Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Man and beast

The temperature in the Brecon Beacons is forecast to be 26 degrees on Thursday. I hope my brother is OK. In contrast, in Wellington, it's been the first day of what I'd call proper winter.

One of the facilitators from the autism group – I’ll call her Isabel – volunteers at the Wellington SPCA. On Sunday she gave us a tour of the premises. This was quite popular – many people on the spectrum have a strong connection with animals. The SPCA recently moved to the old Fever Hospital, which opened just after World War I as (mostly) a final destination for TB sufferers. Unsurprisingly the building is supposed to be haunted, but it now works very well for the SPCA. It was upsetting to see animals that had been neglected. At one point I had a dog on my lap who was shaking like crazy; apparently she was just very shy, and had actually improved in that regard since arriving there. I hope she goes to a good home. The cat section was the best – I could have taken any of a number of them home with me, but alas the body corp rules prohibit pets. Tom was fascinated by the microchip reader. He thought that humans should have chips implanted too, so we wouldn’t have the hassle of carrying around bunches of keys everywhere. I’m happy with things as they are, although come to think of it there have been occasions when a microchip might have saved me some embarrassment. Some of the group went to lunch at the Hong Kong BBQ on Kent Terrace – I’ve eaten there before – but I already had food and drink on me and I just walked to my car and drove aimlessly for a couple of hours. I needed some time and space to myself – the car was the only real answer.

On Friday night I’m flying up to Auckland. I’ll be staying four nights at that motel in Epsom I was hoping to avoid this time, but it was the place that made the most financial sense. My room will have a TV with a few Sky channels, one of which will be showing a sport I neither care about nor properly understand. I might even notice a slightly unpleasant smell when I walk into my room for the first time, but the niff won’t be attributable to anyone in particular, and anyway I’ll soon get used to it. I’m looking forward to it all. I hope to see Richard, Bazza and the woman who used to facilitate the autism group in Wellington. Seeing people is the main reason I’m going. The other reason is not seeing people.

Kevin is pleasant to talk to. We do have a lot of conversation, even when, or especially when, I’m not in the mood for it (and he does like to talk about god quite a lot). It’s his complete domination of everything inside my home that’s the problem, rather than him per se. It’s a shame because with the change of job, life could actually be quite good for me right now, instead of just about tolerable. Granted, things could have been even better if that app had taken off and I’d made lots of money and I could have travelled and not had to answer to anybody, but that app was doomed from the start. It was like buying a lotto ticket with only three numbers on it. Dealing with maps of drainage networks is nowhere near what being my own boss would have meant, but it’s miles better than insurance.

So the World Cup is over. Germany were deserving winners of a very good tournament that will live long in the memory. The final could have gone either way and I'm glad it wasn't settled by penalties but instead by Götze's excellent goal. I only managed to watch the first half before going to work. I noticed that several of the German players had umlauts in their name; surely (Schürrle?) one of them would score. Germany's consistency in major tournaments has finally been rewarded. They've reached the semi-finals of every World Cup this century. England haven't got that far since I was ten. Making Messi the player of the tournament was a little odd, but what do I know? On the evidence of the few games I saw, it would have been a toss-up between Rodriguez and Robben.

Oh, and I've just noticed this is my 500th post.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My brother's ordeal, and one eternity to go

Today I sold Julie's Nissan Micra that she bought new in early 2009. It's a classic grannymobile. I don't know what colour you'd call it. Peach? Shocking pink? I felt ever so slightly silly as I drove it to the car yard. At first they would only offer $6000 - it needs some work on two panels and the colour could be a turn-off - but when they came up a thousand Julie eventually accepted on the phone. It'll be interesting to see what price they put on it at the yard. I wouldn't be surprised if it's ten or eleven grand. Julie's just found out that she might be moving from her Newtown rest home to a retirement village up in Napier next weekend. She doesn't think she can drive anymore, with her arthritis and neuropathy, so she was desperate to offload the car. This whole Napier thing has come out of the blue after a conversation Julie had with her niece. If it does happen, I won't be too disappointed that she's moved away, but I probably will go and see her. Any excuse to get in the car and well away from here.

I phoned my parents last night. They'd just got back from three days in London. They saw two shows and visited the Maritime Museum (which has changed a lot since I went there when I was 16) and a lot else besides. Today they depart from Newcastle on a two-week Nordic cruise. Where all this appetite for cruising has come from I have no idea. Maybe appetite is the word: you can stuff yourself silly if you want to.

