Saturday, December 27, 2008

Old beginning

Here's an old beginning to my book which I've discarded. I've used the scenario in a later chapter as a flashback.

Prologue

Hunched over his wooden cane, a prune-faced old man ambled up to the open spot at my counter. “So you’re going to be a banker,” he said.
It was my first week on the job, and his words felt like some invisible force slamming into me. “Err…” I swallowed, hard, and reached to loosen my tie. “I uh… I suppose so.”
With his head barely above the counter, the old man gave me an indifferent look, as though I was now a useful cog in society. He handed me his bankbook and I tapped numbers into the computer. Memories flooded back of the African travel life I’d recently left behind.
#
On my first visit to Africa, at twenty-three years of age, I was collected from Cape Town airport by family friends.
“Africa is dangerous,” they told me. “Perhaps you should just stay in Cape Town and keep in touch with us.”
A week later, I said my polite goodbyes, slung my heavy backpack on, and went out with the spirit and enthusiasm of a first-time traveller. I bussed up the coast, and later around the country. I climbed mountains, rode horses, and bunji jumped. I fished and surfed and kayaked. I joined tour groups and stuck my camera out of high truck windows trying to photograph Africa’s wildlife.
Three months of backpacking and group adventure was enough, and I moved from backpacker to intrepid traveller. A pair of Afrikaans-speaking brothers sold me a bright-yellow beach buggy, which I drove north into Zimbabwe and Zambia. There, I was greeted by smiling and waving Africans. The buggy needed constant repairs and I often camped in the wilderness tinkering at it with my toolkit.
#
The old man cleared his throat to grab my attention. His hand shook as he placed his cheque on the counter. “Being a banker is a respectable position in society,” he said.
Yeah respectable, I thought. But a respectable bank is no place for a dream-filled rogue.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Islamic banking coming?

More than a year ago, I blogged about Sharia Banking.

That blog was in response to a Globe and Mail poll which asked readers the question.

Do you think Ottawa should approve applications it has received from Muslim groups looking to set up so-called Sharia banks that would operate within the structures of Islamic law?


The response was a resounding 82% no.

It bothered me how negative the reaction was.

Today the United States took a huge step toward Sharia banking principles. In the article, Fed chops rate to record low, the article says.

"The U.S. Federal Reserve Board on Tuesday aggressively cut its target for overnight interest rates to a record low zero to 0.25 per cent, and said it would employ “all available tools” to dispel a year-long recession."


That, my 82% Globe Reader majority, is Sharia banking at its finest. But if anyone wishes to pay higher interest rates in the spirit of being anti-Islamic, then feel free to shop for banks charging the highest interest.

On a related note:

In watching the movie, "Merchant of Venice," Al Pacino plays a Jewish money-lender. According to the Shakespearian tale, it was illegal for Christians to charge each other interest at that time. One might surmise that at some point in Christian history, charging interest was not allowed. This tidbit led me to further research, and I came up with this website.

A quote of a quote.

Throughout church history, Christian teachers have taken a strong position against exacting usury on a loan in order to make personal profit. Whereas usury is thought of today as charging excess interest, the word actually meant charging any interest. Ambrose said, "If anyone commits usury, he commits robbery and no longer has life." Calvin declared that the professional money lender should be banned from the church. Luther commented, "After the devil there is no greater human enemy on earth than a miser and usurer, for he desires to be above everyone." 1


The website also mentions Jews were not supposed to charge other Jews interest.

Interesting!

I'd like to admit that there are economic principles at work here that I struggle to understand. It is said that lowering interest rates stokes inflation. I'm not 100% sure why.

Such an environment would encourage people to borrow US dollars, invest the money in another currency, then repay the loan in the future when the dollar has fallen in value. This is the reason it didn't immediately make sense to me. It's a recipe for disaster and an easy money making scheme.

So I thought about it.

The only reason I can surmise inflation would run up is that it is related to debt.

The United States National debt sits at over ten trillion dollars. At the rate of return of 0%, who is going to want to keep their investments in US bonds? Therefore the sell off begins, right?

The US government has to buy back their low-interest-yielding bonds. They have two ways to do this. Print money or raise taxes. Raising taxes hurts the economy. Printing money stokes inflation.

The government is likely to do a bit of both. But I see a storm brewing that could send the US dollar crashing.

Therefore borrow dollars, change them to Euros, get some interest, and pay off your low interest loan gradually as the dollar crashes.

To test my theory, I'm borrowing an imaginary $100,000 US dollars right now and converting it to imaginary Canadian dollars. At todays rate, that gives me $120,000 Canadian dollars. Investing that in a Canadian Savings Bond for 5 years, with yields around 2%. At end, I'll have around $135,000 Canadian.

Assuming I won't be able to get a great interest rate as low as 0%, I'll pay 2%. So in five years, I'll owe US$110,500

We'll see how much my gamble is worth in dollars in five years.


Footnote:
1. Christian History Magazine (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1987), 7(2):18.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Auto industry bailout. Just say NO!

Ford had been dying a painful death for years now. It's time to firesale the assets of the company and let the name, the brand, and everything associated with Ford either die off or be sacrificed to people who want to buy a name brand.

Parts will be needed for years to come, but like any obsolete vehicle, they will die off and adapt to other automakers needs.

As for Ford assets, the ones they haven't completely messed up with their Anti-midas touch, can be sold off. Land Rover still has a strong name, even if Ford turned them into crap trucks with their mix and match brand overtake. Volvo also was a once glimmering company that may be salvagable.

Chrysler should part ways with Daimler and firesale the majority of their car making operations. Some brands, such as Jeep, may still be salvagable. I don't think it should be up to the government to ressurrect these companies, but for the free market to let them fail and pick up the pieces.

As for GM and Chrysler. GM has the best chance. If they can weather the storm and make a comeback with their Chevy Volt, then they might have a chance in the future.


What North American governments can do.

Let the companies know, that gradually gasoline prices will be raised, through taxes, to double or triple what they are now. The revenues will be used to offer incentives for fuel efficient vehicles.
The government should also make deals with VW, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, and any other successful automaker to ressurrect what they can of the flailing auto sector. The sell off shouldn't be held off as long as possible, but rather used as an opportunity to gradually have America's failed auto industry be taken over by companies who build better cars.

I'm not bothered if 100,000 manufacturing jobs with GM, Ford, and Chrysler are lost in the next five years if 95,000 jobs are created through more sustainable car companies. The pride associated with the American auto sector has been their downfall. They've focused on survival while other companies focused on market needs and quality.

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and other companies have been hit by the economic downturn, but they're not bleeding red ink like a severed elephant artery.

Bailing out the North American auto industry with huge cash injections is the wrong long term decision. It is a quick fix and does not solve the underlying problem that they don't make very good cars and can't adapt to changing markets.

GM, rather than slim down and focus on selling fewer cars at better margins, tried too hard to out pace Japanese automaker Toyota. It's the marathon runners big mistake, trying to keep ahead of the leader when you're just an average runner. You burn out your reserves and end up crashing badly.
In GM's case, instead of making just enough cars really well, they made too many cars too poorly and slashed prices into losing territory to make up for the difference.
Ford, more than Chrysler and GM, simply got too big and couldn't adapt to the increased competition making better and better cars.

It's a downward spiral that the banking and economic crisis should serve as a chance to cut and run. Put the broken horse out of its misery with a bullet and cremate the remains. Meanwhile, create a pleasant economic climate for the resurrection of the auto industry. Something better will emerge.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Where the Canadian Liberals went wrong.

More than a year ago, there was the Liberal leadership race. I supported Stephan Dion over two other big name candidates. The other candidates were Michael Ignatief and Bob Rae.
I thought Dion was better than Rae because of Rae's poor leadership record in Ontario, which is the Liberal voting heartland.
I thought Dion was better than Ignatief because Ignatief supported the Iraq invasion.

Dion and the Liberal attacks on Stephen Harper were borderline pathetic. Take Obama's campaign. The democratic attack strategy on McCain centred around linking him to George Bush at every opportunity. This was slightly unfair. As a republican, Mccain had to toe the line most of the time. As democrats, their job was to oppose Bush most of the time.
In reality, I think that few people in the world despised George Bush more than John McCain. It was McCain after all who was Bush's first victim of dirty political smear campaigning.

The liberals came out with the Harper/Howard Iraq war speeches near the end of the campaign. It should have been their starting point. Stephen Harper equals George Bush should have been the message the Liberals portrayed from day one. This was the basis for me supporting Dion over Ignatief. It was the one chance the Liberals had to stick it to Harper. Compare every major policy over the last three years to that of George Bush, and highlight it with the fact that we could be going to Iraq if Harper gets his coveted majority.


Bush comes out with the Clear Skies Initiative.

