Thursday, February 26, 2009

The New Collection-Based Economy

How bad will it get?

One of the scariest examples of the world economic melt-down is the experience of Iceland. Yes, the tiny but proud country with the Björk-based economy likely did themselves no favours relying on the quirky but prolific pixie-like recording artist for over 45% of their GNP.

(I know that's true cuz I saw it somewhere in an Onion article once...)

All kidding aside, Iceland's real problem was that their banks' finances were way too heavily beholden to the Bullshit Bush financial model, where carefully concealed Bullshit is repackaged to become the investment option of choice for organizations worldwide.

It wasn't Björk's fault the Icelandic banks found themselves holding six times as much debt as real capital to cover it late last year.

The relative health of Canadian financial institutions should be a source of comfort for those of us lucky enough to live here, right? Well, not entirely:

Lost in Traslation?
Apart from the obvious need for political cover, I really don't see the point in Quebec Premier Jean Charest's decision yesterday to haul the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec onto the carpet after suffering its worst year on record.
"As with all other investors, the first element that explains our return this year is the global financial crisis that broke out in the fourth quarter," said Caisse president and CEO Fernand Perreault.

However, he said the fund's decision to delve heavily into asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP)also cost it dearly. The Caisse invested $12.6 billion in the form of short-term debt, making it the largest holder in Canada.

With the market for the debt frozen, ABCP accounted for $4 billion of the Caisse 's total losses in 2008.

Perreault now admits investing so heavily in ABCP was a bad idea.

"In hindsight, we placed too much confidence in these securities …. It was a mistake to accumulate so much ABCP," said Perreault.

"We mistakenly believed that these products were as safe, or almost as safe, as other money market instruments."
Of course, the decision to go so heavily into asset-backed commercial paper can be easily explained by the usual Quebec excuse of the unfair language barrier sticking a knife in our backs. (Mais Jean, c'n'est pas juste! We thought they said "acid-backed paper". We thought it had industrial applications, hôtie...)
[Note to Icelandic bankers looking for some kind of excuse: you're welcome, and don't worry, we won't bill you.]

What knee-jerk Quebec media don't understand is that mammoth funds like the Caisse handles are too big not to be a reflection of the underlying economy on the whole. Yes, Quebec lost 25% of the supposed value of its nationalized pension fund (if you choose the highest benchmark as your relational point), but what else did we expect? Of course the fund managers did the same things as their counterparts worldwide who were using paradigms for risk that assumed triple-a securities were rated accordingly.

From there, the need to get in the game and follow the other lemmings takes over naturally. If everyone else is doing it, it must be okay, right? Over the cliff with us!*

The Bush Trickle-down Bullshit Model
Not if the "assets" on the backs of all that paper amount to utter Bullshit.

It all boils down to the Bullshit right-wing deregulation of the financial markets in the United States. The United States under their Bullshit President and their Bullshit Republican-controlled Congress became a bastion of utter Bullshit generally. And if the right-wing "trickle-down" concept applies to anything, then surely it applies to Bullshit (especially when coupled with governmental leadership).

Because as Bullshit ruled the White House, so did Bullshit rule the way American financial markets were run.

As did it rule the way American companies were run.

Right down to American household economies, where buying a house with nothing down and a 40-year amortization on a mortgage with no principal paid-down in the first few years became common-place. And then, they get a new flat-screen TV and cable and end up watching home renovation shows where the illusion is propagated that 22 minutes later you've got a beautiful, modern kitchen gleaming in the morning sunlight. Add some happily-scrubbed children's faces, munching on microwaved pizza pops and you're in the Promised Land.

So it becomes normal to not just over-leverage your household income, but to dream about over-leveraging it even more (like all the other lemmings in your neighbourhood), and go to that beautiful church-like Home Reno warehouse store and get a Home Reno Platinum Card (fine print showing 28.75% interest, compounded daily, subject to change at the issuer's discretion), and spend, spend, spend to make your own home the temple You Deserve since you don't have any other spirituality to cling to and make sense of your daily existence.

That's what it meant to be a good little consumer in the consumer-driven economy of the Bullshit George W. Bush America.

Dead Stop
And what are we left with? A world where the Bullshit has trickled down world-wide. Hence Iceland. Hence pension funds exposed to have little real value. Hence world-wide panic that filters down to a financial and economic dead stop.

