Sometimes I wonder if the push for everyone to get RRSPs is just a scam by the boomers to get us to boost their portfolios.

It’s tax time again, which means it’s time to question every financial decision you’ve made over the past year, and ask a few more questions like:

Should you focus on saving, or debt repayment?
How do you save when you have kids, with their associated needs and wants?
Do you have enough in your RRSP?
Should you put money into a TFSA?
Have you maximized the government contribution to the RESP?
Why are there so many acronyms to remember?

Although we are in the relatively early stages of our working lives, or perhaps we just left the early stage, Jenn and I have been talking a bit about retirement planning, and this has been on my mind a bit.

To get some more information, I went to a retirement planning session not too long ago.

And a few things struck me.

1) Retirement and Financial planning is full of contradictions.

The person leading the session talked a lot about the importance of investing early, and letting compound interest do the work. This is something you hear quite often.

Yet, at the end of the session, the presenter told us that if you have debt, it’s best to pay off that debt first before putting money into an RRSP.

And yes, that makes sense if you have credit card debt. But this was about mortgage debt. He specifically said, “You wouldn’t borrow money at 3% to invest for an 8% return. If you don’t pay down your mortgage first, that’s what you’re doing.”

So, when are you suppose to save for retirement? When you pay off your mortgage (and other large debts). So the focus should be on paying those off quickly, and then super powering your retirement savings with that money. This of course, flies in the face of the compound interest argument.

Now, for a lot of people, the idea of home ownership is becoming very distant. Depending on where you live, trying to buy a modest house can be well outside of your price range (especially if you have to pay for child care, commuting, etc.)

Mind you, there are other options, like, say, buying in Hamilton instead of Toronto.

I remember being in high school and being told that if you didn’t start investing for your retirement when you were 18, you weren’t going to have enough saved by the time you were 65. 18 years old! At that point, most people are still devoting their income to school (and drinking and partying and clothes and other stuff), but the point is, what little income they do have is gone on “essentials” of being 18 years old. What extra money do they expect people to save?

And this brings me to my second realization, or at least second thought.

2) I sometimes think a large focus of the retirement saving/push for real estate is just another way for the baby boomers to make it all about them.

Since they came on the scene, the boomers have been the biggest market force, with companies making products for them. And this continues. Think about those Grey Power insurance commercials. Being an older driver isn’t characterized as being a blue-haired menace anymore; it’s about being a safe, moderating presence on the road. It’s all those other people who cause problems.

The big baby boomer retirement bubble is coming, or so we’ve been told for a few years. The boomers are getting to that age, and they will soon be getting out of the workforce and living off their RRSPs.

(Except of course, the baby boomers aren’t retiring completely, but rather going back to work, which may be keeping younger people from entering the workforce, but that’s another topic)

Now, many baby boomers probably got hit when the recession dropped the value of their portfolios, but the indexes have all recovered. And despite the roller coaster nature of the markets over the last few years, everyone is still encouraged to buy into mutual funds and stocks, especially the young people.

And it makes me wonder if part of the reason we’re told to buy mutual funds is because the baby boomers need their portfolios to grow, and to do that, they need more people to buy, and those people would happen to be their children.

It’s similar for real estate. Real estate is a sure-fire investment, people say. Rising house prices are good; it means you are have higher net worth, and if your house goes up in value, it gives you more options to sell and buy the house you want — except it doesn’t.

Rising house prices are good if you are planning on selling and then buying something smaller, like many baby boomers are.

But for people who are still in the market, it’s not so good.

Otherwise, it can kind of hurt you. Think increased cost to enter the market, increased property valuation and property taxes, and the fact that, no matter how much your house is worth, or gone up in value, you can’t eat it.

So, lets say you bought a starter home. Since then, your family has increased in size. Well, time to buy a larger house. And great, your house increased in value so you have more buying power.

Nope.

