There is a device that the government has tried to put around the neck of every person in the country. It looks innocuous, but it can cause bruising, interfere with napping, and while it may have been a handy tool in the 60s, there’s insufficient proof that they’re so needed in modern life that the government should be forcing their universal use. On top of that, adjuvant devices have been mandated recently as well, and these can cause really nasty burns, fractures, and other miscellaneous injuries, even if the person wasn’t at serious risk of the thing they were designed to protect against! In fact, they can make things exponentially more hazardous for first responders trying to help you!
Do you want the government forcing these devices into your life? Into the faces of your children?
I am, of course, talking about seatbelts and air bags, something you’d never consider buying a car without. But if you pitch the rhetoric the right way, look at the side effect risks without considering the benefits, and throw in a touch of paranoia about the government, then suddenly you’re not so sure you want those things in your life.
And so it is with vaccines: they’re not perfect, there is a side-effect spectrum. Unfortunately just due to the nature of the beast, any vaccine for the flu strain threatening us with a pandemic, H1N1 this time around, has been rushed to market. If it wasn’t rushed to market, it wouldn’t be specific to the strain that most recently evolved. We’re not going to have perfect information about the safety profile. We’re not going to have perfect information about the effectiveness since, after all, if we waited for that it would be too late for a vaccination program to work. That’s not to say that this is a shot in the dark — we know in general that vaccines are quite effective, and we know that in some large trials the antibodies against H1N1 were successfully produced by the people vaccinated. It’s just that it’s nearly impossible to meet the standard of evidence that some of the people standing up against vaccination are demanding. In this case you should not take the absence of definitive evidence as evidence of an absence of effect.
Fortunately, vaccines really aren’t that different from one another in their general side-effect profile. What will vary will be how many people get the specific illness from the vaccine (i.e.: if any live viruses get through and actually infect people), and how effective the vaccine will be. Which, as I said, probably will never be known until long after the window for vaccinations has ended.
It’s a gritty, uncomfortable situation to have to make potentially life-or-death risk-benefit decisions on such very imperfect information, and not what we generally expect from our doctors. But that’s all we’ve got.
And there is a lot of hype going on about the flu, and the vaccines, and it’s all a little much to take in.
For the H1N1 pandemic fears itself, I think that the coverage is a little over the top, but just a little. This is a fairly nasty strain of flu that kills young, healthy people — not just asthmatics and the elderly like most flu strains. There is something different about this strain than the regular seasonal flu. It’s deadlier and more contagious than is typical. On the other hand, it’s not turning out to be as deadly as it looked from the first cluster in Mexico (it’s not SARS-bad).
Some of the groaning about overhyping comes from the fact that Avian flu (H5N1) was over-hyped so much just a few years ago, but no pandemic came of that! Things are a little different this time around: Avian flu had the potential to cross the species barrier into humans, and was highly contagious… but was mostly contained to birds. Swine flu though is spreading person-to-person, and it’s in Canada (with nearly 100 deaths already). It’s still early and we don’t have a good idea of the total number infected, but the death rate appears to be about 10 times higher than a typical seasonal flu. People are stupid, and forget basic things like handwashing and not coughing on people on the bus, so I figured that a little bit of hype isn’t a bad thing from that perspective.
Hype can be damaging — people have very little patience, so if a pandemic doesn’t materialize in their community soon, they’ll start tuning out the message. On the other side of the spectrum, pandemic hype can lead to people not travelling, not eating out, etc., which can be costly to an economy already on the edge.
I’m not an epidemiologist, but looking at the data that’s out there now and doing a back of the envelope calculation, it looks like we’re on track to have 50,000 deaths in Canada as a result of H1N1 by the end of 2010, unless something changes (such as the vaccination program — all the deaths so far have of course occurred before the vaccines were available). So you tell me, is that potential worth the hype?
