Sunday, December 21, 2008

The case for giving with heart

I work at a place where people buy the type of Christmas presents you can just bet will be in the garage next year in a box. The consumerist bent of Christmas in recent years has led me to wonder what the point is of giving gifts of little meaning or even little thought. Does the giver gain more value or the receiver?

As for many things, economists have a theory to explain the irrationality of modern gift giving. In any act of trade there is a loss and gain of utility on either end of the transaction. If I give you something worth $50, I have lost $50 of utility because I no longer have that $50 to spend on something else. If you believe that what I gave you is something you would feel good spending $50 on, you have just gained $50 in utility. In this transaction, there has been no net loss or gain of utility.

However, in gift giving, the value of an item is based on personal preference, and no one knows our personal preference as well as ourselves, except maybe spouses, who often claim they know us better than ourselves (or at least know how we should speak or act!). So, if I buy you a gift I think you'll like and it's worth $50, I've lost $50 worth of utility because I obviously thought it was worth $50 or I wouldn't have paid that for it. When I give it to you, you may very well like it, but maybe you would have only spent $35 on it. Thus, there has been a $15 net loss of utility, making the transaction irrational and inefficient.

So from an economists standpoint, there are two ways to solve this conundrum.

1. Give gifts with more meaning. Put a little personal touch into your gifts like a custom made calendar, a personalized book, or something you make from scratch that you know will mean something to the recipient. You can't just get them whatever they give you on a list and think it will solve the problem. Because if I buy something for you I know you want, I will likely lose utility, because I'll feel that what I'm buying you is not worth what I'm paying for it!

2. Give to someone in need. A tradition my wife and I have started is donating to a charity in the other person's name. It will be something with a personal touch like donating money to stock a classroom in Africa with school supplies if your spouse is a teacher. We also have a Happy Birthday Jesus present we buy every year which in future years will be a charitable gift that the children will have to brainstorm and put under the tree to be revealed to us on Christmas morning. In this case, utility should be gained. Even if the recipient does not feel the cause as worthy as the stated value, the ultimate recipient of the charity will certainly feel that the gift is worth many times more what was paid for it. Plus, for those more utilitarian folks out there, you get a tax receipt that can be claimed at the end of the year, thus adding more utility.

3. A very quick and easy way to solve the problem, even if little thought may be involved sometimes, is giving a gift card. There should be no net change in utility unless of course you boo boo and buy someone a gift card for a store they don't care for!

Why Scrubs is so brilliant

Enjoy this hilarious redux of Charlie Brown Christmas!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Double speak


Oct 7: "Our position is this election is we're not going to run deficits"-Stephen Harper

Oct 10: "This country will not go into recession next year and will lead the G7 countries."-Stephen Harper

Oct 12: "If you don't want a carbon tax and tax increases and a deficit and recession, the only way to ensure that is the case is to vote for the Conservative party."-Stephen Harper

Oct 6: "I know economists will say well, we could run a small deficit but the problem is that once you cross that line as we see in the United States, nothing stops deficits from getting larger and larger and spiralling out of control."-Stephen Harper

Oct 9: "We will not run a deficit."-Finance Minister Jim Flaherty

Today: “Some people are talking in the neighbourhood of a $5- to $10-billion deficit. Our own assessment is frankly that will not be sufficient given the challenges we're facing. I think what will be more realistic in terms of the kind of stimulus our economy is going to need is going to be in the $20-billion to $30-billion range.”-Stephen Harper

And yet he harps on and on about the impact of financial stimulus for political parties that he tried to take away which triggered a parliamentary crisis. How much money would the removal of subsidies supporting Canada's political parties save the government? $20 million. So he is eyeing a $20-billion deficit stimulus but makes it sound like $20 million is the end of the world. What an idiot.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Packing it on and trimming it off

Since this post is about fat, I'll first update you all. After 6 weeks in Weight Watchers I'm down 12.6 lbs. I haven't been 182.8 lbs in a long time! Feels great. (By the way, if you struggle with weight, check out Dr. Arya Sharma's Six Natural Laws of Weight Gain.)

Anywho, I read a great article in Moneysense magazine (which is the greatest magazine ever published for personal finance nerds) that spoke of the current middle class squeeze. Namely, the argument goes, the Canadian middle class is finding it harder to make ends meet than the generation of 25 years ago. At first, I was skeptical, namely because I see how much people spend on garbage they don't need where I work. But turns out the data doesn't bear out my hypothesis.

Allow me to pull some tidbits from the article. From 1980-2005, adjusted for inflation, the median annual salary for a full-time Canadian worker rose a fat $53. $53. Yes, indeed, $53. I'll let you dwell on that for a moment......Okay, enough dwelling. And do we get that $53? Not really. 25 years ago, the average Canadian handed over 36% of their income in combined taxes (income, property, sales, etc.) It's now 9-percentage points higher at 45%. Home prices and education prices have surpassed inflation. Do we spend more money on stuff we don't need though? Doesn't seem so. The data show that in real terms our generation spends less on clothes and food than the last generation.

But surely the economy has improved more than a measly $53 per year for each worker since 1980. Even though our wages have gone up less than 1% in 25 years, the amount we are producing per worker has gone up 44%. So if each worker is producing 44% more, why are we not making the extra $10000 per year that added effort would deserve? Well, it seems its going to the bottom lines of the companies we work for: corporate profits increased $153% in real terms since 1980.

Another interesting point raised in the article is that consumer savings rates and government financial health seem to be negatively correlated. In the 80s even though the feds were hurtin' because of the recession, Canadians were putting away 20% of their income. Today we're putting away a miserable 3% of our savings, but the government has been awash in surplus for years. Why? They have downloaded much of the financial burden to us, the taxpayers. So as we pay more tax and load up the coffers of government, we have less to put aside for ourselves. Wouldn't be bad if it meant we had more government services and less to pay for out of pocket, but it doesn't seem to be working that way.

A couple of potential solutions mentioned in the article are worth noting. One would be to increase corporate taxes to allow a corresponding drop in income taxes. Of course, if Harper hadn't been so politically expedient and lowered GST, thus encouraging higher consumption, rather than lowering income tax, a move that stimulates the economy more, maybe we'd be on our way. Even though corporations would be spending more on taxes, the increased savings abilities of Canadians would cause greater investment in the market for retirement which goes to purchasing shares in these very companies. Another idea presented was to set up a supplementary government pension plan that would be available to those without a company pension (10 million Canadian workers). You could invest in the plan and the government would match your contributions, just like a company pension plan. All great food for thought, if nothing else.

What are your feelings on the issue? Do you think the middle class is really squeezed, or are they just spending recklessly?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Political mayhem

If you haven't read about this yet you should! Here's the article. Basically, after the Conservatives presented their economic update, the opposition was furious both with what it did contain and that which it did not. So the Liberals and the NDP have signed an agreement to form a coalition with Stephane Dion as Prime Minister until a new Liberal leader is chosen. The Bloc Quebecois have agreed to give the coalition their support for at least 18 months. So the Opposition plans to vote against the economic update on December 8 and have asked Governor General Michaelle Jean to then allow them to try and govern. Precedent and constitutional law apparently lean toward the GG having to allow this if Harper's Conservatives lose the vote. However, most suspect that Harper is just going to prorogue Parliament. This means he will basically shut down Parliament without debate and not reopen it until January. I'm in the process of finding out why the Canadian system allows him to do this without support of the House. Crazy stuff!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

One extra large double double please

Tim Horton's has become somewhat of a national obsession in Canada. I'm not normally one to follow the crowd, but this is one social custom I fall in line with. But my love and devotion to Tim Hortons was challenged recently when I started Weight Watchers.

I've had a life long struggle with weight. All through junior high and most of high school I was fairly chubby. In grade 8, to support my sister in her endeavour, and also to lose a little of my own weight, I joined Weight Watchers and did quite well. I gained it all back and then some, to reach my highest weight yet in grade 11 of 222 lbs, making me officially obese (I'm 5'8"). Over the course of 6-8 months in grade 11 and the summer between it and grade 12, I lost almost 70 lbs, dropping down to 155lbs. Don't ask me how I did it, because I really don't remember! Then I went to university, ate on a small budget, and met my future wife who is the most phenomenal cook I've ever encountered. Enter: weight gain!

I've crept up over the last 8 years to my recent weight of 195. At some points I brushed the 200 mark. I told myself if I ever got there, I'd do something about it. So I did, and I joined Weight Watchers again.

In my first week I lost 3.4 pounds. This week has been going well and I suspect I've lost 2-3 pounds again. My pants are already feeling loose and Sarah says my face is looking nice and slim again.

And surprisingly, I'm not hungry. The program is actually quite reasonable, I just have to quit being a pig and quit snacking on junk in between meals and before bed. That has been the main difference. But the biggest challenge yet came when my mother-in-law brought me my complimentary Friday morning extra large double double from Timmy's last week. I drank it, not thinking of its impact on my daily points total (I get 34 points a day; points are calculated based on current weight, gender, activity level, age, etc. and are calculated for each food using a formula that accounts for calories, grams of fat, and grams of fibre). Turns out an extra large double double costs me 7 points. And all it gives you is a caffeine buzz.

