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Archive for January, 2012

I have a theory.

This theory is based on personal observation.  I have a lot of friends who are hyper-political.  They love to post articles that build caricature portraits of their political opponents, ridicule those caricatures, and then congratulate themselves for being so enlightened.

Nearly all of these friends are left-wingers, although as I understand, people who watch Fox News (or at least post articles in support of it) are similar.  I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch Fox News and have never watched it.  But the point is, there are people who occupy the far left and the far right.

My friends on the far left decry Fox News as right-wing outlet that occupies the far right and drag otherwise normal people from the center (or possibly the left) to the far right.  By contrast, conservatives think that people like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and the New York Times draw people from the center and right over to the far left.

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After having observed everyone’s confirmation bias and that politics contributes to people’s self-actualization, and that there are a lot of people that just aren’t interested in politics, I don’t think that the the above diagram is accurate.

Instead, there are just crazy people on the left, and crazy people on the right, and the entertainment industry caters to them.  There’s a market for people who enjoy sports, and ESPN broadcasts every type of sporting event.  There’s a market for people who like home renovation products and HGTV caters to them.  There’s a market history wonks, and the the Discovery or History channel is for them.

There are crazy people on the left who believe crazy things, and there are crazy people on the right who believe weird things.  Media responds.  They are not creating the demand, they are responding to it.

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That’s how I see it.  People seek out media outlets that conform to their own ideology, and media outlets are happy to fill in that gap.  They don’t need to drag people over because there are plenty of people already there, happy to be part of the choir that wants to be preached to.

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As I was saying in my previous post, I nearly froze to death in Bath on December 8, 2001, because I was street performing in clothing unsuited to the climate.  It was fun doing shows but the cold weather made it too difficult to do more than one show.

Afterwards, me and another street performer decided to go to a pub and get something to eat.

The street performer culture is… interesting.  The people are not well off and nobody makes a ton of money.  Your clothes are all raggedy, you have to drag all of your stuff around and it gets beaten up; it’s not that comfortable a life.  But you do have freedom.

Oh, sweet, sweet freedom.

Anyhow, my friend’s name was Herbie Treehead.  I think this is his website but I’m not really sure.  The pictures on the website look like him but I haven’t seen him in 10 years.

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Herbie had kind of a clown act and did a little bit of magic and some juggling.  He showed me some of the ropes and I looked up to him as a performer, although I didn’t care for his lifestyle (as in, mine was too comfortable and I didn’t want to give it up).  I met his son a couple of times and he was a good dad.

I remember that Herbie gave me some feedback on my shows.  I can’t remember anything he said except the following:

  • I should incorporate the use of a magic wand into my show and use it like a real magical prop, the way that Harry Potter does.

  • Some of the things I did in my show were “f**king hilarious.”  I can’t remember what those things were.  He was probably referring to my witty jokes which the wife laughs at all the time.

Herbie and I both finished our shows and decided to call it day and headed down to a pub for some food and some warmth.  I don’t remember what I ordered but the two of us started talking.

During the conversation he says to me “Terry, why don’t you go to Australia?”

“Huh?” I said.

“Take your magic stuff and go to Australia.  And New Zealand.  Go on the road street performing!”

I was taken aback.  Go on the road, performing street magic?  Me!?!  I’m just a white Canadian kid from the prairies who was unemployed.  I couldn’t do something like that!  The very idea of traveling like that scared me.

“Yeah, go around the world.  Go to the far east, southeast Asia – or skip it – and go to Australia and New Zealand.  Then go to the States and then come back here.  Go around the world!”

I didn’t know what to say.  Go to Australia? (As I type this, I am getting really giddy recalling the conversation).  Could I do it?  I didn’t know!  The idea was so very enticing!

We continued chatting and he explained that I should take my street magic stuff with me and if anyone at Customs stopped me and asked me, I should say that it was a hobby.  That was true enough.  He explained that there was a buskers festival in Adelaide in March, 2002 (which I have always wanted to return to).

At one point I excused myself to the bathroom, prompting Herbie to roll his eyes and I corrected myself with “toilet.”  I came back, we finished up, and we left.  But the idea was stuck in my head – go to Australia performing street magic.  What an awesome idea!

I went home, toying with the idea.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go or not.  I was scared to travel by myself but I didn’t think anyone from my friends would come with me (they being too poor or had jobs).  I thought about asking another magician friend of mine, but then snapped out of it saying “He wouldn’t come.”  And he probably wouldn’t have, either.  I was on my own.

