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Posts Tagged ‘activities’

Home or Away?

April 2, 2018 Leave a comment

Last night I went to a music concert featuring popular performer, Ed Sheeran. Now, I do have to say that I’m not necessarily a big fan, and it was really an event my wife wanted to go to rather than me, but he is a competent musician, and some of his material is quite good. Yeah, I’m sort of damning with faint praise there, a bit!

The small city I live in invested in a covered stadium – the only one in New Zealand – a few years back, and it has been a real asset in many ways, attracting many music events which would not have been likely to come here otherwise. Ed Sheeran was one, and I also saw Robbie Williams, and Black Sabbath there recently.

But what’s the point? Well I do have to say that live concerts featuring leading performers, like Ed Sheeran (and Ozzie Osbourne!) are quite special and there’s something unique about being actually at a real event. A similar argument applies to watching movies in a real movie theatre instead of at home. But at the same time the standard of entertainment experience I now have at home is pretty exceptional too!

I was listening to some music on my AV system today and a particular song played which was beautifully recorded in the old-fashioned way: without a lot of digital processing or fancy techniques but with just a few mics and directly onto a fairly high quality medium (probably analog). The sound was just so pure and true, and orders of magnitude better than anything I have heard at a live concert where the sound quality (especially in a roofed stadium where echo can blur the sound) is actually pretty poor.

I have a fairly sophisticated AV system with a good quality multi-channel receiver, speakers, and other components. It’s nowhere near as high-end as a true fanatic with plenty of money might have, but it is far better than the average system. Anyway, when the source is good it really can sound great. There’s plenty of power, good bass from the sub, and I have fine-tuned everything to optimise the sound. The biggest issue is that I have some items in the room which vibrate when the bass gets too extreme – but my wife won’t let me remove them. I mean, does the wood burner really need a chimney (especially one that vibrates at about 30 Hz)? I don’t think so!

I also recently upgraded my TV to a UHD (4K) model with HDR. The screen is only moderately big at 58 inches, but the room isn’t big enough to make anything bigger practical. But again, the picture quality can be magnificent. With a really good source, recorded in UHD, at a high frame rate, and optimised for HDR, it’s almost like the picture is a real thing you can reach out and touch. The blacks are really deep, the whites are super bright, and the colours can be really saturated but also be subtle and realistic. Again, I spent a fair bit of time optimising the many settings the TV has to get it working the way I like.

So my point is why would I want to go to a movie or a live concert? The system I have at home offers a far better experience. Even if I ignore the tedium of the tasks associated with the outside experience – like finding parking, buying movie tickets, and driving home through massive traffic jams after concerts – the home system still looks and sounds better. And, if you ignore the initial cost of the equipment (over $15000 original full price), it is far cheaper too.

As I said above, there is something special about live events, so I will probably continue going to them, but home-based AV systems are certainly a great alternative, especially when combined with services like Apple Music and Netflix.

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The End of an Error

March 10, 2018 Leave a comment

About 4 years ago my wife decided she would leave teaching (mainly because the school she taught at was managed by a bunch of incompetents, and the roll had reduced so much that some of the teachers were made redundant) and open a business of her own, in this case a cafe. Now, anyone who has been involved in owning or managing a cafe at this point is probably already thinking “bad idea”, and in many ways they would be right.

Why? Because it seems to be almost impossible to make any money from that kind of business, plus for the privilege of making little, if any money, the owner/manager has to work 12 hours a day – starting at 5 in the morning – 6 days a week.

But that’s not the worst of it either, because maybe an even more overwhelmingly soul-sapping aspect of owning a small business is the excess of mindless bureaucracy involved which results in very little of any value.

Of course, Inland Revenue is probably the worst offender, closely followed by other organisations like the local City Council. Then there are a collection of lesser parasites like insurance agents, body corporates, various health and safety organisations, lawyers, business experts, and advertisers.

I have a “real” job but also helped with running the cafe, especially with administration and accounting. Yes, you read that right: I helped with the tasks I most despise. While I felt as if most of them were a waste of time, at least I did gain a few skills in that area – but skills I hope I never have to use again!

On the other hand I did learn some more interesting stuff too. For example, at one point I was doing some baking and managed to make some pretty decent batches of scones and muffins. I never quite perfected making consistently good coffee though – that is a lot harder than you might think!

But getting back to the admin tasks. I had some major issues with those, so let me list a few of them here.

First, tax. Now I know that the two most onerous tax activities – GST and PAYE – are not actually costing me anything because I am just collecting tax for the government by adding an extra amount to prices and wages, but I do object to the amount of effort involved in doing that work. If the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) want to collect tax on sales of goods and services and on wages why don’t they do the work and collect the money themselves?