This weekend my brother - a reservist in the British army - is embarking on a two-week SAS selection exercise in the Brecon Beacons. I have a hard time even thinking about what he'll be going through in the coming fortnight. Three people died from dehydration in last year's exercise - it was all over the news in the UK. With just a map and compass, you really are on your own there. I guess that's the whole point. But some of the soldiers involved, like my brother, have survived combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That they should put their lives at serious jeopardy in a training exercise just seems so wrong. I'll be keeping a close eye on the weather forecast.

Kevin knows the date I want him out by (well actually he doesn't, because that date has long gone). But he knows the date I told him, and assuming he's gone by then, I'm now half-way to having this place to myself again. It already feels like an eternity, so I've just got one eternity to go. At work yesterday I was doing a fairly menial task, but it was strangely therapeutic too, and the last thing I wanted was to come home to 24/7 Kevin and nonstop TV.

On FiveThirtyEight they were trying to get a measure of the off-the-mapness of Germany's 7-1 win over Brazil, largely by comparing it with famous blowouts in American football. But they missed one crucial fact: gridiron isn't on the global sporting map to begin with. No result in that sport, however shocking, can reasonably compare. You can say the same about rugby, although the All Blacks are a global icon, and if they were beaten 70-10 by Australia in a World Cup semi-final (heaven forbid), that would send out some pretty big shock waves. Only two sporting events in my memory come anywhere near Germany–Brazil. The first was Michael Johnson's 19.32 in Atlanta, when he obliterated his own world record and the rest of the field. That second 100 metres was stupidly fast. The other one that sticks out is Isner–Mahut. Not the same sort of achievement of course, but tennis is a global sport, and that match even overshadowed the last football World Cup, as well as the Queen's visit to Wimbledon, while it was happening.

Had Holland won that shoot-out against Argentina, their passage to the final would have been unsatisfactory (a dodgy late penalty to beat Mexico, followed by two consecutive wins on penalties). With Argentina getting through, I know the result I want on Monday morning: a convincing win for Germany, or failing that, any win for Germany. Before the final we've got the third-place game, which has a bit more meaning (and intrigue) this time than it normally does.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

We've got brackets!

I've just been speaking to Bazza on the phone. He hasn't changed. We hadn't spoken in almost a frigging year, and he just launches straight into the men's Wimbledon final. Heck, I like tennis and have blogged about it here a lot, but a how-are-you or a fancy-you-ringing-me-it's-been-ages would have been nice, if a huge surprise. I plan to see him on Sunday week when I'm up in Auckland.

When I was a kid, at about quarter to five on a Saturday, you'd see the football results trickling through on the TV, one letter or number at a time, via something called the vidiprinter. If there was a big score, they'd also put it in words in brackets, just so you'd know it wasn't a typo, as in "Oxford 1 Birmingham 7 (seven)". I'd get a bit excited whenever I saw brackets. Well this morning we had brackets all right.

Seriously, who’d have thought it? I actually wanted the Germans to win (yes, I know, English and all that) but with two-thirds of the game still to play, Germany had a scarcely believable five-goal lead! Someone at work managed to get a live stream, and at half-time I saw a replay of the goals. They were a result of abject defending more than attacking brilliance, and it seemed that for all the talk about Neymar, Brazil missed Silva (their best defender) even more. But 7-1! And it really should have been 8-0. The look on the Germans' faces when they gave up that last-minute goal showed what a determined bunch they are.

I wondered last night what the legacy of this World Cup would be, and barring something truly ridiculous in the other semi or the final, we’ve got our answer. Even if Germany lose in the final. As shock results in football go, this one is a magnitude 9.5. Kids with parents wealthy enough to get them tickets to the game, will relive it 60 or 70 years from now. In some ways I’m glad Brazil were beaten. If they’d lifted the trophy, it would have glossed over the obscene amounts of public money spent on the tournament.

Nate Silver and his mates at FiveThirtyEight.com have come in for some criticism for their World Cup prediction model following this crazy result. Some of it is deserved. If you’re going to give Brazil nearly a 50% chance in a four-horse race, in a sport as unpredictable as football, they need to be pretty damn good. Better than they’d been in their previous five games, which I don’t think were weighted heavily enough in the model. But all this talk about all statistics in football being meaningless is pure guff. Of course you can model football results, just like you can model election results. You just need to get your inputs right.
Edit: I now see that the FiveThirtyEight model gave a Brazil a 45% chance of lifting the trophy before the tournament started. Yikes. That was way off base, surely. This isn't rugby where one side (like the All Blacks) can dominate. That they even came up with a probability that high and didn't seriously question it makes me wonder.
 

