Where’s Potato Been?

August 16th, 2015 by Potato

You may have noticed that the blog is even quieter than normal the past few weeks. To start with there’s the subject of the last two posts: my cat dying didn’t put me in much of a mood to write. Then last week my desktop computer died (hard disk failure), so I’ve been spending the past few days trying to rebuild it and recover some data.

First of course the public service message: back your stuff up. I’ve been very lax about backing up the last little while, and it’s biting me now. My last full system image is from December 2014 — eight months ago!! I have a partial backup of some important folders from June. Thankfully that means I won’t have to repeat all my year-end bookkeeping and taxes, but it still sucks that I’ve lost two months’ worth of work (plus eight months of whatever files weren’t important enough to include in the partial backup — things like media and saved games). I’ve been trying to think of what’s been lost and thankfully can’t come up with much. I know I totally reorganized my book business accounting excel file just last week to make it easier to track unit sales (before I was only tracking revenue and expenses), but given how much time I’ve spent on recovery at this point it’s just easier to re-do the work (and that was open at the time my drive blew up so I guess it’s gone for good).

I was greatly let down by the windows restore tools — my backup boot CD wasn’t able to restore windows, refresh windows, or reinstall windows. The drive had somehow become locked and many of the files were supposedly corrupt in the recovery command prompt environment, but I could still see the directory listings which gave me hope for recovery. So I popped in another hard drive and restored my December backup image (the one I thought I made in April — not much better — was unreadable) so I could boot to windows and see what was going on. I hooked up the original system drive as a secondary drive and fired up the computer. Before I knew what was happening, Windows was running chkdsk on the damaged drive, which wiped out most of the directory structure that I was able to see before. Ugh. Then I wasn’t able to access any of the contents because I wasn’t the “owner” of the folders. When I tried to take ownership the system bluescreened and I was back to the command prompt from the recovery CD. There was a very brief “if you don’t want chkdsk to run, press any key in 1 second” message, which is not enough time to actually hit the key. Given that I’m pretty sure chkdsk made my life more difficult here, I have to recommend that if you’re trying to repair a drive that you find a way to disable auto-chkdsk on startup.

So, days later now, I have a system that thinks it’s December 2014, with some of my files from the June backup. I still wanted to see if a more advanced recovery tool could pull anything from the borked drive, so I googled around and tried a few.

Pandora Recovery was able to scan the drive for document files (.doc, .xls, etc.), and found a lot of files and fragments of files. However, it was a lot of work to sort through the results — the original filenames and creation dates were gone, so Pandora created names based on header information (e.g. file creator). That let me cut out a few to search through, but I was still left with hundreds of documents to open and see what they were. I ended up finding a few invoices that I would need to rebuild my accounting spreadsheet, but no accounting spreadsheet. Most of the documents appeared multiple times, likely an artifact of how Windows saves a new version behind-the-scenes (or in some cases, an artifact of how I’ll go back to a website and re-download a document rather than try to find it in my recent downloads folder).

So I moved on to Recuva. This tool didn’t turn up as many potentially recoverable documents, but what it did pull out of the damaged drive had original filenames and dates modified, which greatly helped me exclude the ones I didn’t need to check in detail (for instance, anything before 2014 would already be on my xmas backup image — I was mostly hunting for recently completed documents). This helped turn up one other document file missed by Pandora (though I can’t say whether Pandora missed it, or if I missed it because the meta information wasn’t helpful), as well as some email files (eml) that Pandora doesn’t seem to check for.

It’s a few days later now and I still am not yet up and running on my desktop. I figured I would take advantage of this “opportunity” to upgrade to a solid-state drive as my boot drive, so I’ve got some more work to do on that (which I was hoping to finish tonight but looks like I will likely be offline until Wednesday).

To get the blog back on track, I have an exciting post coming up for tomorrow.

The Not Dead Post

May 6th, 2014 by Potato

I hate the “I know I haven’t posted in a while, but relax guys I’m not dead.” posts. They usually signal the end of an author’s involvement in a blog, and tend to be the epitaph that stands until the domain registration expires. Yet here I am with one.

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but relax guys, I’m not dead.

Of course, I’ve been at this for 16 years now (nearly 10 on the WordPress platform) so I’m not too worried about this lame set of excuses becoming my site’s final post. I don’t think I can stop blogging, so you’re stuck with me.

