Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Sad Realities of Pay Increases

I was at a meeting the other day where a school principal was saying that in this economic climate, the unions for secondary school teachers is being unreasonable. He did have a point. When put into contrast with people out there working reduced hours in order to keep their workmates employed, he had a point.

Secondary school teachers have gotten a pay rise of 4% the last 3 or so years. Suddenly, they're offered around 1.5% this year with a further 1% next year.

My problem with this isn't so much this dispute but the way we look at pay rises in general. I'm one of those where my value probably isn't realised until a few months in and have been lucky in most jobs where I've gotten 1 to 2 pay rises within the first 12 months. I walked out of a job which gave me a pay rise of 3% after 12 months. I was told that it was standard and I just didn't believe them.

So the problem?

We think of pay rises as being an indication that we're of value to a company. We've slaved away and gone above and beyond the call of duty, not whinged when being asked to do something outside of our contracts and given up precious time that could be spent doing things with friends or family or heaven forbid, bettering ourselves (via reading, cooking or gardening etc.).

And in return, we're given a "pay rise". Why the quotes? Because in reality, the pay rise offered normally is much more than inflation. If we were to take an inflation rate of 1.5% (sourced from here.), and then take that 3% above which I was told was standard, then I am only 1.5% better off (a touch less - the value of that 1.5% is actually gone down since that previous year by 1.5% if we're talking about value as opposed to monetary values).

What I don't understand is how that could possibly be standard. If you were earning $600 a week and then the following year, you were offered $609, you'd be no better off than the previous year. That's not a pay rise. That's inflation. So on 3%, you'd get $9 on top of that - $618 / week. But then, that extra $9 is actually worth 1.5% less than it was the previous year - that's $8.57 / week.

Given the time per week sacrificed (friends, family, reading etc.) on earning that extra $8.57 / week, is it really worth it?

Let's get back to the school teachers.

You've got these people who have to deal with the emotional issues of children and often become stressed themselves, who work about as many hours in the classroom as they do outside of the classroom (weekends, evenings etc.), who spend their "holidays" trying to shake off that stress for half of it and the other half setting up for the next term.

For that stress and hours, they're not paid at all well. Taking the $69,000 that TVNZ claim is the average amount that teachers make / year, take out a certain amount for danger money (a friend of mine was stabbed in the arm with a screw driver while breaking up a fight), a bit out for the stress involved, a bit more out for the extra time that is done outside of the classroom on weekends, evenings and holidays and really, it isn't that much. With a 1.5% increase, we're really just saying we don't really appreciate you, we'll instead just keep you up with inflation. To rub salt into the wound, they're looking at 1% the following year - assuming the same rate of inflation, they'd be worse off than this year.

Personally, I would have been happy if tax rates hadn't gone down. If instead, the money was used more productively. To put teachers on a pay scale that they deserve and perhaps put in some sort of metric which was performance based (at the moment, teachers all get paid the same with a few extras dependant on the extra-curricular activities they do for the kids and responsibility taken - encourages the best teachers to end up in management positions rather than in the classroom). Perhaps done something to enhance healthcare rather than the constant cost cutting nature of it (it seems a small leap until we're asked to do our own operations at home rather than go and take up a bed at the hospital and the cost of anaesthetic etc).

So our own situations might not be great in our current economic climate. This doesn't mean that we should be losing sight of what's important. At the risk of sounding like Whitney Houston, I believe our children are the future. Education is horribly important and those we rely on to do the educating should be getting our support.

So, Anne Tolley, with your "current economic climate", and John Key, willing to throw $90,000,000 odd Warner Brothers' way, let's get our priorities straight here.

Is New Zealand for Sale?

I needed say anything here but I'm going to anyway...

Has the value of filming "The Hobbit" movies been overstated?

I ask because you talk to just about any American and New Zealand is already sort of known as "Middle Earth" - a label "earnt" from the filming of "Lord of the Rings" movies here. I don't think I've ever used quite so many quotations in single sentence. Would it actually take anything away in terms of tourism in New Zealand?

And then, while we're asking questions, since when has the government interceded in industrial disputes? May I never have John Key in my corner. And come to think of it, why did it receive so much media attention? Do we need to ask question things like "Who owns the media?" and "What was this all about anyway?". And while we're about it, let's ask questions about the rate of pay for secondary (and you can be sure, pretty soon, primary) school teachers during this economic climate when put in the context of money that's being handed over to Warner Brothers (More on this in another post).

There's a sound bite in there somewhere I'm sure. Just imagine John Key saying one of the following:
"I did not have sexual relations with Warner Brothers"
"Is it really sexual relations if I didn't swallow all of it?"
"Negotiations were extremely productive though I was confused by their use of the word 'gimp' while referring to me."

It all seems horribly reactionary to me. Credit's due to Labour and The Greens who are taking probably an unpopular (if the media is to be believed) stance on the issue by opposing the law changes.

This is definitely an issue that bears some discussion.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Trusting Politicians

The age old question. Can we really trust politicians?

It's a role which is high profile. They're in public view all the time. They're people. Just like us. Or are they?

I was watching "Back Benches" - the pub politics show that's on TVNZ 7. Great show - they film in a pub in front of a live audience. Each week they have four politicians on as guests. The other week they were talking about mental health. They asked the audience, who here has suffered from some depression in their lives?

The results were in. All but two people put their hands up. Who hasn't felt down? Perhaps been lethargic for no apparent reason. Perhaps even been a little self destructive as you've procrastinated around doing something that you really should be doing (by doing things like starting a blog for example).

The politicians talked about the importance of getting the issue out there and how the only way through is to talk about it.

