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l'enfer du North Island

  taupo roundup 2012 Tuesday, 27 November 2012 link

Driving to my third crack at the Lake Taupo Cycle Challenge, it occurred to me that we were driving past an erupting volcano in order for me to cycle around the remains of an exploded (dormant but not inactive) volcano. One way to put it into perspective for the overseas readers.

I'll say this for the organisation running it - the registration went seamlessly. Once again, I saw Trevor Mallard at registration - he's turned up at every cycle event I've enrolled at for the last couple of years. I think he may be stalking me.

The day itself was characterised by several themes. Wind was a key one, as was sun. I'm pretty sure we had a reasonable head or cross wind for most of the day. This wasn't too bad - it helped cut down the effect of the sun, which was pretty full-on throughout. Towards the end of the ride, I kept seeing people flaked out in the hedgerows, taking a few minutes lying in the grass verge to recover. People had clearly not quite taken on board the whole "keep hydrated" message, based on how they looked. I also had a good demonstration of the old maxim, "put the sunscreen on before your watch" - unfortunately, I now have a variety of amusing sunburn patterns from my watch and gloves.

Another theme was people commenting on my tattoos. The comments ranged from an old Maori bloke grunting "Nice ta moko" as he passed me, to an enduro rider on his fourth lap who muttered "Your tattoos are exquisite" as he passed me, to a bloke with fake tattoo arm warmers who made eye contact, looked down at his arms, and then laughed with me... as he passed me.

And yes, another theme was people passing me. I came in 3570th place (out of about 4200 riders doing the solo). I've said it before and I'll say it again: I am not the fastest rider in the bunch. The gold standard for a "good ride" around Taupo seems to be 5 hours; I'd be happy to crack 7. Still, I'm more doing it for the distance than the speed, and I finished the damn thing. Some of the people passing made interesting comments. The race number on your back has your name on it, so people can address you by name. Halfway around, an old French bloke passed me, saying "Bon courage, Jack! A steady pace, it is ze way!" Twenty minutes later (he must have stopped for water), he came past me again. "Ah, Jack! We meet again!"

I also idly kept a running tally of the riders I saw wearing replica team kit of riders who've admitted to doping. I kind of lost the count based on the issue of whether to count LiveStrong kit or not. Still quite a few people wearing it, though - I even saw a few classic US Postal strips.

People do seem to think that you have to be a fitness beast to ride Taupo. This is not the case. During the ride, I was passed by people significantly older than me; by people significantly younger than me (I swear to go, there were a couple of kids who looked to be about 10 riding a leg of the relay); by people who were a bit overweight; by people who were very overweight; and by people who looked as if they were about to expire from the effort. Moderate fitness and grim determination are all you really need. Ditto the perception that you need a flash bike - I got asked at the start line why I was bringing my old bike. The bike in question is the one I've had for a decade. It's not carbon fibre, but neither does it have wooden wheels. Again, during the day I saw people slugging away on ludicrously expensive carbon fibre bikes, as well as on old mountain bikes, fixies, 10-speeds from the 70s, a couple of recumbent tricycles and at least one tandem. Again: ride what you got, be prepared to grit your teeth and you'll get around.

  sudden catch up Friday, 7 September 2012 link

It's been a bit. We've been busy.

One of the things we've been busy with is Maggie starting school. You think it's a head trip when your oldest child starts school; it's nothing compared to when your youngest does. Suddenly, you are a house that no longer has preschoolers. You are firmly lost in the vortex of school obligations, the school run first thing in the morning, baking cupcakes for Cupcake Day, coughing up a hard whack of "voluntary" school fees. The morning rush to get swimming kit ready.

It was quite sad to move on from the nursery (Newlands Childcare Inc, who I'd thoroughly recommend). We were associated with the nursery for six years; Rebecca started when she was about two, Maggie when she was one. Both loved it. I have heard people decry parents who "pack their children off to daycare" (exact quote). It was nothing like that. It was a community. The teachers clearly loved the kids; the parents got involved and helped out. The place is run as a nonprofit, with governance by a committee of parents - I was on the committee for four years, three of which I was the secretary. When the kids saw their teachers at the supermarket they'd run over and hug them. It was - is - a good community, and one we were proud to be a part of.

