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N.Z. politics: Beemergate

Feb. 18th, 2011 | 09:14 pm

So, the big local politics story is that the government is buying a whole bunch of luxury cars — 34 of them, at $200,000 each.

Well, actually, we don't know that they're $200,000 each. Someone looked that price up on the web, and it stuck. The government isn't telling us how much they cost. But I think it's fair to assume the government got a discount. If I were buying 34 new cars, and promised to buy another 34 in three years, I'm pretty sure I could negotiate a good price.

Plus, of course, the existing cars aren't just going to be parked on the lawn at Premiere House and left to rust. They'll be sold. What's the going rate for a 3-year-old BMW 730Ld?

Finally, over on Stuff, Dave Moore opines that the BMW has unusually high fuel efficiency for its size, and clean exhaust emissions. Which is good, right?

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm politically predisposed to dislike National, so I should be finding it great fun that they're in an awkward position. But if I'm going to be outraged by something, I'd like to be outraged accurately, with context.

Here's my list of questions I will ask the undetectably-small proportion of the universe that reads this journal:
  1. What's the estimated cost of ownership, per year, over the lifetime of these cars? (i.e. purchase price, minus sale price, plus running costs, divided by three years)
  2. What's the estimated cost if we hang on to them for six years?
  3. What about the same calculation done for comparable cars made by other manufacturers?
  4. How much usage do the 34 cars get? Could we make do with, say, 20?
  5. If we do reduce numbers, the running costs will increase, and the resale price will decrease, so how does that affect calculations above?

Finally, here's a Dilbert cartoon that's older than the world wide web: http://dilbert.com/fast/1993-02-07/

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Politics in the U.S.

Feb. 18th, 2011 | 08:49 pm

Over on twitter, one of the people I follow is muskrat_john, a.k.a. John Kovalic, co-creator of Munchkin and other excellent games.

John Kovalic also happens to live in Wisconsin, where things are getting politically interesting. So I find myself with an occasional window on local doings in a small place in the middle of North America. And what are they doing there now, you might ask?

Well, viewed through the narrow lens of one twitter feed, it seems Wisconsin has a republican governor and senate. And this senate is doing what all republicans would like to do: they're passing a law making unions illegal.

Now, it seems that the senate has 19 republicans, and 14 democrats. Done deal, you think? The anti-union bit is contained in a budget bill (the "budget repair bill"), which means to vote on the bill, they need a quorum of 20.

So what did the democratic senators do? They fled the state.

No democrats in Wisconsin. No quorum. No budget bill.

(meanwhile, the Madison City Council held an emergency session to approve 10 separate union contracts, ensuring all union members are covered up until the end of 2012 whatever happens)


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I just spent fifty thousand dollars.

Nov. 25th, 2010 | 02:08 pm

9 Surrey St


It should really feel like a bigger deal :-/

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House buying

Nov. 12th, 2010 | 12:02 pm

So, we made an offer on a house yesterday. They'll probably turn us down, but maybe they'll make a counter-offer. Eh.

At any rate, I signed a contract. And before I signed the contract, I looked at what it said.

So the agent came over and said do we have any questions? And I said, yup, what's an instrument of transfer?

You see, there's a clause in the contract that says something like "The purchaser shall prepare, and the purchaser's own expense, an instrument of transfer". So I should know what this thing is. But the agent had no idea, and no one had ever asked him about that before. I figure it's probably covered by conveyancing, and not something we need to worry about, but still ...

And then we got to the last page. We'd said "conditional on LIM", so the agent added a clause to the end saying we have 10 working days from the agreement date to get a LIM and raise any issues. Apparently that's standard. Except ... earlier in the contract, it said that we have five working days to request the LIM, and we have 15 working days from the agreement date to get back to them. Now, I'm not a lawyer, but it really doesn't seem right for a contract to contradict itself like that.

Anyway, we changed the figure to 15 to make it match, but the agent thought we were being needlessly picky. But I do wonder what would happen if it took us 11 days to get the LIM...

All of which makes me wonder if anyone ever reads these things?