Later in the show, they asked each of the politicians who happened to be guests whether they've ever gone through a bout of depression. Each and everyone of them answered no.

Let's have a look at the math:

Say there are 25 people in the audience (there's probably a little more but let's use conservative figures). 23 of those 25 admitted to experiencing some depression some time in their lives. That's 92% of a sample size of 25.

And the politicians? 0 out of 4 admitted to feeling some sensation of depression - a full 0%.

So one of two things is happening here.
  1. The very nature of the sort of people who go into politics are those who don't suffer depression at any point in their lives.
  2. The politicians are lying for whatever reason.
So let's assume that politicians are normal people. They suffer the same problems that the rest of us do. They have family and concerns and days where they just can't explain why they're feeling the way that they're feeling. So if we assume they're lying...

Why would they lie?

I'm reminded of a "documentary" called "The Yes Men Fix The World". It's a brilliant watch - I encourage everyone to watch it. In fact, you can download for free here.

They direct attention to the Bhopal disaster (more information here.) They impersonated representatives of DOW Chemical, the now owners of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the disaster, and claimed on BBC News that DOW Chemical were intending to liquidate Union Carbide and use the resulting funds to compensate those affected, clean up the area where this happened, fund medical research, and fund the research into the potential hazardous effects of other products by DOW Chemical.

Basically, do the right thing. This should be a cause for celebration right? It turns out that money has no morality (surprise surprise). The stock market responded right away. By the time DOW Chemical were able to make a press release about the hoax, DOW's stock had declined by $2 billion.

This brings up all sorts of questions around the nature of corporations and the role morality plays and the perspective of morality - yet more blog posts.

How does this apply to politicians? Well this post is yet another post on the problems with our media. If a politician were to admit to suffering some effects of mental health problems, how would the media react?

We've seen how the media can take something that isn't really news and blow it well out of proportion.

A great example was the whole credit card fiasco. The news reported on ministers spending up large on their ministerial credit cards.

Okay, so valid point. A lot of the charges had been found to be extreme. They perhaps weren't in the public's best interest. There's some suggestion that some of those charges have been fiddled with.

But then the media went on to talk about specifics.

On the day the story broke, we were told about Shane Jones spending a certain amount on in room movies. The news wasn't sure whether those movies were of a pornographic nature or no. By that evening, it had been confirmed that they were movies of a pornographic nature.

Chris Carter was raked over the coals over $80 worth of flowers for his partner (note: formally one of New Zealand's openly gay MP's - he's no longer an MP) and also a dinner worth $639.21 in which his partner was present (as well as Jonathan Hunt and British Lord, Chris Smith - Britain's first open gay MP). His other charges are things that might on the face of it be taken for "feminine" items - fruit for the office or spa treatments etc.

Was the media reporting on spurious charges on ministerial credit cards?

In a move to sensationalise the story, they dug deeper into whether the charges on Shane Jones' credit card were on movies of a pornographic nature. Had it just been about the public interests, then we could have stopped at in room movies. X minister spend Y amount on in room movies. Should we be upset that tax payer's money is going on movies or that they were pornographic in nature? Is there anything morally wrong with watching pornography? It might have been different if it was pornographic material of a more sinister nature - child pornography for example - but it wasn't. It was an adult choosing what material he wanted to watch.

They did the same to Chris Carter - was his charges of a gay nature and how much can this be emphasised? Oh my! He spent an amount of money on his partner!

You have to wonder, how many other politicians sent their partner's flowers on their credit cards but which wasn't reported as part of this "scandal"? To sensationalise it all the better, there was the chasing of Chris Carter around the halls of parliament.

And then, if you were to ask yourself, given that politicians have these huge responsibilities and we have great expectations on them, are we really all that upset about a few extra charges? A lot of the charges really weren't all that big really. This carries on to a wider discussion on the best way of getting politicians and also the places where tax payers money are being wasted.

You have to wonder how xenophobic New Zealanders really are and how much of it is a result of our media's portrayal of events?

So, would we really chatise our politicians for showing a bit of humanity? If we wouldn't, would the media?

I know, this really doesn't answer the question as to whether we can trust politicians. So I'll throw another piece of wood on the fire. CERRA (Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act).

No politician voted against it despite it being obviously flawed. The post found here has Labour's response as to why it didn't at least put up a token objection to the bill. The problem for me though is that in the post, it states that "they didn't have the numbers". That's no excuse not to vote against something if you know it to be not in the public's best interests in my view.

Would the media have chatised them? Probably. Looking at the party's best interests, would standing up for the New Zealand public have been a hell of a differentiating point for X party? It would have for me. What this seems to reveal to me though, is just how much of public perception has been handed over the media.

However, I'm left with this great big choice ahead of me for the next election. Is there any politician, never mind party, that we can trust? If politician's make decisions based on what the media might do, who can I trust? This also leads to the more foil hat wearing question of "Who really runs this country?"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Complaining: Part II

I got an email from a really good friend of mine (great story around this which I won't relate in this blog :p).

Baillie has worked in customer services for awhile now. I met her when she was working in a Blockbuster store. She works in a bread shop at the moment.

Here's the email:

Okay, so I started to write this for you a couple of times now. I thought your blog on complaining about bad customer service had a point, but I am always cautious when people are advised to complain. there are the reasonable folk, who only genuinely complain if something is seriously wrong, then there are the overly entitled folk. This is for them:

It Is Not Bad Customer Service, It’s Your Own Damn Fault For Being Awkward

(Yes, I know it’s a little on the wordy side. I’ll work on that)

Are you a customer who feels you are not being treated fairly/well/reasonably by a retail employee? Before you ask for their manager please check this list below:

Time – Is it only just opening time? All that standing at the window tapping your watch is not going to make the shop open any faster, in fact, now it will take even longer once you add the amount of time it takes for the employee to walk over to tell you that yes, your watch may say 9.00am, but their store clock still says 8.55. In these instances they might be forced to delay opening until 9.02.

