Big East MBB Predictions

College basketball is almost here!

Now that season tickets are out, and the temperature around here is dropping rapidly (we had highs over 70 Monday-Wednesday this week!), it definitely feels like time for college basketball. I’m both optimistic and excited about the Marquette men’s team this year. These last couple of seasons have been rough, but I feel pretty confident that we’ve righted the ship.

I figured I would offer up my preseason picks for the Big East. I’m late to the game, and everyone else has already done this, but I’m doing it anyway. Here’s a quick rundown on the official Big East picks by another Marquette fan.

Here are my selections (I assure you there’s no MU bias whatsoever…). I project the bolded teams to make the NCAA tournament:


  1. Villanova
  2. Butler
  3. Georgetown
  4. Marquette
  5. Xavier
  6. Providence
  7. Seton Hall
  8. Creighton
  9. DePaul
  10. St. John’s

Player of the year

Kris Dunn, Providence

Rookie of the year

Henry Ellenson, Marquette

All-Big East 1st Team

Kellen Dunham, Butler
Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
D`Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown
Henry Ellenson, Marquette
Daniel Ochefu, Villanova
(Kris Dunn)

All-Big East 2nd Team

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Josh Hart, Villanova
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Roosevelt Jones, Butler
Angel Delgado, Seton Hall

My Favorite Resources for Young Writers

When I say young, I don’t mean by age, I’m simply referring to others like me who hope to someday be a big name author, but are still working on getting there.

These days there are a seemingly endless supply of resources for aspiring authors, especially with explosion of modern social media. In this post, I’m not trying to give some kind of comprehensive list of quality sources (which would be impossible anyway). Instead, I’d like to share my personal favorites – those that I’ve found most helpful to me over the last few years as I’ve honed my craft.

If you’re looking for a somewhat more extensive list, here’s one good reference by author Dan Koboldt.

Now for my list, in pseudo-alphabetic order. You’ll notice it’s heavy on sci-fi & fantasy:

Brandon Sanderson YouTube lectures – One of the most popular fantasy authors (and my favorite) teaches a class on creative writing in SF/F at BYU. He has a series of recorded lectures posted on YouTube.

Brent Weeks personal blog (writing advice) – Another one of my favorite fantasy authors, with a nice section on writing advice on his website.

Elements of Style by Strunk and White – Classic text on grammar and writing fundamentals.

Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal – Author of the uber-popular Dresden Files, with a series of LiveJournal entries over the years covering serious fundamentals.

On Writing by Stephen King – Part memoir, part instructional guide on writing, this is the first book about writing I ever read. Excellent for beginners.

The Story Grid – A website and accompanying book regarding story structure, written by an editor with decades of experience.

Techniques of the Selling Writer – In my opinion, the single best book available for authors. Great for all levels of expertise.

Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass – Comprehensive book from a big time agent.

Writing Excuses podcast – Hugo award winning podcast by Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal, Howard Tayler, and Dan Wells. Loads of great info here.

Sometimes the Sequel Comes First

I’ve recently started writing my newest novel, and I finished the first scene last night. One of the things I’ve learned over the years, especially as I’ve queried agents with my more recent manuscripts, is how critical the beginning of the book is. The first page is key, but so are the first five pages. This is what readers use to decide when they consider buying a book, and is therefore a major focal point for agents/editors. Most agents will ask for the first 5 pages or so when you query them, and that’s all they have to decide if they want to request more.

In the past, I’ve struggled with writing great openings to my books, but I hope that I’m getting better as I continue to write. In this post, I’ll be talking about the current strategy I use, but my thoughts here are somewhat speculative – I’m still working through the challenges of making my beginnings pop.

A common approach writers use to hook their audience (agents, editors, or consumers) is to drop the reader right into the middle of an action scene. While this is an effective way of cutting out the common fluff that most newbie writers like to load up their openings with – long descriptions of scenery, backstory, detailed worldbuilding – there is a major downside to this strategy. Openings that show a character fighting off demons, or attempting to pull a damaged plane out of freefall sound really compelling, but if the reader doesn’t know anything about the character, or have any way of connecting to her, it’s very possible the reader won’t care about the character’s success or failure. And if the reader doesn’t care, the scene loses all potential tension.

