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Archive for March, 2011

A story about a cat

Recently, for the past month or so, sometimes in the evening a gray cat comes wandering around.  He isn’t here every day, more like once every four days or so.  He comes to the door and meows.  He’s obviously someone’s pet because he is friendly and domesticated. 

Well, he came to my door and I felt sorry for him so I gave him some water and some cat food.  However, I also decided to make a bed for him.  Clearly, he was locked out of his owner’s place and had no place to stay.  So, I went to my closet and dragged out one of the moving boxes from there.  It had some paper in there so it was partially cushioned.

I decided that I didn’t want to put the box on the ground since it would be too cold for him.  Outside, I have a spare washing machine so I put it up there and put him in there along with a spare towel.  He appeared to like it.  I next got another idea.  He should also be protected from the elements.  I got one more box out of the closet and turned it on its side, and then put the other one inside so there was kind of a roof (cats love roofs and enclosures like this):

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The problem is that the boxes he was in kind of didn’t balance too well on the washing machine.  You see, next to the washing machine are some plastic chairs so he could jump up them to get into the box.  But the sides of the box that fold in, they kind of hang out so I needed to leave a bit of ledge on the washing machine so he can get onto there, and then into the box.  I then had to make sure that the other box allowed an opening for him to get into.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t going to be enough room on the washing machine to accommodate everything.

"No problem," I said.  I would leave an opening as per the photo above, and the enclosing box would just hang off the side of the washing machine.  Since the box he was sitting in would be on the washing machine completely (meaning that’s where all the weight was), there would be no issues.  He just had to make sure to follow the plan.

Gee, how could this go wrong?

It went wrong pretty much immediately.  I picked up the cat and put him into the box. He went inside and I turned my back and went to go back inside.  As I did, I heard a rustle and I looked back.  The entire structure was falling off of the washing machine and tumbling down to the ground below.  CRASH!  As soon as it hit the ground, 2 seconds later the cat came running from around the washing machine, darting off into the darkness as if to say "To heck with this!  I’m out of here!"  Somehow, he had managed to push over the boxes (I’m not entirely sure how he pulled that off) and sent the whole thing tumbling over.  The only way he could have done that was by going to the far side of the box (the little gap between the covering box and sitting box) and jump down into there.

Of course, he came back 10 seconds later.  I decided to put the box on the ground.  It turns out that there was a bunch of crumpled paper in the box and I put another blanket in so he was insulated from the ground.  He ended up staying there all night.  I guess he liked his temporary bed.

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As it turned out, he was somebody’s cat after all.  He still comes around and we let him in, but he’s not a free agent.  Still, that doesn’t prevent me from taking him in and bothering him until he’s ready to leave once more.

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I decided to login to my Scottrade account this morning and I saw an advertisement for commission-free ETFs.

“What the—?” I said.  “Free ETFs?”  I decided to check them out.  They are a bunch of Morningstar funds that are brand new.  They are so new that they don’t show up in Yahoo Finance or MSN Money when I try to get quotes on them.

What is a commission-free ETF?  It means that when you login to your trading account and buy them, you don’t pay a commission to trade.  This is a game changer for me.  Not only that, but the expense ratios of these funds are about the same as the Vanguard funds, and low expense ratios are something I have been preaching for years!

I tested the theory.  I set up a trade to buy a fund and guess what?  The commission was zero dollars!

The funds are limited only to US stocks, but this is going to have to force me to evaluate my investing options.  I don’t see what the dividend rates are (might be too new to forecast it) but if they do pay dividends then I am going to have to adjust my lazy portfolio strategy.

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Back in my home and native land, Canadians are going back to the polls in early May to elect their next government.  This is the fourth federal election since 2004.

In Canada, things work differently than in the United States. The country of Canada is divided into a little over 300 constituencies, called ridings.  Each political party runs a candidate in each riding.  The party that wins the most ridings forms the government, and the leader of the political party becomes the next Prime Minister of Canada.

If a political party wins more than half of the ridings (called seats, because each riding corresponds to a seat in the House of Commons), they have a Majority government.  Basically, this means that they can do whatever they want because they have enough votes to pass legislation through the House.  It is rare for members of Parliament to vote against their own political party (no matter if they are in government or not) because of a principle called party solidarity.  That is when you always vote with your political party because if you don’t, they punish you (they can kick you out of the party and make you sit in the back of the House).

It’s actually easier to pass legislation in Canada if you have a majority government compared to the United States because in the US there is a system of checks and balances – a bill must pass the House of Congress, the Senate and finally be signed into law by the President.  In Canada, legislation must pass the House (which is easy when you have over half the votes), then the Senate (which rarely rejects a bill) and then finally is signed into law by the Governor General who is the Queen’s representative.

If your party wins less than half the seats in the House of Commons, the party who gets the most seats assumes a minority government.  In order to pass legislation, a political party must convince other parties to vote with them, or at the very least not oppose them so as to defeat the bill (i.e., they can abstain on a vote).  Lots of games come into play here.  You might be tempted to think that a minority government means that parties must cooperate to get things done, but it rarely happens that way.  In reality, it triggers elections.

You see, in Canada, there are certain things that trigger automatic votes.  There are some constitutional amendments that say that if the vote on it fails, an election must be calls because the government has suffered a vote of no confidence.  Budgets are votes of no-confidence, trying to raise the age of voting is not.  Because opposition parties can bring down the government by ganging up on a vote of no confidence, minority governments don’t last very long.  In Canada, they have resulted in elections in 2006, 2008 and again in 2011.

