Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trolls and thugs

Let's hear it for The Register, which for the second time this week is feeding me material on how evil the Internet is. And this time, it's proper Research.

The latest piece, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows a significant positive correlation between teenagers who make heavy use of the Internet, and those who show violent and aggressive behaviour in real life.

Now, anyone who's been online for more than half an hour must surely have noticed that there's a high proportion of jerks, and I've seen a great many explanations of this advanced over the years. Maybe it's harder to avoid such people online; maybe the anonymity of the 'net makes people more confident and less considerate; maybe it's because we're not accustomed to mixing with so many teenagers; maybe it's a small proportion of users making a large volume of noise; maybe it's simply the shared culture of a "place" with a population historically weighted towards adolescent males.

But this research suggests - although all of those things may still be true - it's not just a perception. There really is a higher concentration of yobs out here in cyberspace.

Media coverage of the finding is fairly clearly divided into two camps. In the blue corner, we have those such as FOX News, who have no reservations about citing the study as evidence that the Internet is turning our teens into sociopathic thugs. In the red corner, the likes of El Reg argue that causality could work the other way - it's possible that thuggish kids are simply more drawn to spend excessive amounts of time online. (To do it justice, FOX does acknowledge that possibility - but it's buried half-way down the story, while the opposite explanation is in the headline.)

Intuitively, to me, the second explanation looks likelier. Show a bully a medium in which they can inflict fear and offence with minimal risk, and my bet is they'll gravitate to it like the British government to a database. It'll fascinate them, seeing how much they can do, what they can get away with, until some idiot leaves it on a train...

The original paper preserves a studied neutrality on this point. But it does suggest that "preventive programs for aggressive behaviors should pay attention to Internet addiction among adolescents." Which just goes to show, it is possible to convert science into policy recommendations without, necessarily, getting into a shouting match about it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Naked communism

There's a story in this week's Economist about the Chinese government trying to stimulate demand by getting its rural peasants to buy consumer electronics. It's not working very well, partly because it's the Chinese government doing it (who couldn't organise a piss-up in a sake distillery), and partly because this is The Economist, where a socialist initiative can't, ever, really work. But what can't be denied is that tens of thousands of households are getting their first TVs ever.

Amid the "sky is falling", apocalyptic analyses of the coming Fairly Great Depression, one thought keeps occurring to me: all - yes, all - of this doom-mongering is coming from a very narrow sector of humanity. Specifically, rich people.

Look at it this way. If we're to be thrown out of our homes and begging on the streets, then who exactly is going to be living in our houses? If we're all to be starving, then who specifically is going to be eating that food that the farmers are still producing, because let's face it, what else are they going to do with their land? If we're all to be poor, then who's going to be using this computer that I'm typing on now, or the iPod in my pocket? Are all these things going to lie about unused, simply because everyone has 50% less money?

Are they hell.

No, what's going on is a redistribution of wealth - away from (some) rich people, towards (some) poorer people. (And towards other rich people, of course, who have - as always - deftly cut themselves in on the deal.) And the complaints, loud as they are, are coming from people who are the losers in this transaction.

To be sure there'll be less production for a time, particularly of luxury goods like the aforementioned iPod. But there will still be a lot of goods in the world. Houses aren't going anywhere. Food production isn't drying up. I don't know what's in your wardrobe, but I'm reasonably confident that the clothes in mine today will keep me from nakedness for the next couple of years at least, even if they're not quite the cutting edge of fashion.

It is, of course, a messy system. Many really poor people are suffering even more than they normally do; and many of those losing out think themselves poor, being guilty of nothing worse than judging themselves by the standards of their peers and neighbours. It's happening that way because we, the modestly rich, have spent the last 50 years fighting tooth and claw against the shift happening gradually - thus making it inevitable that it should happen suddenly. (And now we're fighting to slow it down - that's what the huge government deficits in Western countries amount to. They don't make the countries any richer, but they do space the pain out over several years, rather than applying it all at once.)

But on the whole, on average, we are witnessing a net shift in wealth away from the rich and towards the poor. That's what happens when prices drop.

As in any uneven transaction, the losers complain much louder than the winners. And the rich have a louder voice anyway. Which is why the media is screaming economic armageddon, and why I'm not going to be invited onto any chat shows to talk about my theory.

Yes, there will be a lot of unemployed people. That's bad because unemployed people are less productive, their skills deteriorate, and they tend to be more isolated, with all the physical and mental health consequences of that lifestyle. But there's still about as much food, just as many houses, in the world as there was last year. So if more people are starving and begging in the streets, it's because we've chosen to put them there.

Why would we choose to do that?

