak.Org

This blog will be for writing, publishing and similar topics.

For the weird and absurd, please visit Dvorak Uncensored where my old friend and technical publishing maven John Dvorak has been foolish enough to put editing powers in my quirky hands.

John's blogging asylum includes many other quirky, opinionated and highly intelligent people who look closely at reality so you won't need to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The NYTimes is a Freakin' Idiot!

Hundreds and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies published in the world's top scientific and medical publications find that there is very, very little difference between wine, beer and spirits when consumed:

  • in moderation
  • with food.


Wine's biggest advantage is the way it is consumed.

There are probably some small, additional benefits to wine from its various organic compounds. But this NYTimes piece is simply a product of scientific ignorance ... and a lot of PR people from Welch's Grape Juice and your local NeoProhibitionist.

You can find out the scientific facts here:The French Paradox And Beyond.

September 23, 2008

The Claim: Grape Juice Has the Same Benefits as Red Wine


By now the cardiovascular benefits of a daily glass of wine are well known. But many teetotalers wonder whether they can reap the same rewards from wine’s unfermented sibling, or are they simply left out altogether.

Grape juice may not provide much buzz, but you can still toast to good health when it comes to its ability to avert heart disease. Alcohol in moderation can relax blood vessels and increase levels of HDL, the “good” cholesterol. But the substances believed to provide much of red wine’s heart benefits — resveratrol and flavonoids — are also found in grape juice, especially the variety made from red and dark purple Concord grapes.

Independent studies have found that like alcohol, grape juice can reduce the risk of blood clots and prevent LDL (“bad” cholesterol) from sticking to coronary arteries, among other cardiac benefits. One, conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and published in the journal Circulation, looked at the effects of two servings of Concord grape juice a day in 15 people with coronary artery disease. After two weeks, the subjects had improved blood flow and reduced oxidation of LDL. Oxidized LDL can damage arteries.

Other studies in humans and animals, including one last year in the journal Atherosclerosis, have shown that daily consumption may lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But beware: some varieties of juice have sugar and artificial ingredients.


Studies suggest that some kinds of grape juice may provide the cardiac benefits of red wine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Going veggie shrinks the brain

Article from: The Courier-Mail
September 12, 2008 07:45pm

SCIENTISTS have discovered that going veggie could be bad for your brain - with those on a meat-free diet six times more likely to suffer brain shrinkage.

Vegans and vegetarians — such as Heather Mills — are the most likely to be deficient because the best sources of the vitamin are meat, particularly liver, milk and fish.

Vitamin B12 deficiency can also cause anaemia and inflammation of the nervous system.

Yeast extracts are one of the few vegetarian foods which provide good levels of the vitamin.

The link was discovered by Oxford University scientists who used memory tests, physical checks and brain scans to examine 107 people between the ages of 61 and 87.

When the volunteers were retested five years later the medics found those with the lowest levels of vitamin B12 were also the most likely to have brain shrinkage. It confirms earlier research showing a link between brain atrophy and low levels of B12.


Brain scans of more than 1,800 people found that people who downed 14 drinks or more a week had 1.6 per cent more brain shrinkage than teetotallers.

Women in their seventies were the most at risk.

Beer does less damage than wine according to a study in Alcohol and Alcoholism.

Researchers found that the hippocampus - the part of the brain that stores memories — was 10 per cent smaller in beer drinkers than those who stuck to wine.

And don’t inhale, cannabis has been shown to have the same brain-rotting effect.


Being overweight or obese is linked to brain loss, Swedish researchers discovered.

Scans of around 300 women found that those with brain shrink had an average body mass index of 27

And for every one point increase in their BMI the loss rose by 13 to 16 per cent.

A BMI 25 to 30 is classed as overweight, above 30 is clinically obese. Calculate your BMI

Dr Deborah Gustafson of University Hospital in Göteborg says obesity increases the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, which are both thought to contribute to brain drain.

She adds: “Obesity may also increase the secretion of cortisol, which could lead to atrophy.”


The omega-3 oils found in fish reduce the risk of dementia and other mental disorders says Fernando Gómez-Pinilla of the University of California, Los Angeles.

He says they increase flexibility in synapses in the brain - the bits that transmit information - and boost memory and learning.

Friday, September 05, 2008

UK Publisher Buys Novel That Terrified Gutless Random House

Random House's craven unwillingness to defend free expression is an immoral abomination, a mercenary flight from courage, a gutless lack of respect for authors, writing, and the free exchange of ideas.

But one British publisher, on the other hand, has a backbone, ethics and a commitment for writing. Read on:

From the Guardian: Controversial 'child bride of Muhammad' novel finds UK publisher

British independent publisher Gibson Square has bought Sherry Jones's controversial novel about the child bride of Muhammad, which was dropped by Random House US following warnings that it could incite acts of violence from radical Muslims. Jones's The Jewel of Medina was also pulled from bookshops in Serbia last month after pressure from an Islamic group.

Gibson Square, which has previously published provocative works including Alexander Litvinenko's Blowing up Russia and House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger, paid what it described as a "compelling" advance to acquire The Jewel of Medina. It will publish it in October in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

"In an open society there has to be open access to literary works, regardless of fear," said Gibson Square publisher Martin Rynja. "As an independent publishing company, we feel strongly that we should not be afraid of the consequences of debate. If a novel of quality and skill that casts light on a beautiful subject we know too little of in the West, but have a genuine interest in, cannot be published here, it would truly mean that the clock has been turned back to the dark ages. The Jewel of Medina has become an important barometer of our time."

Random House was told by security experts and academics that the novel, for which it paid a $100,000 advance, was potentially more incendiary than both Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses and the Danish newspaper cartoons of Muhammad. Random House said at the time that it decided not to publish the title "for the safety of the author, employees of Random House Inc, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the book". The publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 saw attempts made on the lives of Rushdie's Italian and Norwegian publishers, while the Japanese translator of the book was killed.

Rynja said that as a small publisher, Gibson Square would be more capable of handling any controversy. "With a book that is controversial – and we've done a number – it is incredibly important that it is looked at from all sides. That is very difficult for a large publisher to do as they are looking at 200 titles a month so a controversial one is just one in the mix."

He said that he hoped that once people read the novel in its entirety there would be a "healthy discussion" about its content. "[Jones has] done very careful and detailed research for the novel – she's writing about this love story which even after 1,400 years we don't know much about."

Rynja struck the deal with Jones's agent Natasha Kern, who has also sold the novel to Editora Record in Brazil and is in discussions with small Danish publisher Trykkefrihedsselskabets Library (Free Speech Library).

Kern said that she and Jones decided on Gibson Square because they wanted a publisher who would commit to the novel and Jones's career, "as well as an editor and publisher who are passionate about bringing The Jewel of Medina to widest possible group of readers. We wanted to publish this book as quickly as possible so that all those who are interested can read the book and discover what a wonderful and inspiring love story Sherry has written."

