The GTFO Calculator

July 18th, 2016 by Potato

I was stuck on the subway for a long time today. A really long, sweaty, stinky time. My commute this morning took two hours door-to-door thanks to numerous PAAs (Passenger Assistance Alarms — they happen so often they’re just referred to in acronym form) on the line. It’s a hot July day, and though the train is air conditioned, much of that time was spent loitering at various platforms with the doors wide open, sucking in the hot platform air (superheated by the A/C exhaust). It’s days like this that really drive home how much Toronto was not built for the enjoyment of its citizens.

Nelson had a post with a title that seemed targeted right at me today, explaining how much lower the cost of living is in small towns (mostly driven by the lower cost of housing), which is a great opportunity for teachers and other professions who get paid about the same amount no matter where they go (indeed, there is a surplus of new teachers in the big cities, while his local school has unfilled positions).

Comparing living in a small town to living in Toronto or Vancouver has a lot of subjective factors to consider, from amenities and attractions to salaries, job prospects, and the network effect. Indeed, I used to live in the virtual paradise of London, Ontario, which featured a modest cost-of-living, all the day-to-day amenities one could want, jobs within walking distance of livable communities, good curling, and all within a short drive of Toronto for weekend visits and the odd bit of ephemeral culture that wasn’t native to London. However, my family and Wayfare’s family live in Toronto, so — network effect at play — when we spawned we came back upstream to do so here in the GTA. Plus we both have graduate degrees and work in specialized fields, and we both make more in the GTA than we would have in London… though in London we might not have needed to make so much, possibly leaving more time for leisure and Blueberry.

Aside from my own situation, I see still more and more people pour into the GTA, and many of them do not have any particularly specialized jobs, family ties to the area, or difficult two-body problems to solve. Indeed, many are young and single, lamenting the costs of home ownership, and I’m left wondering: “Why are you in this city? GTFO!”

At what point does it make sense to take a paycut to move to a smaller city? At what point does a higher salary in a big city offset the higher costs of living? Enter the GTFO calculator.

Here you can enter your salary in the big city and a smaller centre, as well as the salary hit your spouse might have to take to follow you into fire, into storm, into darkness, or into Hamilton. Then you can enter the different housing costs and assume all else is equal to see approximately how much better off you’d be with the GTFO move — and how long it would take for your dirty city money to make up for the bubblicious living costs. There’s even a fudge factor cell for renters, or people who want to factor in having to get a 2nd car or whatever.

It’s set up as a Google Sheet with a protected range over where the magic happens, so you can just type right into the input range to get your answer instantly (a trick I copied from Sandi). So, how much more do you have to make to balance out the higher housing prices of Canada’s more expensive cities? Find out for yourself now!

Preview of the GTFO calculator on Google Sheets

Forced insight: you may find that seemingly large paycuts are still worth it (in a financial sense at least) because of how very expensive Toronto/Vancouver houses are now. It takes a lot of years — likely more than you have — making an extra $10-30k to outpace an extra half a million in mortgage debt.

Quibble: I didn’t (and don’t plan to) build in different rates of salary growth. Just wave the magic “real dollars” wand. Some fans of the big cities will quibble though that it’s not so much starting salaries that are higher, but that there’s more room to climb the ladder and get to a (much) higher salary with time.

Note: there is a way to parallelize the Google Sheets, so if you see more than ~4 people trying to edit it at once, let me know and I’ll get off my lazy butt and do that.

CIHR Kerfuffle

July 10th, 2016 by Potato

There’s been a bit of a protest over the current “pilot” project scheme1 grant competition at CIHR. In fact, it’s so bad that the federal Minister has told them to meet with the scientists and sort it out.

The CBC does a surprisingly good job of explaining this to people who may not be scientists, but you might want a bit more context and background on the kerfuffle, which is where this post2 comes in.

Grants Background: In brief, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is one of Canada’s main source of research grants, funding basic, translational, and clinical research related to human health. A grant is some money given to a research team to pay for the costs of a research project — reagents and software, grad student and post-doctoral fellow stipends, etc., etc. There is never enough money from funding agencies to go around: human curiosity knows no bounds (and the research enterprise is big). To get a grant, typically a scientist will write3 a proposal describing what they intend to study, explaining why it’s important, demonstrating the need for the research (what questions will it answer, what problems will it solve, what impact will it have on health care), describing the methods they will use in the study, and justifying why they are the ones to get the money and do the research (track record, expertise).

