Monday, December 31, 2012

The sun sets on another year

Another year is almost over. It hasn't been an easy one. My grandmother sadly passed away in January. The next month my job went rapidly south, as did the state of my mental health, almost as I moved into my flat. Moving out of my role in to a less stressful one was the best thing I did this year, even if it meant a severe cut in pay.

On Boxing Day I saw the Hobbit with my parents at the cinema in Geraldine. It's always a novelty to see a film there, even though I've done so a few times now. You get sofas to sit on, a mirror ball and an interval. I was really tired but it was a worthwhile watch. My only criticism was that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) seemed too human. I'm thinking of seeing A Life of Pi but the book was so damn good that I'd be worried that the film might spoil it.

I recently finished reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It was grim stuff, but certainly a captivating grim. I was puzzled a bit by the author's stylistic punctuation, or rather the lack of it. Apostrophes were removed from all contractions ending in -n't, e.g. cant or doesnt, and a lot of two-word phrases were fused together as a single word. The world had been reduced to its bare bones, so perhaps he was trying to replicate that barrenness on the page.

Mum has two female friends over from Australia. Their arrival (earlier today) has come at an inopportune time; Mum's stress levels have been off the scale.

Some top-class darts again this morning's semi-finals. Michael van Gerwen, who survived two match darts and a tie-break in his quarter-final, hit a nine-darter and had a dart for another perfect leg immediately afterwards. When I used to follow the game in my teens, nine-darters were so rare as to be almost mythical.

I'm about to go into Timaru with my brother to see in 2013 on Caroline Bay. The highlight of this holiday for me has undoubtedly been all the time I've spent with my brother. We get on really well.

Being a numbers geek, I note that the coming year will be the first for 26 years to consist of four different digits.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Wish I could dart back up to Wellington

I was looking forward to Christmas as a chance to unwind, but instead the tension here has ratcheted up to the max. The situation between my brother and (let's face it) his ex-partner has gone from bad to worse. Something happened the night before last which I can't write about here. It meant I spent most of yesterday away from my family - a welcome break for me.

Yesterday I met Phil in Timaru. We played mini-golf again. I lost again, this time by five shots (60 to 65). In 1989 it cost $2.50 a round. Last year it was $3. Now it's $5. Everything else at the carnival has also gone up this year, including the darts game which doesn't seem to have increased its cash prizes to compensate, so I didn't play.

Talking of darts, the World Championships are taking place in London and I've been watching some of the games on my parents' Sky. Whether you think it's a sport that requires pinpoint accuracy and steely determination, or a game played by 21-stone beer-swilling halfwits sporting tattoos and blinging jewellery, you can't deny that it works well on TV. I'd prefer it if they cut out the American-style cheerleaders and breaks after every set (they managed without such gimmicks in the nineties) but the game does produce its fair share of characters and dramatic matches. The requirement to "check out" each leg with a double (one of the thin slivers on the outer edge of the board), or the bull's eye, certainly helps in the drama stakes, as does the format of sets and legs which can result in an engrossing tennis-style tie-break. And the game does require the use of brain cells occasionally. Take a check-out of 126. Logic would suggest that to finish on a even number you should aim for even numbers, but your best bet is to go down for 19s. Of course, for us mere mortals, finishing 126 in three darts would be such a monumental task that you'd just try to make a decent score and reduce the target to something manageable. When I used to play (some time ago) both of us would often be left desperately hammering away at double one.

Phil talked about the difficulties in buying property in Auckland. "I can't believe how racist I've become," he said when bemoaning the influx of Asian investors who keep driving up prices. From that point of view, my move to Wellington was a positive one, even allowing for all the earthquake stuff. I'd quite like to fly to Wellington right now, but I've looked on the Jetstar site and flights at such short notice at this time of year are pricey as you'd expect, so I'll tough it out here for another four days.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

29 degrees but an ice-cold Christmas

Unfortunately all the tension between my brother and his partner has cast a shadow over what was supposed to be a family Christmas.

On Christmas morning we had bacon and eggs for breakfast, followed by champagne which I needed like a hole in the head. Mum made a wonderful dinner; as usual I ate too much. We watched Mary Poppins and the brilliant Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The temperature reached 29 degrees but at least we could switch on the air con. No such luck when we visited my uncle and aunt's place in Woodbury that evening - I sweated like a pig. My brother's partner didn't go, saying she was sick. She probably did have a slight upset tummy (I don't think the drink helped) but she'd already made up her mind hours earlier that she wasn't going. That night the engaged couple (ha!) had an argument and at 2:30am she sped off back to Rolleston in her company car. Since then she's been texting and phoning my brother incessantly. She's also been sending long eloquent emails to Mum, giving her side of the story. She'll be coming over soon to pick him up; they've booked an expensive whale-watching tour at Kaikoura. I'm hoping they call it off after that.

Last Tuesday - that's the 20th - I played a freeroll poker tournament at the Realm in Hataitai. I found it stressful, I found it gimmicky, I felt out of place, I didn't play well and I didn't last long. Martin never turned up.

I saw The Intouchables with Tracy (along with only six other people) last Thursday. I organised it - that's a rarity for me. It was a damn good film. She can speak good French so we were able to compare notes about how they decided to translate this or that in the subtitles. We had a chat after the film over a meal (of sorts - she has so many weird and wonderful food allergies). She gets tired easily as a result of her thyroid problem so we didn't stay long, but I felt there was at least the possibility of something happening between her and me. Since then she hasn't contacted me at all, but she's a bit like that so I'm not giving up completely. Not yet anyway.

I was glad to finish work on Friday. It hadn't been an easy week with people seemingly still on a high from the Christmas party. The next day I went to the zoo - for the first time since I was a kid - with some people from the depression group. They take far better care of the animals than in the virtual freak shows I remember from years ago. Here are two chimpanzees with their arms out for food, a tamarin (which I always want to spell with a D) and a pair of gibbons (males are black, females are white):

Monday, December 24, 2012

Fingers crossed for tomorrow

I've just got back from midnight mass (at 8pm) in Temuka. It was a long, sweltering service at St Joseph's Hall - the church was out of action due to a supposed earthquake risk - and we sang (or mumbled) just about every carol in the book including a few I'd never heard before.

I was up at six this morning for my early flight; there was sufficient break in Wellington's fog to let me board my plane after a short delay. However I had to fork out an annoying $70 for my luggage after unwittingly booking a luggage-free ticket. My brother and his partner picked me up from the airport, showed me their flat in Rolleston and we arrived in Geraldine shortly before one.

At one stage it seemed my brother would be with his partner for life. Now that looks unlikely. They have frequent arguments that are threatening to put a damper on our family Christmas. It's all such a shame; I really hope it doesn't spoil what should be a happy day for us all tomorrow.

Last week wasn't a bad one by any means, but I'll have to write about it next time - I'm too tired right now.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Baffling

Oh no, not again. That was my immediate thought when I turned on the radio to catch the news yesterday morning. Yet another school shooting. Twenty-eight dead: twelve girls and eight boys, all aged six or seven; six female staff at the school; the shooter's mother and finally himself. But for the quick thinking of the school staff there would have been more fatalities. Unfortunately this will keep on happening again and again unless America does something about its gun laws. Fat chance of that. Americans are as horrified as the rest of us when children are killed in this way, but few of them want to do anything about it. I find that utterly baffling. (I just heard on the news that there are 89 firearms per 100 Americans.)

On a lighter note we had our office Christmas party on Friday. It took place on the waterfront and started at noon. It was OK for the first couple of hours while the food was out - I've come to realise that I max out at around the two-hour mark when it comes to socialising - but I became more uncomfortable as time wore on. A lot of the talking I did (which wasn't much) was with a woman of nearly seventy - for some reason the bigger the age gap the less social pressure I feel. At half-three I was itching to leave - I was just sitting around staring into space. I was thankful to be babysitting for my cousin in the evening - that gave me a good excuse not to drink much and to leave early. I managed to escape on the dot of four. I went over to my cousin's place just after six and stayed until she and her husband got home at 11:15.

