The Impulsive Traveler: Gulf Shores, Ala., the Jersey Shore of the South?

The Washington Post

Driving in from Pensacola Airport, we hit the beach road, passing the loud, legendary Flora-Bama Lounge as we entered Alabama. High-rise condos, framed against a glistening turquoise ocean, mixed with modest beach shacks. BMWs shared the road with rusting Ford pickups.

I was visiting my future in-laws at the Alabama beaches for the first time and thought, “This isn’t half bad.” Then we entered Gulf Shores, and the big red and white sign just jumped right out at me. “Ahead, right on Rte. 59, Discount Bible Factory Outlet.”

I turned to my fiancee and said, “I don’t think I belong here.”

The Impulsive Traveler: Details, Gulf Shores, Ala.

Now, I had nothing against Bibles, nor factory outlets, but I’d never seen them together in the same sentence. And, since I’m a lefty Democrat and a Catholic, it made me wonder whether this was the beach for me.

That was 21 years ago. This is the beach for me — and for lots of other people, be they families, students, beer-swilling bubbas or shiraz-sipping sophisticates. And more come all the time, despite the hurricanes and the oil spill. The scents, scenes and sounds of Gulf Shores are a tempting and lively cocktail.

Yup, those ocean scenes you saw on the news during the 2010 BP oil spill are real. Take away the guys in the hazmat suits, and you were looking at some of the prettiest beaches in the country. I like Southern California as much as the next guy, but the gulf’s warmer, the sand’s whiter and you don’t have to elbow your way through baked rollerbladers to get to the ocean.

The oil spill disaster proves the adage: “The only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity.” Gulf Shores is enjoying its busiest year ever. Locals say that the oil spill exposure made a lot of people realize that Alabama has a beach, and a big, beautiful one at that.

“Business is up 32 percent from last year,” says Marty Hoffman, co-owner with his brother Johnny of Waves Beach convenience store. “People come in here all the time and tell us they never heard of Gulf Shores till the oil spill. So they come to check it out and now they don’t want to leave.”

I once called Gulf Shores the Jersey Shore of the South, and my wife almost slung a bowl of crawfish gumbo at me. She was offended that I would compare the beaches of her youth to those of Snooki and Pauly D. But in some ways, it’s true. If you’re from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi or the Midwest, this is your closest, best ocean beach. Like New Jersey, it draws from a wide area — geographically and otherwise. But comparisons probably end there.

There are no kitschy boardwalks. It’s more grits and less guido. The beaches are free. Alcohol and food are permitted. And, for all that’s consumed, the beaches stay pretty clean. Visitors respect the beauty of the place.

Summer is the busiest season. Spring jumps, too. As a Northerner, I find it too hot in the summer. Southerners don’t. Ninety three and humid in Gulf Shores is a lot better than 93 and humid in Birmingham. April is a great month: low humidity, gentle breezes, romantic sunsets, drunk college kids hurling in the back of their F-150s. Okay, that last part isn’t so great, but it’s a fact of life.

If you’re going down in the spring, check which colleges are on spring break. If it’s LSU or Texas, watch out. Generally, they’re nice kids, but real jello-shots-for-breakfast types. A group of LSU students rented right behind our place last year. They’d forgotten their calculus books, but not their Wiz Khalifa CDs. They didn’t sleep much that week. Neither did we.

Generally, you can swim about eight months of the year. I’ve been in the water with my kids during Christmas, and it’s cold. November through February is great for golf, sightseeing, football.

The area has lots to offer: hiking, history, bike trails. Nearby Mobile Bay and Fort Morgan were the site of historic Civil War battles; the phrase “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” originated in Mobile Bay well before Tom Petty. Gulf Shores has a lively cultural and community center. But the best thing down here — aside from the beach — is the music.

Not the big venues, but rather the local bar-restaurants — the Flora-Bama, the Hangout (fun place right on the beach in Gulf Shores), Lulu’s (Jimmy Buffet’s sister’s place; Jimmy grew up in Mobile and partied in Gulf Shores as a youth). You’ll find terrific talent strumming guitars, spinning tales. Often we’d stumble into a nondescript place only to hear a great Jimmy Buffet wannabe. Around Washington, music this good often commands a big cover charge and a big crowd. Not here. The guitar picker at the bar singing a beautiful John Prine or Bob Dylan tune might be the same guy patching your drywall the next day. The lifestyle at the gulf attracts this type of musician. Two of the best I’ve heard played the lounge at a local bowling alley.

Most restaurants are adequate, some above average. Just a few are worth waiting in line for, which is often necessary in the summer. A better idea is to go to one of the many great seafood markets, such as F&S Seafood or Gulf Shores Seafood Market. They’ll cook up an old-fashioned Southern shrimp boil for you, often at no extra charge. Take the shrimp home, ice the beverage, spread the newspapers across the picnic table. Peel, eat, drink. Repeat.

Gulf Shores correctly pitches itself as a family-friendly place. There’s a lot for kids: amusement parks, water parks, mini-golf, all the standard beach town stuff. For rainy days, there’s a huge Tanger Factory Outlet in nearby Foley. But beware: Sales tax here reaches 10 percent, negating lots of savings. The pretty town of Fairhope on Mobile Bay is a fun day trip, 45 minutes from Gulf Shores. Neighboring Orange Beach has nice beaches and great marinas; it’s the go-to place to charter a fishing boat. Still, I’m not wild about its beachfront.

Nor is all perfect in Gulf Shores. That beautiful ocean gets pretty hot in August and often brings nasty, stinging jellyfish. And it’s buggy. Not by the beach, but inland, during summer, the mosquitoes are out and they’re hungry.

Traveling back to Granddad’s Greek home

The Washington Post

People were watching us. Staring, actually. My 17-year-old daughter was uncomfortable, as was her mother, my modest and distinctly non-Greek wife. On the other hand, our 16-year-old son, who shares his father’s Zorba-like hamminess, was lapping up the attention.

