Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bad (and inconsiderate) condo sales strategy

There's a specific pre-construction condo I'm interested in. I recently received floor plans, but no prices. However, googling around for prices per square foot, I found unofficial information suggesting that the units I'm interested in will be out of my price range. So I mourned my condo and waited for official word.

On Thursday, I received an invitation from a broker whose list I'd signed up for to a VIP preview to be held today. I asked if he had prices, so I wouldn't waste both his time and mine on something I'm priced out of. He said the builder was releasing them at the VIP preview.

So this morning I set an alarm, put on make-up and nervously went off to a place I've never been before to make a major purchase that I've never made before.

I walked in, was handed a price list, and discovered I was priced out of the units I'm interested in.

That was a waste of time! Why on earth didn't they just release the prices with the floor plans so people who can't afford it are selected out? Who is served by making people who can't afford it come all the way in to the sales office and tie up the time and attention of brokers and sales reps before they can learn that they can't afford it?

This was especially annoying for me because, being a shy and awkward sort of person, I get very nervous about doing new things where I don't know what to expect, to the extent that I feel it in my bowels and my acne and my dreams. The two days' warning they gave me was enough time to spend being nervous, but not enough for the nerves to dissipate and for me to come to terms with what I may or may not have been about to do. So I spent the past two days carrying these nerves, having fretful and interrupted sleep, with my cystic acne and my digestive system in overdrive, and all this during the busiest time at work. The tetris lines kept piling up until I was jumpy like a shy puppy on a subway. And I could have been spared all that if they'd just released a price list with the floorplans!

My first thought was that this model is really inconsiderate to introverts, shy people, aspies, the socially awkward, bullying victims - anyone for whom going into a strange place likely to be staffed by slick strangers and not knowing what awaits you is an ordeal. So at first this blog post was going to be about how energetic, extroverted real estate people for whom going somewhere new and meeting new people and making big money deals is a fun adventure (because, if it weren't, they probably wouldn't have gone into real estate) are making it unduly difficult for the rest of us.

But, on top of that, it's also inconsiderate to anyone who works or has other specific obligations or already-made plans on Saturdays, anyone who needs to arrange childcare if they're going to go do something grownup like buy a condo, anyone who lives a significant commute away - basically anyone who doesn't keep their Saturday wide open or full of easily-cancellable plans.

So all these people have to go through the stress and inconvenience of being in a specific place in a specific time on very short notice not even to buy a condo, but just to find out whether or not they can afford it.

It serves no one to make people who simply do not have enough money and mortgage space come into the sales centre. It would be far more convenient for all involved to let those who can't afford it select themselves out. So why not do that? What can possibly be gained by forcing people to schlepp all the way to your location just to find out your prices?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What Facebook should do about employers who demand prospective employees' Facebook passwords

Facebook should put a clause on their terms of service stating that users may not share their password with anyone else without first informing Facebook that they intend to do so. They should create a special form you can fill out for the express purpose of informing Facebook that you intent to share your password with someone. This form should request enough data that Facebook will be able to find that individual's Facebook account.

Then Facebook should use this information to either a) ban all employers reported through this mechanism, or b) set all their privacy to the lowest possible setting without the option of raising it back up.

Fair warning would be set out in the terms of service ("By using this service, you agree to.."), and they could use selective publicity to very loudly announce that you have to report to Facebook if your employer requests your password while being more discreet about the consequences for the employer. Facebook already has a reputation for changing privacy settings and terms of service on its users, so it may as well use this precedent for good.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wherein I receive an astounding act of social generousity

Something funny happened to me the other day.

It was warm and sunny out, and I was walking down Yonge Street wearing a simple black outfit and these shoes.

A lady standing with a group of people nearby left her group, headed over in my direction, walked up to me, and said:

"Where did you get such UGLY shoes?"

This was hilarious for a few reasons.

First, she left her group to come tell me my shoes are ugly. Rather than just pointing and laughing with her group or taking a stealth photo to share on facebook, she interrupted her day and sought me out to tell me my shoes are ugly. If the sight of someone walking down the main street of a major city in mildly unconventional footwear so vexes you that you have to stop what you're doing and intervene, I don't think you're going to make it in the city.