So I set to work on the Tim Hortons Nutrition Guide to calculate the points value for every item on their menu. I go to Timmy's once a week for lunch, so making healthy choices that will not force me to eliminate a whole meal later in the day is important. I have the full excel file if you wish, but here I will merely highlight some interesting points.

Donuts: lowest at 5 points are chocolate, maple, and honey dips and the Boston Cream, Strawberry Filled, and Blueberry Filled; stay away from the Walnut Crunch, Honey Cruller, and Old Fashion Glazed; 9, 8, and 8 points respectively

Timbits: I calculated based on 6 Timbits, because no one can actually eat a single Timbit if more remain behind
-lowest are the Dutchie and Apple Fritter at 7 points for 6
-the sour cream glazed is bad news; 13 points for 6

Cookies: If you must, chocolate chunk, oatmeal raisin spice, and caramel chocolate pecan are 5; peanut butter is 7

Muffins: Mostly bad news; you're better off with a donut; only 6-pointers are low-fat cranberry, low-fat blueberry, blueberry bran, and cranberry blueberry bran; chocolate chip is 10

Bagels: almost all 5 except flax seed, sun dried tomato, and twelve grain; 6, 6, 7 respectively; 3 tbsps of light plain or strawberry cream cheese adds 3 points

Specialty Baked Goods: Stick with plain or raisin tea biscuit; 6 points
-Cinnamon rolls are bad (10 points) as is Chocolate Danish (10)

Yogourt & Berries: RIGHT ON!!! ONLY 3 POINTS!!! (If low-fat)


-here is what I was looking for!
-best bets at 8 points each (regular with standard toppings): chicken salad, egg salad, deli trio
-BLT is worst at 10 points


-Hearty Vegetable rocks at only 1 points (regular bowl)
-Potato bacon chowder is worst at 6, and chili is worse than all at 7


-here is what might surprise many: you cannot slam 3 extra large triple triples every day and expect to shed pounds
-the only 1 point coffee is a small single-single; an extra large double-double is 7 points
-if you want, do like I do and get a splash of milk and add some Splenda
-a medium French Vanilla will cost you 6 points as will a small iced capp

So, today, I ate a Turkey Bacon Club with Hearty Vegetable Soup and a 0-point extra large coffee (splash of milk and Splenda) for a whopping total of 10 points! Not bad. I aim for roughly 10-11 points per meal, giving me some leeway for a small snack in between the three main meals. And it was a highly satisfying 10 points. I am happy to know a boston cream is only 5. I shall indulge some day.

PS-For those interested, the Weight Watchers points are calculated as follows:

Point value=(calories/50)+(grams of fat/12)-(the lesser of the grams of fibre or 4/5)
Round to the nearest whole number
This way if you forget your points slider at home, you're okay!

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Thought I'd give an update on our Bullfrog status! Once we signed the release form and the company could check our power usage, we learned that by switching to BullfrogPower, we will pay only $9.49 extra a month on our electricity bill and will save the following:

-2.14 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually
-3.59 kilograms of nitric oxide annually
-5.46 kilograms of sulfur dioxide annually

I thought that was cool!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Severe? I think not

After spending a night enunciating so sharply and talking so slowly that I could have died, I wondered whether the diagnosis handed down to us by our son's speech language pathologist was really something to fret about.

When Mrs. Mustard first read me the report over the phone I started crying. I thought it was my fault, that my little boy would not grow up to be as intelligent as I once thought. When my rational mind awoke I realized their couldn't be anything that wrong. We had done everything right according to the pamphlet the SLP provided. But why is Sacha's speech so delayed? And will it catch up?

In pharmacy school we spent a whole semester learning about clinical epidemiology, that is how to research and then analyze primary medical literature (clinical trials, systematic reviews, etc.) It has served me well on more than one occasion, present one included.

A group in Western Australia published the results of a prospective cohort study in The Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research in December 2007. The study entitled "Late language emergence at 24 months: an epidemiological study of prevalence, predictors, and covariates" followed 1766 children over time, evaluating their speech, both receptive (comprehension) and expressive. 13% of children in the study showed late language emergence at 24 months. Having late language emergence (LLE) was not associated with parental education, socioeconomic status, parenting practices, parental mental health, or family functioning. A family history of late talkers (which we have), being male (3x more likely), and early neurobiological growth were all associated with LLE. As well, children born well below their normal birthweight (as was Sacha) and born 3 or more weeks early (Sacha) were also more likely than their peers to have LLE.

The great news comes from another study published by this group entitled "Language outcomes of 7-year-old children with or without a history of late language emergence at 24 months". It was published in the same journal as above in April of this year. The children who had LLE at 24 months fell within the normal range at 7 years for general language ability and specific language dimensions.

What does that mean? For unknown reasons, Sacha is a late talker. It could be genetics or his specific set of environmental circumstances with regards to birth but it is most definitely not our fault. However, we can help him catch up and I still do not think him seeing an SLP formally for 8 weeks will harm anyone and will probably be quite beneficial.

But for now, I can at least dispatch with the monotone slow talk.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'll always remember....

Watching Barack Obama be elected the next president of the USA last Tuesday, I was reminded that we all experience events in our lives that we'll always remember. Here's my list of the historical events that occurred during my life. I'll always remember them vividly, including what I was doing at the time.

1. Princess Diana's death: I remember somewhat naively wondering who she was and why everyone was so interested in the event. But I still very vividly remember when I heard the news.
2. Midnight, January 1, 2000. Someone turned off the breaker at a drunken high school party I was at and made us all think Y2K actually happened!
3. September 11: Sarah called me from school to tell me that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. At the time, we thought it was a biplane gone astray. Later that morning we heard the second one had flown into the buildings. I remember hearing the details while buying groceries at the local IGA after my morning university courses.
4. George Bush steals the presidency: I remember being so disgusted when I heard that Bush one even though Gore got more of the popular vote.
5. Bush wins again. I obviously don't like him much. I remember vividly watching the coverage the day after in the social room at pharmacy school.
6. Barack Obama is elected president of the United States of America. I will always remember this. I wanted to watch the election coverage so badly. Sarah decided it was a fine evening to hang drapes. So she made noise with a hammer and hung drapes over my face while I tried to hear the commentary and see the camera shots. Lovely. But I must say, if any politician in Canada could orate as well as that man, I'd vote for him. I'm not even sure I'd care what he was talking about! I hope his administration brings the change the world is expecting! (Sidenote, forcefully added by Sarah, the drapes look lovely.)

There are some others like the shuttle Columbia exploding over the US, or when Pope John Paul II died, or when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen by the Cardinals, that I will always remember, I just don't remember what I was doing at the time.

What does your list of memorable historic events that occurred in your life look like?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I've been wrong this whole time

For years I told people I know not to use hand dryers in public washrooms because Joe Bob's uncles brothers sister-in-laws pastors scientist brother told him about a study in the Journal of Urban Legends that hand dryers actually increase bacterial counts on skin after hand washing. Today, while vigorously washing my hands after doing a onesie, I contemplated two questions on this issue:
1. What method of drying hands is more hygienic: hand dryer or paper towel?
2. What method of drying hands is more environmentally friendly: hand dryer or paper towel?

Surely no one has pondered such obscure questions before. Wrong again.

First wrong: hygiene question. A study out of the Mayo Clinic compared 4 hand drying methods and how they affected bacterial cell counts on participants hands after washing with soap. Paper towel, forced hot air, something called spontaneous room air evaporation (cool; can you still breathe?), and some other method that I can't remember all produced similar results. Verdict: Urban legend sucks. Verdict #2: Touching paper towel dispensers makes me icky, so I will continue to bodycheck the hand dryer to turn it on, thereby preventing transfer of icky bugs to my hands.

Second wrong: Many people ask obscure questions such as these. Not only did a respected organization like the Mayo Clinic conduct a randomized trial like the one above, but many have studied my second question: the environmental impact of each drying method. Turns out the hand dryer wins....hands down. Ouch. Dicey pun. The life cycle carbon impact of hand dryers is much lower. Over its life it emits something like 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide through the production of energy necessary to power it. The paper towels on the other hand release 4.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide due to the loss of trees (effective carbon sinks) and the production methods used to create them.

So I will now vehemently promote the use of hand dryers. But you must use bodychecking. It works great and really creeps out your fellow bathroom inhabitants.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Miracle cure for our sickness?

Some would call it a sickness, this excessive lifestyle we live as North Americans. Our entire way of life is based on the consumption of petrochemicals, a finite resource. For years now, researchers have been searching for a cure, be it a change in the way we live, or a change in the fuel we consume. We've heard talk of cars that run on nothing but hydrogen and oxygen and release nothing but water as an emission. We've seen countless scientists claim that some day nuclear cold fusion will be a reality. But like many other things, it looks like one of the first real solutions has been discovered deep in the forest.

Discover Magazine's great science news aggregator, 80beats, reported today that researchers at Montana State University have discovered a tree fungus called Gliocladium roseum that turns plant matter into a mix of hydrocarbons that almost exactly mimics the composition of diesel fuel! The fungus grows on Ulmo trees in the Patagonia area of Argentina and apparently uses the gaseous mix to poison other fungi that try to move in on its feeding territory. This fungus can convert cellulose plant material into gaseous hydrocarbons so easily it makes the current process of turning cellulose into ethanol look foolishly cumbersome.

