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.