William Bernstein -- what an awesome guy!

It's official: I have a man-crush on William Bernstein. It's not his fuzzy beard; it's not his astonishingly learned and well-written books; it's not even his great website EfficientFrontier.com.

No -- it's his relentless campaign to help retail investors (that's small fry like you and me) get a fair deal. His books are mostly dedicated to educating investors about the hazards of Wall Street and how to use smart diversification to build wealth.

William Bernstein's books are awesome. For a sample of his genius check out this video.

For more, check out his books. They're learned, witty, entertaining and necessary:

The Four Pillars of Investing: Lessons for Building a Winning Portfolio

The Investor's Manifesto: Preparing for Prosperity, Armageddon, and Everything in Between

The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created

Index Mutual Fund post on Squidoo

Check out my lens on the subject of index mutual funds on Squidoo.

I was an early adopter of Squidoo and wanted to use that forum to highlight the personal finance and investing knowledge I've slowly and painfully gained over the past 10 years. One of the most important things I know about investing is this: over time, most investors make market returns less cost. Therefore cost is one of the most important aspects of your investing.

Index mutual funds, especially those offered by Vanguard, have super-low costs.

Furthermore, index funds are among the best ways to "buy the market." Stock picking doesn't work (or if it does, it doesn't work forever -- reversion to the mean is a law of nature as compelling as gravity). Instead of picking sectors or individual companies, diversify by owning bits and pieces of thousands of companies.

I hope you find this information useful.

I am The Man, part 2

Yesterday, for the first time ever, I had to fire an employee.

Here are the notes I took into the meeting:

Not going as we'd planned
Going to have to let you go

Here's what's going to happen:
  • Today will be your last day
  • Final check will be mailed to you
  • Info about COBRA will come by mail
  • My card/contact if you have any questions
Now let's go gather your personal items.

This is not a good match.
This is really better for all of us.

Don't try to fill awkward silences
Like a good manager I Googled and researched before putting together my plan. The only helpful piece of advice I found came from, of all things, HR for Dummies. That book advised that you not try to fill awkward silences and you maintain the proceedings in a way that allow the employee to retain their dignity.

Then I thought about what my own firing could be like. If I absolutely had to be fired, no alternative, then how would I want it to go? I strived for that.

Having to tell someone they've lost their job is one of the single most emotionally draining experiences I've ever been through. I felt stressed before, went in with my heart pounding and my face flushed, and went home feeling as drained as if I'd been to a funeral. Hard, yes, it was hard. But I think I achieved my goal without any unnecessary loss of dignity.

Another awesome thing about Evernote

I forgot to mention this in my previous paean to Evernote.

If you're like me, you have a love/hate relationship with PDF files. Yes, they're universal and nearly everyone, even my mom, knows how to use them. At the same time they're bulky and cumbersome. Still I have dozens of PDFs on my hard drive: ebooks I've downloaded, equipment manuals, instruction guides for computer games, electronic forms from two dozen vendors.

How to get a handle on this mess? Up to now, I've been giving them very-descriptive-keyword-rich-filenames.pdf and counting on Google desktop to track them down. But Evernote makes it even easier.

Check this out:

It's easy (like drag and drop easy) to save PDF files to Evernote.

Once you sync with the remote server and the PDF is uploaded, the text of the PDF is scanned and then becomes keyword-searchable. Evernote has a built-in PDF reader so you can read PDF files in your browser without waking up Adobe Acrobat reader.

How awesome is that? Now all my PDFs are indexed and easy to find. I don't even avoid PDF files any more. If you haven't tried Evernote yet, consider downloading their software. Even the free level of service is incredibly powerful.

Evernote: an online service that helps you remember everything

Ever since I got my first computer (a late 80s Radio Shack Tandy), I've been completely obsessed with archiving and search. I typed document after document and then lay in bed, eyes wide, terrified that my precious words would somehow vanish, zapped into the ether. I experimented with every archiving and search tool I found. They were primitive, promising very little functionality. Because they seemed so limited I held back from fully committing myself to any digital format. I slowly acquired a number of legal pads and binders stuffed with the products of my creativity.

Eventually, after undergrad and during my graduate work, I transitioned to a primarily digital archive. However I didn't take the necessary precautions to secure my files (see The Saga of the Crashed Flash Drive for more on this). The sheer volume of the losses I encountered led me to a place I'd never been before -- existential angst. A complete unwillingness to write anything anywhere -- even on paper. How can you keyword-search your hardcopy?