No one is paying anyone for anything unless they absolutely have to. So the new economy is a collection-based economy. At least that is how it appears when I look in my email inbox, where I see the hard-working little application at has sent me links to the day's new job postings - and more and more of them are related to people trying to lean on other people to pony-up (three out of four today):
Your Job Search Results
We’ve found new jobs that fit what you’re looking for! Click the links below to find out more.

Bilingual Customer Service Rep- English/French Required (2/25/2009)

Collection administrator bilingual - (english and french) (2/25/2009)

HSBC Finance
Collector (2/25/2009)

HSBC Finance
Collector (2/25/2009)
Please, World, Scare me Some More
Meanwhile, with the unknown effects of what's looking more and more like runaway global warming, will all this seem quaintly anti-climactic a generation from now?
Antarctic glaciers are melting faster than previously thought, which could lead to an unprecedented rise in sea levels, scientists said Wednesday.
The warming of western Antarctica is a real concern. "There's some people who fear that this is the first signs of an incipient collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet," said Colin Summerhayes, executive director of the Britain-based Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

Sea levels will rise faster than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summerhayes said.

An IPCC panel in 2007 predicted warmer temperatures could raise sea levels by 76 centimetres to 120 centimetres this century, which could flood low-lying areas and force millions to flee.

"If the west Antarctica sheet collapses, then we're looking at a sea level rise of between one metre and 1.5 metres," Summerhayes said.

Researchers found that the southern ocean around Antarctica has warmed about 0.36 F in the past decade, double the average warming of the rest of the Earth's oceans over the past 30 years, he said.

Obama doesn't have a monopoly on change. A complete shake-up of society is upon us.

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*Turns out the meme of lemmings mindlessly running over a cliff to their deaths is another piece of US-propogated bullshit - this one exposed long ago by the Canadian CBC. The staged lemming "mass suicide" part comes just over a third of the way in.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Peevey Stevie's ungratiousness not befitting a Canadian

With US President Barack Obama going so far out of his way to publicly thank Canada today for the contribution in effort, monies and blood (he even mentioned our 108 dead in the Afghanistan conflict), would it have been so much trouble for our Prime Minister to say, "You're welcome, Mr. President"?

Canadians used to be known for having good manners. I'm also not impressed with Harper for again playing down the difference between Obama's proposal of meeting absolute greenhouse gas emission targets, and his own government's history of doing virtually nothing and of undermining worldwide efforts to take decisive action on the issue.

Job Hunt: The Craigslist Test

Recapping my situation:

I got laid-off from my job late last month.

Right now, I am still at least five weeks away from my first potential EI check (of unknown quantity) and have gone unpaid from my former job since mid-January, including my severance pay owed. I have every faith in them paying me once they have the cash on hand to do so, but I am not sure when I can count on seeing it.

I know I must resume bringing home the bacon pretty soon or there will be payments defaulted upon, and the dread fear of foreclosure.

Last week, I started aggressively seeking work in my field by creating profiles on job-hunting and job-recruiting sites over the past two weeks.

Earlier today, I noticed a office in my neighbourhood, so I dropped by and explained that I am an out-of-work copywriter/tech writer/journalist and what might they have for someone with my skills? Unfortunately, they are more like office clerk/secretary/administrator recruiters. I was told they couldn't help me.

I came back home to review the jobs posted on the four sites above, only to find nothing new in the past 24 hours. I did apply at one place on Monday, but have not heard back yet. I would have responded to other job postings but they either sought skills I lack, or were out of my sphere. The one job that matched me well enough to apply for looks like a lot of sweat, and comes at a 25% (or more) pay cut from my previous job. But I can see myself taking that job enthusiastically.

With no other good news, today I went on and did four things:

1. Searched for posts of people wanting anything I can viably offer.
2. Posted my resume.
3. Posted a notice for my mandolin/guitar services.
4. Posted an ad to finally sell all those comic books taking up space in my apartment.

This is serious stuff. I am not yet at the end of my rope, but I sure can see it clearly from here.

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UPDATE: Portions of the original post have been removed to respect the wishes of the person they made mention of.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Fun with filling out Employment reports for EI claim

It still irks me how clumsy the Service Canada website is. I find it disappointing that you have to drill down through much silliness to find a link to any useful destination, such as the page I must return to every two weeks to enter mandatory EI reports.

You would think they might offer a quick login function for "epass" right on their homepage, but no. Same for the reporting page for your EI. It's almost as if it was purposely designed to deter you from providing the information you absolutely must provide in order to keep the government from pulling the plug on your money. Are they hoping people will haplessly screw up so they can use that as an excuse to cut them off? I sure hope not, and I don't want that to be my fate, so I am putting up a link here to that bi-weekly EI reporting page.

