Sunday, December 29, 2013

Wishful thinking

It was wishful thinking that I might be over this yucky patch. I didn't feel too bad this morning. I watched the darts - two very good quarter-finals that both went down to the wire, each going to a tie-break in the final set. I noticed that Kirk Bevins (Countdown champion and now a trainee actuary) was the announcer for the second match. After that I felt I should actually do something constructive but even just a short walk was a major effort. I felt like I could collapse at any moment. Martin came over just after 3pm, and some human contact was just what I needed, even if I couldn't stop myself from yawning. I asked him if there were any vacancies at his work, even though I wouldn't fancy my chances of holding down a new job for any length of time right now. We played a game of chess, and I was all at sea ("so you're just offering me your knight?!") but I actually lost more slowly than I guessed I might. He then stayed for dinner - I just used some leftover turkey and ham and boiled up some vegetables. I was more than happy for him to stay - even though I was feeling like crap, I figured that being alone would make me feel even worse. Martin wolfed down that food with incredible speed, and didn't leave a scrap. Surprisingly he asked if we could play Scrabble. I fared a bit better than in the chess (and got better selections than in the game on Boxing Day), winning by 320 to 175, despite getting an unplayable Q near the end.

I'm less tired now than I was several hours ago, but with work tomorrow I should probably think about hitting the sack.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Depression - it doesn't take time off over Christmas

Maybe I'm coming out of yet another depressive spell, and soon it will be completely wiped from my memory. I hope so. In case it does get wiped, I'll mention right now that things got seriously shitty.

I've had all the physical symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, without (yet) the chronic bit, plus a whole load of really crappy stuff going on in my head.

I was able to finish work at three on Christmas Eve, but still felt (and looked) completely shattered when I got home. I remember it being an unpleasantly weird day for me, but I've mostly forgotten the details. Dad was also struggling: his tablets to help him pee less often during the night had the side-effect of reducing his blood pressure. We went to church at St Joseph's, a modern building just around the corner. The sermon was unlike anything you'd get in Geraldine. The priest told a story, but not the nativity story, and even used a spade as a prop. At times he switched to Spanish - he must have spent some time in South America. There was also a lot of Maori being spoken, even though I could hardly see any Maori among the 400-plus-strong congregation.

On Christmas morning Mum put the turkey in the oven, then we went for a long walk (at least 10 km) around the bays. It was good to make the most of the sunny weather, but neither Dad nor I was quite in the right state for that sort of distance. Mum forged on ahead, anxious that the whole apartment block might have burnt down, though at least the seismic risk problem would have been solved. The building was still intact when we finally got home, and we had a good Christmas dinner: turkey, ham, lots of vegetables, Christmas pudding, not much alcohol. Mum even made those extremely tasty devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon). It made a nice change having it in my flat with the sun streaming in, and with just the three of us. (I don't think I could have faced a big extended-family Christmas, and I'm pretty sure Dad couldn't have faced that prospect either.) It turns out my brother also had a quiet Christmas with a friend of his - they go back a long way. We then went over to my cousin's place and sat outside (and grazed, as if we needed more food) in the early evening sun.

On Boxing Day we took my old TV to the tip (that cost $5), picked up a few $2 books from there, then drove around the coast. Mum and Dad had their eyes on properties and for-sale signs - they'd like to buy an apartment here at some stage. That evening we played Scrabble. Mum had a really good game, as evidenced by the speed at which she played (the whole game only lasted an hour) and how little complaining she did. I didn't do so well. I had a bunch of letters that didn't go together (F, U, V, W) and no esses or blanks or anything remotely useful like that. I did have the J and the X - at the same time, quite late in the game. Mum must have beaten me by forty-odd, with Dad, who was unlucky to get stuck with the Q, a bit further behind.

Yesterday I was at work, and it was a shocker of a day. At one point I ended up in the store room. I couldn't find anything I needed, and I must have balanced myself on two box trolleys, rocking back and forth, knocking brochures and letterhead and envelopes off shelves, not really caring. It wasn't too bad being in the store room really, as long as I didn't attract anyone's attention, or heaven forbid, someone actually came in. They didn't. At lunchtime I ventured outside, as always, even though the weather was horrible. I sat in the food court and opened Love in the Time of Cholera at page one. I read and re-read the first few lines over and over, not getting anywhere. As far as work was concerned, I might easily have entered incorrect bank account details and a lot worse. Walking to and from work, and even just around the office, was painfully slow. Later we saw the second Hobbit movie, which I thought was very good, even if I struggled to concentrate for 2¾ hours. If I suffered from arachnophobia I probably wouldn't have lasted very long. The end, which absolutely invites you to see part three in a year's time, was a bit of a surprise to me.

Mum and Dad flew back home this morning. We'd had a pretty good Christmas together, even if both Dad and I were struggling. No arguments, apart from the one on Monday when I broached the topic of work. That's always been the number one source of arguments with my parents. After dropping them off at the airport I went to the market then attempted to put up a small ad for a flatmate in New World in Newtown. I asked one of the staff who wasn't very helpful - they don't have that facility - and in reply I dropped the F-bomb on her. When I got home, for some reason I remembered that the darts would be on so I found a live stream. I saw an extremely high-quality match where a bloke by the name of Peter Wright, sporting a mohican and a tattoo of a snake on his face, averaged a whopping 106 but still only squeaked past his younger opponent 4-3 in sets. It's changed so much since I watched it as a kid - with all the walk-on music and cheerleaders, it's become a lot like the rugby sevens. I received a website-related email that I was supposed to act on, but it was all beyond me. I got very frustrated and rolled around on the floor shouting. I walked into town and sat out on the waterfront for a while. There's nothing like Christmas to make me even more aware of the passing of time, and I just sat there with my head in my hands. Life is slipping away and Mum and Dad and me, we're all getting older and it's all happening so damn fast. My brother's getting older too and I have no idea when I'll see him next. I've now had eleven Christmases since I landed in Christchurch. Christmas in 2023 or 2024 doesn't even bear thinking about. I happened to bump into my cousin and her family. Their youngest was riding a bike; he picked it up almost instantly just a few days ago. When I got home I made myself go to the gym. That's probably the best thing I could have done. I then spoke to Richard, and I'm certainly feeling better now. I came off the Efexor a few days earlier than planned (because I was feeling terrible) and that might have made me feel even more terrible. It's anyone's guess.

The 60th anniversary of the Tangiwai disaster, which killed 151 people, received some media attention (including a very unjolly radio programme on Christmas afternoon) and with such a huge death toll I'm utterly ashamed that I didn't know anything about it before.

Sometimes I think they should bring back public flogging. Those teenagers who attacked that German couple camping in Whakatane on Boxing Day certainly deserve it.

About ten days ago Louis Theroux did a programme on American autistic kids and their incredible parents. Boy do those parents have it tough. I'm glad they touched on life for these kids after childhood. The saddest bit for me was when the mother of an autistic boy talked about praying for a miracle every time she goes to church. Her (non-autistic) daughter said, "Mom, God made him that way" to which the mother said, "Yes, God made him that way to teach me a lesson."

Here's hoping my mini-revival continues. I'll be catching up with Martin tomorrow.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Feeling funny

I've been feeling a bit funny the last few days. Dizziness. Weird tingling sensations. No feeling in my limbs. Lack of energy. Whether it's Efexor withdrawal or something else I don't know.

Mum and Dad arrived yesterday. It was really good to see them, and we get on pretty well (as long as I don't mention anything about work). We had a very tasty (and inexpensive) meal at a Chinese restaurant on Kent Terrace last night. As a rule regarding Chinese food, the less Chinese it is the more likely I am to enjoy it.

The upturn in the economy has made consumerism even more depressingly rampant than in recent Decembers; a combination of that and my own financial situation has put me in an even less Christmassy mood than normal. But when we had festive music playing at work today, I thought, you know what, some of this is actually very good. Especially the one by Slade, which is surely the best of them all.

David Coleman, BBC sports commentator for almost half a century, has died at the age of 87. There was something about the way he said, "The Olympic 400 metres final" that made me think, this is important.

We'll probably be going to church tomorrow evening.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Game shame

Back to work today, and a reminder of why it was so nice to have that week off.

The autism Christmas party went well tonight I thought. There was plenty of food and plenty of chat. There were also a few games going on. Tom had brought along Cards Against Humanity, a game he'd printed off the internet. When I got the gist of the game (I'd never heard of it), I was really surprised he (and not Rob, a guy who might be into that kind of thing) had brought it. It's a party game, but certainly not a nice party game, and not (I would think) a game that anyone on the spectrum would enjoy. All the pop-culture references, the sexual themes, the potential to cause serious offence. It's an extremely "neurotypical" game and I'm glad I didn't play (the novelty would have worn off for me after ten minutes) but I must admit that hearing "bitches" followed by "crystal meth" followed by "a big black dick" coming from the next table, at an autism Christmas party, was hilarious. At our table we played Bananagrams, a fast-paced word game; 8:30 came around extremely quickly for me playing that, and I could quite happily still be playing now (it's ten past midnight but I couldn't sleep).

