Saturday, January 30, 2021

Powerful Fools are Dangerous Fools; Bring on the Wellerman [TPaS0]


It used to be that I wrote regularly.  Ideas would bounce around in my head, and the only way to get some respite was to put my thoughts in writing.  It would seem that as I've aged and achieved more meaningful work that I have less mental real estate for writing, and the ideas that bounce around my head are technical and not as good for a broad audience.  I still think Rh could make for a good internal standard for ICP-OES, but that's another topic for another day.

So as it gets farther between posts, the world changes, and my life changes, I'm not sure there's as much purpose for a blog like this.  I care, and agree, so much less with what I've written in the past (particularly my attitudes towards proper citation, jeez).  Much of what I've written now strikes me as having been written by a younger, more naive man.  But then January 2021 happens, and I know that writing will help.

2016 was a rough year for me.  I watched two improbable back-to-back elections that reflected a world and a mindset that I didn't know existed.  The Brexit election was followed by Trump's election and the "alt right" was either born or emboldened.  I saw neither coming.  

"Why," I asked, "would the UK separate from an organization that creates and enforces the trade rules that the UK will necessarily be governed by?  Why voluntarily surrender votes in an organization that governs your largest trading partners?"

Well, why does anyone do anything?

Britons were tired of listening to experts.  They wanted to fund the NHS instead of the EU, so much so, that they wrote it on a bus.  And strangest of all, people I knew and whose opinions I deeply respect agreed.  I heard that it was about time, and they'd been getting shafted for years.

It was also in this period immediately following the Brexit vote that we found ourselves at the beginning of a four year slog.  The morning after, the day of the video linked above, suddenly the rhetoric from people like Farage softened.  Prime Minister after Prime Minister fell, as did every attempted deal, until finally. Finally.  They reached a deal that the EU could accept, which maintained most of what the EU wanted, because they were by far the Goliath in the trade negotiations.  Meanwhile, r/leopardsatemyface was brought to my attention, where people relished in the schadenfreude of those who proclaimed "this isn't the Brexit I voted for!"

To be clear, I think the UK will be all right in the longer term.  Right now there are shortages of fresh vegetables on shelves, truckers are facing massive border delays, and fortunes will be accrued and lost as a new reality imposes itself.  But people will live, love, and die just as they always have.  It's just a sudden, and baffling change.


"Donald Trump Rally 10/21/16" by Michael Candelori Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Trump election was unexpected, but not ruled out by the best pollsters.  Five thirty eight described the narrow path that would need to be navigated to win the electoral college, and, as the night wore on, every state he needed was won by the Republicans.

I wasn't happy about the rhetoric, or the track record of Trump the businessman, but I thought that the Republican braintrust would surround him and keep him out of trouble.  What worried me was the elements of society that were emboldened.  Posters were seen in Toronto that set off alarm bells in my mind.  Rachel Notley and Catherine McKenna faced death threats.  All it seems to take is economic hardship and a leader who tells you whom to blame.

And despite a presidency where his approval rating could never reliably breach the 50% ceiling, an insurrectionist mob eventually marched on the US Capitol with the objective of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election.  They were fuelled by their thought leaders spewing mistruths that didn't hold up to scrutiny.  They were fuelled by a conspiracy theory whose mouthpieces, when nothing panned out, told them to basically remember all the friends they'd made along the way.

It happened because rhetoric has consequences.

"Doug Ford Getting Grilled After a Debate" by Alex Guibord is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

And let's not forget this guy.  During the second and deadlist wave (so far, I guess), of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Ford offered nothing but rhetoric.  Concerned about the health of businesses, he allowed local lockdowns to be to solution as case counts continued to rise from October of 2020 into the end of the year.  Even as it became clear that people were leaving locked down areas in order to do their holiday shopping.  And finally, after the case count was fully out of control and ICU capacity was threatened, Ford announced that urgent action was needed (on December 21st), and that the province would lock down after Christmas.  

Because when a pandemic is threatening the capacity of your health care system, it's important to give people a 5 day window to get their shopping and holiday gatherings in.

