Competing for Eyeballs: An Alternative to Shock Tactics

Delray Beach, FL.- The cover story of last week’s The New York Times Magazine featured this headline: “My Cousin Was My Hero. Until the Day He Tried to Kill Me.”

Catchy, for sure. But it’s a headline you’d expect to see in a tabloid, not The New York Times.  Was this an anomaly?

I don’t think so. The language of the most respected brands of mainstream media has been changing in recent years. It’s getting bolder. More sensationalistic. And more prone to exaggeration.

It happened first in the various supplemental services that so many newspapers and magazines offer online. In that arena, they have to compete with the alternative press for attention. And often the best way to get that attention is by posting sensational headlines.

Once they entered the competition, it was only a matter of time before their standards would adjust from traditional notions of propriety to “whatever works.”

I’m very aware of this pressure. As a consultant to the alternative media (which makes its money by subscription and not advertising), I’ve seen countless test results proving that provocative subjects and alarming and tantalizing headlines will beat the hell out of sober issues and sensible headlines every day of the week.

As a copywriter I know once said in an interview about his own sensationalistic copy: “At one point, I came to the conclusion that what I was doing was slightly manipulative. And yet it was working so well and making me so much money. I had a choice: Change the copy or change my ethics. I decided to change my ethics.”

Is this a bad thing?

I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the idea of having standards – for the sake of the writers as well as the readers. It has a civilizing effect. On the other hand, once the advantages of monopoly disappear and a publisher must compete in an open market, it’s going to be very difficult to stay profitable unless you are able to use the same techniques and strategies as your competition.

In the long run, I don’t think it will do much harm. Writers will become more pragmatic in choosing the topics they want to write about. (They will move to what’s hot, topical, and controversial.) At the same time, they will get more skillful at writing headlines. As a result, readers will become accustomed to hyperbole and sensationalism and thus become less responsive to it. When that happens, perhaps there will be a growing market for serious topics and sober headlines.

Perhaps.

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How NOT to Do an Interview

 

Friday, May 17, 2019

 

Delray Beach, FL.- If you have any ambitions of doing a podcast, you will eventually need to learn how to do a good interview.

Of the many skills involved in podcasting, you’d think interviewing was the least difficult:

  1. Pick a topic (question/argument/myth) your audience cares about.
  2. Invite an expert on that subject to talk with you.
  3. Ask him questions.
  4. Publish the podcast.

If your goal is to publish ordinary interviews that are pretty much guaranteed to bore your audience, this formula is sufficient. But if you want to use the podcast to grow not only your immediate audience but your brand in the industry, there is one more step you must take: You must learn how to conduct a GOOD interview.

 

Think about all the podcast interviews you’ve listened to over the years. What percent of them were really good? A third? A quarter? My answer: less than 10%.

 

Recently, I was copied on an exchange between Master Copywriter Bob Bly and JB (an entrepreneur whom I don’t know). The subject was a series of interviews Bob had conducted as part of the Gene Schwartz Graduate Course on Marketing.

 

JB said:

 

I loved the course and I think a big reason was the way you conducted the interviews.

 

I’m used to modern podcasts where the hosts ask uninteresting questions and then butt in right when the guest is about to say something interesting. You were the exact opposite. You asked interesting questions, let the guests speak when they had something good to say, and followed up when there was more for them to say.

 

So I wanted to say thank you. This was a great course, and you helped make it happen.

 

JB is right about Bob Bly. He’s an expert interviewer. And as an expert, he does indeed ask interesting questions and let his guests speak.

 

But what, exactly, is an interesting question? I’m sure that all of those mediocre podcasters out there think their questions are interesting. How are Bob’s different? And better?

 

And what about this idea of letting your guests speak? Who doesn’t do that?

 

This isn’t going to be a full lesson on how to conduct a great interview. Nor am I going to answer those questions fully. But I’d like to give you a few of my thoughts on this topic that may be helpful if and when you have the opportunity to interview someone for publication.

 

Don’t Be Stupid!