Conversely is it 5 minutes to closing? Unless you are about to spend $500 in the shop, don’t even bother coming in. It is a well documented phenomenon that customers who approach a store close to closing time exhibit two clear behaviours:

  1. They will walk around the shop for 10 minutes and complain that there is nothing there they wanted anyway.
  2. Spend the same amount of time in the shop, only with the added questions “so what’s on special” (customer speak for “what will you give me to go away”). Total customer spend? $2.50. Total additional wages for 2 employees for the company? $2.08
There is a third type of behaviour designed solely to give new retail employees hope:
  1. The customer who is only late because they stopped to rescue baby kittens from the burning orphanage, grab what they need straight away, have the correct money for/working EFTPOS card and are out in three minutes.
Which fortunately for them is quashed by the angry lady arriving at 3.59 wanting to know why you can’t make her a quadruple shot latte/six pizzas/birthday cake right now.

There may also be on occasion, a time where the shop is closed a few minutes before the usual time. This comes about because no customers have entered the store for the previous hour, all the work has been done and most bizarrely, because we may have friends/family we want to get home to spend time with.
It’s not to spite you. Unless you’re the lady above who wants a birthday cake.

Timing – The bastard subset of the above category. If you need a special order, require extra information or just need some extra time to talk with an employee do not, DO NOT, DO NOTeat your arm if you do not let them buy their giant sandwich, cookie and diet coke.

try to do this at lunchtime. Quadruply so if you are in a food service place and not actually buying food right at that moment, rather enquiring after something you may (or let’s face it, probably not) order in the future. You see those people behind you? The angry hungry looking ones who have been starving since their 10.30am Mars Bar wore off at 10.45? They will
Things lunchtime is not for:
  • Indecision
  • Small change
  • Asking for something that is clearly not on display anywhere in the shop
Which leads me nicely to:
“The Back” – Lets be clear on this, the only thing we have in “the back” is duplicates of what’s already on the shop floor. It isn’t a secret Aladdin's cave of stuff we think is too nice for customers. In fact, we have a special term for when you absolutely insist that we “check in back” it’s called a free 5 minute break. Because that’s how long we want you to think we looked for.

So let's review the lesson:
  • Don’t come in too early
  • Don’t come in too late
  • Don’t make us hold other people up
And the golden rule:
  • Don’t ask for something out “back”
If customers abide by these simple rules they will find us retail peons much easier to get along with
Wow, that’s more than I’ve written in ages. Look what you made me do! Annoyed


The woman asking for a birthday cake and coffees a minute before closing puts me in mind of one of the complaints I received while working for a courier company.

The way the courier industry works is "cycles". These are 2-3 hours long and then all of the vans come into the depot, drop off their pick up's and pick up their deliveries. While the vans are out, the packages are sorted, moved into baskets for the various satellite branches etc.

It all works fairly well. The only thing, courier drivers have families too and sometimes even enjoy a little sleep. They start anywhere between 6am and 7am. The last cycle started at 3pm. So the bookings for pick ups needed to be in by 3pm for us to have any confidence that their package would get picked up.

It was 6 o'clock - my finishing time. The call centre was open for another 1/2 hour.

Anyway, I took a call from a woman wanting a pick up... for tonight. I had to explain to her that I could make the booking but that I couldn't in anyway assure her that it would be picked up that evening.

"But we have an account with you".

I probably could have handled this a little better. I paused waiting for more. That was it? "Be that as it may, it is pretty close to the end of the day and we work on a system of cycles. We really need bookings for pick ups to be in by 3. There's a pretty good probability that your courier driver has been past your premises and is trying to finish his day given the long hours he works."

"So what good is the account?"

I shrugged my shoulders. This of course isn't communicated terribly well over the phone. "The account does not entitle you to services outside of the hours we offer". That should sort it out.

"Well, in that case, I want to cancel my account".

'Oh here we go', thought I. 'A bluff'. "Okay, I can get your account manager to give you a call in the morning. I just need your account number".

"But don't you have it up on your screen?".

By this stage I was getting a bit ratty. This phone call was stopping me from going home (I had already missed a bus so it was going to be quite a wait). I had tried to get her account information from her earlier in the call. She'd not been co-operative.

"I'm sorry Maam, I'm not a mind reader."

I've never seen the acting team leader move so fast (this was quite a feat) once advised that the customer wanted to talk to her.

So another complaint against my name. Being reasonable in a complaint goes a long way to being treated the way that you expect to be treated.

There were a few scenarios where, if a complaint had been made, and the complaint taken seriously, it would have improved the call centre.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Being treated the way you deserve to be treated

A pizza outlet I frequent showed some really bad customer service. It was normally the Sunday night shift. The staff looked surprised when there were people at the counter. Heaven forbid that people actually wanted pizza. After a couple of months of this, I finally complained after I turned up to the store and one of the staff was sitting there reading a magazine while another was taking a phone order. The guy reading the magazine eventually got up and carried on working - ignoring the people at the counter.

The result of this was a very sarcastic email to the franchise in question. What completely escaped me though, was that no one else had complained.