Harper got his thesaurus out to invent the Clean Air Act.

Clear skies initiative equals Bush
Clean Air Act equals Harper.

Clear is a synonym of Clean
Air is a synonym of Sky
Act is a synonym of initiative.

Three words to three words. I'd wager if some Liberal pundits poured over the two documents they'd find enough in common to lambaste Harper for being a Bush imitator.

This was the groundwork.

The unfolding of economic events could have played into Dion's Green Shift strategy. Canada, if we'd taken the ridiculous profits from oil and put them toward green jobs, could have helped shelter our economy from the American fallout.

Would Toyota be interested in developing the Prius here in Ontario where automotive jobs have slumped? What if the Canadian government promised to subsidize all Canadian sales of greener Canadian-made vehicles and promote low financing options. Furthermore, a green license plate program with free parking in cities and no annual road taxes. This stuff is gold with voters!

If not Toyota, Honda, or Nissan or all three.

It wasn't that complicated. Tidbits of stuff Canadians can relate to.

The fact that the TSE slumped worse than the Dow should have been a rallying cry. Did the Liberals not do the math? It really wasn't that complicated.

A vote for Harper is a vote for Bush.

Bush inherited a strong economy and a balanced budget and went on to gut the American finances and leave huge deficits.
Harper twittered away huge budget surpluses, oversaw the collapse of the economy into a recession worse than the Americans, and if he's elected again, the Canadian cupboard will also be bare.

Hope and change was Obama's rallying cry.

A better future should have been the Liberals rallying cry.

The last word.

I've heard talk of how Canada needs an Obama like election. No we don't. In order to get an Obama style election, we must first have an extended period of abysmal leadership that leads to hopelessness and despair. I'm no fan of Harper, he's not a great leader, but I don't think he'll take us down Bush's road, at least not for another decade and a couple of hoodwinking fear mongering majorities.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Canadian Public Job Search cont'd again.

A few months back, I made it to the interview stage for a pension review job. I estimate that I was a one in a hundred shot and I missed the cut.

More promising are two employment pools at Statscan in Ottawa. What I'm really hoping for however is something that can take me anywhere in Canada, and even beyond in later years. This job is the final stage of the review process, and the chances of an applicant being accepted are 1 in 15 to start with.

I don't expect to get into the foreign service. It's a close second choice of career out of all the prospective jobs I've applied for. First choices don't always work out, and in the meantime I might as well throw my hat into as many rings as possible hoping one of them pays off.

Another fear is that all the government jobs I've been focusing on for the last year will be revoked due to federal spending cutbacks. No matter how well I do on all of these tests, what's the point if hiring initiatives are halted and spun back?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

How to Write the Canadian Public Service Exams

More than a year ago, I applied for jobs within the Canadian Public Service, including the Graduate Recruitment inventory and the Foreign Service.

Leading up to the three tests, I studied from the Public Service Exam Prep book, as well as an associated website. The website had five exams for each type of Public Service test.

On the practice website, my marks were in the following range.

Situational Judgement Test (SJT) - 70-85%
Graduate Recruitment Test (GRT) - 80-92%
Written Communication Proficiency Test (WCPT) - 86-98%

I hoped to get near the high end of those marks on the exams, however when I wrote them, they seemed harder than the practice exams, particularly the WCPT.

I ended up with the following results in 2007:

Results of Public Service Commission Tests

Test Your Score Test Date
Graduate Recruitment Test 43.0/55 2007-10-30
Written Communication Proficiency Test 41.0/50 2007-10-30
Situational Judgement Test 76.0/100 2007-10-30

I later heard rumours that people needed to average 86% to get into the foreign service. The marks seemed enormous, especially considering the best I could hope for was probably an 80% on the SJT. I could possibly reach that level if I wrote each test more than once. Your marks are good for five years and a test writer has to wait 180 days before they can retake the test. I was curious to know how many people did just this, rewrite until they got an easier test and maybe a couple of lucky guesses to boost them up five to ten percent from their average marks.

My wife applied for the same jobs this year and we went to write the tests together this Saturday.

Some comparisons to the previous tests.

1) In 2007, I wrote the tests at the Canadian Embassy in Morocco. The advantage was that we used big desks and could spread out and work comfortably. Here in Kingston in 2008, there were 300 people crammed into a University lecture hall. We were all bent over in uncomfortable seats with those tiny sliding desk pallets. These desks are good for scribbling a few notes during a lecture, but not for writing five hours worth of tests. If I could suggest something to the government, look into alternatives. In University exams, they usually give students actual desks in the gymnasium.

2) Despite the discomfort, I found two of the three tests easier, particularly the WCPT. The GRT seemed slightly easier, while the SJT was still a lot of arbitrary guesswork and could potentially be anywhere in my typical range of 70-82%. I wouldn't be surprised if I scored near the high end of my practice test marks on at least two of the tests.

If the foreign service magic number remains at around 86%, then I think everything hinges on a couple percentage points, particularly in the SJT. If like last time, I score 76% on the SJT, I need to average 92% on the other two tests to pull off an 86% average. Difficult, but not impossible.

I'm curious to know the average number of times people applying for the foreign service and the Graduate Recruitment Program write these tests before getting offered jobs.

Worse still is what an applicant is up against. The Foreign Service doesn't give exact numbers on how many people they hire. I think it's around fifty per year.

Over 300 people were writing in Kingston. Most of them had probably applied for the foreign service just because it is a checkmark and they obviously need a job or they wouldn't apply. To compare, Statistics Canada displayed, for one day only, a recruitment ad for a hiring initiative. Over 5000 people applied.

There are over 70 test centres across Canada. Kingston is probably the smallest. Montreal and Toronto surely have more than ten times the number of applicants.

I would guess 100,000 people wrote the tests. If there were 1000 graduate recruitment jobs, you'd have to be in the top 1 percentile. If it was just for the foreign service, you'd have to be in the top 0.05 percentile.

Then there is the possibility that some applicants have a way to get their hands on the tests or answers. No matter how hard the government tries to protect the tests, it's an enormous task to protect one-hundred-thousand documents. The window of opportunity to cheat, take photos, or whatever, is likely there for a few test writers. If you were presented with the test/answers, would you turn it away? If a genius offered to hoodwink the system and sit next to you and slide the answers over, would the administrators be able to pick up on it?
It's a bit like the Olympics. An athlete trains all their life only to see someone catch up and surpass them just as the biggest event of their lives takes place. They've always been better, faster, and stronger than their opponents. They've trained equally as hard, if not harder. Therefore how can they possibly lose?
Who knows how many Olympians really use performance enhancing drugs?
If one doesn't cheat, someone else does.

This is my biggest fear over what I'm up against. How many people got the answers vs how many jobs there are.

If I was presented with the test answers, I'd have to think hard. "I have the test right here. There are fifty jobs. There are 50,000 applicants. How many other applicants have a cheating plan? 10? 25? 100? If I have the opportunity to cheat, surely someone else does. If I have a friend on the inside, and their are a few hundred people on the inside...



Enough said of the potential dark side to this competition. If I get in, I get in on my brainpower.

I hypothesize that my marks can be broken down to the following, with mental errors, difficult questions, computer error, and lucky/unlucky guesses all coming into play.


GRT

Best case scenario - 94%
Worst case scenario - 80%

SJT


Best Case Scenario: 82%
Worst Case Scenario: 67%

WCPT

Best case scenario - 98%
Worst Case Scenario - 86%

I mention computer error because it instructs test takers to completely erase any errors. I find that it's almost impossible to do this. Usually, at least once or twice on a test I answer then change my mind. I did it four times on the SJT, and if the computer marks all four questions wrong, well, there goes four percent that could have boosted me to the next level.

One of the secrets to doing well is pacing. I'd written enough practice tests to know that I can finish within the alloted times, but sometimes just barely. The tests are designed to push you to the limit, so a person who isn't prepared or has English or French as a second language might not finish. For the GRT, pacing is particularly important for certain types of questions. The sequence questions, for instance, once you've practiced enough of them you can figure out all the possible patterns and fly through them in no time. If not, they can really hang you up and slow you down. Same goes for the algebra questions. If you can't organise the variables efficiently into equations, then they really slow you down. This is when panic sets in.

I used my stopwatch to see exactly how much time had passed, and whether I was ahead or behind schedule to finish the exam. I've learned that if I don't keep track of the time, I'm prone to start rushing through questions unnecessarily.
If there is a question I don't know, I lightly mark a best guess (so I can erase it later). I also leave a little dot beside the question and go back to it at the end.

The GRT breakdown

There were two sequence questions I couldn't get on the first try. I went back at the end to figure one out. I guessed on the other. I also double checked half a dozen other questions I wasn't 100% sure of.