Yesterday the anxiety and depression group had a meet-up at Mac's Brewery, again on the waterfront. Only four of us showed up including a bloke from Wales, of about my age, who had only been in the country two months. He seemed a really nice, easy-going bloke, but nowhere near anxious or depressed enough to be part of the group. He talked about a recent date he went on, and the various extreme sports (which NZ is famous for of course) that he'd already tried. I almost think any prospective member should have to fill in a questionnaire if they want to join, with eligibility restricted to people who score above a certain level based on how they answered the questions. Been on a date in the last month? Lose ten points. The last week? Lose fifty. In this guy's defence, I'm pretty sure he had suffered from mental health problems in the past, and as he's new to NZ I could hardly blame him for joining groups as a way of meeting people. We had some really interesting conversation to begin with, but at the two-hour point (again) I started to struggle. When we parted company after 3½ hours I was in a worse mental state that when I arrived. I think it was the realisation that while many people find social situations hard, for most of them it's a temporary problem and only certain situations. For me it's permanent and virtually all situations. And there's the relationship thing - no matter how depressed people are, they still somehow have meaningful relationships. But I don't.

On the radio this morning they talked about "Mad Pride", a relatively new movement of mental health patients, along the lines of Black Pride or Gay Pride. The use of the term "mad" here is interesting because it's a word with many meanings: "fanatical", "angry", "foolish" and "insane" to name just four. Then there are a few compounds like "madcap" which I think of as being a wonderfully British word like "barmy" or "bonkers". I guess it's the "insane" sense of "mad" that's being used by the Mad Pride movement, perhaps with a tinge of anger, and because "mad" in that sense is a pejorative term it's only people who are "mad" who can get away with using it, a bit like what we've seen with "queer". The radio programme continued by interviewing some members of Sendam, who are mainly a drumming band based in Wellington, made up of mental health patients. The name is almost "madness" backwards - if they'd kept the double S you'd have pretty much got a cross between a Korean car and a viral pop song from the same country. They band were accepting donations so I gave them $15.

Talking of relationships, I asked Tracy if she wanted to see The Intouchables at the Penthouse. She said yes - probably one evening this week although I don't yet know which. Do I treat this as a date? Although we have similar interests our personalities are maybe too far apart, but you never know I suppose.

A bloke who sat not too far from me got fired last Wednesday. There in the morning, gone by lunchtime. It was for serious misconduct, though I have no idea what. I don't keep up with all the office gossip. From what I could tell he was good at his job. My boss and his boss are are in the process of grading and "calibrating" us based on our performance. As we found out last week, the percentage of employees who gets each of the grades is fixed. This raised one or two eyebrows in our team: "So even if we've all done a really good job, some of us will still get the low grades?" Yes, my boss said, saying that he didn't make the rules. I then piped up, saying that at least there's a flip-side: even if we've all been rubbish, some of us will still get the top grades. One of my colleagues likened the system to a school exam; working for a large company feels a lot like school to me. When I arrived at the company to start my actuarial role, I was given an HR pamphlet outlining various grades; it mentioned a literal decimation policy of "managing out" the bottom 10% of employees. As soon as I read that I thought, oh shit, that'll be me. In my current role, despite all the talk of grades last week, I really couldn't give two hoots what grade I get.

This afternoon I went to play poker with Martin at the Realm in Hataitai. Only it wasn't on. Their regular Sunday tournaments ended last weekend. We played a few games of pool instead on their free but ramshackle pool table. They've still got a tournament on Tuesday night and we've agreed to play then, so I'll need to rearrange my other commitments (I normally see Julie on a Tuesday).

It's been quite a hot day today. A couple of times lately I've been caught out, forgetting that Wellington does get sun occasionally and that it does burn just like anywhere else. I've still done precisely zero Christmas shopping. I plan to squeeze it all into a couple of hours next Saturday. What on earth do I get my brother?

I recently discovered the Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men after hearing this song which a bank used for one of their adverts. I think they're great.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Panic attack with a positive spin

I had a panic attack at work today. At about 3pm, out of the blue, the whole office seemed to spin for a few minutes as if I'd had far too much to drink. After the storm passed I still felt pretty yick for the next half-hour. I haven't had one like that for ages.

In my last post I forgot to mention Saturday morning's earthquake. Maybe I'm getting blasé about them now. It struck at 7:20 while I was still half-asleep. It was a significant shake but not enough to prise me out of bed.

Probably the biggest news story of the last week has been that prank call (not the one my work colleague made to a florist yesterday, but the one those Australian radio hosts made to King Edward VII hospital). The whole episode, which I found quite funny at first (how did they succeed with an accent that bad?!) but of course turned utterly tragic, is extremely unfortunate. Although their prank was perhaps ill-advised, there was no malicious intent on the part of the radio hosts; I just hope they aren't scarred for life by this.

I hope I can survive the Christmas party. I expect I'll need various tactical drinks and pees.

Some pictures from Saturday's tramp: an ostrich at Karori Sanctuary, an out-of-place modern castle (we saw someone hoon out of the castle grounds in a Porsche), a view looking back towards southern Wellington, and a World War II bunker.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Workout

Saturday's tramp (see next post for photos) was a real workout. Luckily the weather was just about perfect. We started at the Brooklyn wind turbine, were greeted by ostriches along the way, and ended up at some Second World War bunkers at the southernmost point of the track following a steep descent over perhaps half a kilometre. Not all of us did that last bit; I certainly had second thoughts about it. We had lunch by the bunkers and then had to climb up that steep slope. I struggled. My heart was pounding furiously. At the top of the steepest section (it was still pretty steep for a good way after that) I took a rough measurement of my pulse using the second hand of my watch. Boom-boom-boom, tick, boom-boom-boom, tick. One-eighty. We got back to the windmill at about 3:30, then went to the café attached to the Penthouse cinema. It turned out the one of the trampers is an actuarial student, with three exams to go before qualification under the US system. He seemed almost as disillusioned with the whole thing as I did towards the end. I must say I felt good after all that exercise, though I've felt a bit washed out and unmotivated so far this week.

My poker cash-out cheque arrived today. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss online poker, but the withdrawal symptoms are starting to wear off now I think.

The highlight at work today was when a colleague of mine thought frangipani (the flower) was pronounced "fraggy penny". She was then persuaded to ring up a local florist and ask if they had any "fraggy pennies". On Friday we've got that damn Christmas party.

Last night the autism group had their Christmas party (of sorts); we played a few games of Tsuro (one of Tracy's board games) and ate junk food.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bond and bowling

I've now played my last hand of online poker for what I hope is a very long time, and it feels pretty good. I've been wondering what the big draw card, so to speak, of online poker was in the first place. I can't say I got a thrill from it. It was mentally stimulating however, it felt "safe" because the rules never changed and made sense, and I never had to deal with real people. Plus it was a means of escape. But I've finally had enough of staring at a screen. I'm just about to cash out all my money, but how will I spend it? I've got enough for a pretty decent holiday, so I'm thinking I might go somewhere in May or June. Vegas?! Watch this space.

Last Wednesday we had the fortnightly depression group, which was made harder for me when one of my work colleagues turned up. Even in Wellington, which can be almost villagey at times, you'd get fairly long odds on that. Even though her desk is within twenty feet of mine, I don't know her that well. She's a large lady (about my height and considerably broader); she broke her arm at that work event (I'm guessing alcohol was a factor) and hasn't been in the office since. She was talked about yesterday - her ears would have been burning. Anyway, it almost defeats the object of a group when feel you can't talk openly.

On Wednesday we had all the Hobbit hysteria in Wellington (seeing that Hobbitised 777 flying over town at low altitude was impressive I must say), on Thursday I had lunch with Tracy, then on Friday I saw Skyfall, the latest Bond movie, with people from work. I don't find socialising with work people easy, but seeing a movie with them I can just about handle. We saw it in the Gold Lounge where we could lay back on Lazyboy-style chairs. The film was pretty decent I thought, a huge improvement on Quantum of Solace.

On Saturday I played my final hands of online poker, then on Sunday met up with three members of the depression group in Petone to try Laser Strike (i.e. a version of paintball that still allows you to walk afterwards), but that was all booked out so we did bowling instead. We played two games. My very first ball landed in the gutter but I recovered to post a solid 125 in the first game. Then, at the half-way stage of the second game my scorecard looked like this: 9/ X X X 9/. Sheesh. Breaking 200 was a serious possibility. But I basically crashed and burned in the second half to shoot a 159. I've always had reasonable accuracy without any style, technique or speed to speak of. And I haven't played that much, except for a spell in Peterborough when I played weekly; my highest score was 191 and I once broke 500 for three games. I don't think it's a game I could really get into seriously - it's all a bit brash and American.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Kicking the Hobbit

When I was eight my teacher Mr Wright gave me the Hobbit to read. I only got about half-way. I hardly recall any of the plot but I remember thinking runes were cool. The copy of the book was a fine physical specimen: at least A4 size with colourful pictures throughout.