The outcome was that my email ended up on their notice board with a note attached to it that if another complaint of that nature came through, the staff Christmas do would be cancelled. The service has been exemplary since. I am a little bit worried that they may have printed my name on the email - given that I use the web ordering page and go and pick up the order 15 minutes later, my name is in full sight of the staff filling the order.

But the problem still remains. We don't complain nearly enough. We get treated the way that we allow ourselves to be treated. Bad service? Put a complaint in. If it's a franchise, then chances are, they'll be under pressure to fix the problem promptly or risk being in breach of their franchise contract.

America doesn't have this problem. Given that service staff aren't actually paid enough to live on, they rely on the tip culture in order to obtain enough to live off. In other words, if they're good at customer services, they get an amount in excess of what they would probably get here. If they're mediocre, they'd probably get enough to live on and if they're terrible - it's probably time to find a new line of work.

Oh course, there's the problem that the staff aren't getting paid enough to live on. That and that there's an expectation of getting the tip. Not perfect by any account but something to think about.

It does give some perspective. In New Zealand we should be raising our expectations of those staff. Given that most of the time those staff are people in their first jobs, then you do them no great favour by ignoring bad service.

Instead they'll learn from complaints. Life isn't a smooth ride. You have to work to get what you get. I got a few in my time in customer services - working on the phones of a courier company where you're the furthest you could possibly be from the missing packages that you're expected to find (further exasperated by the fact that the courier drivers are contractors rather than employees so are more concerned with covering their own butts rather than helping out some annoying person on the end of a phone). To my credit, I did find myself delivering packages on my way home (not easy given that I don't drive) and going the extra mile where I could.

Even more fundamental to this discussion (if this turns into a discussion) is, why don't we complain? Personally I hate conflict. I'll avoid it at all costs. The funny bit though is that the pizza franchise in question were thankful for the complaint. I was contacted by the franchise holder and someone who administers the business. 2 levels of contact thanking me for the complaint and working with me to improve the situation.

Assuming that the owner of a business can't be there all the time, then complaints actually give them some feedback as to what's happening. If the staff slack off as soon as they're out of the building, they should probably know about it. They're losing business through this - dissatisfied customers are more likely to find alternatives. It's far cheaper to keep existing customers than to get new ones.

So is it a hate of conflict? Or do we not think we deserve better? Are we indifferent to it and are really time poor as the fast food industry suggests? I'm sure there's the start of an open source discussion here - something about how the majority of people have learnt to live with the instability and limitations of the various Windows operating systems over the years - that's probably a post for another day.

Unemployment and CIMS

In a previous post I indicated that I would talk about both these things.

So we'll start with unemployment. I haven't been employed for a wee while. There are numerous reasons for this. I do like working. It offers me validation and it's especially good when your job entails meeting challenges on a daily basis. I've done jobs where I've worked for 100 hours or more in a week.

There are multiple problems:
  1. I'm really bad at selling myself. If you ask me what I do I almost instantly put up defences. I'm not comfortable listing out all of the things I can do and trying to put across how I think or meet challenges.
  2. The last couple of jobs I've done has just made me plain cynical and frustrated.
Why cynical and frustrated? I made the decision that I wanted to work for small businesses. To help these businesses grow. To tend my own backyard basically. So I went in terribly optimistic. The problem is, small businesses seem to rely on staff to maintain their information systems. If you were to take the secretary out for a week, the business would grind to a halt. They just couldn't function.

So I was being asked to implement various solutions in VBA (Visual Basic for Applications. Basically, a programming language for Micorsoft Office). This presents a few problems.
  1. A spreadsheet doesn't understand the information it's being fed.
  2. You're completely at the whims of Microsoft. Updates can cause things to break or new versions of the office suite. Nothing is documented at all well. Weird problems can crop up at just about any time.
  3. It's just not a programming platform.
Of course, suggesting that they fork out for a more... sane solution, is met with "how much is that going to cost me?". Trying to convince them that it could be made to be a solution that could grow with the business isn't going to convince them any more. So I'm being asked to design solutions that I know aren't sustainable and instead of making myself redundant (It's my belief that if I'm not making myself redundant, I'm not doing my job properly) I'm being asked to provide more and more of these flawed solutions.

So a solution came to mind. CIMS. A Customizable Information Management System. Basically a database back end with a web 2.0 style front end. Make it a Software as a Service solution so that payments are done on a monthly basis and the cost of customizing it being spread over a contracted term. Making it a generic framework means that it can be adapted to various industries or types of applications. For example, a Student Management System isn't all that different, from a technical point of view, from a Customer Relationship Management System or a Magazine Subscription Management system.

Given a modular design, those same modules can be used for anyone wanting the same or similar modules. Thus, the cost of development can even be spread across demand meaning that the more popular modules can be cheaper.

Better yet, leverage the open source community. If you could provide a way for Open Source programmers to make some money by doing some of the customizations which would in turn result in a monthly payment made to them for the work.

Given that the entire code base would be open source, the businesses aren't stuck with just me. There's the potential for alternatives.

Unfortunately I haven't quite finished it yet. I had a few family things come up and lately I've been focusing my energy on the Manaiakalani project. It's one of those "watch this space" sort of things.

So the two go together. I'm unemployed because I wanted to write a decent solution for businesses - CIMS.

Needless to say, I'll write a post as soon as I've got something to show people.

The Advertising Standards Authority

In New Zealand we have an entity called "The Advertising Standards Authority". Basically, it seeks to set standards on advertising. For example, if advertising food, you can not make claims of food being a complete meal unless it's specifically so.

Anyway, recently there was an advertisement in Auckland for Habitual Fix. The ad shows a banana flashing a strawberry and pear. The image is a cartoon though quite shockingly done. The banana is parting it's skin to reveal a long protruding thing (the rest of the banana) while the pear, holding a handbag, and the strawberry, looking terribly distressed, is running away.