Here’s Joe Bennett’s take on World Cups (he wrote it before today’s match). Very accurate I think.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Odds and ends

On Saturday I spent a really nice evening at my cousin's place. I hadn't been there for nearly two months - among other things, my cousin had been in America on business. My aunt and uncle were staying, so there were eight of us for dinner. I did some baking - it was nice to produce something that doesn't feature on Mohs hardness scale. I saw the photos from my uncle's funeral - it was a DIY funeral with no undertaker, and the grey (but thankfully dry) day somehow added to the atmosphere.

I played two board games at Tracy's place last night. The first game was based on the popular French story Le Petit Prince. Four of us played: Tracy's mum joined in. It was simple to play but there was more going on than initially met the eye. You had to build a planet and make sure it didn't have too many volcanoes or baobab trees. It was a high-volatility game, or that's my excuse for coming last anyway. We then played 7 Wonders, again. That game has less volatility, making it more likely that Tracy, who must have something close to an eidetic memory, will win. She did, with an enormous score. My second place, and reasonable score, almost felt like a win.

Rolf Harris got nearly six years. Had he been younger, and had his terrible acts taken place more recently, he probably would have got (and deserved) longer. Actuarially, the chances that he'll die in prison are very close to 50:50. That's assuming he'll serve his full sentence, and I'm not sure that actuarial "rules" fully apply in prison.

The Wimbledon finals almost passed me by this year. Kvitova’s win over Bouchard, to claim her second Wimbledon final, clearly wasn’t much of a contest, but I would have been worth watching just to see someone play that well. The men’s final, which took four times as long, was a completely different story. They’re two absolute giants of the game; it’s hard not to be a bit envious of them. Look how many languages they can speak. Federer has two sets of twins, dammit. Djokovic's first child is on the way. It's easy to say so now, but when my aunt asked me to give a prediction, I picked Djokovic's five-set win, and even correctly predicted which sets he'd win. Of course it very nearly didn't turn out that way.

As I watched the Netherlands–Costa Rica quarter-final go to penalties, I was in two minds over who I wanted to win. On balance I probably wanted the Dutch to go through. Costa Rica looked like they were playing for penalties from the start, judging by all that fist-pumping from their bench after a goalless 120 minutes. Holland, on the other hand, were desperate to avoid that outcome, but when it eventuated they didn’t just think “oh shit”, they actually made something happen by changing their goalkeeper. In the end it was good to see Holland – possibly the stand-out team of the tournament so far – make the last four, but this World Cup would have been far less enjoyable without the plucky Costa Ricans, and it’s sad to see them go.

The group stage provided one goal for every 32 minutes of play. In the first knockout round, we saw one goal every 48 minutes. In the quarter-finals, it took an average of 78 minutes per goal. Goals aren’t everything of course, but those figures are some indication that this World Cup, which began with a hiss and a roar, is in danger of petering out. Another factor is the (disappointing?) lack of upsets in the knockout stages – on several occasions the favourite was in jeopardy, but each time they just about squeaked through. That of course means we’ve got a heavyweight semi-final line-up, even without Neymar, and the legacy of this tournament will largely depend on what sort of show the remaining four teams put on. More 0-0 draws and penalty shoot-outs won’t help. Even if Holland win it, which I hope they do.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rolf Harris and cracking stats

Rolf Harris. He was on telly all the time when I was a kid. I remember him most from Cartoon Time when he did all those drawings in between clips. In 1993 he did his cover of Stairway to Heaven, complete with wobble board, which was rather good (and at the time I didn't even realise it was a cover!). All in all, I thought he was a jolly good Aussie bloke. Now, at age 84, he's been convicted of indecent assault on girls as young as seven, and he's likely to die in prison. You do that sort of crime, you do the time, even if you're 84. But it's worth remembering that it was a different world in the sixties and seventies. Since the scandal surrounding Jimmy Savile (he was also on TV all the time when I was small, and he seemed like a very dodgy bugger to me even then), several of these celebrity sex abuse cases have come to light, and we need to be a bit careful before imposing today's standards on events that happened decades ago.

