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Archive for March, 2011

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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