Sunday, September 28, 2014

Illustrating the value of HUMINT

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, counterintelligence, spies, terrorism, memoirs

My first exposure to Muslims was in graduate school, where many classmates were from Iran and Saudi Arabia. I guess that makes sense for a graduate program in Geology. My collecting partner the first two years was an Alaskan who had married a woman from Iran and had converted to Islam. We didn't talk much about religion, mainly because the branch of Shi'a to which he belonged was not particularly evangelical. But I did observe him and his co-religionists, as I suppose he observed me, as it was known that I led a small church. One particular event has stuck with me.

We had returned from a day in the field, and happened to meet two Iranian men in the lab. He cheerfully greeted them, "As salamu alaykum!" One remained silent, and the other, almost shamefacedly, mumbled the standard Arabic response. I am familiar with such things. Converts to a faith are typically more ardent than "old hands" who have been brought up in it. Those guys would probably defend Islam to the death, but were only glancingly observant in their daily life. They were the Islamic version of "nominal Christians".

There is another characteristic of religious conversion. After a number of years, or a decade or two, one who was converted as an adult is somewhat likely to re-convert, either to a different faith, or back to the former one. While most converts retain their new faith their whole life, a significant number do not. Having been "elsewhere" for their formative years, they are more open to different ideas.

In the case of Morten Storm, his conversion to Islam at age 20 was rapid and almost a shattering experience. He'd been quite a troublemaker, in and out of jail in his native Denmark. But he developed a conscience and became disaffected with gang life. He read about Islam in a local library book and was entranced. He plunged into his new faith, and was soon radicalized, even traveling to Yemen, both to learn Arabic and to live among the most devoted Muslims he knew of. He initially followed Salafism, which is comparatively peaceable. His progress into fully radical Islam, and later disaffection with it, to the point of working for three Western intelligence agencies, are revealed in Agent Storm: My Life Inside Al Qaeda and the CIA, written with Paul Cruikshank and Tim Lister.

Islam is not the monolithic entity Westerners tend to see. There are "denominations" that compete strongly with one another. The competition and even hatred within Islam got to Storm's conscience, and after ten years, shortly after being questioned by an agent of the Danish intelligence agency PET, he contacted them and began a near-decade of living a double life. He tells of his association with many radical leaders in Yemen, Denmark, London and elsewhere. The core of the drama is work that led to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011.

Morten Storm had considered Awlaki a friend, in spite of his disgust with Awlaki's plans to terrorize civilians, and felt guilty over his death. He was at that time working with both the CIA and PET and MI6. The Americans drove the assassination, against the objections of the Danish and British agents. They'd promised Storm quite a reward for his work, but cut him loose right afterward, claiming they had used other channels to reach Awlaki, not him. He had the documentation to prove them wrong, but they ignored him.

I have read a number of memoirs of former CIA "overseas assets", who were all treated shabbily. The CIA has a pattern of courting an "asset" very diligently (and expensively) but later dropping the ball, leaving him dangling. Such cavalier behavior has a lot to do with the CIA's poor reputation in the spy world.

However it happened, Storm had a third conversion, so to speak. He actually made one more go at helping PET against other al Qaeda leaders who still trusted him, so much so that MI6 and the CIA regained interest. But he was warned by another "asset" that the CIA was planning to allow him to be killed along with their next target. This may or may not have been true, but he was sufficiently distrustful that he decided to get out of the spy business. That is no easy task, and his last chapter is titled "A Spy in the Cold", indicating that neither CIA nor MI6 nor PET did anything to rehabilitate him or even offer him protection.

In the epilogue, we find that he had to rehabilitate himself. Somehow, he managed. The street kid from Denmark had the street smarts to record key conversations, which probably kept the various agencies at arms' length. All the spy agencies have been remarkably slow at recognizing the power of the phone in everyone's pocket. His co-authors simply state that he now lives in "an undisclosed location". May it remain undisclosed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Keeping what we have against all odds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, scams, aging, self protection

The older we get, the more paranoia is justified. Someone really is out to get us! Here are the top 5 risk factors for getting scammed:

  1. You are older than 55, and the risk goes up every year.
  2. You think you are too smart to be scammed.
  3. You are uncertain your retirement savings will last.
  4. You are suspicious of "traditional" investments ("the Market").
  5. You frequently attend "free dinner" seminars about retirement-related subjects.
A couple of years ago AARP sponsored a new book, Outsmarting the Scam Artists: How to Protect Yourself From the Most Clever Cons by Doug Shadel. Now it is out in a large-print paperback, making it affordable and easier to read. In it we find the way a scammer tries to get us "under the ether", numbed by emotional factors and our own greed (and don't think you don't have any greed!). We also learn the process they have worked out to fleece us to the maximum extent.