I found the math formula questions fairly easy, however I fear being prone to mental error on these questions more than most.

The most difficult GRT questions for me are the word association. They're not time consuming, just frustrating. On one there was an unfamiliar word, and on at least two others there was no obvious answer that jumped out at me.

The SJT breakdown

About sixty percent of the questions are easily answerable, especially when you've studied the basic logic and scenarios. That leaves forty questions to chance.

On some, it could be a fifty/fifty or a most probable guess. The worst were the ten to twenty questions where I felt clueless as to which decision was the best or worst. That leaves my SJT test score the least predictable of all. I feel some of the questions are almost arbitrary in the way you answer them. I'm sure there is some logic they use to justify the answers, but I might see the situation from a different angle and get it completely backwards.

The WCPT

When I first wrote this test in Morocco, it seemed really hard. This may have been due to the fact that I felt rushed to answer the questions because I didn't pace myself properly. This time round, and paced, it felt like a much easier test. Two or three really tough questions can throw a test writer into a panicked rush, and this can drag their mark down an additional ten percent or more. I felt there were no such difficult questions this time around, and pacing myself also really helped...

In summary, in lieu of not having the test presented to you by a friend on the inside, or cheating some other way, there are five things I suggest to improve your marks.

1) Study. Practice any exams you can. The best way to prepare for the Public Service exams is practice, practice and practice. A lot of the practice questions will be similar on the actual exam and you'll fly through them.

2) Pace yourself. Bring a stopwatch. Write down how many questions there are. Write down how long the exam is. Check to see the time. If you are ahead of the game, relax, think things through, and enjoy the challenge of the exams.

3) Bring ibuprofen (or whatever painkiller/relaxant) and some water. Just under five hours of exams is grueling. I needed an advil in the middle of the second exam (SJT) which I'm sure contributes to why I feel I did so poorly on it.

4) Rewrite. If your like me, your bound to screw up at least one test on the first round. Either that, or you get a tougher one. A couple extra tough questions combined with some bad luck could mean as much as ten percent. If you have unlimited shots at writing a test, why not aim for the mark you think you need, and if you miss, try again and again. Aim till you hit the bullseye.

5) Mark your answers on the extra paper provided and transfer them to the answer sheet afterwards. This will avoid any erasing answers that leads to a machine error.

Best of luck

One last thing. My average from last year, just under eighty percent, has recently gotten me one email regarding a job in Toronto. I replied that I was interested and am now waiting for the next stage.

America Votes

As a world traveller who has lived overseas during the majority of George Bush's presidency, I like to think I have a slightly different perspective on the upcoming US election. I've seen what other nationalities, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, think of America.

If people around the world were going to vote for the American president, I'd wager Obama would win with at least 90% of the vote.

In Africa and the Middle East, it would be pushing 100%, with only a few extremists voting for McCain because he would be better for their hate-America campaign.

Obama is what America needs to restore their shattered image. George Bush has taken the most beloved and respected country in the world and turned it into the most despised. John McCain, no matter how hard he tries to differentiate himself, is still a white Republican replacing another white Republican who really fucked things up.

If a president McCain pledged that any Americans remaining in Iraq should be treated as temporary guests, Iraqi people would have a hard time swallowing it. But if a President Obama spoke the same magic words of withdrawal and friendship, they just might. That's the key difference. Obama has a chance to do a lot of symbolic good at a time where it's sorely needed. The times of animosity, go it alone, with us or against us, stay the course and other pigheaded Bushisms needs to come to an end.

With McCain, it might come to an end politically.

But with Obama, it will come to an end politically and symbolically. That is why Americans who love their country, who hope their children can travel the world without claiming to be Canadian, and who hope for a better tomorrow, should vote for Barrack Obama.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

My head is exploding - Wisdom teeth hell

Day 1: Surgery. I don't remember falling asleep and waking up. I can't remember any of it after getting the intraveinis in my arm. The dental surgeon told me it was a tough surgery, that my teeth were bears. I was given a pack of gauze and told to shove them to the back of my jaw and change them every few minutes.

My mouth was still numb. I was given aftercare instructions, which said that swelling was expected to increase for about three days and decrease for three days. The doctor gave me a prescription of amoxicyclene, as well as an anti-inflammatory, and Tylenol ones to be taken with Advil. I was also advised to gargle with salt water.

Day 2: I'm sore, but not too bad. Following his instructions, I'm having soup and eating a little bit. I've taken the ibuprofen, anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics and I'm gargling with salt water.

Day 3: Still sore. About the same as day 2.

Day 4: I expect today's the worst of it, it will get better tomorrow. I'm in a little more pain, but that's expected.

Day 5: I was really sore today, and it got really bad at night. I started taking the Tylenol ones as well as the Advil, but not at the same time. The pain grew excruciating, radiating down my jaw and up into my ears like a bad earache.

At 3am, I called the doctor's office hoping to leave a message. I got hold of him and was told to take the T1 and advil concurrently and contact him during the day.

The solution helped ease the pain and I got to sleep, but the pain was still pretty bad in the morning.

Day 6: Pain continues to be bad. I called the doctor in the afternoon and was told to put drops of clove oil on the bottom in addition to everything else.

Day 7: The swelling increased and a lump formed overnight on the left side. I thought it might be infected, so I called my dental surgeon again. He was operating that day, so I went to visit my regular dentist instead.

My regular dentist said he doesn't think I have dry socket yet, and is hoping to stave one off by putting me on stronger antibiotics. He also replaced the T1/advil combo with Tylenol 3s/regular Tylenol mix. A description of a dry socket can be found here.

I took my first dose an hour ago and am still in a lot of pain. It has now has radiated up toward my temples instead being focused down in my jaw. I'm wondering if this is a reaction to the codeine or the drug switchover.

Day 8: I saw the surgeon this morning - consequently waking up in one of those rare few hours where the meds have kicked in and there is no pain. He didn't mention a dry socket, but I suspect I have at least two because food gets stuck there and I have to rinse excessively with warm salt water to dislodge it. He said the pain was normal, it happens sometimes especially with difficult wisdom teeth extractions. The codeine has been helping, however I feel a lot of pain as the meds die off.
He said there was some infection and to rinse with salt water a lot as well as squeeze the pus out periodically and use gauze pads to suck it up.
He gave me an even stronger pain medication, though I'm holding off buying it until I feel I really need it. I haven't pooped in four days, though I am not feeling constipated, just a bit bloated.
My cheeks are swollen like a chipmunk. I feel a little nauseous, which may be a side effect of codeine or the antibiotics.
I've been eating soft foods to keep the pain down. Fish and rice tonight. I rinsed excessively to get rid of all the rice. I noticed acidic food hurts more, although pain depends partly on the medication cycle so I might not be very accurate with that assessment.

Day 9: I had to get up early this morning and drive my wife to Ottawa. The pain was pretty bad every time the meds wore off. They seem to completely wear off after about five hours. I'm running low on the painkillers and will probably have to fill the stronger prescription my surgeon gave me yesterday.
The pain is still pretty intense. I noticed a watery yellow discharge from my nose, unlike regular snot and more like I'd just thrown up. I had my first bowel movement in about five or six days this morning and it felt like I was pushing a brick out.

Day 10: After a good nights sleep, I woke up only a little sore and without any more painkillers. I went to fill the prescription my dentist gave me. The pharmacist told me not to drive with these painkillers. By the time I'd eaten and taken the meds, I was in a lot of pain once again. It now feels like the tops are burning or have been touched with acid. The bottoms are less swollen and feel bruised, but not throbbing. The meds are kicking in now, I took them half an hour ago and am a little dizzy. The pain is slowly receding.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Deficit Economics

In the current economic climate, no politician can honestly preach an upcoming budget surplus. The surpluses should have been huge for most of the last decade.

Economic growth, judging by the stock market, has mostly increased year upon year since the nineties. Stock market growth translates to income growth. More income means for governments to tax.

Currently, worldwide stock markets have decreased in the range of 20-40% depending on how you do your calculations. This means that instead of declaring big gains, people will be declaring income losses.

Losses means less income. Instead of a average capital gain boosting the average salary from say, $50,000 to $60,000. We're seeing the reverse, capital losses lowering average income from $50,000 to $40,000. (All figures are rough unchecked estimates)

With the average person paying income tax on 30% less income, the government generates much less from income taxes.

This spells big trouble for countries already posting big deficits. If your government was overspending during recent good times, how can it maintain that during the crunch.

The next US president is going to inherit a gutted and defunct economy. I don't envy them. Credit crunch, business stagnation, job losses, and dried up income tax revenues are on the horizon. I've blogged about the scary numbers before, and that was when the climate was sunny. Dark deficit days are here.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Another disgarded prologue.