Well, historically, it's because we love wealth. Specifically, we love what Galbraith called the chimera of "wealth without work" - the idea that someday we'll be rich ourselves. And while most of us keep our aspirations modest - we hope to retire sometime in our 60s, and live the remainder of our lives in reasonable quiet - a large minority want better. They want to retire earlier, be richer, live higher and faster and longer.

Most of us fall for this illusion at some point in our lives. My sister-in-law, Sarah, is a fine example. She has no ideas that amount to creating much wealth, but she aims to buy houses and live off the rents - an all-too-common dream here in New Zealand. And of course, that's a dream that can only work if a majority of people are willing to pay their rents. That is to say, they're too poor to buy their own homes (because house prices are astronomical), and too cowed to not pay, or to complain too loudly about the condition of their housing (because living in a slum is better than living nowhere).

And it's that mass hallucination, that dream of wealth without work, that has brought us to our present pass - as it did in 1929, and will do so time and again until we admit that we have already beaten scarcity - in the Western world at least, there is plenty to go around - if only we can bring ourselves to share it fairly.

There are three ways we could emerge from this - let's call it a "downturn".

One, the usual answer through recent recessions, is business as usual. Let the misery fall where it may, most of us will be okay, and eventually the economy will be back to what we've been trained to think of as "normal", and we can get back to our private dreams of wealth.

Two, we could - as we did in the 1930s - redefine the bottom of our economic scale to make poverty less terrible. The Great Depression gave us the idea of the "welfare state" - the notion that the state should guarantee a minimum level of welfare for its people. In the long term that configuration proved to be unstable - as generations went by people grew greedier, and increasingly resented "paying for others" to enjoy things, such as health care, that they wanted for themselves. But even so, it gave us an impressive 79 years between critical economic collapses.

Three, we could stop pussyfooting about socialism and embrace it properly. We could accept that there's no shortcut to retirement. We could accept that we're not going to inherit or save much wealth from anywhere. We could agree that "rich" is a four-letter word, that ambition is a bad master, that enough is enough.

But I don't think we're ready for that yet. Maybe next time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

How the Internet will kill you

Spending too much time online, apparently, causes high blood pressure. Also heart disease, cancer, dementia, sleep deprivation, diabetes, and Dr House's favourite: lupus.

This story comes to us from Biologist, the strictly non-sensationalist journal of the British Institute of Biology, via El Reg. I'm torn, for a response, between "you're making it up as you go along" and "well, duh."

I think this conflict arises from the outrageously wide remit of the paper. It's as if the author were briefed to look at all the studies linking health effects to either online behaviour or social interaction of any sort, to find all the possible biological connections between "getting ill" and "spending too much time typing away at a lonely screen", and then write a paragraph on each one. There's no coherence to it.

In fact it looks very like dozens of articles I published in my time on a similar journal, although of course "social networking" hadn't been invented then. (And in justice to myself: if they were this bad, I'd generally send them back to the author and tell him to try again. I was a better editor than this.)

In short: the part I can both understand and believe says that (a) if you spend a lot of your time and energy "socialising" online, you don't spend as much time and energy meeting people physically; and (b) spending time physically with other people, preferably in groups, is important for health.

This much seems (to me) obvious. What's not so obvious is the detailed process by which loneliness translates into illness. The paper touches on the usual culprits - stress, depression, lack of confidants, and so forth - but also covers a wide range of biological mechanisms. Sadly, it doesn't provide enough information on any of these for me to understand what it's talking about.

Take the discussion of leucocytes and cytokines, for instance. Citing "Recent research at the UCLA School of Medicine", it seems to be saying that social interaction increases the efficiency of our immune systems. In other words, not only do we share germs with other people, but also immunities to germs that they've previously been exposed to. To me that seems far-fetched, but I don't know enough to argue it either way.

"Regular religious group participation", it says intriguingly but uninformatively, "is a significant predictor of elevated IL-6 [interleukin-6] levels and lower subsequent 12-year mortality." So there you go. It's not the power of prayer, it's the power of churchgoing; it doesn't matter what god you worship, so long as you do it with others.

What makes this paper frustrating, for me, is the shopping-list feel. The authors make no attempt to conceal the fact that they started out from what (you might think) should have been their conclusion - that online life increases physical isolation, which is bad - and gathered evidence only in support of that belief. They make no attempt to develop arguments from one point to another, nor to explore alternative explanations of any of their "findings", nor to explore the full implications of what they did find, or otherwise present any kind of balanced picture. So although I'm inclined to believe that they're probably right, for limited values of "right", I'm left frustrated and dissatisfied.

And now, instead of heading down to the pub to bore the earlobes off some poor sap in real life, I'm blogging about it. That'll show 'em.

House hunting, week (enough)

We're getting better at house hunting. I mean, we haven't yet reached the point where we can go to the right place and sit in a hide and the perfect house just comes up and eats grains out of our hands, but we've definitely improved from our early lumbering attempts to chase them down across the open savannah. Of the seven places we saw this weekend, three are quite livable, and one of those is (probably) surprisingly cheap.