Second, her dress and appearance had no particular redeeming qualities. She was a poster girl for the concept of "she's let herself go". She was probably a poster girl for this concept ten years ago. Her clothes were ill-fitting and poorly made walmart-wear of the sort that you can't tell if they're from last summer or last decade, her shorts were riding up between her legs exposing her cellulite, and her hair was cropped short and plastered flat against her head with no hint of having been washed or combed in the past 24 hours. Normally when I see someone who takes so little care with their appearance I think nothing of it, simply assuming they have better things to worry about. But this lady had proven that she clearly doesn't.

Third, these shoes have gotten me the more compliments than anything else in my life, and by "anything" I mean not just fashion choices but actual achievements as well. Even if you do think they're ugly (and that's entirely your prerogative), they are a clear fashion win, moreso than anything else I've ever worn.

Between my bullies and my judgmental family members I've received more than my fair share of disses in my life, but I've never received one that was so off-target from someone who was so very clearly less cool than me. That made the whole thing utterly hilarious and not at all hurtful, and I left the interaction with a smile on my face.

I didn't blog about this when it first happened because I've been getting great mileage out of it. I've told it to all different people, and it gets a laugh every time and we all leave the conversation with smiles on our faces. But this morning in the shower I realized that this random shoe-hating lady has actually given me a very generous gift: a hilarious story!

The story works fantastically because it makes me look good ("My shoes are so awesome they offended some frumpy judgey lady, and I handled the situation with complete sangfroid!") and it makes whomever I tell the story to feel good about themselves ("At least I'm nowhere near that awful!"). If I were the kind of person who liked to brag about my personal possessions, this would give me the perfect opportunity to show off my awesome red shoes.

In fact, every decision that lady made pertaining to our interaction improved the story. By opting not to make any effort with her appearance that day, she made certain that I wouldn't feel any insult and added humour to the story, bolstering my audience's feeling good about themselves upon hearing the story. (It wouldn't be nearly so effective a story if she had been more conventionally attractive.) And by cleverly phrasing her question as "Where did you get such ugly shoes?" she gave me the perfect set-up for a good reply (a big smile and the name and location of the store). If she'd chosen to phrase it "Your shoes are ugly," I probably wouldn't have been able to immediately come up with an appropriate reply (something along the lines of "Thanks, you too!") She was generous enough to sacrifice her appearance, face (in the sociological sense), and dignity so that we may live in a world that contains amusing anecdotes.

So thank you, shoe-hating lady, for your noble sacrifice. It has brought amusement to dozens of people.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Teach me about the internal logic of Catholic school dress codes

Thursday was a day to break records and rules. With the temperature in the GTA within a smidgen of an all-time high, students at St. Mary Catholic Secondary School were excited to wear shorts on one of the few days of the year they could ditch their uniforms.

But around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, vice-principal Paul Perron’s voice crackled from the speakers: no shorts, no khakis and no ankle socks on Thursday.

The article focuses on the shorts ban and the hypocrisy and asshattery of banning shorts on a civvies day when it's going to be hot out, but I'm more interested in why on earth they'd ban khakis and ankle socks. Within the school's internal logic, what on earth would their reason be for banning khakis or ankle socks?

Khakis are conservative, non-trendy long pants that are maybe a shade dressier than jeans, and in fact many schools and other organizations include khakis as part of their uniforms. I'm not even sure if teenagers today would wear khakis unless they're trying to dress more grownup. (They were trendy when I was a teenager, but now even my peers don't wear them that much and I feel a bit frumpy and out of it when I wear them.)

The kind of socks being worn are utterly irrelevant if you're already wearing long pants (which they must be, given the prohibition on shorts), so I cannot fathom why the administration even thought of this.

I'm not saying the shorts ban is reasonable, but it's not an uncommon rule for a dress code so, apart from the act of declaring a civvies day and then giving it a dress code, it doesn't particularly surprise me. But the ban on khakis and ankle socks completely baffles me and I can't even begin to speculate what their intention is. Any ideas?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What if buses stopped at every other stop?