We were walking down the narrow streets of Lidoriki, a small village in the mountains of central Greece. Foreigners are rare here, Americans rarer still.

Lidoriki is a lovely little Greek village, unencumbered by tourists, with just a few stores. Each road spills into a large town square flanked by four or five restaurants. At night, everyone in and around Lidoriki comes to this square to do what Greeks do: eat, drink, talk, eat, drink, argue.

Lidoriki is about 40 miles from Delphi — home of the Oracle. Some Athenians keep summer homes here to escape the city heat. The village’s Mormos reservoir supplies Athens with its drinking water. So Lidoriki is pretty important to the capital city. It’s also pretty important to me.

This was my grandfather’s home. James Gardikys-Karandreas left Lidoriki 102 years ago to come to America. He was 13, alone and spoke little English. So he didn’t protest when they changed his name at Ellis Island from the unwieldy Gardikys-Karandreas to the manageable and WASP-y sounding Carden.

I’ve always figured that an immigration officer had just processed a British family from, say, Cheshire, and the name Carden had stuck with him, so he stuck it on my grandfather. Thus, I am a Carden, as is my family. But not one week last summer. That week, the Gardikys-Karandreases were going home.

Home to Greece.

First, let’s get the islands thing out of the way. Yeah, Santorini’s beautiful, Crete mystical, Patmos spiritual (St. John wrote the Book of Revelation there). Most tourists fly to Athens, cram onto a ship at the port of Piraeus and make the day-long trip to one or more of these splendid sanctuaries. And that’s where they stay. Big mistake.

The real Greece is the mainland. The Acropolis, Delphi, Nafplio. Olympus, home of the gods. And Lidoriki, home of the Gardikys-Karandreases.

We arrived in Athens last June at the height of the riots over Greece’s financial situation, which learned observers viewed as a contemporary expression of Greece’s role as the birthplace of democracy. Maybe. To me, it sounded a lot like my grandfather and his friends screaming politics at each other at the Globe Diner in Elizabeth, N.J., so we never felt threatened.

Our cabbie from the airport was a lot less concerned about Greek debt than the Western media are. “We survived 400 years under the Turks, so who cares if we owe some banks some money?” he shrugged. The bartender at the hotel: The Germans “occupied us 70 years ago; now we take their money. That’s okay.”

Next to the Acropolis, the demonstrations were the best part of Athens. Loud, animated, scruffy-looking kids flanked by sleek, well-coiffed cops. Vendors selling cheesy belts and bags to tourists. Live Grecian theater at its best.

If you only have a week or so in Greece, then you don’t need more than a day or two in Athens. The Acropolis and Parthenon are true wonders of the world and must be experienced. The Plaka marketplace at the foot of the ruins is touristy but alive with great restaurants and better people watching.

To do the mainland, you need to rent a car. And in Athens that’s easy enough. A mid-size was about 250 euros ($330) per week. Agencies are on Syngrou Avenue, and it’s a straight shot from there to the expressways leaving Athens.

As the crow flies, Athens to Delphi is 82 miles. But the crow gets to fly. We didn’t. Greece is 80 percent mountains. And urban planners, mercifully, did not carve into those mountains to build roads. You drive up, down, around and over — not through — them. The mountain roads are long and scary. Not hurl-in-the-back-seat scary, but harrowing enough. Still, it’s worth it. There’s lots to see along the way.

A few miles south of Delphi sits the village of Distomo, site of the worst massacre on Greek soil during World War II. The Germans gunned down 218 men, women and children in retaliation for the killing of three German soldiers by Greek partisans.

(Point of ethnic pride: Winston Churchill, commenting on Greece’s defeat of the much larger Italian army during the latter’s attempted invasion in 1940, said, “Greeks don’t fight like heroes; heroes fight like Greeks.” Italy’s defeat forced Germany to send troops to Greece and delayed the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, resulting in Germany’s being bogged down by the Russian winter.)

Delphi, on the slope of Mount Parnassus, is one of the more popular archaeological sites in all of Greece. In Greek mythology, the god Apollo dispensed wisdom through his Oracle at Delphi. The site hosted athletic games that were the precursor to the Olympics. Many ruins, such as the Temple of Apollo, date from about the 4th century B.C. Unfortunately, many of the treasures of Delphi were destroyed by Christian leaders, out to purge “pagan” gods, around 400 A.D. Walking through the ruins takes about an hour. We got back into the car and left the land of Apollo for the land of Gardikys-Karandreas.

In Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” the character Old Bull Lee says that he used to look up from his ouzo in Athens and see “the ugliest people in the world.” That’s not just cruel, it’s wrong. Kerouac never saw Hariklia Trollineau.

After identifying my grandfather’s village, I did an Internet search, and the English-language Web site of a place called Cafe Louis in Lidoriki popped up. I sent an e-mail and got a response the next day from “Hari.” Hari, who’s bilingual, was excited about people visiting from America and secured reservations for my family at the only hotel in town. I was grateful and made a point of taking the family to Cafe Louis to thank Hari for all his work. I pictured Hari as looking like my Uncle Nick: thick, jowly and with a bit more hair growing from his ears than his head.

Not quite. Hari is short for Hariklia, as in female. And she is sort of a cross between Michelle Williams and Melina Mercouri. I think my son used the term “blazin’. ” She came from behind the bar and greeted us like family. My grandfather and my Uncle Nick always hugged and kissed me, even into my 20s. Hariklia did, too. Though separated by generations, Greeks remain Greek — warm and expressive.

After leaving Cafe Louis, we walked toward the town square, with all eyes upon us. Two men approached; one spoke English and introduced his friend, who was named Costas Gardikys. It turned out that we’re related. He’d even heard stories about my grandfather’s going to America. Later that night we met in the square. Costas brought his son and daughter. They spoke little English; we spoke no Greek. Still we talked, gestured, ate lamb, drank ouzo, ate spanakopita, drank ouzo, had coffee and drank ouzo. Though we could exchange few words, it was important to Costas, and me, that our families were together in that square that night.