This prologue, while perhaps my most exciting and best written, cannibalized one of my better chapters. It was a big no no. If the purpose was to get the book started and entice a reader, it succeeded. But I withdrew it for obvious reasons. You can't start a book in the middle just to get noticed.

Clunk!
Northern Kenya, Chalbi Desert – September 2, 2002

On a stony desert road in the desolate region of northern Kenya, broken down and sixty kilometres from nowhere was the last place I wanted to be. So when I heard a loud clunk, I knew it was fix the car or suffer consequences.
The roar of the engine dropped into the Beetle’s tat-tat-tat idling. I kicked at the limp accelerator.
“Shit!” I slammed my fist into the steering wheel as the car rolled to a stop. Shifta territory. The Somali word for bandit, the Shifta are a notorious group of armed Somalis who cross into Kenya’s northeast province to rob passing motorists.
The warning of a bearded shopkeeper came back to me from earlier that morning. “They’ll take your money, they’ll take your food, but what they want most is your shoes.” He shook his head and handed me the change. “For people who walk miles and miles every day in the rocky desert, shoes are the most precious thing. They will kill you for your shoes!”
And here I was, a hapless Canadian in a shiny blue beach buggy that just happened to break down in the middle of Shifta territory. I stepped out of the car and scanned the terrain. Ankle high patches of hay-coloured scrub brush and thorny bushes extended along the flat landscape, ending where a wall of brown desert haze melted into the blue horizon. No Shifta, I thought, crunching my feet over the road and opening the rear engine cover. My eyes settled on the steel accelerator cable, dangling like a broken piano string.
I scrambled about the car in search of a tiny O-ring clamp that I’d once used it to fix a similar problem. Forty minutes later, with my luggage spread out along the side of the road, I conceded the piece was lost and slumped back into the meagre shade of the driver's seat. The water in my bottles was warm enough for making tea. Beads of sweat dripped from my forehead and my mind raced over options. How could I bind two cables together without a clamp?
I scanned the cab of the car, moving from one object to the next before discounting it. Rubber bracelet? Useless. Speedometer or wristwatch? Don’t think so. Shoelaces, change in my pocket? Nope. The pen or the washer on the floor?
The answer didn’t come and I ran out of things to look at. I blinked the dust out of my eyes and let my mind wander, staring across the rugged plain.
My thoughts drifted back to my former nine-to-five job, sitting in an air-conditioned bank office. Certainly better than lying in a pool of blood and having a bandit walk off in my Reeboks. Then there were my mother’s words before I left. “Don’t go back. You’re going to die in Africa.” She had tears in her eyes as I boarded the plane.
Mom’s Prophecy spurred me back to my mission. The gusts of wind blowing lines of dust across the desert road made the only sounds as I took periodic swigs of hot water. Another half hour passed and the only idea I managed to come up with was to repack the car. I ambled out, packed up, and lifted my luggage back into the rear. Once finished, I scanned the terrain to the west of the road, focusing on something moving in the distance. I blinked once, then again, and again. It can’t be…
My heart began pounding like a jackhammer and I took several deep breaths. From a kilometre away, three lean figures approached at a steady pace. A bright red shirt discerned one of them from the yellowish landscape.
Think Dan, think bloody fast!
I glanced from item to item twice as fast as before. Shoes, wheels, rocks, shirt, string, zip, bolt, nut, washers, roof rack…
Wait, back up. That’s it!
I scrambled through my tool kit, glancing over my shoulder at the approaching men and spilling half of the tools in the process. With a set of Allen keys and a wrench, I went to work on one of the roof rack’s nuts and bolts. Switching to my fingers, I pursed my lips in concentration and twisted the nut the rest of the way off. With the nut, bolt and two washers in hand, I ran around to the engine.
I passed the two sides of the broken cable through the washers, trying in vain to reassure myself. Maybe they’re not Shifta. Maybe they’re just harmless, local tribesmen. A spout of dust kicked up twenty metres away, followed by a sharp crack - the report of a distant rifle.
Maybe not!
I fought the urge to run off into the desert, and certain death. With an effort, I forced my hands to stop shaking as I pulled the cables taut, passed the bolt through the washers and fiddled with the nut.
The piercing scream of a bullet passing overhead made me flinch. I nearly dropped the nut into the bowels of the engine, but caught it and fumbled to get it back in place. The wind picked up, making me squint to avoid the whipping dust.
“Gotcha!” I worked it tighter with my fingers before making the last turns with the wrench and Allen key. Finally, I slammed the engine cover shut. Less than half a kilometre away, two of the three men walked and the other stood aiming the rifle. I darted around the car and jumped into the driver’s seat.
A third bullet ricocheted off the rear rim, making an enormous clang. I gritted my teeth and took shallow, gasping breaths while starting the car. It rumbled to life and I hit the accelerator, but the cables were loose. The car slowly picked up speed and I glanced back at the three men. They began to run.
My foot was to the floor, but the car remained sluggish for more than a minute. It gradually accelerated until I was bouncing over the rough terrain as fast as I dared.
I heard another clapping report over the crunch of the tyres and rumble of the engine and gripped the steering wheel with all my might, willing the car to not break down again. My heart continued to race and I kept checking over my shoulder every few seconds until I put several kilometres between us. Thirty minutes later, I began to relax. I lifted my head and started to laugh. A roaring, victorious, I’m still alive and have my shoes kind of laugh. I shouted at the road, at the desert, “You can’t stop me! I’m the man, I’m invincible, I am the King!”
Clunk!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Failed prologue number three, good but again not quite the right theme.

Prologue

I was thirteen years old when something happened that would change my life. My grade seven teacher, Mr. Thyne, a frowning man with a thin moustache, round glasses and a waft of black hair combed over the top of his head, told me I wasn’t smart enough to continue French classes.
I wasn’t devastated by the news. I saw French as a hopeless pursuit that, as most Canadian Anglophone adults proved, would end in an extremely limited ability to speak the language. To this day, they most Ontarians say, “Bonjour,” more like, “Bonjer.” I’d give you more examples, but that’s pretty much all they can say.
Following the initial jubilation of no longer being forced to parlér Français, I felt left behind. I, the only kid in my class, had been labelled too stupid for French. I sensed the dismissal of other students as I walked down the hall to attend special classes instead of to French.
In the final month of the school year, Mr. Thyne held me back after class to have another one of his chats. This time, he told me that if I didn’t work a lot harder, then I would be forced to repeat the year.
In previous years, the minimal effort I’d put forward had always been enough to pass. I’d never been told I was on the verge of failing. Now, I was suddenly terrified that I’d end up left behind, forgotten, a nuisance to society that had to be dealt with twice just so some basic concepts would sink though my thick skull. But with those fears came the chance of redemption.
Our last assignment of the year was a poetry assignment. Each student was handed a blue scrap book. It was due in two weeks time. For me, failing wasn’t an option! In fact, I set out to write the best damn poetry assignment any seventh grade teacher had ever seen!
Having special classes three hours a week instead of French gave me tonnes of extra time. Furthermore, I even worked on the assignment nights and weekends at home for hours on end.

For the first time in my life, I felt extremely proud about an assignment. The hours I’d put into creating poems, and tracing artwork to go along with the verses, was meticulously laid out on each page of the scrapbook. I was sure I’d be the only student who filled out all thirty pages. The minimum requirement was eight.
My hand shook as I handed the assignment in. I already dreamed of what the result might be…
Some smart kids sat the table across. Upon receiving their homework, they would say things like, “Oh, an A-plus. I hardly even tried.”
Now it was my turn. I expected to see the A-plus, combined with praise about it being the best assignment in the class.
Each afternoon for the next ten days, I went to the class hoping to see the graded assignments ready on the corner of the teacher’s desk. Finally, on the second-to-last day of school, they were there.
The entire afternoon, I shifted in my seat, staring over at the neat pile. I’d never been so anxious in all my life. My heart threatened to jump out of my chest at the anticipation.
Five minutes before the bell, the teacher began to call out names, one at a time, as he handed the graded assignments back. Perhaps to taunt me further, my paper was one of the last in the pile. I walked up when he called my name, the classroom felt smaller, my breath became ragged and my palms sweaty. I took the scrap book and went back to my desk.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to open it. I was afraid of what I’d see. If he had really thought it was something special, and from me of all people, wouldn’t he have asked to talk to me about it? Wouldn’t he have handed me back my assignment first, or acknowledged me with a pleased smile as I collected it? My watch was set to the school’s exact time. There was one minute to the end-of-day bell. I waited, watching the seconds tick by with a lump in my throat. I’d open it with thirty seconds left.

