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Archive for August, 2016

Each year the wife and I try to give a certain amount of money to various charities. In each of the past five years I have managed to give more than the previous year. As it stands now in 2016 we are way behind but hopefully we will catch up in the remaining four months; the reason we are behind is because we have been throwing so much extra money at the mortgage on my place. Truth be told, I may not hit my goal this year.

Anyhow, I spread my money around with a lot of different charitable organizations based upon my perception of their need, and if I am interested in what they are doing.

The problem is that these charities don’t keep my information private. Somehow, they leak their information to other charities because I get lots of advertisements in the mail asking for money. These places guess – correctly – that if you give to one place you’ll probably give to another. While that’s true in my case that I am more likely to give to another, I have never given any money to a charity that has contacted me via mail for the first time. In fact, if I could figure out who selling my information, I’d stop giving them money. I basically just toss all their requests for money unopened into the recycling.

For example, I gave money to the National Parks and they send me stuff every month. They gave me a membership card that gives me absolutely zero benefits – it doesn’t even get me into the parks even though I gave them $500! It’s just a card that says “I’m a member.” I get this about once a month, along with a request for more money. I remember the first time I got it, I read through the benefits. After scanning it for five minutes I said “Wait, so this doesn’t get me into the parks? Then why are you sending this to me!”

Furthermore, the past couple of years I have given to a local organization that came to my attention because a friend worked there. In each of 2014 and 2015, I gave $1000. I guess that was a sizeable amount because in one of those years they phoned me up personally to thank me for it. The truth is that I set aside a certain amount of money each year to donate; I’m no hero, I took from my giving budget and gave to them.

Yet now they keep following up with me, emailing me to meet up in person, and sometimes calling me, too. I decline to take the calls and I don’t respond via email. The request is to meet up for coffee or something. I don’t respond because I am concerned they will try to get me to take on more responsibility for their organization, whereas I prefer to make myself feel good about myself by giving to a good cause. That’s all.

I’m thoroughly tempted to give out a fake address when I donate online, and even a fake phone number, and a disposable email address so I know who leaks my contact information. The fact is that there are a lot of worthwhile organizations out there, I only have so big a budget, and I am forced to pick and choose.

Your personalized return address stickers are very nice, but it’s okay, you can save the money from fundraising and instead direct it to actually doing what you say you do.

 

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I was talking to a co-worker the other day about how the US political system – well, the political commentary – is all about the personality of the person running it. For example, a few weeks ago Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton named Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate (for Vice President). I was impressed with the choice; I’d read some of his answers on Quora and liked what he had to say. It turns out that in addition to being a US Senator, he was previously the Governor of the state of Virgina and previous to that, held several jobs in public service.

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Yet the response to Tim Kaine amongst the media is “He’s boring. He’s too boring.” I then look at all the media circus around Donald Trump, and he generates coverage by trying to stay in the headlines even though he is clearly totally incompetent when it comes to running for public office, especially the President of the United States.

In the US, it’s all about the glitter and sizzle.

Yet contrast this with the Scandinavian countries. Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway… these all have strong social safety nets, their citizens are well cared for, they have low crime rates, low rates of poverty, and regularly rank among the happiest in the world.

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But can you name the leader of even one of those countries?

I can’t. Because they have a system of government that prioritizes getting things done, and not on the larger-than-life personality.

To me, competence and results is so much more important than the flash and glitter. And Scandinavia gets results because that’s what is important to them. They don’t have the same culture which places being in the spotlight (narcissism) and personal fame as one of life’s goals.

Which brings me to Canada.

In October 2015, Canada elected Justin Trudeau as its Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Liberal party, and they replaced the ruling Conservatives who had been in power since 2006. Justin Trudeau is the son of Pierre Trudeau, one of Canada’s longest serving Prime Ministers who was in power during the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s.

While I don’t have a problem with Justin Trudeau, I do have a problem with the public image that he, and the media (and so many of my Facebook friends) have created around Trudeau – a cult of personality. There are stories of him giving mini-lectures on quantum physics; stories of him running into hikers while he himself is out on vacation; pictures of him doing yoga poses; and so forth.

There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things… except that it creates a cult of personality around a single individual and leads us (Canada) down the path of American-style personality-politics which revels in the glitter, instead of northern European-style system-oriented, results-oriented politics.