Unlike the US, in Canada there are two major parties and two minor parties on the federal level but the minor parties greatly affect the balance of power:

  • The Liberal Partyis a very successful political party and historically has governed Canada the majority of the time.  Even though they say they are Liberals, they are not liberal in the American sense of the term.  They are more of a middle-of-the-road party at least during the 1990’s when they slashed government spending and eliminated the federal deficit.The Liberal party has borrowed principles from the left and the right.  They are a very opportunistic party that doesn’t have any particular ideology.  The instincts of their leaders, at least prior to 2004, have been incredibly shrewd.
  • The Conservative Party is the other major federal party and has ruled Canada when the Liberals have not.  During the 1990’s, the party split and the Liberals took advantage of this, winning three consecutive majority governments.  However, since 2006, the Conservatives have held a minority.The Conservative Party is not Conservative in the American sense of the term.  They are more like the right-leaning element of the Democratic party in the US.  While there are more Republican types in the Conservative party, there are far fewer of them in Canada.  Whereas in the US, the Republican/Democrat split is 50/50, in Canada it is more like 1/3 to 2/3.
  • The New Democratic Party (NDP)is a left leaning party that finds itself more at home with Ralph Nader and the left leaning side of the American electorate.  They have never held federal power in Canada (and never will) but have experienced some success at the provincial level when they have moderated their policies and deviated from a pure left wing ideology.  They do manage to win a number of seats in the House of Commons but never enough to tip the balance of power.During the 1990’s, the Conservative party split the party and the right wing vote.  During the 2000’s, the Liberals and NDP split the left wing vote allowing the Conservatives to squeak into power (albeit without a majority).
  • The Bloc Quebecois (BQ)is party that only runs in the province of Quebec and does very well there, usually winning over half of Quebec’s seats.  The Bloc is a sovereigntist party that initially was formed with the sole purpose of separating Quebec from Canada.  Since then, they have moderated that and while they no longer push separation, they still are there to primarily advance Quebec’s rights within the country.  This leads to tension between Quebec and the rest of English speaking Canada.There is a perception within English Canada that Quebec attracts more than its fair share of resources from the rest of the provinces.  Within French speaking Quebec, there is a perception that the rest of North American anglo-Saxon culture is swallowing up French culture.  This has been the state of affairs ever since Confederation in 1867.

As I said earlier, the Liberal party has been very successful in retaining power, especially with majority governments.  Canada is basically a country that is governed by the Liberals with occasional breaks given to the Conservatives.  Now that I am older and can look back with more analysis, I think I understand why.

I can’t speak for before 1984 when the Conservatives won a majority and again in 1988, but in 1993 the Liberals won a majority with Jean Chretien (pronounced Zhonn Cuh-reh-tchee-yenn, last name is two syllables) as the Prime Minister.  Chretien was a career politician and was involved in politics for 30 years before finally becoming Prime Minister.  And when he was PM, he ruled the party with an iron fist.  In the 1990’s, a Liberal MP by the name of John Nunziata voted against the gun registry proposed by the Liberals and he was kicked out of the party.  If you were an outsider, you would say that this was undemocratic.  But after observing the Liberals now, I can see why they did this.

In 2004, the Liberal party split and Paul Martin became the new Prime Minister after Chretien resigned.  There were two factions within the party and they fought with each other.  Two years later, their minority government fell and the Conservatives came to power.  But the Liberals never regained their mojo.  Their campaigns have been disorganized, bumbling their opportunities.  They forced an election in 2008 and did even worse than 2006 and forced out their party leader.  They forced another election in 2011 (despite all the public opinion polls showing them behind the Conservatives by 10 to 15 points) but are less well funded and organized than their opponents.

By contrast, Stephen Harper runs a tighter ship than the Liberals.  Harper is leader of the Conservative party and they have their act together.  He has run a minority government that has lasted for five years (two years, and then three years) which is a record in Canada.  This is despite an opposition that ideologically outnumbers Conservatives.  Harper and the Conservatives allow their members far less leniency and imposes party discipline far harsher than the Liberals currently do, but no less than the Liberals historically have.  I think that if the Liberals won in Canada that they would suffer a lot of missteps while in power.

I really don’t understand why the Liberals would force an election other than being opportunistic.  The Conservatives are suffering from some minor scandals (and they are minor despite what some of my friends on Facebook think… geez, so they missed their scheduled tea time… who cares?).  This might be the Liberals’ window of opportunity and could be why they jumped at the chance.

Even if the NDP and Liberals formed a coalition government (where they teamed up) they don’t have enough seats to defeat the current Conservative government.  The only way to do it right now is if they form a triple coalition with the Bloc.  This leaves a lot of Canadian uncomfortable.  Forming a coalition with a separatist party to form the government of Canada?  How can you hope to govern a country when one party wants to split it up?  The Conservatives will likely play up this fact during the election campaign.

The leader of the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff, has stated that whoever gets the most votes (seats) on election day will become the next Prime Minister.  This means that he is ruling out a coalition government with the NDP.  However, the reality is that the NDP is a left-wing party (federally, not necessarily provincially) and the Liberal party is center-left.  If the two parties together had enough seats to form a majority, you better believe the leaders of both parties would start talking to each other.  This is what happened after the 2008 election – the Conservatives won and increased their seat count and the other three parties conspired to overthrow the newly elected government.  This was not very popular with the electorate and those plans fell apart.

I don’t think that the Liberals have what it takes to form government.  Their leader is Michael Ignatieff.  He lived in the United States for a couple of decades before returning to Canada in 2006 to enter politics.  It’s clear that he is inexperienced as a politician because his party continues to misstep in a way that governments under Jean Chretien and Pierre Trudeau never did.  Chretien called elections when his opposition was weak and divided and the polls were in his favor.  Ignatieff called an election when he is behind in the polls and five weeks just isn’t enough time to reverse public opinion without a major issue.  The electorate doesn’t change government in Canada unless they are really upset with them.  Some ideologues are upset; ordinary people don’t care.

If Stephen Harper and the Conservatives win a minority, we can probably expect another election in 2012 or 2013.  If the the Conservatives win a majority, I think Michael Ignatieff should resign.  His miscalculation cost the Liberals four years of obscurity.

Eventually, the Conservatives will wear out their welcome and Canadians will vote in the Liberals.  Things have a way of reverting back to normal.  Will that time be now?

We’ll find out on May 2.

