Prius 10-year Review and Hybrid Challenge

September 12th, 2020 by Potato

I got my Prius just over 10 years ago. I meant to do a look back and review closer to the milestone, but you know, covid and stuff. Let’s just say that ten and a half years is still a good time for a look-back!

TLDR: I love the car, and my next car (whenever that may be) will definitely be another hybrid.

So yes, I love the car. It’s practical, but fun to drive. I still enjoy how smooth it is to drive — no gears, with the eCVT it just takes off the line at full power (or at least, as much as you choose to give it) right away, and sustains that without all the jerking around finding gears and going through different RPM ranges. Then when coasting or at a stoplight, the engine will just turn off! It handles well (surprisingly well for a car focused on economy), and with a good set of winter tires it’s very sure-footed in the winter. I like to think the linear throttle helps there in finding just the right amount of acceleration needed for the conditions, though the weight distribution (the batteries low and in the back) likely helps too.

The hatchback design is so versatile, too. The Prius is also like a Tardis — it’s bigger on the inside. It was so frustrating not even having the option of putting my bike in the car (even with both wheels off!) when I was borrowing my dad’s car, even though it’s a bigger car on the outside! But on other cars so much of that space is taken up by an over-sized engine, that it’s deceptive how much space the passengers and cargo have in the Prius.

Fuel Economy, The Hybrid Premium, and Real Life

A hybrid generally costs a little more than an equivalent gasoline-only car, but also generally consumes less gas. There have been lots and lots and lots of discussions on how to account for those differences, and figure out when you’ll break even on the extra initial investment. So many assumptions go into it — how much will gas cost, how much will you drive, how long will you keep the car? When I bought the Prius, it was approx. $6k more than its closest comparison, the Matrix, but there was a $2k government rebate. I figured that based on my driving and gas costs at the time I would make that difference back up in something like 6 years. The important point is that “break-even” periods can distract from overall savings, because if I kept the car for another 6 years beyond that, I’d save another $4k. A total cost of ownership that’s more than $4k lower over the life of the car with reasonable assumptions? That was a no-brainer.

I don’t know why I kept at it for so long, but I’ve tracked every tank of gas I’ve put in it to see how it actually performed. My lifetime average fuel economy is 5.7 L/100 km. Now I did expect to consume more than the official ratings — nearly everyone does — but that’s a bit of a bigger delta than I had initially banked on (my spreadsheet estimated my real-world fuel consumption would be 5 L/100 km).

Turns out life didn’t go quite the way I expected. I was living in London when I bought it, and driving a fair bit, racking up several thousand kilometers with road trips in the summer on top of regular driving through the year, which was a mix of city and highway.

Then I moved to Toronto, and found I barely drove at all, and when I did it was almost entirely short trips. I haven’t driven to the Maritimes since Blueberry was born, and have hardly even gone up North. I don’t have weekend trips to the city any more — I live here! Most of my driving became short trips to daycare, the subway parking lot, or the grocery store, which is horrible for fuel economy in any car, which is even worse when most of it is in the winter. To underscore the seasonality of my new driving habits, I just replaced the original 3-season tires, whereas I’m nearly done with my second set of winter tires. Of course, that means that I still saved a lot of gas in the hybrid (a gas car also gets horrible mileage on short winter trips).

I’ve driven less than 85,000 km in 10 years — about half of what I was expecting to do by now. My best tank was 3.5 L/100 km, driving around Northern Ontario in a very mild few days in the summer. My worst tank was 8.5 L/100 km, in February where all of my trips were very short (so lots of gas wasted on heat). So the range of fuel consumption was actually rather small — now that I’m used to regularly getting 4-6 L/100 km, 8.5 seems like such a huge miss. But in my Accord I would regularly get up into the teens, and 8.5 L/100 km would have been notably low consumption!

When I originally did the math to decide on getting a hybrid, I had figured on a much gentler driving cycle, and many more kilometers driven each year, with gas prices continuing to climb higher. However, despite moving cities and having a kid and the associated changes to my driving patterns, my hybrid premium was still paid for by gas savings — it just took longer. Instead of 5-6 years to break even, it took almost 10 years. But the 10-year-old hybrid Prius is still worth about $2.1k more than the comparable Matrix (according to a quick search on Autotrader), and I’ll continue to save gas on it for however long I keep driving it.