As cases continued to climb, because of course they did, Ford offered the ferocity of an 800-lb gorilla, lauded the success of curfews in other jurisdictions while saying he wouldn't enforce one despite everything being "on the table".

I don't envy having those decisions to make, and Ford has stated that he's trying to keep businesses afloat, but people are dead because of the lack of province-wide restrictions.  A reluctance to close businesses has led to case counts so high that they'll be forced closed for an indefinite period.  I'll let that sink in.

The common thread here: powerful fools are dangerous fools.  Our time has become harder than it needs to be because politicians overestimated their ability, underestimated the importance of experts (you know, the people who dedicate their lives to understanding things), and in one case, were elected without putting forward a costed platform.  

As a brief aside, let's just remember that it was a platform that included a court challenge to the federal carbon tax. A challenge to oppose the Federal government's authority to levy a tax on its citizens. God, how I miss a time when that was the biggest issue in the news.

If we truly want to strive for a better future, we need to think critically about what politicians tell us, think critically about the news and the facts we consume, and we desperately need to ensure that our institutions are able to withstand the onslaught of powerful fools.  Roman institutions withstood Nero, Caligula, and Commodus, (just to name a few), and staved off the only thing worse than a tyrant: a power vaccuum.  We may need our minds and our institutions to weather similar.

*  *  *


I have long disliked think-pieces.  It's the ramblings of any given mind, shrouded in enough nonsense and polysyllabic words to lend an air of credence.  Granted, it yields clicks, enough attention for ad revenue, but is ultimately masturbatory from an intellectual standpoint.  And I've wanted to write a few intentionally stupid ones for a while now.  My own brand of stupid nonsense follows, the 0th edition of 'Think Pieces are Stupid'.

Like many of you, a little under 20 days ago, I came across the video from this post.  It follows the progression from skepticism to full embrace of The Wellerman by The Longest Johns.  It has since taken the world by storm. But why?

For an answer, we'll turn to the lyrics, and see that the song is about 2020.  An early verse starts:

    She had not been two weeks from shore,

    When down on her a right whale bore...

We hadn't been in 2020 that long (well, China was already in it by then), when down on us bore the right whale that is the pandemic.  But in response:

    The Captain called all hands and swore,

    He'd take that whale in tow (Hah!)

Our leaders (and we, more broadly), swore that we would fight the pandemic, that we would eradicate it.  No matter how expertly formed the grooves in our couches would need to be, we committed to it.  Not just for fun or sport, but in response to a virus that threatened about 2% of the 70% or so of us that experts estimated would be infected.  The verse closes with the singers collectively denoting their enthusiasm for the cause, just as we all did in March.

But the fight continued, and continues.

    For forty days, or even more,

    The line went slack, then tight once more,

    All boats were lost, there were only four,

    But still that whale did go (Hah!)

Forty days in biblical/older language refers to "a long time," and indeed, it's been going for a good long while.  The lines went slack in the summer in Canada, when case counts were low, but it's definitely tight as the pandemic rages through the two most populous provinces, and with continued news of riots abroad.

    As far as I've heard, the fight's still on;

    The line's not cut and the whale's not gone,

    The Wellerman makes his regular call,

    To encourage the Captain, crew, and all.

And this is where we find ourselves.  COVID-19 is not gone, we're still warned that there might be bouts of civil unrest, the fight is indeed still on.  But who is the Wellerman referenced?  The answer is in the chorus.

    Soon may the Wellerman come,

    To bring us sugar, and tea, and rum,

    One day when the tonguin' is done,

    We'll take our leave and go.

Supply ships owned by the Weller Brothers (based in New Zealand), would presumably supply whaling ships in the Pacific.  And sugar, tea, and rum are certainly welcomed by tired people, let alone sailors.  Tonguing was some of the earliest butchering done to a whale once it was brought to shore.  But only after the whale has been taken in tow, a promise made earlier in the song.