Mr. Thyne talked to the class, but I didn’t hear him. Thirty-two, thirty-one, thirty...
It was time. I opened the book - nothing at the front. I flipped to the back. C +. There were other comments in his spidery scrawl, but all I saw was the C +. My hardest effort, my best work ever, was worth a C-plus. The room seemed to close in further and my throat constricted causing my breath to come in short gasps. Tears welled in my eyes and I glanced down at my watch, wanting to escape.
Ten seconds…
But, I’d tried so hard …
Five seconds…
I got up and walked toward the door, the welling tears on the verge of breaking. I threw the assignment, hard, into the garbage pail next to Mr. Thyne’s desk and walked out as the bell chimed. Chairs screeched across the floor behind me. I didn’t even go to my locker but ran out the school doors and straight home.
I didn’t want to fail. I wanted to be back in French class, even though I sucked at it.
#

In part due to my parent’s protests, the school agreed to put me on probation for grade eight instead of fail me. If I struggled, they’d pull me back again.
In grade eight, I attained the second highest marks in my class. Five years later, I graduated from high school, followed by a Bachelor of Business degree from University.
My one boon was being monolingual. It bothered me more and more, especially as I began to travel. I met Europeans who could flip from one language to another, sometimes speaking as many as five or six languages perfectly. I just spoke English. But that was going to change.

****Work in African adventurer rant. The learning of languages fit in with another goal.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Disgarded attempt number two.

Here's another old one that never really made it off the ground. Sometimes they get worse before they get better...

Spirit of the Adventurer

It was a fragile dream, born from the African novels I’d devoured as a teenager and related romantic notions. Famous adventurers such as Livingstone, Burton, or Speke probably never said they were going off to become famous African Adventurers. They just did.

The first important trait I envisioned was multilingualism. If I could be fluent in various languages then I could integrate with locals. I’d drive into a mud-hut village, speak with the chief and be accepted with a certain status - a foreigner intimately familiar with the culture. There were other ingredients: A long and arduous road; danger and life-threatening situations; stress.
But I also needed something special because virgin territory was hard to come by. At first, I considered buying a big brown horse with a western saddle. I could canter from place to place like historic adventurers had done. But this was unrealistic, quashed by the invention of fences, borders, and worst of all land mines.
Instead of a horse, I’d buy a Beach Buggy.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Prologue - disgarded book introduction number one.

Here's a fairly recent failed attempt at an engaging prologue.


Hunched over his wooden cane, the prune-faced old man peered up at me from across the counter. “So you’re going to be a banker,” he said.
It was my first week on the job, and his words felt like an invisible force had crashed into me and sucked out my breath. A banker, Dan the banker, Dan the wanker…
“Er, I…” I forced myself to swallow, reaching to loosen my tie. “I uh…” My breath came in shallow gasps. “I suppose so…”

#

Years ago, on my first journey to Africa, I was collected from Cape Town airport by family friends.
“Africa is dangerous,” they told me. “Always be careful, it’s not safe even here in South Africa. Perhaps you should stay in Cape Town and keep in touch with us.”
A week later, I said a polite goodbye, jumping into a different realm of travel; backpacking. I bussed my way across the country, stopping in hostel after hostel.
Three months later that, I jumped rank again, from backpacker to intrepid traveller. I purchased a bright yellow beach buggy and drove through five countries before returning to Cape Town, selling the car, and flying home.

Back in Canada, after taking a job at the bank, I began to feel as though I’d missed something. To be an intrepid traveller wasn’t enough. There was another echelon, a mysterious and dangerous and extraordinary realm of travel which in every way contradicted the concept of my current stability as a quiet, hardworking banker.

#

The old man’s hand shook as he placed his cheque on the counter. “Being a banker is a respectable position in society you know.”
I nodded politely, knowing I wasn’t going to be, and couldn’t possibly be, a respectable banker for the rest of my life. One day, I’d leave Canada and become an African Adventurer.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Muskoka Cabin







An uneven wooden bridge runs from the mainland to the small island that my grandmother bought almost 70 years ago. The deep, dark waters of Lake Oxbow surround the island and extend up along the long, narrow lake named for its oxbow-like shape. In Autumn, the surrounding hills are thick with brilliant orange, red and yellow leaves. Entering the forests is like walking through a cornucopia of thanksgiving colour with the sun shimmering off every leaf. They were in their peak while we visited the old family cabin on Ginny's Island last week.

My grandmother was 22 when she bought the Island from her employer, Limberlost Lodge. She used her entire inheritance to do so and was terrified to tell her father how she'd blown the money.

Eventually she did tell him, and he loved it so much he built two other log cabins for his other two children.

Out of my entire family, my grandmother is the most like me, and vice versa. Just as she was in young adulthood when she made a wild decision, I was 23 when I travelled to Africa for the first time. Like her, I went on to blow a significant chunk of my inheritance. I however did it on various adventures throughout Africa and the Middle East. It was my age of rebellion, sixty years after hers, which bond us together. It goes deeper than merely rebelling from mainstream Canadian life and pursuing a dream. She, and the cabin influenced me throughout my childhood.

The cottage is a step back in time for me. The smell ranges from musty moth balls for sheets, to cedar, birch and pine for the wood that we burn in the fireplace. The smell itself takes me back to what life was like for early settlers and pioneers in Canada.

A rumour passed around the family claims that the cabin was built by a family trying to escape the WWI draft.

The inside has had electricity for over fifty years now, however the hallmarks of a time before are everywhere: An old oil lamp hangs behind the cast-iron wood stove. The wood stove was the main source of heat in its day and still quickly warms the cabin on a cold day; A now derelict outhouse stands in the middle of the island, it has been replaced by a composting toilet inside; Old knicknacks sit on the mantle above the fireplace: a guest book that starts in 1940; an old metal box that says rifle on it; old clay mugs we use for pens; faded oil lamps; and a clay pot for matches.

The old logs of the cottage are decaying and it needs a lot of work. The roof leaks in numerous places. The floor never was straight. Each winter, expanding ice causes the cabin to shift in places. Mice can get in everywhere. The steep, chalet-style roof is covered with tar paper instead of shingles.

The Island's highlight is a screened-in sleeping porch built right over the shallow shore of the island. The call of the loons echoes through the summer nights. When it rains, raindrops batter the lake and stream off the roof.

My great grandfather fed porridge to my mother and her cousins on a wooden bench in front of the big stone fireplace. I think he built that bench himself.

The family cabin on Ginny's Island, named after my grandmother herself, is a big part of my inspiration.
It's where I was introduced to witty poetry, with my grandmothers funny poems sprawled around the cottage, particularly in the outhouse to give guidelines on its use. My grandmother was also well travelled. In her youth, she freighter-hopped around the world.

When I was nine, the "real" Africa was introduced to me on an old black and white television with bunny-ear reception. The movie had a tribe of African warriors who went into battle barefoot. In the film, being barefoot show toughness and fearlessness. For years after that, I ran around the island and the mainland without anything on my feet. My souls became blackened by the dirt paths.

It's also where I picked up my first Wilbur Smith African Adventure novel and became a fan, reading his other twenty-something novels over the years.

The island was where I learned ingenuity, fixing things as they needed fixing. It's gradually fallen into neglect since my grandmother's death in 2003. This is evidenced by the leaking roof, broken plumbing and decaying walls. It's been passed around the family, and I regret that I was financially and geographically (in Africa) incapable of taking over ownership when it was offered to me. It's since gone to a close cousin who, after having a baby last week, hopes to restore it in the coming summer.

This was the first autumn I've spent up there since I was young. I chopped firewood, swept pine needles from the roof, cooked on the wooden stove and collected water with buckets from the lake. The experience returned to a time when life was, in many ways, simpler and more routine. Today, we pay increasing amounts for heating and electricity. Back then, it was about chopping enough firewood for the winter and keeping enough lamp oil on hand to provide light during the long winter nights.

All of these factors had a dramatic effect on me. I sought them out in life, sought out a historical look on what the world was really like in earlier times. Influenced by my grandmother's spirit, the historic cabin, and the life it showed me, not to mention a smattering of timely African movies and Wilbur Smith novels, Africa somehow became mingled with my destiny.

People have asked me, "Why Africa?" The above is as good an answer as any I can provide.

This blog has morphed from my memories of the cottage, to my motivation for travelling to Africa, and now I take it to my love for writing. They are all linked, I know this like a man knows how pieces of his past effect what he is today. I hadn't put them together so neatly until just now.

There are other factors, but these are the biggest ones I can think of.

It brings me to a new blog theme. I've been struggling with the beginning of my book. The rest is fine, it's just getting the ever important first chapter bang on in order to draw potential readers and agents. This blog gives me another idea on an angle for the beginning.

I'll post a variety of different beginnings for my book, "Beach Buggy Safari" just to show how much damn work I've put into this. If people are actually reading my blog, which according to the fifty visits per week, they must be, I'd love to hear feedback on which beginning, if any, is decent.