My dad has an exhibition in Timaru. It opened yesterday, with no shortage of food and wine to hopefully entice potential buyers. And they did buy: Dad sold six paintings on the day. That might (or might not) sound like a modest number, but some of those were the bigger, more expensive ones. There's definitely wealth in South Canterbury - people have sold farms and found themselves with big bank balances all of a sudden. As well as cars and (occasionally) paintings, they've been spending their money on overseas travel, and that might be why five the six paintings Dad sold were scenes from outside the country - in the past it's always been local scenes that have sold.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


So the Christmas party came and went. It wasn't that bad. I was very glad I missed the events of the afternoon, pictures of which formed a never-ending slide show. The food was good. I drank enough to look like I was almost participating, but not enough to put me out of commission for the next day (which, I'm guessing, is less than it once was). One of my older colleagues impressed me as she told me about her vinyl collection (5000 records). The event didn't finish till midnight and some people would have carried on at some establishment (The Establishment?) on Courtenay Place, but I sloped off at about nine. The chances are (70%?) I won't be attending next year's party.

I got an email on Friday that made me a bit more optimistic about 2014. It wouldn't take much (just one or two lowish-probability events that appear to be outside my influence!) for things get much better, and for all kinds of possibilities to open up, and break the cycle of impossibility that I've found myself in.

On Thursday night another British guy took a look at my flat. He'd seen the Pak 'n' Save ad, not the TradeMe one; the demographics of the two would be slightly different. He'd be a bit older than the other guy, maybe my kind of age. He worked as a tree surgeon and was still in his work clothes. I'd be more than happy for him to move in, but it seemed he needed somewhere a bit sooner than I could offer. I feel a bit funny showing people around (although it was easier with him than the younger bloke). Why has he got this much space to himself? Did his wife leave him and take the kids with her?

Mum and Dad will be spending Christmas with me. They're staying from the 22nd (next Sunday) to the 28th. I'm looking forward to it. My cousin wants us to go over to their place but my parents aren't that keen, and neither am I. We want to keep things as low-key as possible, especially after last year when things got high-key rather quickly.

I played a lot of MGMT on my week off. Yesterday I heard a song by Elton John on the radio called Grey Seal - luckily it was on the Sound and I was able to search their playlist and find it. I'd only ever heard it a couple of times before. Great song, even though I'm not sure what the lyrics mean. I must check out more of his stuff.

I didn't go to the cricket but I snapped this picture of the scoreboard on Friday - the third, and as it happened, last day of NZ's win over the West Indies. It doesn't make happy reading for the Windies - you can see that their last four batsmen were all bowled for a duck in the first innings, and they were forced to follow on. I note that they had both a Samuels and a Sammy on the team - there must be some joke there about playing it again.

Tomorrow the autism group have their Christmas party. Plenty of new faces have appeared this year, and some have gone too. The only male facilitator we had - the one whose football team reached the semi-finals of the Chatham Cup - left because he was too busy. That's a shame - he was a thoroughly nice bloke, and he provided some balance to the other facilitators.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The edge of madness

It's been good to have the week off. At the back end of last week I think I was going slightly mad. My mental and physical processes had slowed to a crawl. On Friday it took me half an hour just to walk home from work; I was drumming on my lunchbox and mumbling to myself (well a bit more than just mumbling) the whole way. If I hadn't already decided to take this whole week off, I'd have called in sick last Thursday and Friday. Unusually, I'm fairly sure what triggered this latest episode. In this instance it was work, which is a hair-trigger for me.

Continuing the subject of madness, perhaps, the body of Australian tennis coach Paul Arber was found in the Waikato River this morning. An exceptional tennis player in his own right, he was in Hamilton for a junior tournament. Some passers-by saw him swimming in the river in the early hours of Sunday morning. They talked him out of the water, but he went back, and that was the last anybody saw of him alive. His behaviour was described as being "distant and spiritual" shortly before he went missing. Something clearly wasn't right with him; I doubt anyone will figure out exactly what. It's all very sad.

Last Friday somebody at work saw on the Stuff website that Nelson Mandela had died, and apart from some Chinese-whispers-style confusion where a few people thought that Nigella Lawson had popped her clogs instead, nobody really paid the story much attention. I suppose it has been coming for some time, and most people at work are too young to really remember apartheid and what the great man stood for and achieved. I'd put myself in that category. I remember watching the 70th birthday concert - he was still in prison then - but at that age (eight) all I thought was, old man, in prison, that's bad, let him out. There were a lot of musical protests and tributes back then too; I still think Paul Simon's Graceland album, though controversial at the time, was amazing.
Mandela's passing has received wall-to-wall media coverage and rightly so. New Zealand has always had close ties to South Africa through rugby and the high numbers of South Africans (50,000) living here. Being in Browns Bay on the day of the World Cup final in 2007 - oh my.
I've just read that the sign-language interpreter at Mandela's memorial service, whose gestures were pure gibberish, has claimed he suffered a schizophrenic episode prior to appearing on stage.

On Saturday I attended the anxiety group Christmas party along with nearly thirty others. It was quite enjoyable, mainly because it was pretty low-key. I could tell the staff at the Speights Ale House were hoping we could all just go home and put them out of their misery. We weren't drinking very much Speights. The guy who runs the group, whom I know reasonably well, has done a remarkable job. The group has grown from fifty-odd members when I signed up to about 350 now. A real success story. (For me the increased numbers has actually made things harder; there are now so many events organised by so many people - heck, even I organised one - that it's hard to know whether I'm coming or going.)

This week I've been busy using my brain in a way I want to be using it, which is a rarity for me. I've been trying to revamp a website using WordPress. The user interface is great, but it's still really really hard. I've had to monkey around with the code (and I'm really just fumbling in the dark there) more than I expected. I struggled to find a so-called "theme" that was appropriate so I had to pick one and customise it - that's a bit of a dangerous thing to do. I've installed a couple of plugins to stop things from happening (I guess most people install plugins to make things happen, but not me.)
I toyed with the idea of going to the test cricket, what with taking the week off work and being a two-minute walk from the Basin where it's all happening, but I've really got to crack on with this website business.

On Monday Tracy, Tom and I played an extremely crazy and chaotic (but enjoyable) board game called Wiz-War. Luck played a huge part, so even though I had to ask Tracy what this or that card allowed me to do (which meant she'd know what I had and could plot a strategy accordingly) I ended up the winner. It was a very close finish - in cricketing terms I won off the last ball with only one wicket left.

Tomorrow they've got the work Christmas party. This year they're kicking off the party at lunchtime with some kind of team-building event. The dinner bit starts at 4:30. Last Friday my boss asked me whether (on my day off) I'd be going to the whole thing or just the dinner bit. Umm, are you sure there isn't another option? So I'll pop along at half-four (or quarter to five) and hope I don't have to stay too long. The first couple of hours (food, the odd drink) will be OK, but at that point I hit the wall. I mean, what are you supposed to do then? More drink, just because it's something to do, and tactical loo breaks every half-hour. That's about as good as it ever gets. I spoke to Mum on the phone tonight, and mentioned the party. She enthusiastically told me to enjoy it, asking if I had a smart shirt ready, adding in "be sociable". There are several helpful things she could have said, but she didn't pick one. It's funny - over the last few years her understanding of "what it's like" has improved no end, but she still comes out with things like this that make me think she's got no idea.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Latest slump

I'm now down to just one small Efexor pill every second day, and in the new year I'll be off it completely. At one point I was taking the equivalent of ten small pills every day. Coincidentally I've been feeling like crap the last couple of days, with little energy or strength.

I'm pretty sure it's work, not medication, that has caused this latest slump, and I'm equally sure that I'll keep getting these slumps for as long as I'm in this job. I guess I was a bit pissed off with mixing up those accounts. What happens to our customers is something I care about, so to make an error that directly affects two customers is disappointing (if not at all surprising). But it's more the regime change, the new boss, the way they want me to be part of this big amazing team, the way I'm getting more like a busier version of Bill Bailey in this episode of Black Books every day, the way I don't want to be there any more. And the fact that I can't see any other realistic options that would be better.

I wonder, out of curiosity, what kind of grade I'll get in my annual assessment. For some reason I kept all six of my assessment letters from my job in Auckland. They were a bit more meaningful because they determined the size of my bonus (wow, a bonus, that feels like a long time ago). My personal score only counted for a third of my incentive, the department and the whole company being responsible for the rest. The first time my boss gave me two out of ten. At the time I hardly gave it a moment's thought (It was a pro-rata bonus as I'd only been there a short while, so the dollar impact was pretty small) but seriously? Two? The following year they changed the rules. If you didn't get at least four for your personal score, you weren't entitled to any bonus at all. I had a long meeting with my boss, punctuated by a fire drill, and she agreed to give me a four. The next time (far shorter meeting) I got another four. Then, shock horror, an eight! How? Ah yes, a change of boss. Someone who appreciated me. Then (another change of boss), it was back to four. Finally, my boss took pity on me and wangled the assessment to give me yet another four.

I was going to write more but I'm not at all in the mood. The good news is that my mood will improve again, and the even better news is that I've taken next week off.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A matter of time (and space)

I've just been to see Gravity in the Hutt with the Meetup group. It's a "space thriller" starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Being a Tuesday we were able to (affordably) sit in the deluxe lounge and see it in 3D. Even though I lay back in a reclining chair to watch it, I was on the edge of my seat. My muscles tensed up; it was like playing a video game and leaning into the corners. The distinct lack of characters was a big plus for me, and I like the way Sandra Bullock played the part of a strong woman. That movie really got into my head, in a good way (I hope). I'm glad I saw an earlyish showing, otherwise I probably wouldn't sleep tonight.