But by Monday night, I had pretty much decided that I was going to do it.  I didn’t make the formal decision to announce it until a week or two later, but in my mind I had decided to go because I started researching Round-The-World tickets.  It wasn’t that expensive back then, I think my total flight for seven stops around the world (London –> Singapore –> Melbourne –> Sydney –> Auckland –> Los Angeles –> Toronto –> London) was $2000.

The good thing about getting laid off in Europe is that they pay you money with a redundancy package. I got a nice payout and so I had the money to travel.  I was unemployed, was not in a relationship, and could go to the southern hemisphere and perform on the street again, scratching that itch!  There was no reason not to go!

Then, on January 28, 2002, I left England for my 3-month trip around the world.

And that’s the story of the time I went to Australia the first time, and travel the world.  It wasn’t even my idea, it was someone else’s.

It’s possibly the best advice I have ever received.

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Remember back when I was talking about the time I got laid off from my job?  Well, this is a follow up to that.

In the fall of 2001, it was tough slogging.  It was only 22 years old without a lot of experience, the dot com bust was in the middle of bursting, and I was a foreigner living in a country where if any employer wanted me, I had to have a work visa.

And I was unemployed.

Those days got kind of boring sometimes because I was trying to save money.  I also quickly suffered from demotivation.  I spent some of those days waking up later in the morning, watching TV for two hours and then wandering around town.  I would apply to as many jobs as I could and got a couple of interviews, but nothing panned out  I wondered what I was going to do because I sure didn’t have any leads.

During the summer of that year, I had started street performing magic.  I never made a lot of money at it and I struggled mightily at it (the most difficult job I ever had).  I don’t have the personality for it because you have to be really loud and boisterous and that just isn’t my personality.  I never really got the hang of that, and I still can’t do it (it has possibly gotten worse).

But still, week after week, I took the train ride from Chippenham to Bath, dragging all of my magic stuff with me on Saturdays, and would perform a show or two. I didn’t make much money but I got really good at sleight-of-hand.

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It was tough going during those shows.  I didn’t get many people to stop and when I did, I could rarely get them to sit through and watch an entire show.  After various tricks there is a natural “break” in the show and I was never good at retaining people.  I got the hang of drawing a crowd but not at retaining them for 30 minutes.

Or maybe I wasn’t that good a performer back then.  Who knows?

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Yep, these pictures are 11 years old!

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Anyhow, it was October and it turned into November and the weather started getting cold.  Now, I grew up in Winnipeg where it’s winter 9 months a year so I know what cold weather is like. However, winter in England is different.  It’s wet over there, and when the weather gets to just above the freezing point, you really feel the cold weather.  It gets inside of you and it takes forever to warm up.  That’s what England is like in the winter.

My only source of income during that time was street performing, and that wasn’t very much at all.  But I did enjoy performing if only for the reason that I liked getting better as a magician.  The problem is the weather was getting cold.  You see my picture above and I am in a shirt-and-tie; my performing costume was the same except I also wore the suit jacket to this ensemble.  This makes it too hot in the summer and not warm enough in the winter.  Yet that’s what performers do – anything to improve the quality of the show.

My last performance was in mid-November and I was prepared to put my cards away for the winter.  But on the second weekend in December, the 8th, I decided to get my stuff out and go performing one more time.  I missed it.  Even though it was cold outside, the itch to perform was too strong to resist and so that weekend, I went down to the town of Bath and set up in front of the Roman Baths to put on my final magic show of the season.

And nearly froze to death.

I don’t remember what I performed that day except for one trick, and that it was nearly impossible to perform.  Back in those days, I performed a routine where I had four red balls appear and disappear in my hands.  There’s a clip of it on YouTube a few years later when I performed in my basement on a snow day.

Anyhow, the trick requires a lot of manual dexterity to get the proper placement of the props in small amounts of time.  But because it was so cold, my hands seized up. I couldn’t move them quickly and I had to slow the trick waaaaaaay down.  By the time I was done, my hands were red and I had to get inside.

It was so cold that day!

More in my next post.

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If I weren’t married, I’d have a new car by now.

Way back at the very end of 2006, the last day of the year, I decided to get a new car.  And by new, I mean “a couple of years old.”

My then-car was still in driveable condition and I had put some repairs into it earlier that year.  Yet as is my strategy for selling stocks, it’s better to sell too early than too late.  Ergo, it only made sense for me to get a different vehicle.

Fast forward five years and I believe that it is time for me to get a different vehicle even though my current one is still in good condition.  Why?  Well, because it’s in good condition.  It’s better too sell too early than too late.

But the wife won’t let me get one.

