2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,200 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 20 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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It’s not about the dope

Is Lord Coe, former UK middle distance Olympian and current IAAF president, channelling his inner Captain Renault, the corrupt policeman in Casablanca who was “shocked, shocked to find that gambling” doping seems to be endemic among elite athletes?

After his earlier denunciation of whistleblower allegations as ‘a declaration of war against my sport’, the damning evidence of systemic cheating and lax oversight has forced him down a predictable path of denial: messenger shooting; deflection; the old minimisation tactic of pronouncing the whole affair as a Soviet Russian problem, and finally grudging admission.

He was wise to suspend Russia from international competition, particularly after his wisdom and judgement have been questionable recently, such as when he heaped praise on his predecessor Lamine Diack, only for him to subsequently come under formal investigation by French police.

Yet the time for drawing a line under things and hoping they go away is surely over. The cliche ‘tip of the iceberg’ was never more apt than now. As a wag from the world of cycling put it, “athletics is currently where cycling was about ten years ago”. Who then is the Lance Armstrong figure?

Is it Usain Bolt? Jamaicans fume about such accusations, but let’s look at the evidence. It is claimed that Bolt has never failed a test. Well, neither did Lance, until it was revealed much later that he had, but that there had either been a cover-up or a dubious ‘excuse’ had been proffered and accepted. Indeed, Lance was only really nailed by eyewitness testimony. The tests are so far behind the curve of desginer drug improvements that only the careless tend to fail now. And oh look, there are rumours swirling around Jamaican athletics that their testing policies have been woefully inadequate at best, and non-existent at worst. Another one for Coe’s bulging in-tray. Then there are the other sprinters, such as Tyson Gay, who have since been banned for doping. I get that Bolt could be freakishly good, but how on earth can someone consistently pulverise a field full of dopers and not also be doping himself. It makes no sense.

images
That muscle tone. Hmm…

Lance went from being a consistently mundane peloton rider to a dominant champion in the space of a year or two. Bolt ran a solid but unspectacular 10s for the 100m for several years until he managed to get his PB down to 9.76 within a year before breaking the world record twice in quick succession. Such dramatic improvements in performance are statistically astonishingly rare, and a red flag for PEDs. What makes it worse is that when Tyson Gay failed his test, Bolt was the first to demand that his rival be banned. Carl Lewis constantly attacked Ben Johnson for his doping in 1988, without a trace of irony or shame, since he too was later revealed to have failed a test in practice which was hidden by US Track & Field. Even Paula Radcliffe, the girl-next-door British marathon heroine, has been under a recent cloud over allegations revealed inadvertently by a British MP that she had suspicious blood values, a hallmark of EPO use. If there is a skerrick of truth in them, it would make Paula’s career-long vehement critcisms of ‘EPO cheats’ seem especially poignant and hollow.

This is all horrible, but I can no longer embrace the fantasy that professional sportspeople are clean as long as they pass doping tests. Put simply, the doping science is so far ahead of the testers, if you have the right money, that the higher profile the athlete, the less likely they are to get caught, as reformed doping maestro coach Angel Heredia spells out here.

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I really really hope this pic never gets tagged as irony or hypocrisy…

It is possible the fog of doubt might never really be lifted, and that elite athletic sports might be met with ever greater cynicism and incredulity. Yet that is no reason to adopt the daftest suggestion doing the rounds: legalisation of PEDs. Chris Smith outlines a simple version of the argument here, but the proposal is sheer mentalism.

Myth One: if they are all on drugs, then the one with the most athletic talent and ability will still win.

Er, no – see Armstrong L. above. Lance’s success was largely due to being part of a sophisticated team doping effort with the best regimen involving cutting-edge human growth hormone and EPO. The champions would be those with the money to get the very best drugs and drug programmes: a big stride away from meritocratic endeavour. It will lead to an arms race, which leads on to…

Myth Two: If they are all doping, it will be a level playing field once more.