If I took the amount of time people spend on tax gathering activities (on behalf of the IRD) and multiplied by the number of businesses in New Zealand, it must come to a truly horrendous amount of time. How does IRD get away with this travesty of bureaucratic time wasting? Because they can. They can make whatever rules they like – whether they are fair or not – and impose them on whoever they want.

Note that I am not against tax, in fact far from it. It’s not paying the tax that worries me, it is the amount of time a person like myself, who is talented in many areas, wastes on doing IRD’s work for them.

And other government agencies are maybe even worse. We had to collect a payment from one employee, who had been incorrectly paid a benefit, and process the payment for the department involved. If we didn’t do this – even though it was nothing to do with us and had happened before we even employed the person – we would be fined. Again, this is an arbitrary and unfair law which was created simply because it could be.

Then there are the other forms of bureaucracy. The local council’s hygiene regulations are particularly silly. My wife took that very seriously and she maintained high standards, but I know that the inspection is more to do with paperwork being filled in correctly rather than any real measures designed to optimise food safety. I know other cafe owners who had terrible standards but kept the paper work up to date and achieved the top rating as a result.

My advice is to ignore the hygiene rating you see displayed at food premises, because that is just a measure of how well the person does documentation. Instead, have a look around any place you visit and search for signs of neglect.

It might seem to many people that running a small business is a truly worthwhile undertaking. Small businesses employee a lot of people and contribute significantly to the economy. And the government spends a lot of time talking about how important small businesses are, and how they want to encourage people to start one.

But they sure have a strange way of showing their enthusiasm. If they really wanted people to start a small business, why can’t the government and other authorities make the whole process a lot easier?

I’m sure that people running a cafe would rather make use of their talents in areas like baking, cooking, and hospitality instead of wasting hours every week on meaningless paper work. And I’m sure a struggling business where the owner is effectively making less than the minimum wage while working 70 hours a week would appreciate not having to pay provisional taxes on money which hasn’t even been earned yet.

I am contemplating becoming self-employed myself in the near future, but the advantages of being free of the stupidity of ignorant and dogmatic management decisions are at least partly negated by the dread I have of processing GST and other time-wasting accounting.

People might say that spending that time on tax calculations is just part of their “civic duty” as a citizen, but is it really? Would it not be better for the country if people spent their time doing what they’re good at? Why is accounting considered something everyone has to do, or pay an exorbitant fee to some accountant to do for them.

So yes, the end of our cafe means the end of processing payrolls, GST returns, tax payments, employer returns, hygiene certificates, building safety checks, and various other nonsense I can’t even bear to contemplate right now. It’s like the end of an era… or should that be end of an error?

Blog Posts and Podcasts

October 26, 2017 Leave a comment

It has been a while since I created a new blog post, but if you are feeling neglected, never fear! I have not given up writing them, and still have many ideas I want to discuss. I’m sure the world is relieved to hear this news!

The reason I haven’t posted anything for 10 days is that I have been concentrating on podcasts.

Just in case you haven’t caught up, a podcast is an audio recording (usually a spoken discussion or reading) which can be downloaded from the internet and listened to at any time, usually on a smart phone, but also possibly on a computer, tablet, or similar device. There will be a feed which allows you to “subscribe” and be notified of new podcasts, which are usually created regularly as a series. Alternatively individual programs can be accessed through a normal web page.

My podcasts are at http://ojb.nz/owen/XuPodcasts/Podcasts.html
and the RSS feed is http://ojb.nz/owen/XuRSS/RSS2.xml

At one point in the past I was creating these fairly regularly, but have gone through a period where I neglected them a bit. Recently I got back into the fine art of podcasting, which is quite involved. My podcasts are usually between 5 and 10 minutes in length but most require about an hour to create.

First I need to record the program. I find a quiet space and read the material into my computer. Including errors, phone calls and other interruptions, re-reads, etc this usually ends up being twice as long as it should be!

Then I edit the audio file I recorded using an audio program. I currently use the quite powerful, free program, Audacity. I remove the errors and repeats, fix the spacing by adding and removing gaps, improve the overall tempo, standardise the volume level, and improve the pitch dependent on the room I did the reading in. On a few podcasts I also add music or sound effects. Finally, I export the file as an MP3.

The last step is to write the XML and HTML (don’t worry if you don’t know what these are) so that the files can be accessed through a news aggregator program (I use NetNewsWire), a podcasting app (I use Downcast on my iPhone), or a web browser (such as Safari or Chrome). And I put all of those components on my web server (ojb.nz), of course.