So, even under less-than-ideal circumstances, financially it was worth it to get a hybrid. And, it saved more than just dollars: it reduced my gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. And, it was super cool and neat to drive, in a way that even after 10 years I haven’t had much hedonic adaptation to.

The Hybrid Challenge

Which leads me to my Hybrid Challenge: dear readers, I challenge you to choose a hybrid whenever it is time for you to next get a vehicle. They are as close to zero-compromise as possible now. They may cost a tiny bit more, but in almost all cases you’ll save enough on gas to make that up, even if you don’t have a grueling city commute. And even if you don’t keep your cars that long, they’ll very likely retain that value when you sell them. With the Matrix gone, it’s hard to pick a comparison car for the Prius, but in Toyota’s lineup the hybrid Rav4 is only ~$2k more and the Corolla hybrid is only ~$3k more, which are pretty low bars to make financial sense — so the environment benefits essentially come free!

There’s a hybrid option for virtually every class of car out there, or will be very soon: small cars from the Corolla, Prius C, Civic, through mid-sized cars like the Prius, Ioniq, Camry, Fusion, Sonata, Insight, Accord, Clarity; SUVs like the Escape and Rav-4; and even bigger options like the Pacifica, Highlander, and soon the Venza, Sienna, and Explorer, too. Yes, not every model from every manufacturer, but there is a competitive hybrid option in pretty much every category that you can go and take a look at.

All-electrics may take a little longer yet before they’re mainstream, and they may not suit everyone… but hybrids now have decades of real-world experience showing that they’re if anything more reliable, as well as more economical in the long run.

Reliability

Speaking of reliability, while the hybrid components haven’t had any issues, a 10-year old car has racked up a few maintenance items over the years. Early on there was an inconvenience with the plastic shielding used under the car to make it more aerodynamic. It was repaired under warranty.

The regenerative braking has really saved on brake pads, but a little too much. I still needed a brake job ($2k, plus a EFI service and transmission fluid change on that bill) because my rotors were rusting without enough usage to keep wearing them down! Now I have a look every now and then, and if I see rust starting to form I’ll do a few hard stops to wear it off. I had a tire valve crack, leading to a flat, and had to get that fixed ($30). I had a mouse decide to make a home in the air intake, which caused nearly $1700 in damage.

There were a few suspension-type repairs, all within the past two years: a rear wheel bearing $1500, a lower control arm and exhaust heat shield, $1250, and a drive shaft boot replacement, $1000. Plus I had to replace the rear washer fluid pump at roughly $300.

There’s one deferred maintenance item, which is that many 3rd gen Prius owners have found that carbon deposits can build up inside the EGR system over time, so it needs to be cleaned every so often, with one suggestion to do so at ~80-100k miles [~125k-150k km] (I have penciled in to do it at ~110-120k km). The PriusChat folks generally recommend to DIY that one.

All-in-all, not too bad or unexpected for a 10-year-old car, but it’s only a bit less than my Accord had cost me by the time it was 10, and I had expected a bit better of a Prius. Hopefully the next few years will be trouble-free to make me rave about that aspect, too!

Despite the repairs, other than the flat tire the car has never left me stranded or even afraid I might be stranded. The powerful motor-generator and high-voltage battery start it right up every time in the winter, even on the coldest mornings.

Looks, Tint, Paint, and Seats

I was a touch apprehensive about how well fabric seats would hold up long-term, especially as my dad had been a big proponent of leather seats for years, and was pushing me to upgrade when I got the car. But these have been amazing. I know I haven’t put many miles on it, but all the short trips has meant a lot of ins-and-outs on the seats, and they still look great. I did scotchguard them (a few times). They’ve been puked on once, and cleaned up without a spot.

I was worried about the paint being delicate, especially after some bad luck early on with scratches. If you look close you can see that the clearcoat is now completely swirlied from automatic car washes, but the paint has otherwise held up well — I was mostly just unlucky that my first few scratches came so early in the car’s life. There’s no peeling or fading though, despite some Civics of the same vintage looking a little worse for wear.

I still absolutely adore the ceramic tint I got. It hasn’t bubbled or separated at all over 10 years, and it really does help cut down the heat when it’s in the sun. I highly recommend ceramic tint to anyone who asks (and many who don’t), and will definitely get it again on my next car (though that may be complicated if my next car comes with factory tint).

