The Summer of Suck

August 29th, 2022 by Potato

There are still a few days of the summer left, and it hasn’t been all bad, but 2022 has been right up there with 2020 as a summer that was not good for me.

Head Injury

It was after getting a head injury that I coined the term “Summer of Suck” in my mind.

Selfie from outside emerg after being stitched up

It’s not even a very good story to tell: my indoor cat ran outside when my neighbour came to the door. So I tore out after the cat, with my hands making contact, just about to snatch him back up… when I ran head-first at full speed into the overhanging bay window. What they say about scalp wounds is true: they bleed a lot. Within a breath or two I had a big puddle of blood at my feet. My neighbour grabbed some paper towels for me, collected the cat from under the bush, took her dog back home, and kindly drove me to the hospital for some stitches and glue. No cracking under pressure with that one!

I had a ~3″ long slice across the top of my head, deep enough to bleed ridiculously but not showing bone. Thankfully I was seen fairly quickly, and was in and out of emerg in just over 2 hours.

In a bit of comedy, my mask’s straps ended up inside the bandages the doctor put on, so I had to wear it the whole way home until I could cut it off.

The wound healed up fairly well — I’ve got a small pink scar (with a palpable dent) where the stitches were, and the other ~1.5″ of the cut that was glued together seems to have healed without a trace.

Amazingly, I didn’t seem to get a concussion, even though it seems like I exploded my head from the force of the impact — I was wearing a hat which didn’t get cut, which casts doubt on my theory that I got sliced open by a sharp part on the siding.

Grant Conjunction

It was also an insanely busy period at work, another one of those projects where you’re thankful for work-from-home because there simply weren’t enough hours in the week to fit in commuting too (assuming, as we do, that running on 3-4 hours of sleep/night was already on the wrong side of the insane line and that there was nothing left to cut for train time).

It is not done to bite the hand that feeds you and criticize the agencies that provide research funding. But I have to note how crazy this summer was, and it was not because of so many researchers demanding my services. This year an agency launched a call on top of another agency’s major call (they often attempt to coordinate their deadlines better than that), and even just the one competition was so over the top on the work required and the lack of time provided that it was essentially a denial of service attack on the administrative hearts of the research institutions involved.

But the response was their hands were tied because their funding agreement with the federal government required such insane timelines on our end to make it work. And perhaps they have the same don’t-bite-the-hand-just-suck-it-up attitude we have (esp. as we’re the ones dealing with the fallout), but, like, funding agreements can be amended if you realize there isn’t enough time to complete the project on time. Just sayin’.

And that’s all I’ll say about that SNAFU for now.

Site Attack

Oh and speaking of attacks, I also had someone decide to attack the Value of Simple shop with hundreds of fraudulent orders, which soaked up what little blog/writing/side business time I set aside this summer.

Thankfully, Stripe, my main credit card processor, flagged the fraudulent transactions and stopped them after a handful had gone through.

You may not know this about running a small business, but when you issue refunds, you’re still on the hook for the credit card processing fees for that transaction. So if you buy my $7 e-book and then demand a refund (say for the very legitimate reason that someone stole your credit card), and I refund your $7, I still have to pay the credit card processor roughly $0.50 for handling that non-transaction. So I was out about four bucks, which is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

But here is where things get ironic: you cannot pay your bill to the credit card processor with a credit card. They want a wire transfer. I haven’t actually ever done a wire transfer, so I went to Tangerine to see what I should do (and how much they’d charge me to do one). While I was afraid it was going to be like a $20 bank service charge to pay my $4 debt, it turned out to be even more of a Catch-22: they don’t offer wire transfers, period.

Eventually my (concussed?) brain caught up with the obvious work-around: I bought a copy of my own book to get money into my Stripe account to cover the deficit.

At the moment, direct sales are suspended until I can figure out a way to help prevent a future attack — Stripe suggests adding a captcha, and I honestly can’t believe that’s not included as an out-of-the-box option in WooCommerce. There’s a third-party plug-in that will do it for $38/yr, which is right in that valley of being much more than the economic loss I’ve suffered while also being less than the brain damage and time I’d have to commit to re-learn a minimal amount of PHP to functionally drop in the code snippet myself.

The book is still available from Kobo, Amazon, Indigo, Google Play, etc., so I’m not in a hurry to make my direct-from-the-author webstore work again, so that may be a while.