It’s hard to find the right balance in a novel’s beginning, giving enough characterization to make the reader care, while also making interesting stuff happen so the reader isn’t bored. In my current novel (and the previous) I’ve found myself starting in the middle of what’s known as a sequel – not book 2, but a scene that involves character reaction and decision making.

If you’re not familiar with the scene/sequel format of writing, I recommend Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’ve found it to be a great resource, and I think it’s valuable for writers of all experience levels. The original edition was published in 1965, but it’s remarkably relevant to contemporary writing.

The basic breakdown of scene vs. sequel is this:

  • Scenes involve a character goal, conflict, and a setback or disaster
  • Sequels are based on a character’s emotional response to a disaster

Scenes are where the action takes place. They are full of tension, and up until the end of the story, they always end with something going wrong.

Sequels are “scenes” where characters react to problems, work through them, and come to some decision that propels the character into the next scene.

A conventional novel is formatted as scene-sequel, scene-sequel, scene-sequel, …

But I’ve found that I like starting my books in the middle of a sequel, where some disaster has already occurred. The disaster need not have happened just before page 1, or even on the same day, but it should be something weighing heavily on the character.

I think this gives me a good balance of characterization and conflict/tension, because it immediately puts the character in an emotional situation, forces her to make a tough decision, and allows me to lead right in to a scene with real conflict. I think it’s key, though, that the sequel portion of this sequel-scene combo is short. Right now, my opening sequel is about 1,100 words, which may be too long. I’ll need to work on cutting that down.

Anyway, I don’t mean to say that I believe this is the right or best way to open a novel. I’m not even completely confident that this is a good technique. But my current opinion is that this approach can provide a nice way to get the reader to care about the main character and quickly give a compelling hook.

And So It Begins

I’ve begun writing the first draft of my newest novel, an as yet untitled epic fantasy. Assuming I finish this project, hopefully some time in late winter, this will mark my sixth book, not counting a couple of manuscripts I never finished. It will be my third epic fantasy novel – my other projects were horror, contemporary fantasy, and YA fantasy.

I spent a lot more time pre-writing for this project than any of the others, and I even put together a chapter-by-chapter outline, something I’ve never done before. For my first two books, I think I spent a combined total of about six hours planning before I started writing. I used to be completely in the gardener/discovery writer/panster camp, but over the years I’ve moved more and more toward the architect/outliner style of writing. This has been more of a conscious attempt at changing my ways rather than an organic shift, as I’ve tried to improve my craft. I don’t know if this transformation will actually make my writing better, but I think I needed to get to this point in order to be capable of handling what I think will be my most complex story yet.

One of the resources I’ve found useful during my pre-writing process is the Story Grid website by Shawn Coyne, editor at the independent publisher Black Irish Books. I’ve adapted some of his editorial tools for my own purposes, tweaking them to suit my own personal needs, and I think they’re going to provide a great deal of help for me as I write. I will probably talk about these a little bit in future posts, discussing how I’ve applied the lessons I learned from following Shawn’s blog.

In the meantime, I #amwriting.

Smart Investors Know (Good) Hedge Funds Diversify Their Portfolios

Hedge funds tend to take a beating in the financial media. It seems like every week we see at least one new article from a major financial news center, pointing out how hedge funds continue to underperform major indices year after year, and wondering with astonishment how any investor could possibly still consider allocating any funds to these money-drains. I suspect part of the motivation for these pieces is regular schadenfreude, and some of it is writers knowing that their audience lacks sophisticated (and usually basic) financial knowledge, and therefore will gulp down any analysis that will provoke some kind of emotional response (those fucking rich hedge fund managers don’t deserve a damn dollar of their money!!). Some of the analysis you see is actually reasonable, but usually oversimplified.