 

Whenever I mentor writers, I give them a little speech about “the three deadly sins of creativity.” These are three common human frailties that, when given into, make otherwise good writing mediocre crap.

 

The first deadly sin is ignorance – writing on a subject about which you know very little. You might understand it superficially, from the outside. But the most important aspects of anything worth studying are usually internal things hidden from superficial analysis.

 

When it comes to conducting interviews, writers often act like ignorance is perfectly okay. “I may know very little about this person or what they do,” they think. “But that’s okay. In fact, it’s good, because I’ll be able to get clarification on everything simply by asking questions.

 

We all know what happens when a writer conducts that sort of interview. She asks the most obvious questions and gets the most obvious answers. After two or three Q&As, the reader senses that he’s hearing nothing new and stops reading.

 

To ask the sort of “interesting” questions JB was talking about above, the writer must have a fairly wide and deep understanding of both the interviewee and the subject matter before he turns on the microphone.

 

How does he do that?

 

Don’t Be Lazy!

 

The second deadly sin is related to the first. It is the sin of laziness. It is probably the most common sin of not just all writers but all creative workers in every field. It’s the deadly sin I’m most guilty of. And it’s the most common deficiency I see in the writers I coach.

 

When it comes to interviewing, being lazy is about research and preparation. When preparing for an interview, for example, it’s not enough to speed-read the interviewee’s latest book and a few online critiques. You have to read other books and research her biography and speak to a few friends and colleagues.

 

To put a number on it, you should be prepared to put in about five minutes of research for every minute of the interview. And unless the interview is live, you should spend two to three minutes talking for every minute of the final product. Lazy writers won’t do this. If they are smart and quick thinkers, they can sometimes get away with their lack of preparation. They are able to produce B-level products by being clever and avoiding the obvious questions. Natural intellectual gifts can get you a passing grade in life, but if you want excellence, they are inefficient.

 

Don’t Be Prideful!

 

The third deadly sin for writers is pride.

 

Thomas Merton, one of my favorite poets, said that pride makes us “artificial” and that humility makes us “real.” When I first read that, I didn’t understand what he meant. Now I think I do.

 

Being proud of what you have or what you’ve accomplished seems like a perfectly natural and even healthy emotion. But life teaches us that these possessions and accomplishments are ephemeral. Standing on your pride may provide some temporary feeling of self-worth. But when pride takes its fall, and it always does, self-worth crashes down along with it.

 

The purpose of an interview is to discover secrets, stories, and life lessons from a conversation with the interviewee. To get beyond the surface and be able not only to ask interesting questions but to get honest and interesting answers, the interviewer must do three things.

 

First, he must demonstrate to his interlocutor that he has done his homework in terms of researching his background and his accomplishments. This signals that the interviewer cares enough about the subject to put in that work.

 

Second, the interviewer must spend some time thinking seriously about the subject’s background and accomplishments. His thinking must be focused on trying to understand the subject’s particular genius and his ethics – what he thinks is important.

 

Third, the interviewer must find something in his research that he genuinely admires about the subject. And he must tell the subject that – genuinely – in the beginning of the interview.

 

The combination of doing all three things demonstrates, quite clearly, that the interviewer appreciates the interviewer’s background and his accomplishments. The interviewer indicates that he is a sympathetic listener.

 

All of this amounts to one thing: In preparing for and conducting the interview, the interviewer must put himself below the interviewee. He does not have to artificially pretend he’s a fan if he is not. But he must be wiling to subsume his pride. To humble himself. To be able to ask the sort of questions that will make the subject feel he is at least understood and appreciated, if not admired.

 

One very popular podcaster is virtuous in regards to ignorance and laziness. He knows his subjects and their work and it’s clear that he’s done his homework. But when it comes to the third deadly sin, he fails. He seems unable to ask a simple question. He must pose it two or three different ways, as if he thinks his audience enjoys hearing him say the same thing over and over again. The other thing he does is interrupt the subject constantly. As if, again, he feels like his audience is more interested in his ideas than the subject’s. I actually find myself embarrassed as I listen to him. “I don’t care how smart you are,” I find myself thinking. “I want to know how smart the subject is!”