I Was Once an Adventurer Like You

I picked up another fun injury this summer: apparently from sitting too long at my desk in suboptimal positions (hundred-hour workweeks will do that), I have blown out my ankle. It certainly wasn’t from physical activity or sports! Too busy to see anyone about it, of course, it seems to be healing slowly (very slowly). Nice big lump in my Achilles’ tendon, and it kind of gives out and won’t hold my weight if I lean to the right. I just hope it’s fully healed by curling season!

Road Trip

Once the grants were in, I was off to PEI on a road trip with Blueberry! This was actually a really nice part of the summer, I’m sure she’ll remember her daddy-daughter road trip for a long time. I was really nervous about it — I used to drive 2 hours at a time every week before she was born, and did the trip out East almost yearly. But in the last 10 years the longest road trip I’ve taken has been 3 hours, and I felt worn out after that. So on the way out I decided to space the ~19 hours of actual driving (plus meal breaks and pit stops makes it even more in the car) over three days, which also gave us a bit of time to hit some tourist attractions.

The driving itself was fine, and she was a great little passenger. So on the way home I decided to do the drive in two days.

And we’ve been home for 8 days as I write this and I still have motion sickness — like when you’re on a boat all day then feel as if you’re swaying when you get back on land, I feel as if I’m rumbling along the highway and get dizzy if I look anywhere but straight ahead. I keep hoping one good night of sleep will fix that… and am just waiting for that one good night of sleep to happen!

The Cat

Not too long after our return, the cat got sick. He threw up in every room of the house (more than once in a few), and stopped eating. I took him to the vet, and he had all the signs of a blockage in his digestive tract. A quick surgery found a section of diseased intestine, like bowel ischemia… but no foreign object causing it! Quite the medical mystery.

He’s forbidden from any climbing or jumping activity, not even going up or down stairs for 14 days while he recovers. Yeah, try telling a cat that. The first few days he was so sick and tired and low energy after not eating for a day and then surgery that it was easy to comply, but we still have the better part of a week to go and he is done with recovery.

More Injuries

And then I fell down the stairs randomly. I’ve tried to replay what happened but while I remember the landing, I don’t recall exactly what caused me to fall in the first place. I don’t think I was dizzy from my weird road trip motion sickness, but it could have played a part. I don’t think my weirdly injured ankle gave out, but it was the one that I fell on.

I managed to land pretty much on my kidney, catching a riser across that lower back area. On the plus side, I didn’t hit my hip or a rib so no broken bones. On the down side, everything hurts. And honestly, who lands on their kidney?

The Next Quadrennial

The past few years I’ve gotten more serious about curling (by which I mean, I play more often. I’m still plenty silly on the ice). I even have a team in the team-entry league! We have matching jackets!

Or, had. After the Olympics, many of the pro teams broke up and re-formed for new configurations to try to win their medals in the next 4-year cycle. And I guess that happened to us, too? So now I’m sad because I have to find a new curling team.

My Mom

And of course the worst for last: in case you weren’t aware, my mom has MS, and has been living through the gradual loss of function for years, but up until recently was still walking with assistance (i.e. a walker), could stand up, etc. Early in the summer she very suddenly and unexpectedly lost a lot of lower-body function and requires significantly more help in the daily activities of life. She apparently didn’t want to tell any of her relatives out on the east coast, and had just mysteriously cancelled her planned trip out there on them. So I got to be the herald of bad news while I was out there.

I had originally written that we were waiting on PSW support from the Province, but before hitting publish (and after two months) we finally got coverage for two visits, five days a week, which should help with some of the burden (which is falling mostly on my sister).

The Summer of Suck Comes to a Close

So, as August comes to a close, hopefully that is it for injuries and stress and bad news and health problems.

I haven’t had a chance to work on any of the site/side business goals I had for this year yet. No fun blog posts. And the health goals are way out the window, there’s no getting those back.

Investing Apps: Just Say No

January 26th, 2022 by Potato

Perhaps Commissions Aren’t So Bad

Dan Ariely talks about the difference between free and nearly free. Nearly free and free have basically the same effect on your overall net wealth: whether you pay 14 cents in ECN fees every month or zero as you accumulate your investments is going to have no measurable impact on your ability to retire. But the difference between a few cents and free on your trading behaviour is huge — people will trade a lot more when it’s free. Plus the sales commission on the selling side for Questrade is good for investor behaviour: not high enough to actually be a real barrier to selling, but puts just that little bit of psychological stop in before selling and prevents dabbling in day-trading.

So I’m worried these days that so many people don’t ask “what’s a good brokerage to use?” but “which investing app should I use? Is Robinhood in Canada?”