Having a relatively simple organism to achieve such a complex process opens up the door to producing these hydrocarbons in a factory setting on a large scale. Producing bio-ethanol requires large amounts of land to grow the corn, which also removes land necessary for growing food, which subsequently pushes up the price of food. The concept being toyed with by the researchers, who have obviously patented the fungus and are closely guarding its location in Patagonia, is that the fungus would be cultured and grown in factories just like yeast. It would be fed cellulosic plant material (a renewable resource) upon which it would convert the cellulose into the gaseous hydrocarbons that could be siphoned off and used as fuel.

But is this a good thing? The finite nature of petroleum could be a mixed blessing when it comes to the future of the planet. If the burning of hydrocarbons has contributed to global warming, then if the source of those hydrocarbons, petroleum, were to disappear, we would be forced to change our ways to be more sustainable. But if we suddenly had an infinite supply of hydrocarbons at our disposal, we could continue with our reckless consumption. I think this is a good step, but not the answer. Renewable resources that do not produce hydrocarbons as a product, like wind or solar, would be far more useful.

Of course, if we would just quit living beyond our means, the whole problem wouldn't exist.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

This scares people?

I had to stop and scratch my head when I heard John McCain speaking at a rally a few days ago. He was telling his supporters that they had to stop Barack Obama because he believes in wealth distribution. So what he is saying is that the concept of paying taxes to support those in need is something to be feared. So is that why they need to pay for their own healthcare? Then I see an ad on a Spokane network channel for Dino Rossi, the Republican candidate for Washington state governor. Apparently his opponent, Christine Gregoire, Democrat, was once caught on tape supporting the concept of income taxes. It wasn't only mind boggling for me that a candidate should be lambasted for supporting income taxes, but I immediately asked myself 'What, Washington State has no personal income taxes?'. That can't be true. Well it is. Right from the website of the Washington State Department of Revenue comes the following: "Washington State does not have a personal or corporate income tax." What? How do they pay for anything?

It turns out that nine American states do not collect personal income taxes: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Tennessee. I must be Canadian. The whole concept blows my mind.

Did you know about this? Sure surprised me!

We're Bullfrogged!

We're now officially BullfrogPowered! In an ongoing effort to reduce our impact on Earth and teach our children about sustainable living, we have signed up with BullfrogPower. It is one of those completely selfless acts of green living. It costs us money and we benefit in no direct way. This is how it works: BullfrogPower tracks our power usage through our regular electricity provider. At the end of the month they add up how many kWh of electricity we used. They then send us a bill for $0.02/kWh. What does this pay for? In return for what we pay them, they inject the exact amount of kWh we used in electricity onto the grid from a renewable source. In Alberta, they have produced a large wind energy generation system. So if we use 500kWh in electricity one month in regular electricity, they then produce 500kWh in wind energy and inject it onto the grid. Now a larger portion of Alberta's electricity is coming from a renewable source. Since most of this power is generated down south I benefit in no way and it adds $10 to my monthly bills, but it sure feels good knowing I'm supporting the growth of the renewable energy industry in Alberta.

While you are signing up for BullfrogPower as I know you'll do, hop on over to OneMillionActsofGreen. It's a social networking site for greenies! You setup a profile and then document all the green acts you've done. It gives you a running total of how many kg of carbon emissions you've prevented from entering the atmosphere by your acts. I've listed all acts that I've done recently that I would think the average person has not. I have done a total of 81 green acts and saved 10473kg of carbon emissions. That's 10 tonnes of CO2! That's almost the equivalent of taking two cars off the road completely. Not bad for one person!

By the way, I'm not trying to toot my own horn or trying to make you green with envy (oh, that was a lame joke). I'm just trying to show how easy it is for us to change our ways to make for a more sustainable future for our children. I'll leave you with a wise phrase from the Great Law of the Iroquois:

"In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

It's true!

It's true, his daddy is a pharmacist!

Nice idea, but....

When you read as much as I do about personal finance, you see a few constants. The first is that you should never buy loaded mutual funds from a financial 'advisor' because they have an inherent conflict of interest. In fact, the constant advice you hear is that if you are going to buy mutual funds at all, they should be no load mutual funds with low management expense ratios, purchased from either an online discount brokerage or through a fee-based financial planner, one with a certified financial planner designation if possible.

So when my Edward Jones advisor contacted me this week to tell me he could not keep us on as clients due to not having an Alberta licence (we met him in Ontario), I was kind of excited. I had signed on with this gentleman because I felt I could trust him as a person. And don't get me wrong. He did well. But he did have me in all service charge mutual funds and they were lagging the index. Besides, being as far away as he is, it wasn't really working out. Here was my opportunity to start fresh. My idea was to find a fee-based financial planner and purchase my funds through QTrade, the top ranked online discount brokerage that charges nothing for buying mutual funds.

Easier said than done. In Peace River, there are no certified financial planners except one that only does tax planning. In Grande Prairie there are some, but they all work for full service brokerages, that is, they're paid by the commissions they receive from selling you loaded mutual funds. OK, broaden search. There are some nationwide that will service clients in Alberta. But here's the kicker. I think I'd rather pay the high management expense ratios on my funds than pay the kind of fees these guys want. $2000-4000 a year was the range of quotes I got for a full financial management arrangement.

Holy moly. Not that it would not be worth the money, but for someone that only invests $8400 a year, that is like 50% of my investment. The highest MER I had in any of my funds was 2.35%. I have one last lead with a lady in Grande Prairie so we'll see. But for now, it looks like I might have to go it alone. It looks like fee-only financial planning is only for the big boys with millions of dollars in assets. What a shame.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Best investment going

In this volatile investment climate, many people are wondering if there is a surer thing than the stock market and mutual funds. Well, there are only a few guaranteed investments out there.

1. Guaranteed investment certificates (GICs)
2. Paying off any kind of debt (get guaranteed rate of return equal to the interest rate being charged on the remaining principal)
3. Making unscheduled lump sum payments on your mortgage
4. Improving the energy efficiency of your life

Now, the last one is one some might not have considered. I thought of it, but did not think the numbers were as impressive until I read one of the best books I've read this year: The Carbon Buster's Home Energy Handbook by Godo Stoyke. The book presents two approaches to improving the energy efficiency of the things you use in your life; the Carbon Buster approach and the Carbon Miser approach. The former will take more carbon out of the air but not give you as high a rate of return. It will save you more money in absolute terms, but cost you more to implement. The Carbon Miser approach, however, still removes a respectable amount of carbon from the atmosphere, and gives you an impressive rate of return.

Let us go back to the whole concept of efficiency as an investment though. Many opponents of the Kyoto Protocol feel it would be to costly to implement, to the tune of $359 billion for the US alone. However, many efficiency experts, the author included, feel that the figure may be correct, but that it actually would represent a net financial gain not a loss. Some impressive examples of this approach in the corporate world are given in the book:

"-3M saved $827 million and improved efficiency by 58% per production unit.
-Shell reduced emissions 10 percent below 1990 levels at NO net economic cost.
-British Petroleum (BP) saved $650 million just from emissions reductions

Meanwhile, Exxon Mobil spent $12 million to lobby against action on climate change. Go figure.

By implementing the approaches in this book, the average family can exceed the Kyoto Protocol requirements by 860% and save tons of money. The measures by and large are simple (replacing most of your light bulbs with compact fluorescents, using cold cycles on your washing machine instead of hot, unplugging all power suckers when not using, LED Christmas lights, computer in sleep mode, etc). And the rate of return is impressive.

So here is my plan, and you can hold me to it! Keep in mind that some measures are incremental, meaning I'm buying a new car, for example, anyways, and my savings are based on comparing my efficient purchase to the average vehicle. I will denote an incremental measure with an I. If it is a new measure, meaning I'm replacing something that is working perfectly fine, I'll denote it with an N. Returns are calculated over 5 years.

1. I-Replace secondary vehicle (Kia Rio) with a Smart car: only when primary vehicle is paid off and if Rio seems to be kicking the can: annual rate of return (ARR)=93%
2. N-Eliminate 90% of power vampires by putting them on a timer power bar: 83.8% ARR
3. I-Replace electric stove with natural gas stove, but only in more than 5 years when we might need a new stove: 27.9% ARR
4. I-Replace electric dryer with gas dryer: 23.1% ARR
5. N-Put computer in sleep mode and turn off when not used: 1372% ARR
6. N-LED Christmas lights: 35.3% ARR
7. N-Seal air leaks in house: 74.3% ARR
8. N-Add R40 cellulose insulation to attic: 15.5% ARR
9. N-Install shrink foil on 50% of windows: 58.2% ARR
10. N-Tune up furnace: 51.3% ARR
11. N-Get electric ignition tankless hot water heater: 16.9% ARR

Total cost of all measures: $3109
Total 5 year savings of all measures: $7608
Total 5-year rate of return: 244.7%
Average annual rate of return: 48.9%

The longest time to payback of any of these is 6.5 years. That is not that long if you are thinking long term, as you should be with investments. There is no mutual fund available on the Canadian market that has a 5-year annualized rate of return of 49%. Only 5 large cap Canadian and 25 large cap American companies have seen their stock price change by more than 240% in five years, and you would have had to have the insight to invest in them five years ago. Besides, with the efficiency approach, you are doing something good for the planet at the same time.