 

So these are some quick thoughts on how to prepare for and conduct good interviews. Put in the work needed to understand the subject’s background and his accomplishments at a reasonably deep level. Spend some time thinking about what matters to him. And all the while, and especially during the interview, keep in mind that it’s not you that the audience has come to learn about, but the subject.

 

Work hard to be knowledgeable. Be humble. And you will find that the audience will be truly interested in both your questions and the subject’s answers. Your podcasts will rise above the mediocre. They will be genuinely GOOD.

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Are You Ready for the Next Stock Market Meltdown?

 

Thursday, May 16, 2019

 

Delray Beach, FL.- How comfortable do you feel about your stock portfolio?

 

A few weeks ago, Bill Bonner posted a warning on his blog – an essay titled “We’re Raising the Crash Flag.”

 

Bill has always understood economics better than I do. He’s intellectually attracted to big ideas and “connecting the dots,” as he puts it. I like to think of myself as his Charlie Munger, but I’m not sure I am. I am familiar with Buffett’s ideas. I have no idea what Charlie thinks.

 

In any case, my aim in understanding economics is lower than Bill’s. I don’t really care to understand how it works at a deep level. I just want to understand enough to avoid making stupid mistakes.

 

On a micro level, avoiding mistakes in the market is not that difficult. Buy mostly large, profitable companies that have a long-term history of paying dividends. And don’t speculate.

 

But on a macro level, avoiding mistakes is a bit more difficult.

 

When the economy goes bad (and all economies sooner or later go bad), the stock market goes bad too. And it can stay bad for an awfully long time.

 

So even if you own only good companies, you can see the value of your stock portfolio tank severely every now and then – and in rarer cases, stay down for years and years.

 

In my lifetime as an investor, I’ve seen several serious bear markets. Had I been able to predict them, I would surely have cashed out my stocks and moved into cash and gold. Which is what Bill does.

 

But since I’ve never had a crystal ball, I’ve never tried to time the market. And while that was not as profitable as it would have been to correctly play the future, it was, in retrospect, a lot better than pulling out.

 

There are lots of studies proving just about every imaginable thesis on investing. I’ve looked at enough of them to know that if it were possible to time the markets, it would take someone much smarter than I.

 

So my strategy has always been to buy great stocks and hold on to them. And when the crashes come, to buy more of them when their prices are, by value standards, historically cheap.

 

That said, it worries me when Bill puts out a warning about an imminent market crash. If he’s right – and eventually, he certainly will be right – it means that I’m going to see my stock portfolio descend by millions and millions of dollars.

 

That won’t be a good feeling. And I can understand that if I converted my stocks to cash today and a market collapse occurred next week, I’d feel very good about that decision.

 

But I don’t know for certain that the market will crash any time soon. So for the time being, my strategy is going to be as follows:

 

Avoid speculative stocks.

 

There are all sorts of reasons to a believer that certain speculative stocks might prevail in the coming years – e.g., Uber. But as of right now, the company is unprofitable. And that means, in my simple way of looking at it, that it is a speculation. If I’m going to speculate, I’d rather invest money in a fledgling business in an industry I know (such as direct response marketing) or in a business I can have some control over (as a founder, for example) than in a company like Uber, about which I know only what I read in the financial press.

 

Hold tight with my buy-up-to parameters.

 

My rule for buying stock is based on a simple metric: 10- to 20-year historical price-to-earnings ratio. When the stock market is generally overpriced, these ratios are very high. It becomes difficult if not impossible to buy stock in businesses, regardless of how great I think a particular business’s prospects are.

 

I just met with Dominick, my advisor at Raymond James, to go over the P/E ratios of my core stocks (the Legacy Portfolio), and only a handful were priced “right” according to the formula we follow. I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I was pleased. It meant that the cash I have been accumulating from dividends and from my active income will be put into cash and income-producing real estate, assets that should maintain their value or appreciate even if the market drops by 50%.

 

Buy gold?