This ad was once on billboards, soon taken down, but continued on the back of bus tickets and receipts. Less visible but very much in the hands of children. The Habitual Fix profile on Facebook featured the ad. In other words, this was quite solidly aimed at Children.

So why am I talking about this ad? Because the Advertising Standards Authority deemed that the advertisement in question does not breach any standards. The reasons given?

"...and younger children that may see the advertisement, in this context, were unlikely to interpret the image as sexual..."

"... the image was clearly hyperbolic..."

I have to admit - reading the material on it (Available for download here) the defence was quite good - fruit don't have genders (despite the fact that the pear is wearing a pair of high heels and is carrying a handbag and that the strawberry is wearing lipstick).

Getting over the initial amusement of the ad, you have to then wonder, if there is no standard that says advertising can not contain images of sexual crime, then really, what is the Advertising Standards Authority there for? It turns out, that if I were to advertise something using an image of a carrot raping a tomato, it doesn't breach any standards that is upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority because vegetables don't have gender.

So to anyone who thinks that this image is shocking, write to you local politician asking them why the Advertising Standards Authority exists when it doesn't have the basest of values? Do standards need to be reviewed to specifically exclude sexual crimes from being depicted in advertising?

The "Joy" of Volunteering

I often find that I'm offering up my time for all sorts of things. I'm unemployed - have been for a little while. But this post isn't about that. It's about what I do with that free time.

So there's the Manaiakalani project - I've got a post on that already. There's also OLPC (One Laptop Per Child), AuckLUG, Tangleball etc.

At the last AuckLUG meeting someone had said "you don't do it for the gratitude". And if I did, I would starve. Okay, that's not completely fair but there are at least a couple of thankless groups.

AuckLUG, I organise the monthly meeting and organise or help organise any special events (Software Freedom Day, the Auckland December Open Source BBQ etc.). But I'm normally the one thanking people.

Tangleball (An Auckland based Hackerspace), for whatever reason, I'm still paying for the website as well as administrating it. So if things are a little out of date, it's because I haven't updated the website (usually there's a reason for this - they haven't decided on their next meeting or haven't let me know what to put into the updates section). I stopped attending the meetings a little while ago. There's occasionally talk about re-compensating me for the hosting but all I'm really after is for it to be moved so that the burden is no longer on me.

I don't really do much for OLPC - in fact I've pulled right back only attending the occasional Saturday testing session.

And Manaiakalani - this is probably the more interesting one. They're thankful. Every meeting I get thanked. I get thanked via email. And here I am wondering if I would ask for a bottle of whiskey as a thanks.

It's not that I don't have other things to do. I'm working on my own piece of software that I'm calling CIMS - Customizable Information Management System (I'll talk about this and my unemployment in another post). I'd like to spend some time writing fiction. It's not something I've ever been particularly good at but after a session at a pub of passing a pad around writing a couple of sentences each, I realised just how much fun it is.

So, where is the value in volunteering? It's certainly not in the gratitude because otherwise I would've stopped volunteering a long time ago and I wouldn't be thinking that a bottle of whiskey would be great when I am getting thanked. I recently said to a friend "we only stress about what we're passionate about". This was in the context of a crisis of purpose - that is: "Why am I still doing this job?"

Any reasoning would be greatly appreciated here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Standards aren't standards until they're standards

I was idly thinking about html today.

HTML - Hyper Text Markup Language. Basically the "code" (markup language) used to make websites.

HTML is a standard that is fraught with inconsistent implementations. The way that Mozilla Firefox interprets that mark up language and displays it is different from the way that Internet Explorer or Opera etc. interpret that same mark up language.

In the past, there have been different standards being followed. Or the standards were "extended" with features not part of the standard and proprietary to the particular browser. This is most evident with Internet Explorer. Take ActiveX for example. In South Korea, leaders of Internet speed and interconnectivity, are stuck on Internet Explorer 6 because the government standardised on security protocols implemented in ActiveX.

And then the standards just don't go far enough in my opinion. CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) came about with great fanfare. If you weren't using CSS, you were back in the dark ages. It offered some brilliant features like separating the formatting from the content.

The problem is, it only separates the font formatting from the content. The page formatting still needs to be established in amongst your content. Okay, so it's a bit less than it used to be, but it's still there. To be fair, this isn't entirely due to the standard, but also the implementation. There are ways in the standard to include the content of other files - which might have solved the problem. Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox both implement this functionality a little differently. Not being able to tell one these sections to use up a certain proportion of the page, makes it less than useless.

So the other way to do it is to use a scripting language like php to pull in files and present them to the browser as the browser would see them without having to hack your way around half implemented features. The problem with this is portability. You then need to make sure you have much the same environment to move to as what you're coming from.

What does this mean for the average punter? It means that the cost of entry in to designing your own pages is high enough (there's testing to be done in the different browsers) that most users won't bother. Instead, we've now got a whole bunch of platforms - Content Management Systems, Blogs, Wikis etc.

Welcome to Web 2.0. A world where standards aren't standards.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Winning Lotto

I've been thinking a lot about Lotto recently.

I was wondering to myself, why do people play Lotto?

Is it for the possibility of winning a lot of money? If that's the case, the possibility is so slim as to be completely pointless. That's no real reason at all. It certainly doesn't justify spending that much money on such slim odds.

The only conclusion that makes any sense to me is that the reason people Lotto is to dream about what they would do if they won. But dreams are free right? The dream is a bit different if there's actually a possibility of that dream happening.

