Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A few articles of mine

Thought I'd post links to a couple articles I did recently.

The first is a letter I sent to the Canadian Diabetes Association calling them out on their endorsement of Pepsi products.  Yoni Freedhoff, over at Weighty Matters, was kind enough to post it on his blog, which is MUCH more popular than mine!

The link is here.

Also, I co-authored my first Tools for Practice for the Alberta College of Family Physicians along with Dr. Mike Kolber.  That is here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


My wife asked me to send some professional information to a friend of hers.  This friend has a new baby and wants to get him vaccinated but is conflicted because of all the information she receives from the Internet, popular media, and most importantly, family, telling her that she shouldn't because vaccines are dangerous.  Thankfully my wife shot back to her a quick e-mail that laid out the whole MMR-autism fiasco and told her not to worry about that because it has been so thoroughly discredited it is barely worth even discussing.  But she felt she needed more info, because this lady's mother was particularly concerned as she had been told that vaccines contain mercury and formaldehyde.  So I did what I always do.  I totally went overboard.  My response is below.

"Besides breastfeeding, there is no other childhood intervention that has as much medical evidence supporting its safety and efficacy in preventing debilitating diseases than routine immunizations.  Great article below outlining a well done study on the bottom line on vaccines.  Bottom line is, vaccines are one of the greatest public health discoveries of modern humanity and we choose not to use them at our own peril.

As for components of vaccines, they are in the vaccines that are used in the studies and still they show VERY low rates of adverse reactions.  Pentacel (DTAp-IPV-Hib), one of the first vaccines given, does contain formaldehye, but in trace amounts. 

Aluminum Phosphate (adjuvant)
Polysorbate 80
Tris (hydroxymethyl) aminomethane
BSA, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, neomycin and polymyxin B are present in trace amounts.

Should you be worried about that?  No.  The ingredients are in such small amounts they are of no concern.  Besides, the attached document shows that formaldehyde occurs in high levels naturally in some foods. 

Then there is Prevnar, pneumococcal vaccine for babies.  Contains the following, besides the vaccine components of course.

sodium chloride, polysorbate 80, succinic acid and aluminum as aluminum phosphate adjuvant.

Meningitec: Meningitis vaccine
Non-Medicinal Ingredients
Sodium chloride
Aluminum phosphate
Water for Injection

Priorix-Tetra (measles, mumps, rubella, varicella)
Amino acids for injection
Neomycin Sulphate
Water for injection

Fluviral (influenza vaccine)
sodium chloride
potassium chloride
disodium hydrogen phosphate heptahydrate
potassium dihydrogen phosphate
water for injection

That covers the main routine immunizations for kids. 

And in case those ingredients still scare the hell out of you, consider the ingredient list from:

McDonald's French Fries
Potatoes, canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, safflower oil, natural flavour (vegetable source), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain colour), citric acid (preservative), dimethylpolysiloxane (antifoaming agent) and cooked in vegetable oil (Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with THBQ, citric acid and dimethylpolysiloxane).

Big Mac
Beef Patty: 100% pure beef.
Big Mac® Bun: Enriched wheat flour, water, high fructose corn syrup and/or glucose-fructose and/or sugar, yeast, vegetable oil (soybean and/or canola), salt, sesame seeds, calcium sulphate, calcium propionate, monoglycerides, enzymes, azodicarbonamide, AND MAY CONTAIN ANY OR ALL OF THE FOLLOWING IN VARYING PROPORTIONS: diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, BHT, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, wheat starch, calcium peroxide, wheat gluten, sorbitol, dextrin, malted barley flour, ascorbic acid, citric acid, calcium stearate, calcium iodate, silicon dioxide. CONTAINS: WHEAT, BARLEY, SESAME SEEDS
Big Mac® Sauce: Soybean oil, relish [pickles, sugar, glucose-fructose, vinegar, glucose, salt, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate, spice extractives), prepared mustard [water, vinegar, mustard seed, salt, sugar, colour (caramel, turmeric), spices], water, frozen egg yolk, vinegar, onion powder, salt, mustard flour, xanthan gum, potassium sorbate, spices, garlic powder, hydrolyzed plant protein (corn, soy, wheat gluten), colour (paprika, caramel), calcium disodium EDTA. CONTAINS: MUSTARD, EGG, WHEAT, SOY

And of course through wizardry allowed by Health Canada, food companies do not have to list the components of flavors, only to say that it may contain artificial flavor.  Well, here is what is in strawberry flavor:

amyl acetate, amyl butyrate, amyl valerate, anethol, anisyl formate, benzyl acetate, benzyl isobutyrate, butyric acid, cinnamyl isobutyrate, cinnamyl valerate, cognac essential oil, diacetyl, dipropyl ketone, ethyl acetate, ethyl amylketone, ethyl butyrate, ethyl cinnamate, ethyl heptanoate, ethyl heptylate, ethyl lactate, ethyl methylphenylglycidate, ethyl nitrate, ethyl propionate, ethyl valerate, heliotropin, hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone, alpha-ionone, isobutyl anthranilate, isobutyl butyrate, lemon essential oil, maltol, 4-methylacetophenone, methyl anthranilate, methyl benzoate, methyl cinnamate, methyl heptine carbonate, methyl naphthyl ketone, methyl salicylate, mint essential oil, neroli essential oil, nerolin, neryl isobutyrate, orris butter, phenethyl alcohol, rose, rum ether, gamma-undecalactone, vanillin, and solvent.

Oy vey. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My running journey

In 2007 we were still living in northern Ontario, many miles from our families in Alberta.  We ventured home for a short visit in late August or early September.  I honestly can't remember the exact date.  What I do remember though is speaking with my mom about her recent accomplishment.  At the age of 50, she had completed her first half-marathon in what was then known as the ING Edmonton Marathon.  She completed it in 2:30:25, which is an impressive time for a first-time half-marathoner, no less at 50 years of age.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I hurt her that day.

You see, I was so excited to see her and had so much I wanted to share with her about what was going on in my life, that I made light of her achievement by abruptly acknowledging her finishing medal and moving on in the conversation.  It was not until this weekend when I completed my own first half-marathon that I realized just how much that race meant to her and just how much my lack of interest in her story really stung.

Of course, even though it seemed I made light of her accomplishment, it blew my mind.  I had been into running sporadically for many years, due in no small part to her commitment to the sport.  I'd done some fun runs, most memorably the Beat Beethoven 8K in Edmonton (Ludwig kicked my ass in case you're wondering).  But it wasn't until last year, when I was talking to her on the phone about the run she'd put in that morning that I started taking it more seriously.  If she can run four half-marathons (her best time was in 2009 in Edmonton at 2:22:55, an age-adjusted time of 1:59:37 which is smoking fast for a recreational runner) it must be within the realm of possibility to finish one.

So I set out in my mind to complete the Edmonton half in August 2012.  My first step was, as always when I start something new, getting out a book from the library.  Called The 16-Week Marathon Method by Tom Holland, it is a great starter book and lays out detailed training plans for beginners to advanced runners for anything from the 10k to a full marathon.  And I figured since I was a beginner, I better finish off two 16-week training cycles before the race. So began my journey in December 2011 (an incredibly moronic time of year to START a running regimen in Canada).

In my first two weeks, I could already tell I was going to love this.  I was doing great and didn't miss a single one of the eight prescribed runs from the training program.  Then came my first two lessons: when you start running, be cautious not to do too much too fast AND respect the elements.