And that's where we are, and what we're doing.  We're waiting for supplies of good news, of vaccines, of calm, of normalcy.  One day, one day that seems so far away from us right now, on the day of the eradication of COVID-19, we can rest.  Perhaps even a day when dangerous fools no longer pervade the news and our screens. That's the day upon which we'll take our leave of this madness.

Until then we welcome all the sugar, tea, and rum we can get.

Until then, The Wellerman shall be our anthem.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Bank fees are killing your retirement savings.


For a long time now I've been on at least one podcast, and I've had an outlet for all my creative energy.  With the hiatus of Future Chat and East Meets West (this one is admittedly self-imposed), I suppose the time is now to get my thoughts written out so I can stop pestering those around me.

I want to start here by thanking both Planet Money and John Oliver, because listening to Brilliant vs. Boring and Retirement Plans will probably have saved me a couple hundred thousand dollars by the time I'm ready to retire.  Feel free to ditch this post in order to go and check those out, because it's far more enticing than text.

It was actually this past year that I was forced to start an RRSP, and that's when I dipped my toes into the wild world of retirement savings.  I asked about what my friends and co-workers were doing. What I learned was that the threat of fees is not at all common knowledge, and there are equally common misconceptions about the financial advisers that your bank probably offers.

In order to be as clear as possible, I want to go through a few points with you:

Your financial adviser is a sales person.

I once lived with a financial adviser.  Her university background was in the arts, and she took a course offered through her bank in order to be certified to sell mutual funds to her clients.  It was a good job for her.  She was friendly, multilingual, and she was able to afford a nice place in Calgary.

It's often assumed that your financial adviser went to school for business or economics, and is highly trained in these matters.  But they're not.  A bank has sales targets much like a retail store does, it's just the amount of money changing hands is much higher.  And the advice you'll receive is pretty easy to predict, depending on your situation.  In fact, many financial advisers will follow along with an automated process (generated by the bank they work for), in order to figure out what product to recommend to you.  In the case of some banks, they're looking at foregoing the meat bag adviser class altogether and just offering you the advice of the algorithm.

Fees are eating into your savings.

Now, since the bank needs both money for its investors and its workers, all this advice comes with a cost.  It's not a cost you'll be charged up front, or you'd notice as a deduction.  It's usually expressed as a Management Expense Ratio (MER), somewhere on the fact sheet for the mutual fund or portfolio you've chosen.  In the case of Canadian banks, they've probably generated a few index funds, then packaged together those funds in some proportion to create a balanced portfolio.

Quick aside: What's an index fund?  An index tracks something, you've probably heard of the S&P500 for the US market, or the TSX60 for the Canadian stock market.  An index fund just owns the stocks which constitute the index, and it's usually a better strategy than trying to beat, or outperform, the market.  I won't get into how that works here, you should just listen to Brilliant vs. Boring.

So those portfolios, in Canadian banks anyway, will probably come with a MER of roughly 2% on the discounted side of things.  It doesn't sound like much, but that's 2% of your entire savings every year, whether the value goes up or down.  That's right.  If the market takes a dive, the bank still collects its 2% on your money. 

There is a way around this.  Vanguard, effectively a financial co-op, offers a MER of 0.05% for its Canadian stock market index fund, and a little higher for its bond market index (there are other options in this price range, though they are not a co-operative structure).  If you're willing to do a couple hours (max), worth of learning, and perform the trades yourself once a year (and it's best not to touch it more than once or twice a year), you save 1.95% (minus about $10-$25 per trade, which is trivial for a fully funded retirement savings portfolio).  And I'll grant, 1.95% doesn't sound like much to have someone else deal with it for you, but let me present the difference that makes.  I'm assuming you've simply invested in the Canadian stock market, which returns an average of 7% or so per year, and you've decided to put aside $400 a month:

Years passedLow Fees (DIY)Bank FeesDifference
(I don't think the math is spot on here, but you get the idea)

In my case, I have about 30 some years to retirement, and the difference between self-management and bank fees is in the ballpark of over $200,000.  That's a lot of poutine.  It's probably living expenses for a few years, or a nice charitable donation once I've kicked the bucket.  If somehow you've been saving that much for 45 years, you could almost double what your savings with the bank would have been.