At long last, I've found a tool that seems to offer everything I need: Evernote.

Evernote offers a fairly basic service: online storage of your rich text files. Evernote supports tagging and keyword search, and allows the user to set up separate notebooks or folders of notes for strategic organization.

Now, you may think, "I can do this with Google Docs." Or even Google Desktop plus whatever Office-like software you use. Or even your own personal Mediawiki install, or a hosted service like Jotspot. Evernote offers a few advantages.

The key features that make Evernote awesome include:

Optical character recognition of images

Upload an image to Evernote, and an automated OCR service inspects the image for text. Later on, the image's text becomes indexed along with whatever plain text you post. This is a fantastic feature for the graphically-oriented, or those too lazy to type the name of their favorite beer and prefer to snap a photo of the label. The OCR has been robust, in my experience.

Dedicated email address for notes or images

Out in the world? No access to a computer? No problem. Each Evernote account can generate a unique email address. Send a text email or an attached image to your Evernote email address and the text or image is added as a mailed-in note. Super-handy for when you're on the go.

Security and redundancy

Evernote offers a desktop application that allows you to not only interface with your hosted account on your laptop but to export an XML file that includes your entire database of notes. Ideal for those who've been burned in the past!

OCR of PDF documents

I have a love/hate relationship with PDF documents. They're universal and relatively secure. On the other hand, their proprietary format means that they're difficult to export to any 3rd party reader. Keyword searches of PDF documents usually leave me frustrated.

Evernote indexes the content of attached and/or uploaded PDF documents. The desktop app also includes an integrated PDF reader, so you can flip pages without even loading up an Adobe app. To me, this is awesome. I routinely email PDF documents to Evernote and then keyw0rd-search them -- just because I can.

Dedicated apps for smart phone

Yes, there's an app for that. Specifically a very nicely put-together iPhone app that allows graphic browsing of notes (similar to the browser-based interface).

Because I have an old-school BlackBerry, my version of the Evernote app has all the personality of a MS-DOS 3.2 text-only interface. But the iPhone version is lovely. And even my rudimentary BlackBerry app is functional, if ugly, distasteful and cumbersome (everything my BlackBerry is).

Other cool stuff

In addition the Evernote team has some more advanced tricks up their sleeves:

EyeFi is an SD card that stores images but also uploads them to your Evernote account.

Shoeboxed is a receipt-scanning service that scans and organizes your receipts before uploading them to Evernote.

Pixily is a document-scanning service that will upload PDFs of any hardcopy docs to Evernote for you, enabling keyword-search (exciting!!).

So far, the only downsides I've found to Evernote is the desktop interface. I find the PC desktop app to be a little bit clumsy and obnoxious. When I have trouble with it, I simply compose my document in Notepad or Word and paste the results into an Evernote note before titling and tagging it. You may not find this necessary, but sometimes it's easier for me.

In short, I highly recommend Evernote for storage of any information you want to be able to find again. Evernote offers a free level of service. So far I have only used the free service and have found that it more than meets my needs. I plan to use Pixily as well in the near future.

Perhaps soon I'll finally realize my dream of a fully-digitized, searchable archive of all my own work. Then what will my next excuse be?

An overdue hiker in Lake Tahoe + thoughts on hiking and preparation

The day we left Lake Tahoe, my wife and I stopped at the Eagle Falls trailhead. On the way there we saw what looked like a police helicopter and two police 4x4 units parked on a turnout. Now, after living in South Florida for 10 years, I associate helicopters with bad traffic accidents, SWAT team deployments and Coast Guard rescue. I pointed out the chopper and made some comment about bad traffic ahead.

Mer and I stopped at Eagle Falls and climbed on the rocks a little bit. Then we crossed Highway 89 to the Eagle Falls trailhead. In the parking lot there, we saw four more police vehicles (all 4x4s) along with two cafeteria tables set up on the asphalt. Two competent-looking middle-aged women, bad perms and paper cups of coffee and stacks of photocopies, sat behind cafeteria tables that had serious-looking communications equipment squawking and hissing on them. I half expected a major storm or some kind of foreign incursion. We walked up to the trailhead map and announcement board.

Turns out, the helicopter and response units and competent-looking women were there because of an overdue hiker.