Gibson Square also publishes John McCain, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Naomi Klein, Richard Dawkins and AN Wilson.

Friday, August 22, 2008


Turns out that, even with the SMTP port changes I mentioned, the Comcast SMTP server is STILL not delivering email.

Tech support says they have no clue and have issued a "trouble ticket" to see if Comcast's field people can hook up the jumper cables to their server.

Good luck .....

UPDATE - on Comcast Scores Own Goal

Shortly after writing this, I found a list of Comcast exec emails here:

I emailed the very short list at the bottom of the posting ...

Within 15 minutes, the entire Comcast connection at home went dead. I'm posting this from my business connection.

These are the people I wrote to. I wonder which one decided to kill my entire connection as retribution?,,,,,,,,,,,,,


Emails sent by Comcast broadband customers are failing to reach their properly addressed recipients because the company has changed the settings on its outgoing mail servers without informing its users or most of its own customer support agents.

Some Comcast customers have noticed a complete failure of all outgoing emails while others have found that some, but not all emails have gotten "lost in cyberspace."

Figuring out how to adapt to Comcast's covert email reconfiguration may leave millions of average users stuck in a technical quandary. They're unlikely to find help with Comcast because four of the five support people I spoke with over a two-hour period last night had no clue about the issue.

In brief: email uses two completely separate server systems to handle messages. One system (most often called a "POP" server) handles incoming mail. Outgoing mail is handled by another server called an SMTP server. This is why customers may find no problems receiving email, but later learn that important emails they have sent never arrive.

Only the fifth Comcast person -- a tech support supervisor I demanded to speak with during my marathon phone session -- knew that the company had changed the outgoing mail from SMTP port 25 to port 587. He said this was designed as an anti-spam action.

The support person wisely (for his own job) said nothing about why Comcast had not notified its customers about the change.

Fixing the problem will require all Comcast users to reconfigure their email client software to use the correct port. The procedures will be different depending on whether they use Outlook, Thunderbird or other software. But the change is not as simple as changing the port once that is located. The software must be configured to provide the same password and user name that is used for incoming email.

Businesses and individuals who have their own Internet domains (such as and receive their emails at that address ( will find the road even rockier. Many of those people have never set up the password and user name required to use Comcast's outgoing, SMTP server.

Comcast customer service will be unlikely to help these people either. Four of the five agents I spoke with had no clue.

Rather than deal with congenially clueless Comcast support people, the fastest and easiest way to solve the issue is to get a Gmail account from Google that provides an SMTP server.

In their email software settings under SMTP server, users can enter: "" and then enter their Gmail password and user names in the appropriate fields.
In addition to the broadband hassles, my two-hour conversation raised significant issues with Comcast's ability to provide telephone service. My call was dropped twice. Plus the connection to the last tech was so scratchy and faint he had to repeat himself frequently.

Over the past week, emails my wife and I have send from both our home and business broadband accounts have not been received. In addition, numerous emails sent to us by Comcast customes have not reached us. Many of these have been important and significant communications and their loss has had a significant effect.

I am fortunate to have been the Chief Technology Officer of an Internet company and have many years of technical experience. This gives me a knowledge base and many tools with which to diagnose this problem. The average user who has been deluded into thinking Comcast is a reliable service provider will simply be baffled and assume that one more mysterious cybermonster has eaten their mail. This does, however, show that Comcast has done the impossible: made the U.S. Postal Service look really good.

This irrational, irresponsible, financially punitive and completely avoidable disruption to the business and personal lives of Comcast customers shows that the company cannot and should not be trusted.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Gutless Random House Caves In To HINT of Muslim Threats

First Amendment not worth the hassle to world's largest publishing corporation.

From publishing industry newsletter, Publisher's Lunch:

More From Author of Cancelled Novel
We've heard from Sherry Jones, author of THE JEWEL OF MEDINA, the novel
cancelled by Ballantine covered in yesterday's Lunch.

Jones tells us that "because of my termination agreement with Random
House, I am prohibited from commenting on the circumstances surrounding
that termination." But from her perspective, "Despite Random House's
statement, I'm not aware of any warnings of possible terrorist attack
from any other source than Denise Spellberg. I know that Shahed
Amanullah's email had nothing to do with any of this, because I was the
one who discovered it, and the resulting discussion, on the Husaini
Youths website.

"Although I've been aware from the start that my books might offend some
people, I've never been afraid of physical harm because of them. I wrote
these books because I felt called to write them after researching A'isha
for my own purposes. My passion for her story trumps the fear factor.
I've expected controversy, yes, but never terrorism."

Separately, Jones writes on her blog that "all I did was try to portray
A'isha, Muhammad's child bride (believed by most historians to have
married Muhammad at age nine and consummated the marriage at age 11) in
the context of her times."

As to Spellberg's charge that the novel is "soft porn," Jones replies:
"There are no sex scenes in this book. The novel, whose bibliography
includes 29 scholarly and religious books, is a work of serious historic
fiction detailing the origins of Islam through the eyes of the Prophet
Muhammad's youngest wife. It's a book about women's relationships and
experiences at a time in history when a religion was being founded in
the midst of conflict."

Separately, agent Natasha Kern says that she will have news of foreign
rights sales for the book to announce shortly.

Random House supplied us with their full statement to the Wall Street Journal,
and deputy publisher Tom Perry "underscore[s] that our decision was
not based solely on the opinions of Ms. Spellberg."

The publisher says that after distributing galleys of the book, they
received "from credible and unrelated sources, cautionary advice not
only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the
Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a
small, radical segment.

"We felt an obligation to take these concerns very seriously. We consulted
with security experts as well as with scholars of Islam, whom we asked to
review the book and offer their assessments of potential reactions.

"We stand firmly by our responsibility to support our authors and the free
discussion of ideas, even those that may be construed as offensive by some.
However, a publisher must weigh that responsibility against others that it
also bears, and in this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to
postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House,
booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of
the novel." As reported, both parties subsequently agreed to terminate the publishing agreement.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Obama = Pepsi? McCain = Budweiser?


Maybe not.

RIP: Patry Copyright Blog

One of my favorite, daily, MUST-READ blogs, The Patry Copyright Blog, is dead.

This literate, calm, well-reasoned blog did more for actually understanding copyright than anything else on the web.

Patry started the blog when he was in private practice with a firm where my former patent lawyer worked.

But when Patry left private practice to join Google, many readers were incapable of accepting that this was HIS pesonal opinion rather than Google's. That was a hassle.

His other reason for ceasing the blog is the depressing state of copyright, having been distorted and perverted into an anti-competitive tool for corporate dinosaurs. Here's what he has to say about that.

The Current State of Copyright Law is too depressing

This leads me to my final reason for closing the blog which is independent of the first reason: my fear that the blog was becoming too negative in tone. I regard myself as a centrist. I believe very much that in proper doses copyright is essential for certain classes of works, especially commercial movies, commercial sound recordings, and commercial books, the core copyright industries.