The obligatory excuse paragraph: I had a massive non-blog-related to-do list going into my Potatomas vacation. That was completely deep-sixed by the ice storm that left me without electricity, couch-surfing (with a 2-year-old no less) for 10 days. With deadlines at work through January and February, and continued craptacular winter weather, I didn’t make much headway on anything — including projects like the Ballparkinator — until March/early April. Then just as I put the Ballparkinator up, I had to sacrifice a weekend of free time to get my taxes done. Though I’ve been working on a few other posts (which are not yet ready for posting), I haven’t wanted to bump the Ballparkinator from the top until it’s fixed and I can try to push it on you all again.

Unfortunately, for the past few weeks my amazing, incredible baby girl has suddenly forgotten how to sleep through the night or how to sleep-in in the mornings, so I’m chronically sleep-deprived*. Though I’m nearly done fixing the Ballparkinator, I just can’t brain at the moment for careful Excel formula debugging. I also need to rewrite the accompanying post because, to give you a glimpse inside my own mind, I thought the Ballparkinator was something amazing and incredibly useful for people, yet the reception was very “meh” — zero comments! — and I suspect that’s because I didn’t do a good enough job at linking it back to my thoughts on the importance of preparing for multiple scenarios (plus perhaps the fact that it had bugs for early retirement). So it’s going to take a little bit longer to get up, and as I was trying to find a well-rested night off to finish it, my other projects suddenly leapt up in importance.

I’m proud to say that one of those projects was working on the second edition of my book, as hinted at earlier. I completed the first draft of the 2nd edition and sent it around to some friends and colleagues for feedback — I’m a strong believer in beta testing something like this and in the power of constructive criticism and early substantive editing. I expected a few minor changes: typos and requests to a few small sections for clarity, with general criticisms. What came back was amazing: everyone (who has replied so far) has loved it (or lied to me in a way that helps my ego but not my material). By and large, people liked how clearly I explained one thing or another and requested new sections to cover common investing problems and things that confused them or were commonly confused. In other words, I’ve been dealing with a major case of scope/feature creep for the past few weeks. So even though I’ve been writing like a madman** almost every spare minute that I’m not at work or watching Blueberry, none of it has shown up here (yet). For the curious, it is now well over twice as long as the original book, and has gone from the “booklet/short guide” range to “typical trade paperback” length, and I still have a few thousand words to go with the last few suggested section additions (and there are at least 4 readers I’m still hoping/expecting to hear back from). It’s a real book!

I’ve spoken with some people who have gone through the traditional publishing route (Preet Banerjee was particularly helpful) and learned that personal finance books tend to be released in “RRSP season” (even if said book explicitly encourages ignoring such a thing), which with what I’ve read about typical publishing timelines means that if I want to get published this year I need to be pitching to publishers now. I had set Victoria Day as a personal deadline anyway because I know my free time will disappear then due to other commitments, so that just moves my timeline up a bit — but that “just a bit” means that I’ve pretty much had to drop any blog writing for the time being. Though nothing is showing up for you now, I have generated a lot of new material — in addition to posts that I’ll throw up as preview chapters to help promote the book, I have a fair bit of excised material that just didn’t quite fit the book but which could be adapted into a future post.

Then on top of my book writing self-commitments, my dad asked me to take on a personal writing project for him and a friend of his. That friend is now seriously ill and so a project I had hoped to push off to August has taken on rather more urgency. So even once I send off my proposals and manuscripts to potential publishers, my writing focus won’t be coming back to BbtP just yet.

Excuses and litanies aside, what can you, dear BbtP reader, expect in the future?

  1. I will fix the Ballparkinator and revise the accompanying post, but likely not until after Victoria Day now. The top half still works in the meantime.
  2. I will dust off an excised chapter or another old draft post in a week’s time so you’ll have something to chew on and stop issuing amber alerts on my behalf.
  3. The summer is going to seriously, seriously suck for me on a free-time-to-blog basis.
  4. An awesome, much needed book on index investing for Canadians that focuses on implementation and process and still needs a punchy title. If I can’t sell it to a publisher by Christmas, I will self-publish by early 2015. Stay tuned. Until then, I will keep the original up and available as-is.

* – to be fair, much of that is my own fault for working on side projects until too late at night, leaving me with no margin of error for being awakened by screams or yodeling.
** – in that I’m going fast and putting in crazy hours, not in that I am ranting about the oil cartel conspiracy to keep Harper in power by controlling our thoughts with orbital mind-control lasers.

