Printed Thesis

September 7th, 2011 by Potato

Just thought I’d put this up: the printed copies of my thesis before sending them off to be bound. All-together they’re almost as tall as two cans of coke! (Note that this is more a function of the number of copies that ended up being requested than the actual length of the thesis, which is unremarkable for a PhD).

It’s Over!

August 30th, 2011 by Potato

Thank you all for the messages of congratulations. The long slog is over, the thesis is revised and accepted by the faculty, and in the morning I’ll be dropping off the printed copies to be bound into book form (I tried to get it done today but just barely made it up to campus graphic services just as they were locking up).

Some quick notes before I get back on track with the regular blogging:

Yes, it is a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) degree, so I’m “not that kind of doctor”.

No, I didn’t end up meeting my weight goals (which were initially to lose a certain amount of weight, then to simply not gain weight during the final stretch), I ended up gaining about 8 lbs over the last few months. I’ve been really bad on both the exercise and diet fronts: though I started out the spring ok for exercise, when the oppressive heat hit in July I pretty much stopped biking and haven’t really gotten back in the saddle. There have been three times now that I went on road trips with my bike packed in the car, and didn’t even end up taking it out (though to be fair, on one of those the water pump at the cottage broke just as I was on my way out for my ride, and I didn’t much fancy the notion of going for a 20 km ride with no working shower at the end).

For student finances, it worked out almost according to plan. I’m pretty good at being frugal and sticking to a budget, and though it did end up taking longer than I thought (and after my MSc, I really thought I wouldn’t be overly optimistic for my PhD timeline… yeesh) I managed to cope. As you may recall, I had a scholarship for a number of years and was actively saving a portion of that since I expected I wouldn’t finish by the time the scholarship ran out. Most of that savings I invested, and most of that into dividend payers, so in this later phase I was using the dividend income to help make ends meet when departmental minimum funding wasn’t enough to pay the bills (well, it was enough to pay the rent and food bill, but not the internet, phone, insurance, or tuition bills). I did get surprised by a few mis-calculations, the most recent being figuring when my last stipend would be paid out: I knew June was the last month I was getting paid for, but I thought my pay was arriving the following month, so that I could count on money arriving in July — it turns out I had my pay cycle wrong and the money I got in June [which I thought was for May, etc.] was the last I got. So that lead to an even tighter belt than I thought, but I suppose that’s what emergency funds, lines of credit, and investments are for. I picked up a bit of contract work in July, and I didn’t realistically expect to be paid for it until August, but here we are at the end of August and I still have no idea when I’ll be paid. Wayfare’s in much the same situation, I think she just got her paycheque for work done in May.

So right now I’m into full-on defer everything mode. I know that I’ll eventually get paid again, but until then I’m trying to defer as many expenses as possible, and tapping my non-traditional emergency funds like reward points to pay for things like groceries and gas where possible. I normally keep a large stockpile of food on hand (I suppose I have my mom to thank for that), and aside from seeking some variety and fresh foods, I could probably go 3 weeks without having to go grocery shopping. So I’m going to eat through some of that cache. I wore a suit for my lecture and defence (yes, I own a suit now, crazy!), but I think it can wait a few more weeks to be dry-cleaned. My shoes have holes in them (not serious ones, I’ve just worn through the lining near the heel so the plastic heel cup is showing on the inside), but they still work and soon enough I can switch to my winter boots which are in good shape.

I’m really good at procrastination.

As to where I’ve been for the last week: well, I didn’t have that many revisions to make, but there were a few, and I only had a week or so to make them. Otherwise I’ve largely been catching up on half a lifetime of sleep deprivation and spending time away from the internet. I got a kobo reader as a graduation gift (which I’ll review shortly) and picked up the next few books in the George RR Martin Song of Ice and Fire series, and they are not short books. I’ve already finished the second one and have moved on to Storm of Swords. It’s still technically summer, so I can make some progress on that summer reading list!

Now that I’m done my PhD what comes next for Dr. Potato? The clever-boots answer I came up with was “Dieting. Definitely dieting.” Short-term, I’m going to be doing some more research work for the next few months. After that, I don’t know yet. I’m looking for jobs, but seem to have more of a geographic limitation than an occupational one: I’m open to private sector R&D, academia, or may even try a turn at finance or pure teaching/lecturing. I’ll just have to see what opportunities present themselves.


August 20th, 2011 by Potato

The appellation of “Doctor” (from Latin: teacher) indicated a life dedicated to learning, to knowledge, and to the spread of knowledge.

