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Dear every reader

It always surprises me when I read something by a writer angry with his or her readership. There’s been some buzz about Laurell K. Hamilton’s post ‘Dear Negative Reader,’ which she put up several years back. It has become a trope. Thus, I address this post not to negative readers (I know I have some, based on Amazon reviews), and not to positive readers, but to all readers, because I value and respect you all.

(Digression: how many times have you heard author types use the term ‘trope’ and you still can’t figure out what it means? You’ve looked it up three times and the definitions still don’t make sense? (Guess who else did that.) Because I believe in liking my reader, in no wise do I plan to fail you. A trope is a figure of speech, essentially, such as a common phrase that has become a metaphor in its own right–something not necessarily taken literally. The idea is that you are familiar with it, it means something to you.  For example, talking about women and society, when we refer to the Madonna/whore trope, the meaning is clear: it speaks of the mentality that admits of only two roles for a woman, the virgin–>virtuous matron or the promiscuous tramp. Most of you probably agree with me that this trope is a plague, but you understand it.  That’s why it’s a trope.)

Thus, when I heard of the trope, I looked up Hamilton’s post and asked myself what wasn’t right with it. She isn’t the first author to write an annoyed letter to her readership. The fact that she wrote it tells us she was annoyed, and she annoyed her public in turn. There’s some irony in the fact that many of Hamilton’s characters seem to dislike one another, but seem to need each other. The readers have a point: Hamilton has taken the Anita Blake vampire series to a strange place, and they lament this. Hamilton also has a reasonable point: “if you don’t like it, stop reading. My sales figures tell me someone does.” Of course, not all reasonable points ought to be made. Suppose you have a control freak boss. You catch him in a complete contradiction where he cannot admit error. His hubris will permit no reaction except to sit there in humiliated rage, while plotting to get you for it. I hope it makes you feel better that you got to wear the mantle of rightness and score a point, because he’s about to make you regret it. Maybe it would have been smarter to shut up. Tact is knowing when to shut up.

Tact is good for public figures.

I understand Hamilton finally reaching the point where she cut loose about it. I do not understand the way she did it. Everyone who says they no longer like the series, almost surely once did. I have never walked a literary mile in Hamilton’s heels; I have no way to know what it feels like to write books that are guaranteed sales, nor to read screenfuls of vituperation against those books. But I’m pretty sure that it’s much better to have a lot of happy readers and some haters than to lack a readership. If no one is slamming your book, it’s because no one cares. Slamming the book is buzz. Buzz helps put your book on the endcap. The endcap is the only place you make any money working with New York’s big houses.

All that said, there’s a basic problem with the mentality. I think that how writers feel about their readership truly affects the quality and value of how they write. I know it’s true of me here on the blog. If you’re annoyed at your readers (those would also be your customers and free advertisers, just to put this in perspective), then your writing may show it. Perhaps you won’t be able to notice; they may not spot it outright, but they will feel it. Ask any women about guys who gave them a creepy feeling; couldn’t place why, couldn’t say how, just something about the guys made them want to take a shower.

The remedy is for the writer to like his or her readership.

You can tend to disagree with your readers and still like them. I worked on a Bible book. We all know I’m not a Christian, and mostly we all know how strong are my feelings about some of the church/state separation issues in US society today. Did that mean I was writing for readers I didn’t like? Quite the contrary. The reader comes to such a book seeking to learn, to grow, to expand understanding. I respect those goals no matter what the subject is. He or she may come bearing a friendly challenge: “I already know a lot about this. What can you tell me that will be new and fresh?” I like that challenge. If I didn’t, I’d have had no business writing about it. Part of liking your reader is to presume the positive, which is fair; by taking time to read your material, the reader may be said to have done the writer that courtesy. The writer owes its return.

I didn’t presume that my readers would loathe me if they knew about my own religious beliefs. I presumed they, as literate people seeking to learn by reading, might find a far kinder interpretation (pick one of many). They and I might have been different, but what united us was a love of reading and a wish that writing be well researched and competently executed.

Were I to give aspiring writers any guidance, it would first be three words: like your reader.

The day I really screwed up on the planer

When I was in college, I had the good fortune (like all the college kids from town) to be hired at the mill in summers, and sometimes over Christmas.  This often meant laboring in 105º F summer heat, or -13 F winter cold, but it was steady work at union wages.  This is how I came out of college owing so little money, and why I remain sympathetic to the labor movement despite its sometime failings.

It meant a lot of jobs that sound worse than they were:  pulling on the chain, sacking shavings, cleaning out the pit, sawmill cleanup, jackhammering the boilers, the bull gang (I managed to escape that joy), and feeding the planer.  This story is about feeding the planer.  Since I don’t expect you to know your way around a lumber mill, it works like this.  The sawmill cuts logs into boards, which are then sorted for efficient drying.  After kilns dry the loads, the dry chain breaks them down for surfacing (planing).

