queen of versailles

Watched this documentary on the Passionate Eye last night (I think it’s also available on Netflix). It’s pretty fantastic on a variety of levels. The filmmakers started out making a movie about the uber-wealthy Siegel’s, who were building the largest and most expensive single-family home in the U.S. But the market collapse in 2008 turned the film into an oddly funny cautionary tale.

Before you start feeling too worried about the Siegels, I’m happy to report that they are back on their feet, suing the filmmakers and finishing their travesty of a “home”. So hopefully some day they will get to use those ten kitchens, roller/ice rink, regulation size baseball diamond and closets that are big enough for six families to live in. Okay… sarcasm is out of my system…

The interviews with the two oldest kids and the nannies, although a small part of the film, were the most interesting. Especially the nannies. Quite heartbreaking, actually. But I was most fascinated by the mom, Jackie. She seems like an intelligent and down-to-earth person, often very funny and self-depriciating, but also completely delusional and living in a fantasy land. And she’s my age!

Well, she’s older than me but in the film, she’s the age I am now and our lives are so far apart. She’s my age…. with eight children, married to a man 30 years older than her. My age, with huge fake boobs and a shopping habit of a million a year. In the middle of their financial crisis, she still managed to keep up with her laser treatments and botox injections. Their Christmas morning is nuts! Heaps and heaps of junk that no one will ever use. Their house is a mess. Dog shit, toys, stuff. Lots and lots and lots of stuff.

As I write this in my little apartment, living on less than $20,000 this year, sitting on my used furniture and eating off of used dishes,  I can’t help but feel that I’m so much happier than her. I actually felt sorry for her. I have love and I have autonomy. She is trapped by wealth. And as charming as she is in the film, she also seems kind of useless. Like she has no purpose in this world and all her worth is tied to having money. Made me a bit sad.

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collaborative consumption

Really interesting segment on Spark today on the perks and perils of collaborative consumption. I believe this used to just be called sharing. But this is sharing at a whole new level, brought to us by the marvels of the Internet.

Also check out April Rinne’s blog post on the legal, regulatory and policy issues of a sharing economy. I know that the words “legal, regulatory and policy” don’t automatically make it sound like a riveting read but she brings up a lot of important points and provides a clear, concise overview of the issues around sharing, whether you’re joining a car share, signing up on Airbnb or starting a tool lending library.

you can be sold in seconds

Last week I was looking at an underwear website (which I’m not going to mention… no free advertising from me). We’ll call it Website A. The next time I logged into my email, there was a banner ad for Website A. The same thing happened when looking at Website B, checking out some winter boots (sticking to needs here). Clicked on the site and boom! My computer suddenly started running their ads. And again today with Websites C and D….

I knew that I was being marketed to before the banner ads suddenly became so blatant but until this week they always seemed a bit random. Kids clothes? I don’t have kids and never check out kids things online. Dating sites? Not even remotely looking for a date. But it has become very clear that I’m being targeted for specific products. And you are too. But I had no clue how it worked until, like they knew what I was thinking, the New York Times ran this article:

You can be sold in seconds. No, wait: make that milliseconds.

The odds are that access to you — or at least the online you — is being bought and sold in less than the blink of an eye. On the Web, powerful algorithms are sizing you up, based on myriad data points: what you Google, the sites you visit, the ads you click. Then, in real time, the chance to show you an ad is auctioned to the highest bidder.

Not that you’d know it. These days in the hyperkinetic world of digital advertising, all of this happens automatically, and imperceptibly, to most consumers.

Ever wonder why that same ad for a car or a couch keeps popping up on your screen? Nearly always, the answer is real-time bidding, an electronic trading system that sells ad space on the Web pages people visit at the very moment they are visiting them. Read the rest of the article.

in the news

Listening to CBC radio this morning as usual. Today’s episode of The Invisible Hand, called the Paradox of Thrift, looks at how austerity can worsen the economic situation. Definitely something to think about, especially in light of Harper cutting so many government jobs and offloading services, and the Bank of Canada constantly scolding us about our debt levels. So what are we supposed to do? I’m tightening my belt, looking for ways to spend less and not taking out loans in order to buy goods or services. While this approach is the best for me, apparently it is not a helpful for the overall economy.  Definitely worth a listen, though it doesn’t come to any hard conclusions.