Twenty-five years on, here I am in Hobbiton. The centre of Wellington has gone Hobbit crazy in the run-up to tomorrow's world première. On Sunday I went to the Hobbit market; the summery weather brought people out in droves. It was very well done, with bamboo poles and cloth bunting adding a certain authenticity, and great for kids.

I'm now on my last carton of soy milk: my dairy-free experiment is almost at an end. It hasn't made any difference; I'm still coughing up thick phlegm. But as I go back on the dairy, it's time to cut out something else.

I'm talking online poker. It's really started to take over again. I've been cooking meals while playing, which can't be clever. The money isn't really the problem, it's the time spent staring at a screen when I really could be doing something more constructive. I did quit once before: in the middle of last year I cashed out my bankroll, leaving behind just some tournament tickets. But I was back in no time. Before long I'd turned those tickets into cash and was grinding away again. This time I want to give up for good, or at least a very long time (I'm talking years), so all the cash, tickets and everything else must come out. I've got about US$4500 which will be useful money anyway. It will feel good to draw that line in the sand.

Last night I went to the autism group. It went reasonably well. A woman from WINZ came in to talk about plans to make it harder for people on the spectrum to claim sickness benefits. Those of us who weren't currently getting a benefit split off from the rest of the group; perhaps that made things easier as we were generally at the milder end of the spectrum. Tracy said she tried to be an extra in the Hobbit but was too tall (the first time in her life she'd been too tall for something). I'll be meeting Tracy for lunch on Thursday.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bush walk and a sense of relief

I had quite a good weekend. On Saturday I went on a tramp: the Hemi Matenga bush walk near Waikanae. It took 3¼ hours and it was probably the most arduous trip I've been on since that infamous one in April. The wet weather certainly played its part; the trek up to the highest point was fairly gentle - unfortunately we couldn't see a thing from the lookout due to the rain - but the downward slope was steeper and I slipped a couple of times in the mud. Danielle had signed up for the trip but pulled out when she saw the weather forecast. That was a shame. She is a little unsteady on her feet when going downhill but she probably would have been OK with a pole. The bush was lush and green; the more seasoned trampers among us pointed out plants along the way, such as hen and chicken fern which develops baby ferns at the ends of its leaves.

When I got home after the tramp, I felt that pleasant feeling of accomplishment as well as that unpleasant feeling of being desperate for a pee. That evening I went round to my cousin's place to babysit while they went to see The Intouchables, but not much babysitting was necessary as the film was booked out so they came straight home.

Yesterday the depression group met up at Denny's on Willis Street. We had an interesting chat and all agreed that while public acceptance of depression has improved in recent years, people are far less accepting of social anxiety. The group also met on Wednesday for our regular catch-up on Cuba Street. Just like yesterday, six of us turned up on Wednesday including an older chap with big milky eyes who has bipolar disorder - it was good to see him for the first time in ages. They might be planning some activity along the lines of paintball, but hopefully less painful. A poker night has even been mentioned.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Royal eclipse

My stress levels are down a couple of notches from last week. I've had no work functions or quizzes to deal with. When I described the work quiz to someone, she said it sounded like Cranium on crack. I've never tried Cranium, or crack for that matter, but I know what she meant.

This morning's partial eclipse of the sun caused some excitement at work. I saw the half-obscured sun through sunglasses, and couldn't really see a lot on my computer screen for the next minute or two. In 1999 we had a total eclipse in the UK. It was at about 11am on a summer's day; people used pinhole projectors and various other contraptions to view the once-in-a-lifetime event. The most striking thing for me that day was the sudden drop in temperature.

The other major happening in Wellington today (two in one day, I know) was Charles and Camilla's visit. At lunchtime I managed to glimpse the couple from 100 metres away on the waterfront. There was some ceremony involving a haka, and two wakas were brought out: I hoped Charles might get in one.

I went to the autism group again on Monday. It went better this time, perhaps because the two new guys weren't in my group so there was less disruption.

Last night I saw Julie, as I usually do on a Tuesday. She isn't very good at the moment - she talks about ending her life - but last night she was a little perkier. I took over the film Wall-E which seemed to cheer her up a bit.

The latest government valuations in Wellington just came out. They're reviewed every three years. The GV of my flat is down $20,000 since I bought this place, presumably due to the earthquake business, though it's still $11,000 above what I paid for it. Here's an article in the Herald (that I happen to agree with) about Auckland's (unsustainably?) high house prices.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Glad to get shot of that week

It hasn't been an easy week. We had our work function on Wednesday. It was a well-organised event I must say, but for someone like me it was always going to be hard work. It always amazes me how much people get into that kind of thing. Why can't I be one of those people who can enjoy themselves? Life would be so much easier. I would much rather have stayed at home. I would even have preferred to stay on at work for an extra five hours: that kind of work would have been considerably easier than the work involved in attending an office do. What the hell is wrong with me?

We had the function to spend the prize money we'd been awarded for selling lots of stuff. We all had to dress up according to what team we were in (teams had been allocated beforehand). Luckily our team leader just bought a load of Zorro masks, hats and swords from the $2 shop, so I didn't have to think. The focal point of the evening was a quiz that took about three hours. In between rounds there were bits where you could sing and dance in front of everybody to win spot prizes and extra points for your team (which could lead to more prizes). At ten-ish the quiz was blissfully over (our team finished slap-bang in the middle so we didn't even win the booby prize) and although my colleagues would be going for hours, taking advantage of the free bar, I snuck out, knowing I wouldn't really be able to leave any other way. I'd left a bag at work so I stopped off there on the way home. One of the call centre guys was there, looking worse for wear, waiting for his girlfriend to pick him up. "I got kicked out for pissing on the balcony." That's what free booze does to people.

Wednesday night was a reminder that I will need to change jobs at some stage (next month we'll have the Christmas party - ugh). Unfortunately the job market isn't very good, and anyway just about any job which I'd need to apply for will have the same problem. On Wednesday I tried to follow the US election during work; that's not easy when I sit next to my boss. I was happy to see Obama re-elected, and Nate Silver's predictions all come to fruition (of course Silver never said that Romney wouldn't win - he just said it was unlikely). I hope Obama is able to make a positive change in the next four years without being hamstrung by his opposition in parliament.

Today I went paintballing out near Porirua with six others from the depression group. And I got shot. A lot. In just about every place imaginable. It was inside (not what I expected); we were split into two teams and joined by expert paintballers (the expertise of the bloke with the orange balls was made obvious just by looking at my clothes). I'll be nursing those bruises for the next few days. And some people from the group want to go again!

Tomorrow we've got the autism group. On Wednesday I had lunch with Tracy. We talked about the changes to the group in 2012 and we agreed that they haven't been for the better. The increased attendance (it's roughly doubled) has brought about some more complex dynamics; one or two of the new attendees make for a tense atmosphere. In 2011 the main purpose of the group, it seemed, was to enable people on the spectrum to meet up and have a chat in an environment where they felt at ease. Now the purpose seems to be "practice" for the real world. One of the faciliators is rather patronising and talks to us like a teacher might do in a classroom of ten-year-olds. Believe it or not, we've all survived in the real world, in our own ways, some of us for over thirty years! Many of us - heaven forbid - even have jobs! OK, we all find social situations hard, to a greater or lesser extent, but at this rate the autism group will become just as hard for us.

My cold, while still lurking under the surface (it never totally goes away) but it's much better now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When will this end? Who nose

I'm still far from 100%. It feels like someone has shoved a pencil up my left nostril. It's not as bad as the acute attacks of excruciating sinus pain I had in 2008 but it still isn't much fun.

I've got that damn work function tomorrow. I'll see if I can sneak out early but I really wish I could avoid it altogether.

Some good news - my brother has been accepted into the NZ Army and will start in ten days. He'll initially be training in Waiouru but will be stationed in Burnham I imagine.

I'm hoping tomorrow's presidential election brings Obama four more years. Regarding Romney's chances, Nate Silver came up with this astute analogy: "All of this leaves Mr. Romney drawing to an inside straight. I hope you’ll excuse the cliche, but it’s appropriate here: in poker, making an inside straight requires you to catch one of 4 cards out of 48 remaining in the deck, the chances of which are about 8 percent. Those are now about Mr. Romney’s chances of winning the Electoral College, according to the FiveThirtyEight forecast. As any poker player knows, those 8 percent chances do come up once in a while. If it happens this year, then a lot of polling firms will have to re-examine their assumptions — and we will have to re-examine ours about how trustworthy the polls are. But the odds are that Mr. Obama will win another term."

