May 22, 2006
"The Da Vinci Code" - Review and Commentary (SPOILERS BELOW)
Anyone who's had prolonged contact with me has probably encountered my loathing for Dan Brown at one point or another. The best way to describe his characters would be "academic Ubermenschen" - the fair haired boys from Cambridge using their Harvard noggins to outwit their scheming yet bafflingly incompetent adversaries at every turn. No problem is too difficult for the massive intellect of a Harvard man - if a code needs breaking, a clue needs solving, an enemy needs outwitting - it's all there as long as you can dredge up some obscure fact you heard in a lecture 20 years ago. GO CRIMSON!
Thankfully, it's almost impossible to translate that into the cinematic version of The Da Vinci Code - which does much to set this film along its solidly average trajectory. It's a thriller - there's a beautiful woman, a relentless police agency, some mysterious murders, and a long-ago conspiracy. All the boxes are checked. But we didn't endure all of the marketing and the controversy and pay $9.00 to watch Hollywood boilerplate... would we?
Naturally, the film tries to break out of the stereotype by piling on the gravitas - in this case, the shocking, SHOCKING revelation that Jesus actually married Mary Magdalene, creating an earthly bloodline rather than existing in the truly divine. A patriarchy took over the Church in the early years and used the Divine Jesus myth to control the world while covering up his humanity by oppressing women for two millenia. We're made aware of this in a lengthy dialogue/flashback by Ian McKellen - his character's research into the Holy Grail timeline is so impeccable that one wonders why the piece of evidence the whole movie centers around is actually neccesary to his case. (Seems rather cumbersome to plotch all that explication into one extended scene, but what do I know - I only went to a lesser Ivy).
After all, it's not like people haven't been going around saying the exact same thing for the last two decades - in open forums and in bestselling books. Yet I don't see albino assassins going around shooting people with one bullet, thus allowing them to spend hours constructing elaborate puzzles and anagrams while slowly bleeding to death. (OK, this part REALLY annoyed me about the book and movie... why didn't Sauniere just try to stop the bleeding or call the cops or something? For that matter, why didn't Silas just blow the guy's brains out after he got the info? And if the job was so important, why does Opus Dei spend $20 million getting an albino wearing monk's robes and sandals to do their wet work?)
I'm not being facetious here - we don't see that kind of crap outside of a few wackos because despite what Dan Brown would have us think, Christianity (especially the Protestant branches) is not defined by a literal interpretation of a holy book. I think most Christians view Jesus Christ as an allegory for the divine in every one of us. He gave us hope that personal belief rather than a specified set of rituals could lead to salvation.
Bottom line: Ours is a faith of not sweating the details. And that's why the film fails miserably at the "Why should I care?" test that it sets out for itself. The gravitas of the film is predicated on a very conservative view of Christian society - as if we haven't changed over the last two millenium. In Dan Brown's world we're the same ignorant rabble that was worshiping the Golden Calf at Sinai - clinging to our faith as if it was the only thing keeping us alive. We're not. I saw some of those people picketing the film today, but there were a lot more of us trying to buy tickets.
May 12, 2006
The A350 Enters the Autoclave
More interesting news from Toulouse - it seems that there are further knock-on effects from Airbus' focus on the A380. Even if the project turns out profitable (and that's a big if) they siphoned off too many engineers to get it out only a year late to be able to offer the airlines anything better than a warmed-over A330. Boeing tried this with the 767-400 project and it flopped big-time - Udvar-Hazy and the airlines themselves have warned that if they're going to be dropping $150 million for a brand new jet it had better be revolutionary.
Fortunately, government subsidy has given them the option of coming to market a mere four years after the 787, which could potentially offer some advantages given that the new jets are using non-metallic composites to a greater degree than ever. Boeing is making some pretty steep promises with respect to the maintainability advantages of the composite construction, which could backfire pretty badly on them.
One shouldn't make the mistake of writing off Airbus for being four years later to market - new technology can be very unpredictable when deployed in high-frequency airline environments. One historical example is the fate of the De Havilland Comet, the world's first jet airliner, which first flew in 1948. It should have been a world-beater but metal fatigue caused three aircraft to explosively decompress after a few years of usage. The Comet didn't fly again until 1958, at which point Boeing was flying the 707. We all know how that one turned out.
May 11, 2006
Interesting Article on the Boeing 787...
Here's an interesting piece on the Boeing 787 that I found in Sunday's New York Times - it remarks on the relative success of Boeing's "bet the company" project versus EADS' "bet the company" project. Not sure whether you got a copy of my analysis of the A380 project, but this piece hits most of the issues I've raised about point-to-point versus hub-spoke operations. Having sold more than twice as many in half the time as the A380 order book has been open, it seems like the 787 is a more compelling package to airlines.
