Thursday, April 30, 2009
And last night, we nailed it.
It was an auction, which I know as an opportunity for either heartbreak or cutting observation, depending on how much you care about the house. We did care about this one. It's the nicest house we've seen in a couple of months, it's in the right area and the right nominal price range...
It's amazing, the things my mind does to me when it's under pressure.
I made use of all the experience I gained at our first attempt to buy at auction. Set a high limit, as high as you can bear; position yourself at the back, where you can see the other bidders; don't bid first, but when you do get going, don't hesitate.
Setting a high limit was easy. The CV was so comfortably within our range that I couldn't believe bidding would go too high for us. But psychology is a funny thing. As we sat in the packed café, waiting for the auction to begin, I kept thinking about resale value, running costs, opportunity costs - all the reasons why we might be paying too much. Was it worth what we'd agreed? - and could we afford it? - really? - really really? Six percent of 400,000 is 24,000 - plus 20,000 to repay, that's 44,000 in the first year, and then Susan is going to have to get the bus to work, that's not a calculation I want to be doing in my head, certainly not now, but I can't stop myself.
Sitting at the back was all very well, but as the place filled up I realised two things. One was that we'd been trumped by people standing behind the back, out on the street and leaning in through the windows. The other was that with ten rows in front of us, we risked invisibility. But one has to have faith in the auctioneer - it's not in his interest to overlook anyone.
Most of the people are not unlike us - young-ish couples, presumably looking for a place to start a family. Directly in front is a pretty Asian woman in her 20s, wearing jeans so low-slung that they're practically a wardrobe malfunction in progress. I avert my eyes, resolving not to fall for this obviously deliberate distraction. To our right I overhear the agent talking to a mother-daughter team - the daughter a straight-haired blonde woman, animated and pretty, but showing signs of the sun-induced premature aging that characterises most white New Zealanders. So they've got their sights on our house too.
A couple of rows in front is a blond guy whom I stigmatise instantly as a wannabe yuppie. He's sipping white wine, wearing the bottom half of a cheap suit, and has just eaten a cake with whipped cream. His figure suggests that he's slightly too fond of cream with his cakes - a professional man in his 20s should be slimmer than that. On his lap is a folder labelled "Congratulations on your new vehic..".
Through it all we wait quietly, patiently. Susan's body language is defensive, but I consciously adjust mine to be more open, and tell myself that I feel better for it.
Our house is first in the running order. The auctioneer mikes up, introduces himself and runs through the selling points, just in case we've forgotten why we came, then asks for opening bids. I know how this bit goes - no-one wants to open the bidding, everyone sits silently. But not tonight. "Two hundred!", shouts the yuppie in a Chardonnay-fuelled voice.
The auctioneer evidently knows the man - that's probably how the parasite got his money, I reflect bitterly - and accepts the offer with more than good grace. The ice broken, several bidders dive in - I can't see them all, there's a column in the way - but bidding quickly escalates to $360k.
Here the auctioneer develops a mischievous streak, calling "Going once, twice, three times" without a pause. Half a dozen hands shoot up - mine among them, but I don't think he saw it - doesn't matter anyway, bidding is going again.
At $440k there is another pause. Maybe this one's for real. After decently waiting for the third call, I put my hand up. At $450k we drop to $5000 increments. At $460k, my opponent bids $1000; the auctioneer invites me to do likewise, but the hell with that, we'll be here all night, I've got to land a knockout punch. "Sixty-five!", I yell. "Sixty-six!" "Seventy!"
There we stop. I start daring to hope we've finished, but I know we haven't. After a theatrical pause while the agent "consults the vendor", the auctioneer announces that the reserve has been met and the house will be sold.
At which the other bidder tries again - another $1000. It takes until $480,000 to shake the bastard.
But it's done. And finally - for the first time in almost eight months - we can look forward to a settled future. We can spend our weekend doing something we actually want to do.
"So - more open homes this Saturday? Just to gloat?" I suggest jokingly to Susan on the way out.
She seems alarmingly keen on the idea.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
For the benefit of those who, like me until five years ago, have never heard of feijoas: it's a fruit. A small, green, ovoid fruit, in appearance a bit like a lime, but smoother and softer. The flesh is sweet and perfumed and slightly gritty in texture, a little like a fresh fig, or a lot (I'm told) like a guava. It's usually eaten by slicing it in half and scooping the flesh out with a spoon.