A scam typically has four stages, though the last stage is not always used:
  • The Front is the initial contact. This turns a cold call into a prospect who is "qualified", that is, has told the front man of having sufficient funds. The front man is also tasked with weaseling out of us a lot of personal information, to be used in the next step.
  • The Drive persuades a prospect to "invest" or pay for some "benefit". This can be a hard sell or a soft sell, but it'll soon be hard on your bank account! It usually includes lots of grooming and flattery.
  • The Close is the actual transfer of funds.
  • The Load is a follow-up that may lead to even more, often much more, money being transferred. Typically, someone who has just invested will feel great for a few days, and so can be called again with a "new, last minute opportunity" to invest even more. This turns a fleecing into a scalping.
Some telephone boiler rooms (telephones are the weapon of choice these days. Guns and lock picks are so passé) employ enough callers to have specialists in each stage. Other callers can do it all. The process is described in detail in the first 3 chapters, and in the following 7 chapters, describing 7 major cons, each step is explained in context.

The final 3 chapters are titled, "How to Fight Fraud". The trouble is, it is like fighting the reigning heavyweight champ. You, no matter who YOU are, are out of your league. The best we can do is to cut of the Front at the earliest opportunity. Appendix A helps you assess your vulnerability to fraud. Many of the questions relate to practices that make you more likely to get a call, or more likely to answer a questionable ad (and then if you argue with the guy on the phone, he can say, "But you called me!"). If you are never in phone contact, there is no Front!

As to those 5 items above:
  1. Why are older folks targets? We usually have more money, and as we get very old, we are more likely to be lonely or fearful, and the old thinker slows down, a lot.
  2. People who don't know much about money, and are honest with themselves about that, make poor targets. Its the more educated, more sophisticated among us, particularly someone more open to "alternative investments", who are the ripest targets.
  3. If we're scared we'll run out of money, we know we have less time for money to grow because we are using it right now! So we are more open to get-rich-quick schemes. You are more likely to hit the lottery than to get rich on any scheme that starts with a phone call out of the blue.
  4. Are you fearful of "the Market"? Do you think gold, or an oil well, or investing in movie production, or windmills, or (the list is Loooooong!), can make you a mint? Boy, are you ripe for the fleecing!
  5. Because of item #4, do you go to every investment "dinner" you can get to? Your uncertainty and greed are showing. The name lists from such seminars are one of the main sources of target lists bought by boiler rooms trolling for prospects. The more "free" dinners you eat, the more calls you are going to get. Some guy with just the right formula to catch your interest just might take you right to the poor house.
So what can we do? Get on every "do not call" list you can. Several are listed in Appendix B. If your phone doesn't have Caller ID, get one that has it, and has an answering machine. If you don't recognize a phone number, don't answer. The answering machine will either induce the caller to hang up, or it'll give you breathing room to ask yourself, "Do I really want to talk about that, with a total stranger?" And those enticing but all-too-vague ads in the paper or in e-mail? Ignore, ignore, ignore. The less junk mail and spam you read, the better.

Well, if even one person hangs onto life savings, who might have been scammed, this book (and perhaps this post) will have done a good job.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The other non-repeatable phenomenon

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, humor, comedy

There is a class of phenomena, in which nearly everyone participates, but they are not amenable to scientific experiment. They are not repeatable. Sometimes a person does certain actions singly, sometimes they are done by cooperating persons acting together. Sometimes the functions of the body alone are used, sometimes other artifacts will be used. One particular person or one particular group may do certain things and others witnessing it are unmoved or uncaring. A different person or group, carrying out the same activities and perhaps using the same kinds of objects, or not, may move other persons, even a great many others, to feel strong emotions. Further, from one day to the next the response can differ significantly.

What kind of phenomena are these? Music!

Precisely the same paragraph above can be stated, aimed at a different answer: Comedy!

Or, in a broader sense, Humor!

Some 25 years ago the company where I worked sponsored "informances" by various performers. In one case we were visited by a professional clown. He was a dwarf, and an expert at all kinds of bizarre behavior and pratfalls that reliably induced us to laugh ourselves silly. Yet he spoke of his ambition to find the "lowest Comic denominator", a "formula" that would cause people to laugh regardless of cultural background. He never found it.