Strategically, it seems like the midsize market was the obvious choice for Boeing anyway, because not only can you serve the "point-to-point" destinations, a medium-range 757 replacement can actually complement the A380 hub model. Remember, if A380s are adding more capacity between megahubs, there will be a need for similarly upsized "spoke" planes to get passengers to their final destinations.
I always thought the A380 was incredibly risky because it was a very niche market - the bigger the planes get, the fewer the city pairs that can support them. For this project every city-pair and every airline order is critical, which is really not where you want to be when you're spending $12 billion. In fact, something like 30% of the A380s are being sold in the Persian Gulf region - if oil prices drop the already-shaky project could rapidly snowball into a disaster.
Even though Boeing's project is technologically very risky, from a strategic point of view it makes sense. The 787 is much more of a commodity product that can withstand the loss of several customers or a recession in one part of the world.
May 5, 2006
When Your Godmother Hides the Brownies...
Lately I've been experimenting with different kinds of brownies ever since we got a big box from Sam's Club. The Hershey's brand advertises the presence of something like 6 Hershey's bars per 5-batch box, so we definitely had chocolate covered. Thought it might be a good idea to cut it with some other flavors.
My first attempt involved adding ground up orange rind into the batter the way that I'd seen Emeril Lagasse on his show. Unfortunately I didn't PVR the show to capture the technique - who would have thunk that you were supposed to leave the orange peel on the orange while using the grater? Grating my knuckles was actually really painful since the cirtric acid really does a number on you.
Fortunately the citric acid also cauterized the wound and nobody who ate the brownies noticed the taste of blood. All involved thought the orange flavor was definitely unique. Very encouraging, but since everybody liked that batch I decided to go in a different direction.
First off - Drs. Honesto and Estrella Poblete are not my godparents, but I treat them that way since being parents to three boys they assumed for 25 years that I (and not my sister Maria) was their godchild. Fair enough - back in 1979 when she was born my parents operated under the Filipino tradition of many ninogs but in late 1980 they'd been here long enough to only assign me two. Evens the score a bit.
In any case their daughter-in-law was having a new baby, so I thought it would be nice to try doing espresso brownies for the party. Although anyone who's spent time with Dr. Myrna Soriano knows his way around Starbucks, I'd never had espresso. More of a Frappucino fan. So I had to figure out what exactly goes into that stuff - Wikipedia was definitely my friend there. Figured out that the best technique was to run some regular coffee into a blender and make a "slurry" to introduce into the batter.
It's no secret that my mom would be first in line for brownies, so my first clue that these brownies were spectacular was that after having a taste of the scrapings from the pan, my dad the diabetic who never likes anything I cook anyway decided that these were worth an excursion into high blood sugar land. Very nice. But rather unsettling, because when I'm gone I rely on my dad to keep my mom away from sweet stuff and too much Diet Coke. I had to entrust my brownies to the two of them since I planned to visit the Pobletes after a 15 mile bike ride. 36 brownies is a little too heavy for my fanny pack, so they had to meet me at the party in a car.
Once we met at the Pobletes' I was happy to see that 34 brownies had survived the Sorianos. But after a bit of socializing I went to the dessert table and noted that all the brownies there were definitely non-espresso. Plain old chocolate is so 20th century. I asked Ninang Inday (my godmother) if I could borrow a plate to put my brownies there and she said that she'd hidden them in the refrigerator so that guests couldn't have them.
My brownies got a promotion to Poblete Private Reserve.
Now that's a great way to end a bike ride.
May 3, 2006
New pictures from the Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath
April 10, 2006
New pictures from my bike ride down the Fairmount Park Trail
April 3, 2006
Tracing Goldman Sachs/Google Fraud
Over the past few months I've been doing OK tracking Google's meteoric rise and fall, which is why the last week has been extremely interesting. As most financial actors no doubt know, Google recently got added to the S&P 500 and went up close to 60 points in the meantime. It was no surprise to see that somebody made $90 million writing puts 30 minutes before market close. Easy money if you've got the margin to do it, and a bit more subtle than buying calls.
What was surprising - and I honestly can't believe that somebody isn't raving for Eliot Spitzer at the moment - was the fact that two days after the addition was announced, Goldman Sachs advocated the riskiest "long" position ever (selling puts and using the money to buy calls). Yet the very next day, Goldman does a $2 billion secondary offering (that's questionable for seperate reasons) that kills the stock and causes a 70% decline in the extremely risky position advocated by their analysts.
If it can be imagined that this story gets any crazier, there is a sizable proportion of analysts who suggest that the offering is "non-dilutive" since the interest income off $2 billion would compensate for the extra shares. Sure. As if there would BE $2 billion if the share price wasn't insanely high. It's very bubble-like to suggest that firms can raise EPS simply by floating shares - the real implication is that the return on investment for new investors is less than the return on a time deposit.