So with the most recent building of that lotto prize I've been buying Lotto tickets, and in a bid of getting my money's worth have been talking about "when I've won". The funny bit is that while dreaming about what I would do with the winning's, I started to think really seriously about it.

So there are two things that come to mind.
  • How would I want that money to change my life?
  • Who would I want to help?
Talking to friends about it, they came up with a couple of ideas. From the rather outlandish and risky "Buy X model of car cause it goes up in value" - ignoring the fact that cars are liabilities and the chances of making money on them is minimal at best. A bit like teenagers convinced they're going to become race car drivers ignoring the fact that only the top few actually make it - to the slightly more sensible "get into property investment".

But then, if you had multiple of millions, would you really want your life be about chasing more money? Buying houses, doing them up, selling them off. That's a hell of a lot of work.

On the other hand, as part of that same question, do you want the winnings to change your life or just a few weeks/months/years? So you've got the same problem - your outgoings have to match your incomings.

The rich get richer. This is true. With more money, you have more leverage. Assuming that you don't want the rest of your life be about accumulating more money then with more money, you could put the majority of the money away into a term deposit. Shop around for the right interest rate (you've got a fair amount of leverage) and then you don't have to worry about it until that term matures.

Assuming a rather conservative 5% / annum of interest, then you're looking at $50,000 / year / $1,000,000. In otherwords, when Lotto Powerball reached $20,000,000, then you were looking at $1,000,000 / year - and that's at a horribly conservative 5%.

So the next question. Who do you want to help? Applying the same mentality above, is it better to give them a large chuck of the money or to give them a yearly amount? What if you could give them incentives?

For example, I have a few friends who would like to go back to some tertiary education but can't for various reasons - kids, family, lack of money etc. If I were to give them ... $50,000 a year plus an incentive of $50,000 if they were to go off and do the study that they've wanted to do then they'd have more than enough to support their family plus they'd be changing their lives.

What if, once a year, you were able to have a party? Invite all of those you're helping and have a party while you're handing out the cheques. Sensible amounts which don't actually need to take anything from your winnings - rather it could be a result of the money earnt in interest. There we go - a sustainable way of helping out the people who mean something in your life.

The news tonight is reporting that no one has claimed the prize. The fact that, it is a Sunday and about the best you could do is scan the ticket at the local dairy seems to have escaped the media. Personally I don't think I would go and collect the prize. Instead I'd be looking for ways of reducing my tax exposure. That would require an Accountant. That'd have to wait for a Monday at least.

And while I've got a day, I might as well see a lawyer as well. The reason for this? What happens if I die? Does the money get divied up based on a will? What if instead I was still able to help those same people in the same way? If I don't want to spend the rest of my life administrating money, then what are the options? I'd be quite happy for things to be in a trust. The responsibility can then be shared and there's no ambiguity as to how things are administered. In which case, I could then figure out what I needed on a yearly basis and have a yearly amount just like everyone else.

The change to my life would be having the money to be able to not worry about money and thus be able to use my time for other things. Volunteer efforts or simply having the time to do what I want to do.

This has an effect on the name the cheque gets written out to. How long does it take to set up a trust? And any structure put in place to reduce tax exposure? In other words, there really is no good reason to go and collect Lotto winnings right away.

So I think I've now got the plan. All I need now is to win Lotto. Any pointers anyone?

For the time being I have to go away and apologise to everyone who I told that I'd be winning Lotto. It turns out I've been caught out in a lie.


I've recently been involved in something called the Manaiakalani project.

If I'm completely honest, I'm not entirely sure what the project is about. From my point of view, the point of view from someone who is all I.T., it's about a community wide wireless network, a bunch of netbooks and Linux.

Okay, so I'm not quite that blind to the other aspects. The problem is that all that's required of me is to build the base build of Ubuntu (netbook edition) without really having to worry about the rest.

And that's not quite right either. Building a base image is easy. Take a distribution, install it, configure it, test it, make an image. What happens at the next release of Ubuntu? We suddenly have to do it all over again? How can we be assured of consistency? And if I'm not around next time? Then what happens? So instead of building a base image, I've been making a script to do the configuration. Take the new release, go through the script, alter the script if anything needs updating and with any luck, things should just work.

Okay, so the road hasn't been as smooth as I'd like. It turns out that Cheese (the "photo booth" application) is broken for recording video and has been for a little while. If you know of any alternatives, let me know. I'm looking at either testing out old versions of Cheese to see if there's any improvement or porting over the Record activity from sugar (given it's written in Python and uses gstreamer I don't think it'll be too difficult).

For more details on the project, check out this link:

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Chris Carter May Have A Point

Chris Carter.

That name seems to have stirred a bit of feeling in New Zealand. He got booted out of the New Zealand Labour party recently after he spoke out against Phil Goff, Labour's leader claiming that Labour can't win under him.

I've found myself arguing that he has a point.

Labour could win under Phil Goff. I'm not confident that Phil Goff is going to do the things that need to be done for this to happen.

Phil Goff's media excursions thus far have been to whinge about something that National is doing, thus he's coming across as very negative and is only get a couple of seconds of air time, or, in the case of the Christchurch earthquake, has stood on the coat tails of the charismatic John Key (Prime minister - leader of the opposition).

It is my contention that without putting a positive message out there, perhaps seeking media coverage of NZOpenLabour which is the Labour Party's draft policy around open and transparent government (done in such a way that your average Joe can participate), the Labour Party can not win the next election.