I accept that the level of proper doses will vary from person to person and that my recommended dose may be lower (or higher) than others. But in my view, and that of my cherished brother Sir Hugh Laddie, we are well past the healthy dose stage and into the serious illness stage.

Much like the U.S. economy, things are getting worse, not better.

Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners. Like
Humpty-Dumpty, the copyright law we used to know can never be put back together again: multilateral and trade agreements have ensured that, and quite deliberately.

If you give a damn about copyright, you should read the whole post. And mourn not only the passing of Patry's blog, but his reasons for putting it to sleep.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Big Sort: A Paradigm for Our Polarized Times?

I read a book recently which seems to describe what Animal Liberation Front bombers have in common with the man who killed two people at a Unitarian Church in Tennessee.

They're domestic terrorists rooted in the same phenomena that have destroyed political discourse and consensus in American politics. Those roots would be:

  • The refusal of individuals to compromise their personal concepts of right and wrong in order to further the common good.

  • Insular, intellectually segregated groups of people who create and self-confirm extreme beliefs and their entitlement to act on them regardless of the impact on others.

Like many people, I have puzzled over the vicious, polemical extremes that dominate politics today. Discourse about differing opinions has been replaced by demonizing those who disagree. Both Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans resort to rants rather than persuasion.

The lack of moderation, and the permission granted by political leaders for their followers to engage in scorched earth tactics, inevitably incites the mentally unstable to acts of violence.

A newly published book, The Big Sort, sheds some light on why all this is happening now.

According to the book, "In the 95th Congress (1977-1979), 40 percent of the 435 members were moderates," Bishop writes. "By the 108th Congress (2003-2005) this moderate bloc had be whittled down to 10 percent."

Further, the book states that, "In 1976, less than a quarter of Americans lived in places where the presidential election was a landslide." The authors define "landslide" as winning by 20 percent or greater. "By 2004, nearly half of all voters lived in landslide counties."

Nothing illustrates this schism better than the county-by-county maps of presidential voting from 1976 to 2004.

Along with this, the book documents how, over the past three decades, Americans have chosen to segregate themselves in ways that avoid contact with people who might disagree with them politically.

Now, the match that ignites all this gasoline: <The Big Sort presents numerous studies proving that people isolated from differing opinions become more extreme, especially with regard to political issues. In effect, people in homogeneous groups trend toward political extremes as they try to prove they have drunk the common Kool-Aid. They do not tolerate dissent or discussion. Moderates then must decide whether to comply with the group or allow themselves to be driven away.

A study published in 2006 by Penn political scientist Diana Mutz found that only 23 percent of Americans have regular discussions with people they disagree with politically. And the more education a person has, the worse this gets.

Moderates willing to work together for a common goal despite their differences have been replaced by tinhorn demagogues trying to stir up hatred and intolerance for anyone they disagree with.

The self-sorting polarization of the electorate is why both political parties have abandoned any attempt at trying to sway moderates -- there are damn few left. Instead, campaigns focus on inflaming their supporters' passions, encouraging them, to intimidate the opposition and make sure they go to the polls.

This is how both the Nazis and Communists came to power. It invigorates the ideological psychos on the fringes and gives them permission to burn, bomb and kill.

The political "leadership" of America is responsible for extremism that leads to death and violence.

Buy this book. Read it. Study it. It has no answers of its own, but knowledge is power and acknowledging a problem is the first step to solving it.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Is Ronald McDonald a Poofter?

Is the Big Mac a metaphor for sodomy? Is "supersize it" a code for something other than potatoes? Is a "Happy Meal" a sin? Something to be consumed only in the privacy of your own home?

The conservative American Family Association thinks there may be hidden meaning in the old Christmas carol urging you to "don ye now our gay apparel."

Make up your own mind. Surf here, if you dare.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Amazon.Com's melting down

1. On around 10 a.m. on June 18, 2008, I placed an order (#104-7260042-2096242) with Amazon for a Motorola MOTOROKR 505 Bluetooth hands-free device to use with my mobile phone. This was a one-click order for two-day delivery on my Amazon Prime account.

2. At 11:27 a.m. on June 18, 2008, Amazon sent me an email confirming my purchase.

3. At 4:49 p.m. on on June 19, 2008 -- almost a day and a half after confirmation -- Amazon sent an email stating that my item was "displayed at an incorrect price" and that they had unliterally CANCELLED my order.

4. Ironically, I had ordered this same product (104-2001654-4645020) on June 4, tested it, found it suitable and thus bought another one. Or so I thought. The device is needed because a new California law which takes place June 1 requires that all phone usage while driving be hands free.

5. All of the responses from the online customer service are 'bot form messages. The phone numbers are as useless as Amazon's customer "service"!

After 45+ minutes on the phone with three different very nice but totally clueless and powerless customer "service" reps, they tell me that they can't or won't do anything at all.

These same reps tell me that there was nothing wrong with the price. It's that the product is out of stock?

WTF? Amazon can tell me when there is one or two copies of a book left and they take my order and a day and a half later cancel it?

So which story do I believe?

6. Offering a product and failing to follow through is a breach of contract and a violation of federal and state consumer laws.

7. I am one of Amazon's first Prime customers and spend upwards of $10,000 per year with them. THAT's going to change today.

8. This mess-up is legally a violation. In the middle of a recession, it's a slap in the face to a good consumer. Morally and ethically, it is simply wrong.

9. All this is a sign that Amazon is melting down. Their servers are crashing and their database can't track inventory. Plus, in the middle of a recession, they choose to screw one of their best customers? That's bad business. It costs Amazon FAR more money to acquire a new customer with my spending habits than it would have simply to do the right thing.

This company is headed downhill. I sold my Amazon stock this morning.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Guys, you can survive 'Sex and the City'

The TV show has WAY more information about aging sluts than guys ever wanted to know.

From the LA Times: "Man should not live by bread alone. Every once in a while, he should turn off The Game, ditch the remote, put on some clean clothes and embrace his feminine side."

Embracing my feminine side is too much like masturbation. I'd rather embrace my wife.

The rest of the story here.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Rupiah's From Heaven?

I'm fortunate enough to have a couple of books that have been bestsellers in Indonesia, but the following illustrates that some folks will do anything for promotion. Hope it works for him.

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - If you're short of cash and don't mind running in tropical humidity and smog for a few bucks, read on.

An Indonesian businessman plans to throw 100 million rupiah (US $10,600) out of an airplane over the capital this Sunday as a publicity stunt to promote his new book.

"I want to create a rain of money in Jakarta," author and motivational speaker Tung Desem Waringin said. "It's a little bit crazy, but it's marketing."

Police spokesman Col. I Ketut Untung said authorities may not allow the plan to go forward because it could draw huge crowds and cause chaos.

Tens of millions of Indonesians live on less than US $1 a day and food and aid giveaways always draw large numbers.

The 42-year-old Tung said instead of opting for regular advertising for his book, he came up with an idea that "will make people happy."

