Checkers... and Chess

The process of writing my last two posts (uh, remember? The one on choicemaking and the other one on the popularity of terrible blogs?) got me thinking about the nature of the various games being played around us. Writing those posts helped me grasp an insight: We want to know which games are being played, and we want to make sure we're playing the right game, the game that really matters.

Or, to put it another way: we don't want to be fooled into playing some game somebody else chose for us.

To help explain what I'm getting at, I'll use the metaphor of playing checkers vs playing chess. Playing checkers is playing a game someone else sets out for us, where the rules and the entire framework of the game are pre-set, limited, and played on their terms, not yours.

Chess, on the other hand, is the upper-level game going on around and above the people stuck playing checkers. Chess is where the real strategy happens, and it's where you have far more control--both over the framing of your choices and over the choices themselves. Thus chess is the real game, the game you want to make sure to play.

Let's consider a few scenarios that many of us might face in everyday life, each of which offer us a set of basic checkers moves... and a parallel set of nuanced chess moves.

Scenario 1: "Would you like to lease your new car or would you like to finance it?"

You're in a car dealership, you've decided to buy a new car... and suddenly a game begins around you, a game involving a set of choices about how to finance this car you've just decided to buy.

For a checkers player, the choice is obvious: "Ooooh! The lease payments are a *lot* lower... uuhhh, I think I'll lease it." The person in this situation is given two choices (to borrow a concept from two posts ago, you might call it "choice by limitation"). And because we're playing checkers, the choices offered are the only choices, and, obediently, we choose one of them. Before we know it, we're in the financing manager's office debating whether to get window etching.

But once you understand that there might be a greater game of chess going on around you, you start asking real questions, questions that take you right out of the box they're trying to keep you in:

"What will be the total cost of leasing a car, particularly if after three years I have to give it back? What's my effective interest rate, and can I do better? Should I finance at all? Heck, should I really even be buying a car? And what the heck am I thinking paying another $128 for stupid window etching???"

Think about the people who have set up the checkers game in front of you. They don't want you asking these questions. They don't want you playing chess. They want you playing checkers!

You, on the other hand, want to play the game on more equal footing, particularly when dealing with institutions structured to rudely separate you from your money. And in order to play chess in this particular situation, you'll need advanced preparation. You might need to have a far greater degree of independence to the outcome of a car-buying situation. Perhaps you'll need to have the financial resources to pay for the car in a variety of ways--not just the "checkers" ways they offer you. Perhaps you have to not need a car in the first place, allowing you to defer the entire car-buying process until circumstances heavily favor you. This might mean waiting until the end of the sales year, or waiting until a time when the dealer is liquidating inventory and thus is offering cars for sale at prices and terms suitable to you, not them.

Now you're starting to play the greater game of chess. Let's move on to another scenario.

Scenario 2: "If you transfer your balance to our credit card, you can have 0% interest for the first three months!"

Okay, what's the checkers move here? Easy: transfer your balance. And then do it again to some other card three months from now. You can even go full checkers and fluff yourself on how you're avoiding obscenely high interest expenses on debt you shouldn't even have in the first place.

The chess move? Well, this part CK readers can fill in for themselves. Readers here already know not to needlessly buy stuff, certainly not stuff they can't afford, so they wouldn't put themselves in a situation where they'd even have a credit card balance, much less need to transfer one.

A sidenote. At some point, you might find yourself in an occasional situation where the only available move is a checkers move. Let's say you really need to buy a car, right now. Or, after a big vacation (one you lamentably didn't save up for in advance) and a surprise car repair, you get hit with an unexpectedly large credit card bill, and as a result you can't fully pay it off. In these cases, you're playing checkers, and because you're playing checkers, you are unable to control the framing of the situation. Your moves are limited.

The primary insight here is get yourself out of the checkers game you're in right now, and try to create circumstances where you play checkers are infrequently as possible. A big part of winning the game around you involves avoiding situations where your options are limited to crappy checkers moves... like paying credit card interest to The Man, or shopping for a car without advanced preparation.

