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The other day I did something I haven't done in about ten years. I watched a new episode of The Simpsons as it was being broadcast, commercials and all. Normally I would record it. So let's say there have been 230 episodes of The Simpsons in the past ten years, and I watched only one of them live.

This particular episode featured the judges from American Idol as themselves. American Idol is one of my favorite shows. So let's say there are a few hundred shows on television, and maybe five of them qualify as "one of my favorites." That coincidence is probably why I didn't flip the channel. I was interested in seeing how the American Idol judges and Ryan Seacrest did with their voice work.

On the show, the animated version of Ellen, voiced by the real Ellen, goes into one of her signature rambles that seems to be going nowhere and surprises you by being funny. The gist of it was that someone was a nut, which makes her think of Filberts, which makes her think of Dilbert, which (she said) is a funny comic if you work in a cubicle.

I imagine that most of you don't know what it feels like to be watching television while it is watching you back, sort of. It's creepy as all hell. It literally makes it hard to believe that reality isn't scripted.

But wait, it gets better. What you don't know is that Ellen is the TV show I've tried hardest to appear on, for book publicity reasons, without any luck. I'm not famous enough to be booked on that sort of show as a celebrity, so I had pitched the idea of some sort of Pictionary contest in which I would be a contestant, as a ringer, and that would be the joke. But that idea never got any traction with Ellen's producers.

Also by coincidence, Ellen's wife, Portia, stars on a TV show called Better Off Ted. Critics often compare the show to Dilbert, which as most of you know has a main character called Generic Ted, who looks a lot like the TV Ted. Last season, the show asked for permission to make some extended references to Dilbert in an episode. I was happy to agree. So Ellen's wife said "Dilbert" on national TV before Ellen did. To my knowledge, that is the first couple to ever both utter the word "Dilbert" on television.

The other day I was thinking about all of the coincidences involved in hearing Ellen mention Dilbert on The Simpsons. I wondered if it was interesting enough to turn into a blog entry. As I pondered the question, the pigeons living under my office eves, or maybe they live in my attic, starting their loud cooing routine that drives me crazy. So I turned on my office TV to its loudest setting for a few minutes, which usually shuts them up so I can work. And what's on TV?

Our cable provider has music channels. While the music plays, a picture of the artist is displayed on screen. It was Ne-Yo, and the song was Closer. I have seen Ne-Yo perform that song exactly once. It was on Ellen.

Okay, okay, skeptics. I know that the math of life guarantees a bounteous harvest of coincidences. And some of those strings of coincidences might form what looks like a theme. Let's agree that it's not magic. But let's also agree that if you suddenly have the ability to fly, the smart money says you're dreaming. You can only have so many unlikely events in your life before you reject the reality hypothesis.

My particular coincidence theme in life involves television. The Ellen incident is one of many for me. The usual form of the coincidence is that something unusual will happen to me during the day, such as being bitten by a squirrel, and the first TV show I watch that night will be about a cartoonist who is bitten by a squirrel. It happens so often that it's a running joke with my wife.

And so I wonder, does television track your life as well? Or is it just me?

 
The winner of The Attention Contest is Lukeout. I have edited his piece and republished it below. I gave it a heavy edit, but no more than a magazine editor would do for an unknown writer. I found the piece to be interesting, inspiring, and to the point. That's rare.

You probably wonder why I didn't pick one of the entries that had far more reader votes. I rejected bathroom humor, anything that seemed dated, anything that seemed familiar (derivative), and anything that couldn't be brought to a professional level with editing.

I agree that the top vote-getters were quite fun and funny. Good job. And thank you to all who entered.

And now the winner...

----------------------

Pick up the Phone

I was a 24-year old, third-shift chemist, living in a tiny town in Pennsylvania, dreaming of being a hobby game designer - for games such as Warhammer, and Magic the Gathering.

One day, by a freak of randomness, I was asked to play-test a game that was being designed by a local artist. I arrived at the artist's studio, and took a seat with a few other play-testers. As the night progressed, I learned that this artist, Keith Parkinson, was not only a nice guy, but also famous and important. Keith was an icon of fantasy art awesomeness. I learned that his art appeared on some of the best fantasy and sci-fi products ever made. Over the course of the night, the pressure of working with a legend began to sink in. The situation was intimidating, even though he couldn't have been a nicer guy. I found it strange and fascinating that his fame had such an effect on me.