To imagine a planer, picture two elongated drums laying on their sides, one above, one below. (A picture of some drums laying loose.) Along the rounded side of the drums are knives–long steel blades set in at angles.  The drums rotate on axles with a careful interval between them, knives cutting toward the incoming lumber which the machine rams through in a steady stream.  It’s what you did (more like, you assumed was done; who actually did this?) with a plane in woodshop, just mechanical, larger and much more frightening.  The sides of the lumber are planed by side-heads, basically smaller versions of the main drums set to specific widths, with their own little knives. Right near the drums is a big pipe that blows the shavings, sawdust and wood powder to a fuelhouse, whence it will be sent to burn as fuel.

To feed this machine is to stand out front of it operating a pedal-operated hoist which raises a load of rough lumber bit by bit.  As one does this one breaks the incoming lumber down so that it goes through the planer in a solid steady stream of wood.  This is dangerous, especially around the pineapples (rotating things that sort of guide the boards where they should go).  You can get killed feeding the planer, if you are inattentive when something goes badly wrong. Our mill’s technology was very advanced.  When there was a problem downstream, they’d flip a switch that turned on a naked light bulb, and the planer feeder was to stop.  He had to pull a cord hanging from the ceiling until a steel bar rose up to a chalked line, then watch for it to hiccup, indicating that the last board was out.

Two people normally fed the planer:  the operator (a permanent employee) and the helper (often me).  However, the operator might have to be inside the shack about half the time dealing with this or that issue:  jointing a nick out of the knives, filling oil, what have you.  I fed #3 planer, whose operator was Bobby.  Now, Bobby was a character.  A good 6’5″ and at least 400 pounds, it was safe to assume he wasn’t an athlete.  Bobby had a sort of shaking problem where his hands would tremble, but worked hard and was very conscious of safety and production speed.  Like all planer operators, he was more than half deaf.  He had thin dark hair, wore glasses, and yelled at one constantly.  A lot of kids couldn’t work with him.  For whatever reason, he liked me, though that didn’t stop him from yelling at me all the time. I understood that part of his yelling was over the mill noise, and part was to help me stay safe, but I admit I could have done with a few less ass-chewings over the summers.

To be fair to Bobby, since he once saved my life and I once saved his, I have to explain how goddamn noisy this place was, that he had to yell over.  Guys who wore foam earplugs and earmuffs were half deaf. If you spoke in a normal voice, your sound failed to exist.  If you spoke up very loudly without yelling, a person right next to you might catch some of it.  If anyone actually needed to hear what you had to say, you yelled at the top of your lungs to pierce the steady background roar.

One fine summer early 1980s day, Bobby and I were feeding #3.  The machine was having a lot of problems and Bobby spent much of the day inside.  I never knew, really, when I should start up or stop the machine.  The light was not a good indicator, because at times the light would be on but Bobby would want us to keep running.  Other times, it would be off, yet Bobby would bellow like a rutting rhino for me to stop feeding.  I never had any idea what was going on, so I grew used to being bellowed at for circumstances beyond my knowledge.  A couple times so far that day, the light had gone off, I had hesitated to start up, and Bobby had come out to yell at me.  “Why the hell aren’t you starting the lumber up?” Okay, Bobby, I’ll do it.  Communication was not a strong suit there.

So, in early afternoon, came a time when the light went off–yet I could see the bulk of Bobby clambered all atop the planer (he had often been in this way at times I had been bitched at full bore for not starting up immediately).  No idea what was wrong, and it was impossible to go back and ask Bobby whether I should start–he would yell at me for not knowing what was obvious to him and mystery to me.  I decided it was better to be hollered at for productivity than for lazing about.  I saw the light bulb go out, punched the ON button, pedaled the hoist up and adroitly arranged the flow of lumber.  In seconds, through my earplugs came the high tearing whine of knives shaving wood.  Here we go!

For about five seconds.  At which time I heard an indefinable bellow from the planer shack (we left the door open).  Sort of a “HEEEYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!” but that doesn’t really define it; that makes it sound like Fonzie.  More like a stallion might emit when prohibited from approaching a mare in heat.  Or perhaps a bull bison denied access to his favorite cow.  I could hear it above the deafening roar of the planer, and looked to my left (toward Bobby).

There he was, and it was snowing.  Snowing shavings, to be specific.  The pipe to the fuelhouse was apart, causing the blower to vent the shavings into the air, settling onto Bobby’s shoulders and stringy sweaty hair.  I’ll never forget it.  He had his arms raised to the heavens and a look of full astonishment, as if I had just done the most creatively stupid deed he could ever recall.  His mouth was wide open in the bellow as the ‘snow’ accumulated on him.  A little surprised he didn’t inhale a few.

Oops.

Evidently I wasn’t supposed to start up the machine yet after all.  I stopped putting lumber on the table, sent the last board through, pulled the cord and waited for the advanced technology to rid us of the final board.  All the while, of course, there stood Bobby in a shaving snowstorm.  He had about an inch of accumulation, I noted somewhat wryly, keeping any sign of a smirk off my face.

Out came Bobby.  “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

“I’m doing the boards, Bobby,” I answered, aware how lame and obvious this was.

“YOU DIDN’T DO ‘EM RIGHT!  WHY THE HELL DID YOU START UP?”