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cold spell

My cold has pretty much written off the weekend for me. Yesterday it tipped it down and blew a gale, and I didn't want to do anything even remotely active anyway, so it was the perfect day so sit on the sofa and lose money at online poker. Today was a little more productive - I hoovered my flat, went to the market, had a large soy flat white on Cuba Street, and worked on a puzzle. And played some more online poker, fortunately winning back most of what I lost yesterday.

I need to be much more assertive the next time I see the doctor. I mean I'm getting these colds all the bloody time. In fact it never goes away. It's always there, bubbling under the surface, ready to flare up every sixth or seventh week. I don't know what's causing it. My near-perpetual cold seemed to start in February, when I moved into the flat, but I don't know if that's just coincidence. I can't see any reason why it should be making me sick, but then again I can't see why it's a serious earthquake hazard (I expect the yellow sticker will be slapped on the building some time in December).

I'm not looking forward to the coming week at work. On Wednesday there's an after-work function which I'm now committed to attending. It'll be some kind of rah-rah-rah to do with the company; all I know is that simply won't want to know.

This coming Sunday the depression group are going paintballing; I've put my name down. I wish it was on Saturday instead but hey.

The presidential election is almost upon us. The media here keep telling us the race is "too close to call" or "neck and neck". Some commentators are implying Obama is about a 55/45 favourite, when objectively it's more like 80/20 in favour of Obama. He's not a shoo-in but I don't understand why the media outlets keep telling us it's a virtual flip of a coin when so much objective data is saying something quite different. When I think about it, it's amazing that Romney has any chance at all. If the election were held in France or Germany, or even New Zealand, he wouldn't get a look-in.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Dessert island

Only four people went on yesterday's tramp in the rain - the sensible ones (Danielle included) stayed away. We didn't get too wet and it was surprisingly warm as we walked from Willis St up to the Brooklyn wind turbine. There were lots of facts of figures on a board near the turbine which I found interesting. Coming down was quick. After three hours it was nice to get home and dry off having benefited from the exercise.

Tonight I attended the autism group with sixteen others. It was good to see Tracy who has recovered from her latest bout of illness. In an email prior to the meeting we were given two topics for discussion. The first of those asked which three items we would take if we were stranded on a "dessert island". Cream, a spoon and some scales? A dessert island sounds like a lot of fun, but with my dairy ban I'd find it quite challenging at the moment. The other topic was our most memorable travelling experience. We split up into two groups and spent half the time on each subject. We struggled a bit with the desert island topic but were more at ease when talking about our travels. I could have talked for hours on that subject, having been lucky enough to have had many memorable trips as a kid, but only had time to talk about my trip to and from New Zealand with my family in 1986-87. Things got rather tense on a couple of occasions at the group. One trait of autism is a lack of empathy and there was a distinct lack of it on show tonight.

One of the two TV monitors we have at work (the one that I can actually see from my desk) was unusually tuned to Sky Sport today. This morning they showed extended highlights of Chelsea's match with Manchester United (Man U won 3-2 as it happened). I was thinking how the Premier League is really just a series of exhibition matches. You see some incredibly skilful football played by some of the best players in the world, but the games are meaningless as the teams may as well be hand-picked. In the afternoon they showed live coverage of what turned out to be the deciding game of the hilariously-named World Series. Is American baseball just like professional football, in that the clubs (or franchises) with the most money can afford the best players and therefore win? Is the physical location of these teams as meaningless as in Premier League football? I'm guessing so but I really have no idea.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Don't have a cow, man

I've taken Mum's advice and given up dairy products for a month, starting today. Mum, who can be dangerous when she gets on the internet (remember a certain Wellington-based job she found for me?), stumbled upon a web page similar to this one which gave a list of symptoms (Simpsons?) of lactose intolerance: depression (check), skin problems (check), frequent cold or flu (check), sinus pain (check) and a few others that I could tick off. Giving up milk products isn't that easy. I've always been a reasonably big cheese eater, I normally have one yoghurt a day (sometimes two at weekends), I put milk on my cereal every morning and in each of my six or seven daily hot drinks, and I have the occasional dollop of cream or ice cream. Last night at Pak 'n' Save I got a bit confused: are eggs dairy products? I rationalised that I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen a cow lay an egg, so in they went. It took me a while to find the soy milk, which I've already taken a liking to. It's very likely my experiment will make no difference, but there's a small chance that it could radically change my life for the better.

I took the crack-of-dawn (6:50) flight back from Timaru yesterday, in time for work (well actually I was a bit late). Apart from having to get up so damn early, it was a totally hassle-free experience. It was good to catch up with the family again. We all got on really well. I met my brother's fiancée for the first time; she's attractive, easy-going and highly intelligent (she appears to be blessed with a near-photographic memory). She's clued up when it comes to money and earns plenty of it. She's of mixed race: her mother's side of the family is a mystery to her but I'd guess it comes from India or thereabouts.

Mum and Dad worry about my brother, just like they do for me. At the moment he's jobless: he's still waiting for the army to get back to him. Unsurprisingly he's finding his driving ban to be a major pain in the butt. He's taken to cycling everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Being the super-fit bleep-test-winning guy he is, Geraldine to Ashburton is a nice easy jaunt.

Saturday afternoon and Sunday were very pleasant days but on Monday I woke up to an unseasonal flurry of snow. I didn't go very far while I was down there, but that was hardly the point. Hanging Rock, where I took this photo, was about the extent of my travels.

On Tuesday Mum and I went to Temuka and put some flowers on my grandparents' grave. While they lived to a combined 180, so many of the surrounding gravestones marked lives cut tragically short. There were several teenagers who died in road accidents, one of whom always sticks out. He died about five years ago; there are two pictures

inset into the stone, one of his face, the other showing an extremely tasteless two-fingered salute on the end of a tattooed arm. At least the empty beer cans are gone now. In late 2009 there was a spate of suicides. It's always interesting (if sobering) to visit the cemetery with Mum, who knows the stories behind the names.

In the last week or two, both Jimmy Savile and Lance Armstrong have featured prominently in the news. They have a surprising amount in common. I found this excellent post about Armstrong on the Guardian website. I particularly like the bit about the so-called American dream ("you have to be asleep to believe it").

Great news: Blogger now lets me add pictures again, and it no longer puts six blank lines after each paragraph, so it's actually better than it was before. Who would have thought it? I might not have to move to WordPress after all.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Catching up

It wasn't a bad week at work. We even had a 9km run (or walk as it was for me) on Tuesday afternoon as part of a fundraising event.

Wellington is bathed in sunshine right now. That's a bummer for me as I'm about a hop on a 19-seater plane to Timaru, although a quick glance at the weather map tells me it's much the same down there. Things are forecast to turn pear-shaped tomorrow.

It'll be good to catch up with my family again, in particular my brother who I last saw in May 2011, and to meet his fiancée for the first time. I'll be down there until Wednesday when I'll be catching a very early flight.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Puzzles, poker, parachutes and paintings

Nothing of note has happened since I last posted, so you might as well click the back button now.

After work today I finished off Puzzled, a book on cryptic crosswords by the Australian cruciverbalist David Astle that Tracy had lent me. I've dabbled in cryptic crosswords a bit myself (both solving and making them) and it was a very interesting read. He can't avoid seeing anagrams in everyday life, and to a lesser extent I suffer from the same affliction. I can't go past the Medusa bar (the one I didn't dare entre last week) without feeling "strangely amused". This isn't too far from the Tetris effect I suffer from when I see poker hands in car number plates. Putting the two together, if I got stuck behind a Honda Integra (granite, tearing, ingrate, Tangier, any others I've missed?) with 7432 on its number plate (that's the best draw in deuce-to-seven) then I'd really hope my insurance hadn't lapsed.

As for online poker, the less said about that the better. Over the last month my bankroll has been going in the same direction as the bloke who jumped from the edge of space this morning, and at about the same speed.

I was hoping to give the book back to Tracy at the autism group tonight but she didn't turn up - she wasn't well last week and presumably she still isn't now. The group wasn't too bad - better than last time because the two new guys weren't quite so disruptive, but I still miss last year's sessions with the smaller group and different facilitator.