Nonsense. Elite athletes are constantly searching for an edge. If certain PEDs are allowed (at levels deemed to be of low harm and risk to athletes), athletes will simply look for the next generation of PEDs to gain a further edge. Top athletes would undoubtedly risk death in pursuit of their goals and dreams, given the almost self-destructive intensity they apply to physical exertion in training. The obsessive ultra-competitiveness of elite athletes is beyond mortal ken.

Myth Three: banning them is a moral stance, surely? If people want to pay to watch juiced, consenting athletes perform impressively, where is the harm?

We would never know the extent of the advantage of one athlete’s cocktail over another. Furthermore, the most edge-creating PEDs necessarily push the boundaries of human physiology. The GDR doping programme of the 70s and 80s has left its sporting heroes with serious health issues. Flo-Jo’s stunning women’s sprint records from the mid 80s have never come close to being broken, and the suspicions about whether she was clean were inflamed by her sudden early death at 38, underlying the dangers faced. If research suggesting that human growth hormone may be carcinogenic proves valid, and given that LA began taking PEDs before his cancer diagnosis, it would be a just and damning final indictment on one of sport’s most odious bullies.

All the more reason, then, for me to conclude by celebrating the life of a talented athlete, whose life was cut short this week not by PEDs, but by the health conditions he has struggled bravely with since adolescence. His star never burned as brightly as that scintillating 1995 debut. Jonah, RIP. Mike Catt, Ouch!

 

 

Stepping on cracks ‘definitely linked to bad luck’

Stepping on the cracks between stones on footpaths, pavements and sidewalks has been linked with an increased risk of bad luck. A detailed study, carried out for the World Health Organisation (WHO) by a team of data scientists from the University of Westeros, has classified walking on cracks as “misfortunogenic to humans”.

A crack as narrow as 2mm, when coming into contact with the sole of one foot, has been identified with a 22.2734% increased risk of losing your job, being dumped, locking your keys in the car and other common misfortunes. A Westeros University spokesperson said, “we crunched the data over some beers one afternoon. We might have been a bit loose with some decimal points, but there’s definitely something in it. Put it this way, if you walked down the street in a nonchalant and carefree way today, I wouldn’t go to the casino after work – it could be messy.”

Following recent revelations about the cancer risks from eating bacon and sausages, Health Ministry officials moved quickly to allay public concern:

“What we’re not saying to people is: don’t leave the house. That would be silly. It’s perfectly possible to keep your feet inside the whole of the flagstone if you’re careful. It might take people a bit longer to get to work, but it’s worth it if you want to avoid parking fines or losing a winning scratchcard down the back of the sofa,” said one official.

Is this the new smoking?
Is this the new smoking?

A hastily issued press release summarises the key guidelines as follows:

  • Always wear footwear: shoes – even jandals – offer some protection from misfortune
  • If you do accidentally step on a crack, a quick hop on the affected foot for three seconds should nullify any unfortunate effects
  • Ignore old rhymes and trust the research: the bad luck effect cannot be transferred to another party, so you’re unlikely to “step on a crack and break your mother’s back”

A recent survey by the UK’s Daily Mail claimed that over half of the respondents avoided cracks ‘at all costs’. This was described as ‘really encouraging’ by the Westeros research team. “We can’t ban or tax walking on cracks,” said one, “so the only tool we have is better education about the risks. It’s good to know that the message is getting through, but there’s still a long way to go. And if you can’t avoid walking on cracks, then at least try to cut down on the number of cracks you tread on each day.”

When quizzed today, most Wellington residents seemed unconcerned.

“Bloody experts! They’ll be telling us you can get dehydrated from water next,” grumbled Dave Midas. “I once got horribly boozed in Courtenay Place and was walking barefoot on the pavement outside Kitty’s, jumping on cracks all over the place. Yet I met the girl of my dreams just half an hour later. I’m off for a bacon sandwich and a smoke.”

Just avoid...
Just avoid…

Sorry for the long interval between drinks folks. More blog posts coming soon, serious and silly…

Flag poll, flagpole, or down the plughole?