 

The last time Bill sent out a warning like this (it was prior to the 2008 crash), I started to buy gold. I bought a good deal of it at an average price of less than $500. That was a good contrarian move, and I have Bill to thank for it. But the amount of gold coins I own now is more than sufficient for “survival” purposes. And since gold is not a business and does not produce income, I won’t treat it like an investment. I have enough. I won’t buy more.

 

Stockpile cash.

 

Dominick agrees with me that Bill’s thinking, on a macro-economic level, is sound. He gave me reasons why his company believes that we are still in a long-term secular bull market that will endure, with ups and downs, for many years – so long as interest rates stay low. And we both think (as Bill has pointed out) that the Fed is going to do everything it can to keep rates as low as they possibly can.

 

Of course, Trump’s crazy trade-war strategy is not good for the economy and it is very dangerous for the stock market. If all things were equal, he would settle his dispute with China quickly to bring back a sense of optimism to Wall Street. But I don’t think he cares as much about that as he does getting reelected. And since he’s already been saying that the Fed will be responsible for any future financial collapse, he has something he can talk about if it happens.

 

Meanwhile, the idiocy of the trade war is beyond the intellectual scope of his core supporters. So he might continue with it through the next elections. And if he does, we might see another collapse of as much as 50%. If that happens, I told Dominick, all of our Legacy Stocks should be trading at prices that are historically super-cheap. And if they get there, I’ll have a stockpile of cash ready for buying.

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18 Things You Absolutely Should Know About Investing in Art

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

 

Delray Beach, FL.- Ah, Gabriela! My middle school crush. Her father, Eric Albreicht, an eminent art critic, had lined every wall of their home with beautiful paintings.

 

The walls of our house were lined with books. (Books were also piled high on every surface and held up one leg of the dining room table.) My mother, a close friend of Eric’s, was an art lover too. But she could afford only reproductions.

 

When, some 29 years later, I began to buy art, I bought it for the love of my mother’s intelligence and for the standard of beauty that Gabriela’s father had set for me.

 

Collecting for love and beauty is a perfectly defensible motive. But as my purchases ran into the hundreds, I began thinking of art as an investment.

 

I’ve been buying art for more than 40 years. I have owned and run five galleries and have a current collection of more than 1000 pieces. And though I still buy for love and beauty, I temper my enthusiasm by following a set of guidelines I’ve developed along the way.

 

  1. Art has no intrinsic value. Its value is determined entirely by the market.

 

  1. The most important factor in the current value of a work of art is the reputation of the artist among market insiders.

 

  1. The most important factor in the future value of a work of art is the artist’s prominence in art history books. Next is the importance of the museums that display his/her work. Third is the number of corporations and wealthy individuals that own it.

 

  1. From a value perspective, when you are buying established dead artists you are buying historical artifacts.

 

  1. The fine art market has very little resemblance to the financial markets. It is smaller, more controlled, and less regulated. In terms of participants – brokers, buyers, and critics – it is very small. In terms of dollar values, it is quite large. (The most recent figure I found valued the global art market at almost $64 billion!)

 

  1. Contrary to other assets, diversifying does not increase safety with fine art. Specialization does. It’s better to collect 100 pieces by one artist you admire than one piece by each of 100 different artists.

 

  1. Evaluating individual pieces of art is easier now that auction records are available online.

 

  1. The factors that matter most in valuation are: artist, medium, size, rarity, and style/period.

 

  1. Like most tangible assets, rarity and “quality” affect price appreciation. The “better” pieces typically outpace ordinary pieces by a considerable degree.

 

  1. As a general rule, oils are more valuable than acrylics… acrylics are more valuable than gouaches… gouaches are more valuable than crayon and ink pieces… crayon and ink pieces are more valuable than ink pieces… and ink pieces are more valuable than pencil sketches.

 

  1. “Buy what you like” is bad advice for the new investor. That’s because what they like is not typically what they like after they have been in the game for a dozen years.

 

  1. The touted 10% historic return for fine art is contrived. The actual return for most investors and collectors is probably closer to the rate of inflation.

 

  1. That said, if you can afford to buy “museum quality” art, it’s quite possible to earn 10% overall. I’ve done as well or better in the last 30 years. (Not so well in the first 10.)