Thanks to our near-miss with SARS, hospitals in Ontario are well equipped to handle infectious diseases. Proper respirators are well-stocked, training courses have been given and repeated, and patients are screened for fever as a matter of course. The first few days of the vaccination clinics here have had very large response rates, with people lining up for hours to get the shot early. I believe that thanks to the hype (& vaccines) Canada will probably be looking at around 10,000 deaths by the end of this — about twice as bad as a typical flu season. Some will of course look back and wonder what all the fuss was about, and others will be glad we’re not in the parallel universe that did have to find out the hard way how bad things can get.
We saw the Vampire’s Assistant last night. I thought overall the movie was ok — there were a few cute scenes, the supporting cast was quite good, but the main character was a little flat. He just looked spaced out most of the time, even before being sucked into the crazy overwhelming underworld of Cirque du Freak.
The biggest let-down for me was the ending. It didn’t actually close with “to be continued”, but it was close to it — the movie just ended without resolving the conflict they were building towards through the whole thing.
Next to that was the fact that there was very little exposition as to what being a “half-vampire” entailed. The main character signed up to that fate with very little in the way of questions. From what we can see in the movie, a half vampire gets all the powers of a vampire, but can also walk about in the daylight. Why anyone would then opt to become a full vampire is a question left unanswered. I really found that surprising — from the foreshadowing in the movie, I figured that there would be limitations to being a half-vampire, but the main character’s spider affinity would grant him some additional powers that would make the confrontation at the end (which never came) more balanced.
“LOL. Buy a new TV, newb.” — Microsoft.
I got Borderlands for my birthday, and it is a fun game. I can’t wait for some of my friends to pick it up so we can give this co-op mode a whirl. Indeed, that’s the part I’m looking forward to the most: I remember playing Fallout 3 and wishing the whole time that it had a multiplayer component. I was all keen on Borderlands for that very reason. I even got it for the 360 instead of the PC because I figured there was a higher chance that my friends would go for the 360 version.
There isn’t as much depth as with Fallout — instead of a nearly infinite number of possible player character attribute combinations, caught deep in the uncanny valley, you have your choice of 4 characters, each with 3 talent trees (WoW players will be very familiar with this levelling scheme). Each character is pitched as having a preferred set of weapons, but so far it seems that once you get past the first little bit of the game, everybody can pick up whatever weapon they want and it works equally well in their hands.
The game so far is a lot of fun: set on a barren, nearly abandoned planet, you seek out treasure and infamy amongst the rusting remnants of civilization. It’s got a fun post-apocalyptic vibe to it, though it isn’t as tongue-in-cheek as Fallout. For the most part it plays like a first-person shooter, and there is a lot of shooting to be had.
There are a number of points that bug me though:
- The fonts are way, WAY too small. It’s like Microsoft is sitting there telling me to buy a new TV. I know, the Xbox was designed to take advantage of high-def, but there are still at least a few people out there like me with old TVs trying to game. They could have the fonts scale if the Xbox is set to output standard def… but even then, I think the fonts should be bigger: even with a better TV, I’d still have to squint to see what’s on screen. There are some things that I simply cannot resolve on my TV, and so even if in high def those at least become theoretically legible, it’s ridiculous to give people that much eye strain when they can just have bigger text and have the windows scroll…
- Speaking of scrolling, even with the tiny text, the mission description windows still have to be scrolled through. And what buttons did they choose to use to scroll? Not any one of the three direction pads, nor the “A” and “Y” buttons which are in an up/down configuration… no, they chose the most unnatural, unintuitive pair: left and right trigger. What were they thinking? [maybe this wouldn’t have been so bad if we could read the instructions that say to use the left and right trigger on our TV]
- Similarly, there are a few button choices in the control scheme that make me shake my head, and wish there was the option to reassign buttons. Melee attacks — something I find I have to use far too often, given that many of the beginning enemies have a bite attack, and thus like to get to close range — are activated by clicking the right direction joystick. That is one of the hardest buttons to mash with any kind of accuracy. Meanwhile, changing guns gets two buttons assigned to it — “Y” and also the direction pad (similar to Gears of War in that respect). “Y”, or one of the other four lettered buttons, could easily have been an acceptable melee attack button.
