Balut!

Eggs

Some exotic vacations engender envy. Mine often bring concerned expressions from friends and neighbors. (“Um, Uzbekistan?”) One I took last month fell into the latter category, with an added helping of rude comments about pole dancers and the like.

But The Philippines is lovely. It’s nice enough that I pounced on a ridiculously cheap fare from a Chinese airline and took my two younger sons with me (my wife had to work). Yes, it’s poor, crowded, and is getting headlines for extrajudicial killings at the moment, but there are many great things about it: pristine beaches, simmering volcanoes and World War II history. The people are number one, though.

I read some years ago in The Economist that Filipinos are some of the happiest people on earth despite widespread poverty. I believe it now. Friendly, even-keeled and almost universally conversant in English, they made The Philippines a most pleasant place to visit.

One thing that I noticed before traveling there was that, while it is surrounded by countries that have exported their dishes and chefs, you almost never see a Filipino restaurant. This is despite the fact that millions of Filipinos live abroad, mostly working as maids, ships’ crew, or manual laborers.

Part of the reason is that 400 years of being colonized by Spain and then being a U.S. territory before independence, the various Austronesian ethnic groups spread over well over 1,000 islands don’t really have much of a coherent, unique cuisine. Another is that many of their famous dishes feature on lists of gross-out foods.

Despite that reputation, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t bad and that some of it is really very good. My favorite few specialties include the ubiquitous milkfish, lechon (roast suckling pig) and buco (young coconut) — sold seemingly everywhere. Moving to the more extreme ones, I really liked the brain sisig (pig cheek and brain, pictured below), inisal (intestine skewers, both chicken and beef) and little fried whole fishes.

Sisig

But the pièce de résistance of Filipino cuisine is surely balut. Starring on many lists of extreme foods, the fertilized duck eggs are prized as a cheap source of protein (mine cost 40 cents) and even as an aphrodisiac. After teasing my friend and host about not having eaten it after a year-and-a-half spent in the country, I sort of backed myself into a corner and had to try it when I actually paid him a visit.

Balut, as you may imagine, has a little duckling embryo inside, complete with beak, legs, and (shudder) feathers. The most surprising thing about eating it wasn’t the taste, though (it was okay) or consistency (a bit rubbery), but who else tried it. No, not my squeamish buddy. On the way to buy the balut, my 11-year-old son said he wanted one too. Having tasted the brains, intestines and even rabbit head (on a food tour during our stopover in Shanghai) in the preceding days, I guess I shouldn’t have been shocked that he cranked his adventurousness knob to eleven. He ate the whole thing, hamming it up for the camera as my friend’s wife took pictures and his kids chuckled.

Balut

After starting out the trip anxious about exploring a chaotic, not-super-hygienic developing country, he not only had a great time but went native, eating a food that some Filipinos told me they wouldn’t touch. I’m really proud of him.

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Letter From a Failing Hedge Fund Manager

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Letter from a Failing Hedge Fund Manager

Dear valued clients,

Sometimes I feel like explaining what I do with your money takes almost as much effort as making it grow. Still, it’s worth it. I’m confident that one day these quarterly letters will be published as a tome not just on successful investing but on how to succeed in life.

In the meantime, though, I would like to once again point to the confidentiality agreements you all signed and ask whoever has been leaking our communications to the press to cease and desist. The Wall Street Journal’s quip that investing with us was “like paying someone to light a fifth of your money on fire” wasn’t helpful.

Moving on to more pleasant matters, I am happy to report that we have once again taken advantage of the market’s shortsightedness to further lower the cost base in our largest position, Hemlock Pharmaceuticals. The SEC and FDA investigations did have a temporary effect on its share price, which you will have noticed once again in our quarterly performance, but I have great trust that Hemlock’s world-class management team has a firm grip on these issues. In financing growing companies, we always look for human value that doesn’t appear on the balance sheet.

Great line, right? I wish I had made it up, but it’s actually by Michael Milken. Here’s another one that I got from a fortune cookie at that new Sichuanese place on the Upper East Side: “The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.” So true.