Kevin likes to talk about his past. He recently talked about a time his girlfriend was stoned and almost burnt the house down by leaving a pan on the stove in the middle of the night, with two kids under two asleep. They didn't have smoke alarms. Apparently he wasn't stoned on that particular occasion, and he rescued his girlfriend and kids from the smoke and flames. He thinks he's a hero - "no-one gives me credit for saving those kids' lives" - and I tried to play down his hero status. At 22, and mentally a lot less, he was nowhere near ready to bring up a family, and neither was she. Sadly, he hardly sees his son and daughter from one year to the next.

I've started reading Quicksilver, the Neal Stephenson book that I borrowed from Tracy. She might be waiting a while for it. I have a feeling it'll be too clever for me. I finished Angela's Ashes which had the effect of making me realise I'm alive, and living with Kevin isn't all that bad. It really was miserable stuff. It also made me think what an amazing thing (from a food point of view) an egg is. You hear about super foods quite a lot; an egg is pretty much the ultimate super food. So many ways to cook them, and they're good for you (if you happen to ignore the dirty C-word). I ate two eggs a day during my one-month paleo experiment last October, and it hasn't done me any harm yet.

We're down to the last eight in the World Cup, and the classic matches keep coming. All eight group winners made it to the quarter-finals - I guess not many of the fancied teams finished second in their groups: they either went through as group winners or, in the case of Spain, Portugal and Italy, went home altogether. Five of the quarter-finalists required extra time, and two also needed penalties. The last three matches all went to an extra half-hour; those games were all goalless in normal time, but featured a whopping seven goals between them in extra time. All eight teams who played in Manaus, and therefore clocked up the air miles, have been knocked out. One of those was the USA, who were glorious in their extra-time loss to Belgium. Or at least I hope that the concept of a glorious defeat exists in American society.

What I hope the semi-final line-up will be: Colombia v Germany, Holland v Belgium.

Diving - probably my biggest hate in World Cup football - was the hot topic this week as Robben "won" that last-minute penalty against Mexico. A part of me thinks, wow, hats off to him for getting away with it, especially when it's someone that fun to watch, a bit like my admiration for an loose-aggressive poker player pulling off a crazy bluff. But there's one key difference - bluffing is a perfectly legitimate play in poker (indeed it's part of the essence of the game); diving to win a free kick or penalty is cheating.

I've been reading a few articles on FiveThirtyEight.com. It's an American site, most famous for Nate Silver's very accurate US election predictions. But it also covers sport, economics, social policy, whether we'll soon be paying to use the loo on flights... Most impressive is their analysis of footballer Lionel Messi - with all those charts and graphs, you get to see how, um, off-the-charts, this little man is. It's good to see some proper football stats for a change. People have this idea that stats don't "work" in football. Bollocks to that, basically, even if it's harder to quantitatively analyse football than cricket or tennis. Which brings me to Wimbledon. A lot has happened. Nick Kyrgios saved all those match points against Gasquet, then caused a huge shock in beating Nadal. Then Andy Murray got beaten today. Serena Williams hasn't been far from the headlines in the women's. But I haven't watched any of it and have only taken a passing interest really. With the World Cup and having a flatmate, something has to give.

Today was a crisp, sunny, South Island kind of day.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Space...

My uncle's funeral took place last Tuesday. It was a relatively small affair; about forty attended - no tyre kickers as he would have put it. As was his wish, he was buried with his garden shovel, which he'd had for decades. I got a bouquet of flowers delivered to my aunt who rang me at the weekend. I don't know how long she'll stay at the new house.

I’m worried I’m going to fall out with Kevin and we’ll end up not talking to each other. I’m amazed we haven’t fallen out already. After five months with a complete stranger living with me 24/7 (he might as well be), it’s almost inevitable.

On Saturday I stood for 3¼ hours at the entrance to Countdown with Tom, raising money for Autism NZ. People gave generously – it was pleasing to see. It must be the rock-star economy putting more money into everyone’s pockets. I must make sure I vote for Team Key (ugh) at the upcoming election so that the rock star doesn’t crash and burn. I think I’ll have a hard time voting for anybody. The difference between this year’s collection and the 2012 one was significant though; logically you’d expect an Autism collection to be more dependent on the economy than, say, a collection for a child cancer charity.

