Chit Chat

It’s always nice, when you head off to the weekend’s dinner and cocktail parties, to have a few timely comments prepared to drop into those inevitable lulls in conversation. Herewith, then, in what I hope will become a regular weekly feature, are 10 items guaranteed to make your dinner-party interlocutors nod and say, “How interesting.” In the unlikely event they ask follow-up questions, I suggest a diversionary tactic along the lines of, “Actually, in a sense the real issue is …” followed by a shift toward your own particular area of expertise. And in the very unlikely–but happy–event that the person you’re speaking to starts reciting these very same items, smile broadly at each other, for you’ll know that both of you are the few, the proud, the Slate readers.

1. “The real story of American Home Products’ acquisition of Monsanto is that European biotech giant Novartis may have lost the chance to become a real player in genetically engineered crops. Novartis has spent so much time thinking about making a deal that it’s ended up not making any deals at all.”

2. “McDonald’s stock is now up 40 percent since the beginning of the year. I know the combination of the brand and the franchising set-up amount to a cash-flow machine, but if I had any guts I think I’d short the stock.”

3. “Geraldine Laybourne–you know, she used to head up Nickelodeon before she went to Disney–is leaving Disney to start what amounts to an Internet TV studio centered around programming for women and children. She seems to think the Internet offers a wonderful opportunity for the kind of programming she’s interested in creating. Imagine that idea: Original content as a real source of revenue on the Internet? How could she be so foolish?”

4. “If you want to know why venture capitalists are willing to invest a few million dollars in companies that have no revenues, look at what happened to Ciena, the high-end maker of fiber-optic transmission equipment. Five years ago, Ciena was just a minuscule firm with a very cool idea. This week, it was bought for $7 billion by Tellabs, and Tellabs didn’t overpay. And if you had been a VC on the ground floor, you would have made more than a hundred times your money back.”

5. “Speaking of that Monsanto-American Home Products deal, apparently co-CEOs are the newest fad in American business. Doesn’t anyone remember what happened at Time Warner with Steve Ross and Nick Nicholas?”

6. “I really thought Tuesday’s little market rally was just a dead-cat bounce. But after Thursday it looks like those tech stocks may be okay for a little while longer?” (Adjust this comment appropriately if the Nasdaq plunges today.)

7. “Have you seen Titanic yet?”

8. “I realize this is not a recent phenomenon, but every time I look at the ratings for the major television networks I’m stunned. On a typical night, the percentage of people aged 18-49 who are watching network television is less than 30 percent. Think about it: About as many people watched Who’s the Boss? in the 1980s as watched Seinfeld this past year.”

9. “Time Warner and NBC may not want to be frozen out of the NFL sweepstakes, but the economics of starting a brand-new football league–which they’re thinking about doing–are just preposterous, unless they want it to be the equivalent of Arena Football. Especially with salaries where they are today, there’s no way new franchises could afford to sign real NFL players and still make money, and without one or two high-priced players, fans just won’t come.”

10. “It looks like the market is stuck in a trading range.”

I would actually counsel against using the last comment unless you’re really desperate, because it’s completely vacuous. On the other hand, it’s the kind of thing that people on CNBC say all the time, so it might very well be a big conversational hit. Bon chance!