I'll get started tomorrow. Time for bed now.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Political Races.

I've said it before, and the Liberals finally caught onto the idea. Hit Harper where it hurts and link him to Bush every chance you get. The problem is, they're not doing it enough. They needed to link him to Bush in the debate a dozen times more.

Take the gloves off damn it!

The debate is your chance to give Harper a black eye. Call him STEVIE, and when he grimaces, apologize and say, "Sorry, I guess that names reserved for your pal George Bush."

Make it a staged attack. The Liberals and the Greens can at least get together with a little dialogue to really embarrass Harper.

Elizibeth May: Good Bushenomics there Stevie.

Dion: Please Elizibeth, that names reserved for his close friend and mentor.

Layton: Can using the word Stevie in any way be considered plagiarism?

May: No, you'd have to practically copy an entire speech to do that.


The Canadian electorate is in a conundrum. The worst possible outcome is a Conservative Majority. The only right wing party there is.

The NDP, Liberals and Greens are battling for the left vote. I sometimes wish they could get together and merge parties. They split the vote, which threatens to hand the conservatives an outright majority.

Worst case scenario - a Quebec riding:

Liberals - 20%
Bloc - 20%
Green - 19%
NDP - 20%
Conservatives - 21%

Seat goes to the conservatives.

But that's the first past the post system. Despite the fact that 79% of the people vote against Stephen Harper, he can still win the riding.

It's a Political taboo to say so, but I urge people to vote strategically anti-Harper.
Vote for the left leaning party most popular in your riding simply to help get the seat to anyone but Harper.
If you are an NDP or Green supporter in a riding that is really between the Liberals and the Conservatives, please vote Liberal.
Same goes for Liberal supporters in a riding where the Green party, or the NDP, or even the Bloc have the best chance of winning. Face it, the Bloc will never get elected to lead, so a seat for them is a safe vote against Harper.

Moving to the US, where the vice presidential debate is on for tonight. Sarah Palin reminds me of a girl I knew in University. Like Palin, this girl was also involved in politics. She was running for some University chair position. I had the unfortunate experience of having her as a teammate in a marketing research group.

You don't know someone is an idiot until you see them in action. How this girl got to a third year University course was beyond me. She was in two of my classes, and I fortunately saw her doing a different group presentation before I had to present a project with her.

She was discussing the business strategy for a clothing company. The following, as I remember it, is the dialogue she presented.

"By not focusing on smaller markets such as Toronto and Montreal, and in turn focusing on major Markets Paris, Los Angeles and New York, the company can increase their profits and revenues by 2000 percent."

The teacher was gob smacked. He had a look of disgust on his face. All things considered, he was the biggest hothead prof in the school and had shouted down students for being too stupid to be in University. I was surprised when he kept his cool. He was role playing the CEO of the company, the other students not presenting were role-playing board members, and the girl was part of a hired marketing team.

"I don't understand," the prof said. "How can decreasing the cities where we sell, thereby shrinking our market exposure, increase our profits and revenues by 2000 percent. Just a second here, our current profits are two million dollars. How much money can we actually make with this strategy? Two thousand percent of two million is a bit difficult for me to calculate. Can you give me some hard figures? What will our profits be?"

"Two trillion dollars," she replied.

Then the prof got mad. "Two trillion! That's more than the value of General Motors! Our profits are going to be double the GDP of Canada? That's amazing! Get out of my classroom!"

Clearly the girl picked numbers off the top of her head, and in that moment, I cringed to think she was in another group of mine. I went on to find out she was lazy and stupid, and even though I tried my best to not allow her to present anything related to numbers, she managed to sneak something in, completely botch it, and force me to apologize to the class (imaginary board members) and correct the mistake.

Here's where I draw the parallel. Her out-of-nowhere answers remind me of Sarah Palin. Palin looks like a right dolt in interviews, and for someone who's job it may be to understand foreign affairs and economic policy, she comes across as much less informed than I do.

I babble, I'm not actually that informed. I used to read the economist magazine and have my finger on the pulse of most major stories. I wish I still had time to read it, but instead, I mostly scour online papers and read a few select articles every day.

It will be interesting to see how the VP debate goes tonight. If I was Biden, I'd try to steer the debate in the direction of complicated policy and use the big words to really throw Palin off. It's third year university all over again, and like watching a train wreck about to occur, I'm disgusted, but can't help watch the coming carnage.

Market Turmoil

The US economy is screwed. The banks are in serious trouble. The government approved an $800 billion bail out package.

To update my numbers, that's about $2500 per American, man, woman and child.

But it doesn't really affect the poorest Americans. Specifically the ones who bought houses they couldn't afford, then walked away from them. The ones who are the root cause of the financial breakdown. I don't blame them though, for it was the banks who foolishly loaned them a lot of money, and beyond that, the government whose idiotic deregulation led to out of control lending in the first place.

The people on the tax hook are the ones with good paying jobs, which are roughly half of the American people. The other half are only the root cause of the problem but don't make enough to pay big taxes and therefore won't be effected much.


So where are the taxes going to come from when capital gains tax revenues take a major hit.

They could tax fuel, but any politician who did that wouldn't get elected.

They could introduce a national sales tax, like almost every other first world country. Something needs to be done to deal with the gluttonous debt.


I predict the US debt is near a spiralling out of control stage. The stage where the interest is too much to pay off. To balance the budget, the average tax grab per American is a thousand dollars a year just for the interest. That's at a modest interest rate of 3%.

Something that really irks me however is, why is Canada even worse off than the US? The US economy is faltering thanks to the meltdown of the banking system ala the mortgage market. The Canadian economy hasn't felt the same problems. Commodities have fallen from their highs, but are still mostly strong. Our banking system is considered rock solid. So WHY THE HELL is the Toronto Stock exchange down 30% when the NYSE is only down about 20%?

Why is the Canadian dollar weakening?

It doesn't make any sense to me!

If I was a hedge fund manager and I'd bet the Canadian markets would outperform the US markets, I would have lost my shirt!


I look at the factors of the US economy, and it tells me, SCREWED, SCREWED, SCREWED!

I look at factors of the Canadian economy, and it tells me, TOUGH TIMES AHEAD, BUT WE'LL GET THROUGH!

Now for the leadership debates.

Completiong my book, so close, yet so damn far away...

I'm in a race to finish my book. I'm so close I can envision the acceptance letter. Well, maybe not. I envision an agent rejecting me before she reads through the first sentence that I tried so hard to perfect. I see them, used to reading so much crap, that they think, "Hrmm, his first sentence doesn't enthrall me, onto the slush pile."

I was rewriting my first chapter this morning. Actually it was a prologue. I've decided for the hundredth time to write a prologue, after having rejected the idea an equal number of times.

I was just getting warmed up, the ideas flowing faster than I could type. Good stuff was appearing onto the page, this was gold, this was....

"DANNY!"

The moment was gone. The creative juices dried up with the call of the wife. Something, always something to destroy the creative flow. Such as my mother just walking into my office and asking about a DVD player, or the phone ringing, or my dad calling my celphone just to see if his was working.

The problem is, with each interruption, my work becomes worse. A different train of thought takes over and clashes with the first train of thought, resulting in a writing train wreck.

A constant barrage of distractions fucking over my creative ability.

This particular prologue is about me discovering the Beach Buggy concept and how it formulated in my brain.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

What is anti-Semitic?

By it's very definition, it simply means discrimination against Jews.

Yesterday Liberal candidate Lesley Hughes was dismissed from her Winnipeg riding for supposed anti-Semetic writings.

Lesley Hughes, a reporter, may be guilty of several things, a poorly sourced article being atop that list. From what I read of her rambling political writing, I'm not convinced she is guilty of being an anti-Semite. The writing in question was a blurb written at the start of the Afghan war. She begins by discussing the anger toward Americans for the death of four Canadian soldiers.

The comments in question are as follows:

"Many official sources are claiming to have warned the American intelligence community, which spends $30 billion a year gathering information, about the attacks on the twin towers on that heartbreaking day.

German Intelligence (BND) claims to have warned the U.S. last June, the Israeli Mossad and Russian Intelligence in August. Israeli businesses, which had offices in the Towers, vacated the premises a week before the attacks, breaking their lease to do it. About 3000 Americans working there were not so lucky."


I can't say whether any of this is true. She sourced her facts in the article. This is the internet however and I could personally claim to be an ex-CIA agent with credible information that says pigs can fly. I'm still waiting for my cheque from Bill Gates and Walt Disney.

It's hard to believe anyone is capable of the evil that occurred on September 11th, 2001. I find it no more difficult to believe there was a high-level American conspiracy than any other theory.