(Copyright The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Airline Fossils Need to Die, NOW

Article, San Francisco Chronicle today, predicts that at least two of the following might be in bankruptcy by the end of this year: United, Continental, American, Northwest, US Airways and Delta.

I say don't wait. Like former racehorses with four broken legs, they all need to be administered the coup de grace to put them out of OUR misery. They're arrogant, sloppy, fat, nasty, stupid, obsolete creatures unfit for the current environment. This is where Darwin needs to work. Fast.

Good riddance, and the sooner the better. Good bye to surly ticket counter drones, frowning flight attendants, supremely dumb incompetent marionettes in the executive suites who think that treating passengers like downer cattle is the way to make a profit. I say take the forklift to them all and dump them into the rendering pot.

Article, San Francisco Chronicle today, "Virgin America stymied in its attempts to obtain additional routes."

Yeah, the bureaucrat trolls at the U.S. Department of Transportation are sandbagging Virgin America's attempts to grow, awarding routes and airport gates to the likes of the aformentioned dinosaurs above.

So there you have it, good airlines like Virgin America, Jet Blue and Southwest get screwed while keeping alive those who deserve to die.

More than 15 years ago, I got fed up with the sleazy bastards at American and United. I cut up my frequent-flyer cards and cancelled my airport club cards and left them on the check-in counter. I have not flown either airline since then.

I was the CEO of a company back then. I amended the company travel handbook to forbid reimbursement for traveling on those carriers.

If American or United are the only way to get somewhere, I don't go there. The sooner they die, the faster the American public can escape the U.S. equivalent of Aeroflot and gain access to decent transportation.

Sure, soaring fuel prices squeeze everybody. But when I fly Virgin America, Jet Blue and Southwest, I fly with people I can empathize with. Real people who treat passengers like other people and who offer a good experience and value for the price of the ticket.

I wonder if Jack Kevorkian is available for freelance work?

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Oil, tobacco ... a lie is a lie is a lie.

1994-Tobacco company executives testify before Congress that nicotine is NOT addictive.

2008-Oil company executives testify before Congress that they're NOT responsible for the high price of gasoline.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

American Apartheid - No Negroes Allowed in Bookstores?

This disturbing article appeared in the Guardian (U.K.) yesterday. I can find no words suitable for comment.

Why I'm not allowed my book title

It's called The Book of Negroes in Canada - but Americans won't buy that term

Are we on the same page? ... Novelist Lawrence Hill

It isn't unusual for British or Canadian books to change titles when entering the American market. It happened to JK Rowling - Harry Potter has no "philosopher's" stone in the USA; and to Alice Munro, whose fabulous collection of short stories went from Who Do You Think You Are? in Canada to The Beggar Maid in the USA.

But I didn't think it would happen to me. When my novel, The Book of Negroes, came out last year with HarperCollins Canada, I was assured by my American publisher that the original title would be fine by them. However, several months later, I got a nervous email from my editor in New York.

She mentioned that the book cover would soon be going to the printer and that the title had to change. "Negroes" would not fly, or be allowed to fly, in American bookstore. At first, I was irritated, but gradually I've come to make my peace with the new title, Someone Knows My Name.

Perhaps the best way to examine the issue is to examine the evolution of the word "Negro" in America. I descend (on my father's side) from African-Americans. My own father, who was born in 1923, fled the United States with my white mother the day after they married in 1953. As my mother is fond of saying, at the time even federal government cafeterias were segregated. It was no place for an interracial couple to live.

My parents, who became pioneers of the human rights movement in Canada, used the word Negro as a term of respect and pride. My American relatives all used it to describe themselves. I found it in the literature I began to consume as a teenager: one of the most famous poems by Langston Hughes, for example, is The Negro Speaks of Rivers. When my own father was appointed head of the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1973, the Toronto Globe and Mail's headline noted that a "Negro" had been appointed.

The term was in vogue right into the 1970s. For a time, the word "Negro" took a back seat in popular language culture to newer terms, such as "Afro-American", "African-Canadian", "people of colour" (a term I have always disliked, for its pomposity) or just plain "black."

In the last 20 or so years in urban America, we have witnessed more changes in racial terminology. For one thing, and regrettably in my view, many hip-hop artists have re-appropriated the word "nigger", tried to tame it, and use it so vocally and frequently as to strip it of its hateful origins. We are all products of our generation.

Given that I was born in 1957 and taught to ball my fists against anybody using that N-word, I can't quite get my head around using it these days in any kind of peaceful or respectful manner. Just as the very word "nigger" has risen in popular usage over the last decade or two, however, the word "Negro" has become viscerally rude. In urban America, to call someone a Negro is to ask to for trouble. It suggests that the designated person has no authenticity, no backbone, no individuality, and is nothing more than an Uncle Tom to the white man.

I used The Book of Negroes as the title for my novel, in Canada, because it derives from a historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers at the tail end of the American Revolutionary War. It documents the 3,000 blacks who had served the King in the war and were fleeing Manhattan for Canada in 1783. Unless you were in The Book of Negroes, you couldn't escape to Canada. My character, an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is based on this history, has to get into the book before she gets out.

In my country, few people have complained to me about the title, and nobody continues to do so after I explain its historical origins. I think it's partly because the word "Negro" resonates differently in Canada. If you use it in Toronto or Montreal, you are probably just indicating publicly that you are out of touch with how people speak these days. But if you use it in Brooklyn or Boston, you are asking to have your nose broken. When I began touring with the novel in some of the major US cities, literary African-Americans kept approaching me and telling me it was a good thing indeed that the title had changed, because they would never have touched the book with its Canadian title.

I'd rather have the novel read under a different title than not read at all, so perhaps my editor in New York made the right call. After all, she lives in the country, and I don't. I just have one question. Now that the novel has won the Commonwealth writers' prize, if it finds a British publisher, what will the title be in the UK?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Book Launch Reality

By way of author/journalist Seth Mnookin's blog, herewith the reality check for authors.

It falls into the "sad but true" category and offers the best insight into the dysfunctional world of authors and book publishing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Dumb Calif Bureaucrats Criminalize Home Winemakers

Yes, I know that "dumb bureaucrat" is redundant. But, just in the nick of time the California state government has arrived and they're here to save us from ourselves. Again.

By declaring that competitions among home winemakers are illegal.

This story from The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat (the only real newspaper in Sonoma County) says it all.

Read it.


Then let's ALL have a tasting of homemade wines at our homes. We need to set a date and then notify the bureaucrats. Let them come after ALL of us. Would make for some great YouTube Vids.

Home wine ruling a shock
Organizers and others stunned that state ABC would say events like Harvest Fair are against the law


Home winemaking competitions abound in California.

From the Sonoma County Harvest Fair in the heart of Wine Country to the massive California Exposition & State Fair in Sacramento, fairs around the state recognize the skills of thousands of amateur vintners.