I'm happy to say my family had already implemented some of the measures recommended in this book before I even read it. We had done the following:
1. Bought Toyota Prius as primary vehicle
2. Replaced all lights with CFLs
3. Got front-loading washer and dryer
4. Use cold cycles instead of hot
5. Bought high-efficiency furnace for new house
6. Got low flush toilets for new house

Just doing those few things we were able to realize a 5-year annualized rate of return of 25.9%.

You should really pick up this book. It has given us so many great ideas of ways we can improve our energy efficiency. What simple things could you see yourself doing?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My dream for a fairer electoral system

As the results from yesterday's election show, Canada's electoral system is antiquated and unfair. Not only that, but its main defense, that it produces consistent majority governments, is now moot, given our production of 3 successive minority governments. So if we are going to elect minority governments anyways, why do we not elect them in such a way that represents voters intentions?

Look at Alberta for example. We elected all but one Conservative, but only 64.6% of the population wanted a Conservative MP. The results show that 448 997 Albertans voted for nothing but a measly $1.25 to the party they supported. That's 35% of all those who voted. Talk about disenfranchisement.

One way you can quantify the distortion of electoral results created by our current system is to determine how many votes it took to elect 1 MP for each party nationally:

BQ: 27590 votes per MP
Conservatives: 36400 votes per MP
Liberals: 47763 votes per MP
NDP: 68029 votes per MP

You want to see distortion? In Alberta, only 30 402 votes were needed to elect each Conservative MP. The NDPers in Alberta had to amass 161 409 votes just to win 1 seat.

Shouldn't all votes count equally? And don't think I'm upset merely because I support the little guys. Harper lost because of the system too. In Quebec, 78 456 votes were needed to elect each Conservative MP, but each Bloq MP only required 27 590 votes. In Newfoundland he was completely shut out despite receiving almost 17% of the vote.

So why not use a mixed-member proportional system like in New Zealand, where each voter gets two choices on the ballot: one for a local MP and one for the party they like? I envision it as follows:

1. Canada would still have 308 seats in the House of Commons. However, 180 would be electorate seats (where we would directly elect the MP) and 128 would be list seats. Party votes on each ballot would be used to calculate the percentage of popular vote for each party. Using a calculation method like the Saint-Lague method used in New Zealand to avoid rounding, it would be calculated how many seats each party deserves based on their popular vote. All local races would be tallied and the number of directly-elected MPs for each party would be subtracted from their total seat total. Any directly elected MPs would be removed from the party list, and the remaining candidates would be placed in enough list seats to give the party the number of seats they deserve. Say 10% of the population voted for Party A. Based on that, Party A is entitled to 3 seats in the House. But they only directly elected 1 MP. So the top 2 candidates from their list would then be given the remaining 2 seats in the House for that party.

2. Party lists would be published before the election day and widely available to the public, including a fully transparent process explaining how the list was constructed. Parties would have to provide regional lists, and seats would be apportioned for popular vote by region, in order to respect the great regional differences in Canada and to assure that list MPs were appointed to serve the province in which their support existed. This would avoid the loss of local representation that would come from losing numerous electorate seats.

3. Both electorate MPs and list MPs appointed within each region would have to meet regularly during Parliament to discuss local issues.

4. For every 3 electorate MPs, there would be 2 regional list MPs originating from the region composed of the combined electoral boundaries of all 3 constituencies. In smaller provinces, this would differ, but the idea would remain the same.

I see the seat breakdown as occurring in the following fashion:

Ontario: 62 electorate seats, 44 list seats
Quebec: 44 electorate seats, 31 list seats
BC: 21 electorate, 15 list
AB: 16 electorate, 12 list
SK: 8 electorate, 6 list
MB: 8 electorate, 6 list
NB: 6 electorate, 4 list
NS: 7 electorate, 4 list
PEI: 3 electorate, 1 list
NL: 4 electorate, 3 list
Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut would all maintain 1 electorate MP each.

The beauty about this system is that, unlike New Zealand which is a small nation, the mathematical method used to allocate seats proportionately would be applied in each province, and not nationally, to avoid national distortions that do not reflect regional differences. In this system, no party without 5% or more of the popular vote would be calculated into the system to prevent the emergence of one-issue parties and the fragmentation of parliament.

How would last nights results translate into this system? I'll just list the total seats in each province for each party, not breaking them down by MPs versus list MPs. It's hard to proportionalize it to this systems actual results. In brackets will be the real results.

Nunavut: CON 1 (1)
NWT: NDP 1 (1)
Yukon: LIB 1 (1)

Conservatives: 42 (51)
Liberals: 36 (38)
NDP: 19 (17)
Green: 9 (0)

BQ: 30 (50)
LIB: 18 (13)
CON: 17 (10)
NDP: 9 (1)
IND: 1

British Columbia:
CON: 16 (22)
NDP: 10 (9)
LIB: 7 (5)
Green: 3 (0)

CON: 18 (27)
NDP: 4 (1)
LIB: 3 (0)
Green: 3 (0)

CON: 7 (13)
NDP: 4 (0)
LIB: 2 (1)
Green: 1 (0)

CON: 7 (9)
NDP: 3 (4)
LIB: 3 (1)
Green: 1 (0)

Nova Scotia:
IND: 1 (1)
LIB: 3 (5)
NDP: 3 (2)
CON: 3 (3)
Green: 1 (0)

New Brunswick:
CON: 4 (6)
LIB: 3 (3)
NDP: 2 (1)
Green: 1 (0)

Newfoundland and Labrador:
LIB: 3 (6)
NDP: 3 (1)
CON: 1 (0)

LIB: 2 (3)
CON: 2 (1)

So, after all that number crunching, where does that leave us nationally?

CON: 118 (143)
LIB: 81 (76)
NDP: 58 (37)
BQ: 30 (50)
Green: 19 (0)
IND: 2 (2)

I think this is a much more reasonable Parliament that would reflect the will of Canadians. If you compare the percentage of seats to percentage of popular vote now, it is much more in line. In fact, it almost exactly lines up, with some rounding due to voting that occurred in small amounts for other parties like the Libertarian Party, etc.

Not only is this system simple, but it ensures better representation, it produces governments that reflect the will of the people, and most of all, I think it will improve voter turnout. Let us hope we never have to implement a law like in Australia, where voting is enforced by law.

As well, because minority governments would almost be guaranteed, politicians could stop working toward majority governments as their sole focus, and just accept that they are in a minority situation in which compromise and civility will have to rule the day, not antagonism and disrespect.

I do not know if anyone that can make such decisions will ever read this, but I do think it's a system that would work well in Canada. And you can bet the day I run for office (some time in the distant future) I will be proud to put it forth as a policy plank.

What do you think of it? Are you currently scratching your head at how someone can be this much of a nerd? I know I am. Off to bed with me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

If only

I've heard more than one person state that if only Gilles Duceppe were a federalist, they would vote for him. The Bloq Quebecois mopped up in Quebec tonight, and I must say, I could not be happier, because if it were not for them, Stephen Harper would have a majority. Thank you Quebec. Like M. Duceppe said in his victory speech, democracy won tonight. And even though some may disagree with the validity of the existence of the Bloc Quebecois, obviously the support is there among the people of Quebec. And since Harper blew his face in Quebec, he blew any chance of getting a majority. It was literally the fortress against a Harper majority in this election. Like some commentators have stated, Harper blew his chances of getting a majority for a measly $15 million. When he cut $45 million to the arts, $15 million of those cuts affected Quebec. The Francophone press tore that apart. And then Harper said he would like to lock up 14 year olds for life for violent crimes. While that flies in the West, it does not in Quebec, and you can see the result. And how fickle was Harper's supposed strong support in Quebec that he could be totally shut down over a few minor policy issues?


I love Rex Murphy. He is phenomenal. If you don't know him, he does the rants on CBCs the National and also has a radio show on CBC Radio called Cross Country Checkup that I enjoy from time to time. He also writes in the Globe and Mail. He had the following to say about the result of the Conservatives again getting a minority government, thus wasting tons of our money and our time.

(This is roughly what he said, not verbatim.)

Here you had Stephen Harper up against Paul Martin who was widely considered to be an inept leader. He managed a win, but a small one and a minority at that. Then you have him up against Stephane Dion who most people believe makes Paul Martin look like a genius. His support is as low as it possibly can be. Then the economy tanks in the middle of the election, and Stephen Harper is a university educated economist. If after all this, he can still only squeak out a minority, what does that say about his leadership? I think Canadians are saying "Sorry you asked, this is the best we'll give you, now leave us alone."

I love you Rex Murphy.

PS-I believe the leadership of both Stephane Dion and Stephen Harper will be questioned after this election.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Final election prediction

Paulitics has published his final election prediction based on a metaanalysis of all election predictions out there. He published two projections. I'll take halfway between them.

CPC: 128
LPC: 84
NDP: 39
BQ: 55
IND: 2

For interests sake, here are the calls from my other three favorite sites:

Election Prediction Project
CPC: 125
LPC: 94
NDP: 36
BQ: 51
IND: 2

CPC: 128
LPC: 92
NDP: 34
BQ: 52
IND: 2

UBC Election Stock Market:
CPC: 131
LPC: 88
NDP: 38
BQ: 49
IND: 2

For what it's worth, here is my prediction.
CPC: 128
LPC: 93
NDP: 36
BQ: 49
IND: 2

I also optimistically predict a win for NDP in Edmonton Strathcona. I can dream too you know.