This idea was inspired by the comments thread here (but is unrelated to the post itself). People were discussing how some transit routes have stops relatively close together, which slows things down because the vehicle has to stop so much. Some suggested spacing stops further apart, others thought that this would place too much of a burden on people with mobility issues.

But what if we kept all the stops, but had each vehicle only service alternate stops. The first bus of the day would stop at the first, third, fifth etc. stops, the second bus of the day would stop at the second, fourth, sixth etc. stops. Each individual bus would travel the route faster (which would make this technique useful for bus routes that are most often used to travel all the way across town or connect to the subway), and any user who carries a cellphone (to check NextBus) and for whom walking to the next bus stop is feasible would not be inconvenienced at all.

Just visualizing it in my head, it also seems like it would reduce bunching, although I can't actually prove that to you. For this reason, it also occurred to me to apply it to streetcars, but I don't think they can pass each other on the tracks. Transfers would be a problem under current policy, but the transfer policy could be easily changed.

This wouldn't work with infrequent bus routes, but if you've got a bus every 10 minutes it should increase convenience for the majority of users without too much inconvenience for the remaining users. Of course, the question is whether we want to be conveniencing the able-bodied on the backs of those with mobility issues, even if overall it is for the greater good.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Clever detail in the latest Dexter book (spoiler-free)

In the latest Dexter book (Double Dexter), Dexter is shown a picture of himself, and thinks to himself that he's rather handsome-looking, as though he's noticing this for the first time.

I appreciated this little detail, because when they first started making the Dexter TV series, I thought that Michael C. Hall was entirely too attractive to play Dexter. He's way more handsome than my mental image of Dexter based on the books. So I like how the author wrote in the possibility that Dexter has always been as attractive as Michael C. Hall and just hasn't noticed or mentioned it before. This could have been hand-waved as a function of the two different continuities, but instead the author fixed it. I appreciate that.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

What's up with midnight strike deadlines?

Talks between the union representing library workers and the city’s library board continued Sunday afternoon, as bleary eyed teams of negotiators worked to hammer out an agreement and avert a work stoppage.

Late Saturday night, both parties decided to extend their 12:01 a.m. deadline to 3 a.m., then 6 a.m., then 12 noon, and then until 5 p.m., according to a Toronto Public Library spokesperson.

It sounds like they've been negotiating for well over 24 hours straight, and it sounds like this is at least partly because of the midnight strike deadline. The midnight deadline impels them to negotiate right up until midnight, and then past midnight, and then keep going and going...

But negotiation is delicate, nuanced, interpersonal work. It doesn't seem very compatible with sleepless nights. People who are tired get cranky and are more likely to snap at people, and are also more likely to miss nuances and fine details. It really seems in everyone's best interest to be well-rested. And yet, every strike deadline with which I'm familiar has been at midnight.

Why do they do it this way? Why not set the strike deadline for 6 pm, and, if they feel that progress is being made but they aren't done at 6 pm, extend the strike deadline to noon or 6 pm the next day, leave at a natural stopping point, and have some dinner and sleep. Yes, there'd be some dead time in between. That would enable the employer to stay open for another half-day or full-day, and the workers to earn another half-day's or full day's wages. It sounds like a win-win-win situation. So why don't they do this?

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Why does Actors' Equity work, and what can we learn from it?

A while back I read an article about how the Toronto production of In The Heights was non-unionized, and that got me thinking and googling about how unions work in show business.

Every union with which I'm familiar is specific to an employer - you work for the employer, you join the union. But actors' membership in Actors' Equity does not seem to be tied into their employer, probably because the nature of acting is multiple temporary jobs. They join Equity, then any production that hires them has to give them the employment conditions set out in the collective agreement.

Wouldn't that be awesome? Wouldn't life be so much better if other jobs worked that way? You don't have to negotiate your salary half-blind (How much do other people get paid for this job? What's the employer's budget?), you just have to do your job well.

But, as the article about In The Heights describes, there are also some shows that don't use unionized performers at all.

But why does the union still work? Why don't all producers just use non-unionized performers and refuse to use unionized performers? A bit of googling suggests that all the best performers are in the union, but what factors are leading the producers to conclude "The best actors are in the union, therefore we should hire unionized actors" rather than concluding "We'll just hire non-unionized performers until the unionized performers give up. Even the best performers have to eat - they'll give in eventually. And if they don't, how will audience know what they're missing if the best performers aren't working?" Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that it does work, but why does it work?