 

  1. To maximize profit and minimize risk, buy the most representative examples of the best-known artists you can afford.

 

  1. Start slowly, investing in just one to three artists. Stay with them forever if you want. If you wish to expand your collection horizontally, move slowly.

 

  1. Constantly upgrade your collection. When you have the chance, sell two or three lower-quality works to purchase a single higher-quality one.

 

  1. Art has three distinct financial and estate management advantages: It is portable. It is transportable. And for the most part it is non-reportable.

 

  1. If you don’t take daily aesthetic pleasure in your art, you are missing most of its value. In other words, if you aren’t in it for love and beauty in addition to asset growth, you are better off with stocks.
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My Partner Is Much Richer Than I Am – So Why Don’t I Invest Like He Does?

Sunday, May 12, 2019

 

Delray Beach, FL.- Bill Bonner (partner/mentor/friend) made a massive fortune by investing 80% of his time and money in a single business. He is a cautious investor. But he’s also – from my perspective – a very courageous and committed investor. He sticks to one thing.

 

I’ve made my fortune, less impressive than Bill’s, by hedging my bets. I invest 80% of my time but less than half of my investible income on my main business. The rest is in proven, income-producing assets that grow without much prodding from me.

 

I don’t regret investing the way I do. Had I followed Bill’s path, my net worth might have been only a fraction of what it is today.

 

It comes down to this: To my mind, the most important factor in investment success has to do with psychology. Not the market’s insane psychology, but my own. That’s what I was thinking while reading an interview with Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business, in Forbes recently.

 

I liked this bit particularly:

 

I tell people that the person you have to understand best to be a good investor is yourself. It’s not enough to understand what Warren Buffett does and [what] Peter Lynch does. It might surprise people, [but] I spend very little time reading investment books…

 

We live in a Google Search world. People think that if they search long enough, they can [find] answers to their questions, when in fact what they need to do is to stop and think about the questions and think through their answers.

 

We need to own our own investment philosophies. We need to think through what we think about markets.

 

If you have a deep understanding of macroeconomics, the investment markets, and you are a courageous and committed investor, you should invest the way Bill does. But if you have only a superficial understanding of those worlds and limited confidence, you may be better taking my approach: Work your ass off, focus on income, favor investments that you understand, and employ the three cardinal rules of investment safety: diversification, position sizing, and stop-loss strategies.

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Career Doubts and Regrets: Here’s How to Eliminate Them

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- A friend and former protégé, who went off to start his own very successful business, wrote me a while back. He said:

Today I find myself wealthier than ever before. And I suppose freer than ever… yet I find myself terribly unfulfilled. As I look back on these last seven years, I’ve learned and grown a great deal. Yet sometimes I feel I squandered prime years of my life in exchange. 

 I used to do daring things, unique things, (mildly) impressive things. Now I feel mired in a milquetoast existence that slowly rusts my soul away.

 I feel rather like old Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem. Who knew I would be feeling this way at 40 instead of 80.

Then he asked:

When looking back, was there ever a major decision that you wish you would have made differently?

And here’s what I said:

I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you on this. I wanted to turn it into an essay, but I did three drafts and didn’t like any of them. So I’m going to make this short and sweet.

I think the question behind the question is whether I think it’s possible to have your cake and eat it too.

Based on my experience, the answer is yes.

When we’re young, we have exciting dreams about the future that affect us deeply. As we settle into relatively mundane careers, we can ignore our youthful fantasies and even forget them. But they are based on strongly held values that eventually come back to haunt us. In your case, it was the desire to be an adventurer. For me, I always wanted to be a writer and a teacher and a Renaissance man. And even though it turned out that the driving force of my adult life was all about making money, I was able to scratch those idealistic itches.

I never gave up my day job, but I did find ways to become a writer (by starting ETR and then using it to write many books) and by using that to teach people what I knew about business and wealth building. I also managed to scrape out time to learn three languages and make three movies and climb Mount Kilimanjaro and stay married and father three children and collect art and develop a real estate portfolio, etc.