“Well, the light went off, and you’ve yelled at me several times today if I didn’t get moving when the light went off.”

A point for me.  However:  “COULDN’T YOU SEE THAT I HAD EVERYTHING ALL TOOK APART IN THERE?”

Iron control, slay any hint of levity in the womb.  “Uh… Bobby…you were…kind of in the way.”  After all, he really did not make a very good window.  “And you often have me running when you’re doing stuff.”

For his faults (his son being the chiefest), Bobby had some sense of fairness.  He showed this, this time, by ceasing to yell at me.  He simply gaped at me a little longer, as if stunned that anyone so mentally defective as myself could be admitted to a college (or begotten by his supervisor’s supervisor), turned and shambled back into the shack to finish his work.

I still got yelled at a lot, but I’ll never forget that rutting-animal bellow and the sight of shavings snowing  on Bobby’s head.

Can you comment on this blog entry?

Here is my request.  It’s come to my attention that some people are asked for too much personal info in order to leave a comment.  No likey.  So:

Please make an attempt to comment on this post and tell me what that took.  If for whatever reason you could not, or if it wanted more information or logging-in from you than giving a name and e-mail address, please e-mail me at jkkauthor@yahoo.com, and describe your experience.  I need to understand what you are experiencing in order to see about improving it.  Thanks!

Setting up a blog

There are lots of reasons to do this.  Check all that apply:

  • You just want to spout about world affairs, or whatever else you care about.
  • You want to practice writing regularly.
  • You want a diary you can share with people.
  • You travel and like to share as you go.
  • You take a lot of pics and like to share.
  • You don’t trust Faceplant with that stuff any further than you can throw a cheesecake under water.
  • Other odd reasons I never thought of.

I haven’t tried anything but WP, recommended to me by the highly esteemed CJ Cherryh.  There’s Blogger, Blogspot, Tumblr, and more.  What I like about WP:

  • It’s pretty easy to get started and figure out all the doodads.
  • They make it easy to get a domain name.
  • Customer service is friendly and honest.

What I don’t like, so far:

  • Gallerys are a mess.  If the gallery gets screwed up as you are creating it, you can’t fix it; you have to delete all the photos and start again, losing all the captions, sequencing, all that other work.  We had that when I posted the Alaska pics.
  • When you make a post, it puts up a sidebar congratulating you for the number of posts.  The sidebar does nothing useful, nor can you make it stop.  And if I try clicking on it, my browser crashes.  In the first place, I don’t need a brownie button for achieving 175 posts.  In the second, I like to be able to make stuff like that shut up.

If I were looking over blog software, I’d try the basics of all of them and then just keep the one I liked best.

Column collection books

Molly Ivins did it often, and as much as I liked her writing, I never liked the concept. Some journalists or authors who get a lot of articles and reviews published eventually bundle them together in a book, presumably with some unifying theme, and release it.  Handy!

One may readily guess that a specific volume inspired this piece, and it is Jonathan Raban’s Driving Home:  An American Journey. I’m not done with this book yet, and have taken to skimming parts of it, so let’s stop short of calling this a book review and label it as it is:  observations about the book so far. The good part: he’s a capable observer of Americana, and in the main quite a fair one. Raban writes well and provocatively most of the time, though I find some of his fancier phrasing a bit overdone.  Therein may lie one of the problems with packing your columns and articles into a book; what may have made a fine article in Outside may not be desirable in a full-size book where we go on a longer journey with the author.

Which this is not. I am much bothered by what I thought (having failed to scan the cover and description too closely, taken in by the title) was a travel book by an English author about his journeys in the United States.  Sometimes it is, in disconnected fashion, with the added draw (for me) of a Seattle focus. Other times he’s talking about things like Shackleton’s expedition, poets he likes or dislikes, or something else only very distantly related to American travel. If you don’t mind some literary critique and commentary interspersed with some travel and living observations, then this is right up your alley, but it’s not what I meant to purchase.

His sophisticated tone and style would be offputting to many Americans, but most of those who would be put off a) do not read books to begin with, and b) wouldn’t understand most of what he says if they tried.  Neat solution, eh? I don’t fault Raban here, for I find this style honestly English and without ill intent.  Better he be himself, than adulterate his style for fear we might misinterpret him as snobbish. Some English authors just sound that way, in the same way that the Northeastern accents sound naturally pushy and abrupt to many Westerners.  It’s not that they are either, in general; we simply get it from the tone, and should have the depth to look past it. Give him credit for not talking down to us, and sousing us with honesty whether we find it comforting or not.

Had Raban authored the book from scratch, and kept it on a topic that fit the title, I’d probably find it a smashing read and one of the best foreign perspectives yet on my country’s foibles.  The disjointed half of the book that does this, I like very much.

But Shackleton? Really?

The native guide, sahib

We recently had a visitor from Sweden named Mattias (ma-TEA-us), stopping by on the last leg of a five-week driving vacation around the United States.  Eager to meet him, I promised to act as a native guide and driver; after over 8000 miles of driving, I figured he’d be pretty happy just to be in a passenger seat with someone else responsible for navigation and steering.

