Sunday, June 16, 2019

Weekend Diversion: More Random songs

Back in March, I shared some random songs that I got to like because of the music video channel I watch. This eclectic batch of songs is just like those in that I got to know all but one through their music videos first. All three are sometimes played a lot on the music video channel, so I’ve gotten to know them all quite well—sometimes a little too well, maybe.

DNCE - Cake By The Ocean [Explicit Lyrics]

In September 2015, US pop band DNCE released “Cake By The Ocean” (video above), which is about sexual intercourse. According to Wikipedia, “The song's title originated from Mattman & Robin's [the Swedish duo who served as producers] repeatedly confusing the phrase ‘sex on the beach’ for ‘cake by the ocean’."

The DNCE’s lead singer is Joe Jonas, who also co-wrote the song. He's probably better known as one of the Jonas Brothers, a group that rose to fame through Disney Channel, moved to more adult music, and recently started recording again. I thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t quite place who he was until I read up on the song, Doh! At any rate, he’s certainly moved away from the Disney days.

The song reached Number 6 in Australia (3x Platinum), 7 on the Canadian “Hot 100” (2x Platinum), 10 in New Zealand (2x Platinum), 4 in the UK (2x Platinum), and 9 in the USA on the Billboard’s “Hot 100” (3x Platinum).

Bob Sinclar - Love Generation

In 2005, Christophe Le Friant (stage name Bob Sinclar), a French record producer, house music DJ, and remixer, released a song called “Love Generation”. It’s a catchy song, not the least because of the whistling. The man watering his lawn in the video of the song is Bob Sinclar. The vocal is by Gary "Nesta" Pine, who has often featured on Sinclar's records. This is the only song of these three songs that I heard on the radio, which is ironic: It was the least successful on the NZ charts.

The song reached Number One in Australia (Platinum), 2 in New Zealand, 12 in the UK, and Number One in the USA on the Billboard’s Dance Club Chart. It was also a big hit around Europe.

Pitbull - Give Me Everything ft. Ne-Yo, Afrojack, Nayer [Explicit Lyrics]

Finally, the most successful song in this bunch, "Give Me Everything", a song released in March 2011. It was written and performed by American rapper Pitbull (real name Armando Christian Pérez) American R&B singer Ne-Yo, and Dutch DJ Afrojack, and featuring additional vocals from American singer Nayer. It was Nayer’s vocals that made me notice the song. The song was Pitbull’s first Number One in the USA.

The song reached Number 2 in Australia (6x Platinum), 1 on the Canadian “Hot 100” (7x Platinum), 2 in New Zealand (2x Platinum), Number One in the UK (2x Platinum), and Number One in the USA on the Billboard’s “Hot 100”.

• • • • •

Because I watch the video channel often enough, I see these videos relatively often. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have heard two of them, but, as it is, I know them a little too well, maybe. It happens.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Teatotaling test

There are plenty of good reasons for people to reduce their alcohol intake or avoid alcohol altogether. Among the health reasons are to avoid interactions with medicines, and that’s the situation I’m now in. Turns out, the alcohol-removed wine I found is quite good.
In my most recent Health Journey post, I talked about buying alcohol-removed wine:
“…because the medicine [Amiodarone] can cause liver damage, they urge people to avoid or severely limit alcohol intake. I’m doing the former. There are many good alcohol-removed wines nowadays, and some decent no-alcohol beers and even a sparkling no-alcohol wine—well, technically, it’s a sparkling grape juice, but it’s more wine-like than that sounds. This means that when we’re being social, I can sort of play along, even though I’m not drinking alcohol."
I knew about Edenvale alcohol removed wines, an Australian brand sold in our supermarket. I even tried a red one once and thought it was okay—but a sip is hardly the same thing as drinking a glass of it. Now that I have more incentive, I decided to try it again.

I normally drink Pinot Gris (also known as Pinto Grigio, but there is a difference between the two). Edenvale doesn’t make one, so I chose their chardonnay because I don’t like Sauvignon Blanc anymore, and I generally don’t like Riesling because it’s too sweet for my taste. I used to drink chardonnay all the time up until a few years ago. I also bought a bottle of their Rosé (a bit sweet for my taste), and a bottle of their bubbles, Sparkling Cuvee, which was sweeter than I usually like in bubbles, but pretty good. I haven't tried their ordinary red yet, nor their premium range.