Why do I not live there this time?

Back in 2006, I volunteered for the campaign of Linda Duncan, a newcomer on the federal electoral scene. She was up against Rahim Jaffer, the popular Conservative incumbent for the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona in which I lived at the time. She ran a great campaign and ended up coming up only 4814 votes short, which in the Conservative heartland of Canada is a really good result. This time around, Linda and Rahim are back at it again. The battle is so close, the election prediction blogs I read are hesitant to make a prediction at all, and all the major networks have called it one of the most important ridings to watch tomorrow night. I will oblige.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Are doctors salaries really that high?

Thought I'd point you all toward an excellent article I read over at Million Dollar Journey. It shows how doctor salaries are not as high as one might think, due to the massive overhead they incur in their job. Food for thought.

What if McCain wins?

There has been talk of what would happen in the Democratic states in the US if McCain actually becomes president. This video is a hilarious result of that talk.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Waste of time?

Although I love me some election, my political junkieness can only take me so far. And when I look at current seat projections, I am dismayed. My best sources lead me to predict the following come October 15.

131 Conservatives
90 Liberals
47 Bloc Quebecois
38 New Democrats
2 Independents

In case you are wondering, here's how things stood when Stephen Harper dissolved Parliament, some say in direct contravention of the fixed election date law he championed:

127 Conservatives
95 Liberals
48 Bloc Quebecois
30 New Democrats
4 Independents
4 Vacant

The only guys to suffer a real blow due to the election will be the dust bunnies on the vacant chairs. They never even had a chance. Their campaign funding just wasn't on par with the big boys.

This election is going to cost how much money and take up five weeks of time just so a couple of white guys could have a pissing contest, fling puffin poop, and call each other names. Instead of utilizing ad hominem attacks, they should have been in the House, working together, and guiding this country through one of the worst financial crises in a generation.

The lack of consensus based, issues driven governing that occurs in North American politics is appalling and almost makes me want to abandon my self appointed political junkiehood. But it gives me such a fine high, I just can't fathom it further.

Nuclear energy

Below is an article from the Peace River Record Gazette, and below that, my response to the reporter.

German doctor diagnoses ­— proposed plant deadly

Posted 1 day ago

By Curtis Haugan

The closer you live to a nuclear power plant, the more likely your children will get cancer.

That at least is what German pediatrician Dr. Ernst Iskenius is saying after the release of a 2007 study by the German government.

Iskenius, a member of the international organization Physicians Against Nuclear War, has traveled from Germany to Regina, Whitecourt and Peace River, speaking on the findings of the study and warning community members of the impending risk a nuclear plant would facilitate.

The report found that during the years of 1980 to 2003, children under the age of five, living close to a nuclear power plant were 120 per cent more likely to develop Leukemia, and 60 per cent more likely to develop other forms of cancer.

“They found there was a significant risk to get cancer,” said Iskenius.

“And the nearer you lived, the higher the risk.”

The report was funded by the German Federal Radiation Protection Agency (BfS) – the government’s main advisor on nuclear health, and was conducted by the German Register of Child Cancer – a branch of the Federal German Health Ministry.

The several doctors involved in administrating the four-year study were a mixture of those against nuclear plants, and those who were proponents according to Iskenius.

Because of that, and the fact 16 nuclear power plants – one in each of the 16 German states – were analysed, Inskenius said the world has never seen a study like this.

“It is an extraordinary study,” he said.

“The results were quite different than (the government) expected.

“They expected no evidence like they did in prior studies, but what they found was they took all 16 plants and found there was a significant risk to get cancer (in children).”

The study also observed children downwind from the plants, up to 50 kilometres, and found similar results.

Despite the findings, there is still uncertainty within Germany.

The emissions, according to BfS, that are emitted from the nuclear plants are far too weak to cause cancer, but other conceivable factors could not explain the heightening of the risk across distance.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he would call for additional research to explain the increased number of child cancer cases in August of 2008.

He, like much of the scientific community is perplexed by the findings, as the radiation levels are regulated rigorously.

“The population’s radiation exposure due to the operation of a nuclear power plants in Germany would have to be at least 1,000 times higher to be able to explain the observed increase in cancer,” he said.

Dr. Iskenius said a common argument is perhaps one or two plants are the ones making the problems.

However, the way the study was conducted – a closed control study where, by process of elimination, all factors are isolated from on another – in all 16 plants individually, the same results were found.

“We found the very same results in all of them,” he said.

“And this is amazing.

“There must be something in nuclear power plants coming out of them, not in one or two or three, but all of them that is causing this.”

Iskenius spoke to Peace Riverites Thursday Oct. 2, hoping to inform members of our community to lobby government to reconsider allowing a proposed nuclear reactor be built near Lac Cardinal, north of Peace River.

“If this nuclear plant is too dangerous and there is a risk for all children then we either accept these things as very dangerous or we higher the standards,” he said.

“On the international level we are fighting to shut down all of these installations because the risk is too great.”

Re: German doctor diagnoses-proposed plant deadly

I'm not yet sure how I feel about nuclear power coming to Peace River. When dealing with a contentious issue, emotion is sure to be involved, so having straight facts to consider is certainly helpful. I thought I'd check out the article on Dr. Iskenius's presentation last week. I found what was presented interesting, but I decided to go to the source: the study from the German government cited in the article. Now first let me explain that I believe the studies that are out there warrant concern for residents of both Peace River and Grimshaw (which is closer to the proposed location of the nuclear plant). One study, Childhood Leukemia in the Vicinity of the Geesthacht Nuclear Establishments near Hamburg, Germany, Environ Health Perspect. 2007 June; 115(6): 947–952, showed that the cases of childhood leukemia within 5 km of a nuclear plant in the studied location were 3.5 times more likely. And even though that only represents 11 more cases of childhood leukemia, I would say that is 11 too many. However, because of the obscure mathematics of epidemiological statistics, the true value is likely not 3.5 but lies somewhere between 1.9 and 5.9. So cases could be anywhere from 2 times to 6 times more likely. Another study published in the European Journal of Cancer Care, issue 16, pages 355-363, entitled "Meta-analysis of standardized incidence and mortality rates of childhood leukemia in proximity to nuclear facilities" combined data from all the research that had been done on the issue to date and came up with some conclusions in the same direction as those mentioned by Dr. Iskenius, but less significant. The largest risk increase was in children age 0-9 living less than 16 km from the facility, but it was 1.23, and the lower confidence interval was 1.04, with the upper interval reaching 1.46. This is entirely outside of the confidence interval of the previous study, but it has more weight because it combined results from numerous studies, which allows it to congene somewhere closer to the true value. Having said that, this risk increase was in mortality rates, so it must again be stated that any increase in deaths of children caused by an energy source that may or may not be necessary is certainly alarming. The study did find increases in the incidence of leukemia in children 0-9 living within 16km of the facility, but the result was not statistically significant, meaning we cannot be entirely certain it was not due to chance. So, clearly, there is something to be concerned about.

However, I believe that a couple of the statements attributed to Dr. Iskenius in the Record Gazette article are either false or in the least, misleading.

The article states that the research Dr. Iskenius presented (it must be stated that Dr. Iskenius was not involved in the conducting of this research, nor is he listed as a coauthor) even showed increased risks when the effects of each nuclear plant studied were removed one by one. In fact, he is quoted as saying "
We found the very same results in all of them". This is not true. The original research article, published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2008, issue 1220, pages 721-726, shows that when the effects of one particular plant are removed the lower confidence interval of the correlation drops down to 0.14, drawing close to 0 which would suggest no impact. However, Krummel itself is cause for concern because there has been a well publicized increase in childhood leukemia cases there since 1990. Finally, Dr. Iskenius, or at least the Record Gazette article about Dr. Iskenius states that "The study also observed children downwind from the plants, up to 50 kilometres, and found similar results." That again is not entirely true. The odds ratio for all leukemias in children living within 5 km of a nuclear plant was found to be 1.76, meaning they had 1.76 times the odds of developing leukemia compared to the control group, children living more than 70 kilometres from a nuclear plant. When you move further away to be 5 to less than 10 km away, the odds ratio is 1.26. For those living 50 to less than 70 km away from the plant, the odds ratio is 1.03 and not significant, meaning there is no statistical proof that they have any higher odds of developing leukemia than those living more than 70km away. As the odds ratio steadily declined the further one got from the nuclear plant, I'm not sure how Dr. Iskenius is justified in stating that the study found similar results in children living downwind from the plants. Peace River falls roughly 40 km from Lac Cardinal, meaning that the figures quoted in the paper (120% more likely to develop leukemia, and 60% more likely to develop other forms of cancer) cannot necessarily be extrapolated to our situation. Grimshaw would be of somewhat greater concern given its proximity to the proposed plant, but it still falls outside of the most dangerous range that has shown up in studies.