I won’t even get a Lexus.  I’d stick with a Japanese car but not a Honda (they have some annoying features).  And I won’t buy an American-made car, either.  No, thank-you.

But I’m still not allowed to get one.

The wife plans to drive her car until it dies.  And after that, she plans to get a new car.  A real new car, not one that is only a couple of years old.  However, I veto that decision.  Under no circumstances would I buy a new car.  Why?  Because as soon as you drive it off the lot your resale value for it drops by 20% (this is not completely true but it’s mostly true).  This implies that the car is completely overvalued.

If you’re going to buy something that is going to go to zero, then get it a better rate with a slower churn down to nothing.  And that’s why I say “No new cars.”  A couple of years old with minimal mileage is acceptable.

Dave Ramsey and I agree on something.

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The wife and I have differing views on how to optimize for money.  I try to optimize around the big things whereas she optimizes around the small things.

For example, when we were in New Zealand, she wanted to rent a car for three days near the end of our trip so we could do our own thing.  This would cost approximately $340 (USD) after all the applicable fees and fuel costs (gas is 1.75 times more expensive in New Zealand).  Yet when we out wandering around, I wanted to buy a small jar of mayonnaise for $4 for sandwiches since we were just buying groceries from the store.

She balked at that.  “I don’t want to waste $4 on a jar of mayonnaise that we’ll have to throw out!”

“Right,” I said.  “We spend $500 on a car yet $4 on mayo is a waste of money.  Uh huh.”

Like that makes sense.

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One of the great things about Mint is how it tracks your spending.  How did I do against my goals in 2011?

Pretty good!

Here’s the pie chart of where my money went (cash withdrawals are lumped into Other):

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  • My goal in 2011 was to give more money to charity.  I didn’t have a goal other than I wanted to give more.  While it didn’t constitute 10% of my income, it did comprise 10% of my spending.

    The problem is that Gifts – to people – is lumped into charitable donations.  That overstated my charitable giving which I don’t like.  I may have to find another category to toss Gifts into.

    The good news here is that Charity and Gifts were my third largest expense!  I guess that shows where my priorities are.

  • Speaking of my priorities, Travel was my #2 expense.  However, business travel was lumped into that, and that things. 
  • Housing was my #1 cost which is no surprise, and Taxes (property tax) should be tossed into this.  The problem with housing is that it never goes down in price.  Except for me in 2012 because it will go down in price for a couple of reasons:

    1) I won’t have to pay to exercise an escape clause from renting my apartment.

    2) I won’t have to pay to have the roof of my condo redone since I already paid it in 2011.

  • The bulk of the remainder of my expenses were wedding expenses, health care costs and transportation.  There’s not a lot I can do about those.

Overall, my spending in 2011 was pretty good.  There’s some room for improvement but I have plans to work on them.

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We’ve all seen snow.  When water goes up into the atmosphere and it gets too cold, it falls as snow.  When it gets warm, it melts.  Easy, right?

But why does snow melt faster when it rains?  I always thought that the rain washes the snow away by breaking it up or something.  But as it turns out, one reason why rain helps snow melt is because when it falls and hits the snow, it creates a small amount of heat from the friction.  This heat helps to melt it faster.

I bet you learned something new today.

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The other day the wife asked me a question: what do people mean when they say that their home is an investment?

I said that people buy a house and make payments on it, and at the end of the loan period, the house has appreciated in value.  You take the price it is worth then and subtract  what you paid, and you’ve made money.  For example, if you buy a house for $200,000 and then sell it 30 years later for $400,000, you’ve doubled your money.

Or have you?

I did the math on this.  In order for you to make money, you have to subtract all of your costs.  Let’s assume the following:

Cost of house: $200,000
Down payment: 10% ($20,000)
Interest rate: 5%
Monthly payment: $966.28.

This means that over the course of the lifetime of the loan, you will have paid $167,860 in interest for a total cost of $367,860 (principal + down payment + interest).  This means that for your home to be worth that much, your house has to appreciate 2.1% per year for 30 years.  That’s not too bad.

But hold on a second, that’s not the total cost of your home.  If you toss in property taxes, which I estimate at 1% per year, then over 30 years you will pay $427,860.  To break even, your property must appreciate 2.6% per year.

But hold on a second, if you toss in homeowner dues (for a condo) of $300 per month, you will pay $535,860.  To break even, your property must appreciate 3.3% per year.

But hold on a second, if you toss in yearly maintenance, which I estimate at 1% of the property value, then over 30 years you will pay $595,860.  To break even, your property must appreciate 3.7% per year.