But we still make mistakes.

One place we almost missed, on Sunday, by not double-checking the address. Two open homes at the same time within ten houses of each other - what are the odds? Still, we wasted most of the timeslot looking round the wrong place - an architectural embarrassment crammed into not enough land behind some rustic takeaway shops. Emerging into the sunlight, Susan leafed again through the details we'd printed out. "Did you see a fireplace?", she asked innocently.

Our real objective was a short dash up the road, which we reached just in time to find the agent politely bidding her last visitors farewell. But we were in no mood to take hints. Charging in like a SWAT team, we breezed through the house in three minutes flat. It was worth seeing.

Other highlights:

Nestled on the southern slopes of One Tree Hill is the bustling suburb of Royal Oak. The house on Turama Road is astonishingly ugly, has very little land, and is in urgent need of a new kitchen and bathroom - but surprisingly roomy on the inside, and cheap. Worth considering.

1/87 Te Kawa Road is a pleasant enough house, but as usual some idiot has attached a massive deck covering more than half the garden. What's left is a vertiginous patch of ferocious vegetation that looks like it's stolen from the set of an Indiana Jones movie.

Our second visit to a house we saw last week in the rain. In sunlight, the problems became more obvious - most notably, the fact that the master bedroom faces onto a fairly noisy road. Still, there's such a thing as double glazing.

One place where road noise is not an issue is 305 West Tamaki Road. As we made our way down the rugged driveway, my strong impression was that the cicadas were starting something. Here, the soothing summer accompaniment to lazy days outside was transformed into something more like a civil defence siren. If a tsunami ever does strike this part of the coast, let's hope it happens at night.

The house itself was very pleasant - 1970s construction (I'm guessing), with a few issues around uneven floors, but good sized rooms and garden.

The cicadas followed us all day, right across to the tail end of Mt Eden Road, where the house we'd come to see had conveniently been sold to save us the trouble of looking around it. So thoughtful.

All in all, our hit rate has improved markedly. We chose to call it a successful weekend.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The road to hell is paved with - Cosmo surveys?

Here's one for the gender warriors: men and women - or at least observant Roman Catholic men and women - "sin differently", according to a shiny new report from the Vatican.

It's a bizarre survey, conducted by Fr Roberto Busa, a 95-year-old Jesuit priest, and based on data from an undisclosed (to me, at least) sample of confessions. Apparently, men tend to enjoy lust, gluttony and sloth, while women are more likely to indulge in pride, envy and anger.

Note that the stereotypically macho vice of "wrath" makes the top three for women, but not for men - although without quantitative data we can't really deduce anything about it. "Greed", also called "covetousness" or "avarice", appears to be firmly at the bottom of the pile.

"Sloth" is an interesting sin, and one of my personal favourites. According to one view, it's the inverse of "avarice" - you're unlikely to make much money while sitting about on your backside. On the other hand, what's the point of making money, beyond bare survival needs, if not in anticipation of enjoying some sloth at a later date?

I haven't been able to find if this kind of survey has ever been done before. The Vatican's official theory is that, while environments and circumstances change, basic human nature is constant, so they might argue that these findings would never greatly change. But really I find it hard to believe they'd be that naïve. In harder times, surely avarice would be more popular.

(I do want to know more about Fr Busa's sample. Was it purely local, around Rome, or nationwide, or wider? Was it weighted towards any particular groups, such as religious communities? But I can't find this data. The original publication, in the Vatican's weekly L'Osservatore Romano, doesn't seem to be available online, and none of the summaries I've found goes into that kind of detail.)

Also not mentioned are the "new sins" published last year, listed as "environmental pollution, genetic manipulation, obscene wealth, infliction of poverty, drug trafficking, morally debatable experiments, and violation of the fundamental rights of human nature." I'd love to know how often men and women confess to each of those.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Pulp non-fiction

One of the many things I miss, from home, is freshly squeezed orange juice.

Not, I should explain, juice freshly squeezed from an actual orange. That's way too much like hard work, even without the mess. What I'm talking about is bottles of orange juice untreated in any way - not reconstituted, not pasteurised, sans preservatives or any other ungodly treatment visited upon its natural pulpy goodness. Typically, it has a shelf life of about a week.

It's a universal pick-me-up: a drink whose natural sugar levels give an instant boost, no matter how tired or run-down or hung-over I am, without the inevitable subsequent carb-crash of a soft drink; whose liquid rehydrates my tissues; whose vitamins I can practically feel hunting down and beating into submission all those nasty free radicals unleashed by whatever good times I've had lately.