So Henry VIII, of the six wives, composer of Greensleeves, ‘Bluff King Hal’, has just been voted the worst monarch in history. Seriously? Fattest: quite possibly. But worst? In history too. In what other areas could someone be worst? Perhaps Richard III was the worst monarch in York; Ethelred the Unready the worst in Nantwich or something. I assumed this was a poll of British monarchs – wrongly, as it turned out. Among world monarchs, Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible will be mightily relieved.

Of course, Ivan was far from terrible. The original Russian word grozny means awe-inspiring rather than murderous and vicious, and apart from the odd massacre here and there, he ought to be remembered as a patron of the arts and trade and a good diplomat. A great bunch of lads, in other words. Perhaps when English speakers called him ‘terrible’, they were thinking of people who tell risqué jokes at dinner parties, or wear day-glo bow ties and gargle prosecco at funerals. “That Ivan, y’ know, he’s so terrible, isn’t he?”

Speaking of terrible, I was rather impressed with shocked by teenage King Eadwig, who scuttled off in the midst of his coronation in 955 and was found by an outraged archbishop enjoying the delights of a young noblewoman, and her mother! He may have died in mysterious circumstances just four years later, but young Eady had clearly managed to pack a life’s worth of scandal and intrigue into one very brief reign.

Eadwig: filthy fella
Eadwig: filthy fella

Of course, Elizabeth I ended up getting the plaudits for best monarch. Let’s ignore her rather authoritarian crushing of dissent. One victim, who had written a critical pamphlet of Her Majesty and had “the hand that wrote it cut off”, promptly doffed his cap with his other hand and said sarcastically “God save the Queen!” I suppose she ought to be credited for beating off the Spanish Armada, at least. Yet weighing up and somehow measuring the strengths and weaknesses of one monarch from one era over another all seems a bit pointless. Indeed, most such polls and lists devised by committee tend to be. And it me made me think about the increasingly shambolic way New Zealand is going about trying to find a new flag, let alone if it even wants to make the change.

I would like to change the flag. I’d better get that off my chest first. I also think Labour’s opposition to this process could certainly be seen as a little disingenuous in that regard. Any process of change would cost money (all the citizen-initiated referenda we have had over the years have had a multi-million dollar cost to run them), and I think Labour’s criticism of the timing is odd too. If not now, when? Petitions to change the flag have been around a long time. I don’t even begrudge it being John Key’s legacy. Helen Clark’s legacy was a minimum wage, Working for Families and Kiwisaver (I credit Kiwibank to Jim Anderton). I know which of the two legacies will make a real difference to most Kiwis’ lives.

My preference has always been for the silver fern on a black background (as was John Key’s preference initially). It is as quintessentially Kiwi as the Canadian maple leaf. It has acted as an unofficial de facto NZ flag for a long time, without the specific cultural connotations of the Union Jack or Tino Rangatiratanga. I also do not (or at least, did not) subscribe to the argument that it is too ‘rugby’. NZ World War graves are adorned with the fern, and it is just as proudly worn by Kiwi netballers, cricketers, Olympic athletes and so on.

So I was nonplussed then to see that it was not included in the final four. Indeed, three of the final four look suspiciously like a crappy compromise on the classic silver fern; a sort of garish Weetbix packet-esque fusion of the fern and the Southern Cross, or a hideous black-and-white affair that looks like a photographic negative of the silver fern. And whaddya know, they are crappy compromises. For the NZRU, custodian of the nation’s hearts and minds, waded into the whole flag maul with lawyers in tow and refused to allow the Flag Commission permission to use their trademarked fern. Excuse me? How on earth can one trademark a long-standing national symbol, which the All Blacks adopted and not the other way round?