Sometimes, on days that I'd driven to work, I'd pick Maggie up from nursery on my way home. After finally extracting her from her afternoon of endless fun, running around with her friends and fingerpainting at will, I'd manage to wrestle her into the car. At this point, if the stereo was playing music that she considered to be insufficiently rocking, she always made the same request: "Papa, put on rock and roll! Put on the woo hoo hoo song!". This was her way of requesting Entertain, by Sleater-Kinney. The "wooo hoo hoo" bit being the shouting in the chorus, which Maggie joins in lustily with. Bless her little cotton socks.

  this aspect of ECE funding is seldom discussed Wednesday, 7 March 2012 link

Prompted by this article on soaring demand for early childhood education in Wellington, I thought I'd talk about a major hole with the current government's attitude to ECE.

For the past five years, I've been on the governing committee of the childcare centre my daughters attend (four of those years as the secretary of the committee). In the last few years, funding for ECE has slowly been cut. Now, the centre has two primary means of income: the subsidy paid by the Ministry of Education, and the fees paid by the parents. We're a not-for-profit centre, so our fees are low compared to the many for-profit centres springing up. Even so, many parents are struggling to meet the fees. And last night I found out that the grant amount has been set to a static value. It does not raise with inflation. This means that as the cost of living increases, the centre's expenses go up - and the only income that can increase is the fees. And so the fees have to increase at a rate significantly higher than the cost of living increase, because they have to take up the slack from the static MoE grants.

This means that fees are rising everywhere, and significantly above the rate of inflation. Low income families are being priced out of early childhood education. These are the families that are most likely to benefit from early childhood education. The net result is to increase social stratification, as the comfortable middle class - like myself - do without a few luxuries to keep affording childcare, while those less financially well off run into serious problems. Early childhood education helps smooth out academic disparities when children get into school: the current government seems intent on ossifying these disparities in place.

  a brief chat about Fitocracy Friday, 17 February 2012 link

Quantification is interesting. You take something more seriously if it can be assigned numbers. Hands up anyone who keeps an eye on their play numbers in iTunes or on Anyone else ever found themselves thinking "I need to listen to this track all the way to the end, so it'll be registered in the stats"? Adding a number to it makes things more real.

The first time I bought a cycle computer, I laughed at the instruction in the manual that it was important to actually watch the road and not just spend all your time staring at the computer. And then I used it, and understood why the put the warning in. The first time you use a cycle computer, you spend half your time riding along watching your speed, checking how far you've gone, what your maximum speed is, how your current speed compares. Because you can get a value for it, you start to actually care about your average speed. The distance you've cycled, down to a decimal place, is the measure of the ride.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. Yes, excessive quantification can suck the joy out of an activity; but it doesn't have to. After a short while, you stop caring about most of the stats. Maybe you look down to check your current speed, maybe you use the odo at the end of the ride to check the total distance. You can throttle it back a bit and use those urges for good. I've been logging my mileage for the last three years using BikeJournal. The act of recording the ride encourages me to ride more, or to ride for longer, to get my stats up a bit. For the curious, my average yearly mileage is a nose under 4000km.

Similarly, people respond well to formal recognition of challenges. I used to be a member of Audax UK, the organisation for long-distance cyclists. The gold standard for long-distance cycling events is the quadriennial Paris-Brest-Paris - 1200km in under 90 hours - but the original idea for a randonnee (or audax) ride is 200km within a single day, arbitrarily fixed at 14 hours. Anyone completing those (I've done a couple) is known as a "randonneur". As part of this, Audax UK has a series of badges and patches available for purchase when you've completed a ride, or fulfilled some other criteria. So you can work towards, say, the Brevet Populaire, requiring you to complete rides of 50, 100, and 150k. Or the Randonneur 1000, for those who've ridden a 100k, 200k, 300k, and 400k of total other rides. These are completely arbitrary; but the awards are designed to encourage people to ride more and longer events, and to recognise those who've made the effort to do so. There's a little boy scout inside all of us, and knowing that you'll get a badge if you make an effort... helps you make the effort.