(I am aware that certain scientists, sponsored by I-know-not-whom-but-I-have-my-suspicions, claim that there is no health benefit to "freshly squeezed" orange juice. Those scientists are idiots, as indeed is anyone who thinks that "benefits" can be measured by lab equipment. They should try drinking it.)

Given that the UK is not exactly famous for its orange groves, the fact that you can get this stuff, year-round, in any decent British supermarket is a testament to their phenomenal logistical abilities. But one quickly gets used to such luxuries.

New Zealand supermarkets, I regret to say, are not in the same league. Sometimes I wonder if they're even playing the same sport.

The "pure squeezed" juice we encounter here, in our weekly shopping, is from two suppliers: McCoy's, a French-owned brand that basically sells soft drinks and reconstituted juice, with "squeezed" juice added to the product line pretty much as an afterthought; and Charlie's [warning: website will screw with your browser window and, if you're not careful, play offensive music at you], a brand whose idea of "honest squeezed orange juice" includes pasteurisation and "added Vitamin C".

Both of these products are a feeble, whispering shadow of the drink I've been hankering for. Compared with the mulish kick of Tesco's or Sainsbury's own brands, they're about as stimulating as a prod with a dry sponge.

So imagine my unbridled joy when, a couple of weeks ago now, I discovered a new brand on the shelves of New World. A brand whose "Best Before" date, instead of months ahead, was less than ten days away. We instantly bought three litres of the stuff.

And imagine my dismay when I read, last weekend, that it's a "limited edition", only available for twelve weeks. Which, by my reckoning, should end in late April.

The best I can hope for is that it'll be such a smash hit, others will see the market niche and move whatever parts of heaven and earth are necessary to fill it. I've been doing my part, putting it away faster than a Pennsylvanian judge. Come May, we'll see if it's been enough.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

So much to rant about

... so little time. Perhaps I should just stop looking at news entirely.

Two judges in Pennsylvania admit to taking bribes to increase the sentences imposed on young offenders. The bribes came from the penal contractors who get paid to keep the kids locked up. To me this suggests that it may be unwise to encourage private industry to make profits from crime. That's a lesson we might try applying to the insurance and security industries.

Amazon bans sales of a ghastly Japanese videogame in which you get to play a sexual predator who kidnaps, tortures and rapes women. Of course Amazon is perfectly right to censor anything it doesn't like, so long as it doesn't try to hide what it's doing. Well done Amazon. The Git Award here goes to British Labour MP Keith Vaz, who pontificated: "It is intolerable that anyone would purchase a game that simulates the criminal offence of rape... I do not see how this can be allowed." (Note the passive voice there: "... can be allowed." Translation: "I don't want to censor anything, perish the thought, but what can I do, I'm driven by an irresistible compulsion...".)

Octuplets' mother's publicists quit after receiving death threats. I don't even know who to be maddest at in this story: the publicist for general spinelessness, the malicious fuckwits who've been sending death threats, the police who show no interest in tracking down said fuckwits and kicking them hard and repeatedly in the stomach, or the mother who hired a freakin' publicist because she had eight babies.

Seriously: where exactly did we go wrong?

Monday, February 16, 2009

I'd rather be listening to Mahler

The worst thing about house hunting is how it takes away one's weekends. Not that we spend that much time actually out and about looking at the damn' things; but there's time researching online, drawing up a shortlist, scheduling, travelling and looking; then there's time discussing afterwards, trying to decide which ones deserve any sort of followup.

This (Monday) morning my phone has been ringing with agents wanting to know what I thought of their property, which to tell the truth I can barely remember. So here, for my own convenience, is my take on this weekend's crop of no-hopers:
  • 3/57 Mariri Road - nice little place, good neighbourhood, but criminally overpriced. The agent was talking loudly (to a roomful of viewers) about a price possibly "in the high $500s".
    Yeah right.
    If she's been fool enough to talk like that to the vendors, they're not going to sell. Not this year, anyway.

  • 11 Esperance Road: very nice - in summer. But I can't rid myself of the thought that, come winter, the huge, all-glass, single-glazed walls are going to be something of a liability.

  • 31 Duke Street: ancient phone kiosk and collection of stolen roadsigns in the front garden. Two bathrooms, no bath. Ensuite with underfloor heating, but no heating in the rest of the house. In short: built by and for a man, with no noticeable input from his wife. Sorry, but sometimes stereotypes just work.

  • 64 Parau St: this one I think the agent put us off by playing obnoxious music on the outside speakers. All Kiwi estate agents are obsessed with "outdoor living". Me, I like to spend time indoors. Guess I'm just a foreigner.

  • 38a Symonds St: this is a lovely house. Good condition, great rooms, excellent storage, a downstairs. It suffers only from two things: too much sun in the kitchen, and greedy developer syndrome (some wanker built three houses on a lot that would've accommodated two just nicely). Taken together, these things are enough to spoil it.