Having said all this, I wish not to argue in favor or against nuclear power. I simply do not know enough about the pros and cons to make a reasoned stance (and in case you're wondering, I do have 2 young children). Let us not forget too that Alberta's main means of producing energy, oil sands, is not exactly spic and span on the environmental or health front. A Fort MacMurray physician reported in 2006 that he felt that leukemia, lymphomas, lupus, and autoimmune diseases were abnormally high in Fort Chipewyan, a fact he attributed to oil sands production. The oil sands use more water every year than the entire city of Calgary. They are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. So maybe we just need to forgot about environmentally damaging and health-risking energy sources and focus on longer term goals, like reducing our energy requirements by using less in the first place, and expanding the use of renewable energy sources.

All I know for sure is that when dealing with as complex an issue as nuclear energy, one needs to have a proper foundation on which to base his/her stance. So don't take things at face value. Take the time to investigate for yourself. Because at the end of the day, if a position is based on false pretenses, it is that much harder to defend.


Tony Nickonchuk
Peace River, AB

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

We actually agree on something

Stephen Harper and I actually agree on something: the current turmoil in the stock market really only presents some great buying opportunities for those of us who have the time to ride out the volatility. I said previously that when stocks are low is when you should load up on bargains, but I also said that for those who were close to retirement or in retirement, that this would not be a great situation because much of their nest egg has been destroyed.

But never would I go on national television during a federal election in which I was quickly losing ground to my opponents and say the following to Peter Mansbridge, one of Canada's most respected newsanchors:

Harper: "The market will sort itself out. I suspect some good buying opportunities are opening up with some of the panic we've seen in the stock market in the last few days."

Mansbridge: "Do you really want to be heard saying that? Are you suggesting people should be buying?"

Harper: "I..I...I....just happened to attend a business luncheon where a number of businessmen said exactly the same to me. We always know that when stock markets go up people end up buying things that are overpriced and then when the stock markets go down people end up passing on a lot of things that are underpriced."

Brilliant, Steve-O! Your main opponents have been pounding away on you that you are out of touch with average Canadians, that you lack empathy and an ability to connect with the average voter, and you pull out that show stopper. Terrific. I mean, it is not that there was anything factually incorrect with what you said. In fact, for once, you were telling the truth. But, ouch, what a bad time to pull that one out.

The Liberals and NDP leaped all over that one. Stephane Dion said "Rather than acknowledging the fear and hurt being felt by Canadians, Stephen Harper said yesterday that he saw buying opportunities in the stock market. He is completely out of touch with the impact the current economic turmoil is having on the lives of everyday Canadians."

Way to dish it up on a silver platter buddy. Keep it coming! I love this stuff.

(The above quotes were taken from the audio podcast version of Politics with Don Newman on CBC. Yes, I am a nerd. I listen to this on podcast every evening.)

It really is that sad

I always heard the stories from parents about how impossible it is to get through Robert Munsch's classic book "I'll Love You Forever". I thought, "Can it really be that bad?"'s.......that.......bad.

I was sitting in the quiet room with Sacha during church last Sunday. He likes to go in there and stretch his legs a bit and play with the toys. He wanted me to read aforementioned book to him, which he shortly became bored with. I continued to read it though.

I didn't make it to the third page and already my eyes were welling up. When the kid got older, my vision started to get a little fuzzy due to the tear monsoon filling my eyes. And then they show the kid packing up his stuff into a moving van. Are you kidding me? That's like torture for a softy parent. I totally lost it. I was done, finito, kaput. A complete mess. Couldn't finish it.

Now I understand what my mother always said about that book. It makes you cry so readily, but yet, you feel drawn to read it, just to experience again and again the intangible joy of raising children. Have you had a similar experience with that book? Feel free to tell your story.

Party platforms

I always find it helpful to get a point form comparison of the various party platforms in any election. You can find a good one here.

Hope it helps you make up your mind.

(I must say this is the first time since I turned 18 that I'm truly uncertain of how I will vote.)

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What to watch?

Oh what shall I watch tomorrow? Sarah Palin do a face plant on national television or a debate among leaders that will actually impact my vote on October 14? Although I cannot vote in the American election I do think it impacts me and watching Sarah Palin speak is funnier than a night at Yuk-Yuks. She is really clueless. Her only response when asked how her experience as governor of Alaska gave her an appreciation for foreign diplomacy was that you can see Russia from some points of Alaska. Brilliant.

I think though I'll settle for the debate. Oh wait, it's on during bedtime. Fanfreakintastic. No political junkie fix for me. Just toddler stall tactics.

But for now I can have fun with seat predictions! In the last few elections, Election Prediction Project has creamed other prediction methods and all the pollsters. In 2006, he only got 12 seats wrong! Sick. Another great one is the UBC Election Stock Market where people actually buy stocks in different party parameters and the activity in each parameter determines the prediction. They were a close second in 2006, getting only 14 seats wrong. DemocraticSpace was also excellent at only 18 seats wrong. They have a very detailed riding-by-riding projection that totally rocks. They all creamed all the pollsters, so pay no heed to the talking heads. It will be interesting to watch how the predictions unfold over the next two weeks. I will be watching the above three sites closely. I know you won't, but I can dream.

Just for funsies, here is a comparison of current predictions.

Numbers will be provided for each in following order: Election Prediction Project, UBC ESM, Democratic Space
CPC=142, 142, 142
LPC=90, 78, 82
BQ=46, 41, 47
NDP=28, 43, 35
IND=2, 4, 2

Very interesting. I will provide updates once in awhile and especially the last day before polls close. Cool. Good clean fun.

Emotions in investing

The current volatile market has a lot of investors running scared, particularly those who are going to be needing their retirement investments soon. This article is not for those people, but for those who have the luxury of time, that being 10 years or more, before they will have to access their funds.

Right now a lot of investors are selling all their stock holdings and buying cash and bonds, "safe" investments. But let's look at a previous downturn in the stock market and see what would happen if you did the opposite: when times get rough, load up on cheap stocks and watch them climb.

As a disclaimer, I'm no expert in financial advice, I only read a lot on the subject. But if you look at the data, buying high and selling low is a surefire way to lose money. If you continue to make your regular contributions to your retirement portfolio, rebalancing your asset allocation slightly if it helps you sleep at night, you will benefit from something called dollar-cost averaging. That is if you bought 1000 shares of a stock once when it was $10 and it rose to $12 a year later, you would have made $2000. However, if you bought 500 shares once when it was $10, 500 more 6 months later when it had plummeted to $5, and then watched it rise again to $12 you would have made $4500. So even though you bought during a rough period, you benefitted. Basically if you continuously contribute to your RRSP, sometimes you'll buy high, sometimes low, but overtime you'll average out in the middle.

So let us say you bought $10000 worth of the S&P/TSX 60 Index in Mar 2001. (This index basically buys stocks in the 60 top companies in Canada by market capitalization [number of shares X cost per share]). It was selling for roughly $10 a share so you would have purchased roughly 1000 shares. September 11 rolls along and a year later it is sitting somewhere in the realm of $8 a share. You panic and sell all your shares. Congratulations, you just lost $2000.

If you did not panic and simply let your investment sit, you would be sitting with 1000 shares worth $17.97 each, a tidy gain of $7970, or a percentage increase of 79.7%. Pretty nice.

Consider the alternative. You buy $5000 worth in Mar 2001, giving you 500 shares. When it dips to its lowest point, you double your investment and buy $5000 more, giving you 625 more shares. So now, present day, you have 1125 shares at $17.97 each, for a total of $20216.25, a gain of $10 216.25, $2246.25 more than if you bought it all at the start, and a total gain of 102%! So you see, a little risk taking pays off.

Think of it this way. You normally go through 1kg of coffee every 2 weeks, so if you buy extra it's not like it will go bad on you. You regularly pay $7 for one can. Along comes a sale at your favorite local store and it is selling for $4.96. What do you do? Well, the way the economy is headed, I'd take my current can to my neighbor, sell it to him for $4.96, even though I paid $7 for it, and suffer through the epic caffeine withdrawal, waiting for it to crawl back up to $7 so I can buy another can.

Come again?

If you were a raving caffeine addict like me you'd go out and buy two cans, because you know darn well next week it will be on for $7 again. And considering you would have to purchase the coffee soon anyway, you just saved yourself $4.08.

Now of course, if I don't purchase that coffee it's not like my next 30 years of retirement are ruined, so of course the analogy is not perfect. But like I've said, if you've got time on your hands, turn the contrarian side of your cerebrum on and start loading up on the cheap stuff.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Not sure where you stand?

I am a self-professed political nerd, and even I find myself a touch bored with this campaign. I would rather the government had stayed in Parliament and worked on finding a solution to the current economic mess in which we find ourselves. However, I'm still following the race, and finding myself for the first time since I was of legal voting age, unsure of who I will vote for. Also, given that I work full-time and help my wife raise two very busy little boys, I do not have time to read party platforms. Luckily, other uber-nerds get paid to do such things and distill out the good stuff. has two great pages, one outlining all campaign promises made so far, and another outlining where each party stands on various issues. You can also do a neat little quiz where you pick which quote you agree with most and after a few quotes, it tells you who you like most. I got Stephane Dion which immediately invalidates the quiz, but it is fun nonetheless.

The joy of parenting

I spoke to a man roughly my age today who was going through the first days of parenthood, desperately searching for some Ovol to calm his baby's colic. I spoke with him at length about how gas and the ensuing discomfort (and vocal registering of that discomfort) is very normal at the newborn stage, gave him some advice on how to more effectively burp baby (we tend to be a touch timid as new parents!) and proceeded to inform him that it will get better, sleep will return, albeit gradually, and the remarkable miracles he will experience every day will erase any memories of difficulty. It was obviously a welcome discussion, because he very firmly shook my hand as he left and graciously thanked me for all my advice.