Today my boss informed me that I'd made a fairly significant cock-up. Back in May I'd loaded the same account details on two policies that were completely unrelated, except that I dealt with them at almost the same time. So someone has been paying for both (he's only just noticed that), and someone else has had free cover for seven months. Oops. I apologised several times. We'll have to refund the money to the bloke who has paid twice, and hopefully get some of the money out of the guy (or girl, I'm not sure which) who has paid nothing. I'm not at all surprised that I've made a mistake like this. I pick up a lot of my own mistakes before they become a problem; I've always wondered how many I must miss. I make so many notes and they save me so many times, but when I can't remember what I did a minute ago, this sort of thing is bound to happen. This error led my boss to have a bit of a "chat" about my performance, and how we can improve it in the new year. The chat wasn't that bad, but I didn't like that it was in full view of everybody. She's done this before (and worse) with other people, and I find it unprofessional and a bit embarrassing.

I'm not sure I can improve my performance, or that I'd want to. The end will come sooner or later, whatever I do. In this sort of job the nearest thing to a good outcome for me is avoiding bad ones, and I can only do that for so long.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

That wasn't clever, Boris

I was a bit distracted at work on Friday morning. I was reading this article and the subsequent comments, which now number 2200. The article relates to Boris Johnson, mayor of London and possible future British prime minister, who made a highly controversial speech about inequality and IQ. He noted that as many as 16% "of our species" have an IQ below 85, while only 2% have an IQ above 130; he said we should do more to help the 2%.

His numbers are correct, purely by definition of how IQ scores are calculated. Modern IQ tests are designed so that scores are normally distributed (i.e. they give one of those nice bell-shaped curves) with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation of 15, and because of how the normal distribution works, you get those percentages that Johnson mentioned in his speech, and they never go up or down. (Well there is something called the Flynn effect that Tracy mentioned recently, whereby performances in IQ tests improve over time, so they have to tweak the test, or the way it's scored, to keep those percentages the same. There's evidence that the Flynn effect is slowing down or has even stopped altogether.)

So Boris got his numbers right, but that's about it. Some people got dealt a nice hand, and some didn't. But to focus only on those who did would be crazy and dangerous, and that's before you look at how blunt an instrument an IQ test is. Then he said: I stress – I don't believe that economic equality is possible; indeed some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and keeping up with the Joneses that is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity. Well hard work and determination absolutely should be rewarded, but not all powerful and successful people get there as a result of hard work, and likewise most people who are struggling aren't in that position because they couldn't be arsed. A lot of it is down to, as I said, the hand they were dealt at birth, as well as their upbringing. Martin, and that game of Scrabble, is a good example. Now he isn't stupid at all. But he didn't get a good formal education, and was never brought up to see that as being important. He said that, despite being born in 1987, he's far from a digital native. They had the internet at home when he was in his teens, and you can learn a lot from that, but his dad never let him or his brother use it. Having weird parents like that doesn't help.

Intellectual elitism, and smugness, is something I have no time for. I see it a lot, and I think it's very unhelpful. I had a friend in the UK who became a maths teacher. One day she was teaching one of the bottom streams. "These kids all think that 0.25 + 0.3 is 0.28. How could you possibly be so dumb as to think that?! When I was their age, well, younger than them, I got it straight away." Well I got it straight away when I was a kid too, but like you, I was lucky. Why shouldn't you think it's 0.28? And the fact that 0.3 is bigger than 0.25, that's not obvious at all.

Intellectual arrogance, unfortunately, is rife among so-called high-functioning people on the autistic spectrum. I'm absolutely right, and nothing you say will stop me from being right. And some of them don't mind boasting about their achievements either. Tracy, for instance, talked about an IQ test she took at school. Apparently she did so well that her score appeared as a blank in their system. The staff misinterpreted this, and Tracy wondered why she got chucked in with all the stupid kids. It's a funny story, and an alarming one (the staff didn't even notice how well she'd done in the test and stream her accordingly?) but Tracy certainly didn't mind telling us that she had an off-the-scale IQ. (I'd guess I'd score reasonably well, but not off-the-scale well, in an IQ test, but I've never felt like finding out - it just doesn't seem relevant.)

I've just started reading a book called The Nether Regions by Sue Gough. The library were offloading a bunch of books - I think I paid 50 cents for it. I'm actually half-way through already - good going for me. The story is based in Brisbane, and as the title suggests, a lot of the content is biological. Interestingly, for parts of the story, the narrator is mute. I wish the author wouldn't use such complicated words! I keep having to look things up in the dictionary, and sometimes the word isn't there. Numinous, is that like luminous? Or numerous? It gets over a million hits in Google so why didn't I know it? Maybe if I had a higher IQ. Or if I read more.

It's been a superb day here in Wellington. A great start to summer - let's hope it continues like this.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


I advertised for a flatmate on TradeMe last night and have already had someone take a look. He's British and has only been in the country a couple of months. He knew exactly where St Ives was, because he graduated from Cambridge as recently as 2011. So he's a clever bugger. He now works as a geologist (interesting job) in town. He almost turned a blind eye to the whole earthquake-risk business (he missed the big quakes we had in August and September). It was funny showing him around. I feel a bit embarrassed by how big my place is considering I live here alone. I'm not sure about him: practically he'd be fine I think, but his youthful exuberance might get a bit much. A 32-year-old German woman, who works at the hospital, has expressed interest too.

I arrived in New Zealand ten years ago today. What an absolutely stunning day that was. Not a cloud in the sky; as we drove from Christchurch to Temuka the sun was mind-blowingly bright as it lit up the snow-capped Four Peaks. Perhaps being zonked from spending 24 hours on a plane actually enhanced that experience. Today has been quite the opposite (admittedly in a part of the country that experiences "the opposite" more often than Canterbury does). It started off grey and drizzly, just the sort of day you get when you land at Heathrow and go home via the M25. Then around lunchtime the drizzle turned into proper rain, and it's been properly raining ever since.

Ten years, or 3653 days, is a long time. I don't feel like I've achieved much in that time but maybe my own expectations are too high. In 2004 and '05 I gradually became more and more Kiwified, going on road trips and getting to know which rugby team plays where. But that Kiwification has since unravelled and I no longer feel especially attached to any country (I do however feel some affinity with Wellington now). I should mention Mum - she spent thirty years in the UK, got married and brought up two kids there, and when she came back to her old stomping ground of Geraldine to live, it was like she'd been away for thirty minutes.

Silvio Berlusconi has been kicked out of parliament after being convicted for tax fraud. My only response to that: Hooray! What a nasty piece of work.

Here a couple of recent Joe Bennett articles that I liked. There's this gem about people's smartphones being chucked in the Avon river, and this one about pronunciation of French words in English, a subject I touched on in this post last month.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A matter of life and death

Yesterday morning, my time, my actuary friend from Birmingham emailed me. His father had passed away. He had been ill for a very long time. When my friend was just three he suffered a heart attack; he had to "watch himself" ever since. In the last few years he got steadily worse. He survived longer than anyone expected, and it is of some consolation that he was around to see his daughter's wedding in April of this year. I didn't meet him very often - the last time was when I visited the UK in 2010 - but he struck me as a very kind, warm-hearted (if ailing) man. I wrote my friend an email this evening, or attempted to. What do you say? I said that his dad must have been very proud of his son, and he couldn't have had a better son to look after him. Which was true. It was only when I wrote back, from the quiet of my living room, that the passing of such a kind, gentle bloke really hit me.

In other (far better) news, my own father got his results back from his prostate biopsy and he's been given the all-clear. That's a huge weight off his mind. It's not just the cancer, it's all the treatment and horrible side-effects - incontinence, extreme fatigue, and whatever else. And the fact that so many false-positives from the biopsy render all that treatment unnecessary. All in all, it's a big sigh of relief.

I didn't mention the results of the blood test I had a couple of weeks ago. Which means they were good, or else I surely would have mentioned them by now. My thyroid is working perfectly normally and I'm not at risk of diabetes. Cholesterol is still a slight concern. My level of bad (LDL) cholesterol is down, but the good (HDL) stuff is down too, so my ratio, which is what they worry about these days, has hardly changed. My doctor said I should take all cholesterol readings with a bucket of salt (which, funnily enough, contains zero cholesterol).

Last night Tracy, Tom and I played a co-operative board game called Mice and Mystics. There are mice, who are the good guys, and a variety of bad guys such as rats, spiders, centipedes and cockroaches. And of course a cat, although we didn't come across him (or her) last night. The game is in fact a story comprising eleven chapters; you can play just one chapter (as we did last night) or a full "campaign" that follows the story from start to finish. We each took on the part of a different mouse, each with its own special powers. Tom's mouse, for instance, was fast and agile with a prehensile tail which could carry a weapon. My mouse, by contrast, was slow and plodding but it wielded a sodding great hammer that could knock out anything that came near it (if the right symbols came up on the four dice I rolled). The currency used in the game wasn't money or gold or silver, but cheese. I was impressed by how one bloke could think of such an intricate story, and then turn it into a playable board game. The game pieces were a work of art, literally as we found out - Tracy had painstakingly painted them with a fine brush, except the centipede and spider which she hadn't got around to yet. We ended up losing the game through a series of unlucky dice rolls; in fact we did well to last as long as we did. I got a bit confused with all the rules, but Tracy was always able to clarify matters. Mice and Mystics is a new game; the only similarity with the much older Risk is the amount of dice-rolling involved. Hopefully we'll try a few more games. In spite of its flaws Risk is probably still my favourite: it'll take something to beat the smell you get when you open the box.