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Modern househunting

Sep. 25th, 2010 | 09:54 pm

So, we've been pondering buying a house.

My parents house-hunted through the newspaper – or even by talking to real-estate agents directly.

In the past, when I've been looking for a new flat, I've used trademe. Newspaper? I think we looked at it once.

What are we doing now? Well, there's still trademe, of course. I think real-estate agents realise the market dominance it has, and so they have to list their properties there, even if they list them on their own website too.

Google Maps also does real-estate, pulling information from a number of different sites. Vastly more convenient for browsing than trademe, because I can easily see where the houses are and do an instant reject if I don't like the location.

Google Earth is the next component. Turn on the "sun" layer, and you can see how much sunlight a prospective site gets at any time of the day. Neat. Also for sunlight, NIWA have a site that will show you the sun for any address in New Zealand: http://solarview.niwa.co.nz/ It's intended to let people evaluate solar panels for their house, but the benefits for would-be buyers are obvious.

(there used to be a website that would pull real-estate data from Google Maps and format it for Google Earth, but the site has been down for the past couple of weeks :-( )

If we were in Christchurch, we could even look at thermal imagery of the city (zoom in, and then check the tick box on the right) to see how energy-efficient our prospective purchase is.

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Grocery prices

Sep. 13th, 2010 | 02:53 pm

Cheap veges bring food prices down

Statistics New Zealand said this morning that its food price index dropped by 0.1 per cent in August, following increases of 1.6 per cent and 1.3 per cent in June and July.
Statistics New Zealand said food prices in the 12 months to the end of August dropped 0.2 per cent, the fourth consecutive month of annual falls, something which has not occurred in more than 10 years.

Is it just me, or is there something not quite right here?

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Sep. 4th, 2010 | 10:23 am

So, there's been a big earthquake in Christchurch. I have told people, in the past: "When early settlers came to NZ, some built in brick and some in wood. Then big earthquakes knocked all the brick buildings down, but the wooden ones stayed up, and so after that they built only in wood. And so today, practically all NZ houses are wooden."

The pictures on Stuff show two things: two damaged roads, and a whole lot of damaged brick buildings.

So, what does that mean? Are there a small number of brick buildings in Christchurch, but they all fell down, so that's what we get photos of? Are South Islanders more complacent about the earthquake risk? Are brick buildings becoming more common as people look for trendy architecture?

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Drinking age

Aug. 24th, 2010 | 11:30 am

Here's Gordon Campbell quoting the "Keep it 18" campaign:
18 year olds can vote for who runs our country, get married, join the Police or the armed forces, stand for Parliament, and make any number of other extremely significant life decisions. It is ridiculous and offensive to say that an 18 year old cannot be trusted to purchase alcohol in the same way as any other adult. If the drinking age is raised then an 18 year old could get married – but be unable to have a glass of wine on the wedding night. That’s ridiculous.

I have to say, I don't like this argument. It doesn't seem inherently wrong to say that different rights should have different requirements. Sure, there's an aesthetic appeal in simplicity. But in that case, why not argue to make the age limit 16 for everything?

To pick more specific holes, I doubt the police would send you out with a badge at age 18. The armed forces wouldn't give you officer rank (or even sergeant). And "any number of other extremely significant life decisions" sounds like code for "I'm sure there are other things but I can't think of them".

"If the drinking age is raised then an 18 year old could get married – but be unable to have a glass of wine on the wedding night" — the subtext being: if you're not drinking, you're not celebrating? Besides, you can get married at 16 with parental consent. Maybe not being able to get smashed at your own wedding is an indicator that you're marrying too young?

Blogs like No Right Turn call the proposed age split discriminatory, which is fair enough. But "discrimination" is not, in itself, a negative thing. To discriminate originally just meant to distinguish between two things. We outlaw discrimination based on race, because skin colour is not a good predictor for anything except your susceptibility to sunburn. But when it comes to alcohol, there may be a genuine correlation between age and self-inflicted harm. Here's a paediatrician quoted on scoop: http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0902/S00083.htm
Alcohol tends to shrink the prefrontal cortex and white brain matter in those who drink excessively, an effect which is more pronounced for males than females. A part of the brain known as the hippocampus is also uniquely responsive to alcohol during adolescent development and seems to be especially sensitive to neurotoxicity. The hippocampus plays a major role in short term memory so damage to this area may impact on learning ability. Binge drinking at any time before brain development is complete [in the early 20s] exposes the adolescent brain to these risks.