- The four lettered buttons are arranged in a cross: up, down, left, right (Y, A, X, B). Quick: what’s the button for duck? “A” you say, the one in the bottom of the cross? No, sorry, that’s jump (rather than “Y”, at the top). Duck is “B”. I’m fine with reload/grab as “X”, but I really think “A” should be duck, “B” should be melee, and “Y” should be jump. This isn’t that much of an issue, but I really think that the weapon change should only live on the direction pad, and melee should get a real button or the option to auto-melee with the triggers (or hey, RB could be melee, and “Y” or another letter could be grenade throw).
- Perhaps because the game was built to do co-op all the way through, it does not pause when you check your map, talk with an NPC, or use a vendor. I found that to be a nasty surprise when I was at a vendor and the screen started shaking. Turns out some nasty biter had run into town and was merrily chomping on my ass while I browsed for goods. It would be nice if the game informed me of this beyond the subtle screen shake and the depleting health bar.
Anyway, it is a fun game, once you get past the lengths the designers seemed to go to make the controls unintuitive. Even Wayfare likes it, and she can’t stand first-person shooters.
Freddie Mac is one of the most ridiculous names I’ve ever heard for a business…
Stupid name aside, Freddie Mac is a Frankensteinian monstrosity of a company. Its main business is securitizing mortgages in the US: they buy a bunch of mortgages from banks, package them all together, then sell the bonds. The idea is that by buying the mortgages from the bank, the bank’s money will be freed up to make yet more mortgages, making it easier for Americans to buy homes. The investors in the bonds/mortgage securities get something reasonably safe to invest in — what are the odds everyone would default on their mortgage at the same time? — at a better rate than a government bond.
Of course, securitization is now a dirty word, because these sorts of schemes blew up so badly when subprime loans got into the mix. In Freddie Mac’s case, they made money by charging for insurance on these mortgage bundles, and they took on the credit risk. Things aren’t quite all that bad though since they didn’t get into the really nasty subprime dreck — for the most part, Freddie stuck to “conforming loans”. Nonetheless, Freddie got into some serious trouble last year as the housing and financial markets plummeted, and the US government took over, injecting capital at a cost of 10% per year (and that capital injection was larger than all the capital they had before — common and preferred equity — so that large dividend to the government is quite punitive).
John Hempton at Bronte Capital had a very long, very detailed, and — surprisingly — very interesting series on Freddie Mac, looking into their numbers, and suggesting that they were not totally worthless. If there is some value left in the company, then the preferred shares in particular should be worth something. I thought it was a very intriguing investment idea, but I didn’t have the time (or I fear, the ability) to reproduce his very thorough analysis (and importantly, to see where it might fail). I suspect not co-incidentally, the various preferred shares of Freddie jumped by about 40% after John published his analysis.
This week however, another analyst has stated that Freddie Mac is completely worthless, and the preferreds have fallen something like 25-30% in the last two days, which might make them worth looking at.
There are a number of different “series” of preferreds, designated by letters. The Z-series was the one issued most recently, and carries a variable interest rate of at least ~8%, and it’s also one of the most liquid. It has a face value of $25, and matures December 2012, or every 5 years thereafter — the option to redeem it is at the company’s discretion, not the investor’s. So, what that means is that this preferred share should fetch $2 in dividends every year, if the company is able and willing to pay them, and should be redeemed for $25 if the company is worth anything at all at some point in the future (or some fractional value thereof if the company is liquidated but has some value after the debt holders are paid). The dividends, right now, are not being paid. If the company, as the recent analyst says, is worthless, then these too are worthless.
However, if Freddie Mac does manage to turn itself around and pay the government back (and the government has to be paid first, even before the bondholders if my understanding is correct), and starts making a profit again, then a single dividend payment on these preferred shares would make you whole — indeed, provide you with a fairly decent return, even if that single dividend is a few years in the making. If the preferreds are redeemed for face value, then that would be a 20X return (times, not percent, since these are trading at about $1.25 today), though the timescale is unknown (they probably wouldn’t be redeemed at the 2012 maturity, but possibly at 2017). The first post in the series of Bronte Capital’s analysis his here — I recommend giving it a read even if you don’t plan on
investing gambling on Freddie.
