Wednesday, November 30, 2011

E for excruciating

I got my hair cut yesterday during my lunch break. I had to talk which I really wasn't in the mood for. It was also the most expensive haircut I've had in my life.

I went swimming last night and will take a break from it for a while. I've got a skin condition - it seems to be dyshidrosis (awkward spelling). Lots of tiny bubbles appear under the skin of my hands, mostly around the base of my fingers and in between my fingers. The bubbles burst, the skin cracks, peels and sometimes bleeds. The Wikipedia page mentions chlorinated water, which seems quite likely given how much worse it has got since I started swimming, so I'll give it a rest and see if it improves.

My new boss mentioned the dreaded E-word - exams - in yesterday's weekly catch-up meeting. He recommends that I resume them sooner rather than later. Oh no. At Monday's autism group I said I'd like to be my own boss one day; some people there thought that would be very stressful. My dad has been his own boss since 1977 and has never been unduly stressed by it.

Tomorrow morning (our time) Birmingham play Braga in Portugal in the penultimate group-stage match of the Europa League. Win and Blues are into the next round, but that's a very tall order. My prediction is that Braga beat Blues while Brugge beat Maribor in the other match. Then Blues thrash Maribor in the last round of matches but it will all be for nothing because Braga and Blues play out a draw that sees them both through. Blues would miss out despite an impressive haul of ten points. Let's hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My two seconds of f(l)ame

Yesterday was election day and it turned out to much more exciting than I expected. Not because of the election, although that certainly had its moments, but because of the fiery publicity stunt in Cuba Mall. I was sitting on a bench outside Matterhorn, trying to do the crossword, when a car pulled up (it's a no-car zone there) displaying some message about fractional reserve banking. The driver, wearing an orange high-vis jacket, got out and spray-painted a dollar sign on one of the benches and "What is fractional reserve banking? Google it!" on the ground. He then asked the handful of us who happened to be there what fractional reserve banking was. I made a reasonable stab at his question. Next he said he was about to do some magic trick to make his car disappear, and offered to pay $1000 to anyone willing to record it. Nobody had a camcorder handy and I got back to the cryptic. Then BANG! and the car was suddenly in flames. I must have shouted an obscenity or two, then dashed into the comic shop where I watched the car go up in smoke. The stench was terrible. A couple of shop owners tried to extinguish the flames before the fire brigade and police came. The man made no attempt to get away; I think he wanted the publicity and chose election day to pull off his pyro party trick. I made a police statement and even gave a statement to some student journalists. I have since Googled "FRB", yes I can see problems with it, but setting light to your car in a public space isn't how I would choose to raise awareness.

On last night's news, there I was! My first ever TV appearance, as far as I know.

I've always quite liked elections even though I switch off from a lot of the political machinations that take place in between. The first election I clearly remember was the UK election of 1992 when I was twelve. You had more charts and graphs than you could possibly shake a stick at, and boy did I love that! Peter Snow was very excited by his swingometer and so was I. Unlike Kiwi elections, the polls in the UK don't close until 10pm and the bulk of the results aren't known until after midnight, which was well past my bedtime. Mum and Dad let me watch for a bit, but it was only the next morning that I learnt that John Major's Tories had won a close race. We happened to live in Major's constituency of Huntingdon. It's true blue there, so under FPP your vote is rendered pretty much meaningless.

By the time '97 rolled around, the Tories had been in power my whole life, and I have to admit it felt good to see Labour sweep to power in a sea of red, a landslide win largely brought about by the disproportionality of FPP. In 2001 I was old enough to vote but was living in France; I could still have voted if I'd wanted to but in that particular election I couldn't see the point.

So I voted in a general election for the first time at the age of 25, and as I was out of my electorate I got to cast a special vote. Boy did I feel special. For some reason I found the NZ election of 2005 fascinating. Just like in the UK, urban areas tend to go red while rural electorates vote blue, but the way the votes are counted means the story plays out very differently on the night. In the UK, the votes for each constituency are pooled together and counted in one location, so the very compact urban (left-leaning) areas are counted quickly, while remote areas (the Orkney Islands being an extreme example) take all night. So Labour tend to sprint out to an early lead only for the Tories to come back strongly at the end. In NZ, each polling station counts its votes separately; some booths in the back and beyond in Canterbury may only get a dozen (probably National) voters, but in urban electorates like mine some stations will take thousands. This all means that the pattern you see in the UK is reversed in NZ. This wasn't something I'd thought about, so when Labour overturned a big deficit to sneak home, it took me by surprise.