This means that in order for you to make money on your purchase of a house, your property must go up in value 3.7% per year.  What is real estate’s historical rate of appreciation?  About 4%.  This means that your investment returns a measly 0.3% per year.  That’s worse than a savings account.

The reason to buy a house is not because it’s a great investment; the reason to buy a home is because you want some place to live and call your own.  And do whatever you want to it.  It’s perfectly fine to own a home.

Just don’t overpay.

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Snow!

People in Seattle, or rather, Americans who are not used to snow, get very excited when it snows in Seattle.  I presume that they think that there will be mountains of white, fluffy powder and they can re-enact all the Christmas scenes that appear in the movies.

The problem is that while it did snow in Seattle this past weekend, it didn’t snow that much – not enough to get good sledding or skiing (for that you need to go into the mountains but then it doesn’t matter if it snows in Seattle because in the mountains it snows all winter).  It stays around the freezing point, perhaps a couple of degrees below it, and that transforms the snow into ice which makes it difficult to drive on.  This is worse in Seattle than Winnipeg because we have tons of hills.  Sure, Winnipeg drivers deal with snow 9 months a year, but at least the roads are mostly flat.

I was driving home yesterday and it was snowing.  On the drive, I had to make a left turn.  The turn was down at the bottom of a hill and I figured it might be slippery.  I signaled to get into that lane but as I did, I began to skid.  “Uh-oh,” I thought.  I wasn’t going very fast, maybe 28 miles per hour (the limit is 35 mph).  But as I shifted lanes, the car started to skid and drifted across and across.  I couldn’t regain control of the vehicle.  I was going to drift into the opposing lane of traffic.

But luckily, there was a concrete median in the middle of the road.  I hoped that I would regain control before I got there, but no such luck.  I bounced off the median with a thud, regained control of the vehicle and made my way home.

I got home and inspected the damage.  There was no visible damage but there was audible damage.  I heard a hissing sound and knew that the tire was going flat from a leak.

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Well, I guess that’s not too bad a problem.

I then proceeded to change the tire.  It was a lot of work to get it off because the lug nuts were on very tight.  Eventually I managed to get it off but I had to boost the car a bit higher with the jack because I could not get the spare tire on.  The car was still too low.

I adjusted the jack under the car and started moving it up, but after a few minutes I accidentally twisted the jack, it slipped out from under the and the front of my car came down with a thud.  In other words, I had no tire on the front of my car and the jack slipped, and the front of the car crashed down on the spot where the tire goes.

Great.

I got the jack out from under the car, twisted it down, and then reinserted it back under the car and raised it.  I was more careful this time and put the spare tire on and lowered the car.  It took a lot longer than I thought it would, but at least I changed the tire.

I took the car into the shop this morning and they fixed the tire (free of charge!) but I had to get a front-end alignment since I crashed into the side of the median.  $80 later, I’m road worthy. Unfortunately, my car now runs really loud.  I don’t know what the problem is, but something is definitely wrong.  I suspect it might be from the crashing-down-on-the-axle.  That’s going to cost some money.

That’s why I’m not a big fan of snow in Seattle.

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Recently, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, I was using Google Maps to look up my old home where I used to live in England.

The reason I was using Google Maps is because they have the street view.  I had forgotten about that but was zooming in to see the town.  I couldn’t go down my street in the street view, but I could go up and down the main road (the interface is hard to use, though, at least on a laptop touchpad).

Anyhow, I was going down the street, checking to see if any of the old places that I used to frequent were still around.  Most of the time, the answer was no.  The video store was closed.  The kebab place was closed.  The fried chicken place was closed.  Sigh.  I guess businesses move on.

But as I was going down the street, I recognized one place – Shoestrings!  Gasp!  It was open!

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Why am I so excited?  I don’t know!

Shoestrings was a takeout hamburger joint that I went to occasionally.  In the town where I lived (Chippenham), there was a McDonald’s but it was on the edge of town and took me 40 minutes to walk to.  There was also a Burger King but it was on the opposite end of town and would take me 50 minutes to walk to.  Ergo, my only option was Shoestrings.

I liked the burgers in Shoestrings.  You’d go in there, order a burger and they’d make it for you.  The fries, too.  There wasn’t much place to eat inside (as you can tell from the photo above) so I would usually take it home.  This wasn’t a problem because home was a two minute walk from Shoestrings.  I kind of miss that place.  The burgers were perfectly fine; they were as healthy as any other fast food place.

If I ever go back to Chippenham with the wife, we’re going to Shoestrings.

Just down the street from Shoestrings was a fish-and-chips place I used to go to.  I never learned the name of it, I just knew that it was owned by a Chinese couple.