He knew how to make a Midwestern American audience laugh joyfully. He told of going onstage in an African country, where he walked out and promptly took a pratfall. Several people in the front row rushed onstage to make sure he was unhurt. Nobody laughed. They were horrified that their distinguished visitor might be injured.

I wonder if Peter McGraw or Joel Warner ever heard of him. Probably not. But they do mention several groups and institutes that study humor. They spent a year or so traveling the USA and the world to evaluate a theory Peter McGraw had developed of "benign violation." Dr. McGraw directs the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at U Colorado in Boulder and Mr. Warner is a writer who works out of Denver. Together they wrote The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

They began and ended their journey with sessions in comedy clubs, where Pete tried his hand at stand-up comedy. In between, in addition to obligatory visits to LA and NYC, they visited places where you'd expect life is too tragic for laughter (Tanzania and Palestine) and others where you'd think people are much too laid-back (Scandinavia) or rigid (Japan) for comedy to work well. They followed, and joined in with, a troupe of 100 clowns who go yearly to Iquitos, Peru, the most inaccessible large city, to observe how humor and comedy might ameliorate the tragic level of poverty there. They found just putting on a red nose and floppy clothes sets up both clown and observers for funny business.

What is "benign violation"? Dr. McGraw sees a comic as looking for something that violates mores or norms, and finding a way to make it less threatening, more benign. A clown's pratfall, from which he pops up unharmed and roaring with laughter, is an example. So is the "Just kidding" kind of laughter we use to deliver news that might cause mild distress. Great distress is another thing, though the authors report on the cast of Saturday Night Live who decided to carry on with the show on Saturday, September 15, 2001, just 4 days after "9-11"!

But consider a take-off on the "chicken-road" kind of joke:
Why did the chicken cross the road?
To show the armadillo that it is possible.
It helps if you've been to Oklahoma or north Texas, where armadillos are the most frequent road kill. What's the violation here? The dead armadillo. And the benign part? The chicken helping out.

I am not sure every kind of humor can be fit into this model. Dr. McGraw seems able to do so, but then, this is his baby, and a scientist with a theory can be very clever indeed, getting "everything to fit".

Reading the book led me to consider the different meanings of "humor" and "comedy". "Humor" refers both to our sense that some things are funny or amusing and the quality of situations and narratives (written or spoken) that we find funny or amusing. "Comedy" is a genre of entertainment that primarily exploits humor to make an audience laugh. It is an interesting paradox that when most of us tell a joke, we frequently laugh along with those we tell it to, but when a comic makes jokes, he or she must not laugh. At least, that is the modern restriction. I remember how much fun Red Skelton got from his own jokes, and none of us felt he shouldn't laugh with us. It is also interesting that we laugh about quite a number of things that aren't really funny. It seems laughter is a great social lubricant. I know one woman who ends every single sentence with a laugh or a giggle.

Though both authors had an equal hand in writing the book, its point of view is of Joel observing Pete. It is an interesting option, and probably made for better flow of the writing than other devices for co-authors to speak to us. Joel reports that a year in search of humor has made him funnier, and Pete seems to have done a much better job with his second stand-up routine. He recognized that comics who succeed have to work at it diligently for a long time. Many people can tell jokes that have their friends in stitches, but would probably flop badly before a tough crowd at a comedy club.

But Joel seems to have found a simpler formula than trying to figure out benign violation: Go to a costume store and buy a red nose. Just putting that on seems to make it possible for you to do things you usually wouldn't dare, and for others to find them funny. Without the nose, they might instead be angry or just puzzled. Worth a try!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Manga Freud

kw: book reviews, graphic texts, psychology, history

A friend was discarding old books, so I grabbed a few. Taking a break from new releases, I first opened Freud for Beginners, written by Richard Appignanesi and illustrated by Oscar Zarate. First published in 1979 by Icon Press, it is one of a series of for Beginners books, sort of on the lines of the for Dummies series of more recent date. Except these are graphic texts, similar to Manga, as this half-page shows:

In 1979, Freud was still an iconic figure, but today nearly everything Freudian is discounted. Yet most discoveries since his time are based on his work, if only in reaction.

It doesn't take long to go through a book when the text totals a dozen pages or so. As condensed as it is, it gets the main points across, making it even more clear that Freud's writings and work tell us as much about Freud as about ourselves.