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A pair of stories

This past weekend, my girlfriend and I went to a rainforest.  “What?” you ask.  “Did you two fly out on a trip to Brazil?”  No, no, no.  The Pacific northwest (in the United States) on the western coast of the Olympic peninsula in Washington has a temperate rainforest, whereas the rainforests we normally think about when we say the term “rainforest” are tropical rainforests.  There are few temperate rainforests in the world.  They are only located in the Pacific northwest, Chile, New Zealand, England and Scotland, and a couple of others that I cannot recall.

Anyhow, we took this trip and I thought I would share some stories.

  • On the way down to the rainforest, we stopped off at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington.  The Museum of Glass is where they do glass blowing, which is an art form wherein you literally blow air into hot glass and then it is shaped by the artist.  Of course, you don’t personally blow any air into the glass, it is all done by the professionals.  Afterward, you can go and view all of various shapes and sizes of glass and stuff that are on display in the museum.  For a $12 admission, that’s not a bad way to spend 2.5 hours (which is what we did).

    Anyhow, when you get there, you purchase a ticket stub and then at the end of the stub is a sticker that you peel off and affix to your shirt.  With it, you can enter and leave the museum as you like.  I took advantage of this as I had to go and feed the parking meter (it cost $2 to park in Tacoma for 2.5 hours unlike the ripoffs they have in Seattle). 

    After we left the place, my girlfriend drove the rest of the way while I peeled off my sticker from my shirt and placed it onto the glove compartment opening in my car. The sticker said “Museum of Glass” on it.  However, I decided to be a little mischievous.  I took out a pen and scribbled out the first two letters in the word “Glass” so that you couldn’t read them, thus forming a new word.  I then said to my girlfriend “Hey, Carol!  Look at this!” I then pointed to the sticker.

    She read the sticker, rolled her eyes, shook her head and kept driving. 

    I guess she was overwhelmed by my clever brilliance.

  • During one of the hikes that we took while we were up at the rainforest (using an umbrella because it was raining), my girlfriend was taking pictures.  Now, she’s the type of person who takes pictures of all sorts of random things — “Look, there’s a leaf!  Look, there’s a caterpillar!” 

    Anyhow, there was a sign at the entrance to one of the hiking trails.  I was standing next to her as she took a picture.  She then turned and said to me “You can go stand next to the sign if you want.”  I didn’t move.  “Aren’t you going to stand next to the sign?” she asked.

    ”You said to go stand there if I wanted to!” I answered.

    Her statement afforded me a loophole.

And those are the stories I wanted to share.

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Some views on charity

Often times, we in society are regularly encouraged to be more giving and generous with our money.  This comes from all sectors of society, both religious and secular.  We should give money to those less fortunate than us for a variety of reasons:

  • By giving money, we get back more than we ever gave away.

    The point needs some clarification.  These types of sentiments are echoed by many people.  It is espoused by people in financial media.  In fact, one of the people I follow on Twitter says the same thing:

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    When people say things like they’ve received back more than they gave away, or that they they have never become poor by giving, what they mean (most of the time) is that the psychological benefits they have received from giving away money (or perhaps time, but mostly money) has outweighed their cost of no longer having that money to spend on things they would normally consume for themselves. People don’t actually mean that the financial benefit that they have received outweighs the cost to them because if their financial return was actually greater than 100%, people would donate 100% of their income rather than a portion of it.

    The idea that will not become poor by giving away money, and instead you receive benefits, works on the basis that you give away a certain proportion of your money that you wouldn’t need to live on anyhow, live on the rest, and the psychological “happiness” you get from giving money away is the “getting back” you have received.  It is not a matter of you donating $100 to charity and then receiving $110 at some point in the future.  Anthropologists have long known that by being generous, it releases chemicals in our brains that make us feel good.  Yet there are other parts of our brains that want to horde resources because we need them for survival.  This is a justified survival instinct; people die for lack of food, water, shelter, and so forth.

    The point is that there are some things that people say you can’t put a financial value on, such as the blessings you receive by being charitable.  It is definitely true that being kind to others brings a good feeling and that you cannot go to a store, pick something out and achieve that same level of warmth (which is the origin of the phrase “money can’t buy happiness” which is demonstrably incorrect).  But at the same time, all of us are subject to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  We all have the same basic needs – Physiological, Safety, Love/belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualization.  I would argue that the need to give belongs in the Esteem or Self-Actualization part of that hierarchy, and those needs are parts of our neo-cortex brain (the part of the brain responsible for reason and thought) rather than our limbic brain (the part of our brain responsible for basic survival instincts). 

    In real life, there is always a conflict between our neo-cortex and our limbic brains.  Our limbic system tells us we need to eat.  Oh, look!  Fatty foods that taste ever so yummy! 

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    But our neo-cortexes say that such foods are not good for us.  However, our limbic brain has been programmed by millions of years of evolution to seek out fats in our foods, salty foods, sugary foods, and so forth.  It is a battle between the two of them.

    The phrase “you get back more than you give” is, in my view, an attempt by the neo-cortex part of our brains to trick our limbic brains into being more generous.  Our limbic brains can do the math – if you give away all of your resources, you’ll eventually not have enough for yourself and our brains know from millions of years of experience that a lack of resources threatens your survival.  This trick isn’t necessarily a bad thing, our neo-cortexes trick our limbic brains all the time (diet and exercise and you can be attractive but it’s also good for your health).  But the fact remains that it is an internal battle.

    Money is a resource like anything else.  Its value is that it is a medium of exchange for goods and services.  If you value the outcome you get by spending (giving away) money on charitable endeavors, then good for you.  Feel free to give away to charity.  But on the other hand, if I spend $40 on a video game, I could use the phrase “I got back from the store more than I gave away” because the value I placed on the enjoyment I got from the game is more than the time I put in to earn the money to trade the store in exchange for the game.  In this regard, the act of giving away money is a voluntary trade.  Voluntary trade is perfectly moral.

    I think it’s a challenge to align your views to charity in the same way because the tangible benefits you receive are not the same as when you spend to consume money on yourself.  Personally, I think that this lack of direct feedback is the biggest blocker to generosity.  It’s not because are morally weak, but because we are biologically programmed to respond to direct feedback and evaluate things for the short term (investment decisions are similar).

