Early childhood education


Stuff reports:
A South Auckland early childhood education taskforce set up to tackle the problem found only 27 per cent of new entrants have had any form of early childhood education. Nationally, participation rate is 94.7 per cent, with Maori and Pacific Island children at the lower end of the scale.

Two things spring to mind:
(1) If nationwide 95% of kids are in ECE, then what's the problem? We don't need big solutions. At best, we need targetted initiatives (if the 5% not in ECE are largely in specific groups).
(2) Do those numbers add up?

Let's take "Manukau City" for South Auckland and consult the 2006 census.

  1. Total population: 4.03 million

  2. Manukau population: 0.33 million

  3. Overall population aged 0-4: 7%

  4. Manukau population aged 0-4: 9%

  5. Overall population in ECE: 95% (from Stuff article)

  6. Manukau population in ECE: 27% (from stuff article)

I'll make the assumption that one quarter of the 0-4 population are next year's new entrants.

  1. New entrants overall: 70,000

  2. New entrants in ECE: 67,000 → thus 3,000 not in ECE

  3. New entrants in Manukau: 7,400

  4. New entrants in Manukau in ECE: 2,000 → thus 5,400 not in ECE

So, that would be a "no" then. I wonder what the real national participation rate is...

Happiness and Wagner

This is a pretty good article on how money can make you happy, but only if you spend it on the right things.

#1 on the list is "Buy experiences instead of things". So with that in mind, I'm seriously thinking of going to see The Ring of the Nibelung next month. The Metropolitan Opera performed it, it was filmed in HD, and it's showing at the Penthouse from June 14. I'm not sure if I'll make it through the whole 15 hours, but at least I have a pre-existing interest in the setting to help me through :-)

General plan is to see one a week, and not buy tickets more than a few days in advance, in case I want to drop out. So if you'd like to join us (Stephanie has already promised to come too), let me know.


I have been reading McGee on Food and Cooking, which is 800 solid pages on How Food Works. In the interests of increasing my recall, I'm going to write about some of the things I'm learning.

Today's topic: what's the difference between white meat and red meat?

I admit, hitherto I hadn't thought of this as an interesting question to ask. Chickens have feathers, cows have milk — different coloured meat just seemed like another thing to add to the list. But amazingly, it turns out that not only is there a simple answer, but I already knew it!

First, we have to ask: what is meat, anyway? There's basically two kinds: meat is either muscle or offal. If you're eating offal, it's usually named (kidney, liver, etc.), so everything else is muscle. And if you're anything like me (i.e. you have a passing interest in sports science), you may know that there are two basic types of muscle: fast twitch and slow twitch.

Fast twitch fibres are used for short bursts of intense activity. They operate by burning a carbohydrate called glycogen. They will use oxygen to burn this, but if insufficient oxygen is available, they operate anaerobically and produce lactic acid as a by-product. As such, they quickly fatigue, until the body can flush out the lactic acid and replace the glycogen.

On the other hand, slow twitch fibres only operate aerobically. They operate by burning fat — and "burning", of course, is another word for "oxidizing". Slow twitch fibres are much thinner than fast twitch (to allow for better blood supply), and have many small fat droplets to provide energy. But fat's no good on its own. To burn the fat, the muscles have a protein called myoglobin, which takes oxygen from the blood and holds onto it until its needed, and other proteins called cytochromes that use the protein to oxidise the fat.

The name "myoglobin" should look a little familiar; it is, of course, similar to the haemoglobin in your blood, and contains an iron atom. Cytochromes, likewise, contain iron.

So this, then, explains meat colour. Fast twitch fibres are white, and slow twitch are red. The chicken doesn't fly much, but when it does fly, it's in short bursts, so chicken breast is almost entirely white. Chicken legs are a little more pink, because chickens do walk around a little (well, some of them). Cows spend their lives walking around to find grass, so their meat is redder. Pigs don't move much, so their meat is quite white, but wild pigs have darker meat.

The heme group in myoglobin changes colour, depending on the presence of oxygen. If the iron atom is holding an oxygen molecule, it is red. If the iron atom loses its oxygen, it is purple. And if the iron has been oxidised itself (i.e. lost an electron, and become unable to hold oxygen at all), then it is brown. The similarity with blood should be obvious. So fresh steak will be red on the surface, where oxygen is present, but probably purple on the inside. If the enzymes are still active when you cut it open, the cut edge will redden as oxygen is taken from the air and attached to myoglobin. But even if it doesn't — the iron is still there.

And the fat cells that provide fuel for red meat contribute to its taste (which is why, I guess, chicken breast seems so dry).

[you may also remember this news story from a little while ago. Meat packers pump extra oxygen into meat packs before sealing them, to keep them looking red. Do I care? The only risk of old meat is that bacteria may be growing on the surface. If the experts trust it to be safe, then I don't see this as a problem.]