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I still can remember (sort of) the first time I went in there.  It was January, 2001 (or possibly December 2000, I forget), and I got an order of fish-and-chips.  I can’t recall exactly what it was, but the person behind the counter threw in something extra.  It was a fried-something-or-other (it tasted good).  I didn’t go to this place very often over the next year, but each of the next five times I went there, the people behind the grill would always toss in something extra to my order.

Why did they give it to me?

I don’t know.  Maybe they liked my Canadianity.  Maybe they felt sorry for me because of my accent.  Or maybe they did it for everyone.  Either way, it felt pretty good getting free food from this place (that is, a little extra something when I went in there and got fish-and-chips).

Ah, the memories.

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Albert Einstein

Continuing on from my previous post, my brother disagreed with Time Magazine’s honor of Person of Century.  Just what were Einstein’s accomplishments?

Well, the one that my brother referred to is urging the president of the United States to start constructing a nuclear bomb because if they wouldn’t, the Germans would and would take over Europe.  Thus, without Einstein’s prodding that may not have occurred.

Yet Einstein’s biggest accomplishments predate that.  Einstein won the Nobel Prize not for the Theory of Relativity, but his discovery of the photoelectric effect.  The photoelectric effect is when you shine light on a metal plate, electrons are released (i.e., you can electricity if you shine light on metal).  Einstein’s theory was that electromagnetic radiation had to be thought of as a series of particles, called photons.  Previously, it was thought that light was only a wave and had no mass.  But, Einstein was correct; light does behave as a particle.  It’s weird.

Why should you care?  It’s because of the photoelectric effect that you are reading this.  Modern electronics use the photoelectric effect to generate electricity inside your computer, and it is also used by semiconductors.  This theory has been built upon by science for the entire 20th century.  It is one of the major underpinnings of our society.

But the one that Einstein is most known for is the theory of relativity.  You know this one, it is the famous E = mc2.  It means that mass can be converted into energy.  But more importantly, it changed our view of physics.  Whereas classical physics is interested in forces, springs, friction and so forth – Newtonian physics – modern physics shows that things can behave relativisitically.  As you approach the speed of light, the nature of reality changes.

From GPS navigation to nuclear energy, the theory of relativity is used by this.  I took a course in Modern Physics in my third year of engineering where I learned way more about this stuff.  I wish I could remember it.

But the weirdest thing about relativity is the way that speed is measured.  It is constant.  For example, if I am on a bus going 60 miles an hour and I toss a football at 20 miles an hour forward, to an observer the ball is moving at 80 miles an hour.  However, if the person on the bus shines a beam of light, and a person on the side of the road shines a beam of light, the speed of that beam of light remains constant – 186,000 miles per second.  The extra 60 miles per hour of the person on the bus doesn’t matter.

This new understanding of physics had profound implications and it was a major step forward in science.  Like I said, it affects to this day. 

Thus, because of Einstein’s understanding of these two phenomenon, I give the award to Einstein.  His discoveries affected the way people live and the way people understand the world.  Hitler’s motivations were political, and he changed the way people lived for a time… but Einstein will change the way people live forever.

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Person of the century

My brother recently wrote an article entitled Person of the Century.  In it, he refers to Time Magazine’s recent contest for who they thought was the most influential person of the 20th century.  The finalists were Franklin Roosevelt (FDR), Albert Einstein, Adolf Hitler, and Mohatma Gandhi.  Time eventually picked Einstein.

Time’s criteria for finalists is not whether the person affected the world in a positive way, but rather, the magnitude of what they did, for good or bad.  My brother disagreed with the pick of Einstein.  Instead, Hitler had the most profound effect on the citizens of the 20th century.

Whereas Einstein was involved in the Manhattan Project, developed by the United States to end the second world war, Hitler is the one that caused Einstein to write to FDR to start working on it.  Had he not, the Germans would have gotten it first and would have won World War II.  But even then, other scientists were skilled and talented enough to work on it without Einstein.  He’s hardly that influential.

Franklin Roosevelt entered the war and turned the tide of the war, but only because Hitler started it.  Had Hitler not been around, FDR’s footprint in history would have been much lighter. Thus, the other major players were only there because they were reacting to events started by someone else. 

I disagree with this assessment and think that Time’s choice was the correct one.

While it is true that Hitler influenced events of geopolitics, he did not define them.

Regarding FDR

The United States, at various times in its history, has had an isolationist foreign policy.  They don’t want to meddle into other countries’ affairs.  This was their stance in World War 1 and their stance in World War 2.  In both cases, they were dragged into the war.