It was a mild winter so night runs were oddly enjoyable, the crisp winter air making for a refreshing run.  So it was little surprise when I found myself pounding out a 3-miler in freshly fallen snow just one week out from Christmas.  Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful night, when fresh snow falls on a sidewalk, it has a nasty habit of hiding the edge of said sidewalk.  Only 3/4 of a mile into my run, I brought my left foot in for a landing right smack halfway on the edge of the sidewalk.  The force of the landing was enough to wrench my ankle at an ungodly angle and bring me crashing down in agony.  And then the swearing began.

I knew I was done for awhile.  Laying in pain, writhing in the snow, dragging myself to my mother-in-laws front door to have her drive me home, it was all I could do not to cry.  Even though I was only 2 weeks in, I was already visualizing the finish line in August.  I was proud I'd gone from nothing to regular physical activity in a short time and had stuck with it more than one night.  And now it was over because I'd been stupid enough to run in freshly fallen snow.

I remember when I got home, I was sure it wasn't that bad.  And then I took off my sock.  Oh sweet merciful crap.  It was MASSIVE.  When I saw it, I started crying, punched the wall, and rattled off a string of F-bombs.  Then I swallowed my pride and went to emerg.  It was a bad sprain and would take months before I could be back running on it.  I got fitted for the robo-boot, signed up for physio, and went on my way to wallow in my misery for 2 months.

But I couldn't give up.  My mom had suffered setbacks in her training before and kept plugging along every time.  Of all the injuries and emotional ups and downs she'd had all those years, she still completed those 4 races, and she still ran incredible distances every single week.  I took all my motivation from her and reset my training cycle to 16-weeks out from the race.  It wouldn't be easy.  In the meantime I had to study for and write my Certified Diabetes Educator exam, adjudicate the national pharmacy board exam, act as president of our local Chamber of Commerce, and work full time.  Oh, and still be a father to my 3 kids and a husband to my lovely wife.  Nothing to it.

At the halfway point of my training I was having a brilliant 6-mile run.  Near the end I was looking to beat my personal best time and I sprinted for the last 200 meters.  Two days later I tried to run 3-miles and could barely limp my way through the first 400 meters.  I had done something to my knee, and I'd done it good.

The next week all I could manage was running on my elliptical.  I had to do this for almost 3 weeks before I could run again, at which point I was able to manage a 10-mile run with very little pain.  I thought things were looking up.  In the meantime I had it looked at by a nurse practitioner and went to physio twice.  I thought this would be it but then I tried to run a few days later and the pain was excruciating.  Would I be put out by injury AGAIN?  Would I have to give up my dream of completing this race?

I spent a week on the elliptical but still, the pain would not subside.  Finally, only 3 weeks out from the race, I did something crazy.  I did absolutely NOTHING for a whole week.  Well, not nothing.  I read. A lot.  About running.  Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and, on the tails of that read, countless resources about barefoot running including some YouTube videos.  Could it be that I'd been running incorrectly this whole time?  Now, while I'm not dumb enough to make the transition from shod running to barefoot 3 weeks out from a 13 mile race, I did walk around in bare feet that whole week of rest and did some of the posture and strengthening exercises recommended by some of the resources.

I don't know if it was the week of rest or the exercises I did, but when I started on my final two weeks of training, my knee pain was GONE.  Completely.  Not just less or tolerable, but gone.  The next week I completed 4 runs totalling 15 miles with absolutely no problems.  Not only that, but my stride and posture felt better and I was faster than I'd been before.  I was one run from pulling out of the race, but when I completed that run exactly two weeks out from race day and it and felt like a million bucks, I decided to risk it and stay in.

And I couldn't be happier.  When I got to Edmonton on Sunday morning, I couldn't believe the amount of people running in that race.  Between the half and the full marathons, over 1500 people ran.  And nothing can prepare you for the intensity of corralling yourself into the starting area with all these people and having them all move as a unified mass when the starting gun goes off.

I knew from the get go that it was going to be a great race.  I was running comfortably, breathing easy, and my muscles did not even begin to tire until mile 10.  Not only that but I was running 30 sec/mile under my training pace.  So when I came in view of the finish line, I was PUMPED.  Maybe a little too pumped.  I started my kick a little early.  1 km is a painfully long distance when you start a full out sprint!

When I was 100 meters out from the finish, I was hurting, my breathing was rapid, and I was getting this strange tingly feeling in my head.  But then I looked up and saw that the clock time said I was at 2:09.  I don't know how, but I burst as fast as I could and got across under 2:10, my goal time from the outset.  It was then and there that I realized just how much my interest in her accomplishment meant to my mom 5 years ago.

Over the course of my training I suffered two injuries, one severe, one not so much, but still capable of preventing me from completing the race.  I ran a total of roughly 230 miles (368 km), averaging about 15 miles per week.  I had so much emotion and time invested in this run, to complete it was a feeling I can't explain unless you've done it yourself.  I wanted to run to the top of the grandstand and show my medal to everyone willing to look.  But I didn't because my wonderful family was there, waiting to congratulate me, hug me in all my sweaty glory, and tell me how proud they were.  My kids, my wife, my grandmother, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law.  But most meaningfully, my inspiration, my reason for doing it, my hero: my mom.

She was there for me.  She got up at 5am that day to drive me there and spent the whole morning waiting for me to finish.  She did this despite the fact that no one but her mom was ever at the finish line for her all those times she completed the half.  (Well, maybe not "no one", but certainly not me.)  Despite the fact that I never really told her how proud I was of her accomplishments and how much of an inspiration she was for me.  And she did this despite suffering from what the doctors think is severe sciatica which has all but halted her running for the last couple months.  The pain she felt when I didn't fully acknowledge her achievement in 2007, the pain she felt when she saw all those runners take off at the start of a race in which she desperately wished she could run: none of it could keep her away from the finish line to show me how proud she was, to show me that she understands why I do it.

And finally, crossing that finish line, I understood just how much that first race meant to her.  And I couldn't be happier that I now share that understanding with her and my oldest sister.  An experience and bond that cannot be explained but is none the weaker for it.

Now if you find yourself wondering why someone could be so sentimental about something so simple as running, next time you are in your car on a longer drive, set your trip odometer to 0 and just take the time to truly perceive the distance that a half-marathon represents.  21.1 km. And then imagine yourself running that.  Or better yet, do it.  Because you'll never truly appreciate how amazing it feels to complete a half-marathon until you've done it yourself.  And I have my mother to thank for giving me that gift.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Miracle weight loss products

After reading an excellent post by Scott Gavura at Science-Based Medicine I posted a link to it on my Facebook wall, along with a fairly unequivocal statement regarding "miracle" solutions for weight loss.  It went something like this.

"Yet another useless "miracle" diet. There is no easy quick fix to losing and KEEPING OFF weight. None. Period. Anyone that tells you otherwise is either lying, delusional, or the CEO of a company that sells weight loss products."

After thinking about it for a bit, I felt it necessary to provide at least a bit of empirical support for my statement.  I can tell you from my experience that every single weight loss product sold where I work is not worth your time or money.  And I have yet to see a single evidence-based, realistic article in popular grocery store magazines regarding how to sustainably lose weight.  Of course, it wouldn't sell many magazines if you tossed on the headline "Lose 1-2 pounds per week by counting all the calories you eat, eating way less than you do right now and once you've lost the weight, working out an average of one hour a day."  If you can sell that, you should be in marketing.

But my experience is no indicator of truth.  So I decided to generate a research hypothesis.  It goes something like this.  If the massively popular sports nutrition and weight loss products and programs sold to millions of individuals struggling with weight every year are actually effective, we should see their use go in lockstep with rates of obesity.  But we all know that rates of obesity have been steadily climbing for the last 10 years.  And, of course, so have sales of sports nutrition and weight management products and services.  In fact, the similarity between the two growth curves is so similar, it is almost frightening.