The next morning, Costas insisted on taking us to Granitsa, a tiny village about 30 minutes from Lidoriki. He was pretty sure that my grandfather had actually grown up there. We followed his old Fiat around hairpin turns, dodging goats and sheep. In Granitsa, he took us on a tour. There were just a few homes, a small schoolhouse, one restaurant. We sat, had coffee, gestured.

One thing you notice about Greece is that people are always outside talking. You go to the beach one day and see a group at 10 a.m. outside a cafe having coffee, and they’re still there six hours later when you return. After an evening at the square in Lidoriki and then in Granitsa, I got it. And could have sat at either place for hours. But my family, while indulgent, was getting bored. The beaches of Lefkada beckoned. We bade my distant cousin farewell. I bought him a carton of cigarettes. Like many Greeks, he’s a heavy smoker.

Before we leave central Greece, one quick tip. I’m a runner. The hills in central Greece are inviting to the serious or casual jogger. The morning air is crisp, the hills majestic. Still, don’t do it. There are many small farms and shepherds in the countryside. And all have nasty, snarling guard dogs that have a particular hostility toward cars and Americans who’ve changed their last names.

The drive from Lidoriki to Lefkada has some of the most stunning vistas in all of Greece. You descend from the mountains to the highway that runs east-west along the Gulf of Corinth. The emerald green water hugging those mountains is a sight not soon forgotten.

Lefkada is an island in the Ionian Sea. Nevertheless, many Greeks consider it part of the mainland because a bridge makes it the only major island accessible by car. Hence it’s popular with the locals, who don’t like dealing with ferries.

June is better than August. Perfect weather, manageable crowds and maybe the best beach in Greece, and that’s saying a lot. If you’re going to splurge for a hotel, Lefkada is the place. We stayed at the Porto Galini Seaside Resort & Spaon the island’s east coast. The hotel has its own beach, with most water sports. Each spacious room has a clear view of the water and the mountains. The nearby beach towns of Nydri and Lefkada have large pedestrian-only streets. Many of the superb restaurants are on the water. As in Athens, the owners work for your business, stopping you on the street, offering deep discounts.

Despite all its charms, you really need just one reason to go to Lefkada: Porto Katsiki (Port of the Goat) beach. Surrounded by dramatic limestone cliffs, this sandy beach is one of the most beautiful places in Greece, if not the world. It’s a challenge getting there. We were only a few miles away, but the drive took 45 minutes around winding mountains and through small villages. Once there, you have to walk down about 90 stone steps to get to the beach and into the delicious turquoise water of the Ionian Sea.

It was tough to leave Lefkada. But my wife was getting itchy for a bit more polish to go with our play. And if you want polish, Nafplio, the first capital of modern Greece, is the place.

Investment fraud isn’t relegated to Wall Street: Beware the Ponzi schemer next door

The Washington Post

John McKenney’s a smart guy. A lawyer and tax expert, McKenney left Washington a few years ago and moved to Sarasota, Fla. He got a tan, took up yoga, started dating a well-heeled local woman. She brought McKenney into her well-heeled crowd.

Soon, all the heels in the group were clicking about a new, can’t-miss foreign currency deal, paying 5 percent a month, 60 percent a year. The trader doing the deal, Beau Diamond, was young but well known around town. His father, Harvey, was a local health and fitness celebrity.

Diamond said he possessed a secret, proprietary method for trading currency futures. Everyone jumped in, including Mc­Kenney. He invested $250,000. One year later it was gone, much of the money having financed Diamond’s hard-partying lifestyle. It ended up at Vegas casinos, the local Lamborghini dealer — Diamond’s was jet black — and more than a few bars.

Today Diamond is in jail in Florida. His business, Diamond Ventures, was a Ponzi scheme. Authorities say he lost $15 million in bad trades, spent $15 million to keep the scheme going and pocketed at least $7 million. He was convicted of money laundering and wire fraud and sentenced to 15 years. But this story is not about Diamond. He’s just your run-of-the-mill thief.

The bigger question is, why would a smart, seasoned investor like McKenney hand over $250,000 to a guy like Diamond?

“I drank the Kool-Aid,” Mc­Kenney said. “This was my ticket to the dance. This was how the rich got richer. Everyone else was doing it.”

Everyone was doing it. It’s a sad and all-too-common rejoinder from those who fall prey to a swindle.

People hear “investment fraud” and they think of high-flying Wall Street types such as Bernie Madoff, a financier with a penthouse and private jets and, at one time, the chairmanship of the Nasdaq stock exchange. He managed billions of dollars for individuals and foundations — and built a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.

Most scams are not carried out as big institutional frauds. Rather, it is a friend or a fellow Rotarian, your accountant or even the local church deacon putting together that Ponzi scheme. He’s in your group. You have the same interests. It’s almost unimaginable that he would rip you off. It’s called “affinity fraud.” Madoff is, perhaps, the most notorious offender in this most common form of investment fraud. It’s common for good reason. It works.

Getting the guard to drop

Ruth and Len Mitchell are spending their retirement years in Arizona, light about $125,000. That’s how much they lost to longtime friend and accountant Barry Korcan. The smooth-talking Korcan joined Ruth’s skating club when she and her husband lived in Beaver, Pa., a bedroom community outside Pittsburgh. Korcan became friendly with the couple and put their money in what they thought were safe real estate investments. He set up a company called Guardian Investment Partners and provided phony quarterly statements. They thought they were earning as much as 8 percent.

Instead, Korcan enriched himself. In all, he stole $7 million from 39 investors, according to authorities. He was convicted of mail fraud and income tax evasion and is serving a seven-year prison sentence.

“He was like a son to my husband,” Ruth Mitchell said, “and he always kept a Bible on his desk.”