I won’t link to any specific pieces that I find to be poorly constructed, mostly because there are so many, it’s easy to find them any time. But here are a couple good posts that take a more nuanced view, written by well-known professionals (outside the financial media), Ben Carlson and Cliff Asness. (I will echo some of their points here)

Now, as someone who has worked for one of these institutions for 7 years, I like to think I have a better understanding of this industry than just about all the financial writers that occasionally write hedge fund articles. Of course, that also means I have a significant bias. But I’m not writing this simply to defend hedge funds, nor do I feel like I need to. Somehow all the hedge fund bashing articles haven’t yet convinced the big institutional managers from allocating a portion of their assets to these alternative investments. Huh, wonder why that is?

The main point I’d like to make is that the analysis you see within most or all hedge fund trashing articles is oversimplified and usually worthless. The general lack of understanding of basic finance displayed by the writers of these things is astounding. The primary problems with the typical “hedge funds continue to underperform and STILL charge insane fees” article are:

Compiling an index of hedge funds is kinda stupid. This is such a broad term, it’s hard to define what should be in the index.

It’s rare to see someone compare the “hedge fund index” to a benchmark on a risk-adjusted basis. If you fail to consider risk in your comparison, you get an F in basic finance. Stop writing about finance. You are incompetent.

Still, the aggregate set of hedge funds is unlikely to beat a good benchmark, even on a risk-adjusted basis, over the long run. That’s because we all compete with each other, and if my fund is winning, some other fund is losing. Subtract fees, and the aggregate will probably underperform. But here’s the big, big secret that (almost) nobody seems to understand. Outperforming a benchmark is NOT THE POINT OF HEDGE FUNDS. Or other alternative investments. Sure, some funds may exist (which they probably shouldn’t) to try to outperform, but most will fail, and these funds are only worth investing in if you can pick the winners ex ante. Which is really hard, and requires a lot of resources.

So what is the point of investing in a hedge fund? Diversification. This seems obvious to me, but apparently 99.9% of the financial media can’t comprehend this incredibly advanced concept. Even if a fund underperforms whatever standard financial index you compare it with, it can still improve the risk-adjusted return of your portfolio, provided it is sufficiently uncorrelated with your other assets. That’s the most important thing here, and it doesn’t necessarily require great resources to figure out which funds are real diversifiers. Unfortunately, most available hedge funds are NOT great diversifiers. They pick stocks just like active mutual fund managers, charge higher fees, and usually do rip off their customers. So yes, some of the criticism directed at hedge funds is legit, but it really belongs to a (large) portion of the funds, not all of them. See Sturgeon’s Revelation.

So to sum up what I want to say: when evaluating (a) hedge fund(s), single out those that act as actual diversifiers to an investment portfolio, and see how they improve or degrade the risk-adjusted return of that portfolio (you can also look at drawdown mitigation). Ignore those that have a really high correlation to the other assets (including when you consider allocation). Comparing an indiscriminate aggregate of hedge funds to some benchmark may give you sadistic pleasure, but it’s fucking stupid.

Disclosure: This post reflects my opinions only, and does not constitute an offer of any kind.

Writing Female Characters

I’m gearing up to start writing my next novel, and I’m in that zone I always seem to experience before I start, where I worry that I won’t be able to write again. It’s a dumb fear, since I’ve finished five manuscripts so far, but I normally take significant breaks between works, and it always seems like it’s going to be tough to ramp back up and get into writing every day (or six days a week, as is my norm).

But this time I have a new, additional fear to deal with: most of the characters in my new book are women.

Now, I’ve written a number of female POV characters before. In fact, the first manuscript I ever completed had a female main character. But what makes this project different for me is that 1) it has very few meaningful dudes as characters, and 2) I have higher expectations for my characters now than when I wrote some of my earlier works, especially my first book.

As a dude, I worry that any woman/girl that reads this book (if anyone ever reads it) will see my characters as horrible stereotypes written by an ignorant male, or just as characters that aren’t believable as women. I’ve read criticism of Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series, my all-time favorite fantasy work, by women who think all his female characters were superficial tropes, even somewhat sexist in nature. And other works are sometimes criticized for all the women acting like “men with breasts.” My hope is that I’ll be able to avoid both of those problematic outcomes, but I’m honestly not sure I’m up to the challenge.

Mark Lawrence, author of The Broken Empire trilogy, has a recent post on his blog, where he explains that he writes his characters as people, rather than men or women, essentially ignoring the specifics of gender. I’m not exactly sure if that’s how I want to approach my upcoming project, but I do think there’s something of value in his view.