Think Weetbix.
Think Weetbix.
Idiot! You supplied the negative instead of the actual image. Oh...
Idiot! You supplied the negative instead of the actual image. Oh…

And there was I, defending the fern from the anti-rugby crowd, while the boofheaded bumclowns at the NZRU go and prove me wrong. So while the precious All Blacks brand is preserved, we are left with a Clayton’s clutch of uninspiring half-choices. It’s OK though, because McAwesome Hedgehog is OK with the Weetbix fern, and it’s time for a change and a sportsman’s opinion. Hey guys: best of luck in the W*rld C*p, as always, but I sure hope the Beehive team announcement, the flag photocall and the premature talk of Sir Richie or Richie MP isn’t some grandiose hubris swirling around the Champions of the World™.

So what’s left? An act of defiance. I’m going for the koru option. It’s about the closest we’ll ever get to incorporating Maori flag design, it’s simple enough for any patriotic kid to draw, and it is utterly unlike any other flag on the planet. Give it time, New Zillund.

It might well be a monkey butt, but it’s our monkey butt.

Hops Spring Eternal

I go on a month’s holiday back to Blighty and watch sheer madness unfold, as Red Santa Corbyn unleashes holy hell on the Labour leadership contest, and unfancied England give Steve Smith’s Australians an object lesson in the perils of hubris. It was quite reassuring to get back to the sleepy calm of Nu Zild in August, and what better way to dispel the chilly temperatures than a long-overdue maiden visit to Beervana. The curtain raiser for the foodie fortnight of Wellington On A Plate has long been on my bucket list. So when the Lady of the Manor wondered idly whether I wanted to go, I wanted to go.

Refreshingly, it was better than expected. As a proud Bradford lad, I had always been led to believe that the price one pays for the ‘real ale’ experience was sharing a dilapidated pub with pot-bellied middle-aged men sporting WG Grace beards and Batman T-shirts. This was high tea at the Langham in comparison. Hipsters, public servants and the occasional stag do mingled cheerfully, insulated from the great unwashed by the steep $45 entry fee. The food was impressive: the shuttered and darkened generic stadium outlets looked forlorn behind the gaudy stalls offering gourmet dumplings, fish tacos and ‘contemporary street food’. There is clearly a lesson here for Westpac Stadium: why must benighted Phoenix and Hurricanes fans queue morosely for rancid hot dogs and warm Tui on gameday?

You don't need alcohol to have a good time, but it sure helps.
You don’t need alcohol to have a good time, but occasionally it helps.

Beers were grouped under ‘Gateway’, Artisan or Cult. Embracing the vibe, I decided that it was Cult or die. The hits: chocolate cake and sherry stout; black doris plum cider; sour cherry and choc top pilsner. The miss: the Islay malt flavoured Scotch ale – truly, the dark side of disgusting. I couldn’t locate the fabled ‘stag semen’ bitter. One unexpected gripe was the smell. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that having 1000 people indoors quaffing ales and guzzling fried food was a recipe for extreme flatulence, but the concentrated effect was quite off-putting at times. One unintended consequence of the ban on smoking in pubs is that tobacco smoke hid a multitude of grosser odours.

Of course, there was something for the unadventurous, and my revulsion at seeing punters opting for Mac’s Gold led to an outburst on Facebook, until a friend pointed out to me that back in the day, Mac’s had been a trailblazer for small-scale ‘craft’ beer in a market dominated by DB and Lion mediocrity. Then they sold out. Literally and figuratively.

And that’s the elephant in the room for Aotearoa’s independent craft beer revolutionistas. While it was heartening to read and taste the stories of the quintessential Kiwi backyard brewing pioneers, fusing hobby and business from the garden shed or bach caravan, the financial realities are sobering indeed. Craft beer is not that lucrative. And while craft beer sales still account for a rather measly 10% of all beer sales (and some of those are produced by the big beasts), if that were to rise, the temptation for small producers to cash in to attractive offers from conglomerates looking to crush declining marketshare at birth, might be too much to bear. I have to say, leaving aside the wackier offerings, the variety among the rest was not as great as the aficionados claim. And if the NZ wine industry can start heading towards rationalisation, the question has to be raised whether beer also can remain truly independent.

We have managed it with coffee, although many more New Zealanders still drink instant than drink proper coffee, shockingly. But the lucrative potential of booze is altogether greater. Still, in the meantime, I’ll stop playing Jeremiah, and raise a toast to craft beer. Cheers!