The payoff is huge, but of course the risk is also large. In particular, there’s the political risk of the US government not allowing Freddie Mac to continue as a going concern, and that political risk can come from the legislative side, or the treasury side (in having to support a $50B capital injection at 10%, or in being forced to reduce the size of their mortgage book). While I enjoyed John Hempton’s analysis, and I get what he’s saying that the worst of the losses are already accounted for, the other point of view has evidence too: Freddie currently has negative equity, and has to pay more than its net income in dividends to the government (but, not more than it’s pre-tax pre-provision income). With that punitive bailout, they might never be worth anything. But if they can repay the government, they do look to be generally profitable (at least on their core mission of insuring traditional mortgages), and could eventually be worth something someday. After all, the dividends owed to the preferred shares (if they are ever reinstated) are substantially lower than the interest they currently have to pay the government — so if they can get the government repayment off their back, the preferred shares should be worth substantially more than they are now. If they can’t… well, they’d be worth nothing. There doesn’t look to be a lot of middle ground.
If you do decide to invest into it — and I honestly can’t recommend it to anyone — then be sure to consider that money gone until 2017 at the earliest, and remember that this is a case where only investing what you can afford to lose definitely applies!
“You can’t time the market” is a statement that’s generally true for the stock market — it’s a highly liquid, fairly efficient market full of professionals who all have roughly the same access to information about the future of the market. The shares traded are identical, so as soon as one is traded at a new price, effectively they’re all re-priced, and they’re only traded with the goal of making money — nobody hangs onto a share because it’s what they owned when their daughter took her first steps or because it’s customized just for them. The theory says that any information that could affect the future value of stocks is priced in in short order, so you can’t successfully time the market — getting out before a crash, or in before a surge. At least, not consistently enough to make money. And for the stock market, I think that’s probably true.
The housing market is a different beast entirely. It’s composed of units which are not 100% interchangeable. It’s highly illiquid. The participants are to a very large extent non-professionals who are poorly or even mis-informed about the state and future of the market, and have emotional entanglements to their properties on top of that. Each transaction is negotiated in secret, with pricing details only released some time later — so when one is traded at a new price that incorporates information about the future, it doesn’t necessarily affect other sales.
So when I come on here and piss and moan about how the housing market is getting ridiculous, and how I really fear that there will be a crash/correction to come in the next few years, and people say “you can’t time the market”, well, that’s not entirely true for the housing market, since it’s not as efficient as the stock market. It is true that I can’t say “next June, a month before the BoC’s promise to keep rates low runs out, the market is going to tank 8.53%”. It’s true that I’ve been bearish for over 2 years now, and aside from the beginnings of a correction last fall (a tailspin broken by the low rates), Armageddon has not visited Canadian homes. So in that sense the timing is hard. Getting the exact “when” down is very difficult. It’s certainly not precise. But it’s enough to know that we’re near the “top”, even if we don’t know when the “bottom” will come — the “when” is often not as important as the “how much”.
For the stock market, there is no “renting” of stocks. There’s no set of metrics that tell you reliably when the market is over- or under-valued. P/E ratios, bond yields vs dividend yields, these might be useful clues, but nowhere near as handy as the rent-vs-buy calculation. If a landlord can’t buy a place and rent it out at a profit, then something has to change. It’s also hard to come across telegraphed messages like this:
If the real estate market momentum does not moderate in the coming year – “or worse still, if price growth accelerates – it could lead to an earlier and more substantial tightening in policy than currently anticipated,”
Not often you’ll see hints from that the central bank is out to keep a bubble under control.