Now it stands to reason 100% that this would be so.  As more and more people struggle with weight and seek solutions to their struggles, the market for these products grows.  As such, the marketing of them grows and, in turn, their sales.  It makes sense.  But if they were actually effective, it would be a self-limiting relationship as they would work themselves right out of a job.  But they're not effective.  They're useless and probably contribute at least partially to societal obesity itself.

The graph below is based on OECD obesity data for the US and market data for the sports nutrition and weight management industry.  Obviously, there are a million holes in this approach, but it is certainly a question worth pursuing in more scientific circles.  (In case you are a stats nerd like me, the correlation in the below graph is 0.99)

Friday, June 22, 2012

A treasure trove

Since I started training for my first half-marathon, I have come to love running.  I always knew I might, but never stuck at it long enough to find out.  With my race less than 2 months away, I'm about at the half way mark of training.  Things have been going well enough that I plan on continuing to long-distance run and aim for longer average distances over time.

Being a medical science nerd, I was interested to find out what exactly the health benefits of long distance running are, since people invariably point to the reported cases of deaths during marathons every year.  I assumed this must be a case of recall bias, that being that things which you've read frequently or can easily recall seem more common than they really are.  But where to find the data to support it?  Turns out, I'm not the only one who wants an answer to this question.

Paul Williams, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has published TONS of data from his National Runners' Health Study.  I just searched his name on Pubmed and came across the following data supporting the health benefits of long-distance running.

1.  Risk for stroke is substantially reduced in those who exceed recommended physical activity levels, even after controlling for consequent reduction in blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, and body weight.
2.  Higher fitness levels reduce the odds of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.
3.  Risk of high cholesterol declines in step with increasing average running distance.
4.  Incidence of diabetes declines significantly with increasing average weekly running distance, even when adjusted for age and body mass index.
5.  Of interest, although many assume that fitness leads to weight loss, study after study after study has failed to prove this association.  One of the National Runners' Health Study reports shows that pre-study BMI accounted almost entirely for the association between BMI and fitness levels.  That is, those who are already lean are more likely to be faster runners and run more often and, not surprisingly, have the lowest BMIs at the end of the study as well.  So the association between fitness and body weight can be almost entirely explained by ones existing body weight.  Meaning that it is correlational and not causative as many would assume.
6.  While consistent long distance running does not seem to promote weight loss, it does seem to protect against the weight gaining effects of North American diets.  So it may not make you lose weight, but it will prevent you from gaining.
7.  An interesting study looked at active vs. non-active monozygotic twins.  It showed that vigorous physical activity attenuated the genetic "risk" of obesity.  Meaning that whatever genetic component contributes to obesity risk and body weight, it should be equal in identical twins.  So if one is a long distance runner and the other is not, and the active one has a lower BMI than the sedentary one, you can assume it is the running helping out the situation (they controlled for cigarette use, diet, education, etc.)
8.  Just in case the news stories still have you worried, take it from AndrĂ© Picard, the best health reporter in Canada.  From his article, you find out the following:
Donald Redelmeier, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, examined records from marathons where there were 3.3 million participants over a 30-year period. There were 26 deaths. That’s a death rate of one in 126,000 – roughly the same as the death rate in the general population. Stated plainly, people die of heart disease, not running.
9.  And, in case you are still not convinced, this study conclusively shows that despite a massive increase in marathon participation in the last 30 years, deaths on the course have not become more common and continue to be rare.  

So, here I am, happy with my decision to pursue a recreational activity that I not only enjoy but that has myriad health benefits.

(As an aside, although the plural of "anecdote" is not "proof" I am certainly the embodiment of science's failure to find a weight loss effect of exercise.  Since April 30, I have run almost 100 miles, averaging 13 miles per week.  I have gained almost 5 pounds in that time.  Boo!)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

"Whole" Smoke and Mirrors

I follow a blog called Fooducate.  Today there is a post on the lack of "wholeness" in Whole Foods pastry offerings.  I'd like to draw attention to a few problems with this line of reasoning.

First of all, Whole Foods may have started out with a humble and worthy mission.  However, it is now a major corporation with $10 billion in annual sales, $350 million in profit, and a $16 billion market capitalization, with 304 locations.  The fact that they don't hand make all of their baked goods in store, from scratch, with only pure ingredients that any home baker could access should not surprise anyone, no less someone who has supposedly worked in the industry for 15 years.

Secondly, since when is it a crime to use white flour in baked goods?  Go ahead and use unrefined whole wheat flour in cookies next time you make them.  Let me know how it turns out for you.  Wholeness should refer to the fact that it has been made from whole ingredients without a bunch of crap added to it.  That is, in the example given, snickerdoodle cookies, if you get past all the "legal" ways the ingredients are reported, it really breaks down to this:
-baking powder
-sea salt
-pure vanilla
I don't know about you, but that's about how I'd make snickerdoodles.  The only ingredient that doesn't make sense is palm oil.  Why wouldn't they just use canola oil?

And if you look at the other examples given, they really aren't that bad.  Next time you are in a non-Whole Foods grocery store, grab a pastry item from the bakery area and read out the ingredients.  That will show you what non-whole really means.

The bigger issue here is not that this consultant is focusing on a very narrow problem, which really isn't a problem, if you ask me, but that even these products should be considered a substitute for what are really whole foods.  I guarantee you if you walk through a Whole Foods market you can still find a bunch of processed crap that you could find in any other grocery store.  It will just have fancier names to make you forget about what you are really doing: substituting convenience for healthy, homemade cooking.

Again, I will go back to the example of bread as I have so often before.  Since learning to love the practice of bread baking at home (and no, I don't have a bread machine, and no, it doesn't take me exorbitant amounts of time, and yes, I do work full-time and have 3 children at home to care for on my days off), I can count on one hand the number of times we have bought store bread in the last 2 years.  Now, let's take the authors line of reasoning and apply it to bread.

If I go to my local grocery store I can buy Dempster's Ancient Grains Bread.  And hooray, the first listed ingredients are whole grain whole wheat flour, whole grain flax, whole grain millet, whole grain spelt flakes, whole grain kamut flakes, whole grain barley flakes, whole grain poppy seeds, whole grain amaranth, and whole grain quinoa.  Good start.  Then rye flakes, sugar, yeast, wheat gluten, vinegar.  Ok.  I can get all those.  Raisin syrup.  Hmmm.  Not sure where I'd find that.  Salt, vegetable oil.  Oh, I recognize those.  Monoglycerides, acetylated tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides, calcium propionate, sodium stearoyl-2-lactylate, calcium carbonte.  Baking aisle maybe?  Chemistry laboratory nearby?

What about the bagels she lambastes because the vendor doesn't list the "type" of flour besides calling it "high-gluten flour".  Here is the ingredient list for Dempster's Cinnamon Raisin Bagels.  They do list the "type" of flour.  Good for them.  Enriched wheat flour, water, raisins, sugar/ glucose-fructose, cinnamon flakes (sugar, hydrogenated soybean and/or cottonseed oil, cinnamon, soybean lecithin), cornmeal, salt, yeast*, wheat gluten, cinnamon, malted barley flour, calcium propionate, monoglycerides, vegetable oil (soybean or canola), sorbic acid. May contain potassium sorbate.  Fail.  

As far as I'm concerned, the "whole" offerings at Whole Foods look preferable to me over those at a "traditional" grocery store.  However, even if all the examples given contained whole wheat, whole grain flour, they would still not be a substitute for the homemade version.  

It is a sign of our nutrition-obsessed industrial food culture in North America that we are dwelling on such an issue.  What we should be discussing is why we need a multi-billion dollar corporation to make our breads, pizzas, and pastries for us in the first place.  All the whole grain flour in the world can't replace what we've lost in culinary knowledge in our culture.  When did a grocery store become a place where you buy meals instead of ingredients to make meals?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Maybe my grandkids?