As I’ve said in past letters, patience is paramount and adversity builds character. It seems like only yesterday that Lehman Brothers went belly up. Junior high school is hard enough without losing all of your Bar Mitzvah money. While that stung, though, I sensed even then that I would make it back a thousand times over in performance and management fees.

And last year, when I left the trainee program at Morgan Stanley to hang out my own shingle, I was dismayed to find out that nearly all the good hedge fund names from Greek mythology had been taken. If only I’d been born 20 years earlier! Despite that, Oedipus Capital is off to a roaring start and, with your continued patience, I’m sure the best is yet to come.

And with that, it’s back to work making you all even richer. I know that the media image of a young master of the universe is glamorous, but it’s basically nose to the grindstone buried in financial models that would be too complicated for me to explain. Heck, I don’t even have a girlfriend. Like I read in another fortune cookie, women prefer men who have something tender about them – especially the legal kind. Get it?

 

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I Am a Bad Gym Member

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So there were a few new faces at my gym this week. I seem to recall seeing the same thing about a year ago and about a year before that. If you go frequently enough, and particularly if you normally work out at the same time of day, you notice these things.

Although no Charles Atlas, I’m a creature of habit and as regular as rain when it comes to exercise. Other than when I’m traveling, I can count the number of days a year that I fail to show up on the fingers of one hand.

So why is such a loyal customer a bad gym member? Failure to wipe down the equipment? Loud grunting? Hogging the Stairmaster? No, no, and no – it’s precisely because I show up so frequently. I didn’t think much about this before my old gym started facing financial difficulties and finally went out of business. It had been there for 15 years with its main competitors being a fancier but much more expensive gym in town and a similarly-priced but less personal chain in a neighboring town.

During the last year that they were in business a handful of new competitors opened up nearby – a fancy spinning studio, an expensive interval training chain, a cult-like group workout/prison-style gym franchise, and finally my current gym, which is basically a newer, shinier copy of my old one.

Just based on what I could observe, my gym seemed at first to be plodding along despite all the new entrants. My view was limited, though, to two types of members:

  1. My fellow cheapskates who only paid for the “floor” and not the more lucrative group classes or personal training sessions; and
  2. Members who exercise almost every day.

People like me, it turns out, aren’t doing the owner any favors by showing up religiously. Gyms, you see, aren’t very cheap to run. They open early, close late, take up a lot of space and pay high bills for heat, electricity, hot water and janitorial services. Their machines are expensive (several thousand dollars for a new stair climber or elliptical) and break frequently. Even after they raised prices a couple of times, I was paying, by my rough calculation, about $1.03 per hour spent at the gym. How many people like me would a gym have to pack in per hour to cover its overhead? Probably a lot more than it can comfortably hold.

Therein lies the answer to how gyms can stay in business with such daunting economic factors working against them: All those people I’ve seen the last couple of weeks but probably won’t be seeing in a month or two. Author Dan Davies explains in “The Secret Life of Money” that 75% of gym memberships are taken out in January as people attempt to fulfill their New Year’s resolutions but that the vast majority only actually go a handful of times.

In addition to these nearly perfect customers, the other segment of my old gym’s clientele that kept them afloat were those who paid extra for premium services like zumba classes, personal training, or $5.00 protein shakes with an 80% profit margin. It seems, though, that many of the members willing to pay a premium were lured away by the new offerings in town. By last summer, a month or two before my gym said it would close, it offered a month of free spinning sessions for “floor members,” presumably in the hope that we’d step up our subscription. My wife and I went a few times and were shocked to see how few of the bikes were occupied. One time it was just the two of us.

So there you have it – I’m a bad gym member. I shudder to think how crowded the facility might be or how much they would have to charge if everyone were like me. Even if they leave dumbbells lying around or fail to wipe off the elliptical, I won’t complain about the new January people again.

(This post also appeared on LinkedIn and on Spencerjakab.com)

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Thank You for Not Admitting my Son to Your Prestigious College

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Dear Small, Prestigious Liberal Arts College (which shall remain anonymous and henceforth be referred to as ‘SPLAC’ for the sake of brevity), I want to thank you for not admitting my son last year.