First, you have to be able to find someone to buy your starter home at the increased price. But the larger problem is that if the value of your house increased, you can assume the value of the houses in your area or city increased just as much, so you don’t have any increased buying power.

And you’re left in the same position you were before. (I know this is based on the assumption your actual earning didn’t increase, but remember, in this scenario your family grew, so you have other costs to worry about). You can get a bigger house, but probably not in the city or area you are in.

There are other benefits to home ownership, and I don’t regret purchasing where and when we did, but I don’t buy into this idea that the ultimate goal and the ultimate investment is in real estate. Sure, they aren’t making more land, but with our aging population, they aren’t necessarily making more buyers either.

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So, do I seriously believe this? No, not entirely. We’re still making our retirement plans, but we are also making sure we have enough to live our lives and be happy with our children in the here and now. If stats are to be believed, Jenn and I should have a long life expectancy after retirement, and that concerns me, because we want to make sure we have enough money to support that. But maybe I’ll take a page from the boomers and just rely on the younger generations to support us when they buy our house at a hugely inflated house.

Another strange similarity between Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes

By far, my most popular post on this site has been my list of similarities between Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes.

This is probably due mostly to the success and popularity of those shows rather than anything to do with my post.

But nonetheless, it remains popular, and I thought I would expand on it.

There is one more similarity between the two characters, and this one really is strange: Bee Keeping

In the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, Sherlock Holmes retires to a small farm, and takes up bee keeping as his primary occupation. An odd retirement perhaps for someone so steeped in adventure and mystery for his adult life.

And in “The Name of the Doctor”, The Doctor is contemplating his impending death, and reflects on where he thought he  about what he might do when his too old for adventures, or when he retires: “Maybe I take up watercolors or beekeeping or something. Or, not.”

This could just be a throwaway line, or it could be more.

I think Steven Moffat sees the connection between Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes and explicitly picked bee keeping as an homage and a nod to the parallels between his charges.

Another interesting connection: Matt Smith actually auditioned to be Watson on the ‘Sherlock’, but Moffat decided he was too eccentric, and would be too much like ‘Sherlock’. (Check out number #18 here)

So, should we just be watching Sherlock as a lost season of Doctor Who, when he decided to spend more time on Earth and solve mysteries? I think it works.

Re-writing history teaching

A better History class

This Bizarro cartoon gives kids a good reason to learn history.

What was the USSR? That question came up during a family Christmas.  As someone who did their Master’s in History, and who once had plans to teach history, this question was shocking.

It was made worse when it wasn’t just a high school student asking that, but a 20-something as well.

And it made me realize how much of a dis-service to students, and to society, is happening with the standard approach to teaching history. People don’t know their history, and generally aren’t interested in history.

I’m in the minority when I say history was my favourite course in school. Most people generally say they were bored by history class, or forget most of what they learned. And this is a problem. Beyond the old idea of “those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it” a knowledge of history is vital to understand so many conflicts and situations facing the world today.

I think the standard approach, starting from the beginning and trudging through years, and dates, and names, doesn’t quite work for most people. So is there a solution?

Reverse Chronological Order

Most history courses are taught, starting from one date, and moving forward in time. This makes a certain amount of sense. Time is a progression and events follow each other. That’s great. That’s how we think, that’s how most stories go, and that’s how history happens.

But is it the most interesting approach? I would think people are more interested in knowing about events that happened in their life-time, which we are still seeing the effects of, or for which their are still living witnesses. But with the standard approach, modern events are rarely touched.

I personally remember taking more than one Canadian history courses where we barely get to Confederation before we run out of time and a 20th Century history course where we barely got to the Second World War. I know it’s important to understand events that lead to the next event, but if the events are never connected to the student’s life, the lessons won’t stick.

So what if we start with modern history to get the students hooked, and then go backwards from there? It could either be a full backward course, or you could jump back and forth. Granted, this could be fairly confusing for people who like to keep things in order, but it could help provide more context for events. It could also make learning history more like unraveling a mystery. You know the outcome, so then you look at what caused it.

