Saturday, December 28, 2013

BEER!![11] – Redwood Ale

Name: (No label) Redwood Ale.

Brewery: Barleycorn Brewers.

Place Of Origin: Oakleigh, Vic.

Type: Redwood Ale (like Redback).

Alcohol Content: 4.5%

Why I Bought It: I didn’t. Barleycorn Brewers is a microbrewery where the customer can brew their own beer. A friend of mine was given a voucher for his birthday, and invited me along to help brew and bottle – in return I got a box of beer.

Taste: Lighter than I expected.  You can get through three or four bottles before you even know it.

What I did while drinking it: A few bottles went while I was watching Australian cricketer Mitchell Johnson bowl his way through the English batting line-up. Another half dozen went on Christmas Eve. Not sure where the others went …

What I did after drinking it: Kept the two dozen bottles, either to use if I go back again, or for my own upcoming concoction.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Revisiting Ren & Stimpy

Image: nickipedia

This weekend I watched the first two seasons of Ren & Stimpy for the first time since not long after they appeared twenty years ago. For those unfamiliar with the show, as I saw aptly described somewhere Ren is an emotionally unstable chihuahua while his friend Stimpy is a good-natured but dim-witted cat. The show debuted around the same time as The Simpsons and prior to South Park, but hasn’t had the same longevity or afterlife in syndication that those shows had.

Watching the show as an adult, it holds up pretty well. One thing that didn’t really strike me as a kid is just how old-fashioned the show is in its look and even its plots and characters. The show doesn’t just seem like it’s from the 1990s; it seems like it’s from the 1960s. Apart from its old-style animation, its use of classical music and credits put it far closer to Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons than today’s stuff. Maybe I didn’t notice it as a kid because most cartoons looked that way.

But while its environment is decidedly that of the world of the mid-20th century, Ren & Stimpy basically tries to skewer the values of that world at every opportunity. In the recurring ‘Commander Hoek and Cadet Stimpy’ cartoons, our astronauts’ flights into outer space are not portrayed as noble acts of bravery, but as a descent into instability (both mental and physical) and eventually madness. The household couple that Ren and Stimpy run into on occasion – the deep-voiced husband with his pipe and robe and his perfectly pleasant housewife – are on the surface your average 1950s/1960s household, but scratch the surface and you soon see they are semi-freaks that would teach their babies to walk by using fire coals, and have dozens of uses for rubber nipples. And old TV adverts come in for the biggest skewering of all – terrible, terrible products like Sugar Frosted Milk, powdered toast, and the infamous log from Blammo – are sold to their fictional audiences with wholesome smiles and jingles. One could go on and on … from memory, creator John Kricfalusi liked the old Disney cartoons, but at the time Ren & Stimpy came out he hated the ‘Christmas card’ stuff they were producing.

For me, three moments soared above the rest, and had me cackling as much or even more than I did as a kid:
1)      Space Madness’ where Commander Hoek goes completely mad, and Cadet Stimpy tries to resist pushing the History Eraser button;
2)      Ren and Stimpy dancing along manically to the ‘Happy Happy Joy Joy’ song, with Ren forced into being happy by Stimpy’s mind-altering helmet, and singer Stinky Wizzleteats muttering less-than-happy interludes; and

Friday, December 20, 2013

Some Quick Further Thoughts On Minimum Wages Policy Before Christmas

Today the Fair Work Commission released two research reports authored by the Workplace Research Centre – one with the rather broad heading of ‘Award reliance’, and the other on the more specific topic of ‘Minimum wages and their role in the process and incentives to bargain’.  In the latter report, the WRC made the interesting finding that Australian employers and employees generally reported that increases to minimum/award rates of pay through the annual wage review neither encouraged nor discouraged enterprise bargaining at the workplace level.