And depressingly for those of us just squeaking by, wealth apparently equals health. I’m not personally all that worried about this (despite having spent the last month fighting a virus). My inability to find a family doctor causes me much more anxiety. Although the article doesn’t talk about access to health care, the CMA study says it is one of the top three factors affecting a person’s health.

What is interesting about both of these is that they highlight the integrated nature of economies; we go about our lives making choices that seem best for us, but we’re really operating in a much larger context and are heavily impacted by government policies and decisions.

lose weight! save money!

Nothing like a virus to help with saving some cash. You don’t feel like eating so you don’t need to buy groceries. You’re not going out and doing anything so the entertainment budget doesn’t get spent. Plus there’s the added bonus of shedding the extra pounds you put on over the winter.

That has been my last half of July and the first half of August. After the first week, which was spent sleeping, most of my time has been filled watching movies and television series (big thanks to Elizabeth, Fatima and my sis for loaning me so many DVDs). Since I have nothing else to report, here are some mini-reviews.

True Blood
Watched the first three seasons and cannot go on. It is quite trashy and fun, and there are some terrific characters and fabulous performances but omg, Sookie gets so annoying. Why, oh why does she insist on doing the same stupid things over and over? Always with Bill or Eric coming to her rescue. Ultimately I began to dislike it in the same way I hate Wuthering Heights; Sookie and Bill are as dysfunctional and unlikeable as Cathy and Heathcliff. I did love the music and have downloaded a bunch of tunes. Current fave is Lake Charles by Lucinda Williams.

North & South
If you like Pride and Prejudice, you’ll probably like this one too. Intelligent and lively female of diminished means meets wealthy and brooding gentleman. They misunderstand and dislike each other. He falls love. She rejects him. She comes to understand and appreciate him. She comes into an inheritance (throw in a little Jane Eyre for good measure). She falls in love too. Happily ever after! Very much a BBC production and I enjoyed every moment.

Deadwood
If you can get past the bad language, this is an amazing series. The characters are so complex, the acting so incredible. Plus the series is complete, which is a huge bonus. I hate starting something and then having to wait for months in order to find out what happens.

Robin Hood
Quite bad. I think one of the biggest problems is the casting. Robin, Marian and their crew are cast too young in relation to the Sheriff and Gisborne. How old was Robin when he went off to the crusades? 12?!? It has a certain campy appeal, but like Camelot, it just doesn’t work.

Sherlock
Awesome! Really captures the spirit of the original stories. Benedict Cumberbatch is pitch perfect as Sherlock and Martin Freeman is a believable (and awfully cute) Dr. Watson.

Lord of the Rings (extended version)
Unlike some extended versions, all the extras are truly worthwhile in these films. The one thing that drove me crazy was the music, especially in The Fellowship of the Ring. I don’t remember it being so overwhelming when I saw the movie in the theatre but it kind of hits you over the head in the DVDs.

Harry Potter
I wasn’t expecting to be laid up for so long, so I watch the last two films. And then ended up watching the rest in reverse order. It is even more apparent when you watch them this way how much the characters grow up and grow as actors over the course of the series. Highly recommended, though next time I’ll view them from one to eight.

a little something called ‘willpower’

There was a great interview on Spark today with Kelly McGonigal, the author of The Willpower Instinct. The main point of the interview, since Spark is a tech show, was how to combat those addictions to digital technology but she made some points that are relevant to pretty much every situation.

First, willpower isn’t just mental:

[4:04] And it turns out that willpower is actually a lot like the stress response in that it unleashes a set of coordinated changes in your body that are meant to help you deal with a new kind of threat, and that threat is something that is more internal. A desire, or a distraction, or an impulse that somehow your brain recognizes is counterproductive or destructive to your goals. And so rather than preparing you to fight or flee with this turning on of the energy and priming you to act, the willpower response actually slows you down.