This proposal — along with dozens or hundreds or thousands of others — gets reviewed by the funding agency and expert external peer reviewers, who point out potential flaws in the methodology, or other issues with the proposed work. It gets scored and ranked by a review panel, based on the input from the external reviews and discussions at the panel4. In this way, the best, most promising research usually gets funded. It’s not a perfect system, but (without bothering to look up the research) the top ~10% of proposals are generally consistently funded, the bottom portion generally rejected, with some random chance elements in the middle as to what made it over the funding cut-off and what didn’t.

Funding Shortfall: Funds are tight in research, there isn’t nearly enough money to go around. This has been a long-standing problem that has been getting worse and worse over the years, particularly under the Harper conservatives in Canada and the post-GFC/sequestration in the US. There are many ways to deal with a shortfall of funds, and none of them are perfect: NSERC, for example, maintains a high success rate in their core Discovery grants, but cuts the requested budget of all but the top few score ratings so that most awardees don’t receive enough money to pay the costs of even a single full-time trainee. For other grant competitions where budgets are not cut, the success rate becomes abysmal.

That funding crunch is part of the background to the changes that CIHR made to its funding programs.

Early Career Researchers: On top of the general funding tightness and peer review issues, another issue with the reforms is the effect on early career researchers. Cancelling a year’s worth of applications can lead to a gap in funding for many, which can be deadly for a career. Plus the change in the funding model on the foundation grant side reduced the amount of money going to early career researchers — will there be an increase on the project scheme side to offset that? (Unlikely)

The Changes: CIHR made a bunch of sweeping changes at once, from combining a bunch of separate programs into a single competition, to changing the application format, to changing the way peer review was handled. All aspects are drawing fire in one way or another, but it’s the changes to peer review in particular that are the centre of the current unrest and the open letter (and Ministerial response).

Oh, and all these changes were implemented at once, after cancelling a few competitions so there was added pressure to apply now. CIHR called this a “pilot”, but that suggests a partial, limited-scale test — this post covers that aspect of the affair.

Peer Review: Here’s a great idea: rather than spending money in an already stretched environment to fly peer reviewers from all over the world to Ottawa for face-to-face meetings, let’s use the technology of the internet to do virtual conferences. Sounds brilliant, like one of those obvious cost savings measures that you can’t believe they’re not doing already. But what’s hilarious/tragic in reading the background to this story is that it’s been tried before (in actual pilots) and has been a massive failure — indeed, back when the changes were first proposed, an open letter from a group of Universite de Montreal scientists in 2012 predicted exactly this outcome of virtual peer review.

The core problem is that scientists doing peer review are humans. Incredibly busy humans. So yes, reading other people’s grants and scoring them is important for science and the integrity of the peer review system… but lots of things are important today. What is it that ultimately makes a scientist sit down and start poring over research proposals? Usually, it’s the knowledge that they’re going to have to sit at a table with their colleagues to discuss these grants and the pressure to not be the only one who didn’t do their homework. Plus, that puts a hard deadline on the process to activate the panic monster, and gives them a nice plane ride to sit down and actually do the reviews in a panicked sweat. When things are virtual, they don’t have to look their peers in the eye (they may never even know who the slacker is), especially when the instructions acknowledge that they’re busy people and suggest they can do it, like, whenever. So the reviews aren’t as good, there’s less peer pressure to be timely, and that’s what’s driving a lot of the uproar here: a large number of grants still did not have all their reviews in as the virtual conferences were nearing their end, and many of the reviews were not of high quality.

On top of that, the circumstances of this particular competition have exacerbated the problem: to avoid conflicts-of-interest, people who have a grant in the current competition aren’t invited to serve as peer reviewers. However, everyone and their dog is applying to this competition — sometimes with more than one proposal — because of the pent-up demand caused by the poor funding environment and two cancelled rounds of the previous open operating grant. So more applications, and very few people left as eligible reviewers. Plus, figuring out who has the expertise to be an expert reviewer has changed, and many are finding that the system (which I believe is now automatic and keyword-based) is matching people to grants that they are not fully qualified to review — though it’s not clear to me if that’s because the system is inherently broken, or a unique feature of this round where there are so many applications and a relative paucity of reviewers (though I’m sure it’s something that’s on the agenda for the meetings with CIHR).

The virtual reviews has also created a point of contention around how the reviews are ultimately combined and averaged: the formula hasn’t actually been released.