  • We, in the developed world, have an excess of money and don’t need it whereas the less fortunate do need it. Holding onto more money than we need is selfish and immoral.

    It’s easy to make the case that the religious world asserts that it you have too much money and don’t give some of it away, you are being immoral.  However, most of us might hear me asserting that the secular world is the same and say “Huh?  Doesn’t the secular world teach us to be selfish?”

    It’s true that we are bombarded by materialism.  But let’s be honest here – in a Hollywood movie, how many times have you seen greedy capitalists as the bad guy (he wants to bulldoze a school) as opposed to a hero of the film?  If you do see a wealthy businessman in a movie, how many times is he depicted as benevolent because he engages in charitable activities?  How many politicians want to raise taxes on the rich?  In order to spend on more social programs?  To intervene militarily against dictators in the developing world because we have the means to do so?  I’d think you’d be hard pressed to go out on the street and find anyone who thinks of Scrooge as a hero. 

    The fact is that making money is viewed as something that we all do because we have to, but society frowns upon making too much of it and being indulgent upon yourself.  If you heard that there was a multimillionaire who was very successful but gave nothing to charity during the past five years despite being easily capable of doing so, would you think he was to be congratulated for being innovative?  Or greedy?  Most people say greedy.  We’re all eager to cheer people on because they are successful… but not too successful.  Spread the wealth, we say.  You don’t have to go very far to find anyone, secular or spiritual, who asserts that you are greedy (and therefore immoral) if you are not charitable but have the means to be.

    This is a fine line to walk around.  In my view, money is not something that defines your character.  If you’re a greedy person, you’ll be greedy whether you have just enough, a little more than you “need” (who defines what we need?), or a lot of money. 

    Money does not flow to people who don’t create value.  We don’t voluntarily hand our money over to somebody who gives us nothing in return or something of inferior quality.  If we purchase something and it’s lousy, we return it or don’t buy from them again.  The people who innovate are people that deliver value and therefore we voluntarily give them money because we believe that what we receive in exchange for our money benefits us more than anything else we might otherwise spend the money on.  They are simply better than most at creating value and convincing others to voluntarily buy their products or services.

    So do they “need” the money?  Should they give away some of the excess?

    We dislike paying taxes because the government comes and takes our money away from us by force and spends it on things inefficiently.  While on the one hand the government takes our money away and we have no choice, the flip side in the private sector is to take others’ money away by socially ostracizing those whom we believe are morally inferior and convincing them to change their behavior.  In this case, we call them greedy.  Are they actually greedy?  Maybe yes, maybe not… but it sure gives those who call others greedy and pass judgment as a way to feel smug and morally superior.  A holier-than-thou type of attitude.

    I see this on the left quite a bit.  I saw a thread on Facebook wherein people were complaining about the causes supported by billionaires Charles and David Koch.  Even though both of them have spent money on left-wing causes like the ACLU, repealing the Patriot Act, repealing the bans on narcotics, and so forth, the lefties were absolutely furious that they had the gall to support Republican candidates for governor.  To them, all of the good work that they did by supporting their own causes (actually, libertarian causes) was negated by giving money to Republican candidates, and then some.

    Rather than passing judgment on those who are greedy, a better idea might be to focus on your own motives for being generous.  If you’re going to spend all of your time worrying about how much better you are than your selfish neighbor, you’re wasting a lot of your time on something that doesn’t really matter.  The question we need to ask ourselves is this: do you have an excess of money?  If so, what will you choose to spend it on?

  • God calls us to give money to the less fortunate.

    I see this as an interesting motivational tool. On the one hand, from a Christian perspective (and leaving aside other religions because I am unfamiliar with them), God commands Christians to be generous and give money to the poor.  On the one hand, secularists use these passages out of context and use them to justify taxes to pay for social programs, but the reality all of the New Testament commands within their context are about voluntary charity.

    The motivation for God commanding Christians to be generous to the less fortunate is complex.  Are we supposed to be generous because God commanded it and therefore we should do it (be obedient)?  Or should we do it because God commands us to love our neighbor and that’s what love looks like?  Or should we do it because people have inherent self-worth?

    I think this gets confusing because on the one hand, we claim that God loves all of humanity.  But on the other hand, Christians portray God as doing some very unloving things.  For example, in 1 Sam 15:1-3, God orders the Israelites to destroy the Amalekites – all the men, women, children and infants.  I’ve seen theologians try very hard to show how this action was justified but quite frankly, they have all failed.  Genocide is genocide no matter what sort icing you try to put onto that cake.  Similarly, many Christians believe that the unsaved will forever be tossed into hell where they will writhe in flames and agony forever.  God will sustain that painful condition and will refuse to offer them any relief for all of eternity.  Again, this is a very unloving thing to do (I once heard someone say that this actually was a loving act of God because it shows to the saved just how fortunate they were to avoid the same fate… kind of like how a sergeant might shoot one of his soldiers under his command and then say to everyone else that he’s a good guy for not shooting them).

    My point in the above is that we have two doctrines espoused by Christians that portray God doing some very unloving things to humans – yet at the same time God tells Christians to do loving things to other humans.  In what sense are we compelled to have mercy and compassion on the less fortunate in this life but have neither mercy nor compassion on the less fortunate in the next?  Do people have inherent self-worth or not?  Do compassion and mercy have time limits?  Obviously, in a human sense we all have our limits.  Do we have limits in a divine sense as well?

    If humanity does have inherent self-worth, than I have no problem with God calling upon us to be generous.  For example, if nature has natural aesthetic beauty then I would want to preserve it for its own sake.  It is an ideal to be attained.  If humans have inherent worth, then if they are an unfortunate set of circumstances then I see value in being generous with them.  It is not by design that they are in that condition and my giving to them helps to restore them to a state that they would like to be in.  For example, if someone is sick I want them to feel better.  Not because anyone commanded me to, but simply because I can sympathize with their situation and nobody deserves horrible disease (I say that now, but there are some people that I believe have forfeited their right to mercy).  If someone is hungry, I’d like to feed them.  And so forth.  I think that there is an advantage to sympathizing with others because of their inherent self-worth.