I must admit I haven’t read the whole thing, so I don’t know how well their evidence stacks up. But assuming it does, it seems like on the surface a further ‘nail in the coffin’ for dollar increases to minimum wages for the short-term at least. One of the arguments used to justify dollar increases was that it resulted in higher percentage increases to workers on the lower award rates of pay, and lessened the financial disincentives for workers on the higher award rates of pay to bargain. If minimum wage increases don’t really affect bargaining much at all, then this argument has less potency. (Although the finding seems to be primarily based on interviews at only 20 workplaces so we shouldn’t get too carried away here.)  And in its most recent decision, the Fair Work Commission seemed even less prepared to revisit the possibility of dollar increases than I thought it might be.

Personally though, while I’m hardly going to go on a crusade about it or anything, I’ve gradually decided I’m in favour of percentage increases. Dollar increases, particularly when maintained over a couple of decades, seem like a rather passive-aggressive way of reducing the relevance of award rates of pay. Either we as a society want a minimum wage premium for skill, and we should keep the various minimum pay rates for different skill levels, or we just want an overall minimum wage (like the US and the UK) and we don’t. (Yeah, yeah, I know politically it’s not that simple …) And if we’re going down the first route, what’s the justification for letting the wage premium for skill deteriorate over time? I think there’s a case, which I’ve kind of argued before, for increasing all the award rates by an amount that is more or less equal to average wage growth each year, assuming you have the levels about right. Even if there was just one standard adult minimum rate of pay – which I think is very unlikely to happen in any case – I’d make much the same argument.

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading my pontificating. Have a good Christmas folks!

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 71

MUSIC/SPORT: The picture of baseball player George Brett that may have inspired Lorde’s song ‘Royals’.

VIDEO GAMES:  How nostalgia keeps us all playing Super Mario.

ECONOMICS:  Last week I typed the words ‘best economics sites’ into Google, and came up with this page. It has a good mix of economics and economic policy sites, from both the left and right sides. The posts below though, which I found through the sites listed on the page – or through the links on the sites listed on the page – have a bit more ‘novelty value’:

From Cheap Talk:  A survey of favourite numbers between 1 and 100 (the winner may not be what you think).

From Liz Fosslien: 14 Ways An Economist Says I Love You.

From PNC: The Christmas Price Index.

From The Pin Factory: How can used cars be more valuable than new cars?

From Captain Capitalism: An argument/rant about why chief executives are ‘worth’ many times more than low level employees.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Book Review: The Circle

This month, I named Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’ my best book of 2013, which doesn’t mean that I would hold it up as the supreme literary achievement of the past 12 months, but that it was my favourite book I read. I was always going to be pre-disposed to like it, given that it shares similarities with Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and particularly George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, both of which are among my all-time favourite novels. Indeed, it’s a common cliché, but this is one time that I think it rings true – I expect that most people who love either of those books will love this too (and if you didn’t like them, then probably give this a miss).

The story revolves around the character of young Mae Holland, who has been recruited to the world’s biggest internet company the Circle, which is like a mega-Google, a hyper-Facebook, or a super-duper-YouTube. The Circle takes their vision of being not only a business but a huge social community (though the two are intertwined) very seriously, and they expect their employees to do so as well. Finding out just how crazy the Circle is forms most of the intrigue in this book, even though none of it is particularly surprising. But perhaps, as Orwell wrote, ‘The best books … are those that tell you what you know already.’

After reading this book, some might be half-tempted to immediately shut down their Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts … though I think I’ll keep mine. Eggers’ portrayal of a world obsessed with watching each other may be exaggerated, but readers will surely recognise some of their own strands of behaviour in the characters’ continual quests for followers and likes. ‘The Circle’ has enough postmodern goodies, including discussions about what is the real self, and the boundaries between the private and public spheres to get it included on dozens of college and university reading lists. But like Orwell’s classic, it is accessible enough to get it on the large bookstore chains’ Top 100 favourite books lists as well. Mindless reality TV stole the concept of Big Brother, this book takes it back.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Wooden Finger Five: December 2013