When I opened the chardonnay, I smelled the open bottle, and it smelled a lot like a bottle of chardonnay. Its taste was lighter than ordinary chardonnay, something like a low-alcohol version might taste, but it was surprisingly nice. In fact, now that I’ve had some several different times, I plan on keeping it as one of my choices after I’m off this medicine regime, maybe paired with a low-alcohol wine, or maybe (probably) by itself. That kind of surprised me.

One question that comes up when I talk about this is, are the wines completely alcohol free? No, they’re not. Edenvale explains this in their FAQs:
The average finished alcohol level of the Edenvale range is approximately 0.2-0.3% Alcohol/Volume. It is virtually impossible to remove 100% of the alcohol from a fermented beverage. Delicate alcohol extraction technology is used to ensure varietal definition and flavours are retained in the finished product so consumers can still enjoy a sophisticated beverage without the effect of alcohol.
Edenvale Alcohol Removed wines contain less alcohol than most freshly squeezed orange juices. The International Standard for a non intoxicating beverage is 0.5% Alc/Vol (of which Edenvale is nearly half). Below this level the regulatory body, Food Standards of Australia and New Zealand, do not require producers to include any statement of Alcohol content.
I have to admit that I wasn’t aware that alcohol is naturally occurring in fruit juices, among other things. I also wasn’t aware that the alcohol by volume in drinks we know have alcohol varies a lot. In fact, it was reported on TVNZ’s One News tonight that there are concerns about the variable amounts of alcohol in the fad health drink kambucha. Some of varieties are below 0.5%, meaning it’s legally alcohol-free, but some are high enough that the law requires that it’s to be labelled.

I also tried the sparkling wine of an American alcohol-removed wine brand called fre, but I’m not sure the specific one I tried is still available. It was pretty good, too, but it’s imported from much farther away than Edenvale, and so, usually more expensive than the Australian ones I tried.

So, I rate this experiment a complete success, so much so I’ll keep having it even after I can have regular wine again. From me, that’s actually very high praise.

The products listed and their names are all registered trademarks, and are used here for purposes of description and clarity. No person, company, or entity provided any support or payment for this blog post, and all products were purchased by me at normal retail prices. So, the opinions I expressed are my own genuinely held opinions, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the manufacturers, any retailer, or any known human being, alive or dead, real or corporate. Just so we’re clear.

Important note: This post mentions my own personal health journey. My experiences are my own, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative for anyone else. Similarly, other people may have completely different reactions to the same medications I take—better or worse. I share my experiences because others may have the same or similar experiences, and I want them to know that they’re not alone. But, as always, discuss your situation and how you’re feeling openly, honestly, and clearly with your own doctor, and always feel free to seek a second opinion from another doctor.

The image of the bottle is from the winemaker.

Polls apart

Recent opinion polls in New Zealand offered up wildly different results and presented completely different trends. There are many possible explanations for that, including timing, polling methods, sampling errors, question construction—or even pure chance. Whatever’s going on, there’s one thing that’s certain: They can’t both be right. Let the buyer beware—and be very sceptical.

The polls (graphic above) were conducted at roughly the same time, but the results are clearly very different. The Newshub Reid Research Poll was taken May 29-June 7 (sometimes they’ve reported May 30 as the start date), and the One News Colmar Brunton Poll was taken June 4-8. This is one of the first possible explanations for the differences: The timing.

The New Zealand Budget was introduced in Parliament on May 30, and the Newshub poll was begun before Budget Day (or on the day…), and finished a week after. The One News poll began several days after Budget Day and ended about the same time as Newshub’s, after four days. In reporting the story, both news shows said their poll indicated what happened as a result of the Budget’s announcement. One News said there was no “Budget Bounce”, meaning the government didn’t go up in the polls and, in fact, they claimed Labour went down in the poll. Newshub, on the other hand, claimed that Labour did get a “Budget Bounce” and said they went up in the poll. Which claim is true depends, obviously, on which poll is more accurate.