I heard on a review someone say that Toyota really put a lot of care and effort into everything that you can’t see, and cheaped out on what you can see and touch in the cabin. I actually found that the cloth seats worked really well (my last car had a leather interior and it actually held up less well), but there is a lot of hard plastic in the interior that looks well, economy. But I do have to say that the plastic on the dash has a very neat texturing effect to it that really reduces glare, so I’d disagree with the statement that it lacks care and effort — it may look cheap, but it actually works quite well. There are a few minor scratches on the glove box though from passengers (and their bags).

The Prius looks pretty unique (though over the years more cars have taken on the aerodynamic profile). It’s really grown on me though. One thing that was really weird and unique was the instrument cluster: this high-centre display, with nothing behind the steering wheel! I very quickly saw how awesome it was though: the speed is in the corner of my vision all the time, and I barely have to move my eyes to check the displays. I really wish other models had picked it up, it really is neat. Of course, some newer models (including the new Prius Prime) are developing heads-up displays, which are even cooler. As I was driving my dad’s car, or driving my mom’s van, or thinking about future cars (see below), one minor thing was getting used to looking soooo far down for my speed. An added benefit is that I can position the steering wheel purely for where it feels comfortable, rather than some compromise position of comfortable enough while still being able to see the instrument cluster past it.

Prius high centre instrument cluster

Heating and Cooling

The air conditioning is electric powered (so it can still run when the engine is off) and is great at getting cold fast. Combined with the ceramic tint, it’s really nice in the summer and a huge improvement over the old Accord (which got hotter and took longer to blow cold air). To be fair though, most modern cars have much faster air conditioning units than a ’97 Honda. However, heat comes from waste heat that the engine generates, and being so efficient there isn’t much of that. So it can be sloooow to heat up in the winter. I don’t mind much — I’m wearing a jacket anyway when I’m going out to the car, though it can mean it takes a bit to defog the windshield if that’s needed. Wayfare is not a fan though, which is why I got an aftermarket seat heater for the passenger seat. Built-in seat heaters and even steering wheel heaters seem to be more common on cars these days, and if you’re shopping for a new hybrid, you may want to opt for them if they don’t come standard.

Comparison to Mercedes C43 and the Big Choice

As my dad got too sick to drive, I would sometimes drive his car — either because I rushed up from work on the subway to take him to the hospital, and had no other choice to then get myself home, or because he wanted me to drive his fancy car so someone would get to enjoy it. He also wanted me to have it after his death… and it was briefly a tough choice whether I should take it and sell the 10-year-old Prius, or vice versa. The C43 is faster and “sportier” than the Prius. It costs more, and has a leather interior. But other than that… I have to say it’s inferior in every way.

It’s larger on the outside, but wastes all that space on the engine, so it has less usable interior space, and what space it has is vastly less versatile (the seats don’t even fold down! It’s impossible to fit a bike in it). The UI is infuriatingly terrible — there are buttons at the ready to change the response of the shocks or how aggressively it changes gears or how loud the exhaust is (it’s not clear to me why anyone over the age of 19 would ever need to change those things, let alone often enough that those would be the most accessible buttons), but changing the radio station was some stupid process involving a touchpad and taking your eyes off the road. It has a great backup camera, even constructing a bird’s-eye-view of the car… but it only turns the camera on if the radio is on (why are these things linked, rather than coming on any time you shift into R?).

I had both cars sitting in my driveway for quite a while, and I could drive either one. So for the first two weeks or so I picked the C43 almost every time. Partly for novelty’s sake, and because going fast and going VrooomVROOOMvrooomvrooom is supposed to be a thing we want, and it’s supposed to be luxurious… But after the first two weeks of driving the C43, I chose the Prius every time I had to go somewhere. They both get the same people and the same stuff to the same destinations, and the time it takes in both cases is limited by traffic and speed limits, but one was calm and smooth while the other makes things not be smooth. In addition to the experience of driving, there’s the factor of the absurd amount of gas the Mercedes burns.

And it does burn a lot of gas. It has some kind of engine stop technology to marginally cut down on gas usage, but that only actually worked enough to let me know that it wasn’t completely broken. At almost every stop sign or red light, the engine continued to rumble and burn gas like an unrefined savage. Like a goose that walks across the road when it has the power of flight that it simply chooses not to use. And it does rumble, not just idle — like when I was 12 and riding my bike and pretending it was a sports car. VROOMvrumvrumvrumVROOM vrumvrumvrum. It makes the girls carsick when they’re passengers. After a few weeks of driving it (city driving), the C43 clocked in at 19 L/100 km of premium gas, compared to the Prius sipping on a hair under 6 L/100 km on the same trips (over 3X the carbon emissions, and 4X the cost at the pump). [My brother took it on a golf trip, which was weekend highway and rural road cruising, so about the best case scenario for fuel economy, and it still burned 10 L/100 km, so merely double consumption, but still premium gas at that].