Three years ago we had a change of government but everything played out almost as expected. This time I found the whole thing a lot more interesting. The biggest highlights and lowlights for me:
  • The Greens. It'll be 11% when the specials come out; maybe a 14th MP. Both Turei and Norman are highly intelligent people, they ran a great campaign, and I think the party will continue to do well until green policy becomes so "obvious" that such a party no longer needs to exist. In Wellington Central (yes I know we're all hippies here) the Greens trailed Labour by just twelve votes (in the party vote) on the night.

  • Winston First. I didn't see that one coming. He will add some flavour to the next three years even if I wouldn't trust the man as far as I could throw him, and he come with the nice little side benefit of preventing National from getting an overall majority. John Key's asset sales just get that little bit harder.

  • John Key himself. National didn't really score a resounding win in this election, but Key sure as hell did.

  • The badly-designed referendum. If you answered yes to the first question, do you answer the second? Who knew? And how many people had the foggiest idea of what all the other voting options were? I've got a maths degree and STV messes with my head (despite that I still thought it was the best non-MMP option).

  • The tied vote in Christchurch (specials still to come). What are the odds of that? And it goes to show your vote really does count - who would have thought that?

  • The TV3 coverage. Really good I thought, even from Paul Henry who I haven't always had much time for. Just one thing - I wish they'd stop saying "60% of the votes have been counted." No, 60% of the polling places have been counted, which is a totally different thing.
It's been another glorious day in Wellington (even if it's blowing a gale now). This morning at the waterfront market there was some march involving drums and bells. I had no idea what it was about. But I love the fact that Wellington people care about stuff and like to express themselves. That's the sort of place I want to live in.

We've got the autism group tomorrow night. No doubt the election will take up a fair old chunk of proceedings. If you're autistic, I'm guessing a big National win isn't quite what you want.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cinderellarised

Congratulations to Winston First. Not only have you got back into parliament (dammit), you've invented a new word!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chinese whispers

It was a strange day at work today. It seemed to be dominated by two hour-long conversations between my boss and one of my immediate colleagues, in Chinese, just a few feet away from me. I found it all a bit unnerving. What are they saying? They both speak good English so what is it that they don't want me to hear? I heard more Chinese spoken in the office today than English. I didn't like it, but apart from learning Mandarin (which is something I'd actually like to do one day) there's not much I can do about it.

A phrase I've heard a lot during this election campaign, especially from National, is "getting ahead", as in "if we raise tax rates for higher earners, hard-working New Zealanders will find it harder to get ahead." The phrase is bandied about as if everyone can get ahead. Well I'm sorry, but for someone to get ahead, somebody else has to fall behind. Then when you put in the hard yards and overtake a few people, guess what, there are a whole bunch of people who are still ahead of you! The thing is, hard work absolutely should be incentivised, but for many people, whether they get ahead or fall behind is due to circumstances as much as anything, and a lot of people work their butts off just to stand still.

It might be breaking the law if I were to post election predictions on voting day, lest I influence the thousands of swing voters who frequent my blog, so I'd better do them now (two hours before the deadline) just in case. I'm picking National to have enough seats to govern alone, despite getting below 50% of the vote, due to a fairly large proportion of "wasted" votes (I don't think either Winston First or ACT will make it).

National................64 seats
Labour..................39
Green....................13
Maori......................4
Mana.......................1
United Future..........1
Total....................122

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Election - keep MMP!

Some news for all you who have followed the fortunes of Fixed and Floating since 2009: Andy got married last Saturday. It's all happened fairly quickly but good for him I say.

Last night I spoke to Julie, who also figured fairly prominently in the early stages of this blog. She has had what you might call an annus horribilis, but the good news (for both of us I think) is that she'll be moving to Wellington before long.

I also went swimming last night; it was even busier than usual. If you weren't careful you could have lost an eye.

On Monday I woke up to a force nine gale and the weather hasn't got a lot better since.

It seems National, or should I say John Key, is nailed on to win this election. I struggle to see why he's quite as popular as he is. Politics goes in cycles I suppose - the timing is right for him - but more than anything he's cultivated a brand, and in 2011 brands are, well, Key.

I've been thinking a little more about MMP and electoral systems. MMP isn't perfect but in my opinion it's clearly the best of the five options on the table (the second-best being STV). The biggest flaw with MMP (but please, still vote for it!) seems to be voters' lack of say in which representatives from a particular party make it into parliament. It's all down to the party list; us voters have no input into its make-up. But how about this? Instead of getting two votes at the election, you get just one, which goes towards choosing your electorate MP and the number of MPs each party gets. There are still top-up seats (like the current list seats) but these go to the best runners-up. Say for example National get half the votes throughout the country, that will entitle them to 60 of the 120 seats just like it does now. Say National also win 45 of the 70 electorates, then the 15 best runners-up from National also make it into parliament, although unlike the winners, these MPs don't represent their electorates - they'd be called "additional" MPs or something like that. How you determine "best" would be up for debate, and the current 70-50 split might need looking at, but it's fairly easy to understand and (I hope) better that we currently have. The BRU method - it has a certain ring to it; Kiwis tend to like a good BRU.