Welcome CPFC13 Readers

September 22nd, 2013 by Potato

I met a few new people this weekend, and some may now be coming around to check out this site for the very first time. I thought a quick introductory post might help orient you.

About the blog: it’s a personal blog where I write about whatever happens to come to mind, though that’s mostly personal finance stuff the last few years. When the blog first launched well over a decade ago it was focused on video games and school. In-between there are a lot of posts about hybrid cars, fuel efficiency, science, and the internet. But yeah, mostly personal finance lately. I don’t pretend to have any fixed posting schedule, but try to get at least one up a week. I tend towards wordiness and spreadsheets. About me: I trained as a scientist, recently completing my PhD in Medical Biophysics. I have an eclectic skill-set and wide-ranging interests.

Some common topics include:

Housing, in particular the rent-vs-buy debate: whether the market is going to crash or not, you have to live somewhere, and if it’s the biggest expense in your life you should put an appropriate amount of thought and care into the decision. Some posts you may want to check out include:

For retirement, I’ve created a spreadsheet tool to help with the thought process of how it will work. It can be used as a calculator too, but be sure to flip to the other tab to see the calculations, and how the money is riffling through from equities to fixed income to the chequing account, to finally being spent. Be sure to check out the rest of the series on the details of the parameters, and looking at different scenarios.

Oh, and while there are many great sources of information on why you should avoid high-priced mutual funds, salescritters, and become a passive index investor, there’s little out there on how to actually do that. So I wrote a book that is — unlike many of my posts — very short and to the point, even including screenshots for how to put in trades with TD’s e-series through their brokerage arm. I’m currently mulling over whether it’s worth putting in the effort to create a second edition, and looking for feedback on what might be missing.

Into more general personal finance, some posts to see are:

Freelancing: I don’t push it because I have a full-time day job, but I do take on freelancing projects from time to time. They’re almost all different, and depend on what people need. I’m a writer/editor, a scientist, and also have some skills and interest in personal finance and investing, so just about anything goes. There isn’t much I can display in my portfolio except for these two brochures for GBGHF: local residents edition, seasonal edition (be sure to open them in a PDF viewer like Acrobat rather than Firefox’s built-in one). For those, I did some of the photography*, all the writing/editing, and the layout. Please note that while I consult on several scientific topics (e.g. manuscripts, experimental design) I don’t do grant writing due to potential conflicts of interest with my employer. In select cases where people have sought my expertise, they’ve hired me through my host institution.

* – I’m sorry to say, photography is really not my strong suit as a freelancer.

Investing Book Second Edition

September 11th, 2013 by Potato

A reader recently emailed me saying that he liked my investing book so much he was going to read it again after letting everything percolate for a few months. He wanted to know if I had a second edition coming out soon. It has been two years now since I wrote the book, so perhaps a revision is due.

I’ve given very nearly zero thought to a second edition: I have an errata page to catch the very few corrections and changes that cropped up, and other than updating the historical results for the past two years there really isn’t anything fundamental to change. That’s the beauty of a simple, passive approach. I might give it another round or two of editing/polish, and maybe add a graph or two, but nothing so major that I would go to the trouble of doing a new edition — it was intended to be timeless (also: sales have dropped to zero, removing motivation).

Reader feedback has been universally positive — it’s actually freaking me out. Most people (as expected) don’t write a review or pester the author, but a few have written back with brief notes of thanks or praise. No one has suggested changes, said that a part confused them, or that something obvious was missing. It makes me wonder if Wayfare wakes up early every morning to clear the inevitable negative ones out of my email and comment queue to spare my ego, as there’s no way nobody has wanted to complain that it was a waste of their $5, the world just doesn’t work that way. It may be due to the small sample size: even after two years I’ve still only sold a few dozen copies.

So an open question: what would you like to see in a second edition?

I cut a few chapters from the initial outline: I wanted to finish before my PhD thesis defense prep picked up again, and more importantly, thought it was vital that the book be short and approachable (unlike my blog). I figured there were numerous sources on the whys of investing and the indexing choice, and on budgeting, so I could focus on the missing component of the hows. One I’ve been thinking about has been expanding the single page on planning, in large part because I’ve had a few decent blog posts on the matter for material (including a rather important spreadsheet) that came out after the book was published. However, there are whole books on planning — whole careers on it — and it could rapidly grow on me to become a book in its own right, not to mention that it’s not really my specialty (maybe I can convince Sandi to co-author it and do most of the work?).