No, really. This isn’t meant as a slight against your fine institution. I really liked it and he really, really liked it – enough so that he applied “early decision,” which would have bound him to attend no matter what sort of financial award he might have received. As much as he pledged everlasting devotion to you in the multiple paeans (supplemental essays) you required, I can now confess that he waffled a bit between playing the early decision card for SPLAC or Super Prestigious University in the Midwest (SPUM). His two visits to your campus really did convince him, though, that SPLAC was the place he could spend the next four years enlarging his mind, making lifelong friends and sampling contraband in his dorm room on the weekends.

From the beautiful, manicured grounds to the old stone buildings with just the right amount of green stuff on the walls (not ivy – lichen perhaps?) and the values of the founding religious sect that we were told ad nauseam still affects everything that happens at SPLAC and makes it unique, we were entranced. My own alma mater (more on it later) is, to be perfectly honest, an architectural abomination compared with yours and lacks any WASPY pedigree. Heck, it was founded in the 1940s, barely making it older than some local junior colleges. The one building that looked old (but wasn’t) and had anything growing on it was knocked down for safety reasons.

He really thought he had a shot at being admitted to SPLAC and so did I. His test scores were just shy of perfect and above average for your freshman class, he speaks Japanese, had started his own business, volunteered at Sunday school for years, had a great internship and headed a couple of clubs. We were led to think that this was the sort of “holistic” stuff one needs to make an application stand out. Wanting to believe, we ignored the fact that you had never, ever admitted a student from his large public high school or even visited it.

So why on earth am I thanking you for denying his application and not even leaving him hanging with a deferral? For one, it was an early lesson in rejection. To his credit, he was sad for a day but moved on and didn’t allow it to affect his self-esteem. Most of his classmates got similar letters from their dream schools and many took it a lot harder. Their parents could tell them until they were blue in the face that an admission committee’s opinion doesn’t say anything about them as a person, but it’s hard for a 17 year-old to believe that.

My son moved on and got a bit of a lift when the acceptance letter to Large Impersonal State School arrived in the mail. Then his mom and I got a lift when a big, fat scholarship offer to LISS arrived a bit later. College isn’t cheap!  One of our proudest days, though, was when he got an acceptance letter and a very generous academic scholarship to the place where we met 30 years ago – Brandeis University.

Why didn’t I imagine him going there in the first place? Maybe it was the old Groucho Marx syndrome of not valuing a club that had accepted me as a member. Now that he’s just completed his first semester at Brandeis, though, I see how silly I was. He loves it. Brandeis is even better than back in the day. He is being challenged academically and is surrounded by nice, smart kids. One of his best friends is a bright boy who also applied to SPLAC and was rejected (and his mom is an alum!). If not for SPLAC’s admissions committee, they wouldn’t have met and become potential lifelong buddies.

But what about the snob factor? Brandeis doesn’t have much ivy (or even lichen). There are no old oil portraits of distinguished  men with white handlebar mustaches who headed the school long ago, or U.S. presidents as alumni. But, at least where I live, mentioning that my son goes to Brandeis gets a nod of respect – a “wow, he must be really smart” rather than a “wow, you must know someone or have donated a building.” A Brandeis professor just won the Nobel Prize this year and I’m sure that there will be more in the future. Hearing about my son’s classmates, I have high hopes for a current student achieving that sort of distinction too.

So thank you SPLAC. Your college really does seem great and I trust that most of your freshmen have made for a good fit. By not snatching my son out of the applicant pool, though, he wound up at place that was a great fit for him.

 

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Super Carb Me

Pastsastipple

Morgan Spurlock, eat your cholesterol-clogged heart out.

The filmmaker and human guinea pig behind the documentary “Super Size Me” consumed nothing but McDonald’s for a whole month and – surprise, surprise – gained 24 pounds. How about eating fattening, salty food for twice as long and losing weight? Well, it can be done.