I've also been thinking about the whole concept of electorates. The world is smaller, so where we live is less important now than it used to be (which means first-past-the-post, which is totally geographically based, gets gradually worse over time). Why not carve people up using some other variable such as age or occupation? Where we live is often down to chance, and there can be huge differences even within electorates (especially in big cities - I always find the results by polling place the most interesting of all, and it wouldn't be stupid to use to those figures to help decide which suburb or street to live in).

Finally on the subject of the election, whether the winning party is blue or red or green or pink or yellow, or some combination, for most of us it won't make a lot of difference.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

All sorts of crap

I went swimming tonight as I usually do on a Tuesday. I continue to be amazed by the number and variety of tattoos on show. I've got no problem with them but I've never come close to even thinking of getting one myself. Am I missing something?

We had the autism group last night. Ten of us turned up; we now have a "topic" to begin the meeting, just like in Auckland. This perhaps helped the evening follow a more positive course than the previous one. However there was one bloke who talked about crap rather a lot, and when I say crap I actually mean crap. A real positive to come out of the meeting from my (selfish) perspective: I'll be meeting one of the women for lunch tomorrow. There's also a woman who goes tramping regularly; that's something I wouldn't mind getting into - it has all kinds of benefits: exercise, meeting people, seeing parts of the city and country that you otherwise wouldn't, exposure to vitamin D, and much more besides.

When I got home I gave my brother a ring. He's about to go away on a two-week trip for his new marine security job. He'll be paid handsomely - £4000 - danger money I suppose.

Yesterday I acquired a new boss at work. He's originally from China - for some reason the Chinese gravitate towards these kinds of professions - and has a two-letter surname that, despite its brevity, I'm unsure of how to pronounce. Friday was a particularly weird day at work. We had our elevenses at 11:11 on 11/11/11, while my actual work was the financial equivalent of deciding which games and goals to arbitrarily exclude to make a football team's league table position look semi-respectable. I was more than happy to publish the real data but my boss and his boss clearly weren't.

The weekend was one of contrasting weather - a vile Saturday followed by a gloriously sunny (and verging on hot) Sunday. The pleasant weather continued into yesterday. The highlight of my weekend - if you can call it that - was my attempt at house-hunting. I looked at three places, but none of them were really suitable. The last place needed earthquake strengthening.

A got a text from Phil about the annual p├ętanque tournament on Waiheke. He lost in the final for the third year running! I don't know who beat their team in the final but I bet it was Patrick, the dreadlocked Frenchman whose teeth are a mixture of yellow, brown and non-existent.

Berlusconi has gone. Hooray! (even if it did take a debt crisis to get shot of that megalomaniac).

The general election is a week and a half away. It doesn't seem long since the last one. To be honest I don't think it matters much who wins, although I will vote nonetheless (for whom I really don't know). Since I've lived in New Zealand I've felt gradually less attached to the political process, even if I've moved to within a stone's throw of where it all happens. As for the referendum on our voting system, that's a much easier decision for me. I'll be voting to keep MMP. Sure it needs the odd tweak (some restriction on defeated electorate candidates remaining in parliament through their party list would be nice, and I'd no longer allow parties who win an electorate but gain less than 5% of the party vote to get their full allocation of seats). But a return to first-past-the-post (which looks like the only alternative in the running) where some votes are vastly more important than others, and a party can govern with fewer votes than its defeated rival, would surely be a step backwards.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Elevenses

Tomorrow is 11/11/11, a rather striking date when you see it on the page. We'll see nothing like it again in our lifetime. What's more, it's one of those rare occasions when the crazy date format they use in America works just fine. At work we'll be celebrating this once-in-a-century event with a morning tea at 11:11 (when else?); the Brits might call it elevenses.

Life has been fairly uneventful since my parents came to stay. Last Tuesday I felt a bit down after work because it seemed I was locked into my current job for ever. My low mood didn't last long.

I guess the only news of any significance is my first real attempt to buy a house. I put in a tender for that Lego-style place in Hataitai. Expecting to be miles short of the accepted offer, my tender of $325,000 was "only" $10,000 shy.