Then after my dad passed away I had to choose which car to keep, and it was briefly a tough choice. A nearly new car that I didn’t like as much, but was a “luxury” car, or a hybrid that had cross the 10-year-old mark. The weighing and indecision stopped as soon as I realized that it’s not like the one I didn’t pick would just disappear, I’d be selling it. If the Prius was valued at more than the C43 it might have been a harder decision, but the inefficient market seriously over-valued the Mercedes — even used, even in the midst of a pandemic with prices of luxury cars way below where they were a year ago, I could get the price of a new Prius from the C43. Add in the fact that the C43 was so much more to operate (from using 3X as much gas, and premium gas at that, to the higher costs to insure and maintain it) and the choice became clear.

The things that the Mercedes does well are the things that you rapidly acclimatize to and stop noticing. Sure, the first few times it’s all “vroom vroom, oh, look at all the nifty little LEDs they’ve put all over”. But once the novelty wears off (which took about two weeks for me) you just want the car to get you places safely and comfortably. Instead, I found I was more frustrated by traffic knowing that the car could accelerate faster and the other road users were just holding me back. Having the engine sit there and rumble at a red light, or race up and down through the gears if traffic was stop-and-go made driving less enjoyable. And I know I stereotype sports car drivers as assholes, but now I think it’s only partly because assholes choose those kind of cars — I felt like the car was turning me into an asshole when I drove it. The things it does poorly (like the UX, lack of interior space and versatility, burning a stupid amount of gas, and making you feel every bump in the road) are things that you would be less likely to get acclimatized to. Thinking about what makes people happy and hedonic treadmills, I had to conclude that this kind of car would not make me happy in the long run, even if it seems more fun in a short-run head-to-head test versus a hybrid.

Summary

Things haven’t turned out the way I had planned in terms of how and how much I drive, but I’m still very happy with my Prius purchase. I had a few more non-hybrid-related repairs than I was hoping for, but not totally unexpected for a 10-year-old car. It’s a very smooth, calming ride, and I still appreciate that. The looks have really grown on me over the years, and I’ve really come to love the high speedometer and instrument cluster, and wish other models would hurry up and steal that design.

Hybrids have come a long way and have really proven themselves, and even when things don’t go as planned they can end up saving money and carbon emissions, so now I challenge all of my readers to choose a hybrid option for whatever their next vehicle might be.

Future Plans

I should have already seen how the world can make a mockery of our plans, but here we are anyway, with a plans section. When I first got the Prius, I had planned to keep it for about 15 years or so — buying new but keeping it forever. As my dad neared the end of his life, he talked about getting me a new car, or giving me his car (which I could then use as a trade-in if I wanted something more versatile and green), and that he’d even give me some money on top because a Mercedes is a much, much higher total cost of ownership experience. Then covid hit and the value of that trade-in tanked along with the portfolio that would have funded such a gift, so a new car is not in the cards for me. Yet another whip-saw in plans and expectations this year. I’ll continue to drive the Prius until the wheels fall off as originally planned.

I had started to research other options though. Getting a new Prius was the first choice — I loved this one so much, after all! And though the 4th generation Prius is even more efficient, there were some minor things I didn’t like: the 3rd gen has a really nifty under-floor cargo area, where I can keep all the things I have to be over-prepared, like a battery booster pack (which has been used multiple times to help other drivers out), a change of clothes for my kid, paper towels, a spare phone charger, etc., leaving the main cargo area uncluttered. The 4th gen consolidates all that trunk space, which I didn’t like as I’d have to either choose to stop over-preparing, or go back to having my trunk as cluttered as it used to be with my old Accord. I also didn’t like Toyota’s styling choices — the Prius isn’t chosen just for its looks, of course, but the new design just seems less friendly to me, with too many weird creases. Plus the Prius V was shelved, which was the model that I was most likely to pick next.