It got me to thinking about these years. Sometimes I fear that I might be doing things wrong (as if you could care too much for your children) but than heed the advice of my very wise parents: the young years pass much too quickly, and do what you can to enjoy them. My wife and I somewhat subscribe to a philosophy gaining ground in North America known as free range parenting (likely to gain more ground after appearing on Dr. Phil today!). It doesn't mean complete infantile anarchy. What it means is letting your child explore their own creative instincts, resist the urge to put knee pads on your crawling baby, and let them do a header into the coffee table once in awhile. This is how they learn. They don't need five nights a week of structured after school activity followed by structured homework. Some of the most brilliant ideas of our time arose during quiet reflection or while reading a good book. And so, I present to you, exhibits A and B of my free range parenting feature (it's not really a feature, all I have is two exhibits, but every good museum starts with something).

Monday, September 29, 2008

Dire predictions?

As Andrew Steele reports on his blog, latest polls are showing the Conservatives inching toward a majority. Pollsters explain that Canadians are looking for firm direction in this shaky economy and feel the Conservatives are the best to provide that direction, certainly not any flaky left wing nuts like the NDP (note sarcasm). An interesting side note is that the NDP are drawing near even with the Liberals nationwide and now Jack Layton is pushing himself as the only viable alternative to prevent Harper from gaining a majority. Even though Stephane Dion is mind numbingly intelligent, he also has a surprising inability to make you excited about supporting him. How he ever rocketed his way to the Liberal leadership I'll never know. Anywho, I digress. What I really wanted to say is that polls are very often wrong. As Andrew Steele astutely points out, the Conservatives have not nudged outside of their margin of error from the beginning of the campaign while the NDP have gone significantly up and the Liberals, well, significantly in the other direction. I turn to a more reliable source, the Election Prediction Project. This website uses feedback from locals in all of Canada's ridings to make predictions on the electoral result in each riding. In the last 3 federal elections, they have a prediction rate of 90%. That is amazing. That means that if that were to hold true this time around, they would only guess 30 ridings incorrectly of 308. Wowsers. At this point in the game, they have 65 seats considered too close to call, but if patterns hold, the election will end up as such:

Conservatives: 150
Liberals: 91
Bloc Quebecois: 37
NDP: 28
Independent: 2

So the Conservatives are indeed inching closer to a majority. Does this scare me? Yes, in fact, it does. It actually scares the living s&%t out of me. I'm not sure why. I can't actually pinpoint the reason, but I very much hope it does not come to pass. As much as Harper is pushing himself as the only worthy pilot to guide our economy through the current turbulence, I am not convinced.

As many have noted, Harper's handling of the current situation has already been terrible. Mind you, he has had to deal with a minority government, but it has really presented no impediment. Everytime he wanted to push something controversial through, the Liberals just stayed home instead of voting. Let us look at what has happened to the economy while Harper was in office:
  • The ratio of household debt to income has increased by 15%
  • The federal government had a surplus of $13.2 billion when Harper came to office. But the Conservatives have recklessly squandered it by pushing through expensive tax cuts. The surplus is now expected to shrink to $1.3 billion or lower in 2009/10. This would be the worst fiscal balance for the federal government in over a decade.
  • When Harper arrived in office, the economy was growing at a healthy rate of 4.2% a year. Economists expect that Canada’s economy will grow by only 1.1% this year. This will be the slowest rate of national economic growth in 15 years—since the 1992 recession.
  • Harper is the first Canadian Prime Minister in modern history under which economic productivity has actually declined. This demonstrates just how ineffective his tax cuts and privatization policies have been.
If you want to download what looks to be an excellent book on the Harper record from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, click here.

I'm sorry to lay bare my bias, but I just cannot stand the man. I think he is taking our nation in the wrong direction and sincerely hope that Canadians do not give him the "strong" mandate for which he is asking.

I love our new life

I must say, I adore our new life here in Peace River. My job is great, the town is wonderful, and we are having so much fun with the boys, especially now that we are so close to grandparents. I also must say that I am blown away by the sheer beauty of the Peace River valley in autumn and still slap myself every time I drive home, totally incredulous that I actually live here. Check out the pictures and see for yourself.

Killer cough medicine?

For any of you who may have received a dire e-mail from a friend telling you to stay away from cough and cold medicines with phenylpropanolamine because someone died of hemorrhagic stroke some years ago, be not afraid. PPA, as it is known in pharmacy, has not been available in Canada since 2001 after Health Canada removed it from the market due to aforementioned adverse effect.

Stephen Hawking's Catholic????

No, he's not, but he is a sitting member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, something I learned about while reading my September issue of Discover Magazine. The Vatican has an academy of highly distinguished scientists whose job it is to decipher current topics in science and debate issues that arise from modern scientific research. It started many ages ago and over time has come to include a roster of the most cherished scientists of our times (Max Planck, Neils Bohr, Erwin Schrodinger, and Stephen Hawking). They don't have to be Catholic to sit on the Assembly and new members are chosen by the current members and vetted by the Holy See. You should really read the article. It is actually quite remarkable. I've always been one who sees no discord between religion and science and feels you can be religious while also appreciating and deeply studying science without producing any cognitive dissonance whatsoever. For those of you who disagree, or even for those who just couldn't care less, this article is worth a read. It has some surprising insights, especially if you equate Catholics with Creationists.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Bad apples

It seems there are bad apples in every bunch. According to CBC News, some pharmacists in Vancouver (remember that we are normally considered the most trustworthy professionals) have been paying crack addicts $10 cash per week if they agree to allow the pharmacist to fill their methadone prescription daily so the pharmacist can collect higher dispensing fees. Just so you know, $10 cash buys you a dose of crack in Vancouver, or so they say.

Appalling. I hope these pharmacists have their licences taken away and are not just slapped with remedial courses or some garbage like that.

Monday, September 8, 2008

What the frick?

So I can understand why the Green Party of Canada was not included in previous debates. At first, they were not running candidates in every riding. Then even though they were running a full slate, they did not have any sitting MPs. It presented a difficult chicken and egg conundrum, but at least the other parties had some sort of objective standard to fall back on.

Now, the old boys club in Ottawa has prevented the Greens from entering the debates again. Not only are they running a full slate of 306 candidates, but they actually have a sitting MP. Elizabeth May, the popular leader of the Greens, convinced sitting independent MP Blair Wilson to become a Green. This was only a short time ago. So what is the big deal? They are now a legitimate national party. Heck, at their lowest point, the Tories only had 2 seats in the House of Commons and they were still always allowed in the debates.

Who caused this? Well, Harper the baby, for one. He only plays nice if he gets to set the rules, as Andrew Steele of the Globe and Mail stated. For whatever reason, he feels threatened by May and so basically told the broadcasting consortium in charge of running the debate that if they let May attend, he would not show up. What a freakin' baby.

But the thing that depresses me most is that Jack Layton, the leader of the party I support, decided to back Harper. Both of them stated that because Ms. May has shown support for Stephane Dion and the Liberals in the past means that if Dion is in the debate, than by association, Ms. May is represented anyway. What?

No wonder Canadians are cynical. What a joke.

I will still vote, but I am currently reconsidering my support of the NDP due to this ridiculous decision.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Long absence

As you can see, I have not posted for a month and a half. A lot has happened since then. Sacha turned 2 and has started using a potty. Not fully trained yet, but we're getting there. We are finally settled in our house and I am starting to figure out how to do my job! It has been busy, but we love our new life here in Peace River.

As for my reason for writing now, it's because I'm super excited. Today is a political junkie's dream: Harper called an election.

Although I do not agree with his reasons for calling the election, which were by and large self-serving, nor do I agree with his outright violation of the fixed election date law he championed and his own party supported, I cannot resist loving election time! It's like crack for me.

I will likely lean toward the party bearing the colors of my ancestral homeland: orange! And I will most certainly vote. There is no valid excuse for not voting. If you are reluctant, here is some info to help.

1. Find your riding here
2. Candidates lists are not up yet, but you can look at the individual party sites. They are below:
a. Conservative Party of Canada
b. Green Party of Canada
c. Liberal Party of Canada
d. New Democratic Party of Canada

(NDP last because of alphabet, not because they suck, Dave).

3. Make sure you are registered as a voter. You can call Elections Canada to find out.
4. Follow the campaign. As much as I want you to vote, don't just vote for a guy because your parents do, or because you like their signs. Learn the issues. Find out where the parties stand. Follow your local candidates by reading the local newspaper or watching local television. An informed voter is a responsible voter. However, don't just scoff your responsibilities. We have a responsibility in a democratic society to use the privilege we've been given. Otherwise we just insult all those worldwide who fight with their lives to obtain what we were born into.
To follow the campaign, watch The National on CBC every night, read the newspaper, or if you really need a fix, check out Globe Politics. It's like a safe-injection site for political junkies.

Not sure where you stand on the political spectrum? Take the test at Political Compass and compare yourself to the Canadian parties.