I've never seen the things outside New Zealand, although Wikipedia tells me they exist in other places. The fruit has a short shelf life and bruises very easily, which means it's seldom transported any serious distance. But here in Auckland, they're a positive plague. Every second garden has its own feijoa tree/bush, and not surprisingly they all fruit at the same time - which means that even if you personally don't have your own tree, you almost certainly have friends, colleagues and/or family members who do, and who can't possibly eat all that fruit by themselves...
Some enterprising souls set up little roadside stands to sell them. Even the supermarkets get in on the act, for the brief few weeks of the season. Lord knows who buys them, though. Everyone I know has their work cut out just to eat the free ones.
The fruit are so sweet, and so easy to eat, that they're almost universally popular. For about three weeks every autumn, the people of Auckland - most of whom wouldn't normally eat fruit if you dared them to it - actually get within shouting distance of a healthy diet.
Which is just as well, with swine flu breaking out all over.
Monday, April 27, 2009
It's fascinating reading, although slightly dispiriting that I don't get visited nearly as often as I should. But among other things, it lets me see what people were searching Google for when my blog popped up.
An uncommon lot of people - well, half a dozen at least - seem to have been drawn here by the picture included in my unflattering review of Watchmen. I wonder if they were disappointed when they didn't find a full online version of the comic. (If so, tough. I don't support digital piracy.)
Recently there was some poor sap from Miami searching for "the science of karma", and they were apparently so disappointed that they must've complained to Google, because my post of that name currently doesn't show up at all in a search for that phrase.
Then last week there was someone searching for "Mr Darcy is all politeness" (without quotes). I wonder what they were looking for.
I know what they found, though. Apparently, if you Google for a random text from Pride & Prejudice, the number one result you get is the "Google Books" edition of the text.
I don't know if you're familiar with Google Books. It's a stupid idea, the misbegotten offspring of an idiot's compromise between Google and the major publishers whereby Google gets to "publish books" online. By way of throwing a bone to the copyright Gestapo, Google agreed to leave out some pages in these works, the theory being that people should be allowed to search the text online but not able to read it. The choice of pages omitted depends on what you searched for. (It also, I've discovered in the course of researching this, varies from one day to the next. Last week I could page all the way through the book, with some random omissions such as p.145; this week, it's skipping directly from p.60 to the back cover.)
The irony being, of course, that Pride & Prejudice is not a copyright work. Not unless Jane Austen lived to be 200 years old, anyway. Anyone can reproduce this text as many times as they like; rewrite, repackage, adapt, perform, distribute, sell, loan or hire it, or any original work they may derive from it, completely at will. That's how Wordsworth Classics (Google's edition) were entitled to publish it in the first place; for them now to assert copyright over the text is indefensible, and should be illegal if it's not already.
But I digress. My real point here is that no human being in their senses would search for the Google Books edition of this work, because it's fecking useless. Instead, they could look for the Gutenberg version, which is easier to read, easier to search, and complete. And one hundred per cent legal to distribute in every country I know of, unless of course it meets someone's idea of obscenity...
And yet that page doesn't show up at all in the first page of Google results when searching for the text.
Ten years ago, Google became famous for its motto: "Don't be evil". "Evil" was always somewhat nebulously defined, but it was commonly understood as contrasting with Microsoft's standard operating practice of abusing every part of its business to give various (arguably) unfair advantages to every other part, generally at the expense of its own users. But it's hard to see the above Google result in any other light. The top result for the search is the one that's least useful for the user, and most profitable for Google.
Actually that's not quite true. We looked at several other places, but only from the road - or in a couple of cases, the garden - before deciding against them.
There's two ways of looking at our somewhat reduced intensity of hunting. Either the quality of houses for sale has dropped off dramatically, or we've got a lot better at writing off hopeless dumps without even needing to go inside them. Or maybe we're just so jaded that we're willing to write places off on any pretext, even from the most desultory inspection.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
More importantly, Saturday is ANZAC day - the second of New Zealand's annual national days.
Because it falls on a Saturday this year, we don't get a day off for it. Boo. But anyone who imagines I'm dragging my idle backside out of bed at 5 a.m. to go to a dawn remembrance service on a Saturday...
To be fair, that's not something I've done for a couple of years now. Just once, for the experience - and it was quite an experience, solemn and sad and cold, communal and tremendously uplifting. Religious, in fact. More people should do it. I should do it. Maybe in 2011.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
This simple logistical defence has served us well for more than three years, but in the past month or so it's broken down. A small community of tiny fruit flies has, apparently, found the evolutionary niche that is our level of the atmosphere. These things are barely bigger than mosquitoes, but very visible and annoying. No matter how rigorous our food hygiene precautions, every time I look around, there are half a dozen of the little buggers kicking back on the walls, cupboard doors or other surfaces around the apartment.