On Friday I went to a watercolour exhibition with my cousin. It was a big event - several hundred attended including various dignitaries; you could hardly move. The quality of people's work varied enormously. A lot the time I'd be thinking, that's a bit like what my dad would have done, only he'd have done a much better job of the cows.

Saturday was a bit of a write-off weather wise for most of the country (my parents got over two inches of rain) but Sunday was sunny and I went for a short drive along the coast.

Next Saturday I'm heading down south for what will be a family reunion of sorts.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The height of class

Last Wednesday I attended the fortnightly depression meet-up. Only three of us showed up - the usual suspects: Martin, Giuseppe and me. With almost a foot separating the other two in height (Martin is 6' 5", Giuseppe 5' 6") and me being slap-bang in the middle, we could have re-enacted the "class" sketch by the Two Ronnies and John Cleese. Giuseppe had started taking weed as a stress-reliever. I only tried it a handful of times in 2001 when I lived in France. I must admit that I quite liked it. Some of the people I lived with were heavily into it though, not to mention stronger stuff that I wouldn't have touched with a barge pole.

The weather at the weekend was almost balmy, but blowing US$300 in two hours of online poker put a damper on things for me. On Sunday afternoon we had another depression meet-up, this time at the Southern Cross.

On Tuesday I'd planned to play a freeroll poker tournament at the Big Kumara in town. I turned up there, as did two older blokes, only to find it had closed its doors for good at the weekend. I then remembered Medusa had a tournament starting at the same time, but that place looked so dark and dingy that I didn't dare go in.

After work tomorrow I'm going to an art exhibition with my cousin.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Looking back...

October 1987. What a month. Although I was only 7½ at the time I remember it well. The Great Storm of '87 (famously unforecast by Michael Fish) ripped through Southern England, giving us a day off school. Our garden flooded; we had a canoe which my brother and I used to get about. My grandmother had flown from New Zealand to stay with us - she got sick and had to delay her flight home. She flew back to NZ on what must have been 19th November, the day after the King's Cross fire that killed 31 people; using the underground that day must have been a nightmare. October also saw a worldwide stock market crash that badly affected New Zealand where people had borrowed to invest in companies that had borrowed heavily themselves.

Twenty-five years on, nothing remotely as dramatic is happening. Work is still much the same. I still get pulled up for this, that or the other, and it doesn't make me feel any better about myself. Two weeks ago they started piping music through the loudspeakers; it's just a "classic hits" radio station that plays pop music from the eighties onwards. I wonder what happened in the mid-to-late nineties that caused virtually all mainstream pop music after that time to be complete and utter crap. They ran a bizarre raffle at work today. Tickets were $10 each (a bit steep for my liking) and there was just one monster prize up for grabs, which included a paid day of leave. I didn't quite see the logic of offering a prize with a salary-dependent cash value.

Last night I attended the autism group (along with 17 others) at its new location on Willis Street. I'm a fan of the move; the new place is close to both work and home. It's almost right beside where they have the Sunday market so it's very much on my beaten track, if not everyone else's. It's more spacious too so it'll give the ever-expanding group a chance to breathe. The session itself didn't go brilliantly last night though. A couple of new blokes (friends) have an axe to grind, a bee in their bonnet, and the facilitators do little to stop them.

On Saturday I went on a tramp - Cannon Point walkway in Upper Hutt. We had good weather and it wasn't too arduous. Only six of us did the trip including just one woman: an Austrian in her twenties who had piercing eyes that I found a little intimidating as she asked me difficult questions about my job.

My brother now wants to join the NZ Army. He had various tests and an interview last week. He did the infamous bleep test; apparently he outlasted everybody else by some distance (he would have thrashed me too). The maths test was a different matter - he's inherited his numberblindness from Dad - but after 13 years in the British army he should waltz in.

Yesterday they changed the code for getting into my apartment block. As the previous code was "press all the worn-off buttons in ascending order" that's no bad thing.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Bored games? No way

My brother and his fiancée arrived last Tuesday. I just gave him a quick call; they went to Christchurch today and rented out a flat in New Brighton. I asked him about buying a car, momentarily forgetting his (second) driving ban which lasts till February. My parents arrive on Wednesday. I'll be flying down south at Labour Weekend. I hope I manage to see my brother, and my future sister-in-law, but he and I do have a knack of missing each other.

We had a wonderful weekend of Wellington weather and it continued today. It would have been nice to have had someone around to enjoy it with. Just something simple like a walk along the waterfront. Sometimes sunny weather can make me more depressed because I see people enjoying themselves in the company of others while I'm on my own.

I can't complain though. Compared to how I was feeling six months ago, well there is no comparison. Those "head-banging" days, when I couldn't see for my thick depressive fog, appear (for now at least) to be over. Changing roles at work certainly helped, even if my current environment isn't somewhere I want to be in the long term.

Last Monday I went to Tracy's flat in Kilbirnie to play some board games. Four of us (that's always a good number) played. We started off with a quick game called (I think) Tsuro, where players follow tracks laid down by square pieces on an 8x8 board. It was a fun game if a little chaotic: you could easily be whisked away to a different part of the board, and then sent off the board entirely, in which case you were dead. The game continued until only one player remained.

The main game we played was Ticket to Ride, where each player had to form train routes to and from various cities across Europe (there are several versions of the game including the European one we played). A lot of the skill in the game revolved around the decision to accept or decline routes based on their length and location, and various other features. I bit off more that I could chew, accepting pretty much everything and although I made some nice long routes, my incomplete ones counted against me in the finish and I came third.

The games were a lot of fun and I hope we can do something similar again.

The iPhone 5 is out, and will be appearing in New Zealand on Friday. Inevitably there will be snaking queues then at various stores as people clamour to get their hands on the Holy Grail. This is all good news for me because it puts us one step closer to the iPhone 10. When the iPhone 10 comes out, I'll be able to snap up a crappy iPhone 4 or 5 for under fifty bucks and finally see what all the fuss is about.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

People at my flat twice in one week - whatever next?

Last Saturday's meet-up in Petone didn't do much for me. I'd forgotten that there was a rugby game between the All Blacks and Argentina; most of our group had forgotten about it too. At half-time in the rugby (an extended half-time due to the floodlight failure at the stadium) we went to a different pub to play pool. As I said in my last post, I've never liked pool. The game is 80% social, and it's the sort of "social" that goes on in pubs, which I'm especially bad at. Even Martin, who's pretty quiet most of the time, was much better at that than me. After ten the others wanted to play Laser Strike (do you play that?) which I was hardly in the mood for, but luckily for me the same power outage that affected the stadium also put Laser Strike out of commission, and we called it a (wet and windy) evening.

The next morning I picked up four chairs that I'd successfully bid for on Trade Me. I had to collect them from a Christian camp in Waikanae, a little over 60 km from here. My car needed a run.

I couldn't decide whether to go in to work on Monday but did in the end. Then, knowing that my colleagues had seen me below my best the previous day, decided to take Tuesday off. I listened to the US Open final which was a real treat, with minute-long rallies almost the norm. Andy Murray needed every bit of the cushion he built up after two very tight opening sets, and even then he might not have won it. In the fifth set he seemed to be the fitter man, and his experience of playing his semi in similarly windy conditions certainly helped him. Perhaps Djokovic wasn't at his best in the final but it's a well-deserved victory for Murray and a huge monkey off his back. I hope he kicks on from here and wins a few more grand slams. I spoke to Bazza the next day and he felt much the same. We also had our debate - again - over who is the best player of all time; Bazza always says Nadal should be placed above Federer in that regard due to their head-to-head record; I tell him that's a logical fallacy - just because A generally beats B doesn't necessarily mean that A is better than B, and that going by that logic you could place Djokovic ahead of both of them - but he takes no notice.

Last night my cousin's husband, their three boys and an 18-year-old English exchange student who's currently staying there, came to my flat and the six of us had fish and chips (my cousin had been in the States and was about to fly back). It was a nice evening actually. The boys got a lot of excitement just from being in a new place, and enjoyed playing with cardboard boxes and sellotape, proving that you don't need to spend big money to keep kids entertained. The exchange student is a really nice easy-going guy. And my cousin's husband sorted out my wireless internet connection so I can now play badugi in bed if I so choose.
Having people round gave me motivation to give the place a jolly good tidy.