I just finished a fantastic book by Jeannie Marshall entitled Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.  If you have kids and are concerned about what they are eating, or you don't and are just concerned about the North American way of eating, you should get this book.  The author moves to Italy from Canada for work and raises her son there.  It is part story of living in a different culture but also part evaluation of the North American and, increasingly, global food system that is contributing to ever higher rates of overweight and obesity.

As a family, we try very hard to eat a healthy, simple diet consisting of mostly whole foods, only using processed crap sparingly.  And we are trying to raise our children to see food as something to enjoy, not as a commodity to consume.  Having them help us with our vegetable garden is part of that, but so is the way we cook, having them help in the kitchen, and ensuring they try something new every day.  We still let them have fun foods from time to time, but they do not form the centrepiece of their diets.

School lunches have always posed a huge challenge for us, particularly me.  I am always at a loss as to what to put in Sacha's lunch each day he goes to kindergarten.  When Sarah packs it, I'm pretty sure he has the healthiest lunch at the school, and he loves it.  His favorite lunch food is cut up red peppers.  Go figure.  I am slowly learning from Sarah.  But it is a good thing there are no short cuts available in our pantry, because I'd be pulling them out more often than I'd like.

But we are focused on this and make it a priority.  What about other parents?  Maybe they have healthy breakfasts at home and relatively healthy suppers, but lunch is where things can really go to hell.  I've seen kids with lunches full of nothing but processed food products.  Intelligent parents who cook healthy at home and who mean perfectly well and assume that what they are sending their child to school with is "healthy" end up doing just the opposite.  So when I read the following excerpt from Outside the Box, I knew I had to share it.  Because every parent of school-aged kids needs to read this to know, #1, how broken our system is and, #2, that it doesn't have to be that way.  That we could raise our children in a more healthy food society.  All it takes is demand.

1.  Lunch time at a Canadian school
"The children are given twenty minutes in a crowded, noisy room to wolf down whatever their parents have packed for them.  Elizabeth said that Aiden finds it stressful, so whenever it's possible for her to do so, she brings him home for lunch or at least tries to check in on him.  I watched the other children as Elizabeth went to find her son.  I saw a girl with a Thermos full of soup and a bag of Cheezies; a boy with a bottle of water, a ham and cheese sandwich on a white bun and a small container of Pringles chips; and another boy eating a slice of cold pizza.  There were lots of juice boxes, chocolate milk and yogurt drinks.  I saw two girls around seven or eight years old drinking Diet Coke, and a boy with a can of Sprite.  Another boy had a processed cheese sandwich on whole wheat and a silver bag that he sucked at with a straw.  I saw a few apples and one banana and quite a bit of fruit leather.  I was surprised to see a girl eating spaghetti with tomato sauce from a Thermos and another eating a takeout Caesar salad in a clear, plastic container with a bottle of vitamin water.  The children sat at long tables, some together and others trying to eat alone.  There were two adult monitors...but the room was incredibly noisy and most of the children wouldn't sit down....
There was no coherence to the food, since the children all brought their own.  Some of it was healthy-ish but there were a lot of food products and loads of actual junk food.  But what bothered Elizabeth the most was that the children were so unruly..."

2.  Lunch time at an Italian school
"In Italy all the schools, public and private, prepare a two-course lunch with vegetables for all the children.  Some schools might offer dessert once a week, but most don't offer it at all.  I went to Nico's watch the children at lunch one day.  Several classes at a time came to the mensa.  The children sat around a table and each of them set their own place with a placemat, napkin, spoon, fork, and cup that they brought from home.  The cook, a young man whom the children adore, rushed out with a big bowl of pasta with ragu...for each table.  The teachers served the children and then themselves, and sat down to eat with their class.  The teachers engaged in casual discussions with the children about whatever the children wanted to talk about.  They also helped them to hold their forks properly, insisted that they wipe their hands and faces with their napkins and required them to stay in their seats throughout the meal.  When they were finished eating their pasta, the cook brought a large pan of scrambled eggs with Parmesan and a bowl of green salad to each table.  Each child took a plate with a little of each.  He also offered them ortiche (nettles) that he had picked that morning from their terrace garden and cooked and dressed with olive oil, salt, and lemon, and also some fresh, giant cranberry beans to taste...Some of the children asked for more.  There were pitchers of water on the table, along with bowls of freshly grated Parmesan.  When they were finished, they were offered bread that had been delivered that morning from a nearby bakery....
The school does not accommodate picky eaters or vegetarians, though it will make allowance for genuine food allergies.  There's no dessert, except during cherry season....There are no fruit juices and certainly no soft drinks, and the children don't expect them.  When everyone is finished, which is usually after about half an hour to forty minutes, the children clear their places and go outside to play.
The standard form of lunch at this school is a first course of soup, risotto, or pasta and a second course of fish, meat, eggs or cheese and a vegetable.  I've seen the children eat pumpkin risotto; sauteed zucchini flowers; meatballs made with ground chicken, Parmesan and lemon zest; and fish with tomatoes and capers....It's not only the food that is important, but the social skills the children pick up by sitting around the table with their peers and their teachers.  They learn to take turns speaking, they learn to share, and they learn to pass the water pitcher.  They learn to stay seated until everyone has finished their meal."

Read both and think about which you would prefer for your children.  And then think about what it would take to make this a reality.  Given the glacial pace at which regulatory change occurs in Canada, I have little hope this will come to fruition for my children.  But I can hold out hope for my grandkids.  Do you too?

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Norwegian Dream

I've written here before about one thing Norway does very well: managing their sovereign wealth fund.  But Norway does a lot else really well and this came to light in a recent discussion I had with my first year pharmacy student.

He was totally incredulous when I told him I am typically an NDP supporter in federal elections, and usually in provincial elections, although I will admit to voting PC this time around.  He didn't understand how someone who is in a high tax bracket and is pro-business could also support the NDP, a party that many mistakenly assume is in bed with Communists.  He then threw out a common refrain voiced by those who oppose the NDP.  "You know if they ever came to power you can kiss half of your paycheque goodbye, right?" 

It is a commonly held myth that democratic socialism means less disposable income.  While it is true that, in general, nations governing by this dictum often have higher personal tax rates, that does not translate into less disposable income.  If everyone throws a little more money into the pot and that is efficiently and intelligently used to pay for services for the entire population, a practice which often reduces the price of providing those services due to the impact of bulk purchasing power, then a larger portion of the remainder of the paycheque is available for wants, not needs. 

But my student is an intelligent young lad so he deserved a well thought out response.

So here it is.  I analyzed the most recent data from the OECD for the following countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, and United States.  I analyzed disposable income per capita, government expenditure as a % of GDP, VAT rate (similar to GST; basically sales tax), total government tax revenue as a % of GDP, total personal tax wedge, Gini coefficient, Human Development Index, and various income tax figures after he made a comment about the impact of taxation on higher wage earners.  I looked at the income tax rates of singles and married couples in the highest tax brackets, looking at the base rate, base rate plus social security contributions, and marginal rate, or the percentage in tax paid on the last $ of earned income.  (If you are a sucker for punishment, feel free to ask me for the original data).

I wanted to see how each factor correlated with three other factors: disposable income per capita, Gini coefficient, and Human Development Index. 