I like Justin Trudeau, I probably would have voted for him; but I do not like the overly friendly media personality that pushes how “cool” he is. The media (and my Facebook friends) are contrasting him to the previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper – “look at how hip and with it the new guy is, and look at how stodgy and uptight the old guy ways.” That’s wrong, by constantly preaching to us how great a guy the Prime Minister is, it weakens the role of the press that is supposed to hold politicians accountable. Yes, I know you like his policies, but your job is not to reinforce his image. The government’s job is to create a system that works for all Canadians. By crafting a public image that he’s a cool guy undermines your responsibility, and it sets us up for problems down the road for the next guy.

Look at Fox News – they are unbashedly Republican, and they are derelict in their duty of whole heartedly supporting Donald Trump and his plethora of bad ideas. That’s what you get when the media is more concerned with protecting the brand than being responsible to the public.

If this guy has a cult of personality, what happens when the next guy learns from this guy and creates his own cult? The fierce partisanship of US politics should be a warning to Canada, and the press must not play a role in that.

It’s too late for us Americans. But Canada, there’s still time for us to save ourselves!

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It’s been about 9 months since we got Esmerelda (Zelda), a young kitten that we brought home to go with our existing cat Ruby.

I wrote about her personality back in January. To summarize, at the time I said she was Vocal (completely true), Active, Playful, Likes being held (completely true) and Needy (unbelievably true). She liked to be near your face and would climb over her littermates to do it.

Well, that was then and this is now.

Zelda is still Active and Playful, but she no longer likes being held, and she is no longer needy. If I am in the living room, she used to come and sit on my lap. She doesn’t do it anymore. Similarly, she used to have to be around us all the time but now she is quite independent and is fully capable of hanging out by herself. Indeed, there are a lot of evenings where I don’t see her at all until later on.

 

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But there’s one thing that Zelda doesn’t seem to like – not knowing where people are in the house. If I ever go to the bathroom and close the door so she can’t get in, she’ll sit outside the door and even meow sometimes. She also does this with the wife. If you (that is, the wife’s mother) ever locks her in a bedroom somewhere, she’ll start meowing within 60 seconds. Ruby, by contrast, just hangs out by herself and is perfectly fine.

In fact, one day I went outside into the back yard and started working at trimming some trees. Zelda came downstairs, walked around the basement (the screen door was closed but the glass door was open) and started meowing. Not just meowing, but MEOW’ing. “MEOW! MEOW! MEOW!” Over and over again!

I had to walk over there and say “Zelda! I’m right here!” I then opened the door and gave her a rub-down. After that she was fine.

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That’s not the first time. One time, me and Ruby were upstairs in the bedroom and I was working on something magical. Zelda was downstairs in the basement or living room and started meowing. “MEOW! MEOW! MEOW!” I then called out “Zelda! We’re up here!”

I waited, and 15 seconds later Zelda walked in and flopped down on the carpet, content that she had found everyone.

So while she doesn’t like to be held anymore (she actively resists it) and she isn’t all that needy, she’s still vocal under a few circumstances.

She’s growing up, but not quite.

 

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I’ve always considered myself a reasonably savvy financial investor. I’ve read plenty of self-help books on the matter and for the most part, I’ve followed their advice.

I got into stock trading over 10 years ago and in the 5 years that I did it, I came to one important lesson – don’t try to trade stocks on your own; instead, focus on passive investing. I learned this because unless you’re doing it full time, it’s hard to do it better than simply passive investing.

I got into real estate investing also because of reading books on the subject. I made my first real estate investment in 2008 and it turned out to be a total disaster. However, now that the wife and I are married, we have a separate real estate investment that is profitable. In 4-6 months after my place is paid off, we will have a second one.

That means we will be completely debt free.

And leads me to uncertainty about what to invest in next. Because I don’t know. There’s a certain desire to simply spend the money on frivolous things, but we all know I am not going to be doing that, and I won’t sign off on the wife doing it either. I feel like I have a bunch of options:

  • I could just invest passively in the stock market. But, I don’t like the wild swings up and down. And, while it’s liquid, the fact is that I just buy-and-hold and I do like the monthly income that real estate has. There also are few tax advantages of owning stocks. But, I’ve read that stocks give you better returns than any other asset class.

  • We could buy more real estate. UGH! Neither the wife nor I are big fans of owning real estate, even though we’re starting to get pretty good at it.