On Wednesday I went to the tramping club and signed up for a trip in two weeks. I met Danielle there; I invited her over to my flat but she only stayed for ten minutes or so. I'm still a little concerned at all the money she's spending on alternative medicine, particularly as she doesn't earn much, but she says it's doing her good so who am I to judge?

Tomorrow night's autism group has been cancelled; Tracy has invited three of us over to her flat in Kilbirnie to play one of her board games. I think it's called Ticket to Ride; you have to build train tracks that go across America. It'll be interesting to see how it goes. I hope it's not too much of a train wreck for me.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Right on cue, here comes the flu (well I hope it's just a cold)

I've picked up a cold. Yet again. Tonight's pool evening in Petone with the depression group is therefore an unattractive proposition, but I'm still going. I'm picking Martin up (he doesn't drive - yet); that's a bit of bugger because he'll probably want to stay longer than me, although at least it gives me an excuse not to drink. I've never liked pool anyway - I'm only going so that I can get out and meet people. In my experience pool mainly involves flirting, with the actual game being accidental. And I'm hopeless at it - well I seem to pot a few balls but just hardly ever the black one, at least not intentionally.

My boss and his boss already want to know our leave plans for Christmas, even though it's 3½ months away. They want someone in the office at all times (except public holidays). I'd planned to take a good few days off for our first Christmas as a complete family for eleven years, but as I'm kidless and fairly new to the team I might be forced to work between Christmas and New Year.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

September and the smell of spring

September is one of my favourite months. In the UK we would sometimes have an Indian summer (and boy could they do with one over there now) while enjoying the plums, apples and berry fruit. Here the smell of spring is in the air. In Septembers past the milder weather would give me the urge to step onto the tennis court. I clearly remember that feeling from September 2005 when I studied for two actuarial exams while listening to US Open tennis coverage on the internet. That remains one of my favourite grand slams (perhaps because Agassi made the final at the age of 35) even though I didn't see any of it. I worked hard for those exams and passed them both. After the exams I took a few days off work and went down to Dunedin with my parents. I remember Coldplay's excellent X&Y album came out at that time. I also voted in a general election for the first time (I was quite excited by this for a number of reasons - I was intrigued by the vagaries of MMP, the election would be close, I had to cast a special out-of-electorate vote, and most importantly I was still naive enough to think it might make a difference to my life who won).

Seven Septembers on, things have changed a bit. I'm no longer playing tennis, or even watching or listening to it, and I've knocked actuarial work (I hope) firmly on the head. Last night I saw my cousin and her family for the first time in five weeks. Today I met up with a few people from the depression group; I had a coffee and a beer at Mac's Brewery, then we spent an hour at the Museum of City and Sea.

I've felt two earthquakes this weekend. Yesterday afternoon's shake (a deep-focus 5.5 centred close to Rotorua) lasted a couple of seconds while the jolt at 4:10 this morning (a 4.0, much shallower and closer to Wellington) lasted only a split second - I probably wouldn't have felt it if I hadn't just woken from a weird dream.

Mum and Dad have just got back from their Baltic cruise, where they stopped off at such weird and wonderful places as St Petersburg, Tallinn and Helsinki. They'll soon be flying to Split, where they invented a popular banana and ice cream dessert as well as that manoeuvre gymnasts do where they have their legs wide apart.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The real reason why old dads have autistic kids?

Neil Armstrong has died at the age of 82. An understated man, his was one of the enduring images of the 20th century. Seeing those grainy pictures on your black-and-white Grundig must have been quite stunning.

On Thursday there was an item in the news linking paternal age to autism. The older the father, the more mutations the baby is likely to have, hence more developmental problems including autism. But hang on a sec. My hunch (and it's only a hunch) is that autistic fathers have their children at an older age, on average, than neurotypical fathers. Since autism is partly hereditary you would therefore expect the prevalence of autism in newborn babies to increase with the father's age, if my hunch is correct.

Yesterday's planned Somes Island trip (I won't call it a tramp - the island isn't really big enough for that) was a no-go: I walked to the ferry terminal only to find the 10:30 sailing had been cancelled due to high winds that by Wellington standards weren't all that high (today has been a different matter).

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Voting with my fingers

I played my second live poker tournament on Tuesday night, this time at the Realm in Hataitai. My beginner's luck ran out as I lasted little more than an hour, only winning one hand. I didn't mind an early exit as I still found the experience a little scary. With my body completely uninked and unpierced, I felt a bit out of place there. After my swift elimination I popped over to Julie's. She still seemed on a high from her ten-day stint in that rest home but when she rang me today she'd definitely crashed down to earth.

Yesterday I went tramping at Butterfly Creek. I took some of the trampers in my car; I'm always nervous about driving to places I don't know with people I don't know. It was a good walk - nothing too strenuous -on a mostly sunny and (for Wellington) a remarkably calm day. Ten of us did the trip including Danielle and a young girl who must have had some sort of learning disability - she was with her father. I couldn't quite pick her age but I found out she was fifteen when we compared footwear and she said she was the same age as my boots. I'd add a photo or two but I've lost the ability to do that on Blogger. In fact I'm increasingly finding Blogger to be a pain in the butt and I'll soon be forced to vote with my feet (fingers?) probably by moving to Wordpress.

The British football season, which runs for nine months, started last night. There was an interesting article in the Guardian last week about the contrast between Olympics, which were conducted in such good spirits by and large, and football.

Belarus move down four places to 17th in my "best performing countries" league (see previous post) due to their cheating (fe)male shotputter. Belarus don't often make the news but they sure did last week. Valerie Adams claims a sixth gold for New Zealand who stay in third place. At the last depression group I said that Adams might still get the gold (just after she'd finished second) and Giuseppe looked at me as if I was stupid.

My brother and his fiancée arrive in New Zealand in just four weeks.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Punching above your weight

Tonight there's a programme on Prime about Paul Simon's Graceland. It's one of my favourite albums so I mustn't miss it.

The Olympics are finally over. To sum them up in two words: bloody great. I wish I could have caught the closing ceremony - I've seen a clip of it involving the Beatles' I Am the Walrus. What a song.

One phrase I hear a lot in New Zealand is "punching above our weight". Which countries did that in the Olympics? Whose performances were the most impressive when you take population into account? It's not as easy to measure as you think. Just dividing medals by population is misleading; it's much easier for a smaller nation to vastly outperform its expected medal quota than a larger nation. To see what I mean, imagine tossing 100 coins. Getting 60 heads is unusual but by no means impossible: you'll get 60 or more heads about 3% of the time. But if you toss 1000 coins, getting 600 or more heads is ridiculously unlikely. In fact getting 530 or more heads from 1000 coins is just as impressive as 60+ from 100 (they both have a probability of about 3%).

I tried to use that principle to obtain a ranking of countries' performances at the Games relative to their expected medal haul given their populations. I also employed the 4-2-1 points system (four points for gold, two for silver, one for bronze). There were 302 gold, 304 silver and 356 bronze medals awarded in total. That works out to be 2172 points. Each country's "expected haul" is their share of the 2172 total as a fraction of the world population. For instance China has 19.16% of the world's population so you could expect it to receive 19.16% of the points, i.e. 416. In fact China "only" received 228 points.

I realise there are all kinds of flaws to my method. I had to tweak the parameters a bit, and at any rate the allocation of medals is hardly random. Then most events limit the number of athletes per country (in some cases to just one) so even a theoretical supreme sporting nation wouldn't take home all the medals.

For all their flaws, these are the two tables I came up with. First, the twenty best performing countries:
1. Grenada
2. Jamaica
3. New Zealand
4. Hungary
5. Bahamas
6. Great Britain
7. Australia
8. Trinidad & Tobago
9. Netherlands
10. Croatia
11. Cuba
12. Denmark
13. Belarus
14. Lithuania
15. Slovenia
16. Czech Republic
17. Kazakhstan
18. Russia
19. Georgia
20. South Korea

And now the ten worst performers:
1. India
2. Pakistan
3. Nigeria
4. Bangladesh
5. Indonesia
6. Philippines
7. Vietnam
8. Congo
9. Myanmar (Burma if you prefer)
10. China (yes, number two on the actual medal table).