Of course, the alternative argument is that you should be free to harm yourself. I quote No Right Turn again: "In a liberal society, insofar as we do not cause harm to others we should be free to live our lives as we please." But we also live in a country with public health care and a social welfare system. The government has a financial interest in your health, particularly in your long-term health prospects. We aren't free to drive a car without wearing a seatbelt, or ride a bicycle or motorbike without a helmet on. These actions would cause harm to no one else, yet the government prohibits them for our own good. Maybe this is more nanny state, but the evidence supporting at least the benefit of seatbelts is (I believe) very good.

I suppose it sounds like I'm arguing for the drinking age to go back up. Maybe I am. As someone who is both over 20 and a non-drinker, I don't feel like I have a horse in this race. I think what I'm really arguing for is for a decision to be made based on rational consideration of evidence. As opposed to ideology, religious belief, and stereotypes, which is what currently seems to be driving the debate.

There's a psychiatric term "anchoring", which says that people tend to make judgements relative to some reference. We have two potential anchors here: age 18 and age 20. So the debate is strongly framed as 18 vs 20: if you don't think it should be 18, then you must want to raise it to 20. Or otherwise, you must want to keep it at 18. Why not 19? What about 22? Do the arguments supporting keeping it at 18 also support lowering it to 16? ("You can sleep with a girl, but you can't buy her a drink beforehand! Ridiculous!")

To anyone with a strong opinion, I would ask: "Imagine you have complete freedom to choose and enforce a drinking age. What should it be, and why?" I'd like to hear arguments for keeping it at 18 that don't boil down to "Because that's what it is now" or "Because that's the same age as voting and things". And I'd like to hear arguments for raising it to 20 that are more complex than "That's what it used to be, and things were better then."

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Bad science & disjointed rambling

Aug. 23rd, 2010 | 01:50 pm

I just finished reading Ben Goldacre's Bad Science. If you've been reading his blog for a while, then there won't be much new here -- in fact, the book is almost certainly an edited collection of articles from his blog (or from the Guardian). If you haven't been reading his blog, and don't care to, then here's a summary of what you might learn, as you read through the book:

  1. Homeopathy, acupuncture, ear candling, etc. are all placebos. This probably isn't news to anyone; the main point of the chapter is to illustrate the scientific method by showing how we know they are only placebo.

  2. Saying "only placebo" is not the same as "does nothing"; the placebo effect is weird and powerful.

  3. All moisturisers are the same.

  4. Big pharma is evil, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Pharmaceutical companies make the biggest profits on drugs that are still under patent. Unfortunately, medical science has gathered all the low-hanging fruit, and so coming up with new drugs that are better than existing drugs is very hard. Pharma will run slightly-dodgy trials, will suppress trials that don't give the right result, and rely on marketing rather than hard evidence to convince doctors and consumers. Oh, and there could actually be some easy results still available — but only in the third world. Poor countries can't afford expensive drugs, so their medical problems get ignored.

  5. Nutritionalists are just another group of alternative medicine practitioners. Good nutrition is really straight-forward: eat a varied diet including fresh fruit and vegetables and dietary fibre, don't overeat, don't drink to excess, don't smoke. Done. Everyone knows that, so nutritionists, to justify their existence, need to make things seem more complicated than they really are. [incidentally, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist — there's no degree requirement] Every time a "health supplement" has been tested in a controlled trial, it's turned up no better than placebo (well, there was one case when over 10,000 Finns at high risk of cancer were given either antioxidant supplements or placebo. The trial was stopped on ethical grounds because the group on the antioxidants were suffering 45% more likely to die of cancer than the control group..).