A young man named Matthew was one day late. He'd filed a wilderness permit and then marched off into the wilderness west of the lake (which looks like this) and was a single day late in returning. There were printouts with a mugshot-like photo along with a description of the missing hiker including the color and type of his gear (jacket, snowshoes).

Later, my wife said, "At first I was really surprised by the magnitude of the response. Then I felt guilty because I was surprised."

Frankly, I was just as surprised. Maybe because of my background in the Ozarks, I always have considered wilderness explanation to be at the risk of the explorer. Half a dozen officers, at minimum, searching the forest? A helicopter? Maybe if the vice president disappeared, but surely not for just anyone.

That was on Thursday, June 11, 2009. Today I found this article:

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — After being lost in Desolation Wilderness for three days, a 26-year-old Pollock Pines man was located by rescuers in good health on Tuesday.

The El Dorado County Sheriff's department began the search for Matthew Kinney after they were notified he did not arrive at the Horsetail Falls parking lot as scheduled on Saturday morning, said El Dorado County Sheriff's Lt. Les Lovell. Kinney had left for a three day hike from Loon Lake to the waterfall on Thursday, but became lost, Lovell said.

About 60 volunteers from more than a half dozen local and regional agencies assisted in the rescue, which included 15 ground teams searching the more than 63,000-acre wilderness area. The teams were inserted into the wilderness on Tuesday via a California Highway Patrol helicopter, Lovell said.

Rescuers located Kinney, who was described by Lovell as an experienced hiker familiar with the area, disoriented but unharmed at about 3 p.m. near Lake Schmidell, Lovell said.

The area where Kinney was found is near the area he was scheduled to spend his first night, Lovell said.

Lovell recommended that backcountry travelers hike with a friend if possible and stick to a detailed itinerary of travel plans they leave with a friend or relative.
To me, this level of response is simply incredible. On the one hand, it implies an astonishing level of resources available to come to the aid of a potentially lost and desperate hiker. On the other hand, it represents a huge investment of resources with an extremely low return on investment. (Perhaps the ROI is tied to the reputation of the area -- that a location in which lost hikers are never heard from again gets a lot less tourist traffic?)

Back at home in South Florida, I found this discussion of the effort involved in rescuing two lost, unprepared, wilderness explorers. After some thought, I posted the following response:

I was in Lake Tahoe recently, where I saw at least 5 search and rescue units, plus a helicopter, plus an HQ/basecamp consisting of 2 full-time people, all dedicated to tracking down a single overdue hiker (overdue for 24 hours).

In one sense I agree with your thesis -- if one goes wandering in the wilderness, one must be prepared. But it seems to me that the folks responsible for actually enforcing this have made a decision. They have decided that it's easier, and perhaps more cost-effective, to engage in these big and risky search efforts for overdue hikers and lost city folk and the like THAN IT IS to enforce a minimum level of preparation among hikers.

Think about it -- it cost $120k to save these lost souls. On the other hand, it might cost $750k per year to man the trailheads with trained rangers who will inspect the gear of potential hikers and approve or deny them access to the wilderness. Plus, access to the wilderness is fairly porous...

Even though it's distasteful, it's very likely much less resource-intense to start a search for a lost hiker than it is to prevent unprepared and underequipped hikers from entering the wilderness.
The short answer is this: although it is much higher-profile, and easier to object to, it might economically be more efficient to search for the lost hikers than to insure that all are prepared. Search and rescue is probably cheaper than running orientation and basic skills classes for hikers.

The high-profile rescue appeals to our sense of romance and danger. At the same time it attracts budget hawks and those who say they know better. Without an actual study there's no way to know which side is right.

Speaking as a social liberal, fiscal conservative and wilderness preparer, I think the proper tactic is a blend of the above. Officials should offer training courses (maybe even including the rental of Personal Locator Beacons?) and orientation. At the same time, officials should be prepared to rescue those who fail to return as planned. This seems to me the best of both worlds.

The Saga of the Crashed Flash Drive

I should've known something was wrong the first time my flash drive didn't save a file properly. I'd been working all morning on my reworking of the Robert Howard story The Fire of Asshurbanipal and when I hit CTRL + S, my laptop spat back an error: Drive not found.

I shrugged and saved the draft to my desktop.

The same thing happened intermittently for the next couple of weeks. I finished the story and felt really happy with it. A few days later, on a Wednesday after work, I plugged the flash drive in to print a copy of the story. Nothing. No flashing blue LED, no recognition on my computer, nothing.

