August 20, 2007

Do You Understand Compound Interest?

The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.
--- Albert Einstein
Would you rather get $10,000 today or a penny which doubles in value every day for 30 days?

Phil Harriman, former senator for Maine, asked this question earlier today in Banff.

Most of us would take the $10,000 today but after 30 days, the penny would grow to an astounding $5.4 million. We have trouble estimating exponential growth.

What about the effect of tax on the investment growth? With a tax rate of 35% (US federal and state), the $5.4 million drops to a miniscule $20,300. We have trouble estimating the effect of tax.

"What If"
Static examples are interesting, but what happens if the assumptions change? We can't easily estimate the outcome. Rather than guess, find out using the calculator I created with InstaCalc (a very nifty tool for bloggers and websites).

Deja Vu?
Avid readers with excellent memories may recall my earlier post on compounding, which gave more explanation of the calculations.


August 12, 2007

Rewarding Bad Customers

How strange. A customer returning an item is treated better than a customer buying.

As children grow up, they become more particular about clothing. In this case shoes. The preferred brand was Nike and now Adidas.

The US offers more selection and better prices than Canada. So during our recent trip, shoe shopping was on the agenda. Our son needed a new pair of running shoes. The same style in a larger size. Alas, we could not find what Jeevan wanted. We visit store after store, encouraging him to try different brands and styles. No luck. He could tell what would be comfortable by just looking. Try on the shoes, we implored. He would but would repeat his initial observation. The power of preconceived ideas.

On our way back to Canada, we stop at a multibrand shoe store (MSS). No success. So we head to a Nike store a few doors away and leave with a pair of shoes. Once we're out of the store, our son says he prefers the shoes we saw in the MSS. Choking a child is probably a criminal offense and there are potential witnesses. So we go back to the MSS and there our son finally finds a pair that he likes --- a pair that looks similar to his old shoes. So I head back to Nike to return the shoes bought minutes earlier. Guess what happened?

The Surprise
When you buy shoes, the cashier checks that you have a matching pair. Since our left and right feet are different sizes, we'd be better served if each shoe was a different size but stores don't sell them that way.

The return line was shorter than the two lines for buyers. The rep didn't open the shoe box to see what was inside. I got an instant refund and --- here's the surprise --- a 20% discount on another purchase within the next two hours. This is called ReturnRewards. How strange.

August 6, 2007

Truth and Customs

Your black cards can bring you money
so you hide them when you're able.
In the land of milk and honey
you must put them on the table.
--- Steely Dan, Do It Again
It's the first morning of a long weekend and we've spent 40 minutes stuck in traffic waiting for our turn with US Customs.

"Have you got any food?", we're asked.

We were in the midst of listening to Animal, Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, which makes the point that what much of what we eat isn't worthy of being called food. "No", I answered, not thinking of our snacks and lunch as worthy of mention.

Border guard: "Is that an ice chest?"

Me: "Yes"

BG: "What's in it?"

I describe the contents which are then briefly inspected. Busted. Our passports are held and we're sent for a further inspection. Many other vehicles with Canadian plates were already there.

Detailed Inspection
He walks up to me and the sun begins to shine
Then he walks right past and I know that I've got to get back in the line
--- The Kinks, Get Back In Line
The inspector asks us to get out of our minivan and stand in a designated area. I'm asked to describe what we had and he inspects to confirm. He holds a plastic bag with two tomatoes with the care reserved for stinky diapers. The whole vehicle isn't inspected --- only the ice chest and snack box. Nothing is confiscated. We're spared a $300 fine --- this time.

The inspector eventually returns with our passports and asks: "Why didn't you say you had food when you were asked?"

Me: "I didn't think what we had was worth mentioning." The items were for our consumption en route. As vegetarians, we're particular about what we eat. Quoting Kingsolver hardly seemed wise.

Inspector: "We ask the questions. You answer them." Fair enough. We were not asked to interpret.

He lets us go. The whole process took 20 minutes.

Back To Canada
When we return to Canada a few days later, we're asked the usual questions
  • how long were you gone?
  • what's the value of what you're bringing back?
  • do you have any alcohol or tobacco?
No questions about food.

Lessons for next time
Leave your vittles behind when entering the fast food nation.
I don't think America will have really made it until we have our own salad dressing. Until then we're stuck behind the French, Italians, Russians and Caesarians." — Pat McNelis