And now I am one.

Back From Vacation Tater’s Takes

July 5th, 2011 by Potato

Out on the Island there’s a minor fad in putting giant decorative stars on the sides of houses, and more recently butterflies/dragonflies. We asked around to try to see if there was a reason why people had these stars on their houses here, if it was some kind of local tradition, superstition, or signifier. It’s apparently a common question from tourists, and there’s no real answer. The stars don’t signify anything in particular (though one person suggested it may have started as an Acadian thing), they’re simply decorative. It’s just a fad that happens to have caught hold here, but not back in Ontario.

The vacation was very much needed. Very much. I didn’t take my full vacation in 2010, and the week I took off I didn’t go anywhere, so it was good to just get out and sit by the ocean and read some books completely for pleasure, as well as play through some video games and watch the Game of Thrones mini-series. I can’t say that I’m fully, completely de-stressed from the thesis/future career uncertainty stress, but I no longer find my heart seizes and jumps 3 inches higher in my chest every time my email goes “boo-woop.”

Even on my vacation I had a to-do list. Some of it was merely playful: the top few books/games I wanted to read/play through (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Leviathan/Behemoth, Portal 2, Assassin’s Creed), some of it was things to do out east (garlic fingers, biking, visiting relatives, and garlic fingers), and some was to be somewhat productive in a non-thesis related way (enter a short story competition, draft a few posts to have a backlog for when my time is precious for the thesis, write some cover letters). While I got through most of the reading/playing list (didn’t get to a few books or Assassin’s Creed), I didn’t even touch the writing part of the to-do list.

I’ve already burned through many of my reserve drafts, and that was with a nearly complete shut-down of posting while I was gone. I expect then that I’ll only post once or twice a week at most for the rest of the summer, unless someone says or does something stupid that I can’t resist commenting on. Oh please say something stupid! Anyway, this post will have to last you a while. Fortunately, it’s long. Also, the comments have been re-enabled now that I have a stable internet connection to clear out the spam folder every day or two.

Speaking of internet connection, tethering to my BlackBerry was reasonably useful. For most of the trip I could access the internet, and it was reasonably fast to load (often a long latency time before it started, then the page would snap in pretty quickly). But as the trip went on, it got more and more screwy: taking longer and longer to resolve DNS requests, and often failing at that. It would give me a message about a hardware error in the modem and disconnect (i.e.: lost connection between PC and BB). Then one night the internet just went dead completely, even on the handset itself, though the signal meter still showed one bar (down from 3/4). Then, mysteriously, my BB displayed the red message light on solidly and shut itself off. I thought it was dead, but it came back to life not too much afterwards and I could connect again with the handset, but with less luck on the PC. So except for those last few days, it did work quite well. Haven’t received the bill yet to say how much Bell ended up deciding to charge me for the tethering.

Book mini-reviews:

Spoiler warning start!

A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One: A fantasy book, with undead creatures and dragons present in the universe, but not making much of an appearance, so mostly court intrigue and betrayal. Knights and war and honour and blood. A very large set of characters seemed really well laid out, with depth to every one. In particular though, George R. R. Martin has no qualms about who lives or dies, or where the plot may take us. He is ruthless, and I have to say I was genuinely surprised at the plot twists (last chance before spoiler-ville!): for most of the book he seemed to be building up the Dothraki threat, even giving Drogo a good reason to get good and mad and charge across the narrow sea. I was so sure that that was what the book was building towards… when all of a sudden he’s felled by a common infection. The HBO min-series was also great: very true to the book, and in the few places where it wasn’t, I thought the show offered some improvements. For example, Catelyn Stark wasn’t as mean to Jon Snow in the show, which made her more likeable off the bat, and I much preferred “white walkers” to “the Others”. Who uses such a vague term as “the others” for a menace? I hated it in Lost, too. Very well-cast all around, too.

If you’re a fan of fantasy, or even just fictional political intrigue (and can at least tolerate swords and a fictional medieval setting), then I recommend it. And I’m highly looking forward to finishing the rest of the series.

End of spoiler warning section!