Exercises with bananas

I've long been a fan of grilled bananas, such as many cafes offer with either pancakes or french toast in their brunch menus.

Then one day recently, it occurred to me that I own a grill, and bananas are widely available in supermarkets, so there is really nothing (in theory) stopping me from making them my self. I bought some bananas and pondered.

Then, today, Stephanie asked for french toast, so it was time for an experiment.

The only problem is: my cooking bible doesn't have any instructions for grilling bananas. I turned to the internet, but the internet -- of course -- has hundreds, all different, and often based on American cooking techniques. Only scarcely better!

I settled on this one ("caramelized bananas"). The end result ... was nice enough, certainly, but bore little resemblance to cafe food (the bananas were flimsy enough after being sliced into four; stirring them to coat in caramel caused them to fall apart rather completely).

Does anyone have any other suggestions? My cooking options are: on a frying pan, or under a grill, with a preference for the latter.

Games I've played recently

The era of digital distribution does make it an awful lot easier to buy software (especially for the Mac).

So, games I've played recently:

Fable: The Lost Chapters Over-the-shoulder RPG with invisible walls (i.e. the game is divided into zones, and each zone has a map controlling where you can go). This is a game in which everyone is somewhat genre-savvy. It starts in a standard fashion: your childhood village is destroyed for unclear reasons, and you are rescued by a mysterious mage and taken to the guild of heroes. After that ... you grow up in the guild. You learn to be a hero. When ordinary folk want something difficult done, they go to the guild and assign a quest. After doing a few quests, you start to become famous, which means people stop and cheer whenever you walk past.

There's a plot in there too, but it takes a while to come out. You spend most of the game roaming around doing acts of minor heroism, with no major dangers / dark lords / etc. anywhere to be seen.

Overall, I enjoyed this game. Light-hearted with a bit of British humour — a nice contrast from American RPGs. A shame that the sequels are console-only.

Jade Empire Another over-the-shoulder RPG with invisible walls, but this time set in China (well, the word "China" is never mentioned, but it's clearly a medieval+magic Chinese setting). As I recall, the selling point when this came out was the combat system based around martial arts. And it does work pretty well, though it's not perfect. The plot is interesting (with a few twists), and the setting is neat. Recommended. No sequels, unfortunately — Bioware is busy with Dragon Age. Which brings me to...

Dragon Age: Origins This is Bioware returning to its roots. Although not to D&D — but we've got mages, and templars, and dwarfs who have beards and live underground, and elves who loves trees, and even the odd dragon. Except ... the mages and templars exist in an uneasy power balance with no clear resolution, the dwarfs have a rigid caste system in which nobles are above the law, and elves were the victims of crusades twice and now live in ghettos or as slaves.

Despite this, the plot is still pretty straightforward: an archdemon is attacking and you gotta stop him. You have companions to help, and each companion has a rating for how much they like you. This is affected by your actions. It's also affected by giving them gifts, and there are a lot of gifts to be found, so keeping everyone happy isn't too hard. Overall — it didn't thrill me, but it's a solid game.

Dragon Age 2 You saved the world in DA:O; now what? Traditional game series would make you save the world again, but I always disliked that. DA2 fortunately goes another way: you're a refugee from the war of the first game, and flee to another country. There, the power balance between mages and templars is spinning out of control. Oh, and an embassy of philosophical ogres have set up an enclave in the city and are causing political problems of their own.

Bioware have been learning what games like, and what annoys them, and have filed off a few more rough edges. It's a pretty polished game. The storytelling gimmick is that one of your companions is telling the tale of your adventure to an inquisitor after-the-fact. It works well, with some very skillful transitions (and one memorable occasion when he doesn't quite tell the truth :-) ).

It's much harder to keep your companions happy now. At the end of the game, anyone who doesn't like you will fight against you -- I lost one. Your decisions in the game also affect how some events play out. This is not a new idea, of course, but I get the feeling Bioware has provided enough extra scenes, voice acting and plot points to make your choices feel a lot more important. Overall: likely to play again.

The Witcher I recall hearing about this when it came out, where the main talking point was: you can sleep with women, and when you do, you get a "sex card", which is a playing card-shaped picture of your conquest in a state of partial nudity. I remember reading about The Witcher on-and-off since it came out, usually in positive terms, without reference to the sex cards. So when I saw it on sale on Steam, I thought I'd give it a go.