Disposable Income Per Capita most strongly correlates with the income tax level on singles and married couples in the highest earnings bracket.  As well, as you can imagine, it correlates quite strongly with HDI, as the more money people have to themselves, the more developed a nation is likely to be.  The other correlations are quite weak aside from a moderate correlation between disposable income and total government tax revenue.  This may not be intuitive but when individuals pay more taxes, they are essentially being forced to save their money by spending it into a pool that is used to purchase services for the whole population.  Thus, they have to pay out of pocket for fewer goods and services and thus a larger percentage of what they earn is disposable because their needs are taken care of by the tax pool.  As an aside, the Gini coefficient correlates negatively with disposable income per capita, which makes sense, because as disposable income goes up, the Gini coefficient goes down, representing movement towards perfect equality.  This stands to reason since the more free money people have to spend PER person, the less likely it is that all the earned income in that nation is concentrated in the hands of a few.

Right away, the data conflicts with the preconceptions of most Canadian conservatives.  They would have you believe that if the government collects less taxes, we will all have more money in our pockets.  I hate to cloud the issue with facts, but it doesn't appear that way, at least not in the 28 OECD nations I analyzed. 

How about Gini coefficient?  What makes a country equal?  There is a very strong correlation between government expenditure as a % of GDP, total government tax revenue, and total personal tax.  Again this stands to reason as the more is put in tax coffers and then spent on the population, the more likely is equality.  This also holds for the tax rate paid by the highest wage earners.  Also makes sense since the more tax we take from them, the more we spread the love throughout the country.

What about HDI?  There are almost no strong correlations here EXCEPT the income tax rate on the highest wage earners, whether they be single or married.  So it seems the more we tax the highest wage earners, the more developed our nation is.  Even when I ran a regression analysis and took out the impact of all the other factors and looked at the impact of these rates alone, rate of income tax collected from highest wage earners in a country is still significantly positively correlated with HDI.

Now to top it all off.  Where does the United States, that bastion of free market capitalism and the poster child for fiscal conservatives everywhere, stand in the rankings for the various factors? (Out of 28 OECD nations)

1.  Disposable Income Per Capita: 3rd
2.  Government Expenditure as % of GDP: 23rd
3.  Tax Revenue as % of GDP: 27th
4.  Total Personal Tax Wedge: 21st
5.  Gini coefficient: 27th (it is only less unequal than Mexico)
6.  12th highest income tax rate for high earning singles
7.  About middle of the pack for the other high earning tax figures
8.  HDI: 4th

So, since the disposable income per capita is quite high, but the Gini coefficient is so high, it stands to reason that large amounts of wealth are concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the population.  This drives the DIPC up but is not shared equally.  For someone like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, that is fantastic news.  But for the average Joe/Jane, not so great news.

Is there a better way?  In my opinion, yes.  Sure, if you want to make lots of money as a balls to the wall entrepreneur, you are best off in the States.  But if you are just a regular Joe working in a profession or trade and trying to raise family, that doesn't mean a hill of beans to you.  Which nation has the highest DIPC, highest HDI, and lowest Gini coefficient? Norway

Their DIPC is more than $5000 MORE than the US.  So instead of the general population making peanuts but a few people making buckets of money, everyone makes a decent living.  And they are not even that reckless with their tax and spend policies.  They are only the 16th highest spending government, have the 5th highest tax revenue, and "burden" their citizens with the 14th highest total personal tax wedge. 

Just to make their system more attractive they also elect their legislative representatives by proportional representation.  And they get around the mess that could create in Canada by, believe it or not, working together.  Weird right?  How do they do this?  Legislation that says their parliament CANNOT be dissolved in the four-year span between fixed-date elections.  So if you can't agree on something, you are going to work together until you get it figured out.  Because you are stuck with each other for four years.  THAT is what we need to do in Canada.

Don't get me wrong.  I love Canada.  Always have, always will.  But over the years the impression has been creeping across the border that we need to take all the power away from government and leave as much money in the pockets of wage earners as possible.  This is thought to be the only way to true success and economic prosperity. 

Nations like Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark show us that there is another way.  It is time we start taking some of their great ideas and working them into this amazing country we have to make it all the better.  Who wouldn't love to see Canada one day sitting with the highest disposable income per capita, HDI rating, and income equality?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Holy crap how wrong was I?

If you recall my election prediction fun, it is quite obvious that I am terrible at predicting outcomes of elections.  I was WAY off on my seat predictions, as was pretty much everyone else.  And of the 10 bonus questions asked I only got 5 right.  Fail. 

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Election Prediction Fun #2

Now this is more to show the uselessness of public opinion polls and seat projections.  I will post the final polling results and seat projections from numerous sources, all of which were published here except the Forum poll which was published here.

First off, the popular vote percentages.

Party Leger Think HQ Campaign Abacus Forum Average
Wildrose 42 41 41 41 41 41.2
PC 36 33 34 31 32 33.2
NDP 10 11 11 13 13 11.6
Lib 9 11 11 12 10 10.6
Other 3 4 3 3 4 3.4

Now, for the even more shaky art of seat projections.  These come from Forum, Threehundredeight, and Daveberta average pool responses.

Party Forum THE Daveberta Average
Wildrose 62 45 42 49
PC 19 37 37 32
NDP 4 4 4 5
Lib 2 1 3 1
Other 0 0 1 0 

Using the Hill & Knowlton Election Seat predictor tool, I've arrived at my own seat projections using the various poll firms voting intention data both on a whole Alberta basis and a regional basis.  Both of these methods yield a slim Wildrose majority, varying in composition based on full province data or regional data.

Full province data yields the following:
Wildrose 47
PC 32
Other 0

Regional Data yields the following:
Wildrose 46
PC 29
NDP 10
Lib 2

However, of course, all of this information is based on decided voters.  The undecided will determine the fate of our province.  The H&K election predictor allows you to see the impact of votes swinging from one camp to another.  Let's evaluate a few scenarios based on province-wide data.

1.  Half of Liberal leaning voters vote PC to stop a Wildrose government from forming
Minority Wildrose government with 43 seats, PC 37, NDP 7

2.  Half of all NDP leaning voters vote PC to stop a Wildrose government from forming
Wildrose majority with 44 seats, PC 41, NDP 2

3.  Half of Liberal and half of NDP voters vote PC
PC majority at 45, Wildrose 40, NDP 2

4. 100% of Liberal voters toss their support behind the NDP
Still results in a Wildrose majority

5.  NDPers listen to Raj Sherman and toss all their support behind him
Still a Wildrose majority

So you can see from this that there are only two scenarios where Wildrose does NOT form a majority government.  Either Liberal voters swing in large numbers to the PCs, or both Liberal and NDP voters swing to the PCs.

So, given all this, and that a good 20% of those planning to vote are currently undecided, and of those, more are leaning toward the PCs, I am predicting a close Wildrose MINORITY government.  After looking at all this I still stand beside my original predictions for the Daveberta election prediction pool posted here.  

I will post how well all of these aligned with the actual results after the election as well as the results of my alternative election

I know, you can't contain your excitement.  It's okay.  I totally understand.

Election Prediction Fun #1

I know.  It's an oxymoron.  But some of us do consider elections to be fun.  Hence, my reason for posting this.  I have done various election predictions and will post the results below.  After the election, I will see how terrible I did. 

The Daveberta Election Pool

I entered an election pool over at  Not really for the prizes, which are nerdy politics books, but just for shits and giggles. 

Here are my responses to his questions.