Thematic

While this is sacrilege to people who like the “great man” type of history teaching, we could approach teaching based on the interests of students.

In university, there are already thematic history courses, but why not bring this down to high school? It doesn’t have to be a full course devoted to, say, urban history, but it could be a course on “The Revolutions that Shaped our Society”. This would show students the ties that bind history together. Or even local history courses, showing connections to the rest of the world.

Or, perhaps history could be worked in the other courses of the curriculum. Often, my major projects for my science classes ended up being papers on the history of that particular science.  If someone isn’t interested in history, they might at least be interested in the history of their favourite topic. And this would give them a deeper appreciation of where what they are learning came from.

Current Events and Root Causes

My high school history teacher often asked us to bring in current events to discuss. This was great as it gave students a chance to talk about the history being made, as it was being made.

What if an entire history course was taught taking current events, and looking at discussions of the cause of those events, the motivations and inspiration for the players, and perhaps even connection to other historic events?

Granted, this type of teaching would be completely disjointed and confusing, and would take a lot of work to prepare. But it could be good for senior level high school students, letting them define where their learning develops.

Pop-History done right

Popular conceptions of  history is a problem for teachers. Accepted myths, history taught by television and film and history as understood and conveyed by politicians inform how many people understand history. And this understanding is often shallow and mis-guided.

The fast-talking John Green and the Crash Course History team provide a great example of how pop-history can be done right. Through a series of 10-15 minute You Tube videos, Crash Course provides quick history courses, but they don’t shy away from providing deeper understandings of history, and they gladly challenge accepted beliefs and myths.

As a great example, take a look at their video on the American Revolution:

A combination perhaps?

Are any of these approaches better than the standard approach? Or is a combination called for?

In the end, I’m not a teacher so I will have little influence, but I’m interested to hear from current history teachers and professors, or people who are still on track to enter the profession. What do you find works best to get students engaged in learning history?

The dichotomy of British television

What defines British television?

What are the major differences between US and British TV?

There are, I think, two that are readily apparent and they seem to be at odds with each other.

One is the short seasons. British television shows, or at least a lot of the popular ones people in North America rave about, are often presented in short seasons, or series; often just six, or even three episodes each. Think about the UK Office, Sherlock, Doctor Who, The Hour, Downton Abbey, the original House of Cards. All popular, all with short seasons.

This often makes for punchier television, and it means stories don’t necessarily drag on as long. It also means that a bad episode really stands out among the bunch.

For a more concrete example, look at the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood. It had four seasons. The first two had 13 episodes, the third had 5, and the last had 10. The third season is acknowledged, by those who talk about the show as being the best. It was short, dramatic, and got to the point. The others were often uneven, confusing, and boring at times.  It was a show trying to figure itself out and filling time in the meanwhile to meet contractual obligations maybe.

Many of the shows have a following or popularity that suggest a much longer existence or depth of source material. Even a show like Fawlty Towers, which is in many ways an archetypal British comedy, and it still very popular, only had two seasons, of six episodes each. Only 12 episodes total!

And Monty Python’s Flying Circus had only 45 episodes over 4 seasons. Three of the seasons were 13 episodes long. And yet if you dare mention Monty Python in certain audiences, you will be subjected to countless quotes and references from these shows (along with the movies admittedly)

Contrast that with I Love Lucy, with seasons ranging from 26 to 35 episodes, or the Carol Burnett Show which had more than 278 episodes in 11 seasons (an average of 25). The first season alone had 30 episodes.

Yet it can be argued that the British shows have much more cultural relevance, even in North America, than the North American shows which produce large numbers.

Shorter seasons make it easier to create a concise story, with less chance of going off narrative with an odd episode. Fewer episodes means less chance to screw a character up, and it means, by necessity, there is less time to veer into unimportant or uninteresting territory.