Also, they didn't design it with the kind of intelligence you might expect. Instead of hanging onto my info (SIN and Access Code, etc.) for the duration of the session, the user has to go and enter it over again for each period reported, then double-confirm various questions separately. Honestly, does the application really think my banking information for direct deposit has changed in the minute or two since I just told them it hadn't changed (including verifying that I knew that I told them it hadn't, and that it was correct)?

Anyway, I have now updated the past three weeks of info since I made my initial application, including the first two weeks with the regular pay my former employer will pay me (when they can, anyway... someday... hopefully...) That and the week ending today with no work entered.

One of the questions one must answer is a yes or no regarding whether you were physically capable of working such and such days of the past week that you just confirmed you did not work. The only thing missing is a built-in admonishment like: "Well what in hell is wrong with you then? You mean you couldn't work anywhere all last week? Anywhere at all?"

Finally, it told me I should return on Feb. 28 to fill in my next report. Looks like I'm all set because when I try to send in a new report it gives me the following message:
Your report is not yet due. Our records show that the period you should be reporting for is the 2 week period from february 15, 2009 to february 28, 2009. The earliest this report can be filed is friday morning, february 27, 2009 at 08:00 eastern time
Note that I am not given access to review my own records entered for the previous weeks. Why not? That's just wrong.


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Canada's EI - the staff are great but the process bites

Well I'm evidently not the only one left confused by the Service Canada website's process for registering Employment Insurance claims. Another blogger, the Rural Canadian, has had a pretty tough go of it himself, with no action on his claim after 16 weeks - 16 weeks! - of fruitless effort.

That's enough time for any number of financial horrors to befall a family. I know I couldn't hold out that long.

So, no time to waste: I went down to my local EI office yesterday afternoon, and I found it was staffed with courteous, bilingual people and my visit took just 20 minutes altogether, including wait time. The reason for making the trip was simply to produce the RoE (Record of Employment), and since I'd already entered the other info online, the only thing left to do was to stamp my RoE with the date it was received. They then offered to give me a photocopy - which I gladly took since it was the only type of receipt available.

The agent then mentioned the importance of going online or calling in with an update bi-weekly, and how by missing just one, my benefits would be cut-off. So this process begins immediately, and that's the part you have to go through the "epass" login to do. (I swear I could sense she was bracing herself for my reaction to this news, like it was her least favourite part of her job. But I just nodded, having already seen that warning on the website.)

I suppose some people lay into the poor Service Canada employees who are helplessly forced to explain this nasty little policy.

I was also told not to worry about the erroneous End Date I'd initially reported, which I had been forced to enter in order to finish the original application (three weeks ago now). I am not able to correct it myself, they said, and someone in Service Canada would see the true date on my RoE and make the necessary correction.

In retrospect, I notice the webpage for my local office has a fax number listed, so I wonder if making the trip in person was in fact obligatory. Perhaps faxing in the RoE would suffice, but I feel better having a copy that shows a stamp confirming they got it.

I just want to say once again how professional and empathetic the two staff members were (and the woman from the phone centre too). It was truly heartening to be made to feel like a human being, and the understanding they showed reminded me of the sort of feeling you get when you're in the hospital and scared and in pain and - by some stroke of luck - you just happen to get that sympathetic nurse who knows exactly what the term "caregiver" is all about. In short, I left feeling like I knew what I had to do, and the visit was well worthwhile.

Oh, and this was toward the end of the day on a Friday, during what must be the busiest time they have ever seen. Well done, Service Canada employees. I salute you. Now can somebody please tell me why the website is such a terrible mess? And get to work on Rural Canadian's claim, which by all rights should get fast-tracked like nothing else.

16 weeks. I'm still having a hard time digesting that.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

EI frustrations partially explained

Well, about an hour ago, I finally got through to a Service Canada calling queue, and only waited a couple of minutes before speaking with an agent. (Recall that before today, their 1-800 number's outgoing message had been telling me they were too busy to handle my call, and I should try later.)

I found the maze of back & forth using their touch-tone response system was not very productive for my purposes. "All questions must be answered and no response may be entered until the full question is asked. Press 9 for 'no' and 1 for 'yes'. Press * to hear the question again..."

But the woman I finally spoke to was fantastic, helpful and on-the-ball.