It helps even more to be vaguely ashamed that you're not playing chess. You should be at the chess tables. You deserve to be there. And therefore the next time a situation like this comes up you'll be prepared. You are not going to let yourself get elbowed down to the checkers game.

Let's look at one final scenario.

Scenario 3: "This mutual fund was the best performing fund over the past 5 and 10 years."

The retail investor, upon hearing this statement, nods her head, makes a suitably admiring comment, and plunks her money into a high-fee fund. What can possibly go wrong? it's the best of the best!

Readers: is she playing checkers or chess?

Unfortunately, over the next five- and ten-year periods, this fund's performance mean-reverts. The fund stumbles down to the bottom quartile of its peer group, and while she doesn't yet know it, this investor will be paying extra fees for years for the exclusive right to underperform the overall market.

Yep, you were right: checkers.

Let's play chess instead. The chess player knows to be suspicious of any investment that's being sold to him, in fact he likely uses "don't buy or invest in anything sold to you" as a general heuristic in all life domains, not just investing.

Also, the chess player wants to better understand the nature of this fund's outperformance: after all, there's a good chance it might be due to sheer luck. And of course part of the backdrop of his investing knowledge includes insights like knowing that high-fee investment products are almost always doomed to underperform low-fee index funds.

Thus the chess player is practically guaranteed to smile and politely turn down this investment. And if he hasn't already, he'll question why he's doing any business at all with an individual selling him crap financial products like this.

Chess players arrive to a chess game with the ability to leave the table, and with a great degree of independence, even antifragility, to the outcome of the situation. They skillfully avoid being in situations where they're forced to buy, spend or pay. They don't let themselves get boxed in where the only moves are checkers moves.

Checkers is the sucker's game, the game they want you to play. Don't play it. Play chess.

Appendix: Alternate scenarios
How about few other scenarios where we might consider chess versus checkers moves?

1) At a doctor's office: "Your cholesterol is a little high, I recommend we put you on a statin to get those numbers lower."
2) At the real estate agent's office: "Well, according to your mortgage preclearance form we should really be looking at homes in the low- to mid-$400s. Also, you're going to want to lock in a mortgage as soon as possible. Rates are going up!"
3) At the gym, one woman talking to another: "I don't want to lift weights. I don't want to get big and bulky."
4) At home, a person about to pay the cable bill: "I can't believe Comcast raised rates again. We're paying $205 a month now for cable!"
5) At the insurance agent's office: "This policy has a low deductible, so if you have an accident, you'll only be responsible for paying the first $100."

Finally! For further reading
Readers, it takes me a long time, an embarrassingly long time, to arrive at relatively basic insights. I had to read, over the past few years, the entire list of books below to be able to crystallize and articulate the ideas in today's post. Imagine the insights you'd get (and probably far more quickly) from reading them too. Plus! You can support my work here at Casual Kitchen by following the Amazon links anywhere on this site: you'll pay nothing extra, but a portion of your total purchase is paid to me in the form of a small commission. As always, I thank you for your support and attention.

Games People Play by Eric Berne
Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Risk Savvy by Gerd Giggerenzer
Capital by Karl Marx
Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker
The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

Why Bad Blogs Get More Readers (An Accidental, Secret Recipe for Massive Web Traffic)

I've often said that it bugs me to see a good blog go unread. It's one reason why I run Friday Links posts: it's my own small effort to put good stuff I find in front of more readers.

But today I want to ask the exact opposite question: why do certain really bad blogs get so much traffic?

An obvious example is The Food Babe, a site with an intriguing (and unintentional) recipe for wide readership. Deep down, we're all vaguely suspicious of modernity, technology and scary-sounding long words. If you play off these fears, worried readers come running to your site. Add in a conspiracy theory here and there for good measure, and things you write start to sound rhetorically persuasive.

Notice I said rhetorically persuasive, not scientifically persuasive. Or logically persuasive. But this is the key to the secret recipe! If you write something scientifically or logically laughable but rhetorically persuasive, you quickly generate a second-order readership. A second crew of readers, readers more competent in logic and basic scientific principles, will point out the scientific and logical flaws in your argument. Often with dripping condescension.