Don't try to beat the market.

...Unless you have a nice, stable, juicy pension.  Then have at 'er, it could be a lot of fun.  But if you're counting on the money being there, one company going bust could take a big chunk of your savings (Nortel, Enron, I'm looking at you), or you're paying too much in trading fees (which might be disguised as management fees).  Again, the Planet Money episode "Brilliant vs. Boring" does a great job of explaining this.

Don't be too conservative too early.

Granted, you'll want to really load up on bonds when you're getting close to retirement, or if you're saving and think you might need the money soon.  Bonds tend to fluctuate much less than stocks.  They also tend to go the opposite way of stocks, so they went up during the crisis in 2008, and they have been on the decline during the recent good years of the market.  But for the love of God, don't load up on them early in your saving years, because then you're sacrificing a lot of growth.  This is particularly true if you're in a fund-of-funds bank portfolio, where the MER represents the total of the return from your bonds.  Yes, Shaggy, I'm talking about you, and now the whole world knows that your portfolio is over-exposed in bonds.  How embarrassing for you.

Jack Bogle, for what it's worth, invented the index fund.  His adherents recommend owning your age as a percentage share in bonds.  That way you'll have a nice reliable amount of money when you're ready to retire, but have good income when you're younger.  I'm sure they'd also recommend VCN and VAB, traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

So there you have it.  The secret to robust retirement savings.  I'll accept payment in hearty handshakes, and visits to your retirement mansions that you purchased with your saved fees.

You may also feel free to feed me.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Paralyzed by Fear. [Creative Writing]

He froze.

He had always heard that time seems to slow in a crisis, in a life-and-death situation, but he hadn't experienced it until now.  He felt his pulse quicken, his breath become short, and noticed a shift in the lighting as his pupils dilated.

He had always loved his home city, the Festival City, Alberta's Capital City, The City of Champions.  But now instead of looking orderly and neat, the brutalist architecture seemed to be closing in on him, suffocating him, arresting his ability to move freely.

A chill fell over him as the car's once comfortable air conditioning met with his cold sweat.  At the same time, the world appeared to have frozen.  Nobody moved, cars idling, feet pressed hard on the brake pedal lest one move too quickly and become the snowflake which causes the avalanche.

They say that the difference between a mass of angry people and a riot can come down to one action.  Everyone will stand around until they hear glass shatter, until a smoke bomb hits, until a punch is thrown.  It is these tense moments which decide whether the morning will see peace, or the wake of an angry mob.

He strained his eyes, knowing that at some point he had heard of this exact scenario.  Some far off, distant memory that warps into vague flashes of recollection.  Grade school?  No.  A stern warning from his parents?  No, that couldn't be it.  A sermon told once upon a time?  Maybe.

His head cleared as adrenaline coursed through his veins, and he made his decision to act.  He edged the car forward.  Arcing slowly and deliberately to the left into what appeared to be an opening in the periphery of his vision; he didn't dare to take his eyes off of the horror that lay in front of him.

Clearing the standoff, he started to speed away, relaxing his now-noticeably white knuckles, and letting out a deep but quivering sigh.  In the back of his mind, he was wracked by the feeling he had somehow made a Faustian deal, but decided it would be worth seeing his family at least one more time.

He didn't know what demonic force had caused the traffic sign to display a green, left-pointing arrow, but he was glad it was over.  Mercifully, it was over.

Driving a lot in Edmonton recently,

Friday, January 29, 2016

My preferred voting system for Canada.

An Elections Canada sample ballot.  Source.

I'm going to start by saying that this one's for you, Jeff.  It's late, but it's still for you.

Given that there's been a seismic shift in Canadian politics since the last federal election, I'd like to talk about a choice that the governing Liberals will be faced with in the next year or so, if their campaign promises are to be believed.  Justin Trudeau has promised that this will have been the last election under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, and that a new method will be decided upon after broad consultations.