She knew about the feature that restricts applicants from going back in and changing the End Date of their employment (or anything else for that matter), and was the first to mention the following bit of information, which I found to be pretty crucial to the whole process:

I have to personally visit my local Service Canada Centre, Record of Employment in hand, during business hours in order to get the ball rolling. And here I had assumed (because there is nothing on their website saying as such, nor in the letter they mailed to me) that I could enter the information online, thus saving a federal employee from carrying out this task manually.

Well, it's too late for me to get there today, but at least I know tomorrow what and how to do, and where to do it.

On the job hunt front, I put my new Resume onto profiles I created on Quantum, Workopolis and Monster, and now it's time to browse their job postings.

To date: Since being laid off, I have six new accounts with usernames and passwords to keep track of, and some that include "challenging questions" (I expect a huge increase in spam). It is indeed an ITIL-defined world after all. Surely someone out there needs a guy who can concoct or update documentation for all these labyrinthine virtual worlds.

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On Resume rewriting and applying for EI

Why does it seem everyone has an opinion on how to write an effective resume (or whether to call it a "CV" instead?) All sorts of opinions sound valid - even when in direct conflict with one other.

In the end, you're playing a fool's game where you try desperately to hit the right tone with every word, so that any recruiter would be inspired to call you for an interview. Will they be offended if I include salary expectations? Did I strike the right balance between confidence and humility? Or do I come off sounding like I'm sickeningly infatuated with myself? Do I mention this blog or will that turn them off? Is it flat-out wrong to go to two-pages? Or to only have one? Does it really matter?


Worst of all, the presentation and writing on display are particularly crucial for someone going after jobs with "writer" in their titles. That's pressure, because the use of one font or another might be all it takes to dissuade certain recruiters from getting that warm-fuzzy they need to decide to contact you. But then, do I really want to work for someone that hair-splittingly fickle?

[pauses to breathe...]

I have resigned myself to never being completely happy with the damn thing, but at least I now have a basic one that I'm comfortable with. It's designed so I can tweak it a little here or there to meet the specific criteria of one job or another - hopefully without stretching credulity. In a somewhat bold move, I decided to give the thing a headline and an opening summary:

Copywriter with a head for IT and a gift for writing

I offer a unique mix of experience, skill and creativity that enables me to envision the hands-on application of complex technical concepts, then communicate that effectively to both the IT community and the general public. Whether defining ITIL-informed process structure and documentation; writing copy for marketing or technical documentation needs; or journalism of any sort, I am a versatile copywriter looking for an exciting new challenge with the right organization.

Besides that, I just plain really need a Goddamn Job:
Now to get it proof-read by friends & family; then post the long version on Monster, Quantum, Jobboom, Workopolis and any other sites I can find. Then finally: off to a more active job searching.

Meanwhile, I still haven't managed to finalize my EI application, although I did learn there is Access Management in place on Service Canada' site after all: "Epass Canada" they call it. But it's confusing because when I made my initial online application, it gave me a confirmation number and password outside of that (and with no link or explanation of where to use it - plus no mention of either of those things in the letter they sent by snail-mail). It all seems rather disjointed and if it's putting my skills at navigating online services to the test, how difficult is it for the typical non-savvy IT user to get their heads around?

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Red Tape Me to the Poor House, Service Canada (virtual-like)

Well, I finally navigated through four pages on to get to a login page (to save you the trouble, it's here). Not that that will be of much help to anyone who is careful enough to use an updated browser for their own personal computing security. Here is the text of the bypass page I was redirected to:

At this time, epass Canada does not officially support your browser, your Java Virtual Machine (JVM) or your operating system. However, you may still be able to access epass Enabled Services by clicking Continue below.

If you encounter difficulties, please Contact Us for assistance.

Browsers and operating systems currently supported by epass Canada:

Windows 2000:

* Internet Explorer 6.0 (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_12 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_03 or higher; IBM JVM version 1.4.2 or 1.5.0);
* Firefox or higher (version 3.x is not supported at this time) (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_04 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_03 or higher).

Windows XP Home and Windows XP Professional:

* Internet Explorer 6.0 (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_12 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_03 or higher; IBM JVM version 1.4.2 or 1.5.0);
* Internet Explorer 7.0 (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_12 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_03 or higher; IBM JVM version 1.4.2 or 1.5.0);
* Firefox or higher (version 3.x is not supported at this time) (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_04 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_03 or higher).