The continued work in psychology over the past century or so and also artificial intelligence for more than half a century illustrate that the human mind is far too complex to summarize in any checklist. As I've begun to realize, the differences among us are wide-ranging and profound.

If we simplify the human experience onto a single spectrum, from red to violet, any one individual's mind would occupy only a tiny bit, say from orange-red to orange-yellow, with perhaps a little splash of greenish, while another's might be all in the mid-blues and a bit of reddish, having nearly no overlap with the other. It is in our pre-human capabilities that we overlap sufficiently to be able to communicate.

The book was a fun, quick read.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A silver spoon and then some

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, memoirs, childhood, wealth

Anthony Russell isn't the first to write of growing up "catastrophically coddled" in the "monumental luxury" of an aristocratic British family (another recent example is A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth's Castle by Liza Campbell). However, having two grandmothers, who own two castles, raises the stakes a bit, particularly when the primary one is Leeds Castle, frequently referred to as the loveliest castle in England, or in the world. As he writes in Outrageous Fortune: Growing Up at Leeds Castle, Anthony Russell and his family spent most weekends there until he was ready to move out on his own.

In this panorama from Wikimedia, the original 12th Century castle is on the left, and the "modern", 17th Century and later structures are to the right. If I have figured out the author's descriptions, the more central structure is the Maiden Tower, where the maids in waiting for Catherine of Aragon were housed for the wedding of Henry VIII; it was remodeled and the author's family were moved there when a fourth child was born (Anthony was the third).

There's just a bit of "poor little rich kid" about the book, and not unjustified. He writes of "the castle way", a relic of feudal times maintained by the strong will and management skills of his maternal grandmother, Lady Baillie, whom he dubs Granny B. She had bought the castle for a bit less than a million pounds sterling in the mid 1920s (late in the Downton Abbey era, to fans of the show). That comes to about $55 million in current purchasing power. Its upkeep had been neglected since about 1800, and she quickly took that in hand, restoring its elegance.

I sometimes equate people's station in life with what they collect, and how fervently they do so. My parents and I visited two mansions in Delaware on the same day in 1997. In the morning, the Shipley Manor, and in the afternoon, Winterthur, one of the du Pont homes. Shipley Manor is a lovely, large house, once filled with artworks, though fewer remain at present, on stunning grounds with a substantial collection of plantings, a private arboretum in its day. Half of Shipley Manor would fit into one of the larger rooms of Winterthur, which Henry Francis du Pont built to house his collection of rooms from other mansions, primarily American. Rooms. He or his agents would go to a place, contract for the purchase of one or more rooms, and obtain measurements for a structure to be built to house them. The total is 175 rooms and their furnishings and artworks. At the end of the day, I said to my folks, "Now I know the difference between rich and stinking rich."

In addition to her passion for restoring and living well in Leeds, Granny B collected people. Not too many, but she had her "court" of regulars aristocrats at various levels, who tended to hang out at Leeds, or wherever she was in various seasons, plus an estate manager and a couple of advisers, and the staff of 50 or so who looked after castle affairs, the "below stairs" staff overseen by an impeccable butler.

Granny A, Lady Ampthill, was a different sort of woman. Her Irish castle was smaller, but sumptuous enough! She loved riding and fox hunts. She was just as strong willed as Granny B but had differing interests, and employed only a skeleton staff. The author admits that though visits with her were few, he'd have been better prepared for "life outside" by growing up under her care. Sadly, she and her son could only bear one another in small doses, so her grandchildren saw little of her.

In the early 1920s a scandal about the paternity of Granny A's son, the author's father, was decided favorably, though not to the liking of a younger heir. In the 1960s this heir revived the matter, which was finally decided the same as before. This emphasizes the British style of inheritance, in which the eldest son gets everything, unless there are no sons; only then can a woman inherit. Daughters and younger sons may get trust fund pensions at most. Anthony never mentions that, as the third son, the trust that supported him from age 21 was the most he could expect from his family's estate. He doesn't mention the level of support provided, but I suspect it far exceeds my Social Security!

The castle way was a combination of stiff-upper-lip stoicism amidst amazing luxury and, for the children, the clear understanding that they were to be neither seen nor heard except upon explicit invitation. Anthony and his brothers and younger sister were brought up by Nanny Penney, whom they loved at least as much as their mother. She was their constant companion and guide and mentor. Though the boys might have gained much from the mentorship of "Morg", David Margesson, the administrator for Granny B, who clearly loved the children, contact was quite limited by the castle way.