Weary of spending my evenings stalking them with a rolled-up Property Press, this weekend I invested in a can of Raid. Just a small can. After all, it's a small apartment and these are small flies...
Last time I bought this stuff was in England, and I was at ground level, dealing with much nastier brutes drawn in by the inimitable scent of catfood. Then, the can seemed like a weapon of such evil sorcery that I felt quite guilty about using it. I'd point it in the general direction of the offenders, give a brief squirt, and a baneful haze would spread through the room. Within two minutes, flies would be woozily swatting themselves against the window or simply twitching on the carpet. For a day or more, the whole house would be almost completely insect-free.
But either Raid has changed its formula, or the Kiwi version is chemically engineered to be environmentally benign - because these flies don't seem to be impressed at all. If I get close enough they'll circle away irritably, as if to say "Hey, man, don't muss the antennae!", but for the most part they'll sit there noncholantly and lap it up. Since Sunday I've pretty much emptied the can, and I've yet to see a single fly killed by it.
On the plus side, the spray doesn't have the miasmic chemical stench that I remember from it.
Message to S C Johnson: I like the "odourless" quality. Well done there. But I'm not so keen on the "non-toxic" aspect.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Any week now, we're going to have to break out the winter duvet.
Murphy's Law dictates that this change should coincide with the arrival, in our office complex, of some bastard who gets in before I do and parks in the unmarked space that I've been using for months. Which means I now have to drive on and park on the street, a couple of hundred metres away. Not far, but quite far enough to get pretty damp if the weather wants to make it so.
And then there's the ritual walk back ten minutes later, to make sure I switched the lights off.
I could, of course, try getting up and coming in earlier. Yeah, right. I'm still enjoying the whole experience of the sun rising before I do, I don't want to throw that away.
Or I could try to pay for my own marked parking space in the complex. I don't actually know if that's allowed, for individuals, but I could ask. But that would make me sound and feel like a pampered wuss, like management.
Or I could start taking the bus to work - my walk would be about the same length that way, but at least I wouldn't have to worry about leaving the headlights on. That's quite an appealing option in some ways. Buses are a great boon to writers - they provide not only material, but also time to think. Mostly, of course, it's time spent thinking about how long the damn' journey is taking you; but in truth, it's not much longer than by car.
No, it's the waiting at the cold bus stop that puts me off. And Auckland city authorities are talking about improving its bus service by getting bigger buses. That, of course, means fewer buses, which means longer waits. Talk about missing the point.
Also in the changes - the quality of houses for sale has dropped abruptly. We saw only one place last weekend, which we dismissed laughingly; others we drove by and decided without hesitation that we didn't really want to get out of the car in those neighbourhoods, let alone live there.
We do have one place on our shortlist now. It's for auction next Wednesday. Our experience of auctions thus far has not been happy; if this one goes as badly as the first, I shall be really quite upset...
So please wish us luck. We could use it.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Once again, the text is downloaded raw from Project Gutenberg, pasted into a Word document (I'm using Word 2007, in case that makes a difference); the Gutenberg preamble and notes are stripped out; then I click the "Summarize" button and ask for 100 words. No further editing of any kind has taken place.
I think this one is pretty tough, although it's certainly a famous book, probably available in the classics section of any big bookshop. But let's see...
"Sweet-heart, do you want a place?
what pain could stand before a pleasure so transporting? The present possession was all my little head could find room for.
Then, who can express the fire his eyes glistened, his hands glowed with! whilst sighs of pleasure, and tender broken exclamations, were all the praises he could utter. the unnumbered kisses! You would ask me, perhaps, whether all this time I enjoyed any perception of pleasure? A little eternity in love!
I felt the prodigious keen edge, with which love, presiding over this act, points the pleasure: love!
But some stories are too funny to pass up.
You've heard of the spate of "spontaneous" tax protests by the name of "tea parties" taking place across the US? Where people who were quite happy to support Bush while he ran up the national debt in times of plenty, are now violently against Obama doing the same thing in a slump? People who are so impoverished that they're turning out in their hundreds to throw away (presumably) perfectly good tea?
Oh dear, I'm getting off track already. There's so much to laugh at, so much to scoff at, so much to just sneer at with the contempt it deserves, if I can muster that much. I know the history, I know what these people are trying to do, and if I could spit in their faces from here, they'd be even wetter than they already are. But what tickled me here, and I'm indebted to my friend Jantar for pointing it out, was the story of one protest in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC, which came unstuck when the protesters, belatedly, discovered that they needed a permit to dump teabags.
