Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five – February 2015

5.Sitting Up On Our Crane – Pond

Pond have just released their sixth album in seven years, to try and keep pace with fellow freaksters King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s five albums in the past three years. Is there some kind of shaggy, stoned-out, cosmic competition going on here? What do we call it? Psych-Wars? Battle of the Bong? My Crane is Higher Than Your Crane? Are we even sure that Pond and King Gizzard are not just the same band here? I’ve never got a good look at their faces … though that may be because each time my mind has been a bit under the influence itself. (By beer, I mean – I’m not freaky at all.)

4.Nobody’s Empire – Belle and Sebastian

On their ninth album Belle and Sebastian have decided that they want to try and make their fans dance, like the ‘girls in peacetime’ of the album title. Which is strange, because I know Belle and Sebastian fans, and they don’t dance, and if they do dance, they generally dance badly, and if they did want to dance, it wouldn’t be to Belle and Sebastian. In any case ‘Nobody’s Empire’ follows on in the tradition of other great Belle and Sebastian opening tracks (‘The State I’m In’, ‘The Stars of Track and Field’) by getting the album moving, and drawing you into Belle and Sebastian’s own little music box world. (That opening line ‘Lying in bed/I was feeling French’ is a bit ‘arch’ though.)

3.Fangless – Sleater-Kinney

The longer you’re away, the more important you become. Were Sleater-Kinney ever really this important? On the American west coast, sure, but they barely registered here in Australia, and I think a lot of other places as well. Seems to me there is a bit of ‘Carrie-Brownstein-in-Portlandia’ revisionism going on here. Nevertheless they are a very good band, and their first album in ten years is certainly a fine return; perfect for those who miss that ‘90s-style rock, and those who wish they were there to hear it in the first place.

2.Marshall Law – Kate Tempest

On first listen: I thought this was a song set in a bar making general observations about fashionably-dressed posers. On second listen: it seemed to be a song about a specific girl, Becky, and her night around the crew of an artist calling himself Marshall Law, who despite sharing the same name as this character seemed to be a figure similar to Gideon Graves in the Scott Pilgrim series. On third listen: it’s not really about either of those characters, but a third character who Becky takes a fancy to, and then they start talking, and well … listen for yourself. Let me just say I thought Becky was a bit harsh. But then again it probably reflects how a lot of people’s nights out really end.

1.Stars – Angel Olsen

The Kate Tempest and Angel Olsen songs listed here are both actually from 2014 releases, indicating that not much tends to be released in the first few weeks of the year as people catch up on those ‘best-of-year’ albums from the year before. Angel Olsen’s second album, ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ was a revelation to me – half of it acoustic folk, but then the other half taking off for epic tracks like this one. I then went back and listened to her first album, but that one – which is pretty much all acoustic folk – didn’t really do much for me. But this album seems to be a marked improvement, and if she keeps going like this, I’m really looking forward to her next releases. I’m also hoping to catch her at the Laneway Festival this weekend, and hoping that she plays this track, but we’ll have to see how the day goes.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Less People May Be On Australia’s National Minimum Wage Than You Think

This week the Fair Work Commission released its first findings from its Australian Workplace Relations Survey (AWRS), which is a survey that links together employers and their employees in the same data set. Most of the first findings are pretty basic, and generally covered by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ set of surveys. Like the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey the really interesting stuff should come when researchers start to do their ‘cross-tabs’ and interrogate the data a bit more.

One nugget of interest for me though in the first findings was the extent of use of Australia’s National Minimum Wage – which is currently $16.87 an hour. The survey found that only about 1 per cent of enterprises pay any of their employees the National Minimum Wage, and only 0.2 per cent of employees are paid the National Minimum Wage.

Those numbers do not really surprise me, although it is interesting to have them confirmed. But this does not necessarily mean that barely anyone is reliant on the National Minimum Wage adjustments. The National Minimum Wage applies to employees not covered by an award or agreement, and plenty of employees on award rates may be getting paid the same rate as the National Minimum Wage, or close to it. Indeed, the low extent of employees being paid the National Minimum Wage indicates that most employees are covered by an award or agreement. Other surveys have found – as shown in the Productivity Commission’s recent Issues Paper for its Workplace Relations Framework inquiry – that the percentage of employees paid the hourly minimum wage rate is more like 5 to 10 per cent, whether this be through an award or otherwise.

I suppose another thing of interest for me from the AWRS’ first findings was that employers still prefer to use informal documents to grant an employee flexible working arrangements rather than the formal Individual Flexibility Arrangements. (I wonder what employees prefer?) IFAs have in general not been that widely used since they were first introduced. It would not surprise me if the Productivity Commission’s inquiry recommends dropping or replacing IFAs from the industrial relations system. Speaking of the PC’s inquiry, with the Issues Paper now released, I may post something about that sometime in the next few weeks.   