And all of this comes together in the new web tool Fitocracy. To paraphrase Rodger, it's a way of using the videogame centre in your brain to get yourself to take exercise. The basic idea is: you get points for doing exercises. As you get more points, you gain levels in the game. It's intended to harness that impulse that drives people to spend eight hours a night playing World of Warcraft to spend one hour a day getting active.

And it seems to work pretty well. Arbitrarily assigning points to exercises works as a motivational tool where simply knowing that it's good for you doesn't. It assigns point values to various exercises to encourage you towards better types of exercise - going for a gentle stroll earns fewer points than a quick hike up a hill, for instance. The level mechanism is designed so that the early levels are very easy to progress through (I logged my daily cycle commute and immediately hit level 3 from the off). It has a "quest" mechanism, where you can get extra points for doing various different activities - which works well to encourage you to try out different activities (the fact that I jogged a mile at lunchtime today attests to this). "Achievements" give you something to work towards, unlocking "badges" (with associated points) when you pass certain exercise milestones. There's a lot of useful social network mechanisms, making it easy to see what your friends are doing. I'm particularly fond of the "props" mechanism, which is basically a variant of the "like" button used to give your friends a boost for an achievement (leveling up, a particularly hard workout, etc).

The main issue that I have with the site is to do with the design of the points system. It's designed to nudge you towards more effective training. Or, to put it another way, it's biased towards a certain set of activities that the site admins think is most efficacious. Basically, to get maximum points, you need to be doing a weights-style strength training regime with a particular rep count. Recently the admins tweaked the points formula, with the effect that some ways of exercising (low rep sets) were put at a slight relative disadvantage. They announced this, and lo, a huge number of users did mightily whine that the change meant that powerlifting-style 3-5 rep sets were being disadvantaged. One comment summed it up by asking "what is this, Fitocracy or Toneocracy?" - because of course, the only reason that anyone could want to do exercise is to get really big muscles, and doing high repitition work to increase endurance is clearly a mad and foolish idea. This also manifests itself in, for example, my 20k bike ride to work (50 mins on the bike, allowing for traffic) cashing out as roughly equivalent in points to five sets of weighted barbell squats. The algorithm also has other amusing consequences: my ride home from work is tougher than my ride to work, on account of the dirty great hill at the end of it - but because I take a bit longer (the hill!), I get fewer points for it (even with the difficulty set to "hills"). That said, this emphasis on strength training isn't that big a deal unless you're desperately competing with your friends. I find the fact that I get some points is a good motivation - I'm not yet at the point of complaining that my favoured training methodology doesn't get an extra points boost (is there a way to get extra points for a fartlek routine?). It's working well enough for me, and has encouraged me to get back into the gym. So from that perspective, a win.

Fitocracy's currently in beta. Invitations are available pretty regularly, or drop me a line if you'd like me to send you an invite code.

  brief statement of support for the Urewera 4 Tuesday, 14 February 2012 link

The trial of the "Urewera 4" has commenced. I'd like to take a brief moment to say that two members of the "Urewera 4" are friends of ours (Urs and Em). I actually don't know much about their politics, but I know them as people. I trust them. They've looked after my children. Both our kids love Urs. I've looked after their son. He's a great lad. They're good people.

I'm not going to go into details about the charges about them, but I will say that I broadly agree with this analysis by Nicky Hagar. I'd point out that to my certain knowledge Em has met John Key in the flesh (at Parihaka) after the original arrests: clearly the DPS, whose job is to keep the PM safe, took a look at the potential threat that these dangerous "terrorists" posed and thought "FFS, there's no bloody risk." And I'll also note that in NZ, when a far-right survivalist group founded and lead by Kyle Chapman (ex-leader of the NZ National Front, who also leads the "Right Wing Resistance" and wants to set up a whites-only community) runs around the forest in camo gear carrying rifles and doing military-style preparations, they don't get busted by the cops, they get TV appearances with ex All Blacks. But combine a Maori group doing similar, with a counter-terrorism unit that - contra to the DPS brief - was desperate to find any possible evidence of internal terrorism within NZ before they get reassigned to traffic duty, a shit-ton of surveillance to cherry-pick quotes from, a few people who talk big when they've had a few beers, and a couple of cops keen for career advancement. The result is the clusterfuck of wasted effort, illegal surveillance, police face-saving and general waste of taxpayer resource that we see.