Of course, interest rates are a blunt instrument. There are many interconnecting factors: the dollar is already getting too high vs the USD, hurting our exports in a tenuous recovery. The central bank wouldn’t want to start raising rates to control the over-heated housing sector just to doom the business sector. Even within the housing sector, urban areas have the fever the worst; the Maritimes and more rural areas aren’t too far off of realistic valuations. There are more precise ways to throw water on the housing market, such as taking away 5%-down 35-year insurance.
In all seriousness, I don’t think people have to worry about the BoC jacking rates before their self-imposed timepoint of next summer, unless non-house inflation also takes off. However, the fact that this is on the BoC’s radar at all should be troubling. We are, IMHO, near the top of the market, even if the “when” of the peak may still be another year or two down the road.
The Daily Show (an often surprisingly level-headed source of news and commentary) had a little bit on the H1N1 vaccine last night which I recommend you give a quick watch (available online for Canadians at http://watch.thecomedynetwork.ca/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart/full-episodes/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart—october-15-2009/#clip223053 — Americans can watch Hulu, the bastards).
This reminded me of a question one of my cousins asked recently about the vaccine: what’s an adjuvant, “’cause I’m not able to find much positive about it.”
Indeed, if you just search the internet for information about the health effects of the various adjuvants used in vaccines, it looks like pretty scary stuff. That’s because an adjuvant is designed to trigger an immune response; to make your body’s immune system go into over-drive so that it will recognize the viral matter in the vaccine and produce antibodies against it. The risks include getting a fever or other flu-like symptoms, an allergic reaction, or even a very remote risk of developing certain autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis. If you just read up on the adjuvant alone, it sounds like something you’d never want to have in your body — but it’s only a small amount, and it’s necessary to make the vaccine effective (esp. in a single dose so you don’t have to keep going back for booster shots, which might work for hepatitis or tetanus vaccines, but doesn’t fly in the face of a potential pandemic).
“So if I don’t want those risks, don’t take the vaccines.”
Ah, well, there’s the tricky part. The risks are remote (aside from the mild cases of feeling unwell or having an acute allergic reaction), and the benefit is that you don’t get the virus you’re vaccinating against, or carry it to pass on to other people (such as seniors or those with compromised immune systems). On an individual level it can be a tricky mental calculation: on the one hand, psychologically it’s less desirable to subject yourself to something with risk before you have to, especially since it’s unknown and kinda scary. Whereas hey, you’ve had the flu before, how bad could it possibly be? Plus you can take steps to prevent yourself from getting the flu, such as wearing a space suit, or never leaving your basement, but once that shot is in your deltoid, that’s it cowboy, enjoy the ride. These psychological factors can really skew the perception of risk from the actual risks. It doesn’t help either that it’s new so there isn’t the years of testing that other vaccines have, or that there are people out there spreading the conspiracy theories that the government has put mind-control drugs in the vaccine (what, you think if they had those they wouldn’t have put it in your MMR vaccine as a kid??).
Of course, from a societal stand-point it’s a no-brainer for virtually every vaccine, including the one for the flu: society is better off when a large part of the population opts to be vaccinated. Even on the individual level the actual risk arithmetic (as opposed to the perceived risk) is also usually soundly in favour of getting vaccinated.
Update: LOL, Ben actually beat me to it with a post on the swine flu vaccine. He takes the opposite POV :)
That is all.
ZOMG, totally hella awesome! Hilarious, heartwarming, and full of undead brain-smashing fun. At one point they even had to stop and move a burned-out car off the road so they could drive through, showing that not everyone follows the rules of apocalyptic courtesy in times of crisis. To be fair, it was an obvious accident, so maybe if they hadn’t crashed, the drivers would have pulled over.
One of the strangest things I liked about the movie was the way the special effects for inserting the text into the action (even having rampaging zombies kicking letters out of the way).
The dialogue was witty, and they kept the tone very light (the zombies aren’t particularly scary if you get scared easily). All in all well worth going out to see.
In fact, go see it now.
“Oh, this is the best; it’s where you find out who to call!”
Eschatology is big this year: in addition to the main feature, the trailers featured The Road, 2012, Legion (and New Moon, just to break the pattern).