But maybe you think less is more: is there something that should be cut? Have other, newer books on the market supplanted the need for my book entirely?

Let me know what you think, what you want, what you never knew you needed until this one perfect moment of comment section inspiration seized you.

As an aside, PSGtDIYI (wow that’s an ugly acronym, no wonder I just call it the book) is self-published in electronic-only formats (though with a letter-sized PDF version for easy printing at home). That was in part to test the market before committing the time and resources to finding a publisher or making print versions — and the response was not strong enough for me to look into that further. But my dad at least thinks that this material would be better-suited to a print version, and suggested I do a small print run for it. Though I doubt a serious publisher would be interested in it (the format is too weird), that route might lend it some additional credibility. If nothing else, a print version is something I can give away to people who need it and they might actually read it. Very roughly speaking, I would likely need to charge closer to $10 for a print edition, even for a quick copy shop spiral-bound deal (and bear in mind it is a very thin book printed out, and many people value their books by weight). Thoughts on that?

Meta: What Do You Want to See Here?

September 4th, 2013 by Potato

I tend to write long blog posts, using as many words as I need to get my point across. Sometimes more than that just for the sake of a non sequitur. This verbosity is in part because this is something I do in my spare time when I should be sleeping, so I don’t take the time to make them shorter, in part because I tackle a lot of complex multifaced issues with much to say or explain, and in part because I know for a fact deep down inside that the internet doesn’t have a word limit. But mostly because I trust that my audience contains smart, well-read (and attractive, did I mention attractive?) people with attention spans that are up to the challenge I present to them. If I post a 1,200 word article once a week, and they prefer a daily 250-word snippet, well, they can spread it out and make it last at their own pace. If I don’t post every day, I’m sure they’ll find something else to occupy their time and that doing so doesn’t mean they won’t read what I have to say three days hence.

This goes against the advice of a lot of studies on reading habits and ess eee ooo1, which say that articles should be short (~250 words), skimmable with bullet points, key points highlighted in bold (or random sentences if you don’t know what your key ones are, or just alternate bolding sentences if you hate eyeballs2), liberally sprinkled with keywords, and posted on a regular schedule (preferably 5 days a week). Even better if you can intersperse unrelated3 text links with the body; the more like your ads you can make your text the more likely it is a reader will get confused and click. At this point every time I see one of these robot-generated top X ways to Y posts I just skip right on by. I simply have no interest in posts written by robots for robots. So little effort and expertise is put into those things that they’re often worse than useless.

Yet this is the majority of what you’ll find out there because that’s what makes money: the reason ess eee ooo is so important is because by and large your loyal daily readers don’t click on ads, it’s the visitor deposited from a web search that tends to traffic the advertisers (whether on purpose or because they haven’t yet mastered the confusing layout to parse content from ads has not been determined). However, they also don’t tend to scroll — seriously, research from other sites finds that the majority of viewers will only read what fits on the screen when they first land (in our case, that would be about 300 words), if that much. I write for many reasons, but maximizing revenue4 isn’t one of them. If I’m going to say something that you’ll enjoy (or you’ll at least walk away from a little wiser) then you’re going to have to scroll with me a bit. Put your head under, explore the depths with me. It could be fun.

One thing I’ve never understood is the use of completely unrelated photographs. Many sites (including almost every online story for a newspaper) have an image box that must be filled, even though 99% of the time it’s a completely unhelpful unenlightening bit of clip art or a stock photo. Yet even where I work — writing science stories for lay and non-specialist audiences — we always include a figure (which ~50% of the time is some unrelated bit of stock photography and ~40% of the time is some only loosely-related bit of general anatomy/technology), and target our stories to <250 words. I don’t understand why this is such a universal requirement (the photos moreso than the word limit) — indeed, I’ll note that Sandi provided one when linking to my last post5. I’ve come up with a quick mnemonic to help myself: at work I primarily edit, write succinctly and avoid Oxford commas or talking to myself while wearing pants and a button-up shirt; at home I mostly write without editing, use proper punctuation, talk things out with my cat whilst in my skivvies, and I only use figures when they actually add information or enlighten.