The similarity of polling period suggests that the timing of the polls is probably not relevant, though the longer polling period for the Newhubs poll might matter. Overall, this means other factors are probably be at play. Another obvious source of the divergence would be how the polls were conducted.

In the past, Colmar Brunton rang only landlines, which has been a source of complaints for years. This poll was conducted by randomly dialling people on both NZ landlines and NZ cellphones using probability sampling. Their sample was of 1002 people, which is a typical amount. They describe their margin of error this way (read their PDF report on the poll for full details):
The maximum sampling error is approximately ±3.1%-points at the 95% confidence level. This is the sampling error for a result around 50%. Results higher and lower than 50% have a smaller sampling error. For example, results around 10% and 5% have sampling errors of approximately ±1.9%-points and ±1.4%-points, respectively, at the 95% confidence level.

These sampling errors assume a simple random sample of 1,000 eligible voters.
Reid Research hasn’t yet posted the current poll results on their website, so we don’t know for sure if their methodology has changed from previous polls. However, in their older polls, they sampled 1,000 people, 750 of whom were telephoned (they don’t disclose whether they were landline or mobile, but in the past they were landline only). The other 250 were from online polling.

Over the years, there have been many debates on whether the phone method matters and whether Reid’s use of online polling is valid. The fact that Colmar Brunton now rings mobile phones suggests, at the very least, that they listened to critics. But that doesn’t by itself make their results more accurate no less accurate, and Reid’s use of online polling doesn’t by itself make theirs less accurate or more accurate. On the other hand, we could tell if the sampling is problematic if we knew the extent of the correction they applied to their raw survey results.

The things we can’t know, and no one will tell us, is how they correct sampling errors, so we can’t judge if their methods appear to be sound or not. However, they both use industry-standard methods, and, in any case, that, too, doesn’t necessarily mean that one poll or the other might be less accurate than the other.

We also can’t rely on history to help us work this out. In the companies’ final election polls before the 2017 General Election, both polls were remarkably similar—and off. Both polls overstated support for National and the Greens, but of the two, Reid was closest to the result that New Zealand First had, where Comar Brunton greatly understated the party’s support (“greatly” because it was about 50% below the actual result). Both were pretty accurate on Labour’s eventual result. This suggests that their correction for sampling errors may not be fine-tuned enough, that they skewed conservative, toward national in particular.

So, history is no guide, and, at first glance, it looks like we can’t use the differences in these polls' methods or analysis to tell us much, either. This is reinforced by the fact that both polls had remarkably similar results on the possible legalisation of marijuana, which frankly seems odd: Why are they so hugely different on political polling, but so similar on the referendum? The answer could well be the question asked.

We don’t (yet?) know what, specifically, but the question reported on Newshub was simply, “Should we legalise cannabis?”, which is a very broad question. On the other hand Colmar Brunton asked:
“A referendum on the legalisation of cannabis will be held at the 2020 General Election. Possible new laws would allow people aged 20 and over to purchase cannabis for recreational use. The laws would also control the sale and supply of cannabis. At this stage, do you think you will vote for cannabis to be legalised, or for cannabis to remain illegal?”
That question is reasonably fair, given that the exact wording of the referendum hasn’t been released yet, but the general structure of the proposal in the question aligns with how the media has described it. The poll results showed that people under 34 were more likely to support legalisation, and those over 55 were least likely. It also found that National Party supporters were more likely to oppose legalisation.

The Newsbub Poll result produced a closer result than One News’, but found similar ideological variation. By itself, this doesn’t seem to support the claim that the One News sample skewed older and more conservative than it should have. But another question may reveal a bias.

The worst-worded question in the One News poll was this: “Would you consider voting for a party with Christian or conservative values at the 2020 General Election?” This should have been bloody obvious to everyone involved, but those two are not automatically the same thing or even symbiotic. National is a conservative party with conservative values. New Zealand First is a more moderate party with conservative values. Hell, even the Centre-Left Labour Party has some conservative values. But all of those parties are also firmly secular.

So far, only one rightwing “party” (technically, it is only announced, and doesn’t exist yet) is positioning itself a “Christian” party, but the only one claiming “conservative values” is a “Christian” party in all but name. The question should have been two questions.

