Sunday, September 18, 2011

The dark side of the sun

As solar panels are getting more popular, I'm starting to see them on rooftops all over the city. I support efforts to reduce carbon output, but people often look at me as though I have two heads when I say I have mixed feelings toward solar generated electricity. How could I possibly have a problem with pollution-free, renewable energy?

What many people often miss in all the hyper-marketing is the dark side of the sun. My first complaint is that the focus on renewable energy diverts attention away from the much more difficult task of energy reduction. The idea of pollution-free energy relieves guilt when lights are left on upstairs while playing with our gaming systems on our plasma TVs downstairs.

My second complaint is that there really is no such thing as 'free' energy, and it certainly is not ‘pollution-free’. It takes a lot of energy to produce the photovoltaic (PV) cells to begin with, not to mention the waste the cells themselves become at the end of their lives. These issues are often ignored by the advocates of solar power. If I took the many adverts at face value, I would think that it makes absolutely no pollution at all to harvest the sun’s energy.

Most distressing to me are the consequences of large-scale adoption of photovoltaic cells. An increasing number of PV cells on the market are made of Cadmium telluride. While they do not pose a human health risk during the useful life of the device, I am concerned about what happens to the PV cells after the useful life. In all likelihood, today's PV cells will become tomorrow landfill waste. As these cells hit the landfills and become saturated by leachate, the liquid that slowly forms in landfills, the cadmium in the cells will have ample opportunity to leach out of the glass and into the soil and aquifers.
Cadmium is a known carcinogen. If widely adopted and distributed, PV cells leave precious groundwater highly vulnerable to contamination. So far, Ontario has no mandated recycling programs for PV cells. The lack of a containment plan for all this cadmium leaves me wondering what type of mess future generations will inherit. Is society trading off the future of water security for cheap, guilt-free energy now?
While I’d like to see my society become less dependent on fossil fuels, the full speed ahead rampage towards green energy is leaving out vital information for Canadians. So far, very few people, business or government, are talking about the risks and downsides of various renewable energy sources. All the advertising is about the positives points of solar leaving consumers with a euphoric sense of guilt free consumption.

A frank and honest discussion must take place, openly telling Canadians what the risks associated to harvesting ‘free energy’ from the sun for electrical needs really are. In my opinion, all this talk of ‘renewable’ energy has hijacked the effort to reduce energy consumption while glossing over any negative side effects. Without an effort to substantially reduce energy consumption, investments in alternative energy will amount to little more than lip service to the environment as one form of pollution is traded for another.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

Multi-culturalism in Canada

David Cameron's recent comments about the failure of multi-culturalism in the UK coupled with Angela Merkel's similar assertions about Germany a year earlier had me thinking about the fate of multi-culturalism here. Is it really a masterpiece or merely one of those art modern pieces that our tax dollars overpaid for? Has it failed us too?

In order to analyze the situation in my own backyard, I first had to ask myself, what is multi-culturalism?

My thoughts are that in its original sense, it was meant as a welcoming mat for immigrants who were looking to flee economic or political hardships in their mother countries. In the '70's, my parents came here with a few hundred dollars in hand. While their numbers were low, the Chinese community was welcomed here to do what they had to do to earn a living. To my parents, multi-culturalism meant that their presence would be tolerated while they did their best to build a life. It meant being able to live their lives while learning the customs and culture of their new adopted homeland. It meant serving up chicken balls to earn a living when they had never heard of such a dish until they set foot in this country. Fitting in was the name of the game. When I was little, my father said to me "you can do anything you want, but you better do it twice as well as everybody else if you want to stay at the same level". It was a recognition that prejudice wasn't expected to go away just because our presence was tolerated. In school, it meant that we learnt to speak English, we dressed like kids here, we did what kids here did, and in a quest to integrate their children, my parents learnt about strange customs like hiding eggs supposedly produced by a mammal for us to find over this strange holiday called Easter.

I'm now an adult, and living in Toronto. I look around and see how much 'multi-cultalism' has changed. Its not merely about tolerating our presence, each culture seems to be in a fight for its life to preserve its identity. Cultures are now asking for more than tolerance, they are asking for rule changes to accommodate them. It isn't good enough that we can go to their schools, they have to let us carry our weapons, wear our headscarves, and even hire teachers that speak our language. We want special accommodation for our holidays and insist that white folks not wish us Merry Christmas for fear of offending our respective gods.