I’m not speaking from personal experience, unfortunately. I tried and I failed (ugly details below), but I know some people who didn’t and wrote about them on Page One of The Wall Street Journal. Their names are Alan Martin and Jeff Berman, both winners of Olive Garden’s annual “Never Ending Pasta Pass” promotion. It entitles you to all the soup, salad, bread sticks, pasta, sauce, and toppings you can eat for two months for $100.

One reason I love writing these stories is because I find enthusiasm infectious. Whether it’s floating cars, hot peppers, or wacky contests, I get to know people who are passionate about something most hardly know or care about. Alan and Jeff were no exception – two really nice guys with personalities as big as their appetites.

“The Olive Garden Diet” was a well-received story in large part because the editor wisely took me out of it and made it about them. Like them, I also was a Pasta Pass “winner” and also had the idea of turning all that cavatappi into muscle, or at least not into love handles.

I ate at Olive Garden once a day for a month before the story changed direction. The hours spent on the treadmill and thousands of calories consumed are what’s known as a “sunk cost” – a poor investment that I found painful to abandon for no journalistic return, even though that was the right decision. So here’s my belated attempt to salvage something good from my experiment.

When I first had the idea, I immediately went to my new gym, Impact Zone, in Norwood, NJ. The owner, Dave Paladino, isn’t just ridiculously fit and muscular – he also trained members of the Sopranos, including the late James Gandolfini. What better person to ask if I could eat all that pasta and not wind up looking like “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero?

His answer, after I managed to was convince him I wasn’t pulling his leg? “Fuhgeddaboudit.” But he agreed to try and mitigate the damage. Here we are at the start of my pasta binge when I weighed a mere 157 pounds:

Dave

Daves’s crack trainer Adrian Greenberg designed a really rigorous daily workout for me and I did it religiously. I also bought a FitBit and set myself a goal of 15,000 steps a day. The first few days weren’t kind to me, but I figured a pound or so of weight was to be expected simply from a big increase in salt and carbohydrates. I had a complete Olive Garden Never Ending Pasta Bowl meal a day, including a bread stick and a protein topping and I ate all my other meals normally. The calories in this meal ranged from a little over 1,000 for a salad, bread stick, whole wheat linguine, marinara sauce, and grilled chicken to a whopping 2,000 in a single sitting for certain soup, pasta, sauce, and topping combinations. Damn you, asiago garlic alfredo and crispy chicken fritta! Here’s a photo-montage of some of my meals:

Pasta

My main problem was that I ate my Olive Garden meals mainly at lunch when I might normally have something light such as a salad or a protein shake. When I got home for dinner, typically my big meal of the day, I ate everything on my plate and often seconds. I shouldn’t have been hungry, but all the extra food just made me crave more calories in the evening. After entering every calorie into MyFitnessPal, I found that I was having an extra 600 to 800 calories a day compared to my normal diet.

To put that into perspective, a man my size would have to walk an additional 20,000 steps a day to make up the difference (the average American takes less than 5,000 steps daily). Alternatively, I could run for an hour and 18 minutes, bike for an hour and 21 minutes, or swim for two hours and 15 minutes to use those 700 or so extra calories. I was working out, but I only had an hour or so to spare each day. What’s more, I already was a daily visitor to the gym so I merely went from a less-intense workout to a more-intense one.

Doing some quick math, had I done nothing to my energy usage, I would have consumed an extra 21,000 calories and packed on about six pounds. Had I gone all Morgan Spurlock and become sedentary, I would have packed on about 11 pounds. At the end of 30 days, when it was clear that the editor who had originally expressed interest in a fitness-related article had  lost interest in it, I was 5 pounds heavier. Yikes!

Given the extra calories I burned, maybe two or three pounds of that was fat. The rest was water (from all the extra carbs and sodium) and, I hope, a little bit of muscle from the extra weight-lifting. More than a month later, I’m still a pound or two heavier and I feel thicker around the middle (I blame Thanksgiving, a long vacation, and a family birthday).