And if you really want a challenge, find your local riding association of the party you support, and volunteer to help out with the campaign. I did it once. It's pretty fun. I'm going to try and volunteer for my local candidate this time as well. We'll see how it goes!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Home sweet home

Today was our last day. We slept in a little bit to get some rest after being deprived for 3 days. Mom had breakfast all ready for us when we got up and we sat around and chatted over coffee for a little while. By 10am we were on the road, with Mr. Dash, the family cat in tow. He had flown to Edmonton the previous week and stayed at the farm until today.

I first had to stop at the CN Rail Yard in Edmonton to pickup my Kia Rio that had arrived a month ahead of me through the magic of rail transport. So started the solitary leg of my journey! Heading out on Yellowhead Trail, we knew we had to gas up before leaving the city. But by the time we would see the gas stations, they'd be gone, because the traffic was horrible. So we made a sojourn out to Spruce Grove, another lovely little city. After filling up, Ed was itching for a Booster Juice, so we inquired with the locals. The local leisure centre had one.

Allow me to digress for a moment while I extol the virtues of leisure centres. I have now seen two of these: the Tri-Leisure Centre in Spruce Grove and the Millennium Place in Sherwood Park. Both are marvels of community planning and if I do nothing else in Peace River, it will be to spearhead the development of one of these for this great community. What is in a multi-use leisure centre? A pool with super cool kids areas and splash parks and a full size lane pool. A kids indoor playground. A full service fitness centre. A hockey arena. A curling rink. A basketball court, tennis court, racquetball court, running oval..........hell, they even have a Booster Juice and a food court. Could it get any cooler than this? The genius thing is that they get all the local corporations to put their names on the various rooms and services, I'm assuming to lift the tax burden that would result from funding such a behemoth. The greatest thing about these: they are always full to the brim with people from the community. And what are they doing? Spending time with their families and being active. What could be better for community spirit. Awesome.

Told you I'd digress. Anyways, we got to Peace River by about 5:30pm. I thought Sacha was going to hit the ceiling when he saw me. It was so adorable. He was hopping up and down and shaking with excitement and saying "da da, da da" over and over again in a frantic manner! We went and saw our beautiful new home. Unfortunately, our furniture is delayed until the 30th, so we are living at the in-law's for another week. Oh well. I'm so glad to be back together with my family and getting closer to finally settling down!

PS-For anyone who thinks a multi-use leisure centre will never fly in Peace River, Whitecourt, a town of only 1000 more people, has one. So there. And who cares if Peace River voted against the notion only two years back. Things change!

Total distance=3500 km
Total travel time=35 hours
Total gas cost=? (I will update it when I fill up the Prius tomorrow!)
Average mpg= (Same as above)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Day of the Long Drive

Today is the big day. We drive from Brandon, Manitoba all the way to Millet, Alberta. You can see our arduous journey here. First of all, let me reiterate that I think Brandon, Manitoba is a great little place. For a town of 41 000, I must say it has a leg up on another town of roughly that population with which I am now quite familiar. I mean any city laid bare on the bald-ass prairie with an Indian restaurant must have something figured out. Oh, and I also learned that the McKenzie Seeds Company, you know those guys that you buy the little packets of seeds from in the stores, is headquartered in Brandon.

Anywho, we took off from Brandon at 6:30 Alberta time after having a nice free continental breakfast at our hotel. There wasn't much but rolling prairies until we hit Regina, Saskatchewan. Oh, and even though Saskatchewan is in the same time zone as Manitoba, they are the only province in Canada that does not observe daylight savings time, so this time of year, they are on Alberta time. That was great because we gained another hour quite early in the morning.

We pretty much drove around Regina because we both have seen it before. It is quite a nice city, although I don't like it as much as the Paris of the Prairies, our next stop.

Saskatoon is a beautiful city of 200 000 sitting in what I consider to be one of the most beautiful topographic layouts in all the world: the prairie. (When I first arrived in Ontario two years ago, I thought the Canadian Shield to be new and exciting, and it is undoubtedly beautiful, but the prairie is where I feel most at home.) Saskatoon is home to the remarkable University of Saskatchewan with a truly breathtaking campus, and a string of bridges that cross the mighty South Saskatchewan River. I really wanted to stop at the Berry Barn for lunch, which is a long-time favorite of mine, but we had a long ways to go yet, so I settled on Dairy Queen!

While in Saskatoon, we rethought our previously planned route. The route would take us up to the Battlefords, then Lloydminster, and then close to Edmonton. We could bypass the city, but given that my parents' farm is a good bit south of Edmonton, I thought there must be a better way. Turns out there is. You can take highway 14 out of Saskatoon, which turns into highway 13 in Alberta, which comes upon Camrose, and then Millet, close to my folks' farm. I think this stroke of navigational genius shaved a good hour off our time.

Highway 14 is possibly the most beautiful highway I've driven on in Canada. If you don't like prairie, don't bother, but it was a feast for my prairie-loving eyes. Besides, we got to pass through a lot of cool little towns. Like Biggar, Saskatchewan, where the welcome sign says: "New York is big, but this is Biggar!" How wonderfully cheesy. It is also the home of Olympic champion curler Sandra Schmirler.

We also came across Unity, Saskatchewan, a booming little outpost that has won the Communities in Bloom competition in its category more than once. It houses the Sifto Salt Plant as beneath Unity lies loads of sodium chloride laid down when Saskatchewan was covered by seas. You can actually see the salt on the banks of sloughs throughout this area of Saskatchewan. As the sloughs dry up in summer during dry periods, white salt is left behind on their banks. Pretty cool.

When we entered Alberta, I could have cried. I now knew what it felt like to feel called back to your homeland. I don't know how people can leave their countries of birth. It must be so difficult. As far as the eye could see were rolling fields of purple flax, yellow canola, and green wheat and barley. I could almost hear the bison stampeding through the fields. It is such a magical view to behold, and I couldn't have been happier to be back. Plus, unlike my point of origin, it was sunny with not a cloud in the sky and NO RAIN!!!! Beautiful.

We went through Provost, a little town that seemed to have endless oil or natural gas tankers popping up in every field around. Shortly after that was Camrose, another city I consider to be very beautiful and worthy of living in! It has also won Communities in Bloom a few times. We looked at moving there a while back, but the offer I got in Peace River was just too much better to warrant taking the job in Camrose.

Not long after Camrose, I finally set eyes on my original home: the farm. It always warms my heart to see it. Memories flood me as I pull into the driveway.

After a great supper of barbecued steak and hamburgers and a wonderful visit with mom, dad, and my father-in-law, we settled in for a long, well-deserved rest.

By the numbers:

Total distance driven: 2900 km (today alone=1200km)
Travel time: 12 hours
Total coffees: I lost count
Average fuel consumption=53mpg

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Au revoir, Ontario

Day 2: Thunder Bay to Brandon (See map here)

We got up earlier today and headed out of Thunder Bay. We didn't get to see much of the city unfortunately. I've been there twice now, but have never been able to see much. We saw the Sleeping Giant a bit, and a bit of Lake Superior, but other than that, not much. However, we did go to the Keg and have a nice expensive dinner with wonderful wine. I had a slightly tipsy walk back to the hotel. Then we sat in the hot tub. So it made for a great sleep! On the way out the next morning, we did get to see awesome Kakabeka falls. How amazing!
Amidst the endless rocks and trees lay the beautiful community of Kenora. I've been to a few places in Canada, and this is so far my favorite. It is just so beautiful, lying on the banks of the Lake of the Woods, a massive, gorgeous Canadian Shield lake full of islands and cottages.

The most frustrating thing about driving through Ontario is that all highways in Northern Ontario are single lane, so inevitably you get stuck behind some trucks and slow pokes. Had we driven the speed limit the whole way, it would have taken us forever (90kph the whole way). So at one point Ed was passing another slowpoke and reached about 140 kph. As he slowed down past the slowpoke, a van pulled up next to us attempting to pass us. As I looked over I saw a big Ontario Provincial Police stripe on the van. Oh oh. He matched are speed for a second (on a single lane highway, remember), gave us a disapproving look, and then continued on.

After Kenora, the Ontario-Manitoba border comes quickly. As you continue west, just outside Winnipeg, you suddenly emerge from the forest and the land abruptly becomes prairie farmland. Then there's Winnipeg. Thank goodness for ring roads. I've been to Winnipeg once, found nothing there to write home about, and so decided this time to bypass the whole bloody mess.

We got into Brandon in good time, spending 11.5 hours on the road, 10.5 of those driving. Brandon, by the way, is a wonderful little city in the middle of the prairies. And after all the chain restaurants we'd visited over the last while, I yearned for something authentic.

I found a little Indian restaurant called Chili Chutney. We had garlic naan, beef samosas, tandoori chicken, and limb vindaloo, as well as yummy mango lhasis. It was totally awesome. It was on par with some of the best Indian restaurants in Edmonton which rank as some of the best ethnic restaurants in Canada. And the lamb vindaloo was so hot, it made me sweat and made my nose run, my gauge of success when consuming Indian food! Hooray!

Tomorrow we have the longest leg of our trip, Brandon to Millet, AB, a total of almost 1200km. Wish us luck!

By the numbers:
Average miles per gallon over entire trip so far=56.2
Total distance driven: 1745km
Total cost of gas=$152.95
Total driving time=20 hrs
Total coffees=5 again
Total emissions of flatulence into car interior=I do not have that number on my keyboard