    If that’s why God calls us to be generous, then I can go along with that.  But note that belief in that precludes other doctrines.

Ugh.  I wrote a lot here.  I’m not sure I even made that much sense.  It is what it is.

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On Twitter, I follow this guy by the handle of ItsAdamBraun.  He appears to be some charitable worker who does stuff internationally for some organizations:

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You might wonder why I follow this guy.  Well, the answer is that I think I met him in real life.  You see, five years ago in Fiji (when I nearly died), I was on a tour of Fiji with a bunch of people.  At 27 years of age, I was the oldest person on that trip of approximately 18 people (I am not making that up).  Anyhow, on the trip there was a guy there by the name of Adam Braun.  I had my picture taken with him:

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That is not me wearing some weird crown, that’s a plant behind my head.  Notice how these two folks look pretty similar, the one from my picture and the one from his Twitter page?

When I was on the Fiji trip and I was shooting footage for my first dancing video, he asked me what I was doing.  I replied that it was in homage to Where The Hell is Matt, and I was making my own.  He replied that it was a good idea and that he should have done the same thing.  He then mentioned that he had been to 42 countries (gah!) and it would have been perfect for him to do.  I lost contact with him after that trip.

I tried to look him up on Facebook some years later but never got a response back from my friend request.  I’m not sure exactly how I discovered his Twitter feed, but here’s my rationale:

  • I recognized his name as being the same guy from my trip several years earlier
  • They look the same
  • If he is an international charitable organization co-ordinator, then him being in 42 countries makes sense because he would need to go and visit all these places.

So, I started following him on Twitter.  Hopefully they are one in the same.

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Recently, I finished reading two books – Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell, and Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin.  The books share some similarities but they each have their unique perspective.

Both books look at how people who are superstar achievers in their field get to where they are today.  For example, Bill Gates is super rich.  How’d he get that?  Jerry Rice was the greatest NFL receiver in history, how did he get to be so good?  How do top-ranked golfers or singers get to where they are?

The answer is that they practice a lot.  Like, a whole lot.  I’m not saying a half hour per day, I am saying 4-5 hours per day.  Bill Gates had access to a computer when he was in his teen years.  Tiger Woods started golfing when he was 3 years old.  The magic number that it takes to become an expert is 10,000 hours.  If you break it down, it takes you 10 years to become extremely good at anything to be a super achiever.

Did you get that?  It takes 10 years.  And many of today’s superstars started when they were very young.  When you’re young and don’t have the responsibilities of work, or family, or anything else you have to do when you are older, you have time to devote to a hobby like football, or computers, or golf.  If you’re in your mid-20’s or mid-30’s, when are you going to find time to religiously practice and get good at anything?  To put in the 10,000 hours deliberate practice?

Note that deliberate practice is intentional practice.  It is repetitive, gets feedback right away, focuses on mastering certain skills (not going to a batting cage on your own time) and it isn’t much fun.  It is a lot of work to get to be an expert in anything.  The fact is that top performers in their field have gotten to where they are by being extremely dedicated to doing what they are doing.  If you aren’t an expert in anything now, you’re behind the 8-ball.  If you’re not a professional golfer early in life, you will probably never catch up (which means I am hosed… not that I care to play golf anyhow but if I did I would suck forever unless I quite my job and practiced 5 hours per day).

But there’s more to it than that.  In Colvin’s book, he refutes the notion that anyone is born with any predispositional talent.  Nobody is a natural singer, golfer, hockey player, stock trader, etc.  It is a skill that is acquired over time.  If we combine this with Gladwell’s book, there seems to be a multiplier effect.  People that start early and gain early success get more coaching, more feedback, enjoy it more and are therefore more likely to stick with it.  They weren’t born with it, it is an ability that is acquired through hard work.  Natural talent is something we like to attribute to people (oh, she’s a gifted singer/speaker) but it isn’t true.

Demographics also matters.  It counts when you were born.  For people who were born just after the turn of the 20th century, just as they were hitting their stride in their 20’s and 30’s, the Great Depression hit.  That economic hit set everyone back.  During the Depression, birth rates plummeted.  However, infrastructure had been built up for the birth boom that was occurring before that.  So, for people born during the Depression, they had their choice of schools and facilities that were designed for a larger population.  The number of people in their generation, however, was much smaller.  Therefore, with less population there is less competition, which means that it made it easier to get into prestigious universities, or get funding for business, etc, because there were fewer people grabbing at the pie.

It’s actually an interesting study.  Super success is related to a number of things:

  • How much you practice something and when you started
  • When you were born and where you were born
  • The economic situation around you
  • Your home environment

The fact is that it is very rare to spontaneously become exceptional.  You need to start early and devote much time to it, and then be in conditions that allow you to succeed.

It doesn’t mean that you are doomed if haven’t followed this pattern.  You can still be very productive in real life and achieve a great deal.  You just won’t necessarily become a super achiever like the rarity amongst us.

But not all of us want to become super achievers anyhow.  And that’s just fine with me.

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Since the start of the year, I have embarked on an exercise routine that is not particularly strenuous but instead aims for efficiency.  It involves strengthening certain muscle groups and stretching other tight ones (mostly my legs and hips).  This involves going to the gym once every three days.  I have cut back on doing elliptical machines because after doing so, I get pain in the back of my left knee.  I don’t know what that’s all about, but I cut back on that stuff.  I’ve tried to keep up this routine faithfully.

So how’s it going?

Well, I can lift more weight.  Not a lot more, but a little more.  In February, there was a certain exercise where I could only complete 2 reps at 130 lbs.  Yesterday, I finally complete 7 reps at 130 lbs!  I was so excited!  I couldn’t believe it, but I got in that seventh rep and was so proud of myself!

There’s another exercise, the shoulder lift, where before I was failing at 210 lbs.  Yesterday, I completed seven 5-second-up 5-second down reps at 220 lbs.  Again, another improvement and I was proud of myself.

