Travel agents and tour guides rock!

On the streets of Gorizia, Italy on border with Slovenia.

Was sitting in the office of our local travel agency for a few hours a couple of days ago working out train schedules for our coming European adventure. As the agent struggled with schedules online, IFO noticed a flyer with some info (slightly edited by IFO):

“The Top 10 Reasons to Use a Travel Agent”
Thx to Newberg Travel and Cruise Inc, Newberg OR

1. Convenient One-Stop Shopping – TAs can handle every aspect of your trip from lodging, ground transportation, activities, tours and mch more!

2. Consumer Advocate  – TAs can help resolve problems for you.

3. Expert Guidance – TAs are experts, and as such, they can create possibilities most people would never have dreamed were possible.

4. Save Time – Let the TAs call and websurf around and do all the work of planning a complex itinerary. Their resources are much broader than the average, um, IFO’s.

5. Choice – TAs offer an array of options and price quotes – good for the budget conscious.

6. Less Stress – Planning a trip can be stressful. (That’s for sure!) TAs do the work, reducing pressure on you.

7. Updated Information – TAs are constantly communicating with the travel community, so they can give you the most up-to-date info on airline regs, hotels, car rentals, cruise ships, travel visas and other services.

8. Customer Service – TAs offer that “personal touch” to your travel planning experience – offering help and advice that a website cannot provide. (So true!)

9. Travel Documentation – TAs can tell you how and whether to get necessary documents you may need to travel, like passport, visa, or any other papers.

10. Travel Expertise – Many TAs are considered experts in the area you are traveling to and have probably been to your chosen destination.


11. IFO’s own addition based on experience – TAs can get you a plane ticket across the world at the last minute, as one did for her in Switzerland a couple of years ago. Literally saved her life!

These skills can pay off big time.

For example, IFO’s tour leader to Turkey offered to join her on public  transportation to visit tourist spots in Istanbul, rather than go on a tourist bus tour. Is that cool, or what? Of course, they aren’t all like that, but tour guides in IFO’s experience have been uniformly excellent.

Another time, a guide noticed on a bottle of olive oil at the place where we were having lunch in a town on the Italy-Slovenia border, it could have been Gorizia. The oil came from a farmer and olive oil producer just outside of town. She asked us if we’d like to go see how olive oil was made. Admittedly, IFO was the most enthusiastic, but the others said okay, so we went and it was worth the trip!

 Olive oil maker and farmer shows us and our lovely tour guide, Mary Cannavo, how he makes oil.  -- Photo by Jo McIntyre

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Dante on tough clients + a dip into biotech investing

Dante Alighieri and his Divine Comedy. At the height of the Renaissance in Florence. Divine, indeed!

Here are edited snippets from a favorite blog: The Stock Gumshoe. One must subscribe and pay $$ to read, hence the anonymity. Well worth the investment, but don’t do what IFO did and jump in! Do what she SAYS, not what she DOES!

Dante said the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who couldn’t make up their minds and lacked all conviction.

Said a favorite poster, a very smart and popular doctor: “…many physicians slip into a mode of equating antibiotic resistance with virulence, and they have nothing to do with each other.”

This is shorthand for a belief about bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, a phenomenon we have been reading quite a bit about lately. Many doctors think these bacteria are more aggressive and toxic than regular bacteria.

That this is not the case is a fact that has implications for drug developers and biotech investors.

And, finally, another good one, something IFO has dealt with from time to time:

I have a good friend who has had most of his substantial investable assets tied up in [anonymous stock] for the last 8 years or so—far more than the minuscule holding I acquired, initially inspired by his enthusiasm.

When I was visiting him earlier this summer, I tried to talk him into dumping the whole lot, or at least starting sell of portions, bit by bit, to free up funds for much better sourced ideas.

But sadly he felt he had to hold on just a bit longer, because it was finally just about to turn around…very soon….any day….. Very unfortunate for him, emotionally as well as financially, and all the more so given that he’s a very bright guy with a great heart, just an incredibly naive investor.