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When To Buy Petrol (In Your Australian Capital City)

Last month, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission launched a web page which suggests when the cheapest and most expensive times to buy petrol are.  How does it do this? By keeping track of what is known as the ‘petrol price cycle’. Retail petrol pricing is a bit unusual. Overall retail petrol prices reflect the international price of petrol and the exchange rate. But overlaying that in the Australian capital cities are these regular (or at least semi-regular) patterns or cycles. That is, petrol prices reach a ‘peak’, then come down over a period of a couple of weeks, and then in the next few days shoot up again. Why? It is a little bit of a mystery; it could indicate some collusion between retailers but this is hard to show.

These ‘cycles’ make it somewhat predictable in terms of knowing when is the best time to buy petrol. We say somewhat here because the length of cycles can vary, and indeed have on average been becoming longer over the past few years – the average trough-peak duration in Australia’s five largest capital cities was one week back in 2009, but is now out to two and a half weeks (see the ACCC’s  latest petrol monitoring report, p. 89) except in Perth. Further, in 2014, the petrol price cycle in these cities ranged from 13 days to 43 days. One theory is that a less predictable cycle is more profitable for retailers, but again it’s all a bit of an enigma.

There are a couple of things we do know, and when you first learn them they seem a bit surprising. One of those is that there is currently no day which is, on average, more or less expensive than the rest (p. 90), again except if you are in Perth (don’t fill up in the latter part of the week). Another is that the price increases before public holidays are no greater than any other time in the year, nor do public holidays appear to affect the timing of any price cycle increases (p. 94).

So I know petrol price cycles exist, and that regular information is available on them. And yet I am a terrible consumer, because they have never explicitly factored into my petrol-purchasing decisions. I tend to just buy petrol whenever I am out driving, which is itself a rational factor, though probably still not the best move given petrol stations are hardly a long way from my house. I am probably one of those consumers that the ACCC people shakes their head at. Still, I guess it is their job to at least try and help us. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Tom Brady v Peyton Manning: Even If Brady Wins A Fourth Super Bowl I Would Still Probably Choose Manning

Last week Tom Brady, quarterback for the National Football League’s New England Patriots, helped the Patriots into their sixth Super Bowl during his career. The week before Peyton Manning, quarterback for the Denver Broncos and formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, saw his team eliminated from the playoffs in their first game. This has been taken by some observers as further support for the argument that Brady, who has been in three Super Bowl winning teams compared to Manning’s one, is the better quarterback, including by Bill Simmons.

I disagree. Most of my reasons actually accord fairly well with the arguments put forward in this Salon article by Allen Barra. But here is why I think Manning has been the better quarterback, or at least about even.

First up, I put little weight on the argument that Brady holds an 11-5 edge in games between their teams. For one thing, Brady and Manning’s teams do not just play each other; there is the rest of the league where their performances matter as well. Second, as important as quarterbacks are, the head-to-head record tells me more that Brady has been in a better team. Third, Brady and Manning aren’t even on the field at the same time; they each face off against the opposing team’s defence, not each other.

I put slightly more weight, but still relatively little, on Brady having more Super Bowl wins. Again, it mainly just tells me that Brady’s teams have been better, not that Brady himself has been better. Now, given how important the quarterback is to an NFL side, the fact that Brady has been involved in winning three Super Bowl tells me that he is probably really, really good. But I prefer a measure that can abstract a bit more from the effects of his teammates.

For example, Manning has been voted five times the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, to Brady’s two times. Sure the MVP voting is quite subjective, but that tells me that more often football observers have considered Manning as more crucial to his team’s success. Interestingly in working out which quarterback ‘won’ each year, Simmons gives 2003 and 2004 to Brady, even though Manning won the MVP in both years, probably on the basis that the Patriots won the Super Bowl. But voters clearly judged Manning the better individual player, so Brady’s triumphs seem more reflective of team success.

Manning also has a slightly better career passing rating, at 97.5 to Brady’s 95.9. While a passer rating is not the be-all and end-all – and it is itself partly dependent on a QB’s teammates – it does capture many of the major statistics used to evaluate one quarterback against another (touchdowns, completions, yards gained, and interceptions). David Berri’s QB Score, which takes into account what quarterbacks do with their legs as well, rates Manning even higher.

Brady proponents though can always point to Brady’s great playoffs win-loss record to Manning’s so-so one. This argument was addressed recently at Fivethirtyeight, and while it showed Brady has been the better playoff performer, Manning’s playoff record is still somewhat better than if his teams had instead had an ‘average’ quarterback.