We know this question was deeply flawed because of the results: Those most likely to support such a party parties were: Pacific Island peoples (who are often very Christian, but not necessarily Christian), Asians (who are often conservative, but not usually Christian)—and people 18-49? SERIOUSLY?! Every poll conducted, and all the social science data we have, shows that people in that age group are less religious and less conservative than older generations, but the poll says they’re among those most receptive to “a party with Christian or conservative values”? At the same time, voters 60-69 were reported as less likely to vote for either kind of party, and that, too, is at odds with research that indicates religious affiliation and conservatism goes up with age. Are we really supposed to believe that young voters are suddenly more religious and more conservative than their parents/grandparents? That seems highly improbable.

Further polling with properly constructed questions might explain why this question’s poll results are so wildly divergent form everything we know about people’s religious and ideological compartmentalisation, but, on the face of it, it appears that the One News poll may, indeed, have skewed conservative, as it did to some extent in 2017. As it is, the results for that one question cast a shadow over the entire poll.

The bottom line is that we cannot yet explain why the two polls are so divergent on political questions, yet similar on the marijuana referendum. It seems unlikely that timing accounts for the difference. Polling methods, sampling errors, and the correction of them, could account for the divergence—were it not for the similar results on the referendum. That leaves question construction, and that was certainly a problem with one question at least. That means that, at the moment, pure chance alone is as good an explanation as any.

These polls, as with most polls, must be taken with an entire mine of salt. The reliability of the entire polling industry has been questioned since so many companies seemed to get it so very wrong in the USA’s 2016 presidential election. However, most US polls actually did far better than the popular belief holds, something most people don’t know. Because of that doubt, though, polling companies must redouble their efforts to make their polls as accurate as humanly possible. One or both of these two polls haven’t done that—we just can’t tell for sure which it is or if it's both.

Let the buyer beware—and be very sceptical.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Winter produce

The photo above is of the largest haul we’ve had from our tomato plants in the month since I posted the since I posted the photo I mentioned in the Instagram caption above. There have been a couple others, and a couple the birds decided were theirs. But it’s not the size of the yield that’s remarkable, it’s that this is now winter: We’re getting tomatoes in winter. Extraordinary.

In that caption I also speculate on a couple factors that may have helped them along, and the variety of tomato could be part of it, too. But things are definitely different. Is it an early sign of climate change? I don’t know. I’ve pointed out three perfectly ordinary factors that, perhaps when combined, could account for this. Of them, only the warm autumn the past couple years could be related to climate change, but the reality is that I just don’t know.

None of the other garden jobs that I mentioned last month are done yet. This doesn’t bother me—I had some obstacles along the way, after all. And, the weather has been rainy more often than not lately, and I don’t like being wet. Okay, that one’s on me, and I have no excuse for that. But it’s still a thing.

I have something to add to the list, too, a grapefruit tree that’s got a bumper crop this year. That’s a shame because I can’t eat them and we don’t know really anyone who likes them. I’ll put the fruit in our community sharing stand—someone will use them—but after it’s done producing, the tree will get the chop (something we should have done last year).

The grapefruit tree, productive though it may be, is useless to us: We can’t use the produce and have to get rid of it every year (a lot of it rots). Also, it blocks light and sunlight from reaching a raised garden bed behind it, so we can’t really grow anything there. That tree has to go.

Right now, though, my focus isn’t on that tree, it’s on the unexpected extra bounty from the tomato plants, something we never expected. Fresh winter produce is nice.


"Productive holiday weekend"
– When we planted the tomatoes.
"The tomatoes are growing" – The plants were growing well by December.
"Gardening work" – When I noticed the tomato plants were in bloom in late autumn.
"Photo Trial" – They were even the subject of a photo experiment.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

In a good light

The photo above is of Leo, taken this morning as he slept on Nigel’s pillow. He doesn’t normally do that, as I said in the Instagram caption, but he looked so cute that I had to take a photo. I realised later that there was also really nice natural light.

In the caption I mentioned in passing that “he’s only half shorn”, and of course there’s a story behind that. A couple weeks ago I gave him a bath and we started grooming him. He hates that, something we learned last year.

