Not hitting the jackpot in the stock market? Read this …

There are thousands of articles/blogs/TV-shows which doles out advice on:

– Gaining “financial freedom” …

– “Lead the life you deserve” (It really cracks me up when I see these dime-a-dozen informercials on TV firmly saying that basically the life the viewer is leading is not the life the viewer deserves! Now, what exactly is the “life you deserve”? Well, it involves a montage of shots showing pristine beaches, cocktail in hand, spectacular scenery, beautiful women (or handsome men) next to the person, a palace (i.e. home), fancy boats, lambhorginis etc! If this is actually the life I deserve, then someone has just been robbing me silly 🙂 …)

– “Stock picks for the year”

etc.

Based on the sheer amount of such good advice and people with such good intentions (of making random strangers very rich), it appears that there is a huge surplus of “good advice”. Let me take a different route and dole out the “bad advice” I have come across! Seems like there is a huge untapped market here 🙂

The time period is late 1999. Every single person (well, almost every single person) in US is “feeling rich”. Even people who cannot spell “c-o-m-p-a-n-y” correctly are talking of starting web-based companies and have even roped in very brilliant investors/financiers who feel as if they have just heard a pitch for the next Yahoo! (Google/Facebook etc. werent around then :-)) or some such. I recall seeing people having mutiple live stock tickers on their desktops and tracking stock prices whole day. Life was gooooooood!

This is the climate in which I thought of joining the party. Opened an Ameritrade account (based on a Friend’s suggestion) and started buying stocks of all the “high-flying” companies. I mean, companies whose stocks were on a tear. I did spread my investment around several companies (all in the High-Tech, though). What do I mean by “high-flying” companies? They were:

– Sun Microsystems

– WorldCom

– JDS Uniphase

– PMC Sierra

Now when I look back, expectedly, I say “Good Job, George!” :-). For example, I first bought Sun (SUNW) at 113$ a share and was very happy about it. A couple of months later, SUNW came down to 80+$ and I thought, “Wow! What luck. Getting shares which were worth over 100$ for 80$”. Well, you get the drift … This went on for some time, roughly a period of 1-1.5 years, during which all I did was “buy”, “buy” and more “buy”. Dont get me wrong. This was not totally blind investing (e.g. buying a stock because I liked the name of the company 🙂 ). I did do the basics like analyst forcecasts etc. To me, most of these stock-market experts are people who say “see how much money we made for you” when the market is going through a crazy bull period and every Tom/Dick/Harry are minting “virtual” money and who say “tough luck man, there is a recession going on and everybody is losing money” when the market is going through a bear phase 🙂 I.e. like a “fair-weather” Manager, who is quick to take credit when the team shines and even quicker to blame team-member XYZ when the team fails.

So, after almost single-handedly propping up the flailing US stock market for a sustained period of 1+ years, I figured that I better stop this madness (Well, the reality is that my lovely wife forced me to … Heh! Heh!). This was in mid-2001. I sold all my stocks and made such a killing that my “capital loss carryover” is still going strong, even after almost 10 years!

One of my close friends is an “expert” in the stock market. By “expert”, I mean he also has a big heart and like to spruce up the economy in any which way he can 🙂 He is very passionate about stocks (which I do not really understand, because I would think that typically you are passionate about something when you are good at it) and sometimes his “passion” rubs off on me. To cut a long story short, after a long 6 year gap, during which I maintained my discipline and did not buy any stocks, I jumped at two great tips in 2008:

Tip1: His friend’s brother, who works for Morgan Stanley at Hong Kong, gave him the insider tip that Citi (which was at 35$ or something at that time) is a great buy if and when it goes below 30$. He also pointed out that Citi was above 50$ just a few months before then. Well, isnt that something? An insider tip from a “trust-worthy” source within the industry! I.e. a wall-street fat-cat advice! Wow!

Tip2: Start with an E-Trade account for 500$ and use that as seed money to invest in “good” stocks and watch it grow over a period of time. In a worst-case, even if I lose all the money, it is only 500$, right? Sounded good to me at that time.

What happened with Tip1?