Christmas is the time of year where we drag out those old Christmas albums and listen to the same twenty songs over and over again, because that’s what we always do at Christmas, right? Wrong. There’s no excuse for being lulled into sleep by hearing some choir crawl though ‘The First Noel’ or ‘Silent Freaking Night’, or even Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’. Hence, a few years back I put together a list of Christmas tracks that I hadn’t heard five hundred times already. When I host Christmas, these are the songs I’ll be a-playing, as they stand the least chance (even if some non-zero chance) of me getting totally and utterly sick of them.

Image: youtube
The Killers have always varied between glorious and ridiculous, and this song is both. Some kid has been very, very naughty by killing other children ‘just for fun’, and now Jolly Ol’ Nick has dropped by to give him his comeuppance. It’s not wholesome, but it is fun. When I have kids, I’ll wait until the grandparents are out of the room before playing them this one.  

Joan Jett’s ‘I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is unfortunately another of those songs I’ve heard far too often in my lifetime. But this track off the same album was a pleasant surprise, and reinvigorated a carol that I loved as a kid but grew tired of as I got older. Jett’s pronunciation of Jesus, and the growling rum-rums in the background give this version even more of a novel twist. Sidenote: when I was a kid I thought the line ‘The ox and ass kept time’ was ‘The optimus prime’. I was so excited there was this ‘optimus prime’ character in the Christmas legend that I hadn’t known about. God, I was disappointed when I found out what it really was.

Nowadays this song, like a lot of the Darkness’ catalogue, risks being as tacky as all the Christmas carols I’ve just skewered, but somehow I still like it. And I admire the Darkness’ gumption in trying to get the Christmas number one, even though they narrowly lost. Plus, it’s perfect for annoying half your relatives – in my case, wife included, who thoroughly despises anything Darkness-related.    

This actually wasn’t on my playlist when I made it a few years back, but it certainly would be on there now. Having Shane MacGowan slur about being drunk on Christmas Eve may seem like an obvious move in hindsight, but only because the song was written. While the lyrics are regretful, the music is suitably joyful for the festive season.

And here you have it – my favourite Christmas song ever. Ray Davies sings about dressing up as Santa Claus and getting beaten up a gang of kids, who take his money and leave the toys. It’s like a tale from the secret underbelly of Christmas, and while I don’t endorse it as being in the spirit of the season, it’s the one I’m most likely to be humming as I dig for coins in my Christmas pudding.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Top Ten Most Viewed Wooden Finger Posts (and The Best Of Everything) of 2013

These were the top ten most viewed posts on The Wooden Finger Depot ™ this year. AFL and minimum wages were popular topics, although that may be because those were the topics I wrote about the most!

9.       The Top 20 AFL Rivalries

And here is my personal favourite for 2013 for every category that matters to me. Which of course means that without these things your year was woefully incomplete:

Best Book: The Circle – Dave Eggers
Best Album: … Like Clockwork – Queens of the Stone Age (though the album – an oldie – that I got most into this year was the Manic Street Preachers’ ‘The Holy Bible’)
Best Song: Get Lucky – Daft Punk  
Best TV Show: Game of Thrones, just ahead of Mad Men. Just. And frankly, it was probably because of these.  
Best Film: Silver Linings Playbook – OK, it was probably released in 2012, but that and Lincoln (also probably released in 2012) were way above anything else I saw this calendar year. But I haven’t seen Gravity.
Best Comic: Saga – Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (I didn’t need to change this line from last year)
Best Sporting Event: Game 6 of the Miami Heat v San Antonio Spurs NBA Finals. While I’m not a Heat fan, it was funny to watch all those faux-Spurs supporting people in the last 30 seconds of that game who were taking joy out of LeBron James’ upcoming ‘failure’ go deathly, deathly silent. And whatever the result, it was a fantastic game – possibly the best NBA game ever. Game 7 was awesome as well.
Best Sportsperson: LeBron
Best Website: The Sartorialist
Best Post: The 24 Most Pretentious Things Ever – at Buzzfeed. Which is in direct contradiction to what I’ve just named the Best Website.
Best Beer:  Boris Imperial Stout
Best Twitter Feed: Rob Delaney