Two other places we saw that we haven't completely ruled out yet - and that's even more of an intrusion on my time. But I'm not very hopeful for either of them.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Kindling controversy

The Authors Guild is alerting its members about the new version of Amazon's Kindle e-book reader, because "Kindle 2" has - get this - the ability to read a book aloud. Apparently it's not yet as good as a human reader, but (says the AG) it's a great step forward from text-to-speech mechanisms of only a few years ago.

I came to this story all ready to lambast the Authors Guild (shouldn't there be an apostrophe in there somewhere?) for trying to cripple technology in the name of soaking more money for its members. But having read its release, I'm almost sympathetic.


The guild believes, or professes to believe, that reading a book aloud, privately, is not and should not be covered by copyright. At the same time, it doesn't want anything to damage the sale of audio books. Its present - "concern", I guess is the nice neutral word - is that Amazon will undermine the market for audio books by marketing e-books as a form that makes the audio book obsolete.

And much as I'd like to say "Suck it up! Products do become obsolete, live with it!" - I'm disarmed by the fact that the Guild is focusing its fears not on consumers, but on Amazon. If the new-generation e-book is going to double as an audio book, it suggests, perhaps authors should be asking for a better cut.

I think I can follow the logic here. How many people buy both a print and an audio version of the same book? I don't know, but my guess would be that most customers buy one or the other, not both. Now, if a single product can do duty for both sets of customers, then we've substantially lowered the costs of production and distribution, with no more than a slight, if any, decrease in the total market.

Of course that means more profit for publishers, and of course the Authors Guild wants its members to get their fair cut of that action.

I can sympathise with the wish to keep a tight rein on Amazon. I applaud the Authors Guild for keeping sight of the fact that the publisher, not the consumer, is the author's natural enemy. I can see why it'd be loth to pass up any opportunity to try to bump up its members' earnings.

But I think its present stance is more likely to have the opposite effect.

If authors stick up for their rights to a better cut if books are to be released on "Kindle 2", that can only lead to one thing: a proprietary, locked-out format that's carefully engineered to be incompatible with Kindle 2, so that publishers can justify not paying the higher rates to any but the best-selling authors. That restriction will fragment the market and frustrate consumers, even further than we already are. And it'll increase the incentives to pirate the work.

It can't be said too often: "the more sense that copyright makes to the consumers of copyright material - or, to put it in economic terms, the greater its economic value or utility to consumers - the more users value copyright material and respect the rights of copyright owners." Not my words - those of Apple, which knows a thing or two about digital publishing.

Authors have never tried to stop people from reading books aloud to one another. Even publishers have not, yet, tried to describe that as "theft". They would be very unwise to start now, merely because the reader may be a machine rather than a person.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Three kinds of stupid

You're probably aware of the "Dunning-Kruger effect", although maybe not by that name. It's the psychological effect that shields us all from the ego-devastating realisation of how incompetent we are. It's why we're all, privately, sure that we'd be good at things we know nothing about, like designing websites or running restaurants.

I discovered this the other day while researching incompetence. It's a diverting piece of research. But it's not the kind of incompetence I wanted to write about. As I might have expected of myself, I successfully researched the wrong thing.

Every comic and wannabe from here to eternity has a stock of lines about how some intelligent, articulate, middle-aged professional spends hours trying to figure out their video/voicemail/laptop/Roomba/toaster, while their six-year-old kid only has to sneeze at it to make it sit up and perform tricks that would, in more enlightened times, have got the little brat burned as a witch and serve them right. But only Scott Adams, to my knowledge, has proposed a complete pseudoscientific theory of this widely-observed effect.

Adams (in one of his books, not available online) posited the idea of an "incompetence threshold" - a measure of our own capacity to be defeated by something that's supposed to be simple. This threshold, he says, rises a little with every year of our lives as the world around us grows more complicated, until we reach the point where we're completely flummoxed by tasks that would've seemed trivial to our pre-teenaged selves. And as each new generation grows up in a more complex world, they redesign tasks on the assumption of more complexity, and the "correct" way to complete these tasks slowly grows ever-more-infuriatingly opaque to older people.

Take recycling, for instance. Today's kids seem to have no difficulty at all with the rule that certain types of plastic - identifiable by the number stamped on the base - go into certain bins, and that's the end of it. But me, I can't stop thinking: "How clean does it need to be? Am I supposed to peel the labels off first? How do I know if the lid is the same plastic as the bottle? Can I put the bottles in a bag? What kind of bag?", and when I actually ask about these, or the myriad other questions that no-one seems to have mentioned, I'm made to feel as if I'm personally responsible for muddying the clarity of the basic message.