Two "conspiracy" points of history to mull over are:

1) It's a widely toted theory that JFK was assassinated for oil interests. Is it too much of an extension to think those same high-level billionaires saw dollar signs in igniting wars via 9/11 because their American oil had dried up?

2) In 1898, the sinking of the USS Maine ignited the Spanish-American war. Spanish and loyalist Cuban opinions included a theory that the United States government may have intentionally caused the detonation as a pretext to go to war with Spain. Spain had no interest in igniting a war with the US. Their resources were spread thin across the America's and the Philippines and they were easily defeated.


My analysis of Lesley Hugh's comments themselves still doesn't reveal any significant anti-Jewish sentiments. It merely states that intelligence communities received information about a terrorist attack, and that Israelis thought the information was credible enough to evacuate their presence from the twin towers.

Assuming the information is false, it still doesn't suggest Jewish people were involved in the attacks, therefore it is NOT anti-Semetic!

Dion made a gross error in dismissing Lesley Hughes. If you go through my blog and take snippets, you could probably find enough to accuse me of being anything you want.

I'm frustrated with the mentality that mentioning Israel is akin to walking on egg shells. If they are mentioned in any other way than to suggest light shines through their arses, then people are racist and anti-semitic.

The moment we stop questioning the transgressions of the world, the inconsistencies of facts, and our government's true intentions, is the day we become a brainwashed population.

If anything, this article should be fact-checked and Lesley Hughes reporting skills should be scrutinized.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

How much is half a trillion dollars?

George Bush has announced a half a trillion dollar support package to prop up the economy.

Exactly how much is half a trillion dollars and who's going to pay it?

The American tax payer, of course.

Half a trillion dollars translates to about $1500 per American.

An average American family of four is on the hook for $6000 if they were to pay off this debt.

This is on top of the $31,000 each American is already on the hook for in order to pay off the $10 trillion dollar debt.

That's $124,000 for a family of four.

But the immunity is the scary part. The message, "You can screw up, lose your shirts, and cost investors billions, and the Federal Government will bail you out."

The numbers are almost too heady to understand, but the problem is quite simple.

It starts with bad debt, and a faulty money lending formula.

Banks are supposed to err on the side of caution and minimize exposure to bad debts. This didn't happen. They screwed up, and American tax payers will be on the hook for years to come.

Here's the catch 22 situation for the government.

Option one, Federal intervention - Middle Class earners, who pay the lions share of US taxes, fork over more or less 10 grand each to bail out the fiscally irresponsible and decrepit banking system. They are paying for the people who couldn't afford mortgage payments, defaulted on their homes, causing a real estate crash, which caused the banks to lose billions, which caused the stock markets to crash, which caused the Federal Government to inject half a trillion dollars, which led to the higher taxes.

Option two - Laissez-faire - In this case the government does nothing, the markets continue to stumble, but eventually find parity. Trillions of investor dollars, mostly middle class owned, is lost by investors. The big banks and insurers go bankrupt, and the decay in the American system is rooted out and replaced by something better.

Neither option is pretty. Americans unfortunately made their bed with a government who turned a blind eye to corporate greed. They just have to sleep in it now.

Don't let the bed bugs bite.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Canadian Election cont'd

In my last Political blog, I tried to give an overview of the parties, remaining somewhat unbiased in my analysis.

I'll let my true colours show now, and explain my stance on an issue or two.

As for Dion - I can take some of my previous blog posts on how to handle the economy, and see them reflected in his Green Shift Plan. He had me sold at higher taxes on carbon pollution, with the revenues being put toward Green jobs and subsidies for greener housing. The only idea I missed hearing, and that doesn't mean it wasn't there, was the promise of a subsidy on hybrid or electric cars built in Canada.

But there's more than just the promise of jobs and subsidies. It's putting accountability and pressure on oil companies to decrease the dirtiness of tar sands production. If the government ramps up pollution taxes enough, while offering subsidies for green alternatives such as injecting the pollution back into the earth, then everybody wins.

I compare this with Harper's let them pollute all they want mentality. Economy before environment.

That shouldn't be. The environment is more important than the economy, but if you can keep both going well, as Dion is suggesting, then more power to you.

Yesterday Harper wood Quebec with rhetoric about legislating equal representation for French speakers on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
While slashing arts and crippling Canada's creative instinct, he reaffirms that Quebeckers will have their part in our crippled arts system. They already do, he just wants to make it the law.
Good one Harper. And while your at it, I think the following changes should be legislated for the CRTC immediately as well.

One Chinese Canadian on the board to represent Canada's largest ethnic minority.
A rotation between an Indian Canadian and a Pakistani Canadian to represent their stake in Canada's vibrant minority populations.
A rotation between a Native Canadian, A handicapped person, A Latin American, and a midget, to successfully represent the interests of their groups.
Don't forget equal representation to reflect Canadian religious groups. Athiest/Agnostic, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, etc.
etc, etc, all of which must be rotated in fairly to the CRTC.

You get my point. I have an intense dislike for quotas. I object to being asked whether I consider myself a visible minority on a job application. I don't think it's Harper's job to be the saviour and protector of the French language. The pride of French Canadians can do that for itself and suggesting otherwise is an insult to their intelligence.

It always irked me that Stephen Harper travels with his own makeup maven. Or as some people might prefer to say, image consultant. I'm not the most gifted dresser myself, in fact my taste in clothes is rather abysmal, but for important events, I have my own image consultant who doesn't charge anything. My wife.

My point is, Stephen Harper wears makeup!

Did you hear the latest joke?

What's the difference between a Stephen Harper at a pitbull?

Lipstick!

I can say that. I'm not a certified member of the Liberal party, just a voter. Even though my thoughts sometimes push the boundaries of good taste, it's not like I wish someone dead from listeriosis.
That's one of the scariest things about the conservative party. The comments they make...
Peter Mackay calling Belinda Stronach a dog.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz' comments on a Prince Edward Island listeriosis death he said he hoped was Liberal agriculture critic Wayne Easter.
Most irksome for me were the brutal attack ads on Stephan Dion. "Stephan Dion is not a leader!"
Stop lying. He's the leader of the Liberal Party, plain and simple. You can puffin poop on his shoulder all you want, that doesn't change the fact that he is the "LEADER" of the Liberals.

And these gaffes are with Harper trying to keep his party muzzled! Imagine what they'd say if the muzzles came off completely!

What are their true intentions?

Spend lavishly; make their friends rich; pump Canadian money into Conservative-friendly companies; keep a piece of George Bush type politics alive and well in the world?

The only thing I can do is look at trends. The last time the Conservatives were in power, they racked up huge deficits and were hard on the economy. The Liberals, after some effort, sound economic management, and a bit of economic luck, managed to reverse those deficits into surpluses and ride a wave of bull markets.

The market has dropped to lower than when Stephen Harper took office three years ago. Canada's surpluses are shrinking, and despite pumping a crapload of oil out of Alberta, we're looking at Conservative deficits again. If Harper had managed to create a $40 billion surplus to counter-balance his predecessor Mulroney's run of $40 billion deficits, I might consider voting for the guy.

Something that really confuses me, is why do the Conservatives liberally overspend, while the Liberals show fiscal conservativeness?

Isn't that backwards? Shouldn't it be the other way around?

For sensitive issues such as gay marriage and immigration, I don't always see eye to eye with the Liberals. But these are relative non issues for me in comparison to the economy and environment. For these, I'm in line with the liberal party, which means being conservative.

I want a better future to pass onto my children. Not one of embarrassing national debt and a decimated environment.

My last word, I'll vote strategically for whoever is likely to beat the conservatives in my riding. Whether that's Liberals, NDP, or Greens, it doesn't matter. I just can't stand to think we are being hoodwinked by George Bush in disguise. I don't want to be paying higher taxes for years to come simply to pay off more conservative overspending.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sleepless in Sudan - Abousfian Abdelrazik

Abousfian Abdelrazik, a Canadian citizen, has been trapped in Sudan for six years, ever since returning to the country to visit his sick mother in 2002.

Why? He was blacklisted and put on GWB's no fly list. If you're not filled in, you can read more here, or google the guys name "Abousfian Abdelrazik" and get a full story.

I suppose he was added to the "no fly" list after leaving Canada, otherwise, how could he have flown out?

I see two distinct possibilities. Either he is a terrorist threat, or he isn't. It is that simple.

But how do we find out?

Well, we could ask the Sudanese government to arrest and torture the truth out of him. Oh, wait, we did that. Unfortunately, a confession under duress is not admissible in court.

My solution - give him a polygraph. If he's innocent, he should have nothing to hide and should pass. Put him on a plane or a boat and ship him home. If he is guilty, then find out whatever you can about him, and other terrorist links, and continue doing what we're doing.

Ask questions regarding terrorist links, activities, feelings about governments, loyalties, beliefs, etc.