Luddites win battle – will lose war

I received a depressing little email last week from Orcon. After caving in to relentless legal pressure from the behemoths of yesterday’s technology – Sky, Mediaworks and Spark – their GlobalMode service will cease from September 1st. So, I will just have to damn well find another way to stream and pay for, quite legally, internet-based TV and film services.

I have no intention of going back on my decision to quit Sky. Too many outages due to ‘atmospheric conditions’ when there’s not a cloud in the, er, Sky. It seems that our dish is susceptible to high wind. In Wellington, that makes it the tech equivalent of a chocolate fireguard.

All of this nonsense is the result of geo-blocking – a desperate attempt to impose 20th century distribution channels on 21st century technology. Sky and others wrongly assume that those who pretend to live in Beverly Hills (90210, the only zip code we know!) in order to access US Netflix are cheapskates at best, and pirates at worst. They couldn’t be more wrong. NZ consumers are just tired of being told that they will have to wait, or pay more because of our isolation (a ridiculous argument in the internet age) – the same rubbish that was foisted on Kiwis back in the golden age of shit, limited TV.

Too bad about GlobalMode. In a spirit of defiance, here are links to a number of alternatives. As with most things the free ones are less secure and reliable than the ones which charge a monthly fee. The one to avoid is Hola, which is disingenuous about its levels of security: it allows other users to look as though they are accessing data through your account. Not a good thing if said users are into child porn, for instance.

Unotelly

AirVPN

Unblockus

or an impartial survey of the ‘5 best’

So, Round One to Big Bad Old Media. But this is a war they cannot win.

Generation Rent: what to do about the growing number of Kiwis who cannot get on to the property ladder? All sides of the political spectrum agree that the quality of public and private rental stock has to improve, but any further consensus ends there. The Labour-Green suggestion of a WOF, which it is estimated 90% of current rentals will fail, is probably too unpalatable for landlords and risks chaos if enforced. National’s watered-down alternative, on the other hand, is almost certainly too light and lax.

Here’s a radical idea: why not use the incentivist approach, beloved of liberal economists? Since landlords can offset losses on their rental properties and therefore gain a kind of tax relief, why not mandate that landlords wishing to be treated as a loss-making business ensure their properties meet certain standards? Slum landlords with no desire to change their shoddy habits will be unable to claim any of their losses back from their taxes. The standard should be decent but achievable. You could even have a sliding scale, whereby landlords are encouraged to improve the quality of their rental stock by being able to claim more tax relief the closer they get to, say, the Labour-Green WOF standard.

And finally, to the parking warden who decided not to fine me but just to give me a warning, as I apologised breathlessly for parking on a Clearway: thank you. You didn’t have to be nice, but you were. And with that, I’m off to the UK to visit family, so blogging might be even more sporadic than currently!

Not all officious, tin men jobsworths after all.
Not all officious, tin men jobsworths after all.

Memo to Auckland: don’t be dense about being dense

The Property Institute, in a burst of savage irony, has been rattling its chains about the latest housing bubble threat to Auckland. If you are surprised that a lobby group for property owners and investors is bothered by rocketing house prices, then you might want to read the small print. As CEO Ashley Church points out:

Proposed measures to help more people into apartments as their first home or to introduce income limits on the amount people can borrow from banks could create an “apartment bubble”, the Property Institute warns.

In his apocalyptic vision, he outlines an eight stage process whereby the Reserve Bank’s perfectly sensible idea of limiting what people can borrow to tackle our mountain of private debt, along with Auckland Council’s equally rational plan for moderate densification of central suburbs, will force poor benighted souls into buying a glut of new apartments in central Auckland. This would result in the armageddon scenario of:

Within 7 to 10 years Auckland becomes a highly ‘intensified’ city with large numbers of low quality apartments dotting the landscape “alongside free-standing residential homes.