So I looked at some bigger vehicles, though I still have a bit of SUV aversion. The Rav-4 hybrid is nifty, but you have to go exceptionally high up in the options packages to get the super-cool heads-up display (which would save me from having to re-learn how to look down an additional 5″ to check my speed). Moreover, I didn’t like how the redesign made the front look like a squared-off, pedestrian-killing truck. The Ford Escape hybrid looks a little friendlier up front, though its heads-up display was a separate piece of glass, like something Chuck Yeager would have used instead of projecting right on the windshield (and though it was also a top-tier option, on a Ford that’s about the same price as a lower-package Rav-4). I looked at the preview of the hybrid Sienna, but there isn’t much information out on it yet.

I don’t drive enough for a plug-in hybrid to be an economic no-brainer, but I do like the idea of one and cutting fossil fuel usage even more. And they’re really good solutions for most people — all the practicality of a gas car, with the efficiency of an electric for short trips and commuting. With a battery small enough to be charged from a regular outlet, saving the need to install a special charger (or have a garage for one). So I’ll be closely watching what the next generation Prius Prime will look like (I expect late 2022 or early 2023?), as well as the Escape and Rav-4 PHEVs that came out this year (though as of writing are not yet widely available). If in a few years somehow I find myself with the money for a new car, and then a few thousand more beyond that to upgrade needlessly, I think I will be going the PHEV route.

State of the Potato

September 12th, 2020 by Potato

I’m not sure if I have any readers any more, with months elapsing between posts.

So before throwing up a few posts, perhaps a personal catch-up on where I’ve been.

As you may remember, my dad’s cancer came back last summer. He passed away at the end of May, and my siblings and I are the executors of the estate (though I’ve been taking the lead).

So it’s basically just the worst year ever. Estate administration sucks — there’s a fair bit of bureaucracy to wade through, and it’s simultaneously incredibly emotionally draining. There always seem to be new surprising challenges and things to deal with, so I can’t even say how close I am to being done with everything. Oh, and there’s covid, and there’s been no school for Blueberry since March.

There were also a lot of whip-saws this year. Dad’s health was really bad around Christmas, and we started to talk about death and get sad and stuff. But then we found out he had a weird, super-severe magnesium deficiency. Whatever was happening in his gut wouldn’t let him absorb enough to fix it even with max supplementation, but we were able to arrange for in-home IV infusions after the first few visits to the hospitals. Once those Mg levels came back up, he was up and feeling great. He visited the cottage again — all on his own! He was going to give me a new car, and pay for Blueberry and I to take a little Disney vacation, ’cause he didn’t need us to hang around the city and take care of him. Then covid hit and the market crashed and he wasn’t feeling good (and there wasn’t travel any way) and all that is off the table. His health and mood spiraled down again, and it was just generally terrible.

We had a year to prepare and get ready and I saw it somewhere else and it’s stuck with me — you can be prepared, but you can never be ready.

I’ve also had a whip-saw on my own health and diet progress. I was back to my target weight in the winter, and doing great at curling. Our team won our division in the centennial bonspiel! Our Mixed Doubles team made it to the A division, and we technically beat the provincial champions! (and by that deliberate “technically” you know that they defaulted but nonetheless we’re literally in the same league as the provincial champions even if we’re at the bottom of that league) I was making plans to keep up the positive momentum through the summer (“plans” in this case consisting of scrawling “sign up for tennis” on my whiteboard, but that counts!). Then covid hit and everything shut down. Spring was super-delayed, and it wasn’t nice weather to go for a walk (not that I had anywhere to go), and of course dad’s progress and death. So emotional eating was back on the table. And I gained the full “quarantine 15”. I’ve been out every day in August for a walk or bike ride (or done an indoor workout) but I’m still just flattening the curve as I’ve had more trouble getting a handle on the input side of the equation.

I had so many plans for this year. I didn’t think taking care of dad would take every moment of the day — most days I left him in time to pick Blueberry up from school (when there was school), and even on days when I stayed later he was often out of energy and in bed before 7. I thought I’d get so much done while I was off work: I had 3 book ideas kicking around, and all my websites are in need of some facelifts and functionality updates. Instead I’m over here barely coping with daily existence. I couldn’t even get my brain in gear to write a blog post or hell, even play a challenging video game. I’ve had a number of FTL runs and played some MOO2 and StarCraft: Brood War, but nothing new (even though I have some unplayed games in my Steam library just waiting for a quarantine). I have 64 un-answered emails in my inbox (if you’re waiting on a response, it’s probably because I couldn’t get into the head space to write one, and then fell into the guilt spiral of responding to a week/month/3-month-old email).