Yet Roosevelt’s actions eclipse more than just the war.  The US was brought into the war because they were bombed by Japan at Pearl Harbor, but Japan bombed the US because they (incorrectly) believed that the US was going to cut off its its supply routes in the Pacific.  Thus, their attack was a pre-emptive strike based upon their perceived strength of the US.  Clearly, the US was already a rising superpower.

FDR also launched numerous other initiatives that are with us to this day.  In 1941, most of the western countries agreed to take part in the Bretton Woods agreement.  Bretton Woods, at its heart, was the US saying that they would allow other countries access to its consumer market in exchange for them agreeing to use the US dollar as its de facto currency, which was pegged to the price of gold.  In effect, the US said “We will allow you to make money off of all our rich citizens.  In exchange, we control your money supply.”  This agreement still works today.  Did you ever wonder why the US can’t push around Iran or Russia?  It’s because neither country is part of Bretton Woods.

In addition, FDR launched the New Deal which redefined economic theory up to this very day.  The New Deal was a bunch of government spending projects designed to get the nation working until the Depression was over.  It was founded upon the philosophy of John Maynard Keynes.  This is an economic philosophy that is the dominant one in the world today, and it used by every single nation in the world.  It started under FDR in the US and we still feel its influences.

Finally, under FDR, we started Social Security.  This is the program that takes care of the elderly and it is facing massive shortfalls today.  At the time, the system worked.  As people started living longer and longer and people started having fewer and fewer kids, the implications of this program would have ramifications across the world.

Note how this is linked to Bretton Woods.  Other countries depend on the US’s huge consumer market.  If the countries that are part of Bretton Woods can’t sell their stuff, they are in serious trouble.

Thus, FDR wasn’t just reacting to Hitler in World War II, his accomplishments (well, actions) also encompass economic policy independent of that.  He wasn’t just about the war.

More in my next post.

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11 years ago, in 2001, I was living and working in England for a company called Lucent Technologies.  My title was Graduate Engineer, but to this day I can only barely remember what I did while I was there.  As I recall, I worked on a new cell phone network using 3G technology which at the time was the newest and greatest cellular communication protocol. 

I got the job after a couple of telephone interviews – one with a recruiter, and another with the two people from Lucent itself (one of whom would later turn out to be my boss).  I don’t know how they got my resume but I must have posted it on a job website somewhere.  I had the interview in August 2000, but didn’t get the work visa until December.  I started work in January, 2001.

They didn’t have a lot of work for me to do when I was there for much of the time.  There were times when I was busy, but more often than not, I was not.  But I still managed to fill my time.  Towards the end of my term, things started to pick up.  I was as meticulous back then as I am now, although I was probably a better programmer then than I am now.

In August of 2001, this was during the dot com bust.  If you don’t remember, during the 1990’s the stock market went on an incredible run up in anticipation of Y2K.  In March 2000, the Nasdaq topped.  People didn’t fully grasp the magnitude of the decline, and the market went down for two and a half years.  It was not a good time to be in tech.

And my team was no different.  Rumors started floating that the company was getting into financial trouble, and they were thinking of cutting the team that was developing our product.  There was a team in the United States (where Lucent’s head office was based); in England (Swindon, to exact); in Paris, France; and in Munich, Germany.  I really wasn’t all that concerned but figured I would be alright.  After all, things were tough but they weren’t that tough.  Weren’t they?

We got the news at the end of August.  Our entire team was being let go and our work was shifting to France.  Even though the cost per employee was less for us than other teams, ours was still the team to be let go.  Yet I took the news in stride.  I didn’t feel that affected by the decision.  I figured I would be okay.

I remember that the French team flew over and they spent a week there as we transitioned the work over to them.  I think the best work I ever did while at the company was explaining to the French engineers the stuff I was working on and ensured that they knew how to pick it up.  I was really proud of the way I professionally handed off the work.

But there was another story brewing.  It’s not often that an entire team of engineers is let go.  Rumors started flying that another company might be interested in picking up our entire team.  It made sense; we knew each other, had a lot of technical acumen and could easily pick up where we left off.  The team was perfectly functional, we were just a victim of the economic times.

The other company (I forget what they were called so I will make one up: Lennar) came to the office and conducted interviews with everyone on the team.  I vaguely recall this, but I think it went okay.  I was pretty confident that things would work out.

I continued to interview during the month of September, but I secretly held out hope that everything would turn out fine.  Eventually I would be picked up by another company.  I had to be because if I didn’t, my visa would expire and I would have to leave the country.