So what is in these podcasts? Well mostly they are just audio versions of my favourite blog posts and web pages. There’s nothing new in them and the podcast just provides an alternative way to get my valuable thoughts!

So if you are already bored with reading this stuff then now there is a new way for you to get bored. Now you can also achieve this by listening!

If you want some recommendations from the (currently) 74 podcasts on my site, try these…

2012-04-27 – Its Five Day Mission
2014-04-25 – The Libertarian Dream
2017-05-23 – A Ticket to Heaven
2014-02-19 – All My Macs
2016-03-16 – Sadness and Beauty
2017-10-16 – Child or Picasso?
2015-09-21 – Insulting Sir Pita

Remember, these are all available at http://ojb.nz/owen/XuPodcasts/Podcasts.html

There’s a combination of stuff there which I hope most people would find interesting. If you do listen and have any thoughts, let me know in the comments for this blog post.

Classic Fighters

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

On Saturday I went to the Classic Fighters Omaka 2017 air show in Blenheim, New Zealand. I had been intending on going to this show since it first started, but being at the opposite end of the island I just never quite made it. This year I was visting my in-laws in Nelson, so I thought the 90 minute journey to Marlborough would be worth it.

And despite the bad weather a lot of New Zealand (including Marlborough) has experienced recently, the day was brilliant. There were almost no clouds, a light (to moderate) wind, and a temperature of 22 degrees. Great conditions for watching warbirds (although maybe a bit less wind would have been good).

I have been to the other big South Island, New Zealand air show, Warbirds Over Wanaka, several times in the past, and have put reports from all of these, including photos and movies on my web site, so I will do the same for this one over the next few days.

Both air shows have a variety of aircraft, but Wanaka seems to specialise in World War II planes and Omaka in World War I. So there were plenty of Fokker Triplanes, Sopwith Camels, and other aircraft from that era (all replicas, of course) plus Spitfires, a Corsair, a Kittyhawk, and some Yaks from World War II.

My favourite display was the Yak 3 Steadfast, powered by the 1750hp Pratt and Whitney R2000 radial engine and capable of over 650 kilometers per hour. It had smoke generators on both wing tips and left twin smoke trails which formed all sorts of cool patterns and smoke rings in the deep blue sky.

The saddest part of the show (apart from it taking over an hour to drive the 100 meters to the car park exit) was the A-4 Skyhawk sitting in a hangar. This one had it’s engine stripped out of it to use as a spare part when the other New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks were sold.

I remember watching the Skyhawk displays in Wanaka back in the 1996, 1998, and 2000 shows and they were awesome. Of course, they were a bit of an obsolete aircraft by American standards, but at least the NZ planes had updated avionics and weapons systems.

So I’m glad I went to the trouble of watching this show. I really didn’t like it quite as much as the best Wanaka shows, but it was still very good. My only regret is that I didn’t get there a little bit earlier because I missed some of the first WWI displays.

As I said above, I will have a report on this show with photos and videos on my main web site (ojb.nz) in the next few days so check there if you are interested (and I apologise in advance if it takes longer – it’s surprising how much time the photo and video processing, researching facts, and general writing of those reports takes).

The Internet is Best!

March 17, 2017 Leave a comment

I hear a lot of debate about whether the internet is making us dumb, uninformed, or more close-minded. The problems with a lot of these debates are these: first, saying the internet has resulted in the same outcome for everyone is too simplistic; second, these opinions are usually offered with no justification other than it is just “common sense” or “obvious”; and third, whatever the deficiencies of the internet, is it better or worse than not having an internet?

There is no doubt that some people could be said to be more dumb as the result of their internet use. By “dumb” I mean being badly informed (believing things which are unlikely to be true) or not knowing basic information at all, and by “internet use” I mean all internet services people use to gather information: web sites, blogs, news services, email newsletters, podcasts, videos, etc.

How can this happen when information is so ubiquitous? Well information isn’t knowledge, or at least it isn’t necessarily truth, and it certainly isn’t always useful. It is like the study (which was unreplicated so should be viewed with some suspicion) showing that people who watch Fox News are worse informed about news than people who watch no news at all.

That study demonstrates three interesting points: first, people can be given information but gather no useful knowledge as a result; second, non-internet sources can be just as bad a source as the internet itself; and third, this study (being unreplicated and politically loaded) might itself be an example of an information source which is potentially misleading.