Now, I'm not going to try and explain the main contenders for voting systems out there, because not only has CGP Grey already done that, he has done it better than I could hope to do with his Politics in the Animal Kingdom series.  While they're all videos worth watching, I'd recommend checking out at the very least the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), Alternative/Instant Runoff (IR), and Single Transferable Vote (STV), videos for the purposes of this discussion.

In the last several elections, the FPTP system has delivered rather wild results.  In fact, the last two majority governments were decided by roughly 40% of the population.  Pundits may endlessly analyse this, looking at voting efficiency numbers (votes cast/seats won), but honestly, it's a consequence of the system.  The biggest weaknesses of FPTP are widely seen to be the spoiler effect and strategic voting in general.

It could be argued that in the Conservative Party's wins of the new millennium, the centre-left parties played spoiler to one another.  Were there just one left-leaning party, the majority of voters would have likely backed said hypothetical party, and that would have been the end of it.  However, the similar yet different platforms which were supported by the majority of the country split the vote and yielded a majority of seats in the House of Commons to the Tories.

Now let's look at the election of 2015 specifically.  It is widely suspected that the majority win by the Grits was the result of strategic voting.  Electors who favoured the NDP (Dippers?) wanted Harper to lose more than they wanted Tom Mulcair to win.  In the end, what we saw in the polls was a spectacular shift of support from the NDP to the Grits, and in the end, many voted not for the person they wanted to win, but rather for someone they kind of, sort of liked such that the person they really didn't like wouldn't win.

That's why I think we need a change in our electoral systems.  That said, I have obvious preferences.  Proportional Representation (PR) would simply tally the votes, and award seats in the House of Commons accordingly.  MMP, similarly, would allow electors to directly send candidates to the House, but would add members ("list members" from lists submitted by the parties), until the seat count more closely resembled the popular vote.  It sounds great, but my problem with these methods (and the reason that I didn't support MMP in the Ontario referendum), is that I do not care for the idea of list members.  Ultimately, I want each Member of Parliament to be responsible to his or her home electorate.  Frankly, having been served by back benchers (read: Parliamentarians who support their Party's motions and do little else), for the majority of my lifetime, I don't think the system needs more MPs who are beholden only to their parties and not their direct electors.

It is due to my loathing of mindless partisan politicians that I support IR and STV in broad strokes.  What I really, desperately want is the ability to rank the options on the ballot rather than simply marking my X (aside: I'd also like the option to rank only those candidates I like and then stop, rather than Australia's model of forcing a ranking of all candidates).

Now, this model has been widely criticized by opposition MPs saying that this model would prefer centrist parties like the governing Liberals.  My obvious rebuttal being to draw attention to the 2011 election, in which the Liberals were so desperately unpopular after a series of scandals and missteps that they were reduced to their lowest seat count in the history of Confederation.  My point being that centrist parties won't always remain a favourable option to the majority of Canadians.

But, digressions aside, I like the IR model quite a lot.  I like the ability to say that I prefer the Greens over the Libertarians, or the Dippers over the Tories, or an Independent over the incumbent.  And I also want to retain the ability to send a message to representatives that I feel have not served the citizens my riding well enough.  And, if one watches the video featuring the mechanics of it all, IR ensures that the majority of the riding's electors will have directly voted for their representative whilst ensuring they also had the ability to vote true to their conscience.

Ultimately, what I like about IR is also what I like about STV.  What I dislike about STV is the matter of the larger ridings, and how it is decided who is elected when multiple members of a single party are declared winners.  I might be mistaken, but when extra votes are allowed to go to support other candidates, I feel like those votes are not treated as equals (unless the total sum of second choices are considered, in which case it seems... less objectionable).  It seems messy, I suppose is my objection.  And, ironically, STV seems more deserving of the title "First Past the Post."