Numerous private winemaking clubs also hold regular contests so their members can see how their vintages stack up.

But they all have one thing in common: They're all illegal.

That's what state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control officials have told an Illinois man who wants to hold a home winemaking competition in Santa Rosa this summer.

"We told them it's illegal," said Matthew Seck, chief of the trade enforcement division of the ABC.

State law creates an exemption from California's alcohol licensing laws for home winemakers who produce up to 200 gallons a year -- but only if they are making it for their own consumption.

The exemption was essentially California's way, after regulation of alcohol fell to the states following the repeal of Prohibition, of continuing the federal exemption for home winemaking.

The problem is that the exemption is a very narrow one that does not allow people to share the wine they produce with others or remove it from the place where it was produced, Seck said.

Word of the state's position spread quickly though the ranks of the passionate home winemaking community, particularly in California, where hobbyists have access to some of the best grapes in the world and craft wines in garages, basements and barns.

"It doesn't make sense to most people, but that's what the law is," Seck said.

Seck declined to say what type of enforcement the agency might take against an amateur wine judging event. He said he was unaware such events take place at county and state fairs, and had never received a complaint against one.

But when the ABC receives a complaint or becomes aware that laws are being broken, it has an obligation to act, he said.

Threat of prosecution

In an e-mail to the Santa Rosa event's organizer, Joel Sommer, ABC investigator David Wright was clear there could be consequences.

"If you decide to hold your event please be advised that it will be without Department consent or authorization and could result in criminal prosecution," Wright wrote.

That got Sommer's attention.

The resident of St. Libory, Ill., and a self-described "Web entrepreneur" operates a winemaking Web site called WinePress. He was shocked by the response and baffled given the proliferation of other such events across the state, including the state's own fair.

"I was just trying to do everything legally," he said.

Sommer has held home winemaking competitions in Denver, Baltimore and St. Louis in recent years, and was looking forward to holding his first event in California. But the legal opinion threw his whole plan into question.

Many visitors to Sommer's Web site rallied to his defense, digging up legal research and offering support and strategic suggestions. Many suggested the ABC official was off base or overstepping his authority.

"This guy is drunk on power," wrote one poster.

The ABC's stance flies in the face of reality and years of history and tradition, said Nancy Vineyard, co-owner of The Beverage People, a home brewing and winemaking supply company in Santa Rosa.

"If that's the case, then just about every county fair and club across the state is breaking the law," she said.

"I've never heard anything like it," said Bob Bennett, an avid home winemaker from Healdsburg and head of the Garage Enologists of North County. "I can't think of why he's any different than the other (competitions)."

Such competitions are crucial for home winemakers to get feedback on their wines from experts in the field, said Fred Millar, president of the Sacramento Home Winemakers. He noted that many of the best professional winemakers started out as hobbyists.

"I'm really concerned. I think this could have a chilling effect on the whole industry," he said.

Others suggested Sommer just ignore the ABC and hold his event as planned.

"It's silly and it's a technicality and nobody really cares," said Andy Coradeschi, former president of Cellarmasters Home Wine Club of Los Angeles, which has held a competition for 34 years and last year judged about 220 wines.

Help from legislators

Seck declined to say whether county fairs or the upcoming California Exposition & State Fair's Home Wine competition would violate the law. He said he was unaware they held home winemaking events.

But legislators are moving quickly to make sure the flap doesn't interfere with the summer fair season. After receiving calls from home winemakers across California, state Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, is proposing urgency legislation to fix the problem.

"I think there is a concern that some of these events may have to cease without this kind of bill," Wiggins spokesman David Miller said.

Next week, Wiggins will introduce a bill, SB 607, that would add home winemakers to a section of the law giving greater latitude to home brewers. Current law for beer allows "personal or family use" and lets home brewers remove their brews "from the premises where manufactured for use in competition at organized affairs, exhibitions or competitions."

Adding wine to this section should resolve the issue, Miller said.

As "urgency" legislation, the bill requires a two-thirds majority to pass, but would take effect immediately upon the governor's signature.

Despite the warnings from the ABC earlier this year, Sommer remained undeterred and continues planning his event. The fact that he has already paid deposits to the Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa has motivated him, too.

He continues to "move full speed ahead" for the event, called WineFest, and hopes to get 150 people to attend.

The threat of prosecution initially made some posters on Sommer's site question whether attending was worth the risk. But most saw the threat as hollow and the risk minimal, he said.

"If they make an example out of me, fine, but at least we get the law changed," he said.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Move over wunderkinds, there are 2X more boomers entrepreneurs!

A new study confirms what all of us older entrepreneurs knew already: there are a lot more of us than 20-something wunderkinds. The following comes from the Kauffman Foundation:

Challenging the perception of American technology entrepreneurs as 20-something wunderkinds launching businesses from college dorm rooms, a new study by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and researchers at Duke and Harvard universities reveals most U.S.-born technology and engineering company founders are middle-aged, well-educated and hold degrees from a wide assortment of universities.

In fact, twice as many U.S.-born tech entrepreneurs start ventures in their 50s as do those in their early 20s. Further, elite, highly ranked schools are over-represented in the ranks of these founders, and Ivy-League graduates achieve the greatest business success; however, 92 percent of U.S.-born founders graduate from other universities, according to the study, Education and Tech Entrepreneurship. The study analyzed U.S. engineering and tech companies founded from 1995-2005, representing the most current decade of data.

"Because entrepreneurship is an indicator of economic vitality in regions and across the country, this study raises important policy questions about how to foster greater tech entrepreneurship to boost economic growth," said Robert Litan, vice president of Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation. "Probably the most compelling fact in the study is that advanced education is critical to the success of tech startups."

U.S.-born engineering and tech company founders are overwhelmingly well-educated. While there are significant differences in the types of degrees these entrepreneurs obtain and the time they take to start a company after they graduate, the study reveals a direct correlation between a founder’s education and company performance.

In 2005, the average sales revenue of all startups in the sample was around $5.7 million, employing an average of 42 workers. Startups established by founders with advanced Ivy-League degrees had higher average sales and employment – $6.7 million and 55 workers, respectively. The success of these groups contrasted sharply with startups established by founders with high school degrees with average revenues and employees at $2.2 million and 18 workers, respectively.

Among other findings:

  • The average and median age of U.S.-born founders was 39 when they started their companies. Only about 1 percent of U.S.-born founders of tech companies were teenagers.
  • The vast majority (92 percent) of U.S.-born tech founders held bachelor’s degrees, 31 percent held master’s degrees, and 10 percent had completed PhDs. Nearly half of these degrees were in science-, technology-, engineering- and mathematics-related disciplines. One third was in business, accounting and finance.
  • U.S.-born tech founders holding MBA degrees established companies more quickly (13 years) than others. Those with PhDs typically waited 21 years to become tech entrepreneurs.
  • The top 10 universities from which U.S.-born tech founders received their highest degrees are Harvard, Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, University of Texas, University of California-Berkeley, University of Missouri, Pennsylvania State University, University of Southern California and University of Virginia.
  • Nearly half (45 percent) of the tech startups were established in the same state where U.S.-born tech founders received their education. Of the U.S.-born tech founders receiving degrees from California, 69 percent later created a startup in the state; Michigan, 58 percent; Texas, 53 percent; and Ohio, 52 percent. In contrast, Maryland retained only 15 percent; Indiana, 18 percent; and New York, 21 percent.