Tom emailed me tonight. Now he wants to move into my flat. Oh shit. I didn't even read his whole email. I saw he wrote "no pressure" but I know I'll feel a shit-ton of pressure if he moves in. He can't move in. I can play board games with him, exchange emails and ideas with him, and chat with him in person. But not live with him. I wouldn't be able to relax. How on earth I tell him it's a no-go I don't know.

Some people in my team at work have joined a football team. They asked me if I was interested. "I'm really just a watcher." This Friday they've got a get-pissed-and-do-karaoke night. Either I go, and feel horribly out of place, or stay at home (which would be the far easier, and cheaper, option). I drift further apart from them whatever I do. Then in a couple of weeks they've got the Christmas party. This isn't my favourite time of year.

I'm obviously not a proper Kiwi (more about that in my next post) because I think it's a shame Ireland didn't hang on to beat, or at least draw with, the All Blacks. Not that I watched the game or anything.

Sunday, November 24, 2013


Yesterday morning, out of the blue, I got a call from Julie. "I've finally found the strength to call you after you sent that awful letter." She called me selfish and cowardly, then said she never expected me to be so defensive when I tried to, um, defend myself against those accusations. There was nothing cowardly about the letter I sent - it was simply the only way I could get my message across without running into a wall of words. We weren't getting anywhere (it's hard to get anywhere with someone who's always right no matter what) and she hung up on me. I'll send her a Christmas card but that'll be about it. My lack of contact with Julie since I sent her that awful letter in early August hasn't done me any harm, and I doubt it's done her any harm either.

On Wednesday Martin texted me - it was "highly likely" he'd move into my flat. But when he came over yesterday he was less sure. C'mon man, make up your mind! I put up an ad at Pak 'n' Save last night and will put another on TradeMe. Yesterday we got chatting about board games. He wanted to play Scrabble which he'd (somehow) never played before. He tried to play a word diagonally, then backwards, then forwards but also making AV. You can't AV that! He settled on TEA. I put a T on the end of TEA, forming another word in the process, then he accused me of making TEAT up. Unlike the people I played at the library, who weren't that good at the game but still knew plenty of words, Martin didn't look like he'd read a lot of books in his time. I'm not making that judgement based on the words he put down (which were mostly short, but heck, he could have had really crappy letters for all I knew) but rather the fairly common words I put down that he doubted were real. Next time we might play chess, a game he's far more experienced in than me, and I expect I'll be the one making illegal diagonal moves.

I didn't go to the football (damn good game that it was) on Wednesday; instead I babysat for my cousin's two youngest boys. I felt bad when the football-goers got back at half-nine and I'd let the boys stay up and watch Back to the Future on DVD and play some computer game (Minecraft?). "You're still up?! Off to bed!" For some reason, sending them to bed never occurred to me. I also went over to my cousin's place last night. My aunt and uncle were there. It's always interesting talking to my uncle. He loves talking about money, to a level I find bordering on offensive. He's very proud of his kids (four daughters and one son) who have all done well for themselves, and why shouldn't he be? But all the specific figures, that he invited me to add and multiply, were a bit unnecessary. His son, who has a senior position in a successful business in Perth, got most of the attention last night. I got the latest update on the price of the shares he'd purchased at half a cent (they've now reached five cents) and was informed of all the money he'd made by part-owning and betting on horses. Nice if you can do it I guess.

Today I organised a squash meet-up at my apartment block. This was stressful for me - I have a hard time organising anything. The two women, who came together, got lost and were 45 minutes late. They're both really nice people, easy to get on with. As for the two blokes, I'd never met either of them before. One of them lived nearby and seemed nice enough, but I thought the other guy was really obnoxious - I felt very uncomfortable just being around him. So there were five of us, and the plan I had was that we all warm up briefly and then play each other in a series of short games, ending in a final between the two best players. Pretty simple I thought. But I quickly abandoned that idea as people didn't want the hassle of scoring points, then they got tired and bored and hot (it was pretty stuffy in there). All understandable, but I couldn't help thinking that if someone else was organising it, they would have gone along with the plan. I think I would have made the final under my planned system, only to get tonked 15-1 or something by that horrible bloke, who was rather good at squash. He had bulging muscles and played explosively, and could anticipate anything I threw at him in our mini-session. Being an arsehole and being good at sport so often go hand-in-hand. Even in those tennis tournaments I played when I was eleven, the nice kids were the ones I could beat.

On Friday a woman who works part-time in my team was told she wouldn't be required after Christmas. She went straight home in tears. Then our boss and a word with me and two others in my team, to say that we wouldn't be next.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

All walks of life

On Saturday I went on a walk to the lighthouse at Pencarrow with the tramping club. Ten of us did the walk. Danielle was there - she seemed to thrive on the mainly flat terrain; I struggled to keep up with her. There was Barbara, an American who has been on several of my walks including that (in)famous bush-bash we did in April 2012. We had a tattooed surfer dude by the name of Brad - I wondered why so many surfers are called Brad or Brett or Shane, and comparatively few are called, say, Nigel. Brad wanted to join the army and was doing the walk (with weights in his pack) mainly as preparation for his physical assessment. He had an inquiring mind and I felt he would do well for himself. There was a Japanese woman who, until she came to NZ, hated the very idea of walking or any form of physical exercise. And besides, she said, she was too busy. Leading the trip was a woman of about my age who was brought up in Elsworth, just a few miles from where I lived. She was with her boyfriend. We also had a woman about to begin a career as one of New Zealand's 1.7 million real estate agents. I asked her why agents get so much commission. "It's just the market." That's the 21st-century explanation for practically anything.

It was a decent trek and was more demanding on the way back as we faced the northerly wind. We climbed up to the lighthouse, New Zealand's first (it went live, so to speak, in 1859) - unsurprisingly it was pretty windy up there, but we had a great view and could see a snow-capped South Island mountain. Then we walked along by the lake before following the coastline back (into the wind, this seemed never-ending). I caught the sun a bit - I was exposed to it for five or six hours, and for some reason I didn't think to put on sunscreen. All in all it was a good day's walk. It was noted that I'd done plenty of day walks with the club but no overnight trips. Conversations about tramping gear ensued, but they completely missed the reason why I haven't been keen to move to the next level.

I might still be going to see the All Whites tomorrow with my cousin and her family. Or else I might be babysitting for her youngest. I don't know yet. I see NZ are paying $40 at the TAB to qualify for the World Cup. Those are extremely stingy odds - adding an extra nought would be a more accurate reflection of their chances. If the All Whites were to make it, it would be a candidate for the biggest story in the history of NZ sport.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Armies and mobs

My boss had family stuff to deal with this week so she was away for most of it. That made work a bit easier to cope with, but I still don't think I've got a long future there. I'd say it's 50-50 I'll be there in six months.

On Monday we finally played our second instalment of Risk. I didn't enjoy it as much as the first time. As we traded in sets of cards, new contingents of 40 or 50 armies came into play, and we all agreed that things were getting a bit ridiculous. One minute I had control of three continents, the next minute (well, next half-hour) Tracy's rampaging red army left me, um, incontinent. After two hours (that's five hours of total playing time), Tracy knocked Tom out, taking all his cards and gaining several dozen more bits of plastic. I'd forgotten about that rule, which makes eliminating someone quite a big deal. At that point we called it a day. I wouldn't have fancied my chances against Tracy's sheer numbers and, let's face it, her superior gaming skills. We commented on how everything was designed to drag things out, even the way the cylindrical playing pieces rolled off the board. It would be easy to tweak the rules to cap the number of armies at say 15 or 20, instead of incrementing by five every time someone makes a set of cards, and I think that would make for a better game.

Here you can see Tracy's stupidly large red army (her reward for wiping out Tom's green) about to take over the world. Some of the pieces represent ten armies, so it was even scarier than it looked. This is where we packed the game in.

The three of us had a good chat after the game, which I found more engaging than the game itself. We talked about crowd mentality. Someone is teetering on the ledge of a tall building, possibly about to end it all. A crowd gathers, and when it reaches a certain number (Tracy said 350 I think), people start chanting "Jump!" It doesn't matter who or where, when it reaches this critical size, this same terrible thing always happens. Supposedly it's because you stop being individuals at that point, and become a mob instead. The same thing happens when riots break out at football matches - people's ability to think as individuals goes out the window. In the past, people have said that football fans are often poorly educated and come from working-class backgrounds, and that explains their behaviour. But ticket prices have gone through the roof, pricing most working-class people out of the market, and guess what, hardly anything changes. You also see this phenomenon online - people showing extreme anger and hatred over just about any subject, taking sides, and losing all sense of self. I find it all quite scary.