Number of MLAs elected by each party (total: 87 MLAs)
Alberta Party: 0
Liberal: 1
NDP: 5
PC: 40
Wildrose: 41
Other: 0

1. The constituency where the PC candidate will earn their highest percentage of the popular vote: Griffiths: Battle River-Wainwright
2. Will PC MLA Ted Morton be re-elected in Chestermere-Rockyview? No
3. Will Premier Alison Redford be re-elected in Calgary-Elbow? Yes
4. Will Liberal Party leader Raj Sherman be re-elected in Edmonton-Meadowlark? Yes
5. What will the highest vote percentage for the Alberta Party be in a riding? Lacombe-Ponoka
6. Will either Allan Hunsperger (“gays burn in hell”) or Ron Leech (“being white is an advantage”) win their seat? No
7. Who will be elected in Edmonton-Glenora? Ray Martin-NDP
8. Which party leaders will announce plans to resign within 48 hours of the vote? Redford
9. How many of the 3 senate positions will the Wildrose Party win? 0
10. Who will get more votes – Liberals or NDP? NDP     

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

My alternative election wish

As I have done for pretty much every election in my living memory, I am going to analyze the results of this provincial election in a different light. I envy the people of New Zealand, because as far as I am concerned they have one of the fairest, simplest, and most representative voting systems in the developed world.

Here is how it works.

The national parliament is divided into thirds. Two-thirds of the seats are constituency seats. One-third are called list seats. When a voter gets to the ballot box, the ballot would look something like this, using my riding as an example.

1. Choose your preferred candidate.
Forsyth, Alan-Wildrose
Laurin, Wanda-NDP
Oberle, Frank-PC
Tardif, Remi-Liberal

2. Choose your preferred party

You get two choices on each ballot. So, for example, in my riding, if I really liked, say, Mr. Oberle, the incumbent, because he is a hard-working, honest MLA, I could vote for him but still support the, say, NDP party. Just a hypothetical here.

Then, this is how the results work. They add up the votes for all the parties to arrive at a popular vote percentage. Using a mathematical method called the Saint-Lague formula, they allocate the number of seats each party is allotted as a percentage of the total seats in the Parliament. The formula just allows for equal allotments of seats and avoids rounding errors in favor of one party over another.

Now, in each constituent riding, whoever gets the most votes wins. So, let's say the PCs got 30 members elected in their constituencies but their popular vote allotted them 4o seats. They would now get 10 extra members elected into Parliament in the list seats. These would be taken from a prepublished and predetermined "list" posted by each party before the election.

Here is how I see this working in Alberta and how I have set it up to analyze the results after election day and come up with an "alternative" Legislature in Alberta.

I've taken each of the 87 ridings in Alberta and come up with an alternative alignment. It is rough and if it was ever done more strict criteria would be involved. I basically just took the 3 closest by geography. So let's say 3 Northwest Alberta ridings as an example. They would be lumped together, then split in 2. Those 2 ridings would be 2 constituent seats. The whole of the 2 ridings would be a list seat. So the people in each riding would have an MLA for themselves, and then 1 list MLA would oversee the larger area represented by the 2 ridings. The 2 constituent MLAs would be voted in as they are now. The list MLA could come from a predetermined list or they could look at the candidates for each party with the highest levels of popular support province-wide and give out the list seats remaining for each party in descending order of support gained.

So this is what I shall do. I will look at the results in each riding. Whichever 2 candidates get the highest percentage of popular vote in their ridings will be my "constituent" MLAs in those 2 ridings out of the 3 I lump together. The remaining candidates will go onto the list.

I'm interested to see how this method will realign the seat allotment in Alberta and also the MLA makeup in the Legislature. It is only a completely nerdy academic exercise on my part, but I hope to see a proportional representation system similar to that used in New Zealand adopted in Alberta some day, and, more hopefully, across Canada.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Alberta Heritage Fund in disrepair

Below is an e-mail I sent to Danielle Smith, leader of the surging Alberta Wildrose Party. As they look poised to form Alberta's next government, their policies and announcements need to be analyzed carefully. As you'll see below, at least one of these policies, although very popular among some voters, is shortsighted and not what I expect of my political leaders.

Dear Mrs. Smith:

I initially read with great interest and excitement your proposal to finally bring the Alberta Heritage Fund to a respectable level. I was confused and disappointed when I later read your proposal to pay a $300 "energy dividend" to every Albertan.

The mindset that initially drove Ralph Klein to give us all "prosperity cheques" is no different than the one behind your announcement to pay us each $300. It is, no doubt, the same mindset that has flourished under 40 years of Conservative rule in this province and led to the pathetic current market value of the Alberta Heritage Fund. The fact that you announced it as a key policy plank leads me to believe that Wildrose rule may be no different, and that disappoints me. I found your policy platform very well thought out and not as "right wing" as many claim your party to be. But to implement this $300 policy would be evidence that your party knows nothing of responsible governance or fiscal management and thus, are no different than the Conservatives.

What you, Ms. Redford, Mr. Mason, and Dr. Sherman all need to hear is that the people of Alberta elect our government to make difficult and complex decisions on our behalf for the betterment of our province and its future. If you want to give us each $300 per year, lower our personal income taxes. Taking the money from us and then giving it back is not only a huge administrative expense but brings into question our leaders' creativity and passion for future generations. It takes a real leader to think beyond their lifetime and invest for the future. That is exactly what the leaders of Norway have been doing since 1990. And by every measure imaginable, the Alberta Heritage Fund is an absolute embarrassment compared to the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund.

If you consider Alberta as a unique political entity, our Heritage Fund lags Norway's as a percentage of government revenue, government expenditure, GDP, annual petroleum revenue, and dollars per capita. It is even more embarrassing to learn that the Heritage Fund's inception was in 1976 while Norway only started in 1990. Even with that temporal handicap the latter has a full $500 billion more in value. Even considering equal starting points, an aggregate average of all the measures for Norway's fund would suggest that ours should contain $211 billion by now had our leaders been as responsible and forward-thinking as those in Norway.

What if the Conservatives of 1976 invested $300 in 1976 dollars (roughly $75) for each Albertan (1.8 million at the time) in the Heritage Fund, and continued to do so until now? At a very modest growth of 3% per year and converting it into 2012 dollars, it would put the value at $33.8 billion, double its existing value. Instead, it looks like we've invested only $250 million in 2012 dollars for 35 years, only 0.71% of total government revenue. Clearly we can AND must do better.

Think, Mrs. Smith, of the legacy you could leave if you were to abandon your reckless proposal and focus on bringing the Heritage Fund to its fair value? Your original proposal of $200 billion is right on the money. This would be a Heritage Fund to be proud of. This would show fearless and intellectual leadership. The hard working people of Alberta deserve nothing less.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Real Gourmet? Really?

I saw a commercial last night for Michelina's new Real Gourmet line. As it says on the commercial, and on the website, you get just real food, never any preservatives.

Get real food with Real Gourmet™, new from Michelina’s®. For years, you’ve known us best for our iconic green box that you’ve been enjoying since 1992. But now you’ll know us for our unique parchment pouch that steam cooks each wholesome meal to perfection. With Michelina's® Real Gourmet you get real cuts of seasoned meat, a full serving of vegetables, and never any preservatives. This calls for the good china, every day.

Aside from the ridiculousness of calling something you pull out a box and nuke in the microwave "real food", one could argue, if it were indeed real food, that it is no different than making multiple servings of homemade food and freezing the leftovers. So do the ingredients actually contain JUST real food? Here they are for the Beef Bourguignon.


I don't know about you, but if I were making beef bourguignon at home, which I have in fact done, I would leave out sodium phosphate, citric acid, yeast extract, potassium chloride, maltodextrin, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate.

Now I could understand if they were putting this out for fresh consumption. But why all the crap when it is going straight into and out of the freezer? You can freeze food without all this other garbage in it. Calling this "real food" is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who ever cooks at home from whole ingredients.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Debunking Dr. Oz-Day 1

I am following a blog that summarizes the insane recommendations made on Dr. Oz. And I'm doing this because, no word of a lie, EVERY SINGLE DAY I get someone who comes to me asking me if I carry some random, obscure product that I've never heard of. And now that I've started following this blog, I come home and read it and understand why they were asking me. Because Dr. Oz recommended it. And this concerns me. If he was just some guy who spouted off garbage that no one listens too, fine. But my patients actually intend on ingesting supplements and making changes in their health habits based on his information. To me, that is scary.

