Jan. 26–28, 2007

Having enjoyed weekend ski trips in the Poconos in 2005 and 2006, my friends and I gladly returned to Jack Frost for our third consecutive visit.

This year, it was my turn to organize the group outing. We chose the same accommodations as before — condo rentals in Snow Ridge Village, right down the road from the resort lodge. But given our large group (15 in all) and the reasonable condo rates, I booked three units to give ourselves a little more room this time around.

(Actually, I had been tempted to cancel the ski trip, given the absurdly mild weather in Pennsylvania through mid-January. But cold temperatures finally arrived about 10 days before our scheduled weekend — just enough time for the resort to make plenty of snow. We really lucked out, if you ask me.)

Most of the group arrived on Friday night; we ordered a few pizzas for dinner and played a spirited round of Cranium. Despite a fitful night of sleep, I woke up early on Saturday and met up with a handful of people from our group to hit the slopes. We enjoyed a great day all around — it was quite cold, but the conditions were decent and the crowds were pretty manageable. Personally, after completing one rather icy black-diamond run with mixed results, I skied increasingly well throughout the day on the intermediate trails. Good times!

The rest of the weekend followed our usual routine: a few beers at the lodge, a return to the condo community for a big group dinner (this time ordered from a local Italian restaurant), and a large breakfast before heading home on Sunday morning. On the way out, I finished the check-out process at the rental office, and another successful ski trip was in the books.

[ No. 315 ]

Jan. 22, 2007

Yet another TV ad has thrown me for a loop.

Although I was reasonably certain that Orville Redenbacher had passed away years ago — and I found out later that he did indeed leave this earth in 1995 — there he was on my screen:

Orville Redenbacher, back from the dead

Before I go on, take a minute to watch the commercial.

Something about the 30-second spot, which featured Orville’s likeness wearing an MP3 player and warbling about his “gourmet popping corn,” seemed odd. At first, I assumed that an actor had been hired to replace the deceased popcorn legend. But a few quick Internet searches yielded the truth: the spokesperson on my screen was actually a digital resurrection of the original Orville. (Think Max Headroom, speaking without a stutter and sporting a large brown bow tie.)

Orville’s computerized return from the dead is apparently unprecedented, and experts who spoke with USA Today predict that the campaign will work:

Advertising psychologist Carol Moog says there’s “a certain creepiness” to reviving Redenbacher but expects it’ll sell popcorn. “There’s going to be a macabre fascination.”

Creepy, indeed. The cartoon version of the late Colonel Sanders from Kentucky Fried Chicken was bad enough, but the undead Orville belongs in a tasteless horror-movie spoof.

[ No. 314 ]

Image credit: Orville Redenbacher’s

Jan. 20, 2007

If your line of work involves promoting positive race relations through genuinely productive means, then I’m totally behind you. Racism and hatred have no place in this world.

However, if you focus all of your energy on a protest of the TV show 24, then I’m going to tell you to stop wasting your breath. (The program even aired a public service announcement against racial stereotyping two years ago, but apparently, even that’s not enough.)

Much of 24’s widespread appeal lies in its gripping realism, and the fight against terrorism isn’t pretty. If you can’t deal with that, then turn the channel and watch something else.

[ No. 313 ]

Jan. 18, 2007

By now, you’ve probably heard about “spiral” or “swirl” light bulbs (formally called compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs). Compared to the incandescent bulbs that we’re all used to, CFLs are a little funny-looking, but they are amazingly efficient and last for years.

I had heard that the energy-saving bulbs were a bit expensive up front, and the GE models were indeed pricey at my local supermarket. But then I stopped by Home Depot, which sells CFLs under the brand name “n:vision.” There, I found six-packs of 14-watt spiral bulbs (the light-output equivalent of 60-watt incandescents) for just $9.97. That’s less than two bucks for a single light bulb that has a nine-year warranty and uses 77% less energy.

I bought two packs of “soft white” CFLs and replaced most of the incandescents in my house. The color from the bulbs is very pleasant — trust me, my living room doesn’t resemble the sterile, bluish light you’d see in an office building or hospital. So far, the only drawback to CFLs is very minor: I can’t use one in my home office, since the lamp in that room has a dimmer switch.

It will be interesting to see exactly how my energy bills change over the next few months. But when you can conserve valuable resources and save a lot of money in the process, everybody wins.

It’s easy to do your part — buy just a few CFLs and join the revolution.

[ No. 312 ]

Jan. 10, 2007

Kudos to Slate for their refreshing, no-nonsense article that sternly warns against chasing stocks that are recommended by financial magazines each January. You know the ones — those that scream 10 HOT STOCKS THAT YOU SIMPLY MUST BUY NOW!!! from the newsstand.

Two particularly convincing arguments from the article: (1) professional money managers usually fail to beat the market, so mere journalists will almost certainly perform even worse, and (2) magazines often forget to mention the pesky topic of investment costs, such as commissions and taxes. I’ve said this before — many media personalities practically promote investing as an exciting form of gambling, and they almost never admit that costs are part of the equation. (But caveats like that would rain on the “booyah!” parade and hurt ratings, right?)

By contrast, a consistent approach of buying low-cost index funds isn’t sexy, and there would be no need for more than one magazine article, ever. But that tortoise-like strategy will reliably generate huge long-term returns with nearly zero effort. For example, in 2006, while the S&P 500 picked up a healthy gain of 13.6%, the shares of the Vanguard 500 Index Fund in my IRA rose by exactly the same amount (excluding dividends), and I didn’t lift a finger — the fund simply matched the market’s performance. Beat that, active traders!

An added bonus in the Slate article was a link to an equally wise column by Ben Stein, who made me chuckle with a very simple and accurate observation:

Speaking of the future, intelligent people keep e-mailing me and asking me what 2007 will hold in terms of investment. How will the stock market do? My answer is always the same: “It will fluctuate.” The line is stolen from J.P. Morgan when he was asked the same question long ago.

I highly recommend many of Stein’s other columns as well, which appear in an entertaining Yahoo! series called, “How Not to Ruin Your Life.”

[ No. 311 ]

Jan. 8, 2007

The seemingly endless war of words between Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell has officially reached a stratospheric level of absurdity. I can only hope that this extended feud is nothing more than an elaborate practical joke, akin to the one staged by Andy Kaufman and Jerry Lawler in the early 1980s. (The true nature of that wrestling ruse surfaced many years later, long after Kaufman’s death.)

But that would give Trump and O’Donnell far too much credit. No, it’s pretty clear that neither of them has anything better to do, and neither has arrived at the conclusion that the first one to simply stop talking will actually appear smarter, if only by a razor-thin margin.

Perhaps the dramatic increase in hot air between these two idiots could explain the bizarre mild winter we’ve been having.

[ No. 310 ]

Jan. 1, 2007

I almost always enjoy New Year’s Day, both for the sense of a clean slate and for the freedom to watch college football for the majority of the day.

But this year is different — ever since the evening of Beer Around the World three weeks ago, I’ve been fighting a nasty cold, and the symptoms have really intensified since Christmas. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I will be single-handedly responsible for improving the stock prices of the makers of both Kleenex and Halls cough drops.

I just hope that a visit to the doctor’s office on Thursday morning (apparently the earliest available time slot when I called to schedule an appointment last Friday) will finally help to alleviate this mess and get me back on track for a happy and healthy 2007.

[ No. 309 ]