Monday, July 26, 2010

Not a cool young dude

On the way home I was checking out the news and found out that the young dude who was in charge of doling out the initial bank bailout funds is now suggesting workers cut back on their social security for the good of the country! This is too rich (literally and figuratively). The U.S has just seen the biggest tax payer bailout of the financial industry ever and now the Wall Streeters want middle class tax payers to take even more of a haircut by agreeing to a reduction of their social security income - something they have paid into all their working lifes? Another huh?

I can't do justice to the saga of social security in the U.S. in this short post but I do have a few questions I plan to look into. One is when the nomenclature describing social security described as an "entitlement" program first appeared, with "entitlement" having several negative connotations. Second when did this entitlement program become "unfunded" and what caused the program to become unfunded.

The Huffingtonpost piece does give a lot more background information.

I think I will file this one under unbelievable.

Trying to think of something more positive ....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dangerous things you should let your kids do

Gever Tulley has written a book called 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do. I haven't read the book yet but came across a talk he gave when the book was in progress. It resonated with me on a number of levels.

When I compare how children are being raised now with my own childhood - I got the better deal. It probably is a function of when I was born and where I grew up - but we did have an awful lot of freedom to explore our environment without adult supervision. Most days in the summer I would be gone by 7 am and only come home for lunch and dinner. And what did we do? We played games, we built things (sometimes using knives), we put on plays, we did start a few fires, we ran lemonade stands, we harassed the neighbours, we pretended, we fell down and picked ourselves up and we learnt how to interact.

I think it is great that parents are more involved these days but I think it is also important to give children the space to explore the world and learn to deal with it on their own.

H/T Drew

How much space do we need?

A friend fowarded this video to me about a guy living in a tiny house and it got me thinking- how much space do we need - my conclusion is not a lot. I've lived in a number of different cities over the past years with vastly different housing options. In the past, choosing a housing option has been a function of my income * housing costs * safety. But I have found that having a bigger house or apartment means that I tend to buy more stuff - nature abhors a vacuum.

When I first lived in Montreal in the 80s, rental apartments were dirt cheap. By the time I left they were getting a little more expensive. My last place in Montreal was a 3 and 1/2 (trois et demi) with a garden. Next was upstate NY were rents were so much cheaper so I moved into larger places and ended up buying some furniture to fill up those spaces.

Next stop was NYC - I had to get rid of a lot of the "stuff" I had accumulated because I could only afford a studio. Living there I realized that I don't need that much space. What I do need is a room of my own (if sharing), ready access to outdoors via a balcony or a backyard and enough space to accomadate visitors (think blow up mattresses). And on the nice to have side is separate sleeping and kitchen areas.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Spin Zone - Gulf Oil Seep is a Natural Occurrence - LOL

I think once again spin is in full effect. This morning I heard on the news that the U.S. government had discovered leaking from the top of the well and a seep from the sea bed as well as some gas bubbles. At one point, when I was eating my toast, the CBC reported that the US government was so concerned they had ordered BP to open up the well head. Which BP refused to do.

Now the story coming out of the NYT is that this seep is a natural one? Yes there are natural seepages in the Gulf of Mexico but there is no way the government would have reacted they way they did unless there were some grave concerns. But twelve hours later and we are into the spin zone.

And a while ago, there were a few lone voices who suggested that suggested that seepage from the sea bed might be a bigger concern than the authorities were admitting. One was Matt Simmons who has worked in the industry for thirty years. A few days ago he called the well integrity test absurd. Another journalist called it a fool's errand.

So for five minutes this morning there was some real news and now we are back in spin. It bothers me because as I mentioned in an earlier post, this could be a game changer.

And it also bothers me that I think I'm seeing a battle between BP and the White House - and BP seems to be winning.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Around the same time Douglas Copeland was publishing Generation X , Peter Strauss and Neil Howe were publishing Generations. The Strauss and Howe book interprets history as a repeating pattern of interplay between the generations and makes predictions based on those generational dynamics.

The Strauss and Howe theory is interesting - their historical interpretation is spot on in a number of cases. But I have some misgivings. One is that their interpretation means human kind will be endlessly repeating the same dynamics ad naseum with similar results. I tend to believe in evolution and believe we can change. A second issue is that their model does not take the rate of change into account, which has been accelerating for the past few hundred years.

I fall somewhere on the cusp as to whether my birthdate makes me a boomer or a Gen Xer. Culturally and politcally, I am much more aligned with the Gen X camp than the boomer camp. I definitely prefer the Clash over the Beatles. If I had a vote, I would have voted for Obama over McCain (might be regretting that a little bit now though)

But recently I found out that one social scientist was positing a new mini generation Generation Jones that straddles the cusp. Mmmm kind of works.