So, starting now, every time I get a request for something and I then see that it was featured on the Dr. Oz show, I'm going to tear it to shreds and expose it for the blatant sensationalistic ratings-grab that it is.

Today's ridiculous recommendation? Parasites may be the cause of your fatigue.

Problem #1: The whole premise. First of all, contrary to the statements of Dr. Oz and his guest, parasitic infections are NOT widespread. It's such an absurd idea that I'm not even going to justify it by referencing the facts unless someone really insists. Second, the whole diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome is incredibly contentious. Medical science is not even decided on what CFS exactly is, what causes it, and what symptomatology it represents. Because of that, there is no reliable way of stating its prevalence within a given population. Furthermore, there is only a SINGLE human study looking at the link between a SINGLE parasite (Giardia lamblia) and CFS. The study was poorly designed as it relied on mail questionnaires and did not control for lifestyle factors that could have explained the increase in CFS. And, if you can't agree on the diagnosis or definition of the condition you're studying, how valid are the results?

Problem #2: No evidence for the recommended therapies.
1. Garlic: Will not keep parasites away. There are no good quality human trials assessing the effects of garlic on human parasites. Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, the best evidence-based reference for natural products, states that there is insufficient data to conclude any significant antimicrobial effect of garlic, despite the guest's claim that it is a "natural anti-microbial". So is ethanol.
2. Wormwood tea: This is the obscure question we got today. "Do you have any wormwood tea?" No in vivo human studies of any significance conducted using wormwood tea against intestinal parasites. No evidence whatsoever.
3. Papaya seeds with honey. I'll assume the honey is a crucial component? I love looking this stuff up. I get all sorts of results for experiments done in rats, pigs, and chickens. Fantastic. Again, no surprises. Absolutely no studies of significance in humans for this product. And in case you like using products tested in goats and lambs, it doesn't even work in them.

Crap, crap, and more crap. Pretend treatments for pretend causes of pretend "diseases". If you have chronic fatigue, I'm not saying it is not potentially due to a medically significant condition. However, you are one unlucky soul if it is caused by a gastrointestinal parasite. Given your luck, I wouldn't hedge your bets on the useless products recommended by Dr. Oz.

Dr. Oz is not on TV to make you healthier. He is on TV to make himself rich and to do the same for the companies that make the products that he recommends. And every time I think he can't get any more ridiculous and make his medical degree look like more of a joke, he surprises me. Watch him for entertainment or just plain interest, or because you like watching intellectual train wrecks unfold before your eyes. BUT DO NOT WATCH HIM FOR RELIABLE, HONEST, SAFE, OR SCIENTIFICALLY VALIDATED MEDICAL INFORMATION. In fact, you'd be much better served from a health perspective if you spent that 30 minutes exercising.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Slowest cinnamon buns EVER!!!!!

On Thursday morning as I watched the kids while my wife was in surgery, I decided to make cinnamon buns for when she got home. The recipe usually takes about 5 hours from mixing to completion but it is worth it. This time the buns were proofing in the pan right when I had to leave to pick up Sacha from school and go to swimming lessons with all three kids. My plan was to leave them just a little longer than prescribed and bake them when we got home. When I got home, I could smell cooked cinnamon buns as I got out of the car. Sarah had decided to surprise me and bake them for me. It was a nice thought. But she was still legally impaired as she had been under anesthesia just that morning. So she slept through the oven timer buzzing. And then some. An hour and a half AFTER they were due out of the oven, she woke up to a dozen charcoal briquettes. Fail number one.
Then Saturday night, I decided to try again. The kids had been at Carnaval all day with me and passed out early as a result. So I had some time and planned on doing the first stage of the process and then retarding them in the fridge over night. Well, ten minutes into kneading, Sacha woke up with a ridiculous fever and I ended up at the hospital until ten. When I got home, I finished kneading the dough and then put them in the fridge even though that is not the point in the process in which they are supposed to go in the fridge Then this morning both Sacha and Sarah had to return to the hospital so while I looked after the other two I tried to finish my cinnamon buns, which I did, but slowly.

So now, I present to you a new take on an old classic, what I have dubbed the 72 hour cinnamon bun!

Friday, February 10, 2012

My history brought to life

As president of the Peace River & District Chamber of Commerce, I get to chair our board meetings and our general membership meetings. The GM meetings are a lot of fun as we bring in guest speakers and it is open to the broad membership to attend. Depending on the month, we get anywhere from 30-60 people in attendance. This week we were lucky enough to hear from a member of the Eugene, Oregon Rotary Club, who is in Peace River with a contingent from his club to adjudicate the awarding of a will bequest to a community building project in our town. You can read the fascinating history of this project here.

The presentation connected me to my past in ways I could have never imagined. As such, I decided to end the meeting by telling a little about my past and continue to be so proud of it that I've decided to repost it here.

The first part is about my miraculous maternal grandfather, Arnold Washburn Holmes. There is more history about this man than can fit in one blog post, but I will highlight the most fascinating parts of his life as far as my recollection goes. He was an active Rotarian and spent 6 summers studying for his Masters of Education at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, thus the recollection of my past when this stately Rotarian from the same city was presenting to our group. Grandpa Holmes spent many years as principal of Eastglen High School in Edmonton. He was also president of the Edmonton Food Bank for numerous years, and was instrumental in partnering the Food Bank with the annual Heritage Festival that attracts 100s of 1000s of visitors to Hawrelak Park every year for a celebration of food and culture. As well, if you take a trip to Hawrelak and are blessed enough to attend an outdoor concert under the cover of the beautiful auditorium there, you will find a plaque outside the gates memorializing those involved in the preparation and construction of this community gathering place. On that plaque is the name of my grandfather, a constant source of pride for me as I trek there every year, a culinary Mecca of sorts for my religious devotion to good food.

Grandpa was a consummate story teller and he availed me with many tales of his past. I'm not sure which are true and which were stretched truths, but they were always fantastic. But his community service and lasting impact on the city of Edmonton is as true as the sun rises in the east.

The second part of my past tells of my maternal great grandfather, the father-in-law of my grandfather mentioned above. This amazing man was named Eric Stephen Huestis, and his story is just as fascinating. I don't know all that happened in his life, but what I know is so amazing that every time I tell the story, no one believes me! If you want proof, go here. Great-grandpa was Deputy Minister of Forestry for Alberta many moons ago. He was part of a group that was tasked with taking Walt Disney himself around Alberta's forests for the purposes of filming and film research. In exchange for this hospitality, great-grandpa asked Mr. Disney if he would collaborate on a project to design a unique forestry mascot for Alberta, not wanting to adopt Smokey the Bear. Thus was born Bertie Beaver, our provincial forestry mascot ever since. On top of that, great grandpa did so much for the province that a mountain in the Alberta Rockies is named after him, Mount Huestis. And if you ever drive through Whitecourt in Northern Alberta, you may come across the E.S. Huestis Demonstration Forest, another project created in his memory.

Listening to that Rotarian from Oregon talk about the unique gift with which the town of Peace River has been blessed brought back memories long past. My heart flooded with pride for all those who have gone before me, whose blood flows within me. And this is to only mention two, and mentions not of my incredible paternal grandparents who risked everything and traveled to a strange land called Canada from their home in the Netherlands many moons past to create a beautiful home and life for all their children. Nor of the amazing women, my grandmother Marilyn and my great-grandmother Ivy, after whom my baby girl is named, who were the guiding forces and supportive partners of the men named above. And, of course, the legacy and impact of my parents, their children, is still being written.