"While education clearly is an advantage for tech founders in the United States, experience also is a key factor," said Vivek Wadhwa, the study’s lead researcher and a Wertheim fellow with the Harvard Law School and executive in residence at Duke University. "That a large number of U.S.-born tech founders have worked in business for many years also is important in understanding the supply of tech entrepreneurs."

Other researchers include Richard Freeman, Herbert Asherman chair in economics, Harvard University and director, Labor Studies Program, National Bureau of Economic Research; and Ben Rissing, Wertheim Fellow, Labor and Worklife Program, Harvard Law School and research scholar, Pratt School of Engineering, Duke University.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


No comment needed.

This is from Seth Godin's often amusing, usually helpful and always interesting, blog

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Dr. Frankenstein's legacy looms larger

There's a famous (and very old -- 1959) book by C.P. Snow called "The Two Cultures" which laments the divide between scientists and everyone else. The problems are deeper now and the essence of the scientific issues have changed greatly.

But despite the hand-wringing of every scientific generation, the problem gets worse.

The problem gets worse because scientists have tried to solve it by themselves. They have successfully created an environment where ordinary people view them as a caste apart, a priesthood of the anointed who have the theological rights to intercede between the masses and the God of science. The publishing industry has bought into this and manages to make the problem worse.

My little thread of current agonizing about this begins with a Wired Online article, "Why is There so Little Science in the Sci/Tech Section of Google News?".

That contains links to two good nanotechnology blog posts: "Five lessons in nano outreach" and,

"'Science has a serious marketing problem,' says Google founder at 2007 AAAS keynote"
. (AAAS = American Association for the Advancement of Science.)

What's bad about these links is that they seem to advocate spin-doctoring as a solution rather than translating the science into a form that can be understood by the whole congregation rather than just the high priests.

Now, let me tell you a little story.

Back in the middle to late 1980s, I was a consultant to technology companies. At one point, I had more than half of the divisions of Hewlett-Packard as clients. Back then, HP was a totally engineering driven company, famous for bomb-proof test equipment, engineering workstations, semiconductor simulators and so forth. They made their billions selling engineering to engineers.

Then they got a consumer bent. Maybe you think that was the HP LaserJet which broke open the entire laser printer market. Nope.

The first product they wanted to sell into the consumer/business market was the HP plotter they felt people would want to have, especially to create color charts and graphs from that new PC program, Lotus 1-2-3. This was before inkjets. State of the art for PC printing was the dot-matrix, impact printer.

The HP's plotter division in Rancho Bernardo (east of San Diego California) was my client. When I first got there, the engineers proudly showed me the heft and strength of their plotters and the torture chamber in which HP's plotters would work perfectly in subzero temperatures and those in which you could literally fry an egg if you left the frying pan in long enough. They spent hours talking about obscure engineering protocols and how those (and the torture chamber photos) were what the felt were their competitive advantages over Calcomp -- their main competitor whose plotters were significantly less expensive.

Those worked when you sold to engineers, I told them, but failed to answer the consumer "who give a shit?" test.

They listened to me because I had once been a programmer and worked as an engineer. We began to create a program which translated the technology into something that passed the "who gives a shit?" test.

They became the market leader in business and consumer products. It's also no accident that, before the 1980s were over, the LaserJet had made the transition from a massive-steel-framed behemoth that could shelter you from a nuclear attack, to a light, streamlined, consumer-friendly product.

I'd say that science in general remains mired in the same trap. The public doesn't give a shit about something that they've been led to believe they won't understand anyway. The few that press on to understand get turned off when they buy a book by a Ph.D. which is either too complicated, too flimsy and in both cases fails to address the "who gives a shit?" issue.

Phrased in less scatological terms, for the vast majority of the rapidly shrinking universe of book buyers, none of the books offers a good answer to: "Why should I care? How will knowing this make my life better or help me understand my place in the universe?"

Just as engineers are not sympatico with consumers, pure scientists will never be able to answer those questions adequately enough to bridge the divide. The alternative will be greater reliance on superstition by the general public and deepening suspicion of science and scientists. Is there any doubt here why novels and movies usually portray scientists as Faustian madmen?

Dr. Frankenstein's legacy looms larger

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Science Illiteracy

People are getting dumber and dumber about science even as it assumes a greater and greater role in society.

Publishers of "popular" type science books bear much of the blame. Almost everything they publish is:
(a) Devoid of any real science content and condescendingly tries to explain things with the equivalent of hand puppets or
(b) Written way above the heads of intelligent people.

It's not just a book segment destroying itself, it is culturally destructive.

Religion and science both started as ways for people to try and understand the world around them. Science now shows us many things we once attributed to the supernatural. That means that intelligent people seeking the meaning of things try to grasp the science.

But the scientific establishment has developed into a priesthood of fancy mathematics that is impenetrable -- not only to the layperson, but to many, many scientists as well.

That is why, despite all the shelves full of "popular" books on science by PhDs like Brian Greene and Michio Kaku, scientific illiteracy grows and grows. This BusinessWeek blurb (above) illustrates what I am saying.

The vacuum between all of the establishment-PhD-written books and religious texts is now being filled with new-age, truly flaky interpretations of quantum physics as spirituality. And people are buying into this. But the "science" is all twisted and wrong.

Those pseudo-scientific spirituality books are finding an audience created by the scientific illiteracy created by the establishment PhDs.

This is not encouraging.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Comic Wars: Book Review

This review appeared in Barron's on June 3, 2002.

If anyone decided to pattern a cartoon villain after Dan Raviv's depictions of Ronald Perelman and Carl Icahn in Comic Wars, the concept would be laughed out of the marketplace.

After all, riveting cartoon villains usually have at least one redeeming feature.

But in Comic Wars, CBS News correspondent Raviv spins an irresistible morality play: Allied against the forces of darkness -- duplicitous bankers, profane lawyers, spineless yes-men, and Perelman and Icahn -- Israeli immigrant and Six-Day War veteran Isaac (Ike) Perlmutter arrives in America with $250 to his name. Thirty years later, he's worth $500 million.

Raviv portrays Perlmutter's triumph as a victory of the will to do the right thing. The ultimate entrepreneur, who could make brains and sweat work where others needed money, Perlmutter first built a fortune buying and selling surplus goods. This success allowed him to take on larger operations -- including whole firms -- like shaver company Remington Products.