I will keep working on him to diversify and to see that, with (this company), there simply may be no light at the end of the tunnel. He is an old and dear friend.

So, you see, dear readers, we are not the only tough clients in this universe. Nothing to feel bad about, but plenty to work on to improve ourselves!

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What kind of investor are you? Part IV

Building trust in yourself is a gradual and continuous process. Enjoy the ride!

Turns out there was a lot of wisdom expressed by those financial advisors on the Wells Fargo Bank-sponsored Webinar. What they ended up talking about was client retention and how to get clients to do something…wise.

Frankly, we thought the main idea behind mutual funds was so you wouldn’t have to do anything – the fund managers would do it all for you – for a fee. Evaluating financial advisors is still good advice for those of our readers who, despite our oft-expressed opposition to mutual funds, do, in fact, own mutual funds and patronize financial advisors. How does YOUR advisor treat you?

But we digress. Still considering yourself as your own client, ask whether you are building trust in yourself by…

1. Being competent. Know what you are doing by studying, researching, etc.

2. Being consistent, reliable and predictable.

3. Being transparent in communicating with yourself. That’s a bit strange in this context, but IFO would summarize this by saying, “Be honest with yourself. Are you really doing what you said you would? Are you following your own written goals? You have written down your goals, haven’t you?”

4. Having your OWN interests at heart.

What reduces trust? Over-promising and under-producing. Be realistic with your goals and actions. Keep measuring your progress. How do you get yourself (as your own client) to follow through with a plan? Make sure you actually understand and agree with what you have written down.

Did you set triggers for buy/sell decisions? Write a letter to yourself and pre-commit to an action you suspect may be hard to carry out.  Buying is fun, exciting, filled with positive expectations of gain. Selling is rarely that.

Selling is usually hard to do. Selling usually means you did something wrong – you failed! You didn’t evaluate properly, guessed wrong (you’re never supposed to guess!), missed a market cue – a company cut a dividend and you weren’t paying attention. You missed a company acquisition  that you KNEW was stupid, or didn’t like a new CEO, but you second-guessed yourself, held on and now the stock is tanking.

Don’t worry! That’s the time to buck up. Review your plans. Pat yourself on the back for all the GOOD decisions you have made. And enjoy the life you are making for yourself.

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What kind of investor are you? Part III

A bit more complex than we need for our purposes, but this is a good map for how to starting thinking about investing. Can’t give credit – comes from a dead Web page.

Here’s our third post on what was to be a two-part series.

We’re going to cover the cure for the  afflictions identified by speakers at a Webinar we summarized in earlier posts. The Webinar was sponsored by Wells Fargo Bank and aimed at financial advisors, who seem to be attached to mutual funds, which, as long-time readers of IFO know, we do not like.

Nevertheless, we can look at ourselves as our own clients, and view the mindsets of the types of “tough clients” they were talking about:

1. Fixated on the past. “X happened, so I don’t EVER want to do THAT again!”

2. Uncertain, scared. “Oh, gosh. I just don’t know what to do. How can I decide?”

3. Resistant to change. “I’m happy where I am. Don’t want to make any changes to my current holdings.”

4. Over-reacting. “OMG! The market went down X points! Sell!” Alternatively, of course, “The market is going up! Quick buy everything you can!”

5. Attached to cash. “I just feel safer with cash. I don’t want to buy any (more) investment products.”

Numbers 2 and 3 are more common to women, who are naturally conservative and, as they age, somewhat timid. Not many are attached to cash these days. They may be conservative, but they know what is going on with interest rates.  Numbers 1 and 4 are more likely to be those of men – action-oriented doers (even negatively, as in number 1).

Here are the advisors’ somewhat humorous fixes for these folks:

1. For the client expecting a financial catastrophe because s/he already experienced one, ask the client (yourself),

“Have you ever been on a bad date? Or have you been on an airplane that had a hard landing? Did you then decide never to date or fly again?