I'd just like to stand up and say that I support Urs and Emily, and hope that the jury throws the charges out.

  lessons from a short break Tuesday, 24 January 2012 link

A few things I've learned over the weekend.

Occasionally, you do get large pods of dolphins following the ferries across the straight and playing in the wake.

The Takaka Hill Road has a fearsome reputation, and for good reason. No-one vomited on the trip, but we did have to stop once or twice for fresh air.

Golden Bay is a really nice part of the country, and I can highly recommend The Innlet as a place to stay.

If you ever want to have everyone in a room avoiding making eye contact, be in the main lounge of a backpackers with two screaming, weeping toddlers.

Craig Potton is a genuinely really nice bloke.

The Free House in Nelson has a yurt. It's pretty awesome inside, and gives a good, warm audio response for live music.

The duckpond in Queens Gardens in Nelson has eels. Lots of eels. Why doesn't the Wellington Botanic Gardens have eels in the duckpond? Eels are awesome.

A ferry ride on a calm day is great. A ferry ride with a 3m swell induces vomiting in those susceptible to motion sickness. Such as myself. Full credit to the band members who looked after the kids during vomit-related immobility.

Related: if you're not sure whether to vomit over the side, or into a vomit bag, why not do both? Then you can compare the two experiences.

So: a good long weekend away, with some excellent performances by the Klezmer Rebs. If you're around Wellington, they're playing at the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt at 7pm on the 2nd February (admission by koha, and there's a cash bar!); if not, you can get their latest album, Anarchia Total, on Bandcamp for US$5. It's a damn good album; treat yourself.

  at least i'm consistent Friday, 2 December 2011 link

A couple of months ago, when I got my last tattoo, I went and picked Maggie up from nursery afterwards. As is the custom, I had my fresh tattoo wrapped up when I left the studio - in this case, meaning that my leg was covered in plastic wrap. The older kids at the creche were fascinated by this. I found out a few days later that the next morning they'd all been asking the teachers to draw a picture on them and wrap it in plastic wrap, too.

Which is why, when I attended the Christmas dinner for our local community-run childcare centre (in my capacity as the secretary of the management committee), my award in the prizegiving was... a tube of Glad Wrap.

  subtle political allegory that also happens to be true Friday, 25 November 2011 link

One issue I've had this election campaign is: as a cyclist, what should I do when I go past a demonstration of people waving placards encouraging a particular voting choice? In a car, I honk; on a bike, I feel like going "woo!" as I go past is probably the equivalent. But I feel a bit foolish doing that. A conundrum.

And they're everywhere. If you define "everywhere" as "by major intersections". There's clearly some time-sharing arrangement; either that, or pitched battles fought early in the morning to claim the spot. Inside my head, I like to think of the nice, middle-class supporters of Charles Chauvel and Katrina Shanks meeting at the foot of the Ngaio Gorge, at 6am, in the Spotlight carpark, and shanking each other with improvised weapons until one group retires, muttering about the next morning and waving tyre irons.

The intersection at the corner of Evans Bay Parade and Cobham Drive is on my commute. The other day, there were Labour supporters there. They stood at the intersection, but behind the (waist-high) fence so they weren't on the combined foot/cycle path. They were impassioned but polite. Tonight, it was National's turn; three people in their early 20s waving signs. They weren't behind the fence; they were in the middle of the cyclepath. Blocking it. And they were so intent on the passing cars that they didn't notice the oncoming cyclists (well, me) until they were right upon them; and then only grudgingly stepped out of the way to allow me to get past.