I did almost all of those things after I turned 40.

So that’s one answer…

The other answer is that I have, over many years, developed an attitude that is a mix of Stoicism and Existentialism. I believe that I have the freedom to choose my fate. More importantly, I believe that although I had a deep desire to be a writer, teacher, and Renaissance man, those pursuits in themselves had no value except the value I willed to them. Recognizing that they had no intrinsic value was very liberating. It allowed me to forgive myself for falling short on achieving them. (For example, I’ll probably never teach at Harvard.) It also allowed me to willfully value the work I have done as a businessman. And once I began to do that, I was able to truly enjoy and feel fulfilled by it.

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This Is Why I Can’t Stop Teaching/Writing

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Delray Beach, FL.- I met TR maybe 10 years ago. He came to the only seminar I ever gave on entrepreneurship. It was expensive – 10 or 25 grand for three days. (Can’t remember.) It was designed for people that were already in business.

He was a practicing doctor, trying to build a series of clinics in order to promote his ideas about preventative medicine and to, well, you know, get rich.

He did.

He recently sent me an update: His clinic business was up to $40 million in revenues with 20 clinics and 450 team members operating in four states.

He said:

I just spent 4 days with AS [an internet marketing superstar]. I was with him because I wrote a new book and I’m trying to figure out how to publish and promote it, so went to see what he does. He told me that you don’t know it, but you changed his life. Made me wonder how many people would say the same thing, including me.    

That’s what keeps me going.

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Okay, I May Go Broke – but That’s Fine With Me

Friday, April 26, 2019

Los Angeles, CA.- We were talking about buying another building to accommodate a growing employee base. NM made the case for it, but BW was reluctant. He suggested we wait six months to give the stock market time to crash. “We’ll have a better idea of what space we need after that,” he suggested.

I have no doubt that the market will crash. I have no doubt that the USA will have to pay for its trillions and trillions of dollars’ worth of public and private debt. I just don’t know when or how it will happen. Will it be a crash followed by a depression? Or inflation? And if inflation, will it be a long period of moderate increases or a short period of Zimbabwe-like inflation?

Because of reasons I’ll get to in a minute, I am not much worried about this eventuality. My inclination was to buy. And so I sent NM and BW this note:

I once talked to a billionaire real estate investor at a cocktail party. I tried to impress him by asking him if the secret was buying right. He said that his secret was to “just keep buying.”

 “When I look back at all the properties I bought,” he said, “I can identify those I felt were well and badly priced at the time. But after 40 years, I can see that I made as much or more on the overpriced properties as I did on the underpriced ones.”

 Maybe he was trying to throw me off, but I have incorporated one element of this idea into my thinking… that accumulating lots of properties is generally a good idea.

To which BW replied:

Yep… as long as you’re in the biggest financial boom the world has ever seen.

And then NM added:

That would not have been good strategy in Rome in 410 AD. 

Fair enough. As Nassim Taleb argues so forcefully in Fooled by Randomness,The Black Swan, and Antifragile, the most important events in life are the most difficult to predict. So, yes, just because the financial markets and our businesses have been growing nicely for so many years, it would be foolish to assume that there is little chance that things can’t collapse terribly in the future. Maybe next week!

Taleb’s concept of “antifragility” – the ability to not just survive but also benefit from random events, errors, and volatility– is his (sort of) solution to this problem. And one reason I don’t worry about financial collapse is because I’ve done everything I can think of to make my wealth antifragile.

Here’s the gist of the way I’ve structured my investments and allocated my assets:

Ninety-plus percent of the stocks I own are of companies that are likely to survive every sort of meltdown except perhaps a nuclear one. My debt portfolio is diversified. I own a small but diverse group of private, traditional businesses. The bulk of my real estate portfolio is in income-producing properties in various locations. I have my gold coins, an emergency fund, a start-over-again fund, and so on.

That gives me comfort.

But the main reason I’m not worried is because at a deeper level I don’t give a shit about how much money I have. I intend to protect and grow my wealth, but I don’t care if I do. Moreover, I’ve imagined myself losing some or even all of it and I’m okay with that, too.