The pitches are almost always the same: “Get it now before it’s gone,” for impossibly high, guaranteed returns. The hustlers feed off greed and a quick-buck mentality. And they are not after the little old lady and her meager pension. The most likely victim of investment fraud is a 55-year-old, white-collar, college-educated man with a fair amount of disposable income, according to a study by the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Just like Willie Sutton, the cons go where the money is.

“If you think you are too smart, then your guard drops and you become an easier target for the con criminal,” said Robert Cialdini, a fraud expert and psychology professor at Arizona State University.

The lure of easy money creates lemmings.

Michael Shinefield is serving an 11-year prison sentence for investment fraud. Before his sentencing, Shinefield sat down to talk. His attorneys hoped his cooperation in telling the world how cons work people over would result in a reduced sentence.

Shinefield had ripped off lots of smart Los Angeles professionals in a sports ticketing scam. He claimed to buy the tickets at face value, sell them at a premium and split the proceeds with investors. But he was no sharp, slick-talking operator.

Shinefield greeted simple questions with long pauses. Compound sentences were rare. “Ya know” and “uh” dominated as he spewed non sequiturs.

How could a guy like this attract investors?

Often he didn’t even meet the investors, he said. They heard of him through word of mouth. Shinefield paid off a few initial investors well, and they in effect became unwitting accomplices, his personal marketing team. These investors, like McKenney, drank the Kool-Aid. They listened to their friends, wanted the quick dollar and never checked Shinefield out.

If they had, they would have known that he had been jailed once for securities fraud and was not licensed to sell investments. The lesson here: Don’t take tips from friends and relatives without vetting the pitchman yourself. If he has no license or tells you the investment does not have to be registered, then watch your wallet — you are about to get scammed.

Thievery in God’s name

Perhaps the most pernicious form of affinity fraud happens at the church, synagogue or mosque. Con men love people of faith — these days, among some Christian groups, not only is it okay to be rich, it is in fact considered God’s will.

“Prosperity theology” has taken root among some Pentecostals and evangelicals who interpret the Bible as saying that Jesus wants you to prosper (get rich) while on Earth. This article of faith is often used by con criminals to scam true believers.

Belief in prosperity theology provides fertile ground for the crook prowling the pews. Although many Christians might find it disingenuous or even sleazy to be pitched an investment in church, adherents of prosperity theology consider it not only appropriate but consistent with God’s teachings.

“I’ve seen more money stolen in the name of God than any other way,” said Joe Borg, the director of the Alabama Securities Commission.

Borg has led many high-profile investigations of faith-based securities fraud, including the notorious Greater Ministries scandal. Greater Ministries was a massive con job masquerading as an evangelical church. Borg busted the group, whose leaders are now in jail. “Preachers” promised church members a 17 percent annual return on their investments, guaranteed by God. In fact, they stole almost $500 million from about 18,000 investors, mostly evangelical Christians. The deal was pitched as God’s Social Security plan.

This is certainly not confined to evangelical churches. Madoff subtlety but effectively played the religion card and enticed wealthy Jews into his scheme. The Mormon church does not want to acknowledge a problem, but there has been a rash of investment fraud in Utah and Colorado among bishops and elders of the church who have used their positions to swindle the Mormon faithful.

Jim and Diane Smart of Salt Lake City, Mormons and parents of eight, are losing their house and moving in with one of their children. They took out a $250,000 equity loan on their home to invest with a fellow church member. The church member promised returns of 20 to 25 percent in real estate investments. Instead, the Smarts say, they were scammed out of more than $200,000. The man running the scheme has been charged with fraud.

“He was in our church. We trusted him,” said Diane Smart, who has taken a job in a school cafeteria to make ends meet.

That thinking exasperates Michael Hines. The director of enforcement for the Utah state securities division, he has investigated many Mormon-related scams.

“If you need a new transmission, you go to a mechanic, not a church member. If you need brain surgery, you see a surgeon,” he said. “I don’t get why so many [Mormons] send their life savings to a church member.”

Beware of the free lunch

It was about the time I received my first AARP card that my first “free lunch” investment seminar invitation came in the mail. Lots more came after that, usually at mildly upscale places with banquet areas and mounds of fettuccine — think Tragara in Bethesda or Maggiano’s in Chevy Chase. Most free-lunch seminars are perfectly legitimate. But some are not. Either way, the folks are not giving you a free lunch because they like you.

“These free lunches and dinners, they are not gifts,” said Gerri Walsh of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA. “They’re sales tactics designed to get your money.”

The fact that you are getting something for free plays on your age-old guilt.

“From our earliest years, we are taught that if you get something you have to give something back,” Arizona State’s Cialdini said. “The people putting on these free-lunch seminars know this. They want you to feel guilty. They want you to feel like you have to give something back in return.”

The bottom line is, if you have the time and you are hungry, go for the free lunch. But don’t turn over your pension or the equity in your home for a $11.95 plate of ziti.

Con criminals use common sales tactics, which is why so many of us fall for them: Scarcity — ad headlines scream in bold “ONLY THREE LEFT” or “THIS PRICE EXPIRES FRIDAY.” When a car salesman tells you the sale is only for “two more days,” you know, or should know, that he’s full of it. Apply that same skepticism to a broker trying to get your retirement money.

Fraudsters want to put you “under the ether.” The idea is to get you so excited and worked up about an investment opportunity that you don’t bother checking it out.

“You want to believe,” said McKenney, the Florida fraud victim. “You suspend disbelief.”

Words like that drive John Gannon nuts. He is the president of the FINRA Investor Education Foundation and a passionate advocate for honest investing.

“So many [scams] can be prevented,” he said. “It just takes a little time on your computer.”