On first impression, I thought my memory was mistaken. You start off in a castle that's about to be besieged by an angry mob. You have only a few friends to help. You're all dour, scarred men, and the castle is in the mountains — the pallet is primarily grey and white here. Well, actually, there is one woman too: a sorcerer on your side. But she doesn't get much screen time, between the grim veterans. Here's how the opening mission plays out:

"They're attacking -- and there's a sorcerer with them, and some kind of giant bug!"
"Why are they attacking us?"
Woman on your team: "I bet it's the lab!"
Leader: "Nah."
[you fight some goons]
"The sorcerer rushed inside with this famous murder at his side!"
Woman: "He must be going to the lab!"
Other guy: "You just want to see inside our top-secret lab!"
Leader: "I doubt it. But... I guess it doesn't hurt to check. Geralt, you go look."
[you go to the lab and discover that the sorcerer is there, but he has erected a magic barrier so you can't get past. you return.]
"He was in the lab!"
[the woman sorcerer on your team rushes off to deal with the magic barrier. You follow, find her disabled, and go fight the sorcerer himself. He teleports out with the loot from the lab.]
[you otherwise win the fight]
"So, what did the sorcerer steal from the lab?"
"It must have been our top-secret mutagen formulae. They're the potions that make us witchers superhuman. Every sorcerer and alchemist in the land would love to get their hands on them but they've been a carefully-guarded secret for over 200 years."

From what I've played of the game, headdesk moments like that are not too uncommon. Oh, and you get to sleep with your sorcerer ally after the battle. So it turns out I did remember correctly.

The Witcher is, apparently, based on a series of Polish novels. I get the impression they killed off the main character in the books, so he's brought back in the game with amnesia and level-1 skills. Convenient, I guess. I doubt I'd enjoy the books, though (even translated). The witcher is a very unsympathetic character; I found it hard to like him at all. Unfortunately, that wasn't the only problem with the game: the alchemy system is complex, and the inventory slow and difficult to use. Between a plot I didn't care about, and a game that was frustrating to play, I decided not to give up on this one. Verdict: Don't bother.

Gothic 3 Gothic 3, apparently, was a bug-riddled mess when it came out. However, there were enough fans of Gothic and Gothic 2 that the fans got together and fixed many of the bugs themselves. The devs were so impressed they fixed some bugs themselves, and bundled it with the fans' work as an official patch. The fans have since released some new quests and content too. Unfortunately, the fans are mostly German, so the new content is not voice-acted, and usually features poor grammar. Oh well.

Beyond this, though, Gothic 3 is basically a bethesda-style RPG. That is, wide-open world that you can explore at your leisure, with lots of things to do. The overall plot is: orcs have invaded and largely captured all the human settlements in the land. Something happened to make all the human rune-mages powerless, which was largely why the orcs won. You can help the resistance ... or you can help the mercenaries working for the orcs.

It features crafting skills hunting skills in addition to the standard magic and fighting. Fighting with a sword is a bit clumsy, but maybe I'll get better at it. Technologically, it feels inferior to Oblivion. But some of the game designs make for a richer experience. And everything — buildings, caves, wilderness — is in the same zone: no loading transitions!

Not very far through, but enjoying it so far.

Nail'd The only non-RPG in this list :-) Playing Need For Speed on my iPhone reminded me that racing games are quite fun. I remembered reading about Nail'd on Ars Technica last year, so when I saw it on Steam, I thought I'd give it a try.

Nail'd is a dirt-racing game where the gimmick is incredibly steep slopes and enormous jumps. You race down near-vertical cliff faces, or along the vertical face of dams. You jump over wind turbines (dodging the blades, if you're lucky or careful — you can turn in the air..). Crashing only costs you a few seconds while you respawn. This was a lot of fun, but after a while the single-player campaign started to run out of ideas. I'm now up to time-trials and stunt challenges, neither of which is as fun as a simple race. And the next time-trial event is six races in a row, with no ability to save mid-way.

I've looked online a couple of times, but never seen anyone else playing. So Nail'd: good fun, but my enthusiasm is waning.

Portal 2: Released yesterday, I think. Do I buy it now (at full price), or do I finish Gothic 3 (which will take me a while), and buy it later? I just have to avoid spoilers until I do get it...


Captaining in ultimate (disjointed musings)

Today I spent the day as captain of a team in a local social hat tournament. As captain ... well, I didn't really do very much. I called lines, talked a bit at team talks, but generally let the game progress without much of my input or control (beyond simply playing as I normally would).

Was that the best I could have done? Perhaps.

There are a few things that have shaped my thoughts on captaincy. First, a personal anecdote. I was playing in an A grade team captained by Jon Liddell. In one game, we were playing poorly, and snapping at each other because of it. Jon called a timeout and brought us in together. "Is anyone deliberately throwing the disc away?" he asked. "Is anyone intentionally dropping it?" Obviously, the answers were No and No. The takeaway was fairly obvious: angrily telling each other to do what we already knew we should do does not achieve anything.

Of course, that applies to general play, as well as captaining. And it's a very difficult lesson to learn (I still struggle with this).