Seven of those countries on the "worst" list didn't win a single medal. Obviously they all have substantial populations. India's 1210 million people managed two silver and four bronze, while Indonesia (238 million) got one silver and one bronze. Pakistan (180 million) were the biggest population of those who scored "nul points". At the other end, New Zealand (4.4 million) clearly did punch above their weight; Usain Bolt led the Jamaican charge on the track (their population is 2.7 million); Grenada's solitary medal was gold in the men's 400m and with a population of only 105,000 that was enough for top spot.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cold and gold

On Wednesday I went to the (now fortnightly) depression meet-up on Cuba Street. After an hour or so I'd had enough (Giuseppe's incessant talking, which he says relaxes him, didn't help). I felt and looked quite agitated. A shame, because I'd been feeling reasonably good over the previous week or so.

My car is now driveable again so I was able to see Julie on Thursday. She'd spent ten days in a rest home on respite care and was on a mini-high from meeting all those (sometimes odd) people there.

Martin, the tall long-haired bloke from the depression group, emailed me asking if he could come over to my place and either play squash or heads-up poker. I said I'd probably want some time to myself at the weekend (I'd seen a lot of people by my standards) but he was welcome to come round for a couple of hours. So yesterday he came over at four and we hit the squash court. He had an interesting playing style, regularly using the ceiling as a fifth wall, and inevitably he got the ball lodged in one of the light fittings. He then threw a basketball up there and we ended up with three balls, none of which was the one we started with. After the squash we got some curries from A Taste of India and washed them down with beers - Martin seemed quite unused to spicy food. The couple of hours well and truly over, I washed up, hoping that might give Martin a cue to leave. But his couple was obviously different to mine; he stayed until well after ten as we saw Lisa Carrington win gold in her kayak.

The London Olympics are almost at an end. They've been a huge success. I've been reminiscing a little over previous Olympics; from Atlanta in '96 two things stick out for me. First, a volleyball match involving America. I don't even remember who they were playing, but it was a thrilling match that went right down to the wire. The Americans lost on a tie-break in the final set (or whatever they call it in volleyball) and the crowd reaction to the final point was one of stunned silence. No matter that you've just witnessed one of the greatest volleyball matches ever, your team didn't win so you're not happy. That summed up the American attitude to sport. My other memory was Michael Johnson's time of 19.32 seconds to win the 200 metres. It was a Bob Beamon-like obliteration of his own previous world record. Surely no-one would get close for two decades at least. Then some freak called Usain Bolt came along and broke Johnson's record. Last week Bolt ran a 19.32 to win gold, just like Johnson did, but he eased up at the end as if he couldn't be bothered any more. I found that slightly obscene. I have warmed to Usain Bolt a bit since my last blog post.

London has put on a wonderful show. The Brits have fully embraced the games in a way some thought they wouldn't. Their team of competitors has also been hugely successful. But I can't help feeling, given the state of the economy over there, that the golden glow will wear off quickly. Thirty-odd golds won't get your job back.

On Wednesday morning there was a slightly eggy odour in my flat. I couldn't figure out where it came from until I got to work and people starting talking. It was the sulphur from the Tongariro eruption.

My six-month cold is in full flight once more. The crusty snot is back.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ash, dash and crash

I saw The Amazing Spiderman tonight with people from the autism group. The movie exceeded my expectations which weren't all that high. It was over the top in places with all those cops and countdowns, and I think they made Peter Parker too cool, but I couldn't complain. We'd planned to see the Batman movie instead but there was some mix-up with the times.

Last night I went to the group, having missed the previous two sessions. Now that the turnout is well into double figures and they've brought in another helper, we were split into two groups while we discussed a topic. Last night's topic was work, which can often be a major issue for anyone on the spectrum. Talking about work was a useful exercise, but one member of the group talked almost self-indulgently on the subject (OK he had a couple more decades of experience than the rest of us) and the facilitator did little to stop him.

Talking of work, I survived my interim review. These six-monthly reviews serve as a reminder that I'll eventually need to find something else to do with my life. I still make mistakes at work, but who doesn't? What really gets me is how big a deal is made of my mistakes. I really don't need seven people reminding me to click on ABC whenever I submit XYZ. At times it's like that scene from Office Space where Peter is reminded about his TPS reports. It's frustrating because I take my work seriously when I'm there, and always want to do as good a job as I can. The only consolation is that I'm not the only one who gets this treatment.

I've just been watching the heats of the men's 110m hurdles. The last heat was like the Grand National: three runners (including the Athens champion) didn't even make the second hurdle! In an earlier heat, one runner fell victim to the new over-the-top false start rule.

Usain Bolt won the 100 metres, and judging by the way he finished he'll smash the 200, barring a false start. He could even dip under 19 seconds. I really can't warm to the guy though. He's got a massive ego; I don't subscribe to the view that he's entitled to one because he's so good. To be honest I find most male sprinters repulsive with all that preening, posturing and trash-talking, similar to how boxers behave.

Tennis shouldn't be in the Olympics but it was good to see Andy Murray claiming gold, for the loss of just seven games against Federer.

The fact that I even care right now what sports are in the Olympics, or whether this or that rule should be in place, is a good thing. When I'm depressed I really couldn't give a toss.

More good news: my car should be back in business tomorrow. I must say they did an excellent job on the rust I had on the roof.

Mount Tongariro's eruption last night has showered much of the North Island in volcanic ash and disrupted a few people's travel plans.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Olympic idea(l)s

New Zealand's oarsmen have snagged three gold medals in London. It was especially pleasing to see Mahé Drysdale win. He was physically sick with nerves the morning of the race. You could see how much it meant to him.

I enjoyed the knowledgeable commentary for the swimming. Compared to the rowers, the swimmers have it easy. With all the combinations of strokes and distances, if they have a bad day in the 200m backstroke, they can try again in the 400m freestyle. As someone said after the Beijing games, if there were forwards, backwards, sideways and on-one-leg running races, Usain Bolt probably would have matched Michael Phelps' eight golds. As for Usain Bolt, I didn't realise he was so damn tall.

The hosts look like they're heading for an embarrassment of silverware. And goldware. I remember Chris Boardman's win in the pursuit cycling in Barcelona, thinking it was marvellous that Britain got a gold. Now they're the undisputed kings on two wheels, having even produced a Tour de France winner.

A couple of other things:
Medal is not a verb. "She medalled in the 200 fly" debases the huge achievement of winning an Olympic medal.
The medal table itself is kind of bollocks. According to the table a gold is worth infinitely many silver; you only have to watch the reactions of silver and bronze medallists to see that's clearly not the case. Being second or third fastest/strongest/most accurate in the world is pretty damn good. If you must have a table at all, I'd use a 4-2-1 system (four points for gold, two for silver, one for bronze). But all the table really shows is that countries with lots of people and who spend lots of money on sport tend to win lots of medals.

I'm going to the autism group tomorrow for the first time in six weeks, and will be seeing the new Batman movie with the same bunch of people on Tuesday.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Going for gold

Today at work we were all called into a meeting - they want to introduce what I would call flexi-work, and asked for volunteers to take part in the pilot. Basically anybody who volunteers (or failing that, gets roped in) will have a complex role involving perhaps twice as many tasks. I can see the rationale for it (they want to leverage the know-how of both teams, enabling us to achieve our SLAs, whatever they might be) but I won't be volunteering.

The so-called quality team mark ten calls a month from each of the eighty or so call centre employees. Each call is given one of five grades. At the bottom end there's a "fail" as well as a "total fail" which kills off any chance of getting a bonus. Total fails aren't all that uncommon. The vast majority of calls get a simple pass. The top two grades - let's embrace the Olympic spirit and call them gold and silver - are reserved for calls in which a special rapport is built with the customer. Golds and silvers give you an increased bonus, but they're rather hard to come by. The quality team deliberate at length before dishing out a silver, and sometimes the head of department gets involved. As for gold, well that grade might as well not exist. Amazingly someone recently got a gold for the first time in 18 months. By my reckoning that's 15,000 calls! Of course this is rather convenient when it comes to remuneration. "You can potentially earn up to $xxx per week." Yes, if every one of your calls gets a grade which is only given to one call in 15,000.

The sport of badminton has been brought into disrepute at the Olympics. Four women's doubles teams were disqualified for trying to lose (against each other) to get an easier draw in the knockout stages. I can't condone what they did, and I'm glad they got booted out, but heads must roll over a competition format that makes it advantageous to lose. It's amazing how often the organisers of major sports competitions come up with formats and rules without thinking them through properly.

Thinking a bit about Monday's poker tournament, my nervousness might actually have helped me. I don't think I gave away much about my hand because I'm sure I looked petrified no matter what I had.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

It's August already...