And so, more and more often, I find myself guessing the answers and hoping for the best. I'm deeply grateful that, for now at least, my wife handles most of the recycling - but, Adams's theory tells me, it's only a matter of time before she's as out of her depth as I am now.

Adams belongs to the Muntz school of philosophy: "people are acting stupid, ha ha". (Although in fairness, he does say that people aren't, on the whole, really stupid - it's just that, in certain circumstances and from certain perspectives, they appear that way.) Another famous blogger, Joel Spolsky, takes a different angle on the same issue. Spolsky, more constructively, tries to explain what it is that makes people seem so stupid, and how to help them.

Spolsky is in a minority. Laughing at people is always more fun than trying to understand or help them. It is, fortunately for us all, an influential minority - because people who think of incompetence as a problem to be solved, rather than a character flaw to be ridiculed, tend to get things done. In politics, however, it doesn't do so well. "Don't laugh, it's not his fault" is an inherently elitist thing to say.

What started me on this train of thought was my own experience, last week, of trying to comment on Nodressrehearsal's blog. Because my valued friend NDR has disabled "anonymous" comments on her blog, you need to sign in either with a LiveJournal account, or with something called "OpenID", which lots of sites, including Blogspot, support.

Now, I already have more Internet service accounts with more people than I can easily count, and I'd really like to minimise the number of these I create. So I decided to create an "OpenID" account, in the hope that it might also serve for other purposes someday.

And this was the task that defeated me. It seems to me that the powers behind "OpenID" haven't read or understood Spolsky's book. In a distracting environment, with lots of things to do at once, the task of signing in to a LiveJournal site with an OpenID proved to be beyond me.

It was quite a shock to learn that my incompetency threshold has reached the point where I am officially incapable of leaving a comment on NDR's blog, but it's just something I have to live with.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Basic immortality

Y'know, I've always been told that everything and everyone dies in the end. It's part of being alive, the philosophers have assured me cheerfully. It's what gives our existence shape and meaning. It returns us to our rightful state, as part of the world.

And then someone told me about this little bugger.

This tiny jellyfish, instead of dying after spawning like any self-respecting cnidarian, instead reverts to a juvenile, colonial-polyp state and gets to do it all over again. There is, allegedly, no limit to the number of times it can repeat this cycle. According to the Daily Telegraph, these immortal monsters are threatening to take over the entire ocean.

They're only 5mm long, so that doesn't sound all that scary. Still - if science fiction has taught us anything, and personally I think it's taught us practically everything, it's surely taught us how powerful immortality can be. Imagine if one of these things manages to open a bank account.

(A few years ago that would have sounded far-fetched, but given banks' recent performance, I'd have to say it'd be rash to rule out the possibility...)

When we grow old, all we can really do about it is spend lots of money - whether on Porsches or hair transplants or plastic surgery. None of which will really restore us to a polyp state. (Alternatively, we could go on pilgrimage to the Himalayan plateau, to live on yak butter tea and pure enlightenment. But historically, very few people have thought that was a price worth paying, and anyway I understand even Nepal isn't what it used to be in this regard.)

But little ol' Turritopsis nutricula - when it notices a grey tentacle here or there, all it has to do is find a partner and rut its way back to youth. How useful is that?

On second thoughts, though - from my point of view, what it would mean is that whenever my acne cleared up enough to let me get some action, I'd immediately be returned to pepperoni-faced ridicule. I remember my teenage years, and on the whole I'm glad they're behind me.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Playing with power

(Warning: this is a fairly heavyweight post. If you're looking for wit or entertainment, or if you think "economics" is for people who find subjects like "law" and "politics" just too risque, you should probably skip it. I wouldn't blame you a bit.)

This morning, as occasionally happens, my job (don't ask) caused me to look at the Australian electricity market.

The market regulator, you'll be interested to learn, has recently redesigned its website. On its home page, now it shows graphs of electricity demand and spot price, by state, per five-minute interval over the past 24 hours.

There's something irresistible about data like this. Real, live numbers. They're completely public - you can check them out for yourself, if you share my morbid fascination. And clicking idly through the states, I noticed something that struck a chord with me from 15 years ago.

Unless you clicked on the link just now, you won't know what the graphs look like. This is one (click to see detail):

It shows demand (green line) and spot price (red line) for the state of Victoria for the 24 hours up to about 9 a.m. on 10 February. As you'd expect, demand follows a fairly smooth curve, peaking at about 6500 MW in the middle of the day (from around 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.), then dropping off to less than 5000 MW during the night. The price chart is much more spiky, but on the whole it approximates towards the demand curve, with the mid-day price being about two to three times the mid-night price.