#2: a blog post by Eric Zaslow. Zas is a super-experienced American player who's played and won at all kinds of international tournaments, and who also happened to marry a New Zealander, so he's spent time in Wellington. I recommend reading his whole post, but in a nutshell: in a typical team talk (e.g. timeout, or half time), three or four people will bring up three or four different points, people will nod sagely, and ... everyone will forget everything. If you want to make effective use of a timeout, you need one message, given by one person. Even that is difficult to benefit from, but any more and you've certainly wasted your time.

Related to this: It's impossible to turn a weak player into a good player through advice alone. I've played a lot of games in my life in which there was a wide skill or experience range on the team. Invariably the experienced players will try to up-skill their teammates by telling what they should be doing. Invariably, it doesn't work. It's very beguiling to think that all you need is the perfect phrase, the perfect analogy, and suddenly the weak player will start playing a whole lot better. In reality, of course, there's so much going on out on the field that they'll never remember your wise words. This is particularly true for inexperienced players, who need to spend so much more effort simply to understand what's happening in the game. Your best option is to pick one thing which they can realistically improve, and then emphasise that at every opportunity. You're still unlikely to see improvement over a single game, but over three or four you might make progress.

Finally, a quote from _The Little Prince_. (my copy is a graphic novel, so this will be a little imprecise. This conversation is between the Little Prince and a King)

"Your Highness ... do you mind if I ask you some questions?"
  "I command you to ask me some questions."
"Your Highness ... what do you reign over?"
  "Over everything."
"Over all that?"
  "Over all that."
"And do the stars obey you?"
  "Of course. I won't tolerate any rebellion."
"Oooooooooh. ... Please, I'd like to see a sunset. You'd make me very happy. Command the sun to go to bed."
  "Hmm, no. I'm an absolute monarch, but I reign sensibly."
  "Suppose I commanded a general to turn into a seagull, and the general didn't carry out the command, who would be in the wrong? Him or me?"
  "Precisely. Ask of each what each can give."


Some years ago, I played ultimate on the beach at Oriental Bay. The Dominion Post sent a photographer down, and he took quite a good photo of me. So, I contacted them and asked for a copy. For the sum of around $25, I got a digital version and the right to noncommercial use.

That photo is my Facebook profile picture. [and has been for about five years. I generally can't be bothered with Facebook..]

I heard recently via the twitter grapevine that Facebook have decided that they can use your profile picture in their advertising, unless you opt-out.

So ... If Facebook decides to use my profile picture in their advertising — which is copyrighted to the original photographer (or, perhaps, the Dom Post), and for which Facebook does not have a commercial use licence ...

...who is breaking the law, them or me?

More about Nassim Nicholas Taleb

we had the TV on at work yesterday and today.

Actually, we always do (no sound). If there's "significant" sport on, we play that. Otherwise, it usually shows some Australian business show. Business shows are odd things to look at with no sound: along the bottom of the screen is a stock ticker. Just above that is another stock ticker (moving at a different speed). On the top of the screen, a currency ticker. Sometimes they have a different currency ticker inset on the right. So the talking head is surrounded by information, and the thought that goes through my head: How many people in the world (a) need up-to-the-minute information on stock prices, and (b) rely on TV shows to give them this information?

I suspect the answer is "zero". So in truth, the talking head is surrounded by noise.

I posted once before on Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book _Fooled By Randomness_. He has an interesting view of news:
The problem with information is not that it is diverting and generally useless, but that it is toxic. [...] If there is anything better than noise in the mass of "urgent" news pounding us, it would be like a needle in a haystack. People do not realize that the media is paid to get your attention. For a journalist, silence rarely surpasses any word.

The take-home message is this: If news is not relevant or important enough to cause you to immediately change your plans or behaviour, then the news is nothing more than entertainment.

So yesterday I heard of the big earthquake. Did it affect my job, or my ability to do it? Well ... no. Not at all. Will it affect what I choose to do with my life in the future? It could do. There is basically one useful option available to me if I want to help: donate money. (I could offer accommodation to people stranded in Wellington also) Let's see what information I need to inform my decision on whether to make a donation:
  1. There was a big earthquake in Christchurch with widespread damage and fatalities.

Is it useful for me to know that the Cathedral is half-collapsed? That people may be stuck in buildings? That a hotel is on the brink of collapse? Considering I haven't acted on that information, the answer is clearly "no".

I have a friend who looks like being professionally involved in the aftermath. Is he usefully informed by TV coverage? I doubt it — he won't be choosing which buildings to examine based on what he saw on TV3. If you have friends or family in Christchurch, does the TV tell you what happened to them? Again, no (unless by extreme fluke they are interviewed).

Taleb's philosophy is that news is just entertainment — so if you want to be entertained, you may as well choose good entertainment. So, with that thought in mind, I shall return to the re-play of _Dragon Age_ that I started a week ago. I'm sure in a month or so the rumours and speculation will have died down and we'll have a clearer picture of what happened. I can tune in then.