One plan I have is to restrict my reading list over the next couple months to (fantasy) books written by women with female main characters. I don’t know how much that will help me, but I figure it can’t hurt to try.

Sophisticated vs. Unsophisticated Investors

Noah Smith has a post on Bloomberg View today talking about research that shows that rich investors tend to dramatically outperform not-so-rich investors because wealthier investors are more sophisticated (generally are more educated in finance). I haven’t read the papers he links to, so my post here will be limited to one thought I have regarding a major point of concern brought up in Noah’s post; that the deviation in performance between sophisticated and unsophisticated investors may increase as the average level of financial sophistication increases (everyone becomes more financially savvy).

Again, I’m not familiar with the model that makes this claim, so this is really just a knee-jerk instinctual reaction. But I don’t think this claim makes much sense, for the simple reason that most of the deviation in performance between the two groups probably comes from the sophisticated investors making fewer stupid mistakes, rather than this group showing its ability to outperform some passive benchmark.

One of the charts shown in Noah’s post, reproduced from this paper, shows the cumulative returns from 1989-2012 for the two investor groups:

Sophisticated investors see $1 invested in 1989 turn into $5.32, while the unsophisticated group only ends up with $3.28. Yet a passive investor putting in $1 into the S&P 500 in 1989 and fully reinvesting dividends would end up with $7.31 (that number comes from here). Now, of course, few if any investors would allocate all their assets in equities; some of that money would go into bonds, which generally return less over the long run than stocks. But the data here seems to focus on equity returns.

So while this comparison is a bit of an oversimplification, I don’t see much credibility to the claim that these two investor classes are likely to diverge over time as everyone becomes wiser about investing. Beating the market is hard. Really hard. (I know as well as anyone; I’m a professional trader). Teach the least knowledgeable investors enough not to be stupid with their investments, and eventually they should catch up to the “sophisticated” class (My job has taught me that so-called sophisticated investors often make the same mistakes as everyone else).

Milwaukee Arena Deal

The controversial Milwaukee arena deal finally cleared its final hurdle today, as the common council voted to approve the needed funding from the city. While I remained optimistic throughout the process that a deal would eventually get done, there were times that I worried the city might actually lose the Bucks.

During the debate over funding, many people from around the country weighed in with their thoughts, mostly to criticize the local politicians (and implicitly the voters and supporters of the proposed bills) that pushed to get this deal done. Here’s one example from Slate, which states that Scott Walker is blowing $250 million on the arena.

Before I talk about what’s wrong with this article (and the similar arguments given by many other critics), I’ll say that I partially agree with the sentiment of many of the opponents to this deal and others like it. It is unfortunate that taxpayers are often asked to foot the bill for new stadiums/arenas, which will serve as homes to (usually) profitable multi-billion dollar teams. Ideally, the new Bucks owners would have put up all the money to fund the arena. But that was never an option on the table. With no taxpayer contribution, the Bucks and the NBA would have left Milwaukee. Forever. Anyone who says differently or ignores that fact is an idiot or an asshole.

Sure, it’s less than great that professional sports owners are able to play cities and states off of one another to get the best deal for themselves. But I have no solution to this problem, and I’ve yet to hear a single critic of these deals offer any ideas that would stop this sort of thing from happening. The decision to pass/block the funding bill here in Milwaukee/WI came down to this choice: kick in some taxpayer money, or lose the team to Seattle or Vegas. As a supporter of Milwaukee sports, and the city in general, I supported using tax money to (partially) fund the arena.

Now back to the Slate article. There are a number of dumb things in there, such as connecting the cut in university funding (which I don’t really like) to the arena funding, which doesn’t really make sense. But the primary argument the writer makes is that the deal is bullshit because economic activity and tax revenue will not be increased by building the arena because of a substitution effect: money that fans spend in or around the arena would have been spent on other local activities anyway, so it makes no real difference. This is backed up by a body of academic studies. I think these studies are likely to miss some re-distributive effects that benefit smaller market teams (to the detriment of larger market teams) because of league revenue sharing and asymmetric fan travel (Milwaukee will get more visiting fans that wouldn’t have come otherwise than places like LA & New York), but I can’t say with certainty how much impact that will have. It might be small, or it might be enough to pay the entire bill.