We were told at the end of August that our jobs would be finished at the end of September.  Some employees never came back into work.  Others took vacation for the last two weeks.  I went in right until the end.  I had nothing better to do.  The entire time I held out hope that something would come up, and I was counting on this team transfer.

Then, on September 29, 2001, my former boss sent around an email to all of us who were looking at this option.  The news was not good – Lennar was not going to hire us. 

That hit me like a ton of bricks.  All of a sudden I realized “What am I going to do now?”

I don’t know why I had so much hope for this team transfer.  Maybe I thought it represented my best chance?  I thought that maybe if I couldn’t get hired on my own merit (I only had 9 months experience and a prospective employer had to sponsor a work visa), maybe I could ride on the coat tails of others. When I got news in August that we were finished, I shrugged it off.  But I couldn’t shrug off this news.  For the first time since moving to England, I didn’t know what I was going to do.  And I started to worry.  I was worried that I couldn’t get a job on my own merits due to my lack of experience, work visa expense and worsening economy.  And then I would have to return to Canada.  Because I would be forced to leave the country and not returning when I wanted to, this would be a defeat.  Can’t I survive on my own?

It’s hard to describe the feeling I felt.  The blood drains from your face and your stomach tightens, and you have butterflies in the stomach.  You become tense because your body reacts to the stress.  It was like getting really bad news and then the reality sets in.  That’s what it felt like, and it didn’t feel good.

September 30 came and passed, and on Monday, October 1, I was out of a job.  I didn’t have to go to work. 

I sympathize with the plight of today’s unemployed.  I am thankful that today I am in a much better situation than I was back then.  It’s not something I would wish upon anyone.

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Did you hear the latest news?  The US and Israel are increasing pressure on Iran to sabotage their nuclear power plants which pretty much the whole world believes is being to create a nuclear weapon.

Negotiations have failed so far, and so have international economic sanctions.  What else is going on?

  • In 2009, the US and Israel worked together on a project to create a computer virus called Stuxnet to infect the Natanz enrichment plan in Iran.  Stuxnet was a very clever piece of code, it spun canisters around too fast inside the power plant, rendering the uranium useless and damaging the spinning canisters (which are difficult to replace).  Furthermore, the virus showed to the scientists watching the meters that everything was just fine.  When things broke down, nobody would know why because the virus covered its tracks.

    Unfortunately, the virus was discovered and patched.  Iran was ticked off and their nuclear program was set back about a year… but the total amount of damage was nowhere close to what it could have been had it not been discovered.

  • In January 2010, a bomb-rigged motorcycle exploded near the car of a senior physics professor.

  • In November 2010, a pair of back-to-back bomb attacks in different parts of the capital killed another nuclear scientist and wounded one more.  The slain scientist, Majid Shahriari, was a member of the nuclear engineering faculty at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran and co-operated with the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The wounded scientist, Fereidoun Abbasi, was almost immediately appointed head of Iran’s atomic agency.

  • In July 2011, motorcycle-riding gunmen killed Darioush Rezaeinejad, an electronics student. Other reports identified him as a scientist involved in suspected Iranian attempts to make nuclear weapons.

  • Today (January 11, 2012), Motorcycle riders flashed by and attached a magnetic bomb onto a car carrying a nuclear scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemistry expert and a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

You know, I’m beginning to think that working at that place provides pretty poor job security.  I don’t think it’d be worth the money that the Iranian government is paying.

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Dang it, I can’t seem to pronounce the words “Irish Wristwatch.”

Can you?

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Seafood

Growing up, I was never a big fan of seafood.  Sure, I liked getting popcorn shrimp from Red Lobster, or sometimes we had fishsticks for dinner (they were alright but they were never my favorite), but overall, I didn’t care for fish all that much.  Given a choice between taking it or leaving it, I usually left it.  This was true for all types of fish except for shrimp.

Fast forward a decade and I am discovering my tastes are changing.  While I still enjoy shrimp, I have expanded my enjoyment to other types of sea-faring creatures.

I was never that big a fan of salmon.  I always thought it was okay.  However, my mother-in-law makes it and there is always a bit of fried skin on it, and I think it’s fantastic!  Even better, the wife doesn’t like the skin of the fish which means whenever we both eat it, I get to consume it all!  What a deal!

I also enjoy cod.  I can’t recall consuming much cod when I was younger, but both the wife and my mother-in-law make it, too.  No matter who makes it, I like it.  It goes down well.  I’m not sure what other types of fish I like because whenever we go to Fred Meyer, we only ever get two types.  I’m trying to convince the wife to get halibut next time.  Just to try it.