Now you have to expect he's a bit pissed off about being treated like crap by our government, so take that into account when you ask the question, "Do you wish any harm upon the Canadian government?"

As you can see from some of my previous posts, I don't have the highest opinion of Canada's immigration system. Here, here, and here, and here,

If you read those, my wife got her resident's visa six weeks ago and we are happily reunited back in Canada.

I have to assume, since he's being strung out, that there is a dodgy terrorist link preventing his return to Canada. If there isn't, like in the case of Arar, then expect our government to shell out another wad of cash for gross incompetence.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Where the hell is the LPC?

Where the hell is the LPC? I've heard almost nothing from them? Dion seems quieter than a mouse. I don't know whether its because the media has shut him out, or whether he is caught up stumbling over his image problems?

The US economy is on the brink of disaster. It is time to remind the voters about the last conservative majority and how it is responsible for the majority of Canada's overall debt and the previous recession. (which the Liberals pulled us out of)
Remind us that each year, Canadian tax payers shell out $20-30 billion, or close to $700 per person in taxes solely on the interest of the debt.
Remind us how, in a time of massive economic boom, the Liberals were paying that down.
Then remind us how, with the Conservative plans, that surplus is being spent away on promises of corporate tax cuts.
Sure, Canada might be better off next year if Harper gets into power. But in ten years, our taxes will be higher, our quality of life worse, and our debt running out of control.
With the crashing of the US stock market, Canada's government hasn't done enough to safeguard our economy from the fallout.
Where did the big surpluses go?
Why doesn't Harper deliver a 43 billion dollar surplus? When Mulroney was last in power, he delivered a 43 billion dollar deficit. It's only fair, isn't it?

There's been cuts in arts and cuts in health care, which might be acceptable if Canadians were delivered a big budget surplus. So where the hell is it?

Canadian tax payers don't like being gouged, but whether the Liberals are in power or the Conservatives are in power, we will be. At least the Liberals aim to leave the country a better place for our children to grow up in.

So where the hell is that message?

Hello, Dion, are you out there? Canada to Stephan?

Are the Liberals even running in this election?

Stop hiding and give us someone to vote for!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Canada's Election, and a few pointers.

Canadians have just been told of an impending fall election set for October 14th, 2008. 

Canada has five major political parties:

The Liberal Party of Canada
The Conservative Party of Canada
The New Democratic Party of Canada
The Bloc Quebecois
The Green Party of Canada

Other smaller parties include:


Marijuana Party
Canadian Clean Start Party
Libertarian Party of Canada
Communist Party of Canada
Western Canada Concept Party
Marxist - Lenninist Party of Canada
Canadian Action Party
Rhinoceros Party of Canada
Canadian Confederation of Regions Party
Socialist Party of Canada
Christian Heritage Party of Canada


The Green Party.

Green is something that could become more electable in the future. In the next decade, if managed properly, the Green Party could make significant inroads into Canada's political system. For them to become successful, there are some key elements that need to be addressed.

- A leader the public can connect with, possibly from within, but likely from outside the party.
- Fielding recognizable, quality candidates. The Greens just turfed a candidate for alleged anti-semetic remarks. Whether anti-semetic or not, he was formerly a candidate for the Marijuana party - enough said.
- Continued focus on being the best party to solve Canada's environmental woes, while providing viable economic, energy and health care plans to become more than a one trick pony.

New Democratic Party

The NDP's are almost always on the outside looking in. They are the third place finishers in essentially Canada's two party Federal election. They are too far on the left to appeal to Canada's mainstream voters and NDP leader Jack Layton portrays an opportunist scatterbrain. At every possible chance he reminds voters that the NDP is the best option for all issues, although he never really convinces us why. The NDP party, along with the Bloc Quebecois, provide Canadians a service when propping up minority governments and trading off concessions (usually overspending) for their supporting votes.

The Bloc Quebecois.

If Quebec represented Canada, the Bloc might have a chance. But the party only runs in one province, and mostly to provide a voice for Quebeckers. They are the majority spoilers and, IMO, serve little purpose other than to prop up minority governments in return for political capital directed to Quebec. Suffering from lack of support, the Bloc Quebecois is on the decline and is being pushed to the sidelines by the Parti Action Democratique du Quebec in provincial election popularity.


The Liberal Party

The Liberal Party are in a fight. Firstly to stave off a Conservative majority, and secondly to try and grab enough votes to get themselves into a minority position. Their plan of attack should be on several fronts, starting with an offensive attack to show why they are the better alternative.
- They need to sell the carbon tax plan that Harper is so effectively cutting down with attack ads. In doing so, they also need to show weaknesses in Harper's own policies.
- Expect the Liberals to continue putting out the message that Harper has a secret agenda. This includes showing Harper's closeness to George Bush at every available opportunity. Afghanistan, abortion, human rights, guns, and the environment are other issues of attack.

Economy - Harper inherited a strong economy with pleasant budget surpluses. He's had the fortune of riding three years of strong economic growth. But it's a bad year and market conditions are turning. Liberals would do well to remind us how they reintroduced the budget surplus and appeal to Canadians natural fiscal conservativeness. 

We need to continue paying down the debt, which sits at half a trillion dollars. Canada's fiscal irresponsibility of the 80's and 90's has only recently been brought under control.  It would take fifty years of ten billion dollar anual surpluses to pay off the debt.

At 500 billion dollars. Each Canadian (man woman and child), in tax alone, with interest at 5%, has to pay approximately $750 per year just to cover the interest on Canadian debt.
That's 24 billion dollars in interest payments. 

Should Canadians really be happy about the periodic ten billion dollar budget surplus? 
Canada's eight largest budget deficits in history occurred under the last conservative majority government and can be seen in the chart below.


 


Canada's actual surpluses for the past seven years have been:
  • 2008/09 (projected) $1.7B
  • 2007/08 (projected) $1.5 B
  • 2006/07 $13.8B
  • 2005/06 $4.5
  • 2004/05 $5.9
  • 2003/04 $9.1B
  • 2002/03 $7B
  • 2001/02 $8.9B
  • 2000/01 $18.1B
  • 1999/00 $12.7B
  • 1998/99 $3.1B
  • 1997/98 $3.8B


Health Care - Canada's most significant health care woe is the lack of family doctors. In 2000, the Liberals introduced a plan to address the shortage by creating family clinics with trained nurses diagnosing up to 80% of patients and thus greatly increasing clinics patient loads. The plan was initiated under the Liberal Government in 2000, but has yet to take effect. It is a major failure of the Conservative government to continue this policy. The fallout currently has 17% of Canadians without primary care, and many exasperated by the inability to find a family doctor. The Liberals need to show Harper as failing to follow through on a successful Liberal idea of family clinics. They should also focus partisan anger over the Conservative inability to continue Liberal initiated programs.



The Conservatives.

To win, the Conservatives must tout their accomplishments. Though the green thumb of Harper is sorely limited, he should show off the environmental projects he did initiate and use them to combat Dion's Green Shift plan.
Harper's attack ads claim Dion's carbon tax policy will create higher gas prices and across the board inflation. I've long been an advocate of higher gasoline taxes, particularly in the US, but also in Canada in order to regain better control over oil prices. Unfortunately, the majority of voters jump for the guy who promises the lowest gas prices without considering the consequences.
Harper's plan, if you throw enough mud at someone, lots of it is bound to stick in the uninformed voters mind. Harper is doing that successfully.
Harper's campain also successfully portrays Dion as a fumbling leader who lacks experience or direction. It's working. Unless Stephan Dion steps up his advertising, does well in the debates, and portrays a better image, his ratings will continue to struggle.

According to a Globe and Mail poll, 83% of Canadians have made up their mind who they are voting for. Granted, online polls have major room for error, however assuming some level of accuracy, if 17% of voters are swingable the best Dion can hope for is to stave off a Conservative majority.

A recent poll indicated the conservatives with a strong lead. Thanks to Canada's first past the post system, this actually tells us very little.

As of Sept 4, 2008

If the federal election were held today, which of the following parties would you vote for?

Total %

Conservative party

38

Liberal party

28

New Democratic Party

19

Bloc Québécois

8

Green party

7













Source: environics survey


Trump Cards

Unlike previous elections, this election could be won and lost on the internet. All parties would do well to create spoof ads highlighting opposition weaknesses. A good place to start would be too look up 2d political spoofs. One similar to Blair and Bush could be particularly damaging to Harper. 
While conservatives could highlight Dion's weaknesses. The ads must be funny and create a buzz for viewership. An internet traffic expert would be a particularly valuable addition to any campaign in order to drive traffic to the sites.
Spoof ads, such as this one, could go a long way to helping parties get their message across. Although in this spoof message case, someone with a booming radio voice could portray the message much better.