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Shit Gamer’s Review: Batman – Arkham Origins

As I’ve already said in a previous review I love the ‘Batman: Arkham City’ game, as I do its predecessor (though I played it subsequently) ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’. Hence, I was pretty psyched for the release of the newest instalment in the series, ‘Batman: Arkham Origins’. On 25.10.2013 my friend and I went down to buy our copies, and on 26.10 I set about installing it on my PC.

Well, as it says on the front of the package an internet connection is required to activate the game – this is because you need to connect to some ‘Steam’ network thingy, don’t know why, but hey if that’s what is required then I’ll click. Anyway, the game was downloading fine, and then I went away for a few minutes, and came back and … the download had essentially ground to a halt. It was stuck at about 87%, and increasing at the rate of about 90kbps/sec, and there was an estimated 21 hours left to download. What had happened?

Then I had the horrid thought – maybe my data allowance has been used up. My current data allowance is about 2GB per month (70 per cent of the Western world would probably laugh at this statement). Sure enough, it had, which was doubly annoying as my data allowance for the month had just started 3 days ago. (Lucky I have no extra charge for going over the limit, otherwise I may still be in the hospital.)

So, there you have it – in this case I was such a shit gamer with a shit data allowance that I couldn’t even get the game to start. My efforts to connect to a free Wi-Fi network and download the game have also proved fruitless. I’ve heard it’s good. I hope I get to play it someday. But as of now, it’s still just an icon on my desktop …  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Wooden Finger Five - November 2013

Australians miss out on a number of ‘cool things’ by not having a college system like the US (we miss out on a number of ‘lame things’ too), and one of those is ‘college rock’. To be sure, we’ve listened to the first five REM albums and the Pixies, but we’re removed – we couldn’t be (even those Aussies who are twenty years older than I) part of the groundswell of support that broke those bands. We can read the album and gig reviews of those coffee-sipping, Foster Wallace-reading, Pabst-drinking indie lovers, but we can only get a reflection of what it feels like to grow up amidst the American underground music scene. Which suits some people just fine … my lovely wife was decidedly unenthused about the prospect that I might slide further into auditory elitism.

But these bands have to be revered by the American indie cognoscenti for a reason, right? For the past month, I’ve tried to discover the albums they may have played at house parties in San Francisco, during the time I was in my 20s and stuck in the Melbourne suburbs. The albums that may have changed my life like the Shins changed the lives of Natalie Portman and Zach Braff in ‘Garden State’. So what have I missed by repeatedly playing Oasis and Coldplay? Am I a shadow of a white male?

For years I thought Guided By Voices were some sort of Christian band, but I gradually realised that they were instead worshipped by sensitive young beardos. Their most ‘well-known’ albums, ‘Bee Thousand’ and ‘Alien Lanes’ are somewhat amateurish and ramshackle, with tracks seemingly ending when someone knocks out the guitar plug, which has probably contributed to them being so beloved. But they are good songwriters, and ‘I Am A Scientist’, from ‘Bee Thousand’, is a nice tune, even if I have no clue what it is on about. I don’t think I missed out on any big keg parties where was this playing, but I might have missed out on hearing it played while hanging out in the dorm room.    

Opacity rating: 8.5/10

2.    What Do You Want Me To Say? – The Dismemberment Plan

The Pitchfork review for the vinyl reissue of ‘Emergency & I’ claims that ‘[e]veryone I've talked to mentions that they can't imagine getting through their twenties without it.’ But I got through my entire twenties without it. Was my third decade only half-lived because of this? Anyway, this is quite poppy and relatively easy to understand – it seems to simply be about relationship problems. I imagine it’s the type of track that would gone down pretty well at Coachella.   