Anthony was seventeen when his older brother James died in a car accident. This incident and its aftermath pretty much bring the memoir to a close. The two closing chapters mainly serve to hint at the author's gradual success in making a life for himself since about 1970. He never mentions "intimations of mortality", and though the chapter's title is "Heaven and Hell", its focus is on his inner journey to come to terms with bereavement, a nearly silent witness to his parents' grief.

I enjoy touring castles that permit visitors. Now even more than before, I'm glad I don't live in one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lab rats of the world, unite

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, social experimentation, memoirs

George Plimpton may not have created the genre of participatory journalism, but he has certainly inspired a generation of self-experimenters. A. J. Jacobs of Esquire magazine comes close to calling himself "Plimpton Lite" early on in The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Live as an Experiment. He hasn't been clobbered by any heavyweight champions, nor "enjoyed" earning flop sweat at stand-up comedy. But during a recent year or so, he has spent periods from a day to a month

  • Impersonating his family's nanny on an online dating site (with her collaboration)
  • Outsourcing most of the busy work in his life to two companies in India (one is still on retainer)
  • Telling the truth relentlessly, including saying whatever pops into his head (with variable success, and variable amounts of risk)
  • For an evening at the Oscars, impersonating a very shy actor whom he resembles (with the actor's grateful consent)
  • Attempting to make every decision rationally, such as buying about 40 kinds of tooth paste to test them all (I'd have suggested getting an online subscription to Consumer Reports)
  • After arranging a bio article for Esquire that included nude photography, he accepted the woman's suggestion that he also be photographed nude, and his photo published with hers in the article.
  • Attempting to conduct himself as George Washington would have. This included bowing rather than shaking hands (he'd have done well to get pointers from Donald Trump)
  • Doing only one thing at a time, after learning that "multitasking" is not real; we actually do task switching, and the more frequently we do so, the more time we waste.
  • Catering to his wife's every whim (to the extent that this is possible for a guy!) He also offered his wife the chance to write the CODA to this chapter, which she accepted with gleeful alacrity!
Appendix A consists of the 110 rules that  George Washington, in early middle age, wrote out and attempted to follow. Old George had been quite a jerk when younger, cherry tree fables notwithstanding, and crafted himself into an admirable specimen, though not the demigod later writers adulated.

Appendix B defines a few dozen cognitive errors to which we all fall prey, that he compiled as he got into being Vulcanly rational. On this, it occurred to me that the makers of Star Trek were wise to make Spock only half Vulcan. It would have been impossible for any actor to behave in a totally rational Vulcan way.

My favorite cognitive bias, in full as he wrote it:
Bias Blind Spot — We fail to compensate for those biases that we're aware of. (In other words, even behavioral economists fall for biases.)
A slogan my company used for years (not recently, curiously) was "Continuous Improvement". A. J. Jacobs reports that some of these experiments affected his life and improved his marriage. For example, the month of truth-telling opened his eyes to how much he and his wife bicker about trifles. They haven't stopped bickering, but, he writes, it has reduced by about a third. Simply saying what you mean without sniping can gradually engender more trust. But he judges that saying whatever pops into your head is usually destructive. We can filter what we say without lying, and about a dozen of George Washington's rules address the same matter.

Experimentation is a good way of expanding our comfort zone. A certain amount of experiment is needed to continuously improve. The company slogan may have been about business, but we can apply it to our lives. A portion of the chorus of a song I wrote has it
We are dealt the cards, /But our own hand we play.
If this book inspires some of us to try new and better things, it will have done its job.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

When a little craziness helps

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, psychopaths

What does it take to become the best of the best, in medicine, as an astronaut, … or as a killer? Do the steely resolve and immunity to distraction seen in top surgeons, for example, mean that they are psychopaths? During the first Moon landing in 1969, Neil Armstrong piloted "Eagle" to a safe landing on fumes, and his heart rate didn't waver. Was he a psychopath? In The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success, Kevin Dutton writes much of "functional psychopaths", meaning people who exhibit psychopathic traits while achieving success in non-criminal endeavors.