So who are we ?. I guess time will tell.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Scary movies

Scariest movie ?

For me the first was the Wizard of Oz which I saw when I was around 4 or 5 - most of my nightmares over the next couple of years involved flying monkeys in the hallway.

Next - my parents messed up. Visiting relatives in Chrystal Beach, they took us kids to a drive in. I think they expected all the kids would sleep but I didn't. When we got home, my brother and I sat up in bed, looked at each other and yelled "Vampires". This was repeated numerous times. Much later when I was an adult I found out that the vampire movie that scared me so much was a campy Polankski film The Fearless Vampire Killers .

The Exorcist - last time I watched I did have to check the door to make sure it was locked.

Most Stephen King movie adaptions suck but there is something about the Shining - redrum anyone

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gumby and Economics

For some reason, which I haven't been able to figure out yet, the embedded video only seems to be working in Chrome but not IE or Firefox - bad Google! So I'm replacing the embedded video with a link .

A friend recently posted this awesome Gumby cartoon and my first thought was that this satire at its finest. But then I realized that this was a cartoon from the early 80s - no satire intended but maybe a bit of forshadowing of the current economic crisis?

Gumby and Pokey notice a sign for free food if they are willing to go through the mirror (US consumers?)

They go through the mirror and the blockheads kick in the mirror (maybe Goldman Sachs?) I would suggest Matt Talbi's excellent article on Goldman Sachs if you want more background.

In any case Gumby's world gets a little out of whack.

Best lines:

"It amazes me to think we would get something for free"

"How will we ever put it together ...."

In the end Gumby and Pokey are saved by by a mad scientist maybe more on that later :)


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are Night Owls Smarter?

For some reason, a short 2009 article on the correlation between IQ and sleeping habits has been circulating the blogsphere. Having long been a night owl, I like these findings! The article reports the following:

Bedtimes and wake-up times for Americans in their 20s by IQ

Very Dull (IQ < 75)
Weekday: 11:41 P.M.-7:20 A.M.
Weekend: 12:35 A.M.-10:09 A.M.

Normal (90 < IQ < 110)
Weekday: 12:10 A.M.-7:32 A.M.
Weekend: 1:13 A.M.-10:14 A.M.

Very Bright (IQ > 125)
Weekday: 12:29 A.M.-7:52 A.M.
Weekend: 1:44 A.M.-11:07 A.M.

Of course the fact that this study is limited 20 somethings introduces a huge bias. It would be interesting to see if this correlation holds in other age groups.

And I'm not really sure about the IQ < 75 demographic - wouldn't most of them be institutionalized and have and enforced bedtime - not being facetious but that is getting close to functionally impaired.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Learning a new language

I haven't been able to post much lately because I've been totally immersed in learning a new language for querying multi-demensional (OLAP) databases. It isn't as difficult as it sounds. It involves understanding the structure of the database and understanding the underlying syntax, which is much simpler than learning a foreign language.

Right now my learning is self-directed. If I need to take a course or buy a book my company will support that. But I have been thinking a little bit about how I learn something new.

Years ago as a student I was living in a house with a piano and I wanted to learn how to knock out a few notes. A friend decided to take my education in hand and set out to teach me. What he did was teach me a few basic building blocks and then gave me something really hard. His premise was that if you learn a hard piece, going back and figuring out the rest of the building blocks will be easy. And he was right.

To this day, I do employ his strategy when I need to learn something new. So with this new language I learnt the basic syntax and commands and then tried to deconstruct a very complex query and keep going back and forth.

I'm not sure what the point of this post is except that I think educators need to challenge students at an early age. Looking back - the teachers I gained the most from were those that expected the most.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I probably won't be able to post anything substantive over the next few days because of other obligations. So I thought I would share my favourite commercial - it is old and I'm sure most have seen it already but what the heck:

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Stimulus Spending versus Deficit Cutting

There is an ongoing debate in the States regarding the best way to deal with the economic downturn, slump, recession or depression (and it has been called all of those things). The debate centers around stimulus spending versus deficit cutting. I'm going to lay out what I see as the basic issues in what I hope is non-technical language (official disclaimer - I'm not an economist).

Today Krugman is saying spend, spend, spend - clearly in the camp of more stimulus. And his arguments do make sense. The US is in the possibly worst downturn since the thirties. And he argues that the only way to recovery is to get businesses hiring and people working which necessitates a stimulus package . I kind of agree with that.