Behavioral economics show that women tend to make better investments than men

The Washington Post

October 11, 2013

It’s happy hour at Hanaro in Bethesda, and I’m with my wife. We’re there about an hour, gobbling plates of half-price tuna rolls and washing them down with $3.50 Blue Moons. Have to hurry, happy hour ends soon. My wife slows down and cautions me to do the same. I don’t listen. Keep ’em coming, right up to 7 o’clock. Then I get the bill: $75. Yikes, how did that happen? I thought this stuff was half price! Call this stupid male tricks — or behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics tries to figure out why people consistently make irrational financial decisions — like paying $75 to jam 15 orders of sushi down your throat in an hour. The bar happy hour embodies two classic ploys that cause irrational choices: scarcity, get it now before it’s gone; and the idea of getting something for nothing, buy two pairs, get the third free. (You needed that third pair of Birkenstocks?)

“If you think something is going away, it can lead to excessive and desperate consumption,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Legitimate marketers, con artists and stockbrokers make lots of money off our irrational behavior. I didn’t need that last plate of sushi, and I absolutely didn’t need that last drink. My wife told me to slow down, and I didn’t listen — and while she might say that’s not an altogether uncommon occurrence in our relationship, this time I really should have because I overate, overdrank and overspent. And a load of research in behavioral economics suggests that a man’s portfolio and pocketbook would be a lot better off if we listened more to women.

Terry Odean, a University of California professor, has studied stock picking by gender for more than two decades. A seven-year study found single female investors outperformed single men by 2.3 percent, female investment groups outperformed male counterparts by 4.6 percent and women overall outperformed by 1.4 percent. Why? The short answer is overconfidence. Men trade more, and the more you trade, typically the more you lose — not to mention running up transaction costs.

“In our research, male investors traded 45 percent more than female investors,” Odean says. “Men are just making a lot more bad decisions than women. More trading leads to lower performance.”

Stock picking with men is too often about one-upmanship and bragging, says LouAnn Lofton, author of “Warren Buffet Invests Like a Girl: And Why You Should, Too.”

“With men, too often investing is all about keeping score. It’s a macho thing,” Lofton says. “They’re looking for hot stock tips to get the quick win and then talk about it.”

Additionally, men hold onto their losers a lot longer than women. They’re sure the stock will come roaring back — even as it sinks. Academics call it confirmation bias; investment advisers call it boneheaded.

“Women are more loss averse than men, more emotionally unattached and are far quicker to unload losers. Whereas men with their bravado, they don’t want to admit they’re wrong,” says Anthony Zalesky, a certified financial planner who advises individual investors and small businesses.

Bad financial decisions often can be traced back to unwarranted optimism, or the “positivity illusion” that things are going to turn out just right. On paper it sounds good — better to be hopeful right? Not so fast. This tendency clouds critical thinking.

“I like confident clients, but not overconfident ones. I like clients who are secure in a long-term strategy. They won’t react to every bit of short-term news. They won’t listen to the guys screaming loudest on TV,” says Jordan Smyth, managing director of Bethesda’s Edgemoor Investment Advisors. “Once you get caught up in the emotions of investing, you’re going to buy high and sell low. There’s probably a lot of testosterone in some of these decisions.”

Aha, the T word.

Have you seen those TV ads about Low T (low testosterone)? They typically feature a swarthy 50-something, maybe in a Mustang convertible. The ads are often couched between the Cialis and Rogaine spots on, say, the Golf Channel. Apparently, popping a couple of these pills boosts testosterone and thus summons your inner Brad Pitt.

So not only will you be able to land Angelina Jolie, but you’ll jet ski, kayak and climb Mount Kilimanjaro. That’s all well and good, but if you want to trade stocks, you’ll have to leave your inner Brad with Angelina. Because too much testosterone can wreck your portfolio.

“Rising levels of testosterone can lead to irrational levels of exuberance,” says John Coates, a neuroscientist at Cambridge and the author of the book, “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings, and the Biology of Boom and Bust.”

Coates is a former Wall Street trader who began studying the brain and biological implications of trading while working at Goldman Sachs. He performed — in his own words “an act of irrational exuberance by walking away from a high-paying managing directorship on Wall Street for the minimum wage of science.”

But the investing public is better off for it. Coates’s book looks at how our physiology affects decision making and affects risks — he studies things like cortisol and testosterone levels in stock traders. He says, in a bubble market, men become more emboldened and take more risks, while doing less homework, so they get creamed in the inevitable crash. It’s called the “winner effect” and contributes to market meltdowns.

Women produce just 10 percent the testosterone of men, so they are less likely to be swept away in risky gambles. Women probably won’t make as much on the way up — but will lose a lot less on the way down.

“When it comes to trading, men are more hormonal than women,” Coates says.

Take that, Paul Tudor Jones. Last summer, Jones, a billionaire hedge fund guy, stirred the gender pot when he said “you’ll never see as many great woman investors or traders as men.” Jones attributed this to child birth and said a woman loses focus when she has a child.

Coates, in his nicest across-the-pond parlance, says Jones is full of it.

“I think he’s mixing up issues, any important event, like having a child or going through a divorce will affect performance in men or women,” he says. “On the contrary, when women return to the work force, they are so eager to work I find them more focused. Anyone can have an opinion, but that doesn’t matter; data matters. And if you look at brokerage records and hedge fund performance over the long term, women managers generally outperform men.”

Con artists love men, particularly well-educated, optimistic, overconfident ones who think they’re too smart to be taken. These guys are the easiest mark for the crook, according to the FINRA Investor Education Foundation. Gerri Walsh, its president, is an expert on investment fraud and behavior.

“Studies show men tend to be overconfident and less likely to seek another opinion,” Walsh says. Women, she adds are “less excited” about investing. All this leads to less of a gambling mentality among women and makes men more vulnerable to a fraud pitch.

Okay, so now what? Men, it seems, are wired to piddle away money on good sushi and bad stocks.

“Ask and check,” Walsh says. “Develop a plan. Stick to it. And ask questions.” She adds that men are more impulsive investors — so having a plan makes it easier to dial back on emotional investing.