(This price, I should explain, is the price at which electricity retailers - the companies that sell power to people like you and me - get to buy the stuff from the grid. It is not, directly, related to the price consumers pay. There are complications, of course - each retailer has its own set of contracts with various suppliers, which will set different rates and times in advance - so in practice the "spot price" only covers a tiny volume of the total trade - but there's always a fraction of their demand that can't be forecast quite accurately, and that's where this price comes in.)

With me so far? Wow, I'm quite - touched. Thank you.

Now for the exciting bit. Here's the graph for Queensland for the same period:

See the price spikes there? That's two times, during the 24 hours, when the spot price quite suddenly shot up from its normal average of around $50-60 per MWh, to around $10,000 per MWh. That's like paying $400 for a carton of milk.

Now, I have a whole argument leading on from this little observation, based on my unique perspective as a former journalist who covered the newly-privatised UK power industry in the early 90s - but I'm thinking that only my most hardcore fans would have the stamina to read it; and so far as I know, none of them have much influence over these things. So it'd pretty much be a waste of all our time. I'll summarise it in bullet-point form:
  • It's not just Australia; this goes on most everywhere. (What makes the Aussies unusual is that they publish the data in this easy-to-digest form. Try getting the equivalent graph for, say, Texas. See how far you get.)
  • There exist some ridiculously complex economic theories about what causes these spikes. (If you know what a "multivariate generalised autoregressive conditional heteroskedasticity model" is, feel free to take a look.)
  • A simpler theory is: "power companies are gaming the system". (Like Enron did, to cause the California power crisis of 2000-01.)
  • Said companies are robbing us, and the only way to stop them is to take away their market.

Now, good free-market idealogues will say: "All that proves, even if it's true - which incidentally you haven't shown - is that the market's not free enough! We need to improve transparency and remove the artificial constraints on trade!" And a few years ago I'd have listened to them.

But now I'm more inclined to think: it's impossible. We'll never make the market "free enough" for the "free-market" theory to work. Utilities - like banks - need much tighter and nastier controls than any mere regulator can provide.

Addendum: Thanks to Adam (see comments) for pointing me at this interesting analysis of the phenomenon - which, I'm amazed to see, confirms my prejudices.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Of night and light and the half light

The Lantern Festival is one of the highlights of our year.

It's an ancient Auckland tradition, passed down from generation to generation since 1999, marking the end of the two-week celebration of the Chinese New Year. A great gathering in Albert Park, full of lantern sculpture, more or less tacky Chinese culture, fireworks, and dodgy Asian foodstuffs. A photo-op for politicians - the prime minister gives a speech and shows off his Mandarin - and a chance for dragon-dancers, martial arts schools and Chinese opera wannabes from all over to grab some limelight for a few minutes. All on a sweltering late-summer night.

Lanterns, balloons, badges, brooches and hideous fridge ornaments take the form of great Chinese cultural icons, such as zodiac animals, dragons, Shou Xing and SpongeBob SquarePants. (Nice to see that the li'l yellow dude has decisively replaced all Disney characters at these events - there was not a duck or a Pooh character to be seen. Take that, Mickey: that's what you get for repressing your fans.)

We left it late, this year - it was dusk before we left home - which meant we missed the daylight events. But the main event - the lanterns - are, of course, seen at their best after dark. Since there is no charge for admission, the crowds are always spectacular, and quite often we found our direction dictated mostly by which way it was physically possible to go. We saw the prime minister, surrounded by dark-suited figures whose purpose seemed to be to shoulder his way through the riff-raff. Perk of the job, I guess.

I love the whole thing. My avatar picture was taken at a festival two or three years ago. Several displays this year would have made for worthy replacements - the ever-popular monkey god, kid riding backwards on a ram, a four-toed dragon pausing in mid-descent, as if to exchange gossip with some random old sage. Sadly, however, my trusty Canon doesn't seem to be entering the spirit of the occasion. Rather than the unimaginative yet honest verisimilitude of earlier times, it prefers to render images as opaque abstracts in dark colours, more like an elderly Whistler than a keen-eyed Rembrandt:

I call this one "Year of the Ox". And to think people say that machines can't do art.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Tips to Kiwi cinema-owners

  1. Popcorn tastes better when it's less than a day old.

  2. Selling tickets is not the same as popcorn and ice-creams. When I'm trying to buy a ticket to a movie that starts in four minutes, I don't want to be in a queue behind six teenagers arguing about which Meal Deal they want.

  3. It is possible to focus the projector. Try doing it at least once a day. Oh, and much as I applaud your equal-opportunities policy, I suggest this particular job be given to someone who isn't blind.

  4. Don't make stupid rules about what I can take into the theatre. If you make me go home to leave my stuff there, I'm not coming back.

  5. A hot dog is a sausage in a bun. It doesn't have to taste good - that's what mustard is for - but it's appropriate to the movie-going experience, and that's what counts. What that porcine abomination on a stick might be I don't know, but keep it away from me.