On the other hand, some are correctly noting that the US deficit at the end of June is unsustainable. Give or take a few billion dollars it is now around 13 trillion dollars. The deficit hawks argue that more stimulus means kicking the problem down the road so future generations will have to deal with it - rather than taking on the pain and dealing with it now. I kind of agree with their arguments as well.

Complicating matters is that the corrupt "To Big To Fail" banks were handed a get out of jail and get out of debt card for free. (That is a whole other blog post or probably deserves its own blog!)

In terms of worst consequences - I don't know. Travelling down the Krugman path means increasing government debt, a bigger tax burden for future generations, potential sovereign default (unlikely but not impossible) and/or bond vigalentes (much more likely - think of what happened to Greece - the cost of servicing your debt gets so high you can no longer do it and are forced to institute draconian austerity measures).

Not stimulating the economy risks anemic growth, falling GDP, falling tax revenues and continued high employment and a full blown depression.

I think the fiscal authorities in the US are literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. And I don't think they are up for the job. (Sorry Timmy)

I'm not an economist but know from experience that in some cases there is a third way (or fourth or fifth) once you move beyond thinking outside a certain framework. I think it is time for some hard questions (continual exponential growth as a model for companies or governments never made much sense to me - what happened to slow but steady dividends?) and some innovative thinking.

What is happening in the Gulf of Mexico

So a few weeks ago CNN's Anderson Cooper told us that jounalists and photographers were being denied access to some public beaches and parks while trying to report on the gulf oil spill. Now he reports about a new law that makes it illegal to be within 65 ft of booms, clean up boats or clean up crews. If charged you could face a felony conviction and be fined $40K - huh?

I understand (even thought I may not like) BP's attempt to understate the damages. In our capitalist society, their first duty is to their shareholders. Given that any culpability (money paid out) will be directly linked to the extent of the disaster, it is in their best interests to obfuscate and understate the scope of the oil gusher.

However, what I don't understand is why local, state and federal governments are aiding BP in their objectives. The gusher in the gulf could be a game changer - a black swan event when the US economy is already extremely fragile. And then there are the potential health risks to clean up workers and people living in the area which are not yet known.

There are many questions that need to be answered and keeping media at bay is not a step in the right direction.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What is bothering me most about the G20 Clusterf*ck

I'm trying to figure out what is bothering me most about what happened a few weekends ago in Toronto - the constitutional abuses that took place or the public reaction to those abuses. That those abuses took place I think will be proved and hopefully we will put in safeguards that they don't happen in the future. I'm not sure but I think what is bothering me more than the abuses is that most Canadians think whatever happened was justified .

On Canada day, one woman in a group I belong to from Hamilton, (and who seems to be pretty smart -thanks Gail) posted the quote from Diefenbaker below.

"I am a Canadian, free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I believe wrong, or free to choose who shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and all mankind."

I don't know very much about Diefenbaker but I like this quote.

Feeling nostalgic for an online community

I had a really weird experience lately. I was home for a family get together and looked at my now 16 year old nephew. He was so big, so tall and so much a teenager. And I did have a feeling of nostalgia run over me but it surprised me that the nostalgia I felt was for a gaming community we both used to belong to.

When he was a kid around 9, his parents were concerned about his involvement in this online gaming community. I investigated the game, which turned out to be Runescape and for the next few years spent a fair amount of time there.

What happened is that we started playing together. We were living in different countries and discovered this was a great way for us to stay in touch. We would meet up in Runescape and hang out - no other phrase describes it. Sometimes we would go fishing together, sometimes mining when we needed cash or help each other out with quests. And sometimes we would go up to the "Wilderness" - PVP - usually we got slaughtered and lost everything but it was fun!

I will never forget my nine-year-old nephew yelling at me across the auction room: "Auntie mary don't sell it there - you are going to get ripped off. I know a much better place." And he did

So yes, looking at him, I did feel a little nostalgic but it was also for a virtual place that we both loved. And that was a little weird

Hello World

Good enough. Every first programming course starts with a program that writes out Hello World and for the person tackling that language for a first time, it can be very satisfying when they finally get the computer to output that phrase or some variation of it. This is my first post and I will probably need some time to figure out my way around here but I think I managed to output Hello World.

In terms of the the title "Virtual Realities" - I wanted at title that reflected both my interest in virtual and social worlds as well as my interest in the so-called real world of politics and economics. It think I need to do a little more research on the etymoloygy of the word virtual. I know it can denote "real" as in "that was a virtual flop" but also is used to denote something that only exists in cyberspace such as "virtual memory". I will probably post more on this later ....