It’s important to point out that the changes are small but noticeable.  The other variable I have been measuring other than reps on the weights is the size of my limbs.  Every couple of days I get out a tape measure and wrap it around myself and record it.  I have been doing this since early January.  The results here, like the others, are small.  But they are noticeable.

It’s difficult to do this measurement, though.  I am always wondering “Am I measuring it in the same place as last time?”  If I move it up or down, am I skewing the measurement?  I think I am doing it in the same place… and that’s the best I have as an amateur.  The results here are also noticeable.  The circumference of my left arm, right arm, left thigh, right thigh have each increased by about an inch.  My hips have increased by about an inch and a half, my belly (just above the belly button) by about 3/4 inches (not sure how I feel about that) and my chest by an inch to an inch and a half.  That sounds like a lot, but since it is spread out around my entire limb or body, it’s hard to notice.

However, my clothes notice.  All of my pants feel tighter than they did 8 months ago.  Either I am getting fatter or I am putting on more muscle.  Because I am exercising more and eating better than I did before, I lean towards the latter.  I guess it’s possible my metabolism slowed down and I became less active, but that contradicts reality too much.  As I said, it’d be difficult to look at me and really notice that anything is different because the changes are small.  But the one thing that stays the same – my clothes (unless I shrunk them in the dryer which is a possibility given my incompetence in that field) – indicate that something is different now.  While I may have thought I was gaining weight due to my pants, the other day a T-shirt felt a little tighter and that made me go “Hmm…”

My primary goal in exercising was to strengthen my legs, hips and core muscles.  I added my arms and chest because I found a way to do it that was easy and I didn’t want to focus on only one area.  However, I don’t plan to become big, bulky and muscular.  I don’t want to be that big.  One of my co-workers has undergone a transformation at work over the past 18 months, and on Facebook he posted pictures.  I was impressed.  But I don’t want to be there.  I fine looking toned with some definition because that’s healthy.  I can travel and walk around a lot, carry my luggage and do stuff that requires physical fitness.  The idea is that so long as my hip holds up, I can do that sort of thing.

But to do so, I need to make sure that the muscles stay strong and healthy.  So that’s why I do it.

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I know why health care is so expensive.  It’s because they can’t figure out the cost of a procedure until after you’ve had it done.  This is very strange because for dental procedures or laser eye surgery, they can tell you how much something will cost before you’ve agreed to do it.  It makes estimating your health care expenses possible such that you can budget for it.  However, for my hip, this is not the case.  I feel like I am rolling the dice when it comes to making a decision about what treatment option to pursue next. 

Consider the latest case.  I called up a provider of health care about getting a viscosupplementation injection into my hip (basically, shooting up my hip with Hyaluronic Acid):

Me: How much for a visco supplementation injection in my hip?  I was referred to by my doctor.

Them: Do you have an order?

Me: No, I want to get a price quote first.

Them: Well, before we can get you a quote you first need to have an order.

Me: But before I order anything, I need to know how much it will cost.

Them: Where is the shot again?

Me: My hip.

Them: Hold on.  <comes back> We only do that procedure on your <insert some medical terms> spine.

Me: Spine?

Them: Yes.  Unless you have an order.

Me: But I don’t want to order anything until I can get a quote!  Can you look up my name?

Them: Okay. (gets name) The only we have on here is an arthrogram and an MRI.

Me: I had that done two years ago.  This is for something new.

Them: Well, you’d need to place an order.

Me: … Okay, thanks. <hangs up> Wow, that was helpful.

You can see how that isn’t particularly useful to me.  I’m not sure whether it’s a case of it being impossible to know how much something will cost v.s. inexperience on the other end of the line (it sure sounds like the latter).

It was like this for my first two surgeries, also.  I really didn’t know how much it was going to cost me until after I had the procedure done.  A small cost doesn’t deter me from taking action but a large one certainly would.

And so here I sit.  I guess I have a new hobby – trying to estimate my health care costs.  I am thinking that maybe I will go down there in person and corner them that way; it’s way harder to brush me off in person than it is over the phone.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I disagreed with Dave Ramsey’s investment philosophy when it comes to mutual fund investing.  The portfolios that he recommended, I surmised, were not optimally allocated.

Since then, I have seen his DVD lesson on it and there are some things that I have to change.  When he makes recommendations for allocation (i.e., what to put your money in), he uses the terms differently than how people in the investment community use them.  For example, when he says “Aggressive Growth” what he means is a small cap fund.  Since smaller companies grow faster than larger companies, they are aggressively growing but also experiencing larger swings in the market.  Ramsey uses the term “Growth fund” to refer to a mid-cap fund, that is, a mutual fund made up of mid-size companies.  Finally, he uses “Growth and Income” to refer to a large cap fund, that is, a mutual fund that invests in large companies. 

That’s actually not how the industry uses the terms.  Income refers to stocks that pay dividends and are not growing very fast, if at all.  These are also frequently referred to as Value stocks.  Growth refers to companies that do not pay dividends but are there for capital gains (i.e., you buy the stock and it goes up in value).  I like to divide Growth and Value by the average p/e ratio of the stock market (i.e., the average price of the average stock).  Anything above it is Growth, anything below it is Value.  That makes the definition less arbitrary.

Ramsey recommends a 25% weight across Aggressive Growth (small cap), Growth (mid cap), Growth and Income (large cap) and International funds.  The question to me is the following: is this a good weighting?