Well, there you are. You know, logically and based on history, that these things do happen, but you recover and go on to do those things again. Markets also recover and usually go on to reach new heights.”

2. The fix for this and the other mindsets which essentially freeze you into not acting is to take a rational and logical view of what you are doing.

a. Devise a specific investment plan for and by yourself.
b. Decide what criteria you will use to buy or sell a stock?
c. Write them down and review them and your holdings a few times a year.

3. Ignore market moves. A famous investment guy once said, “A trend in motion will continue… until it changes.”

4. Observe the “safety first” principle. Have enough cash on hand and money invested that you won’t mind big dips. These numbers will change. Write down what aspects of the market and the economy will cause YOU to change those numbers.

5. If you are still battling one or more of those negative and unhelpful mindsets listed above, do a reality check on your own reactions. What did you do the last time this happened? How did it work for you? And especially for mindset number 4, look back and see what would have happened if you hadn’t panicked.

6. Once you think you have made up your mind and come to a decision, WAIT one day. As the advisors put it, and this is good advice for LIFE, “Don’t hit Send right away.”

Or as IFO’s sainted GFIL used to say, “Sleep on every decision you are about to make.”

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Individual companies rock!

Kimberly S. Greene, COO at Southern Company


Surfing around the Net over the past few days has given us some wonderful insights into private, publicly-traded corporations of all kinds.

For example, Southern Company (SO) has just completed a course for military that will enable the soldiers to go right into a private-sector job as soon as they leave the service.

Here are some snippets from the company’s PR people:

A “Troops to Energy” jobs founding member, SO partnered with the U.S. Army to develop a program to train service members stationed at Fort Stewart military base. All 10 soldiers who completed the three-week training course – which included segments on safety and compliance, as well as experience with tools and equipment – received job offers from SO subsidiary Georgia Power.

“As a longtime supporter of the military, SO is proud to enhance our recruitment efforts through this innovative partnership with the U.S. Army,” said SO Chief Operating Officer Kimberly S. Greene. “Bringing this specialized training veterans, helps them transition to civilian life while putting their skills to work for the benefit of the customers we serve.”

The new training program at Fort Stewart was developed in support of Soldier for Life, a U.S. Army program designed to assist military service members and their families in the transition from active duty to the civilian job market.

Southern Company believes that military service members’ commitment to safety, teamwork and excellence in their work aligns well with the core values of the utility industry. Ten percent of the Southern Company system’s 26,000 employees are veterans or serve in the National Guard or Reserve. Veterans account for 14 percent of the system’s new hires this year.

Southern Company is the top-ranked energy company and No. 3 overall in the 2014 DiversityInc Top 10 Companies for Veterans, the top-ranked energy company and No. 13 overall in the Military Times EDGE Best for Vets: Employers 2014 survey and among the Most Valuable Employers for Military® by for five consecutive years.

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Want to be impressed? Look at Procter and Gamble

Here’s a P&G Web page with some mighty impressive numbers. If you are too busy to click on the link, check these out:

Business YearsProducts WorldwideConsecutive Dividend IncreaseBrandSales

This is the kind of company that dividend investors love!

Better yet, they make TIDE products. Only a woman would know the importance of that fact. IFO uses TIDE. Once, a few years ago, she noticed that the box of TIDE laundry detergent she had purchased smelled awful! Heavily perfumed! Almost made her gag!

As is her wont, she called the company and complained – politely, of course. A few days later she got a TIDE coupon in the mail. That was fine, but the really fine thing was that a few MONTHS later, she noted that TIDE had gone back to its original fragrance.

Now THAT’S called listening to consumers.

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What kind of investor are you? Part II

Wilbur Mills and his good friend, Fannie Fox. H/t to a defunct weblog.

Okay, yesterday we discussed five kinds of difficult clients. If you view yourself as your own client, which type(s) are you – Fixed on Past; Scared; Resistant to Change; Over-reactor; or Attached to Cash?