Matti speaks very good English, and I speak a little bit of Swedish, so we mostly spoke English together.  The exceptions came when I had something to say and could remember how to say that in Swedish.  It’s actually a very easy language for English speakers, because one can see where the two languages parted in development centuries ago.  A good example is the word ‘so.’  Define the word ‘so,’ please.  Ulp…err…it means…damn!  Yeah.  You see the issue now. Imagine trying to explain it to a Russian or Arabic speaker in all its contexts.  Happy day:  Swedish not only has ‘so,’ used exactly the same way, but pronounced the same:  ‘så.’  How hard can this be? (And what does it say about me that I speak it so haltingly?) Anyway, Matti was patient and tolerant with the indignities I inflicted on his native language, though it wouldn’t surprise me to get a letter from His Majesty the King of Sweden asking that I please not attempt to speak it in the future.

Our first sojourn was down the Columbia Gorge and back.  I decided to start on the Oregon side and return via Washington, so that sahib could have the best view both ways.  If you have never seen the Gorge, well, it’s a river roughly a mile wide ripped out of basalt lava flows by Ice Age floods involving about 500 cubic miles of water leaving the Missoula area all at once.  This makes for steep basalt cliffs and impressive vistas, especially for a geology nut like Matti (or me).  We lucked out with a cool day in the 60s, which is great because I’m too cheap to put air conditioning in my truck.  Drove past Hermiston and then down to The Dalles, pointing out various sights and features to sahib.  It’s about two hours to TD, where we stopped at Spooky’s pizza place.  This is in western TD, pretty much out in the middle of its Cletus country, and is one of the best pizza places I know.  In my youth it was even better, but a couple of misguided business makeovers have left it merely great rather than oh-my-god-what-is-this-doing-all-the-way-out-here superlative.

Since we were doing well on time, I suggested we go as far as Cascade Locks and cross at Bridge of the Gods.  This is named for an ancient land bridge created by a large landslide, attested by Indian legend and corroborated by modern geology.  The modern version is a steel cantilever structure with a $1 toll and a 15 mph speed limit.  By this time it was raining, exposing sahib to the sudden climate shift of going from the dry side to the drench side.  The Washington side is not freeway driving, so it’s slower and a bit more leisurely, with the road climbing higher in several places for the kind of views that make jaws drop. Matti spent a lot of time making bad jokes until I began doing variations of the headdesk:  headsteeringwheel, headtable, headwindow, headinterpretive placard, headetcetera.  This habit committed the error of encouraging him, making sahib attempt to increase the density of bad jokes just to see if I were resourceful enough to find new objects to bonk my head against.

We swung by the Maryhill Museum, which has a brand new wing this year.  That’s the good news.  The disappointing news–and you know I have to be pretty damn disappointed to say anything less than glowing about a museum–is that the new wing isn’t that big a deal in terms of displayed objects.  They moved the deli there, basically.  They did improve the overlook view of the surrounding beauty, I’ll give them that, but I was hoping for much more new exhibition.  I don’t think Matti was terribly wowed by the museum, not that he said anything, but I do think he was surprised to find something like that out in the middle of nowhere.  We continued on to Stonehenge (a concrete replica built full-size as a WWI memorial).  I think sahib found it interesting for the sheer novelty value and photographic opportunities; as a camera nut, he was taking pics every chance he got, with me doing zero to discourage him.  A long and lovely drive it was, as ever.  That night, I made him some glögg (Swedish style mulled spiced wine) which was a great drink for a cool evening.  It was only six months out of season, but never mind; glögg I had procured for sahib, and we were going to drink it.

The next day, Matti had a barbecue/picnic to go to with Amanda and her friends/family.  The day after, he and I set forth for Vantage, then Palouse Falls.  We got a late start, so I decided to take the Hanford way rather than the Ellensburg way, hoping to go up I-90 at Vantage and come back so he could watch the whole thing unfold on approach.  Then I learned that the first westbound exit and return is twenty miles past Vantage, almost at Ellensburg.  Oops.  Sahib had to be content with what we had, and it was a hotter day.  Back across the Columbia, then off through Royal City and Othello (about 80 miles of farms and sagebrush).  I always get turned around going to Palouse Falls, and made sure sahib got a good view of the inhabited junkpile that is Kahlotus.  Amazing: the state actually regraded and oiled the dirt road to Palouse Falls.  No washboard!  Seriously!  On a sunny day, the falls were all they were cracked up to be, and surprisingly well attended.  Normally there’s almost no one there; today there was a tour bus plus about fifteen cars.

Palouse Falls is where the Palouse River falls off a cliff into a big cylindrical hole and continues downstream to join the Snake.  You look at it from above; I’d guess it’s 70 yards to the bottom, sheer cliffs with somewhat low fences restraining one from accidental swan dives.  Palouse Falls is a thick, powerful waterfall where kestrels fish, rainbows play off the spray, and all sorts of birds make their homes.  I saw a lot of swifts, barn swallows and an oriole, plus some dark average-sized bird with an orange head.  Not red, orange.  No idea what it was.  Sahib lived by his tripod.  Footing was hard for me with a cane and a lame/heavily braced knee, but one just doesn’t miss the views of Palouse Falls.  Another gem, even more in the middle of nowhere than Maryhill.  The nearest towns are Washtucna, Kahlotus and Starbuck, and of these Washtucna was the only one I was pretty sure had a functional open gas station or place to eat, though we instead headed for Connell.  Connell is unremarkable unless you are attracted to medium security jails, but it was sure to have a gas station.