Unfortunately, his game was terrible. The characters were great, but the mechanics just weren't up to snuff. That night, I wrote up six pages of notes on how to make his game better. It was a brutal review. The next day, I read over my notes and decided to call Keith, to see if I could stop by and go over my thoughts. This was far beyond what was expected of a play tester. I was scared to death to make the call. I must have stared at the phone for fifteen minutes before dialing.

Keith answered and was receptive to hearing my feedback. I was in his studio delivering my bad review within an hour. Within two hours, he had offered me a job helping with his game. That was sixteen years ago. I've been happily working as a game designer ever since.

Keith died a few years back, and I miss him greatly. Whenever I look at two of his paintings that proudly hang in my office, I'm reminded to pick up the phone when I have something useful to say, no matter if the news is good or bad, and no matter to whom I'm delivering it. I'm also sure to listen when someone calls me with something to say. Keith showed me that there's more to art than what hangs on the wall.

--------

The latest game designed (and sometimes marketed) by the author is called Bakugan, published by Spin Master.

 
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Let's test the business model I described in yesterday's blog. If you would like some attention, write a 500 word or less opinion, product review, humor, interesting true story, how-to, hypothesis, peeve, or anything else you believe is worthy of attention (except fiction), and put it in the comments to this blog. Give your work a title. At the end of your piece, and clearly separated from the work, give yourself up to 50 words of credit, advertising, marriage proposals, or anything else you want to plug. That's your payoff.

You have until 5 pm Friday PST to complete your assignment. Other readers will vote your piece up or down, and I will read as many of the entries as time allows, focusing on the highest rated ones.

Consider your audience. Your work has to appeal to the folks you assume would be reading this blog in the first place. It also has to appeal to me. So be funny, or fascinating, or tell me something I didn't know.

On Monday I will announce the winner and reprint that piece in my post. I might even edit your writing if that seems necessary.  I won't necessarily pick the work that gets the most votes here, as we all understand that votes can be somewhat rigged. But I will use the rankings to narrow my search.

I'll delete submissions that are more advertisement than submission, or inappropriate for any other reason.

My prediction is that there won't be a huge number of entries. Only the people who feel they have a legitimate chance of getting a high rank are likely to put in the effort. I think you'll see some truly interesting stuff.

 
Most people enjoy getting attention. It's one of our basic needs. Little kids go through a "Look at me!" stage that lasts years. I believe we never grow out of that. All we do is learn how to be more subtle in saying, "Look at me!"

There are lots of strategies for getting attention. Perhaps you like to select clothing that will make people spend a bit more time looking at you. Maybe you excel at your job, or at a team sport, so people will notice you. I believe that personal attention is a big part of what makes you enjoy getting a massage or a haircut or a pedicure.

I was a banker in the caveman days when ATM machines were new. The big fear from customers was the loss of "personal service." That's code for "I like to get attention from a bank teller."

I worked as a hotel desk clerk for a few summers when I was in college. My boss trained us to understand that half of the complaints we received were valid and the other half were from people who wanted some personal attention. We were trained to give that attention by carefully writing down the complaint and then throwing away the piece of paper when the customer left, assuming the complaint was obvious nonsense. It happened a lot.

The main reason I write this blog is because I like the attention. The main reason people leave comments on what I write is for the attention. We can all concoct other rationalizations, but attention is the main payoff. (By the way, I do read most of the comments.)

Consider the odd concept of asking for autographs. My theory is that the attention of a famous person seems more valuable than the attention of an unknown because the famous person is himself the subject of much attention. It's as though the famous person is a magnifying glass, focusing the sun of attention on the recipient at the moment that the autograph is given. It's like regular attention but supercharged.

I assume there is some evolutionary advantage to seeking attention. The first step in mating is making someone else notice you exist. On a psychological level, I believe attention from others is a necessary condition for staving off insanity. Regardless of its purpose, attention is clearly a deep and natural human need.