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: This has been a pretty popular book, with two movies made of it now (a Swedish-language one, and a Hollywood version). It’s a murder mystery thriller, and it was pretty good, though I’m not sure I’d have even bothered to write about it if it weren’t already popular (and perhaps sadly, it’s popularity means my opinion matters even less). There are definitely some points in the book where you can tell it’s a translation. My favourite was the “and he was up for the Big Journalism Prize” — presumably translated from a named Swedish prize that English readers wouldn’t recognize. But it does read well. I liked the main characters, and the suspense built, making it a real page-turner. However, it’s not for the faint of heart: the crimes involved are vicious and graphic. The sex scenes are plentiful, and the morals are loose. Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that it was already an international bestseller with lots of publicity, I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it: though it was a good murder-mystery novel, it wasn’t spectacular enough for me to want to come out and recommend it in light of the subject matter. If you have a sensitive personality, you may want to give this one a pass, despite the hype.

[Note, the above links are to my affiliate link at Amazon, and at the moment, Game of Thrones is on a pretty good sale. I do get a small kick-back if you buy via that link, but it doesn’t affect my enthusiasm for the books.]

A site I hadn’t seen before, Metal Augmentor put up a thorough look into some of the background issues with Sino-Forest, including the confusing terminology. Indeed, quite aside from any fraud issues, MA points out that I made one of the mistakes mentioned, over-counting the amount of owned plantations (where seedlings are planted and money is made by patience and silviculture) based on the company’s confusing use of terminology.

I was just having an off-line discussion about the Sino-Forest issue, and how the MW report had at least a few mistakes, while the company’s response was lacklustre, so it was hard to say what the truth of the matter was. Though I had a passing interest in the many hunters of Chinese frauds, and had heard of MW before the scandal broke, MW wasn’t one of my most esteemed detectives. The person I was talking to was interested in making a small bet on SF, and I said that if one were in a gambling mood, perhaps this could be the one sketchy-looking company that was indeed real. But, I warned, while I might bet on MW getting this one wrong, I wouldn’t bet against Hempton. Wouldn’t you know it, the next bloody day Bronte Capital has weighed in on the side of shenanigans in a series of posts. John says:

“As for analysis of the accounts – the Sino Forest accounts contain enough red-flags to make any eagle-eyed observer cautious. I am sympathetic to making an investment without looking at the accounts at all because limited time and shortcuts often make that an efficient way of behaving. […] But if some analyst really did a detailed look at the accounts and did not spot the red-flags then they are incompetent. For that I have no sympathy at all.”

Well, I guess I have to publicly admit I’m incompetent. I’m an amateur and lack experience, granted. But before I bought I was looking (albeit with a much more limited time budget than a full-time professional fund manager) specifically for signs of fraud. I’ve been up on my game enough in the past to avoid a few doozies (though never gone short), and to follow along with the analysis of some other alleged frauds, but totally missed this one. Indeed, I still can’t see it as clearly in TRE as these guys allege. I’m merely confused, as I was before, which is how I ended up making an investment based on a weak heuristic.

This post also happens to come at basically the half-way point of the year, so I figure I’d update my spreadsheets and see how I was doing. I thought it would be absolutely dismal: I took a bath on Sino-Forest, and lost nearly as much on TEPCO. I’ve been holding Yellow Media since 2008, and it’s had yet another bad year — down some 60% (not including dividend). Was it really just a few months ago (when it was trading around $4.50) that I said you couldn’t get much more contrarian sentiment? Yikes. Though I mercifully kept my positions in TRE and TEPCO small, I can’t say the same for YLO, so I figured that those three big losers would pretty much sink me here.

Indeed, I did underperform my personal benchmark (50/50 TSX/S&P500) by a noticeable margin, but not as badly as I feared. I was saved by a few good moves: Canadian Helicopters was up ~50%, TD was up 10% YTD, and up 16% at one point (where I sold half so locked in some profit). A few other positions had modest returns, in particular Canexus and Veresen — though the moves weren’t big, the positions were (and I’ve since trimmed them both down, trying to not let any one position get over 10% of the portfolio). My Freddie Mac preferred shares are up nearly four-fold in the last six months, but since it began as a small position and was down 65% in the first place, that big percentage gain was small in absolute terms, and just barely balances one of the TRE/TEPCO losses. Overall I’m down less than 1%, compared to the TSX up about 1%, and the S&P500 up about 5% in CAD (I’ve estimated the dividend yield since I don’t know of a good site for total returns stats, though in the past I took the time to create a model portfolio with XIC & XSP). So a miss of about 3.5%. Not terrible for having made some truly godawful investment decisions recently, but not the kind of performance I can keep up if I’m going to continue attempting active management. Unfortunately I don’t see any catalysts for outperformance through the rest of the year, so I don’t think I’ll be making it up this year.