And how do we recreate this phenomenon in other fields, so people could enjoy the benefits of a union even in today's precarious employment environment?

Why everyone should be worried that bankers are worried about smaller bonuses

Via wmtc, bankers worrying that their bonuses are smaller than in previous years.

This has been circulating because it's kind of tragically hilariously tonedeaf, but this is actually something that everyone should be worried about.

Bankers have types of income: predictable income (i.e. their salary) and unpredictable income (i.e. their bonuses). The problem is that some of the people quoted in this article are relying on their unpredictable income to pay regular, recurring, important expenses, like tuition and housing.

A responsible way to manage money in this kind of situation is to keep your regular, recurring, important expenses within the budget of your predictable income, and treat your unpredictable income as found money. Pay tuition with salary and use bonus money for a vacation. Get a mortgage that you can afford on your salary, and dump the bonus into the principal every time you renew to pay it off sooner. If you'd like to take on more regular, recurring, important expenses than your salary can handle, then the responsible way to do this is to invest your found money in an annuity or something similar so it provides you with regular income. Which they should totally be able to do, being bankers.

And that's the point here: they're bankers. Their job is to manage money. Collectively, they manage basically all the money. And here they are making poor decisions about what kinds of expenditures to use salary for vs. what kinds of expenditures to use bonuses for, and loudly announcing it to the media.

Question for people outside of Canada

Does the URL in your address bar appear as or Lately, seems to be redirecting to, and I'm not sure if it's because my blog's location settings are set for Canada or because my ISP is located in Canada (in other words, because I'm writing from Canada or because I'm reading from Canada.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

What if bad dreams are contagious?

Every time I tweet that I had bad or weird dreams the night before, one of my local twitter followers replies that they did too. Every time someone local on my twitter feed mentions they had bad or weird dreams, it turns out I did too.

What if bad dreams are caused by something in the air? Weather or air pressure or air quality or something? I wonder if anyone has ever studied whether people in the same geographical area have bad dreams at the same time?

(Of course, based on this same anecdotal evidence, one could also conclude that Twitter causes bad dreams.)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The (other, other, other) flaw in the Arizona birth control bill

As anyone who's spent five minutes on the internet in the past few days knows, they're trying to pass a bill in Arizona requiring people who want oral contraceptives covered by their employer-provided health insurance to prove to the employer that it's being used to treat a medical condition rather than to prevent pregnancy.

Apart from the four or five layers of inherent problems, there's another problem: any oral contraceptive that is not unsuitable for the patient is providing medical benefits other than contraception.

All oral contraceptives help with dysmenorrhea, menorrhagia, and menometrorrhagia. Because diagnosis for these conditions has subjective elements (such as "interferes with daily activities"), any patient who finds that the pain, heavy flow or unpredictability of her period interferes with her life can rightfully seek this diagnosis. And any doctor whose patient states that her period is interfering with her daily life can rightfully give this diagnosis.

Furthermore, contraceptives are generally the treatment of first resort for patients with menstrual complaints for whom they are not contraindicated. It can even be a step in the diagnostic process - try this and see how you respond. Even if it ends up the cause of the menstrual difficulties is something completely unrelated that isn't treated with contraception, the patient will most likely end up taking contraception, at least temporarily.

In short, this bill will have no impact whatsoever on the amount of contraceptives legitimately and rightfully prescribed and billed to employer health plans, while introducing a needless layer of red tape that violates existing US health privacy standards. Even if the intention were worthy, this still wouldn't be a good use of resources.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

This morning's shower revelation

When I was first diagnosed with GERD, I chafed at the dietary restrictions. After extensive thought, I came to the realization that what I really want is to be able to eat whatever I want, whenever I want, for 100% of my life. Even if it shortens my life, I'd rather eat what I want and live to 50 than comply with all the dietary restrictions and live to 100. Unfortunately, since the disease presents as difficulty eating, it's not that simple. Nevertheless, I have been rather lax in following the rules out of my usual combination of laziness and gluttony.