I couldn’t face staying at home on Saturday night, and luckily I didn’t have to. I went to the Carter Observatory with a few other people and managed to see Saturn through a 100-year-old telescope. It was an impressive sight, even if I couldn’t make out the reds and browns, and Saturn’s many rings appeared as one thick band. I 'd like to go back there and learn more about eccentric orbits and so forth, especially given the name I use when I post this blog. The more you think about the universe, the more mind-blowing it is. OK, so the universe is expanding. But what is it expanding into?

We had the second penalty shoot-out of the World Cup this morning, as Costa Rica finally did for Greece. I maintain that shoot-outs are crap. Exciting crap yes, but still crap.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Shoot-outs: rights, wrongs, solutions

After watching one this morning, here is a fairly brief version of what I think about penalty shoot-outs in football. If I'm honest, I don't think much of them.

Good:
1. They're high drama. It's hard to deny this.
2. They're over quickly (good for TV companies I guess)
3. They give goalkeepers a rare opportunity to become heroes.

Bad:
1. They're nothing like the actual game of football - that's my biggest problem with them
2. The burden placed on one player is too great
3. Play before the shoot-out is adversely affected (both teams are happy to "play for penalties")
4. They happen too often, and in the biggest tournaments (it's quite hard to win the World Cup without resorting to one somewhere along the way)
5. Players are expected to score - part of the beauty of football is that goals come at a premium.

Sensible, feasible solutions:

1. Hold the shoot-out before extra time, with the outcome of the shoot-out coming into play only if the scores are level after extra time. That should solve number 3 in the "bad" section above, as one team will be forced to attack. It also partially solves number 2, as a player who misses a penalty has a chance to make amends in extra time. It won't solve number 4 - you'll actually get more shoot-outs - but I'm OK with that as the shoot-out wouldn't directly decide the game. If they ever do change the current system, which isn't that likely in the near future, I think this is the method they'll employ.

2. Extend extra time. They're highly-paid professional athletes. Why do they have to stop playing football (as I know it) after 120 minutes? Why not continue for additional 30 or even 60 if necessary, and perhaps allow more subs in that case? With the prospect of penalties pushed back, simply playing additional extra periods should solve both 3 and 4 in the "bad" section.

3. Remove players from each side at regular intervals. Pretty simple really. Fewer players, more space, more chance of a goal. Think of rugby sevens.

4. Replay. For the final only. Prior to the final, a replay could put the whole schedule out of whack, but for the final itself, why not?

5. You could combine any or all of the above, and for domestic competitions, such as promotion play-offs, there are other criteria you could use. If a promotion play-off finishes in a draw after extra time, rather that use penalties, the team who finished higher in the league should be declared the winner.

Friday, June 27, 2014

In my face

It's the weekend, but so what? I don't really want to see anyone this weekend, not even Kevin. Especially not Kevin. It wasn't long ago that some of my weekends were people-free, if you don't count the market, and I was fairly happy with that. Now there's someone around, and in my face, all the bloody time.

Yesterday I had a performance review at work. I didn't think I'd have one so soon. I did a lot better than I expected; I haven't produced or achieved anything there for weeks, but my boss didn't seem to care that much.

We're getting the wobbles here in Wellington again. Two earthquakes yesterday (although I didn't feel the first one) and two others that I've felt in recent weeks.

Tomorrow I'll be collecting for Autism NZ for three hours at the new(ish) Countdown at the end of my street.

The group stage of the World Cup has been completed; I don't think anyone can complain about a lack of excitement. The States surprised many by making it out of a tough group. Australia didn't win any games but won plenty of friends with the way they played (and scored one of the best goals). It's funny how American and Australian sporting teams (and fans) can be almost intolerable in the events they excel at, but very endearing in sports like football. Some of the images from the match between the USA and Ghana were of pure joy.
Uruguay also made it, as one of three teams to qualify despite losing their opening game. They'll have to play the rest of the tournament without Luis Suarez, who got a well-deserved ban that could easily have been longer. I couldn't believe Uruguay's population was only 3.4 million - that's less than New Zealand.
The football has been excellent with none of the ball-related problems that dogged the last World Cup in South Africa. The refereeing could have been better, but offsides are quite hard to get right and until they use technology to make those decisions, game-changing mistakes will be made.
I hope the knockout stage is as good as the group stage, and please not too many penalty shoot-outs (more about them in my next post).