I look at our communities. We are so desperate to hang onto the traditions of the old world, we insist our children marry only within our cultures. Is that not the definition of intolerance? When we forbid our children to marry outside of the culture, is that not the ultimate act of racism?

When I look at the contemporary sense of multi-culturalism, I see legions of grandparents tutoring their children in the tongue of their homelands. I see cultural centres meant to educate young people about their own heritage extolling the superiority of their cultural practices. I see places of worship that do more to keep us apart than help us understand one another.

When we say "welcome to Canada, feel free to pursue your economic dreams while maintaining your motherland cultural identity", the response has been "thank you, and the only way to ensure the survival of my cultural identity is to teach my children to marry only within the race to keep our traditions alive". From personal experience, this path is paved by borderline xenophobic teachings about why our own races are superior (this isn't just my culture, but I'm told many other cultures follow this same philosophy as well).

When I think about it, multi-culturalism is doomed to failure. How can tolerance go hand in hand with a strong desire to maintain multiple generations of cultural continuity?

If inter-racial relationships aren't tolerated, what then, is the definition of tolerance?

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Why the Census Matters

Speaking to a young lady this morning at a breakfast meeting, I realized that there are lots of people who haven't realized what could be lost by losing the mandatory long form census.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Harper knows that making the long form census a voluntary measure will cause self selection of respondents. Most likely to not complete the admittedly daunting task of answering 63 questions will be the under educated, lower income, immigrants, and small business owners.

The loss we mourn isn't simply the loss of data, its what the data does for us as Canadians. Despite Harper's best efforts to frame the issue as a 'special interest' one, we will all feel the effects of having inaccurate biased data.

Under Harper's watch with self selected voluntary surveys, you can bet on an increase of median household income (as we will lose data points from lower income people). Suddenly, there will be no more need to fund subsidizing housing projects, and various other social programs as those people will no longer be reflected in our data.

The data gathered from the census is so much more than simply candy to a statistician. It is the facts and figures we need in order to see how demographics are changing, know where we need schools and places of worship, and ultimately, make fiscally and socially sound decisions.

As Mr. Day highlighted with his phantom 'unreported crimes' yesterday, having no data allows the government of the day to make it up as they go. Mr. Harper promised us accountability.... Let's hold him to it.

Come tell him how you feel at Queen's Park, Thursday Aug 5, at 7pm. We will assemble in hope that this terrible decision will be reversed.


Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ode to a best friend

Ten years ago I lost a best friend in an act of her own. I had wanted to write a long tribute to her and what she meant to me, but those who knew her, already know how wonderful, loyal, and lively a person she was, and those who never met her, never will. If I can do one thing on the ten year anniversary of her passing, I'd like to remind everyone how special life is and how wonderful it can be if only we let ourselves live it.

If there is one thing I wish I knew then that I know now, are the signs of suicide. Sometimes I carry the guilt that I wasn't there to prevent the death of the person who showed me so many things in life. Whether its true or not that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent the tragedy, it doesn't stop me from feeling like there was something I should have done.

To commemorate the life of someone so dear to me, I'd like to remind (or inform) everyone of the warning signs of suicide. I hope this never comes in handy for anyone, but what's more, I hope nobody ever has to look back and wish they knew these in hindsight.

In loving memory of Orenda Blakely.


Suicide Warning Signs:

* Appearing depressed or sad most of the time.
(Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.)
* Talking or writing about death or suicide.
* Withdrawing from family and friends.
* Feeling hopeless.
* Feeling helpless.
* Feeling strong anger or rage.
* Feeling trapped -- like there is no way out of a situation.
* Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
* Abusing drugs or alcohol.
* Exhibiting a change in personality.
* Acting impulsively.
* Losing interest in most activities.
* Experiencing a change in sleeping habits.
* Experiencing a change in eating habits.
* Losing interest in most activities.
* Performing poorly at work or in school.
* Giving away prized possessions.
* Feeling excessive guilt or shame.
* Acting recklessly.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pushing for transparency

In 2006, PM Harper's campaign promise was to make the government accountable. The Federal Accountability Act, 2006 gave PM Harper some unintended consequences. The office of the Parliamentary Budget Officer was created. Its task was to effectively make sure Canadians weren't being lied to when it came to numbers and fiscal projections.