I thought it had to be the USB port so I tried another. Nothing. I rebooted because sometimes Windows can lose a data port (why? no idea). Nothing. I tried another computer, a USB 1.0 port, NOTHING. I took the flash drive to work and plugged it into three different computers. NOTHING.

I had to take a lot of deep, slow breaths. Here's what was on that flash drive:

  • The latest draft of my first novel
  • The only drafts of my second novel
  • The short story I'd just finished
  • At least eight other short stories I've written in the last two years
  • Freelance projects I've worked on
I really didn't know what to do, so I Googled "flash drive failure" and a bunch of other related search terms. I found the same site over and over: eProvided. That site dominated the search rankings for a slew of search terms related to failed flash drives. But the site was so over-optimized I had a lot of trouble figuring out what to do and how to do it. Finally I found a printable form and overnighted it, along with the troubled drive, to eProvided.

Four days passed.

During these four days, I very conspicuously didn't drown my sorrows in booze, even though I really wanted to. I kept reassuring myself that I'd be able to recover all the data somehow. eProvided might come through. I looked through my backups and saw that I hadn't archived anything, anything, since March 2007. I thought about Hemingway and the lost briefcase full of stories (except I'm no Hemingway, and I didn't lose a briefcase, and in any event I couldn't lay the blame on someone else) and how that lost briefcase made him the writer we remember. Maybe everything on the flash drive I lost could be retroactively labeled juvenalia and safely consigned to the maw of digital entropy.

On the fourth day I couldn't stand the wait and emailed eProvided -- "Did you get my drive? Can you save me, please?"

I got back a note requesting $30 via Paypal as an analysis fee. I paid it.

A week later -- seriously, a full week with not a single bender! How did I do it? Mostly, I distracted myself with the stock market. I wanted to follow the business news because it seemed as though something disastrous happened to some company or other, or some national economy, or some zaibatsu or currency, every day. I had no interest beyond prurience and a vague desire to become a millionaire by looking at MarketWatch.com eight or ten times every day. Instead of thinking about writing, I thought about its antithesis: money. A week later, I got a phone call.

My cell phone rang around noon. I was at work and went into the kitchen to take the call. Bruce, the owner of eProvided, introduced himself. He had a slow, calm voice suspiciously absent of accent that made me think he was either from a square state or maybe had been raised an Army brat.

"Well, I've got some news for you," he said. I noticed right away he didn't label it good or bad.

"What's the prognosis?"

"Well, this drive is totally trashed. Most of the circuits are broken and I haven't even put it under the microscope yet but there's some kind of corrosion that's eaten away just about everything."

There was a long pause. Finally, I asked, "Can you save it?"

"Maybe. But it ain't gonna be easy, and it ain't gonna be cheap." (Maybe he didn't quote Quint from Jaws but this is how I remember it.)

"How much?"

"Well, there's analysis, and I'm gonna have to see if I can rebuild this thing from scratch basically, you think you can get another one of the same lot? It'll take me a couple days at least. I'd say, hmm, $600."

"Six hundred?"

"Plus parts."

He said something about Radio Shack and something about micro-soldering but I stopped listening. In my entire life, I have never spent $600 or more on any single purchase other than my 1996 Dodge Neon, Princess, who is now no longer with us. To put this in further perspective -- the last fiction sale I made paid me $450.

Here's the time to wheel and deal, I thought. Maybe if I explain how I'm nothing but a lowly fiction writer he'll have mercy and cut me some slack. "Listen, Bruce, here's my situation. I'm a writer and everything I've ever written is on that drive. My first novel, my second novel, bunch of short stories... So I need those files. I really, really need them. If you can save them for me I'll be eternally grateful."

"Well, I'll do my best to get everything for you but there's no guarantee. There's a $90 assessment fee and if I can't recover any files then that's all you have to pay, so at least you don't wind up paying for something for nothing."

"Okay." I told him how much I appreciated his hard work and efforts and expertise, still hoping that my words could work a little magic on him and get me a deal.

Instead, he told me, "Well, I work with a lot of people and I have to tell them stuff like this pretty regularly. I have to say you sure do take it better than most."

I couldn't think of any good answer for that. He still didn't back down on the price.

Ten minutes later I sat down and Paypalled him $90. I had to know if I could get my files back or not.

