ALEXANDRIA, VA (August 26, 1999) -- There's a famous cartoon that shows a dog sitting at a computer terminal, explaining to a fellow canine that "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."

This is true in many cases. It's particularly true in individual-to-individual contact in cyberspace. You may buy a set of tea cups in an eBay auction without ever learning that the seller is a tattooed Hell's Angel, thinning out his tea cup collection. You may find yourself charmed by someone in an online chat room, only to find out that he's a she, or she's your boss, or something surprising like that. (Maybe he's a dog!) Actually, you may never find out some basic information about the person. Without meeting face-to-face, there are some things that are hard to ascertain or verify.

This ability of the online world to camouflage us can be a bad thing, as our worst fears sometimes warn us. But it can be a good thing, too. In cyberdating, for example, since it may be a while before you see a photo or the actual face of a person, you'll likely focus on what's underneath the surface of the skin -- perhaps finding something you'd have otherwise overlooked.

But when it comes to individual-to-business interaction online, it's harder to conceal that you're a dog. I've seen a cartoon about this, as well. I don't remember it perfectly, but here goes: A dog is sitting at a computer, surfing the Web. He searches for butchers, then zeroes in on bones. After a little more surfing, the computer says, "You're a dog, aren't you?"

Our online activities are not always as private as we think. This can be unsettling, but the cloud has a silver lining. The more a business knows about your habits and preferences, the better it can serve you. For example, if knows that I like to buy modern fiction (Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow), mysteries (Bucket Nut or Silver Pigs), and autobiographies (Life and Death in Shanghai), it can recommend books to me that I'll probably like. This is much more effective than simply showing me a list of America's best sellers.

In this same vein, Amazon has recently unveiled its new "Purchase Circles," reporting on the buying preferences of groups of people -- such as employees of certain companies, students at various schools, and people who live in particular towns. I was interested to see that the top book on the list for Alexandria, Virginia was North to the Night: A Year in the Arctic Ice. Could it be that as we've recently wrapped up the second-hottest month on record here in the greater Washington, D.C. area, my neighbors are longingly reading about ice? Hmm....

Out in cyberspace, it might be hard to conceal canine qualities. As Snoopy has often encountered in his travels, the world is full of signs that say "No Dogs Allowed." Still, there are places that welcome just about all. One of these places is the stock market.

Okay, maybe "welcome" is overstating it a bit. There's no statue with outstretched arms on Wall Street, beckoning the nation's tired, poor, and huddled masses. Indeed, the image in our minds of a typical investor has long been one of an affluent white male -- maybe with white hair, a monocle, and spats. That image has been changing, though, because for the most part, there aren't many restrictions on who can own a piece of America's economic growth.

This probably isn't an earth-shattering revelation. But there are some nifty ways that this non-exclusivity can be taken advantage of.

Consider, for example, that we all have different kinds of personalities. Some of us are real go-getters, climbing up ladders at work, getting promoted left and right. Others may be less assertive, might get overlooked when promotion time rolls around, might feel discouraged because we don't seem to be making the economic progress that others are. If you're in this latter group, consider what opportunity the stock market gives you.

You can, professionally, be an underachiever -- and still, as a tortoise, beat the hare. Those who advance beyond you may be earning much bigger salaries. Maybe they're driving fancier cars. But if you're able to regularly plunk some of your earnings into the stock market, and if you do this for a decade or three, you can end up with the bigger nest egg.

If you haven't had the schooling that you would have liked, if you're stuck in a job that isn't as lucrative as you'd like, with some learning and planning and investing, you can kind of make up for it! (It's like finding a secret clause in the contract of life.)

I love to imagine how the world is changing. Take a gander at the ritzy part of town, and you'll see enormous homes, occupied by people with closets full of clothes. This might be success for the moment, but some of these people may have charged much of their wealth onto bloodsucking credit cards. Some may be living beyond their means, others may be living just at their means, with little left over.

Meanwhile, the meter maid to whom others pay little attention may be the proud (and quiet) owner of 200 shares of Microsoft. (That's more than $18,000.) The person fetching that double tall Latte for you at your local coffeteria might own 100 shares of and 200 shares of Starbucks. (That's almost $17,000.) The tired 48-year-old bus driver who lives in a modest home might have a ten-year-old portfolio of stocks worth $60,000. If that $60,000 grows at the historical market average of about 11% per year for another decade, it'll become $170,000. If the bus driver is a smart and Foolish investor who beats the market handily, earning an annual 15%, the $60,000 will morph into roughly a quarter of a million dollars by the time she's 58.

You may be shy, but shyness doesn't matter in the investing arena. You may feel inadequate in some regards, but you can still prosper. That is, as long as you make the time to learn more about investing, to find a style that you're comfortable with, and to sock away money regularly. In many parts of your life you may be a downright screw-up -- but even so, your financial future is one thing that you can plan right.

Ivy league education or high school education, assertive or retiring, gregarious or withdrawn, handsome or homely, connected or insular, human or money-saving-and-investing dog -- we're all very much alike in the stock market.

I'll close with a few didja-knows:

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