Another trend is the disappearing paragraph. It is partly due to the deteriorating writing skills in our civilization: structuring a post/essay into paragraphs of related sentences with a logical flow isn’t a priority when texting and twitter preclude even multiple sentences. It’s also partly because of the nasty influence of newspaper editors: when laying out a story to fit the newspaper page editors will often need to crop an article to fit at any point. So they encourage their writers/reporters to compose articles as single-sentence paragraphs, often with no relationship between any of the ones near the end so that the article can be cut at any given point from about the halfway point on and still make some kind of sense (even if inelegantly) to the reader. Now, I don’t think the dying newspaper industry is one bloggers should want to ape, but the reality is that some of the more commercially successful bloggers have gone on to get columnist gigs (e.g. in personal finance see Robb and Krystal), which allowed them to learn such habits directly from the newspaper editors. And from there to the PF bloggers who are inspired by their success, follow them, and mimic their style.

But as annoying as this style is to sit down and read as a coherent story, it’s moderately good for skimming, as when skimming we tend to go topic sentence to topic sentence (though with next to no paragraphs they’re almost all topic sentences). And skimming, of course, is what the big-money search engine visitor is looking to do before going back to read the context of their sought-after term. Plus it’s easier to blend in the often single-line referral links since the body text starts to look more like them (though again, I don’t think modifying your writing to come off as ad copy is really a virtue to pursue, said the guy who spends money on his blog).

As much as I disdain writing for search engines, if it also improves readability I’ll give it a whirl — though I’m doubtful on that point. It’s hard (for me) to tell a coherent story in 200 words, harder still to limit myself to 6 bullet points. But if my actual, human readers of whom I am fond think that my writing style is too academic/mental patient fusiony then I’ll consider change. For a little while.

There has also been some discussion on the value of comments lately. John Scalzi (as usual) has some good things to say on comments: “In a general sense, though, I think it’s well past time for sites (and personal blogs) to seriously think about whether they need to have comment threads at all. What is the benefit? What is the expense? Blogs have comments because other blogs have comments, and the blog software allows comments to happen, and I suspect everyone just defaults to having comments on.” That comment about the default did make me think, and personally, I love the comments. They did definitely start because of the WordPress default to have comments — I never thought about it on the old notepad site.

At this point, I get about 1000 spam comments for every legitimate one (partly a function of my decreased posting frequency since graduating and reproducing, which brought down the comment signal as you all have fewer opportunities to respond). That’s a pretty low signal-to-noise, but it doesn’t take me that long to clean out the spam bin, and I do love your (few) comments. I have been slowly deactivating commenting in posts older than about 3 months, as really no human comments much on a post much older than a few weeks (and I can always add a comment from email if someone does). I’ve also stepped up the blacklist threshold — putting more comments directly into the trash without ever having to double-check the filtering (I sure hope no one legitimately wants to talk about a Zune — those 4 letters instantly delete your comment with no hope of recovery). So far no one has complained of a comment disappearing (though many of you do get comments stuck in the grey list for a few hours). I think this is a decent way to go: I find registering to comment too restrictive, and though the comment volume is low I can’t imagine turning it off completely on you guys.

I had one other set of pressing questions to ask, but this is already at 1200 words so it’ll wait for another post (I’m doing it already!).

Now my question to you, dear readers, is what do you want to see here? Does the style work for you, or would you prefer I arbitrarily cut posts off at 300/500/1000 words and make you wait a day for the (usually not very) thrilling conclusion? Are you confused when you come across a period and it’s not followed by a line break? What topics would you like to read about (in particular any I’m not hitting on now)? What do you want to ask of me or find out that you haven’t thought to ask before this incredibly open and unexpected question floated in front of your eyes? Do unrelated stock photos actually make you want to read an article?

I don’t know how much I can (or want to) change my style, but if you guys seriously groan every time you have to [gasp!] scroll then I can start breaking my rants into subposts/chapters. Likewise, I’ll probably write about finances and cats in the proportion that they capture my attention anyway, but can throw in some more on other topics if you’re missing them.

1 – I don’t even want to spell that term out for the spam magnet that it is, but for those who don’t know it’s search engine optimization, the black art of trying to drive more people to your page in ways other than being legitimately awesome and popular.
2 – fuck eyeballs amiright?
3 – saying “related:” does not make it so.
4 – here, at least. Freelancing/professionally it’s all dolla dolla bills.
5 – and against all earlier ranting, the post was about sampling, and the totally apropos photo appears to be of someone sampling a population of potatoes.