The short version of the story is that he becomes easily distressed when we try to groom him, so we got him a special collar that has synthetic pheromones that, they say, mimic what a nursing mother dog gives off. It’s supposed to calm them. Let’s just say, it was not a complete success.

He seemed to be becoming so distressed that we stopped—only part way through—and it took him the better part of the following week to come right. He looks like he’s wearing pants that are falling down and has a puffy sleeves, not that he cares about any of that, of course. At some point we’ll have to finish the job, but we’re dreading it.

Meanwhile, we’re having new taps installed on our bath later this week, one that allows us to attach a hand-held shower-type sprayer, and the only reason we’re doing that is to have a place to wash the dogs. I can wash Leo in the laundry tub, but the other two are too big. I’ve been using the shower, but that’s really awkward.

And, Sunny and Jake are overdue for their baths. They’ll be this weekend.

Still, Leo was enjoying his little sleep when I took that photo, which is a good thing in itself. And, as always, I saw him in a good light.

Monday, June 10, 2019

The end of iTunes

Earlier this month, Apple announced it was ending iTunes, news that was met with a shrug. It seems that many people hated it, and it did, indeed, seem a relic because, as the chart above shows, revenue from streaming music overtook digital downloads some time ago. But when it was introduced, iTunes was revolutionary and a perfect example of “disruptive technology”. Times have changed.

When iTunes was announced in 2001, it created a way to load music onto the company’s iPod music player (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod). In so doing, it began to usher in the era of digital music. When they introduced the iTunes Store in 2003, it became the first legal way to buy and download digital music and created the then-radical idea of allowing customers to buy individual songs, not just entire albums. Some artists hated this, preferring to think of their album as a kind of unitary entity, but consumers loved it.

In 2005, Apple added support for podcasts (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ITunes_Store) to iTunes and the iTunes store, which made the medium much more widely available and easy to use. That development killed off some of the independent software, called “podcatchers”. However, as iTunes has declined, it’s no longer the only way that people get their podcasts, and various other ways, such as Stitcher Radio, though there was controversy about that (see also below), relating to Stitcher placing ads on podcasts they provided, without sharing revenue with the content creators.

It’s probably fair to say that the end of iTunes won’t affect (or, apparently, bother…) many people, since most people now stream their music or download it from one of those services. And, people will still be able to buy music through Apple, just not using iTunes.

Desktop Macs will be like iOS devices (iPhone, iPad), with three separate Apps, one for music, one for podcasts, and one for movies. Making Macs work more like iOS devices will appeal to some people, especially those new to the “Apple ecosystem”. Backups of iOS devices will be handled in Finder, which is the basic level of the MacOS and includes the desktop.

To some of us, however, it’ll be annoying to have three different Apps to manage digital audio-visual content and a fourth thing to handle iOS device backups. Also, the history isn’t good: When the Podcast App was first introduced to iOS, replacing iTunes, it was terrible: It was frustratingly hard to use, and it was difficult to add podcast subscriptions. That got better with upgrades, but there will be an opportunity for third-party developers to make a “better iTunes” to re-merge the functions. There are companies making podcast apps for iOS, so it seems natural to have fully integrated Apps, at least for audio content.

I seem to be one of the few people who actually didn’t mind iTunes’ shortcomings because of how easy it was to make playlists to organise music and podcasting libraries. I also used iTunes to create the MP3 versions of my podcasts because it was easier and faster than the other methods I’ve used. When iTunes goes, I may end up changing how I make podcasts, too.

Still, people complained about the “useless” features of iTunes, and there is one that even I don’t use anymore: Burning CDs of music. In fact, modern Macs don’t even have CD drives anymore, and we don’t have a disc player hooked up to our TVs, either. It was convenient and easy to use back in the day, though. iTunes also worked the other way: Creating MP3 copies of physical CDs, but we did that years ago (and there are other Apps that specialise in creating digital audio files from physical media).

I don’t always want to stream music—sometimes I want to buy it. So, given how confusing everything is, I decided to look at the alternatives. It’s important to note that all of the streaming sites also allow “offline listening” (downloads) of music, but it’s not clear from their websites what happens to those downloads if a customer quits the service. Only two of the services offer digital sales to New Zealand.