Early in the book we find that Dr. Dutton's father was a psychopath, as was a school friend. This must have had a lot to do with his career as a psychologist. He proposes that certain psychopathic traits lead to greater success, that many top leaders in business, political, and technology are well endowed with analytical coldness coupled with devastating charm and an ability to shrug off rejection or misfortune, that are seen in our most dangerous criminals.

The traits he discusses, that work together to make a psychopath number 8, in 3 groups:

  1. Self-Centered Impulsivity, composed of Machiavellian Egocentricity, Impulsive Nonconformity, Blame Externalization, and Carefree Nonplanfulness.
  2. Fearless Dominance, composed of Social Potency, Fearlessness, and Stress Immunity.
  3. Coldheartedness
A test called the PPI determines the strength of each of these traits. Most people score 2 or 3, but of those few who score more than 5, there seems to be a rapid jump to 30 or more. If this is so, then the test has great discriminatory power. At one point he spent time with a number of men in an asylum named Broadmoor, where the most dangerous psychopaths in England are kept. For these unfortunates, all 8 "dials" are turned up to the maximum.

After a social and historical discussion of the phenomenon and its basic psychology, we are introduced to the notion of a "functional psychopath", someone who has several of these traits strongly, but has greater self control and patience. That is, they may be nonconformists, but the impulsivity is lacking and they are better planners. Is it proper to call such people psychopaths, even if the softening adjective "functional" is added?

I think not. Let us remember that "psychopath" literally means "suffering soul", and as the -path suffix is used medically, "psychopath" means "sick mind". More than any other, it is the psychopath of which people say, "He's SICK!". And "he" is usually the sick one; male psychopaths greatly outnumber female psychopaths. We need new terminology. We can also understand the 8 factors better by looking at each as the pole of a spectrum, splitting one of them, and dispensing with heated adjectives:
  • Egocentric versus Unselfish
  • Impulsive and Spontaneous versus Deliberate
  • Nonconforming versus Compliant
  • Blaming versus Taking Responsibility
  • Carefree versus Anxious
  • Socially Potent versus Socially Weak or Needy
  • Fearless versus Cautious
  • Stress-Immune versus Reactive
  • Coldhearted versus Warmhearted
Looking at these items on the left, I can see how someone who matches them all would be a formidable beast. And we think of the classic wimp as someone with a pathological excess of all the items on the right. Even Taking Responsibility can go wrong if one takes on the world's worries without the clout to do anything about any of them. These are not a complete list of personality factors. Rather, they are those expressed and combined to a troubling degree in psychopaths.

Dr. Dutton believes we would do well to learn to internalize and express the left-side traits a little more, as the situation warrants. For example, when making investment decisions, coldhearted analysis leads to better gains in nearly every case. But coldhearted treatment of your unhappy child will damage or sever the relationship. Not that a psychopath cares for relationships anyway, but the rest of us do need them.

I fully agree. I once took a business writing class. One preliminary exercise was to redraft a very badly written letter from an employee to his supervisor, requesting a change to a new supplier because of poor service by the current vendor. It wasn't hard to turn 3 pages of explainery into a one-page letter that I was pretty happy with. After a night's sleep, however, I crafted a half-page version which I also turned in, with the note, "Here's how I'd write it to a supervisor I didn't fear." The instructor made much of this in class the first day, saying it was the most effective one of them all. This experience made a big difference in the way I wrote to my bosses after that. It was a good difference for my career!

On another occasion, years later, I had a manager, my supervisor's boss, who wanted me to drop everything and take on a project for which I knew I was poorly suited. As it happened, I'd nearly died of cancer more than a year previously, enduring a grueling surgery and half a year of chemo. I went into the surgery expecting to die. I didn't, and am now a 15-year survivor. I replied to the manager's request by politely declining and suggested names of people I thought would do a better job. Her response was to call me to her office and demand that I do the project. I looked at her coldly and said, "I already died. What can you do to me?" I walked out and engineered a transfer to another manager's group. It did my career a great deal of good! As someone who usually wilts under authority, I am glad I could channel some inner steel when I needed it.

I think these are minor examples of what the author is getting at. None of us wants to become a totally sick mind, destroying and killing until we need to be locked away for life. But if we recognize that some traits which characterize a psychopath might be reachable when needed, we might become more successful while remaining healthy in mind and emotion. And you know, that "carefree nonplanfulness" bit sounds like the right equipment to take along on a vacation.