  6. Finally, whom do we blame for all the quackery? Goldacre piles most of the blame at the door of the news media. The media want exciting stories, which means they want (a) miracle cures, and (b) hidden death risks. Partly, they want this because those stories used to be genuine. Cigarettes and asbestos were definitively revealed as killing millions. Vaccines knocked out smallpox and polio. Etc. Unfortunately, these days breakthroughs are more likely to be "this drug is the same as that one, but the side-effects are not so bad", or "this drug is 5% better than that one". And the risk factors have turned out to be more complicated -- or more boring. I expect I can list the major health risk factors today: poor diet, lack of exercise, over-drinking, cold/damp housing. No magic drug will solve those problems.
    Beyond this, the news media thinks their readers don't understand science. So when they do print science subjects [aside: ever noticed how science stories in the Dom Post often turn up in the "odd stuff" section?], they don't print the evidence. Rather, they portray it as a pronouncement from an authority figure. Which means if the story conflicts with anyone's world view (e.g. stories on alternative medicine), they can just bring in a different authority figure to issue a conflicting statement. Presented with two authorities and no evidence, what are the readers to think? They pick the view that best accords with their world view, because they have no reason to choose otherwise.

So, it's all a bit depressing. It also fits in nicely with the previous book I read, Fooled by Randomness, in which Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about randomness in the markets. Taleb's core point is that many top traders think they know what they're doing, but they're merely lucky. At some point, they become unlucky — by this point, they have towering self-confidence and so they lose vast amounts of money. According to Taleb, this keeps happening. [Taleb, allegedly, made a fortune out of these people during the recent finance crisis]

A few years ago, I had the general world view that most stuff was sorted out. People and organisations tend to get better at things, so for anything that people have been doing a long time (e.g. trading), we should be pretty good at it. Now it turns out that many traders are actually quite bad at it, despite having lots of money to play with. And while the scientists on the front line have a good understanding of science, many of those involved in assessing the results of their work do not. So we get medical funding decisions based on politics and hysteria, rather than a rational evaluation of the evidence.

Back to _Bad Science_, Goldacre posits that it's a part consequence of the advance of technology. 50 years ago, "technology" was cars, radios, telephones, TVs. 10 year olds could build radios at home, many car owners could diagnose and fix a lot of problems, and motivated teenagers could learn all kinds of things about how telephones worked. Today, a radio is a microchip a few millimetres across, my cell phone is literally a black box, and if you take your car to a mechanic the first thing they'll do is plug it into their computer to interrogate the car's computer. Understanding modern technology is literally beyond almost everyone's capabilities, so we're really well into the territory of Clarke's third law.

So the complexity of modern life makes us reliant on the people who do know how things work. Hence people get into the habit of listening to experts — and if there's money in it, someone can always find a self-styled "expert" to push a view not supported by evidence.

(a recent example in NZ is the guy who took intravenous vitamin C and got better. The latter event followed the former in time, and we are encouraged to think there is causation here. But will the newsmedia cover the story of the people who took intravenous vitamin C and died?)

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Starcraft 2

Aug. 11th, 2010 | 08:10 pm

Just finished Starcraft 2 episode 1 on normal difficulty.

I remember enjoying the original, back in the day. I was good enough to win the game (did they have difficulty levels then?), not good enough (or interested enough) to try online gaming. Now...

SC2 is basically the same game as SC1. Graphics are better, there are more units and a few other extras, but all the stuff you remember is still here and it functions the same. "More units"? By the final mission, I had six different infantry types, six different vehicles, and seven different air units to choose between. Each of them is effective in some situations, not so effective in others. Many of them had special abilities that they weren't smart enough to use on their own (medical units are fortunately an exception). Many of them would respond well to direct control when fighting the enemy. But who has time for that?

The final battle (this is a minor spoiler) consists of defending a spot against the zerg for a certain amount of time. The terrans are great at that: bunkers, firebats, marines, siege tanks [I'd neutralised their air power through an earlier mission]. I had some help from another building, and I had a few battlecruisers, but that was the main lineup. Maybe you need more variety to win at higher difficulty levels. Maybe if I were sixteen I would cope better. But I'm not sure I have the mental agility to get the most out of this game..

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