This brings me to the question of the day. If the New York Times asked you to write a guest editorial, for no pay, on the topic of your choice, would you do it? Suppose you know that your writing won't change any opinions, and it would take five hours for you to research and write your article. Also assume that the Times editors would tighten up your writing to make it sound professional, so it's no problem if you're not a great writer. All you would get from this experience is attention, and probably a lot of it. Would you do it?

If your answer is yes, then it provides a basis for putting an economic value on attention. There's a price-per-word range that publications are willing to pay professional writers for content. If you would do that same work for free, at least once, then that is one data point for beginning to determine the average value of attention.

Someday an entrepreneur will make a fortune by figuring out how to monetize personal attention in the most efficient way.

 

 
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It's easy to do two things at the same time, as long as one of those actions is a practiced skill that you can do almost automatically. For example, walking and talking is easy.  And some people can play the guitar and sing, as long as they have practiced both of those skills until one requires virtually no conscious thought. But you can't do two things at the same time that both require original thinking. I know this first hand because my wife, Shelly, likes to bring up conversations in the car that involve rotating three-dimensional objects in my mind while expecting me to simultaneously navigating to our destination. This doesn't work out so well. The actual driving of the car is easy, because that is a practiced skill. But trying to imagine the correct route to our destination is impossible for me if Shelly is simultaneously asking me to imagine the optimal placement of patio furniture.

The other day, as I was cleaning pasta sauce off of every inch of the inside of the microwave, I was reminding Shelly of my bandwidth limitation for spatial manipulation. I blamed her for engaging me in a conversation involving the manipulation of objects while expecting that I would simultaneously be able to imagine the proper combination of pasta, sauce, a bowl, and (this next part is key) a cover inside a microwave. I managed to put four out of five objects in the right place, and frankly felt good about it.

I have a theory that music appreciation resides in the same part of your brain where you think about yourself. That might be why it's good to listen to music while doing boring tasks, such as going for a long run, because music interferes with your mind's ability to think about yourself. I also find it impossible to do any sort of creative writing while listening to music, perhaps for the same reason: Creativity springs from a deep examination of self, which you then generalize, and music seems to share that bandwidth. I can, however, listen to music and manipulate three-dimensional objects in my mind just fine. Those functions don't seem to interfere with each other.

I wonder if we humans will get to a point where we understand how to manage the different parts of our brains in the best fashion. For example, if you have an important upcoming task that involves manipulating objects in your mind, is it better to practice spatial tasks all morning, or better to rest that capacity of your brain until you need it?

During one period of my life I wrote a number of computer programs that involved intense manipulation of objects in my mind, for hours each day. I discovered that it was difficult to be social at night when my mind had been manipulating object during the day. It felt as if I were deep inside a cave and yelling to the people who stood at the cave opening. It seemed as if the practice of programming interfered with, or exhausted, the part of my brain that handles social skills.

It is generally agreed that playing soccer is a good crossover skill for playing tennis, because of the footwork. Could we get to the point of understanding the brain where, for example, we tutor someone who is struggling in math by asking him to do non-math tasks that are complementary to the math-handling part of the brain? I wonder, does playing a highly spatial video game for hours a day help your math skills, exhaust them, or have no impact?

If you have a date in the evening, will you be at your most witty and charming if you spent the hours ahead of the date doing light exercise, reading a novel, or assembling some IKEA furniture?  I'll bet there's a right answer to that question.

 

 
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According to the often stated (at least in this blog) Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters, this would be an excellent time to buy stock in BP. Yes, yes, you'd vomit in your own mouth when you executed the trade, but follow me on this argument.

The financial wonks will tell you that the cost of the clean up and settlements are "already baked into the stock price." That's probably true(ish). Still, no one can really predict how much this thing will cost BP in the end. The stock could still go much lower. And I remind you as always, don't take your financial advice from cartoonists.

My first argument in favor of buying BP stock is that managers caused this problem, whereas engineers are solving it. That's a positive sign. Managers apparently had the choice of including remote shut-off technology in the project, but I'm assuming they decided that it cost too much, or would take too long, or they had some other managerish reason. So far, managers have acted exactly as you would expect managers to act.