The Future: The next round of the competition was supposed to have been announced last week, with applications to be due in the fall. For the moment that’s on hold while CIHR meets with some scientists to sort this out and possibly re-jig how peer review is handled. Given the uproar, it’s likely something will be tweaked.

However, the funding success rates continue to be poor. That’s part of the background to the story, but the reforms (and possibly reverting them) will not be able to change that — there still isn’t enough money to go around. Though success rates were over 30% in the not-too-distant past, they have plunged below 20% in recent years, and the estimates are that this competition will see a ~13% success rate (likely about 500 grants from about 3800 applications). If there can’t be more funding, people want to be sure that the awards that do get made are fairly — and clearly, observably fairly — given to the best grant proposals. With the current system it looks like there is more noise and randomness, so it’s not so clear that the best-ranked grants are truly the best applications, because of the issues happening with the quality of peer review. In other words, low success rate + random scores = lottery. Indeed, I have in the past made the quip that when grant competitions have heartbreakingly low success rates, you may be better off spending the time you would have been writing an application on a 2nd job flipping burgers, and using that money to buy scratchers at the convenience store to fund your research program.

Of course, more money for research would really help here, so take a moment to write your MP and ask them to increase tricouncil5 funding for research.


1. Wayfare says: “Calling it a scheme was their first mistake. Nothing good is called a scheme.”
2. A quick note: I work in developing grants for CIHR and other agencies as part of my day job. It is not done to openly criticize the people who give you money, unless it’s very constructive. The criticisms I’m posting are those of others, for context on the controversy.
3. If they’re very lucky, they’ll have someone like me help to write/edit it. {/self-promote}
4. And that this point I’ll have to say much of the mechanics of this is a bit of a black box to me — I likely know more than most of my readers, but I have never seen a review panel in action.
5. Tricouncil refers to Canada’s three core federal research funding agencies: NSERC, CIHR, and SSHRC. There are other funding bodies, some of which have received increases in targeted funding even in the black Harper years, but these are the ones that could really use a letter of support from the electorate. A letter I suppose I should draft and post here… stay tuned.

June Course Update

June 26th, 2016 by Potato

June is nearly over and the course development is progressing well. There are a few parts near the beginning that I had flagged for completion in June. With just a week left, a few may slip into July. However, section 8 (Taxes and Tax Shelters) is complete, including parts that were not expected for several months yet — overall the progress is going well.

I think prioritizing that section was a good move, as it was of interest to some of the students who had signed up for the early access, and it creates one complete section to better show what the course is and what it adds above and beyond the walk-through in the book.

I’ve updated the syllabus here. The Towel Day/pre-order price of $49 will continue until mid-July, when it will ratchet up as the full release gets closer. If you’re interested in learning more about how to become a do-it-yourself investor, be sure to sign up soon!

Things have been quite busy at work lately, but I’ll be taking some time off over the summer (and I’ll have fewer all-nighters) which will also help keep the course development on track (and I may even be able to catch up on the timeline).

In other news, Brexit Brexit CPP.

The Long Earth and Foraging

June 7th, 2016 by Potato

I’m partway into the last book of the The Long Earth Series and I just had to take a break to rant about part of it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting premise and there’s a good story in there — after all, I have stuck with it through three and a half books now. The idea is that there are multiple parallel worlds, each differing a tiny bit from the last. But humans only developed on “datum Earth”, so when people “step” to a parallel world they find the world as it would have been, without the effects of millennia of humanity. Forests where cities stand, mammoths roaming North America. So people spread out to colonize the new parallel worlds, with full knowledge of where the gold and oil is hidden.

However, the point the authors then try to ram home multiple times and that just doesn’t catch with me — that’s immersion-breaking for me — is that beyond that, a great many people decide to drift further and further into the parallel worlds and become hunter-gatherers, living off the untouched land. They try to make it sound like an idyllic life, that the plants will provide, and all the squirrel you can eat. So many people are drawn by this new/old way of living that civilization is being hollowed out and at risk of collapse.

Sure, there would be more big game without over-hunting, many of which would have no fear of humans, but people would be giving up all our infrastructure: clean water, shelter, the internet, medicine. I just can’t see it.

I mean, yes, part of why this is immersion-breaking for me is just how much I am not that foraging type, so every time they try to sell that point about half of humanity just walking away from everything civilization offers I go “hells no!” There are some people even in the city who are all about foraging, with jealously guarded secret spots in the Don Valley where edible mushrooms and wild chives grow. That’s not me — I can barely deal with you-pick-em apples/strawberries at an orchard/farm where they are ripe and ready and thick upon the plants. And I’m still like “This is too much work just to eat, someone give me something to edit and I’ll hit the grocery store later.”