The comic-wars part of the saga begins in 1989 -- when Ron Perelman acquires Marvel Entertainment Group for $82.5 million, hyping the company as a "mini-Disney," and floating more than $900 million worth of junk bonds. Then, he train-wrecks it, in a DotCom-like meltdown: Based on unrealistic hype about revenue growth, Marvel's stock soars from its $2 IPO price in 1991 to more than $34 in 1993 -- in part fueled by bankers who didn't look too carefully at their deals so long as they made their ample underwriting fees.

Perelman grossly overpays for a series of disastrous acquisitions. And his cost-cutting disembowels the staff of artists and writers. As quality plummets, so do sales, helped by a boycott of Marvel by disillusioned fans -- and a decision to create a distribution monopoly that drove many of its best retailers out of business.

Meanwhile, Perlmutter, who had bought a crippled toy firm in 1990 and renamed it ToyBiz, teams up with Ron Perelman in 1993 -- in a deal giving ToyBiz the right to sell action figures based on Marvel Comics' characters (Spiderman, X-Men). The no-royalty deal cost Perlmutter 46 percent of his company -- and bound his fate to Marvel. When Perelman took over Marvel, it had had a 70% market share. But by 1996, it was 25%. And the share price had plunged toward $1 by the time the company filed for Chapter 11 on Dec. 27, 1996. "The great Ron Perelman," Raviv writes, "the man who ... conquered Revlon, was now a schmuck who could not run a comic-book company."

Corporate raider Carl Icahn launches his hostile takeover attempt for Marvel in November 1996. All he'd ultimately accomplish was an exchange of toxic insults with Perelman. But with the moguls distracted, Perlmutter executes a courageous maneuver: On July 31, 1998, he takes control of Marvel, scoring one of the most impressive victories since David slew Goliath. The story of how he pulled off this acquisition is a nail-biting thriller -- filled with more backstabbing, lies, broken promises and unexpected twists than a stack of action comic books.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Noble Rot: A Bordeaux Wine Revolution: Book Review

An edited version of this appeared in Barron's on March 1, 2004

A stench wafts among the pricey vineyards of Bordeaux. According to Noble Rot by William Echikson, the stink comes from a cultural gangrene eating away at an arrogant and outmoded aristocracy so far into denial that it can’t see the mortal danger that corrodes it from within.

In the wine world, the term "noble rot" refers to a specific type of desirable mold that allows grapes to produce some of the world's most desirable and expensive sweet wines with Bordeaux's Château d'Yquem at the pinnacle. But Echikson uses the term as a metaphor for a syndrome of cultural and enological afflictions that have turned this august wine region on its Gallic nose. The fact that Château d'Yquem plays a key role makes the metaphor doubly relevant.

The obscure and irrelevant Classification of 1855 stars as the lead pathogen in Noble Rot. As Echikson points out, the old guard in Bordeaux still clutch at the 1855 classification in a last-ditch effort to sell inferior wine at very high prices to gullible snobs who crave tony labels. Indeed, this 1855 list was never about quality from the beginning, but about price and prestige. Not coincidentally for this book, Château d'Yquem came out on the very top of that listing.

Leading the revolution against the established order are les garagistes, a feisty band of winemakers, mostly from St.-Emilion and environs who, zut alors!, think that Bordeaux's over-priced, thin, musty swill should give way to quality wine produced through proper vineyard management and winemaking techniques. While there are some larger, well-financed operations in this movement, most have been labeled garagistes after a number of prominent winemakers who literally began in their garages and produced wines that sell at hundreds of dollars a bottle at retail.

The fact that many unclassified garagiste wines are now selling at far greater prices than those with a noble, classified château on the label has outraged the establishment which, in Marie Antoinette fashion, scream, "Let them drink plonk!"

Echikson gives the reader a very readable, enjoyable sand factually grounded account of how the upstart garagistes first tried to change the ossified classifications which stood like the Maginot Line between them, formal recognition and the establishment's pricing and sales system. When that failed, they simply swept around the flanks, establishing alternate pricing, sales and distribution channels that cut the old guard off like la guillotine.

Noble Rot could easily have been like most wine books: morphine for the soul, filled with geek-speak, pedantically self-important and impenetrable prose suitable only for treating people with a sleep disorder. Yet Echikson avoids this and has produced an accessible, thoughtful book so filled with interesting material about the business, the winemaking and the culture that it begs to be sipped and contemplated rather than quaffed.

What makes the book so engaging is the way that Echikson spins his story by following some of the key people on both sides of the movement, leading us through the conflicts, offering context and illuminating quotes that promote understanding.

We have the challengers: true garagistes such as Michel Gracia and well-heeled newcomers like Florence Cathiard of Château Smith-Haut-Lafite who are bound by a passion for great wine regardless of classification. On their side are avant garde merchants like Jeffrey Davies, modern wine consultants like Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu and well-known wine critic Robert Parker.

The old guard sees evil in the fact that Davies and Parker are American as are many of the new vineyard and winemaking practices is evidence, according to the old guard, that this was "part of a grand conspiracy to destroy France."

Echikson aptly shows that the French don't seem to need any outside help to destroy their country since government regulations, a refusal to modernize, a pervasive rear-view mirror on progress and a general xenophobia are doing a great job without American intervention.

Noble Rot uses this attitude as one of the major manifestations of denial that keeps the decadent aristocracy from addressing the real issues, which is why American wine regularly out-scores French wine in France and that top global honors for that icon of French culture, the baguette, has gone to one of my local Sonoma bakeries on more than one occasion.

Commanding the defense of the old order is Château d'Yquem's Alexandre Lur-Saluces. Noble Rot details his decades of subterfuge, double-dealing, and attempts to cheat family members out of their rightful ownership and control of Château d'Yquem all the while running the place into the ground. The tale, told through a combination of interviews and extracts from court cases paints a gothic image that would never have been believable even on Falconcrest.

The old guard cast would not be complete without the context that most of Bordeaux's old guard were Vichy supporters and Nazi collaborators who received many a fascist pat on the back for shipping Jews off to the gas chambers, something that grand cru lovers might want to keep in mind.

Noble Rot begins with many threads which Echikson skillfully weaves together in the last part of the book to form a unified, disturbing and yet optimistic tapestry. As the author of wine books, I have visited Bordeaux on a number of occasions and met many of the people Echikson writes about. I found that after reading Noble Rot, I had a far more coherent framework on which to hang my episodic visits and knowledge.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

California Vintners Still Delusional

When my book, The Wrath of Grapes hit bookstores in 1999, I predicted a massive glut of wine would sweep through California and hammer wine prices starting in 2000/2001.

The wine industry responded like like stoners who've been smoking their shorts. "Glut? Ain't gonna be no stinkin' glut!"

Jay Palmer at Barron's wrote a detailed, well-documented article on this and came to the same conclusion. The wine industry mounted a massive PR blitz aimed at neutralizing Palmer, me and anyone else who dared look at the statistics. Brokerage analysts played their puppet roles well, mouthing corporate press releases and failing to look at the facts.