Second, her suggestions for enhancing willpower were surprisingly simple (for the most part):

  1. Getting enough sleep (more than 6 hours per night).
  2. Meditation, as little as 10 minutes a day.
  3. Getting physical exercise.
  4. Taking small steps towards your goal makes it easier to take on the next big change.
  5. Thinking about what we really want (and stop making it a test of whether you’re a good person or not).
  6. Slowing down and pay attention.

Of course, you first need to willpower to do this stuff! I could really use some extra willpower these days. Not with frugal livin’ but with buckling down to school. Will get right on that thesis proposal as soon as I’m done reading her book….

My one peeve with the interview is Ms. McGonigal’s unrelenting uptalk. I know that’s the thing these days but it’s sooooo annoying?

digital cash

Oddly, just a couple of days after posting on the benefits of using cash rather than debit or credit cards, The Current aired a segment on the rise of digital cash.

Privacy, government control, security, hackers and cyber-crime were discussed as the biggest barriers to the widespread use of digital cash and I can see that they are real issues. Also briefly mentioned were the elderly or those who are not tech savvy. And of course there will always be the stupid human error stuff that happens, like going swimming in the ocean with your cell phone in your pocket and not being able to catch the bus home from the beach because your chip is now swimming in brine.

What only received a whiff of a mention by the host and was not at all addressed by the people she was interviewing was the affordability of the technology for using digital cash. Here’s an overview of the bits that contributed to the furrows between my brows:

[4:18] The total social cost of cash is really significant because it’s not just the cost of going to the ATM and getting money now, it’s the cost of the security trucks and the armed guards and the money that gets lost and stolen and all of those other things. But there’s also a particular problem with the way the costs of cash are distributed. You know, if you’re poor, if you’re trapped in a cash economy, which is not true for many people in Canada, then the costs fall disproportionately on you. So it’s two problems really, it’s the high cost and it’s the way that cost is distributed.

Huh? This confuses me. I’m not sure how being poor and operating in a cash economy means that the costs of cash fall more heavily on you. What about all the debit fees and the incredibly high interest rates on credit cards? Or the cost of owning a smart phone or tablet?

[7:02] Well technically, the most cashless country in the world, actually in more way than one I suppose, is actually Iceland. Something over 90% of all retail transactions in Iceland are already non-cash. And then you have other Nordic, you know, Norway is up at the sort of 70% level.

To clarify, this includes all cashless transactions not just the digital cash as it is being talked about in the interview. So, debit and credit card as well as chips. Iceland, Norway and the other Nordic countries have large middle classes and the proportion of the very rich and very poor are relatively low. 21.5% of Canadians and 25.8% of Americans are considered poor or near-poor compared to 14% of Norwegians. These figures are from 2004 so it’s probably that the percentages would be higher now for Canada and the U.S. but I’m not sure about Norway (Source LIS Data Centre). I guess my point is that I worry that the large numbers of people in North America who are poor or struggling financially will not be able to afford to keep up with the technology required to operate in a digital cash world.

[11:00] I think in the medium term you’re more likely to see a sort of digital divide opening up where, you know, middle class persons such as you and I will never see cash again and couldn’t care less about it. We’ll use our mobile phones by and large to buy and sell most things. And, you know, some people will want to hang onto cash, drug dealers possibly, prostitutes, that kind of thing and there’ll be a kind of … polite society won’t use it but other people will.

This is exactly my concern. That people who are already marginalized will be pushed even further down. I don’t have a smart phone (hell, I don’t even have a cell phone), a tablet or any of those other toys that are beyond my means right now. I could have them but I would either have to go into debt to get them or chose them over other things. And I’m no where near true poverty. What about all the people who are? Screw ’em? They’re probably just drug dealers and prostitutes anyway?

This is not an anti-digital cash rant. I’m not a luddite. I like technology and think the internet is a freakin’ amazing invention. I often find myself in situations where a cell phone would come in handy and I have to talk myself out of wanting one. Just wish this program had talked about some of the social issues beyond privacy.

And speaking of technology…

I’m a couple years younger than Louis C.K., which is probably why I relate to this video so much. Including it just because it’s funny and quite frankly this post has been a bit of a downer.