One thing I did do right was my rabbit analogy for the way the TFSA works. Someone even called it “perfect” in a recent CMF thread, which is a nice ego boost :)

Oh, and finally: I have a defense date! Just another month and a half, and I get to run the Gauntlet of Science and prove myself a true doctor. Or you know, fail miserably or whatever. Either way, it’ll be done before the end of August!

Vacation Random Thought Round-up

June 21st, 2011 by Potato

I didn’t think I’d have any internet access out here: my new computer doesn’t even have a dial-up modem, and this part of PEI has traditionally been a black hole for cell phone service (when we could pick up a signal, it was often from a New Brunswick tower across the water on a clear day). They seem to have put in a new tower because I’m getting pretty decent access via my blackberry, at least right now tonight. I tried checking this afternoon and it would work in fits and starts and many addresses wouldn’t resolve (but that may have been an unrelated problem as there was a service notice on my mail provider’s page).

The weather is still unseasonably cold, but at least it was somewhat sunny today. I finally put the bike back together and went for a little ride down the highway. I only did 10 km round-trip, but I was pretty tired at the end. Not only am I out of shape after the last few weeks of being chained to my desk, but PEI is much hillier than London, and the wind was just killer. The headwind on my way back was severe enough that I couldn’t hear cars coming up from behind at all, and at one point going uphill I swear a gust stopped me dead in my tracks for a moment despite heavy pedalling.

The colours seem impossibly vivid today. I don’t know if it’s just the late spring, or the contrast from the first sunny day after over a week of grey skies, but the soil is really red, the fields are popping green, and the sky was bright blue. Wayfare remarked that she thought it might be an anneurism, but we both thought it looked like that today. As a testament to the accumulated stretch of wet weather, when I rode my bike across the lawn to get to the laneway the ground went “splurt sploosh” underneath me, and the trench my tires pressed into the ground could still be seen at the end of the day — I think it may be permanent.

I’ve been trying to relax, play some games, enjoy the outdoors, read some books, and sleep in… but I can’t help but check my email before going to bed. It never seems to have good news these days. On the markets, I saw tonight that my Capital Power is going to be acquired at a non-existent premium ($19.40 when it was $21 just a few months ago), which I guess isn’t terrible news since I was looking for something to sell anyway (still no jobs lined up), though I really thought it was worth more than that. Also, I just got the news that Paulson has sold all his Sino-Forest, which, rightly or wrongly, is probably going to close the book on that story. Though I’ve taken my all-too-painful lumps on that one, I know at least one person took a small speculative position after the MW story broke, in part on my “analysis” of the situation.

On the science side, I just got an email that my paper was rejected. Again. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong with this paper. Well, I do know: I have a whole list of things from the reviewers. But I don’t know why they’re flat-out rejecting it based on that list, when all kinds of other crap gets published. Nothing there seemed like it couldn’t be fixed in revisions. Ugh.

Still no date set for my exam, either.

Anyway, I installed Portal 2 on my laptop a fair while back, and hadn’t had a chance to play it at all. Finally on vacation, I burned through it over the last two days. Good fun: the writers for that one are top-notch. There were one or two points in the gameplay where I started to get really frustrated by how particular the portal gun was about which surfaces were suitable for creating portals — and one or two where the lack of portal-able surfaces made a puzzle perhaps easier than it should have been (“well, I guess I have to put a portal there since it’s the only damned spot on that whole side of the room that’ll take a portal”).

I also brought Assassin’s Creed and Fable 2 with me, but I think the next few days will be spent with books since we brought about two dozen of those with us, and because Wayfare wants silence, and unlike my laptop, the TV doesn’t have a headphone jack. Speaking of headphones, I borrowed Wayfare’s Sony earbud ones and was really impressed with how ergonomic they were. The little straight bit sticking out of the buds for the wires is asymmetric and fits perfectly into the little gap between that little bit to the front of the ear (I keep trying to call it the preauricular point, but that’s at the base of that little projection) and the rest of the outer ear. I don’t wear headphones that often: I have the earbuds that came with my blackberry just in case I do want them at some point, but none of the 3 sizes of earbud insert stays in my ear very well, and then I also have a large set of noise-cancelling headphones that I remember to pack for plane trips, but not road trips. I may have to invest in a good set of earbuds.

And remember: while I’m gone comments are disabled. Feel free to email me though!