In the shower this morning, I realized that perfect compliance with the dietary restrictions would actually be the worst possible approach. My goal is to eat the way I want to for 100% of my remaining life. If I followed every single dietary restriction, I'd be eating the way I want for 0% of my remaining life. I still don't know how to reach the optimal balance (where I die of something that lets me eat before I die of something that prevents me from eating), but I do know that perfect compliance isn't it.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Why aren't urinals in stalls?

I've known for my entire adult life that urinals aren't in stalls, but I never realized how open they are until I saw this scene in Big Bang Theory:

That's no good at all for if you're a shy pee-er, or if the need is less urgent (but you want to go before leaving on a long commute, for example) so it takes some time to get started. Other people are right there and can see you and look you in the eye. But if you're in a stall, all other people can see is that there's someone in the stall. You have more privacy, and, if you're shy, you can just close your eyes and ears and shut out the world.

Given the number of men in fields like architecture and construction and plumbing, I'm surprised no one has put urinals in proper stalls yet. And it also surprises me that men continue to use open urinals when stalls (i.e. with toilets) are available.

Can anyone shed light onto why people still choose to use urinals?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I do not recommend Folger's Simply Smooth coffee for cold brewing

Folger's Simply Smooth coffee claims to be easier on your stomach than regular coffee. I can't tell you whether it is or is not because my symptoms are silent. However, I can tell you that it doesn't work well if you're cold-brewing your coffee. The result is practically flavourless, with no redeeming qualities except that it's warm and caffeinated. It has even less flavour than a cold brew of store brand "mellow blend" coffee from the bottom of a big can that was opened over a month previous.

Of course, this is probably because this coffee wasn't intended for cold brewing. Like most coffees, the instructions on the can are for hot brewing. I haven't tried hot brewing it myself so I can't tell you how it tastes when prepared as recommended. (It would be an interesting experiment for someone who can feel their symptoms to see if hot-brewed Simply Smooth or cold-brewed regular coffee is easier on the digestive system.)

However, if, like many people with stomach-related ailments, you are cold-brewing your coffee because that makes it less acidic, I do not recommend using Folger's Simply Smooth. And if, like the target audience for this product, you are using Folger's Simply Smooth because it's meant to be easier on your stomach, I do not recommend cold-brewing it.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Why didn't menstrual synchronicity evolve out of existence?

I have experienced menstrual synchronicity myself (with my sister, with my cohort in university, with co-workers), although I have no way of telling if it was coincidence or not. However, it occurs to me that evolution should kill menstrual synchronicity.

If every female in the group is menstruating at the same time, that means they're also all fertile at the same time. Which means that, outside of that one fertile window, any sex that is had in the entire group is wasted (from a survival-of-the-species point of view - qualify everything I say in this blog post with "from a survival-of-the-species point of view"). And if the male-female ratio is such that not all females can get all the sex necessary to become pregnant during the fertile window, a whole menstrual cycle is wasted.

But if there's a female who isn't synchronized with the rest of the group, she can get pregnant when no one else can. If males are at a premium (especially given the trends observed in our primate ancestor of females being more inclined to mate while fertile and males being more attracted to fertile females), she has her pick of all the males during her fertile window, as opposed to having to share with the rest of the group, thus increasing her chances of becoming pregnant

Even if there is no evolutionary disadvantage to synchronicity, it seems like there is a bit of an advantage to asynchronicity.

Of course, there's also the fact that, for most of evolutionary history, human and primate females spent most of their time either pregnant or lactating, and therefore unable to become pregnant anyway, which makes the impact of menstrual synchronicity or asynchronicity seem tiny. But, on the other hand, evolution has taken places over millions and millions of years. And millions and millions of tiny impacts can add up to something significant.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Buying happiness: attractive exercise clothes

Since I only ever exercise at home where no one can see me, I've always worn truly awful clothes. The sports bras were nearly 10 years old, the clothes themselves were somewhere between 15 and 20 years old, and they had no redeeming qualities except that they're cotton and light and comfortable. They were horrible enough that if, while exercising, I had ever found myself in a situation where a fire alarm rang or I had to call an ambulance, I would have changed clothes into something that at least acknowledged that the 1980s had turned into the 1990s before saving my life. After reading about some emergency or another where people had to flee their apartment building with nothing but the clothes on their backs, I had actually worried about how humiliating it would be if I were stuck in my exercise clothes.