House buying: third attempt

In sensible countries (read: home), when you want to make an offer for a house, you phone up the agent and tell them, and they phone the vendor and tell them, and the vendor laughs and suggests another figure, the agent calls you back, and nothing gets put in writing until you've agreed on the price.

In New Zealand, nothing will do but you must make the offer in writhing[1] and the vendor countersigns it. This complicates things not a little, because typically you and the vendor are not in the same room.

[1] genuine typo which seemed oddly appropriate.

More, the writhing must be on an appropriate legal form, which is a closely-typed ten-page document with your signatures on page 6 and various other details filled in elsewhere and initialled right up the wazoo. I understand lawyers are comfortable with documents like this, and estate agents love them because of the sense of mystery and intimidation they create, but to most of us they're just annoying.

So it was that we had two visits from an estate agent last night. Not my first choice of house guests. But the cafes were closed, and one must be civil.

It was with a mixture of embarrassment and satisfaction that I noted the spilled takeaway on the floor of the lift as I escorted her up. I don't think it had been eaten before spilling, but it was hard to be sure.

She sat in the least comfortable chair and went, in tedious detail, through the standard contract terms that "the vendors" wanted to change. Personally I don't believe the vendors gave a damn' about these things (mostly, whether five working days was a reasonable time to get a builder's report, or whether we should be allowed seven working days as I'd originally suggested), but she needed something uncontroversial to talk about before getting down to brass tacks. (Negotiating 101: make sure your wedge has a thin end.)

Then she showed us the vendor's counter-offer: $475,000, a piffling $7000 below the original asking price. (Which, the agent assured us, was an extremely reasonable price. Never had a vendor been so earnestly pressed to keep their expectations reasonable, never was a house better priced to sell. She knows some agents like to pad their prices upwards, but she could not countenance such a practice. Incidentally, had she mentioned that the market has almost completely recovered?)

I sat and thought for a long time. Then I decided: time to see if they're serious about selling. In one stroke, I increased our offer from $430k to $450k.

"What's your limit?", asked the agent. Hoping, presumably, I'd forget that her job is to squeeze as much out of me as she can. "Because if I keep running back and forth with these small changes..."

"That's not a small change," I interrupted her.

She backpedalled hastily, muttering some non-apology about the multi-million dollar deals she's apparently accustomed to making, and went off to plague sundry other people, including our vendor.

Two hours later she was back. I brought her up in the same lift, she sat in the same chair and showed us the new offer.

I couldn't find it at first. There was so much writing, crossing out and initialling on the front page of the form that the number was not easy to see. Eventually I tracked it down: $470,000.

"Forget it," I said. "I made a big concession, I was looking for a reasonable movement back from them; if they're not prepared to make that, then we're just not going to reach an agreement."

She remonstrated a little for form's sake, but I think she could see she was wasting her breath. I wondered if she'd tried to talk the vendors into making a bigger concession; if so, presumably she'll be in a better position to pressure them next time. Pretty soon we thanked each other politely for our time, and she saw herself out.

I just hope she got the same lift again on the way down.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Rags to rags

So all the buzz now is about Slumdog Millionaire. I haven't seen it yet, and I'm not entirely sure I want to.

It's always nice to see a non-Hollywood movie getting this kind of hype. It'd be even nicer if the movie itself were a bit less Hollywood in plot. Unregarded lowly schmoe comes into incredible good fortune? Pur-leeze. It's a story that was old when Charles Dickens was cranking it out.

Another way of putting it would be to say that it's an updated version of a timeless classic story. As, let's face it, what isn't? We've all heard the argument that there are only N basic plotlines, where N is anything from three to sixty-something. But the lowly-guy-makes-good story is ancient by anyone's standards. It's embedded very deeply in our culture.

And, I've decided I don't like it there.

Rags-to-riches stories make us feel good. They're inspiring. But they're also oppressive: they preach the value that it's okay for billions of people to live in abject misery, because a vanishingly tiny fraction of them will escape it... and if they can do it, anyone can do it.

And to a point, that's true. Anyone can do it, with sufficient luck. But not everyone can get that lucky. There just aren't enough winning lottery tickets to go round. And for every slumdog millionaire who gets to have a movie made of their life, there are tens of thousands who live and die in the same misery they were born in.
"Stories are not, on the whole, interested in swineherds who remain swineherds, and poor and humble shoemakers whose destiny is to die slightly poorer and much humbler." -- Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad.

I think that's why I like Thomas Hardy. Jude the Obscure is a tale of wasted potential; our hero constantly tries and fails to better himself, living out a life of high drama and deep tragedy without ever making a ripple in the world. That's a hero I can relate to.

But this "rags to riches" myth is endorsing poverty. And it's so unnecessary.