It is pretty close though, and perhaps my argument is as much that Brady is not clearly better as that I think Manning just shades him. But basically I think it is only Brady’s three Super Bowl wins in four years – certainly not a small achievement, by the way – that has stopped the consensus from favouring Manning.

On the other hand, maybe I just like Peyton Manning more.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 98

ECONOMICS: Working long hours? This article suggests you are not producing that much more by doing so.

ECONOMICS: Australians shouldn’t be surprised that the carbon price reduced emissions.

ECONOMICS: Stephen Koukoulas on Australia’s Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook.

ECONOMICS: Defeated in the Senate (for now), the Grattan Institute looks at the potential impacts of the Australian Government’s proposed reductions to the its co-payments to doctors. Hmm, these links seem to have a ‘bashing the Australian Government’ feel, but I’ve included them all because I found them interesting … I guess the policies of whoever is in government are always of interest …

ECONOMICS: What is going to happen to oil prices? Probably something very different to what people currently expect.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Origin of the Wooden Finger

Why is this blog called ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’? When I was a teenager I discovered that I could ‘click’ my middle finger on my left hand in an unusual way, so that it made a hollow sound if I clicked it against something like a table, like this:


A friend of mine dubbed it the ‘wooden finger’. As a teenager, assuming that I would run a creative empire one day, I planned to call said empire ‘Wooden Finger Productions’. As a 20-something, intending that this blog would lead to my creative empire one day, I called it ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’.

And there it is. I actually originally called this blog ‘Random Mumblings’, until the same friend I mentioned above said it sounded too self-deprecating. I do prefer ‘The Wooden Finger Depot’, but I do sometimes think about changing it.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Leaden Finger Gamer’s Review: The Last Of Us

‘The Last of Us’, a shooter/adventure/puzzle game revolving around yet another ‘zombie’ apocalypse, is one of the best reviewed games of all time. I was therefore very curious to see it, and see it all the way through, which I recently did – on walkthrough. Yes, in the case of this game review my gaming fingers were so leaden that I did not even play the game at all.

Actually, watching ‘The Last Of Us’ on walkthrough is I feel one of my better ideas. The game is only available on a PlayStation, and since it is unlikely that I will buy one of those just to play the console exclusive titles I thought: why not just watch the whole thing on walkthrough? I can then see the whole story, and without any of the stress of dying and whatnot. (I could take this even further: ‘Red Dead Redemption’ may be next on my ‘watch list’.) Anyway, it’s not like I was doing completely nothing: I used my time watching the walkthrough to do some jogging (when I was not settling my newborn daughter), so as the main character Joel was running about I felt like I was running with him, even if I was doing nothing else.

For those unfamiliar with the game ‘The Last of Us’ takes place following a pandemic that infects most of the world’s population. You mainly play as Joel – a tough middle-aged man tasked with escorting a young girl named Ellie who holds the key to saving the human race. You face off against many enemies; naturally the infected people, but also many crews of uninfected people who are not at all sympathetic to your plight.

By the title I thought that people would be few and far between in the game, but actually there are quite a lot of people that you encounter, with the military having taken control soon after the virus broke. More of the action also takes place in cities than I imagined, rather than deserted woodland. And those infected ‘clickers’ are damn fast – not at all the slow-moving zombies than one might expect.
The game was also larger than I was expecting – much larger. It feels like ‘The Walking Dead’ blown up and blown out, and makes that game feel like the small, 2D game that it actually is. It also reminded me of ‘Batman: Arkham City’ in that it takes a lot longer than you expect to get where you are heading to, particularly in the scenes in Pittsburgh.
Still watching ‘The Last of Us’ as a walkthrough probably gave me a somewhat different experience to actually playing it. Really, it hardly felt like looking at a game at all. Because the game is quite realistic and cinematic in style, and the person doing the walkthrough obviously knew what they were doing it felt very close to watching a movie, where the gameplay blends seamlessly into the cut scenes. I did not get a sense of how much your character actually dies if you play it.  That absence of possible failure may also be part of why it seemed to me that there were a few too many combat scenes.
Nevertheless you can see why this game rates near the top of many people’s all-time lists. The story and characters must rate amongst the best to ever appear in video game form. I am glad I sat/jogged through twelve hours of it; perhaps even more than if I had actually played the damn thing. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five - January 2015

Epic Rap Battles of History’ is one of those things that I didn’t realise was missing from my life until I found it. I first came across it by searching on Spotify at Christmas for songs with Santa Claus, and finding the ‘Moses vs Santa Claus’ rap battle, which featured Snoop Dogg.