I could vividly see the $$$ I was going to make, when, after weeks of judiciously following Citi stock price (even more than Citi employees even :-)), I bought Citi at 28$. What a thrill! I was able to put into practice a real insider tip. If you really are interested in knowing how this particular fairy tale ended up, please check the current price of stock “C” 🙂

What happened with Tip2?

Within 12 days of my opening the E-Trade account and buying the shares based on my friend’s wise recommendations, the account value was down to 40%. As the experts typically advise, I did not panic. The “cool dude” (i.e. me) waited for another week and the value came down to 20%. At this time, I said “to hell with all this” and vowed to just ignore this account and write down the 500$ loss, leaving behind whatever pittance was still in that E-Trade account. Three months later, I get a quarterly statement from E-Trade and I notice that they have charged me 40$ fine for not doing any trades! Talk about putting salt on a wound! Anyway that was “THE END” of this tip …

Lessons:

(01) Do not go by just a company’s past stock prices, but instead research the fundamentals of the company using their quarterly reports or exchange listings and other trust-worthy sources. [Note: This is not my advice, but just a random cut&paste from the web 🙂 My point is, there are millions of people who dabble in stocks and spend considerable amount of time on it, is it possible that almost all of them are losing money consistently? Even though I do not directly know anyone who has consistenly made profits in the stock market (though I do know a lot of “experts”), I would think there are some people who actually belong to this particular species. Personally, I do not have the sustained amount of time it requires to do solid/continuous research etc.]

(02) How good are these financial experts? I recall having a conversation with somebody a few years back and he was making the point that the experts make educated predications/guesses and it is not just based on pure luck. Well, whenever I tried to follow a “hot tip”, it turned out to be a magic trick where my money disappeared (in an instant) right before my eyes! A very neat trick, though …

(03) Tips from friends: I have nothing against my stock-expert friend mentioned above. He is a great guy and a very good friend. But his stock advice? Well, I have indicated to him, very respectfully, that I am very good at getting negative returns on my stock investments on my own and can do without his added help. Since I can bring down the value of a stock investment to 0$ on my own, and the value cannot go lower than 0$, his help would be an overkill.

Adios …

Travel tips from an amateur “school of hard knocks”-graduate …

First up, some quick notes about me:

– As with most people, I too like to maximize the “enjoyment output” I get from the money I spent.

– Though I can afford it (Or can I? 🙂 Not sure …), I am not a big fan of spending 500$+ for a night’s stay in a place with “all the amenities” (which one will probably never use during that particular night’s stay). If at all we do try to use the amenities, then we have to cut down on the time we spent in exploring the city/town/village. If that is the case, why make the trip at all? Just book a room at the nearest Ritz and stay there for the night. In my humble opinion, such a stay makes sense only if you are there mainly for relaxation (i.e. you will spend majority of the time in the Hotel and the surrounding complex itself). Else, my strategy is “get a good night’s sleep, wake up early and get the hell out of the Hotel …”!

– I have made trips with only my wife, with my family (tagging along two small kids), with my extended family (i.e. parents included) and finally, just me.

– By now, everyone must be an expert in using the Internet for the best packages/deals etc. and also in researching places/people/cuisine. So, I will refrain from this aspect of travel.

Some suggestions/tips:

(01) Plan, but do not micro-plan: What I mean by this is that one should have a general outline of what will be done during a particular day (of the vacation). But it should ideally not be planned to each 30-minute slot (for e.g.). For e.g. 10.30AM at XYZ Museum. The trouble with micro-planning is that each time you miss a deadline, there is the tendency to get upset (or even worse, panic!). Just go with a general outline (e.g. AM – XYZ Museum, PM – ZYX Museum etc.). One might ask, then why plan at all? Well, each of us have specific interests w.r.t. a place. We must sift through all the available options and come up with a handful of items which the travelling group would enjoy. Then, it has to be spread out (logically) through the days/weeks/months/(years?) one intends to stay in that place. Now, this is the part I enjoy the most. It is like a logistical puzzle waiting to be solved and with the added advantage of learning about a new place.