In my view, it’s pretty decent.  Here’s a more in-depth analysis:

  • The percentages aren’t bad, but they are heavily weighted in US funds rather than International funds.  Still, if that’s what you want to do, here’s what your portfolio should look like if you want to invest in Exchange Traded Funds (I’d have to look up what the mutual funds are):

    VB – Vanguard Small Cap ETF – 25%
    VO – Vanguard Mid Cap ETF – 25%
    VV – Vanguard Large Cap ETF – 25%
    VEU – Vanguard All World except USA ETF – 25%

    That gives you a split of 75% US and 25% International exposure.  Altogether, you’d have the following exposure:

    North America – 77%
    Europe – 11%
    Pacific Rim – 6%
    Emerging Markets – 6.25%

    Alternatively, you could just simply decide to buy one ETF that tracks the entire global index of stocks, all in one shot.  That is the Vanguard Total World Stock ETF, VT (the mutual fund is VTWSX).  You’ve got big caps, small caps, and mid caps in there.  North America and International.  If you did that, you’d have the following exposure:

    North America – 46%
    Europe – 26%
    Pacific Rim – 14%
    Emerging Markets – 15%

    My advice?  I’d probably go with the all-in-one.  Simpler to manage, you have built-in diversification and you get the same exposure.

  • Ramsey published his stuff in 2007 before the market crash.  However, obviously, even before that people were calling him and protesting that his advertised rates of 12% return for a good mutual fund was easily attainable.  He shot back that he’s got funds that are doing it and that Morningstar makes it possible for average people to get those returns.

    He’s wrong.

    As I have stated before, and Yahoo Finance agrees with me, the most important criteria for picking a fund is how low the management fees are.  In all my selections above, those are Vanguard funds which are index funds that track the market.  They are not actively managed and therefore have very low management fees.  The fact is that 80% of funds cannot be the general indexes after fees.  They especially can’t do it year after year and if they do it one or two years in a row, they most likely won’t do it a third year.  The market is too complex, and the bigger the fund the more difficult it is to beat the market.

    Ramsey protests this, but the reality is that sure, some of his funds got 12% or better.  What did the rest of the market do?  My lazy portfolio got 14% in 2010.  But I underperformed the US market (but outperformed the international ones).  The fact is that you might be getting better than 12% but if the rest of the market got 14%, then you are lagging it.  Returns go up and down all the time but for the most part they revert back to the long term mean.

    The market’s average rate of return, including dividends, is 10.5%, not 12%.  Pick funds that track the broad market with the lowest fees.  That’s how you win when it comes to mutual fund investing.

Those are my views.

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Organized sports

For my entire life, I have been a mediocre athlete.  I have never played any sort of organized sport – one where you have to show up and have people coach you.  I have played on amateur teams such as when a bunch of people get together and commit to a season, but that’s as far as it goes.  In recreational activities I have never been an outstanding player although I have had occasional flashes of brilliance.  For example, I used to attend a youth church boys club and we would play floor hockey (hockey in a gym) most weeks.  I was not the best player, but one time we played a close game and my team lost 6-5.  I scored all 5 goals in the game.  For someone like me who might score one goal per game, certainly no where close to where the leaders would be, I was pretty proud of myself.  I think that is a very impressive showing that I was able to upstage people who were much better than myself.

Well, lo and behold, last week we got an email notice from the admin of my division saying that there was a softball league being organized.  I immediately sat up and took notice.  Softball?  A softball league?

In my time, I have only ever played on two softball teams.  Sure, we played pick up games when I was younger, but not very often.  Growing up, my two preferred sports were hockey and football.  You can play football anywhere there is a field and if anyone has a ball, whereas for baseball you need quite a few more players; you can play football with as few as six (three on three… it’s not as much fun two on two).  Hockey, of course, is Canada’s sport.  They inject a drug into us at birth so we grow up watching it and wanting to play it.

So, it should come as no surprise that baseball is not played as much in Canada when there are other sports available and the weather for playing it is shorter.  As such, I never really developed any baseball skills.  I could swing a bat and catch a ball, but that’s it.  I had no technique beyond the basics.

The first organized team I played on, oddly enough, was a team for work when I was working for Lucent while I was living in England ten years ago.  Yes, that’s right, the first baseball team I played on was when I was overseas in a country that is not known for it.  My team managed to finish second in the standings and lost the championship game. Not bad, all things considered.  I played catcher and my catching skills were alright and my batting skills were… less than that.  Try as I might, my eye-hand batting coordination just isn’t there.  I wasn’t the worst player on the team and I was a reliable catcher and did get onto base from time to time.  But, I would say that I struck out more often than I would have liked (kind of like my success rate with women).

The next organized team I played on were the following three years on my church’s softball team that played in a tournament each year, from 2002 to 2004.  Unlike my success the previous year for my team at work, my church’s team was terrible.  Like, totally sucked.  I mean, I’ve seen teams suck before, but we were the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked.  Hmm, I better stop criticizing them, the damn wiener coach of the team might be reading this.  In the four years that they participated (one year excluding me, which was the year I was playing in England), they won one game and lost fifteen.  All but three games were lost by a margin so wide that they had to invoke the mercy rule (that is, if you are losing by 10 runs or more after 4 innings, the game is called automatically.  We never lost by 10 runs, it was more than that because the game is at least 4 innings.  So much for mercy, I thought this was a church tournament?).

My own skills on the team weren’t very good either.  In fact, no one’s was.  People who could catch a ball in practice could not catch a ball during the game.  It was incredible to see people who executed in practice totally crack under the pressure (myself included).  There were overthrows, under throws, drops, and poor decisions made all over the place.  Personally, my highlight of the first tournament was when I got a stand up triple, made possible by the other team screwing up.  I vowed to do better.

In 2003 and 2004, my brother would practice nearly every day.  We’d work on a couple of skills, throwing and catching.  We’d play a game wherein we’d hit balls to each other and if the ball landed in a certain place, depending on where it landed the other guy would get a point. We would take turns and formulate a game of it.  So, since we played so many “games”, there was always pressure to compete against each other.  And because we practiced so much and because there was pressure, during the tournament we each played orders of magnitude better.  It was like night and day.  Everyone else on the team was still awful (aside from one or two ringers that we brought in), but at least our own catching and throwing wasn’t terrible.

The one thing that didn’t improve, however, was our hitting.  Because we were tossing the ball up and to ourselves, and then hitting it to the other guy, we ended up becoming used to a vertical descent of the ball before hitting it.  This completely backfired in the tournament.  Because the pitcher tosses the ball to you at an angle during the actual game, the sense of timing that we had from practice was completely thrown out of balance.  My hitting that year was worse than when I was in England.  I kept striking out.  Not every time but enough times that it was frustrating.