Alan and Jeff, who ate every meal at Olive Garden, both lost weight (five pounds and one pound, respectively). Part of that is size (they’re both about five inches taller and can consume a lot more calories), but, let’s face it, much of it is my lack of discipline outside of Olive Garden. Gaining weight is a lot easier and more pleasant than losing it.

Despite my failure, I’m pleased that I undertook the experiment. I got a great article out of it (indirectly) and learned something about nutrition and exercise. For now, though, I have some work left. Dave Paladino spotted me huffing and puffing on the elliptical at 5:50 a.m. today and looked like he was about to wish me good morning. Instead, he pointed at my flabby body and yelled: “Keep working off that pasta!”

 

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I ♥ the Sunk Cost Fallacy

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The above picture was taken almost exactly 61 years ago in front of Hungary’s parliament building during the brief revolution against Communist rule. I don’t know who the people in the picture raising the old Hungarian flag atop a captured tank were, but I know for sure that my parents (who both lived in Budapest but hadn’t met yet) aren’t lurking somewhere in the background.

My mom, who had just turned 16, was staying far, far away from the  fighting. My dad, who was 26 and a recent medical school graduate, was in the process of getting far, far away from Hungary period, along with 200,000 of his countrymen – about 2% of the population. Just days after this photo was taken, 2,000 Soviet tanks rolled in to Budapest to crush the uprising. During the ensuing chaos, with the border guards having abandoned their posts, my dad joined 180,000 people who walked across the Austrian border (some others went south to Yugoslavia while heading north to north or southeast to Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia or Romania, respectively, much less east to the Soviet Union itself, weren’t viable options).

My dad told me that, as he hitchhiked and walked for two days to Vienna with the occasional sounds of gunfire in the distance, he knew that there was no going back. He also decided that he was a European and that he would try to seek asylum somewhere in Europe and not the U.S. or far-off Australia. As he got to Vienna, there were tens of thousands of hungry and confused refugees milling about. He saw a bunch of Hungarians standing in a long line and figured that there must be something good being handed out at the end of it. After waiting for a long time, he finally asked someone. He was standing in front of the U.S. embassy. After spending all that time in line, he decided to stay and go live in America.

My dad (thank goodness!) had just succumbed to a common but flawed way of thinking. He had decided at the outset that he wouldn’t go to America and, while the U.S. was very generous, taking in nearly 40,000 Hungarians, he still could have migrated somewhere else. Austria? Sweden? France? You’d be reading a blog by Johann, Sven, or Francois.

But, by “investing” time in the U.S. line, he felt a compulsion to stay, which is about as rational as buying a movie ticket and going to see the show despite later catching pneumonia and hearing from a friend that it’s awful. This sunk cost fallacy is best known as an investing blunder. You go out and buy a share of XYZ Corp at $100 a share and it subsequently falls to $90. Let’s say some new information comes out that makes you re-think the wisdom of investing in the stock at even this lower price. Many people will keep their investment in this case because of their fixation with their $100 investment rather than asking whether it is even worth $90, which is the “correct” way to view the problem.

Clearly the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to cognitive biases as I personally am in the middle of a giant sunk cost blunder myself, despite writing a book about why people are bad investors. Having invested $100 in an Unlimited PastaPass from Olive Garden (long story – faithful readers may be hearing more about this soon), I’ve been making fairly full use of it, eating at the chain about once a day.

But I don’t have to eat pasta, and in many cases I went there when I really didn’t feel like eating at America’s favorite faux-Tuscan chain. Since I already had paid for it, though, I keep thinking it would be silly not to make use of it. This even has been the case when I could have eaten perfectly tasty leftovers for free or just skipped lunch, as I often do.

Anyway, I owe my existence, empty calories and all, to the sunk cost fallacy, so it isn’t all bad.

 

 

 

 

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For Whom the Ironman Tolls

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The Wall Street Journal isn’t all business. Long time readers know that nearly every issue (“nearly” because there wasn’t one on Sept 12, 2001, for example) has a Page One article known as the “A-hed” that is whimsical. I’ve been reading them since I’ve been reading the paper — a pretty long time — but recently learned that they’ve been a regular feature of the WSJ about three times as long — over 75 years — by reading a piece written by Barry Newman.