So much for the spirit of civil unrest.
Another protest in the city, reportedly, was nixed by the Secret Service, despite having been given the OK by the cops. (If I were the local plod, I'd be writing some extremely sarcastic letters to the Washington Post on that subject.)
It seems to me that nobody has their heart in this "protest". Where are the people who are willing to get arrested, even go to jail, for their beliefs? Even that tree-hugging pansy Thoreau did that much. But then, Thoreau honestly believed that he was opposing an unjust state. These guys aren't even trying, because they don't believe in what they're doing. They're not desperate, they're not even angry, they're just being played by politicians.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
In 1997, when I got my first dial-up connection at home, things were different. By then nobody could miss what e-mail was, and I took to it like a banker to money. Within six months I had e-mail contacts on five continents, a good proportion of whom I considered "friends".
Combined with Usenet, the medium suited me to perfection. I now had a public profile and an active private correspondence. I loved to take my time writing, rewriting and polishing to put the perfect gloss on whatever I wanted to say. "Spinning", it might be called, and the medium was beautifully tailored to that. (Alas, this is no longer the case. Somehow I don't have that kind of time any more. Nowadays, even blog posts feel hurried.)
In that first rush of enthusiasm, I naïvely thought that e-mail was free; and as freely, I gave my address to everyone as my preferred contact method. Better, I thought, that I should receive junk mail in electronic form, rather than tree-eating paper.
What I hadn't thought through - and in retrospect it seems horrifyingly obvious, but the world looked different back then - was the economics of e-mail technology. It never occurred to me that people would send me e-mail without even caring whether I read it or not.
The story of my personal battle with spam is stirring, but long, and its ending is not happy. I have seldom managed to convey the depth of my hatred for spammers. I'm not talking just about pornographers, fraudsters, Nigerians offering money - that subject is quite exhaustively documented elsewhere - but the daily deluge of unwanted mails about the most tedious of subjects - drugs, holidays, used cars, penis enlargement, jobs in Chicago, Ukrainian brides, Bollywood movies, home-education courses in everything from acupuncture to zoophilia...
All of which is a long-winded way of introducing a story I noticed today: spam is "killing the environment", apparently.
That's a headline I can greet with qualified pleasure. Extremely qualified. We're talking fully bonded, industry-certified, Masters-educated pleasure here. It's nice to see an attack on the (still occasionally touted) fallacy that junk e-mail is environmentally benign, compared with junk paper through the door. But this study is commissioned by McAfee, who can't resist the temptation to imply that the problem could be solved by using their software.
Yeah, right. That's like treating depression by drinking yourself into a stupor.
No, the treatment for spam - if there is one - has to be legal, not technical, and it has to be directed at the people who pay for it, not those who send it. It's the economics of e-mail that creates the problem, and that's what has to be changed. For the recipients to have to buy and maintain spam filters - that's no better than paying protection money.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I thought then, and I still think, that this ruckus was thinly-disguised protectionism. When I was a kid, I had a number of toys made of lead. It's an excellent material - cheap, easy to mould, satisfyingly heavy and durable. To say nothing of the paints, which (we took it for granted) would contain lead, if nothing worse. I assume that's why my parents kept shouting at me when I ate it.
Which is why, this Easter, my reaction to stories of nasty egg-related experiences was more smugness than horror. Summary: some Easter chocolate products have been found to contain creepy-crawlies.
We're talking respected brands here. Cadbury's and M&Ms are the two that have failed to keep their names out of the story - I don't know what others may be involved. Nor do I know where these products were made. But I'd bet good money it's not China.
This is not what I call consumer protection. When you bit into your Easter egg, did you think "what this really needs is something living inside it"?
Of course it could be that someone is simply taking the symbolic significance of the Easter egg a bit too literally. But more likely, they're just careless.
Food handling is a curious blind spot in the factories and supermarkets of New Zealand. We are resigned to carefully sorting through the mildewed, crushed and parasite-infested fruit; cautiously wiping the leaking blood off badly packaged meats; gently testing the temperature of milk by hand; glumly inspecting the mold on the inside of vacuum packs of cheddar; religiously checking the dates on short-life products such as coleslaw and dips. I've seen shelf stackers in the supermarkets piling crates on top of soft fruit without a thought. If I saw any of this in Tesco's in England, I would expect the section manager to be sacked on the spot; here, it never occurs to anyone that there is even an issue.