Now it's the turn of engineers to fix this problem. I assume there are relatively few budget constraints on engineers as they concoct their plans. And I assume everyone at BP agrees what their highest priority is, for a change. In other words, there won't be as much manager interference as normal. And I assume some of the best engineers in the solar system are working on this. So what we have here is a pure case of brains against oil spill. It's the Manhattan Project for natural disasters.

The Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters states that any catastrophe that society at large can predict far in advance won't happen, usually because scientists and engineers figure a way to head it off. So while an oil spill of this size wasn't predicted by the general public, the slow motion ecological disaster from this point forward is predictable. Admittedly, this is a grey area for the theory because this particular disaster is happening on a relatively fast schedule. It will be a good test of the robustness of the Scott Adams Theory of Predictable Disasters.

I don't want to make light of the disaster. It's plenty bad. And I will stipulate that the engineers and scientists have a lot of explaining to do in terms how we got here and why the initial attempts to stop the leak haven't worked. And maybe there should have been a tad more whistle-blowing. But here we are.

Disclosure: To make things interesting, I just bought a small amount of BP stock with my gambling money. I'll sell the stock on the day I hear that engineers capped the leak and the new technology for cleaning oil spills is working better than most people expected.

In other words, I'm betting on the engineers and scientists.

 
Researchers discovered that people can pick CEOs out of a lineup. Sort of.

http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News/CEOs-who-look-the-part-also-earn-more/articleshow/5863692.cms

The media interpreted the research as indicating that looking like a CEO might help you become one. I have to toss you a tiny "duh" on that. Yes, looks matter. But is that the bigger story?

I gave up trying to burrow down to the original research because Windows kept sending me down the Binghole. Perhaps the researchers themselves did a better job than the media of speculating what the research results mean. But it seems to me the media left out the more obvious interpretation. Perhaps whatever hormone it is that makes a person both ambitious and aggressive enough to become a CEO also influences a person's appearance. And let's call that hormone testosterone, because that's probably what it is.

I have a related hypothesis. I believe that political conservatives can be identified by their faces, even after you control for haircuts and eyeglasses. Not all the time, of course, but more than chance. (Another way to say the same thing is that political liberals can be identified by their looks.) Have you ever noticed that?

 

 

 
I assume that most readers of this blog don't believe in astrology, since there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support it. But do you believe investors should rebalance their investment portfolios every year?

Suppose you start out with a balance of 70% stocks (in broad market ETFs) and 30% bonds, which for some reason you think is right for you, and your stocks have a good year. Now you're at 80% stocks and 20% bonds. Should you rebalance?

I think we can all agree that if something happens to change your overall financial circumstance, such as nearing retirement or winning the lottery, you might need to rebalance your portfolio. But what if the only thing that happened was that you aged from 35 to 36 and your stocks had an unusually good year? Do you rebalance then?

I think most financial experts would tell you there is a magical number that each investor should try to maintain in terms of portfolio balance. Your first indication that something is fishy is that experts will come up with different magical numbers. Your second sign of trouble is that the experts have a naked self-interest in getting you to rebalance more than you might need to because your irrational belief in rebalancing is 90% of the reason you think you need a financial expert in the first place.

If you have a link to scientific evidence that annual rebalancing makes sense, and it isn't written by someone who has a financial self-interest, please include it in your comment.

On a semi-related note, do you believe yesterday's stock market plunge was a "mistake" as some say, or was it a case of manipulation by someone who made a fortune on it? Ten years ago I would have said it was a mistake. Today that sounds naïve.
 
Did you see the story about the Chinese man who died after his friends inserted a live eel into his rectum as a practical joke when the man was asleep?

http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=2778

This tragic situation, which I think we all agree is not funny, raises many questions.

 1. With friends like that, who needs enemas?  

2. How low did this man set the bar for friends?  

3. What were his friends imbibing when they came up with this idea, and how can I get some of that?  

4. How difficult is it to insert an eel into a rectum? Did they straighten and freeze the eel a little bit first? Otherwise it seems like trying to push a rope through a keyhole.  