Tracy, who is normally ready for bed shortly after nine, was instead (as she admitted) as high as a kite. I could do with some of whatever she was taking.

They showed the second half of New Zealand's World Cup qualifier with Mexico on TV at work yesterday. Wow, what a gulf in class there was. Without a decent keeper it could easily have been 9-1, never mind 5-1 (no exaggeration). It was nice to see that one trickle in for NZ at the end, even if it'll almost certainly make no difference to them. People have been quick to turn on the All Whites coach and team. There are two points I'd like to make. One, but for a couple of minutes of madness, Mexico would have been out of the running and NZ would have been playing Panama (surely a much easier proposition) instead. Two, the All Whites would be better served by joining the Asian confederation, as Australia did. They would then play more often, against better teams, and surely improve.

I've seen the dreadful pictures coming out of the Philippines following the typhoon. I've only donated $6 - I can't afford much these days. Although the impact on many people has been devastating (and will continue to be), I'd imagine the impact on their mental health has been far smaller. If success is having food, water, shelter and (maybe) medicine, all that other unnecessary stuff no longer matters.

I've been reading Shorty, a book of Barry Crump's short stories about a diminutive novice golfer that I picked up in a second-hand shop. I must give it to Mum when I next see her. It's a good laugh. Golf lends itself very well to story-telling. I found this bit, about a party Shorty was invited to, very funny:
It was a talking party, where you help yourself to drinks from a big table at one end and then go for a walk, talking to one person for a while and then changing partners. The tricky part is that you have to think of something to say to each new partner. Some of them play it in pairs or groups. I gathered from some of the things that were being talked to me, that the ones who were best at this game were considered the most socially desirable. I wasn't going to do very well at this game.
That pretty much describes my limited experience of parties, except mine is real.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

It's not working

I spoke to Dad yesterday. He's been really unwell since he had his prostate biopsy on Tuesday. The timing of the procedure wasn't good - he hadn't fully recovered from his ordeal on the plane. He reacted badly to an antibiotic he was given - when he called the hospital he was told to stop taking it immediately. Dad gave me all the gory details of the colour of his pee, a subject which came up on this blog recently (although he certainly wasn't talking about just a tinge of red). He was thankful of Mum's golf trip to Alexandra, which she'd been looking forward to for months. She's been swanning around Central Otago in blissful ignorance of Dad's pain. Had she been home, the atmosphere would have made things even more painful, not that there was much she could have done anyway. I spoke to him again earlier today and he's sounding much brighter - that's just as well because Mum gets back this evening.

As I said last time, I am feeling better now, but there's an elephant in the room in the shape of work, or more precisely my boss, and it's sapping me of mental energy. I don't dislike my boss, but I really don't like her being my boss. I think it's pretty obvious that she doesn't care about me nor my colleague doing the same role (my previous boss did care, or at least did a good job of pretending to). I find it almost impossible to concentrate except on the rare occasions that she's away. Some of it is me - I'm really bad at constantly switching between tasks and I don't work well in a team that's so big you can practically see it from space, especially when they're all so outgoing. We've just had our self-appraisals; on Friday I filled in mine and basically hijacked it by giving a critique of the new set-up. I was restrained to begin with, but when I filled in the last box I pulled no punches. Maybe that wasn't my brightest idea, but I saw no other way of communicating my frustration, and on Friday I was well past caring about the consequences. As Christmas approaches, things won't get easier for me in a hurry. The Christmas function, appropriately enough, is on Friday 13th December.

At 5:02 on Friday morning our boss sent us an email. She likes to talk about how busy she is. She pretends to be annoyed by this, but really she's proud of it. I see this from a lot of people. In the 21st century, lack of time has become a status symbol.

Instead of buying a property, and all the angst that has gone with that, I wish I'd bought shares in Xero. If I'd put my entire deposit into Xero shares in December 2011, I'd be a millionaire now. I'll often have lunch near the stock ticker (which is located right beside Xero's head office) and see a half-day increase which would be reasonable in half a year. (I get out of the office every lunchtime whatever the weather, for my own sanity.)

The drink-drive limit is coming down. I don't think it will make much difference (in fact I remember an experiment in the UK which showed an improvement in driving ability under the influence of a glass or two of wine) but the government bowed to public pressure. It's people way over the limit who are the problem, and they're not going to care whatever the limit is. I'm not sure I get the zero limit for drivers under 20 either. It's dangerous to drive with any alcohol up to your 20th birthday, but after that you can have two or three pints and you're fine? This makes no sense to me.

Last night they had the big fireworks display on the harbour. I watched it from the big balcony a few floors up - a good vantage point, even if there was a crane in the way which you can make out from this photo:

Tracy pulled out of our scheduled Risk resumption this weekend - she had better things to do. I was looking forward to it (if nothing else it would have taken my mind off the "elephant"). Hopefully we can still play tomorrow night. I emailed a friend in the UK, a fairly regular board gamer, to ask what he thinks of Risk. "They've since come out with Express Risk - it's a much better game that uses cards instead of a board, and it's done and dusted within half an hour." What? How can that be "much better"? You can't take over the world in half an hour! And if there's no physical board (i.e. map), you might as well play on a computer.

Here's an interesting YouTube video (well I think so anyway) where someone generates random numbers using a radioactive substance. Humans are really bad at understanding probability and randomness. Imagine a NZ Lotto draw, where they draw out seven balls numbered from 1 to 40. Say the first number drawn is 6. That means that 5 and 7 shouldn't come out, and probably not 4 or 8 either. Because 6 is a low number, the other numbers are more likely to be high. Because 6 came out this week, we shouldn't expect to see it next week; in fact the next few weeks should be entirely sixless, until it's 6's "turn" again. And so on. Of course none of that is true (except that if the first number is low, the probability that the next number is high does go up a little, simply because there's now one fewer low number to choose from) but the human mind can't get away from thinking that future outcomes are dependent on the past. I agree with the guy in the video who said it would be fun, for a change, to pick Lotto numbers using radioactive material.

There was more cricket at the Basin yesterday. I noticed three of Wellington's batsmen made joint top scores of 62. Something dodgy is clearly going on - there's no way that can be random. Update: I saw the end of the match today. The green team (Central Districts?) declared, to try and force a result, but Wellington chased down 310 with three overs and four wickets to spare.

Before work tomorrow I'll get my thyroid and cholesterol tested.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

No weigh!

I stepped on the scales this morning and, wow, I lost six pounds on this life-changing diet. I'd clearly lost some weight - I've got less of a pot, just one chin, and less hamstery cheeks than I had a month ago - but I wouldn't have guessed I'd now be just eleven stone four. (I'm pretty au fait with kay-gees these days, but I prefer to weigh myself in imperial, if I do so at all.)

I've started using my iPod at work. The whole environment is far too distracting for me, except when my boss is away, then I can just about concentrate. My boss is very outgoing, and recently she's brought in some new people who (naturally) have a similar personality type, and from my point of view that hasn't helped. There are only two of us doing my role now, when once there were five, and while the overall workload has reduced, it's by nowhere near 60%. My colleague was off sick for three days last week, and guess what, we're now snowed under. My boss ensured me that we'd get some help from somewhere at some point but I don't believe her. (Probably the best thing about my job is that I do get on really well with my only "proper" team-mate.)

Every third month the contact centre people get a cash incentive if they take no sick leave in that calendar month. It's all or nothing - one sick hour and you don't get it. They brought it in a couple of years ago, when people were off sick a lot. If you ask me, incentivising on an all-or-nothing basis is a bad idea full stop, but this sick-leave incentive is seriously crazy. Whoever thought it up (who might that have been?) didn't think through the consequences at all. Last Friday was the first of the month, a sick-incentive month. Some of the contact centre people went over to their boss (who is also my boss) and made their opinions on the sick incentive known, but she was having none of it. She refused to even acknowledge that they had a point.

At this time of year, as the Christmas function looms darkly, I always think, surely I won't still be working here in another year?

About ten days ago there was a post in the Guardian about the growing inequality between London and the South East, and the rest of the UK. Someone made this comment:
Great Britain is a land of opportunity.
Inequality might be higher than ever before...but so is the reward.
Play smart, take a risk, and above all, work hard...and anyone can be successful.

I've seen this argument before: greater inequality is a good thing because it means wealth is distributed more fairly!

My dad was in a pretty bad way during and after his flight, but is a lot better now.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tapering off and feeling better

I'm still feeling better. I've now reduced my Efexor to 37.5 mg a day - ten per cent of what I was on early last year - and hopefully when I come off it completely on 1st January I'll stop feeling (un)comfortably numb. (I heard that song on the radio this morning.)

So life has become more palatable all of a sudden. Work is an example of this - so much of what goes on there is (for me) excretory, but last week it didn't get me down too much. Yes, it's all shitty but it's got little to do with me. As an aside, it's interesting that I cope with work by minimising its importance, while some people - especially managers - vastly overestimate the importance of their roles, and perhaps that's a coping mechanism too. Another sign of my improvement was when I went to the gym today - I had no problems doing 500 pulls on that machine; in my depressed state I'd be flagging after 150 or so.