But now I think I’m doing a bit better, I am getting a post up, and I feel like I’m on the upswing from the depths of grief and depression at least.

Covid-19 Thoughts – Raise the Line

March 19th, 2020 by Potato

It’s like the 1918 influenza at the same time as the 1929 stock market crash with 9/11’s grounding of flights, all overseen by Nixon’s paranoia and pettiness. It’s Disaster Voltron.

I’ve been watching the news flow on the coronovirus intently since January. It’s kept me up at night, and made me silently scream that we should be closing the borders. This was not just the flu (though now I think people mostly get that).

There was (and continues to be) a lot of uncertainty, but from where I was sitting the risks looked real enough. I didn’t blog much in part because I’ve fallen out of the habit, and in part because I didn’t want to come across as a fearmonger (and I would definitely have come across that way). I started slowly stocking up through February — an extra bag of oatmeal here, an extra bottle of pasta sauce there, a few extra packs of applesauce — and got a bit of teasing for it from Wayfare. Was nice to not have to panic shop with the crowds when the shutdown order came though. Instead, Blueberry and I hit the library, and turned out to panic-check-out-books, as they made the announcement while we were there at 5:30 that they’d close at 6 and not re-open for 3 weeks.

All through the news out of China shutting down parts of its economy, the market continued to hit new highs. I thought I was on crazy pills, I couldn’t believe it. But I’m mostly a passive investor, and mostly didn’t do anything (something I’m kicking myself over with the benefit of hindsight). As the case counts started climbing outside China, I finally bought a put on the S&P500, expecting that at some point the market would start pricing some risks in (even if the virus itself was contained, the supply chain yada yada).

It was an interesting mental accounting: I didn’t touch my passive portfolio, I didn’t panic sell and liquidate my active portfolio, I just took some money from the gambling pocket and bought this one thing that would pay off if the market went down. That somehow seemed much more reasonable than re-assessing my risk tolerance or making big portfolio moves.

Finally, the market did start going down. When it was down about 10%, I felt relieved. Finally, I thought, people have woken up to this and are taking it seriously. I had no idea what the proper discount on stocks should have been, but I knew it was more than zero. So shortly after that, I sold that single put, making about $2k to offset the much larger losses I was taking elsewhere (and again with the benefit of hindsight, if I had held until today that would have been worth in the neighbourhood of $10k). I felt kinda smart-ish — not Big Short material by any stretch, but hey, I saw some trouble coming and did pretty much the absolute least I could have possibly done to mitigate it. I rebalanced (too early) and bought some stocks in my active portfolio (way, way too early). Then the market fell at an unprecedented rate and, like many of you, I started to feel scared, and sad.

I mean, hey, this is what risk is, and what it feels like. Markets go down sometimes, and I guess it’s better to rip the bandaid off? And there’s no telling if we’re near the bottom, or if the uncertainty and very dark worst-case downsides, combined with just how very, very elevated the market was before this started means that there’s still a lot further to fall ahead of us. On the bright side, I can stop using that metaphor about how it’s hard to explain in words what it feels like to lose real money in investing — there are no more bear market virgins.

Anyway, I was sharing the old “President Madagascar” Shut. Down. EVERYTHING. meme, and I felt some relief when our leaders finally started taking things seriously. By this point, everyone has had “flatten the curve” explained ad nauseam. Schools are out, states of emergency have been declared, and even curling is cancelled.

The question now is what the shutdown gets us and what the plan is going forward. Economically, even a short shutdown will mean 2020 comes in as a recession year. A long one could be a depression (not the Great Depression — but there were economic contractions more severe than recessions before the capital-D Depression, and we may get to re-live that). And that’s part of why the market is still going to have trouble finding bottom.

Healthcare wise, we’re going to flatten the curve and save a bunch of lives. And let’s get one thing straight, we really needed to do this in Ontario. We were already deep in the hole from a capacity standpoint — all of our incredible growth, hundreds and hundreds of new condo towers went up (driving that real estate bubble), and we’ve built um… zero hospitals? Negligible net new beds, anyway (side note: the city’s development charge page lists what development charges pay for, like schools and parks… but hospitals didn’t make the list). We can’t move the surge from Covid-19 into the hallways because we’re already chronically dealing with hallway medicine. We’ve already invented all kinds of tricks to squeeze efficiency out of the system: which, yay, we’re leaders in technology and innovation and have been forced to be by relentless cost-cutting pressures, but it means there’s no margin for something like this.