So clearly any information source can potentially make people dumber. Before the internet people might have been made dumber by reading printed political newsletters, or watching trashy TV, or by listening to a single opinion at the dinner table, or by reading just one type of book.

And some people will mis-use information sources where others will gain a lot by using the same source. Some will get dumber while others get a lot smarter by using the same sources.

And (despite the Fox News study above) if the alternative to having an information source which can be mis-used is having no information source at all, then I think taking the flawed source is the best option.

Anecdotes should be used with extreme caution, but I’m going to provide some anyway, because this is a blog, not a scientific paper. I’m going to say why I think the internet is a good thing from my own, personal perspective.

I’m interested in everything. I don’t have a truly deep knowledge about anything but I like to think I have a better than average knowledge about most things. My hero amongst Greek philosophers is Eratosthenes, who was sometimes known as “Beta”. This was because he was second best at everything (beta is the second letter in the Greek alphabet which I can recite in full, by the way).

The internet is a great way to learn a moderate amount about many things. Actually, it’s also a great way to learn a lot about one thing too, as long as you are careful about your sources, and it is a great way to learn nothing about everything.

I work in a university and I get into many discussions with people who are experts in a wide range of different subjects. Obviously I cannot match an expert’s knowledge about their precise area but I seem to be able to at least have a sensible discussion, and ask meaningful questions.

For example, in recent times I have discussed the political situation in the US, early American punk bands, the use of drones and digital photography in marine science, social science study design, the history of Apple computers, and probably many others I can’t recall right now.

I hate not knowing things, so when I hear a new word, or a new idea, I immediately Google it on my phone. Later, when I have time, I retrieve that search on my tablet or computer and read a bit more about it. I did this recently with the Gibbard-Satterhwaite Theorem (a mathematical theorem which involves the fairness of voting systems) which was mentioned in a podcast I was listening to.

Last night I was randomly browsing YouTube and came across some videos of extreme engines being started and run. I’ve never seen so much flame and smoke, and heard so much awesome noise. But now I know a bit about big and unusual engine designs!

The videos only ran for 5 or 10 minutes each (I watched 3) so you might say they were quite superficial. A proper TV documentary on big engines would probably have lasted an hour and had far more detail, as well as having a more credible source, but even if a documentary like that exists, would I have seen it? Would I have had an hour free? What would have made me seek out such an odd topic?

The great thing about the internet is not necessarily the depth of its information but just how much there is. I could have watched hundreds of movies on big engines if I had the time. And there are more technical, detailed, mathematical treatments of those subjects if I want them. But the key point is that I would probably know nothing about the subject if the internet didn’t exist.

Here’s a few other topics I have got interested in thanks to YouTube: maths (the numberphile series is excellent), debating religion (I’m a sucker for an atheist experience video, or anything by Christopher Hitchens), darts (who knew the sport of darts could be so dramatic?), snooker (because that’s what happens after darts), Russian jet fighters, Formula 1 engines, classic British comedy (Fawlty Towers, Father Ted, etc).

What would I do if I wasn’t doing that? Watching conventional TV maybe? Now what were my options there: a local “current affairs” program with the intellectual level of an orangutan (with apologies to our great ape cousins), some frivolous reality TV nonsense, a really un-funny American sitcom? Whatever faults the internet has, it sure is a lot better than any of that!

Pokemon No!

July 30, 2016 Leave a comment

I am a proud computer (and general technology) geek and I see all things geeky as being a big part of my culture. So I don’t really identify much with my nationality of New Zealander, or of traditional Pacific or Maori values (I’m not Maori anyway but many people still think that should be part of my culture), or of the standard interests of my compatriots like rugby, outdoor activities, or beer – well OK, maybe I do identify with the beer!

Being a geek transcends national boundaries and traditional values. I go almost everywhere with my 4 main Apple products: a MacBook Pro laptop, an iPad Pro, an iPhone 6S, and an Apple Watch. They are all brilliant products and I do use them all every day.

For me, the main aspects of being a geek involve “living on the internet” and sourcing most of my information from technology sources, and participating in geek events and activities.

By “living on the internet” I mean that I can’t (or maybe just don’t) go for any period of time (I mean a few hours) without participating in social media, checking internet information sources (general news, new products, etc), or seeking out random material on new subjects from sites such as Quora.

I mainly stay informed not by watching TV (although I still do watch TV news once per day) or listening to radio news (again, I do spend a small amount of time on that too) but by listening to streaming material and podcasts. In fact, podcasts are my main source of information because I can listen to them at any time, avoid most advertising, and listen again to anything which was particularly interesting.