Our last leg was a bit rushed due to our late morning start, but I wanted Matti to see Wallula Gap.  This is where Lake Lewis (the Ice Age lake that repeatedly inundated eastern Washington) backed up and blasted out, near where the Oregon border ceases to be a straight cartographer’s line and becomes the Columbia.  Imagine all that water pressure forced through a mile-wide gap, which must have been much narrower at first, before several dozen such floods got a crack at things.  The atmosphere on the way to the Gap is worsened by a paper mill and an Ioway Beef feedlot, with dozed-up rows of piled cow manure right by the highway.  Tyson now owns the feedlot, so one expects all the scumminess one associates with Tyson.  Even so, that couldn’t ruin the majesty of Wallula Gap for sahib, who took his fair share of photos of the imposing sight.

Amazing privilege:  as I was sitting and gazing, I heard a familiar sound overhead.  Familiar to me if not to most today: a World War II bomber’s engines. It is familiar because I have taken a ride in a B-17–well worth the cost, even if they weren’t at all designed for guys who eat as well as I have been doing. I looked up and it was a B-24.  Nothing else looks quite like those.  I alerted sahib so he could snap some shots. He was educated enough in aerospace studies to know what a B-24 was, to his credit, despite hailing from a nation that typically builds and uses its own military aircraft, with little need or reason to know of ours. I never tire of Wallula Gap myself, but Deb was making us nachos and we were both in Voracious Males mode, so we booked back to the house.

I hope Matti had as fine a time as we did.  I have to give the largest share of credit to Deb, though, for cheerfully letting me run off and do this stuff while she did work at home, cooked great dinners, and otherwise reminded me yet again why she is not merely a great hostess but a sweet wife.  It is always fun to share the West with someone who appreciates what he’s seeing.

Screw this. The conventional mutual fund model is broken.

It pains me to say that.  I used to work for Rainier Investment Management, a good company with smart managers that ran (and still run) several relatively successful mutual funds.  They treated me well; I still have friends there, and I hope they prosper as a firm and as individuals.  I learned so much there–and ironically, learned why conventional mutual funds are a broken model.  At the time (mid-1990s), they were not.  Now they are as outdated as the idea of scanning a newspaper for stock prices, phoning a broker to get a current quote, and paying him 7% to buy a stock.

But at this point, I can’t recommend anyone invest money in conventional mutual funds unless there is no adequate alternative (as in most 401ks).  They have three big problems:  the creation/destruction of shares, the way they are transacted, and the fee locusts that eat away the money.  And that’s the no-load funds.  If there is a load (a massive commission paid to the manager for the privilege of becoming his or her customer), add a fourth big problem.  If your broker charges a transaction fee of any size, add a fifth.

Before we get into that, for benefit of anyone who’s not sure, let’s detail how a conventional mutual fund works.  I was present for the founding of four of them, so I understand how this happens.  A money management firm files all the necessary paperwork to open a mutual fund, gets assigned a 5-letter ticker ending in X, invests some seed capital, hires an agenting bank to custody the money/shares, and writes up a prospectus.  Included in this are the investment guidelines, which are what keep the manager from just buying whatever the hell s/he wants.  Typical guidelines sound like:  the Fund will invest no less than 80% of its assets in U.S. equities (that would be stocks)  with capitalization levels below $1 billion (that would be small cap stocks, i.e., little companies).  The fund may hold up to 10% of its assets in cash equivalents (that would be money market mutual funds, essentially the savings accounts of the investing world) at the manager’s discretion. Okay, fine.

All well and good…so you go to buy it.  You place an order (in dollars, not shares) during the market day.  A couple hours after market close, the fund reports its Net Asset Value (that’s the price per share) for that day, and your purchase executes, with amount of shares calculated to three decimal places.  Those shares were created on the fly, just for you.  Had you redeemed (sold), shares would have been destroyed.  Tomorrow morning at 6:30 AM PT (9:30 AM ET), your manager will start thinking about how to invest the new money you sent him (so to speak).  You’ll share in the fund’s gains, losses and fees.  What’s wrong with fees? Everyone’s got to make a little money, right?

Let us say that everyone’s got to earn a little money.  It is stupid to pay someone a fee to underperform (do worse than) the overall market, the performance of which can be purchased using an index fund.  The idea of hiring a pro, right, is that s/he knows stuff you do not, does major research, digs deep, knows the right questions to ask, has a finger on the market pulse? Then how come a majority of them do worse than the market indices they compare to, a majority of the time? With all respect to the pro’s hard work, what the hell benefit is the investor getting?