“Since 1999 overall bed capacity has been virtually constant although the population has increased by 27%.” —OHA Leaders in Efficiency Report

Ok, so we have to flatten the curve.

But then what?

I was hoping we would have a plan to move back to containment mode. Build the testing centres and ramp up our ability to test like, a lot of people. With fast turn-around times. Then find all the existing clusters and do targeted quarantines. Every time a new case shows up, do contact tracing and test everyone, and try to put the genie back in the bottle. Only re-open the borders and flights as we have the capacity to test those who come in (and maybe keep up targeted quarantines for anyone brave enough to fly somewhere). And let everyone else go back to mostly normal activities.

Maybe also do some rapid build-out of hospital surge capacity. Not sure we can match China’s new facility in 10 days, but perhaps we can appropriate a few nearly complete condo towers (or dorms or office towers or whatever space) to add a few tens of thousands of new hospital beds. We still have some domestic industry left — if GM in the states can re-tool to make ventilators on automobile lines, we can possibly get the soon-to-be-mothballed Oshawa plant to do likewise. Another issue there is staffing. I think if we think of this as a true emergency and go on a war footing, we could train up some people to supplement the real health care workers. From what little I know, WW2 field medics had 10-12 weeks of training, from basically a standing start. We have lots of people with some non-specialized health/human anaotomy/medical technology knowledge: researchers, medical physicists, hygienists, technologists, technicians, dentists, veterinarians, as well as medicine & dentistry students and those who are caregivers for chronically ill family members. Given that we know the problem is mostly confined to a single condition, with a ~dozen complications, we could possibly train up some relief for healthcare workers in a few weeks if needed. Some licensing exemptions (or a new emergency licensing standard) would also be needed from the government’s side. But we could probably do it — I think I personally could get up to speed enough to be mostly useful to help the nurses and the other kinds of doctors in a crisis and help them cope with being spread thinner on our expanded number of beds (and also to be ready for the fact that some of them will get sick too).

We need to flatten the curve. And we need to use that time to move the line up. #raisetheline

However, I’m hearing less and less about using this time to get ahead of the need and then open society up again. While the messages are still about temporary closures and postponed events… we don’t seem to be solving the underlying problem. Which means a 3-week school shut-down and province-wide state of emergency will just roll over to a 4, 5, n-week shutdown. Or we pulse it — open things up for a few weeks until we get close to overloading the system, then go on lockdown again to keep things at a simmmer, until we finally get a vaccine or herd immunity. Or we start asking how much lives are worth, really, mostly boomer lives, and just open things and hope that simply rolling past flu season will be enough capacity freed up and, like, see how it works out? Ugh. [If somehow I have missed the plan, someone please link to it in the comments.]

And to circle back to investing, that’s where I get scared. Maybe we can get back to work but just like not cough on each other or lick the elevator buttons? And hope that all the disgusting people we see on the subway and not washing their hands in public restrooms have learned their lesson from a 3-week shut-in and that even with mostly regular activities it’s then slow enough of a spread that we can manage with the system more-or-less as it is? But a lot of people will go bankrupt if we spend the next 6 months in low-power, shelter-in-place mode. A lot of companies will fail, and in that scenario I could likely panic sell everything at the open tomorrow and still come out smelling like roses.

Anyway, it’s not clear. For now, we do what we can to flatten the curve and raise the line and wash our hands and try to stay sane with a 7-year-old bouncing off the walls*.

My one take-away tip is to keep a journal. About the market, about your feelings, about the shut-down in general — write it down. Firstly, it’s an outlet for some very understandable fear. Secondly, it can help you organize your thoughts and stay rational. And thirdly, we are living in what will surely be one for the history books, and you’ll want to remember it.

*And I’ll hodl and reserve the right to continue to kick myself with the benefit of hindsight. Which is really all we can do shy of having better than truly lousy predictive abilities and the lack of a time machine.

Curling Headgear Update

January 24th, 2020 by Potato

After almost two full seasons with my protective headgear for curling, I thought I’d provide a quick update.

Firstly, there have been too many falls and close calls at our club, which reinforces the idea that it’s worth putting something on your head. One of my leads fell in practice, got a concussion, and has to sit out for several weeks (he’s still out of the game as I write this). Just last week, another experienced player fell in a game and paramedics were called (though it looked like she might have hit her head on the ice at the time of the fall, thankfully it was “frame damage” with a sore tailbone being the main complaint).

