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December 10, 2004

Ferris Bueller's teacher

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That would be one Ben Stein, whose work in everything he touches - movies, writing, punditry - I've enjoyed since forever.

He wrote a wonderful column for last Sunday's New York Times Business section about the series of mistakes and blunders he's made with investments and money over the years.

Now, this is one smart guy: he's the son of Herb Stein, a much-admired economist who was, among other things, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors during the presidency of Richard Nixon.

Ben Stein's also a lawyer and an economist but may have reached his apotheosis playing the über-soporific teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

In the course of his piece, he quoted a wonderful line from the legendary Benjamin Graham, who formed Warren Buffett's approach to investing.

Graham said about the stock market, "In the short run it's a voting machine, but in the long run, it's a weighing machine."

Get out your schadenfreude generator and happily enjoy the article.

    My Favorite Mistake? Not a Million-Dollar One

    My mother's mother, God bless her soul, used to say when a mistake was made, "Don't worry, you'll do it again."

    By that she meant that the human animal is so constructed that we barely learn from our mistakes, so let's not let them get to us.

    We're all human, and we all make mistakes.

    This occurs to me about 100 times a day as I contemplate the staggering investment mistakes I have made and as I hope and pray that, Grandma's words notwithstanding, I might not make them again.

    The cruelest examples are in real estate.

    I have an amazing gift for picking great real estate.

    The only problem is that I rarely put it to any long-term or even short-term use.

    In 1973, at the prodding of my wonderful girlfriend, Pat, I bought a house in one of the classiest neighborhoods of Washington, Wesley Heights.

    I paid $55,000 for a tiny, tiny house.

    Then I lost my job when Mr. Nixon, my boss, resigned, and a few months later the new chief of staff, a wonder boy named Donald Rumsfeld, gently suggested I seek greener pastures (and kindly offered to find some for me).

    I moved to New York to work at The Wall Street Journal and rented out my Wesley Heights house.

    But it was a lot of trouble dealing with tenants and paying my $300-a-month mortgage, so in 1974, I sold it for $75,000.

    It was recently for sale as a tear down, and the lot value alone was close to $1 million.

    In 1975, I went to a conference in Aspen, Colo. I loved it, and in 1978, my wife and I bought a house there.

    We paid about $280,000 for a house at a prime address on the West Side.

    But it was trouble from the start with contractors, rental agents, neighbors and leaking foundations.

    We sold it in 1980 for $320,000.

    I cannot even guess what it's worth now, but millions is a start.

    In the late 70's, we decided we wanted a place to stay in Manhattan during our visits from Los Angeles, where we lived.

    We could have bought a fine penthouse - 2 bdrs., 2 bths. - at 72nd Street and Park Avenue for $250,000.

    A look at the ceiling told me that there was a speck of water damage, so we passed.

    I cannot even guess what that's worth now.

    Then there are the country houses I could have owned but didn't.

    There was one near Oxford, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore, that I passed up because of fears of traffic on the Bay Bridge; one in the hunt country of Virginia that a friend talked me out of because of the traffic on I-66; and one in Sandpoint, Idaho, a booming garden spot, because it was in the shade too much of the day.

    All of these places have appreciated beyond words.

    Then there are my mistakes with stocks.

    I decided that Berkshire Hathaway had seen its best days when it was in the $50,000's and sold a chunk of it; it's now near $85,000.

    I sold a good chunk, although far from all, of my best investment of all time - Laaco Ltd., an extremely well-run real estate venture in Southern California that owns the Los Angeles Athletic Club - to put some of the money into technology stocks in 1999.

    These led to sleepless nights and frothing at the mouth.

    But those are small compared with the real estate mistakes.

    I reckon that the "missed gains" - if I can use such a silly phrase - on the real estate are in the range of $5 million to $10 million, while the stock market mistakes are at most $1 million or $2 million down the drain.

    Because I am a lawyer and economist as well as an actor, I try to make some system out of what I did, and to learn the causes.

    No. 1 was simple fear: the fear of being illiquid and not having money coming in.

    The fear of a genuine economic depression.

    The fear of a real estate collapse - which I have seen and suffered through, so I know it can happen.

    And, especially the fear of a real estate collapse during which I would be illiquid and need money. (My parents, who saw truly hard times in their youth, endlessly preached to me to stay liquid and stay safe.