It makes sense here to explain the alternative, the index fund.  It may be conventional (which suffers from all the flaws of all conventional mutual funds, but suffers them with lower fees) or exchange-traded (hereafter called an ETF, mechanics different from conventional funds, explained later).  Its basic idea is that the manager just buys the securities in a given index.  Doesn’t take much brains, as the manager has zero discretion.  S/he must maintain the fund in as perfect a mirror of the given index as possible.  If you own the fund, your performance will be the performance of that index less relatively small, more reasonable fees than actively managed funds.

The only reason to pick conventional funds over index funds is the belief that the manager will beat the market on a consistent basis.  Most do not.  Most get beat by the market, accentuated by the fees.  This adds value…how?

In fact, it subtracts value–and you pay for that service.  Well, if I want to do worse than the market, I don’t need professional help for that.  If I want my investments screwed up, I’m capable of that all by myself.  Now that I’ve explained the model and how it functions, let’s detail why it is broken.

1) Creation/destruction of shares.  Sounds simple enough, right? Not so much.  Suppose the market is going great guns.  Everything the manager bought is fairly expensive right now.  Because the market is going great guns, investors’ money pours in.  The manager’s guidelines require him or her to buy–but there’s nothing out there that’s a good deal.  S/he must buy at the inflated prices.  Okay, now the market is eating flaming death, or the fund had a bad quarter.  Investors head for the exits.  They must be paid, meaning the manager must raise cash for redemptions.  But there’s nothing s/he really wants to sell right now! There is no choice.  The manager must sell a security s/he did not want to unload, probably because this is a terrible time to sell, locking in a large loss.  Both of those dynamics damage performance.  It’s bad enough with stocks; it’s worse with bonds, which is why conventional bond funds are such a dumb investment.  Bonds are mostly not traded on markets, but are sold from broker inventories.  One can’t just buy a bond index, as the bonds in it are not always available.  This is why bond funds can go up and down in price:  after their issue, bonds will trade at premiums or discounts to their original par.  So for a bond fund, you get the potential for losing money of a stock fund, but you don’t get the high upside of stocks.  Seriously? Who wants this?

2) The way they are transacted.  If you buy a stock or bond, you buy at a market price.  You can issue trading instructions.  If your trade conditions are met, bang, you bought it–same is true for selling.  If you buy a conventional mutual fund, you issue the order when the market is open, and after it closes, you find out the price you paid.  In what world is this even remotely acceptable? I have some books for sale.  If you place an order during the business day, I’ll fill it this evening, but I don’t yet know the price you’ll pay.  I’ll know that later.  Would you buy books that way? Then why will you buy thousands of dollars worth of mutual funds this way? Do you hate your money and want rid of it? If so, send it to me.  I won’t charge you any fees and I will pay your postage and/or wire fees with a friendly smile.

3) The fee locusts that eat your money.  The fees are not inconsequential.  How it works:  the fund pays out money, including (most significantly) to the manager for his or her professional expertise.  Okay, fine.  Typical management fees for actively managed stock funds amount to about 1-3% of the total money in the fund.  You pay that, though you do not see it occur.  Worse:  you pay that even when the manager underperforms the market.  Dead serious.  You often pay them to lose you money.  Is there a one of us who cannot lose his own money without help, for free? If you want a free money-losing service, the offer above stands.  I’ll take it off your hands and I swear not only never to charge you a fee, but to cover all costs.  Hang on; there are also 12b-1 fees, ranging from 0.25% to 1%, that go to pay people for marketing the fund.  I’m pretty sure, for example, that’s how Fidelity gets paid for its no-transaction-fee funds.  These, too, you pay whether the fund wins or loses.  How does it add value to you? It doesn’t.  It’s just a way to get you to pay the freight for marketing and distribution of someone else’s goods.  You are the customer, not the manufacturer.  Why are you paying your vendor to market his product to you? Isn’t that rightly his expense?

4) Sales loads.  Typically 5.75%, a one-time fee assessed when one buys (front-end load) or sells (back-end load).  Often called a ‘sales charge.’  The very term is insulting to one’s intellect and commercial sense.  You have to pay them a massive fee for the privilege of having them charge you further hefty fees to underperform the market? In order to make up for the crater this fee will put in your returns, the manager must outperform for years at a time.  Odds are heavily against that.  So, let me get this straight.  You’re willing to buy something this disadvantageous? I have a better idea.  Buy an index fund, and send me any portion of the 5.75% you feel fair and right.  I will cover all fees and expenses for this process, and I’ll never charge you any further fees for it.  Why do load funds even exist? That’s so that full-commission brokers, who sell the illusion that they are acting in their clients’ best interests and who get paid every time they trade securities, can get paid to put the client in mutual funds (which will not generate ongoing commissions for the broker, being typically buy-and-hold investments).  Full-commission brokers are as obsolete as sales loads, conventional mutual funds and learning the stock results from a newspaper.