Newman is known as “King of the A-hed.” He has written … wait for it … over 400 A-heds (*see correction below) in his time at the WSJ. A-heds are now about 1,000 carefully-edited words long, but they probably used to be longer, as much else was in the good old days. That, then, is (conservatively) A Tale of Two Cities times three. But, in my humble opinion, it’s a lot more impressive than what Dickens churned out in serialized form.

A-heds don’t only have to be funny. They have to be something funny that someone, somewhere else hasn’t written about yet, or did but in an unfunny way. Coming up with hundreds of A-heds while having a day job being a reporter is simply amazing. I started writing them soon after I joined the Journal and recently published my eighth and ninth A-hed in fairly quick succession. I had taken a couple of years off from A-heds to concentrate on writing and then selling my book, so call that nine in three years out of the five-and-a-half I’ve been at the paper, which is considered a lot. At that pace, though, I’ll be 178 years old when I catch up to Barry.

Naturally they are about quality rather than quantity, but Barry’s A-heds are great too. Many of them (and those of other current and former colleagues) were collected in a book, Dogfight at the Pentagon. Another, older collection is called Floating off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal’s Middle Column.

Every A-hed has come to me as an epiphany – usually hearing about something that I thought was funny and hadn’t been written about before. How many of those does one person have?

Even if I get out more and start working nights and weekends, I don’t think I’ll catch up to Barry in terms of sheer volume, much less quality, but I’m trying. I once wrote about one of my A-heds on this blog. Since I haven’t been updating Cacophony and Cheese much, I thought I’d recap a couple of recent ones while providing links to the rest. I don’t get paid extra for them or even get any time off from my job of writing and editing stuff about business. They are a labor of love and lots of fun. Even better than seeing them published is interviewing the subjects from odd car collectors to hot pepper eaters, sneaky hitchhikers, minivan racers, scavenger hunters and grammar pedants.

My most recent A-hed was about companies named after (or sharing the name of) fictional ones. For example, there were Stark Industries, Wayne Enterprises, Pied Piper, and Bluth Construction. Their founders didn’t call them that because they were superhero or comedy fans. They came about them in the normal way, such as having the last name “Stark” or “Bluth.” Still, having a name like that on the masthead makes life anything but normal for their owners. Then there are iniTech, Vandelay Industries, and Virtucon – all intentionally named after their fictional counterparts with lots of fun and unexpected consequences. Finally there Japan’s Cyberdyne Systems which makes a HAL robot but claims not to have gotten the name from The Terminator or 2001: A Space Odyssey. (It’s a heckuva coincidence, don’t you think?).

The one before that was about the disappearance of the word “whom” from the English language. Among the people I interviewed was the author of Dr. Whom: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Parodication and the founder of the Grand Order of the Whomic Empire. I also spoke with a Google engineer who wrote a program that corrects the annoyingly incorrect (to me, at least) “Who to follow” prompt on Twitter. The spokesperson for Twitter was a very good sport about it.

HC-GV203_word.eps

Here’s a list of my earlier A-heds:

The Arms Race to Grow World’s Hottest Pepper Goes Nuclear

Grocery Shoppers, Start Your Engines: Minivans Hit the Racetrack

Offal Tale: For This Club, Everything Is on the Menu

Ahoy, Driver! An Amphibious Car Refuses to Sink Into Oblivion

The Trabant Takes Manhattan on a Tour of East Bloc Nostalgia

Flop at the Box Office Spawns a Generation of ‘Midnight Madness’

At Famous Hudson River Crossing, Picking Up Hitchhikers Takes a Toll

Which one was my favorite? I love all of my A-hed children equally and am looking forward to having a much larger brood.

*Correction: Barry contacted me weeks after this was written and points out that he wrote 400 Page One stories and not 400 A-heds (that figure came from an article about him). I’m still impressed!