5. How did the man sleep through it? 

In my own life, I have a strict rule for determining who to call my friends. Rule 46 states that any person who tries to insert a live eel into my rectum is automatically disqualified. If the eel is dead, obviously that's just good fun. I'm not a killjoy.

As a conspiracy enthusiast, I have to wonder if the friends were trying to cover up an even more embarrassing violation of the presumably drunken victim's hindquarters.

Friend 1: "Uh-oh. When he wakes up, he's going to know what we did."

Friend 2: "Not if we put a live octopus in his rectum. That should cover our tracks."

Friend 1: "That's insane! You can't put a live octopus in a rectum!"

Friend 2: "Live eel?"

Friend 1: "Fine. Remind me to never be the first one who falls asleep in this crowd."

 
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Investing is scary because the world of finance is the ultimate confusopoly. There are so many options from which to choose that many people are willing to pay perhaps 1% of their portfolios per year for experts to manage their money. And those experts might invest your money in managed mutual funds (managed by yet other experts) that charge you another 1% to pick stocks for you. And this is despite the fact that on average, experts can't beat a monkey with a dartboard when it comes to picking stocks. Every study has shown this to be true. As far as I know.

Worse yet, actively managed funds will generate more tax liability for investors than necessary because managers need to churn stocks to maintain the appearance of usefulness.

There once was a time when most experts agreed, roughly, in how a typical portfolio should be allocated. If you were young, you should own mostly stocks. If you were nearing retirement, you should have mostly bonds. But lately, even that assumption is being questioned. Some experts now say you need a healthy percentage of stocks even if you're nearing retirement, because you might live another 30 years.

This made me wonder if you and I could come up with the world's simplest portfolio that is better than what the average money managing expert might concoct. I'll toss out some suggestions here, and you can improve on them in the comments section, keeping within some simple guidelines.

First, let's assume the hypothetical money is invested entirely for retirement, so we don't need to worry about keeping any of it liquid for college or buying a house. That assumption is just to keep things simple.

Second, we're only talking about investments up to 10 years prior to your planned retirement. When you near retirement, you would typically and gradually convert as much of your stock portfolio into bonds as necessary to get the monthly income you need. That's a more complicated scenario than what I want to discuss here.

I suggest, as a starting point for our discussion, that a perfectly adequate simple portfolio for young(ish) people might involve putting 50% of your money in an ETF from Vanguard (VTI), which captures the entire Wilshire 5000. In other words, you'd buy one financial instrument and own a little bit of just about every public company in the United States. That's all the diversification you can get within one country, and the U.S. is still considered a relatively safe place to invest even if it doesn't have the best growth potential. The fees for the ETF are a low .015% per year, and because ETF managers don't do much buying and selling within the portfolio, it doesn't generate much taxable income to pass along to investors.

I picked 50% to allocate to this investment because I contend that no expert has a good reason for picking a different figure. Some experts might tell you 25% is the right allocation for U.S. stocks, and some might say 75%. I contend that most allocation recommendations of that sort are no more defensible than horoscopes.

For the remaining 50% your investments, let's say you buy the Vanguard Emerging Market ETF (VWO) with a .27% expense ratio. That gives you a play on the best companies in emerging markets around the world, at low cost, with excellent diversity, and low taxes.

Disclosure: Vanguard has licensed Dilbert in the past. I don't have any financial interest in them now, nor do I have any investment with them. I only use Vanguard as an example because they are a familiar and trusted name, in case you aren't familiar with ETFs and you wonder if they are sketchy. ETFs are as close as you can get to a commodity, and there are lots of companies from which you can get them.

Now it's your turn. How could my sample simple portfolio be any better than 50% in VYI and 50% VWO? You have to defend your viewpoint. No fair just telling us what you do now. Tell us what data you have to suggest you could do better with a different portfolio than I described.

And remember that your suggested portfolio needs to be simple enough for the average person to understand and obtain without expert advice and without excess risk.

(I should note here that it would be extraordinarily unwise to base any of your investments on what you read in a cartoonist's blog. This is just a mental exercise.)
 
 
 
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