Lofton’s remedies are more challenging to certain men, because they involve listening. And not the kind of “yes, dear” head nodding while watching SportsCenter’s top 10 plays.

“If the man is lucky enough to have a wife or girlfriend, bring them into the discussion, share the decision making with them. Women will tamp down some of the crazier risk,” she says. Legendary Fidelity fund manager “Peter Lynch involved his wife and daughters in a lot of decision making, and he did pretty well,” she says.

On the institutional side, Coates has lots of ideas — among them, financial organizations should hire more women and older (Low T) men. He argues this would lead to less overtrading of accounts, more long-term planning and less volatility. And important people are listening. Britain’s Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (which studied the 2008 crash) recommended a number of Coates’s ideas, including gender diversity in banking and stringing out bonuses over longer periods of time.

Odean and lots of academics say investors shouldn’t even bother trading individual stocks. It’s a loser’s game.

“Trading underperforms a buy and hold strategy,” Odean says. “My advice is to find a good, broad-based diversified mutual fund that has low fees. There are lots out there.”

How prudent. And, most investors, men and women alike, would be better off following it. But at what cost? Do we lose a little of ourselves always doing things the proper way? Don’t we need a little juice, risk, excitement?

Maybe, deep down, boys just want to have fun.

When I’m not pigging out at happy hour, I like to bet horses. But I found I am no better at handling trifectas than I am at resisting bargain sushi and Belgian ales. I’ve lost a lot more than I’ve won. Yet, I still go and handicap because I just know I am going to beat the pros and my big payday is just around the bend. It’s dumb, emotional, positively delusional — I guess I’ll never learn.

California’s Central Coast

The Washington Post

Remember that killer blonde in high school? Sure you do — every school had one. Tall, aloof, didn’t give you a second look — or a first. The less enlightened among us might have described her as “smokin’ hot to look at but way too chilly to touch.” Well, if she ended up in Avila Beach, Calif., then she’s in the right place.

Avila and the surrounding towns of Shell and Pismo Beach sit on some of the most beautiful coastline in all of California. And that’s saying a lot. Wide beaches hug towering bluffs. The sun kisses the breaks of large, rolling waves. It makes you want to just dive right in. And I did just that, taking the leap on an impossibly bright June morning.

Ouch.

The water’s cold. Thermal wet suit cold. Not sure if the Beach Boys ever got up here. Avila Beach is four hours south of the bone-chilling beauty of the San Francisco Bay and almost as cold. But that’s not a bad thing, say the locals. “The colder water means fewer people, less pollution and easier surfing for me,” says local realtor Lance Morales.

The coast here is pretty raw and relatively undeveloped. The average ocean temperature in July is 57 degrees. In Newport Beach, more than 200 miles south, it’s about 70. What does that mean? Fewer tourists, more cows. Yeah, cows.

Just north of Avila is a beautiful strip of land overlooking the Pacific. In, say, Laguna Beach, this property, with those majestic views, would be littered with McMansions, hot tubs and Kardashians. Not here. This is ranch country. Cattle hang out in the bright sun, munch on grass, gaze into the ocean. If you’re a cow, you want this gig.

Details: California’s Central Coast

“We have beautiful beaches here, but they’re more of a backdrop,” says Jason Haas, the owner of Tablas Creek Vineyard in nearby Paso Robles. “The Central Coast isn’t really much of a beach culture.”

Not encumbered with overdevelopment, or much development at all, the area easily accommodates those wonderfully Californian pursuits of self actualization and awareness. For instance, at my hotel, free WiFi and HBO simply weren’t enough. It also offered a YogaDome, a rock-laden Meditation Labyrinth and a Healing Arts Institute. I’m still not quite sure what any of this stuff does, but I love telling people that I did it.

The aesthetic feel of the area draws people such as Michael Laboon, a celebrated local tile artist who bought a house in Shell Beach 17 years ago. “The natural beauty of the place attracts a lot of artists,” says Laboon, whose tile work appears on public areas around San Luis Obispo County. “The beach is spectacular and there’s not the traffic and crowds of Southern California. The water is really inspiring.”

Learning to be a surfer dude in Carlsbad, Calif.

The Washington Post

The monster wave approached. It had to be 20 or 30 feet. Undaunted, I paddled forward. Well, all right, maybe it’s more like 2 or 3 feet. But does size really matter?

I jumped onto the board, turned into the crest and caught it. And for three mind-numbing seconds, I stood up — love handles dancing in the air.

Dude, I’m surfin’.

Details, Carlsbad, Calif.

There are worse places to be in the summer than Carlsbad, Calif. About 35 miles north of San Diego, the beach town has bright sun, good bars and restaurants and oh-so-tasty waves. It doesn’t get much more SoCal than this. The weather is about 75 degrees, the water temperature about 70. If you want to learn to surf, this is the place.

This was an end-of-summer vacation with my wife and two teenagers. A four-day surf camp promised good weather, physical activity and maybe even a remedy for a midlife crisis. Surfing lessons are cheaper than a Mercedes convertible and safer than friending your recently divorced high school flame on Facebook. And it rocks. Just ask Rusty, Keenan or Evan.

They were our surfing instructors. We met them on the beach across from the hotel. Thick of hair and bicep, they were young, animated and good-looking. I hated them on sight. Well, I wanted to but just couldn’t. They were enormously energetic, encouraging and likable. “You rocked that wave, dude.”

Did I mention Rusty’s abs? Never mind, my wife did. “Are they a four-pack or a six-pack?” she wondered.

Surfing is harder than it looks. As is the case with most things, the younger you start, the better you adapt. My son and daughter were standing on the board after about 15 minutes in the water. My wife and I are in our 50s — though I’m on the wrong end of the decade — and it took us a lot longer. But I was determined to be a Surfer Dude and turn my wife into a Surfer Babe — at least for a week.