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Grandma Got Run Over by a Midterm

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Many years ago, when I headed off to college, I had just one living parent and one surviving grandparent. Barring some unforeseen tragedy, my oldest son should ship off to his still-unknown alma mater not only with both me and his mother above ground but also both of his grandmothers. I hope and pray that they survive the next four years.

What has me so worried? It’s a study I ran across from biology professor Mike Adams of Eastern Connecticut State University who found a shocking fact based on two decades of tracking his own students:  College is highly fatal to grandmothers.

Grannies, it seems, are 10 times more likely to die right before a midterm than any other time and nearly 20 times as likely to die before finals. Even more puzzling is the fact that weaker pupils’ grandmothers are a lot frailer than those of ‘A’ students.

When no exam was imminent for a student of his, there were an average 0.04 grandmother fatalities per 100 students. But the stress of exams for grandparents of the worst students seems to have been too much in many cases, making them 55 times as likely to die.

Since my son didn’t apply to any colleges in Connecticut, I was holding out hope that this was a strictly regional phenomenon and that my mom and mother-in-law would be unaffected. Professor Adams quickly disabused me of this notion. Even studying abroad, it seems, wouldn’t change the grim calculus: In England the phenomenon is called “Graveyard Grannies” and in France “Chere Grand’mere.”

I’m happy to report that, at 75 and 80, they’re in fine health for their ages. If they weren’t rooting for my son to make the Dean’s List, though, they sure will be after reading this.

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Dear Woody Johnson

aapic

Congratulations on being appointed Ambassador to Great Britain. Believe it or not, the pomp and prestige of the office you’re assuming rivals that of owning the 27th best football team in the NFL.  As a former American expat who lived in London for many years, here’s some friendly advice to make sure that the Trump administration makes the best possible impression at the Court of St. James. You’re welcome.

  1. British people don’t eat normal food like cheese fries served in commemorative green plastic helmets. Weird, right? To fit in, you’ll have to ask for and consume staples of their cuisine such as plum duff, spotted dick, black pudding, Marmite, and haggis. It’s polite to ask for seconds.
  1. The educational system is very poor compared to what we have in the U.S., probably because their universities are so old. You’ll notice, for example, spelling errors everywhere. I regularly saw words like color written with an extra “u” and the “er” in words like center reversed. As a civilizing influence and a proud graduate of the University of Arizona, the Brits will greatly appreciate being corrected in such matters and may even bestow upon you the honorific “tosser.”
  1. Britain doesn’t have a president. Instead they are ruled by a monarch, though they also have a debating society called Parliament that chooses a sort of chief called Prime Minister. Concentrate your energy on the woman in charge, Queen Elizabeth, who I hear is a huge Jets fan.
  1. Guess what? The Brits absolutely love, love, love football so you’ll have lots to talk about with them. Better yet, you can opine on strategy there as they haven’t heard of your unfortunate personnel choices like Geno Smith and Tim Tebow.
  1. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. (By the way, you’re not literally in Rome – that’s the capital of Italy, a different country that’s north of Scotland). British men always wear bowler hats and stop everything they’re doing for “elevenses” in the late morning and high tea in the afternoon, just like in Downton Abbey.
  1. You may notice that, though you’re ambassador to a single country, some Brits act as if there are countries within a country. This is just like U.S. states and, while acknowledging regional pride, you shouldn’t be too fussy about the distinction. We don’t call people from Georgia Georgians, do we? Whether in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland, just refer to everyone as “English” and you’ll be in good shape.

Well, that’s everything I can think of at the moment. Good luck or, as the Brits say, “dog’s bollocks!”

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You too can be a literary critic!

aapic

This post has a point so please bear with me and read to the bottom. If you’re in a hurry, just skip to the bottom.

A few years ago someone “tweeted at” me with a link to a book that I needed to check out. For those not au fait with Twitter, this means he was both a stranger to me (usually the case on Twitter) and also that I wasn’t following him (so he couldn’t send a direct message). There are plenty of kooks on social media, but often such messages are from a perfectly normal person bringing something to your attention or promoting themselves to a journalist. I usually ignore the latter, but I checked this one out as he had written a supposedly riveting “financial thriller” – my great white whale.