Now, what do you, the financial advisor, do to get yourself to make a decision (buy or sell something)?

First, recognize it is not necessary to do something. You need to establish:

1. Specific buy or sell points for stocks you are uncertain about. You will, IFO fervently hopes, have some fail-safe stocks that you don’t intend to touch unless the CEO is caught swimming in the Tidal Basin in Wash DC as Wilbur Mills was those many years ago.

Your newer stocks or ones you are a bit uncertain about, you need to set price stops (from price falling) for the ones you’ve bought and personal buy signals from the ones you are watching. You ARE watching and considering buying one or two, aren’t you?

2. Write an investment policy statement. This was a recommendation by the financial advisors, but sounds a bit tedious to me. OTOH, IFO’s policy has been written out and stated fairly often – rising dividends, know the CEO, etc.

3. Remind yourself from time to time about the basics of investing that you have established for yourself. See #2 above.

4. Continuously review your current investments – no matter how stable or growing, but especially if declining. If declining, you may have to make some decisions and the hardest ones are to admit to yourself that the company you thought was so great… isn’t.

You can do this with your financial software (IFO prefers Quicken) and or on Yahoo’s personal finance site or your broker’s website, or all three.

5. Speaking of Yahoo’s personal finance site, it is a good idea to set up a model portfolio or two or three for yourself. You can also do this with the online Wall Street Journal, or, again, your broker’s website.

If you have a really good discount broker, s/he WILL NOT give you a single word of advice. You are strictly on your own! That’s a good thing. It will keep you on your toes and you’ll have no one to blame if you make a bad decision.

BTW, some financial advisors advise senior citizen investors to have a mix of about 60% stocks and 40% bonds. Some used to say the percentage of bonds should be your age and the percentage of stocks should be what is left. So, if you are 70 years old, they said, you should have 70% of your investments in bonds and 30% in stocks. Bullfeathers, we say!

You would have left an awful lot of money on the table if you had followed that advice during the past six years. And you could lose a lot if you suddenly start to buy bonds now.

That’s because there is something called “interest rate risk.” Government bond interest rates are so low now that they can hardly go any lower. With inflation around 2% you are already paying the government to hold your money.

But maybe you feel safer with govt bonds, which “are almost as good as cash.” Yes, but they aren’t. Unless you hold to maturity, if rates start to go back up, the amount you get for your bond when you sell it could well be LESS THAN what you paid for it. I’ll explain about that some other time.

We went a little long here. Will have to do another post on the more psychological aspects of your investing behavior.

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Back to basics: what kind of investor are you?

Some clients are easier to see and understand. Which one are you? [h/t

We attended a WellsFargo-sponsored Webinar a few days ago and enjoyed it tremendously. The leaders of the meeting were financial advisors who dealt exclusively, apparently, with mutual funds. You all know where we stand on mutual funds.

For newcomers, in a nutshell, our opinion is that you won’t do any better with a mutual fund than individual stocks purchased via discount, internet brokers. Pay yourself that management fee and do your due diligence, reading about individual companies as well as about economic theory and other information that can guide your understanding of markets and stocks.

However, this event, titled Five Tough Clients and How to Spur Them to Action, was a complimentary webcast made by ThinkAdvisor and we found it very instructive. With just a few tweaks, you can use it for and on yourself, rather than for its intended use – a tool for investment advisors.

To begin, think of yourself as your client. This is key. IFO’s entire financial and business life changed when she began to think of herself as a business which hired clients! Now she was no longer a schlub who hoped and prayed for a freelance job, an assignment, from a beneficent editor. She was performing valuable services for them, her clients.

Second tweak, apply all of this advice to researching companies, rather than mutual funds or MF managers. With MFs you are supposed have confidence in your financial advisors, know account fees,  and kinds of funds there are, what your “investment goals are” and so on. Might as well analyze yourself and the companies whose stock you might be interested in buying.

This event was almost an hour, and had great, actionable points, so we’ll probably need two posts to cover the whole thing.