Just recently, on top of all those aesthetic problems, elastics started dying. I was crossing my arms under my breasts and tugging my pants up. So I finally decided to splurge on new exercise clothes.

I got Secrets From Your Sister to fit me with an exercise bra which doesn't let anything move (while still giving me a decent line) and is a very fun shade of purple. And I got a simple black and charcoal yoga outfit with lines that flatter my figure. Even though I shopped well and got everything at significant discounts, that's still about $100 spent on clothes for something I hate.

What I didn't expect is how good these clothes make me feel. I look like I'm aware that the 21st century has started! I look like I have a waist! And a figure! If I were interrupted without a chance to change clothes, I'd look like a perfectly competent, fashion-aware person who happens to have been interrupted while exercising. And, underneath it all, a fun purple bra!

Attractive exercise clothes don't help the tedium or sheer hatefulness of exercise, but they do help mitigate the indignity of it all. My morning feeling of "Blah, ugh, I have to go exercise!" is now accompanied by a tiny little glimmer of "But I get to wear my purple bra!" While it doesn't make the process pleasant, it does make it less unpleasant.

If, like me, you feel utterly disgusting and hideous while exercise, I do recommend getting something attractive and flattering to wear. It does help, more than I would have expected.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

What if you could join other people's pension plans?

Given the trend away from defined-benefit pension plans and the resentment by some people who don't have defined-benefit plans to those who do, I wonder if it would be possible to create a mechanism for anyone to join any existing pension plan.

Outside members would pay in however much they wanted to (and perhaps could use the contributions from their defined-contribution plans), and get returns commensurate with those contributions on the same scale as employee members. They'd be charged a management fee for this (akin to mutual funds), which would cover the cost of administering their membership plus a small profit. The employer would not pay anything towards the outside members, of course, they'd just be along for the ride.

Here's an example of how it would work, using numbers that make the math easy and don't reflect the ratios of actual pension plans:

An employee of Acme Inc. who earns $50,000 a year contributes $5,000 a year to the pension plan and the employer also contributes $5,000 a year to the pension plan, for a total of $10,000 in contributions a year. The employee then gets a pension of $1,000 a year for each year of service when they turn 65. So if they have 35 years of service, they get a pension of $35,000 a year.

If an outsider joins the Acme Inc. pension plan and contributes $10,000 a year for 35 years (plus the management fee), they'll also get a pension of $35,000 a year when they turn 65. If they choose to contribute only the $5,000 that the employee would be paying in, they'd get a pension of $17,500. If they choose to contribute $20,000, they'd get a pension of $70,000.

Possible variations: employees can also choose to pay more in and get a bigger benefit. So if the employee in the first example chooses to pay in $10,000 instead of $5,000, the employer would still pay in the same $5,000 for a total contribution of $15,000, and, after 35 years, a pension of $52,500.

This would be advantageous for everyone who doesn't have a defined benefit pension plan, because they could buy into a professionally-managed pension plan instead of having to figure out how to manage their retirement planning themselves.

It has the potential to be slightly advantageous for the employees, because they have more money being paid into their pension plan, plus they have outsiders who are now invested in not cutting back their pension plan. If they're public sector, they also have the advantage of less resentment from the public, because anyone can just join in.

It has the potential to be slightly advantageous for the employer, because they would be making a small additional profit from the management fees. In addition, people would be more likely to seek out pension stability during difficult economic times, and work tends to slow down during difficult economic times, so the employer would get this extra income (and a bit of extra work processing applications for its employees) when things slow down. The employer would also be seen to be providing a valuable public service and could probably swing some tax writeoffs from their pension management expenditures (if there isn't already some provision for that, it seems like the sort of thing that would be implemented shortly after joining other pensions became possible.)

It would be advantageous for the plan itself, since there are more investment opportunities and better rates if you have more money to invest.

It would be advantageous for employees who are downsized from the employer, since they'd have the option to keep building up their pension even if they can't find equally pensionable work.