I know that sounds like BS. It’s not. I prepared myself for being poor almost as long as I dreamed about being rich.

As a boy, I literally dreamed about it. And as an adolescent and young man, I attached those dreams to a willingness to spend afternoons and evenings doing odd jobs and even starting little businesses.

Eventually, my fantasies began to feel like fate.

But when, for example, I was working as a Peace Corps volunteer, I remember sitting on the porch of my 200-square-foot mud-walled shack in N’djamena, Chad. Our dog was barking at a monkey that had found shelter on a beam under the roof. Our garden was green and lovely. “One day,” I said to myself, “you will be rich. You will buy a big, expensive house, and you will want to believe that your life in that house is better than it is in this one. But it will not be.”

I was right. As soon as I could, I did buy a big, expensive house. (Over the years, I bought several of them.) And I was right, too, in predicting that my life would never be better than it was in that shack in Africa.

So here’s where I’m going with this…

I’m all for allocating your assets prudently to give yourself a reasonable amount of financial “antifragility” (as Nassim Taleb puts it). But it’s easier to make the right decisions about keeping your wealth if you have emotional antifragility as well. In other words, if you can detach yourself – as I have – from the desire to keep it.

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Ruminations of a Traveling Man

Monday, April 22, 2019

Atacama, Chile.- K and I have lived in or traveled to a shitload of countries. (I should buy a map and put pins in it.)

In terms of cost and benefit, there are only three ways to travel: Budget Immersion Style, Group Discount Style, and Andrew Harper Style. And I’ve done them all.

Budget Immersion Style: You are short on cash but big in spirit. You take the cheapest flight regardless of where it’s going because you know that every destination has equal potential.

You sleep on lumpy mattresses, eat food you’ve never tasted before, travel in buses with people holding chickens on their laps, drink the local whatever (because they are so insistent), and make a serious effort to speak the language.

Traveling this way allows you to understand, first hand, what is unique and wonderful about the local culture. (Like it or not, your budget requires you to be immersed in it.) The big payoff is the respect you develop for the way other people live.

Group Discount Style: You fly economy to all the usual cities, stay at hotels catering almost strictly to Americans, eat astonishingly bad American-esque cuisine, visit the tourist traps in herds, speak only English, and make friends only with other English speakers you don’t ever want to see again. Other than being able to say, “I’ve been to _________,” there is no personal gain.

Andrew Harper Style: You fly first-class, stay at charming (and first-class) inns and B&Bs that none of your friends have ever heard of. Every meal you eat is the best meal you’ve ever had. And you can do whatever you want to do because your guide is working as if he’s expecting a $500 tip. (And by the end of the trip, you’re happy to give it to him.)

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with Andrew Harper, you might want to get acquainted. He’s been writing a newsletter about travel for as long as I can remember. He’s curated many of our trips. And though very expensive, they’ve all been memorable.)

I spent the 1970s traveling Budget Immersion Style, and it was great. Back then, every country had its own character and customs that were distinctly foreign. Everything felt wonderfully alien – from the way people dressed to the cars they drove to the street signs to the way light switches worked to the shape and functionality of toilets. And, of course, no one except tour guides “spoke” English.

K and I spent our early married years traveling Group Discount Style, and it was terrible. But now, in my semi-retirement years, we’ve discovered travel Andrew Harper Style… and it’s pretty darn addicting.

My general rule for touring foreign cities (our favorite spots to visit are parks, museums, galleries, churches, cemeteries, and monuments) is to leave a site the moment you are bored. Resist the urge to see everything or even the “most important” things. You are going to forget 95% of what you learn anyway, so look at less but enjoy more.

K and I figured this out many years ago. For us, four days seems to be just enough to feel like we got to know a city without overstepping its welcome.

One thing I don’t like about touring today is the omnipresence of the worst of US culture. McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere. Every person under 30 dresses exactly as our young people do. Every city has a big, US-styled shopping mall. And every country has its version of hip-hop music. (Note to people worried about the end of American culture. It won’t happen because it is already ubiquitous. It’s not high culture… but, hey, it’s American.)