Then, the original readers, the credulous ones, argue back. After all, nobody likes being condescended to.

So, if there's such a thing as a typical Food Babe reader, it would break down into two general types:

1) Credulous first-order readers looking for new things to fear.
2) Second-order readers astounded at how dumb other people are.

So here's your business model: write posts for the first group, but make those posts unrigorous enough to attract the second group too. If you follow this secret recipe correctly, you get viral posts, exploding traffic stats, and some really entertaining comment wars.

This might be the only profitable business model in blogging--perhaps in all of online media. And it certainly helps explain the ubiquitous outrage porn, worry porn and political handwringing porn suffusing our overall cognitive environment these days.

And since fear-mongering and conspiracy-mongering are particularly effective forms of rhetoric, The Food Babe really cleaned up for a while there. That is, until her scientific incompetence became a little too obvious. When it got out that she wrote (but later deleted without comment or explanation) a post on the radiation risks of microwave ovens (it contained quotes like this one: "when you stand in front of a radar device you will start perspiring/cooking from the inside out, just like food is cooked in the microwave oven."), her already-tenuous credibility met its end. Fortunately for us, the internet never forgets. Eventually, goofily unscientific people get found out and exposed, even if they do try to scrub their sites of the most scientifically hilarious things they've said.

But! Some bloggers use these embarrassing things about themselves to grow their traffic even more. One of Tim Ferriss's best business insights back in the early days of SEO was to make sure he captured pageview traffic from the keywords "Tim Ferriss Scam."

So, he wrote a post titled, naturally, "Tim Ferriss Scam!" Interestingly, it doesn't rank as highly as it used to, illustrating yet another challenge of blogging: the ceaseless competition for traffic, everywhere, all the time, for any and all keywords.

Ironically, Ferriss' Tim Ferris Scam! post actually contains some excellent ideas (the quotes from Scott Boras and Epictetus for example), and it's a smart post from the standpoint of using a writer's time, since it mostly contains meta-content, content reused and retreaded from other posts and sources. Talk about turning your detractors to your advantage.

By the way, Ferriss has had a few Food Babe moments of his own. Readers here at CK will remember my extended criticism of the flaws in his book The Four Hour Chef, for example. Or his uproariously implausible post: From Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. of Muscle in 4 Weeks.[1]

Much like a typical Food Babe post, From Geek to Freak is an (unintended?) masterpiece of meta-conversation. With its waxed and spray-tanned before-and-after photos and its 1,300 (and growing) comments arguing over whether it's possible or impossible to gain 34 pounds of muscle in a month, it all becomes a twisted game.

His game, that is. We're the suckers, expending our attention and our finite cognitive resources. We argue for him even when we argue against him. Savvy readers ought to be able to see a parallel--a direct parallel--that's been playing out over the past several months in our political media.

The Koontz Principle of Online Incompetence
Let's get back to the [Your name here] Scam post writing technique for a moment. Vani the Food Babe did one of these posts too, writing her own "Food Babe: Scam" post, and it's a veritable tour de force in unaware rhetoric [2] that drives home an interesting, if depressing point: the internet rewards incompetence. Write something incompetent, and people will read it, get mad, comment, and link back to you. Then, incompetent people read those comments, get mad, comment more, and link back to you. Competent people respond, comment more, write about you, link back to you, your search engine ranking goes higher and higher, and so on. Rinse, repeat... and sell ads!

If we carry this to its ultimate logical conclusion, we arrive at a useful general principle. Let's call it The Koontz Principle of Online Incompetence: The most divisive and incompetent content tends to rise to the top of all search rankings. Think of it as an informational equivalent of The Peter Principle.[3]

So, in a way, maybe it's not a bad thing that sites like The Food Babe no longer attract the attention and profits they used to, and likewise, maybe it's a good sign that our biggest media institutions--as they play the same twisted game with far greater resources--are losing readers and money too.