(02) Always consider the kids’ comfort and enjoyment: If you are travelling with small kids, consider bringing one/two of their favorite items so that they have some emotional support during the rapidly changing experiences they go through during a major trip. Obviously, with kids, you cannot have an intense/hectic travel schedule. If you have kids who are over 5 years old, consider bringing a journal book for them to jot down their experiences. Trust me, such a journal is a lot of fun to read, later on … Side note: Items like diapers are best purchased at the destination, rather then loading up your bag with it (unless of course, you are going to a place where you get “What???!!” in response to “Do you sell diapers?”).

(03) Pack as lightly as possible: One advantage is that you have a much easier time lugging the baggage through various airports. When we travel as a whole family, guess who gets the “enjoyment” of dragging 2 big suitcases and various carryons? You got it, its ME! My wife will be busy with herding the kids while I look like a “pile of baggage” that seems to be moving on its own! Trust me, it is no fun to be stared at by prim and proper business travellers, with their small wheeler bags and a cup of coffee, while the self-propelled “pile of baggage” is inching along. When I travel alone, I just have a backpack. Its so much easier. No baggage checkin queues, no waiting for baggage claim etc. I always insist on carrying just 3-4 changes of clothes and I expect to be able to do laundry during the trip. I would suggest to really review the list of things you are carrying and carry only those items which are essential or which cannot be obtained at the destination.

(04) Have a backup camera: I had a sticky situation when my Casio camera conked out during a trip (it was less than a year old). By the by, no offense to Casio. It is a great company and I am sure I am the 1-in-a-billion guy who happened to have his Casio camera conk out in less than a year. Luckily, I had my faithful Canon camera as a backup. As you can note, I like to record my experiences and it is a disaster for me to be without a camera. One might wonder, what is the worst that could happen if one has no backup camera? Ever try buying relatively expensive electronic items in touristy places like Niagara Falls Vistor Center? Well, I guess shelling out 300$ for a 100$ camera is also a kind of experience. Not for me, though … I prefer the detailed researching-the-web-review-store-price routine … Also, even if one has a backup camera, it can also be lost, right? Very right. If so, my friend, you should also check out some blogs about “how to hang on to your own stuff” … 🙂

(05) Expect the unexpected: I remember when we went to Niagara Falls (Buffalo), our return flight to Chicago was cancelled at the last minute (after we had checked in our baggage and were waiting at the gate!). It was a harrowing experience, involving angry exchanges with the airline, mad scramble for a Hotel at 11PM, mad scramble back to the airport at 5AM (after 4 hour sleep), 1st day at Chicago being spoiled etc. Looking back, my mistake was in never even thinking about the remote possibility of something upsetting my plan. In the travel world, unlike in our High-Tech work world, “having backup plans” does not make a lot of sense. For e.g. would you book a “backup flight” just in case your primary flight gets cancelled? 🙂 A better strategy is to quickly adjust to the new crisis, take a deep breath, spend a solid 5 minutes (or more, based on preference) cursing the airlines (for e.g.), and moving on. You lose a valuable day of your vacation? Well, s**t happens … Dont let it spoil the rest of your vacation.

(06) Keep in mind the vaguely followed “liquid rule”: Over the past few years, I have had to throw away everything from a Johnnie Walker Blue Label bottle (which my friend had asked to transport to India. I think I distinctly remember the security guy licking his lips in anticipation of the party he is going to host that night with this bottle) to my precious eye drops to this rule. Why? Because I forget this new air travel rule (for which we have to thank the extremists, I guess) when I pack. Different airports follow this rule diffferently. Safest strategy is to have only a few liquid items (drops, ointments, shaving cream etc.) and that too, in a ziploc in your cabin luggage. This will speed up the security check. Else you run the risk of having all the items in your bag being spread out neatly on a table (“Hey everybody, see what this guy has in his bag …!”) and as an added bonus, you might get to do some simple stretching exercises while being poked around with a gadget 🙂

(07) Dont visit the same place over and over again: I have a colleague who has visited Maui (Hawaii) 4-5 times. I know this is a personal preference, but my point is: There is so much of the world to see and why keep going to the same place over and over again. If you liked Hawaii so much, the next time, go to Caribbean or Florida or Bermuda etc. My point is, there are other places that offer very similar experiences to Hawaii and also, the cuisine is guaranteed to be different.