And as much as lower fees are better, perhaps there’s a behavioural benefit to paying a little bit of commission and we shouldn’t encourage zero-fee platforms. Plus these companies make money somehow, which may include providing worse fills (though that doesn’t seem to be allowed in Canada).

Smartphone Addiction

Your smartphone is an ingenious device, carrying more power than the desktop computer I had in university, and able to carry out many very useful functions. It’s no wonder many of us have them practically welded to us. But they are an insidious thing: they short-circuit our brains in some of the worst ways.

Paying by mobile phone reduces the pain of paying even beyond that of using a credit card, so it’s all too easy to impulse buy something and not even notice how much you spent with that tap. And so many apps are addictive (sometimes purposefully so) that just touching your mobile phone short-circuits all of your careful reasoning faculties. [only a modest exaggeration on my part]

Do. Not. Trade. On. Your. Phone.

Investing Apps

Long before there was daytrading involved, WealthSimple bragged about how a third of their users checked in with the app daily. Daily! For a robo-advisor. There’s nothing to do! The whole point is to have a long-term investment plan that you don’t have to babysit!

From their point of view it was great: more mindshare, better odds that someone is checking on their phone and a friend goes “oh hey what’s that.” So of course they loved it. But I was horrified. Setting aside the unhealthy relationship people had with their phone and this app, it was setting investors up for loss-aversion disappointment (or panic): the more often you check in on your portfolio, the more likely you are to catch a downturn and see that you’ve lost some money.

So mobile phone investing apps had a horrifying relationship to engagement and addiction before they threw day-trading into the mix.

Do. Not. Trade. On. Your. Phone.

Dark Patterns, Advertising, and Active Investing

The trailblazer in no-commission app-based trading, the brand that has become synonymous with the product itself, is Robinhood in the US. And Robinhood has been criticized for its dark patterns, gamifying parts of the user experience to encourage people to trade more often and make more speculative bets. For example, they’d flash digital confetti up on the screen as a kind of reward/congratulations for placing a trade, and list trendy stocks.

Now WSTrade looks to be copying some (but thankfully nowhere near all) parts of the playbook, with a mobile-only [update: mobile-first, as I took forever to publish this and got scooped in some ways and they now have a desktop web version] app, offering zero commissions and fractional shares. And they’ll give you a free stock, to really drive home that idea of trading individual stocks, with a lottery-like component (will your sign-up bonus be a penny stock or a really valuable share?).

They also moved beyond stocks into an even more speculative space with crypto trading. And while not a dark pattern within the app itself, their ads are highlighting all the new speculative investments you can trade with them (rather than focusing on the good parts, like that you can do long-term investing in an all-in-one ETF with no commissions — in fact I can’t say that I’ve seen a single ad along those lines).

Screengrab of a WSTrade ad on Twitter highlighting the recent highly speculative securities you can now trade. I'll snark for posterity that anyone that bought ARKK is down 35 percent since.

Screengrab of a WSTrade ad on Twitter highlighting the recent highly speculative securities you can now trade, including a crypto coin that was explicitly created as a joke. I'll add some snark that this highly speculative thing is down 50 percent since being added to the platform, and indeed has never traded above that point.

In the US case at least, there are plenty of stories of people getting caught in things they don’t understand and losing lots of money — whether through mistakes, or through functionally a fully enabled gambling addiction. Thankfully, here in Canada investing apps don’t push users toward derivatives to add risk on top of daytrading, though they are moving toward “instant deposits” to wipe out any chance for cooling off periods and do include crypto. And the “first stock” promotion of “up to $4,500!” reinforces the gambling aspect of investing, and fractional share ownership promotes speculating in individual securities long before a user is ready for that.

And that’s not to mention fat-finger trades — how many typos have you made texting on that device?

Do. Not. Trade. On. Your. Phone.

Academic Research Backs Me Up

Two recent papers back up my instinctive refrain that you should not be trading on your phone.

First, Does Gamified Trading Stimulate Risk Taking? looks at the gamification aspect:

“We find that gamification “nudges” participants to take on more risk, particularly when trading high-volatility assets. The effect is stronger for inexperienced traders with lower financial literacy.”

You can read a more lay-friendly version here.

Their finding on the moderating influence of financial literacy gives me some hope. However, it also worries me, as people with low financial literacy are the ones now searching for “investing apps” rather than “best brokerage” – the term brokerage is almost entirely missing from new discussions on Reddit, for example, so the people using these apps are much more likely to be the low-finlit ones most susceptible to the gamification, gambling, ads, and dark patterns.

Next, Smart(Phone) Investing? A within Investor-Time Analysis of New Technologies and Trading Behavior looks at people’s behaviour when trading on their phone.