The sun rose and set. Around the world, nine people died of H5N1. Presidential candidates spent hundreds of millions of dollars campaigning. I read MarketWatch.com some more. I spent about 15 straight days in a state of suspended animation -- going to work, coming home, waiting for Bruce to email me.

One night I was speaking to my buddy Jeff when call waiting beeped. It was Bruce.

"Good news," he told me, and started reading the names of directories. I just about wet myself. I went on and on about how great he was, how much he'd helped me, even made sure he read the directories containing my 2 novels. Huzzah! I buttered him up to the best of my abilities. Then gave him my credit card number so he could charge me another $690 for the recovery. It hurt -- it hurt real bad.

I'd spent a total of $820 on eProvided.com's services. If I can sell two of the stories Bruce recovered for me, I'll at least break even.

I offered to pay for overnight shipping so I could get a CD of the files right away, but Bruce told me he'd just send them the normal way. Which turned out to be first class mail.

Yesterday, the envelope arrived. A single CD with an eProvided.com business card. I ran to the computer and popped the CD in the drive.

Bruce managed to save the following:
  • My first novel
  • My second novel
  • The short story I had been working on when the drive started to fail
  • The previous 3 short stories I composed
  • Notes for my third novel
  • A copy of Adobe Acrobat Reader 8.1
  • A bootleg of an Elliott Smith concert (zipped)
  • Two journal entries
  • My freelance work
  • A set of Dell printer drivers
Here's what got lost:
  • At least 10 completed but unpublished short story manuscripts
  • Approximately 50 journal entries
  • Drafts of 2 screenplays I've worked on
The following short stories that have been published are now extant only in print: Dragon Drop, How I Learned To Fly, Crows, Myrtle Baggs's Boarding House for Young Gentlemen, Heat, Norman Oklahoma, Welcome to Justice 2.0. There may be more but I think my point is clear. Those stories exist now only as print -- only as the finished product. All the scaffolding I used to build them is gone.

I've gotten so used to infinite archiving, to having multiple early drafts of things to look at, that this is a personal disaster of a magnitude I can barely comprehend. Even though so much was saved, so much more is gone -- and not just misplaced, but gone. Extinct.

As much as I moaned about paying $820 for getting these files, I would've paid three times as much to get everything back.

So, let my experience be a warning to you: BACK UP YOUR FILES. If you don't it will cost you a pile of money, emotional trauma, or both.


I've been a huge MST3K fan since the middle 90s. I've been debating whether or not to buy the entire series here, but $200 is still considered a major purchase in my household.

Then I stumbled across this. So far I've only watched 2 full episodes and a couple of shorts, but it's much more satisfying than waiting for Netflix to deliver my DVDs. Enjoy!

Books I read in 2007

Books marked with an asterisk are books I reread this year.

The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential*, by James Ellroy

Sun of Suns, Permanence, by Karl Schroeder

A Fire On The Deep*, A Deepness In The Sky*, Rainbow's End, by Vernon Vinge

Shatterpoint, Revenge of the Sith, by Matthew Stover

Sharpe's Tiger, Sharpe's Triumph, Sharpe's Fortress, Sharpe's Trafalgar, by Bernard Cornwell

The Good Soldier*, by Ford Maddox Ford

Dead Man's Walk, Lonesome Dove*, by Larry McMurtry

Dark Gods*, by T.E.D. Klein

Hardboiled Cthulhu (anthology)

The Imago Sequence, by Laird Barron

First Man in Rome, The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough

Your Movie Sucks, by Roger Ebert

On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Mothman and Other Curious Encounters, by Loren Coleman

The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Wall Street Noir (anthology)

Aggressor Six*, The Fall of Sirius, Bloom, by Wil McCarthy

Ancient Shores, by Jack McDevitt

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, vol. 1 and 2, by Alan Moore

Valentine's Exile, by E.E. Knight

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Spin Control, by Chris Moriarty

Rifles for Watie, by Harold Keith

Shadow of the Torturer, Claw of the Conciliator, The Knight, The Wizard, by Gene Wolfe

Master and Commander*, Post Captain*, HMS Surprise*, The Mauritius Command*, Desolation Island*, Fortune of War*, The Surgeon's Mate*, The Ionian Mission*, by Patrick O'Brian

Confederacy of Dunces*, by John Kennedy Toole

King Solomon's Mines, by H. Rider Haggard

Neuromancer*, by William Gibson

Silence of the Lambs*, by Thomas Harris