On the other hand, not all seafood has the pleasure of pleasing my palate.  I never liked tuna, and I still don’t like tuna.  If I ever have to eat a tuna sandwich, or a tuna salad, or straight up tuna, I skip it.  I do not like tuna at all.

Another type of seafood that I don’t like is crab.  Crab looks visually appealing, especially when it’s still in the claw.  Yet whenever I eat it, I don’t like the taste.  I can’t get into it.

The type of seafood that is overrated is lobster.  People always picture lobster as this great food.  “Oooh, I’ll steak and lobster!”  “Oh, I’d like some champagne and lobster!”  The problem is that it doesn’t taste that good.  It’s just meh.  The reason people like lobster is because of all the butter that restaurants put on it.  I like the butter on it, too, but take that away and you have a very plain meat.

Finally, octopus and squid are on my “Do Not Eat” list.  Those are really chewy and squishy, and I don’t like squishy things in my mouth.  I can’t get over the heebie-jeebie factor of octopus and squid. 

That’s my view on seafood.

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I saw a short video produced by IBM that made a bunch of predictions of what technological shifts will occur in five years time.  One of them was that the digital divide would be eliminated. 

By “digital divide” they mean the gaps between people in the first world and in the developing world.  The video said that by 2016, 80% of the world’s people would have cell phones.  They could use these devices to look up things like when a doctor was coming to town, or check weather forecasts in order to grow crops.  The impression you are left with is “Wow!  People’s lives in those countries are going to get better with technology!”

I find these predictions optimistic.

It’s not that I don’t think that people will not improve their lives somewhat with these phones, but rather that the gap is sooooo wide right now and when technology improves our lives, it’s usually the lives of people who already have a high standard of living.

For example, this past week I watched a video on the world’s toilet problem.  Huh?  Toilet problem?  It was put on by Current TV’s Vanguard series (not the mutual fund company) which is an investigative reporting show.  In that episode, the reporter went to India and Indonesia and talked about the problem of open defecation.  That’s putting it mildly; in their words, there was shit everywhere.

People would walk out to a stream and empty their bowels into the stream, or into the field, and there was crap everywhere like a barnyard.  The reason they do it is because they don’t have access to proper toilets and they don’t understand the connection between excrement and hygiene (i.e., it gets into their drinking supply).  Their drinking water is mixed in with this sh*tty water and because of this, disease is rampant.  Entrepreneurs are trying to reverse this trend, and it has helped somewhat.

But here’s the thing – 40% of the world’s population does not have access to good plumbing and toilets.  40%!  Holy sh*t! (no pun intended)

Us humans need access to clean plumbing more than we need access to cell phones.  Sure, we can talk to our friends but our immune systems and bodies need clean water and bacteria-less fluids more than we need cell phones.  Our bodies first need to survive, then we can make our lives better.  Access to basic sanitation is one of those prerequisites.

That’s why I am skeptical about IBM’s prediction.  If 40% of the world doesn’t have access to basic living conditions that are needed to survive, giving them a cell phone isn’t going to make it any better.  Being infected with dysentery or diarrhea is a serious drain on a population.

And the thing is that cell phones are cheap, whereas access to clean drinking water requires major investments in infrastructure.  You have to dig a well, install plumbing, install sewers, and then maintain that well, plumbing and sewers until the end of time.  That requires a lot of money and skilled labor.

So you see, big predictions about digital divides closing gaps between haves and have nots are overstated.  The have nots need to get a lot of things in order before they can start catching up.  In the meantime, the head start that the haves already have gets bigger and bigger.

I like IBM’s optimism, but not their realism.

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Last year, I wrote that I had a great year blogging.  In 2010, I wrote 209 posts on my work blog and 194 on this one for a total of 403.  In 2011, I wrote 126 posts on my work blog (a decrease of 40%) and on this one 163 (a decrease of 16%) for a total of 279.  That is less than one post per day.  Let’s see how I have done historically:

Year Work blog posts Personal blog posts Total posts
2011 126 163 279
2010 209 194 403
2009 157 142 299
2008 185 168 353
2007 164 133 297

As you can see from the table, 2011 was the year I wrote less than any other year (I excluded 2006 because I started my work blog in July and my personal blog in September so I don’t have a full year’s worth of data).  But, I did write more on my personal blog than any other year.

Sometimes I get writer’s block, and sometimes I get a little burned out from writing so much.  But I do try to post as much as possible because I find the experience cathartic and it does improve my writing skills.

At the rate that I am going, I will write my 2000th post sometime in 2012.  That’ll be exciting, there’s very few things that I have deliberately done voluntarily 2000 times.

Here’s to a year filled with at least 150 posts!

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