Normally someone trying to get a journalist to read a book will offer to send them a copy or just put one in the mail unsolicited. The author, whose name I’ll refrain from mentioning, didn’t have a publisher and only provided a link to the book’s Amazon page. In other words, he was a literary spammer.

I clicked anyway and saw dozens and dozens of five star reviews. They had titles like “Awesome Historical Thriller” and “Incredible Book…Ripped Out of Tomorrow’s Headlines!” None of the top reviews showed “Verified Purchase” which, since the book was unlikely to have been available in bookstores, was odd. Where did they buy it? Did they really buy it?

There also were no editorial reviews as such – not even from places such as Kirkus, which will write one for any book for a fee. The author bio had poor grammar such as: “He lives on a 300+ year old farm in Connecticut deeded from King George of England with his children.” I downloaded the free Kindle sample anyway and read the whole thing. It was bad. I’ll let a couple of the are one-star reviewers sum it up:

 “The author does not demonstrate basic grammar skills, sentence construction, nor realistic dialogue formation. He should have invested in the advice of a professional editor before self-publishing this book. I would suggest he find a good editor and rework the novel for republishing under a different title.”

And:

“Everyone has a story to tell but not everyone is cut out to be a writer. The numerous, obviously contrived reviews are not doing the author any favors. It is hard to tell someone that something they worked hard on is poorly done, but sometimes the truth is more important. This book is not good. It is not even an approximation of good. REDACTED may be a knowledgeable and intelligent individual but he is not a writer and I hope for the sake of his family and friends that he does not attempt another book (at least until he has taken a high school level composition class).”

These are outweighed by some 183 mostly breathless five star reviews and very few in-between. In other words, when someone decides whether to buy the book in question, he or she will see that it has an average rating of 4.6 stars. Just to put that in context, The Great Gatsby and Lolita each have 4.3 stars. The Bonfire of the Vanities, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator and The Financier, three well-regarded works of fiction involving finance, have 4.2, 4.5, and 4.4 stars, respectively.

Clearly the author solicited friends and family or a paid service – perhaps including “King George of England and his children” – to write positive reviews.

Why should you care? I guess it’s not a big deal as long as you can see past the fakery, though it does make it tough to evaluate all sorts of consumer products on Amazon or restaurants on Yelp where the deception is a little slicker.

And why do I care? Well, I just published my first book. It has some very nice advance praise and has been written up in The New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Money, USA Today, Barron’s and excerpted in The Wall Street Journal, Marketwatch, and elsewhere. I’m grateful for that and all the other media exposure as I’d like people to buy it.

But a lot of people just hear about it in cyberspace, navigate to the Amazon page, and check out strangers’ reviews. There are some really nice ones and, for a while, all were five stars. I was worried that I’d look like the aforementioned author. Then a couple of four star ones crept in and even a three star and I actually was sort of relieved. Then, all of a sudden, a couple of one star reviews started landing. “Waste of money!” and “The worst book on investing I have ever read!” On Goodreads, which doesn’t provide proof of purchase, some of the reviews criticized stuff that wasn’t even in the book.

I guess they’re entitled to their opinions and, according to Amazon at least, they made “verified purchases.” A former colleague of mine, Kaja Whitehouse, is a dogged investigative reporter and also an author of a book about wills. It looks like a really useful book and the two reviewers that are verified purchases both gave it five stars. Then there are several one star reviews all submitted on the same day from non-verified reviewers (see screenshot below). They are by people who never reviewed any other books. Clearly she wrote something negative about a company they owned and they punished her by trashing her book, which now has an average rating of 2.3.

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I’m not a victim of a smear, but all this made me realize that many books benefit from friendly reviews, which brings me to the point of this post. I thanked friends and strangers alike who told me they liked my book but I never asked them to go and write a review.

Now I’m politely asking. If you didn’t read the book then please don’t go onto Amazon or Goodreads and click five stars for my benefit. But, if you read and have something to say, I’d really appreciate a little bit of support. And if you hated it? Well, it’s a free country, but nobody likes a gossip.

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