Any talk about pricing of digital sales has to begin with the granddaddy, Apple’s music store. Apple customers outside the USA have always subsidised American consumers by paying higher prices—sometimes dramatically higher—than do buyers in the USA. This has been true for all products sold by Apple, including their computers, phones, and so on, as well as digital music.

I looked at Apple’s iTunes Store the other day as I was researching this post. I saw several albums that were priced at US$6.99 in the US store, which works out to NZ$10.52 each. But in the NZ store, the same albums were priced at $16.99-$17.99 (US$11.29 – US$11.95). Some weren’t available at all.

Next I looked at Amazon’s Music. Most of the albums I looked at on iTunes were available from Amazon, with an important caveat: NONE of the albums were available as digital albums for people in New Zealand. Physical CDs were mostly US$9.99 (NZ$9.49) or US$9.99 for digital version (in the USA). A notable exception was an album available as a digital download on iTunes for US$6.99 in the USA, and Amazon offered the physical CD for US$5.99 and the digital download was US$16.99 (again, not available in NZ). Another one was US$9.49 and ($16.99 for the USA-only digital downloads). Meanwhile, Amazon Music subscriptions are NZ$9.99 per month for an Individual, or $14.99 per month for a family. It is available for all platforms.

Google Play was developed for Android and Chrome operating systems, or for anyone on the web. It is the closest to the Apple iTunes store, and its digital downloads, at least on albums I checked, were available in New Zealand. They ranged from $9.99 to $13.99 which appears to be NZ dollars (I didn’t buy anything, so I can’t be sure). Subscriptions are $12.99 for an individual and $19.99 for a family. There is a free service, too. There is an iOS App, but reviews show it's had a mixed reception. Third-party developers have made players for the MacOS, though it can also be accessed on a Mac through the web.

Apple Music is $14.99 per month (the US rate is US$9.99, which today is $15.02, and that means that, unusually, pricing is quite similar). There is no free, ad-supported version. It reached 10 million subscribers in six months, something that took Spotify six years to achieve.

Spotify has a free, ad-supported service (which I have). Spotify Premium, which removes Spotify-added ads and also adds some features, is $14.99 per month for an individual, and a family version is $22.50 per month. There are iOS and Mac Apps available (I have both).

Stitcher Radio (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stitcher_Radio) is describes as “an on-demand Internet radio service” that’s also used for podcasts. It uses a mobile phone App and is not available on desktop machines. People can buy a Premium subscription for $4.99 per month (or billed annually for the equivalent of $2.92 per month). The “premium” version removes the Stitched-added ads, and provides access to “premium podcasts”.

Pandora Radio is only available in the USA, so I didn’t bother looking into it.

At this point I have no plans to subscribe to a streaming service, though I may revisit that. I don't listen to radio, so I'm not sure that streaming music would have any value to me. This is important to me because I only listen to music and podcasts when I'm using my desktop computer. Because neither any subscription I had nor the service itself will last forever. That means that, if "offline" songs are all deleted when the subscription ends, it’s theoretically possible that one could spend a lot more money to subscribe to music than to buy it outright. So, I think some caution is wise.

I plan on trying out at least some of these services in the months ahead, and, if I do, I’ll share what I find. One thing is certain, though: Later this year, everything will change for my digital music and podcast listening, whether I do anything or not. Times have changed.

Related: “Apple Music vs. Spotify” By Time Hardwick, MacRumors

The graph comparing streaming and downloads of music and movies at the top is of this post is from Statista, as is the chart in the middle of this post on paid digital music consumption.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Leo is two

Today is Leo’s second birthday—already! Since he came to live with us he’s slotted right into the family, providing a lot of entertainment along the way. He was best friends with Bella, but as she got sicker Leo became best friends with Sunny. They still play together every day (Leo and Jake have an understanding…).

It’s a good thing that birthdays don’t mean anything to dogs because if they did, he may not have had an entirely good day. We’re part way through grooming him, and he fights us so hard that it takes several days to finish. At the moment, he looks a bit like he was put together by a committee.