I suppose that this means I would endorse the ranked ballot as my preferred voting system.  And, in other, wilder pipe dreams, I think it would be tremendously entertaining to see the Tories acknowledge the rift within their party and split once again into the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties, and observe an IR election with a total of five national political parties.  I don't know how well it would serve Canadians in terms of the balance of ideas brought to the Lower Chamber, but man would it be fun to watch.


P.S.  Published without proofreading, because I have to go to work.

P.P.S  Proofread, minor changes made.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Homelessness, and a Can of Soup. [EBP8]

Cans of soup produced to celebrate the anniversary of Warhol's painting.  Source.


I was walking home this evening, and as one often does when walking the 1 St SW underpass, I passed a homeless man sitting with his back against the concrete walls.  Unlike most encounters though, there was no request for money, no witty remark, no blessings bestowed as I passed.  This man was looking helplessly at a can of soup.  It struck me that this would be an easy fix, save for the fact that nobody actually carries a can opener.  Well, perhaps people do, but they're likely not very much fun at parties.  Or, recalling a personal anecdote about a man who ate canned food for weeks on end to prove to his girlfriend that refrigerators were luxuries and not necessities, the most fun at parties.  It also struck me that there is a certain irony in that canned food would be of the utmost utility to the homeless, but in most cases they would be helpless to open said can.  Unless they're the sort of person that is either the most or least fun at parties.

In any case, I went home.  I ate the food I had brought home for myself.  And then I remembered the man without a can opener.  I grabbed the can opener from the kitchen as well as a disposable spoon.  They went into my pocket and I headed back to the man with the can.  As it turned out, the tab to open the can had broken off.  I did what I could, and despite thinking early on that it might have turned into a fruitless endeavour, the can was opened.  Near the end, I handed the man the spoon, saying that it might be of use if I actually succeeded.  He responded with a question:

"Oh man, a spoon too?  How are you doing so good?"

"I've been lucky." I replied without thinking.

And it's true.  I've been extremely lucky.  I was born to parents that did, and still do, love and care for me.  I've also come to know many people who have helped me, and continue to help me to this day.  I've also been spared the burden of mental illness, which so often factors into homelessness.  I am a citizen to whom a great many opportunities have been afforded.  And were it not for the kind and caring people in my life, I too could be sitting under the rail bridge at 1 St SW, completely stymied by the lack of a pull tab on a single serving can of soup.

It's due to this matter of luck that I am so excited about things like the Calgary Homeless Foundation, which offers homes to the homeless.  As it turns out, people don't generally like being homeless, and it's extremely difficult to keep a job when you have no place to keep your clothes or bathe on a day-to-day basis.  If you afford people these opportunities, they often find a job and move to a nicer place in fairly short order, if the literature is any indication.

Since my finding out about Calgary's program, the city of Medicine Hat has announced that they are the first Canadian municipality to end homelessness.  This follows data which suggested that housing someone for a year costs roughly $20,000, whereas they cost the system about $100,000 otherwise.  Everything I've heard on the matter suggests that the preliminary results are good, and as my fellows over at Future Chat agree, it seems only logical to offer programs like this if a) you'll save money in the long run, b) you could reap the benefits of economically active citizens in the future.  This ignores the whole humanitarian argument, which is hard to accomplish when people are concerned about budgets.

In the end, the evening left me thoughtful enough that I thought I would write about it, as much to sort out my own thoughts as to share them.  I wonder if such a program could come to my home town of Belleville, a home to a disproportionate number of Christian fundamentalists, and [not-necessarily related] big-C conservative sentiments (fiscal conservatism and small government being popular ideas).  I'm specifically thinking of a quotation from a statue in Ottawa that has always stuck with me, from Matthew 25:40 "That which you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me."  I'm also left with how I felt when leaving the man.  Despite his gratitude, I only felt terrible for having waited so long to offer such an easy fix.


P.S.  I have not blogged in a while.  A variety of factors, ennui playing a large factor I feel, have kept me from feeling passionately enough to write.  I subscribe to Matthew Inman's idea that one should not create without feeling inspired to do so, because the work will suffer as a result.  Hopefully the writing will continue, but even if it doesn't, we'll still have Future Chat.