The series is the creation of two rappers/comedians, Nice Peter and EpicLLOYD, and features well-known historical and fictional characters taking on each other in rap battles. It’s very clever, and very funny. All of the rap battles are great, but here are my five favourites:

5. Steve Jobs v Bill Gates

This was one of the more successful battles, in terms of both the number of views and in winning an award. It’s a natural battle to have; Jobs actually gets most of the good hits in during his first verse, though the point is made that Gates was the more successful of the two. A ‘surprise guest’ rapper at the end adds an extra facet to this episode.

Jobs: ‘Why’d you name your company after your dick?'
Gates: ‘I give away your net worth to AIDS research’

4. Steven Spielberg v Alfred Hitchcock

This is one of the longest battles: the Jobs v Gates battle had one guest rapper, this battle has three. Extra cast members aside though the main Spielberg and Hitchcock verses are surprisingly good, and imbue both of these figures – Spielberg in particular – with more personality than I ever gave them credit for.

Spielberg: ‘You rock as many Oscars as that schlep Michael Bay’
Hitchcock: ‘Half your billions should go to John Williams’

3. Albert Einstein v Stephen Hawking

This was another highly successful episode, which perhaps played well to what I imagine is the Epic Rap Battles’ primary audience – i.e. uber-geeks. Einstein naturally makes fun of Hawking’s disability but in a clever way, while Hawking’s main targets are Einstein’s looks and intelligence.

Einstein: ‘I’m as dope as two rappers you better be scared/Cause that means Albert E equals MC squared’
Hawking: ‘There are 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 particles in the universe that we can observe/Your mama took the ugly ones and put them into one nerd’

2. Michael Jordan v Muhammed Ali

Almost every line in this battle is a winner. People of my generation, who remember Jordan being the most famous person in the world, will likely appreciate the references to his career and life more, but there are still some good lines about Ali in there.

Jordan: ‘You can fight one man?/I can drive through a whole team’ … ‘I would pass the mic to Pippen but I’m not done scoring’
Ali: ‘Now your daddy got killed and I feel for your family/But your baseball career that was a tragedy’

1. Rick Grimes v Walter White

How good is this battle? Walter White gets in three of the best lines from the series, and I’m still not sure he won this one. The impressions are spot-on: Grimes with a laid-back southern twang, and Walter with a menacing staccato. And it has a good beat; I could listen to this battle many times over.

Grimes: ‘Sheriff Grimes rhymes dirty like my armpit stains’
White: ‘I’ve seen Walter Jr. handle walkers better than you’ … ‘You can bite me/I’ll be standing right here in my tighty Walter Whities’ 

And my favourite lines from the other epic rap battles:

Goku against Superman: ‘How many times are they gonna rewrite your story/Your powers have been boring since the nineteen fucking forties’

Gandhi against Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘I am celibate because I don’t give a fuck’

Clint Eastwood against Bruce Lee: ‘I’d beat you in round two but that’d be unbelievable/No one in your family ever lives to see a sequel’
Mozart against Skrillex: ‘I am the world’s greatest composer/No one knows what you are/Except a lonely little troll who knows how to press a spacebar’

Captain Kirk against Christopher Columbus: ‘Why don’t you boldly go someplace you’ve never gone before/Like India’
Oprah against Ellen: ‘So check under your seat because I got something for ya’

Ellen against Oprah: ‘I’m jumping over Oprah like I’m Tom Cruise on a sofa’
Babe Ruth against Lance Armstrong: ‘Yerr out, with three strikes, and just one ball’

Moses against Santa Claus: ‘It takes nine reindeers to haul your fat ass/You took the Christ out of Christmas and just added more mass’
Ben Franklin against Billy Mays: ‘Cause I’m mint I’m money I’m an educated gentleman/So join or die Bill cause it’s all about the Benjamin’

Mitt Romney against Barack Obama: ‘We all know what went down in that 2008 election/You’re a decent politician with a winning complexion’
Chuck Norris against Abraham Lincoln: ‘I invented rap music/When my heart started beating’

Sherlock Holmes against Batman: ‘Dissing these dynamic douchebags was elementary my dear Watson’
Renaissance artists against Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: ‘We’re like your NES game/Cause we can’t be beat’

Ebenezer Scrooge against Donald Trump: ‘I don’t believe in ghosts/And I don’t believe that hair’
Adolf Hitler against Darth Vader: ‘You call yourself a Dark Lord/You couldn’t even conquer Space Mountain’

Marilyn Monroe against Cleopatra: ‘You think you’re so chic/Up in your fancy palace/Getting low on Marc Antony/Tossing Caesar’s salad’
Dumbledore against Gandalf: ‘The prophecy forgot to mention this day/When I knocked your ass back to Gandalf the Grey’