It's day 29 of my 30-day almost-no-carb diet experiment. Since I started I haven't eaten a single potato, nor a grain of rice, nor a strand of pasta, and I've hardly touched dairy. I've had maybe three or four bowls of cereal. A colleague felt sorry for me (even though I never mentioned my diet) and bought me a Boston bun and a sausage roll. I was cursing under my breath but I enjoyed them. A lot. I've drunk alcohol on two occasions, both times with my cousin. On the flip side I've eaten heaps of meat (mostly beef), a fair amount of fish, precisely 58 eggs, several bowls of fruit and bucketloads of vegetables. It's really interesting to see what happens to your pee when you eat a lot of asparagus. Or beetroot. Or both. (There's a technical term for beetroot-tainted pee - it's called beeturia, which is surely a made-up word.)

I'm still unconvinced about this diet, but it's got me thinking about food a lot more, and operating on autopilot a lot less. On Tuesday, when my experiment is over (I'll weigh myself then just for curiosity's sake), I won't revert to my previous diet entirely. I'll certainly try not to eat so many carbs. On the subject of food, here's an article about the shocking amount of food that is wasted in the UK. I doubt things are much better in NZ.

This article in the Herald made me want to go back to Birmingham. The university (the one I went to) is mentioned as one of the city's highlights. Birmingham has come on a long way for sure, even since I got to know the place in 1998.

Programming an Android app. Oh god. I tried to follow the tutorial provided by Android themselves. This will be self-explanatory right? They want people to make as many lots of apps so they can make lots of money, so it's bound to be simple. Um, no (except the bit about an "activity" - I understood that at least). I downloaded a free e-book that I thought might be useful. The introductory chapter told me in no uncertain terms not to think of programming an app (or reading the rest of the book!) until I know about Java. Apart from landing in Jakarta a few times I know nothing about Java, so that might be a good starting point. I'll take a book or two out of the library tomorrow. This will be a long hard slog.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a good read, but I don't think I'll try the other two books in the series. The Swedish language would be interesting to learn, not for any real practical purpose, but just because it looks like a cool language. It's rich in "strong" consonants like B, hard G, K, M and V, giving rise to such words as bekväm.

I spent some time (not too long) working out the probabilities for dice rolls in Risk. I know you can find the figures all over the internet, but to really understand what's going on you need to derive them. The 3v2 case (attacker rolls three, defender rolls two) is the most interesting. It seems obvious now, but when we played on Monday I didn't appreciate that, when you roll three dice, 6-5-5 and 6-5-1 are essentially the same thing (6-5-5 looks more impressive). They're both 6-5, which is actually the most likely of the 21 distinct outcomes (you'll roll that combination one time in eight). Once you've worked out the odds for a single attack you can then extend that to predict the likely outcome of an entire battle. There are some other things that seem obvious now but didn't at the time - if you own a continent, you don't necessarily have to fortify the inside borders of the continent; the territories just outside are just as good (or perhaps better, since you prevent your opponent from gaining control of the bordering continent).

I emailed Martin on Friday to say that if he wants to move in, drums are a definite no. I felt a bit bad - I wanted to encourage him to get back to his music, and I think that playing the drums well takes a great deal of skill. He hasn't got back to me yet.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Risky business

I'm feeling better now than I've done in months (probably since May) and have no real idea why. The diet, the pills (I'll be dropping back again on Friday), the long weekend, who knows?

Dad is supposed to be back now, but with the storm, I've no idea whether his flight actually took off when it was scheduled to. When someone in my family attempts to fly somewhere, myself included, a severe weather event is almost guaranteed. I gave him a ring at the weekend, and also had a longish chat with my brother who was a mixture of happy (that he's with his friends, half a world away from his horror story) and cheesed off with his financial situation, which is about as bad as mine.

Dad's trip to the UK has meant I've spoken to Mum on the phone even more than usual. I'm happy with that - we get on pretty well these days. She hasn't been feeling 100% for a while but stubbornly refuses to see a doctor. She thinks it's all down to the food she eats. That includes the rash on her upper arm that keeps slowly expanding.

The highlight of the long weekend for me was my first ever proper game of Risk. We played at Tracy's place - the same crowd (well, three is a crowd) of Tracy, Tom and me. The idea was that we'd play for two hours, and whoever occupied the most territories at that point would be the winner. I was fortunate to snag Australia early on, and it was close for the lead between Tom and me. As such, most of my attacks were directed at Tom. After about 90 minutes we felt like we were just getting going (man it's a long game) so we upped the time limit to three hours. I focused almost exclusively on the Southern Hemisphere, and as I threw more than my fair share of fives and sixes, I was able to control South America and/or Africa. But my luck ran out and Tracy, who had kept a low profile, came marauding in. At the three-hour point my yellow army still occupied more regions than Tracy's red (Tony's green army was on the wane), but with someone making such a strong fightback, finishing at that point wouldn't have been "right", so we decided to adjourn until the weekend after next, at my place. How do we do that? Ah yes, take a photo of the board. I'm not sure I can wait so long to play again - it was a very absorbing three hours. Tracy has so far had one extra turn (she started), I'm next up, and I'm already thinking what I should do with my new complement of eleven yellow plastic cylinders. Tracy said after an hour that she was doomed, but I think that was a bluff. She's a smarter, more experienced gamer than either Tom or me, and I'm sure she knows it.

My hand-me-down copy of Risk is the 1963 version. The actual copy can't be that old - it's probably early seventies, which admittedly is still pretty damn old. Even after playing one session I can see that Risk has its flaws, but it's still an excellent game, and in its time it must have been revolutionary. Board games up to that point were: roll the dice, move your counter the number of squares indicated on the dice, then do what it says on that square (if anything). Risk is a complete departure from this. Plus it does seem to simulate war rather well at times - often I was thinking, yes I took that territory but boy did I lose a lot of men doing it. I'm glad I've got this version which requires you to choose, in turn, where to place armies on the board at the start, rather than having them randomly determined. I think that choosing territories adds an extra dimension.
The instructions give me a window on what life was like in the sixties and seventies. "The rules which follow are new and are the result of continuous research and testing ... They develop strategy sooner and make for better play." So you knew the game took seven hours, but that wasn't a problem?! Wow. In 2013 a mass-market board game taking more than a couple of hours would be a non-starter. The time factor is probably the biggest criticism of Risk. Then there's the role of luck - it's hard to determine how significant that is given the sheer number of dice rolls in a game. Thirdly there's a rich-get-richer mechanism (the more territories you've got, the more armies you get, which enable you to control more territories...) - that would probably be my biggest complaint.

Before the game we talked a bit about computer programming. Both Tracy and Tom love it. "It's fun." Well, programming for its own sake, or even to achieve a goal I don't care about, ain't my idea of fun. I did a short programming course at uni but we weren't actually taught anything, as far as I could see, and the two or three people on our course who already knew about the language drip-fed the "answers" to the rest of us who were completely clueless. If, on the other hand, my program is doing something I'm interested in, you know, creating an app or something, I could see myself learning the relevant language.

On Sunday I went to sit out on the bank at the Basin, and to my surprise there was a four-day game going on between Wellington and Otago. The home side were doing well, and when one of the batsmen was dismissed for a century, on came Jesse Ryder for the first time since March when he almost died following that attack in a Christchurch bar. As it happened, his father, his girlfriend and other members of his entourage were right in front of me. I spent more time watching them than any of the players. Ryder raced to 48 by the end of the day and was out for an impressive 117 on Monday.
(Edit: I shouldn't pretend to know anything about domestic cricket. Jesse Ryder had moved teams over the winter and was now playing for Otago against his old side.)

This morning Birmingham and Stoke played a memorable match in the League Cup. With the score at one apiece, Blues had a man sent off on the stroke of half-time. Unsurprisingly Stoke, the superior side on paper, capitalised to go two goals up. Eleven minutes to go and Blues bring on Peter Løvenkrands, and what do you know, he pops up to score twice in the final six minutes to force extra time. Only three minutes into the extra period and Stoke go back in front. Blues are dead on their feet as they try to scramble another equaliser which they somehow manage in the 118th minute. It sounded far too good a game to be decided on penalties (and don't forget, Birmingham played the last 75 minutes a man down) but alas Blues missed their first two spot-kicks and that was pretty much that. For all my cynicism about football and team sports in general, this was a "feel-good" game for me, in spite of the final result.

Update: Dad is back; I just spoke to him. No problems with the scheduling, but he felt very ill at Hong Kong after an ultra-cramped Virgin Atlantic flight, and was worried he wouldn't be able to continue his journey. He vowed never to fly with Virgin again. He flew with Air New Zealand (a far less painful experience) on the second leg.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Kiwi-ish: a post about how Kiwis say stuff

I've been meaning to do this for ages. A post about how Kiwis talk. I was given a reminder at the latest body corp meeting, when someone asked, "Claire, are you clear...". If there was a difference between Claire and clear, I couldn't hear (or hair or here or hare) it.