And no matter where I go, no matter what I do, and no matter what I call myself, the legacy of all of them, their blood and their history, will course through my veins and make me who I am. I've never been more proud of my past.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Family dinner

Growing up, I was blessed enough to live in a house where family dinner was not just a weekly occurrence. It happened every single night. With rare exceptions, we were all at the table each night, eating home cooked meals. It was not long after my departure from this idyllic setting that I discovered this is a rare thing these days. It is so rare, in fact, that public health agencies and addictions services authorities now actively promote the importance of regularly sitting down for family supper.

The beauty family dinner repeatedly emphasized for me when I watch what must be one of the best TV dramas in years, Blue Bloods, every Friday night. You see, besides the complex crime dramas that unfold and the rich characters on display, the true beauty of Blue Bloods is in its unforgiving depiction of traditional family values, most notably expressed in its repeated display of the Reagan family dinner.

Now, I like to think of myself as a fairly progressive guy. I took my wife's name when we got married for crying out loud. But I also understand that there are some traditions that should be continued because of their overall benefit not only to society as a whole, but to individuals within society, and one such tradition is family dinners.

The benefit is not just perceived. Research demonstrates the positive impact of regularly eating together as a family, like here and here. It is obvious why this would be so. But the beauty of the Reagan family dinner on Blue Bloods, and in my humble opinion, the recipe for perfect family dinners, is its insistence on consistency of attendance, thoughtful thankfulness prior to dining, preparation of home cooked whole foods, and most importantly, lively discussion.

This weeks episode outlined some of the rules of the Reagan family dinner table.

1. Nothing is secret. All topics are fair game.
2. Everyone's opinion counts.
3. You can't be criticized for expressing your thoughts, only debated.

This is what dinner should be among families, particularly those with a significant population of mature individuals. Of course my family dinner involves the kids telling me about their day, Ivy being silly by spitting out applesauce, and us trying to keep them entertained long enough to stay at the table for a full meal.

But I dream of a day when I can have my children over to my house every Sunday with their children. Where we'll all do our part to prepare the meal and all give thanks for what we receive. Where we'll all be fearless about expressing our opinions, even on controversial, emotional subjects and in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences. A day of consistency and security in an otherwise fast-paced, unpredictable life where all the worries of the week gone past fade and the challenges of the week ahead become irrelevant. Because all that matters in life is before us in that short, sweet gathering of those we love known as the family dinner.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Questions to Expose a Bad Advisor

What does one do if they really want their investment portfolio to do well but they really don't care for all the numbers and complexities of investing? Well, for one, if you can't take a bit of time to educate yourself on one of the most important financial decisions in your life, than I have no sympathy for you if your retirement goals come crashing spectacularly down when 60 rolls around. And if you think just having your bank advisor take care of everything will solve your problems, think again. If you are wise enough to have a professional fee-only advisor managing your investments, than you can probably rest easy. But for the rest of you, buyer beware if you are not educated.

The beauty is, very little education is necessary to give you the tools you need to ask smart questions. And smart questions often lead to dumb answers. And dumb answers lead to fired advisors which leads to better served investors. Read on to find some excellent places to start and then to read a great list of simple questions you can make your advisor sweat with.

First read this post on the 7 Most Common Investor Mistakes. It is great. Educate yourself further by reading books like The Wealthy Barber and Millionaire Teacher. They're accessible and fun. If you want just as excellent information but maybe in a less jovial presentation check out some stuff by David Trahair and The Little Book of Common Sense Investing. And if you want to completely immerse yourself, try a subscription to Money Sense. One issue will give you more financial knowledge than you've possessed in your entire life.

And start questioning your advisor. Ask him things like "Well, if you were so confident of these funds last year, why are you moving me this year? I trust your decisions and I would rather we stick with your first instinct." Make them develop an asset allocation that fits your needs and ensure they review your current portfolio status at least once a year to see if it aligns with your planned asset allocation. If you have more than 5 funds in your portfolio, start to ask some serious questions. If your advisor is contacting you more than once a year to change your fund purchase allocations, get a new advisor. They are churning your portfolio to get rich on commissions and aren't worth your time. It's not illegal but it sure as hell should be.

Some other questions to ask your advisor.
1. What is my internal rate of return over the last 1 year, 3 years, 5 years, since inception?
Any advisor worth their salt should be able to give you this information. If they hesitate, fire them. If they don't know what you are talking about, fire them and then tell all your friends to avoid them like the plague. In fact, post that on their door.
2. What is the aggregate MER of my mutual fund portfolio? Anything over 2% is seriously questionable and you best be seeing some absolutely mind blowing answers to the following questions to justify that charge.
3. Am I in any load funds?
Answer should be No. If even one answer is Yes, get out. You will likely be locked into those funds for 7 years without taking a penalty on sale of the units, but get rid of this advisor immediately. There is absolutely no justification for selling load funds.
4. Am I in any funds-of-funds? If the answer is yes, seriously reconsider this individual or institution. If they answer No to the following question, proceed cautiously but they can live another day. And that question is "Are the MERs of the underlying funds charged to the unitholders of the overlying fund?" If the answer is YES, get the sam hell out of there. You are getting charged TWICE.
5. How long have my funds been around? I once had an advisor try to sell me a fund showing me a performance chart from 2008. It looked like roses. Of course it did. The fund was born when the market was at its lowest point in decades. Everything has looked like roses with 2008 as a starting point. You should ideally be invested in funds that have 10 years of performance data. Leave plugging millions of dollars into shiny new funds to the other suckers out there. You are not one of them anymore.
6. How have my funds performed compared to their benchmark? If the benchmark is some really complicated name, be skeptical. If it is a big benchmark like the S&P 500, MSCI EAFE, TSX 60 or TSX Composite, then great. If they are underperforming their benchmark by anymore than 1%, they cannot possibly be justifying the expenses they are charging you. If they can't provide that info, that is terrible. Because you can get it for free at by comparing your funds performance to the index and comparing it to any index. So check it anyways for your interest. And then fire them. Conversely, you could check the numbers based on your last statement and then come in with a barrage of really tough questions about your fund performance. Ooh, that would make them sweat!
7. How could you assist me in constructing a portfolio of low-cost index funds or broad market ETFs? If they start going on about the pitfalls of index funds and ETFs and how they won't do it because it will hurt your investment outlook, get out now. If they are honest with you and say they recognize the strengths of those approaches but their company requires they sell their mutual funds in order for the "free" advice they provide you, then go ahead. Again, the key here is consistency. If you like and trust this person and they have you in a simple mix of broad based equity and fixed income funds and they don't stray from that approach, then you could do worse than to just stick with them.

As always, if they looked totally stunned, confused, blank, or otherwise threatened or frightened by your question, you should seriously consider leaving them. And I'm not joking. And I cannot emphasize enough that if you have an advisor selling you load funds, you need a new advisor.

In the end, if you feel too overwhelmed by the whole process but are very seriously concerned about the performance of your portfolio and you reaching your retirement goals, consider professional advice from a second party. Companies like Weigh House Investor Services offer services like PortfolioCheck where they look over your existing portfolio and give objective advice....well, basically on how bad it looks. They charge for the service of course, but if you are interested in leaving your existing advisor, they will also help point you in the direction of an investment manager they trust that will serve your needs better. Again, you will pay a bit out of pocket up front, but your long term returns will be substantially higher and compounded over your working life will mean a substantial increase in the size of your retirement fund. As a last resort of course you could e-mail MoneySense magazine and come grovelling on your knees requesting a Financial Makeover. You'll get all these experts pouring over your portfolio for free!

Please feel free to contact me with any questions. I am not a certified expert but I can often point you in the right direction.