It was with a certain sense of pride that I watched last weekend's Olympic opening ceremony. Music, film, comedy, sport, industry, one small island was at the forefront of so much of it, and that small island happens to be where I was born and bred. Once or twice during the ceremony I thought, hey, that's a bit odd, but eccentricity is after all a particularly British trait. The only slight annoyance for me in an otherwise impressive ceremony were those film clips. I wanted to see what was going on inside the stadium. I bet the Chinese found it all rather baffling - it was a very different show to the one they came up with four years ago. I must say it made a nice change to see the teams come out according to the Roman alphabet for the first time since Sydney.

I do like the Olympics. For once individual sports get a look in. In the UK in the eighties and nineties, you'd often see individual sports on TV - athletics, swimming, boxing, snooker, darts, tennis, sometimes even squash or badminton. But in New Zealand in 2012, team sports are totally dominant: the various rugby teams, the Warriors league team, the netball franchises, and more recently the Breakers (basketball) and Wellington Phoenix (football). I gather (from hearing names like Susan Devoy) that people used to care about individual sports in NZ, but those days are long gone.

I've only caught sporadic Olympic action so far. I've enjoyed the weightlifting the most - it's simple, it's dramatic, and there's something quite marvellous about seeing someone lift nearly three times his own body weight (even if he might be juiced up to the eyeballs).

A couple of questions about the London Olympics:
1. Who designed the logo? It's awful! It doesn't help that the zero in 2012 looks a lot like Australia.
2. Who designed the font? I quite like it, but it looks a little too Greek for London.

Last Friday I saw a psychologist at Massey. She thought I did have Asperger traits but didn't think it was worth my while getting a diagnosis. She emphasised the importance of exercise and social contact. Perhaps most importantly she said I need to exercise even when I feel like crap both mentally and physically. The session cost me $130; I decided not to get a report which would have been another $130. It wasn't completely pointless but I still feel rather let down by the mental health system. I don't qualify for any actual help, without paying through the nose, simply because I've got a job. It wasn't always this way but the current government have cut back mental health funding to the bare bones. Now that's a false economy if ever there was one.

I'd planned to come off Efexor completely under my own steam but having reached 150 mg, I made an appointment to see the doctor yesterday. He recommended that I stay at 150. He also said I shouldn't bother taking any supplements, that I need to get back on that e-therapy course that I'd given up on, and that I probably should set aside a couple of grand for a full course of CBT.

On Monday night I played my first ever live poker tournament at the Cambridge Hotel pub, just down the road from me. It was all very anxiety-provoking for me - lots of scary people of both sexes with tattoos; at times it felt like being in a Western movie. I had a reasonable understanding of the game (no-limit hold 'em of course) but the physical chips and cards, as well as all those scary people who were regular players, added several extra dimensions to the experience. I bought in for $10; four hours (and plenty of good fortune) later I took home $85 for finishing in the silver medal position out of around 25 or 30 players. I've been on edge for the rest of this week - I wish there was some way I could calm down.

In other poker news, it looks like I might be getting my hands on the US$1400-odd I tried to withdraw from Full Tilt Poker over a year ago, just before the site was shut down. I'd almost given up on the money but Poker Stars have just bought the company. It's not a massive amount of money but it's still my bloody money, so this is excellent news.

It was sad to hear last week of Margaret Mahy's death. I read plenty of her stuff as a kid, completely oblivious to her Kiwiness.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Auckland: taking the plunge

I had a good long weekend in Auckland. It wasn't exciting but that was hardly the point. Actually, when I think about it, there was some excitement on Friday night. I arrived at the All Seasons Hotel in the city at about 10:30 that night. My room was on the 15th floor of 18. On the stroke of midnight, just as I was drifting off to sleep, I got a knock on the door. It was the police. Someone had jumped (or fallen) from the floor above; I hadn't seen or heard anything so I wasn't much help to the cops. Remarkably, as I later found out, the man survived after landing on the corrugated iron roof of a four-storey building.

The next morning I woke up to read about the shooting in Denver - the so-called Batman massacre. Yet another mass shooting in America. Sadly, unless they amend the Second Amendment, there will be many more.

I caught up with Richard on Saturday; we attended the autism group along with about thirty others. It was good to see some of the old faces again as well as a few new ones. The specialist subject for July was "memorabilia". I talked very briefly about my great-grandfather's writing desk which I recently inherited. Of course for some people at the group "briefly" is an alien concept. One guy always had a habit of talking at serious length no matter what the topic; he didn't disappoint this time.

My hotel wasn't far from Skycity; that evening I wandered into the casino. The bloke from the depression group had planned to fly up and play poker so I thought I might meet him there. In the end he gave it a miss but I hung around there anyway, not putting a brass razoo on any table or in any slot machine but just watching. There's something eerily fascinating about the place. From a balcony I watched a popular game involving three dice that I hadn't seen before. The dice are placed in a kind of bell and shaken up by some Shake-o-Mat machine while people bet on an array of combinations and totals. Shake-o-Mat stops, the dice man announces "two double-five" say, he presses some buttons and the winning sections of the table (in this case "even", "big", "12" and a few others) light up. I tried to calculate the casino's edge on the various bets and saw a pattern: the bets that offer the prospect of a big win tend to give the house the biggest edge. This makes sense from the punter's perspective - he turns up with $100 for a night out and some excitement, and who knows, maybe he'll get lucky and leave with $500 or $1000; he's happy to pay a bit extra for that possibility. Taken a step further, people play Lotto because they might win life-changing amounts even though they face an "edge" of maybe 40-50%.

Sunday was a horribly wet day. I met up with the Wellington autism group's previous facilitator (she moved to Auckland six months ago); we had lunch and an interesting chat at one of the bars around Britomart. Her time in Wellington was quite a stressful one; she seems more relaxed now. I haven't got as much out of the Wellington group since she left.

That evening I had dinner at Richard's flat, a ten-minute walk from Mt Eden village. He made a tasty soup and mostly we just chatted. I'd really like him to come down this way - I offered to pay for his flight.

My hotel was just opposite the place where I worked on the earthquake claims, and I half-wished I was still working there. Sure enough as I checked out on Monday I bumped into my old boss who was on a fag break. We didn't have much of a chat - he didn't seem in the mood for it.
Later that day I caught up with Mandy, my former work colleague. She bought a property a couple of months ago. She's in a relationship with a manager at work; they must have a lot of disposable income between them. When we worked together we found solidarity in our dissatisfaction with work, but while mine was with that whole working environment, hers was specific to the company. She's since found her niche I think.

I met Richard once more before catching the 7pm plane. I took yesterday off work. In the morning I took my car into VTNZ. Some of the faults they picked up at the other place have been replaced by new ones. I might simply have to bite the bullet and pay for the repairs: not having wheels is a bigger inconvenience than I imagined.

On Friday I've got an appointment with Massey - an initial consultation before possibly getting CBT. In an attempt to make up the time I stayed late at work today (smashing my PB for the number of letters sent out on one day) and will do the same tomorrow (apart from the PB bit).

Talking of PBs, the London Olympics is almost upon us. I'll tune in for the opening ceremony - I hope that, and the rest of the games, are a resounding success. My favourite Olympics so far would be Barcelona. Perhaps that's because I was only twelve so I followed it all enthusiastically. Even now I remember who won Britain's five gold medals. (I also remember who won Britain's only gold in the following games in Atlanta. I find it laughable that the Aussies fear they might only win a dozen golds this time around.)

Here's another great song by Amadou & Mariam. Knowing a bit of French helps I guess, but it's far from mandatory.

In other news, my five-month-plus cold (which never really went away) is back :(

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Tired

I've been really tired all week. Getting out of bed has been a struggle. On Tuesday when the news came on the radio (that's supposed to be some sort of cue for me to get up) I just rolled over and next thing I knew, the red digits showed eight zero zero.

I'm not planning on doing anything strenuous in Auckland. I met the six-foot-five guy, for the first time in a few weeks, at last night's depression group. It wasn't much of a group - just him and me. He suggested that I play in the $2/$3 no-limit hold 'em game at Skycity (he sometimes flies to Auckland specially for that). I might take a look at it (apparently you can watch) but I'd want to have a much better idea of how it operates (mostly around the rake) before jumping in. Besides, live poker is probably more stressful than anything I'll want to do up there.

I'm looking forward to Saturday's autism group a lot. It'll be good to catch up with Richard and the gang.