The focus then, is clearly quality over quantity.

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But then the other defining feature of British television, and the other side of the coin, is the pure longevity of some programs.

Doctor Who is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. People who watched the show when they were children can now watch it with their grandchildren. While many of the early seasons had a great number of episodes, most of them were mini-movies in their own right, with an adventure stretching over three or four episodes, or as many as ten. The more recent seasons have been shorter in nature.

But the show has a mythology and complicated universe, with references to events that happened year ago, in our world, and somewhere outside of time in the television world. And there are references to events that we may not have ever been privy to, peppered into the dialogue. (It can all be a bit confusing if you try to think about it too much, so it’s best not to.)

And then there is Coronation Street. This show has been on the air since 1960, with at least two episodes a week since then. Starting in 2003, there have been five episodes a week. It’s the longest-running soap opera in television history. Like Doctor Who, generations have grown up watching this show. But generations of characters have actually grown up ON the show, being introduced as children, and then going on to have children of their own.

The character Ken Barlow was introduced in the first episode, and is still on the show and portrayed by the same actor. He has had children and grandchildren, who come and go from the show, who have their own story-lines, and have their own lives as such. Again, it can be a bit overwhelming if you are new to the show. But there is enough turnover that you don’t feel too lost in it. I don’t watch Coronation Street regularly, but my wife and her family are big on it and it can be hard to avoid getting sucked in. I do my best to avoid it though. But whether you watch it or not, many people have heard about Coronation Street, and if nothing else, know it’s been around for a long time. One of our friends even joked that television was invited for Coronation Street.

There are other examples, which I know little about.

Blue Peter is a children’s show that has been on the air since 1958.

Last of the Summer Wine is a British sitcom that ran on and off from 1973 to 2010, over 31 seasons.

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So what is it that defines British television? The short seasons or the seemingly unstoppable and deep universe created by long-running shows?

Of course, this is all based on those shows that have garnered enough attention to be known outside of the UK. So maybe I’m basing my assumptions on a limited selection and there are many many shows that are terrible and don’t fit into this framework.

A reflection on Downtown Abbey’s race policy

Last summer, after gorging on the first two seasons of Downton Abbey, I asked if it was a racist show.

This has proven to be a popular post, and I think it needs some reflection.

I originally called the writing excellent….I would now say it’s ok. Some stories were good, but, as many many others have said, it’s a very pretty looking soap opera, albeit with only a few episodes a season, as opposed to one a week or a day.

I still think the show is pretty white, and pretty racist. Again, I know it’s about a country estate in England at the beginning of the 20th-Century, but at that time, England had a globe-spanning Empire, so you think there’d be some notice of other ethnicity.

The third season did (briefly) include a scene in a jazz-bar complete with (scandal!) black musicians…which the upright characters referred to as “like the outer circle of Dante’s Inferno!” The show only brings us there because some young relation is trying to rebel.

Well, it’s telling that it’s world-wide news that Downton is adding a black character! There is a story from The Sun (the trashy British paper, not the trashy Toronto-based one). And the internet is super excited by this.

On another note, it’s interesting that one of the other new characters will be another love interest for Mary who will, once again, solve the family’s money-woes. It’s good to see the show keep going back to the same well…

9 reasons CFL is clearly football for hipsters

So, they are playing the 100th Grey Cup this year.

It’s kind of a big deal, as the Grey Cup is one of the longest standing and most consistent Champions games and trophies. Across Canada, it’s pretty huge…and that is what represents the biggest ‘problem’ for the Grey Cup and the CFL (the Canadian Football League for the uninitiated)…it’s a Canadian trophy and the CFL is a Canadian league, despite previous attempts to build it in the U.S.

Every year people from across the country travel to participate in the festivities and a whole string of traditions has sprouted around the game…lots of which seem to involve horses.  Fans dress up in their team garb, including watermelons, to celebrate teams for cities probably not recognized outside of their province

Despite this, there has been a lot of coverage and talk this year about trying to build the audience of the league among younger people…and to do this, they are bringing in Justin Bieber and Carly Rae Jepsen to play the half-time show.