“we find that smartphones increase the purchase of riskier, lottery-type, non-diversifying assets, and of past winners and losers. […] following the launch of smartphone apps, investors are—if anything—more likely to purchase risky, lottery-type, and non-diversifying assets as well as chase winners and losers on non-smartphone platforms. […] We find evidence against investors offsetting these trades on other platforms and against digital nudges mechanically driving our results. Smartphone effects are neither transitory nor innocuous: assets purchased via smartphones deliver lower Sharpe ratios. Our findings caution against the indiscriminate use of smartphones as the key technology to increase access to financial markets.” [emphasis mine]

That reinforces my more instinctive view that even touching your phone short-circuits your self control thought: simply trading on your phone increases the likelihood of buying riskier things, and it infects your trading even off your phone. They also include a reference to another study on purchases, supporting the idea that smartphones reinforce system 1 thinking, where people ordered more unhealthy food on their mobile devices.


If you’re looking to start investing, do not look for a zero-commission “app”. Start by reading, and then open a brokerage account and only use your desktop/laptop to trade. Even if the brokerage you ultimately choose has a mobile app, don’t use it, as even occasional usage may change your appetite for lottery-like stocks. Controlling costs is important and a virtue, but zero costs changes our behaviour in ways that may be counter-productive. A few dollars here and there (or even $10 big bank commissions) are not going to derail your long-term plan, but may keep you from trading more than necessary. And finally:

Do. Not. Trade. On. Your. Phone.

Covid and School Lunches

January 23rd, 2022 by Potato

I’ve been very quiet about covid over the last two years, and I feel bad about that. I’m a science communicator, and this is one of the biggest science stories ever, yet here I am largely sitting it out. I admittedly haven’t been writing much of anything these days with my own issues on the go, plus it seems to be a topic that attracts such controversy that I just didn’t want to even go there. And besides, lots of other science communicators are on the job, and virology wasn’t my field. But still, I kick myself wondering if perhaps if I wrote and article and said “folks” enough maybe it would be the one to get through to DoFo. Anyway, the past is the past and I’ll have to sit with my private-mode ranting. Why am I finally inviting a war in my comments section?

A recent article in the Star really resonated with one aspect: how the heck our kids are dealing with this nightmare.

So far Blueberry is handling things fairly well, but as much as I love getting to spend time with her, the kid needs to hang out with kids her own age and not her parents. She’s been at in-person learning whenever the schools have been open. And for the most part we’ve been dealing with the risk of contagion there: she has decent custom-made masks (we even did a fit test with nutrisweet and recorded it all for a podcast that we then never followed-through with publishing /fail), she’s good at wearing them, her hand hygiene, and getting tested whenever she has any symptoms.

And those are the key ways to manage the risks: the kids need in-person learning, but balanced against the risks of the disease. Closing the schools in the prior waves was ~the right call (though they should have closed them earlier so the duration could have been shorter but then we get back to me raging about the mis-management or enacted other restrictions earlier to try to save the schools) because community transmission got too high and that has to stay down to keep the schools at a reasonable level of risk.

But now with the Omicron-driven wave and this most recent re-opening, we have lost two of the layers of protection: our testing system is overwhelmed, so kids with the sniffles aren’t getting tested, and we have not kept community transmission down. So the odds of someone in her classroom having covid is much higher than before, and chances are good that it will go undetected. Which brings us back to the big weakness in the in-person learning model: lunch (and snack) time.

You simply cannot maintain the layer of protection from masks and also eat (and by the same token, in-person dining should also be the first to close and the last to open). And it’s -20 in January so the school isn’t sending them outside to eat (which also has the issue of trying to eat in gloves or freezing little fingers).

Which brings us back to that Star article I mentioned:

According to Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and University of Toronto professor, lunchtime is the riskiest period of the school day for COVID-19 transmission because of the removal of masks, even if it is partial or brief.

Banerji said bringing kids home for lunch if possible is “not a bad idea.”

I had the same thought, and have been taking Blueberry out of school for lunch every day that they’ve been back. I know that most parents can’t do that: they don’t have the flexibility in their schedules, or don’t work from home in the first place, so I get to do this from a place of privilege (but also a place of necessity — Wayfare is ~immunocompromised so we have to be extra cautious even with her 3 doses). But I was surprised that I was the only one showing up at the school’s front door every day.

I don’t know if I should be trying to convince the other parents who are BbtP readers to look at take a wild guess at the rate of transmission in their community and think about whether they too should pull their kids out for lunch (or have their kids eat outside or just do intermittent fasting to skip lunch entirely), or if I should be encouraging you all to talk me off the ledge of paranoia.