Many years ago, when first starting my MSc, I signed up to be an Online TA (OTA) with Brainmass, an online tutoring service. At first it was fantastic: students would post questions, and bid credits to have them answered. The credits were worth in the neighbourhood of $3, and the guideline was to bid about one credit for every 15 minutes it should take the OTA to answer the question (80% of what the student paid went to the OTAs, the rest was kept by Brainmass for admin and advertising). I got an email whenever a question was submitted in my area of expertise, and could log on and sign out the problem if I liked it, or leave it for another OTA if not. Of course, some students — rather than try to get help with a concept, or the outline of a solution without the final answer worked out, or just have someone to double check their work or just with one tough problem — would submit whole problem sets and try to use Brainmass as a homework solution service rather than as an aide. The guidelines were pretty strict, and students posting that sort of thing would be asked to refine their question so that it wasn’t like trying to just pay someone to do their work for them. I really liked the project and got involved near the beginning, even writing a piece for the news and inspiration section.
For a while, it worked great. I could work for an hour or two per week from home, and pull in $50 every two months or so ($50 being the minimum payout), which was decent pizza money. The experience was also rewarding: I recall one student in particular who had some real doozies of questions in genetics that required a few follow-up postings to get fully answered. That student wrote back a few weeks later “[Thank my OTA for me], I am pretty sure I aced my quiz this week!” which is one of the great emails in my archives to go back and reread when I need a pick-me-up.
Unfortunately, things started to go downhill. It is, as you can see, a pretty sweet deal for grad students: the potential for pizza money with no real commitment. The number of OTAs quickly grew while the number of students submitting answers did not, at least not anywhere near the same rate. Soon enough, rather than having a few hours or a few minutes at least to read over a posting before deciding if you wanted to sign it out, it would be signed out as soon as it was posted, before the email even percolated out to alert the OTAs of a new posting. Some OTAs just camped on Brainmass all day long, practically turning it into a full-time job. I don’t want to stereotype too much, but being a globally accessible service there were a number of OTAs from well-known off-shoring countries who were more than willing to answer nearly any question for a single credit. That lead to credit-bidding deflation, and different student expectations: if you answered a problem by telling them which physical laws to use where, and some hints and insights into why the answer would work out the way it would, but didn’t actually calculate the numbers to hand them the final answer on a silver platter, you were rated poorly. It became somewhat of a problem-solution clearinghouse. And with the intense competition to even sign postings out in the first place, I quickly stopped seeing the point.
Of course, I didn’t quit. I still have my account there, and every now and then log in just to see if there are any interesting problems. Plus one can get residuals since problems you answer go into their library, where they can be purchased at a discount by other students, rather than getting a custom solution and paying for the OTA’s time. Now that the library is getting huge (over one hundred thousand solutions), the posting volume has started to drop off, since almost all the common problems have already been asked and answered. That means that the problems that are up for custom solutions tend to be different or off the wall. Unfortunately, I’m finding that they’re getting to be too specialized for me to answer(!), and the ones that aren’t 4th-year essays are still students looking for complete problem set answers. They don’t even add any commentary like “please help me with this” or “I don’t understand” or anything, just a list of questions, sometimes scanned right out of the textbook. I haven’t answered a question in over a year…
Anyway, I don’t want to sound bitter, because I’m anything but — it’s a good service, and the admins do what they can to try to root out the “answer service” issue. It’s just hard because they can really only do enforcement from one side. When the students come in expecting to just pay for answers and not caring about learning, and when they’re the ones with the money, it’s hard to slap them on the wrists to change those expectations… Sure, they can send them copies of the policy and ask them to resubmit their question, but beyond that there’s not much they can do to change the mindset of someone willing to pay to not learn. Even if they did manage to drill the basic concept into a potential student/customer’s head, there seems to be an endless army of lazy students behind them looking for easy answers, who can’t be bothered to read the ToS or pop-up windows that it’s not a homework-answering service…