As I said, there are only three ways to travel. There are also only three types of tourists: urbanites, beach lovers, and mountaineers.

K and I live on the beach so we don’t vacation on the beach. That aside, I’m an urbanite and she’s a mountaineer. And the trip we’re on right now – in Chile – is a compromise.

We’ve been here for about a week, and it’s been Andrew Harper all the way.

We spent four days in Santiago. Then we flew north to the Atacama Desert for… well, for K to once again remind me how much more fit she is than I.

In Santiago, we stayed at El Singular, an elegant, unflashy but first-rate hotel in the heart of the old part of the city. If you go to Santiago Andrew Harper Style, stay there. The location is perfect for seeing what matters. The building, inside and out, is sophisticated. The bar and restaurant are first-rate. And the staff is sanguine and supremely attentive, as good as any hotel I’ve ever stayed at.

The city has 7 million people – about the same as New York. And like New York, it has a history of conquest and corruption dating back to the Indians. Also like New York, it’s a cosmopolitan mix of diverse neighborhoods and busy streets, of commerce and finance, of good eating and entertainment and shopping.

One thing Santiago doesn’t have is much in the way of art. I couldn’t find a single gallery that sold Matta, for example. And the main museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes, doesn’t even have a permanent collection on display.

In the Atacama Desert, we stayed at the safari-styled Awasi, a Relais & Chateaux luxury hotel. There are only 10 rooms and perhaps 40 employees. You get all the attention you want, but you never feel pestered.

Our guide, Marco, quickly figured out that K was the one he was going to have fun with. I explained to him that I’ve summited Mt. Kilimanjaro and so I’m done with uphill walking. I said I’d be more than happy to be left at any convenient spot where I could write and smoke my cigars while he and K explored the wilderness. That was fine with him, but K wouldn’t have it. I begrudgingly went along on every other trek and, of course, loved it.

We also spent a day in Valparaiso, which has a vibrant amateur arts and crafts scene, including lots of painting on walls – tagging and graffiti, as well as murals. Tagging is the practice of spray-painting one’s “signature” to mark one’s territory. It is crude, inwardly centered, and ugly. Graffiti takes tagging into the realm of folk art by displaying ingenuity and skill. Mural painting is real art. It is outward-centered, intended for the viewer. Somehow, taggers understand this. Rarely do you see a mural defaced by tagging.

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit the houses of writers and artists. And we’ve been able to do some of that here. Pablo Neruda’s homes in Santiago, Valparaiso, and Isla Negra, for example, are wonderful composites of architecture, interior décor, art, artifacts, and curiosities. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of his poetry (I’m still trying), seeing them will make you wish you had been his friend.

All of the Chileans I’ve met on this trip – so far, at least –  have a surprising sense of identity. They see themselves as descendants of the original Indians (before the Incas even) rather than the offspring of the Spaniards. But, in fact, many of them are probably more Spanish than Indian since the Spanish wiped out nearly all the locals during the conquest.

And though I’m sure there are Chileans that admire Donald Trump, I haven’t met one yet.

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Binge Out!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Atacama, Chile.- The language police have struck again. According to Dictionary.com, I’m not allowed to describe my bouts of overeating chocolate kisses or over-watching Netflix as “binging.”

The dictionary opines: “When most of us use phrases like binge-watch or gag me with a spoon, we aren’t trying to cause harm. However, our willingness, inadvertent or not, to treat eating disorders, their symptoms, and their vocabulary as a joke means that the 30 million people in the US who suffer from some form of an eating disorder can feel stigmatized, made to feel like their conditions aren’t serious.”

There is method behind this madness, and it’s all about money:

Take a bad habit (i.e., binge eating), give it a clinical-sounding name (binge eating disorder), give that an acronym (BED), register it as a mental illness, get health insurance to cover it, and – bingo! You have created a new billion-dollar industry.

Two more steps:

* Get media to promote the idea that binge eating is not bad behavior but a disorder.

* Call in the language police to restrict usage of the term to the “professionals” and, thus, control and protect the asset.

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