Windows Vista:

* Internet Explorer 7.0 (Sun JVM version 1.6.0_03 or higher);
* Firefox or higher (version 3.x is not supported at this time) (Sun JVM version 1.6.0_03 or higher).

Mac OS X version 10.4:

* Safari 2.0.4 (Apple JVM versions 1.4.2_07 to 1.4.2_16 and 1.5.0_05 or higher);
* Safari 3.0.4 (Apple JVM versions 1.4.2_07 to 1.4.2_16 and 1.5.0_05 or higher).

Mac OS X version 10.5:

* Safari 3.0.4 (Apple JVM versions 1.4.2_16 and 1.5.0_13 or higher).

Linux (Red Hat Fedora Core 8 and Ubuntu 7.10):

* Firefox or higher (version 3.x is not supported at this time) (Sun JVM versions 1.5.0_04 to 1.5.0_99 and 1.6.0_02 or higher).

For more information about supported browsers, operating systems and JVMs please refer to our Technology frequently asked questions.

Please click Continue to proceed or click Cancel to end this process and return to the department.
Interestingly, I am using the same version of the same browser (Firefox 3.0.6) that I used two weeks ago with no problem at all in creating my original request.


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Copywriter/Editor/ITIL-knowledgable Process Designer for hire

Well, there's no more hiding it - the word is out (thanks, Simon!). Scott in Montreal got laid off and is seeking gainful employment in his field.

In a previous millennium, that field was Quick Service Restaurant Management (what, "fast-food" doesn't sound prestigious enough?)

But surely returning to that isn't the fate for someone with a BA in Communications and Journalism; plus over six years of experience writing marketing, technical and process documentation for different high-tech companies working in IT support activities.

At least that is my hope.

My first priority is getting the EI benefits set up so that if I don't find something soon, my kids don't find themselves foreclosed upon. As someone who has been actively working since he got his first paper route at 13, and has been without a job for less than 6 months cumulatively in the 26 years since, let me start by saying I have never, ever, received any government handouts (unless you include universal child bonuses and child tax credits). I have worked my whole life, and a good deal of it for minimum wage or slightly above. Even when I got my first McDonald's paycheck ($3.54 an hour, back in 1985) I was paying into the UI/EI fund.

Given that my former employer has seen all its usual avenues for financing dry up completely, and they can't even make payroll right now - despite having just had the biggest selling year in their company history - they have only promised the bare minimum required by law in severance pay. At that, they even demanded I come in and work during that two week period. So the upshot is: I haven't received any income since mid January, and only received my Record of Employment, required by the Canadian government to process my application for benefits, yesterday.

Being a hip, online type of guy, I decided to start by setting up an account and application on the Service Canada website on the day I received my layoff notice (I and 25% of the staff of the small Montreal head office, where my whole department was slashed). The website even recommended beginning the process immediately, whether the RoE was in hand or not, so that's what I did.

Before long, I found the form and started filling it out. Then I got to the place where it asks for the End Date of my employment (which was to be, officially, February 6th). Only: the application wouldn't accept my entry since it was later than the current day. Well I'd gotten this far and there was no overriding it so I decided the best way to proceed was to enter the current date, and then I would go back and correct it two weeks later, once the actual End Date came up.

Well, ITIL best practices for online service delivery demand an email notification and Access Management in the form of a username and password - the standard sort of thing Yahoo or Google or most utilities and online banking use for security, validation and service customization/quality of service.

Nothing like that over at Service Canada. As far as I can tell, they have their own proprietary practices, and I'm sorry, but they ain't the best.

Since putting in my request, I have been unable to retrieve it in any form; I wasn't allowed to print or save a copy, nor was I sent an email to tell me (or allow me to verify) my access credentials, or any link to where I might even view and edit it.

I did get a form letter in my (snail-) mailbox the following week, with an "IMPORTANT PERSONAL ACCESS CODE" (four digits) but no specific link on their website to actually, you know, enter my Access Code on, and, you know, actually access my application or anything.

They did include a 1-800 number, good during business hours and evenings. This proved to be useful after I was unable to navigate on their site back to my application, nor to any login button or place I could enter my spiffy four-digit "Access Code".

However, all three times I have tried to use the 1-800 number, I received a message telling me all their lines were busy and informing me to try again later. I wasn't even given an option to wait in a queue for the next available agent. Yikes.

I guess this is all part of making sure we don't lallygag about while living luxuriously off the public teat.

I'll post more on my experience soon. Right now I'm going to try the online service again and see if I didn't miss something the first 300 times.

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