    That turned out to be terrible advice, although very well intended.)

    I also completely failed to understand the scope of inflation in real estate and how persistent it would be. (Of course, in the early and mid-1990's, when real estate did collapse in many places, I felt pretty smug.)

    Another reason for my mistakes was acting on newspaper and magazine headlines.

    I made some of my worst stock purchases by allowing my stupid self to be goaded by tales of Internet riches that I should have known could not be true - or, if true, could not last.

    But have I learned any lessons?

    Maybe.

    One is that once I buy a house, I should never sell it - and if I move out, I should rent it out, grit my teeth and expect to be tortured by rental agents and tenants.

    In other words, barring a calamity, I do not plan to sell real estate again for some time.

    The other mistake has to do with failing to remember Ben Graham's sound adage about the stock market: in the short run it's a voting machine, but in the long run, it's a weighing machine.

    In other words, I let myself be sucked in by hype and glamour.

    Now, I don't want to cry.

    I have also done one or two things right, and my wife and I can still pay our bills this month.

    And if Warren Buffett can make the error he made about Coca-Cola - failing to sell it when it was trading above $80 some years ago - and make the whopper of a mistake that the ideal holding period for any stock is "forever," thus undermining his own notion that "price" is everything, I can make mistakes, too.

    But my foolish acts do bother me, especially late at night and early in the morning, and I can hear my mother quoting her mother to remind me of two things they used to say about their own investments: "We do the best we can, and when we make a mistake, we don't cry about it."

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    And, yes, "Don't worry, you'll do it again."

December 10, 2004 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Wireless Librarian

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Bill Drew's created a website listing over 400 libraries with Wi-Fi for high-speed wireless internet access.

Invaluable.

Coming to a public library near you real soon.


December 10, 2004 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Kenneth, what's the frequency?' - Secret plastic codes revealed

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Dr. Robert L. Wolke is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh.

He writes an excellent weekly column called "Food 101" for the Washington Post Food section about things chemical and food.

He's also written a book entitled, "What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained."

His column earlier this week was especially fascinating to me: he deconstructed the mysterious recycling codes on the bottom of plastic containers.

He pointed out that for recycling, plastics must be melted down only with their chemical family members.

That's because different plastics have different softening temperatures and may not mix with other kinds.

Here's his list of the most common plastics with their coded abbreviations and numbers:

• polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is coded 1;

• polyethylene (PE) can be either high-density polyethylene (HDPE, code 2) or
• low-density polyethylene (LDPE, code 4);

• polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is code 3;

• polypropylene (PP) code 5;

• polystyrene (PS) code 6; and miscellaneous others, primarily

• polycarbonate (PC) are code 7.

The number codes are inside that little triangle made of arrows.

FunFacts: here's what my laundry room and kitchen yielded just now when I put on Wolke's "secret decoder ring":

• Code 1 - Banana Boat Dark Tanning Oil; Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter; Windex; Murphy Oil Soap

• Code 2 - Downey; Woolite; Febreeze; 409

• Code 3 - Goo Gone; Hawaiian Tropic Dark Tanning Oil

• Code 5 - Dannon Yogurt; Lea & Perrin's Steak Sauce

• Code 7 - Tropicana Orange Juice; Nalgene Water Bottle; Tasters Choice Instant Coffee

No Code 4's or Code 6's to be found.

What fun.

You see how very little it takes to amuse me.

December 10, 2004 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Habib Sealer

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New in cancer surgery is the "Habib Sealer," named after its inventor, Dr. Nagy Habib, head of liver surgery at London's Hammersmith Hospital.

Habib's invention is a hand-held radio wave generator which "cooks" tissue around liver tumors.

After using the device, surgeons can proceed to remove liver tumors without the risk of profuse bleeding that normally accompanies liver surgery.

Habib says the device not only eliminates the need for blood transfusions during the surgery, but reduces the average hospital stay after such surgery from 15 to 8 days.

The sealer has also been used for kidney and spleen surgery, and Habib hopes to extend it to the pancreas, uterus, and lungs.

The FDA is expected to approve it for US use in February of next year.

Here's the reason this item made it into bookofjoe: it costs only £600 ($1,150).

I thought to myself, can't be.

Medical devices, expecially original ones, cost many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, at least in the U.S.

I mean, Boston Scientific charges $5,000 apiece for its tiny drug-coated stents.