A few things before I go any further:
  • I'm only considering how Kiwis say their words, not what they say, which is for another post.
  • Pronunciation and accent aren't the same thing. When I say "park" and a Kiwi says "park", the difference is purely down to accent (the "ah" vowel is less open in NZ English than in my English). But when I say "pasta" with a short "a" sound, and a Kiwi says it with a long "ah" sound (like the one in "park"), that's not just accent: we're using different vowel sounds entirely. John Wells's lexical sets, which are very useful when describing accents, help with this distinction. (Mr Wells wrote an excellent blog on phonetics - check it out if you're interested in such things.)
  • What's my English? I'd say it was "standard" British English, very unregional, not posh, not working-class, not anything in particular. Boring, isn't it? Inevitably after living in New Zealand for nearly ten years my speech has become Kiwified to some extent, but not nearly as much as you might suspect.
  • By comparing Kiwi English to my English (or anyone else's), I'm not saying it's any better or worse, just different. And I am half Kiwi after all.
  • I won't mention the classic attributes of Kiwi-ish that we all know about ("fush and chups" or "unternit exciss").
  • I won't be using IPA. I do know what the funny symbols mean (ɑɪ θɪŋk) but I won't assume everybody else does.
Right, here are some of the less obvious characteristics of Kiwi speech that I've picked up:
  1. Kiwis love the "aaah" sound (the one that dentists get you to say). They eat paaahsta (as I mentioned above), talk about the Maaahfia and enter daaahta into their computers. The last one isn't universal: John Key talked about "dayta" when discussing the GCSB bill, which is how I've always pronounced it, although I hesitate a bit when I say the word now. Is this love of "aaah" influenced by Maori? Someone corrected me when I pronounced mana as "manna" (like manna from heaven): no, it's "maaahna".

  2. The way I say the depends on what the next word is. Before a vowel I say "thee" as in "thee apple". Otherwise it's "thuh" as in "thuh ball". But a lot of Kiwis, particularly younger ones, say "thuh" regardless: "Thuh aaahnswer is on thuh unternit." Some take this a step further and say "a" instead of "an" when the next word begins with a vowel: "I'll send you a email." On occasions I've heard "ay" instead of "an": "That's ay interesting idea."

  3. This follows on from number 2. Like me, most Kiwis (with the notable exception of some in the deep south) are non-rhotic. That is to say when a syllable ends with an "r" (like either of the syllables of corner), there's no audible "r" sound. Neither do you hear an "r" in a word like alarm, where the "r" is followed immediately by a consonant. However most non-rhotics, myself included, have a linking "r": if a word ends in "r" I do pronounce it if the next word starts with a vowel, as in "car alahm". But not everybody in NZ has a linking "r": you'll hear "cah alahm" from time to time. I think the Pacific Island languages have played a part here. With such high-profile names as Ma'a Nonu, some Kiwis have no problems pronouncing two similar vowel sounds side-by-side.
  4. As I alluded to in the introduction, many Kiwis pronounce beer and bear identically, or very close to it. It's what they call a merger. The subject of how we pronounce these two words came up at work recently. Interestingly, when you added bare into the mix, my colleague (who has the merger) couldn't predict whether I would pronounce it like beer or like bear. This is actually a fairly well-known characteristic of Kiwi speech but I thought I'd include it because it creates extra homophones that I don't have in my speech.
  5. There's also a merger between the 'al' and 'el' combinations. There was this ad on the radio for DIY products: "You know if it's Selleys it works." I thought it was Sally's for about a year, until I happened to notice some of their grout in a hardware store. Then we had someone with the surname Ellis who applied for an insurance policy; he wasn't too happy when he opened a letter addressed to Mr Alice. Strangely the pronunciation of Wellington seems to be shifting in a different way: I hear "Wullington" quite a lot, with the first syllable rhyming with "gull". I think this is due to the close position of the lips after the "w" sound; it's easier to follow up with 'ul' than 'el' or 'al'.
  6. There's another merger going on between 'ol' and 'ul', so that for some Kiwis, golf and gulf are pronounced the same (or near enough that I can't tell the difference). Again a radio ad had me confused for a while: is the country club you're advertising (north of Auckland) called Golf Harbour or Gulf Harbour? It's got a golf course and it's by the Hauraki Gulf, so either would make sense. This is yet another example of homophones that many Kiwis have, but Brits and other speakers of English don't.
  7. Holy homophones, Batman! We have a chain of eateries in Wellington called Wholly Bagels, so I hear the word wholly quite a bit. In these parts, it shares its pronunciation with holy, and I guess you could add holey (as in a sock) in there too. The difference actually lies in the word holy. For most Brits you could divide this word neatly into two syllables (hoe + lee) but for Kiwis the first syllable is coloured by the "l" sound, so it comes out as (hole + lee). A similar phenomenon is found in words like ruler: for poms it's generally (roo + la) but in NZ English it's more like (rule + la). This is one area where my speech has (consciously?) changed since I landed in NZ: the typical pommy pronunciation of words like holy or Poland sounds stuck-up or affected to some Kiwis, and I'd rather not be thought of in those terms.

  8. When an "l" sound ends a syllable, or comes before a consonant at the end of a syllable, it often becomes a "w". Examples are ball, wool, milk, gold, folder and fulfil. This process is known as L-vocalisation. It's not just Kiwis that have this feature; Cockneys have it too, as do I to some extent (this isn't something I've picked up in NZ - I had it before).

  9. In Kiwi speech, some words tend to gain a syllable. The word door, for me, is just one syllable, but for many Kiwis it's two: something like "dor-wa". Likewise the word here (which for me is sort of 1½ syllables) is definitely two syllables for a lot of Kiwis: "hee-ya".
  10. Other words lose a syllable, or at least part of one. When I say file, it's hard to say whether it's one syllable or two. However for a lot of Kiwis it's clearly a single syllable, not far off "fahl".
  11. So far I've dealt mostly with vowels, because that's where most of the differences lie, but consonants play their part too. With a word like tissue, many English speakers (myself included) have decided that "tiss-you" is way too much effort, so we mash the "s" and "y" sounds together to get a "sh" sound. A similar thing goes on with the word measure: the "z" and "y" sounds combine to produce a "zh" sound (which is more common in French - you find it in words like fromage). For many born-and-bred Kiwis this process extends further than it does for me: assume becomes "a-shoom", presume becomes "pre-zhoom", and you get ads (yes, more ads) for home "inshulation".
  12. In some instances (actually quite a lot), Kiwis enunciate their words better than Brits do. A good example is the "t" sound in the middle of a word, when followed by another consonant. When I say Batman, there's no audible "t" there; instead I use a glottal stop. But for some Kiwis you do hear a "t" there, as well as in words like currently, and you'll even hear careful newsreaders pronounce both "t"s in night-time.
  13. Sorry, I'm about to break one of my rules here. The last item on my list is Kiwis' complete butcherisation of foreign words and phrases, particularly French ones, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me just a little. The word croissant usually comes out like "cruh-SONT". I can't really blame them: most Kiwis don't learn French at school any more, and even older ones who did (like my mum) didn't learn good pronunciation - lessons were focused mainly on grammar. What I find kind of funny is when people try to make French words sound even more French than they really are, lingerie ("lon-je-raaayy") being the best example.
So there you go. Phonetics (and linguistics generally) is an interesting subject I think, and I'd like to learn more about the actual physical processes that go on (without thinking) when we make certain sounds. That would surely make the differences between various forms of English easier to get a handle on.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Red card

I was in two minds over whether to attend Monday night's autism group, and before long I was wishing I'd stayed away. The bloke I'd previously likened to Gollum, who calls himself Mr Ronald, had a habit of taking more than his fair share of biscuits and chips. On Monday the rotund chap with the braces (I think I've mentioned him before too) had had enough of this ("take the whole fucking lot then") and things quickly got out of hand. Mr Ronald became very aggressive. Other people weighed in, a red Snapper card was brandished, and food went flying. We only had one facilitator instead of the normal three; I tried to back her up but others did the opposite. In the end Mr Ronald did get shown the proverbial red card and was told to leave. I didn't want to make a big deal of the food thing - I've seen it many times before, from Bazza and others. Hoovering up food seems to be a very common trait among autistic people. But the bloke in the braces made a really big deal of it. I'm happy that these kinds of things are pointed out, but he wants the whole meeting to be a teaching mechanism so that people can cope with the big bad outside world. That's not what I want, and if it turns into that I'll stop coming.

On Sunday I played badminton. It was less organised than previous sessions - we didn't have points tallies or anything of that sort. One guy was keen to play a game of singles with me - I felt a bit bad as I beat him 21-4. He was starting a new job, in the mental health sector, the next day. Some (most?) of the people there preferred chatting to playing. It was suggested that I do a squash meet-up at my apartment block. I'll probably arrange that in a month or so.

I hadn't been back long when Martin came over. He showed some interest in flatting here but nothing definitive. If he does move in he'll be bringing his guitar and drum kit. I can't imagine the guitar will be an issue for neighbours but as for the drums, if the darts are anything to go by...

An old colleague from Auckland has just started at my workplace. I didn't like him much (he just seemed, um, not very nice) but people can change a lot in four years and anyway he'll be working 24 floors above me so I won't see much of him. He played competitive badminton at a good level and would surely beat me 21-0.

I'm lacking in energy so often. I'm going to get my thyroid checked just in case.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Human nature - isn't it weird?