For now, it’s working well for us, and we feel like our risk of catching covid is lower because of it, and the only cost is that my work day stretches into the evening to make up the time. Hopefully in a few weeks this wave will have crested and we can get our testing infrastructure back online and maybe reduce the risk that any kid in a class is carrying covid for that moment when they all take their masks off to eat.

Grad School, 10 Years On

August 19th, 2021 by Potato

Coincidentally, I had this post on grad school and mental health come up across my stream today. (It’s a coincidence because I got out 10 years ago today though the server time on that old post indicates I didn’t post until after midnight)

Grad school is about as harmful to a person’s mental health as the death of a spouse was one tweet summary. Collectively, it causes as much disability adjusted life years lost as HIV/AIDS and other STDs per the post, which yeah, tracks about right.

I had a lot of good times in grad school, faced some interesting challenges, made some friends, and learned a lot. It was far from all bad. But I also wasted years of my life, with a huge opportunity cost.

My mental health has been terrible for the last year and a half or so. But this last decade I think overall it’s been fair to good (highs and lows, of course). Part of that is that fatherhood suits me. Yet even having to face the pressures of the real world and all the monkey feces it has thrown at me, I’ve been less anxious and less depressed than in grad school. To say it plainly: I, too, suffered with bouts of anxiety and depression on that journey. Of course, I can’t place the full blame on grad school: part of that was pre-existing. It may be generalizable/self-selecting, as I suppose you don’t go get a PhD unless you’re already a little cracked in the head in the first place.

It’s also a little sad to see that 10 years on and Science-with-a-capital-S still hasn’t figured this shit out. The profession is structurally hostile to people looking to reproduce, is more than a little exploitative and pyramid-schemy, and yet absolutely vital to human progress. We’ve been talking for years about how PhD students are often poorly prepared for “alternative” careers (though academia and research are the minority outcomes, by a lot). We under-value research talent (severely in many cases), and even then can’t manage to pull out sustainable and secure funding programs. On the bright side, I am seeing more positions for people as working scientists (e.g. Research Associates) that aren’t some under-paid holding-pattern position on the mythical ladder to tenure.

I wasn’t planning on posting anything to mark the day, but when I saw that tweet I had to put something up, so this rambling mess is all the retrospective you get today.

— Doctor Potato

Non-Internalized Lessons

July 30th, 2021 by Potato

It’s been a hard slog for mental health this last year. Tough on physical health, too.

Err… year and a half. Damn.

Anyway, it just never seems to end.

There are some things we can do to help cope better, of course. They’re not panaceas, but they can help at least a little. The thing is, I have never managed to internalize those lessons.

Some pretty basic things can help with mood and energy levels: if I do some exercise, if I eat some fresh fruit, and I do it consistently, I’ll start to feel a little better in about 2 weeks. I’ve done enough tests with getting into a depressive funk where I don’t do those things and then forcing myself to do them again and it helps (not a full cure, but helpful).

So I try, every day, to at least go for a walk and it’s such an easy sounding thing to do and yet so hard. The eating is even harder — pandemic baking and potato chips have done a real number on my diet, but I consciously work in at least one piece of fresh fruit.

Then someone posted this meme of a determined/upset-looking bald eagle and that has become my new slogan. “I’m going on a stupid walk for my stupid mental and physical health. See you in an hour.” and I repeat it each night.

It’s still not a habit, and it’s still not an internalized lesson — I very much consciously get up and go for that walk (and repeat my refrain about my stupid mental and physical health). Maybe one day I’ll be one of those people who jumps out of bed and then exercises before staring the day, though that has always sounded just terrible to me. I also have to try to remember the gremlin rule: no snacking after midnight (I mean, no snacking ever would be even more effective but it’s not as cute and super-hard).

Am I feeling better now that it’s been a few months of semi-consistent bare minimum self-care? I don’t know, I guess, a little.

I think there was also something about sleep? Crap, forgot about that one.

Anyway, I think because the effects are so delayed I never learn that lesson. I don’t often feel energized after exercising, I feel tired and sweaty — but after a few weeks of doing it every day, I do feel more energized. But such a long stimulus-response delay keeps me from internalizing that message, and without that constant conscious effort, I quickly slip back into slothful inaction.

I can of course relate that back to investing: there are lots of lessons that aren’t easily internalized and we have to keep reminding ourselves of. Market timing and adding complexity are two that immediately spring to mind, especially in the current age of meme stonks and bubble warnings.