Opacity rating: 6.3/10

Can you have a more American indie rock name than ‘Built To Spill’? I listened through their mid-90s albums ‘There’s Nothing Wrong With Love’ and ‘Perfect From Now On’ and I quite liked both of them – they sound like reasonably accomplished musicians, and even though their tracks regularly stretch to six or seven minutes, they never really sound self-indulgent. ‘Car’ was not a track I heard when it was first released in 1994, but it sounds unmistakably from that era. ‘You get the car/I’ll get the night off/You’ll get the chance to take the world apart and figure out how it works’ makes me think of a bunch of ‘90s road movies (most of which I’ve never seen).

Opacity rating: 6.7/10

Pavement sound like they are actually trying on this track, and while I certainly like listening to their ‘slacker’ aesthetic on some of their other tunes (‘Summer Babe (Winter Version)’ for example), this track really soars because of it. I’m curious why IKEA is in the title – the lyrics don’t seem to relate to the store, but who knows? Maybe it’s the name of a Swedish backpacker Stephen Malkmus met?

Opacity rating: 8.9/10

Surely I’ve listened to ‘Reckoning’ before, right? Well, not really … certainly ‘Murmur’ got a lot of spins when I was at Uni, but I never progressed to REM’s second album, concentrating instead on their Warner Bros. records. Early REM songs are famous for their obscurity, but this one confused me even more after I tried to do some research about it. Michael Stipe sings about ‘Seven Chinese brothers swallowing the ocean’, however the children’s book about Chinese brothers that this seems to be based on had five brothers and only one of them could swallow the ocean. And that book was itself based on a folk tale with ten brothers and it doesn’t look like any of them had sea-swallowing powers. Presumably dozens of REM scholars have speculated about the change in number of brothers, if indeed it is a change. By the way, love the guitar on this one.  
Opacity rating: 10/10

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Australia’s Chances in the 2013-14 Ashes

Unlike some Australians, and a lot of English supporters, I think Australia has a fair chance of reclaiming ‘the Ashes’ in the 2013-2014 Test series in Australia. Now that we know who Australia’s first Test team will be, and we can take a reasonable guess what England’s team will be (or at least Michael Clarke has), I’m going to have a go at comparing how good each team is.

To compare players, I have used the Reliance ICC Player Rankings. I have also calculated a team rating as follows: sum of Batting Ratings for batsmen + sum of Bowling Ratings for bowlers + ¾ * sum of Batting Ratings for bowlers + ¼ sum of Bowling Ratings for batsmen. Alas, there are no wicketkeeping ratings. Australian debutant George Bailey and Michael Carberry have each been given ratings of 500.

% Advantage of Eng over Aus
Batting Ratings - Batsmen
Batting Ratings - Bowlers
Bowling Ratings - Bowlers
Bowling Ratings - Batsmen
Total team rating

Based on the Reliance ratings, England’s line-up looks to be about 8 per cent better than Australia’s. Their specialist batsmen – depending on how good Bailey turns out to be – look to be a bit more than 8 per cent better.  Their specialist bowlers look to be slightly better than Australia’s at both bowling and batting. Australia’s batsmen look to be considerably better bowlers, but that largely depends upon how much and how well Shane Watson bowls this summer.
However, the reason I think Australia have a good chance to win the series is that they are playing the series at home. Is England’s ’8 per cent’ advantage enough in a series played in Australia? A well-known comment is that a team has to be 25 per cent than Australia to beat them on their own turf. Even if that does not sound particularly scientific, one can note that home teams win about 40 per cent of the time in Test cricket, compared to only 25 per cent of the time for away teams. The English team is clearly better – but although they may be the second (or third) best team in the world, and Australia may be middle-of-the-pack, the Aussies down under may be good enough.