5) Broker transaction fees.  These vary from discount brokerage to discount brokerage, so let’s talk about how Fidelity does it.  At Fidelity, I pay $7.95 to trade stocks up to some large amount of shares.  Some conventional mutual funds have no transaction fees (I assume because the fund managers agreed to slip Fidelity some 12b-1 fees).  Here is an excellent article about this.  Others have a $75 transaction fee.  If I buy $7500 worth of stock, I pay about 0.1% in commission.  If I buy $7500 worth of mutual fund shares, I pay 1% in commission (let’s call this what it is, shall we?). Every nickel of commission that you pay is a loss to you.  One always pays something, but in the gods’ names, why pay more for no benefit? Ah, but say you really want into that fund.  Do you want it badly enough to lose this much money immediately, so that a professional manager can then pay him or herself a handsome annual fee to do a worse job than an index fund? Because on balance, that is what is going to occur.

Think of your finances as a human body.  The conventional mutual fund model is a series of leeches, slowly but surely drinking the body’s nutrients.  In return for what? On balance, on average, in return for lowering the body’s health. What is the benefit? A sexy name? An illusion of security? Sorry, but to me it just looks like being covered with leeches.

If a single person asks, I will author a follow-up article about why ETFs and CEFs (closed-end funds) are so far superior.

Books: the Man-Kzin Wars series

This is a series of SF anthologies based on Larry Niven’s creations, the nine-foot-tall spacefaring/spaceferal felinoids called kzinti.  I think there are now twelve books in the series; not going to dig up all the Amazon links, but here’s the first book.

Niven is a superstar, though I myself haven’t read much of his work.  Some of his forewords come off pretty cocky, and if I read the runes right, Elf Sternberg managed to annoy Niven enough to get a personal diatribe–by submitting, evidently, a gay-themed kzin story involving homosexual kzinti with lavish detail about their implausible genital endowment.  One doubts that Elf, whom I’ve met and seems like a good chap, meant it to be taken entirely seriously.  Niven came off as ranting, which isn’t what I’d do even if I had his star power.  When I want to look to the model of authorial deportment, I look to the tact, class and generosity of C.J. Cherryh, whose SF is the kind that even non-SF fans find deep and delightful.

I give Niven credit for not putting up with bad writers, though; he doesn’t have to. The kzinti make a fascinating subject with a strong streak of horror (they eat humans, unless they enslave them; sometimes the latter precedes the former).  The thought of eating vegetable matter makes them physically ill. The humans described in the series are hundreds of years out of the habit of warfare, with even history carefully censored, a social transformation into pacifism that ends abruptly when they meet the kzinti.

My read is that the contributing authors, over the series, have added details and touched on/fleshed out areas Niven might never have gotten around to with regard to his feline creations.  As with any anthologies, some of the stories are a bit blah, some sparkle, and most are pretty good.  Four stars overall.

Athena’s owl

Clear caution: if references to religious faith bother you, you won’t care for this post.

We live on a quarter-acre of hilly property, about half of which is grass that I must irrigate and mow.  Lately times have been a bit discouraging for Deb and I, owing to some life setbacks that relate to business and the law (no, we aren’t in trouble with it or anything).  Most of you probably know that she and I are pagan, as in, we profess faiths that make us not People of the Book (Muslims, Christians, Jews).  This means that we see evidence of the divine in nature, most times, and while her beliefs and mine differ, they have a fair bit in common.

Lately I am lamed somewhat with knee trouble, but in at least some basics of yard maintenance, the show must go on.  Irrigation is one such, and a couple of weeks ago I was doing the annual test and startup rituals.  It was a good year, with no failed valves and no yard-high gushers of water.  I was making the rounds of the yard as the timer went through all six stations, periodically rewarding me with a surprise soakdown.  Since our piping is set up with great inefficiency–the same pipe waters a couple spots in the front yard and several in the back–this means a lot of walking around to observe results, adjust misguided sprinklers, and generally figure out what will need help.

One of my favorite parts of the property is a magnolia tree.  It’s odd.  The patio is poured around it.  In winter, it develops little pussy willow pods that in spring will break into lovely violet, magenta, pink and white flowers.  Also in spring, it produces little seed pods that will grow to the size of hot dogs, then fall.  Inside them are bright orange seeds.  If not watched, Fabius (our Labrador retriever) will eat them, as he will eat nearly anything just to see if it’s any good.  A great joy of spring here is to sit on the patio shaded by a spreading tree full of flowers; they had come and gone.

On the day I was testing the irritation system (as I usually call it), I was making my way across the patio past the magnolia when I saw several splotches of bird droppings, brightest white, on the patio under the magnolia.  We get a lot of birds on the property, attracted by various fruit trees and vines (plum, apple, cherry, grape), so I am rarely surprised but always pleased.  I leave a lot of dense underbrush around the edges, to enable the quail to find impenetrable shelter to raise their little quail families.  Ah, I thought, a new nest in the magnolia!  Hurrah!  Wonder what kind of birds they are? I went over to the obvious spot, saw a dark shape on the branch.  Didn’t look like a nest at all.  I was maybe five feet from it, almost directly below, when I saw the eyes.