Mum rang me yesterday morning. She was fed up with the golf club (a few years ago I didn't think that would ever be possible) but most of the conversation revolved around me. Mum made a comparison between me and my brother - he's more resourceful, more resilient, can handle "situations" more easily than me. He'll just "get out there and do things". Gah. "But it's not your fault that it's harder for you - that's just the way you're made." Right. As I see it, the difference is that my brother's "situations" are precisely that. They come and go. And he's got friends, connections, supports. My problems are a way of life (and the money thing just adds an extra layer).

As usual on a Saturday morning, there were some interesting programmes on the radio yesterday. One was about the rise of China. It was interesting talking to a Chinese woman at one of those meet-ups. She said that for centuries China had a collective culture, but in urban centres this culture has been overhauled by an each-man-for-himself culture that's (scarily) far stronger that we have in NZ. She was interesting to talk to; I later emailed her asking if we could catch up, but she ignored or deleted or didn't get my message or it went into her junk. Or something.

Later they interviewed Gary Greenberg, author of The Book of Woe, which talks about the DSM (the mental health manual if you like). It's fair to say he's not a fan of the DSM, which seems to be driven by big pharmaceutical companies. In the latest version Asperger's was controversially removed from the list of diagnoses, with all kinds of ramifications for people who had previously been diagnosed with the condition. Luckily for Kiwis we take less notice of the DSM than they do in America.

Yesterday was a bright sunny day and in the afternoon I sat on the freshly-mown bank of the Basin Reserve and read. A few others were doing the same. One bloke was practising his guitar. The groundsman was hammering in the advertising boards that had come down in the storm. I was attacked by a big bumblebee and didn't mind: it reminded me of when I was a kid - bees were more plentiful and life was simpler. (In China they don't just have bees; they have killer hornets.)

Work last week was tolerable. On Friday afternoon there was a scare as a suspicious white powder was found on the 18th floor. There were cops and people in orange hazmat suits. I was hoping we'd have to evacuate and could all go home. People get louder as the weekend approaches - Friday afternoon is the time I least enjoy being in the office.

My cousin's youngest boy has turned five and started school. Private school. The same place his older brothers go, although they just went to the local state school until they turned eight. I'm not convinced it's the right place for the little one. He's not academic like the other two. My cousin's husband said he never would have sent any of the boys to private school, not that he has anything against it, it just wouldn't have crossed his mind. There was a similar situation in my family. I went to a private school (public school as they illogically call it over there) from 11 to 16. I sat the entrance exam, the idea being that they'd only send me there if I got a scholarship. I passed the exam OK, but didn't get a scholarship, so that was that. But then Mum decided to stump up the money (she made all those kinds of decisions - paying for education would never have entered Dad's head), knowing that my brother sure as hell wouldn't pass the exam if he were to take it the following year. To me it felt like a giant waste of money. The school - which for so many parents was all about image - didn't do much for me.

I was thinking how much I'd like to get into psychology (although how could I study that at the moment?). It's something I've been interested in for years - far more so than goddamn life insurance. As Tracy has alluded to on occasions, if human nature isn't natural for you, and you have to learn it, you become an expert in it (it's a bit like when you learn a foreign language; you often end up knowing more about the structure and grammar of that language than your mother tongue). I don't think I'm an expert at all, but I do think my Aspie tendencies have helped my understanding of human nature. If it seems really bizarre that people happily pay a dollar more for the milk with the fancy label than the one without, even when they know both bottles have come from the same cows, you'll make a note of that. Or that if you can't remember last night, you must have had an amazing night. Or that you'll happily vote against something at a body corp meeting even though it doesn't improve your lot at all, it just makes someone else's lot a bit worse. The list goes on, and for me it's fascinating. (Occasionally I've been able to take advantage of other people's "weird" human nature, online poker being an example.)

In a few minutes I'll be going to Karori to play badminton.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Gale tales

Extreme weather is now the norm, or so it seems. When Geraldine made the news yesterday morning (there had been a fire and some roofs had come off) I rang Mum. Her power was out and she hadn't slept much - she'd stayed up to watch the Shanghai tennis final; the storm peaked in the early hours. But she was fine and there was no damage to speak of. It wasn't much fun for her being alone in the house though. Dad has a knack of bogging off overseas and missing these "weather events". She got her power back on at 8pm last night. The storm ripped through Wellington too; scaffolding spectacularly collapsed at a building site just two-minute walk from my work. I spoke to my cousin who finally got back to Wellington after having five internal flights cancelled. Tomorrow she flies to the States.

Tracy was out of action for all of last week - her thyroid was all over the place, high one minute, low the next. Yesterday though she'd improved enough to invite Tom and me over for board games. We just played one game - Alhambra - quite a cleverly-designed game that combined classic "economic" strategy (is it worth paying x to obtain y?) with spatial considerations (where is the best place to put this tile - if I can legally place it at all?). I'm better at the economic stuff than the spatial stuff. Tom and I were thinking on a fairly basic level, while Tracy (who admittedly had played it before) was on a different plane in her strategy, so it was fitting that Tom and I finished in a dead-heat, with Tracy a dozen points ahead.

Sunday was a glorious day and I managed to get sunburnt sitting on Oriental Bay near the tugboat restaurant. After yesterday's storm and today's rain that's hard to believe.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Voting and vexation

On Thursday a yellow sign was put up right outside my flat, i.e. inside the apartment building. That's great. I expected a sign on the exterior (we got that a week earlier), but not inside as well. What's next? I'll have to put one on my loo door? You wouldn't want to be caught short when the big one hits so anyone who uses my loo needs to be made aware of the risk. From the council's point of view our apartment block is two separate buildings (a "safe" one and a dodgy one), even though they're joined together. I'm just inside the unsafe part, so this new sticker tells everyone they're now entering the dodgy area. There are two other yellow signs on upper floors that carry the same message.

I'd only just seen the sticker when we had an emergency body corporate meeting - it lasted two and a half hours and things got pretty heated. They're painting the outside of our building and they've found a lot of corrosion in the steel panels of the roof. Water is already leaking into one or two apartments (not mine - yet). We had the meeting to vote on how to proceed. For me it was an easy decision: we've got the scaffolding up so we should do it now. I don't want to fork out this extra money, but leaving it till later, when it might cost twice as much, would be crazy. They needed a 75% vote to allow the work to go ahead, but the townhouse owners banded together and voted no (they're up in arms over shelling out all the money for their leaky buildings and don't want to pay for work on the main apartment block, not that they would really have to anyway) to give a 16-7 tally. The townhouse owners wouldn't benefit at all by stopping the work; they were just trying to score a political point. Someone compared them to the Tea Party in America. Eventually two of them changed their mind, two more people arrived (they voted yes), and with a 20-5 vote the work was allowed to go ahead. I think it'll cost me about $3000 (on top of my normal body corp levy). People pointed out that this is just the entrée before we deal with the seismic strengthening.

This home ownership lark isn't at all what it's cracked up to be. Paying for the roof repairs is just one of those things, but as for the earthquake reinforcements, who knows what that might cost, and in the meantime I'm stuck here with no possibility of selling. There really isn't enough money coming in; the sudden drop in value only adds insult to injury. I'm beginning to wish I'd stuck with online poker. I knew the rules and could calculate the odds; with this apartment someone slipped a couple of jokers into the deck when I wasn't looking.

While my boss was out of the office for a couple of hours, one of my quieter colleagues commented on how much more relaxed the atmosphere was. Too right. With my boss, it's go go go, all the time, and all information about anybody in the office (including her) is public property. I'm always thinking, jeez, I didn't need to know that. (I didn't have to guess her weight at all; she volunteered that information.) In other work news, the woman who was controversially fired in June for fiddling her stats, recently got unfired. She took it further, won her case, and got another three months' pay. Good on her I say.

I did vote in the local elections. I never bothered when I lived in Auckland. I see that Celia Wade-Brown was re-elected as mayor. I didn't put a 1 beside her name, nor her main rival John Morrison. My council vote was mostly driven by self-interest (my earthquake predicament) and I note with some horror that none of the names I put any sort of number beside got elected. I like the randomised ballot papers we had in Wellington, which meant the Abbotts and Adamses didn't get an unfair advantage.

Last week I read an article in the Guardian about Britain's failings in literacy in numeracy, compared with other OECD nations. I enjoyed this comment about the obsession with targets in education:

I just can't understand it. Labour gave schools targets, masses of new procedures to follow to record target completion, policies, procedures to follow to record policy adherence, procedures to record policy targets, procedures to ensure that targets were within policy, policies to ensure that procedures recorded targets, and above all targets to ensure that recording of targets and the policies to follow procedures were on target.
I suppose they could have thrown in a bit more teaching, but surely with these many targets, policies and procedures the children should have pretty much educated themselves?

I also read an article about Britain's booming new-car market. It's nuts if you ask me, and great news for people like my brother who can grab bargains by buying perfectly good second-hand cars.

Here and here you will find (and hopefully enjoy) some music from the band with probably the best name ever. They're called Tim and Sam's Tim and the Sam Band with Tim and Sam. Or TASTATSBWTAS for short. Or just Tim and Sam (incidentally there is a Tim in the band but no Sam). They're either from north Wales or Manchester, maybe both. I'd never heard of them until last week, but with a name like that there was a fair chance I'd like them.

That band name (lots of short words) made me think up a quiz question about a song title. Which hit song has 10 words in its title but only 15 letters? It's from the seventies and reached number one in NZ.