(08) Please do not eat McChicken at Bruges: I have not been to Bruges (yet). I just picked that town to stress my point, which is, while travelling eat the local cuisine as much as possible. We all have our favorite cuisine/food and we crave for that most of the time. A trip is an escape from our daily routine, is it not, and shouldnt this escape apply to food also? Please note that with kids (especially small ones), one WILL have to buy that McChicken (atleast for them). I remember, when we went to Oahu and I tried Poi, I could barely keep it down. But then, atleast I can claim that I know what Poi tastes like, isnt it? Go for broke, experiment with the cuisine, maximize the thrill factor of the trip …

(09) Carry a hard-copy of all the major bookings and also your travel documents: Yes, this is like saying “You should drink a lot of water”. Duh! 🙂 I know. But it is so important that I would suggest you take 2-3 sets of such printouts (staple them together) and keep 1 in each bag. It will come handy when you have to go to battle with the airlines or car rental company or hotel … Trust me, “going to battle” is almost guaranteed in any major trip, so much so that, you will come out feeling as if you just completed a Marines orientation course. The Few, The Proud … 🙂

(10) Classify the goal as either “relaxing” or “sight-seeing”: If it is the former (like our trip to Hawaii), you should have the mindset of (a) Getting up as late as you want (b) Having the luxury of dropping down and taking a nap any time you want, even on the beach (c) Lots of beach or spa time etc. If it is the latter, then (to me), it is all business. I mean, at the end of the trip, I will probably feel more tired than when I started! Why? Because I would have minimized my sleep, maximized my time “out in the streets” and experienced pretty much every sight I could. Now, some people/companies will claim you can have the best of both these worlds. Yes, you could, if you increase the vacation time (and spend much more $$$) and do a simple split of overall “relaxing” and “sight-seeing” times. For e.g. during our 2-week Hawaii trip (yes, 2 weeks, that too in the peak of peak season (2nd half of December), we did a decent mix of both! By the by, when we returned after that trip, my bank account was in a much “cleaner” state than what the world’s best hacker could have ever managed).

(11) Take “people’s advice” (including mine! heh heh!) with a pinch of salt (No, make it a dollop of salt): Cliche alert!!! Please do note that each invidual is different. What person X might find amusing/interesting, could be the pits for person Y, and vice-versa. So, when someone tells you “The dish XYZ is the worst!”, and you just dont even consider the dish XYZ or take alternate/2nd opinion on it, you might be missing out on something truly great. For e.g. take Huapia (Coconut Pudding) in Hawaii, which apparently you only get at a Luau. I loved it! Even went hunting for it, later. Amazingly I could never buy it in a store. I tried in all 4 of the bigger Hawaiian Islands and even went through the extreme embarassment of trying to repeatedly pronounce it to the locals 🙂 My point is, if I had strictly listened to the advice of some of the well-meaning (I am sure) notes/tips I had heard/read, I could have missed out on it.

Wise words from a very great man (i.e. Me :-)): “Hear, read and learn as much as you can. But use the information, carefully, after filtering it through your own personal “filter” ….”

Happy Travels …

Note: I will try and add to this post, with more items, as I come across more and more. Please note that the above list is “off the top of my head” … Next time, let me sit down, dwell on it more, and see what I can come up with.

Borobudur (Indonesian Cuisine), San Francisco …

As with many people, I too came to know about this restaurant through the Public Television show “Check Please”. Since all the 3 reviewers gave this restaurant a thumbs up, it entered my list of “To Try” restaurants. We got the chance to go to this restaurant yesterday. Since we went just after the restaurant opened for lunch, there were only a couple of other families. I noticed that they had the usual assortments of great reviews posted outside.

Prices = $$  [$ – Cheap, $$ – Slightly pricy, $$$ – Wow! Bank Loan Time! )

Service = Quite Okay

(01) Otak Otak Panggang (B.B.Q fish cake wrapped in banana leaf):

5.95$

I ordered this dish after seeing some good Yelp reviews. I did not like it that much, though the kids loved it! It did not taste fresh to me.