This is a real problem for me as I don't think we can afford to have the National party leading things for another term. They made the promise that they would not sell off any state assets during their first term in power. They know this is a problem for most New Zealanders and so made the promise in the first place. Without that promise in place, we can say goodbye to the train infrastructure again and any other state assets that we have.

Oh and then there's the CERRA issue. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Response Act. Basically it allows the suspension of any NZ law except 5 acts including the Bill of Rights Act and the Electoral Act. Furthermore, those suspensions don't have to be made by parliament but rather can be done by individual agents.

The bill was passed with no opposition.

This is a problem. Phil Goff intends to be prime minister but fails to show leadership qualities by not objecting to a bill that he knew to be flawed at best. There's a response here as to why Labour voted for it.

At the end of the first paragraph it says:

"...we’d rather not spend the next 18 months being portrayed by National and the media as having obstructed the post-earthquake recovery."

Sure, that wasn't written by Phil Goff. But remember, that post describes a party line. The leader of the Labour party would have to had to, at the very least, listened to the arguments for and against the act and if that's the sort of reasoning that was used for the Labour party to choose to support a bill that they knew to be horribly flawed, then I have to wonder if someone who can be swayed so easily is really fit to run the country.

I don't think he can win on charisma either. A friend of mine saw Phil Goff speak and told me that he's really charismatic in person. I almost outright called her a liar. Thus far, Phil Goff as failed to make any real impression. He's what Bill English was to the National party a few years back. Someone who just fails to make any sort of positive impression.

Don't get me wrong. I don't have any feelings towards Phil Goff (and that's sort of the point). To be fair, no one showed any sort of leadership when it came to CERRA. I reckon New Zealand deserves A LOT better.

So to all those out there criticizing Chris Carter... well... he has a point.

Formal Debating

I went to a debate tonight. It was on whether software patents should exist. The decision has recently been made in New Zealand not to allow software patents.

Truth be told, it was almost painful. The first 20 minutes was a couple of us sitting around wondering if: I had time to go outside for a cigarette, a friend wondering if he had time to finish his dinner and a third complaining about the unpunctuality of New Zealanders. I pointed out that New Zealanders, when compared to Indians (An Indian wedding normally starts at least 1/2 an hour after the advertised time) are actually not that bad.

The host eventually decided to kick things off. He wasn't terribly prepared and struggled a little bit. Things like the perspective of his audience (that his left is actually our right and vice versa) and having to interrupt himself to check on the order of the speakers. He also seemed to have trouble with the terms "Affirmative" and "Negative" - he seemed to forget the context of the moot.

Anyway, the team representing the side in favour of not having software patents made a grave mistake right off - they didn't define the moot. In this debate, that would have been a huge advantage.

I would have defined it thusly:

The lack of software patents does not seek to limit patents in other areas. A business process or mechanical process is still patentable. Why is this important? Because it goes some way to explain what a software patent is. A software patent is a patent on software. That's it. Period. You can still patent those other things and implement them in software. Those processes are still protected, thus the software is still protected.

A software patent either patents a process such as's "one click check out" or an algorithm such as Skype's patent on a codec for encoding/decoding voice and or video. It is our contention that these are either ridiculous, or well protected under copyright.

There were a few points missed from this team. There was talk about the cost of filing a patent but nothing said about the cost of defending against claims of patent infringement, the cost of defending a patent or the cost associated with trying to research patents in the vague hope of avoiding infringing any patents.

Given that the other team contained two lawyers, both well versed in debating, this would have been a great point to make - the costs mentioned above being in part due to lawyers.

Anyway, kind of painful to watch.

I went out for dinner afterwards. That was pleasant. It was kind of surprising that a bunch of people who ended up talking about the debate afterwards would decide to go to dinner together. Okay, so I knew a few of them but still, dinner with random people. Very cool.

One of them mentioned the lack of definition to the argument to which she elaborated with a story of her own from when she did debates at university.

The moot was, "The police should be armless". She was on the negative (so speaking second thus having to reframe the affirmative team's definition to suit their argument) so they'd spent a great deal of time trying to figure out potential definitions - given the looseness of the moot. Things like, amputated cops and the like. The affirmative team came up with "The band, the Police, should be amputated." The negative team lost the debate right there. How do you argue that? That every man has a right to arms?

So, if you're doing a debate, define the moot. Make it your own. Figure out how to reframe it to make it fit the argument.

Friday, October 15, 2010

TV3 News and Advertising

I was quite disgusted tonight.

It was bad enough that back in 2007 the NZ Herald had, as their front page story taking up 2 thirds of the front page, a photo of an electrical storm, with a small story. The story wasn't about the storm itself. It wasn't really about what may have caused such a storm. It was instead about how a photographer, an employee of the NZ Herald, had gone down to Mission Bay to take the photo. I got really grumpy about this. I couldn't believe it. A work .... person noticed I wasn't in that great a mood and I told her why. She then said to me, "at least there isn't any bad news." Imagine people actually believing that the world is this really fluffy place where there aren't conflicts happing everywhere and industrial atrocities and where the only news to report is what the papers employees are up to.

In comparison though, that's fairly light weight. TV 3 News just feels like it's becoming more tabloid like every day.

A couple of weeks ago they reported on the Australia's Next Top Model debacle. The night after they followed up with an interview with one of the would be models. I'm reminded of the movie sniper - only instead of bullets and kills, it's "1 almost story, 2 nights". I kind of wish they'd give all shows this kind of air time. It would at the very least be entertaining.

"And now we come live from the set of Banana's in Pyjamas where B1 has stolen and run away with B2's new hat"

Tonight though takes the prize.