What an awful prospect! Indeed, if you replace the word ‘quality’ with ‘cost’, since I find his argument as to why they would all have to be shanty and tinpot pretty tenuous, then Auckland would look just like most other large cities around the world. Shocking!

The Minister for Lack of Housing, Nick Smith, has also waded into the debate in typically bullying fashion. He is childishly threatening to overrule Auckland Council and force through development in remote outer suburbs, despite the Council pleading that the extra infrastructure costs on building so far out will hammer ratepayers:

Ms Hulse said that until the Government “commits to funding the vital infrastructure required” on such greenfield sites, the council would “focus on brownfield sites which already have good levels of infrastructure service”.

“But we still need central government help to shore up the funding for roads and water and electricity supply,” she said. “Otherwise the cost of growth will be borne by Auckland ratepayers.

Anyone would think that the National government wanted to force higher rates on Auckland just to spite Len. Exacerbating all of this are the 22,000 unoccupied homes in Auckland – a staggering amount, if you consider that Greater London, which has eight times Auckland’s population, has roughly the same estimated number of unoccupied homes. The very definition of a bubble is when speculators purchase a commodity for no discernible use or return, but purely on the expectation its price will rise significantly (see tulip prices around 1637).

$2 million, anyone?
$2 million, anyone?

When commentators on all sides agree that the problem is a classic case of high demand and low supply, and since the government is ideologically incapable of legislating to stop overseas investors, the only solution is building affordable homes. Yet the glacial pace of building boutique homes on large sections in ever more remote suburbs suits just about everybody with a firm foot on the Auckland ladder. Sadly, political expediency, as well as point-scoring between a National government and a Labour mayor, is strangling any attempt to address the problem.

I think Australia might be experiencing Peak Abbott. I thought it might have been reached when he munched a raw onion in public, or when the King of Speedos nominated under-honoured Prince Philip for a knighthood, or when Tiger Tony patronised the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, or responded to the death of an Aussie soldier in Afghanistan with “shit happens“, or described European settlement of Australia as “a wise investment of unoccupied, er, sparsely-occupied land” and indigenous Australians living in the outback as a “lifestyle choice“.

At least it wasn't his foot he put in his mouth this time.
At least it wasn’t his foot he put in his mouth this time.

But no. The guy who promised the electorate, Canute-like, that he would ensure no more refugee boats ever reached Australia, has now been revealed to have found an ingenious, if reckless, way of turning them back: bribing the smugglers. Retorts that paying off smugglers was also carried out under Labor, even if true, are no comeback, given that Labor always had a more pragmatic yet humane approach to the asylum problem, recognising the basic fact that when a poor country with dubious human rights lies close to a richer, freer country, a steady tide of asylum-seeking is inevitable. And it is Abbott who is the hypocrite, given his previous remarks that:

“The only way you can stop the deaths is to stop the people smuggling trade. The only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats,” he said.

Tony, if you pay off smugglers, you won’t stop the trade, you’ll encourage it. What a gig. Take thousands of dollars off desperate refugees and then take tens of thousands more off desperate governments – I’m clearly in the wrong job.

And finally, if we have reached Peak Abbott, please please please tell me that we haven’t yet reached Peak Trump. He’s no longer just thinkin’ of runnin’ for President, hell, he’s really runnin’ for President. And he’s gonna build a wall. A big one. To keep those pesky Mexican drug-dealing desperadoes outta the good ol’ USA. For a man so right-wing he was once derided by a Fox News commentator as being a “bloviating ignoramus”, Trump’s candidacy is a gift to all non-crazy, vaguely-liberal Americans who want to expose the frothing underbelly of Republican political beliefs to swing voters. And to those who think he is an unpalatable stooge purely to make the likes of Jeb Bush look more electable, it rarely works out that way once the campaign is in full swing. Trump’s colossal ego is matched only by his staggering lack of self-awareness, and he is likely to pull the other candidates further right with his bizarre pronouncements, not left. He might even run as an independent. Let’s face it: he’s got the money.

Is he for real? More to the point, is that hair for real?
Is he for real? More to the point, is that hair for real?