[1] Glass houses disclaimer: I've written plenty of posts that are bad, stupid, boring, unrigorous, wrong, etc., and I've also generated arguments between readers arguing for (and sometimes even against!) my incompetence. I try to do the best I can here at CK, but believe me, I come up short plenty of times too.

[2] Techniques include but are not limited to: using mean tweets against her (this is the so-called "tone fallacy": arguing that if you're not nice, your criticism is therefore disqualified); claiming "it's not about me" in a post self-evidently 100% about her, and using rhetorically powerful (but logically vacuous) phrases like "obviously, some powerful entities in the chemical and food industries have a financial incentive to try to discredit me" and "The bottom line is that many of these people who use this argument to discredit me, don't want the truth, regarding our food supply, coming out." One could easily write a satire using statements like these. Hey, wait: somebody already did!

[3] The Peter Principle states that every employee gets promoted up through an organization until he reaches a level where he's incompetent. Anyone working at any large corporation has seen this principle at work, and it is why, in the longer run, large organizations often tend toward generalized incompetence.

READ NEXT: Did Newark Mayor Cory Booker Really *Try* With His Food Stamp Challenge?

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Nine Terrible Ways to Make Choices (That You Probably Didn’t Know You Were Using)

This post blatantly steals ideas from an interesting and unusual little book: The Path of Least Resistance by Robert Fritz.

There's a saying, often mis-attributed to Mark Twain, that goes "it is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled."

Likewise, it's easier to fool ourselves than it to accept that we've done so.

So if you want to fool yourself--without discovering or accepting it later--one of the most effective ways is to enable conditions where your choices are artificially limited. In other words, we often covertly or subconsciously "stack the deck" in certain specific ways with our choice-making. This causes us to shut off possibilities and solutions that would otherwise be right there for the taking.

Let's consider some examples:

Choice by Limitation -- Choosing only from what currently seems possible or realistic to you. "I didn't think I could really learn to do deadlifts, so I didn't try. I just stuck to the nautilus machines." Or: "I read somewhere this great quote: 'cheap, healthy, delicious: choose only two' it's obvious then that if you want to eat healthy and tasty food, it's is really gonna cost you." Note that reality doesn't care what you think, so why place arbitrary limits on it that you've totally made up?

Choice by Indirectness -- Choosing based on a process rather than by the result. Examples: choosing to go to law school/med school "to have a good career" rather than out of an actual desire for or interest in the subject matter itself. Or, in the domain of consumerism: buying a product or service to "make" you happy, rather than achieving happiness by directly satisfying the true underlying need (which ironically is usually free, or near-free).

Choice by Elimination -- Escalating a conflict such that you force an artificial or otherwise unnecessary choice. "I had to write him off, we argue way too much about politics."

Choice by Non-Choice -- Choosing not to make a choice, such that you give your power away to the situation. This is still a type of choice by the way, albeit a perverse one. Certain lifestyle anti-choices fit into this category, such as not choosing to make fitness, a healthy diet, or high-quality sleep a priority in your life.

Choice by Future Condition -- "When I reach my goal weight, I'm going to finally start on my dream of running a marathon." "When I get married, I'll finally get to..." etc. Sadly, these "choices" will likely never be made: they exist only in the future, never in the present.

Choice by Consensus -- Polling specific friends and framing the question to drive the answer you already want to hear. Examples: A woman asks her already-divorced girlfriends, "I'm no longer attracted to my husband, do you think should I divorce him?" Or: A frugal person asking her most hopelessly consumerist friend, "Should I buy this $300 dress? I really think it's cute." Um, what response did you think you'd get?

Choice by Reaction -- Whenever your situation or environment reaches a level of significant discomfort, making a reactive choice in order to lessen that discomfort. "You know, I never really started to deal with my weight until I started to have heart problems." You could easily argue that most human choices are made this way.

Choice by Adverse Possession -- Assuming if something happens to you, it's because, somehow, subconsciously, you actually wanted that thing. "I have hemorrhoids, therefore I must have somehow chosen them." You could also call this Choice by Law of Attraction.