(02) Ikan Goreng (Striped Bass, deep fried, with special sauce):

15.95$

My wife liked it, though, I did not enjoy it too much. Well, that is the risk in experimenting with other cuisines. You win some, you lose some 🙂 Its all part of the deal …

(03) Rendang Beef (Sumatra-style beef in coconut curry):

12.95$

Now we are talking! This dish was just awesome. I think I finished it off all on my own 🙂 It was a bit too spicy for the kids.

(04) Nasi Goreng Borobudur (House-special Indonesian fried rice, with anchovy, egg and onions):

9.95$

Quite good. Kids loved it. It went very well with the Rendang Beef.

(05) Es Campur (Tropical fruits in shaved ice, with several sauces):

5.50$

We loved it, especially after mixing all the ingredients. After some spicy dishes, it hit the right spot.

(06) Pisang Bakar (Friend banana, with a mix of condensed milk, chocolate and cheese(!)):

6.50$

It was very good, though a bit heavy.

Overall, it was a so-so experience. I do not think I will drive all the way to San Francisco to go to this restaurant again … We personally thought that it was not as great as what the Check Please reviewers claimed.

Norway – Final Itinerary

Whew … After a lot of research, I have finalized the itinerary for my Scandinavian trip w.r.t. Norway. Some of my original assumptions/plans had to be scrapped due to lack of convenience or lack of convenient transportation mode. Reputedly, Scandinavia has the some of the best hostels in the world. Since I will be doing this leg of our Summer Vacation alone, I can afford to try the Hostels. In case you are curious as to why my family is not joining me on this leg, there are two reasons: (a) Among the other choices we considered, e.g. Turkey/Greece, Eastern Europe etc. Rosemary is least interested in this area, but at the same time, Jul-Aug is the best time to visit this area (b) With two small kids, this leg of the trip might be a bit too hectic (the reason I decided to fit in St.Petersburg (also) into this trip).

Note: If you like travel like I do, then you must also be reading up on the countries/cities you visit. If not, please do so. It makes the whole experience worthwhile. I use sources like Guidebooks, Travel Shows, Blogs, Magazines, Brochures, Visitor Information Centers, Government sources etc. to prepare me for the journey.

Overview (Dont want to bore people with all the other data I have collected, which probably only a few (like me) will find interesting): Norway is a part of a very progressive and prosperous region of the world, with a very high standard of living. Norway is a part of NATO. The government plays a big role and the Norway government-provided perks sounds awesome 🙂 Good for Norwegians!. It is quite rainy and cold throughout the year, except for the golden months of Jul-Aug (see below). Its famed Viking past makes it an intriguing place to visit. I also noticed that Norway is a really looooong country (geographically). The map has to be split into two sections 🙂 Norway has borders with Sweden/Finland/Russia (yes, even Russia! It gives a feel for the length of the country). Norway and Fjords go together. The longest/deepest one is Sognefjord (see below). Oslo itself is a part of OsloFjord. Bergen (see below) is a World Heritage City.

Day1 (July 9th (Fri), 2010):

Take SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) from London/Heathrow (LHR) to Oslo/Gardermoen (OSL). Arrive in Oslo around 13:30. Take the Airport Express to the city (airport is 47 Km away from the city center).

Agenda for the rest of the day:

(a) Visit the Oslo Cathedral, Grand Café, Wergeland Statue, City Hall and Harbor, by doing a Walking Tour.

(b) Akershus Fortress Complex: Akershus Castle and Norwegian Resistance Museum.

(c) City Hall, including the free tour.

(d) Nobel Peace Center

It may not be possible to do all during a half-day. I am keeping (d) at lowest priority, and if anything is not possible this day, I will try it out the 2nd day, if possible.

My philosophy on any trip is: Have a general plan for a day. Dont leave it all open. But then, be flexible for issues like “not feeling well”, “weather”, “transportation delay” etc. But, by nature, I need some kind of planning 🙂 Yeah, yeah, I know that even the “best laid plans” can go haywire. But then, isnt it better than having no plans whatsoever?

Spent the night at Anker Hostel.

Day2 (July 10th (Sat), 2010):

AM Plan:

(a) Frogner Park. Vigeland sculptures. Tower of Bodies sculpture. Monolith of Life sculpture.