They were all treading water or floundering when the predicted glut hit in 2001. Right on schedule.

And every year, year after year, they pronounce the end of the glut. Only, no one ever uses the "G" word.

This year is no different.

Premier Pacific Vineyards, a Napa-based vineyard investment firm issued a rose-tinted report this week taking about the decline in "non-bearing" vineyard plantings and implying that, somehow, this was yet another harbinger of good times ahead and even hinting at shortages.

Bull feathers!

It's true that non-bearing acreage can help foretell future prospects. It takes a newly planted vineyard three to five years to begin production. But if you're savvy and take your own look at the stats, you'll see that the numbers reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture don't show the flood of California wine ending anytime soon. It just shows that the insane rush to plant new vineyards has decreased from delusional to merely out of touch with reality.

The USDA's 2007 Grape Acreage Report indicates that non-bearing acres decreased from 47,000 acres to 43,000 acres. WhoopieDOOO! Sure, you can talk about a, 8.5 percent decline. But the REAL story lies in the acres still producing enough wine to keep the Two Buck Chuck tsunami flowing.

The last time that California wine production came close to a balance with demand was 1995-96 when the state had about 300,000 acres of bearing wine grapes. Feloniously optimistic projections about demand from pump-and-dump artists and those standing to profit from the expansion of vineyards created a planting spree.

The 2007 Grape Acreage Report shows California with 480,000 acres, the same as 2006. This comes despite vineyards being ripped out and grapes rotting on the vines, even in premium areas of Napa and Sonoma Valley.

The reality remains that California has, probably, two-thirds-MORE acres of wine vineyards than it needs, a good portent for regular wine consumers needing something to ease the pain of oil and real-estate prices.

More factors aggravate the situation for vineyard owners, the most important being a worldwide glut of wine which has helped boost the market share of imports from about 12 to 15% in the mid-1990s to about double that today.

Significantly, California crushed about 3.7 million tons of wine grapes in 2007, according to the USDA. At the current levels of consumption and imports, that's probably 750,000 tons higher than supply and demand would merit.

Wines wizards of unreality will respond that those overall numbers don't really apply to the haute-appellation wines of Napa and Sonoma. More bullfeathers!

This wine, Castello Da Vinci, is a negociant bottle, filled with a Bordeaux blend from Napa Valley's trendiest appellations. The highly, highly respected winery that made the wine sold it for more than $100 per bottle. But they had 30,000 gallons of it they couldn't sell. So it was shopped on the bulk market for about. Some of it ended up in the Castello Da Vinci bottle and sold for $25. About $5 of that went for wine. Another $3 for the label, bottle and all other costs.

Napa is not immune no matter how must they protest.

DISCLOSURE: Castello Da Vinci is my own wine, created by for a character in my current novel, Perfect Killer. Sourcing the wine on the bulk market confirmed everything I had known anecdotally about prices and the availability of very fine wines.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Planets -- Book Review

This is my original draft. The edited review was published in Barron's on Nov. 7, 2005.

The Planets
, By Dava Sobel, $24.95, 288 Pages, Viking Adult, New York, ISBN: 0670034460

More imagination has been lavished on Mars than any other planet in our solar system -- from "War of the Worlds" to mass fascination with canals, and fantasies of little green men (and women, one must presume). I admit being caught up in that during the summer of 1967 which I spent as a budding rocket scientist at the Westinghouse plant in Horseheads, NY, hand-building solar flux measurement instrument tubes for the Mariner 6 and 7 Mars flyby satellites. It's a miracle the tubes worked, because my attention kept wandering off by a billion miles or so as I imagined what these pieces I had laid hands on would find when the Martian Canals came into view.

Dava Sobel's Planets resurrected all those archival memories in a daringly experimental mix of writing styles seeking to capture the feel of the planets rather than create one more scientific icecap of data lists and telemetry.

Sobel's first-person narrative of Mars, writing from the viewpoint of "Allan Hills 84001," a Martian meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984, works very well in leading the lay reader on an effortlessly educational jaunt that could easily have become a thicket of scientific jargon in the hands of a lesser writer.

"The collision that launched my journey dug a hole in Mars several miles wide," Sobel's narrative explains. "Astronomers think they have identified that particular crater on satellite images of mars near a small valley in the southern highlands .... As a Martian from a heavily cratered region, I was acquainted with meteorite strikes and in fact, already bore a fracture scar from having been crushed and reheated in a previous impact."

From such easily approachable prose as this, we learn about the meteoroid, which arrived 16 million years ago complete with a payload of biological fossils and a chemical composition that mirrored the Martian surface.

Scientifically trained readers will find no new trove of facts, but Sobel's unique series of presentations offer the ability to understand and appreciate the solar system in an aesthetic and creative way. In addition, she creates for the reader a significant sense of context by weaving a James Burke-esque fabric of historical, political, mythological, and literary references.

Not everything in The Planets is a planet. The book begins with the Sun (a star) and ends with Pluto (an overgrown asteroid or perhaps a planetesimal). In between we have all the usual suspects along with a smattering of moons, rings and a wonderful detour through the age-old connection among geometry, astronomy and music.

Pythagoras, Sobel writes, was the first to connect "'geometry in the humming of the strings' and 'music in the spacing of the spheres'." She leads us through Plato's "music of the spheres" through the Copernican "ballet of the planets," and right into the work of legendary astronomer Johannes Kepler who, in 1599, "derived a C major chord by equating the relative velocities of the planets with the intervals on a stringer instrument."

She finishes off this thread with Gustav Holst's popular symphony, "The Planets" which presaged World War I when he wrote the first suite, "Mars, the Bringer of War," in July 1914.

This web of connections illustrates the remarkable breadth and depth of Sobel's writing and is sure to offer both the hardest scientist and the rankest amateur new and creative ways of looking at the night sky.

But not everything in Sobel's experimental writing quiver works. Or perhaps, more correctly, not everything will work all the time for every reader. Her literary references – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, C,S, Lewis, Oliver Wendell Holmes and many others – frequently set the tone of the surrounding prose, as if Sobel felt bound to emulate their style and pacing. What seems poignant or significant in the short quotes can grow tediously anachronistic if continued for page after page. "Night Air," the chapter on Neptune and Uranus, was the toughest for me to read, but should be a hit among fans of Jane Austen.

This is by way of saying that, there will be readers who will like "Night Air" the best and my favorites the worst. Each of the chapters is well written, but likeability will be a matter of taste.

In a day of scrapple-sausage writing, ground down to the lowest common denominator and written to fill a financially budgeted number of pages, Sobel deserves credit for having the courage to experiment and her publisher for making that experimentation available to readers.

As a former scientist decades ago turned to writing, I particularly appreciated Planets because it hollows out some daydreaming space among the facts and fosters a sense of imagination and wonder -- a right-brained oasis that could have been lost under the avalanche of data and left-brained logic. Sobel shows the reader why the imagination to dream is at least as important as the ability to reach out and touch the stars.