As part of the Chilean miner rescue footage, TV 3 News had an "interview" with a psychiatrist. Rather than let the psychiatrist talk though, they told us what she said, asked her how females might react in the same situation then showed her expression before showing us a couple contestants from NZ's Next Top Model (just like the American or Australian ones except that the models seem to be even more ... dim than any other version - hard as that may be to believe) and a couple of people who went to a Metallica concert and asked them if they would be able to survive 69 days in close proximity to each other.

The models, in full model style talked about how they like to eat and how the preconception that models don't eat is wrong. I'm assuming that this was actually a cunning way of answering the question without getting into the bloody details of how they'd kill another model with a rock to the head and then eat her flesh as a way of solving the issues that may occur as a result of being trapped with the same 30 odd people 700 metres underground.

The attendees of the Metallica concert claimed that it'd be fine so long as they had a stereo and some Metallica cd's.

I guess if I was in the media and had to say a prayer it would be something like this:

Dear lord,
May never an opportunity to promote an ultimately failing show never go untaken and may we always find ways of making news fluffy, like a kitten - because everyone likes kittens.

The only course of action I can really see for TV3 to take at the moment is to change the name of the show. Call it.... "Entertainment Aotearoa" or something. What they're presenting isn't the news. I wonder if they could get done for false advertisting.

How I Came to Find Myself Hating the News

I suppose September 11, 1991 is around the time that I started to find the media a bit of a joke. I know it's probably not the most PC thing to say but there's a reason for this.

As part of the 2,996 lives that were lost (19 hijackers, 246 on the planes, 2,606 in the towers, 125 in the pentagon and 2 deaths linked to 9/11 - the latest of which was just last year), the news was reporting that the American stock exchange would have to close.

This same sort of sentiment was expressed during BP's recent oil gusher. Rather than reporting on the environmental impact, they were instead reporting on the loss of income as a result of the environmental impact.

Seriously? The cost of human life or the cost to the environment is now expressed in terms of money.

And before I sit back and am horribly smug about things, the same thing happened in New Zealand regarding the Christchurch earthquake. After their 7.1 magnitude earthquake, no one was killed. To put this into perspective, this is about the same size as the Haitian earthquake. For anyone who doesn't know what Christchurch is like, it has a lot of historical buildings. It also has a horrible sprawling suburbia feeling to it but the tourist bits are nice enough. So the story has got to be on the buildings. But rather than the historical buildings, the news on New Zealand TV was about a cheese shop which, although their part of the building was fine, the rest of it wasn't so the cheese shop was likely going to have to close down.

I have no idea if there's been any damage to the Cathedral in Cathedral Square. The news doesn't seem to want to tell us anything about buildings that the rest of the country might be interested in.

Oh and while I'm on the earthquake, the "aftershocks" haven't stopped yet. I put "aftershocks" in quotes because before the earthquake, these would be considered earthquakes in their own right. They haven't stopped though. They're still around the 3-4 mark. That's astounding. They haven't stopped. That's more than 18,000 quakes and aftershocks. If I were in Christchurch right now I'd be looking for a way out. Go and stay with friends and family some place else. The property can be rebuilt, but the sanity.... I can't imagine trying to sleep through all of that.

Anyway, I did have a point. I'm sure I did. It probably has something to do with the obsession with money in the news today. If it isn't going to cost a certain amount, it's just not news.

Not About Cats

I've never really used a blog before. Okay - that's not strictly true. I did do a few posts for Software Freedom Day '09. And lo and behold I really quite enjoyed it.

The problem I have with blogs though is that they remind me of those sites that used to be EVERYWHERE. You know the ones. They had javascript galore to make things sparkle and follow the cursor around the screen. The use of animated gifs was nauseating. And most of all, most of them seemed to be about cats.

I must admit, at one stage I did have one of these sites. That one wasn't about cats either. It was instead something much worse. Poetry I had written when I was 16. You know the sort of stuff. The "Woe is me, no one has ever felt what I feel right now" sort of stuff. Had Douglas Adams read it, I might have been a contender for the worst poetry in the universe instead of Paula Nancy Millstone.

This doesn't really explain why I've decided to start "blogging"... I'm not a big fan of new technology (which is often really old technology rebranded - reminds of something else from Douglas Adams about the infuriating personalities on elevators and the rediscovery of stairs). I don't understand a lot of it.

For example, Facebook. That "social" networking site that allows you to put your details out there so that your friends can keep track of you. I don't understand why I would want to put my details out there so that my friends can keep track of me rather than them taking 5 minutes out of their lives to send me an email - it has so much more meaning. Oh and sitting in front of your computer has NEVER been social. I want the word social back.

But my favourite pet hate... The most silly technology out there. Twitter. I especially love that this has become a political tool. Participate with various political parties via twitter. Get your complex ideas out there in 140 characters or less. I'm so waiting for this to catch on just about everywhere else. Just imagine it... write an essay on the sociological themes expressed within the movie Fight Club in 140 characters or less.

So why start blogging now? I often find myself frustrated. I quite often watch the "news" and find myself cursing at the television. I know it's not the TV's fault but the stuff that's on there just has me ranting and raving and puts me in a really bad mood for the most part. So okay, that's a bit of a negative message.

I have a positive one as well though. I do a lot of stuff around Linux and have been trying to get into education. I'm doing quite well really. So I thought a blog might be interesting to let people know what I'm up to. I'm the worst person ever for selling myself so perhaps if I can point people to this blog as an indication of what I'm up to or have been doing, they'll get some sort of idea of what sort of person I am.

So, welcome to this blog. Here's hoping it's full up with content and even better, perhaps it'll validate my vanity by having a couple of readers.