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Part two of the fruit series

In this episode (!) we talk about satsumas. I’ve eaten two today – it’s hard to eat just one. Of course people don’t use the word satsuma over here, which is a shame, because it sounds so squishy and juicy when you say it. Mandarin, which is the preferred term in NZ, doesn’t quite have the same effect. Around Christmas time in the UK, we ate boxes of the things. My brother was the biggest satsuma consumer – he’d usually eat the peel too – and we’d all know about it afterwards (and promptly vacate the room). Because they’re so easy to peel, and divide nicely into segments, they’re great for kids. They’re obviously firmly cemented in British society, for there exists a football team, some way down the pyramid, who play in orange and are known as the Satsumas. Here’s one of their match reports from 2000, written in Comic Sans; it makes following a non-league team sound way more fun than supporting Man City or Chelsea or whoever. (There are also at least two teams known as the Tangerines, but that nickname doesn’t have nearly the same level of awesomeness.) Click here for the post about persimmons. I don't expect this fruit series to last very long.

That leads me on to the World Cup (again, I know). During a dull moment at work (there have been quite a few of those lately) I was following the final matches of Group C. Colombia had already qualified for the next round, leaving one of the Ivory Coast, Japan and Greece to take the second spot. I would have been happy with either Japan or the Ivory Coast making it, but please not Greece. Colombia were beating Japan comfortably, so the match between the Ivory Coast and Greece was a straight shoot-out. The African side just needed a draw; the Greeks had to win. With the score at 1-1, Greece were awarded a last-minute penalty which they duly converted to book their place in the last 16 at the expense of the Ivory Coasters. Greece managed to qualify despite scoring only two goals in their group games and letting in four – the same record as England, who finished bottom of their group. I don’t know what makes Greece so unlikable in football, but whatever it is, they won’t care. Talking of unlikable, Luis Suarez should get a very long ban, if not a lifetime ban, for biting that Italian player, if that's actually what happened.

My flatmate had a check-up yesterday on his backside. He found out that he has an anal fistula and will need more surgery. He wasn’t in a good mood when I got home. I do feel sorry for him sometimes. “Fistula” is a nasty word, isn’t it? It’s the same length as “satsuma” and even has some of the same letters, but somehow it sits right at the other end of the word-niceness spectrum. I guess the meaning probably doesn’t help.

Joe Bennett has written a couple of interesting pieces lately. There's this one about multinational companies and the people who "work" at them, and this one about those extremely unhelpful people you get at information desks at UK railway stations. Oh god. Why are they always so deadpan? I still remember a few years ago asking someone at Leicester when the next train to Peterborough was. She wasn't far off the computer-says-no woman on Little Britain. "Twenty-one twenty-four," she said, or whatever it was. What? That's over three hours away! At least look like you give a damn that I'll be stuck in this hole for ages. By contrast I found the Italian information-desk people, usually women, to be very helpful, even though my Italian wasn't exactly brilliant. Train travel was a lot cheaper in Italy too.
Mum only found out on Monday night that her brother had died. I'm surprised it took them that long to get to a computer, even in a fairly remote part of the Dordogne, as they knew he was in a bad way. According to Dad she was beside herself, as you can imagine. I still wish I'd gone to the funeral.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Feeling bad...

I'm feeling a bit guilty about not going to my uncle's funeral, which takes place tomorrow. It seemed like an awful lot of expense and hassle to get down there - several hundred dollars and time off work.  But tonight I saw a curved TV advertised for ten times the cost of those last-minute flights, and maybe in the grand scheme of things it wouldn't have been so much. It's strange - when my other uncle died four years ago, there was no real suggestion that I'd be attending his funeral. I think I misjudged things a bit this time. I'll order my aunt a bouquet of flowers - that's the least I can do.

As strange as it might seem, those bloody board games on Saturday have a lot to answer for. If it wasn't for those, I wouldn't have missed an important call, I'd have had more time to organise things, and maybe I'd be down south right now. I didn't enjoy the games that much - the pizza we had in Kilbirnie between our two games was clearly the highlight for me.

Both Spain and England made a quick exit from the World Cup; we're now half-way through the matches. Spain at least have their huge successes of the past six years to fall back on. Not so England, who from what I saw, didn't actually play that badly. What's a real shame for England is that this happens to be (so far at least) the best World Cup in many people's living memory, and they were bundled out with three weeks and forty games still to go. Germany's 2-2 draw with Ghana was fantastic in the second half; the match between Portugal and the States (also 2-2) sounded almost as good and even more dramatic. It's nice to be getting some draws at last; draws tend to keep things "up for grabs", making the last round of group games more interesting.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

1944–2014

I was going to write something profound about satsumas and the World Cup, but that will have to wait now. Yesterday afternoon I'd only just arrived at Tracy's place to play board games when my phone rang. It was my aunt. My uncle had passed away in the morning. What was I supposed to say to her? He went downhill very quickly. It was only in early April that I saw him doing up their new house in Hampden. I sent him a card, knowing things were deteriorating fast, and it only got there yesterday morning.