That meant he insisted on a tight close-up for his birthday photo because we haven’t done his head yet. That, and the rest of the photos I took where he was looking at the camera weren’t any more flattering.

Leo’s actually a lot of fun to live with, and is happy all the time. We’re really happy he’s part of the family.

Happy Second Birthday, Leo!

Leo is one year old

Another new addition

Leo contemplates his second birthday as the photographer lurks in the background.

Winter was already here

Today, June 1, marks the start of winter in this part of the world, but the season didn’t wait for the calendar: The weather turned last week, and this weekend has seen all sorts of storms, including snow that stranded motorists in the South Island, and flooding elsewhere. And, now, the cold.

Weather doesn’t pay any attention to seasons, of course: We had a very mild, often summery autumn, until it changed this week. We had a lot of rain—it sometimes absolutely poured—for several days this week, just like in winter, and we had some extremely strong winds, as we often do with autumn storms. Then yesterday the temperatures started falling.

I was glad to not have to go anywhere or do anything the past couple days. I’d planned on going the grocery store Thursday, thought about waiting until yesterday, and went anyway. That was fortunate: The weather Friday was awful more often than not.

Today I waited for a break in the weather to take the rubbish and recycling out to their respective bins. I was surprised at how cold it was. It supposed to get even colder.

This year, winter started shortly before the season did. Now, it’s about to get more wintry. Yay.

The image above was posted to the Facebook Page of New Zealand’s Metservice, and shows the expected low temperatures around the country tomorrow, June 2. The numbers are degrees Celsius.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Striking fear

There are some professions that are vital to keeping our civilisation going, and among them is education. They teach the basic knowledge that makes every other profession possible, and they reinforce our civilisation. I have a lot of respect for teachers and the work they do. I don’t think they’re paid enough, not by a long shot, and they should have better working conditions. I’m also now strongly pro-union. But I’m also a pragmatist, and this week’s teachers strike in New Zealand is skating closer to making things worse.

The 50,000 primary school teachers and principals and post-primary teachers went on strike this week, and it was about conditions as much as pay. It was not only the biggest teachers strike in New Zealand history, it was also the biggest strike of any kind (the second largest was the 1951 waterfront dispute, which had 22,000 people on strike at its height. Last year, a total of around 70,000 people went on strike, the highest number since the 1980s.

Times have changed, though. Unlike the five-month long 1951 waterfront strike, modern strikes last a single day. Moreover, it’s illegal for them to strike except during their bargaining period, and they cannot engage in wildcat or solidarity strikes, nor strikes for political reasons (they can still hold rallies for such things, of course—as long as they’re held on their own time).

Unions represent only about 17% of waged workers, most of which are white-collar jobs, especially in government agencies (which includes schools and hospitals). And therein lies the problem.

Government workers are at the whim of the government of the day, and for decades both major parties have pursued basically neoliberal economic policies that avoid public spending and encourage lower taxes and free markets. There are differences in priorities, with the National Party favouring business (big business in particular), and Labour favouring social spending (health and education in particular). Over the nine years that National was in government, it spent so little on education and health that the sectors had effective budget cuts. The current Labour-led coalition government had been trying to fix those issues, health and education in particular.

This raises an obvious question: Considering the virtual pay cut that teachers and nurses endured during National’s time in government, why are they striking now, with a sympathetic government, instead of when National was in power and causing the problems? The heads of the teachers’ unions gave disingenuous answers to that, but it’s nevertheless true that, publicly, the unions did nothing for nine years.

This matters because they’re wearing out the patience of New Zealanders. Overall, people have enormous sympathy for teachers, but if they keep striking—and secondary teachers are striking again next week—that patience will run out. And if New Zealanders then blame Labour for these strikes, then the unions will get to deal with a National-led government in 2020—and they will lose, just like always. Is that really the outcome they want?

To be clear, I don’t think the current government has gone far enough with teachers. I think they should have decided on a smaller budget surplus and instead invested the money in education and health. But Labour is sensitive to the charge they can’t handle the economy; even though the economy does better under Labour than under National, the myth (fuelled by Rightwing propaganda) persists that Labour Governments are profligate. That, combined with a neoliberal economic consensus (maybe Neoliberal Ultra-Lite, in the case of Labour…), it was probably inevitable that this government would go too slowly to fix the problems that the previous National government created.