More and more people out there are wearing something on their heads, whether it’s a bike helmet, curling helmet, or hat with protective elements (and I know I’ve managed to convince at least a handful of curlers to buy a Crasche or Ice Halo). I think we’re moving from the “early adopter” phase to the “mass adoption” phase — it’s no longer remotely strange to choose to wear something protective while you play, and I’d estimate that 20% or more of the adult curlers (and essentially all the kids) at our club are now sporting protection. While I don’t have appreciable hair myself, I am told that it’s exciting that Ice Halo now offers a hat with a ponytail hole.

I’m still wearing all my options in various rotations. It didn’t take long to get over myself and wear the headband-style ones without feeling any sense of fashion awkwardness. Indeed, the Ice Halo HD is the one I most commonly wear, particularly when I play mixed doubles (where I feel I have the greatest chance of a slip as I jump up after throwing to sweep). I also exclusively wear it when I volunteer with the Little Rocks, in that case I want my head protection to be obvious and not hidden within a hat so that I can be a good role model for the kids. Blueberry for her part wears a hockey helmet to Little Rocks.

I’ve found that the Ice Halo HD band has really settled in — I can position it nicely so it doesn’t interfere with my glasses, and the elastic has stretched out a touch so it’s more comfortable and sits in the right spot (without being loose — I’m not afraid it will fall off my head when I really need it). After a month or two (~6-8 games with it?) I no longer had to keep adjusting it from getting too tight.

When I skip in 4-person curling, I tend to go with one of my hat options. I like the Crasche Curler touque because it’s a little warmer and I get cold when I’m just holding the broom, and go for it a bit more than half the time. Unfortunately, while I’ve gotten used to it and figured out how to position it a bit better, it does still catch the arms of my glasses a few times per game, and sometimes will creep up out of position. I only tried it once with only the rear set of pads, and didn’t think it helped much, so I’ve still been using it as delivered. The Ice Halo ball cap is quite comfortable now (though I sometimes still get a mark on my forehead from the snugness, I don’t feel any discomfort when wearing it), and great when I think I don’t want to be warm, as it breathes better than the Crasche. I tend to go for the ballcap or Ice Halo HD when I play a position that involves sweeping on 4-person curling.

When I go to spiels (i.e., play multiple games in a day), I take two of my options with me, because if I get a little sweaty it’s good to have the option to rotate out and let one dry between games.

What Happens When a Robo-Advisor Shuts Down?

November 18th, 2019 by Potato

Back when robo-advisors were new — who are we kidding, for financial services they’re still new — people had lots of concerns about the new services. Chief amongst those concerns were whether investors’ money would be safe if/when one of the firms went under. We predicted that this would be a risk of inconvenience rather than a risk of losing real money: because of the custodian broker relationship, you would still have your assets somewhere (though those have their own risks), but the firm would no longer manage them. But if a firm went under, you wouldn’t lose your assets with them.

What happens if a firm goes out of business? Then the underlying investments — which are held at a “custodian” — can be transferred to another broker on your behalf. You can ask each firm about the details of their custodian arrangement, but as far as we were able to determine, every firm listed holds your investments at a custodian that is a member of IIROC.

So, aside from the usual risk of the investments themselves and completely unforseen events, investing with the relatively new robo-advisors should be no more risky than traditional means.

Well, we have our first robo-advisor failure! Planswell suddenly shut down operations this month, and we’re seeing those predictions play out in practice. Investors’ assets are still held at the custodian, and other than the inconvenience of having to move them and pay a transfer fee, nobody’s assets went up with the firm — the custodian brokerage relationship is working as predicted.

Planswell customers now have to figure out what to do with their assets. One choice is of course to learn to DIY and move to Questrade for ETFs or TD for TD e-series. Otherwise they can move to another robo-advisor if that’s what worked for them and still the right choice. Planswell is suggesting a few that use the same custodian (e.g. Justwealth and Wealthbar), which saves on transfer fees. Note though that if you ask and have enough assets to move, many firms will cover your transfer-out fees.

As for prognosticating, I’ve been surprised so firms have lasted as long as they have. I keep expecting a wave of consolidation — not necessarily abrupt closures like Planswell, but I’m surprised someone (the big banks and Wealthsimple are obvious acquirers) hasn’t been buying up the other firms. Dale has a post up on the slow growth of the robos which may add to the issues and stress in the future.