Despite giving this monumental task a token budget ($3M compared to $60M for our auditor general), the PBO has done a phenomenal job. Its given Canadians REAL NUMBERS to look at. The PBO gave us a good picture about the cost of Afghanistan, was the first to tell us how much our deficit was really going to be, and gave us the goods on our structural deficit.

The PBO often found itself at odds with the government and has even caused our finance minister some embarrassment. As our politicians want to give us rosy numbers, the PBO gave us real numbers (most of his figures that disagreed with our government is starting to prove true). His reward for such meticulous accuracy? Getting his budget slashed of course.

Please join me in supporting the PBO. It is absolutely vital that Canadians have non-partisan, accurate numbers when it comes to the financial health of our nation.

Sign this petition asking for our parliamentarians to make the PBO a independent Officer of Parliament. (So far he's relegated to the parliamentary library).

Demand that Canadians have continued access to real numbers.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

How I nearly became a sucker

I am sharing this story not out of revenge or anger, but rather because nearly everyone I've told it to has said 'Thank goodness it happened to you and not somebody else'. For me, it wasted 4 hours of my life in a room with bullshitters but I can totally understand why people who aren't financially trained or don't constantly have the BS radar on could get conned.

I don't think I was ever really in danger of it given how amateur these con artists were. But I was suckered into believing that a nice old man was genuinely in it to help people. That I feel foolish for.

So the story goes like this.

Back in February, I was at a business marketing seminar and met business owners trying to find ways to get the word out about themselves. This very nice elderly gentleman (I'll say he's in his 60s) started talking about this charity of his whose mission it is to help disabled people enable themselves. (A great concept of what they were trying to do could be embodied in this tricycle story. A man with down's syndrome can't reliably do anything except ride his tricycle around town. His neighbour decided to tack on a wagon and get local businesses to advertise. Soon enough he's so popular that the advertising revenue from his tricycling around town is enough for him to come off disability... sounds good right?)

So I call him up telling him how much I loved the concept and if I could lend my services, I would. He's all enthusiastic and calls me from time to time updating me about his progress. Around May, he rings me up to tell me he's putting all the pieces together and probed more about my background. After hearing my story about my work, my last job etc, he went on and on about what a Godsend I was since he EXACTLY needed someone with my background. (At this point I'm wondering what kind of weaksauce contacts he has because I do NOT consider myself a financial powerhouse).

He asked me if I would be willing to sit on his board and I'm thinking "well, I did say I wanted to help but really I'm not qualified to sit on a board". So after agreeing to do so (but nothing is on paper yet), some more time goes by where he periodically calls me with more updates and I continually ask him "What tasks do you have for me to do"? I have yet to actually lift a finger (beyond meeting with a disabled person, his EA, and himself in a coffee shop near my place. It provided a warm fuzzy feeling about what he was trying to accomplish). And he kept saying "nothing yet, I'm putting the pieces together but you're an important part of this team". A part of the team that has yet to do a thing?

Anyways, he seems like a very genuine person and the bullshit meter wasn't turned on as much as the incompetent meter. He complained about health issues and I figured there's not a lot you can do when you're spending half your time in emergency so I should cut him some slack.

Finally, he calls me and says "I have all this wonderful stuff in place, can you meet with the team this week and I want to introduce you and really get this thing off the ground". Well, after months of phone calls and stuff where really nothing has happened, I was more than happy to help him out.

I will skip details about the meeting itself that set off my bullshit radar, but the crux of it is this. He wanted to involve a financial services company that promised 20% ROI, Guaranteed 6-36% returns, and 90% refunds on taxes paid.

The financial services company is clearly a fraud, its pretty black and white. Another board member tried to calm my fears by telling me how wonderful a person "Pam" was (the lady who owns the firm).

I was trying to be nice about it all but really, I could not see any shades of grey. These people are either B rate scammers, or A rate idiots. They were hoping since I was such a strong supporter of their cause, that somehow I would not notice?

He kept on saying "Give Pam a chance to explain herself, maybe this isn't what it seems". As though a claim of stupidity was better than a claim of fraud. He even went so far as to accuse me of being a judgmental and unfair person for concluding so quickly that this company couldn't be legit.

I fought back hard and basically said "I have no interest in sharing personal financial liability with people who are either fraudsters or fools. I frankly don't care which you are because either is a huge liability to me". I outlined how holding a directorship was more than a cushy title and it implied PERSONAL liability. A point I think they were hoping I wouldn't know. They were hoping I would simply think I got to help make a few decisions and feel good about myself. I told them as much as I wanted to support their cause, risking my home in a lawsuit over stupidity was not in the cards.