However, it is what it is: The budget is focused on some sorely needed social spending (like on mental health, for example), and they’ve chosen to run a large budget surplus. But, who knows? If the current occupant of the USA’s White House manages to utterly destroy the world economy through his ignorance, then we may be glad that the current NZ Government has run surpluses. Teachers, however, may feel differently.

I hope teachers get what they want, and that it can happen sooner than next year. But unions have to think long and hard if their strike actions are really helping their goals, or only making a National Party-led government more likely in 2020. If they switch to rallying on their own time, rather than closing schools and inconveniencing parents, they may get away with it. But if they keep pushing so hard, they could end up making sure they’ll have to wait much longer for what they want.

The most successful unions work with management (in this case, the government) to find solutions. I don’t see that happening at the moment, and both sides seem to be digging in their heals. They need to find a way forward, but I just don’t se how continual strike action can possibly bring that about—but it could make things much worse.

Update: "Minister intervenes in teachers' pay dispute, calls forum"RNZ (Radio New Zealand)

On yer bike

What are the best cities for cyclists? According to an insurance company called Coya, that describes itself as “digital insurance specialists” and also as “committed bikers”, Auckland is 7th best city in the world for cyclists, and one of only two non-European cities in the top ten. This is largely because of the huge improvements Auckland has made since Auckland Council came into being nearly a decade ago. There’s still a long way to go, however.

Coya produced its “Bicycle Cities Index 2019” their study focused on six main categories using various factors that to determine how cycling-friendly a city is:

  • Weather.
  • Percentage Bicycle Usage.
  • Crime & Safety: Fatalities / 100,000 Cyclists, Accidents / 100,000 Cyclists, Bicycle Theft Score.
  • Infrastructure: Number of Bicycle Shops / 100,000 Cyclists, Specialised Roads & Road Quality Score, Investment & Infrastructure Quality Score.
  • Sharing: Number of Bicycle Sharing & Rental Stations / 100,000 Score, # Shared Bicycles / 100,000 Score.
  • Events: No Car Day, Critical Mass Score.

Complete details of the rankings and the process used can be found at the link above.

From our perspective here in Auckland, the city still has a long way to go, however, Auckland Council, NZTA (the transport agency responsible for roads, like the Auckland Harbour Bridge) and other government agencies are committed to making cycling more easily and safely.

For example, last week NZTA announced plans for new, improved cycling and walking path next to the bridge. The bridge, which turned 60 years old yesterday, was originally supposed to be built ‘with footpath and cycle-track’, according the 1946 Royal Commission, but by the time the bridge was actually built a decade later, those plans had been scrapped.

Quite why the plans were dropped is a matter of debate, but in the 1950s through 70s Auckland was plagued with shortsighted politicians who couldn’t see how big Auckland would become, and what the implications of that were, so that’s probably a big part of it. Fixing that earlier mistake has taken up the past decade, and finally started moving forward within the past few years, especially with the change of government in 2017 when the new government committed to build the cycling and walking path across the harbour. Finally. Work could start next year.

NZTA is also adding cycling and walking paths as part of their major expansion of the Southern Motorway, connecting Karaka and Papakura. That project will be completed later this year.

Auckland Council is also making cycling safer and easier, by making roading improvements, like on Quay Street in the CBD, as well as in other areas throughout the city. Some of the projects in suburbs (neighbourhoods) are currently under consultation or design, while others have been completed.

Add it all up, and in five years Auckland could very well rise in global rankings like Coya’s. That’s incredibly good news because it means fewer people in cars, more people getting exercise, and both of those will make for a healthier city—and healthier people. It’s a win all around.

I can’t fairly evaluate the index or its rankings—I’m not a cyclist nor an expert in that subject or transport generally. I admit that I think that it is a bit, um, nice to Auckland. But I also know that better and safer cycling and walking is important for any modern city. Anything that helps advance that is a good thing, in my opinion.

The data visualisation of Coya’s index at the top of this post is a “Chart of the Day” from Statista. Their summary of the data can be found at the link.