But I think they’re going about it the wrong way. They should be focusing on marketing to the hipster crowd, and here are 9 good reasons:

1) As much as they don’t want to admit it, hipsters are total ‘true believers’ buying into a brand and making it a part of their life…think Apple and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

2) As much as people deride them hipsters are trend setters. Get the hipsters and people will follow….think Apple and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

3) It’s real football. It’s more authentic…the game is quicker and not overly commercialized.

4) The players are real people who know what it’s all about. They play for the love of the game. They don’t get big money deals (the minimum starting wage is $42,000) and many of them end up getting jobs completely outside of sports.

5) It’s a thinking man’s game. Peter Dyakowski, a lineman with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, won a competition naming him Canada’s Smartest person.

6) It’s a small market game. The team that brings in the most money in merchandise is the Saskatchewan Roughriders. They play in Regina….Regina! A city of 193,000 people. If Regina can support a team, so can Austin, Brooklyn Portland (either one really).

7) It’s Canadian. I don’t know that much more need to be said about that. Hipsters tend to be liberal, and many in the US have seen Canada to be a bastion of liberal life (until recently at least.

8) Hipsters need a new sport to get into. Soccer is becoming too popular.

9) And the ultimate reason…it’s a smaller league, that “you” probably haven’t heard about.

Is Hamilton the quintessential Canadian city?

Is Hamilton the Canadian city?

The CBC’s Sunday Edition featured two authors who set mystery novels in Hamilton, Ontario and much of the discussion was dealing with “Why Hamilton?”

Scott Thornley, author of The Ambitious City, and John Lawrence Reynolds, author of The Beach Strip discussed how setting can define a story, and also spoke about aspects of what makes Hamilton a good setting for mystery novels.

One of the authors, and I’m not sure which, but I think it was Reynolds, said that Hamilton is defined in people’s minds mostly by what it is not, that is, (and these are now my words) its larger, more business like, more successful and more world-renowned neighbour, Toronto.

And, in this respect, I think Hamilton becomes the quintessential Canadian city. For many Canadians, we are best described as being what we are not, and how we are different from our larger (population wise) more business-like, more successful and more world-renowned (or at least recognized) neighbour, the US.

In the eyes of many, Toronto is the city most like cities in the US. Which may be  why it is so disliked by so many across the country. It is a large city, centre of the economy, and looked at with a mix of awe and disgust by many people. It is also a city focused on success, which is another contrast to Hamilton.

Hamilton, like Canada, exists, going along, not necessarily looking for the limelight, largely because it is often the focus of jokes, but when it is mentioned, even in jokes, it still stands up tall and says “Hey, they’re talking about me.” (I know I’m personifying the city, and maybe just reflecting what I think of the city.)

Reynolds described how living in Toronto is different from living in Hamilton. Torontonians focus on success, while living in Hamilton is more about surviving. This is, I would argue, once again reflective of an US/Canadian persona of the two cities.

The “American dream” is about succeeding in business, making your own life. Most Canadian literature and the myths of Canada, such as they exist, are largely about surviving in spite of the elements, battling the cold, the barrenness and the loneliness that living in a vast, and relatively sparsely populated country brings.

Hamilton has a large geographic footprint, which includes largely rural areas, and largely conservative areas, which the residents of which feel they are paying too much taxes that are not going to help them but rather to support areas that are dealing with mistakes of the past.

Hamilton is also quite proud of its natural landscape, and it proudly talks about its waterfalls, its escarpment and its conservation areas, while most of the population lives in urban areas and probably doesn’t get out to the natural areas as much as it should.

Hamilton is a medium-sized city, a medium economic power, a multicultural community, and a city that is struggling to develop a culture…this is all, I think, so very Canadian.