It’s worth it just for the coolness quotient, like learning to talk and act like a Surfer Dude. To wit: A few years ago we went to San Diego for a few days. My son mentioned this to Keenan and asked whether he liked the city.

“SD rocks, I do PB on the reg,” said Keenan. (Translation: I enjoy San Diego and I go to Pacific Beach — one of the city’s main beaches — often.) Keenan then asked us if we were going back.

“I don’t know, Keenan,” I said. “Not sure if we can get to SD or PB because we’re planning to drive north through the OC to spend a day or two in LA.” Nailed it.

All aboard

The first day, we learned basic technique. You lie on your stomach, with your toes touching the end of the board. If you’re a beginner, you first get up on your knees, then stand with your feet about three feet apart, knees bent. Instructors launch you into a breaking wave. You have to learn to stand before paddling to catch a wave.

The first lesson lasted two hours, and that was enough. As is true in much of California, the waves in Carlsbad come in sets. So you tire quickly trying to cut through them to get back out to the break point.

Learning to snow ski, you start with short skis. It’s the opposite with surfing. Beginning boards are 9 to 10 feet long and hard to handle. “It’s the stability, man. You need that buoyancy,” says Rusty.

After two hours, I’d had enough buoyancy and needed a soft towel and a cold beer. And Carlsbad has plenty of options for that.

For lunch, we walked across the street from the beach to a place called Dini’s by the Sea and sat on the shaded outdoor patio and watched the waves. Halfway through lunch, one of the owners showed up with a trayful of a chilled concoction of banana, Irish whiskey and cream. He passed the drinks out free to all his customers. I could get used to this.

The second day, we were sunburned and sore. Overusing seldom-used muscles does that to you. Still, we persisted and arrived on the beach at 9:30 a.m. We did get better; not good, but better. We took the next two days off till our third and fourth final lessons and decided to explore Carlsbad and its environs.

Around town

The city of more than 100,000 has seven miles of pristine coastline. As in much of California, the beaches are below a bluff. You have to walk down steps or a ramp to get to the sand.

Carlsbad was settled in the 19th century and is named after the Karlsbad spa in the present-day Czech Republic, because mineral water found here had the same chemical qualities as Karlsbad spa water. In fact one of the town’s founders was a German immigrant who marketed the mineral water as a cure for skin and stomach ailments.

The weather is pretty much perfect. Even in winter, the average high is in the 60s and lows are in the 40s.

The world’s first skateboard park, Carlsbad Skatepark, was built here in 1976. Olympic snowboarder, skateboarder and totally stoked dude Shaun White is from here. Legoland is on the outskirts of town.

There are many shops, restaurants galleries, etc., within walking distance of the beach. The Pizza Port Brewing Co. in the center of town is a local favorite. Lots of great homemade brews, decent pizza, crowded, loud and fun.

The Coaster, a commuter train that travels from Oceanside to San Diego, runs through the middle of town. More than 20 trains run on weekdays, and it’s a great way to experience the dramatic scenery of San Diego County. The Carlsbad Lagoon near Interstate 5 rents jet skis, kayaks, boats and paddleboards. The place is loaded with water toys. It’s a fun place to spend an afternoon.

Even if you don’t like horse racing, you have to see Del Mar racetrack. Situated near the ocean in the upscale town of Del Mar, 15 miles south of Carlsbad, the track is open from mid-July until right after Labor Day. It was built in 1937 by a group that included celebrities Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Pat O’Brien. Seabiscuit became famous at Del Mar. It’s difficult for four people — each betting different horses in each race — not to have at least one winner in the course of a day. But we managed it. I’m a worse handicapper than surfer, and that’s scary. But this is a great place to lose money.

One tip: Del Mar can get crowded. Getting in and out of the parking lot is a pain. Instead, we drove to the neighboring town, Solana Beach, had lunch at Chief’s Burgers & Brew, parked and took a free double-decker bus to the track. It’s a five-minute drive, drops you at the entrance and makes the loop throughout race day. So there’s never a wait. FYI, Solana Beach has a commercial street called Cedros Avenue Design District. It’s a compact, pedestrian-friendly avenue with loads of funky antiques stores, designer shops and artsy enclaves. Not typical Surfer Dude fare, but a fun way to spend an hour or two.

Still resting sore surf muscles, we spent the next day at San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is nowhere near San Diego. It’s just outside Escondido, about 32 miles northeast of San Diego and 40 miles almost due east from Carlsbad. While the weather on the SoCal coast is ideal, that’s not so much the case as you travel east. The Safari Park is in the San Pasqual Valley. If it’s 75 in Carlsbad, it’s probably 95 degrees in San Pasqual. Keep that in mind. And forget all that pap about “well, there’s no humidity, so it’s not that bad.” Yes, it is — 98 degrees is 98 degrees.

The cost of admission includes a 30-minute tram ride through the park, where you can see — up pretty close — the best that Africa has to offer: elephants, giraffes, etc. There are also petting goats, bat caves and monkeys. And for an extra $5, you can feed the giraffes. But go early, before that “no humidity” afternoon sun starts sucking the life out of you.

If you only have time for one big attraction in the Carlsbad/San Diego area, it’s SeaWorld. Pricey, but worth it. SeaWorld is almost 200 acres of dolphin shows, rides, sharks, Shamu, penguins, pirates. Many people attend, but it never seems crowded; the layout includes wide pedestrian walkways and squares. It’s in the beautiful Mission Bay area of San Diego and is open throughout the year.

We tried to have dinner in San Diego on the way back to Carlsbad. Bad idea; the city’s too popular. We went to the redeveloped Gaslamp Quarter. It’s loaded with great restaurants, beautiful architecture and people, lots of people. We drove around for 20 minutes and couldn’t find a parking space or an empty lot. Downtown SD rocked too much for us that night. And the Padres were playing in the Petco baseball stadium, sucking up most of the parking in the area.