So. To begin. Here are the mindsets of the tough clients the advisors identified. Do you recognize yourself in any of them?

* Fixated on the past. “X happened, so I don’t EVER want to do THAT again!”

* Uncertain, scared. “Oh, gosh. I just don’t know what to do. I see all kinds of things on the Internet, TV, newsletters… market is going up, or down, economy is a mess, or getting better. How can I decide?”

* Resistant to change. “I’m happy where I am. Don’t want to make any changes to my current holdings.”

* Over-reacting. “OMG! The market went down X points! Sell!” Alternatively, of course, “The market is going up! Quick buy everything you can!”

* Attached to cash. “I just feel safer with cash. I don’t want to buy any (more) investment products.”

Okay. See yourself in there? IFO sees herself in a couple of those. Tomorrow, we’ll pass on some coping behaviors which we gleaned from the Webinar.

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Not funny, we know, but still …

$2.2 BILLION worth of solar panels are aimed at this huge water tower in the California desert. AP Photo/Chris Carlson [IFO decided not to post pix of dead birds.]

Maybe this post should be renamed “battling environmentalists.” Too bad it’s the taxpayers who have to pay for their silly programs. The following is taken directly from The Oregonian’s website, OregonLive: By The Associated Press, updated August 18, 2014 at 12:34 PM

IVANPAH DRY LAKE, Calif. — Workers at a state-of-the-art solar plant in the Mojave Desert have a name for birds that fly through the plant’s concentrated sun rays — “streamers,” for the smoke plume that comes from birds that ignite in midair.

Federal wildlife investigators who visited the BrightSource Energy plant last year and watched as birds burned and fell, reporting an average of one “streamer” every two minutes, are urging California officials to halt the operator’s application to build a still-bigger version.

The investigators want the halt until the full extent of the deaths can be assessed. Estimates per year now range from a low of about a thousand by BrightSource to 28,000 by an expert for the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

The deaths are “alarming. It’s hard to say whether that’s the location or the technology,” said Garry George, renewable-energy director for the California chapter of the Audubon Society. “There needs to be some caution.”

The bird kills mark the latest instance in which the quest for clean energy sometimes has inadvertent environmental harm. Solar farms have been criticized for their impacts on desert tortoises, and wind farms have killed birds, including numerous raptors.

“We take this issue very seriously,” said Jeff Holland, a spokesman for NRG Solar of Carlsbad, California, the second of the three companies behind the plant. The third, Google, deferred comment to its partners.

The $2.2 billion plant, which launched in February, is at Ivanpah Dry Lake near the California-Nevada border. The operator says it’s the world’s biggest plant to employ so-called power towers.

More than 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, reflect solar rays onto three boiler towers each looming up to 40 stories high. The water inside is heated to produce steam, which turns turbines that generate enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Sun rays sent up by the field of mirrors are bright enough to dazzle pilots flying in and out of Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Federal wildlife officials said Ivanpah might act as a “mega-trap” for wildlife, with the bright light of the plant attracting insects, which in turn attract insect-eating birds that fly to their death in the intensely focused light rays.

Federal and state biologists call the number of deaths significant, based on sightings of birds getting singed and falling, and on retrieval of carcasses with feathers charred too severely for flight.

Ivanpah officials dispute the source of the so-called streamers, saying at least some of the puffs of smoke mark insects and bits of airborne trash being ignited by the solar rays.

Wildlife officials who witnessed the phenomena say many of the clouds of smoke were too big to come from anything but a bird, and they add that they saw “birds entering the solar flux and igniting, consequently become a streamer.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials say they want a death toll for a full year of operation.

Given the apparent scale of bird deaths at Ivanpah, authorities should thoroughly track bird kills there for a year, including during annual migratory seasons, before granting any more permits for that kind of solar technology, said George, of the Audubon Society.

The toll on birds has been surprising, said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. “We didn’t see a lot of impact” on birds at the first, smaller power towers in the U.S. and Europe, Weisenmiller said.