Anyways, my aggressive response obviously didn't go over well and they knew they were done with me at that point. I did find out along the way that this isn't the first charity fraud that these people have been involved with and the "nice old man" I thought was trying to help people in his retirement actually spent time as an escort driver - read: exploiting young girls for money.

PS. The reason I never had to do anything, he never so much as asked me to come help lift a box, was that there was never any plan to actually do anything related to a charity. His first project was supposed to be getting disabled people to redistribute old computers... I was never asked to do anything like even source old computers or anything like that!

The lesson

This is his schtick. He gets people to trust him, take on personal financial liability, and uses their good names to run his tax scams.

He exploited my weakness. I have a very soft spot for people who want to do things that help other people.

His mistake. He ran into a financially trained person. Someone who has worked in a financial services industry and isn't afraid to call a scam a scam. I have alerted CRA through a friend working there and through their leads hotline. If he found someone a little less skeptical, he might have had another victim.


No harm was really done other than a few hours on the phone with him (basically listening to him ramble on enthusiastically (or so I thought) about the nuts and bolts of how we would help disabled people, a 4 hour Bullshit radar meeting, and 2 very unpleasant emails. I do believe that there were other people in that room who, like me, were there for genuine purposes.

Now mind you there's still a SMALL chance that this guy is still that nice old grandpa I first thought he was and is genuinely trying to help people but is just an idiot. Either way, helping people really isn't in the cards. The failure point is either through fraud, or through ineptness.

So there's my story. Never be afraid to say 'no'. Don't get guilted into feeling like you're a bad person for asking tough questions (which he tried to do!)

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Buying from Mom and Pops

I was rather surprised when a friend of mine suggested we meet for dinner at an American chain restaurant one day. Although I'm not rabidly anti-American, I still prefer to eat where the money stays local. Since things like eating out are considered disposable income, let's spend it on the local economy. During a recession as hard as this one will be, this is particularly important, here are just a few of my reasons why.

Keeping it in our coffers

When you buy a burger at McDonald's, you pay GST and PST. The staff there pay income taxes, the building owner pays property taxes, but all that pales in comparison to corporate taxes. From what I understand (correct me if I'm wrong), McDonald's Canada, as a wholly owned subsidiary of McDonald's, has to pay "consulting fees" their American Headquarters. If profits are great one year, those fees goes up. If profits are low, the fees are too. In essence, these fees get written off as an expense and there's relatively little "net profit" on the books here. Our government gets completely cut out of the largest point of taxation.

Without those strong coffers, Canada will find itself slower to recover from the recession. Thanks to the insane tax cuts to the ultra wealthy already, we are in a weakened position. Please try to keep those dollars in the Bank of Canada rather than the US Treasury.

Keeping our vibrant culture

Unlike people who are employed by Red Lobster, Jack Astor's, and the like, Mom and Pop restaurant owners are not entitled to EI should their restaurants fail (and yes, they had to pay into it all the same). Losing the mom and pop shops will be a real blow to the vibrant culture of our city. Not only that, where will these people go? They have limited government benefits, and don't have the same cash flow to weather economic storms as big shops do. A lot of small business owners may find themselves in debt and perhaps even on the streets (and please, they started businesses usually because they're immigrants and couldn't find paid work so don't give me the "they took their own risks" bs). Its in our own interests to make sure that our cultural mosaic doesn't turn into one gigantic bland chain food fair. By patronizing mom and pop shops, we are doing ourselves a huge favour in the long run.

Eat healthier for the same cost

Its hard to compete with the price of unhealthy, over processed foods. Small shops tend not to have the prime locations as big chains and nor do they have the same advertising power. However, look at it this way. For most places, the price point for a meal is about the same. In a chain restaurant, money is spent on TV ads, decor, print ads, high rent, to name a few. In a small shop, those expenses tend to be kept down and the you're actually paying for the food as opposed to TV ads. If you compare a $25 meal at Jack Astor's, East Side Mario's, or Red Lobster vs. a $25 meal at a local sushi bar, noodle house, or schwarma house (if there's even anything that expensive on the menu), there's absolutely no question which one is more nutritious.