And finally there are the events and activities. Yeah, I mainly mean games. I freely admit that I spend some time every day playing computer games. Sometimes it is only 5 minutes but it is usually more, and sometimes a lot more. Some people think a mature (OK, maybe getting on towards “old”) person like me shouldn’t be doing that and that I should “grow up”. Needless to say I think these people are talking crap.

And so we come to the main subject of this post, the latest computer (or more accurately phone and tablet) game phenomenon: Pokemon GO. The game was released first in the US, Australia, and New Zealand and instantly became a huge hit. Of course, since it was a major new component of geek culture, I felt I should be playing it, but I didn’t want it to become a big obsession.

And I think I did well avoiding it for almost 3 days, but yes, I’m playing it now, with moderate intensity (level 17 after a couple of weeks). Today I explained the gameplay to an older person who never plays games and he asked: but what is the point? Well, there is no real, practical point of course, but I could ask that about a lot of things.

For example, if an alien landed and I took him to a rugby game he might ask what’s the point of those guys running around throwing a ball to each other. Obviously, there’s no point. And what’s the point of sitting in front of a TV and watching some tripe like “The Block” or some crappy sopa opera? Again, there’s no point. In reality, what’s the point of living? Well, let’s not go there until I do another post about philosophy.

So anyone who criticises playing computer games because they have no practical point should think a little bit more about what they are really saying and why.

And there’s another factor in all of this that bugs me too. It’s the fact that almost universally the people who criticise games like Pokemon GO not only have never played them but know almost nothing about them either. They are just letting their petty biases and ignorance inform their opinions. It’s quite pathetic, really.

So to all those people who criticise me for playing Pokemon GO, Real Racing 3 (level 162 after many years play, and yes, it is the greatest game of all time), Clash of Clans (level 110 after 4 years play), and a few others, I say get the hell over it. And if you do want to criticise me just get a bit better informed first. And maybe you should stop all those pointless habits you have (and that I don’t criticise you for) like watching junk programs on TV.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find some more Pokemon. Gotta catch ’em all!

A Reason for the Season

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

Well, Christmas is over for another year so I guess it’s about time I spoiled the holiday spirit with one of my curmudgeonly blog posts. We are often asked by the more traditional groups in society to remember the “reason for the season” but what is this and does a reason even exist?

Well no, I don’t think so. I think several reasons exist – one of which is the one the traditionalists are thinking of – but there’s no longer just one reason (and maybe there never was).

So let’s get it out of the way now: the most usually cited reason for the season is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the symbolic founder of the Christian Church. As you might have guessed, I have a few comments to make about this particular reason…

First, no one really knows whether Jesus even existed. In fact I believe there are very good reasons to say he didn’t; however I realise that the majority of historians disagree with me on this one. The big problem is that it’s not a simple case of him existing or not existing. The idea that Jesus existed in the way described in the Bible is ridiculous and most historians agree that didn’t happen, but there are some reasons to think the myths might be based on a real person or maybe several people. So if the Jesus myth described in the Bible is very loosely based on real events does that mean he existed or not? It’s somewhere in between.

Second, the birth story is hopelessly confused and contradictory. Prophecy indicated Jesus should be born in Bethlehem but the story already indicated Nazareth so a non-existent census had to be evoked to try to reconcile this. There’s also the non-existent star mentioned in only one gospel, the contradictory virgin myth, the fact that no one knows the day, month or even year of the birth, etc, etc. So choosing December 25 seems to be totally arbitrary (or is it? see below).

Third, Christmas, along with all the other known traditions, dogma, and myths associated with Christianity, only appeared decades or centuries after the alleged events occurred (or, in most cases, didn’t occur) and the special days all seem to be borrowed from earlier traditions. Christmas is clearly a mid-winter celebration, for example, and Easter originally came from a spring or fertility ritual.

But if the birth of Jesus isn’t the reason then what is? In most countries the number of people reporting that they think of Christmas in the traditional, religious sense is shrinking. Christmas for many is about a break from work, time with family, an excuse to buy stuff, or just a summer (southern hemisphere) holiday.

So there is not just one reason, there are many: traditional, modern, religious, family related, consumerist, etc. Many Christians arrogantly assume theirs is the only reason but that isn’t true – it isn’t even the first. If we want to celebrate the original reason let’s go back to pagan rituals like Saturnalia, in fact the descriptions of those sound pretty cool (lots of drinking and sex).

Christians are welcome to their reason, no matter how silly it is, and I’ll stick to mine (enjoying summer, relaxation, drinking, etc) if they don’t mind. At least mine is based on reality.