My main point here is that the author of this article (and others like him) is framing the argument in a way that suits his view, while missing the whole point of this deal. Apparently, we’re “blowing” $250 million on this arena because the state won’t get extra tax revenue or the downtown area won’t see extra economic activity (which may or may not be true; see my re-distributive comments above). Anyone who says that is sidestepping the central focus here: WE GET TO KEEP OUR NBA FRANCHISE. Yes, we have to pay for it. Kinda like you have to pay for your iPhone, your TV, your internet, the books you like to read, air conditioning, you know, the stuff that you can live without but you really ENJOY HAVING.

To be fair, some of the blame for this misplaced criticism belongs to the proponents of these kinds of bills, who have first made the argument that using taxpayer money will benefit all residents. This may or may not be true, but it’s mostly done to deflect complaints from taxpayers who aren’t interested in the Bucks (or any other teams involved). To those particular critics who don’t want their tax dollars going to fund a team they don’t care about, I say this: As a taxpayer who is sometimes in the upper income brackets, believe me, I know your pain. And I offer a few words of condolence. For every dollar of your tax money that goes to this arena, I “donate” hundreds of dollars for shit that I’ll never see a single fucking benefit from. Some of these things are still worthy expenditures, some are not. Just remember many of you are still getting back A LOT more from my tax dollars than I (as a wealthy-ish Bucks/Marquette basketball fan) will ever see from yours.

Or hey, maybe I’m wrong and the Slate author is right. Anyone who spends money on shit they really want but can survive without is nothing but a wasteful fucking idiot. (I wonder how many $8 lattes that guy had the day he wrote that piece)

FOMC Meeting

We’re almost to the FOMC meeting that many have been looking toward as the possible instance of the first rate hike in years. At least, that’s what many thought before the big market selloff in August. Now it looks like the consensus is for no hike until at least December.

Some observers, like Cullen Roche, think that the idea the Fed would even consider raising rates right now is indefensible. But you can also find a twitter campaign exhorting the Fed to #JustGoForIt.

Over the past few years I’ve come around to the view that many of the Fed’s actions have much less effect on the real economy than most think. Sure, if they raised rates to 10% this week that might lead to some rather nasty consequences, but I think that much like the later rounds of QE, a small rate hike isn’t going to do much – to the economy, I mean. Markets are a different story.

Anyway, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that we do see a (tiny) rate hike this week, along with guidance telling us to expect the Fed to be patient with further raises. I figure I’ll be wrong.

Limitations vs Costs in Magic Systems

I’m currently working on pre-writing my next book, and one of the aspects of worldbuilding that I’ve struggled to pin down is the magic system. I’ve been looking to create a system that is transient, where the rules change in predictable but complex patterns. The part that’s given me the most trouble is figuring out the exact limitations and costs, which change based on time and place.

I’m a big fan of Brandon Sanderson, the master of magic systems. His second law of magic states that limitations are more interesting than the powers, but when he says limitations, he really means limitations and costs. I believe this is true, and so as I’ve worked on designing my system, I’ve spent a great deal thinking about these two aspects.

Eventually, I got to the point that not only did I think the system was too complex (which I think it still might be), I also thought I was strangling the characters. I set up a significant set of limitations, then plunged ahead and created a slew of fairly dire costs. Then I realized that my characters were never going to be able to use the damn magic I gave them.

What I think I’ve come to realize here is that most good magic systems will be designed with a trade-off between costs and limitations. Not an uncertainty principle exactly, but analogous in a way. The greater the limitations, the lesser the costs should be, and vice versa. Too light on both and the magic is generic and the characters don’t have to struggle much, too heavy on both and they never get to use the magic. Which sucks. Stories with no magic are boring (60% of the time this is true all of the time).

So I’ve decided to go with a system that is heavy on the limitations, but lighter on the costs. Not that it lacks costs, of course, but they aren’t so dire that no one has to sell her soul just to jump a littler higher.