Coming from a family that depended on a family run restaurant as our sole source of income, this issue hits very close to home. Those of you who knew me growing up, know how many hours I spent as a kid toiling away at my parents' restaurant. My parents are on the brink of retiring now but there are many small business owners that need our support. Before spending a single dollar, please think twice about where you're buying from.


Monday, January 05, 2009

Tax Free Savings Account

I've ignored the Tax Free Savings Account (TFSA) issue till now as I'm no longer in the financial advising business. However, as someone who worked in the industry I will tell you how deeply disappointed I am in this scheme.

I worked in an affluent neighbourhood where dual incomes prevailed and we would certainly consider my clients "well to do". However, even then not everyone could max out on their RRSP contributions. The ones who did, would love this TFSA. My clients who made over $150k/y certainly benefit, but even so, there was hardly a shortage of tax havens to squirrel their money away (RESPs, etc).

Now also remember that RRSP contribution room GROWS with income (up to a max). Think about the people around you. If you are familiar with their financial situation, how many have reached their MAX room? Of those, how many are able to fill it, AND make use of all the other tax lowering vehicles already available?

I can tell you when I think of my old clients, even in an affluent neighbourhood, only a few could use this to their full advantage. The ones who can, we already regard as extremely wealthy. The reality is that most of us have mortgages to pay, mouths to feed, and backs to clothe.

The majority of us don't have enough spare cash lying around to fill our existing tax havens. We really don't need more. I have spent time going through receipts with clients trying to find ways to squeeze nickles out at the end of every month just to help build a small cushion for emergencies. Another 5k tax free - what a joke.

Before you jump up and down and say "what a great idea", think about the broader implications of the TFSA. It means that the very wealthy pay less into the government coffers. It means that there's more incentive to save and less to spend during these tough economic times. It means still that nothing has been done for those people who are in no position to save even for their own retirement, let alone for investing above and beyond.

At the end of the day, this scheme benefits ONLY the extremely wealthy. MOST Canadians can't find the cash to fill their RRSPs, RESPs, or even buy life insurance to protect the ones they love most.

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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Our Collective Failure

The Following is an excerpt from a letter I wrote a friend on October 15, immediately following the worst Liberal defeat in Canadian History. I was responding to his gloat of our defeat as well as reminding me that we had chosen a "weak" leader from the get go.

My response is below.


I suppose my only regret is my overestimation of the desire of Canadians to discuss policy. There's been almost no talk of policy since Martin fell and the last 37 days has been of little exception. The last 2 years has turned into nothing but a battle of the alpha males. This is the first time in my memory that an election campaign has been waged with zero talk of health care. It didn't even get by lines in the media.

The grassroots of the party (myself included) has been smacked by this defeat. Our attempt to get a real intellectual into the PMO failed miserably. We now understand why we let the "same old, same old" run the place. All attempts at honesty backfire miserably. (Martin went down over calling an inquiry if you recall)

If you think about the message we sent an entire generation of children last night, it is that ideas and policy count for less than good looks and alpha behaviour. I realized we were in for a blood bath shortly after the election call when forums had more chatter about Dion's English than about a single piece of policy.

Our failure isn't that we had the worst defeat in history. Our failure is that we never forced this to be an election about policy. You know what leadership is. Leaders groom their team to make sure they have a replacement. If Harper were to get hit by a car, where's his team? Harper is a great one man show, but leadership is about more than one man.

Personalities should never outweigh policy. But it did... and that is our collective failure.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

Family Matters

Nothing brings together family like weddings and funerals. The female rebels in my family refused fancy weddings (yes, myself included), so sadly, my grandmother's funeral was the first gathering of my extended family in a long time. In fact, I met family members I didn't even know existed.

Apparently, I'm some sort of aunt. The Chinese have different words to denote how one is related to another. So "uncle", is different whether its from one's mother's side, father's side, elder or junior to one's parent etc. By the time the family tree branches out a few generations, the wording gets complicated (and quite onerous). There's this guy (who's older than me) who is technically some derivative of nephew to me. My Great-Grandfather is his great-great-grandfather. I'm a generation older than he is (despite his age being greater) and so I have some form of "aunt" title. Luckily for me, the much simpler (and saner) British ruled HK for a while an my family was happy to dispense with the formalities and stick to referring to each other by name. It would have been really weird to be called "great aunt" since this guy has a kid.

Clearly his side of the family tree is doing a better job of propagating the species than mine is.