It's not a subtle political point, but it did happen. If you haven't cast an advance vote, get yourself out tomorrow and cast your vote. If transport is a hot-button issue for you, check Smart Transport's assessment of party policies.

  of course, i did sprain my ankle that time Monday, 14 November 2011 link

Went to the Santa parade yesterday. It was a good parade, though Rebecca made the very reasonable point that it's not Christmas for another six weeks. One thing was a bit disconcerting: a guy walking along through the crowds, keeping pace with the Baptist float, with a small handwritten sign. On one side it said "IS SANTA FAKE?"; then he turned it, to reveal on the other "IS TAX THEFT?" I'm not quite sure what his point was, but he seemed very intent about it - kept trying to make eye contact with the young women dressed as angels. We avoided him.

Two more weeks until the election. Roll on democracy. Vaguely tempted to vote early, except that I do rather like the theatre of going to the polling station on the day. Our current question is whether or not Peter Dunne will get in. Based on the Johnsonville School gala a week or so ago, Dunne is campaigning hard and getting his face out there. Mind you, so was Chauvel and Shanks - Chauvel took a turn on the barbecue for the sausage sizzle, while Shanks was just running around showing her face. I was slightly weirded out by the way that the National team had small children in T-shirts singing the praises of our Prime Minister; if you're under 8, you're too young for a cult of personality in my book. It'll be an interesting race to watch. Dunne's held Ohariu since time immemorial, but the way the polls are running, we could get lucky.

The Ohariu electorate is often sneeringly metonymised as "the voters of Churton Park", but the electorate actually extends from Crofton Downs to just before Tawa, including Ngaio, Khandallah, Broadmeadows, Johnsonville, and across to Korokoro, Maungaraki, and Normandale. As well as Churton Park. While the electorate does indeed include the (admittedly) pretty boring new-build suburbia in the northern suburbs, it also includes rather a lot of Wellington's most well-established, most expensive, and most conservative suburbs. From my chats with people who actually live in Churton Park, most of them are people with young families who're living there because it's what they can afford and has decent transport links. I think the powerhouse behind re-electing Dunne isn't the endless winding roads of the new-build suburbs encroaching on farmland, it's the narrow streets named after old Imperial conquests, lined with mature trees and with gilt-edged property deeds. Or to put it another way: it's easy to make fun of Churton Park; and lazy, too.

I'll confess to a slight fondness for Churts - partially out of simple contrarian "if everyone hates it I must find something to like", and partly due to having actually spent a bit of time wandering around it. Yes, it's a soulless dormitory suburb, suffering the short-sighted planning decisions and poor oversight of decades past, with no suburban centre and an infrastructure so car-dependant it makes my teeth itch. But there's a good park, a sporting field/playground which acts as a de facto suburban centre for families with young children, a decent hidden valley, and a lot of hidden cut-throughs, walkways, and strange little byways. It's even getting some shops, enabling people to buy food without driving 3k first. I still wouldn't want to live there myself - I like being able to walk down the hill to the supermarket, or to catch the train - but it's got potential for becoming less of a dormitory and more of an actual community.

  doing something right Friday, 21 October 2011 link

How other people perceive you is a funny thing.

Work party last Saturday. Spent an hour getting down + getting funky / throwing shapes on the dancefloor (ironic 90s raver flashback mode). In the days since, two separate people have felt the need to tell one of my team members that they saw "your team leader dancing". Clearly, I am giving the impression at work of a dour, humourless, non-dancing person. This amuses me no end. And that spitting sound you're hearing right now is all my UK friends as they read this paragraph, many of whom will remember the work Christmas party in around 2004, when at one point during the evening I decided to remove my shirt and leap onto the dance floor, on the basis that I was channeling the spirit of Robbie Williams.

On the other hand, this afternoon at nursery, one of the teachers was telling a story about a monster. Introducing the monster, she paused, and asked the children: "Now, can anyone think of something big and hairy?" M (aged 4) leaps up and yells "MY DADDY!!!! AND HE HAS TATTOOS ON HIS BODY!!!!"

So I'm probably ahead on the game.

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unspoilt by progress

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