Don't get me wrong: our food is excellent. New Zealand is justly famed for its farming. Our restaurants compare well with any of the 15 or so countries I've experienced. We had roast lamb for an Easter feast - finest New Zealand-grown baby sheep - and I can officially pronounce it delicious. And the wine! - New Zealand wine, as anyone who's been paying even the slightest attention must know by now, is the best in the world. Even Foodtown can't screw that up.
It's not that hard, people. This is 2009: problems like this were already boring in the 1980s, when I studied production engineering. If you can't do it, resign, and give your job to someone who gives a damn'.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Herewith the second classic, as abbreviated by MS Word in 100 words:
No Tom. Tom!"
"Can't, Mars Tom. Tom exhibited. "Tom."
Tom lay thinking. "Tom! Say, Tom!" "Here, Tom! TOM! Tom moaned out:
"You, Tom! Tom said:
"Oh, Tom! Tom said:
"Tom! Tom called:
"Hold! Presently Tom said:
Then Tom whispered:
Tom [Surname] swears
"Please, Tom. "DO, Tom!"
Tom quailed. Tom said:
Tom's cheeks burned. Tom said:
Tom hurried up. Tom shuddered.
Tom's followed. "Try harder, Tom! "Tom! "Don't Tom! Tom whispered:
Tom shouted. "Tom, Tom, we're lost! Tom was grateful. "Tom!"
Tom broke it:
Monday, April 6, 2009
Take One Tree Hill, for instance. Its peak - the spiritual heart of the city - is surrounded by Cornwall Park, a ravishingly beautiful slice of tamed nature in the city, a favourite spot for family outings and picnics. The park itself is lined with picturesque cottages whose owners enjoy the doubtful privilege of paying ground rent, which (as far as I can make out) is spent on maintaining the park - which explains why these beautiful houses, which should be priced in the $1-2 million range, in fact tend to go for about one-fifth as much. The ground rent keeps the area pretty exclusive, despite the bargains.
Then comes the sharply sloping "suburb" of One Tree Hill itself. Within easy walking distance of the park, it's a well established, leafy residential area where new building is rare - the subdivision here was done decades ago. Which is good, because it makes for a quieter neighbourhood and puts off landlords on the make. But as you go further down the slope, the scene changes rapidly. By the time you reach Waitangi Road to the south, boy-racer cars, graffiti and quite un-neighbourly wire fences are increasingly in evidence. Head eastward, towards the gruesome commercial zoning around Great South Road, and the picture takes a turn for the grimy.
To the south, it's not far before you hit the huge, sprawling suburb of Onehunga. Overlooking Manukau Harbour to the south, this was once the domain of ships' officers; and again the best houses are on the tops of the hills.
Yesterday we'd picked out 3 Quadrant Road, Onehunga as a possible target. It might have stood a chance. Looks nice enough. Unfortunately it's at the foot of a hill, and the road there took us past this gratuitous palace, just as it was holding its open home. Having half an hour to kill, we thought we might as well stop by.
It was a bit like touring a stately home.
Then we went on down to the house we could afford. It was a steep hill, and it took its toll. By the time we got to the foot, it hardly needed the packing factory across the road to put us off the house - which was probably pleasant enough, in itself, before - the old story - someone built another house in its back garden.
The Maoris, it strikes me now, were right. It was a mistake to let these pakeha buggers buy land. Let them live on it by all means, but once they started buying and selling it they got ambitious, and that's been the ruin of it.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
"Anti-globalisation protesters at G20 summit"
How can anyone admit to being "anti-globalisation"? That's basically "pro-poverty". Oh wait, it's April Fool's - phew, for a moment I thought they might be serious.
"Miss Universe enjoys hospitality at Guantanamo Bay"
Oh, the irony. A, get this, Venezuelan beauty queen upholding "a longstanding relationship with the USO" by holidaying at the Caribbean's most notorious prison camp. How gullible do they think we are?
"Government steps in to limit power price rises"
In a world of global warming and frequent outages caused by transmission problems, how stupid do you have to be to encourage people to use more electricity? Because that's what the NZ government is doing. Thank goodness it's April Fool's.
"US Justice Dept moves to drop Ted Stevens's conviction"
So let's get this straight: the poster boy for Republican corruption was squeaky-clean all along? Good one. Can you just "toss out" a conviction?
Sadly, now it's 2 April, and I have to face the unpalatable fact that all of these stories were, apparently, true.
Addendum: Since posting this, the BBC has completely ripped off my idea. Thanks guys. Makes me feel like a real journalist again.