If you’re really, really into hunting (and all the nasty business of skinning and butchering that comes with it) then maybe, but I can’t swallow the notion that wandering into the forest and living on the fruits and berries you find is in any way appealing. Without humans spreading the plants we like, there wouldn’t be that many of them to make foraging all that easy. Moreover, plants and berries just don’t work the way they say — most of what we eat has been shaped by human cultivation. If I could barely be buggered to pick delicious Royal Gala or Empire apples from a tree in full ripeness, ancestral corn (pitiful and tiny), wild bullrushes (technically edible), black spruce (who doesn’t love a good black spruce porridge?), stinging nettle (nope), dandelion (they grow wild in my lawn and I pick them anyway and I still can’t be bothered to eat them), or wild grapes (you thought the seeds were a problem when you accidentally bought the non-seedless cultivated grapes) would just be giant fuck yous.

Sure, if you had no other choice, many of those things are technically food. If you pathologically loved the open, empty world, you may run off to a parallel universe and live off the land. But I absolutely cannot see something like half of earth’s population abandoning industrialized farming to go forage in the long earth. There are many other interesting potential calamities the authors could have explored based on the discoveries. For example, what would happen to climate change if we could tap three or four Ghawar and Permian Basin oil fields from neighbouring earths, and put all the CO2 into our atmosphere? What economic shocks would happen if precious metals were no longer quite so rare? What tensions would there be between establishing suburbs in the “parallel footprint” of existing cities, versus using those areas for farming (as many of our cities were founded on prime farmland)? Some of these issues are touched on lightly in the books, but nothing is hammered as hard and as often as the hollowing-out of humanity for the call of foraging.

To give you an idea of how hard they try to sell the idea, here’s a blockquote to leave you with:

“Valhalla is a city supported by combers. Hunter-gatherers. The logic is elementary. Intensive farming can support orders of magnitude more people per acre than hunting and gathering. On a single world a comber community, even if natural resources are rich, would necessarily spread out, diffuse; the concentration of population needed to sustain a city would be impossible. Here, it is sufficient for the combers to be spread out, not geographically, but over many stepwise Earths — over a hundred parallel Valhallas, left wild for hunting. […] The city is a product of a layer of worlds, each lightly harvested, rather than the product of a single intensively farmed world. This is intensive gathering: a uniquely post-stepping urban solution.”

Towel Day and Course Pre-Order

May 25th, 2016 by Potato

Happy Towel Day!

As you know, I’m a fan of Douglas Adams, borrowing the “Don’t Panic” message and putting it in large, friendly letters at the beginning of my book. So it’s only fitting that I do something special for Towel Day.

First off the predictable move: you can get a big Towel Day discount on The Value of Simple by buying through my e-commerce site and using the code TowelDay. Now until Friday only!

But let’s get to something better and more thrilling than that, something more keeping with the spirit of Towel Day. First, a blockquote to remind you of what that spirit is:

“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you — daft as a brush, but very very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have ‘lost’. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”
–Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It has not been a secret that over the past several months I have been working on an online course to complement The Value of Simple and help people get set up as successful do-it-yourself investors. It was almost a year ago that I posted the first draft of the course outline. Since then I’ve given more library talks, a guest lecture for Ellen Roseman’s UofT course, and had more conversations with experts and potential students on how to better refine the course. Most importantly, I’ve done a lot of reading on delivering an online course effectively, and changed my approach to it.

However what I have not done is finished the bloody thing.

So here is my towel: I have the structure, I have a few modules done and uploaded, I have a history of building and delivering courses and workshops in science and personal finance. If you believe that I have just mislaid the rest of the course you can buy it right now at a huge discount, and help test it and shape its evolution as it comes together.

How big a discount? You can get it for just $49 right now as a Towel Day/pre-order special, roughly1 80% off! Why just $49? In part as a tribute: that’s the age Douglas Adams was at his untimely death. And in part because this is early, early access — so early it’s better called a pre-order. However, it will be finished, it will be polished, and if you plan on signing up eventually then doing so now is a great deal. (Note: no coupon code needed, I’ve simply set the price at that level and will raise it for new subscribers as material is added and the course is fleshed out)

Click here to go to the course page and enroll!

1. Roughly because though the final price will likely be $279, I’m very tempted to make the final price $246 because you can even!