  • I have thought about investing in HomeUnion. This is a real estate investment platform where you put up the money to buy a place, and they manage it all for you. That’s tempting, so very tempting. But not particularly liquid if things go bad.

  • I have thought about investing in FundRise which is a real estate crowdfunding site that sells eREITs. eREITs are like regular real estate investment trusts except with better returns and poorer liquidity (you can’t get out whenever you want but only at certain times, and I think you may sacrifice some returns if you do).

  • I have thought about investing in other real estate crowdfunding that specializes in commercial property. These are websites like RealtyShares, and apparently you get some of the tax advantages of owning real estate. But again, I’m not sure how to get out if things go wrong. And do I want to be that tied to real estate? The other downside is that I have to prove I am an accredited investor (which means we have a net worth of $1 million, or make $250,000 year as a couple).

  • I have thought about investing in a stock called Realty Income Corp, ticker symbol ‘O’. I’ve run across this multiple times, it has increased its dividend every year for 15 years and has consistently gone up in value. Plus, it’s 100% passive. But do I want to have that much money in real estate? And stocks have no tax advantages so I’d be getting a little bit of money each month which I’d just re-invest, but then get taxed on it each year.

So you see, I feel like I have this mental pressure to do something with extra money to invest otherwise I’m just wasting it. But I feel like these new crowdfunding platforms are so new that there’s way too much risk involved.

I am paralyzed with indecision.

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Yesterday, the wife and I went hiking to Indian Bar, a 15-mile, 4250 foot elevation gain on the south side of Mt. Rainier, about a 2.5 hour drive from where we live. That was a difficult hike, 15 miles isn’t easy and with all the elevation gain, we were glad to be done.

The road to Mt. Rainier is paved the entire way. However, the route is not fast because you pass by several towns along the way and the max speed limit is 35-45 miles per hour (mph) most of the way, with short sections at 50 mph.

But once you get past some of the towns, there’s about 40 miles of wilderness driving where the road is only a single lane. Because the road is windy with lots of turns and twists, it’s hard to pass cars in front of you.

And this is where we encountered this dangerous driver.

We were coming back from the hike, leaving around 6:45 pm. We had to come down from the entry way (road #1), then take a road to the main connecting road (#2), and then connect again with the low-speed highway leading up to the freeway (road #3). It was on road #2 that we met this weird driver.

We came to a row of five cars in front of us, with a red car (a Toyota Corolla) in front of us. This is the driver that was driving erratically.

For you see, he was holding up all the cars behind him. He was driving 5-10 minutes below the speed limit the entire time, and I could tell that each of the three cars in front of me were frustrated. They kept pulling out to pass but couldn’t because of the double-lines preventing passing, and winding roads that don’t provide enough visual range to see if it’s safe to pass.

This guy would speed up and slow down, speed up and slow down. He did this over and over. I kept having to tap my brakes again, as did all the cars in front of me. Eventually the row of four cars behind him became a row of 8 cars behind him.

And he continued to go below the speed limit, and continued to cause everyone behind him to tap his brakes.

Now, this road to Mt. Rainier is a winding road and it’s hard to pass, but there are lots of places to pull over. It’s a touristy area and a hiking area so there are lots of places to park on the side of the road, or pull over if you’re moving slowly. This is on either side of the road.

This guy passed 10 different pullouts on the side of the road, and pulled out into exactly zero of them. He was clearly 100% oblivious to the fact that he was being a bad, inconsiderate driver. He just kept driving along, driving poorly, causing the rest of us to keep second guessing what he was going to do next. When I go slow, I will pull over and give other drivers a chance to pass. Not this guy, he just kept right on going, dangerously holding up the flow of driving with his erratic style.

This continued for about 20 miles. Maybe even 25.

Finally, finally we hit a clear stretch. The first car passed. The second one did, too. Then the third. Then we passed. And all the cars behind us, too. I didn’t get a good look at the driver because I was focusing on passing him, I accelerated a lot because as I said, it’s not easy to pass on this road.

After we settled back into our lane, everything went much smoother. We travelled at a much higher speed but it was much safer; there was no slow down and speed up, and there was no brake tapping. I wasn’t worried about crashing into the car in front of me anymore, I could actually concentrate on driving instead of wondering why the lead car was so bad at this task.

It was so much better. I calmed down and breathed a sigh of relief.

So that’s what we did yesterday.

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