Monday, September 01, 2014

PS - About money, the experts don't know either

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, finance, justified paranoia

Time was (80 years ago), commission-free financial advisers were subjected by Federal law to the fiduciary standard: they were required to act in the best interests of their clients. Others, such as securities brokers, were not. There may be advisers today who are still subject to the fiduciary standard, but I haven't learned of a way to find any. Neither has Helaine Olen, author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry. The book is a must-read if you have the slightest interest in actually retiring some day.

At present, 43% of American families live paycheck-to-paycheck (p. 228, with a reference to an article on Unless they can greatly improve their income-vs-expense situation, retirement is pretty much impossible. Some could actually afford to save and invest, and I'll get to that in a moment. But most have to think about every purchase. They aren't wasting $5 a day on latté or espresso. They have to decide between healthier foods or cheaper, fattier processed foods; they have to scrimp for weeks so a kid can have a $10 gift to take to a birthday party. In the present (post-2007) economy, peoples' incomes are at an all time low.

There are some who could do better with better buying choices. I had the great good fortune to marry a thrifty woman. A friend of mine did not. When we were both in our mid 30's, we owned houses of similar value, and had similar mortgages. Their family income was a little more than ours. But where my wife and I each drove a car that had cost $1,000 or less (this was the 1980s), the other couple one day bought a big minivan for which they began paying more than $200/month (in today's dollars, nearly $500). They'd traded in a car of similar vintage to one of ours. Soon the wife complained to my wife that they were having a hard time paying both the mortgage and the car payment. My wife said, "It was your choice." You can imagine that put a bit of a strain on the relationship. But the picture was clear. Before the van, they could afford to save a little. They could afford the occasional maintenance on the older car. Now they stood a very real chance of losing both van and house.

What can we learn from reading Pound Foolish? Firstly, that nobody, but nobody with the title "financial advisor" is required to act in your best interest. There are some who do so, but they are rare. Secondly, that the best book about the subject is Personal Finance for Dummies by Eric Tyson, a book Ms Olen adores. I've sent for a copy of my own.

Do you have a favorite financial guru? Maybe one of the TV personalities such as Suze Orman or Dave Ramsey? Read this book, and prepare to have your ox gored. I think we can make a rule of thumb here, that the louder the voice, the more foolish the advice. Their stock in trade is not to explain how the national economic situation is affecting you and how to do as well as you can in spite of it. Rather, they blame you for your own problems. Where that might be justified, maybe you deserve a little blame. But in the main, many folks at a "financial seminar" are like the guy who was hit by a driver that ran the light, and gets scolded for stepping off the curb.

I do not use a financial adviser, though I've visited quite a few. I decided I'd prefer to have only myself to blame for investing mistakes. I had thought I was in the minority. Not so. About 65% of men who have money to invest go it alone, and nearly 55% of women. We may not make the best decisions, but we're not paying someone else a percent or two of our net worth to make equally bad decisions! Because the dirty secret of the financial advising industry is, Nobody Really Knows.

So, as you might guess, there is no segment of the industry the book ignores. All thrive, not on good advice, but on good marketing. Mr. Rich Dad, Poor Dad himself, Robert Kiyosaki, comes in for special opprobrium. His lowest cost seminars are mainly hard-sell sessions full of scare tactics to get folks to sign up for "courses" at higher prices. People Ms Olen contacted who'd attended such "courses" found them to be upwards of 70% further marketing for the really special "courses" that cost $12,000 and up, way, way up. It's sad. I really liked his book. Now I find out that "Rich Dad" was a fabrication. Depending on when you ask Kiyosaki, the man is either a composite of several rich men he knows (later in life, not as a child), or a completely imaginary character, or one of several other lame excuses for authoral indiscretion.

Here are the chief takeaways:

  • Every investment is risky. [The "safest" investments have little or no return. The days of the 5% savings bank rate are gone forever.]
  • Life happens. You can't plan for everything. [Bobbie Burns wrote, "The best-laid plans o' mice and men gang aft agley." Much earlier, in The Art of War we read, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Simply put, we plan for what we can anticipate, then there is a car crash, a fire, a divorce, an adverse lawsuit, and you can be wiped out overnight. These days, LifeLock warns that hackers are after our bank and investment accounts.]
  • The great majority of "advisers" really are out to get you, that is, your money. [Try to find one who will waive the yearly "maintenance" fee if your investments go down that year!]
Get this book. Read it. Take your lumps. Get Personal Finance for Dummies and read it. And take this proverb to bed with you until it guides every financial decision: Nothing Good Happens Fast.