Choice by Negation -- Instead of choosing to be healthy, choosing "not to be sick." Or, instead of making life choices with an intent to be wealthy, making choices so as "not to be poor." This may seem like merely a semantic distinction, but the negative option is typically a choice borne of fear and powerlessness, while the positive option is a choice based on true agency and power.

A Final Word
For me, the examples above collectively offer a lens I can use to evaluate the decisions and choices I make. Am I avoiding possibilities, am I needlessly limiting my options? Am I enabling circumstances to control me, giving away my power? Am I unknowingly letting someone else frame my choices... am I playing the game on someone else's terms?

Remember: the consumer marketplace, the food marketplace, the diet and fitness industry, the healthcare industry, the investment industry… all of these domains offer us all kinds of convenient-sounding default choices using systems, cues and various manipulation techniques to make us think we're really choosing for ourselves.

Often, the easy-seeming choices are the ones surreptitiously set for you by default. Don't give away your power and agency.

Readers, what do you think? 

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Recipe: Spicy Masala Chickpeas

Readers, thanks for indulging me as I took a short break from posting. I'm thinking it would be fitting to get back into the swing of things by sharing yet another healthy, delicious and laughably cheap recipe!

Today's recipe is so vegetarian- and vegan-friendly that it hardly even casts a shadow. It takes about 20-25 minutes to prepare and feeds 3-4 at a cost of around $1.25 per serving. Enjoy!

Spicy Masala Chickpeas

1 large onion, chopped
1/4 vegetable oil (we used canola oil)
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2 14.5-ounce cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Small handful of either fresh parsley or fresh cilantro, chopped

1) In a large non-stick pan, saute the chopped onion in oil on high heat for 5 minutes or so, until onions are slightly browned and caramelized.

2) Add the coriander, cumin, cayenne and turmeric. Reduce heat, continue sauteing the onions until nearly soft, another 4-5 minutes.

3) Add the rinsed/drained chickpeas, salt and pepper, fresh parsley (or cilantro) and 1/4 cup water. Deglaze your pan if any of the onion/spice mixture is sticking to the bottom. Saute for another 5-7 minutes. If the chickpeas appear to be drying out too much, feel free to add another few tablespoons of water if desired. Serve over rice.

Serves 3-4.
Recipe Notes:
1) Note that this dish is not meant to be a sauce: the chickpeas should be moist, but not in a liquid.

2) Spiciness: Wimpy spice readers can feel free to reduce the cayenne pepper to 1/2 or 1/4 teaspoon, depending on your level of wimpiness. We found 3/4 teaspoon gives the dish plenty of heat.

Read Next: MORE! Top 25 Laughably Cheap Recipes at Casual Kitchen

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.

Your Money Or Your Life: The Full Archive

Readers, here's a complete archive with links to every one of the posts on our series on Your Money Or Your Life.

Thanks as always for reading, and apologies in advance as I take a break from posting for the next few weeks. I'll be back with some new articles here at Casual Kitchen shortly.

And finally, I'd be truly grateful if you would share this series with anyone who you think might benefit from it. Thank you!

A Reprise of Your Money Or Your Life

Intro, Prologue and Preliminaries

Chapter 1: The Money Trap

Chapter 2, Part 1: Calculating Your Real Hourly Wage

Chapter 2, Part 2: Keeping Your Daily Money Log

Chapter 3: Where Is It All Going?

Chapter 4: Answering The Three Transformative Questions

Interlude: What We've Done So Far

Chapter 5: Your Wall Chart

Chapter 6: Valuing Your Life Energy By Minimizing Spending

Chapter 7: Redefining Work

Chapter 8: The Crossover Point

Chapter 9, Part 1: The Fatal Problem with Chapter 9

Chapter 9, Part 2: What To Do With Your Money: Alternatives to Treasury Bonds

Chapter 9, Part 3: Capital, Cushion and Cache

Becoming Sophisticated Investor: Six Steps

The Official "Your Money Or Your Life" Reading List

Your Money Or Your Life: The Ultimate, Final Review