The commission is now considering the application from Oakland-based BrightSource to build a mirror field and a 75-story power tower that would reach above the sand dunes and creek washes between Joshua Tree National Park and the California-Arizona border.

The proposed plant is on a flight path for birds between the Colorado River and California’s largest lake, the Salton Sea — an area, experts say, is richer in avian life than the Ivanpah plant, with protected golden eagles and peregrine falcons and more than 100 other species of birds recorded there.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials warned California this month that the power-tower style of solar technology holds “the highest lethality potential” of the many solar projects burgeoning in the deserts of California.

The commission’s staff estimates the proposed new tower would be almost four times as dangerous to birds as the Ivanpah plant. The agency is expected to decide this autumn on the proposal.

While biologists say there is no known feasible way to curb the number of birds killed, the companies behind the projects say they are hoping to find one — studying whether lights, sounds or some other technology would scare them away, said Joseph Desmond, senior vice president at BrightSource Energy.

BrightSource also is offering $1.8 million in compensation for anticipated bird deaths at Palen, Desmond said.

The company is proposing the money for programs such as those to spay and neuter domestic cats, which a government study found kill over 1.4 billion birds a year. Opponents say that would do nothing to help the desert birds at the proposed site.

Power-tower proponents are fighting to keep the deaths from forcing a pause in the building of new plants when they see the technology on the verge of becoming more affordable and accessible, said Thomas Conroy, a renewable-energy expert.

When it comes to powering the country’s grids, “diversity of technology … is critical,” Conroy said. “Nobody should be arguing let’s be all coal, all solar,” all wind, or all nuclear. “And every one of those technologies has a long list of pros and cons.”






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Opera on the Internet – who could have guessed?

Dress rehearsal of Il Trovatore. Credit: Heinz-Peter Bader, Reuters

We just finished watching a recorded LIVE performance of Il Trovatore by G. Verdi on this morning. Performance was at the Grosses Festspielhaus in Salzburg Austria.

Leads were Placido Domingo and Anna Nebtrebko, current superstars in the opera world. Interested readers can look up the other credits on the Web. It had an astounding and beautiful set design, dramatic conception, costumes,  orchestra and chorus. Of course, all Verdi operas demand the orchestra and chorus.

Opera in Europe had gone seriously downhill in recent years, with regietheatre  style performances. That means the director takes liberties with every aspect of an opera – changing everything but the music and singing. Some performances in this style deepened your understanding and appreciation for the work. Others just were disgusting and stupid.

But the Salzburg performance was different. It was set in an art museum in the Renaissance section. There we saw replicas of paintings by Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci among others.

As the opera progressed, the walls of the museum moved, showing different paintings relating to the opera – Madonna and child, musicians, etc. The predominant colors were astounding Renaissance Reds. Museum guides and guards wore blue. Tourists, in mufti, wore beige and gray.

Later regietheatre productions seemed to be a competition between directors to see who could obtain the most boos from the audience. The opera companies in Europe are all are subsidized by their governments, including the Salzburg Festival, so they didn’t have to worry about angry, disengaged audiences. Those directors would have been proud to have played to empty houses – thus proving how lowbrow, ignorant, uncultured their populations were, as opposed to their own good and sophisticated selves.

Then, the Recession hit. Yay! Someone must have spoken sharply to the festival managers. Yes, they are still presenting biting satirical plays and depressing musicals, but they must be learning their lesson. Their operas are all sold out, as you will see if you surf around on the festival website.

IFO was going to post a New York Times review for your added enjoyment, but the reviewer totally misunderstood the production. His sneering review may be typical of the NYT, but is a true disservice to the performance, the performers and the festival itself. He is a total ignoramus, plus he apparently didn’t read the libretto before he started to write. Big mistake.

If you watch the production, which will be available on for the next couple weeks, IFO promises you will never look at an art museum or its staff the same way again.

Final note: Mozart was born in Salzburg. Perhaps his benign, cheerful and calming influence has returned.

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