My uncle turned seventy in March, having been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the beginning of last year. He was a good bloke, a typical Kiwi bloke you might say, who lived in South Canterbury all his life except those last few months - for some reason, even though his days were probably numbered, he got a bee in his bonnet about moving. Perhaps it was psychological: moving house is something you do when you're thinking about the future, so maybe he was trying to create a kind of pretend future that didn't really exist.

He knew his local patch like the back of his hand: every stream (he was a keen fisherman) and every slope of Mount Peel. He never really travelled, with one big exception. In 1999 he and my aunt (his third wife, although they weren't yet married) stayed a few weeks at my parents' place in the UK. They also went to Ireland. My uncle, who loved to share anecdotes back home and was generally quite vocal, was noticeably quiet. Away from his stomping ground he had nothing to say.

The funeral is on Tuesday. I don't think I'll make it. If Mum and Dad were home I might well have done. Mum has now lost two of her three elder brothers: her eldest brother, Dan, died in 2010.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

It's got to end some time, Kevin

I got an email from Dad basically saying, jeez, I hope you didn't upset your flatmate when you said you wanted him out by Christmas. It's funny that both my parents seem more concerned with his well-being than mine. I took him on for the extra money, not out of the goodness of my heart, although I think I have been pretty good to him - I've given him a lot of leeway (probably too much, partly because his past made me a bit wary). He has it pretty good here, with all those cooked meals (OK I'm not that good a cook) and all that housework that magically gets done, often when he's still in bed. He has the whole place to himself when I'm out, and has almost free rein on the TV and whatever the hell else he likes. His classes are a ten-minute walk from here. It's all very convenient for him and I can perfectly understand him wanting to stay. But...

The World Cup continues to excite and surprise, not that I can watch much of it. I did catch some of this morning's game between Brazil and Mexico; the Mexican keeper was in inspired form. I still have my booklet from the 2010 tournament, with all the results filled in. The group games from four years ago look a bit dull now; some teams (um, England?) operated entirely in binary, with every game finishing 0-0, 1-0 or 1-1. I'd written in some notes from my hotel in Bali - "Channel 13 (reception awful) or 8 (not much better)" and names of countries in Indonesian that I'd picked up. Ivory Coast was "Pantai Gading", Greece was "Yunani", New Zealand was "Selandia Baru". Watching the action in a foreign country, and not having complications like work or flatmates to contend with, made the whole thing more interesting.

Warning: if you don't like maths or logic or tennis, or probably all three, please ignore the next paragraph.
Last year I promised to do a hypothetical calculation based on the Wimbledon qualifiers, and post the result here, so twelve months later... Qualifying for the men's singles at Wimbledon (which is going on now) involves winning three matches: two best-of-three-setters and a best-of-five. There's no tie-break in the deciding set of any match. The question was, how dominant do the servers have to be to make a best-of-three, on average, last longer than a best-of-five? The reason why that is even possible, in any situation, is because you're more likely to reach a long third set than a long fifth set. If you make that final set long enough (and you do that by making both players demons on serve), the greater likelihood of reaching the final set in a best-of-three starts to outweigh the fact that you've played two fewer sets to get there. If you assume that both players are equally dominant on serve, and their dominance is constant throughout the match, it turns out that we need the final set to last, on average, 14 times longer than each of the normal (tie-break) sets. That might sound ridiculous, but to achieve this the server "only" needs to win 86% (or more) of points. That's a very high percentage obviously, but you might expect it to be higher. The average length of a no-tie-break set rises steeply once you get above 80% of points won on serve. By the way, if both players are winning less than 14% of service points (and I've certainly played matches where it's felt that way!) that would do the trick too.

A guy at work is due to become a father next month. So at work today they had a baby shower (if that's what they call it when it's the father). I ended up spending over thirty bucks on this event, which is quite a lot when you don't really know the bloke. And it meant you had to talk and mingle and all that tricky stuff. And I realised that there's at least an 86% chance that I'll never have kids.