And it would be advantageous for all workers everywhere, because it would lessen the idea (among those very loud people who have this idea) that providing a defined-benefit pension is wasteful and irrational, and call the bluff of people who think that it shouldn't be provided to some workers because it isn't provided to all workers.

Potential pitfall: it might dissuade employers from providing new defined benefit plans.
Potential mitigation: a) Is anyone even providing new defined benefit plans? b) Would it matter if you could just buy into an existing plan?

Potential pitfall: Would it give outsiders control over the plan? I've read that some employers won't let the employee proportion of the contributions exceed 50% (even when they employees offer to pay more to keep the plan afloat, the employer says no) because that would mean they'd have to turn control of the plan over to the employees.
Potential solution: Outsiders sign a contract saying they don't get a share of control over the plan, they're just along for the ride.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Canada Post Comparison Shopper

A very useful tool that I've discovered recently is the Canada Post Comparison Shopper. If you're looking to buy a product online, it searches a large number of Canadian and US online stores to see who sells the product and ships to Canada. It's very useful for many reasons:

1. You get the results for all the stores on one page, so you don't have to google a bunch of different sellers to find who has the best price.
2. It gives you prices in Canadian dollars, with shipping, handling, and duty fees. No more having to make a cart to see what the actual cost is!
3. It can outdo Google! It often finds retailers who don't turn up on the first page or two of a cursory google, and undersell those who do.
4. All these sellers ship by Canada Post, which, as we all know, is far more convenient than private couriers.

I don't believe the Canada Post Comparison Shopper searches eBay, but it does sometimes have better deals than eBay. It also doesn't appear to search, and there may well be other common and credible retailers that it doesn't search either. But it's certainly worth taking 10 seconds to see if the Comparison Shopper can do better than your usual sources.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Things They Should Invent: improvement-only program and policy reviews

When a government announces it's going to "review" a program or policy, it most often means they're looking for places to cut funding.

I think that's limiting. They should also be reviewing not just for efficiencies, but for effectiveness. How could the program or policy fulfill its intended purpose better? They should be required to review everything through this lens at regular intervals, as a completely separate process from efficiency reviews. No looking at saving money, just looking at how the program could be better. Then they could issue reports, and interesting stuff would gain media attention and, if it's popular with the public, public support.

For example, parental leave could fulfill its mandate most effectively by providing 100% parental leave benefits, which would nearly double the cost of the program. It could also fulfill its mandate more effectively than it is now by offering the option of compressed parental leave, which would have little impact on the cost. This probably wouldn't come up in an efficiency review, but it would be a significant way to improve the effectiveness of the program.

This could also help win over the "Yes, but..." vote. If politicos know that a program is going to be subject to an effectiveness review, they might be willing to vote in a program that's better than the status quo but not as good as it could be, because there's a mechanism to help it get as good as it could be.

How many sub-par programs and policies are we subjected to because there's no apparatus for "How can we make this better?", only "How can we make this cheaper?"

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Does forcing children to give to charity really make them grow up to be charitable?

There's a parenting technique where people force their children to give to charity in an attempt to teach them the value of charity. For example, they might require the kid to put aside a certain portion of their allowance for charitable donations, or they might make a rule that the kid isn't allowed to get presents at their birthday party and instead the guests should make a contribution to a charity.

I wonder if this actually makes the kids grow up to be charitable?

Any attempts my parents made to force me into charitable behaviour just made me resentful. The one with the strongest emotional impact was one time when my parents decided we needed to donate a toy to a xmas toy drive. The toy drive collection was at the credit union, so they drove us and the toy there and then told me and my sister to put the toy in the collection box. All the credit union ladies watched us and went "Awwww!" I had no idea why they were doing this, but it made me feel objectified and humiliated (although I didn't know those words yet.) It also made me wary of any parent-instigated attempts at charitable donations, because I felt (although I couldn't articulate this yet) that my parents actually wanted me to do it so that they could be smug (although I didn't know the word yet) that their children are being charitable. This was also a strong contributing factor to my current practice of only donating anonymously.

I wonder how it worked out for other people. Did your parents try to force you to be charitable? Did it work? Did anything else they did end up actually making your charitable?