A storm in vacationland: HomeAway’s fees anger renters and owners

The Washington Post

June 3, 2016
HomeAway.com, the online vacation rental site, has riled customers with a change in practices that some say has made the getaways of their renters more expensive.At issue is a new “service fee” that HomeAway imposed in February on renters who book through the company’s site. The move has infuriated property owners, some of whom pay HomeAway thousands of dollars each year to list on the site. They say HomeAway, which owns VRBO.com and VacationRentals.com, is using its market power to hit renters with excessive fees.

“I was blindsided by the fees,” says Ivan Arnold, a Los Angeles-based investor who lists five homes on VRBO.com. ­Arnold is the lead plaintiff is a class-action lawsuit filed against HomeAway in March, claiming fraud and breach of contract. Arnold claims the service fee has “had a devastating effect on inquiries and bookings. We already pay them to list; they shouldn’t go after our renters as well.”

Arnold paid $1,848 as a subscription fee to list one of his properties on the site for 12 months, according to court documents.

The booking fees came after a change in ownership late last year when travel giant Expedia bought HomeAway for $3.9 billion, a move that positioned the company to compete more aggressively with Airbnb, another short-term lodging website.

The new owner added the booking charge, levied on all renters of HomeAway sites. The fee is 5 to 9 percent of the rental cost and can add hundreds of dollars onto the price of a vacation rental. Some renters have balked.

By April, the backlash over the fees had hit HomeAway headquarters in Austin, Tex. Tom Hale, chief operating officer, left the company after slightly more than a year in the job. He had become the public face of change, and homeowners had focused their anger on him.

“We appreciate his contributions over the years,” a company spokesman said, declining to comment further on his departure.

HomeAway vigorously defends the fees and plans to use most of the money for marketing, says Jordan Hoefar, corporate communications manager for HomeAway. He adds that booking on HomeAway’s system is safe and secure and should give travelers peace of mind.

“Our book-with-confidence guarantee protects travelers against fraud, double bookings,” Hoefar says. “We guarantee the vacation experience.”

Controlling the process

Its critics say HomeAway is trying to limit owner-renter interaction in order to control the entire rental process.

“I have seen a dramatic drop-off in bookings,” says Larry Grossmann, a Missouri investor who owns four condos in Gulf Shores, Ala. “Renters are angry with the fees.”

In recent years, two basic revenue models for short-term rental companies have emerged. HomeAway’s rival, Airbnb, allows the homeowner to list a property for free. In exchange, Airbnb controls the booking process and does not permit the homeowner and prospective renter to communicate outside Airbnb until the payment is made. Airbnb takes a percentage of the rental (between 6 and 12 percent) and distributes the rental proceeds to the homeowner once the tenant checks in.

HomeAway’s model has always been the opposite. Homeowners pay a listing fee, and the service has been free to renters, who contact the owners directly. They then agree to a price and can either make the transaction among themselves or use HomeAway’s online booking service. This approach allowed homeowners and renters to get to know each other before committing to rent.

“We like to talk to the [prospective] tenants before we rent,” says Eric Karla, owner of a cabin at Sonora Pass near Yosemite, Calif. “We can vet them. We like to know who is going to be staying in our places. We cannot do that with Airbnb.”

Many homeowners said the original HomeAway model worked well. Homeowners could find tenants at a fraction of what property managers or Realtors charged, and they controlled the whole rental process. It was similar to a nicely designed classified ad site. You post your house, someone sees it, contacts you, rents the house. Clean, simple, profitable for all.

(Full disclosure: I list a property on VRBO and have always been happy with the results. I’ve yet to see a large drop in bookings, though this is not my rental season. I do not use HomeAway’s online payment system and am not a party to the lawsuit.)

By 2014, HomeAway’s revenue had grown to almost $500 million. Along the way, the company acquired more than 20 competitors around the globe and now lists more than 1.2 million homes worldwide. More than 800,000 of these properties use HomeAway’s booking service, according to the company.

While HomeAway and Airbnb dominate the short-term rental business, HomeAway has traditionally been much stronger in vacation rentals. Airbnb typically has attracted shorter-term urban dwellers. The two companies increasingly are encroaching on each other’s turf, but HomeAway still is considered stronger in the family rental business.

“I get so many more inquiries from VRBO than Airbnb,” says Grossmann, who lists on both sites. “It’s not even close.”

‘I would never have renewed’

HomeAway’s dominant market position and steady cash flow caught the eye of Expedia. It, too, has grown through aggressive acquisitions, gobbling up Orbitz and Travelocity, among other rivals.

HomeAway declined to comment on the pending litigation, but a company spokesman, Adam Annen, said that discussions about the new fee were in the works “months and months before the Expedia acquisition.”

That rankles Arnold. In November 2014, HomeAway chief executive Brian Sharples told shareholders that HomeAway was “going to be free to travelers.” He then pointed out that Trip­Advisor and Airbnb have “chosen to charge big fees to travelers. We’re letting everyone know when you come to our platform, you don’t pay a fee.”

“A little more than a year after saying this, they started charging fees,” Arnold says. “I would never have renewed my listing agreement if I had known about these fees.”

Property owners are not required to use HomeAway’s booking system, so they can steer their renters away from the service fee. But owners say there is strong incentive to use the booking system.

A property owner’s listing position is critical to successful renting. The higher your listing position, the more inquiries and bookings you get. High listing is prime beachfront in this business. When an owner declines to use HomeAway’s booking system, their listing drops in position. Owners who use HomeAway’s online booking system pay $349 a year to list — and those who don’t will pay $499 under a new pricing structure that takes effect in July.

“I only use [HomeAway’s] booking system because I need the good placement listing,” Karla says. “If I get repeat renters, I will have them pay me directly so they can avoid the fee.”

It’s easy to see why HomeAway would want to include the service fee. Last year, the company recorded about $14 billion in transactions. Five percent of that is real money and would more than double its annual revenue.

Patty Craver of Bethesda, Md., has used VRBO for a number of family vacations.