April 1, 2006
Terminal Man Redux?
I used to be really skeptical about biochemical solutions to mental problems - the human brain is so complex that (1) it doesn't really do justice to the problem to distill it down to a single pill. Dousing your brain with chemicals is like repainting your entire house when somebody says that your trim looks a little faded. It's a blunt force one-size-fits-all solution to a very simple and disrete problem. Even if the chemical approach worked you get all sorts of unintended consequences anyway.
That's why this piece on Deep Brain Stimulation is so cool. Now that we have fMRI and all sorts of neat technology that can give us a more high-definition picture of the brain than simple psychological stimulation, neurologists can devise more targeted solutions to mental illnesses like Parkinson's and depression. By inserting electrodes at particular locations they can modulate the activity of overactive sectors of the brain, very much like Michael Crichton's Terminal Man, except without the murderous rampages (hopefully). Kind of like adding a pacemaker.
The pacemaker analogy is actually a little scary when you think about it - society is not well served by a population where everyone thinks within two standard deviations of the mean. Yet that argument could be made against all remedies for mental disorders - and in this world we're much better using DBS and leaving the majority of the neurons intact.
March 27, 2006
Market-based solutions are so cool.
I love this New York Times article about how idea markets are gradually taking hold as a business tool. The basic premise is that each person gets $10,000 to play in a fantasy market for "shares" in new products, money saving ideas, or any change in the way a firm runs itself. You can float shares or buy shares - the point is really to establish a sort of "market democracy" where people signal their interest in ideas that leadership might never have come up with.
The best part (and also the scariest part, IMO) is where the owners of the shares get part of the savings or profits if/when a product goes public. Could get hairy... but without some green stuff it's just another computer game. Wonder what the ground rules are?
March 24, 2006
Two ways to Save Abdul Rahman...
Not too thrilled to see Afghans going out and persecuting Christians only 4 years after we saved them from getting persecuted by fellow Muslims. Apparently the toleration the Qu'ran requires from the Faithful doesn't extend to letting people choose their religion.
To their credit, Mr. Rahman is actually being tried instead of hauled out and killed -it's fortunate that we did leave Afghanistan with the rule of law, if nothing else. I actually see a couple of ways that Abdel Rahman could worm his way out of this hole.
1) He could point out that the usual guidelines for apostasy actually don't exclude following Christian traditions. The main guidelines in Islam apparently aren't how you refer to God as much as whether you believe that there's only one of them and that He's the one who created the earth. It's a problem for Hindu or Buddhist converts but there's no problem between Christians and Muslims. Same thing about Muhammed - it's fair to say that Muhammed existed in the same world as we did, and since he did his thing in 632 we can be pretty confident that there were no other Prophets since then.
2) He could also point out that at the time he converted (15 years, two governments ago), the country wasn't under Shari'a law - in fact, there was no law during the civil war. The current system was't in place then; it would be crazy to apply the law retroactively.
March 21, 2006
Space Tourism - hypersonic airlines?
I'm not impressed by the economics of charging hundreds of thousands of dollars to give people seven minutes of weightlessness and a neat view. It just doesn't make any sense given the very limited supply of people with $200,000 burning a hole in their pocket. If Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic manage to fill up every spot on SpaceShip Two with paying passengers and launch twice a month (better than the Space Shuttle ever achieved), they'd clear about $9 million a year assuming that the margins were 30%. Not so good for an investment of $100 million. Plus you're assuming there's a market for putting 156 people into space a year, which anybody would agree is highly questionable.
However, it is notable that once you've gotten past most of the atmosphere and accelerated to Mach 4, it seems kind of a waste to burn off all that energy and return to the launch site. Why not just go whole hog and make the Virgin Galactic flights into the fastest, most exclusive airline experience that anyone has ever seen?
Naturally there are technical barriers to doing this - the current SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are not orbital vehicles yet, but they already take people higher and faster than ever before in a shirt sleeve environment. The first firm to master the art of transporting untrained civilians into space can tap into the far greater volume of people needing to get someplace really fast.
A daily hypersonic trip between, say, Los Angeles and Tokyo with a 20-passenger vehicle would almost certainly gross more than $100 million annually. You'd only need one airframe to do the run - heck, if it was even half as reliable as a 747 (if it could fly for 4 hours in a 24-hour period the way the Concorde flies) you could would only need one airframe to transport passengers from New York to London to Tokyo to Los Angeles and back to New York in the same day, which comes out to $400 million gross to operate two planes on four routes.
Good work if you can get it.
March 21, 2006
Tried some Classical Music This Time
Classical music is a little more difficult than techno for slideshow-type videos - the beat is actually more complex so syncing up is a challenge. Here's a quick 1-minute video I made from some pictures I took at The Gates last year, set to Haydn's Symphony #1.