It was a small owl, maybe 8″ high, just looking at me.  She didn’t scare.  I just gazed up at her (I think it was a hen Western screech owl based on the size and later research; thank you, Rob and Jennifer) for a bit, and she back at me.  In eleven years of residence here, we have never before seen or heard a single owl, much less in broad daylight, much less perched in the magnolia and willing to let people approach so near.  Without making sudden movements, I went to the house and called Deb to come out with her camera.  Out came my wife, camera in hand:  “Oh, my god!  We never had an owl before!  She’s beautiful!”  Deb hurried to snap a lot of pictures; the owl followed us with her eyes but did not scare.  Hi.  I’m an owl!

Then I realized that this was bigger than simply a treasured moment sighting an extremely cool little owl in our yard.  Deb’s tutelary is Athena, Greek goddess of a lot of things:  business, warfare, victory, law, crafts, wisdom.  All of which, of late, come very much into focus for Deb and I as we deal with some adversity.  Rather more regularly devout than Deb, and though I am Asatru (Germanic heathen…we are the Viking pagans, in essence), in my regular nightly homages to my gods, I continue also to honor the Hellenic gods.  Athena among them; Athena’s symbol is the owl, seen on much ancient Athenian coinage and art dedicated to the city’s tutelary and namesake.  It would very much seem I might not have just been talking to the midnight wind.

I mentioned this to Deb and suggested she go in and get some raw meat and a glass of wine.  Maybe the owl wouldn’t want the meat, but it was in the nature of offering.  We did a small observance of welcome and blessing as the owl watched us.  If there were any sprinklers malfunctioning, I’d just have to find out about them later.  We watched for a while, then left her in peace.  Either way one looks at it, it was a marvel.  If one is not spiritually inclined, we got to see a wonderful owl, and got closer to her than one ever logically expects.  I myself am not the type to believe in coincidences that are too multi-faceted.  To Deb and I, this owl symbolized favor, hope, support and guidance in difficult times, a sense of being less alone against adversity.

For those who read this far, here’s one of Deb’s pictures of the owl.

A Western screech owl that visited us.

“What’s that smoke?” “Oh, he’s started mowing.”

Where I live, irrigation is necessary to have lawns.  Call it wasteful if you will, but first know the realities:  our irrigation systems were primarily built to sustain agriculture, and by providing it to homeowners as well, the cost of that system is better supported.  Also, the Columbia is about half a mile wide near me, showing no signs of drying up any time soon.  Oh, and I have to pay $400 a year for it even if I don’t use it–‘water rights’ are associated with the property.  So, yes, we live in a desert, but not like the deserts of southern California, grotesquely overbuilt for the water supply and beseeching it from five states away to support breakneck sprawl.

Each year, this means some maintenance work for me.  In fall, I must shut off the main, and have the system blown out.  I pay a guy with an air compressor who does this every fall, enabling him to pay for a family vacation every year.  He’s willing, reasonably priced, pleasant and thorough.  If I do not do this, my entire underground piping system will be destroyed that winter.  Not ‘might.’  It will.  In spring, it’s time to turn the system on.  I don’t like mowing my very hilly obstacle course of a yard, so I’m in no hurry to do that.  It usually doesn’t happen until Mrs. Anderson comes to me (again) to ask me politely when I plan to turn them on, reminding me (again) that her raspberries are actually watered by my system, and won’t thrive unless I get moving.  I usually do.

That process involves turning on the main and running a test watering from the entire system, which is set out quite illogically.  It involves frequent drenchings at the very least, occasional slips and falls onto ass in wet grass, and often repair work.  If a whole valve is hosed, I call professionals.  If it’s just a broken sprinkler or riser (that’s the piece going from the pipe to the sprinkler), I get to dig in mud, use a special tool to extract any broken pieces of riser, put in a new sprinkler and correctly aim it, etc.  This was a good year, with only minor issues.  One year, I had five Old Faithfuls, in which the riser is completely broken off and water gushes 3′ in the air.  I learned about this when Bill, who has the misfortune to live downhill from me, came over and asked me quite courteously if I would see my way clear to do something about the water pouring down his driveway.

Once I do this, of course, I will soon need to mow.  Some years I sharpen the mower blade.  Most years I change the oil.  However, I am prone to overfill the oil.  My philosophy is that overfilling is not good, but a seized engine from lack of oil is rather worse.  This year, it seems, I went a little overboard even by my standards.  I learned this within about the first five minutes of my first mowing, when my mower horked up a very dense cloud of acrid white smoke.  This is not part of the usual plan.  The cloud’s thickness was quite impressive, like a mortar had thrown a smoke shell near me.  In some alarm, I turned the mower off, went in and did some research.  It seems that excess oil is vented into the exhaust pipe, so the oil had probably sloshed into there as soon as I had occasion to tilt the mower for any reason.  As soon as the pipe got hot enough, it started to cook off the oil.

Here is what’s amazing:  this happens nearly every time I change the oil, but by the time it does, I have forgotten the above explanation and must re-research this particular problem.  Why don’t I remember?

Maybe it’ll help if I blog it.  And if it doesn’t help me, people can at least smile in wry amusement that my neighbors can usually gauge my mower maintenance by the air pollution that results.