All of this was seven years ago.  In that time I have played sponge hockey and badminton.  But since 2008, I have had to cut way back on sports.  I only played badminton once in 2010 and a couple of times in 2009 due to my hip injury.  My hip still hurts.  And I am not 22 anymore, I am 32.  Do I still have what it takes to be an athlete?  Well, in a professional context I sure don’t but then again I never did.  In a pick up league against other tech folks?  I think I might.

One thing is for sure, I need to start training.  Already I have started stretching my legs every couple of days and I will need to do it more.  I am also going to start working on my batting technique, not sure how I will get my catching technique back up to par since it has been years since I caught anything.

My one goal this year: To not suck.

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Well, it’s been nearly two weeks since I gave up politics.  How am I doing so far?

Pretty good, I’d say.  I haven’t gone out of my way to read any political editorials.  The only thing I have come close to breaking my resolution is reading articles on Reason, but only because they show up in my RSS feed.  I skim the titles and I’d say I am able to resist 85%-90% of the time.  Not bad, I’d say.

On Facebook, I have been faithfully blocking status updates of all friends who post anything political.  Right now, I am up to 11 friends – 1 on the right and 10 on the left.  Given that the split of friends probably runs roughly even, this is a tremendous over representation from one side of the spectrum.

I will continue to block as necessary.

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Now that I am on the board of my condo association, I am privy to all of the decisions that are made with regards to fees and expenses, as well as how money is spent.  The bad part is that I can’t really give any input that changes the decisions that are made.  The good part is that at least I know in advance why my fees are going up and the rationale behind it.

Because the association has to replace all of the roofs in the near term (2-3 years), and because we don’t have enough money in reserves to do it in that time frame (4-5 years is current plan), and because the fees were too low for years before I bought the place, yesterday we all voted for a one time payment of ~$4000 to go towards roof replacement.  This is in addition to an increase in dues of $45/month over two years.  I did some estimates and if I split the cost of the one-time payment over two years (like what was being proposed), my dues come to $424/month.  Yikes.  That’s like living in downtown Seattle.  Unfortunately, there really is no way around this.  So even though I have to fork out this money… it is what it is.  :\

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I’ve never been one to give up anything for Lent.  I’ve always thought that if I was going to give up a behavior, I should do it permanently for the rest of my life rather than a period of time and then revert back to my normal routine.  For example, if I am going to give up sugar, that’s difficult to do but I can certainly cut down on it because it’s something I will have to do anyhow as I get older to keep my teeth intact and my weight under control.

But this year a group of my friends are doing it so I decided to play along.  What could I give up?  What sort of behaviors do I do every day that I am willing to part with?  There’s not a lot of things that I do that I define as something I am willing to give up.  Take email, for example.  I live on email, therefore, it’s not going anywhere.  Facebook?  Well, that’s my best tool for keeping in touch with people.  What else is there?

I finally came up with something.  I have decided to give up political commentary.  You reply with a “Huh?”  For you see, I really like politics but I try pretty hard to stay as objective as I can.  This means I don’t read anything on Fox News or even watch their news programs.  Thus, giving up those programs won’t be a problem since I have never watched them anyhow.  However, this also means that I will have to sacrifice visiting more balanced sites like Real Clear Politics which has a lot of articles on both sides.  But since those articles on both sides are each slanted (sometimes heavily so), I am banning myself from reading them.  Similarly, I have found FiveThirtyEight.com to be very useful and not particularly slanted, but frequently the readers’ comments are and so that site has to go as well.

However, the kicker is Facebook.  Logging into Facebook and viewing my news feed is like watching Fox News on the left.  Every day, somebody is posting some article about how Republicans are terrible people and want to enslave all of humanity (except for CEOs, especially of oil companies).  Usually I roll my eyes but occasionally I comment with an opposing viewpoint in order to prevent my various friends from getting injured by patting themselves on the back so much about how enlightened they are.  So to that end, I have decided to block Facebook updates from my friends who frequently post political stories.  This morning, I went through my feed and anyone who posted an overtly political story or comment – heavily slanted – I blocked updates from.

This is kind of a shame because these friends don’t universally post political stories, they also post things about their personal lives which I like to read.  However, if I am going to stick to my resolution, they have to go.  This morning I blocked three people.  Off the top of my head, I can think of at least three more.  The only reason I didn’t is because they weren’t in my feed this morning.

You may think to yourself that me giving up politics isn’t a big sacrifice.  Well, maybe for you it isn’t.  But it is for me.  I have been interested in politics since I was 10 years old.  That is no exaggeration.  I remember one recess in Grade 4 walking around with a friend of mine and we were discussing provincial politics.  I didn’t understand much at the time but it just goes to show you that this started at an early age.

I have gone cold turkey like this before.  I have strayed away from political discussion boards but after a period of time of not caring, I meander back – to a different source (and after a while I cut that one off and then move on somewhere else).  I expect that this time will be no different.

This doesn’t mean that I am giving up all politics.  I subscribe to a service called Stratfor that gives me intelligence on geopolitics.  However, it is fairly neutral and does more analysis than biased commentary (one of the very few places that does this).  I also pay $200/year for it, so I am going to get my money’s worth (they don’t wander into domestic politics very often, thankfully).  Similarly, if I am browsing Reuters or Yahoo News, I won’t shy away from those because they are reporting the stories, not slanting them the way other opinion outlets do.  I don’t visit those places that much anyhow, but I’m not going to go out of my way to avoid them because they are not what I have targeted for avoision.  I haven’t decided yet if I will cut out watching the news or online clips of political announcements but I rarely watch them anyhow so maybe I will just stick to what I am doing.

I suppose a better way of putting this is that I am cutting out all slanted political editorials.  This is going to be tough because it’s one of my major interests.  But on the other hand, it’s a good candidate for giving up for a period of time.  We’ll see how this goes.

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