(b) Holmenkollen Ski Jump.

PM Plan:

(a) Norwegian Folk Museum. [Bygdoy] – Needs most time.

(b) Viking Ship Museum. [Bygdoy]

(c) Fram Museum. [Bygdoy]

(d) Kon-Tiki Museum. [Bygdoy]

After Dinner:

Tour harborfront, Aker Brygge Mall.

Spent the night at Anker Hostel.

Day3 (July 11th (Sun), 2010):

Check out from Anker Hostel and check in for the Norway in a Nutshell Tour through Sognefjord. Really looking forward for this one. The tour is a mix of train, bus and boat sub-tours and the pictures in the brochures and guidebooks are spectacular. I hope the weather gods will smile on me this day. Reach Bergen in the evening.

Spend the evening strolling through the historic harbor. Check in at YMCA Hostel.

Day4 (July 12th (Mon), 2010):

I have the whole day to spent at Bergen. I plan to take a couple of walking tours to get a truly local feel of the place. I will visit the Tourist Information center and take their tips on how to spend the day. One thing I will do for sure is to use the Floibanen Funicular and go up to Mt. Floyen. I hear that the views are spectacular.

After dinner, I will go to the airport and take the Norwegian Airlines flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport (Sweden), reaching there by around 23:00.

Folks, please note that I have also made detailed plans on what cuisine (snacks, dessert, beverages etc.) to try in each city. I am leaving out those details here. I have also made a short-list of restaurants (which has good reviews) to try. Depending upon how my day is going (and also my location at any point of time), I will pick the restaurant. I also have notes on what to expect at each sight. For e.g. which display to look for, within a particular museum.

A “weird” work timing?

I am a morning person.

On working days, I naturally (i.e. without alarm) wake up anywhere between 4-5.30AM. Even if I go to sleep at 3AM, I wake up, at the very latest, by around 8AM.

I remember during exams in college (during my Bachelors), my room-mate Rajeev after studying till 2-3AM, wakes me up, and then go to sleep. I used to study from 2-3AM onwards. He is an evening person (or night person). The only way I can stay up late is when I take a siesta in the afternoon. I recall waking up the security guard each morning, when I was working in Hyderabad. The irony is that the guy is supposed to stay awake and “guard” the building 🙂 I am sure he was cursing me for disturbing his sleep every single working day.

Throughout my career, I have been following the routine of working from 5-6AM till around 4-5PM, with some breaks in between. (Also, if your work involves remote teams, then one can never put a hard stop saying that after 5PM no emails/calls would be answered. On working days, I do check emails/messages late into the evening). One obvious advantage is that the 3-4 hours in the morning (after one (or more) cups of coffee), before 9AM, have proved very productive. A lot many times, I have been able to solve baffling problems during this early morning window. The usual distractions like, office chatter, meetings etc. wont be there during this window. Also, when I work with team members in different time zones (say, India, for example), this work timing has been very useful. I get a good 2-3 hours of overlap with my counterparts, during each other’s typical office times! Let me repeat, “typical office times”. Majority of the people I have come across in my career like to work late into the evenings.

This is a snap of the sun rising, as seen from our office building at 6AM Pacific Time. When I come in, it is usually dark 🙂

Because I am, by nature, a morning person, I have managed to use this to my advantage.

There are other incidental advantages also. I personally feel that there are more things I can do with my personal time in the evenings, as opposed to the mornings. Mornings are a rush period at home, with kids getting ready for school etc. Also, in this day of 24/7 “plugged in” life, the concept of “reading newspaper” or “listening to morning news” are gone. But more personal time in the evening gives me opportunity to get some physical activities and spent liesure time with the family. On working days, from the time I wake up, I am invariably thinking about the day ahead, planning and prioritizing. Also, traffic issues are almost non-existent for me, since I will be driving well before the rush hours in either direction.

I must say that when I drive to office, I do see a significant amount of traffic and this indicates that there are a lot of people who follow similar timings.

I am a firm believer that one should only do what comes naturally. For example, an evening person should not try to forcefully wake up early in the morning. That would be contrary to the body/mind rythm of that person.