But wait, there's more.

Habib believes mass production could make his invention much cheaper, and that it could sell for as little as £5 ($9.50) in developing countries.

Habib said in today's Financial Times story, "All they will have to buy is a simple hand-held device, which does not need any expensive additional equipment."

Amazing and wonderful.

[via Clive Cookson and The Financial Times]

December 10, 2004 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

'Less is more' - What Mies van der Rohe and Sophie Dahl have in common

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When the legendary architect [1886-1969] uttered his seminal words, Sophie Dahl hadn't yet been born.

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In December 2004, she has demonstrated the power and truth of his famous epigram.

Because for years, Sophie was the "It Girl" of Yves Saint Laurent, dressed only in her birthday suit.

She was - as tennis analyst Mary Carillo referred to the Mary Pierces of the women's tennis tour, much to the dismay of the WTA - a "big babe."

But then she signed on for the Banana Diet.

And voila, she passed through the fun house mirror and emerged out the other side as a Winona Ryder-like waif.

But now that she's small, she's big.

Huge.

Every day this week, she's been the sole occupant of a full-page ad for Saks Fifth Avenue in the New York Times.

Wednesday it was Dolce & Gabbana, yesterday Assouline.

There's no limit to what a girl can accomplish if she gets little.

As Richard Feynman observed, providing the jump-start for nanotech, "There's plenty of room at the bottom."

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Though if her last name is Dahl that does help just a wee bit.

December 10, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

World's most useful step stool

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Made by Flambeau in good old Middlefield, Ohio, it's called "Stand 'N Store."

It's a heavy-duty plastic object with four legs, but so much more.

Let us examine it in detail:


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• Doubles as a seat, with a nice flat top measuring 19.5" x 12"

• Bottom dimensions 21.5" x 15"

• Seat is 13.25" high

• Recessed handle in the top for easy carrying

• Supports 300 pounds

• Waterproof because it's plastic

• Locking hinged top which opens to reveal a large protected storage space measuring 15.5" x 9" x 7.5" (1,046 cubic inches)

• Removable lift-out tray measuring 14" x 8" x 1.75"

Excellent for parades, games, picnics, changing light bulbs, etc.

Store food, rain gear, radios, books, etc. inside

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$18.59 here, but they don't specify the color.

$20.18 here in green.

$24.99 here (the manufacturer's store) in red or green.

December 10, 2004 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Inada Chair - Cross-cultural confusion

Inside

So I'm paging through this last Sunday's New York Times magazine, and I stop: here's a full-page color ad (wonder what they cost? Probably $50,000, maybe more) for the Inada Chair.

The ad pictures a blonde babe wearing a silk blouse, with a blissful smile and her eyes closed, reclining in what looks like a padded torture/restraint chair, all black leather and stainless steel, the whole scene set in a sunlit, deep forest.

The ad introduces the new Manhattan showroom for the Inada Chair, "the world's first massage chair that adapts itself to the shape of your body."

No wonder she's smiling.

The thing's got all these wrist and ankle restraints,

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that look really serious and industrial-strength scary.

I would bet this ad was created by someone from the Japanese headquarters or their Japan-based advertising agency.

Because in Japan there are no electric chairs, and execution is by hanging (yes, they still have capital punishment).

So the indelible images every American has seen by now, in the course of their education or what-have-you,

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of "Old Sparky" and its ilk, are unknown to the Japanese marketers of this chair.

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Had someone with an American sensibility been in a position to pass on this ad, it never would have seen the light of day.

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$4,900 here.

December 10, 2004 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Bail-Out' Bag

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These nylon tactical gear bags were designed for law enforcement and military operators.

"They were created from the ground up to be the ultimate personal gear carry/last resort bailout bag."

Highlights:

• Hidden gun pocket with Velcro™ easy access

• Two adjustable side pockets for radios and/or water bottles

• Large main pocket with a removable stiffener/divider system to organize gear

• Large adjustable flashlight pocket

• Two pen pockets

• Tactical illuminator pocket

• Four Velcro™ accessory pockets for gun magazines, etc.

• Large side zippered pocket for wallet, passport, keys and other valuables

• Removable shoulder strap

• Carry handles with high-grade web nylon construction running their entire length and across the bottom for extra-secure support

• YKK zippers

The bag measures 14" x 10" x 6".

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Nice price: $40.

December 10, 2004 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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